samedi 15 janvier 2011

CouchSurfing - my experiences

Squidoo has a good and brief rundown on what the project is all about.

Basically Couchsurfing a website where people offer or ask for free accommodation when they travel, mainly to save money. However, it's much more than that. For me it's also an awesome way to meet new people and make new friends.

As with all my 'stories' I need to go a bit further back in time. 10 years ago (gee, where did the time go?!) my sister was a poor student studying in Germany. When one is a student one tends to make good use of what little money they have. Anyway she told me about this thing called 'Couchsurfing' and another called 'Hospitality Club'. She said she used it a lot and told me not to tell our parents (otherwise they'd freak out and have a heart attack and never let us out of their sight again - yes they are those kind of parents).

At the time I thought I could never do such a thing.. I mean sleep at a stranger's house? What if they kill me? What if they steal my stuff? What if they lock me out of their place? etc etc.. All those usual fears popped into my head so I didn't think too much about it. The answer was a clear 'no'. No way in hell would I use such a 'service'... besides I'm too much of a 'princess' to stay somewhere where I might have to sleep on the... floor? (that has never happened by the way). So when I travelled I always stayed in cheap hotels or with friends. I've never even stayed in a youth hostel unless I had my own private room as the thought of sleeping with 4+ other strangers freaked me out and I am a very light sleeper and I could imagine the party animals coming back at 2am and being noisy, etc.

Fast forward to 2008 when I'd just come back from my one-year stint in Shanghai. At the time I wanted to move to the USA (not France) and I wanted to make friends with Americans. How could I do this? I thought back to Couchsurfing. I'd never used it before as a 'surfer' but I never used it as a host either as my (ex) partner did not like the idea of strangers sleeping in our apartment.

Now my partner was out of the picture and I actually had a nice apartment (as opposed to living with my parents) I could do this. Yeah, I was really gonna do this! I was gonna have strangers sleep over at my place and not be scared they were gonna kill me or steal my stuff!

So I started small. I purposely chose girls and youngish (early 20s) who seemed less threatening than choosing an older single male.

My experiences as a host

Unlike most people who start to 'surf' before they host I did the opposite. Besides, it feels much better to give than to receive.

1. The first girl I hosted was from Taiwan and travelling around Australia on a one-year working holiday visa/WHV doing fruit picking. She said she was having a ball. She stayed 2 nights with me (my maximum at the time) and the first night I cooked us dinner and then she offered to cook us dinner the 2nd night. She came back about 1.5-2 hours later than she said without calling me and I was freaked out thinking something had happened to her (I was also starving by then). It was all fine in the end and no big deal. She just didn't realise the trains were less frequent at night and caught the wrong one or something. Overall I had an enjoyable time with her. A good start I think so I was ready for my next 'surfer'!

2. The second girl I hosted came from San Diego (the States, yay!) She was a young medical student and had hitched a ride over the Pacific Ocean on a big naval ship (I can't remember the exact story now but it was interesting to say the least). I had a bit of free time so I took her to the city and we went on a ferry (to see Sydney Harbour) and walked around until I kind of got bored/tired and I left at about 4pm and left her to explore the city a bit alone. We went into the Queen Victoria Bulding/QVB (which is a shopping mall with gorgeous Victorian style architecture and stained-glass windows) and into this cutesy gift shop where I saw something I really liked/wanted but didn't buy...

That night, she came back late after exploring the city alone and she said she'd bought me a gift and it was the thing I wanted! I was so touched. It cost about $20 and knew she didn't have a lot of money so the thought was really sweet.

She was ever so humble and polite and was a pleasure to have as a guest.

3. 2009. Now I was looking for French people, not Americans... I thought I'd use CouchSurfing to see if I could find a French person who wanted to meet up with me and do a language exchange. In the search function you can search for 'nearby travellers' so I messaged a few and eventually got a reply back from one of them. We ended up meeting on/off for the entire time he was here (about 6 months) until he went back to France. At the end of his time here, he moved out of his rented apartment and asked if he could Couchsurf with me. By this time I knew him well so it was no problem. However I had a small problem with my new flatmate (she was not open to the idea of CS) which is why I did not host for over a year between my second person and him.

One morning I needed to go out and do something and he asked if he could stay in my apartment. At first I freaked out as I had never let anyone stay there without me physically being there and he looked upset/disappointed and even angry that he thought I didn't trust him. He was right though. I should've just been more trusting. So I let him stay (didn't give him the key though) and said to just make sure the door is locked (don't need the key to lock it) when he goes out. Of course nothing happened. He didn't steal anything or do anything stupid... So as a guest it was all fine in the end.

4. Around the same time I met a French girl on CS. I was looking for someone who lived near me (which was hard as not many French people live in my suburb/area) but lo and behold! I couldn't believe my luck when I found a nice girl, around the same age as me, living in the same suburb and who is a French teacher at a high school! We agreed to meet up for coffee and we hit it off straight away. She is lovely and bubbly and friendly. We had dinner together and then I took her to my other friend's place (who lives in the same suburb) and now they are good friends too and are flatmates!! As well as that, I met this CS girl's friends so now we're like one big group of friends. It's wonderful :)

She has used CS both as a surfer and a host and also raves about her great experiences with it.

So they're all the CSers I met or hosted in Sydney...

Now, my experiences in France as a 'Couchsurfer'

1. As I mentioned in this blogpost I started my adventure in my little town with some lovely Couchsurfers. Several months before I came I did a search (almost as a joke) to see if anyone in this town was on CS. To my surprise I found one person! I contacted them and from that first moment they were nothing but friendly and welcoming. My sister told me it's because they probably never get anyone requesting to surf with them (because the town is so small) so it's a joy to receive guests. We exchanged many messages and emails before I came and he said that he (and his girlfriend) would come and pick me up from the station, and so they did.

Let me tell you, when you are travelling alone it is the nicest feeling in the world to have someone come and pick you up from the station! Everytime that's happened to me I almost feel like crying because it just feels so nice and warm and welcoming to have someone there, someone who is happy to see you. Someone who will take you to their home and feed you and give you shelter. As opposed to staying in a cold hostel/hotel and having to fend for yourself and getting lost multiple times over and not really learning anything about the culture or the people.

