samedi, novembre 11, 2006

Paper-writing sweatshop, Day 2

Yup, just scroll down to yesterday's post and cut-and-paste. My boulangerie isn't open on Saturdays, so I foraged for a bit of food among the leftovers I had in the fridge.

I had promised myself that if I finished my paper tonight, I would go out and party to celebrate. However, by the time I finished my paper, it was midnight, I was tired, and there wasn't much going on (at least from what I could glean on flyerweb). Considering that I was about to fly literally halfway around the world, I thought I should get some sleep.

vendredi, novembre 10, 2006

Paper-writing sweatshop, Day 1

OK, my life gets a lot less interesting for the next few days.

This morning, I slept in a little bit, then headed off to the local boulangerie for lunch. Yesterday, I had given the folks at the boulangerie a sampling of my leftovers from Wednesday, since they had given me a big bag of day-old bread for free. When I came in today, the woman at the cash greeted me warmly and gave me her compliments on the food I had left. Apparently, the papas a la huancaína was a bit hit with her brother-in-law (who also worked there). Since this family of bakers is mostly maghrebi (arab/berber North African), they had no complaints about spice levels, although they said that they were stunned at the spicyness of the mango salsa. I assured them that even I have trouble eating salsa that spicy.

This was, alas, the high-point of my day. After that, I went home, locked my door, and started working on my paper for SEM. Slowly, slowly, something began to emerge...but not enough. I had sketched out the entirety of my arguemtn and event turned it into a more detailed set of topic sentences, but I only had about 1/3 of the paper in finished, full prose by the time I went to bed. Thus, the need for Day 2 of my paper-writing sweatshop...

jeudi, novembre 09, 2006

Medical exams and immigration

Today was my day to visit the préfecture (sort of like the head police station for a particular arrondissement of Paris) to undergo a medical exam and get my titre de séjour, which is the second half to the visa process here.

Essentially, when you get a visa (like my student visa), you get a document attached to your passport that gives you temporary enter France (usually 3-6 months, it seems). Once you arrive in France, you're supposed to present yourself immediately to the préfecture of your area to make an appointment for a "visite médicale" and file the appropriate documents. Thankfully, the folks at the Centre started the paperwork for me (they do this for all the students), so I just had to fill out a few forms at the Centre in September, and then wait to hear about my appointment. Well, my appointment was today, so I headed over to the préfecture around 14h00

The medical "visit" entails a general exam (weight, height, brief medical history) as well as a chest x-ray (for contagious respiratory diseases, I suppose). The experience was one of typical Kafkaesque bureaucracy, although I can at least say that they were efficient. On the way out of work, I stopped at a tabac and bought a 55€ stamp; the fee for the medical visit / paperwork is 55€, so they get you to pay for it by buying a nationally available stamp that you stick to your form, thus preventing the préfecture from having to deal with payments. I grabbed a "formule" lunch (sandwich, drink, dessert pastry) at a nearby boulangerie and headed for the préfecture. A few feet into the building, there was a welcome desk with a man waiting behind it. I started to explain the purpose of my visit, then he looked at the forms in my hand and interrupted: "Upstairs, to your left."

I headed upstairs and to the left, forms still in hand, encountering another desk with a woman behind it.

"Down the hallway, through the door, desk on the right."

Down the hallway and through the door, I found a packed waiting room, full of France's newest and brownest. I approached the desk, this one manned by three young people (all of them black, interestingly enough).

Stamp, stamp, stamp, scribble, "Take a seat and wait."

There weren't any seats at first, but then someone's name was called and I took his seat. Quietly, I finished my dessert pastry while I looked around and tried to figure out the flow of bodies. The room had doors all the way around it, all of them unmarked and closed. Every once in a while, a door would spit out one person, then call out for another person by name. Sometimes the ejected people sat down again and waited, sometimes they headed over to the desk to pick up documents, sometimes they left. The immigrant-machine became more legible when someone finally called my name.

"Howareyougoodcomeoverhereandsteponthisscale. Hmm. Step over here for your height. Hmmm. You're a bit fat. I'll give you a blood glucose stick.

Here, she paused, both serious and patronizing, "This is VERY high."

"Of course," I said, "I just ate a baguette sandwich and a dessert pastry 20 minutes ago."

