Thursday, 22 December 2011

La Butte aux Cailles

Having a virtual rummage this afternoon through my ridiculously large photo archive, I came across these photos, which I took a couple of months ago on a grey Sunday afternoon in Paris and which I meant to share but then completely forgot about.

With nothing better to do, Understanding Frenchman and I decided that it was time for me to discover a new corner of Paris and, as I have something of a penchant for climbing hills, we took the metro to La Butte aux Cailles in the 13th.

La Butte aux Cailles has a bit of a Montmartresque feel to it, but without the tourists, the bracelet sellers and the Amelie Poulain overkill. It's an arty area which looks a bit scruffy and rough around the edges but, like everywhere in Paris, it's an expensive kind of rough around the edges. (Out of sheer curiosity, I was browsing the Parisian property websites the other night. 180 000 euros for a 17-square metre studio anyone?)If you like altitude, the Butte itself is also a little disappointing - unlike the Butte de Montmartre and the Buttes Chaumont, it has almost no view.

Before I start sounding too negative though, there was one thing about the Butte aux Cailles that I found very cool, and that was the street art that was peeling in an expensively scruffy way off many of the walls. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here are the photos:






The writing on this one translates as, "With love, time passes by quickly. With time, love passes by less often."


And finally, there was this surrealist optician's sign with shades of The Great Gatsby:


Someone is watching you!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Brussels (but not Sprouts)

When I first lived in France (9 years ago!), waiting for a train to somewhere or other, I used to look up at the departures board in the stations in wonder, amazed at the fact that it was possible to travel across international borders by rail. Coming from the northern part of an island nation, going abroad for me almost automatically implied taking an aeroplane and the idea of speeding across Europe on a train seemed to belong to another era, one where the carriages had compartments and porters loaded one's trunk into the guard's wagon. And in an age when Ryanair and Easyjet have increasingly taken over the skies, international train travel has retained a mystique for me that flying never had.

It's even better if you can go first class, of course. And better still if your first class ticket is free.

This weekend, Understanding Frenchman and I decided to go and visit friends of his in Brussels. We were able to buy tickets with our railcard loyalty points and, as it happened, only first class seats were available. And first class on the Thalys is indeed first class. Uniformed staff welcome you on board. Every seat has free WiFi and a power socket. If you travel at dinner time, you get a meal brought to your seat, along with drinks and a small bar of Belgian chocolate. And so we arrived in Brussels in good spirits and good style.

Every time I'd ever been to Belgium before, it rained. This time, though, the skies were blue and the temperatures bitingly cold. We had lunch in town, then went to see an exhibition of watercolours of the city. There was a Christmas light show on the Grande Place which we caught some of, then we attempted to brave the Christmas market but it was to cold and too crowded, so we decided to go home, stopping off for Nutella waffles on the way. (Belgium is definitely a country it would be easy to get fat in.)

I liked Brussels more this time round than I have before, partly because of the weather, but also because it's a great place to visit at Christmas time. The Belgians have already celebrated Saint Nicholas' Day and there are beautiful decorations everywhere (far more than in Paris, which seems to think itself largely above such friviolities). Definitely worth the trip, and not only if you can go for free!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Sorry Secret of the Champs Elysees

In cash-strapped times, and not long after Paris lost out to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, can it really be a coincidence that what was once the Ville des Lumieres now has Christmas decorations that look like this?







Sunday, 27 November 2011

Going Out in Paris, Day and Night

Two interesting new places I've discovered in the last couple of weeks:

La Bellevilloise is a bar/cafe/restaurant and concert venue in the 20th arondissement, which used to be the working class distict of the city but has come up in the world and now sells its brand of shabby chic at expensive Parisian prices. It's an interesting area, though, with lots of hidden treasures and secret places to walk. We went for the Bellevilloise everything- you- can- eat brunch, a cosy way to spend a Sunday afternoon in December, especially if you never want to feel like eating again, but it would also be a fun place for a night out, as it has different areas with concerts and exhibitions as well as the restaurant part.

Le Bataclan is another concert venue, where I went to see the Irish-American trad/punk band Flogging Molly on Saturday night. It's a good size for a concert, with enough space for a large audience but not so big that you end up being too far away from the band. There were seats available on the balcony, then down in the stalls was the standing room/dancefloor section. I didn't know much about the music before I went but the concert was a lot of fun and there was a real atmostphere, with lots of audience participation, dancing, crowd-surfing and pogo-ing going on. Sometimes there's so much on in Paris that it's hard to choose what to see, but this is a venue I'll definitely be adding to my list of places worth checking out again.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Deutschlandreise 2011: No Borders


Along with analysing international motoring rules, another one of my geeky hobbies is collecting walking European borders that I've walked across. I get a particular thrill out of this experience if I can collect a naff photograph on the way.

I've done Germany to Poland (tight passport control in both directions), Italy to Slovenia (indecipherable signposts and strange food) and France to Switzerland (literally just a step over an imaginary line if you choose the right place):


But in Germany, I was destined to be disappointed. We drove south-west of Munich to the small and picturesque town of Fuessen (where the streets are lined with shops selling Lederhosen and you suspect there is probably a genuine market for them) and, at my request, our host agreed to drive us a couple of kilometres up the road to Austria.

An EU sign with the ring of golden stars proudly told us that we were heading in the right direction, but at the border itself, the best sign we could find was on this old building:

If you look really carefully, you can see the lettering telling travellers that this used to be the customs house.

But in the days of Schengen, the only legible indication that you are crossing a frontier is the sign a little bit further back that reminds you that on Austrian motorways, unlike on those of their neighbours, there's a speed limit.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Deutschlandreise 2011: Die Baeckerei

In the past, I've been surprised a couple of times when German friends living in France have said that one of the things they miss most about home is the bread. Isn't Germany famous for its beer and sausages and France for its baguettes and croissants? Isn't German bread that weird black stuff that looks as though it would send all but the strongest teutonic intestines into spasms for days?

But now, having been a house guest in 3 different German homes, I understand.

(Are three German friends enough to keep me safe if the euro actually does end up going down the tubes?)

