mercredi 6 avril 2016

Paris Today

"Is it safe to travel to Paris?"

It’s a question that many are asking themselves right now.  Travelers planning a summer trip to Europe.  Business people who’ve got Paris-based meetings on their agendas.  American students contemplating study abroad options.  

2015 was a sad year for Parisians as we witnessed the January 7th Charlie Hebdo shootings and the November 13th Bataclan slaughter.  March 2016 brought more horror in nearby Brussels, with graphic coverage of airport and subway bombs and a reinforcement of the perception that we are not safe anywhere.

Because I live in Paris, I am frequently asked the “is it safe there?” question.   In the aftermath of the November 13th murders, my answer was no.  Wait a bit.  Let things calm down.   The Paris you dream of seeing is not the Paris we can show you right now.  Heck, the Eiffel Tower is closed!

But some time has passed, and I reflect more and more on this question.  I’ve come to discover this:  how we live threat—be it a health threat, or a geo-political one-- most often mirrors how we live in the absence of threat, in “normal” times.  Anxious people will be anxious,  loonies hatching nefarious plots or not.  A subway line is down and they envision a ricin attack.  A police siren wails in the distance and their blood pressure rises.
People born with calmer baselines live these events as unfortunate, aberrant occurrences.   These are the folks that know what the CDC knows:  you are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack.  On November 14th, we saw Parisians doing their thing :  shopping at the street market, sitting down to a strong coffee at the corner café, getting a haircut , walking the dog.  Threat or not, the beautiful banalities of normal living cycle on.
As the sad events of 2015 mounted up, I spent some time thinking about places, safe and unsafe, that I might map out for visitors.  Avoid the Louvre, I thought.  An obvious target, for the cultural destruction an explosive device could cause and the thousands of people who would perish in the confined space.   Add to this the challenge of trying to exit the museum even under the best of conditions—let’s not even think about under panicky circumstances—and the Louvre becomes a perfect target for ill-intentioned screwballs. 

Don’t go to Versailles, either.  Security measures have limited the entrances to one unique way in, and the bag-opening and coat-patting-down of the thousands of daily visitors means a 2-hour wait in a holding pen.  Another target for nutcases to score an impressive number of deaths and destroy a vital symbol of France’s cultural heritage.

Don’t attend mass at Notre Dame, I thought of telling friends.  That’s gotta be on the fanatics’ list.  One more glorious representation of everything they’d want to crush, right in the center of the city.  

And then I started thinking a bit more deeply about this culture of terror.  And I realized that there are few people that alter their plans based on what the zealots may or may not do.  Because most people are like the Parisians on the day following the Bataclan attack.  Most people understand that these things happen, they’ve happened since the beginning of time, and that it serves no purpose to stop doing what you love to do (and what you need to do).  know I have more chances of dying from heart disease than becoming a terrorist’s victim, and still… Waiter, I’ll have the foie gras and a glass of sauternes, please.

And this truth probably infuriates the religious extremists more than a suicide vest that fails to explode.

Albert Camus devoted a good portion of his post WWII writings to the idea of the absurd, and how in the aftermath of war, people sought ways to strive for clarity in an unreasonable, unorganized world.   Camus called this the « wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. »   I think this is what we are seeing in today’s Paris, despite (or alongside) the heightened presence of security forces.   Our world continues to be unreasonable and unorganized---there is little difference in that regard between the years following WWII and now—but our clarity is sought in the perpetuation of life’s rituals, both the poignant and the unremarkable.  

I never did tell future visitors to stay out of the Louvre, or to forgo the splendors of Versailles.  I urged them to partake in Notre Dame’s heart-filling (even for atheists) services at Notre Dame.  No one—not even experts in risk assessment-- can predict what is safe and what is not.  But we can predict that living in fear will lead to a lesser life.  So come to Paris.  Have a croissant.  I guarantee it will add to your life, and temper a world that  appears at times so very unreasonable.


lundi 20 octobre 2014

Medieval Morocco now on at the Louvre

Saturday morning I was up early in order to head to the Louvre to see the Maroc Médiéval exhibit that had just opened the previous day.  Normally I don't like to see a "big" show near opening day as it usually means tons o' people, but I just couldn't wait to see this show.  I love Morocco and was willing to endure the other people stampeding to the Louvre to see this much-awaited collection. 

Paris is experiencing a freaky heat wave right now.  It's like a greenhouse under that pyramid!

What a surprise!  Hardly any people lined up at the entrance for this exhibit.  Am I the only Moroccophile in the City of Light? 

 Oh well, more room for me to soak up all the wonderful treasures that I can't show you because the guards refused to let me take photos.  That's stupid.  I'm not using a flash for heaven's sake!  I'm not going to damage your Coran/ancient dinar/13th century bowl fragment.

I managed to sneak in ONE shot before they caught me.
 This is just a mere suggestion of how lovely the installation was.  The rooms are dark rich purple with hints of latticework and Moorish arches.  Oh, it was all so beautiful and I can't even show you a speck of it.

Here are two things I learned from this exhibit:  1)  The Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) was named by the Arab conquerors who came here in the 7th century.  It was originally called "Maghreb al-Aqsa" which means The most Western Point on Earth.  (Or maybe it is the Westernmost point on Earth.  I can't even read my own notes!)  2)  What I thought was called a "Minibar" is actually called a Minbar.  It's that step rampy thing the Iman preaches from in the mosque.  There were several minbars on display and I kept reading "Minibar" on the little sign.  I thought "How clever!  Even in 980 they had places to put  all those little bottles of Schweppes and tiny bags of nuts!"

Afterwards I really wanted some tajine.  I had to settle for some dates for my snack.  Really, there should be some kind of Exhibit-Museum Cafeteria clause that states the whatever they are showing in the museum, they have to serve a representative menu related to the show in the museum cafeteria.  Couscous for all!

lundi 7 juillet 2014

This is a rare sighting.  These light up panels, installed in the Paris métro stations back in the 1930s were known as PILIs, or plans indicateurs lumineux d’itinéraires.  Users would push two buttons, one indicating the starting point of their journey, and a second one indicating their ultimate destination.  A pathway would light up, showing the trip.  If a change was involved, the lightpaths would be in different colors.

Now a relic, there are a few of these vintage displays present in a handful of métro stations (this one is at Ecole Militaire in the 7th arrondissement) but they are no longer functional.  I guess they were hard to maintain, and, as such, fell into disrepair.

Still, I'm glad that they can be spotted from time to time, even if it they are merely decorative.

lundi 23 décembre 2013

No more geese except on my plate

I knew the foie gras was coming 'round when there were no more geese padding about on his land.

All year long I watch these fowl friends, moving herdlike from the water to the mud to the shelter on Laurent Callebaut's property.    Monsieur Callebaut is a master goose-raiser who oversees a gaggle of 1,000 oies, taking them from egg to table.  His farm is right across the Route Nationale 12, and I pass it each weekend as I enter and exit my little village.  Christmas is a busy time for him, selling his wares out of a little cabana right next to his house.  Inside are shelves of foie gras cuit, goose rillettes, goose pâtés and other wonderful derivatives of all things geese.

This year he had a refrigerator that held the crown jewels of his production:  the foie gras mi-cuit (more flavorful than the cuit) and my Christmas dinner:  guinea fowl stuffed with foie gras and fig, infused with armagnac, vacuum-sealed and ready for a slow roast.

The for-and-against controversy surrounding the production and the consumption of foie gras notwithstanding (and I can soundly defend either side of the coin); it comes down to this:  Foie gras is a cultural artifact on France's Christmas table.  Whether you buy it at Aldi (low-cost) or Fauchon (pricey), this addition to the traditional menu is an expected component, opening the meal and setting the stage for the second act (smoked salmon and blinis).  There are those Master Chefs who will trick it out-- recent embellishments include a lightly-fried slice 0f gingerbread upon which will rest the gloriously unctuous sliver of liver.  Others might layer a spoonful of spicy Christmas chutney on top of the fatty spread, with a sprinkle of fleur de sel to set off that splendid savory-sweet note.  But there are always the Traditionalists, those who keep the toaster right at the table so they can catch the plain baguette as it pops out, ready to be the warm bed upon which the foie gras will rest (and melt).

The absence of those fat and happy geese running around like crazy toddlers did make me a little sad when I passed by Monsieur Callebaut's farm earlier this month.  But the promise of his delicate foie gras adorning my holiday table helped me override my moment of emotion. Joyeuses fêtes, tout le monde.

dimanche 29 septembre 2013

Les Berges

Paris Mayor Betrand Delanoë has been a trailblazer for several grand-scale urban projects during his mandate, but none annoyed me more than Les Berges, inaugurated earlier this year.  To bring his 35 million euro folie green space dream to fruition, he closed off 2.3 kilometers of the voie rapide, a Left Bank expressway used by automobilistes to rapidly cross Paris from east to west.  The voie rapide dips down from the main surface streets to run parallel to the Seine.  There are no traffic lights, few entrances and exits, and was--until January 1st of this year,--a key part of my daily commute.

