Monday, 28 June 2010

Side effects

I did not escape as I thought I had. It struck me down, big-time, today.

I'm referring to the jetlag. I was bouncing around work yesterday having slept about 5 hours in 4 days. I was tired but wired.

I went to bed last night but woke up today at almost 3pm. Sorry work! The sore throat is back too. I guess I must have overdone things. Well, I'm expecting to be back on deck tomorrow and I need to get some passport photos for my new passport application (a priority). I have arranged an appointment at the French Embassy in Wellington for 30 July.

Now I am waiting for the official contract from my new employer in Ile de France. Everything seems to be a goer but I'm not 'safe' until I have that and the visa. These are nailbiting times.

In the meantime I'm trying to plan and organise logistics for the move. I will have to sell my home contents to fund the transportation of my personal effects and to pay for the flight. Soooo much to do and a lot on my mind but it all feels right.

Photo of frogs legs as they are sold in the Paris markets. They are not common these days-maybe they've eaten them to extinction? Or maybe fast food is more popular?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Travel troubles and tips

I did make it to Charles de Gaulle Airport on time, thanks to pre-ordering a taxi so the strike didn't affect me immediately, but then the airline decided to delay the flight anyway because so many passengers were late in arriving at the airport. The air-traffic controllers also had issues which complicated things.

After five hours wait I was on the plane bound for Singapore. I watched as many films as I could tolerate and listened to music on my MP3 player before doing a spot of planning on my laptop. It's a shame there's no power or wifi in the air. I can totally understand why Europeans might not be heading to NZ in droves. There's plenty of interest and NZ is considered an exotic location but the distance is a major turnoff and so is the expense. I tried to point out the money issue's worse for NZers heading to Europe but the major stumbling block is the very uncomfortable long-haul flights. Thirteen hours and 10 hours+ is appalling. I hated it. The service was good but being confined to economy class for so long is not great for arthritis and back problems.

Another delay occured at Singapore as connections had to be adjusted for the delays occurring in Paris. Ouch! As for the last stretch (haha) I gave up on films as I was by the bulkhead: silly tiny screens to pull out, not allowed my carryon luggage with me because there were no seats in front to put it under. It wasn't that I was keen to be home, I was just keen to be out of the plane. I think I must have invented a Frances kind of meditation to get me through that stage with only my music. I didn't dare sleep in case I missed out on a meal.

Returning home was not smooth sailing. After I emerged from immigration I headed towards biosecurity where I received a steely look and told I would be searched. This rather concerned me. Could I have accidently left an apple in my bag? If so, instant fine of $400. I asked what the problem was, they wouldn't tell me. I felt the guilt of the truly innocent swamp me. Eventually, after making me sweat a bit, they decided to get a special search guy to come and go through my suitcase. They found what they were interested in but I explained it was a gift and not what they might think. No mercy, rip, rip at the gift wrapping, what a mess. I was NOT impressed and they weren't apologetic about it either, just sheepish. I realised, of course, they were just doing their job but after being awake more than 30 hours I wasn't in the mood for unnecessary stresses and destruction

Too bad because there were more to come.

I couldn't find my friends at the airport. It wasn't like them not to be there. I was unnerved, what to do? After 15 minutes of searching through all faces in the terminal I decided to catch a taxi as I had no NZ phone or cash to buy a phone card.

The taxi driver had great difficulty in finding the address even when we were on the correct road. We were both becoming frustrated. Yay, at last we saw the letterbox and a light was on. My friends were understandably surprised to see me. I asked for the car keys. Unfortunately my car battery had given out. My friend dropped me home before returning to watch a World Cup game of football.

Safely inside my home, having turned on the water and the hot water cylinder I realised I had left my passport and travel documents in the back of the taxi, in the dark. Bummer. Phone call to taxi company, phone call to police. Was it time for bed yet?

Yes, 2.30am so sort it out later in the morning. My passport is now at the airport, I'll collect it after work, my car is now running OK. Tomorrow it will be great to meet up with my work colleagues again.

It has been great to spend the weekend with Laura and discuss the new futures for both of us but we both face significant challenges. Life is becoming a blur it's so fast. It's not boring.

Travel Tips from my experience

Allow plenty of time when making connections to and from the airport as traffic can be diabolical
The train will be less subject to traffic jams
Book your TGV trip 2 months in advance to get a PREM ticket- often only 22 euros.
Get to know where in various buses and trains are the areas to stow your suitcase as negotiating the aisles with them is awful.
Keep hold of your train ticket as they will come through th carriage and check them
Buses can be cheap in the regions
remember to 'compostez' your train ticket in the machine by the trains
Beware of pickpockets in Marseille
The fountains at Versailles are usually only working on the weekend-check if this is important to you
No filming is allowed in art galleries but Versailles is OK
Take a batobus on the Seine instead of a bateaux mouche because it's less touristy and cheaper
Invest in good walking shoes
Always carry a street map of where you want to be- obvious but trying to negotiate Paris without one is just horrid
Check maps at train and bus stops
Beware of trainlines that split- make sure you book the right line
NZ Credit cards are sometimes not functional with some booking sites
Hotel meals are expensive-dine locally
Buy ingredients for meals from a supermarket or a specialist shop, not the minimarts or mini fruit and grocery outlets in Paris as the later have poor quality and are very expensive
Buy a cellphone that works in France-often you buy usage by the week.
Make sure you have plenty of memory sticks for your camera
Ensure you have power adapters
Scan your passport and airline ticket and any other essential docs and email them to a hotmail or gmail account for safe-keeping
Be prepared to lose one earing of each pair
Ensure you have enough hairdye to get you through the trip
Be VERY careful about the weight of your luggage
Make sure medicine prescriptions will see you through your trip
Get a list of prescribed meds from your doctor in case they think you are a 'druggie'
Be prepared for french men to flirt with you- it's not serious, it's their hobby
Ignore begging requests - if you can
Search out free guided tours and entertainment
Visit the Eiffel Tower early to avoid the crowds
Driving on the other side of the roads at roundabouts is not for the faint-hearted
Being a driver or motorcyclist or pedestrian is risking life and limb in Paris- but it's normal
Doctors, chemists and lab tests are all expensive- you must pay in advance and claim insurance later
Make sure you have a few words of French to offer the locals to show you care about their culture
Restaurants don't want to cook meat well done
Salad is often a separate course after the main at dinner parties
It's normal to walk around with a baguette under your arm
Parisian street signs in tbe city centre have the street name and arrondisement number attached to the corner building
Gare SNCF is for trains
Gare Routiere is usually for buses
The french DON'T eat rich food and heavy sauces these days
Check you will have wifi in your accommodation-internet cafes can be hard to find
Buy a cheap french hairdryer if you are not staying in nice hotels
Beware the hotel room with NO tea and coffee-making facilities
Youth hostels are very noisy-try to stay in your twenties so you can tolerate this
Bread doesn't usually come with butter
You may have to weigh the fruit yourself in the supermarket at a special set of scales before going to the checkout

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Travelling back to the past and into the future

It’s a shame to spend most of the day travelling but that’s what I have to do for the next few days. I delayed leaving my hotel until the very last minute so I could have a bit of a lie-in and check my email. As usual, hardly any contact from anyone. What are you all doing out there? Forgotten me so soon? Isn’t anything I write worth a bit of comment? Oh well, I’m writing this for me too.

So, brunch in a very ho-hum brasserie near the Gare SNCF, after a long and uncomfortable walk through Nice Ville with all my luggage. With plenty of time on my hands I could chill out a little before I caught the TGV to Paris. I must say, the long trip to Paris is a very pleasant one.

The train tracks often skirted the Mediterranean when they weren’t going backstage in Provence. Civilised, beautiful, red volcanic rocks erupting through the shrubby trees; so different to the colours of Marseille. I wasn’t sitting on the Med side of the carriage or I would have taken more photos. Maybe you’ve seen enough of those though; how much sun and sand and trees can a person take, really? For me the Cote is eye candy at anytime. And now the rocks change to white and I know we are skirting the back of Marseille and on past Aix en Provence.

