Another day, another flight to Paris

blast
I’m writing this while flying from San Francisco to Paris on Air France. I’ve flown this route several times in the past year, but never with such “flavor”. This trip is only half way over, yet the memorable events just keep piling up.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this flight has been bad. There are no singing nuns, deadly snakes, or poisonous entrees. No, this flight has been filled with those little experiences that make me say to the little gremlin on the wing: “Did that just happen?”

Setting the stage

The flight started off fairly normal. I’ve got a great seat, 32G – a bulkhead aisle seat. The seat next to me is empty and a lady with her toddler sits on the other side of the vacancy. On the other side of the aisle are a couple of elderly women. One of them is frail, the other is quite sprite. Directly behind me is a French couple taking self portraits while strapped into the seats.

The rest of the plane seems to be comprised of inbred American teenagers on at school trip to Paris. No, seriously, they all have this common pie shaped, dough colored look. There is a really ugly set of patriarchs somewhere in California.

Oh, my seat is also a mere 4 feet from the restrooms/self-service area. I’ve got a steady stream of traffic to the right of me.

Hello Mr. open fly

I was treated to several visits from Mr. open fly. We’re not talking simply unzipped. I think this guy thought he was in an adult bookstore and was letting people sample the wares. He paraded up and down the aisles with the fly well open.

It reminded me of a little kid I went to  elementary school with. One day he wore overalls to school with no drawers. He delighted in letting the other kids check the contents of his pockets, hint hint, nudge nudge.

Naturally, I didn’t tell Mr. open fly that the corral was open and the horse was ready to escape. Why spoil such pregnant expectations?

The community television screen

I don’t know how we survived without individual television screens on airplanes. God bless jet blue for introducing the masses to such luxuries. Now we can fly blissfully around the world without having to share the joys of Everyone Loves Raymond with a planeful of idiots that actually think its funny.

No, we now have the ability to watch our own selection of movies, tv shows, and other special visual treats. It’s even possible to spend 9 hours watching movies without seeing Owen Wilson’s stupid nose, a “cutting” sitcom with laugh tracks galore, or the standard educational documentary featuring animals tearing each other to pieces.

No, that’s what the community screens are for. Scattered around the plane are little televisions displaying safety messages, animated stewardesses serving scalding hot coffee, maps of the world with the progress of our plane, and a disturbing collection of entertainment. I hadn’t really noticed these television’s content until this flight.

If it bleeds, it leads

I haven’t been watching the screens consistently. I’ve been trying to watch movies on my little personal slice of video heaven. Once in a while, my eye will be distracted by something twittering on the community screen, which sits about 4 feet away, next to the toddler’s suspended bassinet.

piglets photo on flickr
Piglets photo by ynskjen on Flickr

The first scene that grabbed my attention was a group of playful piglets trying to jump out of their pen. The pens looked like an farm from an old vampire film: dark shadows, low angle, carefully placed detritus, and a sanitary suspense. Ah look at the cute piggies.

Bam, cut to a butcher’s knife chopping through some anonymous chunk of animal corpse. One second cute piglet, next second a farmers market and dinner for some family.

This documentary then cuts to a pleasant Asian women talking to to the camera. There’s no sound, so she could be discussing the future of world peace in Africa, the art of Owen Wilson films, or the joy of slaughtering piglets. Frankly, I am assuming it is the latter. We continue to watch more scenes from Chinese markets as mysterious chunks of creatures are pulled out of woks, women plucking birds, and dogs running around scavenging for snacks and litter mates, sometimes both at the same time.

Keep in mind this is displayed on banks of televisions scattered around the plane. It’s also on some kind of demented loop. I’ve caught this documentary several times.

The broadcast hits keep on rolling

crazyfamily
There was one particular stretch of joyous images that occurred during our meal time. Which reminds me of a particular Thanksgiving memory at the Drake house. We were gathered around the table waiting to dive into the feast.

Naturally the television was  on and for some reason it was tuned to a surgery channel instead of the normal Three’s Company marathon. Just as the food was starting to be dished out, a doctor cut open a tumorous organ and a gallon of black bile poured onto the surgical table. Yum, pass the gravy.

