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April 30, 2009

Discount card or loyalty program?

April 30. Day 304.

For months, I'd been wanting to try out Caffe Calabria, which is rumored to serve the best coffee in San Diego. They roast their own -- a great sign. I'd read about this place, then forgotten about it, remembered, forgotten.

The problem was that it closes at 3, which is usually around when I get out of the house.

Well thanks to this charming jet lag, which has turned me into an early riser if I ever saw one, I got to try it out yesterday. I had a macchiato. And it was grand. Not bitter or overroasted. Just lovely. And a satisfying foam to milk to coffee ratio.

I headed back today, and when I ordered my cappuccino a thought occurred to me: frequent buyer card!

"Do you have one?" I asked.

"No, sorry," the guy behind the counter said.

I don't remember exactly how the conversation went from there, but a few minute later, he remembered he has something slightly different: a prepaid card, where you buy 10 and get 1 free.

So I went for it. The coffee is good enough, the atmosphere is calm enough to let me work, and the location is convenient enough to ensure I'll be back many times. Plus, they have a credit card minimum -- which annoys me, but I sympathize with. Prepaying is a reasonable way to help them avoid fees.

The card isn't advertised or available for all to purchase. He took it out of a drawer behind the register and scribbled my info on it: "10 macchiatos prepaid." If I hadn't asked, I wouldn't never have become a card holding member of Calabria.

Special, I know.

Gained: $1.85, i.e. price of a macchiato!

April 29, 2009

Waive the rush fee?

April 29. Day 303.

Mr. A is off to another conference again soon, and I'm on shirt duty. A few months ago I started getting his shirts professionally laundered, since it's a small price to pay for saving his time at the ironing board. Plus, it makes me feel all girly and girlfriendy to take care of his shirts. Aww.

I found a new laundry place in our new neighborhood (since moving in January I'd been going to the old place, but it's a little inconvenient now), dropped everything off, and confirmed they'll be ready by Friday.

"The shirts, yes. The suit, and jacket, Saturday."

"Oh no! I need them by Friday! He's leaving Saturday."

"You can pay a rush fee. $1 per item."

"Really?" (Insert disappointed face here.) "Is there any way you can waive that?"

"No, that's our rush fee."

"But I mean... please? I could go to the place across the street, and it's full of dry cleaners in this neighborhood. And I'm bringing you two bags of clothes. Please? You gain a new customer and I save 15 minutes of lugging these around? Please? It's such a busy day for me, it would really make a difference."

"Well... lemme see. I need to check first."

She called her boss, no answer. Called a different number, no answer.

When she got off the phone, I waited patiently, since now the ball was in her court.

Would she or wouldn't she?

She picked up her pad and started writing something. My order!

"Come back Friday."

"Awesome!! Thank you!!!"

Gained: $3 or 15 minutes (if I had to shop around). It was only $3, but every cent counts.

April 28, 2009

Close the door to your stinky cafe?

April 28. Day 302.

I was jetlagged, still sick, and buried under deadlines. What I really wanted to do was sleep more. Instead, I crawled out and went to Lestat's for some tea and a bagel, not my usual combo, but it seemed like comfort food. I worked for a few hours, and it was going well, but there was one small problem... the smell.

Ashtrays and old cigarette butts.

I wandered around the cafe sniffing around (looking, I hoped, like a befuddled scholar taking an inspirational stroll, and not some smell obsessed maniac picking up the wafting chemicals in the air). I didn't see any emptied ashtrays (and it's no smoking inside, so I was a little perplexed), and finally I wandered to the back door and it was clear -- the smokers congregated outside, and it smelled like they hadn't emptied the trash all weekend. Somehow the smell traveled 100 feet to where I was sitting, on the other side of the building.

I sidled up to the counter.



"I was wondering, is there any way we could close the back door, or does it have to stay open for some reason?"

He looked at me a little curiously, since I had been sitting on the far side of the cafe, and then replied, "We usually leave it open."

I hesitate a few seconds before turning around. But I decided not to push it, because the smell was subtle, even if unpleasant. And people were coming and going through the open door with drinks and food. Is my convenience really worth the inconvenience of 15 smokers?

I also didn't push it because I was getting a little tired again. Needed a change of scenery. Like my bed.

So I left it at that half-assed ask and left.

Gained: nothing.

April 27, 2009

Repair this car for less?

April 27. Day 301.

As anyone following this blog for some time knows, my car has been teetering on the edge of the abyss for about a year now. For a while, the engine was shutting down randomly while I was driving, then the tachometer started jumping up and down erratically. Now it still routinely won't start. And, I'm sad to report, there have been leaks.

Poor little thing. Poor little pearly white 1995 Nissan Maxima GXE with tan interior, moon roof, moody CD player, a single hubcap left and enough dents and scratches to fill a rap album.

We go way back -- bought it in 2003 from my dad, drove from Texas to Boston, Boston to San Diego, San Diego to Boston, Boston to Seattle, Seattle to San Diego. And countless Boston-New Jersey round trips, back in the days when Mr. A and I were doing the alternating weekends long distance thing.

Oh, the memories. There was the Chapel Drive of 2007, when as maid of honor I drove my friend E (of ET and the recent Paris dinner) to her wedding, serenading her with "Goin' to the Chapel!" by the Dixie Cups.

There was the Great Deluge of 2005, when the moon roof stopped closing and it rained inside, leaving everything damp and fungal for months.

There was the Alternator Enviro-Debacle of 2004, when the faulty alternator caused me to keep the car idling for half an hour at a time, locked but with the keys in the ignition, just so I could do my Christmas shopping. Just awful.

And the Last Gas-p of 2007, when I almost ran out of gas in Montana but made it to the station thanks to a really long, smooth slope.

And then there was the Boston Massacre That Wasn't, when a police officer pulled me over at the end of a 3,000 mile road trip and towed my car, which was holding my life's possessions, leaving me alone and rideless at 3 a.m. on a deserted turnpike. For speeding. When I begged him to have mercy, he snapped I should be grateful he wasn't putting me in jail. Jail?? Jail!!!! I could have killed him, but there was no room in the trunk to stuff his body and I was not about to sacrifice my shoe collection for a mere crime of passion.

Somehow, every time I've been ready to write off my car this year -- only because a repair would be too expensive to be worth it -- for some reason it has started working again. Usually that reason has involved Mr. A, who keeps replacing parts and using his diagnostic prowess to figure out the cheapest way to fix it.

Well, in the latest round it turns out the radiator needed to be replaced, and that's not a do it yourself kind of job. The garage that confirmed Mr. A's suspicions wanted to charge $440.

Normally, years ago, I would have paid up. Because I used to be a trusting little lass. If someone recommended a garage, and if the car was already there for the diagnosis, that was that. It wasn't laziness, it was just ignorance. I didn't know there is a different way. The Daily Asker way.

Well, hit the accellerator and welcome to 2009.

I posted a note on Craigslist, explaining I needed a new radiator and thermostat and invited mechanics to beat the price. I also called a bunch of garages and tried to get them to lower their prices by having them beat the previous lowest price.

But when I called Thao's auto repair, I realized my efforts had been in vain.

"I can do it for $295."

"For parts and labor?"


"For thermostat, radiator and new coolant?"


"And what's your turnaround time?"

"A couple of hours."

Now, I don't need to ask just to ask. Because I recognize there's something even better than a negotiated discount. And that's a great value.

"See you tomorrow!"

Gained: $145. And gave my car a new lease on life. Again.

(Pictured: Pics from Boston to Seattle roadtrip in 2007, snapped in Upstate NY, the Badlands National Park, and a parking lot in Anytown.)

April 26, 2009


April 26. Day 300.

Woke up. Sick. Asked friend to cancel our plans. Went back to sleep.

Gained: zzz.

(And that wins the award for shortest Daily Asker update ever!!)

April 25, 2009

Sell me your $1200 camera for $250?

April 25. Day 299.

I fell asleep around 3, 4 -- not sure anymore. Woke up at 7.


Tossed and turned a bit, willing sleep to come back. Then, I remembered an article I read yesterday: Police auction at a local convention center that's about 4 minutes from my house. Viewing at 9, bidding at 10. I jumped into Mr. A's car (since mine is now incapacitated -- again) and careened down the hill.

Parking was scarce. There was a line of people waiting to get in, snaking all around the massive lot under the blazing sun.

Inside, thousands of people crowded the display cases of designer purses and boxes of mangled car stereos, nudging, sniping, nipping and yelping for access.

I asked the auctioneer what the deal was. Are police auctions always so happening?

"No way. We usually have a quarter of this many people show up. A third, max. But we advertised on American Idol, so I guess that's why. Honestly, with this many people I would never bid. You'll find the same thing for a lot less at the mall."

Thanks for the tip, mister.

I wasn't there to buy -- just curiosity, since I've always wanted to go to an auction and this was just so convenient.

About half an hour later, he started.

"One Juicy Couture handbag! Do I have 200? 200? Do I have 250? 225? I see 250! 275? 300? 400? 450? 500? 600? 700? Do I see 700? 750? 850? Sold to the lady in black!"

0 to 850 in nine seconds flat.

Thousands cheered.

Purses were selling in seconds for their full retail price. An XBox sold for more than its price at Costco.

"I came here for a deal. No way I'm buying anything now," the woman next to me murmured.

They brought out a digital camera, a Canon Rebel, with a huge lens. I checked the price online -- around $1200, for the whole package. If I could get it for $400, it would be a total win. Anything less, a miracle.

He started the bidding at $200.

"200? 200? Do I see 225? 250?"

I waved my yellow paper.

By the time I put it down, the price had reached 500. 600. 700. 800.

Even as I lifted my arm, I knew I wouldn't get it. But like so many smaller askings, this was practice for the next one.

Gained: Experience. Also, one really cool cell phone audio recording of the auctioneer. Man can taaaaawk!!!!! Nice contrarian evidence, next time someone tells me I speak too fast. ;)

April 24, 2009

Want some cheese?

April 24. Day 298.

I had a party tonight!

Threw on some black heels and my new French rags, danced salsa, laughed a lot.

I've never viewed it this way before, but being a hostess involves tons of asking -- invite people to come, invite them to bring some wine if they're so inclined, invite them to dance, invite them to taste the runny cheeses you smuggled from France.

My favorite, by the way -- Tome à l'ancienne. It's only made in Provence, by farmers, in their kitchens. Totally unpasteurized. Totally exquisite. A gooey disk of bliss.

Gained: a Friday among friends.

(Pictured: a cheese shop in Paris, top, and shoes in the metro, bottom.)

April 23, 2009

Test results?

April 23. Day 297.

Remember how I had a scary freckle? Well, I got it removed -- and insurance covered everything. Even the copay. Bless them.

Thank you Blue Cross Blue Shield, for being a humane insurance company.

I called my doctor today to get the biopsy results...



Gained: Confirmation that I'm cancer free.

I called first thing this morning, just after the office opened. Now I have deadline upon deadline. I also have a long string of askable ideas... but those will have to wait till another day.


La Roxy

PPS: I should really just publish these posts the moment I write them. But I like to think, edit, come back and refine -- sometimes at the cost of timeliness. I think this practice is something I need to revise, as this project continues. For now, so be it. I just hope you totally haven't lost patience, oh reader...

ever thine,


April 22, 2009

Can I take your picture?

April 22. Day 296.

She was standing in the aisle by the bathrooms, stretching her legs out.


Head to toe leopard print.

Black cowboy boots.

A gigantic purse with silver buckles all over it.

Flaming red hair.

Heavy eyeliner.

A radiant smile.

This was not your ordinary granny. From the looks of her, she was around 60, 70, 80 -- hard to tell. But she carried herself like a 22 year old.

And so, I photographed her. We were flying west, and the sunlight fell on that amazing smile.

I don't think she noticed, but a few minutes later she saw me looking at her and came over, still smiling.

"Espanola?" she asked.

"No... Americana. Usted?"

"I am Swiss," she answered. "But I speak six languages. I'm a gypsy -- travel the world. It's the only thing I can do in my old age. Can't sit still anymore. Do you know how old I am?" She leaned in before I could offer a wager. "81. Can you believe it?"

She told me about her son, who lives in Hawaii, and that she bought her leopard get up in Italy. She told me about her leg, which hurts because she slipped on a ramp.

The whole time, her clear blue eyes were looking at me, into me, knowing more about me than I could have guessed.

"I have lived, I have traveled, I have seen more than you can imagine," she said. She was a prophetess, an arrangement in neon and shadow.

Before she returned to her seat, I asked if I could take her photo and she eagerly nodded.

Later in the flight, she came back to my seat and offered me an apple. No words, just that smile and an extended hand, dripping of gold rings and enthusiasm.

Gained: Two interesting pictures of an interesting lady. Here, for comparison, are the snapshots -- the jubilant expression caught unawares, and the pose.

April 21, 2009

Quick updates... plowing forward...

April 21. Day 295.

Last day in Nice.

Thoughts swirling, about Europe and the states, grad school, job hunting, writing ideas, the maelstrom of deadlines that await back home.

I bought some summery blouses, listed for 22€ and purchased for 20€. By asking. The salesman was North African. Perhaps that's why, in a weeklong string of retail French requests, he was the only one to honor my negotiation attempt. Not to stereotype, but Arab merchants aren't known as master businessmen for nothing. He wanted to make the sale. And for a small reduction, he totally scored. We both did.

Gained 1: 6€ off of what would have been 66€. Finally.








I also went to a salon, where things are soooooo much cheaper than the US of A. Like manicures, facials, leg waxing and, ahem, "other" types waxing. Full legs for the price of five coffees. "Go the extra mile" for a measly 10 euros.

None of the pretension from American salons. None of this "luxury glam" status.

I asked the girl who was applying the warm wax to my calves, "So are you getting busier now that it's almost summer?" (Standard small talk at a salon -- since in the states, especially in the climactically oppressed eastern seaboard, I've noticed that waxing is in demand more when skirt season appears.)

"No! In France girls do it year round. I do, too. How else would I keep my husband satisfied?" she asked with a naughty smile.

Hey. If the total package cost $25 or $30 in the states, I think millions of women would sign up here, too.

Beauty, there, is just a fact of life. Like filling up your tank of gas or stopping to buy bread. Of course you take time and effort to look your best. Why would anyone consider that to be a "special indulgence," worth $100???

On top of the low prices, I parlayed a discount: cut me a break and I'll give you a nice tip. At first she disagreed -- she wanted to throw in one service totally for free, with no tip!! -- but I countered that I really had to tip her.

She acquiesced, and at the end we traded email addresses. If she ever comes to California, or if I visit Nice again, we'll have coffee!

Gained: silky smoothness for a quarter of the price. And an extra 10 euros off of that.

April 20, 2009

Want me to take your picture?

April 20. Day 294.

Nice has a lovely boardwalk, which more than makes up for its narrow, grainy beach.

(I know, I'm a spoiled Californian, but of all the beaches I've seen, none come close to ours. Allow me to wax obnoxious for just one moment. Our waves. Our wide swaths of fine sand, our palm trees, our bars and restaurants, just steps away. Our piers and sand crabs. Unbeatable.

I have never been to the Caribbean, Asia, Australia or Africa -- i.e. most of the world -- so maybe something else will win, one day. But until then... Cali takes the cake.)