So that's what they did. They helped me out and served me delicious home-made meals and gave me a wonderful start to my somewhat frightening time here in France. I already wrote about them in my previous post (The Journey VII) so I won't repeat it all... suffice to say I had a wonderful stay with them.

2. This story is gonna be long...

With one 'surfing' experience down I was confident to try it again. Well I have no choice anyway since I try to save money where I can. I planned to visit town x during one of my 3-day weekends because I realised that the train from my station goes there easily. So I contacted one of the few who live in this town, and he told me he was busy and changed dates many times until finally we agreed that during my Toussaint holidays (at the end of October) would be a good time (and he'd also be free then too).

It started off badly but ended up perfectly. I could not have asked for a nicer experience! Due to the strikes around that time a lot of trains stopped running or were replaced by buses - like mine. I had a horrific time on the bus because there was no toilet on it (and I needed to go!) and it left about 30 minutes late and then took about 2 hours to get there. It seemed to take forever and around my area the roads are all very hilly and windy so I felt extremely nauseous as well. And being the school holidays it was entirely packed so there was just constant loud chitchat which made for a hellish trip for me as I just couldn't relax like I usually can on a train.

I texted this guy to let him know what time I'd be arriving and I'd be arriving a bit later than planned because of the train/bus situation. He arrived not long after I did and picked me up in his car (despite the fact that he lives right in the heart of the city) and took me up to his apartment and even carried my Zuca up four (or was it five?) sets of stairs for me!

The night before I was due to go to this town, I looked at his profile again on CS (after having not seen it for many many weeks) and realised that he was holding a cigarette in his hand in almost all his photos. Oh shit! I thought. I hate smoking and can't stand cigarettes. What am I going to do? Oh stuff it, I thought. I'll just have to put up with it. There are worst things... Well I am really really really glad I did not cancel because if I did I would not have met such a wonderful human being.

It turns out that he was dogsitting for a friend and she was a very young puppy at that. So throughout the weekend I'm hear him calling the dog's name hundreds and hundreds of times over... I think I can still hear it in my head (haha). After we dropped my stuff off at his place we went out to get some lunch. Like all good French people do he eats lunch at the 'proper' hour (that is, between 12-2pm) not before and not after. We went to a small patisserie/boulangerie (that actually had tables/chairs). I thought he was going to pay for me, or I would have offered to pay for him, but we just ended up paying for ourselves.

Afterwards we walked around a bit, he was preoccupied with the dog and I was preoccupied with taking photos so it worked out well as neither of us got bored or impatient with the other. It definitely was my lucky day because the weather was beautiful. It was about 17-18° and sunny with blue skies. The scenery was gorgeous.

He asked me what I'd like to do next and said that he could take me for a drive... OK, I thought. So we got into the car and went for a drive where I saw some breathtaking mountain scenery and I could even see the snow-capped Mont Blanc in the distance.

It actually didn't occur to me at the time that it may have been a stupid thing to get into a stranger's car in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country where nobody really even knows where I've gone etc etc... The warning bells weren't ringing in my head yet and they didn't ring till after dinner.

We stayed till just after dark and then went back and had a modest home-made meal in front of the tv with a DVD playing. We just talked and talked and talked... Oh did I mention it was the first time I had a lengthy conversation in French since I arrived in France? Prior to that the other person would try to speak English to me or it was just short and shallow conversations. But I was speaking to him in French the entire time I was there and we were having some deep and meaningful conversations.

He told me that he spent a large part of his childhood/teenagehood in Africa and because of his father's job travelled a lot as a kid. He recently walked 8000km (yes!!) around South America and basically is a real travelaholic. He had so many interesting stories to tell and so many interesting things to show me - photos, videos, souvenirs, books...

Even though we'd only just met it felt so nice to talk as if we were friends already. We could have stayed up all night but after that horrible start with the bus I said I needed to go to sleep (around 10 or 11pm).. it was then that the alarm bells started ringing in my head. "What the f--k are you doing? You're staying in a single guy's house. There is noone else here. Nobody knows you are here. What if he kills you, or rapes you in the middle of the night? or steals your stuff?" (yes that silly fear is always there - LOL). I mean it didn't seem likely at all...But it took me a while to fall asleep because of these fears going through my head. I mean I was on the fold-out couch in the living room and he was in his own room with the door closed but still.

Well it turned out fine and I had nothing to worry about. Obviously he's an easygoing person if he leaves his apartment door unlocked. There are only 4 or 5 apartments in his entire building and he says everyone knows everyone so he's not worried, so long as the main door is locked.

The next day he said he was going to take me to another nearby town which was just gorgeous. It was somewhat touristy but actually wasn't that crowded (it's not as touristy as other touristy towns are I guess although I did hear all the main languages of the world being spoken). We had such a wonderful time - him, me, the dog... It was great memories and laughs all around.

He told me there was a dish that is very famous in this region and he wanted to have it for lunch. He chose a restaurant but I asked if we could go to another because that one was in the Michelin guide (so it must be better, right?) So we went back to the car (to put the dog in there) and then went back to the restaurant.

If there is something I've learnt about France is... no matter which town you're in, if you want to go to a restaurant go early! And by early I mean 12 (and not earlier). If you go too late (after 12:30) all the restaurants will be full and you'll either starve or have to wait a long long time.

The restaurant wasn't too expensive by the way (for a restaurant in the Michelin guide). 25-30 euros for a 3 course meal. He ordered the special dish and I ordered mine (a different one). The restaurant (like all of them) was packed. The food was outstanding of course. When it comes time to pay I always feel nervous not knowing how the bill will be divided up. I was actually going to pay for him (given I was getting 2 nights' accommodation for free!) but when the bill came he picked it up and refused to let me pay.  I was shocked beyond words and extremely humbled that a complete stranger would offer me accommodation and pay for a lovely meal like that.

After lunch we went back to the car to get the dog and went for a walk. It was autumn and all the leaves were changing colour and falling down. There was a sea of yellow and orange all over the ground. It was beautiful (I realise I'm getting off the topic of CS here but please stay with me ;) ) I just had the best time...

I needed to use the internet (to double-check and contact the next CS I was going to stay with) but he didn't have it at his place so he drove me to his parents' house in the next town/suburb over. It was so kind of him. And their house was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Totally like something out of a home interiors magazine. He told me the story of how his parents met when they were just kids or young teenagers and how it was in this very town. Even though he and his parents have lived all over the world they've always called this place 'home'.

