Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Light at the End of the Channel Tunnel

As the pessimist once said, “If you think you see light at the end of the tunnel, it's not. It's a train coming to run you over.” This would have been quite an accurate image, except that in South East England on Tuesday morning, the chances of a train travelling through a tunnel at a speed likely to run you over seemed minimal.

On my arrival in London, a mere 23 hours late, I dragged my suitcase from St Pancras to King's Cross only to discover that there were no trains whatsoever leaving for the North that day. I schlepped my luggage over to Euston, hoping to catch the cross country service only to discover that Virgin had decided that the thousands of passengers who were supposed to travel on the hourly East Coast service would not all fit on their trains and were telling people to go back to St Pancras, where a miracle would apparently happen and north-bound trains would appear.

(On the fifteen minute walk between the stations, my one consolation was looking at the Eurostar queue, which was several kilometres long and served by security guards to lead it across the roads and volunteers serving coffee (we Brits really do queue well), and being eternally grateful that I wasn't in it.)

At St Pancras, a member of staff told me that the proposed solution was to take a train to Sheffield and catch a connection to Scotland from there. This sounded like an idea more likely to have been suggested by an armchair railway enthusiast with too much time on his hands than an actual, practical solution, so, despite the temptation to run for the Sheffield train before the rest of the millions got there, I decided to try changing direction entirely and phoned my brother, who lives in the South West, instead. Luckily, he answered his phone and luckily I could stay with him that night, and luckily the only flaw in my journey from then on was an abandoned bagel which I had ordered but didn't have time to collect in Paddington before I dashed to grab a seat on a delayed and very crowded train.

Funnily enough, there is loads of snow in the South West but the trains, apart from being a little late, appeared to be running just fine. I'm off to build a snowman!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Random Acts of Kindness

As well as the guardian angel lady who got me on the Eurostar this morning, in the midst of a winter of Parisian rudeness, a couple of other acts of kindness have touched me recently.

This morning at the metro station, a lady kept the gate open for me so that I could get my suitcase through. She stood holding it as I fumbled for my ticket, organised my multiple bags and pieces of clothing and shoved the suitcase under the turnstile.

And the other week, also in the metro, I was trying to change trains at Bastille and because the connecting passage was blocked for building work, came out of the exit by mistake. When I went to the information desk to ask the man to revalidate my ticket, he not only did so with a smile and without telling me how stupid I had been, he also gave me a free magnet wishing me a happy Christmas from the RATP. As public transport workers are normally the grumpiest in the world, this counts ten times over on the kindness scale.

Merry Christmas, everybody, from me as well as the RATP!


November 2010

“Eurostar can't afford to make the same mistakes again,” I said confidently to numerous friends and acquaintances when they asked about my Christmas travel plans. Last year, I managed to catch an Easyjet flight home in the 4 hour window between Charles de Gaulle airport opening and Edinburgh airport closing and counted myself incredibly lucky, especially as two friends were on a train which got stuck in the Channel tunnel and had to be towed out, meaning that they arrived home in the Midlands (in a taxi paid for by Eurostar) in the wee small hours of the morning and about 13 hours later than expected. This year, we were sure that the train company would have resolved their problems and snow on the train tracks somehow seemed less of a problem than snow on an airport runway.

Mood: Far too confident

December 17th - 18th 2010

Snow was falling in the Ile-de-France. Horror stories began to come on of friends waiting days for flights and spending the night in the airport.

Mood: Ever so slightly smug

December 19th 2010

Eight Eurostar trains were cancelled as more snow fell overnight. Messages from Eurostar suggested rescheduling journeys if possible but the snow melted. I was becoming a little bit worried about making my 2 hour connection in London but I figured I'd catch another train.

Mood: Optimistic

December 20th 2010

10am: I set off for the Gare du Nord. A couple of trains had been cancelled that morning, and mine was also cancelled, but others were running. I would get there eventually, I was sure. Nice lady in a yellow jacket told me to go and join the queue to wait for a place on the next train.

Mood: Not too worried yet.

10.45 am:This isn't the end of the queue...nor is this... 3 loops around the concourse of the Gare du Nord and this might be it. But Eurostar trains hold hundreds, right?

Mood: It'll be fine.

3pm: I've been waiting in this queue for 4 hours now. I have begun eating my family's Christmas presents and am vaguely wondering where I could get a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine. Occasional announcements come over the tannoy but we can't hear them because we are about 5 miles from the Eurostar terminal. We can't see the departures board either. Some nice people behind offer to keep my place so that I can go and buy a sandwich. Not sure I can go to the toilet though – it's too far away. My phone battery is running out and I'll have missed every connection in London apart from the sleeper train. Hmm...

Mood: Resigned

4pm: Rumours start to spread that the only trains arriving in Paris are 4 hours late and broken down. The station is freezing and I can only feel my feel because of the biting pain in my toes.

Mood: Surprisingly upbeat, especially about the fact that I have a nice warm flat and friends to spend Christmas with in Paris.

5pm: Suddenly the queue starts to move. Is this it? Has the famous 6 o'clock train arrived? Nope, the queue is moving because there are no more trains and staff are telling people to go home.

Mood: Still upbeat about the flat and the friends but hoping I don't have to go through all this tomorrow. Also somewhat pissed off that despite the fact that northern Europe is supposedly in the grip of an Arctic winter, it's about 5 degrees in Paris, the slush is turning to grey water and it's raining. I wouldn't mind being held up in the snow if there actually was some.

December 21st

7.30 am: Phone call from Understanding Frenchman at the Gare du Nord. Eurostar trains are departing and the queue is not enormous. I jump out of bed, throw on yesterday's clothes, grab yesterday's suitcase and make a dash for the metro.

Mood: No time for moods, just move!

8.15 am: Arrive at the Gare du Nord. The queue doesn't look enormous...until I realise that instead of looping around the concourse, today it's stretching out along the platforms for TER Picardie. It does seem to be moving, though, so I stand in it.

Mood: resigned, again

8.20am: Chat to a friendly French couple to check I'm in the right queue. They chat to one of the SNCF staff, who they seem to know. I chat to her. When I tell her that I was supposed to travel yesterday and that I'm all by myself, she adds me to a little group of desperate but somehow privileged people who have buggies, crutches and other signs of needing extra help. She leads us through business class to avoid the howling mob and slips us into the queue for the train.

Mood: Ecstatic
Lesson Learned: Chatting gets you everywhere, especially in French in France.

