The ‘hood

Massive apologies for deserting you all so soon into my visit.  But I have a good reason.

As you may know, I had a slight accident last week.  It actually happened on my quest for blog material, but more on that next time. I banged myself up pretty well and lost heart a little while I was recovering.

But no permanent damage was done, I am almost recovered and time to carry on where I left off…

Around the neighborhood

The day prior to being a complete idiot and falling down some steps, I went for a good long wander around my neighborhood. I am living in “The Marais” district of Paris.   I gave a pre-arrival low-down of the area in this post, but for a quick recap it is:

  • central
  • historical (well, duh, it is Paris)
  • gay (as in “the men don’t undress me with their eyes” gay)
  • Chinese/Jewish
  • possibly hot and sticky

So I started out, eager beaver, camera in hand to snap some morsels for you, my faithful reader.

Outside my door - looks a bit grim, eh?

The first thing that strikes me, every time I exit my courtyard onto the main street, is the quiet. Many of the shops are shuttered (maybe 80% of the street), most covered in graffiti and the seemingly permanent fixture of garbage cans all long the street give it a very desolate feel.  Strange for somewhere right in the center of Paris.

With the recent riots in the UK, there are a seemingly endless number of journalists who want to liken the situation to the widespread UK riots of 1981 and a few have mentioned the Specials’ “Ghost Town,”  a song whose lyrics reflected the UK’s plunging economy and widespread poverty that pre-empted those riots.  Hardly the same situation in my own space right now, but as I walk up and down these shuttered streets that song plays endlessly in my head. My block could be straight out of Jerry Dammer song about urban decay.

My block....

BUT!!! I have to keep reminding myself, this is not an area in decline. Au contraire. Most Parisians save up their pennies all year, and in August can afford to completely shut their businesses and head out-of-town for the whole month!

According to one blogger, this baker, located opposite my front door, has the best croissants in the city. They are closed for the whole of August! Devastated!

So I put depression and riots out of my mind and hit the streets.

The first corner I come to:

The corner of my block

The corner of my block - pretty impressive

As I wander, I notice quite stark changes just going from street to street. There are really quite distinct areas…..

My Block

Weirdly, all there the only shops seem to be jewellery shops and leather handbag shops. One after another.  Plus the odd “support” shops, maybe selling jewellery parts, leather, or buttons.  At first I thought the gold and leather were down to the Jewish community, but they’re not.  They are all run by the local Chinese population who got into textiles in a big way.

The Sustenance Street

I love this street, just around the corner…

All in a neat row there is one each of

The Butcher

  • The Butcher
  • The Baker
  • The  Candlestick Maker
    (sorry, that’s a lie, there is no candlestick shop, which is a big shame, but I did get some candles next door at Franprix  Supermarché )
  • The Cheesemonger
  • The Grocer
  • The Fishmonger
  • The Cake shop
  • The Wine shop
  • The Flower shop
  • The Chocolatier
And a few brasseries thrown in for good measure if you fancy a mid-afternoon vino to help with the shopping.

But if this is all sounding a bit much, you can just nip to the supermarket next door and get it all in one go.  But why would you do that?  (Except maybe to avoid speaking French and looking like an idiot…)

Falafel Road

These 2 block are absolutely cram-packed with falafel shops.  There must be 10-20 different places within a 2 minute walk.

A dozen or more falafel shops crammed into one small block

Part of "Falafel Road." Most of the shops are tiny little places; this was one of the most popular.

The Hacidic Area

The Hacidic Jew Block. This photo didn't come out as planned as I was trying to be stealthy, but there is a huddle of young-uns on the RHS of the photo.

Adjacent to Falafel Road. One block with plenty of Hacidic Jews in full regalia (must be hot…)   and shop after shop stocked with  Hanukkah menorahs and Stars of David.

The Gay Bar Area

Well, what can I say. Being (virtually) a native San Franciscan, I am no stranger to this scene and it brought a big smile to my face.  Bars overflowing with gorgeous young studs and not so gorgeous older men sporting shaved heads, goatees and leather waistcoats. And lots of little dogs wearing tiny bandanas and sparkly collars.

The Tourist Area

You know what I mean. They are the same everywhere.

The Verdict

That brings me onto the one overwhelming feature of my walk-around, the thing that remains constant wherever I look, without fail so far:  the beautiful architecture. It is everywhere.

I grew up in Europe and moved to America when I was 21. For my first few years I was quite scathing of Americans and their amazement when they saw a building over 100 years old. But having lived out of Europe for 20 years now, I now know how they feel.

I wander around Paris like an idiot, mouth wide open, usually in a big grin, staring up at the buildings all around me. Parisian buildings have this beautiful creamy- peachy color to them, especially at the time I seem to do most of my wandering – late afternoon. It is wonderful calming color and the combination with wrought iron balconies and slate rooftops is just beautiful.

Random castles on random street corners....

The local parfumerie - how fab!

