Monday, 17 December 2007

So Coooold

It was -4 degrees all day at work today, and then in the afternoon it started to snow. There are still 4 days left of autumn too.

Sunday, 16 December 2007


I did my last little bit of Christmas shopping yesterday (Saturday), I had been out to the shops on Friday afternoon (there was no electricity at work) and I thought the shops were fairly packed, not really pleasant but I could still get what I wanted. I thought I'll go out a bit later on Saturday, maybe 5:30-6ish and hopefully the crowds would have died down a bit. Well maybe the crowds were smaller than what they had been earlier, but let me tell you it was only then that I fully appreciated what is meant when people talk of "rivers of people". You had to make sure you were walking in the right stream, going in your direction, and be really careful that you didn't get separated and forced into the stream going the other way, once that happens it's really hard to move or cross back over. You have people shoving you from all directions and the police were having to control the intersections, otherwise the cars would never have been able to move.

The first shop I went into was by far the busiest of all of them, perhaps that was a good thing as it made every other shop seem empty by comparison. This first shop had two main streams moving into and out of it so you had to pick your position. Every aisle was packed with people and the racks looked like a ravenous horde of hyenas had been in a few minutes earlier. I'm actually looking forward to the shops in Sydney now, bring on the Christmas Eve shopping, I reckon after that experience I'm going to be like "where are all the people, what is this Sunday shopping?". I'm actually a bit worried that I'm going to be really rude and aggressive to people when I come back, shoving through people in shops, pushing my way onto trains, probably standing way too close to people, you know, just the usual survival skills you have to learn in Paris.


Well one of my last postings certainly caused a flurry of commenting and I should really clarify that post. I don't actually think France is a 2nd world country I'm just totally addicted to the internet and any withdrawal results in uncontrollable rage. I do stand by my opinion that the people running the Franco-Britannique college are a bunch of incompetent slack-arses though. Anyway enough about France and the French, it's time for ze Germans!

I went to Berlin this weekend to visit a friend and check out this city before they leave next week. It was my first real time spent in Germany and I find it so strange that I can fall asleep on a train in France and the next morning I am in a different country, where the food, customs, fashions, people and the language are all completely different. You could drive for 6 hours in Australia and not even come across another town, let alone a completely different language.
It was so awesome to just jump on a train on Friday night and wake up in a different country on the Saturday morning, I'm certainly keen to try this a little more next year. Though the train driver on the way to Germany was a bit of a crazed maniac. I think he was a frustrated train racer as he sat on the brakes almost the whole way there, and really there is nothing more unpleasant than the sound of trains braking. So that made it a little hard to sleep, the trip back was fine though, a much more sensible driver was in control.

I was amazed at how different the Germans were to the French, for a start they dress different. They are a lot less fashionable than the French, though that could be due to the fact that it is a lot colder in Berlin and so people dress more for warmth/survival than to look good. I was also blown away by how well everyone spoke English, we actually had one waitress apologise for speaking German to us, or maybe she was sorry for us, you know because we were English speakers and thus unable to speak other languages. They are a lot more abrupt in Germany though, I don't think I had one shop-keeper smile at me the whole weekend. I wouldn't say that there are serious, rather I think they don't see the point in laughing or smiling unless there is something really worth it, that whole connection with fellow human beings doesn't seem to be that important to them.

They must also have a different Father Christmas in Germany to the one I grew up with. I'm used to Santa Claus being a jolly fat man who smiles, laughs and gives out sweets. The Santa Claus I saw at one German market carried a big stick and was more likely to give kids nightmares. I swear I was just waiting for one kid to start bawling their eyes out the way he was shaking his stick at them. He was really making those kids work for their one sweet.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, like most of the old buildings in Berlin this one was damaged in the Second World War. Unlike most of the other buildings though this one was neither pulled down or restored but left damaged as a reminder to keep the peace. This was about 9am in the morning, notice the sun just rising.

Checkpoint Charlie, this was the single crossing point between East and West Berlin for foreigners and members of the Allied Forces. Here the photo is looking into the American sector of West Berlin. When the Cold War was on the Soviets erected a whole bunch of buildings on their side of the crossings, but the Americans always made do with just this little hut, apparently they never wanted to concede that the division could be permanent.

The Brandenburg gate, it is amazing to see photos of this from the time when the wall was up. Now this gate is surrounded by buildings and there are busy roads on either side of it with heaps of people all over the place. But back when the wall was up, the Brandenburg gate was caught in no-man's land and all around it there was just wasteland. The gate was built in 1791 (subsequently damaged in the Second World War and then rebuilt). The statue on the top was taken by Napoleon in 1806 when he defeated Germany, but then he had to return it 8 years later when he started to lose.

The Brandenburg Gate during the Cold War all those large empty fields are now full of massive buildings.

The Reichstag is Germany's Parliament House again also damaged in the War, though this was also damaged before the War. A fire broke out in 1933 and Hitler used it as an excuse to persecute the Communists and the Jews. The glass dome on the top was added in 1999 and I guess it's Berlin's Louvre pyramid, in that I think people didn't like it when it was first built but now they all love it. The Reichstag was built in 1894 mainly from money from France after France lost the Franco-Prussian war.

It is pretty funny to look at the last few major wars between France and Germany:
There was the Franco-Prussian War (Germany won, France lost)
Followed by the First World War (France won, Germany lost)
Then the Second World War (Germany lost, France abstained)

looks to me like these two countries need to hold a death-match to determine which one is really the best in Europe.

The other thing to notice though is that in each case it was the country which "started" the war which lost, I guess the message there is that you shouldn't go picking fights, maybe America could learn something from that.

I also visited the Jewish memorial, though the guide book I was looking at gave it the much more descriptive title of Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe. It was an odd sort of memorial, just this entire block filled with these gray rectangles, they are all different sizes and the ground is slightly undulating. When you see photos from above though it looks like a field of coffins, which perhaps was what they were going for when they built it.

I also visited the Jewish Museum whist I was there and it is well worth the visit. They have two installation pieces there, this photo is of one of them, it is a big room filled with these smiley faces made from metal and you are encouraged to walk on them. It is a bit disturbing to be walking over a whole stack of smiling faces and also because they are made of metal they obviously make a big racket when you do it as well. It was really good to visit, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more on the holocaust and the Second World War, like what were the circumstances in society that made people behave that way. I mean it was only 50 years ago and some of the war criminals and victims are still alive, they are people just the same as us now, so how could they behave the way they did? But perhaps it is not so different to what is going on in Guantanamo Bay and we all seem to accept that, perhaps it is really out-of-sight out-of-mind?

I would have also like to have seen some mention of the Israel and Palestine situation, but I suppose the museum was more going for the overall history of the Jews rather than just focusing on particular instances. Overall though it was a good museum and they obviously had stuff on the holocaust, but maybe I have to visit a concentration camp to really find out about the society back then. So that is certainly something I would like to do whilst I am over here, a project for next year perhaps.

Whilst I was in Berlin I had to make sure I had some currywurst, this is apparently Germany's main contribution to world cuisine, it's the red sausage stuff not the bread roll. It was not bad, not all that curry-y though.

The Berliner Dome was a bit of a highlight, again another thing which was damaged, poor old Berlin really took a pounding during the war. It was also built in 1894, probably with more of France's money. All the domes were missing their little crowning bits and so the tops of the dome had the picturesque crowning glory of blue plastic bags. This had to have been the least sacred feeling church I've ever been in. Most times when you go into a church to have a poke around you feel a bit out of place, it's normally dark, with people praying around the place or lighting candles. But here the electric lights were blazing, there were tour groups right down the front and pictures were expressly ALLOWED, so for once I could snap away inside a church.

I had to include this picture, it is of the Town Hall, but it is called the Red Rat House, literally that is how they pronounce it, obviously it is spelt a little differently :). That's one thing I found interesting was the differences between German and French. I find French is kind of easy to read (for an English speaker) as a lot of the words are basically the same, they are just pronounced completely differently. Whilst German looks like a real foreign language to read, but when I hear people speaking it sometimes sounds like they are almost speaking English.

This is the Eastern Gallery, it is the longest section of complete Berlin Wall, and it used to be covered in paintings, now they are either worn away or covered in graffiti. This section of the wall seemed a lot higher than the bit around Checkpoint Charlie, it was much more imposing along here. It was whilst walking around this area of Berlin that I really felt like I was in Soviet Russia. There were hardly any people about, and on the other side of the road from here there is just a vast expanse of desolate wasteland and abandoned buildings. It was a bit spooky as if you were expecting the Russian mafia to drive up and kidnap you and that the authorities would never even look for you.

Berlin really did have this odd feel to it, as if there were still two cities in the one area. The centre of the city is all built-up and new with people around the place. But when you go out to areas like this one it still felt like you had stepped back 50 years. It still also felt a bit like a war-torn city too, there were vacant blocks where buildings had obviously been damaged by bombs and pulled down but nothing had been built to replace them. I think because of the war damage it also feels like a young city, I guess most of their old buildings were destroyed and whilst they have tried to recreate some of them, there are a fair few concrete monstrosities around as well, though I think the Soviets have to answer for most of those design flaws, I think they had a real thing for grey concrete.

The second day I was in Germany I spent touring Potsdam, which is an outer suburb of Berlin, where the friend I was visiting has been living for the last 3 years. It was a really pretty little town, and just out of the centre there is Park Sanscoucci where there are a whole stack of castles. This one is the Neues Palace or rather the New Palace, which the emperor built as a guest house, because his own castle wasn't impressive enough. Unfortunately we couldn't take photos inside, as there were some really impressive rooms. The best one was the grotto room, which is basically what you would imagine a mermaid's cave would look like. I've never seen anything like it, it was like something straight out of a disney movie. There were shells and crystals all over the ceiling and walls. The floor was also covered in designs of shells and dolphins and that sort of thing.

The emperor actually lived in this castle until 1919, when I think he retired/abdicated from the position. That blows me away that Germany had an Emperor until so recently, though I guess by the end he was kind of like Australia's Governor-General. I think it is just the connotations that go along with Emperor which get to me. The fact that he was living here until 1919 also means that this was one of the only castles I've seen where a lift has been installed. The emperor also put in electric lights, though he installed electric switches to call his servants first. I suppose why do you need lights when you can just get a servant to make a fire for you.

