Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Grave Subject - The Catacombs of Paris


From the moment I heard there were catacombs in Paris, I was dying to visit them. So I headed down there with a friend who was visiting us for the week.

 

 Please note - this is not a selfie! I think one of these guys used to be Harry Potter.

The Left Bank of Paris is built above huge limestone deposits. Having once been a warm, shallow sea there were amazing fossils in the rock, such as this giant sea snail.

 

These limestone deposits provided the creamy-colored stone that build the city and resulted in a huge maze of underground quarries.

In the late seventeen hundreds two things happened:

1) Areas of the quarries began to cave in where water had continued to erode the roofs of the subterranean chambers upwards so that they eventually became too thin to support the weight of the buildings above. It must have been terrifying for people to witness whole houses being swallowed up by the ground.

This initiated the inspection Générale des Carrières (Inspection of Mines)  to survey these tunnels.

The picture below shows the date an inspection took place and the initials of the engineer who surveyed it. (Or at least that's what I gleaned from the audio tape which was well worth the extra 5 Euros.) It amazes me that in 1781 they had the tools to carve out these caverns, and then survey and fortify them.


I was a bit concerned when I saw this crack in the wall, but the audio guide informed me that it was an intentional structure used as an air vent.



The ceiling had this black line painted on it to provide a guide, so early visitors wouldn't get lost.  In 1793, a man went missing in the catacombs and his body wasn't found for 11 years! I'm not sure if they painted the line before or after that, but either way, I was dead certain I wouldn't be counting on it.


Once thing was for sure, we'd picked an excellent time to visit the catacombs - Wednesday evening around 5ish. We had the place to ourselves and it was as quiet as the grave!


2) The second thing happening around this time was the lack of room in the city center cemeteries. No bones about it, the bodies had to be moved. The Catacombs provided the ideal final resting place for the dead of Paris.

As the audio tape talked me through this my ear pricked up at the mention of Les Innocents, one of the first areas to be cleared. I know that spot. I live really near there and walk past it every day. Because of this, I felt connected to the story of the Catacombs. Was this the beginnings of me taking root in Paris? And what a place to begin that process. Yes, roots need to be buried, but this was kind of deep!

Above the door to the ossuary hung this sign.

STOP!
IT IS HERE THE EMPIRE OF THE DEAD


Heart warming, isn't it? 

Another sign on the wall nearby:


I certainly wouldn't be caught dead eating in there! 

I decided to take the camera thing very literally no selfie sticks, no flashes and no expensive cameras on tripods - my phone camera was fine. 

The symbol in the bottom left corner was really unnecessary in my case - I wasn't about to go stroking any skulls.

I'm guessing you had to take off your back-pack in case you accidentally knocked over any of the piles of bones - I'd be mortified if I did that!


Bones line the walls for as far as the eyes can see, neatly stacked rows of femurs with skulls interspersed to form morbid patterns.


There were all kinds of structures made from the bones.


It was actually hard to come to terms with the magnitude of this underground tomb, hard to imagine that all these bodies were once people who lived hundreds of years ago, hard not to make terrible 'dead' jokes...

But there is nothing humerus about this place!


This well did not appeal to me at all, even though I was dying of thirst!


 I was dying to know if this guy was Irish!


Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I will say that I did behave myself while I was actually there and said a prayer for the repose of the souls that once lived in these bones. The catacombs were actually consecrated prior to the housing of the bones. Each cemetery and church has a cross that says where the bone are from and what date they were moved on.

This was another area that I know and have walked along a few times.


This skull did tug at my heartstrings. He looks rather sad and I wondered what sights the eyes housed in those sockets had seen and what stories that mouth could tell.


Perhaps if I been here and alive at the same time as him, we might have been friends, and maybe he'd even have laughed at my deadly jokes.


Byddi Lee








Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Not-So Headless Chicken


It was a cold Monday morning when I took a notion that I would like to cook a roast chicken from scratch. I hadn't done that in a long time, but with the wonderful produce on offer here in France, I thought it would be a nice way to warm up the apartment and add to our sense of settling in.