Anyway he said that I could pay for dinner (after refusing to let me pay for lunch) so that night we went to a pizza place/Italian restaurant (that was packed) and it was the perfect ending to a wonderful stay. That night I slept well with no more horrific thoughts about axe murderers and Hannibal the Lecter, et al ;)

The next morning I was really really sad to say goodbye to my new friend and this utterly gorgeous town. That morning he went to the boulangerie to buy a fresh baguette and pastries and we shared our last meal together.

I almost felt like crying. I hate goodbyes. Can you believe we'd just spent almost 48 hours straight together and never once got sick of each other?  (I should note that we're still really good friends and stay in contact with each other. He even invited me to spend Christmas with him and his family but I couldn't go).

However I was onto a new town and another CS adventure!

3. I had messaged this guy to let him know I was coming (a few weeks prior) on this date and this time and he said it was OK. However once I got there and called him, he said he wasn't going to be home until 6pm. What?! ARGH. I would have to drag my luggage everywhere with me for 6 hours.  So that's what I did. And tired would be an understatement. I completely trashed my poor Zuca suitcase from all the stairs and cobblestones and more stairs and more stairs and hills everywhere... I tried to do as much sightseeing as I could but it was so hard when I had brought way too much stuff with me. All my muscles (what little I have) were working overtime here. I even requested to use the lift (reserved for disabled people) at a museum because I was beyond exhausted and frustrated. She asked me if I had a pram/stroller and I was like, "Er.. nope. I have a suitcase." The lift was so old fashioned she had to personally come and get me. Anyway...

So after going from the city to this guy's apartment to back to the city again, I then went back to the apartment again. He seemed really lethargic and lazy and disinterested. I called him and told him I was lost and he seemed really pissed off to have to come and meet me at the station (which he didn't). Then when we got to his place he talked to me for only about 30 minutes and didn't introduce me to any of his (many) flatmates. They didn't even know who I was or why I was there! In fact, later, one of them (a French girl) was nicer to me than he was.

The good thing at least was that this apartment was gorgeous. It was huge with high ceilings and it was always warm (as they never turned off the heating!) however it was rather dirty which kind of grossed me out. We're talking overflowing rubbish bins and an overflowing sink in the kitchen. And the guy left me the key! I couldn't believe it. Well they all share a key which they hide near the front door so that meant I could come/go as I pleased.

I was just buggered. Since there was no food in the house whatsoever (and he did not suggest going anywhere to eat together) I had to then go out again to find and buy something to eat (and it was a Sunday evening so not much was open) and then cook and eat it alone in the kitchen. It wasn't a nice feeling since I don't just do CS to save money but to actually meet and talk to people too. If I wanted to eat alone I'd just stay in my dorm room and never go anywhere!

I ended up staying 3 days and 2 nights (like I do at most places) and that 30 minutes was all the contact I had with this guy! I think he was seriously depressed or tired or something as he'd always go to bed really early like 8pm and not eat, watch tv or talk to his flatmates.

The strangest (and weirdest and funniest) thing happened. The second night I was there... I was totally exhausted as I had walked all over the city all day long and it's not a small city either... I really needed my sleep but one of his flatmates always came home late (like 2-3am) and so the second night I could actually hear him and his girlfriend having sex in their bedroom (even with me wearing earplugs). It's like one of those stories you hear about but don't ever think will happen to you!! I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or scream!

After that experience I reminded myself not to choose someone who has lots and lots of flatmates because they will more than likely not look after the place and you will more than likely not get any sleep!

I should also mention that he did not give me any sheets, or blankets or anything until I asked for them and they were not clean (ew). So I can pretty much say that I did NOT have a good experience with this guy which is strange because he got a lot of positive comments on his profile.

He also did not have internet (even though I saw a modem there?!) and told me I could try out on the balcony and steal some free wifi (which is what I did. I sat on the balcony freezing trying to access some really weak wifi to find things to do in this city...)

4. So far I'd had 2 really good experiences and 1 really bad one, and this one was average and good. I just didn't feel like he was overly friendly or welcoming to me.

The thing with Couchsurfing is, you never know what kind of person/people you'll get but you also never know what kind of accommodation you'll get.

Well I really hit the jackpot with this one! It was a gorgeous stately 300 year old apartment that was renovated on the inside so it was modern and comfortable. It had high ceilings and there was a mezzanine level (where I stayed) which was the lounge room with a laundry off to the side (which was my own bathroom). I could easily access the tv and they also had a computer hooked up to the internet (which I used because it was the first/only time I ever travelled without my laptop). Not only was the apartment amazing, it was located in the heart of town but on the edge so it was close to everything but quiet as well and it looked out onto a courtyard and then a castle!

I asked them how much they pay for such a place and they say the rent is 1000 euros/month which I think is very reasonable for such a huge and nice place.

The guy lived with a flatmate, a friend who he actually met through a CS group (where the host (a friend of his) had a party and invited people...

They both kept the place clean and tidy so it was just a great experience accommodation wise. It was also quiet. Oh yeah I already mentioned that. In fact I loved their place so much I secretly dreamed of living there...

The guy actually gave me the key. Yes that's right! He gave me the key to their apartment (when he had no copy for himself). Then one time when I was going to Monoprix to buy something to eat for dinner he came and found me, saying he needed the key for a second but then he'd give it back to me. When he didn't return for a while I started getting worried on the inside thinking, "Oh no, he's never coming back. I'm locked out and all my stuff is still inside!" but as usual my fears were unfounded.

The second night I was there they had a dinner party where several of their friends came over which was nice. I spent most of the night talking to a friend from Paris in half French and half English.

The last morning I was there, his flatmate went to the the boulangerie to buy a fresh baguette for breakfast (yes, it's what all good Frenchies do every morning!) except he didn't even eat it and told me it was for me! which was very nice.

Overall I did have a good experience with this guy and his flatmate but I just wished he was a bit more friendly/warmer, that's all.

5. What's in store for my 5th Couchsurf? Only time will tell! Stay tuned! I almost had my 5th experience in November with a girl who seemed really nice and helpful but I couldn't go because I got sick so had to stay put. :(


How do I choose who to surf with? 

