Category: France

The Little Details

Supermarket receipt

On holiday this summer in the Vendée region (near the Loire valley), I was pleasantly surprised by my till receipt for my holiday shopping. Instead of a list in simple order of items scanned by the cashier, the receipt was both grouped by department, and ordered by highest priced item first. At a glance, you can see which items from each department are the most expensive, and which departments you bought the most goods from.

In the past, till receipts were printed line by line first mechanically – possibly with mechanical tabulation (addition of next item to subtotal) inside the machine – then by fairly dumb electronic calculators which would do much the same. More recently, bar code scanning meant the machines queried a database for the item price. Later, the item name would be queried and printed (initially a few characters per item) and yet the basic running totals and chronological ordering have still to change in many supermarkets and other stores where you buy a lot of items.

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French Country Dancing

On the 1st of May (or the Sunday close to it usually) Argenteuil closes a stretch of road near the Seine and they remember the pre-war (pre WWI) era with old style dress, dances and activities. Argenteuil has a fine artistic history. Impressionists like Manet, Monet, Caillebotte, Sisley, Seurat and Braque (born there) all spent time there at one point or another. Flâneurs from Paris would catch a train to Argenteuil on Sunday to be in the “countryside” and wander by the Seine.

I think I’ve been every other year – on average – that I’ve lived in Argenteuil. A lot of people play the game and dress up for the occasion. There’s usually some jazz / musette playing live, dancing, traditional street food as well as typical international fare (beer, chips and BBQ sausages). It’s a shame that the very road they close for the occasion is the road that stops most people from being able to venture down onto the banks of the Seine. You can get there, but you have to go up on the bridge, down a set of stairs, and then walk over the grass verge with cars going past at 90 km/h (56 mph). There’s only a section – as far as I can tell – of grass and trees wide enough to get you far enough from the traffic to appreciate the river.

French Country Dancing
Originally uploaded by simon_music

3 Parisian Things

Sacré Coeur

The church (Basilique, in fact) of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. It’s quite a climb through streets aptly named things like Rue du Calvaire, roughly translated as “time of hardship street” in common parlance.

You can get a cog-wheeled railway which mounts a steep incline instead, called the funiculaire. Recommended if you want a bit of energy to check out the nearby square where artists paint caricatures or portraits and coffee is ridiculously expensive.

Maybe check out the Espace Dali if you’re into a small, hidden away museum with all things Dali. Continue reading

Same Routine, New Year

A Christmas break is great, but it’s soon over and after wishing you all a Happy New Year, it’s back to the grind of the routine. The roads were OK for the first Monday of the year, but the queues came back quickly and the routine soon pulled me in, not unlike gravity when you bounce on a trampoline.

One advantage of the days around the winter solstice is that I end up driving to work at dawn. This is not great leaving the house (when it’s pitch black) but quite lovely if the sun comes up as I’m waiting around the Argenteuil bridge (Pont d’Argenteuil). I snapped this photo at a red light, the quality isn’t great and you can never do justice to this kind of view anyway, especially not in the few seconds before it changes to green.

Hope your routine wasn’t too hard to get back into. Have a good start to 2011!

Sunrise, Orange Contrails
Originally uploaded by simon_music

Christmas in France

Bûche de Noël

Nice quiet day today, getting ready for a meal tonight since the French celebrate much more on the evening of Christmas Eve than on Christmas Day itself. Some older children open their presents just after midnight in some families, while the younger ones still wait for Santa to deliver overnight.

Traditional meals often include salmon, foie gras, goose, game birds or duck, and as dessert a Christmas “Yule log” of which many types are available. All this washed down with champagne and wine, of course. In some regions – like Burgundy – they might have snails as a starter while in Brittany there will be more emphasis on seafood.

We won’t be doing a full traditional meal, though we might have a Yule log and some wine. No turkey in sight here, though! Have a good Christmas and enjoy some Christmas jokes while you’re surfing away biding your time until you can open your presents.

Image credit: Bûche de Noël by joana hard, on Flickr

Frozen Snowy Swing and Slide

There’s been a lot of cold weather and frost so far this December, and a fair bit of snow. I’ve never seen quite so much fall in one morning as I did today though. I reckon we’ve had 10-15cm (4-6″) of snow in a few hours.

Last night there was already a bit. It took us 3/4 of an hour to get back home from the town centre, usually a five minute drive. Some steep roads were impossible to get up at all, and every start from stationary was with wheel slip. Horrible driving conditions.

