Friday, October 29, 2021

Not that smart

A lot has been said about the connected smart car. A LOT.

Oh, it sure sounds cool: your vehicle as an addition to your devices, an extension of your modern connected lifestyle. 

But then my husband’s job went and gave him a company car equipped with a bunch of connected technology. And let me just come out and say: we’ve all been duped. Cars don’t need to be giant versions of anybody’s smartphone. Why? I’ll tell you why.

Let’s start with music. Before all this connectivity madness, if you wanted to listen to the car radio, you pressed a button or turned a dial. If you wanted to listen to a CD, you simply slipped a disc into the dedicated slot.

But not in our new connected car, no sir. The whole central dashboard is just one big screen. No radio knobs. No CD slot. Only a lonely “home” button. Where do you put your CD? “NOWHERE” is the answer. You put it nowhere, because judging from our car, CD’s are clearly old-school and therefore obsolete.

Same thing goes for the radio. Where is the tuner? It’s hidden inside a menu inside another menu that you can only access by fiddling around with the big dashboard screen. Don’t like the volume level? More fiddling around in menus and submenus.

I’m a consumer. I don’t recall voicing any desire at all for my in-car listening experience to become so pointlessly complicated.

But let’s move on.

How about Bluetooth? Heretofore, I kind of liked Bluetooth; it let me listen to music from my Deezer account through our wireless home speaker, which was neat.

But in the car, I would call Bluetooth a liability at best and life-threatening at worst. Know what happens the instant we climb into ours? Bluetooth detects our phones, and starts automatically playing music from phantom playlists we didn’t even know we had. Simply trying to make the sound system stop doing that is enough to send one off the road and into a ravine. Who came up with this and where should I send my hate mail?

Another “perk” of Bluetooth: notifications. Good God, why why why? For instance, let’s take WhatsApp. WhatsApp bombards us with notifications, which, because of the connectedness of our car, all appear at the top of the dashboard screen accompanied by a notification sound. Now, it just so happens that the volume of this particular app’s notifications came pre-set on “ear-splitting,” meaning every notification blasted through the speakers as BEEEEP!!! thus causing my heart to systematically leap straight out of my chest. But for the life of me I could not find the car volume settings for WhatsApp, despite digging through every last menu and submenu in the whole damn system. I ultimately had to consult some online chat group to find the solution. Again, WHY?

The one place where Bluetooth could actually contribue something helpful in the car is hands-free phone calls. Someone calls you, and the call is sent straight to the sound system, thus liberating your hands for other tasks, namely messing with your GPS holding the steering wheel. Except that the “benefit” of Bluetooth calls is limited to folks who drive ALONE. In a car full of people, in which NO ONE wants to hear your private conversation, much less in surround sound, this feature is truly terrible. Also, what happens if one’s mistress calls while one’s wife is sitting right there in the passenger seat? I mean this is France. I bet that totally happens.

And while we’re on the topic of voice, let’s discuss Google Assistant. I have long learned to avoid using it with, say, our remote control; it clearly finds my American accent to be incomprehensible. But my husband, who is French, does not have much more luck with it than I do. Why? Because the technology is crap, that’s why. When he receives a text in the car, for example, Google Assistant offers to read it to him out loud. If he agrees, the assistant reads the messages INCLUDING THE PUNCTUATION AND THE EMOJIS. This leads to such utterly surreal results as, “Can you bring a bottle of wine to the party question mark smiley face confetti fireworks cake smiley face.” And when the “assistant” is done reading, it asks whether my husband wants to respond. Regardless of what he answers, the robotic voice pauses for a moment, then says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. Do you want to respond?” This can go on for several minutes, usually resulting in palpable irritation inside the car, without mentioning the increased likelihood of a potentially fatal accident outside the car. Thanks, Google.

So in conclusion, the term “smart” is highly relative when applied to the car. And as a recent visit to an automobile museum reminded me, people have been rolling along in perfect comfort for quite some time now, blissfully unaware of connected technology. I say its time to bring back the dumb cars.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Revenge is ours!

Malta. Getting there was tough, but ultimately well worth the effort. You heard about the bad, now hear about the good.

The good.

First, while technically a rock in the middle of the sea, Malta is gorgeous. Golden stone, azure water, handsome architecture, vestiges of ages past at every turn … it’s a veritable movie set. In fact, it’s an actual movie set. Loads of movies and TV shows have been shot in Malta. Part of Game of Thrones was filmed right across from our hotel, which is not exactly a selling point for me since I detest GoT; however, Paul, Apostle of Christ was also filmed in Malta and that is cool.

Who wouldn’t want to shoot a movie here? NO ONE.

Second, Malta’s breadth and depth of history is astounding; the whole country may as well be governed by UNESCO. And while fans of all eras are well-served, the prehistory crowd is especially spoiled. The place has megalithic temples that predate Stonehenge, for crying out loud. Malta is also home to the phenomenal Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground burial site and temple that is among the marvels one must see in one’s lifetime, if one has the chance.

The Hypogeums iconic 5,000-year-old “Sleeping Lady,” who looks truly great for her age.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering its 7,000+ years of history, Malta has a TON of ruins. There are ruins lining every field, just sitting there in the hot, hot sun, waiting to be admired. There are also many extensive and extremely awe-inspiring catacomb sites. We visited Saint Paul’s Catacombs, which are not only badass (albeit haunting), but also offer a welcome bit of respite from the pounding heat. Not sure I’d have a full-on meal down there though, as early mourners are believed to have done. I once saw a group of tourists try to have a picnic inside Chartres Cathedral, which was shockingly uncouth, but interestingly, eating alongside decomposing bodies in the catacombs back in their heyday was, Im assuming, ceremonially respectful. Probably stinky, though.

Saint Paul (we meet again!) is especially beloved in Malta for having spent several months on the island following a shipwreck on his way to face trial in Rome sometime around 60 AD. One can visit the cave in which he is said to have stayed during his sojourn. You bet we visited it. It was rad. 

Highly shipwreck-worthy.

Like Saint Paul, the Knights of Malta are a very big deal. They are notably celebrated for the heroism they showed during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when some 500 knights and 6,000 foot soldiers managed to fend off an entire armada of like 30,000 angry Ottomans. I won’t bore you with the details (which are frankly not so much boring as they are bloody and gross). Instead, here’s a kid-friendly summary:


What else can I tell you about Malta?

Malta is dry. And as someone who grew up in inland Southern California, I know about dryness. Malta is “tumbleweed and baked earth” dry. How anyone cultivates anything there is a mystery. Luckily, Sicily is nearby, and while also dry, apparently it grows more stuff than Malta. Malta has fennel. And cows. But the cows are from Sicily.

Dry toast. And ruins.

Driving around Malta is terrifying. First, they drive on the left, which, with all due respect to Lord Lets All Drive on the Left, may be the dumbest idea anyone has ever had ever. Second, they drive really fast. Even my husband, who drives really fast, said repeatedly that the Maltese drive really fast. Plus our rental car had an engine about the size of a coconut, meaning going uphill was somewhat comical. The battery, apparently even smaller than a coconut, died on us while waiting to board a ferry to visit the nearby island of Gonzo. That was much less comical.

The Maltese language is crazy. It’s a mix between Arabic, Italian, Sicilian, English, French, Spanish, and the kitchen sink. And while written Maltese uses the Latin alphabet, it includes letters I’ve never seen anywhere else, but for some reason they give me a thrill. Check this out:

Do you have goosebumps? I have goosebumps.

Eating lunch on the street in Malta is very cheap. You can buy these fun little stuffed pastry things called pastizzi for about €1 and be full for like eight hours.

Malta takes Covid seriously. Really seriously. When you arrive, you are immediately faced with a wall of stern-looking authority figures demanding to see your paperwork. Woe to those who have not the proper paperwork! Also, the testing procedure on the island is next-level absurd. They send you to a sketchy parking garage behind a “hospital” in a part of town that looks like Baghdad, where you must pay in cash so that some dude wearing a moonsuit can jab at your sinuses with a glorified Q-Tip. I’ve now been tested like five times since the start of this Corona madness and honestly, the process is less painful each time. Is that a good thing? It doesn’t seem like a good thing. You’d think my sense of smell would have improved, but instead my hay fever has worsened. Hmm.

So there you have it. An overall wonderful trip despite a very rocky kick-off. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Malta, definitely seize that opportunity. Just make sure your Covid paperwork is pristine, your rental car is bigger than the Hot Wheels model we had, and your flight is not with Lufthansa (sorry not sorry).


Friday, July 23, 2021

Revenge travel?

Ah, vacation. Remember what that used to be like? You know, in those carefree, innocent days before Covid-19 stole all of our naive illusions and sent them plummeting into the abyss?

Well, we had a chance last week to do more than reminisce about mobility. With the world gradually opening up to travel again, my hubby and I decided NOW was the moment to finally celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary (which was technically in April) by boarding an actual airplane and flying to an actual place. But where to go?

