Sunday, 28 April 2013

Maastricht: Parking Adventures

Since this blog is about new experiences and joys that I encounter in the different countries that I visit, I was forced to add the word "adventures" to the title of this post. 
To be honest, "Pulling-my-hair-out-of-my-head frustration and aggravation" would've been a far more accurate depiction of the situation.

The two-week workshop in France came to an end on Friday and I boarded the Thalys train, pulling and tugging on my two suitcases, to the country that will become my home for the months to come. 

These high-speed European trains are amazing and this one was full of French teenagers on a school trip, a couple of backpackers, businessmen in black suits, a rowdy American crowd, and a group of elderly English tourists. 

While I was busy hauling one of my suitcases into the overhead storage area, the group of school kids smartly used my other suitcase as the cornerstone on which they constructed a vast luggage mountain. They obviously attend a technical school where they are trained to become civil engineers from the age of five. Since my French vocabulary only consists of ordering fruit at the marketplace, I decided not to make a (luggage) mountain of a molehill and rather descended on the train snack bar. 

The attendant greeted me with a friendly "Bonjour-Goedemiddag-Guten tag-Good afternoon." Four languages served with a smile. Incredible. I chose the latter and armed with coffee, a sandwich and chocolate I made my way back to my seat to lazily flip through my Kindle for the duration of the 2 hour train journey.

At Liege I was greeted by a colleague and my (rather squashed) luggage was re-loaded into the boot of the car. When I had left Paris 2 hours earlier the sky was a brilliant blue, but as we drove closer to Maastricht, dark clouds descended and soon raindrops were pounding against the windscreen. Maybe this was what my French colleague meant when he described the Netherlands sky as being "very low".

I couldn't be bothered by the rain though, because I had a fantastic little car to drive around with. The only challenge was to find a parking spot for it in the Maastricht city centre. I drove into Maastricht on the right side of the road, which is the wrong side in South Africa (and the left, the right) just as the sun was setting behind the clouds and the rain was coming down hard. 

Luckily I found a parking spot not too far from my apartment, and was quite chuffed with my parallel parking skills on the right (wrong) side of the road (I am so ready to become a Capetonian!) that I barely took notice of the tiny yellow sign painted on the pavement. Besides, many cars were parked there and I couldn't see a parking meter where I could deposit any money. 

I walked the three blocks to my apartment in the grey rain, mentally adding an umbrella to my shopping list, and was soon in my cozy, dry apartment. But the yellow sign on the pavement kept bothering me... After pottering around my new apartment for about an hour, I decided to look it up online, just in case. What I found, chilled me to the bone.

Nowhere was there any mention of a yellow parking sign and what it could possibly mean, but it was clear that there was no such a thing as free parking in Maastricht! Words like "fined", "towed away", "clamped" and "locked up by the angry traffic police" jumped out at me from the screen. I helplessly jotted down a couple of parking areas nearby, but red blinking lights ominously informed me that they were fully booked until 2026. I ran out into the cold night, trying hard to remember where my car was parked and praying that it would still be there.

Luckily it was and I jumped behind the wheel and sped off, shivering from the rain. Or maybe from relief. I drove around aimlessly, hopefully looking for a big blinking sign with the words "Park here!", but none appeared. Cars were parked everywhere and I saw a few open parking spots in-between rows of bicycles, but according to the internet I needed permits, declarations and reservations to be able to park on the street. At 10 pm on a Friday night it was unlikely that I would get any of the required documentation.

Suddenly I saw a blue sign with a white "P" for "Parking"! I pulled in with a sigh of relief and rushed closer to see what the charge would be. However, upon closer inspection, the small print on the sign sternly instructed that the driver of a vehicle parked within 1000 m of this blue parking sign will be locked up for life and fed andouilette sausages every day. Or something along those lines.

Exasperated, tired, cold and wet I climbed back onto the car, wishing I was inside one of the warmly lit bars filled with music, laughter and people who arrived by means of a bicycle, which could be parked anywhere for free. How ironic that everyone who cycled in the rain was now warm and dry, while I sat soaking wet and shivering in my car.

As a last resort, I phoned the manager of the apartment and explained my dilemma. 
"No, there is no parking available on the street," she informed me, quite unnecessarily. "But I can arrange for you to use one of the parking garages for the week." 
I thanked her profusely and sped off to get the keys, a parking spot and a change of clothes.

I have no idea where I'm going to park next week, but at least I have seven days to get a reservation for the declaration and application of a parking permit.

Maastricht Bicycles

Travelling by Bike
Cyclists Crossing the Maas River Bridge

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Paris: Slow mornings

After two weeks in France, which consisted of many small, but hair-risingly strong cups of coffee, loads of foreign soft-on-the-ear words, and plenty of people watching, I can safely say that most Parisians are not morning-people. 

On weekends the streets are quiet and empty before 8 am, and even the cafe's along the Champs-Élysées stand bare and desolate in the early-morning rays until people start to trickle in at 10 am. Of course, with the spring sun sailing in the sky until 9 pm, the streets are crowded until way past my bedtime and festive music usually drifts through my window until after midnight.

A Cafe on the Champs-Élysées at 9:30

In the mornings I need at least two cups of coffee and no labour-intensive activities for the first couple of hours, before I start to feel more like a human and less like a puppet without its strings. In Joburg, sitting in my car, sipping on my second cup of coffee and staring at the traffic that snaked into oblivion on the M1 South, was the perfect wake-me-up recipe.

In Paris, though, the coffee required to zap me to life is somewhat of a challenge. Or rather, the milk lacking from the coffee. You see, French coffee is amazingly aromatic, full of flavour and strong - quite surprisingly so, considering that you only get a drop in a cup the size of a thimble. But the French mostly drink their coffee without milk. Therefore, should you specifically ask for "café au lait", you often get "ne pas lait" or milk-powder, which is worse than no milk at all.

Because I cannot count on having my two cups of coffee before the start of the day, the slow-start lifestyle of the French suits me perfectly. 

Working hours at my new company are flexible, but everyone arrives between 9 am and 10 am and often only leaves the office after 6 pm. This seemed very late to me at first, because in Jozi I would rarely leave the office after 5 pm, unless there is a looming deadline. Then, of course, we would all leave before 5 pm the following day. However, if you take into account that the sun only drops from the Parisian sky at 9 pm during the spring, leaving the office at 6 pm is  relatively early and you can still catch plenty of sun-rays after a hard day indoors.

The past week I had to catch the RER to Lognes and when I boarded the train at 8 am, I relished in the silence that engulfed the passengers. Everyone boarded the train in silent respect for the "early hour" and peacefully peered out the windows, read the morning paper or stood with closed eyes (possibly praying that we arrive safely?) for the duration of the journey. I either (tried to) read the paper (i.e. looked at the pictures and tried to form sentences with the words I recognised) or watched the people in their sleep/pray mode.

On the RER

I even managed to find a little corner shop in Paris where I was offered coffee with (real) milk! With a hot cup of coffee, a chocolate croissant and the tranquility of the RER, I was wide awake and ready to face the day when the train pulled into the Lognes station 40 minutes later.

A good thing too, because I had forgotten to ask for directions the previous day and had no idea how to get to the office..

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Paris: Sightseeing by Bicycle

What to do and where to start when you are in Paris for the weekend? Why not rent a bicycle and explore the city from the surprisingly comfortable seat of a European bike! The Velib bicycles are available from numerous locations and with over 440 km of cycle paths throughout Paris, it’s the easiest and most affordable way to get around.

On the spur of the moment I decided to book a bicycle group tour with Blue Bike Tours to see the major sights and learn of their history. Luckily there was a (bicycle) seat available and at 2:15pm our tour guide, Hava, met our group at platform 20 at Gare d'Austerlitz. All seven of us received a blue bicycle with a French name and off we pedalled to explore the city.

The weather was crisp and the wind cold, but the sun shone warmly and the streets were crawling with tourists and locals wanting to make the most of the beautiful day.

Cathédrale Notre Dame

Our first stop was at the Notre Dame de Paris, French for “our lady of Paris”. The Notre Dame, which is currently celebrating its 850th year, is my favourite building in Paris. I love the grandeur of this church and the impeccable detail of the exterior with the gargoyles glaring down at the onlookers.

Cathédrale Notre Dame

 If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the three arches at the entrance are all different, with the right arch being the original Gothic-style entrance. The original gargoyles are the long-necked ones parallel to the ground, and not the little creatures sitting upright at the corners. The word “gargoyle” comes from the French word gargouille, “throat” in English, and was named as such because of the gargling noises their throats make as water whooshes through it. Yes, besides guarding the church from evil spirits, these gargoyles also serve as waterspouts!

Centre Pompidou

This building you either love or hate. When it comes to building design, I am not a creative, artistic visionary who understand the concepts of space and environment interaction. Therefore, the Pompidou Centre reminds me of a colourful hamster cage (that is in dire need of its weekly spring clean) with tunnels for the hamsters to scurry along on the outside.

However, I was fascinated by the atmosphere surrounding the Pompidou. People flocked to the area in hordes to enjoy the vibey music of street artists, wander through the streets and shops, or lay staring up at the hamsters scuttling around in the Pompidou tunnels. So I took a walk back the following day to where kids played and couples sat hand-in-hand around the pond with the moving sculptures. What a vibe - I loved it! I’ll also be visiting the Pompidou this week for an exhibition, so who knows – maybe the building will worm its way into my heart eventually.

At the pond outside Centre Pompidou

Musée du Louvre

You can spend a whole day in the Louvre and still not get to see everything, but it is definitely worth a visit. I was lucky enough to visit the Louvre back in 2006 and I managed to get a glimpse of the Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa, and yes – I also thought the Mona Lisa would be a lot bigger :)

Musée du Louvre

We cycled past the green Jardin des Tuileries; past numerous joggers out for an afternoon run, past kids playing and people sitting in the shade, reading. Pure bliss.

Cleopatra's Needle

The Paris Needle, a gift from Egypt to France, is located at the Place de la Concorde. Its twin brother is still located at the Luxor Temple in Egypt, because in the 1800's it took years to transport the one 23 m needle to France.

The Place de la Concorde, where Louise XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined before the erection of Cleopatra's Needle, is one of two places in Paris where your insurance will have to pay 50% if you are in a car accident - whether you are the guilty party or not. The other, is the Champs Elysees (no surprise there!).

Cleopatra's Needle

La Tour Eiffel

The Eiffel Tower is the most well-known structure in Paris, as well as the tallest (320 m) and most visited. It received the title as the tallest man-made structure in the world in 1889, snatching the title from the Washington Monument, and held it for 41 years (the longest period this title was ever held) until it was given back to the USA for the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1930. The Eiffel Tower also serves a useful purpose and is the host of broadcasting antennas. Interestingly, because of this addition, it is now taller than the Chrysler Building.

At night the whole tower lights up and every half hour the lights dance over the structure in an impressive display.

La Tour Eiffel

L'Hotel des Invalides

We cycled through a park that was jointly occupied by young guys playing soccer and older ones enjoying a game of boules, and came to a halt in front of Les Invalides, where old war veterans were hospitalised. Napoleon's tomb is located under the golden dome, which is painted with 10 kg of actual gold. At night, this building is particular spectacular and its lights can be seen from the famous Pont Alexandre III bridge.

L'Hotel des Invalides

After stopping at a market for lunch, our bicycle tour came to and end - 4 wonderful hours and 18 km later. I will definitely recommend exploring Paris by bike. And, since I was the very first South African to go on a Blue Bike tour, you'll just have to take my word for it :)

Breaking New Grounds

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Paris: Chimneys

Bonjour mes amis!

I am in the heart of France, in the beautiful and magnificent city of Paris.

The weather has been lovely this week with crisp mornings and sunny afternoons; therefore I had to fight the crowds to see the spectacular sights that Paris has to offer (more about that later).

One of the many things I adore about Paris and that I find truly unique to the city, is the numerous chimneys sprouting from the buildings. They seem to pop up everywhere and frame the city with a picturesque ambiance.

Here are some pictures from my walks this week:

Friday, 19 April 2013

Johannesburg: Places and People

You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you have been…

I thought it apt to start with the city I have sadly left behind recently: Johannesburg.

For the past three years Jozi was my home. Three years might not seem like a long time, but you don’t need a decade to make this amazing city your home.

Here is what I love about Jozi:

1.      The People

The people of Jozi are hard-working, fast-moving, get-up-and-go people. We spend a lot of our time on the road or at work. Even so, the friendliness and inclusiveness of the people of Johannesburg blew me away.
The majority of people arrive in Joburg as strangers, but are invited to events and pulled into friendships so quickly that they are set on paying it forward. It is easy to make friends in this city.

I am thankful for amazing memories of “made from scratch” pasta and pizza dinners on a Saturday night, braais with the men huddled around the fire, big glasses of dark red Pinotage, lazy Sunday brunches at arty restaurants, house parties with loud music and laughter, a quick coffee and catch-up, jogging or cycling on a crisp Sunday morning, lazy afternoon picnics, sitting around for hours talking about nothing but laughing until you cry – always with a big bunch of people; old friends and new faces.

2.      The Sunsets

I often turn off the highway just as the sun is setting behind the mountains. Almost every time I have to remind myself to keep focusing on the road and not stare the yellow, red, and purple streaks in the sky. Breath-taking doesn't even begin to describe it.

3.      The Weather

Jozi doesn't have Cape Town’s mountain or Durban’s beaches, but the weather in Joburg is near perfect. For nine months of the year the days are long and superbly sunny, with light breezes and cooling evening showers (with magnificent/terrifying lightning). True, the winter is bone-chilling cold, but it’s only three pay checks long (yes, I have counted).

4.      The Skyline

5.      My Church

My church is in a casino. Can it get any more awesome and real than that?
We love God, we love Johannesburg, we love the people of Jozi.
Go and visit! You’ll love it.

6.      The Markets

It’s not just the food, crafts and clothes that are amazing.
It’s the vibe, the creativeness, the chatter and energy, the outfits and uniqueness of everyone and everything in this remarkable city.

Market on Main

7.      The Restaurants and Coffee Shops

Because Joburgers love to kuier!
Some of my favourites restaurants and coffee shops are Contessa's, Saigon, Kong Roast, Wombles, Dukes, Possum's Bistro, La Vie en Rose, and Salvation Cafe at 44 Stanley.

8.      The Events

There is always something to do!
Whether you are into sports (participant or spectator), arts, or culture: If it’s happening in South Africa, it’s happening in Johannesburg.

I loved the shows at Monte Casino, the international bands at Soccer City (FNB Stadium), cycling at the Cradle of Humankind, time trials and road-running events.

9.      The Street-Entertainment

You can watch a show with song and dance or be entertained by a juggling act. You can get your windows washed. You can buy a newspaper, a cell phone charger, a handbag, a wide variety of toys, or flowers. And all this from the comfort of your own car.
The products on display are also easily adapted based on the season: If it rains, umbrellas and raincoats are for sale. During the winter, scarves and gloves are available. When the sun is shining, you can buy a sunhat, sunscreen, a beach towel, bucket and spade and possibly a swimsuit in the latest colour and fashion.

10.  The Holidays

Technically it’s not something that’s happening in Jozi, as everybody packs up and leaves the city for a holiday. But Joburgers work hard and play hard, therefore there’s always a holiday being planned! My friends’ motto was to never come back from a holiday, without having planned the next!

Johannesburg, I will truly miss you.
And I will definitely be back.