Monday, 1 December 2014

Expat Revelations: What I've Brought from Scotland to France

Is it universal for expats that when we talk about importing from our motherlands to our adopted homes, the first thing we think of is foodstuffs? My list includes (more or less in order of priority): cheddar cheese, golden syrup, marzipan, glacé cherries and mixed peel for Christmas, marmite, treacle and sugar-free diluting juice. For presents, I bring shortbread and tablet, and I once carried 3 haggises in my suitcase on the Eurostar, but that's an experience I've yet to repeat.

If we expand the categories beyond just what is edible, I also buy a lot of my shoes in the UK because there is a better range of width fittings and I think the quality is better for the price, at least at the high street end of the market. This is also true of socks, tights and underwear, and make-up is also a lot cheaper for the same brands compared with France. And it's not just me - Understanding Frenchman also loves shopping in Edinburgh when we go back, so it can't just be about cultural biases.

I also bring over a lot of books. It's not that reading in French is hard - unless the book is seriously highbrow I don't struggle to understand anything - it's just that it seems easier to find books that I like in English. French books are a bit like clothes and shoes: there are plenty of wonderful high quality literary works and a fair bit of  trash, but if you want something with a plot line you can follow on the train without feeling that your intelligence is being insulted, that's a bit harder to find.

But being an expat (immigrant?) doesn't just mean importing consumer goods. Holly's post kicking off this series of Expat Revelations inspired me to think about some of the less tangible things that I have brought back with me across the Channel:

British manners: I think I say "sorry" and "thank you" a lot less than I used to, but still significantly more than the average French person. And, while I understand that the French way is not necessarily less polite, just differently polite, I'm not sure it's a habit I want to lose entirely.

Music: It annoys Understanding Frenchman no end when I put on my Scottish trad CDs in the car, but it's in my blood, so that's just too bad for him. Oh, and I sing Christmas carols in the shower at this time of year too.

British humour: Understanding Frenchman is always telling me that I'm ironique. That's not something I'm likely to lose, as it seems to be rubbing off on him now, and I'm starting to get a taste of my own sarcastic medicine. Which is awesome.

So there you go - hopefully now I sound like someone who is not totally fixated on her stomach now!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Where is Home?

Home: is it here?
In the film L'Auberge espagnol, which tells the story of an international group of students on the EU study-abroad programme, there is a wonderfully true-to-life part of the opening scenes where the main character is waiting at the airport with tears running down on his face and another sympathetic passenger takes one look at him and simply asks, "Erasmus?" At the end of the film, when the academic year is at an end, the exact same scene is repeated, except that this time the character is not setting of for foreign lands, he's returning "home" to France.

In contrast is the experience of passengers arriving on international flights at East Midlands Airport in England. Rather than the messages you see in most airports welcoming travellers from elsewhere and generally trying to convince them of just how wonderful the local area is, the signs at East Midlands simply read "It's good to be home." While it is undoubtedly true that more people leave the East Midlands to visit Paris than the other way round (the fact that the staff on the plane only speak English and you can only buy your in-flight snacks in pounds sterling are also clear testaments to this), it made me laugh to see how clearly those signs were aimed at the stereotypical Brit who has seen the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night or eaten paella on the beach in Spain but is now just relieved to be back in a civilised country where he or she can be sure of getting a decent cup of tea.

These two snapshots for me sum up the difference between "home" for an expat or immigrant and "home" for someone who has never lived somewhere else. Because "home" isn't just a geographical location; it's the place or places that have shaped us in a positive way and made us the people that we are. As a result, when we arrive we feel joy at the familiarity of the place (which can also be a familiar excitement), and when we leave, we have the sense of leaving a little piece of ourselves behind.

It takes time to feel comfortable with that shaping. I believe that, along with loneliness and missing friends and family, fear of how expatriation might change us is a major part of homesickness. At the beginning, we'd rather avoid all those difficult processes and stay the way we were before. But slowly the changes settle down inside us and we realise that they have become part of who we are.

So I wouldn't exactly say that home is where the heart is. It's more the places that have entered into your heart, the places which you have allowed to change you, and the places that bring a lump into your throat when you leave and when you arrive.



... Or here?
Thanks to Holly for inspiring this post via another Expat Revelations series.You can find links to more posts on the same subject over at http://www.fullofbeansandsausages.com/.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Lessons Learned from French People: How to Complain in France

As a foreigner living in France, one of the earlier lessons that I learned was that sometimes in a difficult situation, you just have to suck things up and deal with them. When you are newly arrived and trying to acquire a carte de séjour, a place to live, a bank account, a telephone and an electricity connection, the hoops that you have to jump through seem endless, the demands that are made of you appear completely illogical, and the way in which you are treated, as a customer or member of the public, can be very different to what you are used to. Often, when faced with a problem, the easiest way to deal with it is to ignore it, or at least find the least confrontational way around it. In my time here, I have gone from being someone who, while not being a particularly demanding customer, would generally speak up about a issue that bothered me to being more likely to swallow my anger and possibly vent it all on my blog, facebook or to any innocent and sympathetic soul who would listen.

The good news though, is that it doesn't (always) have to be like this. Being here for longer and observing French people in operation at close proximity has taught me a few lessons about how to complain about customer service which I would like to share with you here today.

1. Know who you are dealing with. If it's public administration, sucking it up is probably still the best strategy, although you can sometimes convince them to be kind to you if you go the right way about it. (Stephen Clarke's Talk to the Snail has some great advice on how to do this.) If it's a small business, a lot will depend on whether they perceive you as a potentially valuable customer or just a passing tourist. But large national and international companies (unless they have a monopoly, like the SNCF or ERDF) are often keen to keep you happy if you explain the problem in the right way.

2. Call the unsubscription hotline. A few weeks a go, our internet connection failed, leaving us with no internet, phone or TV for several hours on a Sunday night. Technical support were too busy to take our call, both that evening and the following day (by which time the problem had luckily been resolved), but a quick call to the "cancel your contract" number 24 hours later got us a significant reduction of that month's bill. (Understanding Frenchman has also used this strategy to get discounts with Canal+ in the past just because he finds their full-price service too expensive - always worth a try but we haven't had Canal+ for a few months now after that strategy failed last time.)

3. Listen to their explanations but don't back down. Many procedures are genuinely complicated in France, and there may be a good reason why something doesn't happen as quickly as you had hoped. But if you have paid for a service you haven't received, the company needs to do something about that, whether there is a reasonable explanation or not.

4. Learn to recognise nonsense. When you first arrive in France, many, many things seem illogical, hence the reactions I described at the beginning of this post. After a while, though, you start to understand the reasons behind procedures (see point 3), which can be very good for your stress levels. Nevertheless, there is a certain type of employee who will feed you any kind of nonsense just to get away in time for lunch. A great example of this was the time I once tried to exchange a ticket at the Gare de Lyon after I received an email from the SNCF telling me my train had been cancelled and they first tried to send me to the Gare d'Austerlitz, despite the fact that their ticket bookings are online and nation-wide, then told me it was up to me to prove the cancellation as they had no record of it on their system. Luckily, I was able to whip out my phone and show them the message that they had sent me themselves!

