Friday, December 19, 2008

Parais j'te aime

Been in Paris for nearly a week now, and as I told a friend earlier, I am not getting tired of it...but I am ready to stop being a tourist and start a new life as a Parisian. The city is absolutely beautiful and full of life. I've found the people here to be really friendly, even in spite of the fact that I don't speak their language. I couldn't imagine if I were a foreigner coming to the US and half-expecting/hoping that Americans would speak my native language. I can't picture the expression of the check out clerk at my local grocery store if someone asked, "parle vous Francais? Je nes parle pas anglais." We are lucky bastards, is all I've gotta say.

Over the last few days, I've hit the usual spots -- Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, etc. I preferred the Musee d'Orsay over the Louvre, primarily because of a wonderful exhibit they have on Picasso/Manet, and the inspiration that Picasso got from Manet's famous Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe.

After first seeing Manet's painting, Picasso interpreted and reinterpreted the painting in various forms. The exhibit takes you from the original Manet painting, and walks you through Picasso's various interpretations including: sketches, paintings, cardboard cutouts, and sculptures.

Both the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay have extraordinary collections and it's hard to believe that the paintings and sculptures in front of me were the real thing; world famous original works of art. There was such a sense of familiarity, yet only from the pages of books, prints, or the internet. Experiencing the original, actual pieces of art in plain view was something else.

Speaking of Picasso, I visited the Picasso museum yesterday and it stands out as my favorite in the city thus far. Not only is it literally around the corner from my Marias apartment, but it is very intimate and feels like a small gallery -- a nice respite from the Louvre! The building used to be an old hotel, and it was there that I had a little fun with my camera and played around with the distorted mirror they have on the grounds facing the museum.

Between museums and tourist sites, I decided to visit a different type of place -- a Fromagerie! At the recommendation of my guidebook (and my waiter at the Louvre's cafe), I trekked to Quatrehommes, a cheese store on Rue de Sevres. It was there that I truly discovered that cheeses are world of their own -- with different textures, flavors, ages, colors, and smells. There must have been about 200 types of cheeses there! Appartently, France has over 500 varieties of cheese from cow, goat, and ewe's milk. That said, there are only five types of cheese: fromage a pate demi-dure (semi hard cheese), fromage a pate dure (hard cheese), fromage a pate molle (soft cheese), fromage a pate parsillee (marbled/blue), and fromage d'chevre (goats milk). Anyhow, the women behind the counter weren't particularly interesed in chatting, but recommended two cheeses (I think in an effort to get me out of her store as quickly as possible) -- a Mont d'Or and a Fougerus. So I took her advice and have been enjoying the two in the few hours that I've spent at my apartment.

Moving along...the weather has been pretty lousy the entire time, which you can probably judge from the photos. However, today there was beautiful sushine and I chose to avoid any indoor activity and romp around the city taking more photos. I made a valliant effort to make it to the Eiffel Tower for the sunset, but was about twenty minutes shy and caught the tail end of daylight.

Frustrated as I was that my only sunset of the trip was quickly fading away, sitting underneath the Eiffel Tower at dusk did make for a lovely evening.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ou est la toilette?

Typically, I like itineraries. They give me a sense of purpose. They keep me on schedule and prevent me from, well, doing exactly what I did today – carelessly explore and casually stumble upon, hypothetically speaking, a giant ferris wheel and tantalizing treats.
The day began with a sense of purpose: first the Louvre, then coffee at Angelina, then chocolate at Jean Paul-Hevin, followed by dinner somewhere back in the Marais. Yet upon leaving the apartment on the late side, my first priority was lunch. So I stopped at Victor’s where I got a tomato, chevre, and rosemary baguette which I took to-go as I found my way to the store that sells multi-day museum passes (a must if you're in the city for more than a few days). This was easier said than done. It is located in a place called Le Forum des Halles – aka Hell with a pretty name. The place is a giant underground mall fully equipped with an H&M, Gap, and Starbucks. When inside Dante’s third circle, it only took about 45 minutes to find what I was looking for, and when I thought I was only minutes away from the Mona Lisa, nature called.

The five gallons of water that I drank before I left the apartment was ready to gtfo. My search for the toilets began. On the bright side, one of the five phrases that I can utter in French just happens to be “Ou est la toilette.” Great! Wrong. Knowing how to ask the question doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll understand the answer when spoken in French. Lesson learned. Another 20 minutes and .40 euros later (you have to pay to pee) problem was solved. So finally, hours later, I realized it was probably too late to see the 300,000+ square feet of world famous art. And my day could finally begin.

