Wednesday, January 26, 2011

French Lifestyle Observations

This may be quite obvious to those of you who know a bit about French life, but here's just a summary of things I've been finding out lately:

  • French people seem to have dinner, then cheese, then dessert. I had the vague notion that cheese was its own course, but I didn't realize quite how legitimate and normal it was to go systematically from main course to cheese/bread. Then, sometimes instead of dessert, they have just a plain yogurt, occasionally with granola or some sort of similar topping.
  • They are very serious about conviviality and their own brand of hospitality. I have apparently offended at least two French people by not offering dessert or snacks when I had gotten them for myself and a friend, and the French people happened to be in the vicinity and learned I hadn't been prepared to offer them any (in my defense, I didn't know they'd be there!).
  • They are quite particular about money. Maybe it's just the people I've met in this specific region, but I've been obligated on several occasions to reimburse people for things that Americans just wouldn't ask for. At least, not polite Americans.
  • Very few of them use Gmail. Most French people I know use Hotmail, Yahoo, or the local internet/phone providers' services (Orange.fr, sfr.fr). MSN is still big beyond American borders, and nobody knows about Gchat or AIM (I think AIM started dying a long time ago anyway). The students use Facebook chat a lot, apparently.
  • PDA is a way of life here. It's kind of disgusting and off-putting but also kind of sweet. Mostly off-putting.
  • Maybe this is just the older teachers I've seen, but so many of the teachers type with one finger!! How is this phenomenon still in existence?
  • It's perfectly normal - one of the teachers literally said this to me, so she can vouch for this information - to have several classes canceled in a week or postponed. It's somewhat rare for me to have a full week. For the past month, my engineering students' class has been canceled because they were in a work placement. For the next two weeks, the vocational secretary students will be gone for a work placement. Last Wednesday, all the economics/management students were gone for a three-day trip to Strasbourg. And don't forget about the occasional strike or snowstorm, or plain and simple absenteeism. I've had an entire class decline to attend my course because their normal English teacher is ill, and they somehow think I won't be there either. Weird.
And now for words of the day:
  • Ca tue! - Killer!/Sweet! (haha I don't know if people say "killer" these days, but that's sort of how it translates). This was said multiple times in response to my showing the kids my signature- and photo-stocked high school yearbook.
  • Fifi/Titi (or Toutou) - cutesy names for a cat and dog, respectively. Don't know if these are univerally accepted by French people, or just the lady I'm living with.

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    Familiar Vocabulary Lessons

    C'est le bazar - what a mess. I've heard this several times since I've been here, and I always misheard it as the incorrect "c'est le par hasard," which I turned around in my mind as "everything's so random." But now I know! This is a bit more polite, I think, than c'est le bordel.

    Ça caille! - It's freezing! A common utterance in this awful, freezing country. Forecasts don't seem to be promising anything higher than about 4 degrees Celsius (around 39 Fahrenheit) until March. :(

    I'm excited to get paid in 3 days, because then I can go to The Real McCoy and make some American treats for the family I'm now living with. I also sorely need a passport cover, and my Forever 21 purse has been holding on suspiciously long (given that it's Forever 21 and I bought it in October 2009!), so it's only a matter of time before it gives up. Then again, there is also food to think about.

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Things I Love Today

    • Getting a refund for a clothes order I made from TopShop but never received because of December's epic snow. (I suspect that it may have arrived after all, according to communication with my former roommate who has stuff for me to pick up. So maybe I get free clothes??) I really needed this refund because of all the money I've spent in the past month.
    • Eating cheap döner kebap (one of many spellings) with Jessica and Nou tonight in Paris, and spending a long hour and a half relating so many of my awful horror stories. I felt good to realize that I'm over them and no longer quite as bitter as I was just days ago.
    • Going to a Polyglot meeting after dinner tonight. We only stayed for about forty-five minutes, but I had a cool conversation with Ulysses (!!!), a Taiwanese-American fluent in Chinese, English and Japanese, who spoke excellent French because he came to Paris and started learning from scratch by talking with people; and two Italian Lucas, one of whom was visiting the other from London where he's teaching Japanese and Italian (he understood French but didn't speak much), and the other of whom spoke impeccable English and honestly confused me when he told me he wasn't from New York or Philadelphia. I wish we had stayed longer, but the three of us assistants live out in the boonies of Île-de-France (i.e. the Paris region - I am teaching you vocabulary haha), so we had to make sure we didn't miss our trains. The tricky thing I found about Polyglot was that the conversation is invariably metalinguistic at the start - e.g. "What languages do you speak? How did you learn them?" etc. So I figure it takes time to get things going properly. Not that I don't love talking about languages! Everyone has a great story. I just didn't get to learn more of anyone's tonight.
    • Still feeling invigorated and enthusiastic about the 30-minute uphill walk from the train station to my latest home, when the buses aren't running. They stop at 9 in the evenings, so I foresee the imminent return of my beautiful leg muscles. I'm doubtful that I can continue to be invigorated and enthusiastic, but hopefully any resentment will give way to tolerance...
    • Love songs.
    • The American Library in Paris. I'm training to start volunteering there tomorrow. I'm excited to put bilingualism into action and to be surrounded by books I actually want to read. Being in the same building as a bunch of books and English speakers who understand my logic, I won't say no to that.
    • Going into Paris with a group of some of my students and their teacher today, to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in play form, in English. I love these kids (they're the literature track and, as Michael says, "they actually speak English"), and they seemed to really appreciate the play. And gosh, they were so well-behaved too.
    • Anticipating some major discounts during the current month-long, government-sponsored soldes (sales) in literally EVERY store in France!!

