Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Thank God That's Over

I finished "The Golden Notebook" yesterday. I feel like a ten-million-pound weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I understand why it's an important book, especially for its era -- the anger that I mentioned in yesterday's post was probably illuminating to people who were clueless that smart women could be so frustrated with their lot in society. (And that they could be such multi-dimensional, political and sexual beings.)

But you know what? Doris Lessing needed an editor. Really. That thing was just painful to read.

I had a crazy busy day yesterday, but it was great. I got a lot of work done, took the dog for a couple of long walks, and finished lots of little errands. Now I feel like I'm on top of things. I'm going to try to get out today and take some photos of the amazing blooming trees in the neighborhood -- there's so much color out there, every leaf and flower seems saturated. Ah, Spring!

(Photo: Tottenham Court Road, London, last week.)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Back Home Again

And suddenly, here I am, back in our living room with the dog rolling around on the carpet and my coffee beside me, in my Starbucks "Tampa" mug. It seems like I never left, and yet it seems like we've been gone for weeks.

Olga is none the worse for wear. She came back yesterday evening from her holiday in the country, happy but gray and stinky. I guess that's to be expected after keeping close quarters with multitudes of other dogs. We promptly bathed her, and thank goodness Dave was here to make it a two-man operation. Now every time I look at her, clean and white and well-fed, I think how much easier her life is than the lives of all those Bucharest street dogs.

Our flight back was uneventful. Early yesterday morning we collected Dave's eight kids at the school and hopped a bus for the airport, herded everyone through security and passport control and lounged around a bit with time to spare. I switch into Chaperone Mode whenever I'm around students, obsessively counting to make sure everyone is there. Dave, having chaperoned countless groups over the years, seems much less uptight about it than I am. And I can never get used to being called "Mr. Reed." I think, who is Mr. Reed?

I used my time on the plane to hack my way through a chunk of "The Golden Notebook." I am in the home stretch. So far, I am not greatly illumined. It's a much angrier book than I expected, and the characters communicate and behave in ways that seem unnecessarily harsh and frankly unbelievable. Every man in the book is a pig. Every single one. Except the gay characters, whom the author happily disparages for being "not real men."

I asked one of the teachers at the Bucharest school what the gay scene is like in Romania. He told me it's very underground, like the U.S. in the 1960s. From what I could tell there are no gay bars, and though I saw several sex shops, I didn't see any that advertised gay content. (I didn't go in and peruse the shelves, but usually they'll tack a little sign outside that says they've got it.) I suppose some of that social conservatism stems from the years under communism and the Orthodox church, but it struck me as very unusual for Europe -- and markedly different from Prague, for example.

(Photo: A sidewalk cafe in Bucharest, describing my attitude exactly.)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Atheneum, Palace and Arch

Yesterday I went on an outing with all the kids and teachers who are here for the international music program that Dave and his eight students are attending. While I've been tromping around Bucharest the last couple of days, they've been pretty much confined in a school working on rehearsals. So it was a welcome break for them to get outside and see some of the city.

We loaded a couple of buses and went to visit the Romanian Atheneum (above), Bucharest's historic performing arts hall. It's an incredibly ornate structure built in 1888 by a French architect, and one of the buildings that helps give Bucharest a Parisian air.

The ceiling in the performance hall was mind-blowing.

We also went to see the Palace of Parliament, the colossal folly I pictured near the end of my post on Friday. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's longtime Communist dictator, razed about 9,000 buildings -- historic churches, homes, you name it -- in order to build this behemoth of a building in the 1980s, as well as the surrounding avenues and other structures.

Maybe because of that history, it seems like a rather bleak building. The halls are vast and not at all to any human scale, with gold leaf, carved wood, marble inlaid floors and other features. In an old building like the Atheneum, ornamentation seems authentic and beautiful, but in a 20-year-old white elephant it's a bit much. (Apparently the Romanians, after overthrowing Ceausescu in 1989, had a referendum to decide whether to finish the palace, and because it was already so close to completion they saw it through.) The building also seems dark, and our tour guide turned lights on and off wherever we went. I can't imagine what the power bill would otherwise be for those 4,000-plus chandeliers.