5. Send an email. For a long time, I believed that companies in France found email far too easy to ignore and that face-to-face or phone was best. That's changing though, and writing an email gives you the chance to organise your thoughts and perfect your French, which can be difficult in stressful situations. You can also follow up calls with an email to increase your chances of getting the compensation you want.

6. Let them know that you are upset without upsetting them. I find that French people are often naturally quite defensive, so being too aggressive in your approach can backfire. Explain that you are disappointed and unhappy, and give the reasons why, but don't take it out on the person you are talking to. Apart from anything else, it's probably not their fault. Phrases like "Je voudrais vous signaler ma déception" are useful.

7. Be patient. Going through all of the steps above can take some time, especially if you're used to "Anglo-Saxon" customer service. What I have been encouraged to discover recently, though, is that it really can be worth it. And if all else fails:

8. Drink wine :-)

Does anyone else have any top tips to share?


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Moving Gently into Autumn

Autumn is a season that I really like.

In theory, at least. I like those first frissons of cold as I leave the house on a September morning. I like the smell of acorns crunching under my feet as I walk through the forest. I like that sensation, more easily experienced in France than anywhere else I've been, of being closer to the seasons as I eat my way through the fresh produce from the market and wash it down with a glass of post-vendanges wine.*

In reality, the Parisian autumns of the past few years have been somewhat different. Instead of crisp, cold mornings, we've had dull skies and endless rain. Rather than turning glorious shades of burgundy, gold and brown, the leaves have wilted from green to grey, then quickly turned to a slippery mush as soon as they hit the soggy pavements. (Admittedly, the food and wine have always been good.)

This year, however, it's different. There have been some days of pouring rain, but the temperatures have been unseasonably warm, so that when the sun comes out it feels like summer. The weeks since the rentrée have flown by, largely, I'm convinced, because the weather is so nice, it's easy to get out of bed in the mornings. At the same time though, there are enough signs of autumn to allow me to enjoy the change in the season. For some reason, the warm weather seems to have led to more beautiful trees, often with several colours of leaf mixing on an individual branch.





Today, Understanding Frenchman and I were treated to an especially beautiful Sunday. We started off with a trip to the swimming pool and were delighted to find that the movable roof had been rolled back and we could swim in the open air. After that, we went for a walk in the Bois de Vincennes where, exhausted from the swimming, we were able to lie down on grass and watch the clouds scudding across the blue sky as the slowly-turning leaves rustled in the breeze.

Elle est pas belle, la vie?


* I should confess here that I have never participated in the vendanges - the connection is purely psychological.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Happy Paris Day

Yesterday was one of those days that make me happy to be in Paris.

It didn't start off so well. I woke up to a grey morning at 7am with the aches and pains of a cold that has been nagging at me since Thursday and spent most of the morning doing housework ... slowly. By midday, however, with the hoovering and bathroom-cleaning out of the way, the next task on my list was to make chocolate brownies. Things were looking up, especially when the brownies came perfectly cooked and not at all burnt out of our notoriously unreliable oven.

By the time I left the flat in the early afternoon, the skies had brightened and so had my spirits. I met my group of expat copines at Anvers metro and we made our way up the Butte de Montmartre to the heart of the Fête des Vendanges.

I hadn't been to the Fête des Vendanges since that memorable occasion back in 2009 when my mother was smacked on the derrière by an official member of the French Society of Bottom Slappers. We didn't see the parade this time (that takes place this afternoon), but we spent more time just strolling among the stalls and trying out different wines. It's not an event where the producers expect to sell large quantities, so rather than offering free tastings with the expectation that you will buy a few bottles afterwards, many of the vendors just sell small glasses for two or three euros each. I didn't buy any bottles to bring home, but my friend did talk me into buying a vine for my windowsill - watch this space to see if Projet Potager one days morphs into Projet Vignoble (or, more realistically, whether I manage to keep the plant alive at all.)



There are also endless opportunities to sample cheese and sausage, and you can buy bigger portions of take-away food such as tartiflette, raclette sandwiches and even a foie gras toastie with caramelised onions. There was also an event called the Ecole du Gout where you could watch chefs preparing food and taste the results, but that was quite crowded and a lot of the time you couldn't really see what was going on.

Apart from one tightly-packed street, however, the rest of the fair was not too crowded at all. The sun was shining on the Butte and it was a beautiful place to enjoy a glass of wine in the open air and gaze out at the views. Montmartre is one of my favourite parts of Paris and I always come back from there a little bit more enamoured of the city I sometimes love to hate. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Quelle Horreur!

"I ate a croissant on the metro the other day," said my friend. From her tone of voice and her demeanour, you would have expected a crime more heinous - eating chocolate cake out of the bin, for example, or a lifelong vegan confessing to just having devoured a plate of offal. And because we were amongst non-French, our gasps of horror and cries of shock were mainly put on for the occasion.

But who hasn't been there? Had one of those days when you have to get across town in your lunchbreak, or go to an after-work gym class, and been absolutely starving and surrounded by shops selling delicious food, but had neither the location nor the time to eat it in? And so you end up, as my friend did, breaking off tiny morsels inside the paper back and conveying them surreptitiously to your mouth and hoping that your fellow-passengers' disapproval won't result in you being thrown off the train and possibly expelled from the country as well.

There are other activities, however, which seem to be far more socially acceptable in France than they are in the UK. Public displays of affection, for example, or clipping your fingernails on the bus.

My friends and I spent quite a long time discussing the whys and wherefores of these apparent contradictions and finally came to a clear conclusion. Eating pastries on the metro is not shocking because you might be spreading crumbs, leaving litter or annoying your fellow passengers with overly-loud chewing noises. It's just that by eating your snack on a crowded train, without even a table, a cup of coffee and some quality conversation to accompany it, is showing remarkable disrespect for the croissant. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Allô allô

Ever since I changed my phone from a cheap pay-and-go one to a real, grown-up contract a couple of years ago, I've noticed that I get a lot more calls and texts from people who have the wrong number. I once listened my way through voicemail messages from a group of people who were all concerned that they hadn't seen one of their colleagues for several days, I've been invited to many parties by a person called Genevieve and an anonymous texter reliably sends me greetings for every religious festival in the Muslin calendar.

So when I picked up and a woman's voice said, "Bonjour Madame Machin" the other day, I didn't hesitate to explain that I was not Madame Machin and that she must have got the wrong number.

Luckily she tried again, and luckily I picked up again, and luckily I listened again to her first few sentences, because it turned out that what she had said the first time round was not, "Bonjour Madame Machin", but "Bonjour, Madame Machin," which makes a world of difference, because the lady did not think that she was phoning Madame Machin, she was Madame Machin, and she really did want to speak to me.

Now I did know that people sometimes use this formula on the phone as a shortcut for the very formal sounding "Madame So-and-So à l'appareil" that I was taught at school but I guess that a) it's fairly unusual in this day and age for someone to refer to themselves as M/Mme and not just use their full name and b) there's normally a bit more of a clue in the intonation than what I heard on this particular occasion. (Tip: never answer your phone to strangers on a metro platform with a train going by.) Other than that, I don't really have any rules for hearing that critical comma, but I thought that by posting my latest embarrassing adventure in the French language on here, I might encourage a handful of readers to listen very carefully when they pick up the phone and perhaps help you to avoid missing a few important calls.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Expat Revelations: My Biggest Fear

So, once again I'm a bit behind in writing my contribution to Holly's Expat Revelations series, but as the final topic, My Biggest Fears as an Expat,  was the one which spoke to me the most out of the four fascinating topics, I'm going to sneak this post in a few days late. Shh!

