Paris Wrap-Up

You know how no matter how great your vacation was; it’s always nice to get back home to your familiar stuff? Well, I totally do NOT feel that way. We spent the first 4 days or so frantically seeing and doing the tourist stuff, but then mellowed out over the last 3 days and just wandered around — shopping, browsing, eating and soaking up the city. Those last few days were the best part for me.

I’m going to try and make this the last Paris post because I know how tiresome it can be when people go on and on about their vacation like they’re the first people ever to have gone anywhere. I know I’ll be yammering about this to everyone I see in real life for a while anyway and if anyone is going to Paris soon and has specific questions, I may have some answers or tips (send me an email).

And, I’ve posted a collection of our trip photos on Facebook for those who are FB friends and want to see them.  There are a few at the end of this post, too, but to me the photos don’t really capture the reality. XUP Jr. is the photographer in the family. I just took a notebook.

What I Loved

People kept asking me if we’d been to a certain museum or taken in a certain gallery and while we did go to a few, the weather was so spectacular we really wanted to spend most of our time outdoors. And really, my definitive statement about Paris is that the entire city is a museum and gallery of art. The architecture literally made me weep. I don’t think I saw a single structure that was simply thrown up for the sake of housing an office or a shop or to cram as many apartments into a space for as cheaply as possible. No. It’s all created to be beautiful first, functional second and then they might worry about the cost.

Grime

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about how dirty Paris is – how beat up and grimy it all looks. And yes, it’s not a shiny, new showroom place that’s for sure. But it’s a lived-in looking place and I think that’s what makes a city alive. Paris is not a city that rolls up the sidewalks once the work day is over. People live in this city. Every shop, restaurant and office is just the ground floor of an apartment building. And these are very expensive apartments. Those with money live in the city. Those without money live outside the city in the suburbs.

So, the city is in full use 24 hours a day – like the home of a big, boisterous family. And they don’t seem to be overly concerned about keeping everything sterile and pristine.

The Metro

Including the Metro. XUP Jr. and I got the Navigo pass for tourists. For 17 euros we had unlimited travel by subway, bus, train, funicular or boat for the entire week. It took us exactly 24 hours to figure out the system and we were soon moving around the city like pros. There are 14 subway lines and 4 rapid train lines that zip around the city. We never had to bother even figuring out the buses. We never had to wait for more than 2 minutes for a train.

Each subway station seems to have a theme. There is one in the original Art Deco; one is a tropical jungle with a greenhouse running up one wall up to the outside; one is Greek with sculptures in recesses along the walls; one is all in copper with portholes, etc.

And everybody rides the Metro. The young, the old, the rich, the poor, business people, crazy people, mothers with strollers large and small, dogs, people with giant blank canvasses on their way to be painted or giant painted canvasses on their way to their new homes;  and, lot of musicians ride the subway — with their instruments. Once an entire band (accordion, trumpet, drum, guitar) got on at a stop, played a few tunes, collected a few coins and got off to catch and play the next train. Usually, it’s just one accordion player though entertaining the riders.

Or sometimes young men with important messages got on the train and delivered  heated speeches about something or other which I didn’t understand. People listened politely but didn’t seem too concerned about whatever they had to say.

Shop Workers

I loved the fact that not once did I go into a shop or restaurant where I had to deal with a gum cracking, insolent teenager. Restaurant service staff are all paid a good salary with full benefits, so service fees are included in the price of your meal – no tipping. These people, as well as shop sales people are professionals. This is their career for the most part. You are always greeting with a “bonjour” or “bon soir” and are expected to return the greeting. They are extremely knowledgeable about their products. I saw one young sales assistant talk a woman out of purchasing a shirt because she told her it did not flatter her figure and went to fetch her a few other options she said would suit her better.

The Traffic

I even loved the chaotic traffic. Most of the streets are only wide enough for one small car at a time. I know everyone has talked about the drivers in Paris and it’s all true. Traffic lights and signs seem to just be suggestions. If there isn’t actually something in the way, cars will just keep going. Parking or getting out of a parking spot always seems to entail ramming several cars in front and behind you. I don’t think there’s a dent-free vehicle in the city.

And then there are the scooters and motorcycles who seem to have no rules at all to follow. They’ll use the sidewalks, the bike lanes, cut across parks – whatever it takes.

And then there are the velos – bicycles who get their very own bike lane complete with curbs so that while foolhardy scooters might jump them, cars certainly can’t. Racks and rack of velos are available for short term rentals all over the city and most people seem to use them rather than their own bicycles.

And then there are the pedestrians. I love how fast Parisians walk. They’re all in a big rush. They’re impatient. They run up and down escalators. There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a huge throng of black-suited Parisians barreling down one of those moving sidewalks they have at some Metro stations.

 What’s the Rush?

Where are they all going in such a hurry? Well, I think they want to get the business of getting from one place to another over with as quickly as possible so they’ll have more time to enjoy their leisure. And they love their leisure. They get more vacation days than almost every other country. Everything is closed on Sundays. A lot of things are closed on Mondays. Some things are even closed on Tuesdays. And Fridays? Everyone stops work early because it’s been a long week.

Most people get a 2-hour lunch and then work until six or even seven. From noon until at least two, the bistros and cafes are crammed with office workers and shop workers enjoying a meal, impassioned conversation, a bottle of wine, a dozen or so cigarettes and a coffee.

Restaurants don’t even open for supper until 7:30. And then the sidewalks get really lively with music and drinking and always, everywhere, a blue haze of Le Smoking.

Le Smoking

They haven’t quite got the hang of this smoking-ban-in-public-places yet. The restaurant door is open between the large, sheltered outdoor café part for the smokers and the tiny indoor part for the non-smokers. The staff room, which is usually just off the dining room and also has an open door, is thick with smoking staff. And the ban doesn’t seem to apply to people making deliveries or doing maintenance or any other sort of work indoors.

Eats

They also haven’t gotten the hang of vegetarianism. Probably they have no intention of ever doing so. We did find a couple of vegetarian restaurants. Le Potager du Marias which was recommended by some of the guidebooks as well as online veggie sites  was excellent. The other one, Lemoni, which was also recommended, was horrible. There were also no Parisians in the vegetarian places (just Brits and other tourists), so we gave the rest of the places on our list a miss and ate in the places the locals ate.

I had a lot of warm, goat cheese salads which were fabulous enough that I could actually live on them forever. We also had lots of Japanese food. There are Japanese restaurants everywhere. And we had falafels at L’As du Falafel, which is supposed to have the best falafels in Paris and which always seems to have a long line in front of it. I think it was the best falafel I’ve ever had in my life.

 We also found one place called Indiana Café (I think there are several in the city), which actually has about half a dozen vegetarian items on their menu including a veggie burger.

And, of course, we had a lot of gorgeous bread and wine. In the supermarkets you can get a very good bottle of wine for 2 euros (about 3 bucks). In some restaurants you can get a half carafe of wine with lunch for 2 euros. A glass of juice or pop by comparison is 4 euros. A large bottle of water automatically accompanies every meal.

Espresso

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m not a coffee drinker. I’d like to be because I love the smell of it, but whenever I’ve had coffee it actually makes me feel ill. I was told by two different people, who are also not coffee drinkers, that I should try the coffee in Paris because it’s a completely different experience. So, our first night there, our friends took us out for supper and as a matter of course, ordered cafes all around after the meal. When you order a café in Paris, you get an espresso in a very tiny cup with a little tube of sugar and a square of chocolate.

I drank it and was instantly addicted. I had an espresso every day. I brought back a big bag of espresso beans and am now committed to finding myself an espresso maker and some tiny cups. So, now when people visit I won’t have to offer them lame old tea anymore.

 Yay! Paris made a grown-up out of me.

Some Photos

 (Click to embiggen and/or scroll over for a description)

Paris Quirks

The first thing I want to say about the Parisians is that they are so very much nicer than their reputations paint them. I haven’t met a rude or haughty one yet and I’ve been accosting people all over the place asking for all sorts of stupid information and directions. As soon as they hear me abusing their language they immediately, but politely offer to speak English “if I prefer”. They seem to enjoy the practice.

The stuff about them smoking a lot, however, is extremely true. Smoking has just recently been banned in restaurants and other public places so you’ll always find a gaggle of them furiously finishing their cigarettes at the top steps to the Metro. Restaurants have spread out their sidewalk dining area to the maximum allowable level and providing outdoor heating and make-shift shelters. So, you might find a dozen tables crammed into the restaurant and two or more dozen crammed outside.

Paris seems to be love the cinema. On the Champs d’Elysee there are cinemas on pretty much every block, for instance. Movie posters are everywhere.  I’ve never seen so many movie theatres.

Paris is also obsessed with Nutella. Poor XUP Jr. can’t find any peanut butter, but Nutella is sold in gallon jugs EVERYWHERE. Every cafe and restaurant offers at least one Nutella-based dish. Grocery store shelves have every imaginable size and variation of Nutella. The only peanut butter we’ve seen was in one grocery store and it was a tiny, dusty jar of Skippy. Skippy isn’t even real peanut butter since I think peanuts is the last ingredient on the long list.

And, the most quirky thing of all is the washrooms. For a country that loves to eat and for a city that has one of the most amazing sewer systems in the world, you’d think they would pay a little more attention to the “facilities”. But, no. They all just seem to be an afterthought – tucked away in some inaccessible corner. Most of the toilets have no seat. Which I guess is still better than the Turkish toilets some places still have, which are just a hole in the ground. I haven’t come across one of those yet, but I’ll do my best to find one before I leave.

The workings of the flush mechanism and the soap dispenser (if there even is one) or the air dryer are all very mysterious. Sometimes I can figure them out, sometimes not. No two are the same. It’s very adventurous to pee in Paris.

They do have the outdoor magic toilets, too, where you get 20 minutes and then the whole thing washes itself. I’ve tried to use them twice, but both times the one I was close to was out of service.

I can’t believe our visit is more than half over already. We’ve walked our feet off. For once we will look forward to sitting immobile in an airplane seat for 7 hours.

As Frenchless in France Linda commented yesterday, we met up with her at Montmartre the other day, which was wonderful. She seems so dreamy and introspective on her blog, but is so bubbly and exuberant in real life. Either way, she’s great. And it was good to get some insider tips. She showed us the secret doorknobs on the St. Pierre church that we had to rub for a year of good luck.

Also, as Linda mentioned the weather has been beautiful – sunny and warm – so we haven’t been doing too much inside stuff. It looks a bit cloudier today, so the plan is to head for the Louvre and see how long the lines are.

Our Best Adventure So Far

A friend from university lives in Paris, so he and his wife were kind enough to pick us up at our hotel shortly after we arrived and dragged our weary corpses around the Marais for a few hours.  During dinner, they warned us about the clever Gold Ring Scam.

They said the gypsy beggars approach tourists, pretending to have found a gold ring. They ask if it belongs to the tourist and of course the tourist will say no. The gypsy then offers the ring to the tourist anyway, saying kind-hearted things like they have no use for it anyway and it would look so nice on them, etc. They only want a small donation for food in exchange.

XUP Jr. and I are doing our best to blend in and not look too much like tourists — we´re wearing lots of black and the requisite scarf and we walk really fast like all the locals (I know, I know –very cool). Nevertheless, there are times when we must consult our maps or guidebook to get our bearings. And, sure enough, whenever those come out someone swoops down in front of us and finds a gold ring on the ground right at our feet.

After a few of these amazing finds yesterday, I wondered what would happen if I were to claim that the ring was actually mine. So, in the afternoon as we were strolling down the Left Bank, a little punch-drunk from having climbed the Eiffel Tower, we pulled out the guidebook to see which bridge would be best to cross to get to where we were going next.

Immediately, a swarthy young lady finds a gold ring right in front of us and asks me if it is mine. I check my finger and say, “Why yes! Thank you so much!” I put it on and start walking away. She, of course runs after me, asking for money for the ring. I ask why I should give her money for my own ring and keep walking.