The bigger the city, the more people you have to contact. You can't just contact one person. I usually contact about 5-6. Depending on the city you may not get any responses or you may get lots. I have never ever gotten a reply from someone in Paris or Lyon! It just depends but it seems like the smaller the city the easier it is to find a couch host.

I usually choose someone:
• quite close to my age,
• who lives in/close to the centreville/station (if they mention this on their profile)
• who lives alone/with their partner/just one other flatmate (if they mention this on their profile). I will never again choose someone with lots of flatmates. I don't think I wish to live out l'auberge espagnol for real again ;)
• who is a non-smoker (but this is usually not mentioned and it's usually not a big deal as most smokers are respectful and either smoke outside or at the window).

I prefer hosts that actually spend time with me (or even just have a meal with me) rather than just let me stay chez eux and never do anything with me.

If you get more than one reply you have to just choose who you think is 'better'.

Lastly, I speak the obvious but read their testimonials. It's a bit like eBay. People leave feedback for you when you have either hosted or surfed.

When do I contact them?

I've found that if you contact them too late you won't get a reply in time, and if you contact them too early you'll usually get a "Hmm.. I'm not sure, contact me again closer to the date." So for me about 3 weeks prior is a good time.

How do you repay them?

Well it's up to you of course but for me, I usually bring a small gift or a souvenir from Australia, and/or offer to pay for lunch/dinner, and/or offer to help out with chores (such as cooking, doing the dishes or helping with laundry, etc). Just think if you had a stranger stay with you, how would you like them to repay you and do the same.

Am I suitable for Couchsurfing?

I thought I'd mention this because I feel that it's very important. If you are not open-minded (and trusting) forget it! If you think the whole world is filled with 'bad people' forget it. I don't really talk about Couchsurfing with all of my friends (except those who have done it of course) because I can tell many people will just turn their noses up at me and think I've completely lost my mind.

If you are a 'princess' forget it. If you are a 'control freak' forget it. If you are a 'neat/clean freak' forget it. This is someone else's house and you have no right to make any demands and you have no idea how clean/tidy (or not) the place will be. For me, I find, if I have very low expectations then I usually end up being pleasantly surprised.

If you don't like trying new things, don't like meeting new people (ie hanging around 'strangers') and think everyone in the world is 'bad', forget it! CS is not just about free accommodation but about being to share one's life/culture with others. Like I said, you have to be extremely open-minded to do this which is why it's not suitable for everyone.

If you are a couple...

If there's more than one of you I feel that CS is a bit harder to do (as for me personally, as a host, I only accepted single people). Most people don't have the space or simply don't want to accommodate more than one person but it just depends. Most people have a fold-out couch which sleeps 2 and some even welcome 3-4 people! But even if they have the couches, beds or floorspace some people don't have enough linen/blankets which is a concern in the colder months. So make sure you ask. Some hosts request that you bring you own sleeping bag (but that has never happened to me and I don't own one anyway).

And with that said, I would definitely do it again and recommend it to everyone. At least while you're young and stupid :P You can wait until you are old and/or rich to stay in those 5 star hotels. Most of all, just have fun! :D

A good blog post on Couchsurfing by Benny of "Fluent in 3 months"

An interesting story by an American girl who surfed in Katoomba, just outside of Sydney

vendredi 14 janvier 2011

Natalie Tran in Paris

If you didn't know already, Natalie Tran (AKA Community Channel) is the biggest Australian YouTube star and one of the biggest YouTube stars altogether. I've been watching her videos for more than 2 years now and they still amuse me. She is very funny and seems intelligent and down to earth and humble. I also like that she makes people realise that Australia does not solely consist of white blond-haired and blue-eyed people. It's very multicultural like the US and other countries (well at least in the big cities it is). Anyhoo...

I've been following her latest adventure with much interest. Aged 24, she just finished her university degree (in November) and is now travelling around the world thanks to Lonely Planet. Lucky girl, eh?!

It was with much pleasure that I watched her two latest videos about Paris because I was actually there around the same time as her. She writes this on her blog on Lonely Planet:

This may sound dorky but one of the first things I wanted to do once I reached Paris was walk the route they walked in the movie Before Sunset. It looked like an easy enough walk, something they managed to do in the film in about two hours so I put on my walking shoes and started off at the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company. The plan pretty much went downhill from there. I scribbled down directions based off the film and realised they had cleverly cut the film so destinations that looked like they were just around the corner were in fact 40 or so minutes away. 

The strangest coincidence is I did just that! I kid you not. During my first visit to Paris a few years ago I went in search of the locations in Before Sunset. However, unlike her, I actually did the research and found how to get to them all, realising they were not next to each other like it seemed in the film. In that same trip I also found the various locations in Vienna that they used in the first film, Before Sunrise.

She also posted up some photos and the uncanny thing is, I have photos of myself in the same places/situations:

I also froze in the Jardin du Luxembourg to get a photo of me by the probably frozen and snow-covered 'bassin'... why? Find out soon in my upcoming mammoth post about Paris!

I also went to various Christmas markets (marchés de Noël) and the only thing I bought was a crêpe! It was just something that I had to do!

If you haven't checked out her videos yet click on the link below (there are also links to her other travel videos):

Paris Video 1
Paris Video 2

à bientôt !

jeudi 13 janvier 2011

There's a flood in Australia 2

Contrary to my previous post where I wrote some maybe stupid things... instead of going back and changing my post I thought would just leave it there and write a bit more about my feelings about the floods in Australia. It's hard for me to see the latest news since I'm not in the country and I very very very rarely watch tv (and when I do it's not the time for news) so I'm a bit 'out of it' however I have watched a few videos on various news websites and it is just utterly devastating and catastrophic.

A few of my colleagues have asked if my family live in the region and luckily they don't but I do have at least one friend who does and many friends of friends who do...

I was living in Shanghai when the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck (in fact, I even FELT it all those kilometres away) and I was bombarded by the media with the devastation. I was just heartbroken for those poor people who died and for their families. I guess it's easier to help when you are in the same country as you are more affected...

