Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Merci beaucoup et à bientôt

My last few weeks in Paris was a mélange of: rushing around trying to pack up my life where surprisingly I had substantially progressed from the mere two suitcases which I had arrived with only a year prior, ticking off items from my Paris bucket list that I hadn’t got around to in the time I’d been living there and spending some quality social time with my dear Parisian friends.
During this time I also reflected on my Parisian life and the incredible opportunity that I had been afforded. My little stories over the past year were to chart one girl’s journey through gastronomy, viticulture, fashion, triathlon and the search for the perfect coffee. Did I become a true ‘Parisienne’ in the process?

My good friend Benôit asked during one of our usual, and on this occasion final fromage et vin  (cheese and wine) nights what my best memory of Paris was? “Ooh good question” I said, “I’ll have to think about that”.

“No you don’t” he responded, “it’s whatever came into your mind first”. He was right. The first thing that popped up was my friends. “It’s my friends!” I stated.

Sure, I expected to meet new people as you do when you travel, but what I didn’t expect was making the wonderfully meaningful, close and lasting friendships that I established. My Parisian friends have truly touched me and it is because of them that I was able to have such a positive enriching experience.

“So, what’s your worst memory of Paris?” Benôit predicably asked. This too didn’t take me long to answer. “Well, it’s not about Paris itself actually, it’s about me in Paris”. I went on to explain that I had wished that I was less afraid to speak French. I had developed a slight reluctance or phobia in doing so. “That’s because you’re a perfectionist!” Andrea chimed in. “True” I giggled. I did actually relax about this in my final weeks and was trying harder, confirming Michelin star restaurant reservations and various other social events, hiring yet another van and dealing with my landlord all in French.

As the temperatures in Paris plummeted to minus 10 overnight, with snow, and a sunny minus 4 degrees during the day, whilst I either cycling about town, running along the Seine river or walking around my local haunts I thought about the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that Paris presents. Surprise surprise the Policy Analyst undertook a SWOT analysis of Paris.

This is what I came up with, in no particular order within each category:


v  Public transport – The Parisian metro (underground train network), RER (suburban trains), SNCF/TGV to other French towns, buses and trams (ok there are only three tram lines that kind of don’t go anywhere, except for where I needed to go) networks are simply brilliant. The service is fast and reliable. The most I would ever wait for a metro train would be 6 minutes which felt like an eternity. Generally there was a train every two minutes. Each bus stop and tram stop no matter how big or small, would tell you when the next service would be arriving and each stop whilst you’re on the transport would be announced in advance. For someone learning the system this was incredibly handy. Not to mention there were metro stations and bus stops everywhere. However, above all the cost of travel is cheap. For example, a weekly pass for all of Paris, and the zone immediately surrounding it only cost me a little over €19.00.
Paris Metro Map

v  Cycling – Despite how awesome the public transport system is, I actually predominately cycled around round, around round the town. I had two run-about bikes. Gerald the Giant who unfortunately had sustained an injury prior to me buying him second hand in a foiled robbery (you need two bike locks in Paris, one for each wheel – bike theft is big). The injury later became terminal. Then came the Italian – Carl....said with a drool. Carl the Cavalera is a frame made by a small bike making family in Italy. It’s unmistakably a Cavalera with the name emblazed a whopping 19 times on the bike – so Italian. So with a bit of Frankenstein engineering, Gerald donated some organs to Carl and I was back on my bike.

A dead Gerald

The fatal injury

Whilst Parisian drivers are shite (see the Threat category), they are accepting of cyclists on the busy streets of Paris as road users. Sure there were a couple times where I had to bang on the side of vans and boots of cars because they didn’t see me, but generally they give you plenty of space. Yes, I’ve probably become more of an evasive proactive cyclist as a result of the shitiness that is Parisian driving, but I actually felt very comfortable on the roads of Paris, probably more so than in Australia where motorists are still comprehending that bikes are also legitimate vehicles on the road.

