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.


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.


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? 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Paris vs New York

It's hard to think of any cities in the world which are quite as iconic as Paris and New York, at least from an Anglophone European perspective. Cities whose street names are legendary, whose facades are familiar, and where even the public transport systems have qualified as settings of many a cinema classic. And so, when Understanding Frenchman and I took our first trip across the Atlantic together and exchanged the Eiffel Tower for the Empire State Building it was probably inevitable that we made a few comparisons.

Before anybody takes what follows too seriously, I should make it clear that we spent a grand total of seven days in New York, and that even after living in Paris for four years, I'm still trying to make sense of the place, so nothing that I've written is anything but my own subjective, and possibly superficial, opinion. I'm quite happy for people to disagree with me or correct anything I've said, but please be nice to me. (I know what Parisians and New Yorkers can be like!)

Parisian Style vs New York Style

To put things in context, we arrived in New York in the middle of a snow storm and spent most of the week wearing hiking boots, ski gloves and cagoules, so any attempt to pass judgement on anyone else's fashion sense is entirely hypocritical. Understanding Frenchman and I differed on this one: he thought that New Yorkers didn't make nearly so much of an effort as Parisians, while I was impressed with both their creativity and the fact that so many people looked good even in the face of metre-high piles of melting slush. And next time it snows in Paris, I am definitely investing in a pair of designer wellies.

Paris: 0 NYC: 1

Paris Metro vs New York Subway
I never thought I'd say it, but with its clanking trains, complicated timetable changes and the fact that stations several blocks away from each other can share the same name, the New York subway makes the Paris metro look modern, user friendly and efficient. NYC does get some bonus points: the subway runs all night, every time the train pulls away from the station you start singing Moby in your head, and the sheer enthusiasm of the "Stand clear of the closing doors, please!" announcement are all big plusses, but Paris still wins this one hands down.

Paris: 1     NYC: 0

Paris Street Names vs New York Street Names
Admittedly, the New York system is simple. Just look at the numbers on the street signs and you'll know exactly where you are and how far you have to walk to your destination. But in the long run, I prefer to get lost every so often for the privilege of walking along streets named after the Elysian Fields or reminding myself that in the days before NafNaf, Gap and Sephora, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was once a hotbed of revolutionary fervour and not just another shopping street.

Paris: 1 NYC: 0

Parisian Traffic vs New York Traffic

Our American friends expressed deep concern about the dangers of New York traffic and the high number of accidents but nothing we experienced in NYC compared to the adrenaline rush of being still on the pedestrian crossing as the lights change at the Place de la Concorde ... or the Place de l'Opera ... or the Place de la Nation. We were pleasantly surprised by New York drivers' courtesy and care at every crossroads (especially as, with cars that big, you could do a lot of damage!)

Paris: 0     NYC: 1

Big Coffee vs Little Coffee
I had high expectations of American coffee. You can't warm your hands or your soul around a tiny cup of Parisian espresso (and if you try with a café crème, you'll probably find it's lukewarm), so I was looking forward to big doses of caffeinated comfort in New York, but I was actually a bit disappointed. There's a reason Americans can spend the whole day slugging on those huge cups of hot beverages without getting hyped-up like the Duracell bunny: what's inside tends to be flavourless and somewhat insipid. The verdict? No points for either city - go to Milan instead.

Paris: 0     NYC: 0

Parisian Rudeness vs New York Rudeness

You know that moment in Sex and the City where Carrie drops her birthday cake on wet tarmac and gets yelled at by a group of workmen? I spent a fair amount of our time in NYC in fear of having a similar experience, after seeing people getting bawled at for crimes as diverse as stepping away from the immigration desk a moment too soon and turning to the left instead of the right when looking for their seats in a Broadway theatre. New Yorkers, it seems, have no compunction about making other people's mistakes very, very public. Nevertheless, on balance, I decided that I prefer this to the Parisian version where you often don't even realise someone has been rude to you until it's far too late to make a comeback.

Paris: 0     NYC: 1

Parisian Politeness vs New York Politeness

Apart from the above-mentioned incidents of public humiliation, we found most people in New York to be very polite and friendly. People were patient when we failed to swipe our metro cards correctly and helpfully explained to us the value of all those tiny coins funny names when we tried to count out change in shops. What we found weird though, was the way that salespeople would be incredibly helpful on a first meeting, but if we went back to look at something for a second time, had no recollection of who we were. We also quickly understood that the question, "How are you?" doesn't really expect an answer. So, helpful and welcoming as New Yorkers were, the points for this round go to Paris, because when a Parisian makes up his mind to be nice to you, means something profound.

Paris: 1 NYC: 0

As you can see, this post has been very carefully engineered so that neither city came out on top. Because while it's always fun to compare, I'm here to share experiences, not sit in judgement. But I do have more thoughts, of the deep and less deep variety, on this subject. Watch out for more posts coming soon.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

If Only ...