In my case, it's actually a question of my biggest fear as an immigrant, because the worry that keeps me awake at night is one that didn't start until I was seriously contemplating a long-term future in France. It's a fear that I can only imagine will grow the longer I stay, and beside it all the niggles I had at the beginning pale into insignificance.

Put in a nutshell, I am terrified that one day I will need to go back to Scotland to live and that the life choices I have made will make that impossible.

This possibility is probably greatly exaggerated in my mind compared to what would be likely to happen in reality. In reality, it would probably be more a question of wanting to go back than needing to, and more probable that it would be complicated than impossible. But that's the nature of fears.

The most likely scenario involves ageing parents needing cared for and myself trapped by career or family that keep me in France. I also feel a little pang when I see my friends' kids growing up with Scottish accents, going to local schools and generally having experiences not dissimilar to the ones my friends and I had ourselves, and know that's unlikely to be the case for my children if Understanding Frenchman and I ever have any. And I'm scared of losing my job here, knowing that it would be much harder to find another one in France but that working in France for years could make it difficult to find work at home.

Of course,  there are plenty of reasons why I should also NOT be worrying about these things right now, of which my expat/immigrant friends remind me regularly when we talk about these things. The trouble is, when you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, logical, reasonable thoughts aren't often the first ones that come to mind!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Expat Revelations: How I've Changed Since Expatriation

Coming back from our holiday in Scotland this summer, as Understanding Frenchman and I hauled our luggage on to the train that would take us south, to. London and eventually to Paris, I was taken back in my mind to the day over a decade ago when I made that journey for the first time, all alone and dragging an even bigger suitcase behind me. It was a crossroads in my life, and I can't think of a single other moment when I have embarked on a path with so little knowledge of where it might eventually lead me. And so, this time round, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the next topic in the Expat Revelations series: how I've changed since expatriation.

Without a doubt, moving to France changed me. And yet, it's so hard to define exactly how. As someone else in this series commented, it's difficult to separate the changes that come with maturity from the consequences of expatriation, perhaps especially when you move abroad when you're young. Nevertheless, if I'm going to get to the point with this post, I suppose I'd better try.

I can relate to people from different cultures. When I returned to the UK after first living abroad, I was very conscious of how much people (particularly younger people - the age I was at the time) often depend on cultural references when interacting with each other. Making international friends forces you to seek out the more fundamental things that you have in common, but then you have the fun of sharing your cultural references and learning all about theirs.

I realise that opposing points of view can sometimes both be right. If I'm honest, I think I knew this intellectually for a long time before I started to really understand what it meant. Often, cultural differences come down to giving priority to different values, but people from both cultures would nevertheless acknowledge that the other culture's values are important. For example, a French friend who worked in Belgium commented that the. Belgians place enormous importance on a kind of democracy in the workplace. This is good in the sense that people get to have their say and feel their contributions are valued, but my friend found it very inefficient compared to the more hierarchical French system where the managers take a decision and everyone else (supposedly!) does as they're told.

I don't believe everything I read in the papers. There's nothing like reading the UK press's take on French affairs to make you realise that journalists, even resident foreign correspondents, don't always understand much about the society that they're writing about. Often they don't even get the facts right, never mind understand the context. This is why, for example, people in the UK think that the French all expect to retire at 62, when in fact the vast majority of my generation will work until 67 ... just like in the UK.

I can explain the make-up of the United Kingdom exactly (if you want to know yourself, try watching this excellent video), but I no longer get offended when people mix up the different terms (unless they're English of course).

I have different fears ... but that's a topic for next time!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Expat Revelations: Seeking comfort in a Strange Land

I managed to miss the deadline for the second post in Holly's Expat Revelations linkup, mostly because, far from seeking comfort in a strange land, this week I have been in a very familiar land and between catching up with family and friends and four glorious internet-free days in the Highlands, I'm a bit behind on everything.

After seven years of living in France, I tend not to experience homesickness much (and ironically, when I do, it's usually when I'm back in Scotland and am reminded of what I'm missing!) but there was certainly a period which I haven't blogged about much when I went through the full range of loneliness, frustration and regret that can arise when you move to a place where you know absolutely nobody and a job that isn't quite what you hoped would be and have to deal with the horrors of the French administration to boot. Nowadays, my need for comfort tends to result more from the trials of commuting and the trials of dealing with the odd stereotypically rude Parisian but a lot of the solutions are the same:

Appreciate what's wonderful about the country you live in: in my case, this can mean eating a delicious French treat, strolling around Paris with my camera or planning a trip to somewhere beautiful.

Talk to a native: a sympathetic local can help you understand a complicated administrative procedure, explain the logic behind systems and events that have you baffled and even just serve as a useful reminder that while there might be better ways of doing certain things, most of the sixty-million people who live in your adopted country seem to be getting on just fine.

Read blogs: as well as being a place to share frustrations, blogs can be a fantastic source of inspiration and a reminder of all the positive aspects of living abroad. I also find that writing mine makes me seek out what's positive and interesting in my life and makes me focus on that. Blogs also help by confirming that  a) other people have made this life choice and survived and even enjoyed the experience, and b) you are not insane for doing the same thing.

"Therapy": this is what my expat friends and I call meeting up for wine and a moan. In the middle of a tough week, it gives us something to look forward to, and by the end of the first glass, we've usually finished whining!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Go West

When you think of Brittany, what do you picture in your mind? Wide, sandy beaches and wild, rocky coastline? Tiny harbours and the the gliding sails of little boats on the horizon? White cottages with blue paintwork against a blue sky? Galettes, cider and steaming piles of delicious moules frites?

Most of these things can be found all over Brittany,  but if it's the picture-postcard images that you're looking for, the best place is without a doubt the department of  Finistère in the far west of the region. And that is where, armed with swimming suits, towels, and very few plans, Understanding Frenchman and I went for this year's Breton holiday.

We stayed in the Locronan, a little village officially described as a "petit cité de charme", and it was indeed charming.


On the way we visited the old walled city of Concarneau and, walking along the coast in a nearby nature reserve, finally saw the beautiful turquoise sea that features in so many photographs of la Bretagne but can be quite elusive in reality.



On our first full day, we visited the Pointe du Raz, the most western point on mainland France. Declining to pay 6 euros for the car park, we parked near a little harbour in the village of Plogoff and walked for about an hour around the coast to reach the point, which seemed like a much nicer way of arriving. We thought it might be heaving with tourists, but in fact it was quite calm.



After the Pointe du Raz we spent a wonderful afternoon playing in the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, a beautiful beach just to the north-east of the point. The water was cold, but so clear and inviting-looking that it didn't take us long to dive in and start enjoying the surf. After that, we made our way back to Locronan along the country roads of Cap Sizun, stopping to admire the cliffs and windmills on the way.

