Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Short Story

Earlier this week I nipped out to the shops for a couple of things that I needed, and ten minutes and a small dent in my bank account later strolled contentedly out with a small quantity of typhoid fever and a little shot of hepatitis A.

A little further down the street, I was buzzed into an ordinary block of flats and made my way up the somewhat dark and dingy tenement stairs. I knew not to knock on the door and made my way into a room with a few chairs and a heap of old papers and magazines. After a few minutes, I went into another room and a woman I've only met a couple of times injected both my arms. I realised I didn't have any cash on me and dashed out to the nearest hole-in-the-wall for a few banknotes to pay her with. She didn't let me in the second time as she was busy with another customer so I handed over the money on the threshold and carried on on my merry way.

Just another ordinary experience with the French health service, really.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


A couple of weeks ago, my mum and a friend of hers came to visit and, after a couple of days, when they had pounded the streets of Paris and were all museum-ed out, we decided to go to Rouen for a day trip. Rouen is about 100km, or several meanders of the Seine, from Paris but in some ways it felt like half a world away.

The first foreign experience was driving to within 5 minutes' walk of the city centre and the cathedral and finding a parking space. One that I could drive into with no reverse manoeuvres required. And it was free.

We'd been walking around for about twenty minutes when a glance at the clock reawakened my old provincial fear of not being able to find anywhere to get lunch on a Sunday, as it was after two, so we made a bee-line for the nearest restaurant, La Walsheim on Rue Martainville. We were greeted by about 6 busy but friendly waiters (culture shock again!) and got a table straight away. By pure chance, we seemed to have stumbled upon the best Sunday lunch venue in town. Not being desperately hungry, we all had salads, but it's definitely a place I would go back to with a bigger appetite, as most of our neighbours were eating enormous plates of choucroute , Norman specialities and other delicacies. It was also the first place in 4 days that was able to serve my poor mum a cup of coffee that she could actually drink (she is not a big fan of espresso or very milky coffee and the idea of adding a bit of hot water to ordinary French coffee was a bit beyond the Parisian waiters we encountered.)

After lunch, we went out to visit the cathedral and the medieval streets around it. Rouen cathedral is gorgeous: tall and elegant with delicately carved stonework.

Plaques nearby remind visitors the trial of Joan of Arc.

I also liked the tombs of Richard the Lionheart and his brother, complete with Lions, and the statue of Saint Peter complete with a massive key to open the pearly gates.

By the time we had seen all of that, we had forgotten about dear old Joan and forgot to go and see the giant cross that commemorates her being burned. Mum and her friend were disappointed but I wasn't - I can always use it as an excuse to go back for a sneaky Sunday lunch at the Walsheim.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Paris Underground

It's a well-known fact that, following the construction of Paris' Tour Montparnasse in the 1970s, urban planning legislation was passed forbidding buildings from being over 7 storeys tall in order to protect the Haussmannian unity of the Paris skyline. Less well-known is one of the other reasons why skyscrapers are something of a rarity in the city: the ground under the capital's streets is made up of limestone, clay and chalk, making it ideal for constructing tunnels but less good for supporting tall buildings. The metro and RER, the sewers, the catacombs, the famous lake under the opera house and numerous other underground passages make the city's bedrock a veritable Swiss cheese, so much so that before the Montparnasse tower was built, a large part of the job was filling in the massive cavities underneath it with concrete.

Ever since I read The Phantom of the Opera as a teenager, I've wanted to visit the Opera Ghost's underground lair and see where he kept Christine in captivity. I've heard rumours that it's possible to see the lake from some of the underground vaults of BNP Paribas, the bank which owns most of the property around the theatre, but I don't think you can just march up to the customer service desk and ask for a tour.

There are other parts of the world under the city's surface, however, that are apparently more accessible (if not legally so), as these guys proved by running the tunnels of the Paris metro. Their blog explains in fascinating detail the layers of history and contemporary life that lie beneath the streets - unused metro trains in pristine conditions, stations that were never open, and even people who hold parties in the sub-surface caverns.

I read their blog from start to finish and found it really interesting. I'd even go so far as to say I wouldn't be averse to a little visit to an abandoned metro station or a little stroll down one of the tunnels.

Except that I'd be terrified of what I might find down there. I've seen more rats in Paris's stations than anywhere else in my entire life, so imagine what it must be like when you get far away from the crowds. And perhaps even more scary is the thought of the people you might meet - apart from the train workers, what kind of folk spend their lives hanging out in tunnels ?

Maybe I'll just have to invest in some gold ingots and put them for safekeeping in a BNP Paribas vault instead.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

A fond la caisse

This has been one of my favourite French expressions ever since August of last year. I had only recently learned the word caisse as a slang word for "car" and was driving around the Scottish Hebrides with a bunch of French friends. We needed to get the ferry from the Isle of Mull back to the mainland and hadn't realised that we needed to book tickets in advance. Having queued for a good half hour in the lane for last-minute places, we realised that we were unlikely to get a crossing back that evening and decided to go to another port and catch a different boat instead. Unfortunately, the queue had built up and there were about ten cars and a lorry behind us, so we had to enlist the help of Caledonian MacBrayne's delightful staff. The attendant, who was definitely local and must have been pushing sixty, cleared away the traffic cones and signaled to the vehicles in the adjacent lane to move out of our way. All these preparations having taken place, he beckoned with his arm and, to my astonishment, cried, "A fond la caisse!" through the open window of the car.

The expression translates as something like "put your foot down," or "full throttle". As I was driving my mother's car, I didn't quite take things that far, but it was certainly the longest and fastest reverse maneouvre I have ever done in my life.

I was reminded of the incident while we were skiing by a friend who liked to talk about flying down the piste at top speed and was even more delighted when I learned that the word caisse actually refers to a caisse à savon, literally a "soap box" but also a go-kart. Because we all know how much control you have in one of these when you go at full speed!