Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving wrap-up

So, Thanksgiving went off without a hitch. I've been processing the leftovers and weening myself off of the tryptophan this weekend, and feel it's about time to share some pictures from the big day. The turkey went in around 2:30 pm on Thursday afternoon, and besides giving it a little butter basting every now and again, I kept it simple. I can't remember exactly what time it was ready, but it was ready on time! As the guests trickled in, the serving table started filling up quickly - sweet potatoes, mac 'n cheese, twice-baked potatoes, Trader Joe's stuffing, homemade dinner rolls, exotic salad, cheesecake, caramel apples, baguettes, champagne and enough wine to satisfy any Parisian - nothing was missing from our feast! And, it was seriously all delicious. I could not have imagined a better way to spend my first Thanksgiving in Paris. It was simply a perfect evening, and I'm thankful for the group of friends who made it so.

For a much more eloquent summary of our feast, you can hop over to read what Juliet and Tamara had to say.


It's done!

Gui's first Thanksgiving and he gets to carve the turkey!

Pot o' mashed potatoes.

The spread.


Showing our happy (albeit, blurry) faces.

The day after - my leftover plate. :)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Two days and counting!

Today, didn't start out particularly well. I was nearly late to my phonetics class, in which we had our first test on pronunciation. I haven't been to this class in two weeks (we were off for holidays and I had the my immigration stuff to deal with, so I'm not a complete slacker), so under-prepared is hardly sufficient to describe how ready I was for the test. In the end, I couldn't answer half of the questions and cringed at the sound of my voice trailing off into mumbles through the laboratory ear-phones. It sucked. But, apparently Tuesday is a favorite day among teachers for testing so my grammar teacher decided to hand us a three-page writing test not long after class that began. The test questions weren't too difficult, but I was taking my time answering them which left me with three minutes to finish an entire page of work when our time was up. By the time the clock struck noon, I had successfully bombed two tests.

But, there's nothing like some holiday cheer to turn a frown upside-down. And, when I saw these beauties outside my neighborhood grocery store, I couldn't help but feel merry.


After class, my sweet mother-in-law scooped me up from our apartment and we shuffled off to Auchan to pick up the big bird that I'm going to roast on Thursday. I've been so worried about this turkey - Will it be fresh? Will it be big enough? Will it fit in my oven...in my fridge? - but, my belle-mère took care of the talking and the voilailler handed over a magnificent turkey for our special day. It was fresh from this morning and ready for baking. And, perhaps the best part is that it cost a mere third of what I would have paid at an American specialty shop in Paris. I skipped out of the store with my 8kg (read: 16 lbs) turkey in-hand and a Texas-sized smile. The holidays and food make me so happy! As soon as I came home, I gave the bird a nice look over and crossed my fingers that it'd fit in the roasting pan I bought.

And it did! I quickly arranged her in the oven to be sure it was big enough. And it was! That's a turkey what was meant for Thanksgiving, and I can't wait to get started!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Training Day

Today, I attended my first "civic training day" as part of the requirements to fulfill my integration contract with France. It's a day-long class that outlines the basic values and principles of life in France that must be observed in order to live here, and it explains the various French institutions that govern and guide the country. I had little hope that I'd be able to stay awake, much less attentive during the 8-hour training, but I went prepared with my documents and armed with caffeine to give it my best. Since I live outside of Paris-proper, I was requested to attend the class in Nanterre, which is just outside La Defense and kind of a pain-in-the-neck to get to from our place (especially early in the morning). Nonetheless, I woke up on time and headed out the door with fifteen minutes spared for inevitably getting lost in the black hole that is La Defense. But, despite my good intentions to make it to training day in a timely fashion, I was late. In keeping with my recent bus luck, the bus to the tramway did not arrive when the "real-time" indicator indicated, but instead, 10 minutes later. And, when I finally arrived at La Defense, it was already 5 minutes 'til, and the second bus was (you guessed it) late by five minutes. Luckily, I wasn't the only one running behind, and when I arrived at 9:20, the class hadn't even started.

