samedi, juillet 05, 2008

Recovery, Currywurst and Wandering

Considering how late I had gotten to bed the night before, I was actually pretty surprised that I got up before noon. At around 11h30, I hauled myself out of bed and got showered and cleaned up. The roommate with the password to the WiFi setup still wasn’t home, so I did a bit of avant-blogging (i.e., writing my blog post in a .doc file) and then I decided to go for a walk.

I remember from my last visit to Berlin that I had really loved the Tiergarten (literally, “Animal Garden,” or “zoo,” but really a massive park similar to NYC’s Central Park). So off I went for a walk. The weather was really lovely—sunny, but not too hot—so I actually traversed the entirety of the park from one end to the other and back again, without realizing just how far I had walked (nearly 3 km in each direction).

When I got back to the eastern end of the park, I noticed that there was some sort of large public event going on at the Brandenburg gate. As I approached, I saw a bunch of beer tents (of course) and food stands, so I approached the first one that looked pretty “authentic” and got a Currywurst. Unlike the one I had had last night, this was one great. The sausage was delicious on its own, the ketchup was spiced with curry powder, and the whole thing had a generous dose of curry powder on top of it. The currywurst came with a little roll of bread (rather dry), which had a little paper US flag stuck in it. That’s odd.

As I walked westward along the street away from the Brandenburg Gate, I saw—between the food and beer stands—little information booths that advertised vacations in different US states, exchanges and training in the US, and so on. Hmm.

While I was buying this fantastic combination of garlic bread, tomatoes, green onions and garlic sausage, I was a German family walk buy with an “Obama for America” balloon attached to their kid’s stroller. OK, what the fuck?

So I start walking back to the Brandenburg Gate and quickly notice a large pixel-screen mounted nearby, showing what appeared to be a Harlem-Renaissance-influenced ballet troupe performing to an operatic arrangement of Black Spirituals. Well, clearly something is up.

I passed through the Brandenburg Gate and found the same stage that had appeared on the pixel-screen. At this point, they were in between acts, and a young-looking host was interviewing a few people on the stage. They were in the middle of interviewing a man who spoke German with an American accent, who was talking about “warm relations” with Germany and the usual kind of empty diplomatic talk. At one point, he said “You know, we have an election coming up in the USA, which might change things drastically,” which elicited a huge torrent of applause from the crowd. As it turns out, this was the ambassador of the US Embassy, which had just opened a new, shiny location in Berlin today. Well, that explains the US-philia on the streets (at first, I had thought that it was a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Berlin airlift), but not the Obama balloons and buttons and bumper stickers, and so on.

As I made my way around the few booths on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate, I finally saw it. The “Democrats Abroad” organization had a booth, and they were selling Obama balloons and buttons as a fund-raiser. Not only were Berliners supportive of Obama, they were willing to pay 1€ / balloon to prove it. Goodness.

Now full of food and beer (including this delicious green beer that involves Berlin white beer and woodruff), I made the journey back to my apartment. I had plans on working on my blog and unpacking and finally getting a lot of things organized, but I had underestimated the effect that 6+ hours walking in the sun can do to you. By the time I got home, I was dead tired, so I flopped myself into bed, relishing the fact that I could opt to sleep when I wanted to.

vendredi, juillet 04, 2008


After a quiet morning of re-packing my bags and sorting out the stuff that I was leaving behind (my host was kind enough to hold onto one piece of luggage with my winter clothes in it, so that I didn’t’ have to lug it to Berlin and back), I got ready to head to the airport for my 14h00 flight to Berlin. I still had one very large and heavy piece of luggage, another overstuffed carry-on case, and my backpack. Considering that today was the first day of le grand départ (i.e., grades and acceptances have just been announced for students, who now leave Paris in droves for vacations) I had braced myself for a long hike through the Paris subway stations to get myself to Orly airport.

My host and his daughter thought (sensibly) that my plan was insane, and tried to persuade me to take a cab. We checked the traffic online and it wasn’t too bad, so I decided to get a cab. As it turned out, most of the cab phone-lines were busy, and those that weren’t refused to come to the centre of the 20th arrondissement to pick me up, because apparently rue de Belleville was running too slowly.

So, I set off by foot to place Gambetta, which had a taxi stand that I hoped would have a cab arriving soon. Also, place Gambetta was downhill from where I was starting, so it made the walk with luggage a bit easier. Once I got to the taxi stand, I found a cluster of people already waiting for a cab, so I had to wait while everyone else fought over the first few cabs. Again, the cabbies seemed to have the right to refuse service: they would ask, “Where are you going?” and if they didn’t like the destination, they would just keep driving. In Toronto and Chicago, cabbies can’t ask where you’re going until you’re in the car, and they can’t unreasonably refuse service once you’re in the car.

Anyway, my cab eventually came. He pulled a u-turn on a busy street to get to me, which got him into some trouble with a woman who followed him into the u-turn, thinking he was turning down a side street that she obviously wanted to reach. This meant the cabbie couldn’t back out to complete his turn, and oncoming traffic was approaching. The situation was eventually resolved, but not without a lot of yelling and hand gestures.

The drive to the airport was a bit slow and uneventful, as was the check-in at the airport and the flight itself. Within a few hours, I found myself at the Berlin Schoenfeld Airport, hauling my (thankfully four-wheeled) luggage toward the S-Bahn station (i.e., the urban light rail system). The Berlin transit system is much more wheelchair-accessible than the Paris system, so I was mostly able to get into and out of the stations by ramp or elevator.

I managed to make it to my new apartment and get inside. Alas, the apartment is on the 3rd floor (i.e., 4th floor by American reckoning), and there was no elevator to make the trip easier. So I lugged my very, very heavy luggage up three flights of stairs to meet my new roommates covered in sweat.

After a glass of water and a moment to catch my breath, I struck up conversation with one of the roommates, who happens to also be involved in the Berlin techno scene. Yay! As it turns out, she was going to a friend’s birthday party in a converted industrial studio, so she invited me along as a warm-up for my later plans (it was Perlon night at Panorama Bar / Berghain, and I wasn’t going to miss that).

Obviously, I’m not going to blog in detail about a private party, so I’ll just say that it was a lot of fun, I got to meet a bunch of Berliners (“real” Berlin natives, which are pretty rare in Berlin now), and it was definitely a good warm-up for Berghain.

Berghain was as great and gritty and insane as it was the last time I was there, little more than a year ago. There was the same African-American guy checking bags, the heavily tattooed and pierced German guy at the door, and the same clusters of young partygoers. The only difference was that—as the first day of the summer for most European students—there was a lot of French and English to be overheard in the lineup.

I caught the last bit of Dan Bell’s vinyl set, which ran until 2am. Then Sammy Dee spun from 2am to 4am, showcasing the typical Perlon sound, with massive, resonant bass kicks and sparse punctuating patterns. As had been observed by me and another writer at mutek, this is apparently the summer of conga drums + minimal techno, as there were a lot of “tropical” sounds in the mix.

Dan Bell came on again at 4am to do a live set as DBX. The sound was great, although something about his set made me lose interest rather quickly. I stuck around to hear the beginning of Zip’s set, and then I headed back home around 5h30. Certainly, if I wanted to party properly in Berlin, I would’ve stuck it out until 10h00 or noon, but I had just finished about 4 days of non-stop travel, and I was running out of steam. While it was certainly a great way to celebrate the end of a very long and stressful period of my life, my body found its limits.

Certainly, one of the things that propelled me to leave Berghain / Panorama Bar was that I had run out of cash and I was terribly thirsty. I walked to the nearby S-Bahn / train station, climbed over the piles of burnt-out partygoers loafing about in the station, and found a Geldautomat (ATM machine). I withdrew 100€, and the stupid machine gave me two 50€ bills. Dammit. None of the small food stands around here is going to accept a bill this large and so frequently counterfeited.

But there was a McDonald’s open. Ah-ha! Large chain restaurants can’t just refuse bills because they feel like it. So I buy a cheap soft drink from there and break my bill, then wander back to the imbiss (food stand) near the entrance and get myself a Currywurst. Currywurst is a Berlin “specialty,” in the same way that poutine is a Montréal specialty. It usually involves some sort of pork sausage (Wurst), sliced and then covered in a “curry sauce,” which is usually ketchup with curry powder. Then, the whole ensemble is dusted with more curry powder. This is the sort of thing that you can only get at food stands, in a flimsy paper plate.

The currywurst at this particular imbiss was a bit lackluster, but the symbolic act of eating it to punctuate the end of a long period of travel and change was satisfying in itself. From there, I slouched my way into a train and headed back to the apartment to crash onto my bed in the morning sun.

jeudi, juillet 03, 2008

Get Everything done in Paris, Day 2

Well, I had finally fallen asleep around 19h00 last night, and perhaps unsurprisingly I was up at 7h00 the next day. Since everyone else seemed to be asleep, I tried to get up quietly and shower…and failed. My host’s apartment is one of those lovely old buildings with exposed rafters and century-old floors; lovely, but impossible to traverse without sounding like a car crash.

I spent a good couple of hours answering emails and blogging, and then I headed off in the direction of “The Phone House” (pronounced “Zee Phown Hahoos”) to try to get a cell phone. After dragging my butt to the Gambetta location (which was closed without any explanation), I headed over to another location near Châtelet to try my luck there. This one was indeed open, but (of course) I couldn’t sign a cell phone contract without my RIB (relévé d’itentité bancaire), which my bank wouldn’t produce for me right away; it would (of course) take several weeks to arrive by mail. Ah, French bureaucracy, how I didn’t miss you.

From there, I headed over to my old residence from my last stay in Paris, Résidences Lila, to hang out with an employee there that I had gotten to know well. On my way from the métro station to the residences, some guy tried to pick me up (see my blog entry from almost 2 years ago on la drague in Paris); he kept staring at me and adjusting his no-longer-very-dangly bits. On the upside, he was pretty attractive; on the downside, I had a meeting to get to. Nonetheless, I took this as a some sort of good omen.

After getting all the gossip from my friend at the residences, I headed off to grab a formule déjeuner (“lunch combo”) from my old boulangerie, and then ate it in the park near the subway station. I had to get to the UofC center again for some more paperwork, so for nostalgia’s sake, I got on the good ol’ PC 2 bus and rode from Porte des Lilas to the UofC center. Good times.

At the center, I sat down with the student admin guy and filled out my titre de séjour (“visitor’s ID”) application, which involved about 4 different forms, photos, many many signatures and a lot of complaining on our part. From there, I ran off to the American Church in Paris—which is not the American Cathedral in Paris, despite my thinking otherwise—where I had been told that local apartment owners post free and usually non-agency vacancies, job offers, and sales. Although there was absolutely nothing available in September (it was early July, so everything was for immediate rental), it was heartening to see so many available apartments in the rental range that I had envisaged. In fact, there was an ideal 20m2 (215 sq feet) studio with furnishing and all amenities on place Gambetta (XXth arrondissement), which I would’ve jumped on if I were looking for a place this month. I picked up a copy of FUSAC, which is a Paris based English-language community magazine, and browsed the listings there as well.

I had a meeting at 18h30 to see a studio that a friend had be trying to rent to me on behalf of another friend, but it was only 15h00 and I had time to kill. So I sat down with my copy of FUSAC at a nearby café, ordered some coffee and later some pastis, and I set to reading the listings there more carefully. Just by limiting my search to the 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, I managed to find a bunch of rental offers that suited my needs, so that also made my appointment later that evening seem a bit less high-pressure.

You see, the apartment my friend wanted me to look at is not so much a studio as a single room, 13m2 ( 140 sq feet), with a shared washroom, no kitchen (just a hotplate) and a little window. The apartment was certainly well-placed (on place Monge in the Latin Quarter, overlooking an old academic building), and the price was pretty good (600€, all utilities incl.), but I couldn’t imagine living without a kitchen and a private bathroom. Ironically, I could imagine living in that tiny space, despite my usual preference for large living quarters, but the lack of a real kitchen or bathroom made it seem like a step down from my previous lodgings at Residences Lila, rather than up.

Anyway, I had my moment of café culture and found that I still had some time before my meeting. So off I went to Le Marais (the queer neighborhood) to wander around and visit some old haunts. I hit this bakery (boulangerie Matineau, I think) that makes these fantastic fresh marshmallows. I got a raspberry marshmallow and wandered my way around the area, stuffing sticky fluff into my mouth.

