Paris-Nice by TGV

Posted in La France, Travel at 12:32

Ever since learning about the TGV as a child, I dreamt of one day taking it. When I finally rode the Paris Gare de Lyon – Lyon Part-Dieu two-hour stretch as a newly-arrived exchange student in 1997, I was giddy. It was the end of August, early in the morning, and the French countryside was covered in shades of green, grazing cows, and houses whose walls and roofs changed as we moved a kilometer every twelve seconds (300km/h) from cooler northern France to its central region.

Since then, I had only ever taken the TGV once in a while. I promised myself that if I ever had a job that sent me away from home, I would take the train – not just because it’s cheaper and more convenient, but because the sight of France from its windows was so breathtaking.

On a flight from Nice to Paris, you get a lovely view of the Mediterranean Alps, and when flying over Switzerland, an enviable sight of some of the tallest mountains in the world from the air. Once you’ve seen them a couple times, however, that’s about it. You’re too high up to benefit from much detail.

Yesterday I took my third morning rail trip from Paris to Nice. I’ve been accustomed to taking in scenery on my bus commutes between Nice and Sophia Antipolis; this third time by TGV suddenly made me aware of another reality. I’ll be seeing France as she changes seasons! In just one month, from early March to early April, she has gone from grey and muted greens with bare deciduous trees and huddled cows to relishing in the returning sun. Bare-earth fields have now become resplendent in yellow canola robes. Hibernating vineyard stumps have begun pushing out their first leaf buds. Countryside roads are graced with cyclists in short-sleeved jerseys wearing smiles on their spring faces. Such a happy metamorphosis to witness.

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La Défense en boucle

Posted in La France, Paris, Photography at 19:08

Businessman sculpture, Courbevoie

Today I took a long walk around the northern half of La Défense, starting from the top (northwest), in Courbevoie, which has RER rail tracks leading to the business quarter. From there I walked to the opposite side, in Nanterre, the southwestern end of La Défense. It’s the first time I’ve been outside of skyscraper-land; unfortunately, I can’t really say I was impressed by the large Parc André Malraux, meant to be the area’s greenery. Most of the visual interest in this part of the Parisian suburbs comes from architecture rather than nature.

Thus it was that I returned to the parvis de la Défense on my boucle, or “round”. Yet another temporary art exhibition is being set up, which looks like it will be glass mosaic fishes in front of La Grande Arche.

Now with enough photos to merit it, I’ve created a set for La Défense. It has a mix of pictures taken with my phone, which has quite a decent wide-angle lens, and my Nikon SLR. You may notice several shots of the GDF Suez building (shown below) – that would be because not only do I find it a beautiful skyscraper, it’s also the client I’m currently working for. During my first few days in Paris, the sun came out and turned all the glass and metal into beautiful plays of light. Indeed, while I generally prefer natural vistas, I’ve found La Défense, with its fields of rock and concrete, trees of glittering steel, and flowers of iron, to be a postmodern forest in its own right.

GDF Suez T1 tower in the sun

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Now in Courbevoie

Posted in Journal, Paris at 18:30

Sisyphus pushing towards La Defense

The cats and I are well-installed here in Courbevoie, a couple kilometres west of Paris proper. The photo above was taken in Neuilly, looking towards La Défense – Courbevoie is just to the right of those skyscrapers. Spring winds have picked up and carried much of the pollution away, making it easier to breathe.

My new apartment is both different and similar to the one I have in Nice. It’s smaller, at just under 30 square metres (mine in Nice is 45 sq.m.), with a 10 square-metre balcony (the patio in Nice is 18 sq.m.). My place down south is laid out much like a miniature house: living room, bedroom, kitchen, closets, separate WC and bathroom. As a result, I’ve gotten used to moving between rooms, opening and closing doors – simple things you don’t think about until they change. In Courbevoie, the apartment is a studio, with a nice-sized bathroom. It’s shaped like a U, with the main living area in the bottom of the U, the entry and kitchen at either end, and the bathroom filling up the middle space.