The park where all these castles were was called Park Sanssouci, which if you add a space means "No worries" in French. That was another thing which surprised me in Germany, just the amount of English and French that was on random street adverts or menus or even shops. In France they are so worried that English will take over that they have made a law that if English is used on any billboard or any advert, like Nike's "Just Do It", they have to have a French translation somewhere on the sign. I don't know if they are not as worried about losing their language in Germany, but English and French did seem to just inter-mingle with the German. It surprised me when I would open a menu and there would be a Hot Chocolate listed in English, but then the description was always in German. I kind of wish they had just done it all in German, as when you see the English you feel a bit of excitement because you think you are going to be able to understand the menu and then every time you are disappointed.

This was one of the many Christmas markets we saw in Berlin, this was a bit of a special market though. It was held in the Dutch quarter of Potsdam and is only held once a year. Apparently people from the Netherlands come across to sell their wares. We saw Dutch people dancing in their clogs and had gluwhein, that stuff is yummy, as well as an assortment of sausages and sugar-coated treats. They sure do love their Christmas over there, there were lights up all over the place and markets on nearly every street corner, I guess when it is so cold and dark as it is in Berlin, you have to do something to cheer yourself up.

Strange Dutch dancing, there weren't any young people though, so I think this custom may be lost pretty soon. They were all wearing their clogs too, I suppose they are useful in winter as they would be waterproof, I imagine, but I'm not sure how warm they are.

This was one of the more elaborate Christmas markets I visited, with a full on toboganing ramp set-up, a lot of them had ice-rinks but this was the only ice-slope I saw. The Germans, they can't get enough of Christmas. I'm not sure how they survive the rest of the winter though, really Christmas occurs right at the start of winter, so you have almost 3 whole months of cold and dark to survive before spring comes round. It seems to me you might have used up all your happiness and now have to slog through those long dark days, with no more Christmas to look forward to.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Poor old Paris

Paris is having a few troubles today, yesterday (Thursday) the heating and hot water were both out in my room and apparently throughout all of Paris. This problem was fixed by this afternoon, but it's now evening and they are both out again and so I don't hold out much hope that they will be fixed during the weekend.

As well as the hot water and heating not working this morning, when I get into work I find that the electricity is out throughout the entire university campus, I'm not sure what was going on there, at least we still have electricity in Paris.

I'm just glad I'm living on the top floor as it's a little warmer in my room than the poor people on the first floor who also have to cope with the builders opening all the windows during the day. To give you some idea how essential heating is at the moment, as I don't think you Aussies really appreciate a good European winter, it is consistently about -3 degrees when I get to work at 9am. There is black ice covering all the footpaths and all the puddles are frozen over, I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone do a hip yet.

Still, less than a week to go and then I get on the plane for 6 weeks of Australian summer, I can't wait!

An update on the strike we were meant to have on Wednesday: in the end there was no real strike. I was a bit disappointed not to be able to get some pictures of crowded platforms and people squished up against train doors.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007


Tomorrow there is going to be another transport strike, it's meant to only be for 24 hours and is supposed to be a lot less severe than the ones we have had in the past, my train line is actually still running for once, at 60% capacity but it's better than nothing. I suppose this is a bit of an early Christmas present from the transport workers, or perhaps a reminder that we are still very much in their power and that they can quite easily return us to the chaos of a month ago if they want. Or perhaps the Christmas present is that they are holding this inevitable strike tomorrow, Wednesday 12th of December, rather than say Monday 24th of December.


My boss has been flying planes for something like 20 years and today he took me and one of the students for a short flight. His club airport is only 15 minutes drive from work, so he came by my desk this morning and said that as it was a clear day we could go flying today. It was really awesome, this was my first flight in a small plane, and I mean small! There was one propeller and only 4 seats, I'm glad I have flown quite a bit before (even though only in commercial jets) because I don't think I could have handled it otherwise. I'm a bit of a scaredy-cat and there was quite a lot of turbulence around that day, so there were a few nervous moments. We only fly something like 300m above the ground too, the higher airspace is reserved for the main commercial airports. But the fact that we are so close to the ground means that you can really see everything.

The flight was only about 20 minutes long, it was an introductory flight to see how our stomachs handle it. I was alright, I have a really weak stomach but so long as I was looking out the window it was ok. The student was in a bad way by the end of the flight though. This was actually his first ever time in an aeroplane, and it sure was memorable, throwing up on the drive back to the office in front of your supervisor has got to be bad. He is meant to be flying back home for Christmas (in the south of France) but maybe he will change that ticket to a train instead. It really wasn't a great day for your first flight though, to give you some idea, when we were coming into land there was a 20 knot cross-wind (about 40km/hr) and so the plane was veering all over the place as we were coming in, I thought at some points we might miss the runway, but my boss actually got us down with one of the smoothest landings I think I have ever experienced.

He has learnt from experience to take first-timers on a short flight, before going on a longer flight further afield. There have been a couple of visitors to our lab in the past which he has taken for a long flight and they have ended up in real bad ways. One guy was from New York and they flew to Chartres (about an hours train ride from Paris, and a real pretty town) but when they got there this visitor just had to lie on the tarmac for an hour or so, and still after that time he couldn't fly back, someone from the lab had to drive out to Chartres to pick him up. So I think my boss wants to avoid any more incidents like that :). It would be pretty cool to go again, maybe next year when the weather is clearer.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

2nd World Country

I'm sorry but this blog entry is going to be a major rant. I have been without internet or a phone in my room for a week now. When I paid rent yesterday I asked the woman on the phone if the internet had been fixed, fully intending to refuse to pay my rent if it hadn't, and she assured me that it had been fixed. I get home that evening to find that she had lied and it was still broken. So the next day, being today, I rang the head office intending to tell them all what a bunch of complete incompetents they are, but the person on the phone told me the technician had been round and the internet was working. I get home this evening and again I find they have lied to me and it is not working. I mean what can you do if the people who are meant to provide you with services are completely useless and are willing to lie to your face? It's unbelievable, I can't imagine any college dorm in Australia where the internet and phones would be down for a week with no word from head office, no information on what the problem is or an expected date when it will be fixed.

That is why I am downgrading France's status to a 2nd world country, the only reason they aren't all the way down to 3rd world is that they have an OK public transport system. Even Spain is richer than France, a country known for its afternoon naps, that tells you something about France's productivity and efficiency.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Sorbonne

Actually this post isn't going to be about the Sorbonne at all, I have no photos of it, because it is just a big building, much like every other building in Paris, taking up an entire block. I was expecting maybe a garden or two, perhaps a few different buildings, but if you didn't know that it was the Sorbonne you would walk right past it, so a bit disappointing there.

This post is really going to be about the Musee de Moyen Age which I visited on the weekend, this is the museum of the middle ages. It was a pretty cool museum, as seen in the photo to the left, I would recommend it simply for the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry set. I've seen a lot of tapestries over here, it must have been the thing to do 400 years ago, and I haven't been impressed by any of them. But these ones were awesome, the subject matter is the best so far, you can't go wrong with unicorns, and the colours are amazing, for something that old.

The unicorn, apparently, has the body of a goat, the head of a horse and the tail of a lion, which I never knew. It was just a cool looking unicorn, with this little smile on its face in each tapestry.

They also had quite a few stained glass windows that you could actually get up close to for once and see the detail in the pictures,
rather than usually when they are way above you in some church. I only realised what the picture in this window was after I downloaded it.

Below I am continuing my series of really ugly baby Jesus pictures/statues. I think this one could be the winner, I guess the fact that the arms and a bit of the head seem to be missing doesn't really help Jesus' case.

We also have Jesus on a donkey, I like the weird starbursts coming out of his head, and also the fact that the donkey is on wheels, like it's some sort of child's plaything.

After the middle ages I visited the Centre de la Mer, mer means sea, but it wasn't that impressive, there were maybe a total of 5 smallish fish tanks in the whole place. I guess it's good if you are a French speaking kid, not so much if you are an english speaking adult who has been snorkelling on the great barrier reef.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

My Favourite Tree

in the park across the road from where I live.

Of course by now it has lost all it's leaves, but it used to look awesome. I really love the fluro yellow of the leaves.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Strike Wrap-Up

The transportation here is finally back to normal, it only took them 9 days, but by the 10th day the trains were almost back to normal, and I can't tell you what a relief that was! My first trip to work during the strike took more than 3 hours, I managed to get that down to just over 2 by the next day, but it still involved a tram, a metro, a train and then a bus to get to work, which is a lot different to rolling out of bed, crossing the road to catch a train and then a 10 minute bus because I don't want to walk up the hill to work.

It was absolute chaos on the metros and trams as well, I couldn't, physically, force myself onto some metros so had to just wait for the next one and hope that it would be slightly less packed. The police were having to cordon off platforms because they were so full that people were in danger of being pushed off onto the tracks. The one bright light during this strike was the number 14 metro, which was the only one running totally normally throughout the whole strike, for the simple reason that it is driven by a robot.

At the moment the workers and the government are in negotiations, but I don't hold out much hope that any solution will be found, so I'm sure that the strike will start up again at some point. I just hope that I'm back in Australia by the time it does. The word on the street is that the workers are going to leave it until Christmas before striking again, as that would cause maximum pain and suffering to us poor saps who use public transport.

In case you are interested, the reason why they were striking is that the government wants to raise the retiring age from 37.5 years of work, to 40 years of work. At the moment the rest of the public servants all have to work 40 years before they can retire on a full pension, but the transport workers can retire 2.5 years early and still receive a full pension. This is a throw-back to the steam age when being a transport worker was a dangerous and arduous job. Before the last presidential election Sarkozy went in saying he wanted to reform the pension system and the people still voted for him. So this last strike is different from the one in 1995, which was over the same issue, lasted for 3 weeks and was eventually won by the workers, in that the majority of the population disagrees with the transport workers.

This transport strike did encourage lots of other people to start striking as well, for different reasons, first was the public servants. Sarkozy calls the public servants lazy and inefficient and wants to not replace retiring public servants, which the current servants don't like. We also had university students on strike because the government want to encourage the universities to look for outside funding and finally, and perhaps just as devastating as the transport workers strike, was that the cafeteria workers at my work. At the moment the cafeteria is run by a non-profit association, but the university wants to sell it off to a private company, meaning my lunches will be a lot more expensive and a lot crappier. I love my cafeteria lunches, for less than 4 euros I get an entree, a hot main meal, a dessert and some fruit. The food quality is always really high and it is just great exposure to true French food everyday, so it would be a tragedy if they ever sell it to a private company. Really, when you think about it, it should be us academics how are striking as we would be the ones forced to eat crappy lunches, but I suppose the cafeteria workers are also worried about their jobs.