I walked from Le Forum des Halles down the Rue du Pont Neuf and over to the Rue du Rivoli – a busy street with large brand name stores like Zara and Levis. I then turned onto Rue de l'Amiral de Coligny – home of the well known bar called Le Fumoir. While I didn’t stop in, it is a place I intend to return at which point I can testify to whether it lives up to it’s “fashionable” name.
From there, I wandered over to the Louvre, mildly jealous of the cultured tourists exiting the building, and continued to the Q du Louvre where I walked along the Seine which looked pretty bleak in the cold and cloudy temps.
From there, I wandered into the Jardin du Carrousel, which I believe (I could easily be wrong here) was a scene in the Audrey Hepburn film Charade. Somewhat creepy with the carousel music and ornate plastic horses, I took a few photos and wandered over to the hugest ferris wheel I had ever seen in my life – covered in bulbs that changed colors every 10 second and probably visible from Italy. Time for a ride! By this hour it was dark and the buildings and sights were all lit up – making this a particularly fun find. The view was spectacular, although my camera wasn’t able to capture one-tenth of it. The city lights outlined the streets and most historic buildings making it look like a city scene made out of light-brights – apropos for the City of Lights.
There was more to my day, including exquisite pastries at Angelina, a walk along the Champs-Elysees followed by high-end boutique window shopping on the Rue St Honore (where lingerie can cost more than a single-family home at la Perla), and then a delightful French dinner in the Marais. All things considered, no itinerary was needed. But those stories will wait until a time when I am more awake. Bonsoir!

American in Paris

Bonjour Paris! I arrived around noon yesterday after a long, turbulent flight that had me convinced we’d land on the island of Lost before arriving in France. As luck would have it, we survived and my 900 sq ft suitcase and I navigated the wet, cobblestone streets to arrive at my new home for the next 9 days – an apartment off the Rue de Archives in the Marais Quarter of Paris.

Feeling rather jet lagged and sleep deprived, I used my first afternoon to wander aimlessly around the Marais. The quaint beauty of the area is striking, making me feel like I’ve stumbled onto an old French film set rather than walking around a modern day neighborhood in a real life. The shops that line the streets are a mix of boutiques, restaurants, boulangeries, brasseries, chocolate shops, and small markets specializing in fish, meat, or fruits and vegetables – which all display their specialties in storefront windows beckoning for passersby to enter. Unable to resist temptation, and rather hungry, I picked out a delicious looking square of focaccia bread that was covered with chicken, veggies, and spices that I could take to-go as I continued walking. (I’m sure the French translation of what I ate would make it sound much more appetizing and it would live up to its deliciousness. Sadly, my language skills on day one are limited to “si vous ples,” “merci,” and “je ne parle pas francais.”)

The chilly winter temps weren’t keeping people in doors, and the outdoor seating in the cafes was packed with people reading, drinking, and chatting under heat lamps. Almost everyone looked quite stylish – the uniform of choice for men is skinny jeans and converse, while most women were wearing leggings and tall boots. Clearly I have some shopping to do if I’m to fit in. Better get to it!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yo! Adrian. Don't give in.

In a move that screams LAME, Sens Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Bob Bennett (UT) have sent a letter to DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chair Vincent Gray requesting a reversal of last week's passage of the extended bar hours during inauguration.
“With projections as high as 4 million people planning to visit the city during this time period,” the two senators wrote, “we are deeply concerned that the plan approved by the City Council could seriously strain law enforcement resources that need to be focused on the large crowds and security requirements of the Inaugural and its impact on the city.”
Forget safety, we know how to protect ourselves (remember - SCOTUS let us keep our guns). The move to reverse seems simply irrational given the economic stimulus this could provide to our fair city and small business owners. So rather than throw out the idea altogether, why not consider a compromise? Here's an idea: a percentage of the money spent between 2am-5am could go to our failing school system. Beers for books. Whachoo say, DiFi?

UPDATE: Sign the petition to Save the Parties.

F-ing golden

Blago's plan to auction Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder is sickeningly sleazy, and a reminder that Illinois politics isn't so honest in the Land of Lincoln. The Governor's position in particular has had its fair share of corruption scandals with three out of the previous five governors caught in a scandal. Great fodder for Sufjan Stevens' next album.

Between the corruption charges and the flying f-bombs caught on tape, one might be reminded of another sickeningly sleazy (but somehow lovable) character -- Tony Soprano. Thank you, Benjamin Sarlin at The Daily Beast, for bringing this connection to light in a game of "Name that Goon! Rod Blagojevich vs. Tony Soprano." Game on.

Hands on buzzers: One's a trash-talking thug trying to stay one step ahead of the law. The other was played by James Gandolfini. Can you identify the speaker of the ten quotes below?

1. "Unless I get something real good...shit, I'll just send myself, you know what I'm saying."

2. "What the fuck am I, a toxic person or something?"

3. "Log off, that "cookies" shit makes me nervous!"

4. "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them."

5. "You got no fuckin' idea what it's like to be number one. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other fucking thing."

6. "I've got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and I'm just not giving it up for fuckin' nothing. I'm not gonna do it. And I can always use it. I can parachute me there."

