Thursday, October 28, 2010

Paris: street music and fashion

Street music night in Paris looked promising -- at least in posters that were plastered all over town. They promised "a night when Paris won't sleep" because live bands will be playing in the open air all through the night. Public transportation was supposed to be running throughout the night, too.

When we tried to find out which exactly busses and metro trains will be running, the picture turned out to be far less rosy. In the part of town where we lived, no overnight bus or train traffic was scheduled. Ordinary Metro trains stop running around 1 a.m. That's still not too bad, allows you to take in some of the nightlife. Now, how to find out where, when, and what bands will be playing? Tricky. My mom, who among all of us was the only one armed with knowledge of French, tried to find out on the internet. Turned out, most scheduled bands stopped playing around 11 p.m. After that, there were only "spontaneous" concerts on street corners. It wasn't clear where or when they were supposed to be happening. Even their approximate locations weren't indicated. So we set out on a lark to search for any bands that may be playing.

We got off the Metro at a certain popular nightlife area, only to find out that there wasn't any street music there as far as we could see (it was a long shot anyway). Instead, the streets were full of aggressive-looking teenagers. Those with cars burned rubber on the road; those without hung out on the street, making comments at the passersby. Even without knowing French, you could tell the comments were not exactly friendly.

There was only half an hour left until the last train home. Worse -- walking back to the Metro station, we managed to miss the station we came out of. It took some searching, and two helpful French girls who explained, in a broken but passable English, where the metro station was. So we made it to the train in time. There was a twenty-something girl on the platform that started talking to us; she was from New York, but originally from Italy... I think. She was studying in Paris. Maybe. It's all a blur now. She said that she actually saw some live bands playing that night, but in a completely different part of town, somewhere near Notre Dame. She also said that earlier that night some metro station were closed and evacuated, because somebody set off gas in them; fortunately, we were nowhere near the incident.

So we got home, and it was getting close to 2 a.m. In our quiet, out-of-the-way neighborhood, all restaurants and bars were closed, but surprisingly, one little bar was still open. There was even a live band playing, but it was already wrapping up when we got there. The bar was tiny, and it only had outdoor seating. The bar owner, who was also working as a waiter, brought us drinks and stopped by to talk with us. It was like an archetype of all neighborhood bars. So the night wasn't a total loss.

Accordion player on a Metro train A puppeteer on a Metro train
Accordion player on a Metro train. A puppeteer on a Metro train.

Live music in Paris, however, can be obtained without looking far and wide -- in fact, it can and will be shoved down your throat precisely at the moments when you don't want it. I'm talking about performers on Metro trains. The trains are usually quiet, with everyone minding their own business, so it's quite jarring when the silence is suddenly interrupted by loud blaring of a 70s pop hit. At first you can't even understand where it's coming from. Is it someone's phone? Then you realize it's actually a guy standing near the door with a portable drum machine, singing into a microphone. Meanwhile his accomplice, a woman, is walking down the train and collecting donations. Perhaps these "performers" expect that people will give them money just to make them go away. I can't imagine how anyone would see this as anything but annoyance.

The performers usually get off at the next stop. I wonder if they are actually violating some law by imposing their "art" on the captive audience, and they want to get the heck out before police cracks down on them?

One time, though, I saw non-annoying metro artist. He hung a curtain between two vertical handrails and performed a short puppet show. That was kind of cute. (Sorry that the picture is so poor -- from where I was sitting, I could not photograph around that handrail in the middle. :-))

A guy in shorts and jacket A guy in shorts and jacket in a cafe

So much about music on the streets of Paris -- now a little about fashion. The boldest fashions I've seen in Paris were worn, oddly enough, not by women but by men. I'm speaking, in particular, of this odd style of combining a jacket with short shorts, often worn with low-cut or no socks.

