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September 29, 2006

Go easy on the brownies

While standing in a supermarket queue that was also standing still, I found myself looking at the ready made cakes on a shelf near by. There was a packet of brownies that looked like this;


'à Partager', written down there on the right, means 'for sharing'. I looked at all the other cakes to see if there were explicit instructions that they must be shared too. Apparently not, only brownies must be shared.

And that's why the french are so thin.

And I'm not.

September 29, 2006

My commute

On the way to the office this morning I ended up stuck behind a police car that was trying to get through the traffic. We ended up leapfrogging each other across half the city, since even though they had their lights flashing and jumped all the traffic lights, the traffic still blocked their way most of the time. Not intentionally, but the streets are narrow and that's just the way it goes.

Of course I had to stop at all the red lights though, although I don't think they would have cared if I hadn't. At one point I stopped at some lights, and they moved cautiously across the junction, lights a'flashing. The cars coming the other way of course stopped to let them through, and a cyclist, coming the wrong way down a one way street had to stop and gave the police car the dirtiest look ever. A look of exasperation mixed with disgust at the rudeness of the police car. The sound of the tutting could almost be heard over the traffic.

We went further up rue des Francs Bourgeois (great name for a street), and the police car became blocked again by some more traffic. One car decided the best way to get out of the way was to reverse park into a tiny little space. The police car actually had to back up a bit as the car made a few repeated attempts to get into the space.

It was funny that we took the same route all the way down to Bastille, but opposite our office is a big police station, so I guess they were just late for their cigarette break.

September 25, 2006

Living the dark ages

Friday afternoon the electricity to my apartment was cut off. Everything stopped, no lights, no hot water, no TV! On calling the electricity company (EDF) we were told that I'd never opened a new account with them for the new apartment. I had actually called them just before I moved and informed them of the new apartment, but they'd decided that all I wanted was the bill for the old place sent to the new address. Perhaps they'd assumed I'd signed up with another electricity company - oh, wait, EDF are a government monopoly, so maybe they assumed I was going to erect my own windfarm or something.

After quickly explaining the mistake, they said they'd send someone round to reconnect me. The quickest they could do was Tuesday afternoon! 4 days without electricity! When we asked if that was the absolute quickest, they said they couldn't tell us, since the people who manned the phones at the weekend didn't have access to the roster of engineers (who only do visits Monday to Friday). We were told to call back Monday at 8am and ask again. This we did, only to be told the engineers left at 7:30 and there was no changing things.

As appalling as all this sounds, it was actually worse - when I say 'we quickly explained', it was nothing of the sort really. It was about 5 phone calls, 3 of which the phone operators hung up on us. Raise your voice even slightly, and they hang up. Redial and start again.

Shockingly this is not an isolated case. Neuf telecom messed up and disconnected my internet - It took me a month to get reconnected with the cost of calls at 35c/minute and a typical 20 minute wait to reach an operator - that month I ran up a phone bill of 200€ purely on support calls and dial connections to the internet. We were once in a post office and they'd lost yet another parcel from the UK, and as we complained to the person behind the till, they just walked away and didn't come back. With a plumbing problem (toilet wouldn't flush), it took daily calls, followed by daily calls *and* faxes to the landlord to get a plumber out - the landlord is an estate agency, so I'm talking about just a lazy slum landlord, but a proper french company. If we had called one ourselves, we would have had to pay. The agency took several weeks just to get a plumber to give a quote, and then another week to fix it. All during this period the toilet was unflushable, if you can imagine that.

September 20, 2006


It seems my blogging pace has reduced to a crawl :-(

Life is still just boulot-vino-dodo (there never was a métro - I could say vélo I suppose), although I've cut out the vino part since it was getting a bit much, so now it's just boulot-dodo, which is a bit too short to be a snappy phrase and is definitely too few things to bounce between and not feel completely dizzy. So, not much variety of life going on, which means not much blogging...

In fact the most exciting thing that's happened is that I've discovered sage tea. How exciting - should increase my party invites tenfold ;-)

It's true though, I was feeling somewhat under the weather and feeling hot and sweaty for no real reason and generally not getting things together properly. I did a little research and found that sage tea was a pretty good for a lot of things, and so popped down to the market by Bastille to pick up some. By the way, as a digression, the market by Bastille is fantastic - Thursday to Sunday (I think), and it covers the huge central area of Boulevard Richard Lenoir. Tons of great stalls, all with wonderfully fresh food.

The day I started drinking the tea, everything got better. Admittedly there were a few other factors, such as stopping the vino and coffee, and the horrendous humid heat cleared (hoorah for heavy handed halliteration!), but I definitely perked up. If it's psychosomatic then I don't care, in fact bring it on (where can I buy some placebo pills, I've heard they're good...). It doesn't taste too bad either, although I've always enjoyed herbal teas, and it's similar to nettle tea which used to be one of my favourites.

Oh, and the other thing was my birthday slipped by quietly. When friends asked how old I was, I thought it was 38, but Alison quickly worked out I was 37 (I don't mention names here much, but Alison insists! Alison Alison Alison Alison - that should do for a few months). She was right of course, and somewhere in the fog of time I'd lost count of my years. This was somewhat depressing since it means that being 37 is now going to drag on another year, and 36 seems a wonderfully young age that was only a few days ago but I never knew it. Like being told you've woken from a coma and it's twenty years later, except it was only a year, and I was awake the whole time, so not much like a coma I guess...

So that's it. Back to boulot, and watch the clock waiting for dodo.

September 12, 2006

I'll eat it if you will

The other day I very nearly ordered steak tartare! I was so close - I looked at the menu and it was suddenly really tempting. Then someone else at the table said 'oh, perhaps I should try the steak tartare', and all of a sudden it was looking like 'I steak tartare, you steak tartare, we all steak tartare!!!'.

Except we didn't. I ordered the pave steak and they went for a pasta dish, and we felt very ordinary indeed. What a missed opportunity. It could take ages for the stars and moon to align again like that, but there you go.

Since I arrived in France, my bravery with food has actually increased a lot. Now steaks have to drip blood to create a nice orangey colour out of the pepper sauce, and one of my regular meals is the andouillete which is a sausage where the most recognisable ingredient is intestine. One of my earliest breakthroughs was the salade de gesier, which is salad with the gizzards of some unfortunate birdie. Usually served with a nice big chunk of fois gras (it only gets better!), it's the best salad ever I reckon, if it wasn't for all the green stuff.

All very daring, although there are still limits. Oysters being one of them - the word snot comes to mind very easily when looking at them (does the word snot exist outside Britain? I do hope so). Which also reminds me how cultivating my palate francais has also meant discarding some foods - brie, which was a big favourite with my parents, has now become merely a good word to explain what snot is to the rest of the world (so now you know).

So, still not tried steak tartare. Not however for the reason it used to be though. My brave new taste buds aren't too worried about the rawness of the meat, but now simply I feel loathed to pay good money for a plate where the recipe is;

Chop meat, serve.

September 11, 2006

Hot cycling day

It's a hot day today! Unfortunately I had to cycle up to the Pantheon area today, which is at the top of a big hill. I say big in a Parisien sense, since compared to back home in Sheffield it's no more than a slight rise. Actually, that's compared to anywhere with hills. My bike has oodles of gears, but has rarely needed more than two or three of the lowest gears (lowest or highest? I mean the gear that takes the most effort to cycle - the least used gear on my bike is like the one on the exercise bike at the gym where you get on it after some g-strung granny and it's on the lowest setting) - so, I look up the definition of 'low gear' and it means ' The low gear configuration of a transmission'. How dumb is that! So the definition of ineffectual dictionary is 'a dictionary that's ineffectual'...

