Monday, July 25, 2011

Driving Me Mad

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to be back in Berkeley.  I'm happy to have four times the space to live in, enjoy mild and sunny weather, speak English, pay less than $20 for a hamburger and spend time with my friends and relatives.  I'm not happy about driving.

Driving does not bring out the best in me.  I notice that as soon as I get into traffic I act as if everyone else on the road has at least 50 fewer IQ points than I do.  I swear at them, I accuse them of idiocy, I ask where they learned to drive, I mutter and curse.  I am not a nice person on the road.

If only public transportation were as feasible here as in Paris.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Back in the USA

We seem to have gotten out of Paris at the right time.  Reports are that cold and rain are dampening enthusiasm for Paris Plage.  Who wants to go to even a fake beach when the weather makes you want to shelter indoors?  Parisians usually leave for their summer vacations because it's too hot in Paris; not this year apparently. 

We're back in Berkeley for the rest of the summer, except for a short trip we have planned in August.  At the time we left Paris it had been hot and muggy and coming back to the cool afternoon fog of the Bay Area seemed a lovely thought, but no one had notified the weather gods that fog all day long wasn't supposed to be on the agenda.  Luckily that changed after the first week and now, like the little bear's porridge in the fairy tale,  it's "juuussst right".

There are benefits and drawbacks to our split life.  As one of my friends said, "we never know if you're home or not."  Well, we're always home, it's just hard to keep connections in each home active when we're in the other.  But since we've been here we've been quite busy; we've seen lots of friends and picked up relationships as if we hadn't been away.  Lucky.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bustling Through Life

We try to walk as much as possible in Paris, but sometimes our best intentions are foiled by a bout of tiredness or laziness or a tempting bus stopping in front of us at just the right moment, which is what happened the other night. 

The 87 bus that would take us from the Eiffel tower area, where we had been having dinner with friends, to our neighborhood stops running relatively early and so we know we'll be walking home when we dine there.  It was a pleasant evening and the walk through part of the 7th arrondissement, past dark government offices housed in former hôtels particuliers, was fine, but when we reached the Boulevard St-Germain and spotted the 63 bus just beginning to pull away from the stop we rushed a bit to catch it and hopped aboard.

Looking down into my wallet to find tickets, I muttered "merci" to the driver for re-opening his door for us.  I was startled by his reply. 

"Je suis la" he said: "I'm here". It took me a second to realize that I had committed the cardinal sin of discourtesy.  I had not said "bonsoir" as I entered his bus. 

One of the first things you learn here is that the French consider that any interaction between people should first and foremost politely acknowledge the existence of the other.  On meeting someone in the street, on entering a shop, on stopping someone to ask directions, in any encounter, a polite "bonjour Monsieur" or "bonjour Madame" is required.  You greet the other people in a doctor's waiting room, you greet the person behind the counter in the boulangerie, you greet anyone with whom you speak or plan to speak.  I had failed to greet the bus driver on his very own bus.  My bad.

I apologized, said "bonsoir", assured him that I really was bien elevé, well brought-up, but had forgotten my manners in the rush of getting on and searching for my ticket. He smiled and forgave me.  It was a very human encounter that we both clearly enjoyed.

When we got off the bus several stops later I made a point of moving quickly along the street from the exit door at the back to the front of the bus.  Through the closed door I mouthed "au revoir" to the driver.  He gave me a thumbs up and drove on, smiling.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Noticing Nothings

A post-movie walk from Montparnasse to home led us down rue de Rennes at about ten o'clock at night.  Looking up I realized that the lingering evening light allowed the absolutely clear reflection of the old 19th century Felix Potin building to appear on the 20th century glass-clad FNAC store.

And in one of the Loire valley villages we walked through this wrought iron address number looked remarkably like the eyeglasses worn by I.M. Pei and Harry Potter, depending on your artistic frame of reference.

The tile space invaders one sees on walls all over Paris seem to be feeling a bit insecure if one were to go by the armored car this one has been provided with.

One often sees old street names incised in the stone walls of corner buildings, streets whose names have been changed since, perhaps a number of times.  This one is now rue de l'Hôtel de Ville, but I just spent some time researching where the original name came from, since it made me think of a slaughterhouse or killing field of some kind.  The word 'mortel' means 'deadly' in French.  All I could find however were references to a famous painting called Barricade at Rue de la Mortellerie.  If anyone knows more, I'd love to hear.

And finally the Parisian habit of peeing in corners has gotten this merchant up in arms.  "This place is not a urinal" it says. "You're not an animal.  Hold it until you find an appropriate place to go."  Naturally French courtesy requires the addition of a 'merci' at the end.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Paris Rocks

Coming home on the metro the other night I looked up as we pulled into a station and literally did a double-take.  The classic blue tile name frame at Duroc station had been changed and now read "Durock", in a pretty fancy font.  I had just enough time to pull out my camera and memorialize it and to realize that all the enormous ad spaces on the walls of the station had posters for an upcoming event, Rock en Seine, an annual rock concert held on the outskirts of Paris every summer.  This year it will take place on August 26-28 at the Domaine de Saint Cloud.

The metro system rocks!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Shop Til You Drop

It's that time of the year again, the semi-annual sales.  While you see more and more "promotions" during the year, this is one of the two legally regulated sale periods.  Merchants are forbidden to bring in extra merchandise to sell at discounted prices; this is meant to clear the shelves for the next season's items.

These photos were taken on one block.  Every window is plastered with soldes signs, and many of them have taken merchandise out of the windows and fill them with mannequins dressed only in white shifts or t-shirts.

The classier stores may have more discreet signs indicating that the sale items are to be found in à l'interieur.  Some of the classiest, like Hermès, don't have store sales but rather ventes privés held in a different location so as not to sully their image with anything as bourgeois as markdowns.

For those of us raised in the "sell it at any cost" atmosphere of the US, these markdowns are not remarkable.  Thirty percent?  Nordstrom's will often do 70 percent right out of the box, and that's all year long. 

But I must admit, the temptation remains; when all the windows call you you may respond.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Heat Waves, Chateaux and Wine

We spent two nights in the Loire valley last week, the first time we had been there in many years.  This is part of our campaign actually to leave Paris once in a while for other parts of France.  It's hard for us to  do for some reason; probably a combination of laziness and our mad love for this city.

An American friend married to a Frenchman and raising their two kids in a small town in the countryside told us she'd welcome a visit, if only to break up the rural regularity, and when we discovered a pretty manoir with a Michelin-starred restaurant in the same tiny village we thought the stars were correctly aligned for our little outing.

Well, some of the stars were.  We left Paris in a heat wave and three hours in an air conditioned car relieved us of the heavy heat we would have felt in Paris.  On the other hand, when I had closed the door of our apartment behind us and put my key in the lock to turn the bolt, the key wouldn't go in.  Gene's key was still in the lock on the inside and wouldn't allow mine into the opening.  We'd never had this problem before, but there it was.  How were we going to get back in when we returned late Wednesday evening?

A call to my landlady at her country house wasn't returned, a very unusual thing.  I called the cleaning lady and told her the problem and asked her to see if she could do anything about it when she came the next day.  If we needed a locksmith it was going to be really, really expensive, as they charge two arms and a leg for anything.  I've known people to be charged nearly 1000 euros to get into the house when they've locked themselves out.  I think all those chateaux in the Loire belong to retired locksmiths.

Two days of worry while I waited to hear were relieved when I learned my landlady had had time while in Paris on her way to England to stick a skewer in the lock and push Gene's key out of the way!  Take that, you lurking locksmith!

Meanwhile we made the most of our visit.  Gene went off for an afternoon of wine tasting and came back with several bottles for our tiny wine collection.  A dinner with our friends at their converted farmhouse that included quite a bit of wine tasting as well, a swim in the pool at the manoir, and a couple of days of driving to visit Fontevraud Abbey, Chinon, the Chateau of Langeais,  Saumur, the Chateau of Ussé, Clos Lucé in Amboise, and a village or two with the odd 13th century church kept us pleasantly occupied.

I had been wanting to visit the Abbey for years.  An enormously influential place in the early centuries of the second millennium, it was ruled by an abbess rather than an abbot and sheltered hundreds of nuns.  The monks lived outside the walls in their own quarters.  The tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband Henry II of England, along with that of their son Richard the Lion-Heart are here.  This is where Eleanor retired once she had finished interfering in the rule of her husband, her son Richard, and her son John (you remember, the Magna Charta guy? Robin Hood's nemesis?).

The tombs retain some of their polychrome decoration, and here and there in the church you can see the remains of painted walls and ornament.  We never seem to remember that the clean stone churches we visit today did not look like that in their heyday.  Blues, reds, golds, were everywhere.  I must admit I prefer clean stone, particularly the lovely white tufa that is the primary building material in the area.

Lots of charming details in the cloisters and halls of the Abbey remain, like this chubby little nun.  I love her little hands clenched in front of her.

The tile floors in the great hall have the coats of arms or initials of the aristocratic abbesses over the years.  Naturally they came from the best families and wielded a great deal of power.  It was one of the few ways for a woman to have power in those days, unless you were the wife or mother of kings.

We managed to get lost a time or two and we hit a few traffic jams along the river in the larger towns, but a thunderstorm the first night cleared the air and dissipated some of the heat and all in all it was a lovely country outing.  We may even manage to leave Paris again sometime in the not so distant future.

And it was an incredible relief to get back to our front door late Wednesday and find our key worked.  It was reason to open one of those new bottles of wine.