Oh, OUI, docteur!

July 11, 2012

While I haven’t been sharing the stories, my interactions with the French administration have been continuing as I’ve been going through the process to change my visa status from ‘student’ to ‘worker’ and get the card that says I can live here more. The thing is, this whole process was a lot less entertaining than the initial one, because there are only so many times you can take a day off work and stand in line for two hours at the police station just to be told ‘you’re missing the original dated from within the last three months of the official translated copy of this certificate with the color authorization from blah blah blah blah’ before you very much stop laughing and very much start contemplating homicide. Anyhow, after a handful of experiences along these lines and some serious internal dialogue about anger management, ten months of paperwork and visits and re-paperwork finally culminated in this: my convocation to the Office of Immigration for my medical visit. This medical visit is the final step. It means your file has been processed and your carte de séjour is sitting there waiting for you. You just need to prove that you don’t have tuberculosis or bad vision and you’re clear.

Now, I did this visit in 2010, when I entered the country as a student. Basically they check your eyes by having you read a row of small letters on a poster (though I know for a fact they don’t even listen to what you say because I started reading them in English and the nurse filling out my form said, ‘très bien.’) Then they check I guess your eyes again, or your literacy, by having you read a few lines out of a book. And then things get a little weird when they lock you in a tiny cabin with two doors and tell you to get naked from the waist up for an X-ray. I don’t understand this, because I’m pretty sure the Transportation Security Administration has x-rays that are able to tell whether or not a fully clothed woman is menstruating, but apparently French x-rays can’t see through fabric and this partial nudity in a public facility is just something you need to accept. You take off your clothes and stand there awkwardly for a very long time until they open one of the doors and invite you in for an x-ray. Following this, you re-enter the waiting area (clothed now) until the doctor is ready to see you, check your x-rays, and sign off on your health and eligibility to live in France.

And this is where things got weird. The doctor called me in, or tried to, but both my first and last name are tricky pronunciation tasks for francophones. Once I understood he was speaking to me, I stood up. He asked if he’d pronounced my name right. I said no. And then he said, ‘Well, it’s too complicated to pronounce. Wouldn’t you rather marry me and take my name?’

This is the sort of macho, condescending thing I’ve gotten used to hearing in France, where gender roles feel almost more dramatically in-your-face than in the first season of Mad Men. It’s annoying, it’s forward, they think it’s charming, and I just am not quite quick enough in French to respond how I’d like to. So I smile in a way that I hope says ‘not a chance in hell’ but is probably more ‘ok yeah cool when,’ because things go downhill from there.

The X-ray goes up on the wall. The doctor’s professional opinion? “You are as beautiful on the inside as out.”

Let’s pause a moment and recognize that this is really a very weird thing for an internist to say. It’s just… really weird. We’re literally looking at a picture of my internal organs. This expression is sweet and cheesy when an old person who uses this kind of expression is talking about someone’s intangible qualities, but he actually said my lungs were as beautiful as my face.  I wasn’t going to say, “Thank you,” and he had already made me uncomfortable so I’m pretty sure I said “good” and hoped we were done now. We weren’t done now. He then leaned forward until he was kind of close to my face and said, as if in wonder, “What are these eyes? What do you think are, a cat?”

I said, “No, I don’t think I’m a cat.”

Then he worked for an inordinately long time to listen to my heartbeat or my breathing or whatever it was he was trying to assess by holding a stethoscope to my chest. Evidently my discomfort was palpable, because he then asked, “What is it? Are you afraid of doctors?”

Fact: Guys, if you have to ask a girl if she is scared of you, YOU ARE BEING TOO SCARY. And if you are a doctor, you should make extra efforts NOT TO BE A CREEP.

Anyway, I got the signature, I got the certificate, and at LONG LAST and after ten months of employment, I am legally entitled to work in France.

And for future reference, Docteur J. Tretout at the Office Française de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration on Rue de la Roquette in Paris is a huge weirdo with a lung fetish.

So much to eat, so little time!

February 3, 2012

I get asked a lot for restaurant and food recommendations in Paris by people coming to visit, so I thought the easiest thing to do would be to collect all of my favorite tips in one place, then I can share and update as needed! Paris is known for being one of the food capitals of the world, and while I won’t disagree, I will say that it is way too easy to spend way too much money on really shitty food, particularly if you don’t know what you’re looking for, and especially in the tourist centers, which is unfortunate. Ideally you would be able to wander to any corner café and trust that you’d be able to find a nice fixed menu or plat du jour that is homemade from seasonal and locally sourced ingredients, served with reasonably priced wine, and with pleasant service and a killer people-watching terrace to boot. More often than not, however, if I leave home without a destination I end up wandering for too long past a surprising number of overpriced spots with boring menus, bad bread, and french fries that look suspiciously like they all came out of the same freezer bag. But as one of my favorite people once told me, “Every meal time is a chance to put something delicious in your mouth, so why would you waste it on crap?” To that end, this list is by no means all-inclusive, but these places are all tried and true!

Other great references for visitors to Paris are lefooding.com, which has an easily navigable website (and great iphone app) that is searchable by cuisine/neighborhood/price range (though many of the detailed reviews are in French), and parisbymouth.com, run and written by mostly anglophone food lovers that is growing in content and sources reviews from a good mix of publications and individuals. David Lebovitz also has a reliable and sizeable list of recommended spots.

If there are any obvious places I’ve forgotten that you’ve told me about or that we’ve visited together, remind me in the comments section.

Bon appétit les p’tits ogres!

Casual, fast, and street food: things to eat outside

This is doubtless going to be the longest list, as even since becoming employed I am still desperately poor.

1. L’As du Falafel (métro St. Paul): The line is always long, and yes, it’s worth it. I like going on Sundays; whereas most stores and shops in Paris are shut down, the Marais is open and lively with people strolling, eating, and shopping. This falafel spot is one of several on the lovely, medieval Rue des Rosiers, but budget an extra few minutes for the wait, because it’s actually that much better. They have indoor seating, but I like to take mine to go and walk to the nearby Place des Vosges or a bit further down to the Seine to sit down and eat this middle eastern fast food al fresco.

