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The pigeon gets what it deserves

21 Sep

D*mn pigeon Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerGuest Contributor:  American Richard Resnick is CEO of genomic software company GenomeQuest, a TED speaker and a regular business visitor to Paris.  The day before the incident below, one of Paris’s bountiful pigeon population emptied its guts on Richard’s suit and shirt while he was on his way to a meeting.

Work is over for the night, I’m having a couple of beers with my colleague JJ in the suburb of Rueil before heading back to Paris by train. It is about a 15 minute walk to the train station. It is the same walk I do every night, and I must say, I do believe I’m really quite good at it. You know, you put one foot in front of the other, etc., and so on, until you have arrive at your destination.

And indeed, like any other night, I execute this plan successfully, and arrive at the station. I put my ticket through the machine, ascend the stairs, and voila, there is a train, standing right there. No waiting. So, I board, no problem. I turn my headphones on. I close my eyes. And we’re off.

But it’s a slow ride. And, after about 5 minutes, we stop. I decide to open my eyes.

The train is empty.

I didn’t notice that before.

And we’re not in between stations. But we’re not really at a station either. We’re in a train yard. There are trains on either side of me. None is moving.

It’s suddenly becomes clear to me that every train, mine included, is parked for the evening, waiting for the morning rush hour. I’m alone in a stopped train, my French is marginal at best, and after two beers with JJ, I really need to pee.

Shit.

The “RER” as it is known in Paris is a major set of train lines that run the length (or width) of Paris, from end to end, including the adjacent suburbs. It’s a bit nicer than a regular subway train – larger seats, larger cars, etc. And it has these doors that don’t automatically open; instead you have to either push a button – in the new ones – or turn a rusty crank counter-clockwise – in mine.

So I get up, move toward the door, and turn the crank, hoping it will open. It does. And suddenly I’m standing at the ledge of the train, and there is about a six-foot drop to the ground. No looking back, I jump.

The safety of the stopped train thoroughly behind me, I realize I am now walking on tracks with three rails. That third rail is the nasty one, but I really have no choice. I carefully maneuver across three different sets of tracks towards a very large fortress-like building on one side of the yard. There are fences with barbed wire, and signs saying things like “Caméras vous observant” (You are being watched) which I think could be the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I clearly need help.

But none of the gates open, no sirens wail, and all of the doors of the building – locked.

The urge to pee is overwhelming but I remember my mother telling me something about peeing near highly electrified metal.

“Ok,” I tell myself. “This isn’t that bad. I have my wallet.” (Frantically I drop my bag to find my wallet. I finger my passport while I am there, just for added comfort.)

“I have my phone.” Checking my phone, I am terrified to see the “Battery 20%” warning pop up. But the iPhone gives you no choice but to press OK, even though it really isn’t ok at all. (I make a mental note to Apple.)

I can do this.

I walk the length of the trains down to the other end. It’s a long train, and I have plenty of time to squint at the far end and panic about whether it is simply a closed pathway or whether there is a way out. When I arrive at the gate, it is locked. But there is a door into this fortress of a building on my right. I listen, and hear footsteps. Running through obvious things to ask in French, I turn the doorknob and go in.

I’m obviously in some kind of a Paris Metro control center, although it is totally deserted. Open boxes of pastries, fully consumed, a room full of uniforms and mops, and a stairwell, down. I take it and enter into a dingy, windowless kitchen occupied by a large table, a sink, a microwave, and a man.

Ou je suis?” Where am I? I ask, having practiced this one in my head on the way down the stairs.

The man, making his tea, looks up. Then looks down at his tea. Then shakes his head.

Parlez-vous anglais?” I pray.

Non,” he says bluntly.

Shit.

Ok, here comes Richard’s broken French.

J’ai parti de la gare Ruiel Malmaison, et maintenant, je suis ici…” I left the train station at Rueil, and here I am …

Vous etes un anglophone?” he asks.

Oui, je suis.” Yes, I am.

De quel pays?” From which country?

Des Etats-Unis.” From the US.

Ahhh … d’accord …” Ahhh … now I see …

After this proper French verdict from the train driver, he goes back to steeping his tea. I watch. I wait. The urge to pee is horrendous. Finally, I try something new:

Je veux aller a Paris, il y a un taxi, ou quelque chose….” This roughly translates in broken French as, “I’d like to go to Paris, is there a taxi or something?

He looks up. It’s really the first time he actually uses his eyes to look at me. He takes me in. Up, down, up. Finally, he decides that he is going to have to help. I’m just not going to go away.

Vous voulez un taxi ou RER?” You want the taxi or the train?

Oui, l’RER serait le mieux….” The RER would be best…

D’accord. Suivez moi.”  Alright. Follow me.

He leaves his tea behind and walks up the stairs. I follow, running behind him. He weaves us through the train yard, over tracks, on paths, around gates, and pulls out a huge set of keys which he uses to unlock a mighty gate far too tall to climb.

Now, I’ve been listening to these French CDs called Pimsleur which give you a strong basis in basic conversational French. Thankfully, the very last CD I had listened to in America taught me directions, for instance:

lá-bas: over there

ici: here

tout droit: straight

et puis: and then

á gauche: left

á droite: right

So with a combination of his pointing and saying the above words in strange combinations with many additional French words thrown in, I am freed from the train yard and put out onto the street, no worse for wear, with only a 10 minute walk back to the train station where I had so recently been. The second train I board gets me safely home completely incident-free.

I do admit to peeing on a pigeon outside a Rueil hotel on the walk back to the station.

