Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Paris: Further Observations

We have witnessed more acts of human kindness over this past week in Paris than we can remember ever seeing in any city before.  Desi spent a day in New York City in May 2008 where she was the recipient of several acts of kindness but otherwise nothing comes close to what we've witnessed over this past week.  Parisians are kind people.

Outdoor seating options are plentiful and so well designed that they are full even during freezing temperatures.

Pay phones are every where and used often.

Fur is still considered an option and appears to be quite popular.

We have been confused for Spaniards a couple times and perhaps English once but no one has identified us as Americans yet.

Everyone has been very forgiving with our attempts at speaking French.

Although there appear to be successful supermarkets throughout Paris, we have at least four within a few blocks from our flat, there are also many separate and independent boulangeries, pâtisseries, boucheries, and fromageries which leads us to believe that, barring legal obstacles, either the people reject the supermarket as being everything to everyone and/or the supermarkets refuse to crush the little shops by offering competing items for less.

Most people we've encountered are at least bilingual.  Even the rough sleeper at the Gare du Nord was able to switch to perfect English when we couldn't understand him in French.  We are now more convinced than ever that we need to become fluent in another language.  It's embarrassing at this point.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Paris: First Impressions

Paris reminds us a lot of Kaohsiung because of the store fronts, left turning vehicles, and scooters.  It reminds us some of Vancouver, Washington DC, and New York City, too.

People here seem polite.  Even on a very crowded Metro ride, when we were pressed up against the door, there was no pushing, shoving, or yelling to get out.  Just a simple ‘pardon’ every once in a while which would cause everyone near the door to get off, allow others off, and then get back on.  It was very orderly and civilized.

There is dog shit everywhere and apparently no guilt about not picking your dog’s shit up.  It’s disgusting.

The food and coffee is amazing.  Simple street fare is delicious.  The coffee, even instant, is delicious and Desi, who usually requires her coffee to taste like ice cream, is able to drink it without sugar and may even drop the crème.  Oh, and mulled wine (vin chaud) is amazing and should be available and popular everywhere civilized people gather.

There are no fat people here.

There is a sense of classiness to the Parisiens. 

The city exudes art.  Not only are there more museums than one can name but everything has seemingly been done with an eye towards art.  The street signs, the architecture, the intersections; everything feels like the whole was considered when addressing a piece. 

Paris is very diverse, perhaps another reason it reminds us of Washington DC, Vancouver, and New York City.

Walking through the city’s streets easily ate up our entire day and we’re looking forward to weeks of doing only that.  There is so much to see and walking is the only way to do it.  We wouldn’t drive or be driven, even if we had the option.  The Metro is fun, too, but only when one’s feet are tired.

Bonjour Paris, Take Deux

We started this morning still a bit grumpy from our previous day’s shenanigans.  Adding to our poor mood was the state of our accommodations.  The morning allowed us a better look at our home for the next 24 days and left us thoroughly unimpressed.  It felt dirty and there were items we expected which were not available.  There was no Wi-Fi, the clothes washer was broken (with clothes still in it), the three bathroom towels were all dirty (one was soaking wet), and the blankets on the bed smelled of stale cigarette smoke.  We were not happy.

We decided to get out of the flat, which we hoped would help to improve our mood, and experience Paris.  Hopefully upon our return we would no longer have the biases formed from our rocky introduction and be able to start again with the place.

We started at the boulangerie down the street, grabbing a pain aux raisins and a croissant for our breakfast.  Then we stopped at a café for a café crème and a café noir for our walk to the Seine.  We arrived at Place de la Concorde and saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, which was actually quite underwhelming.  But, walking along the Champs-Elysees we experienced our first Christmas market and vins chauds which thoroughly improved our moods.  We reached the Arc de Triomphe and headed left towards the Eiffel Tower.  Reaching the Trocadéro first, we were greeted by the best view available of the Eiffel Tower and one which really caused us to pause.  Suddenly, we were very impressed by the tower.  The Trocadéro also had a Christmas market where we grabbed another couple of vins chauds before heading over to introduce ourselves to the tower.