There's weekly nocturnal market in Locronan on Thursday evenings in the summer, but after a quick look around the stalls, we realised it was going to be difficult to find somewhere to eat that evening, as everywhere was booked up, so we drove down to the harbour town of Douarnenez. It was pretty, but much less touristy and more of a working port than some of the other places we visited, and it took us a while to find the street with all the restaurants in it. Trip Advisor gave us a good tip, though, and we had dinner at the Crêperie Tout le Monde, where everything was delicious but the best speciality was the Breizh Twixx, a buckwheat pancake filled with salted butter caramel and covered in chocolate sauce.

We were a bit pessimistic about our last day in Finistère because the weather forecast was terrible and we woke up to grey skies and rain. We abandoned our plans to go to the Crozon peninsula, and instead decided to drive back east along the coast, stopping off at the Pointe de la Torche and the village of Penmarc'h on the way. In fact, we were lucky and the rain stopped just as we arrived at the Pointe de la Torche. Even in good weather, the vast beach at La Torche is better known for surfing than swimming, as the strong currents mean that the sea is quite dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. We spent an hour or so strolling along the sands and admiring any of the surfers who actually managed to stay upright on their boards.



On the way back, we stopped off in Vannes to visit one of UFM's relatives. Vannes is a beautiful little city, but on a day in August that wasn't very great for going to the beach, it was absolutely heaving, and in addition, there was a braderie, where all the town centre shops were selling discounted items on stalls in the streets, so you couldn't really move for people. We went up to the ramparts and strolled past the port, then attempted to leave despite the traffic jams which stretched from one roundabout to the next, creating absolute gridlock. We can always go back sometime in the depths of winter to explore the rest!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Expat Revelations: Self Esteem as an Expat

What happens when you take an introverted and somewhat shy twenty year-old who has never lived more than 120 miles from her place of birth, put her in a country where the people speak a different language and are not renowned for being immediately open and friendly, and expect her to do a job that she has almost no training which involves standing up in front of hundreds of people every week and talking? Today I'm joining Holly at English Girl, Canadian Man for her Expat Revelations link-up to explore the sometimes surprising answers to that very question!

English Girl Canadian Man


I remember thinking during my first year in France that being a foreigner, and especially one who has a different mother tongue from the host country, is probably as close as I have ever been to understanding what it is like to have a physical disability. It's not that life is impossible, but you feel as if you depend so much more on the kindness and understanding of strangers to help you get by, hoping that they will speak slowly, make that extra effort to understand you and not assume that you are an idiot just because you made some grammatical mistakes. And it's not just langauge: the way you dress and behave also give away instant visual clues that you don't belong which can lead to, at the very least, stares, and at worst, perceived or actual danger. (I lost track of the number of dodgy men who used "you're not from here" as an excuse to harass me on the streets of Paris and elsewhere.)

So far, so damaging to the ego. Add to the mix whole classes of eight year-olds correcting your pronuncuation of "hamburger" (and that's an English word!), endless hours of smiling and nodding as you desperately try to catch the gist of conversations between people that you would actually quite like to be your friends, not knowing that you're supposed to kiss your sports coach at the beginning of a training session and six whole months of telling your neighbour he has a nice ass because you mix up the pronounciation of beaucoup and beau cul, and it's amazing that you don't just go and hide under the duvet and not come out until its time to go home.

Amazingly enough though, that was not my experience in France. Admittedly, for the first three months, I often hid under the duvet and mostly did just want to go home. But after that, I started to get that ego boost that comes from the massive sense of achievement when a sentence actually comes out correctly, you understand a joke in a foreign language or you relax enough at a party to actually appreciate the wonderful food, drink and company around you. And in a funny way, I think not speaking perfect French actually pushed me to get over my shyness because, knowing that the battle to be just like everybody else was already lost, I decided I might as well just open my mouth and say things anyway. And finally, while all the same old jokes about haggis, men in skirts and the Loch Ness Monster start to wear a little bit thin after while, at least being a foreigner provides a good opening topic of conversation.

I also think that I was lucky to have my first experience of being an expat at an age where so many aspects of adult life were new to me anyway. I think that people who first move abroad when they're older have more difficulty accepting that they don't know how to rent an apartment, open a bank account or declare their taxes because they are used to doing all of these things so easily at home. I also didn't have any professional pride to lose - I muddled my way through as best I could and that was that. And I was lucky to have a group of friends who where in the same boat with whom I could laugh off the embarrassing experiences over a glass of wine in the evenings.

More than anything though, I felt that my first year as an expat opened doors for me, in some ways practically, but even more so psychologically. Up until then, I was someone who had followed the normal path through school and university, partly because I wanted to, but mostly because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. In France, I started to be aware of choices and have more of a sense of what I wanted to do in life. I felt that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere (thanks, Frank Sinatra!), and that gave me an incredible sense of freedom.

(I'm aware that this post focuses on the positive aspects of what can often be a difficult experience. Obviously, in eight years of expatriation, I've faced my share of challenges and fears as well and I'm looking forward to joining in the next three weeks' topics to explore these in more depth. Thank you to Holly for organising the link-up - it's been really interesting so far!)

Friday, 1 August 2014

Dans les Pyrénées

Normally I prefer words to pictures, but it's hard to find the words to describe just how magnificent the Pyrenees were:


The photo above is the Cirque de Gavarnie, seen from the Refuge des Sarradets, which we walked up to on our first day. The village of Gavarnie is not particularly easy to get to from Paris (it took me 13 hours on a night train and three buses), if you're not a hiker, it's a fairly accessible spot from which to get views of the high mountains. This is the panorama from our little campsite in the village:


The waterfall you can see in the pictures, at 422m, is the highest in France, with the largest single drop of any waterfall in Europe.

If you do like walking in the mountains, you can climb up to other peaks and refuges. This is the view from the top of the Petit Pimené, another of the mountains above Gavarnie:


What better antidote to a busy life in Paris could a person ask for?

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Desperate Person's Guide to Getting Fit in Paris

A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated the anniversary of my move to Paris. While there have been many wonderful things about this year, there have, without a doubt, been some drawbacks too. The biggest of these is, of course, the endless hours of commuting, and their accompanying fallout which, as well as lack of sleep and reduced tolerance for other human beings, has included a significant reduction in the amount of exercise I get in an average week.

When I lived in the suburbs, I used to walk to and from the RER station just about every day. It added an extra 15 minutes or so on to my travel time, but with the whole commute coming in at around 45 minutes each way, I could easily afford it. Now, in my never-ending battle to win back time from the RATP, I rarely sacrifice vital minutes, but I nevertheless have even less time in the evenings and at weekends to get off my backside and do something active.

The consequence of all of this was that summer came around and I realised that while I wasn't significantly fatter, I was definitely flabbier and not nearly as fit as I used to do. And given that I had arranged to spend a week in July backpacking in the Pyrenees with a friend who is the human equivalent of the Duracell bunny some action had to be taken. Here are some of the things I did:

Walk at the end of my commute: there is no commuter's regret greater than realising that because you took the time to walk to the station, you missed the last train before rush-hour disaster set in. I found it easier to walk from the RER to our flat in the evening, when I knew that the risky part of my journey was over.

Cycle: light mornings and evenings, coupled with improving weather, meant that I started to take more advantage of my Vélib subscription. I also discovered that, while the centre of Paris is pretty flat, if you want some serious hill training, all you have to do is ride along the cycle path that follows the tramlines 3a and 3b, taking in the 13th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, where there are hills so steep that there are even warnings on some of the tram stops about the gradient. Understanding Frenchman and I also cycled out along the voie verte to visit friends in Antony. We arrived hot, sweaty and late, but it was definitely a good workout. (Just be aware that while you can put your bike on the RER, you're not allowed to take it on the metro, the tramway or the buses, as we discovered as we tried to make our way back home in an impending thunderstorm.)

Fontainebleau Rocks
Hike: if you want a more challening trail than the streets of Paris, head out to Fontainebleau, where you can clock up an impressive altitude gain over the course of the day and enjoy scrambling over rocks in the process. We also went to the Forêt de Notre Dame in search of a change from our usually wander round the Bois de Vincennes.

Try Zumba: I was lucky enough to be able to attend weekly classes through work, but when that finished for the summer, a friend and I tried out the classes offered by Zumba France. These take place in nightclubs around Paris and there are several classes every evening of the week. You can do a trial for ten euros, then after that they are quite pricey, at 14 euros a time (although you can buy a subscription if you plan to go often), but we had a lot of fun and this was one of the most effective things that we did. After just a couple of classes, I felt so much better - Zumba is a good cardio workout but there was quite a lot of toning involved too. My friend wore a heartrate monitor and it reckoned that she was working in the ideal zone and burning over 400 calories per hour. Plus, it's so much fun and you have to concentrate hard on the steps, so you forget to notice how hard your body is working!

Have a metro ban: I didn't do this, but friends of ours once trained for a trek in Nepal by banning public transport from their lives. (They don't have a car either.) Everywhere they wenrt, they either walked or cycled, and as they live in the 19th, at one of those Vélib stations where you get extra points if you leave a bike, they got fit pretty fast!

Climb the stairs: being lucky enough to live in a modern building with a lift, we tend to use it when actually we could easily walk. I always find it a bit annoying when magazine articles suggest you can get fit just by walking instead of taking the lift, but if you do it with a heavy bag of shopping after doing one of the other activities on the list, you'll get a fairly similar feeling in your legs to what you might experience at the end of a long day of hiking! (A friend of mine who lives in an 18-storey building took this technique way further and actually made a point of climbing from the bottom to the top of her building several times per day and getting the concierge to record her progress. She doesn't live in Paris though - I suspect you'd get funny looks if you tried that here!).

Run (slowly). I actually hate running, but Understanding Frenchman and I went out one day and I think he was a good influence on me, because I have a tendency to go too fast and give up too soon. It was helpful to have a running partner with more self-discipline, and we managed 25 minutes at a fairly steady pace.



The best news is that doing all of these things really worked! I could feel muscles coming back where previously it had all been a little bit wobbly, and the trip to the Pyrenees was a roaring success because the Duracell Bunny and I turned out to have similar levels of fitness and motivation. Whether I'll be able to keep it up in the dark days of November remains to be seen, but at least I know how much difference just a little bit of time and effort can make!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Projet Potager - Update

Since I last wrote about my failure to grow radishes and my joy at having little flower seedlings sprout on my windowsill, my determination to have a little garden in Paris has grown with all the vigour and resilience of the mint plant that almost filled an entire window box until I tried to cut it down to size and killed it off entirely. I'm still far from being an expert, but here are a few things I've learned along the way:

- Magic Compost is, well, magic, especially if you don't have much gardening space and have to carry everything you buy home on public transport. It comes in 17 litre bags, but they don't weigh much because it's dry. When you add water at home, it swells up to three times the volume, making it a much cheaper option than the small bags of compost I bought first time round.

- It's hard to grow radishes on a Parisian windowsill. I don't know whether it's to do with the soil, the climate or the fact that a windowbox just isn't deep enough, but I've had three rounds of radish plants with beautiful foliage and long, skinny pink roots that taste of radish but just don't have any volume to them. I have also learned, however, that radish leaves are perfectly edible!

- Basil, on the other hand, can be cultivated with some tender loving care. I planted some from seed, made sure they got plenty of light and planted them outside as soon as the weather got warmer. Yesterday I decided it was finally safe to harvest a few leaves to add to my salad and my sense of truimph was almost as powerful as the sweet flavour of the basil.




- Don't love your flowers too much. I actually have far more boxes with flowers in them than herbs, because most of our windows overlook the main road. My first round of flowers came from a mixed seed packet of annuals for window boxes and balconies. I sowed them at the end of April, more or less left them be, and by early May I had what looked like a mini-meadow on my windowsill. The meadow was a little crowded though, so for the second box, I made a point of sowing the seeds more thinly. I did the same with two other boxes of single types of flowers. In the mixed box, the plants have chosen to grow large and floppy and the flowers are much slower in coming, while in the others I have healthy crops of thick green leaves with not a sign of a bud.

- Finally, it is possible to kill mint. Mine was filling a whole window box, so I tried to dig it up and separate it into a couple of plants to put in smaller pots. Despite the mass of roots and even shoots with little leaves on them growing underground, this was clearly too much for the plant and it died. I'll probably buy some more, but this time I'm going to keep in in a smaller pot in the hope of having a smaller plant with bigger leaves, instead of hundreds of tiny ones which, quite frankly, just don't look so good in a mojito.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Shoe Gardens and Football in Berlin

Hen weekend shenanigans aside, I didn't really do much sightseeing this time round in Berlin. It was my third trip, so I'd already seen the major monuments, and with temperatures up to about 30 degrees most days, enjoying the outdoors seemed like a better use of time.

My "hidden gem" discovery in Berlin was the gardens of the Schloß Schönhausen. The Schönhauser Allee is one of the main arteries of Berlin, so famous there was even a book written about it, but few people seem to know that if you continue north into Pankow, in an area slightly to the east of the main road that is mainly filled with block-like typical DDR apartment buildings, you will come across this little castle, set in verdant grounds. Admittedly, the "castle" itself is not that impressive (it's more of a stately home), but even on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July, its grounds were like a quiet little Eden where my friend and I were able to relax on the lawn (we may even have fallen asleep ... ) with almost nobody else to disturb us. And, unlike in the worn-out Mauerpark, the grass was actually green!

On another hot day, my friend took me to Tempelhoferfeld, which last time I went to Berlin was still a working airfield but has now been turned into a public park. Tempelhof airport was the site of the Berlin airlift, which took place in 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked access to Berlin from the west in an attempt to make the whole city dependent on Soviet supplies. The success of the western allies in delivering necessities by air via Tempelhof was one of the factors which resulted in the creation of the two separate German states. Nowadays, the airport building is used for conferences and exhibitions and you can run, cycle, rollerblade or even take a Sedgway around the old runways. One part of the park has been turned into what look like little and somewhat unofficial allotments, of which this was my favourite:






The other big event of my trip was watching the World Cup semi-finals. We went to Emils Biergarten on the Berliner Strasse, where bars have been set up in converted industrial buildings (actually, I don't think much converting really went on!) surrounding a pebbled yard where a big TV screen had been set up. After half-watching far too many dull games go on into extra time from our Parisian sofa, I can't say I was particularly looking forward to this one, but wow, what a match! I kept thinking we were watching replays, then realising that we weren't, as Germany scored goal after goal. And every time, the venue erupted with cheers, my friends and I high-fived and somebody not far off set off some fireworks. When it was over, we walked down to Ebenswalder Strasse, where lots of fans were celebrating in the street. At this point, I started feeling a bit out of things, as everyone was singing songs I didn't know ("sieben, eins" and "so schoen" came into it a lot!) and trying to do a thing where everybody was supposed to crouch down then stand up again at the same time, except that it never really worked. Although there was a fair amount of drinking going on, and everyone was banging on the tram windows as they tried to drive past, it was all being done in good spirits and I definitely felt I had had an exciting new cultural experience!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Four Years



Four years ago yesterday, I went on a first date. After a stroll by the canal and a couple of hours of conversation during which I discovered nothing but good things about this attractive Frenchman who I had met through mutual friends a couple of days earlier, we said our au revoirs and went our separate ways.

That evening, I went to an expat meetup which, with it being the 14th of July, inevitably ended with us heading down to the river to watch the Trocadero fireworks.

It was the end of a long year of transition for me, a year in which much of life had not quite gone to plan, but that evening it seemed as if certain things might finally be starting to go right. I remember standing there on the bridge and feeling so happy to be there, surrounded by potential friends and with all sorts of possible experiences ahead.



Last night was the first time since that evening four years ago that I was actually in Paris for the 14th July. We watched the fireworks from that same bridge and this time I was surrounded by that same wonderful Frenchman and lots of close friends.

This year, I didn't just feel happy to be there. I felt happy to belong.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Hen-Nighting in Berlin

I wrote a post a while back about how one of the best things about travelling in your twenties is having friends all over the world that you can go and visit in your thirties (and beyond, I hope!). If you're still living abroad in your thirties, the chances are that that network is still growing and the opportunities for meeting up in different places are developing exponentially - there is some compensation for all those tearful goodbyes after all!

And so it was last weekend, when one of my English friends from Paris had her hen do in Berlin because her Australian friend who also normally lives in Paris and was organising the hen weekend happens to be working in Berlin for the year and it seemed like the best thing to do. For me, it worked out particualarly well because it also gave me the chance to catch up with my German friend from my assistant year in France and and Australian girl I worked with in Italy. (Hi, Gemma!)

Berlin turned out to be a great destination for a hen weekend, especially for a group like ours who were all more interested in relaxing and sightseeing than binge drinking and leching. The bride was taken out to brunch and then to Show Me, a cabaret-style performance at the Friedrichstadt theatre that is apparently "the largest ensuite show in the western world." As well as lots of dancing and singing incredibe costumes, there was spectacular acrobatics and a few surprises that I won't mention here in case anyone is going to see the show themselves. I've never been to the Moulin Rouge or the Lido in Paris, but the general consensus was that there was probably a lot less nakedness - there was a lot of body stocking involved, and the only time when nipple tassles made an appearance, the bodies behind them weren't actually visible at all. (Go and see the show to find out more!)

Next up was a tour around the main sights on a Conference bike - hard to describe, so here's a photo stolen from someone else's blog:


http://leggypeggy.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/img_6464.jpg


Everybody is supposed to pedal (the people at the front of the bike pedal forwards but travel backwards, which is strange!) but as there is only one gear, on the flat or downhill it feels as though the pedalling is having no effect at all, while the slightest uphill makes it hard work for everyone. I have to say as well that Berlin's drivers were remarkable tolerant of our slow and somewhat ungainly progress!

After the bike tour, we drank champagne by the river before heading over to a tapas bar-type restaurant in Mitte. We were all a bit thrown by the fact that they only served German wines, as we were only really familiar with Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, but the waitress recommended a delicious light red that we liked so much we managed to get through several bottles quite easily!

By this point we were all quite tired, but we decided to have one last drink before going home to bed.
To get into the bar we went to, you had to ring the bell outside a very unobtrusive looking door and wait to be admitted. I think this might be something to do with the fact that it was a "Raucher Bar" (smoking bar), although in fact Berlin's smoking ban is very weak and not very often enforced in places that don't sell food, so perhaps the secrecy was all just for show. I personally am a huge fan of the smoking ban, so I was a bit skeptical about going to this place, especially as nobody in our group was even a smoker, but in fact there were only a few other people there and nobody was smoking, so we were able to enjoy the comfy sofas and posh cocktails until eventually none of us could keep our eyes open any longer and we headed home.

I opted out of the next day's first activity, which was another bike tour, this time on ordinary bikes, which was a tour of places the locals go to off the tourist track. The others enjoyed it, but as it involved four hours of cycling in the blazing sunshine after a fairly early start, I didn't regret my choice. Later on, we all went over to the Mauerpark, which used to be part of the Death Strip (the area behind the Berlin Wall where the Eastern Bloc had their defences) and is now a public park with a fleamarket and outdoor karaoke on Sunday afternoons. The karaoke has become something of a tourist attraction, and with a 2-hour wait to sing, we didn't actually participate, but it was fun to watch. We rounded off the evening with a delicious Vietnamese dinner on Schoenhauser Allee and some corny photos underneath a sign not unlike this one:


 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Great Carpet Debate

"One day, if we ever buy a flat of our own," I said, "it will definitely have fitted carpets."

My British friends nodded in agreement. Understanding Frenchman gave me a look that said, "Over my dead body."

As with the Great Plate Debate, I know that we are not the only bi-cultural couple to be having this particular discussion. My British friends and I find it bizarre that many French homes don't have carpets anywhere, not even in the bedroom. I can understand going for a particularly nice wooden floor or some carefully chosen rugs as part of a stylish decoration scheme, but I find it very weird, for example, to see my French friends' babies and young children, sitting playing with their toys on a cold tiles or bog-standard Ikea flooring solution. This is one of the major reasons that French houses, even the nicest ones, never feel cosy to me.

I can see why, if you lived in the south, where it's warm for most of the year and staying cool in summer is a problem, you might go for a more Mediterranean style. (That said, my Scottish friend who live in Andalucia complains every winter of being freezing in houses that are designed to resist the heat.) In the north, though, keeping warm in winter is definitely more of an issue that cold in summer.

The reason, according to my sources of cultural insight into all things French, is hygiene. Apparently fitted carpet used to be popular in French homes, but a rise in allergies and an accompanying fear of dust mites, coupled with the fact that you can't mop a carpet with disposable antibacterial wipes, is a key cause in their demise.

C'est dommage.

Monday, 9 June 2014

My Real Life in France

Taking inspiration from Eyelean and Den Nation, I've decided to follow the latest blogging trend and write a little overview of my very ordinary life in Paris.

We live in a one bedroom flat on the eastern side of the city. It's not particularly charming; in fact, architecturally, it reminds me more of my student halls of residence than anything else. However, what it lacks in that department, it largely makes up on in practicalities: we have a lift, bike storage and could have taken a parking space too but we're so close to all kinds of public tranpsort that having a car would be totally pointless. Our neighbourhood is pretty mixed, with a fairly equal balance of social housing, private renters and owners, and there are lots of families and  different nationalities here. You see the odd bit of anti-social behaviour (mainly kids doing things they shouldn't be doing), and plenty of the stereotypical but unfortunately not idyllic Parisian dog dirt, but in general it feels safe to me.

Like most people in Paris, our big inconveniences are high property prices and long commutes. It's more or less impossible for us to move closer to work and still live in or close to Paris without it costing us a fortune, so the result is that between us we spend well over 4 hours on public transport every day ... and that's on a good day. (This probably explains why a disproportionate number of my posts about Paris go on and on about the metro and the RER... sorry about that!) Another thing that annoys me from time to time is the quality of the supermarkets - having a full-time job and a budget to stick to means that doing everything in small local shops is impossible, but without a car to get to the big out-of-town hypermarkets, we're stuck with the local Franprix or its competitors, with high prices for very ordinary products, not much choice and the slightly dubious smell towards the end of the freezer department.

On the upside, I've really come to love the eastern side of Paris. Unlike the west, which feels soulless and uber-rich, and the centre, which stresses me out because it's always so busy and crowded, the eastern arrondissements are, in general, very human. There aren't many major tourist sights, but we do have good everyday shopping, fun places to go out around Bastille and the canal, and pretty green spaces like the Bois de Vincennes and the Promenade Plantée, which all help to keep me sane. 

Then there are moments in my life that really do make me feel as though I'm living the Parisian dream. Strolling through the Marais on the way home from work and meeting friends for wine and an assiette mixte on a weeknight, for example, or rollerblading beside the Seine on a Sunday afternoon. To counteract the stinky Franprix, we buy most of our fruit and vegetables at the market and pop into the boulangerie roughly every other day.

Finally there are advantages which are more to do with convenience, like being near to two international airports and a twice daily collection for oversized rubbish, (Can you tell I moved house recently? In the suburbs the les encombrants could only be picked up once a fortnight!)  but these are more to do with being in a big city than specific to France, and certainly wouldn't pop into anyone's mind as they dream of their future expat paradise.

So, on balance, do I feel that living in France has catapulted me into a dream lifestyle that I would never otherwise have known? At the end of a long day of working and commuting, where there hasn't been so much as a glimpse of the Eiffel tower or Notre Dame and all Understanding Frenchman and I can do is collapes in front of the TV after a quick non-gourment dinner, then answer to that would certainly be a resounding "no". (In fact, on reflection, I think that being very rich and not having to go to work would go a long way to allowing me to live the dream, which probably explains why it is just a dream for the vast majority of people!) On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that living on the eastern side of Paris offers a good balance of beauty, interest and remaining in touch with reality, and I've realised that all of these things are important to me. Life here certainly has its gritty moments, but most of the time it's good!

 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

How to Be Nice in Paris

After a nice commenter wrote after my last post that I seem to have a very positive attitude towards the challenges of living in Paris, I've decided to permit myself a little moany post about one of the things that I do genuinely find very difficult to deal with, after I encountered a perfect example of it today.

Understanding Frenchman and I were coming back from visiting my brother in England for the weekend. We flew out of a small regional airport on a little propellor plane that only had seats for about 80 people and, as a result, also had very small luggage compartments. We had taken only hand luggage and our suitcases, which were the maximum size allowed on board, only just fitted into the small space. We boarded the plane and Understanding Frenchman waited for me to squeeze my case into the space above our seats. But just as I finished pushing mine into place and was about to help him with his, the couple behind us slipped a small bag into the remaining space, leaving us with not enough space for the suitcase.

I looked at the space, I looked at him and I looked at the couple behind, who were looking straight ahead, seemingly innocent of the problem they had just caused us.

"Ask them to move the bag," I whispered to UFM, "otherwise we're just going to have to take someone else's compartment and the problem will carry on right the way down the plane."

UFM, being the gentleman that he is, hesitated, but eventually asked the couple if they could move the bag into the locker above their own seats.

"If there's space," humphed the woman.

"You can also put it under the seat in front of you," explained UFM, and in the end that is what the woman, somewhat grudgingly, did.

I sat down feeling what I eventually convinced myself was unreasonably annoyed by the incident. After all, we were the ones with the bulky luggage, nobody ever said that on a plane you are entitled to use the locker that happens to be directly above your seat and, even if the couple's behaviour was a bit inconsiderate, they did as we asked, everyone had space for everything and no harm was done.

It was only when we got off the plane that Understanding Frenchman commented, "She was a bit out of order, that woman behind us."

"Why?" I asked, having made peace with my own reaction to the incident.

"She saw that I was about to put my suitcase up and she told her husband to 'dépèche-toi' and get their bag in first," he explained. "I think they were surprised when I spoke to them in French and they realised I had understood."

We had a bit of a giggle about the fact that the woman should have at least had the grace to be a bit ashamed by her behaviour but both agreed that, obviously being one of a very particular kind of parisienne, she almost certainly didn't. And this is what bothers me from time to time about Paris. I don't believe that all Parisians are rude, and in fact I would say I encounter obviously kind behaviour more often than this kind of stuff. I try my best not to live in the self-absorbed bubble that can be a very natural defence against the anonymous indifference of the city. I give up my seat to old people on the metro, hold doors open for people and carry buggies up and down steps for struggling mamas. When people do nice things for me, I appreciate it, make a point of saying thank you and resolve to keep the good vibes circulating by helping somebody else out. And then, just every so often, I encounter someone like those two who is not only totally selfish and totally unembarrassed about it, but also somehow manages to make me feel bad for calling her out on it.

Is there a solution to the problem? Well, after a few experiences like this one, I would say I'm starting to have more faith in my instincts for who deserves the benefit of the doubt and who doesn't, so from now on I'm resolving to stand my ground (politely, of course) when requesting that people stop being so self-centred, and save as much kindness and compassion as possible for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Paris vs ... Anywhere Else

One common feature of many of the people who live in Paris is that they absolutely, categorically, without any shadow of a doubt, cannot imagine themselves living anywhere other than France's capital city.* A lot of these people were born and grew up in Paris, but plenty of them didn't. Some of them are not even French. In fact, a lot of them are not even French, and go to extraordinary lengths to stay in Paris, despite the absence of any reason to do so other than the fact that they cannot bear to leave.

I wouldn't go so far as to count myself among this group of people. Why, just the other weekend, we went to visit Understanding Frenchman's parents, and I spent several days dreaming of a life in rural Brittany surrounded by this kind of view:



But even I, with my distaste for crowds, dislike of pretentiousness and lack of appreciation of world-class art museums, am starting to say to myself, after only ten months here, that if I decided to live anywhere else, it would have to be pretty darn special.

There are, of course, lots of fairly obvious reasons for that, ranging from the great pleasure I take in not having the responsibility of needing to run a car to the endless range of places to meet friends for a drink, to just how wonderful those said friends are. But because I like to theorise about unprovable matters, I also have another hypothesis about how somebody who has a very ambivalent attitude towards Paris like I do can feel quite so attached after such a short space of time.

I'm pretty sure it's precisely because, as well as being wonderfully rewarding at times, living in Paris is often such a challenge.