2. La Grand Epicérie: (métro Sèvres-Babylon) Truthfully, if the sun is shining, there’s no better dining experience in Paris than the pique-nique. The best way to picnic is to stroll through a neighborhood outdoor or covered market, or visit specialty shops, to pick up good cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, poulet rôti, desserts, and baguette (always get a baguette tradition as opposed to a normal baguette, and never buy it from a supermarket). If you’re short on time, or missed the market, or just want to visit one of the nicest grocery stores in the city, go here. They have everything. And it’s right next to Le Bon Marché, so you could coordinate it with a shopping trip. Makes a good place to pick up food-themed gifts to bring home, as well: chocolates, oils, vinegars, regional treats, etc.

3. Marché aux Enfants Rouges (métro Temple): The oldest covered market in Paris, and on my favorite street in the city no less. This market is open most weekdays and on the weekends through lunch time, and aside from being a great place to pick up picnic supplies, groceries, flowers, and baked goods, they also have a handful of really, really good traiteurs, basically food stands. So far I’ve tried the standard French place with roast chicken, salads, potato dishes, and quiches, as well as the Morrocan, Japanese, and Italian. The Italian stand has been the standout favorite so far, with great pastas and little cannolis that I buy to go to serve as dessert at home, and the Moroccan seems to be the neighborhood favorite, with a long line of regulars waiting for tagines, couscous, mint tea, and pastries. There are still a few I need to try: Cajun, Lebanese, and the one I can’t believe I didn’t go to first where everyone sits in the sun drinking white wine and eating oysters.

4. El Nopal (métro Chateau Landon, Louis Blanc) Google has it classified as a pizza place. That is wrong. So if you’re visiting from the states, you might not necessarily be craving Mexican food. But as a self-declared burrito fanatic, living in a city that up until about a year and a half ago didn’t have Mexican food was tantamount to living in a town without a J.Crew… which I also do, but the dearth of Mexican was more sobering. Fortunately, right about the time I moved here, a few legitimate Mexican spots moved here, too, and while there’s still nothing quite like happy hour at Chevy’s, El Nopal (along with Candelaria, listed below among the watering holes) fills the void. Run by a guy from Monterrey and his French/Venezuelan wife, El Nopal is a tiny hole in the wall (literally) just off the Canal St. Martin. They keep weird hours, so I normally call ahead to make sure they’re open, and generally there’s a bit of a wait because they make everything to order (get the guacamole), but it’s a favorite sunny day pasttime to get a burrito and a Mexican beer to go and take it (along with a healthy portion of their homemade hot sauce) to eat on the edge of the canal and watch the barges go by.

5. Mmmozza (métro Temple) If it’s not obvious already, I really love the Rue de Bretagne, and since I used to live just a block off it, a lot of my favorite spots are in the vicinity. This Italian “mozzarella bar” sells an amazing selection of different mozzarella cheeses and other Italian specialty foods, as well as killer simple sandwiches with nothing more than some of the fresh mozzarella, a slice of prosciutto, and a little bit of arugula on a crusty baguette. Good take-away food to eat while you walk or to carry across the street into the little park, the Square du Temple for a quick outdoor lunch.

6. Al Taglio: (métro Temple) Technically, this pizza outpost has more than one location, but the Rue de Bretagne restaurant is the only one I’ve visited. Here you buy pizza Roman style, by weight, from among a rotating selection of topping choices: spicy coppa and tomato, pear and gorgonzola, or the consistent favorite asparagus and black truffle. It’s good, it’s casual, it’s easy for a group or for just two or three, and with wine by the pichet you can sit and order as much to eat and drink as you feel like.

Bistro fare: traditional, reasonable, and good

1. Le Vaudeville: (métro: Bourse) Finally went! It’s big and pretty and very, very classically Parisian. It’s on the pricier end, but if you want the real French brasserie experience, this is the place for it. Lots of marble, big mirrored walls, waiters in penguin suits, and a view on La Bourse.

2. Bistrot Renaissance (métro: Strasbourg-Saint Denis) My favorite, from the decor to the friendly staff to the consistently good menu. A good mix of traditional dishes and some slightly more original, it’s great at lunch and at dinner, and equally nice on the terrace and inside.

3. Les Puces des Batignolles (métro: Brochant) This place is also a little removed from the center, but if you find yourself in the neighborhood, I’d seek it out. It’s cute in a we-bought-all-our-dishes-and-decor-at-the-flea-market kind of way, the area right around it is full of sweet shops and cafés, and the food (especially brunch) is just good.

4. Autour d’un Verre (métro: Grand Boulevards): Simple, adorable, with an amazing natural wines list, a friendly staff, and a simple menu of perfectly prepared dishes. Great atmosphere and reasonably priced, but small, so think to reserve ahead.

Less traditional, also good

1. Le Grenier Voyageur: (métro République) If you are looking for a place to go where you definitely won’t find other tourists, this would be one of those spots. And if you are looking for a place to go where you can eat, say, antelope, ostrich, or kangaroo, this would be one of those spots, too. More conventional menu offerings, as well, but in general sort of a fusion flair. Nice ambience, free jello shots in syringes on occasion, normally classier than that. Good green beans, which kind of seals the deal for me on a restaurant.

2. Presto Fresco: (métro: Les Halles) I suppose this place actually is pretty traditional, but it’s Italian, not French. It’s located right near Les Halles, which used to be the big central market in Paris, until the 60’s when they relocated it to Rungis, south of the city, and built up a really heinous shopping mall instead. The city is in the midst of a big renovation to turn the space into a park, but tucked behind the St. Eustache church (and thankfully out of sight of what is now Les Halles) on the Rue Montmartre is this amazing Italian place. It has a dumb name, and pizza and pasta might not sound like much, but really, the best. Evidently their pizza is great, but I always get one of the homemade fresh pastas… my go-to is the veal/pear/pine nut tortellini, but on a visit last summer we tried the daily special: strawberry pasta with balsamic cream. Possibly the best thing I have ever eaten.

