Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Who do you hate more? Insurance or credit card companies?

It's a tough choice. I have always been a model debtor; meaning, I have no debt, pay all my balances in full, have a stellar credit report, do not live beyond my means and don't buy shit I can't afford. For this reason apparently, my friendly bank has decided to punish me by adding usurious foreign transaction fees for every instance in which I paid with my credit card while I was in Europe. This without my prior knowledge and for the first time ever.
That is, a bunch of American losers default on their payments and now the bank thinks its going to make those bucks back from responsible customers like me. They can kiss my ass, the motherfuckers. I already sent them a letter telling them I refuse to pay those charges, which amount to around $35.00 (and only because I decided to use as much cash as I could to avoid huge statements).
My loved ones think I am on a quixotic crusade that will only crush me in the end and destroy my credit rating, but I don't care. This Commerce Bank, which has an image of friendliness and convenience, cannot start playing rough with the likes of me. I'm not paying the fees, and I'm canceling the card and let them throw me in gaol, for all I care. Wasn't Obama going to pass a law curtailing the abuses of these leeches? There needs to be a massive popular backlash against these people.
As for insurance companies, that fucking hole of disaster called the Freelancer's Union, to which I pay around 400 bucks a month to make sure I'm not left out on the street if I ever get sick, (thanks to the majority of morons in this country who insist that national healthcare for all is communism), on top of charging 50 dollars a copay, it now turns out that it also requires a co-insurance, so I have to pay almost 80 bucks on top of everything. What the fuck is the point of insurance then? I wonder: if you are healthy, it's probably cheaper to pay for a private doctor in full, and not be hemorraghing almost 5000 bucks a year plus copays and coinsurances and cobullshit FOR NOTHING.
I'm telling you, we are being manhandled and abused by crooks and it nothing but our own fault for letting it happen.

Monday, June 29, 2009

My New Tia Clara

My dear aunt Clara, God bless her memory, was notorious for always getting names mixed up.
Connie Chung she called Chonnie Cung. She said she went to see the movie Henry V, but she called it Carlos V (a Mexican chocolate bar). She went to see a play called "A Rose of Two Aromas" and she called it "Aroma of Two Roses".
I used to kid her that it seemed more difficult to make that shit up than to remember it as it is.
Here are snippets of dialog I recently had with someone who will remain nameless, but who has usurped Tia Clara's penchant for cultural confusion.
1.
Me: That's Roger Daltrey from The Who.
New Tía Clara: Don't know him.
Me: He's rock and roll royalty. From The Who! One of Rock's most important bands ever.
New Tía Clara: What's the big deal? They only had a one hit wonder.
Me: What are you talking about?
New Tía Clara: That song "Take on me, take on me, take me on..."
Me: That's AHA. Not The Who.
2.
New Tia Clara: Michael Jackson is dead.
Me: Wow.
New Tía Clara: Wasn't he married to Liv Taylor?
Me: There is no Liv Taylor. Liz Taylor was his friend and she is like 85 years old.
New Tía Clara: The daughter of Elvis Presley, Liv Taylor. She is an actress and a model.
Me: That is Liv Tyler, the daughter of Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith. Michael Jackson was married for about two minutes to Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley.
New Tía Clara: I'm not sure you are right.

Tía Clara, reincarnated.

Why Am I Not So Sad...

... about Michael Jackson? I really like his music up to Thriller. I think he was enormously talented and sadly exploited as a child. Some of his songs, pretty much everything from Off The Wall, are the best dance songs ever. Thriller is a fantastic record. As a child, he was amazing. Before he became a wax dummy out of a Vincent Price movie, he was a handsome, glorious young man.
What the hell happened?
Why the irrational need to erase traces of his blackness, something he should be proud of?
I can understand the fear and loathing of the homosexuality, but not of the blackness that gave him his soul.
What horrifying reserves of self-hatred did this guy have to want to change himself into Mr. Bizarro? Lighten the skin and straighten the hair and narrow the nose...
When I heard the news at Cannes, at the terrace bar at the Carlton, I felt nothing. I thought that maybe his creepiness and bizarreness upstaged his talent, which is very sad.
I also knew it was going to be a free for all a la Princess Di (except in this case there was something worth mourning). And these things disgust me. Like Magnificent Arepa said, most people spent years mocking him and now that he's gone everyone is bawling.
I'm not looking forward to the sad state of affairs in which he left his finances. I am not looking forward to the circus that's gonna be whatever is left of his staggering amount of money, still generating revenue every time one of his songs is played.
He seems to have been left to his own devices, which apart from his artistry, were not very sharp.
It's truly sad, but I feel nothing.

