Friday, August 24, 2012

The Call of Nature

Though I’ve lived in Paris for close to a decade, I’ve never had the nerve to try the public toilets.  I’m talking about those round kiosks on the street called sanisettes, those automatic wonders that do everything but wipe your bottom and zip up your pants.   Not only do they flush once you are done, but they automatically disinfect themselves once you’ve left.  How they do this is unclear, but I’m under the impression a small door opens and some sort of high-powered spray erupts from the wall, dousing the entire cubicle with Mr. Clean.  Or maybe Mr. Clean himself (or one of his minions) erupts from the wall and scurries about before the next needy soul pushes the button.  In any case, the whole procedure is rather sinister to the uninitiated:  when these somber booths first started appearing on the city streets, there were stories of small children being trapped inside and shpritzed within an inch of their lives.  Having a mild case of claustrophobia, the idea of being confined in a window-less, automated contraption while relieving myself was none too appealing.  But then the day arrived when I had already spent quite a bit of money on drinks at cafés just so that I could use the facilities, and I needed to go again.  It was getting late, it was time to go home, and I wasn’t the slightest bit thirsty.  I was counting up my change when I saw a sanisette beckoning to me right next to the metro station.   I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and pushed the button.

According to the Paris municipal website, (where you can enjoy a video and slide show on the subject), there are some 400 of these beauties throughout the city.   First installed in the early 1981, the sanisettes replaced the old vespasiennes, the public urinals that had adorned the city’s streets since the early 19th century.   I remember seeing them in the 1970s and not quite understanding what they were.  I saw men go in, but there didn’t seem to be a phone in there, so what the heck were they doing?  They couldn’t possibly be…but yes, they were.  They were peeing on the street.  OK, you couldn’t really see, but you could see the bottom of their legs and their heads tilted down, and well, it was really gross.  Not to mention that the people in charge seemed to think only men needed to pee at inopportune times.  And so, at least to my teenaged mind, the advent of sanisettes was a great step forward in terms of both sanitation and human rights. 

The door opened majestically and automatically, and I entered a roomy space with a sink, mirror, and toilet.   I had the good fortune to be in one of the new, improved sanisettes, which are both wheelchair accessible and ecologically correct.  They also speak to you, just to make sure you feel at home.  This is a little daunting, since it starts speaking as soon as you hit the button on the outside, so that everyone in earshot turns around and sees you going in.  As the door closed behind me, I could have cared less what the recorded voice was saying, I just wanted it all to be over as quickly as possible.  While the place was relatively clean, I was surprised to see that the toilet had not been flushed.  Perhaps all that talking distracted Mr. Clean and he forgot.  Or perhaps…it wasn’t as automatic as I had thought.  In fact, I was urged to push the button after I did my business, so that once I left the premises, the automatic miracle would occur.  That was a little disappointing.  What with all those automatic flushing toilets at airports around the world, one would think…well, never mind.  After all, this was a free pee.   As of 2006, all Parisian sanisettes are free of charge.  Just don’t get any ideas about staying for any length of time:  after 20 minutes, the doors open wide and you are requested to leave.  Even Mr. Clean has his limits.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Vacation Vortex

It’s coming soon…The Vacation Vortex.  That’s when you and your entire family get sucked into a dizzying whirlpool of getaway plans and family visits.  Or getaway from the family visits, depending on your status.  Every year there’s a local ritual, whereon you ask everyone you know what they are doing this summer, then nod dutifully while they recite their complicated plans (“…five days in Sardinia and then the kids are going to spend a week with grandma in Normandy while I paint my cousin’s house in the Ardeche…”), and then promptly forget everything they just told you.

But it really doesn’t matter because the only thing you need to know is that in July and August you won’t see anyone.  You may bump into the occasional lone wolf loping through the ghost town that was once your bustling neighborhood, but basically, you are on your own.  Not that anyone actually takes two months of vacation, but since they are staggered throughout July and August, and since kids and parents often fly off in different directions at different times, and stores close for at least three weeks, it feels like everyone but you is doing precisely that. 

When you live abroad, the Vortex tends to whirl at an even higher speed, because you have to fly all over the world to even find the family that will slowly drive you crazy over the course of your stay.  Not that you don’t want to see your family, but if you are from a faraway place like California and it’s a once-a-year reunion, it tends to get rather intense.  It’s one thing to visit with your parents for an evening or a weekend, and it’s another to spend two weeks with them 24-7.

But I can’t complain.  While my carbon footprint this summer will be off the charts, my frequent flyer millage will climb ever higher until I can take yet more flights to more faraway places.  When I get back I will have reconnected with my Southern California roots and remember why it was that I left in the first place.  I will cherish my French suburb with renewed enthusiasm and savor the taste of espresso at the coffee stand at the covered market.  My apartment will seem so quiet and welcoming.  I will be at peace.  But then it will be time for the rentrée….

