Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Morning in Versailles

I thought I was being clever.  This was to make up for the fact that I was not clever last night.  Last night, I unintentionally locked the SIM card on my brand new iPhone.

Naturally, I panicked.  When I tried to unlock the SIM card, it asked for a code.  What code to put in?  The 4-digit code I used to use for the same card in my old phone, or the extended 6-digit one the iPhone made me create?   I put in the 6-digit one.  It didn’t work.  I put in again, no go.  Now I had one more chance before it locked up forever and I would have to change the SIM card and wipe out all my data.  Less than 24 hours as an iPhone owner and I was already on the verge of catastrophe.  Should I try the 4-digit? My SIM card’s existence was hanging by a thread.

Here’s where I made my clever decision.  I decided to go to Versailles.  In Versailles, aside from a famous castle, there is also the closest store where my service provider could help me with my SIM card problem.  Not only that, right next to the store there is a fabulous covered market where I could do my food shopping.  I put on a dress (I was going to Versailles, after all) and hopped on the RER C.  The car was empty, no doubt due to the fact that it was August (see previous post).  Where were the tourists?  The RER C direction Versailles Chateau is usually full of them.  Perhaps they were sleeping in. 

Seven minutes later I was in Versailles, a little surprised to see tour guides hawking their wares in the train station.  You won’t see that my sleepy suburb.  I also saw a clutch of soldiers in camouflage holding machine guns. They’ve become part of the scenery around here since the terrorist attacks.   I gaily pulled my shopping cart out onto the sidewalk and headed across town, past the enormous Versailles-esque city hall and across the gigantic boulevard that leads to the chateau.  Louis XIV was not kidding around when he decided to set up camp here.  The avenue de Paris is the width of the Champs Elysées and splits the town in half.  Two other boulevards head away from the chateau on an angle on either side, further chopping the town into wedge-like quarters.  Though Versailles is not small (some 85,000 inhabitants), those boulevards make it feel bigger than it is and deprive the city of a center, other than that massive palace at the end of every road.

This was one of the reasons that we decided not to live there.  The other had to do with the town’s reputation for being…well, a little snooty.  Yes, centuries after the last of the Louis had packed up his bags and had his head chopped off, the inhabitants of Versailles still see themselves as something special.  There is a prominent population of practicing Catholics, and a significant number of noble families.  I’ve since been told by people who live there that there is another part of Versailles where “regular” people hang out, but I’m still dubious.

So this morning I was pleased to see how much more charming the place was than I remembered.  The tourists (they had been in the front cars) all streamed off towards the castle and I plunged ahead into the quartier Notre-Dame, which was predictably empty.  I got to the store and low and behold, when I tried the 4-digit code in front of the nice lady, it worked.  My SIM card was saved.  I celebrated with a coffee and a croissant at a pretty café next to the market.  Which was remarkably quiet.  And this was because, as the waiter helpfully explained to me, the market was closed on Saturdays.

Refusing to be daunted, I decided to explore the quartier St-Louis, the neighborhood where the “regular” people supposedly hung out.  There was another open-air market in front of the cathedral.  St-Louis was an early effort in orderly urban planning on the part of Louis XIV, who was always eager to be a trend-setter.  As a consequence, the neighborhood is laid out on a grid, a little like a 17th century Manhattan.  Perhaps this is why yuppies accumulate here.  Anyway, when I arrived, the market was tiny and though the cathedral of St-Louis looked lovely, I hesitated visiting with my shopping cart. 


So it was time to head home.  The train was delayed so I ended up taking the bus.  And while I hadn’t really accomplished anything by going to Versailles I was glad I did, because it is a beautiful place, full of lovely cafes and markets (when they are open), and a great place to spend a sunny morning in August.

Friday, August 19, 2016

August in Paris

It’s August, and in the quiet of the Parisian suburbs that means there is not a soul on the streets.  What is normally just low-key is now silent, save a few lone inhabitants, aimlessly wandering the streets like survivors of a nuclear blast. There is nothing post-apocalyptic about the scenery though, which is a pleasant mix of cute little houses and boxy modern apartment buildings.  The best part is the greenery, which is lush.  We are just a few steps from a forest, and the neighborhood is dotted with some nice old trees, like the huge weeping willow on the corner, which is literally the size of a house. 

