Saturday, January 30, 2016

Best destination in Europe: Paris or Prague?



For the past seven years, European Best Destinations, a European organization developed to promote culture and tourism in Europe, has asked people to "click and vote" for their favorite European destination. While the 2016 list includes many of the usual suspects, such as London, Rome, Athens and Berlin, it also includes some previously unknown-to-me destinations, like Plovdiv, Novi Sad, Kotor and Zadar. But the two that have me stumped are Paris and Prague. Should I vote for the city that I fell in love with at the age of 18 and which I continue to cherish, regardless of her faults, or should I vote for the city which is working its way deeper into my heart on a daily basis?

So, what has transpired between today and my January 4 post in which I implored Stéphane to take me home, meaning back to Paris?

The "Three Musketeers" building on Siroka Street. While Stéphane and I would
have liked to live in a building that is an ode to one of Alexandre Dumas' novels,
the layout of the apartment convinced us to continue our search.

A lot! For starters, we found an apartment that we're going to take possession of later this afternoon. It not the one located in the incredible "Three Musketeers" building on Siroka Street or the loft apartment conveniently situated on the same street as a bakery and one of the best cocktail bars in Prague, but it's the one that felt like home when Stéphane and I walked through the front door. It's where we could imagine building a new life together in Prague.

The loft apartment is in the second building on the right.
It's directly across from Tretter's, a cocktail bar evoking Paris and New York of the 1930s.

Before our new life could start, however, I had to return to Paris to supervise the movers who were packing our belongings in mid-January. It's a job that always depresses me because no matter how many sweaters I give to friends who are collecting winter clothes for refugees or knickknacks I donate to charity, the sheer volume of items to be packed always makes me realize that we have accumulated way too much stuff ... stuff that I'll need to find a place for in our new apartment.

The physical experience of moving from one country to another is always an interesting cross-cultural exchange and this move didn't disappoint. The team of Czech movers charmed me from the first moment I looked out the window and saw them taking selfies with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Since I completely understand the urge to capture your first glimpse of the Iron Lady, I managed to forget that they were an hour late. They more than made up for it during the next couple of days when they worked long hours that would have incited a French moving crew to strike.  

And speaking of strikes, thank goodness that Stéphane and I had taken photos to record our move to Paris because they came in handy when the French operator of the exterior lift adamantly refused to let the Czech movers use his lift because the angle to our fifth floor apartment was too steep. Rather than waste an hour futilely debating with a Frenchman, I told the operator that I had photographic evidence showing that we had used a lift to move into the apartment. Evidence which I could get if he would wait for me to go to my hotel in the 6th arrondissement (our apartment was in the 16th), pick up my laptop with the photos and return as quickly as possible. He signaled his agreement with a Gallic shrug of his shoulders and told us that he was going to wait in the neighborhood café.

In order to keep this post relatively short, I'll spare you the details of all the ensuing telephone calls between Paris and Prague. Suffice it to say that approximately two and half hours later, a different lift with a more obliging operator appeared on the scene. No sooner had he secured the exterior lift to our balcony than the youngest member of the Czech moving team, in an effort to be helpful, leaped onto the lift platform. "Get off," I shouted fearing for the young man's life. "Are you crazy?" yelled the lift operator in French. "I'll be fined if a policeman sees you. Where are you people from? Don't you know anything?" With two people shouting at him in incomprehensible English and French, the Czech mover remained frozen on the lift like a deer caught in the headlights of a car until his supervisor translated my panicked explanations that the lift wasn't stable and strictly off-limits to people.

Exterior lift transporting our belongings from our 5th floor apartment.

My explanations that the movers were from Prague, where they don't normally use exterior lifts, thankfully seemed to soothe the ruffled feathers of the Frenchman. I certainly hoped so because it was nearing lunchtime at which point we wouldn't have any luck finding another lift operator in Paris.

With me translating his instructions into English for the Czech supervisor, the Frenchman told the Czech movers how to load the lift. "The heavy boxes go in the middle, the lighter ones on the side." "The couches should be placed on their back near the arm of the lift." And then, the Frenchman decided to show that he had forgiven the Czech movers by making a joke. "Tell them," he directed, "that the tables must go on their backs with their legs in the air ... like a woman." The expression on my face must have revealed that I had no intention of translating the last bit because he tried to convince me with a smile and another "tell them".

"Ahh, the French. You've gotta love 'em." That's what I told Stéphane when he called that evening from Hungary to ask how the move had gone.

The apartment building that was our home for the five years that we lived in Paris.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

When will we learn? Refugees from war-torn countries endure deplorable conditions in France.

Refugees from Iraq, Syria and Iran are living in squalor in France. Photo credit: Carina Okula

When Stéphane, Philippe and I visited In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, Belgium over the holidays, I stood transfixed in front of a video showing women in long coats struggling under the weight of heavy bags and emaciated men carrying children on their backs. The grainy black and white images of refugees filmed during World War I were almost identical to the ones we currently see on the nightly news showing people fleeing their war-torn homelands.



For the past couple of months, Australian photographer Carina Okula has been collecting donations of coats, blankets, hats, gloves and food supplies for the modern-day refugees in France. If you would like to help, please read Carina's post, Humanitarian Crisis in France – life three hours north of Paris, and make a contribution to her Refugee Humanitarian Aid GoFundMe account. Carina is a dear friend and I can assure you that every cent of your money will go to help the refugees.

Excerpt:

The muddy field is home to approximately 2000 refugees who have fled their homelands of Iraq, Syria and Iran – fleeing Daesh and war to stay alive with the hope for a new tomorrow. We walk through the mud – 10, 15, 20cms deep. The women, children and men of the camp eat and sleep in it. They have no escape. Young babies, rats, disease all co-habitat. There is no electricity, only a few portable toilets and not a working shower in sight. ...

It’s not possible to say that people are living in these conditions, for this is not life. Somehow they find the stamina/courage to endure this … but for how much longer? ...

So much of what happens in the world at the moment is dictated by fear – the louder the voice, the more fear it is able to spread. Religion, politics, nationality shouldn’t come into play and allow such deprivation of basic human rights – instead we should listen to the quiet voice in our hearts – the one that says people should be looked after, no matter where they are from, what faith they believe in, what language they speak or how they dress. 

Photo credit: Carina Okula

Wars never stand in isolation. 
It is almost as if they have roots
that grow invisibly underground,
before springing up somewhere else
to create a new conflict. We must not be blind
to the forces that set the machinery of destiny in motion
one hundred years ago.
To do so would rob us of the chance to discover
the patterns of the past that can help to teach us
the lessons we need for the present and the future.
Erwin Mortier
Letter of Intent
GoneWest Remembrance Programme In Flanders Field Museum

Monday, January 4, 2016

Can we go home now? First days in Prague...

Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, was voted the top 2015 holiday destination by readers of USA Today

"Can we go home now?" I implored when Stéphane and I stopped in yet another café to escape the freezing wind that was numbing our noses and feet. "Prague is a really beautiful city and I'm sure we could be happy here, but I just want to go home."

Home, in my mind, is Paris. It's our sunny apartment with views of the Seine from the living room and the Eiffel Tower from the balcony. Home is where I have friends. It's where I understand the language, even if I always seem to find new ways to mangle it. Home is where I know how to get from point A to point B. It's the city where I spent the majority of the last five years building a life.

Stéphane and I arrived in Prague on New Year's Eve. It seemed an auspicious date to start the next chapter of our lives. Thanks to a friend's recommendation, we counted down the last minutes of 2015 from inside the 15th century Jindřišská Tower, the highest freestanding bell tower in Prague that houses the two-story Zvonice Restaurant, a museum, a gallery and a set of ten cast bronze bells in the tower attic. Colorful fireworks exploded outside the gothic windows as fluffy snowflakes began to fall. Smiling confidently at each other, Stéphane and I clinked our glasses of Piper-Heidsieck champagne to 2016, a year of new beginnings.

Happy New Year from snowy Prague!

Three days later, I wanted to hop on the first Paris bound flight and retreat back into my familiar life, the one that fit like a comfortable old shoe.

Our apartment search, which is the main reason we arrived three days before the start of Stéphane's new job, isn't going quite as well as I hoped. After perusing the shortlist of flats sent by the real estate agent, Stéphane and I did some sleuthing on the internet to determine the apartments' exact locations. Armed with maps and tram tickets, we set out on a covert reconnaissance mission before my official visit with the real estate agent on Tuesday.

Even though my friend Joseph the Butler had warned me that there are LOTS of tourists in the medieval center of Prague, we couldn't envisage the hordes of people that swarmed past the entrance of the first apartment we visited. Trying not to lose sight of Stéphane's hat as a group of tourists blindly followed their guide's upraised umbrella, I tried to imagine carrying bags of groceries home during the peak tourist season in the summer. Impossible!

Another apartment, a duplex with a terrace overlooking the Vltava River, was easy to locate after Google Earth revealed it was near a sex gadget shop. While Stéphane and I joked that the store would be a memorable landmark, the apartment's location was a little bit too far from the busy center.

We sadly crossed a beautiful triplex apartment off the list when our sleuthing revealed that it's in the same building as a hostel and next to the John Lennon pub. While Stéphane, who had fallen in love with photos of the flat, wasn't discouraged by the thought of drunken tourists returning to the hostel in the wee hours of the morning, I reminded him that we would probably be happier living in a place where we could sleep with the windows open. Prague's cheap beer is notorious for attracting boisterous stag parties.

The good news is that one of the apartments that I had originally rejected proved to be an interesting possibility during Stephane's and my reconnaissance mission. It's in a central location yet far enough off the beaten path that we won't have to dodge tourists to get in the front door. Fingers crossed that it feels like home inside. I'll find out when I visit with the real estate agent tomorrow.

Will this Art Nouveau building be "home" for the next couple of years?
Coincidentally, one of the possible apartments is located near Jindřišská Tower, the place where Stéphane and I celebrated New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Necessities ... or at least that's what we're going to call them!

My Gien "Paris-Paris" tea cup that I like to use for coffee

We're moving -- literally and figuratively -- at a whirlwind pace! The movers came all the way from Prague yesterday afternoon to estimate the volume of our belongings and the real-estate agency showed our apartment to a French couple this morning. When the woman asked if we would sell our oversized Ikea closet in the master bedroom, I suddenly realized that they're going to take our apartment. Soon it will be the French couple's new home and we'll be ... what? Praguers? Come to think of it, what do you call people who live in Prague? That's another thing I'll have to learn.

In the meantime, there are still a couple of items that Stéphane and I are determined to acquire before we leave France. Our emotionally fraught excuse is that x, y and z are absolute necessities. These souvenirs will remind us of our days in Paris.

For me, it's Gien's "Paris-Paris" breakfast set, a limited edition Hermés scarf that helped fund the restoration of the palace apartments at Versailles and a couple of "Chateau Baccarat" wine glasses conceived by Bruno Quenioux, a famous French sommelier. While they may be somewhat pricey, all of these items are practical. They're small, easily packed and will fit in any apartment in Prague.

Stephane's items are ... how can I say this diplomatically? They're absurd and ridiculously large. At least those are the words I kept hissing at him in the antique store in Hautvillers after he spotted a champagne riddling rack that he proclaimed he couldn't live without. Ok, perhaps my Swiss husband wasn't quite that dramatic, but there was no changing his mind. He was equally stubborn about the necessity of an antique safe that he found at the St. Ouen flea market a couple of weeks ago. It weighs so much (more than 550 pounds) that it's impossible to use the tiny elevator to transport it to our 5th floor apartment. Yet, Stéphane was so determined to possess this treasure, as he has started calling it, that he negotiated a settlement with our gardienne. In exchange for our dishwasher, she's keeping Stéphane's tresor in her first floor apartment until we move. I also suspect that it's because Stéphane doesn't want me to spend our last days in Paris ranting and raving about his nonsensical purchases. Out of sight out of mind is probably the wisest strategy at this point.

Unfortunately, Stéphane's irrational approach to recent purchases has proven to be contagious. No sooner had I finished my outburst about the riddling rack in Hautvillers than my eyes landed on a large antique milk cart with two aluminum cans. Inexplicably, I found myself offering it to Stéphane for Christmas.

Will we find an apartment in Prague that can accommodate two people who may or may not be speaking with each other, a wooden riddling rack, a fireproof safe, a milk cart and some other frivolous but completely necessary French items?  That's the question that's currently keeping me awake at night.

What was I thinking? Stéphane's Christmas present is a bulky milk cart! 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

From Paris to ... Prague!



Things have been kind of quiet on my blog lately. I've been in countdown mode, a naturally occurring phenomenon that manifests itself around year two or three, at the very latest year four, of every expat posting. That's when it also becomes more difficult to answer the questions "How much longer will you be in ______?" and "Where do you think you'll go next?". For anyone who isn't a career expat, it probably seems inconceivable that I rarely have a clue as to when I'll be packing up my life and moving on. For me, it's part of the territory. The stability of waking up in the same city for five consecutive years is what Stéphane and I long ago agreed to exchange for the experience of living in other countries.

But, I'm not going to lie. Even though I've been a trailing spouse for a long time, the uncertainties of the past year were starting to take their toll. Whenever I opened my laptop to write a blog post, I found myself studying Google maps instead. Where, I wondered, would we end up next? Africa, Asia, back in Switzerland? Rather than feeling excited at the prospect of starting a new adventure, it seemed that we were playing Russian roulette. I was happy in Paris. Would I be as happy someplace else?

About the time I finally convinced myself to stop worrying about things that were out of my control and enjoy my visit with family in the United States, Stéphane called with the news that we're moving to Prague.

Now that I've returned to Paris and have had several weeks to adjust to the idea, I've started to enter the "leaving" phase of the expat life cycle. My time orientation has shifted from the present to the future. Before I've even wiped the sleep from my eyes in the morning, my brain is flitting from question to question: "Where will we live?", "How will I communicate with people when I don't know any words in Czech?", "Will I find new friends?".

I'm excited, scared, tired and unsure about how it's all going to come together. Returning to blogging seems like a good idea. It's what helped me through the first months in France. Perhaps it will be a welcome distraction as life in Paris becomes another memory.

Let the countdown to Prague begin! I'll get my very first glimpse of the city on December 31, 2015.

Prague in the winter. Photo credit: Daily Mail