150 years in the slammer

Finally, Bernie Madoff got sentenced by judge Denny Chin to the maximum sentence of 150 years in prison for his huge Ponzi Scheme. Hopefully without possibility of parole. Hopefully in a maximum security prison, although this is unlikely, since all white collar criminals end up at so called country clubs. I think the sentence is fair. Other crooks that have bilked the people out of their money, like that Sanford guy should get the same. Make it forever.
Madoff's family must and should surrender all their lavish assets and live in shame for the rest of their lives.
A harpe un a shande.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A B C 1 2 3

Oh dears! Regards from the French Riviera, where our glamorous self is attending the advertising bachannal also known as the Cannes Lions. This year there are like 40% less people and like 60% less parties and it's kind of even more fun without the mobs.
I'm kind of taking a shining to the Cote d'Azur.
Yesterday, at the bar at the Carlton we sat a table away from Roger Daltrey, who can be considered Rock royalty and Bob Geldof, who can't, but he's cool too. The man who doesn't like Mondays has sold himself to the man apparently and was to give a talk to the creative folk at Cannes today. The news of poor Michael Jackson spread like wildfire. The demise of Farrah Fawcett (nemesis of my curly hair) was commented and then we were shocked and dismayed by rumours of the passing of Jeff Goldblum. And Ed McMahon, who should have died around 200 years ago. After a frantic internet search to find out about The Fly, it turns out it's a hoax (and indeed it sounded like one, but here anything is possible).
Going to the beach... talk to you later!

Monday, June 22, 2009

La Fete de la Musique

Here's a country that still has a certain sense of community, after all. La Fete de la Musique is a day when all of France devotes itself to making music, listening, learning, dancing. All events are FREE. Money has nothing to do with it. Every neighborhood has different bands performing almost every style of music imaginable (with an unfortunate penchant for hard core electronica or truly awful dance music). Most bands are conformed of amateurs, and most suck. But the enthusiasm is undeniable, both of audience and performers. France is a country of great aficionados. Most of them may be constitutionally incapable of moving to the rhythm, but this does not intimidate them in the least. They are willing to learn and they have no sense of ridicule.
What moved me, for I was deeply moved, is that everybody gets together to make it happen and to enjoy it. For one day, you share something special with your neighbors, it's that simple. Very, very cool.
I was thinking, imagine if we did this in NY, or the whole of the US. One single, solitary day when it's not about money, but about connecting. Imagine all those talented people who would come out and play on the streets, and all those neighbors that would enjoy it.
I don't understand how a country like this is less constrained by money than we are. They do public projects for the benefit of the citizens and they do not begrudge them every cent they cost. The fabulous mayor of Paris has instituted the amazing bike rental program, still going on, the Paris Plages festival with beaches on the Seine every July. They open and pay for art centers in struggling neighborhoods. They give back.
We, who are supposed to have everything, are miserly. Even free events like Summerstage or Celebreate Brooklyn are always about asking for contributions, donations, sponsors.
So I suggest to Mayor Bloomberg, who is so keen on winning again, to check out what they do over here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hispanics are from Mars, everyone else is from Earth.

I have had it with the lack of respect, willful ignorance and condescension with which Hispanics are treated by the mainstream media in this country. To be fair, I think other minorities suffer that fate too, like Asians, who are even more ignored. But to watch the NBC segment about Hispanics in America was to cringe, and fluster in frustration at the stupidity, and the disrespect. As if Hispanics are only here to furnish the gringos with spicy food and a sense of rhythm. The reporter was astounded that Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have won Oscars! That the guy who wrote the music for Brokeback Mountain is Hispanic (well, so was the director of photography, if you must know).
As Laura Martinez points out, where's the mention of writers, scientists, judges, politicians? Los fucking Angeles has a Hispanic mayor. But here's this putz marvelling over cafe con leche and Gloria Estefán (remember her from like 30 years ago?).
NBC should apologize to Hispanics and to me for making my blood boil.