"Well, nonetheless, you should what what you eat. Now, come over to this room. Walk in, close the door and lock it. Strip to your wait, remove all jewelry, and wait until the door on the other side opens."

The nurse stuffed what looked like my burgeoning medical chart in an envelope on the inside door, and left me to strip. Just as I was pulling off my undershirt, the other door opened and three women peered at me.

"Come over here, my dear. Stand in front of this panel. Put your hands on your hips. Take a deep breath." *click* "Great. Get dressed and wait in the waiting room. Someone will call you."

I find a seat in the waiting room, still rebuttoning my shirt, and wait. A few minutes later, an older man pops out of a door, dismisses a young lady holding a large envelope, and then picks up a stack of papers and an x-ray, "Garcia! Luis!"

I follow him into what is apparently his office. It looks like he's one of a collection of doctors who provide the final medical check after the nurses are done with me. At least I hope it's final.

"So, you're here on a student visa. What do you study?"

"Ethnomusicology...well...popular music."

At this point, the compressed time scale of my medical visit paused and expanded indefinitely. The doctor's eyebrows popped up, "Really? That's great! You know, I'm always fascinated with how the most banal lyrics of mainstream pop express concepts the high philosophy can't express or hasn't the imagination to consider..."

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow of our conversation, but it ranged far and wide. The frantic speed with which my body was fed through the préfecture's bureaucratic machine came to a suspended halt, with my medical checklist half-filled, the doctor's pen still in his hand, my chest x-ray floating above both of our heads on the wall, as we discussed music and philosophy, neurology, mass culture, and French politics. It felt like an hour had passed before the conversation slowed and the doctor suddenly remembered the task at hand.

As the doctor handed off my papers to someone behind the desk, I sat back down in the waiting room, feeling a bit guilty that we had engaged in a long and leisurely conversation while a packed waiting room...waited.

After a few minutes, someone at the desk called my name. "Back down the hall, door on your left."

With the newly-signed and stamped papers in hand, I head down the hall to a smaller room, filled with file boxes, a counter, and two women. One is young, a bit quiet, and a bit slow; but she's only slow in comparison to the older woman, who speaks loudly, addressing everyone in the informal ("tu"), calling them "dear" or "little one." The men, in particular, she constantly called "jeune homme" (young man); I've noticed that "jeune homme" is a slightly less charged equivalent to the phrase "boy" directed from an authority figure to a black man in the USA. Whenever I see a police officer or other official interpellate a brown-skinned man (more likely arab than black), they always use "jeune homme!" At the same time, I've noticed that young men that would fall into the racaille category (see also here) often call each other by the same phrase with a hint of irony. All of this meant that I wasn't sure if this older woman was being overly friendly and matronly, or racist and condescending (my guess is a bit of both). Un/fortunately, I ended up being helped by the younger woman, so I couldn't see if her demeanor would change when a lighter-skinned hispanic boy with good French skills presented himself.

Either way, my titre de séjour wasn't ready for me yet, so I had to take my documents back with me and make an appointment to pick up my card on early December. Go figure.

The rest of the day I spent at home, trying desperately to get my SEM paper off the ground.

mercredi, novembre 08, 2006

Luis entertains

So I had one of my neighbors in the residence over for dinner. She had helped me figure out the nearest hospital when a student had a rather blood-spattered accident, so I thought I'd invite her for a bit of food. I had prepared some papas a la huancaína (see below for my own recipe) and a slightly altered version of my ají de gallina, using a turkey leg and nutmeg instead of a hen and tumeric. For crudités (French for an appetizer made of raw vegetables) I cut up a cucumber, salted lightly, and then drizzled some mint-infused olive oil that I had bought from Oliviers & Co a few weeks ago. Also, I made some brown rice (from Camargue) with some stock and sautéed onions&garlic, as well as the mango salsa from the day before; the nighttime spent soaking in lime juice softened up the mangoes a bit, but they were still far too fibrous for my taste.

Overall, it went well (although I think I prefer my traditional ají de gallina recipe). I was totally expecting my guest to find the mango salsa inedible (even I found it very spicy) and the huancaína sauce too spicy. Me and another American friend here have noticed that French folks are surprisingly conservative and total spice lightweights; they're happy to eat "adventurously" within a Gallic frame (i.e. stinky cheese? sure! organ meats? of course!!), but unfamiliar foods are always "spéciale," which is a french euphemism for "I hate this, but I can't say so politely." My guest, however, was a total trooper and distinguished herself by eating everything on her plate. Although she needed a lot of rice to dilute the mango salsa, she ate it all. She brought over a bottle of Normandy-style apple cider that went surprisingly well with the food.

And now, for the recipe:

Papas a la Huancaína


  • 3 - 6 ajíes rocoto or mirasol/amarillo. In a pinch you can substitute jalapeños (less spicy) or habañeros (VERY spicy). Either way, you can always reduce the spicyness levels during preparation (see step 1).
  • 1 Red Pepper (sweet). This is optional, but gives flavor and a beautiful pink finish.
  • 1 medium-sized onion, peeled and quartered
  • a couple of cloves of garlic
  • 500 grams of queso fresco or something similar. I've had good luck with ricotta and braccio/brousse (Corsican). You can also use mascarpone, but that makes it really, really rich.
  • 1 - 3 tablespoons of aji or rocoto paste.
  • a handful of soda crackers
  • olive oil


Essentially, the recipe is this: soften vegetables in boiling water, drain, blend with cheese and spices, serve. Here's the detailed version:

  1. Put onion, red sweet pepper, and hot peppers into a few cups of water with a bit of sugar and boil. This will remove some of the spicyness, so you have several options for managing spicyness. If you want to preserve the spice of your hot peppers, only boil until the onion is transparent. If you want to really tone down the spice, you can boil for a few minutes, dump the water, and boil again. You can do this three times before you start losing a lot of the flavor as well. If you don't like raw garlic, you can toss in the garlic cloves to boil with the mixture. Watch out for the fumes from the boiling water! Some of the spicy chemicals will become airborne.
  2. Drain, leaving a little bit of hot water, and add cheese, a drizzle of olive oil and hot pepper paste. If you didn't boil the garlic, add it now. Fold together with a spatula to soften cheese.
  3. Transfer to blender or use hand blender. Blend to desired consistency.
  4. If the sauce is too runny, add a couple of crushed soda crackers and a bit of olive oil. Continue until the sauce is good and thick.
  5. Serve over slices of potatoes, either cold or hot. I prefer to have the sauce good and cold and serve it over freshly cooked potatoes.
  6. If you want to be really peruvian, garnish with black olives and half of a hard-boiled egg.

mardi, novembre 07, 2006

You call these mangoes!?!

How could you betray me like this, Chinatown? I thought I could trust you. Last Saturday, I bought a couple of mangoes during my travels in your realm. They seemed ripe. They were soft around the stem. They leaked sugary liquid. They were almost too soft. But when I cut into them tonight, I felt an unexpected resistance to my blade and heard a grinding sound similar to the cutting of stale bread. Fibrous, rock-hard mangoes! At first I told myself "Oh, these must be juice mangoes; perhaps they'll be very sweet." But I was fooling myself. Fibrous and tart mangoes! Why, Chinatown, why?

Ok, I feel a bit better now. I've forgiven Chinatown because he provided me with excellent spices, rice and hot peppers (didn't think the personification of Chinatown would be male, eh?), but I've learned my lesson. A co-worker just told me that she finds decent mangoes in Indian stores, so that will be my next stop. But, alas, my famous mango salsa was a bit of a flop last night. I couldn't find jalapeños, so I used piments antillais (habañeros) without the seeds or membranes, but it was still a bit too spicy. The mangoes were too hard and tart, so they didn't dissolve in the lime juice and salt into a thick chutney-like paste. I'll let them sit overnight, but if they don't come around, I think I might just boil the whole thing down to soften things up.

On the up side, I steamed some fingerling potatoes with bay leaves and thyme in preparation for some papas a la huancaína that I'm going to make tomorrow night. I steamed them in a pressure cooker for just a few minutes and the results were perfect. Cooked but not mushy, with the skins still intact. I split one of the smaller ones to check doneness, and I put a bit of mayonnaise on it to taste. I suddenly had a brainstorm: warm potato salad with fennel instead of dill, steamed fingerling potatoes instead of boiled, and a bit of lime juice. Yum! I'll have to actually make that happen sometime soon.

Now, what about my day? I had a rather intense day at work (not necessarily in a bad way, just busy) after which I headed right home (with a stop for groceries). Aside from making potatoes, mango salsa and planning tomorrow's dinner, I mostly hooked into the web and tried to catch up. I needed to fill in previous days' worth of blogging, I needed to work on my paper (still going...) and I was anxious to see the election results. As much as I'm often allergic to his tone of voice, John Aravosis's blog, Americablog provided a useful blow-by-blow of the election day. From the sounds of things, there will be "voting irregularity" complaints to rival the 2000 elections—mostly thanks to the electronic voting machine reforms instituted by a large part of the country.

France's doors are trying to kill me

NOTE: Backfill blogging is done! Check out my entries for Saturday-Monday below.

Hi all, sorry I haven't been keeping you in the loop. Don't be mad at me. I hate it when we fight. Now dinner is ruined! *sob*

Seriously, tho, I have a conference paper coming up and Murphy's Law has totally kicked in as far as distracting events are concerned. I'm determined to do some intensive blogging tomorrow to get me back up to speed. In the meanwhile, here's something to tide you over:

France's doors are trying to kill me. In N. America, most exterior doors open towards the exterior. That means that entering a building involves pulling, and going outside involves pushing. In France, I'm slowly (and painfully) realizing that it's the other way around. This only makes for mild embarrassment when I'm entering a building ("why doesn't this !@#$ing thing open?"), but physical pain is added on the way out (*thwack!*). I believe it is a conspiracy by French people to make N. Americans look dumb...although I don't see why they needed to go to all that trouble; I get the impression that most French folks made up their mind well before I smacked my head into their door.

lundi, novembre 06, 2006

Traktor, headphones, writing

Here's my day, in brief:

  • Sleep in (a little) and then stagger off to work.
  • Make a detour to a MacWay shop to pick up my order of replacement foam sleeves for my Shure e2c in-ear headphones. These head/earphones are great: they deliver great sound and they block outside noise, which means I can enjoy my music at more reasonable volume levels.
  • While I'm there, I finally buy an iMic for my laptop/Traktor setup (see below).
  • Go to work. I was supposed to get the day off today because I had been busy on Friday helping an injured student (which is usually my day off), but I had an appointment with someone else, so I showed up for a couple of hours (one of which was spent drinking wine in the break room).
  • Head home, work on paper for conference (coming along, but still not there).
  • Play with Traktor for a bit, and finally succeed in creating an aggregate audio device with Mac OSX's Audio Midi Setup program. Essentially, this allows me to "marry" the iMic that I had bought to my Powerbook's internal audio setup (Core Audio), so that I can have a Master Out and a Cue/Headphone Out. This is important for a mixing setup, since it allows a DJ to preaudition tracks and get them into alignment before adding them to the mix for the audience to hear. It is possible to mix without a headphone line, but it's a bit line flying blind.

dimanche, novembre 05, 2006

Little Miss Poltergay

Today was a double-header film day, although they were spaced out on opposite ends of the day. In the morning I headed out with my colleague and her daughter to see Little Miss Sunshine. I had been meaning to see this flick since it came out, and I can finally say that it's as good as the reviews. It was a great "ensemble comedy" film with great performances by pretty much everyone. I was especially blown away by the performances of Steve Carell and Abigail Breslin. There were a few plot holes that you had to swallow before to follow the story ("They did WHAT with a dead body?"), but I felt like the movie was less a realist text and more an impressionist one that magnified the everyday drama of familial tensions to a level where it can't be sublimated. I was surprised that none of the reviews of the film commented on the end. Olive's "talent act" at the "Little Miss Sunshine" competition creates a near-riot not just because it's obscene and cheeky, but because it makes explicit what is sublimated in the child-beauty-pageant circuit. It's OK that pre-pubescent girls put on heavy makeup, spray-on tans, two-piece swimsuits and evening gowns...just so long as nobody says "kiddie sex." But as soon as this chunky little girl in a top hat and unitard starts gyrating like a stripper, everyone goes APESHIT. As I watched this movie, I had this "what would Zizek do?" moment. I can imagine him cackling with smug satisfaction as another popular text exemplifies Lacanian notions of the traumatic Real.

Anyway, the flick was good and the location was awesome. The theatre we went to was one of this pair of large MK2 cinema complexes on opposite sides of the beautiful bassin de la villette, which is the head of a canal that runs from the north-east end of Paris towards the Seine, employing a series of locks to allow barges to move along the canal. Although it was a bit deserted now that it's cold here, I can imagine this place is gorgeous in the summertime.

After that, I headed home (with a stop at the boulangerie for bread) and porked out on bread and re-heated over-thick congee. I took my leftover salsa from last week (which was perfectly balanced by now), brought it to a boil, and then stirred in some of the near-solid congee. This gave me some congee of the proper consistency, but with a citrus tang and a fair bit hot pepper. It was deeeeelicious.

I got a bit more work done on my paper for the Hawaii SEM conference, but not enough. Every time I think about the conference I have this hilariously ambivalent reaction ("Whee, Hawai'i!! Aieee, my paper!!!").

Part of why I didn't do enough work was that I got a text message from Greg, saying "Poltergay tonight?" If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that Poltergay isn't just some strange Parisian sexual fetish involving gimp suits and "ectoplasm" (now that I've typed that out, my mind has filled it in and I need a shower). Anyway, the film was nowhere near as vapid as I expected it to be. Sure, there was definitely a LOT of camp, and a not-insignificant amount of stereotyping (of both str8 and gay, mind you), but it was well-written and entertaining. None of the characters, living or dead, are particularly realistic and there are some pretty colossal "plot devices" that you have to swallow (ha!). Nevertheless, realism isn't what you expect from a movie about a house haunted by gay disco-dancing ghosts from the 70s. The movie is more a series of gay jokes (not necessarily of the bashing sort) strung together into a plot line, but the writers had a lot of jokes up their sleeves and the tone was carefully balanced between "laughing at" and "laughing with." Part of the fun of the movie was watching a series of stereotyped (i.e. presumably predictable) characters be placed into tension with each other and then left to work themselves out like a dialectic. And certainly the ending was some sort of transcendental aufhebung. I mean, roman orgy ghosts?

We saw a late showing at the MK2 in Les Halles without much realizing that we would have to walk through Les Halles at night to get there. (There's a wiki entry on Les Halles here, but the text is simplistic and a bit unsubtle; the images are useful, though.) Les Halles was this ancient marketplace in the centre of the city that was demolished in 1971 and replaced with a partly subterranean shopping mall. Although the upper layer features nice parks, the mall itself was pretty big flop and has turned into a half-abandoned warren for drug trafficking, gang activities, delinquent youth and other such things. During the day, with a few chain stores struggling to stay open, it's just a depressing blister of suburban dystopia in an otherwise bustling neighborhood, but at night it gets pretty creepy. In addition, the pedestrian squares and walkways between Les Halles and Réaumur-Sébastopol have become a mirror-image of Toronto's Yonge Street: tourist traps, random bars, and porno theatres.

It's ironic, then, that Greg and I got into and out of our movie without incident. It wasn't until we were approaching the far side of the Pompidou Centre when I noticed someone across the street yelling loudly and incoherently to himself, clutching a can of beer in one hand. He was right across the street from us and we were about to cross over to him. Three steps onto the street, I got a better look at him as he lurched towards a pair of passers-by, grabbed Greg's arm, and swung back, following the road North rather than following it. It was the same man I had encountered in September, this time less manic and more simply drunk and surly. He wasn't necessarily being aggressive, but his intrusive approach to people and his total lack of inhibition was certainly unnerving. Greg and I noticed that he was still using his "I'm not racaille" approach when asking for change, pointing to the same pair of white K-Swiss shoes he was wearing when he took me on a harrowing tour of this same neighborhood more than a month ago. In fact, he was wearing the exact same clothes. It was sad to see him still in bad shape, but less so to see that he was still alive. Nevertheless, we kept to our side of the street; gone was the quiet but intense manic of last time, in his stead was a staggering, hollering drunk.

Now, as before, I don't have anything enlightening to say about the encounter. While I didn't dramatically abandon him the way I did last September, I sort of felt worse for watching him stagger by from a distance, and then returning to the exchange of clubbing stories with Greg. With the afterglow of a funny movie mingling with the adrenalin of a close call and the sadness of the circumstances, I hopped one of the last trains back to my place and got into bed.