25 June 2009
14 May 2009
- Smile warmly and speak gently
- Try to stutter something in French first, even if you can't speak much, before attempting English. At the very least, ask if they speak English es-koo-voo par-lay-le-francay? If you do this, you will find that most of the time, people who might had seemed distant or rude, will engage you warmly and try strenously to communicate with and help you. Under no circumstances should you abruptly start speaking to a Frenchman in English as if you expect to be understood! There are few ways more likely to keep you from getting anything out of the interaction. Most French have a little English and many actually speak quite well. But I've seen many times where a French person I knew could speak English reasonably well, pretended they couldn't understand even basic words like yes, no and tomorrow b/c they weren't treated respectfully (as per their understanding of respect).
- Don't rush them (insofar as possible) or get aggressive. The French aren't focused on service or speed. They believe in savoring life and get very aggitated by the brusque manners of foreigners. Be prepared to wait.
- Don't talk loudly, try not to cough in public, sneeze or be otherwise improper. Hard to avoid, but many French are very proper and hypersensitive (from my viewpoint) to this.
- Remember that it's their country not yours - don't tell them how to be, even if it strikes you as a bit ridiculous. Not worth the fight - you're a visitor, try to treat them how you'd like to be treated (viz-a-vis their own cultural mores and norms).
- Finally, avoid putting up any stickers (insofar as possible) on the mailslots or buzzers of an apartment you are renting. Parisians, at least, are irrationally sensitive (from my viewpoint at least) about this. We had a simple sticker listing our names on it placed on our mailbox, so we'd receive the mail. Sounds straightforward? Well it wasn't. First someone began ripping our sticker off periodically (but they didn't remove it cleanly so it looked much more messy than before). Never tried to contact us nor let us know who was doing it so we could discuss it (see what I mean about passive-aggressive?). Our landlady told us to just keep putting up new stickers. Eventually this started to get ridiculous as we were putting up a new sticker every day. Finally around this point, someone put up this note, written in illegible French on used, ripped paper, attached to the middle of the glass front door with scotch tape and a business card stapled to it. I had an idea of what this note might be, so I took a picture and asked a friend to translate. The gist is that 'no one should put stickers on the mailboxes or buzzers, because it is inappropriate and ruins the asthetic quality of our living space. Instead you must have a metal plaque made out with your name, business card attached. Thank you'. Of course it was signed by "Members of the Building Committee" (passive-aggressive again) and someone helpfully added to the corner (top-left) in a messy but legible scrawl "this is just normal, I did it when I moved in" (guess they weren't subletting for just a couple of month). So to summarize: the folks in my building were so aesthetically sensitive that they covered the beautiful glass front door of the building with a scrawled note on ripped, used paper, for two weeks to let me know I needed to buy a metal plaque in order to receive mail (notice any inconsistency here?) - My friend who translated (happens to be a Parisian told me that this apparently is characteristic, but also told me how stupid she thought it was, so did my landlady.
08 May 2009
05 May 2009
I don't remember when it was I first read about Argan oil. Must have been at least a year ago, probably longer. The story I read told how a rare and ancient tree grew at the edge of the Sahara. This tree, called the Argan tree, was a relict of Earth's Tertiary period - a living anachronism (although only 1.6 million years out of date - compare that to the California Redwoods which are something like 200 million). These shrubby, thorny trees grew stubbornly in the most dry and difficult climate, able to hang on for 200 years or so, but only viable in this small sliver of land so
Now the Argan tree bears a small green-yellow fruit. Not something humans would eat, but goats love it. And people have figured out a way to make use of this: The goats climb the Argan trees, nibbling on the leaves and eating the fruit. After ingesting the fruit the goats either (a) spit it back out or (b) poop it out (I've heard differing accounts). The core of the fruit and its seednut are not digested by the goat - much like the reknowned "catshit coffee". Locals then take this partially digested fruit, remove the seednut, crack it, roast it, and grind it. Once ground they knead and mix it with water until it forms cakes. They then squeeze the cakes and out comes the reward for this lengthy process - pure Argan oil. After tasting it, I can tell you that it is nutty and delicious. From what scientists are claiming it has more natural vitaman E then almost any other ingestible substance and all sorts of other healthful properties to boot. Because of these properties Argan oil has become all the rage with foreign companies buying up supply and using it for food, medicine, and beauty care products.
This whole story completely intrigued me - these ancient relicts living at the edge of the habitable world, the complicated procedure, and of course the goats. I dreamed of someday going to Africa and seeing it - but I figured it would happen one day in the indefinite and far future. What I didn't realize was that the main place in Africa where Argan trees grow is actually in Morocco, outside of Essaouria, at the northern edge of the Sahara desert. So when I found I, I was so excited and resolved that if Linda and I only saw one thing there, we'd make sure that we went to an Argan oil co-ops, see the trees, and hopefully see the goats as well.
On our second day in Essaouria we made arrangements through our hotel - the Riad Nakhala - to have a driver take us to one of th
e co-ops to see how the oil is made and purchase some. After that the driver would show us some local sights and hopefully help us find trees (lots of these) and goats (harder to find). We spent a bit on the half-day journey (400 MAD ~ 50 USD) but we definitely got our money's worth.
Our driver was Mohamed Elkhadir of La Arbah Rent A Car and he showed us a great time.
First we left town and stop at an overlook where we could see Essaouria and the surrounding areas stretched out before us in panorama. Then we took a drive to the Coopérative D'Argan Marjana. Now there are about a million co-ops selling Argan oil that have opened in the last decade. Most employ women (widows, divorcees, etc.), but Mohamed told us that this one was probably the best, owned and operated solely by the women for their benefit and that of the surrounding community. While there we met the women, who made the oil in the traditional way, by hand and got to taste the nuts (both roasted and unroasted( - boy were they strong and bitter (particularly the unroasted ones). I really enjoyed the zing the taste gave me. After learning a bit about the oil we went to the co-op store where they gave us moroccan mint tea (a bit lukewarm) and tastes of both the oil and Ambo - a delicious mix of Argan oil, local honey, and almonds. Both were delicious, but I liked the oil better and we ended up buying a whole liter of the stuff (cost us 450 MAD which was probably 150 to 200 above the market rate - but it was clearly highest quality and we felt like we were contributing to the community).
We left the co-op and went off in search of Argan trees and goats. Finding the trees was easy. They are all over the place - completely dominating the area. In many places all that grew was Argan trees, a bit of dried grass, and dirt. It's amazing to think that the population of trees is actually only half what it was two decades ago. The trees themselves are finicky - getting them to reproduce is something people are just starting to understand. Additionally, given how sensitive they are, climate change doesn't appear to have been good for them. Finally the people in this area are very poor. Argan trees were previously cut down to use for food, or overgrazed and killed by the goat herders. But know everyone realizes what a lucrative treasure these trees are and both the locals have become very protective as well as the government (it's a really big fine if you chop one down). So we stopped a couple of times to look at the trees, and look for their fruit (there was a drought the previous two years, this year finally raining, so few of the trees were fruiting). It was wonderful to see them up close.
But the real treat came when we found the goats. To do this, Mohamed drove us around for an hour or so, continually scanning the countryside as he drove. He took our request to see the goats really seriously. And finally perserverence paid off - we found two teenage shepherd boys with a flock of goats, 3 camels and some sheep. The goats were all over - different sizes, males, females, kids. All of them from the oldest to the youngest were climbing the trees (the little ones were really cute - being more tentative and less stable on the branches than their elders). Mohamed spoke with the boys and got their okay for us to
watching the goats antics. They would place themselves in the most precarious positions. One goat had three feet perched practically on the same place on thin branch while reaching with its mouth for an even higher and significantly thinner branch. It tried several times to brace its fourth foot against what essentially was a twig, but eventually thought the better of it (goats aren't stupid, at least not terribly so ;).
I even got in on the action climbing into the tree with the goats - although the first time I did this I spooked them, which led me to be more cautious and less noisy on my second more successful attempt (the first one had ended with me sitting in a tree alone, all the goats having abandoned ship)!
It was an amazing and fun experience. When we left we gave each boy a 10 Dirham piece (about 1.25 USD) which was apparently a great gift for them. We then headed home, stopping for soda at Mohamed's house (he invited us for dinner, but we already had plans so we declined). Mohamed did offer as well to get Linda tagines for cooking and CDs of music we had heard in the car. So the next day we stopped by and went shopping (got two tagines for 50 Dihram which is basically nothing - 7 bucks). While we had been watching the goats, Mohamed also showed me the type of foodwear that the hearders use. They make sandals out of pieces of old tires, cobbled together with short nails. When he mentioned that he used to teach poor children, I asked him if he could find someone to use the pair of old shoes I was wearing and he told me that he definitely could and thanked me for my generosity. This was a bit humbling for me - I was going to throw these shoes out, they weren't worth shlepping around anymore, it wasn't any sacrifice for me - rather I was glad to have the opportunity to see they did something more beneficial than end up in the wastebin. So in addition to a great time, big help shopping, and hospitality, I also got to get rid of an old pair of shoes and bluejeans in a useful manner. The whole business made me really happy.