The view from the palace was impressive, but very Communist. Again, no sense of human scale at all. Apparently Ceausescu was inspired by visiting Pyongyang, in North Korea. He may be the only person to ever find Pyongyang appealing enough to warrant imitation.

After this excursion I split from the group. (Because I'm here on my own dime I'm not obligated to rehearse!) Back in the shadow of the Atheneum, I had a blissfully quiet lunch at a funky little restaurant with zebra-striped chairs, and then walked north through town to the Arcul de Triumf, Romania's answer to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The walk involved a long stroll along the leafy Avenue Kiseleff, which is lined with parks, embassies and expensive villas.

As I understand it, the arch commemorates military victories that led to a unified Romania, as well as the nation's role in World War I. It was originally built in 1878 of wood, which must have been something to see, but was rebuilt in marble in the early 1930s.

Here's some of the history I've been learning: Romania is a relatively new nation, having been formed in the 1800s from the principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and (later) Transylvania. But of course people have been here for thousands of years, through various feudal governments and empires. The Romans under Trajan conquered the region shortly after 100 A.D. and governed it briefly as an outpost of the empire known as Dacia. Modern Romanians trace their roots to those Romans and the conquered Dacians and other tribes. Our tour guide told us that today, of all the Romance languages, Romanian most closely resembles the original Latin. Who knew?!

Last night, the students performed the concert that concludes their international band gathering. I took a cab out to the international school to see the show, and spent a lot of my time photographing it at the request of the organizers. I don't usually shoot events so I didn't know what the heck I was doing, but I think I came away with some pretty good photos.

This morning we're returning to London. Olga awaits!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Bucharest Conga

Another day on the hoof yesterday. It was quite an adventure, too. I didn't get lost, exactly -- I knew where I needed to go -- but in this crazy city of diagonal streets and traffic circles, I had some trouble finally getting there!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I went out about 8 a.m. and wandered south through the city, and then north again, photographing my usual mix of street art, people and storefronts. My eventual goal was Cismigiu Gardens, a sort of Central Park in Bucharest.

The gardens are a shady oasis, particularly on a hot day like yesterday. Romanians apparently do not share the American obsession with lawns -- while quite beautiful, the grassy expanses of the park were permitted to get shaggy and run to dandelions, rather than being strictly manicured. Which I liked.

There's a big lake in the center of the park, and it was producing the most unearthly noises. I thought they were being made by birds, but then I realized they were coming from the water. And then I saw the culprits.

Yes, I am such a city boy that I can no longer recognize the sound of a frog. Depressing, really. There were tons of them, and about a bazillion tadpoles, which was uplifting and encouraging. A healthy new generation!

On an outdoor terrace in the park I had an inexpensive lunch of poached eggs and polenta, which is a common Romanian staple. (It's basically grits. I had a good ol' Southern meal!)

Then I walked over to the river to see the Opera House and Casa Radio, a gigantic ruin of a building that was built under the Communists but apparently never occupied. And then I headed back to my hotel, except...

I hit construction. As in, road construction. Which fouled up even my pedestrian instincts. Pretty soon I was far north of where I wanted to be, and only an hour or so of zig-zagging beneath a hot sun brought me back to the hotel. Whew!

Last night we went to a wild restaurant with live music. A jazz quintet, in fact, playing standards like "Stardust" and "Caravan," at least at the beginning. Pretty soon it turned into a sort of Romanian Lawrence Welk show, with various guest singers and folk dancers, and the table of Romanians behind us got really into it, dancing in the aisles. Pretty soon we were all in a conga line around the room. I loved that place.

By the way, sorry for not keeping up with everyone else's blogs. I have very little computer time here, since I'm using Dave's laptop and he has a lot of pesky actual work to do. I'll catch up with you all after I get back home tomorrow.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Views of Bucharest

Today's post will be mostly pictorial, because if you're like me before I got here, Bucharest is probably a bit of a mystery to you. Here's what it looks like.

