Meanwhile, Across the Channel

It was 51 years ago that the Beatles strolled nonchalantly across the street outside Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, London, and yet people are still imitating the oddly iconic album cover.

You can even watch a web cam feed of the crossing. Go ahead – you’ll probably not have to watch too long before you see someone making the crossing while a friend records or photographs them. Watch the web feed here.

Keep in mind that there’s a time difference – five hours with the U.S. East coast – but you can use the hourly buttons on the web cam page to check recently archived footage. The web cam view is from the reverse angle, so the studio building in on the right foreground, not the left background, as in the album cover.

In England, a “Zebra” crossing like this requires traffic to stop for pedestrians (which is not the case for many other types of crossings) and so the antics of visitors recreating the album cover are constantly annoying to local drivers.

And visitors do some weird things, memorialized in the studio’s Hall of Fame gallery, including a guy walking across wearing a large “Yellow Submarine” costume.

The last Beatles album recorded here was “Let It Be” in 1969 but Abbey Road Studios has been in continuous use since then. Originally a nine-bedroom house built in 1829, it looks unassumingly residential from the outside.

While initially a venue for classical recordings, the studios’ repertoire soon grew to embrace jazz and big bands, too, as well as the first British rock & roll records of the 1950s. Abbey Road is of course synonymous with the legendary work of The Beatles who, working with EMI producer Sir George Martin, recorded 190 of their 210 songs at the studios. But Abbey Road’s unparalleled history runs the gamut from the wild experiments of Pink Floyd to iconic recordings from Shirley Bassey, Aretha Franklin, and The Hollies.

More recently, artists including Kate Bush, Radiohead, Oasis, Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Sam Smith, Florence + The Machine, Ed Sheeran, Frank Ocean, Lady Gaga, and Adele have made Abbey Road their creative home, producing countless landmark recordings.

Even my daughter Sarah couldn’t resist when she visited me some years ago. So be sure to put Abbey Road on your itinerary when you visit London.

Eight Weird French Laws

France, like many countries, has its fair share of weird laws. As you’d expect from the French, a few involve kissing, snails, and, of course, Napoléon. Of France’s 15,500 or so laws, there are quite a few that raise an eyebrow.

Let’s go over the eight weirdest French laws, so that you don’t get caught out when you visit us in Paris.

Snails Must Have Their Own Ticket on French Trains

Snails on a train! This is a reminder that animals weighing less than five kilos must travel with their own ticket. That includes the French’s favorite breakfast treat, as an unlucky Frenchman found out in 2008 while transporting his snail harvest on the TGV. Is this a common problem? Well, consider that, in France, people eat approximately 500 million snails per year.

You Can’t Name Your Pig “Napoléon”

A weird 19th century law, still in effect today here, makes it illegal to make fun of Napoléon, including specifically by naming your pig after him. You can call your pig whatever you like, but certainly not Napoléon. Ironically, did you know Napoléon was the ruler who established today’s French civil law code?

You Can’t Kiss in a French Train Station

The SNCF (French railway system) got tired of the delays caused by couples kissing their farewells on platforms. This gave birth to a weird French law that prohibits making out once the train has pulled up to the station. No worries, you probably won’t get arrested – or even scolded – for sharing a lip-lock in Gare du Nord. However, you may be so distracted that you miss your train.

Women Who Want to Dress Like a Man Must First Ask the Police

Misogyny is alive and well in some of outdated French laws, and this one has never been taken off the books. Officially, if you’re female and want to wear a pantsuit in public, you must get authorization from the nearest police precinct, as well as a medical certificate. The “Power Pantsuit” seems to be back in fashion in 2020, so this we’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

You Must Listen to French Music

In an attempt to defend against America’s “cultural imperialism”, France passed a law in 1994 that insists that 40% of music played on French radio stations must be by French artists.

Adopted with the goal of promoting and preserving the French culture and language, the law proved very unpopular. Eventually, in 2016 the French music quota was decreased to 35%. Radio stations that specialize in foreign music were also granted an exception, requiring only 15%..

Don’t Let the Kids Have Ketchup

Since 2011, French law forbids school cafeterias from serving ketchup. The French, as you may know, prefer to enjoy their frites (French fries) with mayonnaise. This law was probably another attempt to fend off American cultural influence.

That said, no self-respecting French person would accept ketchup anywhere near their Boeuf Bourguignon.

You Can Divorce Your Husband if He Watches Too Much Football

It’s not as strange a law as it might appear at first glance. In addition to being able to divorce your partner on grounds of infidelity, there’s also another acceptable reason known as “intellectual infidelity”: if your spouse spends way too many hours watching sports on the tube and hurling insults at it, you can call it quits.

Another unexpected legal ground for divorce is “physical” infidelity. Not in the sexual sense, but rather meaning your physical well-being. For example, if your wife smokes like a chimney and puts your health at risk, you are allowed to pack your bags in search of fresh air.

You Can’t Get Drunk at Work, Unless It’s on Wine

This funny law is just… so French. Obviously, you can’t drink at work! Well, yes, you can. As long as you’re drinking wine, beer, cider, or mead, you’re legal. Of course, you can’t get totally plastered but, if you’re celebrating someone’s retirement, for example, you can do so by drinking responsibly. Just don’t do Patrón shots off their desk.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day 2020

All right, wine enthusiasts! Let’s talk about Beaujolais, a light, red wine made from Gamay grapes, produced in the Beaujolais region of France, north of Lyon.

Popular producing areas include Brouilly, Fleurie, and Moulin-à-Vent and you may have seen these wines for sale in your local store.

Generally speaking, it’s better to buy wine that has aged for a few years, at least. Most Beaujolais, for example, is intended to be consumed within three years, although some heartier variants can go to 10 years.

And then… there’s Beaujolais “Nouveau”.

As far back as the 1800s, Beaujolais growers and winemakers would gather to celebrate the end of the harvest by toasting the vintage with some of the young wine produced that year. This is part of the French tradition of vin de primeur, or “early wines”, released in the same year they’re harvested.

How young are we talking? Beaujolais pressed in September is unveiled on the third Thursday of November, as Beaujolais Nouveau.

In a 1980s marketing master stroke, this quaint regional tradition was blown up into a world-wide phenomenon by the late vintner Georges Duboeuf. Beaujolais Nouveau Day is now a big deal here in France and elsewhere, with wine vendors hosting special events, midnight fireworks, parties, etc.

A crucial ingredient in this promotion was a dollop of suspense. No Beaujolais Nouveau can be released until the Big Day. As the clock struck 12:01 AM, Mr. Duboeuf made sure that cases and cases of the wine were loaded onto trucks, ships, and eventually jets, for shipment around the world, all duly recorded by cameras. (The fact that much of the wine had been shipped in advance was irrelevant to the fun.)

So how good is it? Many drinkers find this wine to be just too young, too “green” to drink, and the phrase “making a silk purse from a sow’s ear” has been used to describe Duboeuf’s efforts.

To my palate, the drinkability of Beaujolais Nouveau varies from year to year and from brand to brand. The bottle we bought yesterday, shown above, is just “OK” as wine goes. Better than paint thinner, at least. We finished it, but we won’t buy any more until next year.

It’s kind of weird pouring from a bottle with the current year on the label, never mind one that’s just two months old!

I’m reminded that last year at this time we were in a Paris café and asked excitedly about the Beaujolais Nouveau. Our waiter first made a pained face, then he did something quite extraordinary: he offered to bring us a free, small taste of the wine. And to his credit, the wine was awful and so we ordered something else. That was a first.

Beaujolais Nouveau is now available around the world, possibly in your neighborhood store, for a limited time. So check it out.

Most Unusual Hotels

The Promenade Petite Ceinture (Little Belt walk) is a park near our apartment and we often enjoy walking there for exercise. It sits on part of an abandoned 36-km railway line of the same name, built around Paris under the Second Empire (1852 – 1869). This railway line carried passengers until 1934 and goods until the end of the 1970s. Near us in the 15th arrondissement, it once served in particular the Citroën factories and the slaughterhouses of Vaugirard.