Where my building in Nice dates from 1940 and is distinctly Art Deco, the Courbevoie building dates from 2000 and is distinctly “suburbian modern”. Straight lines, squared corners, shades of eggshell. Both are beautifully quiet! We have parquet in Courbevoie, central heating, and something I had never experienced before: central hot water. Not just central to the building: central to all of Courbevoie! The city has a “hot water plant”. It’s nice not to have a water heater taking up space, and hot water on demand.

Work has still been very busy. Although I don’t have any métro (commute), it has been mostly boulot – dodo (work and sleep) since I arrived at the start of the month. Next week promises to be more of the same. Hopefully, afterwards things will balance out to where I have more time and energy to finally start making the most of life in Paris.

One of my colleagues also does some road cycling, and told me there are quite a few nice trips from Courbevoie! The next time I’m in Nice, I’ll pick up my bike and everything I need to ride.

Kanoko and his surprised tummy

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Greetings from… sweet-aired Nice

Posted in Nice, Paris, Travel at 17:19

You may have been wondering why I haven’t posted in the last two weeks spent in Paris. The answer is simple: I changed my blog password before leaving, and, naturally, forgot it.

This weekend I’m briefly back home on the Riviera, picking up such necessities as hi-fi speakers and spring-weight blazers. As an unplanned bonus, I am also gulping up as much mimosa-and-sea-scented fresh air as possible.

This last week in Paris was quite literally suffocating. We had terrible air pollution; so bad that for the first time in the history of Paris, public transportation was made entirely free for three days, starting yesterday. This was nice timing for getting to and from my TGVs! This morning I popped into the RER A at La Défense and was at Gare de Lyon fourteen minutes later. For free. Walking through open stiles in Paris city center is an experience I’ll long remember, after years of wrassling with the things whenever visiting.

Kanoko, Susu, and I spent our first week and a half in a cheap apartment-hotel in Courbevoie, at the northwest corner of La Défense. Thanks to friends, I quickly found a furnished apartment nearby! We moved in on Wednesday. The cats took to the new place right away. Both of them had a rough time with the hotel; the tiny, dirty window (grimy even after I tried to sponge it off) drove them a bit stir-crazy, and they huddled under the covers every day. Once in the new apartment, however, they took to their old habits of pigeon-gazing from the French balcony doors, and dozing tummy-up on the vintage couch.

As for me, I spent the first week focused on work, and the second desperately trying to stay healthy while losing my voice, throat, and sinuses to toxic air pollution (100 microns per cubic metre). I didn’t get much sightseeing done – as a result, readers haven’t missed much of my Paris adventure so far!

Before the smog settled in, I took this photo on my morning “commute”, a 15-minute walk to the offices I’m at. You can find a few more photos in my Flickr stream – more will come soon, and now that I have my blog password, they’ll be posted here.

Grande Arche de la Defense

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From ranches to skyscrapers

Posted in Biographical, La France, Paris at 19:52

Eiffel Tower in front of La Défense
Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars, from the Tour Montparnasse, by Wladyslaw

Having had four days to think about living in Paris for real, it’s finally starting to sink in. Paris has always been one of the very few 10+ million cities in the world I’ve ever considered living in.

Except I only ever considered it for the briefest of moments! I always brushed it off with, “I would live in Paris, but housing is too expensive and commute times are insane.” With this new opportunity, I’ll be living in Paris without having to pay its crazy rents, and without much of a commute, since I’ll be in a furnished apartment complex near the client offices.

I grew up in the middle of nowhere, Oregon, and loved it. Loved the fields, the cargo train whose caboose engineer tooted for our schoolbus as we cheered its slow passage blocking us from school, meaning we’d get there an hour late. Loved the cows lolling about in fields with trees whose foliage was pruned straight on the bottom, from cows with necks outstretched. Loved the fresh streams and rivers in which we hunted crawdads and swam. I earned my BA in French at the nearby University of Oregon, only a half-hour drive from our house in the boondocks.

