Sunday, October 13, 2013

Groceries in Paris

Most Parisians go to supermarkets to buy groceries, and I'm no exception. There are plenty of open markets in the city with fresh foods, but they are expensive, and you need to have time to visit them, as they typically run from the early morning until just after noon. If you have to work for a living, there's no time to shop in the open markets. So the supermarket steps in.

Supermarkets in Paris and France are better than those in the U.S., though, in terms of the foods they have on sale. A typical supermarket in Paris would have relatively upscale merchandise by American standards. But there are still many similarities, and French supermarkets have less sophisticated display techniques, even though the foods on the shelves are better.

The Carrefour supermarket I regularly visit is typical of the breed in France. (Carrefour is the second-largest retailer in the world, after Walmart, even though you probably haven't heard of them.) The prices are reasonable, no doubt because the employees are underpaid, the expiration dates on food are not always respected, and for other reasons—just like American chains. Carrefour means “crossroads,” incidentally.

The supermarket is open until 11 PM on weekdays and Saturday, and until … well, until a certain hour on Sunday. See, French law requires that supermarkets close at 1 PM on Sundays, but many take a really, really long time to close, not actually closing the doors until around, say, 8 PM. The official hours posted for supermarkets often say "from 9 AM" for the Sunday hours, conveniently omitting the closing time. Since essentially everyone wants to be able to get groceries on Sunday, nothing is said. That's part of the body of French legislation putting artificial restrictions on when businesses can operate, but that's the subject of another post.

When you walk into the supermarket, you hit the fresh produce and sandwich aisle, with fruits and veggies, prepackage sandwiches of excellent quality, and so on. Then there are refrigerator aisles with microwave meals, a huge selection of dairy-based desserts (yogurt and pudding) and cheeses, milk and cream, butter, etc. And there are cereals, snack foods, lunchmeats, frozen meat, fish, and veggies, and so on. Other aisles provide basic household goods like soap and paper plates. It's pretty much what you'd expect to see in any supermarket, but the overall quality of the foods on offer is higher than what you'd get on average in the U.S. While the French are not averse to cheap foods and packaged, industrially-made foods, they still have a higher standard than Americans do, and really crummy food does not survive in the French market.

There are different sizes of supermarkets. The Carrefour I go to most of the time is mid-sized. Across the street from this supermarket is La Grande Épicerie, a huge, famous, upscale supermarket with a fabulous selection of foods, rather like the food halls you see in fancy department stores. The prices aren't much different at La Grande Épicerie, but they are a little bit higher, and they carry a lot more high-ticket items that you don't find elsewhere, such as freshly prepared foods like egg rolls or curried chicken or thin-sliced ham or whatever you want.

Larger supermarkets like La Grande Épicerie (regardless of their price range) have fresh fish departments and butcher departments. There's a Monoprix not far from where I live that's like this, a tiny bit more expensive than Carrefour but somewhat cheaper than La Grande Épicerie.

There are also hypermarkets, which are essentially department stores with a large food section. And there are tiny convenience markets, usually run by families, that have very high prices but carry all the essentials and never seem to close. Within a very short walk from my apartment there are at least a dozen supermarkets in all these categories except the hypermarket; hypermarkets are very large, so you don't see them much in central Paris, but they are common in the suburbs and on the periphery of the capital.

Some of the specific differences about French supermarkets are interesting. The selection of cheeses and alcoholic beverages is always huge. Even a tiny family-run market will have a dozen types of cheese on sale, and maybe ten different wines. Dairy products like yogurts and shakes are also well represented. There's always a little bit of fresh produce, even if it's only a few shelves near the entrance. And in French supermarkets, you put your own stuff in bags at the checkout, which tends to be rather awkward and time-consuming.

I'm not a big fan of grocery-shopping, but at least it's more pleasant in France than in the U.S., simply because there's such a nice selection of stuff to eat. I usually buy a lot of microwave meals, gallons of whole milk, and snack foods. I concentrate on stuff that's easy to chew because most of my teeth are in bad shape these days (due to poverty).

There's another advantage to French supermarkets: they accept tickets restaurants, which are meal vouchers that employers provide to employees if a business is too small to have an on-site restaurant. They are mostly intended to help employees buy a lunch cheaply if they have to eat outside the office, but they are also accepted for groceries, and that's how I normally use them, saving substantial money in the process.