With nothing much else to blog about this week, I thought I'd share the new expression that Understanding Frenchman decided should be added to my repertoire yesterday. We were watching the Olympics and the commentator kept saying, "If only she had done this, if only she had done that."

"Yeah, yeah," said UFM. "Et si ma tante en avait, elle serait mon oncle." ("If my aunt had any, she'd be my uncle.")

Seeing that I was quite taken with this new phrase, he told me that in polite company, it would be preferable to use the much less colourful, but never the less pretty, "Si Paris était petit, on l'aurait mis dans une bouteille." ("If Paris were tiny, we'd have put it in a bottle by now.")

The closest English equivalent I can think of is, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," but can anybody think of a rude version?

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Dinosaurs in Paris and New Year Resolutions

I didn't write a post about my new year resolutions back in January, mostly because they were a bit half-hearted. My goals for January 2014 could be summed up in 6 words: walk more, cook more, blog more.

Put differently, I decided to do more of three things that I already do, things I like and things I think are good for me.

The advantage of these kinds of resolutions is that they're highly achievable, so now, a month down the line and feeling pretty smug that I'm on my way to succeeding, I've decided to make them public.

The reasons behind walk more were simple: I'm not good at team sports and I've been too busy recently to commit to any kind of gym classes, so day-to-day walking and the odd bike ride are pretty much the only exercise I get. Attractive scenery and dramatic views make me very happy, and while I don't suffer from SAD, I'm sure that a daily dose of sunlight is good for the soul too.  Walking used to be a big part of my twice-daily commute but since I moved to Paris, a combination of being short of time and having heavy bags to carry, as well as the long hours of darkness, have made making use of door-to-door public transport all too tempting. Since January, however, I've been making an effort to leave work earlier and walk for half-an-hour in the last of the daylight, as well as getting out into the open air every day at weekends.

My cook more resolution was also a consequence of my having slipped into lazy habits. The combination of free meals in the work canteen every weekday and the fairly rubbish selection of interesting foodstuffs in your average Parisian supermarket meant that Understanding Frenchman and I were tending to do bare-minimum shopping and eating nothing but ham, cheese and salad every single evening. Recently, though, we've been making far more use of the wonderful Marche d'Aligre to buy vast quantities of interesting, tasty fruit and vegetables and I've been trying out recipes from the new cookbook I got for Christmas. When I shared some of my baking with a colleague and told her it was part of my new year resolution, she suggested that I should decide to walk more, cook more and share more instead, so I must be doing something right!

This entire basket of fruit cost about 7 euros and it tastes
so much better than supermarket plastic!
My resolution to blog more was a consequence of my reflections on Blogging About Blogging. Having realised that one of the things I love best about reading other people's blogs is the little insights into their daily lives, I've decided to blog at least once a week whether or not I have something extra-fascinating or entertaining to say. (Hence why this post is pretty much seven paragraphs of navel-gazing - sorry about that!)

And what about the dinosaur? Well, a couple of weeks ago, Understanding Frenchman and I walked along the Seine from the Place de la Concorde to the new shopping centre at Beaugrenelle, where I bought some classic British ingredients to cook our Sunday morning bacon muffin brunch and evening baked potatoes with tuna and cheddar cheese. On the way, the sun was going down and I got some great pictures to publish on this blog:

Everyone loves a pretty picture of the Eiffel Tower...

... but it's even better if it's got a dinosaur in it.
That particular Saturday afternoon was a new year resolution hat trick!


Saturday, 25 January 2014

Stag Do Wild Games

Last night, Understanding Frenchman was telling me about the stag party of one of his friends that he attended in his younger days. The groom-to-be in question being a notorious party animal, the weekend was packed with the usual practical jokes and embarrassing dares, and much alcohol was consumed.

"And the first thing we made him do," UFM told me, "was make him eat sardines and saucisson for breakfast!"

That's those crazy French boys for you - swimming in public fountains, skipping down the street wearing nothing but women's underwear and, most daring of all, eating something mildly difficult to digest for breakfast.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Mes Amis de l'apéro

What makes for a good night out in Paris? The options are more or less endless: there are thousands of great restaurants, clubs for every musical taste, and so many shows, films and concerts that you could spend your entire evening just reading the listings and never go out at all. But in my Parisian life, if there's one thing that makes up more than anything else for the early starts long hours spent in the tunnels and corridors of the metro, it's the abundance of evenings spent in a friendly bar with a nice bottle of wine or a good mojito or two, putting the world to rights in the company of good friends. In my old age, my requirements also include a place to sit down, music that isn't so loud you lose your voice and good selection of planches or assiettes to nibble on.*

Luckily, I have a wonderful group of friends with similar preferences, so the only thing left to find once we've chosen the night of the week is a suitable location. And this is where comes in. This site containing bar listings and user ratings has been the origin of many a great find ... as well as a few somewhat quirky experiences. Here are a few that we've tried:

Le Barav is one of the highest rated on the site, and with good reason. This little bar is connected to a wine shop, where you go and choose your bottle. For an extra five euros, you can take the bottle next door and have it served to you at your table by friendly bar staff who haven't used their commercial successes as an excuse to get snooty. There's a good selection of food as well, with one of my favourites being St Marcellin au miel. My only regret is that I didn't discover this place before it became so well-known, as you now have to book your table in advance if you want to stay much beyond 8pm or go out on a busy night. (Tip: In Paris, Thursday is going-out night and Fridays are actually quieter.)

Another gem is L'Imprévu Café. Hidden away from the bustle of Châtelet down a little back street, it's a cosy little place in an area where the bars tend to be loud, crowded and occasionally violent. Seating ranges from comfy sofas to tippy-up cinema seats and the cocktail list is just as creative, but I have also occasionally regretted not forgoing alcohol for one of their delicious spiced hot chocolates. 

If it's interesting cocktails you're after, I can also recommend the Royal Beaubourg, near Arts et Métiers metro. It has fabulous wallpaper, a baby grand piano, and a long happy hour where the drinks don't mysteriously shrink just because they happen to be cheaper. It's more of a restaurant than just a bar and, although I've never eaten there, the food I've seen going past to other tables has always looked good.

More towards the quirky end of the scale, Understanding Frenchman and I have had a couple of nice apéritifs at Au Petit Moulin  up in the 9th. It's not a place to go with a big group of friends because the main upstairs bar area is tiny (apparently there is a cellar that you can rent, but otherwise it's not normally open). Nice drinks, tasty nibbles ... It's all so normal until you read the list of tariffs for a 19th century prostitute on these windowsill, which includes a detailed explanation of why certain services, although appearing to be expensive, are actually very good value because many women don't like to provide them.

The prize for quirkiness, however, actually goes to a bar that my friends and I tried out just this week: Le Lèche-Vin at Bastille. Friendly service, small but potent happy hour cocktails ... And walls entirely covered with the kind of religious images and statues, ranging from pictures of Jesus himself to postcards of Jean-Paul II. The description on these website recommends going to the toilets for further surprises, but I have to admit that the one real drawback of the place was an unpleasant smell emanating from behind the WC door, which was presumably not what was being referred to on the he site.

This list only just begins to scratch the surface of the fun places my apéro buddies and I have discovered over the past few months, never mind the places that are still on our list to try.

What about you, readers? What are your favourite places to go out, in Paris or wherever you are?
* Actually, this has probably been my ideal night out for my whole adult life, but not I have the chronological age to match my tastes.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Belleville At My Feet

Over the past few years, I've developed a special appreciation of the first few days of January. Those days when Christmas is over, Hogmanay has been and gone and the world is getting over its collective hangover and gearing up to go back to work. It can be a wonderful time to travel. I once went to Venice in the first week of the new year and experienced three days of crisp, icy blue skies, haunting mists over the canals and a city that was refreshingly free of the tourist hoardes. Sometimes, it's a great opportunity to curl up on the sofa, watch DVDs and take advantage of the fact that there is absolutely nothing better do to.

This year, back in Paris after two weeks of travels, I seized the opportunity to go out and discover Belleville. When I think of Belleville, I tend to associate it with the 20th arrondisement, but in fact it incorporates parts of the 10th, 11th and 19th as well, in that far-flung north-east corner of Paris where the tourists never go.

If it wasn't for the frequent glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, you could forget that this was Paris. More than any other part of the city, it gives the impression that local community comes first, with the fact of being in the country's capital as far on the horizon as most of the famous tourist sites.I started my walk at Couronnes metro station and made my way up through the Parc de Belleville. I was initially just looking for a nice view but was treated to surprises along the way, like the group of older Chinese ladies practising dance moves to music from a ghetto blaster (if you've seen the film Casse tête chinoise, it was the Parisian version of what the hero of the film sees in the park in New York every day. From the top of the hill, you can admire not only the Dame de fer but also some great tiled artwork, a homage to Piaf, who was born in Belleville, and this quirky map of Belleville's points of interest.

Strolling up the rue des Envièrges, I came across this miniature garden at the entrance to a courtyard, admired these colourful yarns in a tiny tailor's shop where two people were having a huge argument, and saw what I think was my first real-life example of le bookcrossing, as a lady flicked through a selection of paperbacks that had been left casually on a windowsill. 

Making my way along the rue des Pyrénées and back down the rue de Belleville, I had a real sense of the multiethnic nature of this part of Paris. Some blocks seemed almost entirely Chinese, others were full of North African businesses, while further down towards Belleville metro station, several buildings had the Jewish Star of David on the front. My last discovery was this little street where graffiti artists are officially allowed to unleash their creativity:

The perfect antidote to a grey day in Paris!

