vendredi 11 juillet 2014

Unpleasant things I viewed at Monoprix

Of course every grocery store has a "clean up on aisle 5" situation from time to time.  The thing unique to Monoprix, however, is that that clean up may take place days after the incident.  These pictures feature unpleasant things I viewed one day.  And they were still there the next.


Some kind of soy milk dessert spill.


Squashed cherries.  Very slippery.


Not a mess per se, but this tub of [refridgerated] hummous was still at register 5 the next day.

Monoprix's tag line should be "Monoprix:  We're dirty, but not as filthy as Franprix."

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 we pass it each weekend as we enter and exit Verneuil.  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 80s when I was a graduate 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. 

jeudi 30 mai 2013

Better Baccalauréats Through Pharmaceuticals

  You can tell we are approaching the Baccalaureat, or "bac" examination period because the pharmacy windows are displaying all their "memory-enhancing" homeopathic granules, sublingual pills, topical salves and herbal tinctures.  The French baccalauréat exam, which is actually a series of exams taken during the last two years of high school, dates back to the 13th century.  At that time, four areas of expertise were evaluated:  theology, law, medicine and the arts.  Today's examiners will pose their questions to the entire nation of high school students in the areas of French language, philosophy, history, geography, mathematics, natural sciences, physical education, and two foreign languages.  And that's just the base; depending on which bac the student chooses (literature, economics and social sciences, or science), other subject area exams are added to the mix.

No wonder there is a brisk business in folklore remedies.  "A couple of glasses of champagne each week" is my favorite one; something in the bubbles encourages retention in certain areas of the brain.  This tip is most likely popularized by Veuve Cliquot.


You'd think that France would have built up a huge ancillary industry around the Bac.   I've watched what has happened to college admissions in the U.S.A. over the years and am astounded at the enormous amount of service providers ready to take your money, having replaced (more likely supplanted) college guidance counselors and good, old parental support.  From "Educational Consultants" to "Application Coaches", these "experts" recognize a market that can be easily convinced to outsource what was, in my day, work traditionally undertaken by all college-bound high school students.  Sure, it was tough to sort out where you wanted to spend your next four years, but reading over the (hard copy!) catalogues and typing up your personal statements contributed to the natural excitement inherent in playing a part in your own destiny.  How sad for the family that thinks their child is not capable of doing this himself.

No, France has not yet caught on to this opportunity to separate French parents from their euros by convincing them that the schools aren't doing their jobs and Academics R Us can provide Bac Preparation for a fee.  That said, there are a few shady entrepreneurs out there who have offered special intensive review sessions for these important exams.   One of them, Acadomia, was sued in 2010, not only for hiring a non-diploma-holding staff of "Educators," but for keeping internal memos on their clients with irrelevant notations such as "father in prison,"  "mother of student stinks," or "adopted child."   I don't think they are still in business.

So for now, French parents continue to rely on the "sweat of your brow" approach to test preparation, with just a little help from Arctic Root and Gingko Biloba.  As the parent of a child heading into her Baccalauréat exams next month, you can be sure I'm stocking up.