For hundreds of kilometres I see no sheep or cows and it’s glorious. All I see is food production, not exploitation, just fruit, vegetables, grains. The landscape is in harmony, it’s feeding people without a lot of pollution. It’s using sun, wind and rain and good growing soil. The stalks from the harvested wheat are ploughed in. The sheep and cows only appear in the fields as we get near to Paris. I like a bit of sheep and cow myself but I’m eating a lot less than I used to. I’m horrified at what is happening in NZ with dairying and the insistence on following old, short-sighted and inappropriate behaviours. Get with-it NZ. Find something else to do instead of polluting the country for money.

I bought a couple of pain au raisins before I boarded the train, just to keep me going on the almost 6 hours to Paris, a cheap and agreeable way to keep one’s blood sugar up. There’s a woman in my carriage marking papers, another breastfeeding a young baby, a mother and teenage son scoffing sammies and Coke. Someone with a broken leg, on crutches, has just negotiated the aisle and two passengers have to move to another carriage because they are sitting in someone else’s seat. One guy’s reading L’Equipe with the headline La fin d’un monde – it must be referring to the French Le Foot World Cup disaster. And oh, the people who seem to have i-Phones grafted to their bodies these days.

The carriage is filling up as we move closer to Paris. I’m about to leave Provence behind. I love this part of France but I know there are so many places to visit in the future, not to mention other European countries. I so hope my new job in Paris comes to fruition. No longer will I live at the end of the earth. There will be so many more possibilities.

Sitting in a train for hours you have time for reflection. What will it be like at work when I get back? Will the French Embassy in Wellington behave reasonably? When I be given an official work offer? How will I cope with the intimidating logistics of moving to the other side of the world alone?
How will Laura and I adjust to not having each other in our lives each day? It will be difficult. Each of these questions will be answered in time. It’s been an amazing trip.

Along the way I have lived a primitive existence with bare necessities, obtained a new qualification which may or may not get used, met fabulous French people who have taken me into their homes and shared their lives with me, met the lovely Pascal whom I hope will remain my friend, met an ex- president and A Nose and some charming students, accepted a proposition from a university to join their research unit as a communicator for environmental economics and injustice, sampled food I’ve never wanted to such as snails, raw duck liver and goat cheese and milk, walked an extraordinary number of kilometres, used planes, trains and buses, seen amazing French design and modest homes, sampled hotels, cities and countryside, taken hundreds of photographs, seen 4000 year-old megaliths and experienced warmth richness and acceptance from most people I have been in contact with.

Tomorrow I fly home if I can get myself to the airport. Buses and trains are on strike. I've had to order a very expensive taxi.

See you when I get back to NZ. This blog continues. As you can see, there are a lot more adventures and scary moments to come on my journey back to my true homeland, reversing the colonial migration that placed a little bit of France in NZ. Soon a little bit of France will go home, maybe leaving NZ for good.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Bucket List

The day started out a scorcher. Breakfast was on the waterfront of Nice and consisted of Pain au Chocolat, a strawberry juice and a hot chocolate to set me up for a lot more walking. I caught a bus to Eze from the Gare Routiere but I had to wait an hour first. I had expected them to be more frequent and the bus was over-subscribed. I hate travelling backwards but I've been having to do that quite a bit lately. Nice is really growing on me. It's grand, quaint, noisy, always interesting, great shopping and a lot more relaxed, even for the suits, than Paris. The playboys seem long gone. Nice is just getting on with it. People dress well here, the buildings are beautiful.

The bus rumbles along the Cote d'Azur and the view is spectacular. It's what I imagined but I'm doing it as a bus passenger instead of driving a red Ferrari, as I'd imagined 11 years ago. Oh well, I'm doing it and I feel a million euros just breathing the air, feeling the breeze and the sun, seeing the hedges of bougainvillea and the towns clinging to the mountains.

Azur water, yes the cote deserves it's name and the light really is different. It's Mediterranean- blue and white.

Eze requires a climb again but it's worth it. This town is spectacularly beautiful and just reeks quality in everything. Yes some things are expensive but they are unique and the design is astounding, but budget-minded visitors are catered for too.