The "big" Monoprix supermarket is about a 10 minute walk away. I found some butternut squash, big potatoes and giant mushrooms - all ideal for baking/roasting along with the chicken. But could I find a whole, uncooked chicken? No way!

After fruitlessly searching the aisles of the supermarket, I decided that I'd just go to the boucherie (the butchers shop) that I'd spotted in Rue Montergueil. This is a lovely market street full of specialist shops, like fromageries(cheese shops), chocolatiers, patisseries with a couple of boucheries.
Rue Montergueil after a rain shower
But it turned out that the butchers' shops were all closed on a Monday. So, trying to be happy that I was in a country that actually allowed the merchants a life, I decided that I could put off my chicken hunt until the next day.

We ate pasta that Monday night.

Next day I headed for the boucherie. I greeted the butcher in French, my bonjour seemingly improved enough to have folk even answer me in French. When I asked him if he spoke English he said no. (So perhaps my bonjour has not improved!)

I forged ahead in broken French asking him if he had a "poulet" for me. He pointed at a rotisserie with many golden-skinned roasted birds rotating on spits.  They looked delicious. I nearly gave in.

"Non merci, je faire le cuisine myself," I said tapping my sternum vigorously. And, yes - I now cringe looking at the bad grammar, and lack of verb conjugation that is all too apparent when I have time to write it down. It's just not that easy in the spur of the moment,when the dude's staring at me with a whole lot of "Je ne sais quoi!" in his eyes! But he got my gist and brought me to a section on his bucthery cabinet which had a series of birds lined up.

He asked me something which may or may not have been, "What size would you like?"
"Pour quatre, s'il vous plait," I answered holding up four fingers. It was only for the two of us, but I was hoping to get two night's worth of dinner out of it.

He muttered something I didn't catch and then held up a bird for me to inspect. And when I say a bird, I mean a full bird. It still had its feet and its head complete with spikey feathers giving it a stunned Rod Stewart expression. By the looks of things, it still had it's innards too. I'm not squeamish but it did take me by surprise. I'm just not used to my dinner staring me down!

The Butcher weighed the chicken and then asked me something which I guessed was along the lines of, "Do you want me to prepare it for you?"

I nodded and watched with gratitude as he cut the feet off, chopped the head off and gutted the chicken. He asked if I wanted the entrails, head and feet (I think...) and I hastily declined. He wrapped the carcass in butcher-paper and put it in a plastic bag.

Then I got the biggest shock yet. He printed off the price ticket and handed it to me. The headless chicken cost €20.57! 
 
It wasn't even cooked, so that didn't even count the cost of the electricity required to roast it. I had to pay up. Without the French to question the guy and having just watched him just behead, hobble and rip the guts out of the chicken, I could hardly pull out of the deal!

As I walked home with my new friend in the bag, I noticed a church that I'd passed a few times had its door opened. I ducked in for a nosey - a habitat I've started since coming to Paris. 

The church was beautiful and serene. I sat down near the front altar. They don't have benches or kneelers in the churches in Paris, but instead have dainty little chairs all joined together. You just have to kneel on the ground if you feel like kneeling.

So I sat there to offer up a little thank you, and I placed the chicken on its own chair beside me. A minute or so of quiet contemplation later, my thoughts turned to how strange our journey through life can be. This time last year I'd been at war with the ground squirrels in my garden in California, living a sun filled yet culturally devoid life. Now, here I was sitting in a Gothic church in Paris beside this dead bird (whom I'd now named Harry in my head, even though he looked more like Rod Steward.) 

For €20, I was beginning to feel like I'd bought myself a pet, even though it was slightly on the dead side. Nevertheless, at €20 this damn carcass was going to have to last us the week and not just two nights dinner. But the pressure was on. What if I screwed up the cooking and burnt it, or served it up under-cooked and we got a really expensive dose of food poisoning? Maybe a €20 bird wouldn't have salmonella? Perhaps it was the purest of the pure and we'd be amazed by how wonderful it tasted. But that might be worse - perhaps we'd develop a taste for €20 chicken and never be satisfied by ordinary chicken ever again. Oh my God, what had I done? 

It's truly amazing where my mind goes off on tangents to when I spend all day by myself! 

So after a few calls home to my mother, sister and God-mother for cooking-chicken advice, (any chicken, not just €20 chickens, because in fairness they hadn't much experience cooking €20 chickens having more cop-on than yours truly!) each family member exclaimed in horror at the price, telling me what I already knew - that I could get a turkey for that price. Heaven forbid I go down that road anytime soon!

Anyways, it was time to get started. In the cold light of day, Harry looked like a nice normal chicken.
So I stuck him in a roasting bag with a sachet of Provence herbs I'd bought and let the oven do the rest.
I chopped up carrots and butternut squash, adding a pat of butter and some tarragon and garlic and put it in a aluminium foil parcel
It was weird to think that this time last year all of that had come from my garden, apart from the butter and the €20 chicken of course! But the tarragon and garlic were sold in such cute containers that it expelled any gardening withdrawal I may have felt.
I put some giant mushrooms into a foil parcel too with a dab of soy sauce.
And put it all in the oven to roast.
By the time My Husband came home the €20 bird was ready to eat.

It tasted fine.

Just fine.

As in, only fine... not €20 fine...

"Perhaps it was a hand raised, free range, special chicken?" My husband suggested. "Maybe it was like a pet. Maybe it really had a name, a better one than Harry."

"Oh yeah, well for that price," I said. "I'd want it to have gone to school and gotten a few GCSEs!"

We made the bird last over three night's dinners. Then I made stock from its bones for my special "€20 Chicken Soup." This was not Chicken Soup for the Soul! But it did taste pretty good, but again not €20 great. 
But the biggest kicker came the day after we finished the last dregs of the soup. In the tiny convenience shop just around the corner from our front door, I found a meat aisle, with this nestled cozily on the shelf!
You know, it's actually hard to beat a €4 chicken, even if it has no head, feet, innards nor a name!

Paris continues to baffle and amaze me - but most of all it makes me laugh...I mean, Ya gotta laugh, right?

Byddi Lee



Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Search for Chez Lee

Moving to another country has it's complications, even if you have a passport that allows you to work and live there. In Paris, legislation strongly supports the tenant's rights, so landlords are justifiably nervous about leasing their property. It can take a year or in some cases even longer to evict a non-paying tenant, so you must prove that you have an income that will finance your rent. You need excellent references.

You also need a French bank account.

To get a French bank account, you must have an address in France...chicken and egg kind of problem here. How do you get the one without first having the other?

My Husband's work recommended a couple of relocation agents to us. Their services are not cheap, typically costing around €2200-€2500 but we'd really no other option. Basically, they can somehow circumnavigate the "chicken and egg - bank and address" thing and help you to open an account, help you find an apartment and act as translator while all the paperwork is processed. And, oh boy, is there paperwork!

We chose to go with a company called Sofime, headed up by the lovely Sophie Girault. She was simply brilliant. Her English was perfect, she was super organized, and really knowledgeable of the process we'd be facing. She had Skyped us while we were still in California. After listening to us describe our situation, our location and style of housing preferences, and hearing My Husband's employment set up and salary, she was able to tell us that we'd only qualify for furnished apartments.

This suited us. "Furnished" in Paris means that practically everything is provided - even bed linens and towels. Less stuff for us to ship to or buy in France.

She also told us that here was a cap on the price you were allowed to spend on rent based on your monthly salary! Your rent could not be more than a third of your income. A sensible law in my opinion but it still felt very constrictive. 

With all this thrashed out ahead of time, Sophie had us primed to hit the ground running. On our second day in Paris, (yep - after that one nights sleep-of-the-dead) she met us at the bank at 8.45 am.