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Happiness is Something You Work For

    In the past month, I have lived (maybe I should put that in quotes) in not 1, 2 or 3... but 6 different places. From my old place in Massy to two pretty pathetic flats in Paris for vacation, which resulted in one hotel room in Paris, then a temporary room at the home of a teacher I work with, and finally a room at the home of, so far, the kindest French person I have met (save perhaps the old man who led me and Francisca through the snowstorm), it's been a whirlwind month. I am, however, incredibly grateful that I haven't been actually homeless, and that I've generally scraped by to live in these places with the meager money I do have.

    These past weeks I have cycled through so many clashing emotions - Michael was here and it was, quite literally, so many dreams come true. The universe, though, did its best (and in fact, continues to conspire against us) to turn our lives into a terrible nightmare. Never before have I felt such genuine empathy for people without a stable place to live. Florence, the teacher I stayed with after I was kicked out of the Massy place, transposed a very French sentiment into English when she responded to my desire to get the heck out of this place because it's made me so unhappy: "Well... that's life."

    She told me a little about her own experiences, saying that she had a rough time when she was a teaching assistant in England, but that she stuck it out and that it made her stronger. She went through a really difficult breakup after four years of a great relationship, which caused her two years of lows. And now she's back on the up-and-up with a new boyfriend; things are generally great. This made me realize that, although I have felt very strongly about leaving France and ending my contract early, I do think it's possible to go on.

    All this has made me very curious about the nature of happiness. I experienced some of the best times in my life just within the past two years, with only brief periods of despondence. About five years ago, though, the bad seemed totally overwhelming. When I'm happy, I feel like I can do anything, and I have a sense of power, that I know happiness is something you work for, and that I worked for it. When I'm happy, I can visualize all the things I'm doing that are keeping me up there. But when things go wrong, it's so easy to completely forget about that state of mind, and how you got there. It's kind of a mystery, really, and maybe the secret to happiness is that you have to reinvent your path to it constantly in life, in order to renew the brightness in your soul.

    Another thing I'm becoming more sensitive to, but maybe I have a ways to go before I understand better, is the reality of other people's problems. It's so easy to dismiss anyone else's concerns in life because I feel mine are bigger, or maybe theirs just aren't worth worrying over, and they're not seeing things clearly. I mean surely, we all have that problem of not seeing clearly and realizing that our problems really aren't that bad. Knowing we have the problem doesn't make it any easier to surmount.

    I, like you maybe, should start replacing my burdensome problems and fears with curiosity. It's way easier said than done, as I know because I first tried this about a month ago and I still don't feel as completely, 100% alive as I did before I came to France. But maybe that particular feeling is just the past, one that whisked in and showed me how to love life, but moved on when it was time for me to learn a new way. Maybe I'm letting my fear of not finding that same feeling again, hold me back from a new brand of happiness. We often mistake happiness for complacency, and so we maintain complacency, thinking we're happy. This is to be avoided, but I can't say I don't enjoy having constants in my life that comfort me. I know what habits make me feel alive; I know that living comfortably first, with an income and a warm home, and then exploring outside that comfort second, work wonders for me. In taking small steps outside my comfortable lifestyle, by learning something new like guitar or trying something new, even just a new route on my daily walks, those things are key for me to feel fulfilled and, in my own words, "so GREAT, Mom." By surrounding myself with positive people, which may in the end mean "not French people," I can partake in good energy and supply some too.