Lots of little Orthodox churches are tucked amid the tightly packed buildings in the older parts of the city. Sometimes they have small outdoor altars where visitors can light a candle, as in the top photo.

There are quite a few stray dogs wandering around. My guidebook says this is the result of Communist-era policies decades ago that forced people to move into large apartment blocks. Unable to keep their pets, they turned the dogs out onto the streets. I've seen tags in the ears of some dogs, so apparently there is some kind of tracking or veterinary care program for them.

There's a crazy amount of graffiti and street art to keep me busy with the camera!

A street view in the older, cobblestoned part of town. I love how elegant old buildings appear around every corner, tucked amid the newer ones.

Here's the River Dambovita, which runs through town. It was channelized years ago, and even flows underground for some distance.

And finally, here's the Palace of Parliament, built in the waning days of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, just before he was overthrown in the revolution that ended communism in 1989. It's said to be the second-largest government building in the world after -- you guessed it -- the Pentagon. Apparently large portions of it aren't even in use. It's quite imposing, though.

I walked and walked yesterday, with more of the same today. I am in my element and having a ball. Reading my guidebook I realize how little I know about the history of this part of the world -- Magyars, Dacians, Thracians, Wallachians, it's all a vague jumble to me. It's great to be able to sit in a cafe, drink a Timisoreana beer, and learn about it all in the midst of modern-day Romania.

Lots more wandering is on the agenda today!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In Bucha, Getting Some Rest

I couldn't help but steal Nancy's joke, from yesterday's reader comments, for my post title. (Thanks, Nancy!) I really am lying in bed in my hotel room at the moment, wrestling with both hotel Wi-Fi and Dave's peculiar computer. Which has about a zillion documents on the desktop. I don't know how he finds anything.

I haven't had a chance to do much exploring. We flew in yesterday afternoon -- me, Dave and eight of his students. We got the kids placed with their host families and made our way to our hotel, which is, oddly enough, a huge high-rise Howard Johnson's, and actually quite swank. I surely never thought I would be staying in a luxurious HoJo's in Romania. That seems unexpected on so many levels.

Last night we went to dinner at a local restaurant called La Mama with all the band directors who have students in this gathering. I chose goulash, and could not have been happier.

My impression of Bucharest so far: A jumble of glassy new buildings with dilapidated, characterless Communist-era ones, as well as lots of elegant pre-Communist structures with French-style ornamentation. Bucharest has been called the "Paris of the East," and it does have a very French feel, with boulevards criss-crossing each other at busy traffic circles. There's even an Arc de Triomphe-style triumphal arch.

The cars look pretty much the same as elsewhere in Europe, with numerous Dacias and Skodas thrown in. There's lots of graffiti and street art to keep me busy. And as you can see, there are big ol' advertisements everywhere. Capitalism thrives!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Taking Wing

We're off to Bucharest this morning. Olga has been deposited with the dog-sitters -- they claim she's one of their favorite customers, but as Dave pointed out they probably say that to the owner of every dog. She tried to follow me, with desperate eyes, as I handed over her leash and backed out the door. It was sad.

I do plan to blog from Romania, though again, I don't know what the technology gods have in store. I'll do my darndest.

"The Golden Notebook" is improving. It seems very dated in its approach to psychology and the social circumstances of women, but at least it's becoming more readable -- which gives me something to do on the plane!

(Photo: Tottenham Court Road, London)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Daily Haiku

Dave and I often laugh about British television -- its irreverence and unpredictability. For example, last night during a commercial break, out of the blue, the announcer on Channel 4 offered "Today's Haiku":

The cat is wary
Ice cubes jingle in my glass
The day is ending.

Drily funny, is it not? Especially between dreary newscasts on television.