My advice if you have little time is skip Monaco and visit Eze. I hope I can come back and explore more at leisure one day and maybe buy myself something. The weather was rather warm but I persisted and found the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or. It is part of the Chateau et Relais chain so you know it's first rate.

I sought it out because I had been told it was the restaurant that featured in the movie The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It turns out it isn't really though the film crew visited the establishment and took ideas. The staff have no idea where it was actually filmed and think it was a pastiche of ideas with a lot of set dressing. But the dinner restaurant which was not open for business certainly looked remarkably like the location. Never mind, the location was on MY bucket list.

Thanks to Stephen's generosity I was able to actually have lunch there. How incredible to sit there on the terrace like a wealthy woman, enjoying the hospitality, the colours of the Mediterranean and relax. For the first time in France to really sit and be waited on in such a fabulous place. It was totally cool. I had an apricot juice and they brought out some tiny dried fruit and other things as munchies until the restaurant opened. I had to wait 45 mins and I thought perhaps my skin had had enough sun so the waiter pulled over a parasol for me.

I didn't need a full meal, after all, it was just lunch and the impression of being a member of the rich and famous that I was looking for. A glass of rose champagne to celebrate my stay in France and possibility of moving here later this year, a salad with too much goat cheese that was of a type I was less keen on and a rather yummy desert.

Walking down to the bus was easy but waiting an hour again was not. So many people ended up waiting for the bus I knew the bus wouldn't be able to take us all so I formed a strategy with an old English lady-we got on.

Off to Menton which is right near the border, with Italy being only a few kms away. I couldn't see the town stuck down in the middle of it. I needed to be able to look back at it. It was late afternoon by the time I got there but I knew there were several hours of daylight left. I started walking towards Italy.

Menton is a pretty place with less tourists. I suspect many of them don't come this far. Half the busload had disembarked at Monaco. That suited me. The city council has a whimsical sense it seems, with some original ideas for garden plantings. I loved the artiness of the town and the weather was perfect, not too hot, definitely not cold.

A German tourist pounced on me and seemed to want a conversation so I sat down on a park bench at his request. He's retired and living in Munich. I think he enjoyed practising his English. I found my way back to the Gare Routiere and off I went for 1hr 25 mins in the bus for only 1 euro. I'll bet the Supercity Auckland won't match that!

Yes, I've seen a bit of topless sunbathing but most women prefer not to. Looking at what was on show really wasn't worth a glance.

Opposite me in the bus was a nice French lady with a bag dog. She clearly loved her dog like a child and was happy for me to photograph them.

Menton-Cap Martin-Beausoleil-Monaco-Cap d'Ail-Eze-St jean Cap FCerrat-Villefranche sur Mer-Nice; my Cote d'Azur experience this time around. Next time I'd like to add in Vence and Biot.

Here I am, after a busy day, writing and trying to watch the TV series House in French. Nah, too hard for me still, words and phrases only, can't fill in those important gaps. But this is just the start of Frances's French adventure.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Me, the Secret Service and Bill

The weather has been kind today, probably because I bought a light fold-up raincoat. Oh well, it will be useful back in NZ.

I ordered room service breakfast and received a carafe of hot chocolate, pain au chocolat, butter and jam and a mini baguette plus nectarine. A good breakfast and I saved the nectarine and baguette for later. I enjoyed this hotel despite the fact I could never get the TV to switch on.

The bus to the centre of Grasse cost only 1€ and the driver told me to hang onto the ticket and present it to the bus driver at Grasse Gare Routiere which I did. Wow! When I presented my ticket I didn’t have to pay any more money so I went from the hotel to Grasse central to Nice on 1€. It had only cost me 2€ the day before to go from Cannes to Grasse. No wonder the buses are well patronised. Not only that (pay attention Auckland) but the services are integrated and easy to switch from one to the other.

The trip between Grasse and Nice was lovely: the houses and leafy sections climbing up and down the hillsides, glimpses of the Mediterranean. The properties are larger and have a great lifestyle I think. The french who are not in apartments, like to grow things like vegetables, flowers and trees and fruit, more-so than New Zealanders. They seem to appreciate the quality of life that brings them. Everywhere there are trees yet in NZ we seem hell-bent on destroying them in our urban areas. The bus rumbled through many leafy tunnels which I appreciated in the growing heat.

Ah Nice. It’s big and beautiful and not as brash as I expected. In fact, as I wandered around the city today I found I liked it more and more. Where are the playboys with the bling? Not a one to be found. I wasted 1 ½ hours trying to get to my hotel. I called two separate taxis at two locations but none ever arrived. I had heavy luggage but there was nothing for it but to hoof it AGAIN. At the Hotel Ascot the doorman gave me a map of Nice and away I went.

My reservation at Le Meurice was in order. My room wasn’t quite as nice as I had hoped but I’m coping. There is nothing for making a cup of tea, I must simply drink water from the bathroom. The shower is old and held together with tape. The stairs have a nasty habit of not having any light. You might start off with some but then you are plunged into darkness. It’s dangerous in my opinion. If you want to stay here bring a torch. There are no hotel instructions of any use in the room but the TV does work. There are no details of any possible room service so I’ll be going out early tomorrow for a cheap cuppa I think. I had to ask about WiFi, there are no instructions in the room but at least it’s free and doesn’t have a time limit.

Late lunch consisted of the cheapest salad I could find- just mesclun which still cost me $16NZ and then a wee bit of ice-cream on a hot day. Waiting service was very patchy.

I wandered around Old Nice which is lovely and quite crowded. Nice has so much choice for all budgets- you name it. I spoke briefly to a gold pirate who was more interested in watching le foot than in being a street statue. I continued on my way and experienced one of those rather weird adventure moments...

There was a small group of French police on those scooter thingees hanging around the market. I wondered what could be interesting about other people’s cast-offs. And there he was... surrounded by Secret Service men. Just another day at the markets with President Bill Clinton. French stall- holders were surprised but chuffed to see him. I became a stalking member of the Paparazzi. I got very close. He moved on. I walked ahead. Then, near his official car, he stopped to say hi to some Americans and receive a hug. One said thanks for being our President. Why not, I thought... I stepped forward, put my sunglasses on my head and waited for him to notice me in front of him. And he did, he hesitated and it seemed he wanted to shake my hand. I offered mine and said “American-New Zealand relations Sir” “You are from NZ?”, he said, “Yes” I said. “Where?” he added. I replied Auckland. “ It’s a great country”, he added and then he walked off to his car. But he did shake my hand (his was soft and warm), our eyes met and we had a ‘moment’. I was so pissed off I had no one to take a picture on my camera. Somewhere on quite a few cameras there are photos of me and Bill but not on mine, Bugger!

I’m hoping I can access a day pass tomorrow to hop on and hop off buses along the Cote D’Azur. I want to spend time in the village of Eze and the town of Menton near the Italian border. Tonight is just writing and chilling out in my room, eating some fruit for my dinner and the left-over mini-baguette from breakfast in Grasse. I can get by on the minimum when necessary.

Well, what will tomorrow bring? Another adventure I hope.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Wet Grasse

I’m waiting for the weather to stop raining so I can start walking to the centre of Grasse, perfume capital of the world. I’ve already seen the billboards for Molinard and Fragonard. Time is very short here. It’s lunchtime and I must leave tomorrow morning. My room at the Mercure Grasse has recently been renovated so I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve had to purchase WiFi access but at least it’s available. Hopefully it will be free in Nice tomorrow.

This is my third to last night in Provence so I need to find a way to maximise my time. The train from Marseilles to Cannes was pleasant. I wish I’d been less tired. I struggled not to close my eyes because I wanted to see the countryside. It really is lovely with the vineyards that stretch in endless kilometres punctuated by olive groves and houses (with orange roof tiles) set in the middle of fields. The French really seem to value trees. They add great amenity to the country. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean. It’s choppy out there today and the sky is mostly an ominous dark grey. The bilingual receptionist informs me it will be much better tomorrow.

I do hope so because they’ve had some nasty, fatal winds and floods here. On my way in on the bus it was sad to see the olive groves all on the ground, the vineyards under silt and the wheat fields destroyed. There were a number of farmers out surveying the damage as we passed by.

