Category Archives: Paris

On Trains and Paris

I just looked down at my watch and realized that although I’ve been back on UK soil (from Paris) for over 24 hours, I have not yet adjusted my watch. I managed to get through the work day–and a busy 12-hour one at that–without ever looking at more than the minute hand. It was practical, as there were meetings at various points throughout the day (o’clock, :15, :30 etc.) and I roughly knew what hour it was from the computer clocks and/or the other physical clocks in the rooms around me. But I shall now change my watch back before I make a big mistake tomorrow. Or I’ll leave it tomorrow since I have to leave for Germany early Wednesday morning. We’ll see. It’s that time of year. Insane European travel phase for me, when the watch changes take place more often than any sane person would like.

I had, as ever, a lovely time in Paris. I am quite enamoured of the fact that I can get there by train. So I have done it several times since I’ve lived in the UK. Plus once to Belgium. But it’s hard to shake the fact that Eurostar is a bit of a mess at the moment. Compared with flying, and this can not be emphasized enough, it is a dream. But I did have a bit of an adventure on my return trip. Some details appear here, although it was not quite the full story. I arrived for my train, about 75 minutes in advance of check-in (always more than enough in the past) and found that they had closed check-in for Eurostar completely, and there was a magnificent queue full of clueless people. The only overhead announcement stated that “due to an earlier security incident, check-in for the 19:13 train (mine) would be delayed” and it took some time to put facts together and realize that the train two earlier than mine still had not left the station. I will never know the truth, but the gossip was that there was an abandoned bag issue that caused security to be shut down temporarily, and departures had been halted completely for some number of minutes. I dutifully joined the queue, as I was instructed to by a young Brit who lives in Paris and hates the French. More on that in a moment.

The queue was by this point spectacular, stretching across the entire Eurostar upper level platform, down the stairs, curling around the Gare du Nord main level, out the door, and back in again, and circling round the platform at ground level. I tried to take photos but they did not do the queue justice. After some time of standing completely still, operations eventually resumed and the queue went from a stand-still to a slow crawl. Where it continued for the better part of 2.5 hours, in my case. The only information coming to us in the queue was from a “telephone game” network of others in the queue repeating what they had heard from others. Those travelling in a party of several (myself excluded) had the luxury of sending someone up the queue to try and figure out what was going on. I relied on the kindness of strangers and Twitter. So we waited. After two hours in the queue, sensible announcements started to come over the PA, but only after a Brit in line next to me had talked to the managers while his wife/partner held the place in line and told us what was really transpiring. We would be loaded onto trains in the order we were placed in the queue, with no regard for original seat assignments, so they could get us through and to London as fast as possible.

For the most part, aside of the information gap, I was quite impressed with how they handled the problem. They clearly had a system in place. I was given a new seat assignment, and an assignment for boarding to the “white” train (as opposed to the yellow or blue one) and once I had this magical sticker, after standing in the queue for 2.5 hours, I proceeded through immigration and security faster than I recall doing at the Paris end previously. (They need to upgrade their facilities a bit to compete with the relative efficiency on the British end, where the facilities at St. Pancras are all new and quite spacious. And who thought I’d ever be complimenting British efficiency on this blog!) I ended up on a differently scheduled train from the one I was supposed to be on, but the schedule had pretty much been thrown out the window by this point and we were all just trying to get back to the UK.

And here’s where I got lucky. By being at the station in Paris at the time I arrived, and by joining the massive queue when I did, I avoided the catastrophe of the train that died outside of London and had to be rescued. That was the train directly after the one I landed on. So my 90 minute delay in arriving started to look good in comparison. I actually wonder if I saw the ‘rescue’ train depart St. Pancras, since there was a completely empty Eurostar train leaving right as we arrived at 22:something, which would be consistent with the stories that went around in the press today.

I’m not going to pretend the experience was pleasant. Being in a 2.5 hour queue was hard on the feet. Being alone meant there was no opportunity to get a drink of water or visit the conveniences. Abandoning my luggage to do so was not an option, since that was the original issue that caused the delay in the first place. At one point I did step out for 10 feet to grab a landing card for UK immigration, but only after securing the services of a friendly co-queue person to watch my bag and know my intentions. I was away for all of 30 seconds, and I can assure you that the queue did not move.

Part of my interest in this occasion was in people-watching the other passengers. Directly in front of me in the queue was a British woman who appeared to be travelling with 5 children under the age of 13, and they caused some chaos. Going up the stairs to the Eurostar platform was a particular adventure, as she maneuvered an empty stroller/pram (MacLaren, of course) while the ~2 year old child ran up and down and occasionally screamed bloody murder. At one point the ~ 8 year old kid tried to (and did) pick up the ~ 2 year old on the stairs, thus risking an early death for both of them or us should we all tumble down. The mother seemed uninterested in the cries of the ~2 year old. The eldest, a young teenager, struggled with two enormous wheeled bags on the stairs. An ~ 10 year old had another. Good Samaritans around me tried to take over, sensing the imminent disaster, but the children were determined to prevail and the mother was disinterested in assistance. I was stunned. I am not a parent, but the risk of grievous bodily harm to the many assembled children seemed higher than I would normally expect to see in this sort of situation, not to mention the potential chaos if one of these little urchins did actually fall down the stairs with the full brunt of their weight + gravity creating inertial loading for the many of us standing down the queue. It was an interesting evening.

Another interesting observation was in the constant disparaging remarks made about the French by the British people around me. I have no strong feelings in this regard. But my experience here in the UK has led me to believe that there is truly a love-hate relationship going: the Brits I meet are either enthusiastic Francophiles, speaking the language and spending every possible spare moment in France, or people who completely detest everything about France, the French, and everything related. I admit, I’m standing from the distance of an American placed in the situation I was in. I would have liked it if the Eurostar staff or the Gare du Nord staff more generally had explained what was going on–but of course, I had my iPhone and turned on Twitter and talked to people around me and that was worth more than 100 PA announcements over the loudspeaker. But I thought the French staff handled the situation quite well, with the exception of the information dissemination. And the Brits in my immediate surrounds who clearly were prejudiced to hating the French already, they were not so generous. I have not heard such bitterly nationist (I hesitate to use the word ‘racist’ in this context even though popular in Euro-speak when referring to countries, especially given the common history of the Normans) thoughts expressed in such clear and direct language in quite a while. Some Brits around me really seemed to have a problem with the French. Which begs the question of why they were there IN FRANCE trying to catch a train for Britain.

In the end, I got home. I was about 2 hours later than intended, but I figure compared with typical flight delays, it is quite worth it to travel by train. My trip back was not too unpleasant, and I’ll head to Paris on the Eurostar again. Probably soon. It’s becoming my favorite ‘Escape from England’ tactic due to the fact that I’m loving trying out my high school 3 years of French on poor unsuspecting waiters in cafes across the city. I had my new camera and thus an excuse to try and do the city justice, which I most certainly did not. But I tried. This trip, I went to the Louvre and inside Notre Dame, both of which were new to me. I loved the former, and could not believe I had waited so long to see it. The museum is worth the price of admission just for the building, even if there were no Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa. The latter, I’ll pass. Notre Dame no longer felt like a church, it was such a tourist trap and I did not enjoy it much. Although I was staying near the Eiffel Tower, I still did not manage to get up onto the highest levels of it, so I have an excuse to go back to Paris yet again, hopefully soon.

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I love Paris in the Fall

I have returned from my third ever weekend trip to Paris, all of which have taken place in either October or November. Just the way things have been. I would like to go in the springtime, but so far it just hasn’t happened.

But ah, Paris. What a great place to spend a weekend. First of all, you can take the Eurostar from London, and there’s nothing better about living in England than being able to take a train to France. Especially given how painful flying has become. And how much I have no choice but to fly to places like America and Australia for which trains aren’t an option. But the best thing about Paris isn’t Paris per se. One of my good friends lives there. My only expat friend who I knew back in the states. We moved abroad about 18 months apart, first me to England, then her to Paris. And in both cases, we were doing something that seems relatively unusual in the expat community: we moved as single women, solely for the purpose of jobs. We weren’t going to meet up with British men and live happily ever after. We weren’t moving with American partners to keep us company abroad. We are both living in 1BR apartments alone, working too much, and experiencing a slightly different sort of expat life.

I arrived at her metro stop in the 16e at 6 pm Friday, and we stayed up until 6 am talking. We did stop off at the Halloween party at the Australian embassy, but we only stayed for two drinks and then went to find food. The Aussies were only offering up sausages, and neither of us eat sausages (I’m a pescetarian and she’s a Muslim). So no go on the sausages. We ended up at an Italian place run by a Sri Lankan in St. Michel. And then back to her house for wine and gossip.

Saturday we rolled out of bed at about noon and got ready for ahem brunch, which ended up being coffee and omelets at a cafe at about 3 pm. We wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries, which was full of fall colors and I was a sleep-deprived idiot who had left my camera back at the apartment. Next we were off to the Louvre, where instead of going to the museum, we went to the museum shop and the other shops in the adjacent mall. This is part of our typical style; when she came to visit me in England, we got as far as Pizza Express and John Lewis. The point of these weekends is for us to talk, not for us to be tourists. Saturday night we walked up the steps at Sacre Coeur and then sampled some food and drink on the way back down. Again back to her place for more wine and gabbing. Again past 6 am. We really outdid ourselves this trip, 5 am had been our previous record.

After sleeping in again, Sunday noonish we did exactly what we had done the last time I was in Paris, and ran out to the market in Passy for fresh bread and cheese for brunch. I had to take the train out at 5 something, so it was one last trip on the metro before checking in for the Eurostar.

It was an amazing weekend for many reasons. We had so much fun talking about our expat existence. It was great for me to see and discuss with her the pros and cons of our very simple apartments. While she has a shower, I have an oven. She’s just in the process of getting a toaster oven-like thing that apparently is about the best that can be done in her kitchen. We both have washers but not driers, and we discussed the fact that after some time abroad, we are nesting and buying nice things to make our homes feel more like home. We’ve both been buying artwork. But the basics of the expat life are the same. We have to both do our jobs and enjoy our surroundings. As she said, “I may have to pick up my dry cleaning today, but I get to pick up my dry cleaning IN PARIS!” It was a good reminder of the things that expat life can hold. Admittedly she has it spectacularly well, her office has a picture window looking out on la Tour Eiffel.

The other funny thing that happened, and that was a big difference from my last visit to Paris a year ago, is that her French has become really proficient. Whereas last time we were two clearly American girls in Paris, this time she was a local. Her confidence had increased to the point that she spoke en Francais all the time, and even asked to speak in French when waiters or store clerks did switch over to English after hearing us chatting. She kept doing the “J’habite ici” thing, which then had a funny side-effect. I started listening to the French, and suddenly a few years worth of high school French kicked in. I really did not realize how much I had picked up, and never used, after so many years away. I laughed at a waiter’s joke without thinking. I chimed in with “moi aussi” (me too) at one point. Baby steps, for certain. But really, really fun. So I have a new expat life resolution: to start working on my French, so that the next time I get to visit my dear friend in Paris, I’ll be able to play along.

I need a costume for Hallowe’en

I have the most random of Hallowe’en plans, which is that I’m going to a party at the Australian embassy in Paris. Yep. That’s me; Ms. International. But it’s going to be hard to top the costumed performance of my sister last weekend. She lives in China, as some of you may know, and she has a bit of a ‘Mando-pop’ obsession. As do I, now that she’s been feeding me things to listen to. I love music that’s good no matter what the genre, and some Mando-pop certainly qualifies (Leehom anyone?)

Over the weekend, my dear sis went to a concert for the band ‘Sodagreen’ in Shanghai and apparently managed to attract more than just a bit of attention.

Sodagreen:

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Now I can highly recommend Sodagreen as a band, as silly as the name sounds, it’s some of the most innovative music I’ve heard in a while–combining pop music with classical themes, and I’m hooked. Yes, I’m hooked on Chinese pop music. Welcome to expat life. It’s a bit random and global. But you can see the whole lime green hair thing. So then we have my sister at the concert:

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These images were taken from a Chinese chat website or similar, where apparently my sister had become famous for wandering around Shanghai as an Anglo wearing a lime green wig. She tells me the comments are on the order of, “I spotted her on the subway” and she also appeared on the jumbo-tron during the bid for an encore, so clearly she became a ’15 minutes of fame’ local celebrity in Shanghai. The full concert story is archived on a blog from her friend here, along with this photo:

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Now two things are true. I have never been as creative as my sis, and I absolutely adore that she was wandering around Shanghai in this wig. And using it as part of a greater plan to be the lead singer of Sodagreen for Halloween. Second thing, I still don’t have a costume for Hallowe’en and I need help, being not as creative as my sis I’m a bit baffled at the moment.

Oh and maybe a third thing, I can’t wait until spring break when I’m going to China to see my sister’s life in person! Planning must commence immediately…

Expat blogger book review

I picked up a book at Glasgow’s Waterstone’s for the train ride home on Sunday, and it was a good read.

The book, Petite Anglaise, as usual shares the name of the blog that inspired it, but this was a book with a different story than the usual blog book: instead of being a compendium drawn from blog posts, the story was a narrative about the blog, the blogger, and how the blog changed her life. Well, up to a point: the real story got going right at the timepoint when the book finished, when the author was dooced, revealed in terms of previously anonymous identity, successfully took legal action for wrongful dismissal and won, wrote about this in several major newspapers, and generally got her life sorted out and embarked on a new career as a writer.

The memoir was excellent, honest, and funny; the stories about the blogger’s/author’s daughter had me in stitches. Her (Catherine Sanderson’s) novel is due to be released this summer, and there is lots of big news lately on the personal front (as I discovered when I obsessively read the blog for several hours after returning from Glasgow). I “became a fan” on facebook and highly recommend that you do too, after you’ve read and loved the book ūüôā After all, we expat bloggers have to stick together, and musing on one’s life in a strange land should not be a reason to lose your livelihood.

Weekend of expat commiseration

My weekend plans include a black-tie dinner, par for the course in this crazy life, but for this one I have a good friend coming from Paris to be my “date,” she is also an American expat friend of mine from my last location in the US and so it will be an interesting and fun experience in expat comparisons on life abroad. I visited her in Paris in October and now it’s time for the return trip–my chance to show off my fabulous life in England to someone who has never been here. It should be great fun. In other news, I went to the gym on Tuesday for the first time in, ummmm, two months–oops! My months of January and February are the busiest of my work year, and this year the gym has really suffered. I intend to get back into the schedule I managed to maintain in September through November, where I was averaging 2.5 visits per week. And yes, that’s a real number because I tracked my progress in a spreadsheet. Blame me, I’m an engineer and I count things. It’s why I’m obsessed with cricket, the best ‘counting and statistics’ sport of all time. Speaking of which, this week has been interesting in cricket, the English were humiliated and the Aussies have done well, which is interesting since I saw the Aussies at their worst in Australia at the Boxing Day test. I was feeling quite down ahead of this year’s “Ashes” series (which is the regular grudge match between the English and the Aussies) but now as an Aussie fan I’m gaining confidence. Yes, this post has been a pretty random round-up of topics, but that’s where my life is now. Off to Glasgow on Tuesday for nearly a week of conferencing, then a pretty clear week home in England in which I’ve managed to avoid yet another trip by deputizing someone to go to Switzerland in my place–hoorah for the person who travels too much.

You say potato, I say…

Actually, it’s you (Brits) say “Pancake” and I say “Crepe.” I had seen so many pancakes and pancake stories floating around here this week, and when staring uninspiredly at a package of asparagus in my fridge tonight, decided to confirm my suspicions. I googled “English pancake recipe” and came up with Delia’s, which I noted looked remarkably familiar in all ways but one. The ingredients list is identical to what’s in my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (well, once you’ve converted all the metric into amounts to mix my measuring cups) except for the method: in America we mix dry (flour and salt) and wet (milk and egg) ingredients separately, then combine, while here apparently the flour with salt gets slowly mixed into the beaten egg then the milk added. Regardless, it was a classic crepe recipe, and I filled mine with crispy asparagus spears and drizzled hollandaise sauce over the top. (No, not caster sugar, I don’t like sweet things and besides that always makes me think of actually eating crepes in Paris, which are still thinner than anything I have managed at home no matter how hard I swirl the pan.) But totally yummy for an easy dinner. But why the name? Is it because there is so much animosity between the Brits and the French? I will still call these “English pancakes” crepes, as for me a pancake has buttermilk and is thick and stacked.

An Expat in Paris

I had the chance this weekend to briefly visit a friend of mine from back home–she moved to Paris just over six months ago to take an amazing job.¬† She is thus my only expat friend from the states who is not related to me (since my sister in China is both a friend and a relative).¬† Really, I feel lucky to have both a friend and a sister who are embarking on these new lives in other countries, it makes me feel not-so-alone when we are all in this experience together.

I took the Eurostar train over to Paris, which is great fun.  Hello, you can take a train off an island and get between London and Paris in only a few hours with a great view out the window?  As I was traveling on the train, I could not remember why I had only done this once before in my more than two years in the UK.

My first trip to Paris was as a tourist.  I was new to the UK, and I had met friends from the states on the Thanksgiving weekend nearly two years ago.  One of them was Paris-familiar, and both of us had taken French in high school, so we did okay and had a good time seeing the classic sites.

This trip was totally different–I was with a (newly assimilating)¬† local, hanging out in her neighborhood and seeing Paris in a totally different light.¬†¬† We did the fun and day-to-day things that you do when you live somewhere–we went to the apartment of another friend of hers where we were to await the delivery of a mattress (since the friend was out of town).¬†¬† We hung out in cafes in real neighborhoods, not tourist areas.¬† We spent most of our time enjoying life with Paris in the background, instead of enjoying Paris with life on hold.¬† We got lucky with the Parisian weather–it was sunny and warm during the day and cool but clear in the evening.

We enjoyed the weather.¬† We shopped.¬† We walked along the Seine.¬† We laughed.¬† We cried.¬† We talked about life, love and happiness.¬†¬† We worked on our French.¬† Sometimes with better results than others.¬† We ate.¬† And we ate well, this being Paris.¬† Onion soup, cheese plates, salads, cafe creme, little cafes on every corner.¬† That thing where you can walk into a boulangerie and step up to a fromagerie¬† and get bread and cheese to take home and eat for brunch.¬† And when you’re with a local, there is a home to go to and drink coffee and eat.¬† It’s amazing.

It’s also interesting how the expat experience translates.¬† France, England, it doesn’t matter–the basics of relocating from the US to Europe are surprisingly similar.¬† Europe is so clearly not the US, and the differences between European countries pale in comparison with the difference between Europe and America.¬† The troubles that you face when being an expat, especially at first, are something that transcends the details of location.¬† We both benefitted from the comparison of silly little annoyances in our own lives, and from the commiseration that comes with shared experience.

At the end of the day, this was a great weekend for me.¬† I don’t have friends here in England as great as the friends I have from home, and it was amazing to be myself, my unguarded, completely American self, for many hours on end and to know that there’s another person just a short train ride away who shares my experiences.¬† I also feel lucky to be reminded that love is such a great and broad thing, a thing that encompasses family, romance, and perhaps most importantly, friendships.

Paris, je t’aime.