Saturday, August 29, 2009

Geneva


In our never-ending quest to not spend a weekend at home, George and I took a day trip to Geneva, Switzerland this last Saturday. By train Geneva is only about 2 hours and 30 euros from Lyon, and hotels in the city are quite expensive, so we just decided on an early train in and a late train out. Geneva is not a very big city, but like London, all of its museums are free, so depending on what you want to do in the city, 1 day may not be enough. I would have liked to have more time to see more of the museums myself.

One of the many cool museums of Geneva


Geneva doesn't look all that different from most french cities. It has a small, ancient cobble-stoned picturesque city center surrounded by a slightly newer business and residential areas, all perched on the banks of Lake Geneva. Despite being one of the cities on the forefront of the protestant christian movements of the 1500s, it even still has the obligatory French catholic cathedral on a hill looking over the city.



Even though Geneva is a very French city in terms of architecture, language, and cuisine, it is also an extremely international city. Over half of the 500,000 residents hold foreign passports, and due to the presence of so many international organizations, there are even more temporary foreign residents to add to the international mix. I think Spanish was the language we heard the most on the streets, and English, Chinese, German and Italian were all common as well. And most importantly, the had reasonably priced Dr. Pepper and Pop-Tarts, and totally unreasonably priced, but very good Chinese food.

Geneva is a very expensive city. Some things, like soda, ice cream and most groceries were a bit cheaper than Lyon, but pretty much every thing else was quite a bit more. Restaurants are extremely expensive, and public transportation is expensive by French standards. Thumbing thru the real estate mags at the bus stop, I found real estate to be a bit high too. The Swiss pay less taxes than the French do though, so maybe it all evens out.

Geneva is also home to the European headquarters of the United Nations, and has been since its founding in 1945, which is quite strange considering that Switzerland didn't even join the UN until 2002. I suppose the UN guys just didn't want to waste all those empty League of Nations buildings, and the views of Lake Geneva probably contributed to the decision as well.

Entrance to the UN building


It's kind of hard to see in the picture above, but one of the chair legs has been broken off rather violently. This isn't just some expression of angst in modern art, but a symbol of the devastation that landmines are causing around the world--violently destroying a limb (or limbs) of about 50 people per day. Landmines are one of the most horrible devices man has ever created. They cost less than $10 to make, but absolutely destroy the lives of way too many people around the world, and countless livestock, pets, and wild animals. Landmines aren't actually designed to kill, but to maim. Killing the enemy is too easy, the enemy just buries their dead and moves on, but severely wounding the enemy affects the entire group--demoralizing the survivors, and slowing them down as they now need to care for a severely injured comrade. Despite this, about 50% of the people wounded by landmines die of their wounds, because landmines mostly plague the poorest countries which are the least equipped to deal with them.

There is simply no excuse for the continued use of landmines. All countries should sign the ban put forth by the international community in Ottawa. Over 150 nations have signed this treaty, but unfortunately the largest manufacturers and users of landmines refuse to sign. If you live in the USA, China, Russia, or India, please petition your government to sign this treaty and stop using these nightmarish devices.

For more pictures of Geneva (and less preaching), click here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bicycle Love


Velov is a portmanteau of the french word velo (bicycle) and the english word love (love), and is the name of a joint venture of the city of Lyon and a french advertising company to provide low cost bicycle rental service throughout the city and many of its suburbs. The city provides free space to park the bikes and some free advertising space as well, and the advertising company provides the bikes and maintenance and rental services for just enough cost to cover their expenses. I think it works quite well, and it is very popular in Lyon.

To use the bikes you have to purchase a membership card, and then you can rent a bike anytime you want just by swiping your card in front of a card reader at all of the bike rental spots. The membership costs 1 euro for a day, or 15 euros for an entire year, and there are weekly or monthly options as well. Once you have a membership, you can borrow a bike for up to 30 minutes for free, and then pay a fee of about 75 cents per half hour after that. I can bike from my house to work in 12 minutes, and in fact I can bike all the way across town in just about 30, so for most people the bike rentals are free once you have the membership.

