Friday, August 11, 2006

Musée d'Orsay

Whilst traveling about in Paris, one is obliged to hit the "biggies." Effiel Tower, The Louvre, Arch de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and the like. One destination that didn't make the short list when I visited Paris during high school nor on my current sojourn was The Musée d'Orsay
. I am very happy to report having corrected this oversight and being absolutely amazed at size and scope of the collection. The Museum itself didn't exist until 1986, which makes it one of most recent additions as a tourist attraction in the city. The building itself was originally a train station connecting Paris and Orleans (the old one). That fact makes for some interesting and impressive use of open space and natural lighting but also offers more intimate locations through the structure.

While the Louvre might lay claim to the most extensive collection of paintings, and certainly the most expansive in terms of artists and history, the number of works that I enjoy looking at is
to tell the truth, quite limited. Being no scholar of European royalty, my take on the innumerable portraits of Kings, Queens, and hords of illegitimate children are along the lines of "if I've seen one, I've seen 'em all." The Musée d'Orsay, on the other hand has a much more focused collection that seems to teach and entertain like a story as you walk though the many exibits. Focusing on mainly French artists from the middle to late 19th century up until the early 20th century, the works place primary focus on the period of high impressionism and post-impressionism. There is pointillism, typified by Georges-Pierre Seurat, which never fails to catch my eye, although at the end of the day I find Pissarro's work more interesting. The realism movement of the Barbizon school is also on display, and the oranges and browns in Jean-François Millet's work make him one of the highlights. Of course, the delight of any visit is the Vincent van Gogh room. Yes, an amazing wall of works painted in the final years of his life after he committed himself to a mental institution under the stipulation the he be allowed to paint whenever he wanted. And paint he did, as this was one of his most prolific periods. This is the era during which he painted the famous Starry Night , although every painting is a masterpiece on that wall!

I could go on for quite a bit long, but there is hardly any point in describing in words what should be experienced first hand. My only suggestion is to arrive early, take a break for lunch at the caf
é located on the upper floor, definitely skip the decorative arts section, and leave with a smile on your face just as the crowds are getting to be too much around 2:00 pm.





Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Gone Fishin'!

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go with some locals out on their boat. It is a small boat and the plan was to put the boat in the water at Le Havre, then motor our way along the Normandy coast and make a little amphibious assault at Etretat. The weather was fine and hot, and the sea was relatively calm, the later being a must for a small craft to be out on the open water. I don't suppose many people outside of France are familiar with Le Harve, and with good reason. As opposed to touristic destinations such as gardens of Versialles, and the azure waters on the Mediteriannian coast, Le Havre is a bit like the New Jersey of France. It's a major industrial city where the port is the major offloading point for much of the petrol in France. Needless to say, these activities do little to promote the beauty of nature and put one in a relaxing mood. That being said, however, boats need access to the water and the port itself has a bustling pleasure craft area with all the amenities, and is apparently quite popular as evidenced by the number of and range of boats berthed. Above all, once clear of the harbor, the view is classic Normandy with high cliffs running along the coast for miles, exposing millions of years of geological history in dithering shades of white, gray and red.

Although the original plan was to make a round trip to Etretat, the views of sailboats heading to and from port, fisherman collecting what I assume were crab or lobster traps, and the crystal clear water itself had us slowing our pace. As I said before it was quite hot and so soon we dropped anchor and I was diving off the side of the boat into the ocean for a swim. The current of the tide was quite noticeable and I had to swim quite hard just the stay even with the boat. This is one swim I know my father would enjoy as he is always complaining about the warm temperature of the pool back home. That was certainly not a problem on this swim which was refreshing to say the least!

After swimming a bit more we moved a little bit father up the coast to where a small stream comes spilling over the cliff, down the beach and into the ocean. Having packed all necessities for a day of fishing we thought this would be a great place to take the opportunity. Sure, we wouldn't make it to Etretat today, but that was just fine. We assembled our rods and reels, placed the hooks in the water and commenced to wait. I had been introduced to fishing at an early age as both my grandfathers would take me to the lake, one in the summer in Pittsfield, and the other onto the ice somewhere in Lenox in the winter. I knew this game all too well and its rules are pretty clear; Sean will not catch anything, but if he should catch something it will be along the lines for a large piece of algae or, more likely, someone else's line.... BUT WAIT! Was that I tug?! YES! I caught the first fish, after only about 10 minutes of waiting!

After about half hour we noticed another boat was in the same area and the two guys on board seemed to be having a lot more success that we were. Then we saw it! The best way to describe it is to say that the sea appeared to be bubbling as hundreds of fish jump to the surface at the same time as the hunt smaller fish that they have trapped. In France it is simply called "la chasse" or the hunt. As it turns out this phenomenon happens most commonly where a bit of fresh water mixes with the ocean providing nutrients for plankton and small fish. Briefly, as the tide rises or falls the body of water near the shore gets trapped and the only outlet is under the main body of water out to sea. This creates a zone were algae and other "junk" get trapped in a narrow zone. This is also where huge amounts of nutrients are forced either up or down in the water column. Briefly, the fish love it here! By careful observation and planning we were soon able to position the boat in just the right place where simply putting the hook in the water yielded a bite after just a few seconds. It was indeed fishing heaven. All told we managed to catch 54 fish that day (pictures). I agree that 55 would have been a better number but that last fish was the proverbial "one that got away."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Viva la Tour!

Do you remember Greg LeMond? I didn’t either until I remembered that I did, if that makes any sense. Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour de France. In fact he did it three times. I always thought he was French, which I think is a forgivable offence given his name. Now, however, I realize the reason his name would have been known to me was that even as I was 10 years old he was in the process of doing something no other American had done. This much have merited some serious media attention even if the appetite of cycling is normally pretty small in the US.

So what made me “unforget” Greg? Well for the eighth time in as many years in American won the Tour de France. After seven straight years of Lance Armstrong winning the tour this time it was Floyd Landis’ turn. This year, the tour was especially interesting me because it passed through the town I live in. So in due anticipation for this event I followed the tour closely on television during my lunch break every day and watched as Floyd moved into first place lost first place in dramatic fashion and then gained it back in even more dramatic fashion. On the second to last day in the mountains Floyd who was leading by about 30 seconds seem to self-destruct and lost over 10 minutes. Following this collapse the only thing he wanted to do was to retire to his trailer and have a beer that day. It must've been a self-realization of this dramatic failure in addition to reading the French press that motivated in the next day. Down by eight minutes in the final mountain stage he rode alone for over 90 km and made up all but 30 seconds of the time lost! This amazing ride has been recorded in the annals of the tour as one of the best and most amazing ever made. Two days later in the second to last stage of the overall tour, a time trial, Floyd gained back the rest of the time and regained the yellow jacket by one minute. It was in this dramatic fashion that he came riding through Gif-sur-Yvette July 23, 2006 (pictures).

So, what is the Tour de France like when you see it role on down the road in your town? The short answer to this question, if you are anywhere but on a very steep climb, is FAST! Even on the final day of the race, when there is rarely ever a desire to race hard until the final few kilometers in Paris, the race itself is here and gone in mere seconds. As the riders rode through Gif, they were all in the main pack, or peloton, and passed where I was watching in about 20 seconds. A preamble to all this brief action started about an hour before as sever short race-sponsoring company caravans dove though town throwing small gifts and little inflatable noise makers that you see everyone using on TV. That was certainly a mystery solved for me as to the origin of these seemingly ubiquitous objects.

And then it was over…. The streets were reopened, the small crowd peacefully dispersed, and I went back inside to see how it all turned out. An hour later I was rewarded for my attentiveness with a picture of Floyd on the Champ Elysées and the American national anthem playing in the background. A well deserved victory and a deserving champion. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

'68 this Ain't
As the student strikes here in France have begun to garner international attention, I have done some more thinking about the goal of the students and offer my critique of the situation. The standoff between the conservative government and the student centers around a new law entitled the "contrat première embauche" or the first employment contract (CPE). The main point of contention is that the new law allows employers to fire first-time job holders without cause for up to 2 years. This law only effects those 26 years old or younger. There have been protests in all of the major French cities, about 30% of the universities in the country have been closed, and there have even been violent confrontations in the très chic neighborhoods of Paris as police have fired tear gas to disperse crowds who had set garbage cans on fire and set up roadblocks. All of this seems to recall the Socialist spirit of revolt of the huge national demonstration of 1968 against the government of Charles DeGaul. Or that is what the current demonstrators would have you believe. The truth, however, lies elsewhere. Beyond the streets of Paris which once served as a barometer for world politics, opinion, and fashion, the world has changed a lot since 1968, despite the best efforts of the French to fight or ignore that change.


What moved the government into action was the riots that started in the poor neighborhoods of Paris this past summer. There, amongst the mostly immigrant populations, unemployment can run close to 50% along with the tension it creates. Unemployment in France is about 10% nationally compared with 5% in the US. The problem of generating more jobs is compounded by the fact that companies are burdened with huge costs for each new person they hire. Healthcare taxes, retirement taxes, employment taxes, taxes for the unemployed, and certainly more than I could ever fully explain. Added to all this overhead is the fact that once employed, it's next to impossible to fire an employee or the next 30 years (this would be death by lung cancer from smoking, or forced retirement). What is a company to do when the old law said that there was only 3 months to decide if an employee merited lifetime employment? Certainly taxes are not going down, so the government tried to make it easier and less risky for companies to hire young workers. A good idea, you might think, given the fact that under the status quo you weren't likely to get a job in the first place.

To get a better handle on all of this it is helpful to understand that strikes and protests are a way of life in France. The way Americans scan the paper for the latest sale at Walmart, the French are always on the lookout for the latest affront to their cherished way of life.
Lifetime employment regardless of economic climate, lifetime jobless benefits, and national heath care all support the French worker (or non-worker). These benefits form the core of the French labor beliefs. Students and other young workers view the CPE as the latest, and possibly most menacing indication that their opportunities might be less than that of their parents. A sobering thought, certainly, and worthy of action, definitely. However, what I and the rest of the world sees is an inability to change and adapt. What the protesters are actually saying is that they will not accept a law designed to lower unemployment because it will lessen their job security, even though most of them will not find a job to begin with. It wasn't too long ago that France rejected the latest European Union treaty out of fear it would bring more competition from Europe itself! Fear of competition from the US in agriculture, China in fabrics, and other European countries for general labor follows an alarming trend of placing blame elsewhere. Now the situation has reached home and 38 years has changed a lot since 1968 indeed. This time it's the government that is offering something revolutionary and the students are playing the roll of the old guard.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Une Grande Weedend a Londoners,

This past weekend, my girlfriend Marie and I visited London for St. Valentine's Day. I had not visited since 1991 as past of a language trip to Europe (which shows how seriously I took my Spanish classes when I decided to travel to England!). Marie, despite having lived just across the Channel all her life, had never been. I must confess, however, that London with all its splendors is not actually drew us out of our quiet apartment. Instead it was my desire to travel on the Eurostar underneath the English Channel in the Chunnel, and to experience again the absolute wonder that is the European rail system.

In order to arrive in the center of London and at our Hotel situated approximately 1 Km from Buckingham Palace takes about 4 -5 hours of total travel time, door-to-door. This includes arriving in time for the train, check-in, etc.... Having left Paris in the afternoon and arriving with plenty of daylight to spare, we even took the time to walk along the Thames and get a bit lost on our way to our hotel. We stayed at the Days Inn, Westminster, which despite the small room, was the perfect place for its location, price and quality. The bathroom in our room was particularly nice, but again, the rooms are very small. In any case we weren't going to spend much time in the room while the city was waiting.....

Despite being the capital of the British Empire, past and present, and having a sustained monarchy for several hundred years, London lacks the sheer star-power of Paris when it come to monuments. There is no dominating Effiel Tower, no unimaginably huge Louvre Museum, and no outrageously sized Chateau of Versailles to draw tourists. Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are probably the most recognized landmarks in London, if you don't count the funny hats worn by the police. Unfortunately Big Ben is part of the building that houses Parliment and thus is not open to the public for security reasons. Its hourly chimes and views from every possible angle had tosuffice . As for the palace, here again there is a problem in that unlike Versailles, there are still kings, queens and their secret lovers afoot here, so the residences are closed, leaving us mere commoners to gawp at a rotating collection of royal jewels (depending on what the royal are wearing this week, I suppose) that are on display in some side building for ahefty fee. As ugly and expensive jewelry does not hold much interest for either of us, we decided to take a pass on this "attraction," and availed ourselves of the beautiful sunny day and the fact that we had an early start on the day to take some wonderful pictures.

By noontime we had covered miles of parks, bridges, shops, churches, and monuments. One of our favorite attractions in London is the "Eye ." The Eye is essentially a giant Feris wheel that carries passengers in enclosed capsules over 300 feet high in order to see acommanding view of London that is truly amazing. From here the whole of central London along the Thames is visible and a wonder to behold. Traffalger Square, which commemorates the victory of the Britsh fleet over the French, is a nice open space in the middle of London. Here a statue of Lord Admiral Nelson sits atop a tall column, as if he had climbed to thecrows nest of his ship to survey the sea. Interestingly, out in this open plaza are small statues of ships placed on top of various lamp posts, all pointing back to the statue of the Admiral. Certainly an interesting place to visit and see.

Besides sightseeing there was a bit of shopping, which I found to be a bit unusual. As both Marie and my mother will attest to, extended shopping excursions and me mix about as well as Muslims and cartoons. What surprised me, however, is how such a large amount of space devoted to shopping could hold so many things of so little interest! The most interesting store we actually entered (and quickly left) was one devoted to selling vintage memorabilia and used clothes and shoes from the 1970's. Other than that the picking were rather sparse, especially in the area of electronic stores, but enjoyable nonetheless to walk through. Our best find by far was a small café where we returned the next morning in the cold rain to have a full English breakfast (hold the beans please). Eggs, toast, English bacon, bottomless coffee, jelly.....Yummm!

And then it was time to return home. After demonstrating my skill at hailing a cab, be were back at Waterloo Station (another monument to English victory over the French), and soon back under the English Channel and back in France. It was a grand weekend indeed and we were very thankful for the full day of sun we had to walk around. It certainly won't be another 15 years until I visit again, and next time we're looking forward to seeing some of the famous museums in London.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

12-Ounce Curls:

I recently was reintroduced to the idea of having a regular workout routine. Things have not been the same since I’ve arrived in France and seeing as I insist that I can still wear a 32-inch waist, some calorie burning was just the thing. I remember fondly my weekly workout at MIT as 2 hours of run-and-gun pickup basketball, and while I was in Baltimore a 3 mile
run always preceded our weekly sushi night at The Purple Orchid. I was motivated! Well, maybe 'motivated' is too strong a word. I slowly convinced myself that this might be a good thing to do, and off we went.

Unfortunately that is the last I have to say about obtaining a much-needed workout here in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. It seems that for all the attention paid to regional wines and foie gras, something is missing in the attention to physical fitness. Not to mention the number of smokers at about five times than of the US. I tried a Google search for the term “French Bodybuilding” and the search engine itself seemed to ponder this unusual pairing of words for quite a while before finally coughing up the name Serge Nubret. I was however, disappointed to find that this man’s actual exploits in the area of bodybuilding date to some time around the 1950’s. Furthermore, he wasn’t actually French but was born in Guadeloupe. Oh well.

But back to my attempts to pump some iron and hit my target heart-rate. They were, alas, thwarted. That isn't to say I wasn't initially heartened by the fact that being on a rather large campus at the Institute Curie in Orsay, there would have to be some good facilities: a wall of treadmills, maybe a pool, certainly a good selection of free-weights and a selection of multi-use machines. As we approached and entered the building dedicated to the pursuit of sweat, guts, and glory, I got my first clue that all was not as first envisioned. In fact the first two rooms I passed appeared to be hosting some kind of dance party that certainly had nothing to do with feeling the burn, unless you were intending to do some shots of Bacardi 151. The only curls were…..right, I’ll stop there as I’m sure you get the picture.

So finally passing the hordes of “Thirsty Thursday” revilers, (assoiffe jeudi, if you prefer), I finally enter the room where some real sweat is being spilt. The mirrors about 20 feet ahead gave the initial impression of a larger space and the crowd of people obscured the fact that there were no other adjoining rooms. Initial shock was soon followed by horror as I realized that I was about to pay to stand in a room with equipment that looked to be donated after the fall of the Soviet Union, accompanied by 2 people for each machine and stifled by the creeping odor of sweat and heat. Luckily, a rude gentleman who I assume some how managed this institu..er…room, stated quite clearly that there was no more space. I don’t know exactly why he chose this moment to stop admitting more people, nor was I in disagreement. It could have been my impressive abs that convinced him we were not as needy as some others, but that is just speculation. I am convinced, however, his crowd control skills were about on par with that of those in Chicago nightclubs.

