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.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cold pizza, cold + pizza

The pizza place
Well, I’m infected with a cold again. I’m so tired of people hacking and sneezing around me. Why do they always wait until they are inside the bus or subway before they start to blow their noses?

So the weekend is ruined. Not that I’d be inclined to go outside, anyway, since I have only about €40 left to survive on until the end of the month, but the weather was supposedly nice (according to my weather apps), so it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity—April in Paris and all that.

I spent lots of restaurant vouchers on groceries on Friday night, and spent two more on a two-for-one pizza at a pizza store near me. The two pizzas will stay in the fridge and hold me over for 3-4 days. I also have some mini-pancakes in the fridge, which taste pretty good and are very cheap, only €1.61 for a pack of six. Other things I have include some plain tortillas, some cheese squares, some butter, some maple syrup, and some composite meatballs (half beef, half vegetable extenders). Plus milk.

Anyway, the pizza place is part of a small chain. Their pizzas are pretty good. There are other pizza places nearby. One of them has as its claim to fame the practice of hiring only girls to deliver the pizzas. It’s somewhat old-fashioned in my view, but in macho Latin countries companies can still get away with that. The girls I’ve seen on the scooters doing the deliveries are not pretty, and perhaps that’s a safety feature—a homely girl is less likely to be harassed. I’ve never tried their pizzas, since, if they have to depend on female delivery people as a gimmick, the pizzas can’t be very good.

I think there was a marathon last week in Paris. It’s always held early in the morning, though, and the last thing I feel like doing on a weekend is getting up early.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Death of an app?

The weather was apparently nice this weekend, especially on Saturday—at least based on my weather app. I never actually went or even looked outside, however. It’s too expensive to go outside, and I spend a lot of time sleeping on weekends.

The RATP (the Paris transit authority) has “updated” its app in the App Store for iOS mobile devices (and perhaps for Android devices, I’m not sure) … and the new version is a total catastrophe. This used to be one of the best and most useful apps in the store, ideal for getting around Paris using public transportation. The new version is ugly, poorly translated, and hastily written, and includes lots of advertising and a “maRATP” feature that compels you to join the RATP’s proprietary cloud in order to use certain features—presumably because the RATP wants to sell your personal data to third parties. You’d think that an organization supported mainly by tax dollars wouldn’t be so greedy, but I guess everyone wants to make a fast buck/euro.

I read on a travel site that Mona Lisait (see the pun?), a small chain of discount bookstores, is closing its doors, after being put into the red by the rise of electronic publishing. The French are avid readers, as a general rule, and certainly in comparison to the semi-literate American population, but I guess even they are affected by changing times. I confess that I hardly ever read anything on paper these days, but that’s partly a general decline in reading for me just as much or more than it is a discontinuance of reading things on paper.

The weather continues to be nice, although it is frighteningly warm for this time of year. It got up to nearly 24° C (76° F) yesterday, far above normal levels. And we could use more rain, even though people like dry days.

Lately I’ve been sneezing and I have a slightly sore throat. I think someone has infected me again.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lunchtime in La Défense and Neuilly

Today I had to go to La Défense, the chichi business district just outside Paris. I’ve talked about it before, probably. At lunchtime it’s very nice because there are tons of people out and about on the plaza, strolling, shopping, and eating. Most of them are dressed up in business attire. I used to work at La Défense, in one of those many skyscrapers, and it was nice. But it’s a ghost town after business hours, a bit spooky.

I’ve included a few pictures here of the plaza at noon or thereabouts. The EPAD, an association which manages La Défense, keeps piling more and more junk on the originally pristine plaza, probably because money is everything and an empty plaza looks like money left on the table to them. But it’s still nice because it’s vehicle-free, unlike most of Paris. There are lots of places to sit for lunch.

Returning to the other office of my employer, I went back through La Défense and Neuilly before jumping on the Métro again. Neuilly-sur-Seine is a nice suburb nestled between the Paris city limit and La Défense. I walked along the avenue du Roule instead of the avenue Charles de Gaulle in order to avoid the constant traffic noise along the latter, which is a major commuting thoroughfare between Paris and the suburbs.

The parallel avenue is much quieter, although it still has traffic, and more scenic. The city hall for Neuilly is quite charming, and there are many other charming spots. The American Hospital is in this suburb, although fortunately I didn’t need to go there (but I’ve taken other people there in the past).

Along the way, I stopped at a little bakery on the rue Madeleine Michelis, and got something to: a vosgien, a sort of pastry made with honey and almonds. It was only two euro, which happened to be almost all the cash I had. It tasted pretty good, and the street is very pretty. After that, I searched around for a bank, and reluctantly withdrew €20, which is a lot of money for me, but I couldn’t walk around with only 40¢ in my pocket—especially in Neuilly, where I might be struck by lightning for being so poor.

The bank was part of the reason I went to La Défense, in addition to other errands that I had to carry out for my work. For the second time in two years, my only credit card has been blocked for international purposes due to some sort of fraud, this one detected by the bank rather than me. I’ve had to ask for another replacement. I suspect the bank will “accidentally” charge me another yearly membership fee again, and I’ll have to change things that use the card (I have a card exclusively for paying for things over the Internet—I never use it for anything else out of concerns for security of POS systems).

I’m an increasingly strong believer in two-factor authentication, as long as it’s set up properly, simply because I’m tired of all the card fraud.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Champs during the day, and the mayor

So I took another panoramic shot on the Champs during the day, from the same spot from which I took a picture at night a few days previously. This one was taken just before sunset. I just wanted to show a bit of contrast. I suppose I should take one at midday instead. I’ll get around to it … I’m on the avenue almost every day, for better or for worse. The barricades are down in this photo because the Chinese president is long gone (he was still visiting in the previous panorama, I think).

Apparently Paris elected a new mayor on Sunday. Her name is Anne Hidalgo, and she is a woman—which I emphasize because that’s a big deal in a Latin country like France. France is perhaps one of the least macho of all countries with a Latin heritage, but it’s still macho, and Ms. Hidalgo is the first female mayor of the city, and so it’s a big deal.

I just hope the new mayor doesn’t do anything stupid. I like Paris the way it is, so I’m always worried about some newcomer wanting to make his/her mark on the city in some ridiculous way (usually an architectural way). It’s bad enough that incredibly ugly buildings are periodically constructed in the city, for reasons I cannot fully fathom. Often they are designed by Jean Nouvel, which is even worse.

The previous mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, is stepping down after many years as mayor. I’m not sure why. Maybe he’s just tired of the job. He seemed to care about Paris and did lots of good things, I think, although he seemed to start to yield more to outside pressures as time went on.

Anyway, let’s hope the new mayor doesn’t feel compelled to make her mark. She has said something about reducing the difficulties Parisians have in finding and keeping a place to live, which I suppose is a good thing. There are times when I think that every other apartment in the city is being rented to tourists by the owner in order to make a fast (and perhaps not entirely legal) buck—or euro I should say.

Speaking of Jean Nouvel (which is never pleasant for me), one of his monstrosities is nearing completion near me. It looks like an earthquake hit it. Sometimes I wonder if he deliberately designs ugly stuff just to see how far he can go on hype and reputation alone. There isn’t a lot of competition, as there are terribly few decent French architects these days.