Short trips

Posted in Journal, La France, Travel at 16:35

New carry-onI’m taking a short vacation this week — short by French standards, anyway, with 3 days off before the weekend. In my current job, I get 25 base holidays, 1.5 extra holidays due to length of time with the company, 2 “bridge” days, 4 employee RTTs and 6 employer RTTs, for a total of 38.5 paid holidays. Per year. The “bridge” days are to be used when there’s a national holiday on a Tuesday or a Thursday — you can take the Monday or the Friday as a “bridge” (pont). RTT stands for réduction du temps de travail and is related to the 35-hour legal work week in France. Since we work 39 hours a week at our offices, we recover that overtime with extra paid holidays, called “RTTs”. Some are “employee”, i.e. can be used at employee discretion, whereas others are “employer”, i.e. only the employer can set them for the employee, up until October, when the employee can then use them at will. These are mainly used for any unassigned time, since we’re consultants and sometimes, though rarely, don’t have a mission. As for sick days, the concept as used in the US does not exist in France, since if you’re ill enough, a doctor will give you an official form (arrêt maladie) for the number of days you need to stay at home. You’re always paid for those days, and regular paid holidays are only affected by sick days if you miss a large amount of work due to illness (after something like 2 or 3 months’ worth, they might take off a few paid holidays).

So in short, I’m using a few of those 38.5 paid days off to relax! Tomorrow I’ll be taking a day excursion to Corsica, and thought I might share how I pack for day trips in this part of the world. I only take one bag, which is my camera bag. In it I put:
– my camera with a fully-charged battery
– lens cleaning tissue
– my mobile phone, also with a fully-charged battery
– sunglasses
– fold-up brush with mirror (it’s surprising how handy a mirror can come in)
– small packet of tissues, because I’ve had it happen often enough that public restrooms had no toilet paper!
– a few bandages and aspirin just in case
– small wallet — not my usual one — with just one bank card, my carte Vitale (French national health care card), one piece of ID, and a bit of cash (not much)
– prepaid bus card for travel to and from the boat (or train or plane)
– keys to my home, of course
– a pen (always seem to use it when I bring one)
– an extra, small fold-up bag for any purchases

In addition I carry:
– a bottle of water
– snacks

The bottle of water is important, because when traveling in France, you can count on bottled water prices to be much higher than in any regular supermarket. The boat to Corsica is fast, but still takes 2 hours and 45 minutes — you don’t want to be stuck on a boat without anything to drink and where a small bottle of water is sold for €1.50, when you can get them in stores for around 30 cents, or fill your own bottle at home for free!

This way you have a minimal amount to carry, making it easier to explore unencumbered, much easier to keep an eye on your things, and yet you have the right necessities to ensure that all will be well in case anything goes awry.

Photos from my excursion will likely be up on Friday.

More fun with water

Posted in La France at 12:32

Water damage (living room)
Yesterday I went to Nice’s city center to shop our summer sales, then buy groceries for the week. After finding some clothes and DVDs, I went home. As I walked into our building entry, my upstairs neighbor’s middle son asked me whether I knew how to turn off the building’s water, since they had a leak. “You should have a cutoff for your apartment,” I offered helpfully, “I have one in mine.” “We don’t, or we can’t find it,” he said worriedly. “Where’s your leak?” I asked. “In our bathroom… a pipe beneath the bathtub blew out…” Suddenly I realized I was probably being inundated. I ran downstairs, opened my door, and sure enough, there was water streaming down my walls, as you can see here. I moved the stereo and computer away — luckily the wood table over my PC had protected it, and only my stereo and the tabletop were wet. Then I took the photo you see here.

The neighbor’s son and I went into the building’s plumbing and heating room, but couldn’t find which valve to turn; there were nearly a dozen. I shoved the Pages Jaunes (French Yellow Pages) into his hands, since he didn’t know any plumbers, and told him to find one and call them. Then I ran back into my apartment to save more things and strategically place buckets to catch the rainfall from the ceiling.

Thankfully, my neighbor across the hall got home a few minutes later. “Bonsoir !” I said quickly, then “do you know where the building’s water supply cutoff is?? A pipe burst and we can’t find the valve, meanwhile my apartment’s turning into a lake!!” He showed me which valve to turn. It was in a small back chamber of the plumbing room, which was black with age and entirely dark. Once the building’s pipes had emptied most of their remaining water, the rainfall in my apartment subsided to intermittent dripping. Mission accomplished — and now our whole building was without running water.

A plumber, drunk, finally showed up two hours later. Diagnosis: the pipe that had burst in my upstairs neighbors’ apartment was part of the building’s main line. We don’t know when it will be able to be repaired; it’s made of copper, which erodes with age and hard water. Probably all of the building’s pipes need to be replaced — as a matter of fact, two weeks ago I had noticed micro-leaks in pipes that run through my WC, which I’d reported to our building management and my insurance. (French homeowner rule #1: never trust a syndic — building management.) We told the drunk plumber to go home for the evening since he could do no more, and I called another plumber, the one who looked at my shower last year. He doesn’t work weekends, so I had to leave a message, and we won’t know anything more until tomorrow. My living room looks like this, and my bedroom was affected too. The good news being that nothing else was damaged, and I’ll likely have both rooms repainted by my homeowner’s insurance.

I did get to see my upstairs neighbors’ apartment. It’s about 60 square meters (645 square feet), two bedrooms, one bath, separate WC, living room, and separate kitchen. Six people live in it. Two adults, their three sons, and their eldest son’s daughter. It’s not unheard of here, since real estate prices are so high, but it was the first time I’d ever witnessed such living arrangements myself. It humbled me, having 45 square meters (480 square feet) all to myself. I certainly don’t look at my place with the same eyes as before.

On a related note, this MetaFilter post led me to a wonderful site about communal living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life. Once you’ve chosen your language, you may need to set your video options, which can be done with the “Options” tab on the right there. It’s fascinating. Apartment buildings in France weren’t too different up until the mid-20th century. Although apartments themselves were private, not many had their own toilets, which were shared, one on each floor depending on the building’s size. This is why my own WC is so small — originally, there was only the bathroom; the WC was put in later, its size minimized to save space.

New building interior

Posted in Home improvement, Journal at 15:10

My front door, after
In January, we copropriétaires (owners of apartments in our building) voted to redo our building’s sad interior. The exterior had been redone just before I moved in, which was a major selling point for me — un ravalement de façade (façade cleaning, renovation and repainting) is very expensive, but doesn’t need to be done often. As for bargaining points, I was able to lower the price thanks to the electrical hiccups along with the downright ugly state of my entrance and the rest of the building’s interior.

It looks so much better now, it’s incredible. I’ve done a couple other small DIY projects inside my place too, putting a glass shelf in my bathroom and, today, getting a new light fixture for the kitchen. With our big summer sales on now, it was half off at Habitat, which always has nice quality light fixtures. I was very glad to replace the flimsy old wood fixture when I took it out and realized that the previous owners — them again — had bolted the fixture directly into the electrical wire hole. As in, they had drilled a metal screw into the same hole as the electrical wires, using a wood light fixture.

I admit I’m increasingly tempted to call them up and tell them never to touch anything electrical ever again in their lives, because every single electrical fixture they’ve done has been a fire hazard. Not to mention the shower (they built a tile-bottomed shower without waterproofing the bottom) and water heater. Water heaters are supposed to be hung on load-bearing walls. The previous owners hung it on a cheap partition wall. And only used one bracket instead of two. Brilliant. I noticed the water heater issue when I first visited; it will be fixed along with the shower once I can afford all that in a few months, which I’m really looking forward to.

A Tour de France Fourth of July

Posted in La France at 11:23

Coyot (2)
Yesterday I took the train to Monaco and went to one of my old haunts: the offices I used to work in. They’re on Boulevard Princesse Charlotte, which is where the Tour de France passed yesterday for the Prologue. I sat on a curb bump at the Livestrong ads, since they made a nice solid background, as opposed to smaller and more colorful ads. This was my general view. All of my photos from the Prologue are in this set.

My vantage point did indeed make for some great photos. The one posted here is my favorite — the rider is Arnaud Coyot. I did, of course, also get Lance Armstrong, but he lowered his head. His fiche coureur (rider stats) put him in tenth place currently. Another favorite is this shot of rider Bernhard Eisel, who rounded the corner near the railway station while I was walking there to take a train back to Nice. Japan has two riders in this year’s Tour, and this photo of Fumiyuki Beppu is one I’m really happy with — you can tell how the solid yellow advertisement makes all the difference with these. Currently in eleventh place, Gustav Larsson has a great tattoo on his left calf.

In just a few minutes I’ll be leaving to watch the Tour on the Promenade des Anglais. I doubt I’ll get such good photos as yesterday’s, since the Promenade is flat, so riders will be going faster, and in groups rather than separately. But it’s certainly a neat experience to watch them!

Hyvää juhannuspaïvää

Posted in Gardening, Journal, La France, Nice at 11:20

Light catcher
Juhannuspäivää is the name Finland gives to midsummer. On midsummer day, Finland and the Scandinavian countries have huge communal parties that are immense fun, and so on 21 June I always have warm thoughts of Helsinginkeskus (Helsinki city center) overtaken by youths in graduation sailor caps, dressed in overalls and, well, drinking. Lots of drinking. For at least 24 hours straight.

This is my patio as it looked a few moments ago. In a month or two I’ll finally get my tax refund and have paid off the majority of the non-mortgage loans I had to take out in order to furnish my apartment last year. (My previous apartment was a furnished rental, so I had practically no furniture of my own and, especially, no appliances.) To pre-celebrate, yesterday I got myself something I’ve wanted for the longest time: a deck chair! It’s a solid oak frame, sold by Habitat and on sale once a year — which happens to be now. Once the tax refund has well and truly arrived, my next purchase will be a small oven, since I’m going mad without one. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a gluten (wheat, oats, etc.) and casein (all animal milks) intolerance, which means I can’t just order out for pizza, for example, and nor can I buy regular pies and cakes. Gluten- and casein-free baked goods are sold frozen and require an oven to cook them. Homemade pizza, freshly-baked lemon and apple pies… I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile I’m making do with delicious market finds. Today there were vegetables grown in Nice for sale, so I got some courgettes trompettes (flower zucchini) and an aubergine. I also got a type of melon I’ve always wanted to try, called le puits d’amour, “the love well”. Last week I tried a Charentais Carlencas melon, which was the most divinely delicious melon I have ever had the pleasure to savour.

I do have an update on my mentally ill, abusive neighbor: a few months ago she once again put crap (literal crap) on my patio and screamed at me, so I called the cops on her. Three VERY large gendarmes (national police, not local) took statements from another neighbor, myself, and the culprit. Two of the policemen had a private chat with her. When they returned they were visibly unnerved and said she was clearly off her rocker and among the most abusive people they’d had to deal with. The good news is, whatever they said to her had a strong effect: ever since, she hasn’t dared to speak to me, much less touch my patio (apart from some benign things like broken pens and paintbrushes). It has been wonderful to be able to use my patio. I do still keep a close eye on the kitties, of course. Her divorce should be final soon, and according to the police, she’ll have to move, since being unemployed (and unemployable in her mental state), she likely won’t be able to afford to buy out her husband’s half to her apartment. We’re all hoping that’s the case.

Colorful boats

Posted in La France, Nice at 20:01

Boat colors, port of Nice
I also went to the port yesterday, going on foot along the Promenade. Unbeknownst to me, there was a show of cars for the Jean Behra rally, so I was glad I had walked rather than taking the bus.

