29 October 2011

Au revoir Paris

It's nearly three weeks since I arrived in France and suddenly - tout d'un coup - my stay is almost over. Seems like it was only yesterday that I was agonising over what to pack, what to do, where to go and just how much I could pack in. I feel like I've only just started to tick off the things on my "to do" list. Not even a dent, really.

Going to french school for an intensive exam preparation has been one of the most challenging things I've ever done while notionally on "holidays". Yesterday, my personal tutor Marie-Neige (who has drilled me in my exam preparation) suggested that next time I come to Paris (there is absolutely no consideration that I might only do this once!) I should just take lessons in the morning and "profite" from more interaction on the street each afternoon. She does have a point.

Alors, with that in mind, I decided to profite bien during my second to last afternoon today. Finishing school at just after mid-day, I decided to visit the Catacombes on the other side of the city from where I'm staying. Imagine my surprise when I got there after 30+ minutes of travel only to find a queue that was conservatively 200 or more people long. In October! The capacity of the site is 200 people (approx) at a time, and the average visit duration is 45 minutes.

Rather than waste an hour of my precious time, I headed over to the Musée Marmottan Monet in the 16th arrondissement. Now this one is a little gem. There was a small queue of less than 15 minutes and toute de suite I was in to the holy grail of impressionism and neo-impressionism. The Musée Marmottan has one of the most extensive collections of paintings by Monet, including the original painting Impression: Soleil Levant that gave rise to the name of the Impressionist movement.

There was also a brilliant temporary exhibition of paintings by Henri Edmond Cross and the neo-impressionist period from Seurat to Matisse. I've never been a huge Matisse fan, but I did like what they had on display here (so perhaps I like his earlier works?)

And to top off my Paris experiences today, I found myself coming home in the most packed metro carriage I've ever been in, barely room to breathe, never mind room to get in or out at your station. Although it's not exactly peak tourist season at the moment, there have been school holidays this week, so perhaps that's creating a bulge in visitor numbers.

As I write this, I'm sitting in my apartment, looking up to the dome of the Basilique Sacré-Coeur with the noise from Place dés Abbesses, its carousel, buskers and people buzzing around, washing through my open windows. Bells are also ringing out from the Église St Jean just a few doors down the road. The boulangers (bakers) must be the hardest working people in Paris. They open early, finish late and most of them seem to keep trading throughout the day, unlike most of the other shops that start a bit later and finish around 6-7 pm.

It's still daylight savings here, but that finishes this weekend. I suspect that late starts are a typical Gallic shrug to authority - OK you can have your daylight savings, but we'll start later and finish as we want.

The weather has been close to perfect: not hot, crisp nights - but nothing like winter in Canberra - and only 1 or 2 rainy days.

As I reflect on the last couple of weeks, I think my daily peregrinations to and from school probably say it all: I wake up and say good morning to Sacré-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower, then I wander down Rue Dés Abbesses and glance at the locals getting started on their petit dejuener complet in the myriad of cafes (and the occasional treat of a group of pompiers - firemen - out for a morning run). I turn left at Rue Lépic as the fish, cheese and fruit shops are sluicing down the pavements ready for a new day, say "hi" to Amélie's cafe - Le Café de Deux Moulins - just before I reach Place Blanche. 

Crossing over I pick up my free daily newspapers outside the metro entrance (usually two or three to choose from - sort of a digested version of the main broadsheet newspapers) and then a take-away coffee from the local Starbucks. Oh I can hear the cries from here - you can't have Starbucks coffee in Paris!! Well I can, because it's the only place between my apartment and my school that does takeaways, and they do a pretty good job. Remember Paris is not exactly known for great coffee, and this works for me, so let it go!!

As I turn down Rue de Bruxelles I glance to the right and say bon jour to the Moulin Rouge, then head down Rue de Vintimille and finally Rue Ballu where my school is.

So now, after two incredibly short but intense weeks, it's time to say au revoir to my lovely mini-group of three (the others being Jean (Swiss) and Yuka (Japanese) and our gorgeous "prof" Isabelle. Au revoir to all of the team at ELFE - you're the best!

