Monday, 30 December 2013

Blogging about Blogging

A couple of months ago, a blogger that I really like announced that she was going to stop posting and somebody else wrote in the comments box, "Blogging is dead."

That made me sad.

I first started reading blogs about six years ago. I was back in my home town after my second year in France and I'm sure that reading the blogs that I found mainly through the now defunct Assistants in France site influenced my decision to move to Italy and start blogging myself a year later. At the time, most of the blogs I read were written by people like me: former assistants and study-abroad students who had settled in France or Italy and were sharing their experiences. While my reading list has expanded to include other countries and people who took the expat route from a different starting point, this is still the kind of blog I like best - the ones where writers mix the stories of their everyday lives with cultural observations and anecdotes their adopted country. What motivates me to write my own blog is the pleasure of contributing to the mix and knowing that people with the same interests might enjoy reading what I post.

It seems, however, that bloggers like us are a diminishing breed. Of the blogs on my reading list, many are no longer updated at all, while others have morphed into a different genre as the writers' situations and interests change. In Paris, in particular, many of the new blogs I read are highly professional in style and more like travel magazines than personal diaries. Don't get me wrong - I love those blogs too, but I don't have the time, the contacts or the experiences to produce something like that and I wonder my little blog, with the others like it, will gradually fade away as other styles take over. There's less incentive to share your life online when nobody else is doing the same.

Another thing that sometimes inhibits me from posting everything I could is privacy. I don't think anyone could track me down via my blog, but someone who stumbled across it could quite easily recognise me, and I'm shy about what they might think. While on the surface it might seem illogical, I'd rather complete strangers knew the details of my personal life than people I might actually meet in another context ... especially as I might never know they'd been reading. (This is different from meeting up with other bloggers, as that's generally a fair exchange of information!) I suspect my blog might attract more readers and commenters if I was more open about who I am and what I do, but I'm not quite prepared to make the sacrifice of putting everything out in public.

Finally, like many foreigners who've been abroad for a long time, the more I integrate into life in France, the less I notice little everyday details which might be interesting to people who don't know the country, or who do and are in the process of integrating themselves. My experiences are more personal, and that brings up the issue of privacy once again.

I don't want to stop blogging. In fact, if anything, I would like to write more, so if you're a regular reader or you've been browsing the archives, it would really help me out if you could post a little in the comments box to say what brings you here and what kind of posts interest you the most. And for those of you who are bloggers yourself, how would you answer the big existential question: is blogging dying, or just changing? I'd love to know what you think!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Merry Christmas from l'Administration Française!

I almost hesitated to post what I wrote last week about my experience registering to vote in next year's elections, and when I received a phone call from the mairie on Friday telling me that my application as it stood was likely to be rejected, I was cursing my act of hubris.

Because, you see, an attestation from EDF, normally the French gold standard of proof of address, was not acceptable, and what I needed was the actual bill. But unfortunately, as we only added my name to the account at the beginning of December in order to get the attestation, we had no bill.

However, the very nice man who took the trouble to phone me and tell me this was also able to give me some other suggestions, one of which was a recent pay slip, which in France has your address at the top. When I confirmed that I could scan one and send it within the hour, he gave me his personal email address and promised to process the application by the end of the afternoon. And sure enough, by 5pm I had received confirmation that my application was going through, and, assuming it's given the final stamp of approval, I should get my card in March.

I like to think (and have a few examples like this one to prove it) that while French bureaucracy is still complicated and frustrating at times, the people who administer it are becoming more and more helpful, and also more willing to use technology to increase their efficiency. Let's hope it continues.

In other news, on my way to the airport with a large suitcase at rush hour last night, not one but two people helped me through the gates to the metro, and smiled at me as well. In the end, France gave me a nice send off for my trip home for Christmas!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Why I'm Excited About Filling in Paperwork

It's been a while since I had a close encounter with l'administration française. Admittedly, moving house last July involved some serious chasing up of the papers to terminate my phone and internet contract and a fiery exchange of recorded delivery letters to the appallingly inefficient Natio Assurances to explain to them why they couldn't collect an advance direct debit payment for the insurance contract that they had themselves just cancelled on my old flat, but I haven't had to deal with the big guns of public sector bureaucracy for about four years now.

And now here I am, compiling a good old dossier to send to the mairie in the hope that, in 2014, I will get to vote in not one, but two French elections.

I was pretty sad to be sitting on the sidelines at the last presidential election. I'm even more upset about not being allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum next year. But, as an EU citizen, I'm entitled to vote in both the European and the local elections which are taking place next year.

Registering is a fairly simple process, in theory at least. You download the forms here and send them, along with ID and proof of address, to your local mairie by the 31st December (although they recommend before the 15th to ensure everything is processed on time)  and that should be all. My problem has been the proof of address because everything in the new flat is in Understanding Frenchman's name, but it turns out its pretty easy to add anyone to an EDF contract - you don't even have to be the person concerned. In fact, making someone else liable for your electricity bill seems to be a whole lot easier than getting on to the electoral register... but I digress.

I don't want to say it was easy until I actually have the card in my sticky paw, but up until now it hasn't been too difficult. Now I just need them to process my application on time - what do you reckon the chances are?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A New Yorker in Paris

"What, just one?" you might say on reading the title of this post. But while there might be many folks from the Grosse Pomme here ( including some of my favourite bloggers - hi guys!) Sebastian Marx stands out because he has his own very funny comedy show. Currently running at the So Gymnase theatre at Bonne Nouvelle in a tiny theatre where an audience of around 50 can lounge around on squishy sofas and buy drinks and snacks at the bar without racking up a lifetime of debt, the show reminded me of some of the best standup  I've seen at the Edinburgh Fringe - charming and chuckle-worthy but with some sharp cultural insights nevertheless.

Sebastian's routine started off a little slowly, with a lot of chat about where people were from and what they were doing in Paris. I was psyching myself up to be a little bit underwhelmed, which made it even better as the humour level gradually rose and I realised that a well as being extremely likeable, this guy also had some witty and original things to say. The concept was similar to How to a Become Parisian in. One Hour, which I also enjoyed, but I have to say that I thought  Marx was more insightful and didn't come across as trying too hard. (The punctuation error in the actual title of the other show also bothers me, but that's probably just because I'm a sad geek.)

You can buy tickets for A New Yorker in Paris here . I would highly recommend it!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Les Calembours: the Next Level

I've written before about the joy I experience every time I understand a French pun ... and the only thing better than a verbal pun is a visual one. This link has been doing the rounds on Facebook and seems to be putting smiles on lots of faces:


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Young Rebels?

It's early on an October morning and still dark outside. You are passing your local high school when you notice movements in the shadows and realise it's a crowd of hooded teenagers. Some break off from the group and sprint across the road. They spread in different directions, grabbing on to the neighbourhood bins and pushing them back towards the school gates. Under the lamplight, you notice that the pavements are strewn with detritus. A few cigarettes glow in the dark.

What do you do?

When it happened to me, I considered confronting the teenagers, contacting the school or phoning the police, before eventually deciding that, whatever the kids were up to, all of the above actions were unlikely to make a difference. It was only that evening when we were watching the news on TV that I discovered the explanantion: our local lycée, which has the reputation of being somewhat communist (and they mean the pupils, not the teachers - only in France!) was holding a protest against the deportation of Leonarda, the 15 year old girl who was removed from the coach on a school trip to be sent back to Kosovo with the rest of her family.

Since then, there have been several repeat manifestations, along with plenty of debate in the media about the rights and wrongs of the case, and watching and reflecting on these, I came to a new understanding of the whole French striking mentality.

In all the time I've lived in France, I've always been somewhat baffled by the way that students and school pupils are so willing to damage their own interests in order to stage a good demonstration. In 2006, for example, when my university was barricaded to show objection to the controversial contrat première embauche (Youth Employment Contract) I understood the concerns of the students, but not why they thought that the best way to protest was to prevent themselves from attending the classes that were supposed to help them towards gainful employment. It seemed a lot like cutting of your nose in spite of your face to me, especially when, in the most militant universities, there was talk of students having to repeat the year in order to cover all the coursework and sit their exams.

In the Leonarda case, however, the explanation becomes clearer. However unwilling the teachers who were actually on the trip might have been to hand the girl over to the authorities, in this story, symbolically at least, the lycée is an arm of the state acting in the interests of another, more malevolent, branch of that same state. It ceases to become the establishment that provides the students with a future, and becomes the traitor that betrays them instead. It's an interpretation that you can disagree with, but at least it makes sense.

I think the reason that this mentality is so much more evident in France comes down to the nature of the French State itself. Far more than in the UK, it appears to be omnipresent and all-encompassing. It dictates everything from employee benefits to exactly what children learn at school. People depend on it from the moment they are born in a public hospital to when they draw their last pension from its centralised funds. And so, when they decide to rebel against it, its symbols are everywhere, and any of its property is fair game for a manif.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Bright Side of Living in Paris

Yesterday afternoon I was about to make my way home when I realised the sun was shining, and the day was relatively young, and suddenly I was struck by the desire to go wandering in Paris. And so I did.

It was the kind of afternoon I dreamed of when I coined the title for this blog: walking around with my camera in my hands, with no greater aim than to experience the sights and sounds of the city and take lots of interesting photographs.
I took the metro up to Montmartre and, carefully avoiding the tourist hoardes in front of the basilica, made my way up the side of the hill and round to the little park at the back. It never ceases to amaze me how quiet Montmartre is once you get about 100m away from the Sacre Coeur and the Place du Tertre, and the north side of the Butte is one of my favourite parts of Paris. But yesterday I was in for an extra-special treat.

You know how the other day I was complaining about the lack of autumn colours in Paris? Well the trees may be disappointingly brown, but on the rue St Vincent, just down the hill from the Vignoble de Montmartre, I came across this beautiful wall of vines. I spent a good fifteen or twenty minutes taking photographs of it in all its glory.

Perhaps even better than that, though, were the nice people I met along the way. One man stopped to discuss the beauty of the leaves, commenting that only a little more sunlight was needed to bring out the colours to absolute perfection, and two others stopped their cars in the street to avoid driving into my photographs. Sometimes Amelie Poulain's Paris really does come to life.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

An Autumn Sunday in Paris

It's that time of year when the nights are drawing in, the temperatures are dropping and it's not unusual to awake to discover Paris shrouded in clinging grey mist. When it suddenly becomes easy to find a vélib and the crowds in the metro become a sea of winter black. Winter isn't here yet, but you can feel it coming, and the temptation to prepare for hibernation is strong.

This autumn, however, with memories of how last winter trailed on endlessly into April and already feeling the effects of métro, boulot and not enough dodo,  Understanding Frenchman and I are trying our hardest to resist.

Jam plums ...
but they were delicious fresh,
so the jam hasn't quite happened yet.
 We started our counter-attack on Saturday with a very reasonable grasse matinée until around 9am. (Perhaps it would count as a semi-skimmed morning). After that it was time for a brisk, healthy walk down to the Marché d'Aligre, one of my favourite new Parisian discoveries. Most French markets have some particular charm of their own, and at the Marché d'Aligre, located in the heart of what is traditionally a multicultural, working-class area, it's the sheer diversity of what's available, and all at very reasonable prices.

Can you spot the soggy mushroom?
Food blogging at its most honest!
At the fruit stall where we did most of our purchasing, most things were 1.50 per kilo, including some delicious yellow plums and even kaki, which sometimes cost that much just for a single fruit.We did splash out at the mushroom seller's though, and that turned out to be a bit of a mistake, because the cêpes (porcini mushrooms) were delicious but the girolles were going soft even by the time we cooked them for dinner.

We followed up our healthy shopping with a healthy bike ride in the Bois de Vincenennes. Paris is never a great place for spotting glorious autumn colours - I think it's because it's too warm and wet, and because the pollution turns the leaves grey and brown before they get to be glorious reds, but there were some very pretty yellow beech trees, and these beautiful vines.

I spent the rest of the afternoon making jam, although my production line was a bit limited by the fact that most of my jam jars were  abandoned in the move, followed by a mushroom risotto that I was pretty pleased with in the end. The risotto was definitely improved by the bunch of parsley that the nice man at the mushroom stall threw in for free - yet another bonus point for the Marché d'Aligre!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

At the International Crossroads: Why I Enjoyed Speaking English in Amsterdam

One of the things that amuses me when I travel to non-Anglophone countries with Understanding Frenchman is our different attitudes towards speaking English. In what seems like an illogical reversal of roles, he will quite happily approach strangers with a few phrases in his unmistakably French accent, while I am almost prepared to remain dumb rather than feel the inwardly-cringing embarrassment of being unable to address the people of the host country with at least a few phrases of their native language. While UFM is occasionally surprised when he is met with a blank look of incomprehension from someone who really does speak no English, I still have not learned to expect that in most of the countries we visit, most people will have at least a basic level. And even when it becomes clear that somebody is fluent, I still feel the burden of shame at my failure (and probably also that of the whole British nation) to learn their language.

In Amsterdam, though, it was different. Partly, I'm sure, because everybody really was very good at speaking English, to the extent that it seemed to come as naturally as their mother tongue. Secondly, I  was very aware that Amsterdam has been global trade hub for centuries, so by enjoying people's ability to speak English, I actually felt that we were experiencing their culture rather than missing out on an aspect of it.

But the most significant reason, I'm sure, was to do with the nature of politeness in the Netherlands and in many countries in the Anglophone world.One of the reasons that British people struggle to feel at ease in France (and I'm pretty sure it's about ten times worse for Americans), is that French politeness often equates to formality. It's calling people vous and addressing them as Monsieur or Madame.  Speak English and you remove the possibility of doing that. In Italy, meanwhile, I always felt that my English-speaking persona was too timid to fit in with the theatricality of everyday life. But in Amsterdam, where being polite seemed to equate with being friendly as it does in a lot of Anglophone countries, I didn't feel that I risked giving the wrong impression - some smiling and a few English turns of phrase seemed to do the trick perfectly. And very relaxing it was too!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

All Kinds of Surprises in Amsterdam

Last weekend, Understanding Frenchman and I went to Amsterdam for a quick getaway with very limited preparation. We'd booked the hotel room and reserved the train tickets and that was it. We did have a guidebook, but it had been languishing on the coffee table for a couple of weeks and I didn't get around to reading it until we were on the train and speeding through Belgium.

The disadvantage of being this underprepared is that you tend to forget things. In my case it was my toothbrush. The advantage is that anything and everything can be an interesting surprise. And so here, without any further ado, is my Amsterdam surprise list. If you want surprises of your own, read no further.

Attractive Architecture

Not that I was expecting Amsterdam to be ugly. But I was surprised at how, between the grand public buildings of the main streets and the endless pretty detail of the rows of gable-end houses lining the canals, just about everything in the centre was beautiful. On our boat trip on the canal, the guide explained that before Amsterdam houses had numbers, the little windows above each door were decorated to be distinctive enough to identify the houses. I also loved all the practical accoutrements, like the bike rails going down narrow steps to basement entrances, and the hooks at the top of the gables, which are used for moving furniture which is too wide to fit up the tiny stairwells. (We were lucky enough to witness this principle in action during our canal boat trip!) And our hotel was on the edge of town near the end of the tramway, but all the areas we went through on the way were attractive too. I'm sure Amsterdam has its downtrodden districts like any city, but we didn't see them on our visit.

The Size of Everything

Big mushrooms at the market
People from the Netherlands are the tallest in Europe, so I suppose it's not really surprising that lots of things are bigger in Amsterdam. Seeing the size of the traditional bikes, we giggled over the thought of what Dutch tourists must think when they come to Paris and encounter a Vélib. But it was interesting to see how, in contrast to the small-but-perfectly-formed French way of presenting  there seemed to be a whole aesthetic of generosity in everything apart from the houses. The narrowest house in Amsterdam has a front, and therefore a stairwell, that is only the width of its own front door!

Seedy Coffee Shops

I'd rather have some delicious Dutch cheese!
Maybe I just read too many middle-class left-wing newspapers, but I imagined Amsterdam's legalised cannabis smoking to be more the equivalent of sipping a civilised glass of wine on a sunlit terrace than people drinking themselves into oblivion in a dive bar. Not that I would have been tempted to try it anyway, but in the centre at least, most of the coffee shops we saw were mostly filled with very stoned looking young guys and there was nothing about that whole scene that was even remotely appealing. It wasn't something that bothered us at all, apart from the kind of sickly smell drifting out of the doors that seemed to fill certain streets, but it certainly wasn't a plus point either.

The Glory of Van Gogh

I know he's an easy artist to like, but a visit to the Van Gogh museum opened my eyes to the subtleties of some of these paintings that we are perhaps all a bit too familiar with. You can see the progression in his work as he moved around the Netherlands and then France, and there were several paintings I didn't know at all and really liked. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, the place was packed, so I would recommend going on a quiet weekday if you possibly can.

The Proximity of Prostitutes

We walked through the red light district during the day, as it's not a very clever place to head for after dark. I've walked down the rue St Denis in Paris plenty of times, so I wasn't expecting to be shocked (feeling uncomfortable is another matter) but I was taken aback by the way the women were displayed like dummies in shop windows, but exactly at street level, so that if you looked directly, you couldn't avoid catching their eye. I know there are all kinds of reasons for Amsterdam's approach to prostitution but I don't think it can ever be better than just a lesser of two evils, and strolling through the red light district didn't change my mind about that.

Early Tea Time
We went out for dinner in the centre of town. It was surprisingly hard to find a restaurant that wasn't fully booked (we may have been looking in the wrong place - a disadvantage of not reading the guidebook in advance) and, because of the pouring rain, settled for a little Italian place that was near the tram line back to the hotel. By nine-thirty we were the only people in the restaurant and we skipped dessert because we didn't want to keep the staff there just for us. I'm actually not a fan of French style late-evening eating and could definitely live with this, but Understanding Frenchman was horrified.

Friendly People ... Everywhere
From the moment we stepped on the Thalys in Paris, people were nice to us. I couldn't open my e-ticket on my phone. "No problem," said the ticket inspector. "Just give me your name and I'll check it for you. And is this your first time in Amsterdam? Have a great weekend!" Then there were the cheery bar staff, the people working at the museum cloakroom who smiled endlessly in the face of hundreds of soggy tourists and the lady who stopped us in the street to see if she could give us directions. I don't necessarily agree with the oft-repeated assertion that all Parisians are rude but ... it was a nice change.

We'll definitely be going back to Amsterdam when the tulips are out and the weather is warmer. Here's hoping for lots more nice surprises!

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Dark Side of Life in Paris

This morning in the metro, a man spat in my face and called me a dirty whore.

He was standing at the door and my stop was coming up. I was looking to see if he was getting off or if I would have to walk round him, when he glanced back, and just for a second, our eyes met. The train drew to a halt and I stepped off the train behind him. I heard a hacking sound and the next thing I knew, a glob of spit landed on my neck. I turned round to see what had happened and there he was, standing a metre or two away and glaring at me.

"Sale pute!" he hissed, as if it were a justification.

I didn't really know what was going on, but I knew that the last thing I wanted was for him to follow me through the corridors of the metro and continue his attack, so I looked him in the eye, held up my hand towards him and said, "Eloignez vous de moi, sinon j'appelle la police."

"Ils vont pas venir," he laughed.

Then, to my relief, he headed off towards the exit.

It was by far the nastiest of that kind of encounter that I've ever had. After a nice lady who had witnessed everything gave me a tissue and some kind words, I wasn't physically hurt, and while the shock kicked in a few minutes later, I continued on my way to work without too much distress.

But the incident is playing on my mind over two hours later, safely back at home after a day of people commiserating and sympathising with me. This was worse than being slapped on the bottom, followed into the toilets of a cafe, or even followed around the streets of my home town for an hour by some guy that was convinced he might marry me, because unlike those incidents where guys took liberties in what was essentially a state of misguided optimism, this man was convinced I was dirty because I looked him in the eye. And while he was clearly not quite right in the head, I don't think he was drunk or off his face on drugs. I have a nasty feeling that for him, this kind of behaviour was normal.

It brought back a fear that I used to often have in Paris, one that I hadn't had for years, that any contact with strangers, even if it's just eye contact, is dangerous. I've got used to not making it, but I had stopped being scared of the consequences if I did. The other day I even let down my guard and helped a man at the station to fix his mobile phone, and walked away, my faith in humanity boosted by the happy feeling that it was possible for a woman to speak to a strange man without there being any nasty repercussions, only to have it destroyed 24 hours later by this.

And then I ask myself the question, is this kind of behaviour more prevalent in Paris than other places? I know this morning's episode is an extreme example, but in all the years I lived in Scotland, I was sexually harassed only once, and even then, it was very politely done. I lived for a year in Italy, a country where machismo is so prevalent that they gave the word to the rest of Europe, on a dodgy street populated by drug dealers, and never had a bad experience once. I was once chatted up by a slightly bizarre man in the Alexanderplatz in Berlin once, but when I made it clear that I wasn't going to go home and sleep with him, he left me alone in a very gentlemanly fashion. I've often told myself that meeting sexist weirdos in the street is just a big city thing,  and if so, why does it seem so much more prevalent here?

Or am I just being paranoid?

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

West Side Photoblog

Since moving Paris in July, I've become a true convert to the delights of its eastern side. Between trying out the bars in Oberkampf, biking in the Bois de Vincennes, browsing in the brocantes of the 11th and strolling by the banks of the canal, I have very little need to venture much west of the Paris meridian , apart from when passing underneath it on a train.

A few weeks ago, however, we were lucky enough to be invited to a birthday party at a gorgeous apartment in the 16th, which as well as being packed with lovely people, also happened to have 360° views of the Paris skyline. As you can see from the pictures below, it was stunning.

Sometimes it's good to break your habits and (re)discover a different perspective!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Ultimate French Test?

Six years in France have given me numerous opportunities to test my knowledge of French in tricky situations. Controlling a class of unruly 8 year olds, arguing for a reduction at the garage and agreeing to have internal organs removed while under the influence of heavy painkillers all place demands on a person's linguistic capabilities which are far beyond those required to pass a final honours year exam. But perhaps the hardest challenge I have yet encountered comes in the form of a four-minute comedy speech aired in Le Supplément on Canal+ on a Sunday morning.

The series is called Retour vers le Futur and in it, the actor, Stéphane de Groodt, describes a meeting with someone who has been in the news that week. Most of the humour is based on puns, which are delivered in such rapid succession that even the studio audience and the presenters don't manage to catch them all. You also need a pretty good knowledge of French current affairs to understand all the references, making this a test of culture as well as language.

The episode below, where de Groodt describes his meeting with Benoît XVI, is one of the easier ones to follow, with jokes such as him ending up in the Pope's vegetable garden, at the foot of the basilique/basilic3 and the reference to a café carême / crème being fairly straightforward to understand, but how many others can you spot? I think I got about 8 or 9 the first time through, but judging by the laughter, there are about double that. Put any you find in the comments box and let's see if we can get them all!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Finding Jesus in the Mairie

I was so taken up with reflecting on the serious aspects of the civil baptism that Understanding Frenchman and I attended the other week that I forgot to mention the funny part. It's hard to live in France for any length of time without becoming aware that the separation of church and state is very important to the French. Hence a church wedding has no legal status, there's no RE in schools and you can't wear any sign or symbol of your religion if you work in the public sector. It's something I agree with in principle, but France being France, there are also endless anomalies. Pentecost, Ascension Day and the Feast of the Assumption are public holidays. Town halls put up Christmas decorations and there is state funding for Catholic schools.

And at the non-religious baptism in the mairie, I spotted another exception to the rule. Hanging on the wall was a painting of a woman spinning by her baby's cradle, and printed on the wood of the cradle was a small picture of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. One of the other guest's daughter was asking about the painting, and, having been lectured on laicite for the past twenty minutes by the government official, we had a bit of a chuckle over it.

Later, over lunch, I happened to mention that we had seen Jesus in the town hall.

"Tu as vu le petit Jesus dans la mairie?" said one of the other guests. "Does Understanding Frenchman know about that?"

To understand why this had the rest of the assembled company in fits of laughter, you have to know that a "Petit Jesus" is also a kind of sausage (which nobody seems to find offensive at all) and, well, I'll leave the rest up to your imaginations!

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Another French Oxymoron?

Over the summer, I was a guest at an event that I suspect could only happen in France, or, at least, an event that requires that typically French ability to represent what seem to be total contradictions as entirely logical: we were guests at a civil baptism.

I describe this ceremony as contradictory, because a baptism, by definition, is a Christian ceremony. I don't mean that people can't or shouldn't have non-religious ceremonies around the birth or naming of a baby, just that I find it odd that the vehemently secular French state has no problem with appropriating this word for something which is not religious at all.

The second reason why civil baptisms are contradictory is that they take place in the mairie and are led by an elected official, but have no legal significance whatsoever.

For those of you who have never heard of them (and most of the French people I've mentioned it to hadn't), here's a brief description:

A baptême civil is officially known as le parrainage civil (Parrain/marraine means Godfather/Godmother or sponsor). Nonetheless, the word baptême was used repeatedly during the ceremony, which dates from the time of the French Revolution. During the ceremony, the parents acknowledge that if anything happens to them (the word used here is "disparition", which I found a bit odd), their child will be placed in the care of the state, as is, in fact, the case anyway, whether they acknowledge it or not. The not-Godparents then sign a document agreeing to bring up the child according to their parents' values, but this doesn't legally commit them to anything and is described as a purely moral engagement. At the one we went to, the children were then given a commemorative medal, then we all went back to the house for lunch.

When I first heard about civil baptism, I was pretty sceptical, but I wanted to go with an open mind. Mostly, I was doubtful about a ceremony with so little practical significance. Unlike a civil wedding, which alters the legal status of the couple, or a religious baptism, where the child becomes part of the church, a civil baptism changes nothing. I suppose the actual civil equivalent of church baptism is registering a baby's birth, but nobody has a big party for that. The concept seemed to me to have been invented at best to replace something which can't really be replaced, and at worst to make an political point.

The way that the ceremony we attended was conducted did nothing to assuage these doubts. The lady from the mairie talked at length about the revolutionary origins of civil baptism and about the importance of bringing up the child according to the valeurs de la République. So there was a bit about liberté, égalité, fraternité, an awful lot about the secular state, and almost nothing about the children themselves, or their wellbeing, with the result that the speech was more political polemic than anything else.

The part that I felt was much more meaningful came well after we had left the mairie, in our friends' garden. The mother gave a beautiful and moving speech about why they had chosen these particular people to be parrain and marraine and about the values they hoped that they would pass on to their child, then the parrain and marraine gave the child a little gift.

So did I leave with a deeper appreciation of this apparently contradictory event? Well, sort of. On the one hand, I completely understand the parents' desire to commemorate and celebrate the very special task that their dear friends had agreed to undertake for their children. But on the other, psuedo-legal aspect of the part at the mairie felt very forced, and the official's discourse not totally appropriate for the occasion, and I couldn't help thinking it would have felt just as special if it had just been the heartfelt speeches and the little exchange of gifts in the back garden.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Highest Mountain

Not long after Understanding Frenchman and I first met, he made me a promise. A few short months had been enough for him to understand how much I love the mountains, and after listening to yet another lyrical description of the Ecrins, the Aravis or the Alpes Maritimes, he told me that one day he would take me to the Monts d'Arrée.

Like most people, my first reaction was, "Mont-what?"

But as soon as he told me that the Monts d'Arrée are a chain of peaks in the Massif Armoricain, which along with the Alps, the Pyrenées, the Jura, the Vosges and the Massif Central is considered one of France's principal mountain ranges, and that one of its summits is the highest point in Brittany, I was determined to go.

And so, after our adventures in the magical forest of Huelgoat, we drove to the foot of the Roc'h Trévézel and began our ascent. As you can see from these pictures, the ridge is rocky and dramatic looking, and we did a bit of scrambling.

... but as this picture shows, the top of it is probably less than 50 m above the car park. Although the Monts d"Arrée reach elevations of 385m, most of the climb is a very gentle slope up from sea level, and the bit that sticks out of the plateau is not very high at all.

Nevertheless, I was pretty excited about being at the highest point in Brittany, and at the top of a major mountain range too. Until, that is, we arrived home and I decided to double check my facts before posting boastful claims and cleverly engineered pictures all over Facebook. Lucky I did (or perhaps not): it turns out that according to the most recent geographical surveys, the highest point in Brittany is actually the neighbouring Roc'h Ruz, and not the Roc'h Trévézel at all.

I actually think we might well have climbed the Roc'h Ruz as well, as we did a second, unidentified, peak just after the first which may have been approximately the right place, but as nobody seems to have considered the Roc'h Ruz to be important until very recently, there's very little information about its location out there and it doesn't seem to be marked on any maps. And whatever the precise heights of the mountains (the differences are a question of a few centimetres), they are definitely worth visiting for the cool rock formations and the beautiful views from the top - you can see fields, lakes and forest stretching out in every direction and dotted with little villages, while on the western horizon is the Rade de Brest and the Atlantic Ocean.

I'm choosing to believe that we did climb the right mountain though, especially as my internet research revealed two other distressing facts: the Monts d'Arrée are the highest in Brittany, but the highest in the whole massif is actually in the Mayenne department in the Pays de la Loire, and worst of all, there are two peaks in Normandy that beat their Breton neighbours by about 30 metres!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Enchanted Forest at the End of the Earth

Le Chaos
To visit the enchanted forest, you must travel to the far, far west of France, to a place called Finistère, the end of the Earth. From the shores of the lake, you take a little path by the side of the river gorge which weaves between mossy boulders as high as a house, into the woods where the light dances with the shadows amongst the trees. Once you have entered the stony gates, if you wander along the meandering paths with open eyes and an open imagination, you will discover many wonderful things.

As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, I'm a bit of a sucker for Breton history and legends. Over the past couple of summers, Understanding Frenchman and I have done a fairly thorough exploration of the Forêt de Brocéliande, home to the Chêne à Guillotin, the Miroir aux Fées and the Fountain of Eternal Youth. This year, however, was the first time that we had been out west to the Forêt de Huelgoat, where there was even more to be discovered.

La Grotte du Diable
Just after the entrance to the forest (which is located at the end of the lake in Huelgoat) is the Grotte du Diable. The story behind the name of the cave is that a Revolutionary fighter once hid there on the run from the Royalist army. Wearing a hat with two feathers in it and carrying a large fork as a weapon, he built a fire and stood behind it. When the partisans entered the cave, they saw his shadow and ran away screaming, convinced that they had seen the devil. As well as this story, the cave is also worth visiting for its dramatic rock formations, as it's actually perched in the boulders above the river gorge. It's now all safely enclosed with metal barriers, but I would still recommend good footwear if you want to go down there.

A little further into the forest is Le Chaos, a large boulder field through which the river flows. The geological origin of the boulders is volcanic: the granite rocks were pushed up from the bowels of the Earth, then developed cracks as they cooled. Rain water running through the fissures changed the shape of the rocks to the heaps of boulders stacked haphazardly on top of each other that you can see today. In the legend, however, they were hurled there by a hungry giant!

La Pierre Tremblante
Our next stop was the Pierre Tremblante. This block of granite is the size of a small van and weighs about 7 tonnes, but if you push it in exactly the correct place, even a child can make it wobble. We were lucky enough to see somebody else do it as we arrived, and after a couple of tries, we were able to move the massive boulder ourselves.

There are a couple of sites with links to Arthurian legends: the Camp d'Artus, and the Grotte d'Artus, where Arthur kept the treasure which Merlin revealed to him in the Val sans Retour in Brocéliande, guarded by flying demons in the form of will-o'the-wisps. And there were some places we didn't see, as we had another mission to complete in Finistère before the daylight faded (more on that another time), but we did make it to the Gouffre de Dahut, the chasm where the dissolute Princess Dahut liked to throw her lovers once she had had her wicked way with them.

Inland Bretagne is always so much quieter than the coast in the summer, and this particular area is so isolated (it takes six or seven hours to drive there from Paris) that even at the height of the holiday season, we had plenty of the sites to ourselves a lot of the time. I would imagine that if you go off-season, it really is absolutely magical. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Most Important Thing You Need to Know about Dating a French Man

The internet is full of information for anglophone ladies looking to snare a Frenchie. From knowing whether or not that first kiss means you really are a couple to the difference between "Je t'aime bien" and "Je t'aime" (you might be surprised about which one is the holy grail), the answers are out there (although some of them may not be strictly correct, as Gwan does a great job of explaining in this post.)

In my experience though, there's only one thing that you really need to know: if you get to the stage of meeting your future in-laws, you are supposed to call them vous. And while this might sound obvious, you also have to know that even if they start calling you tu, you're still supposed to vouvoie them back. (It's one of the very few relationships you can have where tutoiement is not reciprocal.)

When I first met Understanding Frenchman's parents, I was lucky enough to have got a heads-up on this. (I think it was on Ksam's blog, so thanks, Sam!) But when I double checked with UFM himself, he said, "No, no, you can call them tu." At the time, this seemed more normal to me. I reasoned that calling them vous was the equivalent of my parents insisting that they were Mr and Mrs, which they would never do.

The first time I met M. et Mme Frenchman was when they were visiting Paris and it was easy to use vous because most of the time I was addressing both of them. It was only when I first went to Brittany that I realised the situation wasn't entirely clear - did I tutoie them straight off or wait for them to say something? And so I tended to avoid using the word "you" at all (it's amazing what you can do with impersonal constructions such as on and tout se passe bien?) and we ended up in this vicious cycle where because I never used vous, they never officially told me not to and I was left sort of tutoie-ing them but not feeling very comfortable about it.

And then, on the next visit, UFM's sister's boyfriend of ten years, with whom she has a child, came over, and I noticed he was calling them vous. But when I mentioned it to UFM he just said, "Oh yeah, he's from Bordeaux. They're all very formal there." So it wasn't until the next visit again, when his sister-in-law was over with their kids, and he said to me, "Acutally, I think she calls my parents vous," that I started to seriously worry.

Understanding Frenchman didn't really get what I was so upset about. His family are genuinely very nice and very laid back and I think that even if I had made some huge faux pas, they wouldn't have been mortally offended by it. But I couldn't get it out of my mind, and eventually I went on about it so much that he brought it up with his parents one day when I wasn't there, and they said it really was all fine.

The thing is, though, that although I get on really well with both of them, and feel very relaxed when I'm there (I help myself to things from their fridge and we have breakfast in our pyjamas), I've come to understand that the whole tradition, while it still seems a bit stiff and stand-offish to me, actually has some sense to it. It's not exactly the equivalent of Mr and Mrs in English, and it could be a nice way of showing that, while I feel very at home in their house and we laugh and joke a lot together, I still have lots of respect for them as well.

Talking to a group of non-French friends who are all in relationships with French people the other week, it transpired that all of us have broken this rule in one way or another, with varying degrees of horror on the part of the Frenchies involved. (I definitely got off very lightly!)

So the lesson to be learned from this is, if you're going to date a French person, call their parents vous obviously, often, openly and until they tell you not to. Otherwise you could end up avoiding the word "you" around them for decades.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Blonde Highlights and Stolen Lorries

In an attempt to prove my theory about French style vs British style, I found myself walking around town yesterday conducting a mental survey of hairstyles. Realising that this was probably making my company a bit tedious, as half my brain was focused on trying to work out just what degree of straightness and which shades of blonde were natural, and wanting another perspective on the matter, I decided to share my thoughts with the friend (French and male) I was with.

"Of course," he said, after listening to my carefully detailed explanation of how French girls tend to go for more natural-looking styles (the "looking" part is important!) that make the most of their real selves, while British girls often put a lot of effort into changing their appearance to conform to a particular look that has been deemed stylish by someone else.

He continued bluntly, "In France, the aim is to look different from everybody else. In Britain, all the girls look the same. They all dye their hair blonde, et elles sont repaintes comme des camions volés."

If  "apart from you and all your lovely friends (and of course, very stylish blog readers)" hadn't been so clearly implied in what he said I might have been tempted to hit him. Instead, theory confirmed, I just laughed and took note of the funny new French expression

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Flat Hair vs Fluffy Hair and Other Reflections on French Style

While I was in Scotland the other week, I decided to take advantage of spare time and small-town prices to go and get my hair cut. And the consequence of this, as should have been obvious from the start, was that I ended up with a British Girl haircut and all sorts of thoughts going around in my head about the differences between French and British style.

I remember a British friend who had just moved to France once commenting how nice it was to see that French teenage girls seemed to be less obsessed with their appearance than their British counterparts. (My friend is a secondary-school teacher.) As examples of this, she cited the way her former pupils in England nearly all dyed their hair blonde, used fake tan and wouldn't leave the house without a thick layer of makeup on their faces. And it's true that, apart from those who go for full-on bling, the average French adolescent female does seem much more likely to wear slighly geeky glasses (as opposed to contact lenses) and go around with just-got-out-of-bed hair. Particularly outside of Paris, I'm also continually surprised by the popularity of sensible flat shoes with a comfortably thick sole among not-particularly-middle-aged French women.

But let me go back to my haircut. It's not that I don't like it, exactly. It's just not quite what I would have chosen. The first surprise came before the hairdresser even got the scissors out. I didn't need my hair washed and was expecting her to spray it with water, but instead she got the straighteners out. This is a trend that has been around since I was a student, where even people who already have straight hair (like me) feel the need to make it go really straight. As in flat.

The second thing she did was put back in the layers around the back of my head that I once let a stylist cut and spent the best part of a decade trying to get rid of without cutting my hair ridiculously short. The idea of this, like the straighteners, is of course to reduce the volume and add more shape. The thing is, I quite like the volume and I preferred the shape I had before. But now unless I start using straighteners, I risk having volume in the way a haystack has volume, rather than thick, luxuriant locks.

It's not a hairstyle that looks bad on other people (or even, objectively, on me). It's just that I don't feel it really makes the best advantage of what I like about my hair; instead, it takes a style that might be great for somebody else and puts it on my head. If I want it to look the way it's "supposed" to be, I'll have toput in a lot of effort (for my low-maintenance self) in order to not look like me.

And this, I think, is where French style is different from British. For all we Brits are renowned for our eccentricity, a large majority actually tend to follow the crowd and assume that what someone else is doing (especially if they're on the pages of Hello and Grazia) must be good for them as well. I don't actually believe that French women obsess less about their appearance, or spend less time on it, but I do think that they perhaps direct their efforts more towards making the most of what nature gave them (eg buying expensive face cream) rather than trying to change it altogether (by covering themselves in fake tan). I would also say that I see a lot less flat hair in Paris than I did in the UK. But I suspect that I have readers who are far more stylish than I am, and appreciate the nuances of a look much better than I do, so what do you all think?

P.S. Don't forget to click on the links to my other blog to find out what confetti really means at an Italian wedding and how to make the most of a summer trip to Liguria.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Abandoned Marmite, or Why Some Foods Don't Travel Well

Those of you who are not completely up to date with the critical issues in current international news may have missed the controversy that this advert has stirred up across the British Isles. Some people are shocked by the way the serious themes of child and animal abuse have been evoked for something so frivolous as the marketing of the salty, malty tea time spread. Others think the ad is funny. And then there are the people who are reminded that they actually do have a somewhat neglected jar of Marmite in the cupboard and they had better eat it soon.

In my case, it's not one jar, but two. Two lovingly imported pots of the black, tarry stuff that have been lingering at the back of the shelf for well over a year. (I'm pretty sure it keeps forever though.)

And yet, my mother was horrified to discover that after only one week of my presence in her house, their jar was practically finished, because I have been eating it every day for breakfast and sometimes  for lunch as well.

It seems that there are some foods which just don't travel well, and not because they're fragile or perishable. In the case of Marmite, I think the problem is actually French bread. It doesn't toast well enough, and the flavour of your average baguette is far too delicate to cope with Marmite's strong taste. I rarely buy other kinds of bread from the boulangerie because they're very expensive, come in awkward shapes, and tend to go too hard even for toasting by the second day. And don't even get me started on the weird sugariness of "American Sandwich" bread which you can't even buy in thick slices.

Here are some other foods which fall into this category:

Spritz Aperol: this is probably my favourite summer drink in Italy, but I've never been tempted to bring a bottle home and, despite the recent marketing campaign, I don't see myself ordering it in a UK bar either. It's a drink for hot weather and is best when mixed by an attractive Italian bar man :-)

Fish Suppers: should only be eaten after a day of serious physical work, preferably sitting on a concrete wall while the sea breeze blows slightly damp air in your face.

Cheese fondue: again, you really need to have spent a day in the mountains to deserve this one, and it always tastes better when both the cheese and the wine are local.

Would you add any others to the list?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Lessons Learned from Parking Fines

Just the other day, I parked the car I was driving in a designated parking space by the side of a wide and not particularly busy street. I walked down the road to the parking meter, read the information twice, inserted some coins, collected the ticket and stuck it carefully on the correct side of the windscreen.

A few hours later, I came back to find a big stinking parking ticket tucked under my windscreen wipers.

The cause? I had inadvertently paid at the wrong machine. Had I used the one that was ten metres behind my car rather than twenty in front of it, I would have seen that the conditions for the space I was parked in were not the same. Similar, extremely similar in fact, but not identical. Looking at my surroundings, I could see no explanation for the difference, but was nevertheless forced to admit to myself that I hadn't been careful enough about reading the signs and the fine was technically my own stupid fault.

Normally when this kind of thing happens, I have a tendency to go home and rant to Understanding Frenchman about his stupid, unreasonable country where nothing is clearly explained, everyone is out to get you and public-spirited people like me who try our best to do everything by the book are penalised while the really bad folks get away with murder.

This time I couldn't. The reason? This little incident happened not in the land of Gallic complexity and a Mediterranean attitude towards rules, but in my home city in my dear little beloved Scotland, where I generally choose to believe that the signs are clear, the rules are straightforward and even the traffic wardens might be friendly.

The little lesson I learned might have been to read the parking regulations more carefully in future (especially as fines in Edinburgh are the equivalent of a whopping 40 euros a time), but the bigger one was much more important: bad stuff happens everywhere and not all problems in France are related to its Frenchness.

(And parking wardens everywhere really are out to get you).

Before my trip to Scotland, Understanding Frenchman and I spent a fabulous two weeks in bella Italia. Don't forget to head over to my Italian blog for posts about the beautiful Valle d'Aosta and challenging some cultural stereotypes, with more on Italian weddings and the lovely region of Liguria coming up soon!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Tour de Paris

Hot and sticky and with aching muscles, the cyclist swings around the corner to the cheers of an elderly couple standing by the roadside. "C'est le maillot jaune! Vous avez gagné!" cheers the man. And I put on the brakes and stop for a bit of banter about doping and hairpin bends, because this is not actually the Tour de France, just me on a Vélib in the Bois de Vincennes.

As a Paris intra-muros newbie, I'm only just discovering the joy of the Vélib. You probably already know how the system works: pay 30 euros (for the year!) to add a subscription to your Navigo pass, and all you have to do is beep the card to borrow a bike from any of the numerous stations for free. The big problem, of course, is when the station doesn't have any bikes left, or even worse, when you have the bike already but there is no place to put it back. To solve that one, you also need one of the smartphone apps that tells you how many bikes and spaces are available at each station. I find the official one tends not to work very well, but Trouver un Vélib has been pretty reliable so far. (We are also lucky enough to have a station right outside the front door, so a quick look out of the window also works for me!)

I've never been a huge fan of cycling, but the Vélibs might just have converted me. They're heavy and only have three gears, 2 of which are so low as to be practically useless unless you're cycling up the Butte Montmartre, but I find them really comfortable to ride and I love the convenience of being able to just leave the bike at the nearest station and, if I want to, being able to take the metro home. I'm also impressed by the number of cycle lanes that have been added, many of which are completely separate from the road (which is just as well, because Vélibs don't come with helmets!).

More than anything, though, I love the fact that vélib-ing seems to bring out the best in people. As well as the chat with the couple in the forest the other day, someone stopped to help me out when I had trouble adjusting my saddle the other day, and when I've to other cyclists at the Vélib stations, they've always responded with a smile rather than the usual Parisian look of suspicion and mistrust.   It feels as good as winning the Tour de France itself.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Egalité on the Tramway

Picture from
If you ever need to travel on the eastern side of Paris, you might have the opportunity to take the new tramway, the T3, that skirts around the city just inside of the Périphérique, from the Porte de la Chapelle in the north to the Pont de Garigliano in the south-west. The tramway is designed to solve the century-old problem of the métro system: if you want to go into the middle of town, the metro is perfect, but if you are travelling between two outlying arrondisements, it takes forever.

The tram is lovely. It's clean and modern and slides almost silently along its rails. (Some days I love the racket of the metro too, but it's hard to listen to music on board!) While it feels slow, I think it actually travels about the same speed as the metro, with stops being 1 or 2 minutes apart. Even better, though, is its accessibility. The doors are at the same level as the platforms, making it useable for wheelchair users, the infirm and parents with buggies. It really is a form of transport for everyone. (Well, apart from those who live on the western side of town, where apparently the UMP councillors were unwilling to finance the project.)

One of my geeky pastimes on public transport is to look at the names of the stations and see how many famous people I can identify. If you look at the list of stops on the T3, you might be surprised, as I was, to see how many of them are named after women. Have you heard of Colette Besson,  Maryse Bastié, or Alexandra David-Néel? I wondered if, as on the metro, they were named after the streets they crossed, and therefore this was just chance, or if there was a reason behind it and, my curiosity piqued, I did some research and found this article. It turns out that not only was naming the tram stops in this way a conscious step towards balancing out the fact that of 302 metro stations, only 3 of them are named after women, but that reaching an agreement to do so was something of a battle.

To answer the question above, Colette Besson was an Olympic athlete, Maryse Bastié was an aviator and resistant who also fought for women's rights and Alexandra David-Néel was an explorer and the first western woman to enter the city of Lhassa in Tibet. Next time you travel in Paris, why not take the tramway, and see how many of the others you can recognise?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Moving Experiences

I once read somewhere that moving house is the second most stressful experience that many people have in their lives, but I've never quite believed it. I think the first most stressful was bereavement, but surely events like redundancy and relationship breakups rank higher than signing a few pieces of paper and packing up some boxes?

I still stand my ground on the above, but I have to admit that, over the past couple of days, I've been feeling a lot more fragile than I expected to.

This, after all, is supposed to be an easy move.  In a stark contrast to the last two, this one is not associated with splitting up with anyone, leaving a group of friends, changing jobs or moving to a different country. It's me with the help of Understanding Frenchman, a couple of good buddies and a van, not me versus Easyjet's excess baggage charges or the capricious and unreliable Italian postal service. And if anything does go wrong, I have plenty of time to sort it out before the deadline is up on my current place.

Admittedly, there have been a few hitches. The new tenant in my flat, who was considering buying some of my furniture, has decided that she only wants a few of the small things, leaving me with a 120kg sofa and and a double bed to transport down the tortuously narrow and winding staircase out of my apartment. I discovered today that Avis's online reservation service allows you to request van hire for one day at the weekend, but in fact they only do a 3-day service, so your request will definitely be declined unless you go to an agency in person to sort it out. It took me half an hour and a call to customer services to obtain the password that I will need to (hopefully) cancel my phone and internet service online. And today I learned that Castorama's packing boxes are not nearly as high-quality as Ikea's, but to go to Ikea, you need a car and I sold mine three weeks ago.

But I've done this often enough and lived in France long enough to deal with all of these things without my blood pressure rising too high. And I'm happy with my decision to move to Paris and live with Understanding Frenchman. So why the emotional frailty?

The only thing I can think of is that change, even positive change, is scary. When we make big life decisions, we jump into the unknown, and the control-freak in me doesn't like that. While I'm sure the outcome of this transition is going to be good in the long run, it nevertheless entails a period where there will be new problems to be solved and when things can definitely go wrong. That big pile of boxes in the corner seems to be symbolic of my life, at its heart still the same, but needing to be unpacked and rearranged before I quite feel like myself again.So while I'm excited about this change, I'm ready for it to be over soon. Let's hope I can be patient!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Paris vs the Suburbs: the Verdict

It's 6am. My alarm goes off. Half-asleep, I fumble clumsily to turn it off before it wakes up Understanding Frenchman. The novelty of the situation means that I get up in 5 minutes rather than the usual 20 and stumble to the kitchen for coffee. By 6.45 I have to be out of the house. Leave it any later and it all takes longer. Leave it any later and the chances are it will all go horribly wrong. And when it's the end of November and the novelty factor has worn off, I can only imagine that it will feel even worse.

So what's the good news? Well, I get to live in Paris. 

Let me say that again. Look carefully and you may catch a glimpse of stars twinkling somewhere in my eyes.

I get to live in Paris.

And for all I have never fallen in love with Paris, never wanted to live there and am totally cynical about the city's supposed magic, I really am happy about it.

You see, after months of to-ing and fro-ing in the endless Paris vs Suburbia debate, the personal, the financial, the professional and the practical all came down on the side of city living, and, a couple of weeks ago, I took the decision to terminate the lease on my charming suburban bachelorette pad and move in with Understanding Frenchman on the other side of town. Since I did, it has become clear that it was the right thing to do. Obviously, I'm happy that UFM and I will no longer be semi-permanent guests in each other's houses. And two good friends have recently moved to the same part of town, so we've been enjoying Saturday morning coffees and wandering along the canal, while my bank balance is taking a hit from me being able to stroll along the rue de Rivoli on my way home from work. The sun has come out over the past few weeks (sort of, some of the time) and I'm noticing that our arondissement has easy access to plenty of the green spaces I thought I would miss. More than anything, I feel that my our life has been given a renewed burst of energy and we are stepping forward to all sorts of interesting places. Surely that will be enough to get me out of bed on the dark winter mornings?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Fine Food at the Tip of La Fourchette

I've never bothered blogging about the website because, being one of those people who is usually the last to hear about anything, I just assumed that everybody knew about it. Last week, however, a French colleague told me that she had only just discovered it, so having had another great dinner last Saturday evening thanks to La Fourchette's reviews and discounted prices, I thought I'd share the news with any readers who come out from under their stones even more rarely than I do.

La Fourchette is a website which lists restaurants in all the major cities in France, as well as lots of smaller towns. If you book via the site, you get a reduction, which can be up to 50% off the à la carte prices, depending on the restaurant, the time and the day of the week. After you've been to at least three, you can publish reviews of places you've found via the website, so there are lots of reliable critiques which you can read before you book anything. In general, you get better deals on quiet week nights - the best I've ever had was a gorgeous place on the Ile Saint Louis on a Tuesday evening - but newer places also often have good offers at the weekend because they're trying to make themselves known.

Our most recent experience was at Le Tire-Bouchon, on rue de Charenton. With the 30% discount, we paid just under 50 euros for a main course, dessert and glass of wine for 2 people. For main course, I had magret de canard aux pruneaux and Understanding Frenchman had noix de Saint-Jaques in a creamy mushroom sauce. We both really enjoyed our main courses, and the portions were very generous, so you'd have to be hungry to need a starter as well. Several people around us were having cassoulet, which looked delicious but maybe would have been a better choice in the middle of winter than the sunniest weekend in June. The desserts were less exciting: I had a standard-fare moelleux au chocolat and UFM had fromage blanc au miel.
What I particularly appreciated about the restaurant, though, was that it felt very cosy and much more like something that you find in the provinces than in Paris. If you ever have visitors in the capital and want to give them a more rustic French experience, Le Tire-Bouchon could be the place to go. Overall we were very happy with our evening, although at full price it would have been a bit expensive for what it was ... which is all the more reason to give La Fourchette a go!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

How to Sell a Beaten-up Secondhand Car in a Hurry

I wrote back in February about what happened when my dear little Clio started having seizures on the motorway and we were obliged to call the police from the dangerous surroundings of a toll barrier car park. Well, the follow-up to that story was that La Clio did get us all the way to the mountains (and back again ... slowly)  but the problem turned out not to be as minor as we initially thought and, finding myself with a quote for repairs that was three times what I had paid for the car, I decided it was time to say goodbye.

The day afterwards, I put my ad online, then turned on the engine to make sure the battery hadn't gone flat. It hadn't, but there was an odd thudding noise coming from the engine. It was definitely time to say goodbye, and fast. Two days later, the car was gone and my finances had been given a little bit of a boost. Here's how to do what I did:

1. Set the price. You can get the trade price from L'Argus, but you have to pay. ParuVendu does a free version. I ended up knocking quite a lot off that (more than the quote I was given for the repairs) but by this stage I wasn't too bothered.

2. Place the advert. I put mine on Le Bon Coin and it was published immediately. Within 24 hours I had about 20 replies, asking questions from the polite "Est-ce qu'il y a des frais de réparation à prévoir?" to "Quelle (sic) est le problème?" I made the mistake of replying to all of them with more details immediately, which resulted in 2 people calling me at 11pm before I realised my error and turned my phone off. But, as I found out, things go quickly in the used car business.

3. Arrange to show some buyers the car.I quickly discovered that the easiest way was to sell to a professional. If you sell to a private buyer, you have to have a Contrôle Technique that's no more than 6 months old (although the car doesn't actually have to pass; you just need the piece of paper). I also found that the private buyers who contacted me were a bit unrealistic in their expectations: they wanted me to tell them in detail everything that was wrong with the car (and at the price I was asking, there was clearly something really quite wrong) before even coming to see it, whereas the first professional I spoke to only wanted to know if I would sell immediately if he liked what he saw.

I was a bit worried about the whole business of the CT, because if you sell to a private buyer without one, they can then demand that you pay for all the repairs the car needs to get it to pass, and I was scared that the people claiming to be professionals might be private scammers, but I found out that if you get their name, you can search on the internet and find out if they have a SIRET number.

4. Prepare the paperwork. You can download everything by going to your local préfecture's website, and even fill in the details before you print out the forms.

5. Meet the buyer. Mine turned up 4 hours late, at 10pm, in another beat-up car with a couple of his mates, but I didn't find the whole thing as uncomfortable as I thought I might. They had a look at the car and asked a few questions, which I was able to answer fairly honestly without telling them all the details of what I had been told by the other garage, drove the car up and down the street and looked at the service history.

6. Negociate the price. I didn't give my "dernier prix" the first time he asked what it was, or the second, but that's what I ended up selling for. I was ok with that though.

7. Collect the cash, sign the paperwork, make sure everyone has copies of everything, et voilà, you are no longer the owner of a beaten-up rustbucket that doesn't accelerate up hills very well.

8. Send your paperwork off to the préfecture (within 15 days).

9. Cancel your insurance. (You need a copy of the form you sent to the préfecture.)

10. (Optional) Take out a Vélib subscription!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Playing with Words

A while back, Understanding Frenchman and I were watching TV and an advert for a well-known internet dating site came up. Suddenly, there was a flash as the little lightbulb in my brain switched on and I realised that "Meetic" is not just a corny franglais amalgam of "meet" and "clic" but also a pun on the word "mythique". It only took me about 7 years ...

Actually, though, this happens to me all the time in France. It took me several months to work out that an ImagineR metro card is actually "imaginaire" and that an idTGV is nothing to do with identity and everything to do with ideas. And then there's the Acadomia advert that says "Hugo est un crack aux échecs mais sa manque de confiance le met en échec en maths" which annoyed me for months for completely different reasons before I realised that the last three words are a play on "échec et mat", the French for "checkmate", and it started to make me smile instead.

You see, although I love play on words in both French and English, I think that when it comes to French I suffer from a kind of "pun-blindness". In the examples above, I knew all the words, I knew all the meanings and I knew how to pronounce them correctly, but somehow when it came to making that crucial connection, I just missed it.

When the lightbulb does go on, though, it's a great feeling. And sometimes it does work straight away. I was walking down the platform of the RER the other day when a poster for this event caught my eye. The RATP is an official partner of the Rock en Seine music festival (yes, there's a pun in there too) and to promote it is organising a competition on the 21st June where you can dress up as a rocker and go and have your photo taken to try and win tickets for the festival. The location of the competition? Where else but Duroc metro station?

Thursday, 13 June 2013

A Tale of Many Cities

A couple of weeks ago, when one of my friends moved house, I took home a pile of books from her "clearing out" heap. First out of the bag and on to my coffee table was Andrew Hussey's Paris: the Secret History, which tells the story of the city from its beginnings as Gallo-Roman Lutetia right up to the present day. Since then it has often beaten my phone and my laptop as entertainment of choice, whether I'm lounging on the sofa or squashed into a crowded carriage on the RER at rush hour. While I love reading, sometimes the immediate attractions of online news, the blogosphere and facebook (often at the same time) do tend to take over, so for good old fashioned print to take over, it has to be something good.

I'm no history buff, so what is it about this book that has captured my interest and imagination so much? It's very readable, but it's not dumbed down to the level of, say Bill Bryson, so I'm certainly not reading for the humour. Firstly, of course, there's the local interest. I found it fun to learn that one of my favourite high-street shopping places, the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was once a hotbed of political unrest and the cradle of the French revolution, or to know that Colonel Fabien metro stop is named after a Communist resistant who shot a Nazi official on the platform there.

Secondly, although I have a preference for more recent history, the chronology of Paris' development is beautifully explained, and while my French general knowledge isn't bad for a foreigner, it's really helped me to understand things like why there were three Napoleons, and, crucially, how they fit into the bigger picture of the past.

Mostly, however, I love the fact that the book explains history from the perspective of ordinary people. The author is evidently a bit of lefty (he also emphasises endlessly the number of prostituates in Paris, which was about the only thing that annoyed me about the book), and while there is plenty of information about kings, emperors and generals, the story is mainly that of les petits gens, and the impact that the decisions of the great and not-so-good had on their lives.

For me this is important because the Paris I have always experienced, from the first time I stepped of the regional train from my first French home in Picardie and experienced the shifting human seas of the Gare du Nord before I caught any glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. So many travel books, articles and blogs focus on City of Lights Paris, all glamour, sophistication and fancy places to eat, but there are other cities too: that of the homeless men who sleep in the tunnels of the metro, far below the gilded facade of the opera house, or of the millions of commuters who traipse past them every day in another round of metro-boulot-dodo. It's the Paris of the parents who use the tramway, because it's easier to put a buggy on to than the trains, and the millions of people who shop in Simply market and not the Bon Marche.

This is not to say that there's anything wrong with the other Paris, of course. I like beautiful architecture, pretty clothes and fine dining as much as the next person. It's just that a city which rebels, revolts riots and goes on strike becomes a lot easier to understand when you take notice of the fact that ordinary people live there too.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

How to Move House, Parisian Style

The first thing you need to know is: never, ever hire a removal company. In the same way as Parisians make taking a granny-style shopping trolley to the shops look far more chic than driving your car could ever be, all the best déménagements are DIY affairs.This is not just true for poor students. Even if you own a washing machine, a fridge and several children, you and your mates can do as good a job as any pros.
Pack up your stuff. As your new Parisian apartment is doubtless tiny, you will probably have a lot of things to get rid of. You can sell second-hand books to Gibert Jeune at St Michel and advertise bigger things for free on Le Bon Coin, but the easiest way to dispose of anything that isn't of much value to you is to simply put it out on the street. Within a few hours you can guarantee that it will have been taken away by a man in a van. Regardless of the fact that the van may have red-and-white warning strips down the side and a rotating light on top, this is in no way official, as you will realise when you see that in the back of the van are a couple of the driver's mates, his wife and kids and possibly a large dog, but it's quick, efficient, and at least it saves all your unwanted possessions from ending up as landfill.
If you own a car, this is probably the moment when you realise that that Opel Corsa you bought because it would be easy to park in Paris is never going to be big enough for all of your stuff. Depending on the scale of the problem, you can either hire a van or do a few return trips on the metro with a 60-litre rucksack and a giant trolly suitcase. (Do not ever attempt this at rush hour. If you're taking the RER, aim for the carriages that are designed to take bikes, as they have more space.)
At this point, you will need some extra manpower to carry all your worldly belongings. This is where you find out how many friends you really have, as anyone willing to carry your double mattress up to your 6ième étage sans ascenseur apartment is a true friend (or planning to move in the near future and is hoping you'll return the favour).
As you're packing, don't forget that it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to park right outside your new front door. Make sure everything is well protected and can be removed quickly, as you'll either have to carry it in your arms as you face the elements or dump it on the pavement as you unload the van as quickly as possible before you create gridlock by parking in a narrow one-way street with your hazard lights on. (Another option is to park in a bus stop, but you definitely want to be done unloading before the irate man from the RATP drives up.)
When carrying everything upstairs, it's a good idea to do relays, with a friend stationed on every other landing. That way you break up the going up with some going down and nobody has to carry the heaviest things too far.
And finally, when everything is finished and you are comfortably installed in your new residence, don't forget to take all your willing helpers out for drinks or dinner. After all, that's the real reason Parisians don't use removal companies: the DIY versions is just too good an excuse to have a party. With two of my good friends having moved into Paris in the past fortnight, I should know.