When I first met Understanding Frenchman, I used to laugh at him for choosing where to get on the metro depending on where on the platform he wanted to be when he got off. Now I take a very geeky pleasure in knowing that my daily commute is similarly optimised. (I know the best carriage to get a seat in on the RER too, but that's one secret I'll never tell.) Knowing good restaurants which are neither the lastest extortionate bobo hangout nor just another tourist trap is highly satisfying when there are so many of the latter two to fall into. And when you spend your day surrounded by people who are largely indifferent to you, finding a salesperson who smiles or a bartender who cracks a joke is infintely sweeter.

I also feel that being in Paris gives me a sense of perspective on the world that it's easy to lose when you live in a less diverse community. Seeing about twenty homeless people in the half hour after you leave the house in the morning might not be the most uplifting way to start your day, but it definitely keeps you in touch with reality (and conscious of just how lucky you really are). And in a city of two million people, you are likely to be confronted fairly regularly by behaviours you don't really like, but again, that's the way the world is.

So I wonder whether living in Paris isn't something akin to being an elite sportsperson, for whom harsh daily training and tolerance of discomfort leads every so often to moments of intense elation. Perhaps amongst the capital's residents there's a feeling that if we stopped training, even just for a short time, we'd never quite be as fit and ready to face the world and the high points of life would never be quite as high again.



*And possibly New York. New York seems to be a kind of exception culturelle among dyed-in-the-wool Parisians.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Projet Potager

I'm sorry to admit that, after a strong start to the year and boosted by plenty of thought-provoking travelling in April, my 2014 blogging rate has slipped shamefully since then. It's not that I've been doing nothing at all of interest, but May has been a small-pleasures kind of month, and I'm not sure if the blogosphere could have coped with yet another post about how beautiful and charming Paris is in spring time. Just in case anyone feels it was missing though, here are some photos I took a couple of weeks ago on the Promenade Plantee, which is still gorgeous even if it no longer really counts as one of Paris' hidden secrets:




One thing I have accomplished this month, however, is a wish that I've had in the back of my mind for years: to create a little herb garden on my windowsill.

I found it more-than-a-little ironic that in the time that I've had this little dream, I've moved from a flat with a shared garden to one with a balcony to one with those cast-iron frames around the windowsill that are perfect for putting flowerpots on, to a concrete box with narrow windowsills that slope gently towards the main road below. Put simply, our current flat is just about the worst possible design for creating a window-garden.

On a more positive note, the Gardening sections of DIY stores in Paris cater almost entirely to people who don't actually have a garden. Along with giant flowerpots and strips of fake grass for your terrace, my local Castorama had a vast range of jardiniers and I bought a set of three boxes with trays and metal supports for 25 euros, along with some bags of potting compost and a selection of seeds. I got mixed flowers for the front windows, as the idea of eating fresh produce heavily seasoned with traffic fumes didn't appeal very much.


Planting seeds without a garden, or "bringing a whole new meaning to the expression "Kitchen Garden""!

So far, the flowers are coming up nicely but won't actually bloom until July. Basil has proved a challenge: the ones I planted from seed and carefully nurtured indoors throughout the cold weeks at the beginning of spring have disappeared, and even the plants I bought from the flower shop aren't thriving as well as I hoped. I've got some tiny thyme seedlings that won't be ready to use for a long time yet and some radishes with flourishing, healthy leaves and disappointingly skinny roots. The best success story has been some mint, which I bought in a pot from the grocery and re-planted and is producing new leaves faster than my friends and I can drink mojitos. I have the impression that window-gardening is harder than growing things in real ground because even aged about 5 I was capable of growing radishes, but I guess I'll have to hang in and be patient to see if everything grows eventually.

At least I'll have a subject for a blog post in a month or so.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Funny Thing Happened to Me in the Street the Other Day

I was walking through one of the posh suburbs of Paris. In front of me, a young couple who looked around high school age were strolling along, chatting in French, the girl with an unlit cigarette in her hand. I overtook them, and as I walked past, I heard the girl say, "It's so annoying - all the people we see are so obviously not smokers. You would think it would be easier to find someone to give us a light."

What  cracked me up was that as she said that, she switched to speaking in English, presumably on the assumption that I wouldn't understand.

Maybe in time she'll realise that that trick doesn't really work in Paris, and certainly not in the expat heartlands of the western suburbs. In the meantime, I'm enjoying trying to figure out what marks me out as "so obviously a non-smoker" to someone who didn't even realise that I might understand English.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Vacances en Baie de Somme

Out of all the regions of France, La Picardie is perhaps not one of the most obvious holiday destinations, but that was where Understanding Frenchman and I spent Easter weekend, along with a big group of friends. We rented a gite on the coast which I won't recommned because it wasn't very good, but yes, Picardie has a coast. (Lots of the French people we were with didn't know this, but I did, having spent a day in Le Treport back in 2003 My abiding memory of that day is of one of the French girls being carried on the back of her boyfriend along the clifftop path because she had chosen to wear high-heeled sandals for her trip to the seaside. Up until that point, living in small-town Picardie, the people I had encountered hadn't particularly lived up to the French reputation for style and I had become convinced that it was something of a myth, so the combination of her footwear choices and his chivalry made a lasting impression. But I digress.)

In fact, the Picardie coast is really quite impressive. At Le Treport, you have the continuation of the chalk cliffs that stretch the length of the Normandy coast as far as Etretat and drop off dramatically at Ault to give way to flat marshland and the famous Baie de Somme. This part of the coast is famous for its birds and there are several nature reserves ... where ironically the wildlife seems to be "reserved" for hunters to shoot at. These areas are promoted to tourists as nature reserves and you can certainly spend hours gazing through your binoculars at the vast number of birds, including many migrating species, but are also dotted with hunting hideouts and fake ducks which are positioned on the lakes to attract the real ones. I have to say, this aspect of the reserves did not sit comfortably with me: I understand that hunting can play an important role in maintaining an ecological balance in areas where one species may be at risk of becoming too dominant, but in the places we visited, the balance seemed to be tipped far too far in the direction of the hunting lobby. As one friend put it, when a rare bird has flown thousands of kilometres on a journey from the Arctic to Africa and stops to rest on a lake where people have positioned fake ducks to make it feel safe, then the hunters shoot it at a range of a few metres from a specially-installed hide, is that really sport? Is that really fair? And is it really in the interest of the local ecology?

Nevertheless, there is a lot of natural beauty to be found around the coastline. On the first day, we went for a beautiful clifftop hike from Ault to Mers-les-Bains and watched the ever-changing light from the height of the chalky falaises.




On the second day, we went on a guided walk across the Baie de Somme, the wide river estuary where the River Somme meets the Channel. The guide explained how the build up of sand in the estuary, which is a natural phenomenon but exacerbated by human activity, is changing the nature of the estuary, with important consequences for the local economy. One important activity in the towns on either side of estuary is collecting plants like salicorne and oreilles de cochon which grow only in tidal areas which are sometimes exposed to the air and sometimes covered in salt water. As the sand builds up, the tide covers these places less often and the plant and animal life changes. When I'm on holiday, I'm usually too stubbornly independent to sign up for this kind of thing, but in fact it was really interesting, as well as very muddy!



So, if you've never thought of Picardie as a place to go on holiday, maybe it's worth considering. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised!