Monday, July 26, 2010

Animal Rights (and Wrongs)

The woolly black dog sniffing the lamp post at Place Leon Blum didn't look underfed, but he did look orphaned: no visible tags, and no visible human. (You often see dogs walking off-leash in this corner of the world, however.)

"Is that your dog, by chance?" I asked the newsagent next to the Metro entrance.

"Where?" he asked, before coming out of his little stall to stand alongside me, his gaze following my finger pointing in the direction of chow-ish looking dog moseying about all by his lonesome.

"That guy there. He seems to be all alone."

"Tsk tsk tsk," said the newsagent fellow. "The french people, when they go on vacation, they just turn their dogs out on the street."

"No, it can't be so!"

"Oui, oui. It's a right shame."


This was the third time in a month that I felt utterly and completely powerless to act on my natural impulse to help an animal in need. I did not know who to call (even if I did have a cell phone, which I still do not), nor whether I should try to wrangle the furball (suppose he did have a person, and I just couldn't see him/her), and then what to do with him if I were to wrangle him.

(The previous animal situations included one where a dog was trotting aimlessly though traffic; I asked someone what to do about it and he said to take the dog to the Commissariat. Yet, when I took that baby pigeon I found on the sidewalk to the Commissariat, I discovered they're actually pretty useless when it comes to animal crises.)

Reluctantly, I descended the steps to the Metro station and just wallowed in that heart-wrenching, gut-aching feeling of helplessness and failure. Waiting on the platform for a train to take me to yet another apartment viewing, I noticed the giant advertisement depicting two dogs, one healthy and cute, lovingly cuddled by two smiling children; the other is but a mere skeleton lying dead or near death, alone on a table:

"For him, love. For me, death. Abandoning kills 100,000 animals per year."

I'd seen the poster (the latest issued from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation) several times before, but didn't have the context to fully understand what the campaign was about, or why it was relevant right this minute. Now, I understand. And now, I've got another job for myself: figure out what the hell to do the next time I see a dog (or cat, or pigeon) toute seule on the streets. It's hard to believe that the french, who have a reputation as a dog-loving bunch of people, would treat their animal companions so poorly when they are no longer convenient. C'est dommage.

In good animal news, tomorrow Spain votes on whether to make bull-fighting illegal in Catalonia, and it's actually looking as if for once, luck might fall in favor of the animals. One can hope.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My Magic Purple Friend (or Not)

My first thought upon waking yesterday morning was (Jen, if you're reading this, close your eyes now) "Let's listen to some Prince."

No, I have no idea why.

So, I put some Prince on the stereo (aka my computer) and proceeded to get in a really good mood. (Try listening to "America" and not feeling all pepped up. Except you, Jen.)

For our morning walk, Fanny and I headed out the door in the direction of Tom and Nathalie's place on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, to feed the fish and water the pretty flowers on the balcony with the fabulous view of Sacre Coeur. As we rounded the corner onto Voltaire, there he was! Prince! Who may or may not be vegan! OK, so it was only a poster on a news-agent's kiosk, but still.

Another block down the street, I passed a typical Parisian boulangerie, albeit one with outdoor seating, where a handful of people were enjoying their petit dejeuner of coffee and croissants. I looked up, and there on the awning it read, "Les Delices du Prince" (The delights of the prince).

Hmm. Coincidence or .... ??

I guess it mustn't have been "or ... " because I kept looking for more magic purple Prince symbols, but didn't see any.

The view from Tom and Nathalie's balcony

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Home is ...

Yesterday I was set to meet Jean Louis, the present tenant at 2, rue Gustave Rouanet, and his landlord, Patrick, and together we were going to sit down, sign some papers, and voila! I would be granted a new place to call home for the next year, and possibly longer. Just before hopping on my funky green borrowed bicycle and heading north along the Canal St. Martin, I hopped on the slightly less funky internet to see what I could discover about this Gustave Rouanet fellow. I thought maybe there’d be something portentous there; you know, maybe he was the guy who started Paris’ first vegetarian society or something. (He was actually a lefty upstart and writer of scathing anti-establishment articles in the socialist press.) Armed with my newfound knowledge, I’d know for sure that the place was meant to be for me (or not).

Well, I found something altogether quite different when I went snooping around cyberspace, and it wasn’t “good”-different. Turns out that last month, at 4 in the morning, a young couple in their early twenties arrived at this very apartment building after a night partying with friends, and as they went to open the front gate, the two were stabbed by a “North African looking guy with bleached-blond hair.” (I have yet to see even one such fellow with bleached-blond hair; maybe they all dyed their heads en masse after reading this story in hopes of circumventing hair-related profiling.) The 21-year-old girl died. The boyfriend is still in the hospital.

Reading this story kind of put a damper on the whole oh-my-god-I’m-excited-about-my-new-apartment thing, but I went ahead and cycled over to the backside of Sacre Coeur to make good on our agreed rendezvous. When I arrived, Patrick and Jean-Louis showed me the bike parking room. It would have easily held all of Jeff’s bikes. Sigh.

