Saturday, July 30, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Waiting for the Big Show

It's a beautiful morning in London today.  The temperature is 61, the sun is shining, no rain is predicted for a change and the high should be 70.  Reality hits tomorrow when we return to the sultry Midwest.

We picked up our tickets for the JACK Quartet concert yesterday at Wigmore Hall.  The Hall is gorgeous.  It holds 550; there are 149 tickets left for the concert.  This morning's Guardian has a nice preview here of the concert..  Hopefully, that will sell the other 149 so we can boast of a sell-out performance.

Also, in today's Chamber Musician Today, there's a very interesting (but lengthy) article on the history of the string quartet, starting with Haydn and ending with JACK's performance of an Aaron Cassidy quartet.  What's there not for a proud father to like in an article which starts out like this:
 Steps to the most interesting encounter to ever happen:
1.      - Make herbal resurrection remedy
2.       -Bring Haydn back from the dead
3.       -Buy him a new coat, dust off his wig, introduce him to the idea of cars
4.       -Take him to a JACK Quartet performance
5.       -Have him listen to one of Aaron Cassidy’s string quartets
6.       -Watch what happens
On the agenda today are at least an attempt at following The route set out by Roger Ebert and Daniel Curley in The Perfect London Walk..  I promised the Curley daughters, and also Roger Ebert himself at his most recent Ebertfest that I would check out the walk.  Then dinner at 6:00 at the Wigmore Restaurant and concert at 7:30.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: If You See This Man Kick Him In The N** (Nose)

This man was hitting on The Wife today!!!  He even kissed her!  I was just relaxing in the apartment this evening, when The Wife decided to go over to the Luxembourg Garden, a few blocks from our house to look at the flowers and try to find a sculpture she heard about today at a museum near us.  When she came back, an hour or so later, she was all smiles.

She had been taking pictures of flowers when he came up and started talking to her.  He could not speak a word of English, and she could speak very little French, but 60 percent of English words are french in origin, just pronounced differently, so there was some communication going on.  He was telling her that she was "tres belle," and wanted her to go for coffee and to get something to eat.  She declined and he pointed to her ring finger (which has been ring-less for many years) and asked her if she was married.  She assured him she was, and she had to get back to her apartment to her husband, but he gallantly insisted on walking her to the gate of the garden, and then gave her the double air kiss on each cheek -- you could say he french kissed her,.  And get this -- she was not angry with him; she told me she was flattered!!  Harumph!  Here I have been refraining from flirting with all the beautiful young french women we have encountered in deference to our 40th anniversary and she is off being air-bussed by an old french coot.

The first thing on the agenda when we get back to the states is to get our wedding rings resized.  I don't want any competition from any old geezers -- particularly when I've become one myself.   Before we leave, I may just go cruise the Luxembourg Garden myself to see who I can find to flirt with.  It would only be fair.

40th Anniversary Report: Would You Like An Argument With That Meal?

So, yesterday, while the Wife and I were wandering around the St. Germain des Pres/ St. Michel area, she happened upon this cute little restaurant on a tiny side street.  It was advertising a prix fixe french meal, consisting of an entree, a main course and dessert at only 18 euros, or $27, which is pretty cheap, considering we have paid $30 for one cup of coffee and an orange juice, on the Champs Elysee.  Plus, if you showed them the brochure, you got a free apertif.

We went  to the restaurant at 7 o'clock, which is a little early to eat by French standards, but not unreasonable, and there was no  one there except the cook, who worked in a small open area just to the left of the tables, a waiter and two women sitting at tables on the sidewalk.  We weren't sure if we were at the  right restaurant for the brochure, but the women and the waiter, standing at the door, assured us we were at the right place and bade us come in.  We had our free apertifs and had put in our orders for our meals (an onion tart, chateaubriand with bearnaise sauce and a creme brulee, for me, and onion soup, boef bourguignon and chocolate mousse for The Wife.)

All was well until we heard some loud shouting in the street.  (Of course, this being Paris, the street side of the cafe was open to the outside.)  We craned our necks and there appeared to be some kind of altercation between one of the women who had been sitting outside our cafe, and a man in a tie and white shirt who appeared connected somehow with one of the restaurants on the other side of the street.  They were really going at it, and at one point, the woman grabbed the man's tie and appeared to be trying to choke him with it.  The waiter rushed out of our restaurant and some people came out of the restaurant across the street and they physically separated the combatants, but the yelling continued unabated.

Finally, the woman came back and sat down at the table outside our cafe, but she continued yelling at the man who kept yelling back, sometimes approaching close to her and then being dragged away by people from the other side.  I expected the gendarmes to come and haul the two enemies to jail for disturbing the peace, but none showed up.  The arguments continued sporadically for another half hour or so, well into and past our entrees.