Now it’s the province of joggers, walkers, and strollers, and has been deliberately left ecologically rich. The City of Paris has created landscaping that preserves its railway heritage and highlights the park’s unique biodiversity. It brings together varied and interesting natural habitats, such as the forest, meadows, and wasteland. Each of these environments is home to different animal species, and over 220 species of plants and animals live there.

The park is also where Insect Hotels can be found. Insect hotels are man-made shelters that attract and welcome insects to the park. They offer them a refuge for the winter and a place to nest and reproduce in the summer.

Usually installed in quiet places and close to flower beds, insect hotels are made from reclaimed and environmentally-friendly materials such as untreated pallet wood, stems, logs, and sandy soil.

Insects apparently find it difficult to find quiet shelter in a city as dense as Paris. These hotels allow different species to have a dedicated space in the park and to perform their landscape-supporting duties. These include fighting harmful species, pollinating desirable plants, promoting plant reproduction, and preserving the biodiversity of Parisian green spaces. These original and artistic constructions are fun to look at and highlight the beneficial role of insects.

Devastating Pastries

I’m following up yesterday’s post about wonderful French butter with one about some of the outstanding pastries available here. Well why not? We’re all going to lose the COVID 25 we’ve put on right after we’re vaccinated, aren’t we?

As the average Frenchman cannot live without a daily fresh baguette, there are standalone boulangeries (bakeries) everywhere in Paris. Some grocery stores incorporate bakeries but they usually can’t hold a candle to the quality of the small, often award-winning, neighborhood bakeries. We’re blessed to have several really good ones nearby.

I submit for your consideration two amazing examples of the local bakers’ art. One the left above, we have the Chausson aux Pommes, from La Maison Pichard, a four-time winner of the title “Best Croissant in France”. On the right, a typical Breton specialty, called Kouign-amann. Tell your inner cardiologist to look away as I describe them.

Chausson aux Pommes

You can think of these as apple turnovers on steroids, if you must. But I think of them as sweet, spiced apples in a floating cushion of pastry clouds. Their layers of filo dough, paper-thin and delicately roasted in butter, simply evaporate in your mouth. They’re brushed with sugar syrup after baking and put back in the oven for another minute, caramelizing the syrup and giving the pastry that slightly sweet taste and awesome shine.

They’re one of the most buttery and flaky pastries you’ll ever eat. They’re often the item, along with baguettes, by which Parisians judge a bakery. I suggest that it’s impossible to eat two of them in row. We’re very lucky to have them available nearby from such a great baker.

Kouign-amann

This wonder is a Breton cake, once described by the New York Times as “the fattiest pastry in all of Europe.” The name comes from the Breton language words for cake (kouign) and butter (amann). It’s a round, multi-layered pastry, made with layers of butter and sugar folded in, similar in fashion to puff pastry albeit with fewer layers.

The cake is slowly baked until the butter puffs up the dough (resulting in its layered structure) and the sugar caramelizes. The effect is similar to a muffin-shaped, caramelized croissant. I swear you could probably squeeze it like a sponge and get butter back out of it. One is struck, after eating just half of it, with an urge to get your cholesterol level checked. Real gustatory heaven!

Note that these are devastating pastries without the need for chocolate coatings, creamy fillings, or other frostings. The butter, sugar, and dough are sufficient to do the job. And, whatever you do, don’t, don’t, don’t even think about eating a Chausson aux Pommes followed by a Kouign-amann! I can tell you that it is possible but it’s surely not good for you. 😊

Next time, I promise, a post that’s not about food.

Introducing French Butter

Of the many wonderful foods that can seduce you here in France, one that caught me by surprise was the butter. Yes, butter, which you may think is pretty much the same everywhere. But non, mon amis French butter is out of this world.

Specifically, the butter that comes from the Brittany – Normandy area and has sea salt crystals embedded in it. Oooh la la!

Why is it so great? Well, the cows in Normandy graze on the sweet green grass there and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.

Norman cows are raised only for dairy production. They roam freely and eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup flower yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.

This is used to produce butter that’s irresistible for two reasons: first, it often has a higher fat content (87%) than American butter (80%) and, second, it’s cultured differently.

Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it’s churned. This allows bacteria to form and sugar to convert to lactic acid, resulting in a creamier, more “buttery” taste.

In contrast, American-produced butter uses only pasteurized milk cream, which has no cultures, and does not ferment. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.

Before industrialization, all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and delicious.

Today, mass production does not allow for skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes to take place. Cream is instead spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid-producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter has a fuller, and to some, a “nuttier”, flavor.

And now, for the crowning touch: sea salt. Brittany, a large peninsula that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the west and the English Channel to the north, is a region richly endowed with natural sea salt beds and marshes. These have been cultivated for thousands of years, starting during the Iron Age when Celtic tribes occupied the area.

The most famous of these areas is particularly prized for its high-quality sea salt and fleur de sel, a flaky, light salt skimmed off the top of the lagoons. These crystalline flakes are suffused randomly throughout the butter, where they remain intact, creating a savory bite and a little crunchy surprise with each taste.

This is not cooking butter and should be reserved for use at the table on baked goods, crepes, pancakes, and simple pasta dishes. You may be able to find this in the imported foods section of your grocery store – if so, give it a try. Just don’t blame me if you can never again be satisfied with Land O’ Lakes!

Our Neighborhood Surprise

The other day we left our apartment around noon to go shopping. We heard sirens wailing and noticed a lot of people streaming toward and past us, and we soon found out why: a large anti-riot police presence at the end of our street. So, of course, we continued walking in order to see what was happening.

Hello! These were serious, robo cop-style police units that deal with violent demonstrations, and there were about 40 officers at the nearest intersection. The street was littered with trash, trash bins lay about in disarray, and there was broken glass on the street and sidewalks. And here we come, walking into this with our little grocery cart in tow, thinking we’re going to pick up a baguette.

Even though it appeared that the violence was over, with the demonstrators dispersed to several blocks away, the police were not standing down, so we thought a quick U-turn would be sensible. We could do our shopping later. Most businesses were temporarily closed anyway.

It didn’t seem like a good time to ask any officer what was going on, either.

Later on, we learned on the news that high school students and others, in solidarity with teachers striking for more COVID safety measures in schools, had blocked streets with trash bins, dumped out trash and glass, and clashed with police trying to keep them on their approved demonstration route.

Just another day at the office for these officers. You may know that striking and holding huge, sometimes violent, demonstrations is practically the national pastime here. The Paris police have had lots of experience in dealing with these events.

Incidentally, a bill is currently being proposed in France that would make it illegal to disseminate photographs or videos identifying police and gendarmes “with intent to harm” and critics have warned it’s a danger to press freedom. So, it’s possible that, in the future, a photo like the one I posted above could land me in hot water.

Adieu Canterbury

My original plans called for me to leave the U.K. for Paris on November 2nd. However, the French government announced a second national lockdown to begin at midnight on October 29th so I moved my departure up a few days.

As it happened, the U.K. government announced their own stricter measures the next week, so my jump to Paris was timely both coming and going.

After two months at the great Inspired House Airbnb in Canterbury, I packed up and took a local train to London’s St. Pancras International station, then checked in for my 12:30pm Eurostar train to Paris. Due to the pandemic, Eurostar has reduced their hourly train schedule to just two runs each way, per day, so I wasn’t sure how crowded the train might be.

My check-in and boarding went smoothly, masks on everyone, and I was quite happy to find that there were just six of us in a train car with 40 seats. There was plenty of room to spread out. The Eurostar staff, as usual, was superb and they served us a good lunch. So much nicer than flying!

