Le parc floral

We have been having a very nice and mild spring. In fact, this March was the warmest on record since 1900, equaled only by 1957. We have have made use of the nice weather (and the fact that we no longer have to sit on a train for half an hour to get anywhere) to explore a bit more of Paris. For the last few weeks we visited a different food market every weekend. They are all great, with excellent selections of cheeses.


Mimolette cheese. The holes in the crust are made by tiny cheese mites living in it.

Another thing to explore are the two big parks on either end of Paris that look like two green ears on the map. The one that’s closer to us is the bois de Vincennes, and we decided to go there first. We have only visited it before to go to the zoo, but there is a lot more to see. Since Sunday’s weather forecast predicted 26 degrees and sunshine, we decided to check out the parc floral located inside the bois the Vincennes. I had read about it before; it’s a public park that also doubles as a botanical garden. There is also a big stage where concerts are sometimes held in the summer.

We packed sandwiches and beers for a picnic. The city of Paris has a detailed web sites about the rules and amenities for picnics in public parks; you are only supposed to walk or sit on lawns between April 15 and October 15 to leave the grass time to regenerate, but there are exactly 38 picnic benches available in the parc floral. When we got there it turned out that we had been the only ones to study the rules and/or to care about them. Some of the lawns were halfheartedly cordoned off, but the Parisans are a rebellious people and not that easily discouraged.

We walked around, munched on our sandwiches and beers, hunted Pokémon and were impressed by the large variety of tulips on display.

At the park’s entry we had noticed signs announcing something called “Resto Expérience”, of which we had never heard before. While we were wondering if it was the sort of food festival that seems to exist in every European city except Paris, two people came up to us to confirm that indeed it is one, and they gave us a leaflet with some information and, because we expressed interest, free tickets. It turned out afterwards that the organizers had combined an almost complete absence of marketing with the ridiculous idea of charging 13 to 17 Euro in admission to a remote location just to be allowed to spend money on food. Accordingly, there were not too many visitors at the expérience when we got there. We had some good food anyway, and we will be back next year, hoping the organizers learn from the mistakes they made on this first attempt.

After eating and drinking we were ready to head home for coffee and dessert. On the way back we passed a Quidditch match and found that yes, it really is as silly as it sounds.


Le nouvel appartement

When Verena last wrote about our apartment search, she described how depressing the free housing market in Paris is, but she did not stress that we are in the fortunate position of not really needing it. At the time we had already contacted Science Accueil, the organization that helps incoming foreign researchers with administrative things (and organizes nice day trips). Science Accueil also cooperates with people who rent out apartments to researchers, negotiating somewhat standard terms, e.g., that most incidental costs should be included in the rent. Even more importantly, they play the role guarantor, and the landlords understand that an incoming researcher who hasn’t started yet cannot present a current employment contract.

We got a list of housing proposals on a Friday at noon and started contacting proprietors on Saturday afternoon. Others were faster: Of the four we contacted that day, two immediately answered that the apartment was already taken, and another said the same with a delay of a few days. The fourth did, however, say that the apartment would be available for a visit the next day. Even there, we later found out that others had written them earlier but then failed to respond in time to the offer to visit the apartment.

To make a long story short, we visited and liked the apartment, and two weeks later we have now signed the rental contract. Ich bin ein Pariser!

Our new apartment is in the neighborhood of Bercy, in the south-east of Paris. There is a very nice park nearby, from where a footbridge over the Seine would take us directly to the national library. The immediate neighborhood appears relatively calm, despite the fact that our apartment’s windows and balcony overlook a long-distance bus station and a train station. There will be more about the area in a later post.

View from our balcony. Not as pretty as in Palaiseau, but it will do.

A nice coincidence about the whole thing is that my new office is also in Bercy. In fact, many of my new department’s offices overlook the same train tracks from the other side. I will be able to walk to work in about ten minutes, which is a nice change from Palaiseau. On the other hand, unlike the walk to work in Palaiseau, which involves hiking uphill through a forest, crossing under the railroad tracks is likely to involve encounters with approximately zero trees.