Nice’s port is lined by colorful buildings and all types of boats can be found there, from cruise ships to NGV (high-speed boats to Corsica) to ostentatious yachts licensed to ports such as Nassau, Cayman Islands and London, to a lineup of school sailboats to small wooden boats painted every color of the rainbow. The two in the closeup here are shown from further away in this picture. I also liked this lavender and bright turquoise boat, as well as the funnily-named M’en bati. In Nice there’s a saying, “m’en bati, sieu Nissart” — “I don’t give a flip, I’m Niçois”, joking with Nice’s strong sense of individuality. Nice was not part of France until 1860, and even that cession was — and still is — strongly debated. Although it’s extremely doubtful that Nice’s inhabitants would ever actually declare their independence, the idea is discussed, and to this nine-year resident’s ears, often seems more like an affirmation of their uniqueness than a true call for secession. (In that sense it is much like Pacific Northwesterners griping about similar issues — see the “Free Cascadia” icon in my sidebar!)

Nice’s Russian church

Posted in La France, Nice at 17:10

Eglise Russe (8)
As I mentioned yesterday, I walked to the Russian Orthodox church not far from my place this morning to take some photographs. It was a beautiful day; the church was lovely. You can see all the photos I took of it here. I arrived just before 10am and had a wonderful surprise: the bells started ringing. But they didn’t just ring the time — they played an incredible piece of music that lasted for several minutes! I highly recommend visiting on a Sunday at 10am if you enjoy music, because it was among the most amazing experiences I’ve had. I took a mobile phone video of part of it, but it’s much less impressive than in reality. Do note, however, that you won’t be able to go inside the church on a Sunday morning since they have their services then.

On my way from the church to Nice’s port, I passed our famous hotel, the Negresco, and snapped this picture of it against one of our gorgeous deep blue skies:


Riviera views

Posted in La France, Nice at 19:44

Saint-Honorat, monastère fortifié
A quick catch-up post: a month ago I had the chance to take a helicopter ride over the Bay of Cannes. We had fifteen minutes in a Robinson R44 (four-seater helicopter) and flew to the nearby Îles de Lérins. Six years ago I did something similar in a small plane, where we flew over the Estérel from Cannes airport. That time I got to fly, but not this time, though I did get some gorgeous photos.

One of the photos was of trains along the coast that looked like miniatures from above. Not long afterwards, I found the fun and tweaked that photo to truly look like a miniature train scene! I did the same to a train over a stone bridge I shot in Tende two years ago, and to a photo of Nice’s port that I took last autumn. That last photo is the same one I use for the title header here — I love how it turned out.

Tomorrow I’ll be going to the Russian Orthodox cathedral, which isn’t far from my place, and then to Nice’s port to better shoot some small boats whose colors caught my eye last week (I only had my mobile phone at the time).

Budget living in France

Posted in La France, Nice at 14:01

"Thank you, I'll keep this hand"

The photo is unrelated to this post’s subject, but I wanted to share how Grey encourages being petted, and how large his paws are. At five foot eleven (1m80) I’m not a small woman, but next to Grey’s mitts, my hands certainly look it!

I’ve found it interesting to read various “life on a budget” discussions elsewhere, so thought I might share my own penny-saving tips. The biggest one is that I don’t have a car. A bus serves a stop two blocks from my place, and one block from our offices. That costs just €30 a month, and I spend another €10/month for the tram, for a grand total of €40/month. Beyond those set costs, I can go by bus, train or plane to pretty much anywhere from Nice. I also don’t have a television. Now, before anyone scoffs “another anti-TV person argh”, please realize that it costs about 120 euros a year just to watch regular French public television, due to the redevance audiovisuelle, and that’s for only six channels. Cable and satellite are extra, of course. I would much rather save that money, not to mention the cost of a TV, and use it to buy the series and movies I really like on DVD. Then I can watch them on my PC when I want, as many times as I want, and without advertisements.

As internet and phone go, I haven’t had a true land line since 1997, when I was a student in Lyon. In Helsinki in 1998, mobile phone subscriptions were dirt cheap, and with friends who worked at Nokia, I had free loan phones. Once in France, I started out with prepaid phone cards, but a few years ago the validity of cheaper cards was cut from 3 months to just 15 days, or one month at most. I shopped around and found a cheap subscription for 7 euros a month that gave me 10 minutes for free; I upgraded last month and now pay €10/month for 20 free minutes and unlimited free SMS, although no free data. That’s all right though, since I have uncapped ADSL for €30 a month, with unlimited free VoIP calls to pretty much anywhere in the world.

