samedi, novembre 04, 2006

Belleville, Pho, and Congee

I started my day by sleeping in, much as I had promised myself. After getting some more of the rest I so sorely needed, I hauled myself and headed for Belleville (with a slight delay to repair one of the WiFi networks). Belleville is this fascinating neighborhood that remains one of the few remaining immigrant-dense neighborhoods within Paris proper (otherwise, most are in the suburbs). What is even more interesting is that the main ethnic groups in Belleville are Maghrebi (arab/berber), Jewish (mostly N. African Sephardim, it seems), Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese. As a result, you have narrow streets lines with "asiatique" restaurants, hybrid kosher/halal grocery stores, bulk rice and grain shops and HOT PEPPERS. I finally found a shop that had scotch bonnet / habañero peppers. They were labeled piment antillais (Pepper from the Antilles), but I can recognize scotch bonnets from a mile away. I bought a big bag of them, a couple of mangoes and I was set for a my spicy mango salsa (sort of—I later realized I had no limes at home). This shop also had big canvas bags full of various dry goods in bulk, so I got myself some broken rice (to make congee), some nice basmati, a bit ol' bag of brown lentils, and some much needed cumin (I can't get enough of that stuff). I also found fresh cilantro, but there wasn't enough for a batch of chimichurri (I'll explain that another day).

The rice and spice shopping got me in the mood for congee and salty doughnuts. Congee (zhou in Mandarin and juk in Cantonese) is a sort of rice porridge, served as a filling (and cheap) breakfast or lunch with deep-fried dough on the side. The porridge often comes with beef balls or fish balls or some other flavorful thing inside, but it can also be eaten plain with some chopped green onions and/or a raw egg in the middle. I also like my congee with a bit of dark soy sauce. Mmmmm...

Anyway, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire for congee, but I didn't know the French-Chinese word for it (nor could I properly recall the Cantonese or Mandarin word at the time), so I went from restaurant to restaurant in the neighborhood, scouring their menu for some indication of congee. Part of my problem was that, although this is one of Paris' "chinatown" areas, most of the vendors and restaurateurs are actually Vietnamese or Thai. Many of the restaurants would bill themselves as Chinese restaurants, but then only have one page of the menu dedicated to a random collection of specialités chinoises, and the rest of the menu would be Thai and/or Vietnamese. Apparently, the French have a tradition of referring to all East Asian ethnicities as les chinois, which reminds me a lot of similar practices in South and Central America (chinitos).

Whatever the reason, I eventually gave up on my quixotic quest and settled for some pho. Now, when I say "settled," I don't want to imply that pho is not also delicious. I love pho and this pho was as good as anything I've found in Toronto; I just wasn't in the mood at the time. Also, I made the mistake of ordering the "special" pho without asking the contents, and got a bowl with rare beef slices, beef balls, tendons and tripe. To the restaurant's credit, it was pretty tasty, even if the texture wigged me out.

I went home and tried my hand at making congee with my broken rice, but totally miscalculated the proportions. Normally, you should make congee with about 1/2 or 1 cup of rice and 6 cups of water. Then, you boil until the rice "flowers" by breaking out of its husk to create a viscous white soup. I put in about 2 cups of rice and then filled the rest of my pot with water. Of course it wasn't enough, so I spent a couple of hours stirring and adding more and more water. As I added more water, the rice kept on absorbing and increasing in volume until the mixture began to spill over the side. I served myself a bowl of the too-thick congee to make some room, added more water, and then turned down the heat. I had a dinner to go to anyway, so this could wait till tomorrow.

[p.s. I also put a scotch bonnet into the congee mixture, for no particular reason other than that I was excited about having good hot peppers available again.]

I was invited again to dinner at my colleague's place, since she was inviting over a group of students as well. Things went very nicely, we ate very well (VERY well), and I got home rather late again.

vendredi, novembre 03, 2006

When it all blurs together

OK, I'm slowly catching up to my usual blogging speed.

Still tired and unshaven from the crazyness of the previous day, I got up and got dressed and ready to take the injured student back to the hospital for the surgical operation. There is a daytime student coordinator who should've taken over for me, but she hadn't answered my email yet and I wasn't going to call her in the middle of the morning. Eventually, she would get the email and call, and then she could meet us and take over.

