Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday night on the Champs

The weather was very nice this evening, and the Champs-Élysées, which I cross nearly every day while commuting, was absolutely packed with people as I made my way home around 8 PM. Although the avenue has a reputation for being a gawdy tourist trap, the crowds on the street make it seem very animated.

I couldn’t resist taking a panoramic shot on the avenue. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of panoramas. They provide more of a “you are there” feel in certain cases, although they certainly are suited only to specific shooting situations. I’ll have to try to shoot from the same spot during the day. The barricades seen in the foreground of the photo are left over from the visit of the Chinese president.

I tried to take some panoramas of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro Gardens (also on the way home—yes, I have a very scenic commute!), but it was just too dark to get anything photogenic beyond the tower itself. Maybe during the day.

The project for this weekend is … doing the laundry.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Visiting VIPs and diplomats

Well, elections came and went, although there’s a second round now coming up for any election in which a single candidate didn’t win by an absolute majority (that’s how elections normally work in France). I haven’t been keeping track of it, although I note that several candidates seem to have a platform that consists mainly of being passably cute this time around. Women are still rarer than men in French politics and somewhat of a novelty, although that is improving.

The weather turned a bit chilly again, but today it was seasonal. A bit more pollution because of another inversion layer.

It took forever to get to work this morning because the entire area around the Champs was blocked by police for the visit of the Chinese president. Why the whole area must be blocked for two days just for the visit of His Highness is a mystery to me. They wouldn’t even let pedestrians cross the avenue at street level yesterday, which is unusual. But the president was nowhere to be seen. It delayed me by an hour, since I must cross the Champs as part of my daily commuting.

It’s interesting to see how much more elaborate security is for visiting heads of state than it is for the French head of state. I’m not sure whether this represents wildly exaggerated courtesy for the former or simply a tacit acknowledgement that the latter is not one of the world’s major movers and shakers. (Although France has the second-largest economy in Europe, after Germany and is technically a leading world power.) An entire neighborhood is sealed off for the Chinese president, but apparently the French president gets around on a scooter sometimes, at least while visiting his girlfriends, according to media reports I’ve encountered.

One nice thing about the Champs being blocked is that it’s incredibly quiet. All you hear is the myriad footsteps of pedestrians on the avenue—minus the deafening traffic noise that usually afflicts the city (the one thing that the travel guides don’t mention about Paris is the noise).

It’s also interesting to see how the security around embassies reflects the importance of the countries they represent. The greater the influence or the higher the profile of the country, the more paranoid the security of the embassy tends to be. So naturally embassies of the United States and Israel are fortresses of paranoia, while some other countries are so insignificant that you can walk right past their embassies without noticing their existence. In some cases I suspect that the cost of running the embassy in Paris represents a substantial portion of the entire government budget for certain small nations.

Sometimes the diplomatic corps of the smaller nations are manifestly stuck up as well. You can just see it in the way they carry themselves. Apparently a post in Paris is a tremendous perk, and actually living in a country with running water and electricity counts as life in the fast lane for the foreign service of these banana republics. Every country in the world has an embassy in Paris, no matter how small. Even if the country must sell its entire yearly crop of bamboo or borax to pay the rent, it will still have its pint-sized embassy, filled with corrupt diplomats with egos so large that they can barely fit through the front door. You can bet that the used Mercedes out in front probably cost the country half of its yearly GDP.

Anyway, I should try to take more pictures, but it’s still usually dark outside by the time I head for home. Spring is here, but I work late. The useless move to summer time (DST) will occur on Sunday, so it will be a bit lighter in days to come.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring is here!

The pollution is gone. Thursday, the first day of spring, brought weather that very much seemed in tune with the season, with bright blue, sunny skies, warm temperatures, and a constant breeze that blew away all that nasty particulate pollution that had caused alerts on previous days. The weather has since veered towards cooler temperatures and a constant alternation between sunny skies and brief showers, which is typical for Paris at this time of year. The pollution has remained low, which is where it is most of the time.

Today there are elections in France, mostly municipal. As a foreigner, I can’t vote … but I’ve never voted anywhere, anyway. All candidates tend to be ambitious liars in any election, so it’s hard to distinguish among them, unless one of them is very obviously more evil than the others. As a result, voting is often just a roll of the dice. I don’t know who will become mayor of Paris, but hopefully it will be someone who won’t do too much damage to the city.

On the equinox (Thursday, that is), I spent about half an hour getting something to eat at lunchtime, and I took a few pictures of the area around the Champs, which is also the area where I work. The trees won’t be green for another month, but the weather was magnificent, and it was nice to see blue skies again, instead of a brown haze. In this post you can see a panoramic that I shot at around 3 pm on the side of the Arc de Triomphe opposite the Champs (the avenue de la Grande Armée). The nature of the pano shot distorted the moving cars a bit, but it’s still interesting.

I stopped at Marks & Spencer on the Champs to buy some lunch—specifically, some tikka masala. It wasn’t very good, especially given its €4.50 price tag. But then I noticed that it was the “low-fat” version, which people back at work told me was vastly inferior to the “regular” version, which I had somehow missed. Maybe I’ll try again sometime. The price is a bit high, though. Oddly enough, the food hall at M&S seems to be much more popular than any other part of this relatively small store. You wouldn’t expect French people to flock to a British food hall to buy their lunch, but that’s what seems to happen. Maybe it’s just snobbery. What I tasted did not impress me—I can get better tikka masala at Carrefour.

The Tiffany & Co. store on the Champs is still under construction. One wonders what exactly is being done to it that has required so much time. I could not be less interested in the types of merchandise sold by Tiffany, but I’m sure it will appeal more to all those nouveaux riches Third-World tourists than the fast-food restaurant that it replaces ever did.

I still see identically dressed hobos in front of Abercrombie & Fitch. Only they are not hobos, they are salespeople. They wear all wearing the same torn jeans the last time I passed. The tears were even in the same locations on each pair of jeans. And yet people buy stuff there. There’s a sucker born every minute.

It is said that Parisians themselves avoid the Champs like the plague, because it is considered to be just for tourists. That’s an exaggeration, though, since there are indeed Parisians on the avenue, including myself. They are hugely outnumbered by tourists, however. I’m on the avenue every weekday, in fact, but that’s mainly because of the proximity of my workplace … I doubt that I’d go out of my way to visit the area regularly were it not on my commuting route. There are some interesting stores on the street (such as the FNAC, traditionally one of my favorites, even if it’s slipping a bit nowadays), but a lot of tacky, overpriced tourist traps, too, like A&F, Banana Republic, Lacoste, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and so on. I note that the parallel side streets show an increasing number of sketchy clubs and such; I’m not sure to which category of tourists they appeal, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a category I’d rather not encounter myself.

I learned a few days ago that Burger King is now going to come back to France, following the spectacular success of the store they reopened by the Saint Lazare train station. I’ve also learned that Chipotle has two stores in Paris, so one of these days I’m going to visit one of them and check it out. I still wish Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme would come to Paris.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Gasping for air in Paris

For the past week, air pollution in Paris has been at record-breaking levels, thanks to unusual weather conditions. The pollution has been off the scale several days in a row. Unseasonably warm, dry, calm weather has trapped fine particulates in the atmosphere beneath an inversion layer that refuses to go away, choking the entire metropolitan area in dense smog. It’s hard to even see the Eiffel Tower. I feel like I’m living in Shanghai. Although, to be honest, the pollution doesn’t seem to be any worse than what I endured in Los Angeles back in the day. This is very exceptional for Paris, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable.

I don’t walk a lot these days, and so the severe restrictions on walking that the pollution might impose are not too much of a problem. Still, I have more headaches than usual, and my eyes and throat burn a bit.

A good rainstorm and the return of normal March weather would help a great deal. Nothing of the kind is currently in sight, however.

The government, in its well-nigh infinite wisdom, made public transportation free starting on Thursday, for the duration of the pollution alert. Unfortunately, since the politicians didn’t really think things through, this only made things worse. Most people who drive cars do not do so to save money over public transportation, and so making the latter free provides them with no incentive to abandon the cars. Furthermore, the prospect of other people taking public transportation makes them chary of using it themselves, and encourages them to assume that the streets will be less clogged with traffic as Someone Else gives up his motor vehicle for the Métro. But that’s not how it actually worked out, and traffic and pollution have been worse than ever.

Overall I’m not a big fan of warm weather at any time of year. It’s 20° F above normal right now, and of course people are cooing with pleasure for the most part, but I wonder what the weather will be like in July or August if it’s still 20° above normal. Heating is cheaper than air conditioning, and dressing for cold weather is much easier than dressing for warm weather.