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May 31, 2006

Moving to Paris

The reason I moved to Paris was because my girlfriend was offered a job there, and we just went. We thought we were fairly prepared for it, she spoke fluent french, we didn't need work permits, and the removal people were happy to look after all our stuff until we found somewhere to live.

Once we had arrived though, we realised that there were plenty of things we hadn't got a clue about. That isn't to say we were all adrift and way out of our depth, but there were quite a few things that we hadn't really done our homework on.

The first was deciding where to live. We had no idea which was the bad end of town, and which areas where out of our league. Her job was at La Defense, and it seemed a sensible start to find an apartment locally - we had already wandered around the area and not got mugged, so it seemed a reasonable thing to do. We could always move later.

Here were the first signs that we didn't know what we were doing. Firstly, La Defense isn't in Paris - it would take another six months before realising we were banlieu, subspecies to the Parisiens. Secondly, at each apartment we looked at, the landlord or agent would ask for our dossier. We'd look back blankly, wondering how important a dossier could be. Again, it would be a long time before we realised that renting an apartment was impossible without a good dossier, or over-crammed folder full of bank details, references and various irrelevant documents (I've known one landlord to demand from an american friend photocopied proof of not just theirs, and their parents addresses, but also their grandparents!). Somehow we hit a lucky break, and met a landlord who rented us the apartment purely on trust. Apparently a near impossible find we now know.

The next difficulties was the dreaded residence permit (the carte du sejour). There are countless pages out there on the internet describing endless back and forth trudging to get multiple forms and documents, copied and translated in triplicate, misinformation and rules made up as they go along. By this time we fortunately had an internet connection, and was able to get some information, but a lot of it contradicted itself, and the only tactic was to take every document you've ever kept in your entire life, from birth certificate to under 12's bronze swimming award. Each time we returned to the prefecture to hand in more documents, it was a desperate trip to Nanterre (remember we were banlieu, so no Parisien prefecture for us). No matter what the weather was at home, it always rains in Nanterre!

Why am I talking about all this? Mainly so I can recommend this book; Living & Working in Paris. I found it in WH Smiths on rue du Rivoli a few years ago, and it was perfect (so perfect that I lent it to someone and never got it back!). Unfortunately the author hasn't updated it since 2001, but it probably is still fairly relevant (he does have a new book called Going to Live in France, but I've not read it).

The book covers the arrondissement of Paris, with a guide to property and rental prices. We would have known about the magic dossier, and would also have been prepared for the exaperating rudeness of estate agents (I'm still waiting for a few calls to be returned).
Emplyoment issues are explained, with CDI, CDD, period d'essai all covered (that's full time, part time contract, and probation period to all us non-frenchies). Tax is dealt is fairly understandable terms, although it usually boiled down to 'pay lots'.
The residence permit is covered, although I've heard it's going to be dropped soon (I'll believe it when I see it! At the very least it'll be replaced with something even more hideous).

And finally, there's a wealth of knowledge on french etiquette (very important, since they invented the word. Although they also invented the words bureaucracy and surrender!). My favourite was something we had already discovered by ourselves, and that if you're invited to a meal with some french people, take flowers not wine. To take wine will insult the host by saying that they have no taste in wine (while having no taste in flowers only insults the wife's taste in flowers, which is not a problem).



May 26, 2006

Espresso

Back in the UK having an espresso after a restaurant meal is starting to catch on, but it's still a cosmopolitan novelty really. It wasn't until I arrived here that I really appreciated how great it was to end the meal with a few drops of strong coffee.

makineta150.jpgI bought one of the Italian aluminium Mako coffee pots the other day (as a present for someone really, but it turned out that someone else had beaten me to it!). The Mako pot is the hexagonal pot that you put directly on your stove top, and the water at the bottom pushes it's way up through the coffee into the top. It's a rather scary device, since the whole thing relies on the pressure of the steam, and on my first attempt I hadn't tightened it properly and it hissed like mad. The pressure release point is also a bit worrying, since it confirms the whole thing is really a bomb just waiting to happen. If the thing gets blocked up, then bang! Red hot pieces of metal and scalding coffee shredding your kitchen. Still, probably worth it for the coffee.

So far though, I've only managed insanely strong coffee sludge. It's getting closer, and there is a hint that this is going to be fantastic coffee when I get it right, but at the moment the practice is making me a bit, well, frazzled :-)
Being a geek I did read up on how to use it on the web, and the most interesting thing I found was about it's facist origins, where the Italian government of the day was trying to make everyone use aluminium.