They’re back – La Rentrée

2 Sep

Packed Metro Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI had to wait in long queues everywhere this week. At the supermarket, the boulangerie, the fruit stand, the health food store.  The number of parents and children seemed to double. “What’s going on here?” I thought, as I pushed my way on to the way-too-crowded Metro.  I haven’t had to wait or deal with these crowds for a while, since … aha, it became clear. I haven’t had to deal with this since mid-July, since the Parisians left the city.

From the start of July, everyone seemed to be getting a bit touchy – a bit like caged animals before feeding time. The end-of-the-school-year feeling was in the air. “Get us out, we need our summer vacation,” sounded the collective howl.

This tension built through the month and at the end of July the notices started to go up.  The bakery shut first – closed 22 July to 22 August.  The other bakery – closed until 29 Aug. Then the butcher – back 29 August. All the little shops and a lot of restaurants in my neighbourhood went dark. Some shops looked like they had gone out of business.  White butcher paper filled the front window, but a little sign said, “Fermé jusqu’au 22 août.” As businesses closed and Parisians left for the country, the tension slowly started to go away.

I was warned about the exodus, but I didn’t think that it would be so widespread. Initially, I worried the town might shut. However they do leave a skeleton crew in Paris to deal with those left and I slowly found the bakeries, markets, etc. that were still open.  I never did find an open butcher near my flat and, more than once, went to restaurants only to find little notices on the closed door and a dark dining room. However, despite being a little unseasonably cool, August in Paris was very pleasant.

The mass return from vacation at the start of September, just in time for the national first day of school, has its own word – La Rentrée. Now that the Parisians are coming back it will be interesting to see if things just pick up as they were before they left. Everyone is back with a nice deep tan but will the vacationed Parisians come back with smiles on their faces? For example, will they remember all of my pre-break hard work at Maison Hilaire, my local boulangerie/patisserie? 

As in all places in French life there are rules to be followed at Maison Hilaire.  You have to instinctively know to queue ONLY on the left side of the counter to place your order. The woman behind the counter writes your order down and passes it to another woman who fills the order, who then passes it to the woman at the till.  DO NOT speak to the woman who fills the order. When it is your turn at the till, the till woman places your receipt on a little tray, and you are to put the money on top of the receipt. DO NOT hand the money to the woman directly. She takes the money from the tray and places any change on the receipt. Then you take both change, receipt and, oh yes, your baguette, which she now hands you.  Stick to this procedure and there is no yelling. Deviate, even in the slightest way, and be prepared to be shouted at and humiliated in front of the other customers.

The friendliest bakery in Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI’d basically been doing as I was supposed to for a number of months leading up to the start of August. I persevered because my husband loved an éclair from Maison Hilaire and I had a secret mission to get the grumpy woman behind the till to reward my rule-following diligence with a bit of kindness.  I’d seen her be lovely with other customers, why not me?

The day before they closed for the August break I finally got a little love back. Well, not love exactly, but she did actually smile and said, “Bon Journée”. Was this mission accomplished? When I go back to buy an éclair and baguette will I get that hard-earned smile again or will there be special post-August procedures that everyone French knows but will take me weeks of humiliation to figure out? I’ll have to wait and see.

Our neighbours across the road were absent for most of August.  We don’t know them but it feels like they came to visit almost every night when they were in town.  Their balcony looks down at the street below and right into our living room. They are a couple, probably 35-40-ish. She likes to stand seductively on the balcony having a glass of wine and a cigarette several times a night. When they have people over they all like to stand and smoke by the balcony doors.  Usually we both pretend that we don’t see each other.  We’ve had several by-chance street-level encounters, which were a bit strange. I gave a weak smile, as I am culturally programmed to do, and they ignored us, as they culturally programmed to do. Fine.

One Friday evening they had a party. They and several of their guests, made a bit more confident by their cocktails, actually pointed and laughed at my husband and me having a rare evening sitting on our sofa in our PJs watching a DVD. Nice.

Needless to say I was enjoying our August privacy. Then last week I saw him stretching on the balcony in nothing but his flimsy boxers. There was something post-coital about his smug expression and the wet spot on the front of his shorts. YUCK! My guard was down as we hadn’t seen them in weeks and there he was in all of his glory. I ran into the other room and wanted to escape. I think he liked that I saw. YIKES! She was on the balcony again last night while we were having dinner. I’m sure in a couple of weeks I’ll be used to our seeing-but-pretending-we-don’t-see routine again.

My neighbours and the rest are all coming back to the city that did not exist for them for the entire month of August. Many of them will have not promenaded down the lovely Paris Plage, or Paris Beach, along the Seine, will not have benefited from the smaller than normal queues at the museums and attractions or have enjoyed less crowded parks, streets and Metro.  Maybe if they had, they might not leave next August and we can’t have that.

Note:  I, the accidentalparisienne, am now on holiday for two weeks. For your and my pleasure, I’ve invited a number of guest contributors to post their unique points of view of Paris over the weeks I am away. Enjoy! I look forward to getting back in touch when I return.

Le Bar Brigadoon – an enchanted birthday on rue de Lappe

25 Aug

neverending happy hour photo by Elizabeth DownhowerTwo drunken Australian early twenty-somethings got on board the Metro a couple of weeks ago.  You could hear and smell them at the other end of the carriage. They scanned the Metro riders for people to talk to and finally found a 20-something French couple.

Bonjour,” one Aussie said with obvious discomfort. His face contorted and his mouth did not want to cooperate with the foreign word. “Do you guys speak English?”

The French couple looked at each other as if for reassurance. “Yes,” the French woman answered.

