Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bike Apostle

This is an article about the bike shop where we bought Rebecca's bike in Poitiers.
George Apostolou: "I don't sell price, I sell service."

Published in Centre-Presse November 21, 2008
by Laurence Chegaray

He was an eco-freak before it was cool. George Apostolou founded the Cyclamen workshop in 1977 with two associates. They were convinced that the bicycle was the future of mankind and that it could be the heart of their sustainable model. The associates have left, but George is still there. "At the time, we were located on rue Arsene-Orillard. The customer base was strictly word of mouth," he recalled. The clients would stop by the shop and find George at the back of a dingy workshop measuring 12 feet by 40 feet.

Getting Serious
George wasn't derailed. "I believe that my original project has found meaning. The bicycle has become a serious mode of transportation." To see a cyclist in the hilly city of Poitiers no longer surprises anyone. Cyclamen moreover provided more than a few cycles for Velo Campus bikes since the start of Cap'Velo. "The municipality has moved the bike forward in the city."

The Everyday Person's Bike
Twelve short years ago, Cyclamen moved. The workshop was reestablished on boulevard Pont-Achard. Its specialty is not high-end racing bikes or the mountain bikes of champions, but the bikes of "normal people," with two French and Italian brands: Gitane and Bianchi. "I have utilitarian and leisure bikes. Besides, I don't sell every available accessory," jokes the good-natured man with his greek accent, among whose shop, on the contrary carries just about everything bicycle related. "I am a big collector of rare parts!" When you can't find something somewhere else or a piece is missing from a bike bought in a super-store, you come to track it down here." Frequently, someone calls me after having looked everywhere for an anti-derailment collar of the right diameter. I have it." He has sold electric bicycles for five years. "It's the same phenomenon as mountain biking, everyone wants to do it, but some are heavy and require assistance." George shrugs his shoulders. But that doesn't count as cycling!

Monday, November 24, 2008 gift guide

The holidays are here. We can tell because they have hung Christmas lights in our street. They have also affixed really strange cylindrical stereo speakers to the sides of the buildings on our street, which play insipid pop music all day long.  The one under our window mysteriously broke immediately after installation, which we didn't have anything to do with, but didn't cry over either.  The other speakers quickly followed suit.  Perhaps they were installed incorrectly. Perhaps the technicians got bored, or the neighborhood revolted?  We don't know.

So anyway, we are not big on gifts, but we have heard that other people might be. With that in mind, this is our holiday gift guide. 

First up, Rebecca received her complimentary contributor's copy of the latest installment of the journal Studies in Symbolic Interaction. Her essay entitled "Dialogics of Discomfort: Race, Roles, and Performance" was chosen for publication six months ago. Jeff has been reading some of the other essays and found them very interesting. Particularly the essay on Lonnie Athens' theory of violentization; how individuals become conditioned to use violence to resolve social situations, and how this theory might be expanded to larger population groups. It you know a loved one who would benefit from discussions of race (esp. Native American, African-American, or Persian), quilts, the development of violent criminals and violent societies, and the power of the mind in overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder the 31st volume of Studies in Symbolic Interaction may be just the thing you're looking for.  Only $110! (sheesh)

For someone who is more aesthetically minded, might we suggest some handmade furniture? Our friend Trevor, who lives in California, has completed another superior piece (he also made our hinged coffee table--currently in storage--with a little help from Jeff).

I like the contrasting color of the wedges in the tenons. Overall, everything seems to fit together exceptionally well (the style is Chinese, which we think means there were no screws, nails or other artificial fasteners used), and the instances of intentionally non-right angles here and there are interesting. In the email accompanying this photo, he mentioned that, though hard to see, the depth and width both vary slightly from top to bottom. He didn't mention a price, but we think he should ask for at least enough to offset the cost of his rent for the time it took to make it...$3600.

The economic crisis has hit everyone (even the french cafe culture is in trouble) and so we also have something for the budget-conscious. The Theorem of the Day is designed to make groundbreaking theorems accessible through clear explanations and examples using real world situations. For 2009, there will also be a special edition calendar available titled Theorems by Women Mathematicians. This will feature two of our favorite mathematicians (and really nice people): Carla Savage and Sylvie Corteel and their Polynomial Coprimality Theorem.

