Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Oh Yeah?

One of my brothers-in-law (and I have many), who was an avid reader of my Paris blog, told me the other day that this blog is boring. Okay, well he phrased it a little more nicely than that but I got the message. So Mr. Buster, you call this boring? Here are some amazing things that I've seen out and about in DC.

This might make a nice gift for your mother-in-law, your sister, or maybe your office gift exchange. You know you need this:

I'd keep a good distance from the person whose car was sporting this bumper sticker.

Most Americans have too much stuff. Even the homeless people have too much stuff.

And this is my milieu most days...okay well maybe that really is boring.

That does it; I'm off to work. I'll try to be more interesting in the future. Satisfied?

Monday, November 28, 2011

DC vs. Paris: Part VII

Vélib’ in Paris

And in DC, Capital Bikeshare

Capital Bikeshare has been around since 2008, a year after the launch of Paris's wildly successful Vélib’ program, itself modeled after a program in Lyon. DC's program has been judged a success with over 116 stations in the District and Arlington, over 1,100 bikes, and more than 1 million rides taken. But that's just a piker compared to what you can find in Paris and 30 surrounding communities: a total of 1,800 stations and 20,000 bikes.

Why the difference? For starters, using bikes for transportation has a much stronger history in Europe, enduring from the days of World War II when traveling by car was out of the question. A second distinct but related point is that the vast majority of folks who bike in DC do so for exercise and dress accordingly. You may see a guy in a suit on a bike but trust me, you will never see a woman in heels. Third, Paris is a mixed use city: virtually every neighborhood is a place where people both live and work. There are mixed use neighborhoods in DC but the dominant theme is work downtown, live elsewhere.

A final issue, one still not fully dealt with in DC, is the issue of the helmet. While in my opinion, there are still far too many cyclists going helmetless, there is a sense that a helmet is essential to a safe bike ride. Capital Bikeshare acknowledges this but still hasn't figured out how to dispense helmets at unmanned stations, especially when helmets can't be adjusted for size and people understandably don't want to share headgear. Although the Vélib’ Web site notes, "Port du casque recommandé," you rarely see a Parisian wearing a helmet. If you do, it's a good bet, he or she is actually from the U.S. or Canada. In fact, there have been numerous serious accidents with Vélib’ (including at least six deaths) but thankfully nothing comparable has occurred in DC.

As for me, I'm sticking with the Metro as my preferred method of transportation in both DC and Paris. Kudos to those who long as they wear a helmet. If you're not convinced, I suggest you watch this short video.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Too Cute for Their Own Good?

Perhaps we made a mistake not bothering to assemble a "cellar" of French wines while we were in Paris. It was one of those decisions made by default, a function of not enough time, expertise, and willingness to figure out both the customs issues and where physically to put it all upon our re-entry.

I enjoy wine and I do think I've gotten better about figuring out what I like and don't like, what's worth paying extra for, and what's worth passing by altogether. Yet while I'm scarcely a snob, I really can't imagine bringing these bottles to the register.

If you know differently, let me know. I'm always on the lookout for a good value.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Meanwhile Out in the Midwest

Today, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, may be the worst possible day to travel in the U.S. Everyone is on the road trying to get to Grandma's house (or wherever family gather for their turkey dinner) and the weather is always horrible. I've spent the Wednesday before Thanksgiving on I-95 and on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, stuck in traffic outside Mystic, Connecticut; Albany, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; and St. Louis, Missouri; in airports and rental cars; and all I can say is that if I never have to do that again, I will be a happy girl.

As you might have gathered, I'm not going anywhere today. But having done some travel last weekend (as evidenced by the photo of the plankers in Kansas City), I do have some other pictures to share from that neck of the woods.

First something you'll rarely see on the East Coast. Not that we don't have tornadoes on the East Coast but I suppose they're more common in Missouri (which after all is right next to Kansas, home of Dorothy Gale and her beloved Toto.)

Then, this sign, which never fails to crack me up when visiting my husband's hometown which is up to 3,000 some residents, up from just 1,234 when he was a kid.

And if you can't tell much about the sign's surroundings from the photo above, let me just share with you a photo shot just 10 minutes down the road.

God bless America in all her diversity. And a happy Thanksgiving to you, dear reader, wherever your travels may take you.

Monday, November 21, 2011


What could be more fun than lying face down in a public place and getting your picture taken? When I saw these teenage girls gleefully face planting themselves inside the rental car center at the Kansas City airport last weekend, I was clueless as to what it was all about. My kids, ever embarrassed by their hopelessly outdated mother, informed me that this is known as "planking." And outdated though I may be, my curiosity sent me to Wikipedia to learn that planking:

is an activity consisting of lying face down in an unusual or incongruous location. The hands must touch the sides of the body and having a photograph of the participant taken and posted on the Internet is an integral part of the game. Players compete to find the most unusual and original location in which to play.

As this thing goes, I suppose it's fairly harmless. What I really don't want to think about, however, is that floor, walked over by thousands of travelers daily, subject to spills and heaven knows what. But maybe it's just me. Shortly after I shot this photo, the mothers of this threesome got down on the floor and had their own pictures taken.

Friday, November 18, 2011

DC vs. Paris: Part VI All The News That's Fit to Sell

This bank of newspaper boxes is quintessentially DC. I well remember my sister, a New Yorker for many years, being taken aback by the sight on one of her visits to DC long ago. In her New York existence, you got a newspaper from a real live vendor sitting in a real live kiosk. Not so here.

In Paris, the newspapers that are sold still come from kiosks along with magazines, maps, postcards, gum and mints, and the occasional trinket.

In Paris, I only bought the newspaper once a week, Le Figaro on Wednesdays for the Figaroscope entertainment inserts. Otherwise, I made do with the free papers they gave away in the metro and as a consequence, I didn't have a personal relationship with the kiosk operator. In DC, I am happy to find my newspaper on the front lawn every morning. As for the fellow who throws it from his car window into my yard, he's usually long gone by the time I open my front door.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Paris Me Manque (even when I pretend otherwise)

The other day my husband mentioned in passing that his work will likely take him to Paris for a few days in December. And there in the dark green cloud of jealousy that suddenly surrounded me, I realized I was homesick for Paris. Here I had been telling myself (and everyone who asked) that I didn't really miss Paris, that I loved our time there, but that it was nice to be back in our own home, our own neighborhood, among our own friends, that it was good to be back to work, and it turns out that that's only partly true.

The logical part of my brain knows all that. It also knows that we had four years in Paris, an existence made possible by an expat package that gave us free rent, free utilities, free international school tuition, and the freedom to enjoy it all. It knows that life in Paris wasn't all wine and roses. And that my husband's business trip to Paris will be all work, no play save for maybe a half hour walk in the quartier around his old office building or a quiet dinner out. But there's another part of my brain that's suddenly longing for a first Wednesday of the month walk in the countryside with my hiking buddies, a warm baguette slathered in French butter and fig jam, the sight of the Eiffel Tower and streets lined in Hausmannian limestone and wrought iron, and even for the sound of French being spoken.

Sigh. It's not going to happen, at least not any time soon. Time to stay focused on the beauty of turning leaves, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, a weekend in my husband's hometown with his family, hot salsa and warm bagels, a  well-paying job that exercises my gray cells and management skills, one daughter singing at the Kennedy Center, the other rising to the challenge of a three mile cross country race. My life is good. And Paris was good. Just not now.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Capitol Hill

While the rest of the world knows Capitol Hill as the seat of the U.S. Congress, Washingtonians know that it's also a great neighborhood, at once both intimate and stately, yuppified and rough around the edges. It's where I lived when I arrived in 1983, jobless with little furniture, in a roach infested apartment where the bathroom was in the hall just beyond our locked front door, just above a corner grocery that had seen better days. And it's also the site of my first real Washington home, a rented room in a typical rowhouse, where the landlord quickly became my dear friend, the scene of late nights laughing, creative cooking, and Sade playing on the stereo. And then after that, it was the place where I had my very own apartment, albeit with a one-butt kitchen and no air conditioning.

When the time came to buy a house, my husband and I hopefully looked at several Capitol Hill properties and finally realized we could get more for our money and fewer home renovation worries if we bought a house in Upper Northwest. But my enthusiasm for Capitol Hill has never really waned and it was great to be back there recently, passing by the places I lived, seeing how the neighborhood had both changed and endured.

Green and low rise, lined with nineteenth century mansions and early 20th century rowhomes, Capitol Hill is kind of the place where you know your neighbors because you see them every day walking dogs, tending their tiny yards, and sitting on the stoop, watching the world pass by.   And though parking is at a premium, there's actually precious little traffic except for on a few main arteries like Pennsylvania Avenue and East Capitol Street.