“Say! Before I came here today I did a bit of internet research and found out there was a murder here recently. You didn’t mention that when I asked you if the neighborhood was safe.”

“Bof—it never even occurred to me,” said Jean Louis. “It was a crime of passion. A jealous ex-boyfriend. It could have happened anywhere.”

I totally got it. And he was right: it could have happened anywhere. But it didn’t happen anywhere. It happened right here in my new building! Together we piled into the elevator, a space which becomes very intimate very quickly when you are three adults and it’s 95 degrees outside. Entering the apartment, the living room suddenly felt very small. How would I possibly fit my couch, sideboard, coffee table, and chairs in here? Inspecting the closets one more time, I gauged the space and made a mental comparison to our Golden Gate wardrobe and thought, “No way. This is never going to hold all of our clothes.”

I shared my concerns with Patrick and with Jean Louis, who suggested I give it some thought and get back to him. I told him I thought that was a great idea. As I left, my mind was already made up, but I went downstairs and decided to query some of the building’s residents anyway, to get their impressions of the neighborhood, its degree of safety, and anything else folks would be willing to share.

The first two people I bumped into were a middle aged woman and an old man in the foyer. The old guy has lived in the building for 34 years. “It’s a great building, great neighbors, and a nice neighborhood,” he insisted. The woman, his personal grocery-shopper, agreed. “That murder was highly unusual for this neighborhood, and for Paris in general,” she said. Stopping into the concierge’s office, he, too, echoed their sentiments. “No, no, this is perfectly safe place. When do you move in?”

Well, the answer to that is: never. Boo hoo.

So: where is home? Back to the ol’ drawing board.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

March of the Pregnants

There’s a certain Parisian fashion that hasn’t gone out of style in the five years I’ve been away: being pregnant. But it’s all about the timing. You don’t want to be hugely pregnant in the fall or winter. You want to become pregnant in those cold months, then try to forecast B-Day for sometime during the summer, which allows one to tack one’s maternity (and paternity) leave onto the head or tail of one’s annual vacation, turning four weeks into a leisurely eight or more (lots more, according to that NYT piece).

I thought it was a fluke when I first began noticing the armies of big-bellied moms-to-be marching the hot summery streets all those years ago, but I’ll never forget August 1, 2004: the day our apartment building suddenly erupted in a chorus of newborn infants’ cries blasting in from all directions. I began asking around and discovered that this is, indeed, a very deliberate family-planning strategy. They take baby making so seriously here that there’s even a dedicated lane at the Bastille Monoprix for pregnant women (though they’ve got to share with folks in wheelchairs). I wonder if anyone has jutted their stomach in a feigned pregnancy to try bypassing a long line?

For all the pregnant women walking around Paris (I easily cross paths with 10 or more a day), there is an equal number of anorexic men and women (yes, the manorexics are just as ubiquitous as those of the female persuasion) tipping the scales (or not, really) in the other direction. It’s startling at first; you want to just butt into their lives with a gentle “Honey, please: Eat before you die. Let’s go get you some smoked almonds.” But you don’t, because you don’t know their story. Maybe it’s not anorexia. Maybe it’s cancer. Maybe it’s a severe food allergy. Maybe they’re vegan and just returned from a month in Argentina. Whatever the case may be, it’s none of our business, and none of us should judge those proverbial books by their covers. I say this rather smugly and Aurelia-knows-best-y only because of a recent experience involving a new friend who happens to be very thin. She’s been on the receiving end of a lot of unsolicited commentary about her weight, and the harsh judgement has really worked a number on her spirit. I will not make that mistake again.

I wasn’t able to stealthily snap photos of either pregnant women or anorexics this week, so I’m posting some images of recent restaurant meals instead. Bon appetit!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Big Question

Whenever I leave my camera at home, there is, inevitably, a moment I happen upon that will never, ever be repeated, and one that I would really have liked to capture in digital form for future amusement and memory recall. Like today, for instance.

As I moseyed up rue de la Roquette, a police van with siren blaring blasted up the skinny one-way street, stopping suddenly on the corner just a half-block ahead. Walking closer to the van, I could see through the tinted windows a man in a crisp, button-down shirt handcuffed in the back, three officers sitting across from and beside him. Just then, another officer came running out of the boulangerie on the corner bearing a siren-worthy baguette, a sheath of paper twisted around the middle. All that fuss for a stick of bread? Honestly! Or how about the woman at Starbucks (I returned again today; I hope this doesn’t become habit), awkwardly eating her chocolate-chip muffin with a spoon? Just shove the damn thing in your mouth, lady. That’s the way we do it in America! And hey: Starbucks sells pancakes—yes, regular old flapjacks—in little stacks, right alongside the muffins and scones in the glass case at the counter. What’s that all about?

