Thursday, June 28, 2007

Welcome, O life!

Just finished reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the second time in my life. I have firmly resolved to read this book every 10 or 15 years. The first time I read it was when I arrived in France for my year in Grenoble seventeen years ago. And now I have read it again, as I return from a journey and begin a new life as a city dweller. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience...

bottle water = bad

Gavin Newsom has banned bottle water at City events when tap water is available. What a concept!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

huge in holland

The film that Chantal and I did with Nora is apparently screening in the Netherlands!

liveable cities

What strikes me about European cities in general, in comparison with American cities, is that they seem more liveable. Family-run businesses still survive. And not just corner convenience stores where you can pick up a 40 oz. There are boulangeries, fromageries, chocolatiers, boucheries, charcuteries, pharmacies, libraries, and the list goes on. The cities seem safe. It's not complicated to get around on public transportation. There are public parks for playing and picnicking and congregating and simply lingering. And even in remote country towns, there are historical points of interest, or small museums or charming restaurants, and usually even a public house or watering hole where people can gather and socialize instead of spending another night alone in front of the boob tube. It seems like in many parts of Europe, country folk are country folk, and city folk are city folk, and families choose to stay in cities or country towns and live there because the lifestyle suits them. Whereas, the trend among my friends is that once you have children, you have to move to the suburbs, because the schools in the city are bad, or the neighborhood is sketchy, or it's too expensive, or too inconvenient to get around with a stroller (unless you live in Noe Valley).

My dad forwarded me an article he read in the International Herald Tribune's Monocle magazine called Urban Manifesto: Factors that make a city great. Of their list of the 20 most liveable cities, Honolulu is the only American city that made the cut. Most cities on the list are European, with Melbourne, Syndey, Auckland, Vancouver (yay!), Montreal,
Singapore, Tokyo and Kyoto representing the rest of the globe. The writers' criteria for judging included a city with a thoughtfully designed airport (I love the Madrid and Brussels airports), low murder and crime rates (this basically disqualified most U.S. cities), pleasant temps and sunshine, and the ease of getting a drink after 1 am. Also, access to health care and education were factors, as well as good public transport, local media, access to nature or parks, and finally environmental initiatives.

San Francisco is a great place to live, but admittedly taxis are frightfully expensive and the Muni leaves much to be desired. Plus, compared with Europe, SF has a long way to go before becoming notably bike-friendly. And we can all agree that the local media sucks (even LA beats SF in this regard). Maybe it's because European countries signed the Kyoto Protocol and so they are already decades ahead in making cities more sustainable, or maybe it's because European cities already have gone through major transformations as a result of disease and overcrowding during the Industrial period or as a result of the devastation wrought by wars and the subsequent Reconstruction. Or maybe, as my pal Lilia put it, Europe is just better.

day of silence

KCRW is airing special programming today about the Internet Radio Equality Act, which has bipartisan support in Congress. If the Act is not passed and other efforts don't succeed, then webcasters will have to pay royalties for each song they air (which would limit the wide range of songs we hear, and could put some of the smaller webcasters out of business). The programming describes the effects that the new rates will have on their ability to stream and to serve audiences online.

Friday, June 22, 2007

art event tonight

I might go to this tonight. I saw this artist (Felix Macnee) at the Hunter's Point Open Studios and was really impressed.

Matt Gonzalez, Felix Macnee, Paul Spencer
An artists' talk
Flood polygon
Friday, June 22nd at 8pm join the artists for a discussion of their work: the inspiration for the theme of the show, Flood, their working methods, challenges, and ideas for future pieces.
Party to follow ...

follow the day

Yesterday was summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and I spent the majority of it on a plane. Strangely enough, I mostly enjoyed the experience because on my flight home we were going backwards in time, and so I witnessed what appeared to me as the most expansive sunset in my life. It lasted about three and a half hours and covered the territory from Dallas, Texas to San Francisco, California. I saw the sun set over Monument Valley, where the plateaus cast immense shadows about 5 or 6 times their size. I saw the sun set over part of the Grand Canyon, where the magic hour further reddened the color of the packed soil and the light glistened on the waterways that snaked through the earth. I saw the sun set over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where snow still capped the peaks. I saw the sun set over Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, where I tried to make out possible rock climbers (didn't see any), and also Yosemite Falls, which fell into the shadows at that hour. I saw the sun set over I-5, and counted my blessings that I don't have to live in LA anymore. And finally I saw the sun set over the San Francisco Bay, with a reflection of light from the plane onto the water below and onto the funky colors of the salt fields in San Jose. I wondered, after all of my travels of the last month, having my first impression of certain European cities from the air, what it would be like for someone to fly over San Francisco for the first time. What would their first impressions be? I would only hope that they are as much in awe of my ville natale as I am, even after all these years of living here. Each time I return, I am glad to call San Francisco my home.

