Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Million Billion

Recently, an unemployed woman in southwestern France received a phone bill for 11.7 million billion euros.  Yes - 11,721,000,000,000,000 euros. 

This alone is cause for a chuckle at the errors that computers can create (her actual bill should have been 117.21).  But what makes it so very French is that when she called the company to report what clearly was an error, she was told there was nothing they could do.  "It's calculated automatically," one person told her.  Another offered to help set up a payment plan.  

Multiple calls later - and after the press had caught wind of the story - Bouygues Telecom corrected the error and in fact waived the 117 euros in light of how ridiculous they looked.  It is difficult for me to imagine another country where you call to report the world's largest telephone bill, and the company representative simply shrugs and says there is nothing to be done about it. 

Oh France.  You are good for a laugh at times.

Read story here or here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

London Actually

When we moved to Paris, I informed Mr. Oil that I did not care if we went to London at all while we were living in Europe.  "I've been to London," I said, utterly convinced that there was nothing more that London could offer me.  Yet when deciding where to take a long weekend this fall, we ended up choosing London primarily based on the fact that a) it's an easy 2.5 hour train ride and b) they speak English.

I'm happy to own up to my own ignorance and stupidity, and be the first to admit that London is a fantastic city with a tremendous amount to offer.  Our London holiday was a smashing success.  And I say that with my best British accent on (though, to be fair, as with all of my accents, I end up sounding like a scary person from nowhere in particular).

We arrived in London to cold, gray rain.  So we did what any parent would do - fill up on vegetarian Indian food and head straight for the toy store.   In this case, that meant Hamley's on Regent Street.  Being London,  this is a toy store that has been around since 1760, but what really makes it fun is that there are a large number of toys for kids to play with in the store.  This didn't stop Baby Oil from pulling half of the Thomas trains off the shelf (sorry, Hamley's staff) but it mean we could spend a nice chunk of time inside without buying anything.  Of course we still bought stuff - one stuffed Paddington bear and three Thomas books - yet we could have left without purchasing a thing.
Baby Oil chows down on the papadam at Sagar
Still raining, we headed down to Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly.   This store exemplifies words like "gentrified", "aristocratic", and, basically, "British."  Dating from the mid-18th century, Fortnum's began as a grocery store and has always been highly regarded for its tea selection.  In 1886, Fortnum & Mason became the first store in Britain to stock canned baked beans - which might take away from the aristocratic theme I was going for, but it's such a fun fact that I can't not include it.    On the train out of London, we sat next to an elderly woman who told Mr. Oil that she had been a "gift attendant" at Fortnum's in the 1950s, and that she remembered fondly as the highlight of the Christmas season the day that the Queen would do her Christmas shopping at the store.

Living in Europe has turned me into more of a tea drinker than I ever have been, but I'd like to think that Fortnum & Mason's tea would have done the job on its own - genuinely the best tea I've ever had.  I'm also pretty stoked about the jar of mincemeat (it's not a meat, silly) I bought in order to make my own mince pies!

We hit our travel groove the next day, making it to Westminster Abbey, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (to be fair, that was entirely by accident), Harrod's, the Natural History Museum and a walk through Kensington.  No trip to the UK is complete without a pint of ale, so we stopped at a pub for Mr. Oil to enjoy a Guinness.  And apparently it's never too early to start your child on beer appreciation...
"What is this stuff?"
"Yummy! More!" - uh oh.
 A happy surprise at the end of the day was the discovery of the Ottolenghi shop in Kensington.  Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli-chef with two gorgeous cookbooks and several shops in London.  I first heard about Ottolonghi from my friend Rivka at Not Derby Pie but neither Mr. Oil or myself realized about the London stores.

Thank heavens we had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus or we never would have stumbled on the Kensington outpost, and the gastronomic delights awaiting us there.  Roasted squash with seeds, soft cheese, and herbs - oh yum.  Roasted eggplant with chili yogurt - spicy yum.  Dense, gooey chocolate cupcake filled with light, airy cream and topped with coconut shavings - oh dear.  Insert British for "best thing I ate all weekend".

