24 December 2010

Maggie where are you?

Today I left home for my winter vacation. The flight was supposed to connect in Paris because Marseille, even though it's France's second-largest city, has very few useful connections anywhere. It's a provincial airport, like all airports in France except Paris CDG, but unfortunately it has managed to attract very few budget airlines.

Early in the morning Air France sent mail, announcing that the flight is cancelled, thank you for your understanding, pleasy do not reply. What makes them think that I would understand anything? I went to the airport, and KLM got me routed through Amsterdam. KLM, even though it's owned by Air France now, knows how to deal with an emergency.

The emergency being, of course, the usual French blight hurting everyone who wants to get something done. Three days before Christmas the Marseille airport security was on strike, so noone could fly. Riot police got called in. That strike has ended but now workers at the factory that supplies the Paris airport with glycol were on strike, on December 24. Glycol is needed to de-ice airplanes; it's still very cold in Paris. So they cancelled half of all flights from France's central air hub.

Amsterdam is also in the grip of the harsh winter this year, and the airport is seriously busy and affected by the strain the winter is putting on all of northern Europe. But my connection in Schiphol was perfectly punctual. The Dutch know how to run a business.

I like France but I am beginning to lose patience with this dysfunctional country. Mrs Thatcher, where are you when we need you?

19 December 2010

Silent zoo

Marseille has a zoo, the Jardin Zoologique. It's not huge, but it's a beautiful park in a city that doesn't have a lot of green spaces. You enter through the Palais Longchamp. Zoo entrances don't come much more grandiose than this:

Inside is a well-manicured park with numerous little asphalt trails looping through the grounds. There are many old trees, and lawns that are actually legal to sit on. That's very rare in French cities, normally a uniform will rush at you whenever you look like you'd defile their sacred lawns by setting foot on it. There is a playground, families with children, joggers, and a generally tranquil setting very far away from Marseille's bustle.

The one thing that Marseille's zoo doesn't have is animals. None. At all.

Even dogs aren't welcome. There is a small space set aside for dogs, like smokers at airports, with a sign on the gate that carefully categorizes dogs as legal, illegal, and very illegal. All those looping paths are completely pointless, they go nowhere and loop back on themselves as if to say, oh well, never mind, what was I thinking.

And that's a good thing. Because before the zoo closed in 1987, they did have animals, and there are still a number of rusting hulks of cages. Very small cages, and very depressing. When they built them in 1854 they were probably state of the art, and old pictures show ladies in big floor-length dresses with hats and parasols enjoying themselves, but no animal larger than a cockroach could lead a decent life in one of these cages. Some of the walls have paintings of what the artist might have considered a natural environment, but only animals with extremely poor eyesight could have been fooled by them. Somehow they make the whole thing even more depressing.

The old reports don't say what happened to the animals when the zoo's money ran out. Probably went into a bouillabaisse.

The Palais Longchamp today houses the Natural History Museum. It's the old kind of museum, with many rows of antique display cases filled with insects and bats, carefully pinned to hand-written cards with latin names in beautiful century-old handwriting; tons of fossils and stuffed birds and fish, and a room with giraffes and other exotica. (Hm, maybe those are the zoo guests that escaped the bouillabaisse.) The museum's presentation is more interesting than its contents, but they are certainly trying.

14 December 2010

Really English.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about the difficulties the French are having with the English language, which is really an unnecessary luxury best left to foreigners. But every marketeer and creative ad agency "artist" firmly believes that their message is cool and compelling only if it has some English words in it. Nobody told them that normal people see this as pathetic and pretentious.

So, suppose you are selling something profane like sweaters. If you are one of the aforementioned advertising droids, you'll come up with something like this, which I saw at a bus stop today (cropped from the full poster):

A cashmere is a goat that is really successful, I see. Boring. Let's put an English word in it to spice up the message. "Really" is the best victim because the sentence doesn't need it, better play it safe. And let's put it in quotes too, those French ones that look like double angle brackets, to make it absolutely clear that this is not a typo but intentional and a quote and you aren't supposed to understand it, keep going, there is nothing to see here.

Noticed the little asterisk after "really"? Asterisks are normally used in French cell phone contracts and mean "just kidding, this is all a beautiful lie, read the twenty pages of extremely fine all-caps print in light gray on white taped to the underside of the carpet in our Kuala Lumpur branch office". So let's go looking for the legal footnote. Yes, there it is, sideways in small print at the bottom left edge of the poster:

I can't tell you what the number means, probably printer's code for "if you are reading this you are a nerd". But vraiment is indeed the French word for really. You have to admire the earnest desire of the designer to be properly understood. I need a shower.

11 December 2010

Paradise freezes over

The summer is clearly over, but that doesn't mean the same there here at the Mediterranean Sea as it does further north. I still ride 21km to work, by bicycle, in shorts. But not every day anymore, sometimes it's a little cool in Marseille and when it's cool in Marseille it can be positively cold out in the hills, where frigid winds blow down from the Alps. Meanwhile, Paris has come to a standstill because the weather has turned it into a full-blown disaster zone, two days ago they had 11 cm of snow!

Wait, 11 cm, four inches, a hand's width? Throws one of the largest European cities into chaos? I polled some Canadian friends and they found this very funny. Two meters of snow won't stop a Canadian. I have seen people in Montréal, Quebec, walk around in shorts while it was snowing in May. These people pay no attention whatever to 11 cm of snow. But Paris wasn't prepared. Two years ago it was snowing very lightly in Marseille, an unheard-of phenomenon, and Marseille is even less prepared for such a natural disaster. This city of one million does not own a snowplow or any other kind of suitable equipment. So they closed all the schools and stayed at home, waiting for armageddon to end, while parked cars gently drifted to the bottoms of the hills.

