Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going to the Préfecture

My permission to live and work in France is conditional on my continued employment, and renewable in (kinda) 1 year increments from the date of my entry into France. I came to France just over 2 years ago in early Novemember, so every October I have to head down to the local préfecure to exchange money, photographs, and truely ridiculous amounts of photocopies for a 1 year extension on my stay here.

Now immigration procedures in most countries are pretty strict, tedious, expensive, and seem to be crafted solely to discourage legal immigration as much as possible. Having dealt with immigration in the US, and having friends who have dealt with it in various other countries, I think I am pretty safe when I say France takes the cake in terms of unecessarily complicated and useless bureaucracy.

At least the building looks cool

For most federal legal proceedings one has to go to the local préfecture and speak with a fonctionnaire. Préfectures are kind of like states, or maybe counties, and France is split up into 100 of them. My préfecture is fortunately just a 15 minute walk from my house, pretty much right in the middle of Lyon, but other than that little bit of fortuitous, there is nothing remotely pleasent about my (bi-, sometimes tri-) annual trips there.

As mentioned above, my permission to work here lasts for a period of one year, and then I must renew it for another one year period, ad infinitum. But that is only kinda true. Since my Id expires in November, I must go to the préfecture in October with my stacks of paperwork and in return, they give me permission to stay for just 3 more months, and at the end of that 3 month period I can return for my id card which at this point is now only valid for about 9 months (since it is dated from the expiration of my previous card, not when I actually receive it). So Id renewal therefore takes a minimum of 2 trips--one for the request, one for the pickup.

I say minimum, because this requires extraordinary preparedness on the requester's part, as well as a bit of luck that the préfecture is not too busy. Last year when I came back in 3 months, they apologized and said my card wasn't yet ready and they gave me another 3 month extention and told me to return for my real card. So by time I actually got my 1 year Id card, it was already 6 months old.

This year was a-whole-nother level of suck.

The worst thing about dealing with the French government is that everytime you pay them a visit, they have absolutely no idea who you are. Despite the fact that the French government has approved my stay in France 3 times (once for the initial visa, and two Id cards), every time I go for renewal I must bring all the same documents--birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, work contract, proof of address, etc. Of course bringing an up-to-date work contract and current proof of address makes sense, but birth certificate and marriage cerificate. I'm pretty sure my birth details haven't change since last year, and fortunately neither has my marriage status.

But that is the French way. Apparently they just toss all that paperwork I give them every year into the trashcan, and when I bring it all back the next year, they are so happy that a brand new person has immigrated to France.

So per usual, George and I get up early to get a nice place in line and head to the préfecture with our dead trees and passport photos. This is exactly the same paperwork I gave them last year, and the year before, with the exception of the work contract and my last electric bill which need to be up-to-date. After 4 hours of waiting we hand our paperwork to the nice lady and she tells us that the rules changed this year and we are missing a few documents and that we have to come back with all the proper papers.

The new rules require photocopies of EVERY PAGE in your passport, as well as a signed affidavit to not be a polygamist. Seriously, as if signing a piece of paper promising not to break the law was the magic bullet for ending crime. Okay I said, I have my passport, can I just use your photocopier to make those extra copies and we can continue? "Out of order" she says. It is at this point that I notice every single machine in the office has an out of order sign on it. From the freshly stocked vending machines to the coffee machine to the photobooth to the array of photocopiers in the corner. What, did an electro-magnetic bomb hit this place?

You'll have to excuse my cynicism if I do not believe that

Well, rules are rules, so we collect our things had to the nearest photocopier and come back in two days to enjoy another half-day at the government offices. After another 4 hours of waiting, we happily give our documents to the functionnaire expecting success to hear "I cannot accept this translation of your birth certificate, it is not certified by one of our certified translators".

What? We had this translated in the US, and it is the same document we used last year. Well, the rules have changed she tells us, here is a list of certified translators.

Well, 3rd times the charm right? After 500 Euros (about 700 bucks) worth of translations (work paid for them, not me) we came back and this time we are treated to seeing the police drag a guy out of line by his hair for cutting in line (right in front of us :-), so with this little enjoyment boost and our confidence that we finally have all the documents together we hand them over and finally get our 3 month temporary card in exchange. Yay!!! And it only took a combined 13 hours of waiting in line, and about 15 minutes with the functionnaire. I'm crossing my fingers that they will actually have our official card when we return in 3 months, but I'm not holding my breath.