On this boardwalk, people roller blade and bike. And tourists take pictures.

We were strolling there at sunset, smiling at how easy life is when you're in Nice and on vacation, when I noticed something. A man, trying to photograph himself. He was alone -- one of few tourists, it seemed, traveling by themselves -- and he was trying to commemorate the moment by holding out both hands steadily and hitting "click."

But what kind of shot would he get if held the camera himself? His face would block the rest of the amazing background.

"I'll be right back," I told my mom.

"Excuse me?" I called as I approached him. He looked surprised, unsure if I was talking to him. "Would you like me to take your picture?"

His face lit up. He gave me his camera. I stepped back about 15 feet, and caught his smile, the whole boardwalk, the glistening water, the hill in the background. Then, I took one more shot, just in case.

"Thank you very much," he said.

Gained: Made someone smile.

April 19, 2009

Tell your mom and dad they're great cooks?

April 19. Day 293.

Our first night in Nice we walked by a restaurant called Gargamelle, which looks like an innkeeper's dining hall from the times of Rabelais. Cozy carpets, low burning candles, pewter chalices, hand scripted menus, the works.

That Friday we asked for a table, but the woman who greeted us replied she was closing. "It's a slow night, so we're cutting out early," she explained.

I asked if she had any ideas for where else we could go. She told us about a bunch of places in the neighborhood, and because of her generous honesty, and how cute the place looked, we resolved to come back another night.


We had a great dinner. I devoured the traditional fish soup which seemed to have a touch of cognac -- a nice twist. My mom had salad with crostini.

As we ate, I considered that I hadn't asked for anything all day and I figured this would be a chance.

Only I was low on inspiration. Under other circumstances, I might have asked her to let me visit the kitchen, or spend a morning with her prepping. But time was tight. It had to be now or never. What could I ask that would have an immediate result? What did I need or want, after such a pleasant meal?

And it occurred to me that in the kitchen, which was slightly visible from where I was sitting, I could seen an older couple barking orders at one another, wearing all black and looking very tense indeed. It takes hard work to put together a meal like this. So why not tell let them know it's appreciated?

I inquired if it's a family owned business - it was - and I asked the waitress/hostess to extend my compliments to the chefs. Her mom and dad.

Gained: expressed my appreciation for a fine meal. Not cutting edge asking or negotiation... but offering a compliment has an immeasurable value of its own.

April 18, 2009

Resolve? Self Control? What, pray tell, is that?

April 18. Day 292.

Fifteen seconds after I set foot in Nice's old port district, ready to explore Roman ruins, photograph a fish market, perhaps buy some lavender or herbes de provence as presents for people back home, or do whatever it is one does in old port districts, I spotted a landmark I won't soon forget. An homage to the lasting fraternité between France and Italia. A cultural monument whose bright and generous beacon will follow me until the day I leave this good earth.

In bold lettering, music to my eyes...

Shoe Overstock! Italian Leather! Big Sale! Small Prices!

They were spilling off the store's front steps, onto the narrow sidewalk. Shoes, thousands of shoes, in every imaginable color, from granny flats to deliciously atrocious glitter high tops straight out of an MC Hammer video.

Between those baskets and stands of shoes burrowed masses of squealing she-travelers, pawing lecherously at their latest prey and guarding their conquests with fierce hisses and growls.

I dove in.

A suede ballerina flat. Another. Oh my God, what was that? Patent black heels with a thick crisscross strap and a three inch heel? And what was this? Tan loafers with a soft square toe, just the right shape for a casual day at the office, but just the right bounce to fly to the moon? The red heels? Another beige loafer? And that green!!

I must have tried on 20 pairs. But, I assure you gentle reader, by then I was in a trance, and I lost track after about the second.

I would put one pair back, and my mom would show me three more.

"These! You have to see these!" she'd call from across the store.

I overheard someone asking the sales woman if they carried a certain model or "is this it?"

"It? We have 5,000 pairs of shoes!" she replied, revolted.

I, for one, was happy.

Too happy.

Finally, after much toil, gentle reader, I had narrowed it down to six pairs. Each were between 40 and 50€. But that was still way too much.

I approached the same sales woman and made her a suggestion:

"I'd like to buy several pairs... I have six right now, and 300€ is too much for me, but if we could work out a better price I would like to purchase a few."

"Absolutely not. These are already discounted."

"Even if I buy several pairs? I'm not asking for a lot -- maybe we could make it an even 200 for five pairs? Or whatever you think."

"No. Discount. That's our policy."

Argh... For a Daily Asker, I clearly don't have the retail thing down. Maybe, as one reader recently suggested, I should start doing a post-game analysis with every merchant who refuses to give me a discount. Learn how I could be improving my approach.

I put back three pairs. Bought three. Red ballerinas, which I've been coveting for four years, since I left France in 2005. The patent leather heels, which will look completely kick ass on a job interview. And some delicate black sandals which are both comfortable and elegant. A replacement for a few similar pairs that should, sadly, be put to rest.

Gained: No discount. Again. GRRR. Yet I'm smiling. Pretty new shoes. Weeeeee!

April 17, 2009

Welcome-to-Nice help? Real estate info?

April 17. Day 291.

Slowly creeping back up to date with these posts...


Morning: last day in Paris. One of the reasons we took this trip is because my mom has been thinking of retiring. In Europe.

Besides the obvious benefits to her -- like public health care, real coffee on every street corner, a better cost of living to lifestyle advantages ratio, a cult of worship for older ladies, and the joys of having her eldest daughter crash regularly in the spare bedroom she will surely set aside for such purposes -- the French real estate market has one thing going for it now. It's cheap.

When I lived there, back in 2004, a studio with no kitchen and NO BATH cost around $100,000. Now for even less, you can get your own toilet. I mean, my god... the extravagances of this buyer's market know no end.

So we wandered into a real estate office around Montparnasse, an area my mom really liked, and I asked a few basics: Can foreigners buy? What kind of financing options are available? Is this a good time to make a move? What kind of market stock is available now, compared to 6 months ago? And last year? And 2 years ago?

Results: She could feasibly move to France!! Now, the question remains... Paris or Nice?

Gained 1: An impromptu real estate consultation.

Evening: Around 9 p.m., we landed in Nice. And as soon as I left the plane, I realized I forgot to write down the name of the hotel I'd reserved. Brilliant.

We approached the airport's information desk.

I asked the woman if she had a list of hotels, or an internet station, or any way to refresh my memory.

She pulled out a list of hotels and let me use her phone to confirm a reservation.

Doesn't seem like a big deal, right? I mean, an information desk like a logical place to get some... information.

But the woman was totally freaked out. "Don't talk too long! You'll tie up my phone line! Please don't chat on and on."

She wasn't being snippy. Just anxious.

I assured her I'm a fast talker, and found out our hotel's name soon enough. And I found it amusing that a live person with a problem to be solved somehow fell lower on the totem poll than a phantom caller. Did she double as a 911 operator in the downtime?

Gained: basic customer service, which somehow seems like a big accomplishment in France.

So: what's your vote... should my mom retire there??? Oui ou non?

April 16, 2009

Discount on these scarves and purses?

April 16. Day 290.

In the narrow streets of La Huchette, an ancient quarter in the shadows of Notre Dame now overtaken by purveyors of kebabs, we spotted a store with cool scarves. My mom found one for herself and a few purses for her cousins, and I found a couple of scarves, too.

Time to deal.

"Hi," I started. "We're interested in buying a few things from you, but first I'm wondering, could you make us a better deal on the price?"

She smiled and said she couldn't. "It's my third day working here, and I don't think I can just offer a discount."

