samedi, septembre 02, 2006

Rosemary and Georgian Polyphony

Today was one of those mildly frustrating days where you start with one itinerary, and slowly watch it come apart and (hopefully) reassemble itself. So, to balance the tone of this post, let me start with a real surprising upturn to my day: ROSEMARY! That's right: I was walking past the garden in the entryway to my building and saw this patch of wildflowers:but when I looked (and smelled) closer, I saw this:ROSEMARY!! !@#$ YEAH!!! I realize my reaction was a bit over the top, but this was delicious, pungent, lemony rosemary, growing in bushes in front of my domicile. When I've finally washed the dishes that were left in my apartment, I'm going to buy me some chicken and have a rosemary-lemon hoedown.

So, the plan for the day was that I would wait for the 4 remaining students to arrive today, and then I would call Val and we would head out to spend the rest of the day wandering around Paris and eating. Although I was scheduled to be waiting at the residences from 10-4, I presumed that most of them would come in the morning, since the direct flights from Chicago usually arrive overnight around 9:30am. Of course, I didn't think about two things:

  1. non-direct flights, and
  2. lost luggage delays.

You can perhaps see where this is going...

I got the first call from security at the front desk at 11am, and I thought to myself, "Here they are! I'll just waltz down and give them a quick how-do-you-do-here's-your-room and then tell them where to buy toilet paper." Don't think I was trying to shirk my responsibilities; I was going to give them a group tour of the building and neighborhood the next day, so that was all they needed. Anyway, I get downstairs and there's just one guy. I nonetheless greet him and take him to his room, but on the way I discover that he didn't fly in—in fact, he had been in Paris for a few days already. So the tide of arriving kids hadn't happened yet.

I wrap up the welcome and head back to my place and work a bit on my blog, check a bit of email, and generally kill time while I wait. I manage to get onto iChat with Val at her hotel, so I tell her about that Georgian choral music concert tonight and convince her to make a night of it. The concert is located in a church on Île Saint-Louis that happens to be near France's best ice creamery (Berthillon) as well as an amazing specialty olive store (Oliviers & Co.). Oh, and another place I had up my sleeve, called The Beaver. Oh yes, you read that right. I can live in Paris and have poutine.

Anyway, my chat with Val was interrupted by some IT issues (i.e. someone was having trouble connecting to the wireless network at the residences). While fixing that, I finally met the person living in the room with the other DSL/wireless setup—which had been busted for a while, apparently—so I quickly wrapped up problem #1 and headed down to this other room to fix the DSL modem & router. After nearly an hour of running back and forth from my room to hers, getting locked out of my room, and searching the web for support on the Linksys ADSL2MUE modem, I made two discoveries:

  1. Linksys' online support is USELESS; and
  2. This particular modem is CRAP

Despite the fact that this was nowhere mentioned on Linksys' support site, a solid red power light (as opposed to green) mean total and irrevocable failure (i.e. I hope it's still under warranty). If the online discussion boards are any indication, this has happened a lot, and sometimes repeatedly to the same person. Hooray! The DSL/WiFi setup in my room uses the same model! I can't wait to see what fun this brings me.

All of this mess nearly made me forget that it was already 2pm and nobody else had arrived. Finally, suddenly, I get a phone call. It's not the front desk, it's a student, calling from the airport and telling me that her luggage has been lost and she gave my phone number as her contact number. Sigh. Rather than taking a speedy taxi, she was taking the RER from the airport, transferring through the mess that is Châtelet, and then the métro 11 all the way back out to Porte des Lilas. Sigh.

To make a long story less long (I'm not going to pretend this is short), it took more than an hour for her to get here and get settled in, by which time it was well past 4pm and there were still 2 more students due to arrive. At that point, I dropped off their welcome envelopes with the security guard at the front desk (who took care of assigning them their rooms, anyway), and headed out to see Val. I had a dinner and a concert, dammit.

In my absence, Val had busied herself by wandering up to BHV near Hôtel de Ville (a department store much like Target for the French) to buy herself a hair-dryer, and in the process she also got herself a crêpe. So she wasn't really famished for a full dinner. So, we ditched the restaurant plans, but still headed for Île Saint-Louis. After all, there was still "Le Beaver" and poutine. We hit Berthillon for some earth-shakingly good ice cream (and no lineup!!) and then over to the olive store, where I bought a few containers of Lucques and Cailletier olives (who knew there were so many kinds?) and Val bought nearly half the store as gifts for everyone she knew. The salesperson was kind enough to ask me with a straight face if I was French, which would've totally earned her a tip if she was my waitress.

As we stepped out, I realized that my phone had rung a few times and I hadn't heard it. As it turned out, the phone's ringtone wasn't working; it would only vibrate, which I couldn't feel when the phone was in my bag. So I checked my voice messages to find a very confusing message from the security guard at the residences. I called back and clarified things, although not by much: one of the expected students arrived; another one didn't; and another un-expected student arrived. As far as any of us knew, she wasn't due to arrive until October. With reassurances from the security guard that all was fine, we set off to The Beaver for a pint of Strongbow cider and some poutine. Mmmm. Poutine. It made the whole day a lot brighter...and greasier.

I followed my cider with a beer (Québécois Fin du Monde, to be specific) without thinking that I hadn't eaten anything that day except for 1/2-bowl of poutine... I arrive at the concert a bit tipsy (notice a trend in these last few posts?) and try to purchase our tickets. Here's where the comedy begins. Making an effort not to slur my words, I ask how much admission is. The gentleman is kind enough to give me a student rate (even though I'm over 26), and then he says, "Hmm...10, 20, 30." What I hear is: "10...30." Which I interpret as €10.30. So I hand him a €20 bill and then ask him to wait while I fetch the 30. He thought I was going for a €10 bill, when in fact I whipped out my change purse, partially spilling its contents across his table, and fished out 30 cents. He looked at this and said "C'est quoi, ça?" which translates roughly to "What's this?" but with a disapproving tone that doesn't translate well. After a moment of confusion, he finally realizes what I was too dizzy to formulate: "Oh, it's €30." With the faith in my French skills in tatters, I sheepishly ponied up my money and took a seat with Val.

But it's not finished yet. Just before the concert begins, this same man comes to my seat holding a bag that looks suspiciously similar to the rather expensive olives I just bought. Aware that I am clearly too stupid to speak French he asks in English, "Euh...Is this yours?" Val was kind enough not to laugh outright at me; she only chuckled.

The concert itself was nice, although €30 for 2 people in the non-reserved seats seemed like a bit much for what sounded like an amateur ensemble. Mind you, I don't know that they were amateur, but that would explain a lot of things. The main tenor singer was very tentative in most of his solos, and tended to be drowned out when he did k'rimanchuli parts (i.e. yodeling). How can you yodel and be drowned out by a handful of voices? Also, tuning was an issue; it was clear that they were trying to emulate the particular tuning systems of particular areas in Georgia, but they didn't sound like they meant it. When an ensemble like Trio Kavkasia or Anchiskhati sing "in tuning," it was always clear to my ear that they weren't making a mistake. That flat interval was supposed to be flat, and that sharper one couldn't be anything else. With this ensemble, it was less clear. They had good moments and bad moments. Ultimately, it was a good but expensive amateur concert, or a loose and underexperienced professional concert. Am I being a bitch about this? Of course I am.

At the end of all of this, there was a minimal techno night that I had discovered online while checking the listings for this Georgian concert. It was at a neat-looking place called Glaz'Art a few minutes away from my place. It started at 11pm. I could've gone. But I ate poutine. All I could do was run home, take out my contact lenses, and write this post.

vendredi, septembre 01, 2006

The Not-So-Calm Before the Storm

Fabienne had been sure that several students were arriving today, so I got up early, got dressed, and sat in my room with my cell phone by my side. I waited until 1pm, when it became clear that nothing was happening. The morning flight from Chicago arrives at 9:00am, so most of those arriving should have already been here. At that point, I left my cell # with Fabienne and headed off towards the UCParis Centre. On the way, I stopped at the boulangerie near the métro station and got an amazing tomato-chêvre sandwich. It was nearly half a baguette and tons of filling.