Finally: One very good meal.

Thanks to Analia and Nicolas for recommending La Cave Gourmande, 1o Rue du General Brunet, 19eme (Metro Botzaris).

This is what we ate. It was all superb:

• Vichyssoise in a glass. It tasted of smoked bacon, of potato, of leeks, of cucumber. It had little croutons and also thin strips of fried leeks and potatoes. Amazing.

• White asparagus in a parmesan croute, with some sort of gentle sweet sorbet and a touch of balsamic. Excellent.

• "Toblerone" of lamb with BBQ sauce. The tenderest, tastiest lamb I've ever had shaped into little mounds like a Toblerone bar, sitting on a light puff pastry base with an amazing ratatouille on the side.

• Perfectly cooked Filet of Turbotin (fish) with a super subtle, elegant, light garlic cream sauce, smoked potato puree (genius) and the best fried parsley ever.

• Chocolate fondue with fruits. Simple, but the chocolate, out of this world.
• Almond torte with apples and saffron icecream. The cake was nice but a bit heavy, but the saffron icecream -- fantastic.

• One glass of excellent white wine from the house and one glass of rouge Vin de Pays D'Oc.

There is still good food in Paris at about 50 euros a pop.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Not that I am complaining or anything, BUT:

It's time to kvetch about France, Paris and the French. No visit here would be complete without a certain degree of exasperation, nes't pas?
Par example: There is always an extra bureaucratic step to everything. Free events are free, which is a wonderful thing. BUT. You still need to get a ticket for the free event. You still need to do the bureaucratic dance. Ces't comme ça.
More annoying: There is a mystery as to what metro ticket vending machines accept working credit cards. Some do, some don't and it's all very mystifying. Some machines only want cards with chips, others are more ecumenical. Seems that the more touristy the area, the more benevolent the machines.
BUT. Would it kill the Metro to have a machine that accepts bills, not only coins, and cards with and without chips? Would it kill the Metro to issue easy, convenient things like NY's Metrocards instead of annoying carnets of 10 loose tickets or a Navigo pass that requires your picture and the signature of Cardinal Richelieu?
It is the height of convenience to buy your train tickets online and just print them out in a machine at the station. In the very possible case that the machine does not accept your card, happily, you can also type in your confirmation number, BUT after you do so, it still asks you FOR THE FREAKING CARD IT WON'T ACCEPT.
So in the end you have to do everything analog anyway, like in the Ancien Regime.

Le Grand Paris

I spent several hours today at the exhibition about the architectural contest for Sarkozy's self-aggrandizing project (every French leader since Napoleon has to have one) of the Parisian metropolis of the future (thanks Mimosa!).
9 or 10 (I lost count after a while) architectural firms presented projects, among them Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc. It was extraordinarily interesting to see how each team conceptualized and solved the problem. It was also inspiring to see how big you can dream to try to make life better for the citizens of a metropolis. Some projects seem undoable, or too vague, others, like Jean Nouvel's, spectacular, and cunningly likeable, but it was all heady food for thought.
For a more journalistic but shamefully incomplete article you can turn to the NY Times. Here you will read about my own Napoleonic suggestions:

1. Destroy the offensive Tour Montparnasse and rebuild something gorgeous in its stead. Jean Nouvel imagines a spectacular golden structure on the top, but I say it's throwing good money after bad. Dynamite the eyesore and do something fabulous, as befits the area and the city.

2. One of the studios proposes a redecoration and renovation of the Place des Fetes, a few blocks away from here and a perfect example of condescending, ugly public housing for the immigrant poor. I second that emotion. Raze this horror to the ground and build a livable, beautiful, community space.

