Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year's Resolutions

So, New Year's Resolutions, do you make them?

I generally make halfhearted ones, that I know I won't keep. But this year, I'm going to try hard!

I am going to be healthier - January is in the nature of an experiment, with no alcohol, no cigarettes and more vegetables and exercise.

I'm going to dig out my Couch-to-5K podcasts and start working through those again. I'm going to wake up earlier, so I have time to do this before work, which should mean that I sleep earlier and better,

I'm not giving up coffee, ever. But if the above works out well in January, I'm going to phase in a more paleo-type diet in February, with more meat and vegetables, and much less - almost no - dairy and grains. (February has the bonus of being a short month, which will help as experiments go.)

I'm planning to post here more regularly, and also to make regular posts on my jewellery blog. I'd like to take part in a Year of Jewellery type scheme, where you make at least one new piece a week.

I'm also considering a slightly less hectic writing schedule than NaNo, and doing 100k in 100 days. That has the bonus of being long enough to actually produce finished work, and I can work on the various pieces I've got started.

That seems more than enough to be getting on with. What are your New Year's Resolutions? I can't be the only one making them!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Driving and Paris

(Twice in one week, don't you feel loved? I wouldn't get used to it just yet. Things are bound to get manic again soon.)

I don't know what the road accident rate is like in Paris. I assume pretty high. (I'd look it up, but, well, I've had 3 hours sleep and I'm not really feeling like doing any actual research right now. I'm sure you'll cope.)

It is, however, a miracle that it isn't higher. Today I have nearly been run over by 2 motorbikes and 1 car, and I was on the pavement each time. This is largely because motorbikes - and bicycles, for that matter - don't seem to make a difference between such concepts as "road" and "pavement", except that the latter usually has less vehicles on it, so you can drive faster.

The car, in a staggering display of logic combined with inspiration, decided that while the one-way system was important enough to respect, it couldn't apply if you reversed up the road. So, on reaching a crossroads near my house and finding he couldn't turn left like he wanted, he turned right, driving over the curb and nearly hitting me standing on the pavement near the zebra crossing and then proceeded to reverse up the one-way street at full speed. This, naturally, couldn't possibly cause any accidents or even vaguely infringe on the law, because his car was facing the right direction.

I weep for humanity.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Europe, the EU and the Eurozone...

(Hello. It's been a while, hasn't it? I'll try to fill you in later, in case anyone's around still who cares...)

Today, though, I would like to be all pedagogic and explain something that I've seen being conflated repeatedly. (Not by any of you, remaining devoted readers, who are obviously brilliant. But others.)

Europe is the continent. It includes all the countries on the continent. It sometimes includes Turkey and usually includes Russia. (For Eurovision purposes, it seems to also include Israel, but that's clearly an unusual definition. Ignore it.) Notwithstanding the presence of sea, I would also include countries like the UK, Ireland and Iceland as part of Europe. (I realise those well-versed in geography might disagree. But they've probably had a nervous breakdown at my total inability to comprehend geography by now and left, so I'm comfortable saying the UK is part of Europe.)

The EU is the European Union. It has 27 member states. These are all part of Europe (per my happy and inclusive definition above, anyway) - but not all countries in Europe are part of the EU. (I'm half planning a lengthy explanation of the EU and its institutions at some point. If I haven't managed to bore everyone around me to death by then, that should finish everyone off.)

The Eurozone (or Euro Area as its also known) is made up of 17 of the EU countries. All the countries in the Eurozone are part of the EU, but not all EU countries are part of the Eurozone. Notable examples of EU countries that aren't in the EU are the UK and Denmark. Greece still is, at least at the time of writing.

I am now confident that this is clear to all, and expect to see no more confusion of these terms. Anywhere. By anyone. Because Google can direct them here and then they can understand all...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Lille - Day 2

The next day, of course, it rained. Nonetheless, intrepid explorers that we are, we decided to go out and See The Sights. Well, see Roubaix, anyway. Roubaix is part of the Lille Metropolitan area, and whilst a town in its own right, acts a bit like a suburb of Lille itself. (I can't imagine living there and never visiting the big city, though I'm sure there are those that do.) It's on a metro line from Lille, so off we went.

