Monthly Archives: February 2012

Paris Part 1 – The Fuzzy Stuff

“Coming [to Paris] has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “I do not know what I thought Paris would be like, but it was not that way. It rained nearly every day.” This is a fairly accurate description of my own experience with the city.  For one part, it really did “rain” (Jason and I haven’t agreed yet on what the definition of “rain” is.  In this case I mean mostly just gray and drizzly.) for most of the time we were there, but more importantly, I didn’t realize until I got to Paris that I didn’t really know what to expect of the city before arriving.  I certainly had some preconceptions about it.  Who wouldn’t?  But these were ultimately just fragmented ideas of specific aspects and didn’t really combine to create a generic “whole picture”.

Looking back on it, my impressions and experiences in Paris were bifurcated.  On the one hand was awe and respect.  It is an absolutely stunning city.  Somewhat unbelievable, it looks exactly like every painting you’ve ever seen of it.  In the city heart, where we spent the vast majority of our time, everything looks as though it could have been built in the height of the 17th or 18th centuries.  The buildings, statues, monuments, parks, and thoroughfares seem all very carefully organized to preserve the impression that Paris is what Paris has always been – historical and beautiful.  Ironically, this sort of visual synergy is something I more expected of London than Paris. (Edinburgh would be, I think, the UK equivalent of Paris.)

When I first came to London last year, I was immediately surprised by how inconsistent-looking it was.    From one building to the next it was as if London stuck things wherever there was space (even if the size of the “space” was questionable) and paid no attention at all to maintaining or preserving any sort of homogeny with regard to the already present structures.  It is therefore entirely possible, and likely, you will see Victorian-style buildings, Tudor-style buildings, Edwardian-style buildings, and modern office buildings, apartments, hotels, and shopping strips all jumbled up together on the same block.  For whatever reason, I never really expected this of London; though, in retrospect, it should have been an obvious thought.

Two major things contributed significantly to the current inconsistency in London’s architectural “look and feel” I think.  One, the aggressive damage sustained during bombing raids in WWII left whole sections of the city levelled.  Whatever centuries-old buildings had once stood in those places, they certainly didn’t escape considerable damage if not total destruction.  Two, in light of all the damage, rebuilding efforts likely became a matter of efficiency by necessity rather than a measured attempt to recreate what had been lost.  Compounding this, as the city continued to develop it seems Londoners, if not the Brits as a whole, tended to appreciate the “modern” and thus avidly followed the newest trends rather than putting a great deal of effort into trying to preserve (or restore) the historical perspectives of the city.  For these reasons it is not out of the ordinary to have an ornate, centuries-old building right next to a more modern, austere structure.  (I use the term modern lightly, since “modern” in London terms could very well mean built sometime in the last century while “modern” in American terms usually means something was built in the last decade or so.)

Paris is, by contrast, exactly the opposite of London in this fashion.  Where in London you find historical gems tucked away in little nooks or even proudly dominating a street corner in the shadows of surrounding glass-faced office buildings, everything in Paris looks like it could have been built forever ago.  This is especially interesting to me because I feel certain that parts of Paris must have been damaged during the war as well, but perhaps they simply put more emphasis on restoration than expediency.

Another contrast to the two cities here is that London seems to bear a charming level of “wear and tear” – the buildings are somewhat dirty or cracked or seem “patched together”, the sidewalks are often uneven or pitted, etc.  Paris on the other hand looks like it could have been built yesterday…if yesterday was 1785 that is.  It has a very strange sort of newness to it.  The stone is still quite clean and well kept as though the French have taken care to ensure that even the oldest areas of the city be strictly maintained.  It is as though they are determined to keep Paris as picturesque as the thousands of paintings crafted of it.  I told Jason more than once, it must be absolutely breathtaking in the spring or summer for all the trees and gardens and parks lining the streets.

All that being said, Paris is still at its core a city, and there were certainly parts of it that were not as pleasant to look at (or visit).  The subway for example often made me nervous.  It seemed both old and remarkably dodgy compared to London’s tube.  I was also surprised by how much graffiti there was throughout the city.  In the heart area this wasn’t the case, but in the subway stations or down alleys or in the outer areas away from the major monuments and buildings wall after wall was covered in graffiti of the variety you might find under overpasses or on old train cars in the States.

“Street art” is a trend in London that’s rather fascinating.  It’s a type of graffiti, but it doesn’t carry the tone of aggressive irreverence that typical graffiti does.  Instead it really is “art”.  By night people come out and create these massive masterpieces that remain on a designated wall for a period before it is wiped and painted over by someone else.  Jason says even businesses now are hiring artists to paint temporary advertisements for them.  I’ll see if I can get some good pictures of these when we’re out and about around London.  I didn’t see anything like this in Paris.

Another thing I found surprising and a bit unsettling about Paris was just how many homeless people and beggars there were.  They were literally everywhere we went (probably because they stick to tourist areas for the sake of profitability).  Often, though, these people were horribly deformed or disfigured.  We arrived in Paris late at night just as the airport was shutting down, and it seems a lot of them come into the airport, perhaps for warmth, for the night.  My first sight in Paris, in fact, was a homeless man peeing on the airport wall/window as we walked by before going back to the pallet he’d made for himself a short distance away.

My experience with Paris was unique in another regard.  It is the first time I have legitimately travelled to a place that I did not have at least a functional grasp of the language.  This brought me to two very significant conclusions.  One: travelling without linguistic support (even in a country which by all rights has enough tourism to make it relatively easy to find someone who speaks English) is awful.  I plan to make every attempt to at least have a survival-level toolkit of phrases in my arsenal before travelling abroad again.  For one thing, I think the local citizens appreciate the effort (though in the case of the French that might not be true), but for another, I like to know when someone is deliberately being a jerk to me.  There is definitely a very helpless feeling that accompanies not being able to order food in a restaurant with some degree of dignity and confidence. (We often resorted to pointing at items that looked “safe” on the menus and vaguely mumbling to the servers.)

Two: Americans are in general spoiled when it comes to language.  We have the convenience of speaking a language that is (for now) the international standard.  English for most of us exists in some fashion just about everywhere…particularly in touristy areas.  It’s a security blanket we don’t realize we rely on or expect to be there until it isn’t – like when a menu has no English at all on it or all the road signs or plaques at tourist sites have no traces of English to explain what the thing you are looking at is or what its supposed significance might be.

I admit that I fully expected English to be readily available in Paris.  I would like to think that this wasn’t out of personal arrogance, but perhaps it is to a degree.  Paris is heavily visited by tourists from all over the world, but it is undeniable that there are copious numbers of Americans, English, and Scottish travelling there all of the time.  Even in Japan English was everywhere in major cities, so I sort of expected the same in France.  Certainly not in the outskirts, but in the heart of Paris it just seemed a natural assumption that it would be there.  I forgot, of course, the rather terse relationship France has with the UK (Americans have their own special feelings about the French I think in general, but it’s nothing like the relationship the Brits and French have.  The closest thing I can come to describing it is the US/Canada relationship…but even then we’re much friendlier with one another, sort of like siblings picking on each other.  There is definitely less of the open disdain and veiled hostility as exists between the French and English).  I think the stark absence of English in certain places might have at least something to do with this French/British dynamic.

All in all, despite the lack of English Jason and I managed to get by.  A few restaurants had small bits of English on their menus, and mostly we were lucky enough to find servers who knew English well enough that they could help us.  That combined with what little French I remembered from high school (mostly vocabulary words that I could recognize written but not when spoken to me) helped us fumble through our encounters with the language barrier with some relative degree of success.

It actually wasn’t until our last day in Paris that we had an issue when we went into a cafe for breakfast and our server, despite my clearly and emphatically ordering using French words and pointing specifically to what I wanted, refused to bring me “cafe au lait” and instead said “Ok. Chocolat (Hot Chocolate).”  Followed by completely ignoring Jason and refusing to let him order breakfast altogether.

I suppose most stereotypes are rooted to some degree in reality.  I have to say, I was neither surprised nor impressed with the French people in general, but I allow that my general assessment isn’t entirely fair given that Jason and I neither spoke French nor conversed at length with many French people.  The people who tended the reception desk at our hotel were by far the nicest people we spoke to throughout the entire weekend.  Otherwise, we talked only as much as necessary to “the locals” and went about our business without paying much attention to them at all.  James Baldwin said, “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French,” and I think my own short and limited experience trended toward this sentiment.  As far as first impressions go, they didn’t seem a terribly friendly people as a whole, but beyond the jerk at the cafe, they weren’t nasty toward us much either.

Also, as an aside, the French are definitely not nearly as composed or reserved as the British.  People in London (as far as I’ve seen) tend to keep to themselves and are largely pretty poised in their public behaviour.  Contrastingly, it wasn’t unusual for us to see groups of people in France shouting, laughing, or just generally carrying on loudly in public places.  They also seemed to use street and park benches as perfect places to pass the time drinking from bottles of wine and eating baguette sandwiches.  Given warmer (and drier) weather, it’s definitely something I could enjoy too I think.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • Crepe (“Creepy”) stands exist all over Paris in about as prolific a quantity as cafes.
  • Mulled Wine is delicious.
  • The French seem to love dogs.  We saw so many people walking their dogs around the city.
  • A basket or bowl of baguettes comes with just about every meal.  Carb-lovers’ Heaven.
  • Frog legs were not bad but not really that impressive either.  I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Escargots are next!
  • Paris is expensive. It seemed even more so than London in some ways.
  • Cadeaux: see “souvenirs”! J
  • The funny way Kevin Kline pronounces “Oui” in the movie French Kiss actually is correct. I heard lots of French people pronounce it this way.  It sounds like it could be the difference between saying “Yes” and saying “Yeah” in English.  That’s just a guess though.

Check back for pictures and the good stuff in Paris Part Deux!!

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Categories: Paris | 2 Comments

Long awaited,and still not done…

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Note: I’ve put placeholders in for now for pictures. I’ve been holding off on posting this until I could get the pictures from Jason, but we’ve been so swamped in the evenings after work we haven’t had time to sit down and load them onto the computer.  So those are coming…in the meantime, this is at least to catch you up!

Well I’m well past due on getting an update put together – big surprise.  With how eventful the last two weeks have been, though, at least I have plenty of material to work with.  Jason and I pretty much hit the ground running after I got in at Heathrow.  Between social events, work, and moving to a new flat, we haven’t yet had a whole lot of time to do much exploring…not that we’d necessarily have wanted to. Until about two days ago it has been, in Jason’s words, “bitch ass cold” or, if you like, in mine, “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra” (Nana would be so proud).

Fuck Winter

To Jason’s credit, he didn’t bat an eyelash at my excessive complaining about it, and, as there’s a silver lining to everything, now that it’s warmed up to 30 degrees, it feels quite balmy.

Besides the extreme cold, which every Londoner has told me is highly unorthodox for the area, the weather itself has been really rather lovely.  It’s snowed twice.  The first time was only a few days after I arrived.  It stuck for one night, largely melting away by the end of the next day, but that was enough for Jason and me to go out and enjoy it a bit.

The second snow happened in the middle of last week.  It was pleasant because it didn’t stick…which meant it was, by comparison to the first week and a half, actually too warm for it to!

Aside from the snow and cold, I’m pretty sure people exaggerated how gloomy London is supposed to be.  We’ve had a fairly reasonable balance of sunny, partly sunny, and drizzly days.  It’s actually not been that unusual or depressing.

The Job

Jason, being the slave driver that he is, had me at the office my first full day in London (Thursday, February 2).  I honestly didn’t really mind too much; everyone’s very nice, and I’m excited for the work.  Though, I definitely struggled a few of the first days to stay awake during the quiet periods when I was left to my own devices.  I am currently, officially, assigned to the “partners team” meaning that I help manage the accounts of other companies who buy our products white label and then advertise them through various channels as their own products with their own branding.

Coming from a marketing department of 1 to one of 50+ is really fascinating.  There are teams of 5 to 10 people, and each team is dedicated to a specific range of tasks (partners, ventures, retention, VIP, design, social media, etc.).  Because of how big the department is and how localized duties are, I feel pretty fortunate that I’m able to work outside the confines of one single team.  My primary job right now is with the partners, but I’ll also soon (hopefully) be starting in on working with marketing design, Flash development, and somewhat with retention as well.  As my skills with various programs and company assets progress, it’s my goal to eventually end up down with the game design/animation department too.  I guess we’ll see!

