Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mulhouse - french food, german buildings, and bloody annoying children

Mulhouse is a city of about 115 000 people in eastern France, close to the borders with Germany and Switzerland. Brett, a friend from NZ is living here while he works as a english teaching assistant in a local high school. Just incase you thought I'd finally found someone to visit who has no AFS association, think again! Brett went to Switzerland a few years ago and was host brother to Tim from Belgium and Corine from Switzerland, so I first met him through AFS too. Mulhouse is in the Alsace region, which has an interesting history. Being formerly a part of both Switzerland and Germany, the culture is a real mixture of the different countries.

 I got to Mulhouse around lunchtime and armed with very vague instructions from Brett, set about catching a couple of trams to the house of his friend Julia so I could drop off my stuff. I think my ability to arrive in a new city in a different language and still be able to navigate their public transport system shows how far I've come from arriving in Germany in December and being totally lost and dependant on Hauke to look after me all of the time. Then I headed back into town to look for food and something to do. Unfortunately in France, almost everything is closed on Mondays until either pm, or all day (and all day Sunday), so the city was dead. I grabbed a kebab from a kiosk, I think that now I have eaten so many european kebabs that I am no longer so wowed by how amazing they are compared to those in NZ, and I found this one pretty bad.

Mulhouse town hall
I found my way to the tourist centre, located in the old town hall, a beautiful old building that has been decoratively painted like many buildings I saw in Germany. The Mulhouse museum is in the same building so I wandered around it, directed by a very forceful man who keep insisting I follow the arrows and walk around the exhibits in the right order, even though everything was in German and French and I didn't understand a thing anyway. Heaps of cool old stuff there, I quite liked these really old lock mechanisms they had, they were so huge and complicated. Then I just wandered around aimlessly for ages, there is a big church in the square, as in every other European city, but I felt like I was back in Germany again, as the buildings are more their style than French. Mulhouse has some famous museums, namely the biggest car and train museums in France, and some dedicated to weird things like wallpaper and household electrical items. There was only one museum that I thought wouldn't be torturous and it's closed on Mondays, so I just stuck to my wandering.

pre-bed beers
After Brett finished work and we lugged my stuff over to his studio in the university residence, we headed out for dinner with Julia and her french flatmate, Orea (probably not right spelling!) at a restuarant that serves Alsacian food. As I said, I've really been feeling the lack of vegetables in my diet, so I had a massive chicken salad, but I tried Bretts meal, some kind of Alsacian pizza-that-is-not-a-pizza and people get angry if you try to compare the two. The food and wine was good, dessert wasn't, but the waitress undercharged us so I won't complain! We got home quite late and had both gotten into bed and said goodnight at 12.30, commenting on how Brett had to be up at 6.30am to go to work, before he asked "Claire, do you want a beer?", so we just got up again and sat around in our pijamas drinking alsacian beer and eventually going to bed rather late.

European Parliament
I let myself sleep in the next morning, and then headed to Strasbourg, the main city of the region, but I kept missing the trams by just a few minutes. I would have been in time to catch the train in five minutes, but the stupid machines in the French stations to buy tickets don't accept cash or international credit cards, and so I had to wait in line for ages, so I got there quite a bit later than I had wanted. I went first to the European Quarter to check out the European Parliament building and some of the UN buildings, its pretty awesome to see buildings that I saw in pictures for four years of study! Then I headed back to the old quarter of town. Mulhouse isn't a very pretty town, but Strasbourg is really nice, the old quarter is huge and had the first free public toilet I've seen in Europe! Amazing! There is a section seperated from the rest by rivers, its like a little park where people were playing petanque and table tennis in the sun. I was very happy to find both a Bretzel to eat and a shop selling German Christmas-tree decorations, I'd wanted some since we decorated Hauke's tree in Harste. The church here is also huge, a big gothic one like in Cologne.

 I got back to Brett's place after he had already returned from work, and we went out to try and find a supermarket that was still open, most in France close around 7 or 8. We didn't have much luck, we kept arriving at each just after it had closed, so eventually we decided to just buy takeaways, which turned into us going to an Indian resturant dressed like we'd just left the house to go to the supermarket and carrying nothing but our wallets and shopping bags. But the food was great, I am really missing curries here. We were both shattered and had to get up early the next morning for skiing so we ignored the impulse to spend another night sitting around drinking and just went to sleep.

Strasbourg - Petanque
Skiing was a last minute plan! Brett's school was heading up for the afternoon and it was his day off, so he'd offered to go and help out, so we then decided to go up in the morning too, with me returning at lunchtime to catch the train to Switzerland. We had to get up ridiculously early, and I got dressed in a bizarre asortment of clothes that didn't really resemble real skiing gear, but nevermind! The skifield, Markstein, is only 20 or 30 minutes drive away, but it was a really long journey for us! We took two trams to get to the train station, then a weird tram-train (like a couple of tram carriages running along the train tracks because there isn't enough passangers for a real train) out to the end of line line, a town called Kruth, where we got a bus up to the skifield.

skiing at Markstein
This skifield is really tiny, and it was one of the last days of the season so the snow wasn't great, but the easier slopes meant I could handle the black run here. I felt like something just clicked and suddenly I was skiing properly, so its annoying I now have to wait until the next winter, either in NZ or here, before going again. The other bad thing about the place was the number of kids, and they are all little so-and-sos who have learnt the french tradition of pushing in front of anyone you can in a line. So annoying because they are small and could just duck under the rail and then pop back up in front of me in the lines for the lifts, and I can't speak french so can't tell them off about it. I was amazed that even their teachers didn't seem to care that their kids were pushing in and throwing snow around, they all needed Peggy Burrows to give them a lesson or two about representing your school's image! Alternatively, I kept thinking that a few whacks from my ski-pole might teach a few lessons about manners too, but no.