It's not the prettiest town in the world. Not without its charms, to be sure - though the cafe we stopped in wasn't really one of them. Possibly the only place left in France where people are allowed to smoke inside (fine enforcement clearly isn't a priority in Roubaix), and run by a very nice woman who nonetheless looked like a meth addict. Still, they served coffee, which was all we needed. They even served it twice, when I knocked the first lot all over the table, the floor, and myself. Who knew there was so much liquid in an expresso?

The Mairie is a very imposing building, looming above the square where the metro stops


We walked, in the rain, around Roubaix. Roubaix is famous for its art galleries and textile heritage, and it is the site of not one, but two outlet villages for buying designer clothes cheaply. It also has a museum in the site of an old workers' swimming pool - water has been left in - which has a glorious stained glass window.

You can see it from the outside here - but sadly, it was closed when we went, so no photos from the inside. (People finding this post through Google, you may wish to note that La Piscine museum in Roubaix is only open in the afternoon.) We'll go back one day...


The sticky labels left by visitors outside formed a pretty collage:


This was spray painted onto a wall near the museum, and appears to be the last photo I took that day. This is presumably because the rain got much worse as the day went on.


We did call in at the outlet village to see if there was anything we wanted to buy - aside from a new pair of jeans that I needed, there wasn't. Disappointing. The rain was getting heavier at this point, so we decided to call it a day and get the tram back to Lille for lunch.

By the time we arrived in Lille, the rain was horrendous. We walked around getting soaked while we found somewhere to eat - we ended up at the lovely Arriere Pays, which serve a huge variety of tartines (open-faced sandwiches, I think they might be called elsewhere), and salted-butter caramel crepes. Which were awesome. Paul, in a fit of insanity, decided to try the local liqueur, genievre. There is a reason that this particular drink hasn't achieved national or international success; it's fucking horrendous. Tastes like anti-freeze, on a good day. I'm unconvinced that you could mix it with anything that would disguise the horror that is this drink. Don't be fooled by its harmless appearance, it is Evil Incarnate.

Having managed to survive the horror, we went back to the hotel to drink champagne and wait for the rain to stop.

The rain, being Lille, steadfastly refused to stop. So we bravely set out, regardless. We sheltered in The Northern Ferret (Le Furet du Nord, I think it sounds better in English) and bought a couple of DVDs and a notebook. We also saw some fine examples of Northern cookbooks (30 ways to cook with carambars, 30 recipes featuring biscuits...)

Northern French cuisine

Following this, we traipsed through the rain til we found somewhere for dinner. It was an estaminet, a traditional Northern French/Belgian cafe, basically, which definitely played up the traditional aspect. It served all sorts of iconic Northern French food, mostly featuring marouilles, beer, or a combination of the two. I had Welsh, which is cheese on toast with beer, cheese and cream. And chips, obviously. (I managed about a quarter of it before feeling like I might die.) Paul had carbonnade, which is meat in a beer stew sauce thing (which was much nicer than my cheesey heart-attack on a plate).

It is, however, in desserts that the North really came into its own. Despite the rain, we both decided on icecreams - a unique combination of speculoos/chicoree/condensed milk flavours for me, and a similarly unusual licorice/carambar/glacier mint (Betisse de Cambrai) mix for Paul (his came with sweeties on top. Still slightly jealous.) There was a pleasing variety of speculoos flavoured options - not only speculoos icecream (which haagen daas also sell, by the way - awesome in a box), but speculoos mousse, and speculoos creme brulee (which I very, very nearly went for). There is also a speculoos flavoured liqueur, which in my mind is sort of like speculoos flavoured baileys - how amazing would that be? You can apparently buy it online. (Speculoos, for those foreign people who haven't had the pleasure, is originally a biscuit - kind of a mix between ginger and cinnamon flavoured. It is brilliant. Often served with coffees here. I think it's Belgian.)

After this, we rolled back to the hotel, through the rain that hadn't let up at all. My clothes still hadn't dried by the time we left Lille the next day.

Day 3 continues in another post...

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Lille for the weekend

So, I've been promising you a post on Lille. Never let it be said I don't deliver... In fact, I may even split this into two posts, possibly even 3, given the number of photos I have for the first day.

The weekend after 14 July, we went to Lille on the first part of our extended Grand Tour. (Later highlights will include Rome and Prague, amongst others.) We had an awesome time. The north of France has a bit of a bad reputation, so I wasn't expecting great things, but Lille is beautiful, friendly, accessible - I'd move there, if it weren't for the fact that I'd die of a heart attack within a week because all of the food is so, so calorie dense. High-calorie meals (beer-soaked bread with toasted cheese on top, surrounded by a cheese, cream and beer sauce, for example) probably made sense when everyone in the region was working in textile mills and the like. Not so much these days...

Knowing my inability to remember things for long, and the likelihood of me actually getting around to writing this blog post any time soon, I actually did make notes at the end of our trip on the things we'd seen and done. Sitting in a cafe near the station, scribbling away in my new notebook, surrounded by beer and smelly cheese. (Marouilles. It should be licenced. It *stinks* and tastes much like it smells, but greasier.) So, we might end up with a slightly more coherent account of our trip than would normally be the case.

We arrived on a sunny afternoon, on the TGV from Paris. Lille is only an hour or so away from Paris by TGV, and a similar distance from Brussels and London. House prices should be much more expensive than they are there - they probably will be, soon. Walking through town, we passed a huge cathedral:




We walked in the sunshine to our hotel - we were staying in a self-contained flat with kitchen and bathroom (Cosy's), which was a brilliant idea. Even though we never actually used the kitchen facilities, it was lovely to have a proper fridge for once, and the option of cooking, if we'd been so inclined. For longer trips, I can see it being a godsend - there's only so much cheese-on-things you can eat... The hotel was a little bit outside the centre of town, towards the castle and the zoo, and it was in a lovely leafy avenue near a university. We will be going back, I'm sure.

Anyway, after settling in to the hotel and making sure everything worked, we went to the Grand Place for beer (when in Lille...) and to the rue de Gand for dinner. The Grand Place in Lille, and the surrounding streets and buildings, is beautiful. (Smells slightly of drains, at least when we went, but beautiful.)













The rue de Gand is a good place to go to if you're in Lille - it's got all sorts of bars and restaurants in it, and it's near a park. It's also near a pub called the Queen's Head. We didn't go in, fearing the worst - but walking towards it from the centre of town, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd somehow walked into an English town centre:


The Queen's Head is on Belgian People road.


There is also a pub opposite the Queen's Head that I don't appear to have photographed, which is called Le Petit Barbu d'Anvers. Which I think translates as The Small Bearded Man from Antwerp. But probably doesn't - amuses me anyway.

We had an apero in a bar opposite the most aptly named gay bar - "Coming Out" - and then wandered up the street to see what the various restaurants had to offer. At the top we turned round and wandered back.




We settled on a restaurant called Au Vieux Louis, about halfway up rue de Gand, which does an incredible panfried duck breast in honey with garlic potatoes (god they were good), steak frites, and an amazing chocolate fondant in vanilla custard. With a melty middle. It was bliss on a plate.

We walked back through the centre of town, as the sun was low in the sky and everything was so pretty. I reckon I could live there.





Friday, 5 August 2011

Floods! Drama!

People, I have abandoned you. I almost feel sorry about it. I still have - and will write this weekend, promise - a post on Lille to put up. And something about a group of mad people who came to visit us last week, where I went up the Eiffel Tower.

[Post interrupted while I attempt to fix minor domestic emergency. See, this is why you don't get posts from me. Life keeps getting in the way.]

Anyway, for now, you will have to be content with the tale of the storm that has flooded Paris. Practically a monsoon. (Though just possibly shorter - monsoons tend to last longer than half an hour, I understand. Otherwise EXACTLY THE SAME, though.)

