My summer in Paris

Old Jul 27th, 2015, 03:02 AM
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My summer in Paris

First of all - a big thank you to all Fodorites who helped to change my initial reluctance to a great big YES. I am glad that I have accepted the offer of a month-long home exchange with people who live in Villeneuve near Paris.
Let me start off by describing our place for this precious month. We have a 4-bedroom house in a very ordinary street.
A big supermarket is perhaps 200 meters down the street. I love shopping here – not a tourist in sight. Compared to where I come from, there is an immense selection of wines, cheeses, breads, pastries … I queue behind a worker in blue overall buying lunch. He pays for a meter-long baguette, slices of ham, a small cheese, an apple and a small bottle of red wine. And I remember a similar worker in my city, who bought a loaf of white bread and a Coke.
Our hosts drove 45 minutes to meet us at CDG airport. We exchanged photos before the time, and we easily found them in the crush. They took time to show us their home, then left. This sounds less complicated than it was. There is, of course, the language issue: I speak no French, my DD knows a few survival phrases, they have very little English. We got on splendidly. A 15-year old cousin was brought in to translate. She did this patiently and with good humor, passing orders and requests to and fro. Assorted members of the extended family came to meet us. There was the one moment when six people quite literally talked to us at the same time, arms waving, and DD and I (jetlagged) just stared!!
We did try to type our messages on Google Translate, but this did not work when we went out into the (somewhat neglected) garden. She has a few herbs – we did not need words when we stood there crushing and smelling the thyme and mint. There is an abundance of cherry tomatoes, and one of my great joys is walking barefoot in the early mornings and picking a little white bowl of tomatoes for breakfast.
They are Muslim, the woman of the house is originally from Algeria, the husband is French. Some family members wear the headscarf; some do not. They cannot be kinder or more accommodating. After exchanging phone numbers in case of need, they all left. Silence reigned.
Our house is next to a cemetery. It looks peaceful and very neat. No loiterers or homeless people as you may find in my country. Fresh flowers on graves. Our neighbor has a very black cat. This cat has four almost-grown kittens; two black like the mother, two dark grey. They seem to prefer our garden to their own. Early the first morning, when I went down to face the unfamiliar coffee machine, I could not help laughing out loud when I looked out of the window. Five dark cats were sitting quietly in the early-morning dusk!
The neighbours are friendly and kind. I could not get the coffee machine to agree with me, and I mailed our hosts with questions. Within the next hour a neighbour rang the bell at the gate, with two of his sons he came to investigate. He cannot say more than ‘coffee’ and ‘machine’ in English, but we kindly beamed at each other. The 5-year old does not mind that I do not react, he loves chatting to me. When I look away, he softly touches my hand and keeps on chattering away in French. We really tried, but could not get the machine to work – even after phoning our host and discussing the issue in great detail. I typed on Google Translate to say that we will survive. Later that afternoon the same neighbour with wife appeared, bringing a new coffee machine for our use.
The home has everything that we need, and more. A comfy mattress, a nice bath, an outside patio (with one mosquito included).
The butcher and baker are 7 minutes away, on the way to the station.

Problems: the fact that I do not speak French does complicate things. I can be polite and say hallo and thank you, but that is about it. People are remarkably patient with me.
The commute is time-consuming. This is just a fact. Usually it should take +-35 minutes to get from our station (Orly Ville) to the station at Notre Dame. With the construction work of the moment, it takes an hour. I do struggle a bit to navigate this fascinating city. Thanks to everybody who sent the links to the SNCF site and the interactive map!

More to follow later …
kovsie is offline  
Old Jul 27th, 2015, 03:18 AM
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I'm glad you are enjoying your stay. Suburbanites are often much more well read than Parisians due to the time spent with books during the commute.
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 06:51 AM
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How true Kerouac.
But only for the old like us - the young listen to music on their Iphone.
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 06:57 AM
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Still I'm surprised that the level of English of your host is not better.
All the Frenchs I know speak at least basic english, most quite correctly.
I guess I don't meet that many suburbanites (like this word - 'banlieusards' in french).
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 08:14 AM
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Throughly enjoying this, Kovsie - and so glad that you did the exchange and are handling the inconveniences (little and large) with such aplomb. I know there are certainly more plusses than minuses to what you're doing (I'd do it too) and once you're settled in, you will love it.
Wishing you continued fun on this adventure; can't wait to read more.
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 08:20 AM
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KOSVIE, following along on your adventure...
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 08:34 AM
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So glad you have started this trip report. I'll just second what Mathieu said earlier.
Looking forward to more.
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 10:57 AM
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This sounds so wonderful that it brought tears to my eyes.

My advice to getting somewhere if you don't know French.

Learn enough to say,

Bonjor, Monsier (or Madame)
Pardon moi,
Ou est (where is) and point to the name of the place you want to go on a map.

They may realize that you can't speak French and respond in English. Or they may speak a lot of French that you can't understand.

But they will usually point and that can get you going.

My experience is that they are very kind and helpful if you just try a bit. You have already seen this with your host, their family and even their neighbors!
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 11:33 AM
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This sounds like a dream I have had . . . definitely looking forward to your adventures.
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 12:46 PM
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Your impressions are so beautifully put. I have a mental picture of that 5 year old carefully touching your hand. I cannot wait to read more!
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 02:13 PM
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Why does it matter that the homeowner's are Muslim?
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 03:23 PM
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Beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing the beginning of your great adventure!
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 04:12 PM
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Lovely post and am enjoying it so much. I didn't see any reference that it mattered in the least that the homeowners are Muslim.
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 06:14 PM
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It sounds like a wonderful adventure! I am looking forward to hearing more! Thank you for sharing!
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 06:38 PM
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Enjoying your report
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Old Jul 27th, 2015, 11:50 PM
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Hello kovsie

We too have done home exchanges, including the Paris suburbs. It's a fabulous way to feel as though you are almost part of a French community, for a little while!

We found that if we were struggling to communicate with shop assistants, often another customer would come to our aide and translate - as others have said, they are so helpful; I now try to do the same for visitors here at home.

I'm looking forward to reading more about your travels, Di
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 12:02 AM
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The fact that the coffeemaker didn't work might have been in reference to the fact that it wasn't used much (if at all), since this is a Muslim household. Most Muslims are taught to avoid caffeine, which is considered an undesirable mind-altering stimulant not necessary to proper nutrition.

When you live in France, you'll often hear people being referred to by their "stereotypes" - such as, "M. Lewis the American engineer of Scottish ancestry"; or "the black Muslim singer Akon" or "the female Russian-Jewish author Lara Vnapyar". It's just a method of classification, trying to place people in some sort of context that is easier to understand - hard to get used to, but it doesn't seem to mean anything more than that, at least in my experience.
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 12:03 AM
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Before I left home, I booked an on-line ticket for the Eiffel Tower. Time slot: 7.30pm. Before I went, I read reports that described the tower with superlatives such as ‘magnificent’ and ‘mind blowing’. I am embarrassed to say that I was caught by the hype.

My first reaction when I finally saw the Eiffel was one of slight disappointment - it looked smaller than I expected. Yes, when I stood on the lawns and looked up, the tower etched against the sky, I could agree that it is something special. I should have stopped right there! Going up did not give me much joy. Even with the prepaid ticket, there was some waiting in line for the elevator (perhaps 15 minutes). Then up to the 2nd level. Crowds pushing, selfie sticks waving.

It was a cloudy blustery day. My personal highlight was a moment when most of Paris was clouded over, but just around the Sacre Coeur the clouds broke – the beautiful church white against the sky, bathed in sunlight.

For those of you reading TRs in order to plan your own trips: IMHO you can do better with 9Euro and a few precious hours in Paris than going up this tower. The crowds are relentless. There are queues for coffee, for toilets, for going up, for going down. One funny moment: DD was queuing for the ladies’ room. She asked an older man in front of her if he knew that the queue for the men’s room was a little to the other side. He actually thought he was in a queue for the elevator; somehow he had joined the wrong one. He kept on: “I wondered why I was the only guy around here!”

The prepaid ticket cuts out the 2hour wait for getting to the tower. It does not help you escape! All in all, I spent almost an hour in queues to go either up or down. For me, it was not worth it. The beauty of the Eiffel is not seen when you are in it – better appreciated from ground level or from some distance away. If you enjoy far-away views (I do), walk up to the Sacre Coeur or enjoy any one of the other high places in Paris (the Arc, the tower of the Notre Dame …).
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 12:32 AM
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kerouac and pariswat: yes, I enjoy reading on the trains (when I do not count the stations and worry where to get off). Up to now I have spent my time with Jeeves and Wooster - PG Woodhouse provides just the right level of entertainment and mindlessness needed for the RER. Thanks to stowebailey and flanneruk, I have this morning downloaded the new book on Napoleon. Perhaps this will be appropriate reading while in Paris.

CAN ANYBODY RECOMMEND A GOOD BOOK ON THE IMPRESSIONISTS? Not deep art history, just life stories.

pariswat: Many people we are in contact with, do not speak English. This includes our hosts, the neighbours, most of the cashiers in the supermarket, the butcher. On the stations, as soon as you move into Zone 4, you get very little English. Makes life interesting!

Maine and Mathieu: You are right, I am having a great holiday. The planes from Orly are mere background noise, not disturbing. On Friday and Sunday their routes must have changed, suddenly more low-flying planes coming over. Today nothing. When the double-glazed windows are closed, you do not know you are near an airport. But I so love leaving the doors and windows open to the fresh breezes!

Manouche: yes, I do have Muslim friends who take no coffee. They do love tea though - strong and very sweet. In this house the coffee machine seems to be an important fixture, our host took DD twice through 'coffee training' to make sure that she knew what to do. They (our hosts) are still in France, having visited children. They came by yesterday and fixed the machine.

Everybody else: thanks for your comments!
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 01:17 AM
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What a fabulous experience. Really looking forward to your updates.
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