Thursday, March 31, 2016

Things That Creep and Crawl

I really do love my little cottage, but it is a small country home on a slow-moving river . . . that had been left unoccupied often outside of the summer.  So, I've become accustomed to the fact that I generally manage to let one mosquito in per night (that I then have to track and kill) and to the inevitable spiders that have come to check out my lovely warm space.

Last night, I discovered that I'd made a tragic error in leaving a small amount of flavored water in a glass in my bedroom as it had attracted . . . ANTS.  And not just a few ants, but SO, SO many ants!  Normally I can be sort of ok with ants, but in my ROOM where I'm going to SLEEP - no!

So, I removed the offending glass and sprayed a few places they seemed to be entering through . . . only for them to find another couple places.  Every time I thought there were no more ants . . . yep, more ants.

Finally, I'd sat on my bed staring at the wall for several minutes without seeing anything creep, crawl or twitch, so I decided I could safely go to sleep (at 1:30 AM).  I still sat up twice to shine my cell phone flashlight at myself and the wall CONVINCED I'd felt an ant crawling on me.

I am happy to report that I found no additional ants, no ants this morning and no ants upon my return to work.  NO ANTS!

Despite the lack of a reasonable amount of sleep, I have an actual work-related thing to post today!  During the weekly check-in call, the General Manager (top person at the French plant) said he's very happy with my progress, so that was encouraging.  Early this week I felt like I'd taken a huge step backwards and might have no deliverables to report!  Primarily, this was due to arriving with the idea that I could simply implement several things we do in the US and be done; however, I did my due diligence first in meeting with the local staff, confirming what their needs were and finding out how they were doing things currently . . . only to realize that some of their processes are better and, even where they aren't, they are different enough to require a different approach if I want my end products to actually contain meaningful data.  It was nice to hear the GM say that he actually saw this as positive since it meant they'd have a process they could use, not a cookie-cutter approach.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: Decoh Prefecture

I have to say that, aside from three things, I really liked this place.  The first occurred when I arrived as it appears that all of the staff isn't savvy to the specials being ran online and the guy at the front desk was very insistent that the price the paperwork showed was for ONE night and not TWO nights.  I had a copy of my reservation confirmation and was equally insistent that the reservation clearly showed two nights for that price (as did their own paperwork charging me 40 Euros).  I read another review talking about the same issue, so my suggestion is to stand your ground about the price you booked at.  Along the same lines, the guy sent me to the wrong building about 6 blocks away with all of my luggage, which was unpleasant.  The confusion seemed to be around the fact that I had booked a "garden view" unit and they only have 2 garden view units at the building he sent me to.  It would appear that, in a pinch, they call this a "garden view" unit:

But, along the lines of my usual criteria for reviewing a place, the bed was comfortable and I slept well while I was there . . . by using ear plugs.  This brings me to the 2nd thing I didn't particularly mind, but is worth noting - sound REALLY echoes in the entryway, so if you aren't wearing ear plugs, it is likely that every time the front building door shuts or people converse loudly in the hall, you will be woken up.  I sleep heavily and it woke me up the first night before I put ear plugs in.

At first I was wondering how these would work as student efficiency apartments with no storage space for clothes, but then I realized the mirror behind the table in the kitchen area was actually a closet sliding door and a full-size closet was available.
The flat I was in (5a) has a tiny, but typical bathroom for what I've seen in Western Europe.  It also has its own small water heater, so I never had an issue with a lack of warm water.  This brings me to the third thing that was an issue and really the most critical one.  The old plumbing must not have been designed with u-joints that trap water, which provides a barrier between your home and the sewer.  Consequently, the flat had an odd smell when  I arrived that I couldn't place until I leaned over to remove the rubber seal on the drain in the shower . . . and realized the drains were the source!  After that, I kept the bathroom door shut, which meant the rest of the flat smelled fine, but the bathroom smelled like warm sewer.  There has to be something people normally do to resolve this issue, but as I was only there for 2 days, I just kept the bathroom shut & was in & out of there as fast as possible.

Pros: Having a flat means you can live like a local (which I love!), great location - really close to the metro & just 5 min ride to the Old Port (while still being in a normal neighborhood without tourist prices), comfortable bed, great individual WiFi connection.  REALLY good breakfast at the main hotel if you're willing to pay 10 Euro and eat a lot (otherwise just grab a pastry and coffee at a local bakery)

Cons: Rooms are not as advertised (I did not have a garden view), staff seems unaware of pricing specials, you will need earplugs to sleep (at least on the ground floor), there is a plumbing issue that should be addressed - while it wasn't a big deal for one weekend, I wouldn't have been cool with a bathroom that smells like sewer for a longer stay

Significant Cultural Differences Between France and the US

While I'm sure there are numerous cultural differences between France and the US, one that immediately stands out in a business environment is that it is customary in France to go around in the mornings to greet your co-workers with a "Bonjour" and a hand shake or cheek kiss.  Of course, for us US folks, they just shake our hands and skip the kiss.  It is considered impolite not to do these things actually, so I have joined in with making my morning rounds!

Upon telling my stories about Marseille, I also learned some key differences between dating in the US and France.  While I will not be dating in France, I thought it would be fun to relay some of these differences!  In France, if a man is interested in you (and is not just interested in basically ANYONE), he will not approach you and ask you out right off.  He will strike up a conversation with you first and spend some time talking to you, so the guy who immediately tried to escort me to coffee and kept trying to hold my hand (and did NOT catch the hint that I wasn't interested) probably likes to escort a lot of girls to coffee, if you know what I mean.  The guy who struck up a conversation about photography and what I thought of Marseille prior to asking me to coffee is probably not such a bad guy.

Additionally, the concept that you could be "dating" (as in going out on dates alone) with someone in the US and NOT consider them your boyfriend or girlfriend is not a French concept . . . and at the point where you're kissing, you're DEFINITELY boyfriend and girlfriend.  You do not date more than one person at a time, although I'm told that is changing a bit with the younger generation - but largely just the younger boys will sometimes date more than one girl (girls still date only one person at a time).  Also, if a man is interested in a woman, he contacts her every day - if a French man stops contacting you daily (and you aren't in a long-term relationship already), he's lost interest and you're no longer dating.  While there are men in the US who will do the same, the idea of a guy "playing it cool" and waiting a few days to call or text is not something a French man would do.  Very simply - he likes you, he calls/texts; he doesn't like you anymore, he doesn't call/text again.

And when I say "French men" I literally mean the men.  Women's lib in France has not extended to the concept of women asking men out.  Men here are forward and persistent because it is their job to ask the woman out, to pay for the dates, to be the pursuer and it is not uncommon for women to play hard-to-get a bit.  So, you can't be polite about saying "no thanks" as you might just be looking for a little more persuasion.  You have to be blunt.

I will leave you today with a picture of my MacGyver'd covering of the little fan hole in the bathroom.  It is intended to self-propel I believe, but doesn't.  Normally, I leave it closed, but I *really* needed the house to smell more like a campfire and less like I tried to burn the place down, so a paper towel and, lacking tape, band-aids!  Ta-da!  I may not be able to build a fire, but I can let fresh air in and keep mosquitos out. :-)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Farewell Marseille! I'd Stay and Love You, but I Have a Train to Catch

As I prepared to leave Marseille today and was headed towards the Castellane Metro, I knew I needed to search for deals and book as many weekends away as is reasonably affordable.  It feels like I've been gone for considerably longer than a weekend - like I fit a full week of experience into those days.  I also feel physically exhausted, but in a good way.  Vacation is certainly good for the soul!  One thing I failed to mention previously (and a good conversation recently reminded me of) is how surprised I was on my last trip to Paris, when I stayed in a slightly residential area, and the center median was a large grass and path area (similar to the Park blocks) with numerous people sleeping in tents there.  I was reminded of this due to the sheer number of homeless people begging in Marseille.  In a country with wicked high taxes to support a strong social safety net it's really quite sad that they still have a significant homelessness issue.
The St-Charles train station was a pretty nice one as these things go.  It almost looked like a mall until you got right to the tracks.  Similarly to Paris, security was checking all boarding passes before allowing people on the train.  For those unaware, this is rather uncommon as typically someone comes through the train to scan your pass while onboard at some point.  There was also a highly visible armed presence at the station.
I was rather proud of myself, given droite is used both as part of indicating right (a droite) and straight (tous droite), that when asking where the toilets were, I correctly understood the man to say they were straight ahead until outside then to the left.  When learning a foreign language, it's really the little things!  Speaking of, the word "brassiere" in French apparently means life jacket, so I'm sure that leads to some interesting misunderstandings when they come to the US.  Spanish really does help with French though, as there are many similarities.  Such as "por que" in Spanish and "por quoi" (sounds like poor qwah) both meaning "why?"  I doubt I'd be picking up French so quickly if I didn't speak a decent amount of Spanish.

