Monday, November 28, 2016

House Hunting in Rural France

The Tuesday post has become the Monday post so it spreads them out a little more!  "Pierre" also knows about the blog now and disliked his nickname, so I have his permission to use his real name, which is Alexis.😊

I started my house/apartment hunting with a pretty optimistic wish list.  I wanted a place that was in, or very near, the town I work in BUT still had an easy spot to park my car, 2 bedrooms, space for a small dining room (since having friends for dinner is a big thing here), at least 70 m2, NO yard, plenty of natural light and didn't look like it was last renovated when France still had a monarchy.😲

From my time here earlier in the year, I was already over the first big shock with rentals in France - most of them do not include appliances.  And I mean ANY appliances, so you're providing your fridge, oven (although some have a gas cook top and most have a vent), washing machine, dishwasher, etc. (and this assumes there is space and connections for these appliances - dishwasher connections are a rarity).

The second shock came when I started looking at ads.  You have to actually confirm that the place has kitchen and bathroom cupboards!  Since the owner has to maintain whatever is included, you may find that they've simply removed them all, as well as curtains and light fixtures.  Unless a prior tenant left theirs behind, you might be supplying them.  Originally, I added "must have cabinets" to my list, but after seeing some of the poor quality or mismatched cabinets installed, I started changing my mind.  What finally took "must have cabinets" off my list was seeing furnished photos of an apartment and realizing that you can purchase nice free-standing cabinets easily - no installation required!  Below is the kitchen of my new house - note the lack of appliances and cabinets - conveniently, this means I can select a nice stove of my choosing, without squeezing it into a tiny cutout, and I have room for a full American-sized fridge/freezer combo.

Since my primary criteria originally was to find a place near work, and I'd found almost nothing online "by owner," PB recommended that I contact an agency.  I had my next shock in regards to French renting - they often use an agent and the TENANT also pays a fee of several hundred Euro!  I wasn't thrilled about this, but went to a local bilingual agency.  Unfortunately, they told me the house I'd asked about was being repaired and they had nothing else in the area that met my criteria.  I was a little unhappy that they didn't tell me this BEFORE the appointment.  They did find three places in the same town that Alexis and L’américaine live in though, so I headed to the other office a few days later.  The first townhouse had a "workshop" on the first floor with the flat on the second floor, but unfortunately, the workshop had actually been a former pet clinic and still smelled vaguely of wet dog.  It also looked very clinical.  The upstairs space had been divided up into two bedrooms and an office, so the living room was far too small for my couches and no hope of any sort of dining room.

The second house had a large kitchen that could have held a small dining room table and the living room was plenty large (with tile), so I was hopeful until I saw the bedrooms.  They had uneven floors with really bad linoleum!  I know carpet is not common here, but typically there are hardwoods, good laminates or tile.  The rent was low enough (€350) that, after seeing a few other places, this house remained a back-up option.  Ultimately, the house I chose had bad linoleum in the guest room and office also - time to invest in a nice area rug for the guest room!

The third listing that I really liked ALSO turned out to "need repairs" and the estimated completion date wasn't until February!  The exterior and interior pictures were gorgeous, so I was quite disappointed.  Since the agency route hadn't worked out, I went back to looking at ads myself, but expanded my criteria to include the towns 20 minutes North and South, plus with a small yard.

I used my limited French to contact owners, some of whom called me back in response (before I learned to only provide my e-mail)!  Fortunately, PB was willing to patiently listen to the handful of voicemails and confirm that I understood correctly or tell me what I hadn't understood.  In one case, he returned the call for me, joking that he was now a very expensive secretary. 😊  I was able to make arrangements in this manner to view an apartment near work and two in a neighboring town early last week.  One of them asked for a guarantor (co-signer) despite my income level and CDI (permanent contract) because they'd had a problem with a past tenant.  PB didn't think I'd have any luck finding a guarantor, but Alexis very kindly offered to do it.  It's a strange, strange world when a college student with an internship could be a co-signer for an accounting manager (welcome to France)!  Fortunately, I didn't have to take Alexis up on that because I told the owners that I understood their situation since I'd been a landlord in the US before.  Apparently that helped because they decided that they'd make an exception for me if I paid a two month deposit (which I later learned is not actually legal in France).