The apartment meeting came and went, and I left with an urgent request from the landlady to make up my mind quickly. As I headed home, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could live there, despite the lovely location and great view.

During the subway ride, there were three teenaged boys on the train fooling around, playfighting and insulting each other. This may have gone unnoticed at another time of the day, but as it was still the later end of rush hour, the train was packed full of tired people, trying to get home. Naturally, one of them bumped into a businessman, who glared at them and gave the most parental, scolding, “I didn’t come here to get shoved around.” This drew some insincere apologies from the boys, as well as a temporary lull in the more physical part of their horseplay.

However, this also inspired a new round of insults, where they shouted increasingly more serious insults at each other—over the head of that same businessman, to make it clear that they were indirectly meant for him. This turned up the tension, and when one of the boys inevitably bumped into him again, the businessman—without raising his voice—started in on a stern lecture about acting civilized in public. I recognized this as the French version of the “act educated / well brought-up” lecture I always got as a child of Latino parents.

Still laughing and not being at all sincere, one of boys offered this apology: “Sorry, we can’t help it, we’re Arab.” Indeed, all three of the boys were visibly of maghrebin descent (i.e., North-African Arab and/or Berber), and they spoke with the right kind of banlieusard (“suburbanite”, but with low-class connotations) accents to mark them as being part of that 2nd-generation immigrant group. The other boys in the trio picked up on the potential of that statement and started to repeat their own versions of this self-racist apology, riffing on it for comedic effect.

This left the (white, French) businessman in an awkward position: if he accepted their apologies, he would also be assenting to a racist generalization that would be intolerable if attached to him; if he rejected their apologies, he might seem petty. In the end, the businessman dismissed the whole interaction with a “n’importe quoi” (“whatever”) and the train pulled into the next station, where the boys were going to get off. However, another young girl (tanned, but more visibly French than Arab) tapped their shoulders as they were getting off the subway and said, “Hey, bullshit isn’t an Arab specialty, it’s universal.”

I don’t quite know what the moral of this story is, but I like how it encapsulates so many of the tensions of life in Paris.

I got back to my host’s place and did a bit of e-mail work and so on, and then took the host and his daughter out for dinner. From there, it was off to a bar called Le Pin Up to see a soirée organized by my friend, Fantômette. I had received one of her weekly “what techno stuff is going on in Paris” e-mail newsletters, which told me that she was organizing one last event before the summer break. Since it coincided with one of my few nights in Paris, I just had to go. Despite having crossed 7 time zones only a day ago, and having spent the day running around Paris, I put on my party clothes and headed over to the bar.

I had sent an email ahead to Fantô ahead of my arrival, but apparently I sent it to the email account that she doesn’t regularly check, because when I showed up at the bar, her hands went to her mouth in surprise. We spent a moment catching up briefly, only to discover that we were both going to Berlin for the summer. Holy shit! As of about the 14th of July, I’m going to have a party buddy.

I struck up conversation with a co-worker of Fantô, and we went down into the basement, where the dance floor was, to see her spin. The basement was really a converted cave (i.e., root cellar / wine cellar), which I don’t think had ever been thoroughly sealed. The result was that the place smelled pretty moldy and, at one point, it smelled distinctly of poop. Hooray Paris sewers!

Anyway, we had a great conversation, which lasted a couple of hours, and by half past midnight (which is really early, even for a warm-up party) I said my goodbyes and headed home.

mercredi, juillet 02, 2008

Get Everything done in Paris, Day 1

Although I didn’t really succeed in getting any sleep on the plane, I’m putting in another blog entry as if it was a brand new day; a brand new day wearing yesterday’s clothes and covered in a layer of airport grime.

So we landed in Paris 15 minutes ahead of schedule (hooray!) and stumbled off the plane. I spent nearly way too long waiting in line at the currency exchange desk, only to find that there were bank machines on the exterior of the terminal. Great.

As always, the French “passport control” involved a simple glance at my passport. Nothing like the intense and scary grilling that you get when you cross into the US. Part of this laxness, I think, is that government agents in France can actually stop you on the street and demand your immigration papers at any time, so there’s not as much need to stop us at the borders. Also, my passport was Canadian and not Algerian or Malian or something else from a former French colony, so I was probably benefiting from that.

Anyway, I stumbled out of the airport with my 3 huge, overpacked bags and grabbed a taxi. As we were on the A3 and heading into Paris, traffic suddenly got very slow. After a few minutes of stop-and-go traffic, we passed a pixelboard that said “A3 → BP, 45 mins.” In other words, it would take 45 minutes just to get to the border of Paris. About 30 minutes into that escapade, my taxi driver banged the steering wheel and started cursing at all of the single-occupancy vehicles surrounding us, accusing them of creating this traffic jam. I was in the mood to kvetch, too, so I joined in the bitch-fest and we consoled ourselves with the resentment of other commuters until we got into Paris. The driver was really good about trying to get me as close as possible to my destination (which was at the centre of a network of one-way streets), so I gave him a large tip (relative to French standards) and hauled my luggage the rest of the way to the apartment.

I’m staying at the apartment of a colleague from my Paris job; she was in Chicago at the moment, working on her own project, so she handed me the keys to her place the day before I left. Her husband heard me dragging my luggage through the courtyard and came out to help me get my stuff into the apartment. I should really take a picture of their courtyard at some point, as it is this lovely narrow row of bushes and trees.

[a quick lesson in French grammar: In French, you have two kinds of affirmative answers to a question, “oui” and “si.” You use “oui” when you’re answering a question phrased in the positive, such as “did you go out last night?” You use “si” as a more emphatic statement, in response to a negative question, such as “You didn’t sleep with him last night, did you?” “But yes!” “Oh, gross.” So, when my host said “You’re not too tired, I hope.” My answer was “Si.”]

After having a much-needed coffee with my host, I sent off an “I’ve arrived!” email and then took an also much-needed shower. After that, I was feeling a lot more human.

Once I was dressed, I sauntered off to the nearest subway station to head over to my future work site (The UofC Paris Center) to get some administrative stuff taken care of. I still had my old NaviGo pass from last year (an RFID passcard), so I just re-charged it with a week-long transit pass. I was out of sorts and needed an employee to explain to me which machine took bills, but eventually I was sorted and on my way.

In a strange moment of symbolism (not lost on my colleagues), it was raining by the time I got out of the subway and headed over to the Paris Center. Since I’m continuing my previous custom of not blogging about work, I’ll just say that everyone is doing well, they’ve all retained their sick sense of humour, and they now have a hilariously high-tech fingerprint scanner at the front door.

After having lunch and coffee with my colleagues, I managed to wrangle from them an Attestation de Domicile (a proof of living quarters that you need to do practically anything in France). From there, I was off to open a bank account at the bank next door. That took a fair bit of time but was eventually successful; the only snag was that the young man opening my account put my first names in the wrong order, so now I’m Manuel-Luis Garcia, according to the bank. He told me I could correct that later, which I can only hope, knowing French bureaucracy.

I was planning to open a French cell phone line before leaving for Berlin, but I left that for the next day and instead headed over to my old neighborhood metro stop, Porte des Lilas, to hit my “regular” bakery from my previous year in Paris. I was pleasantly surprised to see all the employees recognize me and ask me where I had been. In fact, I ended up exchanging kisses (la bise) with the woman with whom I had traded recipes and food during my last stay.

After that encounter, I took a constitutional walk back to the apartment, since the last subway ride had nearly put me to sleep. I was determined to stay awake until the evening, to properly re-set my body clock. I spent a bit of time at the apartment chatting with my host and his daughter, answered some emails, and then lurched off to bed, ready to collapse.

Goodbye, Chicago

Well, here I am, in Terminal 1 of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for my flight to Paris. I’m drenched in relief, which is only partly sweat (and thankfully not urine; that’s not the relief I’m talking about). But relief is always the imprint and exquisite scar of earlier distress, and I was certainly up to tits in stress and distress these past few days, weeks, months.

