31 January 2010

Safer Skies?

I flew to Philadelphia and back this week for work, the first time I've flown since the Christmas day foiled bomber. I wasn't sure what sort of new security measures would be in place, having seen news stories of now only one carry-on, or not being able to touch your personal belongings during the flight. None of that was enforced on my flights. In Paris there were more rounds of the "did you pack your own bags?" questioning, and they searched a number of "randomly" selected people for manual searches of carry-on bags which delayed our take-off, but that was about it.

On the way back to Paris on Friday, when I finally found the Delta counter (Delta took over the Air France route between Paris and Philadelphia. Not a good thing), the rep asked me if I had already checked in. No, I didn't remember to do the advance check in on-line, so had not checked in at all. But we have you checked in with three bags? No, really no. So he checked me and my 2 bags (only one on the way over, the 2nd mostly bike stuff!) and that was that.

While I was still trying to settle into my seat on the plane, another woman came up and said she had 2A, my seat. No, 2A is definitely my seat. She got the flight attendant, who looked at my boarding pass and her boarding pass. Both said 2A, and both had my name on it. I don't know what the other woman's name really was, but mine is unusual enough that hers definitely was not identical.

They shuffled her to another seat (or maybe off the plane?) and asked for my bag claim checks to make sure the bags were labeled correctly, and the flight attendant apologized to me: "that doesn't usually happen on international flights."

So- the rep at check in did not get the right name from her passport, and checked her in under my name. Then the how many checks through security did not pick up that her boarding pass and passport did not match? But if I bring a bottle of anything greater than 3 oz. I'm a security risk? Please.

30 January 2010

Reasons to live in Paris, entry 2


Or more specifically, Daddy brand sugar, which dominates the store shelves here. I realize it's childish, but I chuckle every time I see that pink bag.

And as if that weren't enough, trying to find the company's website through a 'net search for your blog post provides at least an afternoon's worth of entertainment, as any combination of France, Daddy, and sugar brings up the most interesting sites.

29 January 2010

Cyclocross in France: Roubaix World Cup

A couple of weekends ago, we completed our 2009/2010 cyclocross spectating season by taking the train up to Roubaix to watch the 8th race in the World Cup series.

The city of Roubaix hosts the finish of the spring classic Paris-Roubaix bike race, which is contested over a bunch of now-carefully-preserved-and-valued super-crappy cobbled roads in northern France. It hosts the finish way more accurately than Paris hosts the start. For the last 40 years or so, it has started in Compiégne, which would be like saying a race from Allentown, PA starts in Philly. Regardless, the Roubaix velodrome is iconic in the bike racing world, a place where the few tough and crazy riders who survive the race finish. And the 'cross race is held in and around the velodrome, which was at least part of the reason we went up.

The Roubaix velodrome. The technical part of the course uses the sliver of steep hillside from where the spectators are standing to the street.

The velodrome and sports park isn't a particularly big place, and they run the race entirely on the grounds. At first glance, aside from the use of the velodrome surface for part of the lap, the course doesn't look much different from my club's Whirlybird course back home, winding around a bunch of playing fields, using the track-and-field sand pits, and eeking out just a little bit of elevation gain on the berms around the fields. But the sliver of land between the velodrome itself and the street provided some technical challenges, including a steep set of stairs (tricky because the front of the stair is wood but the step itself was just soil, which in the mud made for some precariously uneven footing), a couple of tricky off-camber switchbacks, and 2 steep downhills that ended in very short run-out sharp right-hand turns (or, failing the negotiation of the turns, ended in a head-on collision with a solid wall, thoughtfully covered with very thick padding). The first descent was harrowing enough that on the first lap of the pro women's warm-up, there got to be quite a gaggle of riders looking, laughing nervously, and waiting for somebody to dare to push the front wheel over the edge.

The first descent on the lap is a pretty intimidating sight when you're the first to roll up to it...

It was tackled a lot of different ways during the day, riding, running, and plenty of hybrid technique. This is the U23 race.