I didn't mean to worry anyone about Olga yesterday when I said she had indigestion. It really was just that. She was eating a little less and being a bit less active than usual, but still hopping up for walks at any opportunity. And then yesterday morning she pooped out a stick, and now she's fine. Problem solved. I have a feeling this is just going to be a way of life around here.

(I did discover that if I take a toy with us when we walk, I can give her the toy when she starts developing the urge to pick up sticks, and she'll gnaw the toy instead. This may keep down stick intake. One hopes.)

She goes to the dog-sitter this afternoon, in preparation for our trip to Bucharest. We won't see her again until Sunday.

I applied for the job I mentioned the other day. Interviews start next month. We'll keep our fingers crossed. I'm honestly of two minds about working full time, so even if I don't get it I'll be OK. That's sort of why I haven't had anything to write about the last few days -- thinking about this potential change is taking up so much of my brain.

(Photo: Hackney, on April 4.)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Below Us, On The Lawn

I don't have much for you today -- just a photo of the trees below our balcony. The one on the right is a magnolia. The one on the left, I haven't a clue -- some kind of ornamental fruit tree, I suppose. These are its leaves in the fall.

Olga is having some indigestion, perhaps from ingesting a few pieces of a soccer ball. (Or, more likely, sticks from one of her walks.) We're keeping an eye on her.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunshine On My Shoulders

We had a beautiful day yesterday -- cool but not uncomfortable temperatures, a cloudless sky. In the afternoon I made a quick trip down to Central London for a photography walk. I feel like it's been so long since I've been able to play around with light and shadow.

Sunlight changes everything. Entirely new cityscapes appear.

I hacked my way through about 50 more pages of "The Golden Notebook." I am going to stop complaining about this book, I really am. I'm going to shut up and read it. I looked up more reader reviews on Amazon and so many people purport to find significance and meaning in this bone-dry tome that I am just going to make myself plunge ahead.

Maybe it gets better at the end. Which, at this point, is still 450 pages away.

Yesterday during my wanders I passed a sidewalk used-book sale, where I picked up volumes by Nadine Gordimer and H.E. Bates for £1.30 -- practically free, really.

If yesterday was my day of relaxation, today is the day for buckling down. I have to do my substitute reports for the week and I need to update my resume. I am going to apply for that position, even if in the end I decide not to take it. There's no reason not to talk about it. Right?

(Photos: Top, a street in Fitzrovia. Bottom, a self-portrait near Euston station.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Olga Wins the Match

Yesterday surely must rank among the most riveting news days of the last ten years. I could not stay away from the web as the story unfolded: the gun battle, the dead suspect, the identification of the brothers, and now the survivor's capture. I am so glad they got him alive. The father seems convinced that his sons were framed. Hopefully the fact that one of them is still here to say otherwise will help dispel that belief. (Depending on what he does say, of course.)

I am eager to hear an explanation. Then again, what could possibly explain all this in any adequate way? Why would a pair of Chechens target the United States, the country that gave them homes as refugees, gave them an education (including a college scholarship), provided space for them to develop friendships, families, jobs? Even if they had extremist religious convictions, how could they justify killing their neighbors -- innocent children, for God's sake?

Needless to say, Doris Lessing did not get read at all yesterday.

By the way, thanks to those of you who left comments about "The Golden Notebook." I'm happy to hear that others also found it difficult. At least I'm not alone in that. I will press on for the time being, but I'll keep you posted on whether or not I eventually throw in the towel.

Olga and I had quite the adventure yesterday. I walked with her to Latimer Road, and there we came upon about six middle-school-aged boys playing with a battered old football. Olga went crazy watching the ball, and I struggled to keep her under control on her leash -- at one point even carrying her -- until we'd walked past them. Problem is, they followed us. They were apparently amused by my crazy dog. After wrestling with Olga for a few hundred feet I asked them to please hang back until I could walk away with her.

