Friday, August 3, 2012

Let's go, kids!

Summer vacation is in full swing on the Côte d'Azur, with the warm sunny days, music-filled nights, and stupid tourists who don't know how to drive!  And we locals can tell who isn't from around here by looking at the license plates.  Or at least we used to be able to tell.

The easy ones to spot are the cars that aren't from France.  Each European country has its own format for the combination of numbers and letters, as well as size, shape and color of the plates.  After a short while, I learned to identify a car from Italy or Luxembourg at just a glance, although the first time I saw a car from Andorra or Ukraine the location wasn't as obvious.

It used to be easy to determine where a French car was registered with the old numbering system.  The pattern used to be NNN AAA XX, where XX was the number code was the one of the départment where the car was registered.  For example, my car's plate was 343 BLC 06 -- 06 for Alpes Maritimes.  83 is for our neighbors to the west (Var), and 75/92/93/94 are for those annoying Parisians!  (You can check here for a complete list.)

Then in 2009, the format changed to AA NNN AA with no more reference to the départment.  But wait!  Why are we changing, and how can we know which cars to hate on the road?  Well, the new format requires you to have a sticker on the plate that references a départment, although it has nothing to do with where the car is registered, and it does not make up part of the registration number, but it is still mandatory.  (If that doesn't make sense, then I need to remind you about the mistake of trying to use logic in France!)  So, there is still some chance that the car with the 75 sticker is from Paris.

The highway traffic is predictably bad on four weekends: the first weekend in July, the last weekend in July, the first weekend in August and the last weekend in August.  There is a classification system for the traffic called Bison Futé (literally "crafty bison") where a color is assigned to the level of " badness"of the traffic, from green (smooth sailing) to black (you're not going anywhere soon).  Black is mainly reserved for the changeover weekend(s) where the juilletistes come home from their vacations and the aoûtiens leave on theirs.

But France is great because there aren't many other countries where you can start your vacation by shouting the first few words of the national anthem: "Allons enfants!"  It wouldn't sound the same to hear an American parent ask, "O say can you see where I put the GPS?"

Thursday, June 5, 2008

What's it to you?

Three years ago, when I told friends and family members that I was moving to France, I heard one response more often than any other: "France? Wow, that's going to be really expensive for you!" So, is living on the Cote d'Azur really all that much more expensive than in South Florida? After three years of living here, my response to that is, "Yeah, it kind of is, but it all depends."

I arrived in France on March 30, 2005, 1.00€ bought US$1.2921, a long way from when the euro hit bottom against the dollar in May 2000, when 1.00€ bought US$0.8902 (or US$1.00 bought 1.1233€). I remember coming to France in late June 2000 and finding things cheap! Still, my friend Cecile, who has been here just over a year, says that it's not as painful if you don't do any conversion. "A euro is a dollar," she says, which would annoy most economists, but sits just right with me.

For example, gasoline. The headlines of US papers shout about the horrors of paying $4/gallon, which is inarguably high. In late 2004/early 2005, when I lived 23 miles (38km) from work and was filling my tank once a week, we all complained about paying $2.50/gallon.

I bought a diesel car when I moved here because it's cheaper fuel than gasoline and a full tank lasts longer. Still, the last time I filled the tank, I paid 1.399€/litre (US$8.21/gallon), and that was before the price went up. Unleaded gas costs 1.439€/litre (US$8.44/gallon). So, I had to shell out 50€/US$77.50 to fill a small car. However, due to the fuel efficiency, and the fact I rent a place only 3 miles (5km) from the office, a full tank can last about 4 weeks!

If I decide to use my car for more than just commuting, how much does it cost to be entertained? A movie ticket costs 8.00€/US$12.40 (not bad, you New Yorkers say), and a prix fixe menu (not "prefix" as I saw many years ago at a New York pseudo-posh restaurant) can cost an average 20€/US$31, without drinks. If you're thirsty, you can shell out 3.00€/US$4.65 for a Coke (with no refills) or 2.50€/US$3.88 for a glass of red wine (again, with no refills).

OK, then, let's stay in and save some money. Buy ingredients at the local supermarket (Carrefour) and cook dinner at home. Here is a list of some of the staples I recently bought. (Unless a brand is specified, I try to buy the store-brand):

  • Milk 0.97€/litre (US$5.69/gallon)
  • Margarine 3.44€/500g tub ($5.33/17.6oz tub)
  • Strawberries 7.38€/kg (US$5.20/lb)
  • Plums 2.90€/kg (US$2.04/lb)
  • Nectarines 2.30€/kg (US$1.62/lb)
  • Bag o' lettuce 1.70€/bag (8.50€/kg) US$2.64/bag (US$5.99/lb)
  • Chicken breast 10.45€/kg (US$7.36/lb)
  • Dozen eggs 2.15€ (US$3.33)
  • Caffeine-free Diet Coke 1.49€/1.5 litre bottle (US$3.08/2 litre bottle)
  • V8 Vegetable Juice 2.00€/1 litre bottle ($3.10/33.8oz bottle)
  • Coffee 2.12€/250g ($5.97/lb)
  • Kellogg's Corn Flakes 2.19€/375g box ($3.39/13.2oz box)
  • Kellogg's Special K 3.14€/375g box ($4.87/13.2oz box)
  • Box of pasta 0.79€/500g box ($1.22/17.6oz box)

A first-run DVD will cost 20.00€/US$31.20, so maybe we can just sit around and talk instead. Or, we can go online and watch funny clips on YouTube. After all, I only pay 29.99€/US$46.48 per month for my Internet, and that includes television and free telephone calls to France, Europe, and many other countries in the world (including US, Canada, Israel, Singapore and Australia)! My Internet is not through the phone company, so I still have a subscription with France Telecom (for 16.00€/US$24.80 per month) just in case anything goes wrong with the line.

After everyone leaves and I'm home alone, I buy the local newspaper (Nice Matin) to read for a mere 1.30€/US$2.01 or Time Magazine, with the cover price of 4.20€/US$6.51.

So, if anyone is up for a cheap place to visit in Europe, I have a guest room with a rather comfortable bed and a full fridge.

Note: I chose the exchange rate of 1.00€ = US$1.55 to do the conversions in this article, even though the exchange rate has fluctuated between US$1.53-1.57 in recent weeks. And apologies to readers outside the US who would have liked conversions to their currency. And PLEASE no comments about the conversions to the Imperial system!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Showering in 360 Degrees

One summer, many years ago, I was at the beach with my family, and I got a very bad sunburn. "The best thing for that," my mother advised, "is a really hot shower. Just get in there and make the water as hot as you can stand it."

By this point in my life, I had learned from my dad, my grandmother, my teachers, public television, that the best thing for a burn in the kitchen is to run cold water over it. But, being the respectful and diligent child I was, I didn't want contradict my mother by suggesting that a burn from the sun is actually quite similar to a burn from the stove. So, I put the shower on with about 90% hot water and 10% cold water. When the water - somewhere between "rapid boil" and "steam" - touched my skin, I wanted melt down the drain more than I wanted the pain to subside.

This morning, as the pre-windchill temperature hovered around the freezing point outside, I thought back fondly of that shower that, today, seemed more toasty and cozy than searing and infernal. My bathroom has a window which is great for letting the steam out. This keeps the level of mildew quite low. But, even when the window is closed, it doesn't do a lot to keep any heat in the bathroom itself. (Note to non-Europeans reading this blog: the bathroom is where they keep the bath, not the toilet. Sadly, the "WC" in my apartment does not have a window, which actually could be kind of useful at times.)

But, the 360 degree shower I miss the most has nothing to do with the temperature of the water, but rather with the showerhead securely attached to the wall, freeing both hands for shampooing and lathering purposes and allowing me to turn around in full circles to make sure all my bits are rinsed properly. Sure, I could buy one of those do-it-yourself kits where I can rig up a metal rod that will hold the shower head in place. But, it wouldn't be the same as a real shower, and basically I'm too lazy to even try to install something to see how close it would be to a real shower.

Many of my friends and colleagues dread having to travel, especially for business, as this is time where they are separated from their loved ones and cannot be home in their own beds. Sure, all that is annoying, but I look forward to waking up in the morning and spending as much time as I can under those pulsating jets. The shower in the Sheraton Tel Aviv had great water pressure, and the one at the NH Hotel in Lisbon was so spacious, I was tempted to invite a few people to join me!

Yes, I have had some less-than-wonderful shower experiences on my travels. The "hydro massage shower" at the Athens Atrium Hotel was powerful, but only left me with about 2" (5cm) of space to move around. And the shower in the George Hotel in Crawley (near London Gatwick Airport) had just about the pressure of an aerosol can. But, still, I didn't have to hold the shower head in my hand, so I have to give a point or two to form over function.

As for my sunburns? I try to avoid them now by using sunscreen, a T-shirt, or just not going to the beach in the first place. And, if I do get a burn, I still get in the shower, but I put the water on as cold as I can stand it. Shrinkage anyone?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Remote Possibility

Recently, a colleague asked me what I missed most from the US after two and a half years of living in France. The first answer that popped into my head was, "Gee, I don't really know."

I guess the first answer probably should have been, "My family and friends," but I've lived away from my family for so long and have remained in contact with my friends, so I've grown accustomed to being the one who lives away.

