samedi, novembre 25, 2006

CarlaVisit Day 4: More Le Mans and Jazz in Paris

S. and N. were too nice to wake us up that morning, so we both slept in until at least 10am. I finally got myself together and say my good mornings, only to see N. in the process of making a tarte au chocolat (somehwere between a chocolate cake and a brownie). Carla and I drank some coffee, we each had a little bit of yogurt, and then we headed out with S. to the local farmers' market to accompany him on his weekly grocery run.

For a town the size of Le Mans, the market seemed enormous. There were at least two if not more vendors for each specialty, and pretty much every specialty was there. After picking up the necessary fresh veggies, S. showed us around the other vendors tables and pointed out some of the local or unusual produce. We got home to find out that we still needed bread, so we headed back out for bread and also stopped at a butcher to pick up some rillettes.

Lunch, as per usual with N., was amazing. We had a pintade (a.k.a., guinea fowl) prepared in a thick sauce of apples, raisins, cinnamon and some other lovely stuff. Amazingly delicious and very delicately prepared. For dessert (after a rousing cheese course) we had the tarte au chocolat. Now stuffed to the gills, we piled into the car and headed to another, closer abbey (l'abbaye d'Epaux) to wander through the buildings and the grounds. With a bit of time left to us, N. and S. also took us on a quick tour of the racetrack grounds for the 24 heures du Mans (the famous yearly 24-hour car race in Le Mans). Finally, we zipped home, picked up our bags, and then headed over to the train station to catch our train back to Paris.

But the day wasn't over. One of my U of C professors was in town, accompanying her partner on her European tour. Her partner is a jazz pianist and vocalist, playing two nights in Paris at the New Morning as part of her tour. My prof had reserved two comps (complimentary seats) for us at the Saturday show; we arrived at Montparnasse at 18h30 and the show was at 21h00, so we had some time (we thought). It took us nearly an hour to get home by transit (to get from the train quays in Montparnasse to the métro ligne 4 requires nearly 1.5km of walking through tunnels). Once we got back to the residences, I was greeted with the news that none of the 3 WiFi networks were working. While Carla showered and changed, I forwent my shower and started working on the various wireless routers. Of course they would choose tonight to be finicky; and I couldn't just leave it till tomorrow, because the students had papers to submit by Sunday morning (nobody had told me about this, either). Ug.

By the time I have everything in reasonable order, we have a little less than 30 minutes to get there. By some miracle, we cross the threshold at New Morning at 21h03, but I still felt horrible, since I had said that we would show up early to claim our seats. My prof had indicated that they would be holding seats for us, so I felt even more horrible, thinking that she had been sitting alone at the front, trying to save seats for us against an aggressive crowd. There were tons of people there. Not only was every seat in the house taken, there were people sitting in the aisles and standing around the bar. Carla and I made a few futile attempts to maneuver around the room to find my prof, but to no avail. We waited until the end of the first set, and then took advantage of the flow of people in to the bar to find my prof, who had come out to look for us as well. After a warm greeting amidst a torrent of bodies, she told us that she and her partner's niece had been sitting at the artists' table behind the bar.

We headed back there and took a seat. I have to admit that there was something amusing and very fun about having a "private" table behind the bar and even elevated a couple of feet for a better view of the stage. We enjoyed the rest of the show from there and even got to meet the owner of the club, a grande dame if there ever was one, who was gracious enough to order us a round of drinks. At the end of the show, we hung out for a minute while the crowd filed out and then met my prof's partner at the stage door for a round of thanks and compliments. As we were heading out, we overheard a middle-aged man with an American accent say the following to a pair of young girls:

"Essentially, I see music as the relation between the Artist and the audience..."

