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.