I was a little skeptical about the guy leading the training course. He was oddly dressed in a purple corduroy button-up, faded black jeans with a homemade hem, a Brighton-style leather belt, white sport socks and shiny, black shoes. He unenthusiastically gave us a breakdown of the day's schedule, cursing and then tossing out the dry-erase markers that stopped working after each new word (it seriously irks me when people throw perfectly good writing utensils away because they don't understand how they work!). And after a minute or two of unsuccessful attempts to turn his his Power Point presentation into a slide show, he announced that it was time to start the class. He asked us to give a short description of ourselves - our name, our ville, our home country and our profession. I was the only American, but there was a large group of (loud) Slovakians accompanied by a translator, quite a few Moroccans and a couple of North Africans.

After our intros, class began, and my initial skepticism flew out the window. Even though I couldn't understand every single word our civic trainer was spouting, I was seriously captivated by all the information he was so passionately filling my brain with. He knew his stuff. And, it was so easy to listen to him rattle off dates and names on a subject that we all had some previous (albeit limited) knowledge of. It probably helped that he started by giving us a full history lesson of the world, starting with prehistoric times. I never really liked History class (I know, gasp!!), but for once I was really curious. He talked of Vikings and Barbarians, of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, and of the migration of humans across the world. The time flew. He talked right through our first scheduled break without anyone taking notice, until the antsy young immigrant sitting to my right asked if we could have a p'tit pause. By the time lunch arrived (nothing fancy, just some chicken, fries, salad and yogurt), we had barely covered the Moyen Age!

He covered a lot of important French milestones in history, but for the most part I felt like he was giving more of a European history lesson than a French civic lesson. When he finally got to the fifth (current) Republic, it was 3:30 and we were due for our second break. As thorough and interesting as his presentation was, I think it would've served the training more to be a little less long-winded. I appreciated the random trivia and interesting anecdotes he threw out, but towards the end of the day, I was getting tired of all the tangents, and both my neighbor and I were getting annoyed with all the Etats-Unis d'Amerique comparisons he was so blatantly making.

Still, training day was far better than I expected, and I felt like I came away with more knowledge about France (and Europe) than I had before. I learned that a good way to become the president of France is to be Prime Minister first; that the executive branch of government never deals with issues of justice; that Versailles had something like 6000 servants and workers for its 2000 residents. And, perhaps the most interesting thing I learned is that regular "encounters" with a mistress is good for the health of a king, and thereby French men, in general (or at least it was). Which really explains a lot about the basic principles of life in France.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hey, look Mom! Snow!

Central-Texans can always remember the last time it snowed. Sure, there was that frosty mush in February 2004, but the last time it really snowed in Austin was back in 1985...or something. My mom has pictures of a fat, three-year-old me, bundled up in a pink coat and matching knit bonnet, sitting in a heap of white next to a two-foot snow man. I'll have to dig up that picture and post it someday. Today, we had the opportunity to snap a few photos of our own in the snow (but they didn't really turn out). There were no heaps of white covering cobblestone, but there was enough snow to make me feel like a kid who's never seen snow. And, since I can't really remember that day in 1985, I'd say that seeing snow for the first time from the warmth of your own living room window is really like seeing it for the first time. I'm pretty sure it snowed in Kansas and Dallas once while I was visiting family, too, but my excitement and awe never abate, and it somehow feels different now that I live here. I suppose if I'd grown up in a colder climate, or went skiing instead of sunbathing for the holidays, I'd feel less enamored by it all. But, I didn't. Neither did my mom, and since it's her birthday today, I called her the moment I laid my eyes on the falling snow (which was something like 6 AM for her) to wish her a happy birthday and share my childish excitement. Of course, she was still in bed and didn't answer her phone, but I left the standard ten-minute message and am looking forward to our conversation this evening.

