samedi, octobre 28, 2006

Le Salon du Chocolat, or, How Luis Nearly Lost his Mind

Jeff de Bruges

[NOTE: Today I'm also experimenting with Flickr photo sets, so let me know if things aren't showing up properly. You can find the full photo stream for the Salon du Chocolat here.]

Ok, so from Oct 27 to Nov 1, there's this exposition / trade fair called the Salon du Chocolat. As you might imagine, it's a huge, sprawling orgy of chocolate. If you're familiar with the One of A Kind show circuit in North America, you can imagine the same thing purely dedicated to chocolate. It was, to put it frankly, insane.

  • Chocolate is still expensive
  • France is still conservative when it comes to chocolate flavors.
  • Continental palates are still not used to spicy anything.
  • On the other hand, they're happy to do all sorts of odd things with chocolate.
  • I'm totally more interested in solid chocolate than with bonbons or truffles
  • There is an actual limit to chocolate consumption.

Let's go over these points in detail:

Chocolate is still expensive

Even at a chocolate expo/trade show, where you would think the goal is to get your chocolate into everyone's bag, nonetheless chocolate cost a minimum of 2€ / bar and often hovered in the 5€ range (i.e., approx $7 USD / $7.50 CDN for one chocolate bar). Similarly, a box of 6 bonbons could cost anywhere from 12-20€, depending on the vendor. That much being said, the vendors were mostly pretty generous with their free samples, so I still spent the day grazing on chocolate. What I took home, however, was shaped by my budget and some tough decisions.

France is still conservative when it comes to chocolate flavors

Granted, this is probably not unique to France, but it's surprising from a country that has essentially branded itself with culinary "innovation." The most adventurous chocolate combinations were the dark chocolate — herb combinations (e.g., thyme, rosemary, violet, basil), and on the whole most chocolatiers didn't go beyond tea-infused chocolate or fruit-flavoured things. One exception came from Japan, Madame Setsuko, whose bonbon flavours included green tea ganache, sweet red bean ganache, dark chocolate and soya sauce, toasted sesame seeds, and what tasted like lotus seed paste. This was the one place where I paid a rediculously high price for chocolate. Let's just say those 6 bonbons could've bought me a lot of chocolate elsewhere.

One really tell-tale difference in palates arose with the tastings of Mexican chocolates. Clearly, some Mexican cultural attachés made a big point of showing a strong Mexican presence, so there were at least three booths that I could see (not including other countries from Central America). One booth offered mole tastings (savoury chocolate sauce for chicken preparations) that I fould pretty delicious, but most people around me found it disgusting. Lots of "Eww! This tastes like chicken!" Similarly, another Mexican vendor was trying to promote her "rustic" (Oaxaca) chocolate bars, which was made of a paste of cacao beans and sugar. This granular texture didn't go down well, either. The more polite passers-by would say it was "spéciale," which is a very French euphemism for "I find this revolting, but have no polite way of saying so."

Continental palates are still not used to spicy anything

The other complaint I heard a lot at that mole-tasting was that it was too spicy. Now, I realize that I'm not a good barometer for spicyness, but I didn't even realize it was spicy until I heard a group of teenagers next to me squeal about it. What's up with that? I would've thought France's colonial encounters in l'Indochine and le Maghreb would've provided a pretty strong base for spicy eating (like similar experiences did for the UK).

Perhaps the most telling moment for this was when I bought a cup of "hot chili" hot chocolate at one of the booths. The woman at the counter warned me that it was very spicy, so I was looking forward to a firey bite like that of Soma's "intense shot" in Toronto. Instead, I took a sip, took two more, and then began to walk back to the booth, thinking that there had surely been a mistake. A moment later, a mild curry-like burn lingered at the back of my tongue. That, apparently, was it. If they present the same thing at the New York chapter of this Expo, I fully expect Texans and Tejanos to spit this out in disappointment.

On the other hand, they're happy to do all sorts of odd things with chocolate.

Chocolate & Candy Sculpture 1

This is a chocolate + sugar sculpture (click on the photo for other images from that competition). In addition to these very high-end competition pieces, many booths were selling flowers made out of chocolate, chocolate figurines, chocolate lettering, chocolate liqueurs, and so on. Even better is this:

Chocolate Massages

Unfortunately, the photo didn't come out very well, but what you're looking at is a chocolate massage booth. Every time I passed by, some person was sitting there getting their back massaged with chocolate-based products. And in the booth behind them, another vendor was selling chocolate waxing products. Yes, that's right. Using chocolate to rip out body hair. Of course, I consider any non-eating use of chocolate to be an abomination in the way others might view pork or shellfish or masturbation or mixed fibres. Nonetheless, I got a great kick out of seeing the masseuse slather a bunch of sticky chocolate cream onto this guy's unbelieveably hairy back; I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was thinking "How am I going to clean this off?!"

I'm totally more interested in solid chocolate than with bonbons or truffles

Mind you, I did drop a huge load of €€€ on that set of bonbons from Madame Setsuko (because I probably won't ever find those things again), but otherwise behold my haul from the Salon du Chocolat:


Of course, you might recognize the 6 bars on the left as leftovers from my previous misadventures in chocolate. Otherwise, starting from the left, we have: a Mexican "rustic" chocolate bar and a box of similarly "rustic" vanilla-flavoured chocolates, made out of crushed cocoa bean paste and granulated sugar; four bars of "organic"/fair trade bars, which were actually the cheapest at the show (4 for 5€) in Dark+Lemon, Dark+Quinoa, Dark+Rasberry, Dark+Orange; 6 bars of infused dark chocolate from La Cabosse, including pink peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, roses, violets, and basil; and the three pastel-coloured bars to the right of them are italian white chocolates, flavoured with orange, lemom, and hot peppers.

For the record, Carla, I am trying my best not to eat these before you get here! No promises, mind you....

There is an actual limit to chocolate consumption

Those who know me well understand that, for me to reach an actual limit of chocolate consumption, there must have been a LOT of chocolate available at this show. Even though I only bought one thing to eat on the spot (the hot chocolate), there were so many tastings that I felt vaguely nauseous by the time I left. Of course, that didn't stop me from eating these chocolate-covered marshmallow/meringue thingies when I got home:

These marshmallow-like things..

Don't forget to check out my Flickr photo set for more pics of the salon!

vendredi, octobre 27, 2006

More French than I thought

I've never been one to stick to rigid, self-imposed schedules, but I seem to be really picking up the French notion of "on time" and "efficient." Since I hadn't been as productive as I had hoped on Thursday, I had today all planned out:

  • 10h00-12h00: Do a grocery run and then eat lunch
  • 12h00-13h00: Search for alternate hotels for Nov 14th in hawaii (long story)
  • 13h00-17h00: Work on my SEM conference paper
  • 17h00-19h00: Work on the IT support master document (another side project)

Here's what my day really looked like:

  • 10h00-11h30: Turn off alarm clock, then hurriedly shower and bolt to the grocery store
  • 13h00-14h00: Since I had asked a favor of the front desk folk of my building, I drop by with a handful of my awesome chocolate (see below) and chat with them while they eat lunch and then eat chocolate.
  • 14h00-16h00: Go to the bakery and get bread, then make a huge sandwich for lunch.
  • 16h00-21h00: Work on my SEM paper
  • 21h00-22h30: Go for dinner at the little resto near the subway station.
  • 22h30-now: write Blog stuff.

See? I've developed a sliding notion of "now." By the way, here's that amazing collection of chocolate I was talking about:

I only brought down a couple of bars to share, so most of these are still sitting over my bed. These are the chocolates that I bought on Wednesday at Le Bon Marché's huge grocery store. Since I'm writing a lot of lists today, here's a list of what's in the picture, for you chocolate connoisseurs:

  • Starting from the left, Bonnat dark chocolate (75%) made from Ceylon chocolate.
  • Dolfin dark chocolate with mint leaves (herbal mint, not peppermint)
  • Dolfin dark chocolate infused with Earl Gray tea.
  • Dolfin milk chocolate infused with Japanese Sencha green tea.
  • Dolfin milk chocolate infused with "Hot" Masala spices.
  • Dolfin dark chocolate with green anise.
  • Weiss dark chocolate (85%).
  • Valrhona Ampamakia (N. Madagascar) dark chocolate (64%), 2006 vintage (yes, this thing comes in vintages).

jeudi, octobre 26, 2006

Monsieur Bueller's Day Off

[If you didn't get the reference in the title, you're too young to be reading this.]