So all-in-all it was a pretty bizarre week, but I'm certainly getting to experience all things French, and there isn't much more French than a strike which completely shuts down the country.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Uh Oh

Things don't look good for me getting to work next week, this round of train strikes are reportedly designed to wear the President down. The first strike we had a month ago I thought was pretty bad, but it only really lasted 2 days and while it was a lot more complete than this current one, it was over so soon it never hugely affected me. That strike was only a warning though and this current one has already been going for a full 3 days and is continuing tomorrow as well. At least the government and the unions have agreed to negotiations, but I don't think either side is really willing to budge so I'm not sure what good is going to come of it. Even the wonderful TGVs, the awesome fast train network throughout France, have been affected with only 150 out of 700 running today. Not good at all, looks like on Monday I'm just going to have to bite the bullet and attempt the 2 hour commute involving 4 different types of transportation. At least I'm kind of used to being squashed in like a sardine now, my personal space is certainly a lot smaller than it was in Australia, and so hopefully I will be able to survive the peak hour people-traffic.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

French Stamps

I have finally worked my way through the 40 stamps I bought in one of the first weeks I was in France, I only wanted 20 at the time, but the cashier either didn't understand me or couldn't be bothered tearing the sheet in half, this is France so the second reason is probably more likely to be the true one. Today I went and got some new stamps, but this time I used the machine they have in the post office which can dispense any stamp for letters or parcels, they are pretty cool machines. But I'm not sure I trust the stamps the machine gave me, see exhibit A to the left.

This is apparently all I need to get letters and postcards to Australia. I love the paper aeroplanes on the "stamp", is that how they are proposing to send my letters home? After buying 10 of these, I bought them all at once, I decided I'd rather have some proper stamps so spoke to the cashier this time, and recieved exhibit B below:

Now that's what I call a stamp, without a picture, it's not a stamp in my books. Lets see if the first lot of "stamps" get anything back to Australia.

Train Strikes Round II - The Trains Strike Back

We are into the second day of our second lot of French train strikes and they don't look like they are going to be ending any time soon. At least the metros in the city are kind of running and one of the main train lines is still going as well. I don't think I'm real happy about that though, at least if no trains are running then there is no way that I can get to work. I have already been at home for the last two days and I feel I should at least try to get to work tomorrow. The problem is there is a way for me to get there, since there is a different main line train running than the one I usually catch. To give you an idea of the difference in journeys, normally there is a train about every 10 minutes from a station less than a minutes walk away from where I live. I get on this train, always get a seat for the 30 minute ride and I then catch a bus for about 10 minutes to work. Tomorrows journey will involve me catching a metro into the middle of Paris, catching a main line train, which will get me three quarters of the way to work, and then catching a bus for the rest of the way. The problem is there are about 10 million people living in greater Paris and they all want to get to work, but there are less than 1/3 of the normal number of trains running, and even when they are running at full capacity they are packed to the gills. It really is going to be horrible, and will probably take me nearly 2 hours to get to work, as opposed to the hour it takes me when everything runs smoothly. I also have to hope that I can still get home again after work and that the transport workers don't just down tools early to get a longer weekend.

The english newspapers were calling this a black month for Sarkozy and I'm starting to agree with them, though really I think it is more of a black month for the people of Paris, who are completely dependent on public transport to get around.

Monday, 12 November 2007

The Local

I had a friend visit the other weekend, so it was a chance for me to be the local for once. My last guests stayed in August, which was my first month of actually living in Paris, but now I have been in the city for 3 and a half months, and I'm certainly better at finding my way around, and deciphering the intricate network of metros and RERs. You get a bit blase after living in the city, you forget what it must be like for someone who has never been to Paris before to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Unfortunately Paris didn't pull out it's best weather, in fact it was the worst it has been all autumn, but at least there wasn't too much rain, and we even got one really nice morning.

We did all the big things, the must dos in Paris, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur etc. and as the sun now sets really early I got to see a lot of these things in a completely different light. I'm not normally wandering around the city late at night, so I don't really know what it looks like with the lights on, but this weekend I got to experience Paris at night-time. I think it is just as pretty at night as it is during the day as well. To the left is the Eiffel Tower during its half-hourly light show, this is seen from the Trocadero, which really is the place to see the Eiffel Tower.

We then have a gargoyle at the top of Notre Dame, with the Sacre Coeur in the distance, ie the thing on the hill.

Here is Notre Dame in the evening, looking a little spooky really. There was some strange catholic ceremony going on out the front of the cathedral on the day we visited, I'm not really sure what was going on, but it involved a lot of very slow dancing/walking whilst carrying a massive picture of Jesus, plus a lot of incense burning, but a catholic ceremony wouldn't be complete without a whole stack of smelly smoke.

The next morning we went to visit the wedding cake on the hill, as you can see we did have at least a few hours of beautiful weather.

And finally I just thought I would leave you with a final shot of the autumn colours, this is about 2 weeks after my last photos, and I think this is the last of the autumn leaves. They are nearly all gone now and we are really getting into winter properly.
This week we are in single digit maximum temperatures everyday, I'm going to have to go buy some more jumpers and thermals, because I have nowhere near enough. For some reason I thought Paris couldn't get much colder than Canberra, I have a feeling I'm going to be proved dramatically wrong. Apparently it was snowing in Berlin on Monday, and it is still only mid-Autumn, yikes!

Sunday, 11 November 2007

A Long Weekend in London

The other weekend I took a long weekend in London. The Eurostar really is awesome, and I think from the 14th of November it should be even better. Apparently on that date they move the English end from Waterloo to King's Cross, and hopefully give the train it's own dedicated line through England. It's meant to cut 20 minutes from the journey, and that is all on the English side, ahh English public transport and infrastructure, I could spend pages bagging it out :). Though to be fair to the English, they don't seem to have the strikes which the French do, probably because they would all just be sacked if they even thought about it.

Next week is meant to be a bad week for strikes here in Paris, and not just the transport workers, but possibly researchers and the power workers as well. The first Eurostar, on the 14th of November, is meant to arrive in Paris at 11am, and there will probably be no trains running from any of the stations to take the tourists anywhere. I suppose now it is only a 2 hour 15 minute trip back to London, so you could just hop back on the train. The English papers have said November could be a black month for Sarkoszy, and after seeing the chaos of 2 days of striking, I'm not really looking forward to next week.

But this was all in the far future when I visited London, and all I had to contend with were "Engineering Works" which knocked out 5 of the underground lines (with no replacement bus services either). My first sight-seeing stop was the Tower of London, they have set this up well for the tourists, in my opinion anyway. It is really expensive, but then everything in London is, but you get a guided tour with a beefeater, ie a Yeomen Warder, dressed up in costume. Those are well worth it, and they give you a bit of the history of the Tower. You also get to see the Crown Jewels, but unfortunately you can't take any photos of those. I wouldn't say they are particularly pretty, more a display of just how rich the English royal family is, the size of the diamonds on their crowns and sceptres is just immense! They have actors dressed up in period costume inside the tower too, and they give a bit of an insight as to what life was like back then, at least that is the idea anyway.

To the left is one of the yeoman warders (in full costume) followed by his hordes of tourists, a lot of whom were French, because of the public holiday we had I guess. These guys have to have something like 20 years military service and to be a Sergeant in the Army before they are allowed to apply, even then it involves 6 months of study and testing before they are allowed to take tours around. As part of the job they get to live in the Tower of London, they all have little houses inside the outer wall, so I suppose the perks aren't too bad.

This next photo is of one of the houses where people live, I think someone important must live here, maybe the mayor of London?, as they get their own soldier guard. Though he must have really pissed the wrong person off to get such a boring job, holding back the crazed photo-happy tourists.

There is some rumour that the Tower of London will fall if there are no longer ravens at the Tower, which supposedly means that the monarchy of England will fall. The problem is that due to the urbanisation of London, ravens are now very rare. This means that the ravens at the tower are basically prisoners themselves, their wings are clipped so they can't fly away and a few are even kept in cages, so that there will always be ravens there.

They had one display on the methods of torture used back then, but they also had this machine asking people to give their opinions as to whether torture is ever ok. Their responses make me a bit worried as to the type of tourists they are getting here.
There are almost equal numbers for "yes, to punish" and "no, never", but at least there are slightly more numbers for "no, never". I would at least have expected the "sometimes, for information" to be more popular than the "yes, to punish".

This is the White Tower, it is right in the centre of the Tower and the walls are something like 15 feet thick. This was where the kings and queens lived, when they still stayed at the Tower of London.

To go along with the Tower of London we also have the Tower Bridge

After the Tower of London I headed off to the Tate Modern, I really liked this gallery, it is all modern art, and I think they change the exhibits around fairly frequently. It is basically across the Thames from St Paul's cathedral, in an old power station. The foot bridge across the river is the Millennium Bridge, but I think everyone in London calls it the wobbly bridge, as when it was first built it apparently wobbled quite a bit, unfortunately they have since fixed that, so no wobbles for me.

They normally have exhibitions in the main entrance gallery, but at the moment there is only one piece there, called Shibboleth, which is a giant crack running the full 167m length of the entrance hall. It is supposedly 3 feet deep at some points, and I have heard some people have managed to injure themselves on it, though there are heaps of attendants around warning people to watch their step.

Finally that evening I took some shots of St Paul's cathedral and the skyline of London

The next day I decided to go to Madame Tussuad's, the wax museum, for a taste of the ultra-tacky. It is a pretty odd place to visit, as people were going completely crazy over these wax statues of famous people. They seemed to forget a bit that they weren't actually the famous person, just a copy of them. What I found surprising was how small they were, particularly the famous women, they were tiny! Short and ultra-skinny. For some reason I also expected the guys to be much bigger, that could be a combination of things, I guess these famous guys are always being photographed next to these tiny women, which makes them seem bigger by comparison. But I think the other thing is that these people are put up on a pedestal and are always in the news and getting their photo taken and everything, that you just somehow expect them to be larger-than-life, or something special, when really they are just average people.

I did take a photo of Lance Armstrong. Madame Tussuad's really knows who their audience are though, you can see here there is a bike next to Lance so you can pretend that you are riding with him. They did that with a lot of their wax people, you could play golf with Tiger, or give a speech with George Bush, that sort of thing.

They have obviously also taken over a planetarium next door and so they now show a little film there, in which they tell us all that it is right to worship celebrities, that they enrich our lives and make us better people. Which I guess is the necessary attitude to ensure that Madame Tussuad's continues in business. They were very well organised though, that is one thing you miss in France, there it was almost military precision, there was only one way to walk, one way to queue, that sort of thing, so no confusion and not much pushing.

Finally I'll leave you with a photo of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, complete with terrorist-proof fence, or maybe that is an anti-Iraq war protester-proof fence, it's hard to tell them apart.

Yahoo mail, grrr!

I'm having major troubles with yahoo mail today, everytime I try to log in with my ID and password, it tells me that I am using an invalid ID and/or password. I can assure yahoo mail that I am not, and even when I try to get a new password, it can't find my ID. I'm thinking I might just switch permanently to google mail, now that I can remember my login name and password. The problem is I have emails I need to recover (not to mention all my addresses) on my yahoo account and there is no way of using POP3 to recover them, as that option is only available for paying customers, grrrr! I'm not sure what I can do, I've sent them an email, but I may just have to hope that it is some temporary bug and that it will be working tomorrow

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Time to Bring out the Winter Coat

I just checked the 5-day weather forecast for Paris, the maximum temperature on Wednesday is expected to be 5 degrees with a minimum of -3, and Monday and Tuesday both have a maximum of 9 degrees. And it is not even officially winter yet!

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Mac Problems

As some of you may be aware I have a MacBook laptop, which I really like and have been using as my work computer for almost a year now. At the moment though I'm having real problems with connecting to a network printer, at work we have a nice, new printer, that will even staple the pages for you, how fancy, but I am unable to connect to it when I want to print something. My PC desktop computer has been connected fine, I did have to ask the computer guy to help me with that, but the main reason for that was that everything was in French and I'm not familiar with PC's at the best of times. But I cannot for the life of me get my mac to print. I can add the printer fine, but then when I try to print anything there is no connection. I don't mind that there is a problem, these things can be fiddly to get all the settings right. The problem is that the Printer Utility you use to add the new printers is completely useless in any troubleshooting format. If things don't work the first time, there is nothing you can do to try and work out what the problem is. I remember I had a problem connecting the old printer to my computer, but I managed to work it out with an awesome website I found. The way the printer utility application is set up though means that I can't edit that old configuration, and thus find out what the special trick was.

The Apple website's help section is so useless it is actually funny, underneath an article titled "What to do if you can't print" are the fantastically useful suggestions such as:
  • is the printer on?
  • is it connected to the network?
  • have you printed to the correct printer?
  • is there paper in the printer?
I don't know why they don't also say "Is the computer on MORON!", because that's seems to be their attitude towards people using their help section. That is pretty much the extent of the help from the Apple websites, and I haven't found much luck elsewhere. I'll keep googling, but I think I'm going to have to make a trip to the computer guy again. I'm not sure how he is going to go with all the english menus though. If I ever work it out I'll let you know what it was, it will probably be drivers, that always seems to be the answer to any printer problem.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Autumn Leaves

I'm off to London today on the Eurostar, today is a public holiday in France, All Saint's Day, but I'm "working" today so I can take tomorrow off instead. This means that on my walk into work I actually had my camera on me for once so I could take some photos of the lovely autumn leaves around here at the moment. Sure we had the leaves changing colour in Canberra too, I think Canberra was settled by homesick English so there are an awful lot of deciduous trees around the place, but they always seemed a bit out of place in amongst the gums. Here I walk to work through an oak forest, in fact nearly all the trees are decidous, and natives, so it just seems to work. Of course it will probably be really depressing in a months time when ALL the leaves will have fallen, but at the moment it really looks good. Unfortunately you can't see the photos I took as I have neither my laptop or camera cable with me. But I promise to upload them once I get back from London.

UPDATE: here are some of the photos I took

The second photo shows the little path I walk down in the evening to get to the train station. It looks good in the daytime, but just try and imagine walking down this in the pitch black, there are no street lamps in this forest. Now that daylight savings is over the sun is setting at about 5:20pm, and I don't leave work until after 6. I really need to buy myself a little torch, that is definitely my chore for this weekend.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Musee des Egouts de Paris

So where did I go, what is this Musee des Egouts you may wonder? Well it is the sewer museum, where you can walk through a working sewer system. It is pretty well set-up, with English brochures and the signage is also in English (as well as French) and it also doesn't really smell that bad at all. In fact for the majority of the visit there was no unpleasant smell at all, though I did avoid the water dripping from the ceiling, there was only one moment just before the exit when I got a whiff of something pretty bad, that could have been the stuff floating in the water though. I won't elaborate any further on that. Anyway if you have some spare time in Paris and feel like a different experience I do recommend it, it's pretty cheap too.

You are walking over flowing sewer water and they explain to you how the sewer system has changed through the ages. From 4 BC when a small tribe lived on the islands in the Seine to modern Paris. For quite a long time all the waste water just flowed straight back into the Seine and it managed to cope with this for a surprising amount of time, considering everyone was taking their drinking water from there as well. Eventually though the ecological balance shifted and the Seine could no longer filter the waste, so the raw sewerage was then spread on fields and used to grow vegetables, which apparently people commented on their stupendous size and taste (not sure what their comments were on the taste though). When there were too many people in Paris for even that to work they began filtering the waste water. Apparently they now filter 100% of their waste water, I'm not sure if that includes storm run-off though, it would be impressive if it did.

I didn't get heaps of photos here, which perhaps you are thankful for, but I got some of the machinery they use to flush out the sewers. There is a big problem with sediment (they said sand, though perhaps it is something else?) collecting in the bottom of the sewers and clogging them up, so they use a variety of boats and balls to create large water pressure at the base of the sewer to force the sediment along. This ball is designed to sit up the top of the sewer, thus creating large pressure underneath where all the sediment is.

My Trip to Ely or rather My Weekend of Gorging

I visited Ely the other weekend, it is about an hours train ride north of Cambridge, I have a friend living there which is why I went, not for the world-famous Ely tourist attractions. It was a really awesome weekend, sometimes it is nice to just hang out with other native english speakers. They all speak unbelievably good english at work, but they still don't get all your jokes (not that I make heaps of jokes), or rather comments which you just expect a smile to, but instead need to explain as to why they are slightly humourous, kind of ruins the moment I find. So everynow and again it is nice to be in a place where you never need to explain, if they don't laugh it's because it wasn't funny, rather than they didn't understand. It is also good to hear the old Australian accent every now and again too.

When travelling into London, which I have only done on the Eurostar so far, I noticed that the train seems to go an awful lot faster through the French section than through the English part. On the way back I decided to time the trip and then compare the portion of time travelled in a country to the portion of distance covered in that country. And the numbers don't really come up in England's favour. These are pretty rough numbers but I think you can get the idea, 72% of the journey is in France, and yet only 62% of the time is spent there. This is only from one trip so when I go back there this weekend I plan to take some more data :). I think the problem is that English rail is all privatised, so the companies don't bother upgrading their infrastructure. So this train which can travel at 300km/hr has to share the same tracks as the suburban trains, which are lucky to get to 60km/hr.

I heard a few stories about the privatised public transport system while I was there. Apparently if the weather is a little bit hot, or windy or there are leaves on the tracks then all the trains are massively delayed. The infrastructure is apparently not capable of handling anything but the most ideal of conditions. Makes me wonder what happens when it snows, do the trains stop completely? It is good to visit England just so that you come back with a renewed appreciation of the French public transport system.

Anyway enough complaining about the english trains, the english made their choice when they voted for Thatcher and now they just have to live with the consequences. So on to the weekend of eating!

The village of Ely is a proper English village, there are about 10,000 people living there, it has a massive cathedral in the centre of town, which being England costs a packet to go inside, and cows and horses grazing on the village green. It also has a Tescos, which is an English supermarket chain, it was like being in Woolworths, though I found the opening hours slightly strange.

This is the front of Ely cathedral, with I think fittingly, an apple fair going on in the foreground.

The days in Ely must be kind of strange if this is their definition of 24 hours.

There is also a river, the Great Ouse, which is actually pronouced Ooze, which runs beside the town. It is just lovely, peaceful english countryside around here.
What is not apparent in this photo, but you can see at other spots along the river, is that the ground beside the river has sunk so it is now lower than the river. All this area used to be marshes which they have drained, leaving the peat behind, but the peat shrinks and so now there are these massive embankments about 2m above the fields containing the river. This means that the farmers have to use pumps to keep the river flowing and to stop the land returning to its natural, marshy state.

We went for a walk along this river into town where we had an awesome Devonshire tea and I saw some of the fattest geese I have ever seen. I don't think these birds could fly away even if they wanted to. This one in the photo is so fat that it's body is almost dragging on the ground. After laughing at the immense geese for a while I then proceeded to stuff myself with clotted cream and rasberry jam. If there is one thing the english have down pat, it's clogging your arteries.
Once we could move again it was off to Cambridge for a punt along the river Cam. That was pretty fun, I'd never punted before and it takes a little while to get the hang of it. You feel really unsteady standing on the back of the punt and after hearing the story of a different friend who had managed to stay on the boat for all of 20 seconds before falling into the water, I was a little wary. I got the hang of it in the end, though I'm not going to win any races, but at least I didn't fall into the water. It was a bit like dodgem-punts out there, the river was packed with people, I shudder to think how busy it is in summer, and punts were smashing into each other all over the place.

Waiting for the traffic to clear, actually these low bridges certainly made the punting interesting. You have to make sure you get your pole horizontal before you have gone under the bridge, otherwise you can be left holding the pole, with no boat to stand on.

Here is one shot of me as I have just started to punt and managed to steer us straight under a tree where I then got the pole stuck in the branches, I worked it out in the end.

By this stage we had worked up an appetite, plus the rugby world cup final was about to begin, so we headed off to a nearby pub where I managed to get my hit of fish and chips. Then it was time for the rugby, it was a great place to watch South Africa beat England. You should have seen the pub clear out after the match though, the medals hadn't even all been handed out yet and there was only us and a couple of girls left in what had previously been a completely packed pub.

The next morning it was one last english tradition of a cooked breakfast, complete with black pudding and grilled bacon, before it was back on the Eurostar and back to Paris. All in all a very pleasant weekend.