This weekend I was able to convince George to take a bike out with me, and we rode out to the Lyon suburb of Villeurbanne, to check out some more of the interesting architecture of Tony Garnier (who I wrote a brief bit about earlier in this post).



When these buildings where built in the 1930s, they were the tallest buildings in Villeurbanne, and the neighborhood is still known as Gratte-Ciel (skyscraper) because of this. Real skyscrapers are actually extremely rare in France--the city of Seattle, Washington has more of them than the entire country of France--so I guess the name hasn't lost much of its significance since then.

The area is very well planned. Large streets, with wide sidewalks lined with many trees for shade, and plenty of caf├ęs and restaurants with outdoor seating for enjoying the nice summer weather. This street is also home to one of only two Starbucks in the Lyon area, and one of only a handful of Subway restaurants (although new Subways seem to be popping up all over the city now). The presence of these two restaurants is a big plus too, not because I am a huge fan of either (I don't even drink coffee), but because this was a sunday in August which means that nearly all of the french restaurants were closed, and the nice summer weather I mentioned above was a lie because it was about 94 degrees and humid, and American franchises all have great air conditioning systems



The neighborhood is also extremely white. All of the buildings are plane white with no color other than whatever flowers decorate the many balconies. It is also extremely clean, which is pretty rare for 80 year old white buildings. My friend Jouan at work calls it the communist quarter of Lyon, not because they have universal healthcare and good public transportation, but because everything is so orderly, utilitarian, plain, and white.

I liked the area, although I think it is a bit too far out from the things I want to be close to (work, mexican food, the store that sells dr. pepper, etc.), but like I said earlier, Lyon is not that big of a place, and this is only 3 more subway stops past my house, or an additional 15 minutes on the rental bikes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I'm ready for some (American) football

It's that time of year again. Teams have been in the camps for a few weeks, and the preseason games are starting. (American) Football is not that popular in France, so of the 8 sports channels I already have, none show any football (other than the superbowl), so when football season starts up, I call my cable company and add the "Full Sports" package, which includes ESPN America, to get my football fix.

My cable company is one of the most expensive cable companies in France, but it is also the only company that carries ESPN America, so they got my business. My cable bill will go up by 6 Euros per month (about 8 bucks), but I get another soccer channel, another soccer channel, a soccer channel devoted to the local Lyon team, another one for the local Marseille team, an extreme sports channel, and ESPN America.

ESPN America is not quite the same as the ESPN channel that you get in America. In fact the name ESPN America is quite nonsensical to me, shouldn't it be ESPN France?

The bad things about ESPN America are:

1.) No version in HD. Sports, and football in particular, were the whole reason I bought an HDTV in the US, and paid extra for the HD channels. ESPN America is only available in low-def.
2.) No NBA games. The NBA rights are owned by French channel Canal+, which costs about 30 bucks per month, and only shows a couple games per week, usually after midnight (live).
3.) No Sportscenter! Sportscenter is what made ESPN ESPN. Probably due to the lack of NBA rights mentioned above, but not having sportscenter is a big let down :-(

The good things are:

1.) No soccer. Probably because the 14 sports channels I now have that show soccer, and of course the big games come on one of the main public channels too, ESPN here doesn't bother to show any soccer. or tennis. I like soccer, and tennis, but I want my ESPN to focus on the sports the french channels do not cover.
2.) Lots of NHL. ESPN in the US doesn't cover NHL anymore, you have to get the Outdoor Life Channel (now Versus). OLC/Versus is not a bad channel, but it was not available on all cable companies in the US. ESPN here shows a lot of NHL broadcasts, including Hockey Night in Canada.
3.) More sports. We don't have Sportscenter, but we do have Mike & Mike and Pardon the Interruption in the morning, and in the evening we have NFL Live and Baseball tonight and shows like that. Outside of those shows in the morning and evening, all of the other programming is sports!
4.) Very few commercials! Like all channels in France, commercials are rare. If you are staying up late to catch games live (6 hour time difference with the East Coast) then you get the same broadcast as the US, with all the lovely commercials, but if you are watching the taped rebroadcast, all the commercials are stripped. You get to cram more sports into the same amount of time.

I just got thru watching the rebroadcast of the Hall of Fame game (the first game of the preseason), and I watched it in a little less than 2 hours (compared to 3 live), and in case you missed it, here is the best play of that game.

Monday, August 3, 2009

France is on vacation

Listening to the news this morning, the anchor said that 15 million frenchmen/women took to the roads and rails this weekend to start their summer vacations. They were joining 5-10 million of their fellow countrymen already on vacation, and will be joined by another 5 to 10 million next weekend. All togehter I would say that about half of the population in France will be on vacation this month.

We get alot of vacation in France. The government mandated minimum is 5 weeks, and most people probably get more than that. I get 6 weeks of vacation that I can take whenever I want, plus another 4 weeks of holidays and compensation for working more than 35 hours per week, and this amount of time off is not uncommon in France.

Apparently the French hate August--at least those who do not live in the mountains or on the coast. Everyone is gone. And not just 1-week of vacation gone, gone for the entire month. My inbox at work is full of "I'll be back on August 27th" emails from all the people leaving on vacation this week, and everyone has been asking me when I plan to take my summer vacation. Half of the restaurants near my work are closed (for the month), and even the library and post office is taking time off. I am in desperate need of some new eye glasses, but couldn't get an appointment until mid september (which I made in mid July) because all of the opthomologists are working on their tans.

Except for having to deal with all the closed shops and restos, I think this is a good time to be in Lyon. The sidewalks are less crowded, I'm almost guaranteed a seat on the metro, and if I had a car I am sure I would be happily chatting about the lack of traffic this morning. George and I saw Up in 3D on opening night, in the only theatre in Lyon showing the movie in English, and the theatre, which is normally packed, was 3/4ths empty. Restaurants, the ones that remain open, are less likely to require reservations now. And I was able to sit in the park by my house and read this weekend without getting hit by a rogue soccer ball.

I think I will continue to not take vacation in August.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Late night dinners

The video games industry is plagued by periods of crunch time--necessary overtime to make sure what needs to get done gets done. Games-in-development live a very precarious life and constantly need to prove their worth to their increasingly fickle frugal publishers, so from time to time we put in the long hours to make sure we have something impressive for the guys that pay the bills. And, of course, at some time you need to finish this game so the publishers can make all that money they gave you back.

I've worked for some companies that seemed to never stop crunching and others that seemed to manage these milestones better and work more reasonable hours. So far my stay in the land of the 35 hour work week has been relatively crunch free, but we recently had a few technical difficulties that led to late nights last week to (mostly) get things done.

Companies can ask (or force) you to work late, but they certainly cannot ask you to skip dinner, so when the late nights come a calling, the calls go out for Late night dinners.

Late night dinners in France are surprisingly similar to those in the states. First night we had burgers and friend chicken, or at least the menu had burgers and friend chicken, what we got was pretty much inedible. The burgers looked like they were made of plastic, and apparently had the consistency of play-doh. The fries looked like fries, but were cold and pretty much swished to a pulpy potato mess when you squeeze them too hard (like trying to pick them up), and the fried chicken still had feathers.

That's supposed to be bacon


Every piece had these weird thick hair/feather things sticking off it


The rest of the week's dinners were better. Tuesday night was Chinese food from a local place called Mendo's that has pretty good main dishes, but generally over-priced, over-salted, and under-tasty appetizers. Wednesday was pizza, and well, pizza is pizza (although the french are fond of putting raw eggs on top of their pizzas which might be a little weird for some Americans. Hi Dad!). Thursday was Indian, and I loves me some Indian food, and Friday I didn't work too late, so I just had a PB&J sandwich when I got home.

Click the crappy cell-phone pictures for bigger versions.