Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My new place

When we arrived in Lyon, my new company put us up in this long-stay hotel thing called appartcity. It had a small kitchenette, a nice sized bathroom, a couch that folded out into a bed, and a small flatscreen tv I could plug my xbox into. It wasn't bad, and not excessively expensive, but it was small. I arrived here two weeks before my wife did, and I thought the place was cozy, but livable until I found a more permanent place.

When my wife arrived and we started grocery shopping for two and suddenly had twice as much stuff--the apartment also suddenly became chokingly tight. As if the lack of space wasn't enough reason, we also found out from the french government that we needed a permanent address to progress our visa status (which originally expired January 4th, 2009), and with the Christmas and New Years holiday period coming up, we were suddenly tight on the apartment hunting time too.

Compared to the US, finding an apartment in Lyon sucks. I've never lived in US cities like New York or Chicago, where I hear it can be equally crazy, but here it is like buying a house in housing boom days in the States. As far as I can tell, there are no apartment complexes in France. All apartments are simply individually owned units that the owner rents out thru a management agency. Finding an apartment means searching the listings of the 5,000 different management agencies, or just cruising around town looking for "for rent" signs.

Once you find one you may like, then the real work begins. You have to call the agency to either setup an appointment, if they are willing to meet you there or have an open house planned (yes, the good apartments get open houses). Otherwise you have to go to the agency, pick up the key and security code, go to the apartment, check it out yourself (with nobody to ask questions), and return the key the agency. If you are lucky a single agency might have two apartments you wish to visit, so at least you can get two keys at once. Oh and agencies are only open monday-friday, something like 10-6 with at least an hour for lunch. Like most people, I work monday-friday 10-7ish (with at least 2 hours for lunch :-)), so this left most of the apartment hunting to George.

Unfurnished apartments in Lyon are really unfurnished--no stove, no refrigerator, no cabinets, and rarely any closets. Just a sink in the room that is supposed to be the kitchen and a coupe other rooms. The bathrooms, of course, are furnished with a tub, sink and toilet, and sometimes a bidet! We really didn't want to have to buy a fridge and stove, and all that so we wanted an apartment that at least had an "American Kitchen" (that's what they kitchens with appliance and cabinets in them here :-)).

The good apartments go fast. One was rented as soon as George got there to see it, and we saw another late one night, and by time we called the next morning, it was also gone. In the end time constraints and general laziness forced our hand, and we ended up in the ugliest apartment in France. It's not graffiti on the walls, bugs in the kitchen ugly. It's clean, and the neighborhood is awesome, and the layout is cool. It's just ugly.

If you are a fan of the 1950s, or wallpaper in general, you might like the place. You can see it here.

The best thing about our new place though, is it is right across the street from the biggest park in Lyon.

Parc de la tête d'or, park of the golden head, is on the north side of the city, with the Rhône river snaking past it towards the alps. The park is actually bigger than the picture above shows, off to the right of where the picture cuts off is a large zoo, and some playgrounds and sports courts. The zoo is free, and is not separated from the rest of the park by gates or anything, you just walk thru it like the rest of the park. It's quite odd to see rollerbladers, joggers, people walking dogs that are barking at the monkeys, and other things you would never seen in a zoo in the US, but this is France.

Oh, and our place came furnished. We bought a tv, a couple pillows, and some basic silverware and linens, but otherwise we can still fit pretty much everything we own into a few suitcases and a snowboard bag.

I really like our neighborhood as well. Lots of cool architecture, nice shops, wide, tree lined boulevards--it looks to me more like a french city should look than where we lived earlier, which was just plain, characterless apartment blocks next to a shopping mall :-) Our new 'hood is a bit pricey though. The chocolatier down the street had his chocolate on sale for the holidays for just $45 per pound.

Well, I'm off to see if I can find some fireworks or something. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I have internet!

I finally have working high speed internet, and phone, and 180 something channels of cable tv! Funny thing is, except for checking sports scores, and not being able to upload pictures for my blog, I didn't really miss the internet. George however, was going crazy. I'm not sure what she does on the internet, but she can sit for hours with the laptop in front of her browsing and typing.

Communication services (in some aspects) are quite advanced in France, compared to most offers in the US. We have high speed cable internet, cable tv with 180 something channels (including NASN the european ESPN with lots of AMERICAN football and ice hockey), and a land line that lets us call, for free, any land line in France and Europe, and any phone in about 45 other countries (including the USA and Hong Kong). Calling mobile phones in Europe, and calling countries not included in the list of free countries costs alot, but we'll just not do that.