The following day we explored Camden Lock Market, as it was just up the street from our rented flat.  Having heard that this was a "cool" place we were not quite expecting the incense and punk/grunge-filled scene that awaited us.  Though if you want to buy a graphic t-shirt, this may be the place.   And I think if you want to buy illegal substances, this would also be the place.
Down the canal from the market - much more scenic

Determining quickly that we are more comfortable in a slightly more upper-crust setting, we headed to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park followed by an amazing, if upper crust, fish and chips experience at Geales.  This is not your wrapped-in-newspaper fish n chip, but rather a high-end sit-down restaurant offering four types of fried fish among other seafood options.  And it was worth every pence.
Toddler food coma after fish and chips - though to be fair, he only ate the chips
 Baby Oil made himself right at home at Queen Victoria's Privy Council table in Kensington Palace (though our favorite part of the palace were the bathroom signs.)
"I've got this monarchy thing down."

A definite highlight of the weekend was the moment when Baby Oil spotted a Picasso painting in the Tate Modern, pointed to it, and loudly said, "Sheep! Baaaa!"  The painting was "Bust of a Woman."

Borough Market, near the London Bridge tube station, was another favorite discovery.  And not only for the incredible cinnamon danish and Chelsea bun that we acquired from Konditor & Cook.   Or the smooth, delicious coffee we had at Monmouth.  Or the scrumptious cheese we sampled at Neal's Dairy Yard. On second thought, it probably was those things, along with the promise of future deliciousness on a next trip to London.  I've learned my lesson, you see, and I will be happy to go to London as many times as possible throughout my life. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Zombie Eyes

I'm not sure that I've done justice to the quirks of the French health care system.  There is a strong emphasis on patient responsibility - both in terms of lugging your paperwork around town but also when it comes to prescriptions. 

For instance, Baby Oil is currently on an antibiotic (I'm calling him the Mucus King of Paris, if that gives you an idea of what's going on) that came in a glass bottle with a screw-on top filled with powder.  You are supposed to removed the screw-on top, fill the bottle to a certain point with water, shake it up, then add more water, and voila - antibiotic.  However, it is not clear where those fill-lines are for the water - the illustrations in the instructions never look like the actual bottle.  In one previous case, I for sure did not add enough water - or something else was off - because I supposed to give Baby Oil the meds for a week, but it only last four days.  It is, I suppose, also possible that my limited French vocabulary combined with French instructions influenced this situation as well.

Baby Oil also currently has an eye infection (unclear if it is pink-eye, only because I don't know enough French to understand what the doctor said it was) for which he was prescribed eye drops.  Except these eye drops are bright orange.  As a result, for the past week my child has resembled a toddler zombie - either his actual eyes are tinged orange from a recent administration of the drops, and/or his eyelashes and eyelids are tinged orange from the liquid that seeps out when the drops are applied.  On the one hand, you know when the drops get in.  On the other hand, I can't recall ever experiencing the zombie eye drops in the US (not even the summer when virtually every camper and counselor at my beloved summer camp came down with pink-eye).

Naturally, I've also now come down with the eye infection but fortunately the adult drops are not orange.  They are just normal, clear drops, and I really hope they start working soon because as it stands, the computer screen is blurry from all the goo in my eyes.  At least I don't look like a zombie. 

Because challenges in life never come alone, in addition to Baby Oil's ongoing health issues, the elevator in our building was broken for the past eleven days.  I did not write about this problem earlier because I was unsure whether I could manage to do so without falling into a full-on mental breakdown. 