The city of Dresden in the east of Germany not far from the Polish border, had temperatures of -24 degrees centigrade a couple of weeks ago. Now that might get a passing notice from Canadians, in early December at least. It's not supposed to do that in early December, if at all. I have walked to work in Montréal in -25 degrees in January and it's hard to breathe in these temperatures. Marseille dropped to 5 degrees that week and I saw ice on the puddles out in the countryside. No bicycle that day.

Today we had 6 degrees at night and 14 during the day. That sounds warm for December in Europe but consider that these people are not good at installing proper heating. They don't have to be, normally. My three-room apartment has exactly one gas-fired radiator in the hallway. My hallway, and only my hallway, is very warm. I use a large fan to blow the warm air into the living room and close all other doors, and I have stuffed styrofoam into the fireplace because cold air (even hail, once) enters through the chimney. I can't actually use the fireplace because they run antenna cables through the chimneys. The French would rather be cold than give up TV.

I was hoping to show some pretty Christmas decorations in Marseille, but there isn't much to see. They decorated rue Saint-Ferréol, the main shopping street, put three or four rides on La Canebière, and hung a few lights in the trees. I have seen more than that in Bangkok last year and Christmas has exactly zero tradition there. Some pictures, taken on Ferréol, rue de la République, and Canebière:

That's pretty much it, Marseille before Christmas, now you've seen it. Nothing at all like the Champs-Elysées in Paris, now that is a sight in December.

The one thing that seems curiously out of proportion here is the Christmas market on Place du Général de Gaulle. There are maybe 30 large booths, all selling the same thing: little painted clay figurines for nativity scenes. Armies of little Josephs, Marys, Jesuses, and wise men, plus auxiliary personnel and some donkeys. Who buys all this stuff? There must be a huge market for it. You can buy them unpainted as well. They don't do it for the tourists because there aren't a lot of tourists here at this time of the year. (Which is surprising, considering the ongoing end of the world in Paris.)

02 December 2010

World Heritage Burger

So UNESCO gave us a new world heritage: the French Cuisine. A good choice. The French take eating seriously, but only at the correct time of the day. Lunch is served from 12:00 to 14:00, and dinner starts at 20:00 but you'll have no problems getting a table at 20:00 because most people won't show up before 22:00. Law requires that working hours are posted at companies, and the lunch hour is a generous 90 minutes. We need the time.

Lunch begins with an apéritif, a drink. Usually that's a table wine. Then follows the entrée, an appetizer. The plat, the main dish, follows. Finally, there is a dessert, and coffee. If you are in a hurry, you may drop either the appetizer or the dessert, or combine dessert and coffee into a café gourmand, a coffee with several miniature desserts on a plate. Dinner is the same procedure, except more elaborate. I have eaten at many wonderful places - see my September Bouillabaisse article for an example, and I have eaten at various famous Parisian restaurants, and my newest discovery here in Marseille is a great French place called les pieds dans le plat, the feet in the plate. And the French love to have lunch outdoors, like in this picture from Aix-en-Provence:

When you order meat, you'll be asked about the cuisson: how would you like your meat? You'd be tempted to say "medium", but in France the categories are shifted. They like their meat (red meat at least) nearly raw. Saignant, bloody, is just that: lightly singed from both sides but basically raw in the middle. And there is another category below that, bleu, which means blue and describes the color on your face if you take a bite. So, ask for bien cuit, well cooked, or at most à point, if you don't want your food to crawl off your plate.

You are not supposed to just "grab a sandwich". Sandwich places exist but I haven't found a good one; besides, everything from gyros and kebap to ham and cheese sandwiches look alike - a baguette filled with stuff and French fries. Ice cream parlors are so-so despite the proximity of Italy, and the fact that they invariably proclaim themselves to sell glaces artisanales, maybe best translated as homemade ice cream. All Asian restaurants are, at best, rather mediocre because there are so few Asians around here in Marseille. Another place near work, called Buffalo Grill, is a charming burger emporium where everything is decorated Texan style but it's a hilariously obvious veneer on a French restaurant. At least I have never been offered French vin de pays to drink and crème brûlée for dessert in a Texan burger joint.

What the UNESCO maybe doesn't realize that underneath all this attention to excellent food, France has a big underground of junk food. Pizza is everywhere, and it's usually some sad mushrooms and olives frozen in a sea of gelled yellowish cheese. They'll warm it up for you. Dino's pizza near work is known to make pizzas with a black charred outer rim ever since they opened their doors. Fast food flourishes most in the USA but only McDonalds has a significant presence here; the French have their very own fast food chain called Quick that looks like McDonalds, except that the food - if you can believe it - tastes worse.

In the name of science I went to a Quick today. With the world heritage award in my mind, I took them at their word and ordered their current flagship product, a Supreme Cheese Bacon everything burger and took it home for analysis. After careful dissection it turns out to be a bland pile of mushed stuff that looks almost totally unlike the pictures above the counter. I have been taught to not throw away food but since there is evidently nothing at a Quick restaurant that deserves this description, I binned it after a few disgusting bites.

The French are great bakers. From my living room window I can see four boulangeries, and their croissants, baguettes, and other pastries are just glorious. The French are masters at tartes and petits-fours as well; nobody in the world does it better. But all the bread is white, if you want dark or whole-grain bread you'll have to buy German bread.

There is much more to be said about French food, but I'll leave that for another post.