The first time I saw a guy dressed like that, I thought he was in a costume, but later I saw more and more guys in similar outfits. I dare say it works about as well as a mullet: business on top, party at the bottom. But what do you know -- in a year or two, the streets of U.S. metropolises might be full of hipsters sporting a similar look.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Medieval oddities, and other minor points of interest in Paris

Museum of the Middle Ages. Lots of medieval arts and crafts -- paintings, tapestries, sculptures, religious objects such as reliquaries or incense holders; jewelry, housewares. I remember a tapestry that portrayed a robbery (at least as far as an eye untrained in art and medieval history could guess) -- you have to wonder if back in the day this was a substitute of crime scene photography. Did the maker of the tapestry present it as evidence in court?

Some tapestries from the Middle Ages were hyper-realistic. Look at the monkey (?) at the bottom of this hunting scene -- is it really doing what I think it's doing? And why was it so important to put that in the picture?

Outside of the Museum of the Middle Ages there is a huge pit with uncovered ruins of Roman baths. The whole area is fenced off, and I'm not sure if it is ever open; if there was a door inside of the museum to get to the excavated area, we couldn't find it.

Ruins of Roman baths at the Museum of Middle Ages

Cluny museum. Paintings, lots of paintings -- mostly impressionists and expressionists. Or maybe it was just one special exhibit we visited. Could not spend much time in the museum, as we arrived 1 hour before closing. Turns out that was cutting it very close: we were among the last few people to were admitted. So, there was plenty of Van Gogh and Gauguin, and... well, that's where my familiarity with painters of that era ends, so I can't list other undoubtedly famous names.

Trash in a tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery

Pere Lachaise cemetery, where many famous people are buried (including Jim Morison). It's a quiet little city-in-the-city with its own streets and alleys. Famous or not, some tombs seem to be abandoned, judging by how trashed they are. It's spooky to be there near closing time: a sign says the cemetery closes at 6, but there are no guard around to usher the stragglers out. Will they lock the gate leaving the slowpokes inside until morning? That's what you wonder as you rush this way and that trying to find the exit, or look for any signs of other people heading towards exits. (Spoiler: we got out! The exit wasn't really locked. No luck in getting to spend a night stretched out on Jim Morison's grave.

More pictures from my trip are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Louvre of the Rings

Louvre is gigantic. Finding Mona Lisa would be like a needle in a haystack, but the helpful signs everywhere assure you won't be lost in making your way to it. All throughout the museum there are arrows pointing you towards the halls where Mona Lisa, Venus of Milo, and other legendary art treasures are displayed. I'm not sure, though, if they are worth seeing for anything other than the sense of irony. You brave the crowds surrounding those famous exhibits, only to check a mental checkmark: yes, Mona Lisa really looks just like in the pictures. Not that you could see anything details by peering at it above the sea of heads. Heck, it's not like you could see anything new if you stared at it up close. And still, a visit to Louvre would feel incomplete without it, wouldn't it?

Glowing inscriptions on the walls of medieval Louvre Glowing inscriptions on the walls of medieval Louvre

But there is more interesting stuff to see at Louvre. Most notably, its basement. Segments of medieval walls of a castle that Louvre once was are displayed here. Walking a circular tunnel (it may be a tunnel between the outer and an inner walls of the castle, but I'm not sure) you can look at roped-off niches and caves, and wonder what their purpose one was -- or did they form as the wall decayed? You can come up close and take a peek into deep wells that plunge into underground depths. Such perfect places for The Eldritch Ones to crawl out of the depths of the Earth. This glowing, cursive lettering above the well -- is it an invocation? :-)

These glowing strings of words were everywhere in the tunnels. On curving walls, they resembled the Dark Speech inscription on Sauron's Ring. :-) I don't know much French, but judging from the few words I could make out, they did not present facts about the medieval Louvre; rather, they were poetic musings about history, or something of that nature.

Some of the museum halls have white, spare walls not to draw attention away from the classical statues housed in them; others have preserved the gaudy splendor of a royal palace back from the days when Louvre was one. Some painting collections are displayed in huge halls on walls that already have every square centimeter of them painted or gilded. The paintings hanging on them are probably as big as my entire living room wall; but they don't look that huge, because they are hanging high on the wall, right underneath a vaulted ceiling (which too is painted with uncountable frescoes, and decorated with gilded ornaments). It's so ridiculously over-the-top -- your mind boggles at the excess kings lived in.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Paris tour continues: Monmartre

If Monmartre is supposed to be a place of art and spirituality (not to mention adult entertainment), you wouldn't know that as you get off the Metro and make your way towards the hill on which Monmartre is located.