So, I woke up this morning at 9h30, only to remember that the water was going to be turned off today from 9h00 till 18h00. Aw crap. I hadn't shaved in a couple of days and I TOTALLY needed a shower if I was going to present myself in public. So I weighed my options and then sent an email to the folks at work saying, essentially, "I have no water and I'm not presentable; can I have that day off I should've taken on Monday?" (I found out after I showed up Monday that I could've taken the day off because I had spent the weekend as chaperone for that field trip.) The answer was a unified "oui!" so I slept in like crazy, goofed off for a while, wrote up my blog notes for Wednesday, and then continued my work on the paper I'll be presenting in Hawai'i in November.

I was also productive in another way, though, I invented Frenchy Ramen!

click to enlarge

Okay, so here's what I did:

  1. Melt something greasy in a frying pan, like butter (in this case, I was frying a steack haché [sorta burger], so I just used the fat from that).
  2. Take a day-old baguette that is as hard as a rock and cut into cubes.
  3. Turn up the heat on the oil/butter/fat and add 2 or 3 cloves of sliced garlic and whatever savoury herbs you have at hand (dried oregano and rosemary in this instance).
  4. When the flavors have infused pretty well, lower the heat a bit, add the bread, and mix to coat. Keep an eye on this and avoid letting the garlic burn!
  5. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add beef stock to whatever proportion works for you. Add a handful of noodles and cook until al dente.
  6. While this is going on, toss the bread cubes occasionally to ensure toasting on all sides. If the garlic looks like it is burning, fish them out and chuck them.
  7. Take a bowl and place a thick layer of bread croutons at the bottom. Add a layer of noodles, then pour broth overtop to fill the bowl.
  8. Serve and pretend it's ramen. Rampopo!

By the way, here's a pic of a sunset a took about a week ago. I forgot to put it up then, and it seems a shame to waste it...

mercredi, octobre 25, 2006

Gourmet Paradise and an Opera

click to enlarge

So, today I went to the épicerie to end all épiceries, but first a bit of explanatory preamble. As I arrived to work, I received a call from one of the professors, offering me an extra ticket they had for the opera tonight. It's Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, at the Bastille Opéra, so I couldn't resist. However, I had already been thinking of checking out this grocery store after work (either way, I had absolutely mustard, chocolate, rice or lentis at home, so it was a bit of an emergency). Thankfully, my work day was supposed to end at 15h00 (it's always supposed to end at 15h00, but don't ask me about my overtime hours) and the opera didn't start until 19h00, so that left me 4 solid hours to get from work to this grocery place to home, eat, and then off to the opera by 19h00.

I plowed out of work as soon as I could (which was still 30 minutes late, but that's very early for me) and headed over to Le Bon Marché (sometimes titled Au Bon Marché). Unlike its later counterparts on the Rive Droite (e.g., Galeries Lafayette, Samaritaine, Printemps), this 7th arrondissement business is largely considered the first department store in the world (opened 1838; fixed-price department store by 1850). Apart from the usual department store offerings (less expensive than Galeries Lafayette), the big attraction for me is their Grande épicerie Paris. The web site does absolutely NO justice to this place, especially the look of the interior. I didn't think to take any pictures until I was outside and speeding off to the métro station, but I'm going to return very soon, so I'll post interior photos when I do. This épicerie is what would happen if you took Whole Foods and gave it a Macy's makeover (for the Canadians, think Holt Renfrew; for the Brits, think Harrod's). Now multiply that by ten and add a lot of French food snobbery.