Then she starts yelling at me and punching me in the arm and grabbing at my sleeve to get the ring back. Then we hear shouts from half a block behind us. Turns out she works with a posse.  From what I can gather, they are frowing on her getting physical with me. So, I give her the ring back and she goes back to her gang.

We keep walking and suddenly XUP Jr. notices that the posse is heading our way rather quickly.

“Time to hoof it my child,” I say and we take off. The gang of gypsies also pick up the pace. We reach our bridge and that seems to be some sort of territorial border for them and they don’t follow.

We survive to tell the tale.

Okay, I know it was mean of me to mess with the gypsy. To make up for it I left a substantial donation in the bin by the hobo village — a makeshift collection of semi-permanent dwellings hobbled together against the wall of the Seine. (photos to follow when we get back).

Paris, by the way is everything they’ve all said it was and so much more.

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PS: Postcards, for those of you who had requested them are all written and stamped and will be popped into the mail today. And Cedarflame: There was no bird poop on the Eiffel Tower for me to scrape off for you since they just re-painted it. However, I did pick up some of the paint scrapings from when they prepped the railings and will forward those instead, okay?

QSRs

The community of Tofino, British Columbia  is considering a ban on fast-food franchises and chain restaurants including Tim Hortons, Starbucks and the usual cast of characters.

In 2008 Los Angeles, California banned new fast food franchises from being built in South LA. This is a seriously poverty-stricken area of the city and they figured taking away the McDonald’s would help improve the health of the citizens.

A lot of school boards have banned all forms of junk food from being sold on school property. Others have lobbied to have fast-food restaurants banned from the vicinity of schools or even to have fast-food advertisements banned from school areas and from television during children’s programs.

Meanwhile, the fast-food industry, or QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) as they’re called within the industry, is growing by leaps and bounds.

McDonald’s is located in 126 countries on 6 continents and operates over 31,000 restaurants worldwide. The McDonald’s that opened in Moscow in 1990 is the busiest in the world.

You can get a Big Mac almost anywhere these days. They’re called  Maharaja Mac in India; Croque McDo in France, and McFiesta in Guatemala.

The largest McDonald’s in the world is in Beijing.

Burger King has more than 11,100 restaurants in more than 65 countries. KFC is located in 25 countries. Subway has almost 40,000 restaurants in 90 countries. Pizza Hut is in 97 countries, with 100 locations in China. Even Taco Bell has 278 restaurants in 12 countries other than the US.

Fast food has been around since Ancient Rome. A lot of people didn’t have facilities for cooking back then, so on almost every street corner were stands that sold bread soaked in wine.

They’ve been flogging street food like this all over the world for ages – from East Indian noodle shops to Middle Eastern falafel joints to West African kebob carts.

Because most QSR food is meat-centered, (also fat and salt-centered) I don’t often eat it. I will occasionally have a veggie burger at Harvey’s – but never their horrible salt-saturated “crispy” fries.  Harvey’s really has the only palatable fast food veggie burger. They used to have good fries, too, but then they switched to these nasty fries instead.

There are other fast-food veggie burgers, but they’re all pretty bad. I have no idea what that thing is they sell at A&W, for instance. It’s a hard dry disc with slippery brown chunks in it, drowned in slimy white stuff and held together by a small stale bun.  They call it a Swiss Veggie Deluxe for some reason.

So, If I want to grab some quick lunch on a Saturday it might be a Harvey’s burger or some pad thai from Thai Express. But really, that’s about it.

I can’t even remember the last time I set foot in a Wendy’s or a Burger King and I certainly haven’t been in a KFC since long before they changed their name to initials. I think I’ve been to Starbucks once in my life.

But I know plenty of people whose day isn’t complete without a coffee from Starbucks or Tim Hortons or who swear by the McDonald’s McBreakfast McSandwich or whatever it’s called or who have pizza night from Domino’s every Friday.

Is there any QSR you visit on a regular basis? Are there any you would miss if they decided to ban them all? Would you like to see a revival of the wine-soaked bread stand? I think I could get hooked on that one.

