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 www.lafourchette.com 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.