Paris: The Most Beautiful City in the World

I understand that in a world that thrives on relativity (“everyone’s opinion is equal,” and other such tripe) such a declarative statement as the title of this essay makes may rankle.  Let’s start at the outset by admitting that the world is full of beautiful cities.  But before you get upset, let me make my case.  Save your furrowed brows for after you’ve read my piece.

I have been deeply blessed to have been to many capitals all over the world.  The capital of any country is a place where the country may, like a peacock, strut with feathers in full view.  There may be monuments to national moments and heroes, and churches where many gathered for centuries, and streets with countless stories.  Paris is one of those capitals, and yet for all the vaunted pride of the French, Paris never struts, as it is supremely confident in itself.

photo taken from sawboonloong.blogspot.com

photo taken from sawboonloong.blogspot.com

When people ask me why I think Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, I always start by talking about the beaver dam.  The beaver dam is an artificial construct made by animals within a natural environment.  The beaver dam is useful, aesthetically pleasing, and sustainable.  When viewed in nature – it does stand out – and yet it is harmonious.  When it is at its best, the human city is much like the beaver dam.

It’s beautiful

Beauty isn’t uniformity or conformity.  It’s the respect paid by those creating to those who will view, throughout all time.  In the construct of a city, this means sidewalks that invite and welcome walking, paths for bikes to buffer those pedestrians, and limited access to cars.  Cars cannot be allowed to be the defining principle of city planning and growth.  It’s not that cars are ugly – it’s that in being overly accommodating to them we impinge on everyone else and part of beauty in a cityscape is balance.  Despite being built long before the automobile’s ascendancy, Paris does an excellent job of giving cars freedom to roam without allowing them to own the road.

It’s accessible

A beautiful city can’t be unreachable.  It has to be accessible to all.  Paris has every mode of transportation imaginable, at reasonable prices (for the resident – it can be a bit pricey for tourists) and with a high level of reliability.  If you can’t afford these modes of travel, the city is built for you to walk;  businesses, diffuse in their location and variety, are everywhere to accommodate you.

It’s not sprawling

Still-intact medieval cities like Toledo in Spain give us a good idea of what “size” should mean in relation to the human scale of cities.  Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, are experimenting with this in our modern milieu.  Whether they can be successful in the era of speculative real estate is less relevant than the effort itself.  A city like Paris which is relatively small (I’m only examining the 20 arrondissements that properly comprise the city) allows you to get to know your neighbors and run into people all the time.  Those sorts of occurrences build that social fabric that makes a civitas, not just a group of people living in proximity to each other.

It lets nature in

Paris has trees down nearly every boulevard and more parks than you can shake a fallen tree branch at.  Nature is seen as a harmonious and necessary part of the city – not something you keep on the outskirts or in the countryside.

It melds old and new

As much as I may dislike the Georges Pompidou or Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, they, and other structures like them remind us that the human project is never finished.  Some periods are clearly better than others (you’re never going to get me to like the Rococo or Mannerist periods) but yet all of it still, in its own way, works.

It has water

An homage to an era before we could steal water from far away places and create cities that should not exist (Las Vegas), a river reminds us of the reason why humans came together to live in the first place – to be near a resource so integral to our daily lives.  Now, I should admit that the dirtiness of the Seine is a disgrace and has a number of not-easily-resolvable causes, but the way the river and its constant traffic – both on it and along its banks, winds through the city is fundamentally arterial, and, if it were removed, its loss would completely change the character and city for the worse.

Public spaces play host to private pride

Many homes in Paris are small and are not built for large-scale entertaining.  As such, many parts of the city are de facto extensions of the home.  Those public spaces are more beautiful than even the most extravagant private places might be, and so you can take a stroll through what were once the private demesne of the king and his family, and see how staggering such beauty, kept to oneself, might have been like.  You live within a small home because what is outside and available to you for free is so priceless.

It has an identity

It’s only a virtue to be an “international city” if you have your own clear identity.  If you walk away and know what the identity of the city is – what it has left within you.  Paris is the most visited city in the world for a number of reasons, but I suspect that part of it has to do with the fact that not only does Paris promise so much to those who learn of it, but it so overwhelmingly delivers that we lovers of it are forever haunted by its soul, even if circumstances do not allow us to make a permanent home here.

Many cities are beautiful in their own way.  But Paris, for all these reasons and more, is the world’s most beautiful.

The loss of Netflix and Hulu, or “How I started reading again”

I’m an early adopter.  Not the “have it first” type, but the “that’s really cool I’d like to try that” type.  Sometimes this works out well, other times one accepts bad experiences as the cost of being among the first to try them.

Those of us in our 30s are not “digital natives.”  Email and the internet really hit their stride after our undergraduate years.  But it doesn’t mean we take to “appification” any less, particularly ones that involve video.  Some of those video apps that I have particularly become attached to in previous years include:

Amazon Prime

Hulu Plus

NBC Sports (meant I could watch Premier League matches)

Netflix

Pandora

I knew before I arrived in France that none of these applications were ordinarily available and had started to cogitate about work-arounds or (gasp!) the possibility that I would simply “go without” while I was in Europe.

My degree is in Literature and I have thousands of dead-tree books carefully collected through years of library book sales, out-of-control spending at Half-Price Books, or at any other known honeypot for a bookhound like myself.  The smell of those pages – old and new – were pheromones for me.  They woke me up – excited me – made me simply happy.

However, in the final two years of my residence in America my reading pace had slowed to a trickle.  Instead of the usual 2-3-4 books a month I had slowed to not even finishing one book per month.  I would sometimes go a week or longer without even touching a book.  It wasn’t until I was out of the warm comfort zone that was my American existence (that I created for myself – I don’t blame anyone else!) that I realized what had happened: Netflix and its imitators.

It wasn’t entirely Netflix’s fault.  I should say it was the fault of having easy access to a nearly infinite library of video titles.  While I’m happy to doff my hat to the era of television that played host to the original Twilight Zone or produced my beloved The Prisoner, I have to say that the current era of television is perhaps the finest in history.  If we look strictly at script and writer-driven shows, like Boardwalk Empire, Treme, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, Luther, Sherlock, and the like, we are witnessing the marriage of what any reader loves, whether he/she knows it or not: real, meaningful stories combined with expert costuming, cinematography, and directing.  There are many moments on any of the series I’ve listed above where one could freeze a frame and give an hour-long lecture on everything occurring in that sequence.

In a sense, I didn’t realize I had abandoned reading because I was still occupying my time with ideas and stories and concepts that mattered to me.  It was only when I had to confront having to get a VPN workaround (I hate the name of my service, but it works) and its own challenges – like only working 85% of the time – made it so that I accepted that I would just go without for a while.  There’s always time to catch up on those series at some point in my life.

What happened in that going without?  Reading, like the waters of spring coming forth from a snowmelt, burst in through all the well-known streambeds of my free time.  Public transportation facilitated this by giving me countless chances to get in a “quickie” with some novel or work I had downloaded for free (because it was in the public domain) and read on my Kindle app on my iphone or ipad.  That led to even more reading (I was foolish enough to bring a number of dead tree books with me to Europe) and before I knew it, the old paradigm had reasserted itself in my life: free time spent in large part reading, with a tiny bit of TV via the free Fox app and a weekly movie in the theaters.  Unwilling to pay for any premium services like Netflix, I simply enjoy Pandora (I still haven’t converted to Spotify, but I am open to listening to you tell me why I should) and the occasional guilty pleasure of Masterchef or Hell’s Kitchen (I love cooking and I love Gordon Ramsay).  Last week my mother told me I should watch the new Jack Bauer 24 series and I haven’t yet told her that I already watched the first episode, having failed to stop watching 24as I should have – after the 3rd season.  Remind me to tell you about my feelings on the art of non-finishing some time.

So, can I ask you to try something?  Something that can be done from the comfort of your own home?  Give up Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus for one month.  Watch what happens.  I’m not on a crusade here.  I just want you to experience what I wasn’t able to until I left everything I knew to move to a place where I only knew a handful of people.  All those programs you’re terrified you’ll miss will still be there for you.

If you ever go back.

What I always see when I travel

“Wow, it sounds like you’re really into churches.”  My companion was to my right.  Corsica was outside our window and below, to our left.  He was a Spaniard and we were both headed to Romania that weekend.  I, for a wedding, he for a bachelor party.  Our conversation that afternoon had covered all kinds of ground but we had finally come on to why I had been in Madrid.  I told him I had taken opportunities to go on day trips to Ávila and Segovia.

“Honestly,” I said, “churches are the most important things to see.  They matter most, in a way.”  As the words left my mouth I realized I had never articulated such a thought before but that I believed it deep down in my bones.  I began to make my case.

“Think about whenever you visit a new place.  Apart from enjoying the language, food, culture, and customs, you want to enter into how these people are the way they are.  You can examine their buildings, see their art, and see their places of worship.

“Castles are majestic.  Museums are fascinating.  But they are, in their own way, simply an artifice.  The Louvre was a working palace before it became the world’s largest museum, and El Escorial (my favorite royal palace in Spain) is magnificent, but I’m only permitted to see it because it’s no longer the king’s residence.  If things were now how they were then, it would only be under some extraordinary circumstance that I would be able to so freely traverse the private apartments of the king.

“But the irony is that despite being constructed in the happiest times of monarchy, these churches are the most democratic of buildings.  Overwhelmingly they were built by the contributions of the whole community, be they great persons or small.  People contributed their time and expertise and money to raise these stony testaments to God.  Stained glass provided otherworldly lighting for the space and catechism to the illiterate.  Statues of wood or alabaster or marble brought the lives of the saints and stories of Scripture into real and convincing relief.  Some of the people were paid for their work as artisans, but many volunteered their time: these buildings would be legacies to be handed down from generation to generation.  They weren’t buildings frozen in amber, as museums often are, but these were living things, the pride and joy of the communities in which they were always located in the center.

“Go to any small town in the countries that comprised Christendom after the Protestant Revolt.  You will find inspiring cathedrals surely, but you will also find beautiful little churches, ironically proud in their humility.  People started their lives here when they were baptized.  They ended them here when they had a Requiem Mass.  They may have been joined to another human for life in the company and witness of all their beloved in the enduring tradition that is marriage.  Or they consecrated themselves to God’s service.  People gathered under those roofs in all times – in peace and in war – in plenty and in famine – in good weather and foul – and in times sad and happy.

“As you breathe in the incense and candlesmoke of centuries in a place where so many spoke to God – or didn’t – or simply sat and listened, your senses can be afire.  Churches are places that remind us, by their majesty, that all things must end, no matter how glorious.  This is why I go to churches whenever I travel: to remember that I am immortal.”

He simply nodded.  I looked out the window at a beautiful bank of clouds.  I closed my eyes and was again in the dark beauty of a Spanish church.

Death in the Afternoon, or Sunday Chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Meetup is a great website.  If you don’t know it, it is a site that allows you to create a group based around a particular love or passion.  Want to play bridge?  Or go hiking?  How about practicing your English and French?  All you want, and then some.

The burden is on the organizer.  He/she pay$ to start the group and is responsible for its ups and downs.  The better the organizer, the better the group.  I’ve started two groups here.  One for soccer inside the city (there are a couple excellent groups that play in the big parks just outside the city…I can play soccer in a big field anywhere in the world.  But in front of Les Invalides?  Not too often.).  The other one is for chess, and has been pretty successful in its early days.  Our first get together found 8 strangers from all over the world drawn together by a common love for the game of black and white squares, and the pieces that inhabit them.

That first meeting was at Anti-Cafe, a “co-working” space.  More on that another time.  A great time was had by all and we played timed and untimed games.  We also took time to school a novice on the rules and some basic strategy.

Chess is fascinating on many levels, and during the year I lived in Saint Louis I was a member of the Saint Louis Chess Club, which hosts the US Championship every year and where you can get tutored by grandmasters.

Basic principles beyond the names and movement of pieces are manifold, but here are three that I share with any fellow novice:

1.  Try to capture/attack the center of the board

2.  Try to develop your pieces (move back-rank players forward)

3.  Try to consider each move through the two-fold criteria of what is this piece attacking and how is it attacked

These principles were on my mind last Sunday, during our latest meetup – our first outdoors – at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  After three successful meetups, where we had built up a strong core, I thought a fun tournament, with some euros on the line, might be fun.  5 euro buy-in.  We would see who would show up.

As a group becomes more carefully curated over time (again, depending on the organizer), the percentage of who signs up for an event vs who shows up may improve; my basic rule was 50%.  That is, if 8 people said they were coming, then 4 people, at best, would be actually coming.

Today was a bit better.  Ten committed, including myself.  We  had 5 plus myself actually show up.  There was an alleged “beginner” but as we played a quick game it became obvious he was just being modest.  I drew up a quick series of brackets that ensured everyone would play at least three games before we got to the final “money” matches.  It was imperfect for sure.  I had always played in well-organized round robins but as the sole organizer unsure of the number of attendees I hadn’t troubled too much with an elaborate schedule of matches.

Indeed, my focus (perhaps wrongly!) had been on bringing terrine, crackers, oranges, and vin rouge.  Who can play chess without drinking, surely?  But that is the least of the tournament transgressions we committed.

No one else had brought clocks so I loaned out my ipad and iphone, both of which had chess clock apps.  The iphone sadly gave up the ghost midway through the 3rd match, though the ipad lasted longer.  Some couldn’t play a timed match due to the paucity of clocks.

You also shouldn’t talk during tournaments, but the French are quite disposed to comment on everything, whether they know you or not, much less chess.  We were just a few feet away from the most popular players in the Jardin.  One of them was an old man with a grizzled sel et poivre beard.  The other was a man with palsy.

They played 3-5 minute blitz games, where moves were almost instinctive.  Winner stayed, loser walked.  Occasionally bets would be taken.  A group of 15 always surrounded whomever was playing – a variation on a nerd cage-fight.

Everyone was commenting on the game: some jeering, some offering officious (or kind) advice.  Players got into it also: “Allez, putain!”  I laughed heartily and leaned across to my adversary, “Les français sont très polis, non?”  He laughed also.

Tourists, taking in what had started as a beautiful day, continued to mill by even as it got overcast and slightly chilly.  I heard the snap and clickle of cameras and I wondered how my horrible losing positions might look on someone’s facebook, captioned, as, “what a moron: mate in 7!”

I had placed 4 of the 6 players in “advanced” brackets.  Yves, the self-proclaimed beginner, and I, occupied the “knockout” brackets, where we would play each other and the losers of the upper brackets (As an aside, I love names like Yves and Ombeline that we just don’t have in English).

Some played faster than others and in between Yves and I’s second matches, some parents cooed their precocious children our way.  The children looked reluctant and somewhat embarrassés about their French tigre mom who would take them to the tables of the Jardin to make them play chess with adults.

We looked friendly enough, as usual my goofy American smile was the “over here” beacon that allowed a French parent to come over and ask, “eut-il jouer avec vous?

Oui.”  Chess keeps you humble, I thought to myself as I reached out to sake the paw of the (I guessed) 10 year-old, also remembering to switch all my you-singulars to the familiar.  Children and animals get the “tu” treatment automatically.  “Tu” though he might be I figured that no kid who was going to come play with adults was a slouch.  I expected to lose.  I’m only in the mid-hundreds in USCF ratings, after returning to the game in 2011 after a nearly 2 decade absence.

“He’s terribly aggressive,” I thought to myself as he brought out his Queen in move 8.  Yes, I had people asking me questions, people wanted to know who played next, my own vin to pour, bien sûr, but all credit to the kid, he beat me handily, in fewer than 20 moves (I wasn’t notating, but that’s a fair guess).  I was a bit distracted but he beat me fair and square!

His sister was playing a slower, less aggressive game against Prem.  “Be careful, ah?” I said with a smile.  “He beat you?” Prem asked, almost astonished.  “Oui.”

An English father came up and asked in halting French if his kid – who looked 8 – could play.  After a bit of discussion, I let the battle of les enfants terribles commence and I chatted with the parents.

From London, and Arsenal fans, even better!  The kid was rated 1700, with the father in the 2000s.  Even mom was an 1100.

“We don’t have anything like this in London.”  “Yes, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?  Put some beautiful boards down and people will come.”

There was a bocce ball “field” right by a park in my arrondissement at the Square de Batignolles.  It was often occupied by Italian expats who took their native game quite seriously, grazie mille.  Angry Italian spewed out whenever a teammate was supposed to have made a poor throw.  No angry Italian, or angry any language here, really.

We laughed and looked back at the game at hand.  Your son’s quite deliberative.  “Yes, well, I blame his coach.”  “You, no doubt,” I surmised.  He didn’t say anything.  He was analyzing his son’s current position.  The mother was being indulgent.  She wanted to move on after the first game but we encouraged them to play une plus.

To keep her amused I switched into tour guide mode and told her a bit about the garden itself, its founding and recent history.  “You love this place,” she remarked.  “It’s my favorite big park in the city, yes,” I replied.

The kids wrapped up, I wished them well, and I notified all my players of the final matchups, collecting the euros and placing them under the clocks of the respective games: 15 euros for the top winner, 10 euros for the next bracket, and 5 euros for the final bracket.

Aranya (giving the peace sign here) actually won the final between him and elderly gentleman who went by the Meetup handle of “Whynot.”  Instead of taking the money and running, they went for 2 out of 3 and Aranya conceded the next two matches, and the 15 euros.  Why not stop? :-)

Erkhem, who had only been knocked into the second bracket by one loss, took a bit longer to take out Prem.  They too played at least one more game, but Erkhem had the sense to confirm his winning after the first game.

Much of the food and drink I brought was uneaten (note for next time: food not so important for chess nerds) and as we shook hands almost four hours after we started, I promised more meetings for the months ahead.

My 35th.

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

-Thornton Wilder

I was born at 4:04am Singapore time on March 28th, 1979, nearly two weeks past my original due date.  That meant that around 21h00 on the 27th, Paris time, that my 35th year had commenced.  I wanted to give you a 24-hour snapshot of the day, which was not really different from many Fridays in Paris, except for the fact that I had completed most of my work projects for the week and had no students to tutor.

***

21h00

It was the end of the month so I was sending emails to my staff at Word Works, as well as to some vendors and one follow-up with a potential new client.

I tidied up some things, checked my watch again, and decided to be early to my movie at UGC George V on the Champs Élyseés.  It would also allow a leisurely walk and I sometimes left too late.  I took a small volume of Robert Frost’s poetry in tribute to the bit of Winter that had stubbornly stayed on these last few days.  I also brought my language journal.  The Grand Budapest Hotel would be subtitled in French, and I would be able to jot down a few new words as they flashed across the screen.

It was quiet as I stepped onto my street.  Paris is, in many places, quiet after 8.  Even more so in my neighborhood, the 17th arrondissement.  I was equidistant between Wagram and Monceau, but Line 2 and Monceau suited me well for my destination.

I clicked along in my high-top black leather shoes that told of my approach along the old cobblestones.  I had the beginnings of a smile on my lips for any stranger who might make eye contact with me.  I hadn’t become Parisian enough yet to completely avoid eye contact!

I was carrying a water bottle with me.  I had brought it with me from the States.  People use them all the time there but here very few people carried such bottles around externally.  I had to remember not to set it down, lest I forget to pick it up.

I clicked down2014-03-29 13.37.30 the steps to my side of the metro station.  The timers read 04 and 10.  Four minutes to the next train, 10 minutes to the one after that.  I adore the Paris Metro.  I2014-03-29 13.37.43 often feel that it’s faster and better than a private driver.  Well…almost.

I sat down on a seat and cracked open my Frost.  Many American schoolchildren know “The Road Not Taken” but my real love for his poetry began in 1998 when I studied his work in his beloved New Hampshire at Thomas More College.  Poetry can be read a thousand different ways.  Tonight I flipped through somewhat indifferently.  I was looking for resonance so I could stop reading and reflect.  I found it here.

Caught up in my thoughts I automatically rose to get onto my train, then alight at Étoile, and then out onto the Champs, and almost carelessly walked past this, which I always try to stop and admire.  After a moment or two I did an about-face and walked to the theater.  I chuckled to myself as I had once remarked that only people in San Francisco read while walking, but I realized, nose in my book, that lots of people in dense urban settings do that.