By the time I retrieved my luggage and waited curbside for the Airporter to take me home, night had fallen, and the long day, and this long journey, was over.

films i want to see (updated)

Sicko, Michael Moore's new film about the health care system
L'avocat de la terreur, French doc that apparently blew Cannes away
La Vie en Rose, biopic about Edith Piaf
Lady Chatterley, new French adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel
A Mighty Heart, new Winterbottom film about the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl (starring Angelina Jolie!)

And how could I forget:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

que vive la Suta!

These are my last moments here in Spain, as I'm about to leave my hotel for the Madrid airport, bound for Florida and then tomorrow California. Last night, Suxata la Xara and I joined my dad for a gastronomic feast at a restaurant called Balzac near the Prado. The most notable dish was my appetizer, a white almond soup with tuna ceviche. Muy muy rico! My dad heads home tomorrow, however, Señorita la Xara has decided to stay in Spain for a year, and I applaud her decision. Though I am sad she is not moving to SF (yet), I wish her mucha suerte in her European adventures, and at the very least I can count on her to keep the bamboula flame alive!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

high school reunion

When I first arrived in Belgium in the winter of 1987, it felt like God had simply spun the globe with his eyes closed and pointed his finger at a random location. I recall reassuring myself that six months among the cows and geese and sheep wouldn't be all that bad, let alone the climate, which in January and February alternated between days of snow or rain or both. And so it was that I lived in Grand Rechain, Province de Liège, spending 6 months with the Michels, my host family. I knew nothing of Belgium, only that I was there to live with a family and learn French for a semester. What I gained over the course of 6 months was far greater than an education in the French language.

Perhaps it was pure luck that I ended up in this remote funky little country village that no one outside of Belgium has ever heard of, and then grew to know a group of friends here intimately, some of whom are nothing like me, some of whom rarely leave this community. But every time I return, it’s always unique, and my visit reminds me of the limitless value of true friendship.

When I arrived on Friday, Annette and José and Annick had organized a giant dinner party. They had the table set for seventeen people. The table looked like a typical dinner you might see on a family farm in a Dutch painting. I accompanied my friend Bartho, the only one who escaped the country and lives in Brussels, on the stoop while she smoked, shooting the shit, and one by one, familiar faces trickled in. Some faces had changed considerably, others not at all. We drank Jupiler and Leffe Brune and it felt like the good ole days when I lived here in the 80’s, like nothing had really changed. A kid from the village who must have been really bored decided to perform pop-wheelies for us on his motorcycle. I took pictures of him as he passed by a half dozen times. He finally pulled over and asked to see how the photo came out. Maybe that’s what I like best about going back to Belgium. It’s like no other experience I would voluntarily seek out.

We were called à table for our pasta dinner. I sat in between Vincent, the ultimate dragueur, and my high school sweetheart Boris, now married with two sons. The food (as well prepared as it was) seemed to be something to do in between the bottles of wine we guzzled down, and apparently we finished off twelve bottles, in addition to Lord knows how many beers.

About midnight, Vincent proposed the idea of continuing the party at the local discothèque. We rallied the party crew (about six of us) and tried to motivate the group out the door. Vincent and Bartho drunkenly exchanged a piece of gum in the doorway, so we ditched the lovebirds, and I took off with Hervé, Boris and his wife Teresita. We arrived at the smoky club, and immediately hit the dance floor. After about a half an hour, the cuckold Vincent showed up sans Bartho, free once again to hit on any girl he pleased. Bamboula ensued.

You know how a song can remind you of an old sweetheart, and the moment you hear it, you’re taken back to that moment in time, and the way he or she made you feel? “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure will forever make me think of Boris (please say his name with a French accent, it sounds so much sweeter). So as soon as we heard the first riff, it seemed like fate that I was here twenty years later, at this random club privé in the countryside, hearing that song again with the person who made it heavy with nostalgia for me. Boris grabbed me by one shoulder and Hervé by the other, Vincent and Teresita somewhere in the mix, and we danced like crazy huddled together in a close circle, drunkenly loosing our balance as if we were in a mosh pit, falling onto the other people out on the floor, all of us singing the lyrics at the top of our lungs, transported back in time, to that moment when we were sixteen, when we became friends, or when we became lovers, in this very small place in the world at a very special moment in time.

Later on, I stepped away from the dance floor and watched my friends, now twenty years later, dancing and jumping and singing and hugging each other, and I thought how unique it is that I even know these people from this remote and unknown place, and that they know me, and that twenty years from now, we will remember this crazy night together and laugh.