And au revoir to Paris - you are a bewitching, seductive city and I will return. So perhaps instead of au revoir - I should instead simply say à bientôt or à la prochaine! See you next year, hopefully.

22 October 2011

Voulez vous diner avec moi, ce soir?

In a wonderful twist on the popular song from Baz Lurhman's movie, Moulin Rouge, an enterprising company in Paris, has set up a venture to help visitors to Paris have a more authentic and personalised dining experience.

Of course, like all things tourism in Paris, this could easily have been just another gimmick. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to register on the website VoulezVousDiner.com and see what turned up. Very soon after that, I received an email from Renaud Maigne, the website's founder, telling me he was very excited that I was the first Australian to register on his site.

Private dining clubs and personalised eating experiences are not new to Paris, but according to Renaud, his site is the first to bring the experience to such a professional level.

And polished and professional this experience was - from start to finish. A few email exchanges later, and I'm booked to have dinner with Marc and Lyssa, just a short uphill stroll (or one metro stop) from my Montmartre apartment. Shortly after, Marc sends me an email to see whether I have any dietary or culinary preferences (greatly appreciated - I'm wary of french experiences like tête de veau or offal!) and to give me details about entry to their apartment.

Curious, I check the location on Google Maps, and follow the route from the metro to the apartment entrance on streetview. Looks great and a charming area of Paris to be sure!

Seems like almost no time, I'm in France, in Paris, two days into my french lessons at ELFE (more on this one later), and on my way to dinner.

Immediately on arrival, made even more atmospheric by having done the short walk from the metro station in the rain, I feel at home. Marc and Lyssa are an English-American couple who decided to make Paris their home some 14 years ago. The apartment was beautiful, spacious, a fire was lit, and not only was I made to feel extremely welcome by Marc and Lyssa, but Scruffy, a dog saved from a less-then-ideal existence in St Barts in the Caribbean also decided to adopt me for the evening.

Within minutes, we are all talking animatedly and finding out heaps about each other's backgrounds, interests, daily lives and common interests.

Shortly after, the company founder, Renaud, also turned up - so we are four for dinner this evening. Perfect. The conversation switches from English to French, and after a short time to shift the neural connections, I find, to my delight, that I'm able to keep up quite well. And contribute. Wow, and that was after only two days at french school!

Turns out Marc is a chef, who loves nothing more than playing out classic dishes in new ways. The menu for the evening was printed and on the table waiting. It could have been a dinner party menu from the 1970s, but presented in a totally modern and fresh way. Had I been presented with these dishes in a top restaurant anywhere in the world, I would not have been disappointed. To find such quality and creativity, together with the relaxed and happy atmosphere of a real home, was truly a Parian "trésor". Marc was also happy to pass on his culinary tips (especially about the "confit" technique he used to cook the coquelet, or baby chicken). He's promised me his recipes as well, so look forward to trying these out when I'm back home.

Lyssa is a stylist, having worked in the fashion industry for many years. I was privileged to take a peek at one of her wardrobes full of vintage clothing, some going back to the 1600s. By the end of the evening, we are giving each other advice on this and that - as you do with new best friends.

To my surprise, I checked my watch and it's already after midnight. I have to be at school by 9 am the next morning, so feeling like I was living in a Parisian fairy-tale, I did the Cinderella dash in order to catch the metro before they shut down for the night. Made it with a few minutes to spare, and great stories to share with my group the next morning.

Verlan – French on the chopping block!

For those of us old enough to remember pig Latin—and thinking ourselves clever to be able to talk in a secret code—France has taken this concept and really run with it. Of course they have a more grown up name for it—verlan—which is in itself a wonderful play on itself.

Let me explain: verlan is a form of argotic (slang) French that consists of cutting up, inverting and re-assembling particular words so that they make up a whole new set of words. This morning, I gave a presentation on verlan to my group at French school and as our prof explained, for students of French it’s important to understand verlan and how it works—so you can recognise when it’s used rather than trying to incorporate it into your active vocabulary!!

The word verlan itself demonstrates how verlan works. In French, the word l’envers (meaning to invert) forms a new “verlanised” word as follows: 
l'envers... l'en vers... vers l'en... versl'en... verslen... verlen... verlan.

This is not a new concept. Although verlan itself emerged relatively recently and gained popularity after the second world war, the devices used to create verlan words have been around for many centuries.  The first certain use of what linguists call “metathesis” occurred in 1690, when Antoine Furetière, in his universal dictionary, defined the word verjus, saying “c'est verjus ou jus vert , ca pour dire: c'est la même chose” (it’s verjus or jus vert, that is to say, it’s the same thing). And for all of us who cook and think verjus is a relatively recent invention, that puts that idea to rest as well!

Since that time, many other examples of word play appeared regularly in literature. Verlan usage developed particularly after the second world war; initially it was used as a secret or code language by works and immigrants in the Paris suburbs, so as to keep information from certain “social control” organisations, such as the police. Since then its use has spread more widely and rapidly across all stratas of society, because of its use in music and in film.

Verlan is less a language than a means of creating new words to be used within a broader social context. Many verlan words were about sex or drugs in keeping with their initial objective to keep communication secret from others. Verlan is generally limited to one or two key words per sentence, and verlan is usually mixed into a more general form of french slang or argot.

Use of verlan will give away much about one’s connections and social standing. It’s particularly used to identify with (or exclude from) a particular group, especially the young in cities and the suburbs. Verlan is not usually created “on the fly” as a consequence. It is the capacity to use and understand verlan words and expressions that allows someone to be identified as belonging to a particular social group.

Some verlan words have gained more widespread awareness and use. A notable example is the word “beur” which derives from the French word for Arab (arabe) to describe a french-born person of north African descent. Beur has more recently taken a new verlan form (been re-verlanised) to form a new word rebeu, which tends to be used to describe the second generation of north African descendants.

The early 1990s saw the emergence of hip-hop, which created a massive interest and usage of verlan, with widespread awareness created through music and in film. A film titled “Les Ripoux” that came out in 1984, has forever cemented the verlan word ripou (from pourri, meaning rotten or decaying) into mainstream french. A handy word to have when talking about politicians, police or other vulnerable professions!

For those with a smattering of french—here are some relatively common examples of verlan to get you started.

Verlan word
Original word (fr)
English meaning
trendy, fashionable
une cinepi   
une piscine
swimming pool
une deban   
une bande
un skeud   
un disque
disc, record
un féca   
un café
café, coffee
good day
laisse béton   
laisse tomber
let something go (lit, fig)
une meuf   
une femme
a woman/wife
crazy, mad
une péclot   
une clope
fag, cigarette (slang)
les rempa   
les parents
un reuf   
un frère
une reum   
une mère
un reup   
un père
une reus   
une sœur
rotten, decaying
la siquemu / la sicmu
la musique
un sub
un bus
une teibou
une bouteille
une teuf
une fête
to leave
to go out
une tof
une photo
la tourv
la voiture
le tromé
metro, subway

16 October 2011

Stalking trees

We're going to the forest, says our photography tour leader, Jonathan. It's a bit bright for the water, so we'll try and get some nice dappled light - and let's just see what we can do with that.

OK, that sounds great. I love the greenery and lushness of a forest. So off we go, with trust and belief in our newfound skills as photographers. We are banned from saying things like "oh don't worry about that (insert photo problem as appropriate), we can just photoshop that out afterwards". According to Jonathan, Photoshop is a "thing" not a "verb". Okay - so we have to get it right in the camera, not trust to technology to fix up inherent laziness. Lesson learnt. Hopefully.

We arrive at the forest - a typical Landaise pine forest, with thick ferny undergrowth and a wide trail covered with leaf litter running through the middle. Immediately we are struck with the age-old problem of not being able to see the trees for the forest. Or photographically speaking, not being able to work out which of the hundreds of trees available should become the literal focus of our shots.
So a-stalking we went, tripods and cameras held high, wading through the thick undergrowth, hunting for the perfect light, the perfect angle, the most character-laden tree and the holy grail for photographers - something to spark up your shot and make it just that little bit magical.