The carnival atmosphere that surrounds all tourist attractions is especially heavy at the Sacre Coeur basilica. There are even carnival rides at the bottom of the stairs leading to the basilica. The stairs are crowded with street performers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, bands. The assault of amplified sounds from several competing bands should make it hell for anyone who dares to linger, yet masses of people camp out and have picnics right there on the stairs.

The worldly cheesiness is cut off abruptly once you enter the Sacre Coeur basilica itself. It was quiet inside except for the mass that was taking place, and it has strict standards for dress code and behavior.

Crowds on the stairs of the Sacre Coeur basilica Brass brewing device in the courtyard of St. Peter's church
Stairs of the Sacre Coeur basilica Brass brewing device in the courtyard of St. Peter's church

Another church on Monmartre hill, Church of Saint Peter of Montmartre, looked closed, or at least very quiet. Even so, a gleaming brass device, every steampunk costumer's dream prop, was brewing hot liquids to be sold and consumed right there in the church yard. Beside tea and coffee, they had hot wine. And didn't it taste good on a chilly June afternoon! Have to wonder if this was how the church was using up leftover sacramental wine. :-)

The "artistic" part of Monmartre is just as heavily and cheesily commercial. The Tertre square is supposed to be famous for artists hanging out and painting, but all I saw were outdoor seating areas for the restaurants surrounding the square. Can't say I saw many artists working there. But knick-knack vendors were ubiquitous. Only these weren't selling Eiffel Tower replicas as much as art posters.

Place du Tertre

Those are just the "spiritual" and "artistic" parts of Monmartre. Then there is the red-light district with the famous Moulin Rouge, adult shops and strip clubs. Some of them have explicit titles (in English, even) -- this isn't a place you would want to bring your children for a stroll.

(This reminds me -- earlier this summer, in Lithuania, I heard a song in a grocery store that had "shit" in the lyrics. Such as song would have never been played in a family-friendly store in the US, where grocery store music is the very definition of pabulum -- nothing that's played here is less than two decades old, or touched by even a faintest shade of controversy. American parents would be up-in-arms about kids hearing curse words in a song. Here, the argument "kids have heard everything" won't fly. I have to wonder if Lithuanian parents have become so jaded, or if it's still not common to complain to an establishment when your sensibilities are offended. And what kind of store would want to plant such derogatory perception of its goods in a customer's subconscious? :-))

It was at the end of the red light district that we found one of very few, rare Starbucks in Paris. Is that a dumb American thing, to want to go to Starbucks in Paris, of all places? Wouldn't you rather rub shoulders with berette-wearing, chain-smoking bohemians in authentic Parisian coffeeshops? :-) But Starbucks might be the only place in Paris to provide a convenience item I missed: a venti-size paper cup. Suppose you drink huge amounts of herbal tea every day, like I do. And you like to take it with you on a walk. You won't get a carryout paper cup, at least not that size, at most Paris coffeeshops. Also, hotels here don't provide you with a way to brew a decent amount of tea. The cups that come with your room are 4 ounces in size -- that's nowhere near enough for me to quench a thirst. :-) Solution -- get a Starbucks 20 ounce cup and reuse it as a brewing container. Though made of paper, those cups are sturdy enough to last a few brewings.

Rue Foyatier in Monmartre A downhill street in Monmartre
Rue Foyatier in Monmartre -- a street that's all stairs A downhill street in Monmartre

Back to Monmartre -- as much as it's crowded with vendors of touristy junk, it's still worth a visit. It's a beautiful place with narrow, hilly, curving, cobblestone-paved streets -- a quintessential old, romantic European city quarter.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A rushed tour of Paris famous tourist points

Somewhat adventurously, we went to Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe the same evening, and both visits involved climbing a lot of stairs. A LOT of stairs.

You cross an event horizon bound by four legs of iron lace, and suddenly you no longer see the building that just a moment ago was the tallest thing visible: you are looking at it from below. But this eye of the singularity, the courtyard underneath the Eiffel Tower, is bubbling with mundane activity. There are food and beverage stands and knick-knack shops. The crowd is thick with vendors carrying chains with dozens of miniature Eiffel Towers strung on them. Those vendors are probably illegal, because when police arrives, they scatter like bugs.

Eiffel Tower knick-knack vendors

Miniature models of Eiffel Tower are also sold at other famous tourist points, such as Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Coeur Basilica at Monmartre. But I never saw anyone sell models of those other objects -- maybe they are not considered as recognizeable.

Crossing into the Eiffel Tower courtyard you immediately see lines at the elevators. Those lines are long. Hours-long. However, observation decks in Eiffel Tower are accessible by stairs. The decks are at Level 1 and Level 2 of the base, which corresponds to 23rd and 46th floors of an ordinary building. The stairs don't go the top: for that, you'd have to take an elevator. Given the lines at the elevators, and our plans to visit Arc de Triomphe the same evening, we chose the stairs. Walking 46 floors to Level 2 was... something else. But we survived.

One of the legs of Eiffel Tower from below A rotating light beam from the Eiffel Tower in the dark
One of the legs of Eiffel Tower from below. A rotating light beam from the Eiffel Tower in the dark, as seen from Arc de Triomphe.

While all cities look pretty much the same from above, there are plenty of aids to identify the objects you see. Every 20-30 meters around the perimeter of the observation deck there are binoculars for your viewing pleasure, and a plaque that explains what are the most prominent objects in sight. Still, it inevitably turns out that some flashy palace that draws your attention is only of minor significance; whereas the most famous objects are so thoroughly lost in the chaos of geometric shapes that you have to look long and hard to find them.

Immediately after Eiffel Tower we went to Arc de Triomphe. We got there at twilight, and climbed 247 steps to the top. I don't know what floor of a typical building it compares to, but it's pretty high. We could not put it off for another day, because we already tried to visit Arc de Triomphe twice, and failed. The first time we underestimated just how long it takes to get from any place to any other place in Paris by Metro. Staying near the Southern edge of Paris, it took at least half an hour to get anywhere "interesting". Most points of interest were 2-3 Metro rides away, taking as much as an hour to get to.

Charles de Gaulle day ceremony at Arc de Triomphe

The second time we arrived at Arc de Triomphe only to find it closed for the Charles de Gaulle day (June 18th) ceremony. The ceremony took place under the Arc itself, and involved a bunch of VIPs. Rumors said France's president Sarkozy was there. We stood too far from the Arc to make out any faces. The Arc is surrounded by a traffic circle, and is reachable only by underground passageways. The police had blocked off those passageways. They had not, however, redirected the traffic away from the traffic circle. That was odd. What's to keep a terrorist from a drive-by bombing?

French guys watch Charles de Gaulle day ceremony at Arc de Triomphe

A crowd had gathered on the outer side of the traffic circle to watch ant-sized dignitaries go through the ceremony (which involved speeches and not much else). A bunch of friendly 20-something French guys were passing around a flask with, I guess, hard liquor. We asked them what kind of holiday was Charles de Gaulle day, and they were eager to explain, but their English wasn't good enough for that. A convoluted, halting explanation involved World War II and England, and Charles de Gaulle doing something special. Later I found this article from The Guardian about the significance of that day; it also says Sarkozy was in the UK on June 18th of 2010, so he could not have been at the Arc de Triomphe.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fast food in Paris: an oxymoron

One might say only a dumb American would go to Paris and eat fast food, but sometimes you have no choice. For example, you might have underestimated how long it takes to get from one place to another, and you really want to get into the Arc de Triomphe before it closes for the night, and realize there's not enough time for a leisurely dinner. So, you find yourself on Champs Elysees (a street that ends at Arc de Triomphe), looking for a fast food restaurant. There's a McDonald's. But you think you should stay true to the local flavor. You see a chain called Quick, that sells sandwiches and salads. You don't have them in the U.S., so it will count as local flavor.