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PS: I’m not taking a laptop, but will do my best to find some sort of internets over the next week to perhaps combine a couple of rest stops with some blog updates. But if that doesn’t pan out, I will be back the following week with stories of my travels. Maybe even with some photos if all goes well. Meanwhile, please talk amongst yourselves.

The Silent Strangers on Your Blog

Let’s examine a hypothetical situation, shall we? Let’s suppose you are a blogger and you have a pleasant, widely read blog about your life – your family, things you do, places you go, local interest stuff.

Okay? Now let’s suppose that one day someone decides to write an article about bloggers and your blog is one of the several discussed in this article. You only find out about this article by accident as it’s not in a widely-read publication. You read the article and find the author has made some devastatingly  unflattering assumptions about you and your family based on what he has read in your blog.

Questions to consider: 

  1. Are you flattered that your blog was included no matter how nasty or reductive the author was about you? 
  2. Are you angry that you weren’t consulted about being included in this article or that the author did not seek your permission to include your blog? 
  3. Would you feel violated in some way? 
  4. Would it change the way you viewed your blog or what you did with it in the future? 
  5. Would you contact the author and what would you say to him?

Some of you may recognize that this hypothetical situation is based on something that actually happened recently and will notice that I deliberately changed some of the circumstances and have not named the blog or the author/article in question. I didn’t want to make this about that situation specifically, but rather about situations like this, generally.

Over time, blogger become accustomed to their small (or large) circle of commenters who we think of as our “readers”. They are nice, normal, intelligent people (for the most part) and make us feel comfortable and make us feel like we’re part of a safe, supportive community.

But that’s not reality.   The reality is that many, many more people read your blog than actually comment on it. You’ll know this, of course, if you have a stats counter.

You have no idea who these people are, why they’re reading your blog or  how they even found your blog. You may never know what they’re doing with the information, ideas, photos or words they find on your blog. Maybe they’re doing something good with it. Maybe they’re doing nothing at all with it. Maybe they’re doing something not good with it.

Do you think about all these lurkers, these silent strangers, who every day become privy to the bits and pieces of your life?

The De-Stinkers

Ottawa’s Green Bin program is, if not exactly in full swing, then at least in semi-swing. There have been a few problems: 

  • The city suddenly realized that it was going to have problems meeting their contracted targets  with OrgaWorld Canada. One of the issues seemed to be that the bins are too small to collect the 80,000 tonnes a year necessary.  
  • A lot of homeowners are miffed about the entire program;  some refuse to use it; some have their own composters; some think the bins are too small; some just like to complain about everything the City does. But then there are other people who love their Green Bins a lot.  
  • Meanwhile, OrgaWorld, it seems, is not even operational enough yet   to process the waste that has been collected so far. They have until April 1st or the City can cancel the whole contract. I wonder what will happen then? 
  • There was some significant hue and cry about the extra $68 per year the city will be charging each household in taxes in order to pay for the bins. 
  • And, as the warm weather slowly creeps over Ottawa, people are starting to worry about what this means for their Green Bins. Maggots will move in to enjoy the goodies. The bins full of compost will start to smell; which in turn will attract rodents. As the weeks go by the bins will get kind of gross and people will become more and more reluctant to use their Green Bins. 

Well lo and behold, some smart cookies are capitalizing on this last issue and have formed a Green Bin cleaning company called Bin Aces Inc. They’ll come to your house or business with their magical cleaning truck and clean and disinfect your green bins, recycling bins and even garbage bins for a modest fee and on whatever schedule suits you best.

The coolest part of this company is that they are able to process and recycle the water they use for cleaning so that they can clean 200 bins using the same amount of water a regular joe would use to clean just two bins. They use only environmentally-friendly detergents and none of their waste water will contaminate our rivers, lakes or streams.

All cities with green bin programs have spawned these bin cleaning companies – not all of them are environmentally friendly and not all of their prices are this reasonable.

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that while I’m not getting any benefits whatsoever from mentioning this company on my blog,  the owners of Bin Aces are related to a co-worker of mine, which is how I heard about them.

I wanted to acknowledge them because I like to mention local, small business-owners – especially when they’re first starting out and they’re doing something interesting. Also,  I don’t want to see the already beleaguered Green Bin program fizzle out because people will start to turn against their Green Bins when they’re no longer shiny-new and daisy-fresh…..which is likely to happen in the next six months.

So, while I know this is a very boring post for non-Ottawans, I’m hoping you’ll at least be amused over the fact that the capital city of Canada just recently got on board with a composting program – a good decade behind most other cities. Or, that you might be amused over the fact that Ottawa had about a thousand other cities from which to model a green bin program, and yet still managed to get so much of it screwed up.

Or, if you’re still bored, we can just talk about Paris some more.

I’ve Got a Loverly Bunch

In my experience, on certain islands in the Caribbean, when you go to visit someone on a hot afternoon, instead of giving you a cold beer for refreshment they give you a warm coconut.

The family is usually sitting outside their small bungalow working on something or other. The visitor comes around the side of the house calling “afta-NOON” along with the last name of their host. Before the visitor has ambled his way slowly around to the back of the house (because nobody walks fast), the man of the house appears with a large machete and an armload of tender coconuts.

The family nods at the visitors and pauses in their work. The visitors nod at the family and accepts a coconut from their host. He has deftly drilled two small holes in the coconut from which the visitors are now obligated to drink the coconut water (technically known as “liquid endosperm”). The coconuts are passed around among the assembled group until they’re relatively dry.

Then the host hacks each coconut in half so swiftly and cleanly with that giant machete, that it makes the back of your neck tingle. The host slices small wedges from the outer green skin of the coconut (the exocarp) and hands everyone half a coconut. The wedges are used as spoons from which the visitor is now obligated to eat the coconut jelly (aka “endosperm”). 

The endosperm is the stuff that later turns hard and crusty so people can grate it and use it to spoil perfectly good baked goods and other confections.

I was never quite sure if this Passing of the Coconut ritual was actually supposed to be a welcoming gesture or if it was meant to discourage visitors. Because, while it’s an interesting novelty to eat a coconut like this once; once is really more than enough.

None of this stuff has any flavour to speak of. It looks very much like that for which it is named and boasts a rather gaggy texture. However, it’s impossible to refuse to take part in this ritual or say you’ve already visited 4 other people that day and are full up with endosperm.

On the up side, coconuts are very nutritious and have been so revered for their nutritious and healing properties by cultures all over the world that the coconut tree is nicknamed the Tree of Life. Every bit of the coconut tree is used and usable from its roots to its trunk to its bark to its leaves to its seed.

In traditional medicine around the world, coconut is used to treat a wide variety of medical problems including; syphilis, tuberculosis, asthma, typhoid, bleeding gums and even dropsy! Modern medicine, likewise, has a long list of the beneficial properties of coconut and coconut oil, in particular.

Still, my favourite uses of the coconut is the coconut bra.

 And coconut monkeys.

 

Have you ever wondered why coconuts are called coconuts (Cocos nucifera) when they clearly contain no delicious coco? Well, it’s because “coquo” means “monkey face” in Portuguese. Portuguese explorers named them this because of the indentations on the shells that make them look like monkeys — though not like any monkeys I would like to meet. 

Some interesting coconut facts: 

  • Coconut oil was the world’s leading vegetable oil until soybean oil took over in the 1960s.
  • There are more than 20 billion coconuts produced each year.
  • Coconut juice or coconut water is the liquid inside a coconut. Coconut milk is produced by steeping grated coconut in hot water then straining; coconut cream is coconut milk cooked down until it thickens, or grated coconut steeped in hot milk instead of water.
  • Falling coconuts kill 150 people every year – 10 times the number of people killed by sharks.

Many songs have been written about coconuts including:

  • I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts (written by Fred Heatherton)
  • Coconut Woman – Harry Bellafonte
  • Coconut Rum – Ron Bertrand
  • Coconut Skins – Damien Rice; and,
  • Does anyone remember Harry Nilsson’s Coconut song (1971)? Have you ever wondered what “put the lime in the coconut” means? There’s been a great deal of speculation on this over the decades.