I think this will be the master bedroom, after the owners replace the carpet with new flooring.

Before I even made it to any of my new visits, I learned the apartment in town was only for people who qualified for some level of public assistance, which is apparently the majority of French people (hence the reason this wasn't pointed out to me); however, with a US-comparable salary for a Controller, I clearly don't qualify.  I did find an additional apartment to see in Ruffec though, so I had three new options.

My visit to Ruffec started off disastrous.  The first place I saw had plenty of space, but the bedrooms were oddly shaped, the prior tenants were smokers and there was black mold growing on the ceiling.  Just no.  The next place was an apartment that looked lovely from the outside (for rural France anyway) and when I first walked in, I was thrilled!  Old hardwoods, easy to park on the street in front, plenty of space, plenty of light!  The bathtub looked ancient, but there was a bathtub!  And a bidet, but whatever.  The kitchen was nice, even if the cupboards didn't match.  We then entered the master bedroom, which was also great . . . until I realized that the other door in the master bedroom led to the 2nd bedroom.  Strange, but not a deal-breaker until I learned that it was the only way into the 2nd bedroom because the other door opened into the hall and was permanently locked.  I guess this is great if you have a baby, but not so great as a guest room!  Initially, I didn't want the space that came with a 3 bedroom place, but I was starting to realize that I needed a dining area in France (dinners with friends being common) and having my photography equipment, monitor and filing cabinets in their own space would be nice. The house I ultimately picked has 3 smaller rooms, so my office is a separate space from the guest room . . . and has a view of an old part of town that I really enjoy!

The last apartment was a large one above a shop.  It looked really lovely in the photos and it did not disappoint in person!  It was by far my favorite interior and was the place where I realized the cabinets in the photos weren't included and were free-standing.  There were two primary problems with the apartment: the only toilet was down a narrow set of stairs and the bedrooms were upstairs - not that I wake up often to use the restroom, but when I do, I don't want to stumble down a set of stairs, AND it was on a main city street with only timed street parking.  Within a couple of blocks, there were parking options, but on a rainy winter night, I'm not keen on hauling groceries a couple of blocks.  Worse, I'll need to visit Ikea (pronounced "EE-kay-uh" here, not "Eye-key-ah, like at home) for furniture and I can't imagine trying to haul all of that stuff for two blocks, then up narrow stairs.  Even though it is timed parking, I was glad I'd parked once and just walked to all three places because the parking was basically full . . . and the typical European parallel parking, where you have to wedge your car in and may need to use bumpers.  This is one of the reasons I ended up choosing the house that I did - I have a garage and my guests can park in my driveway, next to my kitchen window or in a free city lot that's just to the left behind my house.
I was pretty disillusioned at this point!  I hadn't seen anything that really jumped out at me as the right place, although the last apartment was really nice inside.  I decided that I'd take another look at the ads to see if anything new had popped up and, fortunately, some had!  I was able to make two new appointments right away (with the help of PB).

The first apartment was perfect!  It was painted with gorgeous contrast walls, very near the center of Ruffec (but with easy street parking right in front) and three bedrooms.  The only downside was that the roof sloped on two of the rooms, so the layout wasn't great, but it was certainly workable.  Unfortunately, I learned the property was also qualified for government assistance, so I couldn't rent it (same with two other nice apartments I saw advertised in my town).

Some of the villages and towns in the region butt up against each other and there are three cities combined that I was considering to be "in the city where I work."  The last house was in this area - closer to work, but further from the actual center of Civray (restaurants and markets).  The only other preference on my list that it didn't meet was "no yard."  While it might sound strange to prefer no yard, I work long hours and travel a lot on the weekends, so I don't really have time for a yard (and I'm allergic to grass anyway).  Fortunately, the yard appears to have been poorly cared for before, so I can essentially start from scratch.  Since the landlords have to give a minimum 3 year lease here (I can move before that), I might hire someone to turn it into a low-maintenance garden area with NO grass (since there's virtually none now).  Seems like a good investment to turn my yard into something I'll enjoy for three years!  Plus, now that I have it, and with Sundays pretty dead in the countryside, the idea of doing a little gardening is kind of appealing.

I had been concerned that people might not want to pick an American to rent to since I barely speak French, but apparently I spoke enough, or at least understood enough, that I was chosen to rent the house.  I was a little unsure after my first viewing because my impression had been that things were a little dated, but the owners are working on it and, when I returned during the day with natural light, everything looked really nice!  There's a ton of natural light due to large windows and French doors, so I'm pretty happy with my choice.  

I still have to complete the "inventory" (aka move-in walk-through) and sign my contract, which will all be in French.  Alexis will be back in his hometown for the next couple of weeks, so I asked PB if he was willing to help.  It seemed a little "above and beyond," so I was really happy when he said yes, as long as it was a weekday.  We have a pretty good working relationship, so I teased him about his lack of dedication to his employees since he wouldn't stay in the local area on the weekend just to help me.  He basically told me that he likes me, but he doesn't like me THAT much. 😀  To be fair, he's from a larger town and thinks that we work in the middle of nowhere!  He's commented several times on the fact that he can't imagine why I want to live here or how I find anything to do on weekends!

In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, last weekend was a big food weekend!  Alexis came over to my house for my first three-course French dinner (with aperitif), then a group of us went to a food festival in a neighboring town.  More on this in my next blog!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Returning to Cognac - Finally, a Cognac Tasting! And Making Friends in France, Part 2

Outside of the terrible doctor's visit, work is going well!  There's a lot of support from the American HQ and PB expressed that he is really happy with my work so far.  I knew PB liked my work when I was here before, but we're working on more complicated topics now, which means sometimes errors are made or there is a difference of opinion on the assumptions that should be used.  I was happy to hear him say that he believes the only people who never make mistakes are ones who aren't actually doing any work!!!

I've spent a lot of time house hunting recently since I just learned that my container arrived at the port in France.  It has to clear customs, but I should have all of my things in about two weeks.  My next post will be all about what house hunting is like in rural France because there are some clear differences from the US.


Originally, I picked this weekend to go to Cognac because there was a literary festival going on, including Scottish authors, but I thought I should schedule a cognac tour also since I missed out on my first visit.  When I mentioned these plans to Alexis, he thought it sounded fun and decided to join me so he could learn how to properly drink a cognac.  Talk about a cultural difference!  I don't think I've ever heard an American say they wanted to go tasting to learn how to drink an alcohol properly!

Alexis met me at my house and we were off!  I had specifically chosen the cognac house that I did because it was a castle!  So, we started with a tour of the castle, which turned out to be the birthplace of François I.  The first area we entered included the remnants of the tower that led to the room he lived in until he was four.

He adopted the salamander as his symbol because it was believed to be fire-proof and to spit fire at the time (long story on why - some people were conned into wearing "salamander hair" (aka asbestos) suits in ancient times basically).  Since it was his symbol, you can find it all over France in the chateaus and also here!
We then entered the areas where they store cognac for aging.  It is aged a minimum of 2.5 years, but many of them are aged much, much longer (up to 70 years).  Our tour guide told us there were so many spiders because they help eat the bugs trying to burrow into the cognac.  She also pointed out that the webs were not symmetrical, like at home, because the spiders were drunk from the alcohol that evaporates into the air!
The tour takes about an hour and is very informative about both the history of the castle, the history of the particular cognac brand (Baron Otard), a small museum of old advertising and bottle styles and learning a bit about what cognac is and how it is made and aged.  Then, time for the tasting!  Alexis and I both selected the tasting with a VSOP cognac and an XO cognac.  The VSOP is younger and has a sweeter flavor, but is a little harsh and made me cough.  Both of us preferred the XO, which is aged much longer and was less sweet, but very smooth to drink.  In the end, we concluded that cognac is good, but we both have other favorites amongst French alcohols.
Since Alexis had admitted to not really reading much, I thought the cognac tour would be the best part of the day and the literary festival might be a quick stop.  Instead, we were there for nearly two hours.  Alexis decided to make it into a mission where we both had to leave with a book . . . chosen by the other person . . . in our non-native language!  This turned out to be a lot of fun with hunting down books in English and French (there were other European languages represented also), then trying to decide what the other person would enjoy.