9.48 am: I am on the train. The train is slipping through the frozen fields of northern France and the carriage is blissfully warm and quiet.

Mood: How lucky am I???

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas Lights in Paris

Place Vendôme: Modern but Classy

Galeries Lafayettte: Eastern Splendour

Galeries Lafayette: Glamorous

Printemps: overly pink and not improved by the animated pink teddy bears who looked as though they were humping chairs in the windows

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


I have been to Belgium a total of three times in my life, and every single time, it’s rained.
Luckily, many of Belgium’s most pleasant activities involve staying inside and eating hot things. It’s no accident that “low season” in a Brussels hotel happens in August and not in January.

Brussels is only an hour and a half from Paris (on a very fast, very chic train!) and, having left after work one evening, I was quite surprised to find myself in a foreign country. I think this effect was increased by the fact that I spent the train journey reading the French “Le Routard” guidebook, the first few chapters of which are mostly about reassuring French people that the food is good in Belgium and reminding them that it’s not a good idea to try to imitate the Belgian accent if you’re actually French. Sound advice, I suspect.

On the first night, we went out for a delicious, meaty meal at “Le Pavé Bruxellois” near the main square. Afterwards (and for most of the weekend) we went for a walk and I amused myself by taking pictures of the endless circumstances in which you find copies of the Mannekin Pis statue. We even saw the real one. (There is also another, less well known statue of a little girl peeing but it was too rainy for us to be motivated to go and find it.)

Chocolate, tourists and the Mannekin Pis

Mannekin Pis Chain Gang

Chocolate Mannekin Pis

Mannekin Frites

The next day saw us darting between bars and chocolate shops, trying to keep our umbrellas intact in the howling wind. (Brussels for me was a real reminder of what it’s like to live in northern Europe. By comparison, Paris is for sissies.) We went to the Chocolate Museum which, like most chocolate-related things which don’t involve lying on the sofa under a blanket and eating lots of it, was a little bit disappointing but not a bad way to spend a rainy hour, and they did give a demonstration of how to make the outer shell for pralines by hand and hand out a small free sample at the end. Afterwards, in an attempt to be more cultured, we went to an exhibition at the tourist office called “Europe in Brussels, Brussels in Europe”, where we learned all sorts of things like the number of immigrants in the city and what the 12 stars on the EU flag mean. (Apparently the number 12 symbolises unity and it has nothing to do with the number of countries in the union as I previously thought.) It was very interactive and we enjoyed building Brussels out of soft, giant bricks and pressing numerous buttons to make things light up.

As well as sausages, beer, chocolate and waffles, Brussels is famous for its BDs or comic strips. So much so that there are murals like this on the ends of many buildings. Like the other items on the aforementioned list, they brightened up our grey day as we walked around.

Finally, chased by the cold and the rain, we arrived at the train station an hour early and went to ask at the information desk if my ticket was exchangable. The guy replied sarcastically, “Yes, for seventy two euros” (the price of a new ticket) but it was worth asking the question just to hear the Belgian “septante – deux” instead of “soixante-douze.” I went home happy.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Sometimes it's Hard Being French

Reading one of the blogs I follow the other day, I came across the link to this article, published to mark the occasion of “Be Nice” Day, which was recently launched in France by Psychologies magazine. The article gives a whole range of statistics about how many French people admire kindness as a quality, how many don’t, and why so many of them find it hard to exhibit themselves in their day to day lives. (Reasons included lack of time, a fear of being used and the belief that people don’t respect you if you are nice.)

What I found particularly interesting, however, was the statement by a psychologist at the end that “the main obstacle (to kindness) is a lack of self-esteem”. It has long been a theory of mine that, while the French may appear rude and arrogant on the outside, many of them suffer from a huge lack of confidence on the inside, largely stemming from being part of a society that demands high standards in just about everything and never stops reminding you that you probably don’t live up to these standards.

Many mother tongue speakers in France do not believe that they speak French. What they mean is that to words which come out of their mouths are not the same as those which you read in a textbook or which are set down on paper by the Académie Française. (Listen to any French person reading aloud and you will understand the difference.) At school, it’s common for children to receive negative marks in tests, which are marked out of 20 but with one point being taken off for every mistake. If you’re French, you’re supposed to be slim, elegantly dressed, intelligent, highly educated in every subject, witty and capable of sophisticated conversation at all times. You’re supposed to achieve everything your job demands of you in a 35 hour week, serve delicious dinners accompanied by the perfect wine at weekends, enjoy several perfectly-organised holidays per year in all the right places and have a circle of friends who are able to sustain the same high standard of living to accompany you. If you fail, not only is your own life crap, but you’re letting down the whole of French society as well.

It’s no wonder that a large percentage of French people lack the self-belief to reach out to and empathise with those around them. The rest, of course, simply don’t have the time.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Winter Entertainment

The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in and the beautiful autumn leaves have fallen from the trees and are quickly being turned into mushy compost on the pavement. And it keeps raining.

Finding things to do indoors suddenly seems like an extremely good idea.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve discovered two good live music venues to recommend for a rainy evening in Paris. At the end of October, I went to Le Sentier des Halles to see Bitter Ruin, a male/female duo whose music whose style, according to a review on the website, is “noir indie folk”. For “noir indie”, try substituting “gothed up” and you’ll have some idea of what the music was like: you could hear the folk basis but it was dramatic, emotional and great to see performed live. I also liked the venue a lot – it was intimate and friendly but still pretty cool.

The next weekend, I went to the Flèche d’Or, which is in a converted station in the 20th, next to Père Lachaise cemetery. Entrance is 8 euros, which includes 4 euros towards a drink and performances by up to 4 live bands. It was a bigger venue than the Sentier des Halles and a bit empty when we went in, but it quickly filled up as the more popular bands came on. I personally didn’t like the music so much, but there was plenty of variety and it could definitely have been a place for a fun night out.

Most recently, I went to see Draquila at the cinema. I’ve posted more about it on my Italy blog, but if you have any interest in Italian politics (or corruption and scandal) it’s a must-see.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Not on Your Life?

While walking around Paris, I have recently taken to eyeing up the adverts in the estate agents’ windows, not because I believe that I will ever be able to afford to buy property in Paris but more because I enjoy the combination of admiring extravagance from afar and feeling ever-so-slighly self-righteous about not having that kind of money to throw around myself. The other day, however, Understanding Frenchman saw that my eye had been caught by prices that appeared to have a few zeros missing off the end and explained to me that these properties were being sold en viager.

