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.