3. Destroy the Les Halles shopping mall and put a new central market there again. As one walks in the heart of Paris, thinking that this seventies monstrosity used to be the amazing central market of this town, one feels like sending whoever is responsible for this mall to the guillotine. I imagine Les Halles became untenable, but what they did is unforgiveable. I am no fan of the Pompidour either, but I'm letting it live for the time being.

4. As in New York, je vous propose to curb, limit and discourage the use of private motor vehicles as much as possible. Cities with great densities and mostly flat terrain (particularly cities with many narrow streets) have no business allowing cars anymore. More bikes, better subway cars, electric buses, minitaxis and trams, and voilá.

As for the outskirts, most of the teams concurred that they are dangerously cut off from city life. Paris is surrounded by an ugly freeway that functions like a moat, a demarcation line. Even with trains going to the banlieue, the poorest suburbs are ugly and neglected (and bad enough to spark riots, remember?). Many of the architects reimagine the balance of power between the center of the city and the outskirts, Richard Rogers in particular. They propose to end the isolation of the suburbs and make them into part of the city. I am all for the abolition of suburbs everywhere and the creation of cities of different sizes, where, as one of the architects noted, life does not have to depend on the automobile.

There was a wonderful quote in one of the projects. I paraphrase:
A city is not about a place in space, it's about drama in time.
Exactly.
In all, the contest is a fascinating opportunity to dream, and an example of the kind of projects the government should support. Many major cities should think in terms of this kind of long term planning (Are you listening, Mexico City? New York?).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran: Imagine...

Imagine that the Iranian people would peacefully overthrow the Islamic government. That they would embrace reform, throw that evil little vantz down the drain where he belongs, and be the great country and great culture that they are. Wouldn't that be swell?
Be prepared, though, for painful disappointment.

Stupid Human Flu

My dear friends in Dijon tell me that they have a friend from Mexico who was invited to a wedding in France and then disinvited because the bride was afraid she would bring the porcine flu as a gift, even though said woman was going to spend 4-5 days in France before going to the wedding. When she protested, apparently the bride said that some guests threatened not to show up if she came.
Why does this remind me of Nazis?
My dear friends in Dijon also told me that when they told their friends they were hosting a Mexican friend chez them (meaning me), everybody worried about me bringing the flu, even though I live in New York and have spent the last 3 weeks in Europe.
It seems that stupidity is extremely contagious.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Them Jews" Finally Doing Something Right

If indeed they are guilty of keeping this stupid fuck from wasting the President's time.
As always, every scoundrel's P.R. nugget: blame it on the Jews.

Food for Thought

I have to agree with my French friend Nicolas: The food is better in New York. In restaurants, that is.
The bread, the butter, the cheese, the cream, the pastries, the charcuterie: all of that is better here. (The cherries too).
But to eat well in restaurants in Paris you have to pay a lot of money. Bistro food gets pretty repetitive and heavy after a few days (hear me complaining). We've been to decent restaurants where we've paid an average of 30 euros per person and the food is no great shakes. For $42 in New York you can eat a better meal. Perhaps not three courses, but much better quality.
Silver lining: today I bought 4 cans of cold 1664 beer for 1 euro each. Voila!
In NY you can eat really well all kinds of food for less. And that's all she wrote.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