The second descent is longer and steeper, but the run-out is longer, and the approach is less sketchy than the first. Still, even the leaders in the pro race ran it as often as they rode it.

The atmosphere at Roubaix was really different from the other races we've been at. First, the crowds were smaller. It was still plenty packed in the techy section behind the velodrome, but the rest of the course allowed pretty easy moving around. The crowd was still mostly Belgian, but unlike the races in Flanders, I could hear at least a little French wherever we stood. There were tons of French riders in the younger races, 11 in the U23 race alone. These guys haven't been racing much 'cross, since there are only 2 French riders in the top 36 World Cup standings for the season, so they apparently gave every kid in town a bike and told them to show up on Sunday.

In addition to this pajama-wearing oompah band, there was a drum corp at Roubaix. Overall, there was more silliness and a more relaxed vibe.

There was only 1 beer cart, and no real beer tents, which may explain why there were fewer specatators. The food vendors, much to my surprise, were still Belgian, something I figured the French wouldn't stand for. But France doesn't have a big street-food tradition, and maybe they figured the Belgians who would come to watch the race didn't want (or deserve) French food. Interacting with the vendors at Roubaix was completely different than at the races in Belgium. In Belgium, it's Dutch or English with them, and though they're nice about it (a lot nicer than the French are, certainly), it's clear that by speaking English you're definitely foreign. In Roubaix, I spoke to them in French, which just seemed like the the natural thing to do in France, which it turns out they didn't like or do very well, but they couldn't really complain, being in France and all. It was a strangely empowering series of interactions, perhaps the first time since we've been in France that I felt like I actually lived here. That I was the "native." I almost wished I'd had a beret.

Some things, like curry ketchup, you don't need to taste to know not to eat. But being slower than the average guy, I exercised some regrettable judgement and tried it on my frites.

And in fact, there was a bit of that feeling all day in Roubaix. In contrast to Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna, Stockholm, Tokyo, etc-- or Paris, for Pete's sake-- places we've been over this past crazy year that were decidedly foreign, Roubaix felt very familiar. An industrial city of a bit less than 100,000 people that's lost most of its shine, made mostly of red brick row houses that weren't distinctly Flemmish or Norman or Alsatian, it could have been any smallish-to-midsize PA city: Lancaster, York, Allentown. Hell, it could have been Racine or Kenosha, WI. It felt oddly like home.

The Roubaix train station is handsome and in excellent repair, though there aren't many trains through here anymore.

Roubaix's streets remind of home.

It wasn't all like familiar, though. The Grand Place (hotel de ville) on our walk from the train station to the velodrome was a striking, and very European, sight.

It also felt like perfect spectating weather, with sunny skies on race day. We'd done our 34-degree-and-rain spectating in December, so we were happy for the difference a little sun makes when standing around all day (and it really was all day, because they did UCI officials training between the U23 and women's races, an extra 90 min of just standing around). Like most of the races we've seen this year, the course was crazy-muddy, since it had rained all week. Those steep downhills were as gnarly as I've seen, with even most of the pro men running them, and it was just a long, brutal slog through the flatter sections of the course. It looked like a painful day on the bike, for sure.

Safety Jogger work boots is a major sponsor for many of the 'cross series. As Karen has said, it ain't a cross race without the inflatable boot.

However, the more logical sponsor would seem to be Wellies, because the deep mud has made for messy and treacherous walking all season long.

One guy who isn't getting dirty is Sven Nys. In this promo in Roubaix, pictures of muddy Niels Albert, Lars Boom, and friends, and a sparklingly clean Sven Nys, have been photoshopped together. There's no shortage of pictures of Nys in the mud, so the use of this one is perplexing.

With the various European national championships having run the week before, there was a lot of commentating over the loudspeakers about who was in what jersey. It would be a big day for the Czech champions, with Katerina Nash taking the women's race, the most notable moments of which were the missing Katie Compton (they called her repeatedly at the start line, but she didn't race due to leg cramps) and seeing Dutch national champion Daphny Van den Brand touch wheels with Nash on an early lap and crash hard on the velodrome concrete. Van den Brand got back up and though well-bloodied, held her position to take the overall lead in the World Cup.