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Last, Wild Days of 2013

Understanding Frenchman and I spent Christmas at my parents' house in Scotland. It was a week of wild, windy weather with flurries of snow which didn't lie in the town but rested on the hills for a few hours each time, gleaming in the intervals of bright sunshine. We alternated long walks in the (very) fresh air with cosy hot drinks by the fireside, family board games and lots of mum's delicious cooking.

For New Year, we more or less repeated the same winning formula at Understanding Frenchman's parents' house in Brittany. There wasn't any snow, but there was plenty of impressive flooding, as you can see from this picture of our walk by the Nantes-Brest canal, where the river has flooded almost far enough to meet with the canal

The water at the front is the canal; behind is the river and the flooded fields.

Sunset beyond the flooded fields.

For the last day of 2013, we visited the Côte Sauvage on the Quiberon peninsula. I hadn't seen the sea in winter for a long time, and we were lucky enough to arrive just before high tide and be treated to the awesome spectacle of the waves roaring in from the Atlantic, pounding and exploding against the rocks - the perfect way to chase away the cobwebs of the old year!

After an hour or so out in the raging wind, rain and salt spray, we felt that our 5 course Hogmanay dinner was well deserved. Understanding Frenchman's mum had prepared smoked salmon, foie gras, duck breast with potatoes, cheese and salad and mini Christmas logs made out of chocolate mousse, washed down with champagne, Montbazillac and a delicious Bourgogne, and we finished off with a wee nip of whisky as we rang in the new year. It was just the four of us, and I have to say that, having spent Hogmanay over the past few years at the Edinburgh street party, watching fireworks (and having them chucked at us) in the centre of Milan and dancing til dawn then waiting half an hour on freezing cold station platforms for the train home, it was, along with last year's event with my family in Scotland, one of the best ever. (If this is what getting older means, bring it on.)

I hope that all my readers and fellow bloggers also had a good one, and wish you all the best for 2014. Following all the positive responses to my last post, I've resolved to blog more often and worry less about having something breathtakingly original to say. Together we can keep the world of little, personal blogs alive!

Monday, 30 December 2013

Blogging about Blogging

A couple of months ago, a blogger that I really like announced that she was going to stop posting and somebody else wrote in the comments box, "Blogging is dead."

That made me sad.

I first started reading blogs about six years ago. I was back in my home town after my second year in France and I'm sure that reading the blogs that I found mainly through the now defunct Assistants in France site influenced my decision to move to Italy and start blogging myself a year later. At the time, most of the blogs I read were written by people like me: former assistants and study-abroad students who had settled in France or Italy and were sharing their experiences. While my reading list has expanded to include other countries and people who took the expat route from a different starting point, this is still the kind of blog I like best - the ones where writers mix the stories of their everyday lives with cultural observations and anecdotes their adopted country. What motivates me to write my own blog is the pleasure of contributing to the mix and knowing that people with the same interests might enjoy reading what I post.

It seems, however, that bloggers like us are a diminishing breed. Of the blogs on my reading list, many are no longer updated at all, while others have morphed into a different genre as the writers' situations and interests change. In Paris, in particular, many of the new blogs I read are highly professional in style and more like travel magazines than personal diaries. Don't get me wrong - I love those blogs too, but I don't have the time, the contacts or the experiences to produce something like that and I wonder my little blog, with the others like it, will gradually fade away as other styles take over. There's less incentive to share your life online when nobody else is doing the same.

Another thing that sometimes inhibits me from posting everything I could is privacy. I don't think anyone could track me down via my blog, but someone who stumbled across it could quite easily recognise me, and I'm shy about what they might think. While on the surface it might seem illogical, I'd rather complete strangers knew the details of my personal life than people I might actually meet in another context ... especially as I might never know they'd been reading. (This is different from meeting up with other bloggers, as that's generally a fair exchange of information!) I suspect my blog might attract more readers and commenters if I was more open about who I am and what I do, but I'm not quite prepared to make the sacrifice of putting everything out in public.

Finally, like many foreigners who've been abroad for a long time, the more I integrate into life in France, the less I notice little everyday details which might be interesting to people who don't know the country, or who do and are in the process of integrating themselves. My experiences are more personal, and that brings up the issue of privacy once again.

I don't want to stop blogging. In fact, if anything, I would like to write more, so if you're a regular reader or you've been browsing the archives, it would really help me out if you could post a little in the comments box to say what brings you here and what kind of posts interest you the most. And for those of you who are bloggers yourself, how would you answer the big existential question: is blogging dying, or just changing? I'd love to know what you think!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Merry Christmas from l'Administration Française!

