Friday, October 22, 2010

Safe and Secure

 I had to go to the American Embassy this week to vote in the upcoming US election.  We had asked for our absentee ballots to be sent to our Paris address and Gene's duly arrived several weeks ago.  He filled it out and sent it back.  The only thing I received was the voter information pamphlet.  When I phoned the county Registrar of Voters office they told me the ballot had been sent and offered to send me another, in case the first was lost.  As it turned out I never received either of them.

It is possible to vote at the American Embassy and I called to make sure of the procedure.  Just come any day before 3:00 p.m. and bring your passport.  Sounds simple and you might think it a straightforward procedure.

Think again.

The American Embassy is on Avenue Gabriel, just off the Place de la Concorde, but you can't walk from Place de la Concorde to the gates of the Embassy. No, you have to go around the barriers and French police stationed on the corner and along the avenue, cross the street and walk past the Embassy on the opposite side of the street to where there is a break in the running barrier.

You can then cross to the right side of the street so that you can enter the hamster maze that takes you to a post with guards checking your appointment against a huge ledger. No appointment? Sorry, no entry.

"But they told me I could just come and vote!" I cry.  A suspicious look and one of the guards goes to a telephone in a glass booth nearby. A short conversation, another suspicious look, and I'm told to go to the security booth further along the street.  The security booth?  What did I just go through, the Welcome Wagon?

The guy at the security booth is very polite and asks me if he can look through my purse.  This is a little embarrassing because the remains of my lunch are in there, but no problem.  After removing practically everything in my purse except my wallet and the foil-wrapped sandwich, putting it all in a large plastic bag and giving me a tag to pick it up on my way out, he comes out of his booth and hands my purse to the next security guy, who is standing by the metal detector.  In doing this he carries it around the detector so the aluminum foil won't set off all the alarms and make everyone crazy.  He never looks inside the foil packet, by the way.

After the metal detector I enter a secure outbuilding and the door locks automatically behind me. There is the kind of belt you see at airport security.   The purse goes in there and I go through a turnstile before recovering the bag.  The door on the other side of the outbuilding clicks open and I'm finally in the grounds.  I walk through a driveway area and the employee smoking area (heck, why should they make it appealing for visiting citizens, huh?) and finally enter the building itself.

There is a large waiting room that looks like any other government waiting room.  I go directly to window 19, as I was told to do, and I find myself in a cubicle that could be in any government office, with a nice American consular officer behind the glass.  He's great and goes to some trouble to find out if I can vote for anyone running for any office other than a Federal one.  (The answer is no. If Jerry Brown loses by one vote, it will be the one I couldn't cast.)

"How long have you been here?" I ask.  "About a year and a half," he says.  So I start chatting with him, mentioning the apparently heightened security, wondering if it's typical or a response to recent threats the US has been warning European governments about. 

"This isn't much security" he says. "I don't think it's very secure at all."  "Really?" I say, surprised.  A few seconds pass.  "Of course I was in Baghdad before," he says.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Eating and Exhibitions

 I know that most of the news from Paris has focused on the strikes, the blocking of fuel supplies and other serious topics, most of which have not affected us very much personally.  The bus I was on today was diverted from its usual route by a manifestation, but that only meant I got to my stop a bit faster, so you can see that to date at least, we haven't felt it much.  We are planning to get on a plane this weekend though, so it may hit with a bang if there's no fuel, the air controllers aren't working, or the road to Roissy is blockaded.   For the moment however, we've been having our usual kind of time.

We spent Sunday afternoon in the Marais having brunch with a friend at a jammed little bistro called Bonnes Soeurs.  It was jammed because the 21 euro brunch was a delicious bargain, including fresh juice, eggs, bacon, frites, salad, pancakes and coffee.  Yes, pancakes.  With maple syrup.  The jammers were virtually all under 30 and we brought the collective age up substantially, but we're going back, just as soon as we lose the weight we gained there.

After brunch we waddled over to the Musée Carnavalet to see the exhibit about Louis Vuitton and how that luggage company grew with the travel industry in the 19th century to become the epitome of how to pack anything to go anywhere.  Definitely worth seeing, including the film of the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, the one where the Eiffel Tower was the big draw.  Photos were prohibited so I don't have anything to show you except the lovely garden of the museum and the bad photo of a poster that I got off an advertising kiosk.

The other exhibit we saw this week was a surprise.  We had been unexpectedly given an invitation to the opening (vernissage in French) of a new show of David Hockney works at the Fondation Yves Saint Laurent by someone who couldn't go.  This was an event in several ways: it was pretty exclusive, with the invitations checked at the door and many people dressed to the nines (not us, I'm afraid, we passed as bohemians, along with a few artsy types); and the work was great.

