Thursday, July 23, 2009

Notes on Paris

I know, I know -- worst blogger ever! As I near the close of my third summer in Europe -- a pretentious opening clause if there ever was one -- I find I just have less and less to say about the minutiae of life here. And apparently, I don't have the energy to come up with a theme either. So here are some random things I've been noticing lately.

*All of the bakeries in my neighborhood are closed on Wednesday. Of course that was the day I came home so hungry I could eat an entire eclair in one bite. On my way walking around my neighborhood (for more closed bakeries) I had an imaginary discussion in my head with an owner -- why all on Wednesday? Well, because that is when bakeries are closed. Why not have some close on Monday or Tuesday, like other shops? Because then it wouldn't it be Wednesday, now would it? QED.

*On the topic of bakeries, there are five of them within a 3-minute walk of my flat. This may be the thing I'll miss most about Paris.

*To finish the topic of bakeries, I've become incredibly snotty on the topic of baguette quality.

*If you've never seen it before, the water running through the streets to clean out the debris is charming. Good use of water? Not so sure.

*Anyone who tells you that the French are rude has either never been here, or hasn't been here in about 30 years. I find the French almost unfailingly polite, and if anything, we are comparatively rude. Everyone here says "Bonjour" when they come across one another, even complete strangers. You are expected to greet all shopkeepers when you enter a store, before you make a request. When you're done, you are expected to say goodbye. You say hello to people in the apartment building you don't know and people in the park who catch your eye. It's almost courtly.

*For my Obie friends who went to the reunion, my toilet here also has separate buttons for No. 1 and No. 2. No. 1 works for everything but the most persistent, um, clogs.

*The parks and libraries all have free wi-fi provided by the City of Paris. Even as a non-citizen, I can check books out of the library free of charge simply by providing an address. Apparently you can even give the address of a hotel.

*I'm also going to miss the expired, half-priced Covent Garden soup pints that my grocery store gives away for less than two euros. Spinach, asparagus, ham & lentil, carrot & coconut milk... great stuff.

*I hate to say it, but food in restaurants has been disappointing. There has been a great deal of discussion of "the crisis in French cuisine" in recent years, and now I see why. Classic French cooking is kind of passe at this point, and also often incredibly bland. For example, I had a rabbit leg served in a glass dish for lunch this week. This sounds incredibly cool, until you taste the rabbit (dried out) and the sauce (blander than 70s-style Ragu). Even when well cooked -- for example, a duck confit I enjoyed greatly a few weeks ago with a Stanford friend -- you realize that the food is fixed in a particular place and time. Traditional is great for a visit, but to live in it must get stale after awhile. Even the ethnic food is bland.

*After writing the previous note, I fear I may be deported.

*The use of public parks is pretty remarkable here. Because there is no air conditioner and little indoor space, people use public spaces very well. The park across the street from my apartment has at least 30 people in it all day long, and the park is only one square block. On weekends it is positively packed. Children are running everywhere, but plenty of regular people are just sitting on benches -- reading books, listening to iPods, playing guitars, staring into space. It's a good thing.

*This week is Paris Plage, where the city imports tons of sand and turns the Right Bank, from Bastille to the Louvre, into a big beach. It's done for Parisians who can't afford summer vacation on the ocean. (Really.)

I only have two weeks left, which means this trip has gone by amazingly fast. I still have many things to do -- the Musee d'Orsay, the sewer tour, maybe Giverny. But all in all, I think I'll be ready to go home.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Being spontaneous usually turns out great. You do something, you have more fun than expected, and everything turns out fine.

But sometimes being spontaneous means standing in line for over 8 hours with strangers.

My first weekend in Paris, I went to the French Open. I wasn't going to drop $700 or so to see the men's final, so instead I bought grounds' passes to watch the boys' and girl's finals and a seniors' match with Pat Cash. It was fun and cheap. After those matches were done, you could head for Court 1 and watch the regular finals on a big TV with the ballboys and other assorted guests. The men's final was a blast -- literally everyone was rooting for Federer to take the one slam he's been missing, and the crowd absolutely erupted when he won. It was a big party.

So of course I thought, why not go to Wimbledon? It's easy -- take the Chunnel train, queue for one of the famous grounds' passes, and watch some good tennis while slurping up your strawberries, cream, and Pimm's.

My first shot at Wimbledon got cancelled due to a weird, still-indeterminate fever that had me shivering in bed most of one night, and then completely disappeared as quickly as it came. So I bought the earliest train ticket for the next morning and headed off into the unknown. Stake It UK!

Getting to the All-England Club was pretty simple -- train to St. Pancras, tube to Wimbledon, shuttle bus to the grounds. I had been told to arrive a few hours before the grounds opened to be assured of one of the 6,000 tickets. So arriving at 9:15am when the grounds opened at noon seemed like a pretty good bet.

Not! Sadly, I arrived on the busiest day in Wimbledon history. (A Friday no less -- don't you people have jobs?) I was #9921 or something, meaning that I could only get into the grounds after nearly 4,000 people left voluntarily. Managing the queue is an amazing affair -- thousands of people are literally plopped onto the ground in a nearby park. There are bathrooms and two burger stands. You're just supposed to make a day of it.

Smart people had blankets and chairs to keep themselves comfortable. My area was full of people who were in denial of their fate -- maybe we would still be let into the grounds on time? Maybe it will start raining, and people will leave in droves? But after four hours laying about in the park, still nearly a mile away from the gates, you realize you are in for the long haul.

About 1pm we were moved into the main queue, even as hundreds of people are still arriving after us. This proved to be an opportunity mainly to stand instead of sitting. On the way, we got to see the line of tents for people who were already queued up for Saturday. It's like a Soviet bread line, without any bread at the end of it.

At this point, people start clinging to the hope that once the Federer match is over, people will pour out of the grounds. Except, of course, Federer has trouble, and drops a set. And then the theory falls apart entirely, because we spend the hour after his match not moving a single inch. The weather, which looked dicey early in the day, turns stunningly warm and beautiful.

Some people are on their own, and aren't much for talking in line, as if they are in the grocery store for 5 minutes. But by now even the quiet people give in and start talking to their neighbors. There's an American family in pastel polos who spend the entire time talking about marketing. There are two English cougars who let their boyfriends take the two real tickets, and are now developing various options for murdering them. There's a group of Australian college students who drop out of the line at 3pm, which led to much discussion, with everyone agreeing that theirs was the craziest of all choices.

(I didn't mention the sunk cost fallacy, which I couldn't stop thinking about -- but what else was I going to do anyway? My alternatives had little value.)

I had fun talking to a couple of other Australians. Australians are huge world travelers, absolutely ubiquitous no matter where you go -- France, South Africa, Macau, Egypt, wherever. If you see people who look like Americans, they're probably Australian, especially if they're backpacking. Anyway, Bart & Julie & I shared travel stories and Starbursts. I think Bart had a crush on Julie, but after 6 hours in line, there was no way I was just handing over a good conversationalist, no matter how pretty she was.

I did eventually get onto the grounds, around 5:30. It was like being released from purgatory, only to enter another purgatory. Because once you're inside, the grounds are incredibly crowded, and seeing anything requires -- more queues. And you have no idea where you're going. I was a combination of thrilled and absolutely furious. I get to be at Wimbledon, but then I just have to stand around in more lines? Or watch the matches on TV on Henman Hill?

I figured out a solution -- you need to queue up for an outside court, or try to get tickets for a main court at the charity booth near Henman Hill. The charity booth sells the tickets of people who leave the grounds for 5 quid. Earlier in the day, the booth queue was insane, and not moving -- so it's better to just stick to an outside court, even if it means waiting 30 minutes to see Dudi Sela or something. I myself waited for a seat at Francesca Schiavone v. Marion Bartoli, only to see Bartoli get crushed 6-1 in the final set.

By then, the charity queue was moving, and I got Centre Court seats for Djokovic v. Mardy Fish. The charity seats are random, and mine were abysmal -- all the way at the top, and to the side of the court, which I hate. Of course, as soon as I arrived Djokovic polished off that match. So I flew out of the court, back up Henman Hill, and got another charity ticket for Court 2, Andreas Seppi v. Igor Andreev. This time my seats were awesome -- fourth row, nearly centered on the back line. Andreev was up two sets, but Seppi was making a comeback just as I arrived, and I got to watch about 1 1/2 sets of some really good tennis.

