Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I will warn everyone ahead of time, this is going to be an exceedingly geeky, so just as a preface now, get ready to find out my levels of geekery, should you not have been aware before. 

Yes, I am one of those people.  Back on the 26th October of 2000, I got a call from my friend.  She needed me to hurry up, because a line was already forming.  It was only 5:30 and I had cleaned out my bank account the day before.  As much as working at Wendy's had sucked that summer, it was all worth it now.  By the end of the night, I would be one of the few, the proud, the owners of a PS2.  So we waited 6 hours in line, for two of 8.  (It should be noted that my PS2 still works, and never had to be sent in for repairs, once.) 

I am clearly a Playstation fanboy, and am deeply in love with most Sony gaming systems.  Fortunately, my partner shares my addiction, and have passed many a happy afternoon, geeking it up.  As a result we have a whole slew of video games.  When packing, we seriously ditched clothes to make sure we could take our games.  I even had the honor of having the PS3 and 360 in my carry on.  (It could hardly be called a carry on at that point, as it could have easily crushed several small villages.)  But everything made it just fine, now for the hard part.  The power situation.

I say the hard part because for anyone familiar with traveling overseas, you can't plug in any electronics.  The plugs change, usually based on continent, but well, England's proving that not to be the case thank you very much.  So first you have to search around the place for converter plugs.  I had an old one from a previous trip, so we were set with one.  However, we needed about...well.....forty-six thousand.

Of course, there were options for the plugs, as just getting the adapter is relatively simple in France.  The most expensive option, of course, was Fnac, which is pretty much the same thing as Virgin Megastore, for those of you who remember it.  They rang in at about 15 bucks after everything was said and done.  The next option was Monoprix.  That handy dandy little number cost about 5 bucks, which as they say, kicked ass.  So they run the gamut, but I'd say get the cheapest one, if all you need is an adapter. 

This might be another time to recall some other fun memories of the United States.  For those of you unfamiliar with the other differences between the US and Europe, you have to convert power as well.  Now, as luck would have it, I ran to a Radio Shack and got exactly what I needed to make the power conversion in the US in about 20 seconds, lock, stock, and barrel. Mathieu's French playstation was ready for a rest run in two days.

Now in France, well, the situation became more complicated.  Mathieu paid about 45 dollars for a converter, and we thought everything was fine.  We took it home, and what to our wandering eyes should appear, but a new roadblock we had never thought about in the US.  Certain stepup and stepdown converters are only rated for a certain number of watts.  The one we had bought was rated for 8 watts.  The PS3 was said to pull as much as 380.  So welcome back to square one.  All was not lost though as we could use the charger for the DS, which could not convert.  That made life easier on one count.

We eventually found an industrial strength model, rated for up to 700 watts.  That meant that we could plug in both the PS3 and the 360 if we really wanted to.  It was insanely heavy for it's size, and actually has a fuse for additional security.  Of course we had the usual rules.  No one was allowed to turn it on if my partner or I was not there to make sure that the setup was right.  If you are done using it, turn off said giant stepdown converter and unplug the device.  Of course there were a few snafus such as the ever famous "Did you unplug it before you turned it off because what if it doesn't restrict power flow once it's off?" controversy.  Generally though, it all worked out pretty well though.  That was not all that our friends had in store for us.

You might of noticed when I was talking about our time in the US, and getting a French PS2 working, I did mention ready to be tried, because I never got it working until 5 months before we were moving back to France.  The last hurdle we couldn't overcome with our first TV was the difference in signals.  The television, being American, ran in NTSC and the PS2, as it was French, ran in PAL.  The first television we had was one of those 27 inch Sharps that everyone had about 15 years ago that only had a coax/antenna input.  (It's shocking to think that this was 15 years ago.  That sounds so, old.  I feel old now.)  So we got it all working, except that the screen kept rolling.  After doing some research, this is called "PAL rolling screen" and is next to impossible to take care of, short of a priest or a $700 VCR.  Neither of us being religious men, we said fuck it for about 4 years, and let it sit in our closet.

Coming back to the part where I got it working, my partner and I were trying to see if it would even be worth it to take them with us.  We stumbled upon an interesting post that apparently said you can bypass the standard difference should you have a digital input.  Of course, since we were now part of the well to do crowd, we had bought a TV with HDMI to take full advantage of our recently purchased PS3 and 360.  So we tested it first on the TV.  Since a PS2 is old tech, there was no HDMI out for it. There was, however Component, which is sort of this bizarre lovechild of digital and analog.  Well, it said there was an input, but it couldn't recognize it, which was well, quite honestly worse off than when we started.  But what about the little TV in the other room?  The $200 TV that we had bought to play games and watch TV/DVDs in bed!  Low and behold, after 5 years of dithering, there we go.  It was grainy at best through the  TV, but by god I could finally fight Penance!

So of course reading the above, it's fairly obvious that our TV got sent across to France.  All the necessary components were together, and well, SUCCESS!!!!!  It all works, and we can play all our systems.  I know it makes us evil, but well, everything's here, and it works, and it's gorgeous.  Of course, our room is a shrine to various forms of technology.  Computers, systems, cords, and shit running everywhere.  Seriously, furniture position was actually determined by outlet proximity. 

So in the process of getting our consoles and handhelds Europificated, I should mention about some high points.  Did you know that the Playstation Portable's charger automatically switches for you?  So you don't have to mess with anything except a nice, cheap converter plug.  I would really like to say that was a genius move on Sony's part there.  I should also warn you that this is on a first generation PSP so check your charger brick before you go and plug it into a wall willy nilly. 

Another thing that may be of use to know is how the consoles match up with game compatibility, which is spotty at best.  Always make sure to find out about localization before trying to play something that shouldn't be played in another system.  You can do some serious damage. 

For the Playstation platform, you can pretty much be safe with anything working, and working internationally.  The first attempt was at a game store here in town where we weren't sure if it would work.  So I took my PSP with me and we tried it out.  It loaded a few French games without a hitch.  Not only did it load the games no problem, but it ran them in, shock of shocks, English.  The screen to quit one game did come up in French, but a small glitch, to say the least.  The game played great, and without any errors.  So after that, we decided to be crazy, and try a PS3 game.  I was convinced because of localization it would never fly.  But low and behold, we put it in, and started up in English!  So good news is that pretty much all the information was already on the disc, which made life, much simpler.  Now it should be known this is just for the PSP and PS3.  This trick does not, and will not ever work for a non hacked PS2.  Just know that now. 

I have not tried anything with any of the Nintendo systems, so anyone with word on that, let me know.   Unfortunately, the 360 is region locked so no games shared between foreign cultures.  Microsoft is cold like that.  So what can you do really.  Sorry. 

And well, that was our odyssey with game systems.  I will write more when something else piques my interest.  Until then!

Monday, January 4, 2010

A River Runs Through It

(A necessary Preface, I believe:  Please do not cite this in any professional manner as all this information was taken off Wikipedia.  Use a nice, verifiable, able to be referenced encyclopedia.  This is mostly cocktail trivia I provide on this site.)

No, I have not seen the movie of the same name, but I think it's a rather epic title, if I don't say so myself.  This post came about because of a discussion in the car on the way to Tours this weekend.  We were taking my niece back to school there, and she mentioned about how the river in Tours is called "La Loire" while the river in the town where I am staying is called "Le Loir."  Now, this is something I never really thought about, but I was really confused by the fact that now not only were rivers feminine, but they could also be masculine, should they so choose.

Now, of course, my original thought was that it would logically follow with the "e" as quite a few feminine endings occur on words that end in "e."  There was "La Seine" in Paris as well as "La Garonne" in Bordeaux.  Ok, so we had a logical pattern.  Of course, that plan was quickly put to rest when "Le Rhône" was brought to my attention. 

Another thought was maybe it was the size of the river.  Maybe because the word for a smaller river carried a different gender, therefore it would require that different particle.  So what were the words in French for rivers?  The first word, "La Riviere," can be used for any smaller river that runs into another river, so what we'd call a tributary in English.  Examples of tributaries would be the rivers that empty into the Loire.  There's the "La Loir" and "La Cher."  The other word, "Le Fleuve" is used for a word that empties into an ocean.  So for example, the Seine empties into the English Channel, and therefore would be "un fleuve."  The same could be said for the Rhône and the Loire, which respectively empty into the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Biscay.  However, that idea was shot down because the word "Le Fleuve" is masculine, and "La Seine" kills that theory for one.  So that's two down.

So I spoke with my brother in law, who is knowledgeable on these conundrums.  He said he did not think there was rhyme nor reason for the genders of the rivers.  He thinks it was most likely chosen by the early inhabitants who imbued the river with gender.  For me, being that I am very much a good little Indo-European boy, my only solution is to give the river a feminine article.

I immediately had to go back to my only other familiarity with foreign languages to check this phenomenon myself.  I was remembering back to German class with "die Donau," "die Havel," und "die Spree."  However, I was amazed to realize that it is "der Rhein," and "der Main."  So it appears as though most nations don't have hard and fast rules about the genders of rivers.

Now, of course to me, nothing is more fascinating than where the names of these rivers come from.  As we all know in the US, something like ninety five percent of all rivers are from Amerindian languages: Ohio, Mississippi, Chattahoochee, Allegheny, Monongahela, Missouri, Rappahannock, etc.  (I am sorry for not going further west but the only river I can think of out West right now is the Columbia, and I doubt that's anything in any Amerindian language.)

Some French river names are sometimes very simple.  One my brother in law explained to me is that the Rhône River comes from a Greek root, meaning "to flow."  Van Gogh also did a painting called Starry Night Over the Rhône. Additionally, the Loire river comes from a Latin root, Liger, which is a transcription of the Gaulish Liga, meaning silt or deposit.  The Seine, it is said, is from a Latin root "sequana" which is said to be a transliteration of a Gaulish word, "sicauna."  It is said to mean "sacred river."

Of course, to me it's just amazing to be able to see the history here, even in place names.  Then again, I am kind of an historical linguistics geek like that.  It's amazing to think that some of these rivers and places have had people for centuries before the US even existed.  Even more bizarre is that I share DNA with them, most likely.  So here's to hoping you had a great Holiday, and unfortunately for all; it's time to get back to work.  I hope Monday was kind to you.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Meilleurs Voeux!

So it's been quite a bit since I have actually made a post here, that's no secret.  Hell, look at the dates.  I do claim the right to use that it has been a busy time of year.  After all, the Holidays are the biggest traveling time of the year.  The main distraction has been the festivities.  I am still blown away by how different the French notion of a party is from that of Americans.

If I say I am having a party, your first thought is lots of booze, lots of people, and possibly a summons to appear by varying law enforcement agencies.  The parties I think of when someone says parties means throwing on a shirt that looks nice, but you don't care about seeing possibly covered in a drink/vomit.  I should probably add the fact that I am pretty middle class in my upbringing, and went to a state college.  I know, start the snickering now.  You also, as a guy, would never think of wearing dress pants.  It's just not worth the hassle when jeans are so much more comfortable/functional.  Especially in colder weather.

Parties can be appended with different words in English that denotes another function.  The above paragraph is defined as a house party.  Additionally, an intimate party means just a group of friends together hanging out, of course.  Usually, because I am a geek, the party centralized around a gaming console or a movie.  But it usually means a group of friends, what in the US amounts to a casual gathering of friends.  Of course, I am of the opinion that the best parties end at around 5 am at Waffle House, that just doesn't happen here. 

Now there's another type of party that I have not mentioned yet, mainly because I never went to them in the US.  These are always shown as people in their 30s or 40s with their friends in their well-appointed houses with their stylish place settings, etc.  (as I have never been to one, I can only go off of ads like those for Kohler. This is the ad I think of mostly when someone says dinner party.

The first thing you will need if you are attending a dinner party is to bring a small gift of some sort.  Usually, the most common is a bouquet but bottles of wine are almost just as common.  I have also seen chocolates given as well.  There are any number of small things you can get, but obviously the price should not exceed a certain amount, usually no more than twenty euros.  Also, make sure that you take the price tag off before giving the gift. 

The first course is usually an aperitif course.  Aperitif is basically the same thing as an appetizer. There are usually small things to eat, but they are not usually as casual looking as they are in the US.  They are often made with puff pastry or pâte à choux similar to a cream puff. There are crackers and olives as well usually.  Most of the time they are eaten with champagne, a very common hostess gift for such events. 

