Chinese New Year

Thursday was the start of Chinese New Year, so one of my colleagues Lisa, who’s Chinese-American, suggested that we got out and celebrate the year of the rabbit with dinner.  It sounded like a good idea, so after work on Friday 7 of us found ourselves in a traditional Chinese restaurant.  The tables and chairs made it look like a giant British greasy spoon, but it was full of Chinese people so it must have been a good place to eat.

The restaurant’s style was a kinda of “Cook it yourself buffet” which Lisa described to us as Chinese Fondue.  It was a lot like the scene in Lost In Translation when they’re given some boiling water and raw meat for lunch.  We were given 2 gas burners for the table and a pot for each one which was split in two to allow it to hold a spicy stock on one side and a non-spicy stock on the other.  Once the stocks were simmering away we went to investigate the buffet.  Most of the vegetables were easily recognisable, and they had some white fish, prawns and crab pieces, but the processed food was a little more difficult.  I tried a strawberry ice cream coloured ball that was about the size of a chestnut, but it tasted like fish and had a really weird rubbery texture.  After the rubber fish experience I decided to be a little less adventurous and stick to what I knew.

Chinese new year fondue

Chinese fondue

After we filled up our first set of plates we got cooking, which was a very social experience as there were 3 or 4 people around each pot trying to fish out something to eat.  I tried cooking some pak choi on the spicy side and had to drink a whole glass of beer afterwards.  Food in Paris is generally not spicy compared to in the UK, but this was a little too hot for me and much too hot for some of my French colleagues.  The food prepared on the non-spicy side was good though, simple and apparently healthy.  Preparing it was fun too, much more hands on than going to a regular restaurant.

Cooking our own food meant that we ate a lot slower than normal as the food wasn’t already prepared when it got to the table.  We also spent a lot of time wandering around the buffet trying to decide what to eat, and once we had chosen and started cooking some things were cooked much more quickly than others.  After a while it felt like we were slowly cooking too as all the gas burners in the restaurant were heating the place up, but for dessert there was a self service ice cream machine so that – along with the large bottles of Tsing Tao beer – helped cool us down again.

Chinese new year beer

Beer and ice cream

In total we spent around 3 hours at the restaurant which is a long time by normal restaurant standards, but Lisa was disappointed as there were supposed to be free karaoke rooms for the customers to use for Chinese New Year.  Luckily (or so I though), they weren’t working but (unfortunately) the owner told us that there was a bar on the next street over that had karaoke rooms.  And so began my Chinese karaoke night, and also my first ever karaoke night.

Most of the songs available were Chinese, but it was possible to select the language so that we could filter out anything that we didn’t understand.  We tried choosing the US flag a few times until we realised that it was actually Malaysian.  Oops!  The English section had quite a lot of songs, most of them bad, but there were a few gems in there like National Express by the Divine Comedy which I hadn’t heard in years and had forgotten how funny it was.  I particularly like the description of the hostess! I guess the person who transcribed the words didn’t know what Frisps were, so they were just crisps in the karaoke version.

Lisa gave us a rendition of one of her favourite Chinese songs before she went home, leaving 3 Frenchmen and me to drink more beer and try to find some songs that we actually liked and knew.  A lot of the English songs were actually covers by Chinese bands, and this meant that they also didn’t have the the original videos.  Many of them were videos featuring boy or girl bands covering classic songs, some of them with a different tune but the lyrics were generally the same.  The video that really surprised me was a cover of Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven whose video had a scantily clad Chinese woman posing for the camera for the whole video.  Not exactly respecting the theme of the song…

Eventually we ran out of songs that we recognised and called it a day, or night, at 1:30am.  I took the Métro home after midnight for the first time, and it was fine.  No very drunk people, no aggressive people, just people going home after a good night out which was nice to see.  On the way home I tried to find anything on my iPod that would wipe the karaoke tunes from my mind.  I didn’t succeed, but I came pretty close, however I still woke up with Love Is All Around in my head on Saturday morning.

Chinese new year colleagues 1

Colleagues

Chinese new year colleagues 2

Colleagues

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Spring clean

I decided to have a look for a new theme for the blog as the old one was very black.  That was OK during the gloomy winter months, but I decided I needed to find something slightly (and only slightly) more exciting for the next few months.

So it’s not perfect, but it’s clean and has a simple sans serif font so it makes a nice change.

Fire!

Last weekend I hooked up with the photo group again.  Someone suggested that we go and see fire breathers on Saturday night and it sounded pretty cool.  It also made me think that there must be hundreds of interesting things going on all over the city that I have no idea about, and somehow I need to find out about them.

After we’d met up we headed to the place it was being held and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’d been raining though, so there were lots of nice reflections on the ground from the streetlights and we were hoping to get the same effect from the fire.

Paris fire reflection

Reflection

When we arrived there were a few fire breathers and people swinging fire poi, and the first thing that we noticed (other than the abundance of fire) was the smell of petrol, which was really really strong.  It was pretty dark when we arrived too, and the fire was the only thing lighting parts of the big square that was around 30m long and wide so it looked impressive.

Paris fire fire poi

Fire poi

Paris fire floating

Floating

Apart from the people playing with fire there were reasonable sized crowds watching the action, and the people standing the closest were all photographers.  I’m not sure how it feels to have so many cameras trained on you, half way to celebrity maybe, but it was quite weird.  One guy turned up on 5m high stilts and spent the evening walking through the crowds.  I’m not really sure how he managed to balance on them all night, but it was certainly different.

Paris fire paparazzi

Paparazzi

I spent 90 minutes walking around in total.  As well as fire poi, there were quite a few people who decided that it was safer not to play with fire and were swinging LED based poi which also looked pretty cool.  It was fun taking photos of orange fire all night, but also nice to find some blue, green or purple glow poi.

Paris fire glow poi

Glow Poi

It was actually the poi that impressed me the most as it seemed the only thing you had to be careful of when fire breathing was not to set yourself on fire, but the poi required concentration, coordination and skill as well as not setting yourself on fire.

Despite the fact that I was there to take photos all of my photos were pretty rubbish, but I’m going to blame my tools (aka my camera) which wasn’t really up to the job.  I’ve got lots of blurry noisy photos which is disappointing.  It’s probably partly my fault too, but I’m definitely going back when I’ve got my DSLR back from repair and I’ll take my tripod too!

I was explaining the evening to a colleague on Monday morning and I mentioned how the fire breathers didn’t seem to have any fear either of the fire nor of anything going wrong, and that I thought what they were doing was pretty dangerous.  When I explained this I realised that as I spectator I felt pretty safe, even though if something went wrong it could just as easily be me who was set on fire (luckily I wasn’t wearing any synthetic fibres)!  My colleague took my comment about it being dangerous in a different way, and commented on how much of the fuel they absorbed while it was in their mouths which is something that I hadn’t thought about.  Most of the people seemed young, in their 20s or early 30s, so I wonder what’ll happen to them in 10 or 20 years time…

Paris fire white hot

White hot (or overexposed)

Amsterdam catch up

Last Monday started with a call on my Dutch mobile phone, and talking to a guy who I can’t understand anymore.  He spoke in Dutch, I tried and failed to understand then said stuff back to him in French.  He sounded a little confused.  Eventually we agreed to talk English and he told me that they were going to change the windows in my Amsterdam apartment 2 days later on Wednesday!

My landlord and I had been expecting new double glazed windows to be installed, but I’m in Paris and he lives in Slovakia so getting back to Amsterdam on 2 days notice was a little difficult.  Also this was the first phone call that we’d had about it, as they’d sent letters to the apartment but of course no one had read them.  A few phonecalls later my landlord decided that he’d have to fly back from Bratislava as I wouldn’t be able to get the time off work at such short notice.

So when I made it back to Amsterdam on Thursday night, the day the installation was finished, I had nice new windows and the noticeable smell of sealant.  A nice surprise was also that the apartment was much cleaner than I had left it, as all my stuff needed to be moved and the fitters made a huge mess, so my landlord had spent all his spare time cleaning.

I’ve liked going back to the Dutch office while I’ve been working in Paris.  I normally go back for 3 days every 6 weeks, Friday in the office and the weekend to catch up on friends, post and other things that I need to do in the city.  The days at the office are mostly days of catchup meetings and chatting to people, and this day was no different so it was pretty relaxing.  Just to let people know that I’m still alive.

I spent Friday night seeing The Social Network at the cinema, and before the film started I was a little apprehensive mostly because of the trailers.  Usually when I see a film the trailers are for similar types of films, go see an action film and you’ll see action film trailers, horror films have horror film trailers, etc.  Before the film started they had quite a few action film trailers as well as a romance I think and a couple of other genres, so I was a little confused by the time the intro started as I was fairly sure that it was supposed to be a based-on-a-true-story drama.

The film was OK for me. Not bad and not great. I think it’s the first mainstream popular film that I’ve seen that had proper geeky bits.  Hackers had lots more but only laughably bad ones and Sci-Fi films have lots of course, but I generally don’t go out of my way to see films with computery subjects.

I had a really busy Saturday which included taking my camera back to the shop to get it repaired.  I don’t honestly think that Nikon will repair the problem (I’ve got some pixels that show up as red/blue/green instead of the correct colour on my DSLR), but gotta try!

So now I’ve got my dad’s old camera that I don’t feel so comfortable with, but I guess it’s better than nothing.  A friend’s asked me to take pictures for her in 4 weeks from now so hopefully I have my camera back, repaired or not, before that.

When I’m back in Amsterdam, my Dutch generally improves through the weekend, and I can understand more on Sunday afternoon than Friday morning.  My speaking doesn’t really improve much though, and I think it’s something that I may have lost for good.  On the flip side, my French is OK now but as soon as I move back to Amsterdam I’m going to forget that instead, so I need to find a way to keep practising.

Last stop on Saturday was in Haarlem for a 30th birthday which was really good.  Good to see people that I don’t meet often enough and share a few beers, as well as being well fed!  We were enjoying ourselves so much that I decided to miss the last train that would get me back to my local station, figuring that I’d find an alternate way back later.  My friend Laura and I decided to catch the last train back to Amsterdam Centraal then I’d make my way home from there.  We actually got the time of the last train wrong so ended up half running and half jogging through Haarlem at 1:30am and made the train with a few minutes to spare.

So when we got to Amsterdam I found that I’d just missed a night bus and decided to walk home, which would normally take around an hour.  I mostly avoided the other drunk people in the city except when I got to Burger King on Leidseplein and felt hungry.  Inside there was a mass of people that had just come out of the bars and clubs.  They were all pretty good natured but it looked like total chaos.

After taking a detour to my local station to collect my bike I eventually made it home at around 3am.  I woke up at 10:30 later that morning, so I was a little tired on Sunday and didn’t get up to much apart from buying some overpriced English language photography magazines.

Just before I got on the Thalys back to Paris I grabbed some dinner at the station which I think set off the food poisoning that knocked all the energy out of me for most of this week.  So a bad ending but the rest of my time in Amsterdam was pretty good.

1 new year and 2 xmas’

The 10 days that I spent in the UK were a little strange, and as far as Xmas goes they were different to what I normally see.  I arrived at my parents house later than I normally do, as any other year I would arrive on the 22nd or 23rd and I would catch the end of the build up to Xmas.  This year I arrived on the evening of the 24th and maybe that contributed to the strangeness.

The main thing that I noticed was a lack of Xmas spirit.  No cheesy songs in the shops, and very few decorations or lights, everything was quite subdued.  I understand that the country’s struggling out of a recession and people are looking at pay freezes and tax rises, but even so I was still expecting shops trying to more to get people spending money with them.  Even in the centre of London on Oxford Street or Regent Street, the lights were pretty disappointing.  Maybe it felt subdued because I only caught the post-Xmas sales rather than the pre-Xmas spending season though.

My dad suggested that it was due to the economy, but I’m not sure how true that is.  The one show of extravagance were the London fireworks at New Year, and it looked like a lot of money had been spent on them, so the city obviously did have money to spend.

At least Carnaby Street put their twist on the festive season with their decorations.

xmas 2011 carnaby street

Space themed decorations on Carnaby Street

Another strange and slightly annoying thing were the two days of public holidays following Boxing Day because the 25th and 26th fell on a weekend (in France or the Netherlands the public holidays aren’t carried to the following weekdays, they’re just lost), meaning that some small or independent shops were closed for 4 consecutive days.

When the shops were open I had a wander round the sales, but didn’t find much to buy.  I wasn’t desperately looking to buy anything and the things that I was looking for weren’t reduced, so I’ll just put off buying them for another few months, or maybe I’ll take a walk around the Paris sales and see what they have to offer.  I didn’t realise that the Paris sales start on the 12th of January though, I just assumed that they would be after Xmas, so I’ll have to wait a little longer.

Between Xmas and New Year everything pretty quiet, catching up with friends including dinner at a Portuguese restaurant and some shopping (a pair of shoes and a badminton racket).  The most exciting thing I did was to start to read Frankie Boyle’s book which isn’t really a normal autobiography, it’s just a series of different anecdotes and jokes that explain bits of his life and the opinions that he has about random things.  I’m not quite finished it yet, but it’s been entertaining.  Don’t get the wrong idea though, it’s not that exciting, it’s just less mundane than sitting around the house watching TV or answering questions about how to do things on Facebook.

Xmas number 2 was on the 6th of January, when Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Christ (in the same way that the Greeks and Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate on the 7th).  By that time I was back in Paris and back at work, but I met up with some friends of the family on “Xmas eve” as I hadn’t seen them in a while.  They had told me something surprising before Xmas, which was that I could request an extra day off work on the 6th because it’s Xmas, which seems like a very generous law.  I’m not sure if you can change religion multiple times during the year to get more days off, but I might look into it!

