Monday, 21 December 2009

Le Refuge des Fondues

Now that I'm a thousand kilometres or so away from work and it's cold and dark outside, it seems like a good chance to catch up on some of the blog posts I've been meaning to write for a while now. This one is about a restaurant that my friend and I went to a couple of weeks ago called Le Refuge des Fondus, on the Rue des Trois Frères in Montmartre.

There are a few things that make this restaurant a little bit different. Some are good, some are bad and some are just a bit odd.

The restaurant only serves fondue. You can have cheese or meat and it comes as part of a set menu that also includes nice aperitif-type nibbles, such as salami and cheese, and wine. Thus there are only two questions the waiter needs to ask you: “Meat or cheese?” and “Red or white?” This is probably a good thing, as ours seemed very taciturn and had a somewhat incomprehensible accent. As well as serving the food, however, the waiter also has the job of helping 50% of the customers to climb across the tables, which are arranged in long rows against the wall. This means that you end up sitting very close to your neighbours and creates a kind of mountain hut atmosphere, which is quite good fun, especially if the people sitting next to you turn out to be nice. We had a group of American study-abroad students, followed by some Belgians. (Hardly anybody in the restaurant was French.)

We went for the meat fondue, mostly just to have a change from cheese. There was lots of it, and it was also served with potatoes and some particularly delicious bread. The “fondue” part was really just hot oil that you used to cook your own meat in. We experimented with the potatoes too, but they tended to disintegrate. Overall, it was pretty good, but I would probably go for cheese next time because I like it better and, although the meat seemed quite good quality, it came out very greasy.

The weirdest thing, though, was the wine. For some reason, they serve it in baby bottles. I found drinking wine through what was essentially a rubber nipple a little bit off putting, so I unscrewed the lid and drank from the bottle, but most people seemed to manage, and it was nice wine once it wasn't being filtered through rubber.

The restaurant was a fun place to eat, but I woke up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache and stomach cramps, and that would put me off recommending it wholeheartedly, but my friend was fine, so maybe I just drank too much wine or didn't cope with all the oil very well. So, if you want somewhere different for a meal out in Montmartre, give Le Refuge des Fondues a try, but at your own risk!

Winter Wonderland

I was getting a bit bored of my period of enforced hibernation by the middle of last week. December was grey and nothing was happening. Then, on Thursday, it snowed, and suddenly life was exciting again. Wrapped up warmly, I felt like an intrepid adventurer walking up the road to work. Putting on ski gear to go to the shops didn't seem unreasonable.

In fact, it didn't actually snow all that much, but the Ile de France is a bit like the south of England, where two inches of snow can bring the country to a standstill. It even managed to slow the French drivers down. Walking, on the other hand, was a treat. The snow fell swiftly, creating a layer of thick, soft, white powder. Kids were making snowmen and having snowball fights and suddenly it felt like Christmas.

Then, on Saturday, I had to come back to Scotland. Despite the fact that the country had more pressing issues to confront than just how cushy a deal train drivers should get, the RER A was still on strike, buses were delayed everywhere because of the snow, British Airways was threatening industrial action, airports were closing all over Europe and five Eurostar trains were stuck in the tunnel. It should have been a terrible day to travel, but in fact I was lucky. The RER got me to the airport in under 2 hours and EasyJet flew me from Charles de Gaulle without a hitch.

It's been snowing in Scotland too, but I'm cosily tucked up in my parents' house playing board games, catching up on my reading and baking for Christmas. Outside, the hills are covered in snow which catches the winter sunlight and shines magically. I have indeed been very lucky!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter

After two or three crazy weeks of work, travelling and visitors, my life has finally slowed down. The temperatures have dropped below zero, the RER is on strike, and I have very little reason or desire to leave the house. I think I might be going into hibernation and, after three months of settling into a job that I didn't exactly choose and rebuilding my life in a place that I never planned to live in, that's probably a good thing. Most of what I have been doing has been focused around my little suburban town and friends from work, and it's good to take the time to notice some of the things I really like about living here. My job, like any other, has its drawbacks, but most of the time I really enjoy it and it's certainly less stressful than in many other jobs I've done. I've made some really good friends in a short space of time, and been able to spend more time with old friends that I hadn't seen for a while. I live in lovely flat in a beautiful place and I get to speak French every day. I'm also looking forward to the new year and the spring time and all the things that I'm hoping that 2010 will bring.

Because, of course, there's also my wish list. I'm really hoping that my plans for skiing in February will work out. In the summer, I'm dreaming about going on a grand tour of Italy to visit all the parts that I never got to see last year and, of course, blog about it. I want to see the parts of France that I've never been to and leave the Ile de France a bit more often than I have in the past three months.

More than anything, though, I would like to find my place here and find my people. I live in a middle class suburb where twenty and thirtysomething childless people are few and far between. Paris is the obvious escape, but I have always had mixed feelings about Paris. It's a beautiful city, but it's also a big city, full of crowds and busy-ness and anonymity. It's easy to meet people in Paris but it's difficult to make friends, especially if you don't actually live there and belong in a particular neighbourhood. At heart, I think I'm a small-city girl. I like people and shops and cinemas and culture, but I also like to have mountains on the horizon and the great outdoors on my doorstep. I like meeting people who are educated but also down to earth. I like to make friends, not acquaintances. So Santa Claus, if you exist and if you surf the internet, what I would really like for Christmas would be to feel at home here. Thank you.

Monday, 7 December 2009

A Useful Discovery

I found out this weekend that if you keep metro tickets in your wallet next to a pile of coins, they stop working when you insert them in the ticket barriers. This is a fun way to annoy hoards of impatient Parisian commuters as you try out a whole carnet and none of the tickets work.

I also found out that if you take the damaged tickets to the ticket office, they will not simply replace them but actually re-magnetise them for you (or at least, I think this is how it works) by inserting them in a machine one by one. This is a really fun way to annoy the grumpy woman behind the ticket desk. If you really, really want to piss her off, though, make sure you smile brightly and wish her a “très bonne journée” and comment on how “la vie est belle” as you depart.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

La Tour Eiffel

I have a confession to make. A confession that will have me struck of the list of the culturally and intellectually assimilated in France and probably barred forever from the society of international sophisticates and banished to the ranks of the eternal tourists. A confession that nevertheless I am going to make.

I like the Eiffel Tower.

I still get excited when I fly over Paris and see it standing there in all its glory. I like catching glimpses of it when it appears behind Haussmann's graceful buildings. I like to look at it and admire the way it curves elegantly up into the sky. I love it when it sparkles at night and I don't care if it looks like a Christmas tree. I just like it.

Last weekend I went up the tower for the first time in about 14 years and I was not disappointed. From afar, from nearby, from the first floor, from the second floor and from the top, the Eiffel Tower is cool.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Update for Gourmands

The good restaurant in the Latin Quarter is called Le Bistrot 30. Go there.

The other one is just next door. Don't go there.

L'Exception française

Last week, one of the other new arrivals at my work and I went to our local Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie, which is the office that you go to to claim reimbursement for your health care (because they can't do anything as simple as just pay for it for you in the first place). We went to apply to be registered for healthcare in France and to get our social security numbers.

The reason it took us 3 months to get around to doing this was because one of the things you need to have to apply is 3 months' payslips, so we waited until we had been working for three months. Despite the obvious logic of this, the man at reception berated us for not having come earlier.

After waiting for another half hour, we were passed on to a second employee whose job it was to compile our dossiers. I had been sent a list of things that we needed and we had everything apart from the things that, well, we didn't have because you only get them if you're French. None of these things turned out to be a problem. What she did ask for, however, was a form E104, which is mysteriously different from a European Health Card and somehow certifies that you have "rights" when you move to another EU country. And you can only get it in your home country.

Both my colleague and I have moved around the EU several times, including 3 times to France between us, and never been asked for these forms. We are both EU citizens employed by a French company on French contracts and paying French social security contributions. Luckily, when we looked extremely doubtful of our ability to get the form, the lady (who was actually extremely nice despite being a fonctionnaire) decided it was worth trying to apply without it, so we got our paperwork completed ready to send off.

Feeling fairly sure that nobody else in France had heard of this form either, I didn't worry about it. Then today, I was bored or curious enough to look up what it was on the HMRC website and found the following information:

The foreign authority may, exceptionally, ask you to get either a Certificate E104 which shows insurance for sickness and maternity purposes or an E301 which shows insurance for unemployment purposes.

Exceptionally, aka "in France".

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Culinary Delights

My brother and his girlfriend nipped over from England on the Eurostar for a long weekend this weekend. Contrary to the impression you may get from this blog from time to time, I do manage to hold down a full time job in between visiting people and receiving guests, and I even had to work on Saturday this weekend while they went on an edifying visit to the Musée d'Orsay (where my brother was apparently particularly taken by the painting of a man in pink armour surrounded by an adoring throng of naked women) so the highlight of the day for me was definitely dinner in the Latin Quarter. We went to one of the places I had been with J a couple of weeks before and I really wish I could remember the name of it, because among the scores of places in the area offering the same tourist menu for the same price, this one actually stands out because the food is good. The next day we went to the place next door and I wish I could remember the name of that too, because the food was bad. So bad, in fact, that we were all convinced that my brother's rabbit must be chicken because the meat was so pale and flavourless. The service was pretty much on the same level as the food, so the first place was definitely a gem and I will find the name of it for you all next time I go to the Latin Quarter!

Our other best meal that weekend didn't come from a restaurant but from the Sunday market. We wandered around the whole square first of all, but eventually homed in on the cheese stall, where we got some delicious, creamy Beaufort and a gorgeous, not-too-goaty Tome de Chevre, then the meat stall, where we got some Aosta ham and Rosette sausage. Combined with fresh baguette and tomatoes in Italian olive oil and followed by Lavazza coffee and Colin the Caterpillar cake from Marks and Spencers, they made an international gourmet feast with the best gastronomic delights from three European countries. It was great.

Friday, 13 November 2009

J's Visit Part 4: Paris sous la pluie

As I wait for my next visitors to arrive this evening, I've decided it's probably time to finish writing about what I did with the last ones.

On J's last day here, it rained. Nevertheless, we decided to go up the Tour Montparnasse and, although the view would have been better on a nicer day, it wasn't a bad decision. The tower is the tallest skyscraper in France and mainly houses office blocks, but for a pricey ten euros, you can take the lift up to the fifty-sixth floor in only 38 seconds and admire the view from both inside and on the rooftop. As well as the view, there are interactive displays with snippets of interesting information about Paris, such as quotes from writers who have lived there and clips from songs about the city. There's also a fairly mediocre café.

After Montparnasse, we went to Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur. There is continual worship inside the church, but because it was Sunday it was particularly well attended. On the one hand this was great, because there was lovely music and a real atmosphere in the church, but on the other hand, I don't think that churches should really be open to tourists while services are going on and I found it quite uncomfortable walking around while other people were praying.

We wandered around Montmartre in the rain for a little while after that. Montmartre is Amélie Poulain Paris, full of narrow streets and stairways and little shops and cafés. It can be really touristy, but in the back streets on a rainy Sunday night, it was very atmospheric. We had a drink in a little restaurant near the Place du Tertre where a pianist entertained us by playing an great variety of songs, occasionally with his elbows, before walking down the hill for dinner.

It's hard to find a good restaurant in Montmartre because a lot of them look terribly French and have typically French menus which turn out to be poor, cheap copies of the real dishes, so we went to La Pierrade, where I had been before with a French friend. (How do French people always manage to find the good ones?) Jane actually had a pierrade, which is a hot stone on which you cook a selection of meats yourself, and I had a lovely piece of salmon with garlic, which wasn't a combination I would have thought of but it tasted great. If we had both been a bit hungrier, however, we would probably have gone for the raclette. Raclette is a kind of cheese that you normally eat melted. Most of the times I've had it, it's either been melted over potatoes in a frying pan or grilled in a raclette machine, but at La Pierrade, it comes served on a special device made up of a hook on which the cheese is suspended under a grill. At the bottom, there is a plate, and as the cheese melts, you scrape it off and spread it over potatoes, ham and salami. Maybe next time I'll have worked up an appetite worthy of this wonderful idea!

The meal was not your typical French restaurant experience, however, as the people next to us, seeing us eyeing up their raclette, decided to start up a conversation. One of the guys in the group was very sociable and insisted on taking pictures of us and everybody else in our part of the restaurant, as well as buying us a drink and inviting us to their table for dessert. This was all well and good until he went downstairs for a cigarette, got into an argument with the staff and he and the rest of the group, who seemed nice and reasonably normal, had to be asked to leave.

After dinner we were thinking about going back to the piano restaurant for another drink but on the way we got side-tracked by a lively-looking bar where some Australians who had also been dragged into the conversation at the restaurant were having a drink. We were tempted in, but it turned out to be full of very drunk Kiwis (who probably thought they were experiencing the joys of Parisian nightlife) singing out of tune to a guy with a guitar, and after we had been chatted up by a gay guy and I had had my hand held by a man who was either to desperately in love with me or too drunk to find anything to say, we decided it was time to leave. We actually managed to catch the last train home that night!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

J's Visit Part 2: Messing About in Boats

One of the things on our list of things to do was a visit to Disneyland, but we decided that on a Saturday in the middle of a holiday weekend, that would be something of a nightmare, so we went for the next best option – the zoo at the Parc de Vincennes. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that is was closed until 2013, by which time I may not even still be in Paris, so we had to content ourselves with the park instead, and in fact, that turned out to be just as entertaining. You can hire bikes and go on pony rides, but we decided to get a rowing boat and row around the lake. The lake is really pretty, with bridges, grottoes and an island in the middle, so we didn't have to get bored just going round in circles. Most of the time we were pretty good at rowing, but we did have a wobbly moment when we tried to change places. The guy at the boat rental place was really friendly and told us all the tricks for getting into the toilets in McDonald's without having to buy something and also gave us 15 minutes in the boat for free. (We must have looked as if it would take us a long time to get around the lake!) By the end of the hour, we felt as though we had worked quite hard, so we rewarded ourselves with a crepe before getting the metro back into Paris.

We got of the metro at the Opera house and admired it from the middle of the busy traffic island for a while, then went to look at some shops. After that, we walked back along the river to the Eiffel Tower, which turned out to be a lot further than we thought, and went back to the same café as the day before. This time, however, we were in line for a wonderful surprise. This year is the 120th anniversary of the building of the Eiffel Tower and, to celebrate, every night there is a light show. Normally the tower sparkles like a Christmas tree every so often, but this was different. It went completely dark for a while, then lights sparkled on the dark metal. We wondered if they were making it look spooky for Hallowe'en, but then it continued to light up in different ways, with all the colours of the rainbow making patterns up and down the structure, getting more and more complicated as the show went on. There is sound to accompany the show but we couldn't hear it from where we were.

Some people think that the sparkles on the Eiffel Tower are really tacky, but I've always liked them. I first saw them the night I left France after my first year here. I had to stay in Paris to catch an early train the next morning and I was walking around all my myself, feeling a little bit lonely and sad about leaving, when suddenly I looked up and there was the tower, glittering in the darkening sky. It felt like my own personal goodbye present and I felt much better after that!

After the Eiffel Tower, we went back to the Latin Quarter for another fabulous dinner. It can be hard to pick out the good restaurants in the Latin Quarter because there are so many and they're always busy, but we went for a French one that had nobody outside the door trying to lure us in and it turned out to be a good choice. I was particularly pleased when the waiter said to J, “Is your friend French” because even if he was just trying to be complimentary, at least he realised that was a better way to do it than identifying us as “English” straight away!

After dinner, we went for a drink at a bar on the street corner near the bridge over to the Ile de la Cité. Although there was a good DJ and the waiters were really friendly (and dressed up for Hallowe'en, which was fun!) I would probably never go there again because after we had queued for a table and bought incredibly expensive drinks that we assumed would be enough to let us stay there for the whole evening, we were more or less told after about an hour that we had to order another drink or leave. We actually managed to have more sense than money at this point and headed home, missing the last metro by a few minutes and having to take the night bus once again.

Friday, 6 November 2009

J's Visit Part 2: Shopping in Style and Dancing Without It

Poor J. She had been in Paris for less than ten hours when I insisted that she came shopping with me on the Champs Elysées. What kind of girl does that to her friend?

In fact, although it sounds like the ultimate in girly fun, we had a specific and extremely challenging mission: to buy jeans for me. A couple of years ago in Debenhams, I found the one pair of jeans that has ever truly fit me. I bought 2 pairs and wore them non- stop until I ripped one falling off my bike the other day. I was down to one pair of jeans in my life and had to contemplate the truly dreadful: finding another pair. The trouble is...well there are lots of troubles. No clothes designer in the world seems to understand that someone with a fat butt like me can also have a 27 inch waist. They also don't seem to realise that showing your butt crack is not attractive. On anybody.

