Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bonus Post: How I Ended up Living in France

I'm in the middle of a 4 day weekend, which was critical given the hours I have been working.  Anyone who tells you that French people don't work very much has never been here!  PB and I have spent the last two weeks working until 7-9 PM every night (arriving around 8 AM) with an hour lunch.  A couple of other people have been there that late a handful of nights as well.  Of course, this isn't how it ALWAYS is, but with budgets, then month-end book close and the Senior VP of the whole plant coming right after, things have been busy!

Looking Back at the Past & My Decision to Move

I took some time over the weekend to go back and read my blog myself - it's kind of fun to remember some of the things that I found surprising when I first arrived.  One thing that I realized is that the REASON and story behind why I moved to France were missing.  Due to it being a move for work, I was required to keep it quiet until everything had been approved, so my blog didn't reflect the process that led to my decision.

The pictures in this post are of my current French house and the large lot it is on.  First, my back yard:

There's kind of a big gap because of this, so I'll tell the story now in a bonus post.  It was the weekend that I returned from England (late April) that I remember thinking, "I'm glad I'm on my way home!" and I clearly didn't mean Portland.  I let that sink in a little, but decided to give it some time.  I knew before I came to France that my company was interested in me becoming the Controller if my project went well, but even though I'd dreamed of one day living in France, it was a "I'd like to study for a term" kind of dream, not a permanent relocation!
The primary house on the property - my house is a barn conversion!  This house is also for rent, but no luck so far, so I have the land to myself!

The following weekend I was standing at the old port in La Rochelle, soaking in the sun, and received a very kind e-mail about my work from PB.  I was completely happy in this little beach town, in this moment and that's when I knew.  The small country town I lived in felt like "home" in a way that Portland never had; I was never really excited to return to Portland from vacation, but I found myself looking forward to returning to France; I would still be close to a lovely beach; my French co-workers seemed to like me and the GM, who generally doesn't work weekends, had taken the time to compliment my work (not a typical French boss thing to do).  Not only could I be happy during my personal time, but I also enjoyed the work and team here (really important given the long working hours).

Since I knew that my primary job would be performing all of the analyses and providing whatever finance support PB (aka the GM) needed, I felt it was critical to ensure that I had his support before telling Portland and Belgium that I was interested.  So, immediately upon my return from La Rochelle, I scheduled a meeting with him.  In typical French fashion, the first thing he said was, "I'd prefer a Controller who speaks French."  I assured him that I planned to learn French and he said, "Yes, but my biggest risk with you is that you will never learn French.  You might NEVER learn French!"  I thought this was a "no thanks," so I told him that I understood and I was glad I talked to him first, then stood to go.  He indicated that he wasn't done though and basically told me that he'd prefer the risk that I never learn French over the risk that he hires someone else who can't do the job properly because he was very happy with the work I was doing and my way of doing things.  Since I knew that I had his support, it was time to express my interest in the job to my Senior VP at HQ and the Director in Belgium!
While I was pretty sure I wanted to live in France by then, it was a certainty after my week in Germany.  I had a great vacation there, as much fun as I normally do (aside from a terrible cold), but I still felt excited when the train was pulling into the Poitiers station - "I'm home!"  This was never the case for me when returning to Portland; on some level, I think I've always known that Portland was not "my place," but I just wasn't sure where I wanted to go.  So, now I find myself in France, a country that feels very much like home, despite the numerous language and cultural differences!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Night on the Town in Civray and A Visit to My French Friend in La Rochelle

A Night on the Town in Civray
My American co-worker and I decided to see if there was really a nightlife in Civray.  First, we were surprised to see a little brocante shop (that she's never seen open) was open on Friday evening, so we stopped in.  The proprietor was very nice and I plan to go back now that I will have a French home to decorate.

We then headed to the beer bar for a pre-dinner drink.  There were a few people in there, but when we returned after dinner, there were several groups both inside and out.  As the evening went on a number of people came and went, with many groups still lingering when we went home after 11:00 pm.  It seems that you can go out on a weekend night and have a decent chance of socializing, although it mostly appeared to be boys barely of drinking age (18) and both men and women around retirement age.  There seems to be a limited number of people in their 30's and 40's who were out, despite being able to bring children into the bar (at all hours, regardless of food service).