As for utilities, in France there still isn’t much choice. I go through EDF (privatized in 2007) since it’s less bad than its competitors. I use CFL bulbs, an A++ class washer (1 kWh per load) and refrigerator-freezer (less than 1 kWh per day), and dry my clothes outside. My telephone is Eco DECT (60% less power consumption than regular phones), I built my computer with just the basics so it only needs a 250-watt power supply, and I have an electric cooktop and 1.8 kW water heater. All told I only pay €30 a month for electricity. Water and heating are centralized through my apartment building and average out to €50 a month.

I pick up free, abandoned furniture: two nice chairs and a set of wood trestles to date. Other furniture is either secondhand or Ikea, with a few pieces from sales at Habitat.

Sales in France are on dates that are set by decree: Google dates soldes france. Winter sales are usually in early January through mid-February, with summer sales at the end of June through July. Stores have other, smaller sales too, so it’s good to keep an eye out for when they come.

Groceries are more complicated since I have a gluten and casein intolerance — I can’t eat wheat/barley/oats (think pasta and bread) nor any animal milk products. Generally I get 5-kilo (11-pound) bags of jasmine rice from the local Asian supermarket (Promo Asie in Nice), which last me about a month. I spend a grand total of €5 a week at market for potatoes, fruits, aubergine (eggplant), onions, and one or two other vegetables. I don’t think I’ve ever reached €10 at a marché. And the produce is delicious! I dice the veggies and freeze them to use all week with rice, and for breakfast I eat gluten-free muesli with soy milk, since I use a lot of energy while mountain biking in the forests during mornings.

Which brings up a good point: although my GT mountain bike was expensive at 1800 euros (I got it on sale — the original price was 2500!), I’ve had it for three years now, riding at least 30 kilometers a week, and have only had to pay €50 total for repairs since buying it. Other people who spent half as much on their mountain bikes and ride less than me have spent much, much more in repairs, and most have had to buy new bikes in that same amount of time. Meanwhile mine is still running beautifully.

The kitties get high-quality “carnivore” food such as Orijen. It costs a bit more, but they eat less of it than foods with grains (which cats are not meant to eat in large quantities, since they’re obligate carnivores), and they’re so much healthier that I feel badly for not having done the same for Malo. I’ll get 7-kilo bags and have them delivered, which is actually cheaper than going to the store to buy the smaller, more widespread 2.5-kilo bags. I also try to avoid fish-based foods, mainly because there are so few fish left in the seas nowadays.

Progress on tomettes

Posted in Home improvement, La France, Nice at 09:49

Living room looking towards sofa nook

I’ve continued restoring the original tomettes, traditional southern French terracotta tiles I discovered (and uncovered) in December. As a reminder, this is what the living room looked like before, while this photo shows the tile adhesive I had to remove.

The photo above, tomettes now clean, shows how the sofa nook looks now, and here’s the other half of the living room. Last Sunday I decided to test my theory about a heavy-duty cleaner (décapant in French) that I had used before and that didn’t work so well. Instead of diluting it as recommended, I added only half the amount of water prescribed, making it more concentrated. This worked nicely, and I was able to scrape off tile adhesive residue very quickly. About two-thirds of the living room still needed adhesive scoured off — I finished it all that same day!

What most surprises me is that the floor is in such good shape. The apartment building dates from 1953, so the tomettes are 56 years old, and yet only one of them has serious damage. The rest were so well cared-for that even after being tiled over, then having that tile removed, and being scoured, scraped and treated with a chemical cleaner, they still shine! My apartment has only had two owners before me, with the previous owners having bought four years ago and putting in the tile when they arrived, so it would seem that the original owner truly cared for the terracotta floor.

Some thin spots of residue still need to be scrubbed off with a regular scouring pad, but that should go quickly. After that, all that remains is to seal and wax the floor. Easier said than done since with the furniture, I’ll only be able to do half at a time. And will need to keep kitties from exploring the floor while it’s worked on. They behaved surprisingly well with the ammonia-based cleaner, never once touching it — I’m assuming because it smelled bad.