“Excellent,” the Aussies gave each other high-five. “We’re staying by the Bastille. Where should we go for a bit of a party? You know, a few beers, some girls and some fun.”

The French man and woman looked at each other, looked back at the Aussies and said in unison, “Rue de Lappe.”

Every town has a street like rue de Lappe and everyone has at least one under-age, alcohol-impaired, half-memory of an evening there.  Bar after bar, lurid neon advertising cheap drinks and seedy bouncers lounging at the doors. Stale beer and urine are the overwhelming smells during the day.  Eager hormones and the smell of spilt pitchers of sickly sweet cocktails fill the air at night. Large groups of young men or women stumble out of one bar and fall into the next.

Rue de Lappe was not where I thought we’d end up on Saturday night.  When we entered the street I was certain we would pass through it on our way somewhere else. My husband and I were with one of my best friends in the world who had come to Paris to celebrate a big birthday.  While my friend and I had shared a few buckets of beer (yes, literally buckets) in the Ohio version of rue de Lappe many years ago, I think we had something a little more grown-up in mind for Saturday night.

However, about half way down the street, my husband and friend both stopped in front of a bar and looked in.  In between the other large-fronted, loud establishments there was a little slip of a place. As you looked in, there was just enough room for the long bar down the left side, a row of stools and a bit of space for people to squeeze past to get to the few tables in the back. In contrast to its crowded neighbours, this little bar only had a few punters. It was a dive and I can’t explain it any other way than to say something about it called to us.

“Do you want to go in for one?” my husband asked in disbelief. My friend and I both nodded yes and then shrugged at each other because we didn’t know why we didn’t march on.

My friend led the way to the end of the bar. We sat and they ordered beers. This was not a place that would serve my favourite tipple, fizz, so I asked the barman if he had a cocktail de la maison. The barman was a slim man with a mop of curly grey hair, boyish eyes and a deeply creased face. He could have been anywhere from 45 to 65 years old. He nodded and smiled causing his thin lips to part and reveal the three remaining teeth that clung to his top gums. He assured me that he would make me something, “très spécial”.

I could see him set to work in the tarnished mirror above the bar.  A tiny workspace was squeezed into the gap between the till and a turntable.  The turntable propped up a large collection of vintage vinyl. Solid Gold Soul was the sleeve facing outwards. A woman with brassy cropped hair appeared behind the bar and inquired what the barman was doing. Clearly cocktails were not the norm. He gestured to me, she looked over and saw me looking at the records. “We have a CD player but don’t really use it. There’s nothing like the sound of a needle on vinyl.” She arrived from London for the weekend 35 years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had landed in this bar that very first day and never left.

The barman proudly put my drink down in front of me. It consisted of one thin slice of lime quartered, a little sugar and overproof rum, and was served in a glass a little larger than a shot.  I tasted it. It nearly blew my head off. I asked for a little water and the barman looked wounded. He never gave me water, but did give me a tall glass and a few ice cubes.

While I sipped my toxic drink I had a look at the other occupants in the bar.  A couple of stools down from me on my left was a black man about 60 with snow-white hair. It was cropped close on the sides and in the back but rose like a cliff a full 4 inches over his wrinkled forehead. He had a large gold hooped earring and wore a red silk cravat, dark blue collared shirt and bright yellow waist coat.  The man next to him had a shiny round bald head, a round face and round, aviator-shaped, thick gold and white plastic 80’s style glasses.  He had a thick gold bracelet and necklace to match and white track suit with green Adidas stripes that looked more pimp than athlete.

My friend’s voice brought me back to our end of the bar.  “Merci beaucoup,” she enthused and I saw she was petting something green, yellow and furry on her finger. “Look, the barman gave me a birthday present!” She put her hand in front of me so that I could see the little knitted turtle finger puppet she proudly wore on her finger. “Wow, what a present,” was all I could think of saying. It looked like it had been chewed by a dog. The barman beamed a shy, three-toothed grin.

Little Seb Photo by Elizabeth DownhowerYou have to understand that most places we go with my good friend we get special attention. She is tall, blond and beautiful. This combined with her chatty, flirty French encouraged by the bottle of bubbles we had before we left our flat made her a star attraction. A small man in a Converse t-shirt was the first to try to get her attention. Then two students made an attempt, and then another guy.

While I watched all the drama, two men appeared at the end of the bar.  They were regulars and greeted the barman with kisses, as the French do. The older, smaller one had dark eyes, chiselled features and silver/white well-groomed hair that was tidy on the sides but longer on top. He also had a chiselled body that was shown off by a tight, but not too tight, t-shirt and well-fitting jeans. The younger, tall one had short dark black hair and a Roman nose. His body was also well-defined.  If the older man looked like he took care of himself, the younger man’s fitness looked more natural or rather acquired by a labour of love.

The older man was the only one, other than the barman who managed to engage my friend in conversation and the younger man sat quietly by his side.  My husband and I could not figure out the connection between the two men. The barman put us out of our misery – they were father and son. The barman also said that the older man was a magician. The younger man rolled his eyes and shook his head. Excellent, I thought, my husband is stuntman and I am a spy.

Magician and turtle photo by Elizabeth DownhowerThen the magician took the knitted turtle and proceeded to do 5 minutes of slight-of-hand tricks with it.  The turtle was in his hand, and then it was gone. It was back in his hand, then put in his mouth and then pulled from behind the barman’s ear.  He appeared to throw it into the air, and then he pulled it out of his pocket. Then up in the air again to be caught behind his back and then gone completely.  Over, up, down, gone, pulled out and then finally, produced on a business card that said he was, in fact, a magician.  Wow.  The card had a photograph of the man in a tuxedo and black bow tie and detailed that he was not only a magician but a “Gentleman Magician”. The son, we found out, played volleyball for Italy, hence the well-toned physique, and was an industrial designer. 

Both men were a little put out when my friend said to me that she was trying to get the attention of another young man sitting at the table behind the bar.  “What should I do?” she asked. “Go talk to him,” I said.  The father-son team gave me simultaneous look of despair, what did they have to do to get her favour, they’d literally been doing magic after all.

While my friend went over to try to chat to the only man in bar who hadn’t been trying to get her attention, I got some of my own.  Didier pulled up a stool next to mine and sat down.

Bon soir,” he said. “Le blah blah blah, blah blah.”

“I am sorry I don’t speak French,” I said and this was one of the few times I was glad of it. Didier was not my type.  This did not deter Didier, “Le blah blah blah.  Blah blah blah.” The English woman behind the bar caught my eye and said, “That’s Didier. He has a bit of a reputation as a lady’s man, a bit of a Casanova.” The magician and his son both nodded in agreement.

I looked back at Didier. He was about 5ft 2in tall and wide.  He was bald, pie eyed and pie-faced. I looked back at the woman behind the bar, the magician and the son, and asked, “This man is a Casanova?” They all nodded vigorously in agreement and in all seriousness. The woman behind the bar said, “He is and he’ll sit there as long as he thinks it’ll take.”

Didier raised his glass to me and gave me what he probably thought was his sexiest smile.  “Blah blah le blah.”

For a second, I was intrigued. Had I been a bit too harsh in my assessment of Didier? This was France after all, maybe he had some secrets.  I looked into his eyes. “Blah blah. Le blah blah,” he said spitting a little and struggling to keep me in focus. He then spilled a little beer.

“Didier, I’d like you to meet my husband.” The woman behind the bar translated this and Didier smiled and raised his glass to me and my husband but remained firmly seated next to me. “Blah le blah blah. Blah blah, blah blah, le blah blah.”

ED, beer and birthday pressie Photo by Barrie WestIt was then that the magician decided to make his move.  I imagine that he saw the geeky, spectacled young man my friend decided to chat up and figured he still had a good chance.  Him or the pipsqueak? Everyone in the bar would have put money on the hot magician. He went over to their table, sat down and joined the conversation.  My friend’s original pursuant in the Converse t-shirt strangely took the magician’s move as a cue to try again also and started to do a little po-go dancing around their table.

The son looked even more forlorn. “Why wasn’t she interested in me?” he asked. I suspected that he’d had a lifetime of being overshadowed by his father. I wanted to tell him that his volleyball body would have been more than enough for me, but I am happily married after all.

After a while, my friend came back to the bar and said that Sebastian, the specky boy at the table, was a German student. She petted her turtle gift and said it was maybe time to go home.  I asked if she was sure she did not want to talk to the magician and the volleyball player again, after all a father/son team is what a million big-birthday daydreams are made of. But she said no, it was time to go home.

We said our goodbyes and the cast assembled to send us on our way.  Arm in arm, my husband, my friend and I walked down rue de Lappe and my friend christened the turtle finger puppet, Sebastian. I looked back over my shoulder to see our new friends waving goodbye and they seemed to be disappearing in the 2am mist. I wanted to remember this night and looked above the door, but could not see a sign or the name of the bar. I looked down again for the crowd and they had all disappeared. I remembered the story of  Brigadoon, an enchanted Scottish village that only appeared once every hundred years, and wondered if I came back to rue de Lappe I’d be able to find our little enchanted bar.

Happy birthday ED!

The birthday girl and me Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

It’s a small world – Omaha Beach to Florida to Paris

19 Aug

From http://www.dday-overlord.com/img/dday/ob/omaha_beach_barge_approche.jpgMy landlady told me this beautiful story and I had to share it.

Around 20 years ago while on holiday, my landlady and her husband befriended a couple from Florida. The two couples stayed in touch and have even been on vacation together several times.

A few years ago, the couple from Florida contacted my landlady to let her know they were taking a cruise that would stop at several points along the Northern coast of France. My landlady and her husband traveled to Normandy to meet their friends off of the ship.

The first day they met up they went to visit Omaha Beach, the sight of one of the deadliest D-Day battles. The father of the man from Florida had been a survivor of this battle and his son wanted to see the site where it had all happened.

While visiting the beach the two couples were told by another tourist that a veteran, a man who had participated in the landings, was down the path and was sharing his experiences and answering questions.  The other tourist explained that they had better hurry as the veteran looked like he might be getting ready to go.

They found the veteran and the man from Florida was able to confirm quite a lot of the details his father told him about the battle.  So many details were similar that the veteran asked about the man’s father’s name and his division. The veteran and the man’s father had been in the same boat and knew each other quite well. The veteran was able to tell him details of his father’s life in the army and specifically what his father did during the battle.

The veteran had answered some of the assembled tourists’ questions in French.  My landlady enquired where he had learned to speak French so well.  He had grown up in France, he said. Before the war, he left Paris to go to university in New York.  While he was gone, the Germans occupied Paris and he was unable to return home to Europe.  While in the US he received news that his Jewish family had been rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.  On hearing this news he asked if he could join the US Army and they agreed to let him serve.

My landlady asked, in which part of Paris did he grow up?  In the Marais. This is the area where my landlady and her husband  have lived all of their lives.  Further questions revealed, the veteran had known my landlady’s father.

French and American friends by chance meet a Omaha Beach veteran on Omaha Beach who knew both of their fathers and could bring history to life. Incredible.