Our new apartment itself consists of a bedroom, a living room with a dining table that will be Verena’s office, a kitchen, bathroom, and toilet. We also have a basement storage space and even a parking space in the underground garage. The apartment is fully furnished and the kitchen is equipped with almost everything we need, except for a kettle that Verena is looking forward to buying. The one thing that we find weird is that everything is electric: Both the hot water for the bath and the kitchen (and even the washing machine, which doesn’t heat its water itself!) and heating via electric radiators. This doesn’t seem particularly efficient, especially because the building is in energy category F, which I believe means that its infra-red radiation can be seen from space. We will see how we will manage our use of hot water and our heating needs, and what this will mean for our monthly electricity bill. In any case we will be happy because we will have a dishwasher, and nothing in the world is as great as having a dishwasher. Well, Internet, maybe.

We have a bathroom!

We have a bedroom!

We have a kitchen!

We have a hot water tank!

We have a home office for Verena!

We have the place where Verena will actually be working!

Near the new apartment we also found our new favorite café/restaurant/bar that we will be visiting regularly. The food is good, and if you don’t order the beef tartar, you won’t even have tiny flies circling your table. The decor is also rather… nice.

Call us maybe?

Le champagne à la Champagne

On Saturday we went on a little day trip to the Champagne. The trip was organized by Science Accueil, the organization that helps incoming foreign researchers in our area. They were also the ones who helped us find an apartment here, and we have been to a few of their other events.

The trip started at 7 in the morning in Orsay, where we got on a very fancy bus on which we could nap until the sun came up.

Fancy seats on the bus.

Fancy seats on the bus.

The first stop was in Reims, where we visited the cathedral. It’s big and gothic and used to be the place where most of the French kings were crowned. It has very colorful windows, some of them by Marc Chagall and other modern artists. That makes for a refreshing contrast with the ancient architecture.

The cathedral's main portal.

The cathedral’s main portal.

Fancy round window.

Fancy round window.

Chagall's windows.

Chagall’s windows.

The Champagne is of course the region where the eponymous sparkling wine is produced, so the main attraction was a visit to a wineyard. We visited Pascal Lallement, which not to be confused with Chantal Lallement, Alain Lallement, or Juillet-Lallement. Not sure if there are other family names in the Champagne as well.

They explained to us how champagne is made. It’s made from a blend of different grapes and vintages which are first fermented in steel tanks, then blended and further fermented in the bottles. After a while, the bottles are put into racks (or, nowadays, big metal cages) with the neck pointing downwards so that the sediment from the fermentation collects in the neck. It is then removed in a process called dégorgement: The bottle’s neck is frozen to form a bit of ice enclosing the sediment, then the bottle is opened, and the ice and sediment shoot out due to the pressure that built up in the bottle. A sugary wine solution is added before the bottle is corked again and stored for another few months before sale. Here is a video where you can see a bit of this process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3DOEtgEXSY

Quiet please, the champagne is sleeping.

Quiet please, the champagne is sleeping.

After the explanations we got to taste and buy some champagne. We also bought a bottle of ratafia, which is a kind of fortified wine made with leftover grape juice and pomace brandy. It’s supposed to be good as an aperitif; we’ll see.

In the Champagne the champagne is typically drunk from these simple glasses.

In the Champagne the champagne is typically drunk from these simple glasses.

We then had lunch at the winery. It had been announced as accompanied by traditional folk music. This turned out to be an old man with a keyboard (and a decorative, but unused, accordion). He first played what might be described politely as “easy listening”, and later… erm… French “party hits”. There was dancing by middle-aged French ladies who had had exactly one glass too many. The Science Accueil organizer was very embarrassed. We found that it was rather like family gatherings in the Austrian countryside and concluded that all this was probably authentic, even if “traditional” might make you expect something else.

Finally, we went on a short boat trip on the Marne river. It was uneventful, but we chatted with some nice people, and Verena’s Pokémon Go collected several valuable kilometers.

