Oh, is that what it means

I’ve been gaining confidence in the whole morning greeting thing. Bonjour, easy enough. When you are working from a script, it all goes well until people start hitting you with the variations.

So this morning as I’m greeting people, I meet the secretary, “bonjour” I say, “something something something” she say in return. I assume its all good and turn to walk out….

Then I get another string of French, this time in a universal tone of voice that tells me I’ve committed some sort of faux pas. Oh no!

I need help. (ok basic high school French, but still more than I have…)

Actually I was being asked “Ça va?” (How are you?) But not knowing any better, just ignoring it as a bit of the conversation I didn’t understand. How rude!

Oh well, she explained my error. Tomorrow is another day, a day in which I’ll have a new canned response ready: Ça va bien!


Off to Strasbourg. Longer trip, 1.5 hours, more interesting countryside and canals. The cathedral here has is undergoing a big clean (there has been a major program all of France it seems). The stone here is not the very pale sand colour of elsewhere, more of a red. The spire is very finely carved and really is impressive. Because the old town still crowds right up close the walls, the height is accentuated.

Nice things to visit include the astrological clock. Be sure to get there before 11:30 so you can see it go through the full cycle of figure movement (it only does it once a day). The clock is a full analogue computer capable of correctly computing the date for Easter including all of the calendar “issues” (leap years and the like).

You really have to climb the spire. For me the most interesting things were “graffiti”. Visiting army officers and clerics back to the 1500’s having added sections. Clearly there was a “buy a stone” type deal at some point judging by the complexity and quality of some of the work.

The archaeological museum is worth a visit. We chose it over the fine arts (not enough time). Because the area is rich in grave history (going back before the iron age) they have a large collection of grave goods and a good discussion of the changing role of death in society. Surprisingly this was told from a very secular point of view which is not that common here.

Had dinner in a local cafe, tried some local deals, Alsace Hamburger and Tarte Flambe (which is a kind of very thin pizza). Well enjoyed. The down side? We missed our train. The really down side, next train was 5:58, …AM, and that would not get to Metz till 7:40, which is after the Arcelor bus leaves. So after some hastily found accommodation (French local hotel, you have to try them, rooms smaller than you thought possible…it was pretty good actually, just don’t compare on price) we had a good nights sleep and made it back.


nancy_sqThe former regional captial. Bigger than Metz, a lot more guilding, older archetecture feel and so on. Went to the school of the arts museum and the art gallery. Both interesting but quirky. (what regional museum isn’t).

Spent a bit of time in the main park. peacockChildren’s zoo, peacocks roaming wild, stealing food and all that. The macqacs were evil. One managed to catch a sparrow, so we were treated to the sight of it being plucked and torn apart. The scary thing about primates is how easy with anthopomorphise them. So when he first caught the sparrow and it wasn’t dead yet, he looks out at the tourists (to make sure we were watching?) before rolling the bird back and forth on the ground like a rolling pin to smouther it.

Watching the heirachy of who gets to eat unmollested was fun. Too easy to see corporate structures at the monkey house.


sacrecoeurI went back to Paris last weekend to pick May up from the airport. Since I had a few hours to kill before she would arrive it was an excellent chance to go for a long walk around some of the parts I knew from my last visit in 2006: Opera, Montmartre & Scaré Coeur.

After two weeks of excellent weather, of course this weekend had rain periods. So it was overcast for my train trip from Metz, sunny between 9-10am, then it hailed for 10 minutes, then it turned into a warm cloudy afternoon with sunny periods. Sunday was just cold and damp. It is remarkably like Sydney winters.

Sunday we went along the canal, ate excellent baguette, eventually endingobelisk up at Invalides. There is a large and excellent museum here. Last time we only saw a part of it. This time we went to “the two world wars” or 1870-1945, yes they count differently, just like the Chinese count WW2 from Japanese invasion. I really like this aspect of travelling. Other countries have different perspectives (go to a US Vietnam display sometime) to your own. Having read about how war scholars in other countries complain Australia overstates its contribution (esp WW1) I now have bit more a feel for the French perspective. Having grown up with Australian and British history and movies, its always a surprise to realise a) there was a war in Europe before Australian troops got there, b) that the British forces comprised a single expeditionary force, in conjunction with the 8 French armies already deployed.

fountainA big change (for me) was the inclusion of English text information in many of the displays. Its a small thing, but that and the much improved signage and number of street maps makes being a non francophone in Paris that much easier. Remember though, the best way to get around is the metro, BUT you must accept, it doesn’t have to make sense! Once you accept that, it is much easier to use.

Once you accept that, you realise that the NSW govt trying to tell you they have a complex train system to manage is odd. I wonder what they learn on fact-finding missions to other “comparable cities”? Do they use the mass transit systems in them? Having the government compare Sydney to London, Paris, Singapore (and having used all three myself) I think mainly we lack the will to annoy some people to achieve a greater good. Of course I say this as someone hoping to not be annoyed.

How to book TGV tickets

gare_metzWhen I booked tickets from Australia we had a hard time using the TGV/SNCF website. Since I was going to pickup tickets in France, we selected France as the country to pick them up in. If you do that, you get no language choice after that, French for you. It was quite a trial, including deciphering the confirmation that you need to take with you to  pick up your tickets. Is there a better way?

If you want to get TGV tickets, the trick is to say you live in a non French speaking county (be aware Australia is not event listed), then you get a very good English website where you can pick seats etc. then when you go to the ticket machine to pick them up, don’t select “I want to pick up a ticket using my credit card that I used to book online”. Select “you want to pick up a ticket using a reference number” (you got it in the email confirmation). You still stick the credit card in, but this time it just works. Much easier.


lux_valleyOn spec I took the TER to Luxembourg. Travelling anywhere by train here seems to be fun. The shear scale of investment in trackwork. Why we thought it was a good idea to unload cars in Port Kembla then truck them up Mt Ousley back to Sydney I don’t know. Of course you see endless trains full of German cars heading across the landscape here.

All the industry is clustered along the tracks. So you get a backroom view of a lot of operations. And relics like the abandoned BF site between Thionville and Hagondage. (wish I had my camera out for that one).

Luxembourg itself is pretty interesting after a week in Metz. Lots more languages spoken in the streets. Lots of tourists from everywhere. My favourite were the American bemoaning how expensive everything was. It was outrageous. Must be novel for them.

If you haven’t been before, it is an old fortified town straddling a deep river cut valley with shear sides. I’ll not try to do a better job summarising what’s there see wikipedia. But the things I enjoyed were the cool of the valley, looking up at the heavily fortified city. I wonder how impressive it must of looked before they dismantled most of the fortifications?

I’ll go back with May at some point and do the underground tour of the fortifications.

I also checked out the ArcelorMittal headquarters. Odd, isn’t it. See the tiny logo on the column left of the door (ok, there was a limit to what I could resolve with my camera), but given the choice of building I was surprised by the restraint.

Fun at the supermarché

churchThis is the start of the long weekend here. Note: that means nothing much is open, so I needed to go shopping, and buy some essentials. Naturally things are really crowded as everyone tries to buy stuff on the way home from work. This would always be a test of my minimal French vocab. Problem 1. They have problems with the till, so credit/debit card only. Problem 2. None of my cards worked. (“Anglais carte” with some disgust was heard). This meant trying to pickup everything and find a working till for a cash transaction. I’m not popular with the other people in the queue. The cashiers were nice and understanding though.

Getting some incidentals in another shop I thought I was doing fine. I thought I got all of the etiquette right, I was getting by with my CD learned shopping phrases. Then I get something unintelligible. She repeats it a couple of different ways, then “No you don’t have one!”. Only then did I realise she was asking about a store loyalty card.

Local customs

metz_breakwallI’m getting used to some of the French work customs slowly. I had not realised that when you arrive for work you should visit the office of everyone already there, shake hands and greet them. I’ve shaken more hands in the last couple of days than in the last year in Australia. I guess the handshake is kinda dying out in Australia, mostly being used for formal occasions now.

It’s the little things

notqwertyIt should be obvious, but it isn’t. If future exchange happens, think about how you will handle non-qwerty keyboards. I nearly touch type. I can’t tell you how much pain I’m in right now. At least I’ve managed to get the default locale to not be in French (try working out what compiler error messages are….)

They have no qwerty keyboards in the office, so my choices were learn the French layout, or switch to a qwerty layout. Using a French layout presents some problems, I mostly touch type, so I was reduced to hunt-n-peck typing speeds, also I have my laptop here, so switching between the two was problematic. Of course if you switch, then you _have_ to touch type. Now the key labels don’t match what you type. I guess I’ll be a better touch typist from this adventure. I sympathise with overseas students in our labs so much more now. Of course I might give in and put stickers over the keys……

Made it in one piece

gare_de_lestLots of hanging around waiting for my train, but TGV is a great way to travel.

It really does leave on time within a second or two of schedule. It stayed slow through Paris, then it really opens it up outside. There is no sensation of speed since you travel through endless fields, everything is a fair way away. Mind you when you pass another TGV at speed going the other way it is quite a physical jolt. While sitting at the one stop we made before Metz, other TGV went past, THAT looked fast.

Sami and I had a miss communication about where to meet. He said “meet a the bank, and just stay there till we find one another”, OK. So looking on the platform for a Bank, no Bank, alright try in the station, nope, what about just outside, nope. OK go and wait at the lobby….That’s where we ran into each other. “Why didn’t you stay at the bank” Um I was looking for a Bank. Bank=platform. Oh.