We live on the 5th floor - but that's the fifth floor, European style, which to Americans is the sixth floor. It's about 124 steps (I had ample opportunity to count).  I have a 25+ pound child who cannot yet walk up that many stairs (and why would you when you know someone will carry you), I'm lugging around another child in utero, plus assorted groceries, toys for the sandbox, etc.  Leaving the apartment suddenly required a huge amount of motivation.  My father termed it "our experiment in 19th-century living" and what I can tell you is that a) I don't think I would have paid this much rent in the 19th century for a walk-up; b) I am sure that 19th-century mothers were stronger and less flabby than me; and c) thank heavens the elevator was fixed after eleven days.

In classic French style, we were informed on day 3 or 4 that the elevator might be out of service for up to two months.  That's right folks, two months.  And apparently, that's just something that can happen in France.  Some vague bureaucratic processes were described as well as unknown issues surrounding the actual process of fixing the elevator.  If you haven't been here in person, I should explain that our building is home to what may be the oldest working (or occasionally working) elevator in France.  It is really old.  You can only press one floor button at a time.  It runs on a cable pulley system.  It has a wooden accordion-style door.  This is not an elevator that surprises you when it breaks; rather, it seems a surprise that it remains an acceptable elevator.

In any event, the actual elevator repairman thought it was ludicrous that we had been told two months, as he informed us when he began work yesterday.  And he was right - before the end of the second day of work, the elevator was operational.  I now can resume leaving the house at regular intervals as opposed to staying inside for 3 days straight. Now I just need my little zombie to get better so he can go to back halte garderie...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How to Become Parisian

Last night, Mr. Oil and I attended a hilarious one-man show called "How to Become Parisian in One Hour."  We went with friends of ours, a French couple I'll refer to Mr. and Mrs. We-Love-America.  I call them this because they go to the US more than most Americans I know, and they think the US is pretty great.  Which we do too, but its not a typical attitude here in Paris! 

In any event, Mr. and Mrs We-Love-America had suggested this show as a fun night out together.  Until a few hours before, I didn't even know what we had agreed to see - I had just heard the words "show in English" and said, "Mais oui!"

If you live in Paris, or have a free night while visiting, I highly recommend this show, which makes fun of Americans at least as much as it does Parisians.  Covering everyone's favorite topics from dealing with waiters in restaurants, taking the Metro, getting into nightclubs, and finding an apartment, the tourists and French audience members were equally tickled throughout the performance. 

Facial expressions - pouty lips and an arrogant yet thoroughly disinterested stare - coupled with the classic Parisian sounds - think "ffff" or "buhf" or other related guttural exclamations - seem to make up a significant amount of what you must master in order to become Parisian.  We're working on that.  Meanwhile, this week we also worked on becoming Parisian by attending the Parents' Night at Baby Oil's halte garderie

Now, this was my first open house of any kind since my son's not yet 2, but I can't imagine that a group of parents standing somewhat awkwardly around as the staff explain in great detail just how all of the activities in which the children partake are essential to their development is that different in the US.   Just to be clear, we're talking about baby yoga, painting, collage, music, and gymboree.   I did learn that it is vital to send my child with a change of clothes because if something happens to his clothes (paint or whatever), it is important to his personal sense of self that he have his own clothes to change into. 

I understood about 40% of what was being said.  But as I said to Mr. Oil and another Anglophone mom with whom I sat in the back and whispered, anyone who can talk for that long and that seriously about how 1-3 year-olds spend their time has sufficiently convinced me that they are suitable to care for my child 10 hours each week. 

Following the open house, we went to dinner with my back-row whisperer friend and her French husband. We checked out the menu at one restaurant, left, then turned back around and decided it would work great.  In that time, the restaurant clearly determined that we were not French.  Though the restaurant was largely empty, the waiter ushered us to a table in the basement as opposed to the main floor.   I thought nothing of it, but our French companion was immediately insulted.  "How dare they sit us with the tourists!" he exclaimed. And true enough, the other seated table was a group of Asian tourists.  "That f**king guy, I can't believe he put us down here - I'm French!" said our friend.

This led to a prolonged conversation about how to project a Parisian persona - which, in a similar theme to what we would learn at the show last night, apparently boils down to, "If you show one moment of niceness, this will be interpreted as weakness, and you will be screwed."    Ah, the glamorous, romantic Parisian life!  

If you do show weakness, or are otherwise defeated by the challenges of living the Parisian life, you should drop everything and head to Cafe Pushkine and pick up their vanilla croissant. It is a gigantic, oversized, perfectly baked specimen of croissant with a layer of vanilla flavoring inside that adds just a touch of sweetness.  It is magical.  It transports.  We ate one this afternoon after a 20-minute screaming toddler meltdown inside the Printemps department store.  The meltdown was miserable and somewhat embarrassing.  The vanilla croissant made it all go away. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Back on the Chateau Circuit

As much as we love Paris and our urban life here, the truth is that Mr. Oil and I are not really city people.  (Seriously, honey, we're really not, even though you like to pretend that you are).  This past Sunday we escaped from the city for a visit to Fontainebleau and Barbizon, which made for a fantastic day. 

Though the weather last week had been cold, dreary, and oddly winter-like, the weekend weather was fall perfection.  Clear blue skies, crisp air - perfect Parisian scarf weather.  Or day trip weather, depending on your priorities. 

Fontainebleau is about 35 miles southeast of Paris.  The chateau was used by French kings dating back to the 12th century, though most of today's buildings were constructed under the rule of Francis I in the early 16th century.  I had wondered if after our first few months here we were chateau-ed out, but in fact we were quite happy to be back on the chateau circuit.
"Yes, folks, on today's tour I'll be guiding you through the 800 year old palace of Fontainebleau!"

Napoleon, having eschewed Versailles for being too reminiscent of pre-Revolution royal extravagances, brought Fontainebleau back to life in the first years of the 19th century.  And yes, I'm being ironic about Napoleon since having now visited, I can confidently say that Fontainebleau is equally as lavish and luxurious as its brother palace on the southwestern side of Paris.
Good call, Napoleon.  This is way more low-key than Versailles.

One important lesson for me was that no matter how beautiful the chateau, your enjoyment can be curtailed if your 21-month-old decides he only wants to be carried through the chateau - and only carried by you, the 5-months-plus-pregnant mommy.  Surprisingly - or not - he recovered when it came time to eat pommes frites for lunch.  Pommes frites totally sounds healthier and more legit than French fries.  Plus, of course, nobody in France considers them French fries.  Which reminds me of my ongoing question about French doors - you know, the elongated window doors that we call "French doors"?  What do the French call them?  It turns out a British friend of mine once mentioned something about their French doors to her French husband, who responded, "French doors?  If we were in England, would they be English doors?"  So apparently, like pommes frites, they are just called windows (or is it doors?). 
The backyard of the chateau.  We had family naptime in the sunny section on the right.
After lunch, we strolled through the chateau grounds and even took a relaxing rest on the banks of the canal while Baby Oil napped in the stroller.  Recharged, we headed a few kilometers away to Barbizon, which is now firmly on my list of favorite French villages.  Barbizon is most well-known for the "Barbizon school" of artists in the mid-19th century (though I'll be honest and tell you that I'm not terribly familiar with most of the Barbizon gang - Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and others).   In any event, today the main street of the village is filled with art galleries showcasing contemporary artists and small museums dedicated to the lives and works of the Barbizon school. Oh, and some of the best ice cream we've had in France!  Mr. Oil had tarte citron meringue - as in lemon tart with meringue topping - in an ice cream.  When he asked the woman if he could sample it before ordering she simply shrugged and said, "Yes, but you will want it."  Which he did, and even Baby Oil couldn't get enough (in part because I, already eating ice cream for two, didn't actually want to share....don't judge.)

Even the disgustingly terrible traffic we hit upon re-entering Paris could not sway us from our total enjoyment of this delightful day.  If anything, the day has us seriously considering purchasing a car so that we can better escape the city and explore what the greater Paris region has to offer.