Yesterday, coming home from the Bibliotheque Parmentier, I walked toward the Mairie de l’Onzieme, lured by the sound of live music—drums and tambourine, mostly. As I rounded the corner to the square in front of the Mairie, I saw it was another wedding taking place (each arrondissement has its own town hall, which is a popular place to get married, just like San Francisco’s City Hall). This time, the nuptials were of the North African variety. Four men in red tunics, matching pants, and pillbox hats pounded on their drums and shook their tambourines, while a crowd of smiling men and women formed a dancing circle around the bride and groom, who were each dressed in traditional western wedding wear. Women in hijabs took turns ululating, and the men held their hands above their heads, snapping their fingers. It was a beautiful scene that prompted spontaneous tears--joyful ones. Today as I passed the same spot, I noticed butterfly-sized confetti shaped like hearts littering the square like leaves from a fairytale arbre d’amour. It warmed my heart. Maybe love is the answer, but, then, what is the question?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Far From the 8th

One of my favorite films, Paris, Je T'Aime, is comprised of 18 different stories, one of which is particularly poignant; it's titled "Loin du 16e" ("Far from the 16th") and tells the story of a young spanish-speaking immigrant woman who leaves her working-class apartment -- and her infant daughter, to whom she sings a sad little lullaby before depositing her in daycare -- in the gray Paris suburbs and takes a gruelingly long train ride to her job in the ritzy, bourgeois 16th arrondissement. There, in the home of a wealthy family, she cares for their infant daughter, to whom she sings sad little lullabies. I relate to this story whenever I report for work in the chi-chi 8th to care for Junior (aka "Junes" or "Joonynoots"), the spoiled springer spaniel whose young, soft-spoken and extremely goodlooking Greek dad is clearly a millionaire, and then some.

While I walk this friendly, old (he's 12) beast up the Champs Elysee and around the grassy park areas sandwiching the Seine, trying to yank him away from every dead pigeon, dirty napkin, random fish head, and pile of human excrement (he loves the stuff) he drags the two of us toward, my terrificly well-behaved little Fanny sits home in her tiny, temporary 11th arrondissement abode, dreaming of the Snausages and Pupperonis she rarely-to-never gets to eat (she's supposed to be vegan, too). Well, I make up for the neglect with praise when I get home, telling her what a good girl she is for not being equipped with coprophagic tendencies, and for not nearly yanking my arm off whenever she smells something tasty hiding in the bushes.

Saturday is my last day caring for Junes. His regular dog walker comes back from vacation then. I think I'll be ready for a vacation of my own come Saturday. (Or at least a massage for my over-yanked shoulder. There are lots of Chinese massage places in Paris, so I think I might have to spring for one, since I'll have the cash in hand to indulge.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010


It's been a rather depressing week. We still haven't found a permanent place to live (according to the NYT, there's a housing shortage here; I'd read just the opposite in the French press not too long ago), and we spent approximately 10 hours over two hot, frustrating days attempting to get our visa/carte de sejour malarkey sorted out at the prefecture de police in the 14th, enduring streams of vomit deposited at our feet courtesy of a little girl who drank too much milk for breakfast (I can't blame her; I'd have barfed too), and having "adults" ruthelessly cut in line ahead of us after we'd waited hours and hours, only to discover that we were in the wrong place altogether. Nothing--as I'd conveniently forgotten in the last five years that I haven't lived here--comes easy in France. Everything is a bureaucratic climb of the Mt. Everest variety. I've wanted to give up scads of times, but we're hanging in there.

The good news this week is that A. I finally got Velib to work (thanks to Sacha--my teenage Franco-American step-nephew-in-law, or some such approximation), who called Velib on our behalf, and discovered that it might just be a matter of wiping the puce on our carte bleu really clean before swiping it through the kiosk), so now we two are completely mobile. It feels great to be on bikes a deux again! Good news B: I got a job! It's a part-time gig, but it's something. Yes: I am, perhaps, Paris' newest professional dog walker. Thanks, Phil, for giving me the job! (My first client is a springer spaniel-type dog named Junior, whose dad lives in a fancy building on Avenue Montaigne, right there next to Chanel, Hermes, and Versace.) Maybe this job is a sign that yes, I really am supposed to be here. Or not. I'm still mulling that one over.

When I'm feeling totally bummed out like I've been for the past 10 days or so, I look around this good-looking, historically rich and interesting city and tell myself that it's not so bad, even if we are living out of suitcases in a place without WiFi. I could be feeling depressed in, say, Lodi or Auburn. Now that's a depressing thought. One of the little things that keeps spirits afloat (besides the daily doses of baguette in the tradition graine style) is the French tendency toward erecting signs and placards for anything and everything. Some of these signs make no sense, like the one below from yesterday's trip to the Parc de la Villette that seems to be saying "no flowers, please." (The one above seems to suggest that holding your child's hand is a criminal activity.) Though I understood perfectly the sign I randomly glanced up to when stopped at a light on the rue de Rivoli today, which announced that "Leo Tolstoy lived here in 1857." Now I'm thinking about Anna Karenina and getting all depressed again. Time for a new topic. Ideas welcomed!

Friday, July 9, 2010

One Really Great Thing About Paris

Would you look at that price tag? Mind you, this is the big jar. That's less than half the price -- even with the euro-to-dollars conversion -- that I'd pay at Rainbow. I think this might be the only thing that's less expensive in France than the US (besides fresh fruit and vegetables), but if it had to be something, I'm glad it's Marmite.