Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paris Fail: I Got 99 Problems...and the "B" is One...

Props to fellow tour guide Tyler for chuckling at this screen while in the metro last night.  The RER B, the regional railway that runs out to the Charles de Gaulle airport, was having some problems according to this message.  The rough translation?

"As a repercussion of various incidents, traffic is flowing very slowly on the entire train line."

Various incidents, ya don't say?  Normally the RATP, Paris' public transportation service, is a little bit more forthcoming with their announcements.  Usually they tell you if there is an electrical problem, if a passenger got sick, if there is a suspicious package, or if there is a mix-up with the train signals.

Not today.  Today it was hot, it was raining, it was a Tuesday -- there too many issues to even mention on the screen, so just trust them, as a result of "various incidents," your train will be delayed.  

Thanks for understanding.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Paris Win: The Grass is Always Greener

Get the shears at BHV...
I’m always a little confused when I hear a lawnmower outside my apartment.  There is hardly any grass to be seen, but apparently there are just enough patches of green between me and the Canal that someone invested in a mower.  Unlike hammers and band saws, the lawnmowers never irritate me.  Instead they churn up that childhood nostalgia.

Like most suburban boys, at least I think like most, I was charged with certain yard work.  My brother and I would have our go at the front and back lawns every weekend or so during the summer, riding the mowers carelessly over desiccated dog droppings and clothespins, trimming the yard to near-perfection.  Well, perfection was always subjective, as far as my grandfather was concerned.  A stickler for all things grass, he was rarely satisfied with our work on the lawn, finding fault in our technique and the eventual results.  But we were free labor, so who can really complain?

Like crickets in the evening and the rustling of the trees before a storm, the mechanical chugging of the lawnmower was part of the suburban symphony.  It’s a sound that I miss as much as the scents of the freshly cut grass that accompanied it.  Walking around the Hotel de Ville this weekend, I was surprised to find a patch of green that looked like it could use a quick manicure, and I could smell the grass baking in the heat of the summer sun.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

It's Not Every Day a Yak is Born in Paris...

Gettin' clean...
It’s not a metaphor.  Literally, a yak was born.  I arrived just as the mother, umbilical cord still dangling, was cleaning her newborn yak, just minutes after its birth.  Disgusting?  Yes.  Magical?  Eh, kind of.

It was just another day strolling through the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, the second oldest zoo in the world and the home to all of the animals from Versailles after the Revolution.  It also housed Christmas dinner for the Parisians during the Prussian Siege of 1871, since many of the animals were slaughtered and cooked.  It’s nothing like the zoos in Philadelphia or San Diego, but it serves as a tiny “natural” oasis in the middle of an otherwise bustling urban jungle.  It’s a children’s playground of kangaroos, monkeys, and of course the beloved yaks. 

Passersby didn’t really pay too much attention to the newly birthed baby, but I gawked alongside zookeepers, video cameras in hand as the mother cleaned off her newborn and then slowly nudged the infant towards its first step.  It was a true family moment, even though the father yak was too busy eating to help clean off the baby.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Guillotine was Designed for Shaving...

Heads, hair -- guillotine, razor...
I’ve hit an impasse.  I’m not entirely ashamed, either.  It’s one of those French impasses that I didn’t plan on or calculate, but one that has left me feeling more like a Parisian than I ever thought.  It’s also left me a bit itchy.  These days, I have put down the razor and all but refuse to shave.

Parisian men have basically two styles: clean shaven or artfully scruffy.  The social lines seem blurred.  Students in my class will either never sport facial hair or sport it religiously.  Bankers can be smooth-faced or have a tended 5 o’clock shadow hovering across their cheeks.  From the most unkempt-looking hipster to the most well-to-do bourgeois, shaving is a statement.

Apparently I have made mine.  Much like vacuuming the floor and cooking, shaving has become a ritual that I no longer respect.  It happens once in a blue moon.  Maybe twice a month?  In between shaves, I take the electric shaver and do a quick run through to keep things in order. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Paris Fail: Oversight...

Um...
No one would ever accuse the French of bending over backwards for handicapped visitors.  It’s not a handicap-friendly place, yet.  Paris is an old city, and who can imagine adding elevators and ramps in every little medieval building?  I understand the frustration on both sides.  Reconstructing the city to make it accessible to everyone is costly and difficult, but why shouldn’t a wheelchair rider be able to access the metro?

There is some progress.  For example, hotels are now required to have a wheelchair-accessible room on the ground floor – a huge improvement and a step in the right direction.

The visually impaired is another group that has difficulty navigating Paris.  Fortunately the city isn’t impossible for the blind and it’s not rare to observe people managing with a cane or being helped across the street by a kindly Parisian.

Braille, however, seems to be a language that the French themselves really don’t understand.  It’s curious since Louis Braille was, after all, French.  He's even buried in the Pantheon.  Take a look at this diorama at a local chateau that caters to French speakers and, almost, to braille readers as well.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Never Striking the Same Place Twice: A Retrospective

My room with a view...
When the gods begin to grumble and Mother Nature’s long awaited tears of joy finally started to descend upon the city this weekend, Parisians breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Weeks of no rain have left the flowers, trees, and cakey sidewalk dog poo thirsty for a good soaking, and this weekend the thunderstorms did not disappoint.

Thunder roared and lightning stitched across the sky like brilliant blue ribbons.  The rain fell in sheets soaking those of us who poorly timed their return home and ran from the metro, seeking five minutes of reprieve at Pink Flamingo pizzeria before making the final dash home through the refreshing but drenching storm. 

As I, like the rest of Paris, turned off the music and TV and watched nature’s latest episode in awe, I was hit with pangs of nostalgia yet again.  Thunderstorms are a common feature of the Philadelphia lifestyle, but in Paris I have forgotten, until now, why I love a good old fashioned storm so much.

So much about a thunderstorm is universal – the elements, the dangers, etc.  My perceptions and reactions, however, have changed, and I notice that a storm isn’t just a storm.  Let’s take a look at the five essential differences between thunderstorms on the East Coast, per my childhood, and thunderstorm in Paris.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Chantilly Wars

A new war is raging in France these days.  For once, it has nothing to do with the Germans, the English, the Huns, or the Vikings.  No, instead, the opponent is one of the most prevalent figures to be found in France.  And the battlefield?  My stomach.

It is not rare for those who grow (slightly) older to develop intolerance to lactose.  Really, it’s not that I have become intolerant.  Lactose has just become more aggressive, I believe. All of the sudden, the dairy aisle has a way of making my stomach turn.  In a country who boasts a cheese for nearly every day of the year, the odds are stacked against me.  It’s not my fault.  I didn’t start this war.
The chateau at Chantilly...

Now it’s not all bad.  Certain cheeses and yogurts are not off limits, but my beloved ice cream and crème fraiche have turned into demons that can quickly turn the tastiest of meals into the most painful of regrets.  I have only two defenses in this matter.  First, I can give up on dairy altogether and be done with it.

Yeah, right.

Or, two, I can rely on my new best friend, the Lactaid pill.  It seems that no trip to, well, anywhere is complete with my wallet, my keys, and one or two individually wrapped tablets that my mother sent me a few weeks ago.  Most recently, no where has Lactaid been as indispensible as it was during a trip to Chantilly – home to the famous whipped cream.