Thursday, 27 September 2012

How to be a Happy Expat Part 3: Be Yourself

When I first moved to France, I received several marriage proposals within the first three months. I was chatted up everywhere, from the Champs Elysees to my local bus stop. And I was followed on several occasions in locations ranging from the local forest to the toilets of a cafe on the Rue de Rivoli. Some of it was funny, but mostly it was downright sinister and I wanted it to stop.

That doesn't happen to me any more. Now it could just be that I am older and uglier but to be honest I don't think most of my stalkers/suitors/wannabe fiances were that picky. I suspect it's because I don't stand out as a foreigner any more. Something about the way I walk, the way I dress and, most crucially, the way I make or avoid eye contact with people has changed and I no longer look like the kind of girl who might get engaged within two minutes of meeting a random stranger in the street.

Feeling that I fit in in France is lovely. But even better is the fact that, now that I do (most of the time), I also feel free to choose not to fit in, some of the time. On the Paris metro, for example, the best way to fit in is to avoid human contact of any kind as much as possible. But I've noticed that when people do communicate, whether it's the driver cracking a joke on the loudspeaker or Understanding Frenchman offering to carry someone's buggy up the stairs, people really appreciate it. So now, when the anonymity of the city gets me down, I make a point of giving up my seat, holding the door for people, and thanking them with a big smile when they do the same for me. It might not be very Parisian, but it makes me feel better. And I know enough not to do it with the guy that's going to follow me for half an hour just because I looked him in the eye. Other small acts of rebellion include wearing plastic flip-flops in town just because they're comfy and thanking people, British fashion, more times than is really necessary in any transaction

One of the lessons I've learned from living abroad is that you can't change the world. But sometimes, you can change your world, and that might be all you need to stay sane.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Rolling along the Coulée Verte

I've written a few times about places to go rollerblading in Paris on a Sunday. The banks of the river, beside the canal and the Bois de Vincennes are all good options. But what about on a Saturday, when the traffic on the quais mostly has four wheels and is roaring along at 70 km per hour, the shoppers are out at Bastille and no barriers protect the road through the forest park? With limited options, Understanding Frenchman and I decided to give the Coulée Verte a go.

The Coulée Verte follows the route of an unused railway line from Montparnasse in the city centre to Massy in the southern suburbs. We started at Malakoff Plateau de Vanves metro stop but the first few kilometres weren't really rollerbladeable because the surface was made of earth and gravel. The tarmac starts at Châtillon, where the route also starts to get a bit prettier. It's not really a beginner's itinerary: UFM and I are both pretty confident rollerbladers but there were some fairly scary descents where we couldn't see what might be waiting for us around the corner, particularly just after Fontenay, where we made lots of use of the mobilier urbain.  There's another steep hill at Robinson, but that one is more manageable because it has more space to brake afterwards.

We stopped just after that, at the edge of the Parc de Sceaux, where there is a magnificent view of the chateau, but we plan to go back and do the rest another day. Judging from what we saw, the rest will hopefully be a bit less hair-raising!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In Defence of La Defense

Last Saturday, on what turned out to be the third-last day of summer, I ended up at La Défense, a place which means several things to me:

- hoards of rush hour commuters squashing like sardines on to the RER.

- a shopping centre where you never see daylight 
- the Auchan supermarket where I once spent 40 minutes queueing for the express checkout 
- a scary half-underground bus station which I have sometimes used on dark nights in the middle of a train strike
- the only place in Paris where the restaurants almost exclusively sell junk food.

From which you will understand that it was a strange location for me to be on a day of 30 degree heat and glorious weekend sunshine.

But I was, and, walking along the parvis from the metro station to the Grande Arche, I was able to experience the more attractive face of the area, where glossy buildings too tall to be allowed in Paris stretch up into the blue sky, the sunlight on the shiny surfaces reflecting to create a multi-faceted display that almost seems to exist in more than three dimensions, and fountains and even greenery create a space that is surprisingly liveable.

 Needless to say, I got my camera out.

Monday, 10 September 2012

How to Avoid Travelling with Low-Cost Airlines

I'm a child of the Ryanair generation. If I ever become a grandmother, I shall sit my offspring's offspring on my knee and regale them with stories of how, back in around 2004, it was possible to fly from one European city to another for under 30 euros return and you didn't even have to pay extra for your suitcase.

Unfortunately, that was back in 2004. That was before low-cost airlines got nasty. Yes, there were taxes that always pushed the fares up above the 99p headline price, but that was about all. You didn't have to pay for luggage, to use your credit card or for the privilege of checking in for your flight. Yes, there was the bus that took you from a car park in a dodgy bit of town to a tin shed with a runway 50 miles from your supposed departure spot, but in the days when you were still allowed to bring your own bottle of water on a plane, being stranded with unpalatable and expensive catering options was less of a problem.

When Understanding Frenchman and I nearly missed our 250 euro EasyJet flight to Dubrovnik because we had spent two hours queueing to drop of the suitcase that cost us 30 euros to put on the plane and to pass through security at a seriously overwhelmed Orly airport I realised that if there ever even was a golden age of cheap flights, it was over.

But that's OK, because there's another solution.

A travel option where you can arrive ten minutes before departure, upgrade to first class for ten euros and bring your own bodyweight in suitcases (as long as you can lift them off the ground). Where you can bring your toiletries, surf the internet and use your mobile phone on board. Where you arrive to buildings that are often masterpieces of architecture right in the middle of the city centre and where nobody tries to sell you scratchcards on board.

Recently, I have travelled from Paris to London for 90 euros return to Milan for 70. Milan to Venice or Bologna is 9 euros, and (with a bit of help from a friend) I even went to Brussels for free. First class to Berlin was cheaper than EasyJet and we're looking at Amsterdam for a budget weekend later this year. Admittedly it's time consuming, but I'd rather spend 8 hours on a soft seat watching the countryside fly by than 2 in an airport where they were too stingy even to put any seats (I'm looking at you, CDG terminal 2B).

It's a means of transport that forces you to relax, sit back and enjoy the experience. To admire the landscape and appreciate the distance you have covered. That gives you time to contemplate your experiences, write in your diary and fit in a little snooze as well. In short, for me, it's a means of transport that allows me to be the kind of traveller I want to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your European travel needs, may I suggest letting the train take the strain?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Decoding l'Apéro

Everybody who lives in France knows what l'apéro is, right? Short for apéritif, the word means a drink, usually alcoholic, that you have before dinner to whet your appetite, although how much whetting is actually done is a bit of a moot point, given that the drinks are almost always accompanied by a selection of crisps, olives, cheesy biscuits and, if you are really lucky, saucisson sec. Right?

Well, sort of.

One evening in Brittany, we were invited to a friend of Understanding Frenchman's  for apéro. Four hours later, we had indeed had some drinks and the aforementioned crisps, olives etc, but also a large selection of little toasts with delicious toppings, some mini-omelettes, and home-made moelleux au chocolat for dessert. It was basically dinner, except that the main course was missing.

A couple of days later, UFM was on the phone to his cousin, trying to arrange to see him and lamenting the fact that it wouldn't be possible for us to eat together before we had to leave to come back to Paris. It was decided that we would go to said cousin's house for a lunchtime apéro the following day. I have to confess, I was a little relieved that it wasn't an invitation to a full-blown meal - UFM's family are lovely, but we had spent the past ten days eating and making small talk for hours on end in other people's back gardens and I was starting to have had enough. But then, as the drinks and crisps were coming to an end, the cousin said, "So, are you going to stay for lunch?" And lunch turned out to be starters of peaches stuffed with tuna, a barbecue with three different kinds of meat, ratatouille, beans, cheese and two different desserts, including a tiramisu that the cousin's wife had made herself.

There was no way that wasn't planned in advance. 

I was mystified. UFM likes to complain when we go out for drinks with my expat friends that it's never very clear where, when or whether we're going to eat (although we almost always do), yet here were all his friends and family doing the same thing. So later, in the car going home, I demanded an explanation. And here it is, The Unofficial Understanding Frenchman Guide to Apéro Invitations:

- Among close friends and family, an apéro will often be followed by an invitation to stay for the actual meal. The reason they don't just invite you for the meal straight away is actually a (very complex) form of politeness: it gives you the chance to decide for yourself, even at the last minute. In the case of the barbecue, if Understanding Frenchman and I had had other things to do that afternoon, we could simply have dropped in for a drink and refused the lunch, leaving our hostess and her family to eat stuffed peaches for a week. 

- If you are invited for an apéro but your hosts know that you will have to travel a long way, it's almost certainly an apéro dinatoire like the one we had in the first example. It's a less formal invitation than a full-on dinner party but won't leave you hungry because you left the apéro at 9pm and had to drive for an hour before you got home for dinner.

- Finally, it is actually possible to be invited just for an ordinary apéro. This most commonly happens among neighbours (and in the countryside, people like postmen are also regularly invited in for a drink) because it doesn't take them long to travel and so they can be back home in time to cook their own dinner.

So now you know.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Linguistic Dilemmas in Croatia

Aside from an afternoon in Flemish-speaking Belgium, our trip to Croatia was the first time in my life that I visited a country and had no idea whatsoever of how to speak the local language. For the first time in my life, I became one of those tourists who is entirely dependent on other people speaking English.

A few years ago, I would have hated myself. But recently I have come to accept that it is to the practical advantage of people all over the world to have a shared language, even if I fear many of the consequences. And the truth is, people who provide services to tourists in the most tourist-y bits of Dalmatia really do all speak English far better than I could reproduce Croatian, where the nouns not only have three different genders but also 5 or 6 declensions, and that's not even getting on to thinking about verbs, after a few weeks of study.

In the interest of politeness and maintaining a few shreds of integrity, I did learn some useful phrases, such as "Hello" and "Do you speak English?" Using the first felt awkward, though, because it seemed to imply that we might be able to continue the conversation in Croatian, while the second was pretty redundant, given that on the few occasions where the answer was "no", it was immediately obvious.

A couple of times, though, we ventured out of the tourist bubble, and suddenly every word we had learned became critical. One of these was buying fruit at the market, where we got by with a few words and many gestures. The other was when the English-speaking owner of our rented apartment was away and we had to collect the keys from the neighbour, a very kind older lady who spoke not a word of English.

To me this illustrates perfectly the challenge facing wannabe language learners today. You can get by in the easy places doing the easy things with everybody else's basic English, but if you want to get off the beaten track, integrate into local society or do anything at all that involves diplomacy, you need to be fluent in the foreign language. And fluency is harder to attain, because you get fewer chances to practise the basics.

Most people don't seem to care very much. But what do you think, dear readers? Many of you have become fluent in foreign languages and lived in foreign cultures long enough to reap the benefits, but do you bother when you're just going on holiday? Is it worth it to learn a few phrases when you know that eventually you will have to resort to English? Perhaps it depends on the country?

I'll finish with the end of the story about the apartment lady. "Govorite?" she asked, confronted with our blank expressions. "Ne," we responded, shaking our heads. "Engleski?" I tried, "Francuski?", but with no luck. She led us to the door of our flat and let us in in a wordless emptiness. We didn't know what was going on, were worried that we had disturbed her or commited some kind of a faux - pas. It was only as we were making our way up the stairs that she suddenly said, "Italiano?" "Si, si!" I replied, and so did she. Suddenly the void was filled with communication and, to my great delight, for once it wasn't English that saved the day.