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Updated: 6 days ago


giant lips, title

When Ncuti Gatwa became the new Doctor Who, they had laid the foundations to dull the shock. They knew having a black Doctor Who would be controversial (for reasons), so they prepared viewers with first having an old white guy Doctor Who, then a woman Doctor Who, and when finally both of those were kind of accepted among the community, they laid the bombshell of a black Doctor Who.


But they didn’t account for one thing. People wouldn’t be able to pronounce his name. Ncuti. Say it with me.



The meme here implies, and millions of other memes and complaints imply, that white people can pronounce ALL white people names, no matter how complex or innovative of spellings, but because they’re racist they can’t say black people names. “Tchaikovsky” looks hard doesn’t it?


(I'm also STILL unsure of how to say GAT-wah. Does that "GAT" rhyme with "CAT" or should it be more "GAHT" like "HAWT"?)


The problem being, is that Tchaikovsky is something of a household name for Europeans and Americans. He’s been famous for a few hundred years. Ncuti has not. But when he has, people will know how to pronounce his name.


And of course, the irony of the meme is that people DO mispronounce “Schwarzeneggar” all the time. So much that there has become an acceptable American pronunciation for it and people THINK they’re pronouncing it the proper Austrian way.


Pronunciations and racism

I first recall this connection when black people started having more creative spelling to common names, and then started inventing more and more oddly spelled names. I don’t really know why that started happening, I can only imagine that it was connected with the whole “back to Africa” thing people were yammering about in the 80s and early 90s when I was growing up.


But as there were more creative spellings, the mispronunciations became more common and blacks believed that the only names that were being mispronounced were the creatively spelled names, ie black names, and so, racism.


But it simply has more to do with familiarity than anything, and everyone can get anyone’s name wrong in that regard.


Incident at the airport

We’re waiting in line at Colorado Springs Airport. Having just left the icy chill of the aftermath of the winter storm outside, we’re now approaching the security checkpoint. The guy checking the tickets is a black American. Those two details are normally not really that important, except for this subject.


He picks up my (white) son’s passport. One glance at it and a smile, “I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce that name.”


I chuckle and pronounce it for him. “Vakhtang,” putting some extra phlegm on the “kh”. I think it’s funny. I partly chose the name because I knew Americans wouldn’t be able to pronounce it the first go-round. Clearing their throat isn’t what they’re used to doing in idle conversation. Whites, blacks, reds, yellows, whoever. It’s not a common name in the United States, after all.


But it was funny, the irony. A black guy not able to pronounce a white kid’s name. It’s not racism, it’s just that Vakhtang is not a common effing name.


Roll call

I can imagine the difficulty little Vakhtang would have in American schools, where calling out names for roll call is a standard practice (at least when I was growing up). And I remember my name always getting mispronounced. There are of course, only two ways to pronounce “Basey”. “Base-ee” (how it’s pronounced) and “Bass-ee”, bass like a seabass. And of course, it is always pronounced the latter way. Why? No clue. There are even two famous people with the same last name: Shirley Bassey and Count Basie (ironically both blacks), both pronounced the same as mine (though not spelled the same, obviously).


So, if people can’t pronounce my bi-syllabic name, I can’t imagine how someone named Cuauhtemoc might feel during elementary school roll call. Or, for that matter, white kids named Andrzej, Dzintra, Jevenija, Krisjanis, X Æ A-12, or Vakhtang.


And speaking of Vakhtang, all the creative spellings and pronunciations the Bruxelois at his school have come up with to handle the foreign name. I've seen Vapkhtang, Vartang, Vapkhto, and so on (keep in mind the French pronunciation for "r" there). 4-year-old Vakhang manages to spell his name better than his teachers do!


Handling names and other pronunciations

It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to mispronounce a name in another language, and it has nothing to do with race. If you don’t speak French, then I’m betting you mispronounce French names ALL THE TIME, but you just don’t realize it because you don’t speak it. I recently came to the realization how difficult French names were when I made this audio tour of Brussels (click on the big pic below). Oof, but at least I put in the explanation that I’m an idiot American.




