Friday, April 18, 2008

Little Green Bag, R. I. P.

Lamen Restauration Rapide - 1 star
Rue des Petits Champs and Rue Ste.-Anne,
75002 Paris

Best Saveurs - 2 stars
Passage de Choiseul,
75002 Paris

Exki - 1 star
Boulevard des Italiens, 75002 Paris

Little Georgette - 2 stars
Impasse Gomboust, 75002 Paris

Last week I left my suitcase in my hotel in Paris so I didn't have to carry it to the United States and back over the weekend - especially important because I insist on taking the train in and out of Paris rather than a taxi. When I unpacked it on Tuesday, I couldn't find my little green toiletries bag - the one with my razor, shaving cream, toothpaste, nail clippers, hair brush, and so on. I probably forgot to pack it last week, and the hotel didn't have any record of anyone finding it. So I had to buy a new set of supplies at Monoprix, perhaps my favorite supermarket in the world.

Losing my little green bag made me sad. It wasn't particularly nice - I suspect it cost me about $15 - but I had had it since at least 1996, and it had been all around the world with me. I bought it before I went backpacking all over southern Italy for The Berkeley Guides that summer, because it was big, expandable, and waterproof, and since then it made it to Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Berlin, Toronto, Singapore, Seoul, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Manchester, Wales, Dublin, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and dozens of cities large and small in the United States. It was part of the travel routine, and I will miss it.

It was one of those weeks when you never catch up from spending a night on a trans-Atlantic red-eye, but the eating was not bad, thanks largely to the proliferation of varied casual options in Paris's second arrondissement, home of the Paris stock market and a large Asian population. The first night I wasn't feeling well so I had a large bowl of ramen at an authentic-seeming Japanese noodle house on the corner where half the staff didn't speak French or English, just Japanese. The service was fast, the broth was comfortingly salty, and the noodles were just right for a tired and hungry traveler.

The next day we want to Best Saveurs, one of dozens of casual places where you can get a fast, cheap (by Parisian standards) lunch to eat there or take back to the office (once a taboo in French companies, now becoming more and more common). If they have the hot couscous I usually have that, which is very good, but this time I had three salads - couscous with vegetables, carrots, and chick peas - and an apricot tart. For dinner I went to Exki, which is the closest thing to Pret a Manger I've found in Paris. Everything is laid out neatly for you to choose from and clearly labeled with ingredients and a convenient "vege" for vegetarian, and there's an emphasis on organic ingredients. The food itself - chervil and coriander soup, tortellini with artichoke hearts and tomato sauce, and real French whole-milk yogurt in a glass jar - was mediocre (except for the yogurt, of course), but the place gets a star for trying to provide a cheap, casual dinner for people who just want to eat and get to bed.

The last day after the client meeting we went to lunch at Little Georgette, a whimsical nouveau-French restaurant that specializes in small dishes. For example, I ordered the "Dolce Vita" and got a salad of mixed green vegetables, lasagna with diced vegetables and tomato sauce, a risotto with parmesan cheese, and a tomato-basil-mozzarella salad, all arranged on a large tray. The food was good, and the "Very good au chocolat" (that's really what it was called) was an excellent warm, meltingly soft chocolate cake. It was a fun way to relax with the team after a hectic few days.

But the high point of my trip was the day before the demo, when we walked out of the client's office after the final run-through at 6 pm, with no more work to do. I sat in the sun at a cafe with my friends Alex and Sigrid, who are leaving in a few days for Tokyo, and thought back to the day in October when they had just arrived in Paris and we sat in the sun on a grassy hill in the Buttes Chaumont and watched the dogs playing. Yes, we talked about work, but it still felt like time had stopped and we could sit there forever, and it was the most natural thing in the world.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Romance of Air Travel

Panini Express - 1 star
Terminal 1, JFK

Growing up in a suburb of New York, Manhattan was the ultimate symbol of the urban adult world. And John F. Kennedy Airport, or JFK, as the most important airport of the world's most important city, was the symbol of air travel and all the romance it promised.

Today, New York area air travel is pretty evenly split between JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark, and when I actually lived in New York as an adult I flew much more often out of LaGuardia, like most business people. But JFK is still the main international airport, its terminals surrounded by rows of 747s painted in the colors of every major airline in the world.

I rarely fly through JFK, because it's too far to drive (about 3-1/2 hours if traffic is OK) and it's too close to my home airport for a connection. My only other flight from JFK in the last seven years came in the summer of 2006, when I drove to Hartford, found out my flight to London was canceled, re-booked on Aer Lingus, and drove to JFK to catch my plane. But this time circumstances conspired to force me there. First, I decided to come home from Paris for the weekend - flight home on Friday, flight back on Monday night. Ordinarily I wouldn't voluntarily take two long flights in coach, one overnight, that I didn't need to, but I didn't want to spend two whole weeks away from my daughter. And second, this Thursday I have a meeting from 10 to 1 in Nanterre (outside Paris), but I need to be home on Friday, and the only flight back I could still catch on Thursday returns to JFK.

So I was driving through the tangle of highways that protect New York from outsiders, over the Whitestone Bridge with its far-off view of the Manhattan skyline. In my memory, when I cross this bridge I'm sitting in the passenger seat with my father driving, on one of my trips to Europe in the 1990s, on whatever airline had the cheapest fare at the time - Tower Air, Pakistan Air, whatever, all through JFK. Those trips always seemed like such an adventure. This time, since I left my suitcase with my clothes in my hotel in Paris, I was left wondering ... what exactly do I need to pack? The answer, since I had left my passport and my euros in my briefcase over the weekend, was ... nothing. Flying to Paris has never been so anticlimactic.

Air France is in the old Terminal 1, which is largely empty, with only a smattering of stores, a paucity of eating options, and almost no working power outlets - overall, a letdown compared to some of the gleaming commercial centers like the Munich or Amsterdam airports, or even compared to domestic hubs like the Northwest concourse in Detroit or the Delta concourse in Cincinnati. I ended up eating the vegetarian standard, a tomato-mozzarella-basil "panini" - a kind of sandwich I first ate in Paris at a place around the corner from the BN way back when. It was surprisingly good - decent fresh mozzarella, a bit of balsamic vinegar to give it flavor, and most importantly bread that was grilled to the point of being slightly blackened and crunchy on the outside. And with that I boarded the plane, settled in for a night of 3 hours of sleep, caught the RER from the airport to Paris, and showed up at the office at noon the next day.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My coffee place

Café San Jose - 2 stars
Rue des Petits Champs, Paris 75002

I've already pointed out that my company's Paris office is just a block from the old Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library, known to the regulars as the BN) where I spent most of my days when I lived in Paris back in 1994. I just spent a week in the office, and although everything else has changed, my favorite coffee place hasn’t.

Café San Jose is not your typical Parisian café with little tables on the sidewalk, a bar with an assortment of drinks, and the black-and-white-clad waiters immortalized in Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, which I remember reading, largely at Au Bon Pain (in Cambridge), the summer before my senior year of college. It's a tiny place with a counter, a couple of stools, an espresso machine, and, around 1 pm, a crowd of people drinking coffee with tiny little squares of chocolate. When I arrived at the BN, my friends who already lived in Paris introduced me to the Café San Jose as the place to go - if you wanted something other than the coffee that came out of the machines in the library, which was so bad it appealed to that feeling that you were supposed to suffer during graduate school - and I introduced it to my friends who came later.

I was there to help teach a training program for our European employees, based in London, Paris, and Munich. From a quality-of-life standpoint, it was one of my worst trips ever - late nights at the office, missing the Liverpool-Arsenal game, eating the same box lunch from Casse Croute every day (it's the best lunch in a box I've ever had, but it got a little old), and not a single side trip to Berthillon, Mulot, Poilâne, or any of the other culinary landmarks of my Paris. But from another standpoint, it was a great experience to work closely with a small team of highly capable and intelligent people who all get along and have fun together. It also allowed me to do perhaps the two things I enjoy most of all in the business world: explain things and give advice. And when I needed a break, I would go to the Café San Jose with Eileen to gossip and complain.

There are few things more rewarding in the business world (or any world) than the feeling of being part of a community that you actually want to be part of, and I would rather have that than a good croissant au beurre. Of course, the croissants au beurre from the place on the corner were better than anything you can find in the United States.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Passport Number 2,906

If this blog is about anything, it's about travel and nostalgia. So this week, as I sit at home, I'm going to go much, much further back.

This is my father's Korean passport, issued in 1953. It's passport number 2906, which, I believe, means that it is the two thousand, nine hundred and sixth passport issued by the Republic of Korea, which only came into being in 1948 or so. You can see the stamp by U.S. immigration dated November 3,1953. My father came to the U.S. on a freighter that shipped food to American GI's from the U.S. and came back mainly empty, passing through the Golden Gate Bridge on its way into San Francisco Bay, where I would spend so much time decades later. About that boat trip, he said he had never eaten so much meat before in his life: this was a time when Americans ate meat three times a day, and Koreans perhaps once a month.

It's a truly remarkable story, much more so than anything I will ever be able to tell. Two years ago I recorded his recollections as we were driving across the country, and I've transcribed the recordings, but I haven't gotten around to writing them down in narrative format. But it includes dodging the conscription efforts of the North Korean Army, going months if not years during the war without word of his family, applying to a handful of American colleges picked more or less randomly out of Peterson's Guide, finding an American guarantor by pure chance through a family friend living in the Netherlands, getting into a one-year program at Wesleyan, and leaving on the aforementioned boat with neither the money nor any intention to return after that one year. When he finally arrived at Wesleyan it was mid-November; when he hadn't shown up for the beginning of the year the college had sent him a letter saying not to come, but he had never received it. It was many years before he would go back to Korea.

I think of my father sometimes as I jet around the world, occasionally even in business class, complaining about airport food. He still insists on flying coach, even though I always offer to upgrade him.