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.