August 8, 2007

Getting French cell phone numbers

Even though we’d figured out how to get “regular” telephone service in France before we left (see Taking our phone service with us (or not)), we knew we’d both also want cell phone service. We could have waited until we got here to figure it out, but we weren’t confident enough in our French to be able to deal with all the jargon we’d inevitably encounter at the local cell phone store. Plus, we felt it would be useful to have functioning cell phones as soon as we hit the ground—without paying huge roaming fees to continue using our U.S. numbers. So we did some research into how we could make that happen. If you’re planning to travel to France and want to have a French cell phone number, the following information may be useful.

GSM: The first important thing to know about cell phones in France is that they all use the GSM standard—unlike in the U.S. where there are several competing technologies. So you need to have a GSM-capable phone. In the United States, AT&T/Cingular and T-Mobile have GSM networks. We had both been Cingular customers since way back, so we had GSM phones already.

GSM uses different frequency bands in different areas: 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 1900 MHz. Some GSM phones work on just one or two of these bands; others (usually called “world phones”) work on three or all four. France uses 900 MHz and 1800 MHz, whereas the U.S. uses 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. So it’s possible to buy a GSM cell phone in the U.S. that won’t work anywhere else. I had a tri-band phone (a SonyEricsson T68i, which uses the 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz bands) and Morgen had a quad-band phone (a Motorola RAZR V3), so we were both also set from that angle.

Unlocked Phones: GSM-based phones have a little removable chip called a SIM card that tells the phone things like what its phone number is and who that number belongs to. You can, in principle, get service from a new carrier, along with a new number, simply by purchasing a SIM card and popping it into your phone in place of the old one. That was exactly our plan: keep our phones, but get new SIM cards from a French provider. But most phones you buy in the U.S. have what’s known as a carrier lock, a special setting that prevents the phone from working with SIM cards from any carrier other than the one that sold it to you. The rationale is that the carriers usually sell phones very cheaply (or even give them away), assuming they’ll more than make up the difference over time with your monthly phone bills. But if you could use another provider’s SIM card, your original carrier would lose the ability to charge you for all those minutes. So they lock the phones to prevent this from happening. There are various methods to remove carrier locks—some totally legal and aboveboard, others more dubious. But we’d paid extra, when we initially bought our phones, for fully unlocked models straight from the factory rather than getting them from Cingular for exactly this reason: we wanted to have the freedom to switch networks whenever we wanted.

So we knew we were all set on the hardware side (apart from needing electrical adapters for the chargers—easily obtained for a few bucks at our local Radio Shack). Next came the SIM cards themselves. Read the rest of this article »

August 6, 2007

Sun, sand, Seine

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Today’s article on Interesting Thing of the Day is about Paris Plages, the city’s yearly project to create artificial beaches in the center of town, including a 3 km stretch along the Seine. Parisians and tourists alike seem to think this is the Greatest Thing Ever, or at least the next-greatest thing to the new Velib’ bicycles all over town which you can rent by the hour (first half hour free). I’ve never been much for sunbathing myself, at least not since that band trip to Florida back in 12th grade during which I spent a whole day baking on the beach—without sunscreen, natch—and ended up with second-degree burns on most of my chest and back. Good times. Anyway, that painful recollection aside, I don’t really get excited about any aspect of the beach scene—noise, crowds, heat, sand—except for the scenery, which isn’t particularly beach-like here. But, I must say I was tempted by the beach volleyball (I embrace contradiction) and the t’ai chi area. So there really is something for everyone.

August 5, 2007

The problem with apples

It’s amazing sometimes how a small thing can turn into a big thing when there is a language barrier to navigate. Case in point: last week Joe and I went into a small grocery store we’d never been in before, and all went smoothly until we got up to the checkout. The cashier was ringing up our items when suddenly he picked up two Granny Smith apples from our pile and started waving them at me and saying something I couldn’t understand. A multitude of thoughts went through my brain: did we need to bag them, was he asking me how much they cost, was apple-buying prohibited on a Wednesday? Finally in exasperation he handed off the apples to a neighboring cashier who dropped them on the scale beside her (she was next to the produce section), and then printed out a little sticker that she stuck to one of them. Handing them back to me, I could see the price on the sticker and finally realized our unforgivable error. Our usual grocery store never required us to self-price our produce items, but we’ll keep a much better eye out for this kind of thing when we visit strange stores in the future.

