Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Living in a Shoebox (or Why You Should Have Moved to Paris Ten Years Ago)

If ever in Paris you tire of gazing at the window displays of designer boutiques and gasping at the prices, there is another alternative: the estate agents.  Ever since the Paris vs Suburbia debate first arose in my mind a couple of years ago, property shop windows have been just like luxury clothes shops to me: I am initally attracted by the beauty of what's on offer, then realise how completely unaffordable it all is and reassure myself with the thought that even if I did have the cash to spare, none of the options would really fit my lifestyle anyway.

As "a couple of years in France" continues to stretch out indefinitely in front of me, though, and I start to consider things more seriously, I find myself in need of some hard numbers and actual statistics. If four bedrooms and a roof terrace in the 6th isn't affordable, something is going to have to be. A quick look at one of the online maps like this one soon rules out a few possibilities:

The stats on that map relate to September 2011, but the long-predicted fall in prices hasn't happened yet. For those of you who haven't spent months practising square metre calculations in your heads, at the prices shown on the map, buying a1-bedroom flat is around 600 000 euros in the 6th and 7th, while in the "affordable" 19th it falls to 300 000 euros. Rental prices follow the same pattern: 1750 euros per month in the expensive areas, falling to 900 for the cheapest of the cheap.
You might think that higher salaries in Paris would make up for this, but because France has a law that you cannot spend more than one third of your income (net of social charges) on rent or mortgage repayments, the difference in salary would have to be enormous to cover the difference. So if you're not taking home at least 2700 euros per month (almost double the median salary), if you're single, that 1 bedroom flat is out of your price range. And because so many people are in the same (cramped)boat, there's even more pressure on the bottom end of the market, pushing the prices proportionally even higher for smaller accommodation.
So how does anyone afford to live in Paris? Well plenty just put up with occupying a very small space (and optimise what they have - there's a reason for all those Espace Loggia adverts on the metro). Most people move out when they have children. But the other reason is that they simply got here before now. Ten years ago, rents were half of what they are now, and once you've signed the lease can only be increased by an agreed percentage every year. As people living in cheaper apartments gradually move on thought, it's expected that places like Belleville will become increasingly "gentrified". I already have the feeling that some of the more expensive areas are becoming a bit like ghost towns, with only older people living there, and no sign of children and young families anywhere. So if you got here in the early 2000s and are planning on staying put, you're one of the lucky ones.
Fortunately for the rest of us, we live in a great city to be out and about in. Who needs room to swing a cat when you have Paris on your doorstep?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Cultural Differences

Looking out of the window at the weekend, as the blue sky and sunshine turned suddenly to a landscape of black clouds and pouring rain, Understanding Frenchman asked me, "How do you say 'giboulée de mars' in English?"

"April shower," I replied, and we laughed.

Another French expression to do with springtime weather is "En avril ne te découvre pas d'un fil." The best translation I could find was the Scots "Don't cast a cloot til May be oot."

With temperatures hovering around zero, 15cm of snow in Paris last week and endless, endless rain, France has a lot of warming up to do if it's to live up to cultural expectations!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Much Ado About A Great Show

One of the great things about living in Paris is the incredible choice of cultural activities that you have available right on your doorstep. But one of the hard things about living in a city where a search for event tickets on www.billetreduc.com throws up over 7000 options is deciding which one to choose. As a result, it's easy to find yourself paralysed by too much choice and to end up doing nothing.

Which is why I was really happy when one of my friends told us that she was appearing in an English-language production of Much Ado About Nothing, because there was no way I was going to miss it.

The show is performed by a troupe of 5 actors and a musician, and clever use of costumes and minimalist scenery allow them to take on different roles and make clever use of the intimate space. I wasn't familiar with this particular play, but the strong characterisation and humorous interpretation of the roles made it easy to become quickly engrossed in the story. French translations were shown on a screen but Understanding Frenchman, who had read the synopsis in the programme beforehand, found it was quite easy to follow the story without them.

Watching this show left me with a big smile on my face, just as comedy is intended to do, and I would recommend it to anyone who's interested in seeing a bit of anglophone culture in Paris!

Much Ado About Nothing (Beaucoup de bruit pour rien) is on at the Theatre de Nesle until the end of March.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

A First Time for Everything

A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I had to make a call to the emergency services. The idea of having to do this in France has always terrified me, not only because I'm convinced that my linguistic skills will desert me and I'll lose precious seconds that could save someone's life, but also because in France, unlike in the UK, there are different numbers, depending on which service you need. For the police it's 17 and for the fire brigade it's 18, but in the case of a medical emergency, you have to decide whether it's serious enough to call the SAMU (15) or whether the situation can be dealt with by the pompiers (18), who often intervene for example in the case of accidents.

In our case, however, it actually wasn't an emergency at all.

We were driving to the Alps when, about 60km south of Paris, the car broke down on the motorway. There was no smoke, fire or explosions, and we didn't crash into anything; it just wouldn't accelerate and shook violently when we tried to go over about 40km per hour. So we proceded slowly and shakily along the (empty) motorway, took the nearest exit, parked in the car park just after the toll barrier and called the insurance company. (I have breakdown assistance as part of my insurance policy).

At which point, bureaucracy kicked in. Despite the fact that we were safely parked in a designated parking space and were sitting in the car contemplating whether to have a sandwich while we waited for the mechanic to arrive, we were officially still in a "motorway zone". This was because the companies can charge far higher rates for breakdown assistance on the motorway than they can on a normal road, and they want to stop people doing exactly what we had just done and avoiding paying the charges, so even if you have just come off the motorway, it actually still counts. And if you break down "on the motorway", you have a choice between using an orange SOS telephone and calling the emergency services. Not being on the motorway, and therefore nowhere near an orange phone, we followed the insurance company's instructions and dialled 112, the emergency number that you can use in all European countries as an alternative to the local numbers.

I felt so guilty as the red alarm signal showed up on the screen of my phone and I waited for someone to pick up. All those childhood lessons about not wasting the emergency services' time came flooding back to me. I expected to be put through to a switchboard that would put me in touch with the appropriate service, but in fact the call went directly through to the pompiers. They told me it was a matter for the police, so then I had to repeat the whole thing again by dialling 17.

In fact, I felt much more relaxed talking to the police, as they were the right people to deal with the situation and because, although they obviously have important work to do just like the fire brigade, at least I wasn't imagining children trapped in burning buildings as I told them that I was safely sitting in my car in a car park. If the same thing ever happens to me again, I'll definitely be phoning 17 direct, whatever the insurance company says. If I ever find myself in a situation that is a case for the pompiers, however, I think I'll be much more confident now that I know what it's like to have to phone them.

Another lesson that I learned is that in France, unlike in the UK where a large percentage of breakdown problems are fixed at the roadside, in France, you might as well drive yourself to the nearest garage if you can, because all the breakdown assistance people are likely to do (and all your insurance is likely to pay for) is tow you there anyway. Sadly though, my poor little car is a bit of an infirm and elderly lady these days and may have to be put into retirement, so my days of driving on French motorways may be over for a while anyway :-(