Queuing anxiety

I eventually made it to my parents house yesterday after a delayed and tiring Eurostar journey.  I left work around 3 in the afternoon to take the train at 5:13pm, so I arrived very early, but I thought that I’d rather be safe than sorry and I didn’t know if the métro would be packed with lots of people doing some last minute xmas shopping or if it would be deserted (as it was in the morning on the way to work) because everyone’s already gone to their home regions for the holidays.

As it turns out most people seemed to have gone home already.  We only had around 25% of employees working in the office, and while that’s partly people wanting to take some extra time off and have a less stressful trip home it’s also a cultural difference between France and the UK.

In the UK we have one large meal on xmas day (and then eat the left overs for the following days).  In France however there are two large meals, the first is on the evening of xmas eve and the second on xmas day.  So anyone who lives more than a few hours away from Paris won’t make it back for xmas eve dinner unless they leave early.  One colleague whose family live in Normandy told me that he was stuck in a traffic jam on xmas eve a few years ago, and when he got home dinner was completely finished.  Maybe he was joking, but maybe not.

No such worries for me and as a result of the and I ended up taking two very empty métro trains to Gare du Nord.  When I got there I saw a few delayed trains which I was kinda expecting, the weather in northern France was supposed to be quite bad.  Before passing through security a Eurostar employee checked my ticket, then asked if I was travelling alone and if I wanted to take the later train at 6:13pm.  I politely declined, then after passing through security I put some music on and waited for the boarding call.

Around 30 minutes before the train left a queue started to build up to board the train, and even though I was sitting down comfortably I had a quick look around to see how many people were going to get onto the train.  As soon as I did this my brain told me that it didn’t want to be at the back of the line as I had a big suitcase to store on the luggage racks.

I sat there watching the line slowly grow, getting more and more restless.  I knew that if I stood up and joined the line I might be there for an hour or more if the train was late, but in the end I decided that I’d rather stand and get on the train quickly than stand in a slow moving line later on.  It’s a feeling that I always have getting on to trains or planes, a growing anxiety that I won’t have somewhere to stash my bag and I don’t want the stress of waiting for everyone else to get out of my way.  I want to get on quickly and relax while everyone else is struggling to get to their seats.

I eventually made it to St. Pancras almost 2 hours late because the train left an hour and a quarter late, and there was also a speed restriction on the French side of the high speed line due to the weather.  As it turns out my carriage was half empty, so I could have kept my seat.  After lugging my giant suitcase up and down the stairs in the Underground I made it to Waterloo ready to make the last connection on the way to my parents house.  When I got there I saw that all the ticket machines were out of order, which was a little strange and not something that I was expecting.

I found the ticket office and the first thing the woman behind the desk said to me was “You’d better be quick if you want to take a train!”  Oh crap!  I wasn’t expecting to be traveling so late and forgot that the trains would be stopping early.  A quick look at the departures board showed that there were only 2 trains left that I could take, so a quick run to the platform later I made it for the second last train of the night.

Just as well I didn’t take the later Eurostar or I’d would have been stuck in London!  Instead I made it home at 9:30 and had a nice cup of tea 🙂

One last Xmas market…

It’s definitely going to be the last one, honest.  I feel a little less Christmassy since I came back from holiday and it stopped snowing, so I decided to try and get myself back on the Xmas wagon with a walk up the Champs Elysées.

After the disappointing market I walked through at La Defense I wasn’t sure what I’d see when I got to the Champs Elysées, but after the good experiences of the last week I was feeling optimistic.  I’d read in the newspaper that the market was 1km long and that the street had been lit with 1 million LED lights for Xmas, so I at least expected it to look impressive.

They also had what they claimed is the largest temporary Ferris wheel in Europe (maybe it was the world).  Given all the trouble that they had getting rid of the last wheel after the Millennium if I remember correctly, I’m not sure why they bothered.  It did look nice though behind the obelisk at Place de la Concorde.

Paris xmas market ferris wheel

Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde

When I got there I saw that the market went up both sides of the street, with lots of traffic in the middle, so not exactly the same atmosphere as the pedestrian squares that I’d seen in other cities.  Still lots of people walking around though, with the occasional burst of car horn interrupting the shoppers.

Paris xmas market huts

No real snow was left on the market huts

Little differences again compared to the markets in Germany and Strasbourg.  Paris was very foody, and not just the regular fare of deep fried snacks and there were very few bratwurst/sausage stalls.  I saw stalls selling cheese and cold cuts like salami and ham, wine, and I even saw one place selling caviar!

Paris xmas market salami

One difference from the other markets I'd visited

The other difference compared to the more traditional cities was that it was very family friendly.  Slides and rides for the kids to go on, so it’s not just the parents enjoying themselves.

By the time I decided to go home I didn’t feel any more in the Xmas spirit than when I started, but it was still nice to have a wander around.

Paris xmas market lights

Some of the million or so LEDs