The English translation of viager is “life annuity,” an expression that I had only ever vaguely encountered in connection with a Monopoly board. In France, however, it is apparently quite common to buy a house in this way and I would love to know if it happens in other countries as well. The houses are generally being sold by older people and the buyer agrees to pay a set amount for the property, followed by a fixed sum of money for every year of the seller’s life until the person dies.

The older person gains an obvious benefit here in having a guaranteed income for the rest of their life, and many choose to sell their properties in this way precisely because they need that money. The advantage for the buyer is, of course, the possibility of getting a bargain if the seller dies earlier than expected. And apparently there are enough people out there who are willing to gamble on someone else’s life (or to have their own lives gambled on) in this way to make for a healthy market in this kind of sales. Hmm …

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Why Sometimes the Fonctionnaires don't Function

Finding myself with a whole lot more free time than predicted this weekend, I dipped into my copy of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, a fabulous book which attempts to explain to confused expats exactly "what makes the French so French." Unlike many of the titles aimed at an expat audience, it's a serious book which describes the workings of the French state in detail and actually offers credible explanations for why France is the way that it is.

Having just had a frustrating experience at my local tax office, I started with the section on fonctionnaires. The word fonctionnaires is often translated into English as "civil servants" but in France it encompasses a vast army of 6 million people, from teachers to firemen to the lady in my local tax office, who are employed by the state to carry out its functions.

There are 3 main categories of fonctionnaire: A, B and C. In theory, to be a C, you don't need a university degree, to be a B you might well and to be an A you probably need a post-graduate qualification. There is also category A+, who are the highest ranking civil servants. The book explains how, to get a job as a civil servant, you have to pass a gruelling concours (competitive exam) which tests "general culture", technical knowledge and aptitude for the position. Pass rates for these exams range from 1 to 12 percent. For those who pass, further training of up to two years is often required. In other words, getting to be a fonctionnaire is hard.

All of this was very interesting to read, but it didn't answer the question that every expat has at the front of their mind almost from the moment that they set foot on French soil: if these people are so carefully selected and highly trained, why on earth are they so inefficient and unhelpful? So I turned to Understanding Frenchman in search of the answer and this is what he said.

In France, everybody wants to be a civil servant. (Well, not quite everybody, but if 10 percent of the population actually are and the pass rate for the exam is only around ten percent, a lot of them do!) The main reason for this is job security. Fonctionnaires are guaranteed a job for life, get to retire early and are virtually impossible to sack. For many French people, these benefits far override the higher salaries that they could be earning in the private sector. As a result, far more people want civil service jobs than can actually be given them, and as a result of that, the people who end up with the bottom and middle jobs are overqualified to do them. They take them anyway, though, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because it's easier to get promotion within the civil service than to apply from the outside. Movement through the ranks depends on performance management grades, and even movement from one geographical location to another depends on a system of points gained partly through performance and partly through length of service. Crucially, though, "customer service" (I hesitate to use the expression because it's our taxes that pay their wages, but you know what I mean) is not one of the assessment criteria.

To put it crudely, when you go to your local tax office, the chances are that the person you are confronted with is bored with their job, has very little external motivation to help you and is just waiting (or potentially working very hard, but not at helping you) until they have enough points to move on to a job that actually suits their interests and capabilities. Obviously, this is not the case for everyone, and there are probably plenty of devoted fonctionnaires out there who do care about their jobs and about serving their country, but the chances are that they're not the ones that you meet in your daily life.

And why is it that the private sector can't offer salaries and benefits to rival those provided to employees of the state? It's because in France it's both difficult and expensive to employ people in the private sector, mainly because of the high charges that private companies have to pay to the government ... to pay for the fonctionnaires!

Monday, 1 November 2010

F1: Sleeping in the Fast Lane

I recently had the experience, for the first time in my existance, of spending the night in an F1 hotel. Although F1 have hotels on 4 continents, the vast majority are in France and, as most of the long distance travelling I've done in France has been by train, I had never had the pleasure of staying in one until now.

For anyone else who's never been to one, F1 hotels are the hospitality industry equivalent of Ryanair. Ours was located at the back end of an industrial estate and just a stone's throw from the motorway. For 29 euros a night, you get a room that can sleep three people, a towel that might just be big enough to dry the entirety of an adult human as long as they were under 5 feet tall and even a sticker across the opening of your bedroom door to prove that it hasn't been used by someone else prior to your arrival. A polite notice in the bathroom requests that you flush the toilet when you've finished using it. Some F1 hotels are completely unstaffed in the evenings; you just check in using your internet reservation number and credit card. (Maybe Ryanair could take idea this on board and be the first company to offer pilotless aeroplane flights.) Ours, however, had a very friendly receptionist who seemed genuinely pleased to see us and point us down the corridor in the direction of our tobacco-scented non-smoking rooms.

In fact, most of the 6 hours or so that we spent in the hotel were perfectly acceptable and some aspects were even pleasant. But something about the fluorescent lighting, the bare walls and that invitation to flush the toilet meant that even after only 5 hours' sleep, we were happy to get out of there as fast as possible.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Not Ranting

I went out in the car the other day in search of petrol. Out of the four service stations I found, three were already closed and one closed the pumps in front of me as I was waiting in the queue. The motorways seem to be relatively well provided with petrol but, in the car-dependent suburbs, a tankful of 95 really does seem to be like gold dust.

My friends from Italy were supposed to be coming to visit this weekend. They turned up at the station to find that their train had been cancelled due to the SNCF strike. In theory, they could have exchanged their tickets, but all the later trains were full. My friends from Italy are no longer coming to visit this weekend.

Not ranting. Just saying.

Seasonal Confusion

Last weekend, some friends and I managed to defy the petrol crisis and make it all the way to the mountains without having to get out and push the car once. We also managed to get back again safely, but I would have been completely happy to stay. Forever.

There were lots of reasons why I loved Haute Savoie, many of them relating to melted cheese and mulled wine, but the best bit of the trip was the incredible change in the weather that we witnessed literally overnight. Saturday was a gorgeous autumn day, with rays of low October sunshine streaming through the clouds. Sunday was a vin chaud day, as it rained from the moment we got up in the morning until after dark, but on Monday we headed out into the blustery wind to discover that the rain had fallen as snow higher up in the mountains and, on closer inspection (a.k.a. driving further up the hill) what looked like a delicate dusting of icing sugar turned out to be a veritable winter wonderland, with a good 15cm of snow and lots of opportunities for throwing it at each other. Walking amongst pine trees with branches laden down with white powder, our feet crunching gently underneath us, it was hard to believe it was only October, so we indulged in some early singing of Christmas carols.

It looks as though my next trip away from the city might have to be a skiing holiday :-)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Sarko, the Footie and Losing my Democratic Rights

Last night's post, I realise, was something of an opinionated rant. Now, I love writing polemic. I also quite enjoy expounding in a polemical fashion in speech, at least until I see that look in my listeners' eyes that says "I really don't agree with what this crazy person is saying and ... just get me out of here now." But up until that point, I really quite enjoy it. I do find, though, that after publishing a piece like that (or scaring away an audience of poor souls who just wanted to make polite conversation), I suddenly feel a desperate need to be reasonable and open-minded again. So here, from the angel on my other shoulder, are a couple of reasons why the situation in France at the moment is not as bad as it might be.

One is that, in recent years, the government has succeeded in introducing a "minimum service" during strike times. This means, for example, that a certain number of trains have to run and that when the teachers strike, the mairie sends in people to look after the kids. (Little devil voice says that this may make people less likely to object to the striking and therefore let it carry on longer, but I'm ignoring it because I'm trying to be positive.)

The second is that, while the violence and the vandalism related to the lycée strikes is shocking, to be fair to the majority of the students, the demonstrations were supposed to be peaceful. Today's news reports are now suggesting that ordinary demonstrations were infiltrated by kids who just wanted to cause trouble, a bit like the way football hooligans cause trouble at football matches. So the country's youth may be deluded/brainwashed/looking for an excuse to skive off school, but at least they aren't all hooligans.

What has depressed me about the whole situation, however, is the fact that I have absolutely no power to change it. I live in this country, have a permanent contract to work in this country, pay taxes in this country and at the same time do not have the right to vote (except in local and European elections). By leaving Scotland, I've already lost the right to vote in Scottish Parliament elections because they are regarded as local government even although the Scottish Parliament has the power to make decisions about most of the issues that I have strong opinions about. Ironically, if there is a referendum on Scottish independence, I won't have the right to vote in it, while some random French person living in Scotland would. I do still have the right to vote in UK national elections, but even that disappears after a certain number of years. It's not something I've ever seriously worried about before, but somehow all these photos of burning cars are making me change my mind ...

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I Didn't Want to Write About the Strike but ...


when teenagers in a town a few kilometres down the road are tear-gassed by the police after throwing bricks at the windows of their schools and Molotov cocktails at cars, it becomes hard to ignore.

I didn’t want to write about the strikes because they happen so often in France that it becomes the kind of expat moan that’s on a par with complaining about the dog dirt on the street – so well known it’s a cliché and hey, if you don’t like it, don’t choose to live here, right?

But as the effects of the current strike encroach ever-further on my back yard (and as people at home keep asking me about it!), I’ve been motivated to do a little bit of research (aka ask some friends) about what it’s really about. This is what I’ve found out so far:

The main feature of the reforms is that the minimum retirement age in France will be raised from 60 to 62. To claim a full pension at that age, however, you have to start working at the minimum school leaving age, so it’s argued that for many people, the age is effectively being raised from 65 to 67.

The people who go on to further education therefore feel that they are being penalised.

The people who started work at 16 are complaining that they already work more years than anybody else and are now being told to work even longer.

These people are also cross because pensions in France are final salary-linked and, as they tend to be in lower paid jobs, as well as contributing for more years, they also get a smaller pension.

The people who get promoted to superior positions with higher salaries are cross because “final salary” used to mean the average of the final ten years but this is being extended to the last twenty years.

None of this, as you may have noticed, is actually caused by the raising of the retirement age. All of these “injustices” were present in the system already.

For comparison, in the UK, the pension age used to be 60 for women and 65 for men. It’s now being raised to 65, and potentially 66 for everybody. Previously, you had to work from the age of 21 to retirement age to get a full pension. Now you have to pay contributions for thirty years to get the basic amount, which is a sum and not a percentage, and if you pay for more years than this, you get an additional pension. (A clever way of presenting the facts that perhaps the French could learn from.) To my knowledge, no Molotov cocktails were thrown and no cars burned when these changes were introduced.

Now, I can understand why if I were approaching retirement age, had just learned that I would have to work for an extra two years and was extremely selfish, I might feel like striking against the French government’s reforms. Admittedly in a country with the best healthcare and one of the longest life expectancies in the world, these baby-boomers are quite clearly throwing the toys out of their luxury pram, but they got their thrills in ’68 and have apparently never experienced anything quite so memorable since, so at least their actions kind of make sense.

What I really don’t understand, though, is the school pupils who are destroying the fabric of society that is there to support them in the name of opposing reforms which, if successfully blocked, will allow the toy-throwers an endless life of ease, while the young pay ever-higher contributions in ever-lower paid jobs to support them. The fact that this is in any way seen as reasonable behaviour is a sign of a society that has become so blinded by its destructive way of operating that it doesn’t realise that, by opposing its government and vandalising its infrastructure, is actually destroying itself.

Anyway, having got that out of my system, I think I’ll go off and appreciate an evening of cuisine, conversation and culture in a country that is otherwise a very nice place to live in!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Burgundy at my Feet

Much as I love Paris in many ways, I'm not really a big-city girl. Deep down inside of me is a little girl who grew up in a country where the entire population is a lot lower than that of the world's great metropolises, in a capital city where fields, hills and beaches are never more than a short bus ride away. Part of surviving Paris, for me, is therefore finding as many opportunities and places to escape to as possible, and I was delighted to discover the other weekend that Burgundy fits the bill perfectly. We went to the town of Vézelay, two hours' drive from Paris, to walk in the countryside, taste the wine and visit the beautiful medieval buildings.

I had only ever seen the region from the motorway before, so I was surprised to find out that the seeminly endless landscape contains deep river valleys, lush greenery and interesting towns nestled among the rolling hills. The town of Vézelay itself is dominated by its basilica, perched on a high cliff overlooking the surrounding countryside. The backbone of the town stretches down the hill behind, with old, old buildings and as much French tradition as you could expect to find in one place.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk along the river, following the GR which leads to Avallon. We had also booked a wine tasting and were much amused by the fact that when the wines were described as made “in the traditional way” this actually meant that they were full of chemicals, unlike the organic versions which were also being sold. I wasn’t hugely impressed by any of them, so I just bought one bottle, of Melon, a rare variety of wine that is only produced in that region and also got a couple of pots of local honey.