For a brief moment I thought about answering, "Food," but I didn't think it would be possible to debate the merits of Velveeta in a country known for more than 400 types of cheese. Besides, I've managed to create a NEW pasta and tuna dish that does not start by opening a box of macaroni and cheese.

Do I miss music? I know I like to listen to country music, but the last few times I've tuned in to an Internet broadcast, it sounds a bit too Jesus-y and patriotic for my liking. I prefer a twangy tune about unrequited love and/or driving on a lonely highway, preferrably if drinking is involved with either (or both). And, I'm starting to like French Top 40 music, especially when I figure out what the heck they're singing about.

Shopping? I have to admit it's an ego boost to walk into The Gap and coolly slide into a large shirt, when in France I have to meekly admit that I'm a double extra large. (Note to self - cut back on those pasta and tuna dinners.)

So, what about television? Hmm, well, it is nice to come home from work and switch on the idiot box and decompress. Here, I have to really concentrate when I watch "Are you smarter than a 5th grader?" or "France's Funniest Home Videos" (which is really America's Funniest Home Videos - with American videos, two presenters and Bob Saget-esque voice-overs in French).

What's worse is all TV shows, regardless of country of origin, are shown in French. So, CSI and CSI:Miami become Les Experts and Les Experts:Miami, starring American actors with dubbed French voices. "Well, you are in France," I hear you all saying. True, but in the Netherlands they subtitle the shows that are not in Dutch, and in Israel pretty much everything is subtitled in combinations of Hebrew, Arabic and Russian - strangely including shows that are broadcast in Hebrew.

It's not all that bad, though. There's one show I like: "C'est du propre" ("That's clean") where two "elegant" ladies show up at some slob's residence - house, apartment, barn - and turn abject squalor into floors, walls, countertops all worthy of eating off! It helps me put my "bachelor pad" into perspective, although I am sometimes tempted to write in and nominate myself.

You might think that the lack of anything good on TV would motivate me to do loftier things like take up a sport, take up a hobby, or take up a broom and mop for goodness sake! Personally, I prefer to take a nap

Friday, June 1, 2007

It's not easy being green

The environment seems to be on everyone's mind lately, as if pollution and global warming just happened suddenly over the past year without any warning.

Political campaigns all over the world are making the environment the hot topic. (Oops, sorry, that pun wasn't intended...) It's a bit worrying, though, because while the powers that be get us all worked up over greenhouse gases and global warming, they can easily sneak through some more tax breaks for big oil companies or take away some civil liberties that we weren't paying attention to anyway.

In the recent presidential election in France, the extreme right-wing candidate (Jean-Marie LePen) even joined in the discussion about the environment. Of course, he had to do this with his own twist. His campaign was all about kicking out the foreigners, closing France's borders, abandoning the euro for the trusty franc. So, when he said he had a plan to deal with the environment, we all leaned forward to listen to: "Let's kick out all the foreigners and close France's borders. That way, with fewer people living in France, there will be fewer cars on the road pouring pollution into the air and lower demand on France's limited resources." Et voilà.

Many departments have also passed laws banning shops from giving out plastic bags. In supermarkets, you have to buy reusable bags. They're also plastic, but they're durable, and since you're making an investment, you're more liable to be more mindful about bringing them with you. Except, of course, if you're me and you tend to realize on the way home from work that you need a few things, and your reusable bags are stored away in your kitchen cabinet. Your choice is to either juggle your purchases as you head out to find your car, or you spend another 10 cents on a bag that you swear you will remember to bring next time.

This being France, there are exceptions to the rule, whether or not they are legal. At my supermarket, the cashiers still have some plastic bags that they give out for free if you are buying meat and you don't want the "juices" to get all over your other purchases. This being France, however, there are not always exceptions to the exceptions to the rule. My friend went to the supermarket and declined the freebie for the chicken she purchased. But, she was also buying eggs, so she asked the cashier for a bag to wrap about the carton, just as a little protection. "Mais, non! Bags are for meat only!" My friend snapped back, "But you were going to give me one for the meat..." The cashier ignored my friend's plea with, "C'est impossible!" and continued to scan the rest of the groceries.

For my part, I drive a diesel car, though I was told that the newer engines burn more cleanly than the old ones; I take longer in the shower than I should, a habit that's hard to break; I leave my TV on stand-by, so I can get immediate access to crap programming. I do recycle all plastic, aluminum (or "aluminium") and glass! But, I also wash the containers thoroughly so they don't make a mess or smell, which is probably not the best use of water.

I just hope my nieces forgive me for the state of the planet when they grow up...

Monday, March 5, 2007

Parlez-vous? Well, sort of...

