Saturday, July 31, 2010

Gone "en vacances"

It started with our favorite restaurant, Chez Gladines. We headed there a few weekends ago for one of their hugs platters of duck in Roquefort sauce and basque-style potatoes, only to be confronted with this:
(Dear clients, we have left on vacation. We will see you again from 7pm on Monday, August 2nd onwards. Have a good summer and a good vacation...the Chez Gladines team)

Dejected, we drank a pint at the bar across the street while we discussed our plan B, smiling in sad solidarity as we watched countless other students approach the restaurant only to turn away in disbelief.

The next strike was when I set out, folder of bureaucratic papers in hand, to the CAF office, to settle some problems with my socialized student rent remission:

(No CAF in July or August; reopening September 1st)

After that, I watched in bewildered American wonderment as each day another of the bakeries on my road pulled its blinds and closed its doors--for the following month! The Moroccan restaurant my office celebrated our last day in was out of kefta and lamb--they were closing the next day and trying to use up their remaining ingredients.

And now, even my office is closed. Friends I talk to back home are incredulous: "how have you already accrued vacation time? You've only been working what? 2 months?"

But no, I tell them, this is France: the country where the entire country goes on vacation. Together. Twice, even! (Once during the summer, and then again during ski season) And where do they go? Well, France, of course. Where else? As any Frenchman will tell you, they have everything they need here: party/wealthy beaches to the South, more subdued beaches to the North, surfing to the West, skiing to the East, sunny fields full of wines and chateaux in the middle--what more could you ask for?

It's good for the national tourism industry, I suppose, but not so much for French industry in the international market. Or their reputation, at least. The French even make fun of themselves, as evidenced by this ad for the Parisian", one of the free daily metro newspapers, which boasts being "the only Parisian that you can count on throughout the summer." In the poster shown here, they say "the only Parisian who will give you news all summer":
As for me? Yes, I'm officially "en vacances" but with my Master's exam fast approaching (end of August) I'm hitting the books instead of the beaches. Hélas! I hope to do a vacation day-trip or two, though, so we'll see. For now I'll just have to satisfy my urges to do as the French do by sipping my kir sauvignon from my wrought-iron window.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tour de Paris

There's a cool program in Paris called Vélib (a fun porte-manteau mush word of "Vélo"=bicycle and "libre"=free) that allows Parisians who have registered (and put down a 150 deposit against the product) to rent out a bicycle from one of the city's almost 1,700 docking stations for up to half an hour. The idea is to provide commuters, students, etc with an easy, efficient way to get through the city, not to mention a form of exercise and an environmentally-friendly alternative to driving or public transport. Although the Vélib program has faced its share of problems since its beginning in 2007, including overly-expensive bike software, cumbersome/heavy bikes, frequent repair problems and ongoing theft/vandalism, its spirit is still going strong, and it is one of the most successful and well-funded public bicycle programs in the world.

With that said, taking a Vélib ride has been on my list of things to do ever since I got to Paris. However, since you have to have a European bank card and a Parisian Metro pass to rent one out, by the time I was actually equipped to participate I had already become accustomed to traveling by bus and Metro. As a casual, country-trail cyclist, I also found the thought of biking alongside cars through narrow city streets rather daunting, and I couldn't be bothered to pay the trivial fee (1 euro a day, 5 a week or 30 a year) to test it out. And considering that Tom had only ever ridden a bike once in his life, he wasn't about to encourage me.

Until Saturday night. When leaving a friend's house in the wee hours, long after Metro service had stopped for the night, we decided to take advantage of the deserted streets to finally give Vélib a try. The first bike I tried had a flat tire; the first Tom tried wouldn't permit him to raise the seat. After a few minutes of tinkering with the locks and the settings, however, we were finally ready to go:

Verdict? A lot of fun, and a great way to enjoy the night air (and full moon!). Tom had a wobbly first few minutes of experimenting, but after that he seemed to pick it up (and pick up speed) quickly. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we did it again yesterday, and I fully intend to continue. There's going to be a slight learning curve--finding the roads with cycle paths, learning what to check for (maintenance-wise) before taking out a bike, finding the best docking stations (as some tend to always be empty, and some tend to never have docking space available, depending on the desirability of their location)--but it's vacation, and I have time to spare. Ready. Set. Bike!