Friday, June 22, 2012

American Food in Paris

Though I’ve been trying to ignore it, there is no question that the phenomenon is spreading.  American food is hip in France.  While this seems impossible to any rational being with functioning tastebuds, it is equally impossible to ignore the trend.  There is a veritable engouement (which means “infatuation” but sounds as gooey as the insides of a jelly doughnut) for classic American taste treats.  Believe me, no one is interested in fusion food, they want brownies, cupcakes, and bagels. 

It’s been years since I saw my first brownie in a Parisian bakery.   I have since learned how to pronounce it, because my first attempt was met with a blank stare.  “Ah!  Un brooNI!  Vous voulez un brooNI!”  And this was years before Carla’s entrance on the political scene.  Then there was the crumbUL, which was quickly followed by muhfFIN.  This was all perfectly acceptable, especially because the French make brownies, crumble, and muffins so much better than we do. 

But I can’t bring myself to try a baGUL.  I’m sorry, but for me, any bagel that doesn’t come out of a sweaty shop with a huge, steaming bagel boiler just isn’t the real deal.  I can’t imagine that those dainty rings, delicately displayed next to croissants, could ever approximate Absolute Bagels on Upper Broadway.  While its entirely possible that the French bagel tastes better than an American bagel, for me, that’s beside the point.  I want my bagel to be chewy and leaden, that’s part of the experience.  You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Because there is a dark side to the Frenchification of American food.  Take hamburgers.  I’m not talking about those 25€ versions in the chic restaurants, I’m talking about the frozen ones in the supermarkets.  Already cooked, bun included.  Or the same horror in a microwavable version.  Nobody seems to understand that even the greasiest burger stateside is made to order.   Even in the best Parisian bakeries, the ones that also sell sandwiches, you’ll see pre-cooked hamburgers sitting on the counter in their buns.  La honte!

Lastly, I feel I must speak out about the presence of Budweiser in hip bars.  When I see Parisian trendoids paying exorbitant prices for the dubious pleasure of sipping that sad excuse for a beer, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Especially when the majority of Parisian cafés and bars have excellent Belgian beers on tap.  What is this country coming to?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Brasserie Wepler

Brasserie Wepler is just up the street from my work.  It’s one of those famous artists’ cafés that could have easily fit into Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (i.e., Picasso, Utrillo, and Modigliani slurped here)…if it were still in its original state.  It’s not, but who cares?  It’s still a great place to go and drink coffee and watch the world go by on Place de Clichy.

So after gulping down another “formule” at one of the cute sandwich/salad places on rue de Clichy, I went for a coffee at Wepler.  It was a suitably soggy Thursday, and the view from the covered terrace was suitably gray and Paris-like.  The Place de Clichy is probably as noisy and crowded as it was in the days when Henry Miller hung out there, though the café itself was much more scenic, if the paintings by Bonnard can be trusted for historical accuracy (somewhere along the line it got a boring, modern revamp).  I imagine there were less cars and more people milling around the enormous bronze statue dedicated to Maréchal de Moncey.  This huge trilogy of symbolic figures hovers over the circular square, giving an otherwise average Parisian traffic circle a touch of drama.

As well it should.  While today passers-by may ask themselves: “who the heck was Maréchal de Moncey?”, back in 1814 he was the man of the hour.  Does anyone remember that de Moncey led a valiant defense against the Russians at the “Clichy Barrier”?  Does anyone even remember why the French were fighting the Russians in 1814?  Certainly not me, though a quick whizz through Wikipedia tells me that our friend de Moncey was one of Napoléon’s loyal generals who remained loyal even after the disastrous Russian campaign.  He then bravely defended Paris against those same Russians when they attacked our beloved place de Clichy. 

You see, at that point, Napoleon was in trouble.  Several European countries, who were sick of being invaded, had formed a coalition designed to put that tiresome little Corsican in his place.   On March 30, 1814, the coalition attacked Paris.  There were horrific battles all over the city, but it was the Russians that attacked Place de Clichy.  Though it was pretty clear that he was in the process of being trounced, de Moncey stood firm and hence, was declared a hero.   France seems to be one of few countries that routinely celebrates its defeats. From Alésia to Agincourt, French history books are full of brave deeds in the face of certain catastrophe.  Perhaps this is part of what makes French “humanité” so human.  Anyone can celebrate a victory, but how many can make defeat seem so poetic?

Today there are no drunken whores passing out on Wepler’s tables like they did back in Henry Miller’s day, just wealthy business people fleshing out their expense accounts and sober literary agents frowning at manuscripts.  For despite everything, Wepler has maintained its literary heritage, and even sponsors an annual writer’s prize.  Miller, Vian, Prévert, Verlaine, and all the other old habitués would be proud.