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Sunday, December 26, 2010

De Gaulle and Wikileaks

It's been a while since I've written. I'm enjoying my time back home in St Louis, USA, and at the same time, prepping my business for the year to come. However, in the midst of all this, I came across something that I felt would be worthy of an article.

A few days ago, I finished an excellent book called Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris written by Graham Robb. It covers various stories on famous historical figures and events from the late 1700's through the past decade. I'll return to the book in a moment.

When I worked as a World War II guide in Paris, I often finished my tours by discussing Charles De Gaulle and his march into Paris on August 26, 1944. He marched down the Champs-Elysees, through the Place de la Concorde, had a brief ride in a car, and arrived for a service at Notre Dame. As he led an entire parade, shots rang out, first in the Place de la Concorde, and then in front of, and even inside of Notre Dame. Throughout the whole event, the only one that seemed to show poise was De Gaulle himself, as he essentially ignored the shots around him, even though he was the likely target. This moment raised him to the status of a near-deity in France, and helped his cause for many years to come in establishing himself as the leader of the French.

Though De Gaulle himself claimed that it was the Communist opposition which was trying to assassinate him and cause disorder, this case to this day remains unsolved.

I feel that a lot of groups could be to blame here (one of many communist factions, the remaining Nazis as the city had been liberated from them the day before and some die hard soldiers were still fighting to the death), an interesting point of view that I have tried to argue is that he could orchestrated the attempt himself. Here's why:

1. De Gaulle seemed to ignore the whole thing. Even as shots were fired at him, he did not speed up, nor slow down. He just kept his leisurely pace.

2. People were injured from gunshots, but there is a good chance that they came from soldiers that were marching in the parade (De Gaulle invited an entire division to march with him), who started firing wildly in the midst of the confusion following the shots at De Gaulle.

3. Perhaps the most intriguing piece of evidence is that no one ever saw a bullet come near De Gaulle. Several dozen shots were fired, one would figure that if he was the target that a shot at least come within a few feet of him. It's not like he was trying to move out of the way either. At a height of 6'5", he should have been an easy target.

4. He eliminates his political opposition by blaming the whole thing on them. This won't help the communists come in to power, and basically ruined years of work to get to where they were in the political arena. The communist movement has never recovered in France.

5. No one was ever caught. Well, a couple of guys were, but nobody was ever really sure who they were and they beaten to death before anyone could figure it out. Some thought they were French, others German. Even as the shots continued at Notre Dame for close to an hour, the gunmen somehow got away. A French police officer was found standing around in the bell towers, from where the shots originated, after some people finally decided to track down the shooters, and everyone just assumed he was up there trying to catch the perpetrators.


De Gaulle seemed to have an unbelievable amount of luck. He survived a ridiculous amount of assassination attempts, in particular during the 1960's, where they seemed to be a regular occurrence. No matter how intricate and well planned the attempt, something always seemed to go wrong for the bad guys, and De Gaulle would escape unscathed.

To reference Parisians, Robb writes a chapter on De Gaulle and François Mitterand and the attempts on their lives, and though he doesn't outright say De Gaulle organized the his own assassination attempts, he does seem to hint at it:

In all of the emergencies he had faced in the last twenty years, he had never made a secret of the fact that it was sometimes necessary to deceive the electorate in the interests of the nation. Most of the electorate admired him for saying so. It was commonly believed that without a leader who knew how to fool his enemies, France would never survive in a world of treachery and violence (Robb, 343).

In the midst of the Wikileaks scandal in which many have jumped on the side that misleading the public is wrong, this gives a voice to the side that these papers should not have been released, as misleading the public may be for the greater good. Though there have been quite a few slip ups brought to the forefront with the release of thousands of diplomatic cables, the cables have also shown that many of the secret activities were done for the greater good.

Was De Gaulle right in misleading the people? He may or may not have been referring to one or many of these assassination attempts, we may never know. Though De Gaulle was generally respected in France for admitting to misleading the people, would something like that fly today in France, the United States, or anywhere else?

If you have something to add, I would love to hear it. Bonne Année!

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Friday, November 5, 2010

Culinary Tours of Paris

For those wondering why I haven't written in so long, I've been working on getting something organized here in Paris. And now the opportunity has presented itself, and this dream has come to fruition.

Starting today, Culinary Tours of Paris is open for business.


So many people come to Paris come here to eat, but the overwhelming amount of choices and language barrier can be a bit intimidating. My purpose with this tour is to make the cuisine more approachable: I will show off the vast diversity that exists in French cuisine, and also take some time to point out some cool sites here in Paris.

The first tour I have set up is in the Montmartre neighborhood. There will be three restaurant stops, where we will eat an Entree (Appetizer) of Charcuterie and Fromage, A Plat (Main Course), and A Dessert. All Plates are paired with appropriate Wines and Cider.

Between restaurants, we will take in the sites and explain the history of Montmartre and its inhabitants, and what makes this quarter of Paris so unique.

Group size is maximum 8 people

Runs Wednesday through Saturday, reservation only

2010 Tour Price: 95 euros per person

Tour starts at noon


If anyone is interested in this tour, take a look at my new website culinarytoursofparis.com. If you want to contact me about taking a tour, contact me at info@culinarytoursofparis.com.

A bientôt!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language

Last week, I found myself standing in line at a bakery around the corner from my apartment, waiting to pick up a couple of baguettes to bring home for dinner and the next day's breakfast. As I often do here in Paris, I stared down everyone in the line trying to guess if they were Parisian or not. Usually, tourists seem to flock to the bakeries in the morning to pick up croissants and bread for breakfast, so for the most part the evening crowd at the bakery consists of neighborhood clientele. There was one lady in front of me though that seemed to be different. Judging by the way she was dressed and skin tone, I guessed Portuguese or Spanish, though I am no expert on the matter.

As she ordered what she wanted, she resorted to pointing at things and making noises like "unh" and "eh" and "ah". These were more like things that an infant might mutter. I thought to myself how I knew that feeling when I visited bakeries in Hungary and Poland, when I had absolutely no idea what to say, other than the words for "hello," "please," and "thank you." In between those pleasantries, I resorted to guttural noises. It's not because we want to sound like this, it's just we don't know what else to do, and so we are left with nonsensical gibberish to explain our desire.

It is while I was regarding this scene that I began to think how this lady, who could be considered very intelligent with a deep vocabulary in her own culture is rendered just short of helpless here in Paris. It was also during this moment that I began to think of the importance of learning a foreign language, which leads to the topic of this week's article.

I am big supporter of those that make the efforts to learn a foreign language. To start off, I believe that it doesn't even really matter which foreign language one tries to learn. Rather, the process itself is a valuable experience which promotes a greater understanding of the world around you. I remember once talking with a friend who was considering studying abroad in Greece, but decided against it because she felt that there would be little use for learning Greek. Perhaps she may never speak Greek again after leaving the country, but the process of learning a foreign language gives insight to cultural nuances that an outsider could never learn. It allows a the student of the language to think in a different way, to see things as someone in the language's country would see it. More words, more wisdom, more understanding.

Not every word or phrase can be translated literally from one language to another. One example I hear often in French is n'importe quoi. The best translation I can think of is "no matter what" in English, but in context, the phrase c'est vraiment n'importe quoi! is made ridiculous when translated to its literal English equivalent, "That is really no matter what!" One might even find that they prefer certain expressions in other languages compared to their own. For me at least, words like méchant and bouger seem to flow better than their counterparts in English.

There are some downsides to the learning process. Compared to where I used to be when I lived in the United States, I sometimes feel like I take more time to speak than in the past. I spend time searching for words in my own language far more often today. In March 2009, I was back in St. Louis for two days while I was waiting on some visa paperwork to be processed in Chicago. I spent one evening at a friend's house, barbecuing and enjoying being outside in unseasonably warm weather. As my friends and I stood around the grill, looking intently at the burgers (as men usually do when a grill is around), I tried to ask if I needed to get the spatula. Only problem is I couldn't remember that damn word. The conversation went like this:

"Do you want me to get the...the...uh.."
"John-Paul, think before you speak."
"I honestly forgot the word for that thing to flip the burgers."
"A spatula? Wow you are getting dumb over there."

I'm lucky that I get the best of both worlds here: I speak English at work most of the time, and have accessibility to speak French whenever I want to as well. Otherwise, I would probably make more blunders like the one above.

To sum up my argument, if you have an interest in opening your eyes to the world around you, take a shot at learning a new language. Though you may remember next to none of the words down the road, the process of learning a foreign language allows us to come closer to understanding the differences between cultures, which in turn brings us all closer together.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Friday, August 6, 2010

Getting Robbed (in Paris)

I am often asked if Paris is a safe city. The quick answer is, yes, it is. Most of the crime tends to stay outside the city in the banlieues, or suburbs of Paris, quite the opposite of many cities in the United States. And even then, some of the suburbs are really nice, akin to Beverly HIlls or the Hamptons. However, sometimes some petty theft, street fighting, and the occasional riot seeps its way past the Périphérique and into Paris proper.