All of the above services are just 50 euros per month, and we have one of the more expensive providers (because it is cable instead of ADSL). These services, of course, make use of VOIP and sometimes even TV over Internet to support such low prices. You can get these services in the US too, with vonage or skype or something, but the big companies don't really support them, and a similar package to what I have here would cost atleast 120 bucks per month in the US.

Mobile phone services, however, are retarded in France. Calling mobile phones always cost more than calling land lines, and calling numbers from mobiles phones can cost more than calling them from a land line, and its not always clear how much. I look forward to lots of surprises on my monthly cell phone bill.

Cell phones do have one positive over the US though. In Europe you only pay for calls you initiate, so other people can call you or text you or send you pictures, or whatever, and it will never cost you a thing.

Now that I have internet, I can upload some pics from around the new 'hood, and of my awesome (ly ugly) apartment. Update coming soon.

Oh, gotta go. V is on (and not V for Vendetta, but V the 1980's alien invasion mini series with Marc Singer). The French love old American TV. I watched Fall Guy the other day!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The fight for internet!

I moved to a new (new to me, built and decorated a few centuries ago) apartment last week, and chose numericable as my internet/phone/cable tv provider. Most people in Lyon have ADSL for their internet, as cable is actually kinda new, and I am lucky enough to live in a part of Lyon that has cable. Cable is much faster than ADSL, and about the same price, so it seemed to be a good choice. And my apartment doesn't have a phone line, and they are quite expensive to install, so Cable I chose.

I had a friend at work help me call to setup my installation appointment and desired services, just to make sure my bad French didn't get me signed up for a bunch of crap I did not want. Everything seemed to go smooth and we had an appointment for Friday. Yay, I will have internet before the holidays. And a phone, so I can call the loved ones.

Friday came and went, and nobody showed up. I called customer service and they asked me for my customer number, which of course I do not have since I am not yet a customer, and so he couldn't help me. He was getting frustrated at my bad French, and I was just frustrated in general, so I gave up on the phone call and decided to visit their office the next day, which was just a few blocks away, and surprisingly open on a Saturday.

Office visit was super smooth. Guy even spoke a bit of English and was cracking jokes. I signed up for internet, phone, cable with the sports channel that shows american football, tivo, all good. Well almost. They were out of tivos, so I had to settle for a normal hd box, and then when they get some new tivos in I can exchange it. okay. We set an appointment for Tuesday.

Tuesday comes, and the guy is actually early. Awesome. Cable guy ran the cable into my house and gives me my cable box and modem. Turns out they were out of HD cable boxes too, so I have the old SD one. That sucks, but oh well. At least I have something.


I have a cable box and a modem now, but... still no internet or cable tv. Some customer services in France are ridiculously bad and unnecessarily complicated--cable is one of them. The technician shows up at your house, drops off the cable box and modem, and then asks if you would like to pay 50 bucks for him to hook it up. hooking up cable boxes and modems is dead simple, you just plug them in and they pretty much work, so I didn't want to pay him 50 bucks for this.

I almost did though, because in the back of my mind I knew that something would not work properly, and it would be best to have him here when it didn't work. but, I am cheap, so I said I would do it myself, and he left as quick as he could.

5 minutes later I had the modem hooked up, and... it didn't work. I hooked the cable box up too just to double check, and it reported the same 0% signal strength. after an hour on the phone (which I am sure they charged me for), we had no resolution, and they need to send the technician back. after the holidays.

Technical service sucks in the USA too, especially trying to resolve anything over the phone, but when a technician is sent to your house, they generally verify the thing they setup actually works. I am still surprised that the tech didn't at least hook the cable box up to make sure it worked--you just plug it in!

I guess its not all bad though. Having no internet forced me to go to the library to use their internet and I picked up a couple books while I was there, so I'll have some good reading over the holidays. Plus all this complaining over the phone has greatly improved my French! Once I get this month's bill, I'm sure I will improve my swear word vocabulary too.

Hope everyone has a great Christmas.

Joyeux Noël, Numericable!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

La Fête des Lumières

The Festival of Lights takes place every year in Lyon on the days leading up to December
8th--the day of the actual holiday. The residents of Lyon place candles in their windows on this day to express gratitude to the Virgin Mary for sparing them from the plague (or maybe it has something to do with good weather, I've heard different stories). Regardless of the original intent, like all good modern holidays, it has been elongated and enlarged to get more people to spend more money. And it was quite cool.