I don't know what was more annoying, his hipster wanking or the fact that the two girls were eating it up with a spoon. Either way, I was amused with how the rest of us all overheard the same phrase and had similar reactions to it. "Yeah, I never heard that line before." *eyeroll*

Carla and I stumbled onto the street at 0h30 in the morning and found ourselves completely famished. We started walking down Faubourg Saint-Denis, hoping to find a some cheap restaurant or brasserie that was still open, and stumbled across, Julien. As a brasserie, they were open till 2am, so we happily sauntered in for a late dinner. The place was hopping, and one look at the interior would explain why. The brasserie dates back from 1903, and the interior is a well-preserved monument to Art Nouveau. The walls all have complex biomorphic scrollwork and moldings, alternating with glass and painted-glass artwork. The ceilings were topped with stained-glass and everywhere there was wood. Although we didn't want to seem too conspicuous, we managed to steal a few images:

click to enlarge
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
click to enlarge

Of course, I totally suggest that you go to the website of the managing company, FLO Brasseries, and click on the link to Julien and check out the "l'endroit du décor" link. Either way, we also soon discovered that the food was very good. I had a plate of oysters as an appetizer, while Carla had something that involved cheese and pastry dough (for the life of me, I can't remember the exact ingredients). Carla had a Chateaubriand steak with fries (the steack et frites staple at brasseries) and, believe it or not, I can't remember what I ate (I'm writing this a week later, mind you). I think I had a duck plate, but I could be wrong. Either way, the food was delicious and the ambiance was perfect (if a bit smoky).

We wandered out around 2am and started looking for a taxi, not realizing that it was 2am on a Saturday night and everybody was looking for a taxi. Aw crap. We walked towards République, thinking that we might find more taxis there. As we walked, we passed taxi stands full of people waiting and fighting with each other for taxis. When we got to République, we realized that going there was a bad idea, because everybody else was there, too, looking for a !@#$ing taxi. From there, we started walking in the general direction of home, too desperate to wait for a free taxi at République. By the time that we were halfway to Belleville (i.e. 1/4-way home), we saw a line of taxis heading towards République. The first two passed us without stopping, but the third had to wait at the light, so we jumped in. I wasn't sure why the first two taxis wouldn't stop for us (we were pretty well dressed, and the neighborhood wasn't particularly bad), and our taxi driver wasn't exactly enthusiastic either, but he took us home and that's all we wanted.

Either way, we fell into bed at around 4am.

vendredi, novembre 24, 2006

CarlaVisit Day 3: Luis buys a suit and Le Mans

The cold was in full force by that morning, so we stopped by a pharmacy to get some decongestants and vitamin C. Then, we headed off to Patisserie Millet (of "best croissant in Paris" fame) to have a coffee-and-croissant-enhanced breakfast. I took some of that cold medicine, which had the highest over-the-counter dosage of pseudoephedrine my sister had ever seen. By the time we were leaving the patisserie, I could already feel the effects: my nose was almost painfully dry and I was more than a little bit jumpy. We had also bought me one of those spray-decongestants for "instant relief", but the stuff was AWFUL. They actually put menthol in the spray! Can you imagine what it feels like to spray menthol up your nose? I'm surprised I didn't just hemorrhage all over my breakfast.

Anyway, we headed off from there towards the Montparnasse train station. We were visiting some friends of the family in Le Mans (they had taken me in nearly 10 years ago when my exchange partner in there went ballistic) and we had a train at 14h30 from that station. However, I also needed to buy a suit. You see, I had been successful in making a reservation at über-restaurant Taillevent for next Monday, and this was definitely a jacket-and-tie place. Of course, when I flew to Paris, I didn't pack all of my suits or other heavy formal stuff.

So off we went to TATI, which is apparently the French version of Walmart of Dress Barn or something like that (it's not even classy enough to be a Target). While it may be an unadorned mess of bargain-basement products, it is truly European in that it offers decent knockoffs of Armani suits from 29€. Within a few seconds of finding the suit section, I had already found a nice slate-grey pinstripe suit. I tried on a few sizes, asked about alterations, and then headed to the cashier. On the way out of the mall (yes, it was in a mall), we stopped by a slightly higher-end menswear store to pick up a couple of nice shirts and discovered that they also offer alteration services (retouche). Well, that took care of everything, then. We wrapped up the sale, left my suit to be tailored, and then headed off for lunch.

