Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Great Carpet Debate

"One day, if we ever buy a flat of our own," I said, "it will definitely have fitted carpets."

My British friends nodded in agreement. Understanding Frenchman gave me a look that said, "Over my dead body."

As with the Great Plate Debate, I know that we are not the only bi-cultural couple to be having this particular discussion. My British friends and I find it bizarre that many French homes don't have carpets anywhere, not even in the bedroom. I can understand going for a particularly nice wooden floor or some carefully chosen rugs as part of a stylish decoration scheme, but I find it very weird, for example, to see my French friends' babies and young children, sitting playing with their toys on a cold tiles or bog-standard Ikea flooring solution. This is one of the major reasons that French houses, even the nicest ones, never feel cosy to me.

I can see why, if you lived in the south, where it's warm for most of the year and staying cool in summer is a problem, you might go for a more Mediterranean style. (That said, my Scottish friend who live in Andalucia complains every winter of being freezing in houses that are designed to resist the heat.) In the north, though, keeping warm in winter is definitely more of an issue that cold in summer.

The reason, according to my sources of cultural insight into all things French, is hygiene. Apparently fitted carpet used to be popular in French homes, but a rise in allergies and an accompanying fear of dust mites, coupled with the fact that you can't mop a carpet with disposable antibacterial wipes, is a key cause in their demise.

C'est dommage.

Monday, 9 June 2014

My Real Life in France

Taking inspiration from Eyelean and Den Nation, I've decided to follow the latest blogging trend and write a little overview of my very ordinary life in Paris.

We live in a one bedroom flat on the eastern side of the city. It's not particularly charming; in fact, architecturally, it reminds me more of my student halls of residence than anything else. However, what it lacks in that department, it largely makes up on in practicalities: we have a lift, bike storage and could have taken a parking space too but we're so close to all kinds of public tranpsort that having a car would be totally pointless. Our neighbourhood is pretty mixed, with a fairly equal balance of social housing, private renters and owners, and there are lots of families and  different nationalities here. You see the odd bit of anti-social behaviour (mainly kids doing things they shouldn't be doing), and plenty of the stereotypical but unfortunately not idyllic Parisian dog dirt, but in general it feels safe to me.

Like most people in Paris, our big inconveniences are high property prices and long commutes. It's more or less impossible for us to move closer to work and still live in or close to Paris without it costing us a fortune, so the result is that between us we spend well over 4 hours on public transport every day ... and that's on a good day. (This probably explains why a disproportionate number of my posts about Paris go on and on about the metro and the RER... sorry about that!) Another thing that annoys me from time to time is the quality of the supermarkets - having a full-time job and a budget to stick to means that doing everything in small local shops is impossible, but without a car to get to the big out-of-town hypermarkets, we're stuck with the local Franprix or its competitors, with high prices for very ordinary products, not much choice and the slightly dubious smell towards the end of the freezer department.

On the upside, I've really come to love the eastern side of Paris. Unlike the west, which feels soulless and uber-rich, and the centre, which stresses me out because it's always so busy and crowded, the eastern arrondissements are, in general, very human. There aren't many major tourist sights, but we do have good everyday shopping, fun places to go out around Bastille and the canal, and pretty green spaces like the Bois de Vincennes and the Promenade Plantée, which all help to keep me sane. 

Then there are moments in my life that really do make me feel as though I'm living the Parisian dream. Strolling through the Marais on the way home from work and meeting friends for wine and an assiette mixte on a weeknight, for example, or rollerblading beside the Seine on a Sunday afternoon. To counteract the stinky Franprix, we buy most of our fruit and vegetables at the market and pop into the boulangerie roughly every other day.

Finally there are advantages which are more to do with convenience, like being near to two international airports and a twice daily collection for oversized rubbish, (Can you tell I moved house recently? In the suburbs the les encombrants could only be picked up once a fortnight!)  but these are more to do with being in a big city than specific to France, and certainly wouldn't pop into anyone's mind as they dream of their future expat paradise.

So, on balance, do I feel that living in France has catapulted me into a dream lifestyle that I would never otherwise have known? At the end of a long day of working and commuting, where there hasn't been so much as a glimpse of the Eiffel tower or Notre Dame and all Understanding Frenchman and I can do is collapes in front of the TV after a quick non-gourment dinner, then answer to that would certainly be a resounding "no". (In fact, on reflection, I think that being very rich and not having to go to work would go a long way to allowing me to live the dream, which probably explains why it is just a dream for the vast majority of people!) On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that living on the eastern side of Paris offers a good balance of beauty, interest and remaining in touch with reality, and I've realised that all of these things are important to me. Life here certainly has its gritty moments, but most of the time it's good!


Sunday, 1 June 2014

How to Be Nice in Paris

After a nice commenter wrote after my last post that I seem to have a very positive attitude towards the challenges of living in Paris, I've decided to permit myself a little moany post about one of the things that I do genuinely find very difficult to deal with, after I encountered a perfect example of it today.

Understanding Frenchman and I were coming back from visiting my brother in England for the weekend. We flew out of a small regional airport on a little propellor plane that only had seats for about 80 people and, as a result, also had very small luggage compartments. We had taken only hand luggage and our suitcases, which were the maximum size allowed on board, only just fitted into the small space. We boarded the plane and Understanding Frenchman waited for me to squeeze my case into the space above our seats. But just as I finished pushing mine into place and was about to help him with his, the couple behind us slipped a small bag into the remaining space, leaving us with not enough space for the suitcase.

I looked at the space, I looked at him and I looked at the couple behind, who were looking straight ahead, seemingly innocent of the problem they had just caused us.

"Ask them to move the bag," I whispered to UFM, "otherwise we're just going to have to take someone else's compartment and the problem will carry on right the way down the plane."

UFM, being the gentleman that he is, hesitated, but eventually asked the couple if they could move the bag into the locker above their own seats.

"If there's space," humphed the woman.

"You can also put it under the seat in front of you," explained UFM, and in the end that is what the woman, somewhat grudgingly, did.

I sat down feeling what I eventually convinced myself was unreasonably annoyed by the incident. After all, we were the ones with the bulky luggage, nobody ever said that on a plane you are entitled to use the locker that happens to be directly above your seat and, even if the couple's behaviour was a bit inconsiderate, they did as we asked, everyone had space for everything and no harm was done.

It was only when we got off the plane that Understanding Frenchman commented, "She was a bit out of order, that woman behind us."

"Why?" I asked, having made peace with my own reaction to the incident.

"She saw that I was about to put my suitcase up and she told her husband to 'dépèche-toi' and get their bag in first," he explained. "I think they were surprised when I spoke to them in French and they realised I had understood."

We had a bit of a giggle about the fact that the woman should have at least had the grace to be a bit ashamed by her behaviour but both agreed that, obviously being one of a very particular kind of parisienne, she almost certainly didn't. And this is what bothers me from time to time about Paris. I don't believe that all Parisians are rude, and in fact I would say I encounter obviously kind behaviour more often than this kind of stuff. I try my best not to live in the self-absorbed bubble that can be a very natural defence against the anonymous indifference of the city. I give up my seat to old people on the metro, hold doors open for people and carry buggies up and down steps for struggling mamas. When people do nice things for me, I appreciate it, make a point of saying thank you and resolve to keep the good vibes circulating by helping somebody else out. And then, just every so often, I encounter someone like those two who is not only totally selfish and totally unembarrassed about it, but also somehow manages to make me feel bad for calling her out on it.

Is there a solution to the problem? Well, after a few experiences like this one, I would say I'm starting to have more faith in my instincts for who deserves the benefit of the doubt and who doesn't, so from now on I'm resolving to stand my ground (politely, of course) when requesting that people stop being so self-centred, and save as much kindness and compassion as possible for the rest of the world.