Sunday, 31 October 2010

Steps forward and back

Life's like learning a dance right now. Clumsy, frustrating, backward and forward motions with inner celebrations at any tiny success.

This weekend has been a good example. I was looking forward to having my new TV delivered and installed. The guys arrived early yesterday (Saturday) but stayed three minutes, just long enough to tell me they would not be installing and that I needed to buy an extension cable. They said if I bought one that day and rang a particular number they would come back two days later. There's just not enough space between the connection on the wall and the space available for a TV because there's too much stuff in the way. I was naturally irritated and disappointed. The only way to minimise those feelings was to take action.

I immediately started walking to the station to catch a bus to the commercial centre. I pottered around the Mall for a bit because there are many nice shops to get acquainted with and then I arrived at Darty which is much like a Dick Smith or JB Hi Fi. Waiting for attention again I explained the situation and was told, sure, there's a cable you can buy but there won't be any installation on Monday and I'd have to wait for yet another weekend, since I work.

I reminded the vendor that I'd already waited a week and that installation was part of their service. This sort of debate is extremely difficult for me with my limited language. When a torrent of French comes at me I simply nod and then repeat my request, trying to use the clearest language I can, and hope for the best. The result can be mixed but this time I struck paydirt. The assistant felt sympathetic and offered to pop over to my place after he finished work and sort it out for me.
That was surprising. What was even more surprising was his patience when he arrived.

He spent ages putting the TV cabinet together but he was methodical and followed the instructions to the letter. He prided himself on doing a good job and when he made tiny mistakes he fixed them up instead of faking it and rushing home.

This sort of service isn't normal and he has my heartfelt thanks for giving me a TV for the long weekend. The disappointment was that in neither the TV package nor the DVD player package were any cables to link the two included. In NZ you'd have cables supplied til they were coming out your ears. No one told me they were not supplied in the products when I bought them. I must go back to the shop for yet more cables and set it up myself. Groan! Still, I don't have any zone 2 DVDs anyway, at this time, so no great loss.

I am really enjoying my 107cm HDTV, what a luxury. So nice to have some background noise and access to French language in my home. So far I have watched programmes on St Malo and its links with Jersey, a yacht race off the coast of Brittany following the old rum route, tried not to watch the absolute crap of celebrity chat/indulgence/reality shows. Where's House? - I need to give that another go.

I'm proud to say I succeeded in watching one of my zone 4 NZ DVDs on my new TV via a special cable to my laptop. I got the settings right all by myself -yay.

The other major project I've been working on is the curtains. Victoria took me to Leroy Merlin to look for ready-mades last week. We had a long and frustrating search to find anything suitable for my window measurements and situation. I came away with five gorgeous terracota/gold sheen curtains you put a rod through. I still have to work out the rod arrangement and buy them.

I've been spending my Sunday (today) trying to cut a length of fake lace into curtains(sheers) with a pair of nail scissors. It's not easy but they are the only scissors I have. I've got a lot of painful bruises from trying to balance on a table which is not connected to its legs and a chair I was standing on which was rocking around on top of my bed-I have no ladder and if I did there'd be nowhere to store it.
After more window and floor washing, curtain-hanging and appreciating my lovely TV I'm feeling very chipper.

Little by little the studio is turning into a home. I'm adjusted to living in one room. The lack of facilities is something I am having to be patient and inventive with and very, very organised. But, I am content. Even more content when the boss uplifts his big stuff.

I can say that everyday I have random moments of pure joy when something goes well, or something looks beautiful or I'm behaving just like a french person. I couldn't understand why I seemed to be the only one not feeling joyful about the superb sunrise last Friday. It filled half the sky as the train carried us all to work, lasted 20 mins and covered every colour tone from purple through red, pink, orange, gold. I wanted to shout to the commuters to stop sleeping, reading or playing with technology and just soak up the beauty. Instead, the sleepers continued to nod their heads in time to the movements of the carriage.

Walking through town in the morning I looked up at the lightening sky and saw a half moon and sighed with sheer happiness. I'm here in the only place I need to be, want to be, should be.

Today I noticed many people in the town of Cafeolait were carrying up to 6 baguettes in their arms. Perhaps there are no shops open tomorrow I thought. So I joined the queue outside the baker's and came away with a baguette, a 'festive', an oval 'campagne' and a pain au raisins (see photo). I topped that off with a visit to the 'charcuterie' for a couple of mini Quiche Lorraines. Imagine me carrying all that in my arms through the streets of Cafeolait, right at home. Yes, such things make me happy these days.

If only the bureaucratic nonsense from France AND NZ would get resolved- that's another story.

Photos show my TV, an example of the older women who seem to predominate as presenters, a programme on awesome sandcastles, my windows shaping up, my bread selection, curtain material I've chosen.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The cutting edge and crap

There are periods we go through where every thing seems to be a hassle. Just when we think we are entering a calm spot it all turns to custard.

That's how it feels right now. My studio desperately needs double curtains. No light comes in even now and it's not even winter. I need sheers to stop people looking in as I'm on the ground floor and the public come past my room to get to some therapists in the building. I need opaque curtains to stop people looking in at night because I've only got one room and sometimes I have to get naked. It would also be nice to have something to keep the cold out.

However, this is an old building and the windows are non-standard-narrow and very tall, in fact I can't reach the top even standing on a chair. I've tried and tried to find ready-mades in shops but they don't stock a useful size. I've looked on the internet. Last night on the way home I called into a curtain boutique for custom-mades. I knew it would be expensive but I needed to check. Jolly hard trying to communicate this sort of thing in french; we resorted to drawing pictures. Fabric choice was very limited but good quality and they could be made to measure for approximately 830 euros. there's no visit to measure up until AFTER you decide to buy. The price may well be reasonable for what is required but it's still a lot of money on something that isn't even my own home.

