Tuesday, 24 November 2015

My Weird Experience at the Gynaecologist's

Because every female in the anglophone expat blogosphere has one, right? That oh-so-embarrassing moment when, in the doctor's consulting room (which probably looks more like their living room than any medical establishment you've ever visited before) you realise that when they say, "Take your clothes off," they mean right now, they mean in front of them and they really do mean all of your clothes.

Well *spoiler alert* my story has nothing to do with getting naked. I remember being a little surprised by that when I went for my first ever appointment with a French doctor, which took place in a leisure centre, was only to be certified fit to join a sports club and, as always happens, was on a day when I happened to be wearing my oldest, greyest knickers. But getting naked for the gynaecologist doesn't bother me. I figure they've seen it all, they're going to see the most private bits anyway, and I've learned my lesson about wearing modest but not holey knickers.

So anyway, I needed to see the gynaecologist and made an appointment by calling one who was recommended by my (wonderful) GP. The receptionist explained that it wouldn't be the usual doctor, but her replacement, and asked if that was OK. Being generally inclined to trust anyone who has qualified from medical school and been approved by the French state to practice, I accepted and went for my first appointment.

The first appoinment was fine, and I was pleased that at the end I was able to pay by card. (Many doctors don't accept card payments, as they have to pay for the equipment and transaction costs and their fees aren't necessarily high enough to cover that.)

Then I had to go back for a follow-up appointment, and that was where things started to get weird. Firstly, she started dropping in all these phrases in English all the time. And I don't mean tricky medical terms that potentially I might not have understood, just normal, everyday English, which was weird, because I hadn't exactly had trouble communicating with her the first time round.

Then she asked me what I weighed and I told her, but said I wasn't totally sure, so she sent me out to weigh myself on the scales in the waiting room. They were electronic, and when I stepped on the first time, they gave me a number about 13 kilos less than my normal weight, then went off completely, so I went back and told her the number was far lower than it should have been, at which point, instead of saying something like, "Oh dear, maybe the battery needs changed," she laughed and declared, "Ah, vous êtes mignonne, vous."

Then she tried to take my pulse rate, but strapped the meter on to the wrong side of my arm, so unsurprisingly it didn't work. (I'm pretty sure you don't have to spend seven years at medical school to know that you find your pulse on the inside of your wrist.)

By this point, I was starting to feel as if I was on an awkward first date with someone who was perfectly pleasant but was more keen on me than I was on them, so I was quite relieved when the time came to pay, and brought out my bank card.

"I don't take card payments," she declared. I said that I was sure I had paid by card the time before but she said, "No, you didn't," so, apologising profusely, I rushed out to the nearest cash machine to withdraw money, then came back and paid her, once again excusing myself for having wasted her time.

Then I checked my bank statement a few days later and saw that there was indeed a card payment taken from my account on the day of the first appointment and in her name.

Now I wasn't bothered by the incident with the pulse meter. I was prepared to forgive her for the scales, even if I don't feel that calling your patients "cute" is really appropriate in a medical professional. But lying to me and making me feel guilty just because she couldn't be arsed to turn on her card reader in the morning? That's pretty unforgivable from somebody you're supposed to be able to trust implicitly to monitor your health and stick weird devices into your lady bits.

If anyone needs a recommendation for a gynaecologist NOT to see in the 4th arrondissement, just let me know!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Allons enfants de la patrie ... et les anglais aussi

In a week full of sad, serious and difficult news, one video more than any other put a smile on my face. Le Petit Journal sent their journalist to Wembley and managed to convince these two English guys to sing La Marseillaise for the cameras. (Just in case anyone out there doesn't know, there is an enormous rivalry between the English and the French and most English people are not at all confident in foreign languages, so this was a wonderful show of solidarity. It's also hilarious.)

Englishmen with a few pints in them aside, however, it's also been a week where La Marseillaise has been sung far more often and by far more people than usual, and I have not been 100% comfortable with that. The reason? Although I couldn't actually recall the words as well as the two blokes in the video, the lines, "Que du sang impur/abreuve nos sillons" have troubled me for quite some time, and seemed particularly inappropriate under the circumstances.

Apparently I'm not the only one to have been bothered in this way by one particular couplet of France's rousing national anthem, because UFM was watching one of his football programmes the other day and the topic came up. It turns out this is a common misconception, as a history teacher phoned into the show to explain that in fact, at the time when the song was written, the French aristocracy considered that only "blue" blood was pure, and therefore the "sang impur" in fact refers to the sacrifice of ordinary citizens towards a just cause.

I guess I can comfortable get on with learning the rest of the words now. Although violent and bloody, they're still preferable to the British "God Save the Queen", which at one point in its history famously had an extra verse inserted about crushing the rebellious Scots!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Thursday, 12 November 2015

More Smiles on the Metro

If there's one good thing about taking the metro every day to work (apart from when I get a seat and can catch up with my reading), it has to be the adverts. They're like a little window into life (often Parisian life) and, unlike TV adverts, which I hate, I find the posters in the metro quite clever and entertaining.

The current ads for this new website make me laugh, because what could be funnier than an English-language pun that only really works if you have a French accent?

I also like this one, because even if the sleazebags who actually harass women on the metro will unfortunately take no notice notice,  I hope it will at least raise awareness among non-sleazy men, even the best of whom seem to think it isn't such a problem really:

Finally, we took the Transilien train over the weekend and they have a new range of adverts to tackle incivility, of which my favourite was the one which said, "Give up your seat for elderly people and pregnant women. You'll feel better." I think I like that one because it's true!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Frustration on the Northern Line

As part of our recent travels, Understanding Frenchman and I had the unfortunate experience of using the metro system in an unfamiliar city and it was without a doubt the most frustrating part of our whole trip.

First there was the queueing system to buy tickets. A huge line of people were coralled off into one single line in front of a long bank of ticket machines. It would have been a fair and efficient system except that the queue was positioned so that the people at the front of it couldn't see which machines were free and which ones weren't, and the person who was trying to tell them was standing at the other end and shouting at them, but they couldn't hear her. Some of the machines took cash, some took only cards and some looked as if they were just for topping up travel cards, but in fact you could also buy normal tickets, except nobody knew that, so nobody was using those machines.

Eventually we got to the front and Understanding Frenchman bought two city-centre tickets for the extortionate price of about 14 euros. Each journey is cheaper if you buy a travel card, but it isn't worth it if you're only doing two trips.

Then we went to the ticket barriers, only to discover that the travel card I bought last time I visited this city didn't have enough credit on it, so we had to go through the whole stupid queueing system again. (This is another reason why you don't buy a travel card for a city you don't live in.)

Then we had to figure out which way to go, but the metro maps weren't displayed until after you had to make the decision about which line to take.

And finally, when we were coming back three days later, Understanding Frenchman discovered that the "return" ticket he had bought was only valid on the day of purchase, despite costing exactly the same as two single tickets, so he had to pay again.

If we had been in France, I would have been having a "Why is this such a stupid country?" momens. If we had been in Italy, it would have been a, "Why can't this country be more organised and stop ripping off the tourists?" moment. If we had been in Germany, we would have been cursing stupid German rules that nobody else can follow.

But we weren't. We were in London, in my home country (albeit the part that makes me feel less at home than I do in Paris) and things were supposed to make sense to me.

We were relieved to get on the Eurostar and be whisked back to Paris.

This will be an experience to remember next time "France" is driving me nuts!

Sunday, 1 November 2015


Autumn has been gorgeous in Paris this year. I read somewhere that for the leaves to turn red, yellow, bronze and gold, the temperature has to drop rapidly between the end of summer and the start of autumn, and that's certainly what happened this year when the mercury fell about ten degrees in the space of three days. This is a photo of my favourite view in the Bois de Vincennes a few weeks ago, and when I walked around the Lac Daumesnil yesterday, it was even more stunning:

My friends and I went on our annual October pilgrimage to the Alps (autumn is by far my favourite season in the mountains) and enjoyed crisp mornings, sunny afternoon siestas and delicious warming dinners of hearty soup and raclette.

While we were in the Alps, I got a message from my brother saying that my new nephew had been born, so our next October trip was over to the UK to meet a teeny tiny baby. In between cuddles, we went for a walk along the South West Coastal Path and were treated to sunshine, fresh air and beautiful sea views.

Finally, we came back to Paris and attended the wedding of two very dear friends. The Mairie du 3ième went to an enormous effort to make the ceremony personal and not just an administrative formality. One of my favourite moments was when the mayor handed them their Livret de Famille (book of family records) and said to them, "There are spaces at the back to record the births of eight children, but you only need to fill them if you want to!"

Monday, 19 October 2015

Give Me A Pause

For years now (if not decades), English-language slogans have been a common feature of advertising in France. I've always found it a bit weird, but I guess it's a similar phenomenon to listening to music where you don't understand the lyrics - the style is more important than the substance.

However, French law decrees that if an advert contains foreign language content, it must be translated. Often it's fun to see how much of the original meaning is kept, or lost - it makes you realise how much advertising contains untranslatable wordplay.

In the case of this advert, however, it was the irony of the translation that made me laugh:

Translation: Un break, un Kitkat

As an example of the translation being even more redundant than the English-language slogan, ça prend vraiment le biscuit.* **

*As no French person said, ever.
** I am quite proud of my bad pun though.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Learning New Words at the Fête des Vendanges

With happy memories of last year's Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre, (even if the vine I bought in a pot turned into a dead stump rather than the beginnings of my own personal vineyard), I was looking forward to this year's. I'm not sure how "authentic" the event really is, but given that it's an opportunity to sample wine, cheese and saucisson in one of my favourite parts of Paris (with the added bonus the past 2 years of some gorgeous early-autumn sunshine), I'm not sure I really care.

Understanding Frenchman and I started off with a glass of St Emilion and a glass of Lalande de Pomerol, which we drank on the steps of the church. (Somehow in France this doesn't seem too sacrilegious!) Deciding that the wine was too heavy to be drunk on its own, UFM went off to find some saucisson to accompany it. Unfortunately, we didn't have a knife, so we had to peel off the skin and just bite into it, which wasn't very elegant, but it still tasted good.

After that, we set off for a wander around the rest of the fair, which turned into a bit of a vocabulary lesson for yours truly:

"Tartempion" means a person who's name you can't remember, normally because you haven't bothered to make the effort because you don't care that much.

I asked UFM to explain the names of some of these drinks to me and they were so rude that he translated them into English instead of explaining in French. When I pointed out to him that we were surrounded by American tourists, so this wasn't exactly the height of discretion, he replied, "I know - I did it because they're more likely to be shocked than French people!"

I made a point of turning up to the Fête this year with an empty stomach, because everywhere you go, there are delicious things to eat being produced in vast quantities. There was giant tartiflette:

Giant barbecue:

And, for less subtle wordplay than the bottles in the second photo:

I was determined to have something I was unlikely to eat elsewhere and finally settled on a sandwich buttered with foie gras, filled with magret de canard and sprinkled with sel de Guérande.

By this point the fair was starting to get really busy and it was hard to wander around any more, so we strolled back through the quiet streets of the 9th to the metro and went home to have grated carrots for dinner!

Saturday, 3 October 2015


I was expecting coming back to Paris, and more significantly, work, after a long holiday and the small matter of a wedding and honeymoon, and experience a massive, empty sort of comedown.

In the event, I actually just felt tired.

Really tired.

I like my job a lot, but it can be draining, especially when coupled with 2.5 hours of commuting every day. And so it turned out that when I was expecting post-wedding blues, it was more post-holiday blues that I experienced, and specifically, resentment at the lack of time for my own projects and at the fact that when I did have any free time, I was too exhausted to enjoy it.

Another thing I've been thinking about recently is how for a natural introvert, I have developed a very busy social life over the past few years. When I was at school, I spent a lot of my free time alone, reading, writing, drawing and daydreaming. I was lucky enough to have a few close friends who were similar, so I wasn't ever lonely, but we didn't exactly have a buzzing social life either. University was a bit the same - I had good friends, but the subjects I studied left plenty of room for time alone as well.

And then I started working, and moved to Italy and then France, and discovered travel and the joy of socialising that doesn't always centre around getting very drunk and ending the evening in a scruffy nightclub, with people with similar interests and worldviews, and I met Understanding Frenchman and we moved in together, and suddenly there wasn't so much time for reading, writing and daydreaming anymore.

So that has been my goal over the past few weeks: to minimise time spent at work and make good use of my commuting time to either finish job-related things or get on with reading some really good books, and to use the time left over for quiet, introverted activities. I'm still going out and meeting lots of friends, but only for the events I really want to go to. If I'm too tired, I say no.

Because if you're too exhausted to enjoy the free time that you have, what's the point in having any?

Unfortunately, this doesn't make for very interesting blogging material, so for now I'll leave with a photo of the flowers I planted in our window boxes, which make me happy every time I look up from the book I'm reading to gaze out of the window and daydream.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Entire French Nation in Cutlery Shocker

Clearly I am not a very observant person.

Because it took me eight years to discover that in France, not only is it acceptable to eat your breakfast baguette off the table without using a plate, but you can also hold your knife in your left hand and your fork in your right and use the knife to snowplough food on to the fork before scooping it into your mouth.

And I only found out when a friend who is also married to a Frenchman told me that at her in-laws' house, this practice is so common that they actually set the table the opposite way round and she is always getting into trouble for laying out the cutlery in the conventional British fashion.