We didn't have much time before our train, so we grabbed lunch in the restaurant at the station. The food was surprisingly good, although the service was slow considering that it was a train station restaurant. Nonetheless, the meal was pretty filling, which he later regretted when we saw the dinner our hosts had prepared for us...

After paying for the bill, we zipped off to our train (we had only a few minutes left) and hauled-ass into our seats. The train was full, so we had to sit a few seats away from each other, but it all worked out. Unfortunately, I was in one of those accursed "square" seating areas (i.e., 4 seats facing each other), which meant that the rather tall man across from me kept playing involuntary footsie with me. Mercifully, the ride was only an hour long.

One of our hosts—let's call him S.—met us at the train station will his usual warm cheer. By then, I really had to pee, but the washrooms were on the other side of the train station, in an area with a lot of construction, so we just headed out, with a promise from S. that we would find a washroom or a secluded corner on the way. As we loaded into his car, he said that he knew of an abbey nearby that sang mass in plainchant (i.e., "Gregorian" chant) and had wonderful architecture and gardens. It was only halfway there that we realized that this was the same abbey (Solesmes) that I had visited with the student group a month ago. Anyway, Carla hadn't seen the place yet and I was always happy to check it out again, so we continued and eventually found the place.

Once we got there, I finally found a washroom and peed like there was no tomorrow. We wandered around the little gift shop in the front of the abbey (of course they have a gift shop!), checked out the property, and then attended their vespers service (if you're Anglican, think "evensong"). The ritual/performance was great, nowhere near as slow and equal-length as they have been reputed (there is a "Solesmes" style of Gregorian chant that presumes all notes are of equal length). Also, their chapel was beautiful and very interesting in its decor.

After the ceremony, it was getting on time for dinner, so we bought some bread at a nearby boulangerie and then headed back towards Le Mans. By the time we got there, S.'s wife, N., had prepared an unbelievable spread. She prepared a seafood choucroute, which managed to beat out a similar dish I ate at Bofinger at the beginning of my stay in Paris. We also had something delicious for dessert, but I had drunk a fair bit of whiskey and wine by then, which, combined with my cold medicine, made me unfit to drive my body, let alone a car. After the standard good-night kisses, we each went and crashed out in our respective rooms. (I was on the fold-out couch.)

Hawaii photo Extravaganzaaa!

OK, so we take a break from my narrative of CarlaVisit to look back at some pictures of Hawaii that I have finally pulled off my camera. You can see the glib posts that these correspond to here, here, here, here, here and here.

Let us begin with the view of the beach from my awesome hotel room. The first picture captures the intensity of the sunlight, and the second captures the colour of the ocean.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
This is just proof that the vegetarian sandwich shop really was called Ruffage.
click to enlarge
Hey look! A mosaic! I'm not sure why!
click to enlarge
A little souvenir market covered in ancient trees.
click to enlarge
This one and the next one are the façade of the Sheraton Waikiki, which seems to be located in a colonial plantation house.
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
This store was right next to the Sheraton Waikiki, in the middle of a lengthy strip of over-expensive luxury stores. We weren't sure if this was very clever or naïvely ironic.
click to enlarge
The Waikiki sunset (this is why everyone wants space on this beach), with a homeless man digging in the trash. This sort of encapsulates the experience on the beach (as opposed to the shopping strip). I'm glad the local police are tolerant towards the homeless and mentally ill; I'm always unnerved in urban centres that hide/remove their dispossessed (I'm looking at you, Rudy Giuliani).
click to enlarge
This store is called "80% Straight, Inc." Based on the type of bathing suits for sale and the rainbow flags flying from the hotel in which this is located, I think this store isn't naïvely ironic.
click to enlarge
This one and the next: gorgeous views inland.
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
This one and the next two: two views of the beach and Diamondhead. Isn't Hawai'i photogenic?
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
This one and the next: another set of beautiful sunsets from the bar at the Sheraton Waikiki
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
Sushi time! A bunch of us at Sansei sushi bar, including Andrew scratching himself in a way that says "Spoon me!" (sorry, inside joke, but couldn't resist) Also, Mike and Rumya looking unsuspecting.
click to enlarge
Distraction is the only way I can get Greg to smile for the camera. Right after this, he gave me the finger.
click to enlarge
A surprisingly intimate profile of Kate (I swear I'm gay!) and the back of Shayna's head.
click to enlarge
This one and the next: the gorgeous gardens at the Honolulu airport.
click to enlarge

