Sunday, 30 December 2007

What the Paris Métro Has Over the Rest of Europe...

One of the worst things about Paris, and also most of the world besides the U.S.A., if you are a Diet Pepsi fan, is the lack of Diet Pepsi in restaurants, stores, vending machines, and hotel mini-bars.

TravelLing abroad, for my mother, is quite a sacrifice: she must sleep without her fat cat Peanut, she has to spend a lot of time and effort setting up her digitally-recording cable box to ensure she doesn’t miss a single episode of Dr. Phil, Judge Judy, or Clean House while she’s gone, and she must learn a new language’s version of the words “Diet Coke, please”. The most difficult thing to bear, however, is the fact that most European countries sell a lot of Coke, but rarely any Pepsi.

In 2002, she learned that the entire island of Sicily has yet to import any Diet Pepsi. In 2006, a waiter in a Palermo hotel refused to serve her any Diet Coke for breakfast, claiming that it was a thing just not done before noon in his experience. Christmas Day of 2006 was spent in a frantic search for an open shop – turns out that in Catholic countries, everything is always closed on major, minor, and secret holidays. And Sundays. And Saturdays. And half of Mondays. And for four hours in the afternoons when people are taking naps.

My mother was not totally surprised to find out that Paris, like every other travel destination she’s forced to leave her cat for, has no interest in Diet Pepsi. She quietly resigned herself to ordering a “Coca Lite” for the duration of our stay.

One afternoon in Paris, while standing on the métro platform at the Odéon station in St. Germain, my brother’s girlfriend nearly replaced me in the hierarchy of love in my mother’s heart by discovering that the vending machines were filled with Diet Pepsi. My mother screams, we start fumbling through our pockets and our bags for the two-euro coins that the machine required, and my mother manages to acquire two bottles before the train arrives.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

The Family that Looks at Tits Together…

As part of our whirlwind tour of Paris, we decided to go see the show at the Moulin Rouge. “Moulin” means “windmill” in French… but the only things being powered up in that building are the blacklights and the water-tank hydraulics.

Earlier that day, during our tour of the Musée d’Orsay, we had seen a large painting by Toulouse-Lautrec depicting the “Goulue”, the notorious late 19th Century can-can dancer being watched at the Moulin Rouge by Lautrec himself and Oscar Wilde. From my understanding, I’m sure that Oscar Wilde had little to no interest in what was going on when this dancer lifted her skirts above her head, but I became extremely excited by the prospect of seeing frilly underthings and boobies with my family later that evening.

The scummy, seedy, smoky days of watching the Goulue have passed, along with spending your time at the Moulin Rouge bumping shoulders with gay men and painters. Instead, thank God, you can sit at the Moulin Rouge, eat your foie gras, and surround yourself with fellow travellers – mostly American and Japanese. And don’t worry! Since no one is even allowed to bring in a camera, your likeness has no chance of being reproduced on a wall in the Musée d’Orsay anytime soon!

If you are into fluorescent feathers, black lights, and lip-synching – which I am! – then you will love the production at the Moulin Rouge. I’m glad that there was no plot that I had to follow, save some sort of incomprehensible liaison between a blonde woman and an overtanned, shaved-chested man. The lyrics were in French, except for the first number. We were singing along after about five minutes because the song’s sole words were: “Dance, dance Paris, dance! Paris dance, dance!” (Except they pronounced it “Pair-ee”.) If you repeat those two sentences and don’t follow a tune, you will have the song perfectly.

There were some sideshow acts – a magician, two contortionists, a girl swimming in a boa-constrictor-filled tank, and a ventriloquist – but the best scene was near the end. The lights went out and all of a sudden the male and female leads, never without their headset-mics, were suspended on cords above the audience. The black lights were on, their teeth glowed like romantic pearls, and they waved their arms like beautiful mermaids in a sea of air. Just like two curtains being pulled together on a track, they came together over our heads. I could look up above the heads of my brother, his girlfriend, and my parents, and see two perfectly formed breasts looming over us – nipples like stars in a night sky.

Some of the dancers showed their tits and others did not. Mostly the leads showed theirs. The most remarkable thing, and the thing that caused the most disappointment to my mother, was that it seemed as though none of the dancers had fake boobies! This is something that we, as Americans, were utterly shocked by. My mother exclaimed, “I came here to see boobs. I wanted things swinging in my face!”

Friday, 28 December 2007

Say "Cheese", Van Gogh!

The advent of the digital camera and Johnny-Public’s increasing ability to use it precipitate a new trend in the international-tourist museum experience. Now, instead of just looking at a painting or sculpture or pressing the number of the painting on the audioguide, people can take flash-free photographs of all the paintings that they see in their visit to the museum.

I visited the Musée D’Orsay today with my family. My brother Geoffrey, Sarah, and I split off from my mother. When you travel a lot with members of your family, you start to recognize patterns of behavioUr: for example, my mother manages to run through galleries at an extraordinary pace. Within an hour, she will have seen, and been moved by, thousands of paintings and sculptures. In that same amount of time, I will have gotten lost three or four times looking for the one particular painting that I want to see. By the time I see that painting, I am bored and tired and just start looking for the room with the most comfortable couch in it. (Tourist Tip: the National Portrait Gallery in London has very expensive, leather sofas.)