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The shopping experience was deliciously intense, and I'm almost afraid to return, lest I be disappointed the second time around. The whole thing was intensified by the fact that I was in a hurry, so my stream of thoughts went something like this:

"Ohmygod this place is beautiful! What is that thing? I've never seen that much cured meat in one place in my life! OHMYGOD they have Dolfin chocolates! Holy shit they have Bonnat chocolates!! I didn't realize that was still around! Oooh, a bakery section! No no, I already had a pastry this morning. Oooh, I wonder if they have avocado seed oil. No time to check!! I need rice! Wow, brown rice from Camargue! Holy shit they have red quinoa!! I never thought I'd find that stuff here. Jeezus, look at all that fresh produce!! No time to inspect and weigh veggies..only the basic dry goods and butter....and maybe some chocolate! Oooh, they have hand-churned butter from Brittany! Alsatian smoked ham? Yes please!! Oooh, I totally need several slices of that 9-month aged Bayonne ham! It's how much?! Oh, I'll splurge just this once. Hmm, I wonder why they have floorspace to sell products from other épiceries, like Fauchon and Hediard? Ohmigod and I totally didn't even notice this whole wine section!! It's almost 1/4 of the whole store! No time for wine!!! Aaaaagh, there's always time for wine!!!!! I need to checkout and get out of here before I bankrupt myself..."

I come away with several slices of premium "regional" cured ham, hand-churned butter, 9 bars of various gourmet chocolate, brown rice from Camargue, red quinoa, coral lentils, dry sausage (saucisson sec), and a jar of Francis "best jam-maker in france" Miot's strawberry jam. I'm not going to disclose how much I spent on the food, but suffice it to say that I am both embarassed and defiantely unashamed. On the way back, I spotted this:

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Graffitti reads: On pourrais pas plutôt avoir un beau mec?

So, this may be skewed by the inordinate amount of time I spend in the métro, but Paris seems to have an especially active subway-advertisement-defacing culture than anywhere else (and I say this despite New York and Toronto and such). This particular ad by Virgin megastore was particularly susceptible to graffitti, because it had these huge swaths of white space. In all the hallways and platforms of the métro, there are advertisements spaced about 3 feet apart. Some of them are quite beautiful and entertaining, and other are very functional event listings, and others are manipulate and seductive. Most are all of the above to some degree. Either way, I had thought that this ad was rather pretty, composition-wise (I messed with the contrast to bring out the graffitti, so imagine subtler and smoother colours), but within 3 days of these posters going up there were tons of "this is porno!" or "enough with ads!" scrawled all over these. This one, however, was my favourite. The graffitti, roughly translated, reads "And we can't have a hot guy instead?" Good question. I will say this: men figure much more prominently in sexy advertising here. The occasional Armani Homme or Hugo Boss bilboard that you see in the States as "a little gay" is everywhere and unexceptional here. However sexy those ads might be, the exposed, erotic male body remains mostly limited to ads in gay mags. I'm curious to see what would happen if Virgin released a similar ad with a naked guy. Would the graffitti swing in the direction of "fag!!" or would it be the same "down with advertising!" stuff aimed at all the ads around here?

Anyway, I rushed home and dropped my stuff off, stopping at my boulangerie to get a demi-baguette. I sliced the baguette in half, smeared it with dijon mustard and unsalted butter (I didn't have mayo) scrounged up some Beaufort cheese and yesterday's salad, and piled on the Alsatian smoked ham. Behold my dinner!

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It was only 18h30 and it felt far too early to be eating, but I scarfed it down, changed (i.e. tossed a sweater and a scarf on) and ran out the door. Transit time took longer than I expected, so I didn't get a chance to have a coffee or a whiskey and coke in one of the cafés on Bastille before going into the opera house. Ah well, I'll have to pay 5€ for a little glass of white wine inside. The opera was Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (first perf. Teatro Cannobiana, Milan, 12 May 1832). This is a two-act melodramma giocoso (playful melodrama), indicating a light-ish opera that is mostly comic opera (buffa), with occasional poignant moments. The plot (available in 50 words or less here) is a bit of a spoof on the Tristan and Iseult story (yes, it predates Wagner). The plot is actually ripe for analysis (which I'm sure has already been done in someone's dissertation): the female romantic-comic lead, Adina, is reading Tristan and Iseult and laughs at the notion of a magic elixir of love, finding it preposterous. You see, Adina is both a landowner and literate...very marriageable! Nemorino, the male romantic-comic lead, a proleterian agricultural worker and all-around loser, overhears Adina while admiring her (after being also rejected by her). A brave (and narcissistic) sargeant Belcore shows up and courts Adina and asks for her hand; she rebuffs him for the moment but leaves the matter open. When doctor Dulcamara rolls into town as the Italian equivalent of the American "Snake-oil Salesman" stereotype, Nemorino goes to him in the hope that he might sell Iseult's magical love elixir. Judging him (rightly) to be a total sucker, Dulcamara sells him a bottle of bordeaux as the elixir, telling him to expect stupefying side-effects (i.e., drunkenness) and 24-hours for results (the time for Dulcamara to leave town). When Adina finally agrees to marry Belcore in 6 days, Nemorino laughs (he's drunk at this point) because he is certain that Adina will be madly in love with him by the next morning. Everybody in town thinks he's gone mad. At this point, we're heading towards an "Italian hilbilly" version of Tristan and Iseult. Then, Belcore is given orders to return to battle the next morning, so Adina agrees to get married that same night. Nemorino panicks and despairs, and everyone again thinks he has lost it. He begs Adina to wait until tomorrow, which angers Belcore to the point of violence; Adina defends Nemorino as harmless but misguided, and also decides that "he will pay" for embarassing her when she is married to Belcore before his eyes. That is the end of Act 1. I'll leave the details of Act 2 to those who are willing to look it up on the web (or in one of those paper thingys they call a "book").

