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!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

On Travel, Life Abroad and the Countries We Call Home

I recently came back from a week-long trip to Italy, one of my favourite countries in the world and a place where I was lucky enough to work on and off over a period of six years. When I left Milan and came to France, it was for professional reasons, not personal, and I wasn't really ready to go. Crossing the border with a heavy heart on a beautiful summer's day in 2010, my head was already full of plans about how I would go back there as often as I could, and that is what I did. Since then I think I've made at least two trips every year, to the Lakes, to the mountains, to the beach, to Milan, Bologna, Florence and Siena, and each trip has been beautiful, if sometimes bittersweet. It's a feeling similar to the one that I have when I visit my real home town, a kind of nostalgia for a life that could have been, if only it were possible to live in three different places all at the same time.

This spring's trip was just as lovely as the rest, with a glorious hike over the mountains at Lake Como, discovering a new city in Siena and catching up with dear friends. And yet this time, as the train pulled out of Milano Centrale, I experienced no pangs of regret, and as we drew into the Gare de Lyon eleven hours later (it was a night train - a story worth telling in itself), I felt nothing but happiness to be home.

It's a strange sensation, being perfectly contented and asking yourself why you aren't more unhappy, but one of the best things about long train journeys is that you have time to puzzle out those kinds of conundrums, and after a while I came up with what I think is the answer.

The most powerful feeling I had when I first lived abroad (in France, in my early twenties), and which intensified when I "adopted" my third country (Italy, a few years down the line), was the sense that, in integrating, I could become whoever I wanted to be. Freed from the shackles of home and its assumptions and expectations, with the opportunity to shed some cultural baggage at the same time, I had the chance to grow as a person and a sense of power and freedom to build my life the way I wanted in a place of my own choosing (and there were so many beautiful places to choose from!). I can think of no better way that I could have spent my twenties than making the most of all of those opportunities. But each time I left "for good" after living in France or Italy, I felt as if I was leaving a little piece of me behind.

This is the eternal curse of the expat, immigrant or ex-ex-pat. If you have a happy experience in a foreign country, you can only prolong it by giving up on a life at "home", and if you choose to go home, you will probably feel some degree of regret for the expat life you left behind. Add more countries into the mix and the whole situation becomes even more complicated.

So why is it that I feel I have found my solution, at least for now? Well firstly, living in Paris is a very good compromise for me: abroad, but not too far from home, and a place where I can integrate but still have British friends, where I can work in an international environment, etc. But perhaps more importantly, I've realised that the life I have now and the person I have become are the product of all the experiences I've had, at home, in France, in Italy and during all the other globetrotting adventures I've had that were largely a consequence of that first decision to move abroad. The places I've lived and worked have influenced so many things about me, from the way I dress, to the way I treat peopleto the neurological consequences of having four different foreign languages whizzing around , in my brain. And I like the way my life has turned out so far.

All of this is not to say that I don't plan to take lots more trips to bella Italia in the near future, or that I wouldn't jump at an opportunity to take on another country if it came up. It's just I've realised that the way to feel less regret is to understand that when you leave a country you have loved behind, you don't lose a part of yourself, you take a little piece of that place with you.
 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

How Living with a French Man Changed My Life

When people ask me if I moved to France because of Understanding Frenchman, I'm always quite proud to reply, "No." In fact, I survived 3 (non-consecutive) years here, learned a whole lot of new words, committed many faux pas and even got the dance moves to Paris Latino perfected (that one always amazes French people) before stumbling upon my Frog prince. Not that  moving abroad to be with your significant other doesn't create its own challenges: I'm sure if I'd met UFM in the "France is ridiculous" phase that hit around my 13th month here I'd have been a lot harder to be in a relationship with, but, things having turned out the way they have, I am happy to claim full credit for all the integrating that I did before I even met him.

But there can be no doubt that the past three and a half years have made an impact too. Good, bad, or merely indifferent, here are some of the ways that being with a Frenchman has changed my life:

Eating: It's a bit of a joke in our house that while I tend to have coffee with baguette and jam for breakfast, Understanding Frenchman has a very British breakfast of cornflakes, banana and yoghurt. I'd like to say that my Frenchification includes sitting down to delicious home-cooked bons petits plats every evening, washed down with a civilised glass of red wine and that single square of high-quality dark chocolate that all Frenchwomen supposedly "indulge" in once every day, but in fact we both eat in the canteen at work at lunchtime and only have very simple things in the evening. Because of our working and commuting times though, one thing I have been forced to adapt to is eating later in the evening. We mostly have dinner around 8 and for someone who grew up with tea at half past five, that's a big adjustment. It's actually the one thing I really don't like about our domestic arrangements - I usually end up snacking when I come home because I'm hungry, and even if I hadn't had much, by 8pm I'm too tired to be interested in food. Plus, it makes the evening seem really short!