[Photo credit: http://www.dday-overlord.com/img/dday/ob/omaha_beach_barge_approche.jpg]

Goodbye Champagne – 10 things to do in Paris for less than 4€

12 Aug

Winter in Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSome of you may already know this but recently I recently quite literally ‘quit my day job’ in Edinburgh so that I can stay in Paris and write a book.  While I am very excited about this decision and my writing is going well, it has put me in a position where I have to look at Paris in a very different way. 

Paris, like most large cities, can be very expensive. A used book in English can cost 20€ ($US29/£18). A soft drink at a small cafe, away from tourist areas, perfect for writing costs 6€50 ($9/£6). A pretty normal salad in a normal restaurant will set you back 15€-19€ ($22-27/£13-17).  My husband recently paid 116€ ($170/£100) for 7 drinks. Someone else, very kindly, paid for dinner.

So with my new, let’s call it ‘leaner’ situation, I decided I come up with a list of 10 things you can do in Paris that cost less than 4€ ($6/£3.50).

  1. Take a bus tour – I am not talking about the hop-on/hop off guided tour bus that will set you back 29€, I am talking the self-guided variety that will cost a mere 1€70.  My current favourite is the No. 69 city bus –You use the same tickets you use for the metro, but this is all above ground.  Arm yourself with a free map and your guidebook you bought at home and keep track of the sights along the way. One end the route starts at Père Lachaise cemetery where Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Colette, Oscar Wilde and many other famous people are buried. The route then heads past the Bastille, through the hip Marais area and past Hotel de Ville. It takes a dramatic turn; the bus has to slow down to literally squeeze under an archway through the Louvre building. You emerge to see, on one side, IM Pei’s amazing pyramid, and on the other, the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries. After you cross the Seine to the left bank, you go past the Musee d’Orsay and then up along fashionable rue St Gremain, rue du Bac and rue de Grenelle. Then past the magnificent Hotel de Invalides and you end up at the feet of Eiffel Tower. That’s a lot of Paris for a 1€70!
  2. Buy a souvenir – What trip to Paris would be complete without one of these? You can get a Paris snow globe for 2€50 at the Galleries Lafayette (the cheapest I’ve seen in town) or an Eiffel Tower key chain (4 to 6 for 1€) available just about everywhere from street vendors.
  3. Buy lunch – You can get a bottle of wine (hey, you’re in Paris) for as little as 1€50 and a baguette for just less than a euro. For the gluten- and wine-allergic like me, a gluten-free crepe de Ble Noir or buckwheat flour crepe is 3€50 and a water .50€.
  4. Take a ride – If staying on a bus cramps your style, rent one of the bicycles on the city’s  Velib scheme. Velib stations are everywhere and you use bikes all day for 1€70.  Rent a bike, take it to where you want to go and park it in the station nearby. When you’re ready to move on, type in your rental code and take another bike. Easy!  My current favourite Velib trip is along Canal St Martin, a hip area with a lot of cute independent shops for window shopping and great stretches for a picnic. I’ve watched locals play petanque (boules or bacchii ball) on a sunny afternoon and I’ve danced to live DJs on a warm evening along this stretch – there is usually something fun going on.
  5. Eat cake – As long as you deny your Marie Antoinette 3euro yummies Photo by Jennifer Flueckigertendencies and steer clear of Le Notre, Laduree or Fauchon, you can get an éclair du chocolate or some other fancy cake at a neighbourhood patisserie for less than 4€.  For the gluten-challenged, a large macaron for 2€90 or a slice of polenta lemon cake from the Rose Bakery at 3€30 will do nicely, thank you.
  6. Get an eyeful of the Eiffel – Why pay to go up the Eiffel tower (13€40) when the tower itself is what you really want to see. The best views of the tower and Paris are free!  Once you get off of the No. 69 bus at the Champs de Mars, you are right there at the iron lady’s feet.  The roof top viewing area at the Galleries Lafayette gives you a wonderful free view.  Plus on your way up you can enjoy the stained-glass rotunda that covers the centre of the store and on level 3 (I think) there is a free rest area and water cooler.  The top of the Pompidou Centre is also an amazing place to take in the view. I like to go to the red lift, to the left of the main door, which is reserved for patrons of the fancy restaurant, George, at the top.  I have actually patronised this restaurant once in more affluent times and, who knows, may someday again, so I feel happy to consider myself a patron and use the lift.  The lift deposits you right at the top. That door opens and wow, Paris is in front of you. I like to walk along the top and then go back down to earth on the escalators. 
  7. Take in a show – As you descend on the Pompidou Centre escalators, shift your attention from the view of the rooftops to the entertainment in the square below. The public space in front of the Centre is always full of people and often street entertainers. We have seen acrobats, jugglers, clowns, and an amazing street dance troupe.  Remember they are artists trying to make a living, so if you enjoy the show leave a little something (2€ -4€).
  8. Decorate your house – Paris flea markets are legendary but some of the big ones can be expensive.  For a little something French and inexpensive for my house back home I would avoid the famous Puces de St Ouen and head to my little neighbourhood Puce d’Aligre.  It’s open every day but Mondays, also sells wonderful produce and, who knows, it might be the place you find a treasure for less than 4€.
  9. Take in some culture – While many of the famous museums in Paris are at least 10€ to enter, there are some really wonderful museums and exhibits that are free. My favourite at the moment is the Musée Carnavalet (see my post on the Musee Carnavalet here).  It features exhibits about the history of the city of Paris and is housed in an amazing Parisian mansion with a beautiful garden. It is almost like getting two museums in one.
  10. Seal your love in the city of love – Believe it or not, you can afford to be wildly romantic, even on this budget.  Buy a padlock at the Bastille Market (3€50).  Take it and your loved one to the Pont de l’Archeveche, the bridge that has the famous and beautiful view of the Seine and the back of Notre Dame.  Declare your love and seal the deal by fixing your padlock, along with those of a thousand other lovers, to the railing of the bridge. Your loved one may prefer a ring from Dior, but they’d have to be cold-hearted not to be charmed by this lovely (and inexpensive) gesture.Love Bridge Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Locked in Love Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerIf you know of any other under 4€ treats please let me know.  I’ll see you there – when I’m not busy writing my book, of course.