We took off about 3 am and went to Liège in search of frites, but instead found pitas. Teresita was passed out cold in the car, while Boris, Hervé and I ate our pita sandwiches in quiet exhaustion in the plaza in front of the police station, with daylight making its grand entrance in the sky. By the time Boris dropped me off at the Michels it was after 4 am, so I quietly tiptoed upstairs so as not to wake my host mom and dad, and went to sleep to the sound of birds chirping.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

one big thing

My friend Laura went to see Michael Wood, the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, speak about his plan called One Big Thing, whose goal is to introduce Swedish companies involved in developing green technology to venture capitalists in the U.S. She says that, even though he is good pals with Bush, he spoke very intelligently and she was quite impressed.

Friday, June 15, 2007

nuits blanches

For those of you for whom the French language is not an integral part of your being, the term nuit blanche literally means white night, but figuratively the expression refers to a night without sleep, usually because you were out on the town partaking in debaucherous activity (a.k.a. bamboula), coming home in the wee hours of the morning when the sun is already rising. In Stockholm, the term took on new meaning.

By the time I arrived in Stockholm, it was about 10:30 pm and the sun was only just starting to settle into the horizon. My pal Laura met me at Stockholm Central, where I got off the Arlanda Express, an express train advertised as the fastest and most environmentally friendly way (leave it to the Swedes) to get to and from the Stockholm airport. The hour was already late for Laura since she hasn't been getting much sleep lately, the brand new mother that she is. Nils is her cherubic blonde 2 month old boy, who, like most newborns, wakes up hungry every couple hours. So when she and her boyfriend Gustav hit the sack, I took advantage of their wifi connection to catch up on e-mails and updates, and when I finally turned out the lights at around 1 am, the sky was a pale blue, just like at twilight, definitely not what we inhabitants of the 37th parallel are used to at that hour. The days I spent in Sweden, it never ceased to amaze me that the sun never really sets during the summer months, especially so close to midsummer. Nightfall is merely a suggestion. So I placed a pair of blinders over my eyes in order to avoid the sunrise, which arrived with a persistent vengeance at 3 am.

The next day, Laura, Nils and I set off on an adventure to the archipelago. Stretching 80 kilometers east of Stockholm, the archipelago is made up of 24,000 islands. Some islands are merely rocks, but big enough to fit a cabin, so many Stockholm residents head out there on weekends to enjoy the long days of summer (and warm weather). As we strolled Nils along towards the docks, I noticed that there appears to be an epidemic rampant in Stockholm called pregnancy. It felt like one in every 5 women were either pregnant or pushing strollers. There were even cafés in which every table was occupied with a woman with stroller. I imagine that because the conditions for parenthood are so favorable in Sweden, there's no reason not to have a baby. Laura and Gustav get a combined 15 months of maternity/paternity leave. And then of course, there's socialized health care and education, and Stockholm is a very safe and clean city, with lots of parks and bike lanes and places to stroll or picnic. It makes sense, but I was hesitant to drink the water!

We hopped on a ferry boat destined for an island called Moja and settled in for a three hour boat ride. It felt as if we were on a journey to the ends of the earth, where the land breaks apart into water, and civilization is scarce. It seemed like the bits of rock and land would eventually dissolve into the sea and that we would soon arrive at the very edge. When we finally docked, the song Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads came to mind: "You may find yourself in another part of the world... And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?" You have a feeling of going back into a very idyllic time and place, where blonde children frolic freely among wildflowers and trees, where birds chirp and farmers plow the land. All around us were little houses painted red with white trim weathered by the strong winds of the North Sea. I imagined that at any moment a gnome would stroll down the path and show us to our room. It was off season, so there were hardly any people on the island, with the exception (surprise surprise) of a couple mothers with their babies who were staying at our inn, which was above the bakery. Therefore we were treated to some delicious freshly baked pastries and hot cross buns.

There were no curtains on the windows in our room, so when we went to sleep that night (if you can call it night), I kept waking up to photograph the light in the sky at different intervals. It seemed surreal to me that at 3 am the sunshine streamed through the windows as if we were merely taking an afternoon siesta.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

bato-bamboula, pt. 2

le retour à soi

Anthony arrived in Paris on Friday evening, and after 36 hours of bamboula à Paris (including a full day party on the Batobus and two nights in a row of returning to his parents’ place in Montparnasse at 5 am), I took the Thalys (like a TGV) heading north to Belgium. As we pulled away from the Gare du Nord, I said goodbye to Sacre Coeur, the last recognizable feature of Paris I could still see out my window. Le Basilique grew smaller and smaller as the train gained speed by the minute and eventually (malheureusement) disappeared out of sight.

Many times I have made this trip north. When I lived in Belgium in 1987, I took the train to Paris during Spring Break to meet my dad for a week. And then, living in Grenoble from 1990 to 1991, visiting my host family in Belgium was like going home for me. Living far from California and unable to return home for long weekends or holidays, I felt comforted to have an adopted family I could call mine on the continent, not so far from university, and who were always happy to welcome me back. So on Sunday, I felt a pang of nostalgia as the train headed into the country of rolling hills and gray skies, moules-frites and la bonne bière.

The closer I got to Liège, the rainier the weather got. So typically belge. My host mother and father, Annette and José Michel, were supposed to meet me at the train station. When I was descending the escalator, I saw the two of them waiting for me on the platform. They didn’t notice me right away, and after not seeing them for six years, it was like seeing a long lost relative for the first time in ages. I waved my arms in the air and could barely keep the tears from welling up in my eyes.

Unlike my own family, the Michels have never moved from their house on the rue principale of the tiny village of Grand-Rechain. So when we arrived at the house, I took one look around — nothing had really changed (except for maybe the color of the walls in the living room) — and I had an overwhelming sensation that I was home.

problème de l’immigration

How can one ideology or policy meet the needs of such a fragmented society, especially when history has created such complicated geopolitical living arrangements? Enter “Le problème de l’immigration.” As I have previously noted, there seem to be a lot more immigrants in European cities than before, so it’s understandable why there is so much unrest as a result of the consequences of immigration and why it is one of the largest political issues addressed during the elections. I have spent some time in the banlieue de Paris, the suburbs filled with projects in which many of the immigrants live, and let me tell you, the conditions are far from desirable, and in fact they stink. Literally.

Especially among the older generations, I encountered some hostile attitudes towards immigrants in France and in Belgium. Many older people feel that their way of life is being threatened. People told me that the new immigrants (from North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East) don’t integrate and don’t want to work. This negative stereotype brings to mind the American equivalent of the so-called lazy Mexicans who refuse to learn English. It goes without saying that the majority of middle and upper class Europeans may never encounter the places where some of these immigrants work (cleaning toilets, washing dishes, picking berries, etc.) and that they are actually contributing enormously to the economy by providing cheap labor. Granted that there are rogues in every cultural group, bums and thugs and drug addicts of every ethnicity who don’t work and live off of social welfare, but I would imagine the majority of immigrants who come to Europe and North America alike come with the dream of creating a better life for themselves and their families, and with some hard work, that is exactly what they get. So how does the reputation of a few rogues qualify the image of the whole? I heard people here say that the immigrants come here and want to change the European way of life, that they want to impose their value systems by building their own churches or mosques, and live in communities where they feel comfortable speaking their own languages. Why is it so hard for people to remember history? Isn’t this exactly what Europeans did during the colonial era, voyaging to the New World, to Africa and the Far East, setting up colonies, building churches, sending missionaries to convert the "savages," teaching the indigenous people English, French and Spanish? And if the indigenous people didn’t want to play the European way and adopt this “new civilization,” well then they were simply eliminated!

The cultural rift felt more strongly here in Europe than in the U.S. (maybe as a result of less space or maybe because I live in the bubble that is San Francisco) worries me, and I fear that history could easily repeat itself if someone really smart doesn’t come in soon with some real solutions (hosing people down not one of them) to lessen the divide.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


We drank so much bière blanche we couldn't stand up straight!

le jour congé d’Anne Vallée

Anne Vallée is my pal from my year in Grenoble. She and I became friends because we were both protesting against the first war in Iraq. I remember one of the chants because it was so typically, poetically French: “J’ai une missile atomique qui me rend dans le cul qui m’empêche de rêver!” (Translation: I have an atomic missile up my ass that prevents me from dreaming!) After that demonstration, we became good friends and have remained so over the years, especially for our left-leaning political opinions (hers more left than mine… she actually laughs when I call myself left). Anne now lives in Vitry, a suburb of Paris known for being historically communist. Anne works for the workers’ unions, and has been since she finished school. She has two adorable daughters named Nina and Lili and lives with her partner Alain. Nina is six years old and is an exceptionally poised and articulate bohèmienne. She is also an exceptional reader. Once I caught her in the living room reading one of her father’s art books aloud, “Monet à Giverny!” I want a daughter like her!

Anne normally works hard and often into the night. So when Friday rolled around, she decided to take advantage of France’s fast-disappearing phenomenon of the 35-hour work week and took a day off to galavant around Paris with me. I wanted to go to the Samuel Beckett expo at the Beaubourg, and so at the last minute she decided to leave her briefcase at home and hop on the metro with me. She experienced feelings of guilt for about an hour, but I reassured her that she deserved the day off and that she was doing the right thing. By the time we arrived at Les Halles and went shopping for des belles fringues at Kookaï, she had forgotten all about her feelings of guilt. I tried to explain to her that she was having the French equivalent of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but she had never heard of the film.

The Beckett exhibit was, well, Beckettian as they say. The room was arranged in black in white, using negative space in a way that emphasized the void that is often thematic in Beckett’s oeuvre. Anne was a political science major, and so once again (having been a French Lit major), I had to explain the exhibit to a friend. How does one explain Beckett? The exhibit began with a projection of a performance of Pas Moi, a mere mouth on a black background speaking in rapid fire like an auctioneer. You could listen to stations with clips from Waiting for Godot in one of three languages, as well as Happy Days and Endgame. At the end of the exhibit was a room decorated in black and white, as minimalist as a Beckettian set, with chairs in which you could listen to narrations of any number of Beckett’s plays. There was one photo by I.C. Rapoport of Beckett in New York that I liked in particular, a black and white image of the author walking through a non-descript urban wasteland, just like Vladimir and Estragon, the title of the photograph simply, “Samuel Beckett à New York, 1965.”

I visited the permanent collection of the Beaubourg as well, and remarked how the designer incorporates views of Paris as part of the art on display. In certain rooms, the walls open up to and frame Paris’ monuments like the Tour Eiffel or Sacre Coeur like a photograph. To top it off, the Beaubourg probably has the best museum café (albeit expensive and snobby) that I’ve ever witnessed (even better than the NY MoMA). On the top floor, you get a practically panoramic view of Paris, and each table comes with a single red rose. I think a scene in Sex and the City was filmed here, when Carrie met Alexandr Petrovsky’s ex-wife. I couldn’t have asked for a better way spend the afternoon with my pal in Paris.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

vieux Paris neuf

The first time I encountered photographer Eugène Atget was at a photo expo at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which included other photographers like Walker Evans and Diane Arbus (I’m trying to remember the theme of this expo at the moment, but it’s not jumping out at me). Additionally, the book I recently purchased by Leonard Pitt also contains several marvelous photos of old Paris by Atget, which made me anxious to explore Paris de nouveau, so it seemed like fate that there was an Atget expo at the Bibliothèque Richelieu, and I couldn’t wait to go. Anne suggested I get off the Métro at Pyramides and stroll through the Jardin du Palais Royal on my way to the expo.

I love the parks of Paris. At any time of day, you’ll see people young and old lingering about, reading books on the benches or taking their lunch outdoors. I love the way the trees are trimmed just low enough to create a discreet space for lovers to kiss.

The Atget expo was remarkable. It was my first time seeing such a wide collection of his work in one place. Atget spent his career capturing Vieux Paris through his lens. Pitt’s book explains how Baron Haussmann demolished many of the buildings dating back to the Middle Ages in order to create the grands boulevards that we know and love today, such as Boulevard St. Germain. So at the time, Atget set out with his camera to capture the spirit of Paris before it disappeared forever. You can tell how much he loved this old version of Paris and the people who lived there during his time. The expo started with the petits métiers, the street merchants who would sell everything from herbs to lampshades in marketplaces and door-to-door. Atget also photographed streets and passages that would be demolished or renovated. He must have had his camera on a slow shutter speed, because often there were blurred figures of people moving about the streets, looking much like ghosts of a lost city.

My surprise find at the Atget expo was an American photographer who became Atget’s apprentice by the name of Berenice Abbot. She took one of the only publicly known portraits of Atget, a profile of the photographer when he was an old man. Abbot is known for many of the portraits she took of famous artists of her day, including the famous portrait of James Joyce. So once again, I discovered the name of the artist behind a work that I already appreciated.

Leaving the exhibit, I meandered aimlessly once again through the streets of Paris, this time my path leading me to Place Dauphine and the Palais de Justice, Notre Dame (who looks fabulously pristine after her makeover), and the narrow streets of Ile St. Louis.

Because I hadn’t visited Paris for six years, it’s logical that I would notice some changes. There were three differences that struck me. One is that the city has added designated bike lanes to many of its streets and bridges. So I noticed many more cyclists out and about looking quite fashionable in their outfits on their bicycles with little baskets. I was, however, concerned for their well-being because the gross majority of Parisian cyclists do not wear helmets and the French tend to be crazy drivers. Another change was the addition of the “Batobus,” a boat ride on the Seine that costs 12 Euros, but unlike the Bateaux Mouches, allows you to get on and off at your leisure. The third difference that I noticed was that it seemed like there was a lot more diversity. In the métro, I noticed a lot more Africans, North Africans and Asians than on my previous visit. Of course, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just different. It reminded me of some of the themes of the latest election in France, and suggested to me why the Front National is so popular in France. Many of the French still long for the Paris of Old, when the face of France is quickly changing. It reminded me of the words of some stupid guy whom I met at the Dog last summer during the World Cup. I of course rooted for France, and he rooted for Italy, and he said something supremely stupid like, “There are hardly any French players on the French team.” Et voilà la mentalité de beaucoup de français. Ça craint!

what's derivative of what?