Well, one of them decided to kick the ball directly to us, whereupon Olga grabbed it and would not let go. I pulled and pulled and couldn't get it out of her mouth. The boys told me to twist the ball, and I said it would be ruined but did so anyway. She eventually let go and I threw it back to them, slightly deflated. As we walked away, they kicked it toward us again. At this point I got angry, and I let Olga grab it. As far as I was concerned, it was hers. I expected the boys to protest or run up behind me and knife me in the back, but they did nothing. In retrospect I think they meant to give it to her; I think she'd punctured it anyway.

Olga carried that ball all the way home, shaking it every once in a while to make sure it was dead. And believe me, it was.

Am I a terrible person for allowing my dog to steal a toy from children? Probably.

Meanwhile I am wrestling with a different conundrum. I've learned of a full-time job opportunity that sounds appealing. If I apply and get it, Dave and I will both be away from home for nine hours a day. Where does that leave Olga? Even with a hired dog walker, that seems tough for a dog. I'm not sure what to do. I'm leaning toward applying, because I can't let my dog dictate the course of my life, but at the same time, I need to keep in mind what's fair for her.

(Photos: Top, town houses in Holland Park; middle, Olga with her newly captured ball; bottom, graffiti on Portobello Road, apparently including an old cassette tape.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Flowers and Sticks

What a dispiriting week! Enough already with the bad news, you know? At least the FBI seems to have settled on a couple of suspects in the Boston bombing -- that's a glimmer of good news, I suppose. Well, good-ish. Slightly good.

Olga and I went for a long walk yesterday through Kensington. She was in rare form, grabbing sticks off the sidewalk and running while chomping them up. More than one person got a good laugh from her antics. We had a fierce rainstorm in the afternoon complete with pellets of hail.

Otherwise, I worked and read. I'm reading "The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing, which is supposed to be a classic book about women and their lives and social condition in the mid-1950s. So far, it is slow going. I looked up some reviews online yesterday to see what other people think of it, and everyone seems to laud it, so I'll press on.

I've only read one other Lessing book, "The Grass is Singing," an early novel about a woman living in British colonial Rhodesia, and that was years ago. I remember liking it, and getting a sense of how unbearably hot and dusty Africa seemed to the Brits who settled there. For example, the woman in the book desperately wanted a ceiling in her house, to prevent the heat from radiating inward from the metal roof. What a concept!

We may suffer from questionable weather in England, but not quite like that.

(Photo: Blooming trees means it's time for iPhone photos, yesterday in Notting Hill.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Boots may be made for walking, but mine, at least, did not walk to Margaret Thatcher's funeral yesterday. In the end I didn't have the energy or motivation to brave the crowds. We did watch an account of it on the news, though -- we couldn't avoid it if we'd tried -- and apparently it was quite a spectacle. Many Thatcher supporters showed up, as well as some protesters who turned their backs on the funeral cortege as it passed. Emotions run high when it comes to Thatcher, even now.

Rather than go down to the funeral, I took Olga for a long, long walk along the Grand Union Canal and through Maida Vale. One of my goals was to take a photo of the windowsill above, which I'd seen on a previous walk. The fact that I'd rather shoot this windowsill than a genuine news event shows why I will probably never make a million dollars.

The weather here has improved considerably. We've gone from freezing cold and rainy to sunny, windy and mild in the space of a week or so. Perhaps optimistically, I've washed my jacket, hat and scarf and put them away for the season.

(Top: Windowsill in Maida Vale. Bottom, boots for sale on Portobello Road.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Off The Hook

Margaret Thatcher's funeral is today at St. Paul's Cathedral, and I'm trying to decide whether I want to go down and spectate. Given what happened in Boston on Monday I'm not sure I could get very close -- the police presence is going to be huge -- but it might be interesting to see who turns out. Thatcher was such a controversial figure there are bound to be some protesters, as well as plenty of dignitaries, on hand. We'll see how ambitious I feel. I might just stay home.

I bought a Romania guidebook on Monday to begin preparing for our trip next week. (To refresh your memory, Dave is taking a student group to a band event and I'm tagging along on my own dime.) I'm really looking forward to this one, almost more than Paris. I'm drawn to unusual destinations! It seems like there's plenty to do and see in Bucharest, which is where we'll be, but I hope to get out into the countryside a bit as well. It all depends on the ease and speed of train travel.