By 10.30am we had a French bank account and were on our way to meet Sophie's associate, whom I'll refer to as our Belle Nouvelle Amie (since her name doesn't appear on Sophie's website, and I haven't checked with her if I can use her real name - plus I liked the sound of her pseudo-name!)

Our Belle Nouvelle Amie had scoured the rental companies at the beginning of the week and set up 9 appointments for us to view . She told us that  places go fast and that we'd probably have to make the decision that same day. I was glad on one hand - we'd have it sported all the sooner and be out of the "Les Mis" style AirBnB, but what if we didn't see one we liked? 

The first apartment was nice, quite modern and spacious, but it was in the 16th Arrondisment, too far away from My Husbands work and the center of Paris. When we first decided to move we promised ourselves we'd live right in the city center, no more suburbia for us.

The next four apartments were extremely disheartening. Despite costing a fortune, they reminded me of the student flats that I'd seen in Belfast when I went to university there. Many of them were in gracious old building that had been chopped up and subdivided so badly that the flow of the rooms often made no sense. There was one that might have been okay, over looking the Seine...of you stood on tiptoes to peer past the huge construction site just below the window...

I tried not to think of the view from our our house in the way that one pokes around the edges of a scabby wound to test if it is healing or not. I'd tried to prepare myself for these moments, yet images of the rolling golden hills lingered in my minds eye. 

Deep breath... 1... 2... 3...

We had a break for lunch in a charming brasserie. Our Belle Nouvelle Ami was surprised when I recognized an item on the menu - Black pudding! It's made from pigs blood and is one of my favorite foods, despite how gross it sounds. I had that on a big pile of buttery mash potatoes, and it put my world back to rights! We were jet lagged, tired and weary with huge gaping holes in our view of the immediate future. But we'd get through it. 

As our Belle Nouvelle Ami took us to the sixth apartment, I saw what looked like a man standing at the top of a high tower. It seemed to be a statue, but was odd because it was not balanced-out by a  figure on the other side. Where was the symmetry? With that fuzzy head you get with jet lag, I wondered was I seeing things? My hear rate accelerated as I remembered first a story my sister told me about seeing ghosts in Prague, then a story my Mum had told me about being first on the scene of someone who'd jumped/fallen from a high building.

"Can you see a man at the top of that tower?" I asked our Belle Nouvelle Ami.

"Mais, non," she said. 

My heart stopped. I was sure I could see it.

"Really?" There may have been a edge of panic in my voice.

"I see a statue, but no man..."

Phew! She'd been taking me literally. I later learned that it was Saint-Jacques Tower - a Gothic tower and the only remaining part of a 16th-century church that was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Jacques Tower

Equilibrium restored, we looked at the sixth apartment just around the corner from this tower. We were nearly late for the appointment, but the rental company guy was very patient and waited for us. 

It was on the fourth floor, but had a glass elevator (very Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!) As soon as I  walked in, I loved it. When My Husband stood in front of the mantelpiece and said with great enthusiasm and gesturing with his arms, "The speakers could go right here!" I knew he wanted it too!

It was spacious and bright, with understated decor. It just felt right. We had two more places to look at, but they weren't a patch on this one. I was terrified we'd lose it to the next couple about to view it.

Having viewed all nine, we confidently told our Belle Nouvelle Ami we'd made our decision. She agreed it was a good spot and she called the Rental Agency right away. 

That was on a Thursday evening. 

On Friday she got back to us and said that the Rental Agency would know by Monday. We spent the weekend praying! Monday wasn't too long a wait considering that nothing happens fast in France. I'm working on being okay with that. I mean, why rush when  there's all those delicious croissants to eat and cheeses to sample, not to mention the vin to drink while you're waiting? Patience is not a virtue I possess, so this is just something I have to suck up and get through.