Dealing with the government officials themselves is not an overly unpleasant experience, but the environment itself couldn't be more uninviting. The préfecture opens at 9am, but by this time already has a line of at least 200 people waiting outside. The interior space of the office is tiny, and all your paperwork is checked BEFORE they let you in, so most of your waiting is outside the office. Being outside by itself is not really a bad thing, but coupled with the fact that 35% of French people smoke (and about 95% of people waiting in line at the prefecture) and the French (and apparently most of those who wish to be French) genetic inability to form an orderly line, this ~4 hour wait ranks right up there with some of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. People bumping into me, cutting the line, and blowing smoke in my face while I am trying to stay warm in the early winter mornings is definitely not something I look forward to, and once inside things do not get much better. Sure you cannot smoke inside, but trying to cram 100s of people into a space made for about 50 has its own problems (seriously, there are only about 20 seats in this place, and standing room for about 20 more).

And to top it all off, a recent article in the French newspaper Le Figaro ranks the Préfecture du Rhône (my prefecture) the 5th worse in France for issues of immigration and identification. That is 5th worse out of 100! Some procedures take 13 times longer than the more efficient offices.

red is bad. I live in a red one :-(

Thank God for my iPod and GameBoy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Road Trip Part Deux

Veterans' Day is a national holiday here in France which means I don't have to go to work that day, and since it fell on a Thursday this year I decided to faire le pont and make it a 4 day weekend. Plus it's been cold and rainy in Lyon, so a trip to the sunny south of France would definitely be welcome. Conviently timed with our 4-day weekend, George's Sister Ming is currently working in Marseille, so we decided to take advantage of the free place to stay and make that our base camp.

Marseille is a perfect example of poor planning and even poorer hygiene turning an otherwise amazingly beautiful location into an amazingly ugly city, but it is smack dab in the center of some of the most beautiful parts of France. Plus as we have been to Marseille before, it made a good spot to park our car and our butts at night, but spend our days as much outside of the city as possible.

Old arena at Arles

We started our journey about a half hour north of Marseille in the city of Arles. Like most cities in Southern France, Arles was in its hay-day about one hundred years before the birth of Christ, which is when the Arena pictured above was constructed and it is still used today to host concerts and, unfortunately, bullfights. Interestingly the Spanish community of Cataluña just across the border from France has recently voted to ban bullfights, maybe the French will follow soon.

Romans like theatre with their gladiator fights too

There are numerous other roman ruins scattered across the city, in various states of (dis)repair. Seeing all the problems I had to deal with in my comparitively young 85-year old house in Seattle, I am always amazed to see 2,000 year old structures of any kind still standing, and the ruins around Arles are no different. During the next few days we would discover that these types of artifacts are fairly common in the South of France.

Nîmes has an old Roman arena too

Next stop, Nîmes. Other than being the birthplace of the (in)famous Jouan Amate, Nîmes claim to fame lies in its remarkably preserved Roman arena and the totally superfluous ^ character above the "i" in its name. The arena is currently also, tragically, used for Bullfights, and while the one in Arles, above, is older and bigger, this one has an awesome statue of a bullfighter in front of it, which is pretty cool to take pictures with.

Nîmes is also home to the best preserved temple of the Roman Empire. Built just over 2,025 years ago, it is still in great condition probably due to all the construction guys working on the front and right side of it (which is why my picture is of the left side, but you can still see some of the construction barriers). We've got one of these temple jobbies near Lyon too, in the suburb of Vienne, but this one is certainly in better shape. And it was sunny and warm when we visited this one, and cold and rainy when we saw the other, so this temple is apparently appeasing the gods better.

The Jardins del la Fontaine are apparently also one of those things you shouldn't miss when going to Nîmes, but we missed it, so you'll have to go to wikipedia to get your fix.

Le Pont du Gard

We missed the famous Gardens because we wanted to get out of town early enough to see the Pont du Gard (Bridge over the river Gard). This bridge was also build nearly 2,000 years ago as part of the old Roman aquaduct system, but aside from being big and old it was honestly a bit unimpressive. We also didn't really succeed in getting there before dark, so you should check out wikidpedia for some better pictures. Interesting factoid, the Pont du Gard owes its survival over the centuries to the fact that it was a very popular toll road for crossing the river, which shouldn't be suprising for anyone who has driven around the South of France where the only thing more common than old Roman ruins is toll booths.

After visiting France's first tool road, we went to the incredibly cool city of Avignon, but since it was super dark by this time, I don't have any pictures to prove it, so here is one from wikipedia.

Palais des Papes

Day 2 started with a visit to Aix-en-Provence (The waters of provence), which as its name sort of hints at, is famous for fountains, but I somehow managed to not get any good pictures of them, so next up a castle!

This castle is in Allemagne-en-Provence (Germany in Provence). Apparently there used be a few cities in France named Germany, but for some unknown reason the others all changed their names right around World War 1. The castle is apparently a bed and breakfast now and closed for the winter season (is it ever really winter in Provence), so aside from this view from the parking lot I don't have much to show.


Allemagne-en-Provence was the beginning of our journey following the Verdun river which cuts a Grand Canyon (their words, not mine, although to be fair those are both French words) thru the south of France, and eventually led us to the picturesque village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie above. Perched on the sides of some limestone cliffs, the city has a waterfall running thru the middle of it, a giant golden start hanging across the chasm behind it, and about half-way up that chasm an old chapel that surprisingly (to some of us) didn't have a bathroom. You can see the chapel and the star below (the start is the little shiny thing in the top, slightly right hand side of the picture)

After leaving Moustiers-Sainte-Marie we just followed the Grand Canyon back to the nearest highway and then back to Marseille for some rest before our last day in the south.

That Grand Canyon I keep talking about

Our last day in the south was to be along the famous Côte d'Azur (the blue coast or more commonly, the French Riviera).

We made it as far as the famous Saint Tropez pictured above, but by far the coolest city we visited on this trip was Bormes-les-Mimosas pictured below.

The village

The view

The winding streets of the old town center

The old tunnels and bridges

The old stone buildings and tile roofs

The us

I hope the pictures above do some justice to absolute beauty of this village. Every road we walked down, every view over the next hill, every well-preserved building or cobble-stone pathway, every plant which still had nice flowers in November--the village was simply gorgeous.

On our way back home from the South George and I stopped in the city of Orange to grab some lunch, and SURPRISE, Orange has an old Roman amphitheatre too. As you can also see from the picture below, as we left the warm, sunny south, we slowly returned to the cloudy, rainy Lyon.

The roman Theatre of Orange

There is still a ton of stuff we didn't see, of course, as we only made it about half way from Marseille to Italy, so all that stuff east of their (Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, etc.) will need to be explored later. To check our more pictures of this little part of Provence, click here

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Happy Halloween

I was never much of a Halloween person when I lived in the US. Sure when I was little and could get some free candy out of dressing up and trick-or-treating I loved Halloween, but once you get past a certain age dressing up and running door to door is just creepy and/or sad and not very likely to result in free candy, so Halloween just became another one of those nights where I just sit on the couch watching (scary) movies and pretend not to be home when someone knocked on the door.

But as the old saying goes, you never know what you got until it's gone. Halloween is not a big thing in France, although it is certainly gaining in popularity, so around the end of October every year, my holiday spirit starts to perk up a bit.

Halloween starts with Jack-o'-Lanterns. We were unable to find normal, American sized pumpkins so we settled for a couple small European ones. I also did not have any real carving tools (just a single kitchen knife), and more importantly no artistic talent of any kind, so the resulting Jack-o'-Lanterns are unlikely to impress most, but I am fairly sure they were the only ones on my street, so I was proud of them.

Costumes are the next most important thing for Halloween. As I am sure I have mentioned before, George and I have very few possessions, so spontaneous costume making is a really difficult task for us. There are a couple costume rental places in Lyon, but their offerings are either cookie-cutter and lame, or extremely expensive, so we spent a few days browsing and thinking before coming up with something we hoped wouldn't put us in the lame-last-minute-costume crowd. I have a few fake musical instruments laying around the house (Rock Band!), so George decided to be a hippie rockstar, and I always have a fridge full of cheese so I decided to be this:

La Vache qui Rit (The Laughing Cow)

Jack-o'-Lanterns: Check
Costumes: Check!
Party: Oh yeah

George pulling on my teats

A few friends of ours here throw a pretty rockin' Halloween bash every year, so we put on our dancing shoes and our new, cool costumes and went out to shake our things.