Czech sensation Zdenek Stybar won the men's race convincingly, and World Champion and crybaby Niels Albert, who had until that race been leading the World Cup, had a tough day of it and finished well back in 8th place. sniffed after the race that with the broken ribs he suffered the week before, it wasn't possible to "defend my chances in a fair way." Having suffered through some busted ribcage myself in the past 12 months, his toughness is not in question in my book-- I can't imagine the pain of piloting a bike around the slop like that on freshly broken ribs. Chapeau, monsieur! Maybe there's something that happens in the translation from Dutch, but he just can't seem to help but whine in his interviews. There must have been something in the air, though, as even the normally stiff-lipped Sven Nys groused that day, saying that whereas the Czech champion had the luxury of training in Majorca the previous week, he, as the Belgian champion, had Obligations including an early-week race and a team event. Poor Svenny. It's such a burden to be so good.

Daphny Van den Brand got back up a couple of moments after her hard fall, but somebody apparently forgot to tell the emergency crew, who struggled to get the yellow backboard, stationed up at the top of the 2 treacherous descents, down to the velodrome through the thick mud, but not arriving until at least 5 min after she left the velodrome.

A guy who seems to be having a rough time for much of this season is American Jonathan Page. A good technical rider, it seemed like every time up this run/ride up at the soccer fields, somebody was running into him. On this lap, it's Ondrej Bambula (#28) with his shoulder in Page's ear.

Watching these races in person is a totally different experience than watching on TV. I know this, because I watched the TV coverage of it (on Belgian internet: neither of the French World Cup races this season were broadcast on French TV) that night when we got back to Paris. Unless you're lucky enough to be standing where the race is made or lost, as we were at Diegem when Nys broke his derailleur hanger at the top of the stairs, you really have no idea how things got the way they did in the race. But there's so much else you just don't get to see on TV. Like the Mongolians.

There's been a contingent of Mongolians racing in December and January, and since I figure that just about every other nation racing has representation in the crowd, and even the announcers keep calling them Chinese (I don't think Boldbaatar or Myagmarsuren are traditional Chinese names), I focus my cheering efforts on the Mongolians. Fortunately, this doesn't much interfere with cheering for the leaders, because the Mongolian fellas are pretty quickly off the back. Though the only time you see them on TV is when they're being lapped (usually just past mid-way through the race), they embody a lot of what I admire in bike racing: they ride hard and with dedication, but not without a little sense of humor about their situation, they're always taking chances and trying to conquer the lines and technical challenges (at Roubaix, with a little encouragement from our group at the soccer field run-up they managed to ride the run-up more often than most of the other guys in the pro race), and they're good sports, always getting clear out of the way of the front of the race as it laps them and, unlike a lot of the tools who get lapped and then try to draft the guys who caught them (which in my book just endangers the guys at the front of the race-- if you had those skills, you wouldn't have just gotten lapped...), they leave a gap before soldiering on.

Mongolian U23 team member Baasenkhuu Myagmarsura pushing through the slop.

I came to decide at Roubaix that they're a little like Power Rangers, with powers that can be summoned (briefly) on command. In the U23 race, one of the Mongolian fellows (Naran Kangarid) was struggling with one of the zillions of French riders (Dmitri Corriette) pretty far back in the race for several laps. With a couple to go, Kangarid absolutely lit it on the velodrome, as if he'd just been saving energy for the previous 30 min, and just toasted the French guy, eventually finishing a lap up on him. It was amazing. I thought I heard him shout, "Mongolian powers, activate!" when he kicked, but I could be wrong. Anyway, they were fun to watch and cheer, and I sincerely wish the team the best. I hope that when I get back to racing, I can do it with as much class and good nature as they do.

28 January 2010

Winter odds and ends

It's darned near February, already, and that means we're quickly closing in on a year in France.

Which also means I'm quickly closing in on needing to renew my carte de sejour. Since she came into the country gainfully enough employed that it seemed unlikely she'd sponge off of the social services here, Karen's carte de sejour is good for two years. Since I was just freeloading off of somebody gainfully enough employed that it seemed unlikely she'd sponge off of the social services here, I'm on a leash just half as long as hers. I'm not complaining, mind you. Heck, if I were Karen, I'd make me reapply for freeloading off of her every year, too.

Life in France requires a lot of photos. When we made our original applications for residency permits, I think we needed 13 of them, just a couple short of one for every most-wanted list in the country. It was a royal pain in the butt getting those photos in Philly. Even though we live within walking distance of the customs house, with a passport-and-other-official-documents photography service across the street, it took a long time and cost a small fortune to get the photos. The whole picture process was also pretty grim, since all of the photos have to be unsmiling. I'm not sure whether that's so that any official protector of la France won't be tempted to think that a terrorist couldn't possibly lurk behind a charming grin, or whether it's an acknowledgement that virtually any occasion in which your residency permit would be requested will not be a fun one and thus the unsmiling picture will be an easier comparison to the real thing. Either way, mirth is strictly interdit.

But in one of the rare efficiencies in France, since life here requires a lot of photos, there are a lot of places to quickly get them made cheaply. Photo booths that produce document-appropriate photos can be found in many of the metro and train stations, among other places. My carte de sejour renewal required 4 new photos, and the booths give 5 for 5 euro-bucks. You pull the curtain closed, sit on the little stool, adjusting its height so your eyes fall on the line in the video screen, put in your 5 euros, stop smiling, and shoot. You even get up to 3 shots at it before you have to commit. Pick up your pictures (outside the booth-- that took a couple of moments to figure out). It's a snap.

Or at least it would be if you're not 6'4" tall. Even with the stool in its lowest position, my eyes were well above the line, so I had to additionally slide forward off the stool to get my head low enough, bending awkwardly at the neck, my knees pressed into the opposite wall of the booth. Any passersby seeing a glimpse of my near-horizontal body under the curtain would probably have wondered which official document I needed that position for, but I suspect they'd doubt that such a document existed. This is France.

Anyway, I got my pictures, and apparently they were good enough, because I've gotten word that my new carte de sejour is ready. I can't pick it up, of course, because there's still a month left on the old one. I have to go in, pay the residency tax, give them my old residency card, then go get the new one. The only problem is that the old one expires on a Monday, but the office that gives the new ones out isn't open on Mondays, so I'll go 24 h or more without valid documentation. Though I've been assured that this will not be problem, $20 says that when I show up on Tuesday to get the new card, there'll be some crisis around the fact that the one I'm giving back isn't valid, anymore. There's probably another ($20) tax for that.

Would you let this guy into your country? Me neither.

On the way home, just a few doors from our apartment building, I noticed a dog being walked by a woman. Now, our neighborhood is lousy with tiny, decrepit, ill-tempered dogs being walked, or sometimes dragged since the dogs have so little mass that their stubbornness is easily overcome, by small, decrepit, ill-tempered old ladies. So the sight of a matchy dog-and-woman pair is hardly a novelty. But in this case, the dog was an Afghan hound, seemingly 3-feet tall with its Parisian-like upright carriage, impossibly skinny underneath its cascade of long blonde hair, with a darker long pointy face. It would have been striking just about anywhere, but especially in Paris, where I've never seen a dog a quarter that size, it was no less remarkable than a Bengal tiger. And, quelle surprise, the middle-aged woman attached to it was tall, skinny, and blond, with a face dominated by a long nose (I'm just stating facts, here, folks-- Lord knows I'm in no position to mock big noses).

An Afghan hound.
Picture from: http://www.breederretriever.com/photopost/showphoto.php/photo/174

The dog looked to be contemplating an evacuation in one of the tree wells along the street outside our building, and the woman was tugging on its leash, no doubt to encourage it to crap on the sidewalk, instead. Even as skinny as it was, this dog was way too big to simply drag where she wanted it, and so she was really pulling hard, and it occurred to me that she might just break its skinny long neck. Which is when I noticed that the dog was outfitted with what seemed to be some kind of brace, the whole length of its neck, that the leash disappeared into. I guess if you're a committed leash yanker, it's only responsible to put your dog in a neck brace.

But as I got closer, I realized that, in fact, the dog wasn't wearing a brace, but rather a scarf. Oo-la-la. Welcome to Paris.

27 January 2010

Just ducky

My refrigerator smells of feet.

And not like feet that see a lot of scrubbing in the shower or are lavishly washed in the fashion of old with olive oil or wine. More like one might expect the feet of Oscar Madison to smell, if one thought about those kinds of things-- until now, I'd have counted myself (firmly) in the camp that doesn't. Oddly, this (the smell, not thinking about Oscar Madison's feet) doesn't really bother me.

I'm in bachelor mode this week, since Karen is traveling for work. And so I'm doing the things that bachelors do: going to bed late (the guy upstairs has been dragging a 100-lb stone around his bare wood floors for 30 min each night at about 00.30, so there's little point in trying to get any sleep before he's finished), riding my bike over new routes, and eating leftovers.

Fortunately, having cooked for company last weekend, there's plenty to choose from. I've got something of culinary ADHD, and so the dinner wound up being 9 courses long, 7 of them duck. There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing, and it's a lesson I learn (and then ignore) over and over, kind of like the lesson that one should not experiment on one's guests. I mean culinarily. Well, actually, I guess performing any experiments on guests would be uncool, and even illegal, but in this case, I mean that it's perhaps unwise feeding them first attempts at physically realizing food ideas that seemed really great at 1 o'clock in the morning after the stone-dragging upstairs has finished. Thankfully, our guests were polite and gracious and complained not at all about the excess or experimenting.

I've maybe mentioned before how much I love duck. Everything's usable: bones and feet (stock), skin (confit), legs (ragu, confit), breast, neck (stuffed), liver (ragu, neck stuffing), heart and gizzard (ravioli fillings, neck fillings, etc). I like to take the duck off the bone as a single big piece, good practice for using the whole skin to wrap fillings and such. It's also just fun.

I decided to make duck prosciutto for the first time. I don't have a recipe, but how hard can it be? Salt (and season) duck overnight, wash off salt, hang duck until it has lost about 30% of its pre-hanging weight. Salting darkened the meat (salted and rinsed on right, raw counterpart on left).

They say the flavors of the great hams are derived from the air they dry in, the sea air or other flavors of nature imparting flavor to the fat and meat. Our duck dried in the rare av Henri Martin air, a mixture of smog (the air quality in Paris over the 8 days it hung was among the worst since we've been here, according to the papers) and ubiquitous cigarette smoke. I drew the line at the funky stinky mold on the rolling wooden shutters-- we had the door cracked open during the day all week to keep the temp around the duck a little low, but at night when that shutter was down, the door was sealed tight.

Ready for eating-- now dark and decidedly prosciutto-y smelling, a bundle of salty ducky goodness. For the dinner, we served sliced with a timbale made of roasted turnips hiding a just-warm egg yolk.

That was followed by a star anise-infused duck consomme with little mushroom and white bean raviolis. The consomme was killer, the raviolis weren't quite the right flavor (originally they were going to be stuffed with the roasted turnip and the timbale was going to be parsnip, but these things keep changing).

Stuffed duck neck is a French classic, basically using the neck skin as a sausage wrapper. I'd hoped to have 2 necks, but the less-bright of my butchers slit one of them down its length (the one at the back in the pic), so I had to get every bit out of the other one. Thankfully, Karen loved doing sutures in surgery rotation, and she stitched up the head end (rather than my tying it) and stitched the body end so it would hold the stuffing of duck meat, sausage, wild rice cooked in giblet stock, and roasted hazelnuts. Can't believe I didn't get a picture of it stuffed and poached (it was a perfect cylinder, not at all creepy like this). For dinner it was fried until crispy and dark on the outside, sliced, and served with Bordelaise and deeply browned brussels sprouts.

