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June 4, 2007

Last days of Paris

This blog has come to an end at last. After 6 years in Paris, I'm now returning to the UK to concentrate on other things, leaving the world of apartment rentals behind.

France has been a strange country, and I never really got to grips with it. I certainly appreciated the ease of living, with the pleasant division between work and not-work (with the latter being far more important), the beautiful buildings, the utter lack of aggression and of course the wine!

I wanted to follow that with what I *won't* miss, but nothing really springs to mind. Maybe bureaucracy, although once you get used to it and permanently carry a gas bill it doesn't become quite so painful.

Anyway, au revoir Paris. Next time I see you it'll be as a tourist who strangely knows his way round....



March 2, 2007

City of traffic lights

lovelights.jpgOn the rue des Francs Bourgeois someone has put something over the traffic lights to make shapes. It's pretty cool and has been there a while now. Maybe people will actually look at them now...

Hard to see in this pic, but it's a little cocktail glass
winelight.jpg



February 28, 2007

Return of the fuites

Last year I wrote about the pesky fuites, and it seems that that time has rolled around again. This time however, it was my own modest little dwelling.

The resident of the flat below came up to say that her bathroom was awash with my shower water, and once she had let me get dressed I popped down and indeed it was. Fairly badly too. I went back to my apartment and looked under the bath, and it was damp but not really waterlogged, so I wasn't totally sure it was me, but I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been.

Then started the back and forth of wills to see who would actually make any effort to sort out the problem - the lady from downstairs didn't normally live there, and so she didn't really have to do anything, but I wasn't keen on arranging for the plumber myself as if it didn't turn out to be me, I'd still be landed with the 50€ call out fee. I called the owner of the flat below and she stood fast and refused to call a plumber, and unfortunately I don't have the inexhaustible stubborness of the french, and gave in.

I asked the nice guys at the deli downstairs if they knew a plumber (I must blog about them one day actually - they're fantastic, and do a kind of portugese/italian fusion of food), but they didn't. Then I tried my landlord, who lived in the flat opposite mine, and he took everything in hand and sorted it all out (I bet you can't say that about many landlords! He even speaks french to me slowly!).

It turned out the way to handle it is to call the building's syndic (a building management group). They get out their plumber who decides where the water is coming from, and after that all the insurance gets sorted out.

The guys came round and re-did the bath sealant and then left. Without asking for money. I'm sure a bill of some kind is going to pop up, but at the moment I'm a bit bemused what has happened. I still think the problem hasn't gone away really, but when in France it's best to do the French thing, and just ignore anything else that happens - the plumber came, sealed and so whatever happens from now on c'est pas mon faut...

February 27, 2007

Confit de Canard

confit.jpgOne of my favourite meals in France is confit de canard. Coming from a gourmet challenged country I didn't actually know what this was before arriving here, but I rapidly learnt as french menus usually only consist of steak & chips, salads, magret de canard, and confit de canard - bad news for ducks obviously, but at least the chickens get a break for a change...

So, after admitting my ignorance, for those that don't know what confit de canard is, it's duck that's really slowly roasted, and then stored in it's own fat which preserves it. Usually it comes in jars or tins. All you have to do is stick it in the oven for 20 minutes, and voila, perfect meal. For some reason the french love to serve it with fried garlicy potato slices, which makes it a rather fatty meal, but it's one of the best, honestly.

Anyway, the picture you see here is how confit is sold in my local supermarket. No frills, just a bag of duck in solidified fat. All for 3 euros! I looked on the internet to find out how long I should reheat it, and some chef was spouting on about the joys of cooking duck, and said that the easiest way was to buy confit IF YOU COULD AFFORD IT! Oh, you poor people out there in the civilised world, so it looks like you're not only missing cheap wine (cheap enough to use as mouthwash), but also cheap duck!

There is a downside though, my apartment now smells strongly of duck fat, and all my cutlery is also now covered with a thin layer of duck fat which seems to take multpile washes. Also I'm now showing a good layer of duck fat too, which would be useful if I intended to bob around on ponds, but not so hot in super skinny Paris....

February 5, 2007

Tea break

azerty.gif
I don't know if this is surprising news to anyone, but in other countries the keys on your keyboard aren't necessarily in the same place as back home.

It was certainly a surprise to me when I got here - I'd just arrived and had several job interviews with the majority in French. Looking back I realise how insane that was, since even now I'd find it tough to sound comprehensible at an interview. At one company they sat me down in a dungeon of a room with just a PC, and told me I had twenty minutes to answer the question.

I scrolled down the list of questions and was pleased to find I understood all of them - both the french and the questions themselves. However, getting the answers out was a near impossible task - I bludgeoned together vague french phrases, and slipped in a few anglaisms where I completely failed to come up with a french word.

However, what really slowed me down was the french keyboard. Most of it is the same, in fact a cursory glance and you won't spot the differences. The differences are all around the edge - the M has risen a level, the A and Q are swapped, and the Z and W also - this actually gives your keyboard a french accent believe it or not, since everytime you write we, it comes out ze, which is funny for all of a minute.

So things went terribly slowly, and it got even worse when I had to write some programming code, since the brackets and other arcane symbols us programmers use are all in total disarray. They came back into the interview room, and I'd managed only a handful of the questions. The phrase 'I'll get my coat' came into my mind...

Why am I going on about this? Unfortunately it's just a precursor to something so banal that now I'm regretting even having started on this.


Type gmail into google, but forget you're on a french computer, and it comes out gmqil. Try it and see what google thinks you should be spelling. I laughed, but I'm a nerd and allowed to...

Just to wrap up, it actually only took a day or so for your fingers to get used to the different keyboard layout. Surprising when you think that your fingers are all trained to press in the right place without looking at the keyboard much, and that they can change their training so easily. Now that I'm fluent on a french keyboard, I prefer it to an english one, if only for the reason I no longer have to press shift to get "

January 6, 2007

Neighbours

neighbours.gif
The BBC news site had an article about a french website that puts you in touch with your neighbours;

http://www.peuplade.fr

The idea is that you sign up, answer a few questions about yourself, and you and your details appear on a map. Your neighbours can then get in contact if they want to, and local events can be announced etc. It looks like an internet dating site, but without the dating, if that makes sense.

It already seems incredibly popular, and in my neighbourhood there was already loads of people signed up. I didn't totally understand the questions that I was asked, so my responses were a bit lame - perhaps if I put some effort into it I could meet some people from around here which might be nice (my user name is TrickyNicky if you want to hunt me down). In the picture above, I'm the red balloon, and it seems that I live on a very dull street, since I'm the only one signed up. Well, that's one way of looking at it, the other way could be that everyone on my street has a life and doesn't need to sign up to sites like this :-)

January 2, 2007

No Cycling

At some point between before new year and today my bike was stolen. I arrived at the bike racks to find only the severed remains of my lock - the lock that was designed for motorbikes, with a category E security level - I had assumed that was high enough as the skinny bike locks were category C (no category A or B locks it seems).

This was a day I'd been anticipating to be honest. In fact the moment before I turned the corner I said to myself 'I bet my bike's been nicked', and voila, it was! Not actually psychic though, as I say this to myself every morning! Since moving to my petite studio, I've had to lock my bike outside. Slowly it's been stripped of various bits such as lights, bells, and pump (pretty stupid to have left that on there admittedly). Any day I was expecting it to be gone, or at the very least with it's wheels trodden into a useless L shape.

Even more annoyingly, you can't go and buy a cheap nicked replacement in Paris either. Unlike Britain, which has a thriving bike recycling business (not as in aluminium, if you hadn't been reading very carefully), here you can't get a second hand bike for under 100€. Fortunately you can get brand new bikes for 70€ from supermarkets and sports shops. No, it doesn't make sense to me either.

December 28, 2006

Eurostar

I've just got home from Christmas with the folks. It was quite a good holiday this year - mum turned out a great meal every night, including doing the turkey the brine-soak method which worked really well. I'd first heard this method from an American friend, where you soak the turkey overnight in really really salty water, and then it cooks quickier and juicier (never had a failure yet). I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this to mum before, but this year Nigella Lawson (UK TV cook) had described it, so of course it was now acceptable.

The Eurostar back was interesting - the general feeling of a journey totally depends on when you're travelling. For this trip, it seemed mostly french and british expats returning home - not many tourists at all. The train struggled on the UK side, and the announcer took great pleasure in explaining it was the British network at fault. A guy sitting near me practically exploded with smug indignation at this, and was probably a bit disappointed that an anti-british food comment couldn't have been worked in (train delayed to pork pies on the track perhaps). He seemed to take great pains to do this when the announcement was being said in French, although I'd already clocked him for being definitely not-french. I assume he must be an uber-francophile of some kind.

More signs of it being a french dominated train were seen at the boarding, with what can only be described as near panic as people tried to board quicker than everyone else. People wheeled their giant cases up and down the isle, bouncing anyone else out of the way, before re-wheeling them back again against the frantic traffic. At one point two little boys fought each other all the way down, screaming at the top of their voices. Their mother called after them, calling them her petits chatons (kittens), an odd expression for boys, and with my poor french it could equally have been petits châtains (chestnuts), or more likely petits shits (shits).

Getting off the train was the same as boarding - you could easily have assumed there was a fire further down the carriage (if it wasn't for the fact that once off the carriage, everyone stopped in front of the door to adjust luggage, coats and petits shits). The earlier mentioned francophile did a wonderful job of hurdling several suitcases before being finally repelled by a fur coated octegenarian (experience counts). Inwardly I'm sure he was still very happy at becoming a naturalised Parisian, while externally he managed his well-practiced french tuts and huffs - very impressive, hopefully if I get to be like this one day, I'll have sufficiently good enough friends who will shoot me.

December 20, 2006

Underneath Paris

Today we moved some boxes and other junk from the office into the 'cave' or cellar beneath the building. This was the first time I'd been down there, and Pascal, who originally found the offices for us, lead the way.

The timer on the cellar light had a ridiculously short fuse, and several times we were plunged into darkness and had to scrape along the walls to find the (unlit) light switch. Pascal wanted to show me something in particular, although it meant dashing down a corridor for a brief look before having to dash back again before the lights went out.

catacomb.jpg

It was a tunnel leading even further down than the cellar, and was an entrance to the Paris catacombs! The catacombs near the Denfert-Rochereau metro are fairly well known, since tourists can enter them, and more significantly since they've been used as an ossurary after the cemetaries of Paris started to overflow. For about a kilometer the tunnels are lined with skulls and thigh bones (well worth a visit, especially if you tell your guests it's really a mass grave from the revolution).

Less well known are the rest of the catacombs - some 300km in length! A friend first told me about them five years ago, as a flatmate of his was a 'cataphile' and regularly explored the miles of tunnels. Totally illegal, with a 60€ fine if you stumble into a policeman down there (which is sooo likely of course). There are websites (apparently - go google) with maps and other hints & tips for the wanabee cataphile.

So, this was an entrance to the tunnels - it was amazingly atmospheric. The light seemed to stop right there at the entrance, making it literally a black hole. Not that we went in, that'll wait until we're drunk and stupid one night...

December 11, 2006

Brits abroad

brits_in_europe1.gif

Click here for a cool item from the BBC news website;

It shows how many british live abroad, where we all are, our ages etc. The main map has a button that changes the size of each country proportionally with how many of us have invaded. I think it's proportional as a percentage of the countries total population as the US barely changes while France bloats up (although still nothing compared to Spain, which is going to burst and spray cheap sangria everywhere).

brits_in_europe.gif

There's about 200,000 of us in France, mostly working age (not like the Eastbourne of Europe, otherwise known as Spain). Coming the other direction there's only 100,000 french in Britain, so it looks like we're winning!

December 10, 2006

Party on the Temple

Last night we had a party. The owner had been wanting to have another grandiose soiree, and the apartment wasn't rented out, so voila, big party time.

A lot of people had been invited, and one of the invitation requirements was to bring a 10€ present which would then get randomly redistributed. Back home in Brit this was called a bran tub, which I can only guess stemmed from the days when we could only afford to give each other gifts of bran, a healthy tradition at the very least. Being Paris of course, rather than bran the gifts were things like champagne flutes and pretty cups. There was a surprising number of magnifying glasses, which I guess is a french thing only because when things get incomprehensible it's usually their fault.

There was an additional rule - we were given numbers to dictate who drew their present from the pile first. Once you had opened your choice, you were given the option to swap with anyone who had aleady picked a present. In other words if you were last in the queue, you pretty much had the choice of anything that was there, while if you were first you had to make do with losing the cool present you'd randomly picked and getting the Kinder egg santa that clearly didn't cost 10€.

It worked quite well, until competition for various presents got quite heated. Many protests about the rules were heard (there was only one rule, which is less than Fight Night, not that you could tell the difference). I picked a bizarre pink thing, and attempted to swap it for some chocolates and it didn't go too well. The host had to charge over and literally wrestle the chocolates from my victim's hands while ignoring cries of 'he didn't choose before ten seconds were up' (a new rule that had suddenly emerged).

This morning, while recovering from a hangover, I decided the chocolates would be breakfast, and after taking a big bite (they were cup-cake sized xmas things), I found it to be quite tasteless. I then took a closer look at the label - they were candles in the shape of chocolate cakes. How sick and twisted is that!

November 30, 2006

With the IT crowd

Looks like my blog has sunk to weekly entries. I've had nothing major to write about in the last week, but all the little tidbits seems to congeal together to be enough for a passable post, so here goes.

Firstly, hello Fiona! - When you find out friends from back in the UK are reading your banal blitherings, suddenly there's all this pressure to write something good! Oh well, perhaps just a hello will do instead :-)

Big event of this week was meeting the British ambassador John Holmes at the embassy. A friend (in the IT dept allegedly, despite training in picking locks and fast-track French lessons) has come to the end of his tour of duty there, and is heading back to the UK. The ambassador has a little drinks do to say goodbye, and my mate was able to invite a few of his non-embassy mates.

We were in the building next door to the main embassy, which is partly the residences there although I'm not quite sure what else as the only times before has been the footmen's party, which tends to be a drink to oblivion type party. So no coherent memories in other words. So, the other day we were all dressed smartly, and the surroundings were fabulous, and the ambassadors two labradors seemed very at home with amuse gueules...

So we all had a little chat, and it was all very nice indeed (no tea though).


Otherwise, it's been a quiet week. From today it should pick up a bit - tonight is clearing out the above mentioned friend's fridge of booze and a general lads night out on the town. Tomorrow is a blogger's party, which is the first I've been to (must find my cardigan with elbow patches and pipe), then a friend's housewarming party on Saturday, and finally the usual tennis on Sunday.

November 12, 2006

Dans le Noir

I was out with a friend last night, and we were exploring some of the local bars that I'd not been able to persuade anyone else to come and visit (getting someone to leave their quartier is like pulling teeth, honestly!). We headed up rue Quincampoix, which is just behind my road, and she pointed out a restaurant called 'Dans Le Noir'.

It didn't look too friendly, with all the windows completely blacked out, but apparently that's the whole point. The restaurant is literally in the dark, with everyone sitting in pitch blackness, unable to see even their plate in front of them.

She said when they went there, their group had consisted of friends of friends who they had not met, and they had arrived late. During the whole meal they hadn't a clue what the other people at the table looked like, and it wasn't until they emerged that they could finally see if the person had lived up to the imagined likeness.

It sounds bizarre, but probably worth a try. My first thought was that plenty of naughtiness must go on, and so it would probably be wise to sit boy girl boy girl. I then wondered if they banned smoking, since all those cigarettes would probably ruin the effect. Also it's probably not a good idea to order the spaghetti...

Update: I talked to another friend, and he said they had had a great experience there too. He had gone thinking it all sounded lame, which perhaps helped that he had expected the worst and then been surprised. They do ban smoking, and anything else that gives out light like cell phones etc, and he did say wear old clothes - apparently the hardest thing to do is pour the wine (and know when to stop, although to be honest I find that a problem even in the daylight, not that he probably meant the same thing). After the meal, as they emerged into the light, he wondered if everything would have a new vibrancy, but he found the opposite - everything seemed a bit duller somehow after the heightened experience in the darkness.

November 11, 2006

Bonfire of the brits

Last night was the annual bonfire night at the British embassy, which is a nice bit of home nostalgia - I suppose it's like how all the american expats feel obliged to inflict thanksgiving turkey on everyone here in celebration of something or other that happened in their country, so we try to introduce people to our celebration of torturing and executing a religous-political terrorist from way back when. It's a great night, and for the kids really. Lots of fireworks, burgers (sadly no baked potatoes though), and most importantly a big bonfire with an effigy of ol' Guy Fawkes burning away on top.

Ok, I'm making light of the gruesome roots of this little tradition, but it is a really great night (I'm not kidding about the effigy burning though). Even though it's obviously not as big an event as christmas, it's far more powerful at invoking those childhood memories - the smell of woodsmoke and fireworks, freezing cold nights but being warm by the bonfire, and learning the hard way that you don't pick up a dead sparkler by the wrong end...

So last night was the embassy's fireworks. A bit late, being on the 10th instead of the fifth of November, but considering the hangover I've got this morning it's probably a good thing that today's not a work day (still had to check some people into an apartment near rue Mouffetard though, and that was a struggle! I hope they didn't notice my bloodshot eyes). I'm going to blame the mulled wine for that, although it's probably the countless pints of beer that followed it really. I remember the girl who was serving the mulled wine grinning broadly and saying that there was a whole bottle of brandy in the big pan of simmering wine in front of her. Is that a usual ingredient? I'm not sure, but there weren't any complaints...

November 3, 2006

Paris Masters at Bercy

The other day was All Saints day, a nice day off for everyone here in France. In what's become a yearly tradition, we were at Bercy to watch the Paris masters tennis tournament. Cheaper and more accessible than the Open at Roland Garros, we first started going just to see the final, but then realised that if we went during the week, not only were the tickets cheaper, but we'd get to see a lot more players and matches.

Wednesday became over 12 hours of watching tennis, which was pretty gruelling! Especially since the Bercy Omnisports serves only coca-cola and M&Ms, which means you have to maintain a steady sugar high to last the distance.

This year was different to previous years though. The first big change was that there's now video judges - each player had 2 'challenges' per set, and could call on the video umpire if they didn't like a line call. We'd then see a computer graphic of the ball bouncing leaving a spot where it bounced (why am I explaining this, I'm sure everyone's seen it) - sometimes they had to zoom right in to see the smallest fraction of an overlap to call the ball in. It made a big difference - on the first match a player challenged a call on a match point, and it went his way - he then went on to win the set, probably changing the outcome of the match entirely.

Anyway, it went on and on, and every game seemed to go to the final set. It became clear that the final game with UK's big hope Andy Murray wasn't going to be played in time. We figured that it would have to be moved to one of the little courts, but no-one could tell us anything. In a typically french fashion, nobody knew what was going on and there was no organisation at all. We eventually found that he was warming up on one of the little courts, and would be playing there at 10pm.

We waited outside with everyone else who had found out where he was playing, including Jeremy Bates! The officials didn't have a clue who he was, and so he wasn't allowed in either.

We had never watched a game on Court 1 before, and had only sat amongst the thousands of people on Center court. The difference was a complete shock - it was nothing more than a little hall - tipped off by an english couple we had met, we raced to the end of the court and sat right at the front, staring down the center line. We were also next to Brad Gilbert, Murray's coach, and were effectively the players family (except we weren't of course).

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We then realised that there was no net, and just a wooden barrier between us and the 200kph serves that hurtled towards us.

AndyMurray.gif

Somehow the ball still managed to slam into the barrier rather than us, and it was an amazing experience. For the first time we could see what it was really like from the players perspective, as well as hear their muttering as they lost or won shots.

Finally it was all over near midnight - exhausting but well worth it. We're back on Saturday...

October 30, 2006

How to be unpopular and influence your country

The Economist had an interesting cover this month (at least, the European issue did) - I'd better slip in a disclaimer here, it's not something I read, it just caught my eye amongst the naked breasts shown in the newspapers street vendors.

maggie.gif

The discussion of money, taxes and France often comes up, mainly because everyone is taxed up to the eyeballs here. The big topic is not why is everyone paying all these taxes, but about the doom and gloom that's forecast to happen in the near future if things don't change. The great socialist principles of France such as the pensions and amazing healthcare are all at risk because quite simply soon there will not be enough tax payers (we'll all be pensioners etc) to pay for all the services. It would take a brave government to create proper reform in France when the slightest move results in strikes throughout the country. A leader will have to be popular enough to be elected, and yet make these unpopular decisions. I've no idea how Thatcher managed it, since I was too young to really know what was going on. Somehow though it's hard to see France taking the same route as Britain...


October 25, 2006

Learning to speak french

It dawned on me the other day that my french has now reached another landmark stage. I've now lost my self consciousness in speaking horrendous french to anyone, which was probably the biggest barrier to actually getting on and learning french. Actually I think it happened quite a while ago, but I hadn't noticed that I was no longer struggling. Doing the courses and bookwork is all ok, but really the only way to learn is to be in the situation where you just *have* to speak french, and there's no english safety net underneath. Everyone I know who's french speaks very good english, and while they're all very happy to let me flounder around in french, it usually breaks down to the point where we're speaking english again.

That also included most of my office bound life here - for the first couple of years here I was in the employ of someone else, rather than being my own boss (thank goodness those days are over!), and the company, while being french, was very very anglophone. In general everyone spoke english, although that didn't please everyone - there was one engineer in particular who hammer his fists on the desk shouting 'Français! Français!' when the meeting was moving a bit fast for him. Maybe not the most subtle method of showing your disproval, but I did feel for him slightly. I couldn't imagine being in a company back in the UK where we'd have to speak french or japanese or something in meetings. So, for those first two years, I spoke hardly any french.

Working for myself now means I have to speak a lot more french. Also generally there seems to be something or other to sort out over the phone (electricity being cut off, water leaks, etc!), and it's all going very smoothly.

Mind you, all that is mostly formal conversations with business partners, utility companies etc, and the next step is to get to grips with proper conversational french. Fast slang-filled conversations with half dozen people in a noisy bar type conversations. It's close, but not that close. I can now think on my feet quickly and come up with alternative phrasing when I don't know a certain word, but there's still a lot of words I don't know. The other day there was three of us playing tennis, and I wanted to say 'winner stays on'. The literal translation didn't seem to be understood, and I couldn't think quickly of an alternative, so I gawped blankly for a bit instead.

I think I'm in a bit of a no-mans land with the learning process though - I need more learning, but the local classes only concentrate on verb conjugation and tenses etc. I'm past that but still below any vague pretension to fluency. The only way forward now is just learning as you go...

October 17, 2006

Currency

More big gaps between blog entries. No excuse - I'm just lazy...


I was with an english friend in the pub the other day, and we were talking about the euro currency, and how the British people have stubbornly refused it. The conversation had arisen drunkenly about the merits of democracy and whether referendums embodied democracy or not. An example was that the British had decided that they didn't want the euro currency because it would be a loss of identity rather than any great economic decision.

This lead on to pointing out how GB was actually smack in the middle of the coin, and if that wasn't a sign of being the centre of europe, then what was?

eurocoin.jpg

However, since we were drunk, the conversation also covered the fact that because Norway was not in the EU, and missing from the coin, it made Sweden and Finland look like meat and two veg (actually in looking for a pic of a coin, I found someone who'd handily produced the pic above!).

Clearly a referendum didn't help here. You can imagine the voting cards - 'Citizens of Finland, No to European Currency or Yes to being the balls of Europe'...

October 9, 2006

No Smoke zone

So it's finally coming - France is to ban smoking from public areas;

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6032125.stm

It wasn't unexpected with the other big european countries already banning smoking or well on their way to it, but most people I've talked to never expected the day to come.

France is probably going to struggle though, even though that news item above says that 70% of french are in favour of the ban. Smoking here, especially amongst the young, seems to be a national requirement rather than a choice. I'm not anti smoking and have no problems with people smoking around me, but sometimes in bars here it can get so intense here that it becomes unbearable.

It'll be interesting if we see any demonstrations. Actually it'll be more interesting if we *don't* see any - if motorcyclists can demonstrate against police charging them for riding on pavements, then anything goes really...

October 2, 2006

pick n mix

Just a bits & pieces post today. I thought I'd clear out the photos from my phone and stick some of the more pointless ones here.

Now that I'm living nice and centrally, even during a quick pop to the shops you end up seeing what's going on in the town center. Several times I've found the streets all blocked off by police and a general anticipation of something coming down the road. I figured that it'll probably be a big demonstration or parade for some good cause. However, so far they don't seem to be either.

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This one is just lots of motorbikes. That's it, just loads of motorbikes. Even the police motorbikes were joining in, with lots of revving and blowing whistles (why whistles? No idea, maybe it's a Hells Angels thing). Some of the others I've seen have been just big rave parades. Not a good cause in sight - just lots of people making lots of noise (*sigh* how old do I sound!).

This next pic is a fountain at the pyramid in the Louvre. I'd not noticed it before, so I think it's new. It might not be new of course, and I've been walking round with my eyes shut. The old fountains didn't have all that misty stuff around it...

fountain.jpg

Then this one is of a cake. I once ordered it at a restaurant thinking it sounded really exotic - it's pain d'epice, or 'spicy cake'. I love cinnamonny things, so was in hope that it would be utterly overladen with the stuff, but when it came it looked like this;

paindepice.jpg

Back home in Sheffield we call it 'parkin'. Basically, cheap as dirt, gooey treacle cake. About as exotic as egg'n'chips. To make things even worse they even served it with 'créme anglais', which is the french idea of what custard should be like. They make it as a thin runny vanilla sauce, whch is about as far from custard as you can get. Real custard should be nice and thick with a heavy skin on top. Just like they did at school.

Finally, here's a pic of the roller blade tour. Every friday and sunday they block of loads of streets and thousands of people charge along on roller blades. This is obviously the sunday one, since it's in the daylight (the Friday one goes from 10pm to about 2am), and is mainly for the not so good roller donors;

rollerblade.jpg

Definitely worth seeing if you just happen to be on the route (which seems to change each week). Especially the Friday night one, since it's amazing to see such a huge crowd pour past at great speed...

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;


brownies.jpg


'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.

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 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

Rentrée

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...

August 10, 2006

Off on hols

I know I've not been the most concientious of bloggers lately, but it's going to get even quieter!

I'm off on hols to Turkey for the next two weeks. I won't have internet access unless I want to go to cybercafes, which doesn't appeal that much, so there'll be no blogging for the next fortnight.

August 7, 2006

Not so zen tennis

I'm struggling to stay awake today - we've taken advantage of the empty city and booked as many tennis courts as we can possibly get. Unfortunately I think our eyes have been bigger than our stamina muscles, as I'm already starting to feel the strain!

