Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't drink the water...Seriously.

Russell on the left, Jefe on the right

In our last few weeks in Europe, we went to visit our friend Russell in Kraków, Poland, a place very unlike France and a nice change of pace before we head back to the United States. We didn't know much about Poland before we got there, and Russell has only been living there a few weeks, so no one knew what to expect. (You can read Russell's summary of our trip, without pictures :( on his blog)

Russell has been slowly learning Polish for more than a year, but (as we have also learned, here in France) jumping into a conversation with a native speaker is still a daunting task. He was kind enough to help us as much as he could and we all learned a little more Polish vocabulary. We learned the words for "danger, mean dog"...Uwaga Zeypies

The sign says he's a mean dog,
but he looks more like an awkward ballet dancer

and that night we made home-made tortillas (we brought some masa with us from France) and carnitas, he learned the word for shoulder blade at the grocery store (łobotka, as in pork shoulder, the cut used for carnitas)

Of course there was a little bit of culture shock. The small grocery store across from where we were staying remained open all night, we couldn't believe it. Instead of thinking "how convenient" like an American, I thought "who would work those hours" like a French person.

church tower in Krakow
The clocktower across from our hostel.
Zoom in to see the odd typeface of the numerals.

The food was also surprising. After a few meals in a row of various kinds pork paired with piles of french fries, we were excited to find something a bit different...for instance, a place using local specialties in creative ways. Oscypek is unpasteurized, smoked sheep's cheese that has been pressed into cylinders with designs on the outside. In this case it was sliced, grilled and served with strawberries. In true Polish fashion, they managed to sneak some meat in, since it was tasted like it was grilled on the same grill used for fatty pork products, which made it even more delicious. Baked camembert with strawberries is a similar dish, which we've found here in France. We'll definitely be looking for this Polish cheese in the Polish grocers of Chicago.

smoked cheese in Krakow
Grilled Oscypek with fig jam and strawberries

After a meal of pork, or things grilled in pork fat, there is nothing like finding a good bookstore to relax. With the population of English speakers in Kraków--some residents, some tourists-- comes the local English language bookstore: in this case, the very welcoming Massolit. With three rooms of books, English language periodicals, comfy chairs, and a small cafe, it's easy to spend a whole afternoon here. I was able to catch up on a fairly recent copy of the New Yorker, which was addressed to someone in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and had made its way to Poland, probably thanks to Chicago's enormous Polish population.

Massolit in Krakow
Taking a break at Massolit bookstore in Kraków

For better or worse, it seems that Poland is taking a lot of its cues from the United States. There are the twenty-four hour grocery stores, the poor bicycling infrastructure, and the occasional lack of government oversight. Case in point: the tap water is unsafe to drink, which I didn't believe at first. When I initially heard this, I had already been drinking it for a day or two with no ill effects. I wondered if it was unsafe like in Central America, where the effects were immediately apparent, or if the effects were more long term. Turns out the contaminants in the water cause long term in liver damage.

In the American spirit of exploiting loopholes, we noticed another phenomenon, that I though might be a quirk in the advertising laws. There were bikes covered in advertisements, locked to street signs and fences. I wondered if putting the ads on bicycles exempted them from normal advertising restrictions, or perhaps just the costs associated with renting ad space.

bike ad in Krakow

Of course there were plenty of used clothing stores, and even a used clothing market every Sunday in Kazimierz, south of the city center, but we especially liked the one in the photo below because of the frankenstein mannequin out front. They stuck a small head on a regular body...

used clothing in Krakow
...and somehow made it seem kind of gangsta

Besides all the previously mentioned American imports: greasy food, crazy drivers, the idea of convenience over sanity, there was one last blow that was especially crushing after living in France. This is a snapshot (see below) of a menu at a mid-priced restaurant. The American wines available are Sutter Home and Carlo Rossi, two wines which are particularly well known for their disgustingness and popularity amongst underaged drinkers. So why import it to Poland and feature it on the menu? I assume it is mostly to keep prices down. And to make us feel even more uncomfortable with the way Europeans imagine Americans. On the other hand, both the locals and tourists here clearly expect things pretty cheap. The French wines we found in wine shops usually cost three times as much as they would for us in France, which makes them true luxury items when you take into account Poland's otherwise low cost of living.

crappy wine in Krakow
Sutter Home can be yours for only 17 złoty ($5) a glass, the same price as bottle of good wine in France.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Poitiers Rocks...Sometimes

Despite the 6000 miles which separate Champaign-Urbana and Poitiers, coming from one university town to another carries certain expectations with regards to the availability of late-night food, weird art, and music.

Champaign-Urbana's music scene was perhaps more developed than its modest size and distance from major metropolises might suggest. Jefe helped with a live local music show on the local independent radio station (WEFT 90.1 fm) for long enough to appreciate the quality and sheer volume of continuously maturing local talent.

It took us a while to wrap our heads around the music scene in Poitiers. Besides the various arms of the university, Poitiers is home to two music conservatories and a surprising number of instrument retailers and repair shops, including a luthier. But these vestiges of musical education are no guarantee of music that speaks to and evokes passion in the audience. Modern French music is notorious for borrowing from other people and cultures. Unfortunately, mimicking music far from its geographic roots can be a tricky enterprise. Case in point: Jefe has seen a few "blues" bands in Europe that, while adept musically, lacked the urgency and passion of their stateside counterparts. It was "blues," it just wasn't "the blues."

With a few exceptions, the bands and DJs performing at Poitier's local venues are mostly visiting groups. Sometimes from elsewhere in France, but just as often from Spain, Norway, Czech Republic or even from the U.S.

Besides mentioning a few noteworthy examples, I won't attempt to provide a critique of all the foreign and local groups that have passed through Poitiers. Partly because writing about something as subjective and ambiguous as music is extraordinarily difficult, but also because the venues are as interesting as the music they are hosting.

Our first ever music experience in Poitiers was at Le Pince Oreille (trans: The Pierced Ear). Located on the periphery of centre ville near Eglise Montierneuf it also houses a semi-upscale restaurant above the bar/music area. The offerings vary between DJs, repeater bands (various nights of week are swing, jazz, or blues) and the occasional foreign visitor, usually of the world music variety. This venue caters to a slightly older crowd. One that doesn't want to be forced to wear ear plugs or fight for space with the sweaty, drunk student crowd.

The big-name acts that come through town are generally showcased at the Confort Moderne. This is a one stop shop for all your alternative needs. Part music venue, part art exhibition space, it also houses a used/vintage record store, a fanzine library and even a small restaurant. It's located outside of centre ville in the area populated by many students & conveniently close to late-night pizza and kebabs. It's most interesting because it includes all the extracurricular activities that wouldn't appear at a normal venue. The problem is that the employees that make these interesting operations happen (young, inexperienced) are also really poor excuses for bartenders, lighting technicians, etc. Oh well.

The fanzine library at the Confort Moderne

For those members of the younger set who prefer to dress up a little, there is the recently opened Minima Cafe. Situated closer to the center of the action in Poitiers, the bar is located on the ground floor, with a beer garden out back and space for bands/DJs/dancing in the basement. The decor is minimalist (thus the name) and modern with new locally produced artwork/photos exhibited on a regular basis. Besides being frequented by mostly DJs, there are only a few drawbacks to this location. The clientele often orders labor-intensive mixed drinks, leaving someone craving merely a beer or glass of wine to wait while the lone bartender turns out armloads of pineapple mojito-margaritas. Also, with France's indoor smoking ban, the clope set is forced to fill the narrow sidewalks out front (on both sides of the already-narrow street) making entering and exiting a little more difficult, not to mention the danger posed by cars passing through this drunk, absent-minded, bifurcated smoking party. We saw the Czech band Sabot here.

Concert poster for the Czech bass-drum duo Sabot

Moving down the social ladder a rung, we come to Le Cafe du Clain. Located on the edge of centre ville on the banks of the Clain River it is a small, cheap, traditional restaurant by day and a punk- and alcoholic retiree-populated watering hole by night. A little idiosyncratic to be sure, it is a good bet for metal and punk bands traveling through town, often from Spain. Since it's a little out of the way, the patrons have only this bar or the nearby, more upscale establishment to choose from. Thus, the disparate crowd. If you come for bands, you'll want to bring your ear plugs (unless you're one of the retirees and/or already deaf).

Punk rockers from Spain at the Cafe du Clain

Just around the corner from the Minima Cafe on the Place Charles de Gaulle, Cluricaume Cafe hosts generally talented acts and is welcoming enough you might actually hang out there when there isn't music on the menu. As a Irish/French Celtic Pub it is frequented by a beer swilling, sometimes dreadlocked, underclassmen crowd that can get a little crazy if the musicians are too enthusiastic. If the music is of the metal/punk variety you won't have any trouble hearing it from the slew of tables on the sidewalk out front and across the street.

Meringue Alcohol and Us at Cluricaume Cafe

Finally, on the DIY side of things is 23 avenue de Paris. Resembling (and smelling like) a glorified squat, they host bands, art, and theater acts. The bands hosted are mostly local. I'm not sure if they sell alcohol, but most of the spectators seem to bring their own anyway.

Monday, July 6, 2009

French Fashion, Unromanticized

"Fashions fade, style is eternal"
Yves Saint Laurent

As Americans, we sometimes imagine the French as living in a sort of hazy, idyllic world of wine, cobbled streets, and perfect, timeless chic. These myths of the well-dressed Frenchman or Frenchwoman are perpetuated by lovely sites such as The Sartorialist and Garance Doré.

Scott and Garance live in a world where everyone looks like these girls and him or her and this lady.

The myth is beautiful, but the reality is that -- even despite some of the things we've said on this blog -- everyday French people don't look so different from Americans.

everyday French folks -- except for the 2-hour lunches, they're just like you!

Of course, there are some exceptions.

1. Anachronistic Trends
You may or may not have heard that the 80's and early 90's are making a comeback. I have spotted a range of anachronistic trends...

Man in 80's/90's-inspired monochrome track suit

Gladiator Sandals: Dating back to 1st century BCE
and Summer '08.

2. Punk Ladies
There is a distinctly punk-inspired, Mad Max element to current French trends. Extraneous zippers, studs, gatherings, asymmetry, etc.

Actually, these are a couple of SDF guys.
3. Runway-to-Street
Fashion-forward runway looks, converted for the everyday woman

Leighton Meester in Louis Vuitton at the 2009 MET Costume Institute Gala

Everyday French lady version

4. Pointy Elf-inspired shoes

This trend seems to work better in men's shoes than in women's

Um, i think the price listed here is a joke.