I have yet to have a good duck confit in France. I know-- it seems wrong. Especially since it's easy to make. But every one I've had here have been tough and tasteless. So I made my own. Salt and season (I'm partial to ground fresh herbs, black pepper, and a little quatre epices) like this overnight, before rinsing off seasoning and drying.

Melt a whole crapload of duck fat that you've rendered from the duck skin you've been collecting.

Cover duck legs completely with the melted fat, cook really slowly (~180 degrees-- don't let it get above 200 or it'll toughen) for 8-12 hours. Cool in the fat, store for up to a couple of weeks. Yeah, right, like it'll last more than a day or two. For the dinner, we served crisped confit on top of confit'd (in sugar, not fat) orange slices with a celeriac and mustard seed salad.

Duck ragu is one of my favorites. This time I did it with black olives and served with chestnut pappardelle. We were eating this before the dinner, had it at the dinner, and have some left over, and wish we had more.

I had this idea a few weeks ago for poached duck breast (and of course later learned I was nowhere near the first). Duck breast is so often all about the skin, but I love the flavor of rare duck, so I thought I'd lightly cure it in salt and citrus peel and poach it in olive oil. Not so good-- the semi-cured duck just didn't do it (I thought it might be like a duck gravlax, but I was way wrong). So I poached the other one uncured in olive oil and served it with turnips "Anna" and crisped skin. The duck and skin were good, and the turnips tasted good but never got that crispy awesomeness that potatoes anna get. Back to the drawing board. Karen suggested crispy polenta as an accompaniment. Smart girl.

For the dinner, I poached the breast in clarified butter (may as well go big...) and served with garlicky turnip greens, crisped polenta with a bit of mushroom reduction, and mostardas of quince and parsnip. Like everything else, it could still use tweaking, but it was a step in the right direction.

The last duck course was a Chinese-spiced duck breast, pan-seared and served with squash, baby bok-choy, and a mildly hot but too-sweet Chinese-style loose sauce. Way too 1980s. Oh well.

I've been playing with encapsulation/spherification and other science-in-the-kitchen stuff lately. I made some coffee caviar to use in an opera-like dessert (classically chocolate, almond, and coffee): a chocolate-almond tuille filled with chocolate-coffee mousse with coffee caviar on top. I'm not a dessert guy, but it was fun to make. And the coffee caviar were a genuinely good idea (though I'm sure if I look, I can learn I'm not the first).

The coffee noodles, however, were a terrible idea. Though they looked kinda like soy-soaked bean thread noodles, they looked a lot more like nasty worms. Fortunately, I had the good sense not to even try to find a use for them in any way.

But the leftovers aren't perhaps what one would expect. We ate everything of the dishes from the dinner. What was left was the back-up stuff. You see, you never know what you're going to actually find and not find at the markets here, especially in winter. Two weeks ago, I had the most amazing broccoli rabe from one of my produce vendors, but the day before the dinner, they had none. So instead, I bought some good-looking long radicchio, even though it isn't green (it's still bitter, which was the point). And I bought a bunch of turnips to roast for a timbale, and nobody has them with the greens attached, except for the guy at the stand 2 down from the guy who had the good radicchio (who was around the corner from the guy I bought the other turnips from), which I hadn't noticed on my first pass, because they were stuffed way at the back under the cascade of lettuces. So I now had extra turnips *and* the extra radicchio. It was like that 5 times over-- which of the French sausages is going to be the flavor I want in the stuffed duck neck? Dunno, better cover my bases and buy several. Add in trips to both the Indian and Chinese/Vietnamese grocers for weird stuff, and I always came home with more than I expected (hey look-- dried jujube! Never had it, but I need a big bag of it, I'm sure).

According to Wikipedia, "The jujube's sweet smell is said to make teenagers fall in love, and as a result, in the Himalaya and Karakoram regions, men take a stem of sweet-smelling jujube flowers with them or put it on their hats to attract women." (I guess that would be, attract young women. Good for them.)

The haul from the ethnic markets. In addition to the ethnic goods, they're great places to get the stuff from home you can't find easily here, such as baking powder and corn syrup.

Anyway, I had a lot of greens/reds, sausages, and other random things to use up. which has made for a weird week of eating so far.