jeudi, novembre 23, 2006

CarlaVisit Day 2: Italian in Paris

After chatting with the folks at the front desk (they're friendly and chatty), we headed out to my boulangerie for some pains au chocolat and coffee. From there, Carla went back home and I headed off to work. While I was at work, Carla did some internet work and a bunch of laundry (she was coming from a previous week at a conference, much like me). Thanks for doing my laundry, too, Carla!

After work, I had a meeting for drinks with a colleague visiting from the UK, so we headed over to the Latin Quarter for drinks, and then moved on to dinner at this fantastic Italian restaurant called Terra Nera ("black earth"). I had the carpaccio de spada (swordfish carpaccio) as an appetizer and my sister had some sort of warm goat-cheese salad. For main dishes, Carla had this amazing ravioli dish in truffle-cream sauce. From the taste and look of it, the cream sauce was literally a handful of shaved black truffle whipped into creme fraiche. It was kinda insane. My main dish involved a sort of seafood-y penne carbonara, with shards of smoked ham, shrimp, onions and this amazing cream sauce. I forget what my colleague and his partner had, but I'm pretty sure it was amazing, too.

The high point was the desserts, which were nearly deadly. I got the baba al limoncello. I had thought that this was going to be an Italian version of the South American dessert babaroi/babarua, but instead it was the European version of baba, which involves little champagne-cork-shaped bits of fried dough soaked in various things. In this case, it was a ton of limoncello (lemon liquor). The baba act like little sponges and each one holds almost an ounce of alcohol, so you can imagine what it was like to be presented with a dish of 10 baba with a little bit of whipped cream to hold it together. It was delicious, but I thought I was going to pass out by the end of it. My sister got a Neapolitan dessert called pastería (no relation to the Moroccan pastilla). This cake had a pie-crust base, with a layer of glazed pears and then a layer of orange flower blossoms. It was fragrant and delicious and light and not very sweet. If you ever have the opportunity to order it in a restaurant (especially this one) definitely try it.

After a great night of intense fooding (I was a bit too tipsy to walk easily and far too stuffed to walk comfortably), we said our goodbyes and staggered off to the nearest subway station. As we were heading home, I noticed that my throat was sore and scratchy. I remembered that my boss at work had been getting over a cold when I saw him on Wednesday. Hmmm. If I get his cold, I'll...

And then I spent the rest of the night coughing, blowing my nose, sweating, and feeling like my head had been set in gelatin.

mercredi, novembre 22, 2006

CarlaVisit Day 1: The Arrivëdness

At approximately 6am (which is 7pm Hawaii time), I get my ass out of bed and start my trek towards the airport by public transit. I stopped at my boulangerie to buy some coffee, a pain au chocolat, and another to bring to Carla at the airport. Having just landed there the day before, I felt like I was a trauma victim returning to the scene of violence or something: "No!! No more recycled air and duty-free shopping!!!" Anyway, I was surprised with how well I timed my trip. I got there just as Carla's plane was landing, so I just stood around, checked out the cute guy next to me, and waited for her to pass customs and claim her luggage. About a half-hour later, she came out and we started making our way over to the RER station.

When we got there, I noticed that all the electronic ticket machines were off. Hmmm. After checking a few, I noticed that there were a bunch of SNCF (the national rail company) workers in blue suits talking to a crowd of people. I approached one woman and asked her where I could find a "billeterie" that worked. She said nothing was running. I asked her where the human-powered ticket booth might be. She said nothing was running. After a moment of silent confusion, she finally offered the necessary details: there had been a power surge and the entire RER B line had been cut off. All trains are out of service indefinitely. It may be up in an hour, it may be up in a day. Ah, Paris, how you welcome your guests.