My fourth-year application for the direct exchange program in Lyon was nearly rejected for one reason alone: I had never lived in a big city. Eugene is only a hundred-sixty-thousand strong. Lyon, where I finished my degree, has a population of half a million; they thought that would be a huge change. Nice is actually about the same size, if you only count inhabitants – when you add in tourists, its population varies between 1 and 1.5 million.

Paris intramuros, which is only about 7 miles in diameter on average, counts 2.2 million people; if you add its outer neighborhoods, the number rises to 12 million. I’ll be working in one of those neighborhoods, La Défense. The Wikimedia photo above shows La Défense behind Eiffel. Our client’s offices are in one of the taller skyscrapers you can see there.

It’s a wee bit of a change from growing up around single-storey woodframe homes. We don’t have any skyscrapers in Nice either; everything is 10 storeys or fewer, with most around 4-5 storeys.

I keep asking myself, will I really be comfortable in such a big city? Am I a “big city person” or a “small town” one? I’ve always thought a lot depended on the city. I think I will quickly miss the outdoors. As for the rest, though… well, life is giving me yet another opportunity to discover who I am and what I love. I feel very lucky, blessed, and grateful.

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From Nice to Paris

Posted in Biographical, Meta, Paris, Travel at 16:04

 
Eiffel Tower, sunset, December 2012

Just over four years ago, I travelled to Paris on business and took some of my favorite photographs; those of the Eiffel Tower at sunset. One of them is above, in this post, and another is now the banner image of my blog.

“Wait… what?” you may well and rightly be asking. I would have asked the same thing six days ago. Come to think of it, I said, “ah… heu, Paris ?” to our business unit director on Monday, which was only five days ago. Two days later I was in Paris – that was the day trip I posted about. Another two days later, yesterday, the client I had met there confirmed that they would be taking me on.

So it happened that, in the space of a week, my life has changed. In just another week, I will be living and working in Neuilly, a few métro stops outside of Paris! The project is for several months, and my home base will still be our offices in Sophia Antipolis. My apartment in Nice will remain my home, while lodging and food are all covered for my Paris stay. The two fluffykins will take the train with me and get to know life in the City of Light.

As you might be guessing from my matter-of-fact recounting of the story, and the short timeframe, I’m still a wee bit overwhelmed! The project is with a major French multinational, and I’ll be testing a major systems migration/upgrade that will first be implemented in France and Belgium. This also means I may well make trips to Brussels! It’s not just a great personal opportunity, it’s also a wonderful professional one.

The timing is meaningful as well. 2014 is the 20th anniversary of my web presence (website/journal/blog) and the 10th anniversary of my very first project with my employer. I almost never talk about work here (mainly for reasons of confidentiality), so even regular readers may not know it – originally, in 2004, I was brought on by our French IT consultancy as a freelance technical translator. Three managers in particular, and two other colleagues, noticed that I had a geek’s knack for computing. I wasn’t a developer, but I grokked systems and how they operated. They weren’t able to hire me at the time, but a couple of other freelance projects and two years later, they gave me a temporary contract (CDD in French) to work as a technical documentation supervisor. It was a neat experience, and one in which I needed to test our documentation with regards to the hardware and software it was describing.

Again, our company wasn’t able to hire me immediately, but this time the space between major projects wasn’t two years – only a few months. I was offered training towards certification as a software tester, which I gladly accepted. At the same time, they offered me a permanent contract (the French CDI). That was seven years ago. Ever since, I’ve greatly enjoyed my job investigating software and systems, writing up ways to test them, and then doing that. It’s a great fit for both my inquisitive personality and my “odd” mix of strengths in computing and documentation – technical and literary. All of it thanks to people in our company who noticed what I was capable of, and gave me the chance to show what I could do with it.