It's not that this particular way of eating is particularly shocking per se, it's just that in the UK we tend to believe that the French are more sophisticated and refined than we are, and in high-class British etiquette it's considered rude even to turn your fork over and use it like a spoon - even for eating peas, you're supposed to push them on to the back of the fork and raise them delicately to your mouth with your left hand. In real life, most people would turn over the fork, or use it in their right hand to eat foods like rice or baked beans, but using a knife in the left hand is so bizarre to me that I don't think I would even know how to do it.

With nothing more than our upcoming wedding to stress about, I worried for about 5 minutes about how Understanding Frenchman will ever teach our children table manners (if we ever have any children), but then I realised that if it took me 8 years to notice what the French were up to, it couldn't be as serious as all that.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Recreating the Auld Alliance: Our Franco-Scottish Wedding

We did it! Having had not only our low-key wedding at the mairie in Paris but also our 3-day Scottish DIY wedding extravaganza, Understanding Frenchman and I are now quite definitely married. And, having not only survived but spent most of the time with huge smiles beaming across our faces, I thought I'd share some of our experiences of organising what almost certainly was the greatest party of our lives. So here are some thoughts:

Getting married at the mairie in July worked really well for us. Although it was a bit weird being officially married but still having our big day ahead of us (and telling the man in the wine shop that you and your mari need to order wine for your wedding...) it was also nice in the hectic few weeks before our Scottish event to know that whatever might possibly go wrong, we would definitely be married at the end of it because in fact, we already were.

When you walk down the aisle, it can be good to know you're already married!
A venue with on-site accommodation was the right choice. We were initially a bit apprehensive that not all of our guests would appreciate the hostel-style dorms and shared bathrooms at our chosen location, but in the end, with alternatives being hard to find and quite expensive, especially with the current exchange rates, nearly everyone decided staying on-site was the best option. Also, even after 3 days, I didn't feel I'd spent as much time with everyone as I wanted to, so I can't even imagine the frustration if we'd only had a few hours with all those people that we don't get to see often enough and who had travelled a really long way to be there with us.

DIY worked. And our friends are awesome. To have a venue with all the accommodation, for three days, and still stay within our budget, we had to do a LOT of DIY. The only professional services we brought in were caterers for the wedding meal and a ceilidh band for the Scottish dancing in the evening. This meant a lot of organising by us in the months, weeks and days leading up to the wedding, and a lot of hard work by our friends and family both on and before the day, but the end results went beyond all our expectations and were a true testament to the love and friendship of all the people who helped us out.

Serving up le haggis

My mum, brother and sister-in-law cooked haggis for 100 people the night before and one of Understanding Frenchman's friends did all the barbecuing for our final meal the day after. My oldest friend and her mum did all the floristry using flowers I'd ordered from Flowers for Florists (who were incredibly helpful and even sent out the flowers before I'd paid for them after I had a problem with the ordering system on their website.) I bought 500 sheets of tissue paper from a wholesaler supplying packaging materials to small businesses and a big group of friends turned them into giant pompoms, while French-speaking teacher friend organised a decoration-making workshop for all the children who came to the wedding. That same friend also conducted our unofficial wedding ceremony in a way that was touching and beautiful and personal and which I will never forget. And then there were all the people who served drinks and moved tables and handed out programmes and probably did a hundred things to help out that we didn't even ask them to do. If any of them are reading this, thank you: you are the best!

Flowers by Friends
(Incidentally, all our friends were fantastic, but I have the impression that this ability to take the initiative and work together to coordinate events like this is also a particularly French trait. Perhaps it's because in France more weddings, and other significant parties, take place in people's gardens, or the local salle des fêtes, whereas Scottish weddings are usually in places like castles and hotels where more is done for you. Whatever, it was a group of French friends who noticed on the morning of the wedding that we were about to get married next to a barbecue and quickly sourced a table cloth and rustled up a few extra pompoms to keep our wedding chic!)

Spot the BBQ!

Translation is Important. We were lucky to have a friend who could conduct a bilingual wedding ceremony for us. UFM said his vows in French and I spoke mine in English. (It was meant to be the other way round, but in the stress of the moment we forgot!) For the ceremony readings, we put together a little booklet with translations to avoid absolutely everything having to be repeated twice, and we also had French and English versions of all the information, instructions and menus. Probably one of the trickiest things was the speeches - we did ours in both languages, my dad spoke in English and my mum in French, and the best men did a bilingual speech as well. Where we went wrong was having several of these before dinner, as it all took longer than expected and the food got a little bit cold, so if there was one thing I could change about the wedding, it was probably that. We were glad we made the effort with the translations though, as some of the non-English speakers felt a bit lost during the rest of their stay in Scotland, but at least we could say that for the part that was under our control, we had done our best.

French version of our wedding menu

Food is also important, and so is wine... In terms of catering, we were determined to bring in all the good things from both of our cultures. We were happy with the caterers we found, who used lots of local produce and were able to produce a menu to impress even the French guests, (or at least keep their taste buds and digestive systems happy). We bought most of our wine online from www.nicolas.com, tasting bottles from our local shops to choose the ones we wanted and having them delivered to my parents' house in Scotland. (You can have up to 36 bottles delivered internationally at a time before you have to pay customs and excise duty.) Unfortunately, this fell through for our last order, where Nicolas claimed they sent us an email to tell us that the wine we wanted was out of stock, but we never received it and found ourselves ten days from the wedding with no red to serve. Luckily Majestic, a UK company, were there to help and even phoned around several Edinburgh stores to find enough of the wine we wanted and deliver them on time. We ordered cheese from France from the Fromagerie Beillevaire, and that arrived with no greater hitch that the delivery driver complaining that he had to move the package to the back of his van because of the smell, to which UFM replied with a shrug, "yes, eet eez cheeze," thus confirming the reputation of Frenchmen worldwide. We also bought local Scottish cheeses from I.J. Mellis, a specialist in Edinburgh, just to keep things in balance.

... and so is whisky. Our venue had a rule that, although the party could continue as long as we wanted, we had to turn amplified music off and be reasonably quiet after 11pm. I was worried that, well-meaning as our French friends are, they might find this completely incomprehensible, as French weddings tend to go on all night and, in Brittany, traditionally end with the guests cooking onion soup and serving it to the bride and groom sometime around 5am. In the end though, everyone was very understanding, particularly as my brother had brought along a few bottles of single malt and was organising a very civilised whisky tasting just at the moment when we turned the music off.

The sun can shine, even in Scotland. Our trips to Scotland the last two summers had been a bit of a washout weather-wise, so the most we were hoping for on our wedding day was for it not to rain for the entire day. But as the day grew closer, the forecasts grew better, and we were treated to three days of glorious sunshine with just a little interlude of rain the day after the wedding to prove to our guests that they hadn't brought their waterproofs in vain. Maybe we managed to import some French sunshine along with the wine and cheese, but I'd like to believe that Scotland decided to put on her best welcome for our lovely international guests!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

What Slogan Shall We Have for Lunch Today?

One of the most memorable signs I ever noticed that told me I had become accustomed to French life was the day I walked into a UK supermarket and found that it felt too clean. In French supermarkets, the radishes have dirt on them, the fish counter smells of fish, the cheese counter of cheese and, if it's my local Franprix, there's usually some oddly unidentifiable odour coming from the corner of the freezer aisle. In the UK, on the other hand, everything seems to be wrapped in plastic, hermetically sealed and displayed under overly-bright lighting on gleaming white plastic and chrome shelves. It's all lovely and shiny, but to my Frenchified eyes, it doesn't look like food anymore.

This summer, I've been struck by another phenomemon: the prevalence of food marketing. It's everywhere. Take this lunch time, for example, when I went to the store cupboard in my parents' house to look for some fruit. Sure enough, as my mum had said, there were flat peaches in there.

Six of them. Neatly packaged on a plastic tray and wrapped in a plastic cover bearing the slogan "Sweet, aromatic and easy to eat."

My Frenchified soul was practically insulted. Because why would a peach ever not be sweet? (Because it's been grown under artificial light in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, picked before it was ripe and shipped over to be sold, hard and yellow in a UK supermarket, that's why.) And "aromatic" - well if they hadn't entirely sealed it off in plastic, I might have been able to judge that for myself. And as for "easy to eat", is eating fruit really so difficult that we need the supermarket marketing companies to persuade us that it won't be a completely unbearable experience?

Food advertising does exist in France, of course. One of my favourites was the adverts on the metro for yoghurt that were around a few months ago announcing, "Prochain gargouillis dans 4 minutes," and I do have a memory of something rude involving a type of sausage. I was also amazed when I first arrived in France in 2002 at how many products aimed at children were described as being "full of sugar to give you lots of energy!" But the marketing doesn't seem to be everywhere, and it doesn't seem quite so insidious as it is in the UK.

Another thing I've noticed relates to the nature of the slogans. In France, the packaging might describe the product in a tempting way, using words like "onctueux" or "moelleux", or it might go into detail about the origins or manufacture of the product. In the UK, the wording implies much more about the consumer and his or her relationship with food. This is particulary obvious with desserts, which are nearly always "indulgent" or maybe even "sinful".

Sadly, I think this says a lot about just how broken that relationship with food is in so many cases. Because do you know what, UK food marketers? I can decide to eat a chocolate dessert as part of my reasonably healthy diet just because it tastes nice and I enjoy it. It doesn't have to be because I "deserve" it, or because I'm "indulging", or because I'm trying to fill some terrible hole in my psyche with sweet, fatty food. And I don't feel the need to go to confession, or even to the gym, to make up for it, either.

And while my lunchtime peaches were indeed "easy to eat", the experience was somewhat spoiled by the fact that I spent the whole time I was eating ranting internally about a slogan which I found very hard to swallow.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Parent-Pleasing Paris

When my parents came over for our French wedding, they stayed for a few days and I had to put a bit of thought into how to entertain them. My mum comes over fairly often and has seen most of the major sights, and while it was my dad's first visit in a long time, I wasn't sure that queueing with the  tourists to go up the Eiffel Tower or visit Notre Dame in the middle of a heatwave was the best way to convince him to come back for more.

Both my parents like walking, but on hot, crowded pavements, not so much, so we started out with a stroll along the Promenade Plantée, and they were impressed by how well kept the gardens were, even if the flowers this summer are not quite as impressive as I remember last year's being. (Maybe la canicule got to them as well as to my little window boxes.) When we arrived at Bastille, we admired the July Column and tried hard to remember enough French history to figure out which revolution was which. (The column celebrates the July 1830 revolution, Les Trois Glorieuses, which led to the fall of Charles X, who became king after the restoration of the monarchy. He was replaced by Louis-Philippe I, Duke of Orléans.) After that, we strolled around the Port de l'Arsenal and found a nice park bench on which to rest our weary legs.

We walked a little further into town for lunch at Place Ste Catherine, a secluded square near St Paul metro which is a great place if you want to sit on a terrace away from the traffic and the crowds, then made our way back to Bastille to embark upon my great inspiration for the day: a trip up the canal with Canauxrama boat tours.

Unlike the Bateaux Mouches and other companies who operate mainly on the Seine, the Canauxrama tour is small and personal. While there aren't a huge number of sights and monuments on the canals, the guide gave explanations of the history of different areas and told interesting anecdotes in French and excellent English (with that great accent that only French people who have learned English really, really well seem to acquire - it doesn't sound typically French, just very dignified and a little bit exotic!). The tour starts by going through the canal tunnel under the Place de la Bastille, where you can look up to the crypt of the July Column, where apparently lie the remains of some nuns who were accidentally killed in the revolution. The tunnels have street signs, so you can tell where you are relative to the city above.

In the tunnel

Going through a lock

Bassin de la Villette

The trip that we took takes you up to the Bassin de la Villette, going through several locks on the way. I'd seen the locks operating plenty of times, but it was fun to be actually on the boat. If you take the tour that goes up the canal rather than down, be prepared to be sprayed in the face with canal water as the lock fills up! It takes 2.5 hours to travel the whole length, and the balance of commentary and sitting back relaxing and enjoying the view was just perfect for a hot summer's day. It's a fun way for visitors to discover "real" Paris and I enjoyed showing my parents the parts of the town where I actually live my life, as well as learning some interesting snippets of history along the way.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Les Aventuriers de la vie

Je vous souhaite de souhaiter.
Je vous souhaite de désirer.
Le bonheur, c’est déjà vouloir.
Comme en droit pénal, l’intention vaut l’action.
Le seul fait de rêver est déjà très important.
Je vous souhaite des rêves à n’en plus finir et l’envie furieuse d’en réaliser quelques uns.
Je vous souhaite d’aimer ce qu’il faut aimer et d’oublier ce qu’il faut oublier.
Je vous souhaite des passions.
Je vous souhaite des silences.
Je vous souhaite des chants d’oiseaux au réveil et des rires d’enfants.
Je vous souhaite de résister à l’enlisement, à l’indifférence, aux vertus négatives de notre époque.
Je vous souhaite surtout d’être vous.
– Jaques Brel