At that moment, my sister and I had a flash of insight about the difference between customer service in North America and in France (or Europe in general). In Canada or the States, a situation like this would be narrated by the following formula: "Here's what's wrong. We're sorry for the inconvenience. Here's what we're doing to fix it. Here's a reasonable prediction of when we'll fix it. Here's what we can do for you in the meantime, and/or here's what you can do to circumvent this problem. Again, our apologies." The French narrative, however, goes something like this: "It's broken." If you're lucky and get a polite person, you might also get a shrug a perhaps a "desolé(e)", which is the least intense (and therefore least sincere) form of apology in the French language.

Anyway, despite my misgivings about taxis in this town, we headed up to the surface and caught the first taxi we saw. The cabbie was unsurprisingly unfriendly; he refused to let my sister keep her sidebag on her lap, even though she had her laptop in there, he didn't take credit cards (even though airport taxis are supposed to), he stopped for a few minutes to mess with his equipment while the meter ran, he kept the radio blaring and only reduced it a little bit when I finally asked him to turn it down, and he conducted loud cellphone calls through his car stereo, so we could all enjoy his aimless and curse-filled chatter with his buddies. On the upside, he got us there in reasonable time and he didn't try taking us on a "tour" (i.e. taking the long route for better fare).

We rolled into the Residence Lila and got my sister into one of their rooms. After getting her settled in, I left her to take a nap and then I headed off to work for a few hours. When I got back from work, we did a bit of grocery shopping, a bit of email-checking, a quick visit to my boulangerie to get some bread and introduce my sister, and then we headed out for dinner. I had heard of this great cassoulet place near the Eiffel Tower, called La Fontaine du Mars, so we headed out there. We were a bit too early for the restaurant (we arrived around 19h00 and most restaurants in Paris don't open until 19h30), so we took a little walk along rue St. Dominique. We actually came across Patisserie Millet, which is the "best croissant in Paris" place that I had visited with Val nearly 3 months ago. We stopped for a croissant (almost spoiling our appetites), did a bit more walking, and then finally made it back to the restaurant.

All in all, the food was great. For appetizers, my sister had a velouté of cêpe mushrooms and I had gnocchi made with morel mushrooms. For the main dish, I tried the cassoulet, while my sister had something involving stuffed cannelloni and foie gras. We had a bit of beaujolais nouveau ('tis the season!) and left feeling a bit tipsy and very tired. I was still settling in from my 11-hour jetlag, and Carla had just flown in that morning. We staggered straight home and fell asleep.

mardi, novembre 21, 2006

Zombified in Paris

After my second red-eye flight, I finally landed in Charles de Gaulle airport and got off my plane. With everything still a blur, I claimed my luggage, headed through passport control and luggage, and then headed off to the RER terminal to get myself home. The ride home through the tuesday morning rush was unpleasant to say the least, especially on the final leg in the hot, sweaty, overcrowded line 11, but at least I got home.

I had hoped to make it in to work for a few hours that day, but it was not to be. I showered, did a bit of unpacking, then emailed work and told them that I was taking a day off. Besides, I would have to get up again at 6am to go get my sister from the airport the next morning (she's coming to visit). I took a nap for maybe 4 hours, forced myself awake for the rest of the evening, and after taking care of a bit of blogging and a lot of catch-up email, put myself to sleep around midnight.

I was pretty impressed with how easily I fell asleep, considering that midnight here is about 1pm Hawaii time, but I suppose that an 11-hour jet lag is so extreme that your body just gives up trying to stay awake.

lundi, novembre 20, 2006

Limbo: My Day in George Bush !@#$ing International Airport

So, after nearly 10 hours in the air from Honolulu, with fitful sleep and my contacts nearly glued to my eyeballs, we arrived in Houston, TX. After the madness of catching my connecting flight on the way to Honolulu, I took a certain pleasure in watching everyone around me freak out as they realized their plane was leaving in 10 minutes while I sauntered slowly off the plane. On the other hand I had an 11-hour layover. In other words, I spent last night on a red-eye flight, I would be spending this night on a red-eye flight, and I had 11 hours to spend in GEORGE BUSH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT in Houston, Texas. Heaven help me.