The toilet is leaking. You know, where the seal is stuffed and water from the cistern pours down the back of the bowl but who do I tell? Whose reponsibility is it to fix it? I still have to get a handyman in to put up a pole for a shower curtain and sort out the thingee you turn so water comes out of the bath tap instead of the showerhead. then there's the dodgy light fittings plus I'm paying for space I can't access until the professor can move his stuff out. Oh, and we still have to sort out getting me my car.

The phone's not working and no-one I've asked knows the number, including the last tenant. The professor's in South America.I tried to phone my mobile on the landline but it never made my mobile ring and I got a strange message in portugese instead.

Oh dear, and then I received a lesson in how preparedness and paying attention to little details is important. I was cutting a baguette with my lovely new breadknife when I miscalculated with the angle and sliced my thumb instead, with the serrations. Hmm, that was a wee shock so under the cold tap for 10 mins while applying pressure. Oh no- what does one do next after the initial actions in First Aid 101?

I realised I had no bandages, no antiseptic, a big fat nothing. Improvisation: paper hanky followed by toilet paper wrapped around but what to do to keep pressure on, use a bra? It almost came to that. All I could find was a cord attached to a piece of jade that EcoCity Toastmasters had given me as a farewell present. Thanks guys- you've no idea how useful that gift has been. So with one hand I tried to wind it around tightly to stop the bleeding. It wasn't very long and tricky to tie off. I went to bed with it like that. It seems to have bled a lot in the night because as I took the bandages off for the nurse at work she noted the blood loss and the irregular cut and wasn't very happy.

I was told I should probably be in the hospital. What? Hang on, such an over-reaction. Oh and I should have a tetanus jab too. Actually the pharmacist I visited on my way in to work this morning had told me the same thing. I was instructed to see a doctor today without delay.

Fortunately Camille at work kindly found a doctor on my street and left a message. He rang me later and we organised an appointment. Hmm, nice voice.

I can inform you that doctors in France are like doctors in NZ in that they keep you waiting a dreadful amount of time. Ah, but here's an eye-opener. This is France, land of obstructive bureaucracy and my second doctor in France. This one was charming, gentle and considerate, coped with my french language attempts and didn't bother asking me any medical history questions at all. I couldn't believe it.

I explained the accident and subsequent reactions. He looked at my finger after gingerly trying to remove the bandage the dedicated university nurses had applied. He seemed to not want to cause me any distress. He popped a simple dressing on and that was it. A down-to-earth common-sense doctor with a warm voice and weak handshake. My no-frills first aid had done the trick. He suggested I consider getting a tetanus vaccination at my convenience but no need to do it now. Twenty-two euros later and I was on my way... after he checked my ears. He's more interested in them because they've been painful for 6 months. They are red and inflammed he said. After I am given social security rights I should see a specialist he advised and handed me a prescription for some anti-inflammatories. And I didn't even have to register at his surgery. All he has is my name and mobile number-amazing.

So you can see that I'm been on the cutting edge and that life is full of cack and crap right now. Luckily I meet terrific individuals who try to help and advise where they can. Tomorrow Victoria and I will try to shop for curtains for me during lunchtime. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Death in the street

Last weekend I was disturbed in the wee hours by a very peculiar noise. I've never heard anything like it before. It seemed inhuman and made me tingle with anxiety. I thought perhaps it was a dog run over but I hadn't heard any cars or impact from one. The sound went on and on; agonised yelping and despairing wailing. It really did sound like a cross between a dog and a woman in unimaginable distress. Very soon my room was filled with flashing blue/white light and the sound of male voices. It was coming from the other side of the street, just opposite my building but impossible to see from my studio. There was no need for me to intervene in my PJs because there were officials on the scene. With patches of quiet as people went back inside the affected building this situation went on for a protracted length of time. I figured there had been a fight or a domestic and tried to get back to sleep.

This week I read the free local rag and the mystery was revealed. A tragic accident had claimed the life of a young 23 year old man. He'd had an evening with his friends and at the close of this his friends decided he was in no fit state to go home so they took his bike keys and he slept. When he woke up he wanted to go home. He moved towards the window and fell three floors. Evacuated to a major hospital in Paris he died two days later. This would have traumatised a lot of people and I will never forget the sound of that trauma.

Yesterday, being a Saturday, was domestic chores day. It's nothing like my old Saturdays in NZ. I've accepted that it's impossible at this time for me to rush around doing a squillion things in my day. With no car I must follow the pace of town life at the slowest speed. That means taking at least two hours to do the groceries as I move through the markets looking for bargains, chatting to some of the vendors in very basic french, arriving at the supermarket and then learning a little more about the products, prices and positions. I usually get a 'hi' from my favourite security guard. Off to the bakers for some fresh bread, maybe locate a punnet of raspberries. Trundler in tow I arrive home, unpack and have lunch and head out again. Yesterday I found some gloves, a woollen scarf, a woollen jumper and, miraculously, Nicholas's wine shop near the Mairie had a bottle of Floc de Gascogne. I've been searching high and low for that since my dinner with Laurence. My friends, I've just purchased my first bottle of french wine.

What does one do on a wet, cold and windy afternoon with no entertainment? One catches a bus and goes to a Centre Commerical (mall) of course. Some folks plan for retirement. I'm planning for hibernation.

After a reccie in some clothes shops (buying nothing) I headed to the hypermarket Carrefour. Loaded up with some sheets, a huge duvet inner and a multiboard I then spent more than 2 hours in Darty. They were busy and I was always overlooked; men coming in to browse got attention. I got none. It never occured to them I might actually have money in my pocket and want to buy rather than chat about this model vs that. I got so fed up I interrupted a conversation a young assistant was having with a male client and asked if he was going to be finished soon. Yes, he said and voila, I actually had someone's attention. I pointed out the flat screen TV I wanted. He wanted to know if I understood all the techo stuff. Sure, I said, it's all on the ticket.

I bought a 107cm HD Philips, a basic DVD player (no HDD or blueray), a TV cabinet to stand it all on and a cable I need to connect my laptop to the TV to play my NZ DVDs on the big screen. I smiled to myself, because I had chosen the most genuine but least experienced sales person who was still in training. The order took forever to process but his cocky, chatterbox colleague was jealous of his sale.

Next Saturday my Telly will be delivered and installed for me so that it's working properly. Hopefully they will explain, slowly, how to use it all. It's very difficult making these purchases. I've spent hours in shops learning what's on the market, what vocab I need to use, what I need to ask, guarantees etc. I still don't understand most of what they say but if it's crucial I explain I need simple slow language and I eventually get there.

I just need some space to put it. The studio is still full of the boss's stuff so it will have to go in the middle of the room temporarily, alongside my damp washing. So, entertainment for the forthcoming winter, language immersion on the evenings and weekends and a warm and snuggly bed. Things are going to be so much nicer.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Frigid Air

The change came suddenly. I was there when it happened. After I arrived at work today my french colleagues all concurred. We were all feeling it and the evidence was plain to see-men wearing two coats at the same time, women wearing fluffy boots and jackets, practically every woman was bound up in a scarf. Gloves were starting to appear or men thrust their hands firmly into their pockets. The chill arrived on Sunday as I was stepping out my doorway to catch the train to Paris. I'd looked at the sky and decided the blue skies must mean a nice autumnal day ahead.

I left without my raincoat or scarf. Never do that! Tears were running down the sides of my nose as I reached the train station and my cheeks burned with the cold. It's a very different cold to NZ, in particular the North Island. The wind seemed to be off the arctic and it probably was. By the time I arrived at Paris-Montparnasse station I had no idea how I could possibly cope for a day in such temperatures. Thankfully Frederique picked me up from the station as I was running a bit late. The train I had planned to catch was cancelled when I got there, due to the strike, so I had to wait for another one which stopped at every station and took an hour to do so.

Veronique needed to buy flowers and oysters so I tagged along. I borrowed a thin jacket from her as anything was better than nothing. I then caught a metro to Chatelet. My hands were so cold I couldn't easily get the money into the slot to pay for the tickets at a ticket machine, I kept dropping them on the ground. Eventually I was on my way to Chatelet station. I still find the metro system intimidating, probably because I haven't used it much and have always had to do it on my own, so I learn the hard way. There are so many tunnels to walk along you need to do your homework in order to have any idea what the various signs mean and what names appear along your route.

I heard rather pleasant music down one tunnel. I emerged to find a line of men playing instruments and singing. They seemed Russian or Polish and they performed very well but I was pressed for time to make my next appointment. Chatelet is a major line change station on the metro. You can't often go from one side of Paris to the other without changing trains. It's like a rabbit warren. Of course, I eventually found a train to Porte Maillot which is on the outskirts of central Paris, near La Defense. I was to meet Jacques there for a wine. We ended up going somewhere for a hot drink instead and then pottered around a convenience store which happened to be open on a Sunday. That's a rarity.

We looked for Floc de Gascogne (alas no luck with that)and jam and a mild sort of goat's cheese for me to try. Then he helpfully dropped me back at Gare Montparnasse to go back to Cafeolait. So I didn't see anything of Paris at all and froze whenever I had to emerge outside. Such a shame.

Then I got lost again at the Gare. I always do. It's huge and multilevel and I never know exactly where I'm supposed to go for which sort of train. Clearly though, I made it back home via a very chilly walk. I was so happy to be back in my little studio where I could get a bit warmer and get something to eat. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was now past 5pm. Paris was not welcoming me that day though I did feel a wee flutter when I first glimpsed the Eiffel Tower as the train neared Paris- it stands out so much and means so much to me.

I must make certain I have a clear agenda next time I visit Paris and not just let things evolve. I would like to see the following things:
Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur, Moulin Rouge, Musee d'Orsay, The Louvre, Palais de Chaillot and lots more.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Studio bricolage -DIY

The rhythm of my life is settling. Saturdays consist of breakfast, strolling through the markets and then on to the supermarket. The markets continue to be a real pleasure and entertainment. I never cease to be surprised at the incredible choice available and the quality. It's not top quality. Items range from 5-50 euros mostly, except for the big stuff. It's so enjoyable but I usually don't go near the food stalls, especially the fresh produce because the queues are awful. To me that's the downside of shopping in France. It's lovely to visit the little shops and markets for each item but so much time gets spent waiting to be served.

Oh well, I'll probably do it again next week but I'm getting very hard to please now I know the 'ropes'. I took rather a long time at the supermarket and spent rather a lot, not just on food. Finding large non-food items is very difficult for me with no car, no ideas on where to find certain goods so I took the path of least resistance and bought some items like pillows and pillowcases and a sheet from MOnoprix. The choice is severely limited so I chose a very safe beige, hoping I might find a colourful duvet to brighten things up. I don't know where yet.