03 May 2009
27 April 2009
22 April 2009
When I complained to one of the airline fellows he told me that 'the airline's job is to take you from point A to point B, the rest isn't our responsibility'. It's interesting and mildly telling that this was his view.
My view (which I expressed to him at the time, little good it did me) is that actually the airline's job is to get me from point A to point B at a particular time (which has been agreed upon by both parties well in advance).
Air Morocco is heading onto my list of $h!tty airlines, along with such esteemed company as Air Italia and the long defunct Tower Airlines. The only saving grace is that the part of CDG in which we've gotten to lose our afternoon has reasonably comfortable lounging chaises and it gives me time to catch up on writing blog posts and other work.
So we are now much of the way to Morocco. The plane started boarding at the time they had previously claimed we would leave (4:30PM). It's not a bad plane, but they forgot our vegetarian meals, so I didn't have much to eat. They didn't have any hot water, so no tea, and there doesn't appear to be soap in the bathrooms. Definitely a $h!t airline.
One thing that really got me - and I can't claim this Air Morocco is the first airline I've gotten this from - is that when we asked for our meal, they looked at our tickets, told us there was no special meal marking, and then implied it was because we had failed to "confirm" our special meal at check-in. Now as I've just said, other airlines have given us the exact same line - despite our having a printout from the airline confirming that we are booked for such-and-such flight w/ vegetarian meal (or kosher meal or whatever we happened to order). I just don't get airline logic. If I request a special meal when I book my ticket and the airline confirms that choice in writing on a receipt, what possible justification is there for that meal not to be present? I mean, (a) I've checked in, (b) I've previously requested the special meal and (c) the airline has confirmed receipt of that choice. Thus in my world (a) AND (b) imply that the airline ought to put a special meal on the plan since I'm on the plane and (c) implies the airline is aware of the above conclusion. Yet, still apparently it is somehow my responsibility (despite no airline every having informed me of this obligation beforehand) to "confirm" my meal choice. I give up. Although I did get soap when I managed to find a stewardess to ask. But all the bathrooms were occupied by that point. Fu&*ing airlines.
21 April 2009
Happycow lists vegetarian restaurants worldwide w/ reviews and other info - and they do it fairly throughly. This usually determines where I'll be eating out in a given city as I only eat at either kosher or vegetarian places.
My dietary restrictions (strictly vegetarian, mildly kosher) often prevents me from sampling local cuisine, although I do my best to try what I can since I love trying new things and experiencing the places I visit as throughly as possible (and I'd argue eating is one of the most fundamental modes of experience). So when I visit a place like Austria where most of the traditional non-dessert, non-beverage cuisine is throughly meat, I tend to be a bit sad.
So when I read about Gasthouse Schillinger, I was really excited. Schillingers is traditional Austrian guesthouse/pub/restaurant located about an hour outside of Vienna. It first opened for business in 1793 (so order of magnitude its as old as the US) and has been continuously owned/run by a man named Karl Schillinger ever since. Something like 7 Karl Schillingers have run this place and the current incarnation decided 10 years ago to make the place vegan. Yup, vegan. They serve all the traditional Austrian meat dishes, just they don't happen to be meat. The existence of a 200+ year old authentic Austrian guesthouse where I could get as close to eating true Austrian cuisine as any vegetarian is going to blew my mind a little.
So with the kindness of Zsofie and Gabor (Linda's cousin and her husband) who lent us their car and GPS, Linda and I took a road trip there on Sunday evening. Before I continue I should also thank Perry & Stephanie Vais without whose instruction in the art of driving a manual vehicle some weeks before and willingness to rent a manual vehicle (respectively) - I wouldn't have known how to drive - and my mother's willingness to mail me the replacement license (which arrived shortly before my 29th birthday) - without which I wouldn't have had a legal license.
Anyway returning to the story, we drove out to Großmugl where Schillingers is located and really enjoyed the sunny afternoon in the most beautiful countryside. The trip was mostly uneventful until we came within about 5 minutes of our destination, at which point a huge mound rose out of the gently rolling countryside. The huge mound was topped by a huge (but much smaller cross) and a group of Austrians we later learned were having a picnic! The appearance of this thing answered one question that had been on my mind while opening another. You see on the Schillinger website in the directions page, a large mound with a cross on top was displayed, and not much else. I had no idea what to make of this, until of course I saw the mound. After seeing the mound, it was clear why this previously cryptic picture had been displayed. Of course, the new questions was "what the heck is it?".
As much as I wanted to stop, evening was coming and we were running late for our reservation. So we went to the restaurant, found they weren't too crowded, and Linda graciously agreed to return for a visit to the mound.
We got there, walked around, and then climbed up (rather steep and a good 50 feet up). At the top we met a collection of Austrians about our age having a picnic. They explained what the mound was - a 3000 year old pagan burial heap, the largest of it's kind in central Europe (its even got its own webpage) apparently at was probably closer to 60 feet high when it was made. This not only answered my question, but also explains the town's name - which translates to English as "Big Hill". We chatted with them a bit - really friendly folks. Looked around, savored the sunset on the countryside, took some pictures and then headed/slid down. Really neat and really unexpected! The only part that miffed me a little was the cruxifix. It seems a bunch of folks stuck it up there a couple of years ago. The locals seem to have a penchant for crosses - the locals crucify a Jesus figurine and stick the 2 meter (6 foot) business right at the roadside wherever someone dies in a traffic accident - the first one we passed gave me a bit of a scare. Anyway, so they took this historic, ancient, and oddly beautiful pagan burial place and went and stuck a 3 meter (9 foot) high cross at the top, like it was some kind of bizarre wedding cake needing decoration. Now I'm not a pagan (and I'll admit I've got no love for crucifixes or other instruments of torture), but I do respect the dead and it honestly seemed a bit wrong to put that crucifix up there - the mound builders went to what was evidently alot of trouble to bury their dead according to their belief system and then 3000 years later some folks decide to desecrate (from what I'm guessing the mound builders point of view would be) their gravesite with paraphenalia from a religion that wouldn't even be born for a millenium.
Returning to my main narrative: we waved goodbye to our Austrian friends (they had been tickled to hear what brought us to Großmugl) and drove back to town for dinner. The ambiance of the place was great. Drinking and smoking (which I don't love, but will admit creates a certain mood) Austrian (apparently locals) filled the place. Next to us was a group of guys with a large dog that occasionally started to bark at people. The benches were wood, the floor was wood, the place just seemed like it had been there forever and would continue to do so for as long as it pleased. But the waitresses foamed soy milk for the drinks and everything was vegetarian (most was vegan). We ended up ordering Amdudler (the Austrian national softdrink), two traditional soups, and a huge tasting plate. It looked awesome and I loved it. Linda loved the ambience, experience, and concept. Food-wise, well for her it just wasn't the real thing, but she didn't eat badly. I was a little sad we didn't both savor the experience (at least the gustatory part) equally, but as well as we work together there's always going to be some culinary gap between a relatively unrestricted carnivore and a vegetarian - but I don't think that's a bad thing :-)
After finishing up most of the meal, I couldn't resist ordering another dish to go - Deer ragout, bread dumplings, and pear and beery sauce! We shared an excellent berry tea while we waited. Then we drove home in the moonless (or what seemed like it), countryside darkness. Fun!
10 April 2009
This went well up until the time I attempted to made an image of my Documents folder. This is the place where I keep all of the important non-media (e.g., non-picture, song, or movie) files. I keep this in a separate hard-drive partition so I don't have to recopy it everytime I want to swap the OS in and out. However, it is important to keep at least one, preferably more backup copies of this very important directory kept elsewhere.
But here I ran into a problem. When using the Mac OS X Disk Utility program to make an image of the directory (from folder), I kept receiving errors along the line of "unable to create Documents: permission denied". Now this was quite irritating, so I went and checked the permissions on the directory. Permissions are essentially just a bunch of data about your file stored along with your file (metadata) that tell you what different groups of users are allowed or prohibited from doing with your files. User groups include: you, everyone, and custom groups of users that are more than yourself but less than everyone. Actions include things like reading, writing, and executing the contents of a file.
Being fairly familiar with permissions from over a decade of *nix experience, I expected to solve this quite easily but reseting everything to some reasonable default (e.g., chmod -R 770 Documents - which means me and other special folks can do everything and people who aren't us can't do anything) but strangely this didn't work. So I had to search.
What I found was that Mac OS X uses an extended permissions system called ACL, which in theory is probably really nice, but in practice seems to be mostly a pain-in-the-ass.
To explain: regular permissions look something like the below.
The first character lets you know of the file is special, e.g. d (a directory), l (a link), or - (normal).
The next 3 sets of three characters lets you know if the file is readable r, writeable w, and executable e, respectively. The first set is for the owner, the second for the group and the last for everyone (else).
drwx------ 4 reich staff 136 Apr 10 02:34 Desktop
The stuff on the line following this lets you know who the owner of the file is, the group of the file, it's name and other identifying info.
Here is a slightly more complicated entry for a symbolic link
lrwxr-xr-x 1 root staff 27 May 11 2008 Documents -> /Volumes/storage/Documents/
Not too complicated (although perhaps a bit daunting for the beginner), but in systems using ACL some entires might have a + symbol after the 10 character permissions string. This indicates that the file has extended ACL permissions as well. To actually see these permissions one types
(technically only the e is need to see the ACL stuff, but I like to use l as well to get a more complete picture)
Here's an example of what you might see:
drwxr-xr-x@ 6 reich staff 204 Oct 7 2008 Movies
0: group:everyone deny delete
also you might notice that instead of the 11th character being a + it is a @.
This indicates that not only does this file use ACL, but its using some type of extended attributes thing. My suspicion is that the @ symbol doesn't necessarily imply the + symbol, but that when both apply the @ wins but I'm too lazy to find out right now.
Anyway it turns out for reasons I haven't bothered to discover that Mac OS X sometimes decides to do weird things to the file permissions - giving them special ACL-based restrictions - that cause the type of errors I experienced. So the quick solution is to kill all of these irritating ACL metadata (no guarantees that it won't cause your computer to explode, but I've not had any negative reactions from doing this)
Each ACL permission that is attached to your file will have a number indicating which rule it is.
All my problem have come from rules that look like
0: group:everyone deny delete
so you want to delete rules with these numbers (in this case rule 0)
chmod -R -a# 0 username
and after that things should be much more hunky dory.
29 March 2009
Tomorrow, Linda and I leave Paris early in the morning. We are heading down to Nice, where we will sight-see and relax until Thursday evening. Then we head to Israel on an overnighter. Get in Friday morning and spend the next two weeks seeing friends, catching up on sleep and a little work, and celebrating the Pesach holidays. Leave Israel after the holiday, stop in Paris for a couple of hours to see friends from New Mexico, then off to Vienna to visit Linda's cousins and newborn child! Couple of days in Vienna and then back to Paris for the night of the 21st of April. 22nd we head to Tangiers, Morocco. After that Fez, Casablanca, Marrakesh (and maybe other places in between). Then at the end of the week (can't remember if its the last day of April or first of May, we go to London for an extend weekend with good friends. Then I return to NY and work at Columbia (May 5th in the eve) and Linda will be travelling, learning, and cooking in Europe until June 21st. Okay now to sleep b/c I have to get up EARLY.
06 February 2009
I feel a rant coming on, so I'll cut myself short and simply end by observing that I don't see anything wrong with a octuple gold medal winner enjoying a smoke. If he's done it before (overwhelmining likely) it surely didn't cause (and evidently didn't prevent) his success, and if you are going to argue that it somehow degraded his drive, mental acuity, or physical health - well, I'd probably call you a nut. Not that there would be much, if any basis, to such a claim based on medical evidence (but that never stopped morons or politicians from making them).
Addition: The other quick thought I had was that the majority of athletes who use illegal substances to cheat rarely get penalized on this level (if at all - those in lucrative sports like baseball pretty much get carte-blanche even when it's common knowledge they pop steriods like a third-world traveler uses petol bismol) - either legally, professionally, or financially. People generally get in a huff over drugs (even when it is reasonable to do so) when the targets are athletes in random niche sports that Americans only give a damn about once every 4 years.
We've settled into Paris at this point and I'm really enjoying myself. Still got a bit to the trip - should just have gotten home in 3 months (Linda will probably travel for another month-and-change after), but definitely at the point where I'm thinking fondly of home. Then I saw this NY Times blog post - I LEGO NY. I never thought LEGOs could evoke home so well!