I love this area, it was a good choice. I’m not so sure of my actual street, but it is near to shops, a park, monuments. And I suspect it might look like a very different place a week from now when everyone pours back into Paris en masse and all the shops will open – for me – for the first time.  Including the best croissant-erie in Paris!

More photos to come soon I hope!

The park on the next block

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Day 2

For my first full day in Paris, I headed to Montmatre in the north of Paris to visit an old friend.

I decided to brave the Metro, but with three different trains to get there, it would have been almost as quick to walk. The last time I really used the Metro was about 15 years ago and it hasn’t changed at all: the same plastic seating, the same graffiti covered walls, and possibly even the same trains. The only thing that has changed is the automatic ticket machines. I was thankful for this as it meant I did not have to deal with a grumpy cashier who refused to understand my frightened request in bad French for a “carnet” (book of 10 tickets) – when the only two things she sold were single tickets and carnets. (This was a traumatic event from the Ghost of Paris Past that I have never quite gotten over.)

Two days before I arrived, I saw this video of rain cascading down some steps in Paris this past weekend.

It was almost something to rival our typhoons in the Philippines!  “So much for a hot and sunny August in Paris,” I had thought at the time.

And so when I finally exited from the depths of the Metro, I looked around, blinking in the sunlight, and found I was standing in exactly the same spot as the person who shot the video! You could never have guessed at the torrential rain only three days before.

I had been to my friend’s apartment three years ago, but not from this direction.  So of course I got horribly lost. The square she lives on was not marked on my map, and some of the streets I was wandering around were off the edge of the map which added to my confusion.

In my days as a scuba diving instructor I had taken to wearing a small compass on my watch strap (to help with underwater navigation), and it had always come in useful in finding my way around strange places on land. It once even got me out of a massive market in Bangkok. But my last compass strap had long since snapped, and as it was the middle of the day I couldn’t tell the direction from the position of the sun. A compass would have been very welcome today and would have stopped me going in the opposite direction for the first half an hour.

But I didn’t mind so much as was enjoying all this wandering. So I retraced my steps and after an eternity, I started to recognise landmarks and eventually found her apartment. But there was no doorbell!  And there was me, so proud yesterday that I had managed to work out how to use my own doorbell!  But with no entry code, I could not get in!

Next step would be to call her.  But I have inexplicably lost my Philippines SIM card which I had been relying on for roaming for my first few days, and my new French SIM was not yet activated.  So my only option left was lung power. Feeling like a prize idiot, I stood below her window and shouted her name, but she is on the 4th floor, and all I got for my efforts were strange stares from passing pedestrians.

Stumped again, I headed in the direction of the nearby Sacré-Cœur, where I knew there were some touristy restaurants, in the hope of finding a payphone. Not a payphone in sight of course, so I decided a time-out with a glass of wine was in order and perhaps I would be struck with some alcohol-induced genius solution.

The kindly elderly waitress did not know of public pay phones either. So I sipped on my wine and thought some more. Then an awkward English “bloke-y” tourist sat down at the table next to me and had an awful lot of trouble ordering a lager from said waitress.  As I sat there feeling just a little superior (is that bad?) and also proud to have negotiated both the wine and the phone questions in French without any problems, my next brain wave hit.  I would buy him another drink in exchange for the use of his phone!

But I am a shy girl at heart and really, really did not want to do this.

So I put my thinking cap back on again, and one last possibility came to mind. But this was just a tiny chance – an “It-probably-isn’t-going-to-work-but-give-it-a-go-anyway” idea. I had an old UK SIM card in my bag that had been donated by Trevor. It was probably expired and not roaming enabled. But I tried it in my phone. It let me check my credit – £2 still left on it!  I tentatively dialled the number, and whaddaya know – click, click, click – and it connected!

So, it was a mission, but I finally got to see my friend. I had a lovely afternoon, and sadly, like all good Parisians, she is off on holiday for three weeks.  I think it is the law that they all have to go away for August.

But this is not the end of the story. The way home was no picnic in the park either.

I stopped to eat, and I knew the restaurant was a bad choice as the menu was in English as well as French, but I was starving. This was my first restaurant visit on this trip and it was the Parisian restaurant experience I always dreaded.  I was almost completely ignored and had to wait thirty minutes just for someone to take my order. Meanwhile all around me real French people were drinking and eating and smoking and chatting….

Oh well, I was chilled about it, but really wished I had had a stinky cigarette to use as a prop.  Maybe I will get some for future use, so I can put my cigaretted elbow on the table, stick my nose in the air, and show them that I don’t care that I am being COMPLETELY IGNORED!

And – last mishap of the day – I got on the wrong bus and ended up on the outskirts of Paris.

But I eventually found my way home.  It had been a 6 hour trip just to see my friend for 2 hours.

Maybe I’ll get a taxi next time….


D-Day

Day One

Getting there

On the morning of my departure to Paris, I woke at the crack of dawn with a yawning hole of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. What the hell was I getting myself into?  But as my airport taxi pulled away from the curb, the rising sun cracked the clouds exposing the promise of a blue sky, and “Son of a Preacher Man” came on the radio; the perfect uplifting song for that moment. (Thank you Simon Bates.)

