Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eugéne Atget

Mysti sent me an article from the New York Times about the photographic legacy left by Eugéne Atget.

He is another member of that vast group of people of real importance of whom I – of course – had never heard.

So much for the quality of my education.

Anyway, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Eugéne dragged a gigantic box camera and heavy glass plates around Paris in the early morning.

(Those mornings must have been in the summer. Being in a time zone that doesn’t fit the place – Greenwich Mean comes to mind, but being a part of the British time zone just won’t do - makes Paris dark a lot of the time and for for most of the year. That would hardly serve a pre-computer photographer)

And Eugéne took photographs.

He was a master.

In his honor – now that I have been allowed to know of his existence - I am posting some pictures that I took today of his City in grayscale.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Ghost Tower

A feeling of desperation had settled upon me. The wind had seemed to have changed direction from up my back to across my left eye. That change was significant. Where the snow had, with the wind at my back, been merely an issue (my unprotected back of head head receiving a thin but increasing veneer of ice, which melted over - not much - time and ran down the back of my overcoat underneath the wool flap of insert that was supposed to hold off almost any onslaught of cold) now, with the wind pushing the snow into my left side, the ice veneer had purchase on my whole left face.

And that difference was appreciable.

But appreciable or not, I knew I had no alternative but to continue to press forward.

I knew that there was something, something not within my scope of ability to describe, but something, that would make the whole exercise of apparent abject futility worth the pain.

The sky – at least I supposed it to be the sky, and there was no horizon and there was no “left” nor was there any “right”; there was just “front”, which had only the definition of “light” and “slightly less light”, and there must have been, I supposed, a “back”; I didn’t want to conjure on what that might look like – was a darkening, muddy grey presence, engulfing everything that I was able to see, and that which I was able to see, as the muddy greyness deepened, and the onslaught of the wind on my eye intensified, was not much.

To my left –in the direction of the ice-veneer-depositing-wind – I thought I saw something.

I stopped to try to pierce the miasmatic deluge of snow crystals, made even more difficult to visually penetrate by that fierce, horizontal, heat enervating presence, the wind. That wind, although from my side, whipped across the exposed portions of my eyes and did its level best to freeze them. Failing that – because fail it must; the blinking that occurs when one is still alive, without thought and without positive sentient control, was continually bringing slightly unfrozen fluid from somewhere in my slightly unfrozen body, again and again to their surface, keeping them unfrozen – it did its level best to turn the left side of my face to a deadened, non functioning point of initial entry, a point of initial entry, that, once established, could be expanded little by little to the ultimate victory of death by freezing.

But then I saw it. And the reason for the misery, for being out, dangerously exposed to a wind and weather that had only one goal in mind – to kill all that challenged them – became totally apparent.

I had been given the vision of the Ghost Tower.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Twenty One December 2010

In Screen Saver I chronicle the cycle of things – at least the cycle of things that I have seen and, the cycle of things that means anything to me.

Among those cycles are the mountain ash trees and their leaves and flowers and berries as they progress from sprays of fairy laced light green leaves that never get very big, through the time in which their flowers first appear and emanate a smell very much like rotten meat, through the time - which is most of the late spring and all of the summer – when they just disappear into the general greenness of things, and finally to that day when the season turns as also do the mountain ash: their berries suddenly flash through the hum drum green of what is still  left of summer, and they make a violently deep red orange flash-of-color statement; they say that they were their all along; and they say – with their red orange flash - that they had more important things to do than participate on the front of the stage of summertime. 

Also among those cycles are the chestnut trees, starting from gray trunked winter barrenness, through their first sign of life in the spring, that sign being the appearance of myriad clusters of leaves, all looking like miniature palm trees, which are quickly followed by a burst of purple throated, cream colored flowers, that become nubbins, that become, by summer’s end, golf ball sized piñatas of Autumn munificence, which, when struck by just the right blast of chill wind, dump shining hoards of deep brown treasures to the earth on the streets where they live, to be picked up by children and treasured, briefly, before they shrivel, become dull and are discarded, or don’t get picked up, and just shrivel and become dull in place where they have fallen, to be ground to meal by passing cars, and, subsequently, washed down the gutter to waiting grates of waiting storm drains, and gone forever.

I took a great deal of satisfaction in that chronicle.

Why might that be?

No reason, really, I have to guess; except that I savor using the words that it takes to exhume the description of those things, the chestnuts and all, from their annual grave, and force them back out into the light of day.

But that is not what it is.  That is not what it is it all.

What it is is is that, by chronicling those things, my most deeply hidden sense of self, or of being, or of existence, can re-manifest itself or re-enforce itself, and by so re-enforcing, perhaps, it can occlude the obvious: that each cycle leaves one less left for me, no matter how many there might be left for the rest of things.

That spate of words brings me to what it is that is on my mind at this moment.

Twenty One December is the shortest day of the year.  On the calendar it is six months away –  quite a number of seconds, minutes, hours or days (or heartbeats) away from twenty one June, which is the longest day of the year.  But in the Screen Saver chronicles it is so close to its sister day as to be functionally adjacent. 

Because for me, any more, the shortest and the longest days are not differentiated. Nor are the chestnuts, mountain ashes and the rest.  They are just a blur flying by on some crazed from here to there apparatus of eternal propulsion. In the case of the longest day and the shortest day, like some sort of mad GIF animation they flash past, first one, then the other,with frightening speed, and with an apparently diminishing interval between with each flash.


Twenty one December is also the day when I became a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force in 1964.

I guess that that is forty six years since gone.

But I don’t have to guess about other things in relation to that date.

I know it is before I went to Saigon and sunk into a pit of depression that nearly took me.

I know it is before I went to work for IBM and wondered how I was, possibly, going to survive in what was, apparently the adult world.

I know it is long after my mother, in a car, on 32nd Avenue, just down the street from my grandparent’s house (where what my mother was just about to tell me had happened) said “Annie died”.

I know that it is before Mysti and I became a unit in the middle of a bridge over a river in the desert of Central Oregon, or before I had had the dream that had released me forever from Ruth on that bridge in Paris with a view of Les Invalides.

What I don’t know, and for some reason, for the first time ever, the question has occurred to me, and the question, to my surprise for a first time question, has some degree of urgency: “how many more? how many more?”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Dropped Off The Face Of The Earth Phenomenon And Its Benefits

One of the many things that makes an extended tour in Paris so interesting and rewarding, for me, is a byproduct of my lack of ability to speak French.

Not being able to speak the language, by the way, is in my estimation, an appalling shortcoming among my many shortcomings; so don’t interpret that first sentence as being some lame attempt to make a virtue out of a weakness.

But that sentence stands.

It stands because it is truth.  The truth is not that not speaking French can be a good thing.  The truth is that having no clue of what is going on in the world can have immense advantages.  And, when I turn on some of the French news channels, no clue is what I get.  Oh, there is the occasional “même chose” or “exactement” and all the other little easy to hear children of those few phrases that I have in my vocabulary.  But knowing what anybody is saying about anything - presumably the state of the world at the point at which I see them uttering whatever it is that they are uttering - is absolutely denied to me.

And that is the beauty of it.

I have absolutely no idea of what is going on in the world, and, I believe, both the world, and I, are better off due to that gaping chasm of lack of knowing.

Let’s be honest though.

I obviously have a computer, so I could just plug into – something, god knows what – and keep up to date with – everything.

But trust me; I don’t do that. 

As evidence of my lack of netcitizenery please consider the following fact.

I haven’t signed on to Twitter for such a long time that I keep expecting to be cast into the outer darkness by a rapidly fleeting winged creature diving at me from above and twittering as it recedes into the inky darkness shrieking “be gone from the fold, thou foul and voiceless creature”.

But I do have three English channels, Sky News from Britain and CNN and CNBC.  CNBC is the only one that is worth watching – although I do enjoy the blow by blow accounts of the various losses throughout  the former British Empire that seem to keep being experienced by some British cricket team or other, so I do tune in Sky every now and then, mostly on weekends, when CNBC is dormant – so I can’t claim the total lack of knowledge of the world and its events and issues that my preceding statements would cause one to surmise to be the case.  I do occasionally get some English input.

But I do manage to come  pretty close to not knowing anything about anything. (I hear a chorus of voices saying “so what’s new about that?”)

But. anyway.

I don’t turn on CNBC very often.  And CNBC, almost never, features commentators or guests who are talking about “news” in the generic sense of the word.  They are almost always talking “business”. (Jim Cramer’s ravings may cause one to question even that assertion, but in general it seems to be true.)

One of the benefits of this state of affairs is that once in a great while I am absolutely flabbergastedly surprised.

It happened – maybe – Friday; time is a blur any more and I seldom take much note of the day in which anything, even anything of significance, occurs.

What I know was that I was watching Squawk Box while I made the bed.  I make the bed every morning and fold my pajamas in this particular manner and put them, after the pillows have been arranged in just the way they need to be arranged, to make anyone who had to break into this place in the event that I were to be spirited off during the day by Hamas terrorists, believe that I had been a genuinely squared-away sort of chap – a more complicated version of your mother’s demand that you always have on clean underwear to make her look to be a good mother in the event that you might be run over by a car while you were out. 

Not Faulknerian, but close.

Anyway, back to the point – there was one, wasn’t there?

I think it was Erin who – in one of those rare CNBC “news” rather than “business” moments - said something about the Senate (or was it the House?) passing a bill and sending it to the president for signature.  It was a bill, to become –soon – law, to do away with “don’t ask don’t tell”. When signed into law it would let gays be real citizens and be in the military, and  be open in their sexual proclivities, just like their heterosexual compatriots.

“What the …? ” I said

Maybe this gridlock deal is a good thing after all.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Things Related To My Recent Birthday

Mysti sent me an experience for my birthday. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that such a thing could be done –Mysti being the creatively inventive person that she is – but I was surprised that such a thing could be done.

What the present was, was a book, I ultimately learned. But the gift was down stack from other things that needed to be done. The first of these things was to read the instructions – I forget now how the package, when it showed up in my mailbox here in Paris, allowed me to read it’s external warning before I had opened the package, and, basically, spoiled the experience – but somehow the instructions were purveyed in such a manner that I got to them first, and didn’t spoil the experience.

Here are those instructions.

perec directions

Actually I was then looking at 68.

It took a surprising number of days to intervene between my receipt of the package and the instructions to get a day that was properly in tune with the description of the day that needed to be underway for me to appropriately experience the gift. That was surprising, because the weather requirements described pretty much describe Paris weather, non respective to the season. I have seen the month of August pretty much meet the description proffered.

But I finally did find a day that met them, and I honored the time to within a minute or so, and I had gone to Café de la Mairie – I had gone there for the first time a few weeks previous, but I had been passing it so many times in the years since I first traversed that route in 2002, that I felt as if I was in my home.

And I ordered a DOUBLE express and a croissant.


And just outside was Saint-Sulpice.


Just as it has always been.

Inside the package was a very brief little book. It documented everything that the author – Georges Perec , a French novelist, essayist and filmmaker of consequence, saw over several days in the Autumn of 1974, while sitting in several of the little eating and drinking establishments ringing place Saint-Sulpice.

He logged everything that his writing hand could get on paper before he forgot what it might have been. And I have no idea why,but when I started to read those loggings, that they were so magical for me; but they were – magical.

I suspect the magic had something to do with my personal involvement with the place where he wrote his sightings, an involvement that had extended over some of the most formative years of my life.

But non respective to any self-perceived personal relationship to the its topics, the book amazed me for the leverage of its – for me major impact compared to – for it - its trivial number of pages.

Anyway, here is my truncated video in support of the Perec concept of triviality as greatness. Or perhaps he was thinking of greatness as triviality.


A Tribute To Georges Perec

Friday, December 17, 2010

La Citrouille

Back in 2007 I was living in an apartment on Rue Guénégaud in the 6iem Arrondissement of Paris. When I didn’t cook in the apartment, but, instead, went to a restaurant for dinner, I went quite some distance from the immediate vicinity of the Rue Guénégaud. That was because over the years leading up to 2007, my restaurant experiences had been associated with somewhat different locations to that of 2007. And my style has always been, having found something that I like, to do it again.

One evening, just prior to leaving for a significantly long walk to dinner, I had a minor revelation. “There are lots of restaurants within two blocks of here; some of them must be good” an internal voice said to me.

A possible background driving force to that revelation was the fact that one of my favored entry and egress routes from the apartment to many of the places that I went to, and back to the apartment from many of the places that I had gone to was Rue Gregoire de Tours. Rue Gregoire de Tours was alive with restaurants: traditional français, Chinois, Indien, and a couple of crepe restaurants. I had noticed these restaurants with every trip up or down the Rue Greg, and wondered if they might be any good. But since I had never been to one of them, and therefore my ingrained habit going back to places that I have enjoyed, had never had a chance to kick in on behalf of the restaurants of Rue Gregoire de Tours, I continued to wonder, but the thought of actually trying one of them never occurred to me.

That had been true until the evening I just described.

The proposition the voice within me was posing was certainly a reasonable one. So I set off for Rue Gregoire de Tours to pick one of the restaurants that I had been seeing and had been wondering about.

I remember which one it was, and I remember quite a bit about the dinner. What I don’t remember is what, if anything, caused me to select it over all the other equally interesting looking and enticing options. By that I mean that I remember being in the one I chose, but I can’t remember in the context of that evening what had made it stand out. I’m making a distinction here between remembering and knowing.

That is because I don’t remember; but I do know.

We’ll get back to that a little later, because “knowing” is at the heart of the matter of one of my now favorite places here in Paris. And the “knowing” has come from the “observing” of certain activities that are a part of that restaurant’s mode of operation.

But, briefly, what I remember is that, after once entering the place for whatever reason I had done so, being quickly and graciously conducted to a wall table, being presented with a menu and being left to ponder my choices. I remember my server being totally not there hovering around me while I was in choose mode, but I also remember that the minute I had made up my mind, probably due to some form of telepathy, he was right there asking me for my choices. I remember that they had Corbières wine, which I had never seen in a restaurant, even in Languedoc, where it comes from. I remember having a pretty good onion soup, and, what I thought to be, really good – and interesting (the chunks of beef were about three times as big as any I had ever seen in the dish anywhere else) – boeuf bourguignon. I remember that even the pommes vapeur were good.

It had been a very pleasant experience. And before I had left Paris in 2007, I had experienced it a couple of more times with similarly pleasant results.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that, with my habit for repetition of things pleasant, that I have gone there a number of times since.

Oddly enough that hadn’t been the case. Until recently.

After leaving Paris in 2007 – that had been a six week stay – I had only been back briefly, for two weeks in 2008, and not at all in 2009. And the 2008 stay was for only two weeks and I was in an apartment toward the Eiffel Tower end of Rue de Grenell, making Rue Gregoire de Tours an awfully long walk for dinner. (That particular part of town – by Tour Eiffel - has the oddity that there really are no good metro routes to a lot of places one might want to go.) So if I ate at my newly found member of my list of favorites on the 2008 trip, I don’t remember it.

I don’t think I ate there, because as I always do, I ate in the apartment until a few days before departure so I had an accumulated budget surplus to spend like a drunken sailor. And I remember staying fairly close to Rue de Grenell.

(I will mention that on that trip I again violated my habit and tried a restaurant that was not on my previously-savored list – it was just toward Invalides down Rue de Grenell , one door from the door to my building. It turned out to be a North African restaurant, and it was really fun – and really good.)

So now we can move into the here and now of mid December 2010.

I am back where Rue Gregoire de Tours is close to where I live. I have eaten at the place I found in 2007 a number of times, both for dinner and for lunch, and I now feel as if I need to share it with the world – or at least the amazing shrunken subset of the planet who might ever read this blog.

I should mention that the name of the restaurant is La Citrouille – The Pumpkin.

From the vantage point of quite a few meals there I would say the food is on the quite good side of average.

The service is excellent.

The pots of wine are good and reasonably priced.

But it is the people, and the entertainment value that they add to the overall experience that would cause me to put La Citrouille on the top of any list of restaurants that I would ever assemble, if I were ever to assemble one, which I seriously doubt I will ever do. Even I draw the line at some forms of pretention.

So, let’s talk about the people.