My life is lived at a very different pace now and it seems to be good for me. I can decide when I do things and how. I fit in with no-one's schedule but my own (except at work of course). The pace is simpler, slower and allows time to just appreciate the now. I suspect that will change a bit the more I become ensconced in France with better social contacts and reviving some hobbies.

I spent a lot of time this afternoon working on the studio. It needed it... getting rid of big cobwebs and insects, washing walls and window frames and the windows themselves, trying to fix one of the blinds so it would go up and down. I have had a temporary success but really the curtain coverings are munted. Ive been wracking my brains as to how to attach curtains. I need sheers and I need curtains but space is limited and the old fashioned windows need to be taken into account. Most people use rods here but there's not enough room under the roof for that. Small curtains are hung with tringles (small diameter, short rods with fancy end pieces). I have no tools to do it myself but I did visit a DIY yesterday after work to teach myself what's out there, costs, buy a measuring tape. If it was my own place I'd just get someone in to measure up and make the curtains and install but that's too expensive for my situation.

I'd also like to accommodate the era of the building I am in in terms of how I make improvements.

The building in which I live was built in 1787 by a key employee to King Louis XVI. He was a busy and important man because the king kept building many grand residences and they naturally needed good security. The entrance is wide enough for horses to be ridden through into a small courtyard. The house is on three sides. I'm living in a space on the bottom level inside so I can walk straight out onto the cobbles (which are very uncomfortable to walk on). My windows face a small, unkempt garden.

I hope to make the acquaintance of the landlady as soon as my landlord can give me the details. I'd like to offer to do a bit of work on it so it's nice for the spring. The cold and snow should take care of the weeds growing between the cobbles. In the spring I am expecting to see some self-sown hollyhocks regenerating outside my window. I think I'd like to buy a container and grow some herbs there too.

Tomorrow I'm off to Paris for the day to visit Veronique and a first meeting with Jacques, an acupuncturist, for a wine.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The nicer side of humanity

I've had several occasions yesterday and today when I have been reminded that some human beings are just plain nice. They are comfortable in their own skin and thus are open, genuine and expect nothing in return. They help people, they go the extra mile and they get involved in other people's lives just for some moments. And it doesn't phase them. How many people do you know like that? The people who naturally seem to 'pay it forward'?

Last night I had dinner and conversation with Laurence. She's a 60 year-old french couchsurfer and it turned out I am her very first contact. She met me at the train station near her home. She's warm, genuine, enjoys people (as many french folks do) and generous.

I was a wee bit nervous because I don't eat so many things and most french people seem to eat anything. I sure got lucky! Laurence was making home-made Quiche Lorraine. We went through the making of it together; she had printed the recipe of it from the internet for me. I might need to wait until my flan tin arrives from NZ but I'm confident I can make a good one the french way. We spoke french because Laurence doesn't know much English. I asked her advice about curtains and curtain fittings. She said she'd see if she had any old ones in storage that I could have.

She's selling her house soon. It's delightful, oldish, traditional two-story on a decent-sized plot of land with trees, a defunct pond and some flowers and herbs. Her back's not good now and she can't cope with the upkeep. She has a lot of precious personal items handed down from her grandparents and parents. I wished I had such things to give me a place in the generations, I don't even have much from my own past now. As the Quiche was cooking her daughter and daughter's boyfriend arrived to join us for dinner. They speak a little English and were keep to make the most of the opportunity. It was a very convivial and happy evening just talking, eating and drinking (not much drinking which is normal for the french).

The menu started out with aperatifs. There was a selection of nibbles including a paste/pate made from very slowly cooked lamb which is then spread on your pieces of baguette, and some tiny spicy sausage thingees you stab with a toothpick. We gave up stabbing and used a spoon instead because the little blighters ran around the bowl trying to avoid us. To drink I tried a fabulous alcoholic beverage reminiscent of port called Floc de Gascogne. It's a bit like a dessert wine but VERY cultured and smooth. I think I'll investigate that because you don't have to drink the whole bottle in one go. I had a glass of red wine with my quiche and salad. Then it was on to cheese (which I passed on because I had a double-helping of quiche) and then dessert - a bowl of vanilla ice-cream and fresh white and black grapes from France and strawberries. The grapes are like miniatures but with plenty of flavour. Italian grapes are much larger.

We discussed diverse topics - Laurence's parents, countries to visit, the good and the bad of our respective cultures, politics, the natural history of NZ amongst other topics; we bounced from one thing to another. Then it was time for me to be taken home. I was driven back home- well fed and appreciative, once again, of french hospitality.

Today I had to go to the bank to make my first transaction. I needed to collect a cheque book and to deposit some euros so I could write a cheque out for someone to officially translate my birth certificate. As I stood in the queue I felt the sweat literally trickling in rivulets down my back. It's a big deal, I was on my own, bank staff don't speak english, I did not understand the system or how to fill in the forms. I was told I couldn't even put money in the back without handing over my passport. I don't carry it with me every day because I can't afford to lose it. My drivers license is not offical ID. My bank card from them is not ID. They decided to make an exception for me this time and used my license as ID.

Apparently all french people have an identity card to prove who they are which they carry at all times (big brother must be watching). I'm not used to that idea. A french lady behind me overheard and pulled hers out to show me what it looked like and to confirm the requirements for bank transactions. I succeeded in obtaining a deposit slip and tried to fill it out. It's not like ours and the jargon is confusing. A lady offered to act as interpreter and taught me how to fill out a deposit form correctly. Each time I thought I had finished she checked and corrected. Awesome young woman. So kind. I watched her walk out of the bank, so at ease, so obviously 'together'. Wow.