It was a long journey from Manchester to Paris as I had to change at Heathrow, but the pilot kindly made a low circle over a sunny Central London and I got what felt like my own private view of the landmarks.

Once in Heathrow I rocked up at the departure gate for Paris, and finally, seeing the “Paris” sign, it all seemed real!

But as I boarded the plane,  I was suddenly surrounded by rapid-fire French conversations. I couldn’t make out anything anyone was saying and  started to get a little panicky. Then as I turned off my cellphone for the flight, I realized I had lost my international SIM card and had no way of getting in touch with anyone at all.  What if something went wrong?  What was I thinking when I came up with this crazy plan?  I was not in Kansas any more.

But a few deep breaths (and a stiff vodka) laid those worries to rest.

Orly Airport, one of two in Paris, is a rather dismal place. I am surprised that it hasn’t had the shiny new overhauls of the big city airports I have used recently. Even Cebu in the Philippines has better facilities.  Bare walls, minimal signage, not even anywhere to buy a SIM card, which was the one thing I really needed.

So I high-tailed it out of there, and headed for the taxi rank.

Rather than the unhelpful and sulky Parisian I had been expecting, my taxi driver was adorable.  He refused to let me pick up my luggage and tried his best to speak in English. I had been practicing my new address in French over and over in my head, but still was amazed when he actually understood.  We started a tentative conversation, and I was determined to speak back in French each time. And before you knew it, I was jabbering away in this foreign language!   Although I studied French for 7 years in school, I have rarely used it in real life, but it all came flooding back. We ended up having a conversation about swimming pools of all things.  How do I remember a random word like that after 25 years? And really, how on earth did he understand my terrible accent?

We seemed to drive forever through the outskirts of Paris, and it was quite obvious as soon as we hit Paris Proper. The buildings suddenly grew in stature and the roads widened. The tourists started to grow in numbers and then – whoa, there was the Seine, Notre Dame, and finally – my apartment!

The apartment

I had explored the local streets in advance using the wonderous Google Maps feature and recognized the street-front as we pulled up.  Already it almost felt like I was home.

The letting agent had promised to be waiting inside and I was just to ring the bell.  For the last 8 years, door bells have been a matter of shouting “Hello!” very loudly.  The high-tech digital contraption on my new front door confounded me. As I fumbled at the entrance, the driver thankfully came back to help. With my dead cell phone, who knows how long I would have been standing out there otherwise?

I lugged my bags up the three flights of stairs, and, exhausted, took in the apartment in amazement. I had been so worried about how it would turn out but it was incredible!  I could believe how big it was.  I kept going round and discovering new rooms!

The living room

From what I can gather it belongs to a traveling actress, and you can tell from the more personal touches that it is also her home. Someone had left a bottle of both San Pellegrino AND Volvic in the fridge, as well as espresso capsules for the coffee maker and ice cream in the freezer.  I could not have hoped for a warmer welcome!


After the letting agent settled me in, I got the wi-fi up and running, but the landline did not work. Then the wi-fi went down 😦  So along with my lost SIM card, I realized I was completely isolated from the outside world. I didn’t much like that feeling, so ventured out to try to find the cellphone shop we had passed on the way. As I wandered around, looking at eye level for the familiar ORANGE sign, at one point I looked up and almost staggered back from the primary coloured plastics of the Pompidou center that towered above me. Where had that come from?  I guess that kind of thing will happen here a lot.

A short walk on and I reached the majestic Hôtel de Ville which houses the administration department of the City of Paris.

Hôtel de Ville

Going to the beach in Paris?

I have been doing some advance research and recently read about Paris Plages, which means Paris Beach. Of course, Paris is not by the sea, and so I had assumed it was a reference to the annual August mass exodus of all Parisians to the south coast.  But, as I got closer to the Hôtel de Ville, to my astonishment, I happened upon a manmade beach complete with volleyball nets. It seems they have fake beaches set up all along the Seine!  I shall report back to you on this anomaly when I know more…

The beach in the city

The end of my street

Five minutes walk from  my apartment…

 

Notre Dame peeking out at the end of my street

Disaster in the Supermarket

I didn’t manage to find a cellphone shop, but I did make it to the local supermarket. As it was my first evening, I decided to spoil myself and stock up on essentials like strawberries, smoked salmon and champagne. Much to  my surprise and contrary to everything I had read written by other expats, I got several “Bonjours” from other shoppers and staff and even quite a few “Pardons” – usually when I bumped into them as I gawked my way around the aisles. And I thought it was only the English that apologized when it as someone else’s fault.

I had been forewarned that supermarket checkouts were hostile, queue-jumping, elbow-shoving, generally unpleasant environments.  But not so my local Monoprix.  The cheery cashier beckoned me over to his empty checkout, told me how he hated his job but was happy today, then continued chatting happily in incomprehensible French at which I just nodded and grinned.

Then it came time to pay for all my decadent purchases. I went for my wallet, scrabbled through my bag and… it wasn’t there.  I had left it at home.

I wished for the ground to open up and swallow me.

I never do things like that.  And to have  bought so many luxury items…. I felt like Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria – the part where she is starving and penniless in Paris, so orders all the most expensive items from a restaurant menu, then puts a cockroach in her salad to try to comp a freebie….

I wanted to tell them that I really did have the money to pay for it, that I just lived nearby.  But I got so flustered that my new-found confidence in speaking French flew out of the window.   I could not think of a single thing to say in French. Not even merde.

Luckily they were incredibly nice about it. They packaged up my bags and told me in English that it was no problem at all and I could go back and get my money.

Back in my apartment I couldn’t find my wallet and wondered if it had been lurking in the depths of my bag all along. But I finally spied the reflection of its shiny black leather, winking mischievously at me from the black sweater it had been hiding on.  I went back to get my items and waited for a good 15 minutes while they sorted it out.  The others in line didn’t seem to mind waiting at all, in fact they had a good discussion about me (see Stupid Foreigner in my last post). And I secretly think the checkout guy was delighted that I was causing all these problems for his horrid bosses. I might even have made his day.

The First Evening

I returned to my flat exhausted but content. I spent a quiet first evening, celebrating my arrival alone, happy to be by myself in this wonderful city in this wonderful apartment,  and wondering what the next 3 months has in store for me…


Driver, beware!

I have never been the best driver in the world. I think I am a little too timid to carve my way out on the road. To be quite frank, I hate driving and avoid it as much as possible.  But it is a handy skill and something that might come in useful if I decide to travel around France.

Only one little problem: my US driver’s license expired over 6 years ago. I wish I had a UK license as they are valid until you are about 99 years old. But I never bothered to try for one as I doubt the authorities would let me loose on the roads of England. And anyway, the mere mention of roundabouts gives me cold sweats.

So, I decided the time had come to attempt to wangle a Filipino license. I didn’t know if I could, but it was worth a try.

Jeepney

The most popular form of public transportation in the Philippines is the jeepney

This probably holds true for every person in every country in the world, but without exception, I find visiting government offices excruciatingly painful. And as I have a very short temper and little patience with idiocy, I frequently lose both.  Not good when you are trying to get them to do something for you.

In the Philippines, I have found the best way to manage these visits is to pay money to someone else to go in my place. But much as I tried, this time it would have to be me; there was no getting around that photo on the license.

Due to a typhoon, I had been stuck in Cebu City for 3 days longer than planned, and there was no longer any excuse to put it off.  So with a huge sigh, imagining endless hours stuck in huge green painted waiting rooms, I slung my laptop bag over my shoulder so at least I could get some work done while I waited, and headed down to the LTO.

Like many government buildings, the LTO is located in a run-down industrial area at the end of some bumpy, mud road and there is a whole ecosystem living around it. Large numbers of people mill around outside, most of whom seem part of the furniture, and it can be hard to discern their exact function.  There are the obvious ones like vendors selling BBQ and fried bananas, and at the LTO there was one enterprising crone with a pile of cheap plastic license holders. There are always many whose sole purpose is to hail taxis that would stop anyway (and then they expect a 5 peso tip), but aside from that, everyone else looks like a regular hanger-on.

I caused quite a stir as I got out my taxi and everyone rushed over to “help.” Already getting wound up and not even inside the first building, I was pushed over to the “Drugs Test” building.  “I’m not on drugs!” I declared indignantly as I stomped in the opposite direction.  Then as I entered the LTO gates, I was accosted by an excited old man with a huge toothless smile, waving his hands and rattling off twenty to the dozen, greeting me like an old friend. He was wearing the T-shirt of my main business competitor, which immediately got my hackles up, but when I realized that he actually did know me and just wanted to help, I chilled out. I still had no idea who he was, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so embraced his help and brought out the “Stupid Foreigner” card.

The Stupid Foreigner is a prime tactic and I often employ it in such situations.  It lets you jump queues, it lets you talk to the head-honcho, it gets you special “Rich Person” treatment, normally reserved for rock stars and politicians. And it allows you to actually be a stupid foreigner, which is often required.

I had been advised to ask immediately for the attorney-in-charge. He was in fact already on his way out to meet me – he had seen me through the window and a sight like me is not usual in these parts.  After much tut-tutting at my expired license, he asked if I had a husband and then proposed I get one (i.e. him).  Much hilarity ensued, and I was advised to head to the other office (luckily the other LTO office, not the registry office).

A lucky escape

At the second office, I picked up all my forms and headed off to the “Medical Center,” which was really just a shack with a desk and a tiny lab. The drug test was a trial: peeing into a cup with a 1-inch diameter in a foul toilet with no running water or toilet paper. But the medical test was easier –  “What is your blood pressure?” “Umm, I don’t know, 120 over 80, does that sounds right?”

When all was complete and I was certified drug-free, I asked for the new attorney in charge. He was not quite so keen to arrange nuptials with me and it was immediately obvious that my charm was not going to work this time – ladies were clearly not his thing.  Still, I tried my best-est beaming smile in combo with the aforementioned “Stupid Foreigner” card to get myself an automatic substitute license using my out of date U.S. version.