Alexis had a little bit of an extra challenge because I thought he should choose something at my current level.  Instead, he had me read a little French out loud and decided he's going to help me learn the correct pronunciation (and teach me new words) by having me read a WHOLE BOOK out loud to him.  So, my suggestion of the children's book "Les Animaux" was out and he chose a book by a featured author, so I have a signed copy even!  And in English!  Although, the author thought I was a Brit at first and couldn't understand why I didn't know what the 2CV was called in England.  Since reading is a big hobby for me, I really appreciated it that Alexis didn't act like the book festival was a necessary evil in order to attend the tasting.

French Friends, Part 2
I have heard that having friends over for dinner is very common in rural France and is a big part of the reason you don't see many French people out in town.  I had my first experience with this because Alexis invited me over for dinner and to watch a movie after Cognac.

I learned another difference between the French and Americans though.  In the US, it seems common to have your friend come back to the house with you to keep you company and chat while you cook.  Here, Alexis specifically indicated that he would prefer if I waited and came to his house in about an hour so he could clean a little and cook first.

I also learned that even a casual, impromptu dinner invitation requires an appetizer, main dish and dessert - they can be small, like tartines and a chocolate yogurt though.  My host was very apologetic that he doesn't drink much, so he had no aperitif available.  Of course, I'm not a big drinker either, so this was no problem for me!  The movie was an American movie in English with French subtitles, which is pretty common.  Even my tiny local theater shows 2 or 3 movies a week in VOST (original version with subtitles).

No cultural surprises other than that.  Despite the age difference, it turns out that I really enjoy Alexis' company; in fact, I'm doing something that I don't do often and hosting a French-style dinner at my house today with three courses and then I will begin my humiliation, I mean "learning" by reading part of my French book out loud.

Alexis' very helpful "gift" to assist me with my mouse problem!  To my credit, I learned how to properly set the thing without taking a finger off!

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Worst French Stereotype Come to Life

While I've had a few challenges settling in here, I had my worst experience so far last week.  I learned the week prior that all employees are subject to an government employment health exam.  This is similar to the brief exam that I received in the US, but in some ways, much worse.  Since I'm clearly not going to post photos of my exam, I've included some random pictures of life in France.

The first issue is that I work for an American company in France, yet the doctor was incredibly rude about the fact that I don't speak ENOUGH French.  "I don't understand.  How can you work in France and not speak French?  I would have to speak English to work in England."  Well, yes, and I actually agree with the sentiment, which is why I'm working very hard to learn French . . . but, in short, I can work in France when I speak English because this company is owned by Americans.  I didn't say this, but told him instead that I agree I need to learn French, I can read and understand quite a bit of French and I'm working on becoming fluent.

Despite that, it continued throughout my entire exam.  "You think it is ok to live in France and not speak French?  How can you think that's ok?"  Um, I don't.  Again, working on learning French.  In fact, I completed the entire first portion of this exam with your nurse IN FRENCH.  I completed my eye exam IN FRENCH.  And not just understood the questions, but answered in French and read off the numbers and letters in French.  Obviously, I'm not one of those ex-pats who plans to live here for 10 years without ever learning the language.  They do exist here and they're primarily British (from what I've seen), but I have no intention of being one of them.

Security is no joke in France now, but they might want to recruit this doctor into their anti-immigration forces.

Despite the fact that I answered in French to the best of my ability, he continued to complain about the difficulty of having to examine someone who "doesn't speak ANY French."  *eye roll*  I've heard about really rude French people from other Anglos (British, Australian and American), but they were usually Anglos who really hadn't made an effort to learn any French and expected all French people to know English.  I was pretty shocked to still come across an attitude like the doctor's when I'm clearly making an effort to learn the language and use it as much as possible.

Since there was nothing pleasant about this exam, I'll share something that IS pleasant - a different type of chèvre salad where the cheese is whipped.

The second part that was really shocking, from an American viewpoint, is that the doctor has you take of your shirt or dress while they sit there.  They don't leave the room nor give you any sort of sheet or paper to cover yourself with.  They also don't leave you undressed the minimum amount of time possible.  Nope, it's undress and lay on that table.  Keep laying there while I take some notes . . . in winter . . . in a cold room.  Then, complain that the weird deal they hook to a finger and toe to measure your blood flow (artery health) cannot get a reading because your foot is too cold.  "Do you have often have a problem with your feet being cold?" he asks, frowning like this could be a sign of a major health problem.  At that point, I'd had enough and he did get a snippy answer in English, "Not generally, but when I decide to lay around half-naked on a freezing cold table with no sock for an extended period of time, yes, for some STRANGE reason my feet get REALLY cold."  I'm not sure sarcasm translates well.  He did conclude that my big toe was not yet at risk of frost bite, like the others, so he was able to get his measurement on that toe.

At the end of the exam, it was rather unclear to me why you need to be half-naked at all.  He listened to my heart and lungs, both of which were easily accessible without me actually needing my clothes off.  Instead, it is apparently normal in France to lay around half naked while they take your blood pressure, pulse, measure your arterial flow and a handful of other things that could be done fully clothed just so they can listen to your heart and lungs, which apparently requires no top.

And no, I didn't just get a really sketchy doctor - I have been told this is perfectly normal in France.  Doctors also customarily do not leave the room while you undress and nurses usually are not present during the exam, for your "privacy," if I understood correctly.

Nothing like having to get half-naked for a guy who spends most of the time insulting you or implying that he's both surprised that you are quite healthy and has to tack on, "well, yes, you're healthy FOR NOW."  Really?  Your nurse guessed my age at 4-6 years younger than I am and all of your numbers show I'm solidly in good health for my age - in fact, I'd still be in the healthy range if I were nearly 10 years younger.

It's up for debate whether I'm more appalled by this medical exam or the fact that I've had to kill FOUR of these in my house.  FOUR centipedes!

I'm happy that my personal doctor is going to be a woman who speaks English well and doesn't have a serious issue with Anglos who live in France!  As a side note, "B" started texting again out of the blue and has decided that we should still date and he would come visit me this weekend.  Of course, that was before he learned that I was going to a festival with Alexis on Saturday.  That didn't seem to go over well since I wouldn't cancel it for his visit - frankly, I enjoy Alexis' company more and I think it is rude to cancel on a friend.

Fortunately, Thursday's blog is more upbeat since I spent my weekend visiting Cognac with Alexis!  And this time I knew to book a cognac tour and tasting in advance!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bienvenue à Genève ! (Welcome to Geneva)