A week from yesterday, I was out at a picnic on the water at the Eastern end of Île St Louis with Julie's colleagues, as well as a few friends of mine from work. It was a good mix of people from all over the world, and it was fun jumping back and forth between French and English. I had a French friend who was en route but unfortunately couldn't find where we were, so I offered to come up onto the bridge above the tip of the island and see if I could find him.

Once on the bridge, I started to walk the length of it alone to see if I could see where he was. I noticed a few guys walking the opposite way on the same side of the sidewalk, but thought nothing of it. Though it was 12:45am, I have never felt the least bit threatened in this city.

One of the guys in the group asked me if I had a lighter, to which I replied no and tried to keep walking. The guys surrounded me in a half circle, with my back to the back of the bridge, just over the Seine. Another asked, "Well, what else do you have in your pockets?" I showed them my metro pass, and even offered it to them, which they gladly took. I even said "I have a shitty cell phone if you want it." I was hoping that distracting them away from my wallet might help, but of course, it just delayed the inevitable.

Two guys fished into my pockets and took out my wallet and my camera, which for some reason, I thought to bring with me that night. One started sorting through all the cards in my wallet and cried out every time he found something that looked like a credit card. I pointed out that a couple of them weren't credit cards (which they were), but I believe they were just happy they had something that they could get money from. "Walk with us this way," one of them said.

During this process of being escorted, I started to think to myself that I had already prepped myself for this. In April, I took the oral exam for the U.S. Department of State. If I had passed, I would have had an almost guaranteed position working in embassies and consulates around the world, occasionally in countries that few would ever dream of visiting, nor perhaps even knew existed. I figured if I had passed the exam, that I would be mugged somewhere in the world, and if I just kept my cool, the guys would get what they want and get on with their evenings. I felt lucky that these guys were so calm during the whole process and that they were not some 16 year old novices waving their switchblades in my face as I frantically try to empty my pockets.

I imagine they were expecting a fuss or someone to get angry with them, but internally, I felt nothing. They asked if they could run with my card to the ATM and withdraw some money with my code, and I told them (though I have no idea why I said this) that I preferred to walk with them and do it myself.

It was around this point, I got the impression that these guys started to feel bad about the whole incident. One of them even offered me a cigarette, to which I replied that I don't smoke. "Oh, that's good for your health," he replied. They said they would give me my phone and camera back, so not to stress too much.

We finally arrived at an ATM, and they handed me back my wallet, with everything still inside except 25 euros cash, and also my metro pass. Four of the guys stood with their backs to me, while the fifth stationed himself next to me while I typed in my PIN at the ATM. He started to turn around to see the screen, and suddenly jumped back, saying "Oh, pardon" when he saw that I was still entering my PIN. As far as muggers go, this had to be one of the more polite bands out there. It was almost respectful, except that they took 200, 200, and 400 euros out of my account on three consecutive withdrawals. After the third, the guys slowly walked away all together, turning around to see if I was following them. In all, they made off with 825 euros, my camera, and my phone.

When I got back down to the picnic spot a few minutes later, I found that a couple people had been frantically searching for me, since I had not answered my phone and the friends I was searching for had been at the picnic for about 10 minutes already. After telling a little of the story, Julie called the police, who were nice enough to drive Julie and I around while we looked at random groups standing around the Bastille area to see if I could identify the muggers. We even stopped a public bus so I could take a look at some guys that were being arrested inside to see if they were my friends from earlier. I felt a little embarrassed getting out of the police car with so many people staring at me both on the bus, and on the street, as a crowd had started gathering around the scene. It didn't look like them, so we got back in the car and went to go chase some more bad guys. After an hour or so, they dropped us off, said sorry, and wished us luck.

So in the aftermath, the guys have not been caught, and it doesn't look like the bank is going to refund me. Apparently since I entered my pin, they are saying that I could have prevented it and so on. I'm not too bummed about it. First, I wasn't hurt. Second, it gives me a pretty good story to tell my readers.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mass Tourism: Why Do We Visit What We Visit?


On tour, I usually begin by doing some small talk with the customers. Occasionally this method will allow us to form some common bond, whether through birth place or interests. During my interrogations, I almost always ask "What will you be doing while you are in Paris?" Almost everyone says the exact same thing: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Louvre, etc. A few of these things deserve the attention, whether or not you are a fan of artwork or gothic architecture and the like. There are some, however, that make me wonder why they are such a "must see".

For example, many tourists want to go to the Moulin Rouge. A lot of people actually spend an outrageous amount and go through with it. When I meet someone that happens to be visiting the world-renown cabaret, I ask if they have ever been to a cabaret before. Far more often than not, they say no. I ask if this would be something that would interest them in their hometown, and once again, the answer is usually negative. Alas, if you would never attend a musical cabaret in New York, Sydney, London, or wherever you come from, why in the hell would you do it in Paris?

The answer is simple. People want to be able to tell other people that they saw it. They won't be able to comment too much on the service, nor the show itself, but they can at least check that off their list.

When people go on trips, it is fairly rare that they come into a city without a general idea of what they are going to see and do. If it is their first time in a city, they are going to have to get that advice from somewhere else, meaning either a tour book or a friend, who either got their information from another person or a tour book themselves. Thus, most visit the same monuments as their predecessors. In addition, by doing so, they establish a link with those predecessors, and can say "Hey I've been there, too". For example, with the Mona Lisa, almost every tourist that has been to Paris has seen it. People go because her fame has grown exponentially through time, and they, the visitors to Paris, would like to judge it themselves. Rarely do people visit her to admire da Vinci's masterful brushstrokes which seem to be non-existent upon his subject's face. Rather, people seem pretty disappointed. The comment I hear most often is "I thought she would be bigger." You would think with so much disillusionment that people would stop spending so much valuable time going to see it, but it still gets more visitors than any other painting in Paris, perhaps even the entire world. I'm not in total disagreement with the judgement that La Joconde's fame seems to be disproportionate with its size and intricate detail (look at paintings by Meissonier for the latter), as the Louvre has literally thousands of other equally impressive paintings. Nonetheless, people will run by every other painting in the Italian wing to visit the Mona Lisa, pretty much because it is usually the only work whose existence they were aware of before their visit.

I wish I could say that I have not been guilty of coming into a trip with a sort of checklist of things to see and do, but like most others, I have come into trips with some suggestions to see certain museums and monuments, even if I really didn't give a damn about the collections within. When Julie and I visited a friend in Madrid in October 2008, I came up with a rough list of things I wanted to see. Aside from visiting Plaza Mayor and El Retiro, I felt that we should try to see at least two of these three museums: Museo del Prado, Reina-Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza. Many of the most famous "must-see paintings" in these musems I had never heard of, but felt as a visitor to Madrid, that I was obligated to try and see them.

The first night there, as so many do on a Saturday night in Madrid, we went out and partied until 4 or 5am. Around noon on Sunday, we went to a market, shopped for food to make for lunch, and ate a great meal. By this point, I was already figuring that we could probably only do one museum now, but instead, we decided to sit on the balcony and listen to our friend play the guitar for an hour or two. It was during this time that I realized how much I preferred relaxing and absorbing the culture and my surroundings to standing in line at museum after museum. To sum up the wise words of our host,"Whenever I travel, I prefer to tell my hosts 'Show me your life!' ". After that experience in Madrid, I understood what he meant and why he saw this as the way to travel.

So, if I was to give advice to those visiting Paris, probably the most important thing I could say is to try not schedule too much. If you run around to 3 or 4 museums in a day, chances are that you won't really get a feel for Paris, and will probably be quite exhausted and stressed by the end of the day. Of course, you should probably see the Eiffel Tower, but that doesn't mean you have to wait in line for four hours to go up the elevator. The Moulin Rouge will probably not convince an avid football fan to get season tickets to their hometown cabaret. Take some time for yourself. Go sit for two hours at a café over one cup of expresso. Go lounge in a park with a bottle of wine and a baguette and fall asleep under a tree. Just go for a walk, meandering aimlessly until you stumble upon a good bistro or beautiful courtyard. If you find a good balance between seeing a couple of those "must-sees" and taking time to get a feel for your surroundings, I guarantee that you will have a much more satisfying vacation than one spent vacantly oggling every painting and sculpture in Paris.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tips to Eating Well at Restaurants in Paris


Two of the most common questions that I receive at work are these: "Do you really live in Paris?" and second, "Where could we find a good place to eat?" The first is completely ridiculous as I obviously fly into work from St Louis every morning just so I can give you, the tourist, a whirlwind tour of the city.

The second question, however, is one of the most difficult to answer, and not because I haven't eaten at any good restaurants. Rather, it's just that there are so many of them, for me to single out one or two "typical" French restaurants could be scanning a dictionary and picking my favorite one or two words.

