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!