I retrieved my ticket using my UGC card and descended into the lobby to wait for my showtime.  It was Lent and I had already had my two collations and main meal for the day.  I just tried to keep my eyes on Frost instead of the candy palace before me.

An efficient young man came up some time later and asked me in French what movie I was waiting for.  “L’hotel grand de Budapest.”  “vous pouvez aller maintenant.”  “Merci.”

22h00

I chose “orchestra” seating.  In some of the theaters in France, as in Singapore, where I first watched movies, they had “balcony” and “orchestra” seating.  For most of my life I’ve preferred orchestra.

I settled into my seat.  As I’ve grown older I’ve tried to avoid the rush and crowds of a theater by carefully selecting a showtime guaranteed to be less crowded.

The movie was typical Wes Anderson.  Fun and detailed backgrounds, signage, and models (Darjeeling Limited).  Some foreign language usage but no subtitles (Life Aquatic).  Cheekiness (Rushmore).  Relationships (Bottle Rocket).  Family (Royal Tannenbaums).

I walked home slowly and deliberately, almost as if in the opposite of a race.  In the hustle and bustle of the day you can’t always enjoy a walk and now as I had the streets to myself, my clicking footsteps slowed.

As I came out of the Metro and turned towards the treasure that is Parc Monceau I saw the sweep of a spotlight in the sky.  It was coming from the Eiffel Tower, of course.  In the evening a giant floodlight rotates at the top of that thing, imitating a lighthouse.

Look, I can’t get as excited about the Tour Eiffel as the newbie visitor might.  For many who have never been or will never go to Paris, it is the source and summit of their Parisian dreamings, if they have any.  My thrill comes when I show first-time visitors or my friends and watch their reaction.  Enjoyable, to stay the least.

What’s Paris to me?  Square John XXIII.  Place des Vosges.  Petit Palais.  The Diana Statue in the Louvre and at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  Kids and boats.  Any cafe.  St. Francis Xavier.  St. Etienne du Mont.  Notre Dame de Loreto.  The Orsay Clocks.  Alexandre Dumas.  Moliere.  Pastries.  Canards.  Notre Dame, original edition.  Pere Lachaise.  Sunsets on the steps of Sacre-Coeur.  Music on the Seine.

The sensory overload can cause some to switch off.  They go about their day oblivious.  And believe me this can happen as easily in Paris as in any other city.  But when you let Paris speak to you she’ll disclose wonders.

00h20

As I was almost to my apartment I got a text from a colleague who was hosting a podcast.  His show had started and his call screener had no-showed.  I sprinted up the 7 flights of stairs (when you walk it multiple times a day it isn’t as bad as it sounds) and called in to the studio and screened his calls for about 30 minutes as I got ready for bed.

I thought I would be tired as I tucked in some time later.  I had said my prayers and had been texting with a few friends.  I put on the beginning of the anticipated Nick Clegg/Nigel Farage debate, and fell asleep (not because I wasn’t interested but because I finally let myself go).

***

10h00

The morning provided a slow wakeup.  I had forgotten to turn on my space heater so I drew my blankets in closer to myself to stay warm.  Fridays were typically days off, anyway, so I was content to sleep in.  I flipped over, pulled up The Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, and heard what the Left had to say about Nigel vs. Nick.

One of the criticisms that crept into my don’t-want-to-get-up-yet ear was that “He (Nigel) clearly can get flustered and he made that crazy statement about the EU having blood on its hands over the Ukraine.”  The conversation proceeded apace, and Farage’s foil was the nearly professorial Clegg, who as a “professional member of the political class,” as Nigel is wont to call most MPs, was unflappable as he dodged parry after parry from the UKIP Leader.

“That’s because he’s a normal person,” I thought aloud, to no one in particular.  I was much like Nigel – a big idea person – content to leave details to those smarter than myself – confident in my ability to rather lead, motivate, and inspire.

11h00

I finally roused myself.  I made a petit dejeuner and sat in front of my computer to pay the regular end of the month bills.  Funnily enough, my landlady prefers to be paid via paypal, which makes paying rent a breeze.

I also ran down my budget vs. expenditures spreadsheet, now well into Month 5.  It was the first month my projections had actually hit their targets.  At some point I’ll write a post about the cost of living here.  In some ways, it’s expensive, sure, but in many ways having a constrained budget helps you realize just how little one needs to survive in a modern society.

I then turned to some personal and business correspondence, and made out my to-do list for the day.  It’s a simple system that works for me.  I make a list of 10 things that have to get done by the end of the day and what doesn’t make it goes into the “extra” list.  Whatever doesn’t get done that day, together with the extras, helps comprise the next day’s list.  Conversely, if I’m ahead of schedule I can pick off some items from the “extra” list.

12h00

My friend Justin FaceTimed me.  We would not change to Daylight Savings here in France until Sunday, so he was only 5 hours behind me in Florida.  It was 07h00 for him and as a coffee lover he was moving past the stupor which first light brings to lovers of the bean.

He’s a business partner and we discussed some matters while I packed up my messenger bag for the day.  Books, journals, iphone/ipad charger, ipad mini.  We switched to the telephone as he began his commute and I got ready to go out.

It was a truly beautiful morning.  I have a really cool list of cafes that purports to offer expressos for 1 euro or less.  This is generally reliable.  Indeed at Le Trois Pieces the other day I got a cafe creme (French for latte) and half a baguette for 3 euros 20.  But that’s to be expected deep in the 17th, where no English speakers or tourists lurk.  Here the locals will complain about high prices.  But hey, if you want to pay 8 euros for a coffee to get no better view than many other places in Paris, head to Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  There you can sit at Deux Magots and Cafe Flore and many other places famous for being famous, which specialize in parting tourists from their money.  For me, I’m done standing outside in a line to get into a club: paying to sit in a cafe that offered nothing spectacular, something quite similar, did not make my list.2014-03-28 13.18.47

2014-03-28 13.21.08 I set out, to-do list in hand.  My chosen cafe today was not far from my front door.

As always, I was treated to sites like this one.  But there’s ugly architecture in Paris too, pictured below it, just a block away.

As I headed down the street it turned into a “market” street.  This is great for people watching, but terrible for reading and writing, which were my intended activities for the afternoon.

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So I turned around from that market street view, and looked at the cafe behind me, and spotted that open table at the end, under the red awning.  You have to confidently walk up and grab your spot in a cafe.  I lowered my bag and the waiter asked if I was going to eat.  No, “un petit cafe seulement” which is French for “I just want to order a coffee  and sit here for as long as possible.”  He apologized and told me that only the interior was available.

13h00

My timing was off.  It was lunchtime.  Of course they needed the tables.  I couldn’t go to my first or second choice cafe, so I was going to engage in flânerie now.  I wandered.  I still kept an eye out for a possible spot.  Everywhere was packed, however, and they don’t really even want to spare an interior spot at lunchtime unless you’re eating.  Totally understandable.

I walked into a cafe and gestured to an empty two-top.  “C’est libre?”  The lady sized me up: “Oui, pour le déjeuner.”  “Non, je voudrais un cafe, seulement.”  She gestured to the bar and I was content to stand there, drink, and perhaps read for a bit.  As she began to pull the espresso she asked, “Voulez-vous installer sur la terrasse?” “Bien sûr.”

I wrote and read for a couple hours.  People would stare at me writing just as I would stare at their chiens.  Parisians love their dogs.

At some point a French girl in her mid 20s, in all black, sat down next to me.  She ordered a soda and started smoking American Spirits.  Smoking is under attack in France (just as e-cigarettes are on a meteoric rise) but don’t doubt that it’s still very much the national pastime.  If you do doubt it, sit outside at a cafe.  Smoke will find you – as you will the ash which now fluttered onto the pages of my journal.

She struck the typical pose – cigarette carelessly held between the index and  middle fingers of her left hand.  Sunglasses.  No frown but certainly no smile.  She was thinking – not really observing much.  I was positioned to observe without being obvious.

After smoking 3 cigarettes and downing her diet coke, she abruptly got up and crossed the street, off to her next destination.  She had paid for her drink when it was delivered, which is often the custom when you sit outdoors.

I checked my watch.  I had a podcast I was hosting at 16h00 and it was 15h00.  I wrapped up my work and walked out.  Among the sites I saw on the way was this.  Great advertising.

15h15

My sister messaged me saying the children wanted to wish me a happy birthday.  Sure.

FaceTime gave me a moment with her and two of the cuties in my life.  I got a happy birthday song and caught up a bit.

“What are you getting for yourself?” she asked.  I was looking for a scarf, I thought.  Scarves really are everything in this town and finding the right one, and tying it the right way, does matter.

I didn’t want her to buy me anything, so I told her instead, “Clare, I’m living in Paris.  That is my gift.”

So it was.  My last birthday in Europe had been 14 years ago, in 2000.  Despite the fact that we had been able to drink for months my friends insisted it was “legal in America” night and I made it home that night, despite the tricky cobblestones in Trastevere, thanks to the sturdy left shoulder of my college sweetheart.

16h00

The podcast had a few technical glitches but we got them handled.  I then had a call with a new hire for one of my businesses, firmed up some weekend plans with friends – the new Captain America was coming out a week earlier here in France and I planned to take advantage.

I got dressed for dinner at a great Indian restaurant (Vallée du Kashmir, in case you’re wondering).  And just like that, my first 24 hours of my 35th year lapsed.

Some years ago the Lees Summit Chamber of Commerce conference room contained 20 of us who were sitting in a meeting room trying to organize a “young person’s” group.  One of the first questions the group posed was “How old is young?”  A couple eminences grises had tentatively asked, “25 to 45?”

An attractive girl I had been flirting with snickered, and I raised my hand to speak.  At 28 I was less diplomatic than I should have been, and blurted out, “I mean honestly, who considers 40 young?”  The 20-somethings in the room nodded their heads and the few 40-somethings in the room wilted.

It’s an unfortunate American trait that considers youth the greatest time of life and seeks to chase it indefinitely.  At dinner this night I would hear the phrase “James Dean” float over from an adjoining table (in an Indian restaurant, in a Muslim neighborhood, in France) and as I recounted this anecdote to my friend I was told the French have this problem as well.