We chose Malta. Its beauty, history and relative proximity convinced us.

So we sent our kids to visit their grandparents, which was weird in and of itself.

Then we packed, which was also weird after what felt like a lifetime of not packing.

We underwent the requisite Q-Tip-up-the-nose PCR test in a sketchy pharmacy in the ghetto (PCR tests are hard to come by). 

We filled out a lot (A LOT) of paperwork. International travel these days demands much more of that than before. Thanks, Covid.

And we went to the airport. Or rather, we dove head-first into a sea of humanity rather like this:

I’d forgotten how much I hate the airport.

Many hours later, we staggered to our departure gate. Our “airplane” looked like this:

The flight was delayed. First 20 minutes (excusable), then 1.5 hours (inexcusable), and then just flat-out cancelled (have I mentioned that I hate the airport?).

Thus commenced many hours filled with that noxious yet familiar cocktail of boredom and panic that pretty much defines my whole relationship with travel. I’ll spare you the details, but in short, it was bad. At least I met a nice fellow passenger from LA who knew my hometown, which was a little ray of most welcome sunshine.

Ultimately, we were placed on a new flight connecting through Frankfurt. Only here’s the thing: PCR tests expire after 72 hours, and with the rerouting we would technically be over the time limit by a couple of hours. “No problem,” said Lufthansa (you bet I’m naming names).

So we flew to Frankfurt and then proceeded to our connecting flight, operated by Air Malta. Air Malta, you may be surprised to learn, is far less laid-back than Lufthansa. They were not buying our “but the airline said it was OK” spiel. Thus, we were barred from boarding, and were offered exactly zero sympathy from the flight attendants, who suggested we go tell our sob story to Lufthansa customer service before moving on to the next passenger. So much for Mediterranean warmth.

So we went to Lufthansa customer service, which was located on the whole other side of the airport, distraught AF. To their credit, they were kind (as they should have been, considering the whole mess was their fault to begin with). They gave us vouchers for a new Covid test, vouchers for a hotel, vouchers for dinner and new tickets for the following morning. They also made fun of Air Malta, which we appreciated.

Then they sent us, minus our luggage, to an airport hotel whose vibe was something like this:

The hotel offered us a room and a sterilized, socially-distanced buffet dinner consisting of canned vegetables and mystery meat, in an atmosphere somewhere between a wake and a strip mall on a Sunday night. Our bathroom was lit by a single red light. On a timer.

At 5 am the next morning, we fell out of bed and got ready in under 10 minutes—as one can when one has pure anxiety coursing through one’s veins, as well as no luggage.

We boarded a shuttle BACK to the airport, where we took yet another Covid test. It was negative, so that was positive (a little Covid humor for ya).

We boarded the plane to Malta. It didn’t crash, thank God.

We exited the airplane and went to baggage claim. Our bags were not there.

We spent 40 minutes filing a missing baggage report, which at this point was (almost) comical.

But then, negative test results in hand and no luggage weighing us down, we marched boldly past the immigration gestapo and felt the tide turning in our favor.

We picked up our rental car. It looked a lot like this (only smaller):

We rediscovered the thrill of left-hand traffic, which is how Malta rolls, thus kicking my cortisol levels up another notch.

Ah, but a short while later we reached our hotel, whose vibe was something like this:

And believe it or not, but the rest of our stay was really wonderfulalbeit often surreal. It deserves its own post, which it shall have.

To be continued!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A pain in the ass

Let me tell you a little story. A story about a girl. A girl who liked to run. A girl who ran too much and got tendinitis. Double tendinitis in fact.

OK the girl is me and at 41 I’m not technically a “girl,” although I’m more a girl than I am a boy so let’s not get bogged down in semantics.

Anyway, remember how I mentioned running a lot during all of those nasty lockdowns of 2020-21? Well it turns out that I may have overdone it just a bit, resulting in a constant (and I mean CONSTANT) ache in my left piriformis muscle, which is located deep in the gluteal region and does helpful things like allow the hip to rotate. As a bonus, the sciatic nerve runs right through it. I know this because not only do I have glute pain but I also have sciatic pain! Yay!

The unpleasantness began in early October of 2020. I thought it might go away on its own, so I kept on running. But it didn’t go away, so I stopped running and made an appointment with my GP, or rather, with my GP’s intern, because you can get an appointment to see the intern relatively quickly whereas the GP has a waiting time of about three weeks. Here’s how that went:

Me: My butt hurts.
Intern: Why?
Me: I may have been running too much.
Intern: Run less. Also take Advil.
Me: Is that it?
Intern: Get some insoles. I’ll refer you to a podiatrist.