7. "That motherfucker's full of shit. He's shaking me down."

8. "Our recommendation is fire all those fucking people, get 'em the fuck out of there..."

9. "I could have made a larger announcement but wanted to see how they perform by the end of the year. If they don't perform, fuck 'em."

10. "Jesus Christ! The money I've been dropping in here, I could've bought a fuckin' Ferrari."

Answers here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dr. Dog

It’s difficult to describe Dr. Dog, the Philly-based quintet that came to DC’s 9:30 Club last week. Think of them as the love child between a number of bands, such as The Beatles, The Band, and Pavement – offering a playful blend of 60’s psychedelic sounds and soulful harmonies to create a uniqueness all their own. The group isn't shy about using using a variety of instruments including horns, piano, tambourine, and strings, that, when combined and accompanied by a catchy drumbeat, make for a very enjoyable live show.

The set was about as quirky as the music, with fake palm trees and each band member sporting cheap plastic sunglasses of different colors. The band members exuded an energy level that kept the audience bouncing through most of the show – a particularly great feat given that it went well past midnight on a Wednesday night.

Dr. Dog's fifth, and most recent album, Fate, is a must-listen (and buy):
Fate is one of those listens where you’re not ready for it to end, and by the final chords of the closer, “My Friend,” you’re ready to hit the repeat button. That first listen is simply a summer’s day, a weekend trip to the waterhole, an afternoon in the sun. The second listen is a reunion with old friends at that dive bar down the block, a night at the pool hall, a kick-start of the warmly lit jukebox. The third listen is fireworks over the lake, roman-candle wars in the dark, bottle rockets on the blacktop. If you’re sensing a common theme here that’s good. Dr. Dog’s fifth movement cements them as impossibly and comfortably classic.
Next time they come your way, go. In the meantime, from the words of Dr. Dog, "Put that needle to the groove and sing."

Check them out here:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Quote of the day

This, via Wonkette:

4tehlulz says at 3:51 pm, December 4th, 2008:

I always hoped that the Internet could be used for pointless insults,
pornography, and piracy, but it has degraded into meaningful and
productive discussion. Humanity truly is doomed.

Bittman on Paris

I'm going to Paris in less than ten days, and I'm going here on Day One (and days two through ten). Mark Bittman, the culinary sage, has offered his advice on:

1. Where to eat falafel: L'as du Fallafel


2. How to eat falafel: You chomp on your pita, harissa and hummus dripping down your cheek — tilting your head to get a good bite, as there's no attacking this gargantuan sandwich head-on — and juggle as many napkins as you can grab, and marvel at the neighborhood.

While the vegetarian garlicky goodness will tempt my palate for a majority of the trip, I might just have to join the carnivore club for some mouth watering** steak frites, jambon d'Auvergne, and entrecote.

**Warning: might drool while reading.

Insurance for your health insurance?

At first, we* thought it was a story from The Onion, that paragon of parody. But no, this was the venerable New York Times, telling us that one insurance company, UnitedHealth Group, was planning to offer a new product: an insurance policy covering your right to buy insurance.

Honestly, we couldn’t make this stuff up.

As the President of UnitedHealth explains, “What this product is designed to do, for a very modest premium, is to essentially protect your insurability for the future.”

To be clear, the product is not health insurance. It’s more like a bribe. You’d be paying the insurance company now – 20 percent of the annual premium, at that – just for the right to purchase their policy later, if you lost your job or retired early, for example.

Sound like a great deal? Well, no. But it’s actually even worse than it sounds at first. If you’re sick and need to be sure you have coverage, you probably can’t buy this plan. And if you’re healthy enough to buy it, but get sick later, you may not be able to afford it when you need it.

This is coming at an interesting time, when both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are buzzing with talk of comprehensive health care reform that would include a broad expansion of health coverage. So the fact that UnitedHealth is offering this product inherently implies that they are betting against reform – and they’re asking consumers to do the same:
"Some advocates for changing the health insurance system say that rather than expecting individuals to spend hundreds of dollars a year for a guarantee they may not need, the government should do more to make sure everyone has access to coverage."
In an economy where it’s hard enough to afford rising premiums, is it really fair to entice consumers with product that capitalizes on people’s fear of losing their health coverage some time in the future? Doesn’t seem like it. Especially when the prospects of reform look so good that even the health insurance lobby wants a seat at the table.

*Full disclosure: I posted this on another site this morning and wanted to share it here as well.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I see drunk people

What do you do when your city plays host to an estimated four million guests? Get 'em drunk. At least that's what DC Councilman Jim Graham is proposing to do in a measure that would allow bars to keep the alcohol flowing until 5am and allow bars stay open for 24-hours during inauguration.

Does this mean the late-night pizza places will stay open just as late?

UPDATE: It passed. Get ready to get your drink on.