Why you should never use Chronopost if you fancy your packages getting delivered on time. or at all.

Thinking of mailing a package or urgent document from France? You might naturally be inclined to pick French transporter Chronopost: after all, they are the official offshoot of the French Postal Services and you can use their service through any French post office. OK, if you have any experience with the latter, and their dysmal record in both regular and special mail delivery, knowing that they officially “recommend” Chronopost wouldn’t be a big boost in their favour, but still, the point is: they are the default, ubiquitous, choice for parcels in France… marginally cheaper than DHL or Fedex and much more conveniently located.

Over the course of those past three years in Paris, I have done my best to avoid Chronopost and the French Post: never ever relied on them for anything critical, whenever I could help it.

And when I couldn’t help it… well they never once fulfilled their promise. I’ve had “Express 48h” delivery brought over to my doorstep, 3 weeks late and half torn-out, relatives to whom I’d send birthday presents abroad would get them a month after their birthday (that’s despite paying $100 for a pocketbook-sized parcel), I’ve had to go pick-up packages at the local delivery point countless times because “Recipient not at home at time of delivery” (never mind the fact I’d have been sitting by the door all morning and had my cellphone number printed on the delivery slip)…

To sum it up, out of about a dozen interactions with Chronopost during my time here, I don’t think they’ve held up their end of the contract more than once, twice at best.

So this morning, I am sitting in Parc Monceau, perusing Paris’ public-park-wide open wifi, trying to pull the schedule for my afternoon train.

Trying, because despite being on my twentieth online ticket booking for the month, trying to get anything out of French National Railway’s website feels like trying to get freshly squeezed OJ from a stone. I am not sure how exactly the whole “prevent users from getting a ticket online at all cost” fits into their business plan, but I guess if you take in account their laughably bad track record in all areas of service, it is merely brand identity on their part.

Twenty minutes and still no luck trying to get a single schedule for a local train departing 10 times a day from Paris (website timing out or randomly crashing at varying levels of the 50-step process), I had an epiphany and remembered a friend telling me about how it was probably easier booking a French train through Deutsche Bahn, German’s national railway company. At the time, I thought it was a joke.

Well, it’s not.

In approximately 1/100th of the time I spent attempting unsuccessfully to get a schedule for a French local train (from a French city, to a French city) on the official French website, I got the exact same info (available in 4 languages) on a German website.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so lame.

Feeding birds in Rodin’s garden, bathing in light and learning a
couple fascinating things about gothic architecture in the Sainte
Chapelle, taking the perennial walk through Montmartre before heading
out for authentic swiss fondue with family and friends.

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My friend Scott (he of the once-a-year updated blog), once coined a term to describe that all-too-common affliction of the garden-variety blogger: the way one single little item will clog your entire production line and delay infinitely the publication of your next post. He called it weblocked, which is as good a term as any other. And guess what: it happens a lot around these parts. It goes a long way toward those long stretches of blog silence, where the more I wait, the harder it seems to find an angle to break back in.

So in the spirit of clearing my current bloggage (and also because I really don’t have the time), allow me yet another life update potpourri entry, hopefully the last one in a while.

Paris hasn’t changed over the Summer. Still mostly cold and grey on an average day. Still offering a wide variety of options to liquor oneself up. Which sorta makes up for the previous part. Also has free bikes, which is way cool.

Vélib’ is easily the best thing to happen to Paris in a long while. Dirt cheap, ubiquitous, self-service, bike stations now cover every inch of Parisian sidewalk. Which means I rarely, if ever, step into the subway or bus anymore (rainy days aside). Biking amidst Parisian notoriously psychotic car drivers is not as fear-inducing as I thought it woud be, although it requires staying alert and attentive to your surroundings at all times. Unless, that is, you are drunk, riding full speed at two on a bike, down the Montagne Sainte Geneviève (that hill atop of which sits the Pantheon) on to the next bar. But we know of no people who would do such a mindblowingly stupid thing.

Of course, this being France and perfection being neither human nor French, this wonderful system has its downsides, one of which is the many bureaucratic hoops and near-month-long wait, one has to go through in order to receive their one-year subscription card. Still waiting for mine (and living off weekly passes in the meantime).

Winterish temperatures have also finally arrived. Which had for first consequence to keep me in bed the best of last week, waiting for my usual seasonal bout of flu to pass. But now that my tissue consumption has gotten back under the metric-tonne-a-day, I have finally come to give some limited appreciation to the cold albeit rather sunny outdoors. I don’t know if it’s me growing soft or cough syrup acting up, but I swear: breathing in the fresh crisp air on a cold Parisian night nearly makes me feel all mushy inside these days. I have turned on the heater at home nonetheless.

Shortly before I started hacking my lungs out, I did manage to attend a couple miscellaneous social affairs and cool art-related thingies. In particular, I had a really good time during the yearly Nuit Blanche celebration, spent in the north of Paris where a friend was showing her paintings. I do suspect spending the night outside discussing contemporary artists’ sexuality in relation to their art, with only a light jacket and some whisky to fight off the cold, might not be completely unrelated to aforementioned health problems.