Leftovers for lunch: north African-spiced chickpea stew with lots of vegetables and a bit of duck confit.

Leftovers for dinner: rabbit-and-polenta agnolotti with radicchio, duck prosciutto, and walnuts.

But none of that really explains the foot odor in the fridge. It wasn't the leftover wine (many French red wines are élevé en fûts de chêne, or as we surmised on our arrival last winter, "made with the feet of eleven dogs" (no telling where that 3rd dog's 4th foot went)), because we had no wine left over, despite starting with more than a bottle a person. I'm probably only still alive because our wiser-than-us guests turned down the offer of cognac after dinner, and I'd be really grateful if I'd stop feeling the effects of the night's excess before March. No, my refrigerator smells of feet because although I was content to serve the 7 duck courses and then dessert, Karen insisted that we do a cheese course, "because this is France." She's right, of course, this is France, for better and for worse, and a cheese course and the good cheese vendors here are definitely among the betterest things of France. So she went out and bought 3 delicious stinky French cheeses, less and less of which are still in there.

By the time she gets home, there might only be the lingering funk.

21 January 2010

Keeping up with business

One of the ubiquitous features of the corporate conference room is the Polycom. Although they may have fancy names like Soundstation 2, everyone calls them by the company name, Polycom.

When I moved to Paris, the office I was squatting in had its own Polycom- most of our meetings are with other parts of the global team and hence teleconferences, so my office becomes the de facto conference room when 2 or 3 of us from Paris join the global conversation. When the office's real occupant returned to Paris (she had been squatting in my Collegeville office for 4 months!) I got moved to another lesser office, on a different floor, and without a Polycom. The normal telephone in conference call mode does not work nearly as well. I asked for a Polycom, but there was no IT budget by that point last year, so the telephone it was.

Now that it's January, ie, a new year, I asked again. In French they are referred to as "pizzas". So this morning, the pizza delivery guy showed up and voila, I have my own pizza.

Life is good.

10 January 2010

Creative Parking

This is another post that sat, unfinished, for a long time. Which will explain why the pictures are not how Paris looks right now (ie, winter).

We are very happy that we do not have a car in Paris. At home we live in Center City, and we undestand what a problem parking can be. We will avoid going places if we have a good parking spot. We never take the car out on a Friday or Saturday night, since it will take hours of driving around to find a spot again when we get home. It doesn't seem to be any better in Paris, although it is much easier to live without a car here (public transit is much more extensive).

For the hardy souls who do have cars in our neighborhood, the most impressive thing is the opportunities they make for themselves to park their cars. (Pretty much all of these options would generate a ticket from the only efficient Philadelphia city service, the Parking Authority, if tried at home.)

Our neighborhood. There are a lot of cars parked on the streets, most days.

Most of the cars are smaller than American cars, which does allow more to fit in a given space. But if you have a Smart car, you can fit in spaces that other's can't. In ways other's can't.

Or, you can create your own definition of what is a space. So what if it includes a little sidewalk?

This is an example of either really bad parking, or just making that station wagon fit in a space that's too small.

Trying to be a Smart car, when you aren't. You still get the space! Twice! (Sorry for the fuzziness- I took this one while running.)

Here's my favorite. This person has taken advantage of 2 one way streets at the corner, to park in a spot that is out of the way of both lanes of traffic. And not even in either cross walk!

But make sure you remember where you parked, and move the car every once in awhile. This car is both right under a tree (and thus covered in bird poo) and the recipient of a number of tickets. Meter maids are usually not that persistent in Paris, so this car has evidently worn out its welcome by not fitting in with the image the neighborhood would like to project. Cover it in dog poo, no one would notice it.

Yes, it is really nice not to have a car.

03 January 2010

King's Folly

This King-for-a-day thing is for the birds. I have to buy next year's galette, and I have no useful powers, such as getting my bike washed, or the apartment vacuumed, or even removing that stupid picture from Karen's post. In fact, the only action I managed as king was to finally take the time to figure out how to list some of the blogs one or the other of us reads and change the formatting of the posts a bit, hopefully making it easier to scroll through recent posts. At least for us. I mean, the 2000s are no longer new (in fact, they're officially tweens now), and we need to get with the program and make the place a little less bare.