So, if you are the type of person who plans on buying stuff, wrapping it up, transporting it somewhere, and then giving it to someone else, we hope that this guide has made your life easier. Make good decisions and keep checking in with us here at arideaday.  We'll remain in our cave throughout the holiday season occasionally venturing out for supplies and, of course, fresh blog material for your reading pleasure. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mushrooms...and Wine

Ok, the last post was basically a maintenance post, just keeping everyone informed until something happened worth rhaposidizing. Well, one of the items in our shipment of gluten-free foods was lasagna noodles. In a fit of energy, we decided to make the lasagna first. And (although those who know us will not be surprised) we decided not to settle for a simple lasagna, but to take it to a level worthy of the ingredients available to us here in France.

We've been trying to maintain a healthy diet and not to succumb too often to the secret of French cooking (butter, butter, and more butter), so we decided to included some zucchini we already had, some mushrooms (not as yet bought), some "fresh" cheese (the closest available thing to Ricotta cheese) and basil, basil, basil. Some elaborations:

It's mushroom season around here. While riding, Jeff will frequently see cars parked on the sides of roads near the forests. When he squints, he sees faintly visible, crouched figures creeping through the undergrowth, poking the ground with sticks, in search of fresh fungi. Equally frequently, there are signs posted forbidding the gathering of mushrooms. Of course, they are available at the farmer's market (in abundance), and at the local supermarket, which has been hit-or-miss; sometimes there are three or four varieties, and sometimes only one (typically the Girolles from the United States). Yesterday, there was only one, but today there were three varieties, a good sign that the new ones would be fresh. Jeff was able to sniff the available selection with The Nose (pictured above) and decided on the mushrooms with the overwhelming odor of earthiness. So we got a handful of trompettes de la mort (literally: trumpets of death) or black trumpets.

Once all the ingredients were assembled, including the aforementioned basil (x3: homemade basil-and-garlic infused olive oil, dried basil, and fresh basil), we assembled our masterpiece.
The noodles took the most effort, as they like to stick together--always be sure to put a bit of olive oil in the boiling water, and to rinse the noodles in cold water after cooking! Here's our recipe:

1-2 tbs olive oil
3 cloves of garlic (chopped)
2 small red onions (chopped)
2 slices of cooked bacon (chopped)
2 cans crushed tomato
~1 pint white button mushrooms (sliced)
handful of fancy-schmancy mushrooms (chopped)
bay leaf (if you got it!)

[first saute the garlic and onion in the oil,
then add and steam mushrooms,
then add tomato, bacon, and bay leaf]

slice up the zukes into wafers (they will form individual layers like the pasta)

usually lasagna calls for ricotta, but we're in France, so we improvised a cheese sauce out of fromage blanc, grated romano, gruyere, basil, rosemary, white wine, and a tbs of gluten-free flour

Precooked 'em for about 6 minutes, and spent another 10 trying to unstick them. They turned out fine, though :)

So, we lightly greased the casserole dish, layered the bottom with noodles, smoothed a layer of tomato sauce on, followed by a layer of zucchini, then cheese mixture, more noodles, tomato, etc. We topped it off with a sprinkle of romano and dried basil...

...with a spectacular result!

To go with this increasingly gourmet lasagna, we had visited the local caviste (wine vendor) Le Fruit Defendu, just down the street from our apartment. The shopkeeper always gives very good recommendations. Besides suggesting wine that goes well with food (and we always tell him what we're having tonight, and which spices we're using), the wine is always interesting and tends to break away from the flavors traditionally associated with its type. In the case of our little lasagna, he suggested Pechigo, an organic red wine grown near the Pyrenees in the south of France.

We can't wait to eat the leftovers tomorrow
(probably after we get home,
exhausted from the farmer's market).

Berlin in one week!!


We found a french website that delivers gluten free food and just got our first package today. It includes bread mix, lasagne, cereal, and snack bars. To make sure that it got delivered in a timely manner, we went to the hardware store and bought address numbers to put near our door so delivery personnel could find our building. The latest delivery went off without a hitch, which is promising. Prior to this addition, you had to look at adjacent buildings. Most adjacent building are lacking numbers, except for our neighbors (a law office) who have a number plate that looks like it was salvaged from the Titanic due to its severe oxidation which makes it nearly impossible to decipher.

Rebecca's students are starting to get anxious about the TOEIC exam, which is next week. She is handling a few extra practice sessions for her students. After the exam, we are going to Berlin for a few days. We will probably revisit a few of the places we liked when we were in Berlin in December 2007. This includes Cafe V (a vegetarian restaurant), the used clothing stores in Prenzlauerberg, and a few movie theaters that reliably show movies in the original language (english or french) with german subtitles.

The farmer's market stills holds things to discover. We've found our favorite vendors in a few categories: pork products, aged goat cheese, organic vegetables, cured sausage, and beef & lamb products. We may try the oysters brought in from the Bay of Biscay (about 1.5 hours away) in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to read a Michelin map

While there are cycling guides available for France (mostly in English), most of the first-hand accounts online suggest that getting the appropriate Michelin map is more useful, and cheaper, than getting a cycling-specific guide. All local bookstores carry a wide variety of the Michelin maps. Since I'm relatively new to the area, and the weather is getting colder, I probably won't be going hundreds of miles in one day. Thus, I opted for Michelin #322, a single-sided map covering two départements (Deux-Sèvres and Vienne) within the Poitou-Charentes region with a scale of 1 cm to 1.5 km (or 1:150,000).

If you are going to be using a particular map a lot, perhaps for touring, I would suggest cutting it up into pieces that fit into whatever map-holder you will be using (thus the choice of a singled-sided map). I also numbered my map pieces so I can find the adjacent map sections. It is much easier to exchange two small pieces of paper than to pull out an entire map and refold it so the area of interest is displayed.

Besides all the pretty colors, the maps are packed with useful information. The most mentioned aspect of these maps in relation to cycling is the green line. I won't attempt to outdo the linked post in terms of rhetorical elegance, but I don't agree that the green line is always the Holy Grail of cycling (at least around here, maybe the Alps are different).

For the uninitiated, the green line represents a scenic route, which can mean several different things depending on the terrain: a winding road through, into, or out of a valley, or as is more often the case in Poitou-Charentes, simply a straight, flat road through a forest.  On my rides, I try and seek out the varied terrain and beautiful views of valleys in the area (the Vienne River valley is especially rural and hilly), but I'm less interested in a straight, flat road, even if it is through a forest.

One other consideration when choosing a route is the amount of automobile traffic. The roads in red are part of the high-traffic national road system. Recently, we read an article in the local paper about how dangerous these roads can be.  One particular local road (N147, shown in the second picture of this post) has resulted in nineteen auto-related deaths in the past three years.  The roads in yellow are for more local traffic. When leaving Poitiers, I stick to the thick white roads. They are used enough to be well-paved and well-marked, but traffic is limited to people coming and going from nearby small towns. Once you are 15-20 km outside of Poitiers, the yellow roads become low-traffic, and are often very well maintained.

Of course, as a bonus, Michelin maps denote all kinds of landmarks that are worth checking out, from chateaus, abbeys, and churches to sites of ancient battles and Roman ruins. The sites are also conveniently graded with a series of stars (0-3 stars) telling whether they are merely worth visiting if you happen to be nearby, or are worth a visit in their own right.

Friday, November 7, 2008

La Soiree Terroir

Last week, Rebecca's students were on break. After they spent the week with their families, they came back to the University, and the College of Engineering had a party called "La Soiree Terroir" (The Regional Party). Students brought foods (meats, cheeses, tarts, cakes, etc.) and drinks (wines, cognac, ciders) from their home regions in France to share with the students and faculty.

When Rebecca was invited to the party a total of 5 times in one day, by both students and the fellow faculty, she was a little dubious.  Was this an elaborate gag? Like the old "pool on the roof" trick?  