SOS Racisme

Ah, the old country, with their old fashioned ways... Coming back yesterday night in the last Metro, we sat across a guy who looked like he could have been from Pakistan or Bangladesh. A French man sat next to him. He looked like a fourth rate Alain Delon and sported a coif similar to Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men (we should have known this meant bad news).
Alain Delon was apparently leaning hard against the immigrant on purpose. Immigrant tried to figure what to do about this aggressive intrusion on his space. Finally, as Alain pushed him noticeably harder, the immigrant politely asked him to stick to his space. Alain Delon reacted instantly with enormous hostility. What I could interpret from quickfire French and body language was, what is your problem; you don't think there's enough space? You want a fight? (The Paris Metro seems to have been designed with the likes of Coco Chanel in mind. Unless you are elfin, it's too close for comfort even when half empty.)
At first I thought it was a case of sexual harassment, but then it was obvious that it was worse: a case of pure and simple racist provocation, subtle and cowardly.
The argument escalated relatively mildly, considering the affront, with us thinking they were going to start pulling on each other any minute now, but the immigrant knew better and the French guy stood up and left at the next station, perhaps because there were too many people around. He knew on whom to pick. I bet he wouldn't have dared do it to a less mild-mannered foreigner.
I wish I could have intervened, but I simply don't have the French for a fight. I guess that the word motherfucker is universally understood by now, but it all happened too fast. The outrage came in a slow build up, moments later. The immigrant looked at us for confirmation that he was in the right and we exchanged looks of disgust and solidarity. He muttered under his breath: raciste.
It was appalling.
In my 16 years living in the US, the only time I ever witnessed openly racist behavior was on the night of 9/11, when some hoods were telling a shwarma vendor on McDougal St. to pack up and leave.
Now, before we go any further, I wish to state the obvious, which is that racism is absolutely everywhere; as natural a part of the human condition as breathing. However, I believe that in the US it has evolved into something more underground, more cautious.
Many Americans have embraced total pluralism in their personal lives. Not to bring up more of the obvious, but we only need to say three words: Barack Hussein Obama. Not only is he the President, but he is a living example of what I am talking about, which is extremely common in the US, a person with a plurality of ancestries.
Those Americans who are not as pluralistic, have learned to disguise their prejudices. They have learned to live with the fact that we are part of a truly pluralistic society, whether they like it or not. Political correctness, for better or for worse, is the standard American response to racism, pure hypocrisy disguised as good intentions, yet it's better than nothing. In America, we can credit the formidable Dr. King and the brave people of the civil rights movement for a revolution in thought, that as far as it is from being total or perfect, is one of the greatest advances for progress in the history of that country, and of the world. Of course Europe is full of well-meaning people who find racism aberrant and intolerable. But its history is different and Europe still has a long way to go.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Slow Food

Time for our general observations of some mystifying aspects of French culture:
Once you enter a restaurant, it will take you hours to get out. It doesn't matter if you were thinking of just having a fast crepe, a croque or a salad. It will take forever. The reason is not what all tourists think it is; namely, rudeness. It's a system of food delivery that probably stretches back to the ancien regime. Marie Antoinette probably said "let them it cake" when somebody asked for the check. The check doesn't come until you ask for it. Asking for it is difficult as waiters tend to disappear or ignore you for long stretches of time. Having been to Spain recently, although similar, there they are happy to take your money* faster.
1. There are fewer waiters in Parisian restaurants than there should be per capita. The humbler the restaurant, the fewer waiters on hand. It dawned on me that if you go to Taillevent, there must be a waiter for every one of your limbs and your five senses. But that is not my case. My observations are based on "cheap" places.
2. The waiter/ess may or may not acknowledge that you have arrived and sat on a table outside (this happens indoors too). Once the waiter acknowledges you, they act as if they don't know that you are there to eat. Perhaps they think your feet are tired or you sat down to ponder the meaning of life. Perhaps they think you just want to have coffee or a beverage, in which case, they will not bother bringing the menu. This is not a system about efficiency, but about personal freedom and choice, as dictated by the tenets of the French Revolution. Therefore, it is up to you to ask for it, since under no circumstance will the waiter have the menu on hand as they approach your table. As they go in search of your menu, they stop at every table along the way to inquire if others have decided, if they have finished, would they like some coffee, dessert anyone, etc. Before they bring you your menu, they finish all the chores that they set themselves to do along the way. The same happens with your meal and the same happens with the check. We have calculated that unless you eat a sandwich or a crepe on the street, the average lunch or dinner in Paris can't possibly take less than an hour. Not that we are in a rush, but idle people with time on their hands and a wandering spirit (i.e. tourists) have things to do too.
And please, do not take this as criticism. I, for one, do not always appreciate the well oiled machine that is service in New York restaurants, where everybody seems to be on the timer of an explosive device which will detonate in approximately 25 minutes, from soup to nuts. I'm just trying to understand the underlying essence of the Proustian lunch.
* The check dilemma also has me pondering whether the French have an issue with money. Perhaps they think it's vulgar to bring it up. To wit: We searched for activities at the Louvre we could engage on in an effort to improve our halting French. On their website, they list absolutely everything there is to know about the lectures, conferences and workshops available. Everything, that is, except the price. The price probably lies in some unfathomable recess where nobody who possesses an ounce of logic would think to look. We even went to the museum in person and could not find the prices listed at the information desk next to the box office. I guess money is not the most important thing in their minds. Time is not of the essence; it is as fluid and as long and as leisurely as all the tomes that Proust devoted to searching for it.
This is not necessarily bad. Indeed, it can be enormously delightful and charming, but coming from New York, it takes a little adjusting to.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Profit...eroles