Several European countries have a day of remembrance for WWI on November 11, so I decided to use the long weekend for a quick trip to neighboring Switzerland.  I was a little alarmed to learn France has quietly started full border controls again as of Nov 9, even with other EU countries.  As I was flying to Switzerland, I was regretting the trip a little - there's so much "new" in my life right now that switching to German for the weekend felt burdensome.  For the record, I don't speak German, but I always try to learn basic courtesy words in the language of the country I'm visiting, so I know these words in German, Japanese, Arabic and a few others.
I was quite happy to arrive in Geneva and realize that it is a French-speaking part of Switzerland.  Due to being a multilingual country, the common shared language seems to be English, so most people here were also pretty fluent when my French failed me.
In many ways, this area reminded me of being in Annecy in the French Alps.  I discovered the first difference upon arrival though - my phone would not work without turning on roaming!  Also, Switzerland is not on the Euro.  Fortunately, I was able to get by just using my credit card without exchanging to Swiss Francs.  TIP: Don't accept the machine conversion - CHF trades almost equal to the dollar and my credit card reflects that, but the machines were charging much more - 9.10 vs over 9.60.
It was a lovely fall weekend, but one of my favorite things I saw were these huge chess and checkers games being played in the park - the chess board here was the only one not being used.  It's really great when fun ideas bring people outside and together!
Since I'd arrived with no plan, I headed to the old city center and found the old church.  This was clearly another one of the differences as the church exterior looked very un-French.  It reminded me more of styles I've seen in Germany or Italy with the dome.  The interior was very similar to French churches though.
It's quite interesting that the Cathedral appeared to be Catholic, but had information about the history of the Reformation inside.  As I learned later, that's because it is now a Calvinist church and was, in fact, the "home church" of John Calvin.  To me, the most unique and lovely part of the church was the Maccabees chapel.  I sat on a pew to look around and people must have thought I knew something special because they waited until I got up to come sit in exactly the same place (despite plenty of seating).  Nope, sorry guys - I have the same view as you!
I don't normally travel this time of year because the weather is unpredictable and COLD, so it was a lovely change to see a city starting to decorate for the holidays.  Despite being a wealthy country, the exchange rate to USD is more favorable than the Euro, so I did a little shopping and enjoyed the holiday lights.
Despite being French-speaking, the people here don't really look French.  Some do, but there's a heavy Germanic influence as well, plus other features I couldn't identify (and after being here a while, you realize there are distinct features in people descended from the different regions).
Since Lake Geneva (aka Lac Léman locally) is one of the things Geneva is famous for, I decided that scheduling a cruise was a good plan, but during the off-season they are on Sunday afternoon primarily.  I did walk around the lake and through the Anglais (English) gardens earlier, but decided that I should spring for the full cruise experience!
Saturday dawned sunny, but cold, so it seemed like a good day to wander through museums.  The Natural History Museum has nothing on the British one (although much better behaved children), but they've made an attempt to present animals in their natural habitat rather than another "Hall of Taxidermied Horrors."  They also have a nice section about unusual animals that talks about their unique traits.
The top floor has the special exhibit, which is currently on dinosaurs.  This was also well done and included sets for different eras that discussed the perception of dinosaurs at the time, contrasted with what we know today.  Overall, I enjoyed my time here.
While looking for the museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, I ended up at the wrong place.  It was a pretty building and had a lovely view from the second floor, but porcelains aren't really my thing, so I left quickly.  If they're your thing, the Ariana museum is also free.
My favorite museum here was the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum because it was so unique.  You can cruise through it and only listen to the automatic portions or hit "stop" and enter a number for extra items (the headset is included).  The quote below stood out for me because it's true whether cutting those ties is voluntary or not - you lose part of your identity and bearings when separated from your loved ones.  The good news, if the separation is voluntary anyway, is that you start to form a new identity that may suit you better, which is what I feel is happening for me . . . that sense of losing your bearings though, well, that's an adjustment that simply takes time.
The museum discussed issues of humanity, of losing contact with loved ones, ensuring prisoners are shown basic decency, preparing for natural disasters and a temporary exhibit about how current ideals of beauty are leading young women to starve themselves and the social obsession with appearance.

After seeing how crystal clear and beautiful the water is, I was stunned to read they can't reintroduce an animal here due to how polluted the water is.  Hopefully this doesn't include the lake!  The most stunning thing on the cruise was seeing the city absolutely dwarfed by the mountains towering behind it.  It's easy to forget in Geneva that you're in the Swiss Alps, but on the lake you can see that the mountains ring the entire city and lake.

The same cruise can be used for transport only, so there are stops at 3 towns along the lake, which bridges the French/Swiss border.  The cruise dining room is a really classy place to sit and enjoy a meal and the views!  I'd recommend walking around the boat though as I only discovered that the paddles are visible when I went to find the ladies.
It truly is hard to describe the majesty of the Alps or to even capture it in a quick photo, but you realize how incredibly high they soar when you see a town with the church steeple towering over it, then see the mountain rise and rise until the church steeple appears no bigger than a finger, yet the mountains continue stretching to the sky.
 The kir I had on the cruise was the best yet and the starter terrine with fruit compote was parfait, yet the pheasant main dish was a tad overcooked and served with plain polenta on the side.  Interesting combo, but not very flavorful - proof that even here, in a fancy setting, food can be hit-or-miss.  Being the rebellious sort, I went out on the empty deck, despite the cold and watched the boat come into harbor.  Of course, once I went out and didn't promptly freeze to death, several others came outside to check it out as well.  Folks, never fear being the first - you'll usually have the best view! ;-)
Final Tip: Swiss stores appear to be largely closed on Sunday, even in a major town, which is becoming less true in France.  Also, even with a favorable exchange rate, only clothes and things like bottled water had good prices; tourist sites seemed a little expensive compared to France and eating out is CRAZY expensive.  9 CHF for a McDo's meal (6.75 is the French price for what I order), 9 CHF for a Grande Starbucks latte and easily 20+ CHF for a plat (main dish) when you can do a whole menu (entrée, plat & dessert) for less in France - granted the serving size is a little larger here and my plat alone was more than enough food.  Still, be prepared for your ~3€ (in France) pain au chocolat and double espresso to cost you ~7.50 here.  I should also mention that the prices that I'm accustomed to are for rural France; however, I've found them to be pretty consistent in all of the towns I've visited.  Marseille, La Rochelle and Toulouse clearly had more expensive options near the tourist areas and I'm sure prices in Paris would come as a shock to me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Dating a Frenchman - Round One