Now, I would normally have taken the métro to get to the Centre, but Sebastien recommended that I try the surface bus that runs along the periphery of the city, since that brought you from Porte des Lilas (near my place) to Masséna SNCF (near the Centre) without the mess of transferring beetween the #11 and the #14 métro lines at the Châtelet station. Although the bus was simpler and pretty convenient, it was also rather slow in traffic and didn't necessarily take less time. However, there were two upsides to this trip. The first is that I found this awesome bit of graffitti while walking towards the Center: and I got to witness French people being French in a way that occurs less often on the métro. A large family got on and asked a man near the front of the bus to relinquish his seat for one of the two old ladies in their group. The man refused flatly, accusing them of racism because they asked him before the white people on the bus, and the family burst into various expressions of disapproval and shame: "It's shameful, the way you comport yourself." Also, the bus driver nearly collided with a car full of plumbers, and the subsequent series of snide comments and snooty insults was worth the price of admission.

I arrived to the Centre to see Val already at work. She had managed to give Isabelle her CNetID and was in the process of trying to request a Chalk site on her behalf. Part of the problem was that we didn't have a course number, since the registrar @ UofC doesn't provide the Centre with course numbers for their courses. Since this was only for the Chalk system (and doesn't need to work with the registrar), we just made it up. Nonetheless, we had to wait until our Chalk expert in Chicago, Jamie, woke up and got to work. A few moments of iChat later, we had things figured out. I spent another hour or two getting orientation information from Arnaud and Stéphane, which explained an earlier mystery: no students arrived this morning because they were supposed to arrive tomorrow. Also, I eventually figured out that the phones at the residences didn't work because U of C wasn't paying to have them "open," so to speak. In other words, the phones are now a pay-as-you-go system similar to payphones, where you buy a carte téléphonique to make calls.

As I was preparing to leave, Sebastien surprised me with a nice bottle of white Alsatian wine (which I love). Since I didn't have a large bag with me that day, Val took it to the hotel and I've been trying to get it from her since. =]

I left the Centre and headed back to my place for a bit to drop off the orientation materials, do a bit of internet work (i.e. check email), and then head off to the nearest supermarket for some supplies. On my way, it became clear that I was in a Jewish neighborhood, because the café near the entrance to the shopping centre had signs that said "All your shabat needs served!" At the supermarket (which was surprisingly large and complete) I picked up a few more food basics—garlic, oil, butter, chocolate, cheese—and some home-care stuff, such as: laundry detergents, dishsoap, clothes hangers, etc. Apparently, Lindt has a new chocolate bar that incorporates passionfruit filling into dark chocolate squares. Delightful! The best part about the shopping trip was watching a couple shop with their mother, who seemed to be recently moved into the area. She complained consistently about the price of everything, and actually started cursing when she saw the price of laundry detergent.

Eventually I returned to my place and dropped of my stuff (and ate a bit of chocolate), then headed off to the Latin Quarter for dinner with Val. (On a totally unrelated note, Val can write off any dinner she has with me as a travel expense.) We tried that Georgian restaurant again, and they were open. The first thing I did was order a big serving of ხაჭაპური (khach'ap'uri: cheese bread), which is essentially bread filled to the brim with melted cheese. It's as good as it sounds. I had the ლობიო (lobio: red kidney beans & walnuts) as an appetizer, while Val had a salad with bits of Gesier confit (gizzard confit). For the main dish, we both had the the chicken ხარჩო (kharcho: usually a thick beef stew, but chicken here), which was delicious and reminded me of my mom's Peruvian ajì de gallina with cardamom added. For dessert, we both had a cream custard covered in chocolate sauce. It was !@#$ amazing, although I can't remember the name for it. My only complaint was that the 4 people next to us seemed to be taking turns lighting their cigarettes so that we would not have to suffer clean air during the entirety of our meal. I suppose I better get used to it.

After having imbibed several glasses of red wine, we stumbled our separate ways home. On my way back, I noticed a poster for a concert tomorrow night of Georgian choral music, at the same church (Saint Louis-sur-l'île) where Carla and I happened upon a concert of the Georgian choral music last summer ('05). Fancy that! Now I also have an excuse to go to Berthillon (an amazing ice cream shop on the same island).

jeudi, août 31, 2006

Sleepless in paris

So, just becuase this post is dated to a different day, don't presume that it wasn't anything more than a hellacious extension of Aug 30th. I know that the best way for my body to re-set its clocks is to just stay awake until next nightfall, so I stayed up for the entire flight, taking coffee at every opportunity and reading Richard Leppert's introduction to Adorno : Essays on Music. That's right. Until the rest of my books get here, I have Adorno and Erik Larson's Devil in the White City to read. Of course, my plan is to hit the bookstores in the Latin Quarter later this week to bulk up on French-language books.