When I got back to work I discovered that Clothilde had decided to organise a welcome dinner for me with some of the ladies at work who live in or near Rambouillet for next Tuesday. Gosh-they go out of their way to be inclusive. I'm impressed. Then Clothilde joined me in the train for the journey home and we chatted in french and english. I think the office is changing a wee bit since I arrived. I think I've become a catalyst for my colleagues to freshen up their english. They are enjoying it and I'm delighted to help. I know Martin is keen for everyone to now share culture and knowledge and especially language at the laboratoire.

So you can see-I'm surrounded by lovely people, all with different personalities but so accepting of me, so welcoming and generous. I don't understand why NZers think the french are snobby or arrogant. Yes there are a few but most people I am meeting are a delight. I'm so relieved. I was sad and worried about leaving Waitakere City Council. I loved and respected the people I worked with and didn't know if I would ever find such a culture again. Maybe I'm lucky. It certainly looks very encouraging from where I'm sitting now.

What is couchsurfing you may wonder? It's a large international network of folks who love to meet other people from diffeent cultures, to have personal experiences with local people when travelling. No money is ever exchanged. If you want to stay somewhere you search for hosts in your target area and send them requests to surf their couches. Sometimes you even end up with your own bed and a meal cooked for you-all free. Your host will often take you places or make suggestions for explorations that you would never discover as a normal tourist. As a host you get to practice another language or share ideas and plans. I really recommend a visit to if this sounds like an interesting idea to you. I think it's good for older people to have contacts and I'm a member of the 50+ sub-group.

Photos of Rambouillet

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Down by the station early in the morning

Strike Day dawned chill but clear. I couldn't sleep so was up at 4am and clearing my email. The bonus was that a couple of my workmates from Waitakere sent me emails at that time. Almost as good as seeing them.

Negotiating the wheelie bins on the footpath on my way to the station I wondered how everyone was going to cope with the strike. I knew there were a few rare trains running during the strike so I made sure I was up to get the early one. I could tell it was anything but a normal day as soon as I arrived. People everywhere, you couldn't see the ground. All over multiple platforms, lots of nervous smokers. How the train managed to arrive on time is beyond me because at each stop it took so long for people to get on and off.

Settling back in my window seat as the doors closed I felt very sorry for all the people left behind. They stood looking very intensely and solemnly as the train pulled away and then, on masse, they reached for their cellphones. This happened at every station we stopped at. At last my destination arrived but the hoardes were even bigger. The snack bars were running out of lunches by 8am. Onwards the seething masses poured towards the commercial centre of town as I indulged in some appropriate rock music by Daughtry. It seemed to fit.

As expected the welcome meeting/induction at the university in the afternoon was way over my head. We got there in a rather circuitous route in Victoria's car, despite her GPS. Two and a half hours of listening to french speaking in a big room. Only two powerpoint presentations, which were very dry with far too many words on each slide (and that from the communications manager for the University). Apparently there was really useful stuff. I have no idea what it was but I came away with a mug and a little satchel. I can put them to good use.

I hope Victoria can find some time in our busy day tomorrow to explain the key points. I felt very helpless and vulnerable. At the nibbles afterwards no one talked to us. This sort of thing is hopeless for me, I can't contribute and I can't assert myself because my language is too limited. I'm frustrated at the isolation that imposes on me and feel rather childlike but there's no mummy for me.

So yet another late night home. I must leave on time tomorrow after work as I am meeting Laurence, a retired lady of 60 years at Les Essarts le Roi.   She will collect me from her station and take me home to have something to eat (food, not me). She's a member of couchsurfing. I'm trying to use internet networks to make contact with people in my spare time.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Mixed greens

Hmm, sitting here eating a mixed green salad and some goat cheese I now regret buying. It's not like feta, it's a rather strong flavoured camembert-like cheese. I shan't buy it again. Nice mixed greens and a carrot salad and cute little round slices of bacon with no rind-that's convenient for salads. I was so hungry - lunch was not a going concern but more on that later.

The sun was watery this morning, the air fresh when I set out for the Gare to catch a train to Chartres. It proved to be expensive. The train rolled along and stopped at some nice little villages, in between I could see even cuter hamlets but what really made an impression on me was the greeness. Everywhere trees, trees and forests, trees and houses, trees and horticulture. Dense little copses with streams running through their dark centres like ribbons of clear midnight. Gorgeous!

Leaving Cafeolait behind me I was thrilled by the picture-postcard villages with their steepled churches taking the high ground. This was all new for me. I've never been in this part of  France and I hope to see lots more when I have a car.

I especially like french forests because they are so biodiverse, not like the boring kms of plantation radiata pine in NZ. All shades of green and gold, all sizes and shapes cohabiting so well together and composing such a splendid panorama for me to admire. Love it!

My first view of the famed cathedral of Chartres was splendid but really, to be inside it is magical. Notre Dame de Paris is celebrated but Notre Dame de Chartres has a spiritual magic and is so exquisitely beautiful with its stone carvings, they are almost like filigree. The talent and skill demonstrated by ancient artisans is so humbling and sadly well and truly gone.

I took A LOT of photos. It's breathtaking inside and out and has an angle for every camera. They have started to clean it up. It needs it. You can scarcely make out the beautiful designs under centuries of grime. The difference between restored and original conditions is dramatic as you can tell by the photos. Some facts:
4th C Gallo-roman wall- first cathedral dates from this
6th C Meringovengian cathedral, some of which remains under the choir
8th C Cathedral destroyed by a duke of Aquitaine in 743, another is built on the same spot
9th C Carolygian crypt
11th C Romanesque crypt (longest in France)
1194 Fire, some bits saved, other bits rebuilt
1230 Everything in place but not dedicated until 1260
16th C some additions

This cathedral is famous for its medieval religious artworks and stained glass across the centuries. It was also used to house relics such as Mary's veil. It contains many areas for prayer, multiple altars, everything exquisite.

End of lovely visit. I was so carried away with photographing the building I needed the grumbles in my tummy to tell me I'd missed lunchtime. I went in search of sustenance. Alas, everywhere was very busy even though the shops were all shut. I walked and found a spot, sat down only to discover they were only offering coffee and macaroons. I went next door buy they had no spare tables. Walking further on I decided to double back towards the cathedral and see what was available in the sunshine. I sat down at a likely cafe. The waitress ignored me and went about her business. I waited more than she did. Pissed off I went next door-everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, good menu- I wanted a Quiche Lorraine.

I sat in a prominent spot right in the middle with my camera - impossible to miss. yes, but not impossible to ignore. Eventually the waiter came over and, desperate for food I blurted out Quiche Lorraine. He blabbered something in stroppy french over my head to someone else and then said he'd come back. He never did. I waited ages with not even a glass of water. He knew I was there, walked past me and started taking orders from a large group that had just arrived. I looked at some french folks next to me. The woman tried to get the waiter to pay attention to 'la dame'. Annoyed, the waiter came over and snapped I would have to wait 20 mins to be fed. I said he had not told me that before. The french lady looked very uncomfortably at me. I got up and left, hungry, thirsty. Pissed off with wasting 1 and half hours trying to be refuelled I headed to the train station. Nothing available on the way except meat on a stick and a coke. Money's tight so I try not to spend it on stuff I don't enjoy.

All the self-serve machines at the station were inoperable but I found a tiny kiosk that sold rubbish food like crisps and soft drink. It's not what I needed but after all my walking I needed something during my 1 hour wait for the train back to Cafeolait. I splashed out on two french magazines, one scientific one on how language evolved and the other covering the Louvre. I'm so desperate for something to read I'll read it in french- good for me, I hear you say- yes but it's work, not relaxation. Oh well, they look good on my wee table in my studio but I've got to stop spending, even in a modest way. Next Sunday I'm going to Paris and may catch up with Frederique whom I stayed with briefly in June. I'd like to visit Montmartre. We'll see.
Photos of Chartres Cathedral- note the difference between the grime and clean areas, plus nasty rude waiter in action

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A little culture shock creeping in

Busy day, and I was really on to it. I hauled myself reluctantly out of bed, dressed and breakfasted and tidied up.

My clothes washing has to be done in the kitchen sink. It's not easy as a sink is not very large. Then I must wring each thing out and dump it into an old broken plastic crate to transport it into the bathroom, fill the bath with rinsing water, swish and wring and then hang it all out on a little airer to drip outside (hoping it won't rain out there). It drips but never dries out there because the sun only hits my door briefly in the early morning and then it's gone for the rest of the day. It's like going down to the river in the old days, before washing machines and wringers. I use a gel product instead of washing powder as it takes up less room to store and mixes better in a small space.

I don't know how I will cope when I have to wash my bedlinen. There's no outside line and in the middle of winter that won't be an option anyway. I'll have to lug it to a laundromat and wait hours for it to wash and dry. Pooh.

It was pleasant in the autumn sun, walking through the markets to the supermarket and pottering around there. The checkout operator was very friendly and attentive. Some of security staff are starting to recognise me. It's a nice 'local' but selections are limited so I thought I'd go home, unload the groceries and try to discover a bigger commercial centre. I wanted to look for furniture and a TV.

Crikey, the gadgets you can buy for a french kitchen are amazing, and rather specialised (except the electric crepe pan looked really good). But I don't have room for any gadgets and who have I got to cook for anyway? I was thinking of getting a wee TV but when I saw the prices I thought I'd probably be better off doubling my budget and getting something decent in HD. I have no entertainment and social life- a TV might need to fill the void and a decently big one might be good to have during the 4-5 months of 'winter'. I'm considering that but the studio can't accommodate a TV as it is at present. And this is where the culture shock comes in...

As a landlord in NZ I must ensure everything works in the house before the tenants move in. Every light bulb and blind, appliance, key etc. It's very different in France. Here you just rent the space. I have very poor lighting in the bathroom and one specialised bulb has never worked. I was told to replace it myself. That wasn't easy as it is not standard and I had no idea where to find one. I've had to bus all over Cafeolait hoping to find a shop that sells them-expensive exercise so I can wear some makeup and wash at night.

The window coverings are permanently down and don't go up and down so they permit no light at all 24/7. I was told by my 'landlord' if I wanted something that worked I must install my own fittings and curtains myself at my own expense. That's the way it is here. Unless the electricity supply is not connected or the plumbing doesn't work -anything else? you're on your own. Most kitchens don't have an oven or microwave or fridge let alone a dishwasher-just a sink, often not even any benchtop. No curtains are supplied. Every time you move you have to change things. Hells bells what an expense- great for the landlords if they are renting an investment. No wonder people don't move if they can help it. What with changing service suppliers and all it's a major hassle and expense to move.

I've sent a proposal to the professor. I'll agree to upgrade the studio at my expense and stay there if he removes his stuff to give me some room. It would probably be logistically easier and cheaper for me to do that. Unfortunately if anyone wants to stay with me they will have to sleep with me in my bed because there is no bedroom, Hmm. Probably won't be any takers for that but hope it won't put Laura off coming anyway. Maybe we can stay in some cheap hotels together in different parts of France during her stay, as well as my studio (if the professor agrees to my proposal). When my personal effects eventually get here (God knows when) it's going to be rather cramped.

I had arranged a meeting this afternoon with a member of couchsurfing who happens to be a real estate agent. I learnt all the above horrifying details and that my budget was minimal but I would not be able to spend much more than I do. It would be possible to find something eventually but I must kit out all furniture and other chattles and curtains and appliances myself. Oh God (hence my proposal idea). The agent's name is Jerome (yeah, yeah, not his fault though, he doesn't know the story behind this comment- wait for my book to be written). He's affable and tried to be helpful. He called into one of the agencies here with me as he knows them. Jerome doesn't do rentals but will have his colleague look out for something. In the meantime I have an appointment to look at one on Saturday morning next week. Not great but I've got to start my search with something.

After Jerome left I called on 4 other agencies on my own. It's tricky trying to get one's needs across and listen to their explanations of something you have no idea about. I'm picking up some essential vocab and now I know what they need to know from me. I was pleased I managed to sit down and talk with them but they said stuff that was probably important but I could only nod or ask them to say it slower or more simply. They were all good-natured about this- me and my incompetent french but I know a lot of important stuff went over my head- oh minefields! Oh, and they all need a massive fee upon successful completion, except one agency that required I pay 150 euros up front as sole agency. I declined, explaining I needed several agencies to work for me and i hadn't been paid yet.Then they would have wanted the massive fee on completion of the rental agreement.

Oh boy. I love France but for me this whole exercise has been and will continue to be a big financial drain. Am I being foolhardy needing to have my few personal belongings with me when it costs so much for the luxury? Only time will answer that.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


I'm stuffed, replete, so not hungry. Starting to run out of food and it wasn't shopping day (saturday) and feeling like doing something different after a long day at work, I decided to eat out.

I knew there was a creperie near the train station. It's not something I can afford to do often, maybe twice a month, but there are no 'takeaways' as such here. How I miss my hotdog and chips, or Chinese though I am pleased not to be confronted by KFC, Burger King or MacDonalds.

My treat consisted of the following: a glass of water (table, so free); a glass of apricot juice; a salad of lettuce, potatoes, ham and emmental cheese with a mustardy mayonnaise; a bowl of cider and, to finish, a chocolate and banana crepe with icecream and sprinkled with slivered almonds. It cost me 15.75euros which isn't too bad.

During my work days this week I've been in the deep end. Not only is almost all conversation in french but so are all the university documents I'm supposed to read and make sense of. Then I am expected to do data-entry in french. The work is frustrating, messy and boring but needs to be done.

One interesting session for the day happened when the boss invited me to attend one of his presentations. It was a scenario game rather like the 'lifeboat' scenario that some of you may know. Social and ethical dynamics come into play. Decisions involving life and death must be made. This particular paper is conducted in English. I found it very interesting watching people from other countries participating. I was allowed an opinion too, so that was cool.

So, I'm continuing on my path of experiencing 'firsts' but I wouldn't describe it as a baptism of fire. Jolly challenging, yes, but I'm where I want to be. Constant exposure to french is the only way I can improve. Already I feel that if my french immersion was taken away from me I would suffer a huge intellectual and emotional void that nothing else would be able to fill. It's hard but essential for me to really be me.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Naughty girl!

What a silly billy I've been today. It gets pretty intense for me at work (not to mention daily living) having fluent French speakers all around me. Victoria and I attended a presentation in an amphitheatre this afternoon - nearly two hours of torrential french powerpoint and discussion. I recognised a few words and sentences but not enough to be of any use. By the time I got back to work I was thoroughly exhausted. Looking at my watch I decided it was time to go home, strange that everyone else was working late tonight.

When I got to the station  I couldn't find a train for my time and was surprised that trains that left an hour ago were still on the board. I waited on the platform- a train was about to pull away stuffed to the gills with people. Cafeolait? Oui. I hopped on. Odd that it's so busy, standing room only.

And then it twigged. I had mis-read my watch. I had left 45 mins early- no wonder there were some strange looks at work. Oh how embarrassing. I tried to calm down on the trip back to Cafeolait but as I was negotiating the crowds to leave the station I noticed that, as yesterday, there was a heavy police presence. Two young guys were being publicly frisked in the subway. We all surged past but the surging came to an abrupt halt as everyone was checked to see if we had paid. No one escaped. The police were armed. My God, you can get shot here for not buying a ticket? You get arrested on the spot? It's quite intimidating because the police form a line and you can't get past until they've read your train pass with a special gadget. OOeeer. I was innocent but I still felt nervous. Luckily I had a brisk walk in the drizzle back to the studio to settle my nerves.

I'll make up the time of course at work but I must admit, I'm feeling very, very tired. It may be a combination of jetlag and concentration on language and life adjustments.

I paid half deposit for my future car today to the boss - rather a laugh counting out 1600 euros in cash for him. I hope he doesn't get mugged on his way home.

Tomorrow I hope to be a wee bit more productive at work but at least today I picked up my new french visa after two attempts. French lunch breaks are scrupulously observed in France-never try to bank at lunchtime. Three men literally barred the door and refused me entry because I dared to enter after 1pm.

Photos are from a recent trip to Rambouillet where I took a walk to the Palais du Roi de Rome (Napoleon's young son's place that he only got to spend a few hours in before he was exiled to Austria)

Monday, 4 October 2010

Kick off

Second official day in my new job. Victoria (who is multilingual) started the same day as me and today we were located next to each other. There are a number of the same tasks we'll be working on. Actually I'd love to be working a lot more as I find it hard to wait for someone else to do something before I can get stuck in. I need to feel busy and productive and in charge of my own workload but that's not happening yet.

Be patient? In my previous jobs I've had to be productive from day one. We have a deadline but we've barely been able to start it today. Last week I struggled with bureaucracy, today it has been IT stuff. I'm pleased to be in a room with a few other people. My previous work space was mostly empty with a couple of staff coming and going from time to time. Poor Tania will be rattling around in there now. The people I interact with are very nice-no problem there. Victoria and I have agreed, for both of our sakes, that we will speak English in the mornings and French after lunch so we improve our language skills but can still collaborate and understand what needs to be done.

I think I'm starting to feel a little more settled, one week after moving into Cafeolait. In fact, I felt just like one of the other commuters tonight as I settled back in the train, rolling across the countryside under a glowering sky. To rain or not to rain-seems to be the daily question, and the answer is? Do both. So there I was today briskly marching to and from train stations in the dark, sitting in the carriages listening to Michael Jackson or Celine Dion on my MP3 player, negotiating the steps up and down from the platforms.

Fridays seem to be casual day. Last week I noticed a tsunami of denim rushing towards me as I left for work via the train station. Almost no-one wore anything other than denim, no matter their age, amazing, yet today, slightly less denim and a few business suits.

Last night's trip to the movies went well. Wall Street played in English with French subtitles- great for me on both counts. I was a little disappointed with the movie. Despite its clever camera angles it failed to connect with me. I suspect many people, like me, will find it difficult to understand the money-speak and the script just seemed to lack 'something'. Well, it got me out of the studio and the awesome thing was... everyone used the exit by the screen. I discovered myself outside on my own street just a few metres from my studio. Fantastic convenience to get home!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Looking for connections

I got a little bored today, stuck in my little studio, so I knew I'd have to catch a train back to Rambouillet. The castle was an obvious place to return to because I wanted to capture the changing seasons there, with my camera,also it's so beautiful to have that on my doorstep. Autumn is racing through the area. Regularly I heard heart-stopping thumping sounds as if the bodies of dead birds were hitting the ground. Happily it was only large leaves and chestnuts falling. The wind had the falling leaves swirling and drifting about me like snow. Within a week leaves are turning and falling as the big chill moves towards me.

I met an American couple who have been living in Paris for three years. It seems most foreigners are on short term contracts. I felt a bit unsettled by that as I so desperately want to live here indefinitely. I don't think I'd recover from the loss (emotionally and financially) if I had to be back in NZ within a year.

This town of Rambouillet is gorgeous and I love it but I now need to go further afield there because I've covered its environs many times now.  Paris had to wait as I am going through my money too quickly. Instead, I hope to visit Chartres on the train next Sunday, just for the day, and take lots of photos. I need to savour every minute I have here and ensure I have accurate memories.

I need a really decent bread knife. Everything is blunt in the studio and with bread being a staple on the diet I'm struggling to deal to the loaves without squishing everything into oblivion. The boulanger supplied me with a country loaf and I endeavoured to saw slices off to go with my salad and avocado. Healthy yummies. Not so healthy lunch perhaps: huge bowl of dark hot chocolate and a pain aux raisin again and then grapes and a plum and kiwifruit for afternoon tea after my walk. Hmm, might need a snack before the movie tonight-great, I can walk there so easily.

Feeling a lack of human contact, I decided to be a bit proactive and suggest to Veronique in Paris that we could get together soon. I also spent time researching couchsurfers in Cafeolait and sent a couple of them a message to let them know I am newly arrived in town and could we meet. Hopefully, one way or the other, I will make some acquaintances and one day, some nearby friends. Perhaps Pascal might visit if I invite him, though he's always saying he's too busy for this and that.

Tonight I'm expecting to watch the English language version of Wall Street at the cinema; I wonder if it will be like a NZ cinema experience. Hopefully there won't be any of that atrociously messy and smelly popcorn.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Small Pleasures

Today was my first Saturday in Cafeolait and time to start setting up some weekly routines for myself. That meant a trip to do the shopping at Monoprix. I'm finding it quite expensive to get set up even though I'm not going for luxury items. The exchange rate is not kind. Hopefully I can cut back soon as my finances won't stand the pace long and I don't want them to have to.

I was delighted this morning to find myself in the middle of some quite exceptional markets. The main street in Cafeolait closes to cars on Saturdays 5am-2pm for the local markets. Cheap clothing. I now have a warm button up cardy-coat and a woollen black cloche hat. So chic! The variety and quality of products are very good. I couldn't help window-shopping, it was just so interesting. There's also a charming carousel in a permanent location near the supermarket. Even on a damp day like today it was patronised. Maybe I'll have time for market photos next weekend.

I also found my way to the post office and arranged for some official immigration documents to be sent priority and to be signed for. I also bought some envelopes with prepaid stamps printed on them for any posting within France. So now I know a wee bit about markets and postage. Back at the studio it was time to put the groceries away and grab a bite for lunch. it consisted of a pain au raisin and a nice mug of hot chocolate which I have discovered is best with the milk, cacao and sugar heated together.

For dinner I heated up a lovely little individual Quiche Lorraine. If you get the warming temperature just right you end up with a soft and fluffy delight. Yum, with a salad I made, chased by raspberries and a magnum. Nothing heavy, just scrummy.

Tomorrow I'm not sure what I'll do. I was going to go to Paris but maybe I need to tighten my budget. I may go to the local cinema instead.