I asked our waiter what it was all about and he just shook his head and looked disgusted.  At one point, when the yelling had abated somewhat, I asked the woman what the problem was and she said that sometimes men think they hear something, which they didn't hear and it goes right from the ear to the head.  I couldn't understand why our waiter didn't throw the woman out because she was clearly disturbing the customers (still only two) but he didn't.

When the woman and her friend finally left, midway through our entree, I asked the waiter again what the problem was and he said something about sometimes one restaurant thinks the other has too many customers.  That didn't make much sense either since none of the places was exactly full, certainly not ours which had 10 tables and only ours occupied.

I had an idea that maybe the woman owned the restaurant we were in, asked the waiter and he admitted that she was the owner.  Later, a cook from across the street came over and asked to borrow some butter, which the cook in our restaurant quickly gave to him, so I take it any enmity was solely between  the owners and not the staff.

By the time we left the restaurant, at about 8:30, we had been the only customers.  So, I  guess times are hard for restaurateurs in the part of Paris; either that or the yelling proprietors have developed a reputation and driven everyone away except the occasional tourist.

Tonight, our last night in Paris, we're off to the the Pure Cafe, the little cafe featured in that wonderful movie, Before Sunset.  Then tomorrow, it's off to London for a few days.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Don't Act Stupidly in Paris

On my Facebook page yesterday, I made the comment that "You WILL be pick pocketed in Paris."  That was overstating the case.  The Wife has been in Paris twice and she has never been  pick pocketed.  And my friend, Ruth, who studied in Paris (with Nadia Boulanger, but who's dropping names?) said she has never been pick pocketed.  Of course Ruth might be a special case because she claims to descend from a line of horse thieves and everyone knows there's honor among thieves.  It's also noteworthy that The Wife and Ruth are women and women are less pick pocket worthy than men because they do not usually carry valuable things in their pockets.  They carry them in their purses and no self-respecting pick pocket is going to stick his hand into a woman's purse and risk coming out with an extra pair of eyelashes or a dried up tube of lipstick.

No, pick pockets are naturally going to pick on someone more dependable about where they stash their valuables, and men are nothing if not dependable about putting their cash in their wallet in their left rear pocket.  (I don't want any flack from women for calling them undependable.  It is a virtue, not a vice, to be an undependable victim for a thief.)

I am paranoid about being pick pocketed because two of my brothers were pick pocketed in Europe, and not having any horse thieves in the family, I figured I could not rely on honor among thieves to escape their fate.  So, the last time I came to Paris, about 10 years ago, I took along a fake wallet.  Actually, a real wallet but with nothing in it.  I would keep my money, passport, etc. elsewhere on my body, the actual location of which I won't disclose in case some Parisian pick pockets are reading my blog.

The last time I was here (and this time, for that matter) I was very careful getting in and out of subways, going up and down stairs (in the city, not in a home, for pete's sake,) being careful to note who was around me, holding back and letting others go first in and out doors, etc.  The plan was perfect.  It still is for that matter.  The problem was, and is in remembering to follow the plan at all times.

The last time I was here, I was on my way to Montmartre, which is well known as a hangout for scam artists and pick pockets, when the announcement came over the subway speakers that there had been some problem in the system and we would all have to get out at the next stop and take a bus the rest of the way.  I got out of the train with everyone else, carefully went up the stairs, stopped to assess the situation, spotted the bus that was to take us the rest of the way, saw that it was crowded and stopped, intending to wait for the next bus.  But a couple of friendly guys at the rear door said, "No, come on, there's room," so like a lamb being led to the slaughter, I got on.  I immediately knew I was going to be pick pocketed.  The guy behind me was leaning into me and I kept my left elbow in his stomach to keep him off.  The guy on the right had a newspaper over his hand, so I figured they were working together.  I kept my right hand tightly around my money in my pocket, and every once in a while broadcast the location of the empty wallet by patting my left rear pocket with my left hand.  Every time I checked the wallet was still there.  Just before the bus stopped, a third person, a young oriental-looking man on my right, shoved a map in front of my face and began asking where we were.  By the time I told him I didn't speak french and didn't know, the bus had stopped, I got off, breathed a sigh of relief, checked my left hip pocket and the flap over the pocket was unbuttoned and my wallet was gone.

Then I got very scared.  I figured if they could get away with taking my wallet, when I knew they were doing it, they could take anything they wanted, including a vital organ without me stopping them.  I was afraid the thieves would be very angry when they realized I had tricked them and would come after me in a dark alley and strip me clean.  I was wearing a distinctive straw hat that would have made it very easy to follow me or to describe me to another confederate, so I took that off and put it in my bag.  I bought another cheap wallet to put in my left pocket and was very careful not to get caught in any crowds nor to become completely isolated until I was well away from Montmartre.

So, this time in Paris, I was still paranoid.  I brought the empty wallet again.  On Monday, we went to Montmartre.  I was very nervous about going there.  I had The Wife take everything valuable out of her purse and leave it in the apartment.  I took nothing but 20 euros and a bank card which I carried in a place inaccessible to anyone not very intimate with me.  We got to Montmartre without any problem.  We looked around, ran into a friend, Kevin (of the JACK Quartet) had lunch with him, lectured him about the dangers of pick pocketing, went to the Arc d'Triomphe, walked the length of the Champs Elysee down past the Place de le Concorde, walked through the Jardin de Tuilleries, took a ride on a giant ferris wheel, then found the metro to go back to the apartment.

By then, it was around 8 o'clock and we were very tired, having walked five or six miles, easily.  No problem on the first metro (the Paris metro system really is fantastic, but I will leave raving about that to some other time.)  We switched trains at Chatelet les Halles, a busy central station where a lot of subway lines connect, and which is a particularly notorious place for pick pockets.  As we got to the track, the train was ready to pull out and was packed to the brim.  In fact, it had trouble leaving because one passenger had a couple of wheels of a baby buggy sticking out and the doors could not close.  No problem, trains on the line come every 3 to 5 minutes, we would wait for the next train.

We waited and waited and waited.  By 8:30, the train still had not come, there was a large crowd waiting and it was obvious that there was going to be a mad scramble to get on the next train.  I patted my empty wallet several times, just in case any thieves were sizing me up as a potential victim.  When the train finally came, I was determined that we were going to be on it.  I was tired and I wasn't about to let those other impolite people push on ahead of me and make me wait another half hour for another train.

We made it, just barely, but people were squashed together like the crackers that had been in the bottom of my bag all day (it's hard to think of a metaphor other than "sardines" in this situation, even though it's way overused.  Try it sometime.)  There was nobody around me that looked or acted particularly suspicious.  I just kept my hands around my wife and her purse, so nobody could snatch them.  The train was so packed that some people farther away from the door than The Wife and I could not get off when their stop came up, because people just would not move.  The man announced that they were getting off at the next stop, no matter what, and did kind of a rugby scrum pushing dive with his giant suitcase that got them off at the next stop.

The next stop was ours, and as we got off, I felt for the fake wallet and it was gone.  I don't know when it happened, but I imagine it was when everyone's attention was diverted by Rugby Man and his Scrum, not that I think he was a confederate.

So, the lesson, my friends is not that everyone WILL get pick pocketed in Paris.  The lesson is that if you do stupid things, like carry your money in a wallet on your left hip, and insist on fighting big crowds because you want to go where you want to go when you want to go, you WILL be pick pocketed.  The other lesson is that you don't mind it so much when you've scammed the scammers.  (The Wife did feel a little sorry for the thwarted pick pocket.  While I was gloating about how I would have liked to see the disappointment on his face when he opened that wallet, she said compassionately, "Well, maybe he got someone else's money.")

Saturday, July 23, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Tumbling Tumbleweeds

So, we were in Vienna a few days last week, being shown the sights by Brother Number Four, when we visited the Leopold Museum on July 15.  The Wife was particularly interested in the collection of Gustav Klimt paintings.

While wandering around the museum, I happened to notice (well, "happened" is not exactly the right word, but it will have to do for now,) a very attractive young woman, in her late 20s or early 30s, with bright red hair, wearing an elegant, long butt-hugging dress, very high heels, a black hat and veil, long black gloves and a red fur.  She looked like she had stepped out of a fin-de-siecle painting and was casually strolling around to see who else was in the museum.  I tried hard not to stare, but to casually look at the Klimt's, which I'm sure were wonderful, while keeping an eye on where she was.  Nobody in the museum was talking with her, except for the young man accompanying her, but everyone was staring at her, while trying hard not to stare.  I half-expected her at some point to climb back into a painting and resume a mysterious smile.

There was no point in pretending to The Wife that I was not admiring this young woman, everyone in the museum was watching her with great fascination (men) and envy (women.)  I tried to get The Wife, and also Brother Number Four (who has an amazing way with women) to go ask her what her schtick was, but everyone, including me, was too shy.

Finally, we left the museum and outside on the steps, there were some musicians playing music and some young people slowly tumbling down the steps.  Here is some video I took of that sight.
While watching that strange performance, I noticed the mysterious young lady in red at the bottom of the stairs also watching it.  After trying again to get The Wife and Number Four Brother to go find out what's up, I finally decided I would do it.  So, I went over and asked her why she was dressed like that. She told me that she always dresses like that; she like the decadence of the fin de siecle area.  I asked her where she was from -- it turned out she was from Poland; she's a costume designer and she works
with the dance troupe that was tumbling down the stairs.  They had been brought to Vienna by the Polish consulate to perform later that evening and this was kind of a preview.  We continued talking about people staring at her, and whether many actually came up and talked with her (not many,) animal rights advocates and their objections to her wearing fur, our upcoming trip to Paris, etc. As I was talking, I glanced to my side and there at my right elbow (that was after the  picture was taken) were Brother Number Four and The Wife, trying to listen in on the conversation, but too shy to get involved themselves.

The Wife and I were quite impressed with the whole deal -- the strangely dressed young woman and the artistes tumbling down the stairs, so the next morning at the Vienna Airport, we decided to see if we could impress anyone.  As we were going down the escalator with our nifty new rolling Swiss bags, The Wife tried to adjust her bag just before she reached the bottom, whereupon it fell over, knocking her over, into me, and I and my nifty new Swiss bag went down, all in a heap at the bottom of the escalator.  We were unhurt, except for our dignity, and we discovered the fun of having everyone around us staring at us.

It was so much fun that when we got to Paris a couple of hours later, we tried it again.  This time, it was at the top of the escalator and The Wife had already safely escaped when my bag and I went down.  Again, there were no serious injuries.  I had a nasty-looking gash in the back of my head, for which The Wife wanted to take me to the socialized medicine hospital to get stitches, but I insisted  on just stanching the blood and hoped for a nasty-looking scar that would gain me respect, with the stares.

As a result of our adventures, The Wife and I see the attraction in getting stared at, but I am trying to talk her into a butt-hugging dress, black hat, veil, gloves and high heels, so we can stop the stair tumbling.  (Alas, no pictures of our escapades.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: A Sleepless Night

About a year ago, I realized that The Wife and I had our 40th anniversary coming up August 14, 2011, and I didn't particularly look forward to commemorating by posting the customary before and after pictures in the newspaper,so I had to come up with a really good way to celebrate.

The Wife and I didn't go to Paris for our honeymoon, we went to Montreal (I took along $300 to finance the trip and came back with money left in the wallet.) Three years later we did hit Paris for a few days while we were doing the Grand Tour, just before I entered law school. It had never worked out for us both to return, although I took Son Number Two to Paris about 10 years ago for violin master classes. So, I got the idea that we would spend three weeks in an apartment in Paris for our 40th anniversary.

Then it turned out that Son Number Two's string quartet, JACK, was playing in concert in Reims,  just 45 minutes northeast of Paris by fast rail, on July 14 - 18, and we really could not miss that, and Brother Number Four (who is now 52 years old -- that is more of a shock than my own age) has lived in Vienna for seven years without a visit from us, so we had to go see him while we were in Europe.  All of those things have now been done, and The Wife and I are now happily settled into our beautiful apartment, enjoying the pleasures of Paris -- indisputably the Number One City in the World.

To catch you up on our adventures, we left Champaign on July 12, driving to O'Hare Airport where we would catch a 5:00 o'clock British Airways flight to London.  Everything went fine.  Traffic, no problem. Parking, no problem.  Shuttle to terminal 5, no problem.  Security, no problem.  Getting on the plane, no problem.  Seats, no problem.  I had scored seats just behind the bulkhead separating the business class from the peasants, which gave us more leg room.  Seat mate(s) -- problem.

We were in a three-seat section, the window seat being occupied by a young woman (23, and from Macedonia, we later found out) and her infant son, big for his age, but under two years old (or so she claimed) so he could ride for free sitting on her lap.  The plane had not yet left the gate when he began to cry -- not whimper -- cry.  Her response, quite sensibly enough, was to tell him to "stop that" and try to get him to drink his bottle of milk.  He would take a few gulps and then start crying again.  This went on continuously all the way across the Atlantic -- thankfully only an eight hour trip, not the six weeks it took my ancestors to come the other way.

I felt sorry for the mother, her child, for us and the other passengers.  I have never seen a mother as ill equipped for her job.  She had brought absolutely nothing to entertain or distract the baby, other than the bottle.  She had brought no books, no toys, no tapes -- nothing.  All night long, as he cried, she would say, "Stop that. Shut up."  She said she had given him Benadryl before the trip, and gave him another dose on the plane, apparently to try to drug him to sleep.  He did sleep for maybe an hour of the flight, but otherwise he was crying.

I was not angry with the mother.  I think she was just ignorant about how to travel with the child.  How could I be angry with the child?  He was obviously miserable, upset and didn't want to be there as badly as we didn't want him there.  The mother had lived in the United States for three years, she had no relatives here, other than her husband, who was also from Macedonia, but who was not making the trip.  I think she never had anyone to teach her parenting skills, and although some mothers can pick up parenting naturally, some need to be taught.

Joel Stein has a funny article in last week's Time about traveling with children - his solution is to put them in their own compartment in the back, and to segregate everyone else by their own demographic.  I don't like that idea.  I don't relish the thought of being in a compartment with a bunch of old overweight white guys.  I think the belching and the farting might be worse than hearing a baby cry all night long.