I had never been on a boat with a paddle wheel before.

I had never been on a boat with a paddle wheel before.

La Marne.

La Marne.

La batterie et la cueillette

A few days ago Verena was taking a nap when I decided to do something I had been interested in since we arrived in Palaiseau, but she wasn’t: Climbing up the steep hill behind the railway station to have a look at the ruins of the fortress of Palaiseau. There are several ways up, and I chose the one that looked the most interesting, namely the path through the forest. The path is narrow and not well maintained, but I managed to climb over the odd tree blocking the way, and to not get cut to pieces by thorny bushes growing across it. The forest ist too dense to see much besides trees, so I cannot offer any spectacular views over our valley.

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Up on the hill are the last remains of the Fort de Palaiseau, which according to the French Wikipedia was built after the war of 1870, in which German troops occupied the whole area around here. It was one of a whole ring of fortresses meant to protect Paris. Apparently it was never useful and was finally burned down by occupying German troops in 1944. One part still survives in ruins, called the Batterie de la Pointe. (The French word batterie here means an artillary battery. It also has other meanings, including drum kits and batteries in cars and mobile phones. It does not refer to most other electrical batteries, which are usually called pile. It’s almost as flexible a word as baguette, which refers to most stick-shaped objects including chopsticks and magic wands.)

The entrance to the batterie is guarded by a gate that is apparently meant to be locked but, this being France, isn’t. Trespassing is prohibited, but I sneaked in and took a peek. I wasn’t the first one, judging by the graffiti.

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Sometime around September last year there was some sort of heritage festival thing which included some event up in the fort. It felt a bit strange creeping around up there all alone and illegally, but it might be interesting to come again if there is some sort of guided tour. We’ll see this fall.

The more exciting thing this weekend was the cueillette or harvest. We got a free magazine with news about our departement, which I didn’t read closely, but at least I found out that a young woman from Palaiseau is French champion in synchronized swimming. (Not alone, obviously.) Verena read the thing more thorougly and found out that there is a farm nearby where you can go and harvest fruit and vegetables. It’s up on the plateau, not all too far from where I work.

There is a direct bus to the farm, but not on weekends. Instead we took one to the village of Saclay and walked the rest of the way, about a kilometer or two. On the way we passed the two lakes of Saclay. These are artificial lakes, originally created to supply water to the palace of Versailles (maybe 10 to 20 km away). Nowadays, according to Wikipedia, they are fed by water used in some way by our nuclear research center. They are also a restricted military area off-limits to the public, and their water is used to cool the defense research agency’s adjoining center for testing propulsion systems. Despite all this there was a surfer in the water, but, well, this is France.


We arrived at the farm and were hit by a strong scent of strawberries even from a few hundred meters away. The photo doesn’t do the smell justice, but at least you might be able to see the size of the farm.


There weren’t too many other people, but apparently the nicer weather the day before had brought many people, so we weren’t sure how many strawberries we would be able to harvest. Verena wasn’t too successful in the beginning, but I got lucky with my row of strawberries, and in the end we managed to fill up a big bowl. Then we moved on to raspberries, which are a bigger variety than the ones I know. Many of them are not completely ripe yet, but as a sunny week is coming up, they should soon be perfect. All in all we collected a kilogram each of strawberries and raspberries as well as a cakeful of rhubarb and a big bunch of parsley.


All together we paid 14.06 EUR, which is really cheap, especially considering the freshness and quality. Verena already has plans to go there again with our next visitor, and to tell a friend from her language course about it. And who knows how many times we will go back; according to the farm, their strawberry season runs well into October!

We completed the visit to the farm by feeding grass to cows (young bulls, we think) who seemed happier to take it from human hands than off the ground. And who would blame them. Verena also gave one a strawberry, which was well received, but she was opposed to my idea of handing them a whole stick of rhubarb. At least without asking a qualified adult or researching the question first. I intend to return, and to do it well prepared!


Le château du roi soleil

On the Friday before all this flood nonsense I took a day off to go to Versailles with our guest. Verena decided to stay at home and “work”. She missed out on a whole lot of baroque stuff.

Versailles is not too far from where we live, and there is an almost direct train from Palaiseau. Versailles-the-city itself is not particularly remarkable, but the important attraction, of course, are the palaces and gardens; as it turns out, the gardens are the more interesting part of the whole thing. A one-day ticket for all the palaces costs 18 Euros, the gardens are for free. The palace’s website and guidebooks are very good at scaring people into buying tickets online, so we ended up standing in line for almost half an hour in the people-who-already-have-tickets line. We were afraid of the palaces being totally full of people, but it’s a big place, so it was mostly OK. Also, the whole tour only takes about an hour or so. You get an audio guide, but unlike some other guides that drone on and on, in Versailles you get maybe thirty seconds of audio per room. And you only get to tour a small part of the palace.

Let’s have a look at some pictures, shall we?


A small part of the courtyard. I have a better photo, but I didn’t want to put too many strangers online. Also, it’s just a courtyard.


It was a really sunny day, so I had to borrow these sunglasses. Originally the weather report had announced a rainstorm for this day, but that ended up happening three days later.

It was a really sunny day, so I had to borrow these sunglasses. Originally the weather report had announced a rainstorm for this day, but that ended up happening three days later.



Fancy fence.

I didn’t took too many photos inside the palace. It turns out that rich aristocrats’ apartments in Versailles looked just like the ones in the palace at Fountainebleau. I would direct you to that post, but it turns out that we didn’t post any photos back then either. Oh well. The most interesting was the Hall of Mirrors, but I forgot to take pictures and anyway, you know how to use the Internet.

Here is the chapel instead.

Here is the chapel instead.


Also, Pope John Paul (George Ringo) II. as a Roman emperor. Made of chocolate.

Also, Pope John Paul (George Ringo) II. as a Roman emperor. Made of chocolate.


And Sansa Stark liberating Orléans from foreign occupation.

And Sansa Stark liberating Orléans from foreign occupation.

The website of Versailles recommends spending about an hour in the palace and four hours in the gardens. That sounds a lot, but those are some really impressively big gardens.

This lake is just a small thing off to the side of the main garden. The part with the palm trees in the foreground is the orangerie.

This lake is just a small thing off to the side of the main garden. The part with the palm trees in the foreground is the orangerie.


The view from the castle towards the big green are thingy and the even bigger canal. The tower in the canal is not original; I think it's used for fireworks shows.

The view from the castle towards the big green lawn thingy and the even bigger canal. The tower in the canal is not original; I think it’s used for fireworks shows.


View back towards the palace from the other end of the big lawn.

View back towards the palace from the other end of the big lawn.

From the palace to the canal it’s about a kilometer, and then it’s more than a kilometer to the Trianon palaces, and then there you have a big garden to walk around in as well, so all in all it takes some time and good shoes. It’s also possible to rent golf carts to get around the park for those who can’t or don’t want to walk that far. Oh, and while we’re talking about amenities: There are enough toilets spread throughout the area. Toilets are great.

Far away from the main palace there is a small fake village and a house for Marie Antoinette. Apparently she would go there and watch actors pretend to be Real Countryfolk™ in An Authentic Rural Setting™.

The Totally Real Lake™ in Marie Antoinette's village, with the Very Useful Lighthouse™, which has guided many a villager safely back home back in the day.

The Totally Real Lake™ in Marie Antoinette’s village, with the Very Useful Lighthouse™, which has guided many a villager safely back home back in the day.


The Village Farm™ has real animals. It's possible that they actually used to be bred to be eaten by Marie Antoinette. Not sure what they do nowadays.

The Village Farm™ has real animals. It’s possible that they actually used to be bred to be eaten by Marie Antoinette. Not sure what they do nowadays.

I think that’s all for now. I recommend that you come visit and see the gardens for yourself!

La cloche et la brioche

Guest blog time! Verena wants me to write about our company buses. Our company buses take people from Paris and elsewhere out to our labs in the suburbs in the morning. In the very very early morning, as in, they leave Paris at 7:30 or something like that. People awake at that time can be up to no good.

According to legend there is also a bus that passes through Palaiseau. One colleague told me that despite the early time he prefers taking that bus that takes him directly to his office. It’s easier then public transport, where he would have to take the train and then another bus. That might also be an option for me but I don’t think I could get up that early. Also, and this is an almost equally large problem, I don’t have any concrete information about the buses. As is usual in large organizations, the information exists *somewhere*, but there is no way of finding it in the maze of seventeen different Intranet sites. (I exaggerate, of course. It’s only five or so.) Even if I did find the appropriate site, it is highly unlikely that I could figure out if the information there is up to date. This is because every few weeks there is a new email going around telling us of the newest tweaks that have been made to the buses’ routes and timetables. It’s a wonder anybody manages to ride the bus.

Anyway, the buses exist, and every day around 16:20 a bell (or rather, an electronic ding-dong sound) announces that the bus is leaving to take you back home.

Which brings me the real topic of this post, which is the brioche.

On Fridays our cafeteria sells large loaves of brioche at lunch, so my group has a tradition of obtaining some and sharing it in the afternoon. Typically just after four o’clock, i.e., around the time the aforementioned bell is sounded. Usually we have one or two brioches, but very rarely there is none, or even three; there is no fixed rule for who buys one, it’s usually some of the more senior people who do it without coordination. And when it’s time to eat the brioche, they shoot off a mail to the whole group inviting them to the “Go corner”. That’s a break area in our building where there is a Go board, although nobody ever seems to play Go there. (Some people do play, but not at work.) Apart from the traditional Friday brioche, the place generally seems to see little use because there is a larger, nicer break area at the other end of the building, much closer to the coffee machine.

Since the content of the mails inviting us to brioche is always the same, they are mostly kept very short. However, sometimes people get creative on those crazy Friday afternoons and try to make it a little more special. Recently, for example, the mail was encrypted with a Caesar cipher (shifting each letter of the alphabet by a fixed amount). Somehow we all still managed to figure it out and be in the right place at the right time to eat the right thing. (And http://rot13.com/ helps as well.) Another time the mail was riffing on the famous quote by Voltaire which is commonly misattributed to Marie-Antoinette: if the peasants have no bread, “let them eat cake”. In the French original, you see, the “cake” is in fact brioche!

We peasants eat the brioche at work as is, without any accompaniment. Not everyone approves of this custom; one particularly opinionated colleague refuses to eat it without butter, of which we have none at work. Oh well. If he doesn’t like our brioche, let him eat bread!

Le rallye

It’s time for another guest blog!

My French course started this week. It actually started at the end of January but I wasn’t here at the time and I didn’t get around to joining it until now because of some suboptimal bureaucratic process. In fact, there seems to be a rumor doing the rounds that I was initially put into a group for complete beginners without anybody either asking me whether that was correct or telling me that I was registered at all. Anyway, this week I got to take placement tests by email and telephone and now I am in an advanced group and seem to be doing pretty well. Most of the people have been here all year or longer. The course takes place at CEA’s astrophysics department, so almost all the people there are astrophysicists, with the exception of a few environmental scientists and myself.

It was good that I started this week because this meant that I got to participate in this weekend’s extracurricular activity: a rallye (puzzle hunt) in the Butte-aux-Cailles area in southern Paris. We were given a booklet with some background information and 40 questions to answer. Most of them concerned the street art that adorns many of the walls in this area. The other notable feature is that the Butte looks surprisingly unlike most of Paris, which was aggressively urbanized in the 19th century; in some of the narrow paved streets one could almost forget being surrounded by twelve million people.

My group came in second with 39 out of 40 points; the winners had half a point more and were rewarded with chocolate. It was still fun, I’m glad I got to know this pretty corner of Paris and meet interesting new people.

These little houses make up a neighborhood called La Petite Alsace.

These little houses make up a neighborhood called La Petite Alsace.

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We were asked who this was. I said this was Debbie Harry. My group googled Debbie Harry and then agreed, so that was our answer. This may have cost us the win, as the officially correct answer was some French-Italian singer who, apparently, looks a little like Debbie Harry (pictured here).

We were asked who this was. I said this was Debbie Harry. My group googled Debbie Harry and then agreed, so that was our answer. This may have cost us the win, as the officially correct answer was some French-Italian singer who, apparently, looks a little like Debbie Harry (pictured here).

About 450 of these colored breasts are scattered around all of Paris.

About 450 of these colored breasts are scattered around all of Paris.


This, too, is Paris.

This, too, is Paris.


Le travail

By popular request, I will guest-blog a little about the work I came to do here. Not much because I only just started, but we’ll see how it goes.

I started on a rainy morning nine days ago. My first appointment was with a person from HR who, I had been told before, doesn’t speak a word of English. That turned out not to be the case, his English was fine, and my French was only needed to read my contract before signing it. I got most of it, except for the long section about keeping secrets secret and something about being thrown in prison if I act against the interests of the Nation (capital N in the original). Can’t be that important.

I work at CEA, you see, the French government’s regulatory/research/something organization for everything having to do with nuclear and (since about five years or so) alternative energy. Unsurprisingly, I will not be building nuclear reactors; there is a lot of research being done here in all kinds of general areas, and my lab is concerned with ensuring the security of software. I will be involved in a project funded by the French national research agency on making sure programs don’t leak confidential information; think a mobile phone app that has access to both your photos and to the Internet, but you don’t want it to upload all your photos somewhere without your knowledge. We will do that kind of thing, except for airplanes. Or at least, that is presumably the reason why Airbus is involved in the project.

Anyway, the work environment is very friendly and university-like. This includes the infrastructure (we had a blackout in my first week) and the equipment (the first laptop I got didn’t work), but also the internal bureaucracy. The people are very nice, and there is a lot of time for socializing: There is a collective coffee break after 9 o’clock as people trickle in in the morning and another one after lunch. My group, being good public servants, goes for lunch about 11:45. The cafeteria is nice so far with an interesting selection; we always have something meaty, a fish of the day, pizza, salads, and vegetables that have been boiled beyond recognition. There is also a choice of desserts, fresh fruit, and yes, cheese. Lunch is subsidized by CEA according to a complex system, which means that we pay with our ID badges, except for me, because so far my badge is not recognized by the system. So I have a card for visitors that pays for my lunch, that’s not bad either. Coffee is free in our building, by the way; so is tea, but the tea drinkers mostly aren’t happy about the selection and tend to bring their own.

In the breaks, people mostly speak French because it is known that I have some basic knowledge. I understand some things; I could mostly follow the conversation on dragon-powered steam engines in the Game of Thrones universe, but I only got the very basics of the discussion of space elevators based on the paternoster principle. (Turns out French people don’t know paternosters!) My French is slowly getting a little better, but more work is needed in that area. When my arrival dust has settled, I will apparently get a weekly French lesson at the lab. In the next few months, three or four other post-docs will also trickle in, and some of them are rumored not to speak any French at all, so we will see how things develop.

What little time is not spent on lunch and coffee breaks mostly goes to vacations. Like almost everything else in France, this area, too, is more complicated than it should be, but the upshot is that I have five weeks of proper vacation every year and what amounts to an additional five weeks of another type of vacation: Since the official work week in France is 35 hours but we actually work 40 hours, I get half a day of free time saved up per week. Or something.

So this is what will keep me occupied for the next 18 months, after which I intend to see what the French retirement system can do for me.


path through the woods

My way to work involves a short train ride and then a 15-minute uphill walk through this forest.

office view

The view from my office window (on a rainy day). There is plenty of free space here, but new research buildings are being constructed all the time.