Monday, August 26, 2013

Flying's not what it used to be

Waiting in line for take-off at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
Taking a flight somewhere used to be fun.  It used to be exciting.  Now it’s just a stressful drudge.
     The first flight I took was when I was 3 months old.  And I’ve been doing it ever since.  So have my children.  My daughter’s first flight was at age 6 months and my son’s at an elderly year and a half.  But it’s not child’s play anymore; it’s deadly serious.  And airlines aren’t giving out little pilot’s wing pins to wee passengers any more either... sometimes not even a few crummy crayons (usually three - the primary colors - so I guess technically that means six).
     It’s also exhausting.  And I’m not even in the air yet.
     So here’s a word to the wise for those traveling on a long-distance flight out of Paris Roissy Airport (otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle, or just CDG):  wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers.
     And when they tell you to show up 2½ hours ahead of your flight?  Do it!

I ordered a taxi in advance.  10:30 for a 1:30 flight.  I live in the north of Paris - Montmartre - otherwise I would have added another half hour to that.
     The taxi ride was the easy part.  The driver was talkative and smiley, which is not always a combination you get in Parisian taxi drivers.  I told him the history of the ancient cedars at the airport and he told me that the fairly-new Paris soccer stadium (the one that looks like a flying saucer) may be razed because it’s losing money.  You learn something new every day.
     We got to the airport in good time.  It was about 11:00 when I came through the doors of Terminal 2E, which handles most long-haul planes.  And then the drill began.  I’ll try to summarize it for you, so you’ll know what to expect.

Hurdle 1 - Get a boarding pass
     Although you now have to check in on-line ahead of time in France (as of last year), I had opted to just confirm and have the boarding pass waiting for me at the airport.  Next time I’ll print it out in advance.  That way I think I could avoid this step (but I’m not sure).  There are many machines on which to check yourself in and only one or two people to help, if you need or want help (because all this used to be done for you at the check-in counter - which you still have to go to just the same - and I resent doing someone else’s job and not getting paid for it... but that’s another subject for another day).  So as I was saying, jammed in a finite space are many airplanes-worth of passengers and only one or two agents.  It’s pandemonium.  But as crazy as this is, it’s the easy part.  Then you move on to...

Rat Maze 1 - Registering your luggage
     Although I travel light, having a closet of clothes already at either end of the trip, purses now count as one of your two authorized pieces of cabin “luggage”, and I also have a computer so I’m up to my limit with just that... although I know there are people who unload their camel at the door to the plane and arrive with far more than the authorized two items.  So it means that I have to check my small "carry-on" bag.  I’m working on a solution to this which would involve not bringing anything for anyone else, not even gifts, and even as a favor.  Seems a bit Grinch-y, but...
     This phase involves winding back and forth between those drawn ribbons, which is why I call it a rat maze.  And bigger planes mean more passengers, ergo longer lines.  Once you reach the counter, it’s a piece of cake.  Your bag disappears and you’re left with a heavy computer bag to schlepp on your shoulder instead of hitching it to the wheel-able bag which is fast disappearing down the conveyor belt, hopefully destined for your flight and not the flight to Hong Kong.

Now you get some exercise because you hit the slalom course through the airport hall, congested with people with cartloads of suitcases and screaming children chased by shouting parents.  There used to be a quiet short-cut, but it’s been sealed off since my winter trip, probably in a continuing attempt to prevent extraneous, and sometimes ill-intentioned people, from getting past the departure hall.
     Then you hit the major snag:

Rat Maze 2 - Passport control
     If you’re not crew and you’re not Special, you file into a bottleneck comprised of all the other people traveling steerage.  And that means more back-and-forth trudging between those same damn crowd-control ribbons.  The maze is 13-layers deep here, and the passenger population so dense that the speed at which you advance is brought almost to a standstill.  This is the perfect time to bring out those headphones and plug into your iTunes, or make any number of last minute calls.  By the time you make it through the maze, you’ll recognize so many of the faces of the strangers in the line that you’ll think you’ve just gone through Freshman Rush.  There was one dyed-blonde Japanese lady whom I’d be able to pick out of any crowd anywhere, and probably for the rest of my life.
     While you stew in your juices (figuratively and, by now, literally), you’re subjected to advertising for all the brands you’ll find further on in the duty-free area, if and when you ever make it that far, as well as informative programs on large screens overhead.  The one I enjoyed the most was  a drawing of a cart with a ham hock, a chicken ready to roast and a hunk of cheese, each with a big red X across it, and a heading informing you in French and English that “Diseases don’t recognize borders”.
     When you reach the last two zigzag rows, you feel as elated as if you’d won the lottery.  Then you start counting down.  Only 7 more people and then me, only 6, only 5...  Reaching the stern face of the border police behind their plate of glass is almost a bit of a let-down.  All that crescendo for just a fleeting glance and a rubber stamp on your passport.
Terminal 2E - Building B
     Once through there, a look at your watch tells you it’s already noon.  It’s taken one hour to get this far.  Now if you’re really lucky you’ll be headed for one of the K gates, because they’re right there, behind the border police.  If not, it’s off down a side hallway to the monorail shuttle.  First stop, L gates - this is the extension they had to build when part of Terminal 2E collapsed shortly after opening.  While they repaired it, people were sent to a Lego-like building erected almost overnight, and that's L Building.  If you’re leaving from one of the M gates, like I am, stay on the shuttle until the next stop, the latest addition... for the time being.  Then go up the escalator and into...