The closest I've come to a natural disaster was during the January 1994 Sydney bushfires. The closest one of the fires came was about 1km to our house/street (which is pretty close when you think about it). It scared the absolute crap out of me, the thought we were going to lose our house and everything in it. and being an asthmatic it's doubly scary as I could have easily died just breathing in the smoke... but enough about that.

Of course more recently there were the January 2010 Haiti earthquakes...

I thank my lucky stars and the Gods above that I have never been personally affected by these horrific natural disasters. During big disasters like this, I usually go to my local bank (where they've set up an appeal) or donate online. It's the least one can do when one can not be there to physically help. Every little bit helps.

If you'd like to help you can donate to the floods appeal here to help those who have lost everything in the Queensland Australia floods.

News Report in French
News report in English
Amazing interactive Before/After photos

a flood: une inondation
an appeal: un appel
a donation: un don
a disaster: un désastre / une catastrophe
an evacuation: une évacuation 
a warning: une avertissement 
to warn: avertir 

(image from here).

mercredi 12 janvier 2011

Les Soldes d'hiver 2011

Post-Christmas/Winter Sales start TODAY (12 January) and go until 15 February 2011.
Les soldes d'hiver commencent AUJOURD'HUI (le 12 janvier) jusqu'àu 15 février 2011.

(image from here).


Edited: This is what I got: 

• An angora/wool long-sleeve tunic/dress thing from H&M. 40 --> 15 euros
A cotton printed long-sleeve dress from H&M. 20 --> 10 euros 
(it's so hard to find long sleeved dresses! I'm forever trying to find nice ones)
Both the above items were the last ones in the store of that style.
• A pair of pants from Camaieu. 30 --> 15 euros
• A Emma Pernelle long sleeve top (with pin-tuck and lace detail) from Kiabi. 9.90 --> 2.97 euros

I could have easily bought more but I was relatively restrained. I noticed that basics like scarves, winter hats, gloves, socks, stockings/tights and underwear were very rarely on sale. Lingerie in various stores was on sale but only in specific styles. 

There were lots and lots of lovely winter coats for sale but I am so over winter clothes now and I noticed that hardly anyone was looking at them. I saw some gorgeous Desigual coats at one store at 40% off. 

I only buy things that are at least 50% off. Given that sales in France only occur twice a year they are pretty good and I can actually find things in my size here (in Australia everything left in the sales is too big for me). 

The H&M sale was pretty awesome. Almost everything was only 5 or 10 euros with only a few things at 15 or 20 euros. I like Camaieu anyway and I don't know about this rule that apparently in France you're not allowed to have sales except during July and January because they have sales all the time! It's one of my favourite stores as they have nice stuff at reasonable prices.
I liked Zara but it was so crowded I gave up!

Another blog post in the works is about - surprise - shopping in France!

Why I 'need' to travel all the time

Warning: this is a largely a rant so if you only like reading about happy stuff please skip this post.

OK by the title I know what you're all thinking: that I'm a spoilt brat. "Why does she need to travel all the time?" you ask yourself, so I am about to tell you.

I was thinking back to something I wrote here earlier about going out and how couples don't go out as often as single people do but then on the other hand I have 2 close friends who are coupled up (no children) and yet go out very often (and often without their partners). It's as if they're still leading a single life sort of.

OK I figured out the 'formula'. Those 2 friends of mine... One has been with her boyfriend for about 4 years but she still lives with her parents and he still lives with his (in somewhat far apart suburbs in Sydney). My other friend is actually married, but lives with her in-laws. Yeah, don't ask.

So I figured this out (yeah yeah I know, I'm a genius). If your living conditions are less than ideal and it does not really truly feel like 'your home' then it makes you feel like going out often. If you live in a nice place (and nice doesn't necessarily mean big or new, it just means comfortable) with your partner there is not much need to go out as you constantly have someone to talk to and something to do and somewhere to relax.

But when you live with people who aren't your age or who aren't your partner (or sibling or a really close friend or noone at all!) you just don't feel like you're really at 'home' hence the need to go out and mingle and be amongst society. There you go, my scientific discovery (that is sarcasm btw).

I am going stir crazy and I'm not the only one. There is another teaching assistant at my school and she's been here less time than me and we have ALL the same complaints. Whilst our room (we have our own, we don't share just to be clear) is nice it's only 8.68 square metres (yes I measured it), half of which is the bathroom so my actual sleeping/living/eating space is probably about 5 square metres. In Paris they consider a 20sqm apartment small. Most people I know are living in 50-200sqm+ apartments/houses.  I grew up in a 3 br house which then became a 5 br house. To sum up I go crazy if I don't get out and about and my town is too small to explore. I've already been everywhere and seen everything 100 times. So I have to get out!

I have a few friends who are teachers and they say they hate it when they go to the supermarket or shopping mall and see their students as it makes them feel somewhat awkward. Well try having your students see you eat dinner, and knowing where you live, and standing outside your bedroom window! There's no separation between work and home because work IS my home.

I'm also kind of getting really really really really really tired of being by myself all the time. I can't chat with the other teachers like I can with my real friends. My French isn't good enough to understand what the bloody heck they are saying half the time and they don't make any effort at all to talk slower or use simpler words. And all they ever talk about is work which bores me. So I basically have noone to talk to during the day, and noone to talk to on the weekends. Thank God for the surveillants that I have someone to talk to during the evenings (and I actually get along with them, and they don't talk about work which is a Godsend).

And it's not just like this since I've been in France. It's been like this for YEARS. Back home I was working for myself most of the time and whilst I had a flatmate she was somewhat antisocial and introverted and never wanted to do much or talk. So I'd go stir crazy when I had noone to talk to during the day and noone to talk to during the night! Whenever I saw any of my friends (or my sister).. my poor, dear friends/sister... I'd be like an avalanche unleashing my 50 billion words that I had stored up in my head from the past couple of weeks with no outlet (I suppose writing this blog is an outlet so hurray for that at least). Luckily my friends are understanding even though I could always tell there's a point when people get bored. But it's OK for you when you live with someone who you can actually talk to about your deepest thoughts and feelings. Meh.

Actually I made another scientific discovery (yeah, I know, I'm a total genius. You can thank me later or you can leave a comment below if you disagree). I discovered that the friends who most often commented on my statuses/photos/etc on Facebook and who wrote the most statuses were people who either lived alone and/or don't have a partner. I think people really underestimate how important/nice/good it is to have someone to talk to at the end of a crap (or even good) day.