My first full day in Paris I went to the Grand Palais at the end of the Champs Elysees to check out the expo on Nouveau Realisme. In general, I wasn't entirely awed by the expo. These were a group of artists who were post-Dada (how could you get any stranger than Dada?), which included Raymond Hains, Arman, Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Martial Raysse, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. Here is what struck me from the expo. First off, the Blue Man Group is totally derivative of Yves Klein. He even patented his signature shade of blue. I wonder if Yves Klein would like BMG, or despise them. Second, the Nouveaux Realistes were burning art way before Burning Man was even conceived, but I bet you they would be repeat burners year after year if the majority of them were still here (in fact, I'll have to check if they are around. Maybe they have been to Burning Man). Third, my favorite artist of the whole show was Niki de Saint Phalle, and not just because she was the only woman in the group, but because I actually liked her art. She makes these immense nanas, some pregnant, but all vibrant with color. I had no idea she was the artist behind the Sun God, the statue in the center of the campus of my alma mater, UC San Diego.

That evening I met Anne and her friend Anne from high school for dinner and drinks by the Canal at Quai de Valmy in the 10th arrondissement, made famous by Amelie Poulain from the scene in her movie. With the legislative elections on Sunday, Paris is currently covered in political posters for candidates. Anne pointed out the affiche for her party (the PCF), whose slogan we thought was quite catchy: "Nos vies valent plus que leurs profits!" (Translation: Our lives matter more than their profits!) In true communist style, she and I headed over to a cafe called la Bellevilloise in Menilmontant, which was the first co-op in Paris, apparently founded days after the Paris Commune in 1877. We each had a biere blanche, and exhausted, went home.

Monday, June 11, 2007

... et son amant, c'est Paris!

I can only compare being in Paris to spending time with a lover. Unless you live there, which none of my Parisian friends actually do (Anne lives in Vitry-Sur-Seine, and Anthony lives in Luxembourg), you are living on borrowed time. You obsessively explore every crevasse of its body, knowing that it's not yours to keep. Even trivial matters and petty distractions become increasingly significant (if anything in Paris can even be considered trivial), the little idiosyncrasies further endear you to your lover, in which case you willingly and intently follow any tangent course in which your lover wishes to lead you. In my case, I spent the majority of my days without a guidebook, without any clear direction, simply enamored by Paris, from the way people dress, to the types of bicycles Parisians ride, to the trinkets I might find in a shop window, to the names of streets (my new favorite being Rue des Francs Bourgeois). I would turn left or right on a whim, into a courtyard, down a stairway, onto a quay, into a church, savoring every tiny morsel that my lover allowed me in the 6 days in which Paris was in my grasp, before I had to return my lover to the arms of another.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

heureusement, je suis à Paris

My dad, on the other hand, is still in Javea. Here is his witty account (my account of Paris still to come... having way too much fun):

In the beginning God created heaven and earth, you know, on the seventh day he rested. Not right away mind you. He was told his room wouldn't be ready until 3:00. To kill time, he created the wildebeast, Newark, New Jersey and a little sliver of land he called Javea. Being tired, and who wouldn't be creating a heaven AND an earth in six days, he accidently plopped this sliver in Spain, instead of England. This may explain that in all of Spain, in Javea, English is the primary language, followed by German and then Spanish.

Javea, pronounced Ha-ve-ah, can be spelled Xabia, pronounced Ha-ve-ah, or Xavia, pronounced Ha-ve-ah. No matter how it´s spelled, it's all prounced the same, which makes getting around easy.

Javea is extraordinarily beautiful. Words cannot describe it. No photo can capture it. That's why there are no postcards for Javea, Xabia or Xavia, or whatever you want to call it. I take that back there is one taken at sunset of the speedbump in front of the Humpty Dumpty.

I commented to Kristin that most of the people in Javea were fat Brits and Germans. That was in jest. In reality, most of the men here look like Mr. Bean and most of the women look like John Candy. Although that is a not hard and fast rule and their roles have been known to switch.

Javea is a culinary wonderland. One can find food from all over the world here. There´s Japanese, Chinese, Indian, French, Italian, you name it, you'll find it here. And usually you´ll find it all under one roof. That may explain why Chez Angel, a French brasserie, offers a local petrale (Spanish) in a marinara sauce (Italian) over a bed of basamati rice (Indian).

The architecture here is Mediterranean Classic, if the word "classic" can ever be applied to a condominum. There are sites to see (the largest crematorium in Spain) and things to do (setting up your lawn chair and watching the "newlies" hit that speed bump in front of the Humpty Dumpty, for one). But most of the time Javeans can be seen pursuing their favorite pastime- boredom. Wherein most countries it takes time to adjust to the lifestyle, in Javea you can get bored quickly. Hell, almost immediately. You can feel it the minute you walk into town. Laugh all you want, but in a town like Paris or Barcelona, it takes tome to adjust. NOT IN JAVEA! You are bored the minute you get off the bus.

I believe it was Montoya, or was it Montolla, who offered this, "If you have a friend who says they want to go someplace and just do nothing. No sightseeing. No going here, going there. They just want to kick back and do nothing. You can tell them, "Have I got the place for you.""

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

premiers jours en France

On Sunday, I left Barcelona early on a 10 journey by train to visit Louis and Jeanine in the Côte d'Azur. They're the couple who met back in the day in New York when they were both working for Air France. Anyway, when I crossed the border at Cerbère, somehow I felt like I was coming home. Hearing the language was like listening to poetry, even the most mundane signs and phrases: "Traversée strictement interdit au public." or "Contrôle de billets, s'il vous plaît!"

Hanging out with Louis and Jeanine for two days in Roquefort provided more than a few good laughs. Louis is against anything new and different. He's always been like that, and we share completely opposite opinions on everything from politics to the role of women in society to technology and the list goes on. But I think that's why we love talking to each other. He also is the authority on my family's history. He knows everything about everyone from my grandparents' generation back in New York. He has albums full of old photos from his hey-day in New York of the 1940's and 50's. He has stories that he loves telling over, and over, and over and over again. Jeanine told me a story about when she was a stewardess for Air France, and back then it was against company policy for stewardesses to get married. So she and Louis got married in secret and didn't tell the airline for about a year. She said as she walked up and down the aisle on the flights, the men would often whisper to her, "Faut pas vous marier, l'hotesse!"

Louis epitomizes the Frenchman in the way he says, "Il n'y a rien de meilleur que le fromage et le vin." Jeanine is like my French grandmother the way she pushes food on me.

Next year Louis and Jeanine will celebrate 60 years of marriage. They constantly make me laugh in the way they talk over one another, Jeanine always tells Louis he's fat and to stop eating bread and cheese. But they still seem perfect together after all these years. At one point, Jeanine mentioned something about how Louis must have had other loves before her, Louis quickly responded, "The only love of my life is standing right here in front of me."

Yesterday I left Antibes on a TGV for Paris. Five hours later, we passed through a tunnel, and at the other end, I glimpsed the Eiffel Tower. I think I must have lived here in a past life. My friend Anne Vallée met me at the Gare de Lyon, and we walked across the Seine to the metro station. She pointed out Notre Dame, and I felt like I had finally arrived.

Today, I write to you from a cafe on the Champs Elysées. The Arc de Triomphe looks splendid in the afternoon sunlight. I'm going to check out an expo at the Grand Palais on le Nouveau Réalisme. And later on tonight, Anne is apparently planning to take me to a very branché lesbian bar.


último día en España

The last day in Barça, Suta and I checked out the Parc Güell where Gaudí created some of his most bizarre architectural wonders. In addition to the surreal buildings and sculpture, you get a panoramic view of Barcelona. It was a beautiful, clear day, and it finally gave me some perspective on where I was, and how much of the city I had yet to discover.

After Parc Güell, we meandered through side streets until we hit Passeig de Gracia, where more of Gaudí's buildings stand. There's one called Casa Mila, which was inspired by a quarry and some of the hills of Monserrate. Then there were the three houses of Discord, or something like that, where three modernista architects designed unreal buildings side by side. Barcelona definitely wins for creativity. This is in no way a minimalist city as far as architecture goes.

Then it was off to La Sagrada Familia, the massive cathedral designed by Gaudí until his life ended in a fatal accident with a streetcar. Suta and I decided to take it easy and admire it from a nearby plaza with gelato and horchata, the Spanish version made with tiger nut instead of rice.

But... the highlight of the day was our dinner! We headed over to a trendy part of town called the Born, where a friend had recommended a tapas restaurant called Santa Maria for its originality. Suxata and I thought we would make it an early night, but when we didn't leave the house until 9 pm, and didn't arrive at the restaurant until 10 pm, and were told that there were no available tables and to return in 30 minutes, we actually didn't sit down until (drumroll please) 11 pm, por supuesto! We had a good laugh about the service because it was laughable. The kitchen was open and we observed all the cooks downing cervezas one after another before we were even offered an aperitif. Of course we don't want to be perceived as the ugly Americans demanding quick service, but come on, there is a limit folks! Finally after about 20 minutes of being ignored by passing waiters and waitresses, we ordered everything at once because we figured we had only this one chance. Here is what we ate, and I wrote it down because it was the most memorable meal we had in Espana (apart from the one I cooked myself):