My favoUrite thing to do in a museum is to get the audioguide. This feature – now available in most museums – helps fill in the gaps of one’s art history knowledge base as well as helps explain why a large square of red with a white stripe down the centRE qualifies as “art” in the Whitney Museum or about which woman in the painting was Rembrandt’s mistress (hence her juicy, bouncy boobies).

If you ever go to a museum with friends and get audioguides, then be certain that you play a game I like to call “Synchronize your Audioguides”. The way it works is that you and your friends decide on what painting you want to learn about, you press the numbers on your little machines at the same time, and then on the count of three, press “Start”. If you synchronize your audioguides, then you can all hear the same things at the same times, react at the same moments, and it makes the trip to the museum a little less boring somehow. Sometimes the other people in the gallery might give you weird glances, but I’ve learned to have no respect for them anyhow.

The patrons of the Musée D’Orsay alerted me to this latest development in classy tourism: photographing all of the art that you see. Given the fact that computer screens are much better at depicting life than the life itself, I can understand why a tiny cameraphone is a better lens with which to capture Van Gogh and Renoir’s timeless pieces of work than one’s own two eyes. I definitely apologize to all the amateur photographers and art lovers whose shots of the paintings I ruined by actually looking at the pieces of art. When Geoff, Sarah, and I would line up in front of a painting to synchronize our audioguides, you can be sure that NO ONE else could photograph a painting without getting a bit of our head or hair in the bottom of it.

And what better way to say, “Hey, I’m a cultured person” than by embedding a photograph of yourself looking at a Cézanne into a text message to all your friends.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

I've Noticed a Tit-Cupping Trend!

My favoUrite genre of fellow-tourist is the variety that says, “I know, take a picture of me in front of that naked statue and I’ll pretend like I’m holding its boob!” Although the person doesn’t actually touch the boobs, it looks like he does because of a phenomenon known to artists as "perspective".

I saw this act replicated and re-replicated at such places as the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Louvre with the Venus di Milo. An extensive search on Google, with search phrases like “cupping boob/breast famous statue” and “grabbing tit statue Paris” convinced me that although people don’t hesitate to take these classy pictures, they do hesitate to post them on the internet. This was the only one I managed to find that represented the spirit of my original search.

Blog fans, please indulge me by trying a search of your own. I’m sure these “I’m cupping the breasts of a famous statue” pictures are out there, I just can’t get the wording in the Google Image Search right. If you do find some photos, or take some of your own, please feel free to share with a comment below!

Monday, 24 December 2007

Acqua, Tambien.

I knew things would be off to a good start here in Paris this week when my family showed an aptitude for attempting other languages. Nothing tells a Frenchman “Relax! I’m someone you don’t have to condescend to” like speaking in a European language when you order food – any European language.

When we arrived at our smoking-friendly hotel yesterday, we crowded at the bar to order some food and drinks and wait for a table in the smoking-only lounge to open up. My family shows me great honoUr each time a member of the hotel waitstaff gives us any attention by remaining entirely silent until I say everything we need to communicate in French. I decided to give them a valuable cross-cultural opportunity by remaining silent.

After a few moments of awkwardness, enhanced by the waiter’s typically-French lack of interest in removing awkwardness for your comfort, my father piped up and ordered “Acqua Frizzante” – Italian for “soda water”. Midway through “Frizzante,” my father realized his ERREUR, and quickly corrected himself. It came out sounding something like this: “Acqua Frizzant… Gassat… euh, oakai… Alex… con gaz.”. The waiter quickly said, “ Euh, viss gaz? Okay, monsieur.”

Next, my brother’s girlfriend Sarah placed her order: “Café tambien.”

We are certainly off to a great start here in Paris! I’m sure the Europeans have never met with such a culturally astute and well-informed group.

How do you say, "I want it well done"?

What could be better than one American travelLing and journeying around countries like Europe and France? Well obviously: FIVE AMERICANS.

That’s right. The rest of my family is joining me here in Europe for the week. I’m sure that you can surmise – from my ability to blend like a chameleon, adapt like a 220V plug, and wear a beret at just the right angle – that the people from whom I originate are extremely subtle, informed, and well-versed in the customs of the natives, wherever they go.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

I Speak English Now!

The other night, I went to the house of my British friends for an evening of pizza and alcohol. One of our friends was missing and I called him to see what he was up to that night. He explained that he needed to stay home that night to clean in preparation for a visit from his mother.

“Where is he?” my friends asked.

“He’s cleaning because his MUM is coming tomorrow for lunch,” I said.

Then I was to utter a sentence that confirms how far I’ve come in my quest to learn about the British culture and customs. Prepare yourself now to read it:

“He’s excited because he found A HOOVER IN A SKIP.”

That’s right, folks. Without stuttering or hesitating, I told a bunch of British people that my friend was HOOVERING his FLAT with a HOOVER he found in a SKIP.

To be fair, in the group of people assembled, there were two Americans, one Canadian, one Frenchman, and only two Brits. The former four needed me to translate the sentence for them, but you can be sure that I was absolutely revelling in the moment. It feels good to educate people.

I get my pulse taken and STILL have dandruff! (And I also see The Fresh Prince of Bel Air!)

London continues to surprise me, despite my increasing ability to blend in with the locals and understand their ways. In the United States, you will never walk into a shop or place of business, let alone a doctor’s office, and get swindled. No way! We have checks in place that prevent these things from happening. Here in London, though, you don’t have such stars-and-stripes-clad security.

I have been suffering, since the beginning of my odyssey, from a not-rare scalp problem that is part familial-inheritance, and part stress-induced. (Inducement of stress is also partly familial at times as well!) Basically I have a small, not-too-foul, noticeable, and pity-evoking rash on my forehead that comes and goes. It gets better with the use of certain shampoos, but I’ve been searching for an all-out cure for a long time.

My friend here in London has been recommending that I go to see a Chinese doctor. For a long time, I thought him plagued by some sort of Orientalistic prejudice – I too used to think that Asians were smarter. For example, I used to call my most-Asian friend whenever I needed help with my math homework in high school. Now, that good-at-math Asian friend is earning a Ph.D. in Nano-Robotics at Cal Tech. But it’s certainly not because he’s Asian.

To be honest, I had no idea at first that my friend meant that I should see someone trained in Traditional-Chinese Medicine. He claimed that his friend had gone to this one Chinese-style doctor before having missed her period for a few years and he pressed a spot on her thumb and she started bleeding all over his table! Once I heard this story, I was thoroughly convinced that Chinese-type medicine was right and Western-Conventional medicine probably had it all wrong. I’ve never heard of a gynAEcologist doing something like that before. Although, I have to say that this girl who missed her period was lucky she had never accidentally banged her hand on that particular spot on the Tube or in Sainsbury’s – imagine the mess and the embarrassment! In fact: warning: don’t bang your hands accidentally because you might suddenly get your period!

Anyway, thus convinced, I resolved that the next time I walked by a DODGY-looking “Chinese Medicine and Herb” shop in London, I would definitely go in. I happened to be in Chinatown last week with the said-Orientalist friend when we walked by such a shop and decided to go in. I set up an instant appointment with the Doctor upstairs and my friend accompanied me into the “examination room”.

The old doctor, with fifty-years of experience according to the girl in the shop downstairs, asks me a number of questions about my sleeping abilities, my period (I answer him, but don’t let him anywhere near my hands), and my stress levels. Then, he starts writing on my sheet in Chinese. He takes the pulse of my left wrist for about a minute, writing down some numbers and more Chinese characters. He takes the pulse of my right wrist next – no Western doctor has EVER been so thorough! He writes down some different information – as if to say that the left and right pulses are different! I can’t wait to tell my Western-medicine father.

As he takes my pulses on all my wrists, I look around the room – he has three different badges hanging from his white doctor coat. Some are in Chinese, some in English. All look official and convincing! There are some family photographs – presumably of his grandchildren.

After he takes my pulses, he informs me that I have Psoriasis and, much to my morbid-amusement, he shows me a bunch of photographs of other people with the same disease. To be honest, I had hoped to hear I had some kind of strange, emotionally-sophisticated illness with a Chinesse name. Something roughly translated as “Intelligence-tempered-with-Empathetic-Capabilities-Neurosis”.

He shows me numerous “before” and “after” photos to convince me of the efficacy of his treatments. He scribbles a “prescription” on the pad of paper and hands it to me, explaining that there were two creams that I should use, one for the morning and one for the evening. He also indicates a concoction of herbs that I’m to take in tea-form every day.

I thank him, feeling very convinced, though saddened that I couldn’t actually read anything on the sheet he handed me and disappointed that there’s nothing special or unique about my condition. I descend the stairs with my friend. We reenter the shop to purchase the medications. I am contemplating how I will later dispose of and recycle my special anti-dandruff shampoos and conditioners at home.

When I hand the young woman the prescription, she immediately starts doing fancy finger-work on the calculator she had in front of her. As she pounds away, engaged in complicated calculations (the estimated cost of my handbag times my age plus my relative degree of dupe-ability), my friend ambitiously pulls out his wallet and claims he is going to pay for my medications. After all, he reasons, he’s the one who brought me there to begin with. Now that’s true friendship right there: paying for someone’s dandruff medication!

As we argue about the need for this generosity – I’m arguing mainly because I am thinking, “it’s near Christmas and I don’t want him to think that this means he’s off the hook in getting me a real Christmas present” – the woman announces that we owe her £180. That’s POUNDS! One-hundred and eighty-pounds! That’s nearly FOUR-BLOODY-HUNDRED DOLLARS1 For tea and cream!

We both gaze at her as if she made a mistake. She sees our reaction and starts the fancy finger-work on her calculator again – presumably subtracting £30 of dupe-ability. “Well, I can give it to you for £150.”

