Posts Tagged ‘ paris ’

Au revoir Paris! :(

So today’s my last day in Paris.  My last morning in fact, and I’m taking the 12:25 train back to Amsterdam.

I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’m really sad to be leaving, but that’s life.  My assignment was for 8 months and now they’re over, so I’m going back to life as normal.  That has it’s up sides and down sides, and I’m not really sure which city I like the most, but Paris is new and shiny while I’ve been living in Amsterdam for almost 4 years now and it’s lost a little of its attraction.

There are things that I’m looking forward to doing in Amsterdam, like getting back on my bike(s) and meeting up with my friends and colleagues, but there are things that I can’t deny are better in Paris.  The food is great here, and I’m almost always impressed when I eat at a bar or restaurant, and the bread is to die for *drool*.  I love the fact that salad can be a meal here rather than some lettuce leaves on the side of the plate, and I enjoyed trying to master the language.  I can’t really say that I succeeded, but I gave it a good try.

While I’ve enjoyed learning French, much more than when I was at school and also way more than I enjoyed learning Dutch, I’m looking forward to being in a city where it’s easier to speak English.  I shouldn’t look forward to that because I should be saying that I’m looking forward to speaking Dutch again, but I can’t honestly say that I am.  I’ve forgotten almost all the Dutch that I knew 8 months ago and starting again just seems soul destroying, especially when people will respond in English anyway when they realise I’m a foreigner.

There are silly things that I like in both cities too.  I gave up trying to find concerts that were coming in Paris because there are so many concert venues that I couldn’t keep up to date with who was playing at each one.  In Amsterdam it’s much easier as I’ve been to 2 venues in the last 4 years, so I just check their websites for new tickets on sale.  My apartment in Paris has hot running water in the bathroom though, which interior designers in Amsterdam apparently think isn’t important.  In Amsterdam I have a cloakroom sink with a cold water tap, which sucks!  I also haven’t taken a flight in almost 10 months, as I can jump on a train in Paris and go anywhere in Western Europe which is ace.

I really hope I’ll be coming back in the future, hopefully for fun and also for work.  I’ve made connections with a lot of people in the office here, and I want to keep them active.  I think if I visit the office for a day I could spend most of it just chatting to people!

And that’s the last short post about Paris.  Thanks for listening to me talking rubbish. Au revoir!

French lessons

So last week was my last French lesson, and although it’s only been 9 days it feels like forever already.  I still have another month in Paris so I could have continued, but I’m taking 2 weeks of holiday to travel around France a bit, so it’s not really worth going in March.

6 months ago, I started the classes with a bunch of people I didn’t know, including quite a few that I couldn’t understand.  I guess they might have had the same experience with me too, as it seems like if you’re speaking a second language it’s quite difficult to understand other people who have a strong accent.  Unlike the Dutch lessons that I took over 3 years ago which were for complete beginners, there was pretty much no English spoken in our French classes because it was assumed that we already knew enough to get by, which was mostly true.  It keeps everyone on a level playing field, but it’s quite difficult to explain what a French word means to someone without being able to switch into your native language.  Once we left the class though, any language went.

Our first teacher was called Jean Charles, and he had a big personality.  Everyone has their own personality of course, but his really shone through and dominated the class.  After a while we felt pretty at ease with him, and as we learned things we stopped saying quite as many stupid things that he’d make fun of us for.  Not in a harsh way, just chiding us playfully, and he took particular pleasure in pulling up our English pronunciations of French words, such as “train.”  Our time with him only lasted one month though, and at that time changing teacher wasn’t such a big deal.

Next up was Charlotte who didn’t seem to be much older than some of the students.  She was very charismatic and friendly, and also very helpful.  She also had an abundance of patience as she took us through all of the important verb tenses and explained the difference between the passé composé (I have eaten my dinner) and the imparfait (I ate my dinner) multiple times, and despite which I still have trouble deciding which to use.  I always think that the problem is that I don’t know the names of the tenses or when to use each one in English, at least it just comes naturally and I don’t need to think about it.  I find it really hard to learn grammar because they use terms that I have absolutely no idea about and I have no recollection of being taught in English.

I talk to one of the guys at work in French in the mornings for 15 minutes or so, and sometimes we switch into English.  In either language we always end up asking the other person awkward questions about why you say something in a certain way, or the reason why a certain word is used instead of another.  It really makes you realise how little you know about a language when you’re sitting there just saying “ummmmm…” while trying to dig up an answer.  The French seem to be much more connected to the etymology of a word and can understand why they use it, while in English we just steal any bits of other languages that we like the sound of.

So anyway, myself and 2 or 3 other students started lessons with Charlotte at the end of September and she remained our teacher for 4 months, and over that time we built a pretty good class dynamic.  Lots of other students came and went in that time, some coming along for a few months and other showing up for one class or two before disappearing.  New students were allowed to join a class at any time, and sometimes it was interesting to get new students but if they didn’t stick around then it was a little annoying.  Just as you started to remember their name they’d vanish.  Thankfully most of the students stuck around for at least a month though.

After 4 months with Charlotte we all got to know each other pretty well during our 4 hours a week, and everything was informal and most importantly fun.  During our last lesson she tried to reassure us that our next teacher was very nice and young and friendly too, but after 4 months I felt a little apprehensive.  At the start of January when Charlotte was ill we had a different teacher for a week, and she treated us like primary school kids.  She told us what type of stationary we needed to bring and generally didn’t seem to respect us at all.  That was partly the cause of my trepidation.  That and the general “better the devil you know” feeling that likes to avoid change.

After our last lesson with Charlotte the whole class went out for a beer, and it was an interesting experience.  It’s the first time I’d been out to a bar and spoken (mostly) French, and it was OK until the barman tried to turn the volume of the music up.  I normally have trouble understanding anything in noisy environments, but it was actually OK.  At the end of the night, we said au revoir and went our separate ways.

When we started the following week with our new teacher, Marion.  Everything Charlotte said about her was true, but things were just different but it’s hard to describe.  She was a much more serious teacher, and we’d lost some of the students that made the class enjoyable as well as part of the group dynamic that we had.

I made it to the end of the course though, and I’m wondering if it’s worth continuing with my lessons when I go back to Amsterdam. On one hand I’ve really enjoyed learning as much as I have, it’s a language I enjoy, even though it’s one that I’m still completely rubbish at.  On the other hand though, it’s not like I’m going to be very exposed to it when I’m in Amsterdam.  Sure I have French colleagues, but I won’t be surrounded by it.  I won’t see it on TV, hear it in the office and attempt to speak it when I’m in the shops.

One thing that I’ve realised both from taking French lessons and speaking to some friends in Amsterdam, is that I need to integrate a little better when I go back to Amsterdam, which means that I need to learn Dutch again if I’m planning to stay longer.  It’s something that doesn’t sound like much fun to be honest, but that I’ll need to think about next month…

Friday 6:30pm

6:30pm
Pack up
"Bon weekend"
"À lundi!"
Grab headphones
Pickup bag
Put on jacket
Street:
Colleagues, young, old
Beer, wine, peanuts
Terrace, smoking, gossip
Long night ahead
Métro:
┌-------┬-------┐
|┌-----┐|┌-----┐|
||     |||     ||
||     |||     ||
||     |||     ||
|└-----┘|└-----┘|
|    -- |       |
|       |       |
|       |       |
|       |       |
|       |       |
└-------┴-------┘

-┼--┼- Going home, going out
 |  |
-┼--┼- Happy, bored, tired, relieved
 |  |
-┼--┼- Concentrating, playing, texting, reading
 |  |
-┼--┼- Friends, planning
 |  |
-┼--┼- Couples, chatting

--┐           ┌--
-┐|           |┌-
 ||           ||
 ||           ||
 ||           ||
-┘|           |└-
- |           | 
  |           | 
  |           | 
  |           | 
  |           | 
--┘           └--
Street:
Activity, energy, bustling, almost home
Shopkeepers, shuffling, packing, impatient
Baker, greengrocer, cheese seller, butcher
Fresh bread, fresh meat, fresh fruit, dinner
7pm:
Home!
Fooooooood!

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

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)

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 🙂