Sardinas Marinadas con yogurt y curry (marinated sardines with curry)
Sushi al reves de camaron y verduritas (softshell shrimp sushi)
Ensalada de nectarinas, parmesano y frutos secos (nectarine salad with nuts)
Calabacin relleno al horno con gorgonzola (zucchini stuffed with gorgonzola)
Palometa con pure de alcachofas y picada (roasted fish with artichoke puree)
Higado de pato con ensaimada de cabello de angel (this was all Suxata la Xara... I don't do liver)

and finally, for dessert


Suta and I were pleasantly surprised by this creamy vanilla mousse with raspberries. When we lifted the first spoonfuls to our mouths, at first we wondered what was so special about this dessert recommended to us by our waitress, and why the gothic name. After a few seconds on our palate, I suddenly I heard something crackle and pop, and my mouth felt like there were some interesting explosions happening that reminded me of my youth. Get your minds out of the gutter... the secret ingredient was poprocks! Suta told the waitress a la Rachael Ray, "Es como una fiesta en mi boca!" (Translation: Party in my mouth!)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

meat market barça style

Almost forgot to mention the Champañeria, or what I prefer to call the Best Place to Eat a Sausage and Cop a Feel. Suxata and Sheila decided to show us this Barça tradition. Basically for very, very cheap, you can buy a bottle of pink Cava, and get two tapas, which usually include a sausage sandwich, or a ham sandwich. The place looks like a butcher shop, sausages and ham thighs hanging from the ceiling. It's packed like a tin of sardines by 7 pm, with locals and tourists alike, dripping pink drinks all over the place every time someone tries to squeeze through. One guy had his hand on Suxata's behind for a while (obviously she was enjoying the experience). When we were leaving, someone actually pinched my butt. Not an ambiguous brushing, but an actual pinch. So for a good time, hit the Champañeria (that's what Sheila calls it, don't know if it's the official name).

is this the real life?

Or is this just fantasy?

As I wander the streets of Barcelona, the melody of the song by the same name by Queen rings in my ears, however the lyrics are quickly replaced by the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody. This town is spectacular. For several days we stayed in the older section of town called Sant Pere, with narrow walkstreets, charming cafes, hidden boutiques, secret plazas with a collection of terrace cafes. I knew very little of Barcelona when I booked my trip to come here. Little did I know that I would fall in love with this city in a matter of days. Around every corner, I find something endearing, an original streetlamp attached to the side of a medieval building, with the original stones bearing through, art deco water pumps, laundry hanging to dry from the balconies, and the blooming jacaranda trees.

The first couple days here we mostly cruised around the neighborhoods to get our bearings. We visited the Boqueria, the central market, to stock up on ingredients for a dinner party we decided to hold at the flat we're renting. We had a typical 2-hour European lunch at a cafe behind the market, and then went home for a siesta afterwards. Suxata la Xara told us that magically we would somehow immediately jump into the Spanish timeframe and lifestyle. And pouf! Like magic, it happened without even trying. Our dinner guests arrived at 9:30 pm. We sat down for dinner at 10:30 (I prepared 4 whole fishes stuffed with chopped basil, garlic and lemon rind) and a huge salad. Suxata la Xara sauteed these little green peppers that were so hot that all our guests got the hiccups. The dinner party was over at 12:30, and this was a weeknight! Dinner is not even an option at restaurants at 6 or 7 pm. They send you away, and say that the kitchen is not open. Here an early bird special (if the Spaniards would even allow something like that to happen) wouldn't start until 9 pm.

Oh! How could I forget to report that the previous night, Will (Suta's friend from Maui), Suxata and I went to a gay club. When we got to the door at 1 am, the bouncer told us that the club was dead and people wouldn't start arriving for another hour. So we went inside anyway, ordered drinks and waited for the Spaniards. And they did arrive in droves. By about 2:30, the club was packed with transvestites and transexuals. It was a learning experience. I will spare you the details. Needless to say, Suxata and I decided to wait until we got home to use the restroom.

Suxata, Will and I hit the Joan Miro gallery yesterday. The best part of the experience for me was when Suta approached me and asked "What makes art good?" Apparently she was struggling to understand Miro's minimalist/surrealist interpretations of women, stars and birds. We sat down in front of a triptych of paintings--each a white canvas with a single black line painted across. I handed her my audio guide so she could listen to the artist's own interpretation of these works (whose title escapes me but it was something about the flight of a solitary man or recluse). I let her sit and take it in while I checked out the other paintings in the room. When I came back, I tapped her on the shoulder and found tears streaming down her face, touched by the the artist's portrayal of the freedom that Miro felt in painting this minimal depiction of a single line in space. I looked at the paintings again, through Suta's eyes, which hadn't moved me at first look, but now that I remember them, they were among the most breathtaking pieces we saw at the museum that day.

Last night, we joined my pal Sheila and her boyfriend Albert for some independent theater. Albert is an actor here in Barça. He and some friends put on a play that was in Catalan. Luckily for us, it was mostly physical humor, so even though I barely understood a word (still struggling with the language), we had some good laughs. Afterwards we had dinner (sat down around 10 pm) and then headed to a discoteca in a neighborhood called Gracia.

Today we are off to check out the modernista architecture (art nouveau) by Antoni Gaudi--the Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. It goes without saying that the architecture in this city is stunning. I wish I had more time to linger here. I've been inspired by my pal Sheila who has been here for over a year and a half, and Young who decided to spend the entire summer here. Dare I say I have found a new love? Well, I'm off to France tomorrow morning. Paris (my old flame) beckons...