Don't get me wrong, I actually like being by myself and don't mind it that much but I just wished people were more sympathetic. I think most people take having some things for granted. I long to have a room bigger than 5 sqm, a couch, a tv, a kitchen and a car. But I don't have those things at this point in time.

One thing I've found that happens to me after I've spent all this time alone is... when I am then surrounded by lots of people I feel somewhat uncomfortable. I don't like all the simultaneous talking, and noise, and commotion (like in the staff room). I feel agitated when I'm on the train and constantly hear chatter and people walking up/down the aisles. I wished people would just stay in their seats unless they need to go to the toilet. Is that too much to ask? I love peace and quiet. When I'm with other people and their big families and kids and stuff I think my brain actually stops working as it can't compute all this TALK and NOISE. It's crazy, huh?

I love spending time 1:1 with people (or with 2-4 people). I do not like big groups at all. I find my French actually improves when I have a 1:1 conversation with a French person.

What was the point of me even writing this post? I'm not sure but I do feel better after writing it. And so to sum up, yes I do need to travel all the time as it's the only thing that preserves my sanity! And even though I'm alone most of the time when I do it, I'm still happy. I'm proud of myself that I actually know how to be alone (as it seems most people don't). I go to the cinema alone, I eat out in restaurants alone, I travel alone. It's not by choice though of course but I've just gotten used to it. I know there is a stigma about it but when someone has a problem with it I figure it's their own insecurities and not mine. I'd rather go out and do something alone than sit at 'home' and do nothing at all.

I know I'll read this in a few years and laugh, because then I'll wish I had all this me-me-me time again! I do cherish my selfish 'me time' but it would be nice just to have someone who is always there to talk to and do stuff with. This is somewhat related to my next post (about CouchSurfing)... stay tuned!

mardi 11 janvier 2011

Paris Macaron Marathon = Macarathon

View Macaron Marathon Paris in a larger map

My Macarathon in Paris (les meilleurs macarons à Paris)

What is a macarathon I hear you ask? Well, it's my own made up word for a macaron marathon :)

Over the Christmas break I was in Paris for 3 days. During this time I wanted to sample the so called "best" macarons in Paris. Even though I love these things, I hadn't actually tried that many and have never been to Ladurée or Pierre Hermé in Paris.

The Story (L'histoire):
Why am I so obsessed with macarons? It all started in 2007 when I was living in Shanghai and frequenting Paul Bakery. I used to buy various breads and pastries and sw these beautiful wonderful creations (which I found out were called macarons) but I could never justify the price (now I don't care! :P ) so I left the city/country without ever trying a single one :( Then in Sydney they were always at the back of my mind and then whilst watching Masterchef (the only tv show I watched at the time) my interest for them was re-awakened and I tried to find them in Sydney only to realise there were very very few places that sold them! The first place I tried them was in Lindt Café and I remember thinking that they were too sickly sweet. However, in hindsight perhaps they're not but I do remember not liking them as much as the ones from Baroque. I have not tried Adriano Zumbo's though (who is probably the most famous macaron maker in Sydney) to compare.

Once in France I was over the moon when I realised they were literally everywhere (at almost any pâtisserie/boulangerie) and even in the supermarket (yes I tried those too... the shells were fine but the filling was not good) and cost 1/3 or 1/2 the price of the ones in Australia. I've tried a lot of other macarons in various places (and cities!) but this review is just about the main ones in Paris (plus one in Lyon).

Disclaimer (Démenti): I don't claim to be any sort of actual food critic or reviewer and there are probably tonnes of other blogs out there with better (or different) reviews and photos but these are just my personal experiences... :)

Prices (Les prix): I unfortunately didn't note down all the prices but they were usually sold by weight (around 70-80 euros per kilogram) and the cost ranged between 0,60 and 1,80 euros each from memory. However it's hard to use price to compare since the macarons are not all the same size!

Taste test (Test de goûts): For the taste testing I did not eat any of them straight away but a few days later to test how well they would keep. Most of them stood the test of time but the shells become hard and crunchy after a while (except the Pierre Hermé ones which seemed to become softer and more fragile!)

The review is organised like this (La revue s'organise comme ça):

• Name of Pâtisserie (La Pâtisserie)
Address (L'Adresse)
Service (Le Service)
Packaging (L'Emballage)
Prices (Les Prix)
Flavours (Les Saveurs)
Comments (Les Commentaires)
Rating 1-4 macarons (Les Cotes 1-4 macarons)

Pierre Hermé

72, Rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris
(other locations too)
Polite and professional like in a hotel but I wouldn't say overly friendly
Clear plastic bag with mini brochure inside and enclosed with a sticker
Did not note but around 1,60-1,80 € ea from memory
Bigger/Puffier/more 3D than others (but also the most expensive I believe).
Rose (Rose et Pétale de Rose) (Rose and Rose petals)
Dépaysé (Thé Vert Matcha, Haricot Rouge Azuki, Citron Vert et Gingembre (Green Matcha Tea, Red Azuki beans, Green Lemon and Ginger)
Truffe Blanche et Noisette (Truffe Blanche et Éclats de Noisettes du Piémont Grillées) (White truffles and Hazelnut pieces - until 23 janvier)
Coing et Rose (Quince and Rose)
Mogador (Chocolat au Lait et Fruit de la Passion) (Milk Chocolate and Passionfruit)
Huile d'Olive et Mandarine (Olive Oil and Mandarin)
Marron et Thé Vert Matcha (Chestnut and Green Matcha Tea)
Infiniment Chocolat (Chocolat Pure Origine Venezuela Porcelana) (Pure Venezuelan Chocolate)
Métissé (Carotte, Orange et Cannelle) (Carrot, Orange and Cinnamon - from 24 January)
Menthe Fraîche (Fresh Mint - from 24 January)
Crème Brûlée (Vanilles et Éclats de Caramel) (Vanilla and Caramel pieces)
Chuao (Chocolat Pure Origine Chuao, Cassis et Baies de Cassis) (Pure Chuao Chocolate, Blackcurrant and Blackcurrant Berries)
Infiniment Caramel (Caramel au Beurre Saleé) (Caramel Salted Butter)
Arabella (Chocolate au Lait, Banane, Fruit de la Pssion et Gingembre Confit) (Milk Chocolate, Banana, Passionfruit and Ginger - from 22 November)

A lot of them were 'out of stock' when I arrived on the afternoon of 23 December so I only had about 5-6 flavours to choose from (a little annoying).