I have to buy some food almost every day, and most of it goes into the fridge. Sometimes I get two big bags and do some major grocery shopping and that holds me for several days—I often do this on a Friday so that I don't have to go out over the weekend. For most French people, Saturday is grocery day, as in much of the U.S. For me, either I stay home on Saturday, or I go out in the evening to do the laundry, if necessary.

Iridium flares over Paris

Last night I saw my first Iridium flare.

What's an Iridium flare, you say? Well, see, there's this satellite telephone company that sells telephone services all around the world, called Iridium. The telephones they use relay calls via satellite … which means that the telephones can be used anywhere on the planet, even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or at the South Pole. The system depends on dozens of Iridium satellites, which whirl around the Earth in orbits about 400 miles above the planet. Now, these satellites have a couple of large, flat, shiny antennas on them, and when they are in certain positions, sunlight can reflect off the antennas and down towards Earth. And if you happen to be in the right spot at the right time, you'll see the sunlight glinting off the satellites' antennas. This produces a very bright light in the sky (bright enough to see in daylight, sometimes) that fades up and then fades out over the course of a few seconds. This glint of sunlight visible from Earth is called an Iridium flare. Other satellites produce flares by reflecting sunlight, too, but the Iridium flares are easiest to see because of their door-sized, flat antennas.

Anyway … I had to go to the laundromat, which isn't very far away. I have a washing machine, but my neighbor complains that water leaks from her wall if I use it, even though there's no leak on my side, so I use a laundromat (see my previous post on all the water problems in the building). I've been putting off this visit for a long time. But I had virtually nothing clean left, so I put all the dirty stuff in plastic bags and took it to the laundromat.

It takes about 90 minutes to wash and dry the clothes. During that time, there's not much to do. I bought a big towel for the floor of the apartment in anticipation of the mess that the plumbers will make tomorrow. Then I sat on a bench on the nice pedestrian median near the Montparnasse Tower to wait for the clothing to wash.

I had my handy iPhone, and it's chock full of cool apps (cool to me, at least). I decided to check the sky with my beloved astronomy app, Sky Safari. I had used it once before, a few days earlier, to kill time while waiting 2.5 hours for locksmiths to arrive to open my stuck door (see again my previous post). On that occasion, I had been delighted to correctly identify Vega and Altair, two of the handful of stars that are visible in the sky even in well-lit Paris. Last night I was able to do the same, only it was easier because the sky was very clear (although streetlights still got in the way).

After identifying a few stars, it occurred to me to fire up my Iridium-flare app, which gives me the details on all visible Iridium flares in my area, using information published by the excellent Heavens Above Web site. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a very bright flare of satellite Iridium 31 was due in just ten minutes! So I tracked the satellite with Sky Safari, which was just coming up over the horizon in the north, and scoped out the exact location, near the Moon, where the flare would appear.

It so happened that a friend of mine walked by just as I was doing this, and said hello. But I was so engrossed in looking for the right spot in the sky and so afraid of missing the flare, that I just kind of sort of waved in her direction and asked her to wait for 30 seconds or so. I'm sure she thought I had lost it, since I was looking at the sky in all directions and saying things like "any second now" as if I expected our new insect overlords to descend in spaceships and take us (or me) away. She was kind enough to indulge me, however, and waited as I searched around.

At exactly 18:30:47, Universal Coordinated Time, Iridium 31 flared in the night sky, just east of the Moon. Suddenly a point of light appeared in the sky and brightened until it was as bright as the Moon, then faded back into darkness. I pointed to it and yelled "there it is!" and fortunately my friend and her company saw it when I did, proving that I was not psychotic. I explained to my friend et al. what the flares were all about, as she nodded indulgently. But they saw it, too, so they knew it wasn't a hallucination on my part. Of course, experienced skywatchers and amateur astronomers know all about Iridium flares, and spotting them is a popular pastime.

It was pretty cool. It was interesting to be able to see something without a telescope and without binoculars, and even against the relatively light-polluted sky of a big city. The flare was very obvious and easy to see. I'll have to keep an eye out for more in the future.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Water, water, everywhere (well, not quite)

Someone on a floor above mine left a faucet open after leaving on vacation, at about the time of my last post. When I got home, I noticed a queer smell, and finally I saw streaks on one wall that suggested a strong but brief torrent of dirty water had coursed down it in rivulets at some point earlier in the day. The wall was dry, though, and I saw no obvious damage except for the streaks on the paint.

Then, after some days, I noticed that the door of the apartment was hard to open and close. This got worse over a period of a week or two, and eventually it required a superhuman slam to close or open (which elicited comments from several neighbors). On one occasion I had to spend €140 I couldn't afford on a locksmith just to open the door. 

It finally dawned on me that the leak at the end of July must have somehow caused something to swell, making the door hard to open and close.

As I was trying to figure out what to do about this (I'm not very good at solving household-type problems), another problem arose. Last Friday, I heard a hissing noise just before leaving for work. I looked carefully everywhere and saw no trace of moisture, and supposed it was coming from workers downstairs who had been working on replacing the building furnace for a week or so. But when I returned home in the evening, the building water was turned off and there was a note from my neighbor on the door.

She explained that a "waterfall" of water had been cascading into the disused cinema on the ground floor, and it seemed to be coming from my apartment. I looked inside and there was a little bit of water in the floor of the kitchen, and a wet spot on the carpet near the bathroom door, but nothing else, and no moisture near any pipes.

Today the plumbers came. They turned the water back on, and immediately water started squirting from a wall in my bathroom. The plumbers said there was a break in a pipe that leads to my 70-year-old water heater. So they were able to turn the cold water back on for all if us, but have left me without hot water until Monday, when they will spend the whole day replacing the broken pipes. I'm sure it will be a huge, slimy mess.

Meantime, I smell bad and my hair is matted for lack of a shower, but at least I have water to drink and wash hands.

I can see why insurance policies place so much emphasis on dégats des eaux (water damage). This is at least the fourth time that something like this has happened. And clearly the door has been affected, too. I don't what to do. Just calling the locksmith cost so much money that my parents had to help me out. It's such a pain being poor. Money is everything.

Needless to say, I haven't had much chance to walk around Paris. Just the difficulty in getting the door open and closed discourages me from going out.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Two rare cool days, La Défense, smart phones, holidays

Monday and Tuesday were unseasonably seasonal, that is, the temperature was in line with historical norms for this time of year. That’s unusual these days, because an endless succession of heat waves has been more common in recent years. And in fact these two days were just a brief respite between two heat waves. People thought it was chilly, when in fact it was just normal. It was nice. I even walked around a bit, mostly to and from La Défense, where I had to go on business. Today another heat wave is predicted to start, however, with temperatures 22° F above normal (which translates to over 100° F on the street).

Walking to La Défense is somewhat of a hike, especially since it is slightly uphill from the Champs, my starting point. It took slightly more than an hour. I didn’t want to waste the (relatively) cool, overcast weather. And La Défense is pleasant to visit on a weekday, because it’s a very popular business district with tons of people walking around. It has a lively, modern, upbeat atmosphere about it, since most of the people walking around have decent jobs and salaries.

Originally, this business district had a vast open plaza surrounded by high rises. The plaza is still there, but the organization that manages the district—no doubt motivated by the desire to make money, which is all anyone really cares about in the final analysis—has allowed the plaza to become more and more crowded will all sorts of junk: restaurants with vast terraces, special events, little kiosks of all sorts, and so on. Some of them are temporary, others are permanent. The openness of the plaza is gradually yielding to “monetization,” although I’m sure the EPAD (the aforementioned organization managing the area) would deny that money is the motivation behind the changes. It’s rather sad. But money is everything, after all, and apparently the lure of filthy lucre is irresistible enough to justify sacrificing the aesthetic environment of the district.

Today is the first day of August, and the period between mid-July and mid-August is the quietest time of year in Paris. The trend towards diversity in vacation periods continues in Paris, meaning that the city doesn’t suddenly turn into a ghost town during August as it did half a century ago, but there is still a noticeable decline in traffic and crowds during August. However, the influx of tourists makes up for the outflow of Parisians during the summer. You still hear some French on the streets, but often it is drowned out by English or (these days) Mandarin. If there’s no heat wave in progress, the sky is very clean and clear because there is less traffic, but during the repetitive heat waves, inversion layers tend to keep the air dirty despite fewer motor vehicles moving about.

Back in the olden days, just about everything closed during August, too. Today, that’s mainly true for small shops that don’t have enough staff to stay open during August. Bigger stores and most other businesses remain open. That’s fine with me, as I wouldn’t like being stuck in a ghost town for a month. The travel guides are always behind the times, and some of them still claim that Paris closes up shop during this month, but that’s no longer true, and hasn’t been for many years.

Because of the heat waves nowadays, I do spend a lot more time indoors in summer, listening to the air conditioner run. It’s noisy, but it’s no longer possible to live without it in 100° F heat. I can still remember the days when you didn’t need A/C in Paris, as they weren’t that long ago. But it seems that those days are gone now.

Paris Plages is in progress, too. It gets a bit more elaborate each year. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. It’s intended to provide some relaxation for Parisians who don’t leave the city in summer (and more and more of them stay). It’s not a tourist attraction, although some tourists who know about it do visit it. I’ve not been there so far this year, because it’s just not fun once the temperature rises beyond a certain point. It’s nice when the temperature is seasonal.

Since I got a smartphone, I’ve been observing others a bit more in their use of smartphones. Paris was always an early adopter of wireless technologies, and today it seems that at least two thirds of the people you see on the street have a smartphone in their hand. The proportion seems to be even higher in places like buses, subways, park benches, cafés, or just about anywhere where people tend to sit down for a moment. I confess that I’m not sure what all these people are doing with their phones. Even though I’ve stocked mine with apps that I consider useful, I still don’t walk around with it in my hand all the time. I presume they are making calls or texting, which are things that, ironically, I don’t often do with my phone.
In Paris as in many other cities, theft of smartphones is the single largest source of petty crime. Both pickpocketing and snatch-and-run thefts of smartphones are common. They represent more than half of thefts in the Métro. But there are so many people using smartphones that the numbers still work in favor of those who carry them. There are tons of people with smartphones, and relatively few thieves. Indeed, I wonder exactly what thieves do with their stolen smartphones, since it seems that everyone who wants a smartphone these days already has one.

You’d think that in such a pretty city, people would look around and admire the environment around them from time to time. But in fact a lot of them are staring at their phones. Perhaps they are looking at pictures of Paris on their phones. I suppose that residents can be forgiven for this, since they live in Paris and see it all the time. But it’s a bit harder to understand when you see tourists peering at their smartphones as they stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower or in front of the Mona Lisa.

Anyway … in addition to Paris Plage, there’s also the summer carnival in the Tuileries Gardens. I go there sometimes to eat junk food, although I’ve only been there once so far this season. There are places with good gyro sandwiches and granites (slushy frozen fruit drinks). It can be a bit dusty if it hasn’t rained. But as usual, the main problem is that it’s often just too hot to walk around. On those increasingly rare days of normal weather, it’s fun to visit.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More and more heat, street performers, iPad photography

Pont au Double
A major heat wave has begun. Yesterday it was 86° F in the little office where I work most of the time, at 8:30 AM. It got worse as the day wore on. By early afternoon, I was exhausted and very sleepy, and I accomplished essentially nothing. I returned home not long after 5:30 PM.

You don’t know how exhausting heat is until you are forced to live in it without air conditioning. But my apartment does have A/C, so at least I can relax and sleep once I get home. And I seem to sleep a lot.
Visitors to Paris still ask if they should look for a hotel or apartment with A/C. The answer is always yes, if they plan to be in the city any time from April to October. Heat waves can occur at any time of year, and when they occur during these months, they tend to bring temperatures that require air conditioning.

I’m not sure why some people insist on avoiding A/C. Are they in the army, or playing some sort of wilderness survival game? Do they really want to be miserable during their entire vacation? Do they really want to visit the emergency room of a French hospital? What exactly is the problem? What is the nature of the taboo that compels them to refuse air conditioning?

Is it bad for the environment? Well, air conditioning requires a lot of energy—electricity, mainly. But so does heating. And the laws of physics are such that air conditioning is more necessary. The human body produces heat, which must be removed. In cold weather, the heat is removed by the environment. If it gets too cold, simple insulation in the form of warm clothing slows the heat loss and keeps a person safely warm without any need for additional expenditure of energy. But in hot weather, the heat from the body is not lost to the environment, so it must be forcibly removed by active cooling. That active cooling consists of sweating, which only works up to a certain point, and then must be supplemented by active mechanical refrigeration at higher temperatures and humidities.