Most of the stores on the main drag, if you can call it that, are shuttered, with notes taped to the metal shutters announcing their summer closures.  The mini-super market is open, as is one bakery, to feed those few who are not on a beach somewhere, slathering the sunscreen and trying not to get stepped on by the hordes of fellow vacationers.

I prefer to stay on my deck chair in the back yard this summer.  When the sun is out, I can close my eyes and pretend that I am at a luxury resort on the Riviera.  After all, it’s the same sun beating down on my face, the same warm breeze caressing my limbs, the same quiet massaging my temples.  OK, I’ll admit that instead of the cry of seagulls I hear the twitter of sparrows and instead of the distant roar of crashing waves, I hear the distant thunder of the RER C.  But by and large, what I lose in pampering I gain in the relaxing effects of sleeping in my own bed and not needing to get to the airport. And it’s not like I could ever afford a luxury resort to begin with. 

Then I decide to go to the movies.  I waltz into my private screening room that the owner of MK2 Parnasse has so kindly opened for my personal benefit.  Or else it certainly seems that way—I am the only person at the 1:30 matinee and get to enjoy Florence Foster Jenkins without any one near me crinkling wrappers or munching on popcorn.


But the best part of my home-grown luxury vacation is the silence.  The muted calm that you pay for at a ritzy resort is a standard feature of any residential neighborhood in Paris after July 14.  In fact, Paris in August is what some evil-minded tourists dream of: Paris without the Parisians.  Be advised, however, while the Parisians might be gone, their places have been filled by thousands of out-of-town guests, who clog the arteries of every major attraction.  It may be a nice playground, but one you will have to share with the other kids, who might not want to play they way you want them to.  To them, it might be fun to scream or run around or push people.  

So beware.  Or be willing to strike out into the quiet corners and park benches where if you close your eyes, you could be just about anywhere warm and peaceful.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Aftermath

There was a whiff of hangover in the air yesterday at the covered market.  It was strangely quiet, as if a mute pedal had been applied to the noisy instrument that generates the usual cacophony.  Both the customers and the merchants were bleary eyed:  this one walked off without his package of fruit, that one forgot the order he just took. 

I can’t say that I was much better off, as I was recovering from an epic Christmas lunch, one that started and ended with champagne and included all sorts of deliciously noxious substances in between.  Apèros with champagne are all the rage these days, so I started off with munchies and a flute of bubbly, which hit my nervous system like a spray of sequins and quickly infiltrated my blood stream.  Soon it was time for a succulent slab of foie gras with a glass of Sauternes from a bottle that was so old the liquid had turned the color of an antique wedding ring.  It tasted like pink gold too.  Chablis was required for the oysters and smoked salmon, and a nice Bordeaux for the leg of lamb and the subsequent round of cheese, and after all that, why not haul out the rest of the champagne for the bûche?  A bûche is a traditional, log-shaped, rolled Christmas cake that everyone complains about (eww!  It’s too sweet!) but everyone gobbles down when it appears on the table at the end of a long meal. 

Suffice it to say that I barely remember who gave me what when we unwrapped the presents and I am embarrassed to admit that I collapsed on my son’s Jumbo Bag and fell into a deep sleep at 6:30pm.


Today, I joined the ranks of those who doggedly attempt to eliminate the alcohol and calories of Christmas at the pool.  “I don’t know what happens,” a woman was moaning to her friend in the dressing room, “I just have no control when it comes to chocolates.  I can eat the whole box.” Just in case you thought that French women really don’t get fat.  It’s not easy to resist when exquisite chocolates are constantly shoved under your nose during the holidays.  But I’m trying to be strong.  After all, it’s only a week until New Years.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Politesse

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I just received a note in my mailbox that translates as follows:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have the honor of informing you that a team from our company will proceed to clean the parking garage on the morning of Thursday, June 12.  We thank you in advance for kindly removing your vehicles.”

It is not at all unusual here to receive official letters from banks, plumbers, or other service industries that sound like an invitation to a fancy dress ball.  However rude a clerk may seem at the post office in person, in writing that same institution will sign off with “je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’assurance de ma consideration distinguée,” which roughly translates as “I beg you to accept, Madam, the guarantee of my distinguished regards.” 