So there was going to be no pool, no weights, no treadmills this evening as I made my way slowly back through the party and finally outside. I felt I had done my best to don a pair of shorts in the middle of winter and ride to an unknown place for a workout. Alas, it was not my moral that defeated me this time. Maybe those party-goeress had the right idea; I’ll open my 2003 Côtes de Provence wine, have a ball cooking some heavy French food, and enjoy a fine meal tonight. Bon appétit!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Weekend Network Warrior:

It goes without saying to anyone who knows me well that I enjoy my quality time with my computer. My girlfriend knows this very well which is why she was happy to go out shopping with her friend knowing that I would be well entertained with no less than 3 computers within my reach.

My current project, made possible by my last paycheck, was to purchase and install a wireless network router in our small apartment here in Gif-sur-Yvette. While I originally held out hope that we could have used some of our neighbors’ connections, let it suffice to say that the density of Gif in both people and WiFi is woefully lacking for this to have become a reality. Therefore, after spending many hours researching on various websites and doing a bit of nosing around in actual stores I ultimately decided to purchase a Belkin Pre-N Wireless router with an included network card. The card would be for my girlfriend’s older laptop. Let me take this opportunity to give a plug to my favorite hardware review site, Tom’s Hardware (http://www.tomshardware.com/index.html). The networking section really brought me up to speed with the current technology and what to look for in a good router.

As it turns out the Belkin was a good choice according to CNet’s latest review of a weekend network planThis is in fact where I turned to when things did not go as expected and offers a great starting point for getting things up and running. (http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-11334_7-6232456-2.html?tag=next).

Now comes the part where I post what I have learned after 12 hours on the job.

  1. The first thing I would like to say is that I have nothing but high praise for the Belkin router. The packing, instructions, and software were all first rate for my home use. The range is excellent even here in France where houses are normally constructed out of concrete rather than wood as in the US.
  2. The best laid plans quickly fall apart when it comes to networking in Windows. What CNet fails to mention in their 1 hour time estimate is that most people have some sort of protection against hackers and other nefarious goings on out there on the web. Yep, I’m talking about firewalls! I can only assume that this little hot potato didn’t make it into the column simply because there are so many out there, each configured with a myriad of settings personalized for each person out. While the firewall was running, believe me, I was going nowhere. Be warned.
  3. Norton Internet Security is probably the best out there. Now I hate to give a nod to the dominant player in the market, but in this case it is well deserved. Simply by accessing the “Personal Firewall” setting then adding the IP addresses supplied by my router to the “Trusted” sections, everything was solved. Just the fact that I can explain it in one sentence is unbelievable. I should mention that the Belkin allows me to set a range of IP address that it will dole out to computers that connect. By matching that range with settings in the firewall, it was what got everybody talking. It was the purchasing and installing that took the most time for this step.
  4. Security! Another reason why this project is a recipe for disaster if one hopes to accomplish all tasks within the 1 hour allotted time is the danger you will create for your computer and those connected to your network. CNet specifically describes a network whereby files and printers are to be shared. It takes time to ensure that your router’s firewall is running and the encryption is turned on to lock things down. It is also necessary to double check security setting in Windows to confirm that only the necessary folders are open and that damage can not be done to vital data over the network.
    1. A note here to briefly say that I would have left my network open and free if not for the fact that I wanted a closed home network for file sharing. If it was just internet surfing I was after, I would have let downtown Gif share in the glory and bounty that is my massive new WiFi cloud!
  5. VPN, or Virtual Private Network. After configuring the router, changing firewall software and whispering curses to Windows XP, everything was running well, and my girlfriend was in the other room accessing pictures and music from the network to make her videos without having to ask me to pass the USB key every 15 minutes. Yes, life should have been good, yet a problem remained. While everyone could see everyone one the network, only 2 of the 3 computers seemed to be open for sharing. All 3 could browse and download, but 1 absolutely refused to allow any connections from the outside. I checked settings, IP address, and even confirmed that the name of the computer could be resolved on the network. What tipped me off was that I discovered the holdout was also mum when pinged. A few Google searches later I came across a mention of some VPS software doing funny, albeit well-intentioned, things to otherwise happy networks. As it turns out, as I was running continuous pings against the malcontent and getting timeouts as far as the eye could see, as soon as I began to uninstall the VPS client software, the beast let go and I started to get responses. At this point all is well and after a full waking day, and perhaps a bit more, the network in up and running and secure.

And thus concludes thist entry. My girlfriend should be back soon from shopping and I should really call home again to assure my parents that the riots are really nowhere near me…