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Bordeaux Diaries: Navigating Week Zero


This thing of beauty, a perfect French coffee, was a welcome respite during the middle of one of the most challenging weeks I've had for a long time. This was week zero, aka postdoc launch week, when I finally made it over to Bordeaux just before the actual start of my contract. 

It was always going to be ambitious to try and find a house to rent in one week (the time I had before my husband flew back to England), but I'd spent months doing research on where we wanted to live (hence our trip in April), and assembling as much paperwork as possible in advance. However, things still turned out rather crazy; if you're thinking of doing a postdoc in France, I would most certainly advise getting as much preparation done as you can, including getting an Attestation d'Embauche (proof of income from your employer).

Our first difficulty was that, until I arrived and could confirm with the HR department at the university, I was not sure what my salary would be. I'm not talking a few Euros here and there; I'd been told by other Marie Curie fellows sums varying in the 1000s, which obviously made it difficult for us to budget for accommodation, and we ended up going with the lowest estimates, just to be safe. As it turns out (although I have no idea if this is unique to me), my actual net salary will be at the top end of what we were told, and as anyone who has heard about these fellowships knows, this is a very generous amount. It actually seems rather enormous, but on the other hand it's cost us a serious amount to move here, for only a two year contract (although I hope to stay after!), so we will now be able to regain some of these upfront costs. And this is exactly what the Marie Curies are about: encouraging mobility by making it financially feasible to move your whole life and family for just two years, and be able to fully integrate into a new research and cultural environment. 
So, after finding this out, we decided that rather than a second hand rusted bike, I could afford a lovely shiny new one!

My new means of commuting to work

The next issue we faced, once we knew our budget, was house-hunting. While my French speaking isn't bad considering the last formal lessons I had were in 1999, dealing with lots of estate agents was still a nerve-wracking proposition. As there was nothing else for it, I just dived straight in, and things turned out remarkably well. It was tricky finding a house; despite arranging several viewings, they were pretty uninspiring and some were in less-than-attractive neighbourhoods. We wanted most to live in Pessac, near it's centre, as the best compromise for us of being near the campus, close to transport into Bordeaux city centre, yet in a quiet area with outdoor space for my husband (who is having a 2 year sabbatical with me) and our cats. 
After much dashing about (frequently in torrential rain!), and many restorative coffees and patisseries, we saw one house which wasn't perfect but was the best yet, and decided to go for it. We had one last viewing booked however, so decided to check it out... and this turned out to be the dream house we'd been hoping for. We were literally signing the application papers at the viewing when another couple arrived to see it, so we had to dash back to the agency to put down a deposit to secure the house.

It was at this stage that I proudly took out the fat dossier of paperwork I'd assembled to begin the process of becoming tenants, and then promptly ran into a brick wall of French tenancy bureaucracy. Essentially, even though I had proof of ID, employment and ample income, because we did not have some French versions of documentation (impossible to get in England), plus the government guarantor scheme for postdocs was not admissible for some reason, we were told that they would need one whole year's rent put in a blocked account as security. To cut the story short, we were able, just, to avoid this awful outcome by the extremely generous intervention of my new boss: with his help (acting as the diamond guarantor that most French people are required to have, but who must themselves be French), we were able to get things sorted out.  So now we have a few bits of paperwork to finish up, and then at the end of August should be moving into the new house.
Phew! Here is a picture of a delicious tartelette aux framboises to cheer us all up after that, just typing it out again is bad enough!


In the meantime, after this was sorted (only yesterday!), we could finally relax knowing that the biggest hurdles were passed. And as it turned out, yesterday was the summer solstice, which in France is known as Fete de la Musique, something I'd not heard of, which is a kind of anarchic festival of music and performance, where seemingly half the city comes out into the streets to enjoy huge amounts of free live music. Every square (and there are a lot in Bordeaux) had something going on, as well as the dozens of impromptu DJs that set up on street corners, raves going on in the patisserie shops and even apparently a Basque social centre opening its doors to show off its choir signing folk songs. That's not even mentioning the random Scottish bagpipers we saw invading a packed restaurant (where we ate on our last visit), and playing at full blast, and the insane sea of people filling the main city centre shopping street (Rue Ste Catherine, the longest in Europe), to dance to an amazing samba band who were still going strong four hours after we first saw them! Here are some photos of the madness...

Basque choir

Pipers invading the restaurant

Crowd watching the pipers

People even up against the windows to see what's going on!
 
Eastern-European style band with enormous tubas dancing on s stage
Crowds stretching off down Rue St Catherine

Amazing huge sculpture, actually really thin but the face seemed to jump out as you moved around it.

Place de la Bourse
Lovely river and moon
We've felt so welcomed here already by my colleague Brad Gravina, who took our minds off the stress with a great night out for beers, and also by my supervisor, Jean-Paul Raynal, who invited us to an excellent lunch at his lovely house, including some delicious cheese from the research project study area! 
More to come soon after I've got into the swing of working next week and hopefully will have some more information about the project itself. I'll leave you with a photo of something that was a wonderful surprise when I went into the lab for the first time on Friday (bad quality as took in on my mobile phone in my excitement!):

I defy anyone to not be excited at their first name-on-office moment!







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