With all the planning for our Scottish wedding in August, the day of our French ceremony crept up on us and almost took us by surprise. Our paperwork roller coaster ended up with an official date in the diary at the mairie, but document to confirm it until I went and asked 3 days before (which probably also contributed to the everything seeming a bit unreal). Most of my stress on the day of the wedding was related to making sure the various close family members made it off the Eurostar and over to the mairie on time, which was made a bit more difficult by the fact that my little brother arrived with a crutch and his arm in a sling, accompanied by his pregnant wife, but looking after everyone else helped to stop me getting too stressed about the actual wedding, which was probably a good thing.
When we finally did make it to the town hall, everything was locked up and there was nobody around. (It was lunch time in France, after all.) Eventually they opened the doors and we made our way up to the salle des mariages, a very plain and official looking room with a big desk and a microphone at the front, some rows of chairs, and a picture of François Hollande on the wall. As our main wedding celebration will be in Scotland, we hadn't asked for any extras in our French ceremony, so it began with us being asked to identify ourselves (I had to confirm the pronunciation of my name before we started), followed by the extracts from the Code Civil, our agreement to take each other as husband and wife, signing the register and the reading of the acte of our marriage.
The ceremony was conducted by a representative of the mayor and she explained to us that it was only her second wedding ceremony since being elected, so she got a little bit emotional, which was actually really nice as it made what was otherwise quite a bureaucratic procedure seem that bit more personal. To finish, she read the text above, which I think is so beautiful, I sort of wish we'd chosen it for our other wedding too! It's called "Les Souhaits aux aventuriers de la vie" and was originally a speech made by Jacques Brel when he was asked to give his wishes for the new year during an interview. So in the end, what could have seemed like just another administrative step to take turned into a really nice celebration of this big step in the adventure of life. And, with our new livret de famille on the living room shelf, I'm not only officially married, I feel a little bit more French as well!

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Choose a Life, Not a Country

There's a particular  kind of click-bait that appears frequently in certain parts of the anglophone media that I find irresistible. For other people it may be the latest celebrity gossip or articles about scroungers and skivers in the Daily Mail that entice them in with those attention-grabbing headlines, then leave them feeling either smug or outraged, and at the same time slightly tainted. For me, it's a particular strain of lifestyle and opinion pieces about France, prevalent in the Daily Telegraph and the New York times but present elsewhere as well, that gets me every time.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a link to this article in the Telegraph entitled "France is Better than Britain but We're Scared to Admit It." and I tried hard to resist clicking, because often the "France is wonderful" articles are worse that the ones which indulge in le French bashing, reducing the whole country with all its flaws and glories to good food, nice weather and better-behaved children. 

Of course, I didn't resist. I gave in. The article was actually not as trashy as the headline might lead you to believe, touching on productivity and France's lower Gini Coefficient (the measure of inequality) as well as the inevitable sunshine and wine, although I was a bit surprised by the reference to the wonderful toll motorways.*

Nevertheless, the problem with this kind of opinion piece is always the same: it is impossible, at least for countries as economically and politically similar as France and Britain, to decide which one is "better", and trying to do so when you have made the choice to live in a country which is not your own is a very effective way to torture yourself. Most disadvantages have a flip side, and so do most advantages. It's interesting to compare the way different countries do things, because on individual points, we can learn from each other, but if you try to come to a total of credits and debits for your home country of choice, you're unlikely to succeed, and certainly not objectively. Depending on the day, I can find living in France wonderful, terrifying and everything in between, and often it has more to do with my state of mind than anything that's actually happening here. 

But if this is the case, why make the choice to live in a country which is not your own? What justifies deciding to uproot and taking on all the struggles in can bring? Well for starters, there's the personal: after six years in France, I have built up friends, a career and what will soon officially become my family here, and I'm not going to throw that in just because France comes out unfavourably on some set of statistics. Equally, even if it were possible to decide which country was better "on paper" that wouldn't make a blind bit of difference if your life there was horrible. 

The second kind of advantage is less tangible, but when I look back on how and why I became a willing migrant, I realise that it was certainly the root cause, what led me to develop the said friends, career and family in France and not in the UK. I came here, and stayed here, for the glorious enrichment of living in a culture which is not my own. I love the fact that my life is bilingual. If Understanding Frenchman and I have children, I love the fact that they will be bilingual (and we will never have to grapple with the arguments about whether learning a language other than English is worth all the effort it entails). Even if the learning curve slows down after the first few years, I love making baby steps towards a deeper understanding of France. I love the debates that we have over the dinner table where each of us brings the perspective of our different backgrounds, but also enough sensitivity to understand that neither one is necessarily right. 

To be able to experience these things in a country where the scenery is beautiful and the food is excellent is an added bonus, and in fact a huge privilege. 

It more than makes up for the motorway tolls.

* France privatised its motorways in 2006. As far as I know, most people consider that their sale was a massive error of judgement where the state and the driving public lost out massively, while the shareholders have been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Macaron Making

I've had Jill Colonna's Mad about Macarons on my shelf for a couple of years now, ever since it was given to me as a present, but despite the fact that she describes the process in a simple, step-by-step manner that should be possible to follow even for a slapdash, go-with-the-feeling type of cook like me, I've never quite dared to go beyond looking at the pretty pictures and enjoying the cheerful, chatty style of her text.

Last weekend, however, I had my pre-wedding girls' get together* (it was going to be a non-gender-specific pre-wedding party, but the boys chickened out) and learning to make macarons seemed like the perfect activity to help my friends get to know each other on a Saturday afternoon in Paris.

We booked a class through a company whose name I'm not going to mention on here because, while they weren't bad enough for public naming and shaming, they turned out not to be exactly a delight to do business with either, and there were some issues with the reservation process. The lesson itself, however, was fine and a good balance of fun and learning.

We turned down a glass of champagne when we arrived, preferring to keep our wits sharp, which turned out to be a good idea (especially as some of us had already had some bubbly earlier in the afternoon ), so it was straight down to work. We started by making three different kinds of filling, all of which required careful weighing, heating and mixing. It was the first, and perhaps the last, time in my life that I had ever weighed egg to the nearest gram.

After that, we had to make the biscuit mix. There are two ways of doing this: the Italian and the French. With the French method, you mix all the ingredients directly, while the Italian method involves heating the sugar to a perfect 118° (we had little thermometers with alarms which went off when it was ready) and apparently gives a crispier meringue. Piping the mixture made me feel as uncoordinated as trying to follow a complicated zumba choreography, but luckily our batter had a good enough consistency for us not to be left with too many misshapes and peaks, which, this not being a hen party, we were all too polite to describe as what they obviously resembled:

After two and a half hours of hard work, our creations were finally complete and ready to be tasted. At this point we decided it was definitely time for a little champagne reward. We were really quite proud of the results, but when we offered some to our teacher, who had been very encouraging all afternoon, she described them only as "edible", in true Parisian style. As predicted, they improved after spending the night in the fridge, and we also happily scoffed a few for breakfast on Sunday morning.

So, will I be attempting to put my skills into practice in the future? Well, if someone can supply me with a proper oven, a mixer, a sugar thermometer  and a nice man to do all the washing up, I suppose I would consider it!