I was quite happy to find my 2nd class seats on the return train were the nicest ones so far, which kind of makes up for the crappy ones headed to Paris - especially since this was a 5 hour ride!  I was again surprised that certain areas had trash all along the sides of the rail road tracks like you'd see in an impoverished country.  The first time I rode the local train from the CDG airport to Paris I saw the same and it was indistinguishable from something you'd see in Guatemala or the Dominican.

On a more pleasant note, as I rode along I noticed an interesting pattern in that nearly every fertile valley with a hill overlooking it had a castle, fort or chateau on top.  A couple had an old church on the hill, but the remnants of a war-heavy history lives on in the fortifications on the high ground.  I wasn't able to get a good shot of one as the trains are FLYING most of the time, but here is a good shot I managed as we moved more slowly through one area.
And that wraps up my trip to Marseille!  I will note that I am now back in the cottage, where I nearly managed to asphyxiate myself trying to build a fire, which generated a whole lot of smoke, but not nearly enough actual fire (and no, I didn't not fail to open a flue).

Monday, March 28, 2016

(Mediterranean) French Men are Persistent

Despite the tourist office telling me things would be open Sunday, but not Monday (Easter weekend), many things were closed Sunday morning.  I did find a bakery for breakfast and, for the first time ever, thought I might be happy that McDonald's is everywhere (and open all the time).  Fortunately, when lunch rolled around, I didn't have to resort to McDonald's (although it's fresher and tastes better here).

I started my day by heading to Palais Longchamp, which conveniently hosts the Natural History Museum - when a city with over 300 days of sunshine dishes up a rainy day, it's clearly a sign to hit up the museums!  It also hosts a museum with paintings, which I saw due to having a free pass, but for some reason, paintings aren't my thing.  I did spend some time this trip admiring the work that would have went into achieving the right shading and getting some of the features just right though.

Ok, and back to Natural History and the "hall of taxidermied horrors."  I will say the kids seemed to like it, but it creeped me out!  I did enjoy the fossils a bit more.

The special exhibit on human evolution was really fascinating and I was surprised how complete many of the skulls were and how little they were actually guessing at - meet your ancestor Homo Ergaster!

One of my favorite things here was seeing the old palace design still intact in many areas:
I decided it was time for another historic building and went to the Vieille Charité, which had housed orphans and vagrants in the 17th century.  As it turned out, it ALSO houses museums that can be entered on one ticket. Frankly, if you don't have the historical items to fill out the interior and make for an interesting history tour, using the spaces as museums is better than letting them deteriorate. I actually only went inside originally because there was an open cafe (not knowing about the museums) - we need strawberry juice in the US by the way! 
The first exhibit of Egyptian artifacts was a bit underwhelming after what I've seen in Egypt, but they did have a good selection of items categorized based on their usage.  I didn't get any pictures of the Greek exhibit, but the special exhibit was on women in Greece and I could actually understand enough of the French to get the gist of what it was saying.  I still find understanding the speech incredibly difficult though!

Strangely for being Europe (or perhaps not, given the colonial past), some of my favorite and the most unique art came from Oceania and Africa.  First, this cool sugar skull, except it's an actual skull! 

Then, the Vanuatu, who have an impressive display of war-related items.  I particularly liked the end display - you can almost imagine them marching towards you.

The intricacy of the African wooden masks was really impressive as well.


Last, there was a French guy obsessed with Mexican art who accumulated a ton, then donated it for display. It was like a Mexican art piñata exploded!

As I headed for the Major Cathedral, this guy was making art of his own - hard to say if it was authorized as some businesses here seem to have actual artwork on their doors, not just graffiti.
While the Cathedral is under construction, my favorite view was this side showing that the 19th Century Cathedral was built into the 12th Century Roman remnants.  The front doors of the "new" Cathedral were very ornate and stunning too.
I began a desperate search for coffee at this point, which is when I discovered that asking a French man where you can get coffee  (since many things were closed) is apparently an invitation and, when you barely speak any of the same language, it's incredibly difficult to explain you weren't exactly looking for company, although he did manage to convey that the word, "Jolie" (sounds like Juli) apparently means I have a pretty face and that my refusal to hold his hand made him want to cry.  I finally decided it was a good time to catch the boat, even if Castle d'If was closed for the weather.  The fact that you can't actually have a conversation at all is no obstacle to a determined French guy, but getting on a boat does the trick.  A view from the boat and Castle d'If as we passed! 

This French guy thing repeated itself twice after, although one spoke more English and one was actually very polite and gave up a little more quickly when realizing we couldn't actually communicate.  It appears French Mediterranean men think I'm "jolie," which I might have had fun with at one point, but I'm simply not interested at this time.  It also seems that anything is an invitation - where can I get coffee?  Can you take my picture?  Or even replying with "Bonjour" when it is said to you first.  Only one was overly aggressive, but they certainly need very little encouragement!

So, onto the island!  I think most of us who ended up here had intended to go to Castle d'If as people got off the boat and sort of wandered aimlessly.  I saw a sign for a historical hospital and, upon realizing the next boat wasn't for 90 minutes, set off in search of it.  When in use in the 1800s, it housed sailors ill with yellow fever.  I thought I'd found it and took these photos before turning back.  I later learned this wasn't it and I didn't go far enough!  Considering I walked over 25 miles between catching my train in Poitiers and Sunday night, my feet definitely felt like I went far enough!
While I'm not much for urban photography, I'm looking forward to my DSLR pics of this place as I like pics of "what we leave behind."  On my way back to the boat, I figured I should finally learn what a "Calanque" is since they're a big deal here.  I wandered down a path and learned it's a inlet apparently.  I also admired this flower growing in a place known for its dry, harsh weather and out of rock no less!
And that largely wraps up my trip to Marseille as I leave Monday around noon.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Day so Big it Needed Two Posts

From the exterior, Notre Dame de la Garde has a similar style to any number of European buildings, but the views are well worth the embarrassment of the tourist train!
The interior is also worth a visit as it is quite elaborate and includes these amazing hanging boats!  At a certain point, cathedrals and castles can all start to look alike so the local touches make a difference.
After ND, I went to check out the Fort St-Jean.  There's really nothing left of the history that's explained there, so you have to find it yourself, but it provides great views of the sea.  It's also attached by a pedestrian bridge to this monstrosity:
I thought it was the art museum, but turns out it's the "civilization" museum (called MuCEM, which sounds like something you hack up).  They had a current exhibit on Algerian maps that was fascinating and explained the development of cartography and its use in invading Algeria.
I decided it was time for a brief nap because I was dragging hard!  These poor boots have logged some serious mileage here!  No worse foot fatigue than I've had with sneakers though - really love these shoes!  I've recently started investing in high-quality footwear and so far, it's worth the upgrade in price.
Here are a few quick pics of the city - cool building, France moves forward & yet doesn't forget, Metro art & Abbaye St Victor.
Also, proof people are idiots in all countries (with defacing a historical fort):
I ended my day at the Palais de Pharo, which is an administrative building now, but has large grounds that are popular with locals - from young couples holding hands to families with a picnic playing soccer to the elderly out for a stroll.
BELOW: A little piece I'd like to title, "Marseille, why do you build modern "art" so close to historic buildings?"
 View from the Palais - Fort St-Jean & MuCem
Not sure why this is needed given the many amazing viewpoints in the city, but the wheel at night: