Emo Critters

I’ve mentioned a few times here that my cat, Bazel is a vicious biter. I’ve tried everything I know or have heard or read about to break him of this habit, but to no avail.

Bazel is not into cuddling, but sometimes he pounces on me demanding some petting. He seems to like it, but after only a few seconds, he’ll start biting. So I stop petting him and tuck my vulnerable hands away.

Then he gives me one of those hey-why-did-you-quit-petting-me-bitch looks and rams his head into me.  After a while I might pet him again. Then he bites again. Then I stop. Then he head-butts me again. We repeat this pointless game over and over and over, with me hoping one day he’ll understand that he’ll only get petted if he doesn’t bite me.

It’s been almost 4 years, so I’ve pretty much given up hope of him ever cluing in.

So, since he obviously doesn’t have the intelligence to figure this out, I wonder why he won’t stop the biting because he can see it hurts me. I know he’s attached to me because he follows me around and seems happy to see me when I’ve been away and yowls real loud when he doesn’t know where I am and purrs when he finds me. So you’d think that if he likes me, he wouldn’t want to hurt me. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit for having some sort of emotions as well as giving him too much credit for intelligence.

Do you believe animals have emotions?

Olden days scientists believed the only type of emotion an animal could feel was fear. Except Darwin. Darwin said there was …

… continuity in evolution, so the differences between species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. They’re shades of grey. If we feel jealousy, then dogs and wolves and elephants and chimpanzees feel jealousy. Animal emotions are not necessarily identical to ours but there’s no reason to think they should be. Their hearts and stomachs and brains also differ from ours, but this doesn’t stop us from saying they have hearts, stomachs and brains. There’s dog joy and chimpanzee joy and pig joy, and dog grief, chimpanzee grief and pig grief.

Jane Goodall, a non-scientist, believed she observed a whole range of emotions in her apes.

Scientists today, while they still are unable to exactly measure emotions in animals, have found that all mammals, including humans share certain neuroanatomical structures such as the “amygdala and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings”.

They now believe that some sort of emotional life has evolved within animals to serve as a bonding mechanism among animals to help them behave adaptively and flexibly in a wide variety of situations.

Of course the existence of the emotional life of animals hasn’t really been clinically/empirically proven. But as Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

If animals do have emotions they are not necessarily the same as human emotions. The analogy has been made that human emotions to animals’ may be like comparing colour vision to black-and-white – they’re the same concept, but the former is immensely more complex.

Jon Katz, author of The New Work of Dogs says:

Pets adore their owners, to be sure–but not in the way that we love our own families. They are scholars of the people they live with. What drives them to be affectionate is pretty primitive: food, shelter, attachment. They’re not thinking, ‘This guy’s an interesting fellow, I’m going to be his friend’.”

I don’t think there’s a pet owner alive who doesn’t believe that animals have some sort of emotional life. That they feel joy, love, loneliness, sadness, empathy, disappointment, loyalty — that they have a sense of fun.

So we get really upset if we hear about some puppy mill breeder who keeps dozens of dogs penned up in one cage to live with their own crap. And they just keep breeding and breeding them to churn out more puppies. And if one of them dies they just get pitched into an incincerator. And that they’re raised only as a money-making product to sell to anyone with cash to do with what they will.

We get upset because we know those animals are suffering. It’s odd though that we don’t get upset when the animal is a pig or a cow or sheep or a chicken in exactly the same circumstances. Strange, eh?

Did you know that for the longest time we also believed that human infants had no emotional life – that infants didn’t even feel pain. Until the mid-1980s (ya, you read that correctly 1980s) surgeries of all sorts were performed on infants and older babies without anesthesia.  There are still hospitals today who perform circumcisions on male infants without anesthesia although it’s been pretty clearly proven that infants do feel and remember pain just like us grown-up humans. D’uh!

I’m using this to illustrate what incredible tunnel vision humans can have and how arrogant we are to persist in the belief that we are somehow amazingly unique creatures among all the other creatures in the universe including our own young.

I predict that one day, not too many generations from now, future humans are going to be looking back on us as ignorant barbarians for the way we thought of, and treated our fellow creatures.

Stylin’ the Androgenics

One of the great mysteries about human beings is why we have pubic hair (androgenic hair). All other mammals have thick hair all over their bodies and finer, sparser hair in their genital area. Humans have almost no body hair (Mediterranean men excepted) and quite an impressive bush of pubic hair.

Why? Nobody really knows. The best guess is that pubic hair and armpit hair grow in areas where pheromone secretion takes place. The theory is that the hair traps these erotic scents to help us attract members of the opposite sex. This would also help to explain why teenaged boys refuse to bathe – they instinctively know they need all the help they can get to seem attractive to chicks.

There’s also the theory that pubic hair helps keep us warm, but most people don’t have an issue with cold genitals whether or not they have hair there. And if it were true that we have body hair to keep us warm, we would have evolved with a lot more body hair, especially on our feet, hands, ends of our noses and other places that are always cold.

Some theorists believe pubic hair helps keep the genital areas cleaner and free from bacteria, but that’s a crazy theory because what could be a better breeding ground for bacteria than a warm, damp, dark, hairy place?

Other theories for the existence of pubic hair include:

  • making your genitalia look better just like your face and head look better with thick, luxurious hair
  • free dental floss
  • to indicate whether anyone else has been using your soap

Whatever it’s doing there, the recent trend, especially among teenagers and 20-somethings, is to get rid of it all.

Prostitutes in ancient Greece and Egypt actually started this trend for hygienic reasons and as a clear indicator of their profession. For a long time in various parts of Europe only prostitutes shaved their legs and armpits, too. I forgot to ask if that’s still the case.

In North America, however, female body shaving has been going on in some form since May of 1915 when an ad executive with the Wilkinson Sword Company (Gillette) designed a campaign to convince women that underarm hair was unhygienic and unfeminine. Within 2 years, sales of razors doubled as women frantically removed their unsightly body hair.

Because of the porn industry, where women shave their pubic areas for more graphic and detailed views of their pudendas, pubic shaving and trimming has become accepted in the mainstream.

Rich people in Victorian England liked to collect the pubic hair from their lovers as souvenirs. (I don’t know why this was only a hobby for the rich. I’m guessing 19th century poor people’s pubes came with a lot of unwanted tourists.)  Anyway, Victorian men would pin their lovers’ pubic locks to their hats to prove their virility or they’d exchange pubic locks as signs of affection.

The Museum of St. Andrews University in Scotland has a snuff box collection. One of the snuff boxes belonged to King George IV and is full of the pubic hair of one of his many, many, many mistresses.

If you’re thinking of giving your nether regions a bit of a trim, maybe the video below will help give you some style ideas.

*** Before you start indiscriminately trimming your “down there” area, however, be aware that removing the hair around the anus makes it impossible to pass gas silently. It’s a fact. Look it up.

Path Not Taken

On Friday night, XUP Jr. and I, still basking a bit in the after-glow of a week in Paris together (sorry, I had to mention that one last time) decided to have a mother-daughter night out. She got her hair cut, then we went for dinner and did a bit of browsing downtown. (So, to be clear – the “daughter” part was her getting pampered and the “mother” part was me being allowed to tag along so I could pay).

Anyway, I spent part of my time while waiting for her to get her hair cut, at the salon’s coffee bar enjoying a complimentary espresso and chatting with the swarthy owner. When he went off to “consult” with a client,  I read an article in a recent copy of MacLean’s Magazine (I know, pretty classy joint, eh?) about Ottawa’s alleged serial killer, Colonel Russell Williams.

There wasn’t really a lot of new stuff in the article, but near the end it was speculating on whether psychopaths are particularly drawn to the military or nurtured by the military. The article went on to say:

The incidence of psychopaths in the military is no higher than in the general population, where it’s pegged around one per cent.

 I did a double-take and re-read that statement.

One per cent of the general population are psychopaths? Holy crappola!

Maybe I don’t really know what a psychopath is. I know it doesn’t necessarily mean the person is obviously evil, but what exactly does it mean? 

I looked it up:

Psychopathy is a personality disorder is characterized by an abnormal lack of empathy combined with strongly amoral conduct, masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal. Psychopathy and sociopathy are, today more accurately defines as antisocial/dissocial personality disorder.

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R)  is a diagnostic tool used to rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get with they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.

To diagnose a psychopath, a clinician will use the Hare PCL-R —  among other diagnostic tools. The Hare PCL-R is made up of the following 20-item list that measures central elements of the psychopathic character:

  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioral controls
  • sexual promiscuity
  • early behavior problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal versatility

To score, the test subject is given a score of 1 or 2 depending on whether they fully (2) or just partially (1) match the characteristic.  

So, a full-out psychopath would receive a score of 40, while someone with no psychopathic traits or tendencies would get zero. Anyone with a score of 30 or more qualifies as a psychopath, according to this scale.

A lot of regular people could score up to 5 on this checklist. Many criminals will score around 20.

How did you do?

I don’t know about you, but it gives me the willies to think that one out of every 100 people is a psychopath. So many of them…

To have a person in your life who would score over 30 on this list would make for some serious misery in your life.

And yet, most of us know at least 100 people. For instance, I have 145 Facebook friends. (Yes, I realize that’s a pathetically low number in the FB world, but I sort of actually have to know and feel some friendliness for the people I accept as FB friends). Anyway, odds are pretty good that at least one of my FB friends is a psychopath.

Odds are pretty good, in fact, that at least one of the people you interact with in your every day life is a psychopath. They could be your boss, your doctor, your neighbour, your spouse, a member of your family. If you spend enough time with them, you probably know who they are. And yet, plenty of people live with a psychopath (Colonel Williams’ wife??) and never know — or are able to admit it to themselves.

I see some of you nodding. I’d suggest that if you know someone who scores high on this checklist, you might want to get far away from them.

One of my brothers would score pretty high on this list — not as high as 30, but over 20 for sure. He also scores pretty high on the general “feeling that there’s something not right about him” list. After half a lifetime of trying to keep up with, trying to understand, trying to find excuses for and trying to recover from his behaviour, I quit. I haven’t had contact with him for over 15 years. On one hand it makes me sad because he’s my brother and he could be good fun (if everything was going his way). On the other hand … well … he’s poison.

Government-Funded Kids

So I’m on a course this week and yesterday we had a discussion about the Olympics. One of the women in the class gave us a bit of a lecture on how “nice” it was that we all watched the Olympics and cheered on Team Canada and were so proud of “our” athletes. She then went on to ask us if we had any idea how much money and time goes into making those athletes.

It seems her son is a figure skater on his way to the next winter Olympics and it’s pretty much bankrupting the family. Between the ice time, coaches, equipment, competitions and so forth, they are spending all their free time and all the money they don’t need for basic living expenses on this kid’s skating.

Then at the end of the year they get a $75 rebate from the federal government for having their kid in a sport. She seemed pretty bitter about it and thinks the government should be doing more to support kids in sports.

A lot of people nodded and agreed with her.

I asked if the government should also support kids who have musical talent – because that can cost an awful lot too, between lessons and instruments and competitions. And there isn’t even a $75 federal government rebate for having your kids in music lessons.

A lot of people nodded and agreed with me. (The same people, I think.)

The sports woman, though, said that was different because the country and its citizens take ownership of Olympic athletes and professional athletes – hockey players for instance. They represent the country. Besides, she said, we should be doing more, financially, to encourage physical activity in our young people, anyway. It’s important to their health. Music isn’t.

Well, that final point was hard to argue with and it is true that we seem to put an awful lot of stock in our athletes when they’re successful. However, isn’t it just as important for this country to have good musicians or dancers or writers or artists or even scientists?

If the government is going to provide financial support to pay for her kid’s figure skating lessons, shouldn’t they then also pay for someone else’s kid to go through medical school?

Is there a difference?

Is the sports woman right? Should the government be funding promising young athletes?

And if the government doesn’t support children in sports (or music), do kids from families who can’t afford it, ever have a chance to be Olympic athletes or professional hockey players (or concert pianists)?

Shame on Ottawa

I’ve mentioned a few times my dislike of protests in this part of the world, in this day and age. Well, this week I felt completely embarrassed by Ottawa and the bullies who kept a guest speaker from the US from speaking .

Of course most sane people know that Ann Coulter spews a lot of rubbish – nasty, stupid, racist stuff. Most of us have no interest in hearing what she has to say and probably wish she would just shut up already.

However, there seem to be other people in this country who do want to hear her speak – whether because they agree with her views or whether they want to go and argue with her. And so, several universities in Canada have invited Ann Coulter to come and talk and a lot of students and other citizens of this country are attending the events.

Please note:  she did not sneak into the country and try to organize secret cabals to convert friendly, liberal Canadians to facism. She was invited.

Ottawa didn’t seem to get that. First some patronizing prig (Francois Houle, Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa) takes it upon himself to send Ann Coulter a stern letter bringing to her attention Canada’s “freedom of speech” laws which “may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed.”

If that’s not embarrassing enough, approximately 2,000 angry, “threatening” protesters showed up before the event and conducted themselves in such a way that Ann Coulter’s appearance had to be cancelled to protect her safety.

These people have not only taken away Ann Coulter’s right to freedom of speech, but more importantly, they’ve also taken away the rights of all the people who wanted to hear her speak.

Protesters claim Ann Coulter doesn’t practice freedom of speech; that she just disseminates messages of hate. Perhaps, but surely that should have been decided after she spoke and by the Human Rights Commission – not by a mob of thugs or by a university provost.

Are we so addle-minded that we’re afraid to allow someone with radical or even distasteful views express them publicly? Are we incapable of doing battle with her on equal terms in the forum that was set up for this purpose? Does freedom of speech in Canada mean saying only kind, polite things that must not, under any circumstance, offend anyone at all?

Ann Coulter has filed a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. It will be interesting to see what happens.

On Top of Spaghetti

For a while, when I was in university, I was part of a small gang of starving students who used to get together every Thursday night for Spaghetti Night. It would rotate between each of our “pads”. The host would provide the pasta and the sauce and everybody else would bring stuff like bread, salad, wine and dessert.  That way, at least once a week, we’d all get a really good meal for very little money.

One Spaghetti Night, the host accidentally burned the onions he was sautéing for the sauce. He didn’t have the supplies or the time to start over, so he just picked out the blackest onions and carried on. He apologized profusely if his sauce wasn’t up to his usual standards.

It was the best spaghetti sauce I’d ever eaten. He thought I was being cruelly sarcastic when I went on and on raving about how good the sauce was, but I finally convinced him that I really meant it.

Since then I often make my spaghetti sauce with burnt onions. I find it gives it a nice edge that seems to cut the acidity of the tomato…or something.

Spaghetti is odd dish. For us here in North America, it’s a main course. In Italy it’s just a side dish.

Spaghetti is probably one of the few dishes that is almost always better made at home than purchased in restaurants. Maybe because you end up paying way too much money in restaurants for a meal you can make yourself for next to nothing. Maybe because everyone has such different ideas on what constitutes good spaghetti sauce. During our university Spaghetti Nights no spaghetti was ever the same as the spaghetti the week before. We all tried to be creative with our sauces and do them just a little differently each time.

Some people like just plain tomato sauce with a little cheese grated on top. Some like a thick meaty sauce. Some like a chunky vegetable sauce. Some people swear by certain ready-made brands of sauce — sometimes adding their own twists; sometimes using it straight from the jar or can. Some people will use nothing but the recipes handed down from a family member.

I don’t have any standard recipe, but I don’t like a lot of stuff in my spaghetti sauce – just a nice smooth sauce with some herbs, maybe a few onions and mushrooms and often with TVP.

I like to put some anchovy in the sauce sometimes too or sprinkle some sliced black olives on top. I don’t like bread with spaghetti, but a good garlicky salad is a nice accompaniment.  Or very occassionally – mussels. For some reason, mussels are good with spaghetti.  And a good, hearty glass of wine, of course.

My mother likes mashed potatoes with spaghetti. It actually tastes really good, but is too much of a carb overkill, I think.

What’s absolutely essential for me when I make sauce is that I have to let it all simmer for a long time – at least a couple of hours. I usually make a big batch at once and then freeze the rest in little 2-portion containers.

I don’t like spaghetti that’s been warmed up in the microwave. The microwaving does strange things to tomato sauce. So when I take spaghetti for lunch, I eat it cold/room temperature. I pretend it’s a spaghetti salad.

You know the old story about Marco Polo bringing spaghetti to Italy from China? Well, it’s not even true. The Etruscans made pasta way back in 400 BC. There’s a bas-relief carving in a cave just north of Rome from way back then that depicts a pasta-making process.

But nobody thought of putting tomato sauce on the spaghetti until the 18th century. The Spanish explorer, Cortez brought tomatoes to Europe from Mexico back in 1519, but Europeans just used them as houseplants. They were afraid to eat them because tomatoes part of the poisonous nightshade family.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that spaghetti was introduced to North America via Italian immigrants. It also wasn’t until spaghetti was brought to North America that meat became part of the dish. Italians were used to eating meat only a few times a month, but in North America it was so much more plentiful, that it was incorporated into many of their dishes.

North Americans now eat some form of pasta for dinner approximately once a week.

One of the women from our university Spaghetti Nights recently told me that after she got married and started having kids she re-established the Thursday spaghetti night tradition among some of her friends and neighbours. It was a big hit because it gave young parents a chance to bring the kids out for a cheap meal, socialize with other young parents and gave everyone a break from cooking once a week – until it was their turn to host.

And, everybody likes spaghetti, right? Do you have a favourite spaghetti recipe or spaghetti tradition?

Are You Being Served?

I took yesterday off to recuperate. I did some laundry, played with the cat, caught up on some blogs and then … I had to go out and get some groceries so we’d have something to eat for the rest of the week.

The cashier at Loblaws never made eye contact. The grumpy look on her face suggested some sort of extreme intestinal distress. She slammed my groceries into my bags willy-nilly with no thought to perhaps not putting tin cans on top of the bananas. When she was through, she mumbled something and pointed vaguely at her cash register screen. I punched in my debit card stuff, grabbed my bags and left.

I know I’ve complained about customer service before, but yesterday’s experience, coming right on top of a week of friendly, impeccable service really irked me and seriously depressed me.

We’ve actually become accustomed to being treated like annoyances in our retail establishments. We’ve come to expect nothing in the way of service. We are surprised and even suspicious when a sales clerk or cashier actually speaks to us like human beings.

How did this happen? It wasn’t too long ago that the customer was “king”; that the customer was always right; that customer service was what made or broke a business.

Why are we now the pesky people who interrupt personal phone calls or intimate conversations with co-workers? Why have we become less worthy of attention and respect than the dirt the cashier scraped off her shoe that morning? Why is our custom of no value whatsoever to retailers anymore?

Are they so overwhelmed with people spending money in their establishments that they actively try to discourage more people coming through their doors? Because that’s what it feels like.

Or have they discovered that we’ll put up with anything, so retailers have decided that they can save themselves a lot of money by hiring low quality staff and paying them low wages and not training them?

Obviously a big part of the blame can be put on the business owner. Most of them don’t work in their own establishments anymore, so don’t know what goes on there. They treat their staff poorly and don’t see them as valuable assets to their business.

Another part of the blame can be put on the customer service representatives themselves. They may have a shitty job, with a shitty boss and shitty pay, but I don’t see how it serves them to make their jobs even shittier by acting like shits all day long. Customers are not going to be pleasant to people who make no effort to be pleasant themselves. Seems like common sense, doesn’t it?

The day would go by so much more quickly if sales clerks and cashiers would be nice and interact with their customers in positive ways. I’ve worked in retail type places and it can be fun to meet new people, joke around with regulars, have little human-to-human conversations with customers. Everybody’s job has shitty elements to it. At some point, if we choose to continue doing that job, we have to decide to do what we can to make the best of it, don’t we?

Sure, there are always going to be a few nasty, demanding, unreasonable customers, but why would you conduct yourself on the premise that all customers are assholes? Most people are fairly benign – amiable even, if treated well.

And what about us customers? Surely, part of the blame for this decline in customer service rests on our shoulders. They say only one in ten customers who’ve received poor service will actually complain about it. Customers will, instead, just never go back to that establishment. What’s the matter with us?

As customers we have the power to decide where we spend our money. We like going to places where they seem to like having us, don’t we? There are fewer and fewer of those places. If we don’t speak up things are just going to keep declining.

Companies and businesses think they can just keep cutting back and cutting back and we suckers will just keep on spending their money in their establishments anyway.

I complain when service is really crappy – not all the time.  Most of the time no one seems to care anyway. Or they’ll say something retarded like “Well, no one else has ever complained about that before.”

Lots of times I’ll just pointedly walk out of a place – especially if it’s a big store and they only have 2 cashiers open and the lines are really long and slow. I’ll just leave my cart of stuff in line and leave. I know that probably doesn’t send much of a message.

Yesterday, I felt like saying something to that Loblaws cashier and just leaving the groceries, but I was too tired to start over at another store where the cashier would have been just as rude.

So, what to do? Do you just suck it up and keep going back for more? Have you resigned yourself to the idea that this is just the way it is and it’s just going to get worse? Is there anything really effective we, as customers, can do to turn this trend around?

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?