It is difficult for an American (particularly one that lived a long time in New York) to understand why the note in my box didn’t just say “Garage cleaning June 12, please move your car before that date,” or something more menacing like “garage cleaning June 12, all cars must be removed by sundown.” I’m used to taking orders from faceless authorities, but apparently, the French are not.  Maybe it’s a leftover sentiment from the French Revolution, when outrage over being subject to the oppressive whims of the aristocracy led to a summary chopping off of its collective head. Maybe that’s why my husband gets furious when I ask him to do something in my direct, American way, like “can you take out the trash?” instead of “my, but the trash bin is full, do you think you might be able to take it out?”

It might a stretch to take a historic view of marital squabbles, but there has got to be some explanation for the overblown importance of politesse in certain French circumstances.  After all, in neighboring Spain, perfect strangers use the familiar form of “you” (tu). In nearby Italy, locals will enthusiastically throw themselves at your baby and ask if they can take pictures. Maybe it’s a question of personal space. In France, you must wait to be invited into someone’s personal space, and politeness creates a neutral territory where the two sides can check each other out.  Maybe the French just need more time to connect, unlike Americans, who hurl themselves at each other like overexcited puppies.

That still doesn’t explain the letters, however, or why my health insurance center keeps thanking me for confidence that I have in them.  Or why the sign on the bus about ticket prices “thanks me for my understanding.” Or, for that matter, why a subway strike is described as a “social movement” on the monitors in the metro station. Oh well, I guess some things just can’t be explained.  And so, in closing, I beg you to accept my most cordial regards.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Another Velib' Update

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It’s time to count our Velib’ blessings.  It’s been almost seven years since the mayor's office set up this low-cost rent-a-bike program, and today those funky looking bikes are part of the cityscape.  Similar systems have been set up are in cities all around France. 

For years, the futuristic city cycles were almost entirely out of reach of your average North American tourist, as they required a chip-enabled credit card, preferably of European origin.  Now there are options:  you can either buy your 1-day or 7-day subscription on line, or you can use a refillable cash card, like Travelex.  You an also find out how it works on the extensive English-language page on the Velib’ website, and even call an English-speaking customer service person.

So let’s say you actually got yourself a bike and are ready to take off into traffic.  Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

1)   Check your bike before you check it out.  Are the tires flat? Do the brakes work? Is a pedal missing?  (I once tried to pedal away and to my surprise…)
2)   Wear a helmet.  If you don’t want to bring one, you get a casque (helmet) for 10€ at a Decathalon store .  Once you take to the streets, you will understand why.
3)   Get a map, preferably a handy-dandy “Paris par Arrondissement” that lists Velib’ stations, so you won’t go nuts trying to find one when you want to check in.  For the smartphone inclined, there is also an app that you can download from thewebsite.
4)   Take a deep breath.  What you are about to do requires courage, patience and a certain amount of derring-do.

Actually, while the traffic looks crazy, it’s not as bad as it looks.  As long as you pay attention, most drivers will pay attention to you.  There are also an increasing number of dedicated bike lanes (though they often abandon you just when you were starting to relax).  The bike lanes should be on those maps I mentioned, but don’t count on it.  Look for the theoretically bike-friendly bus lanes (and then look out for buses and taxis).  Watch out for motor scooters—whose drivers seem to have little regard for human life, including their own—and other cyclists, some of whom appear to be trying out for the Evil Knievel Award for Stupidest Death-Defying Risk. 

Now that I’ve made you nervous, I’d like to point out that riding around on a Velib’ is a truly delightful way to see the city. As long as you stay off the big boulevards, you can glide around with relative ease, humming the theme to the movie “Amélie” as you take in Mansart-roofed vistas and quaint neighborhoods you never knew existed. You’ll cover plenty of territory in a short distance (this is a relatively small city, after all) and avoid plunging into the Métro on a nice sunny day.  If it’s not a nice day, well that’s another matter.  It’s up to you how much cold, rain and wind you can handle.  And remember, while you are having fun on your bike, you’ll be working off all those pastries and croissants—and making room for more.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Just Say "Non"

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I went to the covered market this morning, and like every Sunday, the Communist Party was out there campaigning, in this case, for the European Union elections next week.  Or maybe I should say against, since the prominent word on their posters was the word NON (i.e., “no”).  As in say “no” to the uncaring European Union, who doesn’t give a damn about the workers.  OK, I can see their point, but isn’t it just a wee bit negative to use the word “no” as a campaign slogan?  How can you tell people to go out and vote (this was indeed a “get out the vote” campaign) for an institution that you are simultaneously declaring isn’t worth a hill of beans?