As has been typical around here lately, we got a late start and were bummed that both the Colombian place we wanted to go (apparently moved around the corner, so we couldn't find it) and our back-up of the Portuguese chicken we ate over Thanksgiving weekend (undergoing renovations until today) in the 9e were nixed. After failing to find noodle soup at several Japanese places in the neighborhood, and neither of us feeling like typical heavy brasserie fare, we found ourselves standing outside of Brasserie Paris Nord, debating whether it was really worth trying couscous in what otherwise seemed a typical brasserie.

As we hemmed and hawed, two gents emerged and, divining our dilemma, raved in French about the couscous (C'est vachement exceptionelle!), which is only available on weekends. Denying he worked there or was a family member, one of the guys even brought us in and told the guys behind the bar that his good friends (that'd be us) wanted couscous on his advice. So pretty soon we were seated and had a big platter of very small grain but fluffy couscous, a plate of merguez sausages and chicken, and a big bowl of fragrant broth filled with chickpeas, carrots, turnips, and celery. And although I personally prefer larger grained couscous, and nobody here seems to make it the traditional way of steaming it over the stew, it was still vachement good: the chicken was tender and juicy, the sausages were perfectly browned and spicy, and the broth was complex and savory. A superb lunch for a cold Saturday afternoon, made even better when we realized that it was only thanks to our new friend's introduction that we were offered the meal, since the kitchen had closed moments before to anybody else who came in.

Along with the miraculous unsticking of the double boiler, a good omen for 2010.

Unexpected feast: couscous at Brasserie Nord. Tell 'em the jolly Algerian sent you.

Bonne Année pt. 2

One of the traditions for Epiphany in France is the Galette des Rois, a pastry with a trinket baked inside. Originally this was a bean, then a porcelain object (usually a king or a baby), then plastic. Whoever finds the trinket gets to be king for a day and gets to wear a paper crown (which comes with the pastry). All we could find, however, was that being king for the day obligates you to buy the pastry next year for everyone else.

Our favorite bakery had the Galettes this morning, so we decided that we were game

Guess who found the prize!

King for the day; our bakery still uses porcelain

02 January 2010

When you just gotta go....

I started this post long ago (last summer) but between having troubles with the picture uploads (which Rolf fixed for me) and general malaise, it sat. Hearing that a friend spent her New Year's Eve shopping for toilets and then having plumbers in her house installing a new toilet, somehow made this posting seem more relevant again.

It is pretty amazing that you can fly half way around the world, and the airport terminal looks pretty much like any other airport terminal. But what really gives away that you are in a different country, is the restrooms.

And specifically, the toilet.

Here’s a pretty generic American toilet. Handle on the side of the tank, bowl full of water, a cycling magazine to read. [Hotel in Miami, earlier this spring.]

Bonne année

The rather Charley Brownish Christmas tree in our apartment building's lobby set a festive tone for the holidays.

As 2010 starts, we're comfortably reinstalled in our apartment in Paris. So comfortably, in fact, that other than going out in the (just barely technically) morning to buy bread and pastries, the only thing we accomplished yesterday was depositing impressions of our rear ends in the sofa cushions. Scratch that off my to-do list.

Judging from the wall of dark windows in the building behind us, windows that were bright and afforded views of apartments full of feasting and company on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve seems to be an evening to celebrate out. Indeed, there are myriads of options for dining out/partying in Paris on New Year's Eve. According to the US embassy in Paris, which sent us not just one but two emails warning that:

Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations in Paris and other urban centers in France can be boisterous. Last year, U.S. citizens reported that glass bottles were hurled, extensive public drinking and drunkenness occurred, and sporadic fighting broke out in Paris around the Champs Elysees, the Champ de Mars, andTrocadero. Parked cars being set ablaze is also a fairly common feature of revelry in France, occuring even in upscale neighborhoods.