Anyway, there's lots of really interesting things about this opera. At several points in the opera, Adina brags about and celebrates her capriciousness in love, which often appears to be code for "I'm promiscuous! Awesome!" And this was 1832 and this passed the Italian censors! Also, there's a whole social-class thing wrapped up in this plot. Nemorino aspires to love the landowner of his workplace (i.e. if this were a feudal system, he would be a serf and she the lady of the manor), who is utterly uninterested. Although her eventual change of heart does not hinge on economical changes, he conveniently comes into land and money by inheritance by the end of the opera; significantly, neither of them know about it until after they have confessed their love for each other. On the night of the intended wedding to Belcore, the quack doctor Dulcamara insists on singing a duet with the bride-to-be Adina, which is about a young female gondolier and an aged Venetian senator; the gondolier (Adina) rebuffs the senator (Dulcamara)'s advances by claiming that she does not deserve to be marrying above her station. But it was precisely Belcore's station as a sargeant that he used to woo Adina in the first place.

And there's the whole "false authenticity, real effects" thing, which is admittedly part of the "comedy of errors" genre, but also very Baudrillard avant la lettre as well. Unlike Tristan and Iseult's elixir, which is taken unknowingly and to powerful effect, Dulcamara's elixir is just bordeaux wine taken deliberately but foolishly by Nemorino. However, the inebriating effects and the presumed certainty of Adina's eventual love make Nemorino maddeningly aloof and alluring to Adina. Once word of Nemorino's inheritance makes it around town, the girls flock to him and that, combined with his own drunken confidence, causes Adina to become jealous and acknowledge her own love for him. It's never really clear if Adina had loved Nemorino unconsciously before this whole drama, or if her love actually emerged from the misunderstanding and trickery. Either way, everyone is duped, including eventually the duper himself (Dulcamara comes to believe his "elixir" is effective), and the opera ends with everybody buying a bottle of his elixir and singing its praises.

Yeah, so I can see a lot of Marxist, Frankfurt School, Adorno, "the world sells us fake elixirs" term papers coming out of this.

mardi, octobre 24, 2006


Yes, you read that poster right: Poltergay. I started seeing these posters last week just before I left on that field trip, and today I decided that I need to see this thing. I suspect it will be inane and insulting (but hopefully not boring). I'm interested to see what sorts of stereotypes of homos are currently percolating in France. From the looks of things, it's rather Village People, but I think part of that is due to the storyline: once upon a time (1979, to be exact), a large country manor was being used as a gay disco; something BAD happens, many homos perish, and 6 bodies are never recovered; later, a (heterosexual) couple buy house, husband starts seeing ghosts—Gay ghosts—and hilarity ensues. Also, the lead male seems to provide a lot of ass shots.

Okay, so that explains the leisure suits and disco shoes, but look closely at those disco the right...what is that? There's a disco ball attached to one of the "poltergays" (in the yellow) in the manner of a ball-and-chain. Wassupwidat? Even those who are not fans of close readings of mass texts will have admit that there is something going on here. I'll have to wait until I see the movie to report on whether that is explained by some story element. In the meanwhile, I'm left to ponder what political ramifications there are to having a posters all over Paris showing a typé (stereotyped) gay man in a tragically outdated disco outfit chained to a disco ball. I'm torn between "haha, tragic!" and "sweet tap-dancing jeezus on a pogo stick! What is wrong with you?!", which I consider an exemplary spectatorial position for capital-C Camp (and its attendant theories of reading). Either way, I'm willing to bet that this move will be TOTALLY GAY. In fact, to quote a friend of mine (you know who you are), this movie will be "the gayest gay to ever gay."

[Also, note that the "straight" lead is wearing white alligator/snakeskin boots. I'm just sayin'...]

On a mostly unrelated note, I bought a head of lettuce yesterday that I planned to eat today. It was a crappy head (haha), that I had bought at Franprix for a very low price, so my plan had been to strip off the outer layer of wilted leaves and have the rest as a base for a plate of crudités (i.e., raw vegetables). As I tore away the leaves, I noticed that the stem on one leave was rather brown, but not actually wilted; just brown and sort of pock-marked. I tossed that leaf away and kept on pulling leaves and throwing them into the sink to rinse. Layer after layer, the leaves on one side have brown stems with little holes. Finally, near the centre, I found him: a wee little gray caterpillar, curled up in a protective ball. Well, apparently my lettuce wasn't crappy, just "organic." I chucked the little guy into the toilet and kept on tearing. Heck, I was going to wash it anyway.

This morning, I dropped by a boulangerie that had just opened near my workplace, which is part of the chain of Boulangeries Kayser. Now, the neighborhood around my workplace is rather swank (see yesterday's post for an example of what I mean), so I was expecting high prices. Nonetheless, here's what a 7.50€ carpaccio aux légumes (vegetable carpaccio) will get you: a handful of lettuce in a plastic container, a few slivers of shredded carrot, a few of radish, and what looks like a bit of dressing. In the end, I went for the 4.70€ sandwich, which was still a ripoff, but at least I didn't feel physically violated in the way I might've with that box-o-slaw.

lundi, octobre 23, 2006

3 Vignettes for Monday

  1. On my way down a corridor in a métro station, I pass a poster for a comedy show called (roughly translated) "How to be a Jewish mother in 10 lessons." Apparently, some things are transnational.
  2. I'm waiting with an ever-growing crowd of people during rush hour on a métro platform for the 11 line. There's been a delay and the crowd is immense. The train finally pulls in and we pack in like sardines. Just as the warning signal sounds, a tiny old lady in pearls, glasses, and a cute little purse flings herself through the closing maw of the subway train and plows into the crowd of people aboard the train. Suddenly demeure, she excuses herself politely and arranges her hair. Not 5 seconds later, the crowd parts to allow her to sit on one of the fold-down seats. When the train is this crowded, nobody is allowed to use these seats. But she's frail and weak, apparently...
  3. I didn't have any leftovers to bring to work, and I forgot to pass by the boulangerie in my neighborhood to pick up a sandwich. So I stop in a sandwich place in the much swankier (read: condos coming soon!) neighborhood around the Centre. A sandwich and a bottle of water come to 8.50€ (about $10USD). Later that same night, I stop for groceries in my working-class neighborhood and 12€ gets me 3 carrots, a head of lettuce, a bunch of baby radishes, a cucumber, 4 onions, a zucchini, 1/2-kilo of stewing turkey, 4 tomatoes, a 6-pack of diet coke, and a bottle of white wine.

dimanche, octobre 22, 2006

I'm back!

Phew! I got back Saturday night, but I wasn't up for blogging. Besides, most of the last three days were spent supervising a field trip with students from the Centre, so my policy against detailed work-blogging leaves little to blog about. What I can say is that I saw Chartres' Cathetral, lots of Angers (chateau, cathedral, tapestry of the apocalypse), Solesmes monastery (important centre of gregorian chant research), and château Chenonceau. Of course, it was all great. Also, we ate very well (thank you, University of Chicago!) including rillettes or rillauds at almost every meal.

In the end, I've decided not to fill in last tuesday and wednesday with post-dated entries, because they weren't particularly exciting days anyway. Also, I'm taking off blogging about today because, well, I deserve it. I'm going to nap, maybe play some video games, and maybe do some readings. I mean, it's Sunday after all.