European Union elections are historically ill attended.  Apathy or downright animosity keeps people away from the ballot box, as does the generalized fuzziness about what exactly one is voting for.  For if everyone regularly complains that the “bureaucrats in Brussels” make undemocratic decisions that filter down and muck up the life of the common man and woman, they also are allergic to electing the deputies who at least give a semblance of democratic process.

But in France, this seeming contradiction bothers no one, since complaining is an age-old tradition and saying non is often the only honorable way to respond to a question.  For example, let’s say you ask a store clerk if they have bananas.  They will not equivocate like an American shopkeeper, who might say with a sad smile, “oh no, I’m sorry we don’t but we should have some tomorrow,” or  “gee, I just sold the last one, and boy were they tasty” (both comments geared to getting you come back another day).  No, they will look you squarely in the eye and say: non, or even more emphatically:  pas du tout (not at all).   Because in France, equivocating and unnecessary smiling are considered signs of weakness.  That shopkeeper may have lost a sale, but she has saved her honor, and what’s more, she has defended La Gloire, that is, the glory of France.

The general rule here is when in doubt, say no.  It may be clothed in other words, however, like “maybe.”  It took me years to figure out that when my sister-in-law responded to a question with pourquoi pas? (“why not?”) she in fact meant “no, anything but that.”  Being direct is also frowned upon (unless you are a shopkeeper or the Communist Party), so “maybe” or “why not” sometimes have to do the job of “no.”  If all this sounds complicated, it is, at least for a foreigner.   

Fortunately for me, the elections aren't an issue, since I don’t have the right to vote.  Because after 14 years country I still don’t have the nerve to face the red tape involved in getting dual citizenship. And perhaps this is where I must admit I’m turning a little bit French: when I think of going to the Préfecture and facing that bureaucratic madness, my instinctive response is: non, non, and pas du tout.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Christmas Underground

Forget the eggnog, Christmastime in France is when everyone pulls out all the stops and stuffs themselves with the most luxurious foods around: lobster and smoked salmon, caviar and champagne, fois gras and chocolates—it’s as if the holiday table were a buffet at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year is no exception, crisis notwithstanding. Supermarkets are at war over who has the best deals on oysters, towers of chocolates loom over store displays, and your waistline expands just browsing the aisles. That said, all that stuff adds up at the checkout counter, especially since when it comes to holiday entertaining, France is a friendly country, and those who don’t invite at least a dozen people over on the big day are considered slouches.

How to pay for all that without going into hock? There are ways. For one, I have detected a Christmas underground. There is an untold volume of undeclared traffic in holiday goodies. For example, friends of my in-laws, who are otherwise virtuous, church-going upholders of the law, seem to be the leaders of a chocolate smuggling ring. The details are shady, but every year a large Tupperware box of excellent chocolates appears at my in-laws courtesy of this couple, who do mysterious pickups at non-descript parking lots, and then sell their goods to their friends at bargain rates.

These networks seem to be very intimate, word-of-mouth operations. Just the other day, I was surprised to arrive at the home of an acquaintance and see a table full of vacuum-packed whole smoked salmons. Wondering if they had decided to have a bagel-and-lox-a-thon, I asked what was up. No, despite the recent frenzy for bagels (including an – urp – bagel hamburger) that was not it. It was another black market Christmas affair: I order a ton from my secret source, and you buy top quality at cut rates. I felt a pang of envy and wished that I was in on the deal. I wondered whose hands needed to be greased, and what the secret password was. I’m not usually one to defy the law for illegal or mind-bending substances, but good smoked salmon is an entirely different matter. Sign me up for next year.