I have to admit, my years of college French really served me well in the two years since I've been in France. It really goes without saying - but I'll say it anyway! - that knowing a country's language helps you feel comfortable living there. It's true that I have a knack for picking up languages, even if just a few words. But, there's a difference between ordering a coffee while you're on vacation and successfully explaining yourself to landlord that it really wasn't you that broke the dishwasher and can she suggest a repairman to come fix it.

Still, we're our own worst critics. And even though my French friends tell me I speak very well, and I am able to work with my French colleagues in their language (even though the company's official language is English), I still wish I could speak better.

It was almost 14 years ago when I made the now-famous mistake in a Paris hotel by asking for more écoliers (schoolboys) instead of oreillers (pillows) for me and my sisters. Before you ask, no I didn't mention to the hotel clerk that I prefer to have six of them all around me, and my sister likes one or two between her legs when she sleeps! But, the faux pas have not stopped there.

When I first arrived, my friend was driving me to pick up my new car. It was Friday night at 5.45pm, the traffic was heavy, and the dealership closed promptly at 6pm. I called the salesman to tell him we were not far and that we would be there soon, but that we were delayed because "nous sommes branlés" in traffic. There was no response from the other end, and I looked at my friend who was staring at me with the most shocked look I had seen in a long time. I had said we were running late because we had been masturbating! No real surprise, then, that the salesman was a bit reluctant to shake my hand when I arrived.

A "normal" person would have just stopped speaking French forever. But, who ever said I was normal? Last summer, a French colleague asked me if, as an American living in France, I was surviving the heat without air conditioning. I told him that it wasn't as cold as I would like, but I was managing with the aspirateur I had in my bedroom. When he asked me if it sucked the heat from the room, I realized I had said "vacuum cleaner" instead of ventilateur (fan). Another time, I asked another friend if she'd heard the bande sonore (speed bump that makes noise as you drive over it) of a movie instead of the bande-son (soundtrack).

Not all my French is wrong, though. Sometimes it's too right. I often elicit giggles or strange looks. I called DHL once about a package they were trying to deliver to me. As I wasn't expecting anything, I wanted to know where it came from. I asked the agent on the phone, "Serait-il possible me dire qui est l'expéditeur du colis?" ("Would it be possible to tell me who is the sender of the package?") Again there was silence on the phone, for a different reason this time, and then the grunted response, "Quoi?", in this case the French equivalent of "Huh?". My colleague told me through fits of laughter to say "Dites-moi... qui me l'a envoyé." ("Tell me... who sent it to me?") The agent knew how to answer that question.

So, sometimes too much of a good thing isn't so good after all? But, for now, I'm happy to be in France and not Japan. All I remember from my one semester of Japanese is "Watashi-wa kaishain desu" ("I am an office worker") and "Watashi-wa ringo-ga suki desu" ("I like apples"). And, since they bow there instead of shaking hands, I'd never know when I said something really embarrassing!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Do they sell soda in Cannes?

France is a country where people live to eat, not just eat to live. Food and drink are taken very seriously in France. And, yes, I know they are taken seriously in other countries, too. But, I am living in France and blogging about France, so work with me on this one.

French has two words that translate as "to eat" in English: manger and bouffer. Manger is used to express eating for the sake of enjoyment. Bouffer is used to express eating to satisfy the animalistic feeling of hunger. J'ai mangé un sandwich and j'ai bouffé un sandwich both mean "I ate a sandwich", the first meaning that the sandwich was the food of choice, while the second meaning that the sandwich was all there was.

When you finish a meal, one of the highest compliments you can pay to a French chef is "C'était fameux!", meaning literally "it was famous!" I used that at a friend's house after dinner. His wife turned to him and said sarcastically, "Why don't you ever say that to me?"

Still, fast food has its place in France. The French might argue that these restaurants are for the foreigners who come and can't stomach their delicacies like snails, frogs' legs and roast rabbit in mustard sauce. And, there could be some truth to that, seeing that the two main fast-food chains are American (McDonald's) and Belgian (Quick).

However, the most profitable market for McDonald's outside the US is France. This is partly because of the high price of the items on the menu. For example, the combo meal (called by the English name "Best of...") with a Big Mac, frites and Coca costs 5,90€ (US$7.75), and you pay an additional 0,60€ (US$0.80) if you want a "Maxi Best of..." menu -- French for "Super Size". In fact, the average amount spent per customer in France is 9,30€ (US$12.25) compared to only 3,95€ (US$5.20) in the US.

(Author's note: The statistics above were gathered purely for investigative and journalistic purposes, and not for the enjoyment of the author.)

So, in the land of foie gras, bouillabaisse, and hundreds of cheeses, fast-food, snack-food and soft drinks are finding a place of their own. And, in case you haven't figured it out yet, the answer to this article's title is, "Yes, and they sell it in bottles, too."