The Tour de France – the ultimate endurance race

29 Jul

Tour by Tuileries Phto by Jennifer FlueckigerA fellow sufferer suggested the title for this post. We endured 3 hours of a terrible one-man-band busker, children crying, sore legs and bottoms, cringe-inducing over-loud pronouncements by fellow Americans, constant moaning by my husband, all with the knowledge that we could be on a cafe terrace somewhere with a glass of wine, for this:

I am quite convinced that cycle road racing is a terrible spectator sport.  And we were the lucky ones.  Most people along the 3430.5 km route of the tour only got to see the 5 second blur once.  We were positioned by the Seine on the tour’s final circuit around the Tuileries Gardens and up and down the Champs Elysees to the finish line.  We got to see the blur 5 times. 

The first pass by made me feel sick to my stomach.  Trying to make out individual riders in the mosh pit of the peloton made my head hurt.  Was that it? Shit! I’m glad that was it. Wait, was that it? What had just happened? The attention of the bewildered crowd moved from the road back to themselves. We all looked at each other searching for clues. 

“Dude, that was so, like, quick man. Shit,” the young American college guy standing in front of us was unlikely to provide answers.

We had 7 minutes to recover for the next lap. I needed it. I tried to prepare myself a bit better for the next flash. Focus. Try to actually see something, anything other than just a smudge. We could feel them coming. We first heard the hum of the TV helicopter over head.  Then the roar of three police motorcycles passing in formation. Then 6 yellow cars with yellow bikes gripping their tops – vroom vroom, vroom vroom. The ripple of cheers was getting closer. There they were! First sight above the crowd, helmeted heads bobbing up and down, a smear of brilliantly-coloured lycra, legs pumping, metal frame, razor-thin wheels, gone. 

Vroom Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThis time it was a bit different.  No mosh pit, but a leading group.  Several cars, followed the front-runners, vroom, vroom.  The peloton followed, then gone. Darn it! I’d still not made out a single rider. And, what was going on? Was someone making a move?

I spotted a couple several groups along from us looking intently at their iPhone.  When they arrived 2 hours earlier I’d noticed the high-tech pram/stroller with wire-spoke wheels, the man’s hairless legs, his over-developed calf muscles and his green t-shirt that said ‘work hard – bike home’.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

He screwed up his face. “Yes,”  he said in a British accent. Of course he did. French men over the age of 25 don’t wear t-shirts and tennis shoes/trainers.

“What’s going on?” I asked excitedly.

He looked at me for a minute judging if I could take it. I think he decided I couldn’t. “How about I give you the bullet points?” he asked.

I conceded that that was all I could handle since I’d yet to actually identify an individual cyclist in the blur, I didn’t know any of the cyclists by name and really had no idea how the race worked.

“We’re getting text messages from home,” he started. He then went on, “ Blah blah blah Cavendish, green jersey. Blah blah time trial winner. Blah blah HCI team train. Blah blah blah likely to catch break away blah glory lap for sponsors. Blah blah blah strategy blah blah cyclist’s name and team name, another cyclist’s name blah blah may be a threat  blah blah blah blah blah blah.” He continued in a similar vein for a while. It turned out he didn’t speak English and even the bullet points were too much.

“Thanks so much,” I said enthusiastically when I guessed he was done and went back to my group.

“What did he say?” my husband asked expectantly.

“Well, I’ll keep it simple for you,” I said. “He said they are likely to catch the breakaway group … I think. And something about a British guy and an Australian. Wait, here they come again.”

Whip of helicopter blades overhead, vroom, motorcycles past, vroom vroom, yellow cars with bikes, vroom break away group, vroom, cars. Then quiet.  My husband started to count out the lead. 30 seconds! Vroom. The rest of the peloton. I actually saw a green jersey that time!

The next round he set his watch to time the lead.  It was bigger!

Knowledgable Bike Man, affectionately named by my patient friend who also named this post, came running over. “They think the break-away group is too far ahead. They might not catch them.  They may have blown it!”

Tour fans at the Tuileries Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI didn’t have any idea who he was talking about but it did all sound a bit exciting. Could they, whoever they were, do it? Could they catch up? We had around 6-7 minutes to wait for further clues and the anticipation of the crowd was building.

The tell-tale sounds started again. The helicopter, motorcycles, cars, cheers, this time really big cheers … yes! They’d caught up!  One big mass whizzed by. The peloton had pulled the glory riders back in.

Knowledgeable Bike Man ran over to us again, “Did you see it?  It looks like it’s on. The team is all lined up and Cavendish is tucked in.”

I, of course, hadn’t seen what he was talking about. I was still looking for the famous yellow jersey, to no avail.  It all sounded good though and the crowd was very excited.

That was the last pass before the inevitable sprint finish on the other side of  the park. Everyone clutched their phones anxious for the result, then cheers all around. Knowledgeable Bike Man’s wife grabbed their baby out of the pram/stroller, “We won sweetie! We won!” and kissed him on his fluffy blond head.

Cavendish, the British guy had won.  But he hadn’t won, the Australian guy had won. Wait, what? Knowledgeable Bike Man looked at me with pitying eyes and explained, “Cadel Evans from Australia won the tour, Cavendish won the stage.”

“Oh,” I said like it all made sense. And it kind of did, I guess. 

Was is all worth it? What do you think?  Just remember to bring your smart phone, good friends to laugh with and a picnic with a bottle of  fiz.

Patient friends at the tour Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

US fan in a foreign land – Women’s World Cup Final

22 Jul Watching Super Abby Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Watching Super Abby Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

On Sunday night I watched the US women’s soccer team lose to Japan in a Scottish pub in France. At half time a large group of drunk/high Australians harassed the bar. With the exception of France, I have lived in each of the countries listed above for at least a year.  The bringing together of all of these nations – Scotland, Japan, Australia, USA, France – in one place, in such a random way was a bit surreal. It was at once familiar, foreign, comforting and confusing.

behind the bar at the Auld Alliance pub paris from http://theauldalliance.com/We watched the game at the Auld Alliance pub, the go-to spot for Scottish TV to show the Tartan Army (the collective name for travelling Scottish sports fans) after a big game in Paris.  The Auld Alliance has 8 screens to watch sport, friendly staff behind the bar, beer from the Caley Brewery on tap, and haggis on the menu. Like many Scottish pubs there was more room for standing than sitting, however there were still a few seats at the small number of tables when we arrived.  We chose a table. My back was to the bar but my husband, sitting on a rickety folding chair, could survey what was going on. 

“This is all very strange,” he said. “It’s like we’ve just stepped out of Paris and into Scotland.  This is just like a real Scottish pub.” He continued to look around searching for what exactly made it feel so un-Parisian. “It’s got an edginess to it …”

“Grittiness?” I volunteered.

“Yeah, gritty, that’s the word. It feels a bit unpredictable, like you just don’t know what might happen.”

I took another look around. It did have a ‘spit and sawdust’ feel that we hadn’t seen since we’d been in France.  You wouldn’t be surprised if the large floor space in front of the bar had been sticky with beer.  A polyester ‘Bonnie Scotland’ flag that still bore fold creases was hung unceremoniously with thumb tacks/push pins over the door.  The slightly rancid, heavy cooking oil smell of the 10 euro burger+chips+beer deal was thick in the air. 

bonnie scotland at the Auld Alliance pub paris from http://theauldalliance.com/However, it was a Sunday night, we were in to see a women’s soccer/football match and it wasn’t that crowded. I thought it was unlikely that there would be any trouble, but my husband seemed less comfortable. Two British guys propping up the bar with their bellies shouted, “When’s the real footy starting?” suggesting they’d rather see a men’s game. Maybe my husband was right.

The match started and I felt a bit sick to my stomach.  I don’t get to be an American fan very often and soccer/football is my game. In the first minute, the US forced the Japanese keeper to make a save.  Then wave after wave of good attacking play by the US resulted in a ball in the outside of the net, a bad miss, a shot off target, 3 more shots off target, an excellent save by the Japanese keeper, a shot that bounced off the goalpost, a corner, a shot that went off the crossbar, another off target shot, and another… but no goals.

Halftime and I was exhausted. We needed to score. One quick counter attack from Japan and all of that good US attacking play would be for nothing.

My husband went to the bar and I noticed the place was really filling up. It was then that the Aussie’s arrived. The fact that they were Australian was really incidental, as the cocktail of youth, alcohol/drugs and being abroad in a large group can reduce normally well-behaved people of any nationality to bad behaviour. In fact I am sure I have behaved badly in similar situations.  While they looked like they were probably nice little rich boys on a college trip when sober, the large size of the young men, their saucer-shaped pupils and their erratic movements made them feel a bit scary.

Being an American fan abroad always makes you a bit more likely to be a target.  While fairly indiscriminate about whom they harassed, several of the young men decided to pick on me.  My husband at the bar heard, “You’re from Ohio” in a loud, mocking American accent, and then turned to see two of these guy’s faces literally in my face. He quickly came over to my defence. It was first time in our 20-year relationship he had felt the need to do so – the gesture was unnecessary, but, I suppose, sweet.

Others in the group had taken over a table occupied in the first half by a US fan.  I told them that the table was taken and they pretended to only understand French.  The US fan came back, started yelling at them in French and the group looked at me and whined, “Do you understand what that lady is saying?”

My husband tried to talk these guys into leaving us all alone. The Scottish barman intervened, “I don’t want these drunken children in my bar.” He then asked my husband, “Are you their teacher?”

Shocked by the misunderstanding and wounded that someone could think he was old enough to be this group’s teacher my husband scowled, “No mate, I was trying to help get rid of them. I’m just sitting here watching the game with my wife.”

After being told they were not going to be served and after a few flares of drunken, pathetic bravado the large Aussie crowd started to leave.  As they left, it looked like a group member was stealing a women’s handbag. I grabbed it so he could not get away. It turned out to be a false alarm and I got a lot of abuse from the ‘non-thief’. The whole incident left us a bit riled up and feeling a bit old. I reflected that there was a time when I would have handled the whole thing with much more ‘charm’, and less like a narcy teacher. My husband decided he needed to go out and get new trendier glasses to make him look younger.

Thankfully the second half started and stopped us crying in our pints. It meant more of the same from the US: a shot that went off the post, 2 more off target, a corner, a good save by the Japanese keeper.  Frustration! The US kept knocking at the door with no luck.  Then finally it happened.  After a long ball from the back, substitute Alex Morgan shot from the top of the box, GOOOOOAAAALLLLL  USA!!!!