My friend says, “You mean one-pound, fifty-pee, right?”

“No,” she responds, “150 quid.”

I say, “Um, I have to go home and think about it.”

“Well I can give you a two-week suppry for £70 if you want. You have to reschedule an appointment with doctor for the anyway. You will see, it works.” As she says this, she starts looking up at my forehead, which I showed her earlier when convincing her I needed to see the doctor. She’s staring at my Psoriasis, scrunching her nose, as if to say, “That’s so ugly. You’re so ugly without our Chinese medicine.”

Again I tell her that I need to go home and think about it – think about how much getting rid of my forehead’s rash is really worth to me at this point in my life. Maybe I can live with it, I am thinking. Maybe I can just continue to use the cheap, conventional Western dandruff-shampoos and conditioners like always.

I reach to take the prescription paper from her, and she kindly offers to keep it nice and safe behind the counter.

As I finally walk out, with the grave feeling like I’ve let her down, let the doctor down, and consequently, let down all of China and shown no gratitude for the fact that a Chinese doctor somewhere induced a period by pressing on my friend’s friend’s thumb, I feel like a hopeless, skin-shedding monster.

Walking down the street, my friend informs me that the only reason she wouldn’t give me the paper is that we could just take it to another herb place and get the requisite prescription probably for the cost of a bowl of white rice. Not only that, but he informs me that I deserve that piece of paper, having paid £15 for the appointment in the first place.

I plead with him, “Don’t go back there, don’t go back there! We lost! They won!” I don’t know why, but I want to concede to them their victory. They out-witted us fair and square.

We ended the evening at Leicester Square where we happened upon a premier of the movie “I am Legend” starring Will Smith. We heard a crowd of voices screaming, “We want Will! We want Will!” I also want Will, so we tried to find a spot where we could peer through the crowd at the red carpet.

I couldn’t see anything but lame, “I’m not Will Smith but I’m special because I’m attending a premier”-people walking up and down the red carpet, but my friend claimed that he could see Will Smith. Consequently, I saw Will Smith too because I was staring in the same exact direction from the same exact spot as him. Although, I couldn’t tell which person he was. But…


Thursday, 20 December 2007

To Canterbury I Wende!

No, I am no "palmer", nor was I "seke", and nor do I need the "blisful martir" to "hopen" me, but I did wende to Canterbury. As an avid fan of literature - particularly the novels of Maeve Binchy and Sophie Kinsella - I feel a certain kinship with my adopted country-men in that I love visiting places rich in literary history. Fortunately for me, the English have a good deal of fun decorating and writing signs for their literary sights and encourage their travelLers to pay for tours of them.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tails many, many years ago. I won't read them until the BBC puts out a nice cereal drama to help me understand them. The journey to Canterbury, in fact, quite harrowing. Just like pilgrims of yore, I faced many hardships along the way. The first was that I had to wait in a "QUEUE" five-deep to get to a "CASH POINT" (ATM). Then it was not immediately apparent where, in Victoria Train Station, one had to go to get one's £3.80 ($8.00) Grande Crème Brulée Soy No Whip Latté. (I may now add "figuring out how to put accents onto the e's in my Starbucks drink for my blog" to my list of harrowing pilgrimage adventures!)

Like the original pilgrims depicted in Chaucer's œuvre, I had a very long journey. The train ride was around an hour and a half. I slept for most of it.

Apparently in the middle ages, I guess age 37 or so, people go to Canterbury to see the tomb of the martyr, St. Thomas, in the Canterbury Cathedral and his dead body cures their illnesses. He was killed in the cathedral, and his death conferred magical powers of healing to the place itself. I too wanted to see the holy spot, but felt the £12 ($24) entry fee was way too high. So much for wending all that way.

I did, however, make a stop in a small church-like place which cost only £1 to enter. It was the Hospital of Hospitality. It's not actually a hospital, the plain-clothes-monk at the front desk explained to me. It's just a church with a big "crypt" or "basement" in which poorer pilgrims would sleep and recover from their long journey during their time in Canterbury. Now, it's where poorer tourists go when they can't afford to visit the actual Cathedral.

Mid-afternoon, I found the "Canterbury Tales" museum. It was technologically advanced, artistically savvy, and literarily brilliant. When you walk in, the lady at the desk hands you a long black thing, resembling an early-90s suburban-housewife-carphone proto-type. She informs you that you have to hold it up to your ear, like an early-90s carphone. (The tourist in the picture is holding one in front of her.) When you walk into the various rooms, if you stand at the right angle and don't move from your spot, then you will hear the audio script that generally corresponds with what you are seeing.

They had a different room for each of the more famous of the Canterbury Tales' pilgrims. The rooms were dank and smelled like Medieval armpits! So authentic! They were decorated with stage-set type cardboard scenery and spotlighted the places you were supposed to look during your time in each room. When you held your audio-90s-carphone at the correct angle, you could hear the narrator tell you the story that corresponded to the pilgrim represented in that room. Truly a high-quality homage to one of our literary titans. Weirdly enough, it's pretty hard to get a copy of the Tales in Canterbury, of all places! I thumbed through editions in the gift shop and in other local bookstores, and apparently all the English copies have sold out! The ubiquitous German editions were useless to me.