After a long but uneventful flight, we (me and my Chicago-based boss for this job, Val) arrive in Paris near 10:00am local time (about 3am CST). We stagger through the terminal at Charles De Gaulle and get to the contrôle passeport, which consisted in glancing at my passport and then waving me through. Seriously. I don't think they even realized I was here on a student visa. Not a word was uttered. After the flaming hoops of fire that I must jump through every time I enter the US, this totally threw me—even though I've travelled to Europe many times before. How times/politics change, eh?

We made our way through what Val called the "habitrail" part of the terminal (escalators and glass tunnels) to baggage claim, where we waited for what seemed like hours. I suppose it seemed like hours because we were standing next to a pile of abandoned luggage that was leaking some yellow-coloured fluid and smelled like fish that was just beginning to rot. Welcome to Paris!

As soon as we claimed our luggage and walked into the main part of the terminal, we were accosted by a long line of unlicensed taxi drivers, trying to convince us to use their services. I've heard enough horror stories about what they do to unsuspecting tourists, so I gave them a "Non, merci. Ça va. Non. NON. Laisse tomber." We eventually found the taxi/limo stand; I asked an attendant whether the taxis took credit cards, and he pointed me to another attendant, who pulled us out of line and put us into a new line that I think she spontaneously created in front of everyone else. Ignoring the glares, she called over a taxi. When I asked the taxi cab driver if he took credit, he said "Oh, my machine isn't working." So I just shrugged and got back in line. At that moment, the attendant got really animated and asked me what's wrong. When I said that the cabbie didn't take credit, she looked very stern and told the driver, "That's a refusal of service." Whatever that meant, the two stepped away for a moment and exchanged some heated words. When they came back, the cabbie told me "Well, if my machine doesn't work, we'll have to stop at an ATM to get cash." And then the attendant told me, "If he doesn't take your card, you send an email to this address, with the cab's license number."

After that experience, I spent the entire drive to my place watching the road carefully, trying to make it clear to the cabbie that he can't drive in circles to make a profit from me. My experience in Europe (and most travel destinations, really) is that as soon as you're marked as a tourist/traveler, you're subject to a different code of ethics, called "It's not exploitation if they don't understand." It goes both ways, I suspect.

Anyway, I finally arrived at Residence Lila, and Val continued off to her hotel. Here's a picture of the view from my apartment! Notice the lovely construction. I haven't posted the promised pictures of my apartment yet, since I want a moment to unpack and put my stuff away. Suffice it to say that the colour scheme of my room is orange and maroon. Figure-toi. After a kind stranger helped me drag my stuff into the building, I waited around for a bit until one of the receptionists, Fabienne, arrived. After filling out a bit of paperwork, I dragged my ass upstairs and dropped off my luggage. I took a moment to explore the apartment, and discovered that it was missing a few key elements, such as toilet paper. I made a mental note to pick some up. I had told Val I would call her at her hotel once I got settled, so I changed my shirt and headed outside to find a Tabac so I could buy a phone card. When I asked Fabienne where to find a Tabac, she gave me directions, but also told me that there were telephones in Arnaud's room. So instead, Fabienne gave me a tour of the building, then opened Arnaud's apartment to pick up a phone as well as the DSL modem and wireless router that I was to set up in my room (the U of C kids demanded a wireless network in the residences, of course).

I returned to my room, installed the phone, and tried to call Val, but the phone line didn't work. It was clear that I'd need the cell phone that the UCParis centre was going to lend me. Fabienne certainly didn't have the cell phone on her, so my only hope was that Arnaud (another Arnaud) or Sebastien had it at the centre. Fabienne was kind enough to let me use the phone at the reception for the time being, then I hit a Tabac to get a phone card. (Tabacs in France not only sell tobacco, but also transit tickets, phone cards, lottery, etc.)

I eventually found my way to the Métro station, where I bought my Carte Orange (monthly metropass) for the month of September and a few extra tickets for the last day of Aug. Some time later, I finally made it to the UCParis centre, which is near the Bibliothèque Nationale on the Eastern end of the city just south of the Seine. As soon as I got there and spoke to the receptionist, Sebastien appeared to greet me. He gave me a warm welcome and showed me around the place, which is quite lovely. Very new and full of pale wood and white—check out the UCParis centre link above for a photo tour.

A few moments after that, I met the rest of the crew, including Isabelle, Hélène, Arnaud, Sylvie, Stéphane, as well as the outgoing director of the centre, Robert. (The guy who will be in charge during my time here is Philippe Desan.) Everyone was really nice and I was delighted with how excited Isabelle (a French language instructor) was to use Chalk (U of C's on-line classroom software). While I was there, Sebastien dug up the cell phone that I would be using (it's a monochrome NOKIA from the 90s!) and I was set to go. The battery was nearly dead on the phone, but I borrowed Arnaud's phone to call Val and we headed off for dinner. Keep in mind that I still haven't slept at this point.

I met Val at her hotel, near the Luxembourg gardens in the Latin Quarter, and we headed off to get some food. It was still pretty early for dinner in France (maybe 5pm), so some restaurants weren't open. Val knew a really amazing place for cassoulet, but unfortunately it was no longer there. I knew of a Georgian place called Pirosmani (a famous Georgian artist, I think), but they weren't open yet. We hit a café on the Place Saint-Michel for a bit of coffee and people-watching, then hit the road again. The Georgian place still wasn't open, so we headed towards another place that Val knew about, called Brasserie Balzar. It just so happened that the special of the day was cassoulet, so we ordered some. Before the cassoulet, we each had a Kir Royal (champagne + cassis) and then a 1/2-bottle of wine with the meal. As the alcohol and beans and meat began to kick in, what was then more than 24-hours of non-stop wakefullness began to crash in on me (and Val). Considering all I had was a kir and a couple glasses of wine, I felt surprisingly drunk and profoundly tired.

We quickly got the bill and headed our separate ways. I was so tired I nearly fell asleep on the métro. The métro!! That's how tired I was. But I also realized that my apartment was still missing a few rather crucial things, so I dragged my ass to the Franprix near my métro stop and got some toilet paper, water, paper towels and milk. Why milk? Because milk in Europe is always better. And I felt like I deserved a bottle of organic whole milk. I certainly did after waiting in line at the cashier, half-drunk and mostly asleep, while the woman in front of me conducted an argument with her spouse across the entirety of the store. It was a small miracle that I got home at all. Finally, after all of that mess, I got home, had a swig of milk, and got ready for bed.

Thankfully, I managed to get the DSL modem and wireless router working without too much trouble, so I finally started this blog post (although I finished it later) and then crashed into bed.

mercredi, août 30, 2006

On my way out

So, I'm actually posting this a bit after the fact, since the WiFi connection at the O'Hare terminal that I PAID $$$ FOR didn't work.

Wednesday morning, I got up at 7am after a late and very alcohol-addled night at Big Chicks. After taking some ibuprofen and finishing the last dregs of milk in my fridge, I went about packing my last few things, taking a shower, and dropping off some final items with Erika. Finally, I compulsively weighed both of my checked luggage—as I did the previous two nights—flaunting United Airlines' baggage allowance limit by bringing them both to 49lbs. and no more.

Due to some staggering generosity, Greg took me to the airport in his new car. I insisted on leaving Hyde Park around noon, even though my flight wasn't till 6:00pm, because I've been screwed by Chicago traffic before—and never again!! While Greg was on his way, I picked up some dry cleaning (thank GOD they got it done on time) and some ghetto mexican food at Pepe's on 53rd (not as bad as it looks).

Of course, this time Chicago traffice gave me the reverse-screw and we were at the airport in 40mins. Greg magnaminously helped me take my luggage to the terminal, where I checked in very, very early. Then, we went up to the top of the parking garage and watched planes take off. We had coffee and pastries. In retrospect, we should've brought beer.

Around 3:00pm, I finally went through security and started waiting. After a quick meal at Woflgang Puck's Let's Pretend This Isn't Airport Food, I sat at my gate, with my laptop open, trying desperately to make the !@#$ing WiFi at the airport work.

Needless to say, it wasn't that easy. What I didn't realize was that upcoming flights requently change gates, and certain airports don't see fit to announce that (ahem). So, when I got in at 3:00pm, the gate for my flight was C1. By 5:30pm, when I finally started to wonder why no-one had announced a flight to Paris, the gate was C21. Based on the range of numbers, you can guess how far I had to run. So, out of breath and sweaty for an 8-hour flight, I finally started my voyage...