Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Snippets For The Day

When yesterday's appointed writing time of day arrived, I just sat staring at the computer screen.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. I have either of two things to write, neither of which do I know the length. One is another episode in Halloween Story? and the other is a coda to the great olive oil disaster: what ever became of my old friend the Paris market bag, now that it has an oil saturated bottom and leaves an oily, smudgy spot wherever it is set down?

But no words would come in support of either of those projects. My heart was really not in it.

I had returned slightly ahead of the appointed hour – about 1530 – from a highly successful expedition to FNAC to buy an ultraviolet filter for my new Sony Alpha 5. FNAC is a giant seller of electronics, cameras, books and recorded digital media (actually two guys in front of me in line were buying vinyl) to the great nation of France. For meFNAC is a magical place because it is that place to which I can go, and be absolutely sure, that something vital, electronically speaking, that I have forgotten and left on the other side of the Atlantic and am in current dire need of, can and will be found. And a corollary is that it has so much absolutely neat stuff that I always find many things for which I didn’t even know I had a need.

This day’s FNAC visit was going to be mildly interesting. It was going to answer the question “how does a huge retailer deal with the fact that, when contacted via the internet, it shows itself to have such and such an item, but the consumer who has established that item’s existence and its availability, has chosen for some reason to buy from the physical store rather than make the purchase on line?”

That was my question, and this being a gray day with a proclivity to rain, I had decided to confine my walking activities, not to image gathering, but to fact-finding and/or acquiring that item which had caused me to be aware of those facts to which I was setting out on an expedition of finding.

It had started on a day several days prior when I was occupied in my legitimate daily activity of image gathering. I had happened to glance at the upturned - to me - open face of the lens of my camera, and I had seen spots. There were spots on the outer surface of the lens. That is not something I like to see on a vital and expensive piece of optics. I made a note that I would need to use the special lens cloth with which I clean my plastic glasses lenses when I returned to the apartment. And I did. And with a huff, and with a puff, depositing a little vapor on the lens, the spots came away in toto.

But this event had called my attention to a higher level threat. It was a threat that I hadn’t thought of since Saigon, but which flooded back with an intensity as if the years were not 43 but were instead minutes – perhaps 43.

The threat was: having the very expensive curvature of one’s camera lens openly exposed to the world is a really bad idea. “Isn’t it interesting” – I thought I heard someone say – “that 43 three years ago, in a war zone, the only threat he could perceive, or perhaps the only one that he was willing to admit to giving a shit about, was the surface area of his camera’s lens”?

The solution to that problem in 1967 had been to buy an inexpensive and therefore completely expendable ultra violet filter which screwed in to the threaded extension of the outer shell of the lens’s housing. I looked at my lens, and sure enough, there were threads.

I had already bookmarked a place on the FNAC web site (I had been curious about how much I would have to pay for a printer for my apartment) and I went to “photo” and entered “filtre” and up popped some options, one of which was “UV” which I chose, and there in front of me was a cornucopia of “filtres”.

I had idly wondered prior to entering the search argument that had presented me with such plethoric options if cameras had some kind of uniform and standard size for their filters.

They don’t.

But by toggling to another tab which, when opened, gave me access to “Sony Style” I finally figured out that the filter I needed to buy was probably 49 mm.

I found a 49mm UV filtre and put it in my cart. I then performed the prerequisite ritual of setting up my user ID and password for FNAC. I had decided that, not only was the 13 euros that the thing cost, an amount that made the item’s nature as a part of my equipment totally expendable – just as its predecessor in 1967 on my Pentax Spotmatic had been – but also that that amount of money made adding yet another new dimension to my life a thing totally, feasibly, and financially within my reach. That dimension would be, if I could pull it off, the buying of something on the internet, from a French company, in French, and shipping the item to myself in my apartment in France. If it never showed up I was not out much. If it showed up I was a genius or something.

It doesn’t really take much to entertain me deeply.


But, sadly, it was not to be. There was some kind of Carte de FNAC requirement that I was unable to supersede, overwhelm, get around, or even, really, to understand, but I suspected that it had something to do with the fact that Europe – with France in the forefront – has gone to chip and pin cards on more and more of their non human attended interfaces to the buying public. There are some starkly frightening implications of this for Americans who have credit cards that support the stone age technology of magnetic stripes. If an American, with his Visa or MasterCard finds him or her self in a metro station that doesn’t have a human-attended ticket-selling function he or she is pretty well stranded if he or she doesn’t already have a ticket.

I have always gone to Gare du Nord on the morning that I wanted to go to London, gone to one of the many automated ticket kiosks and bought my first class ticket and boarded when indicated.

No more.

The financial institutions of America just don’t see any justification for spending whatever money is involved with joining the rest of the world in making credit cards more secure, fungible and universal. It is hard not to suspect tangible revenge for even the laughable reforms passed by a US Congress owned by the financial industry of America. On the other hand, it may be just another form of the subtle, but very real, act of the US Government closing its net of control over the freedom of Americans to conduct themselves in manners of their own choosing tantamount among them, such things as the right to travel unfettered and freely.

In any event, I couldn’t complete the internet transaction, but I had learned that FNAC had a product that I wanted to buy, and what it was called in FNAC parlance.

So I decided that, when a day became obviously fallow enough – just devoid of other options - to use that day to go to FNAC and see if I could translate my knowledge of what they had for sale on their web site, but which had been denied to me by my lack of current technology purchasing equipment, by asking someone with a FNAC uniform, “vous avez cette filtre”?

Which is what I did.

The person to whom I addressed that question said something which I had no idea the meaning of, but he also gestured vaguely to a fellow FNAC-uniformed employee who was sitting in a bar stool height chair; he was hunched over a keyboard. I decided that the guy to whom I had asked the question must be referring me to the hunched one.

So I went over to the hunched one and waited for him to complete whatever it was that he was doing with his computer. After a few moments he looked at me and we exchanged pleasant “bon jours” and I said to him, as I had said to his compatriot “vous avez cette filtre”? I should have mentioned when I issued that question to the other guy that, in conjunction with the question, I showed him the little quarter-folded piece of lined 8.5 by 11 yellow lined paper upon which I run most of my life, and upon which I had written the words “Cokin 49mm UV filtre”.

He asked me something, but I had no idea what it was that he was asking; I gave my best Gallic shrug and said “oui”. He went to work on the keyboard, and I could see my item, a Cokin 49 mm fitre UV come up on the screen. I could also see that the price was 14 euros, one euro more than the on line price had been. He said something to me that I didn’t understand, and asked me a question that I also didn’t understand. I said, “oui” with both enthusiasm and conviction. He hit a couple of keys and in a moment he handed me a piece of paper which described the details of my impending purchase. As he handed it to me he gestured toward the caisses – the electronic (IBM by the way) cash registers – said something as he made that gesture, and then swept the gesture back across space and to a location somewhat on the other side of the retail space form where he and I were standing, and said something that I also didn’t understand, as he did so. I had no idea what he had said about the caisses or the area behind him.

But I knew in my heart.

At least I knew what I wanted it to have been that he had said. I wanted it to be something like “go pay for this and then take the receipt over there and pick up your lens”. So I tried to confirm that longed for understanding of the situation by saying something like “je prend mon achat la?” gesturing to the vague second area that he had indicated. I had decided that I would just assume that first I had to pay and that the logical place to do so would be at one of the caisses; trying to formulate a question to confirm that was just beyond me at that moment.

But I wasn’t ready to let the whole situation be that simple. I wanted there to be some separate check out line for purchases such as mine. And I wanted to figure out which one it was before I had gotten into just any old check out line, and had found that, once I had traversed the seemingly endless queue, having reached its head, that I was in the wrong line. Try as I might I couldn’t see any sign that said anything like that, so in the event I just got in a line, immediately behind the two guys buying vinyl.

Having all the time in the world to continue to analyze the situation, and look for additional data points to assist in that analysis I scanned the whole area back toward the area from which I had gotten the piece of paper that I was holding so I could pay for my Cokin filtre, especially the area where I thought the computer guy had terminated the second part of his gesture that had accompanied what I had assumed to be the description of how I was to complete the transaction. As my eyes focused with particular intensity on that area, I saw a counter with a sign hanging above it “Retrait Achats”. I knew that “retrait” meant “retired” when used with the additional words “a la”; it means “withdraw” when on a sign next to an ATM. “Achats” means “purchases”.

That seemed hopeful

What wasn’t hopeful was that when I got to be the fourth person from the checker, she – the checker - put up the sign “Caisse Fermeture”. My fellow line dwellers shrugged and said something to one another, all nodding and making conciliatory gestures toward the checker. They sort of made moves to go to another line, in fact the woman just behind me did just that. So I picked a new line also. That line was a fairly short one which I thought to be odd as I stepped up to become a part of it. The woman who was last in that line gave me a pleasant enough look as she gestured with a negative sort of connotation and said something that I didn’t understand; but I knew it to be the news that the line was closed to new blood.

So I went to still a third line, and receiving no feedback of any kind from its other tenants; so I settled in as it crept forward.

I have always taken the view, when in France, that since most of the time I have no idea what I or anybody else is doing, and no idea what anybody else is saying, there just isn’t any point in getting upset about very much of anything. (As in a similar observation I have made previously in the Sisyphus post, I hear a chorus of friends and family nay saying that assertion; I can only counter by saying that they don’t live with me all hours of all days, especially when those hours and days are in France.) The best approach has always seemed to me to be to just hunker down and act as if I think that both I, and the situation, are totally normal und under complete control.

That is really unlike the real me, but it is a façade that I have adopted when in France that seems to get me through most French situations.

So that was what I was doing there in FNAC.

And the line continued to creep forward.

I should have mentioned that both the line that I had been in initially, and in which I had been presented with the apparent fait accompli of the line being closed with me still in it, and the one that I had been told – I thought – was not accepting new members at that time, were both still checking people through and both were accepting new members.

It is always interesting.

The one exposure that worried me as my time came nigh was the possibility that FNAC would only accept chip and pin cards, leaving me at the head of the line with no way to pay for what was indicated on the piece of paper that I had been clutching. So I was especially relieved when the answer to my question “carte credite ok?” was “oui” The checker took the card from me and swiped it in slot put there for people who come from countries (there is only one as it turns out) that still use last century’s technology, rather than waiting for me to insert it in the little card slot that chip and pin cards go into, which would have been a futile, if bravado-driven gesture on my part.

And only moments later I had completed my visit to the “retrait achats” desk, had picked up my filtre, and was on my way.

Since Café du Metro is on the way back from FNAC to the apartment – that being part of the plan – I stopped, had a glass of wine, examined my purchase and gloated over another successful incursion into the unknown.

And when I got back to the apartment, having left the camera there when I had departed for FNAC, the filtre screwed in perfectly.

My low cost protective shield for my expensive and vulnerable 18 to 55 mm lens was in place.

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