The first thing I did was pull out my contacts. Then, I pulled out my laptop and looked for wireless networks. Sprint PCS offered something for a relatively reasonable amount of money, so I signed myself up. Or rather, I tried to sign myself up. The stupid registration/purchase page of Sprint's contained poorly-written code that caused it to break in both Safari and Firefox/Mozilla. Eventually, I found an old version of Opera browser that would accept the antiquated code and I was online. I immediately started looking for information on transportation. If I have 11 hours to myself, I might as well see a bit of Houston; perhaps breathe some non-recycled air.

Alas, there was nothing but prohibitively-expensive taxis and prohibitively-slow buses to get me out of here, so I braced myself for a day of terminal-surfing. I got some coffee, found a seat near a power outlet (I wonder how much airports pay to charge people's laptops?) and surfed the web. When I had read every single blog I could think of and browsed every bit of news I could find, I got on Blogger and started back-blogging the previous days.

Which reminds me that I had forgotten to blog about an amusing theme to my time in Hawaii. After some amusing bedtime stories during our first night together at the hotel, Andrew and Greg and I had developed something of an inside joke involving apparently platonic friendship and "spooning." I'm not going to give details, to protect the innocent-ish, but rest assured that it was funny. Anyway, Andrew and Greg and I spent the rest of the weekend dropping the theme into casual conversation in a way that was probably familiar to our U of Chicago friends, but probably bewildering and/or titillating to the rest. At one point, we were eating sushi in a large group, and Andrew and I were having some sort of discussion over who was going to spoon who that night. A moment later, our very own Shayna had to explain to a new acquaintance at the table that Andrew and I were not a couple; it's just that Luis (me) engenders homoerotic innuendo wherever he goes. And she's right, of course. But what I enjoyed most about seeing my U of Chicago compatriots in Honolulu was how I had already saturated them so well with my dirty, queer sense of humor, they began to produce the innuendo for me. More than once, someone else in the group would "go there" well before I did. I appreciate not having to do all the heavy-lifting in the maintenance of the level of discourse. And I love the idea that my legacy to the U of C cohort will probably be a filthy, filthy sense of humor.

So that's it. Aside from this brief flashback, I have nothing else to say about my time in Houston, and that is precisely what was horrible about it. I just sat in terminal lounges, checking my mail periodically, and eventually snacking on horrible airport food. Eventually, 6:50pm came around and I traipsed onto my next plane, bound for Paris...

dimanche, novembre 19, 2006

SEM Day 4: Stand and Deliver

After dragging our hungover asses out of bed, we headed off to catch some Sunday morning papers. We would've totally slept in, but several friends of ours were giving papers, so we made the effort (you hear that, Rumya and Jim?). After a light lunch, we (Andrew, Greg and I) began preparing for our own session.

Now, the important thing to remember here is that our session was scheduled at 2pm - 3:30pm (14h00-15h30 for non-Americans). Now, I don't know how academic conferences are organized in other fields, but at all the music-related conferences I've been to, things end decisively at noon on Sunday. This is mostly because everybody needs to fly out Sunday afternoon to be available Monday at their educational institution. Thus, when the program committee for this year added another set of sessions after lunch on Sunday, they pretty much exiled a half-day of paper panels to a purgatory of inattention. On the upside, we could pretty much assume that nobody few people were going to show up for our papers, so we didn't have to sweat as much about quality and preparedness. On the downside, we all ignored that and worked hard on our papers, so it was a bit frustrating to deliver your paper to a crowd in the single-digits. During all of the preceding days in the conference, friends and colleagues of mine would take turns apologizing to me in advance for missing my paper. They were flying out of town, or they were taking advantage of Sunday afternoon to finally see a bit of Hawaii before their return flight.

Anyway, the paper went well enough, we all took a moment afterwards to grab some ice cream at Coldstone Creamery (cake batter ice cream!!), and then I headed off to the airport to catch my flight. I spent a couple of hours in the terminal, admiring their gardens again (I'll post pics soon), and then got on my flight, headed towards Houston. As I contemplated the 48 hours of travel ahead of me, I fell asleep in my profoundly uncomfortable airplane seat...