My last stop on the tour was to see the Canterbury Castle. I had read about the place on the tourist-map that the old monk of Hospitality had given me and I noticed it didn't have an entrance fee. When I finally found the place, I realized that it didn't even have an entrance. The lackluster Canterbury Castle is probably Canterbury's least popular tourist attraction and is probably also where many of Canterbury's local teenagers go to get pregnant. It's walls are falling down, its roof and floors are gone, and in the Middle Ages, it was used to imprison criminals and Jews. Against my better judgment, and any judgment at all in fact, I climbed
all the stairs in all the turrets. This project ended abruptly when I found a neat pile of human POO at the top of a flight.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Don’t get a “Herna” when you lift your heavy stacks of cash!

Do you know what Prague locals do when they’re not drinking cheap beer and not-paying for tram tickets? They go to the Nonstop Hernas!

No, silly. That doesn’t mean that pieces of their intestines poke out of their stomach muscle-walls! (Although if they did, I would know a great doctor to recommend! And he could fix it remotely with a robot controlled by his Blackberry.) It means that at any hour of the day (“nonstop” means “all day” in Czech), you can go GAMBLING!

Having more thoroughly exterminated their own set of Native Americans, Czechs run their own Casinos. And they run them EVERYWHERE. Let’s say you’re just casually walking to your friend’s house. Then you’re suddenly struck by the urge to gamble: you can! Let’s say you’re strolling to your first day of sixth grade and you’re struck by the urge to gamble: no problem! Let’s say you’re down and out, broke, STD-ed, and ugly: try gambling!

My patriotic fervoUr was truly enflamed, I have to say, when I saw this particular display in a HERNA window. Here in the Czech Republic, the US Dollar is worth approximately bajillions of Czech corona-ultra-lites. So this wheel-of-very-little-money must look like a wheel-of-fortune to the average Czech Nonstop Herna-ite.

And let’s say you strike it big in the Nonstop Herna… Well, you can go to the lovely bra shop next door and buy this ensemble for your lovely lady waiting eagerly at home for you to return with your spoils. Clearly the obvious purchase of choice for the Nonstop Herna-frequenter, who must have tons of lovely ladies waiting for him at his various homes.

Actually, "Kecup" tastes GREAT on spaghetti!

"Oh my god! I'm so sorry! I forgot the ketchup!"

So said my waitress at the Pizzeria I went to in the Old Town of Prague. I had ordered a plate of spaghetti and had been eating it with an excited vigor known all too well to those of us traveling and exploring countries that prefer to serve you fried cheese at every meal.

Before I could protest against the horror and insult to good cuisine everywhere that was the placement of a bottle of "kecup" on my dinner table, I found myself pouring some on my noodles. Then I poured some more. And then some more.

Well I have to say that I ate so much KECUP that I actually woke up with a sore in my mouth! I wasn’t able to brush my bottom row of teeth for the following two days as a result of the experience. Was it worth it? Absolutely. As soon as my mouth recovers, I will be sure to repeat the experience.

I explored the Old Town of Prague for a few hours, keeping my eyes glued to my two travel books and the supplementary map I had picked up at the metro station. It’s one thing to see a lot of beautiful old buildings, but who wants to get lost while looking at them? Not this world-traveller!

It was nice to get to see real Czech people, doing Czech things, looking very Czech. I walked around with a group of them, just to study how things were done by the locals. Apparently, even they haven’t tired of the beautiful scenic vistas and remarkable cobblestone streets that characterize their town.

My one objection is that these maps don’t always line up with the actual streets and that the Czech government should do what it can to fix this issue or else tourists like me will complain on their blogs about the problem. My suggestion is that they should try to change the roads. Doesn’t it make more sense to change the ONE road than the hundreds of maps?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Czech Me Out!

Prague was invaded by the Nazis. Prague was invaded by the Communists. So it seems as if a city so easy to invade would at LEAST be easy to visit. But this is not the case.

The first thing that went wrong was that I needed money when I arrived at the airport so I could buy myself lunch. It turns out that this country – called "the" Czech Republic – does not use Euros. I have trouble pronouncing the currency that they do use, but it sounds like “Corona” – as in “Corona Lite” or "Corona Extra-Lite”.

Needless to say, the Country-Formerly-Known-As-Czechoslovakia provides me with an unending series of adventures. Toboot:

In which I try to get money out of a parking-lot ticket validation machine:
I disembarked and headed towards what appeared to me to be a cash machine. I stuck my card in – fearing that the card would get some sort of Eastern European STD from the looks of the machine – only to find that it wouldn’t fit properly. Even credit-cards are shaped different here? What? Well I tried to force the card in and kept having trouble. A sign above the machine had a picture of a car on it and I saw someone at the next machine inserting a little piece of paper in the same slot I was attempting to insert my card in. This was no ATM. It was a parking-lot ticket validation machine. Ahoi!

In which I walk the streets at night and see bizarre things:
The first night of my visit, I walked around with my proper British friend Ed. It was dark, and the street names were unpronounceable. We settled on just using the first syllable and making up the rest. For example: “Vladskabooboo Street” and “Belnaanaapoo Street”.

Ed is not the type to carry a guidebook with him. I’m not sure how he planned on finding the “right” pub or the “latest” restaurant without one, but fortunately for him, I had two on hand. We found our merry way to the “Shakespeare” Café. It’s a great “ex-pat” “haunt” with “lots of English books” and “people speaking English” and “smoking” at nearby tables. We drank our first Czech beers and I learned in the burning-way that the Czechs usually install their hot-cold water faucets backwards.

We walked by a bunny-wabbit-experimentation-supply store after our hour at the pub. Then we went by a well-lit basement experimentation chamber with ladies in hair covers injecting things. Last but not least, there was a creepy-doll store.

In which I can’t tell which are boys’ and which are girls’ bathrooms:
I can’t tell. I don’t know the name for man or woman in this language. I just open the door and look for urinals or men peeing in urinals and know I need the other one.

There was one restaurant who understood its patrons’ language needs. But honestly, I think this sign might confuse British men.

In which Jesus’ father has a hairy neck:
There are a lot of nativity scenes set up around the city. They were taken out of storage after the Velvet Revolution, wiped clean of the industrial communist-dust, and planted in every The nearest Namasti to me has a Joseph with a hairy neck. I think this helps keep him warm during the cold nights slept in the manger.

In which Beethoven dedicates the Eroica to a Czech:
Did you know that Beethoven’s annuity came from a Czech aristocrat? And that he changed his dedication of the Eroica Symphony to this Czech when Napoleon declared himself emperor? Yawn.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Beware of Art Galleries in Paris, Folks!

So apparently after you kill a bunch of people – excuse me, “assist” the “suicides” of other human beings – come on over to Paris! You, too, can open an art gallery! Or at least that’s what Dr. Kevorkian did. Right here, on the Left Bank, you can see his new digs.

Nothing beats the Louvre when it comes to seeing the Mona Lisa. You go in, you say, “Où est the Mona Lisa?” and pretty soon you’re there! There are tons of signs with her picture on them with arrows pointing up the stairs. I timed it: you can get from the gate to the famous picture in under five minutes if there’s no line.

Now I loved the Mona Lisa – especially the inch-thick glass in front of it that really dampened its bright coloUrs for the viewers’ pleasure and picture-taking faciliation. But the rest of the Louvre? Forget it! First of all, who would really want to look at all the stuff there. It’s too big. I prefer online galleries, where you can stop at any time, and you can look at the art even if you’re just wearing your ol’ “Stop the Arms Race” sweatshirt or something.

My second objection to the Louvre is the whole naked-ness thing. It is really too bad that there are so many naked sculptures in there – otherwise, it would be a great place to take your children or your school-classes to.

The only other good thing about the Louvre, besides the easiness of getting to and photographing the Mona Lisa, is the stuff that reminds you of The DaVinci Code. Seeing something like this is like meeting a famous movie actor in person – like Tom Hanks or something!!!

I’m Not Gay, but I’m in Par-EE!

Why is it that French people eat the grossest food? I sat down at Café de Quelquechose this après-midi, ordered a Kir Royale, and stared at the food-list in front of me: "Tête" means "head". "Vaux" means "cute, baby cow-ey". Now "Tête de vaux" must logically mean "Really disgusting, foul, nastiness". It usually comes with mayonnaise, just to make bad things worse.

Don't get me wrong: I love some French food. There's the fries, of course, and the baguettes, and the crêpes - but not the ones with savoUry things on them. But why would anyone want veal head or cow dung or pig intestines to go with their hand-rolled cigarettes and mênthe-à-l'eau? I thought "mênthe-à-l'eau" was something weird they only put in my middle school text books, but no! A woman next to me at the café was having one!

I settled for an "assiette aux saucissons" once I verified that "assiette" had nothing to do with "ass".

Another thing I wonder about is who the guy is that goes around writing on all the French restaurants' chalkboards. It's really too bad that it was raining all afternoon - he's going to have to go back to everywhere I went at least and rewrite "plat du jour" and so forth.

Here in Paris, they have what I might translate as "gratuitous toilets". So silly!

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

I Drink Eight-Dollar LOT-Tays.

I paid 1 pence for my ticket to Limoges today. Can you believe it? Then with the taxes and baggage fees, it was more like £40 – which is like $100. The American dollar is extremely weak, but every time I go to get cash out of the machine, I still get pounds out. So I figure maybe my bank hasn’t been caught yet… I pay £3.80 for a Crème Brulée SoyA Latte at the Starbuckses here. That means it’s worth nearly $8.00 for a latte. That’s a LOT-te!

So my dad and I flew down to Limoges on this cheap airlines that secretly charges you for everything. You can even pay £5 extra to get in the front of the boarding line. We were picked up by my friend Maggie and taken to her barn-cum-house where we sat in front of her fire and watched British television via satellite.