The second course usually will be some sort of larger appetizer, but especially around the holidays there are oysters.  Oysters are an acquired taste and by and large are either loved or hated.  I am in the love camp.  All the oysters I have had in France tend to be obviously a little salty with a clean finish, for me usually tasting a bit like watermelon.  (Real watermelon too, not the artificial flavoring.)  Most commonly they are served cold on the half shell with either a shallot and red wine vinaigrette or simply with lemon.  There are some people who can eat them without either addition, but they are few and far between.  There is also a medium dense wheat bread with butter served with it.  The best of the breads are those that have the addition of shallots baked in, in my opinion.  You also must separate the oyster from the shell, as most of the time, they do not come detached.  It's relatively simple and often that is the function if you see a small, squat fork above your plate.  You will also get a little bit of shell in your mouth at some point.  It won't kill you, but try and be adept about removing it from your mouth.

The second course tends to be salmon, but this is another variance depending on the time of year.  Salmon is usually served either smoked or marinated.  Smoked salmon is one of the things I consider most incredible in a bagel with some cream cheese.  I am an American, after all.  It is served often with blini which are medium sized savory pancakes.  The batter may be a little thinner though as they always seem to be lighter than the ones I make.  Additionally, lemon is added to bring out the flavor of the salmon.  The marinated salmon is usually marinated in onions, dill, bay leaves, and other spices, and covered in lemon juice.  The lemon juice, as an acid, cooks the salmon as it marinates.  After the salmon has satisfactorily marinated, it is cleaned, and ready to serve.  Usually, I add lemon to it, as it does help to perk up the flavoring again.  The spices tend to become too blended after marination. 

There are two types of meat I have eaten the most here in France that we do not eat in the US, rosbeef and rabbit.  Rosbeef is obviously a cut of beef, which I cannot say for sure.  It is usually served medium rare to rare, and is incredible when done correctly.  I have always been on the happy side of par with the rosbeef of course, and must say it is a possible favorite cut of meat.  As I said, it is served rare so people who are very concerned with the doneness of meat would be well advised to steer clear of this.  This is not something you want to eat well done.  Rabbit is usually served in more of a stew or stuffed.  I have myself never eaten rabbit that was just served as rabbit without some sort of accompaniment.  Most commonly, I have eaten it stuffed.  I cannot explain it more than being a more intensely flavored meat than lamb.  It's something you can only really try to see if you will like.  Rabbit, like oysters, are a polarizing food. 

Now the savory portion may end here, but there is always dessert of some kind.  Often there are apples, pears and usually clementines at this time of year.  France also tends to have a variety of exotic fruits for the holidays, not limited to mangoes and kiwi as most American palate.  There was an abundance of lychee and pomegranates in the grocery stores here in France.  Often shortcakes of differing types are served.  They tend to be home made of course as most things are.  There may also be a variety of tarts and cakes.  There is one of which the name escapes me, but it's a variety of nuts covered in powdered sugar. 

Dessert around the holidays often includes two desserts that can only appear at this time of year.  The first is fairly familiar.  I have seen Yule Logs before, but never eaten them.  I only had a passing knowledge of them in the US.  As best I can describe it is similar to a jelly roll made of genoise and usually chocolate frosting.  It was very good, and surprisingly more sugary than most French desserts. Downright satisfying if you will.  The other cake is called Galette du roi.  It is a very flaky pastry filled with frangipane.  Often a small prize is baked inside the cake and whoever gets the prize wears a crown not entirely unlike a burger king crown.  Usually it's done for children who determine who gets what piece (occasionally while hiding under the table.) 

The end of the meal usually happens when it's time to have tea or coffee.  Usually it is best to take the hostess up on the offer, as tea really does help things sit better on the way home.  Often there are special digestive infusions served for the purpose, but even a small cup seems to help settle a stomach after what has to be called a marathon of eating.  The full range of courses at these parties can last 6 to 7 hours around the holidays.  Usually the company and food are so good, you don't know what time it is until you look at your watch.  Of course, it depends on the party.