As with most holidays in France, the food was definitely a highlight of the trip. Burgundy is the home of escargots and boeuf bourgignon, as well as producing some of the country's best wines (with or without chemical help!). The restaurant where we ate on Saturday night was called L’Auberge de la Coquille. It was situated right in the heart of the old town and the food was wonderful. For 19 euros, we had a four course meal that included: snails in garlic butter with parsley, meat in Bourgignon sauce for main course, a generous slice of gloriously runny cheese and a delicious sorbet with cassis to finish, all washed down with Irancy wine.

We were also amazed by just how friendly everybody we met in Bourgogne was. People went out of their way to offer us directions, point us on our way and generally check that we were ok. The waiters at the restaurant were not only polite but friendly and didn't seem to mind that we arrived an hour later than expected and ended up staying very late to appreciate their delicious food.

l arrived back in Paris very late on Sunday night desperate to get out and do it all again, so it's definitely good to know that, when I need to escape Paris next time, Burgundy is just down the road!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Vallée de la Chevreuse

On Sunday, I took the plunge and, following garage number 2's advice, took my car out for a long drive. Driving for more than half an hour meant going out of my comfort zone, away from the routes I know well enough to predict which lane to be in and even, for the first time, on to the motorway. Actually, it wasn't the first time. I drove on the motorway once before when the lane I was driving in suddenly turned into a slip road, but was able to get off it at the next exit before panic set in. But this was the first time I had intentionally driven on the motorway, so I armed myself with my trusty TomTom and a trusted friend and on the whole, it went pretty well. We did get a bit lost once and the TomTom did try to send us in the wrong direction at one point (one thing I've learned about these things is that when the voice and the picture contradict each other, you should always trust the picture), but my passenger's comment at the end was, "It wasn't as bad as I expected," so I count that as a success.

We visited the town of Chevreuse, not far from Versailles. The Vallée de la Chevreuse was gorgeous, with the streaks of sunlight streaming through the autumn leaves, and Chevreuse itself is very pretty. We walked past the lavoirs (old wash houses) and climbed the hill to the château, where there was a Breton fête going on to raise money for charity, then had lunch in an old-fashioned crêperie before getting back in the car to brave the journey home. I definitely still find driving stressful, but at least on days like this, the stress is balanced out by a relaxing afternoon somewhere beautiful!

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Boy Does Nothing

Looking at my visitor statistics for this blog, I have just learned the disconcerting fact that the vast majority of the people who stumble across my blog by way of Google had entered the search terms "looking for a marriage of convenience." I can't imagine that my blog comes very high on the list of results, but 30 persistent souls then clicked on the link to this post.

Judging by the fact that none of them has pursued their search any further by attempting to contact me, I can only assume that none of them were big fans of doing the housework. Ah well ...

Friday, 24 September 2010

Two Conversations

Mechanic at the garage of a French car manufacturer where the showroom is shiny, the mechanics are smooth and the famous daughter of the house is named Nicole:

“You car is very sick madam. We will need to replace the four very expensive parts. With the revisions recommended by the manufacturer (who happens to actually be our company) it will cost you 1500 euros to make it roadworthy. There is also a 100 euro charge for us telling you this.”

Mechanic at the independent garage around the corner from my house:

“There is nothing wrong with your car. All you need to do is drive it more. No, there is nothing to pay for the consultation. Here are your keys and have a nice day.”

Watch this space for some road-tripping stories!

In the meantime, I’m off to check the small print of my breakdown insurance …

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

On Being Accidentally Funny

Just as I hit "publish" on my previous post, it occurred to me that, under the circumstances, the title is even more apt than I had intended :-)

Confessions of a Walking Disaster

It was one of those days. In fact, it was two of those days. On Tuesday morning, I got up early because I had to drop my car off at the garage before going to work. The other weekend when I took my dear little Clio out for a drive, she was struggling to accelerate even when going downhill, so I had decided it was time for a visit to the car doctor.

When I got in the car, the key wouldn't turn in the ignition. The manual told me that it must be a problem with the battery, so I opened the bonnet, poked around with the battery, realised it was highly unlikely that I was going to solve the problem, closed the boot, tried the ignition again and then gave up and did what every self-respecting adult does in a mechanical emergency and called my dad. He didn't answer the phone, so I walked to the garage to cancel the appointment, was very relieved when they didn't laugh in my face and told me to call the breakdown assistance number from my insurance company and walked up the road just in time for work.

My day at work involved two malfunctioning computers, editing photocopies in which I discovered mistakes after I had walked about a million miles to the only functioning photocopier in the building and produced forty pages of the wrong thing and cleaning up some sick which an unfortunate child decided to deposit on the floor.

The day did get better after that, I must admit, and ended with a very agreeable evening in front of the TV watching Desperate Housewives and collecting advice from my Facebook friends on how to jump start a car. It would appear that I'm some kind of techie groupie because I got thirteen replies in the space of a few hours, mostly from people with engineering degrees but one from an archaeologist. To the archaeologist, I'm impressed with your all-round general knowledge and life skills!

Unfortunately, none of my expert friends was available in the immediate vicinity with a car and a set of jump leads, so this morning I decided to follow the garage's advice and phone the insurance company. This turned out to be much less stressful than I thought, although I did question my understanding of the French language for a minute when the woman on the other end of the phoneline asked me if I knew how to read text messages. Um, yes. The breakdown guy turned up right on time, got in the car, and turned the key in the ignition. The engine started immediately. He clearly thought I was a bit nuts but he was sweet and he said he liked my accent so I forgave him for clearly not believing that twenty minutes before, as well as every other time I had tried, the ignition had been completely blocked.

I drove the car to the garage, where they kindly agreed to look at it that day and offered to undertake some "revisions" of dubious necessity that were going to cost rather a lot of money. Having lost all faith in my ability to make technical judgements, I agreed to most of them and left.

I spent most of the afternoon on tenterhooks and didn't really feel any better when I got a phone call from the garage telling me that the total cost of the repairs to my car would be in the region of 1500 euros. Somewhat gobsmacked by this, I didn't really follow what the mechanic said next and had to phone them back two minutes later to check that they weren't going ahead with the costly revisions that I had agreed to that morning on a car that might be fit only for the scrap heap.

I collected the car from the garage at the end of the afternoon along with three pages detailing what needs to be done and why it's going to cost me 1500 euros. I had to take it home and translate it to find out that the major problem is with the throttle body and its attendant parts.

This is a dilemma, oh readers. Acquiring the car (from a friend) has so far cost me approximately 500 euros, which I could probably get back if I sold it as scrap. Buying a car of the same age and mileage would cost me at least 3000 euros (second hand cars are expensive here), so if I pay for the repairs and everything is OK, I'm still on to a good thing, especially as one of these 3000 euro cars could end up having all the problems that my current one has and cost just as much to repair. At the same time, it seems like an awful lot of money to spend on a car that in the UK would only be worth about 1800 pounds and which might just develop another problem as soon as I get this one fixed.

So, advice in the comments box please, readers. And if you haven't got any advice, just write and tell me that I am not a total walking disaster. If enough people say it, I might start to believe it even if it isn't true!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Musée du Quai Branly

Last Sunday was free museum day and my friends and I decided that it was a good opportunity to visit the Musée du Quai Branly, which is just along the Left Bank going up the river from the Eiffel Tower. We got a little bit distracted on the way by the fact that, despite the interdiction signs all around it, the Trocadero fountains were full of people paddling and even swimming and we took the opportunity to dip our feet in before continuing over the river to the museum.

The building is easily recognisable because its walls have plants growing out of them all the way up. You go in the entrance and walk along a winding path through the garden to the door of the building itself. In fact, winding is a good way to describe most of the building. The exhibits are on the first floor and you go up a meandering walkway on which words from many different languages are projected to make the shapes of a flowing river on the floor. The actual surface of the exhibition area is not all that big but they fit a lot of stuff in without making it feel crowded through innovative use of the space.

The objects themselves come from all the continents of the world apart from Antarctica and Europe and are the kind of thing you would expect to see in a museum of ethnography or anthropology - artefacts like tribal masks, totem poles and articles of clothing. They are presented, however, very much as works of art, with the explanations kept to a minimum. I really liked this, because I hate going to museums where you spend all your time reading the information and none of it actually looking at the exhibits.

My favourite section was definitely Oceania because the artwork was sort of primitive looking but very expressive at the same time. I wished I had lump of clay or some wood to carve so that I could make something similar myself. There is a special exhibition on at the moment about the River Congo but we didn't go to that, partly because the queue was enormous and partly because we felt we'd already seen enough. That's the great thing about free Sunday - you haven't paid a fortune to get in so you can look at exactly what you want and leave without feeling guilty!

If you don't laugh ...

I was talking to a French friend today about the town where I went to university and the fact that, because the nights are so short in the north of Scotland, we used to always get woken up by noisy birds in the small hours of the morning. What I wanted to say was, "A Aberdeen il y a beaucoup de mouettes qui crient très fort à trois heures du matin." ("In Aberdeen there are lots of seagulls who scream really loudly at 3 o'clock in the morning.")

What I actually said was, "A Aberdeen, il y a beaucoup de muettes qui crient très fort à trois heures du matin." English translation: "In Aberdeen, there are lots of dumb girls* who scream really loudly at 3 o'clock in the morning."

The puzzled expression on my friend's face was confirmation enough that, once again, I had been caught out by these darn French vowel sounds. Sometimes I'm so ridiculous I even crack myself up.

*Dumb in the sense of being unable to speak. If it had been the other meaning, it would actually have been true.

Monday, 16 August 2010


Hello blog, it’s been a while! But that’s ok, because I’m just back in Paris after spending a whole month in my favourite part of the world – the wonderful area in the south east of France and the north of Italy where there is sun, mountains, lakes, delicious food and lots of amazing things to do - and I have lots of adventures to tell you about.

The first week, I went with a group of friends to the Alps. We stayed in a friend’s holiday home in a tiny hamlet on a perilously twisty road that in winter is only accessible on cross country skis. The area is a rock-climber’s paradise, so inevitably even the “easy” walking was also somewhat vertical. Despite our aching muscles, we had a fabulous time and managed to fit in lots of great eating (tarte aux myrtilles, crêpes, home-made cake, enormous group dinners and a barbecue), drinking (especially génépy, a local delicacy that’s similar to Italian grappa), lake-swimming and view-admiring (photography stops are a great excuse for a breather!) as well as the strenuous exercise.

Then it was back to Paris to do laundry and pack my bags for Italy – posts about that will be appearing on my other blog soon!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Tour de France

I saw the almost-end of the Tour de France by accident today. I was on my way to the bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli when it gradually dawned on me that the hoards of people and the fact that the road was closed off were not merely symptoms of Paris in the summer but a sign that the world's most famous cycle race was about to speed past my very eyes. People were already gathering at one o'clock but I got my shopping done and managed to find a space standing on a bollard from where I could just about see over everybody else's heads just after four. At around half past four, a great cheer rose up from the crowds and the first group of cyclists went past. They were so fast it was literally a blur. Under normal circumstances, these guys would be way over the speed limit. They were followed by a whole load of cars with bits of bikes spinning away on the roofs, then the next group arrived. I only meant to stay to watch the first group but there was something captivating about the speed and the effort and the concentration of the cyclists. And the fact that these guys have been doing this for three whole weeks. Amazing.

Bridging the Gap

In France, when a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, people often take the Monday or the Friday off work to allow them to have a 4 day weekend. This is called a pont (bridge). I only learned this year, however, that when the holiday falls on a Wednesday and the weekend is extended even further by taking two days off, the metaphor is also extended (literally and metaphorically!) and the extra days become a viaduc.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Celebrating le 14 juillet

The 14th of July is France’s Fête Nationale. In English, it’s often called Bastille Day but the French don’t really use that name. Because they like to refer to actual dates (they even use historically significant ones as street names, perhaps as a way to back up the French school system, where the teaching of good hard facts is still at the heart of the curriculum), they often just call it le 14 juillet too.

Anyway, the great thing about le 14 juillet is that you can actually start celebrating it on the 13th, so it’s basically a 2 day party. And if you are lucky enough to live in Paris, you get to party with the firemen. Tradition has it that , on the evening of the 13th and sometimes the 14th too, the Parisian fire stations are opened up to the public for the Bals des Pompiers (which translates rather nicely into English as Firemen’s Balls ;-) ) I went with a group of friends to the one in the 18ième (Montmartre). We started off at the Ristorante Pulcinella for some delicious pasta and Barbera d’Alba. Living in France has clearly brainwashed me, because I had forgotten just how good Italian food and wine can be and I’m now even more excited about heading back to Italy in August. Then we went down to the fire station, where we were lucky not to have to queue for long to get in and were greeted by lots of lovely firemen looking muscular and heroic and collecting donations from everybody as they went in. To be honest though, after that, we might have been just about anywhere, as most of the firemen were either serving drinks or standing around watching the crowds of ordinary people as we danced. There was a rumour that there would be a strip-tease later, but we didn’t stay long enough to see it. The parties go on until 4am and there was a massive queue when we left about midnight, so I’d be prepared to believe that things would have heated up later on, but we got kind of bored of shuffling around to 80’s music and the last train home was calling. It was fun while we lasted, though, and I’d definitely go again, especially as different fire stations have different kinds of parties, with different music and so on.