Remember that lingering web site project I was supposed to do for my former boss? Well, I've been dragging my feet, and a few days ago I finally wrote her and told her it wasn't likely I was going to get to it. I just have too much going on here -- my substitute scheduling job for the school, Olga, photography. My life has moved on, you know? I felt really guilty about it, but she wrote me back and said she's actually quit the site herself, so I'm completely off the hook. Whew! We both had a lot of misgivings about the project from the beginning, and the compensation is not commensurate with the workload. I'm glad to be free of it.

I wish we could get some answers about Boston. I know this is likely to take a very long time to sort out, just like the Atlanta Olympics bombing or the Unabomber, but at the risk of sounding like Veruca Salt, I want to know NOW!

(Photo: Window washers in Notting Hill, on Monday.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Daisies for Boston

Just woke this morning to the shocking, sad news from the Boston Marathon. I just don't understand people, I really don't. The world is so crazy.

So I'm just going to post pictures of daisies. These are growing all over the lawn in front of our apartment building. When I look down at them, they remind me of a loose galaxy of stars.

Up close, their flowerness becomes more apparent. You begin to see something in each individual.

Like the fact that they aren't really all the same color, as they seem from afar. Some are a bit purple around the edges, while others really are white. Some of their petals are a bit bruised. They grow all together in an inhospitable place, on a grass lawn that gets mowed every few weeks, and yet they prosper.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sunday in the Park

The sun came out, temperatures climbed and we had an unusually nice day yesterday, so Dave and I took Olga to Hyde Park, to let her run around off-leash. She had a great time, as usual. The two of them briefly grabbed a bench near the monument to John Hanning Speke, who traced the Nile River to its headwaters at Lake Victoria.

There were lots of people out and about, some relaxing beneath trees with a book, others romping with dogs and children. You know, the kinds of things people do in parks.

The buds are popping on the horse chestnuts -- at least, I think that's what kind of tree this is! It will be nice to have some greenery again.

Most of the trees right now are still twigs.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Frightened Pedestrians and Social Collapse

Well, things are returning to normal around here. I've done a couple of loads of laundry, took Olga on a long walk, and braved reopening my work e-mail after a couple of weeks off. Last night, I started rounding up substitute teachers for next week. Back on the horse, as they say.

Olga managed to terrify a woman (in complete head-to-toe Muslim hejab) and her little girl yesterday. It was so embarrassing. We were walking through a bunch of other pedestrians on Ladbroke Grove when Olga spotted a pigeon and shot toward it, diving between the woman and the girl. Olga then cut back toward me, wrapping her leash around the girl. Both of them were gasping and frantic. I untangled Olga and apologized profusely, pointing out that the dog was just going after the bird. The woman seemed to accept that, and I got the heck out of there. I'm glad the father wasn't around. (Muslims in general do not particularly like dogs, which they consider unclean. Olga isn't unclean, just impulsive!)

Dave and I watched a documentary last night called "Collapse," outlining the peak-oil, doomsday projections of a guy named Michael Ruppert. It was an interesting movie, though I'm a bit perplexed why Ruppert -- of all people -- deserves to be put in such a spotlight. I think some of what he's saying is being said by others with more credentials, in a more balanced way. (He argues that because we're running out of oil, the globe is headed for a period of sudden decline and starvation.) Listening to Ruppert is a little like listening to some old guy in a trailer park who's stocking up on bottled water and burying gold coins to offset the coming apocalypse.

I don't exactly disbelieve him, but I also don't think stockpiling gold and self-propagating seeds (as Ruppert recommends) and other goods is the answer. I don't see decline as such an immediate, rapid event. I think we'll have to adapt as it occurs, because who knows what will happen or when? Maybe we'll eat more locally, consume less, surrender our luxuries, lose access to high-level medical care, have fewer children. Farm in our backyards. (Or on our balconies -- ha!) After all, much of our energy use now is essentially waste. When that's scaled back -- inevitably as prices rise -- we ought to have time to adjust.

Big topic, I know. Interesting movie.

(Photo: A guy collecting discarded bread from a bakery in Hackney.)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Back Home Again

We're back in London, and back with Olga, who is none the worse for wear after her five days at the kennel. She's just as bouncy as ever. In fact she nearly went berserk when she saw me and Dave -- she jumped up and knocked her teeth against my face, giving me a bloody lip. Crazy dog!

Our final morning in Paris was rainy, and I spent it wandering around Montmartre, taking photos of the street art and interesting establishments like the one above, which appears to have been called "The Gold and The Salt" before it went out of business. Maybe that name was just a bit too abstract. Or maybe it's moved somewhere else and is prospering. Who knows?

I debated going out to La Defense, the skyscraper district, to see the ultra-modern Grand Arche and a part of Paris I have never experienced. But given the weather I was not inspired. It will have to wait until next time. It's always good to leave a few things undone.

Today is general cleanup and recovery, and continuing to catch up on my magazines. (I did very little of that in Paris -- who goes to Paris to read magazines?) I did read a fascinating article in The New Yorker from March 18 about the wisdom of allowing transgender children to take permanent steps toward gender reassignment before they are 18. Some people argue that delaying puberty, administering hormones early and even performing some surgeries can help smooth the transition, while others say children are too young at that age to know what they really want. According to the article, long-term studies show that only 15 percent of gender-dysphoric children continue to have those feelings as adults, though many of them prove to be gay or bisexual. "In other words," writes journalist Margaret Talbot, "many young kids claiming to be stuck in the wrong body may simply be trying to process their emerging homosexual desires."

I can vouch for this first-hand. I clearly remember in elementary school fantasizing about being a girl, and continuing for years to envy girls their relative maturity, their flexibility in fashion and other attributes. Had I been asked at the time about my inner gender, I'm not sure what I would have said. But this was my emerging identity as a gay man; as an adult, I do not want to be a woman. Then again, I'm not transgender, and I suppose transgendered people might argue that while my fantasies were just that, they experience a stronger awareness of a different identity. It's a fascinating subject, as is the fluidity with which many younger people approach the issues of gender and sexuality.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mona and Meurice

Dave and I braved the hordes at The Louvre yesterday, in order to get some face time with Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace (among others). As you can see, Mona was thronged, as usual. It's kind of an extension of our culture's celebrity worship, isn't it? Out of all the 35,000 artworks in The Louvre, it's funny that we've settled on just one as the absolute must-see.

And that's as close as I got.

We spent several hours at the museum, wandering through the Italian and other European painting sections, gazing at Albrecht Durer's self-portrait and works by many French artists, like Poussin, that I barely know. (The galleries containing Vermeer's lacemaker were closed for some reason. Sacre bleu!) We also went to the African and Pacific Island rooms, where we spotted this character from Hawaii.

He's a good antidote to the toothless man banging pots that we encountered on Wednesday, isn't he? And aside from the teeth, he's wearing approximately the same expression.

Dave and I got separated at one point and I despaired of ever finding him again. The Louvre really is incredibly vast, and so crowded. But we both instinctively went back to the grand entrance foyer beneath I.M. Pei's glass pyramid, and somehow I spotted him amid the mob.

Last night we had dinner at Le Meurice, which Dave chose from among all the restaurants in Paris as the one for our special meal. It was stupendous, no question. We both got the tasting menu with wine pairings and I have never eaten so well -- pigeon, asparagus with caviar and other dishes simply too delicate and complex for me to describe.

We have also never paid so much for a meal. Holy cow. I have to remind myself that food is Dave's passion, and this is the equivalent of him buying a fancy camera lens. If I can do it, so can he!

We'll be back on the train to London this afternoon, to be reunited with Olga this evening. We keep joking that the folks at the kennel have probably locked her in a crate, she's such a wild thing. We'll all be happy to see each other, I'm sure.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Buvez Orangina!

More rain yesterday. I'm a bit fuzzy this morning after a big dinner last night and two martinis at Buddha Bar in the afternoon. I guess I should have been drinking Orangina, in which case, according to this surreal advertissement in the Gare de l'Est metro station, I would be leaping around like a muscular lion-man. I think I can manage to hammer together an adequate blog post, though.

Dave and I began our day walking to the top of Montmarte, from which there are incredible views of Paris. I can't even imagine how much it would cost to rent an apartment up there. It's funny that it used to be the Bohemian, artistic quarter -- seems like the bourgeois millionaires would have moved in long before the artists.

We walked downhill, along the Boulevard de Clichy and through the Place Pigalle, the center of Paris' neon-lit sex shops, where the facades made for some good photos. Then we took the metro to the Place de la Concorde, where we caught an open-topped bus for a tour through the city. We like those bus tours -- even though they're kind of cheesy, they provide a good overview. I saw a couple of things I didn't see at all on my previous visit, like the Opera and the Place Vendome.

When we were frozen through and damp from a couple of hours in a sporadic, drizzly rain, we repaired to Buddha Bar, a dark grotto containing a huge Buddha statue beneath softly glowing chandeliers. Despite wildly overpriced drinks, it's one of my favorite bars in Paris.

Dave did some research to come up with an ideal Paris bistro for dinner, and we settled on Chez George's on the Rue du Mail. It was fabulous -- delicious food (sole in a white sauce for me, entrecote of beef for Dave) and not at all overly opulent. No crazy toothless guys, either.

And now, I must go find some coffee. I would weep with joy if a coffee maker materialized before me. Seriously.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Zaza My Love

We experienced a deluge yesterday when the skies over Paris grew stormy. Fortunately, Dave and I were camped out beneath the awning of Cafe Lutece the time, so we had a dry comfy spot from which to watch all the Parisians breaking out their parapluies and running for cover. It was an intense rain, too, complete with tiny peppercorn-sized hailstones. Mon Dieu!

We love cafes. It's so fun to sit and people-watch. Monday, on the Champs-Elysees, we saw a nattily-dressed gentleman dump four packets of sugar into his large orange juice. (As a Floridian, I was horrified.) And yesterday in the Marais we were sitting out on the sidewalk when we heard a racket coming up the street, and were subsequently approached by a man with wild hair and no teeth banging two aluminum pans together in a rhythm that probably meant something only to him. Fortunately he didn't hang around very long.

Because the weather was so bad, we decided to find an indoor activity. A museum would have been our first choice, but as luck would have it, museums are closed on Tuesday. We learned this from a security guard outside the Louvre, where virtually the only people in the vast courtyard were a knot of flag-wielding anti-gay-marriage protesters. (I joked to Dave that we should go stand in the center of their little group and make out, like Act Up. But we did not.)

Instead we went to Notre Dame, where we watched boys feeding sparrows from their hands outside before we explored the dark recesses of the 850-year-old cathedral.

Funny thing about Notre Dame: Visitors are asked (quite reasonably) to remain silent while inside. But every few minutes a voice comes over the loudspeaker to say "shhhhhh!!" and remind people in several languages to be quiet. Which kind of defeats the purpose, it seems to me. (Particularly since all that shushing brings to mind the sibilant snake from the Garden of Eden. At least, that's what came to my mind.)

Fortunately the rain didn't last all day. We were able to explore lots of the area around the Pont Neuf, Ile de la Cite and the Marais.

For dinner we went to a place that literally translates as "The Crazy Elbow," and who should we encounter inside but our wild toothless friend, fortunately minus his aluminum pots! He quaffed a few drinks at the bar before stepping outside to rage loudly at the world, and then he departed.

Overall, the food has been excellent, of course -- I had a croque monsieur for lunch and entrecote of beef for dinner, along with an excellent panacotta for dessert. I'm glad for all the walking!