Language: I was pretty proud of my honours-degree level French, and my vocabulary was not without a smattering of the kind of words you shouldn't really bust out in a university oral exam, but between the good words and the bad words is a whole range of informal vocabulary that you only really pick up inside a Francophone home. La flotte (water, whether coming from the sky as rain or sitting in a carafe on your dinner table) que dalle (nothing, used in a negative sense), and balancer (meaning "to throw away") are all words that I quite definitely learned from UFM. Plus, when you have someone who listens to you patiently (most of the time) and doesn't hesitate to correct you (all of the time), your pronunciation, grammar and general fluency definitely improve as well. What's really funny (or scary) is when you find yourself starting to sound like your significant other and they accuse you of stealing their linguistic quirks.

Cultural Knowledge (or, understanding Les Guignols): I don't know about other nationalities, but many British people who live in France have a pretty low opinion of French television. But while I don't think it's just me being patriotic when I say that the BBC is unrivaled by anything I've ever seen in another country (and even UK commercial channels show a lot of high quality and original programming), Understanding Frenchman has introduced me to some great stuff over here. Take Les Guignols, for example. Like Spitting Image, it's a satirical puppet show that mocks the foibles of powerful, well-known people, and it's really, really funny. Except, of course, that you have to a) understand the language and b) know who the characters are and what the real story behind the satire is. I remember watching it with flatmates during my first year in France and being completely baffled, but now, watching it with my own French Culture tutor by my side, I'm finally beginning to recognise the caricatures and laugh at most of the humour. Other shows which fall into this category include the whole of Le Petit Journal (of which Les Guignols is actually a part) and the wonderful Stephane de Groodt on Canal+'s Le Supplement.

I've got more of these, but this post is getting long, so maybe it will have to become a series. In the meantime, what about you, readers? What have you learned from your French partners/friends/hosts? And do you think they've picked up anything from you?
 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

How My Boyfriend's Dog Garnered Votes in the Municipal Elections

Early this afternoon, Understanding Frenchman and I went to exercise our democratic rights and fulfil our civic duties at the local polling station. (Like so many things in France, voting is best carried out at lunch time because everyone else is eating so you don't have to queue.) The procedure is pretty simple, although slightly different from in the UK. You show your voting card and collect slips of paper with the lists of candidates for each of the parties, along with a little blue envelope. Then you go into the isoloir and put one of the slips into the envelope. You can either keep the rest or throw them away. Then you take your envelope to another desk, where there are two officials. One looks at your ID, checks that you are on the list and are eligible to vote, then states "Peut voter." Then you post your envelope into the urn and the second official announces, "a voté." (My name was on a separate list of EU voters, so they had to look me up twice.) You then sign the register and that's you done.

Until the next week, of course. As in the presidential elections, there are two rounds, unless one party gains at least 50% of the vote in the first round. The first round eliminates parties which don't gain a high enough percentage of the vote, while the second determines the proportion of councillors from each list that will make up the municipal council. If you choose to voter blanc by putting nothing in the envelope, your vote counts towards the total number of votes used to calculate the percentage in the first round but has no effect in the second round. Parties which don't gain enough votes also have the option of forming a kind of coalition with another party, handing over their percentage of the vote in return for places on its list.

As if that wasn't complicated enough, the rules are different in communes which have less than 1000 inhabitants. In those places, independent candidates can stand for election, and the list does not have to include as many candidates as there are seats on the council. What's more, voters are allowed to cross out the names of candidates on one list and replace them with the names of candidates on another list, even if their policies are totally different and they are not in any kind of political alliance. This process is called panachage and is supposed to make it possible to have an opposition in elections where the number of voters is so small as to make this statistically unlikely.

And what about my boyfriend's dog? Well, in the past, in those small communes, you were allowed to replace the names of official candidates with people who hadn't even stood for election. When Understanding Frenchman was little, his dad was president and the family dog something of a mascot for the village football club. Some jokers, who were obviously not that impressed with the candidates on offer, chose to score out the human names and replace them with Toto's.

Sadly, the dog is no more and the law changed this year so that le panachage is restricted to people whe have actually put themselves forward for election, so we'll just have to hope that our human representatives are capable of wiser choices than our canine companions this time round.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Chocolate and Chick-lit

One evening last week, on my way home from work, I popped into one of my favourite Parisian chocolate shops and explained that I was looking for a little selection of classic chocolates as a small present for someone I knew. It was sort of true, but in fact, the recipient of the gift was someone I know better than anybody else: I was buying a box of beautifully presented chocolates for myself.

