Taking the train back from Auxerre the other day I got a live French lesson. Sitting across from us was a young tough guy, about twenty, wearing a permanent sneer and blocking the aisle with his legs. Originally he was sitting across from a pretty young woman, but after he wouldn't leave her alone she got up and moved.

So we're cruising along for a few minutes and suddenly the guy lights up a cigarette. French trains have been non-smoking for several years. I'm a non-confrontational wuss, particularly in French, but this pissed me off. Here's how the conversation went (in French, unless noted).

Excuse me sir, but this is a non-smoking train.
This place is non-smoking.
grunt, sneer
(English) What, are you just an ass? You can't smoke here.
leer. I can't understand you.
(French) See the sign? Non smoking. Do you understand it?
You cannot smoke here.
storms off, swearing
My accent is so awful it's immediately obvious I don't speak much French. I think the game he was playing was to pretend he couldn't understand me, so the fault was mine. Turning the question around on him fixed that; he could hardly admit he didn't understand the sign. Either that, or my increasingly loud voice was attracting more attention than he wanted.

Anyway, off he went to smoke somewhere else. Next to a grandma, who also told him off. He jumped off the train at the next stop. And me? Apparently I know enough French to stare down a punk.

  2006-10-28 08:32 Z
One of the more odious US credit card practices is charging "exchange rate fees" or "currency conversion fees" on non-USD transactions. I hadn't been paying attention but just looked and saw Chase is charging me 3.75% 3% on every purchase I make in France. At least they disclose the fee. American Express hides it, but looking at Euro historical reference rates it's either 2 or 2.5%.

Mind you, this is on top of all the other fees they charge both me and the merchant. And it's pure profit; their friction for a Euro denominated transaction is at most 0.1%. Why do they charge it? Because they can.

Surprisingly Wells Fargo is much better on ATM cash withdrawals. There's a flat $5 fee, so at $1000 an ATM visit I'm paying 0.5% for eurocash. I guess I'm gonna have to start carrying a fat roll.

Thanks to Walter for forwarding me this NYT article. Capital One apparently has a credit card without any stupid conversion fees.
  2006-10-27 13:51 Z
One of my favourite casual places to go on the left bank is Le Petit Prince de Paris, a comfortable and lively restaurant not far from Pantheon. The menu is sort of updated classic French; nothing too inventive, but not dull either. And achievable, with good ingredients and appropriate attention from the kitchen. But I like the place most because it has a good buzz. It's been a sort of gay restaurant for 20 years; nothing overt, not in a gay neighbourhood, but popular with young Parisian men. Lately it's been featured in a lot of food guides (including Zagat) so it gets a much broader mix of people. But it remains festive and comfortable and a place I'm happy to know and go back to.
  2006-10-23 19:33 Z
My friend Richard booked us into this restaurant near Madeleine the other day. He knew it in its previous incarnation as a Burgundian brasserie, complete with cheap brass plaques commemorating regulars' favourite tables. It's morphed into Chez Cécile now, a comfortable restaurant with an ambitious chef. I'm writing this too far after the meal to remember details, but there were a lot of touches of inventiveness on the menu that worked. Meat flavoured with smoked hay. Ravioli with coconut milk and vanilla. Etc. New cooking, not hidebound French tradition, and it worked. We'll be back.
  2006-10-23 19:29 Z
If you look in any guidebook for "authentic Paris bistro" you're likely to be sent to Benoit. It's been in Paris forever, was a favourite of politiians, bought by Alain Ducasse' prestigious company, and has even gotten a star from Michelin. But is it that good? Not really.

I've been twice in two separate years now and to be honest, the place suffers too much under the weight of its reputation. The clientele is 90% tourists, sapping the will and joy out of the staff there. The menu is classic bistro, which is to say a bit hackneyed. Everything is prepared well enough but nothing is particularly good. Nothing is bad either, and the service is very good. It's just uninspiring.

Paris is so full of honest and earnest places that there's no need to go to someone just making the motions. If you're looking for a good traditional meal in Paris and you're not sure how to find a place, by all means go to Benoit. It's certainly good. But if you want something interesting save the evening for somewhere new.

  2006-10-23 19:20 Z
Ken pulled a real gem out of Zagat last weekend; Le Caveau du Palais. Everyone wants to eat at a bistro when they visit Paris, but the truth is most "bistros" are crappy French short order restaurants with the exact same menu. Duck confit. Steak with shallots. Broiled bass. Steak tartare. Roasted chicken.