The other element of the after dinner coffee is of course the little biscuit or chocolate you get with it. I've never been sure whether you have it before or after the coffee, but I suspect it doesn't really matter. I did wonder what would be the waiter's reaction if you put the chocolate into the coffee, but I've never tried this out (I had enough hassle at a help yourself restaurant, where the waiters were highly amused at my efforts to take cheese, then coffee, then apple tart, and then back to cheese! What food snobs!).

The best coffee side dish I've found though, is a little glass of chocolate goo, which was given to us at L'Imprevu just down the road from chez moi. Gorgeous!

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May 24, 2006

Pure Paris

For a while now there's been a huge amount of restoration of the facades of building in Paris. The most obvious of which is Notre Dame which is almost blindingly white now! Other buildings that are almost complete in their cleaning are the eglise St Eustache, Opéra Garnier, and the Galeries du Grand Palais has not just the stonework, but also the glass and steel latticework completely renovated.

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My favourite is pont neuf, which is a bridge I adore. I've no idea why, but I've always felt good about it for some reason. Over the last year or so the restoration work has slowly moved from one end to the other, and you could quite clearly see the spectacular change from rough, worn away stone to a perfectly polished white. This is the oldest bridge in Paris, and seeing it in such a marvelous condition is fantastic.

They've virtually finished, it, with just the final span underway. You probably can't see in this photo, but there were real stonemasons carving the faces on the side. I'd imagined that some machine would have done it these days, but apparently (and fortunately) not!

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Finally, there are two long awaited changes, but I'm not sure whether either has really happened. Firstly, the Musée de l'Orangerie at the end of the Tuileries are supposed to be open again. This was a building custom built for Monet's Water Lillies, or possibly the other way round (Monet painted the Lillies for the Orangerie), but whichever the whole point was that Monet knew the paintings would be on the walls of an oval room lit by natural light from above. Unfortunately, even though the walls were oval, somebody forgot to put windows in the ceiling.Six(?) years ago they started reconstruction work to add that naturally lit ceiling. They also decided to add a tourist shop in the basement, and unfortunately discovered an ancient wall that hadn't been on the plans. All sorts of delays were caused by that, and put the whole thing back a year (or more?). Apparently the museum is now open again, although I haven't seen this for myself yet.

tourStJacques.jpgThe second change is the Tour St Jacques, near the Place du Chatelet. Ever since I moved to France, some five years ago, it has been permanently covered by scaffolding and tarpaulins. I've never seen a workman on the tower, and it's been in a state of suspended animation for the entire time.

Well, the other day it looked like this. Maybe work has started on it at last! Or maybe the tarpaulins were just too dirty and had to be changed...

May 23, 2006

A few more loose ends

Another loose end (no more after this, promise).

A while ago I mentioned the Space Invaders of Paris, and said that my favourite was on Place du Chatelet. Well, here's a picture of it. It's my favourite since it's extremely well camoflaged, and while it's in clear view, nobody ever sees it!

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Can't see it? Well, here's a closer picture, and hopefully you can see it now :-)


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May 21, 2006

Some loose ends

Here's some pictures that relate to some earlier entries of mine, just to tie up some loose ends.

Firstly, my parents were over for the weekend, and we went to the Louvre museum. I've been a few times before (it's not my favourite museum - that would be Rodin's house, or the Orsay, both of which I think are outstanding). This time I saw something I'd not spotted before, and it's one of Arago's medallions! A completely serendipidous discovery, since the Louvre is nightmarishly maze like.

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I must apologise for the poor quality pics, but it was with my phone camera, and the light levels were rather low. Passers-by were looking at me in bemusement as I took a photograph of it, as I'm sure almost no-one notices it at all. Certainly Dan Brown didn't know it was there otherwise it most definitely would have made it into the book.
Actually, while I mention his name, Paris has undergone a hideous transformation of Da Vinci Code worship, and you can't move for seeing an advert somewhere or other. Having said that though, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Louvre's cashing in on the book/film/tshirt wasn't as overstated as you might imagine. When I heard about it on The Paris Blog, I imagined that the Louvre had finally sold out, but it turns out it's just added on to the audio headset things you can hire out, and there was no other sign of it.

pillar.jpgJust an extra word about the Louvre - this time I saw the Mesopotamia section (Syria and Babylonia and all that sort of stuff), and there was one exhibit that awed *everyone*! Again, sorry for the picture quality. This was the top of a pillar from a public forum. Originally there were forty of these pillars, each with an immense bulls head supporting the ceiling.

As I was taking this picture, several different groups of people came in, and they all exclaimed something as they saw it. Without exception, everyone was impressed the moment they saw this. Cool stuff, go and see it.

