Monday, September 8, 2014

Long absence

For quite some time now, I’ve found myself shifting from primarily my desktop computer to primarily a wireless tablet. Most of what I do on a daily basis with a computer at home is more easily done with a tablet.

An exception, however, is blogging. Blogger allows me to enter text from a tablet easily enough, but it makes the addition of photos very difficult, and formatting them hardly seems to be possible at all. And since I like to put photos in my posts, that’s a big problem. As a result, I haven’t posted much since the shift to mobile devices. I’m not sure what the solution might be.

I’ve looked at the Blogger app in more detail. It seems that you have to give it unfettered access to all your photos, then upload them to Google’s cloud before you can insert any of them into a blog post. Obviously I’m not going to do that.

Another problem is that I am doing a lot of casual photography with my phone, so if I want to use photos from the phone on my blog via the PC, I have to transfer them to the PC, which is a pain. This would also be true with any other camera, but now I’m rather spoiled and I don’t want to take the time to constantly transfer and reformat photos for my blog.

Perhaps I’ll resort to simply writing text in my blog entries, with no photos. It seems that, more and more, doing anything online requires giving multinational corporations a copy of all your intellectual property, so that they can resell it or extort money from you to allow you access to it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Strolling in Paris (again)

I took an unusually long walk home today, through the Opéra district, down through the garment district and the rue Saint Denis, then through the Latin Quarter and then home.

I took a few pictures. The weather was excellent, clear and neither too hot nor too cold. Recent rains had reduced pollution to a low level, so the air was very clear as well. And I wasn’t the only one who had noticed this, as this was a very busy Friday night, with people everywhere.

Louis XIV's arch
In addition to pictures, I sometimes shoot video, or even make stereo recordings of ambient sound on the streets of the city. But nothing can adequately convey the actual atmosphere of Paris on an evening like this, when everyone is out and about and relaxing for the weekend in fine weather. The sun is already up late (it doesn’t set until well after 9 PM), and every major street of the city is awash in pedestrians. Streets like the boulevard des Italiens and other broad avenues are lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, shops, and cinemas, and all of them are open and doing excellent business. Paris is a city with many open terraces at eating and drinking establishments, so thousands of people are sitting at small tables on the wide sidewalks sipping drinks, eating dinner, smoking (alas!), and chatting with friends. This continues late into the night—I was out until around 9:30 PM, and yet the evening was only just getting started.

I am a very strong introvert, and yet, for some reason, I enjoy living in a densely populated city, surrounded by people. I don’t feel very inclined to interact with them personally, but I find their presence reassuring. I could not live the life of a hermit, or even out in the countryside. Pretty scenery gets old quickly, at least for me. But living in Paris is very nice. The city is pretty, even though the scenery is man-made rather than nature-made—but I actually rather prefer man-made scenery, as long as it is pretty, which it is in this case. There is something reassuring about knowing that the city is constantly active and alive, even when I’m asleep or sitting at home staring at my smartphone.

The Forum park and St. Eustache
I can understand why people like Manhattan, which has many of these same advantages. But I found Manhattan to have an old, dilapidated look to it, compared to Paris, which seems cleaner and newer … even though buildings in Paris are often more than a century older than those of Manhattan. Buildings from the early twentieth century somehow seem more ancient and decrepit and dated than buildings from the last nineteenth century. And the latter are aesthetically less pleasing than the former, at least to me. And it doesn’t help that so many buildings in Manhattan are tall, leaving you in a sort of sharp-angled ravine, whereas in Paris, years of strict building codes have restricted the height of most buildings to only a few stories. I can understand why someone might want to live in Manhattan—but I prefer Paris, thank you.

As in any densely populated big city, you move from village to village as you walk. Each village has its own atmosphere, even though they all have traits that tie them together and make them Parisian.

The Rex cinema
The area near and east of the Opéra, the grands boulevards, has traditionally been one of the most animated parts of the city, and remains so today. There must be a zillion restaurants in this area, plus tons of cinemas and shops. You can wander around there for days, and never eat in the same restaurant or shop at the same store twice. This is where one of the Chipotle restaurants I’ve previously mentioned is located (the other one is in the Fifteenth, and I think there’s a third one at La Défense). There’s also McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café, various wannabe Tex-Mex and American restaurants, Italian restaurants, Asian (especially Chinese and Indian) restaurants, innumerable Anglo-Saxon bars, and of course many traditional French restaurants and cafés. Truly something for every taste.

In this same area is the Rex, a cinema from the golden age of cinemas that is still standing and operating successfully. You can take tours of the Rex, although I haven’t done so. I’ve seen one or two movies there, long ago. Most Disney premieres in Paris are at the Rex, in which cases there’s a canopied red-carpet waiting line set up outside.

As you move east, you come across several monuments. The big arch commemorating the military escapades of Louis XIV is still standing, and is still clean and in good condition, despite being constructed back in 1674, more than a hundred years before the founding of the United States of America. The arch is a bit incongruous today with its surroundings, since Paris has continued to evolve around it. On the north side is a street lined with ethnic grocery stores. On the south side is the garment district, and the wicked rue Saint-Denis, known for its prostitutes, although hundreds of years ago it was a royal parade route. The prostitutes are not as numerous as they once were, and they contrast with the wholesale garment distributors and manufacturers that line the street (interspersed with a handful of sex shops and—increasingly towards the south end of the street—restaurants).

I took the rue Saint-Denis down to the Forum des Halles area, and then across the river into the Latin Quarter, where I hopped onto the Métro to go home. By the time you get to the Forum, all the prostitutes and sex shops are gone, and instead you have restaurants, bars, and trendy clothing stores. The Forum itself is being completely reconstructed. The western end of the park has been finished and is very nice. The shopping center is still being rebuilt, with an odd “canopy” roof that looks like it’s in the midst of collapsing. There are tours of the construction site on Saturdays, but I haven’t been able to summon the energy to sign up for one.

All of these areas are always filled with people. When I compare this to the dust-blown, blazingly hot, totally empty streets of my hometown in the Great American Southwest, the contrast is amazing, and hugely favors Paris. My nightmares about being stuck back in the hellhole where I was born have largely subsided over time, but I’m still tremendously glad to be living in the City of Light. Like the saying goes “and now for something completely different” … that could not be truer in this case. If only it weren’t so expensive—or better still, if only I actually had enough money to maintain a decent standard of living. But it’s better to be poor in Paris than poor elsewhere.

Monday, May 12, 2014

From tobacco addicts to e-cig addicts

I’ve mentioned before that smoking has actually increased in France since the total ban on smoking indoors went into effect a few years ago. And now it seems that people are no longer smoking tobacco alone—the electronic cigarette has entered the scene, giving people addicted to nicotine new options for accommodating their mental illness.

Just in the street where I work, there are two e-cig stores. Pleasing odors waft out the front doors of these stores, but I know that people who use electronic cigarettes are not looking for pleasing odors … they are looking for their nicotine fixes. And the liquids vaporized by the gadgets generally contain heavy doses of nicotine. The gadgets are so new that the risk they present for non-smokers—if there be any risk—has not been quantified. But I know that if the liquid container ruptures and the liquid contacts, say, the skin of a child, it can causes seizures and death, thanks to the highly potent nicotine contained within (nicotine being an extremely poisonous neurotoxin).

I don’t see a lot of people inside these stores, other than salespersons, so I wonder how they are doing. And I wonder how just one small street can support two of them. But who knows? Walking home a few days ago, I passed several of them. I’m sure (and I hope) it’s a fad to some extent for now, but time will tell whether or not it will catch on for the long haul. To me, it’s just another drug for people who are prone to drug addiction.

We even have problems with these gadgets where I work. Some of our students (we teach adults), want to “light up” their toys during classes. Smoking tobacco indoors has been illegal for years, so the tobacco addicts must wait until break time and then go outside to get their fixes. But those addicted to e-cigs want to do their drugs right during class. It’s not illegal, but it’s certainly irritating to non-addicted students and teachers. Whether or not it should be formally prohibited is an open question for the moment. I’d be happy with a prohibition—anyone who can’t wait ninety minutes to snort his e-cig is clearly an addict—but others are not so gung-ho as I am.

On the street, you don’t notice it too much. And on the street, the e-cig addicts are still vastly outnumbered by the tobacco users. They sit or stand in any open area outside their clubs and restaurants, puffing away, rain or shine. Their cigarette butts litter the sidewalks in front of the entrances to every office building. During the day, there are always a few addicts standing around in front of the building, smoking and smoking. How glad I am that my life is not tied to a little roll of tobacco (or a little vaporizer dispensing the same drug)!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Trash containers return to the Champs!

One of the new trash "cans"
Walking home today, I was shocked to see a trash container on the Champs-Élysées. In fact, I saw not just one, but several, where there had been none before.

For many years, there have been no trash containers of any kind on this avenue. Trash containers are plentiful elsewhere in Paris, but they had been entirely removed from the Champs years ago, by a government inspired by the example of American cowardice. Apparently politicians felt that the imaginary bogeymen haunting the thoughts of their friends across the pond would abandon their nefarious plans for the destruction of society if they discovered that there were no handy trash containers in which to conceal their improvised explosive devices. (I guess the bad guys would never think of hiding something in, say, the hundreds of cars parked freely along the avenue throughout its length.)

Whatever the reasons, trash containers had long since disappeared on the Champs. The pedestrians who crowded its broad sidewalks day and night had no choice but to throw trash directly onto the ground. The city was spending some €750,000 a year on continuous, all-day cleaning of the avenue by city workers and subcontractors. It now seems that someone has finally been able to face down the irrational fears and restore hygiene to one of the world’s most famous streets. It’s about time!

In the olden days, the trash containers were closed, cylindrical affairs, brown in color with gold tops, and moderately fashionable. Today, they are just simple metal frames holding clear plastic trash bags boldly marked with vigilance propreté (“vigilance [and] cleanliness”). I gather that the clear plastic would allow passerby to see and promptly report sticks of dynamite or blocks of plutonium or other suspicious objects in the containers. It’s not very aesthetic, but at least it’s a bit cleaner.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Chipotle and other comfort foods in Paris

Some months ago, I discovered that the American fast-food chain Chipotle has three restaurants in Paris, and yesterday I tried one, near the Opera. I got a “Barbacoa” burrito, which turned out to be huge and quite expensive (€9.30, which works out to $12.80). It was very tasty, though—and very filling, so much so that I had trouble finishing it. I had a meal voucher that covered all but 80¢ of the price, so it worked out. It’s a bit of a hike from where I live, but there’s a bus line that runs practically door to door from the restaurant to my house, so I might go there again.

Chipotle, boulevard Montmartre
As a general rule, decent Tex-Mex food is almost impossible to find in Paris, which is not particularly surprising. Unfortunately, I rather like Tex-Mex food, so not having access to it is a trifle disappointing. The menu at Chipotle is limited, but at least it tastes fairly real.

My dream is to find a place that sells tamales, but I’m not holding my breath. I did find them just once, at the Marché Saint Germain of all places, but they weren’t as large or tasty as those I remember from the U.S., and they were expensive, of course.

Two other items on my list are cannoli and anise-flavored Sicilian cookies, which my great-grandmother used to make. There must be some store in Paris that makes and sells them, given that we are so close to Italy, but I’m not sure where. There’s a restaurant at the Carrousel du Louvre that sells cannoli (of all places—but it’s part of an Italian roadside diner chain), but here again, they don’t taste quite the way I remember them. I haven’t found the cookies anywhere.

This is not to say that choice is lacking for food in Paris. In addition to the huge variety of French foods that are obviously available, you can find all sorts of more exotic stuff quite easily. Ordinary supermarkets often carry buffalo-milk mozzarella, for example, imported directly from Italy. And there’s a whole street of Indian markets near the Gare du Nord where you can get almost anything you want from that country. Variety is not lacking in Paris … if you can afford it (which I unfortunately cannot).

American comfort foods are not hard to find if you know where to look, but they are extremely expensive. I’ve occasionally bought Pop-Tarts, Kraft Mac & Cheese, tortilla chips, peanut-butter M&Ms, chili con carne, Welch’s grape soda (now sadly impossible to find), and so on, but not often, because I just don’t have the budget, and I’m not really a foodie, anyway.

These days I subsist mainly on little pancakes with syrup. They only cost €1.61 ($2.16) for a pack of six, so I can buy lots and survive on them for several days using only two meal vouchers. They are good, but eating them day in and day out does get old. They aren’t nutritionally balanced, either, but when you are poor you can’t afford nutritional balance. Sometimes I get bagel sandwiches, as there is one brand that makes excellent ones, but they cost around €3.79 ($5.10) each, and I sacrifice several meals if I buy them.