I almost hesitated to post what I wrote last week about my experience registering to vote in next year's elections, and when I received a phone call from the mairie on Friday telling me that my application as it stood was likely to be rejected, I was cursing my act of hubris.

Because, you see, an attestation from EDF, normally the French gold standard of proof of address, was not acceptable, and what I needed was the actual bill. But unfortunately, as we only added my name to the account at the beginning of December in order to get the attestation, we had no bill.

However, the very nice man who took the trouble to phone me and tell me this was also able to give me some other suggestions, one of which was a recent pay slip, which in France has your address at the top. When I confirmed that I could scan one and send it within the hour, he gave me his personal email address and promised to process the application by the end of the afternoon. And sure enough, by 5pm I had received confirmation that my application was going through, and, assuming it's given the final stamp of approval, I should get my card in March.

I like to think (and have a few examples like this one to prove it) that while French bureaucracy is still complicated and frustrating at times, the people who administer it are becoming more and more helpful, and also more willing to use technology to increase their efficiency. Let's hope it continues.

In other news, on my way to the airport with a large suitcase at rush hour last night, not one but two people helped me through the gates to the metro, and smiled at me as well. In the end, France gave me a nice send off for my trip home for Christmas!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Why I'm Excited About Filling in Paperwork

It's been a while since I had a close encounter with l'administration française. Admittedly, moving house last July involved some serious chasing up of the papers to terminate my phone and internet contract and a fiery exchange of recorded delivery letters to the appallingly inefficient Natio Assurances to explain to them why they couldn't collect an advance direct debit payment for the insurance contract that they had themselves just cancelled on my old flat, but I haven't had to deal with the big guns of public sector bureaucracy for about four years now.

And now here I am, compiling a good old dossier to send to the mairie in the hope that, in 2014, I will get to vote in not one, but two French elections.

I was pretty sad to be sitting on the sidelines at the last presidential election. I'm even more upset about not being allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum next year. But, as an EU citizen, I'm entitled to vote in both the European and the local elections which are taking place next year.

Registering is a fairly simple process, in theory at least. You download the forms here and send them, along with ID and proof of address, to your local mairie by the 31st December (although they recommend before the 15th to ensure everything is processed on time)  and that should be all. My problem has been the proof of address because everything in the new flat is in Understanding Frenchman's name, but it turns out its pretty easy to add anyone to an EDF contract - you don't even have to be the person concerned. In fact, making someone else liable for your electricity bill seems to be a whole lot easier than getting on to the electoral register... but I digress.

I don't want to say it was easy until I actually have the card in my sticky paw, but up until now it hasn't been too difficult. Now I just need them to process my application on time - what do you reckon the chances are?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A New Yorker in Paris

"What, just one?" you might say on reading the title of this post. But while there might be many folks from the Grosse Pomme here ( including some of my favourite bloggers - hi guys!) Sebastian Marx stands out because he has his own very funny comedy show. Currently running at the So Gymnase theatre at Bonne Nouvelle in a tiny theatre where an audience of around 50 can lounge around on squishy sofas and buy drinks and snacks at the bar without racking up a lifetime of debt, the show reminded me of some of the best standup  I've seen at the Edinburgh Fringe - charming and chuckle-worthy but with some sharp cultural insights nevertheless.

Sebastian's routine started off a little slowly, with a lot of chat about where people were from and what they were doing in Paris. I was psyching myself up to be a little bit underwhelmed, which made it even better as the humour level gradually rose and I realised that a well as being extremely likeable, this guy also had some witty and original things to say. The concept was similar to How to a Become Parisian in. One Hour, which I also enjoyed, but I have to say that I thought  Marx was more insightful and didn't come across as trying too hard. (The punctuation error in the actual title of the other show also bothers me, but that's probably just because I'm a sad geek.)

You can buy tickets for A New Yorker in Paris here . I would highly recommend it!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Les Calembours: the Next Level

I've written before about the joy I experience every time I understand a French pun ... and the only thing better than a verbal pun is a visual one. This link has been doing the rounds on Facebook and seems to be putting smiles on lots of faces:


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Young Rebels?

It's early on an October morning and still dark outside. You are passing your local high school when you notice movements in the shadows and realise it's a crowd of hooded teenagers. Some break off from the group and sprint across the road. They spread in different directions, grabbing on to the neighbourhood bins and pushing them back towards the school gates. Under the lamplight, you notice that the pavements are strewn with detritus. A few cigarettes glow in the dark.

What do you do?

When it happened to me, I considered confronting the teenagers, contacting the school or phoning the police, before eventually deciding that, whatever the kids were up to, all of the above actions were unlikely to make a difference. It was only that evening when we were watching the news on TV that I discovered the explanantion: our local lycée, which has the reputation of being somewhat communist (and they mean the pupils, not the teachers - only in France!) was holding a protest against the deportation of Leonarda, the 15 year old girl who was removed from the coach on a school trip to be sent back to Kosovo with the rest of her family.

Since then, there have been several repeat manifestations, along with plenty of debate in the media about the rights and wrongs of the case, and watching and reflecting on these, I came to a new understanding of the whole French striking mentality.

In all the time I've lived in France, I've always been somewhat baffled by the way that students and school pupils are so willing to damage their own interests in order to stage a good demonstration. In 2006, for example, when my university was barricaded to show objection to the controversial contrat première embauche (Youth Employment Contract) I understood the concerns of the students, but not why they thought that the best way to protest was to prevent themselves from attending the classes that were supposed to help them towards gainful employment. It seemed a lot like cutting of your nose in spite of your face to me, especially when, in the most militant universities, there was talk of students having to repeat the year in order to cover all the coursework and sit their exams.

In the Leonarda case, however, the explanation becomes clearer. However unwilling the teachers who were actually on the trip might have been to hand the girl over to the authorities, in this story, symbolically at least, the lycée is an arm of the state acting in the interests of another, more malevolent, branch of that same state. It ceases to become the establishment that provides the students with a future, and becomes the traitor that betrays them instead. It's an interpretation that you can disagree with, but at least it makes sense.

I think the reason that this mentality is so much more evident in France comes down to the nature of the French State itself. Far more than in the UK, it appears to be omnipresent and all-encompassing. It dictates everything from employee benefits to exactly what children learn at school. People depend on it from the moment they are born in a public hospital to when they draw their last pension from its centralised funds. And so, when they decide to rebel against it, its symbols are everywhere, and any of its property is fair game for a manif.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Bright Side of Living in Paris

Yesterday afternoon I was about to make my way home when I realised the sun was shining, and the day was relatively young, and suddenly I was struck by the desire to go wandering in Paris. And so I did.

It was the kind of afternoon I dreamed of when I coined the title for this blog: walking around with my camera in my hands, with no greater aim than to experience the sights and sounds of the city and take lots of interesting photographs.
I took the metro up to Montmartre and, carefully avoiding the tourist hoardes in front of the basilica, made my way up the side of the hill and round to the little park at the back. It never ceases to amaze me how quiet Montmartre is once you get about 100m away from the Sacre Coeur and the Place du Tertre, and the north side of the Butte is one of my favourite parts of Paris. But yesterday I was in for an extra-special treat.

You know how the other day I was complaining about the lack of autumn colours in Paris? Well the trees may be disappointingly brown, but on the rue St Vincent, just down the hill from the Vignoble de Montmartre, I came across this beautiful wall of vines. I spent a good fifteen or twenty minutes taking photographs of it in all its glory.

Perhaps even better than that, though, were the nice people I met along the way. One man stopped to discuss the beauty of the leaves, commenting that only a little more sunlight was needed to bring out the colours to absolute perfection, and two others stopped their cars in the street to avoid driving into my photographs. Sometimes Amelie Poulain's Paris really does come to life.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

An Autumn Sunday in Paris

It's that time of year when the nights are drawing in, the temperatures are dropping and it's not unusual to awake to discover Paris shrouded in clinging grey mist. When it suddenly becomes easy to find a vélib and the crowds in the metro become a sea of winter black. Winter isn't here yet, but you can feel it coming, and the temptation to prepare for hibernation is strong.

This autumn, however, with memories of how last winter trailed on endlessly into April and already feeling the effects of métro, boulot and not enough dodo,  Understanding Frenchman and I are trying our hardest to resist.

Jam plums ...
but they were delicious fresh,
so the jam hasn't quite happened yet.
 We started our counter-attack on Saturday with a very reasonable grasse matinée until around 9am. (Perhaps it would count as a semi-skimmed morning). After that it was time for a brisk, healthy walk down to the Marché d'Aligre, one of my favourite new Parisian discoveries. Most French markets have some particular charm of their own, and at the Marché d'Aligre, located in the heart of what is traditionally a multicultural, working-class area, it's the sheer diversity of what's available, and all at very reasonable prices.

Can you spot the soggy mushroom?
Food blogging at its most honest!
At the fruit stall where we did most of our purchasing, most things were 1.50 per kilo, including some delicious yellow plums and even kaki, which sometimes cost that much just for a single fruit.We did splash out at the mushroom seller's though, and that turned out to be a bit of a mistake, because the cêpes (porcini mushrooms) were delicious but the girolles were going soft even by the time we cooked them for dinner.

We followed up our healthy shopping with a healthy bike ride in the Bois de Vincenennes. Paris is never a great place for spotting glorious autumn colours - I think it's because it's too warm and wet, and because the pollution turns the leaves grey and brown before they get to be glorious reds, but there were some very pretty yellow beech trees, and these beautiful vines.

I spent the rest of the afternoon making jam, although my production line was a bit limited by the fact that most of my jam jars were  abandoned in the move, followed by a mushroom risotto that I was pretty pleased with in the end. The risotto was definitely improved by the bunch of parsley that the nice man at the mushroom stall threw in for free - yet another bonus point for the Marché d'Aligre!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

At the International Crossroads: Why I Enjoyed Speaking English in Amsterdam

One of the things that amuses me when I travel to non-Anglophone countries with Understanding Frenchman is our different attitudes towards speaking English. In what seems like an illogical reversal of roles, he will quite happily approach strangers with a few phrases in his unmistakably French accent, while I am almost prepared to remain dumb rather than feel the inwardly-cringing embarrassment of being unable to address the people of the host country with at least a few phrases of their native language. While UFM is occasionally surprised when he is met with a blank look of incomprehension from someone who really does speak no English, I still have not learned to expect that in most of the countries we visit, most people will have at least a basic level. And even when it becomes clear that somebody is fluent, I still feel the burden of shame at my failure (and probably also that of the whole British nation) to learn their language.

In Amsterdam, though, it was different. Partly, I'm sure, because everybody really was very good at speaking English, to the extent that it seemed to come as naturally as their mother tongue. Secondly, I  was very aware that Amsterdam has been global trade hub for centuries, so by enjoying people's ability to speak English, I actually felt that we were experiencing their culture rather than missing out on an aspect of it.

But the most significant reason, I'm sure, was to do with the nature of politeness in the Netherlands and in many countries in the Anglophone world.One of the reasons that British people struggle to feel at ease in France (and I'm pretty sure it's about ten times worse for Americans), is that French politeness often equates to formality. It's calling people vous and addressing them as Monsieur or Madame.  Speak English and you remove the possibility of doing that. In Italy, meanwhile, I always felt that my English-speaking persona was too timid to fit in with the theatricality of everyday life. But in Amsterdam, where being polite seemed to equate with being friendly as it does in a lot of Anglophone countries, I didn't feel that I risked giving the wrong impression - some smiling and a few English turns of phrase seemed to do the trick perfectly. And very relaxing it was too!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

All Kinds of Surprises in Amsterdam

Last weekend, Understanding Frenchman and I went to Amsterdam for a quick getaway with very limited preparation. We'd booked the hotel room and reserved the train tickets and that was it. We did have a guidebook, but it had been languishing on the coffee table for a couple of weeks and I didn't get around to reading it until we were on the train and speeding through Belgium.

The disadvantage of being this underprepared is that you tend to forget things. In my case it was my toothbrush. The advantage is that anything and everything can be an interesting surprise. And so here, without any further ado, is my Amsterdam surprise list. If you want surprises of your own, read no further.

Attractive Architecture

Not that I was expecting Amsterdam to be ugly. But I was surprised at how, between the grand public buildings of the main streets and the endless pretty detail of the rows of gable-end houses lining the canals, just about everything in the centre was beautiful. On our boat trip on the canal, the guide explained that before Amsterdam houses had numbers, the little windows above each door were decorated to be distinctive enough to identify the houses. I also loved all the practical accoutrements, like the bike rails going down narrow steps to basement entrances, and the hooks at the top of the gables, which are used for moving furniture which is too wide to fit up the tiny stairwells. (We were lucky enough to witness this principle in action during our canal boat trip!) And our hotel was on the edge of town near the end of the tramway, but all the areas we went through on the way were attractive too. I'm sure Amsterdam has its downtrodden districts like any city, but we didn't see them on our visit.

The Size of Everything

Big mushrooms at the market
People from the Netherlands are the tallest in Europe, so I suppose it's not really surprising that lots of things are bigger in Amsterdam. Seeing the size of the traditional bikes, we giggled over the thought of what Dutch tourists must think when they come to Paris and encounter a Vélib. But it was interesting to see how, in contrast to the small-but-perfectly-formed French way of presenting  there seemed to be a whole aesthetic of generosity in everything apart from the houses. The narrowest house in Amsterdam has a front, and therefore a stairwell, that is only the width of its own front door!

Seedy Coffee Shops

I'd rather have some delicious Dutch cheese!
Maybe I just read too many middle-class left-wing newspapers, but I imagined Amsterdam's legalised cannabis smoking to be more the equivalent of sipping a civilised glass of wine on a sunlit terrace than people drinking themselves into oblivion in a dive bar. Not that I would have been tempted to try it anyway, but in the centre at least, most of the coffee shops we saw were mostly filled with very stoned looking young guys and there was nothing about that whole scene that was even remotely appealing. It wasn't something that bothered us at all, apart from the kind of sickly smell drifting out of the doors that seemed to fill certain streets, but it certainly wasn't a plus point either.

The Glory of Van Gogh

I know he's an easy artist to like, but a visit to the Van Gogh museum opened my eyes to the subtleties of some of these paintings that we are perhaps all a bit too familiar with. You can see the progression in his work as he moved around the Netherlands and then France, and there were several paintings I didn't know at all and really liked. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, the place was packed, so I would recommend going on a quiet weekday if you possibly can.

The Proximity of Prostitutes

We walked through the red light district during the day, as it's not a very clever place to head for after dark. I've walked down the rue St Denis in Paris plenty of times, so I wasn't expecting to be shocked (feeling uncomfortable is another matter) but I was taken aback by the way the women were displayed like dummies in shop windows, but exactly at street level, so that if you looked directly, you couldn't avoid catching their eye. I know there are all kinds of reasons for Amsterdam's approach to prostitution but I don't think it can ever be better than just a lesser of two evils, and strolling through the red light district didn't change my mind about that.

Early Tea Time
We went out for dinner in the centre of town. It was surprisingly hard to find a restaurant that wasn't fully booked (we may have been looking in the wrong place - a disadvantage of not reading the guidebook in advance) and, because of the pouring rain, settled for a little Italian place that was near the tram line back to the hotel. By nine-thirty we were the only people in the restaurant and we skipped dessert because we didn't want to keep the staff there just for us. I'm actually not a fan of French style late-evening eating and could definitely live with this, but Understanding Frenchman was horrified.

Friendly People ... Everywhere
From the moment we stepped on the Thalys in Paris, people were nice to us. I couldn't open my e-ticket on my phone. "No problem," said the ticket inspector. "Just give me your name and I'll check it for you. And is this your first time in Amsterdam? Have a great weekend!" Then there were the cheery bar staff, the people working at the museum cloakroom who smiled endlessly in the face of hundreds of soggy tourists and the lady who stopped us in the street to see if she could give us directions. I don't necessarily agree with the oft-repeated assertion that all Parisians are rude but ... it was a nice change.

We'll definitely be going back to Amsterdam when the tulips are out and the weather is warmer. Here's hoping for lots more nice surprises!

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Dark Side of Life in Paris

This morning in the metro, a man spat in my face and called me a dirty whore.

He was standing at the door and my stop was coming up. I was looking to see if he was getting off or if I would have to walk round him, when he glanced back, and just for a second, our eyes met. The train drew to a halt and I stepped off the train behind him. I heard a hacking sound and the next thing I knew, a glob of spit landed on my neck. I turned round to see what had happened and there he was, standing a metre or two away and glaring at me.

"Sale pute!" he hissed, as if it were a justification.

I didn't really know what was going on, but I knew that the last thing I wanted was for him to follow me through the corridors of the metro and continue his attack, so I looked him in the eye, held up my hand towards him and said, "Eloignez vous de moi, sinon j'appelle la police."

"Ils vont pas venir," he laughed.

Then, to my relief, he headed off towards the exit.

It was by far the nastiest of that kind of encounter that I've ever had. After a nice lady who had witnessed everything gave me a tissue and some kind words, I wasn't physically hurt, and while the shock kicked in a few minutes later, I continued on my way to work without too much distress.

But the incident is playing on my mind over two hours later, safely back at home after a day of people commiserating and sympathising with me. This was worse than being slapped on the bottom, followed into the toilets of a cafe, or even followed around the streets of my home town for an hour by some guy that was convinced he might marry me, because unlike those incidents where guys took liberties in what was essentially a state of misguided optimism, this man was convinced I was dirty because I looked him in the eye. And while he was clearly not quite right in the head, I don't think he was drunk or off his face on drugs. I have a nasty feeling that for him, this kind of behaviour was normal.

It brought back a fear that I used to often have in Paris, one that I hadn't had for years, that any contact with strangers, even if it's just eye contact, is dangerous. I've got used to not making it, but I had stopped being scared of the consequences if I did. The other day I even let down my guard and helped a man at the station to fix his mobile phone, and walked away, my faith in humanity boosted by the happy feeling that it was possible for a woman to speak to a strange man without there being any nasty repercussions, only to have it destroyed 24 hours later by this.

And then I ask myself the question, is this kind of behaviour more prevalent in Paris than other places? I know this morning's episode is an extreme example, but in all the years I lived in Scotland, I was sexually harassed only once, and even then, it was very politely done. I lived for a year in Italy, a country where machismo is so prevalent that they gave the word to the rest of Europe, on a dodgy street populated by drug dealers, and never had a bad experience once. I was once chatted up by a slightly bizarre man in the Alexanderplatz in Berlin once, but when I made it clear that I wasn't going to go home and sleep with him, he left me alone in a very gentlemanly fashion. I've often told myself that meeting sexist weirdos in the street is just a big city thing,  and if so, why does it seem so much more prevalent here?

Or am I just being paranoid?