This project in Paris is a continuation of that. I’m delighted it’s happening!

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Paris in a day

Posted in Cats, La France, Photography, Travel at 19:17

 

Yesterday my employer sent me to our consulting company’s Paris offices for a client interview. The potential project would be with a client located in La Défense, which is a business sector in Neuilly, just outside of Paris. You can see La Grande Arche de la Défense from the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées; it looks like a contemporary square white arch not much larger than the historical Arc. Once you’re actually in front of it, though, you realize that it is massive.

After the meeting finished, I had an hour of free time to see Paris. I took métro line 1 to the Tuileries, the large gardens in front of the Louvre. I found a tea shop nearby, with reasonable prices given it was set between the Conseil d’État and the Louvre. I sipped a delicious jasmine tea, then took the metro and RER back to Orly for my flight home. There are a few more photos in this set of the trip.

I thought the kitties would understand me getting home a couple hours later than usual. They seemed to yesterday evening, but not this morning. As I prepared to leave for work, Susu started mewing at me and circling my feet. When I went to get my purse, she said, “MEW?!” and jumped on it. She refused. To. Budge. “No! You are staying home today! No more purses taking you to offices! Mew!” She managed to jump back on it the three times I picked her up; eventually I had to pick up my purse with her on it, then put her on the floor. “Meeewwwwww…” she cried. Too smart for her own sweet good, that little kitty-girl.

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Happy in Nice

Posted in La France, Nice at 19:05

A friend posted this today – it’s a fun video that shows a lot of places that will look familiar to blog readers! I know all of them, even the library (Université de Nice), which is where I did much of the research for my Masters thesis a few years ago.

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Le Plan Vélo 2020 de Nice

Posted in Cycling, Nice at 14:37

Le Negresco with cyclist, November 2011

In November, while cycling home from my job in Cagnes-sur-Mer, I saw something no one wants to witness. On the Promenade in Nice, a few hundred metres before reaching Le Negresco, a SAMU (EMT) van was stopped next to the bike lanes, and two cyclists were on the ground, their bikes – one from our Vélo Bleu bike share – in a twisted heap. Neither cyclist had a helmet, and neither was moving or making a sound. I couldn’t look longer than that. I slowed down and signalled to cyclists behind me to do the same; only half a lane was free for passing the crash site.

Growing up in the Oregon countryside, our elementary schools in the 1980s had day-long courses where police and firefighters came to the school to teach us road, fire, and health safety. It made a lasting impression on me. I already knew how to ride a bike, but as a child, even when your parents explain rules to you, you don’t quite grasp that there are other people involved in your safety. This is normal: a child develops most healthily when their family provides a safe space, one the child does not see as “external”. When the firefighters and police came, they were other people – not family. I remember being struck by how important it was to have these other people to take care of you if you were in an accident, and how useful sensible road rules and regulations were. This is where my philosophy of “ride predictably” came from. It’s not just for your safety, it’s also for others. The road is a shared space, and behaving predictably means that everyone has a chance to use it in as egalitarian a manner as possible.

It doesn’t take long in Nice to notice that there are quite a few people who couldn’t care less about driving predictably. Red light? Accelerate. Pedestrian crossing at a light? Swerve around them. Yes, I have been swerved around and cursed at while crossing the street on a green pedestrian light – the cars had red lights. Motorized scooters drive on the sidewalk at full speed and will also curse at you if you tell them to use the empty road. In this sort of environment, it wasn’t too surprising to discover that a minority of cyclists behaved the same way. Except it was having a very bad impression on novice cyclists, namely bike share users. I spoke with so many people who said, for instance, “why should I signal or stop for pedestrians when drivers don’t?” Others who shrugged, “I don’t see any rules for cyclists, why bother.”