Happy Halloween Everyone!!!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tosh (May 8, 2002 - September 18, 2010)

Big dogs need big sticks

On Saturday September 18th, the greatest dog in the history of dogs laid down to rest and closed his eyes for the last time. The last few weeks had been tough, and he was ready to put this world behind him. Somewhere in doggy heaven a big, clumsy, goofball of a dog is chasing skunks or snoring, ridiculously loudly, on God's front porch.

Baby Tosh with his two brothers

We first saw Tosh when he was 5 weeks old. He was a discount dog as his future owner was deployed to Afghanistan and could no longer take him. His mother was a 125 lbs, solid black Newfoundland, and his father was the same black and white Landseer variety as Tosh. A winner of countless show competitions, Tosh's father was quite the stud dog, even fathering numerous puppies years after his death--including Tosh.

The breeder had brought the puppies outside for us to see, and locked the big dogs inside to give us a little quite time with the puppies. Tosh's uncle didn't like the idea of being separated from all the excitement outside, and as a sign of things to come he proceeded to lower his head and barrel right thru the screen door and made a bee-line for George. George was a bit freaked out by the big dog bearing down on her, but after a couple licks to the face and some playful bowing, she was quite enamored with the big guy.

The breeder also explained to us that she intentionally breeds smaller, more active Newfoundlands and all of her dogs were about 10-15% below the average newfie size. We thought this was great, as it was temperament and not size that attracted us to the breed, and really we thought the current big dogs she had were certainly big enough. We signed on the dotted line and she told us to come back in 3 weeks when Tosh would be ready to come home with us.

3 weeks later and Tosh had already doubled in size. At 27 lbs he was already a respectable sized dog, and by 6 months he was probably the biggest dog I had ever had. Despite the smaller size of his closest relatives, and the breeder's assertion that she breeds for smaller size, Tosh would end up being quite a bit bigger than than the average Newfoundland--35 inches at the shoulders and an average of 165 lbs.

Yes that is a full sized picnic table behind him

Tosh never quite understood how big he was. He preferred (to usually disastrous results) to play with the little dogs, his favorite spot on the couch was the smallest spot in between two people already sitting there, and he never let things like small openings prevent him from trying to get thru. Once while tied up outside a restaurant, he drug a solid stone picnic table about 8 feet while trying to get closer so some people that were making "Oooohhh he's so cute" sounds but were too scared of his size to get close to him. I couldn't push the table back to its original position.

One of Tosh's favorite playmates was literally 1/10th his size

As part of the puppy training classes we took him to, we were supposed to be able to lead our dogs off-leash thru a simple obstacle course. The course was pretty similar to the ones you see the pro agility dogs run--a small hoop to jump thru, some staggered cones to run the slalom, and an ramp leading to a short elevated platform. Tosh was never a fan of jumping, and generally preferred to keep atleast 2 feet on solid ground, so he simply ran into the hoop knocking it over, and being by far the tallest dog in the class, he slalomed thru the cones by simply walking over them and straddled the ramp and platform to the end of the course. The instructor passed him out of amusement.

One of the rare times Tosh got all 4 feet off the ground

Despite his struggles early on with obedience training, Tosh eventually became the best behaved dog anyone could want. He never chewed on anything, dug any holes, chased cars or any animals (other than skunks, unfortunately), and he only barked on command. Yes he frequently broke stuff, slobbered on stuff, and once while sick and trying to settle his stomach he ate nearly every plant on our newly landscaped patio, but those were not behavioral problems, just big clumsy dog problems.

Tosh makes a good blanket

Tosh spent the last 2 years of his life in doggy paradise. Grilled steaks for dinner, frequent treats from the neighbors, and new dogs in the neighborhood to play with. But as with all of us, age, and size, was starting to catch up with him. About a year ago he tore his ACL and spent a couple months hobbling around in great fear of any steps more than a couple inches high. He eventually recovered reasonably well from this, but age was taking its toll on other parts of his body. After weeks of listlessness and lack of appetite he dropped 20 lbs and was clearly having a tough time. Frequent whimpering and blood in his stool and saliva only made the picture more clear. Cancer and age had, unfortunately, claimed another victim and the world lost its greatest dog.

Tosh doing what he does best

Rest in peace big guy. There will never be another like you.

More pictures of Tosh here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Eastern Europe Part 2

[Disclaimer: As mentioned earlier my camera was misplaced in Prague, so all the photos in this post are of the crappy-cellphone variety.]
One of the many amazingly cool statues in Vienna

4 hours by train from Prague, Vienna is the current capital of Austria and the last capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Famous as the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Haydn, it is drowning in music halls, operas, and musical history in general. It is also, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in Europe.

Vienna was originally a Celtic city, but pretty quickly came under the rule of the Roman empire, and was even briefly threatened by the Mongolian empire of Genghis Khan as his son Ögedai marched the armies across Eastern Europe. After about 1500 years of being part of someone else's empire, they returned to championship form with 3 consecutive dynasties, the Badenberg, Hapsburg, and finally the Holy Roman Empire which later became the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and lasted until 1918, making it one of the most recent empires in Europe. Briefly occupied by the Nazis during WW2, and the Allies for about 10 years after, it very quickly regained its glory as one of the most prosperous cities in Europe.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Due to its long-lasting empires, and relatively benign occupations around WW2, Vienna's amazing architecture and riches accumulated during its time of power remain in really good shape. Rome's riches are mind-bogglingly cool, but being thousands of years old, part of the allure is imagining how magnificent Rome used to be. There is no need for that imagination in Vienna, the city still is that remarkable.


I'm not much for hopping on and off of tour-buses, so we didn't take any "official" tours of they city. We did, however, grab a map from the Mozart tour company, so we spent a day hopping from places that Mozart slept or played music and ended the day with a pretty magnificent performance of some of his most famous works by the Viennese Orchestra. After the unintentionally comic performance of American show-tunes we saw in Prague, this was an incredibly enjoyable performance (and a much better use of 25 Euros).

George Clooney is huge in Europe

Not having much need anymore for all the palaces, summer palaces, and other remarkable creations built just to show off imperial power, many of these amazing constructions are now put to more practical use as libraries, schools, or museums. We visited the Museum of Natural History in the aptly named Museum Quarter, and I think I spent as much time marveling at the architecture and statues of the old palace grounds as I did studying the museum exhibits themselves.

This is a science museum

The main library in Vienna is another of these amazing buildings. Located just behind the parliament in an extremely large and extremely impressive building that probably stressed the ability of lazy royalty to traverse its many steps, it was one of the first buildings in Vienna to have an elevator. While I am sure it was an amazing invention at the time, the lack of doors and the inability to actually stop (to let people load and unload easily) makes it a bit of an adventure for the more modern lazy among us.

cool elevator

Vienna is definitely one of the places everyone should get to at least once in their lives. For more amazingly bad cellphone photos (and videos) of Vienna, and a few from Prague and Berlin, click here. And please do a Google image search for Vienna too, to get much better pictures than my horrible photos here.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Eastern Europe Part 1

The three weeks I spent in Berlin were the last few weeks of about the past 2.5 months of putting in extra hours, so after wrapping things up there, George and I headed to Prague and later Vienna for a few days of relaxing before heading home.

Prague sucked!

Creepy statues in Prague

Okay, Prague didn't really suck, but getting your camera stolen can really ruin a first impression. Add that to the Czech people's genetic inability to smile, and your overall impression of the city might be affected a bit. Maybe it's just me (I can be a jerk at times), but Prague seemed like a pretty negative place sandwiched between the super-friendly cities of Berlin and Vienna.

More creepy statues in Prague

As mentioned above my camera got stolen, therefor the only pictures I have of Prague are the couple I took with my cellphone because I wanted to use them as wallpaper. So you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you Prague is a beautiful city (or just search google images, as there are thousands of photos to back me up). Despite the best efforts of the United States Airforce, Prague was remarkably damaged very little during WW2, so many of the historic buildings remain in excellent shape. The historic downtown, the bridges over the Vltava river, and of course the famous Prague Castle that dominates the skyline, are all just as amazing as the postcards make them look.

Check out the wikipedia article on Prague for more pics

Prague was a bit touristy though. Some things seemed quite expensive for what you got, and if you didn't specify up front that you wanted the cheap version, or the cheaper seats, you were automatically sold the most expensive version, without any explanation of the options. We got suckered into spending 26 bucks for seats that were only about 5 feet closer to the stage than the 16 dollar seats for a show that should have cost about 5 bucks at most. It looked promising from the outside--a large billboard that displayed a large band playing songs from various American musicals, but once inside it was a sole pianist and a singer who was occasionally accompanied by a saxophonist.

All three performers were definitely talented, but the production values were pretty low, the venue not very impressive, and the singer had the strongest Slavic accent I heard while in Prague. As she sung songs like Somuh Vere Dere sa Place fer Rus (you might almost recognize that from A West Side Story), I could only smile in amazement. Her voice was excellent, and she even did a bit of tap at the end that was pretty impressive, but she was extremely difficult to understand at times. I certainly do not want to poke fun at anyone's accent, I know I have a horrible accent when trying to speak any language, but I wouldn't even attempt to sing songs in a foreign any language in public, much less ask you to pay me for it.

Other than amazing architecture and unintentionally humorous musicals, Prague is also home to a ridiculous amount of Thai massage parlors. I'm not sure what brings all of these Thai masseuses to Prague, but if you have the endurance for that kind of stuff, the price is good and the service was friendly.

Does this look like massage to you?

I love when my wife rubs my neck or shoulders, especially after driving for a long time, or working in the yard or something, so I assumed that paying a professional for their massage services would be incredibly relaxing and invigorating. However, after paying the professionals at the Venitian Hotel's Spa in Vegas for something called a deep tissue massage, and then having someone literally stomp on me during this Thai massage, I have to say that I just don't get it. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, which is hard to imagine since I am just laying there, but professional massages just hurt!

Overall Prague was cool. But skip the pay performances and just hang out at the cool bridges listening to the street performers. They put on a better show, and you only pay as much as you like.

I leave you with this bit of street art from Prague.

The Infinite Ignorance of War

Monday, August 2, 2010

Three weeks in Berlin

Growing up in the USA I have a very specific, and most likely wrong, image of what a German city is supposed to be. I lived in (or near) the pseudo-German American tourist traps of New Braunfels, TX and Leavenworth, WA, and Octoberfest is probably the second most important holiday of any American city with a decent sized population of university students.

Leavenworth, Washington

So when I think of Germany I think of large sausages, sauerkraut, giant beers, and people in liederhosen. Berlin didn't exactly match my preconceived notions. In fact, it didn't even almost match them. Currywurst is more common than Bratwursts, sauerkraut was difficult to find, and I didn't see one person in liederhosen. Berlin definitely had its share of giant beers, but they also had beers like this:

I thought Germany had laws against stuff like this

Given the length of my stay, work put me up in a residential apartment, rather than a hotel. The apartment location seems to have been picked especially for me, as it was surrounded by asian noodle places, indian food, pizzerias, and even a mexican food place! All my favorite types of foods, and all places where the word 'vegetarian' doesn't mean fish. I didn't eat any meat (including fish) the entire time I was in Berlin, and I don't think I ever ate the same thing twice.

While the geographic location was excellent, the elevation kinda sucked. 6th floor apartment in an old building with no air conditioning and no elevator meant the first thing I did every day when returning home was take a shower, and while I originally thought the extra flights of stairs would be good for working off all the fatty foods I was eating, I quickly decided I would rather be fat. There is a reason God created elevators! And air conditioning!

But the apartment was cool (esthetically, if not temperature wise). Quite big and comfortable with a gigantic bathroom and the largest refrigerator I have seen since moving to Europe (about the same size as the normal (American) sized one I had in the US). It also had a pretty cool terrace, a TV from the 1980s, and a VCR. Seriously, a VCR?

The future of home entertainment

Since I didn't bring any VHS tapes with me to pass the evenings, I spent most nights out eating and exploring the city (oh, and working a bit too). At nearly 900 square kilometers, Berlin is a gigantic city. Roughly the same size as Dallas, Texas it is 18 times larger than the city I currently live in, and with a metro area of nearly 5 million people, it also dwarfs the 1.2 million that live in the Lyon metro area. Having gone to Berlin for work, I only had the weekends and evenings to do my exploring, and given the immense size of the city, I am sure I just scratched the surface, but I would definitely give the city the thumbs up. Tons of good food, SUPER bike-friendly, great public transportation, lots of libraries and book shops, cool history (although somewhat scary and depressing recently), numerous parks and public spaces, friendly easy-going people, and quite cheap--the city scores highly in all the important categories. The near total lack of air conditioning was a bit of a bummer at times as neither my working place nor living place nor 90% of restaurants had AC. Despite being nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 C) almost every day I was there, I was repeatedly told that it really doesn't get that hot in Berlin, so they don't really need AC.

To test out the bike-friendliness of Berlin, we decided to take a bike tour of the city. Fat Tire Bike Tours provided the tour guide and the bikes (my bike was named Chump, and George's was named Charles Barkley--practically synonyms), and miraculously the city provided the first sub 90 degree day all week, so we had a nice 5 hour city tour in great weather. I got great pictures of all the cool Berlin landmarks, parks and a good shot of me sneaking across the border at Checkpoint Charlie.

In fact, I took a lot of really cool pictures in Berlin. I am sure some of them are even Ansel Adams quality.

Artist recreation

Unfortunately due to my ever-worsening Alzheimer's disease and an unscrupulous store clerk in Prague, I no longer have a camera (or more importantly, a memory card) to extract those photos from. So if any famous magazine editors are reading this and some anonymous Czech guy tries to sell you some awesome photos from Berlin, give me a call.

But the disappearing camera just gives me a reason to go back.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Counting in French

Counting seems like a pretty universal concept. I'm sure as language was first invented, words to express various quantities of items were some of the first grunts we settled on.

Counting seems relatively standard these days too. Sure every language has its own word for one, but the concept of one remains the same. In fact most languages even have a remarkably similar progression of numbers--0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and we can combine these 10 digits to continue the progression for ever. 11 is very logically 10 and 1, 12 is 10 and 2, 952 is 9 hundreds 5 tens and 2. Quite logical, and it conveniently never ends.

These 10 digits of Indian origin (the country in Asia, not the natives in the US) have even become the standard for nearly all languages on the planet (at least by number of speakers). From English to Chinese to Russian to their origins in India, these digits mostly replace the native numeric representations for most pratical uses. When was the last time you wrote something in Roman Numerals?

Most humans have 10 fingers which are amazingly useful tools for counting in a base-10 counting system, but not all languages originally counted by 10. For example, the original Celts of Europe--who were famous for wearing no shoes and therefore having access to 10 additional counting digits--counted in sets of 20. Instead of having numbers like thirty, forty, fifty, etc. they would just have twenty and ten, two twenties, two twenties and ten, etc. Even in English we still have those weird words like eleven and twelve before we switch back to something that more resembles a base-10 counting system (thirteen, fourteen, etc.) and by 20 we are back to a very systematic base-10 system.

Before being conquered by the Romans, France was a mostly celtic country and some of that cultural heritage is preserved in their utterly bizarre counting system. The French, the champions of the metric system, do not even have a metric (base-10) counting system--at least not entirely. Things start out fairly similar to English and we count quite normally from one to sixty-nine, but for some odd reason the French have no word for seventy. Well, actually they do, they just chose not to use it, and instead the say sixty-ten. Similarly we have sixty-and-eleven, sixty-twelve, all the way up to sixty-nineteen for 79.

The French word for eighty is similarly unused, and instead we have four-twenties. Four-twenties-and-one, four-twenties-two, etc. leading up to four-twenties-nine, and after that, where we would logically expect a word for ninety, we get four-twenties-ten. I would have to say that there is no more horrible number in French than 99, which in this pseudo-base-20 counting system is four-twenties-nineteen!

As mentioned above, French actually does have words for seventy (septante), eighty (octante), and ninety (nonante), the French just chose not to use them. However, some francophones outside of France do use this more modern (and logical) vocabulary, as George and I were a bit surprised to hear when we were recently in Brussels. George purchased some fruit at a small grocery and the grocer gave her the price as nonante-huit (98), and George, being familiar with the weird French version, had no idea what he said. It took me a minute to realize what he said as well, and when I translated from logical Belgian French to weird base-20 French French, quatre-vingts dix-huit (four-twenties-eighteen), she immediately understood and the cashier and another customer in line laughed a bit at us.

We actually have some small remnants of this in English too. We are all familiar with Lincoln's "four score and seven years ago" entrance to the Gettysburg address, but outside of quoting old Abe, I don't think I have ever heard anyone ask for four score of anything, and I have certainly never been quoted a price at McDonald's as four score and eighteen cents.

Welcome to the 21st century France! You can leave your pre-historic counting system at the door.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Weekend in Brussels

The Grand Place

I've been working long hours and extra days a lot lately, so when the 3-day weekend for Pentecost came around the wife and I headed to Brussels for a few days of not-working and much needed recuperating.

Brussels is about 400 miles north of Lyon, and just over an hour flight time. It is the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, and the de facto capital of the European Union. Technically situated in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium it is a mostly French speaking city, but it seemed everyone we ran into spoke 3 or 4 different languages! It's a fairly big city with about 2 million people in the metro area, and given the abundance of international and European organizations located there, it is a very multi-cultural city too. Famous for beer, waffles, chocolate, the Smurfs, comic books, and the birth place of french fries--it seems to have just about all of life's necessities.

Creepy Tall People

We arrived in Brussels just in time for one of the coolest parades I have ever seen--the Zinneke Parade. I have no idea what the origins of this parade are, but every 2 years the people of Brussels come together and put on one of the coolest, weirdest, sometimes creepy, and most creative parades I have ever seen. There were no motor vehicles or giant balloons in this parade, just small hand pushed or bicycle pushed carts, and lots of cool costumes. Some bands and signing groups participated too, and there were even a few fire breathers and other carny folk.

Not sure what these are

The tall people 2 pictures above kept leaning over and whispering qu'est-ce qui se passe (what is happening?) while being chased by the whatever these things are clinging to the wall here, while the women below where chanting some children of the corn type music. It was really impressive and well rehearsed for a one time event in a biennial parade.

Imagine creepy choir music

The parade wasn't all creepy. The theme this year was à la table (at the table), so the displays were supposed to be somewhat food or dining related. This wasn't always apparent, like in the pics above, but there were some funny on-theme characters too.

Officer Green

Some acrobats

Looks like fun

and whatever this is

looks like something out of the Dark Crystal

Brussels is pretty cool when not putting on Tim Burton-esque parades too. The city is littered with statues, awesome parks, cool plazas, and to George's great delight a gourmet chocolate shop on every corner.

Crusher of sea monsters

Brussels, well Belgium in general, is also pretty famous for comic books and cartoons. The most famous of course being The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs in French), and less famous in the US, Tintin. I think the image below comes from Tintin, and there were many comic style artworks around the city like this one.

And Beer! France is well known for high quality wine, but is not known--for good reason--for high quality beer. I don't drink much, but when I do go out, or when I buy beer at the store, I almost always buy Belgian beer. Even the king of beers, Budweiser, is now owned by a Belgian company, and one of my favorite brewers in the USA is called the New Belgian Brewing Company (even though they are located in Colorado). So when I think of good beer, Belgium usually comes to mind.

George is not much of a beer drinker though. In fact, before this trip to Brussels I do not think she has even drank one entire beer in her life. Well she found a couple beers she could enjoy, and by the last day she was having her first beer before 10am just like a real pro.

You know you have a problem when your first beer comes before noon

Brussels also has a lot of great (and varied) restaurants. I had vegetarian chili for lunch one day! I don't think you can get any kind of chili in Lyon, and you can hardly get anything vegetarian either. Good Thai food, which is also pretty much non-existent in Lyon, was also pretty common, and I even ate at a Chi-Chi's restaurant. While I doubt the Michelin guys will be handing out any stars to the afore mentioned restaurants, it was a pleasant surprise and it's nice to have the options.

So we had a great time in Brussels. I think it was an awesome city, and I could definitely see myself going back a few times.

You will find more pics of Brussels here and more pics of the Zinneke parade here