Friday Night Social

There are some very neat things about work that I’m likely to end up getting spoiled on.  Firstly, they provide a rather impressive array of beverages to all employees for free including: juice, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, pop, milk, etc.  Secondly, every morning right around 9 o’clock each kitchen area (there are 4 that I know of for sure) is supplied with a bowl of fresh bananas, apples, oranges, and pears.  Since the vast majority of people don’t come in until 9:30 or 10:00am, I end up having breakfast every morning.  Bananas are the most popular of the fruit, though, and I’ve had to learn to play rugby in order to ensure I get one.  Jason cheats…he picks up the bowl on his way to his desk, ostensibly to be nice to the admin girl who delivers them to the various kitchens, but I think it’s just his clever way of getting first pick of the bananas. 😉

The other notable neat thing that the company does is hold a sort of post-work social on Friday evenings.  Supplying the top floor “game” room (which consists of couches, tables, a kitchen, a pool table, and some video game consoles) with alcohol and snacks, every Friday at 5:30 employees are welcomed to go upstairs for an after work drink and socializing.  The drink and snacks last all of about 10 minutes I think, but it’s a very cool tradition that probably promotes camaraderie in the company and lets people unwind at the end of the day.  I’m convinced the early morning rugby matches over the fruit are intended to train you up for the Friday evening alcohol rush.

The Flat

Jason and I have happily vacated “the circus tent” in Finsbury Park and settled down in a cozy little flat in North Clapham which is part of a charming and bustling area in south London called Clapham Commons.  Clapham (or “Slap Your Momma” as Mommy likes to call it) is home to a large number of restaurants, bars, cafes and leisure facilities. As a result it is now regarded as a fashionable and desirable place to live for new university graduates, foreigners, and the general British “middle classes” and is within easy commuting distance of the city center.   The area apparently dates back to Anglo-Saxon times though, and interestingly the main road through, Clapham High Street, is an ancient “diversion” of the Roman military road Sloan Street.  There’s a Roman stone from that original road in the Clapham Library that says it was erected by Vitus Ticinius Ascanius and is estimated to date from the first century AD.

Clapham High Street

Our flat itself is situated on a residential road a little ways off of Clapham High Street.  When it was “bitch ass cold” out, it seemed like a very long walk, but in actuality is quite short and also very pretty with row after row of old houses of various color and character.  There are a smattering of trees along the way as well that I think will make it really picturesque in the spring or summer.

Killyon Road

Our flat also benefits from being less than a 2 minute walk from Wandsworth Road Station (which we can see from our bedroom window).  This is an over ground train that makes our commute into the city for work every morning very convenient.  We’re also fairly close to the North Clapham stop on the Northern tube line (which we avoid in the mornings because it is slam packed, Tokyo style), and about 15 minutes walk from Vauxhall (?) Station on the Victoria tube line (I think this will also be a very pretty walk in the spring/summer).

The flat itself is on the second floor of what was probably once an old house but has been converted into a three story apartment building.  There are a couple of girls in the flat on the 3rd floor and a few in the 1st floor as well, but they are mostly very quiet.  Jason and I haven’t met them yet.  We share our own flat with another couple.  Iza (Izabela), who is from Poland, will be 25 in June.  Her boyfriend, Emmie (which is short for a name I couldn’t begin to pronounce or spell), is a 31-year-old technical security professional from Malaysia.  We haven’t yet spent a great deal of time with them, but I sat down and had a beer and chat with Iza on Monday (February 13) night while Jason was at basketball.  Besides seeming to be overall friendly people, they have the added perks of being fairly quiet and pretty tidy, which makes them fabulous in my book!

Jason and I have, by London standards, a very spacious room in the flat.  It lacked in the way of storage for our personal needs having only a wardrobe, chest of drawers, and bedside table with two small drawers when we moved in, but with all of the stuff between the two of us we definitely needed some extra closet space so Jason and I ordered an additional wardrobe and a desk and chair, which Jason put together Saturday night after they’d been delivered.  (As an aside, I also learned Sunday night that he can magically unclog a toilet without a plunger.  I’m not sure how, but I’m pretty sure he gets extra man points on his man card for those skills!)

     

Welcome to “Slap Your Momma”: Cafe Sol Dos

Our first night in Clapham, Jason and I decided to celebrate with dinner out.  At 10:00 on a Tuesday night, we had some trouble finding a place that was still serving food.  We settled for a promising looking (though largely empty) Mexican place on Clapham High Street that had two giant braziers burning welcomingly on either side of its door.  By happy circumstance, Cafe Sol Dos was still serving dinner, so we ordered some Mexican mojitos and ate way too much food.  I had a respectable attempt at a chimichanga (Mom’s are still by far the best ever), and Jason ate chicken and beef mixed grill fajitas which were pretty delicious also.  Overall, we liked the place.  It has a neat atmosphere and the interior decorations are very cool with colorful Aztec/Mayan inspired tile murals on the walls.  Their menu is pretty robust as well.  Our general impressions of the restaurant were validated when we passed by on Saturday night and the place was wall to wall packed with diners.

Borough Market, Sundays in London, and H&M

Little Dorrit Park

Since we had largely been trapped inside our flat on Saturday waiting for Argos to deliver our furniture, we didn’t get to do much in the way of area exploring, so Sunday, after finishing up tidying and unpacking in our room, we headed out to take a peek at a place called Borough Market.  Borough Market is, evidently, one of the largest wholesale and retail food markets in London, selling foods from literally all over the world.  In the 13th century traders selling food wares were relocated from London Bridge to Borough High Street.  The market has existed there ever since.  It sounded very vibrant and interesting, but Jason and I will have to wait to tell you more about it because once we arrived at the correct tube stop we were informed that unfortunately, like many places in London, it was closed on Sundays.  Not to be deterred, we amused ourselves for a bit by hijacking a children’s park before trekking back to the station to head on to the St. Paul’s area.

Where we hopped off the tube at Bank, there is a convergence of several roads and across the intersection was this big building…

Is this the Bank from Mary Poppins??  I thought it looked familiar, and I remember from the “Feed the Birds” song that the old woman goes to the steps of St. Paul’s.  Anyway, a couple of streets up from here is a new shopping mall.  It’s pretty small with only about 10-15 stores and probably 5 or so restaurants, but here I got to have my very first H&M shopping experience!

I have known about H&M for some time, but frustratingly they don’t allow online orders/shipping in the USA yet, and the closest H&M store to Charlotte is in DC (I think)…there might be one in Atlanta too.  Anyway, H&M is notable for having quite fashionable clothes at very reasonable prices.  I got a number of very cute dresses from there (all receiving Jason’s stamp of approval).  The most expensive one was £24.99 which is about $40.  Just to be fair we also stopped in All Saints and got Jason a really nice hoodie.

Summary

All in all the first two weeks have been really great.  Though punctuated occasionally with some misery over the cold (which, fingers crossed, has passed) and random spurts of homesickness, we’ve managed to keep very busy.  Now that we’re settling into a comfortable rhythm, we’ll be able to have a lot more fun exploring, traveling, and socializing more.  What better way than to kick off with a trip to Paris!?  For Valentine’s Day, Jason surprised me with a weekend trip to Paris.  We’ll leave tonight after work and come back on Sunday.  I had a cute little preview of what we’re planning to do and see in Paris, but it’s going to end up being a “post view” because this video, like the pictures, is on Jason’s phone.  In the meantime just…

Imagine A Cute Video Now

P.S. Please pardon any strange or exceedingly British looking spelling in my posts.  Microsoft Word keeps tossing in extra ‘u’s and swapping out ‘z’s for ‘s’s.  I try to catch most of them, but it’s possible a few will slip through.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • Dates are always written (and said) in the Day/Month/Year format.  So February 13th, is written and said 13 February.  The same is done for telling time where 12:30 is said, “Half Twelve”. 
  • Kellogg Crunchy Nut Bites: Caramel and Nuts is quite possibly the best cereal ever invented.  I’m tempted to join their Facebook page just to convince them to sell these in the States.
  • Potato Chips are called Crisps, and French Fries are called Chips.
  • 7-Up is referred to as Lemonade here.  If you want U.S. style lemonade you have to order “Cloudy Lemonade”.  Ordering Sprite is right out (at least at Thai Orchid).
  • All pigeons are, in fact, French.  How do I know? If you charge them, they always flee!

~Ronni

Check out the Reviews page to read a bit about our opinions on some of the places we’ve been.  At this point it mostly consists of restaurants.

You can also keep up with the places we’ve been here: London Exploits

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