So, while I’m diving into my vegetarian in fight meal, the community televisions start displaying a series of bloody images. Tibetans were getting slaughtered, cartoon detectives were shooting bad guys, piglets turned into meat chunks, and the toddler next to me is making his toy ambulance crash into his toy cement mixer. “Would you like some bread with your meal?” You betcha!

The long trip to powder the nose

The frail older lady next to me needed to powder her nose a couple hours ago. This procedure involved several people as we jockeyed positions to make sure she had a clear shot to the bulkhead. Her companion assisted her. Just as she finally gets out of her seat and is heading towards the powder room, passengers from the forward section jump into the toilets and she’s forced to wait for an opening. One of the stewardesses assisted her to the premium lounges. She made it back in good shape and is now sleeping soundly.

And then Little Betty died

Little Betty is the name of my new laptop; a tiny toy of a thing made by Asus. Unfortunately, the battery died mid flight and I wasn’t able to finish documenting this flight. There were several inbred teenagers that liked to hangout at the free sodas in front of my seat. I could describe them for hours. Alas, my post-flight haze is kicking in and they’ll have to escape the brutal knife of my razor sharp wit.

London really is the capital of bad food

I’m on the Eurostar returning to Paris from a busy trip to London. I cannot remember another week in my life when I consistently ate horrid food. I’m talking really, really bad.

I mentioned this to my buddy Glen who remarked: London restaurants make good food as good as any city in the world. But they are the best at making awful food. Amen, glory hallelujah, and pass the bread.
London Cityscape at night
It’s truly amazing my stomach and tongue didn’t go on strike and leave me stranded. I even tried to find good places. I walked for seemingly miles among the west end looking for a new place that had good food. But over and over, i ended up on the short end of the fork.

I will say that my hotel’s breakfast bar had edible food. But when the culinary highlight of the day is medium strength coffee, toast, and Weetabix, you know something is going down the wrong way. It’s a good thing I was on a business trip. I kept the receipts for the expense report and they remind me of such lovely meals.

Day one: Canela – a Portuguese/Brazilian cafe.

This was an easy place, they are across the street from the hotel, it was late, I was hungry, I bit the bullet. Their vegetarian options were pretty sparse, so I got the vegetarian lasagna with salad and a plantain dessert thing. The lasagna wasn’t bad before it took a ride in the microwave express for 5 minutes. Throw some salad on this nuclear lunch and you’ve got a slab of pasta/cheese with broccoli, smothered with wilted salad and dressing. YUMMMY! Fortunately, this was filling enough for me to save the plantain thing for later, oh how lucky…

Day two: Yahoo! cafeteria and Sartaj Limited

The Yahoo! cafe had a lovely serving of pasta with veggies and tomato sauce. It wasn’t awful, just typically British and mediocre. I think this sums up a lot of the food I eat in London. It’s edible and mediocre. You forget what you ate 30 minutes later. Unless you end up burping the flavor every 30 minutes; like today’s unfortunate falafel wrap. *burp*

Dinner was at Sartaj Limited. The menu promised unique Balti food, a rare cuisine in India. I figured, what the heck. It couldn’t be bad. Everyone says you can get good indian food in London. Which is true. You can also get some horrible Indian food in London. Like the Hari Krishna cafe on the last trip where everything tasted like it was cooked in dish detergent. At least it was all you can eat.

But I digress, let’s savor the flavor of Sartaj. I asked the waiter what was so special about the cuisine and why were they the only ones to provide such a service outside of India? The answer: we serve it in the cooking dish, a small wok.

Stop the presses! I think we have a true culinary revolution! They serve the food in the food in the iron skillets that they cook in. Now that is novel! Have I ever had anything like that before? Oh yeah, every truckstop dive in America has their skillet eggs and potatoes. But those dives are not Sartaj!

So, I told the guy I would like the quintessential vegetarian Balti dish. Did I mention I was the only customer for about 40 minutes? I also ordered some variation of naan, raita, and water.

He asked if I liked it hot. I chuckled and said “does the pope shit in the woods?“. Of course I like it hot, I grew up on the Mexican border. Make me sweat, make my nose run, make me beg my momma for mercy, give it to me hot and hard,… ooh, maybe I’m giving away too much information…

The waiter gave me a single glass of water, about three gulps worth and left to chat with the other person working in the cafe. Remember, there are no other customers in sight. After a while, I get the fabled iron skillet of Balti legend. It’s a mixture of onions, peppers, and onions with a spicy broth. The raita is yogurt with a chopped cucumbers on top and the naan had some kind of greasy, pressed creature inside it.

Hold me back, I knew I was in for some dining pleasure with this.
On the train to London
I will say the food was spicy and i appreciated the snot dripping out of my nose and flavoring the dish. I had to mix in some raita to soothe my rapidly eroding tongue as the water lasted about three bites. The creature inside the naan started to look like Bambi and the waiter was nowhere to be seen.

I’m a bit of a silent sufferer. I’d rather sit in the chair and stew in a pool of self pity than get up and pour myself another glass of water or steal a napkin from one of the many empty tables for my waterfall of a snotty nose.

After the dish was finished, I started to cough, sniffle, and read my book until the waiter decided it was time to acknowledge me again. That’s ok, he was busy with the other customers, no wait, I was the only one.

This meal was edible, as spicy as I requested, and not the same ol’ same ol’. I’ll give it that. Besides, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d eaten that day. I walked around the area for a while and decided it was time to hit the hotel and finish that lovely plantain thing from the night before.
Durward
Let me start by describe this thing visually. Imagine a soft cake/pie with layers of plantains (a starchier, less sweet cousin of bananas). It reminded me of a gingerbread/plantain tart. How could such an exotic dish go so bad? I took one bite of this lovely piece of goodness and nearly broke a tooth on the top plantain, while my lower jaw made its way north through something best described as brown semi-solid goo. It had no flavor and reminded me of legos in mud. Yummy, give this one to Durward!

Day 3: Questo the Italian Buffet and Diana’s Diner

I grew up with buffets. I was the youngest of six kids and a night out for our family included a trip to the smorgasbord, where kids ate free. My mom always had healthy advice for us: “Skip the salads and head straight for the meats and desserts. Load up on the expensive stuff!”
Mom
I love buffets, from the good, the mediocre, and the bad. You’re gonna get crap, you pay too much, but oh what a selection! I remember people fighting over hamburger patties, cut in half, with a slice of cheese on them at Hometown buffet. That’s the spirit a buffet should inspire. Give me more dammit and don’t you dare take my fifth serving of canned peas!

So, I couldn’t pass up an Italian buffet with promises of pasta and pizza. I instantly thought of my friend, moo, who would join me at Shakeys for the pizza buffet. He would actually visit the vomitorium to get rid of the first batch so that he could continue going through the buffet lines another hour. It’s all about getting your $4.99’s worth of grub.

I walked into Questo and saw the enormous buffet after sitting down. It stretched from one end of the wall to another. Unfortunately, that wall was only 4 feet long. I ordered the buffet (approx. $12) and a Pepsi (approx. $4) and asked where the pizza was. “Oh, the pizza is extra, that’s not included) 16 bucks for four feet of buffet and a Pepsi.

How bad could this food be? I honestly was driven to sample everything to find out what was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. It seemed like a challenge to find something with a satisfying texture or taste. The eggplant parmesan consisted of micro-waved eggplant with tomato sauce brushed on and two crumbs of mozzarella baking in a steam table, the pasta was decimated broccoli/cauliflower with white sauce and penne, there was a semi-solid polenta thing in ketchup, and dry basmati rice with a single stem of saffron waved over the pot during cooking. I was in hog’s heaven.

Just as I declared the polenta thing as the truly worst thing I’d eaten in 2 1/2 years, I noticed a customer going to another buffet bar in the back. Could it be? Am I lucky enough to try yet another treasure trove of culinary delight?

I grabbed my plate and headed for the promised land. I was amazed to see a salad buffet bar. But, do I go against my mother’s advice? Should I skip the salad and grab some ice cream from the freezer next to it? Nah, that’s not included. It’s another 4 bucks for a scoop. So, i marveled at the salads and started grabbing spoonfulls of pre-processed macaroni, egg, bean, etc salads.