We got to the hospital and the emerg. doc. from the previous night started to work on transferring us to a hospital with an orthopedic surgery unit. After a few hours of Kafka-esque office-pong ("wait here", "go to this office", "now go to that office"), things got worked out and we were sent, charts in hand, to another hospital. At the same time, I got a call from the daytime student coordinator. Yay! I gave her directions to the destination hospital, and we made our way over. It turned out that the student had to be admitted for the surgery (and overnight convalescence), and the student coordinator has just joined us, so I left the two of them to continue the admissions process and I headed over to the Centre.

On the way over, I got a sandwich turc (Turkish sandwich), which is pretty much another form of Greek gyros (there are subtle differences, I'm sure, but it's sort of pan-Mediterranean in the way hummus is). I got to the Centre and enjoyed my slightly soggy sandwich (still tasty!) while getting my taxi fare from last night reimbursed. Also, one of the teachers had come back from the countryside with a great supply of fresh foie gras, so I got to have some along with a bit of sweet white wine and bread. Mmmm. After providing a bit of IT support, I escaped the Centre (it's supposed to be my day off) and went home.

I did a bit of winding down and email-checking, then took a nap for a couple of hours. By 19h30, I was on my way to a colleagues house for dinner. Dinner was great, but ran rather late. We ate pretty quickly (I was actually stunned at how fast they eat their food), but I made the mistake of offering to do some IT repair to a laptop and their desktop computer, and that kept me there until 1am. By the end of it, though, everything was fixed and I was full of good food and coffee and a fair bit of chocolate. I dragged my ass back to my place (I walked all the way back in the bitter, bitter cold) and promised myself that I was sleeping IN tomorrow, dammit.

jeudi, novembre 02, 2006

The reason why I'm two days behind

It's Saturday afternoon and I'm writing my post for Thursday. This is mostly because I didn't have 5 seconds to myself on Thursday.

Remember how I had spent Tuesday evening taking apart a student's laptop? Well, we didn't get further than the disassembly on Tuesday, so Thursday's job was to finally do the soldering and then put the thing back together again. I spent the morning researching soldering tutorials and power jack diagrams in preparation for The Big Solder. I realize that it is possible to remove solder, but I didn't want to mess up the motherboard, burn any of the components, or short-circuit the entire board and fry it. All of which was entirely possible. Throughout the entire day/afternoon/evening, I kept on telling myself that "At worst, the hard drive is intact." Data loss is the one thing you can't fix or replace.

I finally got a hold of my boss's soldering iron and solder, and away I went. The positive pin on the power jack needed to be patched up and strengthened, so I put a little bit of paper over the nearby components and got soldering. It wasn't a pretty joint (I was essentially creating a new pin out of solder), but it eventually held together. I plugged in the power adapter and checked the LED charge light. At first it didn't work. Then, I dug out the laptop's battery, connected it to its connector on the motherboard, and that closed the circuit. The rest of the afternoon I spent putting the laptop back together. I would reattach one component, then plug in the AC adapter to check that I hadn't screwed something up; then, I would unplug it and add another component, etc. etc. By 20h00, the laptop was back in one piece with 3 screws leftover. Anybody who's done a fair bit of laptop repair is familiar with this experience. No matter how well you follow the assembly instructions, there's always still one or two screws that are leftover when you put things back together. I believe it's the IT fairy's way of keeping me on my toes.

I finished the laptop and returned it just in time to head out with a friend for drinks. This was the friend whose English class I appeared in last Tuesday as the "Canadian Content" representative. We went for falafels in the old Jewish district (rue des rosiers) and then a glass of wine near the gay district. I got home just before midnight....and just in time for a frantic knock on my door.

Once of the students had been injured, and it was pretty messy and required immediate attention. Since this has to do with part of my work (in addition to IT stuff, I'm the night-person for the students that stay in my building) I'm not going to go into detail. Suffice it to say that I got to know the French medical system quite well, and we didn't get home until 2h00 in the morning. I should also note that the only thing I had eaten that day was that falafel. So my blood sugar was low, I had an impossible headache, and I had been awake for a very long time. To top things off, the injury was worse than we had thought, so we had to return to the hospital the next morning for reconstructive surgery.

mercredi, novembre 01, 2006

Toussaint is tout great

The first of November is All-Saint's Day in France (toussaint) which is observed as a holiday. This meant that I got to SLEEP IN. And did I ever. I slept in, sat around in my socks and underwear reading random internet stuff, and eventually wandered out to the nearby boulangerie (thankfully open) to buy some bread and pastries. I also got a ton of Asian take-out from a traiteur asiatique nearby (mostly Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese) for very cheap. Hooray for food and sitting around at home!