Anyway, the hill was enough to put me in a terrible sweat, and I must have looked like a complete idiot to the people I was checking into one of our apartments. At least the ride back was effortless, with a nice freewheel from the jardin du luxembourg all the way down to the river.

At one point I stopped at a red light. I was squashed between the curb and a giant bus, so my view across the pededstrian crossing was blocked and I figured there would a crowd of tourists about to pour across in front of me, which they did. However, behind me there was a big ringing of bike bells, and this slightly more than middle aged woman calling to me that 'je vais passer, en fait'. I hauled my bike to the curb, and she pushed past, over the toes of various pedestrians (what was the 'en fait' about? Perhaps more of an ultimatum than a request?).

I have to admit that I'm not the most law-abiding when it comes to traffic lights, since it's very hard to stand still in an empty road when every other bicyclist is happily ignoring the lights and shooting through. At the same time I do try, and tell myself at each lights that I don't really need to get to my destination two minutes quicker. Take your time, smell the roses or artificial coffee smell from Starbucks.

The police do stop you if you go through a red, or the wrong way up a one way street, and the punishment can be a traffic ticket leading to a fine, points off your license, or more usually in Paris, a small scrunched up ball of waste paper. Makes no difference though - cyclists in Paris do not obey any known rules of the road.

So what, you might say. It's the same everywhere. True, but I've seen cyclists hammer through crowded crossings with no consideration at all, and it annoys and disapoints me. The car drivers, even though it might seem hectic here, are actually very considerate to pedestrians. Possibly cyclists consider themselves the same as pedestrians, and can follow the same lack of rules. The only consideration is that they've a little bell to help clear a path.

September 6, 2006

Rentrée part deux

Today my email box contained more jokes from friends than spam messages.

It's definitely the rentrée...

September 5, 2006

Being understood

I called a hotel to leave a message for a friend today, and was asked how to spell Beauborg. My first instant fleeting misplaced contemptuous thought was 'silly french person doesn't know Beauborg!?' (or something along those lines), but then I realised it was my fault, and I'd said bo-borg instead of bo-baw (well, ish, even bo-baw is probably really poorly pronounced french, and the real pronounciation is probably unspellable, even though I'm using a french keyboqrd).

So I said bo-baw, in the hope that I wouldn't have to go through all the eh-ah-ooh hoops of spelling a word ridiculously full of vowels, and the hotel person understood and laughed, so all's well that ends well.

I think the last thing I'll ever acquire in my sluggish attempts to learn french will be a good french accent. I'll always be the brit abroad, not through obstinacy, but having an english shaped mouth that knows no better. An irish friend of mine was lost in Paris, and wanted to get back to Republique. He asked someone in his best irish flavoured french and got a completely blank stare. He tried over and over again (why the other didn't flee in terror from what was clearly a crazed irishman I don't know), until finally he decided the only way was to mimic a french gitane growl (I think he even tried with appropriate hand waving and shrugs), and to his surprise the guy's face lit up and he pointed to a spot 100 yards a way. We realised he'd been saying 'Republick' in his normal voice, but had hit upon the correct 'Ray-pub-leek' in his desperation.

If there was one bit of good advice I was given about speaking french (unfortunately by my mother, who'll be most pleased to be proven right YET again), and that's to not bother saying the end of the word. The Beauborg thing kind of proves that, but a clearer example of being unclear was that for my first year here I was rarely understood when trying to say 'vin rouge, svp'. A grave(s) problem indeed, since I was close to dying of thirst by the time revelation came. I asked the secretary at work where I was going wrong, and she couldn't tell what I was saying at all - it seemed to her I was saying red bread. Apparently I was saying vin as in van, and should have been saying vah (with the ah more heavy, as though you were about to say the n, but then got distracted). My hard ending had completely changed the word for her, even though to my ears the difference between v for vin and p for pain must have been far clearer. Apparently not for french ears.

So concludes Nik's first lesson in speaking french proper like.

