Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Watching for the Gestapo, reservoirs, and secret spots

On the way home today, I decided to drift down the rue Lauriston, which descends from the small hill on which the Arc de Triomphe stands down towards the rue Saint Didier. This street has a sinister place in history, because the German Gestapo had its French headquarters here during the Occupation. Unfortunately I couldn't remember the street address as I walked down the street, since I had turned down the street on a whim. I later verified that the evil address was at number 93, where there is a small plaque explaining the unsavory past of the location.

Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, the Gestapo was not a large organization. It got most of its information not from spying on people, but from denunciations provided with enthusiasm by the Germans. This fact is played down a lot because modern-day Germany doesn't like to think about the willingness with which it helped the Gestapo to do its dirty work. The situation was similar in France, where the Gestapo depended a great deal on French informants—of which there were all too many. I've looked at some of the letters sent by ordinary French people to the Gestapo to squeal on their neighbors, and they're pretty disgusting. Of course, not all French people under the Occupation were denouncing their brethren to the Germans … but the Gestapo did receive about five million such letters during the few years of its activity in France. The Gestapo also scraped the very bottom of French society for various species of low-life that it could engage as informants, some of whom entered the history books as famous losers.

But fortunately that is all in the past (I hope). The building where the Gestapo worked is quite innocent today. I wonder if any ghosts inhabit the inside.

Also on this streeet, at one point you walk along a really high stone wall, with no windows or doors of any kind. In Paris, this usually means that the wall encloses one of two things: a prison—of which there is only one, the Santé prison on the Left Bank—or a water reservoir, of which there are several. The one on this street is the reservoir de Passy, which covers almost a city block. If you didn't know there was a reservoir behind the wall, you probably wouldn't guess … after all, the French love high fences. This reservoir is unusual in that it's open on top, whereas the others have a roof over the water. However, it's not open to the public, so you can't just climb up there and look at it. But there are still pictures of it on the Web, just the same (there are pictures of everything on the Web).

Other reservoirs in town include the one at the top of the Montmartre butte and the one next to the Parc Montsouris. Tourists in Montmartre walk right past the reservoir without having any idea that it's there. The one near the Parc Montsouris is also very discreet. Both are covered. The Montsouris reservoir supposedly has the best-tasting water in the city, although all Parisian water is tasty (in the sense that it's very pure and has no taste or smell). I think my apartment is supplied by the Montsouris reservoir, but I'm not sure. If I let the water run from the faucet for a minute or two, it gets very cold and tastes very nice. I have to let it run for a bit because the pipes in the building are still made of lead and I don't trust them.

The discreet presence of these reservoirs emphasizes another thing about Paris (and about other large cities as well): you never know quite what's behind a door or wall in the city. Lots of buildings in the city have interior courtyards accessible only to the buildings' residents, for example. Even my building has a courtyard—although I've never seen it, having never ventured out the back of the building. In fact, I've never been above my own floor in my building. I think it has seven or eight floors, but I'm not even sure.

Anyway … another example of this is the Promenade Plantée on the east side of town. From the ground, it looks like a long building with arcades beneath, in which there are many shops (mostly artsy shops). You might not ever guess that it's actually part of an old elevated railway, even after climbing the stairs to the deck above and walking down it for a while. There are no tracks left, just sidewalks, benches, and gardens. It continues east for miles, from the Bastille to the eastern city limit. All pedestrian and very nice on the upper level, but you wouldn't even know it's there if you didn't look for it.

And then there's another park on the west side, which I won't name because I like to keep sneaky secrets. It's a public park but it's surrounded by buildings, so unless you know exactly where the entrance is, you can't find a way in. Indeed, you won't even know it's there, since it's not visible from outside the park itself. Very discreet. But still open to all. About the only people who know about it are people from the neighborhood.

There are several parks like this in my own neighborhood. One is hidden behind a very high and forbidding wall that looks like something that would surround a military installation. And other is very tiny and hidden among some buildings. Again, they are public, but when you go inside you almost get the feeling that you are trespassing somehow. Many public parks are surrounded by tall, spiky iron fences, which enhances the sensation of trespassing, even though they are open to all.

And there there are shopping galleries. (I'm working on a small video showing a few of these, by the way.) There are modern shopping centers and galleries in Paris, but there are also small ones that are sometimes 200 years old or more. They also have spiky iron gates at the entrances, but in fact they are completely open shopping malls with shops inside. It's just that they were built in the 19th century, when styles were different. Most of them are small and narrow with frosted-glass skylights and quirky little shops inside. They are extremely well hidden. You can walk right past most of them and never notice them. Tourists don't visit them unless their guide books explicitly mention them. I still haven't found even a significant fraction of all the galleries that exist in Paris, but I know many of the more famous ones.

Anyway, I'll post my video of some of these galleries as soon as I've finished with it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spatulas, cigarette butts, and hygiene

I went to E. Dehillerin a few days ago, the Parisian Mecca of professional food equipment, and got a spatula. I used to have a big wooden spoon that I used to stir rice, but one day it fell out of the dish rack and behind the refrigerator, where I couldn't get to it without moving the washing machine. So I bought another one at the supermarket, a cheapie. Unfortunately, it started to deteriorate after a while, so a couple of days ago, while I was in the neighborhood, I stopped at this fascinating store and got myself a wooden spatula of very nice quality for €4.97 (about $4,278,991 at the current exchange rate). As (lack of) luck would have it, a day after bringing it home, while it was still in the bag, I banged against the dish rack and the other spoon fell behind the refrigerator, inaccessible. I suppose that one day there will be a small hill of trapped wooden cooking implements piled behind the fridge. But since I had my smooth new spatula, it was okay, and I could still make rice.

Anyway, this store is very cool, apart from the apparent lack of a second fire exit as required by city ordinance (I have a thing about proper fire exits, as my trillions of readers may have noted from previous posts). It has been around for a very long time, and it has just about anything a professional cook or chef de cuisine might want. One occasionally sees chefs shopping while still in uniform, presumably because they've discovered that they need something urgently. The shop is open to all, however, and on the day I went, it was crowded mostly with tourists—and I suppose these were tourists who like to cook.