Finally around lunchtime I headed back via all of the trams, went back to Julia's house to pick up my stuff and then headed back to the station again to take a train over the border. The train from Mulhouse to Basel only takes about 20 minutes, and when I was on it I got passport-controlled for the first time by two customs officials who opened my passport and then asked me if I needed a visa to go to France, or Switzerland. I resisted the urge to reply with a sarcastic "shouldn't you be telling me that", although I reckon if these are the guys charged with protecting France's borders I no longer have much sympathy for France's illegal immigrant problems!

Photo album on facebook is here.


Semur-en-Auxois is a village of about 4000-4500 in the region of Burgundy, about 3 hours drive from Paris. There is a legend that Hercules built Semur on his way back to Spain, its a really beautiful village full of turrets, cobbled lanes and medieval gates from the 13th century onwards. There is an archway leading to the oldest part of the village that was inscribed in 1552 with what translates as "The people of Semur take great pleasure in meeting strangers", pretty cool. Timothee (AFS 2009-2010) lives here when he isn't at class on weekdays.

I met Timothee, who was just returning from Paris, and our chauffeur Francis, at Montbard, another village in the area and Francis, who is Timothee's neighbour drove us home. We spent the afternoon walking around Semur, it is such a beautiful place, I felt like I had stepped back into the middle ages. Just how I had imagined the more rural parts of France actually. The river encircling the church and centre has worn the land down a lot, and the place is quite hilly, I always love to be in hilly places as after so many years of living in Wellington.

It looks almost like a smaller and more rustic version of Luxembourg. A lot of the older buildings and towers are falling apart now, its quite sad as the council doesn't have enough money to keep fixing them, so at the moment many are propped up with scaffolding and have nets drapped over them, and might have to come down. Timothee made a funny tour-guide, saying things like "see that old building with the brown roof over there?" (the whole village is old buildings with brown rooves) and "see that thing over by the three" (while pointing at a tree-covered hill). We then watched The Godfather and ate pasta before the rest of his family arrived home from Paris. His mother went on AFS to Kenya and has the awesomest accent when she speaks english, and his younger siblings Balthazar and Mirabelle speak good english too.

Fontenay Abbey - dormitory

We slept pretty late and lazed around until after lunch, when we visited the nearby Fontenay Abbey. It was founded in 1118 and used to be very prosperous from the 12th to 15th centuries. More recently it was used as a paper mill, but is now a UNESCO heritage site, as its one of the most oldest and most complete of its type of abbey. The cistercians based their monastries around poverty and solitude, and you can see that in the buildings, it is all very simple but I think this makes it all the more beautiful. The buildings are made from stone, some with curved wooden rooves like a huge upside-down boat, tucked away under some hills in the countryside. Besides the church, cloister and dormitory they have an old forge with a huge water-wheel.

Mirabelle, Timothee and me outside the abbey
 We went to the supermarket on the way home, where I found more Speculoos! I really can't get enough of the stuff, I don't know how I will survive without it back in NZ. Timothee and Mirabelle made pizza for dinner, and I opened a bottle of NZ chardonny that really didn't impress anybody! We also had a steinlager that I'd brought from Paris for Timothee, and all of the talk about NZ food and drink prompted us to crack out the vegemite and some marmite that Timothee had. I have to say that marmite on french bread and with french cheese is a win, and I'm impressed with Timothee's ability to eat marmite! We watched The Queen before bed, I've always wanted to see that movie but it wasn't really what I expected, but then I guess I was too young when Diana died to have grasped what was going on.

Castle near Semur-en-Auxois
 Sunday we woke up pretty late again, and after Mirabelle's awesome chicken curry for lunch headed out to see another village. We detoured past one a privately-owned castle that is just chilling in the middle of the paddocks here, coming from castle-free NZ I am always amazed by their abundance here, they just seem like a normal part of the landscape! I was also very happy to find an answer to a question I've been asking since I got here, as I've always wondered what the weird ball things are in the trees. Finally Timothee knew, its mistletoe! Very cool, although it destroys the trees.

 We went to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, a tiny village of about 500 people founded in around the early 700s, and used for filming the movie Chocolat. Like Semur-en-Auxois, this village is just incredible, the houses are all so beautiful, and they are set on top of a hill with a good view of the surrounding countryside so we walked around a lot just enjoying the sights. The old chocolate shop from the movie is still there, and people have written many comments professing their love for Johnny Depp in the dust on the window panes! They have a couple of abbeys there also, one which is really traditionalist and extreme and very closed to the public. At the old Flavigny Abbey they make Anise of Flavigny, a famous candy with an anise seed covered in flavoured sugary stuff, apparently its so world-wide that they sell it in stores in NZ (Simply Paris at least), but to Timothees amazement I can't remember ever seeing it. Tastes really good though!

