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.