Since E. Dehillerin caters to the professional, some of the things it carries aren't very practical for home cooking enthusiasts. You can buy stainless steel pots the size of a water heater that can hold soup enough for a hundred of your closest friends, with giant spoons to match. But there are also many things that are useful to anyone, even someone with no cooking skill such as myself (the spatula I bought is an example). Some of the stuff is pretty cool, like silicone muffin molds that will stay flexible even at subfreezing temperatures and remain unaffected by even the hottest oven temperatures. They also have lots of tools that I can't identify, like sharp things, and things with holes and hinges. One of the mystery tools in the latter category turned out to be a garlic press, which I learned after a friend who went with me to the store identified it for me (she was vastly more competent at cooking than I am).

The items they sell are just piled in boxes. There are no fancy displays. You're expected to know what you want when you walk in. If you know what you want, chances are that they have it. The ground floor is crowded with shelves that hold all sorts of implements, like knives and spoons and things, and then the basement features really large items, like the aforementioned stainless gigapot.

The store also sells attractive and expensive items like huge copper pans for cooking fish. They're beautiful to look at, although I don't have a need to cook four-foot fish in my own pseudo-kitchen. They carry high-quality cast-iron stuff like Le Creuset as well. The emphasis is on functionality, though, not on things that look pretty when hanging unused on a hook.

For someone who likes to cook, this store is probably a bit like Disneyland. It has a lot of atmosphere, too, with its creaky wooden stairway down into the basement and all. The staff obviously specializes in dealing with professionals, but they are nice to everyone, and if you know approximately what you want and can describe it, they can often quickly isolate the utensil that you're looking for.

They do have a small selection of cheesy kitchen items, presumably to please the tourists. I think a lot of people come in and look around even though they don't really cook much, and the cute salt shakers and what-not are probably intended for them.

Moving right along … someone pointed out to me not long ago that French people have a tremendous tendency to throw cigarette butts all over the place, and while I was walking around yesterday, I realized that this is true. In front of every building of any size, and in front of bars and restaurants, there are metric tons of cigarette butts littering the ground. This is true even when no other litter is in evidence, which implies that for every piece of paper or candy wrapper that French people toss on the ground, they toss a dozen or so cigarette butts. Given how addicted many French people are to tobacco, plus the fact that they cannot legally smoke indoors, I guess this is understandable. The French are not prone to pick up after themselves, anyway. Fortunately, Paris has an army of street cleaners that struggle to clean up the mess early every morning—otherwise Parisians would be buried in their own garbage in 24 hours.

I was also reminded yesterday of the fact that France still lags a bit in hygiene practices with respect to the rest of Europe. I went to the food court at the Louvre to buy some pizza and a cannolo, and felt very irritated by the fact that there are no restrooms or lavatories there. No way to wash your hands before eating, and no way to wash them after. If you want to wash your hands or use the toilet, you have to go to a different floor and pay money. I guess the idea is to give gastroenteritis as a free gift to as many Louvre visitors as possible.

And, by the way, the prices have skyrocketed at the Louvre since the coming of the Apple Store. The highway-restaurant chain that operates almost all the restaurants in the food court today charges caviar prices for extremely mediocre food. Each slice of dry, hard, old pepperoni pizza was €6. Pizza, a cannolo, and some mineral water came to €16.90, which is almost 90 minutes of salary for me. Maybe I should have just bought a cannolo and nothing else, which was expensive enough. Or I could have gone to the McDonald's there, which sells hamburgers for €1 each.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Paris Noise, and the Marais

Movies set in Paris typically take many liberties with their portrayal of the city, just as they do with any of the other great cities of the world. One of the things that directors remove from any location shot in Paris (and other densely populated cities as well, I presume) is noise.

Paris is a noisy city. It's fabulously photogenic, no doubt about that, and it's a great place to live in a great many ways. But one thing that is almost constantly present in Paris is noise, and almost all of it comes from motor vehicles.

As a longtime resident of Paris, I don't really notice the noise. In fact, the street outside my apartment is noisy practically all the time, except in the wee hours of the morning. When you walk down any major street in Paris, the traffic noise is often so loud that it's hard to hear a person next to you talking, and you both instinctively raise your voices. But when people make movies of Paris, all this noise is stripped out. Skilled foley artists replace the real noise with the kind of sound that people would expect in romantic movies about Paris, and/or they overlay it with music, and of course dialogue.

The difference can be striking. I specifically remember a very poorly edited scene in the old teeny-bopper film La Boum, a very successful French movie set in Paris. In the scene, a man on the street says to the people around him “Moi, je monte!” (“I'm going up!"), meaning that he's going to go up to an apartment where a party is being held. Up to the point where he starts to speak, there's virtually no ambient noise, except for some unrealistic footstep sounds added in post-production. But as he speaks, the original sound recorded during the shot is used for the man's dialog—and you can hear tons of traffic noise in the background. Then, as soon as he closes his mouth, it's silent again, except for the footsteps, courtesy of the foley artists (sound effects editor).

I saw the movie when I was very young, and I had not been to Paris, and the contrast in sound struck me as odd. Today, though, living in Paris, there's nothing surprising about it (although the editing could have been done better). There is a constant, perpetual, eternally irritating noise of traffic just about everywhere in Paris, and it's very hard to escape. You get used to it in person, but when you record something—like the modest videos I've been making the past few days—the noise seems overwhelming in the video. In fact, in videos I've been making, you can often hear the clicking of excess noise on the videos (digital recording makes clicking noises when sounds are too loud, as opposed to the distortions you used to hear on old analog recordings).

What can I do? I'm not sure. I'm rather chary of narrating the videos myself, as I cannot stand the sound of my voice. I can remove the original sound, but then there is only silence. Putting music over it would require paying royalties (YouTube provides a music dubbing service, but it comes with many restrictions). I tend to ignore the noise, as it's familiar and I ignore it in real life, but in some cases the screeching and honking and ear-splitting noise of scooters distracts from the visuals. Sometimes I'm just amazed by the sheer loudness of this noise when I play back videos during editing or viewing.