Cycling is also the quickest way to get around Paris and there is no greater feeling then sailing past banks of standstill traffic. Also cycling out of Paris for a longer weekend ride is relatively easy as there are heaps of others on the road, generally men I must say. Also, if you ever get stuck (as I did on my first attempt resulting in a broken spoke), you can hop on a train back to Paris without too much trouble.

Not to mention the free (for the first half hour) Velib bikes that you can also use. I read somewhere that there is a Velib bike station approximately every 300 metres in Paris. That’s staggering, but also shows you how much Parisians embrace cycling and cyclists.

v  Fashion – the Parisian fashion style is certainly everything you think it would be – stylish and chic. However, what sets Parisians apart is that individual style is celebrated. Unlike a lot of Anglo-saxon countries where everyone seems to be a carbon copy of everyone else, Parisians really accentuate and individualise their own look. It wouldn’t be strange to see a guy in red or purple skinny jeans. In addition, the cost of clothing is really affordable, much more than in Australia. There are also only two sale periods are year, summer and winter, so when there sales are they are genuine reductions. It’s a little hard to hold back during these times.

Well ahead of the pack - my own red skinnies
v  Socialising – Parisians are really social and you may have a social occasion to attend on any night of the week. Outings aren’t restricted to just the weekend. Perhaps this is due to the fact that going out is really affordable. Drinks are cheap, particularly if you have them standing at the bar. For example, the local bistro near my work would charge a little over €3 for a glass of wine, and you generally also get some bar snacks to nibble on as well. You can also have a really good meal in a cafe or bistro for as little as €15.

v  Fromage – (cheese) former president Charles de Gaulle once famously said “How can you govern a country which produces 350 different types of cheese”. Fromage is something that I’ve always had a passion for, but I took it another level in Paris. One of the key differences in cheese making in France is that most cheeses are unpasteurised and therefore the art of affinage (the maturing of cheese) in bringing out the flavours and textures is far more important. Of course I found a cheese that became my favourite, a hard cheese called Comté. I liken it my favourite nut, the cashew. The cheese exhibits a smooth body with a hint of sweetness at the end. Mmmmm fromage.

Mmm yum!

v  Wine – another one of my great passions. When I first arrived in France I instinctively compared the wine to the big and bold Australian wines with their obvious aromas and palettes. I also wasn’t sure whether I would come to like French wine as much as I liked the new world wine of Australia. However, over the many bottles of wine in the name of research and education and having toured French wine regions and attended wine tasting events and festivals I have come to realise the incredible complexity to the subtly of French wine. This is something that I adore and appreciate now.

This post can’t possibly canvas the depth and breadth of the French wine industry which is positively enormous, but I will note that unlike Australian wine which focuses more on the grape variety, French wine is about the blending of grapes with certain minimum levels as dictated by various Appelation d’origine Contrôlée and the terrior (the characteristics that geography, geology and climate have on the land).

I took a particular liking to Côtes du Rhône reds, and I’m partial to whites from Chablis. However, it was an independent wine maker from the Languedouc region where my favourite wine came from, with a few cases making their way back to Australia for me to savour.
Côtes du Rhône wine region

v  Champagne – I have already written extensively about Champagne. Whilst I enjoyed Champagne before arriving in France, I have a new-found appreciation for this beautiful liquid gold bubbly wine. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Champagne region for a tour, but as a friend once said to me ‘you have to leave out something in order for you to have a reason to come back’.

I now also understand why the French are so protective over the name ‘Champagne’ and given its foundations and long history I totally agree with it. Once again, it is the terroir of the Champagne region that makes Champagne truly Champagne. So nowhere else in the world can a sparkling wine really be called Champagne.

Pol Roger - a recent favourite champagne

v  Art culture – Of course Paris is known for its plethora of museums. Whilst I visited some, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I never got to the Louvre (it’s different when you live in a city as opposed to just visiting it you keep thinking you’ll go – just another reason to go back), I was surprised to learn that Paris has quite a ‘Street Art’ community.

Art work of Jef Aerosol and Jérôme Mesnager

Melbourne is known as one of the leading international cities for street art, which can encompass traditional spray paint, stencil art, poster art and mosaics. I’m a huge fan of Street Art, particularly because it’s usually found tucked away off the beaten track, so when you stumble upon it, it often feels like finding treasure. Street Art is also quite fleeting, a piece can be on a wall one week and in the following weeks it’s gone, painted over by the local councils.

Street Art in progress late one Sunday night

Thanks to the location of my first apartment I became instantly familiar with the who’s who of Parisian street art. I am a big fan of Jef Aerosol and his stencil art and Jérôme Mesnager with his iconic white artist doll figure. Perhaps one of the most well know artist is actually Space Invader, who puts up mosaic tiles of little pictures, usually high up on corners of buildings or under bridges. His pieces are all over the world, and I actually discovered him when I was in London a couple of years ago. So, on my many runs through Paris I would always make sure I had a camera to snap away at the street art I would find. I must say that I have an impressive collection of pictures now, which I know are quite precious because some of the art no longer exists.
Space Invader's work


v  Bureaucracy – Perhaps it’s the fact that France is a socialist republic, but the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork for the simplest things is unnecessarily complicated and lengthy. Your electricity bill is a sacred document in France as it proves where you live and it is the only form of identification that is regarded as acceptable. However, you can’t get an electricity account unless you have a bank account and you can’t open a bank account without providing proof of your home address. So what the hell do you do?

“C’est impossible” (that is impossible) is a phase that I became accustomed to hearing, and should be enshrined as a national saying similar to of “G’day” I heard it that often.

v  Coffee – this too I have written extensively about. Coffee in Paris is utterly disgraceful. If you like your coffee hot, burnt and bitter then in that case Paris is your city. However, if you like to experience the rich aroma and taste that coffee can deliver, as it should be enjoyed, then the search for a good coffee, let alone the perfect coffee is almost a lost cause.

However, I did manage to find that elusive great coffee and almost predictably it was at a cafe (Cafe Coutume) that is owned by an Australian, and his French business partner Antoine who spent 4 years roasting coffee beans in Melbourne. It's my favourite cafe in Paris and to my friends it simply became known as 'my cafe' since I was there on opening night and all, and spent at least one day of the weekend there.
The perfect coffee at Cafe Coutume

The tide of appreciating good quality coffee is slowly turning in Paris, with an article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age a month ago  (article click here with Antoine and Tom pictured and discussion of Cafe Coutume) indicating that a contingent of Australians are invading Paris to improve their coffee culture. Here’s hoping!

v  Breakfast – there is no such thing in France, apart from that is, a croissant or some sort of flakey pastry and a short black coffee. The idea of ‘brunch’ has become popular though, but don’t for a minute think it’s anything like brunch as you know it, consisting of said pastry, coffee, orange juice, a sad looking plain omelette and a piece of baguette bread. That’s it. The concept of a low GI breakfast which is able to sustain you until lunch is non-existent. I would’ve had to have I reckon at least 6 croissants to feel remotely satisfied, although as it happens I only ever tried one croissant in the whole time that I was there.

v  Sundays – France virtually shuts down on Sunday. Shops, cafes and restaurants are generally not open as Sunday is reserved as the day with family. This is all good and well, but it’s highly inconvenient. There are some stores in the tourist areas which are open, although it’s the inability in having a choice of cafes and restaurants that I found disappointing or popping into the supermarket to pick something up frustrating.

Again, things are slowly changing with some supermarket chains opening only in the morning on a Sunday, and large shopping complexes like that at La Defence open every Sunday. This is more the exception, however, than it is the norm.

v   French language – it seems that French people find it hard or perhaps they don’t make much of an effort to try and understand what it is that a foreigner might be trying to say in French. The French language is such that if you get the accent or intonation of a word wrong it can mean a different thing entirely. But surely you would think that perhaps they would understand and put it into context that when I’m in a pharmacy or beauty store that I want something for my hair and not my horses.


v Courteousness– for all the questions I have been asked by others and hoo-hay that I hear about the French being rude I most certainly didn’t find that to be case. In fact I found it to be the complete opposite to the point that I find Parisians to be some of the most helpful and friendly people I have met.

I can’t even begin to recount the number of experiences where Parisians, who are complete strangers to me, have gone out of their way to help me. For example, I was struggling on my own with a flat pack couch that I bought from Ikea as I was trying to pull it from the van that I had hired. A random gentleman who was sitting in his parked van in my street saw me trying to pull and push, so he jumped out and grabbed the other end and asked where I was going. We walked it down my street to my apartment building and then he offered to help me take it right up into my apartment. I couldn’t possibly thank him enough.

This isn’t a one off incident though. A number of people helped me when I had my shopping caddy full of things as I was trying to go up and down various stairs from the metro station, and you often see strangers helping women with prams or old people cross the street – the classic good scout’s deed, but it’s all true. When I fell off my bike, a number of people came over and asked if I was ok.

Sometimes French people come across abruptly and I have found that quite a few of them are nervous speaking English, so I can understand that people might interpret their behaviour as rude. However, you will always be greeted with a hello no matter which store or cafe you enter, and you will always be thanked and told to have a nice day/night on your way out. I honestly think that a number of other countries have an opportunity to learn to be just as courteous and helpful as the French.

v Work / Life Balance – about a month or so ago I saw a report on a French news channel that confirmed that the French work the least number of hours of all the European Union countries, something like 32.5 hours a week. Predictably countries like Germany and the UK work some of the longest working weeks. However, what was interesting was that despite the lower hours, the French are one of the most productive workers. The report went into the method for measuring productivity, which I won’t bore you with but made interesting lunch time conversation amongst my economist colleagues at the OECD, but it showed that in the time French workers are at work they are highly efficient.

I later gave more thought to this report. It’s quite clear, particularly when you live in France, how much the French love life. They love to enjoy life through their cultural ways of socialising, wining and dining, and having their rest day on Sunday. Their shorter working days are so that they can enjoy their mornings and their evenings. Rather than the scales being tipped more heavily towards work, the French have artfully balanced it and ensure that life is as equally important. You can really feel this in the more relaxed slower pace of the city.

Once again, many other nations, such as Australia, have an opportunity to learn from the French cultural way of life. Whilst I found other things in France to be stressful (see the Weaknesses section), in the last year I have felt a lot more rested, yet professionally it was one of my busiest years ever. So how about that!

v Dinner – it took me a long time to adjust to the having dinner later than I would normally have had in Australia. At the earliest you might eat at 8pm, however, customarily dinner would start anywhere between 8:30pm and 9:00pm.

As a result, cafes and restaurants would be open and serving dinner much later than what I would be able to find in Australia. This provides a great opportunity to either go home first, catch up with friends for an aperitif or perhaps even run an errand all before going out to dinner. It also creates a great social nightlife for the city with lots of people out enjoying themselves.
v Triathlon – given the many French triathlon race reports I have written, you could be forgiven for thinking that this item should probably sit under the Weakness category as a result of the lack of organisation or formality I experienced during the events, or perhaps even the Threat category as I’m pretty damn sure that water quality was never tested prior to a race. Alas, it is under Opportunity as I think French Triathlon has a bright future.

The French have a brilliant fully coached club system. Whilst I was in a more relaxed / social club of likeminded individuals, the club system is pretty impressive and damn cheap compared to Australia. Annual fees range from 500 – 800 euro for full squad coached sessions, with some clubs offering swimming sessions twice a day, six days a week. The French swimmers need it, just quietly.
My lack of French language limited me from trying one of the clubs, although having said that I wouldn’t trade in my triathlon club ExpaTRIés where I now hold the esteemed title of International Director. There is a great club competition league and your membership with French Federation Triathlon ensures that your public insurance necessary for any swim, cycle or run event that you may enter outside of triathlon is covered for the entire year. Triathlon events are also cheap to participate in. I paid €25 for a sprint distance event and I got a t-shirt and a medal included, with my most expensive triathlon being the Paris Olympic distance at €80.
Yes, the sport is heavily subsidised by the French government and the individual regional councils which host triathlon events, but it makes the cost of doing a triathlon affordable and accessible to everyone. Perhaps the likes of Triathlon Australia should look at the French club model to further strengthen the triathlon community down under.

v  Parisian drivers – Parisian drivers are shite! They rarely indicate to let those travelling behind them, including me as a cyclist, that they are going to abruptly decide to turn their vehicle and/or slow down and cut you off. The concept of staying within lanes on Parisian streets also doesn’t really exist and motorists move freely all over the road. In the end I started to anticipate their shitty driving. Perhaps that’s how they all get along, by anticipating each other’s atrocious driving, particularly going around the Arc de Triomphe.

A different type of parking - "Parking for our dog friends"

v  Pedestrians  - are equally disobedient and they just step out on the road with their hands held up in a ‘stop’ motion expecting that anything that is hurtling towards them to come to a halt without hitting them. Again, me on a bike was not an exception. There is this tussle between motorists and pedestrians, with motorists apparently having the upper hand, although one tonne of metal roaring at you generally does. Admittedly I did do the same hand up thing as a runner but only because having a green man at the lights apparently does not guarantee you save passage across the road in Paris.

v  Smoking – perhaps like many other European countries, France has a culture of smoking. Unlike in Australia where smokers are seen as almost outcasts, and most definitely in the minority, the French still embrace smoking as very much a part of their social fabric. Although smoking is prohibited in buildings, restaurants, and bars, smokers huddle around entrances and occupy all the terrace (balcony/outdoor) seating. For someone that despises smoking as much as I do, and for good reason, I really struggled with this. I particularly hated that I had to walk through a cloud of smoke when entering my work building and that if I ran in the city I would be constantly passing people smoking.

There are very little deterrents in place, for example through education, to discourage people from smoking. What staggered me the most was that virtually every teenager I saw would be smoking and whole groups of kids would be openly smoking at the front of their school in the mornings and at lunch time.

It seems that smoking is still seen as socially acceptable and almost cool. Not to mention that it helps the French women stay slim as their diet solely consists of coffee and cigarettes. The whole rubbish about the French woman’s diet is crap, they simply don’t eat and it they appear to be eating, they are simply pushing food around on their plates. I know, I watched them.

Whilst everyone might seem cool, slim and hip smoking now, you can certainly tell that smoking in the end doesn’t pay as the older Parisians don’t age all that well as a result. I also have no doubt that in time the French government will realise how much smoking threatens their population’s health and consequently their health budget as a result. Perhaps eventually something more serious will need to be done.

My above analysis is by no means comprehensive. There is so much more to love about France and Paris that I could write endlessly about. Equally there are quite a few things to get frustrated about, just as there are any where you live in the world.

However, my Parisian experience has no doubt been the greatest year of my life. The sights, sounds, tastes, emotions, challenges and brilliant friends that I have been blessed to have come across over the last year are memories that will be etched into my mind forever.

Paris really did feel like home for me. To a certain degree it almost felt like I had finally found home, a culture and environment which I was totally at ease and comfortable with.

Je t'aime pour tourjours

So it is at this point that I must express my gratitude and eternal thanks to my Parisian friends for being the wonderful people that they are. I hope that each of you know how much you’ve meant to me.

In no particular order merci beaucoup:

Andrea                                                 Roger                                                    Sarah
Benoit                                                  Adele                                                    Marta
Sebastien                                            Andrea                                                  Nick      
Stephen                                               Mike                                                      Richard

I don’t like saying good bye, I much prefer to say à bientôt which means ‘see you soon’. I have a very strong feeling that I will be...time and time again.

So as a girl who has lived her life with the middle name Paris, did I become a Parisienne...I think so. It will forever be a part of me.


Merci beaucoup et à bientôt


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