We played for only an hour yesterday in the jardins du Luxembourg, which was delightful as ever. As usual we were surrounded by tai chi enthusiasts, all wobbling around trying to be meditative. I've noticed that there's been more and more of them wanting to use swords and fans and things, and yesterday was no exception. I saw a guy turn up with a long black sackcloth bag, which I assumed was a fishing rod (ok, strange assumption, but it felt better than assuming it was a high powered rifle). It turned out it was actually a stick. Pretty much a broom handle really. Obviously a super-duper broomhandle, since it needed it's own bag. Either that or the owner was just trying to avoid looking like a BHV shopper.

After a while there was a whole bunch of broom-stickers, a veritable coven of tai-chi fanatics. It was definitely broom-stick day (much safer than oversized shiny sword day). It cynically struck me that all this paraphernalia was quite ironic in a way - all the totally zen tai chi chinese people are happy (blissful?) with nothing at all, just a small patch of open ground is enough. Here in our materialistic west, we need gadgets! We need things that do stuff, and in the western tai chi world, that means fans, swords, and broom sticks!

So, they all zenned away next to us, while I happily un-zenned them with every expletive I could think of (my tennis was not on-form that day I'm afraid). If they were really good, then they wouldn't have noticed.

One thing I'm sure we're all glad were not in the park that day, was the happy clappy brigade. Some misguided gang of oddballs have been meeting recently there to do 'laughter' exercises. At least I think that's what they're doing, although if it's not it must be some seriously good drugs. I'm sure they feel better for it, but everyone else in the park probably wishes it was high powered rifles in the sackcloth bags...

August 3, 2006

Machines at Grand Palais

There's something going on at the Grand Palais at the moment called 'Le grand répertoire'. It sounds like an annual event, but I've not noticed it before. This year the showcase piece is a bunch of machines which do wacky things like applaud, or catapault grand pianos across the room. I just caught a piece about it on the midday news, and it looked pretty cool!

I couldn't find any detailed info about it, but here's what the Paris tourist office says (I'm sure I'm not allowed to reproduce this, but whatever...);

The highlight of the 2006 edition is a unique exhibition to be held in the nave of the Grand Palais, displaying about a hundred machines specially designed for shows, some of them functioning. Among these spectacular machines is one that gets costumes swirling, a percussion machine called the “girodoumdoum”, a machine used to spread Nutella and the “tartapult”, which launches tarts and pies. Technique is often of secondary importance in the creation of these machines; what counts is the effect the object produces and the way in which it influences the story.
Some of these machines have actually been used, while others are prototypes or sketches; their weight ranges from a mere 150 grams to over 11 tons. While some machines have only ever been used on a single tour, it is interesting to note the way they operate and the sheer inventiveness of their creators.
The Grand Palais provides a magnificent setting for this 5,000 sq.m. “ideas factory”, for the visitor to stroll through in his own search for inspiration.

On the news it looked like plenty of machines which exploded water over everyone, or blew things up - so great for the kids I should imagine.

Oh, and here's a link to the official site of the Grand Palais, which says nothing about the exhibition of course...

August 1, 2006

Tiddly om pom pom

Another big gap between entries! A combination of not having internet access at home and a lack of anything useless to say...

I did actually go down to Paris Plage the other day, so that ought to have inspired me. Particularly as it was better than I expected. I've been a bit dismissive of it to be honest - mum phoned me the other day saying how a UK newspaper had a Paris special, and was enthusing about how the mayor was doing so much for Paris. Their key point was the beach by the Seine, and what a wonderful thing it is. I told her not to believe anything you read in the press, and that it was still just a road with a kitty litter problem.

As you can tell I've never been that impressed by it. If a truck dumped a load of sand by a busy highway, you wouldn't think - ah, a nice spot to catch some rays. It always seemed to be still 'too much tarmac, not enough beach' to escape being a gimick.

However, the other night we sat in the cafe area which was right on the bank of the Seine. Some grubby sand on the floor made it beach-ish, but it was actually pretty good (I was not about to take off my shoes though). A river side bar has always been an area lacking in Paris - when thinking of where to go for a drink in Paris, you often think by the river would be nice, but really there's virtually nowhere that is actually right there by the water. A couple of floating bars, but they're a bit touristy (and small. And they don't sit still). The closest you can get is by doing it 'a la vagrant' style.

So we sat there and watched the tourist boats go by, blinding us with their floodlights. It was very nice indeed. So my dismissiveness of the Paris Plage has now been downgraded to 'mostly crap' :-)

July 24, 2006

Finding time to breathe

I've been a bit quiet on the blog front lately, hopefully I'll get back on track again soon. I've mainly been busy with work and moving apartment, and posting inconsequential ramblings on the web tends to drop down in your priorities...

The apartment move went well, although was typically exhausting. How come every time I move, it's always in the middle of a heat wave. Today someone complemented me on losing some weight - it looks like total dehydration & exhaustion is a fantastic dieting technique! Moving the stuff out of the apartment didn't go too badly, with the exception of chatting to one of my neighbours who decides now's the time to tell me about his 65m2 one bedroom apartment in the same building for only 600 euros/month!!! Unbelievable - cheaper than the broom closet I'm moving to and three times the size! I can only face moving once a year now though, so I'll have to pass that one up. If you're interested, then go to the laundrette on 38 rue d'Enghien and phone the number that's on the wall there. He says he'll have the flat refurbished by September...

Anyway, so now I'm a resident of the troisième. I have to admit already feeling a bit out of place by being straight, but I should be used to that by now. I seem to be blending in by accident though, as all my cheapy tshirts from H&M seem to have shrunk alarmingly. The next steps are to find the local supermarket and best takeaways etc. There are plenty of takeaways, but finding a decent one might be hard - it's unfortunate truth that there's an inverse correlation between numbers of tourists and food quality :-(

The other downside is I'm also back to going to the laundrette. The washing machine just wouldn't fit in the lift (maximum of three very friendly people can get in the lift), so I gave it away to a friend. The other option was to carry it up five flights of narrow stairs, which was just not an option. At that stage we were all gasping our last - rue st Martin has parking spaces, but you're lucky to catch a car leaving as you arrive, and here we were with a great big van. So, it was hazard lights on, pile everything on the pavement (occasionally having to head off to do a quick circle around the streets when traffic built up behind you), and then lose the van somewhere else. Hopefully nothing disappeared from the pavement, but apparently everyone seemed very interested in my stuff as they walked past. It's a fact of life here (probably like everywhere else) in that leave something out on the street and it'll be gone half an hour later. One man's rubbish is another man's something or other...

Anyway, all over now. Feels strange knowing that I'll almost never step foot in the tenth again (apart from Gare du Nord for Eurostar I guess). Paris has just shrunk to single digit arrondissements for me...

July 17, 2006

All About Beauborg

For some reason most of this weekend was spent around the Pompidou center. No reason why, but it just somehow we ended up either passing through, hanging around and finally going in to see some art!

The first thing to notice is the big yellow scrawling all over the main square outside the center.

beauborgwifi.jpg

I've turned the picture upside down, which gives it a bit of a vertigo effect, but it's just so you can read the words. The Beauborg area is to become the first in Paris with public wifi. There's been a few experiments before, for instance where they turned an entire bus route into a wifi area, but I think this is the first 'official' area. There was an announcement that all of Paris is to be wifi, but I don't think this has anything to do with that. To be honest I'd be amazed if it actually happened and was *good* quality. There is usually a lot of behind the scenes business stuff going on - did you know that the whole of Paris is served by only *one* cable company? All the regions of France were dished out to different companies, so no local competition. The company for Paris is called Noos, which seems to be missing an 'e' to me...

Anyway, we went inside and half the modern art museum seems to have disappeared - all the 1905-1950 stuff, which was a real disapointment. It looks like they're refurbishing, but there weren't any signs that told you what was going on.
The moving image exhibition that's going on right now is cool though. It's a chronological history of how film has moved into the gallery's, and went from initially merely recording performance art to become an art form in itself. It's worth seeing.

And in art imitating life imitating art, here's my contribution;

visualart.jpg

C minus, 'could do better'...

Finally we ended up just sitting around outside. Too hot to do anything other than go back and forth to the corner shop to get cans of beer. We decided one can at a time was the only way of having *cold* beer. There was the usual hopeless musicians and street artists littering the place, but there was also this couple playing aboriginal instruments;

digi.jpg

The girl playing the didgeridoo was amazing. It wasn't just the usual reverberating up and down sound you normally hear, but all sorts of pops and whistles going on at the same time. At first we thought it must be someone else playing at the same time, but gradually we realised she was making all the different sounds with just the one instrument.

Click on this link to stream a recording I made (again with my lame phone).

The higher pitched flute sounds are the guy playing (he was pretty good too I guess), but listen to the digeridoo - you can hear the low wahwah sounds (bit quiet at first), but also some plop sounds - they're not percussion instruments but are coming from the didgeridoo. The recording doesn't give them much credit, but if you see them stop and listen (and give them some money! - they didn't seem inclined to go round collecting money, and just left their hat on the ground...).

July 7, 2006

Extreme mountain biking in Paris

I've just cycled back from playing tennis in the west of the city near Porte Dauphine. Well, sort of playing tennis since about three games into it the heavens opened and we had to abandon everything! A few lightning strikes and rolls of thunder made it pretty obvious that it was all over - a long way to cycle for just 10 minutes play!

(mini digression - the other night there was a massive thunderclap at about four in the morning - it was so loud that my first thought was that it was a bomb going off (not that I've heard a bomb go off actually). Nobody else seemed to have heard it, which amazes me since it was sooo loud. I guess that's what happens when you live in the 10th and everyone else is in the 4th...). However, I checked someone into an apartment today, and they'd just come from Montmartre (a bit odd - they were doing a tour of the quartiers of Paris (next stop St Germain) - not a bad idea, but a bit too much moving for me) - and they'd heard it as well. So, north of the city was the only place blown up by lightning then - end of digression).

The route to the tennis courts took me through the Place de l'Etoile (where the Arc de Triomphe is), and I really wasn't looking forward to cycling around it - fortunately there's a little mini-road going around it, and it totally avoids the hideous roundabout (in case you don't know, it's a five lane roundabout with no lane markings, and cars driving onto the roundabout have right of way!). I proudly announced this to my tennis partner, Alex, and he said 'Oh yes, you mean Chicken Alley'. Hmph. At least I'm a living chicken.

The hardest thing about those roads though, is that they're all cobbled. Not an inch of tarmac in sight, unless you count the patches of road repairs looking like oversized chewing gum blotches everywhere. The cobbles are not only bumpy, but in many places completely pot-holed. I used to cycle a lot in the Peak District in the UK, and would happily bounce around steep stony paths. The cobbled roads however had the added danger of taxis and buses - not something you meet on the average off road path (apart from around Manchester).

The worst was coming back - just as you approach Gare St Lazarre the road goes completely to pieces. The rain had filled every single pot-hole going, and I had to bounce through the whole lot standing on the pedals hoping that the bike wouldn't slip out from under me, throwing me into the path of the number 26 bus thundering down right behind.

It was a lot of fun. Next time I'm going to try it while listening to my voicemail on my mobile...

July 6, 2006

France through to the finals

France are through!

Not that I'm biased of course, but I'm so glad that those diving, cheating b**ds Portugal aren't in the final! Rather ironically Ronaldo is claiming that the referee was biased against Portugal, apparently because they're a small country! Such a hard life, try playing with an Argentine referee... Actually the bitterness has passed a bit, and I'm facing up to the fact that we (England) just weren't good enough really. Sven has a lot to answer for though, and I doubt he's looking forward to returning to England. Nor for that matter should Ronaldo - he'll probably get a right kicking when he gets back to Manchester...

The other ironic news was the Portugal coach Scolari blaming their loss on the fact that Portugal can't score goals. Guess the tactic of rolling around on the ground and holding out for penalties just wasn't quite enough for world class football, was it.

Anyway, watching the match was fantastic - we were in O'Corcorans again, or should I say outside - there's a tv set that faces onto the street, and with the warm weather we're having everyone stood outside to watch it - good job it's on one of the really wide boulevards - there was a huge crowd.

I've put some pictures below, although the whole lot can be found here on my photo album.

The celebration after the match was amazing! We had thought we were in one of the most crowded pubs on the street, but the moment the game was over, the whole boulevard erupted with people!

Here's some of the ways the french celebrate ;-)

Waving arms:

Holding flags:

Holding shirts:

Flares (not fires - just looks that way!)

Holding on to the front of cars:

and finally, burning all the rubber off your tyres!

June 29, 2006

The quick turnover of friends for an expat

While watching the footy the other day, we were with some other people who were friends of friends etc, and we had the usual conversation of how do you know so and so etc.

However, this had the expat twist of language classes. Going to a language class is usually one of the first places you'll make friends on arriving in a foreign country (unless you speak the lingo of course). It gets in the way of meeting local people of couse, since everyone else there is an expat from somewhere or other.

So, the conversation usually goes something like;

'I met X at french classes when I was doing level 1 - He met the wife of Y when he went on to level 2'
'Oh, Y works with Z who I met at the Alliance Francais classes'

etc etc.

My first french class had twenty people in it from 15 different countries! Apart from struggling with the language, you all have plenty in common - basically you're all in a foreign country, struggling with the culture shock, and feeling like you're on a big holiday. Consequently, you end up making lots of friends...

I'm now starting to reach the opposite end of the spectrum though - I've been here long enough that I haven't been to a class in many years (that doesn't mean I can speak french, just that I gave up the classes!). You begin to see that people are coming and going - most expats are here on limited time contracts, working here for just a few years. Even those who are here due to relationships are tending to strain at the leash, and want to move either home or to another country.

Ideally the best thing would have been to have made more local friends. The french however are difficult to make strong relationships with. Plenty of acquaintances, but it's been hard to find more than that. While that's part of who the french are, it's my own fault really - trying to immerse yourself in a culture is difficult, and something you have to deliberately push yourself to do. Sit back and lapse into english conversations, english bars etc is all too easy...

June 28, 2006

Moving to Paris II

I've found an apartment! Bit of a relief really, as getting everything to happen in synchronisation with everything else was more stressful than it should have been. I was either going to end up paying rent on two apartments for three months, or be homeless for god knows how long.

I'll explain in more detail, but I'll also try to explain how to actually go about getting an apartment in Paris.

My first problem was that my lease contract required 3 months notice to terminate it. This is the usual contract in France, although it does make life difficult. There's usually only a couple of clauses that allow you to get out of the contract quicker, and that's if you've either lost your job or there's someone who wants to move into the apartment.

Those three months makes life difficult because when you see an apartment, it's often either available the next month or is already empty. When a landlord or agent is faced with several people wanting to take it, and one person can take it immediately while the other can't for another three months, you can guess who's going to get it.

So you're left with the dilemma whether to keep looking in case you get a place, or wait out the three months and try and pick on up in the last couple of weeks. The risk is not finding somewhere of course.

There's three ways of finding apartments, and each method depends on how much money you've got, or how much effort you can make.

The cheapest but hardest way is through the newspaper De Particulier � Particulier - this comes out every Thursday, and has thousands of houses and apartments to buy or rent. For the rentals, you're almost exclusively dealing directly with the landlords. This means no agency fee and occasionally cheaper rent (since there's no agency to take a cut). You can also find fantastic bargains from landlords who either don't know the worth of their property, or aren't greedy.

The downside is that the competition from would-be tenants is fierce, compounded with the fact that landlords are paranoid of tenants rights. This means that an apartment is shown on Saturday afternoon say, and several tens of people turn up to see it - lots of impatient queuing, and I have been in a queue where after several hours we heard a call from the top of the stairwell (where the apartment was), that the landlord wasn't showing it to anyone else!

Each person will be clutching their dossier, which contains the following;

Photocopies of ID's
Salary statements
Agreements from friends or parents to be a guarant (person who'll pay your rent if you skip town)
Photocopies of the guarant's IDs
References from former landlords and/or employers

The guarant will probably have to be someone who lives in France too. These aren't rules, and a landlord doesn't always demand all of them. However, they usually do. If you're from abroad, the landlord may insist on *six* months rent in advance! My advice is don't do it - there's no law requiring this, and they don't deserve it. Move on and find a more reasonable landlord.


The second way is through estate agents. The agency fee is equal to 4 to 6 weeks rent. This reduces the competition considerably, and you'll often find yourself the only person looking at an apartment. You'll still need that dossier though. However, getting to the apartment viewing stage is a lot tougher. There is a good website called SeLoger, which is a great starting place, but you'll need to be persistant in calling up the agencies - they are often out and will never return a call, no matter how many messages are left. Personally I'd recommend this way, since the pap.fr route is fairly soul destroying.

The final method is to hire a concierge, who will do all the running around for you. They'll find the apartment, and then arrange the viewing if you need it. Expensive, but if you can afford it I'm sure they're worth the money. The trick to finding a great place to live is having someone on your side who is in the know and has great contacts.

Voila.

So, my new apartment is on rue St Martin, smack in the middle of town by the Pompidou center. My former estate agent let me off the three months notice, and everything fell into place nicely. Next step is the actual move, which I'm not looking forward to at all! It's a fifth floor apartment, with a lift which is only 3 x 5 foot wide...

June 26, 2006

Six more years to become Junior under-assistant to the PA.

A good friend of ours, Matt, has just left Paris to return to the UK. He loved living here, but found that the french corporate structure was preventing him from moving his career fast enough. Generally advancement was determined by years of service rather than merit, and he was constantly frustrated by being stuck in a position where he knew he could do better. From the US and UK style of working (anglo-saxon as they call it here, as though we were a bunch of vikings or something), it might appear that he didn't put himself forward enough, but that wasn't the case - they actually prevented him from even applying for internal positions, saying that policy dictated minimum experience in certain roles before moving on to others. The policies of this company were quite bizarre, and possibly I shouldn't tar all of french industry with the same brush, but when he stated his intention to leave, they claimed it was company policy *not* to give references.

Back home you did hear of stuffy accounting firms that still called each other by Mr so-and so, as though they were caught in a Dickensian time warp, and it becomes an urban myth type joke. Here it doesn't seem quite so funny, and if I ever return to the world of proper employment, I'd be extremely wary of taking on a job in France without trying to get a rough idea of their office style. Don't forget hand writing analysis is still taken seriously here as part of the job application process, hence the reason cover letters are often required to be handwritten. So far I've not heard of anyone having the bumps on their head felt for a job though. The expectation of having bizarre testing methods does soften the blow of having to put your gormless photo on your CV - perhaps the first culture shock our politically over-corrected senses will feel if you intend to come here to work...

I should be careful not to be too critical - there's been a lot said lately about how french workers produce more than UK workers for less hours. While nobody's arguing the less hours (did they include coffee and cigarette breaks?), the actual numbers could be dodgy.

ps. on checking the spelling on Dickensian, I found out Chas's real name was Charles John Huffam, and his pen-name was Boz! Good job the Boz didn't catch on, otherwise we'd all have Bozian christmas's etc...

pps Good luck Matt, don't forget Gallic shrugs are really annoying back home, so do it as often as possible.

June 23, 2006

France through to knock out rounds

France beats Togo to go through to the knock out rounds of the world cup. That's such a relief - it's probably a bit of an eighties throwback feeling, but it seems right that the western european teams get past the first round. I've nothing against teams like Togo and um, the US, but real world cups have teams like England, Brazil, England, Germany and England battling it out (with England winning of course). So, hooray, France are through to face Spain, who will probably chew them up and spit them out like a snail in a paella (ok, had a few pints while watching the game).

The psychology of the french national teams (whether it's footy or rugby) is completely bizarre though. It's completely the opposite of the rest of the world. If les bleus are touted to be the winners, they perform dismally, yet once everyone has given up on them, they turn out the most dazzling performances ever, putting even the greatest teams to shame.

One game I remember particularly was in the 1999 rugby world cup they hammered the NZ all blacks. It wasn't a lucky victory either, but one of those games where pure style overcame the odds. The national football team seems the same - in games where they haven't a chance, they can pull something miraculous out of the hat, yet when they're on a high (ie after the 1998 world cup), they produce the most damp performances ever.

This mirror like behaviour seems to be reflected in the french support for the team. Tonight we sat in irish pub on the Grand Boulevards to watch the game. The place was packed with french, who I believed really wanted their team to get through to the next round. Yet as the first half unrolled, the support was little more than disparaging. Only when France had scored a goal did the cheering start. At this point the French were ecstatic, practically peeing themselves at every touch of the ball. So only winners get cheered? In an English game the team is cheered every inch of the way. No matter how badly they're doing, it's c'mon england constantly. Of course if we lose they get ripped to pieces in the post-match dissection, but what do you expect.

I have a gut feeling that the two behaviours are linked - something to do with the french psyche. Given something on a plate, the french will be (or just appear?) disdainful, while hold something back from them, they'll fight like dogs to get it. Strikes, queues, arguments, team sports. It all seems to be in there somewhere.


Oh, and the other difference about the french game tonight - you could barely breathe for smoke. I still feel a bit ill from the stench coming from my shirt, and I didn't even smoke tonight!

June 21, 2006

Getting ready for the big show

Tonight's La Fête de la Musique! Almost everyone I know is completely fed up with it (or at the very least, disinterested). And to be perfectly honest, it doesn't seem to be as great as the first few times I experienced it. Whether that's due to a downward slump in quality, or whether the novelty is wearing thin, it's hard to say. The idea of it still really excites me, but the last couple of years the bands seemed sparser and less imaginative.

So, for anyone who doesn't know - La Fête de la Musique is always on summer solstice, every year for the last 24 years (this is the 25th anniversary!). The idea is everyone is allowed, or even encouraged to come out onto the street and make sweet music (the musical kind that is). The law banning noise after whatever time it's banned (never figured out quite when - seems to vary with the party), is dropped just for the one night. There will be thousands upon thousands of people out on the streets - back in the UK, new years eve is always a big event with plenty of crowds out, walking, staggering and crawling between pubs, well, FDLM looks like five millenium new years rolled into one. It's also a night to get food poisoning with the merguez hot-dog stands (nothing like US hotdogs, thankfully), and pay zillions of euros for cans of beer.

Tonight it looks like rain though, so we'll see what happens. It's fairly obvious what tomorrow's blog post will be about :-)

June 19, 2006

Desperately seeking someone ruder

I've been reading in quite a few Paris blogs about the rudeness of the French - struggles in the supermarket, battles in banks, fights in the, um, Fauchon. I can't deny that I've had my own experiences of 'c'est pas ma faut', but I saw something yesterday that put some perspective into things.

We were walking along Boulevard Poissonnière in the early evening and as usual it was fairly full of tourists. There's not a lot touristy about the Grand Boulevards, but there is an excess of hotels in the area, so that's the only reason I can think of to explain why there's always so many tourists (musée Grévin? Probably not - more like Hard Rock Cafe). Actually it's amusing to see how many of them put on their best clothes for their first night out in Paris, and then look completely wrong in a, well, let's face it, not so swanky area.

But I digress (in an inverted snobbily way); there was a guy approaching the tourists and the response he was getting was awful. One lady dived away with a look of pure revulsion, another grabbed her bag tightly and ran. I'm sure if there was enough of them, it would have hit the old biddy critical mass, and we'd have had a mob lynching. Fortunately neither of these ladies had any mace.

He approached me, and asked me where the post office was. That was all he wanted to know. We directed him and off he went...

A bit of street wariness against pickpockets is one thing, but this was a sad sight.

June 17, 2006

Tennis, Tennis and more tennis!

I've just been looking at my webstats (again!: Clearly becoming an OCD...), and saw that someone found my blog through the keywords british embassy in france tennis. For this search I come top apparently, which is bizarre since I've never actually blogged about playing tennis at the embassy, and yet play there regularly! The british embassy has the only grass court in Paris, and allegedly top players occasionally turn up there to brush up before Wimbledon - both of those facts have always surprised me, since in a city of 2 million people, how on earth can there be no grass courts (admittedly no-one has a garden to make one though), and also the quality of the court is hardly Wimbledon standard. It is however beautiful to play on, since the garden setting is absolutely wonderful! You do have to watch where the balls go, since they tend to hide in the borders, and I'm not too sure the ambassador would be too keen to see us slashing away at the flowerbeds in search of lost balls.

That could be all over for us now though - my friend who works there, and who books the court for us (our man in Paris), is having his knees removed in some 'I don't want to hear the details' surgery. His season is well and truly over, which is a real shame (for him much more than us).

However, tennis at the jardin du luxembourg is still going nicely - two hours today and we've two hours tomorrow. At this rate we ought to be super-proficient! Somehow we still pale in comparison to most of the french playing alongside us - it looks like they've taken a lot more lessons than us, since their style is just so flowing and natural...

Anyway, back to the webstat thing - apparently it was a combination of me writing an entry about tennis the other day, and a second post on watching football at the embassy that put me top of the search results.

Other searches that find ME are;
two legged dog
things to do on a rainy day

June 14, 2006

Moving apartment

It looks like there's a brief respite in the weather. Perfectly timed I reckon - much longer and it would have been a bit much. My new offices are nice and airy, although yesterday the heat still managed to sap everyone's will to work. Every year it's a dilemma whether to get air conditioning - the heat that stops you sleeping at night usually only lasts a couple of weeks, and that doesn't quite justify the thousands of euros that AC seems to cost. However, it's only June at the moment, and we've got July and August to go, so that seems a bit ominous.

Last night someone found a solution to the heat, and that was to run around the street throwing water balloons at each other. Would have been fantastic if it wasn't for two things - a) I wasn't invited, and b) it was one in the morning.

Sound from the street carries all the way up to my fourth floor flat. It manages to seep easily into the gaping gaps in my windows (gaping gaps?), since I've got picturesque but ancient windows - no double glazing in my century apparently. Normally the street is quiet, since it's not on a main road, but it always seems to be on the sleepless nights that someone decides to deafen his mobile phone, or just plain yell at the walls. A month ago it was a spontaneous football game....

So, I've decided to move apartment. It's not just the noise, more of a strategic downsize because I'm in a huge flat which I don't need and I want more disposable income (I just love disposing my income!).

It's a tough decision to make. Not because of how much I love my apartment or my quartier, but because of the pure hassle of finding a place. The whole process is messy, and not helped by the unhelpful tenant/landlord rules here. Tenants have lots of rights. Landlords also do, but are generally terrified of the tenants rights. Now I've explained about having a dossier packed with all your life details in my 'Moving to Paris' entry, although not to any great detail. Being self employed makes that challenging straight away. But for me the biggest hoop I have to jump through is the three month's notice I have to give to my current agents to inform them that I'm leaving.

The trouble is if I go and see a flat now, the owner is rarely impressed by having to wait three months before I move in. They usually will pass you over for someone who can move in tomorrow. So, my best option is to give my notice in now, wait a month or so, then find a flat. The risk is, of course, not finding a flat. Cardboard boxes and wine in plastic bottles start to appear on the horizon.

So... here's the point of this post. Has anyone got an apartment to rent? Sounds bizarre since my occupation is apartment rental, but I don't really deal with long term rentals. Preferably a studio I guess...

June 11, 2006

Weekend Sportif

It's been a sporty weekend these last couple of days.

tennis.jpgWe managed to get two hours of tennis on both Saturday *and* Sunday this time round. The courts aren't always easy to get during the weekend, but this time we were fairly lucky. Especially as Sunday's courts were in the jardin du Luxembourg, which is always great even if a bit public. Our tennis is improving quite nicely at the moment though, so it wasn't too humiliating, although I'm sure nobody is that bothered by our performance. Actually my ground strokes really suck, but my serve is getting better and better. I'm one of those terrible tall big guys who can do nothing but smack a full strength serve - it's pretty much if you can return it, then you'll end up winning the point. Unfortunately everyone I play with is quite used to my serves, and they usually return them (which is why I mostly lost today!). Still, things are going well, my serve sounds more and more like a cricket bat than a tennis racquet, and I'm starting to get control of my forehand and backhand...

tennis shadowAll this tennis was in blistering 30 degrees heat (86 degrees F?), and we were practically sliding around in sunblock. Hard work, but not at all unpleasant (actually it was gorgeous!!). There must be something in my past, but I always get nostalgic about tennis in such conditions - the stark black shadow you cast while holding a tennis racket must remind me of a lot of holidays I guess. I tried to take a photo, but you can't get a really sporty shot while holding the camera!

While waiting for the courts to be free we of course lounged around in the sun. The green metal chairs at jardin du Luxembourg are very comfortable, although the sandy floor can be a bit of a suntrap. I noticed that the ducks had the right idea, and they had all taken refuge in the shadow of a statue. I hope you can make it out in this pic (yet again, a camera phone picture, so not too great as usual);
ducks.jpg


The other sportiness of the weekend was of course the great English football team winning their first game in the world cup. We watched it at the British Embassy, since the beer there is super cheap (thank you British tax payers!). I think I'd prefer a pub really though, but we have plenty of friends there so it's as good as anywhere else. On the way to the Embassy, we could hear a huge amount of chanting going on down some of the metro tunnels. I figured that it was the English fans on their way to whichever pub (my favourite place for this kind of event is the Freedom pub - last world cup you could hear the chanting way down the Champs Elysées).

However, it turned out that they were Toulouse fans on their way to the Stade de France. They were playing Biarritz in a final to decide the winner of their rugby champions (Top 14) league.

toulouse.jpg

They poured onto the same train as us, and were incredibly friendly. It was a bit alarming that they were all jumping up and down together, which made the train bounce probably a bit too much. At one point the driver stopped the train to announce that he wouldn't go any further if everyone didn't calm down a little bit. Bizarrely, the moment the driver started the announcement over the tannoy, everyone *did* stop singing to hear what he was going to say! They then booed a bit, but fortunately we started moving again.

toulouse2.jpg

June 8, 2006

Summertime in Paris

[Whoohoo! My 100th post!]

At last! Blue skies and sunburn :-)

It seems to have been ages coming this year, although that could be just selective memory as it always seems to take ages. So now there should be just a couple of weeks before it shoots through the lovely summer stage and into the sweltering, can't sleep for the heat weather. Probably the most booming business in Paris ought to be air conditioning right now, since it barely exists here. Not that it was previously a problem, but the 'too hot' period does seem to get longer each year, and I'm not looking forward to this years...

So, I'm already sunburnt, and the advantages of working for yourself means plenty of opportunities to sneak down to the park and lie around, while all your poor office bound friends swelter away over computer heated desks.

Strangely enough though, it seems to be taking the locals a little while to get into the habit. I went over to parc Butte Chaumont just before lunch time, and there were already plenty of people lounging around. However, they were all quite fully dressed. Shy sunworshippers perhaps. I marked out my spot, stripped of my shirt and illuminated the surrounding area with my glorious whiteness, feeling somewhat self-conscious that I was the only one baring anything, expecting any moment the park police to leap out from some bushes and blow whistles at me.

Slowly as it got into lunch hour the park filled up, but still only a few people were sunbathing. They seemed to be mostly leather-skinned octogenarians (probably younger than they looked though).

Still, I was happy. The only thing I can think of is that it's still a little chilly for the french. The other day while sitting in our favourite cafe at Bastille a guy walked past in a suit and scarf. A scarf!!! There's plenty of people still in wooly jumpers and coats. How do they do it? I'd have sweated away into a salty puddle long ago. Admittedly I'm not good in the heat - I've the British internal heating that allows us to wonder between pubs in the middle of a December night in just a shirt - which is nothing compared to the girls in next to nothing mini skirts etc. Saturday night, midwinter in the UK - nowhere else in the world compares, although I'm sure you're all fairly glad of that.

Anyway, hopefully a few more days and my lobster redness will have faded back to the minor burns level, and I can pop down the park again..

June 5, 2006

Boulangerie pecking order

I've recently moved offices to near Bastille, which is an area I already know very well since most of my friends live in that area. Today I set out to buy a sandwich for lunch, and was hoping to find a nice boulangerie that I hadn't seen before.

The reason I wanted a new one is that the one I already know about has the most bizarre staff, and is usually far from welcoming. However, their sandwiches and cakes are pretty good though (not fantastic, but good), so I do go there now and again.

Unfortunately today I couldn't find another boulangerie (I'll try a different route tomorrow), and ended up there again.

The tall guy who stares at you intensely wasn't there, so it was slightly less of the 'Deliverance' ambience today, but the Madame of the boulangerie was in her usual fine form. She stood rock solid by her cash register, while the staff dashed around taking the orders. They'd then tell her the order and she'd tell you the amount and glare at you. You'd then pay, but have to put the money in a little bowl. Don't ever hand the money like some foolish foriegner since apparently life threatening germs can be caught from grubby coins and notes. She'd then take the money and toss the change into the bowl, which you'd try to scoop up while not getting in the way of the person behind you.

My sandwiches were in a bag just next to her, but I couldn't quite reach them (partly because it felt like taking the favourite squeaky toy from a rottweiler). She stood there and stared at me and I stared back (kind of, my stare was more directed at my sandwiches), and eventually one of the serving girls came over and handed them to me.

Her behaviour isn't all that unusual (for boulangeries) actually. It's not the majority of boulangeries (all the local ones near chez moi are really nice, and they're very happy to see you), but I've come across this in a handful of boulangeries now. Of course it's a culture difference, but not one that's going to sell more bread...

June 3, 2006

Geography

I've just got back home after a quick trip back to the UK. The Eurostar managed to arrive on time, and everything went smoothly. It does seem to be only when I go to the station to meet people getting off that it's late...

As I was getting off, some Americans behind me asked what station it was. I said 'Gare du Nord', and they looked puzzled, so I said it again. 'Not Paris?' they replied, looking worried. Then another worried American in front of me also said 'What? Where are we?'. I told them it was Paris, trying not to grin, and they all looked very relieved. I want to tell myself it was my terrible pronounciation of Gare du Nord, which of course is incredibly hard to pronounce, putting 'mille feuille' well in the shade. But I am hard pressed to really believe that, since the American in front had been speaking fluent french a bit earlier. So, it would seem to be a lack of geography knowledge, although possibly the blame also lies with Hollywood, who seem to think that Gare du Paris should exist (along with snowstorms in London).

Here are a couple of other examples (sorry, but Americans do speak rather loudly, it's hard not to overhear. Is it because your country is so big?);

Half an hour after leaving Gare du Nord on the eurostar;
'So this is England?'

On emerging from the channel tunnel;
'Are we in Ireland now?'

and of course, when an American finds out you're English;
'so you're from London then?'


I'm only teasing though. Americans are lovely really :-)

June 2, 2006

City of Twinkling Lights

TwinklingEiffelTower.gifI've been several times on the tourist boats that putter up and down the Seine, although I've only ever tried the Vedettes du Pont Neuf so far. The boats are quite nice, although close up they're not as picturesque as you might imagine - the usual plastic seats looking a bit worn around the edges etc. This is the first thing I've realised about these boats, and that's to go on them when it's dark! Now I'm being a bit mean to the boats because the real reason to take the trip at night is when Paris is at its best and all the lights come on!

Every bridge along the river is lit beautifully (and recently in the olympic colours, although that was a bit premature!). The boats also have high powered flood lights that light the banks of the river. From the boat this is fantastic, from the banks it's a different story - just don't look directly at the boat if you want to see anything else for the next five minutes.

The one thing you should try to do is find a boat that gets to the Eiffel Tower on the hour. From 9pm the tower does its twinkle act, and this is a real high point from the boat! The twinkling only lasts about ten minutes, but usually stops everyone in their tracks. Initially the lights were part of the millennium celebrations, but they were only designed to operate for a year. After being taken down, there was a general popular opinion that they had been a great thing, and 20,000 new permanent lights were installed.

The new lights were turned on for the first time during the fête de la musique of 2003. Possibly it was a mistake, but the lights on the bottom stage didn't come on, and the bottom remained just lit in plain yellow. The tower looked like a bottle of champagne with the glittery part being the foil top! By the way, fête de la musique is on the 21st of June, and is an amazing spectacle. Thousands of people are out on the streets (more than I've ever seen even on new years eve), and everywhere people are playing music.

Finally, here's a little pic from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, all nicely lit up;

Champs.gif

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.

arago1.jpgarago2.jpg

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...

etoile.jpg

May 16, 2006

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 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!

collapsedbuilding2.jpgcollapsedbuilding1.jpg

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

loire.jpg

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).

loire1.jpg

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!

loire3.jpg

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'.

loire2.jpg

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;

garden2.jpg

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

April 12, 2006

Expensive cakes

While waiting to check in some guests at our rue des Rosiers apartment, Chris and I had a couple of the fantastic falefel kebabs you can buy in that area. The guests phoned to say they'd been delayed on the RER, and so we went into a boulangerie to find some cakes for dessert.

The boulangerie we went into had some really nice cheese cake - not like the stodgy Starbucks type stuff, but really light and delicous. It was probably jewish style, since that's the flavour of the whole street, but I've no idea if there's such thing as a jewish cheese cake, but if there is and this was it, then it was great cheese cake!

boulangerie.jpg

However, while we were waiting in line, someone ahead of us bought some little cookies - the boulangerie lady placed them on some scales and they came to 46 euros!!!

We wondered about this for a while and thought perhaps it was in francs, or the price hadn't been set in on the scales, and then we noticed there were loads of different cakes priced at 30 to 50 euros per kilo! We rapidly rechecked the price of our cheese cake (yup, 3 euros), and then rechecked it again (yep, 3 euros per piece, not per gram).

There's only one conclusion - there is a boulangerie in the Marais selling cocaine laced cakes! They were very popular...

Or, of course, they were very good cakes. How good can a cake be though!

April 5, 2006

Netvibes

I noticed a visit or two was coming from www.netvibes.com, and so I wondered over there to find out who it was, and it turns out to be a really cool personal web portal thing (um, I can't think what to actually call it).

It looks like you can set up your own webspace, with RSS feeds, create your own blog etc. I've seen other sites that do the same thing, but this one is really nice. Each sub window is drag and drop, you can type straight into the page and it's all very very clearly laid out.

Have a look here

April 4, 2006

One way window

It didn't take long after arriving in France before seeing the differences between the way the British view the French and the French view the British.

The tabloid press has never been one of Britains proudest achievements, and general disparaging remarks about Europe and the French in particular are fairly common. However, in France the press is completely different. While the lack of sensationalism makes the french press a little dull, it at least can claim a certain amount of dignity and integrity. Britain seems to be held in a reasonably high esteem, and appears to be held as an example to follow. The fact that the french seem to have so much respect for the British makes stories like this all the more shameful. An owner of a British budget airline has made a few ill judged remarks about the current spate of protests and strikes, saying "Jet2.com condemns French strike action and calls for lazy frogs to get back to work!".

The french seem suitably outraged by this remark, although the jet2 owner's response was "well, they call us les rosbifs"

So, he missed the point entirely! The French couldn't care less about being called frogs, but to openly call them lazy would be plain suicide (if you were standing in Place d'Italie a few nights ago).

And that demonstrates one of the biggest differences in our cultures. Forget language, food, and music - British are insulted by name calling, the french are insulted by questioning actions. Easily proved by going into an english pub and calling someone a wanker, followed by going into a french shop and saying you were given the wrong change.

March 30, 2006

Guerrilla Gardeners

I've just listened to a cool interview on BBC radio 2 (hoorah for internet radio) about guerrilla gardeners who sneak around at night gardening on waste ground and other public areas like roundabouts etc.

There's probably a dodgy side to it (already people are phoning the show saying don't plant trees on roundabouts!), but it sounds great to me!

Here's their website Guerrilla Gardeners.

Apparently they have lots of tactics, including 'seed bombing' where they just chuck a load of seeds out of the car window. I think I've seen something similar in Paris, although it only seems to grow pigeons...

March 26, 2006

Tours of Paris

A while ago I started writing some articles. One of my ideas for an article that never quite reached fruition was to describe some of the different ways to walk around Paris (and walking is the *only* way to see Paris). Rather than waste all that inspirational spittle, I'll slap it out here just for the sake of it, and maybe a real article will appear one day in the distant future...

The Arago Medallion tour

arago2.jpg This is my favourite walkabout when you're not bothered about the tourist attractions. Paris used to be the world's meridian line (until the Brits decided otherwise!), and one of the guys who helped create the line was a french astronomer called François Arago.


arago1.jpg In 1994 an artist called Jean Dibbet laid about 130 or so bronze medallions into the pavements along the line of the meridian, right across Paris. The actual number of medallions isn't clear, and finding a map to the exact locations is almost impossible, even on the internet. This is the first reason I like this tour - it's completely up to you to find the medallions, like a city wide treasure hunt.

The second reason I like the medallions, is that it'll take you through all sorts of backstreets to find them - the north-south meridian line makes no apologies for being a totally straight line. Each medallion has north and south marked on it, and the direction is the only indication of where the next medallion is.

The medallions are across the entire city - you can find them in Montmartre, down through central Paris (a few in the jardin du luxumbourg), ending finally at the parc Montsouris. I've never actually tried doing the entire thing in one day, and it probably isn't that feasible. However, doing just parts is cool enough, and will get you seeing areas of Paris you'll never of thought of trying.


The Amelie tour
Ok, so this isn't a do it yourself tour, since there's plenty of websites describing it and you can even get leaflets from the tourist office. Basically it's the locations of the film 'Le Fabuleux Destin D'Amelie Poulain' (or just Amelie to the rest of the world) and it takes you around the beautiful Montmartre, and not just the Sacre Coeur area either. Montmartre is much larger than most tourists give it credit (seriously, it's not just the big white church folks), and the residential streets are some of the prettiest in Paris.

At the moment there's plenty of people doing tours of the Da Vinci Code book, but even though I enjoyed the book, and it does take you to some nice sights (St Sulpice is worth the trip), you'll be following the BigMac of tours compared to the fois gras of the Amelie tour. Try to get a little bit of french culture while you're here... (perhaps what bugs me the most about the Da Vinci Code is the lack of geographic accuracy that would have been obvious to anyone who's stayed here - police cars driving up the Tuileries and the US embassy totally somewhere else - must make the tour guide's life a bit tricky).


Monsieur Chat

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If you look up to the roofs of Paris, you might see some graffiti of this cat. Keep looking up and you'll see it all over the place. Not so many that it's a real mess, but enough to be fun when you spot a new one (hmm, the opposite effect of Starbucks!). I'm not aware of any maps on the internet, but there might be one or two. The cat most likely to be seen on a hoilday trip will be the one opposite the Pompidou centre. In fact, last summer an artist painted a giant M. Chat on the courtyard in front of the Pompidou, but my photo's were a bit lame, so I haven't put one here. Possibly the only thing wrong with this tour is that the cats are all the same, so it might be a bit dull to chase them down just to see them, but it's kinda fun just to keep your eyes open....


Space Invaders

Similar to the M Chat graffiti, Paris is also plastered with space invaders. I vaguely remember an interview with the artist, who felt that ordinary graffiti looked unoriginal, and wanted to stand out a bit.
spaceinvader.jpg
There are hundreds of space invaders throughout Paris (and other cities now apparently). Many are quite obvious, but most are hidden slightly. My favourite is at the Place du Chatelet - it's camoflaged against the sandstone of the monument there, and goes unnoticed by everyone even though it's in plain view.

There are lots and lots of maps on the internet, but again I don't think I'd want to wander around *just* to see space invaders - just keep your eyes open. In looking for these kind of things, you'll notice a lot more about Paris than just croque monsieurs and the Eiffel Tower.

March 18, 2006

Away again

I'm off to the UK for another trade show, this time is sunny Harrogate. Except it won't be sunny of course, it'll be snowy and cold :-(

Anyway, normal service will resume late next week. Thursday maybe.

March 17, 2006

Gardening

I've had a few gardens in the past, ranging from a students pile of bricks and beer cans, to a long luscious garden filled with fruit trees and flower borders.

However, this is my garden now:

garden.jpg

I can't believe it survived the winter, so it could be worse. Last summer it was fantastic, but I can't find a picture anywhere (must have taken some, but I'm not so good at filing them!).

Everyone else in Paris does red geraniums (too easy), but I have multicoloured pansies which I think look better. I just wish they had a more manly name!

March 14, 2006

Coffee

The other week a Starbucks appeared suddenly just down the road from me. It was incredibly quick too - one minute it was a rather pathetic supermarket that left the bars on it's windows even during the day (umm, inviting!), the next it was a very modern looking Starbucks. There were already laptop tapping people staring out of the window with bored expressions - sometimes when I see things like this I just can't seeing it all like a game of Sims - click of a mouse, starbuck appears, then little people appear from nowhere and walk in, buy coffee, open laptop, unless of course, the people were actually delivered with the Starbucks franchise kit, and the owner needs to place them in strategic marketing-optimised positions (but make sure the coffee odour street fan is on first!).

Anyway, I remember when the first Starbucks appeared in Paris (back in the heyday of 2004!), and everyone was both astonished and disappointed. This wasn't anti-american sentiment, but more a anti-commercialism feeling. Coffee in France isn't about the coffee (which isn't very good), but the standing at bars with a cigarette, or sitting on a terrasse with a cigarette, being social and being French with a cigarette. Starbucks is about walking around with a cup in your hand (never never never do this in France!!!), or sitting in an AC enclosed space being irradiated by wi-fi.

So, now there are 19 Starbucks here. The invasion hasn't been as quick as expected, but it's still rolling along. I'm not sure it'll reach the saturated state of London (more there than Manhatten!), but it's getting there. One day Champs Elysées, Rivoli, bd St Germain and bd St Michel will be mirror images of all the other major cities, one big StarbucksNerosSubwayMcDonaldsUnoTacoBell...

March 13, 2006

Virtual Paris

Here's a cool site if you want to visit Paris without leaving your desk/armchair/starbucks drip;

http://photos.pagesjaunes.fr/

It's actually part of the french yellow pages website, and has a picture of (almost) every building in a whole bunch of French cities. Just plug in the address, and there you are. You even have direction buttons so you can walk down the street.

The only not-so-great part is that all the pictures seem to have been taken at six in the morning, and everything has a fairly lifeless and drab appearance; I used it a bit while trying to find an apartment to rent, but in the end gave up since a) everywhere looked horrible, and b) most apartments don't actually face onto the street - I'd turn up at a place with a beautiful front entrance, only to be led through a maze of passages and courtyards to a 20 sq meter dump overlooking a restaurant's outside toilet.

Anyway, for anyone that wants to burgle me, here's my place - rue d'Enghien - the fifties style laundromat on the ground floor has modernised since the photo, and now looks fairly 80's-ish.

I did try to find some nice tourist views, but the photographer must have had a stiff neck - here's the view of the Arc de Triomphe de la Porte St-Denis which is just down the road from me (the link misses slightly - press the turn 180 degrees arrow!):

stdenis.jpg

This is a fantastic arch, which I always admire every time I go to Monoprix for more cheap wine. It's just a shame you can't stand under it due to the smell of tramp pee and the menacing mob of pigeons.

I then tried Place des Victoires, but this time the photographer took an aversion to looking inwards at the cool statue in the middle, and all you get are the posh buildings around it.

Of course though, they did manage to get the Eiffel Tower right...

eiffel.jpg

March 12, 2006

TV

Here's my recipe for a french TV show -

Pick any topic, doesn't matter what it is, as long as you can make a trailer that might draw people in. Cobble together a bunch of 50 second scenes that are vaguely about your topic (not too many! About 5 minutes worth will do). Fill a tiny studio with a big table and put a bunch of C list celebs around the table. Add an aging but coiffeured host. Pack in a mob of the public (again not too many, toilet paper is expensive! About 30 will do).

This part is important! Make sure the pretty members of the audience are sitting in the front row right behind the celebs. Also make sure they know when the camera is on them!

Intermittently show the scenes, and then let the celebs talk in between. They are probably supposed to talk about the scenes, but that's not obligatory. They don't even have to wait for each other to finish, ego = airtime here folks. In fact, make sure the show's host has a really really really big ego, and let him talk over everybody. The show should last an hour if you want to keep it short...

And that's french TV. I kid you not. The insidious virus of reality TV has made a big splash of course, but the tried and tested (and cheap) formula above is still the king of the airwaves. Heavy politics, avant garde cinema, video bloopers, all are suitable fodder for this beautiful format.

A few years ago they managed to produce a 5 hour special with Céline Dion. 7pm to midnight! Repeated on sunday in case you missed it too...

March 10, 2006

Parc des Buttes Chaumont

If there's one benefit of working for yourself, it's that when you have a slow day you don't have to stay at the office and pretend to work. Sometimes it's just better to go and do something more enjoyable than try and stretch out a bit of unenthusiastic work.

Unfortunately today's whim of the moment made me cycle out to Parc des Buttes Chaumont and jog around it a few times. I have no idea why, but once the idea was there I had to go. For those that don't know, the park of the chip butty is one of the best in Paris (in my opinion), while being relatively unknown by the tourists - Luxembourg is head and shouders above all the rest, followed by Montsouris perhaps. The Tuileries is a desperate dust bowl of rude waiters, with it's only redeeming feature being the fantastic sculpture, and the little boats the kids sail on the pond thingy.

Buttes Chaumont has a man made mountain in the middle, which is really bizarre, but pretty cool at the same time. The concrete blocks are all carved to look like natural rocks, and all around the park are fake waterfalls. Even at the side of the pavements are mini concrete fences made to look like wooden branches.

To run around it however is not so pleasant. What was I thinking? The whole thing is just one big hill!!! Every now and again I try to take up running, and it usually only lasts a month (um, perhaps). I'm just not very good at it. Oh well, who needs exercise anyway...
Buttes Chaumont

March 6, 2006

Cycling

8am on my bike Sunday (very early check in at an apartment!), and the streets were empty - It was fantastic! Clear blue skies, empty roads and Paris to myself. Well, almost - there was already a queue at the Louvre. If you want something for nothing, it's worth getting up early for (apparently - not a personal philosophy that one...)

Then today while trying to get from A to D, I got caught up on a narrow road behind a lorry. There was a van parked vaguely at the side, and the lorry couldn't get round. I guess that it had been like this for a while before I got there, since they'd actually given up on the beeping stage, and a gang of blokes had gathered around the van and actually *lifted* it off the road and further onto the pavement! The lorry then moved forwards about a hundred yards and started unloading (taking it's turn to block the road). I'm glad I don't have a car sometimes.

Later I passed another cyclist actually getting a ticket off the circulation police! Possibly for speeding, who knows. Although ten minutes later I got yelled at by some police for trying to go down a one way street the wrong way. Surprisingly loud voices the police have - especially when they're all carrying automatic weapons...

March 2, 2006

Home sweet home

I've just got back from Barcelona, which was a fantastic place! Even though most of the time was spent working, the company I was with still managed to take me on a whistle-stop tour of the city, which was great since this was my first ever visit to Spain!!!

europe.jpg While I was there it struck me how at ease I felt, even though I can't speak a word of Spanish. I can't even count to ten, although I could just about manage no hablo espagnol, although only because I've seen people on american TV say it. The feeling of not being a total outsider contrasted quite strongly with my visits to the States, where I feel very much the foreigner. It's hard to put my finger on why though - I'd always assumed that language was one of the bigger culture shocks, but perhaps I'm wrong about that. Somehow I can't get completely comfortable with the way American waiters introduce themselves by the first name, as though they expect to become lifelong friends, or how the cities have no real centre, but are sprawling patches of motorway, roadside restaurants and shopping malls. Of course, there's also the jetlag - having your bodyclock completely thrown out of the loop probably doesn't help either, and would definitely be a subconscious unease. Maybe if I stayed in the States more than a week it might make me feel a bit more settled there.

When I first arrived in France, there was an awakening into realising that I'm a European. Not the dull Brussels European of measuring bananas and giving farmers money for empty fields, but a sudden realisation that despite leaving the UK, I was still home somehow. That feeling seems to extend to Spain and Italy, and, I should imagine, plenty of other countries on the continent, but no further. How strange that it's so indefinable?

February 8, 2006

Noise pollution

The sound of cars outside is driving me nuts today. Not driving up and down noises, but continual blaring of car horns.

Most streets in Paris are fairly narrow, and the pavements have posts that stop cars driving up and parking on the pavement. Nice for the pedestrian, but terrible for delivery vans. So, now the vans just stop in the middle of the road, and the guys leap out to shift all the deliveries, but invariably fall into the nearest café for a quick pre-work coffee.

So, the traffic starts to back up behind the stationary van, and the car drivers are instantly onto the car horn. There's no room for the delicate beep-beep here either - it's usually continual beep-beep-beep-beep-beep (with a bit of variety thrown in so no-one confuses it with a car alarm). After ten minutes, it might evolve into one loooong beep that lasts forever - normally only heard on car chase films where the car crashes and the driver lies slumped on the steering wheel. I'm pretty sure the driver has just left a brick or something on the horn, and has gone to join the van drivers in the café for a pre-argument coffee....

However, no-one bats an eyelid at any of this normally - just a day in the life of Paris, repeated on countless streets, day in, day out. I *must* get some double glazing soon!

The most ludicrous example of this I've ever seen was a few years ago, where there was a carpark behind our building, and the entrance/exit was a little passage. Some poor woman was driving out when she came face to face with another car wanting to go into the carpark. Neither moved, but before they had chance to go through the full ritual of raised eyebrows, waving hands etc, another car pulled up behind the woman to also leave the car park. She now was unable to go forward or back up. The car behind was onto the horn in a flash. Then the car in front joined in. Beep-beep-beep...

And so it went on. For ten minutes at least.

February 4, 2006

I'd like to thank...

While perusing the local blogs, I noticed that Petite Anglaise had a weblogs award 2005 finalist pic, and so I trundled down that path to see what it was all about.

I recognised only one other blog on the list of finalists (Fistful of Euros), but had never heard of any of the others. Two things stood out though;

First, the winner and the guy in second came *way* above anyone else. Very fishy, especially as the winner was a really political site, and bored me to death (so therefore, fishy). They must have employed an army of monkeys to click on the links or something.

Secondly, the european category, was Best European Blog (non-UK). Uh? So, the UK is now banned from european awards? Are they too good, too bad, don't wear their jumpers around their shoulders?

Anyway, congrats to Petite Anglaise & Fistful of Euros...

February 2, 2006

Paris Hilton et moi

I was checking out why I was an insignificant microbe on the truth laid bear blog directory (there's a little box on the sidebar), when I saw that you could search for all the blogs that are about Paris.

And there I was, numero 122, just under...
parishilton.gif

I can't believe it! Paris Hilton is probably at home in front of her computer right now feeling extremely smug. Well, maybe...

Also, if I mention Paris Hilton enough times, traffic to my site is bound to pick up! She certainly screws up trying to advertise anything to do with the city on search engines...

Mon tailleur est riche

The other day I had to sort out some plumbing issues with a neighbour of one of our apartments (the ground floor flat had a veritable waterfall going on!), although fortunately it wasn't coming from our apartment. Or at least, I think it wasn't - I had left the keys with the neighbours, and when I picked them up later they went into detail about taps, pipes and other bits & pieces, all in french, and unfortunately their french went straight over my head, and I did that stupid thing of saying 'oui,oui, d'accord'. Duh, when you don't understand, never, never just say yes. After all this time I should have learnt my lesson by now - who knows what you're agreeing to!

Anyway, it seemed ok, although I was definitely having an 'off' day with speaking french - earlier as I had given them the keys they asked me if they should call once the plumber had been, all in french, except it went as follows;
(oh, and I'll do this in english, since I'll only get the french wrong, and you might not be able to understand it!)

les voisins: Do you mind if we called you after the plumber has been here
me: um, oui (nodding vigorously)
les v: uh? So, it's not ok to call you?
me: oh (penny dropping on the 'do you mind' part), non - pas de tout!
les v: non?
me: uh, oui, non, oui, d'accord...

eventually we got in sync, and I was able to run away...

A quiet revolution

When I arrived in Paris 5 years ago, rather sadly one of the things I was most excited about was getting broadband internet! In Britain ADSL still didn't exist, and the best you could do was a double ISDN line which would sputter out 256k at best (about 5 times faster than a dial-up modem). France Telecom were offering 500k ADSL for about 60 euros a month, which shockingly I was quite happy to pay for.

Since then, things have moved at an amazing pace! The speeds jumped, from 500k to 1MB, to 2Mb and last year to 20Mb, while the prices dropped and dropped, so now I'm paying 15 euros/month for 40 times the speed of that original line (all a bit fake though really, since I've *never* seen 20Mb/s speeds, but it still is very very fast). Meanwhile back in the UK, ADSL made an appearance, but has still not risen above 2Mb, while the prices are still 60 euros/month!

Around Christmas time, the biggest jump of all happened. VoIP here became a household reality,and not just Skype style internet telephony, but regular landline phone type VoIP - the type that even your slightly confused gran can cope with. Even more significantly they're offering not only free phone calls in France, but free international calls! For expats like me, that's pretty cool, but for a business, this must be a major saving.

Strangely there doesn't seem to be much talk about it, but surely *everyone* will switch over to these services. Certainly for our apartments it should prove popular with the visitors - we'll just have to persuade the owners to switch over (which they probably will, since the line rental is cheaper than FT anyway).

Actually I haven't switched yet though - Neuf have given me such a horrendous run-around when FT accidentally snipped my phone lines (leaving me offline for a month!) that I'm not too keen to find out how much downtime will happen once I do.

January 30, 2006

Look at my wad!

Today's lunchtime blog reading ended up looking at a load of comparisons between countries, and there was one list that really didn't make much sense. It was a list of most expensive countries, and they claimed that the Economist was the source, but I couldn't dig out the original numbers, so I just ripped off the InternationalLiving.com list -

The most expensive countries in the world

U.S = 100 (see source)
1. Japan (138)
2. Norway (123)
3. Denmark (116)
4. France (116)
5. Hong Kong (113)
6. Switzerland (109)
7. United Kingdom (109)
8. Iceland (106)
9. Austria (104)
10. Finland (103)
11. Netherlands (100)
12. Sweden (99)
13. Singapore (98)
14. South Korea (97)
15. Germany (95)
16. Ireland (94)
17. Australia (93)
18. Belgium (93)
19. Russia (92)
20. China (90)
Source: This cost of living index is compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (www.economist.com) for use by companies in determining expatriate compensation: it is a comparison of maintaining a typical international lifestyle in the country rather than a comparison of the purchasing power of a citizen in the country. The index is based on typical urban prices an international executive and family will face abroad. The prices are for products of international comparable quality found in a supermarket or department store. Prices found in local markets and bazaars are generally not used. New York City prices are used as the base, so United States equals 100.

So, France is more expensive than Britain? At what? So far the only thing that's really hurt financially have been taxes and beer, although the taxes aren't that much worse than Britain (well, they might be if I was rich, but I'm not :-P ). The beer however is very very very expensive. I think the average pint in Britain is about £2.30, or about 3 and a bit euros. Here it's €6.50 a pint! So a nice english night out (pub, pub, pub, club, kebab) can set you back a small fortune, and in a credit card challenged country like France, that's a real problem!

The alternative is of course to drink comme les français, but seriously, why would anyone want to sip a single demi of tasteless kronenbourg for 4 hours? The only upside of all this that I can think of is the lack of ghastly stag and hen nights that the British are using to invade cheapy beer places like Prague.

Anyway, back to the expensive countries list - before Alison and I came here we were living in Sheffield in the north of England. The north is a lot cheaper than the south, with the super-expensive London zone now expanding to the entire south-east of the country. I expected Paris, being a capital city and all, to be similar in cost of living to London, but amazingly it was no worse than Sheffield! I just couldn't understand why the french were all whinging when they talked about the cost of Paris... In fact, with housing in France being so relatively cheap, the English have now bought up vast tracts of Brittany, Toulouse, Chamonix etc, determined to live idyllic lives running 'gites' - there are even tv programs on the BBC on how to do this! I haven't noticed any programs about the post-traumatic return trip to the UK after being ostracised by the french and ruined by local planning permission laws, which is a shame since that would be *way* more entertaining...

So, last word on the subject of country comparisons - with regards to the most popular comparison (judging by the vast number of comments), where's the UK? and if it's so true, why do shoe sizes only go up to a 46 here (if you're lucky)!

January 21, 2006

Nobody understands moi

I'm off to Germany tomorrow to install my company's software at a childrens hospital, so I might not be blogging for the next week (hospitals don't trust staff with internet connections).

I thought that it might be a good idea to transfer my landline to my mobile phone just in case any super important phone calls come in, and according to the France Telecom website to do that you call 3000. Comme d'habitude a computer answered, although this time it didn't ask me to press 1 to do this, 2 to do that etc, it asked me to say it!

FT: Dit accedé ma ligne pour blah blah
moi: um, accedé ma ligne
FT: Accedé ma ligne. Entrez les dix chiffres de blah blah blah
moi: beep beep beep (I didn't say that, that was me entering my phone number)
FT: dit ton service blah blah blah
moi: transfer d'appel
FT: Secret d'appel. Entrez la numero blah blah blah ou dit sommaire pour la menu principal
moi: um, no - transfer d'appel
FT: Secret d'appel. Entrez la blah blah
moi: duh, somaire.
FT: menu des choix est indisponsible. Dit somaire. pour...
moi. soooh-moire
FT: ...
moi: suh-mwah
FT: blah blah blah
moi: *sigh* trrrans-FER d'appel
FT: messagerie vocal. blah blah
moi: what?
FT: ...
moi: trans-fer da pel!
FT: transfer d'appel. blah blah
moi: whoo hoo.
FT: heures locale. blah blah
moi: crap. trans-fer de pell.

And so it went on into the small hours of the night. Eventually I managed it, only to be told I had to subscribe to the service at 1,50€ per month (of course), and I had to wait until my subscription had been validated. Of course tomorrow is Sunday, sooo....

January 18, 2006

Addiction

I seriously need help! I'm completely addicted to Haribo Tagada, which are squishy little red sweets, allegedly strawberry flavoured, but I could be just saying that because they're red.

Unfortunately it's impossible to eat just a few - you have to continue until the whole packet is gone. Usually you feel a bit queasy at the end, but that's normal. However, I've found that drinking strong coffee to perk yourself up doesn't work too well... Also, there's a certain knack in timing the next handful from the packet before finishing chewing the last mouthful - too late and it's unfulfilling, too early and you run a serious risk of choking to death. Don't tell me that you should just put them in your mouth one at a time, that's just crazy talk.


Click here to find the best price to buy by the truckload!

January 17, 2006

Things to do on a rainy day

It's been a wet, cold and miserable day in Paris today - normally I'd just say wet, but since I spent most of the day trudging around, buying of all things cardboard boxes, I'd just like to emphaisize the cold and miserable part. IT WAS COLD AND MISERABLE. It was that icy cold type rain, not the Gene Kelly type of rain, and I've still got a headache as you can tell from this whiney post.

I can't believe it's so hard to buy cardboard boxes. When I was a lad, you'd get them at the supermarket - they'd even cordon off a big area where they piled them up for people to take. Either that was just the UK, or it doesn't exist anymore. Of course the office supplies shops didn't stock them (duh! This is sooo typical of france. I'm not super keen on commercialism, but when I go to an office supply shop I want a choice of shredders, not just the one poxy overpriced model that they thought they ought to stock just to look like an office supplies shop. Cardboard boxes, packaging - pretty basic stuff, but nowhere to be seen). In the end I found them at BHV, which is a truly miraculous shop and always makes me feel better (still wasn't going to sing in the rain though). Their basement has *everything* for DIY, including the totally useless things you don't even know what they're for until one day you really need it (and happens more than you'd think).

Sadly I'm quite into all that 'do it yourself, I'm not paying all that to buy one ready made' type stuff. My living room lights, coffee table, and other bits & pieces are all homemade, most of the paintings on the wall are mine, and if you surf on the web hard enough you'll find that I've made my own telescopes which involved lots of power tools and fiddly bit of stuff tied together with wire (ah, here's a word of warning - be careful what you put on the web! You think you're in control, but you're not. Once you've forgotten the passwords to those free webhost sites, and then those pages are up there FOREVER! Also, bizarrely, once those pages no longer had my input, they became way more popular! Something not right there).

Oh, and the other sad thing is that in order to cheer myself up while at BHV, I impulse bought a new filofax to replace my usual one. A filofax! Good grief, I am working *way* too much. Next I'll be pleased that I can find a suit that matches both my stapler *and* my hole-punch! Then shoot me. Please.

January 14, 2006

Ex-Pat bloggers in Paris

I must do some work (yes, even though it's saturday, and it's not going to change tomorrow either *sigh*), so instead of course I've been looking around for other non-french blogs from france (I know, reading the french blogs will be good for my french and help me integrate more, but it makes my head hurt), and there's loads of them, which is great!

Bizarrely most of them seem to be into knitting. I hope that's not obligatory...

L'Auberge Espagnol

I finally saw L'Auberge Espagnol the other night, and I'm probably the last person in France to do so. They're already past the sequel Les Poupées russes which I'll have to get hold of soon as Auberge was a great film!

It's kind of odd seeing a film about escaping Paris for a better life after making my way here from the UK to do the same thing, but it does give a great perspective on the French (even though it's mostly in Spain). Apart from the great scene about insane bureaucracy and getting the right forms to take the Erasmus trip (should be part of any induction course into living in France - there's no avoiding it, just live with it!), the biggest thing it showed was the propensity of the french for having affairs. It seems to be a natural state of being here - I once knew a woman who was the second mistress of some guy or other, and she felt she was in quite a position of power (since she could tell either the first mistress or the wife to screw him over, whereas the first mistress only knew about the wife). Unfortunately she had begun to suspect there was a third mistress who knew about all of them, and she was wondering whether she really wanted to entertain his dreams of forming a quintet...

Not that L'Auberge goes to that kind of lengths (I'm sure there's a french film or two out there that does, although I'm sure they've managed to reduce it to the same dreary introspective that's de rigour here - just because you get french exports like Amelie and Delicatessen, don't think that they're all that great!). The main guy just gets all depressed when skinny Audrey Tatou dumps him because that means he's reduced to only the wife of his friend (at least, I think that's why he was fed up).

Anyway, try and see the film if you can. Definitely worth it...

January 13, 2006

Mini ego trips

Someone has mentioned my post about crossing the road on their blog (In Paris Now - www.inparisnow.com)!. What's more, my web stats show that yesterday 6 people came from that site to mine!!! Well, one of those people might have been me, but still... Unfortunately yesterday I was posting mainly articles on healthcare rather than Paris which they would have found *extremely* dull and confusing. So they'll not be back in a hurry...

Anyway, that's made my day, but I guess I should write more Paris stuff though. Writing into the void without an audience did seem a bit pointless other than good for the finger muscles (and I'm sure there are better exercises for that). I saw some advice that with blogging doing more posts is better than just a few big posts, and I should be posting most days. So, new years resolution number 63, blog more (just under new years resolution number 62, pack away xmas tree before february).

Also, they added a picture which looked sooo much cooler than my original post. Wish I had time to do that :-(

January 11, 2006

Sales

The sales started today in Paris. Considering how uncommercial France generally is, the annual sales are actually quite impressive with 'real' reductions of 50% or so. Usually I replace my entire wardrobe during the sales, since I can't be bothered to clothes shop the rest of the year, but money's a bit tight this month :-(

I was in an irish pub with a couple of friends on sunday (the guys in the photo earlier in the blog), and we noticed that they had wallpapered with some british newspapers and we joking about the eternal DFS sofa sales - well, two of us were, the other guy was french and didn't have a clue what we were going on about. He was also puzzled by our disparaging remarks about the irishness of the pub. This was a pub in the banlieu rather than one of the Parisien irish pubs (which aren't too bad), and consequently was run by french people and full of french people. Somehow it just doesn't work (one guy was drinking an espresso for goodness sake, and they'd run out of guinness - 'keelkenny monsieur?'). It's a bit like when I was stuck in Singapore for a month or so, and you quickly realised the western food was a strange imitation of the real thing, as though the chef had seen a picture once but had never actually tried any. Fortunately the local food was fantastic, and the lack of a decent burger didn't really matter after a while.

January 9, 2006

Mad scientists

A friend forwarded me this story from New Scientist. It's about a mid-20th century who had been working on anti-gravity, and possible hyper-space travel. Normally all the stuff you read about on the net on these topics is sheer bollocks, pretty much on par with the Area 51 wackos - it's startling (or worrying) how many people can just tag professor or Dr onto their name and then claim to be experts in something or other. Or actually, the worrying part is that other people go along with it.

Anyway, this story seems to have some credence to it. Well, kind of anyway - the credence only comes from the lack of dismissal by other scientists rather than the evidence backing the theory up. The scientists asked about the theory said they couldn't understand it, and so couldn't rubbish the idea. Honest I suppose.

Anyway, the real reason I think this is a cool story isn't because of the fantastic claims it makes, but because of the scientist himself. Apparently when he was 19 he accidentally blew himself up in the lab, and lost both forearms, his hearing and his sight. Despite this he carried on to study quantum physics with his parents transcribing all his equations etc...

January 6, 2006

Holiday in an apartment rather than a hotel

Nowadays arranging your holiday independently of travel agents is a breeze, and more people are doing it every day. Chances are though, you're still doing the 'find a flight' then 'find a hotel' route. Instead, next time why not consider an apartment instead of a hotel? It's usually no more expensive than a hotel, especially for families, and can provide a much more comfortable base for your holiday.

You're free to come and go as you please, and save time and money for the quick meals or breakfasts rather than having to stop at an expensive café every day. You'll have a living room to rest in during sightseeing trips, and no rush to get up in the mornings to avoid the cleaning staff.

Here's an example of what you might expect. We have an apartment on rue St Antoine in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. Since the owner often uses it himself, he has beautifully decorated it and equipped it with all the modern conveniences such as dishwasher, satellite television, broadband internet etc. The apartment is on the fourth floor with a beautiful view, and has a living room and dining room as well a single bedroom. With the fold out sofa-bed, the apartment can sleep up to 4 people, and is only 135 euros a night. Could you find a hotel suite that would be equivalent to this at that price?

Most of the people who stay in our apartments are overjoyed at the ease and comfort. Since working in this business I've also changed the way in which I approach booking holidays. Taking a hotel room now reminds me too much of business trips and stark tiny rooms with overpriced continental breakfasts. Being in an apartment means you live like a local, popping to the local boulangerie for croissants, a quick powernap in the afternoon, and then finally stumbling home in the early hours after a night on the tiles in Paris. Be truly independent on your holiday, and book an apartment instead of a hotel!

January 5, 2006

Crossing the road

I've just popped to the supermarket to buy wine and sweets (already have coffee), and watched another near death experience of some french pedestrian. When I was a kid in the UK, we had constant adverts with this guy called the Green Cross Code man (there's another vague memory of being taught to cross the road by squirrels, but that could be a false memory or a dream or something - I mean, what do squirrels know about roads!). Anyway, as every brit of my generation knows, the green cross code guy was played by the actor who later played Darth Vader, but they dubbed his voice because he was from Cornwall or somewhere like that, and Ooh arrh the force be strong with ye doesn't sound very scary. So, we were regularly brain washed on tv to stop, look and listen before leaving the curbside, don't step into the road until it's clear etc.

Here in France it's a completely different tactic. Your average Parisien strides purposely out into the road for 3 or so paces, looking straight ahead, and then takes a quick glance sideways (maybe) to see if death is coming quickly in a 6 seater Renault Espace (which it invariably is). Some people then take a step back (not back to the curb in a flailing mess as we would do), but most don't, and stand their ground toreador style.

If another pedestrian then approaches to cross at the same spot, the first guy has already annexed the first base camp of the road, and so the second pedestrian can go a little further into the road. With enough luck and body count, they can usually break through even the busiest road or freeway.

Why do they do this? I'm at a complete loss. I wonder whether the children of France have a tv caped crusader to help teach them how to cross a road, but they probably don't. And even if they did they wouldn't have seen it since tv is never watched here anyway since it only ever shows Celine Dion and interminable chat shows (ah, a topic for another day!). Apparently France has one of the worst pedestrian accident rates in Europe, although that's a totally unqualified fact. Possibly I misheard over the loud bar music that it ought to have the worst rate rather than actually has, but whatever.

Anyway, to wrap up, you can always tell who are the Germans here. They the ones still standing on the curb when there's not a car in sight because the crossing light is still showing a red man. Apparently in Germany if you get caught crossing when it's green you get points taken off your driving license, and if you cross against a red light everyone assumes you've already lost your license due to drink driving. (ok, I made the drinking bit up, but it's true about losing points, and it's true you can spot a german a mile off since they really really do wait until it's a green man. Long long after the french stormed the other side and removed the injured and dying...).

January 2, 2006

Busy day

Made it to lunch time at last! It's been non-stop today, with a check-in and check-out at the same apartment, not that the next tenants have arrived yet, but shouldn't be long now. It's not one of our busiest apartments, but it is one of the most comfortable and nice to stay in, and the reason for this is that the owner normally lives there and occasionally lets it out for some pocket money. Only a few of our apartments are like this, but it makes the world of difference. Certainly we try to furnish our regular apartments as nicely as possible, but if it's someone's home, then the warmth of this often comes through.

Anyway, it's been busy because apart from the checking out, I had to do the cleaning plus chase all the way across town for a cot which the next clients need. All on the metro, which I'm not going to say is horrible (since it's not), but for the last year I've been cycling everywhere, and it's so much better! Paris is really very small, and I normally tell new arrivals that they should definitely walk everywhere since it's the best way to see everything. Cycling here isn't as dangerous as you might think either, as all the bus lanes are cycle ways too, and car drivers seem to respect the law here (no idea why, they don't anywhere else - if there's a one way road and you want to go the wrong way, just drive in reverse!, or if you ride a motorcycle, then use the pavements, that what they're there for!).

January 1, 2006

Happy new year

Happy new year everyone!

'Everyone' probably doesn't mean much right now I should think, since I doubt I've any readship. Not that I mind - in fact having a readership might be a bit scary, like having a responsibilty to write stuff that makes sense, or at least isn't mind numbingly boring!

Anyway, new year was fun, although as usual still paling in comparison to the millennium new year - I wonder how long that'll take to wear off, certainly can't wait another millennium. The streets were full of english speaking people as usual, or apparently so anyway. I think we tend to get drunker and shout louder anyway.

I've also given up on the big spectacle in Paris too, even though somehow Paris got a good rep about new years fireworks after the 2K do. Usually nothing goes on anywhere. On one of the first new years eve that I was here (2001), we were all on the Champs Elysées, expecting big things. The road was sealed off and packed with people - at about ten to midnight the lights on l'Arc de Triomphe went down and we all waited in anticipation. Gradually as various groups saw that it was midnight (totally unsynchronised of course, no Big Ben chimes here, and even if there were, they'd be an hour late), we all realised that the lights on the arch had merely been turned off for the night and that was your lot. Happy new year.

The next day friends who had gone to other areas such as the Eiffel Tower said that it had been the same for them, and had generally all been damp squib like, assuming there had been a firework anywhere, which there wasn't.

So, new year in Paris, is it worth it? I guess so, just don't expect any organised events. The following year we went to Montmartre instead, and this time there were lots of fireworks! Nothing organised, just anyone and everyone letting rockets off left, right and centre. Often horizontally rather than up too, so it had a bit of a warzone feel about it, which the fire breathing juggler people added to (not that people breath fire at the enemies in a war, certainly not while juggling anyway). Much cooler and all the more better for its home grown and spontaneous feel!

December 29, 2005

Back home

Home again. Christmas was very pleasant this year, although since I still haven't figured out the moblogging bit I can't show you any photos. The UK seems to have been like France with everyone holding off onto the very last second before buying anything, and the sales in London even started before christmas this year (should I be writing christmas with a capital C?).

I've been blaming the media overreaction of the riots here for the recent slump in rental bookings, but apparently it's been bad all round as one hair-dresser friend reported. Apparently the french have discovered rotating credit cards (if that's the right phrase). I remember when I arrived all those years ago how there were no credit cards ads or junk mail here, and wondered why the french didn't use credit cards. Well, apparently now they do, and have even moved onto the stage of moving credit from one card to another. This years retail slump is the result of too much credit debt.

How true this is I've no idea since I'm definitely not about to launch a straw poll of my french friends about their credit card debts. There's a whole bunch of faux pas' that a new arrival here will make (such as taking wine when you've been invited to a dinner), and one of them is asking a french person how much they earn. In the UK it's only a slight minefield, as most people are happy to ask even if they're not happy to reply, while in the US it seems a topic on par with asking about cosmetic surgery and whether you're irish-italian-american or just irish-american (ie, it's ok to ask, just to be clear).

Anyway, allegedly the french are now up to their eyeballs in credit card debt. Presumeably one day they'll pass through that pain barrier just like the yanks and the brits have, and move onto remortgaging debt consolidation schemes with a sigh of relief. In the meantime, they'll huff and puff about it in the papers and tv news.

This actuall reminds me of another news item that has been recently bothering the french. Apparently they're getting fatter. I'm not sure whether it's the aesthetic problem, or fear of just another way we're invading french culture, but the media was quite anxious about it. Unfortunately they had to have some film to go with the news report, and clearly the cameraman couldn't find any fat french people, and it was quite obvious that all the people shown were tourists. From what country though, I'm not going to say ;-)

December 22, 2005

Eurostar

Since I'm trying to avoid doing any work at the moment, and since this blogging is a lot of fun, here's something I've learnt about getting across the channel (english channel that is, even though the french want to call it a sleeve (La Manche), but then as I saw on a comedy thing somewhere, since they've the Riviera and the mediterranean on their borders, why would they care about a little 22 mile wide strip of water on a freezing north coast!):

When you first go to the Eurostar website to buy a ticket, it'll ask you what country/language you would like - you don't have to choose the correct country, as they'll still send out tickets to the right address. I've found that looking at the UK/English site the cheap 'loisir' tickets disappear quicker than if you're using the France/French site.

So, if you can't find the 35 euro tickets on the english page, delete your cookies (which means you'll get offered the language choice again), try again but in french and see if you can now get cheaper tickets.

Apparently it's due to the english and french services having their own ticket allocations, and the english side usually runs out first...

Post to France

Here's a touching story on how to hassle little old ladies in the post office: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/kent/4551696.stm

Quelle surprise that the letter still hasn't arrived...

Keep the receipt

Living in France is a bitter-sweet experience, definitely when you come from a country like the UK or US. One of the biggest things to come to terms with is the different level of service you get in shops et, especially when there's a complaint to be made.

It all comes down to personality and first impressions - stride into a shop and declare that you've been sold faulty goods and you'll get nowhere! To imply that the shop assistant is at fault (even if they were) will immediately create a huge obstacle to returning or even replacing the goods. I had a friend who bought an iron and tried to iron some curtains. Immediately the thermostat on the iron broke, it heated up fully and melted a hole in the curtains. She took it back and berated the shop keeper, who berated her back about how stupid she was for putting such a hot iron on the curtains, and so it went on. She did get a replacement iron, but was too exhausted to fight for any compensation with the curtains.

However, it goes the other way too. Go into a shop and side with the assistant on how they have to put up with horrible customers, and they'll see you as one of the nice ones and go a long way to help you out. A vague example is my parents who were holidaying in the south somewhere. On their return trip there was a transport strike (must have been a Friday), and there were no trains back to the city where they'd get a link to the airport. They tried for a taxi but they were also on strike. In the end they tried the local buses, and found only a few were running, but none to where they needed to go (they were trying to get to another train station where they had heard they could get a train that was still running). After listening to their story, the bus driver said not to worry, and he'd take his bus off route just to drop them off at the station. I couldn't imagine this happening in the UK, but it seems to fit in with what I've learnt about the french. Just don't blame them for anything, ever!

December 21, 2005

Paris not burning

The apartment rental has been a bit slow lately - hopefully it's down to the fact that the foreign media totally overreacted to the riots we had here at the end of last month. I've heard from various places that americans were advised not to travel to France, and that the media portrayed the city as being a warzone!

If I hadn't been watching the news, I would never have known anything was going on. Paris seemed to be its usual self - very very safe! However, the police chief's statement that violence was back to normal levels and that the usual number of cars (about 80!) was being burnt each night! Very reassuring...