Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nice weather, and architecture

Well, the heat wave let up, and today was a very nice day: cool, sunny, with a breeze. Nice April in Paris weather. I was able to go for an enjoyable walk.

I was tempted to try a video of the Luxembourg Gardens. Now that spring is here, everything is green and beautiful. The only problem is the dry weather and the breeze. When it hasn't rained, and there's a stiff breeze, many of the parks in Paris can turn into dust bowls, because the large numbers of people shuffling around on the dirt in the parks (actually finely divided limestone, in most cases) raises a lot of dust. This isn't a problem for people, but when you have optical instruments with you, like cameras or camcorders, it's important to stay away from those dust clouds.

In fact, it's even worse with digital cameras and camcorders. If one speck of dust lands on the image sensor, you get a dark spot in every photo or video, until you disassemble the camera (if that's even possible) and clean the sensor in a dust-free environment. Some recent cameras are built to reduce this problem, but it's hard to avoid entirely. Cameras with interchangeable lenses are even worse, since removing the lens exposes the sensor itself to outside air and dust.

So I was reluctant to go into any parks. I'll wait until after a day or two of rain, then go while the ground is still moist. After a rain the air is cleaner, too, although it wasn't too bad today (the pollution index was quite high, but visually it looked okay).

I did photograph a few other things.

I happened to walk past the Sainte Chapelle, which had its usual line of tourists waiting to get in. The Sainte Chapelle is in the same complex as the national law courts, so security is tight. I noticed that the gendarmes inside no longer keep pointy things for you while you're there. In the old days, they'd take anything pointy (scissors, files, pocket knives) and number them, and give them back when you left. Now a sign says that they just confiscate them. I guess it was too much work to try to keep track of them all.

The line in front of the Sainte Chapelle was long, and ditto for the Conciergerie, but the line for the law courts was empty. Sometimes it's the other way around, especially when gangsters or other “celebrities” are on trial.

South of that tourist attraction is the Latin Quarter, and for the umpteenth time I walked past the building at 1, rue Danton, which has very unique architecture. It was designed by Émile Arnaud in 1900, and built by engineer François Hennebique. Apart from the interesting style of the building, it was one of the first uses of reinforced concrete, although it certainly doesn't look like a typical concrete building. Unfortunately, in later decades, the style of Le Corbusier took over, what I call the “Hoover Dam” style because that's what his water-stained, soot-covered buildings seem to look like. I prefer Arnaud's style.

Speaking of architecture, I went past the Forum des Halles as well. The shopping center is being redesigned. The old design was kind of ugly, and like so many “modern” styles in aluminum and glass, weathering quickly made it even uglier. The new design looks like a glass trilobite from above, and I suspect it will be at least as ugly at least as fast. But architects in France are always trying to make their mark, and not always successfully. I'm at least thankful that Jean Nouvel wasn't the architect—that would be really scary.

I've put up my video on La Défense. It's lame, as usual, but it does show the plaza and the underground transportation hub. I couldn't afford to license any music for it, so it's just the usual ambient sound.

The Foire de Paris starts tomorrow. I'm debating whether I can afford the €12 ticket to see it, and maybe to take pictures. It's the largest annual exposition in Paris, filling the entire Porte de Versailles exposition center. It concentrates on things for the home, but it's very interesting. We'll see.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Watch your head! … and La Défense

I happened across an accident in the underpass that carries traffic on the Champs beneath the Arc de Triomphe today. The underpass has a very limited vertical clearance (2.4 m, or about 7'10"), and abundant signs warn motorists of this. Nevertheless, from time to time, an inattentive or impaired driver tries to take the underpass even though his vehicle is over the limit, and when the vehicle and the underpass meet, the underpass always wins.

On this occasion, a van had had its upper portion sheared away by the underpass. There's always clearance for the driver, so the driver always survives (unharmed if he's wearing seat belts), but the truck usually doesn't fare so well. The driver in this case (not visible in the photo) looked physically fine, but rather shaken and worried. There really isn't much of an excuse for getting stuck with this clearance problem, so he'll have a lot of explaining to do, and maybe a balloon to blow into.

I've seen it before, though, so this is hardly a unique occurrence. Vans, tractor-trailer rigs, etc. The only thing I really worry about is a tour bus. Tour buses often have passengers riding on a high deck, and if such a deck hit the underpass, the resulting carnage would be catastrophic. Fortunately, that has never happened, but it's probably just a matter of time.