I took my dad on a walk around the Buddhist retreat centrE where I had been working and practiSing for three months earlier in the AUTUMN. I showed him all of the shrine rooms and tent areas and he kept asking where we stored the human bodies we use for sacrificial rituals. I did my best impression of someone laughing off a weird suggestion and continued with the tour.

I tried to take him on a walk down the nature-trail, but he pointed out that his boots were rustic-looking for fashion purposes only, and he couldn’t risk getting them muddy. We turned around and went back to Maggie’s.

The rural, rustic countryside is very different than the urban, non-rustic Londonside. Maggie and I showed my dad the chickens that live in her backyard, the guinea fowls, and the two turkeys. There are some goats nearby too, and we ate some local goat cheese at dinner. A few weeks ago, there was a pen filled with roosters. They were all gone this time, and Maggie told us that they were now living in the refrigerator. Maurice, their owner, must have a large, not-too-cold refrigerator to house all those roosters! It doesn’t make too much sense to put them in there, since it’s pretty cold outside these days… But the French are weird, aren’t they?

On one of our drives in the countryside with Maggie, we had to pull over and hold our wallets tight. That's right, dear readers: we saw gypsies. As you can see from this candid shot of the wily caravan driver, there is a lot to fear when they come near!

Speaking of gypsies, on that same ride, we stopped by a neighbor's house to see Maggie’s friend - Polka. Polka's the old, arthritic horse that lives down the road and used to belong to gypsies. She couldn’t walk over to the fence to see us because her legs don’t work any more.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

My Favorite Nail Salon Ever!

I spent today walking around London's busiest shopping district on the busiest shopping day of the year - Oxford Circus on December 1st. I wanted to show him all the ways in which Londoners spend their time - riding on the Tube (pronounced "Chee-you-buh!"), taking pictures of yourself riding on the Tube, pointing at national monuments and historic blue-signs, shopping for things with Union Jacks on them, pulling out your map. Everyone on Oxford Street does all these things, and we fit right in. As we stepped out into the crisp, SE London air to go to the Tube station, I managed to capture a moment of pure good luck! No wonder we had such a great time on our outing...

As always, I looked for the natives. I really wanted my dad to see something authentic. Boy oh boy did I find what I was looking for: according to my English uncle, all the colonies prospered, thrived, and fed their hungry under the calm authority of the British Empire. No doubt they continue to do so still. Just look at the Indians playing bagpipes in spats in Soho on a Saturday Morning to get a sense of the real achievements of Indio-British citizens.

I mentioned in an earlier blog entry that there are very few nail salons in this town. This has been worrying me. As a long-time resident of 2nd Avenue in NYC, known for having the city's highest nail-salon per female ratio, it has come as quite a shock to me that a place that finally is starting to have just enough Starbucks to keep you from crossing the street for coffee fails to meet its citizens' cuticle needs. Well, you can only imagine my surprise and utter delight when I saw this particular salon in Soho... There's nothing that shows respect for a great literary poet slash artist like a thriving business in his former home.

Britain's consistent and respectful appreciation of literary genius continued to amaze me during my sojourn with my father. We happened upon this little "Pub" called "Shakespeare's Head." No doubt it was one of his favoUrite haunts when he was alive - maybe they even had a special seat for him in there. And if you have never seen a photograph of Shakespeare before, don't worry - there's one of him hanging right outside the Pub and a beautiful and realistic sculpture of him leaning out of the top window. It really gave me a start! But the real Shakespeare has been dead for nearly 100 years. Too bad!

Thursday, 29 November 2007

I Saw a Famous British Person Today!

Today I did the most English thing I could think of doing: I went to a movie! What no-nothing tourist would just waste their time in a foreign country by going and watching a movie? How about one dedicated to doing what the Brits do? No native is going to BO'VAH with seeing Tower Bridge or looking at paintings! But plenty of locals go to the movies! I guarantee you that I was the ONLY American present for the 3:45 PM showing of "The Darjeeling Limited" starring Owen "my nose is actually supposed to be crooked in this movie" Wilson. Not only was I most likely the only American, but I was practically the only PERSON in the theatRE. This GUARANTEES that I was the only American. I say "practically" because, for whatever reason, the "Gentleman's TOILET" (that's their word for "bathroom" here, for you Americans out there!) was located right in the theatRE.

The movie was great, but on to more important news: I saw a Famous British Person today! I was walking down the street in Islington after I saw the movie, away from the Angel Tube Station because there had been a fire in it or something, passing a car accident with a victim lolling and rolling on a stretcher on the side of the road, when walking by me was none other than Tobias Menzies (I think that's how you spell it!). That's right: TOBIAS MENZIES!

He is such a great actor that, while he walked by the scene of the accident, he looked genuinely concerned and curious about the incident that had happened (involving a bus and a woman). I nearly shouted, "E tu, Brute?" at him and started to smile when the moment had passed - as they always quickly do when you walk by a really famous actor. I have been hitting myself about it ever since. That would have been the perfect line, you know? Well, if you ever have the good - no great - fortune of walking by Tobias Menzies, you have a good line to throw at him. Just don't expect a repeat performance of the emotional gravitas I saw him affect today. It's not every day that someone gets hit by a car just in time to be passed by a Famous British Actor!

Jamie Oliver Sprouts a New Fan!

One way I've tried to learn about British culture is by growing fond of Jamie Oliver. He's a chef here in England and he has a great new show called "Jamie at Home" where he tries to grow his own food AND cook it. This is the first time this has been done on a cooking show.

In the episode I saw, it was a cold and windy "autumn" (they don't say "fall" here) day, and he went inside to this brick mudroom, completely filled with jars and tupperware containers. He removes the lid from a jar, reaches in, and pulls out some bean sprouts. Voila, salad.

Well, I don't actually like bean sprouts all that much, but I figured I could learn if it was so easy to make them.

Here is what you do in England if you want to grow your own sprouts:

1. Designate one room as a Sprout Room.
2. Go to Sainsbury's or Tesco. These are the only grocery stores here.
3. Buy bags of dry mung beans, adoki beans, or lentils.
4. Steal a few jars from your English uncle who told you he didn't have any jars as he stared at his jar collection over your head on the top of the cupboards in the kitchen when you asked him if he had any jars.
5. Put enough beans in the jar to cover the bottom. You'll think you should put more, but don't.
6. Fill the jar with water and soak beans over night.
7. Buy porous cloth to cover top of jar. Don't try to poke holes in any jar lids with the corkscrew your wino aunt and English uncle would miss if you broke and give yourself cuts on your hands in the process.
8. Affix porous cloth to top of jars with rubberbands filched from aunt and English uncle's desks.
9. Drain jars of water.
10. Fill and empty jars with water twice daily.
11. Eat sprouts after they have filled the jar.

My first crop was a success. I had two jars filled with mung beans. I love the taste! Especially when I hide it with oil and vinegar and cheese. Delicious!

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Journey to the CentRE.

I paid a visit to Oxford Street today to run some errands and explore my new foreign world. I shopped at Borders and drank a latte in its Starbucks. I made a great cultural discovery when I found out that when I say "Soy"-Latte, the deft employees translate that into "Soya"-Latte. It's the little verbal cues like that which distinguish the tourist from the "insider with an accent" - something I long to be!

Oxford street is teeming with business. I kept my head down and was fortunately wearing mis-matched coloUrs - so as not to attract attention as a tourist. I bumped into a man carrying a baby on his torso, attached there with straps. I nearly got mad, but then realized that it was a baby, not a bag or something. Good thing I have self-control, unlike so many people in this world (as I'm discovering)!

There are so many pickpockets here - the heirs to Jack Dawkins, I'm sure. I've never seen one myself, but that's the whole point! I look out for urchins with pageboy caps (definitely the pickpockets) and dusty chimney-sweeps (they will get your clothes so dirty, I'm sure!) as I wend my way towards H&M and Niketown. I'm just like a Londoner in these regards!

One thing I've noticed about Londoners - and I wish that this had been made known to me in my "Rough Guide" to the city, because I would surely have prepared better - is that it's truly acceptable to wear very dirty little shoes all the time. I have plenty at home, waiting for this trend to re-emerge! Why did no one tell me!? If you want to appear fashionable, boys and girls alike, you should wear very tight black jeans and dirty, dirty flats. I saw a boy wearing this garb today - and he was an American toboot! He was clearly spending a semester abroad, probably from Bard or Vassar or somewhere where it's perpetual-80s, and had taken up all the affects of young London. He and his American girl-compatriot were also going to Oxford Street to shop (like me, on the Jubilee Line), and his dirty little formerly-white Keds would have guaranteed his blending in. He was only betrayed by his accent and his less-camouflaged companion. She decidedly did NOT have the ubiquitous long fringe or dark, woolen tights-with-shorts-and-floppy-boots like most women here. I hope, for her sake, that her be-kedded friend was taking her to Topshop or something.

I am sorry to say that London does not have the supply of cheap nail salons that we do on Second Avenue on the Upper East Side. There is a "UV RAY Nails" establishment down the road from my aunt's place in New Cross Gate. I don't know what "UV Ray Nails" are, but they no doubt lead to cancer. There are, however, many many tanning salons. By the looks of things, no one has started using them yet. People here are paler than Clevelanders in January, but it's not like it matters because it's dark by 3:30 in the afternoon and you can only see people in the glaring lights of the tube. I am shocked that the nation is not suffering from rickets, en masse. I remember complaining last year about having to brave the ten minute walk from Truman High School to the 5-train on Baychester Ave. in the Bronx... I would leave school late at 6:00 and it would be dark. Now that I'm a world traveler and have gained some real-world perspective on things, I recognize my former myopia for what it was: ignorance. Next time you complain about the early winter sunsets, think of the poor, pale Brits walking down their High Streets, slinking too-quickly by the tanning salons.