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.