After taking a few pics of this accident, I went up to La Défense. La Défense is a suburb of Paris that contains some of the most sought-after business real estate in the world. It's a planned suburb that has no motor vehicles at ground level. The surface plaza is purely pedestrian, ringed by tall skyscrapers, and all cars, buses, trains, etc., are constrained to pass underground. As a result, it's a really nice place to work. I shot some video of it that I'll be editing into a short feature on the area Real Soon Now.

In the old days, the pedestrian plaza at La Défense was completely open. Nowadays, though, greed has taken its toll, and more and more useless structures and “developments” are encroaching on the wide open space of the plaza. I don't consider this a welcome change.

At the same time, however, a lot has been updated at La Défense. The development of the zone first started way back in the late 1950s, and it took a while for it to catch on. It's doing very well today, but some of the older structures are showing their age. Fortunately, extensive renovation has fixed a lot of that.

For example, the CNIT, built in 1958, has been renovated for the third time. It's famous for having one of the largest unsupported roof structures in the world. The roof is a huge vault supported at three points on the ground, with no internal columns or supports of any kind. There's 200,000 square feet of floor space beneath the roof. It originally was an exhibition center, but today it's a mix of conference halls and a dual-level shopping center. It's pretty nice, and the most recent renovation has made it very modern. And that gigantic vaulted ceiling is still impressive—its center point is 20 stories off the floor.

Then there's the Grande Arche, a 40-story, hollow cube that contains office space. It's a bit odd looking, but interesting. It has “clouds” inside that I originally took to be temporary structures, but in fact they are a permanent part of the building. It's so large that the towers of Notre-Dame could fit inside.

It used to be possible to take an elevator up to the roof of the Grande Arche for a stunning view of La Défense and Paris, but the observation deck has now been closed, and will be turned into office space. Once again, money determines everything.

Opposite the CNIT on the plaza is the Quatre Temps shopping center, once the largest in Europe (I'm not sure if that's still true). More than 200 stores on several levels occupy the center. It has just been renovated as well, and now looks a lot more like a modern American shopping center. It was built back in the early 1970s, so the old decor was very dated. The new design looks very nice, and they've added a huge multi-level food court that's very nice as well, plus the inevitable multiplex cinema., which replaces an IMAX theater that apparently didn't earn its keep.

These days, there are almost 40 skyscrapers at La Défense, with about a dozen under construction or planned. Periodically they tear stuff down and rebuild it, which seems wasteful, but I guess that's how things go in high-priced areas like this one. There are a handful of residential towers, but I don't know that it's an ideal place to live. The area is extremely busy and animated during the business day, but it's a ghost town at night, to the point of being spooky. It's a great place to work, though. I used to work there.

Given the combined Easter/Passover holidays, La Défense wasn't as busy as usual when I visited today. It's busiest in the morning, at lunchtime (all French people eat lunch at exactly the same time), and in the evening when everyone leaves work. At other times during the day, it's quiet but there are still quite a few people (tens of thousands work in the towers). At night, it's just you, the wind, and the occasional gang.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What price art?

On the way home today, I passed through the Latin Quarter, and walked down some of the streets in the western part of the neighborhood, which are awash in art galleries of all sorts.

The weather was nice and the streets were peaceful (especially since most people are on vacation for either Easter or Passover), and it was a pleasant walk, but I did find myself wondering how art galleries manage to stay in business. The vast majority of galleries sell modern art, since old art is in limited supply and they're not making any more of it, but most modern art is (at least in my opinion) garbage.

Do people really pay €50,000 for a few splashes of paint on a canvas? I guess people like Jackson Pollack answer that question, but it mystifies me. I suppose it depends a lot on who made the splashes.

I think that many people buy or praise modern art because they're afraid that they'll seem uneducated if they don't. They don't actually see anything in the art, but they're worried that maybe others who praise the art are seeing something that they cannot, and they don't want to seem retarded, so they praise the art, too. It's exactly like the emperor's new clothes. I don't worry about seeming uneducated, though. A lot of modern art is garbage, designed to take advantage of people who worry too much about what others think, and I'm not afraid to call it as I see it. And I'm sure not going to pay €50,000 for garbage. If I want modern art, I'll go outside to the dumpster, pull out some garbage, glue it together, and put it on a marble pedestal in my living room. Nobody will know the difference, and everyone will be afraid to confess that they don't understand the “art.”

If I go to the Louvre (which I confess that I hardly ever do), I see art that I can recognize as art. It's still not that impressive—the mere fact that a painting is 500 years old doesn't make it good—but at least it shows some sort of talent. Old art seems to disproportionately portray a lot of generals, politicians, and saints, most of whom are either nude or dressed in bed sheets, but it's still better than modern art.

At the Orsay Museum, which picks up where the Louvre leaves off, and stops just prior to reaching the abyss of modern art, you can see things that are both artistic and recognizable. Some work of the impressionists is very nice, for example. You can recognize what it is, but it's not photo-realistic. It's a nice balance between the abstract and the concrete. I don't salivate over it the way some people do, but I like a lot of it. I still think Van Gogh looks like he was fingerpainting, though. And while Monet is pleasant as well, there are limits to how many depictions of stagnant ponds covered with lilies and scum that I can see before I need a break.

So do I like anything? Yes. Manet's Olympia is a nice painting, simply because it looks exactly like real life. His model, Victorine Meurent, looks a bit impatient and self-conscious. Of course, that's also why people found it scandalous. How dare a painter try to depict reality!
Jean Ingres did the same thing (minus the nudity, generally), and did a very good job as well. I like his paintings. He did a lot of commissioned work, and his portraits look like real people, which I suppose was exactly what his clients wanted.

Picasso got weird over time and I don't generally like his work. However, there's a museum in Paris that contains a lot of his earlier work, before he got weird, and he was a good painter in the early days. Salvador Dali, who has a small museum of his work in Montmartre, was an excellent artist, although his choice of subjects is a bit nightmarish—like Norman Rockwell with malaria.

Anyway … I've only bought one work of visual non-photographic art in my life, and it was an original cel from a Warner Bros. cartoon (Duck Dodgers in the 25½ Century, as I recall). I pawned it years ago out of poverty.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rue Cler redux

I've put up my latest rue Cler video, a somewhat longer version of the one I put up a few months ago.

As I've said in the past, the rue Cler, a tiny, mostly pedestrian market street in Paris, has nothing really to objectively recommend it, but it is famous because travel author Rick Steves praises it at length in his books on Paris. I'm not sure why he does this. It's easy to get the impression that he has never seen enough of Paris to know just how mundane this particular street is (in comparison to many other market streets in the city). But whatever the reason, thousands of tourists naively flock to the street, either because they think it's a major Paris sight worth visiting (it's not), or because they think the hotels there are something extra-special (they aren't).

My upcoming video on the rue Montorgueil should clearly show just how uninteresting the rue Cler is, although that message will never reach Rick Steves' disciples. I wonder how many people sit in one of the small hotels on the street, look out the window at the shops below, and believe that they're seeing the best of Paris.

Anyway … this little video is the first I've made with background music. I had to license the music, of course, since my conscience allows no other option. (Living in France has hardly made a dent on my conscience, although it has had more influence than I would like.) I use royalty-free music, which is of good quality and affordable, with its one-time licensing structure. I mainly wanted to see if music is better than just ambient noise. The rue Cler is pedestrian and fairly quiet, so this isn't a worst-case test, but it is instructive. I did leave the ambient noise over the music track, to provide a bit more atmosphere.

The density of Americans is so high on the rue Cler at this time of year (April in Paris) that sometimes the only language you hear around you on this street is English. I'm sure it must be a boon to the merchants on the street, although some of them (like La Compagnie des Aspirateurs, which sells a wide selection of vacuum cleaners) manifestly cater specifically to locals. The area of town in which the rue Cler is found is known for its high rents and its high density of retirees and diplomats, and it's not the most animated spot in the city.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Paris in the Spring

The weather during the past few days has been glorious, the kind that makes Paris in the Spring justly famous. Blue skies, fluffy white clouds, a slight breeze, tolerable temperatures (although it was a bit warm in the afternoon yesterday). This is the kind of weather that tourists read about in travel books—and the tourists are definitely here in force now.

I was walking to school this morning, and I saw a group of Americans walking behind me. Since I was very near the infamous rue Cler, I surmised that they were on their way to Rick Steves' favorite Parisian street. Sure enough, as I continued north, they turned towards the rue Cler. Any American in this part of town, walking on that street, is almost surely on his way to or from the rue Cler. The Eiffel Tower is nearby, too, but tourists don't stray far from the major sights, so anyone almost a mile from the tower is probably looking for something else, and that would be the rue Cler around here.

This afternoon, I went past the rue Cler again, mainly to update my little video of the street, since the previous one is generating a surprising number of views on YouTube. I heard almost nothing but English on the street, as all the Americans with their little green books trotted to and fro. If only they knew how lame this street is compared to some of the other market streets in Paris.

Most of the time, the rue Cler is quiet … too quiet, as they say in the movies. The Seventh is a district of retirees and diplomats. It's not a very lively area. Plus, when you do see people on the rue Cler, there are often American. Right now, they are almost all American, since this is high season for tourism, and since Parisians are away on Easter vacation. The businesses are open and there are a few people sitting at the cafés, reading their little Rick Steves books and checking their Blackberry gadgets, but it's still very quiet by Parisian standards. The street continues to serve the locals, of course, but they are hopelessly outnumbered by tourists right now. Any American looking for local color and contact with the French is going to have a hard time of it on the rue Cler, although they may not realize this if they do not venture elsewhere in Paris.

But if that's what people want to see, that's what I'll record on video. I'm tempted to direct the people I see to the rue Montorgueil or someplace like that, but they probably wouldn't be able to find their way to other streets without instructions in the green book.

Yesterday I filmed a bit of Notre-Dame (inside and out, but not up in the towers as I hate to climb little spiral stone stairways) and the surrounding streets. Everyone visits Notre-Dame, of course, but they never visit the side streets, which are charming and very quiet. All you have to do is walk 50 feet from the main tourist path, and you're alone. The streets around Notre-Dame are sometimes about as old as the cathedral itself. There are a couple of interesting restaurants, but not much else in the way of commerce. The headquarters of the motorcycle police brigade is among these streets, but that's not really a tourist attraction.

I'm filming things faster than I'm editing them, so I'm getting further and further behind on my video production. I'll have to try to speed up. With the perfect weather, though, it's hard to resist going outside whenever I'm not working. It relieves stress, a little bit.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

More video, shopping galleries, assault, egg salad

I finished editing my brief video showing some of the shopping galleries in Paris. I've also added a Video Gallery to my Web site, showing a few of my videos. I'll add more as time passes. Of course, people could watch my videos by just going to my YouTube channel, but I actually get a lot more traffic on my Web site than I do on my YouTube channel.

This latest video is about shopping galleries, of which there are a great many in Paris. I'm not talking about shopping centers or shopping malls, but galleries, which are straight, narrow little indoor passages or alleys lined with shops. There are other names for them (sometimes they are called arcades, for example), but gallery is the term I usually use. Anyway, they were all the rage almost two hundred years ago, back in the 1800s. Today they've yielded to the large centers and malls, even in France, but Paris nevertheless retains a large number of shopping galleries that are still in business, even if they have a bit less traffic than they did two centuries ago.

I've only shown a handful in my video. The first, the Passage des Panoramas, is a popular gallery in the Opera district. Like most of these galleries, it contains restaurants and odd little shops. Odd in the sense that they are out of the ordinary, not weird. The Passage des Panoramas has stamp shops, for collectors, and some bookshops.

Across the boulevard, the Passage Jouffroy has more bookshops, a candy store, a fabulous little boutique that sells everything you could possibly want for miniatures (like dollhouses), a tiny hotel, and other things. This gallery is also in my video. The extension of this gallery across the street is yet another, smaller gallery, which I also show.

Other galleries in the video are the Passage de Choiseul, which is not doing so well these days, and the charming Galerie Vivienne, which is quiet but seems to be surviving okay.

There are tons of other galleries, but they are scattered all over town, so for now I've just provided a sampler.

I was going to show the Passage des 2 Pavillons, but I was assaulted by a cameraman (I kid you not) in the gallery and nearly fell down the stairs. This imbecile waved his hand in front of me as I stood at the top of the stairs preparing to descend with my camera recording (looking at the viewfinder and thus vulnerable to any surprise), and I nearly lost my balance. He was carrying a camera of his own, and had two people with him, one who looked like a journalist, and one carrying his tripod (probably the sound man). The recklessness of this assault—from a cameraman who should already know the risk, of all people—surpasses my understanding. I've included a picture of him here. Perhaps if he sees himself in this photo, he'll be stupid enough to complain about it, in which case I can identify him to file a criminal complaint of my own. Of course, in his zeal to assault me, he overlooked the fact that my camera was recording and made a record of the whole thing, which I've archived. Perhaps he forgot that you don't need a broadcast camcorder to make a video these days.

Rrrr … where was I? Well, I made some more egg salad. Of course, I never seem to get anything exactly right, so I messed up again. I boiled my eggs, and that went okay—I emptied a dozen eggs into a bowl, poked holes in the yolks, then nuked them for six minutes or so, and broke the resulting mass apart with a fork. Then I added paprika, dill, pepper, and what I thought was mayonnaise. Only it turned out to be Dijon mustard, so I now have the world's hottest egg salad. It would probably bother me if my senses of smell and taste still worked reasonably well; I know it makes my nose tingle.

The mustard jar and its contents looked just like the spiced mayonnaise that I had bought previously. After realizing my mistake, I looked closely at the jar. Sure enough, this one didn't say “Mayonnaise,” but then again, it didn't say anything at all. The word mustard was only written in small letters on the back. I guess mustards don't merit a label in France. I just assumed it was mayonnaise like the other kind I had bought before, since it looked identical. Oh, well. I don't know if I'll be able to finish the egg salad … it's powerful stuff now.

Fortunately, I also have peanut butter and jelly. The jelly isn't Concord grape jelly (Welch's) because that's too difficult and expensive to find and buy here. It's actually strawberry jam. But strawberry jam in France is delicious, so it goes pretty well with the peanut butter. The peanut butter is Skippy, imported from the U.S. Peanut butter is much easier to find in the average French grocery store than grape jelly.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

April in Paris

It's April in Paris, and the weather is mostly the way it's supposed to be, except for a heat wave (20° F above normal), but heat waves are becoming the norm these days. Apart from the heat, the sky is blue and sunny, with a slight breeze.

There was some sort of activity outside yesterday making a horrendous racket. There has been construction on my street for what seems like years now, but this was even noisier than usual. It was so loud, in fact, that it was hard for me to hear music inside the house, even with headphones on. I discovered a note today on going outside that said some sort of construction would be done on the 6th that would make a lot of noise. Well, it sure did. I'm used to living with noise, as Paris is a noisy city, but that was ridiculous. Anyway, it's gone now.

Today I went for a walk after class … a long walk. However, I've been on longer walks than this. I must be in poor condition because I had to stop to rest once during the walk, even though I had also stopped to eat a hamburger and fries as well. Careful measurement with Google Maps reveals that I walked 24 kilometers, or about 15 miles. This is well below my record, and normally it should not have affected me, but I felt a bit tired upon arriving home. It was a slow walk, and I was on my feet for about ten hours, so maybe that contributed.

I walked to school, as usual, and then I walked to the Port de l'Arsenal after class, to take some video. From there I walked up the Canal Saint Martin, through the open market (there's an open food market on Thursdays), up along the canal, and finally ended up at the drawbridge just north of the Bassin de la Villette, the artificial 19th century lake through which the canal passes. From there, I walked back home, which literally means walking right across Paris. The nice weather made the time pass quickly. The pollution levels weren't too bad, either, and the air was very clear.

I got some reasonable video, so I'll edit that into something soon. I'm several videos behind in terms of editing, but I'll get it done eventually.

For dinner I had plain white bread with mayonnaise, a favorite (and cheap) snack of mine since childhood. When I was little, it was usually Best Foods mayonnaise, but here in France there are a dozen different kinds of mayonnaise, all of them with more complex tastes than the plain white stuff in the U.S. I picked one that had some sort of spices in it, and it tastes pretty good, as best I can tell (since my sense of smell and taste are both very weak these days).

I had some egg salad, too, which I also made myself a few days ago. I think it probably tastes very good as well, even if I can't really taste or smell it myself.

I still worry about the temperature, though. Today broke a record that had been set in 1896. In fact, the temperature today matched the normal annual high for Paris, which is usually reached in the hottest part of August and amounts to 24° C, or 75° F. If the temperature didn't go past that, that would be fine, but if it's already that hot in April, what will it get up to in August? That's what worries me.

On the way to the Port de l'Arsenal (a small pleasure harbor at the south end of the Canal Saint Martin and the Bastille), I really noticed how clear the air was. Sometimes the pollution becomes so routine that you just assume your eyes aren't what they used to be when everything looks misty. But then a day like this comes along and you realize it wasn't your eyes at all, but just pollution.

I also passed some sort of demonstration by Doctors of the World, an organization that I won't touch with a ten-foot pole. There are two medical NGOs with very similar names, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) and Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde). The first concentrates specifically on medical assistance to the needy in the Third World, the second concerns itself with politics as well as medicine, which is why I avoid it. Doctors of the World was started by a politician who left Doctors without Borders when the organization refused to take a political interest in its activities. I don't like politics, either, so I only donate to Doctors without Borders.