There I was, leaving work and heading to the pub. (The Frog says hi, jelly people, if you're reading this. Or would if it could talk, being a building and all.) The sky had been getting steadily greyer all afternoon. By the time I left the Metro, it was almost black. I made it to the door before the rain started. Having found my husband and got drinks, we watched as the sky got darker and darker. Soon after, the rain started. Sheets of it. Torrents. And every time we looked up, it got worse. Passers-by gave up with umbrellas. People under cafe awnings moved inside because the splash-back as the rain hit the pavement was soaking them. Smokers huddled in doorways, looking morose. (That last is fairly normal, actually, thinking about it. Smokers in doorways always look morose, no matter the weather. But I digress...) As it was still going, we had another drink. It continued to pour. And then, as if by magic, the sun came out. One second, pissing it down. Next second, bright sunshine and blue sky and aside from the flooded streets, overrun gutters and soaking pavements, as if nothing had happened.

Until we got to St Lazare. Which is not as waterproof as the architects no doubt hoped it would be.

Metro St Lazare

Luckily, we didn't need to cross that. There were a lot of people standing around amusing me as they tried to work out the driest way to cross the new lake that corridor had turned into - and that was one of the corridors you were allowed to go down. Several had been closed to the public because they were too flooded.

There, aren't you glad you bothered to read this? I've written 400 words on the rain. That was totally worth your time. (Hey, I *know* I never said this was going to be an interesting blog!) Lille might be better, though that, too, features a lot of rain. It's been a wet summer...

ETA: those of you reading this in an RSS reader may have seen that the original title mentioned recorders. This is because French supermarkets apparently sell recorders (you know, the children's instruments - are they called the same in American?) - we were buying food on the way home and noticed them with the back to school supplies. It struck me as odd, and I meant to write about it. But forgot til I pressed post. So then I deleted mention of it from the title. But realised that RSS readers probably show the original title. So I thought I should explain...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Senat

Ages ago, I promised a write up of my trip round the Senat. I hadn't forgotten, dear readers (all 3 of you) who are obviously hanging on my every word.

That said, my trip round the Senat was now several weeks ago, and I've lost the handy thingy they gave out at the end with information. So, this may be a slightly more skant version of the blog post I had been intending to write. I know this disappoints you. I'm sorry. (Or, I would be sorry, but I've just come back from holiday, so I don't actually care. But I can pretend, just for you. Yes, I will share the photos and write that up too - maybe even this very evening, if you're lucky. You probably won't be.)

Anyway, the Senat. It's the upper chamber of the French legislature. There are... 340? members. (Their website tells me 343 - I think I was close enough.) And they have the job of scrutinising legislation passed by the lower house, the Assemblee Nationale, and amending it if they think it necessary. Any amendments have to be agreed by the Assemblee Nationale, and, when both houses are in agreement, it goes to the President to sign. (He can't actually refuse, though he technically has the power to do so, I think. What he can do if he hates it is sign it into law, but not implement it - not set an activation date, if you will.)

This is much the same as the process in the UK, for those of you interested - the big practical difference between the Senat and the House of Lords is that the Senat has a clock which limits the amount of time each person is allowed to speak. The Senator proposing amendments can speak for 3 minutes; each person after that has 5 minutes each to put their point across. And there's a big digital red clock counting down as they talk.

The other difference is that the Minister in the Senat doesn't have to actually explain *why* s/he disagrees with the proposed amendments - s/he can just say "I think that's a bad idea." or "Disagree" and sit down. Those of you who have seen debates in the UK Parliament will know that this does not happen there. These both sound like excellent ideas to me, and ones that should be adopted forthwith!

The building (The Palais de Luxembourg) used to belong to Marie de Medici who had it built in 1615 as a modest country home for herself and her son, Louis XIII. It was variously occupied by counts and other important people (Napoleon took it as his residence when he was First Consul of France), and during the War, it served as the headquarters for the Luftwaffe. (There are, I should add, more useful details than my scattered memory can provide on Wikipedia.)

And now, the pretty bits. Photos from the tour, mostly uncaptioned because I couldn't remember what they were if I tried...

Picture on the ceiling





These pictures are painted on leather, if I remember rightly...





Napoleon's throne:


This is the same pattern as you will see on the underneath of the Arc de Triomphe, and is reflected in the carpet on the stairs at the Senat (taken in groups of 4 steps - it's very clever...)

You, too, can go on tours round the Senat - you can certainly go and listen to them debating law if you're so inclined, by handing in your ID at reception and going and sitting very, very quietly in the visitors' gallery. The Senat website has more details on visits if you're interested, and it has a virtual tour, too.