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!