 

But really, here’s the thing. If you’re a teacher in class, or candidate making a campaign speech, you should perhaps check on the pronunciation beforehand. You can cause both the subject and yourself a lot of embarrassment. Frankly, I think it’s more embarrassing for the speaker, but of course, for those who get their names mispronounced all the time it can be tiresome.


Easy fix though. Read your roll call sheet or speech ahead of time, and check with someone who knows.


Ncuti

Now that Ncuti is officially the Doctor and his season will begin soon, Doctor Who fans will definitely know how to pronounce this Rwandan-born Scottish actor’s name. Because it will be a familiar and common name to say. But for non-Doctor Who fans, at the moment it might still be a struggle. Whatever the case, the specials he was in so far were entertaining enough, and he’s got down some of Tennant’s traits, so I’m looking forward to the season. Though I’m not sure the Doctor has any business dancing that well.


AI view of Paris

When you first go to Paris – or any city for that matter – the first thing you’ll want to do is to see all the sights. You know, visit the places a local has either never seen or only sees with foreign friends. That is, of course, what I end up doing every time I visit, since I’m with a new visiteur de Paris every time. That also means I am very well-versed in the things everyone does. That is to say, feel free to hire me and I’ll happily come down from Brussels on your dime! I kid, but also I don’t.


The caveats of our latest trip, and the one I’ll outline to you now, were that we wanted to see the main sites, it had to be child-friendly/engaging, toilet accessible routes, and not too much walking because after being on nightmarish 20 mile a day tours planned by me everyone was just tired of that, just relax!


THE SCOOP ON TOILETS

By the way, did I not mention the toilets of France yet? With every visit, I’m all the more impressed with them. They are scattered throughout nearly every city. More often than not, they are free to use and are full-sized, indoor restrooms, sometimes with a pissoir around the corner.


But wait, did you ask something? Free, open bathrooms everywhere… how to keep out the bums?


When you leave the bathroom, the door closes and goes into chemical shower mode. It dumps down whatever toxic bath to “disinfect” the bathroom. This leaves most bathrooms with about a centimeter of moisture on the floor, and also if you’ve entered and take longer than thirty or so minutes, it goes into countdown for another chemical bath. This makes it impossible for someone to use this as a sleeping shelter.


INTO MONTPARNASSE

We decided to actually stay in Montparnasse this time around, which I think is my now place-to-stay. It’s super well-connected with the metro, has got the RER line, a major train station, and is a pretty neighborhood without being a touristically pretty neighborhood. The hood near the train station actually has got a more “authentic” vibe with its lineup of Vietnamese restaurants and dingy brasseries than some of the other more popular quartiers, and dare I say it’s more attractive to my proletarian paycheck.


Odessa cafe, Montparnasse
A random street scene in Montparnasse

Since we were staying there, we decided to drop our bags at our hotel and move on to the Tour Montparnasse (that is, the tower, not a tour). First stop, playground next to some church, then on to the tower.


THE MONTPARNASSE SHOPPING CENTER

If ever anywhere seemed like a Resident Evil set, the shopping center at Montparnasse does. Everything shiny and new-looking in there, but all the posters saying, “Coming Soon 2020!” Everything empty, lights flickering, some people milling about or passing through for God knows what reasons. A sign says there was some sort of “American clothes bazaar” (no, not the continent, but they were referring to the USA) on the third floor, but that might have also required a matter of time travel to attend.


Not let down by the bit of urban spelunking that turned out to be, we continued on to the Tour, which also looked oddly abandoned.


 

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CATCH A VIEW

When you’re in Paris, there is a natural inclination to see the skyline. You have some options. But first I must ask, would you rather live in a disgusting looking building that’s perfectly comfortable inside with a view of an absolutely beautiful building, or would you rather be living inside the absolutely beautiful building with dank insides and a view upon a very disgusting-looking building?