Somewhere amidst the 20-points list of excuses for my being remiss from this blog all this time, is my official decision to sign up for JLPT 2-kyuu this year. What can I say: I like pain. The test takes place at the beginning of December. By even the most optimistic estimates, I will fail by a long shot, but I figured paying the 60 euros signup fee was the best way to kick my ass into some hardcore Japanese studying for the next two months.

Of course, being a geek first and foremost, I immediately concluded that 10% of my precious 50 days of revision would be much better spent on coding a nifty Japanese drill application. Also, because I am a geek 2.0, this application is on Facebook. But I swear it doesn’t suck (at least not as much as all those vampire/pirate/ninja bollocks). Trust me, if you are studying for JLPT, or even if you are just learning Japanese for fun (mind-boggling as the concept might be), this app is all you’ve ever dreamt off.

And now that I’m done selling it, I guess it is time for me to go back to using it.

I promise I’ll try to post more frequent, if succinct, updates for the near future.

… for me at least.

These are times of project wrap-ups, end-of-stay work presentations, last drinks with friends and last cozy nights with more-than-friends. I have practically shaved my head and started packing my luggage. Next weekend I fly off to Bangkok for a couple days: not so much for relaxation as for a very necessary transitional break before resuming six months of intensive studying in Paris. Vacation time is over. Not that it was exactly vacation to begin with, but what’s ahead is sure to make this ending Summer feel like a slice of paradise in comparison.

Actually, I am not dreading return as much as I thought I would. I know those six months aren’t gonna be much fun, but the mere fact that they have a specific timeframe and the knowledge that I’ll be done at the end of March, helps make it all feel like a sort of extended vacation to Paris. And Paris is much more enjoyable if you feel you are visiting than if you actually live there. Parisian life is a different form of fun that only appeals to me, given the certainty that it won’t last: fancy dinners out, cozy wine-sipping evenings at home, opera season, art exhibits, cocktail party crashing, overwhelmingly beautiful architecture on every corner, drunken bar-counter philosophical debates… All so typically Parisian, overly sophisticated fun… that after a while makes you yearn for simpler, more natural ways of having a good time. Which is when I will be about done with my current academic pursuits and will gladly move onto another period of my life, presumably far from Paris, without regret or bitterness. So, timing is perfect, it appears.

Plans for next year are still deliberately very vague. Much less definite as they were at the beginning of this Summer. I no longer know whether a Ph.D. is the necessary path to what I later want to achieve, in fact, maybe university research altogether, isn’t. Or perhaps it is my field of research that needs revising. Throw in a couple very tempting offers, brought over to me lately, that I would be a fool not to at least consider…

Part of my Summer here was coloured by the fact that college friends I hadn’t seen much in ages, now work and live in Tokyo. Hanging out with them coincidentally reminded me of an essential conclusion of those years, that I might have lost sight of otherwise: The fact you have the abilities to do something doesn’t mean you should, and definitely doesn’t mean it will make you happier. Back then, I once did the mistake of picking what most people seemed to hold as a universally enviable life/career path, only to quickly realize that most people’s idea of happiness in life probably didn’t match mine and therefore neither did their conception of how to achieve it.

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I promised (a long time ago) we’d talk about the other strong contender in the upcoming French presidential elections: Ségolène Royal, so here we go.

A couple years ago, when Angela Merkel was on the verge of becoming the first female Chancellor of Germany, I remember reading an article from a German magazine (der Spiegel I think it was) candidly asking if one could not consider voting for her specifically on account of her gender. The gist of their argument was that, electing a woman to such an office was in itself a considerable social advance, possibly overshadowing any measure either candidate could ever enact once elected.

It is a bit of a provocative argument, but still worth considering. Especially if you have your doubts about the effective influence of this election’s outcome on important matters of economic or international policies.

However, the comparison between both women ends there. They are from slightly opposite sides of the political board and, under their common gender, are perceived very differently by partisans and opponents alike. Angela Merkel, while I am not well-versed enough in German politics to give an extensive appraisal of her skills, is a very capable, respected politician. There is not the slightest suspicion that she may ever have relied on her gender as a prop to get by, quite the opposite: I remember reading people emphasizing her “butchy” manners (equally unnerving, as chauvinist clichés go, but at least not in the way you may expect).

The problem with the current French presidential race is that it has become extremely hard to tell whether one’s impression of a candidate is somehow attuned with reality and verifiable facts or just the result of widespread journalistic bias. Of course, this is a problem everywhere: Fox TV and other Murdoch-style news outlets do a much worse job at imitating journalistic integrity than most French media. In France, the bias is usually more subtle: few media (outside of those ostensibly labeled as following one party or the other) will directly slander their political opponents. It is more of a meticulous, careful selection of the news they report on and the tone they adopt, so as to finally envelop each politician in a caricatural persona that fits a specific political intent.

I do realize I just described the way politics and media work everywhere in the world, the thing is: the ratio of perceived versus actual personal and political traits here is simultaneously very high and rarely acknowledged by most people, it seems.

This is true of all candidates and works in either direction: I previously mentioned how Ms. Royal’s opponent, Mr. Sarkozy, is hyperbolically depicted by his opponents as some neo-fascistic brute, which is simply inaccurate: for all his sitting on the conservative right side of France’s political board, he objectively ranks left of both Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair on major issues and policies, yet any topical discussion with your average Frenchman will invariably veer into Godwin territories (unless your interlocutor is pro-Sarkozy, in which case he will hail the man as a savior of all things righteous and law-abiding in a society crumbling under the weight of rampant youth crime and illegal immigration). I dislike the man and his knack for populist securitarian rhetoric, as much as the next freedom-loving fool, but he is no Benito Mussolini, not even a Georges W. Bush.

But back to Ségolène.

What do I think of her?

When I hear Ms. Ségolène Royal talk of her projects, when I read her interviews, watch her answer questions or simply humor journalists with unsubstantial banter, all I see is one incredibly unseasoned, incompetent, borderline-stupid politician with the stuck-up delivery of a grade-school teacher and the mien that goes with (you really expect her to slap you on the wrist with a ruler at any moment). I see shameless use of her image as a maternal figure, I see a candidate who has suddenly emerged to the forefront 10 months ago and won her party’s primaries, not on a solid program, but because her pleasant looks, relative political freshness and high poll ratings, made her at the time the most serious contender to beat Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a word, I see practically every single misogynist stereotypes about women in politics made flesh.

Now you understand why I might be questioning my own perception through the French media. This is all depressing and ever so slightly suspicious. But unfortunately I still think this is not all made-up impressions and journalistic bias: she is that incompetent.

Sacre de Sarkozy

Guess what this year is?

Why, you’re right my friend, this year is French Presidential Election Year !

In May of this year, to be exact, the French will vote to elect a new Président de la République.

Under France’s current constitution, the president controls the executive branch and has power over foreign and domestic policies. Unlike the US, however, he can (and often did, over the past 20 years) end up with a government from the opposite party, as the National Assembly has the power to vote the Prime Minister (and his ministers) out. The President can decide at any moment to dissolve the Assembly and call for a new election (which he traditionally does as soon as he is elected, I think, unless such an election is already scheduled).

Thus you have a Janken-like circular structure of power, where the President still holds an advantage, being the only immovable piece of the game (5-year mandate and a pretty good immunity from prosecution, as Mr. Jacques Chirac will tell you). At all times, and regardless of the Assembly’s majority, it is customary for the President to keep his role of representation abroad, along with final say in matters of foreign policy (not unlike the POTUS). Domestic policies are his, only so long as his party holds the majority at the Assembly.

Anyway, enough with the boring talk about French political institutions. On to the only thing we may care about: Who will it be?

The answer, with a fairly high rate of certainty: either Nicolas Sarkozy (“Sarko” to his fans and enemies alike) or Ségolène Royal (“Ségo”, to same).

As you may have noticed, pictures are back in full force on this blog. This rebirth is due to my finally caving in to the trend and buying one of these fancy new cellphone things. One of those that come with a color LCD and, gasp, a camera.

I was until now quite happy using my antiquated prepaid cellphone (about 50×100 pixels of monochrome goodness and such cutting edge features as “call”, “send SMS” and even “address book”), until I started gathering last year’s pictures, for my yearly New Year’s Card project, and realized I had close to none. Even though I own a reasonably nice and compact digicam, and use it sometimes when I feel artistically inclined, it just isn’t the same as a camera-phone…

I was never a big fan of cameras, especially in group settings. Actually I suspect the “let’s take a souvenir photo” bug is mostly a female thing, and tends to grow hundredfold with motherhood. But going over all the drunken (and less drunken) pics I took during my stay in Tokyo, with my trusty keitai, I realized how much I liked having those around. To me, they are nothing like the sort of pictures you take with a “real” camera. Cameraphone pics, for one, are lower quality (especially mine, since I purposely downsample them in order to use less bandwidth when sending them over email), which means you treat them differently: being lo-fi, badly lit or with a strong visible grain is expected and nearly part of the journalistic charm of the medium. The other aspect I noticed with myself and friends while in Japan, was the psychological difference: people usually do not react to a phone the way they do to a camera. Phones are slightly less intrusive and more easily allow you to take pictures without breaking the flow of social interactions; with a camera-phone, even usually camera-shy people tend to be more exuberant and less self-conscious. It is possible that Japanese society is special in that respect, considering how ubiquitous camera-phones have become there, but I reckon things will be moving in a similar direction everywhere…

Anyway, from now on, you can expect a fairly regular influx of live views from my life in Paris. Incidentally, this will help me fill my quota of diary-esque entries on this blog, without having to resort much to boring “did this, did that” text entries. I liked the balance I had found with the older keitai log format, with tons of pointless but short photographic entries on one side, longer verbose rants on the other.

For now, enjoy the pretty random pics of drunken friends and Parisian locales.