So why don’t I buy healthy food at open food markets in Paris? Well, it costs a fortune, for one thing. And the markets are only open when I’m working, as a general rule. And the food requires extensive preparation, which consumes time that I don’t have. Open food markets are a luxury for the rich. They are pleasant to look at but impractical to patronize, except for people wealthy enough not to have to work, and well-to-do retirees. A box of cookies is cheap, requires no preparation, and can be had at any supermarket, even outside banking hours.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bridges too far?

See the love locks?
Well, I just recovered from a cold that ruined last weekend. But now, on the eve of a three-day Easter weekend, the weather forecast talks about rain for the next few days. You just can’t win. Not that I’m usually inclined to step outside the apartment on weekends, anyway, since I can’t really afford it, but still …

Anyway, this evening I walked across the Pont des Arts on the way home. I was struck by the tremendous increase in “love locks” on the bridge. Those are the little padlocks that lovers attach to the bridge before throwing the key away into the river. They are supposed to symbolize eternal love, or some such nonsense, and they’ve been popular on the bridges of Paris for several years now—mainly since the Italian author Federico Moccia published his book, I Want You, in which he speaks of them (although that might be a coincidence).

At first, the practice seemed charming, while there was only a smattering of locks on the bridge. Today, however, the locks are several inches thick, on the railings, on lampposts, and on any part of the bridge to which a lock can be attached. I’ve read that the locks weigh as much as 600 pounds for each small section of railing to which they are attached, which is now enough to raise concerns about the structural integrity of the railings and bridge. They are so thick that they look like some sort of rust-colored tumor growth from a distance. The original aesthetics of the bridge are obscured. And this isn’t the only bridge in Paris afflicted in this way.

Unfortunately, the locks are very difficult to remove, because they are, well, locks, after all. And City Hall still isn’t sure what to do about them, if anything. On the one hand, the weight of the locks is getting large enough that safety issues are raised, but on the other, the city is reluctant to interfere with a romantic custom that seems harmless enough in principle. If the locks were not so numerous, it wouldn’t be a problem, but it seems that millions of tourists cannot resist putting locks on the bridges. My guess is that anyone with the personality and infatuation likely to be associated with this sort of custom isn’t going to be in his or her relationship very long, but the locks remain even after the love is gone, so to speak.

Even worse up close!
Some think it might be a good idea to have a designated spot in the city for love locks. Good idea, but where? Presumably it would have to be near the river, if people want to throw their keys away. And how would the city persuade or compel tourists to put the locks in the designated place and not on the bridges? And what would be done about eventually removing them? What do you do with used padlocks for which you have no keys?

Anyway, it has become quite ugly now, as my photos show. I wonder how and when it will (inevitably) end.

I keep forgetting that this is Good Friday, which is fine, since I couldn’t care less about religious holidays except insofar as they correlate with days off from work. Most French people feel the same way. It’s Passover, too, but nobody cares about that because employers don’t give days off for Passover. I guess if this is Good Friday, then Sunday must be Easter, or something like that. I get all the Fridays and Tuesdays and Mondays and such mixed up. I prefer to limit my tracking to Days Off and Days Not Off.

Now that's a tripod!
I saw a guy taking a photo of Notre-Dame with an almost comically huge tripod yesterday. I’m not sure why he needed a tripod this big, since it’s still small in comparison to the height of the cathedral and won’t significantly change the viewing angle. Maybe it was just to keep the camera above the constant crowds of tourists on the plaza in front of the church. I wonder if he got a permit. Normally you don’t need a permit to use a tripod on public right of way, but if it’s big enough to pose a possible safety or traffic hazard, you typically need to get permission. And to think I’m shooting handheld with a smartphone!

These days, come to think of it, smartphones provide photos good enough for most vacation snapshots, at least for people who aren’t also  photographers. Of course, a good digital SLR with a pro lens will blow away a smartphone, but most people aren’t willing or able to spend $10,000 on a camera when they can take pictures that are adequate for their needs with a phone. And there’s a fundamental rule about taking pictures: if you bring fancy equipment to take fancy pictures, you need to resign yourself to doing nothing else. You can concentrate on photography or you can concentrate on visiting the city, but you cannot do both, and anyone who doesn’t realize this is going to be unhappy on his Paris trip if photography is important to him.

These days I have no decent cameras, since I had to sell everything just to eat. But the smartphone takes pictures good enough for my blog or Facebook, even if they aren’t necessarily pictures that people would pay to use or see. In fact, I’m amazed by the “bang for the buck” provided by mobile devices. They are very cost-effective for photos if your standards are not too high.

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