We wandered underneath the Eiffel Tower for a bit, opting against venturing upwards, and then walked along the Seine to the Pont d’Orsay where we broke left, back towards our flat.  We grabbed some delicious lunch at a neighbourhood boulangerie, stopped at a grocery store for some very good €1.95 red wine, and headed back home to rest.

We’ve decided that we like our flat.  It’s in a great neighbourhood and internet is available, though not Wi-Fi.  We have to clean it a bit and wash the towels before we feel too comfortable but we’ll tackle that tomorrow.  On the whole our flat in the 17e is fine and will definitely work for us over these next few weeks. 

After taking a break for a bit we headed back out for dinner.  We wanted to visit the Christmas market in Montmartre and then check out the Sacre Coeur Basilica.  The Montmartre Christmas market was smaller than we expected but we did grab some vins chauds, a jambon fromage crepe, and churros before heading up the bluff to Sacre Coeur which was stunning.  We’ll definitely make that trek again in the daylight for the full stained glass effect and when there is better visibility so we can see the amazing view of Paris.

We had several successful transactions today and our French has already improved.  We’re happier than we were when we awoke this morning and no longer convinced that Paris hates us.  And, although we are bewildered as to why Paris is considered so romantic, we’re feeling the romance and happy to be here.  Bonjour Paris!

Bonjour Paris

The day we leave for Paris is the same day Britain experiences record freezing temperatures and all London airports close causing delays throughout the system.  Luckily, the train from Dundee to Edinburgh was still running and Edinburgh airport was still open.  Our flight wasn’t until 5:30PM but we decided to head to the airport early just in case the trains decided to stop running.  We started our journey at 11:45AM. 

We caught the 12:35PM train to Edinburgh and arrived at the airport at 2:30PM.  Our plane still claimed to be on time but all other planes were either showing a delay or were cancelled altogether.  At approximately 5:30PM our plane switches to a 6PM departure time, delaying departure by 30 minutes.  We wind up leaving at 7:30PM, two hours later than planned.  

As an aside, Easyjet had horrible communication throughout this process.  When we got on the plane the pilot apologized for the delay (the only apology received all day, which he did often) and said it was due to delays earlier in the day throwing off the whole day's schedule.  Apparently, Easyjet knew our plane was delayed much earlier than initially communicated and for longer than originally stated but didn’t tell anyone; terrible communication.

We landed at Charles de Gaulle at 10PM but didn’t have a gate assigned.  We were finally able to deplane an hour later, reaching the terminal at 11PM.  By the time we reached the train to Paris, RER B, and purchased our tickets we had just missed the last train due to inclement weather closures.  In our hunt for other options, we missed the last Roissy Bus into Paris.  We were told by the Information desk that the night bus would be coming along in about 15 minutes, at 12:15AM.  We waited until 12:45AM before asking another couple to share a taxi into Paris, splitting the €60 fare.  We finally arrived at our flat around 1:30AM.

This whole adventure would’ve been stressful by itself but we had the added stress of knowing there was a guy waiting at the flat, since approximately 8:30PM, to give us the key and collect the final half of our rent.  He had threatened to leave at least twice, taking our night’s accommodation with him, but Mike had talked him into staying.  Needless to say, he was not happy when we finally met him at almost 2AM.  The check-in process was tense and when he left we were not in the best of spirits.  We tucked in for the night almost immediately and hoped the morning would convince us that Paris didn’t hate us.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking Back

As we prepare to depart for our winter break holiday we wanted to take this opportunity to review our first four months in the UK.

Arriving a few weeks prior to Mike starting school made for a smart move.  We were able to explore our new surroundings while waiting for internet and phone connections without anxiety.

While we lived in Seattle we would enjoy long walks along Lake Washington or from the light rail station to our home.  During this past summer we especially enjoyed walking around our temporary home on Queen Anne.  Happily, our walking tradition continues here in Dundee.  Mike walks Desi to work every morning for her 6AM start time and is usually there to pick her up when she gets off in the afternoon.  These walks will vary as Desi changes jobs but we enjoy this time together and are happy our walks have survived the move.

It took us a few months to get settled but we think we've begun to form a comfortable groove.  We've got friends whom we can go to with our cultural questions and we're even beginning to have a social calendar again.  Desi is enjoying the last few days of her first job in the UK and Mike is celebrating the end of a successful first semester.  Best of all, we didn't experience any catastrophes, which is something we're always grateful for.

As far as the Purge of 2010, there are many things we miss having but overall we're enjoying living simply and light.  When we first moved here we wrote down all our possessions, which didn't amount to much.  We think that list has stayed about the same over the months, a few more kitchen necessities but a few less clothing items.  There are also a number of items we wish we hadn't brought.  For example, Desi has a couple of lovely pairs of stilettos that she chose to keep but that she'll never wear.  Perhaps keeping her hiking boots or trainers would've been wiser?

In just a few months we've been able to visit a fair number of Scot cities and towns, places we probably would never have seen if we didn't live here.  Because our time in Dundee is limited we really want to make every day memorable, which we were really good at in the beginning but have since slackened a bit, allowing life to take over.  We've been consumed with adapting to our new location, which has provided us with a good foundation but not necessarily with memorable experiences, more just general knowledge.  Hopefully, upon our return in the new year we'll get back to making each day memorable.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

One More Week

One week from today we leave for Paris.  The flight is just under two hours long but we have an hour and 15 minute train ride from Dundee to Edinburgh beforehand.  Regardless, total travel time is still minimal.  We can't believe we live so close to Paris.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Lonely Planet

We just bought our Lonely Planet French phrasebook online at www.amazon.co.uk for £3.32.  This price is for a new book and includes free shipping.  We'll receive it within 4-5 business days.  We love how everything ships quickly here and usually for free with no minimum purchase required.  Seriously, £3.32 total for a new book to arrive within a week.  Amazing!

We're big fans of Lonely Planet.  Their brand is aligned with our travel style and over the years we've developed a loyalty for their product.  We used Lonely Planet for our Taiwan trip, we own their Scotland guidebook, and Desi used the Costa Rica phrasebook, which was especially helpful, for her trip in 2006.

Although we're travelling without a guidebook this time, we decided to grab a phrasebook for our Paris trip because we recently realized that our combined knowledge of French is very rusty and very small and often confused with Spanish.  Hopefully with our trusty Lonely Planet phrasebook by our sides we'll be able to communicate without causing too much offence or embarrassment to ourselves or compatriots which is always our goal when travelling to a foreign country.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Summer in the UK

This abnormal winter weather has us looking forward to summer and planning our next move.  Our original plan was to go wherever Mike won a summer internship, especially hoping for Barcelona or Berlin.  But, with salaries significantly lower in Dundee than we predicted, Desi is going to have to work this summer which means we have to stay in the UK.  Happily, London is in the UK and also possesses many possibilities for Mike's summer internship.  Thus, we're moving to London for the summer.

Our plan right now is to move south in late May and then return to Dundee in late August or early September stopping in Edinburgh for a week to catch the Military Tattoo along with the other August festivals.  Mike will begin applying for summer internships in the new year but, worst case, volunteer opportunities no doubt abound in the big city and Mike will have many opportunities to continue his professional development whilst on break from his educational pursuits.

We're really excited to have our summer plans sorted and are looking forward to exploring London and the southern UK.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Snow Behaviours

We had a pretty amazing snowstorm Sunday evening, including thunder and lightning which roused us from sleep a few times throughout the night.  The amazing thunder crashes and flashes of light which lit up the sky made us hopeful for future snowstorms during an otherwise dreary season.  Disappointingly, the next morning we learned that thunder snowstorms are rare and should not be expected in the future.  Too bad because it was quite a show.

Although the thunder and lightning only lasted that first night the snow has continued on and off over the last two days and Dundee has seemingly shut down.  One would think snow would be common in all of Scotland but apparently it's as rare in Dundee as it was in Seattle.  Just a few inches on the ground have caused school closures, including Mike's university, businesses closing early if they were able to open at all and, something we thought isolated to Seattle, the abandoning of cars on the roadside.

Abandoning one's car has always seemed a bit drastic to us.  Perhaps on a side street when near home but, both here and in Seattle, abandoning one's car on the motorway, where no easier walking route is apparent, seems to be common.  After 11 years in Seattle and now our first winter in Dundee, this behaviour still proves perplexing to a couple from Salt Lake City, Utah where snow is used more for recreation than as an excuse to park one's car on the freeway.
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