Bad decision. Quick turned out to be anything but. There are 3-4 people working at the counter, and the lines are 2-3 people deep. At any U.S. fast food place you'd be able to order and probably get your order in 5 minutes. Here you notice that in 10 minutes they've served just one customer in your line. Now there's still another customer ahead of you, a young woman. She proceeds to chat with the guy behind the counter for maybe 5 minutes. It doesn't look like flirty banter, or old friends catching up. Their facial expressions are intense and businesslike. What could they be talking about? Is she questioning him about the place of origin of the meat Quick uses, how ethically the animals are treated, or if the farmers were paid a fair wage? Without knowing French, you'll never know. But yes, it takes another 10 minutes until she is finally served. No, this isn't an exceptionally slow line. The situation is the same at other lines. And it's not because the employees are sluggish. They seem to be busy and moving around at all times, just like at any U.S. fast food place. So there are no outward clues for slowness. But you start thinking that maybe you should have tried to go to a restaurant with waiter service -- the result might have been the same.

And the restrooms might have been nicer too. The ones at Quick were dirty. There were shreds of toilet paper all over the floor, and no toilet paper in some stalls. Not only that, you had to pay to enter women's restroom (only 20 euro cents, but still). But men's restroom was free! Go figure.

We ate in time to make it to Arc de Triomphe, but we were cutting it close. So much for "quick" food. Maybe we should have gone to McDonald's, assuming McDonald's is able to maintain consistent customer service standards across different countries, even in high pedestrian traffic places.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Mandatory post about food in Paris

Back to "what I did on my summer vacation" series. It would be unthinkable to go to Paris and not try the food, but being on a tight budget, we got to taste very little of French cuisine. We lived mostly on my mom's cooking, which is not any worse than in a typical Parisian cafe or bistro, if the two we sampled were any indication. That's not to say they were bad, it's just that my mom is an excellent cook. :-) In both places we tried, the food was good, just not extraordinary. One thing that stood out was the popularity of mussels, served with fries. I saw this combination at several restaurants, just peering into the window to see what the people were eating inside. Mussels are yummy but not filling, and even a huge pile of them isn't very much once you throw away the shells. So a side dish is necessary, but I didn't expect fries to be served with such a... noble food. I always thought of mussels in the context of paella or risotto.

Croissants, another mandatory thing to try in Paris, are also not that different from the ones in Austin. I am, however, not an expert on any kind of flaky dough pastries, because they are too calorific to eat often. So all those cosy little boulangeries and pattiseries (bakeries that bake bread, and those that specialize only in pastries) on every corner got little more from me than wistful sighs. But French people, they love their bread. The city streets after work are full of people with fresh baguettes sticking out of their bags.

They also like rabbit meat, it seems. Every butcher shop has whole, skinless rabbits on display. The first time you see those little monsters, staring with their sightless eyes at the ceiling, it may give you a pause. Nor can you immediately tell what it is. So Ray did a little skit where he loudly wondered, in an exaggerated Texas accent, whether this was a possum. The shopkeepers successfully ignored him.

A whole rabbit without skin in a Paris butcher shop Tagine and vegetable stew
A possum.... uh, a rabbit in a Paris butcher shop. Tagine (or tajine) (left) and vegetable stew at a Moroccan restaurant.

In addition to two French cafes, we also went to a Moroccan restaurant in the Latin Quarter to eat some yummy tagine. By the way, Moroccan cuisine is so common here that you can easily conclude it is to French as Mex is to Tex. Many mainstream restaurants have Moroccan dishes on the menu. Years ago, when I made a superficial attempt to study French, there was a dialogue in my textbook where two friends went to a restaurant and ordered couscous. I was surprised -- is couscous so popular over there that it made its way into textbooks? The answer turns out to be yes.

Next: French fast food -- an adventure unto itself.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

First All Girl Hack Night

My post on the first All Girl Hack Night meetup is now on . On 9/28/2010 female programmers of Austin got together to socialize and work on their code projects.

Rekha Gupta (center) and other female developers

More pictures from the meetup can be found in my photo gallery.