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...

Paris on Wheels

In France, Sunday is sports day. And one of the things that I love about the French is that they like the same sports as I do. As a person with very little competitive spirit and absolutely no hand-eye coordination, it is to my distinct advantage to live in a country where the most popular sports include walking, running, cycling and, above all, rollerblading.

When I go rollerblading in the UK, people give me funny looks. Groups of teenagers laugh and point and small dogs inadvertently trip me up as they run around my feet in confusion. In France, the only humiliation involved in rollerblading is being overtaken by 70 year old men with cooler gear and stronger leg muscles.

In order to facilitate all this activity, France is full of cycle lanes and, between 9am and 5pm on a Sunday, the road along the banks of the Seine in Paris is closed to cars so that it can be used by runners, cyclists and rollerbladers. Today I decided to try it out.

It was great. As well as having no hand-eye coordination, I don't like the feeling of danger, and so one of my pet hates is skating on bumpy surfaces. The tarmac on the road is mostly pretty smooth and the closed-off bit was long enough for me to skate for almost an hour before I ran out of places to go. And when I wanted a break, I just stopped to take photographs!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

From the Comfort of my Living Room

What can I say? SFR and France Telecom came up with the goods! I've just talked to my parents for free, this post will be published using ultra high speed internet from the comfort of my own sofa, and once I set up the digibox to receive my 150 TV channels, I will never need to leave the house again.

I am happy :-)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Feeling Blue

I got a case of the lonely blues this weekend. Up until now, I've either had company or been working too hard to notice, but this weekend it has really hit me: once again, here I am in a foreign country, all by myself and starting all over again. And although knowing to expect this feeling has made me better at dealing with it, I've also got to the stage where I just don't want to deal with it any more. Although I like having time to myself, I lose the motivation to do a lot of the things I would otherwise want to do when I spend too much time alone, and more than 24 hours with nobody to talk to is definitely too much. I've been spoiled with company over the past year and it's been good for me. In fact, I like the place where I live and I think I'm going to enjoy my new job, but I'm angry with the circumstances that brought me here when I didn't really want to move, sad about being by myself, and tired of dealing with my own company.

Isn't it ironic that when you really need to talk to a good friend, you can't get a phone line installed so that you can do it?

Auchan Again

On Saturday afternoon, I went back to Auchan to pick up some things for my flat that I had seen last week but not been able to carry at the same time as the TV. Never again.

At 10am last week, Auchan was busy, but not ridiculously so. At 4pm this week, it was pandemonium. In some parts of the shop, you couldn't walk down an aisle without having to queue just to get past. The busiest section was the stationery, which was filled with familles nombreuses (more about them later) trying to stock up on all the books and pencils that they had forgotten to buy for their 8 children before the start of school last week.

I almost turned around and left, but I had spent 6 euros on train tickets and had nothing better to do, and the homewares section was calmer than most of the others, so I got what I wanted, picked up some other bits and pieces in the food and toiletries sections and went to queue.

First I went to queue in the wrong place. I had transferred all my phone numbers to my French mobile by the time I realised that I was at the checkout for people with a special store card. Then I went to stand in a normal queue. They all had at least 20 people in them, but standing in the Foreign Foods aisle kept me entertained for a little while. (Apparently what Brits in Paris miss the most is high class museli, baked beans and sausages, 5 different types of marmalade and Walker's shortbread.)

Realising that that queue was going nowhere, I decided to try a new strategy. There were express checkouts for people with 5 items or fewer. The queues there were shorter and, because people had less stuff, presumably moving faster as well. So, feeling a little guilty, I dumped my basket near some olive oil that was spreading from a broken bottle in a large puddle on the floor (seeing someone else's crime made me feel better about committing my own), took my 5 essentials and went to stand at these checkouts.