At last! The sense of relief rolled through me and made me feel a little faint. However, breaking the haze of my euphoria was the sound of the big bellied boys at the end of the bar cynically chanting, “USA! USA!” just so they could make fun of any fans who joined in. Whatever – we’d scored! We were ahead in the World Cup final! (USA 1 – Japan 0)

Before the game, I watched a series of Nike produced videos detailing the US team’s preparation for the World Cup entitled ‘Pressure Makes Us’. Several in the series featured the range of physical tests that the team goes through – agility, tread mill, yo-yo, squat, sprint.  None of them mentioned any mental training that might help a player and a team become a champion.  Yes, soccer/football is physical sport but you must have the mental strength to make good decisions and the concentration and determination to make goals and defend well.  Probably the hardest thing for people who have never played to understand is that you also need mental toughness to be able to hold on to a lead and win.

I wish the US team had done a bit more mental strength training. After they scored, you felt their relief but they lost focus.  It was all Japan. With only 10 minutes left to go, sloppy defending let Japan get a sloppy equaliser.  (USA 1 – Japan 1)

There was a huge cheer. A Canadian man excitedly shouted, “Game on!” At the start of the game, most of the Auld Alliance crowd was neutral or disinterested.  Now however, the large crowd was gripped by the drama and quality of play. Most had chosen to cheer for Japan.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

At the same time a very loud, high-pitched squeal cut through, and almost silenced, the other cheers.  Earlier in the game I’d enjoyed hearing the familiar sound of excited Japanese coming from the woman at the next table. Not so much at that moment.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” she continued.

I’d seen Japanese soccer fans when I lived there so I was not nearly as surprised as the rest of the bar by the sound that seemed much too big to come from such a small person.

 “We’ve got a squealer at table 18,” said the startled Scottish barman with a wink and a smile to the rest of the bemused spectators.

It quickly became clear that the game was headed for a draw and two 15-minute periods of overtime.  Overtime play started and the US looked focused and dangerous, but they needed a goal. A US corner, a shot, another shot and save, another shot, then Japan on the counter attack.  “EH!EH!” a few more squeals from the next table. Then, the US, the ball down the left, a beautiful cross into the middle – Yes! Yes! Yes! –  the amazing Abby Wambach powered the ball into the back of the net with her head! Yes!

“We’ve got another squealer at 17b, “ said the barman.  This time he was talking about me.  Damn strait I’m squealing! We were back in front! (USA 2 – Japan 1)

But could we hold on this time?

The second fifteen minutes of overtime was predictably all Japan. The US looked a bit more in control at the back than before. Maybe it was going to be the dream win.  Japan shot off target and then a battle in the midfield for possession of the ball.  US substitute.  Japan shoots and is denied by US goal keeper Hope Solo. 3 minutes to go.  Japan corner kick. The kicker takes a few steps back then looks to her teammates in front of the goal. She takes two steps forward, thud, the beautiful cross is in the air and then the ball is off Homare Sawa’s head like a bullet into the back of the net. (USA 2 – Japan 2)

‘EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’  No one in the Auld Alliance, indeed no one watching the game, could believe what was happening.  Japan, the team that had never once won a single game against a European or American team in its history before this tournament, was back in the game at the World Cup final against multiple world champions, the USA.

The US couldn’t believe they lost their lead … again.  They needed to score or it was a penalty shot out. They got the ball, shot. A Japanese player was given a red card and sent off for dangerous play. The US shoots again and again. The whistle blows and it is time for penalties. 

I leaned over and said, “Ganbatte ne!” or “Go for it/ Good luck!” to the Japanese woman at the next table just before the penalty kicks … and, I almost meant it. I understood why most of the pub was cheering for Japan.  Discounting the bellies propping up the bar and probably others who weren’t cheering for Japan, but against the US, this was an amazing underdog/come-from-nowhere kind of story that any sports fan would love.  In addition, everyone wishes nothing but good things to happen for Japan after the horrors of the last year.  However, as far as I was concerned, Japan coming in second place would have still been a great sporting story.

It was time for penalties. I didn’t fancy the US’s chances of holding it together for the penalties after seeing them fail to protect their lead twice.  But, I still had hope!

The hope didn’t last long. They fell apart even more than before. First US shot, saved by the goal keeper. Japan scores. Second US shot misses the net! Japan scores. Third US penalty, saved by the goal keeper, again! Japan scores. US player Abby Wambach put the ball in the net to keep the smallest hope alive. Japan scores. Game over. USA 2(1) – Japan 2(3)  Japan – World Champions.  Wow, what a game.

The loneliness of defeat was punctuated by being in a Scottish bar in Paris surrounded by people who enjoyed the game but largely didn’t really care. Even my husband, can’t just take up the American cause with the same passion. I had to phone an ex-teammate in the US for proper commiseration and a wee cry.

I have passionately supported Scotland, Japan, Australia and France in various sporting occasions, and even against US athletes, in some instances.  This is because I love sport generally and love hearing about athletes and team stories. I find these stories much more interesting than nationality.  This game told a great story that will be remembered for a long time for the historic nature of the win but also as a great advertisement for football.  However, no matter how good the story, when it comes to women’s football, for me it will always be USA! USA!  The team are amazing and should be very proud of what they achieved.  Thanks for the wonderful ride ladies!

To see highlights of the match and to get more information about the Women’s World Cup Finals, click here

[Photo credit: Photos of Auld Alliance Pub from http://theauldalliance.com/]