The reason I know – now – even though I can’t remember what caused me to go to La Citrouille that first time instead of any of going to the other choices, is that I have been able to observe how the two waiters work the crowd. By the crowd I mean the endless queue of aimless lookyloos that pass by the glass front of the restaurant and its glass doors. That queue constantly devolves into little increments of one, two or, sometimes three, who stop and appear to be examining the menu. I can with some degree of certainty say that, while they may well be reading the words on the menu, what they are really doing – most likely without a clue that they are doing it – is they are trying to get a “feel” for the place in front of them. They are trying to see if it is “right” for them. They are trying to get a feeling if it is going to be a “welcoming” place.

From the first time Mysti and I took a side street off of the Champs Elysées and entered into the interior of some restaurant that we had decided to try, since we were starving, and since we had not eaten at McDonalds with Mary Ann and the crowd, I remember that feeling of wanting to be welcomed and accepted.

I can’t shake it. To this moment, every time I enter a restaurant that is new to me in France I crave that feeling of ok-ness. And to this day, my looking-at-the-menu-outside ritual – because I do do that - is really nothing more than hoping to be able to plug into the vibrations of the place and see what my comfort quotient might be.

And I know that that is what all those other people doing the menu examination ritual are really looking for. They are really not looking at what the offerings are – unless they are just plug stupid or really uninformed. The offerings from place place are just not that different – (they might be checking prices, but that is nothing more than the first layer of the palimpsest of “comfort”). What they are really trying to ascertain is “will I fit in here?”

And that is where the guys at La Citrouille are geniuses.

On my first visit of this 2010 trip I hadn’t seen the grand scheme of things as clearly as I do now.

But I had been able to acquire inklings.

As I had approached the entry – I didn’t need to lookyloo the menu posted outside - I was going to La Citrouille, and that was all there was to it – just before I could push the inward opening door, the waiter standing behind it opened it with a hearty and pleasant “bon soir monsieur, bon soir” and showed me to my table. How welcoming is that? (I am comparing this to a possibly more typical case, where one might have been, as I wasn’t in this case, a first time enterer of some randomly chosen restaurant door, with myriad deep seated concerns about being welcomed and accepted, and having to remember – again I am assuming a non-French tourist – what poussez might mean, and then trying to tirez unsuccessfully first, then poussez successfully, but with the embarrassment of having stood there rattling the door rather than opening it, and then entering the unknown inner sanctum, and hoping that someone would – quickly - help them to a table.)

The second trip to La Citrouille in this Paris interlude was the one that opened my eyes completely.

It turned out that the place wasn’t too full yet – I usually try to beat the hoard of Parisian diners that begin to appear about 2000, by showing up at places at 1930 or so – and they put me at a table right in the front, facing out to the windows and the poussez- activated front door.

Since the crowd so far was sparse, both the waiters had time on their hands. So they manned the door in sporadic shifts. And I don’t mean they stood there waiting for lookyloos to become customers.

First, it needs to be pointed out that these guys are psychologists. The bottom line of what they do is that they sense the comfort level, or lack of comfort level, on the part of the passersby and lookyloos – they are keen observers – and they then do – something – to raise what they perceive to be that comfort level as high, and as rapidly, as possible.

They – each in turn - stood there by the glass entry door, at parade rest, looking out - left, right, middle, left, right, middle – continually scanning Rue Gregoire de Tours.

Their major follow on activities to their observations out the windows took several forms on the night that I saw the act. I’m sure that there are many more such forms, but I am only a neophyte in the watching of these geniuses, and I know that I can’t possibly have seen anywhere near the entire show.

Observed Form One: Two mid twenties lookyloos at the in-front-of-La Citrouille menu, apparently trying to delve the depths of the cuisine de la maisson. Waiter waits until they start – the menu lookyloos seldom make a self directed move to enter La Citrouille - out and off up the street, and, opening the door he says with a pleasant beyond belief tone “bon soir, et bienvienue”. That is, anybody who ever had anything to do with IBM sales training, would know a classic example of the assumptive close. In this case it works. The young couple, as if mesmerized sheep, enter the place, take a table and become almost immediately, members of the deeply loved client base.

Observed Form Two: Same as previous form, except the lookyloos, with deep expressions of respect, and perhaps, regret, decline the offer of the open door. By this time I had become an identified co-conspirator in these activities. On a couple of occasions, when the post guy had had to attend to duties that took him off point, into the kitchen, and when, what appeared to me to be perfect configurations of lookyloos developing, I had gotten up and shouted back to the kitchen “monsieur, monsieur, les gens”. I had no idea; that was the best I could do. But the guy immediately knew that I was signing up for the game. And that made it even more fun. It was more fun because he and I exchanged observations and intelligence – everybody in the place speaks good English – but they are very respectful of my , one could only surmise, apparent desire to try to communicate with them in their native tongue – and we made non-binding bets about what was going to occur next with this or that group of recently departed menu scrutinizers.

In the case of the ones just gone, he had said “back in 5 minutes”.

That group re- appeared just about at that point and my friend opened the door as they approached it. “Bon soir, bon soir; deux personnes?”

Observed Form Three: A larger group – maybe five or six of the endless queue – stop briefly in the middle of the street (“ we don’t want to get to close to that menu; that might show commitment”) and stare myopically – they are all my age – at the general area of the menu.

My friend wastes not a moment.

He opens the door, rushes into the street shouting “bonsoir et bienvienue, monsieurs et madames; nous allons”. And he gestures to the door of La Citrouille.

And they follow him like sheep


There is a lot more. But this post is getting long. And, if there is any value to this one, then won’t it be fun to have another one?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Digital Big Bang?

Over breakfast this morning – slices of la baguette tradi that I had bought only an hour before, still warm, at Gerard Mulot, what was still left of the several cheeses that I had bought a few days before, and which, at least to my American sensitivities, were still good, a bowl of fromage blanc naturel, and a banana and a clementine,  all chased with what was left of the coffee that I had been drinking since I awakened, and a glass of jus de pamplemousse rose (there isn’t any é in the word “Rose” on the juice’s package, but then again the brand is Tropicana, so what can you expect?)  was reading, as I always read over breakfast, The Economist.

The article that I had chosen to read was about what things were like before the Big Bang.

The net of the article, based on work by a physicist from Oxford, was that just before the Big Bang everything had shrunk – from a previous big bang – into nothingness.  And something about that nothingness – I never was much at physics so I can’t really say what that something might have been, except that it was god damned small – caused it to become REALLY BIG in a very small ( minus power of 23 comes to mind) lapse of what we three dimensional, blooded, beings refer to as time.

I was surprised to find out that this was unacceptably unplowed intellectual ground.

In fact, it was heresy.

The physics world had, some time ago, apparently, aided and abetted by the warm and comforting wrapping of the apparently totally accepted Big Bang, gone to end game.  That end game, as I understood it from the article that I was reading, was that before the Big Bang there wasn’t anything; the Big Bang had changed that and we are now, post Big Bang, on – I had to surmise because I really didn’t understand some of what I was reading  – a never ending trajectory that had been initiated  by the Big Bang.

“But no” has said Doctor Penrose from Oxford. “ We are in an infinitely undulating construct (my translation of what I understood him to say) that goes up and it goes down.”

I wouldn’t even be boring the couple of you people who might read this post with this book report – “what I read in The Economist over breakfast this morning” if it weren’t for the fact that I had previously  thought – I have no idea from what source I may have obtained this conviction – that the whatever-it-is that-we-are-in (a universe perhaps) is in a constant state of contracting and expanding.  My conviction was conditioned by the further belief that the time frame of the contractions and expansions is of such magnitude that creatures like us will never notice, but, that, nonetheless the ups and downs do exist.

So it was a real surprise to me that, not only wasn’t that concept in any kind of favor with the great body of scientists who really care about such things, but that the concept wasn’t even in existence and wasn’t under any scrutiny as to its possible validity.  It was a concept, that until Doctor Penrose decided to propose it, and that fairly recently, just didn’t exist.

So where did I get it?  Who knows?

The additional oddity is that as the day advanced it became in its own way entwined, at least in my mind, with questions about another kind of potential big bang.

When I was a trainee in the early days of my career at IBM I was assigned to some accounts.  I was to work with  and be under the management of the qualified IBM salesmen and systems engineers who were responsible for those accounts to IBM.  The objective of those assignments was for me to learn the marketing and the technical ropes of IBM life from being actually involved in the doing of things marketing and things technical.