She was foreign and looked very sweet, a little timid too, so I felt the best approach was to be friendly and sympathetic.

"Third day? Wow!" Smile, keep smiling, nice and gentle. "But I'm just wondering, for six items -- the total is more than 70 euros, could we do 10 percent off, or maybe just round it down to 70? What do you think?"

"I don't know what my boss would say. I don't think he'd want me to change the prices."

"Oh, but I also imagine he'd be really pleased that you sold so many things in 2 minutes!"

"Oh gosh, I just don't know."

"Well, you could sell six things at once, or, perhaps, nothing. What do you think your boss would prefer?"

"I don't think he wants me to changes the prices."

"Ok! Got it! I totally understand."

"Would you still like to take them?"

They really were gorgeous. One colored like wine, the other like soil, and both as soft as sin. But at that price, after all that effort to get a deal...

I checked with my mom if she minded walking away empty handed. She was fine with it. More scarves and purses around every corner, if we were feeling really deprived.

So: "No," I replied.

I left feeling a little down. And unlike Tuesday's trench, soon forgotten, these silks were still in my thoughts as I left the store.

Gained: Nothing.

April 15, 2009

Borrow your cell phone? Borrow your boss?

April 15. Day 289.

I made plans to meet my friends E & T, hereby referred to as ET when they are together not because they are two halves of a caramel-chocolate colored extraterrestrial, but because they are out of this world adorable. The fell madly in love at the college newspaper. The Long Island vineyard wedding. The apartment in Paris. The still madly in love after two years of marriage. The plan to retire to the countryside just to spent more time together. The French countryside. Next year. At age 30.

Still don't think they're adorable? When I'm back in the states I'll post a picture, for proof.

I was supposed to meet E at a bustling dive bar called La Perle around 7:30. I got there a little late. No sign of her. I wandered around, checked the back room, waited by the bar a minute or two, then started getting worried. Normally getting somewhere 10 minutes late, especially in Paris, wouldn't be a problem, but what if we didn't cross paths? Maybe she figured I wasn't coming, or came and left, or was I at the wrong bar?

We set everything up via email, and I hadn't reconfirmed or been online all day.

I eyed a group of parisiens standing by the counter and figured that asking a trio would improve my chances; plus, groups are somehow more approachable.

"Excuse me, could you help out a poor little tourist?"

They were all ears.

"Could I buy a text message from you? I am trying to tell my friend that I'm here, and I don't have a french cell phone or a phone card."

"Of course."

"How much do I owe you, a euro? 5 euros?"

"No, come on, nothing."

Just what I was hoping to hear.


He typed the number and message for me -- "I'm here now, at La Perle. La Roxy" -- which was a smart move, since I've heard of schemes where people borrow your phone and then suck your minutes or call Santiago. This way, he had total control. And I got my message.


Later, E said I was lucky someone helped me. "They're not always very nice to visitors," she explained.

Even cooler!

T joined us for dinner at Chez Janou, a quintessential corner bistro about 10 minutes away that kept us waiting for a table long enough for us to polish off a bottle of suave rosé. E started telling me about her boss. From what she said, he sound like just the right person to talk to about asking and negotiation. Gutsy, smart, a little crazy. And very, very successful.

"Is there any chance that I could meet him? Maybe come by tomorrow and chat with him for 10 minutes, interview him for the blog or just talk with him?"

E didn't think it would be a good idea. Not yet, at least - maybe with advanced notice.

Makes sense.

Gained: a free text message and a wonderful night with two friends who are Paris in the springtime.

PS: My camera chord is still in the states, and I'm still in France. Photos coming the day I get back! Meanwhile, I've included temporary snapshots of La Perle by night, and the same dish I had for dinner at Chez Janou, magret de canard and roasted fingerlings.

April 14, 2009

Bargain hunting in the capital of God-i-wish-i-were-rich

April 14. Day 288.

All afternoon my mom and I wandered in and out of stores around St. Germain, the ultra chic knot of streets where $5 tea is un vrai bargain, book stores sell letters written by Franz Liszt and George Sand, and trench coats abound.

We had coffee on rue Vavin, my mom found some CDs of old French music she loves.

Mercilessly, I photographed stylish french girls left and right, behind me, and before me, (when they weren't looking, which makes it even more creepy) for this blog entry. And then realized I left the upload wire home. Until I return, here are some street style from the past few days, courtesy of Easy Fashion.

When I thought the day couldn't get any better, I spotted a trench coat, thick cotton, with a gorgeous lining. And affordable! A trench coat that might let me bring to California a whisper of Paris...

I tried it on, and found it charmant.

I brought it to the counter and requested a discount.

"Could I have this for 35 euros?"

"Ah no!" replied the manager or perhaps owner, mockingly revolted. "This is already a fabulous price, half off!"

"Come on!" I teased back. "I'm a student on a budget. It's not every day that I make it to France and buy a trench!"

"I wish I were a student," he replied. "Read books all day, drink coffees."

"I wish I lived in Paris and ran a cute boutique! So, the discount?"

"No, sorry. I can't possibly go any lower. We'll be here all day if you want to think about it. Tomorrow, too."

"That won't be necessary. Thanks!"

Gained: Nothing. Rather, maintained self control.

(PS: So glad I didn't go for it. Would have been a total impluse buy, and as I write this a few days later, I can't even remember exactly what it looked like.)

April 13, 2009

Airport access

April 13. Day 287.

After 9/11, traveling got to be a nightmare for everyone. And an extra 1 percent more annoying for me, because I have an "un-American" last name. Not quite like Hussein or Ahmadinejad, but unique enough that at every checkpoint, at every leg of every journey, for about one or two years after the terrorist attacks, I was selected for "random" security screenings.

We'd all be standing in line, all these wary and weary travelers, looking at one another and wondering who'd be selected. And as we approached the agents, I'd be mentally rehearsing my smile. The easy going I don't mind smile. Because if you minded, there would be problems.

"Ms. La Roxy Daily Askerinobergsonkronchville sur la montagne de kadhafiski, could you please step to the right? I have a few questions I'd like to ask you."


My eyes glistened, cheeks rosy and nermal-cute, on command. Friendly. Cooperative. All American girl.

It was properly Pavlovian.

Now a days, the madness has subsided -- I've even seen a woman persuade TSA agents to let her bring her her expensive Korean acne medicine through security, even though it was a gel. Woah!!!

Now a days, in fact, airports are total minefields when it comes to asking -- goldmines, that is. Unless you're up against an exhausted employee (or intransigent moron), people are usually as accommodating as they can be. They're even reasonable.

All that to say that on Day 1 of our journey, I asked twice and received twice.

1. My mom and I got in line to check in. We were near the back, and just as I was settling into the routine of pushing the bag and shifting my weight from one foot to the other, an airline agent approached the line.

"I need a single traveler with one bag!"

No one moved.

"No one has one bag?"

People in line looked at one another again, hesitating. Was someone in trouble?

"I can take care of you in priority check in." True, the first and business class counter was empty. Who would be the lucky traveler?

Amazingly, no one moved. So then, I thought I'd try -- "We're two people but we only have one bag. Can we both come?"

"If you both only have one bag, I guess that's fine."

Gained I: 30 minutes or so. Which don't count for much since we were in an an airport, but it beat standing in that line.

2. When I booked the tickets, I tried to get an aisle seat for my mom, but I was told the last two seats together were in the middle of the middle section. Still, why not try again? I asked the same agent who pulled us from the line, "Is it too late to ask for an aisle seat? My mom likes the extra leg room."

"We're full, but let me see what I can do." Tap tap tap. "I did find two other seats. Here you go!"

Gained II: A more comfortable ride for my mother.

April 12, 2009

Update from Sunday Night

April 12 (continued...)

Hello from Paris!!

And now.... the update I promised.

Between packing and rushing to finish the chapter I've been working on (I didn't), I realized I hadn't seen or called my grandma in a week.

I picked up the phone Sunday night and called to say bye. And as we were talking, I got an idea:

"Want to come over for dinner?"

I thought she'd say no, because it's not always easy for her to move around the city in elevators and cars and cracked sidewalks and front door steps at her 87 years. More than that, I think, she's worried about tying up my schedule.

But she said yes.

Mr. A andI made fettuchini alfredo with mushrooms and chicken, comfort food, the kind grandma might have made if she were the one cooking. And she ate as I might have, twenty years ago at her house, happily, chattily, hunger stoked by the change of scenery.

Gained: an unexpected and very pleasant dinner.

I would write more... but I'm so jetlagged. And this internet cafe stinks. Literally. No air, no fans, no windows, no circulation. Neeeed -- oxygen... gasp!!!

More tomorrow! Preview: airport tomfoolery and bargain hunting in the ritziest neighborhood of them all.

Raincheck, gentle reader?

April 12. Day 286.

Woke up. Asked.

All packed. At last.

Now, off to sleep.

Airplane tomorrow. Early.

Too tired to write.

More details from Paris.

About Sunday, and Monday, and more.


La Roxy

April 11, 2009

Want one of my sheep for three of your bricks?

April 11. Day 285.

Jem and the K-meister, her boyfriend, came over tonight with a new board game, The Settlers of Catan. Wired describes the game as a contest to "establish settlements in various locations on the board...Every settlement is worth a point, cities are two points, and the first player to earn 10 points wins." Players roll the dice and collect "resource cards," like timber or sheep, which they can use to buy settlements or cities. The article says:
Since every roll of the dice in Settlers has the potential to reap a new harvest of resource cards, unleash a flurry of negotiations, and change the balance of the board, every turn engages all the players. "The secret of Catan is that you have to bargain and sometimes whine," Teuber [the creator] says. (More of the story, here.)
Negotiation? Bargaining and whining?

Count. Me. In.

We started by reading the rule book, which took about two hours.

"What a fun game!" I joked, when the K-meister advanced to page four. "So the idea is, someone reads from the manual and everyone else takes turns asking questions?"

Ha ha ha.

But soon enough, we were off.

Placing our little cities on coal mines and timber forests. Getting plundered by the robber. Keeping track of one another's resources and making various trades to get what we needed. Trying to make it to 10 points.

I was up against two MBA students and one mathematical/probabilistic guru (Mr. A). They were up in the 8 and 9 point range, and I was trailing with 4, 5, 6. Figuring things out. Not quite confident of where to place my settlements to maximize profits. Wondering if I should build a road or save up my resources. All the while, the others were building more and more, reaping more and more.

I started playing recklessly, exchanging all my resources on one turn for two wildcards, trading a bit erratically, for fun or curiosity as much as profit, and asking for advice, indifferent if it gave away a strategy -- or my cluelessness...

"Don't do that, because she already has 9 points," the guys warned me about Jem's growing empire.

"If you give him your timber, he's going to edge ahead of the rest of us. I'll give you two sheep if you stop helping him," Jem told a few rounds later.

Occasionally someone would get a certain expression and I'd think, "This is it. Game over. He/She has the winning move." But wait -- not yet -- one more round...

I always cooperated, did whatever I could to stretch the game out. Because it was one of the most entertaining boardgames I've played in a long while.

And then, something strange happened. I won.

I don't exactly get how, but somehow, I won!

I counted my cards, tallied my little cities and settlements, and made it to 10.

Not gloating.

Just... pleasantly surprised!!!

Gained: Somehow I negotiated, bartered and asked my way to success on an imaginary island called Catan.

April 10, 2009

To clean or not to clean?

April 10. Day 284.

I decided to put off my L.A. trip until Monday, because we're flying out of LAX and the passport agency is about 15 minutes away. Makes more sense that way, I'd say.

Yes, yes, I've always cut things close. My parents are probably wagging their fingers at me as they read this, but I can't help it. I'm wired that way. And somehow, it's always worked out. Well, not always -- but net results are positive.

(Case in point: Senior year in high school, I was spending Christmas Break with a group of friends at someone's cabin. Around 4:30 p.m. December 31, my friend's mom asked us all, "So, doesn't it feel great to be all done with your college applications? Signed, sealed, delivered?"

Everyone agreed and sighed.

Me: "College applications? Oh my God, it's December 31!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Tomorrow is January 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

I'd already filled them out, but put off mailing them so I could double check everything. And then, it sort of slipped my mind. I grabbed the stacks of envelopes, ran to the car and my friend's dad hit the gas so we could make it to the post office on time. It was almost a half-hour drive away.

I got the postmark.

I went college.

The end.)

Mr. A's cousins are visiting from Montreal this weekend, so the plan was to explore the city together. He took a rare day off work and we were going to meet up for coffee, then urban frolicking.

Speaking of last minute planning, at 9, the phone woke us up. "Good morning sleepyheads! We're on our way! Ready for us to pick you up in half an hour?"

Family from abroad, coming over? NOW!?? AHHHH!

We sprang out of bed.

My immediate thought: Must clean!!!

Our house, you see, is friend clean. There's room to sit down, place your wine glass on the table, put up your feet watch a movie. If someone wants to pop over for a quick coffee, we have that covered. Coffee. Cookies. Probably a clean plate, somewhere, or if not I can always serve you on a nice sheet of newspaper. I promise it's not the same one I used last time. No, they stopped printing new dates in November 2007 as a cost cutting measure. I swear.

Come on, I am totally kidding.

The house is a welcoming destination for anyone who stops in.

But it is not parent clean.

And it is definitely not potential in-law clean.

I turned to Mr. A.

"What do we do? Do you want to clean up? It's your family, and I don't know what the expectations are. Do we even have time?"

"Let's," he agreed. "Anyway, they're probably going to be late."

Suddenly, I was on my hands and knees, reaching with a damp paper towel to such dark recesses of the living room that it almost made me blush.

I swiffered under furniture, across it, behind it. If I could have, I would have swiffered through it. I was a dustcolleting PHENOM.

He made the bed, cleared the table and wiped down the glass, and bless him, he got the bathroom sparkling.

Not bad, for 15 minutes.

"Let's not leave it to the last minute next time, okay?" he added.

Be still, my beating heart!

"I totally agree," I replied.

Gained: A clean -- er, cleaner -- house. And a reminder that I am one lucky gal in the main squeeze department.

April 09, 2009

Whole New Meaning: Please help a reader?

April 9. Day 283.

My project and this blog have just taken on a whole new meaning. I got an email yesterday from a woman who has been working for her employer for several years. She just discovered that despite a promotion and stellar reviews, she is earning less than a newly hired male intern with the same job functions. She found The Daily Asker on Google and asked for my advice.


Here I am asking for $5 off of a pair of shoes, and this woman got the kind of shock that inspired me in the first place.

Reminds me what's really at stake here.

Here's what I'm going to write back: that I'm not qualified to give legal counsel, but I'll refer her to a bunch of online resources. And that if she needs moral support or encouragement about whether to pursue this, even if it means rocking the boat, I'm happy to stand behind her and help in any way I can.

However, I would also love to put her in contact with an employment attorney or HR specialist.

So... here's my first question for the day:

If you are a lawyer who would be available to answer her questions for 10-15 minutes for free, could you please get in touch with me? I'm thedailyasker [at] gmail [dot] com. I can pass along her email, which has more details. Alternately, if you know any people who might be interested in helping -- friends who went to law school, your brother the appellate court clerk, your totally cool professor, your daughter who just passed the bar, your ex-boyfriend the Supreme Court Chief Justice -- can you please forward them this page? Put it up on Facebook? Get the word out?

This situation makes me realize the grander potential of this blog, particularly as I set the stage for Round 2 (launch: July 1, 2009!!). I'd like to add a feature where women who suspect or know of pay discrimination can get in touch with a lawyer and ask for free initial advice. (Might she have a case? Should she file an informal complaint? Stuff like that.)

This brings me to a second question: If you or anyone you know would be willing to provide occasional free consult, which could perhaps introduce you to a possible client and help someone in need, I'd love to turn this page into such a resource.

Please email me, and we can work out the details so that these queries are not intrusive to you. I can screen them, and distribute them among all particiants, so that each participating lawyer only gets a query one in a rare while.

What do you think?

Gained: Nothing yet, but hoping to help a woman correct her disturbing situation.

April 08, 2009

Shopping day in LA

April 8. Day 282.

So, I'm in LA now, since I had to get my passport renewed. I decided when I set out that I'd try to ask for something at every transaction, to stay on my toes. Here goes:

1. Passport agency in the Federal Building. I am told to return Friday to pick it up. Easy question: "Can you please have it ready later today? So I don't have to spend 4 hours driving again?"

Answer: "We're not allowed to do that." He explains that would mean prioritizing people's applications by hometown rather than departure date. My take: That still doesn't answer if you're under or over capacity; if you are not overloaded, why not help a sista?

Verdict: Drive to LA twice in three days for an errand? Cruel and Unusual Punishment. I am so renewing by mail next time, a year ahead.

2. I head to Westwood, an area near the Federal Building. The plan -- hang out until this afternoon, and drop by the passport agency again. Maybe by some miracle it's ready?

First stop, Kaitlyn, a clothing boutique. Full of name brand jeans that subsidize all the other smart-priced, stylish duds. I spot a table full of cute shades. The problem: need a second opinion. "Can you be my shopping buddy for like 30 seconds?" I ask the cashier.

She tells me the first are yuck, the second and third are so-so -- and the fourth. "Wow, that color looks great on you!"

They're a smokey gray, $6 -- I pay up and wear them out the door.

3. SKYLA, a few doors down. I see SALE and dash in. Right in the front, all leather Italian strappy sandals in a succulent grapefruit sorbet color -- $45. I ask if I can have them for $40 since they were the display pair and their last pair in my size. The cashier checks a book (of discounts? customer service guidelines?) and says she's sorry. $45 is the lowest they can go, after dropping from $110 to $55 to $45. I ask if we could skip the sales tax. She says sorry again.

I pretend to hesitate, to try to get her to budge. Then I buy them anyway. Summer's a-comin. And I clearly, obviously need those shoes.

4. Peet's coffee, where I plunk down to do some writing. As I pay, I ask the barista: "Can you please not put tons of foam on my cappuccino? I always throw it away, and it's just a waste."

He replies "Of course," and then makes me a cappuccino with mountains of foam. WTF.

5. Peet's coffee, two hours later. A girl is sitting next to me, studying anatomy or neurology or something. Pictures of brains and bodies. "Excuse me, can I ask you a question? I was wondering if you could model these for me, since I'd like to feature them on my website."


I hand her my new sunglasses, she puts them on and strikes a pose.

6. The passport pick-up window is closed when I go back, around 4. Time to head back to San Diego. Only, now there's horrible traffic. Back to Westwood. At South Street, I order a 6 inch cheesesteak for lunch/dinner and eventually they bring me a 9 incher. The woman is about to take it back to the kitchen when I ask, a bit exasperated by now, "Could I just have that? So I don't have to keep waiting?" She gives it to me. I earn about $1 of a soggy, nasty sandwich. But I actually I only eat half, wasting $3.50. Come on, Zagat. How could you give these people a sticker???

Gained: Shoes, shades and plenty o' coffee foam, all at full price. And a discounted overpriced "cheesesteak." Grrr. Still... it was a lovely day. And looks like I'll be back Friday!

April 07, 2009

Career Day: Can I teach your French class?

April 7. Day 281.

At 10 this morning I found myself on the amphitheater stage I hadn't sat on since my high school graduation.

The man who went before me talked about running a successful real estate empire and the woman after me talked about writing for Elle magazine and starting a fashion website with 100,000 subscribers in a little more than 2 years. Also present: an MTV producer, a restaurateur, an inventor.

What, exactly, was I doing at career day?

Actually, I had a lot of fun. After our intros we split up into groups to meet with the seniors. I told them about blogging, new and old media, and my occasional freelance writing. I talked about grad school and 19th century balconies. They were full of questions. One asked me about how reporters can better hold financial institutions accountable and I mangled an answer about staying proactive and trying to stay on top of sources. And then I admitted total ignorance. I cover asking and personal finance, not fiscal policy!

When I explained what my blog is about, someone asked what I asked for today.

"Nothing yet. What do you guys think I should do?"

"You should ask Madame if you could teach her French class. I have it last period."

"Perfect! I will!"

I spotted Madame Thornton-Schilling at lunch. I'd really wanted to catch up with her, since she's one of those amazing teachers who stay with you through the decades. She was so clear, so smart, that she made grammar seem like a game. And her passions were contagious -- everything from the Loire Castles to pronouns to Francophone literature to giraffes were fascinating in her classroom. She made me dream about Paris from when I was 14 until I finally set foot there, years later.

"If you're ever looking for a substitute, or want a day off, like today, count me in!" I told her.

She laughed.

"No, really! Can I come and talk to your class today? Something about balconies, or literature, or, I don't know!"

"I do have freshmen immediately after lunch. I have an idea! We could play a trick on them."

Ahh, Madame! Always up to her shenanigans.

"You go in and pretend you're my substitute for the day. Just talk at them very quickly, write some sentences using the past conditional on the board and start drilling them. We're doing the present conditional now, so they'll be confused. Then I'll come in and say 'Surprise!' "

Scaring freshmen into appreciating their teacher? Love it.

At 12:50, I barged into the classroom.

"Bonjour!" I chimed.

Some saluted me. Some kept talking.

"Attention!" I barked. "Bonjour, la classe!"

"Bonjour," they replied and faced forward, suddenly alert.

"Madame is not available today so I'll be her substitute. Now pay attention," I began, in gunfire fast French.

I walked to the board and wrote this sentence:

"Si j'etais la prof, je vous donnerais un examen." (If I was the teacher, I'd give you an exam.)

"Non!" I heard someone groan behind me.

Then I wrote, "Si j'avais ete la prof en 1998, je vous aure donne des bonbons." (If I was the teacher in 1998, I would have given you candies.)

"What tense is this?" I asked sharply, pointing to the whole sentence. "Is this correct?"

(Answer: Not correct - you misspelled aurais!)

They were shell shocked.

Basically, I was doing everything you should not do in a classroom. Scare the students. Alienate them. Yell, "Attention!" Don't introduce yourself. Be vague and confusing. Talk too fast. Then talk faster. Stand with your back to them. Mention the word "test" when their teacher is missing.

Everything was just peeeeerfect, that is. I was ready to give Madame the secret signal. She walzed back in with a huge smile, hugged me, and we explained it was une blague, a little joke!

"She's a grad student now, and has taught French in college," she explained. Some of their eyes widened.

"Madame was such an amazing teacher that she got me hooked on French for the rest of my life," I said, speaking much more slowly.

They suddenly relaxed, giggled, I hugged her again and left.

Quelle journee! What a day.

Gained: got to pay a twisted tribute of sorts to an amazing, amazing teacher.

If anyone from Career Day is reading this, I hope you'll take a look around and come back soon. Keep in touch! And remember... you have nothing to lose by asking.

April 06, 2009


April 6. Day 280.

Here are three items for your consideration.

1) Article in the Globe about retail negotiation mavericks. Lots of good strategies and inspiring anecdotes. I especially like the woman who said, "This is a ridiculous price" and got the manager to agree with her -- and take off 15 percent.

Nita, thanks for the link!

2) Graphic in the NYT about the highest paid executives in the U.S. Two remarks. Almost none of them are women. Yes, we knew that. Only 5 in the top 100, for starters. On the other hand, it looks like several of the top earning women got sizeable raises last year. I don't know if huge executive raises in this economy make a lot of sense (that's my polite way of saying, "they don't"), but looks like the women are as ruthless as the men! At least those who made it to the top. Hardy har.

3) Should women lie about their age? This Time story argues No!

I've wondered about how I'll handle that whole aging thing. Dye my hair when it goes gray, or not? Fall back a year, every ten or so birthdays? Seems petty to me. On the other hand, it's not about self esteem, but about others' esteem. If being seen as 47 hurts my chances for a job, why not make it seem like I'm 40?

So, ladies, do you avoid stating (or blatantly lie about) your age? Men, do you? On the flipside, is there an advantage for people to appear older than they are? Or does being sketchy like that come back to bite you in the butt?

Today, I asked for a break from a cop.

I was at the airport picking up a friend. He lives way north of San Diego, so I occasionally give him rides. I'd waited in the cell phone lot like a good girl, and he called to say he picked up his baggage so I zoomed over.

I pulled over at the no-waiting active-pickup area, he didn't see my car but I could see him, so I called him. That second, a cop whistled at me and motioned for me to keep driving.

Instead, I pulled up and rolled down my window.

Before she could say anything I blurted: "I swear I'm picking someone up. He's right behind me, but he couldn't see me so I just called him. He's walking over right now. Please."

"He's coming now?"

"In five seconds. I just got off the phone with him."

"Well, if you're actively picking someone up, then it's fine. But you can't wait here."

"He's almost here!"

"That's ok then."

It wasn't a question, just your average exhortation. But hey, I spoke up for myself and didn't circle back around the airport like a wimp. I'd call that a gain.

Gained: 6 minutes of driving, or who knows how much a ticket would have been if the cop was hellbent on my destruction.

April 05, 2009

Hotel discount?

April 5. Day 279.

I picked up the phone today to make the Paris hotel reservation, for the first leg of our trip.

It was a bit late to make the call -- just after 10 p.m. in France -- but the woman answered and sounded friendly.

"Hello?" she chimed.

"Hi, I'd like to reserve a room for April 14 to 17. Do you have anything available?"

"Let me see... Yes, I have two rooms."

"Are they facing the front?" This matters, because when I wake up I want to see girls in billowing scarves and Converse toting satchels of books, and guys with scragggly haircuts and skinny jeans texting one another to meet up for "un ptit cafe au ptit cafe." At night I want to hear the zydeco band that plays at the oyster bar across the street. I don't want the back courtyard, and I certainly don't want a ventilation tunnel out my window, not if I'm flying 6000 miles and running around like mad to renew my passport and --

"Yes, I have one on the third floor, just above the square."

I was about to take it. It is an ideally situated, super cheap, cute and clean hotel in Paris. A miracle, that is. I couldn't believe they had something available on such short notice. In April.

But I stopped myself.

"And what is the price?" I asked, calmly.

"49 euros."

"I see. Could we do 44?"


"That's okay." I gave her my name and told her what time I'm arriving. Then we started chatting about my trip -- how I'm passing through, what a great neighborhood she's in.

And then I asked again.

"Could we say 45?"

"Ok," she laughed. "45."


Gained: 12 euros.

April 04, 2009

Edit my chapter?

April 4. Day 278.

I've gotten to the point in this chapter where I've started at the sentences for so long I don't recognize them anymore. I am lodged so deeply inside every word that I can't even follow the syntax. I said that? Really?? Why?? Do I really need that "that" there? What does "because of" versus "due to" do for my argument? What does "mean" mean?

Some might call it paralysis by analysis. I just all it exhaustion.

I was actually quite excited about this chapter when I started working on it. It gives an overview about how balconies were used in literature before the 19th century, as background for the rest of the dissertation. Think the Decameron, Romeo and Juliet, Moliere's L'Ecole des Femmes, and a few more works. I have cogent arguments for every section, but it's been hard to bring everything together so that every smaller argument works in the service of a larger original one.

And I'm tired. I've been working on it since February. I've even been dreaming about it.

Well... Basta.

I need some distance. Clarity. A break.

That's when an editor comes in. Since starting grad school, I've asked a few friends to look over my writing. These generous human beings have dotted my i's and given feedback on fine tuning as well as the big picture.

This is what I requested today, from Mr. A. It wasn't a hard thing to ask for, but it was extremely valuable. Since he's written a dissertation, he knows what kind of rigor is required. And since he's not in my field (quite the opposite), his questions help me write much more clearly.

"Read it quickly, for the big picture, and tell me if it makes sense and if it's interesting. If the arguments hold together. Don't worry about the footnotes, formatting, all that. I'll do all that later. Just, if I'm moving too fast in any sections, if I'm lagging or repeating myself, tell me. And if it's disorganized or an argument is a stretch, tell me... Basically, does the skeleton hold together? Thank you!!!"

Hours later, he had comments, comments and more comments -- which I used to make a major breakthrough on one of my sections.

Gained: A crucial first edit. One step closer to turning it in!!

April 03, 2009

Hello. My name is La Roxy, and I'm an addict.

April 3. Day 277.

I spent the better part of today driving from post office to post office, on the phone with the federal passport agency and its idiotic robots, and rushing back and forth twice to "A-Official Passports," an expediting service located near the U.S. naval base on Point Loma.

Stop 0: The passport photo place conveniently located two blocks from my house. I even put on make up and smiled. Only because when I took my last photo, in 1999, I was running a fever and looked the part. For 10 years, people who saw my passport were kind enough to comment, "God, you looked so awful!" Thanks, dears.

Stop 1: Hillcrest Post Office. Run in, ask if they accept passport applications. No. Mission Valley Post Office does.

Stop 1: Mission Valley Post Office. Line 1, Line 2. Clock ticking. Time's a-running out. Finally, a gentleman with a santa clause beard and a veeeeeery relaxed demeanor (good for you! yipee. just don't be relaxed on my shift. deal?) tells me that if I apply for a passport, I probably wouldn't get it by the 13th. Some private companies can do it faster, for a fee.

Stop 3. "A-Official Passports." The lady informs me that she can get it back within 10 days, for the government fee plus $70 plus $40 for FedEx fee. "Is this negotiable?" I ask flat out. "No."

Stop 4. Home. I decide to call the passport agency in L.A, to see if they can fit me in. After about an hour on hold, they give me an appointment next week. But next week?? That's three days before I leave!! Cue the fear and trepidation.

Stop 5. Back to "A-Official Passports." I've just done the math, and driving 4 hours (round trip) plus $25 for gas plus who knows how much on parking ($2 meter? $30 garage?) isn't much better than spending $110 extra to get it done in San Diego, and work that whole day. Plus, what if the federal passport agency in LA is inefficient? I'm about to give her a check when we confirm the date I'll get it back.

"Seven to ten business days, so that would be April 14 at the earliest."

"Business days! Noooo! I'm leaving the 13th!" I wail. "Is there any other option?"

"We do have a courier service. That would get it back within 5 to 7 days. Still cutting it close. That would raise it to almost $200 above the base rate."

"Oh my god," I moan. I am not acting. I am not angling for sympathy. This is bad. I don't have money for last minute passport renewals! Not when --

In case you're wondering what this is all about. Yes. I'm crazy. A certified travel addict. But I'm going to Europe for a week.

My passport expires on May 9, and I'm about to leave the country for a week. In slightly more than a week.

Holy, as they say, crapola.

I'm not usually such a globetrotter, but things have just conspired strangely, wonderfully, this year. La Divina's visit, which prompted Hawaii. Then Mr. A's last minute and totally wild suggestion that I meet him in Athens. Now this. My mom, my exhausted mommy, is craving a vacay. And just when we were planning a staycation, complete with a visit to the San Diego zoo and a drive up the coast to see some friends in L.A., she got an email. From AirFrance. $270 LAX to Nice, with a $10 stopover in Paris. Frankly, it's not the wisest of moves, for either of us, but here's what she told me: "If I don't travel now, when will I?"

You know what I say?

Vive la joie de vivre!

But first, back to reality. Will my new passport actually cost $300???

"Please," I beg. "Is there anything you can do? I bought this ticket two hours ago and thought the post office does rush renewals, but they don't. Can you take anything off this price?"

"Don't do it here!" she says, suddenly girlfriendy. "Go to L.A. Same day service."


"Yes. You cut out all the extra fees. They're great."

"Really? I thought maybe it takes a while."

"No! It's the best option out there. As long as you can get to L.A."

"Of course I can!! You are so kind to tell me this. I will remember your honesty and pay it forward."

She smiles, and I'm outta there.

Gained: Nothing, of course. How can I be building net worth when I'm always traveling and letting things expire? At least I figured out how to do the least damage possible to my wallet for this impulsive European adventure. Estimated costs: $70 regular passport fee. $60 rush fee. Gas
for 200 miles times 30 mpg @ $2.20 per gallon is around $25. Lost time -- well, I just won't let myself lose it, dammit.

Reflections, post-game.

1) Yay, private sector. I have never encountered a worse phone menu than the federal passport agency's.

2. Yay, public sector. I'm impressed they do same-day passports. I looked online and the LA agency has great reviews from average josephines in a hurry, just like me!

3) I solemnly swear I will never let my passport expire again.

April 02, 2009

Is this wine or grape juice?

April 2. Day 276.

Splash, a new high-concept wine bar that's a quick drive from my house, is just the place for flitters.

You know, those women with interesting handbags who flit and flutter about from Amarone to Cali Cab to Riesling -- sometimes in the same night -- causing scandal and devastation in their wake. Those willowy men in v-necks who can't decide if they're a red or white kick, and so keep switching.

Because at Splash, the idea is that less is more. Rather than selling just wine by the glass or bottle, clients can fill up prepaid cards and then deduct "splashes" from these nifty dispensers. A few ounces of this syrah? 80 cents. A few gulps of that barolo? $6. When you pay by the drop, the wine goes down a lot easier and a lot faster. Because don't we know it: it's a lot more fun than committing to a single glass.

I met a friend there who knows about wines -- so much, in fact, that she writes a column for the local paper and just reviewed this place. (Here's her story!)

Over the course of the night, I sampled a few great ones, a few that were more pucker than pout, and one total dud: A 2006 Alcove, by Vignobles Dornier (Clos les Vins D'Amour). A sweet grenache that should be paired with chocolate, the label said.

The wines of love? I should have been immediately suspicious. But the description sounded yummy, so I gave it a try. First thought: Manishevitz? Second thought: Are you kidding? $5 for a sip of grape juice?

Goaded by my fellow flitter, I went up to the bar and asked if it was supposed to taste like that.

The bartender sniffed at it. Then he brought the glass to his lips, looking curious but doubtful about my claim -- and potential viral loads.

"I'm not sick," I offered. Instead, he took the glass to the kitchen, conferred with the manager, and returned to say that's how it's supposed to taste. She came out right behind him.

"It's a dessert wine," she explained. "It's meant to be that sweet." And then, to the bartender: "Give her another splash." I had my card ready in hand -- money back. Excellent. But he was busy with other customers, and moments later she guided me back to the wines.

"If you want a grenache, I recommend this Blabidiblah, or over here we have a similar Yakitiyak. But less sweet. Have fun!"

And she was off.

And my refund?

Tackle that later. For now, I refilled my glass.

Mmm, this one is nice.

Ahh, what about trying that one again?

Meanwhile, our food came out, a mediterranean pizza, I settled back into a flowery Greco di Tufo and forgot all about that nasty wine.

Gained: Well, I didn't get a refund, but on the other hand, that's part of the bargain. The place would never survive if it had a "money back guarantee," since the whole idea is to try new things.

April 01, 2009

Free tea, for no good reason?

April 1. Day 275.

Tonight, I asked for something just to see if I could get away with it.

After dinner, Mr. A and I went for a neighborhood walk looking for dessert (again). We stopped in one pastry shop, Eclipse Chocolat, where I had a great cupcake a few days ago. But this time the guy behind the counter was extremely disorganized. It took him 10 minutes just to take the order of the people before us, explaining everything, getting confused, making small talk. Then, he started making their drinks and he told us it would be "a second."

About 29 of those later, we hit the door.

The next stop was Pomegranate, a (Russian) Georgian restaurant with awesome atmosphere. An old piano covered in trinkets and candlesticks. Feisty menu, big wood tables. In thick crayons and markers, people have written greetings all the way up the walls, onto the ceiling, even into the skylight opening. Messages ranging from "A vodka a day keeps everyone away" to "Make love, not good grades" to "She said yes here in 1999. In 2003 we are still married and your food is even more delicious, just like our love" to "assez bon mais beaucoup trop cher" (pretty good, but way overpriced).

The waiter warned us that they only accept cash or personal checks, a management decision which, I suppose, tries to instill a sketchy 1991 post-communist feel to the place. Abundant portions. No credit.

We ordered two pieces of tort, which were unlike anything I've had in the U.S. so far, and as we ate, Mr. A showed me his pictures from Korea.

Meanwhile, I was getting ansy. I hadn't asked for anything and lately I've felt like I've lowered the bar by shooting for things I would have attempted even before this project. I mean, health insurance info? Hardly gutsy.

"Do you think I could ask for a free cup of tea? Say we only have cash?"

"You could try," Mr. A said.

"Do you think I'd get it? I don't just want to ask, I want to actually get something."

"If he's an authentic Russian, he'll say no. If he's Americanized, he'll say yes." Mr. A hails from that part of the world, so he's not being prejudiced. It's accurate if you're dissing your own peeps, I'm told.

As we ate, the waiter wandered over and asked where Mr. A is from, having heard his accent. We made him guess, and finally he gave up. I told him. (I can't tell you, alas, since I'm doing my best to keep him anonymous on this blog). Then, before he walked away, I asked:

"Is there any chance we could get half a cup, or a cup of tea? Because we're low on cash but it would be really nice with these cakes."

"I can do that. I will be right back."

"Spacebo!" I called as he walked away.

He yelled something back. You're welcome, probably. I felt welcome. What a great place!

I was beaming. Mr. A looked skeptical.

"You didn't seal the deal," he explained.

Actually, he was right... I was timid, and vague. Half a cup? I merely assumed he'd understand I was asking for it for free. I never said the words "on the house" or "complementary."

A few minutes later, he returned with two cups.

"One is on the house," he said, smiling.

Fair enough.

Gained: $4 cup of free tea, and $4 spent on tea. Net: $0. Or, through some more appealing accounting methods, we could say: Paid $4 for the tea I asked for, and Mr. A got a free cup, i.e. 2 for 1. Net gain: $4. What do you say -- should this count on my tally as a $4 gain, or not?

By the way, I'm feeling roused. Enough of this blogging-about-what-you'd-ask-for-anyway. Time to shake things up.

I have just the idea for tomorrow!


La Roxy