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Animated QR Code Logo

There was a public service announcement I saw on TV in France which had a QR Code permanently displayed next to the chyron. It was amusing to me because the graphic was all white, so when the video behind it was light in color, the QR Code became unintelligible. I snapped a few quick shots as examples.

QR Code on TV in France on a black background
QR Code on TV on a black background
QR Code on TV in France on a white background
QR Code on TV on a white background

The double irony is that because they inverted the colors of the QR Code, many readers can’t decode it even when the background happens to be dark! (What’s white in the codes above should be black on a white background.) I struggled to get ZXing to decode it until I manually inverted the colors in Gimp. Same with the QR Droid app. And what does it encode, you might be curious to know? A generic Facebook page URL:

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Toujours Provence

I arrived in France bookless. Which is to say I just couldn’t get into Look Homeward, Angel, a brick I’d been lugging around since Chiang Mai.

Chris, Stephanie’s Mom, checked out Les Pages Jaunes, and found a place in Cannes called The English Bookshop. Sounded promising. So one morning while Stephanie had an appointment, Chris and I went looking for a copy of 1491, I book that had recently caught my attention.

They didn’t have it—the shop was smallish, and what non-fiction they did have was confined to celebrity biographies and WWII histories (they clearly know their audience). There was a long wall of popular fiction that I didn’t have much interest in, but I did see a bookshelf of Francophile titles, and immediately Peter Mayle’s books caught my eye. I’d read A Year in Provence prior to my last trip to France and found it enjoyable. It was first published in 1989, and since then Mayle has written many more books, most drawing on his experiences in France.

He’d written two more books specifically on Provence, a trilogy of sorts, so I picked up the second, Toujours Provence, which I thought would at least tide me over until I could place an order on Le Cannet and the surrounding environs are more Côte d’Azur than Provence, but the Provençal culture permeates the entire south of France, so it seemed like an appropriate selection.

The chapters are less thematically related than A Year in Provence, each more or less a characteristic glimpse into Mayle’s experience living there. One particularly funny chapter, The English Écrevisse, described some of the interactions he had with various “fans” after his first book was published. So you can only imagine my surprise when I started reading the following:

The voice on the other end of the phone could have come all the way from Sydney, cheerful and twangy. ‘G’day. Wally Storer here, from the English Bookshop in Cannes; plenty of Poms down here and your book’s going nicely. How about coming along to sign a few copies one day during the Film Festival?’

How crazy is that, to unexpectedly find myself reading about the bookstore in the book I bought in that very bookstore!

More than 20 years later, according to the card I got with the book, it appears that Wally Storer is still running the English Bookshop. Sadly he was out the day we stopped by—the man in the shop said he was filling in for a friend.

Card from the English Bookshop in Cannes, France
Note the email address

Highbrow hawker

On our travels, I’ve gotten used to people trying to sell me all manner of things I usually don’t want: transport, massage, tickets, tours, dinner, cold drinks, cigarettes, lighters, marijuana, jewelry, Chinese fans, t-shirts, crafts, sunglasses, belts…

But I have to admit I was taken aback on my first night in Saigon when I saw women (mostly women), often in pajamas, going from restaurant to restaurant with improbably high stacks of books balanced gingerly on their hips. Books! I could hardly believe it. It was like we’d stumbled upon some alternate universe of highbrow hawkers.

Woman in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) with a stack of counterfeit books for sale

And the selection of books is not half bad either. An array of Lonely Planets, your standard travel reading fare, a few classics, and some local history options. It was only later that I discovered they’re all counterfeit! The covers are glossy and look genuine from a distance, but inside they’re photocopies. We wanted to pick one up, more as a souvenir than anything else. And maybe to read. So we got Life of Pi for $3. Sorry Yann, we owe ya $15.

A look inside a clearly photocopied copy of 'Life of Pi' purchased Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

To San Antonio and Beyond!

My parents took off from work on Monday to drive us to San Antonio so we could catch our train to New Orleans. On the way we stopped at my brother’s high school. He’s a history teacher (and the department head) at a brand new high school that one might mistake for a small college. They have a food lab, a sound studio, even a robotics lab. All the classrooms are organized into pods with glass walls looking out into a central “lounge” outfitted with armchairs and tables. It’s very cool, and my bro seems to be totally in his element.

After the tour we continued on our way to San Antonio. We didn’t have anything planned to do when we got there, so we went to the Rivercenter Mall and hung out for a bit, and then we walked along the River Walk to find a place for dinner. My parents still had the drive back to Austin ahead of them, so after dinner we said our final goodbyes in the parking garage, and then Stephanie and I walked off into the sunset.

It was around 7, and we still had 5 hours to kill before our train left, so we went back to the mall to catch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It was awesome. I would totally go see it again.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World movie poster
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World poster

Afterwards, as we were walking out of the empty mall onto a dark street with our packs strapped to our backs, I got that first inkling of what it must feel like to be a vagabond. We no longer had an apartment or a car, or my parent’s house and their car. We had finally shed all the insulating layers of comfort and familiarity. I was wondering when things would stop feeling like a vacation. Now it was just the two of us. On an unfamiliar street. With only our packs. On foot.

sunset limited and crescent amtrak posters
Amtrak posters by Michael Schwab

The one thing we did have was a plan. We were taking Amtrak’s Sunset Limited to New Orleans, a 16 hour trip that would arrive early in the afternoon the next day. After a day and a half in the Big Easy, we’d take the Amtrak Crescent all the way to DC, a 26 hour trek, arriving Friday morning. We’d spend Friday and Saturday exploring DC, before catching a train on Sunday to Philadelphia. There we’d be staying with my cousin and his family until we board the Cap Cleveland on Tuesday, September 7th.

austin bastrop san antonio new orleans dc philly train trip
Map of our route from Austin to Philadelphia

Julia’s Life in France

I was surprised to find out that Julie & Julia the movie was not solely adapted from Julie & Julia the book (which itself is based on The Julie/Julia Project the blog). The parts that were set in France of the 1950s, portrayed uncannily by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, were drawn from My Life in France, written by Julia Child (just before she passed away) with her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme.

My Life in France, by Julia Child
My Life in France, by Julia Child

I just finished reading My Life in France, and I absolutely loved it. One of my favorite books. Ranks right up there with Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I felt sad to put it down when I reached the end, and yet I couldn’t hold myself back from just plowing through it. Thankfully it was thick and meaty, weighing in at around 330 pages.

I somewhat expected it to be an abbreviated autobiography, covering only the years she lived in Paris and Marseilles, but it managed to encompass her whole life, with a lens on the most important and formative parts. The movie captures the general thrust, but the book delves further into her embrace of television (a new medium at the time), the second Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her winters spent in Provence.