Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Vive le iPhone (sort of)

The new iPhone Apps make it easier than ever to create delightful artwork. Who needs a sketchbook?

IMG_0026, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

While I was in Paris, Apple came out with the much-anticipated iPhone 2.0 update. This allows you to download third-party applications to use on your phone. For example, I now have a drawing program on my iPhone that allowed me to capture this moment at a sidewalk café. Brilliant. Obviously, it's just a matter of time before the old-fashioned sketchbook goes the way of the dinosaur.

More challenging was the matter of using the phone as an actual phone. I thought I was going to be able to buy a pre-paid French SIM card and swap it into the iPhone, and in fact for a few days I was. To do this I had to download some gray-market software and perform what's called a jailbreak on the phone, which frees it from being locked into AT&Ts service. Needless to say, Apple and AT&T frown on jailbreaking. Unfortunately, when Apple provided the 2.0 update, it killed the jailbreak, so I was only able to use the iPhone as a wifi device and not as a phone (anyone want to buy a slightly-used French SIM card with 15 Euros left on it?). But in the end that worked out mostly fine, because there are a lot of spots with free wifi throughout the city, and once I got familiar with where they are (many of the parks, museums, and municipal buildings, not to mention the occasional McDonalds) I was able to check in on e-mail, post quick blog entries taken on the phone, see if Google maps could help me figure out where the hell I was, etc.

I won't waste space here detailing my thoughts on Apple's embarrassingly-named new MobileMe service, the supposed upgrade to dot-Mac, other than to say it's a hot mess, and many other blogs out there can give you the ugly details.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tasty cakes

Cakes in the window of the "artisan patisserie/boulangerie" across the street from my place.

Paris_Cakes, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I knew that if I added a review of French pastries to my in-progress surveys of French wine, bread, and cheese, there could be some serious repercussions girthwise. So, with very few exceptions, I completely avoided purchasing anything from the patisseries that wasn't a baguette. A couple things made this easier. For one, all those lovely dainty cakes and tartes are crazy expensive. Second, I am something of a confections philistine--for me dessert is really all about delivering chocolate to my bloodstream in the most concentrated form possible. Cremes and layers and flaky crusts are just complications. Even the budget-priced "pain chocolat" is too much about the "pain" and not enough about the "chocolat," in my opinion. If I'm going ingest those calories, I'd rather devote them purely to the chocolate and not the buttery pastry surrounding it.

That all changed when I tried a "pain suisse." The clever Swiss have upped the ante by adding a slathering of custard to the chocolate before folding over the pastry dough. Now it is no longer a croissant with some chocolate added as an afterthought. It is a performance-enhanced chocolate-creme tastebud bunker buster. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't know about these things until the last few days of my trip. I was able to limit my research to two samples, equally amazing, from two different patisseries.

And it's fortunate there were multiple patisseries in the neighborhood, because the one where I took this photo was the scene of another unfortunate language-gap mishap early in my trip. I had gone in to the store to buy a baguette, and I asked if they minded me taking photos of the pastries. After getting the green light to shoot, I commented jokingly that taking photos "costs less" than eating them, while patting my midsection. The owner asked if I liked the cakes, and if I was planning on "trying" them. I said most definitely, one day I'll try them, but "there are risks, so I'll venture forward prudently, ha ha." At this, she tersely explained that her husband had taken twenty years to learn how to properly make pastries and it wasn't something you just did. She was smiling, but her eyes flashed at me in anger. It was then I realized that she had misunderstood me and thought I was implying her cakes were overpriced so I was going to take the photos and go try to make my own cakes. I rushed to backpedal, but in France there is no such thing as a simple misunderstanding that you just laugh off, so I meekly bid them good day and went home to add that store to my list of "places in Europe I am no longer welcome."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Palais Omnisports Bercy

Paris_Bercy_Skaters, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

Yes, that is grass growing on the side of the sports arena. Totally cool.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

La fin du Tour

Carlos Sastre, winner of the 2008 Tour de France

Paris_TdF_Sastre, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

The Tour de France runs throughout most of the month of July: a grinding schedule of 21 race days with only 3 or 4 days of rest. To give you an idea of how hard this competition is, the riders must ingest 9000 calories of food each day just to keep going. Even on the rest days they all train hard for three hours because, as one rider said, "your body gets used to the pain and if you stop for a day it's too hard to start again."

I followed a lot of it on TV this year, either live or the evening recaps. It was actually a good way to gauge how my French was coming along by listening to the commentary. For the first week or so, it was little more than "blah blah blah blah attaque!" or "blah blah blah chute!" (crash). But within a couple weeks I was actually capable of telling which rider they were discussing, so that really improved the experience. Anyways, the overall plan of the race stages varies year-to-year, but the final stage always finishes in Paris on the last Sunday in July. The overall leader ( le maillot jaune, or the "yellow jersey") going into the last day is almost always the final winner, because it is too difficult for one rider to overtake another on an easy stage such as this one (and it's sort of considered bad form to try). So in terms of suspense, the final day is not the best; it's more of a celebration and giant public event. The riders all arrive as a group in Paris from around 50 miles away, then they do eight laps of the Champs Elysées, which is another 30 miles or so. They keep a leisurely pace until they begin the final laps, when the competition heats up for the honor of winning the individual stage on the final day.