Whatever happened to aging gracefully?  For my part the oldest person is always the coolest person in the room.  They have great stories and so much more experience.

At 35 I suppose some would still consider me young – and since I had done so much (I had hoped) to disprove George Bernard Shaw’s (oft correct) “It is too bad that youth was wasted on the young,” it didn’t matter what you called me.  I still thought it was a laugh that anyone in their 40s would call themselves young, but I did feel truly blessed that, whatever age I had lived to, I woke up this morning in Paris, having accomplished almost everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

Time for some new dreams.

I want to thank my parents, who gave me life, God who gave me my soul, and my family and friends who give me so much love and encouragement every single day.

Long Term Stay Visa, Part 2

Despite the work it took to obtain my visa in the first place, my paperwork was not completed.  This is what happens when you get here.

I will admit, I was planning for a full-day affair on March 12th.  That was the 90-day mark of my arrival and OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) wanted my bright shining face in the 10th arrondissement at 09h00.

I needed to bring the following with me:

1.  The letter whi2014-03-12 07.59.26ch had been mailed (and emailed) to me providing proof of my appointment.  Easy enough.

2.  My passport.  Of course.

3.  My quittance de loyer or attestation d’hébergement.  Asked my landlord, piece of cake.

4.  A photo.  They have photomatons all over the city where you can step in a booth and knock this out..  5 euros for five pictures.  You can use them for all sorts of things.  Notice how happy I look!  But in all seriousness, you’re not allowed to smile.

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5.  Fiscal stamps.  This was hilarious.  I needed to go to a Tabac – a store that sells tobacco – which is often a cafe – and buy these.  You use them for all sorts of taxes and fees.  There were two and then soon ten anxious smokers behind me in line, as the lady kindly counted out 241 euros in fiscal stamps.  To be fair you can now, mirabile dictu, buy these online!

6.  A vaccination card. This was proof that I had gotten all the basic stuff.  The kind folks at Sunflower Medical Group faxed that to me the same day I requested it.

2014-03-12 07.59.40So I had a bit of work I had to do in the days leading up to my appointment.  Day of, I packed snacks, sandwiches, a book, my journal, etc.  I was ready to be there all day.  Boy was I wrong.

Perhaps it is the repetitive nature of what they do, but this group of French civil servants are among the most efficient I have seen in any country, ever.

I was checked-in downstairs by a security guard, who sent me upstairs to my first waiting area.  I had arrived at 08h50, about 10 minutes before my appointment window.  I was seated for about 3 minutes before I was moved to another area.  Instead of the first room, which had 30 seats and only 6 people seated, this oval room had 40 seats and all but 3 were taken.  These were immediately taken by myself and the other two aliens/immigrants who had been walked down the hall from Room #1.

I got comfortable, got out my book (Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, an excellent read, by the way, and free on your Kindle or Kindle app) and got ready to be there for a while.

After 20 minutes of reading I looked up to get used to the flow of traffic.  Immediately to my left there were nurse practitioners or equivalents calling out names.  After going in that room, you are a little later called into another room, then another, then you leave to go back to the front.

One of the interesting aspects of the morning was hearing the French try to pronounce non-French names.  “Stephen Heiner” comes out as “Steve-fen Eye-Nehr.”  I’ve often thought of creating a “stage name” during my time in France – something like “Etienne Henry.”  Etienne is French for Stephen and Henry would just be an elision of Heiner.  Oh well, next time perhaps.  When I didn’t have to show documentation that I was someone else :-)

I heard my name amid the buzzing French conversations and stood up and went into the first room.  I was asked to take off my coat and scarf and was weighed, measured, and given an eye test.  There didn’t seem to be any problems, and as a bonus I found I had dropped 5 kg, about 12 pounds, since I had been in France.  I could keep this up and be at my ideal weight after 9 more months! :-)

I should note here that I’ve very much taken on French rhythms and customs of eating, with a paleo twist.  I don’t snack in between meals, my portion sizes are sensible (read: not American), and I cook my own food most of the time.  My paleo twists are frequent use of butter and meats, and a reversal of my age-old practice of increasing meal size as the day goes on.  I now have a huge breakfast (when it isn’t Lent, of course), a medium-sized lunch, and a modest dinner, with the dinner taken before 19h00.  Of course, when I go out with friends for meals we usually don’t even get to the restaurant until 20h00.  But most days this is the regimen – and that, combined with my having to walk and bike everywhere – an average of 3 miles per day – was probably the main reason I lost that winter weight that had been storing up during my car-dependent life in America.

I sat down after this felicitous weigh-in and dug back into my book.  09h45.

The next station was the radiologist.  There were three changing rooms we lined up outside of.  We would step in and lock the door, which would activate a light on the other side to let the radiologist know there was a new “customer” waiting.

We were to strip above the waist and wait patiently.  After a few minutes my door opened and I was walked to an x-ray machine.  The radiologist said “Breathe-in” in French and I took a deep breath and held it.

At around 10h30 I was called for my last stop in the oval room: the doctor.

