Thursday, August 29, 2013

Formula Fun

Last weekend was our much-awaited pilgrimage to one of the temples of Formula One, the Spa Francorchamps circuit and, more specifically, the famous Eau Rouge corner.

A rather moody shot of a GP2 car going up Eau Rouge
"Pilgrimage" is an appropriate word, because it's a bit of a mission to get there and back. The journey started midday Thursday, when I managed to haul my hungover self (one quiet drink at the guinguette having turned into out-all-night with the girls) out of the house in time for my train/metro/train trip to Brussels, where I was reunited with my parents for the first time in a year and my sister.

We had time to settle into our lovely, central apartment and head out for a delicious dinner somewhere that the owner informed us was off the tourist trail. I was pleasantly surprised by the scrummy fish soup I had as an entree (Mum and I both headed into that one without high hopes, just picking the thing that seemed least bad on the fixed menu, but were agreeably surprised). I also made a total dick of myself and lost all pretensions I might have had about knowing anything about wine. We ordered a Sancerre rosé, the waiter duly brought it, presented it to us - I thought it strange that it was in a green bottle, but didn't actually click and I couldn't read the label. He poured it for me, the supposed Loire Valley expert. I held it up to the light, thinking it looked VERY pale, but my sister chipped in to say it was definitely pink. I smelled it, very floral and tasted it, likewise, but nodded approval since as we know, the point of tasting is to check it's not corked, not whether we like it or not... And perhaps also to check that it's actually a rosé. Because yeah, it was a white. Quelle embarassement! When he moved on to pour my sister's glass, she who had reassured me that it was pink piped up to ask the waiter if it was really a rosé. Nope! He fairly graciously brought us the correct wine (which was unmistakeably pink), but I think my face was quite red. I'm taking comfort in those wine studies that show that even experts can't tell the difference between a red and a white if they're dyed the same colour... d'oh!

Anyhow, after dinner it was time for bed, since I was understandably pretty tired and I needed to set the alarm for 5.45 am the next morning in order to get up and at 'em to cover the c. 150 km between Brussels and the Spa circuit. Mum and Jess stayed behind in Brussels, while Dad and I took a train to Verviers, followed by a bus to the circuit. Things were somewhat disorganised across the whole weekend, but I'm giving us props for our logistical skills. After the first day, when we had a nightmare hot, crowded bus ride back to Verviers despite crowd numbers for Friday practice being much lower than for Saturday and Sunday, we planned our movements with all the cunning of a whole bag full of weasels. From strategically sitting at the front of the train to Verviers in order to dash out first to the bus line (leading to us both being comfortably seated for the ride to the track on Saturday and Sunday) to investigating where the bus came from before it got to the main entrance for the trip home (again, meaning we got a seat for the Saturday trip), we executed our trips with panache. This didn't mean that we had late starts on Saturday and Sunday though - even with the race starting at 2 pm on Sunday and despite us staying Friday and Saturday night much closer to the track near Liège, we were up at 6.30 to make sure that the day went off without a hitch.

Here follows the boring F1 bit...

The first day (Friday), we arrived at the circuit conveniently right next to the pit-lane exit as free practice 1 began, and were able to hear the cars firing up and glimpse them heading out on to track. I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's nothing quite like the noise and speed of an F1 car in the "flesh" - orders of magnitude greater than they seem on TV. We headed into the stands, where the rain poncho I'd borrowed for the weekend came in handy for the first session, while it turned pretty hot and sunny for the afternoon session.

Probably the highlight of the weekend was Saturday's qualifying session. Light rain showers were passing throughout the qualifying, which is always a magic formula for exciting racing. While it looked like Paul di Resta (one of my least favourite drivers) was going to take a surprise pole, the track dried up in the closing stages of qualifying and lovely Lewis Hamilton crossed the line to start his pole lap with 2 seconds to spare. Trackside, however, it's a bit hard to follow the action, and I didn't actually know he was still out on track, because the big screen was only showing Webber and Vettel's times, who were slightly on front of him on track (in that order). So it was a pretty magic moment when first Webber crossed the line to take pole position, drawing a small cheer from the crowd around us, then Vettel took pole off him a few seconds later (cue a much smaller cheer), and then, unexpectedly, Hamilton popped over the line out of nowhere, the final car to complete the lap and take pole position. Cue massive cheer from at least 80% of the crowd! While I didn't see a lot of Mercedes merch (and it seems very much the done thing to kit yourself out with as much merchandise as possible when attending a GP), it was very obvious who the crowd was getting behind, at least in a three-way Webber/Vettel/Hamilton battle.

Unfortunately, the race didn't quite go the same way. Vettel got ahead on the first lap, just after passing us at Eau Rouge, and he built a lead very quickly and just dominated from the front, as (if I'm being bitter) is the only way he knows how to win. It was a bit depressing seeing him flash by lap after lap, with the gap growing ever wider to the following car. Plus some guy behind me felt the need to clap every time Vettel went by, getting on my nerves hugely. To add insult to injury, Alonso got past Hamilton before too long as well, and from there on in the lead group of drivers didn't really change. I was sitting there hoping for rain or a safety car, but unusually for Spa, neither turned up during the race. That said, we got to see a couple of overtakes down the bottom of the hill, particularly Sutil overtaking (I think) Gutierrez, and it's still a great experience seeing the cars (and hearing those engines for the last time, since they're changing next year), checking out the famous circuit and witnessing the ambience and camaraderie in between the fans. It would have been great to see Hamilton win, of course, but we still got to see him put it on pole at least.

Moi with Eau Rouge in the background

In the stands on Friday

All my photos were pretty terrible, so I put my camera down during the race and just watched it. Here's a Toro Rosso climbing Eau Rouge - it does at least show the gradient a bit

I had to find a much better photo online to confirm this was Mark Webber in the drivers' parade

On the third attempt, I managed to get a shot of this shop advising you to "drink drive in Tiège"

Our trip back to Brussels went pretty smoothly and we arrived in time for a yummy dinner cooked by Jess and the chance to demolish a few of the bottles of wine I'd brought over from France. After Mum and Dad went to bed, Jess and I "snuck" out to see a little of what Brussels nightlife had to offer on a Sunday. We ended up in a small bar which was playing (mostly) classic 80s and 90s tunes and videos, condensed to about 90 seconds each, so we had great fun doing our own little karaoke session. It did ensure I bookended both sides of our Belgium trip with a bit of a hangover though...

On our last day, we mostly just wandered around a bit to see the Grand Place and stock up on Belgian chocolate, eat fries and waffles, etc. We did make a detour to the Librarium museum which I'd tried to see on my last trip to Brussels. I would have liked it if there had been a few more really old and precious books, illluminated manuscripts, etc., but there was still some interesting stuff.

All in all, a nice long weekend en famille, and I'm counting down the last day and a half of work before it's off to England and Italy for more family fun!

Me, Dad and Jess in the Grand Place, Brussels. Both my parents are terrible photographers, hence you can't actually see anything of the background. For some reason Mum thought it more important to include our shoes in the photo.

Me, mum and Jess. In this version, you can't even really see us either!

This was my go...

Monday, August 19, 2013

International house hunting, part 2

I'm freshly back from my weekend trip to Metz/Luxembourg, pretty exhausted after a late train that meant I got 5 hours sleep before coming to work this morning (and this was after wandering around Metz for a solid 12 hours).

Things didn't get off to a stellar start. Over several days, I phoned, left messages, pushed buttons on websites asking for callbacks and sent emails, and only one rental agency actually bothered getting back to me to set up an appointment in Luxembourg. I know it's August, but you'd think for the amount of money they get for doing nothing, essentially, they would bother to phone and give you the address of somewhere you scouted out yourself on the internet anyway. So I headed off with three appointments for the Saturday - two flatshares (ugh) in Luxembourg and one furnished apartment in Metz.

I was up bright and early on Saturday morning, not really able to sleep in since I was worrying about what the weekend would bring. It was a gorgeous day without a cloud in the sky as I took the train to Lux and made my way to the first apartment, within walking distance of where I'll be working. It was a nice house, sharing with the owner, a woman in her 40s, one other tenant and two border collies. My warning spidey sense was triggered when she asked if I would be cooking and when I said yes, she replied "I don't mind you using my kitchen, but I expect it to be left in the state in which you found it". Which is reasonable, but when will people get it through their heads that once you rent a room to someone it's not "your" kitchen any more, and it's not a gracious act of generosity to "let" people use it. We are, after all, talking about a basic human need, not saying "oh, I don't mind you using my Playstation 3" or whatever (Playstation 3s are still the cool new thing, right?).

The other thing with this woman was that there were 800€ of agency fees to pay to move in. The idea of using an agency to rent a room in your own house is pretty bizarre to me anyway - surely you have to be closely involved in vetting the person you'll be living with, so what's the point of an agency? The agent wasn't even present for the visit! I told her of the troubles I'd had getting any agents to call me back and she positively encouraged me to go on and on about how slack they were and how ridiculous it was to pay hundreds of euros to visit somewhere when the agent neither helped you find the place nor turned up for the visit. Some time later, I asked what the woman did... Yep, she's an estate agent...

She took it pretty well, saying that she agreed and that's not how she operated, but I was at first mortified, and then, thinking it over later, pretty miffed that she let me talk and talk and made little leading comments, without letting me know I was in the middle of talking smack about her profession for 10 minutes. Not really the most forthright way of conducting a conversation.