Delanoë has always been quite vocal of his dislike of cars in the capital.  Other projects he spearheaded include the conversion of car lanes into bus and bike lanes, as well as the Velib', Paris' bike-scheme.  His dream is to have a car-free Paris, a dream that irritates France's automotive industry for obvious reasons.  While he would never say there is a connection, PSA (Peugeot- Citroën) is at this time forced to close down their plant in Aulnay, putting 3,000 workers on the unemployment rolls.  So while it's good fun to rent a bike, or stroll along Les Berges during the 50 (and that's optimistic) rainfree days we have each year, those who backed Delanoë's projects should not now be crying that their payroll contributions to the unemployment coffers are increasing. 

It isn't just that my formerly-speedy commute has been compromised by this urban promenade space.  What irritates me is that Les Berges is yet another of those big, shiny, show-offy projects that has been rolled out with masses of fanfare, but that will undoubtedly fall into shambles in a few years.  Look at what happened when they launced Velib in 2007:   loads of press about how Paris will be the new Amsterdam, people will leave their cars at home and take up biking, and we will all be one big happy family of Lance Armstrongs.  Six years later, 40% of the bikes have been either stolen or vandalized, and little funds are allocated to maintain the bikes that still have a seat on them.  It is well-known that Paris has a habit of striking a budget line for any project created by a former government.  I have no doubt that Les Berges will one day be a mess of splinters and grafitti-ed furnishings, so I urge you to go and see it now while this project enjoys its glory days.

This is where I used to exit the expressway at the Pont de l'Alma.  Now a pedestrian path.

facing west
facing east


This is cool.  A series of floating gardens/lounging areas that were floated down the Seine from Le Havre (where they were constructed) and tethered.  They move gently with the current of the river, which is kind of a surprise when you assume you are stepping out onto a fixed platform.

There are these little squares of greenery bobbing up and down next to the five platforms.

Just one of the lounging areas (note no sun) moving back and forth with the water.  The guy in the tie is a security agent.  And working on a Sunday!!!!  Call the labor union!!!!

Here's another lounging area.  You can't see it in the photo, but the blocks become greener in tint as they descend towards the river, to become "one with the water."  Only France can wax philosophical about concrete seating.

Hooray!  Something is handicapped-accessible here! 

They reused the wood from the containers that carried the stuff down from Le Havre for seating (or stretching) all along the promenade.

This zone, le verger (orchard), was awesome.  It was funded not by my taxes but in partnership with a seed company, Truffaut.  You can pick leaves and flowers and then make yourself a hot herbal tea using a solar device.

All the pots are tagged so you don't inadvertantly pick marijuana or something like that.  Here we have some giant rhubarb and some prehistoric plant that I also saw at The Grove Shopping Center in LA last summer.

I loved the tags

You can do yoga class here, too.  Who would do yoga with a scarf draped so gracefully around the neck?  A Parisian!

There are two mind-blowing elements in this photo, elements that go against the cultural grain.  The first is the free water.  The second is the restrooms.

Not only are there restrooms, but there is a handicapped restroom.  Unbelievable.

Here's a dining option along the promenade.  The French are just getting into food trucks (although the government is working hard to block the enterpreneurs' selling permits) and they really like Airstream trailers.  For some reason this eatery is called "The Faust."  Maybe eating there requires one to make a Faustian bargain.

Faust certainly doesn't offer a lot of choices.

There's a board game area .  And this one has a Sunday worker, too!  This gives me an idea:  perhaps all the salespeople who lost their jobs when the union forced Castorama and Leroy Merlin (France's Home Depots) to close on Sundays could be reconverted to cleaning people for the Berges, because for some suspicious reason, the workers here are allowed to hold jobs on Sunday.  I suspect Delanoë paid off the CGT labor union.

jeudi 26 septembre 2013

Sephora and Chain Gang labor

The labor unions have once again managed to irritate an entire spectrum of people, from workers to consumers, with their latest target : forcing the gorgeous and always-packed Sephora on the Champs-Elysées to close each night at 9pm, rather than midnight as it had been doing enjoyably for years.

The reason?  Working "late" is bad for employees' health.