There’s no way around these laws of physics. No amount of voodoo or wishing can make them go away. And people who think they don’t need to be actively cooled in high heat and humidity sometimes end up in the hospital, or worse. To me the logic is impeccable, but I suppose some people manage to avoid logic entirely.

iPad photography

Other than that, well, not much else. Before the heat really set in, I ran some errands on the way home (a few days ago), and saw some street performers, which I’ve shown here. Both were near the Latin Quarter. One was actually a band, not a very good one, playing on the Arcole Bridge north of Notre-Dame, and the other was a woman manipulating a small puppet on the Double Bridge just south of Notre-Dame, with music by Édith Piaf (“Mon Dieu,” a real tearjerker of a song) playing in the background. You see lots of performers around the Latin Quarter, whenever the weather is tolerable. Some are good, many are so-so, and some are pretty bad.

I notice more and more people taking travel photos with their iPads, which looks really weird, but I guess some people just can't be bothered to bring a proper camera, even for an important trip to a great city. You'd think that a small, normal camera would be easier to drag around than an iPad. Very strange.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Caving for a smartphone, customer non-service, and walking around the Opera

Although most people don’t know it, Paris and Europe hold a central place in the history of modern cell phones. The GSM cell-phone standard, developed more than thirty years ago, was conceived in Europe to replace the old first-generation radio telephones. And in the early days of GSM, Paris had more cell-phone users than any other city in the world, except Hong Kong. Today, more than 80% of the world uses GSM—more if you count descendants of GSM as well.

I was one of those early adopters. I remember buying my first cell phone quite well. It wasn’t much bigger than cell phones are today (most of the size was taken up by the battery), and it worked just about everywhere. It was quite cool, even though I almost never used it because I’m not much interested in talking on telephones.

Fast-forward to the present day, and smartphones have replaced a significant part of the cell phone market. Paris today is just one of many large cities in which just about everyone is holding a phone in his hand or in a pocket. Cast a glance around any of the many crowded boulevards and avenues of the City of Light these days, and you’ll see dozens of people using cell phones and smartphones.

Although I was one of the first users of a GSM cell phone, until a few days ago I hadn’t moved much beyond that, other than to periodically buy new phones. I’m an extreme introvert and I don’t have anyone to call, and virtually nobody calls me. But the advent of smartphones intrigued me a bit, since they could do other things besides handle telephone calls. The idea of having instant access to the Internet from anywhere was the part that interested me, because I’m constantly using the Internet at home.

Even so, I resisted, mainly because of expense and my poverty. Prices came down, but not down far enough. Until a few days ago, when I got some extra money and decided that it was a good time to make the jump to a smartphone. Too many times, I had found myself wishing that I could quickly look something up on the Web while out and about in the city, and a smartphone would fix that. So I bit the bullet and bought into the newer technology.

I tend to favor established mainstream vendors when buying technology. I’ve learned the hard way that being a pioneer in technology means endless grief as you work out the bugs in something new without being paid for it. So I go with the brands that are the best established. In this case, that pointed to Orange (a bizarre brand name for France Télécom) and Apple.

So a few days ago, I walked into the large Orange store on the Champs in the mid-afternoon, when business would (presumably) be slowest, and asked the greeter inside the entrance if she could sell me a smartphone and subscription in less than half an hour. She held up her cute little tablet and looked, and told me that twelve people were waiting in line ahead of me. I thought to myself, Bienvenue en France, and told her “Sorry, you lose, thanks!” (in French)
and walked back out of the store. I’ve long passed the point where I’m willing to put up with standard French customer non-service. There was no way that I was going to waste an afternoon just to get a phone.

Next stop, a few days later, was the Apple Store. There are two in Paris, one by the old Opera, and one in the shopping center next to the Louvre. I decided to try the Apple Store because (1) they have a reputation for being customer-friendly, which is extraordinarily rare in France, and (2) I had already decided that an iPhone would be my best choice.

Sure enough, when I walked into the Apple Store on Friday, not long after it opened, someone was instantly available to assist me. And after filling out the inevitable pile of paperwork—two pieces of ID, receipts for gas and electricity, a passport, a credit card, bank references (the infamous RIB), etc., I walked out with an iPhone. Fortunately, I knew about French bureaucracy, so I had come with the requisite ton of papers. Things went smoothly and as fast as can be expected when there are so many forms to fill out. And the Apple Store people were kind enough to set up my smartphone for me on the spot.

Had I gone to the Orange store at the same time, I’d probably still be there now, waiting in line for the slugs they call employees to do their jobs. As it turns out, Orange lost my business, because the only affordable plan they had was sold only via the Web, and I wanted the Apple Store to set it up. So I went with an inexpensive plan from Virgin. I would have preferred Orange, because France Télécom is second to none from a technical standpoint, but I just couldn’t spend my life waiting for them to move.

And so today, the day after acquiring my phone, I went back to the store to get an extra charger and a little box that lets me access the Internet at home via Wi-Fi from the smartphone. That gave me an excuse to go outside, which I rarely do these days. The weather was excellent, except for the late afternoon, which was rather hot. The breeze and low humidity made the rest of the daily fully tolerable, with seasonable temperatures and sunny skies.

To profit from the nice weather, I walked up to the store from home, which took about an hour. The city was overrun with tourists. In a day or two, the Parisians themselves will leave en masse on vacation, and the time between around July 15 and August 15 will be relatively quiet. But even if the locals are on vacation, the tourists are here in ever-increasing numbers (most of them speaking Mandarin these days), so the city stays crowded, but with less pollution.

Man playing piano by Opera
I did see a few traces of French snootiness even at the Apple Store. Some employees are less well trained than others. One employee near the entrance, to whom I asked a question about the gadget I had bought, became perceptibly irritated when I repeated the question for confirmation. Clearly, he had written me off as a dork, no doubt because of my age, my dumpy attire, and my hobo-like affect, but he could not have been further off the mark. But I let it slide, as I have more important things to worry about than inadequate customer service at a store (if you stress over something like that in Paris, you’ll quickly go barking mad).

As it is rare for me to leave my apartment these days (too little time, too little money), I splurged a bit while I was walking through the wonderfully-busy Opera shopping district (made all the busier because summer sales are in progress). I got a Frappucino at Starbucks (vanilla, although it always makes me cough for some reason). And then I got a millefeuille vanille at Fauchon, which cost $8.50. It was a mess to eat, but that is the nature of this type of pastry. It was tasty, but not tasty enough to justify $8.50. And Fauchon’s policy of having you order at the counter, then pay at the register, then return to the counter to pick up what you bought, is a bit archaic for my tastes, although, to be fair, it’s pretty common to do things that way in France.
Near the Opera I saw a guy playing classical piano rather furiously on the corner. He played very well, albeit a bit too quickly for my tastes. What really intrigued me, though, was trying to figure out how he got his Yamaha glossy-black upright piano to and from the street corner. I noticed a wheeled cart of sorts behind the piano, but still, an upright piano weighs hundreds of pounds, and I saw no car or van, and I couldn’t imagine him hauling it through the Métro, so I had to wonder how he moved it. I always think about strange things like that in such situations—it is my natural engineering bent that does it.

By around 4 PM it was starting to get too hot for my tastes, so I returned home. I decided to skip the grocery shopping I had been thinking about, as lines were long (as always), and I had enough in the fridge to hold me for a while.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Weather, parades, and a carnival

I know that discussions of the weather are often regarded as a form of small talk, but I’m not so convinced of that as I once was. It’s true that in places like my hometown, America’s Hellhole, where the weather is sunny, hot, and clear every single day of the year, there’s not much to say about the weather—but here in the City of Light, where the weather changes significantly, it’s a legitimate subject of conversation. Weather is environment, and environment has a huge influence on the activities in which you can engage, and whether or not you enjoy them.

So, speaking of the weather … it has been nice (read: cool) for the past few days in Paris, so I am content. I hope it lasts. We’ll soon be in July and we’ve mostly escaped heat waves, so I hope that continues, especially since I’ll be out and about for much of next week. At least we are not afflicted with the weather prevailing back in the Valley of the Sunstroke, where today’s high is predicted to hit 118° F. That’s about 60° F above the predicted high here, and also about 60° F above what I can comfortably tolerate outdoors. Of course, we have 81% humidity here, and it’s only 18% back in that desert dump of a town, but at 118° F, even zero humidity doesn’t help. It just dehydrates you faster, and you die sooner.