Normal Christmas type lights, and of course the lights in the windows, are common, but also in a few key areas of Lyon, really extravagant light shows are erected. Interesting decorations and lights around popular statues, beautiful light patterns projected on older buildings, and even "movies" projected across buildings. And I don't mean movies like Super Troopers or the Matrix, but cool animations that match the existing shape and contours of the building, and are quite amazing to watch. All of the decorations were cool.

Like all good festivals, there was also lots of good food and drink. Vin chaud, wine mixed with cinnamon and apples and heated, seems to be the preferred drink of the night. It was cold, so I definitely understand why this drink is so popular, and I had a few cups to warm the bones.

This festival is quite popular, and the place was packed. Compared to Seattle, Lyon generally seems overcrowded, but this was like Disney Land crowded. I brought my good camera and my tripod, so I could get good long exposure night shots, and every shot had about 150 people walking thru my picture and bumping my tripod. I got a few good shots though, so to see more pics click here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Snowboarding in the Alps

It's that time of year again--cold in the air, leaves on the ground, and snow in the mountains. Lyon is about 160 kilometers (100 miles for you yanks) from the Alps, and just a little bit further to the nearest ski resorts. In fact there are like 15 ski resorts within a couple hours drive from Lyon, and probably more than 30 within 4 hours.

The picture above is from the top of Val Thorens, this week's feature destination.

I don't have a car. Driving in Europe scares me, so I'm not sure if I ever will. And if I did, I'm not sure I would want to take my chances getting up windy, snow-covered mountain roads. Luckily most people in Lyon are in the same boat I am, so we have good options for travel to the mountains. Bus was convienent, cheap, and way too early. I was joined by two friends from work at the bus stop at 5:30 in the morning for the 2.5 hour ride to the resort, but other than that the ride was good.

Val Thorens is a huge resort. The snow cover wasn't great, so we were restricted to just a few runs, but being the first day of the season, the snow was fresh and untouched. The sun was shining, the weather was right around 32 degrees farenheit, and I was getting my thing on.

My first day in the Alps was awesome (That's me in the picture above doing something cool).

At least it started out awesome. The first two hours were amazing. The views are big, for lack of a better word, and the snow was okay and there was hardly anyone there.

Then the wind came. At first it wasn't too bad. The main run was serviced by a teleferic (gondola), so we didn't have to deal with the usual cold, windy lift ride up. The mountain had lots of valleys to atleast get some riding out of the wind, so we kept riding and took a break for lunch around 1 pm.

Ski resort food is usually two things--bad and expensive. The food here was doubly expensive, but it was really good. I had Tartiflette, a potato and cheese casserole thing, that was awesome. And a diet coke to make up for the 5,000 calories and all the carbs that dish had.

After lunch, the hurricane came in. I got blown off the piste by a huge gust of wind, and the wind quickly turned all the runs to hard ice. The wind was so strong that the bus driver couldn't even open the door to the bus, we had to use the back door which was protected from the wind. So the day ended a little earlier than I would have liked, but the good beginning made up for it.

For more pictures of Val Thorens, see here. All the good photos were taken by Cedric. Thanks Cedric.

Oh, and George starts her intensive French lessons tomorrow. Wish her luck.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Baby Cow's Head

Doesn't that look Yummy?

For George's second day in France, she and I went out with some friends for some traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Typical French meals, ingredients-wise, are not all that different from American meals--a main meat, some potatoes, and some other common mixed veggies--the difference is generally in the sauces and the preperation. My coworker had a nice sausage caserole, his wife had a flank of lamb with potatoes and mixed veggies, and I had some duck with potatoes and ratatouille. None of these dishes would cause the average American any hesitation when ordering. (You guys know I am not a meat eater, so duck was quite a stretch for me).

Some french food, however, is quite "odd" by American standards. Frog legs seem pretty exotic, escargo (snails) is quite bizzarre, and organs (livers, kidneys, etc.) are more common here than in most parts of the US.

So George, being from Hong Kong where they eat just about anything, and things like Chicken's Feet are a local favorite, decided to try something new and exciting. And by new and exciting, of course, I mean crazy and weird. Tête de veau, probably the most exotic item on the menu, translates to english as Veal Head. Like her favorite dim sum mentioned above, Chicken's Feet, I am not quite sure what meat Veal Head consists of, but it was slightly translucent with the consistency of jello. Our friends felt bad for letting George order it, but the waitress was quite impressed and gave George 2 thumbs up when she cleaned her plate.

George, by the way, says it was good, so next time you guys see Tête de Veau on the menu you have my recommendation (and Chicken's Feet are quite good too). And that picture above is not the actual picture of what she ate. I didn't have my camera with me, so I had to fall back to google image search, and that was all I got. George's dish looked something like that, but somehow prettier (it was a fancy restaurant!).

After dinner we returned to our friends' house for some dessert and tea. I'm not much for chocolate or candy or cake or other typical desserts, but I LOVE me some fruit filled pastries. Lyon is a pretty good place to feed your pastry sweat tooth, and I struggle every time we pass a bakery to not pick up a few. Mmmmmm.... Buttery Calories.

Well, I am off to Berlin for a few days for work, so hopefully my next blog will contain pictures of me passed out over some sour kraut with one of those gigantic german beer mugs in my hand (Unfortunately my knowledge of Germany comes entirely from the movie Beerfest).

Auf Wiedersehen

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The morning handshake ritual

In the US, you tend to only shake someone's hand the first couple times you meet them, or maybe if you haven't seen them in a while, but the people you see everyday rarely warrant more than a “good morning” and a maybe slight nod of the head when you arrive at the office.

Not so in France. The morning handshake ritual, as my American compatriot Kain calls it, marks the beginning of every work day here. It doesn't matter if it is your first day, or your 1,000th day, after you take your coat off and drop your lunch off at your desk in the morning, you walk around the entire office and say bonjour, salut, ça va, good morning or something, and you shake hands.
So every morning when I get to work I shake hands with 35 other people. At first it was kinda weird, but now I quite like it. I am not the kind of person that seeks out affection, or needs emotional reinforcement on a daily basis, but starting your day off with 3 dozen smiling, friendly handshakes certainly helps get the day off to a good start. I think people in America should start their work day off by shaking everyone's hand.

With female coworkers, or close friends, you can opt for the kiss on each cheek thing instead of the handshake, but for now I am sticking with the handshake. Once I have been there for a while, I might try to throw a fist bump or something in for variety, but I'm not sure how that will work out.
Oh, and when you leave the office you say bye to people. At least to the people that sit close enough to you to see you leave.

Today's picture is my horrible attempt at creating a panorama of the view from our balcony out of a few separate images.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Explorin' my hood

I slept until 2 pm on Saturday and it was AWESOME! I have been so jetlagged since I got here, I don't think I have slept more than 4 or 5 hours per night, and it was catching up with me. Saturday put a big dent in my sleep debt.

Sunday, however, I was up again before 7 (which is better than 4 or 5, which is when I had been waking up). The sun was shining, and my tummy was rumbling, so I decided Sunday would be a good day for an early breakfast and a stroll around town. I've been here before, almost exactly a year ago actually, but it is a totally different feeling to walk around a strange/exotic town and know that you live here--you are not just a tourist (Although I am totally still the stupid foreigner).

My hotel is just east of Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon), which, as its name implies, is the center of the original city of Lyon before it exploded into the sprawling urban area it is today. Lyon is old! Up the hil from the old lyon, is an ampitheatre built by the Romans before Jesus Christ was even born--and it is still used today. Old Lyon is not quite as old as that, but the architecture, plazas, fountains, etc. are quite old and quite beautiful. The picture above is one of my favorite fountains in Lyon. It is huge, and sits in the middle of a plaza surrounded by awesome buildings.

I could have taken an awesome picture at pretty much every corner of Vieux Lyon, and pretty much did, but I will not bog you down with my 200 photos of buidling and plazas, but some of them can be found here if you want to see more.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I can see my work from here

See that big pencilly shaped building on the left. I don't work there, I work about 5 blocks right of it. My temporary lodgings are half-way between the pencil and work, so everything is pretty close.

Today was the first day of work. Work's cool. Arkane has the top two floors of a 9 story building with a large deck on the top floor. On a clear day they say you can see the Alps, but today was not a clear day, so I'll have to get back to you on that one.

My day was about 75% English and 25% Français, and slightly less than 25% of me having no idea what was going on. Body language is universal though--A well placed shrug or nod and everything is golden.

If I understood correctly, Tuesday is a holiday. The French don't like to break up their work week (or more importantly, miss an opportunity for a long weekend), so instead of working that odd Mondy in the middle, they will faire la pont (make a bridge) and just go ahead and take Monday off too--paid of course. Its been a hard one day of work already, so I'm looking forward to my long weekend too. I'll get the good camera out and get some better pictures for future blogs.

à plus tard