Anyway … these past few days have been unseasonably warm and very clear and cloudless. The only problem is that this causes pollution alerts, reaching levels of 8 or so (on a scale of 10, with 10 being the worst). Not a good time to go for walks, and yet the weather otherwise beckons, so if one has the time it's hard to resist the temptation to walk around a bit.

I've finished my editing of another short video showing some of the Marais, a very trendy district of Paris known for its shops, restaurants, expensive apartments, and high concentration of homosexual residents, as well as its small but important Jewish quarter, in the rue des Rosiers. Marais means marsh, but the Marais hasn't been marshland for eight hundred years.

I filmed the place des Vosges, a large and beautiful, 400-year-old square that has been very chichi and expensive ever since King Henri IV built it in 1605. On nice days, it's really popular. On nice days, you see how densely populated the city is, because everyone goes outside. I did this video on a Sunday, and the streets were literally shoulder to shoulder with people in much of the Marais (as you can see by watching the video, hint-hint). The rue des Francs Bourgeois, one of the main streets through the district, is just one huge mass of people. Any cars attempting to get through on a day like this will need half an hour or more to travel one mile—they're better off braving the heavy traffic on the major avenues instead.

Inside the Marais is the rue des Rosiers, a street with a large and conservative Jewish population. I like the street because it's filled with places to eat, including L'As du Fallafel, which makes a fabulous vegetarian falafel (a kind of sandwich made from a hollow piece of bread stuffed with veggies) for five euro. There was a huge, huge line in front of the place today, so I gave up on buying a falafel, even though I craved one. Falafel actually refers to the veggie fritters inside the sandwich, but most people use it for the entire sandwich.

That's not the only place that gives one the munchies on this street. Korcarz is a place that has all kinds of meals and deserts. They make a great cheese and lox sandwich, and delicious strudel. Just walking down this street makes me gain weight.

Anyway, I filmed that street, and by then it was getting dark, so I didn't do the rest of the Marais. Someday I'll make a proper film of this district. My videos right now are kind of haphazard; I have a lot of crises demanding my attention and it's hard to concentrate. Walking helps to relieve stress a little.

I'm still annoyed by double vision, especially at a distance. It's perplexing. My eyes move in all directions without a problem, so it doesn't seem like any nerve palsy or anything like that. Sometimes they snap into alignment abruptly, but at other times they stubbornly refuse to align on an object. Just one more thing to worry about. Oddly enough, it doesn't have too many practical effects, apart from a loss of depth perception, but it's just really irritating.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Paris in the spring

Well, spring arrived just after midnight today. The weather on Saturday had been quite chilly, but the weather on Sunday was vastly better, and today was even better. After finishing my morning class I went for a walk.

I filmed a minute or two of the Madeleine and the Opéra Garnier. I just uploaded that to YouTube as-is and released it to the public domain. Maybe someone can use it. Unlike many people who dabble in creative endeavor, I have no delusions of grandeur and I don't see any reason to assert copyright over a simple 90-second clip of traffic in front of a monument. I have to laugh sometimes at people who produce absolute garbage video or photos and then go to great extremes to protect their masterpieces, as if anyone would even want to steal their junk. In my case, there are trillions of people photographing the Madeleine and the Opera, so why in the world would anyone want my footage specifically? At least by giving it away I increase the chance that someone might make use of it; certainly nobody would be prepared to pay for it.

I noticed on Friday night that I was seeing double. That has never happened to me before, so it's a bit worrisome. I did some research and the symptoms resemble divergence insufficiency or paralysis (the latter is more serious than the former). I don't know what's causing it. It's a problem outdoors because things at a distance are doubled, but I don't have any trouble reading the monitor on my computer. It's very strange.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

I ran across a home movie of Montmartre today, filmed in the 1940s; I've embedded it here. I find it interesting because it so closely resembles my own video of the same area, taken just days ago.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” That's what the title of this post means, and it's certainly true in the case of these movies. Some of the places shown in the 1940s movie look exactly the same today. I recognize practically all the spots featured in the video. Some stores have changed, but their façades have not, nor has the layout of the tiny streets in Montmartre. People dressed differently (in a more ugly way, I think) back in the 1940s, and Paris looked a lot dirtier and poorer, and buildings were covered in soot (modern city ordinances have eliminated this by requiring regular cleaning). The standard of living was dramatically lower. But most of the basic stuff is the same.

It reminds me of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, in which he describes some of his early life in Paris (with some dramatic license). We don't have goats roaming the street's with their masters to provide fresh goat's milk any more, and buildings today are connected to municipal sewer systems for the most part, rather than cesspools, but most of the fundamental elements are the same. Of course, the cost of living has gone up even faster than the standard of living. But most of the places that Hemingway describes still exist today. Heck, there's a small, nondescript bakery on the rue de Richelieu that celebrated its two-hundredth birthday last year. In my hometown in the U.S., nothing is more than about 130 years old, and practically everything is less than 20 years old, and much of the city looks nothing like it did even ten years ago.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shaft your neighbor

France is a Latin country, which means that it shares the tradition of machismo that one finds in all Latin countries. France is perhaps the least afflicted of Latin countries in this respect, but it's still a handicap.

One of the characteristics of Latin machismo is petty (and sometimes not so petty) dishonesty. In France, as in other macho countries, it's okay to be dishonest and do illegal things as long as you don't get caught. Violent acts are eschewed, but white-collar crimes and minor frauds are tolerated and even expected. It's something I've never really been able to get used to, as I've been honest to a fault all my life.

Examples? Well, French people routinely cheat on their taxes. I've heard that it's so common that the government adjusts tax rates in the tax guides to compensate for the fraudulent underreporting of income that they expect from taxpayers. Executives are the most honest, perhaps because they have the hardest time hiding income. Farmers are the worst, who by some estimates “forget” to report as much as 90% of their income or more. This is tolerated because farmers are numerous and influential in France and riot like toddlers throwing tantrums when they don't get their way.

I've seen innumerable other examples. People defraud the government, they defraud their employers, they even cheat their neighbors. They put false dates on documents, they cook the books at the office, they deliberately misrepresent things to avoid responsibility for expenditure, etc. This sort of behavior exists everywhere in the world, but it's more a part of the macho mindset than it would be in other cultures. The macho mindset requires that one resist and disobey authority, lest one be considered unmanly.

A glaring example of this sort of dishonesty concerns intellectual property. I've occasionally mentioned to friends or colleagues that I can't do this or that on my computer because I lack the software, and I lack the software because it's expensive to buy. Invariably, French people look at me as though I'm retarded, because I mention paying for commercial software, something that they've never done. Everyone copies everything illegally. Even companies do it. I recall leaving one company many years ago, and having my office PC nearly pounced upon by other employees, because they knew that it was perhaps the only PC in the building that contained nothing but legal, paid-for software. Everything else at the company was pirated. I had magic, wonderful things that nobody had ever seen before, such as actual installation disks, support contracts, and printed documentation.

It's not just software that is involved. Educational authors have trouble making a living because for every book they sell, 1000 illegal photocopies are made (entire books, not just a few pages). Nobody wants to actually buy a book. And nobody sees the inherent disservice to society that pirating intellectual property does. It's everyone for himself—no trace of civic duty or the Golden Rule.

This is so ingrained in the society that there are special taxes on blank cassettes and writable CDs that are used to compensate authors of music, video, and literature, justified by the assumption that people only buy these blank media if they intend to pirate something. If you are buying a blank CD just to save your own stuff, tough … you're assumed to be a pirate, so you pay anonymous authors in advance for things that the government assumes you will steal. And a lot of French people apparently do buy blank media for this purpose.

Downloading is also a big problem, so much so that there's now a law that says that your ISP must cut off your Internet access if you are found to be downloading things illegally. How this is determined, what constitutes an illegal download, and other details are not specified, and the civil rights implications of this have been largely ignored. Media companies lobbied for it. But there are a lot of people who download everything from suspicious Web sites. They are willing to put up with a tremendously inferior version of the movie they want rather than pay to see a good version. Doing things cheaply is more important than doing them right (this is to some degree a pan-European affliction that I'll have to address in more detail in a future post).

One of my previous employers was a software publisher. At the French affiliate of this company, where I worked, employees ignored corporate policy and made copies of everything to give to friends and relatives. The company offered software at huge discounts to be given away as gifts, but employees in France resold the software at a profit, completely ignoring official policies. Another company I know of maintains a media center filled with home-made copies of commercial DVDs, cassettes, and CDs. I've tried to explain that this is illegal, but my explanations fall on deaf ears; in France, someone who points out the illegality of copyright infringement, even on a massive scale, is just a troublemaker.

As I've said, I have difficulty adapting to this. I once called the cable company (in the U.S.) to tell them that I was receiving a channel that I was not paying for. It took a while for them to understand that I was advising them of something that was costing them money, and not complaining about not getting something for which I had paid. I occasionally called the telephone company to ask why certain long-distance calls were missing from my bill, which also puzzled people. And that was in the U.S. You can imagine the reactions of people in France.

There are countries where things are worse, of course. Italy springs to mind, for example. But just because it's worse elsewhere doesn't make it okay here.

I note that wherever there is petty dishonesty, there is corruption and poverty. You can't build a society if everyone is trying to steal from his fellow man. But no society is perfect, I suppose.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On the Champs

I've finished editing my short Champs-Élysées video, which you can see here. It's pretty lame, but I have to practice.

Since I teach near the Champs, I see the avenue just about every day. There has been a gradual change in the avenue over the years, which is to be expected. There are a couple of trends that have been prominent in recent years.

One gradual shift taking place these days is a shift towards chain stores, mostly clothing stores. Adidas, Nike, Zara, H&M, Quicksilver, Celio, Lacoste … the list goes on and on. These have gradually squeezed out independent stores on the main avenue, of which there are almost none today.

Recent departures include the post office that had been on the avenue for many years. In January, the landlord increased the rent by 400%, from €20,000 per month to €100,000 per month, so the French postal service decided to close the branch. It will probably be replaced by another chain clothing store. Very nearby, a pharmacy that had been on the avenue for ages has disappeared, and has now been replaced by a Kusmi Tea store (also a chain). As these trends continue, the stores on the avenue look more and more like those you'd find in any suburban shopping center.

There are a few holdouts, such as one or two souvenir stores and some restaurants and cafés. But if you're looking for one-of-a-kind stores on the Champs, you'll be disappointed. Of course, chain stores have been fixtures on the avenue for many years, but there are more now than before.

A bright spot is the shopping galleries on the north side of the avenue, of which there are many. Rents are lower inside these galleries, and you can still find a large number of independent stores, although the majority of them still seem to sell clothing. I show a few of these galleries in the video, but not all. I think a lot of tourists walk right past these galleries, never noticing their presence, but they get enough traffic to survive. It does look as though a few of them have difficulties, as evidenced by the high turnover of stores in some of them.

For some years now, gypsies have been a problem on the Champs. They will walk up to anyone who looks like a foreigner and ask if he or she speaks English; if the answer is yes, they begin their scam. I always say “no,” so I'm not sure of the details of the scam (I look like a tourist in my usual attire, so I'm a target), but Americans tend to say “yes” by reflex, and then have to endure the spiel and request for money.

There are also a lot of street performs on the avenue, often several at any one time, and their shows interfere with pedestrian traffic and provide golden opportunities for pickpockets. They all look like they rolled in from the suburbs specifically for the purpose of putting on a show on the avenue. They all seem to involve the same loud music and nondescript dancing, but tourists are easily amused—things that they'd ignore at home seem to fascinate them abroad.

The avenue is cleaner today than it was in decades past. In the old days, there were large surface parking areas on either side of the avenue, but some years ago these were finally replaced by underground parking garages, and the space they occupied was paved over, so that now the avenue has extremely broad sidewalks paved in granite (which I guess means that strollers get a free dose of radiation as they walk, since granite is slightly radioactive). The avenue is also kept very clean by city cleaning workers who work mainly in the morning, although they can be seen at all times of day.

Some things never change on the avenue. The pedestrian and vehicular traffic never stops. Pedestrians are especially dense on the north side of the avenue, probably because there's more shopping and restaurants there. The south side of the avenue has no shopping galleries and has more banks. It's also in the shade, which is probably a factor in cold weather.

Some of the avenue's icons never seem to change. Fouquet's restaurant is very well known. One of its security guards assaulted me on the avenue once for taking a picture of the restaurant from the sidewalk. The restaurant used to refuse admission to women to its bar, and used to prohibit unaccompanied women entirely (because they were assumed to be prostitutes on the prowl), so it has some weird history and policies, although I understand that the discrimination against women has been lifted. It's also the place where French movie stars (such as they are) go after the annual César cinema awards, the French answer to the Oscars. The sidewalk in front of the restaurant entrance has plaques mounted in the ground that form a sort of super-mini answer to the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. A cinema down the street tried something similar, but I notice the plaques were later removed.

For decades, there was an Aeroflot office on the avenue. I notice that it has been replaced by … a chain clothing store. Thai Airways used to have its offices on the avenue, but those are being replaced by … a chain clothing store.

My video only shows the upper, commercial part of the avenue, which extends from the Rond Point roundabout (roughly midway along the avenue's length) to the Arc de Triomphe. The lower part consists of parkland on either side of the avenue, and is nice for a stroll, but holds no attraction for shoppers (lots of tourists seem to enjoy power shopping in Paris, although the Champs is not the best shopping in the city).

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bags a-plenty, groceries, airline machismo, and network annoyances

Part of the fad that is “green” includes replacing disposable plastic grocery bags with reusable bags. The idea is that instead of filling landfills with trillions of flimsy plastic bags, people will use the same sturdy bag over and over when shopping for groceries.

It seems to be kinda sorta working, and I practice it, not out of environmentalism but simply because it's often more comfortable, and sometimes unavoidable.

The disposable bags have “handles” that contract into a kind of Sinclair monofilament (Larry Niven) or shigawire (Frank Herbert) that separates the joints of the fingers on the way home from the supermarket. It doesn't help that I usually buy heavy things, such as multiple liters of whole milk (the Marguerite brand of microfiltered milk, which is very tasty) and mineral water, such that each bag may weigh six or seven kilos. The bags are painful to carry even for the half-mile or so that separates me from my preferred supermarket (there are much closer supermarkets, but they don't have as many of the products and prices that I prefer).

The reusable bags are much more comfortable, as they usually have something resembling proper handles, sometimes with something to protect the fingers as well. My favorites are those from Monoprix (which is also where I usually buy groceries), which have plastic covers around the carrying straps so that you don't slice off your fingers when carrying them, and those from the FNAC, which are incredibly large and sturdy and even a bit fashionable.

The interesting thing is that these bags are actually very good buys. They are typically sold for a pittance, like €0.90 or so, and they can be used for years. They are usually immensely strong—I think you could carry an anvil in the FNAC bags without too much trouble. They should all last for years. And therein also lies their problem, at least for me.

See, in theory I suppose, you're expected to reuse the bags each time you shop. However, that means that you need to bring the bags with you. If you're coming straight from home, that may not be a problem, but if you are stopping for groceries after working or in some other circumstances, it's unlikely that you're going to be carrying empty, reusable grocery bags around with you. So you end up buying new reusable bags at the store. This is the problem that I have.

I now have a large collection of very sturdy grocery bags in various states of wear and tear. When I know I'll be getting groceries on the way home, I stuff two of the bags (one for each hand) into my utility vest, but they take up a lot of room in the vest and can make it uncomfortable to wear. In some cases, other things are taking up space in the vest, and so I can't carry the bags, which means I have to buy new ones. And that's how I have such a large collection of the bags now.

From time to time I throw a few away, which totally eliminates their ecological advantage. But what am I supposed to do? Carry two grocery bags with me everywhere?

Moving right along, I've noticed some other things lately about grocery stores and even a few restaurants. It seems that the new color code for “environmentally friendly” (itself a meaningless buzzword) is some shade of dark gray combined with some shade of green. Monoprix’s Daily chain of mini-supermarkets uses this color scheme, and Carrefour has copied it for their competing chain.

Speaking of Carrefour , I can't recommend them. The lines are longer at Carrefour than they are at Monoprix, the selection of products is weirder (at least for me), and they've been cited by the government multiple times for selling expired products, mislabeling products, and paying their employees less than the legal minimum wage through clever bookkeeping. Their Proxi and Shopi chains of mini-markets aren't too bad … although I prefer Monoprix’s Daily chain for that, too. Carrefour, incidentally, is the world's second-largest retailer after Walmart, but it has virtually no presence in the U.S., just as Walmart has no presence in France (the headquarters of Carrefour). Monoprix is owned by the French Casino Group.

If I want more chichi merchandise, I can go to La Grande Épicerie, that very upscale grocery store attached in turn to Le Bon Marché department store, itself a renowned Left Bank emporium that belongs to the LVMH group, the same group that owns Louis Vuitton (is everybody getting this?). Their prices actually aren't too much higher than Monoprix or Carrefour, unless you are buying stuff that you cannot get at the other stores. That would include double cream from the U.K., which is very pricey (I've only splurged on it a few times), and Blast-O-Butter popcorn, which I really like and occasionally buy if I can afford it (€3.50 for a box of three bags of microwave popcorn).

Of course, the most modest supermarket in France still has a much better selection than many supermarkets in the U.S. At even a tiny family-owned mini-market, you can still find smoked salmon, imported mortadella, and three dozen varieties of excellent cheese—none of which resemble the yellow PVC that passes for cheese in the U.S. Every supermarket in France is a Trader Joe's, in other words.

For the Indian stuff that I buy to make my favorite rice dishes, I got to a modest but popular Indian grocery up by the Gare du Nord train station. A few days ago I did pass a supermarket that claimed to have all sorts of exotic world foods available, and it was closer to where I live, but now I've forgotten where it was! (That sort of thing happens when you walk around Paris a lot.) Like any big city, Paris has a store for everything if you look hard enough, and often it's within walking distance, at least for someone like me who routinely walks several miles a day.