My friends and family all say I look extremely happy in my pictures in France, which may be what attracted my first French "date," whom I'll just refer to as "B."

Here's a little cultural 101 on dating in France.  As mentioned in a prior blog, a good guy will get to know you before taking you on a date - he'll talk to you at a party, school, work, etc.  If he meets you in public, he'll ask you to go for a walk (in public - nothing creepy).  After talking awhile, if it's going well, he'll invite you for a coffee or drink.  You can do this as often as necessary to be sure that you're interested in each other, but once you KISS, it's assumed you're exclusive and he's your boyfriend.

Now, this seems rather serious WAY too early to an American, but it's really not.  If the kiss isn't that good or the rest of the evening isn't that good or whatever, he won't contact you again (or you ignore him) and "poof" no more boyfriend.  I'm told that, in the early days, a Frenchman will contact you daily and, if he doesn't, it's generally safe to assume you're no longer dating.  The French also don't really "date" per se and, while I've had a couple of guys talk to me or want to "go on a walk," I'm not really sold on the idea that this is how you meet nice French men.  It seems that the most common way to meet one is through your social group, which can be a challenge if you just moved here!

Fortunately, dating is not a big priority for me at the moment.  With working 10-12 hour days and some weekends (the 35 hour work week in France is a myth - sorry to burst your bubble), trying to learn the language, having a bank account and still no pin for my check card, needing to find a permanent unfurnished apartment . . . I have enough to keep me occupied!

Even though "B" is not the right guy for me, I still had fun learning what "dating" a Frenchman can be like.  As I've been told, and now learned for myself, a nice French man will go out of his way to do thoughtful things, like show you the small side street with shell art.

And afterwards, he'll go back to the Vendée Globe village with you and stand in line so you can get the poster you've decided you REALLY want, after telling you that he hates standing in queues.  But first, he'll show you how clever he is by taking you to the other village entrance, so you don't have to queue just to enter!

If you want to go shopping, it's no problem - he'll show you the best stores & the colorful farmers' market.  When you say the city is beautiful, he'll tell you that you're even MORE jolie.  When you say it's a perfect day, he'll tell you, "Oui, parce you are parfait" (Yes, because you are perfect).  The French reputation for being romantic is well-deserved!
It was a fun way to end the weekend, but not the right relationship for various reasons.  I did enjoy stretching the limits of my French though since I can speak more French than he could English (scary thought).  It also made me realize that I know more than I acknowledge and, as long as people speak slowly, I can understand quite a bit now.

Assuming that the change in the political situation in the US (or a similar anti-immigrant change in France) doesn't end my time here, I think I can get used to this!

Since I have almost as many readers/views in France as the US now, feel free to correct me if you believe that I've misrepresented the culture.  Having only lived here a total of four months now, I'm certainly still learning!  Usually when I make generalizations about the culture, it is because I asked a French person (or two or three) about something that happened and they told me it is normal or common for the culture, but I have had them contradict each other too.

 I spent this past weekend in Geneva, so my blog Thursday will be all things Swiss!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Part 2: Les Sables d'Olonne and Halloween in France

It's good that I split my blog for Les Sables because this last weekend was pretty tame.  I went out with my American co-worker and her neighbor (Alexis) Friday night, worked basically a full shift on Saturday, worked more on Sunday and then went to a movie Sunday night with Alexis and my American co-worker.  There is a good selection of VOST (original version with French subtitles) movies to choose from in Poitiers and typically one or two a week offered in Civray, so we're able to keep up on what the French believe is the best of American cinema!

Les Sables d'Olonne

I'd found a bakery on Saturday night in Les Sables, but on Sunday, I realized my breakfast plan was a bad one when the line was out the door!  And sold out of breakfast pastries!  After buying a high-fiber cookie instead, I checked out the local market.  The markets are lovely with fresh food of all sorts, flowers and even clothing (at this one).  Fortunately, I had better luck on Monday and found a bakery with pain au chocolat, a café and great view for 2 Euro.
I guess I speak my few sentences well enough that I am able to get a table and ask for a menu without them realizing that I don't speak French fluently.  I sometimes have to fess up when I don't understand though.  After one of these oops moments at lunch, I was happy that my waiter told me I speak French well!  This was after I ordered a steak, cooked medium-rare with the roquefort and a glass of Muscadet using a complete sentence! I'm really trying to ensure that I don't just grunt random words and instead use connecting words, such as "avec" (with).  Later, I tried a Vendée salad, which was good, but I prefer my chèvre salads!  Eating local specialties is usually, but not ALWAYS, best.  This one had local ham, cheese, apples, mushrooms and, buried under the lettuce, cherry tomatoes (which I did not eat).  Despite disliking mushrooms for most of my life, I find I do like some of the varieties here, in moderation.
One odd thing that I noticed more in this town than in other parts of France were French people using random English.  A woman returned to the table - "Ready?" to her spouse.  A French daughter, "Yes, please," to more water, but the rest all in French.  The other ironic thing that has happened to me in several places in France is that I'll get through my whole meal in French, but when they run my card and I don't need a pin (signature required), they know I'm foreign and switch to English!  A bit late for that!  

This specifically occurred this weekend after I tried an almost-local specialty, crêpes.  They originated in the Brittany (Breton) region, but Les Sables is close enough that they were everywhere, and not the usual poor quality ones offered in French tourist towns (thanks to Rita for telling me to skip them).  "Bounty" flavored items appeared to be a big thing here, which is chocolate and coconut.  I had bounty sorbet and the below bounty crêpe.  You had the choice to get the traditional buckwheat as well, but for this, I went with the suggested flour cake.

Since I'd "hit the wall" on Saturday ("become exhausted" for non-Americans), I thought I'd make a second trip to the Vendée Globe village on Sunday and see the rest.  Unfortunately, it was even more crowded!  I did get a few quick pics of a news segment live and a pic of the sailors - most are French, but there's one American!  "So crowded I can barely move" isn't my scene though, so I left after a short time again.
I spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the less crowded areas of Les Sables d'Olonne, although the crowds died down significantly on Monday - it seems that not all French people bridge to the holiday!  I enjoyed a savory "crêpe," which is called a galette, and had this one made the traditional way with buckwheat.  I also came upon an old cemetery, with lovely grave markers, which seemed perfect on this celebration of the dead (Nov 1 is a day of remembrance in much of the world).  The gentleman at the cemetery was able to communicate that I could not show names in photos out of respect for the families, so the names have been blacked out.
Most of my four day weekend involved hours spent walking or sitting on the beach to relax and soak up the sun.  Parfait ! (aka Perfect!)  I fell in love with France all over again and have a new goal to own a small flat in Les Sables d'Olonne someday - it was just the right mix of laid back and social for me.

Halloween in France
I wasn't expecting any sort of Halloween festivities in France since I'd seen nothing about it, so I was pleasantly surprised when I was eating my dinner and children entered in costumes to trick-or-treat at the businesses along the boardwalk.  There weren't a lot of them, but it was still cute.

I was walking down the boardwalk, smiling at the adorable little children, when I noticed what appeared to be an abandoned white shopping bag near some bushes.  I was rather surprised when an enormous spider came skittering out.  I had a good laugh, along with the young couple operating the spider, when I saw what it was.  I took a seat slightly further down the boardwalk and enjoyed laughing at the spider scaring a few other people too before continuing on my way.

I guess I must have looked particularly happy during my time in Les Sables because it was here that I went on my first French "date," but more about that in my next post on Tuesday!