*Can you tell I really detest the term "hen party"?

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Between Britain and France

In French, the Channel Islands are called Les Iles Anglo-Normandes, and that pretty much sums up why they are a funny place for a British person resident in France to visit. They speak English there, but the place names are nearly all French. You can sail there from France, but if you want to catch a plane, you'll have to fly to England first. And you can see the Normandy coast from the beaches, but don't forget to take a UK travel adaptor if you want to plug in your appliances.

Jersey and Guernsey, along with some smaller islands, were part of the Duchy of Normandy at the time of the Norman invasion of England. In the 13th century, Normandy itself became part of France, but the islands remained attached to the British crown as crown dependencies. Elizabeth II is their monarch, but Jersey has its own legal, fiscal and administrative systems and is not part of the EU.

If I had remembered all of this beforehand, I might have taken my UK bank card and a few pounds sterling when we visited last weekend. Luckily I was smart enough to take my passport, and so was allowed on to the ferry that sails from St Malo at a fairly ungodly hour of the morning.

We stayed with a friend in her beautiful flat overlooking the sea and this, coupled with the beautiful weather and the lack of outside communication (we didn't remember adaptors for our phone chargers!) meant that Jersey was something of a real paradise for us as well as a paradis fiscal for millionaires. We spent most of the weekend hiking along coastal trails and even managed a paddle, although my plans for sea-swimming were scuppered when the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the wind picked up on the only day I had my swimming costume in my bag.

We travelled back on the early boat on Monday morning and spent a day enjoying the equally gorgeous St-Malo before driving back to Paris in the evening. With my appetite for summer holidays well and truly whetted, it's been hard to go back to work this week!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

How Living Abroad Can Make You Passionate About Politics

I say "for anyone who doesn't know" because in France, the election was widely reported and discussed. It felt quite strange seeing my country's politics as headline news on Le journal de 20h.

The main reason for this is that the Conservative party, who won a surprise majority, has promised an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union. Meanwhile Scotland, which is largely pro-Europe, having rejected independence from the UK in a referendum last year, voted massively in favour of the Scottish National Party; hence all the yellow on Maggie's head.The SNP leader has already made it clear that a UK exit from the EU would be considered as a reasonable justification for a second referendum.

All of this made me think not just about my own political opinions, but about the way that they have grown so much stronger over the past ten years or so. I suspect that this has something to do with getting older and more educated about it all, but I wonder if it isn't also caused by spending so many years living in other countries.

When you first move abroad, particularly to a country with high political engagement like France, answering questions about your country's politics can be overwhelming. You go from being an individual with your own opinions to someone who is expected to explain in a few sentences an entire country's perspective, even if you happen to disagree with the majority of your compatriots. And people are not always terribly sensitive to the fact that when you are the only foreigner at a dinner party surrounded by French people who don't understand why the UK might have a different point of view on the Schengen agreement, the Euro or the Common Agricultural Policy, all that intensive questioning can feel quite threatening. (My American friends who were here during the Iraq war had an even tougher time!)

Over time, I've got better at handling those situations. It's partly because I've educated myself about the issues and I know my own standpoints better. It's partly because since the economic crisis, it's a bit more obvious to people why Britain might not have wanted to be part of the Eurozone. It's partly because I speak better French. And it's also because I understand the French perspective better, so I can explain both more clearly and more diplomatically why some British people hold different opinions, without necessarily saying that either is right or wrong.

I believe without a shadow of a doubt that this double understanding, with the ability to comprehend different viewpoints, as well as being able to make honest comparisons between countries, is one of the most valuable things that you can learn from living abroad. It takes a long time though, and it's hard work.

What do you all think? Has living in another country made you more politically engaged? How do you handle those difficult questions?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Gatekeeper of the Secrets of the French State

I promised in my last post that I would let you know the sequel to us completing our wedding application dossier, so (because I know you are all so interested in French bureaucracy), here it is.

Six years enjoying the privileges of being an EU citizen with no need for a carte de séjour must have turned me into a big softie, because I found the whole marriage application process incredibly stressful. My most recent encounters with local administration had led me to believe that the stereotypical fonctionnaire was a dying breed, so it was a bit of a shock to discover after meeting the incredibly helpful person at the electoral registration office and the rapid-response team at the service des impôts that it's in the weddings department that the hardcore old-school cases reside.

We first encountered The Gatekeeper over the phone when, realising that our application process was going to take longer than expected, Understanding Frenchman phoned the mairie to get an idea of what dates might still be available. Not asking for an appointment, you understand, just wanting to know if it was reasonable to expect a Saturday, or a date in July, or if we should plan around having to wait for a Tuesday in November.

But that information is clearly classified at the highest level, because she would tell him nothing.

Then I called to ask for an appointment to hand in the application, which of course can only be done on certain days of the week between the hours of 9 and 4. The Gatekeeper offered me a time, but when I asked her if I could check with my employer about taking time of work to attend, she refused to make the appointment until I had done so. (By which time for all I knew, the appointment would be gone) When I called back later, with nothing confirmed but having decided that my employer would probably be kinder than the French administration, there was nobody to answer the phone for the next hour and a half.

So by the time the day was coming round, I was a nervous wreck. A nervous, angry wreck, I should say, as I was spending far too much time, usually in the wee hours of the morning, thinking about what I would say to her if she asked for any more pieces of paper stamped in triplicated and translated at the cost of a couple of hundred euros a time. (In reality, I would probably just have cried.)

When we arrived at the town hall, we spoke to the nice lady at reception, spotted the helpful man who had given us all the information when we first went to ask about the dossier ... and then we saw her. Although we had both only spoken to her on the phone, she had the forbidding demeanour of a brick wall topped with barbed wire, and we knew it was her.

I don't know if the appointment we had was supposed to be an official audition, but basically all she did was check that the information we had written on our forms matched the paperwork we had given, and hand-wrote it all on another form. She questioned our letter formation in a couple of words, told UFM that what he had written for his witness' profession was not a proper profession, changed Royaume-Uni to Ecosse, and that was about it.

And then, we were finally given access to the precious calendar, which turned out to be an A5 diary with appointments written in in biro. There were plenty of Saturday dates, and even Saturdays in July. It was looking hopeful.

But there was one last piece of paperwork to be filled in. Foreign citizens have to sign a declaration that they are not already married, and the version we had in our dossier was an old one. I would have to go back, and in fact we might both have to go back. She said she would phone me.

In the meantime, however, she would put a wedding date in the diary for us. (Big sigh of relief).

In pencil, of course. (She told us that three times.)

So I have to go back and sign another document in order to have the privilege of having our wedding date written down in ink. But the funniest thing was, when she phoned me back to confirm that only I would have to go, she was very cheery and actually wished me a happy birthday, saying, "I didn't realise when I looked at your birth certificate before."

So that was my present: a wedding date from the mairie.

Written in pencil, of course. 

Friday, 8 May 2015

Putting Together a French Marriage Application

This is going to be a bit of a boring post for anyone who's not looking to get married in France any time soon, but just in case anyone is, I'm putting it out there. When we were putting together our application, I actually found that the information provided by the mairie was very clear, but my own ignorance/incompetence slowed down a few stages in the process, so maybe you can learn from my experience.

We collected our application file from the mairie in person, which was worthwhile, because the section for foreigners has a few things that you don't necessarily need, and the man we spoke to told us what they were. There are three forms to fill in: personal information for each of you, plus details about the witnesses. You also have to provide proof of address (1 document each), which can be an income tax invoice or an EDF bill, a copy of your passport or ID, and copies of the witnesses' ID. French people also have to supply an up-to-date birth certificate (ie issued less than 3 months ago).

As a side note, British people find the idea that a birth certificate can be out-of-date hilarious, but in France,  marriage and PACS are added to your birth records, so the information can actually change and the certificate proves that you're not trying to commit bigamy. What I found much more amusing was that while my certificate copy is printed on thick official paper with an embossed stamp, Understanding Frenchman's resembles an extra-long dry cleaning ticket which could easily have been forged in someone's living room.

Being Scottish, I had to order an official copy of my birth certificate from the registry office in Edinburgh. You can do this over the phone, it costs £15 and takes about a week to arrive. The copy has a date of issue on it, which solves the problem of the original certificate never going out of date. I then sent the copy to the British Embassy in Paris and they used it to supply me with a Certificat de Coutume, a highly expensive (98€) and to me somewhat unnecessary document which basically says that UK law allows me to get married without my parents' consent and that it won't cause me to lose my British nationality.

After that, I sent the official copy of my birth certificate back to the UK for an apostille. This is an extra document which is attached to the certificate and confirms that the signature is genuine. So for £42, a UK civil servant signed a piece of paper which says that another piece of paper signed by a UK civil servant is not a forgery. (I guess it keeps unemployment down.) I found this part confusing, because I thought an apostille was a stamp which could be added after translation, but in fact it's another document which needs to be translated at the same time as the certificate.

Finding a certified translator was reasonably easy, but finding the time to take the document to an office in Paris when I work office hours in the suburbs and then spend an hour on the RER held me up a bit, followed by the above confusion over the apostille, but when I finally got the whole lot back from the translator (66€ this time), we were good to go.

Until, that is, I looked at the information from the mairie again and realised that you have to make an appointment to hand in the dossier. But this post is getting long, so the story of our encounter with the administrative gatekeeper with a heart of gold will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dans le Bugey

If the region of Le Bugey were located anywhere other than the south-east of France, nestled between Lyon, Annecy and Chambéry, in the metaphorical if not the literal shadow of the Alps, it would probably be really famous. Understanding Frenchman and I discovered it by accident, the year my car was nearing the end of its useful life when, unable to drive at over 100km per hour, we abandoned the motorways for the tranquility of the routes nationales. We stopped for a lakeside picnic on the way to Grenoble that summer, fell in love with the scenery and promised we'd be back.

It took us a while, but last weekend, we finally went. We stayed in a gîte in the village of Ceyzérieu and hiked in the nearby mountains. The first day was wet, but our four hours in the downpour were compensated for by this beautiful waterfall at Cerveyrieu. On the second day, we climbed the Grand Colombier, the region's highest mountain at 1538 metres. I would have preferred to stay in the area on the Sunday, but the friends we were with preferred to visit the town of Aix-les-Bains. Although it wasn't a hugely inspiring place, especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the lake scenery is beautiful and I was charmed by a mother crested grebe paddling around with ten little babies who took turns to rest from swimming by clambering on to her back.

So there you are: the secret's out. Get there before everybody else does!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Taking the Tram in Porto

My friend and I were originally planning to go to Marrakesh for our short week away this month, but flights to Morocco were very expensive and flights to Porto were cheap, and neither of us had ever been to Porto and we both quite liked the idea, which is how we ended up arriving last Sunday night with nothing but an Airbnb booking and an unread guidebook to lead us on our way.

Luckily, it turns out that Porto is a very easy place to appreciate without much forward planning, because its pleasures are mostly to do with a somewhat crumbling but elegant aesthetic, lots of old-fashioned charm and discreet people who largely make you feel welcome and leave you in peace.

Our plan for today was to take the tram out of the town centre to Foz, where Porto's beaches are to be found. We had been waiting at the stop for ten minutes or so when a very kind old man, undeterred by our evident lack of Portuguese language skills, came over to explain that there was a strike on and the next tram wasn't for another hour. (Luckily the word for "strike" in Portuguese is "greve", so we could understand that bit!)

We decided to walk out to the beaches anyway, as it wasn't that far and actually a really nice walk, and we spent a happy few hours watching the Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks and eating lunch at a beachfront café. As we were making our way back into town, we caught sight of one of the elusive trams rattling its way along the tracks, and we rushed over to the stop to catch it on its return journey.

We bought the tickets in Portuguese, using about 25% of our entire vocabulary (i.e. about 5 words). After that, we spent the first few minutes of the journey taking photographs, because the trams in Porto, at least on this particular line, are of the old-fashioned variety, made out of varnished wood with bench seating and controlled by large metallic levers, with the only element of modern technology being the swipe machine for validating your travel pass.

A few times along the way, a car or lorry would be blocking the tram tracks, and the driver would tap a little foot-operated bell to make the driver aware of our presence, and each time the car owner would appear reasonably quickly to move the vehicle out of the way with very little fuss being made on either side. At one point, some cheeky teenagers ran alongside the tram and jumped up to hang on to the outside and hitch a free ride, but they had to keep changing sides to avoid being squashed as the tram squeezed through a narrow passageway. To cross a junction, the driver had to get out and press a button on the traffic lights, and at the end of the line she changed the connection to the overhead wires from one end of the tramcar to the other using a mechanical pulley-type device.

In so many ways, that short tram ride seemed to sum up everything we liked about Porto. The way that things which are functional are still in use even although they are old. The kindness of strangers, who were never intrusive but almost unfailingly helpful. And the adventure of travel, when you never quite know what is going to happen, but it usually turns out well in the end.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Learning Portuguese with Duolingo

I mentioned in my new year post that one of my goals for this year/the future is to learn another language. As tends to happen with ambitious resolutions, that one has been quietly left on the back burner since January as I've struggled to find the time even to read more in French or get through the first few chapters of my current Italian novel. But after a Skype chat with a fellow language geek friend who raved about the addictiveness of Duolingo and a trip to Porto on the agenda, I decided to give learning Portuguese a try.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Duolingo, it's a website and app that teaches you foreign languages. It can be used by speakers of lots of different languages, but I have the impression that choosing to work from English gives you the greatest choice of languages to learn. The courses are divided into short sections and you can set yourself a daily goal for the number of sections you want to complete. As you progress through the levels, the language is recycled, so you are continually revising what you have already learned.

What I like about Duolingo:

- It's grammar based. You start by learning a few nouns, verbs and articles and immediately combine them to make sentences. I much prefer this to communicative approaches which teach you hundreds of supposedly useful phrases without developing your understanding of how the language is actually structured and how to build sentences of your own.

- It's quite intuitive. Maybe it's because if you speak other romance languages , Portuguese is quite easy to understand, at least in writing, but I felt that the words and even conjugations were introduced quite naturally. That said, I think if I'd been tackling Turkish, I might have preferred a bit more input and explanation.

- There is speaking involved. This is one of the great advantages of recent language-learning technology: you can say a sentence into the microphone of your computer and the programme will tell you if your pronunciation is accurate enough to be recognised. That said, watching what Duolingo did with my mangled sounds, I wonder if the speech recognition software isn't more understanding than an actual person might be!

What I dislike:

- There's no context. Apart from a few pictures to guide you along the way, you're basically learning language the way a computer does. I suspect that in the long run this makes it much harder to retain the words, never mind actually use them in the real world. To see what the programme is like for learners with a higher level of language, I tried out the Italian course and it had me translating sentences like "The cow does not eat the butter", which is not a sentence I have ever uttered in English, never mind in a foreign language.

- It's very translation-based. With no context for the language, it has to be. And, as anyone who has ever used a foreign language in real life knows, translation will only get you so far before you start saying very strange things to people. I remember the time I tried to tell my French friend that I needed to buy boots for hiking using the word "bottes". This is indeed the French translation of the English word "boots", but hiking boots in France are actually called hiking "shoes", and even smart leather ankle boots are not "bottes" but "bottines". Needless to say, I learned my lesson.

- I wasn't a big fan of the placement test which I took in Italian, as it seemed to be more a test of knowing the exact content of Duolingo rather than my actual level of Italian. Not quite having a few colloquial phrases to hand and forgetting a couple of vocabulary items set my level much lower than it should have been compared to the objectives of the lessons. (I don't think that's just injured pride speaking!)

So, will I be continuing with Duolingo? Yes, to pick up a bit more Portuguese and because it appeals to my inner geek. But as a way of actually becoming able to communicate fluently with real people, I suspect it has its limitations.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Travels in the South West

A scary number of years ago, when Understanding Frenchman and I had not long been together, we went on our first holiday, a trip to the Pyrenees with a group of friends. I still remember waking up early on the morning or our departure and feeling immense, childlike joy that we were setting off on holiday, packing up my trusty little Clio and setting off on our sunny road trip south.

On the way down, to break up the drive, we stayed in a hotel somewhere south of Rocamadour, with a swimming pool in the middle of the sunflower fields, and had dinner in a tiny medieval town perched on a cliff. As we continued on our journey the next day, we promised ourselves that we would go back. And finally, this year, we did.

We didn't go quite as far south, staying this time in a lovely gîte near Martel. On two of the days, we went hiking, visiting the little towns of Floirac and Carennac on the river Dordogne, then trekking through the stunning gorges of the Parc Naturel Régional des Causse de Quercy to Rocamadour. Rocamadour is a really stunning place, with its sanctuary and monastery practically clinging to the edge of the cliff face, accessible only by narrow cobbled streets and many, many stairs.*


Cliffs in Les Causses de Quercy

On the third day, we visited the Gouffre de Padirac, an immense hole in the ground which leads to a network of caves and passageways, through which runs an underground river.

You make your own way down into the hole, then a guide rows you along the river, a little bit like the Phantom of the Opera, before another guide takes you on a walking tour of the massive natural vault. The only annoying thing is that you're not allowed to take pictures, so here is one that I stole from the tourist office website:

Our gîte was equipped with a fitness room (which we didn't use) and a hammam (which we did), but in all honesty, the best bits of the trip, as well as the amazing sights, involved lots of sunshine, lying around in the garden after a long hike, and having barbecues out on the terrace as night fell and we could actually see the stars come out. As a break from Paris and a little sample of what the summer hopefully has in store, it couldn't have been better!

Actually, you can also drive to the top of the cliff and walk down, but it's not nearly so impressive.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Travelling Back in Time to Medieval Provins

The Routard guide's description of Provins, a medieval town located 90km from Paris on the regional border between the Ile-de-France and Champagne-Ardenne, is an exercise in creating inflated expectations. Admittedly, we didn't follow the instructions to approach the town from the ville haute in order to "experience the shock of entering without any transition into the Middle Ages". We took the Transilien train from Paris-Est, then walked up from the station, meaning that our first views of the old town were set against the backdrop of the D619, a few block-shaped apartment buildings and a BUT furniture warehouse, all prosaic reminders that we do actually live in the 21st century.
View from the Tour César. You can't quite see But and the main road in this picture.

Nevertheless, we had a lovely day in Provins. The sun was out for what seemed like the first time since last October, and we were far enough from Paris to almost feel as if we were on holiday but without the inconvenience of having to book a hotel, pack a suitcase, or even pay a train fare. (Provins is the final stop in Zone 5 of the Transilien network, so you can go there for free on a de-zoned Navigo pass.)

We started by climbing the Tour César, an octagonal tower whose building was begun by the English during the Hundred Years War and which was mainly used as a prison. After that, we walked out to the Porte St Jean and climbed up to the ramparts to admire the view of hoards of children setting out on an Easter egg hunt that was being organised by the tourist office. In Paris, this could have been the beginning of a nightmare scenario for two adults hoping for a tranquil day trip, but in Provins there was space for everyone and everybody seemed calmer somehow.

The Place du Châtel from the tower. Look closely and you might see the old well enthroned in a circle of lime trees among the superb residences which surround it ... or you might just see some spindly branches and old, pretty houses.
We ate lunch at a terrible crêperie at the end of the Place du Châtel, where the dry galettes served with a blob of margarine on top were somewhat offset by the pretty terrace and the view of the square. One prime source of entertainment was a clown giving rides to children on a bicycle with a toy horse that they could sit on attached to the front. The kids' wore expressions of pure joy and the clown himself genuinely seemed almost as happy as they were.

We finished our day in Provins with a look around the Collégiale Saint-Quirice and a stroll out to the Porte de Jouy. With more time, we would probably have visited a couple of the museums and maybe gone to see one of the shows, and I'd also like to go back when the medieval festival is on, but we left satisfied with our visit, despite the best efforts of Le Guide du Routard to set us up for disappointment.