I should’ve kept a running blog of how crazy my life has been since the day, back in late January, when my teaching workload suddenly doubled for the rest of the year, setting off a constant accumulation of stressors that continued into my preparations for Berlin and Paris, culminating in the last week or so of sheer panic. I’m not a high-strung person, but I’ve certainly had a taste of it. In fact, my sister had recently told me of a medical survey that suggested that people of “Mediterranean” ethnicities (and its diaspora) under stress tend to score low on scales of anxiety (e.g., sleep loss, emotional labiality, panic attacks, and so on) but have a higher rate of somatization. In other words, “brown” folks tend to turn their stress into bodily ailments, rather than excessive affect. And, so, my Bell’s Palsy seems less random.

Anyway, things came to a peak yesterday, during the final 24 hours before the flight. As you might imagine, I was running around Chicago, having last-minute meetings, running final errands, and making my goodbyes. All of this was made more intense by the fact that I no longer had my car (left it in Canada), so I had to run these final errands while trying to make sense of Chicago’s dysfunctional public transit system. In fact, the public transit system nearly cost me a subletter.

[OK, now I’m on the plane and I’m in a fucking middle seat in the middle of the plane]

You see, I had been struggling for the last few weeks to find a subletter for my apartment while I was gone. I needed to cover the rent for at least 12 months, and almost every person who responded to my Craigslist or UchicagoMarketplace ads were asking for 2-4 month rentals. I’m not going to deal with 4 or 5 sequential subleases, thank you. Those who were willing to commit to somewhere near 12 months would either complain that they wanted something closer to downtown, or they would just flake out altogether.

[As it turns out, the aisle seat next to me is empty. Yay!]

So, when a young man responded to my ad late Saturday night and said he was interested in my place, I jumped at the opportunity to show the place to him. At the time, I was in Canada, dropping off my car with my parents, and then flying back to Chicago Sunday night. I was already planning to show my apartment to another set of potential subletters (who eventually flaked) on Sunday night, so I told him that we could meet either early Monday morning or late Monday evening. The morning didn’t work out, so we had to schedule for the evening; I had a meeting until 6pm and then a dinner-meeting with my dissertation advisor till 8pm, and so we planned to meet at my place around 9pm.

So, I was already tempting fate when I left Hyde Park around 8:30pm that night. I had to drop off a few final things with a friend before leaving Hyde Park, and then I needed to buy a few things from the local grocery store for gastronomic gifts for a friend in Paris. The bus to the grocery store took nearly 20 minutes to come, and the bus downtown from there took nearly 30 minutes to materialize. By the time I was on the bus toward downtown, it was almost 9:30 and the prospective subletter was calling me from in front of my building, saying that he had to leave so he could catch the last train back to his temporary abode. Fed up with the slow progress of the bus, I got off at the first stop downtown, hailed a cab, and told the subletter that I would give him money for a cab ride back to his place afterwards. It was an expensive pain in the ass, but I was desperate.

Thankfully, the subletter was a lovely guy who was patient, polite and a fan of house music (all good things in my books). He had just moved from Australia with nothing but a backpack and small luggage, so he was thrilled with the prospect of having an apartment that was already completely furnished. After sending a good deal of time discussiong the minutiae of the apartment, the building and the neighborhood, I sent him off with the desperate hope that he would take the place, and soon. I was only in town for another half-day.

So, the summary:

  1. Fuck the underfunded and underserviced mass transit of Chicago for nearly killing my sublet; and,
  2. He called me this morning to say that he wanted to take the apartment.

That was the beginning of a series of events today that brought on relief. Throughout the day—as I packed my bags, cleaned the apartment, did some last-minute laundry, organized the sublet paperwork, and dropped off my cable equipment—I felt the tightly-wound spring behind my eyes loosen a little. It wasn’t until the plane was cruising down the runway and taking off that I finally felt an overwhelming rush of relief, mixed with excited anticipation. There are still things to worry about, like how I’m going to find an apartment in Paris, but already I’ve survived a lot.

Oh, and by the way, none of the relief of today would’ve been possible without the help of my magnificent and currently favorite friend, Lauren. That girl drove all the way up to my place at noon, drove me around town as I ran some last-minute errands, and then dropped me off at the airport (with a detour at a diner). She took some pictures of us at the terminal drop-off area. Check 'em out! I totally have the "Bell's Palsy smile." Alright, time to drink some wine and try to get some sleep.