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I've always been tickled by any form of word play (homonyms, palindromes, alliteration, ambigrams, you name it!) and a recent Facebook application reminded me of one of the more mystical forms of word play: anagrams. Throughout human history, various groups of people have investigated the potential of an anagram to reveal some kind of hidden inner nature of a person/thing. Louis XIII, one of France's 17th century kings, was a creator and connoisseur of fine anagrams, and even went so far as to appoint an official Anagrammist to the King! Even if the only thing anagrams are hiding is some Mad Libs-esque nonsense, they're still a lot of fun to think about. Here are a few I came up with the other day, using full names (middle names included).

For my artistic, dramatic brother: A Vetted Jubilant Mind, OR Dim, Jubilant Vendetta

(other, single words that emerged: invent, jam, jive, deviant, band)

For my science-minded sister, a prediction of career: Alter Nuclei to Emit, OR Total Nuclei Metier ('metier' is the French word for vocation)

(other, single words that emerged: electron, numeric)

For my father: Utterly Bald Got Retro

For my mother: Settle, Nutty Achiever!

For one of the St. Mary's hippies dearest to my heart: Hello, Sandy Henna

And for me...

A potential campaign slogan, should I ever choose to go into politics: Elect Cute Brat

A few cryptic but cool-sounding options: Celebrate Cute Light; Huge Electric Battle; Hectic Rebuttal Glee

A prediction of my future prodigious offspring?: Curl Begat Tech Elite

A slightly Shakespearean sandwich order: Bagel Lettuce Thrice

Keeping with the Shakespearean vein, a modern day adaptation of Hamlet's 'get thee to a nunnery!':"Get Her Celibate Cult!"

Instructions for my summer vacation (lecture means "reading" in French): Beach, Lecture, Get Lit

And finally, the telling hodgepodge of single words I was able to pull out: baguette, teach, brie--and then, of course, electric eel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jazz in the parc

Paris never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I'm starting to get a feel for it I discover a new hidden gem. This weekend, that gem was the aptly-named "Parc Floral" in the Bois de Vincennes, just to the Southeast of the city.
(doesn't this look like scenery straight out of Jurassic Park?)

For the month of July, the park is hosting a weekend Jazz Festival. This meant that our 2.50 euros provided access not only to the beautiful gardens, ponds, forests and picnicking fields, but also relaxing music to enjoy while we explored. The photo below shows the stage where the performers were based, on the island across the lake. The sound carried to the surrounding fields however, so like many of the other jazz fans we opted to find a sunny spot to sprawl rather than join the standing crowd.
We layed out our picnic blanket on this hill overlooking a heavily lilly-padded pond and basked in the sunlight.
Close-up of the oddly tall water lily plants:
The huge leaves of these tall flowers were bowl-shaped to collect water:
I found a more traditional water lily lurking beneath some lily pads:
An ol' coot and some coot-ettes!
The obligatory cute couple shot:
Bumble bee on a sunflower (known in French as a "sun-turner" because they pivot to follow the sun)...
Once the music had ended, we took an hour or so to wander around the back of the park. We found a really cool playground (featuring steep slides and a giant, bouncy spider web that you could definitely never find in modern, sue-happy America):And an enclosed butterfly garden:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Battles with beaucracy (and a healthy dose of perspective)

So I'm currently in the process of renewing my visa, which involves a number of irritating items of paperwork (including a 52 euro official translation of my birth certificate into French...*sigh*). After that, my tasks for next week will be to apply for my carte vitale to be eligible for state health care and to deal with the CAF, the socialized welfare program for students who could use some help for their rent (in my case, because my non-EU, student status prohibits me from getting a real, full-time and full-paying job). Being an adult is tiring.

On the bright side...

...I'm in a country that provides me with these great services--health care, student social aid (for a non-citizen, even!), and even the opportunity to get and keep a student visa without TOO much hassle (comparatively, at least). And worse case, if things ever get too difficult to handle here, I always have the option to return to the good ol' US of A, where I am guaranteed to find safety and employment. It is with all of this in mind on this muggy Monday that I'm going to put aside my lusting for air conditioning and revel in my apartment, job and boyfriend, with the knowledge that emigration could be much, much more difficult than my experience has been.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bastille festivities

Last Wednesday was Bastille day--the day of "National Celebration" commemorating what was actually a poorly-planned (albeit symbolic) attack on French absolutism (or an attack against an almost empty prison that caused a lot of casualties for civilian rebels and almost none for defenders) that kicked off an ultimately failed revolution, during which time France dethroned and beheaded royalty, only to eventually surrender their newfound "democracy" to an Emperor.

But hey, this is France, and any opportunity to take a national holiday is a good one.