Timothee and I then headed out for a beer in the last little bit of sun, sitting outside on a cobbled lane, before a final dinner and then an early night so that we could get up really early to catch our trains the next morning.

Photos of Semur on facebook are here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lyon - beer, bicycles and an irish bar

Pierre is (surprize surprize) another AFS 2009-2010 student, although one that lived in Auckland instead of Wellington. I'd only met him when he visited Wellington, but he saw on my blog that I was going to be in Lyon with no where to stay so offered for me to sleep at his.

Roman amphitheatre
The train journey here was interesting, at some point a woman asked me something, and when I replied that I didn't speak French she just shrugged her shoulders and forgot about it, but it meant that she knew I couldn't understand the announcement that the gave later on. I knew it wasn't great because everyone groaned, but normally I follow my "don't ask questions always pretend you know what you're doing and follow everyone else" policy and just do what everyone else does, so I wasn't too concerned. This lady however got all worked up and tried to explain it to me, but as my inability to speak french isn't resolved simplying by people speaking louder and slower to me, she didn't get very far! In english she said, "you come with me, 30 minutes" which I took to mean we were going to be delayed. In the end she looked in the whole carriage for someone who spoke english, and got a very unfriendly young guy with onlz slightly more english than her to tell me that there was a problem with the train, and we had to change to another at the next station. I put this together and surmised that I was going to be half an hour later and text Pierre to say so, but alas, 30 minutes later we arrived to Lyon on time and while everyone else presumably rushed off to another train (I guess the lady who said to follow her figured the english speaker had resolved all the confusion and didn't need her help anymore) I sat down to wait for Pierre, which proves that my "don't ask questions always pretend you know what you're doing and follow everyone else" policy would have worked and saved myself from waiting around in Lyon.

Me with Lyon in the background
It seems that in France people don't really share flats like we do in NZ, I know a lot of people who have left home to study who live in little one-room studios. Pierre lives in one like this, in an old building. Possibly the messiest place Ive visited so far in Europe, but that just adds to the fun of it! My time here in Lyon was really relaxed, but I needed it as a break from all of the rushing around of the couple of weeks before. Pierre heated pizza for lunch and then we sat around just drinking and chatting before going off to check out a view of the city. We took a cable car up a hill, apparently the oldest cable car line in the world but the carriages are way more moden than Wellington's. At the top there is an old roman amphitheatre from around 15BC, where they still hold music festivals, and a Basilica, and the view from there is amazing. We then went to feed a cat, and went back home. While I had a nap Pierre went out to buy food for dinner and my lunch the next day, Id been complaining about how I feel unhealthy as I dont get to eat enough vegetables in Europe, so he came back with a bag of frozen veges, very cute!

Pierre and I out in town
That night a couple of friends came around for drinks, Claire spoke perfect english so it was great to be able to talk to someone rather than just sit in the corner. After they left Pierre and I headed into town, where Pierre made a idiot out of himself talking to the bouncer in english, asking him to repeat himself, and then handing over his French ID! That bar was lame so we headed off to Pierre's local, an irish bar across the rivers. Despite Pierre's insistance that it would be a quiet night as he had a test the following morning, the evening got a bit messy there, we tried some mixture of beer and something that I think probably came from Lyon, and shots of tequila and tabasco (why did I never try that before, I love both tequila and tabasco, awesome combination!), and we chatted away to a lot of people. No one from Ireland though, although my irish accent may have made an appearance or two! We ended the night by bicycling home. In many major European cities they have bicycles that you can hire for usually 1€ for a day, and I'd always wanted to do this. Its kind of scary though because no one wears a helmet and the traffic here is so crazy. I think biking under the influence is still illegal, but taxis are far too expensive and it was too far to walk, and I figure that biking while drunk at 4am on a Wednesday night when there is no traffic anywhere is actually safer than me trying to navigate french traffic while sober during the day. Pierre teased me the next day about my claim that this was the coolest thing I'd done in Europe, probably not true but it was still heaps of fun.

biking home
Thursday was pretty much a write-off. Pierre somehow made it to class in the morning, but did manage to lock the door behind him, leaving me stuck inside all day. Luckily I had the frozen vegetables to eat for lunch! I spent the afternoon just catching up on admin stuff, emails and photos and trying (note im still failing) to keep this blog up to date! After Pierre came back from uni we just bummed around and ate, and then headed to a party at the house of some guys that study with him. Drinking with 18 year old engineering students really reminded me of how old I was! They were drunk when we arrived, none of them really spoke english, although they did delight in yelling obsencities in broken english for a rather large period of time. Luckily they gave that up, although this weird guy did follow me around trying to speak english all night and ignoring all of my hints that he should leave me alone. I'm finding that I am much more tempted to express my anger directly here, not sure if its because its frustrating not being able to calming tell people in their native language that they are being rude/annoying and should stop what they are doing, or if its because I just feel like I have nothing to lose making a scene in a foreign country. People who push in front of me in lines, disobey supermarket ettiquite and watch me struggle with my bag without offering to help are my biggest annoyances (ridiculously common here) but this guy was a few more sentances away from joining the list as well. Some of the guys were quite cool though, and I had an interesting conversation with a guy from Corsica who could understand a bit of english but couldn't speak it, he spoke in French and I replied in English and somehow we got by. There was a guy from spain too who perfectly demonstrated why I struggle with Spanish people, I made a few efforts to talk to him but he was really unfriendly.
Church in Lyon

We left the group as they wandered around the streets undecided about what club to go to and headed off to the same irish bar as the day before, with a small detour to get kebabs. I loooooove kebabs here in Europe, I really don't get what we do in NZ to make them taste so terrible in comparison to the ones here, I swear I wont be able to eat them when I return. We really did have a quite night this night, we were both too had it from the night before and after a few beers we biked home again to bed. A good couple of days just chilling out, I needed that after a lot of intense travelling!