In other news … I see that Air France made a big deal out of “all-female crews” on several flights in observation of International Women's Day on May 8. It's funny how macho men and women often have no idea that their patronizing attempts to deny their machismo are backfiring in the worst way. If Air France really did treat the sexes equally, it wouldn't have to set up all-female crews as some sort of special event, would it? American airlines don't issue press releases to announce all-female crews because they already routinely have such crews on a daily basis, even if they are (understandably) less common than mixed crews. The hypocrisy at Air France is chest deep, but rumor has it that it's a very macho organization internally. Air India made the same mistake.

There was a big earthquake and tsunamis in Japan a few hours ago, as my trillions of loyal readers probably know. The French media scoured Japan to find an actual Frenchwoman who actually lives in Japan, and focused on her as an authority on what the quake and tsunami were like. This is typical of journalists, not just in France but everywhere. Every television and radio network wants people who can speak their language, and they'll select a totally unknown and unqualified person who can speak their language without an accent over seasoned experts who aren't fluent in that language. Some intelligence agencies know this and will plant accent-free speakers of foreign languages at public gatherings so that they can get the message they want communicated to any foreign media present. It certainly worked in the old Soviet Union, but they weren't the only ones doing it.

Speaking of media, I'm very irritated by the video I see of the disasters in Japan. Even though the world now supposedly has sparkling high-definition TV for you-are-there realism, when you actually look at video on major networks, it's a blur, worse than VHS tape. Where's all the high technology? Even Japan is afflicted by this, and they build most of the technology. My own modest videos made with a consumer camera are ten times clearer and sharper than the stuff I'm seeing on networks. And the mediocre images that they broadcast are half-hidden by garbage graphics, like blinking text, rotating logos, redundant captions (“TSUNAMI HITS” beneath footage of a 10-meter wave—as if people might mistake it for, say, a variety show), and a continuous ticker of irrelevant news sliding across the bottom of the screen.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The air is safe again; scammers; Montmartre; and digital TV

The air in Paris is safe again. For a few days, we had a pollution alert for particulates, which the press seemed to ignore. I went out anyway, in the belief that a day or two of dusty air wouldn't necessarily hurt me. It did affect visibility a lot, though, which interferes with taking pictures or videos.

Today was uninterrupted blue sky and relatively clean air, and it was comfortably chilly. I didn't profit from it photographically, though, as I was preoccupied with trying to get money for food, what with the eBay store shafting me on the trinkets I sold and my employer taking its time about paying its employees.

Anyway, I noticed some weird stuff while walking home. First, on the Iéna bridge, which crosses the Seine River in front of the Eiffel Tower, I saw a con artist running a shell game, which I couldn't recall ever having seen before in that location, or at least not for a long while. However, that wasn't the surprise. The surprise was that there were (by my count) about eight such games taking place on the bridge. Apparently a traveling army of shell-game fraudsters had decided to make a stop on the bridge, or something. They all had the same accent, but it was difficult to place as I only heard snippets of it. There were crowds around each game, but since shell games typically involve several people who are part of the game, I don't know how many of them were actually innocent victims suckered into the fraud. It just amazed me to see so many of them in such a small area, only about 30 feet apart. I guess these people didn't understand the concept of market saturation. How many marks are they likely to find among tourists on the small span of this bridge?

But that's not all. Walking along the river, near the Pont des Arts, I encountered not one but three gypsies working the found-ring scam, wherein they pretend to find a ring on the ground in front of you and then ask if it's yours, yadda-yadda. They weren't very good at it. I actually observed them with the rings in their hands, pretending to pick them up from the ground. I could only smile a knowing smile and wave them off. What idiots! But I'm sure they found a few victims among the zillions of people walking along the river. There was no shortage of tourists out and about, and I suppose even a few locals occasionally fall for the scam. The kicker is that the ring that they “find” is about the biggest, ugliest brass piece of junk you can imagine—only a gypsy would find a ring like that attractive.

And before you accuse me of racism or some other such nonsense, I'm sorry, but most of these scammers are gypsies, also known euphemistically as Roma or “gens de voyage” (“traveling people”). Their entire culture is built around defrauding the rest of humanity, a bit like the Mafia. Anyone who doesn't accept this reality becomes their victim.

Anyway, with the shell gamers from who-knows-where and the ring-scamming gypsies thronging the sidewalks and bridges, I felt like I was suffering from some bizarre, repetitive déjà-vu experience. This systematic overkill in Paris isn't limited to just scams. Many of the people illegally selling souvenirs and trinkets near major monuments have the same problem. You might see ten people selling things on the Trocadéro plaza across from the Eiffel Tower, and every one of them will be selling the same goods. Why is there no diversity? Does everyone really want the same carved wooden giraffes, untreated pigskin hats, or blinking Eiffel Tower keychains? Do they all have the same suppliers? It's mysterious.

The illegal souvenir merchants aren't out to actually steal money from people, but they aren't exactly legal, either. Most of them have no permit or business structure and are thus operating their business illegally, and they may be illegal aliens as well. Often they have their junk spread out on a large sheet, with cords attached to the corners and joined in the middle. They also have a telepathic herd mind of sorts, like Village of the Damned, but without the white hair and glowing eyes. When one of them detects the nearby presence of law enforcement with his sixth sense, they all become aware of it, and they grab the cords of their spread where they are joined and pick up their wares, the sheet forming a getaway sack containing all their merchandise. Then they run. The slowest among them gets caught and arrested, and might even get a free trip back home if he's an illegal. The others return after a few minutes.

There's even a sort of fashion among the souvenir sellers. One month, it's wooden elephants and red laser keychain pointers. The next month, it's plastic wind-up birds and toy puppies that walk and bark. The month after that, it's day-glo whirly-bird wind-up helicopters and umbrella hats. The merchandise changes in waves. Whatever one guy is selling will be the same as everyone else within a mile radius. It must be that telepathy again. I half-expect that one day I'll see the eyes of one of them start to glow as he commands “you will buy this carved wooden antelope …” in broken French with a mysterious accent.

Sometimes the fashions tend to correlate with locations. For example, in front of Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre, there are tons of African scammers that have some sort of scam that involves tying colored strings on your fingers (I've never fallen for this, so I don't know how the whole thing works). I never see the colored-strings scam elsewhere, but it's popular and consistent at Sacré-Cœur. They are very aggressive there—when I've gone there with groups in the past, we've occasionally had to pull them away from the young girls and women in the group, so we have staff watching the scammers with eagle eyes to make sure they don't harass anyone.