We kicked off the evening with some happy hour beers and dinner. Here's me, drowning in a monster pint of blanche.
Then it was time to cram into the metro with all the other firework-goers. Hoping to avoid closed metro stations and crazy mobs of people (who had gathered on the Champ de Mars to stake out prime firework-watching territory as early as that morning), we opted to head to Passy, on the opposite bank of the tower. Judging by the crowd riding with us, we weren't as original as we'd hoped.
Although the riverbank where we had planned to stand was roped off for the firework display, we still snagged a good spot on the metro bridge between Passy and Bir Hakeim. We sipped champagne as the sun set, rocked every few minutes by one of the line 6 cars rumbling along above.
By nightfall, everyone on that bridge was ready.
And finally, there they were!
This year's display was set off from Trocadero, on the other side of the river from the tower. At one point during the show they had the Eiffel Tower sparkling in time with the fireworks. I love the way that crowds cheer at a spectacle, like fireworks or a film, even when there's no one there (a director, etc.) who could take credit for it to hear it. Instead of an expected debt owed to a performer, the applause becomes more genuine--the celebration of a shared moment.
Golden fireworks are always my favorite.
And half an hour later, the explosive, rainbow finale.

And then, of course, the metro ride back. Police had formed a barricade outside the station and were only letting us through in clumps. The hoards were in a happy mood, though, and metro turnstiles had been disabled to allow everyone free passage. And opting to not be in the heart of the action had its advantages, in the end. Where we were, near the end of the line, each metro car filled when it pulled into Passy, passing by the growing crowds at the following few stations closer in without giving them a space to hop in. I've been in that situation during strikes, and it definitely sucks. But that didn't stop me from enjoying a smug moment of Schadenfreude as I waved sympathetically at the sweaty masses stranded on the platforms.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's cooking in paris?

It seems that we started a trend with the whole moving out of the dorms and getting an apartment together, because now all the cool kids are doing it. Luckily, (for the time being, at least) everyone is still within walking distance. It took about 15 minutes of walking last night to get to cheap bar (3 euro pints!) below a friend's apartment where we watched the third-place match of the World Cup (yay Germany!), and only 10 minutes of walking to help a friend move in today. Half way through the traditional "thank you for helping me lug my crap up six flights of stairs" lunch and beer that followed, we looked out the window, across terracotta chimney pots and the iron balconies of countless crooked Parisian apartment buildings, to see a zebra balloon leisurely floating by. Bizarre. We decided to interpret it as a good omen.

As for life in my own apartment, well, it rocks. It's nice to have a place that feels like "home" to come home to at the end of the day, and the longer we're here, the luckier I feel to have ended up with the apartment that we did. By far one of the biggest advantages to having our own place is full (and exclusive) access to a kitchen. Gone are the days of eating cereal out of the box in my room, of hauling spices and oil to a shared kitchen everytime I want to cook, or of having to compete with irritating, often drunk students for stove space or dirty utensils.

My most recent project with the apartment has been a flower/herb box for the living room window. Its thriving residents are, from left to right, Lehrman, the Basil plant, Gregory, the pink flower, and Monty, the mint plant. Luhrmann and Gregory were presents from our housewarming party, but they seem to be doing much better in the box now than they did in their previous pots (especially Gregory, who survived a six-story drop after a particularly windy storm blew him off the windowsill).
So far we've used Monty in mojitos, mint juleps and tea, and Luhrmann in a variety of sauces, salads and other dishes. They make the apartment smell lovely, and feel cheery. I even used a few Luhrmann leaves in some scrambled eggs this morning (part of a complete breakfast)

The crab towel above and the trivet below were housewarming gifts from my mother, who wanted to make sure we had a touch of Maryland in the house.
Cherries are currently really cheap (about 3.95 a kilo), so I've been buying a lot of them. Last week I made up a recipe for a cherry/orange clafoutis, shown here cooling on the windowsill:

And again, close-up:
And last but not least, our jackfruit adventure. Since most supermarkets are closed on Sundays, we've taken to heading to Chinatown in the 13th on those days. The markets there have a wide range of exotic produce that we've usually neither seen nor tried before, and we're slowly making our way through it. Some of it is successful (pomelos, for example, which taste like a delicious cross between a grapefruit and a melon, or bok choi, or sprouts) but this particular purchase was a little too strange for my tastes. Known as a jackfruit in English, this spiny green Thai fruit felt like a basketball on the outside, and the inside was full of odd, dried-apricot-sized "kernels" of yellow, slimy, starchy fruit. The fruit had to be carved out of a spongy shell that oozed a glue-like sap--literally, it felt like woodglue when it hit water, and only oil could get it off of our hands and utensils. I bravely swallowed a few pieces but couldn't get into it. Tom froze some and insisted it was better that way (the gooey, stringy texture of the room-temperature jackfruit had been the challenge initially) but I decided to just take his word for it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

So chaud, fo' sho'

Il fait CHAUD à Paris--I'm talking in the mid-30s and drenchingly humid. And you know how forecasters always give that "feel" forecast, to describe how it feels in the shade, or with the wind chill, etc? In Paris, it literally feels like a sauna in the metro, except minus the health and relaxation benefits--it's more like you're riding along in a car where all air has been replaced by the evaporating sweat and the hot breath of your fellow, dripping passengers.

Luckily, since I walk to work I no longer need to take the metro on a regular basis (unlike Tom, who still has a half hour commute and consequently jumps in the shower when he gets home before he'll let me hug him). Unfortunately, the temperature of my office isn't much better. It's okay in the morning, but by about 3pm I've lost my ability to be productive at all, and instead contemplate which will happen first: will I melt, or fall into a drowsy sort of coma and be found later in a limp pile under the front desk?

Our apartment has the advantage of having several big windows, and therefore a decent amount of airflow. However, it also gets full sun and is in the heat-collecting top floor of the building. Even still, home is still far superior to work in terms of the amount of clothing I'm (not) required to wear (and the ease of access to iced tea, which I've been making by the gallon). I also LOVE the double bed, because it means that I can lie on the opposite edge from my human heater of a boyfriend.

After a week of searching (all the Dartys in the city were continuously sold-out almost immediately after getting new stock) I finally managed to track down a fan. It has since become my most precious possession, and he follows me around our three rooms like an obedient puppy.

See, there he is. Isn't he cute?

I can totally understand why the whole country takes off the month of August for vacation now--who would be able to get anything done? If Sarkozy really wants to go forward with his original plans of making French workers more productive, he should see to government-subsidized air conditioning units before he starts pushing longer work hours or less leave. Heck, if my office had AC I'd even consider working overtime...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Over the rainbow

Last Saturday was Paris' "Marche des Fiertés", or Gay Pride walk. In spite of the heat, it was a joyful, colorful celebration:
Anyone who wants to fight discrimination and intolerance was invited to join the walk, so it was hard to tell at any given point who was gay and who was just accepting. Which is a pretty cool blurring of boundaries. In any case, there were many, MANY marchers (I later read estimates of tens of thousands). The crowd was definitely skewed young, too--I'm not sure if that speaks to my generation's tolerance or just our eagerness to take part in demonstrations, but I'd like to think it's the first one.

(Okay, so I might have wasn't ALWAYS difficult to tell who was gay...)

The walk's drag queens were, of course, balanced out by a political presence. This is also where the older walkers tended to congregate--around Amnesty International or other activist groups marching to make a statement.

This group is walking "in memory of deported homosexuals":
Sign translation: "Preacher, imam, rabbi--don't block my way" (note the Scissors Sisters shirt on the right):
Activist bumper stickers abounded. My favorites were stickers modeled after the very prominent labels that come on packs of cigarettes here, although instead of saying "Tobacco tue" (tobacco kills) they said "Homophobie tue" and gave various statistics about suicides, hate crimes and legal inequality.

This was a Uganda political sticker:

One of the groups had a really effective float tactic of using hangmen silhouettes to represent every country where homosexuality is still punishable by death:

Chilling close-up:
Sign translation: "My brother is GAY and I'm proud of it"
Nice shoes:
A group of lesbians that were chanting "Xena! Xena!" and drumming up support for their heroine from the bystanders:
There were a surprising number of women with naught but taped Xs on their chests. (there were also a lot of men with "blow me" or "I'm single" written on their chests, and "entry" written, with a down-pointing arrow, on their backs).
At one point, everyone stopped (and the pumping techno turned off) for three minutes of silence
One of a continual series of gladiator angels on stilts, bearing Mentos banners
Cruella deFabulous
Gothic angels seemed to be the theme of the day.
Translations of the signs: "Love doesn't discriminate: not by gender or by race!" "My liberty ensures yours!"
Wavin' the flag with pride:
I kid you not, the gay motorcycle club of Paris:
Aww. Slash I was totally too afraid to take a picture of this tough and muscled couple from the front:
This roller blade-r was distributing fliers for a gay club--but only to attractive young men:

What would a Pride parade be without a giant inflatable condom? (surrounded by
volunteers passing out lube and condoms of a slightly more manageable size)
After the four epic hours of parade were finally over, the streets were a wreck. The cleaning crews were on the scene immediately, in order to speed up the reopening of the many major roads along the parade route. What a weird and wonderful afternoon in gay ol' Paree!