German bread is awesome. They have bakeries on every corner where the shelves groan with doughy delicacies. There are granary breads and sesame breads and poppy breads. There are breads with cheese and breads with bacon and breads with cheese and bacon. And there are pretzels, gorgeously browned on the outside, soft and white on the inside and sprinkled with chunky salt crystals.

If the wine and the cheese were up to the same standard, I'd seriously be thinking about moving over the border.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Deutschlandreise 2011: Die Autobahn

There are two public holidays in France in November. Both are somewhat sombre in their origins: one, the 1st, is All Saints Day and the other, the 11th, is Armistice Day.

Not being particularly bothered about going to the cemetery to visit our dead relatives at the beginning of the month, Understanding Frenchman and I took a four day weekend and went to Germany instead.

We flew into Munich airport and a friend picked us up to drive us to his house near Augsburg and it was time for our first famously German experience: travelling at 180km per hour down the motorway. I've been to Germany several times, but this was the first time I had been on the open road in a car, and it was an excellent opportunity to gather further food to fuel my obsession with cross-cultural driving comparisons. (And yes, I understand that not everybody shares this particular interest. Hold out for the next post if you want to know about something less nerdy.)

My first impression was that it didn't actually feel that fast. Perhaps it's the design of the roads, or perhaps it's because German drivers don't sit up backside the of the car in front nearly as much as their Gallic neighbours, but it all seemed pretty safe. Also, unlimited is only the de-restricted speed-limit and their are lots of places where you have to stick to 120 or less. Finally, they have electronic signs which vary the speed limit according to the traffic, so you would never be able to do 200km/h if it was really busy or there was a traffic jam up ahead.

I wasn't totally convinced, however, that being able to travel at such high speeds was a massive benefit. The combination of stretches with speed limits, the fact you have to give way to a person who is pulling out in front of you means that you have to be able to accelerate pretty fast to take full advantage or the rule. My little Clio and all the similar cars I see on the roads in France would just never make it.

Which I guess explains why the Germans have a thriving automobile industry and tend to drive really big cars.

Out of the Comfort Zone

As the cold weather sets in and the nights grow darker, I have been buying carpets for my chilly flat, digging out my warm pyjamas, resurrecting a herbal tea habit and thinking a lot about French attitudes to comfort. I'm starting to notice that they're different.

It began with comfort food. The concept doesn't really exist here. Food is for fuel, food is for socialising, food is for pleasure, but it won't cheer you up on a dark night as you snuggle up on your lonely sofa.

And then coffee shops. When I was in my teens, Starbucks and Costa were booming in the UK precisely because you could spend your whole afternoon sprawled over a comfy armchair, chatting to your friends. In a Parisian coffee shop, you are nose to nose with your companions and elbow to elbow with strangers, sitting on a hard chair. It's great for intense intellectual conversation or people watching, but not exactly like the comfort of your living room with better beverages and no washing up. But then in France, the coffee is small, dark and energising and the women seem to have far fewer friends to catch up with.

And that made me think, perhaps the concept of comfort just isn't that valued here. The wordconfort exists, but it isn't often used with a spiritual connotation. I had to look up the translation for "cosy", perhaps because it's not a very common word. (It's douillet, in case you're wondering.)

Today, in search of some good old Anglo-Saxon mollycoddling, I abandoned my consumer and gastronomic principles and went to Starbucks for a caramel latte. But guess what?

Starbucks in Paris doesn't have any sofas.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Why the Urban Jungle is Greener

I recently read an article about how, for the first time in decades, the amount of material "stuff" consumed per capita in Great Britain has fallen over the past ten years. One of the reasons which was suggested for this was that more and more people are living in towns and cities.

While at first it might be counter-intuitive to say that urban living is more environmentally friendly than a rural idyll, it actually makes sense. Living in close contact means that you can share resources with more people. An obvious example would be public transport. Unpleasant as it may be for those involved, cramming a hundred people shoulder to shoulder in a train carriage is far more economical than each of these people driving their own car. Another is living in an apartment block. In terms of heating, postal deliveries and refuse collection (to name but a few), having everyone close together makes whole systems vastly more efficient.

The downside, of course, is that when personal space can be measured in millimetres rather than kilometres, a much higher degree of patience, tolerance and consideration is required. Country people often have the reputation of being friendlier than city-dwellers, but I suspect this is only because human contact is a luxury for them and not an imposition. While in the country reaching out to others is not only polite, but can be essential, in a large, cramped city, the best courtesy you can offer your neighbour is not to wake him up too early in the morning or jostle him on the metro.

This evening, as I queued patiently for the privilege of walking up the stairs to the exit of the RER station*, I reflected on all of the above and glowed with a sense of economical and environmental virtue.

* Incidentally, what is it with all these people who stand still on the escalators in the metro and the RER? Are they really so lazy that, even with an enormous queue behind them and a perfectly functional pair of legs, they actually prefer to spend a larger part of their day than is strictly necessary in the corridors of the Paris public transport system? And as for the people that stand on the left and stop everyone else from walking up, perhaps I can now accuse them of social and environmental misdemeanour, as opposed to just driving me nuts...

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Autumn in The Mountains

One of the things I love about France is the changing seasons. Unlike in my beloved homeland, and despite the best efforts of global climate change, French seasons largely behave in the way they're supposed to, with warmth and sunshine for at least a reasonable part of the summer and, in the past few years at least, even a proper fall of snow at some point during the winter. One of the best things about this is that there are at least a few weeks when you can appreciate a proper autumn before the worst of the winter chills and rains set in, and there is no better place to do so than in the French Alps. The following photos were taken a couple of weeks ago, when the trees were golden, red and brown, the low sun was shining through the leaves and the first snow had just started to fall.















It was cold enough for tartiflette and a wood fire in the hearth at night (and for a slightly hairy incident involving black ice on a mountain road, which was nevertheless less hairy than seeing an old couple drive the wrong way round a roundabout, provoking me to panic that my British instincts had taken over and that it was me that was going in the wrong direction), but warm enough to soak up the last of the sunshine during the day.