The cause of this ridiculous indulgence was a book that my mum gave me for Christmas: Jenny Colgan's The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris. With its violet and gold cover, this book is quite clearly marketed as chick-lit, and to be honest, my expectations of the story weren't all that high. I read the first few chapters slowly, a few pages at a time in that brain-dead period between work and sleep.



And then, a few chapters in, I found myself getting hooked. The story, the tale of a provincial English girl who moves to Paris and falls in love with a chocolate maker, could have been saccharine-sweet and stomach-turningly cliched. And indeed, the stereotypes are there. Anna, the main character, lives in an apartment on the Ile-Saint-Louis with a bohemian flatmate and every man she meets behaves like a typical Latin lothario in one way or another. But the cliches are tempered, both by the tragic part of the story, another main character who is dying of cancer, and with touches of irony, my favourite being the character of the chic, haughty Alice, who is rude to everyone ... and also British and not parisienne at all. Reading The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris became my perfect weekday treat and even made me appreciate Paris a bit more as I roared underneath it on the RER, engorssed in the pages of the book.

Highly recommended if you are looking for a little treat, for yourself or somebody else. Just don't forget to buy some chocolates too!
 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Card from the Town Hall

Since I wrote back in December about how surprisingly pleasant the process of applying to be on the electoral register was, I've been metaphorically touching wood every time the subject of this month's local elections comes up and hoping desperately that I didn't speak too soon.

Well, to my relief, at the end of last week, this is what arrived in the post:



Now I have the card in my sticky paws, I can let myself get excited about voting in my first ever French election!

The first vote, on the 23rd March, is for the conseil municipal, or local council and the local mayor. In Paris, each arrondissement has its own council and mayor, and the outcome of those elections will also determine who gets to be mayor of Paris as a whole. As the municipal councillors also play a role in selecting senators for France's upper house, the consequences are quite far-reaching.

One of the slightly crazy things about French politics is the number of communes which exist, each with its own mayor. While the outer arrondissements of Paris have populations of one or two hundred thousand, the smallest commune in the country, Rochefourchat, has only one permanent inhabitant, and none of its politicians lives there. This is one of the many things that people periodically talk about reforming, but there are too many conflicting interests, so the only way the number of communes is ever reduced is when the last inhabitant of one of the tiny ones leaves or dies and it becomes a village mort.

The battle for the position of the next mayor is also turning out to be quite interesting. Despite all the recent furore of the manif pour tous (the recent loud protest against the passing of gay marriage and adoption law), and some very unpleasant demonstrations of extreme right-wing sentiment, Paris has been fairly happily presided over by Bertrand Delanoe, a gay socialist whose innovations include the Vélibs, Paris Plages, and the Nuits Blanches, since 2001.

This time round, however, the contest is between two women, the socialist Anne Hidalgo and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet ("NKM") of the UMP. Hidalgo has the advantage of representing the party which is already in power and has remained reasonably popular throughout Delanoe's two terms, while Kosciusko-Morizet has been criticized for being too left-wing for the right and too right-wing for the left, but I have the impression she's been more interviewed and more talked-about than Hidalgo (although perhaps not always in the most positive way!).

The Guardian printed an article recently about why Parisians are not terribly inspired about voting for their next mayor (basically, most people want good public transport, affordable housing and quality childcare, and both candidates are promising all of these things), but I personally am enjoying the build up. And, if I'm honest, I'm also excited about going into that little cubicle and choosing which paper to put in the envelope. It feels a bit like being 18 again!

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Spirit of New York?

One characteristic that's pretty typical of American visitors to Europe is that they are generally amazed by how old things are, so it's hardly surprising that Understanding Frenchman and I, on our first visit to the USA, were struck by the young-ness of nearly everything that we saw. At first we felt it as an absence: if you can't wander the medieval centre, admire the Gothic churches, discover some Roman ruins and even stumble upon the odd prehistoric dolmen, what, as a tourist, are you supposed to do? And if the fun of travel lies in blending in with the local culture, how do you do you integrate when the striking feature is that everyone is so different? By the end though, I felt that it was one of the most interesting things we experienced in New York.

One of the most interesting places that we visited was definitely the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which is in Harlem, near the north-west corner of Central Park. From the outside, it doesn't look that different to many European Gothic cathedrals - a prime example of how settlers in America often exported both works of art and artistic and architectural styles, as the cornerstone of the cathedral was only laid in 1892. Enter the building, though, and you will discover unique features that mark it as being of its own place and time and not just a pastiche of another era on another continent.

Source: http://realitypod.com/2013/05/top-10-famous-unfinished-buildings/

One part that I really liked was the 8 Chapels of the Tongues, each devoted to a different immigrant group from the 19th and early 20th centuries and a symbol of New York's diverse population. (It's also interesting to note, however, that Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain all get their own chapel, while the Scandinavian countries are together and Eastern Europe shares with Asia.)