Often taking up residence in Tbilisi, I ask myself this question a lot. It is a variegated community.


This is the same question upon sightseeing in Paris. Would you rather see the Eiffel Tower, or view everything from the Eiffel Tower. Of course, if you want the most iconically Paris view of the city, you should have it with the view of the Eiffel Tower. That leaves you:



Sacre-Couer is a bit low-hanging and you don’t really get that great of a view, to be honest. The Pantheon is also low, but it does offer a very fantastic angle. The Tour de Montparnasse is hands-down the best panorama of the city. The obvious benefit is that you don’t see the city tarnished by the imposition of the Montparnasse Tower itself, and you also get to see the Eiffel Tower.


LE TOUR MONTPARNASSE (THINGS TO DO IN PARIS)

“Where are the tourists?” I asked the air, used to the fact nobody listens to me.


The ropes were set up optimistically, zigzagging the lobby, but with no one in sight the attendants just told us to use the much more direct exit lane and go straight to the lifts. The lifts are nothing fancy. I was thinking it’d be akin to the Rockefeller Center with some sort of movie display on the ceiling, but no, it had every bit the feel of the 1960s-era lift that it was.

The top floor was neat. There were of course, epic views of Paris in every direction, but also these little VR displays that let you get to see the history of various famous areas. My son is old enough to really get a kick out of VR without being completely freaked out by it, so that entertained him for 10 seconds, and then he started begging the fam for toys at the toyshop while I was still back on the first VR video.


I later found out why it was so abandoned, and it wasn’t because of Covid (my assumption). I was sitting at a park with the father of one of my son’s former best friends (they had moved to Paris from Brussels because why not). I told him about the weird abandoned feeling the tower had.


“You know, there was a thing with the fire brigade,” he said while munching on a pale, vitamin-infused child’s cookie. His English was solid, though he spoke with the meandering, sing-song Creole accent of the African islander that he is. “They had a disagreement with the owners. If the owners wouldn’t bring the building up to code, then they won’t come if there’s a fire. The owners think that was too expensive to do, so they rather sit on it and not do a thing.”


While accepting the bag of cookies, I imagined the board meeting. The owners weighing the price of the upgrades to the price of just letting the whole thing go ablaze, and their actuaries must have presented the board with the results in a fascinating Power Point of people diving 200 meters to their heat-inspired concrete party as being the better alternative to upgrading the buildings.


“Because insurers decided they wouldn’t cover a blaze, the vendors all stopped coming in,” he finished the explanation.


BEWARE GYPSIES!

Walking across the street from the tower after our exploration, we found a toy shop and went in. I told my little one he could have a suitably small toy that I could purchase without going over a 10 spot. A guy all in black came in immediately behind me. “Monsieur!” the huffing man shouted, catching his breath while instantly going on a tirade about how some gypsy kid was trying to pick pocket me as I walked along the street. “There was a kid pulling at your backpack, trying to get your stuff!” I assessed whether he was scamming me or something while also mentally taking note of the bulge I felt in my pocket that my wallet. It seemed though he had the intention of being a good Samaritan or something.


“You mean that gypsy kid?” I asked pointing to mine, who was, as he described, pulling on my backpack for the entire journey across the street.


“Eh, erm, no no, of course, a different kid,” he said, leaving.


The shop clerk chimed in, “He’s a waiter around here.”


“Ah, so not a scammer himself?”


The clerk shrugged. We bought a monster truck.


kid with truck in Paris
The cutest little gyppo

FOOD – AN AUTHENTICALLY FRENCH EXPERIENCE

The hood (English for “quartier”) – squeezed in between the train station/tower and the cemetery – is overflowing with restaurants and also includes a vaguely disappointing playground (the playground at the train station itself seems spectacular, and the one in the yard at Our Lady of the Champs is smaller but more to it). It’s slam-packed with restaurants without a single McDonald’s in sight, which makes it about the least French place in France. There are kebabs, Vietnamese places, Irish pubs, and cheap brasseries. We decided to stop at the latter, right around the corner and over a wall from Charles Baudelaire’s grave.

While I was pondering a life alone with cats, I ordered the Andouillette Sausage, thinking it would be that yummy stuff my grandmas always diced up and dropped in their gumbo (that is, andouille sausage). It is not. It is, apparently, an entirely different thing.


I present you, the Wikipedia entry:


“It is a French coarse-grained sausage made from the intestine of pork, pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings.”


Sounds good so far. It continues:


“As with all lower intestine sausages, andouillettes are to some extent an acquired taste. Their smell may offend people unaccustomed to the dish. The texture is somewhat rougher than most sausages, as the content is coarsely cut. Primarily pan-fried (sometimes breaded), it can also be boiled, barbecued or grilled. The sausage is often served with vegetables (primarily onions) in a mustard or red wine sauce.”


May offend is a very diplomatic thing to say. No, it definitely offends most people. And the taste? Must I describe to you the taste of shoving one’s tongue up a pig’s ass or will you go along with me that it was not a delicate dish. My god I’ve never eaten something that “offended my senses” so much. But ate it I did! Feeling unfortunate for that poor little sow’s most foul of ends, I put her remains to good purpose and slowly, cringingly, devoured her innards. This is when I realized that perhaps French cuisine doesn’t rank that much higher than Belgian cuisine. Though it does, indeed, rank.


There is apparently some sort of club de masochisme called AAAAA, an anagram which roughly translates to the “Friendly Club of Lovers of Authentic Andouillette”. And if you’re so inspired by this blog to try your own, look for their sign of approval on a brasserie door, as it ensures the pig intestine is of high enough quality and low enough rank to not leave your own entrails plastered across the pavement on the walk home.


AROUND THE CORNER, UNDER THE WAY

If I were alone, I would have tacked on the Paris Catacombs, as I’m assured it’s one of the greatest places to view dead people in the world. Thousands and thousands of plague, drought, and war victims all neatly stacked up due to a lack of space in the cemetery nearby.


My kid said he wanted to see the “dead people place”, but alas, it was not “Parisienne romantique” enough for my other travel companions. I had to miss it again.

Updated: Oct 11, 2023



I know it’s cliché to say that Paris is one of my favorite cities. But after more than a few visits, it has grown on me. The first time I was there, I was traveling across the continent with an accordion in tow, playing on the streets to make enough for food and hostels and filling in the gaps with the generous tranche I received after leaving Peace Corps. But now, married and with a kid, the past few times it’s had a completely different look. With professional jobs, and less looking for dives to drink and more for family activities, Paris has definitely moved up.

It is though, still problematic to see the “real Paris” since we keep taking different people there, meaning we’ve got re-see the sights every time. But I’ve learned a few things. And here I’ll make a run down to what’s been my ideal trip – which is really my last trip with my parents, wife, and kid – which was more than anything, focused on keeping the kid entertained and not breaking down with a dramatic tearfest in the metro/restaurant/café/fill-in-the-blank.


All good until the first café, when he didn’t want to sit on the romantic street front that is the whole reason to go to a restaurant in Paris and instead started having a complete meltdown in the swank brasserie we had chosen. Finally, at the growing sense of unease among the other clientele and a perhaps insincere comment from an elderly patron about "how cute" the tantruming child was, we acquiesced to my infant’s wishes, and we moved inside. Turns out, his tantrum was led by some sort of barometric pressure reading, since as soon as we sat down it start pouring les chats et les chiens, as they definitely don’t say anywhere in France outside an English lesson.


Anywho, this short Guide will probably be promoted into a Facetious Guide to France (after I write about Occitania, Alsace-Louraine, Loire, Champagne, Annecy, and Bretagne – sorry Bordeaux, unless some hotelier wants to invite us out there!). Unlike my previous guides though, which were rendered somewhat useless by the pandemic, instead of advising which place to eat a croissant or find the best accordion music, I’ll instead merely regale the reader with my pleasant sarcasm and wit and wish for the best.


 
A great tour guide to Prague

And here I must plug my kind of useless (in a hasn't-been-updated-after-covid sense) Guide to Prague. Best review was a one star: "I wasn't expecting a guide!"


Click here to buy great guide book



 

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS OF PARIS

With its nighttime armies of giant rats and daytime armies of buskers, touts, and pickpockets, it’s a hard city not to love. And get this, the current mayor dreams of making the river swimmable, which I think is a laudable plan, if not a McDo burger short of a Happy Meal. Gazing down at the sludge-brown waters of the Seine, you can imagine the layers of dead bodies that have been tossed in over the two millennia history of the town. But I do dream of swimming one day with our dead Gallic ancestors, just mind whatever seems to be grabbing at your ankles.


I really do love the city more and more with each visit. Don’t let my facetiousness fool you. I’ve found that it has mysteriously good parking (if not absurdly expensive, which might be why there's a lot of "good" parking), so it’s definitely an option to drive a car there to escort your touristic friends. For now, as I hear that the mayor also yearns to throw all those parking spaces into the Seine. Good thing it will be swimmable.


Eiffel tower, River Seine
Swim with the fishies in the Seine

Toilets are everywhere. 24 hours and free. With a clever “bum guard” feature – a chemical bath after every use, or after 30 minutes of occupation. There are also pissoirs around – a place for men to pee that may or may not cover the view of the wang. We’re all adults here though, why do you need to stare at a man peeing in a pissoir? These are gender neutral pissoirs as well, despite the masculine grammar behind the word. If you can use it, go for it, nobody’s going to check like you’re in Virginia.


GETTING TO PARIS

You could, as most Americans and people of nations further than Germany, fly into Charles de Gaulle airport. This sprawling and modular airport is well-connected to the city and you’d have to be some kind of nutter to not find an easy way to the center. Just hop on the RER and off you go. The RER is basically the metro, except faster at some points above ground, so not a “metro”. Maybe a “much buried commuter rail” would be most accurate. It’s also the most comfortable seating, most express, and tends to have seats large enough to stash your luggage. This is also my suggestion to take from Paris du Nord.


If you’re like my parents, you could be cursed with family in Brussels. They came to us first to begin this escapade, which meant going from Brussels Midi Station to Paris du Nord, then hopping on the RER to our hotel in Montparnasse.


Brussels Midi gets a bad rap. Yes, for sure the area around it has a precariously high crime rate. But you have to realize, that the crime is relative. It’s high for Europe. For the United States, it’s laughable. It’s akin to some small town in the Midwest. You might get pickpocketed, and that’s about it (okay, let's be honest, in a small American town you're more likely to get murdered and bonked on the head in a TikTok video than pickpocketed). People aren’t going to mug you, rough you up, or murder you or anything. So don’t worry about that. Just don’t leave your phone out while scarfing donuts at Dunkin’. The neighborhood is a bit rough around the edges and you might see a car on fire after the occasional football match, but what city doesn’t feature that? The station itself though is modern and clean and really quite meh.


As for Paris du Nord, the same. A bit more historic-looking and feeling, but you get off the train and literally go straight to the metro/RER so who really cares. You’re at the station for all of 5 minutes.


Your main choices to get to Paris from Brussels by train are two highspeed options, Eurostar and TGV. They’re nominally the same, except TGV includes a stop at Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris. They are insanely fast, it takes a little over an hour to get from Brussels to Paris, which means you just settle down in your seat, fart, crack open your book, and voilà! You’re there.


STAYING IN PARIS

The first time I stayed in Paris I was near Gare du Nord. Don’t judge, it was the only overpriced, short-term flat I could afford. When I was there, it was a cheaper neighborhood, but low prices have pushed out to St. Denis. I never had any problems there myself, but it was a bit sketch neighborhood (as is any hood near a train station and a McDo). Nowadays, gentrification has hit a bit and now it’s actually a decently well-connected hood. And McDo is no longer just for poor people, but is now a legit fashionable place.


Montmarte is a pretty neighborhood to stay in that’s on the cheaper end. The disadvantage there is there’s a lot of hill-walking and it’s not so well connected to the metro, depending on where you’re at. Lots of young people hang there and stay there because they’re not keen on going outside of the hills and thus forced to walk back up the hills.


Stairs in Montmartre
My parents out for a lovely stroll in Montmartre

Sure, you could stay in the 5th, but you’re paying for that stay, mes amis. You can get decent food for decent prices there, and it’s probably where you’ll end up most of your visit, but the hotels are steep. That said, we stayed there once for like 120 in a cute little hotel near the Pantheon called Hotel de Senlis, which is apparently closed for renovation until 2022 (and so it goes in Paris). It was an odd place for a newlywed couple, since our room went out directly to the courtyard. But at least you’re right next door to Emily in Paris, eh (that’s what Google Maps tells me)?


Montparnasse is my new favorite part of town though. It’s the most well-connected hood in the city. Literally there are metro lines going to every single other part of the city. It’s got a lot of shopping options, affordable dining, and it’s right smack next to Luxemburg Park – if you’re traveling with kids, that means it’s great. Just don’t stay where we did at the Hotel Danemark, featuring its permanent sign of “The lift is not working today”, which was true every day we were there.


A street in Montparnasse
Around Montparnasse

But really, anything inside the ring is fine, as long as you’re used to disappointment.


EATING IN PARIS

Paris is a city of food, but it’s all really expensive so you might have to make do with buying a sandwich at the grocery store and sitting down on the embankment with a nice view of the construction site once known as Notre Dame.


Actually, that’s not true.


I mentioned those nice little tables that adorn the pavements everywhere in Paris. If you want to eat or hang out at the nicer looking tables and you’re on a budget, that’s generally perfectly fine. Get a coffee and a croissant – which costs about the same everywhere you go in the city. They won’t judge you unless there’s a rush during mealtimes. If you’ve got un petit faim though, look for the appropriate eatery and not a brasserie, mes amis.


Hungry for a sandwich? Find a sandwicherie.

Hungry for a breaded item? Head to the boulangerie.

Want some sweets? A patisserie or sucrerie.

Want some brass? A brasserie.


They got a separate classification of business for everything, and different times they’ll be open. The American Diner 24/7 kitchen model is most definitely not a thing in France. It makes dealing with groups incredibly difficult, since they have all got to agree in advance on what the hell they want when they want, because God-forbid you go to a sandwicherie and have a hankering for a pasta. Also keep in mind “kitchen always open” just means it’s open between mealtimes (which is rare) and not necessarily through the night.


Parisian brasserie
A brasserie with questionable food serving times

That said, what’s neat is that you can go to a decent enough looking brasserie, with wood floors and turn of the century art nouveau décor – you know, something really cultural – and pull out your laptop and get to work, and nobody’s going to give a damn. You have got to be really annoying to get a Frenchie to give a damn. They will, but only secretly because it would then show they’re not as cool as they’d like to appear, and they will do it in some ultra condescending way that’s super easy for an American to ignore and “mistake” for friendliness, if you’ve got the skill for that.


THINGS TO DO TO KEEP YOUR TRIP SHORT

That is for the next few blogs, so I’ll see you back for those. But to tell you the truth, you can’t really do Paris in a few days. It’s a massive city with lots of little charming spots squeezed in all over. You can do the tourist spots in a day or two, and I’ll tell you how and what, but Paris is most definitely more than views of the Eiffel Tower – it is everything BUT the tourist spots – no matter what Parisien city designers have told you.


If you’ve been to Paris, please share your favorite places in the comments and/or stay tuned!

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