Happy birthday, mum! Thank you for always radiating your young spirit, musical personality and infectious smiles. And, thanks for the snow. I love you!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Getting my feast on

Next week, Gui and I are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, and I've been going crazy trying to prepare for the big meal. I've never even roasted a chicken before, but I've decided I'm going to tackle an 8 kilogram (read: 17 lbs) turkey, cornbread stuffing, gravy, greenbean casserole and possibly mashed potatoes. Am I out of my mind? Quite possibly. Besides the fact that our apartment has never catered a full meal to more than five people at a time, I've actually never cooked even a regular meal for more than five people. My poor mom has been inundated with crazy emails from me, begging for recipes and helpful hints on how to give a proper Thanksgiving meal to a houseful of hungry expats. This weekend, I'm planning on doing a "trial run" with a roasted chicken and a small batch of stuffing to get myself into the spirit and make sure I don't forget anything for the big day. I am really excited, though. I LOVE Thanksgiving - the food, the people, the music!

It's true that finding all the tools and foodstuffs necessary to replicate the traditional November meal is quite the challenge in Paris, but I've been pretty lucky to find almost everything I need. We had to special order a turkey since "turkey season" in Paris doesn't start until mid-December (who knew?). I'm crossing my fingers that the big bird will be able to fit into our French-sized oven, which, it seems, is measured by volume and not linearly (because it's important to know how much liquid can fit into an oven, apparently). I plan on subbing (or recreating) a few things as well because as much as I'd like the convenience of poultry seasoning and pumpkin spice, I'm not really so keen on paying 9 euros for a 0.65-ounce canister. If there's a lesson to be learned by living far away from the (culinary) comforts of home, it's definitely how to be innovative.

Gui and I are also trying to reorganize our living room to better accommodate our guests. The thing about living in a Parisian-sized apartment, it's that's it's all about the arrangement of furniture (and the placement of walls, which we unfortunately can't change as renters). We've got a lot to do and plan this weekend, and with the unfortunate schedule that I inherited for my French integration formations next week, I've got even more reason to make the most of this weekend's time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Integration Day

So, today I signed my "Integration Contract" with the French government. It went much more smoothly than I expected, but unlike my friends who live mere meters from me in Paris proper, I didn't get my actual carte de sejour handed over to me when it was all said and done. I'll still need to wait to receive a convocation from the prefecture to pick up my card once I've completed the obligations of my contract.

It was pretty much like any immigration "welcome day" would be. My appointment was at 8AM, which required a sleepy me to get get up two hours earlier than usual, but I made the most of it and picked up some warm, freshly-baked choquettes at the boulangerie on my way there. I arrived at the ANAEM office about fifteen minutes early, and had to stand in the foyer with about 20 other early-birds before the clock struck 8:00. Everyone seemed to be moody and pushy, and when the guy finally opened the doors for us to trickle in, it turned into a stampede of sorts. Each of us presented our convocation letters and were sent to separate rooms named after musical composers - I got Verdi, and ended up in a room of mostly couples, a few very young looking guys, one blond woman and a couple who apparently thought they were the only ones in the room when they decided to start talking and laughing like they were in their living room at home. After an introduction about how the day would pan out for us, we were shown a short video about the integration process in France (during which someone had to tell the noisy couple to shut the hell up because the death-stares coming from everyone else weren't working). Everyone working at the place (save the dude who was sorting us into rooms and yelling "putain, ça suffit!" at his co-worker) was really helpful and surprisingly pleasant. No one seemed to hate their job, and things went smoother than I expected during the three-and-a-half hours I was there. They even had fresh brewed coffee, which was a first in my experiences with French administrative offices.

After the video, we were called individually to meet with someone for an personal assessment of our "Frenchness." I sat down across a desk from a girl who looked about my age; she asked me to verify my name, nationality, marital status, address, languages spoken and education level. I didn't realize it then, but she was assessing my language skills to determine if I'd need French classes. She handed me a paper that had a place to fill out my name and contact info, and five fill-in-the-blank questions with a word bank of five words that included petit déjeuner, marché and reçoivent. Below that question was a question asking me to describe what my favorite meal is using at least five words. If I could write my name and address, I received 10 points, 30 points for the fill-in-the blanks, 30 for my favorite meal, and 30 for my ability to speak French. It was such a joke. I asked her if this was the only assessment that would determine if I'd be offered language lessons, and she told me that I speak fine, and don't need any classes since I'm not a debutante (i.e. total idiot who doesn't know how to spell my name or address). But, I realize I'm lucky to be able to "afford" language classes on my own, so I let the idea of getting free French lessons die, and I asked her about getting help to find a job. I think it surprises people to hear that I've had trouble finding a job. I'm not sure that it's really easy for people to understand how I can speak English perfectly and French at an intermediate level yet still not land a paying position. It's true, that just like living in the States, I could probably find someone to hire me to do something, but until recently, my French was barely passable for an interview. Even after giving me a funny look, the nice government employee told me that I should sign up with ANPE (the unemployment agency that works as an employment agency) and see if I could find a suitable job with my level of French, and if it didn't work out, they'd redirect me to ANAEM for further assessment. I was satisfied with that, knowing that I would be more serious about my job search after finishing my French classes, so I signed on the dotted line to bind my contract with France.

Then, I was escorted down to the medical room where I was ushered through the weight and measuring station (I've lost three pounds), the eye-test station (20/20, baby - with contacts), and then asked to strip from the waist up in a fitting room until someone emerged from the back door to take my chest x-ray. I was happy that they provided a blue, gauzy smock that kept me mostly covered, and overall it was pretty painless. After redressing, I was called in to see a doctor who asked me to once again take off my top, but let me keep my bra on. He took my blood pressure, did his stethoscope routine while I got dizzy from inhaling and exhaling deeply, and then asked me to redress so we could chat about my health. He asked me if I had my vaccines - "uh, yeah, I think so." I really can't remember the last time I had a vaccine or who gave it to me, so I wouldn't even know where to ask. He gave me a short lecture on making sure I get the appropriate tetanus vaccine every ten years and suggested I get my vaccination history during Christmas. He asked if I had any health problems, take any drugs or smoke. He asked if I did sports - to which I may have answered too quickly with a "no." I wanted to take it back and tell him that I've never walked so much before in my life, but it was too late and he was already giving me a lecture about needing to get proper exercise. So, I promised him I'd get back into Bikram Yoga [after the holidays, duh]. We chatted a bit about getting a job and about speaking French, and then I was done. On the way out, I was tempted to grab a female condom out of the jar at the check-out desk because I've seriously never seen one before, but I decided to Google it when I got home instead.

What I forgot to mention about my binding agreement with France is that I'm now required to sit in on two full-day (9 to 5) classes - one on French culture and one on French administration. What sucks about this, is that they're both next week, and not only do I have a phonetics exam and tons of new stuff going on in my grammar class, but it's Thanksgiving week! I planned to get so much done during the few days before the big day in preparation for Thursday, but instead of cooking cornbread and prepping veggies, I'm going to be stuck in a class learning about how the prefecture works. That really sucks! It just bothers me that going next week doesn't even guarantee that I'll have my carte de sejour before my recépisse expires AGAIN, meaning there's another dreaded trip to the prefecture in my near future. The way I see it, the only possible way these mandatory classes will be worth it is if they can offer insider tips on how to avoid French administration...or at least now to get what you need in less time.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I missed the bus

Today, I woke up early without hesitation for the first time in a long time. Not enough can be said about the great things a good night's sleep can do for the body and mind. I felt rested and not rushed, and I was even in a chipper enough mood to check emails and make some toast for myself and Gui before heading out the door on time.

We live about two bus-stops away from the metro, and I try to catch the bus if I see it approaching since it usually shaves about five minutes off of my commute time. This morning, I saw the bus approaching the stop and since I hadn't yet made it in front of the stop, I sprinted across the street, waving my hand knowing the bus driver had seen me since I was literally running in front of the bus. The bus jerked, stopped, and I slowed down, smiled and pulled out my Navigo as I approached the now-closed doors. Then, the bus pulled away. I waved my arms thinking the driver must have thought I was running for some other reason, but the woman commanding the wheel pretended not to see me, glanced away from the doors and drove off. What. A. B*tch! There is NO possible way that she could have not seen me - I was dashing across the street, in PLAIN view of the bus' gargantuan windshield, running up to the front doors of the bus when she turned her head to drive off. The bus was still stopped when I arrived at the doors. Only a jerk would have driven off.

Luckily, the bus comes about every five minutes, so I decided to cool down and wait for the next one instead of walking to the metro. I don't know why, but I was really furious. Maybe it's because I always see bus drivers give others a break and pick people up who are nowhere even near the bus stop. Maybe it's because after how great my day had begun, I was just expecting the world to be a better place this morning. Maybe it's because the driver was a woman and, though I've never met a woman who lived up to the "French woman" reputation, I suddenly felt like the stereotype now held some validity. But, I didn't want it to, and it pissed me off that this stupid bus driver had to be the one to question my otherwise disbelief in the cruelty and coldness of an entire female citizenry.

I jumped on the next bus, still questioning the motives of the mean driver who didn't stop. I tried not to over-analyze the situation, but the whole thing put me in a reflective and doubtful mood. Then, while changing metro lines, I saw this:


...and I suddenly had my happy morning back.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Babies

This is definitely the year of babes in my group of friends. Three of my girlfriends from home have had or will be having a baby for the first time before the new year (although it wouldn't be a stretch if one of them held out into the first day or two of 2009). Having a kid was never something I ever aspired to do. That is, if one does aspire to bear children. I always swore I'd be single and childless at age thirty, living the great single life in a big city, doing as I please, answering to and for no one but myself. Funny how things change, isn't it? It's still sometimes strange to think that I'm married, that I am a wife. It's even stranger to think of myself becoming a mother. Generally, I've always gotten along well with babies and kids, kind of like I have with cats and dogs. When my nephews were born and I swaddled them in my arms for the first time, my heart swelled with love unlike it ever had before. Is it even possible to share such a full heart with a kid of my own?

Before getting married, Gui made it clear to me that he wanted to someday become a father. I've never had the "baby fever" that it seems everyone else gets, but coming from a large family, it still feels natural to think of growing a family. Over the past few months I've become really curious about motherhood, and I've found my mind drifting off into my hypothetical life as a mom. I see moms with with strollers on buses and metros and I think of how exhausting it must be to be a mom in this city. I notice young kids waiting at the bus station or hopping on the metro alone and I admire their independence yet question if I'd ever be able to trust my own offspring to tackle this big city alone. I walk by the kids in the park with their mothers or their nannies and wonder if we'll have to hire a nanny. I read the blogs of expat moms in bilingual families and speculate how we might one day communicate as a family. It's all stuff that I never pondered before, things that seemed so far off in time they weren't worth even thinking about. It's rather exhausting to consider all the possibilities, all the logistics and energy that must be go into being a parent. Can someone ever really be ready? I guess if we want to have a kid in three years, it might be a good idea to start our research and preparations now.

Although Gui and I aren't looking to add to our family today or tomorrow, I feel that "someday" is quickly morphing into "soon," and that makes me both curious and anxious. We've gone as far as thinking of names (boy names are so hard to come up with), but we haven't settled on how many kids make an ideal family (I have a feeling we won't settle on this until after we successfully have one). We've also talked about where the best place would be to raise our hypothetical kid(s), which is proving to be a harder question to answer than it seems. I can't imagine being pregnant without the massive support system of friends and family that I have in the States. Not to mention the physical challenges I'd have to overcome if we're still living in Paris. And, what about health care and education and language and cultural activities? So much to consider. So. Much. But, thankfully, I still have some time to do my homework and pick the brains of my girl friends back home. I'm sure by the time we're ready to take the plunge into parenthood, they'll be old pros and will have a fair share of advice and knowledge to share with us. And, then during their prepubescent years, we'll be shipping our kids off to each others' homes for a yearly cultural exchange of sorts. Although, maybe it's still too early to start planning how I'm going to get rid of my adolescent kid.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sunny days in Normandy

We had such magnifique weather during our short stay in Normandy. Although Saturday only provided a few short hours of brilliant sunlight, Sunday gave us an entire day of bright, blue skies, perfect for a trip to see the famous cliffs of Étretat. After a trip to the marché, we took the hour-and-a-half long ride from Caen, passing through the stunning Normandy Bridge, several toll roads and fall foliage to the quaint, but bustling beach-side town of Etretat. Even though I wasn't quite dressed for rock-climbing, the prospect of viewing the seemingly endless pebbled beach from atop the massive cliff was too tempting to pass up. So, 270+ steps we climbed to the highest point, and when the wind had become too much to bear, down we came. We stopped in town for some warm drinks at a 237 year-old hotel before heading back in the general direction of Caen (it doesn't take much to get a little lost in Basse-Normandie) where we and our hosts prepared a full-on feast.

We spent our last day of vacation hanging around Caen's city center, shopping, gorging on top-notch, local cheese, and playing competitive poker. Gui and I also spent some of the day pondering ways in which we could become neighbors with our Normand friends. It's strange how the company of truly fantastic people, great food, and good times can make a place feel like home. I know I said this last time we visited Normandy, but I can't help but repeat my apparent aspiration to live there. Coming back to Paris, the furor and commotion of daily life shocked me back into the reality of living in the big city, and my serious thoughts of a slower life dwindled into a simple reverie. Even though we'll keep the possibility of moving away from Paris at the back of our minds, there's still a lot to focus on accomplishing here. So, for now, my memories and these pictures will have to suffice.

Enjoy!

At the marché, enjoying an Américain (sausage in a baguette, topped with fries).

Heading toward Normandy Bridge.

The view from the beach.

Juliet and the view from the cliff.

Magnificent.

To get an idea of how massive the beach and cliffs are, notice how tiny the people look on the beach.


Where we stopped for an afternoon drink.

This place was opened in 1871!

Dessert is served.

Shopping in Caen.

A little dinner and poker on our last night.

Monday, November 10, 2008

FAIL

As you can see, I failed to post yesterday which means I've failed my first attempt at NaBloPoMo. Even though it wasn't for the real deal, it's still a little disappointing. I had every intention of posting some pictures yesterday, but the memory card reader our hosts have wasn't working. So, after a couple of glasses of wine and an exhausting day, I made the decision to skip a day of posting. Being on vacation is not really conducive to daily blogging; we're staying in our friends' home, hoping to be social and enjoy their company and appreciate their hospitality while we can, and sitting on the computer for any length of time just feels kind of rude. If I had toted along my laptop, I'd definitely feel less guilty about blogging before bed or early in the morning while everyone else gets ready. But I didn't, and I'm not too sad that I opted out of a day of blogging to simply enjoy my vacation, the company of friends and the lack of obligation. (In case you're wondering, everyone's napping now, so I'm not being antisocial as I type this.)

I'm still going to try to get something up everyday, but I think NaBloPoMo is really about getting bloggers' creative juices flowing, and that, I can say it has heartily accomplished.

As for the vacation, we've been really enjoying ourselves. Yesterday was absolutely beautiful and we checked out some beautiful cliffs, old architecture and dined on an incredible meal. Pictures are forthcoming, and I expect to be back here posting about our last couple of days in Normandy tomorrow. I don't want to leave this place!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A day in Granville

We've been having an absolute blast on our trip so far (not that anything less is expected from such amazing hosts). Today, we went into Granville, had a galette lunch, enjoyed the two hours of sun, visited Christian Dior's house and spent the evening at home with drinks and games and drinking games. I love vacation! Needless to say, I'm not giving up anymore of my vacay time to write a post, so my go at NaBloPoMo will have to be satisfied with a picture post. Enjoy!

Tasting some macarons after dinner. Passion fruit/milk chocolate & caramel fleur de sel won.

Gui waiting to head out in the rain.

The hearth with bacon & steaks grilling - where we stopped for lunch.

Granville - the sun is about to make its debut.

The casino on the beach - Granville.


An old German bunker.

The kids overlooking Granville.

A super narrow alleyway that we're apparently really excited about.



Christian Dior's old home - it was closed, but we got to stoll through the gardens.

Perfume sampling in the garden.


Gui taking a pick out of John Galiano's nose.


A bust of Christian Dior in his rose garden.

The sun finally came out and brought out a great light; the leaves were gorgeous.

A cemetery outside the Dior compound - overlooking the channel.

It turned out to be a beautiful day in Granville.