I arrived in Paris at Gare du Nord to find two things: a terrorist attack in Nice had everyone on edge, resulting in lots of armed police at key locations and intersections, and that half the city was trying to get out of town before the midnight lockdown went into effect. What would normally have been a 30-minute Uber ride to my friend’s apartment in the 15th arrondissment took 90-minutes, through some epic traffic jams.

So here I am again, locked down in Paris. As it was last spring, we can only go out in public for one of seven reasons (grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, 1-hour of exercise, etc.) and have to carry a special form (on our mobile phones) when we do. No big deal, really. Grocery stores, bakeries, butchers, and wine shops are all considered essential and remain open. Sadly, museums, restaurants, bars, and department stores are not.

But, I’m with my friend Marti and we’re perfectly safe and enjoying life. More observations from Paris later.

May I Offer You A Cookie? Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed tracking cookies and SEO. What in the world does this have to do with being a senior nomad? I spend a fair amount of time in and around Europe and the EU has tried to regulate control of personal data, with mixed results. In this post, I’ll talk about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In May 2018, the European Union took a crack at comprehensive regulation of how online personal data was handled. It spelled out rules for data handling (including cookies), provided mechanisms for correcting erroneous data, and specified fines for failure, among other things. Any website, anywhere, that served requests from the EU was automatically subject to the GDPR.

So, due to your location, you may or may not have seen the effects of the GDPR when you browse. Websites can determine your general location and react accordingly. It’s interesting to note that the U.S. has not embraced personal data protection like this, but Russia has.

The most common and visible effect is a “consent management” box that pops up in your browser when you visit a website for the first time, possibly blocking your access and asking for your permission, your consent, to place cookies on your device. For example:

This is what I call a “good” implementation. Notice that right up front it has a “I DO NOT ACCEPT” button, which allows you to deal with all the cookies with one click.

Now, website owners generally don’t like the GDPR. Especially if it get in the way of them selling your data. So many of them cheat by making it tedious and difficult to opt out of consenting. For example:

This disappointing example above is from the Frommer’s website. They don’t provide a “Reject All” button anywhere and make you drill down to and click every single one of about 40 cookie settings:

That’s a lot of opting out, which they hope you will not do, of course.

More depressing are the sites which allow you to opt out of categories of cookies based on their purpose (marketing, performance, etc.), but do not allow you to opt out of some of the other bad stuff, like linking your information across different devices. Many sites bury their opt out links way down in many pages of their “Privacy Policy”.

My fear is that the GDPR, instead of controlling what cookies are placed on your devices, has become a gateway for websites to deluge you with many more cookies, because, after all you “consented”.

Money can also be made by providing Consent Management Platforms (CMPs). These are third-party online services that websites developers can “bolt on” to their sites in order to provide the required GDPR consent options, without re-inventing the wheel. Studies suggest nearly a million websites use CMPs to manage your cookie consent. But do these CMPs actually follow the GDPR rules?

ZDNET reported in January 2020 that “A new study by researchers at MIT CSAIL, Denmark’s Aarhus University, and University College London, has found only 11.8% of the most popular CMPs used on UK websites meet the minimal requirements under GDPR and Europe’s eDirective regulations regarding cookies and consent.” So the websites using the other 89% of CMPs are breaking the law.

I guess having the regulations but not enforcing them is a pretty sad state of affairs. Ironic as it may seem, at least in Russia, there’s the incentive that failing to follow their rules about personal data protection can attract the attention of the FSB (successor to their KGB).

I encounter consent management pop-ups all the time as I browse the Internet from Europe. If there’s no “Reject All” cookies button for a website, my practice is to close that browser window and refuse to visit their site. Which means I don’t see the advertising they’re so eager to show me, don’t interact with their site, and possibly don’t buy their product. And, generally, the information I was after is more often than not available elsewhere. That’s my small push-back against GDPR abusers.

What else do I do? I often configure my Firefox browser to be super-strict about rejecting cookies, especially tracking cookies, but this won’t work if I’m buying something online. I also periodically delete most cookies on my devices and clear my browser caches, which I recommend you do, too.

To do that, look in your browser settings for privacy or security settings that let you “clear your cache” or “clear cookies”. Most browser let you scroll through and examine all the cookies on your device, which may be a revelation.

Note that clearing all the cookies will get rid of the “good” cookies too, and you may have to login again, express your browsing preferences, etc. on some sites as a result.

May I Offer You A Cookie? Part 1

As a senior nomad, I spend a lot of time using my browser to read the news, to do research, and to plan my travels. I use various tools, such as a VPN and a password manager, to protect my vital information. I’ve also grown increasingly sensitive to the technologies used to track, and profit from, my browser usage.

Most people think of Google as the Big Boogie Man when it comes to this kind of thing. But, increasingly, all websites are becoming vectors for privacy invasion, and the standard browser mechanism for this is a file called the “cookie”. Unless specifically blocked in their settings, browsers allow websites to create small files, or cookies, on your device.

Why? Well, the communications scheme typically used between your browser and the website server is “stateless”, i.e. there’s no implicit correlation between two successive requests on the same connection. That means the website has no way of knowing what’s already happened. For example, it doesn’t know whether you’ve already logged in or you’ve selected an item to purchase.

That’s where cookies come in – they provide a continuity of information between requests. One of the most obvious cookies is the “shopping cart” that keeps track of things you want to buy from a website. Others may be used to register the font-size you’ve selected, or a site language option. Often cookies have a very brief lifetime and delete themselves, but others can last forever.

The nefarious Third-party Tracking Cookie is at the heart of my privacy concerns. These cookies can be, and often are, used to make a record of everything you do, every page you visit, every click you make, every decision you take, when visiting a website.

Worse yet, this information can then be shared with other websites, or services like Google, and combined with other identifiers (your email address, your network address) to build a very complete picture of you and your habits. This is then used to target you with ads, emails, scams, and even disinformation campaigns. Essentially, someone is looking over your shoulder as your browse and your privacy is a myth. The use of tracking cookies has increased exponentially in recent years.

And it’s not just businesses seeking to sell you something. “Data brokers” now vacuum up your data and sell it for all sorts of purposes, including to political campaigns, without your knowledge or informed consent.

Can’t we just ban cookies? Well, yes, and some browsers allow you to do this, but then many websites, having been designed to be dependent upon them to function, break.

How many cookies are we talking about? There’s almost no limit on how many a website might install on your device, so while it may be a few, it can be hundreds.

If you’ve not heard of SEO, it’s also part of the equation. When you search using Google, Bing, or another search service, often thousands of results are returned. Some studies show that most users won’t look at them past the first results page, others say only the top five results matter. So for a website owner, their position or ranking in search results becomes important.

If a business or website depends on marketing through search results, as many do, then they can pay Google, Bing, etc. to appear sooner in the results. Or they can use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques to attempt to improve their ranking in the results. SEO is practically a science and website developers work very hard to apply it.

How does one know, though, if SEO is working? Or where one stands in the search results in the first place? Why, Google and others offer tracking cookies, programming scripts, and remote services that can measure all that, for a price.

So not only is Google selling your information by tracking your use of its search service, it also sells that same technology to others, so they can monitor their SEO effectiveness, develop profiles of their site visitors using cookies, and also profit from your information.

I hear the counter-arguments, that “the Internet is a wonderful thing” and “search provides an invaluable service”, “we’d be lost with out it”, etc. and I agree! As someone whose life and IT career included the pre-Internet years, I remember how it was before and I’m a big user of search. But, like so many things that take hold by accretion and are unregulated until it’s too late, just because a thing has become essential doesn’t mean it’s good for us.

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee is very worried that his 30-year-old creation is turning into a “digital dystopia”, in a head-long plunge into a moral abyss. It’s not an recent worry – Berners-Lee has publicly fretted about the web’s direction many times over the years – and it’s not hard to understand where his pessimism comes from.

Yeah, thanks, Tim, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle now. In my next post, let’s look at one attempt to regulate control of our data.