The polenta remained on top as the worst dish. Frankly, it will take a truly hideous dish to knock that sucker off its throne. I only wish I had brought my camera to document the awards ceremony.

To top off this luxurious lunch, the cash register guy tacked on a mandatory tip and crossed out the “NOT” in the “SERVICE NOT INCLUDED” statement at the bottom of the receipt. They must have known I was cheap and would have left without some coin on the table. Don’t worry, you were not forgotten. :)

After the lunch, I was feeling a bit less than healthy. *falafel burp just happened* I wanted to tread lightly for dinner and settled on a tiny diner that looked like it belonged in a hippie movie. It was no-frill comfort food. I should have gone for a classic breakfast, but was tempted by a vegetarian risotto. How could this be bad?

I will say that the restaurant was pleasant, the people were nice, it was very affordable, and I did enjoy my meal for what it was worth. I got a salad and the risotto. It’s just a shame to call it risotto. It should have been called veggie stew and rice. They used long grain rice instead of the stubby, starchy stuff of risotto legend. So, I’m giving them a pass. The place was pleasant the food was perfectly mediocre, not over-priced, and didn’t leave me burping risotto for the next two days.

Day 4 Yahoo! catering and Browns bar and restaurant

I was in a big meeting day 4 and 5 and Yahoo brought in trays of snacks and sandwiches to quench our hunger. I hadn’t slept well the night before. It was probably the polenta getting its revenge. For some reason I was also hungry all day long and kept grabbing cookies, snacks, and coffee in the morning. By noon, I was ready for something with protein and tried the egg salad triangles and tomato-cheese finger thingies. Once again, perfectly mediocre and hardly satisfying. But it’s all good once you’ve eaten enough brownies, diet coke, and cookies.
Yahoo! Din Din in London

Afterwards, the meeting participants went out for a real dinner. Some Browns restaurant. It was almost forgettable due to it’s perfectly edible food that actually had taste and texture. I actually licked the plate clean. No, really. I was that impressed. I picked up the plate and began licking it clean, first the front and then the back.

Day 5: More Yahoo! catering and attack of the killer falafel, scone and potential pizza.


The second day of the meeting also had an assortment of cookies, snacks, and tea sandwiches. I prepared for this spread by having a large breakfast at the hotel. I skipped the Weetabix and went for eggs, hash browns, and mushrooms. Yep, they eat mushrooms for breakfast in England, those silly chaps.

The catering was unremarkable and less than filling. So, I figured I would get something for the ride back to Paris. I should have gone to a decent sandwich shop by turning left at the office door. But no, I had to make a right and go towards Soho and the land of bad takeouts. I stopped at the first falafel place and ordered a sandwich to go. I spotted some pizza with corn as a topping and thought that would be good if I was absolutely desparate on the Chunnel and didn’t feel like eating my shoe.

I knew I was in trouble when he dropped a ball of falafel and it bounced off the floor and landed back in his hand. He promptly placed a few of these super bouncy balls in the microwave to heat up. Oh yes, this was going to be good. These were wrapped in a large pita with a shmear of hummus a tease of flavor and a hint of taste. I asked for the pizza to be left cold, no need to heat up this wonder.

Needless to say, the falafel was really awful. It wasn’t as bad as the polenta from earlier in the week, but truly bad. I’ve been burping this chickpea-garlic flavor for the past few hours. *falafel burp*
Scary pizza from London
I was starting to thing twice about the pizza sitting in my luggage. Could I really be hungry enough to eat it? I’d better not chance it, so I bought a scone at Le Pain Quitodien. This restaurant is actually pretty good. It’s a chain of bakery/cafe’s. Leave it to me to buy the worst thing in the cafe. The scone was bad. It was flavorless and dry. Perhaps I’m jaded. I’ve been spoiled by the sublime scones at Rebecca’s in San Diego. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out today’s scone was a bomb.

So, now I sit on the train heading to Paris. I’ve got a piece of scary pizza in my luggage, I’m burping falafel from lunch, and writing about a week of truly bad food. I can’t wait until my next trip to London.

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Now playing: Mogwai – Acid Food

Jerry Springer in Paris

I have a cold right now. It’s nothing major, just annoying. Yesterday I took two antihistamines and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up to something oddly familiar… Jerry Springer on the TV! I have never heard such sweet poetry to my ears.

Jerry SpringerI’ve been in Paris for 6 weeks now and starting to miss the truly tasteless entertainment I called my life in California. I love Jerry Springer and now I’ve got him talking to me about women sleeping with their boyfriend’s brother. Pinch, me I think I’m dreaming.

New vocabulary

This veritable Louvre of Television culture is showing 3 hours of commercial free Jerry Springer, punctuated by an episode of Urkel?! I have learned so many new words. I can now say “You fat cow”, “you inbred son of a bitch”, and “only when I’m drunk.” But the best word I learned was Salope!, french for the chant “Whore!” that you hear so often on his show.

Yes, everytime a woman disclosed her affair with the guys 3 brothers, you’d hear the audience chanting “whore! whore! whore!” and the screen shows “Salope! Salope! Salope!” in the captioning.

However, salope doesn’t have the same gutteral power. It sounds more like a woman in the old testament that squeezed a rock and produced cheese.

On the road again

I’m writing this while on the Eurostar to London for a few days of meetings. The train is flying past small towns in France on its way to Calais and a big hole we know as the Chunnel. It’s a nice journey, I think this is the fourth time I’ve made this trip.

The Paris Strike

Well, the strike is still going on. The first day wasn’t too bad. I walked and walked and rode my little scooter. I survived the day surprisingly well. It turns out that the metros and buses are still running, just not at full strength. This brings a different dimension to the strike.

At first, I thought it was just a matter of building up endurance for the journey. As the strike continues, I’m building up my patience. You see it’s not about physical exertion, rather mental exhaustion.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
There are two main metro lines that run fairly steadily. One is all automatic and doesn’t require a driver. It goes at full schedule. The other is the main metro. It cuts across Paris and carries the majority of the traffic. It runs at 50%. The other metro lines and buses run at different levels of service from 20% to not at all.

I can easily take my first metro, the automatic one. But it only takes me 60% of the journey. Normally I’d take the #3 metro and it’s a simple journey. However, the #3 is only running at 10%. That means I could wait in the metro stop for an hour. When that train finally arrives people will be stuffed like sardines in it. So, that’s not really an option.

There’s a bus that goes from the stop to my work. But it is at quasi-null status. That leaves me with grabbing a bike to ride uphill, taking another metro to another station and walking, taking a taxi, or just walking. Usually, I just walk the distance, about 3 miles. Today, I took a cab because I didn’t know when I was leaving for London and didn’t want to arrive to the office too late. The line for the cab was 1 hour. If the strike continues next week, I think I’ll walk up to the beginning of the #1 line and take it across the city. It’s about 2 miles walk to the station and then 1 mile from the final stop to my work. I could always grab a bike at either station.

Paris has 20,000 community bikes in the city. That’s why I keep saying that I can grab a bike. Every metro stop and most major intersections have a computerized bike station where you can rent a bike. It’s free for the first 30 minutes and 1 euro for each 30 minutes afterwards.

Tonight, I gave myself about 1 1/2 hours to get from work to the train station. It took almost 2 hours and I missed my train. We were stuck on one street for about 30 minutes. I thought I was in Los Angeles for a while. It would have been about a 20 minute journey on the metro if there wasn’t a strike.

In general, I’d say the strike hasn’t been that difficult. The weather has been cold, but the availability of minimal service has kept us from freezing. I’m just glad I wasn’t here a decade ago when the strike went for three weeks in December with snow.

Patience.

That’s a virtue you learn quickly in France. In fact, it couldn’t come fast enough.
the transit strike pose
I have been waiting for bank stuff, a phone, internet, stuff to arrive, the traffic to move, the waiter to bring a check, the metro to arrive, the bus to arrive, the weather to warm up… Just as I get frustrated I remember that I’m not in California and some things simply move at a slower pace.

Jean-Pierre was telling me that in France you take time to relax, to take a deep breath, to spend time with family, the arts, yourself. I was complaining about stores closed on Sunday. He was telling me that they should be closed, the people that work there need the time for their life as well. It’s about not burning yourself out as fast as possible and enjoying your life.

Health check and immigration interview

All immigrants to France have to take a health exam before getting their residency. France provides health care for everyone. Yeah, can you imagine that? Health care for everyone. It’s still unimaginable. So they want to find problems before they develop. They give you an eye exam, chest xray, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc. I came out well. I was expecting some high blood pressure after my stressful week, but I was right on target. My blood sugar was low as I didn’t have time to eat before the appointment. (I celebrated with a slice of coconut flan!)

They also interviewed me to see if I needed any assistance or education. I got a certificate saying that I passed the basic level of French comprehension. They offer 300 hours of free classes to learn the language. I need to take a test to evaluate my experience and then arrange to attend classes. I need to learn past and present tense and to improve my writing ability. Otherwise, I need to watch more television and talk in French whenever possible.

French TV

Victoria Silvstedt French TV has taken some of the worst elements of American TV and amplified them. My favorite is Wheel of Fortune. The Vanna White is a blonde with enormous boobs, low cut dress, and a jack russel terrier. Whenever the game gets boring, they cut the cameras to her bending over to pet the dog. I’m not kidding! Vanna White is flashing the audience!

They also have the requisite talent shows and other silly games. The channel I watch mostly is Arte. It is filled with art, travel, cinema, and science. It’s like the A&E/Bravo/Sundance channels. Pretty soon, my internet/tv/phone package will begin working and I’ll have 300 bad television channels to select from. I can’t wait to watch semi trucks slalom race in Sweden.

Food

For the most part, my eating in France has been uneventful. As you know, I’m cheap. Really cheap. It’s even worse when my French debit card wasn’t working and I had to use my American account. Ted + US Dollar + Europe = Very Cheap.
So, I’ve eaten a bunch of cheese sandwhiches, fruit, bread, fruit, cereal, and a bit more fruit and cheese sandwiches. I have gone out with co-workers and friends. Just not that often.

If a company in Paris doesn’t have a cafeteria, they have to provide meal allowances for their employees. At the beginning of the month, we get a book of 8 euro coupons that can be spent on a warm meal at a local restaurant. It’s a great deal, however I didn’t get a book in November :(. That means Ted has to spend money on lunch and he is too cheap for that. Don’t get me wrong, I have money in the bank to pay for it. I’m just too damn cheap to spend it.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to receive my December allowances. I’ll be downright giddy.

Markets

As you’ve read, I’ve been to the flea market. There’s also a farmers market outside my apartment twice a week, on the way to the metro once a week, and next to Jean-Pierre’s house twice a week. Parisians don’t go to Price Club and stock up. They buy what’s needed for a few days and eat fresh food all of the time.
Organic food at the market
Saturday, Jean-Pierre and I went to his market. I bought some adorable potatoes. They look like russets, but are about the size of two grapes. I’ll roast them with some olive oil, onions, mustard, and chevre one night. I also bought a bunch of apples to snack on. I’ve got about a pound left, so I may make some apple sauce when I return from London.

Yesterday there was a market in front of my house for food and goods made outside of Paris. It was a really nifty market. I bought a pair of brightly colored striped mohair socks and a dark blue pair as well. I also bought some booze for a christmas gift, a beeswax candle, some bran muffin-like cakes filled with jam (for the London trip), and Aligot.
More Aligot
I’ve been dying to try aligot since I first heard of this incredibly stringy cheese dish. It’s very difficult to make, as you mix this special cheese with boiled potatoes and stir until both arms fall off. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as stringy as pizza. However, it was a great meal on the cold day. It tasted like a very rich mashed potato dish.

Back to the chunnel

I’m under the English channel right now. There’s not much to see. Just darkness and the occasional light on the side. They used to announce it. I must have missed it. I’m listening to my iPod and the Ethel Mermans disco record was blaring. No, really, I love my Ethel Merman disco record. Or is it Durward’s?

Keep an eye on these web sites for more adventures

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Now playing: Elvis Presley – I’m A Roustabout
via FoxyTunes