First, for clarification, there really isn't such thing as a typical French restaurant. Because France has so many regions that produce different types of food products and beverages, a restaurant from one region will almost always be completely different than a restaurant from the region next to it. Paris itself is not very inventive in terms of cuisine; most of the famous French foods that one associates with Paris were stolen from another region in France. Boeuf Bourguignon is from Burgundy, French Fries are probably Belgian in origin (though some French claim they invented it, the Belgian ones are better in my opinion), most of the duck dishes come from the Southwest, and Fondue comes from the Alps. The Parisians are lucky in that people immigrated from so many regions and brought their foods with them. The whole concept of the restaurant was invented in Paris, and with a wealth of foods to choose from thanks to their inhabitants from all over France, one could not have picked a better place to start serving food for enjoyment in addition to serving it for survival.

There are really two things to remember when looking for a restaurant in Paris. Though, I might say these are more of things to avoid when looking for a restaurant in this city.

First, avoid restaurants where the server is standing outside trying to beg you to come into their establishment. This is a bad indicator since that means that their meals do not speak for themselves, and that they need to harass every passerby and tell them that they need to eat at their restaurant. The Rue de la Huchette just off of the Place St. Michel is notorious for this kind of restaurant. Occasionally, it is entertaining to watch some of the stupid stuff that the waiters will do to get your attention in the streets, such as break plates at your feet and then tell you that you can do the same in their restaurant.

Second, avoid the restaurants where the menu is in any other language than French or English. Almost every restaurant in Paris has their menu in both since they assume that most tourists can read and speak at least a little of one or the other. However, if you start seeing the menu in Russian, Japanese, Urdu, or Greek, you should run like hell. This means that this restaurant cannot get local clients to eat there, so they need to start manipulating the tourists that come from countries where English and French are not really spoken, and especially from those that have different alphabets from the Latin Alphabet that I am using in this article. The only exception would be a pizza restaurant, as those are more or less the same at 95% of pizza restaurants in the city, and they will from time to time have menus in four or five languages.

Another hint is to be weary of the restaurants included in backpacker guides or general guide books. The one example that really stands out to me is Le Refuge des Fondus in Montmartre. How this place gets good reviews and gets so much hype absolutely baffles me. I have eaten here twice. The first time I got piss drunk, ran into a friend from university who happened to be sitting at the other bench in the restaurant, and had a great time, though I remember nothing good about the food. The longer I lived here, the more I realized what a tourist trap this restaurant can be. All of the people eating in the restaurant are anglophones. Usually they are backpackers. They serve wine in baby bottles for 2 euros, which is very inexpensive, but the wine is the cheapest, most hangover-inducing wine that one can imagine.

The second time I visited, I had already been living here for almost two years. I had pretty much been avoiding the place, but I saw a good opportunity to hang out with some good friends. After we sat down, I went to the restroom, and along the way, I saw that the food being served came in bulk from Leader Price, which is the cheapest grocery store in town. Not exactly gourmet food, but whatever, I shop there from time to time. I just think it is a little absurd to pay 15 euros to eat it in a restaurant. When the fondue came out, you could tell that it had not been cooked long enough as the wine hadn't really evaporated. Basically it tasted like someone dumped half a bottle of shit white wine on melted cheese, and voila, fondue. Even this didn't bug me that much. When we were finishing the meal, the owner tried to take the unfinished baby bottle from Julie's hands and while doing so, said "Give me that, you slut." I don't think he realized that she is French. Julie lost it and was damn near close to throwing a chair through the window by the time we left. She stood outside the restaurant for a few minutes and warned all of the customers not to eat there, and instead go to a restaurant across the street which happens to be one of my favorites in all of Paris, Le Potager du Père Thierry, which had no line at all. People just kind of laughed off the advice. I mean, after all, they serve wine in a baby bottle! Imagine that!

In closing, use your own judgement in choosing a restaurant in Paris. Don't let the plate throwers and the baby bottles of wine fool you. If the menu looks good, the customers look happy (and non-touristy), then it's probably a good bet. Good luck and bon app!

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Monday, July 12, 2010

Weather in Paris


When dealing with a lack of subject material in conversation, apparently the subject most often brought up is the weather. I am in complete agreement with this. Normally, I end up talking about the weather with three quarters of my clients on tour. It's not just that we can't think of anything to talk about, it's something we all experience, unless living inside an air conditioned bubble. We all have different reactions and preferences, and thus discussing how the weather affects every one of us can give a little insight into our counterpart's psyche, and perhaps establish more of a bond.

Paris is fortunate enough to be blessed with four seasons, and each one of them different. Personally, September is my favorite month out here, as the hot summer days of July and August are fading into the background, the massive summer throngs of tourists start to return to their normal lives at home, and the flowers, as they are replanted at the end of summer, begin to bloom once more, giving the impression of a second spring season.

In this article, I will discuss summer and winter in Paris, as spring and fall are both fairly temperate and similar to what many in North America and Europe imagine of those two seasons.

Paris Summer

Though Paris is quite far North, it can get hot out here. To give an idea of its location, Paris is fairly even latitudinally with Vancouver, Winnipeg, and north central Ontario and Québec in Canada. It is one of the northernmost capital cities in the world. But that does not exclude it from getting pretty warm.

In 2008, Paris had just 20 days over the summer that exceeded temperatures of 25 C (77 F). In 2009, we had 40. So far in 2010 (counting today), we have had 22 days that have been at least this warm, and at least half of those have been above 30 C (86 F).

Considering where I grew up in St. Louis, MO. these temperatures do not sound that bad at all by comparison. The weather there in summertime is akin to walking through a swamp inside of an oven. But fortunately for those in the United States, air conditioning is never too far away. If one steps outside for an hour or two, most can return inside to cool off with assistance from central air or an AC unit.

For the most part, that option does not exist in France. Aside from hotels, almost no one has air conditioning. There are a couple of reasons why. First, even though it can be oppressively hot in the daytime, it normally cools down at night, making it a little easier to sleep. Second, many houses or apartments have windows on two opposing sides of the building, which allow crosswinds to pass though and work more or less as a natural fan for the apartment. However, if it is really hot at night as well, you have to find ways to put up with it. Personally, I haven't used anything more than a tiny blanket to sleep in the last month. Many nights I sleep with no covers at all. A wet rag has helped a lot in cooling me off when necessary.

Though it does get quite hot in July and August in Paris, normally it is a very dry heat. When temperatures soar near 30 C, we start to see percentages of humidity drop down somewhere between 25 and 35%, and occasionally even lower. This is about the same as I experienced when I lived in Colorado at more than 6,200 feet (1,900 meters) elevation. This allows the shade to be very refreshing on a hot day.

Paris Winter

Paris winters are perhaps some of the most oppressive that I have ever experienced. Temperature-wise, it does not get that cold. Rarely does the temperature plummet below 0 C (32 F). Snow is a rare sight in the city, though last winter was unusual in the fact that it probably snowed 10-12 times. The snow almost never sticks, as the ground temperature is too warm, and when it does, it barely lasts through the day.

Henry Miller, who wrote quite possibly the best book on life in Paris, and one of my favorite books all time, gives a perfect description of what the weather is like in Paris over the winter:

A foul, damp cold against which there is no protection
except a strong spirit. They say America is a country of extremes, and it
is true that the thermometer registers degrees of cold which are practically
unheard of here; but the cold of a Paris winter is a cold unknown to
America, it is psychological, an inner as well as an outer cold. If it never
freezes here it never thaws either. Just as the people protect themselves
against the invasion of their privacy, by their high walls, their bolts and
shutters, their growling, evil-tongued, slatternly concierges, so they have
learned to protect themselves against the cold and heat of a bracing,
vigorous climate. They have fortified themselves: protection is the
keyword. Protection and security. In order that they may rot in comfort. On
a damp winter's night it is not necessary to look at the map to discover the
latitude of Paris. It is a northern city, an outpost erected over a swamp
filled in with skulls and bones. Along the boulevards there is a cold
electrical imitation of heat. Tout Va Bien in ultraviolet rays that
make the clients of the Dupont chain cafes look like gangrened cadavers.
Tout Via Bien! That's the motto that nourishes the forlorn beggars
who walk up and down all night under the drizzle of the violet rays.
Wherever there are lights there is a little heat. One gets warm from
watching the fat, secure bastards down their grogs, their steaming black
coffees.


When I first moved to Paris in February 2008, I would look at the weather and try to dress myself appropriately for the conditions. However, I found that I was almost always underdressed. My rule now is whatever I think that I should wear outside, add an extra layer. It has not been unusual for me to wear a sweatshirt, a heavy sweater, and a wool jacket when the temperature is still above freezing.

