Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Desperate Person's Guide to Getting Fit in Paris

A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated the anniversary of my move to Paris. While there have been many wonderful things about this year, there have, without a doubt, been some drawbacks too. The biggest of these is, of course, the endless hours of commuting, and their accompanying fallout which, as well as lack of sleep and reduced tolerance for other human beings, has included a significant reduction in the amount of exercise I get in an average week.

When I lived in the suburbs, I used to walk to and from the RER station just about every day. It added an extra 15 minutes or so on to my travel time, but with the whole commute coming in at around 45 minutes each way, I could easily afford it. Now, in my never-ending battle to win back time from the RATP, I rarely sacrifice vital minutes, but I nevertheless have even less time in the evenings and at weekends to get off my backside and do something active.

The consequence of all of this was that summer came around and I realised that while I wasn't significantly fatter, I was definitely flabbier and not nearly as fit as I used to do. And given that I had arranged to spend a week in July backpacking in the Pyrenees with a friend who is the human equivalent of the Duracell bunny some action had to be taken. Here are some of the things I did:

Walk at the end of my commute: there is no commuter's regret greater than realising that because you took the time to walk to the station, you missed the last train before rush-hour disaster set in. I found it easier to walk from the RER to our flat in the evening, when I knew that the risky part of my journey was over.

Cycle: light mornings and evenings, coupled with improving weather, meant that I started to take more advantage of my Vélib subscription. I also discovered that, while the centre of Paris is pretty flat, if you want some serious hill training, all you have to do is ride along the cycle path that follows the tramlines 3a and 3b, taking in the 13th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, where there are hills so steep that there are even warnings on some of the tram stops about the gradient. Understanding Frenchman and I also cycled out along the voie verte to visit friends in Antony. We arrived hot, sweaty and late, but it was definitely a good workout. (Just be aware that while you can put your bike on the RER, you're not allowed to take it on the metro, the tramway or the buses, as we discovered as we tried to make our way back home in an impending thunderstorm.)

Fontainebleau Rocks
Hike: if you want a more challening trail than the streets of Paris, head out to Fontainebleau, where you can clock up an impressive altitude gain over the course of the day and enjoy scrambling over rocks in the process. We also went to the Forêt de Notre Dame in search of a change from our usually wander round the Bois de Vincennes.

Try Zumba: I was lucky enough to be able to attend weekly classes through work, but when that finished for the summer, a friend and I tried out the classes offered by Zumba France. These take place in nightclubs around Paris and there are several classes every evening of the week. You can do a trial for ten euros, then after that they are quite pricey, at 14 euros a time (although you can buy a subscription if you plan to go often), but we had a lot of fun and this was one of the most effective things that we did. After just a couple of classes, I felt so much better - Zumba is a good cardio workout but there was quite a lot of toning involved too. My friend wore a heartrate monitor and it reckoned that she was working in the ideal zone and burning over 400 calories per hour. Plus, it's so much fun and you have to concentrate hard on the steps, so you forget to notice how hard your body is working!

Have a metro ban: I didn't do this, but friends of ours once trained for a trek in Nepal by banning public transport from their lives. (They don't have a car either.) Everywhere they wenrt, they either walked or cycled, and as they live in the 19th, at one of those Vélib stations where you get extra points if you leave a bike, they got fit pretty fast!

Climb the stairs: being lucky enough to live in a modern building with a lift, we tend to use it when actually we could easily walk. I always find it a bit annoying when magazine articles suggest you can get fit just by walking instead of taking the lift, but if you do it with a heavy bag of shopping after doing one of the other activities on the list, you'll get a fairly similar feeling in your legs to what you might experience at the end of a long day of hiking! (A friend of mine who lives in an 18-storey building took this technique way further and actually made a point of climbing from the bottom to the top of her building several times per day and getting the concierge to record her progress. She doesn't live in Paris though - I suspect you'd get funny looks if you tried that here!).

Run (slowly). I actually hate running, but Understanding Frenchman and I went out one day and I think he was a good influence on me, because I have a tendency to go too fast and give up too soon. It was helpful to have a running partner with more self-discipline, and we managed 25 minutes at a fairly steady pace.

The best news is that doing all of these things really worked! I could feel muscles coming back where previously it had all been a little bit wobbly, and the trip to the Pyrenees was a roaring success because the Duracell Bunny and I turned out to have similar levels of fitness and motivation. Whether I'll be able to keep it up in the dark days of November remains to be seen, but at least I know how much difference just a little bit of time and effort can make!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Projet Potager - Update

Since I last wrote about my failure to grow radishes and my joy at having little flower seedlings sprout on my windowsill, my determination to have a little garden in Paris has grown with all the vigour and resilience of the mint plant that almost filled an entire window box until I tried to cut it down to size and killed it off entirely. I'm still far from being an expert, but here are a few things I've learned along the way:

- Magic Compost is, well, magic, especially if you don't have much gardening space and have to carry everything you buy home on public transport. It comes in 17 litre bags, but they don't weigh much because it's dry. When you add water at home, it swells up to three times the volume, making it a much cheaper option than the small bags of compost I bought first time round.

- It's hard to grow radishes on a Parisian windowsill. I don't know whether it's to do with the soil, the climate or the fact that a windowbox just isn't deep enough, but I've had three rounds of radish plants with beautiful foliage and long, skinny pink roots that taste of radish but just don't have any volume to them. I have also learned, however, that radish leaves are perfectly edible!

- Basil, on the other hand, can be cultivated with some tender loving care. I planted some from seed, made sure they got plenty of light and planted them outside as soon as the weather got warmer. Yesterday I decided it was finally safe to harvest a few leaves to add to my salad and my sense of truimph was almost as powerful as the sweet flavour of the basil.

- Don't love your flowers too much. I actually have far more boxes with flowers in them than herbs, because most of our windows overlook the main road. My first round of flowers came from a mixed seed packet of annuals for window boxes and balconies. I sowed them at the end of April, more or less left them be, and by early May I had what looked like a mini-meadow on my windowsill. The meadow was a little crowded though, so for the second box, I made a point of sowing the seeds more thinly. I did the same with two other boxes of single types of flowers. In the mixed box, the plants have chosen to grow large and floppy and the flowers are much slower in coming, while in the others I have healthy crops of thick green leaves with not a sign of a bud.

- Finally, it is possible to kill mint. Mine was filling a whole window box, so I tried to dig it up and separate it into a couple of plants to put in smaller pots. Despite the mass of roots and even shoots with little leaves on them growing underground, this was clearly too much for the plant and it died. I'll probably buy some more, but this time I'm going to keep in in a smaller pot in the hope of having a smaller plant with bigger leaves, instead of hundreds of tiny ones which, quite frankly, just don't look so good in a mojito.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Shoe Gardens and Football in Berlin

Hen weekend shenanigans aside, I didn't really do much sightseeing this time round in Berlin. It was my third trip, so I'd already seen the major monuments, and with temperatures up to about 30 degrees most days, enjoying the outdoors seemed like a better use of time.

My "hidden gem" discovery in Berlin was the gardens of the Schloß Schönhausen. The Schönhauser Allee is one of the main arteries of Berlin, so famous there was even a book written about it, but few people seem to know that if you continue north into Pankow, in an area slightly to the east of the main road that is mainly filled with block-like typical DDR apartment buildings, you will come across this little castle, set in verdant grounds. Admittedly, the "castle" itself is not that impressive (it's more of a stately home), but even on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July, its grounds were like a quiet little Eden where my friend and I were able to relax on the lawn (we may even have fallen asleep ... ) with almost nobody else to disturb us. And, unlike in the worn-out Mauerpark, the grass was actually green!

On another hot day, my friend took me to Tempelhoferfeld, which last time I went to Berlin was still a working airfield but has now been turned into a public park. Tempelhof airport was the site of the Berlin airlift, which took place in 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked access to Berlin from the west in an attempt to make the whole city dependent on Soviet supplies. The success of the western allies in delivering necessities by air via Tempelhof was one of the factors which resulted in the creation of the two separate German states. Nowadays, the airport building is used for conferences and exhibitions and you can run, cycle, rollerblade or even take a Sedgway around the old runways. One part of the park has been turned into what look like little and somewhat unofficial allotments, of which this was my favourite:

The other big event of my trip was watching the World Cup semi-finals. We went to Emils Biergarten on the Berliner Strasse, where bars have been set up in converted industrial buildings (actually, I don't think much converting really went on!) surrounding a pebbled yard where a big TV screen had been set up. After half-watching far too many dull games go on into extra time from our Parisian sofa, I can't say I was particularly looking forward to this one, but wow, what a match! I kept thinking we were watching replays, then realising that we weren't, as Germany scored goal after goal. And every time, the venue erupted with cheers, my friends and I high-fived and somebody not far off set off some fireworks. When it was over, we walked down to Ebenswalder Strasse, where lots of fans were celebrating in the street. At this point, I started feeling a bit out of things, as everyone was singing songs I didn't know ("sieben, eins" and "so schoen" came into it a lot!) and trying to do a thing where everybody was supposed to crouch down then stand up again at the same time, except that it never really worked. Although there was a fair amount of drinking going on, and everyone was banging on the tram windows as they tried to drive past, it was all being done in good spirits and I definitely felt I had had an exciting new cultural experience!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Four Years

Four years ago yesterday, I went on a first date. After a stroll by the canal and a couple of hours of conversation during which I discovered nothing but good things about this attractive Frenchman who I had met through mutual friends a couple of days earlier, we said our au revoirs and went our separate ways.

That evening, I went to an expat meetup which, with it being the 14th of July, inevitably ended with us heading down to the river to watch the Trocadero fireworks.

It was the end of a long year of transition for me, a year in which much of life had not quite gone to plan, but that evening it seemed as if certain things might finally be starting to go right. I remember standing there on the bridge and feeling so happy to be there, surrounded by potential friends and with all sorts of possible experiences ahead.

Last night was the first time since that evening four years ago that I was actually in Paris for the 14th July. We watched the fireworks from that same bridge and this time I was surrounded by that same wonderful Frenchman and lots of close friends.

This year, I didn't just feel happy to be there. I felt happy to belong.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Hen-Nighting in Berlin

I wrote a post a while back about how one of the best things about travelling in your twenties is having friends all over the world that you can go and visit in your thirties (and beyond, I hope!). If you're still living abroad in your thirties, the chances are that that network is still growing and the opportunities for meeting up in different places are developing exponentially - there is some compensation for all those tearful goodbyes after all!

And so it was last weekend, when one of my English friends from Paris had her hen do in Berlin because her Australian friend who also normally lives in Paris and was organising the hen weekend happens to be working in Berlin for the year and it seemed like the best thing to do. For me, it worked out particualarly well because it also gave me the chance to catch up with my German friend from my assistant year in France and and Australian girl I worked with in Italy. (Hi, Gemma!)

Berlin turned out to be a great destination for a hen weekend, especially for a group like ours who were all more interested in relaxing and sightseeing than binge drinking and leching. The bride was taken out to brunch and then to Show Me, a cabaret-style performance at the Friedrichstadt theatre that is apparently "the largest ensuite show in the western world." As well as lots of dancing and singing incredibe costumes, there was spectacular acrobatics and a few surprises that I won't mention here in case anyone is going to see the show themselves. I've never been to the Moulin Rouge or the Lido in Paris, but the general consensus was that there was probably a lot less nakedness - there was a lot of body stocking involved, and the only time when nipple tassles made an appearance, the bodies behind them weren't actually visible at all. (Go and see the show to find out more!)

Next up was a tour around the main sights on a Conference bike - hard to describe, so here's a photo stolen from someone else's blog:

Everybody is supposed to pedal (the people at the front of the bike pedal forwards but travel backwards, which is strange!) but as there is only one gear, on the flat or downhill it feels as though the pedalling is having no effect at all, while the slightest uphill makes it hard work for everyone. I have to say as well that Berlin's drivers were remarkable tolerant of our slow and somewhat ungainly progress!

After the bike tour, we drank champagne by the river before heading over to a tapas bar-type restaurant in Mitte. We were all a bit thrown by the fact that they only served German wines, as we were only really familiar with Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, but the waitress recommended a delicious light red that we liked so much we managed to get through several bottles quite easily!

By this point we were all quite tired, but we decided to have one last drink before going home to bed.
To get into the bar we went to, you had to ring the bell outside a very unobtrusive looking door and wait to be admitted. I think this might be something to do with the fact that it was a "Raucher Bar" (smoking bar), although in fact Berlin's smoking ban is very weak and not very often enforced in places that don't sell food, so perhaps the secrecy was all just for show. I personally am a huge fan of the smoking ban, so I was a bit skeptical about going to this place, especially as nobody in our group was even a smoker, but in fact there were only a few other people there and nobody was smoking, so we were able to enjoy the comfy sofas and posh cocktails until eventually none of us could keep our eyes open any longer and we headed home.

I opted out of the next day's first activity, which was another bike tour, this time on ordinary bikes, which was a tour of places the locals go to off the tourist track. The others enjoyed it, but as it involved four hours of cycling in the blazing sunshine after a fairly early start, I didn't regret my choice. Later on, we all went over to the Mauerpark, which used to be part of the Death Strip (the area behind the Berlin Wall where the Eastern Bloc had their defences) and is now a public park with a fleamarket and outdoor karaoke on Sunday afternoons. The karaoke has become something of a tourist attraction, and with a 2-hour wait to sing, we didn't actually participate, but it was fun to watch. We rounded off the evening with a delicious Vietnamese dinner on Schoenhauser Allee and some corny photos underneath a sign not unlike this one: