Friday, November 12, 2010

Canterbury Rails

It was time yet again to take the rails from Paris to Canterbury, England to visit to my niece. And Eurostar provides easy rails – I don’t even have to go as far as London, but get off the train in the English countryside at Ashford. Then I take a local train to Canterbury.

But this time I almost didn’t make it onto the train! Since my niece works in the organic produce market (The Good Shed), right next to Canterbury West station, and we knew she would be at work when I arrived, we had arranged for me to simply walk over to the market and meet her there. What I didn’t realize is that now, before you board the Eurostar in Paris you have to fill out a form with the address you’re going to visit in England. I didn’t have her address! I only had a phone number because I don’t carry my address book anymore. After all, I have all the phone numbers I need stored on my cell phone, right? Oh dear – would they let me on the train? Fortunately, the British agent in Paris, after some light resistance, let me through after I agreed with him that, yes, if this were the U.S. they would throw me in jail and leave me in solitary confinement for 3 months while they set about to prove I was a terrorist. I do think that the next time I travel to a foreign country I will have the address where I’m staying – that sounds like a good idea actually.

After that, the trip went very smoothly and I successfully walked the 50 yards from Canterbury West Station over to the produce market to meet my niece. I must say it’s an impressive market with all kinds of goodies, including cooked food. I think I had one of the best beef stews ever for lunch the day after I arrived. Who says the British can’t cook? This was terrific country food and at a great price. To be followed by Squirrel curlycues (or something like that) – chocolate and nut swirls that melted in the mouth. I’m a chocoholic, so I was happy.

Most of the time I had to stay in the cottage where my niece lives – on Heel Lane behind the orchards. No public transportation. No car. An hour’s walk from Canterbury – which my niece does almost every day. I’d pulled my lower back just before the trip – for more about that you can read my article:

So I took lovely, slow walks in the woods just beyond the orchards. You can discover all kinds of things in the woods, including fish tree bark! It gave me a real break and rest from concentrated Paris. Plus the fantastic food that my niece cooks, or rather creates. I’m in awe. (For more photos of Canterbury, go to

You do have to be tough, however. There’s no heat in the cottage except when someone builds a fire in the fireplace. Let’s just say I made friends with the sweater my niece lent me and the super quilt that weighed about 3 lbs I used at night. I survived!

There were several highlights during my stay. One was definitely the taxi drivers. Since I couldn’t walk into Canterbury, I had to call a taxi service. With no exception, all the taxi drivers were fantastic – as we drove into town, we had great conversations. “Are you from California – you have a California accent.” Actually, I did live there before I moved to Paris. (“Yeah, Dude”).

Another highlight was a guided tour of the house that my sister and her husband have bought and will live in once the renovation has finished. This is no joke since it’s been under renovation for about a year and a half already. But we found out why when my niece and I had a guided tour with Chris, one of the artisans who’ve been working on the house. It’s located in another small town near Canterbury called Headcorn (thankfully not Cornhead). The house is several hundred years old – and a few rooms on the ground floor are now the town post office! No problem – once you enter the house, you realize how grand and elegant it is, as the rooms unfold one after the other. Chris gave us at least 30 minutes of his time to lead us through each room – lovingly renovated and restored – it was a true blend of art and craft. (When they move in, I’ve got to figure out how to get invited there a lot).

But the most uplifting highlight came from Patrick, a friend of my niece, who has a food stand at the market. On an upright piano in the hallway of the market, by the toilets, he faultlessly played a Bach cantata, just for us. It was splendid.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Found: Boulangerie Nulle Part

I have just walked out of a bakery with the best rye bread I’ve ever had in Paris. Good bakeries are certainly the norm here, and great ones are scattered all over Paris. But, yes, I have found a fantastic boulangerie (bakery) that is literally “nulle part” or in nowheresville It’s called Au Duc de la Chapelle, and is located in a poor, immigrant neighborhood with social housing all around in the 18th arrondissement.

What makes it special is the current owner/baker, Anis Bouabsa who won the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” award in 2004 in the bakery division. The literal translation is “Best Worker” but the real meaning for Anis Bouabsa is more like “Best Artisan Baker”. Then four years later in 2008 he won the Meilleur Baguette de Paris award – a lot easier to translate – Best Baguette, man! Winning that award allowed Anis Bouabsa to supply bread to Matignon (i.e. the French White House) for one year. Frankly, putting nowheresville in connection with upper crust Matignon is mind bending. Plus, Anis is the youngest baker to ever to win the Meilleur Ouvrier award.

The Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition was created in 1924 to reward artisan workers who worked with their hands in fields that required an apprenticeship. It started out by giving 144 awards. Held every 3 or 4 years, by the late 90s it had 3,500 contestants in 180 professions. Within the bakery division in 2008, there were 84 competing, 15 of whom qualified for the final competition where the contestants had to create an artistic cake based on a theme from the cinema. The day of the finals, Anis astounded the judges with his “pièce de resistance”: Charlie Chaplin sitting on a bench! It had taken over 600 hours to make, but obviously the effect was worth it.

I’ve known about the bakery for some years because I had found it on one of my wonderings around the ‘hood. Originally, it was founded by Thierry Meunier, another Best Artisan Baker of France winner. I especially enjoyed the Triple Alliance (whole grain bread) and Pain de Seigle (rye bread). Especially the rye bread – a sourdough, dark ryebread, kind of the color of pumpernickel, but much more tasty in my point of view.

Anis Bouabsa met Thierry Meunier while preparing for the Best Worker contest, and apparently Thierry was so impressed by Anis’s creativity and energy that Thierry decided to pass along his bakery to Anis right then and there.

I find it intriguing that most Parisian bakers print a mission statement on their baguette sacks. This is a rough translation of Anis’s:

“There are many good bakers and that’s great. But what gives Anis that extra bit of ‘soul’ that made him become the youngest Best Artisan Baker of France?

Quite simply, it’s his thirst to learn and desire to always do better. ‘It was in me’ he always said when speaking of his unique way of connecting with what he was working with and to create, in his own way, the best mixtures of different flours.

Organic bread brings together different flours and numerous specialties springing from a generous creativity, or absolutely simple, crunchy baguettes, (plus pastries) which are all available at the first-class shop Au Duc de la Chapelle open Monday to Friday, from 5:30 am to 8 pm in the evening!”

And they say the French don’t work! This guy does. When you enter the bakery, he’s usually there either baking away in the back or even dealing with customers out front.

Anis has said in an interview that “What I create are like my children. I love to discover breads from different countries, stimulate the taste buds of my clients, mix rye flour and wheat flours... I create my own products and I love to do that.”

I can attest that he does wonders with rye bread. Besides the original Pain de Seigle, there is now a Pain de Seigle Céréales (rye flour mixed with other whole grain flours) that is splendid. Plus the baguette that Nicolas Sarkosy got to eat for a year!

I highly recommend this bakery – it’s worth a trip to Nulle Part if you like great bread. Open Monday to Friday, the nearest Metro is Porte de la Chapelle. Once you find the Rue Raymond Queneau, walk down the street and Au Duc de la Chapelle is just past the Boucherie Halel (the Muslim equivalent of a Kosher butcher) at 32 rue Tristan Tzara (the continuation of Rue Raymond Queneau). Voilà!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Admin Admin: Here we go again

Some say the French administration is a bit heavy. I’ll ditto that. The rather stressed ID portrait above is one point of an administrative journey that actually began back in 2008. It concerns my health insurance which is handled by an association rather than the government because I am a “travailleur independent” or free-lance worker. Quite frankly, I wish the French government Social Security still handled my health insurance. The association (RAM) has made one error after another.

We now have a “carte vitale,” kind of like a credit card with a chip that is scanned by the doctor or medical practitioner and sent electronically to the reimbursement center. Then you get reimbursed in about one week. The problem is that they decided to change the original card to one with an ID photo on it. I still have the “change your card” form from back in 2008. But – one problem – the RAM made a mistake with my first name. I use the name Jeanne in France, but my legal first name is Ruth. My second name is Joan = Jeanne in French. Voilà. The RAM had me down as Jeanne Feldman which is fine for my friends and my blog, but not ok for official documents. After receiving the form in 2008, I sent them a letter to that effect, along with a copy of my passport. Nada. Never heard from them again. Which was no big deal since I still had the old card which worked fine. Until I was dumb enough to believe a letter they sent me saying that the “carte” had to be validated once a year to remain usable. When I did that by inserting it into a kiosk at the Social Security, the damn machine invalidated my card! So I had to apply for the new one. I did this the end of last February (2010).

On March 15 I received a letter that my request had been received and that I would (eventually) receive the form to apply for the new card. Then again, nada. Around mid-April I started phoning the RAM, “Where is the form?” “Oh oh oh – we’ll apply for it again.” Still no form. Called again. It finally arrived on May 6 – with the wrong first name! I finally went in person to the RAM on a Friday to see what could be done. Would I have to wait another 2 months just to receive another form? And then wait another 6 weeks to actually receive the carte? I spoke with a lady who told me she could speed up the process if I could provide an ID photo. I didn’t have one. Hadn’t even thought of it! Oh well – could I come back Monday with the photo? OK.

On Monday – the task was clear. Get the ID photo ASAP and then go to the RAM to straighten this all out. I had noticed a photo machine in the Metro near where I live. Why not just go there? Of course I also had a backup plan which is essential in France. If Plan A didn’t work, I’d go to the photo shop 2 Metro stops away where they could take my photo in the shop (Plan B). I arrived at the Metro station and went into the machine. Oh boy, it needed exact change and all I had was a 20€ bill. I went to the ticket window to get change. “Sorry, the machine is out of order. Is there another one?” “Yes, in the Monoprix down the street.” So I went there, found the machine and tried to get change for my bill. Not one cashier would give me change!

OK – time for Plan B. I arrived at the photo shop - closed on Mondays! Then I realized there was another Monoprix near the photo shop (Plan C). I went there, found the machine and got in line to ask for change. It was at that moment I had my “flash” (cool – not hot). “Buy something – then they have to give you change!” So I did. I got out of line for 2 seconds to find sugar free candy that I actually like and is cheap so I’d get lots of change. Bingo! I then took 4 ID photos in the machine and went directly from there to the RAM where I left the form, copies of other official IDs and the photo which I even offered to cut with my own scissors. I do think this really impressed the RAM lady who was actually very nice to me. And I received the card in less than “un bon mois” (i.e. 6 weeks). I’m also now contemplating whether or not I should go back to my local Monoprix, buy something really cheap and then pay with a 50€ bill. I’m thinking, I’m thinking.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

GrosBill - Out!

When you google GrosBill, the blurb says “GrosBill sells the most recent and innovative ‘high tech’ electronic and house hold appliances at discount prices online and in 7 stores” (my translation from French). Yeah – except if your innovative high tech electronic product doesn’t work so you take it back to the store. This is what happened to me – it’s so bad, I’ve simply got to out those “bad guys”.

Last year, on Thursday Dec 17, I bought an external hard disk at the GrosBill Paris store. I needed to backup files on my new Macintosh computer, and the man who helped me set up my Macbook Pro had highly recommended GrosBill. I of course told the guy behind the counter that the hard disk was for a Mac, not a PC, and bought it, paying 90 euros for the pleasure, including a special guarantee.

Once I arrived home, I connected the disk– and nothing happened. So the next day, Friday, I went back to GrosBill which, by the way, is really far out of my way and takes forever to get there! Imagine my surprise when, even with the guarantee, the guy behind the counter refused to take back the disk. He told me that it was my responsibility to format the disk for a Mac. Basically he said that “somewhere in the computer system you need to find ‘hard disk’ so you can reformat it for a Mac”. Right.

I made the mistake of taking him at his word and returned home. I looked at the system preferences and - nothing. I opened the disk utility and yet again – nothing. The following Monday, again I wasted my time going back to the store, this time to return the disk. It got even worse. Another customer service guy refused to believe me and insisted that he test the disk. “On a Mac?” I asked. Of course not! And on their PC the disk icon appeared. Then he admitted to me it wasn’t possible to reformat the disk (which is interesting since on the box it said you had to reformat it for a Mac).

At this point, I decided to return the disk for a store credit. I also asked the customer service guy where I could send an email about all this, and he gave me an email address. As soon as I got home, I sent an email with the whole story, in French, including, at the end, that I was so exasperated with their nastiness that I would “out” them.

I soon received an automatic response saying “The questions we deal with at this email address only concern problems of bank payments. If your question concerns an order or how Grosbill functions, you will receive no response from this address.” The guy had given me a wrong address – on purpose I’m sure! Par for the course.

Later, to my surprise, I did get an email response. This is what it said: “Hello. Only the store manager can decide what to do for you. You have been given a credit. We cannot do anything else for you. You may, if you wish, inform your network or a consumers association. Sincerely, GrosBill Customer Service.”

OK – they said they didn’t mind my informing my “network”. I can also add that there is a kind of “happy end” to this story. I figured that I needed to use the credit, and finally I found something for the same price – a cordless headphone. Ordinarily I wouldn’t spend 90 E on a headphone, but what the heck. I wanted one. And when Anvil’s heavy metal rock sound burst into the middle of my head, I did feel that I had turned it around. Somewhat.

My advice to anyone living in France is - avoid GrosBill. Like the plague.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Another Pool Surprise

Sunday morning once again, and I arrived at the municipal swimming pool at 8:15 am (the pool opens on Sunday morning at 8) only to face a dull, grey and unlit building. On strike again! OK. Call another pool with cell phone. OK, they’re open. Go to bus stop. Stop! There was Anne, another pool regular coming toward me. “Ils sont en grève” (they’re on strike) I warned her. Anne swims regularly at our pool, and we always greet each other in the shower room. “OK,” she said. “Allons nous à Mathis” (OK – let’s go to Mathis). Huh? Mathis is supposedly one of the best municipal pools in the area– at least that’s what several “regulars” have told me. Frankly, I’d never been there and didn’t even know exactly where it was located. What I did know was that it wasn’t exactly nearby – but here was Anne suggesting we walk there! As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen a lot of Anne at our pool recently. She explained this was because she now goes more frequently to Mathis. How could I resist? “Je suis partante” (I’m game!). And off we went, sacs balanced on shoulders to the mysterious Mathis pool. And I was right, it wasn’t that close.

After we crossed over the railroad tracks that lead to the Gare de l’Est, we turned into a small park with gigantic clean lined apartment towers – social housing as a matter of fact. This finally led to the pool, which was of course open and not on strike. I think they just don’t do a thing like that at Mathis. Thanks to my guide Anne, I had finally arrived at the “best” pool. But now there was one more hurdle to overcome. Each pool has it’s own unique system for changing booths and lockers. At Hebert, the ‘hood pool, you get a basket, undress in a changing booth, put the basket with your things into a locker and then lock it using a personal code that you then use to open up the locker. At my backup pool Les Amiraux, you go right into a changing booth, undress, leave all your stuff there, clack the door behind you which then automatically locks, and get an attendant to unlock it when you return after your shower.

Now I was facing system #3: pull a basket from an empty locker, undress in the changing booth and then put the basket with your stuff back into the locker which has a real and actual lock – that you need to insert one euro into to pull it out. What euro? I certainly had never met this situation before and did not have any money on me at all (I did of course have my cell phone, house keys, kleenax, list of pool phone numbers, tickets to get into the pool, a business card with my name, address, phone numbers, email and website address in case I am injured or killed so they know who was injured or who died – but no change whatsoever). Without Anne it would have been a disaster. But generous being that she is – Anne lent me a euro coin to pull out my locker key. And by absolute and unplanned good fortune, we actually finished swimming at the same time, so I could give it back to her just before we walked home together. Which was good because I had already forgotten how to get there and would undoubtedly have gotten miserably lost without my “guide” to show me the way.

Oh does it pay to be a “regular”!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Opportunity Knocks

For once I got up early enough in the morning to arrive at the municipal swimming pool at 7 am. During the week, it opens from 7 to 8:15 and then closes until 11:30. But no way am I going to stop whatever I’m doing during the day to go swimming. I know myself – it’s before breakfast or nothing. That Wednesday morning I left early enough to make it! Suddenly, about 2 blocks from the pool, 2 guys signaled to me. Weird. Then I looked up and realized they were both swimming pool regulars. I must say it really does pay to become part of the “regulars” in France. In fact this is how I found my hairdresser, one of the best I’ve ever had in Paris. Marcelle, another swimming pool regular, is friends with her mother and told me about the shop. It’s about 30 seconds from my apartment. However, the sign outside says “Messieurs” (“Men”) and I’m totally unobservant, so I hadn’t noticed that there were actually ladies inside what had been her father’s barbershop. But I’m digressing. The 2 regulars simply said “Ils sont en grève.” (They’re on strike = the pool is closed). It was freezing cold, so cold in fact that I couldn’t even deal with the thought of taking off my gloves to call other pools on my cell phone to see who was not “en grève”.
So, no swimming that Wednesday morning. (If you want to know more about the “greve” read my blog: I did it right!, Wednesday, February 24, 2010.)

As often happens in life, this actually allowed opportunity to knock at the door. You see, I’m a teacher at a university in Paris called Sciences Po (Institute for Political Science). It’s a top school and the students are very “intello”. So am I, but since I’m older, I know they’ll have to deal with things other than logic to succeed in life. This is why, in my English skills class, I play music. Heavy metal rock music. It’s a shocker, but they need it as far as I’m concerned. As I tell them, “You’re getting all the linear logic you need in all your other classes. Let’s rock.”

Unfortunately Tuesday night at Sciences Po I had left my newest fantastic heavy metal CD in the CD player. The class ended at 7 pm, and of course I didn’t notice it until I got home that evening. Then I tried to figure out when to go back to get the CD. Well, here it was - the opportunity to arrive at Sciences Po Wednesday morning the day after at 8 am before the first class of the day. Surely I would find my CD still in the player. After all, there’s only one class after mine in the evening, and the young professor arrives wearing a suit and tie – I can’t imagine him playing any music!

OK — off we go by Metro to Sciences Po! By then it was 7:30, perfect to arrive at 8. And there was my CD right there in the player where I’d left it. I found Anvil! I arrived home at around 8:30, just when I would have gotten back from the pool, and played Metal on Metal while I did my morning yoga. GREAT!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Me and Vashti

Last Saturday night was the beginning of Purim. (I assume that Jewish holidays begin at sundown because if you’re wandering around in the hot dry desert you really look forward to sunset for some relief.) The story of Purim takes place in ancient Persia when the King, Ahasuerus, marries a Jewish girl Esther, although he doesn’t know she’s Jewish (her “real” Hebrew name is Hadassa). Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, looks after her and even prevents an assassination attempt on the King. At the same time, the villain of the story, Hamen, a high official in the Persian administration, hates Mordecai because Mordecai doesn’t bow down to him (in truth, he’s just plain anti-Semitic). What makes it even worse for Hamen is when Ahasuerus rewards Mordecai for saving his life by having Hamen lead him around on a horse through the streets of Sushan. So Hamen gets the king to put his seal on an order to kill all the Jews, and once this happens the order can never be repealed. Esther, using her feminine wiles, lets the King know she’s Jewish – and does he want her, his beloved beautiful wife, killed too? Of course not – so the Jews are warned, fight back and win, thus following the standard Jewish holiday motif: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.

So who is Vashti? She is the first wife of King Ahasuerus. The story begins, not with a bang, but with a seven-day banquet to celebrate his reign for all the men who lived in the palace. “And the rule for drinking was, ‘No restrictions!’” On the last day, Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to present herself, “wearing but the royal diadem to display her beauty.” She refuses. Now I’m behind Vashti on this one: “What? Display myself naked in front of a bunch of drunken idiots? No way Ahash!” This is why the king divorces Vashti and finds his new Jewish wife Esther. But my heroine is Vashti! You go girl! And she did – we never hear about her again.

The way we celebrate Purim at my synagogue Kehilat Gesher in Paris is to read the Book of Esther from the Old Testament, out loud and word for word. Purim is also the Jewish Halloween – you’re supposed to come in disguise. I, of course, came as my heroine – Vashti! And our rabbi? Imagine someone leading a service in an outsized green top hat and red beard – he was a leprechaun! This may explain why were all given a quarter glass of whiskey and were instructed to take a sip every time we heard the word “banquet”. That, plus the booing whenever we heard the name Hamen, made for a very special evening indeed at Kehilat Gesher in Paris.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I did it right!

Yup, for once. I like to go swimming in the public pools of Paris. This started years ago when I was on Unemployment and discovered that this entitled me to free entry to any municipal pool in Paris. Vive la France! I’ve been a bit irregular lately, but I’m getting back into it, and Sunday morning is a must. Before I eat breakfast. No exceptions. However, the situation now is that the guys who staff the pool are on strike. Not every day, but from time to time when it hits them. Most people don’t even know why they’re on strike, but I do. You see, I have a tuyau (ie. pipeline) to the pool. One of my friends used to work there, and he told me how the higher ups, to reduce the budget, have decided to get rid of the people (mostly ladies) behind the cash register at reception and replace them with the guys who work the pool (basically sitting behind a counter although I’m told they also heat up the pool, add chlorine and make sure the levels are right). Anyway, they’re saying “NO WAY” to this order from on high with no discussion beforehand. I don’t blame them really.

Since I knew about the strike and how it was hitting each pool differently, on different days, and being a pre-planner from way back (my father was an engineer so I guess it’s in my genes) I photocopied a list of local pools and put them into the sac I bring with me to the pool. I also put in my cell phone and a Metro/bus pass – Ok, Ok, I’m a plan ahead freak. But what if I get locked out of my apartment on a Sunday morning when there’s no one with an extra key in the building to let me back in, and I have to go pick up the key?

I arrived at my local pool – about a 2 minute walk from my apartment – at 8 am Sunday morning when the pool is supposed to open. I had great hopes since the inside was brightly lit, indicating the guys were not on strike. Wrong. At exactly 8 (which is rare, they usually come out 5 to 10 min late to open the gate) out came one of the guys, José, to let us know that they were indeed on strike.

OK – plan ahead strategy up! As I walked toward the bus on a line that stops at 2 other pools in one direction and another in the opposite direction, I pulled out my cell phone plus the list of pool numbers , dialed pool no. 1 – the better one – and actually got through to a human being. Nope – they were on strike until noon. Too late – as inflexible me must swim before breakfast. By this time I was at the bus stop and –surprise of surprise – a bus was racing toward me from down the street (if you just miss a bus, you have to wait up to 20 min for the next one on a Sunday). I was so proud of myself as I got on the bus and validated my ticket at the same time that I was calling pool no. 2. This is definitely an intercultural skill that I have learned from living in France. Thinking that I’d get off who knows where if that didn’t work out. Surprise – on the bus I got through again to a human being – and they were open! Success – Réussite.

I learned to always plan ahead for last minute unexpected changes while I was researching my shopping guide Best Buys and Bargains in Paris . I must say it served me very well indeed Sunday morning.