One of those accounts was the Army Corps of Engineers.  They were one of IBM’s biggest accounts at the time.  One of the things that they had installed was a full nine spindle array – eight usable, one for hot backup - of the IBM 2314, which was the high capacity IBM disk drive of that era.

The 2314 was an impressive machine from a number of standpoints: price/performance, storage capacity and relative reliability being among its leading features.

But from my viewpoint the single most impressive thing about the 2314 was its size.  The thing was huge.  At the Corps the device filled an entire wall of a rather large data center.  And it weighed 1950 KG – more than two tons.

Its storage capacity was, for the eight drives that could be in use at any one time, 240 MB.  That’s mega bytes; that’s not terabytes, that’s not even measly gigabytes; that’s mega bytes.

The IBM archives have provided me with a picture which I am including with this post.

The 2314 and its control unit are the hulking things behind the young woman apparently taking her lunch out of an office drawer.  That drawer is actually one of the disk drives and the young lady is either putting in or taking out one of the removable, eleven platter disk packs.  Each of those packs stored 30 megabytes.  Since they were removable, and could be put on shelves in numbers limited only by an IBM customer’s ability to pay for them, the claim to “infinite storage capacity” could often be heard floating around in sales presentations involving the 2314.

The reason that I have brought up all that history, and my personal intersection with a small component of it, is that it gives some very real perspective to the follow-on big-bang-like episode that occurred later in the day, after my having been started down that path over breakfast by The Economist.

I have been wanting to go to the Marmottan museum for a special Monet exhibition.  Since the weather today was marginal to the point of making me consider not going out at all, I had been trying to come up with an alternative to trying to walk and take pictures – my usual daily occupations – in rain and snow of a degree to make it hazardous for the camera and miserable for the photographer. 

What I settled on was to see if I was smart enough to take the RER to the RER stop that connects to La Muette, which is the Metro stop for Le Marmottan.  There are a bunch of arcane, and boring to anyone but me, reasons why the RER would have been a test of my mettle, and in fact why I was even taking the RER instead of just going on the Metro, but I am not going to mention them

Suffice it to say that that had just been my plan for the afternoon.  The idea was that maybe there wouldn’t be a crowd and I wouldn’t need the advantage of a previously bought ticket (the advantage of that previously bought ticket being that said ticket puts the ticket holder at the head of any line) and so I could go in and buy my ticket at the museum.  Alternatively, so went the plan, if there was a line I could decide whether to stand in it or catch the RER back to my part of town.  In either event, so went the plan, I would have enhanced my barely rudimentary RER skills.

But is was snowing lightly and the snow was wet snow and it was accumulating in soggy amounts of sufficient degree to make walking in anything but some kind of tread-bottomed boots somewhat hazardous, so after not much distance I decided to abandon the RER to the Marmottan project.

So I was heading back to the apartment.  And that was something I really didn’t want to be doing.  I have noticed early in this sojourn that my mental health appears to be directly proportional to the amount of time I spend on the streets of Paris, and inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend, during daylight hours, in the apartment.  And up to the point – today - of abandoning the RER project I have spent all possible time during daylight walking on various routes that interest me, taking pictures and, just generally, reveling in Paris.  That has required some adaptations to cope with some rain, and a little snow, but in general, if I  have assessed the weather correctly, and have configured myself correctly in response, full time access to the outdoors and the streets has been absolutely possible.

So I was not pleased with my apparently imminent first failure.

I was brooding about the situation to such a degree that I realized that I was well past the door to the apartment when the question of where was I occurred to me. 

So I just kept going.

I don’t know what it was about that moment – the weather certainly hadn’t improved – that made things seem different, but they did seem different.

So, since I was going in a certain direction, it seemed to me that I ought to figure out a destination, so I could know when I was half through my journey – destinations, at least for me usually being the half point of any journey – and I suddenly had a grand idea.

I could go down Rue des Rennes, which is a major enough street that foot traffic should have been taking care of the slush to a great extent, and go to FNAC where I could buy a ticket for the Monet exhibit.  Not only that, but FNAC is huge and I could walk around inside, out of the snow, and get some exercise.  And there was the additional advantage that with FNAC’s massive selection  of electronics and gadgets and notions and photgraphics I might find something that I hadn’t known that I really needed. 

That was a potentially beguiling bonus.

As it turned out, I just wandered around the camera department absolutely bedazzled by the depth of choice, savoring, but not buying, and then went down to the billeterie, bought my ticket, and then went up two floors for a final exposure to the possibility of the commercial equivalent of near occasion of sin in the computer department.  ( I have been harboring the thought that if I find an HP Photosmart  multi-function printer cheap enough, I might buy it, knowing that I would have to leave it behind when I depart France in February.)

As luck would have it, there was a Photosmart multi-function unit for 69 euros, which was arguably in the price range that I would consider to make the device expendable.  But it was USB attach only and there is no room for a printer in the area where my computer is lodged.  And, although it is talking via Wi-Fi G to the portable router that I bought just before leaving the US, the place where the CPU is is the only place where the CPU can be.

So I was able to rationalize my way out of buying that printer.

There was, however, for 99 euros, a Wi-Fi compatible HP Photosmart multi-function printer.

The way I got around that was to say “too much; wait and see if they bring the price down as we get closer to Christmas”.

So I was sort of at loose ends, and was wandering around with no real purpose other than not wanting to go back out into the snow, when my eyes focused on the shelf of merchandise that I had wandered aimlessly to and had stopped in front of for no apparent purpose.

I had focused on just one member of the community of the merchandise on the shelf.  It was a familiar green package from Western Digital.  “My Passport Essential” said the writing on the carton.  I recognized it immediately because I have a number of them – two with me in Paris, one 750 GB and one 1TB – and I was curious which of the tribe were on offer there on the FNAC shelf in Paris, and at what price.

It was a 500 GB.  It cost 89 euros.  “Not a bad price” I thought, “but a little high for only 500 GB.”

Then I widened my field of view.  What I was standing in front of was a multi shelf, very long display of My Passport Essentials.  I had never seen that many assembled in one place.  I looked to see if there were any of the 750 GB or 1 TB, but they all seemed to be 500 GB.  “That’s a nice round number” I thought to myself.

Then I did the next obvious – to me at least – thing.  I took a census.  They were all stacked along the shelf in neat rows of 12 packages each, so I counted down the shelf and when I had gotten to twenty times twelve I decided that I had better stop; I can’t multiply in my head beyond that.

But 240 and counting was a sound I heard in my reverie.  And there were several more rows of twelve of the Western Digitals yet to be included in the body count.  And beyond them stretched a similar extent of some other brand.  I was afraid to examine that array for its capacity.

I was afraid because, if I multiply 500 GB by 240, I get a number that exceeds all the storage capability in the world of just a few short years ago.  If I then consider the fact that that is only a small fraction of the display that I am looking at, and that what I am looking at is only the portable drives – the WD My Books and competitors are just next – and if I further consider that I am looking only at the displays in the FNAC store on Rue des Rennes in Paris (there are probably several others – I know of ten) and if I acknowledge that FNAC, in spite of my personal preference for it and my desire to make it “unique”, is, in fact one of some unknown, but very large, number of similarly configured retailers, to say nothing of the Costcos and the Wal-marts which, although different, still sell massive numbers of electronic products, I just don’t know what to think but that we are at the edge of a digital big bang.

And I don’t know what that means.

And that may not even matter, because, like the other big bang, it may happen in, and at a dimension that neither we, nor our computers, portable intelligences nor digital cameras will be capable of discerning.

But we may be imminently on the way to some form of impossible to unsort digital porridge which is but a way station to nothing again.

It seemed somehow significant to me that the length of the shelf with the My Passport Essential drives on it was about the same size as a 2314.  I had to wonder how many Essentials it would take to weigh 1950 KG.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Metaphysics Of Luck?

“ I have just been lucky” I heard a voice saying as I lay staring at the crown molding of my nine foot ceilings in my apartment in Paris this morning.

“Damn, damn, damn lucky” I heard the voice say, as if in coda.

There was, after all, a kind of musical rhythm to those two phrases, and that rhythm - it seemed to me - justified the musical allusion.

If I really cared – which I really don’t any more – I probably could have made those phrases into a song.

But those days are gone,

The meaning of those words, however, at a cosmic level, became the fodder of multiple musings.

