Something I will miss from Paris...

I will never forget how a few weeks after I arrived in the French office, I suddenly heard a weird noise from outside. We are on the 10th floor so it was quite loud and it was a sound I couldn't identify.

I went to have a look through the window and to my astonishment it was a group of horses who walked calmly in the street! My guess is that they are trained to get used to cars and noise for when they participate in parades.

Yesterday we heard the noise again as we were walking towards a restaurant in our lunch break and my colleague took a picture. This is probably the last time I will see them and that makes me a bit sad! Unless there are some horses that need to be trained in Cincinnati too of course :)

Here you go - impressive, no?


An empty book

13 more days in Paris. Suddenly our departure is coming closer quickly. In less than two weeks we’ll be sat in a plane that will take us to Cincinnati, Ohio. In the United States of America. Yes, sir!

Our agendas are more or less empty for now, which is scary and amazing at the same time. It’s a future waiting to be written, like a blank book with empty pages.

The main characters will be my husband and I – that’s for sure. And that’s why this won’t be a sad, lonely story, full of homesickness. We’re in this together, as we were before in London and Paris. It will also mean some parts of the book will be written in Dutch, just to make sure we don’t forget our mother tongue :)

The story will be set in Cincinnati, along the Ohio river.

The first chapter will definitely include the start of new jobs, househunting, Christmas and New Year celebrations, an ice-hockey game and some gym classes (just in case we like the American diet).

That’s all we know for sure.

Who will be the other characters: our friends, colleagues, neighbours?

Where will the stories happen, in a flat in downtown Cincinnati, a little house in Covington or a bit more east in Mount Adams, Lookout…?

Which stories will we tell? It’s impossible to predict.

In any case, I promise I’ll keep you posted as we write the first chapter in this new life!


Great Voltaire quote

Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world. VOLTAIRE


Travel tips for Shanghai

The first stop in our journey was Shanghai (click here to see our full itinerary). The week before our trip was very busy at work and I think it’s fair to say some rest was needed. So for us Shanghai meant: eat well, sleep a lot, try to get into the Chinese rhythm, fight the jetlag, swim, walk around a bit.

General impression
• prepared for a culture shock arriving in China, but it didn’t come
• Shanghai = New York. You can easily forget that you are in China when you just look at the buildings.
• Lots of smog
• Everything is written in Chinese and English, easy to get around

Anting Villa Hotel, in the French concession. Great area (“European”, lots of trees, doesn’t feel like the big city), great hotel. Quite expensive (but worth it).
Donghu hotel – Donghu street. Cheaper than Anting Villa but still hotel standard. Biggest advantage is the 25m pool where we went to relax and work out. Also has a fitness. Don’t be surprised if the Chinese people don’t close the curtains in the shower room next to the swimming pool – shame doesn’t seem to exist

Simply Thai, in the French concession
Dolar Shop Hot Pot in Golden Eagle building – we met a colleague from dunnhumby China who ordered a lot of food for us. Hot pot is just a pot of cooking water with a sauce in which you put the food. It’s an interesting eating experience but it does take a long time (and a lot of effort) to get your food ready.
• Japanese all you can eat in our Donghu hotel grill your own meat. Really nice! For 150 yuan per person all you can eat & drink.
• Western food: People Square: McDonalds and Starbucks next to the Yu Garden in the Chinese neighbourhood
Grape in the French concession: decent but basic Chinese food, nice Chinese wine
• Uncle Fast Food – UFF: Chinese fastfood. Spicy meat with rice and an egg pudding to mix through your rice. An acquired taste. You should try though - we went to the one in the Shanghai Hongqiao train station

• Tube to Pudong, the modern part of town. Particularly loved the bottle opener building.
• Visit Bookazine in the bottle opener building to buy English books
• Tube to the Bund for the great skyline and the old buildings
• Walk, walk, walk and discover the more popular parts of Shanghai, with streets where they only sell music instruments
• Visit a Tesco express
• Nanjing road – not really for us, too many people, only shops
• People Square with Shanghai museum. This was free when we went there and that was a good thing because we weren’t too impressed by the collection of money, bronze, furniture… The calligraphy and Ming vases were nice though. Lots and lots of Chinese tourists
• Chinese neighbourhood. We thought we’d see the real China, but that only lasted a few streets and then it was back to a very touristy area, with the Yu-garden
• Take the train in Shanghai Hongqiao train station – the waiting room is very impressive because of the enormousness of it


Transport in China

To get there: flight with Aeroflot
We flew with Aeroflot from Paris to Shanghai with a stop in Moskou. All of the really negative feedback online had scared me quite a bit. However, the flights were on time, the flight attendants were very friendly, the food wasn’t worse than expected and warm. The transfer in Moskou went smoothly and our luggage was sent immediately to our final destination. For those who wonder: you don’t need a Russian transit visa if your waiting time is under 12 hours. The in-flight entertainment is very limited (only a few screens with only 1 movie playing), but we heard about this beforehand so we took our portable DVD player – problem solved!

In China we travelled by train so we didn’t use internal flights because we wanted to see the landscape and also it’s cheaper. The trains are really easy to book:
1. look online (www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains) to find the train you need
2. write the information in English (train number, number of persons, timings, and whether you want a hard seat, hard sleeper or soft sleeper)
3. ask someone in the ho(s)tel to translate in Chinese. No one ever refused this to us, even when the ho(s)tels charge between 20 and 50 yuan to book 2 train tickets (a service we obviously didn’t use)
4. go to the train station, hand over the piece of paper. They show you on the screen what the different options are, you point at the one you want, pay and it’s done!

We tried both the hard seats and the hard sleepers, not the soft sleepers because they were ridiculously expensive (same price as a flight).

Hard seats
Hard seats are described online as the hell on earth and they are not. You are just sitting close to lots of Chinese people, mostly students and people who can’t necessarily afford the sleeper tickets. Most of the train wagons are hard seats. We did a 20-hour train trip on a hard seat, which included a night and that was a bit tough because the lights staid on during the entire trip. But for a day trip, the hard seats are fine. By the way, the seats aren’t hard, but soft, so don’t worry about that. It’s a great way to observe the Chinese :) - and don’t worry about that either, it’s perfectly ok in China to stare at people (we think, because we got stared at a lot – although that may also be because my husband wore shorts in November – something that seemed to be a first in China as we had people taking pictures of him and old ladies pointing their finger at his legs in surprise…).

Hard sleepers
Hard sleepers indicate wagons that have compartments with 6 beds in. We chose the upper and middle sleeper, not the lowest one because then you need to be very social and while that is cool for a bit, it’s a bit more difficult when you’re on a 10 hour trip and just want to read rather than practice your sign language with a nice old Chinese man. It was easy to sleep on the middle or top bunk. The lights went out around 23h and they come and wake you up when you’re approaching your stop.

The only downpoint of the trains are the toilets, which are just a hole in the ground and when you’re not used to this it takes a bit of practice (balance mainly). These “squat” toilets are also common in public places, but in all of our ho(s)tels the toilets were western. Btw did you know that in Dutch we call those "French toilets", whereas the French call it "Turkish toilets" :) Wikipedia says "squat toilets are also known as Arabic, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Iranian, Indian, Turkish or Natural-Position toilets"!

For trips in Shanghai and Beijing we used the tube, which is very modern, easy to use and cheap. The ticket machines have an option to translate everything in English. You just indicate your end stop on the screen and pay (usually 2 yuan per person per trip). You get a card which you use to get through the gates (like the Oyster in London) and at your end stop you insert your card. Easy!

What you do need to know about the Chinese is that it is extremely important for them to conquer a place to sit in the tube. So the moment the doors open, they don’t let people out first, they just storm inside and try to get a seat. The first time it’s weird, and then you just do as the Chinese. When in Rome…

In the smaller cities without a tube, we used buses very frequently. It’s again very cheap (1 or 2 yuan per person per trip) and the standard travel guides provide all necessary bus numbers. We usually did take the name of our destination with us written in Chinese just to make sure the bus went to the correct stop. I would say that the bus is for the adventurous traveller. A few examples… Our guide book said to get off at the end stop. However, the bus was going in a loop and we noticed too late so we got off way too late, at a busstop which didn’t have the corresponding bus with no one around who spoke any English. We started walking until we found a very nice hotel where someone could indicate us the direction of the correct bus stop. On another occasion we went on a day trip. We took the bus at the train station, but in the evening the bus didn’t go back to the train station, but to a bus station, at at least 1 hour walking distance from the train station… so we walked. Don’t take the bus if you can’t stand surprises like this. We didn’t mind because we had the time and again, because it allowed us to travel like the Chinese.

3 weeks in China

One of the advantages of working in France is that you get a lot of holidays. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT: 37 days (25 standard + 12 if you do a minimum of 40 hours a week)…

My principle is to use the days they give me and so for the first time in my 5 year old career (yes, already…), a 3 weeks holiday was possible!

The main trigger for this China trip was the magic of the Great Wall. “The only human element that is visible from space” – even when that’s a myth, we wanted to go and climb the Great Wall. So, we bought our tickets, and would start our trip in Shanghai and end it in Beijing.

I guess it’s safe to say that I am an organised person. For the MBTI fans, I am an ESTJ, and the J means that I feel more comfortable when things are planned, when I know what will happen. This China trip was an exercise in getting out of my comfort zone, because with all the “relocation to Cincinnati” stuff going on, we didn’t plan anything.

Ok, that’s perhaps a bit exagerated, this is what we had when we left:
• Plane tickets to Shanghai and leaving from Beijing 3 weeks later
• China visas, valid for a month
• 3 first and 3 last nights booked
• a draft itinerary
• an emergency internet address of a hotel in each of the cities on our itinary
• emergency medication mainly for stomach ache and some antibiotics

You may think this is very organised, but it’s not for China. Of all the people I spoke to who had been to China, most told me that it was probably not a good idea to leave like this. Well, we didn’t really have a choice as time caught up with us, so we left.

And guess what? It was perfectly fine! It was flexible, we could decide as we went along to stay just 2 nights or to stay an extra 2 days! I loved it. And we didn’t need any of the medication :)

So this is the trip we did:
• Shanghai – 4 nights
• Hangzhou with trip to Wuzhen – 3 nights
• Xi’an with trip to terracotta warriors and Huashan mountain – 2 nights
• Pingyao – 2 nights
• Datong with trip to the Yungang grottos – 2 nights
• Beijing with trip to the Great Wall – 5 nights

This made for a very easygoing trip. You could do more in 3 weeks, but this itinerary allowed for a quiet pace, which is exactly what we wanted.

In the next posts I will tell you my impressions of each city and some travel tips.



My favourite French poem

Le chat ouvrit les yeux,
Le soleil y entra,
Le chat ferma les yeux,
Le soleil y resta.

Voilà pourquoi, le soir,
Quand le chat se réveille,
J’aperçois dans le noir
Deux morceaux de soleil.

Maurice Carême, L’arlequin, 1972