Rebecca's class is, like most classes, composed of the geeks, the aloof cool kids, and those that fall somewhere in between... and yet everyone was full of the same intense energy in anticipation of this event.  In our experience, the hipsters of US institutions (be they in high school, college, or other-wheres) do not often attend school functions, much less those that celebrate the diversity and regional pride of the student body. At the University of Illinois, for instance, such a social gathering would not generate the amount of interest that was apparent in the students and faculty here.  Try to imagine students from East St. Louis challenging the Chicago hipsters to a casserole-off.

One confusing exchange took place with her colleague in the English department, Helene. Helene mentioned that the party was a perennially good time.

"Are you going?" Rebecca asked.

"No, I have to teach at 8 a.m. the next day." Helene replied.

" at 8 p.m." Rebecca wondered aloud.

Finally, after some cajoling, "we" decided that it would be a good opportunity to interact with students outside of class, taste some specialties of France, and practice our French colloquialisms at the same time. Around 8, we biked out to campus (the party was to be held in the main hall of the first floor of the Engineering building) and were greeted with this sight:

We were a little surprised. As we moved through the crowd, we were periodically accosted by Rebecca's students recommending, in charmingly slurred blends of French and English, their home regions and the specialties therein. After visiting a few booths, we realized why everyone was so excited about this party. Hint: it wasn't the food.  In fact, quite a lot of the food--which was balanced precariously on folding tables--seemed to be accumulating on the floor.   Apparently, each year, after the food runs out, the party relocates and continues with just the drinks.

After a little hectic wandering and a totally unsystematic inspection of the various options, we tried (shudders) blood sausage with sweet purple mustard (cold; "It's better hot," Rebecca's student told us).  Next, a kind of cake stuffed with pork sausage (in retrospect we should have tried the one with what looked like barbequed duck). And finally, a slice of coconut cake (excellent).   In the meantime we were plied with various wines (from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Corsica), cider (from Normandy and Bretagne) and an iced Cognac-orange juice mixture (from the South somewhere).  

There were lots of other kinds of foods and drinks that we would have liked to sample, but in the end we were overwhelmed by the incredible number of people, who were becoming more and more boisterous with each passing moment.  One of Rebecca's first-year students who was acting as a reporter and being videotaped came up and tried to interview her.  Another came up and apologized for skipping the last three weeks of class.  Then, students who were not in Rebecca's class began approaching us enthusiastically in garbled English.  Finally, when two young men ascended the stairs to the balcony above and began to disrobe, we decided that it was time to leave.  

The lesson we learned, which we probably should have intuited from the start, is that while these students certainly are proud of their home regions (there was lots of chanting, yelling, and singing), they are also college students: they are young and they like to party. They are not so different from their American, British, German, etc. counterparts.  In the end, rather than offering up ambitious representations of regional France, most of the efforts were put forth in the service of increasing the intensity, silliness, and disorderliness of the night.  Some of the foods were clearly store-bought versions of regional specialties and were of questionable quality.  The wines tended to be very sweet, and the other beverages were mostly fragrant, cloudy drinks that might not appeal to people outside the region of origin.   

But overall, it was a real experience, and it was fun to see what the students are like outside of class.

Monday, November 3, 2008


This weekend, Jefe and I went to Paris. Here is a list of all of the things we didn't do:

-go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower (or even go within sight of it)
-visit l'Arc de Triomphe (ditto)
-enter Notre Dame
-go inside the Moulin Rouge
-walk along the Champs-Elysees (not even close)
-eat at the Tour d'Argent (from Ratatouille)
-take a cruise down the river Seine
-admire paintings in the Louvre
-buy cheap souvenirs (this time we brought our own wine key)
-buy expensive souvenirs
-go to French Disneyland

The ostensible reason for our trip to the tourist-trap capital of the world was to attend the french leg of the Bicycle Film Festival. Due either to lack of funding, planning, or volunteers, (or perhaps some combination of these three), the festival was somewhat abbreviated; On Saturday afternoon, Jeff hunted for the bike polo players for a little while, but gave up when he didn't see anyone there, and later, we gathered with about 200 other people to watch a series of short bicycle-related films.

The audience was boisterous and the films weren't bad... The stacks of bikes outside the theatre were kind of fun to look at.

(Everyone clearly brought their A-game...but only one fender in sight)

We went out to see a few other movies (at one movie theater we were ferried across a canal from the box office to the screens). We got to do a good amount of biking around the city (see below for details), but the best part of the trip was the FOOD. We went out to several really good restaurants, and a couple of excellent ones. The first night, Friday, we had dinner at Le Chansonnier (Classic french food: queue de boeuf, cassoulet, roast chicken aux cepes, gratinated potatoes with thyme). On Saturday, we had lunch at Le Potager du Marais (a tiny gluten-free and vegetarian restaurant: curried celery soup, vegetable gratin, cassoulet du mer, gateau aux noix). Saturday dinner was at the Bouillon des Colonies featuring food from the French colonies (hummus and eggplant caviar, lemongrass shrimp with basmati, lamb confit with cumin cous cous). Sunday brunch at Doudingue in Montmartre (tartelette provencal, salmon tartar, and lots of lovely looking glutenous treats such as pain au chocolat and mini croissants). Sunday dinner at the Saint-Germain Mandarin restaurant (lemongrass chicken soup, chicken with basil, and sweet and sour pork). And finally, a cute make-shift picnic in the Luxembourg gardens (goat cheese, yogurt, saucisson, baguette, rice cakes, and fruit). When we next go to Paris, we'll definitely return to Le Potager du Marais.

Now, back to bikes, or Velib'...
In case you don't follow foreign bike news and/or urban planning news as closely as the Jefe, in the last year Paris has introduced the "Velib", a revolution in urban transport. Basically, for a small subscription fee (5 euros for 7 days, or 29 euros a year) you are allowed access to any Velib bike parked at any of the automated Velib rental points (rental points are roughly 300 meters apart throughout most of the city, an incredible feat). The first 30 minutes of your rental are always free, and each subsequent half hour is one euro. Not bad, considering you can get pretty far in 30 minutes.

Rebecca quickly became a Velib' expert. Here she is returning a bike a few blocks from dinner.

Imagine, you walk out of a building to a nearby rental point, type in your information and ride off. You return the bike to a rental point near your destination, do some shopping, eat lunch and pick up a different bike from a different rental point to continue your errands. To us, this is truly astounding. The shear number of bikes available and the ease of use of the entire system seems utopian. And, in accordance with the Utopia Rule, there are a few kinks in the system: sometimes there are no bikes available at a rental point (for instance, right after a popular event, or late at night near bars and restaurants, or for the morning commute into central Paris), or sometimes the ones that are available aren't in very good shape (flat tires, wonky steering, missing baskets, stuck seatposts, bent chainguards; though they do replace and repair bikes frequently), and you have to have a European credit card with a chip (not a magnetic strip--but Ha-ha! Rebecca managed to get hers the day before we left for Paris). Though, if we consider the Velib' as merely one more mode of public transportation to supplement buses and subways, it succeeds admirably.

In order to get the most out of your Velib' rental, you have to know where to go (unless you enjoy dodging tourists around the Pompidou Center and Notre Dame). The best guide to Paris we found is called Pariscope and is often hidden behind the counter at newsstands. I'm not sure why they hide their guides to culture while filling valuable shelf space with pornography...maybe capitalism is taking hold?

Once you have your Pariscope in hand and a good map with a street index, you're ready to go. The Pariscope lists all the exhibitions in Paris, in both major and minor museums and galleries. It also has an index of locations, hours, and prices of museums and galleries. This is very important, there are so many museums and exhibition spaces not even the Parisiens can keep them straight (someone wanted to borrow our copy to look up some museum hours).

First, a trip to the Maison des Metallos for an exhibit titled 400ml. Hundreds of graffiti artists from around the world, made art out of cans of spray paint. Some had merely painted the cans, others went much further...
It says, in French, on the bottom of the can "why is my train always late?"

On Sunday, we went to the Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris. We were not so excited by 18th century paintings of Parisiens by other Parisiens, so we went for the exhibit of etchings of the Paris Metro by Akemi Noguchi.