Whenever visiting Paris, make sure to pack accordingly. While you think it might be hot in July, there might be a day where the temperatures dip down to 10 C (50 F) or even lower, and there might be a fluke day in the winter time where shorts and t-shirts are suddenly more appropriate than a winter coat. In sum, expect anything, and perhaps everything.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Monday, July 5, 2010

La Grippe A

It has been close to a month since I have written anything, and if you happen to be an avid reader of this blog, I offer my most sincere apologies. Work has been quite chaotic lately and I haven't felt all too much like writing on the few hours that I have off. But, I've been getting an itch to put down some more thoughts and I have a little bit of time to talk about them tonight.

So...does anyone remember swine flu? I know it was a huge blown out of proportion mess back in the United States. Like the U.S., France also took many precautions to make sure that its citizens were informed about the potential dangers of the H1N1 virus, or as it was referred to in France, La Grippe A. Seemingly every commercial break this past winter mentioned ways to protect one's self against the potentially deadly strain, whether it was wash hands frequently or to go receive a vaccination. More people seemed to be getting vaccinations than the previous winter- across the street from our office was a vaccination center, and while the line was non-existent the previous winter, there were days in the 2009-2010 winter where the line stretched around the block. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, even suggested banning the importation of pork, though once it was proved that this would solve nothing, he rescinded his suggestion.

Probably the most interesting thing that came out of this were the suggestions in many of the workplaces in France. The government put up signs in many companies and public places that said to avoid close contact with others. This included shaking hands with people, and especially kissing them.

The last suggestion was where the state seemingly crossed a line. In France, when meeting a friend, you will always exchange either a handshake or kisses with your counterpart. If you are a guy, you kiss a girl and shake hands with a guy, though with close friends and relatives guys will kiss guys. If you are a girl, you kiss everybody. If you are in a workplace setting, handshakes are usually exchanged, regardless of sex. This system is significantly simpler than the one that I know in the U.S. I'm never sure what to do as I feel odd hugging a girl every time I see her, or fumbling around trying to figure which kind of handshake/fist-pound/high five combination I am going to get when I am meeting a friend of a friend.

The bisou is nothing short of a God-given right in France, it's like the right to fresh bread or protest anytime that they feel like it. The state telling people not to kiss their friends and their colleagues was utterly laughable.

Did people listen to the advice? Of course not. People made jokes about it. After everyone made rounds to kiss everyone at work or at a party, I heard people comment "well I guess we're all going to die now." Everyone laughed, and maybe one or two of them actually got the virus. Fortunately, nobody I know died from it, so they were allowed to scoff at the fact that they had cheated death and blew kisses in his face.

The state will have to try a lot harder to keep people from greeting each other with kisses in France. Perhaps instituting a fine would be the right step, though that seems to be making matters worse with the new Burqa propostion here in France. That in itself is worthy of an entry, but I will save that for later.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Friday, June 4, 2010

Unemployment in France

I remember in my first year that I came to work in France, I somehow got into a conversation with an older lady regarding unemployment in this country and how it works. I had always heard that it was generous and even a bit ridiculous, but even then I was still caught off-guard by what she relayed to me.

She told me that she had been working for a financial institution here in Paris, and had just given birth to her second or third child. Even though the state provides very generous maternity leave, she felt she could have used a little more time to be able to take care of her young children. She asked her boss politely to lay her off so that she could collect unemployment. She said that her severance pay was quite generous- something like two years with the same pay that she received while working. All she had to do was participate in three job interviews over a period of six months to continue to receive these benefits. She was not obliged to actually take any of the jobs, she just had to show that she was making an effort to find a new position. Apparently it takes an average French person about ten months to find a job, so even then that could give her fourteen months to tend to her kids without really worrying about finding employment.

The story which I recounted may sound completely outrageous for someone not used to the French system, but this story could embody the situations of many other people in France. The unemployment rate hovered near 10% between 2000 and 2008. For one of the largest economies in the world, this unemployment rate is deceptively high. The United States, by comparison, was between 5 and 6% during those years. The difference is that many of the people in France could find work, but because of the generous unemployment benefits, have the option to wait until an ideal job opening presents itself, while many other countries do not have the benefit of this luxury.

This past winter, I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how one looks at it) enough to be able to observe this phenomenon first hand. Julie had a seasonal contract for a boat tour company here in Paris that ended at the beginning of November. A couple of days after the contract was finished, Julie went to a meeting to inform the state that she was now unemployed. She brought in her pay stubs as evidence of what she earned over the past few months, signed a few documents, and that was all it took. She was told that over the first three months that she would receive 95% of her average paycheck over the last year, 85% between months four and six, and then 75% between months six and twelve. The only thing she had to do on her end was to apply for jobs (once again, she needed to complete three in six months, if she had not found work before that point) and attend one-on-one job counseling meetings when requested.

To me, it seemed like a gift. You worked hard for a few months, and then you are rewarded for it by being paid to sit on your ass for a few months. Not only does the state provide for you financially, they want you to be able to keep yourself occupied with your newfound leisure time. Julie was allowed to go to any public gym for free. She was allowed to go to most museums for free. It made unemployment seem very attractive.

Of course, few things in life that seem so perfect are, in fact, perfect. Several of Julie's other colleagues were in a similar situation once their seasonal contracts ended, and for the most part, they seemed disproportionately depressed in light of what I saw as an amazing system. Many of them were on unemployment for the second or third time, and they seemed to be very tired of the routine; find a short term contract, work for a few months, go on unemployment again, and then start over, almost always working in the same field as before. Unemployment amongst those under 25 increased 41.1% between 2008 and 2009, and I would imagine that those figures would be similar for citizens under 30 as well (BBC News, June 25, 2009). It seems at times that almost every person that I have met around my age has taken advantage of unemployment in this country at least once. This could be another article subject in of itself.

In France, it is pretty difficult to transition from one field of work to another. If you studied to work in a certain area, chances are you will be stuck there for life. Julie tried to work in cafés and bars, and all of them said they needed someone with experience. However, when she put up an add on the website for a hostess agency, she received 10 calls in the first hour with offers for jobs. She eventually turned off her phone because some of them were calling multiple times. It's demoralizing to consider that when entering unemployment, you have seemingly been freed from the shackles of a previous job that you hated, only to go back and work the same position a few months later.

Technically, one can work a part-time job while on unemployment, but one has to be careful that they do not earn too much money. For example, last year, Julie's mother was riding unemployment and was able to take a position helping at a veterinarian's office a few hours a week. Though it was only a couple of hundred euros a month, it was a nice addition to what she was receiving from the state for unemployment. She was obliged to report her hours and earnings each month so that she would continue to receive her unemployment check. Unfortunately, one of those months, she happened to earn too much to qualify for assistance. To make matters more complicated, the state informed her of this a month late. The money that they wanted back was already spent. She was forced to write a check to the government and then had to quit her part time job so that she could actually earn more by doing less, that is, by not working.

To conclude, the unemployment system in France is a remarkable system in that it allows people to live a relatively similar lifestyle while unemployed as they did while working a full time job. It can be a welcome reprieve from the stresses of the working world and allow some time to consider the pros and cons of future prospects. However, from those with whom I have spoken, most that are in the unemployment system would rather be employed as opposed to sitting at home, waiting for their next unemployment check to show up in their bank account.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tu vs. Vous

Those of us around the world who speak English are pretty lucky. English most certainly has rules on how to speak it, but seemingly less and less people follow them than before. English is a language that one can speak badly and usually not have to fear condescending remarks or corrections. I'm sure I've made several grammatical mistakes and faults while writing this blog that would have taken points off of papers that I wrote in college. As long as us anglophones understand what somebody needs, we're usually just impressed that a non-Anglophone can speak our language at all, because most of us from English speaking countries don't speak anything other than English.

Many of the English speaking countries, like the United States, Canada, and Australia for example, are huge. While the Europeans can have several different languages within an 100 mile radius, we could drive 25-30 hours in the above-mentioned countries and never encounter a foreign language. Thus, we just really don't have as much of a need for a second language.

Back to original point, in English, rules aren't that big of a deal. Whether someone is the Queen of England or a toddler, when speaking to them, we refer to them as "you". In French, it is not as easy. For me, this is one of the issues I still struggle with the most. This is the battle of tu versus vous.

First off, both of these words translate as "you", it is just that each are used in separate occasions. One would use tu if they are talking to a close friend, a child, and more frequently, a stranger their own age. Even in the latter circumstance, tu shouldn't be used when in a business setting unless it is someone that you know very well.

Conversely, vous is more formal. If you are meeting someone for the first time (unless they are a child), you should use vous in the conversation when addressing them. This should also be used until it is deemed appropriate to start using tu. There is even a verb to use when asking if you can address someone in the tu form, which is tutoyer, though personally I don't think I've ever heard anyone ask this to me before.

This doesn't really seem that complicated, and for the French, it really isn't difficult to do. Remembering these rules when writing French isn't really that tough either, even for someone learning the language. However, for those of us who are used to having only one word for "you", this can be incessantly complicated when speaking.

From personal experience, several times I have addressed a septuagenarian as if he or she were eight years old, while I have spoken a child as if they were my friend's grandparents. It can be quite difficult to remember these rules when speaking on the fly. Usually the first thing to come out of my mouth, no matter whom I am addressing, will be tu. If it is the wrong time to use it, I'll try and make up for it by saying vous the rest of the time I am speaking to this person worthy of the vous form.

When I was working on my visa last year, I had to travel to a town called Melun, about an hour southeast of Paris in order to get my paperwork started. A translator came with me just to help make the process smoother. We spent about an hour in line chatting and at first, we addressed each other in the vous form, but after we started to discuss more personal stories, such as where we grew up and how we came to be where we are, I felt confident that we could start using the tu form. When I spoke to her again afterwards by email, I used tu throughout the message. When she responded, she only addressed me in the vous form.

This instance left me feeling pretty confused. I felt that we had crossed the vous frontier into tu territory, but it turned out I had been sent right back to vous again. Since then, we have only used vous when speaking to one another. What I've learned here is that we Americans are a very social bunch, we want to be personal and on familiar terms with everyone. In France, that doesn't happen as often. Though I know that people in French companies go out for drinks and socialize amicably, I feel that the French are more reluctant to be on familiar terms with a client or coworker. Simply put, keep the personal life and business life separate.

The point of this entry was not to show how to differentiate the tu and vous forms, rather it was to show how complicated it can be. Fortunately, if you happen to address someone in the wrong form, they probably will not mind. Maybe you will help an aged person feel young again, or a child feel like an adult. In these cases, confusing tu and vous might not be a bad thing after all.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Euh....

Earlier this week, Julie and I went out to lunch at a café that is located close to my work in the 15ème. The lunch was great, especially considering the price, and the Coriscan wine was surprisingly good as well. However, as we were approaching the end of our meal, we could hear on the other side of the café "OH MY GOD! I KNOW! THAT IS SO TRUE!" One would have to strain themselves to be able to hear the conversation of the French coworkers sitting adjacent to us, but make no effort at all to know that some Americans on the other side of the café had just made their presence known.

We Americans are a fairly loud group. While the French tend to be more private when sharing their personal lives in a public place, the whole café would be able to learn that the Americans love France and everyone within a five table radius can collectively share their relief when they proclaim the results of their latest colonoscopy to the room. This isn't to say that I am not loud myself, as I tend to over-project when I cross over into inebriation. It's just that our general lack of volume control can stand out in places like a restaurant or the métro, especially when considering France is a country that takes their privacy seriously.

Back to the scene at the café. Julie said that she could understand most of the conversation, but occasionally she didn't pick up on something and said that in those cases the people talking more closely resembled birds jabbering away. She then asked me, "What do you hear when you hear French people talking and don't catch everything they said?"

To me, it sounds like this, "Euh...bah oui...euh...et puis, voilà....euh....blah blah quoi...tu vois?"

On their own, most of these words actually have a meaning. However, when appropriately placed in a sentence by a French speaker, one can in turn say very little at all. These are essentially great words for one's arsenal when they have nothing to say. I'll break this down some more.

Euh is probably the most common of all stalling words in the French language, if one can indeed call it a word at all. It is the French equivalent of "uhh" and it is used for exactly the same purpose. It lets the listener know that you are thinking of something to say, yet simultaneously you don't want anyone else to step in and stop you from finishing your point. The pronunciation is fairly similar as well. The only difference is that euh comes from further back and deeper in ones mouth and throat than "uhh".

Perhaps my favorite of these superfluous phrases would be et puis, voilà. In English, this translates to "And then, there you have it". As a tour guide, I often find myself caught way off on a tangent and with little idea how to close off the subject with a bang. Most often I come up with something like this: "And...well...yeah." The sudden transition from being so passionate in one's story to ending so anti-climatically has the potential to lead to a disappointed listener. In English, we don't really have one phrase that can get us out of a jam and close off the conversation before the listener figures out that we have no idea what we are talking about. Fortunately for the French, they have et puis, voilà which can usually bail them out before leading whatever point they were making into oblivion.

Most people who have studied even a little bit of French know that quoi translates to "what" in English. However, those who have not spent much time in France are probably not aware of how often and uselessly this word is mixed into conversation. When I visited a friend from the south of France a couple of years ago, I remember how he seemed to use quoi at the end of almost every sentence. For example, "Bah oui, c'est comme ça quoi". This translates to "Well yeah, it's like that". The quoi doesn't add emphasis or anything at all, it's just there. When I came back to Paris after this trip, I seemed to notice it even more. I remember one girl I met who seemed to use it for one of every five words in her sentences. If you happen to find yourself learning French and in a conversation with someone who uses quoi gratuitously, do not mistake it for some sort of nervous tick and do your best to pick out the meaning of the conversation between quois.

Tu vois happens to be the phrase that bothers me the most. It translates to "you see", but it is akin to the excessive use of "you know" in English. What is interesting to observe is that the guilty parties are essentially the same, regardless of country. The culprits are almost always girls between 13 and 30, and those that use these phrases finish pretty much every sentence with this nonsense. Perhaps this shows that adolescent girls and those who have crossed into early adulthood are constantly looking for confirmation that other people have the same beliefs and values as themselves and feel the need to suggest that the other person should agree with them as well. But hey, I'm not a psychologist, I'm just writing a blog about all things pertaining to France.

In sum, one doesn't need to say anything close to meaningful to pull off sounding as if they have a good understanding of French. Tu vois?

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Salutations in Boutiques and Restaurants

In a previous article, I held a one man debate on whether or not Parisians could be considered rude. Though there are a few who will go out of their way to make you upset or show you that they feel they have been wronged, for the most part, the people in Paris, and especially in the provinces, are unwaveringly friendly.

For example, whenever one enters a restaurant, store, or boutique, someone will come up and say hello to you. They don't do it in the "I'll help you find what you need because I am working for commission" phony sort of way. The employee will say hello to you, and then get out of your way until you've made your decision as to what you want. No pressure from the vendors makes shopping a little less stressful all around: if you want some help, you know where to find them, but if you don't, then they won't.

Now this isn't a one sided deal here. If you are going to be looking around in their store, you had better say hello and goodbye when entering and exiting. Stores here are considered like an extension of their home. If you are walking into their store and flipping through their merchandise, you had better greet them first. Once the exchange of salutations is completed, it's almost as if the vendor is saying, "Ok, now you have permission to sift through my belongings."

This really is a simple procedure, and thus, I propose to briefly explain how this should be done.

First, when walking into the store, be prepared to say bonjour or bonsoir, depending on the time of day. I tend to say bonjour until about 5pm, after which I will say bonsoir. There are times, especially during the summer when the sun stays out until close to 11pm that I will say bonjour later into the evening.

Second, when saying the chosen word, it is best to actually address it to someone, though it doesn't necessarily matter which employee receives your greeting. Occasionally, when scanning the store for a target, one might not be easily found. If you find yourself in this scenario, just say your greeting out loud, with the hopes that someone will hear you. In this situation, another shopper might step in and actually greet you, just so that you feel like your greeting was not wasted.

When leaving the store, regardless of whether or not one has bought something, one should always thank the merchant and say goodbye. Usually just a merci, au revoir should suffice, but depending on the time of day, one could add on a bonne journée or bonne soirée, or even tack on a bon weekend if it happens to be Friday or Saturday. Once again, your response may not be heard by a vendor and the responsibility may fall upon a customer. I once saw in a restaurant a man sitting by the door taking lunch, and whenever someone walked out and said goodbye, he would always step in and return the greeting if a staff member was not around.

It's not as if this takes a lot of extra work, and after a while, it just becomes a reflex. In my opinion, this is just another piece of evidence that the Parisians are not as rude as many perceive.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bossnapping

For those that have traveled to France or at least studied a decent amount about the culture would probably be aware that people like to strike here a lot. Though I could break this down in another entry (which I probably will), one of the reasons that so many people protest here is because it often works. Over the course of time, many corrupt monarchies that have allowed the vast majority of the populace to suffer and starve gave way to a very angry and rebellious population, which culminated in that famous Revolution of 1789 (yes the one with guillotines). Since then, the French have had numerous uprisings, including 1830, 1832, 1848, 1871, and 1968. The people here are not afraid to use force to get what they want.

Stemming from this, a curious tactic has come to the forefront in the business world. If you've been laid off from work and feel that you have been wronged or feel that you deserve a better severance package, why don't you and your other terminated colleagues kidnap your boss?

In early 2009, this becoming something that I saw in the news pretty frequently. A good example would be the "bossnapping" conducted at Caterpillar, Inc.'s plant in Grenoble last April. When Caterpillar announced that it planned to lay off 733 workers at its two plants in Grenoble, the unions demanded talks over the severance package that would be given to the newly fired employees. Although Caterpillar agreed to increase their severance from 37 to 47 million euros, the employees still felt that it wasn't enough. On March 30th, the employees went on strike and the next day, the bosses began their 24 hours in captivity at the mercy of their former employees. The managers were allowed to call their families to let them know that they were alright. Most spent the night sleeping on the floor in their offices. By the morning of the 1st of April, the managers agreed upon a 10 day schedule of meetings over the severance packages, and in addition, agreed to pay the employees their wages for the days on which they were striking. They were released, and no charges were filed.

In what other country would this actually work other than France? I cannot think of a country in the world where this practice is legal and would spare jail time for the abductors. It is technically illegal in France as well, but according to Jérôme Pélisse, a sociologist, it is way for the employees' voices to be heard (Wall Street Journal, "In France, the Bosses Can Become Hostages"). Furthermore, the police are afraid that by arresting the employees, they could further antagonize those that have been wronged. The French have sympathy for those that take their issues to the public to make the injustice they have suffered known to the populace. There was even an occasion in 2001 where a protest in Aveyron led to the burning of a McDonald's which was under construction, and as would be the norm in most countries, the man claiming responsibility was arrested. Soon after, people were outraged and threatened to cause more damage, so the police decided to let the detained José Bové go, having served just 44 days in prison. Last year, Bové was elected as a member of the European Parliament.

When bossnapping, there seems to be an unwritten code of conduct. The police will let things be as long as the captive is treated humanely. In another instance, a kidnapped boss was treated to mussels and fries while his office was barricaded shut by his former and current employees. The purpose isn't to harm the former boss, it is to make them realize the magnitude of suffering that they are causing their formerly loyal workers. It is to show them their perspective. The police may wait outside the building to be on hand in case things do get out of control, but they don't want to step in it as this could further anger the workers. Once an agreement is reached, the captive is set free, unharmed, and almost everyone goes home with a sense of satisfaction, except for the managers, who will probably have to give away more money and funding for re-training to keep their former employees content.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Friday, April 23, 2010

Facebook Finds Friends


After five days of waiting, two rescheduled transatlantic flights, three additional flights purchased, four flights that I cancelled without the assistance of the volcano, a few days back home in St. Louis, ten hours spent sitting on the floor in Charlotte, North Carolina's airport, and a flight to France that was delayed by close to three hours, I have finally arrived back to my apartment in Paris. I felt that writing today could stave off my exhaustion. Furthermore, I have a pretty easy topic today, so hopefully my lack of cognitive ability which I possess today does not show through.

In April of 2008, I was sitting in front of my laptop at my desk in my first apartment in Paris, enjoying a glass of red wine following dinner (what made it so enjoyable was that it was only a little above 3 euros a bottle and actually pretty good). As I often did when I first arrived here, I started thinking about home, about my friends that I'm missing and some activities which I could not easily do in Paris. When away from one's country for a long period of time, it is actually quite amazing the things that one misses. I missed Mexican food a lot, even though I don't eat it that regularly, I missed certain streets which I would drive down to visit a friend, and on this particular night, I even started thinking about my kindergarten class. Suddenly, I was startled out of my reverie when I remembered that my best friend in kindergarten, François, was French! Being the case, it seemed that there was a good chance that he would be in France as well. One issue that seemed to stand out was that I had not seen him since I was five years old, when he moved back to France with his family. Would he remember me if I contacted him and even then, how could I find him?

Fortunately for me, I love messing around on facebook. No matter where I've lived, I've been able to keep tabs on my good friends (and even on people who claim to be friends who I cannot for the life of me remember who they are), so that when we finally meet up, we already know a little about what is going on in each other lives. In François' case, I started by searching for his name on facebook, though I immediately realized that there are far too many people with the same first name in France to actually find him without searching through 10,000 other profiles as well. I called my parents and asked for his last name and my Mom happened to recall it, albeit with a slight spelling error. I looked him up and sure enough, found a guy whose birthday was just a few days apart from my own, French, and looked like the François that I knew as a kid, though much older obviously. I sent out an introductory email, hoping he would remember me, and seeing if we could meet up at some point.

This plan worked well. By August, I was on a train out to Brest, which is the westernmost city on the French mainland, to meet up with some guy I hadn't seen since we had mandatory nap time at school everyday. I exited the train station, and was able to find him with little trouble. What amazed me after a couple of days is that we talked and got along as if it had been only a few days since our last encounter, and not 19 years. Since then, I have also visited him in Provence, where he and his lovely fiancée live today, and Julie and I will be attending their wedding in Bretagne (Brittany) in July.

I know some people happen to think that facebook is a colossal waste of time. To some extent, that is true. There are tons of applications, games, and other distractions that don't really contribute to my personal enjoyment of the site. I personally do not care how many sheep you have raised on your virtual farm, or what drink you have virtually sent me.

However, facebook, when used for its original purpose (that is connecting people), is nothing short of phenomenal. Thanks to it, I have been able to reconnect with my best friend from kindergarten, meet up with an old friend from high school in Brussels, and get travel advice from people I barely know. For example, if you put on your status "Anyone know something to do in Barcelona?," chances are that you will get several responses from friends who want to help, some that you know well and others that you don't. You might even have a cousin of a friend who lives there that would be happy to put you up in his guest room or on his couch for a few nights. From this point of view, I have nothing to say but good things about facebook. It has made traveling easier, and as long as you aren't too shy, it can make a positive difference in your traveling experiences as well.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Volcanic Activity

This is currently the longest period of time over which I have not written an entry since I started this blog two months ago. I am one of those stranded souls who is in traveller's limbo because of the volcano erupting in Iceland.

I was in Washington D.C. this past week to participate in the oral assessment for the U.S. Department of State which would allow me to work in embassies and consulates worldwide as a consulate officer. It was mentally and physically exhausting. In addition, I did not pass the assessment, but I guess it was a good learning experience.

On Friday afternoon, I was supposed to fly out to Charlotte, North Carolina and from there fly to Paris. However, there happens to be a pesky volcano in Iceland that continues to spew ash into the atmosphere, which is preventing flights from reaching most of Europe. I was lucky enough to change my flight before the Paris flight was cancelled and get the last seat on a flight the next day to Paris, though it seemed likely that it would be cancelled as well.

Yesterday morning, I awoke at 7am to check the news and saw that French airports planned on closing until at least Monday morning, which meant that my flight would be cancelled as soon as U.S. Airways figured it out that they could not fly into a closed airport. Fortunately, the lady who helped me the day before in Reagan Airport remembered my predicament and found for me the last seat on a flight for Thursday to Paris, once again from Charlotte.

This gave me a five day window where I really have nothing to do. So I decided to head back home to St. Louis. I tried to buy the ticket online for $105 online, but as soon as I went to book, the price increased more than fivefold to $566. After cussing and banging my head on the table, I continued to look and bought a roundtrip ticket for $386. Unless I get things changed on Thursday, I have 4 flights to take that day: St.Louis to Chicago to Baltimore (not to mention a train between Baltimore and Washington-Reagan), then Washington DC to Charlotte to Paris. As I write this, I am on hold with U.S. airways to work on cutting out two of those flights and one train ticket by flying directly from St. Louis to Charlotte, but I may be on hold for a while.

One great benefit of this whole thing is that I get to spend some time at home, which I was not expecting to do for quite a while. I plan to make the most of this situation and enjoy myself here, as I am trying to accept that it may take me a while to get back to Paris.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Metro Performances

As my last few blogs have been on fairly serious topics, I felt that it's about time for me to lighten up a little for this entry.

If you have ever visited Paris and rode on the metro here, you have probably encountered some sort of performance while en route to your destination. Whether it be some guy playing the accordion or a beggar unemotionally reciting the same tired speech that they will say hundreds of times per week, Parisians just accept these performances as part of the commute. Every now and then, an old lady or someone in military regalia will give some pocket change to a metro performer, but for the most part, the only people who pay attention to these speeches/songs are those that haven't seen them before- mainly the out of town folk.

Around 19 out of 20 metro performances that I happen to see are nothing spectacular. The most common one seen is a guy that plays an accordion, usually plays two half-assed songs, gets out his paper cup for tips, and moves on to the next car. Usually there is an Edith Piaf song included. Another common instrument used to seduce the metro passengers is the guitar. No matter what, almost everyone of them plays Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba". I actually learned the lyrics to that song just from hearing it so often when heading to work.

Every now and then, someone will hop on the metro with this boombox and a microphone, complete with a paper tip cup duct taped to the stand. The amp will almost always have some distortion effect turned on so that it causes an echo when the person sings. This is used to mask the fact that the singer actually sucks at singing. Some guys come on with a ghetto-blaster and try to rap over some beat where the stereo is turned up so loud that you can't even hear what they are saying. I don't think I have ever seen the rappers make any money, but since I seem them all the time on Line 4, they must be making enough to justify annoying the hell out of 99.9% of passengers in the car.

Perhaps as common as musical performances on the metro are performances by beggars. Usually they say the same line, and honestly, they don't put a lot of effort into it. I can't blame them as they probably spend most of their day saying the same couple of lines dozens, maybe even hundreds of times. Those that want to give them money will give them money. Most people avoid eye contact as soon as these guys step on the metro, just to show that they aren't going to pull out their coins for anybody. I remember one time when a kid about my age got on and started yelling a speech. At first I thought he was begging, but then after 5 minutes where he was still screaming while barely stopping for a breath. After 10 minutes of this, I decided he was probably crazy and got on the next car so I could get back to reading my book.

Over the last couple of years, there have been a few performances that have stood out to me, where I was even tempted to give out a little change.

-There were these two guys from South America who came on and played the guitar (one smaller than the other, so it had higher notes), and simultaneously played an andean pan flute called a siku, and these were hung by strings around their necks. They also had incredible voices. Pretty much everyone stopped what they were doing to listen to them. If I wasn't paying so much attention to their music, I probably would have given them my whole wallet.

-When a friend and I were coming back from a tour, a guy steps on the metro with a guitar and introduces himself. He seems pretty typical of most people that do this- but anyway, he starts out strumming the guitar pretty well. Then he just screams. No words whatsoever. He was even making spitting noises (like putting your tongue between your lips and blowing really hard). All the while he was still playing the guitar. Everyone was keeled over laughing, and I think he actually got a lot of tips.

-One night when heading home, a father and son duo were playing the accordion and stand-up bass, respectively. The son was maybe 4-5 years old, and he couldn't play very well. However, I gave them a little money because a). it was cute to see him try and his dad seemed happy to be playing with his son and b). it was original and wanted to give a little encouragement. A few months later I saw the the same duo playing on a bench in Montmartre, only this time their instruments were switched. The kid was phenomenal on the accordion. My guess is maybe they made more when he was bad at the instrument which was twice his height as opposed to being good at the accordion. Both times I saw them, plenty of people gave them money.

If you have any stories of metro performances to contribute, because I'm sure there are some good ones that I have never even heard of that would be worthy of including.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Rise of Extremism in France?

Some of you may already be aware that the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is not very popular here. To compare, his approval ratings are currently what George W. Bush's were at his lowest point (hovering around 30%) (Wall Street Journal). In the regional elections held just two weeks ago, his party, UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), received the majority of votes in only one out of 22 regions in France. This is bad news for a man who is in power for at least another two years.

Though the numbers look grim for Sarkozy, a perhaps even more disturbing trend arose from the mid term elections- that some extreme political parties that many thought dormant actually fared well in March's elections.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, President of the National Front, an extreme right party, received 21% of the vote a couple of weeks ago in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur region in the south of France. Among some of his public comments, he has been noted to say that the concentration camps and gas chambers were just small "details" of World War II, that former president Jacques Chirac was on the payroll of numerous Jewish organizations, and that the French soccer team has too many non-white players, which is not an accurate representation of French society. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, garnered 18.3% of the vote in the north in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in the same elections. Though not yet as controversial as her father, she is the president of the organization Generations Le Pen, whose goal is to promote the teachings of her father to the youth of France.

In Languedoc-Roussillon in the southwest, Georges Frêche won the majority with more than 54% of the vote in his region. He was a member of the Socialist Party until he was booted out in 2007. He is also known for his inflammatory comments regarding the French soccer team, in addition to other statements like this one below, taken from his recent book:

"What I know is that progressively the Socialist Party [Parti Socialiste or PS] has erected itself into a vehicle for universal values: anti-bigot, anti-alcoholic, anti-smoking, anti-racist, pro-homosexual, pro-black, pro-white, pro-yellow, pro-red, pro-Jewish, pro-Muslim, pro-orthodox, pro-Japanese, pro-garden gnome, anti-pitbull, anti-unhappiness, anti-anger, anti-vulgar..."

These statistics and voting results are quite alarming. Does this mean that the French are becoming racist, bigoted, and/or anti-Semetic?

Probably not. Here's why:

First, there was a very low voter turnout, at least by French standards. According to the Economist, 49% of voters completely abstained. A voter turnout this small is usually rare in France, where by comparison, this would be an abnormally high voter turnout for a midterm election in the United States. The reason that many chose not to vote is resulting from the fact that many young voters don't know what each candidate represents, so they just don't bother to show up to the polls. The second and perhaps more prevalent reason would be that as young people don't really see much change from election to election, they just don't even care to waste their time and effort to vote for someone else that probably won't change anything in their daily lives.

Second, the regions which were won by the Le Pen family are regions that have higher proportions of geriatrics. Traditionally, voter turnout in the 55 and older age bracket is significantly higher than any other age group. Provence, being warmer year round than most of France, filled with beautiful farmland and sprawling beaches is a natural location for the aged to retire. Contrastingly, the Northern reaches of France have been hit hard by the poor economy and many have lost their jobs as many factories and mines have ceased their production. Younger people are having to leave the region in order to find work. Many of the retired population, who have spent their whole lives there, are more reluctant to leave their homes and as they usually aren't looking for work, they usually don't need to leave their region.

Both of these regions have been subject to a large amount of immigration, both illegal and legal. Many North Africans enter France through its Southern ports in the Provence area. On the other side of France, many immigrants used to come to work the mines in the North and many have stayed. The Pas-de-Calais area is also a popular residence for many immigrants who are trying to cross the English Channel into the United Kingdom. As problems with crime and the economy have hit these regions in recent years, it seems that the elderly population places much of the blame on the immigrants, many of which have arrived only in the last 50 years.

Frêche's case can be explained that he seems to pride himself as a country boy who doesn't care what the elitists in Paris think about him and his ways. From those that I have spoken with from the south of France, including Languedoc, there seems to be a distrust and aversion to anything Parisian, and I won't lie, I definitely agree that they have some valid points. Frêche usually apologizes after he makes an inflammatory speech, so at least he occasionally realizes he goes too far.

In sum, people should not be worried that France is going to become an extremist or fascist state. One thing that can be can be considered a conclusion from the recent election is that people don't like their President and barring a major turnaround, will be ready to vote for someone else come 2012.

(All of my voting statistics for this entry were obtained from the Economist)

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Treatment of African-Americans and Africans in Paris (Part II)

In my last entry, I discussed how many African-Americans were able to find success and liberty in France as a result of a populace in France that did not seem to judge on the basis of the color of one's skin. The French welcomed many talented artists and performers to France that would have suffered prejudice in the United States, and many of the artists were allowed to blossom in a way that was impossible at the time in their homeland.

However, the Black African population might argue against the claim that they are treated the same as anybody else in Paris. While the African-Americans were revered for their artistic talents, the Black Africans are treated poorly. Though nobody should be treated differently because of their skin color, why are two minorities of the same color treated so differently?

First, many in France believe that "Blacks are a social problem, not racial" (French Blacks Skeptical of Race Neutrality, New York Times). It's hard to try and explain how in 2005 in a span of five months in Paris, 48 people were killed in fires, and that all of those who perished in these fires were black. My guess would be that these are in neighborhoods that have poorer housing conditions, perhaps faulty electricity, and are in crowded areas where it might be much harder for the fire department to respond in time. At the same time, why aren't issues like these addressed?

Officially the French government refuses to recognize minorities. The census does not ask for one's skin color, nor religious affiliation. The reasoning is that by not identifying one's background or beliefs, the French are upholding an egalitarian society. In concept, this isn't such a bad idea, but there is one major issue with this. The European Union allots money to each country in order to provide assistance for their minority groups. Unfortunately, as France does not recognize minority groups, they do not have any programs to assist those minority groups within the country. Alas, equality in principle is upheld, but there are those, mainly minorities in France, that need more help than the state is willing to provide.

In the United States, when submitting a resume or applying for a job, it is illegal to ask for a person's ethnic identity or religious background. In France, this is not asked outright, but in many cases, an interviewer will ask for a photograph of the potential employee. Many of the jobs I have searched in France ask to include a photo of yourself with the resume when sending in a job application, and these were not for modeling jobs, which might be the only acceptable time in which to send one in. If a recruiter has any sort of racial prejudice, it is easy for him to pick out those that he does not want as employees.

The education system does quite little to help those in the banlieues or African dominated areas of Paris. Schools are in poor shape in a lot of the minority populated areas, especially in the suburbs of Paris. New teachers are put into these schools to test the determination and patience of the new recruits, and many of them quit as a result. Even if a student in an area like this is to graduate from a lycée (high school), he or she probably has little chance of attending a good school or getting a good job, and as unemployment rate is significantly higher in these areas of Paris and its suburbs, there is a good chance that the young student may join those ranks. With a future so bleak, what is to stop him or her from selling drugs or becoming a prostitute on the streets, where they might actually be able to make enough money to fend for themselves? This might sound eerily familiar, as many inner-city kids in the U.S. face the same issues.

To return to my initial question, I intend to address my personal opinion of why blacks from the United States and blacks from Africa are perhaps treated so differently in France. As many African-Americans were perceived to be creative expressionists of some sort, they were seen to be contributing to the well being of French society. Furthermore, many were fighting in wars side by side with the French, coming from a country that has been seen equally, if not admirably, as a world power by the French. These two facts help contribute to the mindset that the African-Americans are helpful contributors to French society.

The Africans, however, are perhaps viewed in a different light as they are considered the root of many social problems in France, such as high unemployment, street violence, and crime. Many escaped to France as a result of political turmoil, in some cases, caused by the French themselves. Some of the suburbs of Paris are compared to war torn Eastern Europe, as muggings and harassment are frequent and burned out cars line the sides of the road. Most of these problems are blamed on immigration from Africa and several politicians have taken the stance to boot them out. The current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, once suggested that the French should only allow the intellectual Africans to enter the country. This further alienated Sarkozy from this population, as he was considered by many responsible for sparking the 2005 riots in suburban Paris by calling the rioters in the African neighborhoods "scum". There is little that Africans can do in regards to these views in government, as blacks are poorly represented in government, both at the local and national level.

With better representation in government and general understanding of the situation of Black Africans in France, there is a good chance that these issues could be alleviated. Progress has been made as frequent protests by organizations such as CGT (General Confederation of Labor) are receiving national attention, calling for assistance to those (mainly Africans) without working papers, among other issues. Though progress is moving along, there is still a lot of work to accomplish to give Africans in France the rights that they deserve.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Friday, March 26, 2010

Treatment of African-Americans and Africans in Paris (Part I)

When I came to Paris in December 2005, this was the subject of the class that I was taking while here. We took a look at how the African-Americans who came to Paris in the early 1900's lived here and how many were very successful in Paris. We also examined how black Africans were treated, many of whom came to France as a result of French colonization. Even though they possess similar skin color, the treatment by the French is vastly different for these two groups.

France prides itself on being a nation of equality. For example, the census does not ask about ethnic origin nor religious affiliation. Religion and politics do not mix, as it is rare when a politician brings his or her religious beliefs into their campaign. It is also said that there is not prejudice on the basis of the color of one's skin. This is what attracted many African-Americans to France, as many of the rights of which they were denied in the United States were attainable in France.

Many African-Americans were first introduced to Paris when fighting for the Americans during World War I. Many loved the fact that people were actually willing to invite them into their houses, that they were permitted to hang out at the same cafés as everyone else, and that there didn't seem to be an aversion on the basis of the color of one's skin. Naturally, this proved attractive for these soldiers, and many began to ponder staying in France as a result.

Numerous African-American performers received attention in France that would be considered unimaginable at the time in the United States. Josephine Baker, born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, is considered a national icon in France. Until the age of 15, she scavenged for food in garbage cans on the streets of St. Louis. Once she began performing in New York, she was paid fairly well, but it wasn't until she moved to France that she obtained iconic status. As a result of her influence, after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, she was approached by King's wife to lead the American Civil Rights Movement, though she declined so that she could look after her 12 (all adopted) children. She was the first American woman to receive full military honors in France at her funeral.

Josephine Baker, though an excellent example, is far from being the sole African-American to succeed in Paris. Eugene Bullard from Columbus, Georgia, though uneducated, opened a very successful night club in Montmartre, was the only black pilot who flew in World War I, and worked as a spy on the Germans on behalf of the French leading up to World War II. Other famous African-American writers and musicians who lived freely in Paris include Langston Hughes, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. If I were to write about all of these men, this could become a very lengthy entry.

The artistic and personal liberty that these people received in the France was essentially the opposite of what they might receive in the United States. Once Bullard returned to the United States during the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to find a steady job, working as a perfume salesman, elevator operator, and other jobs that did not live up to his accomplishments on the other side of the Atlantic. He died in poverty in New York City in 1961. Baldwin, being both black and gay, was subjected to prejudice for two reasons whenever he returned to the U.S.

African-Americans also had another benefit when moving to France in that their skin color actually helped them, rather than provided a burden. Many Parisians, when meeting an African-American in Paris would assume that the person was an artist, writer, or performer of some sort. As Parisians have a profound respect for those involved in some form of artistic and/or creative expression, they were treated with the upmost respect.

Naturally, these reasons above provide enough justification for an African-American who would have liked to live freely in the early 1900's. Many African-Americans, including my former professor here in Paris, have commented on how racism does not seem to exist in France. Our second professor from my former class, as he is a Black African from Senegal, angrily refuted this claim, as he felt that he was treated with disrespect and suspicion in Paris on the basis of his skin color.

Next week I will continue with the second part of this entry, which will discuss the treatment of Black Africans in France.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

French is Becoming English


If you think that you do not speak French, you might already know more than you think. The gap which exists between the French and English Languages seem to be inching closer together every day. While it may seem daunting, French is becoming increasingly approachable for English Speakers.

Leading up to the 20th century, French and English already had many words that were the same in both languages. This is a result of numerous invasions, both by the French and the English, against each other. As a result of William the Conqueror's invasion at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, French was considered the language of the ruling class for close to 300 years in England (A History of the French Language). French names such as Robert and Richard became very common among the upper echelon. Today, most words in the English language that end with -tion, -ant, -ont, -ent probably owe their roots in the English language to this invasion.

In 1964, René Etiemble, Professor of Comparative Languages at the Sorbonne (France's most widely known university), wrote a book called Parlez-Vous Franglais?. This book declares that the French language is losing its status and importance as English is taking its place. Not only that, the English language is seeping into the French language, much as a weed does over a garden. I've heard some accounts that when this book was written, about 25% of the French language was already English, and I would not be surprised if it is higher than that today. Etiemble states that if the French language continues to surrender its ground to English, French students will no longer be able to read authors like Voltaire or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, let alone Hugo or Zola.

To combat this, an organization known as the Académie Française was given a wake-up call to defend the French language. This is the body that is known to be the official authority on the French language, and by one account I heard, these guys still dress in Napoleonic era clothing in their meetings, complete with swords, as they are "defending" the language from outside sources. It became a sort of witch hunt to track down those detestable English words, throw them into the Seine, and replace them with a more French equivalent. For example, efforts were made to change "le weekend" to la fin de la semaine (the end of the week), "le walkman" to le baladeur (the walker), and even le hot-dog to le chien chaud (the hot dog).

Unfortunately for the Académie, few of these words actually stuck in the consciousness of the French. Some of these phrases were viewed as ridiculous and flat out ignored. However, the Québecois actually use a lot of these Académie created words, and even created some of their own. As they are surrounded by all English speaking states and provinces, the people of Québec are more isolated, and as result, more willing to defend one of the last remnants of their uniqueness.

Why is English becoming so popular in France? The media certainly helps. It is a law here that 50% of the songs played on a given radio station have to be by French artists. Even then, most stations stick to the bare minimum and play French and English language songs half and half. Furthermore, many of the popular movies over here happen to be the American ones. France does put out some great films, but the output is far exceeded by the United States. When English language films are screened in France, in most cases they are shown in the original format, just with French subtitles, which can be a great exercise for learning slang, both in English and in French.

Technology has also helped advance the spread of the English language in France. As new technologies continue to emerge worldwide, the French cannot keep pace to create a French equivalent for each new product or invention that surfaces. Thus, they just use the English word. Windows, iPod, Playstation, Email, Segway, and Satellite among many others, are pronounced essentially the same as they are in English (minus the eating of the syllables that Americans like myself tend to do). The only one I can think of that is different in French from English is computer, as pronouncing this word with a French accent will cause you to say "fucking whore". So it's probably not a bad idea that they choose to use ordinateur, which translates to organizer, instead.

In the last few years, it seems the Académie has started to give up. I feel that at least half of the billboards that I see here in Paris are in English. They are required by law to put an asterisk next to the English phrase and translate it somewhere in the advertisement. The translation is usually found in small letters towards the bottom of the ad, barely legible if one happens to be standing on the other side of the métro platform for example. The one I found above was from walking out the door of my apartment to the grocery store. As I started writing this entry, I realized I didn't have any photos to prove my point, and it took me only 5 minutes to find a great example.

To name a few, outsider, boost, feeling, and coaching are the same in both languages and have recently been introduced into the French vocabulary. These words do not have French roots. As the French language is only 1/5 the size of the English language, sometimes it is just easier to use the English word, rather than create a wordy French equivalent.

There's no need to feel stressed about learning the French language. Whether or not they are aware of it, an English speaker already has a good head start.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com