Rat Maze 3 - Security
     Here you’re greeted by huge signs that inform you that “Influenza H1N1 is rampant in China”, in case that’s where you’re headed, as many seem to be, judging by the fact that they’re Orientals speaking Mandarin.  (Unless it’s Cantonese; I’m sketchy on Chinese.)  Then you’re literally herded to different sections of the maze, whose crowd-control ribbons are reconfigured by a human Cerberus as new passengers appear.  You’re met with a large screen overhead that warns you of things that could happen to you, or things not to do.  For instance, you’re not allowed to have knives or guns.  Who the hell doesn’t know that already?
     The back-and-forth lines here are long, but only four-deep, so you feel like a winner.  You see some of the same faces from Rat Maze 2 and feel you should probably say hello, shake hands and exchange addresses, but you’re pretty tired of all this by now so you don’t.  You take off earrings, empty pockets and still set off the alarm because your bra has an underwire, so you win a pat-down.  When the French TSA lady had me turn around and started on my back, I asked her to scratch a little lower because I had an itch... and she actually laughed!  Personally, I was amazed I could still muster up a sense of humor by this point.  In spite of my special computer case with the viewing window, I had to take out my computer, and even my external hard drive.  At the end of the line, people just left their empty trays on the conveyor belt so it all backed up into the x-ray machine.  I decided to do my Good Deed of the Day and piled them up off the belt.  Well, it also allowed me to recover my computer so...  But the x-ray lady thanked me anyway.
Duty-free, with Vietnamese air crew
     Now you're free to go spend all your money in the duty-free shops and buy things for all the people back home who haven’t had all this fun.  But wait!  It’s not over!  You still have...

Rat Maze 4 - Boarding
     This you can skip, if you decide to wait until everyone else has boarded.  Of course you run the risk of not having any space in overhead for your computer and all those gifts you just bought in duty-free, but hey.  I tried to fake an injured foot - which actually it was because of that skateboard a kid slammed into my foot last night at the railroad station - but they weren’t equipped to deal with that at the gate; I should have thought of it earlier and rode to glory in a wheelchair.  I remember my father doing that, but he looked - and was - older than I am.  Still, I just may try that next flight.
     Which will come all too soon, given my present state of mind.

So please heed my warnings.  Flying isn’t fun any more.  Even if you don’t have a fear of flying and your flight is terrorist-free and doesn’t get hijacked (a once true and present danger that seems to be passé now).  Of course, Air France does offer free champagne and after-dinner drinks once you’re actually up in the air - a detail to be remembered when choosing an airline.  It’s just the getting airborne that isn’t fun any more.
     Bon voyage.

P.S.  CDG Airport has A/C, but it’s not up to cooling off this many people, in spite of the high ceilings, low outdoor temps and cloud cover.  Thus the admonition to wear layers.  You have been warned.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Last Tango for Paris Plage?

Paris used to be desperately deserted in August, except for the tourists.  Parisians fled, seeking refuge from the capital's heat and humidity for a summer rental or grandparents' homes in the country.  Everyone, that is, but those who had no rural relatives and couldn't afford to rent a place in the mountains or by the sea... or anywhere else, for that matter.
     Then came Paris Plage.
     In 2001, Paris elected the first Socialist mayor of the French capital.  He came on the heels of two right-wing mayors:  the unpopular one-term Jean Tiberi, who was shooed in by his predecessor Jacques Chirac when he moved on from City Hall to the French President's mansion.
     Delanoë was not only a Socialist, but also openly homosexual and living with his partner.  Many Parisians seemed dubious that he would prove the right fix for the job.  Then he started doing things.
     One of the first things Delanoë did was to create the newest beach resort of France:  Paris Plage.  And it was free.  The facilities were a blessing for all those who couldn't afford to go elsewhere.  At first it involved merely closing the riverside expressways to cars and turning the space over to people, complete with some games and entertainment.  The following year sand was trucked in.  Then the following year full-grown palm trees were added, and sprinkler systems for cooling off.  Now there's much more, including a floating swimming pool and a ferry to take people back and forth between the two banks.  In 2007, the beach alongside the Seine River was joined by a second site in the working class 19th arrondissement along the Bassin de la Villette.
     This year the month-long party ran from July 20th to August 18th.  As I write this, workers have been shoveling sand back into dump trucks all night long. It's the last year Delanoë will be mayor of Paris.  He says he won't run for re-election next spring.  People wonder what the future holds for this summer beach party, although doing away with it would probably cause a second revolution.  Hopefully, Paris Plage is here to stay.
     Here's a rework of a previous story I wrote on it.

After a freezing winter and an equally grim spring followed by a chilly month of June, summer finally came to Paris in time for Paris Plage.  Thousands strolled the banks of the Seine, getting a tan on the sandy beaches laid over two lanes of concrete.
     Some people elected to sunbathe outside of the sanded perimeter... which is what people do along the Seine throughout the summer anyway. But hard cobblestones are no match for sand when you want to be comfortable, so they were in the minority. Most sunbathers were stretched out between the ultimate romantic bridge, the delicate Pont des Arts, and the Pont de Sully at the far end of the Ile St. Louis, a distance of 2½ km (1½ mile).

While adults were basically just basting and roasting themselves, children could build sand castles, watch a clown twist balloons into shapes, play paddleboard, romp on a huge adventure playground or explore Disney’s replica of its famed Enchanted Castle. Of course there were buskers: a shapely blonde who belly-danced while playing with flaming swords and two young men giving a capoiera demonstration, among many others who came and went.

And in front of City Hall, the square had been turned into a football field where children were learning how to dribble footballs and shoot goals into huge inflated nets.

At the second beach along the Bassin de la Villette, more fun was being had, minus the tourists because this is a part of the city they haven't discovered yet.  I lived here for six years and although it was already a favorite with young bikers, couples strolling, and groups of friends picnicking, it was nothing like this.  All along the west side and halfway back down the east sand had been carted in and chaise longues and folding beach chairs plunked down - free, first come first served. But there were more activities here than along the Seine. Games for young and old alike: pétanque (French bocce ball), pingpong, babyfoot tables (fussball, in English - even though that’s German!), a train ride, and the cherry on the cake: a wave machine for kids to surf!
Because of the heat, and because it probably isn’t wise to swim in this water - although some teenagers like to jump in at the far end - there was a mist machine to cool people down... mostly kids, but I once saw a very chic-looking sixty-something woman all in white walking through it. And there was a multi-tap drinking water dispenser on either side of the canal, just to make sure no one keels over from dehydration.  (The same thing existed along the Seine as well, both installed by the Paris drinking water service.)
Water was the highlight here. As there is very little barge traffic remaining on the canals that feed into either end of the Bassin, water activities were everywhere. With many Chinese in this neighborhood, someone organized dragon boat races in 2011 and they've been held ever since. There was a sailboat to teach apprentice sailors how to navigate, being careful to miss all the rented pedal-boats, kayaks and canoes. And one big favorite was the large inflated hamster cages in florescent colors that twirl across the water as you walk inside them or float with the waves and wind.
Sunday was the last day of Paris Plage for this summer.  With a possible change in political party serving as mayor next summer, no one knows if the sand and palm trees have been carted away for the last time and whether the beach will become but a wistful memory. Has Bertrand Delanoë set up something lasting that will endure beyond his "reign"?  Will the riverside remain closed to traffic along some of its length, or will his replacement turn it back over to cars?  No one knows.
     But at least one more summer has been made more bearable for Paris.  And definitely more colorful.

You can see more coverage of this in two previous blogs:  
- July 20, 2011 - Sous les pavés, la plage
- August 21, 2011 - Paris Plage:  the sequel

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Recipe of the Month: Poivrons grillés

At the height of its colonial days, France’s empire, like that of Great Britain, stretched around the world.  While a 19th century Englishman could proudly boast that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, it could also be said that its rays were always shining on the French flag somewhere as well.
     For openers, there was a huge swath of Africa flying the bleu-blanc-rouge.  Some of the French possessions were included in what was called French West Africa:  Mali, Niger, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Dahomey (now Benin), Mauritania, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Gambia.  There was also French Equatorial Africa:  Chad, Gabon, Cameroon, the French Congo and the Central African Republic.  Plus parts of East Africa, mainly the huge island of Madagascar but also Djibouti, tiny but strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
     In India, France ruled “trade counters” that each French schoolchild had to be able to rattle off by heart:  Chandernagor, Pondichery, Yanam, Mahe and Kankal.  And then there were the islands linking Africa and the Subcontinent: Réunion, Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Comoros (including Mayotte, which voted recently to remain part of France).
     In the Far East, France also had “trade counters” in China, such as in Shanghai, as well as Japan.  But chiefly it held Indochine, later to become Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Plus islands farther off still, which remain part of France’s Overseas Territories even today:  Tahiti, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and the Marquesas, where Gauguin and Jacques Brel both chose to live and die.  Not to mention a scattering of islands in the Southern Ocean, including the far-flung outpost of the Kerguelens (also aptly called the Desolation Islands).
     There were also places it “held in trust” for more than two decades in the Middle East:  Lebanon, Syria and parts of what would become Israel.
     Continuing around the globe into the Western Hemisphere, France held parts of Brazil for a while, as well as all of Mexico under Napoleon III. French Guiana on the north coast of South America is still an overseas “state” of France - like Hawaii is to the U.S.A. - and home to France’s space launches at the base in Kourou.
     In North America there was New France, which it ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht (think of Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline”).  Yet French is still spoken there, being one of Canada’s two official languages, and French influence can be felt throughout the provinces of Québec and the Maritimes. Somehow St. Pierre and Miquelon, islands off Canada’s east coast, are still an integral part of France... the very coldest part.  As for the United States, most of the land between the Mississippi and the Rockies belonged to France until it was sold - as the Louisiana Purchase - to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 for a pittance - less than 42 cents per acre!  What’s more, the Napoleonic Code, created by Bonaparte to rule France after the French Revolution, is still the basis for state laws in Louisiana.  Lastly, the islands of the Caribbean: Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin’s, St. Bart’s - all of which are still France. And then there was Haiti, the crown jewel France sought to retain with Jefferson’s money,... yet lost just the same.

But the colonies France kept the longest lay just to its south, across the Mediterranean in Northern Africa.  While Tunisia and Morocco were granted their independence in 1956, Algeria had to wait six more years, most of them in bloody rebellion, until its independence.  For a while Algeria had been a département, an overseas “state” of France, again like Hawaii is to the United States, rather than just a territory like Puerto Rico.  It was a part of France and its citizens were French by birth... but not all equal.  Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, it took a long, bloody war for France to let go of Algeria, and the many deaths incurred on both sides partially explain any present-day animosity between the French and the Algerians.
     I tell you all this because I learned this recipe, such as it is, from a pied-noir, which means Blackfoot.  In France, that’s not a Native American tribe... unless you’re reading a Lucky Luke comic book. It’s a person of French or European origin born in Algeria during the colonial period.  Given the dates, there are few of them left, but the term  - and the accent - remain.
     This particular person left Algeria when France gave the nation its independence - or when Algeria won its independence, depending on how you look at it.  That was in 1962.  He moved across the Mediterranean.  But just barely.  He opened a restaurant in Port Leucate, on the sand spit between Narbonne and the Spanish border.  It’s really just a marina with no history predating 1960, made up of only holiday condos and mooring for 1,200 pleasure boats, plus a few ship chandlers and a smattering of bar-restaurants, one of which was his.
     So here's the recipe, as he gave it to me.

  •      bell peppers (any color, but red is the sweetest)
  •      olive oil
  •      balsamic vinegar
  •      sea salt

- Brush the outside of the peppers with olive oil. Char them over an open flame so that the skin blisters.  It will take about 10 minutes.  A grill is handy here, but you can use a gas stove; it just makes a holy mess to clean up.
- When the peppers have cooled, remove the skin.  It should slip right off.  One trick is to put a cover over the peppers while they cool, so the steam makes the skin easier to remove.
- Cut the peppers open and remove the stem, seeds and filaments.  Cut into long strips.
- Place in a bowl and dress with some olive oil and a dribble of balsamic vinegar, plus salt to taste.  You can add some freshly-ground pepper if you want, and even some crushed garlic if you’re feeling particularly Mediterranean.

And there you have it.  A perfect accompaniment, especially on a hot day, for either grilled fish or meat.  And in well under a half-hour, depending on your peeling skills.  You can prepare it ahead of time and then go for a swim until it’s time to fire up the barbecue!
Happy August!

TIP:  If you don’t finish all the roasted peppers, you can chop the left-overs up and spread them on toasted slices of Italian or French bread to make bruschetta.  Or turn them into an easy, inexpensive and delicious salad dressing.  Just run them through the blender with 3 parts olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar and a bit of freshly-ground pepper.  Voilà!