They caused me to lapse into a state of penderance.

The outer edges of that state dealt with the question “I wonder how much time I have left?”

It is odd that, at this end of my life, being so far beyond an age – when I was young – that I had allowed myself, or even had ever had had any self-serving reason to want or to believe I would ever reach – that I even give a shit.

But the voice was asking the question, and one always answers questions from voices on high.

But as I tried to formulate an answer, a deeper, related, thought occurred to me. And I was easily able to abandon any further contemplation of my longevity.

The question, I realized, was on the outer edges of the real issue. There was a nucleus and it was the entré to the real issue.

And that entré was the really important thing.

It was the nucleus of the question that really mattered.

Because the nucleus deals with the complex series of metaphysical and physical accidents that caused “me” to end up being where – (to end up being at all really) – in a given place and a time and with whatever given resources I have at my disposal, such that I can do what I, do and think what I think.

That nucleus, and what it drags with it is what it is that I am; and what it is that I can do screams the question - to me, at least - of why am I what I am – those things just alluded to – rather than being a beggar on the streets of Seattle, or Paris, or alternatively of being a piece of human detritus where such detritus is the norm and where that norm has always been the norm?

That norm is the norm in much of the rest of our world. How did my protoplasm elude that plight?

I didn’t hear any answers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This And That Continued

So I walked down Avenue Lowendal pleased that at last that street which I knew something about, and which once found would allow me to cease being semi-lost, had, in fact, finally appeared. It was kind of an ugly street though. Before breaking out into the glory of the basilica and the attendant huge square that surrounds the it and Invalides, I had to navigate the canyon-like segment of Avenue Lowendal that runs between L’école Militaire on one side and UNICEF on the other. But I survived it and soon was skirting the Rodin Museum side of the Invalides complex heading to Rue de Grenell, not to be confused with Boulevard de Grenell, or for that matter, with Rue Grenell, and the last leg, albeit a fairly long one, home.

I was getting really hungry.

Just after Rue de Grenell peters out and is replaced by Rue Vieux Columbier, Rue Vieux Columbier crosses Rue de Rennes to Café du Metro. One of Café du Metro’s many charms for me at least, is that with a glass or demi pichet of wine, after lunch hours, they give you a little dish of peanuts – cacahuètes – AND a little dish of olives. That sounded enough like food to me, that, in my advancing state of hunger it made the case for stopping for a glass of wine unarguably sound.

But after all these years – I have been going to Café du Metro since 2002 – the place had recently managed to piss me off to a quite serious degree.

On my way back from Chartres it was mid late afternoon, an ideal time for a small pichet of wine and an hour of quiet contemplation at Café du Metro, so I got off at St Sulpice which is basically the front door to Café du Metro, went in and ordered a “quart de Lyonnais”. The waiter is newer as a Café employee than I am as a Café customer, so I feel as if I have been there longer than he has. I have been served by him infrequently but when I have been served by him, I have never been able to shake the feeling that, unlike everybody else in the place, all of whom are in constant motion, shouting “bonjour” to new arrivals, and “au revoir” to all departees, waiting tables, hooting at one another and having, it always appears to me, to be having one hell of a good time, he has a chip on his shoulder.

But even at that, I couldn’t believe it when after saying no to his question was I going to eat, he said that he couldn’t serve a quart (that’s 25 cl, by the way – big glass of wine, no more) without food.

I just didn’t have the energy to try to summon the French necessary to let me tell him that I had been coming in there for eight years and frequently had – although I love the food, especially the onion soup – a quart without food. Instead, I just said “merci” and got up and left, making the mental note that if Carrie Nation was going to be allowed to call the shots at Café du Metro, one of my favorite afternoon places to have some wine and read the Economist might be struck from my list of preferred places.

But – as I approached the Rue Vieux Columbier and Rue de Rennes intersection, hunger overcame – what was ii? Was it pride? Was it really just being pissed off? Was it, most probably, a feeling of having been let down by a close and valued friend?


But the cacahuètes and olives were sounding better every moment.

I got a different waiter this time, one who has served me a couple of times on this trip, and who is new to me this trip.

He must have been hired after 2008.

He has absolutely no chip, being instead on of the shouting, hooting, having a hell of a good time crowd.

I chose not to see if Carrie Nation had infected his server’s instincts as well, and I ordered only un verre de Lyonnais.

As I sat there inhaling the cacahuètes and olives a rather large French couple took the table almost contiguous with mine. I had to get up to let the man get into the chair that, at his table, was the reciprocal of mine.

They were marginally pleasant folk.

The woman put vast quantities of kit in the chair opposite her companion and disappeared. I assumed she was going to les toilettes. When she came back she dominated the conversation with her mate in a foghorn level form of French and in an accent that even I was sure must be from the provinces. And long ago a female Parisian X-ray (credits to Tom Wolfe) had told me that all the women in the provinces were fat.

Having finished my wine and petites hors d’oeurves, I walked the rest of the way home. (That is a great example of the nominative absolute, by the way.)

How interesting.

But wait. There is more.

Remember I said that I had given up trying to get pictures of the pigeon droppers?

There is a reason for that.

Actually there are two reasons. One is just that it’s just too damn hard catching their image. I have a number of blurred barely identifiable encounters, none of which amount to a documentary hill of beans. The one exception is the first one I got when the guy came up to me by Thomas Jefferson.

But the other reason is probably more interesting.

Several days ago I went out specifically to harvest images of pigeon droppers. To that end I chose my route carefully, having by that time in this residency noticed what appeared to be patterns of their lurks and haunts.

The plan was to troll down the right bank to Pont d’Alma and cross at Pont d’Alma and troll back to L’institute de France and home. Two hours, maybe six or seven droppers, and maybe one or two decent pictures. It was pretty much a day’s work, I thought.

So I crossed at Pont St Michel to give myself a little bit of a leader on the first likely encounter (the droppers seem to like to start more toward Le Louvre).

As I walked along, it being a really nice day for a few days before full winter, I lost track of what I had been supposed to have been doing. There were some just-right-yellow poplar leaves, and the river was absolutely sparklingly spectacular, and every boat seemed to be a candidate for a Saturday Evening Post cover.

So I was many mind-space miles from thinking about the old pigeon drop gambit.

I was composing and taking pictures and savoring a beautiful day on the right bank of the Seine, in the shadow (the sun was from the other direction, so there was no shadow, but the allusion has great literary appeal) of Le Louvre when suddenly my concentration was broken by a rather large humanoid at my side thrusting his hand with a gold-like ring in it into my field of view.

I immediately snapped back into pigeon dropper image harvesting mode, put the camera next to his hand and pulled the trigger.

That did not please Gargantua.

He started asserting in a raised-level voice – something. “No fucking way” came to mind, but I really couldn’t get anything he was saying. I don’t think it was French.

But I didn’t need a dictionary to know the gist of the message.

The problem for me immediately had become – I didn’t really care whether he liked the fact that I had taken a picture of his hand – that the picture I had taken gave him – he obviously believed – the right and the access to pursue the real point of the gambit, which was to extort funds from the mark for – something – the ring maybe – in the case of an unapproved photo, who knew? In any case, I had, inadvertently, stepped into the snare.

And I didn’t like that at all.

So I yelled at the top of as well modulated a pair of baritone male lungs as I could summon “God damn you, you son of a bitch”.

He spit at me. I think he missed. I threw a punch, hitting him mid mid chest. He was alarmingly lean. I was so angry that I just was ready for a fight. So I was surprised that all that he did was indulge in some eastern European-sounding guttural utterances. I said some things in riposte that I can’t remember now and he reciprocated.

And then not long after that he moved off down the quai.

I took some more pictures of the poplars, waiting for my heart rate to drop below three hundred.

I could see the dropper not too far up the quai. There was no way I was going to backtrack or try to elude him. I struck out in his direction.

As expected, I fairly quickly came abreast of where he was standing. And he knew that I was there. As our eyes met, and he started spewing whatever language it is that he speaks at me, I threw him a snappy, Air Force officer salute.

That seemed to throw him a curve, because he came over and put his arm around me and started saying things that seemed to have “monaie” as a major and recurring word. “Bon chance a vous” I said; and the torrent from him grew even greater. He kept asking me in English where I was from. “Are you English?” I just laughed.

By the time that encounter had been closed out, I had discovered – I think – that he was from Romania, and that there was no luck without money.

If I encounter him again, which I assume I will, maybe I will find out if my feeling that we parted as sort of mutually respecting human beings was, in fact accurate.

In any event I am out of the game of trolling for droppers.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This And That

Today I took quite a long walk.  It had started out to be just – I had hoped – a long walk.  I was going to make a trip to Pont d’Alma and back.  That is usually about a two hour circuit, allowing some time for taking pictures of the inevitably interesting things that always appear. 

Some days that route is a pretty good source of Pigeon Drop contacts.  Today that didn’t matter.   I have decided to quit trying to catch them in pictures. 

Today either there wasn’t as much interesting going on as there usually is, or the spirit of image harvesting had taken a day off and wasn’t there to move me in any significant manner to taking pictures.

I was all the way to Pont d’Alma before I took a couple of pictures of the American Cathedral (it’s either that or the American church, can never remember which is which).  They turned out pretty much as I had planned them to turn out and that felt good. To the left of the cathedral there is a view of the tower of a really ugly old church that I always enjoy taking pictures of.  I can never remember its name.


I was contemplating taking some pictures of the Eiffel Tower which was looming at my back while I was taking the pictures of the American Whatever-It-Is, but I just have been feeling Eiffled out on this trip.

Nonetheless, I am probably going to back-fill the looming chasm created by this lack of taking pictures of La Tour Eiffel by making some nighttime expeditions over to the Tour. There is a great North African restaurant that I discovered in ‘08 that is quite close to Champs de Mars.  Those two factors – the lit up Tour Eifel and the food at a North African restaurant – should make a perfect tour guide package.  So I guess I am going to take that tour sometime soon.

I have decided that the nighttime Tower is going to be the acid test to which I am going to subject the Sony computer.

So I was just standing there, not taking pictures and looking stupid, when it occurred to me that I always stop and turn around at Pont d’Alma.  There is no reason for that.  It is just something that I always do.  Since today, as I stood there about to turn around and go back once again, I had a lot of daylight left, I decided to change that for-no-reason much-revered protocol.

I know quite a bit about what is down below Pont d’Alma for several bridges, because I have explored there coming at them from the opposite direction. Today I decided that I would go down and check out those fairly familiar haunts coming at them from a new and opposite direction.

When I got to the Tower itself I honored this whole act of throwing the hum drum to the wind by taking pictures of the Tower.



That felt really good.

The young woman and associates that I inadvertently caught in the first one – she and they will be gone with the Photoshop if I ever use this picture again, was one of a matched set.  That matched set asked me to, and I complied, take a picture of them.  In fact I took two. 

As I got down to Pont de Bir-Hakeim - it was on the lower deck of that bridge that the opening scene of Last Tango in Paris was shot - I noticed that it was getting darker and getting colder. 

Today was the first time this trip that I have abandoned my cotton tee shirt with cotton sweater inner wear for my Smartwool jersey and 80 pound wool St James sweater.  Overnight winter arrived with a significant drop in temperature and some snow.  I even bought a pair of gloves when I went to the market this morning.

I let the lengthening shadows and the chilling of the air decide me to not pursue the bridge circuit any farther, but to strike back toward home.  Given the distance that I was away from le 6iem arrondissement, that decision really wasn’t a cop out.  I had a substantial walk yet to complete.  It would probably, in fact, go beyond my target time of 1600.  A cop out would have been if I had gotten on the Metro there at the bridge and ridden home in comfort and style.

I at least consider it comfort and style.

Deciding to strike for home was all pretty much theory, though.

I had been where I was when I made the decision to abandon the river and strike back for home on a number of occasions, but not for a couple of years.  And a couple of years erases a great deal of specificity from my knowledge of places and things. The bridge is host to a Metro line.  That line runs through town on one of the few elevated above-ground platforms along Boulevard de Grenell.  Boulevard de Grenell is not to be confused with Rue de Grenell, or for that matter, Rue Grenell.  I had once had a vague idea of where on the map Boulevard de Grenell wended its course, and I thought I knew, equally vaguely, that that course ultimately intersected one or more streets that I knew pretty well. 

So I set off down Boulevard de Grenell.

Even to my cloudy memory it was obvious at every step that I had been on Boulevard de Grenell more than several times – I have lived in an apartment in an alley off of Avenue Rapp and on Rue de Grenell itself several times, and I knew that I had used the route that I was backtracking, more than once.  I had used it as the outbound leg of very long and interesting walk to Le Bois de Boulogne – but with each intersection that I passed, any familiar, and therefore useful, street continued to elude me.

I have become so crass about walking in Paris that it is only when I am semi-lost – it has been a long time since I have actually been fully lost – that I feel as if I am living up to my personal expectations and making good use of the money I keep spending to come and stay here.

So the fact that I was not finding anything but a feeling of vague familiarity as I walked down Boulevard de Grenell along its elevated Metro line was just a tonic.  I could have looked at my map – I have one that is more scotch tape at the seams than paper it is so old and used, and, therefore, a valued friend – but I was totally disinterested in using my old friend to bail me out yet one more time. I was sure that I was right about Boulevard de Grenell intersecting one or more streets with which I had an intimate relationship, and that would, once broached, get me back to more familiar ground.

It was probably due to the fact that, in spite of my deeply held conviction that I knew more or less where I was, and that where I was was more or less on a trajectory to home, and that all that I needed was a familiar street name to appear so that I could complete my walk with precision, the gathering gloom with its attendant increase of chill was beginning to test that conviction.

That was probably the reason that I jumped at the chance to turn off on the first street that was even vaguely familiar.  Its familiarity, I should mention, was enhanced by the fact that the street appeared at a small Place with which I am quite familiar, having taken multiple pictures over multiple visits of the sculpture of a lion that is the Place’s main feature.

The street was Avenue Lowendal.  It just sounded – familiar.

As soon as I had started down it the reason was obvious.  Staring down at me from not very far away was the dome of the basilica that contains Napoleon’s tomb.  I had walked briefly on Avenue Lowendal only a few days before, when I had circumnavigated Invalides.


To be continued.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Trolling For Pigeon Droppers

Today I went to Neuilly sur Seine. It is on the Paris Side of the Seine just across from La Défense. Part of it is on a little island. I made a photo tour of that little island a few years ago. Today I decided would be a good day to do it again. As it turned out I got on the bridge across the Seine on the side opposite from the Neuilly sur Seine part of the island. I went down the steps to the island on which was nice square, but there was a gigantic iron fence denying access to the other side of the island, which is the part I wanted to be on. As I was retracing my steps to go to the other side of the bridge so I could get on the side of the island that I wanted to be on, I saw that just up river from the island that I was trying to get to the Nuilley sur Seine side of, there was another, much smaller island.

I decided to go there instead.

Here are a couple of pictures of that island.


All of that took some time and as I contemplated what to do with the rest of the rapidly waning day I decided to take the Metro back to Pont d’Alma and walk back to the apartment on the left side of the Seine.

Besides this being one of my favorite walks, it is usually alive with pigeon droppers, and I had decided a couple of pigeon drop encounters previous that I want to start collecting their pictures. I am getting so good at recognizing one substantially before he or she goes into his or her shtick, that I felt that I could get a shot of each one of them as they bent down as if picking something up (in the case of the Paris pigeon drop that something being a gold-looking man’s wedding ring).

But today was a lean day. There just weren’t any pigeon droppers. I even crossed Pont de la Concorde over and back to see if I could roust one up. Frequently one will make a hit on that bridge or Pont Royal or Pont du Carousel. Today Pont de la Concorde was a dry hole.

Just across and down a little bit along my main route one guy did make an attempt but it was so clumsy that if I had not been an expert in the game I would not have recognized what had happened. In any event it had happened clumsily, and that clumsiness had taken me off my mark and I hadn’t gotten a picture of it so there was nothing to do but ignore his plaintive cries of “monsieur, monsieur, bon chance, bon chance” and move on down the line.

A little farther on I saw a for sure pigeon drop woman and I made sure the power to the camera was on. But she turned out to be a woman who has tried the game so many times on me – she may even be the original one that Betsy and I encountered - that we now know each other. She said a pleasant “bon jour” and kept on her way.

So it was looking like the days troll was going to prove fruitless.

As I approached the statue of Thomas Jefferson, failure to date notwithstanding, I became alert. I seemed to remember that there often was activity at that point.

Sure enough there was hit in progress. It looked as if the mark had taken the ring and was in the process of putting it in his pocket it and was telling the pigeon dropper to fuck off. I kind of stopped, and even half heartedly pointed my camera in the general direction of the encounter, but I wasn’t fast enough to get the ring, and in any event, it seemed kind of socially unacceptable intruding on someone else’s pigeon drop.

But I did recognize the dropper. He was the big tall brown man that I mentioned in a previous post as the one who had ensnared an English speaking couple, the woman of which was saying to the man “why don’t you just give the ring back to him?”

So what I did do was stop just down from this encounter and stare over the sea wall into the river with my camera at attention as if I were going to take some serious shots. I was hoping that that demeanor would mark me as his next victim, since it looked as if the man of his, by then previous, mark had terminated the transaction.

I was watching out of the corner of my eye, hoping to see the guy come up do the bend down and pick something up act, at which point I was ready to get a shot.

Instead he was suddenly next to me, sort of engulfing me, and showing me the ring in his open paw. Without thinking, I poked the camera almost into his palm and pulled the trigger.

Here it is. I hope to have a lot of the bend and scoops for your edification and entertainment before this trip is over. They are really more fun that just a hand holding a ring.

And there should be hope. I noticed on that recent day that I had my record seven hits, that they seem to come out in droves in rainy weather.

On va voir.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Mixed Bag Of Events

I went to Chartres yesterday. Since the Englishman who has made a career and livelihood – and, I believe, has received the Legion of Honor in recognition of – knowing so much about each window in the cathedral, and the story that it tells, was not there yesterday, I had to go through the place with only my camera and my best artistic instincts.

Here is one of the images harvested during that venture.


One of the things that happens every time I go to see Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, and walk around it, and go inside it, is that I marvel at how huge it is. I also marvel at the fact that people who we would probably regard as primitives – according to Wikipedia it was built mostly between 1193 and 1250, almost more than a millennium ago – could have built such a thing. Then I can’t help but wonder if we could, with all our subsequent discoveries and technology, duplicate the thing, let alone produce a superior product. Then my final reaction always is that I guess that’s what Tour Montparnasse is all about. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres wins hands down every time I ponder that imagined competition.

I made the trip to Chartres on the train. I always enjoy taking the train in France, and yesterday was no exception.



When I got to Chartres I reacquainted myself with the lay of the town. I wandered around and took pictures of the places that interested me. That activity was partially a time killer because I had arrived at about 1100 and had planned, as I had contemplated my activities there, wanted to hit a restaurant for lunch at an acceptably French time of day for dejeuner – maybe around 1400 – and I had figured that, my attention span being what it is, I would probably not spend more than two hours within the cathedral; so I had some time to fill.

But I also had really wanted to collect some town-story images.

There were two problems with that plan.

First, it was cold as hell and I hadn’t worn my cold warding off magic cashmere stocking cap – a gift from my daughter that has become a basic part of my French expeditionary equipment – so I had begun to think about a warm place for a cup of coffee.

Second, I was getting REALLY HUNGRY. As luck would have it - and luck often does have it this way with me – I was reaching that critical point of coldness, followed not far behind by that rapidly rampaging critical point of starvation, when a possible solution to both of my problems presented itself. I was in a very large circular Place (pronounced “plass”) and had just taken a picture of the local Apple store when, slightly to the right of that American icon, I saw another: the golden arches.

I have been in McDonald’s exactly twice in France. Once Mysti and found ourselves to be extremely hungry post mid day on self directed bicycle tour in Languedoc, with mid day being a time of day when all the restaurants in that part of France closed down for the afternoon siesta. Like all the other days since we had been on tour, we had assumed there was going to be no lunch for us. We had gotten used to the lack of lunch and had usually tided ourselves over by occasional poaching ( with visions of rifle shots from the adjacent hills bringing us down filling our heads) forays upon the beautiful, gigantic, sweet and juicy grapes that were all coming ripe, all of which were still on the vine, having not yet been harvested and sent off to become corbièrers wine.

On this day, however, we had become pretty much lost in the scruffy, lightly industrial exurb of some little town that we were going to ride through on our way to our lodging and food providing destination for the day.

And there, much like the holy grail, were the golden arches. And they didn’t participate in the siesta tradition. And we found in our mutually examined hearts no elitist objections to eating there. So we did. And it was good. And we saw some young French families acting out their domestic affairs in their native habitat. All in all it was a moderately satisfying experience.

And I have always liked the Big Mac.

I just don’t go to McDonald’s in France.

The second time I ever went to McDonald’s in France was when my friend Betsy and I were on the way to the Paris Aquarium and were suddenly overtaken by the urge for a no-ceremony, no-ancillary –additional-items, quickly acquired, and quickly consumed, order of frites.

Again that day the arches appeared at just at the right moment to become a near occasion of sin.

And that is, I swear, is identical to, or at least virtually similar to, what happened yesterday in Chartres.

The idea of getting warm in a somewhat familiar common user interface was the first lurch down the slippery slope. I had also begun to have a need for a toilet, and as I had learned on my first trip to Paris, which was on a guided tour (Mary Ann, our tour leader had us all meet for our first big activity at the Champs Elysees McDonald’s because they had free restrooms – Mysti and I just kept on going down the Champs Elysees, eschewing the freeness of the restrooms for what we felt would be, and turned out to be, a more Parisian experience) McDonald’s has free toilets.

And if I felt any compunction about just going in and going to the restroom, and, upon exiting said restroom, just standing around until I got warm, and then leaving, I could order a cup of coffee.

If one were to think at all, one would see that getting in line was the next stumble down that increasingly steep and vastly more slippery slope.

“An order of fries would be just the ticket”, I thought I heard a distant voice saying.

The line was quite slow. I was a part of a little community of mixed-race teenagers all apparently trying to win top honors in that totally international game known as grabass (French spelling provided here for the edification of all concerned). Due to the line’s slowness I had way too much time for contemplation. And that was the third and final step to slippery slope to perdition. Contemplation said “if frites are good, cannot a Big Mac be better- with fries, of course”?

I wolfed – I mean WOLFED – that stuff. I was so hungry. And then I figured out where the toilet was and then I left, as a fortified, albeit crestfallen sinner; but that Big Mac was exactly what I had needed at that moment.

Here are a couple of pictures from inside the cathedral.


So that takes us to today.

For some reason I was tired from yesterday’s trip. So I didn’t get up very early today. And after going down to 47 Boulevard St Germain for a refill of fromage blanc and, more importantly, olives – with wine in the afternoon while I try to compose these posts, the olives I get down there are so good that it is scary; and the olive man has been in the land of the missing for a couple of market days, so I was getting desperate – I fooled around with email and yesterday’s images way longer than I should have and, therefore had breakfast way later than I should have; so 1430 was looming and I had just taken my shower.

I was working on convincing myself that I should stay in and finish part seven of A Halloween Story, the words of which I think I know, but the writing of which, I, for some reason, I am reticent to bring into being.

On the other end of the argument was the voice that constantly reminds me that the only downside to living in Paris for four months is that my crazed physical fitness program that keeps me from descending into abject adiposity is not possible here: I don’t have a chip and pin card so I can’t rent the Vellibs, and I don’t have an exercise bench or any weights; so walking is my only potential salvation.

So I hit the street at about 1430 today.

And I was really glad that I had done so.

I started aimlessly, taking the least line of resistance down Rue de Seine to the Quai. By the time I had gotten to the Quai I had decided that I would poke into the Louvre compound and see if there were so many Chinese tourists milling around that it would be impossible to get into the place through the entry under – ironically – a Chinese American’s contribution to the landscape of the Louvre, the pyramid. If it were possible to get in I had decided to see if the chip and pin curse also affected the automatic ticket machines at Le Louvre.

The lines were not particularly long, but at the last minute I decided to exit the compound and just meander down the spine of Paris toward some to be determined exit point for a one eighty.

The moment that about face had been completed the day became brighter.

One of my favorite features of that “spine” has been, for the years that it has existed, the Ferris Wheel.

This time, I was saddened the first time I had gone to that spine – that was the first day I had gotten here – to see that the wheel was gone. “All Things Must Pass” from George Harrison wafted my mind’s music processor and I went on.

But I was, nonetheless, saddened.

Today they were setting the Ferris Wheel back up.


I was pretty excited.

Then, as I went a little farther down, what had by then, turned into the Champs Elysees, I saw that something I had never before seen on the Champs Elysees was being set up: Christmas vending booths.

I had seen them on Boulevard St Germain along the church St Germain; I had seen them spread out like a small city below the mountainous steps of la Grande Arche de La Défense; but I had never seen them on Les Champs Elysees. So all of a sudden I had a new point of interest.

The stalls were all in the early stages of being set up. I don’t know enough about retail de France to have any idea why the 18th of November would be the day for the emergence of this oh so French form of vending, but it is eerily close to America’s Black Friday. Who knows?

And one of the first ones that I encountered bears mentioning.

In 2006 my friend Betsy and I had gone to La Défense and had taken the ticketed trip to the top of La Grande Arche where – in France, the inevitable museum lurked – and we had a grand time in the museum, and out on the the top of, what is, after all, a very tall building, looking out over the city and taking pictures. One of the shops had something that, to me at the time, and for a long time previous had seemed an obvious commercial application of technology, but which at that time I had never seen before. Betsy and I were totally excited by it.

Since Dassault Systems is a French company I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see what I was seeing - for the first time - in France; but I was so surprised nonetheless. The surprise being that something that I had imagined actually existed.

What the guy in this shop could do was to turn a digital image, using, either CATIA or something that functions the same way, into a three dimensional digital model. And then, he had a laser machine that could burn that three dimensional model INSIDE a cube of transparent Lucite. The result was that from within the block, whatever the original two dimensional digital image had been, looked out upon the outside world, and could be scrutinized from a three hundred and sixty degree vantage point from outside the cube.

That was a desk fob to be lusted after.

The young proprietor of that shop spoke English, so I was able to ask him if one could bring in a digital picture of ones choosing and have this magical process employed on that image. The answer was no, and there the English got murky. My best interpretation was that he had no way to get such an image into his machine. To him that had seemed like a show stopper. To me it had seemed to be a requirement for a USB port. But who knew? And I was really happy to know that something that was parallel to what I thought could be done with three dimensional printers – some future blog post may tell you all about the wonders of StrataSys – was actually being done, even if being done in a hands-tied-behind-the back manner.

Subsequent to that, I heard somewhere, that the wonders of USB had been revealed to vendors of that Dassault, or Dassault derivative, or Dassault counterfeit process and that people were being able to bring their flash drives in of pictures of their dogs, or their children, or themselves (does three dimensional pornography within the confines of a cube of Lucite appeal to you?) and leave not long afterwards with whatever had been in those two dimensional images forever – or until the world ends in fire – staring out at them from within the Lucite.

This leads back to today.

One of the first booths that I encountered was one that had an array of – to me - immediately recognizable Lucite cubes. I had to take pictures of them. Then I had to try to ask the young proprietor if he could make originals from digital photos.

I started with the – for me at least – mandatory “on peut” when I just became overcome with the enormity of the task that I had just undertaken, and I bailed out. “Can I talk to you in English?” A shrug and a “non monsieur, je ne parle pas Anglais” was my answer. So, since I really wanted to know if he could invoke at random the magic of Dassault, I forged ahead. He answered that he could make cubes from customer supplied images. I felt that that was comforting but not comprehensive. Where was he going to do that , or who was going to do that and where, and with what machine? I leaped across the gulf of understanding that we had reached with the question “ou est l’ordinateur que fait la chose?’

He said “last week” and pointed to a shelf behind him. I said “Pardon, qua”? He said “last week". I took the bull by the horns and said “prochaine semaine ”? He said “oui monsieur”.

Apparently I had finally found someone who shared the same ability to reverse the meaning of things between our two languages.


And, by the way, I only got hit by one pigeon dropper on the way back after I had crossed Pont Alexandre III.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Haircut Time

I held off getting a haircut before I left for Paris until the last possible moment.  And I had Lloyd use the one eighth inch comb on his electric shears.  That is half again what I normally have cut off. 

Several years previous I had faced the fact that what hair I had left just didn’t look very good when cut as if I actually had hair left.  I wasn’t doing anything grotesque such as a comb-over, I was merely doing what seemed to be the rational thing: having my barber cut my hair sort of just beyond medium-short because that is what I had evolved into having my hair cut like over some fairly long number of intervening previous years.  (To actually understand what I might be talking about here, one would have had to have read Screen Saver – specifically the clip about the time that I had been routing around in my bed stand drawer and had laid out my my driver licenses on the bed, next to my knee,  end to end and had discovered a movie which documented my transition from youth to old age and  to oblivion. What had happened, as documented by those pictures, in relation to my hair length, was that, although my spirit hadn’t changed, – I still looked as if I was ready to show up at roll call every morning -  my head had changed, and that change included the mammalian covering that had come with it when I had been born.  And that covering was just  not what it had once been.)

The reason for the double short cut just before I had left the US was to allow a double long time to pass before I might need a haircut.  I had never needed to get a haircut in France, and, therefore had never experienced that particular cultural activity; somehow, the idea of doing that cowed me.  I just wasn’t sure, even with my French dictionary, how I was going to navigate that experience. Ordering a glass of wine was easy.  Asking someone to “faisez la coupe tres cours” just seemed beyond what I was capable of.

But I knew that I was going to need to navigate that experience.  Four months would be too long a time to go without a decent haircut.  It would be too long, unless I grew a beard and started walking around the city with a paper cup with some coins in it that I could shake around and thrust at passers by saying “:j’ai faim; j’ai faim”. I gave that fairly serious consideration, but just trying to negotiate the vagaries of getting a haircut seemed to be the lesser of two weevils.

On a Paris trip or two back – I always go to Passage Brady and Restaurant Shalimar -  circumstances had suddenly brought into my conscious potpourri of relevant realizations the fact that there were several barber shops in the Passage.  And they only charged six euros, as opposed to Twenty five or thirty euros for – something like a haircut I guess, but god knows what it might involve to be worth thirty euros, especially for someone such as I who had, really, no hair – that I had seen posted on the windows of shops on Boulevard St Germain and similar venues.

So as my about-to-commence four month visit to Paris loomed ever more imminently in my not very distant future, I had my hair cut twice as short as I usually had it cut, just prior to departure.  That would give me time to negotiate the possibilities.

And I really don’t know why I was so obsessed with hair – so obsessed that I timed my last cut before departure, and its very length to fit with the timing of the imminent trip - except that there was something overwhelmingly daunting to me about trying to tell a French-Pakistani barber what it is that I wanted done to that meager dusting of hair-like substance that occupied my head.  The fact that it has the really annoying characteristic of growing too long to look good would. I knew, inevitably make the need for one or more cuts unavoidable.

And today became the day to see if I had the chutzpah and the French to pull it off.  That which was to be pulled off would, if successful result in a haircut that let me go a few more weeks.  And if successful. would inevitably tie me to whatever barber provided that cut, and tie me to him or her for the duration.

So I left the apartment at about 1130 today for the walk up Boulevard Sevastopol with a loop back at the last moment to Rue St Denis and up, under the arch to Passage Brady and lunch, and, I hoped, after lunch, une coupe.

Lunch was great.

Then loomed large the acid test.

When I had entered the Passage from Rue St Denis de Faubourg and had walked down to the other end where Restaurant Shalimar is, I had made note of the number of customers in the various barber shops pour les hommes – there are some for les femmes, aussi – and had decided, as I had on a couple of previous scouting/lunch-at-the Shalimar expeditions, that the one that I broached first was the right one to go to.  It had less barbers and less customers.  I felt more able to deal with that type of circumstance.

So I had lunch.

And then I was going back down Passage Brady toward the barber shop that  I had chosen.

And then I was there.

And then I went in.

As luck would have it, there was one barber, and he had just finished with a customer.

The barber motioned me to his chair.

I  took that chair.

And with a few gestures from both of us, and a couple protestations from me about my inability to speak French, we negotiated what it was that I needed, in French, and in no time I left with my new tres courte cheveux – good for, at least, 30 more days. 

And I really am looking forward to going back to that shop.  It is really nice when one finds someone upon whom one can depend.