Called Fleurs Fraiches (Fresh Flowers) all the work was done on iPhones and iPads!  There was a short video showing him working on an iPad using a finger as a brush.  I wish I knew which application he was using.  It seemed to me that as he got used to the medium the work became more refined since many of the pictures were rather primitive, using broad strokes and less detail, while others were very nuanced, with backgrounds on thin diagonal lines and much foreground detail.  Of course I may be all wrong and he just likes working in different ways, but I found it all very cool in any case.  The pieces were displayed in walls of iPhones, iPads and shifting large slides and transfixed many of the viewers.  I heard "Formidable!" more than once.  And then there were the folks standing around in the salon drinking and gossiping.

Leaving the gallery we looked around for a place to have some dinner and remembered a café across the street from the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, around the corner.  I still don't know what was going on that night, but there was a troupe of Gardes Républicaines at attention out front and a red carpet with photographers poised to record someone or other.  They took a lot of pictures of people who posed for them before entering the theater, but I suspect the Garde was there for a minister or other government official.  President Sarkozy was otherwise engaged that night.

After watching people we didn't know posing for magazines we don't read, we went on to the café, where we ordered exactly what we had come for, the world's best, richest croque monsieur.  We had been there with someone else once who told us she always ordered it and had since her parents brought her to the theater as a child.  We scoffed.  A croque monsieur for dinner, ha! and ordered something else which wasn't very good.  But when we saw her croque we understood.

More of a Welsh rarebit with a little bread and ham, it was a cheesy, bubbling dish of luxury that I remembered to take a picture of only after I was nearly done.  I gave up after about three more bites.  This is comfort food par excellence, even if you didn't grow up with it.

Now if the cook at the Bar du Théâtre ever goes on strike, that would hit me where it counts.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Strikingly Parisian

You may have heard that the French government has decided to extend the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old and pull pension entitlement from 65 to 67.  You've probably heard that some people aren't happy about this and when the French aren't happy they take to the streets.  A major strike was called for Tuesday and a march or manifestation took place, following a route from Montparnasse to Place de la Bastille.

We had decided to go to a movie in Montparnasse in the late afternoon and thought we'd probably have missed the manif, but no, like so much else in life, it hadn't quite gone off as scheduled.  And so we got to see and hear some of the thousands of marchers.  There are so many unions and organizations I couldn't make any sense of the alphabet soup of initials on the banners, but I liked the one that read "What the parliament does, the street can undo", supported by the Worker's Battle.

Later in the day, after the marchers had passed, I realized that the workers who would be battling with their brothers' trash might not be quite as excited about the battle as the others.

Another issue that has gripped France this fall has been the expulsion of non-French Rom, or gypsies, from France and the destruction of the transient camps that housed many of them.  Mostly people who can't make any kind of a living in their country of origin (many have been deported to Romania) they have come to France to try to do better and wind up begging and sometimes scamming on the streets.

The European Union is furious with France for what it considers racial profiling in the selection of just which non-working non-citizens to force from the country, and in a time when right wing parties are gaining ground in many countries it brings back memories of previous "cleansings".

It's a complicated issue but this poster on one of the bridges expresses one of the positions in the discussion. It says that France, the country that enshrined "les Droits des Hommes", the Rights of Man, after the Revolution, is not the country of "les Droits des Roms", the Rights of Roms.  As an aside, I find it fascinating that even here the French love of puns and wordplay is evident in the replacement of 'Hommes" with "Roms".

Most of the time I wander around seeing Paris through rose-colored glasses and the circumstances of my life here protects me from the less pleasant aspects of life in the city but, like anyplace else, real life can intrude at any moment.

The other day I was sitting at a sidewalk café with a drink, a small dish of olives and a basket of bread on the table in front of me.  An older man, dirty, in ragged clothing, walked by begging and was shooed away by the waiter.  A minute or two later he was back and pointed to the bread on my table.  I gave him a piece.  He pointed to the olives.  He was given one, then grabbed the rest.  Then he grabbed at the bread basket.  It was slightly scary; I got mad and told him to go away. 

A few minutes later this dog came by, stuck her head in my lap, and stared at me patiently for a few minutes.  Finally I gave her a piece of bread and felt terrible for doing it.  I couldn't stop thinking about the old man.  He wasn't small, he wasn't cute, he was a little frightening and a bit aggressive, but he was human and hungry.  I should have given him the bread.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Autumn Lazy Days

No, it's not an outdoor concert.  This crowd is simply enjoying a warm sunny Sunday in the Luxembourg garden.  Those who were lucky enough to get one of the green metal chairs are sitting down.  Those who are sitting on the grass are about to be shooed away by the ever-vigilant gardiens.

The rest of us are milling about, looking for an empty seat and rushing to grab it when it's spotted.  It's warm and crowded and since we've lost out on the game of musical chairs, my late-afternoon sleepiness sends me home for a nap.  Yes, it's a gorgeous day in Paris folks, and I'm snoozing it away.

And that's because we're lucky enough to be able to come back during the week, when it continues sunny, if a bit cooler, and there are plenty of places to sit and think or watch people go by.

Even if you have to climb up high to get a really good view.

The fact that it's autumn and there are piles of leaves to shuffle through doesn't keep the bench sitters from the things they're concentrating on, whether it's a livre or a lover.   To each his own.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Streetwalking III

Summer suddenly came back in a last gasp this weekend and everyone was on the streets to take advantage of it.  This middleaged jazz band was jamming away in front of the church on the corner,

while these young ladies were giving away samples of a god-awful snack to passersby.

There were so many people on the sidewalk that this couple sought some impromptu privacy under a jacket, which, given the weather, was totally unnecessary for any other purpose.

Suddenly, instead of the usual fall grays and blacks (and this year's ubiquitous camel) there were bright colors everywhere.

The mounted police were in short sleeves.

This morning the air is cooler, but I've been fooled before.  Summer is reluctant to give up.

Streetwalking II

We went to an opera at the Bastille Opéra the other evening and loved it.  It's an extraordinary auditorium in and of itself and the production of Eugène Onéguine was wonderful.  When we emerged, the night was nearly balmy and we felt the need to stretch our legs and decided to walk home, about three miles, I'd guess.  Our route took us past Notre Dame.

We usual avoid walking here because during the day it's jammed with tourists. individually and in groups, and all the shops on the adjacent streets are selling souvenir junk and fast food.  At night however all was still and, except for the lighting on the Cathedral, one might have been in a photo by Eugène Atget.

Streetwalking I

Sometimes we head out with no goal in mind, or decide to take a long way around to where we're going, just to enjoy walking the streets of Paris.  Recently we walked down to the river and along the quai on a warm evening on our way to meet a friend for a drink.  We had a lot of time in hand and took the stairs down to the riverside quai that runs under the Pont Neuf.

We rarely see it from this angle, and it gave us an opportunity to look closely at the boats moored there and the faces of the "monsters" supporting the bridge edge.  Each of them is different and none look like anyone you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

As time passed the sky began to darken and suddenly I was seeing everything in silhouette. Lovely.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nuit Blanche

Last night was Nuit Blanche, the annual all-night party the city of Paris throws.  Public and some private sites are open all night and host to various more- or less-successful art installations or performances.  We've attended at least some of these events every year for the last four or five and last night weren't really in the mood to go crawling around town accompanied by hoards of young people looking to party.  OK, I admit it, we've aged.

We did however take the long way home from dinner to pass by a couple of sites in the neighborhood.  The church of Saint Germain des Prés was open and each of the typical straw-seated chairs in the nave was occupied, though not by worshippers.  A small cube of granite sat on each seat, attached by a red ribbon to a white balloon floating above it.  The installation was by Eleonora Aguiari, an Italian artist working n Paris, and was meant to contrast the weight of the terrestrial life with the lightness of the soul.

Souls were also being remembered at the back of the church, with many many votive candles in all colors lit, I assume by visitors.  It didn't seem to be part of the installation and I like to think it wasn't.

The only other event we saw was a dance piece in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in which a couple entwined and separated from each other, standing, lying on the floor, or rolling around.  This piece was supposed to last for 12 hours according to the schedule.  We gave it 12 minutes.

The space was great though.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Spectacular Spectacles

We've been hitting several spots on the cultural spectrum recently.  Last weekend we were invited to the Stade de France, an enormous stadium on the way to Charles deGaulle airport, to see Yannick Noah in a huge sold-out concert.  Yannick Noah, although virtually unknown anywhere else, was recently voted the most popular person in France.

You may remember him as a tennis champion who won at Wimbledon in 1983.  He's transformed himself into a pop singer with a very engaging manner and an incredibly agile body that could put Mick Jagger to shame.  He puts on quite a concert, and all 80,000 people in the stadium seemed to have a great time.  We danced in the aisles and sang along to the catchy refrains along with everyone else.

And the reason we were there, in the VIP section no less, is because our friend M, the recent bride, designed the huge and very effective set for the concert.  It's not easy to fill a soccer field with stages and multiple runways that allow hundreds of musicians and dancers to play to all directions, but she did a great job.

A few days later, on the other end of the spectrum, we found ourselves stunned by the Chagall ceiling in the Palais Garnier Opéra where we saw three Roland Petit ballets performed.  It had been years since we'd been there and this time our seats were right below the dome, allowing us to see the complete work and the great Belle Epoque auditorium as well.

At intermission I wandered around the public areas, practically tripping over my own feet while looking up at the incredibly ornate decoration.

The ballets were wonderful too, and we came out into a warm evening that allowed us to enjoy a late supper on the terrace of Brasserie Vaudeville.  They were two perfect evenings, each in their own way.