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!