Now, as November kicks in and the mists of northern France smother Paris in a grey blanket, the beautiful French October weather seems a very long way away already!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Why the Good Thing About France Might be the French

Often, in expat blogs, interviews and conversations, foreigners living in France are asked what they like about the country. Generally, the replies include food, wine and some combination of the weather, the fashion or the scenery.

I think I have yet to see in writing an example of a foreigner mentioning the French.

Read or listen to expat rants, however, and you will soon lose track of how often the judgement "that's so French"is made in relation to bad manners, bad customer service, bad administration and pretty much any other bad thing you can think of. Given that many of the ranters are people who have expressly chosen to live here, it makes you wonder why we don't all just head back home.

It's as if we all believe that oft-quoted saying about how France would be a lovely country if it wasn't for the French.

(I don't have an awful lot of experience to go on, but I suspect this is less true for foreigners in other countries. Italians are friendly and hospitable, Americans are endlessly positive and even the British get praised in a wry kind of way for their sense of humour.)

I've been pondering the reasons for this for quite a while now and the only explanation I can come to is that it's precisely because so many of us choose to live here, as opposed to being forced by circumstances, that we are so critical: we're continually asking ourselves if we've made the right choice.

Anyway, it seems to me that this situation is very sad, that we whiners are being very rude to our hosts in our endless criticisms, and that it's time to start giving the French credit where credit is due. So here's a challenge: what are the best things you can think of about living among the French, with no buts, althoughs or if only-s allowed? (I know that this will be highly over-generalised and potentially patronising, but at least it's in a positive way!)

Here are some of mine:

The French value intellect: in this country, reading, going to museums, speaking foreign languages and watching Arte instead of reality TV are activities to be admired and will not have you exiled from the society around you for being a snob.

The French know how to drink enough to lubricate the machinery of social interaction without binge-drinking. (And yes, the wine is pretty good too!)

The French love their language. Ask them to explain a grammatical point to you and this is one moment when you are very unlikely to witness a Gallic shrug. When you can understand their wordplay, it gets even better.

The French value peace and quiet. And if people are disturbing that, they won't hesitate to tell them so.

Those are a few to start with. What are yours?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Finally!

The other day, I was introduced by an English-speaking friend to a French couple that she knew. We chatted for a while and, at some point in the conversation, I must have mentioned something about Scotland. The French man looked at me a little quizzically.

"So, are both your parents Scottish, then?" he asked. "Tu es arrivée en France à quel âge?"

And he looked somewhat surprised when I told him that yes, both my parents are anglophone, and I first lived here at the ripe old age of 21.

It might not sound like much, but while people are often impressed by my written French, I don't really learn well by listening and find it hard to pick up an accent. The result is that I can see feminine plural agreements in my head even when they're not there in speech and conjugate written verbs better than many French people but have only recently learned to hear the difference between antérieur and intérieur and that the r at the end of Monsieur is not pronounced, ever. After 4 years of feeling like I'm screaming "I'm a foreigner" every time I open my mouth, being able to surprise someone with my 100% non-French origins and upbringing felt like a major milestone!




Sunshine!


The weather gods have been capricious this year. The spring was gorgeous, but almost as soon as the school holidays started, the rain began to fall and in July I spent a week in the south-west wishing I'd packed more fleece jumpers and less sunscreen. The past ten days, though, have more than made up for that, with maximum temperatures of 25 - 30 degrees every single day.

This weekend, we were lucky enough to be once again in Brittany, where we explored new sections of the Sentier des Douaniers, which goes all the way around the Breton coastline, and swam in the sea both days. The water wasn't warm, but it was warm enough and, with it being just after the autumn equinox, the big waves more than made up for the bracing temperatures. It reminded me a lot of swimming in the sea as a child in Scotland, where the water is always chilly but we always had too much fun to care.

Phare Breton
(Not the same as Far Breton, which is a kind of cake)

Swimming Beach

Last weekend was more sedate: we had lunch on a barge on the Seine (nice but somewhat expensive) on Saturday, followed by a picnic in the park on Sunday. I love the sun!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Le Figaro published an article yesterday about this map, which shows the stations and lines on the Paris metro and RER with the highest incidences of theft and violent theft.

Anyone who knows Paris is unlikely to be surprised by the statistics. Suburban lines in the north an east are significantly more dangerous than those in the south and west, Paris Nord is the most dangerous mainline station and Chatelet-les-Halles tops the list for metro and RER interchanges.

There are some oddities, however. Paris-Est has a higher total of thefts than Paris-Nord but those at the Gare du Nord are far more often violent. Nation and the Gare de Lyon both show high levels of violent thefts but don't figure on the list for non-violent thefts and bag snatching. (Nation is the only station where I've ever caught anyone trying to pick my pockets, but when I turned around and caught the guy in the act he just apologised for "bumping into"me.) Meanwhile, at Montparnasse and Saint-Michel, you might lose your wallet but are unlikely to get hurt in the process.

The figures for Chatelet-les-Halles, with 409 violent thefts and 1245 non-violent, particularly stand out. That's an average of more than one violent and almost 4 non-violent robberies per day. On the other hand, they need to be put in perspective. The metro carries more than 4 million people per day, while the RER has 2.7 million passengers. Even standing in one of the city centre stations at rush hour, with trains with a capacity of over 1000 passengers going by every one or two minutes, that's hard to imagine. I haven't done the exact maths, but a rough estimate suggests that in fact the chances of being victim of a crime at any of Paris's stations, or at least of a crime serious enough to report, is actually extremely low. Here's hoping I'm right!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Journées du Patrimoine


Saturday and Sunday were the Journées du Patrimoine here in France, meaning that hundreds of important buildings and institutions across the country opened their doors to the public. One of the joys of living in a capital city on occasions like this is that you get to see the really important stuff and we chose one of the most important places of all: the Assemblée Nationale, which is the French version of the House of Commons.

We went at lunchtime, meaning that the queue was a not too ridiculous 45 minutes long, including the security check. You had to shuffle round in a prescribed order, essentially going at the speed of everybody else who was visiting, although it was possible to stop to take photos.

What was a little bit disappointing was that, while the actual debating chamber is quite large, only a bit of it was opened to the public, and although you could see all the rest, there was only time to snap a quick picture before they hurried you on to let more people in.



Cool things included the Assembly Post Office, where you can send mail with themed stamps and a special postmark, and these little caricature sculptures of famous people linked with the Assembly. Jean-Marie Fruchard was clearly not too popular!



There were also busts of Marianne, whose official face used to change every year until that became too complicated and they settled on the version that is used today.

I took the opportunity to revise my (very limited) knowledge of French government and elections. The deputies at the Assembly are directly elected. Cabinet ministers do not have to be voted in as deputies but are appointed by the President, who is elected separately in a presidential election. It is not impossible, or even uncommon, to have ministers with important portfolios who have never won a public election.

The Assembly can have a vote of no confidence in the executive (the president and the government ministers), but this is generally a symbolic way of demonstrating opposition and the executive is rarely actually overthrown. The president, on the other hand, has the power to dissolve the Assembly. Jacques Chirac did this in 1997, but unfortunately for him, the majority of the newly elected Assembly that followed was in opposition to him. A large part of the agenda for debate is set by the government, meaning that the executive has a lot of power.

The Upper House in France is the Sénat, whose members are indirectly elected by locally elected officials. Like the Assembly, the Senate can submit bills to the government and also amend them, although if the Senate disagrees with the Assembly, the government can decided to give the power to decide solely to the Assembly. As a foreigner living in France, however, the process for electing the senators was interesting to me because, as I have the right to vote locally but not nationally, it offers the only opportunity (albeit indirectly) to have a say in national politics. Looks like I might have to develop an interest in local elections after all!


Monday, 12 September 2011

Inefficiency or In Efficiency?

The other day, I had a terrible realisation. I needed an official document in order to attend an important appointment on Monday morning. To obtain the document, I needed to make an appointment with another agency and provide some personal data. The data would need to be processed before the document could be supplied. It was Thursday, the second appointment was on Monday morning and there was no way I could take time off work, so I essentially needed the initial appointment to take place within 24 hours, outside the normal working day, and for the information to be processed within 48 hours of me supplying it.

What were the chances?

Within ten minutes I had an appointment with the first agency to take place at 7am the next day. The information would be processed by 7am the next morning and I could pick it up any time up until 9pm in the evening. When I attended the appointment, the people at the agency were friendly, caring, efficient and did exactly what I needed them to do. The document was ready at the time they said it would be, neatly stored in an envelope with the other papers that I had requested.

"In which parallel version of France did these miraculous events occur?" I hear the frustrated foreigners cry.

Well, the data I needed to supply was a blood sample and the document was the results of the tests. When it comes to the French health service here, there's no messing around.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Brittany: The Big Sea and the Little Sea

One of the things I was most looking forward to doing during our trip to Brittany (the other being eating galettes!) was going to the seaside. And so we did. Multiple times. (We ate galettes multiple times too.)


We went to the beach in the south, on the Côte Sauvage on the Quiberon peninsula ...


And in the north, at Val André.

We walked to Cap Fréhel one evening and watched the sun go down...


But best of all, we fulfilled my long-held dream and visited the Golfe du Morbihan. (Mor bihan means “little sea” in Breton.)



Almost entirely enclosed by the arms of two peninsulae which curve protectively around it, the Golfe du Morbihan is home to dozens of tiny islands dotted around in a sparkling sea. It was frustratingly difficult to take photographs of, because the land is so flat and the vistas so wide, but it was every bit as beautiful as I had hoped. We took a ferry to the Ile d'Arz, one of the smaller of the non-private islands and hired bikes for the afternoon. 5 hours was just enough to cycle around, eat lunch, admire some prehistoric remains and have a dip in the sea before catching the boat back to Vannes.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Brittany: The (Really) Old Stuff


Another interesting thing about Brittany is the number of prehistoric megaliths, many of which you can just stumble across on an ordinary hike. A dolmen is made of slabs of stone, some standing up vertically to form the walls, with others laid horizontally on top to make the roof. (Dol men means "stone table" in Breton.) They would often be covered by mounds of stone (a cairn), earth and stone (a tumulus) or just earth (a tertre - presumbaly the origin of the name of the Place du Tertre in Montmartre). Dolmens were burial sites and often have long, low access corridors leading to the main burial chamber.


There are also standing stones. The most famous are at Carnac, but we also discovered a smaller, but very well looked-after site at Monteneuf, where there's also a reconstruction of a neolithic village. My camera batteries had run out that day but you can see photos here.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

What the French Can REALLY Teach Us About Food

Yesterday I was reading, both on the BBC website and in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, about a recent study which has shown that obesity is set to rise from 25% to 40% of the UK population by 2030, and from one third to one half in the USA. In both articles, one of the main solutions proposed was to tax junk food to make it more expensive.

In my opinion, that's not going to work. It certainly hasn't worked with cigarettes and smoking. People will continue to buy their daily Mars, they just won't be able to afford the apple-a-day as well.

France, on the other hand, is right down at the bottom of the obesity tables for OECD countries. Some people like to argue that that's all down to a Mediterranean diet consisting of lots of veg and olive oil, but I don't buy that. France is the country with over 350 different types of cheese, remember? The country where people eat croissants for breakfast and where the most common type of regional speciality is a sausage. This is not to say that French people don't eat a healthy diet, but merely to point out that if they do, it's not purely down to the natural bounty or culinary traditions of their homeland.

What I believe makes the difference is that in France, people aspire to eat good food. Not healthy food, or diet food, but food that tastes good. Quality matters, and quality means food that is produced slowly, in the right place and the right season, by people who know what they are doing. And when you eat high quality food that tastes good and satisfies your body as well as your appetite, you don't want to eat too much. Try eating yourself sick on dark chocolate instead of a Mars bar. But in France, you might not even want the chocolate, because the fresh fruit is so delicious. And that rich, cheesy Tartiflette might be packed with calories, but when you've eaten it, you'll feel full and you'll be ready to stop, because your hunger and your appetite both agree that you've had enough. That's not really true of a Big Mac. French people respect their food, and when you respect something, you don't abuse it.

To solve the obesity crisis, governments need to make good food both aspirational and affordable. Telling people peaches are healthy isn't going to make them buy them if they're expensive and taste like water. Saying that chicken nuggets are unhealthy won't stop people eating them, but making sure that actual chicken has more flavour will make them choose that instead.

The developed world is in the process of proving that awareness of health risks doesn't stop people trying to satisfy their appetites. The French have proven that when your appetite is truly satisfied, the health risks aren't there.


Friday, 26 August 2011

An Up- to- the- Minute Chat-Up Line

Yesterday, I was on my way to the supermarket when I heard a voice behind me saying, "Pardon, Pardon." In central Paris, I would have upped my pace and kept straight on, but being in Perfect Suburbia, I turned round to look at the man who was speaking.

He paused and took a couple of breaths, as if hesitating, then said, "Mademoiselle, you should be very careful not to come across DSK in the street. You are so charming that he would certainly rape you."

While thinking to myself that this was basically the French equivalent of Berlusconi saying the rape figures in Italy are high because the girls are pretty (the guy was so unsure of himself that there was certainly no threat of him actually attacking me), I decided to take it in the spirit that it was intended and smiled (charmingly, of course) before walking on.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Brittany: The Stuff of Legends

Most people associate Brittany with the seaside, and it's true that, with its endless jagged shores, peninsulas and little islands, the region must have a spectacularly long coastline relative to its size. But there are secrets to be discovered in the interior too, and especially in the ancient forest of Paimpont or Brocéliande, home of Merlin and the fairies of the Arthurian legends.

Up until recently local people, believing that the legendary sites should be accessible only to those who truly deserved to find them, would hide the signposts to confuse visitors. Nowadays though, tourism has taken over and most of the places are easy to find, although luckily still not overrun with hoards of people.


The Chêne à Guillotin is a 1000 year old oak tree. Its name comes from the Abbot Guillotin, a resistor of the Revolution who hid in its hollow when he was chased by soldiers. The story goes that an intact spider's web covered the entrance to the tree when the revolutionary fighters passed, leading them to believe that nobody could be inside.


The Fontaine de Barenton is known for its magical ability to summon up storms even in times of drought and was where the knight Yvan defeated the terrible Chevalier Noir or Black knight, as well as being the place where Merlin first met the fairy Viviane. Unfortunately, it didn't have much water in it when we went by.


The Val sans Retour, or Valley of no Return, was put under a spell by the fairy Morgane so that unfaithful knights would find themselves lost in the forest and unable to make their way out. As well as the Miroir aux Fées, you can visit the Arbre d'Or.


This golden tree has nothing to do with the Arthurian legends but was planted after a terrible fire in 1991 to symbolise the fragility of nature and attract visitors to the area. The pointed rocks which surround it are there to protect it from people who fail to understand the message and try to take home pieces of its gold-leaf coating as a souvenir.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A l'aise Breizh!*


After a week spent reconnecting with my Scottish roots, I went to Brittany with Understanding Frenchman to do the same with his origins. His family live in a small village south-west of Rennes, not far from the middle of the region, making it the perfect base for exploring, especially as his parents very kindly lent us a car for the week. Like most (pseudo) Parisians, my experience of Brittany was limited to St-Malo and Mont-Saint-Michel (which is actually in Normandy these days, much to the disgust of the Bretons) and, while both are beautiful places, they didn't exactly correspond to the image of a remote and weatherbeaten landscape that I had in my head, and exploring the region further had long been on my to-do list. Having a gorgeous local guide to do it with was an added bonus!

Many of the places we visited deserve a post of their own, so for now I'll just say that I liked Brittany a lot. Like the rest of France, it has beautiful landscapes, nice weather (at least in summer, most of the time!), interesting history and good food. But it also has a down-to-earth feel about it: the architecture is more about pretty stone houses and medieval town centres than gothic or baroque splendour, they drink cider instead of wine, and the local patisserie delicacies are butter- laden and heavy as opposed to, well, butter- laden and light.

My desire to get out of the Ile-de-France before living there turns me into a horrible person means that every time I visit a new place, I wonder what it would be like to live there. While the countryside is beautiful, I wouldn't want to live out in the sticks (even if a 5 bedroom house with a swimming pool costs about the same as a Parisian studio), apart from anything else because I suspect that unless you're a farmer or have lived there all your life, it would be very difficult to integrate, but Rennes is a pretty city with a thriving university and cultural scene . Unfortunately though, as Understanding Frenchman explained, there's a reason why there are so many Bretons in Paris: Brittany's universities are of a high standard and produce plenty of well-educated graduates, but outside of agriculture and the highly competitive public sector, there are very few jobs there. Local people leave their hometowns for the big city to find work, then struggle for years to get back again. And if the Bretons can't find a job in their home region, what chance would there be for a foreigner like me?

Ah well ... it's a wee bit too far from the mountains for my taste anyway!

*This is actually a Breton clothing brand that sells stuff with the logo of the little dancing people that people have on their car stickers. The pronunciation of Breizh rhymes with a l'aise.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Why the Roads are Free in Brittany

A long, long, time ago, in 1491, when Anne de Bretagne (described in Wikipedia as "un personnage soucieux de défendre le duché face à l'appétit de ses voisins") married Charles VIII, uniting Brittany with the rest of France, one of the conditions of her marriage was that France was not allowed to levy road tolls in her homeland. Elsewhere in France, many of the motorways have been privatised and companies such as Vinci and Cofiroutes charge hefty fees for their use. While the tolls are expensive, they do pay for a high level of improvement and maintenance, meaning that many of them have 6 lanes and speed limits of 130km/h. In Brittany, on the other hand, the motorways are free to use, with no more than 4 lanes and 110km/h speed limits.

While I generally appreciate the fact that the private motorways allow me to get far away from Paris in a relatively short period of time, driving at 70 miles per hour instead of 85 (add ten for the average French driver!) and only having to worry about checking one wing mirror at a time is definitely a de-stress factor in Bretagne for me!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Big Mountain Trip 2011: The Pyrenees



While my friends and I had a great time laughing at funny place names during our trip to the Pyrenees in July, we did plenty of other things as well.

Understanding Frenchman and I spent a night en route at the Hotel l'Oustal in Vezac in the Perigord. It had a gorgeous (and empty!) swimming pool with a view of two different chateaux and was surrounded by fields of sunflowers. In the evening, we had dinner followed by an evening stroll in La Roque-Gageac and were really quite sad when we had to leave first thing the next morning.


We picked up some more friends in Toulouse and drove to the gite de Miquelet in the mountains behind the town of St Girons. We were pretty excited by the prettiness of the location as well as the fact that the gite, while being charmingly rustic on the outside, was actually very well equipped on the inside. The fact that the electricity had cut out just before we arrived only added to the sense of adventure, although we were quite relieved that we had planned a barbecue for that evening and that the owner offered to refrigerate our food and lend us candles. When the light was gone outside, we lit a fire in the hearth, setting a trend which carried on for the rest of the week.



The next morning it was raining and the electricity was still off but we set out for a hike in the afternoon and were very pleased to come across an EDF lorry and discover that they had found the source of the problem and were getting ready to fix it. We came across EDF vans on four of the seven days of our trip - a lot of electricity is generated in the area but they also have their work cut out providing a service in an area that can be hostile to things like overhead wires.



On our second day we hiked most of the way to the Etang d'Araing, which was a fabulous walk but bad weather and the steepness of the mountain stopped us going all the way down to the lake (which we couldn't see anyway) and we stopped at the highest point, a cool 2221m above sea level. We learned that day that in the Pyrenees, horizontal kilometres are almost irrelevant - it's the vertical ones you have to worry about!

Day three was our walk to the beautiful Cascade d'Ars and turned out to be the only really sunny day of the whole week.



Afterwards we went to the spa at Aulus-les-Bains in the hope of soothing our tired muscles but unfortunately their crummy customer service left us suffering more from high blood pressure and rage.

Wednesday was supposed to be a rest day, but we still managed to drive for a couple of hours over a hairy but spectacular mountain pass to Vicdessos for a three hour hike to the castle of Montreal de Sos and the little village of Olbier before driving back through the medieval town of Foix, where I learned that it's Troyes Foix Sept fait vingt-et-un.




On our last two days, we hiked up to the Refuge d'Estragnous to climb Mont Vallier, which for a long time was thought to be the highest peak in the Pyrenees. It's not, but at 2838m, it was spectacular and high enough to give some of us the beginnings of altitude sickness. The weather on the hike up was miserable but we were rewarded with a friendly reception, warm, comfortable beds and genepy on the house for our efforts. Because of the rain, not many people were staying there and in the evening, all ten or so of us got involved in a game of Jenga which was almost as breathtaking as the climb itself.



All in all, it was an amazing trip and even with the prospect of more holidays before the end of the summer, it was hard to come back to Paris!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

How to Choose Your Next Country

It's pretty much impossible to move to a new country and not make comparisons with the old. For me, this process is plays a huge part in how I learn from travelling - figuring out what's important in different places and why, looking at how some countries deal with certain things better than others, and seeing what could change to make people's lives better. (Actually bringing about change, is, of course a whole lot harder, and this is one of the biggest frustrations of international living!)

Expat blogs and expat books are full of these observations, but how do you know if they are factually correct? How much difference does that French diet actually make to people's health? How much more dangerous is Italian driving really? Is a chalk-and-talk-read-learn-and- regurgiate education system more rigorous or is it numbing children's minds?

This website has many of the answers. Using its collection of studies, which appear to be from reliable sources, expats and expat wannabes can compare countries around the world on everything from population density to quality of death (and yes, I did choose that one because the UK tops the list for end-of-life care services!).

What's important to you when you move abroad?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Short Trip Away

I'm just back home from a short, unplanned and highly educational 3 day trip. Not to Italy, the south of France or anywhere exotic, but down the road to my local hospital.

It all started on Friday night, when I began to experience stomach pains. Had I been French, I might well have gone to the doctor straight away, or at least first thing on Saturday morning, but being British, I swallowed as many paracetamol as I could and hoped it would pass.

By 5 am on Sunday morning, the pain definitely hadn't passed and in fact had got much worse. Unable to ignore it any longer, I woke up Understanding Frenchman and told him I needed to go to the doctor. With even the nearest open pharmacy being several suburbs away and no on-call doctor in town, our only option was to go to A&E at the local hospital, which last time I needed it was a 5 minute walk from my house but has moved and is now a 20 minute drive away. (It's worth knowing that in France it's the norm for A&E to be your only option out of hours, as very few places now have a medecin de garde.)

As it turned out, A&E was the right place for me anyway, as by ten o'clock (when there were actually some senior doctors on duty), they had decided that I needed surgery. Fairly minor surgery, but requiring a stay in hospital nonetheless.

Lying on the hospital trolley with a drip in my arm, I joked to Understanding Frenchman that this was perhaps my comeuppance for complaining about how ridiculously poor-value my mutuelle has been over the past few years. Not that I have a problem with paying for good healthcare, but my current mutuelle combines spectacularly high charges with spectacularly low benefits and some of the most incompetent administration I have ever seen, for which reasons I'm very glad it will be changing soon!

Anyway, the whole experience turned out to be exactly what one would expect of the French healthcare system: fantastic care combined with some totally risible paperwork. I suspect that had I gone in with a similar complaint in the UK, especially if I had gone on the Friday instead of waiting until Sunday, I would have been sent away to take more paracetamol and see if it got better. In France, within about half an hour of arriving, I had seen a doctor and was hooked up to an IV that was dripping delightful painkillers directly into my bloodstream. They operated the same day and throughout my whole stay, the doctors and nurses were highly competent, helpful and extremely friendly. I stayed in 3 days for an operation that, according to the internet, is often done as an out-patient procedure.

The bureaucratic laughs came at the end. To check out of the hospital, I had to collect my prescriptions and details of follow-up visits from the staff nurse. I even got a prescription for my taxi home! But then, all by myself and with a bag slightly heavier than I really wanted to carry, I had to make my way to another office where there was a queue of about ten people waiting to hand over their papers to collect another piece of paper that would actually allow them to leave the hospital with all the documents they needed and finally, to have a long discussion with the man at the reception about why my taxi prescription said "aller" when I was actually going home.

So, full marks to French healthcare for the actual treatment, but surely "medically excellent" and "free at point of delivery and with minimal bureaucratic hassle" are not completely incompatible ideals?

When is a Fruit not a Fruit?

The other day, Understanding Frenchman had reason to borrow my car and drove it into the city centre. Having heard on the radio that on-street parking in Paris was free for the month of August, he found himself a space, checked with a traffic warden who happened to be working nearby that he was indeed allowed to park there and went to work...

Only to come out at 6pm to find a parking ticket (worth 17 euros since the start of August) on the windscreen.

That evening, he told me how, to his disgust, he had been given "une prune". I'm not normally a fan of civil disobedience, but his experience just goes to show how, even with the best of intentions, getting the odd parking ticket is pretty much unavoidable, so even though the ticket will be in my name, I laughed and asked him to repeat the word that he had used.

The reason parking tickets are called prunes? Because, like the fruit, ils font chier!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Very Punny

After my trip to Italy (which I have finally finished writing about on my Italian blog!) I was back in Paris for all of around 36 hours before Understanding Frenchman and I set off for the south-west of France, home of glorious scenery, glorious food and, to our delight, glorious puns.

Our first hilarious destination was the small town of


in the Limousin region. We went looking for a petrol station and came back with a still-empty tank and a belly full of laughs.

When we arrived in the Pyrenees, some members of our group stopped off to enjoy Seix in the sunshine, while the rest of us wondered if we had missed an exciting opportunity.

We also visited the Cascade d'Ars - not a poetic name for diarrhoea, but in fact this beautiful waterfall.

And finally, having visited the prefecture of the Ariege department, we were able to answer the question "What three French towns make 21?".

Can you?

Another Happy Experience with French Bureaucracy

(or "Things that Really Shouldn't be Worth Writing About but have Nevertheless Filled Me with Great Joy")

This morning, I paid a visit to my Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie, the office that deals with the paperwork surrounding the French national health service. I needed an Attestation de Carte Vitale, a document testifying to my right to access the healthcare system, one of the many documents which one receives in the post one day in France and must conserve for the rest of one's life and which I had promptly lost among all the other such documents I have which, after 4 years in France now fill two large files and take up far too much space on my bookshelf.

I had been informed (wrongly as it turned out) that this document needed one of the dreaded tampons (not a feminine hygiene product but an official stamp) and as my last visit to this office lasted almost 4 hours, I went prepared. I got up early to beat the queue and made sure I ate a good breakfast. In my bag I packed not only as many official documents as I could think of but also a book to read and, fearing that the 20 pages I had left would not be enough, a second book, as well as my new Smartphone (yes, I'm very excited about that too!) to keep me entertained.

When I arrived at the office, I discovered that the machine to print the document I needed was no longer out of order and my mood lifted several degrees. I inserted my card and was presented with a range of choices, including the option to print out the Attestation. I touched the screen. The document appeared. A surge of happy adrenaline coursed through my veins. I printed a second copy. Nowhere did it say I needed the fearsome tampon. I returned to the initial screen. So many choices! High on the ease of the operation, I requested a European Health Card and a Declaration de Medecin Traitant (another two pieces of paperwork that I've been putting off dealing with for about 18 months now too.) Before removing my card, I clicked another couple of options just to see what was available to me and was ever so slightly disappointed that none of the documents on the list were things that I needed.

I collected my papers and turned around. The office was empty except for the lady at reception, who smiled at me and asked if I needed anything. Feeling that my experiences had been in the fairytale-on-cloud-nine realm of too-good-to-be-true, I double-checked about the tampon. Nope, none needed.

"Votre systeme avec la machine est vraiment efficace," I said.

"Tant mieux," she replied, with a beatific smile.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

5 Days in the Boot

I've been in Italy for the past 5 days so I've been posting details of my adventures over on my Italian blog.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Staying Put

This month is the second anniversary of my 3rd move to France and, for the first time in my adult life, I'll be spending it not expecting to move anywhere any time soon. Spending more than two years in one place is normal for most people but to me it feels a bit strange. I will be starting a new job in a couple of months but no international move is involved, just a bit of commuting in the opposite direction from I'm used to.

Staying (nearly) in Paris was a conscious decision and I'm content with my choice. I have a great life here: a career that makes me happy, a lovely flat, great friends from all over the world, Understanding Frenchman ... the list of things I wouldn't want to leave goes on and on. I also (despite my occasional rantings) find France an easy country to live in. While there are endless fascinating cultural differences, in relation to the rest of the world, it's not that different from the UK, and in terms of standard of living, any bad points (for me, at the moment) are easily cancelled out by the good.

But although the glass is definitely well over half-full, I'm a bit of a life-perfectionist and in my more neurotic moments, I wonder if I'm becoming too settled too soon. What about all the other places I haven't seen yet? What about all those other languages I haven't learned?

But in my old-age, I fear that I'm becoming too wise. Changing countries would almost inevitably involve giving up at least some out of the fabulous food, the fabulous scenery, the fabulous health service, the strict employment laws, the (relative) freedom from corruption, the possibility of speaking the language fluently and the opportunity to pay national insurance contributions that will actually pay towards my pension.

How do you weigh up the value of these things compared to the possibility of a wonderful but unknown adventure?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Life is Good



As I may have confessed here before, I have an awkward relationship in my life. It should be all beautiful and romantic, full of lights and flowers, seduction and sophistication. And yet, too often, it's not like that. Too often, the busy-ness and the rudeness, the rushing and the endless, pressing presence of other people bring it down and I don't feel the loving emotions that seem to be expected of me.

Yes, my relationship with Paris is a difficult one.

But sometimes it has its high points. Like last weekend.

Saturday started off with some happy shopping buying presents and spending gift vouchers in the delightfully disorganised bookshop of perfect suburbia. Then I celebrated a friend's 30th birthday with champagne and a picnic in the park.



After that, I headed into the big metropolis, where an American friend was having a 4th July (or Lose a Colony Day) celebration. (It was only the 2nd and closer to Canada Day, so I figured I could justify it.)

In the evening, it was on to the last picnic of the day, with my lovely, laid-back Italian friends in the 15th. We sat on the grass admiring Les Invalides as it was lit up in the growing darkness, then slipped quickly back home on metro line 6 (my personal favourite) when it got too cold.


Sunday was another gorgeous day and I walked along the Promenade Plantee, which was gloriously green and cool, to meet friends at Chatelet. After a couple of hours of putting the world to rights over ice-cream, we walked along the banks of the Seine admiring the way the blue sky reflected turquoise in the normally brown water of the river and the way the light and shadows played in a dance on the sunlit quays.




My relationship with Paris may be fickle, but sometimes it's just perfect.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Who Cares What People Think?

I bought a copy of last week's L'Express and was intrigued to see that the main story, spanning several pages and including about 5 different articles, was entitled Ce que les américains pensent des Français, or "What Americans Think of the French".

Aside from the content of the articles, I was interested that this was something L'Express thought would make a good cover story. It was clearly inspired by the DSK affair, where an extremely crude and simplistic summary of the two sides would be that the French cannot believe he actually did it and blame either a conspiracy theory or a prudish American mentality that can't tell the difference between seduction and attempted rape, while the Americans are outraged that the French would question the alleged victim's integrity.

I have a feeling, though, that this is an issue that runs deeper than current political scandal. I've often noticed that the UK press, or at least certain branches of it, shows many more signs of rivalry with the French than the French press with les anglais and assumed that it was an indicator of a British inferiority complex combined with a French sense of superiority to everyone on the planet. Now, however, I think I have come closer to understanding the explanation. The French have much more of a love/hate relationship with the US than with the UK, decrying the damaging effects of the globalisation of US culture while guzzling Big Macs at a rate that is second only to the Americans themselves. So while the British conside the US as an ally and the French as rivals (culturally speaking, at least) the French are far more concerned by the Americans themselves than the nation that they see as their puny "anglo-saxon" sidekicks.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Expression of the Weekend

Il va demander son zéro-six.

In France, mobile numbers all start with the digits 06.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Voyage of Discovery in the West

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent Ascension weekend at a gîte in the Charente-Maritime, halfway between Bordeaux and La Rochelle and about 40km from the Atlantic coast. During this time, I discovered (or confirmed) the following:

- Many place names in the Charente-Maritime end in –ac. We discovered Givrézac, Gémozac and Jonzac …

- …But there are also the better known Cognac and Armagnac, which we explored in their more “spiritual” forms.

- French people sneer at the Spanish for putting lemonade in their wine but it is perfectly acceptable to mix Cognac with Schweppes.

- I like Cognac mixed with Schweppes.

-


- If you park your car illegally in the pretty medieval village of Pons while indulging your unsociable tendencies on the Friday after Ascension, you don’t have to worry about being caught because the only 2 policemen in the village aren’t working.


- The Atlantic coast has great beaches.

- The sea is warm enough to swim in.

- It’s not a good idea to have the front door of your gîte lower than ground level, especially if the drain outside the door blocks and there is a massive thunderstorm. It’s even harder to sweep the water out if the uneven floor slopes away from the door.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Word of the Weekend

Accordéon.

In normal French, this means the same as it does in English. On Ascension weekend (bank holiday on Thursday + pont on Friday = 4 days anywhere but in Paris) it means one of these frustrating traffic jams where you slow down, pick up some speed, slow down again, pick up some speed, and one hour later you've travelled about 20km.

In close second place, and on the same theme, did you know that caisse is a slang word for a car? I didn't ( I thought it was bagnole, but maybe I'm just out of date) until spending a weekend in the country with Understanding Frenchman and 15 of his friends. Clearly he edits his French for me a bit too much the rest of the time!

So, far too many hours on the autoroute today but photos from the gorgeous Charente-Maritime coming soon!


Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Quoi de neuf?


Looking back over my blog from the past few months, it struck me that while I have posted many a (hopefully) witty comment on the more incomprehensible aspects of French living, it’s been a while since I wrote about my actual French life.

One of the great things about my life is that I have a job that I really love. The trouble with having a job that you love is that sometimes you care a little bit too much about doing it well and it eats into the rest of your life and takes up a lot of your thinking time. When you also love many other things in life, that can lead to a lot of stress. I realised things had gone a bit too far when I had a long break in Scotland over Easter and, by the time I had finally started to relax, it was time to go back to work again. Since then, work has still been manic, but I have been making an effort to be calmer, more relaxed and a little less obsessed with filling every waking minute (and some when I should be sleeping) with exciting things to do.

So here is what I have been doing while trying not to do anything. Sunny weather always helps!

Visit the Base de Loisirs in Cergy. Cergy has a reputation for being a bit grim but this is a beautiful park with several lakes and lots of forest. We just had a barbecue, but you can also go sailing, take a cruise or even go swimming!

Picnic in the Parc du Château in St-Germain-en-Laye. Officially this isn’t allowed, but a park official looked at our spread of apéro snacks, couscous, fruit, salad and large quantities of wine and said, “As long as it’s a light picnic, it’s fine.”

Discover the Parc de Montsouris. This is probably the Parisian park that looks most like a British park. Not too much dust, and you are allowed to play on the grass!


Take a trip to Burgundy. Only 2 hours’ drive from Paris and also accessible by train, this area is proper countryside, with enough tree pollen to make me sneeze non-stop for two days. Luckily, the French healthcare system has since provided me with three types of medication and since then I’ve been fine. This was my first outdoor swim of the year, in a reservoir, and there is also lots of amazing food to taste! We adopted a friendly dog that insisted that we take it for a walk.

">Drink on a terrasse, preferably surrounded by all your friends and beautiful flowers.

Plan your next trip. Holiday weekends are coming up, so it’s time to go further afield again!