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.