Quiet streets

Great architectural details.

Amazingly enough, this quiet alley is just two short blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress.  It feels like miles and decades away from the hustle and bustle of lawmaking.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Xmas Fail

Is it just me or is there really something that's just wrong about filling Santa's pants with candy and nuts (!) and calling that an appropriate gift for Christmas? And don't get me started about the push towards the biggest shopping event of the year. They swept that Halloween candy off the shelf on November 1 and replaced it with rows of wrapping paper, tinsel, toys, and chocolates. If you don't believe me, head to your neighborhood Safeway where Santa Pant are stuffed with peanuts and pistachios.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Art In Situ

A tip of the hat to my younger child, who walks a good mile each way to school each morning (and back in the afternoon), for pointing out these fascinating sculptures hanging in the yard of a house several blocks over.  I don't know who lives there but I sure admire their sense of whimsy.

This mobile appears to be made from trays:

This one from barbecue grills (if you know your math or if you've read The Phantom Tollbooth, you'll recognize this shape as a dodecahedron:

And this one (a bit on the dark side) of umbrellas:

Who needs a museum when you've got neighbors like this?

Monday, November 7, 2011

DC vs. Paris: Part V

When making comparisons about history, DC doesn't stack up very well against Paris.  On the one hand, you've got a town that had its origins long before the Romans and on the other, well let's just say that when Washington, DC was created as the capital of the U.S. in 1791, it was little more than a wide spot in the road.  True, there had been Native Americans in the area for thousands of years prior, but today, precious little remains of their dwelling in this area. 

In Paris, it's not unusual to run across an inscription like this:

(In case your French and French history are in need of refreshing, the event noted here took place in 1610.)

And though there's no shortage of more recent history that's marked in and around DC, these two markers are more in keeping with the American notion that history doesn't matter.

But don't think this is the last word on the subject from me.  DC's short history has plenty of great stories and I look forward to sharing some of them with you.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What's in A Chip?

If you read my Paris blog, you may know of my interest in potato chips as an indicator of differences in tastes across cultures.  (If not, take a look here and here.)  So naturally, after discerning the differences between the French, the Spanish, the Czechs, and so forth by their preferred potato chip flavor, it was only right that I consider what potato chip flavor defines DC. 

In my field work, I found that, during my four year absence from American snack foods, the potato chip aisle has exploded with options.  You still got your Lay's and your storebrand, but now there are dozens of new flavors and even artisanal offerings.  Truly the mind boggles at the attention American industry has paid to this aspect of consumer spending.  If we could only direct that energy into more pressing needs like say, figuring out what to do about global warming or implementing President Obama's health care plan, just imagine the kind of world we might be living in.

But I digress.  If you were to pick a chip flavor for the U.S. in general, I think you'd have to go with the classic.  And for Washington?  That's a toughie.  The closest I could figure were these Chesapeake Crab chips although the folks down Annapolis way would probably take issue with that.  

So I'll put it to a vote.  For my neighbors in DC, what do you think?  And if you're logging in from elsewhre, what potato chip flavor defines where you live?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Library of Congress

It's been years since I last visited the Library of Congress and to be perfectly honest, had I not had an urgent need for a pit stop while in the neighborhood recently, it might have been many more years before I got around to visiting again.  It's all too easy in a city full of monumental buildings to forget just what those buildings are all about.  In case you're wondering, although the institution itself dates back to 1815, when retiring President Thomas Jefferson donated over 6,000 of his own books to start the collection, the building that stands today across from the Capitol and the Supreme Court dates from the end of the 19th century.    Since that time, the facilities have expanded to include several more buildings to hold its massive collections.  According to the LOC Web site, "The collection of more than 144 million items includes more than 33 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 63 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings."

Despite numerous past visits, to see the beautiful reading room or to take in the ever changing exhibits, I had forgotten just how lovely it is.  But don't take my word for it; see for yourself.

And if you're wondering where the picture of the famous dome might be, let me inform you that the main reading room is off limits to amateur photographers.  But there's plenty of snapping going on in the gallery.

My visit that day only allowed for a visit to two exhibits: one featuring objects and manuscripts belong to George and Ira Gershwin, and another of 19th century lithographs of Paris.  But there's lots more to see and with plenty of cold days ahead, I'll be back.