We caught up on much needed sleep that first weekend, knowing that we'd have lots of time and opportunities to explore Paris. We even grew used to the cramped conditions of our "Les Mis" AirBnB. Even so, we were overjoyed when Sophie from Sofime called to tell us that we'd been accepted for the apartment we wanted.

We were so relieved. Yes, it is less than half the size of our house in California. It has no garden - though it does have a nice balcony. I wasn't sure if I'd cope with the noise from a busy street below us... but a year is not so very long...

We moved in the following Friday. The traffic from below us sounded loud but reminded me of listening to waves on the seashore. There were lots of people on the streets too. Were we 20 years too old for this place? Had we made a mistake? By Saturday morning I knew it would be find. Sure we'd heard people partying on the street below in the wee hours, but it had not kept me awake. In fact the noise of the traffic had lulled me to sleep. I'd even enjoyed hearing the revelers - happy noises of people having fun and me tucking up in a cozy bed sharing a sliver of the experience, yet glad not to be down there. Like when you're all cozy in bed and listening to the rain outside. I might at some stage miss the yipping of the coyotes or the gobbles of the wild turkeys we'd listened to in the past, but for now I liked this change. We could do this.

The very next evening we had our first visitors. What joy it is to host friends (and family) here. A short walk to the end of the street and I found my favorite night-time spot in Paris.

To the right, you can see the Eiffel Tower twinkling over the streets of Paris.
And to the left, Notre Dame Cathedral peeks out.
In the days that followed, I had to buy some things for the apartment even though it was furnished. I discovered that a shop I was familiar with from home - "Habitat" - was on the Rue Boucher which made me smile because they used to have one on the Boucher Road in Belfast too.
 
It was a slow process finding the right shops to get those last few bits and pieces. My Mum asked me at that point did I miss anything from the USA.

"I'd do anything for a Bed, Bath and Beyond right now," I told her. But I only half meant it. When I first landed in the USA, I'd had the exact same problem. In time my explorations will lead me to the shops I need and more. I was confident of that.

I'd  like to thank Sophie Girault and the team at Sofime, especially our Belle Nouvelle Ami who has been a wonderful help and continues to follow up every detail to help with our relocation. I honestly don't know what we'd have done without them.... 

Maybe without them, I'd be sitting at that 5th floor window in the AirBnB singing "I dreamed a dream..."





Byddi Lee



Friday, November 11, 2016

The Paris Landing Pad

 
We landed in Paris mid-afternoon on a direct flight from San Franciso. Too excited to sleep on the plane, we were a bit disheveled as we gathered up the 4 fifty-pound check-in bags, 2 ten-ish-pound cabin bags, my hand-bag and My Husband's briefcase - basically all the luggage we had shoved our personal life into to bring to Paris. There was a crate 4'x4'x6' filled with Really Useful Stuff (toys for grown-ups like giant audio speakers, ski gear...etc) somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, hopefully still on a ship, though after the recent hurricane activity we could not be certain!

We needed an Uber Van for all our luggage and got one easily enough. The driver even spoke some English, which was a bonus. I was so tired that my brain refused to be bi-lingual even to its limited degree.

A short forty minutes later, the van stopped at a street that ended in a row of bollards. We'd inadvertently chosen an AirBnB in a street that was a pedestrian prescient.The best plan of action was to unload all the luggage and one of us would stand guard over it while the other shuttled the cases up to the building we were staying in. Our AirBnB Host was going to meet us there...simple.

My Husband elected to be the runner. I was left standing in a rather unfortunate spot just outside what we later realized was a train station.
My "Spot"
With my pile of bags, unkempt clothes from a night of travel and more tousled than usual frizz-bomb hair, I could easily have passed for a homeless person - which technically I was since we'd sold our home in California and had, as yet, no fixed abode in France!

My Husband arrived back, out of breath and sweating. The Host was there waiting with the other bags at the door. We carried the rest between us the couple of hundred meters to the building.

I greeted the guy with a fractured, "Bonjour."