Brittany, France

Camille sitting on a cushion!

I have always been interested in the French region of Brittany. I love the legend of Arthur, in which Lancelot ruled the area. Brittany's culture and history was always quite distinct from France's, and until 1532 Brittany was a seperate Duchy that was sometimes aligned with England and other times with France. Camille, another AFS 2009-2010 student, comes from this area and has always insisted that she comes from Brittany, not from France, so it was great to see what she had always been talking about.

Me, Camille, Emilie and Florian
I got there on Friday afternoon and just took a nap while Camille went back to uni for her afternoon classes. She is living in student accomodation, a little studio apartment, in the city of Nantes, which historically was the main city of Brittany but is now the capital of a different region. After she finished we headed into town to run a couple of errands, and then her friends came around for drinks that evening. Most of them don't speak much english at all, despite it normally being compulsory throughout school - like Spain, France doesn't do too well at language education compared to the rest of Europe (although I keep reminding myself that NZ is even worse and we rely too heavily on being an english-speaking country). I don't know if I've mentioned this before but I've now concluded that a lot of this is to do with both Spain and France being former world powers, especially France as French used to be the main international language, as the nationalism (or arrogance if I'm being less PC) that is entrenched in their culture prevents them from accepting english as the dominant language and putting a lot of effort into learning it as most other european countries do. I don't know if I've articulated that very well, but no French people I have spoken to so far have opposed this theory. Personally I have no issues with people who don't see a need to learn english, that would be cultural arrogance on my own part, and its so much fun trying to do simple things like buy beer in another language, but the reasons behind France's lack of english really interest me.

crazy drinking vessel
But anyway. One of Camille's friends, Florian, apparently keeps getting told he looks like Justin Beiber, and he learnt from my expression at this comment that I am not a big fan of his, which led to a lot of the night being filled with his attempts at singing all of Beiber's songs just to annoy me. What is it with french speakers and such bad kareoke! Eventually a couple of us headed into town and went to the Delirium bar, one of the franchise that has the bar in Brussels that holds the record for the most beers available in the world, where I went with Arthur. We drunk a few beers and ate saucisson, a kind of french salami that you cut thick slices of and eat alone. Eventually we decided to move on and chucked the uneaten half of the saucisson into Camille's handbag. I do have to admit to also stealing a Delirum beer glass as a momento, as I'd been unable to at the Brussels bar (they use plain glasses there as obviously otherwise they'd lose far too many to unscrupulous people like me!). We spent the rest of the night in a spanish bar where you pour into your mouth who knows what alcohol out of a strange kind of jug from way above your head, very messy, and later in a normal club. We finished the night off by walking the hour and ten minutes home. One thing I miss in Europe is the way we have transport available to us to get home from bars in Wellington, either in the after-midnight bus or in free vans run by the bars. Here you're on your own, which I think leads to much more stupidity, like driving drunk, sleeping in strange places, walking home alone or staying in bars way past the point where you should have called it a night because you're waiting for public transport to start up again in the morning. I was not impressed with Florian because he kept telling me we weren't yet halfway there and played Justin Beiber on his mobile most of the way, but all in good fun!

Coast in Brittany, notice the old cross on the cliff
Saturday afternoon we got up and headed to Surzur, a village of about 4000 in Brittany where Camille's mother and brother live. Camille had just gotten her license a couple of weeks earlier, so she proudly collected her car from her mother's place and drove me around for the afternoon. The French license system seems a bit relaxed compared to ours, here you have to firstly pass a theory test, but its not like ours in that you have to pay a lot of money to attend classes about it first, and then you sit a driving test after doing a minimum of 22 hours of practise (NZ is changing their system to make it 120 hours of practise before passing your restricted license, let alone your full license). The whole process costs a ridiculous amount of money, and most people fail at least once, I'm told because the driving schools are run by the testing places. Camille is a cute driver because she is so short she has to sit on a special cushion to reach the wheel, and watching her try to park is very entertaining, even the dog sat and watched her park at one point!

We headed out for a walk along the cliffs, it was great to see the sea again and the coast is beautiful, it looks a bit like the west coast of the South Island of NZ, and I'm told by people not from Brittany that it rains as much in Brittany as it does there too (flatly denied by any one from the region of course). We then drove to see a couple of ports and had a drink with some of Camille's old friends from school before heading back to have dinner at her mum's. While crepes are considered a French national dish (and I got addicted to buying nutella-filled crepes for a couple of euros as a snack in Paris), they actually come from Brittany, and her mum made them for dinner for us. We were meant to go out after dinner to a party at her friend's, but we were both so tired from the night before that we just collapsed into bed instead.