But my smile was not enough, and although I now did not have to go through the trial of being a student driver, he put into words what I feared most:

“You will need to come back tomorrow to take your written and practical test.”

“Ummm, practical???”

Of course, practical.  Driving practical.

I was hoping if I asked enough times it would turn out to be some other kind of practical.  Like how to affix a baby-seat.  Or change a tire. Or check the oil. Checking the oil would be a good one to have learned the first time around; one of my first solo driving outings was in California one Christmas day. After the glove box started smoking, I almost set my ex’s car on fire because I didn’t know I had to check the oil, or even of the existence of a dipstick…..

But of course, for this practical, they wanted me to drive for them.

Oh dear.

This was the point I nearly turned and fled.

The average number of people on a motorbike in the Philippines at any one time is 9

I have not driven in the 8 years since I left America:  the land of the free, where roads are wide and clear and ordered.  The Philippines LTO was located in downtown Cebu where the traffic is wild and sticks to no rules any traffic school can teach.  Where actual human beings – usually small children – mingle on the street with the cars, selling anything from newspapers to bottled water to peeled pommels (a grapefruit equivalent – I know, go figure).  See this article for a hilarious, but oh-so-true, take on driving in the Philippines.

I don’t think I can even remember how to drive.  I certainly don’t remember which pedal is the brake.   I was hoping my reintroduction to driving would be in an empty parking lot with a kindly parent to remind me what I need to do. Cebu would be trial by fire.  Quite possibly literally.

Many people get around by tricycle, a minimum of at least 8 per vehicle

Anyway, I resolved to come back the next day and see it through.

That night, in nervous anticipation, I drank a little too much wine. It was a not-so-subconscious attempt to get out of it. But the next day I figured I had already put a lot into this venture…. So I forced myself, and rocked up for the lecture that precedes the written test.  As I walked into the room, 25 young Filipino men turned as one to stare. Not a single woman. Sliding down into the seat nearest to the door, I tried to blend in….

I quickly read through the sample questions.  Seemed  easy enough.  Then the lecture started.  This was all in Filipino which I don’t understand well.  So I spent my time reading a news article on my phone about the new JK Rowling website, where readers get to write their own Harry Potter stories.  Sounds like a recipe for some Hardcore Hogwarts Naughtiness if ever there was one.

The highlight of the lecture was when the teacher asked, “Which of the following drugs is NOT tested for in your drug test: Cocaine, Marijuana, Shaboo (the local version of meth)? Correct answer is Cocaine!!!”

“But that does not mean you are now allowed to use cocaine before driving!” she lectured very sternly and in all seriousness. I got a withering look for my giggle.

The exam had 40 questions.  I whizzed thorough it and, ever the girly swot, was the first to finish.  Considering I had never driven here, I got a remarkable 90%.  Though perhaps that is not difficult to understand when most of the questions were along the lines of:

Q35. You are driving and you need to use your phone.  Do you

  1. Dial the number?
  2. Answer your phone?
  3. Pull over, stop, and make your phone call?

The road sign questions would have been quite tricky, but they were all pictured on the whiteboard in front of me….

Actually, thinking about it, I don’t understand how I got 4 wrong!  I demand a recount!

Next for the practical.  I went back one last time to try and sweet-talk the gay attorney. He still insisted that I had to drive a car and that no additional “fee” would get me out of it.  At this point, I had a 500 peso note in one pocket and a 1000 peso note in the other, in the hopes of slipping one or both to the driving instructor, but was dreading having to try.

An intersection in downtown Cebu

But then I pulled out the unexpected trump card.

“So will I be driving an automatic? I can’t drive manual.”

“But we don’t have an automatic transmission test car.”

“Ahh.  So what do I do?”

“Do you have one?”

“No.”

“Do you have a friend who has one?”

“No.”

“Ahh.”

There ensued some lively discussions amongst the office staff, and then,  “Umm, sit over there.”  I figured one of them was letting me use his car for the test.

I waited for 2 more hours, getting more and more anxious about my impending test, looking nervously at my watch, as rush hour loomed ever closer.

Then something finally started happening. After being shuffled along the numbered windows, I got to window 5 and paid my $10 fee.

“So what happens next?” I asked.

“Just take a seat and wait for your license.”

!!!!!

Result!!!!

I was beaming from ear to ear as I exited the LTO, minutes later, Filipino driver’s license clutched in my sticky hands. No driving and no bribery required!

Amazingly, it ended up that of all my experiences in government offices during 8 years in the Philippines, this was easily my most enjoyable – and at times…..   dare I say it….. even fun! A few giggles, a marriage proposal and such a huge feeling of relief at the finale that I wanted to hug everyone in view.

So European roads, here I come! However, from what I remember about Paris, the driving is equally as maniacal as Cebu, so perhaps I won’t be driving over there after all.  But I will be happy to know at least that if I want to, I can….


A Parisian Pad

So.  Flights booked.  Now, where to live?

After countless frantic international calls, I was terribly upset to find that the Coco Chanel Suite at the Ritz is fully booked. Apparently you have to book at least 6 months in advance.

So it was back to the drawing board for my digs in Paris.

The Coco Chanel Suite

Give me a bucket of champagne and some bubble bath and I will happily move into the Coco Chanel bathroom

It has been many years since I have had to apartment hunt –  not since 1994 –  so I am a little out of practice.  And I have never had to do it sight-unseen in a strange city.

But I was not daunted.

As always in this day and age, the first port of call had to be Google.

At first I thought I was going to have to use French search terms and navigate numerous badly designed French websites, tear my hair out trying to translate, and then find only pokey, unfurnished apartments with three century old plumbing and rickety stairwells, located out in the sticks, for astronomical rents.

However, I was delighted to find there are numerous English language sites offering short and long term rentals of fully furnished apartments.  Most are searchable by date, price and area, and come equipped with linens, kitchen utensils, washer and dryer and most importantly (for my work), high speed internet! Many also have the bonus of unlimited international calls, massive TVs, stereo systems and coffee makers.  Good job too, as I hear the coffee in Parisian cafes is undrinkable.

But now all of a sudden I had hundreds of options to choose from.  Where to start?

Choosing an area to live was definitely the way to go.

Les Arrondissements

Paris geography can be quite confusing at first with all its troisièmes and cinquièmes, but once you understand how it works, it all makes perfect sense.  (I suspect this is not the only time I will say this about France.)

Paris is divided into 20 districts or Paris arrondissementsarrondissements. They are conveniently numbered from 1-20 and start in the center at the Louvre, spiraling clockwise outwards.  And cleverly, the districts match the postcodes, which I imagine is handy when you are trying to decide where to go – well, anywhere.

So which – ième is the one for me?  Well I plan to spend a good chunk of time being a shameless tourist (as will some of my houseguests) so I want to be near the museums and monuments. But not right in tourist-central, where there is not a French speaker in sight and where a cup of (undrinkable) coffee costs a week’s salary.  I also don’t want to be anywhere too quiet and residential.   Somewhere lively with shops and markets, bars and restaurants; a neighborhood-y kind of area. Would that be too much to ask for?

Le Marais

After a wee bit of research, it seemed like the Marais area in the 3rd and 4th would be the perfect blend of everything I needed.

Marais means swamp – which presumably is what it once was, not what it currently is – and it is the oldest neighborhood in Paris.

First cleared of swampland in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar, the Marais has since been home to French nobility, Jews, Chinese and currently, “Gay Paree.” It still bears the marks of each but is also full of “trendy restaurants, fashion houses and hype galleries.”

The Marais

The Marais, Paris

Rather scarily, according to a local blogger, it has become so fashionable that “Dressing to buy a baguette here is now more daunting than assembling an outfit to get past the bouncer at Le Baron.”  I’m assuming here that Le Baron is a rather swanky nightclub – check out their minimalist website that just oozes exclusivity.

Add that to star-chef David Lebovitz’ confession in The Sweet Life in Paris that he gets smartly dressed up to take out the trash, and I think it means I am going to have to work on updating my slouchy beach wardrobe of flip-flops, tank tops and fishermen’s pants if I am going to hack it in the Marais.

But will they even let me in without a designer handbag?

Well, I decided to give it a whirl.  After searching for a while among the plentiful apartments in the area, I found quite a few in my price range. But as I started to get closer to booking, I realized that all these sites charge a whopping 25% agent fee on top of the advertised price.  So I broadened my search and drew on my meager apartment hunting experience, mostly in San Francisco. This was back in the days when Silicon Valley was in a golden internet bubble. With new millionaires appearing daily and a mass influx of modern day gold-seekers, vacancies were less than 1%, rents were spiraling out of control and if you were apartment hunting,  Craigslist was King.  But it was not easy;  I once listed my spare room and had 80 responses within 4 hours.  Crazy times.

You have to remember I have been out of western life for many years now, and I don’t know if Craigslist is still a household name, or if, as I suspect, it has degenerated into a seedy embarrassment to its stellar beginnings.  But back in its infancy, Craigslist was the online bulletin board in SF.  It became a part of my daily life.  As well as apartments, you could find, well, basically everything your heart desired.  Craigslist was the place to go for anything from a sofa to an electric guitar to a Vespa to true love. Or at least a one-nighter, and it being San Francisco, a one-nighter of any variety.  (I actually got two items from the above list from Craigslist – I will let you guess which two ;-))

So I thought, “Why not try it for Paris?” And what do you know?  There is a Craiglist Paris with tons of apartments for rent and much cheaper!  Now I couldn’t fail!

But then I read about the scams…. Craigslist Paris is apparently a den of rip-off merchants, lurking in wait for unsuspecting foreigners who are tricked into sending Western Union transfers to “Parisians” who have never stepped foot out of Nigeria.

But by then it was too late.  I had found my perfect apartment and I had found it on Craigslist.

The apartment is right in the heart of the Marais, built in the 1800’s, and within spitting distance of the Pompidou Center. It is also, most importantly, on the very same street as the dance school that I am planning to attend a few times a week.

It is plenty big enough for me and the odd guest, and comes with everything I need. It has wooden beams, a hardwood floor and even a piano!

“Piano?” I hear you cry.  “You don’t play piano.”   Well it is a little known fact that I actually did as a child.   In a recent moment of idiocy, I thought it would be a nice idea to play again, and for the last 6 months I have been trying to pick up where I left off, aged 14, when “boys and pop music” became much more important than passing Grade 5 piano. But learning has proved very difficult without a teacher; the Chopin Nocturnes lie open but neglected on the music stand and the increasingly dusty keyboard has become a very handy surface to arrange all my paperwork in chronological order.

But as luck would have it, the dance studio also does piano lessons!

And the icing on the cake – located on the Rue du Temple, I am hoping that perhaps if I lean very far out of my window, climb a lamp post or get up onto the roof, that I will be able to see Notre Dame, which is right at the end of the street!

Notre Dame

The apartment was perfect. I really, really wanted it, but I was very nervous about booking, given that it was not through an agent.  Despite this, I contacted the owner.  He got back to my emails immediately, he spoke perfect English, he congratulated me on my French (thank you Babelfish) and gave me a good vibe.  Better still he was Paypal verified which might give me a comeback if anything goes wrong.

So as I clicked on the Paypal “Send Money” logo and sent the rather hefty 30% deposit winging it’s merry way to France, I crossed my fingers and hoped and prayed that I would not end up homeless and destitute in Paris on August 8th….

Still, to look on the bright side, if all does go wrong, at least Paris is steaming hot in the summertime, so I won’t freeze on the streets in my flip-flops, tank top and fisherman’s pants…..


Thunderbirds are go!

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but the hardest part of any long trip for me is booking the flights.

I think the main reason for this is that flights seem so final: no turning back, dates are set in stone, it is The Big Decision.

Then, once the flights are booked and it is a foregone conclusion, everything else seems to slot easily into place. No more worrying, no indecision, no “What-ifs” or “I-shouldn’ts.” Only “I’m going-to’s.”

Where to?

All I knew was that I needed a break, and a long one, I just had no idea where to go or what to do. There is a whole big world out there and the choices are overwhelming.

I had always thought I would stay in Asia.  I like it there, it is familiar to me, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

One town that has been near the top of my “To go” list for years and was my initial choice is Ubud in Bali.

Rice Terraces, Ubud, Bali

Ubud is set in beautiful surroundings on the Hindu island, and is well-known as the center of Bali’s art scene and as a yoga and meditation hub. It seemed like the perfect place to relax, take it easy and clear my mind for a few months.

I later read the memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, in which the author coincidentally goes to to Ubud to “find herself”, and it sounded ideal.  But then the critically unacclaimed Julia Roberts movie of the book appeared, and that was a good enough reason for me to scrap the idea. I don’t really want to run into hordes of Oprah Book Club devotees trying to find themselves too.  It would get awfully crowded.

I imagine the streets of Ubud are now filled with bicycle-riding 30-something recently-single, irritatingly self-centered American women, in white cotton dresses, sandals and floppy hats, looking behind every bush for their own mystic medicine man, their beady eyes constantly peeled and claws sharpened to fight off all competition for any dark and mysterious Latin lovers who will whisk them away into the nearest Barbara Cartland novel….

You may think this is a crazy reason not to go, but it has happened to me before.  Not the “Being whisked into a Barbara Cartland novel” effect (thankfully, as I doubt I could deal with all that pink or the testosterone), but the “Book/movie” problem.

After my first trip to Thailand, I read the Alex Garland novel, The Beachabout a traveller in Thailand, and I could relate to much of it. For instance, the Koh San Road hell-hole was eerily familiar, although I sadly did not manage to find any Lord of the Flies–type secret islands during my stay.

I went back to Thailand three years later and stayed for nearly a year; this was during the time the movie of the book was massive, and the country was jam-packed with annoying 20-year-old wannabe Leonardo Di Caprio backpackers. Ironically, these were the exact same backpackers that Garland lampooned in his novel and their numbers were multiplying exponentially in the wake of the movie release.

So I decided against Bali.

Where else could I go?

I wanted somewhere that was sufficiently different from where I am now (a tiny island in the Philippines) and with a few more modern conveniences.  Maybe Singapore?  Then suddenly, one day, a light bulb inexplicably popped on inside my brain – or should a say a series of Broadway show-style lights that spelled out “PARIS” – and these lights refused to be dimmed.

So that was that.

Decision made. Time to get down to it and book flights. But as I mentioned, this is always the hardest part.

The Real Big Decision

Booking flights makes me feel like I am signing my life away. Forget about how easy it is to change flights, that is not even an option for me.

So I generally procrastinate and this is when the initial “going away” excitement dies down and the doubts start creeping in…

  • Do I really want to go there?
  • Isn’t it going to be a bit dull?
  • Can I afford the time/money?
  • Won’t I miss the dogs too much?
  • Will my business burn down/ the staff walk out/ things fall apart so badly that we get eternally damned on the Travellers’ Bible (Tripadvisor) to the extent that the burning down seems the better option?

Well rather than the staff all walk out, I am sure there will be a collective “Hurrah!” the day I step on that boat, and they will look forward to 3 months of not-being-shouted-at by “Mommy” / “Big Boss” / “****ing *****” as I am (possibly) variously known. Things will go splendidly and everyone will do their jobs so well that I will immediately start planning another trip.

So it was time for me to stop putting it off, to accept my decision, choose dates, take a deep breath, and book the darn flights.

This time it really wasn’t quite so hard. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with this here blog. After having taken the time and trouble to create it and write my first entry, my decision was de facto already made: I could hardly not go now that I had told the world, could I? And by “world” I mean the 10 people who have probably actually read this blog (Hi mum!)

So, I am happy to announce, My Big Adventure is now officially open for business!

Dates

For any possible visitors and for those who are simply bursting with excitement at the thought of my upcoming musings on the relative yumminess of pain au chocolate at my local bakeries, here are my dates.

My new apartment

My new home in Paris: The Coco Chanel Suite at the Ritz

Tentative plans as follows:

  • July 29 – Arrive in the UK, stay in the north, visit some friends.
  • August 8-ish – Off to Paris, move into splendid apartment, have amazing time, wander Europe at will.
  • Oct 21-22: The Dive Show in Birmingham to exhibit for the first time – hopefully see a lot of old friends, finally put faces to email contacts and maybe drum up a bit of business.
  • Brighton for a week or two.
  • Nov 8: Back to reality.

Sorted!

Next on the To Do list: Learn French.

Easy.

Let the games begin!


Has it really been seven years?

I need a holiday.

A proper one.

Seven solid years as a workaholic without a decent break has taken it’s toll.  Some time away is in order.  Time for rest, recuperation, and to mull over what I should do with the next stage of my life.

I can’t really take a huge amount time off.  After all, I am still too paranoid about my ‘baby,’ my all-consuming business.  But these days all I really need to function is a laptop and an internet connection. ‘A change is as good as a rest,’ as the saying goes.  So it was decided that a 3 month working break was in order.  But where to?  And what to do? The world is a big old place, and this world is currently my oyster 🙂

Living in Asia as I do, and being accustomed to Asian customs, prices and weather as I am, I toyed with the idea of 3 months in Bali, in Singapore, and even in China.  Each had their appeal, but none really filled me with that spark I needed.

And then a very dear friend of mine unsuspectingly gave me a much better idea, albeit one that shocked me at first. But as I sat at my computer and thought about it, the smile on my face grew wider, the storm inside me started to subside, and I knew it was the perfect choice.  I had made my decision within the day. No, that’s not true, I knew it was the perfect choice from the moment the possibility started to form in my mind.

I would spend the summer in Paris….

A little background…

(…for those of you who don’t know me so well)

My life has been fairly evenly divided between 3 continents.  I grew up in a small town in England, forever longing for the bright lights of the big city. I spent my 20’s in San Francisco, as bright a city as they come.  In a complete turnabout, I lived out my 30’s on ‘a small heap of sand in the Pacific’ as my mother quite correctly calls it.

The tiny island I live on in the Philippines has a total landmass equaling that of your average UK supermarket, but without the convenience of microwaveable chicken tikka masala. It is devoid of the comforts of life we take for granted in the West.  When you turn on a light switch, you expect light, right?  When you turn on a tap  you expect clean, even drinkable water?  Not so here.  My 8 years on ‘The Rock’ has been a life bereft of modern amenities. Never mind a 21st century lifestyle – I am just happy to enter the 20th century.

Thankfully things have gotten better over the years. Twenty-four hour electric and air-conditioning have been a big bonus. One of my top comforts is a hot shower.   Recently we have even acquired a necessity much greater than electric or water – a decent internet connection; ‘decent’ these days being gauged by the ability to load facebook without going into a boredom-induced coma. But although I can now tweet and post to my heart’s content (as some of you may have noticed by my recent perhaps over-enthusiastic posts on fb), it does not change the fact that I am living in the back of beyond.

It is time for a change.

I have to admit that I am a little nervous.  Although I have lived 15 years of my life in big cities, I have been hiding in an isolated corner of a developing country for so long, that moving to one of the world’s major cities is sure to be a culture shock of massive proportions.   I suspect the experience is going to be a little too epic to post about on facebook, so I have decided a blog will be the order of the day.  My previous travel stories and my crude ‘blog’ about my first year in the Philippines seemed to entertain my friends and family, so I hope that my re-entry into civilized society will similarly appeal.  And it will also give me something to do during my anticipated endless afternoons spent loitering in Parisian sidewalk cafes.

Although – hold on a sec –  did I just say ‘civilized’ society? Is that a suitable adjective for the French?

Only time will tell.

My itch is about to be scratched….


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