All in all, I'm glad I went -- Wimbledon is an iconic event. But God as my witness, I'll never queue again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Parisian environmentalism

Paris is famously clean. Water is run through the streets at regular intervals, sweeping away all of the dust, dirt, and detritus of the city streets. It is one of the things that makes Paris a beautiful city to live in -- how can something so old be so clean?

Except dog poop, that is. People seem better about this than they used to be, but it is still somewhat unpleasant to walk out your door and see a cocker spaniel delivering a four-pound package on your sidewalk. But then you look up and see an immaculate park, maintained 40 hours a week by Djamel, who sweeps leaves from the walk and asks you if the city's free wifi is working.

It must be less obvious to hotel dwellers just how differently people in Europe actually live in relation to their consumption. When you walk into my building, the foyer is dark except for a few shots of light from an upstairs window. That's when it is daytime -- at night it is almost pitch black. You walk about 10 steps to a faintly glowing light, which turns on the stairwell lights for about three minutes. Run, 6th floor dwellers!

(Actually, there's an elevator, but people only take it when they have luggage. That's part of the environment too -- getting some exercise.)

The apartment too is designed to minimize consumption. You can shut off the hot water heater with a simple switch next to the front door -- and Patricia asked me to do this, daily. You can shut off the electricity to the entire apartment if you leave. You can see how much energy you are consuming every day on a meter right next to that. In Rome, I was able to calculate exactly how much my utility bill would be for the month that I stayed there.

The kitchen has a hot plate instead of a stove, and it can only be turned off by pulling the plug from the wall. The microwave is always unplugged when not in use. The small lamp that is temporarily replacing the overhead light only shuts off when unplugged. No vampire electricity use here.

The fridge is the size of two dorm fridges, and my God, the freezer area -- I can barely get my meaty paw in there without touching ice. Getting the tray out is like the world's worst game of Operation.

As a result, you shop more often and buy less stuff. Space in the fridge is a precious commodity that cannot be wasted with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Max from 2007. Drink it or dump it. There's recycling of course, and you only separate glass, which is nice.

Space in the apartment is limited of course. There are no closets, and only a few shelves. Thus anything you want to consume in the future has to look pretty when not in use.

Are Europeans better environmentalists than Americans? I don't think so, actually. I think they are nudged to be. Energy costs are simply much higher than in the U.S., and so people have looked for ways to reduce their consumption. Space is limited, and the culture values quality over quantity, not to mention living more of life in public spaces. (A wonderful topic for another post, actually.)

Europeans also generally have far less disposable income than Americans, due both to taxation and less income disparity in general. A new full professor in Paris makes only slightly more than I did as a new assistant professor, and this is considered only mildly regrettable. But they spend much less, both because of the consumption factor and because social security provides many things that Americans pay directly. (The welfare state is another fantastic topic.)

Americans are definitely moving in this direction, with their Smart Cars and house timers and solar doo-dads. But more change will likely come from simplicity.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Rain in France Falls Mainly on My Pants

Bonjour! I arrived in Paris on Friday, emerging from Charles De Gaulle with my luggage despite three flights on three different airlines. Sadly, Tina had to remain in Philadelphia, leaving me to sit next to a quiet young Irish woman for the transatlantic journey. When the pilot announced the in-flight entertainment, Hotel for Dogs, she was moved to say her only spoken words: “Oh, balls.”

I arrived on an amazingly beautiful day, low 70s and bright sun. I made it to my new apartment with no real problems and was greeted by my landlady, Patricia. Patricia is a lithe British woman, friendly but clearly thinking primarily about the Eurostar departure schedule. She was to the point: This is the apartment, hope you like it, and by the way: The neighbors are crazy.

The walls are fairly thin here, to be sure, but I was warned that the neighbors will take virtually any opportunity to knock on the door and ask me to be quiet. The night before I came, they knocked on the door at 11pm when she was reading a book in bed. And true to form, on my first night they knocked at 9pm, while it is still quite bright outside here, to ask if I could walk across the apartment more quietly.

My first thought was to formulate a response dripping with condescension (“Why do your people always have to go to sarcasm first?”), but Patricia had practically begged me to be nice and not to mention point out their nuttiness. So I smiled and muttered something unintelligible even to myself. (Something easy to do when someone is speaking to you in a foreign tongue -- you find yourself forgetting how to speak even your own language.)

The apartment is a one-bedroom in the 11th, about halfway between the Bastille and Pere Lachaise. I’ve been told that it is reasonably “fashionable,” which is apparently important. What I like is that I’m a block away from the bakery, the laundry, and the market. Diet Coke will flow through my veins once again! In general it’s quite a busy neighborhood, especially when it’s not raining. Except that it rains all the time, literally every day since I arrived. (“Oh, is Paris too rainy for you?”) Yes it is, and I’ll shut up now.

The apartment itself is about 1870s or so, and the building is fairly average for Paris – about six stories, ironwork on the windows, no balconies. The floors look 14th century to me, but apparently they are newer than that. They certainly creak like something medieval, but the patina is fantastic.

Most notable is the bathroom, as these apartments were built without a shower or a tub. (Seriously.) So a shower was fabricated by placing the head over the sink and a drain in the floor. So basically the entire bathroom is your shower, and you have two curtains to shield the door and the toilet on either end. After you take a shower, you use a squeegee to push the water into the drain. If you need to use the bathroom after, there’s a duckboard to stand on so you don’t have to pee while your feet steep in a thin layer of ice-cold water.

It’s quite amazing to consider how different this is from the U.S. You can only imagine the look of abject American horror on the faces of a House Hunters family when faced with my bathroom. How it would just be assumed that the entire room is a complete tear-down that must be rectified before even deigning to enter the apartment again. The kitchen would go with it -- the counters are essentially crafted with unvarnished two-by-fours, and the half-refrigerator sits underneath them so far you nearly have to get on your knees to get something from the back of it. But as a visitor, it’s all rather charming.

The thing is, you quickly learn that these are things that matter not one little bit. It’s all perfectly functional, just slightly more time-consuming and not as attractive. (Unless you’re handicapped, in which case I assume you’re paid to leave Europe entirely.)

This is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. I have a long list of “post-tenure purchases” I want to make for my house, and I’m not sure a single one of them has to do with a functional purpose. They’re just all things I don’t like. And if Oprah has taught us anything, it’s that our home is a special, sacred sanctuary that must be made perfect before our souls can thrive.

Not that Europeans have a monopoly on what really matters in life – this is a country, after all, in which no two people wear the same pair of jeans. It’s just that things are often inverted. The same American who can’t live without granite countertops happily wears sweatpants to work. A European must have a special place to hang her umbrella, but couldn’t care less if the mattress is 30 years old.

The mattress is something I’m finding a little less charming with each morning.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Expat Mike III: Sacre Bleu!

It's official: Expat Mike will continue for a third major installment this summer from Paris, France. Parlez vous Francais? Not so much, but my first Francais class is tomorrow night. After 7 90-minute classes at the Parks & Rec Center, I'm sure to attain fluency. It's a fait accompli!

Or maybe I'll just get to pepper my English with even more pretentious French phrases. Mon dieu! Vis-a-vis! Ex post facto!

I can't wait to learn how to ask for a bacon cheeseburger with a side of freedom fries.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bonus: Drink Tasting Contest!

A spontaneous trip to a Macanese convenience store means an opportunity for me to spend an hour putzing around 250 square feet of consumable goods. I was immediately gripped by the refrigerator case, which contained an incredible range of preposterous drink choices, as seen here. Not too surprising for a country that produces Chewy Lard Bites, but gripping nonetheless.

Of course this means a tasting contest. Well, not much of a contest, since Amy would sooner rip out her own nipple ring than drink potentially revolting sodas. But for the adventurous among us (read: stupid), this is an irresistible opportunity to learn more about Asian, um, culture. If you're the kind of person who says to a friend, "This tastes terrible -- try it!", then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Allow me to order the selections from best to worst. Each for only 50 cents!

Ice Cool's Mangosteen Juice Drink. By far the best of the bunch, this is absolutely delicious. I thought mangosteen was just a funny, kid's word for mango, but it's actually a completely different fruit that is purple on the outside and pearl white on the inside. It tastes citrusy, but sweeter and maybe a note of apricot and peach. It's amazing. Later that same day, Fox News (I know, TV was limited!) showed a special report about how people in the U.S. are clamoring for mangosteens for their flavor and antioxidents. I would gladly buy a case.

Ice Cool's Aloe Vera Lychee Juice with Pulp. OK, we're getting progressively more adventurous. This comes in second because it's didn't taste like much of anything. It tasted vaguely like aloe, and the lychee flavor was very subtle. But quite drinkable. If you grew up with it, you could see how people might find it refreshing.

Sugar Cane Drink
. I can't remember who made this one, but it was just incredibly boring, like if you drank your chemistry experiment where you had to test how much sugar could dissolve into a glass of water without precipitating. And then watered it down with a lot more water. Not good, but bearable.

Yeo's Grass Jelly Soda. Yeo's is apparently a Asian-specialty drink company from Singapore. Personally, I think Yeo must be Cantonese for "Great Satan." I had no idea what grass jelly was, which is why it immediately made its way to my basket. I now know that grass jelly is made by boiling the aged and fermented stalks and leaves of a mint tree. The result is a refreshing drink with the "light taste of iodine and lavender." It tastes like sucking on your old, soapy, sterilized thumb.

Cool Yeo's Crunchy Water Chestnut Soda. You probably weren't aware that soda could be crunchy, an idea that is almost uniquely unappealing. Well, not to worry: it's the original water chestnuts that are crunchy, not the soda. (Damn modifiers!) Water chestnuts are relatively inoffensive to me, but the drink was surprisingly disgusting. Maybe it was the huge chunks of water chestnut floating with the ice. This is so bad that Yeo's has eliminated it from their won website. They have disinherited their own creation.

Yeo's White Gourd Drink. What is a white gourd? Lord if I know, but this was the drink that upon purchase, the old Cantonese mom at the checkout began laughing her butt off. (Me: "What, are you saying I won't like it?") Now I know why: White gourd is the most evil, hateful flavor ever harvested by mankind. It tastes like vegetable broth mixed with molasses and caramelized sugar. It should be served cold as ice, like revenge. But if you are ever in dire need of an amateur ipecac, this is certainly the one.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

You went to where? For what?

Our trip to Macau began with a late-night flight to LAX and a surreal trip through the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which must be the worst airport terminal in the country. It is barely lit and packed with greasy long-haul travelers trampling on broken escalators. Oh, and there is nothing to eat past security. Not that I wanted to eat after personally witnessing (and smelling) a child puking into a styrofoam cup while she weaved her way through the endless, chaotic line. Meanwhile, poor Amy had to move gates three times while she waited for me to arrive.

The Cathay Pacific flight itself was pretty good, considering it was over 15 hours long. It was a brand-new plane, so the seats were comfortable, and the in-flight entertainment system was the best I've ever had. I've also found recently that I'm able to sleep on overnight flights, which is truly a cause for joy. Amy fell asleep almost immediately, and slept most of the flight.

So we arrived in Hong Kong relatively perky, and were met by a tour guide who would drive us to the ferry terminal. I'd already figured out that we could leave our luggage with a guy at the terminal for the day and see HK on our own, so after an hour of buying tickets and finding the luggage guy, we were off into the city by about 9am.

HK isn't very crowded on a Sunday morning, so that was a surprise. It was downright quiet. We weren't sure how much energy we'd have for the day, so we limited our trip to seeing Victoria Peak, which overlooks the city. We walked about half a mile to the Star Ferry (which you might recall from an episode of the Amazing Race when Mary & Peach lost their map and managed to go from first to last). After the ferry (cost: 25 cents) we grabbed a bus (cost: 65 cents) to the tram that goes straight up Victoria Peak. Victoria Peak turns out to be a big shopping tower, but the view was good, and Frommer's recommended a nice restaurant overlooking the island. So it was a pleasant way to spend our first day.

Macau is only a one-hour ferry ride from HK, but Amy still managed to sleep pretty much the whole way. (Amy likes her sleep.) Getting off the ferry, you look across the water and immediately see a fake Tang Dynasty fortress next to a fake volcano. Your first thought is, "What the f*** is that?" It's Fisherman's Wharf!, Macau's first theme park, which also sports a fake Roman colosseum and "Aladdin's Cove," a fake Middle Eastern theme village. It is a globalized Main Street USA on crack. I am endlessly fascinated by foreign interpretations of Western culture, because things are right in the broad sense, but they get the details hilariously, disastrously wrong.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Macau is a small peninsula closely linked to two adjacent islands, somewhat similar to Hong Kong. Whereas HK was colonized by the British, Macau was colonized by the Portuguese, and both were crucial for the China and Japan trade in earlier centuries. The main peninsula is quite small, only a few square miles, but it's the most densely populated territory on Earth. (Really!) Today, Macau is known almost exclusively as the "Las Vegas of Asia" and indeed, it is lousy with casinos and casino construction. But it is also just a very interesting place, a combination of colonial Portuguese and modern Cantonese influences.

Amy and I were staying at the classy and quiet Mandarin Oriental, a short walk from the ferry. Although once the major hotel in Macau, it is now quite literally dwarfed by the Sands Hotel & Casino next door, which is covered in shiny gold glass windows. It is one of the tackiest buildings I have ever seen, and packed with a constant stream of Chinese people arriving on bus es from the ferry and the immigration gate. Even though the ferry is a three-minute walk away, we are the only people who walk here. Well, us and the Australians, who are ubiquitous walkers everywhere aronnd the world.

The casinos themselves are not that different than Vegas -- big, smoky, and loud. The table games are somewhat unusual though, with not a poker table in sight. The Chinese are in love with baccarat, an incredibly boring game that seems to involve no skill whatsoever, but the casino's take is very small, so I guess they feel they are getting good value for the money. They also play some blackjack, a weird dice game, slot machines, and various roulette games. Every game was based almost entirely on luck, which didn't compel me to actually play anything.

The Mandarin, in contrast to the Sands, was quiet and peaceful. The staff was unfailingly professional, taking service to an extent that was almost startling, insisting on taking bags, helping unasked with directions, and delivering ice buckets via room service. At night, at the back door, you can even hire a very pretty, polite, and solicitous prostitute who will provide any number of services that the regular staff might balk at performing.

Amy and I spent our time compromising on daily activities; she spent more time walking in random directions than she normally would, and I spent a lot more time in museum gift shops (which would be any time whatsoever). I did enjoy shopping at the Ko Kai bakery, which is very popular with the Chinese, and hands out free tastes of everything. We did not enjoy the cookies with dried pork very much, and we refused to even sample the Chewy Lard Bites.

The food overall was very interesting and tasty. You can get Cantonese, Portuguese, and Macanese food, which is a combination of Chinese and Portuguese flavors. We mixed it up on a daily basis, although towards the end we got a little sloppy and ate some Italian food. For Thanksgiving we had Thai food at the hotel; my panang duck curry was delicious, but the surprise $10 bottle of water was not.

The weather was fantastic, always in the low to mid 70s and low humidity. (Travel tip: November is a great time to visit the Chinese tropics.) We went to a history museum, a ruined church, and a Buddhist temple. We took lots of pictures. We spent a day touring the outlying islands, and another day just sort of hanging out and relaxing. One of my favorite moments was a trip to a local massage parlor, which charged only $15 for an hour with a smiling, broad-backed Cantonese torturess. After being escorted to a tiny room equipped with only a narrow table and Snoopy sheets, I was ordered to take off my shirt and stick my big head in the head hole. She then proceeded to pull, crack, and probe every bone in my body. She even walked on my back, which I thought they only did in movies. I have to say, my back never felt better, even as I struggled not to scream bloody murder.

I needed a loose back for the return home, which was long, bumpy, and grumpy. It seemed longer, even though it was quite a bit shorter. Thankfully, my patented jet-lag elimination techniques have worked like a charm, so I've had a reasonably productive and happy weekend. Indeed, I think it's time for a turkey burger.