Sunday was her mother's birthday, so we went out early to the village to buy flowers and a cake, and bread (french bread has to be eaten fresh, it only lasts a day or so, so you're forever making trips to the bakery!). The village centre is really cute. One of Camille's sisters joined us for lunch, and afterwards we headed to Vannes, the closest city. Its over 2000 years old, so we had a great walk around the old buildings and wall, although we had to stop at one point when the rain got too heavy. It was funny, everyone in the city just stopped what they were doing and waited under awnings until the downpour subsided back to drizzle before carrying on. We took their dog as well, and just like Tim's dog he is quite lazy and had to be prodded along! I don't get what it is with European dogs! We then dropped Camille's brother off where he works during the week and drove back to Nantes, an interesting journey without a map or GPS that took us twice as long as it should have! I told Camille not to worry, we were just taking the 'scenic route' like dad does at home!

Me on the rampants of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany
Monday morning we ate crepes for lunch. The traditional way of eating them is just with butter and sugar, but I discovered that Belgian speculoos is amazing on crepes, and vegemite isn't too bad either. Then we went for a walk around town, passing by Camille's uni where someone had graffitied "welcome to hell" on the law faculty building! We went to the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, it was cool, we could walk all around the ramparts. It made me remember playing games of knights and invaders at primary school, it would have been so cool to be let lose inside a building like this back then! We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town shopping, and then had a really dinner with Camille's dad and stepmum, where I also helped Camille with her english homework - making a poster to describe herself. I guess if that is the homework for her first-year uni class, despite the students having studied english for years at primary school, I can see why none of her friends can have a conversation with me!

Giant mechanical elephant

Tuesday we headed to the 'Machines of the Isle de Nantes', a crazy project where for reasons I don't quite understand a guy from a theatre company decided to create giant machines. A bunch of engineers and artists work in a workshop that is open to the public, where they've already created a giant 12m tall mechanical elephant that takes about 50 people at a time for rides, and they are now working on a huge merry-go-round of sea creatures, im not sure how big this is supposed to end up but each of the already completed sea creatures is a couple of metres tall and its going to be three or four levels of these sea creatures to ride in. Their final plan is a 25m tall, 48m diametre tree, made of metal that supports plants and hanging gardens that you can wall all over, with two giant herons circling above that you can ride on. Wierd as, but very cool. I wish dad could see it.

Florian trying vegemite
Finally, we finished Tuesday night off with friends coming around again, although this time we drunk tea and ate biscuits. Florian made as all laugh by creating origami animals, telling me a story, and then looking up and me and saying "sex, or no?" - apparently he often uses sexy as an adjective in French and was actually asking for my opinion of the story, not propositioning me, but it was hilarious! I also initiated everyone there into the joys of vegemite (normally I'm a marmite girl but vegemite has been all I've found here). The first guy ate some only to run to the kitchen and wash his mouth out, so I'm not really sure why everyone else complained so much when they went on to try it too! Our 2am bedtime was probably not that smart considering we had to be up really early for me to catch the 7am train to Lyon, but oh well!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A rant about toilets in Europe

I am reaching the stage where, while I am not homesick for New Zealand, I am sick of somethings in Europe. Toilets are one of them.

train station toilet in Germany. Note it costs $2NZD
Public toilets are almost a foreign concept in Europe, or atleast the countries I've been in. Some cities have a limited amout, like Berlin, but not many, and others seem to have none. I spent three weeks in Madrid without seeing a single public toilet. And all public toilets are not free. In small hick towns they cost at least 60c NZD, in big cities they cost between $2-4 NZD. Even in some MacDonalds you have to pay a dollar to use the toilet. Coming from NZ, with our abundance of free public toilets, I hate the fact that by now I've paid at least a couple of hundred bucks just to use the loo, and I have to admit to now seeing the Burger King logo as being synonomous with the public toilet sign. Anything to save a few bucks. And men, please don't use the 'its good to be a guy' arguement, any reservations I had about peeing in alleyways are also now long gone.

I love the detail in this drawing of how to flush in Belgium
Toilets are also nowhere near clean here. Back in NZ, Hauke's refusal to use public toilets was running joke between Hauke and I, with him claiming that in Germany only scummy people use public toilets. I was positive that this wasn't true, so imagine my surprize when we waited outside a public toilet for our tour of Berlin's toilets to begin only to see a young guy walk up to it, pay his $2, stick his nose in, and then run the other direction. Thats pretty indicative of toilets here.

The free ones, like in bars and cafes and stuff, never have seats. Never. It has become like a mission of mine, to find out where all of the seats go to (like is some gang hoarding them and selling them on the black market or what?!), and finally tonight I got a possible answer. A girl from Germany reckons its because the bars all started clamping down on people doing drugs in the toilets, and got rid of all of the flat surfaces that people could use to snort lines off, so then they just used the seats, hence the seats now being gone too. Crazy. I miss toilet seats.

Public toilet in Germany that the guy ran away from
Last point on toilets in Europe. They are obviously a bit more liberal here because heaps of the toilet cleaners are  men, and they just chill out in the womens toilets, talking to the women waiting in the line and cleaning each toilet in between women going in and out of it. I did find that kinda wierd at first, like not really a huge worry for me, just different. In Germany in a club they even had two special toilets with only a half-wall between them so that two friends can keep talking to each other, and a pretty cool toilet-themed bar. Strange

Its funny how its the little things that get to you, I would never have paid to much attention to toilets in NZ, but three months have given me an appreciation for their importance and also a real interest in the differences between countries!

Monday, March 14, 2011


Camille and I, Eiffel tower
 I arrived in Paris on Friday afternoon and went to find the hostel that I had booked in Montmartre, a district previously famous as the centre of bohemian art where artists like van Gogh and Picasso worked, and home to the Moulin Rouge and the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur, now a designated historic area. I hadn't really bothered to look at the metro map before I came, I'm an expert now and figuring my way around on the go, so after I had some fun and games with the ticket machine I jumped on a metro. At the hostel I met one of my roommates, an Australian girl called Fiona (seriously, what is it with aussies and being everywhere I go!) who was keen to come along with me to see a former AFS student, Baptiste Le Denn, DJing that night. I worked out what Metros we needed to take to get to Bastille, an area famous for its bars and wrote it all down, and we headed off. Alas, I was overconfident in my ability to navigate the metro without any problems and soon found my scribbled instructions taken off my by Fiona, who got us safely there. At the bar we sat around listening and nursing ridulously expensive drinks (5€/$10) until we met a couple of parisian guys who talked to us for ages and then convinced us to change location with them. We headed off to one of the bigger clubs and ended the night there at around six in the morning.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
Saturday I headed off to met Camille, another french exchange student of the 2009-2010 group who just happened to be in Paris that weekend. It felt really wierd to be meeting her under the 'east pillar' of the tower, as if it was a really routine occurance! We went to the famous Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, as Camille and her friends wanted to find the grave of a french singer, Edith Piaf (as a side note, her name actually starts with the letter é. French keyboards have random french letters like é and ç where the numbers normally are, and you have to use caps lock or shift to make numbers, which is infuriating, but means Ive spent about ten minutes trying to work out how to make a capital é to no avail. Apparently french keyboard makers also thought that ; was more important than a fullstop, and what the hell even is this § ? Go figure!) I have visited cemeteries in Germany and Austria and walked past one in Belgium, it is really interesting to see the differences between the countries. In this cemetery a lot of the graves are marked by a little concrete building, I'm going crazy trying to remember what to call them, that the family has a key for and can enter to leave flowers and pray. Anyone who has looked at my photos will realise I love taking pictures of graveyards, this one Ive shown isnt particularly artistic photography but I wanted to show the little rooms (please someone remind me what they're called!), so I happily explored until they gave up the search for Edith, and we headed off to look at an apartment one of Camille's friends was considering.

Notre Dame

After a stop at MacDonalds (have I complained before that fast food in Europe is the same price as fast food in NZ, but in euros instead of dollars, so like 8€ or $16NZD for a combo, ridiculous!) we headed to the Notre Dame. This church is really amazing, and we arrived right at the end of some ceremony in time to see a beautiful procession walk around inside the church (pardon my lack of knowledge of Catholic customs). I've learnt in Europe that blue and purple are extremely hard colours to make, hence their presence in stained glass showing the importance and wealth of a church. The Notre Dame has some amazing stained glass windows with huge amounts of these colours in them.

arches in the club under the bridge
Our two new Parisian friends had invited Fiona and I for a homecooked french dinner that night, so I headed back to the hotel to met them. After jumping in their car I did have to ask myself what mum would say, but then laughed remembering that I met my best friend when he was a foreigner in a bar and promptly invited him for a homecooked kiwi dinner the next night as well (conviently ignoring the part of the story where we had mutual acquaintances anyway!). We survived their amazing dinner without ending up as a storyline for the next Hostel movie and Fiona headed home, while I went off to meet Camille for another night of clubbing with the two parisians in tow. We headed to a huge club under a bridge over the Seine that she somehow got us on the guestlist for, its really cool because you can see the bricks and arches of the bridge and the lit up Eiffel Tower and other buildings through the open side. The place was packed, I think there was something really special on as they had english-speaking DJs yelling thanks to the crowd and holding fireworks, and heaps of stiltwalkers and dancers. The music is heaps better than the remixed pop we listen to in most clubs in NZ as well, but the downsides of clubbing here are the costs (normally anywhere from 20-40 NZD for entrance and 10-20 NZD per drink) and huge lines, both to get in and to go to the bathroom, full of angry, rude and drunk french people who are really pushy. Another 6.30am bedtime, Paris is a tiring city! Two nights and 5hours sleep across both of them!

Yumiko and I at St Michel fountain
I dragged myself out of bed the next morning and headed to met two women, Yumiko and Marie at the Fountain of Saint Michel, a popular meeting place. I spent two months with Yumiko participating in the Ship for World Youth in Japan and on board a Japanese cruise ship in 2009, so it was really cool to catch up with her in France! When a friend of mine went to Japan for a month, I put her in touch with Yumiko and they got on really well, so she put Yumiko in touch with Marie, a friend of hers in Paris when Yumi moved here - complicated links, I know. Marie speaks great english, she took us to Mariage Frères, a famous tea shop and cafe. It was quite an experience, to be served by waiters dressed all in white fluent in english who gave us star treatment and recommended tea of a list of hundreds of types! I've never been a tea-drinker, but I drank my way through two pots quite happily while we discussed the differences between our countries, and then we headed off to explore a section of Paris full of winding narrow streets and little boutiques.

That evening I moved all of my stuff to the apartment of the Chatel family. Their son Sylvain lived with my parents for a two month AFS exchange in 2009, although we didn't have the chance to meet then, and I was going to stay with him, his parents Laurent and Claire, and younger brother Remy for the rest of the week. We jumped into the car and went for a tour of Paris by night, it was really beautiful to see all of the buildings lit up, and then returned for dinner. We had Foie Gras as an entree, a dish I had heard a lot of from french exchange students, its made of duck or goose liver from birds that have been specially fattened by force-feeding them corn (highly controversial in Europe now but a french tradition protected by law). 

For every dinner here we ate an entree, main, then cheese and finally desert, along with wine and champagne, its been a week of absolutely amazing food and I wish I knew the names of everything I ate so I could list it here! I am not overly fond of french cheese, it is much stronger than NZ cheese (strong enough to be stored outside on the windowsill rather than inside the fridge!) and the stuff filled with bits of mouldy bread really didn't go down too well at all! On Monday night we had escargot. The snails themselves don't really taste like much, its the garlic butter that gives the dish its flavour, so eating snails wasn't as bad as I had imagined as a kid, but they are very difficult to eat! There are special tongs for holding the snails and little pitchfork things to pull the snail out, but I as I al a little lacking in the coordination department this was not an easy task!

Sacré Cœur
Back off the subject of food, I woke up on Monday morning and messed around the place until lunch, another  meal of two dishes, plus cheeses and dessert and fruit (I can already tell France is not going to be good for my waistline!) and then headed back to Montmartre to check out the Sacré Cœur, a big basilica perched on the Montmartre hill, the highest points in Paris. There are more than a few steps to reach it, and as Europe is much flatter than Wellington I am very out of practise at walking up hills, but the view was nice, although very cloudy. It was interesting to see six men from the french army patrolling around as casually as if they were normally tourists. The Basilica itself isn't that noteworthy, its quite simple compared to other churches here and while normally you can climb to the Dom this afternoon it was closed without any explanation, so I headed back through the district, checking out the former market square, now crowded with artists selling portraits and pictures of Paris to tourists, and a few old windmills that were built back when this area produced flour and wine. During the siege of Paris in 1814 an owner of one of the windmills was killed and nailed to it, rather grisley. I returned home by taking the metro from the Abesses metro station, its nearly 100years old and at 36m down, one of the deepest in Paris. There is a sign at the bottom warning people that there are 115 steps and pointing to the elevator, I laughed thinking that many people in Wellington walk that number of steps just to reach their house from the road! The staircase has been decorated with murals done by local artists, its quite cool.

Tuesday morning I was woken early to a very apologetic Claire knocking on the door and suggesting I call home urgently - news of the Christchurch earthquake had reached France: Fortunately I could get hold of my parents on their cellphone and learnt that my immediate family were ok, however I spent a couple of hours glued to the computer screen following the news and everyone's facebook comments. It put a damper on the rest of my time in Paris, its too hard to enjoy yourself when you can't stop thinking about something on the other side of the world. Its been quite hard to be here actually, I remember after the September earthquake last year my nearest co-worker was also from Christchurch and we were constantly talking to each other about it and looking at photos together. Ive really missed that this time around, just having someone to talk to, its made me feel really alone for the first time in this trip. I don't think I was very fun for the Chatels to host for the rest of the week, I really just wanted to sit in front of the computer the whole time instead of going out or making small talk.

Gardens at Versailles
Later in the morning that Tuesday Claire took me to the Palace of Versailles, about a hour outside of Paris on the train. Words cannot describe how enormous this place is, and how elaborate all of the decorations are, nor can my camera capture the size of the buildings and garden, it really just has to be seen. We walked through the main palace, seeing a set of rooms decorated after each of the planets, the Queen and Kings bedchambers and the Hall of Mirrors. The hall is truly amazing. After seeing both the Palacio Real and Versailles, I do wish that someone would give a tour of the less glamourous side of the palace, like the kitchen and servants quarters,  I think that would be quite interesting. After lunch in a fancy wee cafe we jumped into a little train and headed off to see the Grande Trianon and Petit Trianon, little palaces build on the other side of the gardens where the royals would head away to for some privacy (think Marie-Antoinette and her parties). The gardens are huge, you could spend days in there just wandering around. They are very beautiful, but with their perfect lines and symmetry they are very different from the wildness of the Wellington Botanic Garden that I used to walk through every day. One of my favourite parts of Versailles was the Pavillon de la Lanterne, an old hunting lodge on the edge of the grounds. It looked very old and run down, but apparently its still used by Sarkozy when he wants some time hidden away.

Wednesday I woke up late, and then visited the local market with Claire. Markets here are actually quite different to farmers markets back in NZ, as the fruit and vegetables are actually quite a bit more expensive than those in the supermarkets, you don't pick fruit etc yourselves but ask the guy and he selects them for you, and they use plastic wrappings very liberally (personally, I don't get why you need to wrap up things like broccoli when its just going into a bad of other vegetables). I messed around looking at the news online and then got held up by lunch (the disadvantage of having epic multiple-course meals is the amount of time it takes to eat one!) so I left the house quite late, and then went off hunting a Kiwi restuarant and bar I had seen on the weekend to buy some NZ wine and beer before I headed to the Louvre. As I've said before, it's reached the stage where I have seen far to many painting of old royals and Jesus, and even here I found myself just wandering around thinking up funny captions for the artworks! Its actually too big and crowded, and its really hard to find your way around in - I laughed when I saw a group of boys obviously there on a school trip who had sat down in the middle of a hall to play cards. I did try to see most of the stuff I'd studied before, but again you could spend weeks there and not see everything. Monia Lisa was cool, some of the sculptures were quite cool, and the buildings were amazing, the word enormous springs to mind again! The building used to be the Palace before Louis XIV moved out to Versailles, and its so big that one of the streets actually drives through/under the buildings. They are also very stunning on the inside, ever since Berlin Ive found that I take more photos of the museum buildings than the artworks themselves! Really not convinced by the glass pyramid though, it just doesn't fit with the surroundings and I find it ugly even by itself.


Wednesday night was the last night with Claire at home, as she works as a flight attendant on long haul flights and was off the following morning, so I had made a pavlova with Sylvain's assistance. The decoration was entirely his, he made me laugh claiming that was just how mum had done it back in Rangiora!

Thursday morning I managed to leave the house before lunch for once, and headed to the Pantheon. Claire had been quite confused by my desire to go there, I think its not something that really means a lot to the French, but as it had been the bane of my Year 13 Classical Studies class, I headed off to explore it. I think it is far more beautiful than most churches and similar buildings Ive seen, the grey and muted colour palate and the architecture is really beautiful. The crypt underneath is quite cool too.

Sylvain and I up the Tower
After lunch Sylvain took me to the Eiffel Tower. Even on a grey day in the off-season the lines were really long (I can't imagine it in the middle of summer) so I was really grateful that Claire's niece's boyfriend works for a tour company and we could join his friend's tour for free, skipping the queues. The view was really cool, and I guess the Eiffel Tower is kind of what you dream about when you are a little kid dreaming of travelling one day, so there is extra magic when you visit it that other tourist things don't have for me. One surprize was the ice skating rink on the first level, it just seemed bizarre, and again the army patrolling for terrorist attacks. Europe is full of people asking for money, either straightout begging, trying to sell you crap, or my most hated, trying to get you to 'donate to a charity'. Paris is one of the worst places for this, as there are a lot of illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Selling crap on the street is illegal, so when the police do a round they gather up their stuff and run, but the rest of the time they drive you crazy as every two seconds a different hawker asks you if you want a mini tower for a euro. There was also a group of apparently deaf mute people collecting for some deaf mute society, but as Sylvain and I waited for the tour group to arrive they all took a break and chatted away! Before we left I gave in to a childish desire for the biggest candy floss I had ever seen, and then spent the rest of the way home feeling quite sick and complaining that my hands were sticky!

Moulin Rouge
My final night in Paris was really quite special. Ever since I based my painting portfolio around the Moulin Rouge back at highschool I have been fascinated by it, so the Chatels gave tickets to myself and their niece, Ingrid. We had dinner there before the show, a three course meal with champagne, served by lovely waiters. Ingrid has completed her Masters in Development Studies, so we had a lot in common to talk about, and a lovely young couple of Irish boys were sharing our table and halfway through dinner introduced themselves to ask if I'd been affected by the earthquake, so we spent the rest of the meal chatting away to them. The show was amazing, the half-naked girls and feathered costumes I'd expected, but the water tank filled with snakes and a girl swimming and wrestling with the snakes rising up from the stage, the choreographed miniture ponies, and the dancers descending from the ceiling on wires and swinging right over my head I had not! The stage and props really interested me, they had girls seated on giant spheres that moved across the stage unassisted, and different sections of the stage would rise and fall with dancers on them. They also had incredible little skits between the acts while the dancers changed, a juggler, a ventriloquist who pulled people out of the audience and used them in his act, and a guy who kind of juggled ping pong balls but using his mouth and hitting them on a drumkit to play music. Weird. It really isn't like the movie at all, and we really have nothing like this in NZ! One of the most amazing things I've done in Europe, and a reminder of how lucky I am to have friends willing to host me all over the continent and arrange for me to have such incredible experiences. Only negative was that after paying so much for a ticket they force you to check your coat and pay another 2€ for it, and they take your ticket off you completely, presumably so you pay €10 to have a momento (I solved this problem by stealing a cocktail menu, take that!).

The pavlova
So Friday morning I was off to Nantes to stay with Camille. I left the house too late and freaked out on the metro that I wouldn't make my train, but somehow I managed to run through the really long tunnel from the metro to the train station with my huge backpack, two handbags and another backpack in my hands, found the platform in the most confusing and badly signposted station I've been in so far, and even realised that there was two trains on the platform and the closest one was not going my direction, to jump on the train with no time to spare! As soon as I was on I lost all ability to work things out though, and I got really tripped up by the apparent lack of seat-numbers, so after walking around for ages trying to work it out I gave in and asked for help (something I have stubbornly refused to do so far!) and found out that the numbers are on the actual chairs, not above them like in a airplane, duh!

Facebook photo album of Paris is here.

Versailles, view through the fence