La Rochelle
The next day I was off to visit my first French friend, Rita, in La Rochelle.  We wandered around the area with shops, had lunch and chatted about what was going on in our lives.  We shared some comparisons of life in the US vs France and she told me funny stories about her classmates in her training program - she's becoming a customs enforcement manager!  Part of this involves learning how to use a gun, which is a very odd thing for French people since they only own hunting rifles (if they hunt), but no other guns.  While I would have enjoyed working with her, one of the advantages to her leaving the company is that I'm not her boss, so we can be friends instead!

I had such a good time with Rita that I forgot to take any photos!  So, I will instead share a picture of my Sunday drive to one of my favorite restaurants, L'Argentor (yes, I stopped fully to take them).  The roads here are crazy narrow considering they're for two-way traffic doing 90 km/hr; I have no idea what you do if you come across a giant tractor going the opposite direction!  As you can see, it would be a challenge to get around it!

Yes, this is a 90 km/hr road

L'Argentor is popular with both the English in the area and the French.  Due to this, it can be quite busy and you may have a bit of a wait; however, it's well worth it!  The food here is exceptional every time (ok, my toast was a little burnt this time) and they cook many of the meats on the open fire.  When they are very busy though, expect to take your time - I arrived at 1 pm and wasn't ready for my café until shortly before 2:30 pm.  This was not because I'm an American either, the French weren't leaving any faster than I was!

A delicious salad, but I liked their old vegetarian version with a grain patty better
The burger appears small because it is - I ordered the "petite"

I really believe there is a reason that many cultures in the world drink a hot beverage after a meal (mint tea, green tea, coffee, etc) because one of my favorite habits in France is an espresso after a meal (decaf after dinner).  Food just seems to settle better with a nice hot drink after!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bonus Post: Counting My Blessings

I found a New Zealand woman's blog about moving to France six years ago and I can relate, in so many ways, to the various struggles she had.  She's still here six years later though, so I have faith that I can survive too!

I'm not going to sugar-coat it - there are tough moments.  The moments when you can't figure out how something works and the instructions are all in French.  The moments when a waiter babbles something at you in VERY fast French and it is outside of the list of things that you readily understand, so you stand, head slightly tilted to one side hoping your brain will slowly process it and come up with a reasonable suggestion as to the meaning.  The moments when your brain doesn't offer a solution, so you sit and a very annoyed waiter comes back and gestures at the other section of (full) tables.  Am I supposed to move there?  Clearly, I can't because they're full?  Ok, I'll leave and try somewhere else?

There are also little moments of victory when a question is asked outside the basic range and you DO understand.  The times you realize that you don't understand the whole menu, but you understand enough to order a full meal that you'll enjoy.  The moment you realize you're reading a sign or pamphlet and you understand enough to make out the general message, if not every word.

While things may not be perfect here for me, the other blog and various ex-pat boards have made me aware that many people moving to France have to deal with several other problems that I will avoid because of how my company handled my transfer.  So, the list of things related to my relocation that I am grateful for right now:

  • My work permit was processed in a week, and I was assured that it would arrive at the Consulate before my appointment, because I had immigration attorneys in France who made calls and handled everything.  They'll also escort me to the prefecture to ensure there are no issues getting my residence permit and no "language barriers," which is apparently a common problem with the government staff who issue the permits.  In contrast, I will note that the speed of the French government ended the day I arrived - my visa expires in December, but they have no appointments until FEBRUARY!!!
  • The General Manager (GM) {aka PB} of the plant has been really proactive about helping me to get my social insurance number.  Originally, we were told that I couldn't have one until my prefecture appointment (they'd still be taking the taxes from my check), but he asked our HR person to call back and I will be issued my number for temporary use until I get my Carte Vitale at the appointment.  If they hadn't found a solution, he was going to go with me on walk-in day to see if he could impress upon the government that they were hurting a French company by not resolving this.
  • While I only have a few suitcases of my own things now, my company provided a 20' container and everything that I really, really wanted to bring is on the way and will arrive in December.  It's hard to be without certain things now, but it would have been much harder if I could only bring what I could afford to ship.
  • For things it didn't make sense to bring (awkward shapes, electrical 110 volt devices), I was given an allowance to replace them.  It's really nice that my company didn't make this move a financial hardship for me.  Let's just hope all of the manuals aren't only in French!  I'm going to be in serious trouble if I can't make myself some coffee.
  • While my base pay is lower due to the leased car I picked out, I had the pleasure of designing my own car online with the features that I really wanted (back-up assist, GPS, cruise control, fog lights).  This also saved me the hassle of negotiating my own deal and it includes insurance and maintenance, which would have been a challenge to obtain myself in French.  Work also arranged for a temporary rental car until mine arrives - this is close to what I'll be driving, but mine will be blue and I'll have the 4-door "business" model.  It's honestly the closest thing I could find to my Fit, which I love.
  • On the work front, I'm also lucky (for the most part).  Last week was much better than the week before!  Also, PB has asked HQ to ensure I'm included in the corporate training for managers next year.  It's great to know I have a lot of career support, not just in Portland, but locally as well.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ma visite à La Ville Rose (My Visit to the Rose City - Toulouse)

First off, my last week at work (second week) was dreadful!  While I had a good experience with my French coworkers before, there is one person who is now quite awful.  I've decided to edit this to remove the specifics for now, but suffice it to say that it was incredibly stressful ("not being able to sleep well past 1 AM" levels of stress) and I'm glad it is over!

I really needed a reminder that there were reasons I wanted to live in France, so I went to Toulouse.  I spent the weekend soaking up French culture, speaking only French and eating delicious French food.  Each region has slight differences, like I've seen no chèvre salad on the menu in Toulouse, but I had a dish Sunday that was new for me (pancetta that was like a big ham steak).  To illustrate my point about the little salad with nearly every meal, here is dinner and lunch from the weekend.  I will also note that PB (the GM) thought that Americans calling pomme frites "French fries" was rather funny and yet they serve them with EVERYTHING - burgers to fancy dinners.
I also partake of a local wine once a day when traveling on the weekends.  I had two good, lightly sweet whites this weekend.  The nice thing with a sweet white is it serves as an apéritif, goes with many dinners and is good with dessert!  I can just slowly enjoy the one glass, which suits me better than an apéritif, wine with dinner and wine with dessert (not uncommon here).