So that was off the list - too expensive for a flatshare, especially with the agency fees, and I didn't really want to live with the woman.

The next place was advertised as being 5 minutes away from the central train station, and the owner had told me to phone when I was at the station. My cellphone used to be incapable of texting or calling overseas, or working in a different country, but since I can now make outbound international calls, I assumed it would work in Luxembourg. Nope. The station was generously furnished with payphones, but it took me an age to work out how to use them (figuring out how to change the language out of Luxembourgeois helped) and then how to dial the number. The phone number started with 0035262... and I tried seemingly every possible version before going to ask someone at the ticket desk how to make the call. Turns out you ignore everything before the second 2 and don't add a 0 in front. Bizarre.

Anyway, the woman dispatched someone to pick me up in a blue Mercedes (possibly only in Luxembourg would this result in me chasing after the wrong blue Mercedes in the space of a 10 minute wait) and he drove me off to the apartment "near the train station". There's no way to describe this other than a bare-faced lie, as witnessed by the map below showing the distance between the train station and the apartment...

I was a bit concerned the guy might have actually been dispatched to kidnap me and sell me into a Luxembourgish sex slavery ring, but although the flat he took me to see could definitely have served as a flophouse, this was not the case. Apparently, run-down Dickensian-style boarding houses still exist and are cunningly hidden by vague descriptions that pointedly don't tell you how many people you'll be sharing with (or where the house actually is). The rent was reasonable in Luxembourg terms (meaning still not particularly cheap), and in return you would have the pleasure of sharing a kitchen and two bathrooms between a minimum of 12 inhabitants coming and going without any input from yourself. Slum landlords: alive and well and driving Mercedes.

So that was strike two, with one to go. My last Saturday appointment was in Metz, to see a furnished studio supposedly 31 sq. m, although I have severe doubts about that. It seemed miles smaller than that, although perhaps that was just the awkward angles making it impossible to use whatever space there was. It was also described as an "F1 bis", which is normally one room with a separate kitchen, which was definitely not true. That said, I got on well with the owner - we chatted for an astonishing 1 3/4 hours - and I probably would have just taken it for the location and ease of moving in to a furnished place, except it wasn't free until the end of September. This would mean spending hundreds of euros on temporary accommodation and having all the hassle of moving twice while starting a new job. Sigh.

I was too exhausted to care on Saturday night, dead to the world by 10 pm, but woke up on Sunday feeling fairly discouraged. I went out before 9 am for a walk to see a little bit of the town and came back thinking that I would just try to call everyone I could and just see if anyone would take me as a tenant, despite the short-term contract. To my surprise, only one woman said over the phone that she wouldn't rent to me, so I suppose I should have tried that earlier. Anyway, I managed to line up 4 appointments (although one was later cancelled when the tenant rang up at the last minute to say he had an apéro - drinks - to go to and couldn't show me the place).

The first was in a great location, close to the train station for the commute, but also near the centre of town. On the other hand, it was a bit dear and on the 4th floor without a lift, so I couldn't imagine how I would manage to move my stuff in. The second was a pretty charmless one-bedroom box on the ground floor of a building that was a little further away from both the train station and the centre of town, but doable. The third was a massive, three-room 70 sq. m place on the 1st floor, really beautifully decorated and close to the train station although not very near the centre of town and the same price as the first place.

I was in love with the last place (and it had a bath and a cellar and lots of cupboards!)... but I slept on it, and I phoned this morning to say I'd take the second place. The rent is 140€ a month cheaper, and since I don't know whether my contract will be renewed, it's not really practical to commit to a pricier place when I might end up on the dole and be completely unable to pay for it. Plus it will be easy to move in and if I can persuade Bob not to be a total scaredy cat, I can even let him outside some of the time. It's definitely not the apartment of my dreams - and it's going to cost at least 600€ to hire a van to move my stuff over, but obviously that's money that would either be going on agency fees in Lux or on temporary accommodation or whatever anyway, and that way at least I don't have to figure out what to do with everything and worry about getting rid of it all and ending up in a few months with nothing. And even with the train fares to Luxembourg, it's still cheaper than the 12-bedroom shack...

So yeah, it's all a bit nightmarish for a job that, at the end of the day, might only last 14 weeks or so, but what else can you do? At least now I can try to arrange the move, figure out how to get the whiteware down three flights of narrow stairs into a van, persuade Liz to drive me 1200 kms there and back, arrange to change adress etc. etc. And cross my fingers that something won't go horribly wrong at the last minute - I want that contract signed before I can relax!

AND now I can get excited about my trips to Spa and Italy :)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

International house hunting

How young is too young to have a stroke/heart attack? Cos I really think I might be about to. My sleep app recorded a miserable 36% sleep quality last night as I tossed and turned (and gave up altogether in favour of watching classic Father Ted), and today I feel like one giant ball of nervous energy.

