Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lily Allen in Concert at Le Zenith

Last Thursday night, sandwiched between our two-day trip to the Loire Valley and our five-day trip to England, we saw Lily Allen in concert at Le Zenith, the same 6000 seat indoor arena located in Parc de la Villette on the northeast side of Paris where we saw Fleetwood Mac the previous Saturday night.

One could hardly have a larger contrast betweeen performances. Fleetwood Mac has been an intact band since 1975, when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band 10 years before Lily Allen was even born. Who knows how many concerts they have performed in 35 years.

Lily Allen, on the other hand, after being discovered on MySpace 4 years ago, has two albums out, and this was the first stop on a European Tour that would end up back in England where she is from. It was also the first concert she has done with a full stage set and backup band. I don't know what she did in South America last month where she did a few shows, nor what she has done in her previous shows in England.... I guess she just used recorded music.

I became a fan of hers earlier this year after hearing the song The Fear on XM Radio.

Having heard her in concert now, I must say there is something irresistable about this girl. She is naughty but naive, rebellious but not angry, childish but fearless, and vulgar but... well, just vulgar.

Even her ridiculous song F*** You, directed at George Bush, is sung almost light-heartedly (unlike the defiant anger of, say, the Dixie Chick's "Not Ready to Make Nice"), which makes it all the more effective in a sense (although as political commentary it is a pretty air-brained song).

Then again, maybe she's just a 24 year old train wreck waiting to happen, although I doubt she'll go the way of Amy Winehouse, at least I hope not. Whichever, she sure doesn't have much trouble getting her name and picture in the news. She certainly is not boring.

For me, she is a welcome contrast to the "angry white chick" phase of the late 90s (personified best by Alanis Morrisette) and I find her music refreshing and fun to listen to.

We got to the Zenith really early and were able to get on the floor about 7 rows back from the stage.

A British group called Just Jack opened at 8p in front of a simple black curtain. I had never heard of them but they were actually quite good. Here is their last song (not my video):

After a wait, it was time for Lily. The black curtain rose to expose a stage set reminiscent of a cabaret show. The middle of the stage was lighted steps with the drummer on the upper left, keyboard on the upper right, bass lower left, and lead guitar lower right with a simple microphone middle front and three large video screens in the back.

The show started with her rising up through the floor at the top of the steps. The music was a little too amped up at the start so it was hard to hear her but they seemed to get things balanced out after a few songs.

Her outfit was jaw-dropping amazing... black and white striped one-piece leotard cut down to her navel with black hose and knee-high boots combined with a nice short bob hairstyle (which soon became a little messy... she kept playing with it), heavy mascara and a black widow spider painted to the side of her left eye. Are you kidding me? Ok, maybe "amazing" isn't everyone's opinion (see these comments about her appearance), but "jaw-dropping" describes my initial reaction perfectly.

One British tabloid referred to her as a "mint humbug." I didn't know what a mint humbug was so I looked it up and couldn't stop laughing. What do you think?

She said right off that she had been nursing a sore throat and had been at the doctor all week (not a great way to kick off a tour) but, get this, she decided to smoke her way all through the concert. I also read later that the liquid in the cup attached to her microphone stand wasn't water but white wine! Now what kind of crazy performer nursing a sore throat at the beginning of a concert tour would smoke and drink during the show?

The British tabloids had a field day with her flouting the "no-smoking-in-public-places" law that went into effect in Paris this year. (See here, here, and here.) At one point she lost her lighter and someone on the front row threw her his. He wanted it back and she said she couldn't throw it because it might, like, kill him or something and then she would be liable. Cute. So she left it on the front of the stage for him to get later.

I actually think she was a little nervous. She confused the order of the songs early on (despite having the song list taped to the floor right in front of her!), announcing that she was about to sing one song before the lead guitarist corrected her. (By the way, all her musicians were men old enough to be her dad.... or boyfriend!)

She giggled a lot between songs and expressed amazement at the big screens behind her, further evidence that this concert was a step up for her. Otherwise, she was pretty casual -- lighting her cigarettes, strolling the stage, dancing a little but not in a choreographed way... she was just having fun. I liked her being unpolished.

She completed her set in about 1½ hours but came back (wearing a black and white print baby-doll top over boy shorts) with a couple songs including a darn good rendition of Britney Spears' "Womanizer."

All in all, I could've listened to her all night... it ended way too early. I love her breathy voice. I can't wait till she comes to the States.

More pics from the show at I took a lot of pics but they all came out terrible as did the videos.

Another nice blog review here (where I got the two videos).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

7 Dollars a Gallon!

Last week we took a 2 day tour to the Loire valley and then early this week we visited England. Both trips required renting a car, first for two days and then for 3.

Gas prices in France were 1.33 EUROS per litre.

At current exchange rates (1.4762 dollars to the Euro) and at 3.785 liters to a gallon, that works out to 1.33 x 1.4762 x 3.785 = $7.43/gallon.

In England, the price was 1.099 POUNDS per litre. The current exchange rate is 1.6374 dollars to a pound. This converts to $6.81/gallon.

Last year, gas prices in the US reached $4/gallon and Americans moaned (and finally started changing their transportation decisions). The price has dropped back to the mid $2 range now so it is about 1/3 the price in Europe which is about what it has always been it seems.

According to AAA Fuel Gauge Report (which lists the average price of gas every day), we are at $2.68/gallon.

You can compare prices for different countries here.

The reason for the difference in prices is almost entirely due to government policy; that is, gas taxes. The average gas tax (state plus federal) is about $.47 in the US. About 75% of the price of gas in France is tax.

No wonder they drive such little cars here!

Daylight Savings Time

In 2006, the US Congress changed Daylight Savings Time so that it begins the first Sunday in March (instead of the 4th) and ends the first Sunday in November (instead of the 4th Sunday in October).

However, most of the rest of the world (including Europe) stuck with the old schedule.

What that means is that there are 4 weeks out of the year (3 weeks in March and one week at the end of October/beginning of November) in which the normal time zone differences are off by one.

Last weekend, Daylight Savings Time ended in Europe and the clocks rolled back an hour. However, it doesn't change in the US till this weekend.

Thus, for this week only (and for 3 weeks in March) there is only a 5 hour difference between Paris and home (EST) when normally there is a 6 hour difference.

Daylight Savings Time Around the World

Beer Status

By the way, just in case anyone noticed, I gave up on my beer count quite a while ago.

To recap for those who didn't read the beginning of the blog, I had only had one beer in my life (and that was only two years ago on my daughter's 21st birthday) before coming to Paris.

I decided I no longer wanted to be a 49 year old beer virgin and posted pictures of each new beer I tried. I quit posting after beer 18 I think it was (I'm too lazy to re-read my own old posts to verify!).

But that doesn't mean I have quit drinking beer!

I probably have one pint a day of something.

I would guess I have had 35 different beers since I have been here and close to 100 beers total.

I'm kind of getting used to it. It's hard to imagine having a meal without one now.

My favorites:

Newcastle Brown Ale

Chateaux de Chaumont and d'Amboise

After leaving Blois on our way to Tours along the Loire River, we passed two other chateaux that would have been nice to visit but time did not allow.

Each chateau was on the south side of the river and we passed on the north and stopped long enough to take a picture.

Château de Chaumont

Château d'Amboise

Chateau de Blois

Chateau de Blois, located in Blois, is famous for being the residence of several French kings (Louis XII, Francois I, Henry IV, Henry V) as well as the place where Joan of Arc went in 1429 to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before departing with her army to drive the English from Orléans.

It has 3 distinct buildings:

1. The Louis XII castle purchased in 1391.
2. The Francois I wing in the 16th Century
3. The Gaston d'Orléans wing, never completed, in the 17th Century

Adjacent to, but below the Chateau, is the Church of St Nicolas, a 12th century structure on the grounds of a former Benedictine Abbey.

Back of the Gaston d'Orleans wing (large building on the left half of the image), with the Church of St Nicolas immediately to the right and the St Louis Cathedral to the far right taken from the south side of the Loire River.

Closer picture of the back of the Gaston d'Orleans wing with the Church of St Nicolas on the right taken from the south side of the Loire River.

The facade and front courtyard of the original castle purchased by Louis XII in 1391 facing east.

The inner courtyard with the Francois Wing to the right and the unfinished Gaston d'Orleans wing to the left.

Perhaps the most famous feature in the entire chateau is the spiral staircase.

The Francois wing has the most history and drama, being the residence of Francois I, Henry III, and Henry IV. It was in this building that the Duke of Guise was assassinated. Henry IV's wife, Marie de Medici, who was responsible for the construction of Luxembourg Palace and Gardens in Paris, died here.

This is the back of the Francois wing looking east over the city of Blois with the top of the St Louis Cathedral in the distance.

King's bedroom in Francois Wing with Henry IV initial in the floor tiles

Queen's bedroom in Francois Wing (yes, that's Amanda)

Gallery in Francois Wing

King Henry and Catherine's logo (H superimposed with overlapping C and reverse C)

Looking east over the city to the St Louis Cathedral

Looking south to the Church of St Nicolas and the Loire River

For more images, see this gallery of 261 high resolution pictures taken in April, 2009. (not mine)

Chartres Cathedral

The Chartres Cathedral, located in Chartres 50 miles southwest of Paris, is a massive Roman Catholic cathedral considered one of France's best examples of Gothic architecture (along with Notre Dame in Paris).

Unlike Notre Dame, however, which resides in the very heart of Paris on Ile de la Cite and is therefore not visible until you are right upon it unless seen from an elevated position, Chartres Cathedral towers above the much smaller city and can be seen for miles around across the wheat fields.

The current structure (the fourth) was built in the 12th-13th centuries (about the same time as Notre Dame) and was one of the first to include flying buttresses.

These are the dimensions:

length: 130 metres (430 ft)
width: 32 metres (100 ft) / 46 metres (150 ft)
nave: height 37 metres (120 ft); width 16.4 metres (54 ft)
Ground area: 10,875 square metres (117,060 sq ft)
Height of south-west tower: 105 metres (340 ft)
Height of north-west tower: 113 metres (370 ft)
176 stained-glass windows
rood screen: 200 statues in 41 scenes

If interested you can read more detailed facts about the history and architecture at Wikipedia.

The entrance to the church faces southwest with contrasting towers. You can climb the left tower via narrow spiral stairs.

Large rose stained glass window at the rear of the church.

Massive columns supporting the nave (Amanda is standing next to it) with another rose window in the northwest chapel.

Row of jamb statues along the south transept (see more about jamb statues at Chartres here). These statues are above small doorways (I think they must have been really short 800 years ago!) and are amazingly intricate.

Facing the front of the cathedral from the altar.

Spiral stairs in the left (west) tower.

Flying buttresses supporting the left side (northwest) of the church (taken from the left tower)

Gargoyle on the left tower

Gargoyles on the front of the two towers. The "dog" at the top center is actually on the right tower while the lower two are on the left tower.

Roof from the left (west) tower looking out over the city to the east.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


In Charlotte every fall for as long as I can remember (and I have lived in Charlotte for 22 years), the Homebuilders Association of Charlotte hosts a Home A Rama, a self-guided tour of luxury custom homes by local builders. It is a fun opportunity to see the latest features, styles, and designs in the most expensive homes.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Amanda and I visited the Loire Valley southwest of France for our own little Chateaux A Rama to see the oldest features, styles, and designs in the various "homes" of French Royalty.

Specifically, our tour included stops at:

1. Chartres Cathedral (ok, technically not a "Chateau" but still pretty impressive)
2. Château de Blois
3. Chateau de Valmer (Amanda's dad's name, so we had to check it out!)
4. Château de Chenonceau
5. Château de Chambord

Additionally, we saw Château de Chaumont and Château d'Amboise on the road along the Loire River on the way to Tours but we did not stop to visit them.

Our tour began by taking the RER B to Orly Airport south of Paris, where we picked up our rental car.

We traveled to Chartres, Blois, and Tours on the first day, spending the night at the lovely faux-chateau hotel Domaine de Beauvois in Luynes, just outside of Tours, where we also had a great dinner.

The second day, we headed back to Paris, stopping by Chenonceaux and Chambord.

The roads in France are perfectly fine, although be prepared to pay tolls on the major autoroutes (roads prefixed with "A"). Also, do not miss an exit (or take the wrong exit!) as it will likely be some time before you find another to turn around.

Finally, traffic near Paris is hell and gas is expensive ($8/gallon).

This is a map of our itinerary. Click on a placemark to see the label. I will post separately on each stop.

View Loire Valley Chateaux in a larger map