"Hello," he replied. (Why did everyone do that? Obviously, I needed to fix my Bonjour...) "We are on the fifth floor," he continued with  a rueful expression. "And there's no elevator!"
Not much room to install an elevator here!
In France the floor numbers start at zero. We had five flights of stairs to carry our 250 pounds of luggage up. My Husband took off  up the stairs at a clip with a 50-pounder in each hand, probably only about 25 pounds short of his own body weight!

I struggled up behind him with a check-in bag in one hand and the stair rail to drag me up in the other. I met him coming down again for the next load, his face dripping in sweat and tinged grey! He scared me. I thought, this was it. This was how our lovely story would end, with him dropping dead of a heart attack, and I'd have to go home to Armagh and live with my mother.

"Slow down," I urged him. "We'll get there."

And get there we did - muscles quivering from over use and lack of sleep, we flopped onto the futon (despite requesting to only view AirBnBs that had real beds) and said to each other, "What now?"

We needed to sleep, but but first we needed to eat. At street level, a quaint French cafe complete with red awning called out to us. As soon as we opened our mouths the waiter twigged that we spoke English and produced an English Menu. We ordered and sat back grinning. We were in Paris!

Then My Husbands forehead wrinkled in a frown.

"Okay," he said in a hushed tone. "Try not to react, but I just saw a mouse run across the floor."

So the place was more rustic than quaint. Alright, it was more old and unkempt than rustic. I was too exhausted to really care, and sure what would you expect with all these old buildings? And hadn't I grown up in an old house where we'd watched the mice play under the TV? For the record, Mummy and Daddy knocked it down and replaced with a lovely new house... where a mouse actually bit my Mum on the finger after she picked up cocktail sausages for a late-night snack and fallen asleep before washing her hands - the mouse wasn't to know the sausage shaped digit smelling of sausage wasn't actually a sausage!

I'd sat with my Dad as we watched mice run along curtains in the living room. I'd even kept pet mice...suffice it to say mice don't bother me.

"Was it cute?" I asked.

The worry melted from his features and we began to laugh. We'd survive a mouse visitation in the restaurant. We were in Paris. How could we complain? I was convinced that we could travel anywhere, live any place, so long as we packed the right attitude!

After dinner we took stock (in a non-complaining, giggling way) of our digs. We'd gone cheap, not knowing how long we'd have to pay vacation rental prices. In the cold light of the electric lamp in the corner (for some reason there was no pedant lamps in the center of the rooms) we could see the place was tiny but very clean. It was called an apartment but really it was a studio. It was also kind of weird. The cistern for the toilet looked like a scuba tank.
 
The bathtub must have been custom made. Not only was it extra short, but a piece had been sliced off it too, so it was tapered on one side.
Strangely, the dining room table was huge...nearly as big as the bed (tucked into the corner of the living room) and the TV was massive - though all the stations except for a couple of News stations were in French. (Mais bien sûr!)

I sat down on the chair at the end of the table to have a cup of tea before heading to bed (it was 8pm by this stage!) and leaned back. I heard a small "crack" and my chair slowly continued to tip backwards. The back leg of the chair had gone through the floor boards!

My Husband pulled me to my feet. "Rustic!" we said together and rocked with belly laughs. Perhaps you need to have been there - or at least have been as jet lagged and displaced as we felt. 

Anyways it helped to push the niggling question in my brain back into its dark box in the corner of my mind. "What the hell have we done!" I tried no to think about the spacious, airy house we'd left behind in California, nor bring to mind the soft, huge bed that I'll laid awake on for most of each night for the last two months, as I mentally organized, packed and played-out our departure.

For now it was time to address our immediate needs and hit the futon. For the first time since May, we slept the sleep of the dead straight through till the next morning. Good job too, since even though I'd covered the hole in the floorboards with a large hard-back, coffee-table book, I was afraid that in the dark I might fall down it again or meet some critter that may have come out of it.

On the bright side, things always looked better in the morning and we were waking up in Paris!

Byddi Lee