Monday, February 28, 2011

A stroll through the Latin Quarter

I've been through the Latin Quarter about eleventy jillion times since I moved to Paris eons ago, but I haven't seen much of the city lately, since time and (especially) budget constraints make it difficult to go anywhere. Nevertheless, I made an exception and walked through the Latin Quarter yesterday, with the intention of taking some pictures … or rather video, actually. My real video camera (a professional camera) went the way of eBay long ago, to pay bills, but the tiny digital camera that I have takes modest videos.

Visitors to Paris often tell me that the Latin Quarter “looks the way Paris is supposed to look,” a comment I also hear with respect to Montmartre. I think the reason for this is that both the Latin Quarter and Montmartre have retained a maze of tiny streets (now mostly pedestrian) that date from centuries ago, whereas many other parts of Paris were modernized by Georges “Baron” Haussmann's sweeping redesign of many parts of the city two centuries ago. Paris prior to Haussmann was awash in streets like those of the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, only they were dirty, unhygienic, sometimes unsafe, often impassable, and so on. After Haussmann, the city was filled with broad boulevards in all directions that made traffic flow more smoothly and made the city a bit brighter, cleaner, and prettier. These changes were so sweeping that you now see mostly 19th-century architecture in many parts of the city, because so much was rebuilt during Haussmann's renovation projects.

Anyway, the Latin Quarter retains its “olde worlde” charm, especially since its tiny streets today are vastly cleaner than they were a few hundred years ago. The preponderance of Greek restaurants in the area around the rue de la Huchette and the rue Xavier Privas is a bit disconcerting, but it's more understandable when you realize that the city's leading Melkite Greek Catholic church, Saint Julien le Pauvre, is right down the street. The commercialization of the area, which is perpetually overrun by tourists, is relentless, and yet it remains attractive and photogenic.

I marched around the area, taking video snippets here and there, for about two hours, until sunset. Then I returned home to edit my snippets into a ten-minute video, which you can find in this blog post. The video is garbage, but that's not surprising for someone as lacking in experience and talent as myself. Practice makes perfect, so I hope to do better in the future.

I was going to shoot something else today, but it got so cloudly and gray that I decided to pass on that for now.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Farmers of France on parade

Yesterday I went to the Salon de l'Agriculture, one of the world's largest agricultural shows, which is held every year here in Paris. It is extremely popular with the public, and for good reason. It shows just about everything having anything to do with agriculture, and even people who aren't necessarily keen on farming may still find something interesting to see at the show.

The show runs for just over a week, from Saturday to the following Sunday. Saturday and Sunday are the days with the biggest crowds, when French families come to visit the show with their small children. The show is a consistent hit with children, because of the large variety of farm animals on display. Given that most of the local kids are city dwellers who may have never seen a live cow in any other context, being able to see and sometimes touch a live farm animal is pretty cool. Touching cows and bulls is discouraged—I guess they don't like to be petted—but there are many smaller animals that kids can pet, such as lambs and little piggies and so on.

As you might expect, there are competitions for animal husbandry, which remind me a great deal of the state fair in the State were I was born in the U.S.A. (we had one of the largest state fairs in the country). You see lots of prize cows, bulls, draft horses, etc. I'm always surprised by how willing these animals are to just stand still during all their waking hours; I guess it doesn't take much to keep them happy, or at least they don't show any obvious signs of boredom or stress. If anything, perhaps the noise from the crowd is more of an irritant than a welcome intellectual stimulus for them.

There many cows on display at the show, and dairy cows have to be milked several times a day, even when they're in a show. To this end, the show installs a complete set of milking stations, connected to an actual dairy, and it's possible to buy the milk produced by the cows at the show. The milking parlor and the tiny dairy are squeaky clean, and the milk is processed, pasteurized, and packaged right on the spot. The milk is sold at a very low price, so you can get a liter of absolutely fresh milk for almost nothing, and people stand in line to buy many liters of fresh, whole milk at a time. In the past, I've been known to buy and drink a liter of milk on the spot (milk is my favorite drink).

The show doesn't stop at animals, of course. It fills seven buildings, each the size of several football fields, and animals are only the beginning. There are also exhibits by government and non-profit agricultural organizations (the most boring and politically correct part of the show), and a large part of the show is dedicated to food that you can buy and eat. One section of the show exhibits food from around the world, and another exhibits food from France itself. It's best not to go to the show hungry, as the extraordinary variety of tasty food being sold by thousands of individual stands is hard to resist even on a full stomach. This being France, there are plenty of bars selling rotted grape juice and ethanol-laced beverages as well.

Everywhere at the show, you see what the French call animations, which means participatory activities, usually targeting children but also sometimes for adults. Most of them have an educational or promotional purpose. Lots of games, food tasting, videos, contests, and so on. In my small video you can see one stand that advertised “cooking meat to music,” which seemed a bit unconventional, although I didn't have time to investigate in detail.

Since I went on a Saturday, the show was packed with people, with standing room only in many areas, despite the enormous size of the exhibit grounds. Even with the crowds, though, it's fun. There was even an outdoor area where people could try their hands at driving large farm tractors. There's a tremendous emphasis on children, since so many of them visit the show, and they all seem to be happy and fascinated by what they see. It's for a good cause, since agriculture is vitally important and city dwellers often don't appreciate that without a show like this to make it clear.

The show is also a popular stop for politicians, who make highly visible appearances there in order to show their support for farmers, who are extremely important members of the electorate in France. They smile and shake hands and so on, and sometimes they do unwise things, such as when the President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, famously said to a visitor, “Get lost, asshole!” (“Casse-toi, pauvre con!”) after the latter had refused to shake hands with him.

I had not been to the show in years, but I went this year mainly to record some video with my tiny digital camera (which has a video function), to practice editing. That's why you'll see my eight-minute video in this post. Nothing fancy, but progress is made in baby steps, right? There wasn't time to document the entire show, so I just picked a few things. The admission was €12, up from around €9 the last time I went. I hoped also to get my mind off certain crises of which I've previously spoken during the show, but that only worked very sporadically.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paris on video

My modest camera (I had to sell all the good equipment to buy food) has a simple video function, and I've used it twice in the past few days to create extremely short videos of scenes in Paris.

I've been trying to use the trial version of the Corel editing software that I downloaded. It seemed pretty useful, and since I always pay for my software, I tried to register the software and buy it at the special price that the software itself advertised to me each time I closed the program. But alas, Corel has fraudulently pulled a bait-and-switch on me. Instead of directing me to a page where I could buy the software at the advertised price, I was forced to another page with a price that was 160% higher than the advertised “special offer”! I e-mailed a complaint to Corel, but I don't ever expect to get an answer. If the company shafts people like that, it's certainly not going to admit to it in its support organization.

It's a pity, because the software (bought from Ulead—Corel is a specialist in buying, rebranding, and hiking up the price on stuff that someone else wrote) is rather nice, although it crashes when reading some QuickTime files.

Anyway, I did manage to make two videos, one of thirty seconds, and one of two minutes. That might not sound like much, but uploading a two-minute video to YouTube took me six hours, so the thought of uploading anything of significant length is rather scary. But the two videos are out there now, in high definition. Not much to look at, but making better videos would cost money, just like everything else in the world, and money's something I don't have.

One video, at the top of this post, is a very brief look at the Champs that I recorded on the way home. The other is a video of the infamous Rue Cler that I also took on the way home, and it's a staggering two minutes in length … practically a feature-length presentation!

Yes, I know that I'm not particularly gifted for video. It's just for documentary purposes, not art.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More tooth-breaking bread

Out of desperation, I bought a couple of baguettes at the supermarket on the way home, along with some olive oil. My millions of faithful readers will recall my complaints about classic French baguette bread in the past. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything better. I usually buy so-called parisienne loaves of bread, which are much fatter and softer than than baguettes and tend to stay that way, but baguettes were all that the supermarket had. I was hoping that at least the supermarket might have put some preservatives into the bread to keep it soft, but I think it just cooks up the bread fresh in much the same way that bakeries do.

I quickly brought the bread home and stuffed it into the freezer, even though I felt an ominous stiffening of the crust as I scampered home with four loaves. I ate half a loaf immediately (that's not much, when it comes to a baguette), and it was still moderately tooth-safe. The rest I put into the freezer.

Later on, I pulled the other half-loaf out of the freezer and heated it up. But the Hideous Transformation had already begun, and the crust was harder than a cylinder of carbon nanotubes. The precious ten-minute window of edibility for the bread had passed, the Jekyll-to-Hyde transition had occurred, and now it was back to breaking and chipping the crust into crumbs to try to get to something softer than tooth enamel on the inside. Heating it up and soaking it in olive oil didn't seem to help. I fear the other loaves are in the same condition. I'll just have to keep searching for some place that has parisiennes instead of baguettes.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Telephone troubles (sigh)

As if I didn't have enough crises to manage, I have trouble with my broadband connection again. I've noticed that the modem is dropping the connection every few minutes. I can hardly get anything done.

After a while, I realized that the modem was having serious trouble negotiating and synchronizing. Out of curiosity, I picked up the actual telephone (which I never use), and was surprised by a blast of white noise that was so loud that it drowned out the dial tone. Wow! No wonder the modem can't sync. This continued for a day or so. Then the noise was replaced by a sound like a machine gun that also drowned just about everything out. Then, the line was cut off entirely for a while, and when it came back, the noise on the telephone was gone, and the modem was holding sync … but the modem was now stuck at 2.4 Mbps, instead of the 8 Mbps I'm paying for. Clearly, noise is still affecting the line, at least at the ADSL frequencies. I don't have a tool to tell me which channels are being used, but I suspect that about half of them are down.

So, while still sniffling from the cold I got on the Métro, I called France Télécom, finally. I'm a bit reluctant because it's always a nightmare to get any service. The first technician I reached said it wasn't his problem, because he worked only on the voice line (even though the ADSL line is the same twisted pair—no pun intended). So I called other numbers, being bounced from one number to another, with ten-minute waits on each number, and one simple hang-up. Finally I reached another technician, who said that I had a TLM—a “little robot” (petit robot) in her terms—that was testing my line until this coming Thursday. She said that someone would call me on Thursday to confirm the results and see if the line is fixed. Unfortunately, the only slot for the call that she could give me was between 3 PM and 4 PM, during which I'll be in class; but I really need to take this call.

In other news, I was trying to create video clips of my flight simulation, and someone recommended a “prosumer” video-editing product to me. I downloaded the trial version (which took 2 hours, thanks to my ADSL line problem and the incredibly huge size of the download). It works pretty well, although the learning curve is steep. The thing is, I don't have a video camera. I do have a small digital camera that can take brief video clips in high definition, so maybe I'll use that to experiment. The trial lasts for 30 days … which, for someone in my precarious position, is practically eternity. If I manage to create some interesting videos, maybe I'll post them here. Nobody reads this blog, anyway, so I don't risk boring anyone.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Promenade in Belleville

Continuing my attempts to reduce stress and get exercise, I went to the Place Clichy a few days ago, and from there I walked all the way to Nation, via Belleville. I hadn't been to this latter neighborhood in years. It was quite lively … but then again, on most days, just about every part of Paris is lively, since it's a town where people walk everywhere.

At the Bassin de la Villette (again), I stopped at McDonald's to get some hamburgers—the plain hamburgers are very cheap and nutritionally balanced, despite what some people believe (mainly people who never actually check the nutritional information). There was a homeless guy outside the entrance asking for money, so I gave him several euro. He seemed very happy about that—I suppose most people, when they give anything at all, probably give “red coins” or “yellow coins” (the lowest denomination of euro coins are red, and the next lowest are yellow, with the 50-cent piece being the most valuable). It was enough money to buy a couple of hamburgers, just as I was doing. There, but for the grace of God … well, I hope God's grace will stretch far enough to keep a roof over my head.

From there I followed Métro Line 2 through Belleville. It was a long and (I hope) healthy walk. Lots of places I hadn't seen in ages, and tons of people. There are many immigrants in this part of town, mostly Arab, some non-Arab Africans, and a surprising number of immigrants from the Far East, although I'm not sure which countries are the most represented. I thought Chinatown, near the Place d'Italie, was the meeting point for Oriental immigrants, but I guess there's more than one Chinatown now. I didn't see any McDonald's signs in Chinese, though, whereas I know there's at least one Chinese McDonald's in the “other” Chinatown.

This part of Paris is very much in contrast to the Sixteenth, where hoi polloi (or I guess I should say the haute bourgeoisie) of Paris walk around with rigid sigmoidoscopes firmly lodged within their colons. (Actually, they drive around in black SUVs, rather than walk, even though distances are measured in hundreds of metres.) People are much more casual and friendly around Belleville. In some areas, there are lots of Asian prostitutes, too. On this particular day, there were so many people walking that there were lines for the Sanisettes. The Sixteenth has almost no Sanisettes, of course, since that would nuire à la bienséance—I love that expression!

This was a fairly long walk—several miles, which is more than I've been able to do lately—and by the time I got to Nation, it was getting dark. I stopped at a pharmacy to get some lip balm and vitamins, and I noted that the establishment was not in conformance with laws concerning emergency exits. But I guess nobody cares about that. After I bought my drugs, I decided to take the Métro home. This was reckless on my part, because this single Métro ride infected me with a cold. There was some woman sniffling right across from me (there's always someone sniffling right across from me on the Métro), and she probably infected me, as I had not been near anyone else with clear symptoms of a URI. I guess I could have walked, but the walk would have been another 120-150 minutes, and I didn't really have time for that (plus it was getting chilly).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Stroll through the past

I've tried to go for a walk or two, in part for health reasons (my health is deteriorating in various ways and walking might help), and in part to try to reduce stress. I don't think the walking is working, but I tried it anyway. I decided to walk somewhere I hadn't been in ages, namely, up north of the Bastille.

I walked up the St. Martin barge canal from the little on the south side of the Place de la Bastille that connects it to the Seine River. There are a lot of tiny pleasure boats in the harbor, and there's a nice park on the east side of this artificial lake, with a restaurant (although I can't afford to eat out these days). The canal itself actually proceeds north from the harbor underground, and then eventually comes back out into the open air east of the Place de la République. The underground part is so-so to walk over—just park benches and stuff—but the canal is more photogenic when it comes back out into the open.

There's a system of locks on the canal to handle the very substantial difference in elevation between the north end, which ends at La Villette (home to a great science museum, by the way), and the Seine River. For some reason, watching barges go up and down in the locks fascinates me … I guess that proves that I'm a congenital engineer. There were no barges during my walk, though.

On the way up the canal I passed the Bataclan, a famous concert hall painted in all sorts of gaudy colors. It's one of those places you always hear about but never see, like Carnegie Hall. It has had its ups and downs over the years, but I guess it's doing okay these days. It is famous enough to have become a sort of rite of passage for certain categories of artists in entertainment, which helps.

I ended up at the artificial, 19th-century lake called the Bassin de la Villette, with its period buildings, its restaurants and cinemas, and its excursion boats. The boats can take you for a ride up and down the canal, and I've heard this is interesting, although I haven't tried it myself. After dark, the area fills up with drug dealers and their clients, or so I've read. By the time I finished, it was almost sunset, and I went back down towards the Gare du Nord train station, looking for groceries. There are many Indian groceries to the northeast of the station, and there's one in particular that I like, so I went there to buy rice, curry, and malted milk.

Had I had more time, I could have continued up to La Villette, a big park in northern Paris. It has a very cool science museum, as I've said, plus an Omnimax theater, a “dynamic” theater (it moves with the film, in other words), a real submarine that you can visit, an exhibition hall and a concert hall (the well-known Zénith), a music museum, and soon a symphony hall, too (unfortunately designed by Jean Nouvel—my stomach is turning already!).

Blog Archive