    It's all well and good to say that if something is making you unhappy, you should change it. But words are just words, and sometimes you may not be fully prepared to change things immediately. When we promise to change things, we often give the idea that change occurs instantaneously. And when I promise change, even to myself or to a blog, it sounds too much like promising progress measurable by the outside world. But only I can measure my progress, only I can measure my happiness. Others would say I'm overanalyzing, which I agree I do sometimes. But if it eventually leads to happiness, who's to say it's not worth something?

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Videos from Holidayflat Nightmare: Part 1

    video



    The view from under the shower...

    Friday, January 14, 2011

    VDM

    I have been passive-aggressively forced to move out of my "home" in France, my students are unmotivated delinquents, and tonight I cut myself on a broken glass while doing dishes and had to be driven to the emergency room by the French teacher hosting me while I find a new place to live.

    The only thing good about France right now is that Michael's here, and tada! He's leaving on Monday. Bon courage to me...

    Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    HolidayFlat.fr Review: Literally My Worst Nightmare

    For my boyfriend Michael's stay in France, we were on a tight budget but wanted to stay in Paris for the two weeks of winter vacation, to give my apartmentmate some room, since her mother was coming, and to have a place of our own to hang out in. Almost everything I found was too expensive for us (apparently 70€ per night is a "steal" for people with more money than us), until I found HolidayFlat. They have small apartments to rent throughout Paris, and their fine print seemed to check out pretty well; plus, their website has lots and lots of pictures of each apartment, to give you a somewhat accurate idea of how things look. Plus, we were able to find a nice-looking place for about 39€ per night, which is almost unheard of for other, comfortable hotel situations.

    Contents:
    Red Flags During Booking
    Check-In Day: Shady Key Pickup, and Door Won't Open
    Awful, Sporadic, Apathetic Customer Service
    A Temporary Solution in Montmartre
    Our Montmartre Hovel
    A Brief Respite From Our Troubles
    Our Nightmare Begins Again
    Conclusion

    Summary (if you don't care to read all 2,600 words of my disappointment):
    • does not allow in-person visits to flats
    • check-in and key pickup are shady and unreliable
    • terrible customer service phone system (0,35€/min and no choice to speak to a real person)
    • broken appliances and bed, no heating in our Gare du Nord rental apartment
    • affordable prices, but not worth it
    • did offer a good temporary solution when we were unable to enter our flat, but took them hours, and solution wasn't much better
    • employees are friendly when they do make the effort to help, but such efforts are few and far between
    • DON'T TAKE THE CHANCE ON THIS COMPANY. It's more trouble than it's worth.

    Red Flags During Booking
    I should have known it was a bad idea to risk using HolidayFlat back in October, when I was researching the company and could find absolutely no reviews of their services. After much reflection and justifying it to myself as taking a good-natured chance on a company just starting out, I booked us 16 nights in a chambre de bonne (maid's room - notorious for being small and cramped, on the top floor of old buildings, usually with a shared toilet on the landing). I waved away another very important red flag when I asked them if I could visit the apartment and they said no. If I had visited - or, to put it more accurately, if I had visited and been smart enough to check that there was working heat, a functioning foldout bed, and a microwave in the kitchen that was promised on the website - I would not have taken the flat.

    Check-In Day: Shady Key Pickup, and Door Won't Open
    First of all, when we arrived in Paris the rainy, slushy night of Saturday, December 18th, with our bags, we were required to pick up the keys to the apartment from a random restaurant in a totally different neighborhood. This was because renting the flat, which belongs to someone else who was renting it out through HolidayFlat, had no reception desk or really, any reception to speak of. Yet another bad sign cropped up when, upon our arrival at the restaurant, the keys were not there. There were two other envelopes for other patrons having reserved flats, but not mine. After questions and phone calls made by the restaurant staff, Michael and I waited ten minutes before an unknown black man came by with the envelope. He didn't say a single word to us in apology, merely handing over the envelope and leaving immediately. I was relieved to have the keys but certainly skeptical, as this was not a good beginning. I figured it would be fine once we got inside the apartment and were able to relax.

    How wrong I was.

    We went back out into the rain, took two more metro trains to reach the apartment building, punched in the door code with no problem, opened the metal gate inside the building entrance with one of our two keys, then climbed the six flights of stairs (old building = no elevator, but I knew this beforehand) up to a grungy looking top floor, following the directions that had been e-mailed to me a month or so prior. Granted, the directions were very helpful and there were even pictures with arrows, directing us on how to get through the building to our flat, which would have been impossible to do without visual instructions... The only problem with the instructions was that there was nothing there about the door to the apartment. There were three locks on the outside, but we only had two keys: one of which was obviously used to open the metal door, and the second of which fit in the middle lock but would not open the door, no matter how many times we turned it and no matter how hard we tried to pull or push the door.

    Awful, Sporadic, Apathetic Customer Service
    By now it was 6 p.m., and we had left my apartment in Massy around 2:30. Naturally, I had to call HolidayFlat to see what was wrong and to explain that Michael and I had both tried a thousand different ways to open the door, and it wasn't working. Unfortunately, the customer service hotline costs 0,35€ per minute, which is absurd, given how long it takes for the automated menus to drone on. Even once you get through to the end, you can't choose to speak to a real person; you have to instead leave a message and a contact number and wait for them to contact you back - sometimes by phone (which is then free, or was on my French cell phone), sometimes by text message. I had to call them at least eight times that night, because each time I explained the rising level of my frustration, their solution was not to send someone (as would have been done in America, if an American company were to even let something like this happen to a paying customer), but to assure me they were "thinking of a solution" and that they'd get back to me. In the meantime, Michael and I had no choice but to sit in the cold, dirty hallway and wait. We even asked a neighbor who passed by if she could help us with the door, but she couldn't get it to open either.

    After several lame proclamations that they were "trying to get a locksmith to come" before the night was over, and that they were trying to contact the owner, two hours had passed. I was crying, Michael was consoling me (which he, as a guest, should not have to do) and I had left a message saying I wanted a refund, because it is absolutely unacceptable to strand your customers (foreigners, no less, hypothetically with no other place to go) after I had paid 600€ for what turned out to be, when we did get in a week later, the worst living accommodations anyone has ever had the gall to charge 39€/night for.


    A Temporary Solution In Montmartre
    Finally, I had given up hope that HolidayFlat would help us, so Michael and I left to try to find some dinner. As we were standing outside the pizza place on the opposite corner, feeling absolutely lost and betrayed (and me feeling guilty and like I'd been made a fool of), they called back. I insisted that I would not stay there even if they got the locks open, that their customer service was absolutely terrible, and that it wasn't worth it.

    To his credit, the guy on the phone was calm and understanding, but it was clear that we weren't in America, the home of shining customer service relations, because instead of offering an alternative, he asked me what I was planning to do instead. I said I'd go anywhere but the flat we'd booked, even spend extra money on a hotel, because the whole thing was just ridiculous. He acknowledged my choice and said that he'd still do what he could. I said fine, hung up, and went into the restaurant with Michael. He gallantly paid the exorbitant cost of two pizzas (a sign of just how much money we were going to spend in Paris: the two personal pizzas cost 25€ altogether). While we were eating, I received a text message from HolidayFlat. I would like to mention that text message is possibly the worst method of contact to use when you have a wronged customer on your hands. Over the course of our two weeks dealing with HolidayFlat, I asked them numerous times to call me, only to receive text messages or emails. I think they were tired of dealing with me or just plain afraid, in the end.

    The text message included instructions on how to get to another of their rental apartments, in the Montmartre neighborhood, plus how to obtain the key, which luckily was not at a restaurant but in a miniature combination-lock safe attached to the apartment door. Relieved but still aggravated, we finished eating and left, but not before mentioning to the pizza restaurant's proprietors that Michael found the language they spoke - Egyptian Arabic - to be beautiful.

    Our Montmartre Hovel
    Our replacement flat was located on a calm street in the hills of Montmartre (think Amélie and the Sacré Coeur basilica). It, too, had shared toilets, which smelled of mold and honestly scared me sometimes, but it was a roof over our heads. We went up the stairs to the top floor, as it was another chambre de bonne, but at least one on the fourth floor instead of the seventh. Upon entry, my heart sank. The room was about 8 square meters, with a sloping wall on the window side, which made it feel very claustrophobic. The foldout couch was folded-in, and hardly looked like it would fit even one of us, until we unfolded it and found it to be actually a comfortable size, although it took up nearly the whole room. The shower door had cracks in the side, which caused mild leakage if we weren't careful enough to avoid holding the movable showerhead away from them. One of the two burners on the electric hotplate was broken, as we read on a note that had been left by the owner or maybe a previous short-term tenant.

    I had been given contact information for a man who turned out to be the owner, and I called him to ask why the electricity wasn't working. After he tried to instruct me on how to turn the power on, I did so and we used the lamp to let a weak light fill the hardly optimized space.

    The ambiance was less than thrilling, and I felt so awful for having dragged Michael into this failure of a vacation with me, but somehow being there together made it less terrible. We could laugh about it in disbelief and curse the HolidayFlat people from the shelter of the hovel, which, fortunately, had heating. We appreciated that, but not as much as we should have, considering the hell we were to encounter in the original flat ten days later.

    A Brief Respite From Our Troubles
    We got used to the Montmartre flat pretty quickly, and we were able to have a really nice stay there, despite its size, because the neighborhood is absolutely beautiful and accessible for tourists. We stayed there from December 18th to the 28th, and I even made us a nice Christmas Eve dinner of lemon chicken, potatoes and vegetables. We left for the suburbs on Christmas Day, for one of the most lovely times we've had so far in France together, among the company of a teacher I work with, and her warm family. We even met a really nice Japanese woman nearby our flat at her tiny shop while we were exploring, so Michael got to practice his Japanese and we got to make a new friend.

    One good thing about HolidayFlat then, is that they had the courtesy to move us to somewhere temporary in a very very nice neighborhood, without charging us anything extra. I will give them credit for giving us the place on the same night that we were having so many problems, and not leaving us stranded to find a hotel on our own.

    During our stay in Montmartre, a pretty big problem came up with me and my roommate in Massy. Perfect timing, don't you think? The details on that I'll save for another day, but suffice it to say that December did not do wonders for my opinion of France and French people.

    Our Nightmare Begins Again
    We had to leave the Montmartre apartment on December 28th because other customers were coming that afternoon. We had originally booked our stay until January 3rd, so back to the first flat it was. I went early to drop off some food there, which is located near the Gare du Nord (train station), taking the keys with me and assuming that this time, the door would open with no problem. On my way out, Michael warned me against getting my hopes up, and it's a good thing he did, because I spent no less than thirty minutes in front of that door, yet again, pushing and pulling and turning and sighing with bitter resentment that, although HolidayFlat had said the problem had been resolved, it hadn't. I called them again, and finally - after all this time, it took them a second distress call ten days later? - someone said he'd be right over.

    I waited another hour there, by myself, in the cold hallway, while he made his way to the apartment. I was having quite a time deciding between a) giving up and going back to Michael with the bad news, and trying to figure out what to do since my roommate had forbidden us to come back to Massy before the end of the vacation; and b) holding out hope that someone would finally come save us and everything would be fine again.

    I chose option b), and sure enough, I heard footsteps near the stairs. A HolidayFlat employee had come with extra keys, and his polite and pleasant demeanor reassured me a little. He finally opened the door, with a very forceful flick of his wrist - turns out, the reason Michael and I hadn't been able to open the door was that even after turning the key twice to the left, you had to use a lot of force to make it turn a half-turn more, and then it opened. This kind of lock is highly uncommon in America, and I later wrote HolidayFlat an email suggesting they make note of this in their instructions to future tenants.

    The employee and I then went in, and I apologized for making him come just to open the door, while mentioning that the reason was that I hadn't been strong enough to open the door. He was very professional and asked how our stay at the Montmartre flat had been. I was honest but nice about it. He left with some kind words, I turned on the electricity and went back to Michael. He and I transported all our things back to the Gare du Nord flat, only to find...

    ...only two bulbs of three in the overhead lighting fixture worked;
    ...only one of the three coils on the provided space heater provided was functional;
    ...there was no microwave, as had been promised;
    ...the loft bed that had been pictured online only slept one person and was too close to the ceiling, making it dangerous to climb into;
    ...the two-person foldout bed under the mezzanine was missing part of the frame and was broken, not to mention that it was too big to fold out into the room, even if it had been working.

    We sighed and left to go to McDonald's for some free internet. I emailed HolidayFlat about the situation, and to this day I have yet to receive a reply.

    We only spent one night in that room, and it was freezing and depressing. We laid the double mattress out on the floor, and even without the frame it took up the entire floor space, so it would have been impossible to make the frame fit. The next day, I went from hotel to hotel in the neighborhood, asking about rates and availabilities. Of course, it was three days before New Year's, and prices were high and availabilities low. I refused to spend another uncomfortable night in a place where we weren't guaranteed to have heat or a comfortable place to sleep.

    Conclusion
    Eventually, I resigned myself to paying a much greater nightly rate than 39€ for a room at Hotel Maubeuge, across the street from the flat.

    I haven't heard back from HolidayFlat, and I doubt that I will get a refund from them, because in our desperation we did, indeed, stay in the Montmartre flat and in the Gare du Nord flat for one night. If I could do this over again, I would have chosen Couchsurfing or a hotel instead. Maybe if I had booked a hotel far enough in advance, the rates would have been affordable.

    Don't let HolidayFlat make a fool out of you for trusting them on paper - they are not trustworthy in person, and as Michael said, no one should ever have to live in the conditions of the chambres de bonne that they provide. Maybe a nineteenth-century maid, but not us, and not anyone else.