It's not as if working at Sephora is like mining (hazardous) or working a double shift at the cannery (tiresome).  It's a department store, for goodness sake!   The employees, many of whom are students, were thrilled to earn the extra 50% over their base salary as well as double vacation time.  Sephora employees working this particular shift were not coerced; they had all specifically asked for these lucrative hours, and many had held this shift for years.

This anachronistic situation reminds me of another odd, labor union-related holdover that exists in France: the special compensation for SNCF (train) workers, called the "prime de charbon" literally a "coal bonus hazard pay" even though the trains haven't used coal since 1974.  Still on the books, however, because once a union wins a benefit for a workers' group, it is impossible to rescind it.   Look what happened when the government tried to update the retirement age--a legitimate crusade now that we all don't die at age 55.   What do you mean I can't retire at 52?  The French are still taking to the streets on that one.

This Sephora thing is but one example of the shortview here.   30% of under-25 year olds in France are unemployed and would be happy to find themselves filling in the extra-hours gap that nine to fivers don't want....if those extra hours were available.  On the other hand, you have Eric Scherrer, the union leader who led the fight against Sephora's long day, saying how those poor workers will end up in the hospital and OMG....letting people work late might morph into something equally ghastly....shops opening on Sunday!!!! 

Don't get me started on the 35-hour work week, legislated to provide more jobs.  Right.  We all know what happened with that:  no new jobs were created.  They just worked the existing workforce more to do in 35 hours what they had done in 37.5 hours/week previously. 

And if you were a civil servant, that meant nothing changed.  You just screwed off for 35 hours/week rather than 37.5.

 There are plenty of businesses on the Champs-Elysées that work past midnight.  The cinemas' last screenings are at 23h00; the Lido's final show begins then as well.  Restaurants serve late into the evening, bars are open until 2am and the nightclubs don't get hopping until the wee hours of the morning.  The Champs-Elysées is a beehive of beautiful people during these late hours, consumers willing and able to drop in and spend some money on perfume.  Indeed, 20% of that store's revenue was made at night.
It's just crazy to target Sephora.

Maybe Scherrer has some kind of lipstick phobia.  Because "protecting workers" just doesn't make sense here.

vendredi 5 juillet 2013

Le 10

There was a bar I frequented in the 90s when I was a student here called le 10.  Situated on the rue de l'Odéon across the street from the original Shakespeare & Company, where Sylvia Beach published Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, I cannot now remember why I first started going to that bar or how I knew it was there.  I wasn't at all a drinker so it amazes me now that I was even drawn to such a place with its small and unremarkable façade.  Even back then it looked weather-worn and tired and not the kind of hangout which says "Come on in; good fun is to be had inside!"  The picture below, taken recently, shows le 10 still looking very much as it looked when it was my Saturday night go-to spot, although in my grad school days it was painted dark green.

If you peered through the barred window 25 years ago, you'd get a glimpse of the cramped quarters, mosaic floor, and the jukebox, a jukebox whose favored offering seemed to be Louis Prima's "Just A Gigolo."  Every hour,  someone in the crowd would drop a franc into the slot and select that tune, provoking the room into a group-singing experience, with people up on their chairs waving napkins around, over and over into the late night.  It was an early version of today's flashmob.

There was also a basement room for those who were willing to descend into this unventilated, hot and sticky cave.  Again, no space to move about; once you grabbed a chair and sat down, you were stuck there for the evening.  The servers had to pass the pitchers of the house sangria via the nearest person and count on them making their way down the table to the appropriate party.  It was most certainly a fire trap.

Such a tiny and nondescript little place--the French would say ça ne paie pas de mine, "it doesn't look like much"--yet I've discovered it showing up in other people's lives like some kind of common Parisian touchstone.   In Lily King's first novel The Pleasing Hour, her protagonist goes to meet up another au pair girl at le 10.   The bar was in fact a haunt for many au pairs of my era; the Swedish girls were very loyal to it.  Recently I was watching French TV and was surprised to see a little clip of Daniel Auteuil and a trio of other actors exiting le 10 after having been interviewed inside.   And the other day I was talking about le 10 to a colleague (we were reminiscing about our youth) and she told me that she used to hang out there as well, when she came to Paris on a study abroad program.

It wasn't the potent sangria that drew me to le 10.  I think what I liked about the place was the "Cheers" factor:  I could drop in and always find someone interesting or fun to talk with.  It wasn't chic, in fact it was rather homely, but it was safe and welcoming.  And given that it has survived all these years, I suspect it must still be that way.