Inside the Fire Station

Big Red Shiny Fire Engine

On the 14th itself, I was supposed to be going to a picnic, followed by watching the fireworks at 11pm, but the picnic had to be called off because of the massive thunderstorms that raged all morning and most of the afternoon, so we ended up in a bar instead. It cleared up in time for the fireworks, though, which we watched from the Pont Alexandre III and which were spectacular. I was surprised, however, by how quiet it was. Despite the massive crowds, everyone was just standing around talking quietly, and when it was all over, most people seemed to just head home. I guess that’s (one side of) France for you though – quiet and restrained even at a national party

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Driving on the Right Side of the Road

As lots of you already know, I got my first car a couple of weeks ago. Yep, first EVER car and, as with so many other things in life, I ended up making it even more complicated/scary/exciting by doing it in France. (It also happened through a kind of exchange involving 3 people, two cars and three countries, with none of the car owners actually living in the country where the car was registered, but with a bit of effort on everyone's parts, that ended up working out just fine, so thank you to those involved!) Anyway, the car has now arrived and, after 4 trips to the garage and 6 hours at the prefecture, is now officially mine.

I passed my driving test a couple of years ago in the UK. After that, I drove my mum's car a few times on quiet country roads, moved to Italy, where even being in the passenger seat is terrifying, and then came to France, so I was a little bit apprehensive about actually gettting in my little Clio and driving, especially on the wrong side of the road while sitting on the wrong side of the car. In fact though, I think that my lack of driving experience has actually been a benefit here: I'm used to having to think about where things are rather than doing it automatically, so it's fine. I thought it might be weird that, while you move the gear stick with the other hand, the gears are actually in the same position, so you pull the stick towards you to get first, but actually that seems to make sense when you actually do it. The other thing I like about the gears is that reverse is to the left of first gear and to get it, you have to go into neutral and pull up a button on the gear stick, so you definitely know when your car is about to go backwards. As someone who has always had an irrational fear of going for fifth and somehow finding myself heading backwards down the motorway ( I know this could never happen, but it doesn't stop me being scared of it), I really appreciate that button. If anybody ever drives a Renault in France, this may turn out to be useful information, as my friends recently bought a Twingo and it took them a while in a multistorey carpark to work out how to find reverse.

I have had a couple of scary split seconds coming out of junctions and aiming for the left hand side of the road, but only on quiet streets with nobody around, which I think is where this is more likely to be a problem, because there are no signs or other traffic to remind you. I hope so at least ... The hardest thing for me has actually been adapting to speeds in kilometres per hour. In town, the norm is 45 but sometimes it's 30 and I always forget that actually 30 km/h is really, really slow. It also makes it harder to know what gear to be in, as the rules I learned from my instructor don't work, and although obviously you're supposed to listen to the engine, I do use the rules to predict what I'm going to want to do next.

So far, my driving has been limited to very early morning practice drives, a couple of trips to work, some visits to the garage and an embarrassing moment with an old man helping me to reverse into a space in the underground carpark at Carrefour with lots of people looking on, but in fact I don't really need the car for short local journeys. What I'm really excited about is being able to go on trips out into the countryside, to the beach and to the mountains. Just a bit more practice and a lot more confidence needed before then...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Picnicking in Paris

I know that before I lived in Paris I ate picnics. In fact, I have picknicked in places as diverse as the Circus Maximus in Rome to the sound of Live Otto with firemen spraying water us to cool us down and the top of a Scottish mountain in January, where your biggest worry is whether the water has frozen in your bottle and how to get enough calories down your throat before your fingers freeze off. But I don't think I ever picnicked as I have been doing in Paris ever since the sun began to contemplate coming out a couple of months ago. Before, having a picnic was a way to eat a meal without having to go home or pay extortionate prices in a restaurant. In my Parisian life, a picnic is an event, or possibly an activity, a bit like the way that in the UK going to the pub is a hobby rather than something you do because you want to buy a drink.

Here's the lowdown on the places I've discovered so far:

The Pont des Arts, the pedestrian bridge over the Seine opposite the Académie Française is popular but relaxed. You can sit on the wooden boards watching the sunset over the river and wave at the people on the cruise boats down below. (We had a very international picnic here, followed dancing the tarantella at Place d'Italie and eating proper Italian ice cream. The Italian festival has finished now but I definitely recommend it for next year!)

The Ile de la Cité: the western quai of the island seems to be popular and looks very beautiful but one of my friends claims she saw a rat there once, so the Pont des Arts is probably safer!

The Bois de Vincennes turned out to be a less good place for a hike than my walking guidebook would have had me believe, but the Allée Royale has a stunning view of the castle and would be great for a big group picnic with lots of games.

The Terrasse de Saint-Germain-en-Laye also has amazing views, this time of the river Seine and the skyscrapers at La Défense. For variety, hiking, cycling and shade, there is also the enormous forest just behind.

The Champ de Mars is also supposed to be a cool place of an evening but I haven't been yet so I'll let you know!

Thursday, 24 June 2010


Jacques Tati has a very special place in my heart. When I was little, my mum took me to see Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, and it is my first ever memory of laughing so hard that I actually cried.

Tati is a French film director who was born in 1907 and died in 1982. His father was Franco – Russian and his mother was Dutch – Italian. His film Jour de Fête was one of the first full length colour films ever made, although it initially came out in black and white because of costs. (Thank you, Wikipedia). Thanks to the Edinburgh Filmhouse, I’ve seen most of his major films and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is definitely the funniest, being almost pure slapstick, while the others are more gentle comedies.

L’Illusioniste is based on an screenplay of Tati’s that was left unfinished when he died. The film has been turned into an animation by Sylvain Chomet, the director of Les Triplets de Belleville (Belleville Rendez-Vous in English), and while the slapstick comedy is less funny than it would be if it had been acted by the man himself, the animation is very faithful to Tati’s style. I was particularly delighted to find out that most of the film takes place in Scotland and takes the mickey out of Teuchters and Edinburghers alike (so it will no doubt be a resounding success at the Filmhouse…) Without giving away too much, I can say that it is funny, nostalgic and sad and everybody should go and see it, because films this good don’t come out very often. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Music At My Feet

June is an amazing month in France. In theory at least, the sun comes out and suddenly every mairie and association is organizing outdoor events, generally for free, all over the place.