On the Montmartre butte itself, you don't really see scammers per se, and most of the artists are perfectly legitimate, but some of them have very aggressive selling tactics. Those with a spot allocated for their use on the famous place du Tertre—the square where all the artists gather—are not obnoxious and won't try very hard to sell you anything, but the roving artists, who have no allocated spot and simply walk around with a sketchpad or paper and scissors, can be much more aggressive. They will often start sketching you or preparing your silhouette in paper with tiny scissors without waiting for you to say yes, and then they will try to sell you the result even though you didn't ask for it. The correct response to this is to say “no,” unless you actually want to buy their work (some of them are quite good … but that doesn't mean that you have to buy whatever they push at you).

Speaking of Montmartre, I've finished editing my little 15-minute video visit to the area, which you can view in this post. The first two minutes show Pigalle, the Sin City of Paris. The rest is Montmartre. It's difficult to convey how charming Montmartre is in a video, and I didn't wander much off the beaten path in this video. You'll see, however, that even a slight diversion from the touristy streets changes things a lot. The rue Saint Rustique, visible in the video, is a tiny, deserted street from the 12th century that is right behind the touristy streets, and it is very quiet. It contains a well-hidden artist supply shop that I assume caters to locals, since nobody is likely to run across it by accident on that tiny, silent street. There are many other silent, charming streets to the west on the butte, and I plan to film and photograph them more at some point in the future, insha’Allah.

It's past midnight now, and, apart from today being International Women's Day , it's also the day that the Paris region of France switches from analog to digital broadcast television. Most people with recent TV sets don't have to do much (and if they aren't receiving TV with an antenna, they may not have to do anything at all), but it's still a big change. It doesn't affect me, though, since I've had no television since the government seized my TV set for taxes seven years ago. I don't miss TV, so even if I had the money, I wouldn't buy a new TV set (especially since I'd have to pay yearly TV tax on it if I did).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A stroll through Paris at dusk

I'm still trying to sell what little personal property I can scrape up in order to raise money, but the eBay store keeps shafting me. They were supposed to have a check ready for me on Tuesday, but now it's a week late. I've been going there for several days asking for it. It's bad enough that they take 1/3 of whatever an item sells for (even though their costs per item are fixed), and that they give buyers a money-back guarantee even though that's not allowed for auctions, and that they provide no seller protection against buyer fraud, but now they are taking forever to pay for anything.

And my employer was a month late in paying me, too. Kind of makes it hard to pay the rent when your meager wages are 27 days late.

Anyway, I have about ten euro to see me through until I get paid (by someone). So I tried going for a walk again to relieve stress.

Since I'm still in a video phase, I shot some video. Mainly three bridges: the Pont Alexandre III, the Pont des Arts, and the Pont Neuf.

The Pont Alexandre III is indisputably the beauty queen of Paris bridges. It was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, and a few years ago it was restored to its original condition and colors. It's a pleasure to look at, and rather nicely located right between the big esplanade of the Hôtel des Invalides (below which some French spook agencies have their headquarters, supposedly) and the Grand and Petit Palais, giant exhibition halls from the same exposition with huge glass roofs, also recently restored. Lots of photo ops with this bridge. I made a two-minute video of it. I tried to put closed captions in it, but I can't get that YouTube function to work. I don't narrate the video because I can't stand the sound of my own voice.

I also have some footage of the Pont des Arts, but I didn't have enough coverage there to edit it into something useful, and the same is true for my shots of the Pont Neuf, although I have a handful of nice shots.

The Pont des Arts is the pedestrian bridge where people gather to socialize and hold picnics (weather permitting). The Pont Neuf, despite its name (which means “new bridge”) is the oldest bridge still standing in Paris, and it has also been recently restored. I'll have to try to get some useful shots of these later.

By the time I looked at these three bridges, it was getting dark, since I had to start late in order to pass uselessly by the eBay place (which keeps limited hours) in a vain search for respect of my contract with them. I decided to slip up to the Opera district to make a continuous strolling video.

I started at the Bonne Nouvelle Métro station on the boulevard of the same name, then walked west for almost half an hour until I ended up in front of the Paris Opera (the old one, the Opéra Garnier). During this I filmed continuously, producing 23 minutes of video with only one quick interruption. Unfortunately it was hand-held, but I tried to keep the camera still.

The interest of this video is that it provides an unedited look at the considerable activity on Paris streets. Paris is very densely population and the streets are always busy, and that is apparent in the video. You see people of all types doing all sorts of things, plus endless stores and restaurants extending for the entire length of the stroll (which covered about one mile). My objective was to provide a “you are there” sort of experience. The result was so-so, but if you've never been to Paris and you are curious, it could be interesting to watch.

This 23-minute video took 13 hours to upload to YouTube (it was almost 4 gigabytes in size). I suppose I'll have to wait another twenty years to see high-speed SDSL Internet service. France Télécom is making so much money with its 95% margins on existing ADSL service that it has no motivation to do better.

Since I have only ten euro, I bought some milk and mineral water and made some more of my favorite curry rice dish, which should hold me over for a while. I was also able to find two loaves of soft French bread, instead of those junk French baguettes that I bought several days ago, which were as hard as synthetic sapphire before I could even get them into the freezer. I had to throw the baguettes out. The two parisiennes are much more edible, especially with olive oil and vinegar—this provides a more balanced diet.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sex, art, and murder in wicked Pigalle

Yesterday, not having any classes and being highly stressed as usual, I went for a walk in Pigalle and Montmartre to shoot some more video.

I find it amusing that Americans often pronounce Pigalle as “pig alley,” although the correct French pronunciation is closer to “pee-gall.” The area is named after a roundabout which in turn is named after a famous French sculptor, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, who is probably spinning in his grave due to the unsavory associations that are now made with the name. The neighborhood has been a red-light district for more than a hundred years, and is home to the Moulin Rouge show club. Above and to the north of this district is Montmartre, the highest point in Paris, which is a charming area that is very popular with tourists (Pigalle itself is popular with tourists, too).

At one time, Pigalle was considered a wicked place, but these days most large cities have red-light districts that are as bad or worse than Pigalle. The surrounding neighborhoods are actually fairly peaceful and the rents are low (relatively speaking). There are a lot of sex shops along the Clichy boulevard that serves as the main drag for the district, along with a lot of ordinary legitimate theaters, restaurants, and bars. It's the sort of place that seems more evil than it is. It's actually touristy rather than evil, and it's not particularly risky for tourists, at least outside the wee hours (after midnight or beyond).

Anyway, I walked along the aforementioned boulevard, shooting away, hither and yon. The central part of the boulevard is pedestrian and lined with trees, a great improvement over the mess that it was a few years ago, before the boulevard was rebuilt. I can't get over how quickly the trees have grown—they were mere saplings when they were planted a few years ago, and they've already grown to full size.

In addition to the wide pedestrian walkway in the center of the boulevard (cars drive in narrow lanes on either side of this median), there are park benches, two bicycle paths, and frequent Vélib (bike rental) stations and Sanisettes (automated self-cleaning toilets). I usually walk down this pedestrian median, as there's more room and I'm less likely to be accosted by hawkers outside the sex clubs trying to persuade me to go inside. Any man or group of men walking along the avenue without female company is likely to be solicited in this way, which is harmless but annoying. The hawkers in front of the clubs hold tiny photo cards under your nose and invite you in to see fabulous “live shows.” Sometimes they tap you on the arm, which I don't like (“voie de fait” I advise them—that is, assault). I didn't want this headache today, so I just kept away from the sides of the boulevard.

One of my favorite little shops is long gone. There used to be a shop here that sold old audio-visual equipment—I think I've mentioned it before—and I really liked it, although I never bought anything there (maybe that's why it's gone). It was like a museum of evolution in the A/V world. It's amazing how much progress has been made. Indeed, I was holding an example yesterday: a tiny, inexpensive camcorder that can record hours of high-quality video with just one battery and one tiny memory card. Does anyone remember Super-8? If so, you can appreciate how far things have come in a relatively short period. Strangely enough, there are still places in Paris where you can buy Super-8 film and get it developed, believe it or not (on the boulevard Beaumarchais, for example, a photographer's paradise near the Bastille).

There are still plenty of sex shops. I wonder how much business they do, with competition from the Internet and all. They seem to be doing okay. Rebecca's “erotic supermarket” seems to be in good health, and the seven-floor Sex Museum, as well as the equally large Sexodrome department store, are both still in business.

There was quite a line waiting outside the Moulin Rouge. I didn't realize that there were early shows there on weekdays, but apparently so, or at least I assume that's what the line was for. The mill wasn't turning, though.

Ultimately, following my usual path, I walked up towards the Butte Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur Basilica. This was quite a misty and occasionally overcast day, but the basilica looks quite photogenic in any weather. I had to wend my way past the African scam artists with their pieces of colored string and hard-sell spiels, but I'm used to that. I did take a quick glance at Reine, one of several huge fabric retailers east of the butte, which was open today. They get a lot of business, since they offer one-stop shopping for do-it-yourself clothes makers—I'm sure that for people who like to sew, it's a fun area to shop. Lots of other small fabric stores fill that area, too. Of course, tourists don't even know it's there.

I declined to climb the butte by the stairs, and took the funicular most of the way up. As always, there were human statues and someone playing a guitar for coins on the steps in front of the basilica. At least he wasn't singing “Let It Be” or “Hey Jude” this time.

Arriving at the place du Tertre, where the artists ply their trade, I was surprised to see the square completely occupied by artists for once. Often the artists rent their spots to the restaurants surrounding the square, and in summertime there are more terraces and tables than artists. But on this chilly February afternoon, there were lots of artists, and the tourist crowd was lighter than in high season, so you could actually walk around and see things. This was a very refreshing change (I usually come to the area in high season with visitors).

It's a tremendous advantage to visit areas like this as a local (or with a local), because there's so much to see that is off the beaten tourist track. You only have to move fifty meters to one side, and you're practically on your own. I bought some ice cream at Tutti Sensi—my favorite ice-cream shop in Paris—and ate it while walking over to the one pharmacy at the top of the butte to buy some Kleenex. In this part of town, there's a potential photo or video sequence in every direction, no matter which way you turn the camera. Unfortunately, on this day (as on many days in Parisian winters), there was a frigid wind blowing from the north, which kept making my hands go numb. The rest of me is fine, as I'm not too sensitive to cold as long as it's above freezing, but my hands go numb if I'm holding something (such as a camera, in this case). I had to keep stopping and putting my hands in my pockets until I could feel something again.

Most of the tourists stick to two or three little streets near where the artists are. There are many beautiful and quiet streets on the butte, though. I tried to film a few, but eventually I decided to give up, because I just could not keep my hands warm enough.

I departed from my usual path today by walking down the steps on the north side of the butte to the very pretty rue de Caulaincourt. Someone was making a movie as I walked down, but that's not unusual in Paris—it's like living in Hollywood. On the rue Caulaincourt, with my camera put away because of the cold, I walked back towards the place de Clichy, and from there I walked home.

Total time spent walking: six hours. And during this time, I recorded about an hour of rushes, which I'll edit down into 15 minutes or less for YouTube. Had my hands not been so numb, I probably would have filmed more.

On the way back down, I came across the site of a grisly event that occurred earlier this month. On the boulevard de Clichy, there's a Japanese restaurant in which three employees were killed on February 10, their throats slit and one decapitated. The murderer was the restaurant's own manager. The motive still isn't clear, but it sounds like at least one of the employee's might have been trying to extort money from the owner. I'm not clear on the details. Anyway, there's a makeshift memorial to the three people murdered in front of the restaurant, which is closed now. Some people have mistaken the pile of candles and flowers for a heap of garbage, so the various memorial messages and bouquets are mixed with old McDonald's cups and what-not. It was quite a shocking incident, even for this allegedly wicked part of town. Violent crime just isn't that common in Paris, and a triple murder with a huge knife is stranger still.

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