Mind you, I did get a bit of work done (and also spent a lot of time blogging tuesday). But mostly I didn't and it was pretty awesome.

mardi, octobre 31, 2006

Crises of Canadian Representation, hot IT action, and Double-Dong Denzel

Thanks to the magic of a certain service that starts with a "B" and rhymes with "abhorrent," I've been keeping up on the new season of Drawn Together (warning: bandwidth-heavy site!). One of the most recent episodes involves the racist stereotype Princess Clara trying to distract the blaxploitation stereotype Foxxy Love from discovering her Munchausen-by-proxy Syndrome relationship with the insane Spongebob parody, Wooldor, by telling her (Foxxy) that there was a Denzel Washington with two penises in the other room. To which, Foxxy responds "Ooh! Double-dong Denzel!" A few moments later, she returns, disappointed, complaining that all she saw was triple-dong Wesley Snipes. What a letdown. Anyway, I just loved the alliteration in the phrase "double-dong denzel!" You had to be there (so to speak).

So I had managed to double-book myself this afternoon. I had arranged with my boss to spend the afternoon/evening taking apart a laptop and putting it back together again (and fixing it in the process, of course), but I had also agreed more than a week ago to appear in a friend's English class to speak about Canada. Anyway, thanks to the French conception of time that I've been developing, these two activities weren't mutually exclusive. The plan was that my boss and I would start the PC repair at 14h30, then I would run to the class at about 16h30 (getting there by 17h00) and then return by approx 18h30 to finish anything that was left for the PC.

Of course, it wasn't quite that easy. We were working on an HP Pavilion laptop with a broken AC power jack. Apparently, this problem has been endemic to the HP Pavilion line—to the point that some consumers have been organizing a class action suit. Apart from replacing the AC jack entirely (which is still a possibility if this fix doesn't work) the thing we're planning to do is re-solder the connection between the AC jack and the motherboard (since the connections have burned out). What complicated matters (aside from, you know, soldering a motherboard) was getting the damned thing apart. Because of the way the fan assembly was mounted to the motherboard, we had to take EVERYTHING apart to get access to the AC power jack. By 16h45, when it was already well past the time for me to leave for my friend's class, we had just finished exposing the motherboard and the AC power jack. I left everything as is and hopped the bus over to my friend's class. The path to the school was a bit confusing, but with map in hand I only got lost once and still managed to get there by 17h10. Not bad for Paris rush hour.

My friend was teaching an English class at a rather high-calibre school that apparently produces a lot of France's historians / curators. They had already had a few classes on Canada in more general terms, so the questions they had seemed to follow from their own historic(ist) interests. I started with a brief tallying of the places I've lived in Canada (Alberta, Sask., Ontario), how my parents came to Canada, and what problems we faced. In particular, I was interested in giving a contrast to the "happy multiculturalism" image that they doubtlessly got from other materials on/from Canada, so I told them an anecdote from our time in Saskatchewan. Back then (this was the 80s), there were only 3 main racial classes: white (Ukrainian ancestry, mostly), aboriginal, and métis (mix of aboriginal and early French traders). The hierarchy pretty much followed that order; the perceived hybridity of the métis made them subject to almost constant persecution. We arrived with tanned, olive complexions, dark hair and eyes, unfamiliar latinate names and no connections to the local community to validate us (keep in mind that almost everybody in Regina, Sask. was from there, going back at least a few generations, so the community was ill-equipped to integrate newcomers). Very quickly, we were cast as métis, and this impacted our experience there at all levels. Our teachers presumed us to be violent, stupid, and inferior, our playmates repeated to us what their parents told them in private, and we found ourselves making desperate attempts to explain what "hispanic" meant to kindergarteners who had never seen such a thing. Amidst all of this came a rather poignant anecdote involving a birthday party for my sister, a métis friend of hers, and many racist parents. Although I'm reluctant to repeat it all here (if anybody owns the "public rights," it's probably my sister and mother), it made the point that Canadian multiculturalism is not evenly distributed throughout the country, and it is more a utopian ideal than a cultural reality.

Of course, I had more positive things to say about my experiences in Ontario and about immigration and Canadian cultural politics, but I wanted to make it clear that hegemonies were at work here (Canada, that is) as much as elsewhere. Based on my points and the historical interests of the students in the class, the questions that followed were very pointed. What about the métis nowadays? Are there still reservations? What about forced relocation? Where are Native Canadians when they're not on reservations? As soon as I mentioned the history of boarding schools and the social/political experiment of Nunavut, they had similar questions for them. They were also interested in hearing whether or not Saskatchewan was still a racially polarized place (I didn't think so, but I haven't made much of an effort to return to that place, obviously). We wrapped up the class with a discussion (mostly between my and my friend, who is American) about the differences between political systems and parties in Canada vs. the U.S. vs. France.

The class ran a bit long, and I didn't realize that I needed to make a pretty long walk to catch the return bus to the Center, so I didn't make it back until 19h00. By then, my boss was going to leave at 19h30 anyway, so it was a bit of a wash. We put everything up in my office (carefully, of course; there were zillions of little screws and wires) and I went home for the day.

It was Halloween back in North America, and I felt as if I needed to do something, anything, to observe the occasion. After all, tomorrow is toussaint (all saints' day), which is a state holiday here, so I could go out late and drink without concern. As luck would have it, another friend (the one I helped move last Sunday) was going out for drinks, so my social life wasn't as dead as I had feared. The best part out of this whole thing was that I got to sleep in the next morning. Thank Double-Dong Denzel!

lundi, octobre 30, 2006

Hooray for Hot Peppers

Well, my day at the Salon du Chocolat made me realize that I have very rarely cooked anything spicy since I've arrived. Sure, I usually dump some rocoto or ají amarillo into the broth when I'm making rice, but that just gives a mild curry burn (although enough rocoto will make anything super-hot). For firey hot goodness, you need fresh, raw hot peppers with the seends still intact. Unfortunately, the only thing you can find in Paris (although I haven't checked out all the ethnic enclaves, obviously) are these piments verts (green hot peppers); they're finger-shaped peppers of the cayenne-banana-cubanelle variety, so the flesh is barely spicy at all, but the membranes and seeds add a fair bit of spice. Sadly it lacks the smoky resonance of poblano chiles, or the slightly tangy burn of jalapeños, but they'll do.

I came home from work with my mind made up: I'm making salsa, dammit. I'm also making lentils. And tomorrow, I'll fry up whatever leftover lentils I have into refried beans. I bought 3 of those finger peppers, 5 lemons, and a bell pepper (the rest of the stuff I already had at home). I made a simple onion+tomato+hot/sweet pepper salsa, with a fair bit of lemon juice and all the seeds in. Served as a salsa fresca (i.e., fresh, not yet marinated), it was a kaleidescope of all the component flavors: strong raw onion, vine-ripened tomato, sweet bell peppers, and the occasional sting of hot peppers. Whatever is left over tomorrow will hopefully meld together into a proper salsa, which I will have with my refried beans. Speaking of beans (or lentils, in this case), I tossed the other two hot peppers, sliced, into the lentils. I had already created a base of sautéed sausage, onion and garlic, but I waited until I had added the water and lentils before adding the hot peppers; I didn't want any of the capsaicin to cook out. The result was an evenly hot lentil dish that was thicker than lentil soup, but a bit too thin to be refried beans (yet). Mmmm. Everything about tonight's meal conjured up "home" for me.

Shortly after eating my meal, I remembered some of the other reasons to love hot food. Eating a lot of spicy food creates an endorphin rush, coupled with a metabolism boost. A few minutes after eating, I was in a great mood and was suddenly inspired to clean up my apartment. Hooray for "natural" self-medication!

Oh, by the way, I had totally forgotten to mention last Saturday that I had bought a bag of cacao pasta. Yes, I have a bag of dark-brown rotini that have been made with unsweetened cacao. I haven't yet decided what I'm going to do with it, but I was thinking of making chicken simmered in something creamy (maybe creme fraîche and cracked peppers). Any suggestions from the peanut gallery?

dimanche, octobre 29, 2006

Hair crisis and moving redux

Okay, this actually begins on Saturday night, but I didn't want my hair-clipper emergency to overshadow the Salon du Chocolat, so it's part of Sunday's post.

So, I was thinking of going out Saturday night, maybe do a bit of drinking in the Marais. Most weekends since my arrival, I've been either at techno events (in not-so-gay locations) or out of town, so I haven't really spent all that much time in the gay-borhood at all. Anyway, I had been meaning to cut my hair for more than a week, so I finally got out the clippers and got to clipping. With a few rare exceptions, I cut my own hair; it's not that difficult when you keep everything really short. To that end, my electric hair clipper has served me in good stead. Ever since I got to Paris, though, the poor little thing has had troubles dealing with the voltage. I got a transformer and everything, but something still wasn't quite right and it always seemed to be running at an unusually high level. All of this, it turns out, would mislead me Saturday night.

About 30 seconds into cutting my hair, with literally half of my head shorn, the clipper started cutting out intermittently. After a moment, it stopped working altogether. At first I thought that the European electrical system had finally busted the thing. After unplugging, replugging, plugging it in elsewhere, checking the fuses, and giving it a good shake, I gave up and started trying to even out my head with a pair of scissors and a comb. It was tragic. At first I thought I should capture this moment with a picture, but then I realized that I didn't want that floating around the net. Scantily clad or naked? Sure! Tragic hair? Never.

Nevertheless, it was clear that I couldn't go out in this state. In fact, I don't think I would've been able to go to a hair salon to get this corrected. Out of shame, I would've spent the rest of my time in France wearing one of the 3 ballcaps I brought with me. Since the night was already ruined, I set about to trying to tinker with my clippers. Took a screwdriver to the casing and took the thing apart. It was actually pretty interesting inside (maybe later I'll take a picture with the the device's guts showing), a quick refresher lesson in high-school electrophysics.

After much pulling and prodding and screwing and unscrewing, I figured it out: the copper wiring that runs through the hair clipper and the copper wiring that runs through the electrical cord are not continuous. At some point near the base of the clipper, these two bundles of wire join. However, there was no adhesive or twisting to hold them together; they were simply sheathed in rubber insulation as if they were a continuous fibre, and as the rubber stretched, the two ends of wire began to separate. That night, the wires and finally pulled apart far enough to break the circuit. So, here was my solution:

Okay, mere words do not express how unsatisfactory this is as a solution, but it worked for the time being, and I was able to shear my hair to an even shortness. Tonight (Sunday) I plan on going back over it to shape the sides and back into something more acceptable, but for the moment at least I could present myself the next day at my friend's place. As soon as I can get to a hardware store, I'm going to buy some electrical tape so I can isolate the two exposed leads.

There's some gendered irony in all of this, because I engaged in a culturally masculine act ("I'm going to disassemble, fix, and reassemble this thing myself."), but I was driven by a culturally feminine concern ("My HAIR!!"). Truth be told, I think even the most "feminine" of men or women would start hacking their clippers if they were stuck with the sort of hair tragedy I had.

So, it was nearly 1h00 by the time I got my hair into reasonable shape, and it still wasn't an attractive shape, so I stayed in Saturday night and got some good sleep in preparation for Sunday. I had volunteered to help a friend move into her new place, so I got up in the morning, got dressed and headed over to her place. As exhausting as the move was for her, it went very well and very quickly. I'm still scarred from the many moves I've had to make in my life—especially the most recent episode, where I packed everything I owned into storage space and friends' places. Even with the help of my father and professional movers, the experience nearly did me in. In my friend's case, however, she had about 10 friends there to help her, many of them with cars, and maybe 1/6th the amount of crap I had. All her books and CDs/DVDs fit into 3 medium-sized boxes. I think I filled about 20 boxes with my books. Also, she had a twin mattress and a collapsible bed frame. I had a queen-size with a huge IKEA wooden frame that needed to be taken apart just to get through the doorway. I could go on forever with comparisons, but the point is made. Many hands and few possesions made for quick work, and we were done most of it by 2pm (my friend had to make a final run to another person's place to drop off some of her larger items while she waits for renovations to finish at her new place).

There were plans to go for a drink or two after everyone had gone home and showered and such, but that didn't work as well for me. The rest of the group all live close to each other at one end of the city, while I live nearly at the opposite end. By the time they had started to collect at their local bar for drinks, I had settled in at home and wasn't in a mood to move.

Voila Sunday. Not as exciting as Saturday, but every day can't be Salon du Chocolat day. That would be dangerous.