3. Lao Lane Xang: (métro: Tolbiac) If at any point you tire of French food, this is the detour to make. Out of the center and down in the 13th arrondissment, the two outposts of this family-run Laotian restaurant serve amazing versions of southeast Asian food. I think it’s mandatory to order the Nem Lao (crispy rice salad in lettuce wraps) and the canard lacqué au basilic (tamarind glazed duck with Thai basil), but the more familiar dishes like red curries are good, as well. Basically you can’t go wrong. It’s inexpensive, and it’s delicious.

4. Les Crocs de l’Ogre: (métro: Ecole Militaire) A recent discovery in a neighborhood that normally is pretty sleepy. We were near the Eiffel Tower and wanted to eat without having to cross town first, and stumbled into this, a meat-eater’s paradise. Don’t take your vegetarian friends, because the tête de veau in the corner might alarm them, but the carnivores among you will appreciate the glass butcher’s case and the option of ordering whatever cut of meat you would prefer, or even a whole roast suckling pig to share. They give you a little piece of saucisson with a basket of really, really good bread to start, and the focus is on the meat no matter what you order (unless you get fish, which I did, as I was feeling a bit contrarian and the waiter had already said no to my wine order and brought us something else. Which, to be fair, was better.) The service is friendly, if slow, but enjoy the beautiful space and the energy of the dining room (even on a weeknight) or just take in the pleasantly gruesome spectacle of the giant counter of raw meat. This, too, is fairly traditional in terms of the dishes offered, but I’d say it’s a step apart from the classic bistro ambience, so, different category.

5. Glou: (métro Rambuteau or Saint-Sébastien Froissart) good, reliable, great lively ambience, amazing neighborhood, good wine, reasonably priced. I say less traditional because it doesn’t look like a typical bistro, but the food is French through and through. I had pork cheeks with lentils on the most recent visit. A good spot to eat and go out from. UPDATE: if there is carpaccio on the menu when you go, get it!

Places to make a reservation and dress up for

I never wear high heels in Paris, because between the metro stairs, cobbled streets, and the inevitability of returning home late by bicycle, they are a death trap. More than one of my friends can attest to seeing me me casser la gueule while trying to look like a well-heeled Parisienne and hitting a section of uneven sidewalk. That said, for Spring I was willing at least to carry high heels in my purse for potential dressing up, and that’s saying something. And as if you hadn’t already gathered that I’m poor, the fact that this section only has one restaurant in it is a little indicative of my dining-out budget.

1. Spring (métro Louvre-Rivoli): amazing, amazing, amazing. Went with a large group and were seated downstairs, which at first I was disappointed by because I had wanted a view of the open kitchen. It was great. The next visit, we were upstairs by the window and that was great, too. A beautiful, cozy space, and a killer fixed menu that changes weekly (daily?) based on what American chef Daniel Rose finds freshest at the market. No special orders, you get what you get, though you can warn them in advance if you have allergies. Speaking of advance, make a reservation. They now do two dinner seatings. The multiple course menu is refined without being stuffy and inventive without being weird; one particularly memorable course from when we went was seared foie gras with mint and spring peas. Prix fixe is the only choice, at 72 euro a head, plus wine, of which they have a good selection at a range of prices, and the English-speaking staff can suggest good pairings. Catherine Deneuve was dining upstairs the night that we were there, and we hung out long enough that the chef came down to share a digestif with us and offer a free bottle of crémant. Eat here.

UPDATE: Old post, new restaurants. Two great spots visited when my mom and brother were recently in town:

1. Les Fines Gueules (métro Bourse): so it’s not the most lively neighborhood, but the space is sweet, the food is (quite) good, and the prices are fair. The lights are a little bright, but that might have been heightened sensitivity due to the fact that three of the four of us dining that night were jet-lagged and fresh off red-eye flights from opposite corners of the globe… all things considered, mood lighting might have put us straight to sleep anyway! Staff is friendly, and even English speaking. We split a very generous charcuterie plate to start, main courses were simple and good, and we even hung out for dessert, we were having so much wine fun. That said, the “seasonal fruit salad” was a bowl of grapes, and that was a little silly, so maybe ask for clarification before ordering.

2. Les Enfants Perdus (métro Gare de l’Est): LOVED this restaurant. We chose it for it’s proximity to the train station, since one of our party had a train to catch just after dinnertime, and couldn’t have been happier. Super cozy decor, with big pillows on benches in the back and a little bit of a kitchen view. For the location-concerned who aren’t planning their mealtimes around the new SNCF schedules, it’s also right next to the Canal St. Martin, which (if it’s not obvious from this post alone) is one of my favorite places in Paris to eat, drink, and generally be merry. Everything here was good: seared duck breast, crème brulée in 3 flavors (none too weird), and a waitstaff that was nice enough not even to raise an eyebrow when my 18 year old brother asked for a White Russian in lieu of a wine glass to accompany his meal.

Drinks: on a terrace, on the town, or illegally in public with a killer view

The concept of ‘appy ‘our (that’s the French pronunciation, they can’t say ‘h’) has sort of been adopted by our gaulois friends, though I’d say in general it’s a pretty unsuccessful counterpart to the American version. Namely because  if you’re looking for good, interesting cocktails, you’re in the wrong country (you don’t want to taste the Listerine-esque Get 27 that my roommate recently ordered by acccident), and bar food  is… well, misunderstood. However, no one could say that the French don’t like to drink or that they don’t know how to do it well. Here are some of my favorite places to imbibe:

1. In a park, any park, more specifically one that lets  you sit on the grass, like Montsouris in the 14th, which you might recognize from the end of the film Paris Je T’aime (RER B- Cité Universitaire), the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th, which is beautiful in and of itself but also has great views AND is home to its own special bar that is only available to people who make it into the park before the gates close at dusk (métro Buttes Chaumont or Laumière), or the Place des Vosges in the Marais, which was the first planned square in Paris and is in close proximity to lots of shopping, restaurants, and things to visit (métro Bastille, Chemin Vert, St. Paul, or Bréguet-Sabin). Also, touristy though it may be, taking a bottle of wine to the steps of Sacré Coeur is a must for the view and the general ambience of Montmartre. Don’t expect to be alone, but sometimes the street performers (musicians, people who do tricks with soccer balls) are actually pretty good, and to look down and out over Paris as the sun sets is something not to be missed (métro Abbesses, then lots of stairs).

2. Le Bloc: (métro Brochant) We just discovered this place, not far from my apartment in the 17th (so a bit removed from the center), near the lovely Batignolles neighorhood and more-or-less across the street from a nice indoor market. It’s relaxed, with low lighting and a sort of funky old architecture that creates lots of funny nooks and crannies for hanging out in, that they’ve filled with sofas, tables, and mismatched chairs to fit. Photography on the walls, good music and a cool crowd combined with a very inexpensive wine and drink list make it a great, low-key weeknight hangout spot. The girls at the table next to us were reading tarot cards, if that gives you an idea of the general ambience. The burgers, as well, are reasonably priced and good (with homemade fries!)

3. Verjus: (métro Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre, Pyramides) Recently opened by a few fellow Seattle-ites, I was partial to this place before I tried it because of the hometown link and because I think you can probably safely bet on a Northwest cook who worked with Tom Douglas. Beyond that, the couple who run Verjus also ran the very successful and not very secret Hidden Kitchen for the last several years. There’s a restaurant upstairs which I hear is lovely, though with menus fixed at either 55 or 77 euros sans vin it’s out of my range for the average night out. We opted instead for the wine bar downstairs, where a small but good and reasonably priced wine list and a few of their small plates (including fried chicken, celeriac dumplings, and beef cheek tostadas) made for a nice light dinner. Nice in that it was very nice, and the food was very good. Light in that it was very light, so don’t go hungry… for about 10 euros a small plate, we hoped that splitting four between two people would be sufficient but left feeling like we’d just shared an appetizer. The space is great, a beautiful renovated cave with stone walls and a window to the street, the clientèle is international (read: American) and friendly, and for a drink and a snack (like a real happy hour, minus the prices) it’s perfect. Maybe the classiest of the places on the list. Take your parents, have them buy you two orders of the fried chicken.

4. Candelaria (métro Filles du Calvaire, Temple): a Mexican speakeasy in the haut Marais, you say? I am pretty sure this bar was actually designed specifically for me. First, the tacos are great, though you may have to battle for space at the tiny counter and single table, and up until recently finding good Mexican food in Paris was a serious challenge. Eat there for lunch or dinner, try the black bean brownie or take it to go, and then push through the unmarked white door to the left of the man melting the cheese on the vegetarian taco with pineapple to get to the lounge. Low lights and great cocktails, including good tequila drinks and a punchbowl to share (apparently this trend has already come and gone in the states, but things like that are just a step behind here), plus now I hear they serve tacos in the bar. It’s really cool.

5. Le Point Ephemère (métro Louis Blanc, Jaurès): This cool concert venue and bar is located at the north end of the Canal St. Martin, a funky, young area that is often overlooked by visitors to the city. Check show listings before you go if you’re into live music (the room is small; last year I was very up close and personal there with the Head and the Heart as well as French singer Sophie Maurin, and able to talk with them both after the show), or just go on an evening when the sun’s out to enjoy a drink along their pedestrian-only stretch of the canal.

6. Le Comptoir Général (métro Jacques Bonsergent): Not far from the Point Ephemère on the Canal St Martin is this eclectic space, frequently home to various events and otherwise just a cool bar to hang out in. Different rooms, some outdoor space, cheese and charcuterie plates, and strange enough decor to keep you surprised.

7. On a roof: The department stores Galéries Lafayette and Printemps (métro Grands Boulevards) both have rooftop terraces that you can shop your way up to, with great views as well as bars. They’re not open after dark, so plan on going early, and in the summertime. The Centre Pompidou (métro Rambuteau) also has a top floor restaurant with a rooftop terrace. It’s expensive, and honestly I don’t really like the style (or the attitude) but there’s something super cool about all the outdoor tables fitted with one red rose in a vase. Go for coffee. The Terass Hotel near Place de Clichy and Montmartre has a rooftop bar and restaurant with unreal views of the whole city. The food and wine are skippable, but for an after dark cocktail it might be the best place I’ve ever been for watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle.

8. Prescription Cocktail Club: (métro St-German-des-Près, St. Michel) Okay, a little swanky, and not necessarily very French, but for good drinks in a cool space smack in the center of Paris, this chic bar with a discreet entrance is one of the few places I (and I rue the day) risked wearing high heels in the city.
10. La Cordonnerie (métro: Réamur-Sébastopol) Go on Thursdays, and go early. Drinks are cheap, happy hour goes ’til 7 (or maybe 8: €2 beers, €3 glasses of wine), and if you stay past nine and manage to find a table, you get free lamb couscous. That might sound disconcerting, but it’s good.

11. La Fourmi (métro: Pigalle) We went to this place for the first time one Friday, stayed all night, and went back the next day. Cool decor, cool crowd, cool location, relatively inexpensive.

12. Glass (métro: Pigalle) From the folks at Candelaria, this unmarked door on a street full of strip clubs might weird you out, but you should really go in. Great cocktails. Amazing hot dogs. That sounds ridiculous. The hot dogs are really good.

And if you have a sweet tooth…

There are a few Parisian delicacies that really can’t be missed, and while I’m not really a lover of desserts, these are a few things that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime

1. Hot chocolate at Ladurée (métro Georges 5, multiple locations) or Angelina (métro Tuileries). Both of these traditional tea salons serve chocolat à l’ancien, which means thick and rich and with a carafe of water and a little bowl of homemade whipped cream. Angelina is also home to the Mont Blanc dessert, a pastry of meringue, cream, and sugary chestnut cream. One is easily enough sugar for two people, or maybe three, but it’s a classic.

2. Macarons at Ladurée: I like the salted caramel and the pistachio, but you probably can’t go wrong with any of the twenty some odd flavors and colors. Sit down and eat a large macaron with a knife and fork and a café crème  if you’re feeling fancy, or pick a handful of flavors to fill one of their beautiful little gift boxes and take them to go.

3. Ice cream at Berthillon (métro Cité or St. Michel) on the Ile St Louis. So good. On a hot day, there’s sure to be a line, but it is well worth the wait. I try to get whatever seasonal fruit flavor they have at the moment, like pear in the fall or melon in the summer.

Leaving Paris?

A book came out recently called Paris, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. I understand this sentiment, like I think anyone who lives in a big city and has to do things there other than just stroll alongside the Seine sipping wine and listening to accordion music. I always love getting out of the city, and periodically end up at some pretty good eateries. So if you happen to find yourself in any of the following places, I highly recommend:

St Emilion, France: L’envers du Decor

Toulouse, France: Chez Emile

Beaune, France: Ma Cuisine

Barcelona, Spain: Paco Meralgo

Cadaquès, Spain: La Sal

Rome, Italy: Il Bacaro

Budapest, Hungary: Bock Bizstro

Vienna, Austria: Cafe Korb

To be continued!

You look sweet, upon the seat…

September 9, 2011

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Ah, Paris. City of lights, city of love, city of omnipresent and yet completely miserable mass transit. The Paris metro is poeticized. It’s in movies. There are books. People buy the white tiles that line its stations to decorate their houses. And whether it is the middle of winter or the height of summer, it is a nightmarish cluster of humans (and sometimes dogs, and groceries, and take-out food) jammed together in a sweaty, steamy, claustrophobic, slow-moving capsule of body-odor scented transportation purgatory. I can’t help it. Every time I go through one of those pretty art nouveau metropolitan archways, I develop a case of the metro sweats.

So I walk a lot. But when I’m pressed for time and can’t handle the prospect of thirty minutes of stagnant air underground, the city of Paris has cleverly devised the ultimate solution: the velib.

The city sponsored bike program is cheap (1.70 for a day, 29 euros for an entire year), relatively easy (I mean, if I managed to figure it out, anyone can), and not only is it generally faster than taking the metro it has the added benefit of being exercise. The Velib app for iPhone can locate nearby stations, calculate your route, and even tell you how many calories you will burn in pedaling from point A to point B!

They do, however, have their drawbacks, and while I am sure I am far from exhausting the list of potential mishaps on bicycle, lord knows I have made a dent. For starters, to ride a Velib, you have to ride on Paris streets. These can range in size and intimidation level from “tiny and medieval and sporadically blocked by improperly parked vehicles” to “hellishly terrifying six lane roundabouts where people apparently follow no rules.” I find that I feel safest on a Velib late at night on an empty street with a generous and well-marked bus lane, but since I often need to go places during daylight hours I don’t often get the luxury of these ideal biking conditions.

To rent a Velib on the street, all you need is a chip and pin credit card. The Velib stations are well distributed, and the aforementioned iPhone app will tell you which stations are closest, how many bikes and parking spots they have available, and whether or not the bikes are broken. When you see one of these stations, you will note a row of gray bicycles and a little kiosk-like machine.

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“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

When approaching the kiosk-like machine, try to be calm. Imagine a flat pond, or a sunny field, or a leprechaun sliding down a rainbow into a pile of puppies. If you are stressed it will go wrong. While the process should appear straightforward, you will have to press a lot of buttons. First, you need to tell the machine that you want to rent a bicycle, and for how long. Then you have to read and validate liability information (never read it; if you press 5 it skips to the end). Then you have to make payment, validate the payment, validate the guarantee of 150 euros, enter your pin, validate your pin, make up a secret code, enter the secret code, enter the secret code again, and validate. Then you will have to read instructions (never read them; if you press 5 it skips to the end). Then you will be taken back to what appears to be the screen you started on. While it appears to be a problem, this is what you want. You now have to tell the machine that, having rented a bike, you want to take one out. Don’t get stressed if the person waiting behind you to get a bike is becoming agitated, or if the person waiting for you to take your bike so that he can park his is rolling his eyes. There is absolutely no human way to expedite the button-pressing process.

velib3

This guy absolutely hates his life and feels more confused than he did when he got his first TI-83

 

The machine will tell you to enter the code on your ticket, then enter your secret code, and then enter the secret code again. Then it will give you a list of the available bikes and let you choose your vehicle. THIS PART IS VERY IMPORTANT. Do NOT choose a bike with a broken seat. DO NOT choose a bike with a flat tire. DO NOT choose a bike where it looks as if the gears might have been tampered with. If you choose a faulty bike, you have to press all the buttons again, and no one wants to press all the buttons again.

So you’ve chosen your bike. You know the names of the streets you are taking in order to go in the same direction as the traffic. You don’t totally trust your sense of direction but hey, it can’t be that confusing, right? Plus, the app with the map is so helpful!

velibapp

At this point I think it’s important to talk about wardrobe. When biking, one must be certain that ones shoes will stay attached to ones feet, that ones scarf will not blow away in the wind, that one has proper eyewear to protect ones eyes from dusty city funk blowing in ones face, and, the cardinal rule, that if one happens to be wearing a dress or skirt that one is comfortable with the length of said dress or skirt and/or is thoroughly undergarmented.

One sunny, Velib-worthy day, Lauren and Laura and I set out to go from my apartment at Republique to Laura’s in the bottom of the 14th. This little trek would take us across most of the city in about 35 minutes. It was hot out when I got dressed that morning, so I picked a short and flowy, loose-fitting dress with a lightweight skirt. It was very weather-appropriate. We got our bikes near my place after pressing buttons for about twenty minutes and were on our way. Lauren, the Velib master, was leading the way. We made our way down to the Rue de Rivoli, the center of Paris and the heart of the tourist area. People were everywhere. We were really bad on our bikes, and the streets were only going one direction, and as we went onto the sidewalk I saw Lauren turn around and look at me but couldn’t hear what she said.

So obviously everyone is familiar with the picture of Marilyn Monroe standing over the Manhattan subway grate with her white dress billowing up around her. In that scene from The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn’s character says, “Oh, can you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?”

sevenyearitch1

Well, Marilyn, yes. Yes, I can feel the breeze from the subway, but no, delicious is not how I would describe the sudden gust of air that grabbed my loose-fitting, lightweight summer dress and blew it up completely OVER MY HEAD. Marilyn Monroe might have made that image iconic. I assure you that swerving on a bicycle, blinded by my own dress and for all intents and purposes mostly naked in the middle of Rue de Rivoli was not my iconic moment.

The rest of the Velib mishaps are too numerous to recount: seats suddenly becoming loose and dropping, broken gears that leave you feeling like you just completed an Iron Man by the time you get home, dangerous swerving and last-minute turns across Place de la Bastille that would probably give my parents heart-attacks, being jarred and rattled by accidentally taking a cobblestone street, paying for a ticket only to realize that the bikes are broken and just sort of leaning there uselessly, getting a fly inside of my eyeball, watching Laura run into a van that had run a red light while she screamed at him in French, “Learn how to drive!”

The good news is that the city of Paris just added a section to their website so that you can buy your Velib passes online, since with most American credit cards, the little kiosk machines don’t work. Which means that before, you would have had to press all the buttons over and over again in vain, without ever getting to risk your life on a French bicycle. But now you can ☺

The Tale of Guacamole Jr.

June 18, 2011

Since January’s review of Taken, the most action this blog has seen has been when I log on to delete all of the spam comments I receive, and I think it’s lain stagnant long enough. The next two weeks of vacation should provide me with ample time to do some sort of abridged six-month retrospective on some of the funny things that have happened, in no particular order.

So to begin where we left off but a little later, I’ll start with…

The Tale of Guacamole Jr, the Little Axolotl that Could…n’t

Once upon a time, Laura was scanning YouTube for entertaining clips, as one often does. After following a strange rabbit hole-like trail of videos that she later could not recount, she somehow landed upon this fated gem: the axolotl song.

I had never heard of an axolotl. It sounded made up. But evidently, not only does it sing and dance with maracas, it also has some fairly fascinating physiological characteristics. While researching, we found the Scottish website www.axolotl.org to be quite informative and the FAQ section to be quite entertaining, but the main gist of the axolotl is that it is an animal that can either stay in its neotenic or larval state for its entire life without ever transitioning to adulthood, or it can pull a transformer and morph into a salamander.

Anyway, the song became sort of a cult hit (I say that in the loosest possible sense of the term… really I mean that amongst the ten or so of us we just started singing it a lot… or a lotl, if you will.)

Shortly thereafter, the Salon d’Agriculture came to town. The principal attraction for me was the goats, Lauren was after the sheep, Jillsa wanted to see the cats and dogs. We passed a lovely afternoon with the farm animals and were just about to leave in search of food when, lo and behold, there they were: tank upon tank of axolotls. And unlike the cows and horses and pigs, the axolotls were for sale. It took Bastien all of two minutes of consideration, five minutes of selecting the right tank and tank décor and the axolotl was ours.

He came in a plastic bag, his little white nubby eyes taking in his new family, his creepy little fingers wiggling in excitement. Because axolotls are native to Mexico, and because we had previously had an unsuccessful attempt at growing an avocado named Guacamole, our new axolotl friend was dubbed Guacamole Jr.

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He went to live happily at the boys’ apartment with a panoramic view of Paris and the Eiffel tower. Periodically people fed him chips and beer to supplement his normal diet of bloodworms. Sometimes he would get to come out of the tank and do things like go in peoples’ mouths, or crawl around on their stomachs. It was the best of times for young Guacamole. He had his whole future ahead of him. He could become a salamander! He could stay an axolotl! Either way, he could spend all of his days in the City of Light with people that loved him!

axelotl11

Well, most people loved him. There was one. There was one person that had other plans for young Guac. Thomas was waiting for the right time. The others couldn’t be there, they couldn’t know, they would try to stop him, he might fail. He devised a ploy, an alibi, the perfect cover story for the perfect crime. He would act like he was cleaning the tank. He would say he was taking care of the pet, being responsible, and then…

And then….

Thomas poured out half of Guacamole’s tank water. Guacamole wiggled his creepy little fingers in excitement. New water! He gazed at Thomas adoringly, admiring his black-framed glasses, wishing he had a little Guacamole Junior sized pair of his own. Thomas placed the tank in the sink. He spun the faucet and turned on the flow of water.

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Hot water. Like boiling hot magma water. By the time Laura came into the room, Guacamole was upside-down and looking rather not alive. She suggested the refrigerator. They waited. News of the boiling spread.

That evening, the announcement came. Guacamole Jr had indeed passed on, victim to the fiery waves of Thomas’ wrath.

The boys wrapped him unceremoniously ceremoniously in a napkin and placed him outside on the balcony to mummify while we waited for the weekend when the proper funeral arrangements could be executed. Eulogies were drafted. We imagined little Guac finding his salamandy mate in some sort of amphibious heaven, finally emerging from his neotenic state, losing his weird feathery gills and turning a gross greenish-brown color. But not Lauren. Lauren imagined dissecting the axolotl, curious to know what was inside that slightly translucent, weird little body.

lauren

loic

And with a souvenir corkscrew from La Rochelle, she did it. Until Loic put an end to things and sent Guacamole Jr to his watery grave via the goldfish route.

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And that is the definitely-not-approved-for-PETA tale of the little axelotl that was.

Moving Abroad: a Retrospective starring Liam Neeson

December 25, 2010

When I first started telling people I was moving to Paris, I got a variety of reactions. Some people were excited.

“Ohhhhh, Paris! I love Paris!”

Some people were curious.

“Ooooooh, Paris, why?”

But more often than not people said this:

“OH MY GOD, have you seen Taken??”

Yes. Yes, I have seen Taken. And I’m happy to inform everyone that after four months, I have successfully avoided being sold into the underground Parisian sex trade, freeing Liam Neeson from any obligation to implement his particular set of special skills to save me. I consider this a veritable réussite.

In case you have not seen Taken, I will summarize.

Taken begins by painting a portrait of Liam Neeson’s character. His marriage has dissolved and his ex-wife has moved on. Despite his stoicism and his notable set of particular skills, he is a sad character. The only point of light in his life is his daughter, who giggles a lot and also sings.

This daughter decides to go to Paris with a friend. Liam Neeson has his reservations, but the aforementioned ex-wife thinks she should be able to spread her wings. So she goes. No sooner has she arrived than she and her friend are targeted by a secret agent representing Paris’ underground sex-trafficking ring. They install themselves in a luxurious apartment, which within minutes is promptly broken into by a band of aggressors representing Paris’ underground sex-trafficking ring.

Liam Neeson’s daughter calls Liam Neeson to inform him that she is in the process of being kidnapped by representatives of Paris’ underground sex-trafficking ring. He implements one of his particularskills (advising) and tells her to hide. Under the bed. But to leave the phone on, so that when the time is right, the kidnappers from Paris’ underground sex-trafficking ring can pick up and he can tell them all about his particular set of skills, a skill set from which he will be borrowing in order to hunt them down and retrieve his daughter.

Things move quickly from here. One of Liam Neeson’s particular skills is speed, and he’s on it. Upon arrival in Paris, he promptly infiltrates Paris’ underground sex-trafficking ring. One of his particular skills is resourcefulness. He learns that most of Paris’ underground sex-traffickers are Albanian, so he finds an Albanian cab driver to serve as his interpreter. When said interpreter doesn’t really work out, it’s okay, because one of Liam Neeson’s particular skills is rapid-fire language acquisition. Within minutes, he is halfway through his English-Albanian dictionary and practically fluent, which ends up being unnecessary because all of Paris’ Albanian underground sex traffickers speak perfect English, with only the slightest villain accent.

Liam Neeson finds various clues as to his daughter’s location, and finally manages to hunt down some of the sex traffickers using his particular skills. It’s very interesting because he finds them in an abandoned quarry/construction site. I don’t know if you know this, but central Paris is full of abandoned quarries. Liam Neeson then engages the underground sex traffickers in a high-speed Jeep chase through the abandoned quarry involving lots of bombs, SUV’s, and particular skills. It’s very intense, and highly realistic.

Then, a short while later, after using some of his newly acquired Albanian, Liam Neeson finds his daughter’s friend. Unfortunately, Liam Neeson’s daughter’s friend lacked one particular skill that involved staying alive. But Liam Neeson can’t be bothered by that; he leaves her in an underground Parisian sex-trafficking den and moves right along. One of his particular skills is not reverence.

Then Liam Neeson finds himself on a boat!! Liam Neeson is on a boat and Liam Neeson’s daughter is also on the boat, but she is being hoarded by the villainous Jabba the Hut, who purchased her at an auction sponsored by the underground Parisian sex-trafficking ring. The boat is full of armed Albanians, but Liam Neeson is not fazed; he has particular karate skills to rival Jackie Chan.

He also has the particular skill of being quite the assassin, so even when his daughter’s face is mere inches from that of Jabba the Hut, he successfully, particularly, aims and shoots the villain in the forehead, freeing his daughter from his grasp.

Then it is implied that another one of Liam Neeson’s particular skills is piloting a large yacht, because now that all the Albanians are dead, he is the only one who can navigate them back to Paris, and then to Charles de Gaulle, and then home to America. Where his daughter, unscarred, untroubled, and perfectly well adjusted starts voice lessons with a famous pop singer.

Taken has three stars on IMDB. It earned 144.9 million dollars at the box office.

The End.

C’est GRAVE cette grève

November 1, 2010

Manifestation Posters in Paris

Well, France is en grève and it is making things interesting. The national strike has been going on since last Tuesday now, and it means that transportation is un petit peu difficile. Of course, I decided that mid-strike would be the ideal time to get out of town and take the train to Dijon to spend the weekend with Hazel and crew on the Roma.

On Thursday afternoon, I went to the SNCF boutique to get my train ticket. There were four people in front of me, and three people working. Guichet C was only for people who had made appointments to buy tickets. Guichet A was functioning, if slowly. And Guichet B was inexplicably fermé with it’s fonctionnaire busily doing things like reorganizing envelopes and ignoring the customers. After forty-five minutes of waiting, my number was called. I asked if I could please buy a ticket to Dijon.

C’est pas possible,” he responded, a phrase that I’m become fairly familiar with here.

Evidently, due to the strikes, SNCF did not yet know which trains would be running the following day, and when. But, he explained, even though he couldn’t help me, I could look online that evening because the schedules for the following day are posted at 5. I looked at the clock. 5:15. D’accord.

At the SNCF boutique

So later that night I hopped on SNCF.com and sure enough the schedule for the next day was posted. No TGV’s, it said, but the TER (regional train) was running leaving from Paris Gare de Bercy at 7:20 a.m. Three hours on the train, I could finish my reading for school and be in Dijon by 10:15 to meet Hazel and go to the market. Perfect. Purchased.

I woke up at 5 a.m. and was on the metro by 6:15, making my way to Bercy. It was still dark out, and freezing; the sunny week had ended with a serious cold snap. I went to the little kiosk, found my reservation, and printed my ticket. Then I looked at the screen to see where which platform my train would be leaving from. No train on the screen. Looked at my phone. 6:55. Then I noticed a little sign.

Due to the national strikes, TGV Number 95053 from Paris to Dijon will be leaving on time from Gare de Lyon.

I read it again. Gare de Lyon. I went to the guichet.