The other loose end I wanted to tie up, was getting a picture of dodgy scaffolding. I'm not saying that this is dodgy, and I seriously doubt the city officials would allow it to be unsafe, but I remember first seeing these scaffolds. They appeared to be out of the middle ages, far too much wood, and far too precarious looking!
I have to admit I try not to walk under these, but then again I also avoid the metro ventilation grills in the pavement (but they smell funny, so that's a different reason).

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Parade Solidarité Sida

Today is the Parade Solidarité Sida (solidarity against aids in developing countries). Bastille was heaving with people, and crowds were still pouring out of the metros.

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It'll be interesting to see how many people they think attended, since I've never seen so many people turn out for a march in Paris. I only really saw the start, but the parade follows 40 different live artists through the route, going from Bastille to Invalides.

May 18, 2006

Etoile

I'm probably the last person on the planet to finally get round to playing with Google Earth. At least I wasn't disappointed, although I couldn't make out my flowerboxes, so it's not that great! :-)

I brought up l'Arc de Triomphe to see if was a really messy traffic jam, but it seemed pretty clear. I actually cycled around Bastille roundabout today (almost 300 degrees of it, for some reason I decided not to use the pavement and go the wrong way). Big mistake, cobbled surface, bizarre give way road markings, cars and scooters all over the place. Never again.

Anyway, I wanted to post this image of Etoile (where the l'Arc de Triomphe is). I never knew that it actually had those red arrows on it, even though I've been up the arc plenty of times (one of the best view points of Paris I reckon). Etoile is french for star by the way...

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May 16, 2006

Parallel parking

While reading some other blogs, I recently came across a link to this flash game on parallel parking your car.

Usually when I try something like this in real life, I either need a space the size of an articulated truck, or extremely durable bumpers. However, watch the replay of the top score - not natural I tell you...

Get around for less

I recently checked some people out of one of our apartments, and they told me they were heading off to Gare Du Nord to catch the Eurostar train to London. They then told me how much their travel agent had charged for the tickets. I couldn't believe it, it was an astronomical figure!

The cheapest ticket you can get for the Eurostar train is 35 euros - that's for one way, so 70 euros round trip. There's no time constraints on the tickets, but there is a restricted number of tickets. Once they're all gone, you have to get the more expensive tickets, and the price can shoot up quite quickly.

I have bought 35 euro tickets less than two weeks before I travelled, so they're not too hard to get. However, here's something that not many people know about. The tickets allotted to the UK office and the French office are separate. If the UK people have run out of 35 euro tickets, that doesn't mean the French side has.

Who you buy the ticket off depends on what you do at the Eurostar web site. Choose to see the site in english and you'll be searching the UK set of tickets, while choosing to read the site in french searches the french tickets. There's no requirement to live in either country, and they'll post the tickets to you no matter where you live.

So, if you can't find cheap tickets don't give up and buy the next expensive, instead delete the cookies on your browser and go to the eurostar site again and select a different language (cookies are files which store information about where you've browsed - there'll be an option in your browser's preferences to delete them). Then have another search and you'll see different prices for the tickets (and I don't mean just the difference because of euros/pounds).

This is similar to something a french friend told me. He always rents cars through the UK Hertz web site instead of the french one. The prices are cheaper, you don't need a UK address, and you still pick up the car in Paris.

May 15, 2006

The villainies of Infinite monkeys

TypingMonkey.gifThere's a theory that if an infinite number of monkeys had typewriters, they'd produce the complete works of Shakespeare. That's actually a dumbed down version for us non-french speakers. The original was by a guy called Émile Borel, who said 'a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard will almost surely eventually type every book in France's Bibliothèque nationale de France'. As wikipedia points out, 'almost surely eventually' seems rather non-committal. Such is the nature of the french perhaps ;-)

Anyway, it made me think that if monkeys can do it, surely bloggers can come close too. So, after writing a few bits of code, I left my computer to churn over the weekend and see what it would come up with. Basically it looked for blog entries using words from Macbeth (my favourite Shakespeare play), and tried to reconstruct it.

It did very well, although still one or two words missing (I can't believe it couldn't find villainies, don't no-one speak no proper english no more? So I've used it here, which strictly speaking is one great big cheat!).

You can see the results here on my infinite monkeys page. I also added some niceties like a search for your blog, in the hope that people would put nice links to it on their blogs...

May 14, 2006

Suburbs around Paris

One of my favourite books is Ken Follet's 'Pillars of the Earth' As you probably know, most of Ken Follet's books are spy thrillers, but this one was about building cathedrals during the middle ages. That doesn't sound too thrilling, and in fact before he wrote the book everyone including his publisher advised him against writing it. However, it's fantastic and became one his best selling books. Certainly everyone I've lent it to or recommended it has also found it a great book too.

The book mentions at one point a cathedral in Saint Denis. The story is all about the stone masons who are pushing cathedral building to it's limits, so that they're taller and bigger than anything gone before it, and the hero of the story ends up in Saint Denis to learn how the french are doing it (who at the time were better than anyone else).

Saint Denis is now swallowed up as part of the suburbs around Paris (not really Paris, but what's called the banlieu - Paris is really only the city within the motorway which surrounds it, called the peripherique). Recently I went there with a friend to see the cathedral, inspired to go pretty much just from the Pillars of the Earth book (eat your heart out Dan Brown).

The architecture didn't quite live up to expectations, but that's only because I was probably expecting too much. After you've seen Notre Dame or St Eustache, everything else seems fairly small, and so I shouldn't have got my hopes up about a vaulted roof from a church that was a forerunner of the others. However, what was fantastic was that this cathedral is the final resting place of most of France's kings and queens!


This was completely unexpected - I had no idea that they would be there. Most of the statues or monuments to them are really grand. One even has the king and queen rolling around, naked in bed. Make sure you also go down into the crypts, since there you'll find a crystal urn containing the preserved heart of King Louis XVII, who died as a boy during the revolution (apparently DNA tests have confirmed it was his).

It's well worth the visit. It's very easy to get to by RER, although don't expect to do much else there. It's fairly grey and drab, like many of the other areas of the banlieu I've been too (I used to have to go to Nanterre for my carte du sejour, since I lived just outside the peripherique near La Defense, and somehow it always rained there - even if it was beautiful skies before getting on the RER to go there!). Don't take me too much at face value there though, as I haven't seen a great deal of the banlieu. One area that is supposed to be gorgeous is Sceaux, but I haven't quite made it that far yet.

May 13, 2006

This is a very old city

Alisonsbirthday.jpgLast night was Alison's birthday, so we all went out for excessive drinking and eating (ending up at Dôme du Marais - apologies to everyone there!). The picture to the right was from Chez Richard, were Alison's receiving a cuban happy birthday song.

Just before I called round to pick her up, I was stopped by the police on rue des Francs Bourgeois because the cornicing of a building had just collapsed onto the road (just round the corner from Cafe Hugo). Amazingly no one had been hurt (this was told to us by a policeman who seemed immensely pleased with himself - I suspect he had been the centre of attention for quite a while). This is incredibly lucky, since Francs Bourgeois is a really really busy street, mostly tourists.

I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, but glad it doesn't. Often you see people working on the roofs of Paris with a strange scaffolding structure sticking out from the wall (in other words, not the usual metal structure starting from the ground). Often these are made of wood, with planks criss-crossing at random. I'll try and find a picture sometime, but they always seemed a bit shaky to me!

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May 12, 2006

Paris City Guide

This posting is a bit of an experiment. My new city guide sites have been having a little trouble with their DNS entries, but I think it's all cleared up now (-ish, the Venice guide, and the Los Angeles guide are still having problems. Actually, I never realised how fantastic the word ish is until I found out there isn't an equivalent in french. How do they get by?!!?).

Sooo, this experiment is to plaster a whole bunch of links to those sites, make sure this posting has a bunch of relevant categories, and then see what happens. The blog should ping a bunch of RSS feeds, which will list the sites, and then hopefully we'll see if search engine spiders find the sites. Here's the links;

Paris tourist information
City guide to Rome, Italy
Information and city guide to Venice, Italy
Tourist sites, New York, USA
Hotels, restaurants, and tourist information for London
Visitor's guide to Madrid, Spain
Tourism guide to the city of Los Angeles, USA

I doubt I'll see many real people come by, since quite clearly this posting isn't that inducive to readers, but feel free to have a look. The sites are mostly in the construction phase still though, do don't expect much. Of all of them, the Paris city guide is probably the furthest along (unsurprisingly).

May 11, 2006

Niche Humour

My elevator was recently serviced, which is quite a relief as for the last year there's been a sign saying 'Last service by M. Lagrange'. For an entire year I've been running the risk of hitting a point of stability between the ground and 4th floor, destined to float between the two forever....

Of course, most of you won't have a clue what I'm talking about. It's a physics joke, that only physicists will get. Like this one;

There was a dairy farmer who, in a fit of desperation over the fact that his cows won't give enough milk, consults a theoretical physicist about the problem. The physicist listens to him, asks a few questions, and then says he'll take the assignment. A few weeks later, he calls up the farmer, and says "I've got the answer." They arrange for him to give a presentation of his solution to the milk shortage.

When the day for the presentation arrives, he begins his talk by saying, "First, we assume a spherical cow..."


I've told this to plenty of non-physicists, and most (if not all) just stared at me blankly. When I told it to some physics friends (or synchronously correlated associates as we call them), they all thought it was hilarious!

A friend of mine (a computer spod, rather than a physics nerd) reckoned that there's niche jokes for every career or hobby going, whether it's physics, accounting, or tinpot dictator. Each will have some jokes that only they get, and everyone else will give blank stares to. Well, maybe, perhaps everyone still laughs for the dictator jokes.


For those into tiny details, the lift was serviced by a M. Fils.

May 10, 2006

Weekend in the Loire Valley

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May in France is packed with public holidays, although since they're on fixed dates they tend to cycle through the days of the week. For the last two years we've unfortunately had them all land on weekend days, and unless you've a really kind employer, the only benefits you get is closed shops!

Finally they're all back on weekdays, and we've had all our jours fériés when they're most needed - work days! By the way, the difference between a Fêtes and Fériés is that the Fériés are religous days off like easter, while Fétes are national days like the féte Nationale (14th of July, or Bastille day as everyone except the french call it).

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So, this monday was a holiday, and as a long weekend break we stayed at a friends place in the Loire region, and did all the usual stuff of taste wine and gawp at chateaux. They have a beautiful house in Chouzé sur Loire, which is right on the banks of the river. Everywhere you look are dates carved into the stonework marking the levels of various floods. Some of the dates go back more than a hundred years. All the property in this region is absolutely gorgeous, although if you want to move here you'll have to be quick as the English are already snapping everything up .

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Of course, as any good weekend break should, it rained a fair bit. Somehow we were lucky and were happily installed in a cafe or bar during each downpour, and even managed a decent bike ride in blistering sunshine one morning. However, it did get bad at parts, and our first view of the Ussé chateaux was confined to the car!

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We did get back there the next day, and it's worth the visit, just as all the chateaux are. The Loire is absolutely packed with them! Although we didn't see it on this visit, our favourite is Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, which is incredibly grand, although the Ussé below is the one that inspired Charles Perrault to write 'Sleeping Beauty'.

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May 5, 2006

Quickie

Just a quickie entry this morning as I'm in danger of letting this blog stagnate.

First a cute picture. Yesterday I was on rue Montorgueil, and there was a big fuss around some fire trucks (my friend Alison's favourite word is 'pompier', no idea why!). They were moving the ladder up and down aimlessly, and there was no smoke or anything dangerous happening.

Last year we saw them doing at the same spot taking children up and down the ladder, just as a community thing, so it could be the same event again.

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May 3, 2006

Book review

A friend recently gave me a book to review, saying that if I reviewed it I'd get to keep it. The book was all about how to make money from websites, and he figured I'd know what I'd be talking about.

To be honest, the subject has interested me, since to keep your website on top of the search engine listings you have to keep abreast of the latest changes, and usually this means reading various blogs and forums. Quite often you come across people who are making a living purely from having a website. This isn't from selling things through websites, but actually the adverts on the pages themselves. I've always been skeptical, and even after reading this book I still am.

Nevertheless, I should at least try and test out what I've read in the book (actually, this isn't a lot, the book is mostly a rehash of the google adsense help pages - which incidentally is the first lesson. You don't need to write new content, there's a whole load out there free to use). So, here's the grand announcement of my cobbled content, advert overladen website;

Paris - Show City Info! A guide for tourists planning a trip to Paris.

A rather clumsy title I admit. The first difficulty was getting a domain name. Everything is taken already! And not by legitimate sites either. I piled through a whole ton of ideas, using thesauruses (thesauri?) and keyword generators trying to get a decent name. When you check out where the URL leads, it invariably was a domain speculator, which really sucked since without them everyone would have really cool URL's... Actually someone swiped tripseurope.eu before we could get it ourselves (admittedly we were a bit lazy, but they took it within hours of the .eu domains being released to general public). Annoying as that was, it kinda means we're good enough to *be* swiped, so there's a compliment in there somewhere.

Anyway. With luck I'll be raking in 10's of dollars every year with my new site. Maybe this will be the start of a whole new career (how many's that now? At least five...). At the moment the site's still under construction, so I've done absolutely no SEO work on it. Googlebots have still somehow found it, but no visitors. It'll be interesting to see if this blog entry will cause any.

May 2, 2006

Summer in Paris

Finally it's sunny again! It seems to have be cold, cold, cold for ages, but now it looks like it's finally warming up.

Proof of the pudding is my 'garden'. It's suddenly burst forth this last week;

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The flower boxes aren't actually that funny bulging shape, it's just the photo stiching software having trouble.