We had some culture first, with a climb up the Arc de Triomphe, where we were seriously impressed by the exhibition that let you see pictures of all the carvings on the arch by turning a little model and looking at a screen. We gazed at the Place de l'Etoile roundabout until our heads spun, trying to figure out the rules for traffic. Then we watched some breakdancers on the Champs Elysées. Then it was time for the shops.

I found a nice looking pair of jeans in Benetton, with a long button fly that suggested a nice high waist. It turned out they were mens' ones that had accidentally been put in the ladies' department. (I did get a perfectly fitting pair of black trousers though – are people who wear jeans just supposed to be a different shape from people who wear smart clothes?) H&M was useless. Promod was useless. In Zara, I picked out so many pairs I could barely carry them, then abandoned them all in the changing rooms, much to the disgust of the sales assistant. Finally, we got to Gap and a miracle occurred. There was a pair that fitted. With a belt, admittedly, but they fitted!

Given the slightly baggy waist on my new jeans, it seemed appropriate to head for the chocolate shop next (It's called something Jadis and is just off the main street). We drooled over sensuously scented delights before treating ourselves to a tiny bar wrapped in silver paper each, which was more or less all we could afford.

After that we walked past all the designer shops and tried to spot celebrities in the cars with blacked out windows that were illegally parked all over the place, before arriving at the foot of the Eiffel tower for a glass of wine on the Café de Seine, which is almost a proper boat and which has a surprisingly cheap self-service restaurant on it.

For dinner, we went to the Latin quarter and were enticed into a Greek restaurant by an entirely resistible man who nevertheless seemed to be pulling in the punters. In between the courses of our reasonable- for- the -price meal, we were more or less obliged to dance in a tiny space next to the counter, “encouraged” by a professional dancer who looked and acted far more German (think the Nazis in 'Allo 'Allo) than Greek.

By the time we had danced in a Latin bar and been pointed in the direction of a strip club by a French gentleman, we were late enough to once again get the night bus home. This was Friday night and it was loud, but we were sleepy, so we slept, in preparation for another busy day on Saturday.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

J's Visit Part 1: Discovering le Noctilien

After all the changes to my flight details for coming home from Berlin, I could have missed my plane by forgetting which flight I was, in the end, supposed to be on. Luckily I remembered to check in the morning and realised that my last day in Germany would be shorter than I expected, but that was OK. In northern Europe in November, 5 days is about the ideal length for a holiday. So I got back to Paris safe and sound, ready to prepare for the arrival of my friend J late on Thursday night.

J's plane didn't get in until nearly 11, but under normal circumstances there would have been plenty of time for her to get the RER out to Perfectville. Unfortunately, a train got derailed on the RER B from the airport and she was put on a bus. She didn't know exactly where it was going and I didn't know exactly how she could get to my house from wherever it was. I did some frantic searching on the internet and she made some frantic use of her A-level French and I decided I needed to go and meet her in central Paris so that we could figure out how to get home. Unfortunately, he frantic research also showed that I needed to get on the RER into town in precisely 8 minutes, so I grabbed some suitable clothes for standing at bus stops on a cold October night and ran as fast as I could to catch the train, discovering on the way that I am no longer fit enough for extremely fast running.

Many crazy text messages later, we managed to meet up at the Gare St Lazare in time to catch the night bus home. This was my first time taking it, so I had no idea what it would be like and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a nice coach with comfortable seats and a conductor/bouncer as well as a driver. Knowing that we could get safely home at any time of night, we were set up for a good weekend!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Berlin Part 4

On Tuesday morning I went to visit C at work. After that, I got the S-Bahn back into the centre of the city and walked through the eastern part to the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is a 1.3km long stretch of the Berlin wall which, after November 1989 was painted in sections by artists from around the world and the pictures definitely merit a post to themselves.

There are many attractive districts in the east side of Berlin but the area around the East Side Gallery is definitely not one of them. The day I went was cold, grey and miserable, and by the time I had looked at all the pictures, I was ready for some capitalist consumer culture, so I took the train over to the Kufürstendamm, which is one of the city's main shopping streets.

As well as being home to the posh shops of Berlin, the Ku'damm is also the location of The Story of Berlin museum, which, oddly, is housed in a kind of shopping centre. One of the main attractions of the museum is a guided tour of a nuclear bunker from the Cold War era which is in a car park under the shopping centre. The bunker was designed to give shelter to nearly 4000 people, with around 1 square metre for each person and bunk beds stacked 5 high on metal posts for them to sleep on. It was a cold and eerie place but if it were full it would be hot and horribly overcrowded. It was never actually used, but seeing what the 1% of Berlin's citizens who would have found a place there would have had to endure really made me think about what human beings are prepared to inflict on each other in the name of war – and the ones in the bunker would have been the lucky ones.

In Berlin it's very easy to get caught up in thinking about the events of the 20th century and forget that the city has a history before the war or the wall. I was hoping that the museum would give me the bigger picture, and to some extent it did, but there was still a huge emphasis on the past 100 years. They had tried very hard to make the exhibits lively and interesting but sometimes the noise and the moving pictures got in the way of telling the actual stories and I felt that they could have made some parts clearer. In the end, my favourite bit did turn out to be about the wall once more, as the last exhibit shows Berlin in the rubble and then how life developed differently on either side of the divide.

By this stage, despite all the interesting sights, I was starting to feel a little bit down. Discovering the history of a war torn city on a grey November day when you are cold, alone and slightly inclined to be miserable anyway is not the best way to cheer yourself up, so I was pleased to go and meet C at Alexanderplatz for a walk around the pretty Mitte district, where there are lots of little art galleries and shops. We had dinner in a little café and talked about all the things that I had been thinking about all day. All I remember of the fall of the Berlin wall was that the second-hand atlas that I had at the start of secondary school in 1994 was out of date, but C grew up in Dresden and remembers her parents coming home with stories of riots in the train station as people tried to get on the trains reserved for diplomats who were allowed to travel to the west. We both find it amazing to think how recent all these events really are about how, only decades later, C, who grew up in a communist state, can work for a Jewish organisation, I can get on a train to visit her without even needing a passport, and it all really does feel like history.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Berlin Part 3: Meeting the Wall

On Monday, after a quick skim through the Lonely Planet guide to Germany, I set out into Berlin. With no definite, plan, I got off the train at Potsdamer Platz and was excited to discover a section of the Berlin Wall still standing there amongst the glass and concrete skyscrapers. In Berlin, it's hard to avoid developing an obsession with the wall as you find traces of it, see art painted on it, read about it, learn about it and mull over its effects on the lives of ordinary people.

From Potsdamer Platz, I walked up to the Holocaust Memorial, a square filled with concrete blocks that looks like a graveyard. You can walk among the blocks, and the further in you go, the more they tower above you, gradually blocking out more and more above you until you find yourself in an eerie world where everything is grey and menacing.

After the Holocaust Memorial, I went to the Brandenburg gate, where I encountered this tasteless tourist attraction:

and watched these breakdancers, who were athletic, graceful and funny, all at the same time.

(To the music from Titanic)

In the afternoon, I met up with C and we went to visit the Reichstag (the seat of the German parliament). It's an old building but was reconstructed in the 1990s by Norman Foster and now has an enormous glass cupola in the roof that tourists can visit.

After the Reichstag, I headed to the Kreuzberg to meet my friend G, who took me to the actual Kreuzberg, which is a hill in a park where we watched as night fell over Berlin before heading back down into civilisation for Kaffee und Kuchen.

I met C and one of her friends for a drink that evening, but before that, I needed something to eat, so I went to the solo traveller's healthy fast food heaven – Subway. Normally I love Subway. Tasty food with lots of vegetables, exciting sauces and delicious soft cookies for desert (maybe not so healthy!) – what's not to like? Unfortunately I discovered that being too lazy to speak much German with Conny had its consequences – ordering a sandwich with a choice of 2 lengths, 6 kinds of bread, eight different sauces and all the salad you could want was a complicated process and I ended up with a soggy piece of bread with wet veggies falling out of it, half drowned in sticky onion sauce. Not the best meal of my life. (Luckily I went to a different Subway before I left and made friends with it again over a delicious toasted cheese sandwich with all the right salad and enough bread to hold the filling in.) The day finished with a delicious glass of Nero d'Avola (the best red wine in the world, wh
atever the French may say.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Berlin Part 2: Exploring Brandenburg

When I finally arrived in Berlin, my friend C met me at the station and we went back to her flat in the Prenzlauer Berg district, which is in what used to be the East German part of Berlin. I met her boyfriend for the first time and we had pizza before heading out to the pub around the corner. The walls were covered with DDR memorabilia, like maps of East Berlin where the western side appeared as nothing but a desolate wasteland, and, after Milan and Paris, the drinks were refreshingly cheap.

On Sunday morning, boyfriend (who is English) and I ganged up on C in the breakfast Marmite vs Mustard debate. Mmm, marmite... I think I have some in my cupboard. After that, we headed out in the car to Kremmen, a town not far from Berlin where the most exciting sight is a very old church which, as its citizens proudly remind all tourists, won “monument of the month” in November 1995.

In the olden days, the town was repeatedly burned down as fires swept through barns and grain lofts within the walls, so eventually the people hit on the bright idea of moving the grain to barns outside the walls. Lots of these have now been turned into cafes, art galleries and kitschy souvenir shops, and we stopped off at one for Kaffee and enormous slices of Kuchen. After that, we had a walk around the lake at nearby Beetz, another tiny, sleepy town before braving the speedlimitless Autobahn back to Berlin.

Berlin Part 1: In der Erste Klasse Reisen ist Prima!

By the time my train finally pulled out of the Gare de l'Est last Saturday morning, I think I could have been forgiven for believing that my trip to Berlin (if not the whole of my life in France) was doomed to failure. I dragged myself out of bed at 4.30 am to catch the 7 o'clock train and at ten o'clock it was still sitting in the station. Vandals had caused some kind of damage on the lines and no train could depart.

Luckily, I had had a crazy week at work and been out in Paris until midnight the night before, so I was completely exhausted and slept for most of the 3 hour wait. (I spent Friday night at a clothes-swapping party, which all my male friends found hysterical, but was actually just a group of girls exchanging their second-hand stuff. Honestly.)

The second lucky thing was that, because I booked my ticket so late, I ended up travelling in first class. And boy, was it first class. On French trains, first class means you get a wider seat. On German ones, you get a wider seat that is completely separate from any other seat, reclines far enough back that you can sleep on it, and is equipped with a little TV screen and radio. They bring you a free breakfast that puts most airlines to shame. On my second train, I was attracted by the display of freshly ironed newspapers at the end of the carriage and went to help myself to one. What a faux pas! A few minutes later, the steward appeared to offer me one, before also bringing coffee to my seat in a real china cup. I was a first-class convert.

The train was held up for a further half hour by a “scheduled delay” in Germany. I could not have cared less, though. Curled up in my seat, staring out of the window and watching the countryside go by, I was perfectly content.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Grève Update

After spending a large amount of time trying to make sense of the EasyJet website and failing completely, I finally called the call centre the next day. (NB: the phone number for the call centre is not easy to find on the website and they do everything in their power to divert you away from calling them. If I could find the answer online, why would I spend hours over-enunciating into the handset while speaking to an automated reply system that offers the possibility of doing all the things I don't want to do several times over before finally, finally letting me speak to a human being?)

When I did get through, however, they were very helpful and changed my flight for free to one at a similar time that had been diverted to Charles de Gaulle airport. I felt that my morning had not been completely wasted.

Then, yesterday evening, I got a second email from EasyJet. The strike was no longer on, my original flight was no longer cancelled and I could ignore all the information that had been sent to me.

Apparently EasyJet is just a little bit to efficient to operate in France.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

First Grève of the Year

Last weekend I booked tickets to go to Berlin at the end of the month. It was a bit of a last minute decision, so the tickets were hard to find and not that cheap, and my travel plans included 9 hours on a train, leaving home at around 5 in the morning, but once I'd got it all organised I was pretty excited and sure that it was going to be worth it.

Actually, I was really excited.

Then I got this email tonight from EasyJet:

We regret to inform you that as a result of industrial action in Paris Orly (ORY) from 24th to 31st October 09your flight has been cancelled. The action by Ground Handlers at the airport is beyond our control and unfortunately we could not avoid subsequent disruption to easyJet flights.

Apparently I have the right to transfer my flight for free but at the moment the EasyJet website seems to be suggesting that I pay 40 euros to transfer to the exact same flight that they've just told me is cancelled, so I get the feeling that that's not going to be so simple. The other option is to get refunded for the flight, lose the money I spent on my non-refundable train ticket and spend 5 days at home being bored.

The reason for the strike is that Servisair, which is contracted by the government to work at Orly airport, is going to lose its contract at the end of October. The employees should, apparently, be offered a similar position in the company that is taking over the contract, but despite the end of October being just 11 days away, this has not yet been confirmed.

To be honest, this does sound like a reasonable excuse for a strike to me. On the other hand, in a country where the newspapers are boasting that the current strike by the SNCF (the national railway company) is the first since this time last year, there is an element of the boy who cried wolf. Right now, I am not particularly inclined to be sympathetic.

Roller est parisien

Last weekend, I achieved a lifelong dream. Well five-years or so long, anyway. On Sunday afternoon, I glided for three hours through the streets of Paris on my rollerblades, surrounded by a police escort and unhindered by the capital's infamous traffic, pedestrians or even dog dirt. Me and several thousand other people, that is.

I first heard about the famous Pari-Roller several years ago when I was a member of Nancy's more diminutive Rollver association. While in Nancy around 30 people were wheeling their way along darkened cycle paths, dodging tramlines at every junction (it was actually a lot of fun and I would recommend it to anyone who lives in the region), in Paris, thousands take to the streets every Friday night and have the power to stop even Parisian drivers in their tracks.

While the idea of rollerblading in Paris had always appealed to me, however, the practicalities did not. For one thing, Pari-roller has a reputation for being very, very fast. For another, at ten o'clock on a Friday night, I am more likely to be relaxing with a glass of wine than heading out for three hours of extreme sporting endeavour.

So I was pleased to discover the association Rollers et Coquillages, which organises more sedate outings, accompanied by police and experienced staff on a Sunday afternoon. I was a little bit worried that the Parisians might roller blade the way they drive, but in fact everybody was very good about breaking carefully and not crashing into each other. The most hazardous part was definitely the cobblestones – most of Paris' streets are tarmac but the junctions tend to be paved with small square cobbles that tend to trip you up and give you a pounding headache and distorted vision if you stay on them too long. Luckily, for every shaky corner, there were long stretches of glorious smooth avenues, and I have now well and truly got over my fear of bumps in the road!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre

After the sedate pleasures of the Orangerie last Saturday afternoon, Mum and I met up with my friend S in Montmartre for some more raucous fun. Last weekend was the Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre, or festival of the grape harvest. Those of you who know Montmartre will probably be surprised to know that it has a grape harvest, but it does. There are several small vineyards tucked away in unlikely corners of the village, and the fact that the actual grape production must be tiny doesn't seem to stop the locals having one massive party to celebrate.

The first thing that we saw was the parade. Not being particularly numerous themselves, the wine producers of Montmartre had supplemented their numbers with...

.. local associations (logical, even if the purpose of the associations wasn't), wine producers from other regions (logical),

...traditional agricultural groups from all over the country (fairly logical) ...

and what seemed to be a selection of other random groups who were happy to get dressed up, drink wine and walk the streets of Montmartre for an afternoon (nor very logical at all).

Non-wine related groups included these gorgeous Venetian carnivallers,

a donkey...

...and the Societé des Taste-Fesses, a society of bottom slappers who amusingly decided to target my mum.

After the parade, we wandered (in the flow of an enormous crowd) through the market. We were disappointed by the lack of free tastings but we did buy some delicious Breton Kouign Amman cake to munch on the way along. We filled a couple of hours with dinner in a restaurant that served mediocre food but had fantastic typically Parisian artwork on the walls, then headed out to the Sacre Coeur for the fireworks display. Unfortunately, the church is largely surrounded by trees, so you have to be right in front of it to see the display properly, but even the glimpses that we caught were pretty spectacular, so we will definitely be there in advance next year to reserve ourselves front-row places!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In Monet's Garden

Mum has been here visiting me this weekend and we started off Saturday with a visit to the art gallery at L'Orangerie. The gallery is at the opposite end of the Jardin des Tuileries from the Louvre and it's exactly the kind of art gallery I like. The most unusual part of it is the exhibition of Monet's paintings of the water lily pond, done on huge canvases and displayed in oval rooms to make you feel as if you are in the middle of the garden yourself. Monet painted the pictures to be exhibited in this way, and the layout of the gallery itself is based on his designs. I don't think I've ever looked at Impressionist paintings that big before, and what's impressive is the way that the pictures look so good from far away and just as good close up, maintaining the illusion even when you can see every brush stroke. These were some of my favourites:

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Voyage en Italie

I spent the weekend in Milan, so my most recent post is over on my other blog.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Tales of Me and My Bike Chapter 2

My very kind friend who patched up my hand on Thursday took me back to Decathlon with my beaten up bike today. The man in the repair section took one look at it and said that the brakes had not been adjusted properly on Saturday and that it was entirely their fault that I fell off.

So they are fixing it for free and my pride has been slightly restored. I just wish they could fix my ripped up hand as well!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Tales of Me and My Bike

I was expecting to have a few embarrassing stories to tell about me and my bike.

I was not expecting to start telling them just one day after I bought it.

Some of you may think that this picture looks familiar.

In fact, you are merely recalling this picture, taken after I sliced open my thumb and had to go to A&E back in August.

This one is of the other hand, taken today after I fell off my bike.

I rode the bike home from the shop yesterday, chained it up carefully outside my flat and proudly took pictures of it and blogged about it. Today, I decided to take it out and do a trial run to work to see how long it would take, where the cycle lanes were and how steep the hill really was.

From my house to my work took 20 minutes. About two minutes later, I was whizzing down the other side of the hill on my way home. That side of the hill was steeper, it was going round a tight corner, and I had to make a left turn in the opposite direction from the way the road was bending. I stuck my left hand out to signal. Next thing I knew, I was flying over the handlebars and the bike was flying back-wheel-over-front-wheel to land on top of me.

I was fortunate enough to escape with only mild injuries. I ripped a fair amount of skin off my hand, scratched my leg and my wrist and bruised my ankle. I also managed to tear my jeans from the knee to the top of my thigh, but that could have been the skin on my leg, so I didn't mind too much.

The bike, however, was not so lucky. The chain came off, the gear-wheels were bent and the supports for the back break pads were at a funny angle, meaning that the back wheel could no longer move.

I picked myself up and inspected my injuries, then the bike's, and realised that I was something of a sorry sight. Luckily, I was just around the corner from my friends' house, so I went there. They kindly cleaned me up, gave me a cup of tea and offered to keep the bike until I could go and get it fixed.

I doubt that the bike shop will be able to do much by way of repairs. At nearly 200 euros for less than 10 miles of cycling, it would probably have been cheaper to take a private jet.

In the Jardin des Tuileries

Posted by PicasaSome of the more ordinary looking faces I saw in Paris yesterday afternoon!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

My New Bike

I bought my first bike this morning. Ok, the first bike I've had since I've been old enough to be expected to buy my own bikes .

There's a reason for that: I don't like cycling.

I decided this when I was about twelve years old and read in some book that ballerinas aren't allowed to ride bikes because it makes your leg muscles big and bulky. And despite the fact that I have since resigned myself to the fact that, even at twelve I was about 6 inches too tall and four stones to heavy to be a ballerina, I've barely ridden a bike since. I suffer from a dislike of having a bruised bottom, and a sweaty back, a certain degree of laziness and a tendency to feel extremely self conscious when holding up a long queue of traffic.

The last time I cycled was in the Veneto in Italy, along flat country roads (no sweaty back) on a bike with no gears and no brakes (a good excuse not to go fast), in an area where most of the other cyclists were over-60s on bikes with shopping baskets on the front (no need to feel self conscious). I still got a sore bottom.

So why did I by the bike?

Quite simply, I am bored sick of walking. Just to get to work, I've been walking for around ten hours a week, always along the same old streets. The stupid price of second-hand cars here and the even stupider parking regulations are putting me off driving for the moment and the buses are not very frequent and not very useful, so two wheels and a helmet it is. Watch this space for embarrassing stories.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A Sunday Afternoon Stroll

If I hadn't spent the past two days obsessing over the failings of my French accent, I would probably have been a little quicker to write this post about what I actually did on Sunday afternoon as I was conversing in poor French with my friend.

We went for a walk in the Seine-et-Marne département, which is on the south-east side of Paris. The official website for the department publishes guides for walks in the area ranging from the short to the very long. We decided to go for Number 18, starting at Noisy-Champs station on the RER line A.

Bits of the walk were beautiful, like these paths in the forest, or the châteaux that you see on the way. Other bits, particularly through the streets of local towns, were a little bit dull.

And then there were the important sights that we saw on the way, like this reservoir:

The plaque explains how the architecture is “a powerful urban symbol” that “plays a linking role between the vegetable (the Park de Noisiel), the water (the river Marne) and the working class town.” Apparently there are architectural references to the tower of Babel.

I thought it was downright hideous.

Nevertheless, it was nice to get out in the open air, do something healthy and spend time with my friend, so all in all, it was a good afternoon.

the Joys of French Phonology

Being too fool to swallow my pride, I have spent a lot of time online in the past 48 hours trying to discover the roots of my failure to speak the French language correctly.

For those geeky enough to care, the only rule that I've discovered for the use of nasal vowels is the one that I knew already: that vowels are nasalised when followed by n or m, unless the n or m is doubled or followed by another vowel. En and em are always nasalised. This website explains the rule succinctly, and also points out that there are other rules for nasalisation but they tend to vary according to regional accent (so spending the first year of my Francophone life in Picardie probably didn't help very much!). I can say from experience that the rules also definitely do not apply when French people are using words that have been recently borrowed from English, which they tend to pronounce in the way that they think the English word is said. I was talking to my friend about the film Inglorious Basterds and, when he asked me to pronounce the title as a French person would so that he knew what I was talking about, I did not nasalise the first vowel.

I then got caught up in the issue of when to pronounce consonants at the end of a word. This is a huge issue for foreign learners of French, because the pronunciation often depends on the following word, and, in some cases the register of the language that the speaker is using. There are of course, exceptions to all the rules, and once again I did not help myself by spending the second year of my Francophone life in Lorraine, an honourable and noble region where, unlike in the rest of France, speakers continue to make the distinction between vin and vingt.

I am still depressed and even more confused.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

I Can't Speak French Any More!

This afternoon, for the first time since I arrived in France (this time round), I spent a long period of time having conversations in French. It was depressing.

I studied French for ten years at school and university and got a first class honours degree. I've read Les Misérables in the original and I do French crossowords on train journeys. I love speaking French and I've done my best not to forget it over the past few years. And yet, recently, every time I try to speak it, I feel awkward.

Talking to my friend this afternoon was interesting though, because more than I could, he was able to put his finger on what was wrong.

The first thing was my accent. For years I have struggled to produce a French “ou” sound and although, I can do it, I still have to think about it in speaking, especially when it comes next to an “u” sound ( which is much more like the one that Scottish people use in English), as in “pas du tout”. Recently, though, it's been the nasal vowels that have become my real bugbear. I think it's largely because I'm not good at learning words by hearing them, so I tend to remember the written form. There are some rules about nasalisation, such as that “in” at the beginning of a word is nasalised when followed by a consonant but not when followed by a vowel, but if there is a rule that works every time, I don't know it. We don't really have all these nasal sounds in English, and particularly not in a Scottish accent, yet my friend said that I was using them far too much in French, and especially when I didn't sound sure about what I was saying, so I think I must be hyper-correcting myself and putting them in when they're not there.

The second thing he pointed out was that I was using lots of complicated sentence structures which weren't always usual (or even correct) in everyday spoken French, and we decided that this was a technique that I was using to buy time when I didn't know exactly what to say.

To be honest, I think most of my problems come down to lack of confidence. My French is a little bit rusty at the moment, as well as suffering from interference from Italian, but because I feel as though it should be perfect, I have too much pride to say something that is simple and wrong, so I end up saying things in a complicated way (that is also often wrong) instead.

I suppose I either need to get practising or learn to accept that I'll never speak immaculate French. After all, as my friend was kind enough to point out, most French people don't speak it perfectly either!

Longing for Loneliness (well, almost...)

You know how a few weeks ago I wrote a post about feeling lonely? Well, here are a few of the things that I have been doing recently:

Thursday: drinks after school with colleagues, then my friend S came round to borrow the internet and ended up staying for dinner and going home around midnight having put the world to rights with me over a bottle of wine.

Friday: dinner with S after work.

Saturday: I had to work in the morning (for the last time for a while, thankfully!), then I came home and slept for a couple of hours before heading out again to have tea with some other friends, then babysat their little boy for a couple of hours and made the most of their DVD collection.

Sunday: today I'm meeting up with some friends from when I worked in Nancy for a balade in the forest on the south-east side of Paris. After that I am really looking forward to coming home and spending some time alone this evening!

In between all this, I've spent hours on the phone and the internet chatting to friends from home. Neufbox, I love you!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A Dangerous Discovery

This is it:

And this is how I intend to eat it:

(In case you don't recognise the name, Speculoos are these little caramelly biscuits that you get individually wrapped in coffee shops. This jar contains the biscuits crushed up and mixed with oil to make a paste that (in theory!) you spread on bread. The nutritional information makes my previous Nutella addiction look like a healthy habit!)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Wandering in Paris

After I had finished rollerblading today, I went for a wander around Paris and it was... incredible.

I lived near Paris for a whole year and I've been there a lot, and sometimes I like it and sometimes I don't. Often, for me, the beauty, the culture and even the fun get overshadowed by the fact that it's so busy, crowded and full of weirdos just waiting to harass you as soon as you sit down for a break on a park bench. (Once, hoping to avoid the weirdo on the park bench scenario, I sat down in a posh café on the rue de Rivoli and got harassed by the waiter in the toilets instead.)

But today, Paris was the way Paris is supposed to be. I walked a bit further along the banks of the river, then up to the Champs Elysées, taking photos all the way. I'm not the greatest photographer in the world, but one thing I do pay a lot of attention to is the composition of my pictures, and I was struck by how easy it is to get that right in Paris. The streets and the buildings just seem to align themselves perfectly as you walk around, so I guess Baron Haussmann really did do a good job (even if you generally have to risk life and limb in the middle of the road to really appreciate the perfect layout of his architecture!).

I finished my wanderings at the Place de l'Etoile, where the Arc de Triomphe is. The arch stands in the middle of a huge roundabout, with nine roads feeding on to it and priorité à droite in operation, making it so dangerous that no insurance company in France will cover you for an accident that happens there. Although I was too stingy to pay the 9 euros to go up the arch itself, I couldn't resist going to stand in the middle of all this chaos and having a look at the war memorials. In fact, because it was Sunday, the traffic wasn't too bad, and I got some nice views down the boulevards to the Place de la Concorde and La Défense.

Unfortunately, my camera batteries ran out and, as my legs were tired after the rollerblading, I decided it might be time to head home. I left regretfully though, wishing that I didn't have to work this week so that I could spend more time in Paris tomorrow...