It was a sunny, gorgeous day in Toulouse when I arrived.  The city is called the rose city, presumably because of all of the brick?  And maybe the roof colors?  Or the pink columns?  Or pink stone roads?
I headed to see the Basilica of St. Sernin, but it was closed ,either due to the hour or signs about the restoration.  Either way, I saw a street that had shops and cafes, so I headed in that direction.
The thing to understand about French cities is that the walkable shopping area appears to be the social center of every French town I've been to.  Sure, you'll find some overpriced restaurants and other places near tourist sites, but the shopping area is where you'll find the local French in droves on Saturday!  While I've never been a big shopper, I've learned to head to these areas for the social aspect alone.  Here are some scenes from this part of Toulouse on Saturday:
Despite being the second most secular (non-religious) nation in the world, virtually everything is closed on Sunday.  They may not believe in God, but they believe in a day of rest!  Here is the same shopping area on Sunday just before noon:
I have very good luck with festivals when I visit cities; similar to the festival last week in Poitiers, there was an event at the Capitole this weekend in Toulouse!  These appear to be one of the rare times that the French will talk to strangers or share a laugh.  I had a couple of brief exchanges and could have had a French male companion, but I'm not accustomed to how forward they are yet.  Once you're here for some time, you get used to it, but from an American perspective, it's overwhelming.  There's no "playing it cool" in the Frenchman's playbook - it's a full court press!
One of the most intriguing things about France is seeing really old things that only partially survived, but were just incorporated into the new.  I love that these little pieces of history are kept alive, even if the original purpose has been lost.
Since Sundays can be a little dead, I visited the Musée des Augustins.  It was a convent in its former life, yet another example of the French reinventing a space!  I found this sculpture of the woman's face with a veil interesting given France's hard line stance against face coverings now.
I was pleasantly surprised the museum was free since it isn't the first Sunday of the month (when they're virtually all free), but this first view of the cloister gardens was my favorite part!
The work on the church and convent started in 1309 (continuing into the 16th century) and it was clearly impressive in its prime, but you can see signs of the neglect that many religious buildings suffered after the revolution.
One section of the museum incorporated modern art with ancient art in a way that was actually complementary - not the norm here!  The color and presentation were designed by Jorge Pardo, formerly of Cuba (now working in Mexico).
I've realized that I am interested in visiting cities in a different way than before.  There aren't a lot of tourist sites here, but I've instead enjoyed the normal pace of life - walking around and seeing what the city has to offer.  Despite the capitole square being fairly empty, I discovered that the French are not hiding at home on Sunday, but appear to congregate at local parks.  Despite the weather being much drearier than the day before, the French are still outside!
I did notice heavily armed military and police in unusual places until I realized they were near churches.  It's a sad commentary on recent events in France that churches are guarded with heavy weapons during Sunday service.
Wandering down a different street, I came upon the Couvent des Jacobins.  Unlike a " convent," this was for priests.  Nuns seem to have been at abbeys in France.  This place was like many in France, where you appear to be on a normal city street, turn the corner and BAM! historical site just sort of tucked into the block.  In the center photo, you can see original decoration that they uncovered, which shows the sign for alpha and omega on the bricks.  It's rather incredible that anything survived considering Napoleon quartered his soldiers here by adding a floor midway up.
As I explored the free front area, I was horrified to learn that the SKULL of St Thomas Aquinas used to sit in this box.  It's now neatly encased in a golden box where the skull is not out for your viewing "pleasure."
I wrapped up my Sunday with the realization that all roads seem to lead to the Capitole since I kept walking down random roads in different directions, yet found myself back at the Capitole again and again!  The upside was that I noticed people walking inside and went to see for myself.  The capital buildings in France are often historic buildings that retain the beauty and character of a different era, but are usually called the "Hôtel de Ville."  I also read that the building sits where it does because it was the middle of two different parts of the city, as a reminder to its leaders that they equally represented both sections.
I also had to get a quick shot of these mirrors!  They were used in the Stuttgart palace as well - two identical mirrors directly across from each other that give the impression that they continue indefinitely, incidentally making the space appear larger as well.  I tried to get myself out of the picture at first, then gave up - I like how my outfit came together today anyway!  I'm actually loving the whole scarf thing now - the right scarf can take a blah outfit and make it look really lovely.
While I like Civray now and have committed to a 3-5 year role at the plant, I can easily see myself in a city like Toulouse someday.  It doesn't feel as hectic and tense as some French cities I've visited.  I also think it's the right size for me - big enough for a metro, small enough that you don't really need the metro if you don't mind a 15 minute walk.  I like the idea of exploring normal French weekend life in different places and finding the one that suits me best - so far Toulouse is the first where I took this approach, so we'll see what the final conclusion is!  I have plenty of time to decide!
While I did like Toulouse, it won't be *the* city because it's FIVE hours away from Paris by train - I need to be closer to a major International airport, not further away.  Speaking of trains, it is common that a 1st class ticket may be available for just 3-4€ more than 2nd class, so I tried one.  Much bigger seats (since one side is singles), electric outlets at each seat (not common in 2nd class on the TGVs) - my phone was almost dead, so it was worth the price for the power outlet alone!  Unfortunately, after the 2nd stop I had a seat mate with terrible breath who kept yawning - eek!  That is one of the two things that will make dating in France a challenge - there are many more people here who have bad oral hygiene.  The other challenge is that so many of them smoke!
First class seats - I could get used to this

And one last picture for your viewing pleasure - the French will truly put chèvre in nearly anything - including a McDo's (yep, that's what they call it here) wrap.  Admittedly, the curry shrimp one sounds kind of good, but we don't have it locally in the Poitiers area!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Village Life in Genouillé, Shopping in Poitiers et J'adore Chèvre !

When I moved back to Civray, I mistakenly thought the ad for my house meant it was 5 minutes outside of Civray, not 5 minutes outside of a village that is a 10 minute drive from Civray.  While the commute to work is fantastic still, I really preferred living somewhere walking distance from all of the shops and restaurants of Civray.

To better acquaint myself with my new village, I took a walk in the opposite direction towards the town.  It is quite common to see people walking into town, so I wasn't out of place on the country roads.  It is incredible to see the old buildings that are here, like this old farming structure that appears to possibly be in use today?

As it turns out, my current village does not have trash pick up at your house, you have to take it to the communal drop off, which is here.  The yellow bins are for recycling . . . and by the end of the week, the black bins are QUITE full.  The whole trash thing was the moment when I determined that my permanent residence would be IN Civray and not a neighboring community!  Hauling my trash to a central repository is just a big NO for me.
I did manage to find the infamous "dépôt de pain," which serves as the local bakery since there isn't one.  I've read that the pastries are so good they sell out in the morning, but you can reserve one for pick-up on your way to work, which might be my plan for the next few months!  Fresh pastry always beats day-old pastry!  I also like the idea here that a standard store wasn't feasible, but adding a little building onto a large empty parking lot suited the size of the town and made for a convenient location.
During my walk into town, in search of the one restaurant that was listed (never found it and may not exist now), I saw that a "brocante" was in Civray on one of the signs and, let's face it, there's really NOTHING happening on Sundays in rural France normally.  I headed on down and my American co-worker joined me.  It was a fun few hours looking at antiques, decorative items and junk that people were trying to sell, plus some rather nice collections of antiques for viewing.

While enjoying a coffee after, the mayor of Civray dropped by our table since he's aware of the invading Americans working in his region.  We had a nice chat and, despite not normally giving the bisou (cheek kiss) to strangers, we kissed the mayor!  The older French ladies were quite shocked!  I'm not sure they were as shocked as us Americans were at this antique French lighter though - yes, the flame comes out exactly where it appears it does, along with little red blinking lights on the ta-tas.

If you were ever curious what happens on a Sunday in a sleepy French country town, here's a peak at the collections that were on display.  First, some older clothing with some truly impressive headgear!
 And a lovely display of antique hats!  There were many other collections, in addition to the brocante area where you could buy things.
My co-worker is also convinced that I'm going to have good luck in France because she's been looking for this antique cat box she saw in a perfume store (which she showed me the day before), then I found one at the brocante!  I told her I'm more convinced that perhaps I've brought HER good luck by coming to France. :-)
I believe the best part of these little village events is the chance to greet your neighbors and have a quick chat.  It seemed many people were socializing, not just shopping.  When we took a quick walk around the rest of Civray, I was very happy to find a kebab shop that is open Sundays for dinner (!) and to learn that the beer bar is not only open on Sunday evenings, but open until 2 du matin (!!!) (aka AM) on Friday and Saturday - could it be that Civray actually has a weekend nightlife?!?  We've decided that a mission to the beer bar is in order!
The day before all of these local adventures, I went up to Poitiers to do a little shopping because I was in serious need of a fall/spring coat.  I found one that I loved, but one thing that I had read online (and witnessed for myself) is that French women show much less cleavage, but a visible bra is not an issue - like "black bra under a white shirt" visible.  What I was NOT aware of was that "headlights" are potentially also a "thing."  It appears they may not only be acceptable, but desirable enough that you can purchase a bra that will provide them for you!  I'm really not quite sure what to think here!
Lastly, I return to my love of chèvre.  This is a cheese so versatile that it featured prominently in both my dinner AND my dessert.  First, a chèvre lasagna (with eggplant and pesto) that was quite good and then chèvre with fruit, nuts, salt, pepper and honey for dessert . . . I know, it sounds weird to an American palette, but it was DEVINE.  I really cannot get enough of French cuisine!  Even better, I can somehow eat like this over here and actually lose weight.
And while I really only went to buy a coat and new jeans, I ended up with a new skirt and sweater . . . and a matching scarf, of course!  It's almost impossible not to find gorgeous, well-cut clothing here.  If I can limit myself to one new outfit per month, I think I can avoid going broke!