Despite the nice weather, I don’t plan to go out today, except maybe to do some laundry. There’s a parade of homosexuals planned for today, no doubt with lots of ear-splitting music and people dancing in underwear, and I can do without that. (I know that it’s politically incorrect to not immediately salivate when any homosexual rings a bell these days, but I’ve always been a kind of polite rebel.) In fact, I tend to avoid parades generally, since they are usually loud and occasionally degenerate. They are sometimes good photo ops, but I don’t take many pictures these days, since I had to sell all my equipment to pay bills. If I’m not taking photos, there’s no reason to go anywhere near a parade. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on whether I want to see it or not), many parades seem to choose routes that take them very near my apartment. Even if I don’t see them, I can often hear booming music and people chanting.

I noticed a Ferris wheel at the Tuileries, which means that the summer carnival has come to town. It used to come twice a year, in summer and around Christmas, but I haven’t seen the Christmas version show up for several years now. The summer one is nice, though. There’s lots of junk food to eat, including a stand that sells great gyros (sliced roasted lamb in a bun with fries). There’s a place that makes nice granitas too (they are mostly like flavored slushy drinks in France).

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Solstice music

Friday was a nice day, at least by my standards. The sweltering heat of previous days let up for a while, and apart from a few drops of rain, it was very pleasant. And it was quite cool considering the date, since Friday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year (summer began at 7:04 AM local Paris time).

And where there’s a summer solstice, there’s a Fête de la Musique. I’ve talked about it before. In the early days, it was a license for every wannabe rock group to set up a few amplifiers on a street corner, crank them all to eleven, and allow everyone in the local galactic cluster to discover their utter lack of talent. Fortunately, those days are mostly gone. These days, the Fête de la Musique is mostly a set of official concerts and Major Media Events,™ although some of those are scarcely any improvement over the amateur bands of old. But at least the streets are no longer alive with the sound of non-music.

Near the Alexander III bridge
I worked late on the solstice and had no desire to visit any of the concerts or other events planned for the evening. I ate at one of the McDonald’s on the Champs. This McDonald’s tends to be filled with dregs from the banlieues sensibles outside the city, and the service is very slow, but it’s cheap and convenient, and their Maxi Big Mac menu with a cookie stick closely matches the face value of my Ticket Restaurant.

After eating, I walked home. There were several groups of young males, also apparently from those same banlieues, performing on the broad sidewalks of the Champs. Of course, they didn’t bother to pay for performance licenses for the recorded music they were using, and they provided a highly useful distraction for pickpockets loitering behind their audience. I always ignore them, as I am not interested in being relieved of my wallet, and I don’t care to support rogue performers who don’t feel that they are bound by the same rules as professionals.

On the Left Bank
Extensive work has been done on the Left Bank of the river to convert an expressway into a more pedestrian area, similar to what has been done on the Right Bank near the Hôtel de Ville. On the solstice there was an open house of sorts and there were many people down on the riverbank. It was difficult to tell if the work is done or not, and I didn’t bother to read the signs in detail. And the lighting was eerie: It was close to sunset, and the sun was hidden by clouds, but reddish reflections of sunlight from odd directions lit the area … and for some reason I found that troubling. As a result I just walked past it, but didn’t stick around.

The army band at the Invalides
On the Esplanade des Invalides, there was music, more or less. On the west side of the esplanade, there was an excellent army band playing jazz and popular favorites with relatively little amplification. They were very pleasant to listen to. Unfortunately, on the other side of the esplanade, there was some sort of son et lumière event with non-music playing. It sounded like distant fireworks and was heavily amplified, and interfered with the army band, even though the band was much closer to me. I didn’t cross the avenue to see what was making the noise on the other side, as it was already very loud from where I was standing and I knew I’d have to wear ear protection to see it up close. Besides, I liked the music that the army band was playing.

Eventually it started getting really dark, what with sunset coming up and the sun obscured by clouds, so I continued on home. Not only that, but my teeth were hurting a lot (several of them are rotting away, since I can’t afford dental care), and I needed to take something for the pain.

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