One of the Chapels of the Tongues
In other ways, the Cathedral demonstrates a much more modern outlook than it's European counterparts. Hanging in the nave when we arrived was this beautiful light sculpture, created by a Chinese artist. There are 14 bays honouring professions, including a stained glass window showing a 1925 television to represent communications, and a sculpture made from the remains of burned buildings is a memorial to all firefighters dating from 1976. Another sculpture, this time in bronze panels, shows scenes of environmental destruction, while the altar is consecrated to world peace.

The Chinese Sculpture
In its mission too, the Cathedral shows itself to be forward-thinking and open-minded, claiming to be "nourished by the ideas and liturgies of other faiths." It calls on artists, writers, musicians and philosphers to "help educate our imaginations", and holds services blessing cyclists, and especially bike messengers, and animals. (Camels and bumble bees can attend as well as cats and dogs.)

Signs of a modern-day sense of humour?
I'm not pretending to make any judgement on the relative values of any cathedrals' works, or to criticise or praise either St John the Divine or any other church, but it did give me a great insight into what might possibly be the most fascinating and powerful aspect of New York's (America's?) culture - the opportunity and the willingness to draw on a huge range of cultures and traditions and to take the best of them to create something that from the outside might look like its ancestors, but on the inside is really very different. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Things to See in NYC

In truth, apart from skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, New York is actually a place you go to more to do things than to see things, but I decided to accord myself some artistic licence in this title. Normally in cities I like to spend most of my time walking around and soaking up the atmosphere but, despite what other people told us, I was surprised to find that this wasn't really the bit that I enjoyed the most. It might have been something to do with the slush and the sub-zero temperatures, but many of our most enjoyable experiences were specific things that we made the effort to do. As it was our first time there, many of them were classic tourist-trail things, so this is in no way an expert guide, but here are some of the highlights of our trip:

Top of the Rock

This was probably the most touristy part of our whole trip, but also one of the best things we did. Having figured out that if you go to the top of the Empire State Building, you can't see the Empire State Building, we went to the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Center instead. It's pricey, at 27$ for a very small exhibition, a ride in a lift and access to the top 3 floors of the building, but I don't think it's possible to appreciate the sheer scale and verticality of downtown Manhattan without viewing it from up high and the 360 degree panorama really is impressive.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

For a long time, the Lower East Side was where new immigrants from all over the world lived in crowded slums directly after arriving in America. The museum is a tenement building that has been furnished the way it would have been at the time, but in fact the visit is more like attending a lecture than going on a tour. You have to book a session with a guide and you can choose which of the immigrant's stories you would like to hear. We went for the history of an Irish family told by our knowledgeable and engaging guide using traditional songs and it was fantastic.

MoMA

Understanding Frenchman and I both have a fairly limited tolerance for museums, but we did get a lot out of our visit to New York's Museum of Modern Art. If you start on the top floor and work your way down, you can get a good impression of how modern art developed from just after the Impressionists onwards, and for somebody like me who doesn't know a lot about art history, the overview of the different movements provided in each gallery gave just the right amount of information to understand what the artists were getting at ... and to confirm that Dadaism is not a concept I appreciate any more in art than I do in literature. (The example that sticks in my mind from the MoMA is a bicycle wheel stuck into a stepladder, an attempt to prove that everyday objects are just as much art as something that has been beautifully crafted just as long as you decide to call it art. Apart from that, though, I enjoyed most of what we saw. I found this painting both fascinating and beautiful - according to the museum guide I am not alone.


Other great things we did that don't really count as sights were: ice skating in Bryant Park (a great rink surrounded by beautiful buildings, and it seemed bigger than the one in Central Park), dinner and a concert at the Smoke jazz bar, a delicious meal at the Red Cat in Chelsea and yummy Nepalese food at a restaurant in Queens. We also saw the musical Chicago on Broadway, a decision that flew a bit in the face of advice we had received from an acquaintance who has been an actress in New York and said not to go and see anything which has been running for too long because the atmosphere tends to be a bit flat and the theatres full of tourists. This was true to some extent, but we wanted to see an American musical that we knew we would both like, and I felt that the sheer quality of the acting, dancing and singing more than made up for any deflatedness on the part of the audience or the cast.

There were a few things that I would have liked to do that we missed out on, like the immigration museum on Ellis Island and one of the other art galleries, but overall I felt that we made pretty good use of our time in New York. If I ever go back, I would like to have a specific goal or something purposeful to do, because I enjoyed myself most on the days when we had a particular mission and weren't just wandering around. After all, how can you make the most of the fastest city in the world when you have all the time in the world on your hands?