Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Paris Public Toilet

Since 2006, Paris public toilets located on sidewalks throughout the city (numbering over 400 now) are available for FREE use.  I've walked past these things for years, not really noticing them...until I needed one.  Those who know me well know that I know where all the good (and not so good) bathrooms are located in New York City, and over the last two years, I've come to develop a decent list of bathrooms in Paris.  Necessity is the mother of invention.

Besides the McDonald's and Starbucks options for bathrooms (which are often code-locked in order to remain reserved for actual customers), most cafés give you the evil eye if you walk in and ask for a bathroom.  I do it anyway, or I just breeze in like I've come in from one of the outdoor tables and march right down the stairs (usually the bathrooms are downstairs).  Again, necessity...

But I'd never visited the public bathrooms located on the sidewalks, nor had I seen anyone else enter or exit one.  So I assumed this would be an unworthy option - probably with a homeless person inside, or filthy and smelly à la Amtrak or NJ Transit trains (yes, I've used those, too). 

Not so! 

These toilets are environmentally sound, use rain water, have all the proper amenities and clean themselves before each use.  They are large enough for wheelchairs and have bars for the disabled.  The city of Paris has a list and an interactive map of them on their website; they are called "les sanisettes."  There is a video that, with great fanfare (and background music to match), announces the city-wide installation of these toilets.  

So, do not be afraid.  Compared to the toilets for which you will pay (such as the train stations, the big department stores and some parks/gardens), or the cafés where you have to deal with the unhappy bartender not making a sale (oh, just buy a coffee at the bar - at worst you'll pay 1 or 2 euros for the privilege and a less intimidating experience), or the Starbucks option (where you'll have to wait for someone to come out first so you can beat the code), or the Sunday problem (where many shops and bars are closed), or worse (such as "squatters," which do not only exist in China), you frequent bathroom visitors can add this to the available options.  Such a list can never be too long.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where is Home?

One of my "homes," the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as seen from the Central Park Reservoir running path (practically another one of my homes) on a hot sticky July day.  

That does sound like I'm about to start a laundry list of summer, winter, ski, beach, European, Asian, Hawaiian, Caribbean, etc., abodes that might appear in Architectural Digest as among the numerous residences of the rich and famous.  No, that's not it (because if it was, the sticky July summer home would most certainly NOT be in Manhattan).  

No, again, it's that this morning (from the comfort of my air-conditioned apartment), I watched a TED Talk by Pico Iyer entitled "Where is Home?"  And it really (as the theater folk say) landed.  It has caused me to think about aspects of my life upon which I never focused, being as wrapped up as I was in living it.

Let's give it some thought together, shall we?  Born where?  Parents from where?  Grew up where?  Attended school/college where?  Married where?  Early adult working years where?  Spouse/partner from where?  Raised the kids where?  Working/living now where?  Happy place(s) where?  Ethnic group influences?  Religious group influences?  

If the answers to the above questions are more than a few, like I realized they are with me, then you'll begin to understand Pico Iyer's point.  One of the beauties of his presentation is that home is wherever you take yourself, and that these movements, somewhat "outside" yourself, allow you to find yourself.  He does it much better than I, and that's why he gives the TED Talk and I am then so moved by it that I write a blog post.

And thus, the more time I am away from the place I've called home for over 30 years, and the more I find "myself" elsewhere (and for me now, that's primarily Paris), the more I, too, realize that home is me.  And that all of my life, my residences past and present, my children, my friends and family, my passions and interests, make up my home, wherever I am.  

I also realize that the people I meet who have lived likewise, even if so many other aspects of their particular backgrounds do not mesh with mine, are immediately recognizable to me.  

On a macro level, of course, I begin to see how this globalized culture is changing, and will continue to change, how we see the world, how we choose our friends and mate, where we choose to live, what we choose to do in our lives.  It is a very exciting thing to me, though it might simply elicit a shrug of the shoulders of those in the generations younger than mine.  It's just normal for them - kids born of parents from different parts of the world or of different religions or backgrounds, and then living in a few places and perhaps speaking two or more languages as a native, going to college with people from all over the world and, thus, moving so fluidly (and enviably to me) among their peers, similarly raised.  

Home - the place we come to feel secure and safe, but now also the place we learn and grow and expand our horizons and stretch our comfort zones.  That is quite a definition change, but not if home is "us." 

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Doctor's Office

I walk into the little waiting room and begin to hear the lightest strains of music coming from somewhere, piped in like I've only otherwise heard in American elevators, but much softer, while 8 pairs of eyes, of ages ranging from pre-K to post-retirement, raise up at the same time to give me the once over.  And, again, simultaneously, after a few seconds of scrutiny, they all lower, back to their books, magazines and iPhones.  

I'm not quite sure what to do next, because there is no available seating left, save for the white plastic stacking chairs just the right size for 3-year-olds.  Should I just stand there, pick up a French children's book and wait for one of the prior waiting room tenants to vacate?  Or, am I even in the right place, since I've never been to either this doctor's office or to any other doctor's office in Paris?  

Hmm, there seem to be far too many children's toys, books and furniture, bringing back memories of my children's pediatrician's office in New York, and look, there are two sniffling and coughing kids.  Yup, I must be in the wrong office.

I go back outside, check the door's address and the doctor's name.  Nope, this is the name and the address I was given by my friend who is a patient.  He suggested I just show up in the morning, corner the doc and tell him I was "sent by Joe."  I knew this wouldn't fly in Manhattan, but when in Paris...

However, two patients came and went and I began to learn the drill.  First, there is no receptionist.  The doctor opens his examining room/office door, directly into the waiting room, releases the prior patient with a hand shake, nods at the next patient (whose name, I suppose, is on an agenda somewhere in that office) who stands up and shakes the doctor's hand (yes, I imagined all the bacterial permutations of these serial handshakes), enters the examining room and closes the door.  It all takes about 20 seconds.

Second (and most importantly), each time a new patient walks into the full waiting room, all eyes raise from their iPhones, etc., so that the owners of each pair of eyes can politely respond to the new patient's greeting of "bonjour madame" "bonjour monsieur" to every other patient in the little room.  

Wonderful, I already made faux pas #1 - I had muttered no "bonjours;" rather, I had hurriedly turned tail to go look at the front door, and then had the audacity to return a second time without even an effort to rectify my first rude entrance, clearing up any possible confusion that my first impoliteness was in error.

There was a second problem.  There didn't seem to be time in this quick dance of the opening and closing doors to insert my introduction that "Joe sent me."  I thought that, well, perhaps at the noon hour (2 hours from that moment), the flood of newcomers would die down and I'd be alone in that waiting room and could then get the attention I deserved.  (what a chicken, and what a fantasy)

So after two sets of handshakes, I hopped up, New York style, placed myself between the rising patient who had received the MD nod, and ran up to MD with my "Joe sent me," to which MD responded with "huh?" in front of the whole waiting room.  Damn, I knew that would happen!  I turned red, repeated, and he smoothly whipped out his iPhone and replied that he had no appointments for today, could I come back next Tuesday ...which would be four days from now.  Sigh.  I was suffering; that's why I decided the doc visit was going to be today.  Yes, I know this is also not necessarily possible in New York either.  In any case, I did not want to suffer and worry through the weekend and I was going to be persistent.  I'd been sick for over a week with this cold+whatever it was.

I ended up getting an actual appointment (courtesy of same friend Joe, whose name has been changed because "Joe sent me" is so much fun to write) at the end of today, Friday, with another doc in the same neighborhood.  The drill was same, and this time, I knew to lift up my own eyes and mutter a "bonjour" to each new patient who entered the waiting room.  I was a pro!

The doc came out and gave ME the nod.  Wow, pro move #2!  I entered, did the hand shake and reminded myself to wash my hands right after the appointment and touch nothing near my face in the meantime.

We went first to his desk, where he asked me to describe my problems, and I responded with my best pre-rehearsed lines using words I'd looked up in Larousse as I waited in the waiting room.  Pro move #3!  He understood me and he smoothly directed me over to the examining table at the end of the room.  He did the usual doctor stuff with little lights into nose and ears and mouth, and the all-important feeling for swollen glands in the neck. 

It seems I have a bad sinus infection, which is a first for me and explains why I had no idea why I was exhausted, couldn't sleep, lost my voice, had a constant headache, runny nose, chills and sore throat for over a week.
We smiled and chatted about Obamacare in French, while he wrote my three prescriptions (for what, I had no idea, but I nodded a lot), and filled out an insurance form for me to submit to my US insurer.  The French have a great deal of respect for forms.  He assured me that, unlike in the US, the medical profession in France is very content.

He then asked for 50 euros, handed me my prescriptions, walked me to the door, shook my hand once again, smiled in the direction of the next patient, and I went to wash my hands before I left the building.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Le Centenaire

Spontaneity - I've become such a big fan.  

I usually travel throughout the city of Paris with three essentials:
1.  My Pass Navigo, which lets me ride around in the Paris métro and buses all day long, if that's what I desire or need to do, which seems like constantly.
2.  An umbrella.
3.  My Paris "plan pratique" (the detailed Paris map in booklet form, which is a must for even a weekend here - they're sold at news kiosques, tabacs and bookstores). 

Recently one afternoon, I forgot #2.  I stepped out of the métro looking for a store that turned out to be closed for lunch (so the handwritten note taped to the inside of the door read) and then felt the rain start pelting me.  Of course - when you forget the umbrella, it rains.  Universal truth.

It was lunchtime, so the note said.  I turned in a quick circle to find someplace to find a little lunch of my own so that I could stop again at the shop after whatever turned out to be the shop owner's unspecified lunch hour(s).

Right next door, I found a spot.  Using my radar for food quality, I saw that it was completely packed.  In fact, when I walked inside, even the bar was full.  That's usually this solo diner's quick refuge from waiting for an open table.  However, after a 3-minute wait, I got the perfect spot, at a tiny table nestled in the corner alongside a window.  

I reviewed the blackboard menu and decided it was the perfect day to try the coq-au-vin, a dish I can't recall ever ordering.

If it had been evening and I didn't have work to do that afternoon, that wine glass would been full of a nice red.

The coq au vin was as good as it looks in the photo, very "vin-y" (In fact, I really didn't need more vin in the wine glass).

This is a nice and very local option if you're in the 11th, around the trendy Oberkampf neighborhood.  The link below has more photos of the bistrot and a nice description of its long history, if you want to practice your French reading skills!

104 rue Amelot
75011 Paris
08 99 96 56 47
Métro: Filles du Calvaire or Oberkampf

After my belly was full and it had stopped raining, I went back to the shop, which was still closed!  Ah, Paris...

Friday, December 7, 2012

On Leaves and Fall

This is how I will remember Fall 2012 in Paris.
It's been so dark and wet, and the only colors that show through the gray are the gold, yellow and brown from these wet leaves.
It's typically not very windy in Paris and so these perfectly-shaped leaves cling to their trees until they just can't hang on any longer, and then drift to the sidewalk, to rest there for ...well, they're still there.
I enjoy these pops of color; they're my sunshine on these gray and extremely short days...

... as long as I don't slip on them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Art, art and more art

The sun finally decided to shine over Paris, after many rainy and dark days, and so it was the perfect Sunday afternoon to spend....indoors?  Well, with the opportunity to spend a few hours under this particular roof, which I had not ever done, I wasn't going to pass up that chance.

FIAC, the International Contemporary Art Fair held in Paris each fall, is something to see, at least once, even if you're never going to be reaching into your stock portfolio to buy one of the thousands of works here.  And it's held under the incredible glass dome of the Grand Palais, created in 1900.  

With the sunlight streaming brightly down upon works ranging in value from 3,500 euros up to practically priceless, it got a bit steamy in there.  And during the four hours on my feet and nowhere to sit but for a few well-placed "bars" (thank goodness) with thousands of other mostly collector-wannabees like myself, it got to be a bit overwhelming.  Nonetheless, I thought was well worth the effort, energy expended and cost (not cheap - 60 euros for admission and enormous catalogue!).  Note to self if I ever do this again - wear flats with more arch support, and be sure to not pick up the catalogue until I exit the fair.

So, if you're not a millionaire contemporary art collector and not likely to ever get to experience this iconic event, here are a few photos and a New York Times article that provides more detail on some of the facts, figures and art on view during this four-day truly international événement.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Buying a Bed in Paris

It almost sounds like the title of a French comedy.  And it has its farcical moments, bien sûr.  Here are some of the things I've learned through my recent experience shopping for a bed in Paris.

1.  Do a little research online, just in order to find out the component parts of a bed, where you might be able to purchase one, what the price range seems to be (hint - higher than in the US) and what things are called in French. 

2.  The average French bed comes with the mattress (matelas, pronounced mah-tuh-lah) and something called a sommiel (pronounced so-mee-ay).  It's not a box spring exactly, but it goes in the same position as a box spring.  You don't have to buy the sommiel, and it's sold separately from the mattress.  Some people use only the mattress, either alone or in a platform setting.

3.  One must also consider les pieds (like it sounds, the feet).  These are squat round wooden posts that the mattress and sommiel stand on to raise them off the ground (in lieu of that ugly metal frame with wheels that American bed salesmen get a few extra bucks for).  Again, the pieds are not necessary, but sometimes they come with the set.  You choose color and height (my salesman recommended the taller height because it would be better for under-bed storage; right he was!).

3.  French beds seem to be very, very soft, even when called firm (presumably because if you want something really hard, you'd sleep on a Japanese-style bed, which are quite popular in Europe).  If you want a firm western-style bed, you really have to try them out.  And generally, the firmer you want the bed, the more it's going to cost if you want a bit of softness on the top layer of it.  

4.  Speaking of which, they call the feeling at the top of the mattress the "accueil" (welcome/greeting/reception).  That took a while to figure out, as the salesman kept saying it each time I would lie down on a mattress model to try it out!

5.  You can buy beds online.  There appear to be at least a couple of reputable companies, but since I didn't use one, I will not name names.  They are easily found with an internet search.  However, an American friend who has lived here for years prefers the online option and avoiding the department stores.

6.  I was told by consumer and salesman alike that the reason French beds are so much more expensive than U.S. beds is that French people make a big investment in a bed and keep it far longer than in the U.S.  I still don't follow the relevance, but perhaps without the economies of scale, they have to charge more for each one they sell?

7.  I bought mine in one of the grands magasins (department stores).  I got lucky and landed in Paris right at the start of the big fall sales.  (I didn't know there was such a thing, since there's only supposed to be two big sale periods throughout the country, but this was not called a sale and, thus, I suppose it was not one, even though prices were reduced 30-50%.)  Each brand was offering a few beds on sale promotion.

8.  In a department store, the bed department is manned (peopled?) by a sales rep who is affiliated only with one brand.  If you want to compare among brands, do it on your own.  You won't get comparison information from the salesperson, as you bounce among however many sales people as equals the number of brands you're choosing among.  This may be why they're so expensive.  It seemed that stationed next to every six beds or so, there was another salesperson at a tiny desk. 

9.  Beds come in so many sizes!  It's important to write down the exact dimensions of your bed, and also how deep it is, because bed linens likewise come in as many sizes!  For example, there's a bed measuring 140x190 centimeters and other measuring 140x200 centimeters.  Really?  A ten-centimeter difference?  Yes, really.  And ditto the sheets and comforter covers.

10.  When the bed is delivered to you, the pieds get screwed into the bottom of the sommiel.  Then, the delivery people check both sides of the mattress carefully before "installing" it, because the mattress will have a winter side and a summer side, presumably each topped by a fabric appropriate to the season and having the secondary benefit of promoting a semi-annual flip of the mattress by the user.

11.  Unlike in New York City, when the delivery is scheduled, you're given a range of hours (of about 3 hours) by the store.  That morning or the night before, you get a call telling you exactly when to expect them to arrive.  Amazing, especially since they actually arrived right on time!  And there was no delivery fee!  I don't know if that's common or not, or if was related to the sale or the particular store involved.  Either way, I'm not complaining.

12.  Bed linens are interesting, too.  There are square pillows and rectangular pillows (also of varying sizes), made of many different levels of down, down and feathers, feathers only, or synthetic (not so different from in the U.S.).  As for sheets, flat sheets are rarely used and not as easy to find as fitted sheets.  That is because the traditional comforter (couette) usually gets covered with a comforter cover and, thus, it seems that there is no need for the top sheet.  It is a lot easier to make the bed in the morning, for sure, especially with the fish tail of extra fabric at the bottom of the comforter cover which gets tucked into the bottom end of the bed under the mattress in order to hold it into place.  What genius!

I decided it was worth all the effort and every euro spent!  My sleep is crucial to me, and I can say I am a contented consumer thus far.  Zzzzzzzzz......