Crème Brûlée - Delicious. LOTS of creamy delicious filling with a tiny hint of coffee flavour? but shell is way too soft and fragile (crumbled easily)
Infiniment Caramel - Caramel au Beurre Saleé (caramel) - LOTS of creamy filling, orgasmic. Can I say that? ;)
Arabella - Chocolate au Lait, Banane, Fruit de la Pssion et Gingembre Confit - nice but not overly exciting. The aroma of the ginger was nice as was the taste of both the ginger and banana, and chocolate but could not taste any passionfruit at all. Aftertaste of ginger.



Place Edmond Rostand, 75006 Paris
(other locations too)
Shop has absolutely gorgeous displays 
Average. You had to pay at a separate counter which I found annoying
White paper bag with logo
Approx 0,80€ ea (by weight they are 76€/kg) (they are much smaller than the others though)
Caramel au beurre salé (Salted Butter Caramel)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Marron/Cassis (Chestnut/Blackcurrant)
Framboise (Raspberry)
Confiture de Lait (la douceur du caramel de l'enfance) (Sweetened Condensed Milk)
Praline (Hazelnut praline)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Café (Coffee)
Vanille (Vanilla)
+ more!

Chestnut/Blackcurrant - filling is nice and jammy but there is not much of it
Pistachio - only a hint of pistachio taste. otherwise too 'fake' tasting
• Sweetened Condensed Milk - nice but fairly ordinary. Had a subtle nice milky aroma/flavour.



21, Rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris
(other locations too)
There is also a tea salon (busy) decorated in a Chinese-style and gift shop selling kawaii (cute) Japanese-style gift. I bought an adorable macaron and Eiffel Tower keychain as my Christmas gift to me :)
Professional and friendly
Pale green paper bag imprinted with logo
1,60€ ea (or 80€/kg)
Epices et Fruits Moelleux (Spices and soft Fruits)
Fruits Rouges (Red Berries)
Chocolat - Pure Origine Madagascar (Pure Dark Madagascan Chocolate)
Pétale de Rose Gingembre (Rose Petal/Ginger)
Citron (Lemon)
Réglisse (Licore)
Fleur d'Oranger (Orange Blossom)
Café (Coffee)
Pomme Verte (Green Apple)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Praliné Noisettes (Hazelnut Praline)
Cassis Violette (Blackcurrant/Violet)
Vanille (Vanilla)
Marron (Chestnut)
Orange et Passion (Orange and Passionfruit)
Caramel à la fleur de sel (Salted Caramel)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Framboise (Raspberry)

•  Salted Caramel - amazing. Hard to decide between this one and PH's one.
•  Vanilla - didn't like it. Tasted kind of artificial.
•  Rose Petal/Ginger - love it! First tried it in Ladurée Lausanne. The fragrance of the rose combined with the gingerbready taste is just fabulous.



36, Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, Paris
(other locations too)
White paper bag with dark purple circumflex logo
(Didn't note)
Did not allow me to take photos in their store! Because they annoyed me I only bought 2 instead of the 3-4 I normally buy.
Café (Coffee)
Vanille (Vanilla)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Caramel (Caramel)
Framboise (Raspberry)
Pruneau/kumquat (Prune/Kumquat)
Abricot/Pistache (Apricot/Pistachio)
Figue/Noix (Fig/Nut)
+ more!

Shells are very firm/tough and not brittle like some of the others.
Pistachio - nice aroma and flavour, but not enough filling, not satisfying enough.
Caramel - nice creamy filling but not enough of it.


Les Caneles Lemoine
NB: This is not a popular place for macarons but I passed the gorgeous looking shop and couldn't resist going inside for a sneak peek (and taste)!

74, Rue Saint Dominique, 75007 Paris
Clear plastic bag with black "L" cursive script sticker
(Didn't note)
Polite, helpful and as friendly as you can get for Paris ;)
Café (Coffee)
Vanille (Vanilla)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Chocolat amer (Bitter Chocolate)
Citron (Lemon)
Menthe Chocolate (Choc Mint)
Coco (Coconut)
Gingembre (Ginger)
Cassis (Blackcurrant)
Framboise (Raspberry)
Rose (Rose)
Passion (Passionfruit)
Cassis (Blackcurrant)
Violette (Violet)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Abricot (Apricot)
Praliné (Praline)
Caramel  (Caramel)
Caramel à la fleur de sel (Salted Caramel)
Foie Gras/Figues (Foie Gras/Fig)
Foie Gras/Chocolat (Foie Gras/Chocolate)
Marron Glace (Chestnut Icecream)
Nutella (Nutella)

Violet - nice
Salted Caramel - nice - creamy filling, not very thick like Pierre Hermé though
Choc mint - nice, reminds me of choc mint ice cream
Foie gras/Fig - tasted mushroomy. Too 'exotic' and 'weird' a taste for me to be in a macaron!


Gérard Mulot

 93, Rue Glacière 75013 Paris
(another one at 76, Rue de Seine 75006 Paris)
Shop has absolutely gorgeous displays
Professional and polite like you'd get in a hotel
Paper bag imprinted with logo
(Didn't note)
October-March: Réglisse/Fruits rouges (Licorice/Red Berries)
Cassis/Violette (Blackcurrant/Violet)
Orange/Cannelle (Orange/Cinnamon)
Noisette (Hazelnut)
Marron (Chestnut)
March-October: Ananas/Gingembre (Pineapple/Ginger)
Mûre (Blackberry)
Feuille de menthe (Mint Leaf)
Cerise griotte (Morello Cherry)
Fraise/Coquelicot (Strawberry/Poppy)
All year round: Passion/Basilic (Passionfruit/Basil)
Amande (Almond)
Framboise (Raspberry)
Citron (Lemon)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Café (Coffee)
Nougat (Nougat)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Caramel au beurre salé (Salted Butter Caramel)
Noix de coco (Coconut)

His just look amazing! Everything in the shop looks amazing in fact. They are round and puffy and very solid. Nicest shape/size.
Passionfruit/Basil (yellow with dark brown specks and yellow filling)- freaking amazing, jam/gel type filling. Very tasty.
Orange/Cinnamon (with brown specks and yellow filling) - tastes like custard, lots of crreamy filling. not too sweet.
Almond (cream with brown specks and cream filling) - tasted like vanilla. OK, pretty average tasting.
Combaves? (green shell with pistachio bits on it) - nice shell but filling tasted artificial.



(various all over the country)
Brown paper bag imprinted with logo
0,60€ ea
Caramel (Caramel)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Coco (Coconut)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Framboise (Raspberry)
Figue (Fig)
Mangue (Mango)
Citron (Lemon)
Citron vert (Green Lemon)
Lychee (Lychee)
Mandarine (Mandarin)
Banane (Banana)
Vanille (Vanilla)
Praliné (Praline)
Café (Coffee)
Rose (Rose)

Pistachio (green) - lots of filling, strong flavoured.
Rose (pink) with something else - nice combination. perfect flavour.
Lemon (yellow) - centre kind of chewy. Nice flavour, not too sweet, nice aroma.


To review next time I'm in Paris:

• Aoki Sadaharu
• Jean-Paul Hevin

Honorable mention:
Although not in Paris, these macarons absolutely blew me away with their fruit flavoured filling. I have not tasted macarons like these anywhere in Paris. They are from Sève Maître Chocolatier et Pâtissier in Lyon. They are just impeccable! Their appearance, colour, aroma and flavour. Maybe even better than the king and queen of macarons (IMHO), Pierre Hermé and Ladurée. Bonus points for innovative packaging.

Lyon Centre – Presqu’île
29 Quai Saint Antoine 69002 Lyon
(Other locations in Lyon too)
Glossy full colour cardboard tetrapak shaped bag
(can't remember but around 1,50 or 1,60 ea I think)

Check out the great flavours:
Caramel au Beurre salé (Caramel Salted Butter)
Cassis - Violette (Blackcurrant/Violet)
Chocolat (Chocolate)
Chocolat - Figue (Chocolate/Fig)
Citron (Lemon)
Fraise Gariguette (Gariguette Strawberry)
Framboise (Raspberry)
Malaga (rhum-raisin) (Rum and Raisin)
Marron glacé (Frozen Chestnut)
Moka (café) (Coffee)
Pêche (Peach)
Pétale de rose (Rose Petal)
Pistache (Pistachio)
Pomme Tatin (Apple Tatin)
Praliné noisette (Hazelnut Praline)
Réglisse (Licorice)
Sève Cola (Cola)
Vanille (Vanilla)
Verveine (Verbena)


Final Comments (and complaints):

I'd have to say that Pierre Hermé's were truly the best and Ladurée's second. Both their salted caramel ones were awesome. I just wish PH's shells were not so soft and fragile, then they'd be a clear winner.


The thing that annoys me the most is that they don't provide boxes unless you spend like $15 or $20 which means by the time you get them home they are squashed (and my photos of them are crap). I mean even a cheap crappy white cardboard box or clear plastic thing (that pastries come in in the supermarkets) will do, it doesn't have to be fancy.

In the places that tend to be crowded I wish they'd have the board of flavours to choose from for you to see while you are waiting. Pierre Hermé was probably the worst. The shop is so small and the queue was longish and when it was my turn to be served I couldn't really see them properly to choose. Plus to save time I could've have looked at it before whilst waiting in the queue (if they had a 'menu' closer to the front door). In Ladurée they had a board with the flavours but I had to actually pick it up and move it closer to me to look at it.

Regarding the price, I wished they'd just have a set price. Doing it by weight seems too fiddly to me (and also wastes time). Sure they are all slightly different sizes but who cares?! Just make a price for each and stick to it. I don't really use price to judge though.

I'm always nervous about taking photos, just waiting for the moment that I'll get told off. I did eventually get told off in Ladurée but if it wasn't so busy/crowded I'm sure they would've told me to stop much earlier. I find this annoying because I just want to share the photos with my friends and family (and my blog readers). What's the harm in that? They get free advertising so it kind of gives me a bad impression of a place when they don't allow photos. Dalloyau also told me to stop taking photos after a while and Lenôtre stopped me altogether. Don't they realise that people can still take photos of their window displays? What are they going to do? Hire someone to stand there 24/7 to stop them taking photos? Ridiculous!!

I prefer the ones that taste as natural as possible. I dislike the ones that taste artificial and are too sickly sweet. I like the fancy gold dust or sprinkles of pieces on the top as decoration as it looks pretty as well as adding texture :) It really depends on which flavour you choose as some are good and some are not so good (from the same store).

Since I've tried making macarons a few times (and never truly succeeded) and read some macaron cookbooks (in both French and English) I know what they are supposed to look like. They are supposed to be flattish but with a slightly rounded look and rounded edges and with the frilly 'feet' (pieds-which should not protrude out too much). There should not be a 'nipple' in the centre of the exterior of the macaron shell. This is caused by the mixture not 'settling' before it hardens (it is probably too thick and not watery enough or the pastry chef did not tap the tray hard against the benchtop to settle it). The filling should be just visible (I don't like the appearance of the ones without the filling visible enough). Each macaron should be roughly the same size/shape as all the others. There should not be a variation in size. There does not seem to be a standard size as Pierre Hermé's and Gérard Mulot's were very chunky and Dalloyau's were tiny and the rest were in between. All the ones I tried were fairly uniform in appearance. Some things to keep in mind if you are wanting to try them. Winner would have to be Gérard Mulot's. I just wanted to buy them all when I saw them!

If you're short of time you can try a bunch of them in the food hall of Galeries Lafayette in Paris. I kind of wished I knew this sooner as I wasted so much time criss-crossing Paris on the métro to get to them all... I also wish I knew that there was a Gérard Mulot in the 6th arrondissement instead of me going all the way to the 13th!

PS - talk about a marathon. Typing up this post (and finding and collating all the information, editing the photos, watermarking them, creating the custom Google map and embedding it, uploading the photos to Facebook, etc etc) was a marathon ;) but it was worth it so  Enjoy! :D

Facebook album of photos

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