This year's yellow jersey, Carlos Sastre of Spain, won on the strength of a climb up the infamous "Alpes d'Huez," a 12-mile long torture chamber of 21 switchbacks and thousands of rowdy fans, whose idea of a good time is to get as close to the riders as possible without actually knocking them off their bikes. Sastre then held onto his lead with an amazing effort in the time trial on the next-to-last day of the race, despite all the experts' predictions that Australia's Cadel Evans would overtake him.


Evans ended up coming in second, and Sastre completed an impressive trifecta for Spain in the month of July: Wimbledon (Raffi Nadal), the European soccer championship, and the Tour de France. After the awards are handed out at the Place de la Concorde, the riders all do a slow lap around the Champs as teams, to huge applause from the crowds lining the course.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The flea market

Paris_PucesDeMontreuil, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I spent 200 Euros at the flea market today. What did I get? I'll tell you what I got. I got destroyed at three-card monty, that's what. Sheesh.

But as bad as I am at three-card monty, I'm far worse at shopping. I thought the semi-famous "Puces de Montreuil" would be a great place to score a cool French foulard (scarf). But this was no artisans fair. This was hard core immigrant-class junk meet. I did rummage through a pile of new scarves en solde and found three that look nice, but I don't even dare give them as gifts. I don't think you'd ever speak to me again if I gave one of these things to you as a "scarf from France."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Paris à la mode

Paris_Lagerfeld-2, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

So I'm riding my bike down a side street, lost, again, when through an old wooden door steps a tall guy, all in white, wearing angel wings. Hallo. This is enough to cause me to stop. Then, following him, appears a female model, tall and skinny as a birch tree, trailed by a small group of handlers and some other folks with photographic equipment. And finally out steps probably the most recognizable man in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel. Of course, the reason he is the most recognizable is because he has been wearing basically the same outfit for the last twenty years. (He probably re-accessorizes every few months, but those details are beyond me.)

Now I am casually fishing through my backpack, switching to my long lens, following at a respectful distance. Lagerfeld, angel, birch tree, et al set themselves up by a glass wind shelter for a surprisingly brief photo shoot. I guess they have to shoot fast, because by the time they were done a crowd had started to materialize. The whole business was strikingly drama-free and low profile. They couldn't have shot more than five or six frames before moving along. Lagerfeld would set up the shot, describe to the models what he wanted them to do while the assistant would prepare the camera. Then Lagerfeld received the camera and took the final shots.

After they were done, Lagerfeld took time to pause for some photos and to chat amiably with the group of people that had gathered. He even took out his own camera and fired off a couple photos of the angel holding an egregiously cute baby.

It's funny how when we have a brush with celebrity we're amazing and impressed when the person isn't a raging jerk. Even so, I'll admit he seemed like a charming person--someone I'd enjoy chatting with at a party. And props to anyone who can even frame a photo while wearing glasses that dark.

Musée d'Orsay

Paul Cézanne, Nature morte à la bouilloire, 1869

Paris_Orsay_Cezanne, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

If you only have one day to visit a museum in Paris, go to the Musée d'Orsay, skip the Louvre. Heck, if you have two days, go to the Orsay both days. While the Louvre will crush your puny self with its weight, the Orsay lifts you up, starting with the Barbizon school and the Naturalists, through the Nabis and pre-Impressionists as you climb the levels, until you arrive on the sixth floor and the glorious Impressionist collection, including the unspeakably beautiful Van Gogh room.

Van Gogh's paintings are so powerful I could only stay in the room for a while at a time before retreating to the passive delights of Renoir to rest for a minute. Van Gogh's brushstrokes weep color, intense like the oxygenated blood of a re-opened wound. It's almost too much to bear.

So there I am, having an emotional moment in the Van Gogh room, and couples keep coming up to ask me to take a photo of them in front of Starry Night. OK, yes, I'm glad people think I'm a trustworthy harmless-looking guy. But now and then for a minute I wish I was the one asking somebody to take a picture of me and my gal. But just for a minute.

An added bonus to all the artists you know and love, the Orsay offers a comprehensive range of other delights and horrors from the second half of the nineteenth century--when Paris was the only town that mattered. This link, which you click at your own peril, is what I consider the Parisian equivalent of the Britney-Madonna "lesbian kiss": the air-horn announcing that a culture has nowhere left to go but down.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Le pont des arts

Paris_PontDesArts-1, originally uploaded by david_stirling.

I was afraid to talk to this painter at first, because he seemed like a crusty grumpy Frenchman. But in fact, he's a really nice guy. While he was working on this piece, he invited a couple little girls over to have their picture taken helping him paint. I talked with him for a while about how it all works, being a street artist. He's got a pretty sweet location on the pont des arts. I wasn't clear exactly how they determine where artists sell their wares, but they all have to register with the city hall, and he is entitled to sell on the bridge; it's not just informal pecking order or first-come.

He is apparently firming up details to do an exhibit in Washington D.C. this fall. Needless to say, this is a big deal for someone whose income consists largely of cigarettes he gleans from passersby.

I purchased the painting second from the right in the above photo. I have it temporarily hung in the apartment and every time I look at it it still pleases me. What more can you ask for?

See the rest of the photos of him working on a painting starting here.