Of course when you're searching for something you can't describe or measure objectively, you go round and round in ever-decreasing circles, with ever-increasing levels of frustration.
Just shoot something. Try something and then try it from a different angle. Deep into the ferns now, I fire off numerous shots. Lighting from behind, lighting from the side, shooting into the light (yes, it's OK to do that, even though we were taught not to a million years ago) - but still not finding that bit of magic.

Walking back to the van, I meet up with Jonathan who says "do me a favour and just shoot that stand of trees at the top of the pathway there - I think we could do a nice letter-box crop on this in our workshop time".

So obvious when the shot is pointed out! Here's how it turned out.

And magic began to take shape by playing with the light.

So with fresh eyes I turned to my earlier shots taken in the misty mornings by the lakes of Les Landes. And found one that looks very painterly when adjusted nicely.

I don't know whether I would have managed these shots on my own before. That's the great thing about being with others in a workshop situation. You learn to see the world a little differently, you see what is possible, rather than simply problems with the weather. Who would have thought fog, mist and dim light could deliver such magic!

12 October 2011

Histograms, duct tape and dental floss

What on earth do histograms, duct tape and dental floss have in common? Apart from anything else, all three came up in conversation with our photography tutor, Jonathan Chritchley, at our first briefing in Soustons yesterday.

OK, let's start at the beginning! I love travel, I love France and I enjoy photography. So when I discovered you can combine all three loves in one place - I didn't hesitate. Courses selected, flights booked, and six months later, here I am in a part of France I've never been to, arriving late Sunday night at Dax railway station.

Less than 24 hours later, the two other participants in the course and I have gathered in the lounge of the stunning Domaine de Bellegarde to talk to Jonathan and find out just what we'll be up to this week. I'm not good at early mornings - but seems you need to sacrifice some things to get the best light and the best atmosphere. Fortunately here on the south-west coast of France in October, early morning means 7.30, not 5.30. That's a relief. The forecast for this week is just fantastic - cool nights and warm, sunny days of 23-25 celsius. Even better, if there's no wind, we can expect lots of mist and fog over the areas close to the coast.

So, back to our first chat with Jonathan. Seems like we all have different gear and different experiences, but some common goals. We want to improve the way we see and photograph the world. We want to be able to communicate what we feel through our images.

But seeing something and being able to capture it are two very different things - and that's where the histograms come in. It's a funny little graph thing that you can call up on your camera and if you've got the exposure on your shot right (or at least good enough) then the histogram will basically tell you that. You just have to know where to find it and how to interpret it.

So that's our homework. Work out where and how you can find the histogram function on your camera and be ready to use it first thing in the morning.

And duct tape? The other woman in our group, Tiggy, is tough on her gear. She has already been on one of Jonathan's courses earlier this year, where she damaged her camera body. Wrapping it up in duct  tape meant she could continue and finish the course - with virtually no impact on the images she shot during the rest of the course.

Of course, that tale lead to other helpful traveller hints. It seems in our security-conscious era when sharp objects are something of a no-no for air travel, that dental floss can also be a traveller's best friend. Cutting a tomato? Need to sew on a button? Dental floss is far more useful than its maker's original intention!

So two photo shoots down, and an editing session later this afternoon. Histograms are now my best friend. And I'll keep working on the rest.

30 September 2011

Planning for Paris

I have no idea where the last seven or eight weeks have gone, but with only a week to go before I leave for France, I'm trying to find some new things to do that aren't necessarily on the main tourist tracks.

Where to start? Well firstly there's my local district - or quartier - which is the 18th arrondissement. More commonly referred to as Montmartre, and home to much of the action in the hit movie Amelie.

My home away from home, courtesy of Haven in Paris, is directly opposite the Abbesses metro station. Which prompts me to think about transport around the city for two weeks. If you have a smattering of french, check out the RATP website for all things metro and public transport in Paris. You will lose a lot of the good stuff it you try the English version - you'll just get good old tourist details (which is fine, but not as good as the full version).

Rather than buy the Paris Visit card, it appears I can get a Navigo Decouverte pass by the week. Most of the Navigo (stored value card) passes are only available to people living or working in Paris. But this one appears to be immediately available to anyone. And here's the best bit: a week's Navigo pass will cost you 33.40 euros for zones 1-5 (that includes all the way to Versailles); the best you can do with a Paris Visit card for the same zones is five days for 51.20 euros. 

So, transport sorted, my french school booked for an intensive five hours a day (what was I thinking when I booked that!), it's now allez! allez! to work out what to do with the rest of my time.

Thirteen days, 312 hours in total! Allowing some for sleep, time booked at french school and I reckon I've got about 150 hours all up to really get to know Paris. And possibly squeeze in a weekend visit to Mont St-Michel on the west coast.

I think it would be nigh on impossible to get bored in Paris. But imagine my excitement when I discovered that there will be a Salon du Chocolat from 20-24 October. At 5 pm each day, there is a fashion spectacular where the models will be, yes, wearing chocolate creations. The show is a "link between those who grow cacao - and those who consume the end product, chocolate".  OK, that's the diet in remission for at least one day.

Which brings me to another of Paris's grand traditions - la belle cuisine. So much choice, but where to start. Here's a couple of really good local/insider style websites to use for inspiration: Le Best of Paris and Haven in Paris Blog. This latter one is full of inspiring blogs such as "where to find good coffee in Paris". Not such a bad idea, because Paris while brilliant at many things is not known for its coffee culture.

So, bed, transport, school, food, coffee. Sorted. Now for some culture. And maybe some vicarious romance? After all it's the city of lights, the city of love. More to follow . . . !

24 August 2011

The "green thing"

OK - so this post isn't really about travel, but it does put a bit of perspective on my life's journey! I received an email from a dear friend tonight, which got me thinking about how life has changed in so many ways, some good - and some are just changes that have crept up on us. Here's what her email said.

Checking out at the supermarket, the young cashier suggested to the older woman, that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.

The woman apologized and explained, "We didn't have this green thing back in my earlier days."

The cashier responded, "That's the problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations."

She was right - our generation didn't have the "green thing" when we were young. Back then, we returned milk bottles, soft drink and beer bottles to the shop. The shop sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilised and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. 

But we didn't have the "green thing" back in our day. We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.  

But she was right. We didn't have the "green thing" in our day. Back then, we washed the baby's nappies because we didn't have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts - wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.

But that young lady is right; we didn't have the "green thing" back in our day. Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house - not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?) not a screen the size of the state of SA. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric gadgets to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap; brown paper and string, not plastic padded envelopes. Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn fuel just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right; we didn't have the "green thing" back then. We drank from a fountain (or even a hose) when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink (does anyone remember ink monitors?) instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But we didn't have the "green thing" back then. Back then, people took a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their mothers into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. We used a telephone directory and a map. Or cooked at home.

So to all you young ones out there - something to remember: don't make older people mad. We don't like being old in the first place, so it doesn't take much to piss us off!

My friend then went on to tell me how her local tip (renamed a "resource centre") has been bought out by a private company, which has stopped making piles of old timber and potentially recyclable building materials being available to crafty, resourceful citizens. Now everything has to go into bins to be crushed and used as landfill. How sad. No more old timber recycled into quaint chook sheds or old windows being used as cold frames to raise seedlings in the cold climate where my friend lives.  

17 March 2011

Chasing the light in 2011

Light was a recurring theme in my 2010 travels. Sadly I didn't get to see the Northern Lights, but I did have some amazing experiences in just three or four hours of daylight in Scandinavia.

As an enthusiastic photographer, I also learnt a lot about using what light there is - and so I've decided to combine my two loves this year and do some photography workshops and courses in France! I've found a great outfit called Ocean Capture Adventures, based near Biarritz in the south-west. First up will be a three-day workshop in Soustons, 45 km north of Biarritz, then a three-day tour focusing (literally) on the stilt fishing huts of the Gironde. So that's the first week of my three week stay in France. More to follow. 

And back to the Alliance Francaise next week with added motivation!