“Hello, excuse me. I’d just like to confirm. I’m on the train that leaves in twenty minutes for Dijon. Am I understanding correctly that it is now leaving from a different train station?”

“Oui.”

So I grabbed my ticket and my bags, made a mad dash back to the metro, got to Gare de Lyon, sat down on my train at 7:19 and we were off.

Something is not Right: Mad Metro Dash

After a few minutes, they made an announcement. I heard something about passengers going to Dijon, but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. Half an hour later, after our first stop, they made the announcement again. That time I made out something about passengers to Dijon and a bus. I felt confused, and suddenly very unsure of myself.

I asked for clarification.

The man I spoke to explained to me that the next stop, at Laroche-Migennes, was the final stop. In response to my blank stare he smiled and said, “Bonne chance.”

Bonne chance indeed. The train stopped at Laroche-Migennes at 8:15. Later, in recounting this story to Hazel and Phillipe, I would have Laroche-Migennes described to me as “dodgy,” “sketchy,” “scary,” and “the armpit of the Burgundy railway system.” I disembarked and asked one of the SNCF employees on the platform where I went to catch the bus to Dijon.

“Oh, it’s very simple, you just cross the parking lot and you will see the buses at the far end.”

Seemed straightforward enough. I walked under the tracks and crossed the parking lot and, lo and behold, there really was a bus there. Only upon closer examination, it turned out that bus was headed in the direction of Lyon. Come to find out that my bus, the one destination Dijon, wouldn’t be arriving until 10:45. Approximately two and a half hours from then. I looked around. Foggy. Freezing. Nothing open in town. I looked back at the station. One bench. Freezing. Twenty people waiting. But at least they had a coffee machine.

So I dutifully waited for my bus, cold and exhausted, rode it three hours to Dijon, and then met Hazel at the train station, arriving at last on board the Fandango roughly eight hours after I had left home.

All that to find out that, around the time I was enduring my second hour of Burgundy bus riding, Daniel back in Paris had decided at the last minute to hop on a train that day, too. So without a ticket, he went to the train station, got on board a TGV, had a beer in the restaurant cart, never had to pay, and was in Dijon in less than an hour and a half.

Maybe you just have to be French to understand how it works.

Anyway, after a really lovely weekend on the Roma, it was time to head back to reality. Specifically to my 5:00 Monday evening class in which I had a 20 minute presentation due. The train ticket I had originally purchased had me leaving Dijon at 1:59 and arriving in Paris at 3:30, with plenty of time to go home, drop my bags off, and get across town to class. Sunday afternoon, I got an e-mail from SNCF.

“In order to let you know ahead of time,” it stated formally, “and to minimize the inevitable problems related to your voyage, we wish to inform you that due to planned strikes, rail traffic shall be perturbed on October 18th.”

Email from SNCF

Mais bien sûr.

It went on to state, however, that I could board any train between Dijon and Paris either that day or the next. So I was hopeful. Even if my train was cancelled, there had to be at LEAST one train running. After all, the official announcement was that one out of every two TGV were running normally, and with six or seven trains a day headed to the capital, that should be no problem, right?

Sunday night, I went on the SNCF website to find out what trains were running. Website down. Went back a little later. Website down. Called the phone number. All operators busy, call back later. Called the phone number. All operators busy, call back later.
SNCF website fail: info en temps reel?

So we decided my best option would be to get up as early as possible, go straight to the little train station in St. Jean de Losne, get on the little commuter train to Dijon and find out in person how and when I was going to get back to Paris to go to my class and do my presentation.

At 7:00, I woke up and we went to the train station. It was vacant, with a little sign hanging on the door. It was foggy. And silent. I almost expected a tumbleweed to roll across the tracks, and a vulture to be circling up above. We approached the station warily. The sign on the door was a schedule, a list of all the trains running that day from St Jean to Dijon. The list was long. Unfortunately, they had highlighted all of the trains that were actually running despite the strike. And I had missed the last one by a good hour.

We circled around to the back of the station, where through closed blinds of a locked door we could see a dim light. We knocked.

An irritated looking man in an SNCF uniform answered. We asked politely if there were any more trains that day going to Dijon. He pointed to the sign on the door as if we were idiots.

“Non. C’est indiqué la.

We asked politely if there would be any other form of public transit connecting St Jean to Dijon that day.

“Oui,” he replied shortly. “The bus.”

And how, we inquired, might one go about finding out the bus schedule?

“I don’t know the bus schedule,” he answered, before closing the door again.

I felt a slight panic. The website wasn’t working. The phone system was too busy. Even the actual employees in person at the train station weren’t able to tell me how to get back to Paris. Should I just start walking? Was there a bike? Driving wasn’t a choice; I had no car, I don’t know how to drive a manual even if I had managed to negotiate borrowing one, and, to top it all off, there was a gas shortage due to the strikes and not a single gas station in town was open.

So we did the only logical thing and went back to the Roma for a nap in front of the stove followed by champagne lunch. At 2:00, Jean Luc was headed to Dijon anyway, so he drove Hazel and me into town and dropped me at the station. If I was lucky, there was a 4:00 train that normally ran from Lausanne in Switzerland to Paris with a stop in Dijon, and rumor had it that the international trains would be running as usual. So, with a useless TGV ticket in hand, I huddled on the platform with what seemed like a thousand other people all trying to get to Paris.

When the train pulled up to the platform, it was a mad traffic jam of people all trying to squeeze on, sit down, and fit themselves and their luggage into any available space. I pushed and shoved with the best of them, and miraculously managed to find a little corner in the hallway where I could sit on my suitcase, read over my notes for my presentation, and know that, late though I was for class, I was at least headed in the right direction.

So just over an hour late, flustered but in the right city, I made it to class, we gave our presentation, and thus ended my formal schooling in transit strikes in France.

Speaking of teaching English…

October 11, 2010

I got a sneak peek at some of the teaching material we’ll be expected to use with our English classes. Not totally sure I feel comfortable using this particular page for, well, anything.

This one, however, seems SRSLY useful si on va A2DA les SMS.