However, it turned out that the queues there weren't really moving any faster, and I quickly figured out why. Hardly anybody was buying only 5 items. And they weren't just buying 6 or 7. People had whole baskets full of stuff, and there was nothing in the till technology to stop them putting it all through. The 2 supervisors in the area were doing nothing about it either. So I queued with my 5 things for a good half hour, then, checking that the people in the queue behind me were cheating scum as well as the people in front, grabbed a few extra things from the little stands near the checkouts and, feeling not at all guilty this time, put them through with my other things. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

Saturday, 5 September 2009


I had to go back to the SFR shop the other day. SFR is the company that, if I am lucky enough and patient enough, is going to supply me with super high speed internet, free telephone calls to 90 countries and 150 TV channels for the bargainous price of 29.99 euros a month.

I ordered my Neufbox a couple of weeks ago and made an appointment for an engineer to come in and install it. About a week later, I got a message from them saying they needed some more details about my address (the part of the address the guy in the shop didn't write down when I told him). I phoned customer services, which would have been free if I had a landline, but I don't, because I'm waiting for SFR to install it, and so which cost me a small fortune from my mobile, gave them the details and confirmed that the appointment was on Wednesday morning. The Neufbox arrived in the post, but a few days later, I got another message “confirming” the appointment was at a different time, a time when I couldn't be at home.

If this sounds like it's going to turn into a sad rant about how inefficient the French are, fear not. The happy part of this story is that, instead of calling customer services from my mobile again, I popped into the shop to see if they could help me there. They couldn't check the appointment, and nor could they phone on my behalf, but they did lend me their telephone (and despite the fact that they are a busy shop selling phone and internet packages and hundreds of different mobiles, they only have one telephone that they can actually use) and let me phone the number myself. When they heard me saying that I couldn't here the lady at the other end very well, they directed me to the back of the shop where it was quieter.

SFR may not be efficient, but the people in that shop are so nice and friendly, they make surviving the inefficiency with your sanity intact so much easier!

Looking for a Marriage of Convenience

I was having dinner with some of my colleagues last night and, because we have clearly reached the boring stage in our lives where these things actually matter, the conversation turned to taxes and, more specifically, tax allowances for married couples. I have no idea how this works in the UK, but in France, a couple can combine all their tax allowances, meaning that if you are married to somebody who doesn't work, you can essentially earn twice as much before you have to pay tax as a single person. Taxes are high in France, and the amount that you can save in this way is easily enough to support the non-working spouse for a year as long as you don't spend too much extra money, for example by moving to a bigger house.

Now, I can see some advantages in this system. I think it is perfectly right, for example, that one half of a couple with children should be financially able to stay at home and look after them, rather than the government encouraging as many women as possible into work and dumping the children in breakfast club, after school club, sports club and hey, why not just have a bedtime story club too? But France also gives couples with children some great tax benefits too, and I don't see why somebody with no children who makes exactly the same demands on society and infrastructure as I do should have the option to stay at home and not work just because they happen to be married. Even if there are benefits for the state in lots of people being married, it's not as though finding the love of your life at 21 rather than 31 or 41 (if you are lucky enough to find them at all) is something that anybody has much control over, and yet the state is essentially giving people a financial incentive to do so, and then making it attractive for one half of the couple not to work (especially if they can only find a low-paid job) when they may be perfectly able to do so.

So could somebody please either explain the rationale behind this system or point out some disadvantages or being married? Otherwise I'm going to consider advertising for a house husband who will fix my computer and cook my dinner at night in return for giving me his tax allowance.

La Rentrée

On Monday, the sun was shining, the weather was warm and the birds were singing in the trees. After work, I sat in the square drinking a coffee and enjoyed the late summer feeling that was in the air.

On Tuesday, it rained. I put on thick tights and a jacket to walk to work and was grateful for a warming cup of coffee when I got there.

It was as if the weather knew it was the rentrée.

The rentrée is the beginning of the school year in France. But because everybody in France takes long holidays in the summer, it's also the beginning of the year for grown-ups too. People come back from sunning themselves on the Côte d'Azur and lazing in the mountains and have to face the grey skies and early morning starts of going back to work in the north. La rentrée is the moment when sick days take over from holidays as the main reason why nothing ever gets done in France.

As an example of this, the big news story from Monday night was the number of French classes that had yet to be allocated a teacher and the number of teachers who had yet to be allocated a class. French teachers started work on Tuesday. Because posts are allocated by central government, teachers are guaranteed a job after they qualify but they can be sent anywhere in the country. They can make requests with regard to the region and school but essentially they have to go wherever they're told. When these poor souls eventually do find out where they will be working, they'll have 48 hours to move there and start their jobs. While teachers obviously get upset when the administration screws up like this, however, I've always been surprised by how accepting teachers here are of the basic premise; they see having to move as a reasonable exchange for job security and the other privileges of being a fonctionnaire.

Still, the sun is supposed to come out again at the weekend. Who knows what will have happened by then?

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Un Bel Appartement*

Despite my shame about spending more hours in Ikea than in Paris recently, I am somewhat proud of the effect on my flat, which is finally furnished and no longer full of cardboard boxes. In an effort to motivate myself to build the last of the furniture and in order to avoid spending the entire weekend without human contact, I took the ambitious decision to invite a colleague and her husband for dinner on Sunday night. (That was also when I resolved to buy the TV, because in my sad and lonely world, watching the 8 o'clock news while eating dinner also counts as human contact.)

I went to La Défense to buy the TV, and it turned out to be a good idea, because as well as Auchan, there is also a branch of The Phone House there, and their catalogue, which contains information about deals on all the major networks, allowed me to ascertain that using a mobile phone here is indeed a rip off (40-55 cents a minute seems to be normal – in the UK and Italy I could make international calls for those kinds of prices) but that not all companies are totally ridiculous about how long you have to use up your credit. On Orange and SFR, a 5 euro top up only lasts a week. Given that I will (eventually!) have a landline and unlimited calls, I'm not planning to use my mobile that much, so I was glad to find out that on Virgin, the credit lasts a lot longer. But I digress.

When I got home, I set up the TV, discovered that after all the excitement there was nothing worth watching on a Saturday afternoon, and went to the supermarket to buy food for the dinner party. There I found out that you can't buy golden syrup in France. How did it take me two years to notice that?

On Saturday afternoon, I made two chests of drawers (surprisingly simple) and then crashed out in front of the TV. On Sunday, I went to the market and stocked up on last minute things for dinner, feeling very integrated apart from the guilty feeling of having bought my cheese from the supermarket the day before instead of confronting the ripe, mouldy, smelly things on the cheese stall. In the afternoon, I built one more bookcase (this time it was me that was unsurprisingly simple, as I put 3 of the shelves on the wrong way round), tidied up and cleaned like a madwoman.

Then, sneakily trying to keep the old mattress and the remaining cardboard out of the shots, I took these pictures of my beautiful new home.

*My French teacher at school made us use this expression in every essay we ever wrote, regardless of th subject matter, purely to show off the fact that we knew how to modify the adjective beau when it preceded a masculine noun beginning with a vowel. She would be proud to see me today.

Paris Above My Head

I chose the name of this blog several months ago when I first came to visit the small town on the outskirts of Paris where I now live. From now on, I'm going to refer to the town as as Perfectville, because if I used its real name, everybody would want to come and live here. You want quaint streets with delightful little shops selling everything you could ever need? Come to Perfectville. You like flowers arrangements and fountains in your town square? Come to Perfectville. You want shop assistants who recognise you and a market every Sunday morning? Perfectville is the place for you.

In fact, when I first came here, I was not convinced that Perfectville was the place for me. It seemed too perfect. I was sure I would be escaping at every opportunity to wander the imperfect streets of the capital and absorb its never ending culture. Hence the blog title. (Victor Hugo and the barbarians who turned four volumes of great literature into two hours of easily digested musical theatre, the author of this blog salutes you.)

And so it is something of an embarrassment to admit that in the time I have been here I have been to Paris only twice, once to see an American film in English at the multiplex cinema and once to buy a TV in the Auchan hypermarket at La Défense. At La Défense, I didn't even see daylight, never mind the city of lights. While only a short train journey from the city where everyone wants to go, I have spent my time furnishing my apartment with Swedish flatpack furniture, watching American TV series on DVD and enjoying the delights of the Perfectville boulangeries. To err is human indeed.