I didn’t quite get my wish. It’s hard to believe this is the end of June in Provence. It should be fine and scorching. Instead it’s cold and wet. That’s a bit of an understatement really. And wandering the narrow streets of Grasse on a Sunday is , I discovered, not the best day for a wander with most of the shops closed.
After leaving the hotel Mercure on foot, determined to manage several kilometres to the centre of town, it dawned on me fairly quickly that since Grasse is a perched town it was all going to be uphill. There was no choice. The bus timetable told me I’d have to wait two hours for a bus; not an option. After a while I got to thinking that at least I wasn’t wet from rain but soon I was running rivulets of sweat as the clouds parted. Just as I got to the centre of town someone turned the sun off and it got very cold as the sweat evaporated.

Thinking it might be a good time to go indoors, I visited the Fragonard perfume factory. They had a free tour so I joined it. It was interesting. The person who mixes all the essential oils together is called The Nose. That person has spent at least three years studying and seven years gaining experience so that they can identify 3000 ingredients used in perfumerie, where they come from and the exact quantities in each perfume. Of course the perfumes don’t have 3000 ingredients, usually up to 50 but these 50 noses around the world (Paris, Grasse and New York) are very special individuals. They can only work 2 hours a day because their noses get ‘saturated’. They are not allowed to drink, smoke, eat spicy foods or get colds. The nose uses a perfume ‘organ’ to conconct a unique scent from base notes, heart notes and top notes, 500 oils are arranged in three levels like an organ.

After Fragonard I visited the museum of historical bits and pieces from Provence, another free activity. Some things are a bit ‘dusty’ but there are various rooms of kitchen, furniture, Neolithic and other items of interest.

I discovered a small, boutique perfume house down an alley and spoke to the owner who turned out to be the The Nose for Parfumerie Artisanale Guy Bouchara. Indeed it was Guy himself. He proudly showed me his old copy of the novel Perfume, with the signature of the author Patrick Susskind and a handwritten note from the production company of the film Perfume which came out a few years ago. What you learn about perfume manufacture, in the film, is absolutely correct. The crew visited his perfumerie for ideas on dressing the set. He’s proud he had a hand in the film and he’s a charming man who was pleased to speak french with someone from NZ even though he has some English. That was a nice little adventure to stumble across. You can check out his wares on

Then it was time to find something to eat. I decided on something cheapish to keep me going until breakfast. That turned out to be a French pizza. Not much topping on it but I finished it. The waiter was somewhat eccentrically dressed in a chiffon caftan with nothing under the top, and large Indian or Arab- looking pants and a necklace. He seemed constantly nervy.

While eating, the weather took a nasty turn for the worst; thunder and torrential rain. Of course, being a tourist, I had no access to an umbrella and nowhere to buy one. The bus timetable didn’t work for me and taxis seem to be only in one’s imagination in Grasse. Back towards the hotel I went but soon became lost in the myriad of narrow look-alike street running torrents of rain. I could hear rivers of water gushing through the stormwater courses down the water-stairs inside walls. Interesting engineering. Nothing for it but to hoof it and shelter under dripping trees or lurk in doorways.

Things became very unpleasant. My shoes had earlier alerted me to the fact that all my walking in France was just too much for my aging Reeboks. The sole of one shoe announced its impending detachment by making desperate squeaky, sucky noises. That now turned to squelchy noises as my shoes filled with water, my hair and jacket clung to me and my best trousers slapped my ankles as I walked in any direction that said Cannes. This went on and on. Sprinting back seemed to take forever but suddenly the hotel came in view and I soothed myself with the thought of a nice warm shower.
No, not yet.

My room decided to be unco-operative. I tried to get the electricity to work by inserting my room key. Nothing. Drip drip. Again? Nothing, drip drip. Eventually a housemaid arrived and announced I must move to another room. Bye-bye nice room, bye-bye balcony. My current room isn’t bad but it’s not as good as the first, plus the air-conditioning in this one is very noisy. Hairdryer working over-time, I set about drying off my sopping leather handbag and camera case.

Now I’m pooped and I need to find out how and where to get a bus tomorrow for Nice and launch into the very last stage of my holiday in France.