Parc Floral

Last weekend, my friend was visiting Paris and she and her friends invited me to a jazz concert at the Parc Floral in the Bois de Vincennes. Vincennes is one of these little Parisian suburban towns with a park and a château and dinky little versions of expensive Parisian shops on its high street. The castle is impressive in its vastness and appeared to be a prime spot for wedding pictures, as it was dotted with posing couples and small girls in big dresses.

You have to pay to get into the Parc Floral but the concert was free. It was a little bit cold and wet for an outdoor concert, so we kept having to move between the seats that were well and truly under the cover of the bandstand and the ones on the outside that occasionally caught a glimpse of sunshine between the thundery showers. The jazz was good, though.

On Sunday, I met up with the same friend and her friend, this time for a Chopin concert in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Unfortunately, I wasn’t listening to the instructions properly and spent the first half in the Tuileries instead, but, this being a French concert, all I really missed was the pompous speeches at the beginning. 2010 is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth and there is a whole series of these concerts in the gardens to celebrate.

Sunset in Paris

Finally, on Monday night, it was the famous Fête de la Musique, always held on the first day of summer, where as well as organized events, musicians of all kinds descend on to the streets to perform for anybody who wants to listen and many people who don’t. I went to see the wonderful Kila (trad music gone modern) at the Irish Cultural Institute, then wandered the streets with my friends for a while listening to bands of varying quality performing covers of old rock songs of varying quality. I decided to be good and headed back to suburbia for an early night, only to discover that the streets of my hometown had been taken over by lycée bands and their adolescent groupies and that several of them were trying to perform hard rock on a far to efficient sound system outside my bedroom window. The moral of the story? Never come home from Paris early, as at least the culture there is genuine and the participants have left high school.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Aperitivo Italiano a Parigi

On Friday night, my Italian friends and I went for aperitivo Italian style at Miroglio Caffè on the rue St Martin. The prices were steeper than even the priciest bar I ever went to in Milan, and the plates were smaller, but the drinks, the buffet and the staff were all authentic enough. If, like me, you ever feel the need for a bit of Italian culture and a spritz Aperol in between visits to the boot, this could be a good way to satisfy it.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Do You Hear the People Sing?

A long time ago, when I was a very young girl (well, not that young, and probably old enough to know better), I thought musicals were great. All of them. While other girls my age were lusting over Take That, me and some of my friends (who shall remain nameless to protect their pride) were singing along to Michael Ball and knew all the harmonies in The Sound of Music.

I have grown wiser since then. I've realised that Michael Ball is cheesy, that the lyrics of Miss Saigon don't scan and that making millions by turning the story of Jesus Christ into a piece of light entertainment is inappropriate to say the least. But I haven't abandoned my love of musicals completely. I'm just more selective about what I like.

One of the musicals that I not only still like but also appreciate as a work of art is Les Misérables, so when my friend and I saw that it was coming to the Théâtre de Châtelet, we decided to buy tickets straight away. The French are not that into musicals (the only one that has enjoyed long-running success here is, bizarrely, The Lion King) and although the original version of Les Misérables was in French, it was only when Cameron Mackintosh's English language production opened in London that it became a huge success. The version playing at Châtelet is in English, with French subtitles, although a French translation of the English version also exists.

The production is amazing. Somehow, the show's creators have managed to distill Victor Hugo's 5 volume novel into a couple of hours of theatre and still convey both the essentials of the story and the complexity of the characters. The scenery and use of special effects is also innovative without being too obviously technical for the story.

As an added bonus, if you go out to the theatre terrace during the interval of the evening performance, you can drink a glass of champagne while watching the sunset over Notre Dame, the Théâtre des Halles and the Tour Saint Jacques. Definitely an experience not to be missed!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Travels in the Land of Sea, Sand and Cider

By a curious coincidence, or perhaps bad planning, or rather, good planning, I've spent the last two weekends on the Normandy coast.

The first weekend I went to Trouville and Deauville, which are two separate towns so close that they actually share a train station. Deauville is where swanky Parisians go for their weekends at the seaside and is rather posh. Trouville, on the other side of the river, is not quite so posh. Naturally, I stayed in Trouville, at the excellent campsite where, if you get a good spot, you can unzip your tent door in the morning and get a fabulous view over the sea before scrambling down to the beach for an early morning swim. Having bought my tent for 25 euros in Decathlon the weekend before, and given that my last recent purchases from said shop include the bike with the dodgy brakes and an inflatable mattress that automatically deflated itself in the course of the night, I was rather relieved to wake up each morning and find that the tent was still standing. Despite many early expereinces swimming in the North sea and off the west coast of Scotland, I wasn't actually brave enough to dive into the water first thing in the morning, but we did manage a swim on Sunday afternoon and it actually felt quite warm! We spent most of the rest of the weekend wandering on the beach, barbecueing, picnicking and drinking cider, which in Normandy is considered to be a soft drink.

The next weekend, I found myself admiring the cliffs at Etretat, which are the French version of the white cliffs of Dover. The rock is so vulnerable to the relentless attack of the sea that all along the coast there are natural arches and vertiginous precipices. Unfortunately, I left the memory card for my camera in the computer that weekend, so you'll either have to imagine it or Google it.

I like Normandy a lot. It's green and pretty and looks like the countryside, and it has the kind of vast, sandy beaches that I remember from my childhood, but a few degrees warmer. I'm not sure it would be healthy for me to stay there for long though – along with the cider, the local specialities are cream, cheese and calvados, and I enjoyed them all!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

One of the certainties of life...

... is paying taxes. While it may, as my friend with socialist leanings likes to remind me, a privilege to do so, actually carrying out the process is a pain. In the UK, the pain of paying taxes is a little stab of regret when you see the figure that was automatically deducted from your salary, in France you have to fill out a form telling them how much you've earned just for the pleasure of being sent an enormous bill afterwards.

As well as your salary, you have to declare other sources of income, including interest on foreign bank accounts. If the interest was paid in another currency, you have to convert it using the exchange rates from the Paris Bourse for the day that it was paid into your account.

Without the wonder that is the internet, I don't know how I would ever have found all this information out, but thanks to modern technology, I am now nearly ready to sit back and enjoy the privilege of contributing to society. Ahh, the satisfaction.