They looked iffy, but once we took a bite, we were in heaven. The chocolate was unbelievable, the vanilla ice cream sublime and the choux pastry amazing.

Our Paris 'Hood


Rue de Belleville. Not one tourist around. Except moi. A plaque in a building nearby commemorates the place where Edith Piaf was born. Those are the neighborhood's credentials.

The corner bar. The enthusiasm of the jazz/bossa combo is charming, and the singer is a sweetheart, though utterly out of tune. They play American standards with great devotion. A drunk couple dances wildly, with no sense of rhythm whatsoever, but with too much abandon. It's quite annoying. And it looks like it's gonna end badly. She crashes to the ground on cue with the end of the song. Everybody claps. A fat French guy attempts to sing Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding, with no sense of shame or decorum (or melody or tune). They are clueless, but they love the music with a passion.


Apparently, some things never go out of fashion.

Weird metro station from the 30's at the Place des Fetes. No one bothers to beautify it for the working class.



Two tough little customers.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

It's impossible...

...to walk the streets of Paris without wanting to eat everything in sight. The bread, the pastries, the ice cream, the fromages, the charcuterie, the chocolats, even the Chinese food so beautifully displayed.
It doesn't help that there is food every two steps on every street.
Today I had a perfect crepe complete with jambon, fromage, oeuf and beurre, all of which are so goddamned tasty, they make what we eat in the States feel like plastic food.
As I can't stop at every artisan boulanger and eat all their pastries, I walk around with an irksome feeling all day long. If I did, I'd be a whale. What's a gourmande to do?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Nous sommes arriveés a Paris!


And we are staying in a fabulous five floor walk up which is a walk in the park compared to the one the last time around. The building is French and old and gorgeous.



We have a terrace. But the best part is that we are in a wonderful neighborhood very close to the wonderful Buttes Chaumont park.


The noises that waft from the street are the nicest I've ever heard in a city. Right now, I am typing to the accompaniment of someone taking piano lessons. The melody is one of those sugary classical music pieces that sound like a nursery rhyme. There are many singing birds and they are quite talkative. We also hear nice little French children playing. Blissfully, very few cars pass by this narrow street. Now there's a cat meowing. I think we're going to be extremely happy here.


I went down to the park to sit and read an article about Carlos Slim and I saw a cat on a roof (hot tin?) having a fight with two big crows. He probably decided to pester them and they did not take it on the beak. They circled around him and swooped down on him and made an unholy racket and they looked like they meant business.
I have decided that I may do as my voisins and use the park for a daily morning constitutional.
Meanwhile, we've already identified two bakeries, several laundromats, pharmacies, the charcutier, the poissonerie, the fruit stalls. Ah, Paris.

Buskers: the latest European pandemic

At least in Spain, it's as prevalent and as annoying, if not as deadly, as the Spanish Flu from 1920.
In every big avenue there are scores of heavily disguised untalented people standing motionless to the glee of some other people. Many in Spain seem to have taken inspiration from the cheesy monsters of Pan's Labyrinth, but there are all kinds of nothing going on.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Catalonian Liquid Diet

Start with so many of these, you lose count. Follow with:




Even though the olives count as dinner, make sure you supplement them with some magnificent fried stuff, in this case wonderfully battered langoustines:

And the next day, salvation in a bottle:

24 hours in Barcelona














At Barceloneta...

...we stumbled onto a fiesta del barrio.