The difference with Le Caveau is it's very very good. The food is prepared with great care and excellent ingredients. The terrine du porc was homemade, they just brought out a big casserole and said "cut yourself as much as you want". My duck confit was one of the best I've had in a very long time, with fanastically garlicky and leathery pommes sarladaise. Ken's chicken breast with cream sauce and morels was perfect as well. Good wine list, too.

It's rare to find a simple bistro that does so well. Benoit is where most people will be sent, and you'll do OK, but Le Caveau felt more like the real thing to me. The location is phenomenal as well, in the middle of the touristy Cité island but in a quiet corner on a handsome square. It felt like the kind of place where all the Parisian ministers go for lunch. On a Saturday night it was very quiet.

  2006-10-23 19:14 Z
As pleasant as my apartment is, I live in the middle of tourist hell just behind Notre Dame. So I'm generally suspcious of the restaurants a short walk from my place. But there are a few gems here, including Le Brasserie de l'Île St. Louis. It's a 135+ year old Alsatian brasserie right on the island, just to the left from the bridge from Cité. And it's a lovely casual little brasserie, lots of hearty portions of sauerkraut and cured pork and the like. Lunch today was some lovely slices of roast veal served alongside cauliflower au gratin. Nothing subtle, but made with care, cheap, and delicious.
  2006-10-23 18:41 Z
Several times I've heard American friends complain about how when they go to a restaurant, they're stuck in a corner with the other Americans in "the bad room". I've had it happen to me too, but I've learned that it's not really hostility at all, it's the restaurant trying to make me comfortable.

Foremost, the non-smoking room is often the American room. French people don't seem to ask for l'espace non-fumeur very often, so the folks who want to eat their meal without smelling noxious smoke often end up being Americans. And secondarily, good restaurants often have one waiter who speaks the best English; you'll be assigned to his room as a matter of course. No insult intended, they're just trying to make you (and themselves) happy.

So go with it. And when the table next to you starts bleating loudly about their diets and stock portfolios, enjoy the pleasure that they can overhear you commenting nastily about them.

  2006-10-23 18:38 Z
Do you dream of going to Paris and eating in a little crowded hip bistro, inventive menu and a buzz? If so, Le Reminent is the place for you. Except one thing; it's bad.

Everytime we've walked by this place it was crowded with happy people. And the menu looked good. So tonight we went in and found a disaster in action. Ten minute wait to have anyone ask us about drinks or food. So we ordered food, asked for the wine list, then five minutes later are asked by the same person for our food order again. Lots of grumpy people sitting around demanding checks, service, etc. Clearly things were not going well.

The menu was ambitious but disappointing. My cod salad with capers was pleasant enough, Ken's croustillant of chevre was unimpressive. And both of us were served salad out of a bag. Partridge was a welcome item on the menu but came out overcooked and in a muddy brown sauce. Ken's steak was good meat, but again with the mud sauce. Desserts equally uninspired. Good? Earl grey tea flavoured creme. Bad? No other flavour.

The restaurant was packed with English speaking tourists, all smugly happy they'd found a sophisticated experience. The British forty-something gals across from us were drunk and taking two flash photos a minute. And the culmination of the meal service? The woman running the restaurant sat at a table in the middle of the dining room, patrons still having their meals, and proceeded to eat her own dinner and read a magazine. Shocking, unacceptable, and a good reason not to go back.

Sadly, about half the restaurants we go to in Paris seem to have similar lapses. I'll endeavour to write more about the good half.

  2006-10-22 21:29 Z
One thing that's new in Paris since my last time here is the semi-permanent encampments of people living on the streets. Not exactly the streets, but along the Seine and the Canal St. Martin. I have a few pictures if you're curious.

I don't know what mistaken progressivism is allowing people to move in but it concerns me greatly. I come from a city with a significant problem of people living in the streets and it's hideous. Downtown San Francisco regularly ashames me, particularly when I talk to visitors. Why would Paris let that happen to them? Particularly in a country with such extensive and expensive social support?

Judging by some of the signs I saw I gather there's a political point being made about the right of people to live in the streets of Paris. Bullshit. People have a right to a roof, but not a right to a tent in a public space in the middle of the city. My impression is social support in France is more than adequate to care for people too sick or poor to care for themselves. What's the problem?