I thought about how my Oregon upbringing had made road cycling enjoyable and safe, looked at what was missing in Nice, and wrote city hall with suggestions. As well as praise. Nice truly has come a long way in the last five years, and the roads are noticeably safer. As the bike share program and bike lanes expanded, however, I saw grave danger ahead if self-centered driving and riding behaviors continued unchecked.

Last December I received a response from Christian Estrosi, saying he had taken my email into account and was tasking his road security department to look into the suggestions. Today I received a hand-addressed letter from the city. To my pride and delight, it was from the directeur de la stratégie de la voirie, or road security/strategy director. They’ve created the Plan Vélo to be fully implemented by 2020, using my suggestions, and more!

- All Vélo Bleu stations will be equipped with signs that detail road regulations and good cycling behaviors (they didn’t have these before)

- Vélo Bleu brochures will also include the same

- La Fête du Vélo and La Semaine européenne de la mobilité will now include informational campaigns on cycling road safety. I had actually overlooked the bike festival in my letter, so was very happy to see that they thought to include it.

- Primary schools will now have educational programs for cycling, in which kids will be able to ride bikes with police officers along protected routes that have road signs and such, so they can learn in a realistic situation. Excellent!

They also assured me of their plans to continue extending bike lanes in the city, which is great news. Bikes make a positive difference in many areas – health, safety, environment, roads… I’m very happy to have been able to contribute to the development of cycling in Nice, and look forward to seeing the plan implemented.

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Kitchen floor transformation

Posted in Home improvement at 18:57

Kitchen progress under the eye of Kanoko

These two photos almost speak for themselves! Above, removal in progress of the yellowish tile installed by the previous owners, on top of old lino. The lino could be anywhere from thirty to sixty years old; I imagine it’s on the older end since it is quite brittle and seems to have lost all its color. Below, progress as of today. I cleaned a patch of the original marble aggregate to show how it looks in comparison to the lino – gray patches on either side – and the original when not yet clean.

Real progress

These old aggregate floors have a variety of colors, and as mine have proven with all they’ve been through, they stand up to abuse in many forms! It should be a great kitchen floor. Unfortunately, there does seem to be a thin crack. You can make it out in the unwashed part on the right. It’s not very wide, though, and once the floor has been cleaned and polished, it won’t be so visible.

Glue, glue everywhere

This is what I’ve been dealing with, both in the living room and in the kitchen. When I’m lucky, I hit patches of tile with very little adhesive. A full square then comes up in one or two pieces – removal is quick and relatively easy. But then there are spots where the previous owners laid on the adhesive thickly. So thickly, that six years later, it’s still damp. That darker patch of adhesive is dark because it’s wet. I had just taken off that piece of tile; you can actually see its similarly-dark underside up and to the right. When there’s so much adhesive, removal takes forever. Where I was able to remove the tile elsewhere in two days, this small patch took me three! I was so glad to finish it today.

About half of the kitchen is now done. Even unpolished, the original floor is much nicer to look at. I can hardly believe the change. It also makes a visual balance with the aggregate in the entry.

Like the terracotta tomettes, a marble aggregate breathes. One of the reasons the tile adhesive was still damp was that the previous owners had used glazed ceramic tile, which doesn’t let moisture pass. While this can be positive depending on its use, it’s less than ideal when set over an older floor. A base moisture barrier should have been put down before laying the tile, in order to avoid the tile trapping humidity like it did. In older buildings like mine, the base floor is tamped earth. Historically, no moisture barrier was put between terracotta or aggregate and tamped earth, because both types of floor breathe. They are water resistant, but not waterproof. This is a strength for a building like mine! I don’t have to worry about humidity building up and warping the floor. That is likely what caused the crack: the ceramic tile was also out of level at that spot, whereas it was level everywhere else. In other words, the previous owners probably laid it on level at the time, but due to the excess humidity trapped between the layers, the original floor expanded and contracted irregularly over the years.

That said, I am paradoxically lucky that they did a bad job. Had they laid the tile properly, I never would have been able to remove it on my own.

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