Saturday, 19 June 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

This entry has been a long time coming, for a whole bunch of reasons. I have alluded beforehand to the subject of problems that foreigners have working overseas. I kept putting it off because each time I attempted to write on this particular matter, I ended up descending into sweeping generalizations about the locals (which is boring, and it's been done to death by scummy nincompoops in various print media), or go into detailed explanation about how there are moments just before going to sleep or waking up whereupon a moment's reflection on my current situation nearly manifests itself into a "WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE?" cold sweat scream (which is depressing, and it's been done to death by scummy nincompoops in various print media). And that's not the route I want to go down, naturally. But after visiting both Shanghai in December and Paris in March I feel as though I can come back to this topic, and subsequently tackle those two issues.

What am I trying to get at, you might ask? Well my overarching point is that, regardless of where you are, or wherever you go, you're still going to have problems. So without further ado, the following are the three main differences which stuck out during my little Parisian jaunt that support my observations.


Yes, Eurodisney is just outside Paris – but there’s no point in going. Paris is kinda like London – people of all creeds and colors have descended on the place, and a short trip on its metro (which is rather unnerving as it is not a particularly smooth form of travel) is like seeing every single nationality in the world in one go. And they are all really, really well dressed to boot. Had I not brought the jacket I’m wearing in the photos on flickr, I’d have felt like a right arsehole wandering the streets.

Conversely, Moscow is predominantly white, and their fashion sense leaves much to be desired. Blame communism for that one (the clothes, not that it’s all whitey).

In addition, there’s an undercurrent of accepted racism in Russia, but delving into that topic would mean revisiting how scummy the police are here and their habit of beating to death anyone with remotely non-European features. That’s not to say Paris doesn’t have its own problems with race.


Hearing about the flat-finding process in Paris genuinely shocked me. Central (“traditional”) Paris, which is made up of twenty arrondissements (districts), is demarcated by the Peripherique ring road. Here’s a map:

From what I learned, trying to build/bulldoze any property in central Paris is a big no no, as it is either protected as a World Heritage site (granted, the buildings are pretty, feel free to look at the stupid number of photos I took on flickr) or the level of French bureaucracy makes the whole thing not worth a developer’s while.

What does this mean, then? It means that the housing market is heavily steeped in the landlord’s favor. Why? Because, in reality, there is only a certain amount of places available within the Peripherique. It’s not like Moscow, where Mayor Luzhkov will happily allow his fugly wife to knock over several acres of people’s homes to make way for obscene skyscrapers and further dilute the market.

As such, people seeking flats to rent anywhere in twenty of Paris’ central districts – forget about buying a property – have to accept the appalling fact that they will not only have to pay an exorbitant sum of money per month (if they even get a place), but will also need to fork out some serious cash up front as a deposit.

When my friend told me this (I may have the exact specifics wrong, as we were probably drinking red wine at the time, but the figure is not an exaggeration) to get a two-room flat along with another fellow, he had to pay a year’s rent in advance as a deposit up front. How much is that, you ask? At least TEN THOUSAND EURO.

Never in my life have I heard anything as bad as that. I lived in Glasgow for four years, been screwed around by dodgy Bangladeshi landlords, letting agencies, energy companies, and even the goddamn city council on more than one occasion – but they were mere trifles compared to my friend’s experience.

Still… those boulangeries…

On my side, I’ve had few problems finding a flat in Moscow, and I don’t really have any horror stories to tell of. There are a bunch of expat-friendly websites (,, that can facilitate the flat/roommate-finding process. Agents are generally efficient and abundant as well, though some landlords will happily try to fuck over clueless Westerners.


Within the first few minutes of walking around Paris, it became absolutely clear that the French did not have a revolution just so they could clean up dog shit. There is a frightening amount of the stuff. Not so much in the fancier parts of central Paris like the Marais or Montmarte. Yet up until that point, I couldn't recall the last time I'd stepped in crap on a city street. It's not happened to me in Moscow, that’s for sure, likely due to the fact that the migrant street cleaners do an insanely good job at keeping the place tidy. Having said that, I will likely step in some after I’m finished with this post.

But Moscow has its own dog issues - strays. And I don't mean the saccharine "Aww look at the fuzzy wuzzy's widdle face." I'm talking about actual packs of dogs that occupy courtyards and parks around apartment blocks. Dogs that put families off from taking their children anywhere near the playgrounds. Dogs that roam the streets and will actually attack passersby. Dogs that aren’t pets, they’re vermin.

Sure, bleeding heart liberals kick up a fuss about the city administration rounding them up and exterminating them (I believe there was a big surge prior to last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which Moscow hosted) as a temporary solution but, pray tell, what’s the alternative? Implementing that unrealistic neutering program that was much talked about?

Thankfully, a phenomenon already exists that partially deals with the flea-ridden mongrels – the weather. Come winter, temperatures drop so low that the majority of mutts simply get killed off, only to start breeding like rabbits and quickly tear up the city again come springtime.

In case it’s not clear from reading the last two paragraphs – my stance on Moscow’s stray dogs is pretty firm. I’d rather have a dead undomesticated animal on my conscience than being witness to a friend or coworker being attacked in front of me. I’ve been fortunate enough that such a thing hasn’t happened, but coworkers have shared too many stories to simply brush it off as an unlikely occurrence…

…Anyway, what I mean by all this is that Moscow has problems, but so does Paris. As an expat working abroad, you might think that you can run amok with a bottle of stout in defiance of the locals. For a brief amount of time, at least in Moscow, it’s possible to do so. But it comes to a point where you realize that the place is not perfect, and suddenly the idea of working in Paris becomes appealing.

However, having spent so much time in Paris – which was a bit of a mistake on my part, but I was damned if I was going to fart around Moscow for two weeks – and seeing what my friends’ lives are like there, they’re not much different to my own. They too sometimes get fed up with their surroundings.

I have managed to accept the fact that the brief sensations of loneliness and the doubts about my current way of life are not exclusive either to me, or to my location – be it Moscow, Paris, Shanghai, Glasgow or Belfast. It’s a given that has to be tolerated. Those that can’t and move on to the next place invariably end up going through the motions again once the novelty has worn off.

As such, I feel I can officially lay this topic to rest and move on to writing about something more meaningful – like Moscow’s numerous stripclubs.

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In other news, there was a gay pride march (sort of – it was more like small groups of people streaking, but fully clothed and holding placards in various places for a few minutes at a time) on the day of the Eurovision Song Contest, but Peter Tatchell didn’t get punched this time by a Moscow riot cop, so no one cared too much.

I also had a wisdom tooth removed, which made me a bit cranky. My hot water went off the day after it got extracted. Double trouble.

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