  2006-10-22 17:03 Z
I'm feeling a bit homesick today. Nothing serious but I'm missing my cat, burritos, dogshit-free sidewalks, and running errands without linguistic adventures. But what I'm most homesick for now is an American shower.

The French may have given the world the bidet, but they have alarmingly bad showers. Shower curtains and sprayers are considered optional. It's common to find hotels with nothing but a tub and a handheld sprayer on a flexible hose. You cower in one corner of the tub, awkwardly holding the sprayer above you with one hand while trying to wash with the other. You rush and try your best not to spray outside the tub, but are inevitably ashamed of the swampy mess the bathroom has become.

A good American shower is a sybaritic pleasure. A solid watertight enclosure, allowing splashing and spraying with no fear. A large, high flow showerhead hung about 2 meters overhead, spraying out and down to soak you. The best showers are large enough that you can stand fully in the shower without the water touching you, but even the usual bathtub arrangement allows plenty of room for soaping, relaxing, lounging.

  2006-10-19 12:07 Z
I used to think Vegas was the tackiest place on earth. Now I've visited Versailles. It's all beautifully done, don't get me wrong, but so excessive and so fake (down to the "marble" columns) that I ultimately found it depressing. I can almost understand the beastly behaviour after 1789.

The grounds are very beautiful; excellent site architecture, placed on top of a gentle hill with expansive gardens stretching out on all sides. Great statuary too, although a lot of it was covered; made for some creepy photos.

I'm glad I checked Versailles off my to-do list, but I wouldn't recommend it unless it's a warm sunny day and you feel like a garden stroll.

  2006-10-19 08:38 Z
I've been playing with geotagging, GPS, etc while in Paris. On the geowanking mailing list there's been a fascinating discussion of DRM applied to geodata. Geodata is such a new field that at the moment it's mostly DRM-free. Then again there's not much good data, either, and what exists is jealously hoarded. Here's a bit I wrote for the list about my fears of the future.

Let's say I buy a GPS device from Gargellan to help me be a tourist. It comes with all sorts of cool data telling me which places to go, where to eat, some nice walking tours with useful audio annotations, etc. The device itself is dirt cheap, say $50, but Gargellan sells me the data on a subscription basis for $5 a day. Sort of an iPod for GPS.

My fear is what restrictions that device and the data will have on it. Will I be able to merge in other data from openstreetmap or wikimapia to augment my tourist wanderings? Will I be able to export the walking tour I took to Flickr so I can easily annotate my photos? Am I stuck with the Zagat restaurant ratings that Gargellan made a deal to supply, or can I buy Michelin ratings too even though Gargellan doesn't like Michelin?

If the GPS device market follows the music player market, I fear the answer to my questions will be "no". Because Gargellan's business model will demand that they not let me use the data the way I want. Cheap-device expensive-data is a very common business model, but it's technically fragile because it relies on the data staying expensive. For the past ten years tech companies have increasingly been turning to DRM to try to keep that data expensive. And DRM sucks; not because I have to pay (I don't mind), but because I in turn can't do useful things with the data.

We can be purists and say we will only use non-proprietary devices and free data. But that's an uphill battle. In the meantime commercial companies are going to be designing the hardware and software that ordinary people will be using. Will those products be awful closed platforms like cell phones? Or open friendly platforms like pre-trusted-computing PCs? Or somewhere inbetween?

  2006-10-17 07:42 Z
I am now exhausted in France. After a couple of weeks of wondering what I should do with myself here, I suddenly find myself with 600 photos to edit, 4 books to read, two trips to narrate, not to mention all the daily routine of Paris.

I had a nice few days in the Loire followed by a nice few days in Bretagne and Normandie. Lots of detail to come, but I have to say now that travelling in the countryside in France is the best thing ever.

  2006-10-14 19:22 Z
The Canon i80 is good hardware. It's a portable colour printer that runs on batteries. It's no longer made, but the Canon i90 looks to be the successor.

I made all sorts of fun of Ken when he bought this printer. Who needs a portable printer? Turns out wedo. We've taken it to Zürich and Paris with it and it's a huge convenience to be able to print train tickets, maps, photos, etc.

The print quality and speed is quite good. It does a good job on colour photos if you use good paper and it's great at quickly printing off a few black and white pages. It's reasonably portable but it's not petite. About the same volume as a laptop, but thicker and shallower. The builtin battery is surprisingly useful; no need to find a second outlet just to print a page or two.

  2006-10-09 17:08 Z
Do not assume you can find a cab at 19:30. Even if it's Wednesday, the weather is lovely and you're in the middle of the city. Being dressed to the nines for an evening at Pre Catalan will not help. The Parisian taxi driver won't be impressed by your cufflinks. He already has a fare.

What should have been a pleasant cab ride through the Bois de Boulogne towards one of the best restaurants in Paris ended up in a hellishly stressful hour plus search for a cab. We finally gave up and took the metro to Porte Maillot, nearer the restaurant and with a cab stand. Even there we waited 10 minutes.

Time to learn how to reserve a taxi by the phone.

  2006-10-05 17:41 Z
Paris is best taken at her own pace. And while the Musee d'Orsay is the #1 essential visit for any visitor to Paris, it can be a difficult place to pace. Hour long waits to buy tickets, giant crowds, a lack of good nearby dining. The solution for the tickets is easy; go a day or two in advance and buy tickets at the nearby kiosk. Then the day you visit you whisk right inside, no wait. (Except for today, where the kiosk was perversely closed.)

The solution for dining was also easy, but alas has gotten harder. There is a serious restaurant inside the museum, on the second floor in a beautifully restored ballroom. Alas, the service has gone downhill significantly since last year; the lack of linen makes the place feel just a bit too much like a dismal cafeteria. The menu is still slightly ambitious and the execution is still just as uneven. Our filet of pork was great, the entrecote serviceable, but the mushroom terrine was watery. I can recommend this place for lunch, but only as a comfortable part of an extended visit to the museum. It's a shame they gave up on the tablecloths and other trappings of a real restaurant.

  2006-10-05 15:42 Z
On Flickr there's a useful thread describing a quick trick to make colours pop. You take your photo, convert to Lab color mode, then compress the a and b colour channels. This has the effect of making colours generally brighter at the cost of destroying some detail in intensely coloured parts of an image.

Not always a good idea, but it can make certain pictures look better. I've done it to about 5% of my photos I put on Flickr. To make life easier I've created a Lab color pop action set for you to download. First you should try the method manually once to understand what it's doing.

  2006-10-05 15:28 Z
The entitlement of Paris is no matter where you are, there's a comfortable little restaurant a block away. In the middle of the city there's a lot more than one little restaraunt, so finding the comfortable one can be a trick. For today's lunch A La Tête D'or was just the thing only a block from Chatelet metro.

The bistro is run by a family from the Aveyron, but other than the advertised Aubrac beef I have no idea what that would mean for cuisine. The menu was quite pleasant though, straying far from the usual steak/chicken/fish dishes of the everyday Parisian bistro. I had a nice little filet of lieu jaune (pollack), a firm white fish like a cod served in a green herby sauce. Being in a hurry I appreciated the rapid service, but the fish came out a bit too quickly. I fear it was not prepared to order, but it was quite tasty. A little pichet of rich white wine, a homemade tarte tatin, and I was done with a very pleasant lunch 45 minutes and 28€ later.

BTW, across the corner is a pleasant patisserie where I bought lovely croissants a few years ago.

  2006-10-03 14:49 Z
My first (and so far only) outing from Paris was a quick trip up to Brussels, to see a friend visiting there for EuroOSCon. I'm sad to say that Brussels lives up to its reputation, a dreary and boring little business city. What surprised me most was how ugly so much of the architecture is in the middle of the city, a lot of 60s/70s concrete brutality. It's not all bad; the Begijnhof is handsome, there's a cool shopping arcade, and the center square is quite a showpiece. But overall? Not such a beautiful town.

We did eat well. We were steered the first night to L'Huîtrière, a seafood place built at Brussels gone-100-years docks. Excellent fresh fish, comfortable room, nice dinner. I was a bit disappointed with our second dinner at L'Maison du Boeuf, not because anything was bad about it but because for a place of its reputation (and price!) you expect excellence, and it was merely very good. The best surprise was Aux Armes de Bruxelles, an excellent old world place with gentileness and charm smack in the middle of Brussels tourist hell. I had moules frites just because I felt obligated, but my friends did much better with careful lobster preparations with cream sauce. Excellent place, I strongly recommend.

  2006-10-02 14:47 Z
My friend Richard took me to Les Marronniers first, for a quick lunch across from BHV in the 4th. It's a casual sort of cafe, excellent salads and small sandwiches. I went back with Ken because we were jonesing for the promising looking American-style hamburger, which was OK but a bit of a disappointment. Should have had the Sunday brunch like everyone else!

I believe in the afternoon / early evening this doubles as a place for a quick glass of wine for the young gay men that suddenly appear all over the Marais. Tres gentile.

  2006-10-02 14:39 Z
Camille is another fine Bistro in the Marais, Despite being in the center of the tourist zones of the 4th Camille seems to cater more to folks on lunch break or out for a Parisian stroll. Alas I've forgotten what we ordered, but I imagine we'll be back and I can report more then.
  2006-10-02 14:33 Z
I've been to Au Bourguignon du Marais in the 4th twice now. It's a straight up bistro, simple French dishes, with a burgundian slant and a good wine list. The outdoor seating is quite pleasant on a quiet seat and the kitchen and staff are serious enough to make for a very good lunch.

Some favourite dishes.. A blanched tomato and fresh goat cheese salad, the classic hangar steak with shallots, and a surprisingly robust penne with chorizo. They also feature andouillette and it looks good, but I'm just not quite brave enough. Last time we were there we had a fantastic chocolate tarte, way better than anything else like it in Paris. Creamy and eggy, rich with chocolate but not too dense. Yum.

  2006-10-02 14:29 Z
If you want a slightly odd and rustic experience in Paris, check out ChantAirelle in the 5th. It's a simple restaurant featuring recipes and products from the Auvergne, plus a bit of touristy stuff stuck on front. Don't fear though, the staff is friendly and the cooking is good. Nothing we had was subtle; this is casual mountain food. But the potatoes and cheese dish was tasty with a delicious thin sliced ham. My "salmon trout" turned out to be salmon prepared as if it were a mountain trout; a bit bizarre, but good.

I'd say this place isn't worth a particular trip, but if you're tired of the Parisian experience you can get a bit of Auvergne feel for a cheap price. Nice outdoor space in back, too.

  2006-10-02 14:23 Z
An excellent and innovative French place in the 15th, Stéphane Martin is what I keep expecting to find in Paris and missing. The chef is quite ambitious, with a changing and challenging menu. The highlight of our dinner was an Indian preparation of rabbit; quite strongly spiced but with the subtlety and integration of a French chef.

While the cooking is great the service is a bit uneven; it almost feels like they hired untrained staff. But they're nice and attentative, just a bit clumsy, so go with it and it's fine. The entire restaurant is non-smoking, a welcome thing.

PS: I promised to write more, and I will, but got sick of writing up the places I didn't like.

  2006-10-02 14:20 Z
Zmodem is a good protocol. Back in the pre-internet days I used to spend hours breathlessly watching warez transferring at 300 baud over my modem from some Apple ][ site. Things got a lot more reliable with the xmodem protocol and, later, zmodem. Checksums! Block resends! Resuming midstream! Amazing.

I still use zmodem on occasion to transfer files from my Windows laptop to my Linux server. With all the firewalls and security crap it's a lot of effort to do a proper TCP/IP file transfer, but all I need is an open terminal session and rz/sz and I'm set.

  2006-10-01 10:51 Z
Bread is serious business in France, but not all bread here is good. Even the simple baguette has huge variation. Now thanks to my friend Marc I know how to articulate the difference between the good and the bad.

A good baguette starts with an open crumb, an airy interior texture with different sized holes. This structure is the result of careful handling and longer proofing and is one of the visible marks of a good baguette. Of course what really matters is the taste and texture, but the easily-visible crumb structure (miette) is a good indicator.

I've been buying baguettes all over town as an experiment. And almost every shop has mediocre baguettes, including the fancy gourmet store (1.05€), the place with fabulous croissants (0.90€), and the permanent boulanger in Place Maubert (0.90€). But the best bread I've had so far comes from just around the corner on the tourist-swamped streets of Ile St. Louis (0.80€). It has enough flavour you can enjoy it plain, good chewy bite, and yes, the open crumb.

See also this sinister explanation for lousy Parisian bread
  2006-10-01 08:55 Z