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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...



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...



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 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 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 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.

pontneuf.jpg

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!

pontneuf2.jpg

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 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).

scaffold.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 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).