Friday night was awful too. Friends coming to visit us before leaving for Morocco took over six hours to get from Calais to Argenteuil – usually a 2 and a half hour trip. They just made a window of mostly rainy / sleet weather to take off from Orly mid Saturday and are now basking in 28°C in Marrakech.

Snow makes the garden look beautiful, and I love the eerie light of late evening where street lamps and moonlight combine with the reflectiveness of fresh snow. It is totally impractical for getting about though, Monday morning could be a real challenge. I hope local authorities and the government now start preparing for earlier wintry weather, rather than once again blaming “unseasonable” conditions for not having stocks of salt, grit and vehicles enough to keep infrastructures moving.

Frozen Snowy Swing and Slide
Originally uploaded by simon_music

Another French strike

The French need some kind of pension reform. The current French state budget is seriously in the red at roughly 7.5% of GDP last year, well outside European norms. France have a policy of statutory retirement from the age of 60, for men and women. This is already more advantageous than the UK where it has been at 65 for men, 60 for women since I can remember – and now seems to be indexed on the number of qualifying years.

Of course the unions are all out on strike tomorrow with most complaining in simple sound-bites about how everyone will have to work longer before retiring whilst conveniently ignoring the massive budget deficit, increasing life expectancy and the fact that state pensions are a pittance anyway. Far better to invest in a private pension in order to retire early, instead of living – though the state hardly sets a good example – beyond your means and hoping that as soon as you’re 60, the state will provide because it doesn’t and won’t.

The strangest thing is the way the media seems to be managing pension reform. I’ve heard people close to retirement age call in to radio stations with invited politicians on a panel and complain they will now have to wait longer to get their pension. These people will in fact be unaffected by the new pension plans which will not come into force fully until 2018. The roll-out will be on a sliding scale – those born in 1950-1956 will not be required to work a full further 2 years to get statutory pensions. Even then, there is also a system of qualifying years (41 for France compared to 44 for the UK). On top of all that, the French system indexes pensions on earnings in the last years before retirement, whereas the UK system is indexed on contributions. Did anyone on the panel explain this to the caller? The responses sounded rather obfuscated to me, with debate on how they might define exceptions to the rules and other information which played on the complexity of the reform rather than serving it in palatable doses.

Other major differences include when you qualify for any kind of pension – in the UK there are “basic” and “additional” pension requirements. In France there’s a notion of “full” pension at 65 for men, but a plethora of exceptions for state workers, and those who have physically demanding jobs.

From my point of view the big failure of the French state is that Nicolas Sarkozy is increasingly seen as an elitist with a xenophobic agenda. He certainly does not suffer fools gladly and seemingly has nobody in his party willing to explain properly the ramifications of his needed reform. Corruption and nepotism has been quite visible too, but then the UK can hardly say it’s any better in that respect. So we’re set for a drawn out program of strikes just so someone might deign to make sense of the situation. Instead of which the system will become so complex that nobody will be able to understand it, and everyone will have lost. You still won’t be able to retire at 60 – or 65 – on a decent income anyway.

[edit]: Comment from a friend on Facebook :

The French should not be allowed to retire until they have made up all of their strike days. I think a two year extension is generous!

Strike Action Causes Crowded Platform
Originally uploaded by simon_music

Tonsilitis at the End of the Hols

Gallargues le Montueux

We had a good break this summer, going all the way to the south of France between Nîmes and Montpellier. The photo is of the view from the back of our residence, looking towards the nearby village Gallargues-le-Montueux.

I had a terrible end to our holidays. I got a major case of tonsilitis and nearly ended up being hospitalised in Montpellier because of it. It started on Tuesday but wasn’t really bad until Wednesday when I saw a local GP who misdiagnosed it as just a “pharangite” or sore throat. I went back to the GP on Thursday looking worse and practically unable to speak, he sent me to a specialist (ENT) who prescribed me strong antibiotics & cortisone. It was touch and go on Friday – after xrays with injections at a clinic and all that – as to whether I got into an ambulance to be operated on (surgically to drain the infection) or whether I’d just pull through on the medication and rest. As you can imagine, this was a major stress since Friday was the day when the decision on hospital had to be made and we were supposed to leave our residence early Saturday morning. It just wasn’t possible to leave Yasmina on her own with Nathan & the car and go to hospital so we had to take a chance.

Finally it all went OK, after a good rest on Friday we drove all the way back with Yasmina on Saturday, who finally jumped in at the deep end and did some motorway driving (first motorway time ever for her, though she’s had a driving licence for 10+ years). What an end to the holidays!