Thursday, June 27, 2013

Down by the station

Aside from using your feet to get you from point A to B in Paris, there are a variety of other options offering that same service. During my stay, I took advantage of two: the bikes and the metro.

Unlike Amsterdam, where people steal a bike when they don't have one and want to get around, Paris has stations where people can borrow a bike when they don't have one and want to get around. With a small fee of 29 Euros for a yearly subscription, you're given a card to borrow any bike from any of the many stations around the city.  Et voila, your ride is free... for the first 30 minutes that is. Any longer, your card is charged. But with so many stations around, it's not a problem. Because when you're coming near your 30 minute mark, you deposit the bike in the nearest station, wait 10 minutes and take it again for yet another free 30 minute ride. It's as simple as that.

There are a few things to do when choosing a bike - before removing it from the stand. I like to call them the golden rules:

1. Check the appearance. Now's the time to judge a book by its cover.
2. Kick the tires.  (Not to be mean, but to see if they're full).
3. Ring the bell. Seriously. You'll need it.
4. Make sure the seat is adjustable and not stuck. Then adjust it accordingly.
5. Squeeze the breaks on the handle bars. You should know what good breaks feel like. If not, back off  and find another form of transportation.
6. Finally, pretend to take the bike out of its holder. No, not to see if you can steal it. You just want to make sure it's not jammed.

All that's left is to swipe the card on the reader next to the bike, wait for the light to turn green, and take the bike. Now you're ready to put your fate in the hands of Parisian drivers.

As nice as bikes are, though, the metro really is the most convenient option. They're punctual, quick, and easy to maneuver. Plus, there are two varieties offered: fast (RER) and slow (metro). The RER only goes to certain stations, cutting down the travel time since it doesn't stop as frequently. Although, it's only advantageous to those living near, or going to, one of the designated stations. The metro, by comparison, opens its doors at every stop - as you've clearly figured out by this point.

Like the bike system, transportation subscriptions are also offered for the underground - because no one wants to carry around a booklet full of single journey tickets. The caveat is as follows, though. Yes. There's always a caveat. The Navigo card (whether a weekly, monthly or yearly renewable subscription), must have a micro-photograph of the user attached to it, along with a signature. A micro-photograph is like a passport photo, but a quarter of the size.

Thing is, I didn't put much importance on the photo... or the signature. I figured, that way, I could leave it with the friends I was staying with. Then, one day while running late for school as I was transferring metros, I was stopped by a wall of transportation police at the Opera station. They were checking to see if people had tickets. I had my trusty Navigo card, so I wasn't worried.

I handed it over, ready for the guard scan it and hand it back so I could continue on my way. Instead, after scanning it, he flipped the card over and started talking to me in French. The translated version of the conversation is as follows:

Metro man - "You don't have a photo on here. You must pay 30 Euros."

Me - "What?"

Metro man - "You don't have a photo on here. That means you pay 30 Euros."

Note: I had spent over 65 Euros for the card.  He was asking me to spend 30 more.

Another note: Sometimes, when frustrated, I unwillingly cry.  Once such occasion occurred here.

So, to sum up thus far: I'm in a busy metro station, late for class, blocked by an aging transportation  agent demanding money, and my tear ducts decide to go into overdrive.

Me - "I... I... my French is not so good. I... Can I just get a photo now and put it on?"

Metro man - "No. You must pay 30 Euros."

Me - "I don't have 30 Euros with me."

Confession: I did have 30 Euros in my wallet. I hoped by lying I would get out of paying. Yes, I'm going to hell. But it didn't work anyway. See:

Metro man - "That's OK. We take credit card."

I pulled out my PIN card, grudgingly, and gave it to the agent. He placed it in the mobile card machine, punched some numbers, and turned it my direction to enter the pin.  The funny thing about my card in Paris is that it didn't always work - namely at select restaurants, and in the middle of a metro blockade. The agent tried twice. That beautiful thing just wouldn't allow my hard earned funds enter the hands of the money grubbing transportation company.

He asked for another card. I offered a credit card - of which I didn't know the pin for. But no pin, no transaction. I tried explaining, then grew tired of speaking French and used English, to his dissatisfaction. Another agent was called over. In English he said that since I was willing to pay, yet unable, I was set free. He directed me to a photo booth. The booth didn't accept my 5 Euro bill. I walked over to the nearest vender who traded paper for coinage. I deposited the money, chose a few onscreen options, then sat still as a statue waiting for the flash.

I stepped out of the booth and collected the photo sheet only to discover I chose the passport size instead of the micro version. I crumpled it up in my hand and left for class. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

the real Paris

"Just be careful going up there," I was told right before taking the metro to Porte de Clignancourt, the northern most stop on line 4.

I was running late, by 30 minutes. I hadn't realized the travel time would take as long as it had.  Each time I looked up from my watch, I noticed the demographics in the metro car had changed yet again. Once the doors opened at the final stop, I rushed into the station and over to our planned meeting spot. Before I got there, though, I saw Rinaldo and Daniel.

"Oh good! You guys haven't left me yet," I sighed. "So where is everyone else?"

"Well, Yanick is with his new boyfriend and Anna isn't here yet," Rinaldo explained.

"New boyfriend?"

"Yeah, he's in looooove, because although they just met, they can't stop talking."

I rolled my eyes and went up to the street where Yanick was.

"In this area, 17 people can live in a single apartment like that one right there," Rimsa pointed out to him.

Rimsa was 'the new boyfriend'.  He had accompanied his girlfriend on her way work and met Yanick on his way back to the metro to return home.

"He used to live in this area," Yanick informed me, "so he'll show us around that market Anna wanted us to go to."

As if on cue, Anna arrived...  Rinaldo and Daniel in tow.

The group naturally broke into pairs as we walked to the street market, with Rimsa by my side.

"This is the real Paris," he explained. "Most of the items at the market are stolen goods."

A few illegal immigrants walked in our path. They held out phone cards, sunglasses and the likes, pressuring us to purchase something. Rimsa smiled at them all and politely declined.

After crossing a street, he went on.

"See, on the left? Cocaine dealers." They sat, bunched together, against an iron gate.  "And there. Just in front of us. They're gambling."  A few people huddled around a cocktail table which had been turned into a street-side casino.

We walked a little further and crossed another street. A few stands into the market, Anna turned to me.

"This is not was I was expecting," she bemoaned. "I thought it was going to be more like Portobello Market in Notting Hill."

It was anything but. Instead it was a Made-In-China mecca. Each item looked as though it would break after the first use. But we walked around it all, since it was our only reason for venturing north.

At the last stand Daniel stopped to buy a 10 Euro memory card for his camera.

"They said you can test it to see if it works," Rimsa translated.

It didn't.

Instead of trying another card, Daniel asked for his money back. The vendor shoved the 10 Euro note Daniel had given him into one pocket, and from another pulled out a different bill - a transaction which occurred after I had walked away.

I turned back around to see Daniel holding the bill in the air, towards the sun. He and Anna were inspecting every last inch while asking Rimsa if he knew what fake money looked like. Apparently, it looks a lot like the one Daniel held in his hand.

"It's not like it really matters though," Rimsa told Daniel after a real 10 Euro bill was returned to him, "you could have gone into any of the shops around here and they would have accepted it."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

the cause of my poverty

Three or four years after my grandfather immigrated to the US, he was hired on as 2nd Vice Treasurer of an up and coming, sparsely known, amusement park. The genius behind the idea came from a pair of brothers who, years earlier, established a production company together. With the new venture, my grandfather was hired to help oversee the finances of it all.

Before the gates opened to the public, my 4 year old aunt tested rides that throughout the following decades would be enjoyed by millions upon millions of children, young and old.

But it was a family run company, my grandfather reasoned. He would never advance further than his current position, he assumed. So a few years after the launch and success of the park, he quit - thus squelching any opportunity for his posterity to become moguls in the Disney empire.

It also means that we have to pay the same astronomically priced entrance fee as every other peasant wanting to enter the world of magic and adventure.

Disney plays a part in our family's history though, and as such, we have an obligation to it. After all, some of my grandfather's ashes weren't scattered in the flower beds at the entrance of California's Disneyland by my aunt and mom for nothing.

So, with that obligation in mind, I implored a friend who was in town for the weekend to join me at the happiest place on earth. (Otherwise known as Disneyland Paris).

Although, truth be told... EuroDisney ain't all that.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Parlez vous Français?

Oui, je parle... un petit peu.

At least I do now. After three weeks of intensive courses and 20 hours worth of private lessons prior to my stay in 'Pair-eeee'.

I was nervous, though, before taking the initial placement exam at the language school. Complete beginners are allowed to start the course every other week. (Which sandwiched the week I started).

Per their website, a non-beginner is someone who has studied French for more than 125 hours. The hours of pre-Paris tutorage I received didn't even come close to the requirement. But, five minutes before my final private lesson concluded, my teacher taught me the basic principles behind the most used form of past tense: passé composé. And that, je pense, made all the difference. 

passé-composéd the heck out of my verbal exam, and apparently did a great job using a momentarily magical power of deduction on the multiple choice test. Because I was placed in a higher class level than I ever would have imagined. (Instead of the alternative... experiencing ridicule and shame for clearly disregarding what was advised online by arriving on a 'not for beginners' week).

And then, thanks to the similarities between Portuguese and French, along with the art of language feigning, I was placed in a more advanced class on a weekly basis. 

Donc, oui. Je parle. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

déjà vu

The first time I went to Paris, about 5 years ago, we rushed to as many touristic sites as possible in a two day timeframe. (A common occurrence when traveling with my mother). Suffice it to say, the experience wasn't the most enjoyable and I left thinking the city was only OK at best.

But I've recently come to discover, with a three week stint in the city, that Paris is like a fine piece of chocolate. (An analogy I'll use since I don't drink wine... besides, chocolate is amazing). To experience the rich flavor, in all its spectrums, it must be slowly savored and not downed in one bite. Because through savoring it, the city jumps from mediocre to magical.

Staying with friends in their amazing apartment near the Arc de Triomphe doesn't hurt either.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Split's Got Talent

From the moment I arrived in Zagreb, Travis and Natalie constantly spoke of the supermodel-like people of Croatia. I'd look around and wonder where all the beautiful men and women they spoke of were hiding. That is, until we reached Split. Every minute another person, who just stepped off the cover of Glamour or GQ, would cross our path. It provided a most insecure feeling. (And even thinking about it now makes me regret the large bowl of popcorn and M&M's I just ate).

But their blue-ribbon genes didn't end with their looks. Oh no, having a perfect body with stunning facial features clearly isn't good enough. For they have to one-up the world with their extraordinary singing abilities as well.