So off I went to the podiatrist. As it was my first time seeing one, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I couldn’t help wondering what exactly inspires a person to pursue this type of profession though. I mean it’s a little odd, no? Just looking at people’s feet all day? My son likes feet. Maybe one day he’ll be a podiatrist.

Me: My butt hurts.
Podiatrist: Why?
Me: I may have been running too much.
Podiatrist: Show me your feet.
Me: This is going to get weird, isn’t it?

It was weird. I’ve never had anyone take THAT much interest in my feet before. Also he was extremely serious. I kept trying to make jokes to lighten the ambiance, except he clearly didn’t understand them since he kept asking me to repeat myself, thus killing the jokes. Maybe podiatrists don’t laugh. That’s understandable. In the end, he made me some special insoles. They didn’t help. He made me some new ones. The new ones actually made my butt hurt more.

Then I tried my osteopath because she’s competent as well as good-natured, plus I’d been meaning to see her anyway. She did what she could, but said she suspected a DOUBLE tendinitis and that it would be helpful if I consulted a kiné (short for kinésithérapeute – physiotherapist). All French people see the kiné at some point in their lives. It is a very French thing to do. So I made an appointment.

Me: My butt hurts.
Kiné: Why?
Me: I may have been running too much.
Kiné: What part of your butt hurts? How about *here*?
Me: Nah.
Kiné: *Here*?
Me: Sort of.
Kiné: *Here*?
Me: OW!!!
Kiné: I think I know what’s wrong with you. But you should see a sports doctor just to be sure.

I made an appointment with a sports doctor. In Paris. It took half a day. But he was reassuring as well as charismatic, in a 50-something sports doctor sort of way.

Sports doctor: Where are you from?
Me: California.
Sports doctor: I lived in California for a while! I went there to play music.
Me: Cool! Where?
Sports doctor: *Cites unrecognizable and possibly fictional place*
Me: Did you love it?
Sports doctor: Meh.
Me: Meh?
Sports doctor: I need you to take off your pants and lie on this table.
Me: You gonna buy me a drink first or what?

That went OK. He said he was pretty sure what was wrong with me, but that I needed to get an MRI to confirm. So I made an appointment with the specific MRI place he said I had to go to. Also in Paris. Also half a day.

MRI technician: Hi. Take off your pants.
Me: My, aren’t you a straight-to-the-point kind of person?
MRI technician: Is this your first time?
Me: Is this YOUR first time? I hope not because this is costing me €200.
MRI technician: Here, lie on this table and put these headphones on. It’s Queen. Do you like Queen?
MRI technician: I’ll be back in 15 minutes.
Me: What?

I got the full results that night and had to take them BACK to my sports doctor, which meant yet another trip to Paris and yet another half-day gone. He was happy with the results and said they confirmed his opinion that I would need an infiltration (ultrasound-guided cortisone injection). Oh good.
I made an appointment for the injection. Also in Paris. Also half a day.

Technician: Hi. Take your pants off please. The doctor will be in shortly.
Me: Cool, cool.
Doctor: Hi. Which side are we injecting today?
Me: Left.
Doctor: Lie on your stomach, with your head at this end of the table.
Me: Uh … that’s my right side.
Doctor: Oh sorry. You said left, didn’t you?
Me: This is so not worth it.

The shot was 50 shades of weird. First, the doctor was roughly three times my size; he looked like some superhuman German grandpa whose dimensions were not of this world. Second, the technician turned the lights down, creating a soft (i.e. WEIRD) ambiance that could only have been made weirder if hed put on some smooth jazz. And third, they may have numbed the injection site, but I could still feel the needle itself poking around inside the muscle. It didn’t exactly hurt, but the sensation was not what one might call “pleasant.” At one point, I heard the doctor say something to the technician involving the words “next” and “time,” at which I could only snicker. There will be no “next time,” my dude.

I spent the following day at home, awaiting some crazy effect of painlessness or painfulness. But in the end, it was pretty damn close to how I felt prior to the injection. Hmm. And today, a full week later, I have to report that the result is subtle at best.

You know what I think? I think that, much like parenting a difficult child, there is no real solution other than time. Your average tendinitis lasts 12-18 months. And while my children are finally starting to exit their difficult period, it looks like this particular pain in the ass is going to be sticking around for a while.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The waiting game

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of time lately. For instance, it’s March. One year ago, as France entered its first major nationwide lockdown, I remember muttering something to myself like, “Beware the Ides of March indeed!” And behold—here we are again. That was the fastest 100 years ever. 

So much about how I personally have experienced these past 12 months has revolved around time—facing time, grappling with time, hating time, accepting time—that I feel it warrants a closer look. Because what do I have on my hands for once? Time.

First of all, time and I are not pals; I am chronically late—or was, when I used to have things to be late for. Ever seeking to rectify this, yet knowing that I probably can’t, the very thought of having to be somewhere for something at a given hour and no later (school, for example, or any form of public transportation) invariably plunges me into a state of stress that less eccentric people reserve for auditions or blind dates.

But time, like so many other things, has been turned on its head in the Covid Era. Rather than chasing after time, wishing we had more of it, time has now become the prison guard smiling cruelly at us as we ask how long our sentence is. As the pandemic has evolved, my temporal concerns have evolved alongside it. What began as “How long will this last?,” “When will masks be available?,” and “When IN GOD’S NAME will my children’s activity books show up?” became “When can we go back to real classes?,” “When can we fly to the US again?,” and “When can we get vaccinated?” Now, one year later, the questions have taken on a certain resignation; optimistic whens have been replaced by melancholy wills: “Will this ever end?,” “Will we ever get our lives back?,” or to quote Dave Matthews, “Will it [ever] be the same again?” But regardless of the question, time’s unsympathetic response remains ever the same: I. Don’t. Know. *snicker*

I’ve often joked that Covid has been a spiritual exercise unlike any other. The noble ideals of being present in the moment, of finding small pleasures in the everyday, and of living life as it comes have all become almost required learning if one is to survive the waves of cancelled plans, thwarted goals, and absolute powerlessness that this past year has brought. For a society in which the virtue of patience is as antiquated as a brass bedwarmer, being forced to wait for absolutely everything—INDEFINITELY—has been excruciating.

To stem the frustration, I’ve learned to simply stop planning to have or see or do anything outside my immediate reach. I suppose a certain freedom lies therein; for those of us who tend to be on the anxious side, not having to think about the future means not having to worry about it. But it’s also a way of life that seems to be perpetually on hold. While we watch and wait, the world continues to spin. The seasons change. Birthdays and anniversaries come and go. We are both in reality and weirdly outside of it. 

All of us humans lead dual lives. I know from experience that the inner, contemplative life can absolutely benefit from the spiritual lessons of lockdown and social distancing. But even an introvert such as myself can see that the outer life—the one that has been wholly sacrificed this past year—is quite simply indispensable to our well-being. Activities, ceremonies, traditions. School, office, church. Restaurants, theaters, museums. Dance lessons, Boy Scouts, play dates. Brunches, after-work drinks, dinner parties … all of these things matter. They aren’t banal. They aren’t expendable. They are part of what makes us human. Without them, we’re all a bit diminished. 

For some reason, I have always hated the saying “this won’t last forever.” I find it to be both condescending and oddly bleak. But in the age of Covid-19, it suddenly doesn’t feel so depressing anymore. Probably because it’s better than “I don’t know.” I mean, at least it recognizes the existence of an end point, even if it doesn’t specify where the end point lies. All jokes aside, though, I am hopeful. Truly. This won’t last forever. We will be vaccinated sooner or later. The masks will come off one day. And in the meantime, we just have to continue to seek the joy residing within our own little worlds, to do our best to keep holding on, to remember that the time we have is borrowed—and that no one is preventing us from dancing.

Dave Matthews: Shadows on the Wall
(aka Singing from the Windows)

When the war is over 
and we go back to everyday, everyday 
will it be the same again 
when you've been turned inside out and outside in? 

Singing from the windows 
shadow on the wall, the way they dance 
not much of nothing 
and look at this fire burning bright 

Look at how the children play 
none of us know what's to come tomorrow 
but I'm not going out today 
so dance with me like the time we've got is borrowed 

Singing from the windows 
sirens in the dark, where are you going? 
pretend that it's nothing 
but look at this fire burning wild 

Well this is how we keep holding on 
every day, all day long 
but sometimes things just fall apart 
no matter how you try, they won't stop 

Singing from the windows 
something outside and I don't know

When the storm is over 
and picking up the pieces of everyday 
memories in picture frames 
trying to put the inside out and the outside in
Singing from the windows 
walking down the hall, nowhere to go 
(it'd) be good to see you, but 
suppose when it's all said and done 

This is how we keep holding on 
all the days, all day long 
but sometimes things just fall apart 
no matter how we try, they can't stop 

Singing from the windows 
voices outside and no one knows 
singing from the windows 
we'll get going again 

When the war is over