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.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Nice weather, green cards, folies

Yesterday was a beautiful day. Perhaps today is also a beautiful day, but I haven’t been outside. But yesterday was definitely a beautiful day. People were sitting in groups on the grass at sunset, in the garden areas on the lower side of the Champs, on the large esplanade in front of the Invalides, and on the green belt in the middle of the avenue de Breteuil. I’m sure there were many more on the grass on the Champ de Mars, facing the Eiffel Tower, but my stroll didn’t take me in that direction. The temperature and light were just right for sitting on the grass with friends and socializing. It’s not something I would do, because I don’t socialize much and I fear what might be crawling around in the grass, but it pleases most people, and it’s pleasant to see, even if I don’t participate. Unfortunately, there were a few people consuming ethanol, but there are always a few losers in every crowd.

This week I tried to get my green card again. On the first try this week, I was told that only people with an appointment for the same day were being allowed in. Since this was actually my second try, having been turned away last week because the “computers were down,” I didn’t have an appointment for the same day, so they wouldn’t let me in. They told me to come bright and early the next day, so I did. And after two hours of waiting on the following morning, I finally got my green card.

So that’s nine months, four appointments, and €260 to get my green card in France. My American passport was renewed in six days, by mail, for about €100. Cultural differences, I guess. It was so much easier ten years ago, but I guess procedures have changed.
The new card is tiny. It’s even smaller than a credit card. But it has a cool chip on it, which I suppose can be read by some high-tech gadget at immigration stations or police stations. The writing is so small that I had to check it through a magnifying glass when I picked it up (yes, a magnifying glass is one of the many odd items I carry with me at all times). Or maybe I need glasses.

I was surprised that a member of staff at the entrance to the immigration office not only recognized me, but recalled that this was my third visit. Either he has a really great memory, or I look or dress significantly different from the other people in line at the office.

The visit to the immigration office was depressing. Not because of the office itself, which was clean, well-appointed and organized, and generally in good condition (with even a small play area for kids). It was the other immigrants I saw who depressed me. I seemed to be the only American, out of a hundred or so people. In fact, I seemed to be the only person from the Western world, apart from the staff working there. Everyone else was from Africa, the Far East, or the Middle East, in that order. There were a number of pregnant women with babies in strollers waiting in line, some dressed entirely in black (but with faces exposed, since it’s illegal to hide your face in France, and this was a police station). They didn’t appear to speak French. I have to wonder what kind of jobs they expect to get if they are pregnant, with additional offspring already in tow, and unable to speak the national language. Or perhaps their babies were born in France, and that’s their passport to a green card. Then they can just live on the dole, in a country where a month’s welfare payment is probably the equivalent of half the GDP of their home countries.

Yes, I know I’m being uncharitable, but I’m an immigrant too, so yes, as a matter of fact I do understand the position of an immigrant. But there are differences between myself and most of the others I saw. For one thing, I speak French, and I spoke French from the time I first arrived in France. I’ve never asked anyone to speak to me in English. The staff at the immigration office tried to speak English with those who had not bothered to learn French, but apparently some immigrants expect to be accommodated in Mandarin or Swahili, and of course they are disappointed.

When a staff member asked who had come to pick up a green card, people swarmed out of line like stray dogs to a scrap of meat, pushing at each other so much that the staff member had to tell them to behave. I merely observed in amazement. Do they plan to retain this behavior after settling in France? 

None of these people looked like political refugees, and none of them looked like people who might be immigrating to France simply because they liked France. And yet that’s why I immigrated. I took a 75% pay cut to live in France, since salaries here are dirt compared to the United States. I learned French. I’ve never received any welfare from the state, and in fact I haven’t even had to use the excellent national health care system, fortunately. But are all these rabble going to get regular jobs and support themselves and contribute to the economy? I have to wonder.
There are some mitigating factors. I saw no Western Europeans in the room simply because nationals of the European Union don’t need green cards to live in France. But I noticed no Americans, either, and no Japanese. The ones I recognized seemed to be mostly from countries where people still live in mud huts and regard clean water supplies and continuous electrical power as futuristic science fiction. Some were apparently Chinese, though, and that was a puzzle. I suppose China still has a massive lower class that is mired in poverty, even if the country as a whole is doing well. Or perhaps some of the Chinese people really do like France.

Anyway, it was a relief to get out of that office.

On the way back to my own office, I happened to pass the Folies Bergere, a very famous music hall that goes back some two hundred years. Back to French culture! Manet, Colette, Mistinguette, Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier … the list of famous persons associated with the venue goes on and on. A few years ago, I was disappointed to see that the famous Art Deco façade was literally coming apart, but I was very pleased on this day to see that it has been completely renovated, and looks very nice, in bright white and gleaming with gold on the huge Art Deco reliefs. Some of the tacky neon has been removed as well. I liked it. It looks pretty lush on the inside, too, although I’ve only seen photos. The current facade dates from 1926, and was designed by the architects Pilollenc and Morice. The fancy sculpture was made by Maurice Picaud, and supposedly represents the dancer Lila Nikolska.

The Folies Bergere are right next to a lesser-known Jewish quarter, not nearly as famous as the rue des Rosiers to the southeast, but still quite charming. Lots of kosher food shops, which always make me hungry. I had already eaten two delicious croissants after leaving the immigration office, which were so laden with butter that it soaked through the bag the bakery gave me. I was thus able to resist the food on this street (the rue Geffroy-Marie, if you must know). I did end up getting a bottle of vanilla yogurt just before hopping onto the Métro to go back to work, though.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Weather, tourists, Hermès, and cheese

The weather has veered from unseasonably chilly to unseasonably warm. Given my druthers, I’d prefer unseasonably chilly, for reasons I’ve already given maintes fois on this blog. It was 28° C (82° F) on Friday, which is 13° C too warm for me. In the tiny and unventilated office that I occupy much of the time as part of my work, it was about 29.9° C with 26% relative humidity (yes, I keep track of such things). The room has five computers in it, in addition to myself—I’m not a computer, but I generate about the same amount of heat—and no A/C, so it gets very hot.

It’s supposed to cool off a bit in days to come, but I am not optimistic.

Were the weather not so hot, however, it would be perfect (and indeed it was perfect a few days ago). Unfortunately I don’t have much time to go for walks these days, except on weekends, and on weekends I tend to sleep a great deal, but when the occasion arises to walk on official business in good weather, it can be pleasant.

The number of tourists in Paris continues to grow, and the majority of the growth seems to be coming from China. It seems like at least half the tourists I see these days are Chinese. I suppose that with a population of more than a billion, China can easily produce large numbers of nouveaux riches to come and visit Paris, even if most Chinese aren’t likely to ever be able to afford such a vacation. And apparently Paris is tremendously hyped in the Far East, making it an even more popular destination. I wonder if the Chinese tourists are happy or disappointed with what they actually see when they come to the city. Certainly people here are not walking around dressed in Dior originals, as they’ve apparently been led to believe. But by the time they discover that, they’ve already spent lots of money, so no problem, I suppose … at least from the viewpoint of Parisian merchants.

An increasing number of tourists from the Middle East are visiting Paris these days, too. They are easy to recognize, because the men always have facial hair, and many of the women trail behind their partners like family pets when walking, and dress entirely in black, with their faces illegally concealed. They favor the gaudiest hotels. They spend a lot of money, too.

The city has always been a magnet for tourists, of course, even though only a small part of the economic activity of Paris depends on tourism. They never stop visiting, but their demographics change from one decade to the next. American tourists have a reputation for cluelessness, but the Chinese may have them beat on that point, although I’m sure that Chinese tourists will gain in sophistication as time passes.

The city also continues to sign away chunks of its soul to the Satan of commerce, by converting institutions into tourist traps. The rumor is that the venerable Printemps department store is going to be converted into a sort of mall of overpriced, tawdry luxury goods, which will be a very great loss to the city indeed should it come to pass. Similar fates apparently await the Virgin Megastores (admittedly not Parisian institutions, but still preferable to tourist traps), and the BHV department store. One of the Quick fast-food restaurants on the Champs is being converted into a Tiffany store—I wonder if the staff will be as rude as those of other Tiffany outlets are rumored to be (there’s nothing that Tiffany sells that would interest me, so I’ve never visited any of their stores).

I did go into a Hermès store (their main one) some weeks ago. My favorite perfume for men comes from Hermès … a legacy of the days when I actually had money. I’ve not been able to overcome my preference for this fragrance, so every few years I go to their store and buy a new bottle of it. (I manage to make each bottle last for a really long time.) They are generally nice, although they look at me with a slight hint of anxiety as I walk in, as my unconventional dress apparently frightens people. (People don’t realize that unconventional dress does not equate to psychosis.) Once they realize that I’m sober and there to buy something, they relax. Their standing in my eyes improved considerably after they turned Oprah Winfrey away after hours, although their simpering public apology to the whale eroded that a bit later on.

Incidentally, if you’re on a street corner in Paris and you need to ask directions to Hermès, it’s pronounced “air mess.” Their flagship store is slightly off the main drag, not being on the avenue Montaigne or the Champs, but it’s still in an area with lots of glitzy luxury shops.

Which reminds me: I’m so tired of American tourists calling the Orsay Museum the “D’Orsay.” It’s not D’Orsay, it’s just Orsay. D’Orsay rhymes a bit with dork, which is exactly what you’ll sound like to Parisians if you insist on calling it the D’Orsay. I suppose D’Orsay sounds cool and sophisticated to Americans who do most of their shopping at Walmart, but few things scream stupid more loudly than using this misnomer in the City of Light. And also remember to put Museum after Orsay, because Orsay by itself can refer to lots of things (such as a city in the suburbs, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). This doesn’t apply to the Louvre, by the way, because the Louvre is the actual building, which happens to house a museum, whereas Orsay is a place name, after which the museum happens to be named.

Anyway, moving right along … yesterday I ate a proper lunch, which is unusual for me, as I often skip lunch and even when I eat it, it’s usually something simple and cheap. This proper lunch consisted of a freshly-made baguette (still warm from the oven, although the oven was at a supermarket, not a bakery) and some Caprice des Dieux cheese. Caprice des Dieux is a very popular and tasty brand of cheese that goes extremely well with a hot baguette. Its name is a bit of deliberate hyperbole: it translates to “whim of the gods.” I rather doubt that deities on Mount Olympus are having industrial cheese delivered to them from a French supermarket, but it was good enough for me.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Nice days, green cards, and time wasted on travel

The weather was great today. Unfortunately, the day was wasted for me. I had to go to the prefecture to pick up my new residency card, but when I got there, the computer was broken, and so now I’ll have to ask for another day off and try again next week.

I have an operating policy that says that nothing ever requires less than half a day. No appointment requires less than a half-day, no matter what’s on the schedule. This holds for anything that requires going anywhere outside your own office building. In theory, it should only take a few minutes to pick up a card. But in fact you wait in line for two or three hours. And then there’s the time required to get there and get back, which involves public transportation, waiting, and walking. All in all, half a day is the minimum required. Very often, meetings can blow a whole day. People who think they can do three meetings in three different places without a team of handlers to shuttle them from place to place at exactly the right times are dreaming.

Traveling by air (which I despise, even though I like airplanes) is another example. No trip by airplane lasts less than four hours, no matter what the time actually spent in the air. That’s because getting to and from the airport, waiting, checking in, going through paranoid security, and putting up with universal delays adds four hours to the trip, even if the flight itself lasts five minutes.

It follows from this that any trip that can be completed using another mode of transportation in less than four hours should not be carried out by air. This is certainly true here in Europe, where high-speed trains make train travel faster, easier, and more comfortable if you’re traveling less than 1000 kilometers (which nearly covers all of France). The Eurostar challenges this by creating air-travel-style delays, but most trains are more efficient than that.

Anyway, I never go outside Paris except for an occasional visit to Disneyland, so travel is irrelevant to me. My last few passports have been blank, since I never go outside France.
Today’s nice weather probably won’t last. If the temperature was ideal today (about 16° C, which is nearly ideal for me), that implies that it will get warmer tomorrow, and eventually it will get hot. We’ll see.