August 5, 2007

Ratatouille: A tasty dish

In the waning days of June, as Joe and I frantically prepared for our move to Paris, there was one thing on our list that we did not get done: we didn’t see the movie Ratatouille when it first came out on June 29th. It didn’t seem like a major problem at the time, but as rave reviews came pouring in for the movie, I got more and more eager to see it for myself. The problem was that even though the movie is set in Paris, it didn’t open at the same time as it did in the US, and we didn’t know when it would arrive in theaters here. I had heard about advance screenings taking place, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the first posters announcing the movie started appearing in our local Métro station. We finally had a date to look forward to: August 1st!

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Seeing these posters in the Métro was a daily reminder of what we had to look forward to, but as a lover of word play, I also found the posters themselves entertaining. They featured the main character, Rémy, in one panel, and his slightly clueless brother, Émile, in the other. Over Émile’s head ran the phrase “Rat d’Égout” (“Sewer Rat”), and over Rémy it said “Rat de Goût” (“Rat with taste”).

After enduring nearly a month of waiting, it was with great anticipation that we went to see Ratatouille on its opening night. The theater was packed, and I wondered how all the native Parisians around me would react to seeing their city up on the big screen in animated form. The difference between seeing the movie in the US and France was apparent immediately. The first few scenes involved someone speaking French, and we presumed in the US version there were English subtitles, but what we saw were French subtitles of the French dialogue! And what was even more strange, the text and the movie dialogue were quite different.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but I’ll just say that it more than lived up to its promise, and it’s a movie I would see again and again. It was especially fun for us when we could recognize a certain part of the city, and in one particular scene, both of us gasped in amazement at how true to life the movie was. Only a few days prior to seeing the movie, we had run across a most unusual window display in the Les Halles district of central Paris, and this exact window display showed up in the movie!

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Les Halles was formerly the site of an enormous food market, once known as the “stomach of Paris,” and it naturally drew not only hungry humans, but non-human visitors as well. Maison Aurouze, a long-established extermination company that once trapped the rats in the market district, now displays their mummified corpses in its front window, along with other stuffed creatures in various creepy poses. It definitely made an impression on us when we first saw it, and it was strange to see it suddenly appear in the middle of the movie.

August 4, 2007

A date with the Green Fairy

A few years ago, I wrote about absinthe on Interesting Thing of the Day. To summarize: while living in Canada, I became quite fond of this concoction of distilled herbs, legendary as the muse of writers and painters and equally legendary for its alleged contributions to insanity and violence. But as it’s still (mostly) illegal in the U.S., I hadn’t been able to obtain any in some time; I’d made do with its wormwood-free successor, pastis, which is perfectly fine in and of itself but Just Not The Same Thing. I also said:

On my next trip to Europe, however, I’ll make a point of sampling as many varieties as I can—in the name of research, of course. If my writing suddenly becomes much more poetic or prolific, you’ll know why.

I want to confirm that I’m a man of my word. Since arriving in France a month ago, I’ve already sampled three varieties of absinthe, and have a bottle of a fourth that I haven’t opened yet. I have also written an unusually large number of words, even for me (including, perhaps, a few words bordering on poetic), about quite a few different subjects, and though I can’t prove any causal connection, the correlation is worth noting.

Last year, David Lebovitz had a wonderful post on his blog about Vert d’Absinthe, a little shop here in Paris that sells only absinthe and absinthe accessories (spoons, glasses, water pitchers, prints, and so on). Naturally, we had to pay a visit.

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The proprietor, Luc-Santiago Rodriguez, was kind, generous with his time, and forgiving of our inadequate French. We discussed absinthe for quite some time, and sampled a few varieties that demonstrated a surprising range of flavors and aromas. We asked which of the dozens of brands he stocked was closest to the original Pernod Brothers’ formula, and he pointed to a bottle of L’Absinthe P.F. 1901, made by the Distillerie Combier in Saumur, France. So we left with a bottle of that, as well as a bottle of Verte de Fougerolles, which we’d sampled in the store and which Luc said was one of his favorites. I expect we’ll return numerous times; there are many more absinthes to try.

Among the many interesting things we learned that day is that despite the FDA’s prohibition against the sale of anything containing thujone, there’s apparently a loophole that has permitted limited legal importation of absinthe. According to Luc, most of the absinthes he sells have such a low concentration of thujone (as required by EU law) that the U.S. Customs equipment can’t detect it. So if any of it were actually to be tested, it wouldn’t register as containing an illegal substance and would be let into the country. For that matter, even the absinthes with the highest amounts of thujone have so little of it (something on the order of 10 parts per million, I believe, for the French brands anyway) that they’re almost certainly no more psychoactive than run-of-the-mill pastis. (Update 07-Aug-2007: I’ve just discovered at least one brand of genuine absinthe that is now being legally manufactured in the U.S., apparently by virtue of having near-indetectible quantities of thujone: Lucid.)

On the other hand, I find that drinking absinthe is up to 27 percent more pleasurable than drinking pastis—for whatever reasons, real or imagined. That’s good enough for me.

August 2, 2007

Kissell in front of Kisselle

In keeping with the theme of “hey-that’s-almost-spelled-like-my-name,” this afternoon, just a couple of hours after my post about rue Joseph Kessel, we walked out of a Métro station and saw this:

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It’s a tiny shop on rue des Halles that sells women’s clothes, shoes, handbags, and suchlike.

August 2, 2007

Kissell on Kessel

Shortly after we arrived in Paris, I began noticing how many of the streets are named after writers, and I jokingly asked Morgen what it would take for the city of Paris to name a street after me.

As it turns out, they don’t have to. All they need to do is correct a small misspelling and a couple of dates.

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Yes, that’s me standing under an actual sign for rue Joseph Kessel, a couple of blocks away from Bercy Village, which is where we went last night to see Ratatouille (about which we’ll be saying more, but briefly: loved it loved it loved it). The street was formerly named rue de Dijon.

Now, the similarity in names alone would have been freaky enough, but they even got the occupation right: Écrivain et journalist (writer and journalist). And the curiosities don’t end there. A quick search for Joseph Kessel in the Wikipedia tells me that he was born in Argentina (as Interesting Thing of the Day readers know, I’m quite fond of Argentina). Moreover, Kessel’s father “was a Lithuanian doctor of Jewish origin.” Now, my father is neither Jewish nor a doctor, but there is some evidence that several generations back, my paternal ancestors were from either Lithuania or Latvia—though we also believe that at that time, the family name was Kissellovich or some such.

Kessel is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery; I’ll certainly have to visit his grave one of these days and take another picture. As for me, upon my demise, a modest shrine in Père-Lachaise is all I ask.

(Update: Shortly after posting this, I saw another interesting example: Kissell in front of Kisselle.)

July 29, 2007

Killer Cereal

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During one of our first shopping trips to a local supermarket we were somewhat surprised to find that a lot of breakfast cereals here feature chocolate. While it may be normal in North America for chocolate to be part of sugary cereals, usually marketed to kids, here chocolate is even included in so-called “healthier” cereals. An extreme case is the cereal All-Bran, arguably the most austere and health-conscious mainstream cereal on North American supermarket shelves, which can be purchased here in a “Choco-Flakes” version. Chocolate-covered bran flakes? Just another reason we love this place.

July 29, 2007

French Convenience Food

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Before we came to Paris I had read about the Picard chain of food stores and was eager to visit one for myself. These stores are devoted to frozen foods (with only a few non-frozen items to be found) and have many locations around the city, as well as throughout the rest of the country. Once I knew to look for its distinctive snowflake logo, I started seeing Picards everywhere (not unlike certain Star Trek episodes).

To our delight, there is a Picard store about six blocks from our apartment, which makes it possible for us to get the stuff home before it melts even a little bit. A few weeks ago we made our first major shopping trip to this store, confining ourselves to buying only the basics, although we were sorely tempted by the vast array of frozen pastries and luxury items likes foie gras and escargots. It tickled us that we could buy a frozen quiche lorraine, or ratatouille, or canard a l’orange; it was like a culinary tour of France in a freezer case. Although we are looking forward to experiencing all the regional specialties of France in their natural state, it doesn’t hurt to have a few frozen goodies on hand when dinner time comes around.

July 28, 2007

Old friends in new places

A few days ago I sent out a mass email message to people in my address book telling them about our new Paris blog, and within a few hours I got a surprising reply: “Whaddaya know, I’m in Paris now too.” It turns out that an old friend of mine, a Buddhist monk from Berkeley named Rev. Heng Sure, is in Paris this week as part of a world tour (Australia, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, and Finland, if I’ve remembered all the stops). He invited us to have lunch with him on Thursday and we were delighted to do so.

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I’ve run into Heng Sure in some surprising places before, but this takes the cake. Of course, he’s also an anomaly in so many other ways—he’s got a CD of American Buddhist folk music coming out next month, and he’s more technologically sophisticated than many of the Mac geeks I work with on a daily basis. Easily one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, so it’s only appropriate that I should see him here as part of my mission to live in the most interesting place I can find!

July 25, 2007

A day in the Marais

Before we moved here, I spent a lot of time looking at Web sites about Paris. I did this partly to keep me motivated through the sometimes difficult visa process, but mostly to get ideas about what we would do and see (and eat of course) once we arrived. I’ll admit that I have an obsession with learning as much as I can about a place before traveling (or in this case, moving) there, an obsession that is not shared by my dear husband. Joe usually has ideas beforehand about what he’d like to see, but he is much more laid-back about it. He is perfectly happy to experience things as they come up, whereas I have a tendency to make grand lists of “must-sees” that can sometimes get in the way of having a relaxing vacation. This tendency of mine is one reason I’m so excited to be able to live in Paris, rather than just visiting. I can see all the things I want to see at a leisurely pace, and can even visit the Louvre as many times as I like!

Knowing my weakness for overzealous planning, most of the time Joe is very amenable to letting me set the schedule of what we will see and do. On the negative side, there have been many times during our travels when my pre-planning has gone horribly awry, but there have also been many times of triumph in which I’ve led us to some place that Joe turned out to absolutely enjoy. One major example is the trip we took for my 30th birthday a few years ago; I was set on going to Patagonia, and even though Joe hadn’t ever given much thought to traveling in Argentina, I think he loved it at least as much as I did. More appropriate to our current situation, it was through my urging that we visited Paris the first time we were in France, and we know how that turned out!

So last week, when we decided we would take a break from work and hiding out in our apartment, I once again determined the plan for the day. There were a bunch of places I wanted to visit that were all in the same neighborhood, the Marais district, and it made sense to check them all off the list at once. We’d start by taking the Métro to the St. Paul station in the 4th arrondissement, and go from there. I first wanted to visit a shop that sells absinthe and accessories for serving absinthe, called Vert d’Absinthe. Then, I wanted to walk by an American-style diner to see what it was like, before heading to a falafel restaurant I’d heard a lot about. After picking up our meal, we would walk over to the Place des Vosges to have a picnic on the grass.

At our first stop, the absinthe shop, we had a great time browsing and tasting the wares. I’ll leave the details for Joe to write about in another post, but I’ll just say we left the store happier than when we went in, and only slightly worse for wear. The next place I wanted to visit was a restaurant called Breakfast in America that purported to serve real American-style breakfasts and diner food on their Web site. As we walked by, I liked what I saw, and thought I’d most likely be back once the craving for pancakes, waffles, or other hearty breakfast foods kicks in. But still wanting to taste and experience new things, we continued on to L’As du Fallafel (their spelling of falafel) at 34, rue des Rosiers, to grab an early supper. Read the rest of this article »

July 24, 2007

This is what it’s all about

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Ah, the humble baguette. This particular specimen was procured about half a dozen doors down from our building for € 0.80 (a bit over a dollar). We could have chosen at least three other bakeries within two blocks of here, had we been in the mood for a slightly different texture or aroma. And every single one of them would put to shame the vast majority of baguettes available anywhere in the United States. (Hint: if it’s still edible more than 4 hours after it comes out of the oven, it’s not a real baguette.) Yes, life is good here.

(Update 10-Aug-2007: for more on baguettes in Paris, see The baguette problem on The Geeky Gourmet.)

July 23, 2007

Johnny Clegg at the Bastille

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On Saturday, July 13 (the eve of Bastille Day, or as it’s known here, Fête National), there was a free concert of African music at the Place de la Bastille. Morgen had read about this, but it drew my attention a couple of days earlier when I saw the name Johnny Clegg (one of my all-time favorite musicians) flashed on one of the electronic public information boards scattered around town.

The bad news—not that any of it was a surprise—was that there were something like 100,000 people crowding this huge plaza, which had been blocked off to traffic. (I have mentioned my feelings about crowds once or twice.) We had to stand around for hours while umpteen other bands played; naturally, there were no schedules to be found anywhere. And when Johnny Clegg finally did come onstage, he played only four songs. But still: wonderful. I’d seen him in concert a couple of times before, but this was something special, like a big welcome party to our new home.

July 23, 2007

Obtaining the magical Navigo cards

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One of the major items on our to-do list once we arrived in Paris was to acquire some sort of transit pass—not having a car, we knew we’d be relying heavily on the Métro (Paris’s subway system) to get us long distances across the city. Although it’s possible to buy Métro tickets for individual trips (or more cheaply, a carnet of 10 tickets), the cost can really add up if you use the system frequently.

It may seem like a simple task to purchase a transit pass, but the way things are done in France is not always easy. From our previous trips to Paris, we knew it was possible to buy a Carte Orange, which along with a special ticket you purchase separately (or at the same time you buy your first Carte Orange), provides unlimited Métro access to certain zones of the city for either a week or a month. The strange thing, at least for those who are used to buying a transit pass in North American cities, is that to get this short-term pass you need to provide a current photo, in a specific format, to go with the card. Helpfully, there are photo booths in every Métro station, where for 4 Euros you can get four photos of the right size for this purpose (and these photo booths also give instructions in English). Unhelpfully, they only take coins and there are no change machines nearby (for this and other reasons, we’ve found it useful to keep a collection of coins of various denominations handy).

Once you’ve cleared the first hurdle of obtaining a photo, the second hurdle is to actually purchase the Carte Orange. Depending on your language skills and/or the mood of the ticket clerk, this can be an easy process or an incredibly stressful one (see below for examples of both types of encounters). In our case, because we are here long-term, we had a further hurdle to clear because we wanted to get a new type of transit pass called a Navigo. With this pass, we wouldn’t need to feed a paper ticket through a turnstile, but could instead swipe our card on a special digital reader that would give us access to the station. Another benefit of the Navigo is that not only can it be “recharged” weekly or monthly at ticket machines, but it can also be recharged by automatic payments from your bank account. Read the rest of this article »

July 23, 2007

Les toilettes

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Of the many sights I’ve become accustomed to seeing all over Paris, few warm my heart as much as this one: the ubiquitous public toilette. These things are all over the place (especially in the vicinity of Métro stops and tourist attractions), and I’ve frequently made use of them. Previously, they were all coin-operated, so most of them still have coin slots, but now they’re all free (as noted by the sign on top that says Accès gratuit, free access).

These are quite similar in design to the (few) public toilets scattered around San Francisco (some of which are free, and others not). You push the button and the door slides open; it closes automatically when you’re inside. After you’ve made your deposit, you stick your hands in an opening where (non-potable) water rinses them, if the sink happens to be working. (Soap and a hand dryer appear occasionally but work even less frequently.) Then you turn the door handle; the door opens to let you out and closes again. After each use, the facility goes through an automatic “wash-sanitize-dry” cycle, which includes flushing the toilet. During this time, the sign next to the door will say Occupé (occupied). When the sign goes back to Libre (free), the next person can press the button and enter. Read the rest of this article »