She asked if I spoke French and I said that if she spoke slowly, please, I would be able to keep up.  Fluents, by nature, speak quickly.  I do unconsciously in English all the time.

She laughed and obliged.  She looked over my files, asked for my vaccination card, and ticked off some other questions like was I taking any medications, etc.

She stamped and signed a sheet – one for my records and one to hand to my final stop.

I was back in the room I started in.  I sat down just in time to watch the exchange between the woman in charge and another person, like me, getting ready to check-out.

(In French)

“Your papers, please”

(girl hands them over)

“Photo, proof of residence, and fiscal stamps, please”

(girl hands them over)

Woman takes everything, then frowns and hands back a piece of paper.

“This is not sufficient.”

Now, the girl had handed her an SFR cell phone bill, which everyone knows isn’t good enough for anything.  The woman asked for a quittance de loyer or attestation d’hébergement, or the single most important piece of paper for your administrative life in France, an EDF (Électricité de France) bill.

(girl stammers back in halting French that she doesn’t have it)

“bien revenir, alors,” the woman said, annoyed.

The girl stammered, in English, “I come back?”

“Oui, oui, cet après-midi, demain, ce n’est pas grave.”  She was more annoyed now.

The girl made it into a statement, “I come back.”

The woman stared her into going away.

That girl left without the one thing we all were there for today: the sticker in the passport saying we were “legal.”  I was scared.  I triple-checked all my stuff.  But I had everything.  She smiled and handled my papers, and put this all important sticker in my passport, and stamped it.

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She handed me a sheet of paper which instructed me to go to my police station in my prefecture, which is the final step in this process.  And she demonstrated what I’ve come to realize:  if you come prepared with all you need, the French are happy to help you on your way.

So, I’m not totally done, but mostly done, and the second step was a total breeze compared to the first.

The UGC Pass Illimité or “Netflix Live”

In an earlier post I made reference to the fact that something had finally forced me to get a French bank account, after 2 months of holding out.  And it’s related to my being a cinephile: the movies.

Many movies are effectively “imported” from the States and hence cost a lot more than they do back home.  Indeed, a Sunday matinee at at least one place in Kansas City will only set you back about $4.25 – a little under 3 euros.  For 4 times that sum – 11 euros – a seat can be had for the same movie in Paris.

How do you fix this, especially if you love movies?  Enter the UGC Pass Illimité, or “Netflix Live” as I like to call it.

You pay 20 euros a month and get access every single day to any movie you want.  For 10 euros more a month you can get tickets for two.

Restrictions?  You need to show your pass along with your ticket.  The pass has a photo of you.  You also can’t enter until 10 minutes before the séance (viewing/showing).  Incidentally the “bon séance” the ticket taker says to me after tearing my ticket still sounds funny whereas “bon match” at a sporting event sounds totally normal.

Advantages?  You can make advance reservations ahead of time (via an app or online) and pick up your tickets 60-10 minutes ahead of the show (in the final 10 minutes if you haven’t picked up those tickets they get released and you have to try again at the box office hoping someone hasn’t scooped them up).

Where do I sign?  Well that’s what I said as I headed to a UGC (theater brand pronounced you-jay-say) to buy a pass, armed with my passport and a credit card, full of the confidence that any American has when in possession of these two items.  The very attractive girl who waited on me – who some weeks later I found out spoke British-accented English – played dumb for the perceived tourist and shook her head as I asked, haltingly, in French, for a “Pass Illimité.”  She replied, slowly, that I needed a French bank account.

You see, the French are really into automatic debits, so much so that when you open a bank account you are given a sheet of paper which contains 6 “cards” that you can cut out and hand to relevant vendors.  It contains all your relevant info and poof, problem solved.RIB Blois Pluriel 2007

The problem was that I had been holding out on getting a French bank account and so I just paid regular admission that night to go see Le Hobbit.  I mulled over just how many movies I would watch while in France and thought through the numbers again.  A weekly movie meant each film was just 5 euros, but any more in a month and it would be effectively even less.  As the year promised new Spider Man, Captain America, and even Bible movies, it was a no-brainer for me to get the bank account and provide her with my RDIB the next time I saw her.

The trend in France at current is to subtitle original format (VO: version originale) which is awesome for those of us on the path to fluency.  I bring a notebook with me to jot down new vocabulary words as they flash in front of me.  Where it gets comical is the instances in which a character speaks Elvish or another tongue non-native to me and the subtitles are still in French.  It’s a bit of Kabuki, unless the characters are Orcs, in which case you can pretty easily figure it out.

Downside?  As with any “unmetered” commodity, you will be willing to see “borderline” movies that you might have taken a pass on in real life.  If it’s effectively already “paid for” you think “why not?”  Two horrible movies I’ve seen courtesy of my pass include The Ryan Initiative and the new Hercules movie.  Also, depending on any number of weird factors, you sometimes have to wait a week or two to see a movie already out in the States, but sometimes it releases here first.  I guess it’s upside if it’s the latter, right?

Pass Illimité, like Velib, is a program that makes living here not just affordable, but at least in one aspect – cheaper and more innovative than back home.  And that’s rare enough to deserve a mention. :-)