Archive | September, 2011

The pigeon gets what it deserves

21 Sep

D*mn pigeon Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerGuest Contributor:  American Richard Resnick is CEO of genomic software company GenomeQuest, a TED speaker and a regular business visitor to Paris.  The day before the incident below, one of Paris’s bountiful pigeon population emptied its guts on Richard’s suit and shirt while he was on his way to a meeting.

Work is over for the night, I’m having a couple of beers with my colleague JJ in the suburb of Rueil before heading back to Paris by train. It is about a 15 minute walk to the train station. It is the same walk I do every night, and I must say, I do believe I’m really quite good at it. You know, you put one foot in front of the other, etc., and so on, until you have arrive at your destination.

And indeed, like any other night, I execute this plan successfully, and arrive at the station. I put my ticket through the machine, ascend the stairs, and voila, there is a train, standing right there. No waiting. So, I board, no problem. I turn my headphones on. I close my eyes. And we’re off.

But it’s a slow ride. And, after about 5 minutes, we stop. I decide to open my eyes.

The train is empty.

I didn’t notice that before.

And we’re not in between stations. But we’re not really at a station either. We’re in a train yard. There are trains on either side of me. None is moving.

It’s suddenly becomes clear to me that every train, mine included, is parked for the evening, waiting for the morning rush hour. I’m alone in a stopped train, my French is marginal at best, and after two beers with JJ, I really need to pee.

Shit.

The “RER” as it is known in Paris is a major set of train lines that run the length (or width) of Paris, from end to end, including the adjacent suburbs. It’s a bit nicer than a regular subway train – larger seats, larger cars, etc. And it has these doors that don’t automatically open; instead you have to either push a button – in the new ones – or turn a rusty crank counter-clockwise – in mine.

So I get up, move toward the door, and turn the crank, hoping it will open. It does. And suddenly I’m standing at the ledge of the train, and there is about a six-foot drop to the ground. No looking back, I jump.

The safety of the stopped train thoroughly behind me, I realize I am now walking on tracks with three rails. That third rail is the nasty one, but I really have no choice. I carefully maneuver across three different sets of tracks towards a very large fortress-like building on one side of the yard. There are fences with barbed wire, and signs saying things like “Caméras vous observant” (You are being watched) which I think could be the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I clearly need help.

But none of the gates open, no sirens wail, and all of the doors of the building – locked.

The urge to pee is overwhelming but I remember my mother telling me something about peeing near highly electrified metal.

“Ok,” I tell myself. “This isn’t that bad. I have my wallet.” (Frantically I drop my bag to find my wallet. I finger my passport while I am there, just for added comfort.)

“I have my phone.” Checking my phone, I am terrified to see the “Battery 20%” warning pop up. But the iPhone gives you no choice but to press OK, even though it really isn’t ok at all. (I make a mental note to Apple.)

I can do this.

I walk the length of the trains down to the other end. It’s a long train, and I have plenty of time to squint at the far end and panic about whether it is simply a closed pathway or whether there is a way out. When I arrive at the gate, it is locked. But there is a door into this fortress of a building on my right. I listen, and hear footsteps. Running through obvious things to ask in French, I turn the doorknob and go in.

I’m obviously in some kind of a Paris Metro control center, although it is totally deserted. Open boxes of pastries, fully consumed, a room full of uniforms and mops, and a stairwell, down. I take it and enter into a dingy, windowless kitchen occupied by a large table, a sink, a microwave, and a man.

Ou je suis?” Where am I? I ask, having practiced this one in my head on the way down the stairs.

The man, making his tea, looks up. Then looks down at his tea. Then shakes his head.

Parlez-vous anglais?” I pray.

Non,” he says bluntly.

Shit.

Ok, here comes Richard’s broken French.

J’ai parti de la gare Ruiel Malmaison, et maintenant, je suis ici…” I left the train station at Rueil, and here I am …

Vous etes un anglophone?” he asks.

Oui, je suis.” Yes, I am.

De quel pays?” From which country?

Des Etats-Unis.” From the US.

Ahhh … d’accord …” Ahhh … now I see …

After this proper French verdict from the train driver, he goes back to steeping his tea. I watch. I wait. The urge to pee is horrendous. Finally, I try something new:

Je veux aller a Paris, il y a un taxi, ou quelque chose….” This roughly translates in broken French as, “I’d like to go to Paris, is there a taxi or something?

He looks up. It’s really the first time he actually uses his eyes to look at me. He takes me in. Up, down, up. Finally, he decides that he is going to have to help. I’m just not going to go away.

Vous voulez un taxi ou RER?” You want the taxi or the train?

Oui, l’RER serait le mieux….” The RER would be best…

D’accord. Suivez moi.”  Alright. Follow me.

He leaves his tea behind and walks up the stairs. I follow, running behind him. He weaves us through the train yard, over tracks, on paths, around gates, and pulls out a huge set of keys which he uses to unlock a mighty gate far too tall to climb.

Now, I’ve been listening to these French CDs called Pimsleur which give you a strong basis in basic conversational French. Thankfully, the very last CD I had listened to in America taught me directions, for instance:

lá-bas: over there

ici: here

tout droit: straight

et puis: and then

á gauche: left

á droite: right

So with a combination of his pointing and saying the above words in strange combinations with many additional French words thrown in, I am freed from the train yard and put out onto the street, no worse for wear, with only a 10 minute walk back to the train station where I had so recently been. The second train I board gets me safely home completely incident-free.

I do admit to peeing on a pigeon outside a Rueil hotel on the walk back to the station.

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Paris flea market – A photo essay

10 Sep

puce1 Photo by Elizabeth DownhowerGuest Contributor – Photographer and vegan food blogger (www.littleredradish.com) Elizabeth Downhower shares photos and thoughts on a trip to the Saint-Ouen Flea Market on the outskirts of Paris.

On a rainy Saturday in mid-August, two lifelong friends, The Accidental Parisienne and myself, A Deliberate San Franciscan, visited the Paris Flea Market (Le Marche aux Puce de Saint-Ouen).  Our journey began with a half-hour metro ride through Paris with lovely above-ground stretches, followed by a brisk walk down shop-lined city blocks, where we dodged street-side vendors offering D&G emblazoned belts and knock-off watches.  We continued past the open-air stalls overflowing with Rasta-themed t-shirts, bedazzled cell phone cases and cheap jewelry – for this was not the market we were after! Our destination lay just beyond, where a small side street leads to the entrance of a labyrinth of garage-sized shops filled with vintage treasures. Here you will find everything you need to decorate a Parisian flat with gorgeous antique furniture, lighting, linens and housewares. Vintage Chanel jackets.  Western wear?! Old postcards of Paris, organized by Arrondissement. From books, fabrics and trims to much larger items; spiral staircases, piles of doors and other architectural salvage. We even stumbled upon stacks – no a mountain! – of hot water heaters. If you can dream it up, they have it.

  
We spent the afternoon wandering aimlessly through the lanes, trying to stay dry from the intermittent showers, and of course, taking photos.  I’d love to go back and photograph the proprietors of the varied stalls, each of which fit seamlessly into the backdrop of their particular wares. The tall, sharp-featured man selling antique books who first kindly joked about my picture-taking but then, as I continued, turned into a finger shaking librarian chasing us out. The elderly, well-appointed woman sitting on a divan outside of her overflowing shop of classical antique lamps, staring off into the distance. She smoked a cigarette in her right hand while the left hand stroked a small cat who sat next to her on the sofa.  Alas, those pictures are for another day. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a good sense of the market as we experienced it. Enjoy! Et Bonnes Vacances, Mlle Accidental Parisienne! Can’t wait for more of your posts upon your return! xoxo

puce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce3 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce5 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce6 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce7 Photo by Elizabeth Downhower

puce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce9 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce10 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce11 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce12 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce13 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce14 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce15 Photo by Elizabeth Downhower

They’re back – La Rentrée

2 Sep

Packed Metro Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI had to wait in long queues everywhere this week. At the supermarket, the boulangerie, the fruit stand, the health food store.  The number of parents and children seemed to double. “What’s going on here?” I thought, as I pushed my way on to the way-too-crowded Metro.  I haven’t had to wait or deal with these crowds for a while, since … aha, it became clear. I haven’t had to deal with this since mid-July, since the Parisians left the city.

From the start of July, everyone seemed to be getting a bit touchy – a bit like caged animals before feeding time. The end-of-the-school-year feeling was in the air. “Get us out, we need our summer vacation,” sounded the collective howl.

This tension built through the month and at the end of July the notices started to go up.  The bakery shut first – closed 22 July to 22 August.  The other bakery – closed until 29 Aug. Then the butcher – back 29 August. All the little shops and a lot of restaurants in my neighbourhood went dark. Some shops looked like they had gone out of business.  White butcher paper filled the front window, but a little sign said, “Fermé jusqu’au 22 août.” As businesses closed and Parisians left for the country, the tension slowly started to go away.

I was warned about the exodus, but I didn’t think that it would be so widespread. Initially, I worried the town might shut. However they do leave a skeleton crew in Paris to deal with those left and I slowly found the bakeries, markets, etc. that were still open.  I never did find an open butcher near my flat and, more than once, went to restaurants only to find little notices on the closed door and a dark dining room. However, despite being a little unseasonably cool, August in Paris was very pleasant.

The mass return from vacation at the start of September, just in time for the national first day of school, has its own word – La Rentrée. Now that the Parisians are coming back it will be interesting to see if things just pick up as they were before they left. Everyone is back with a nice deep tan but will the vacationed Parisians come back with smiles on their faces? For example, will they remember all of my pre-break hard work at Maison Hilaire, my local boulangerie/patisserie? 

As in all places in French life there are rules to be followed at Maison Hilaire.  You have to instinctively know to queue ONLY on the left side of the counter to place your order. The woman behind the counter writes your order down and passes it to another woman who fills the order, who then passes it to the woman at the till.  DO NOT speak to the woman who fills the order. When it is your turn at the till, the till woman places your receipt on a little tray, and you are to put the money on top of the receipt. DO NOT hand the money to the woman directly. She takes the money from the tray and places any change on the receipt. Then you take both change, receipt and, oh yes, your baguette, which she now hands you.  Stick to this procedure and there is no yelling. Deviate, even in the slightest way, and be prepared to be shouted at and humiliated in front of the other customers.

The friendliest bakery in Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI’d basically been doing as I was supposed to for a number of months leading up to the start of August. I persevered because my husband loved an éclair from Maison Hilaire and I had a secret mission to get the grumpy woman behind the till to reward my rule-following diligence with a bit of kindness.  I’d seen her be lovely with other customers, why not me?

The day before they closed for the August break I finally got a little love back. Well, not love exactly, but she did actually smile and said, “Bon Journée”. Was this mission accomplished? When I go back to buy an éclair and baguette will I get that hard-earned smile again or will there be special post-August procedures that everyone French knows but will take me weeks of humiliation to figure out? I’ll have to wait and see.

Our neighbours across the road were absent for most of August.  We don’t know them but it feels like they came to visit almost every night when they were in town.  Their balcony looks down at the street below and right into our living room. They are a couple, probably 35-40-ish. She likes to stand seductively on the balcony having a glass of wine and a cigarette several times a night. When they have people over they all like to stand and smoke by the balcony doors.  Usually we both pretend that we don’t see each other.  We’ve had several by-chance street-level encounters, which were a bit strange. I gave a weak smile, as I am culturally programmed to do, and they ignored us, as they culturally programmed to do. Fine.

One Friday evening they had a party. They and several of their guests, made a bit more confident by their cocktails, actually pointed and laughed at my husband and me having a rare evening sitting on our sofa in our PJs watching a DVD. Nice.

Needless to say I was enjoying our August privacy. Then last week I saw him stretching on the balcony in nothing but his flimsy boxers. There was something post-coital about his smug expression and the wet spot on the front of his shorts. YUCK! My guard was down as we hadn’t seen them in weeks and there he was in all of his glory. I ran into the other room and wanted to escape. I think he liked that I saw. YIKES! She was on the balcony again last night while we were having dinner. I’m sure in a couple of weeks I’ll be used to our seeing-but-pretending-we-don’t-see routine again.

My neighbours and the rest are all coming back to the city that did not exist for them for the entire month of August. Many of them will have not promenaded down the lovely Paris Plage, or Paris Beach, along the Seine, will not have benefited from the smaller than normal queues at the museums and attractions or have enjoyed less crowded parks, streets and Metro.  Maybe if they had, they might not leave next August and we can’t have that.

Note:  I, the accidentalparisienne, am now on holiday for two weeks. For your and my pleasure, I’ve invited a number of guest contributors to post their unique points of view of Paris over the weeks I am away. Enjoy! I look forward to getting back in touch when I return.