My original plan for the new job was to base myself in Trier, Germany - easy(er) commute, cheap (normal-priced) housing and what fun to live in Germany for a few months! Once I started doing more research, however, it emerged that most German agents charge a standard 2.3 times the rent as their agency fees, and I can't/won't fork over 1000+€ plus bond for a 4-month lease. There are, of course, non-agency options, but it seems Germans aren't that keen to reply when you write to them in English.

So Plan B was to live over the French border in Metz, which seems a pleasant enough city although the commute is further and involves a train and a bus = multiple opportunities to run late. There's a lot of stuff going in my price range - this is very much the time of year to be looking, since there's a lot of movement with people changing jobs after the summer break or students coming to university, but that also means more competition. Hence I booked a trip to Metz this weekend to do some searching onsite. I don't really want to book something sight unseen, and there's not really any point emailing someone to say "hey, I'm hours away and can't visit and don't want the place until mid-September, but will you keep me in mind"? I've only enquired with one agency so far - who said they wouldn't rent anything to me. I have a sinking feeling this will be the case with anyone I ask, since I got rejected from every agency I tried except one back when I was looking here in Tours, and that was when I was only a couple of months into a (supposedly) renewable one-year contract. I understand I'm not a great prospect - only less a four-month contract and no French guarantor, but it still seems so harsh! Landlords aren't allowed to kick you out for not paying the rent in winter, so I suppose they don't want to take on someone whose income stream is forecast to dry up on the 1st of January and then is free to merrily squat there until April, or whenever winter is officially finished.

So, while I might try making some calls in Metz tomorrow (which is a public holiday here), it looks like it might be Plan C, live in Luxembourg itself. This obviously has the big advantage of not having several hours' worth of daily commuting, but the prices are insane. About 800€ seems average for a studio (or even worse, a flat-share, ugh), which is about twice the rent on my apartment here, which is a one-bedroom. Then there's the charges, bond and agency fees to think about...

I found one agency that is very flexible - leases start from 2 weeks, everything is set up for you and included in the rental price, but some of the properties they let seem the stuff of nightmares. Imagine sharing a house with 12 bedrooms in it but only one kitchen/living area/laundry, with people coming and going continually and no control over who you're sharing with, with the possibility that one week you could be sharing the space with 11 other tenants, and the next, with 22 (and still paying like 700€ for it)? I don't think I could stand it.

I feel like I'm going to take this job, and a few months later end up homeless with no money and no job. Something to look forward to then...

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Villandry visit

As they say, you don't know what you've got till it's (almost) gone. Or, more accurately, you don't bother to get off your arse to see it until your time is running out. I have so much to do between now and mid-September that I won't have many opportunities to tick any last "must-see" sights off my Loire Valley checklist, but one thing I managed this Saturday was to finally get to the château of Villandry, just 20 minutes away from Tours and renowned for its lovely gardens.

I'm not especially in love with gardens, but the rumours are true, they are beautiful. Although much of the gardens tend towards the formal, geometric layouts, there are also sections of more "natural" (although no doubt carefully planned and tended) sections to enjoy. The château itself is not exceptional, but the entry ticket to the château and gardens is not much more expensive than the gardens alone, and probably worth it for no other reason than you get to climb up into the tower and get a c. 300° view of the gardens. The weather forecast said partly cloudy, which actually just meant scatterings of fluffy white clouds, all the better for pretty photographs, and temperatures which were nice and warm without being oppressive.

And, since it was so close and I was up and out bright and early, I was back in time for lunch, with plenty of time to clean my flat, make my famous potato salad, and head to Liz's new flat for a barbecue dinner!

I'd love to get to Chambord as well before I leave, but I'm not sure I'll have time to. But in any case, I'm sure Tours hasn't seen the last of me! The countdown to leaving is a good reminder to look about myself and appreciate where I am. I try not to forget that there are plenty of people who dream their whole lives of seeing the châteaux of the Loire Valley, and I've been very fortunate to live in such a lovely part of the world and visit many of them (although I sometimes have a sneaking suspicion that there are people out there who came for a week and managed to see more!)

Anyway, I'll leave you with a few of my photos... (PS which, looking back at them, are strangely empty of people. Some of the formal gardens are not open for walking about in, for the rest I suppose just luck. I definitely wasn't all alone there, although I suppose the size of the grounds and the fact that I was in and out before lunchtime cut down on the crowds!)

Can almost pretend I took a break in the lavender fields of Provence

The "cross"garden

The love gardens, representing the stages of love from passion, romance, flirting (?) to jealousy

Love hearts

A beautiful ceiling salvaged from a Spanish palace - there are three others like it scattered around the world

The kitchen gardens