September 4, 2006

Gladitorial queuing

Still no Turkey photos uploaded yet, as I've managed to lose the USB lead to my camera. I think it was designed to vanish the moment you need it, so I'm currently trying to pretend I don't need it right now, in the hope that it will appear in an attempt to get in the way of something else I really need. So far it's not working, so I think I've got to try harder at needing something else. The trouble is it has to be something that I don't know where it is, and all the crap stuff I don't really need is crowding out all my desktop and kitchen space at the moment.

I had a 'run around chip away at the endless to-do list' day today. Unfortunately one of the to-do's was to take back a modem and TV cable set to a France Telecom office, and anyone who lives here knows that's definitely a real soul sucking experience. Today was no different of course. I entered the office and was quite pleased to see that there were three assistants (all occupied with people), and only one old guy waiting. FT assistants have their own little podiums, and the concept of queuing doesn't really apply here. They even place the podiums at the far corners of the room, so that while hovering for the next assistant to be available, you're free to browse the mobile phones and glare venemously at the other people waiting in case they dive onto the next free assistant before you can.

This is aggravated by the fact that once someone has got their teeth into an assistant, they either berate them for hours about the excess 22 centimes on their account, or try and enquire whether a phone is better if it's red or black even though they'd prefer the model that's not in stock or even in existance for the last 10 years. So, in summary, you wait for hours and are prepared to kill when it's your turn for the next assistant.

It got close to my go, and as the assistant finished up with his client (a protracted purchase of a satellite box that required a middle-east peace contract to be drawn up), he suddenly dashed into the back. Suddenly and furtively, practically a dive followed by a commando crawl. By this time the office had filled with about 10 people, all clutching bills, 1€ offers and assorted weapons. In response to someone growling somewhere, another assistant said that he'd gone to lunch. The crowd started to unrest uneasily.

I carried on waiting, having only been jumped in the queue once (pretty good going), when the remaining assistant became free (did I say there were three assistants at the start? Apparently ducking and diving is part of the staff training). Someone clutching a 5€ discount off mobile phones leapt on him and starting gabbling away, so I charged over with big excusez-moi's and big waving of the modem and bits and pieces, which were considerably more heavy than the little voucher he was waving at me. He backed down and I beat my chest in triumph.

Finally it was over, and I walked out of the shop wondering if it was still Monday...

September 1, 2006


Back from hols, or rentrée as they call it here (literally re-entry). The fact that the french have a special name for just shows how synchronised everyone's holidays are here. Start of August, big traffic queues, empty city, then tumbleweeds a-blowing around for a bit, and then whoomph, more traffic queues, well tanned full city.

It's not quite as severe as that, but not far off. Certainly many companies shut down and enforce the August break, even if just for a week. Then everyone gets back, and if the news is anything to go by, everyone has to get down to the shops and kit out their children with several thousand euros worth of pens and rulers. Why they can't use the old ones I've no idea, but considering how the rest of the time France is totally uncommercial, this seems a remarkable coup by Bic or pencilcases-R-Us.

Anyway, I'm back. Actually I was back a week ago, but fell into horrible amounts of work while switching webhost, which meant I couldn't post anything even if I did have something to say (which I didn't, all I could manage was velo-boulot-wino-dodo).

Hopefully sometime soon I'll put my photos of Turkey up on the webpage somewhere - between all of us who went we've over a thousand pics (digital cameras - surely the slideshow bore's wet dream!). Turkey was fantastic, despite all the dire warnings of bombs and terrorists. Admittedly some of the warnings were borne out after we left, but there was little sign of any unrest (ok, we were stopped by the military police at one point, but I think it was because we were speeding just a teensy-weensy bit over the speed limit, um kindof). Before we went we checked out the british embassy site there for details on the visa required, and it was covered with all sorts of scary warnings. Hardly surprising that there were *no* americans there.

Ok, still brain-dead from this work actually. Next posting will have more on Turkey once I've got some photos up...