Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Serious Injury, CPAM and the French Medical System

One of those things that I worried about, but hoped would never happen, came to pass this week.  I have a partial tear of a ligament in my knee, which means I'm in a thigh-to-calf splint for the next 3 weeks (potentially a month and a half . . . or an additional month and a half?  There was a small language difficulty).  The worst part - I live in small rural town and I cannot drive.

Well, the pain may actually be the worst part because it doesn't appear to be customary to prescribe strong painkillers the first visit, even for a serious injury (not even Tramadol, which is what I prefer because it isn't as strong and is an opioid, but non-narcotic).  This would potentially be ok, since I was given a prescription dose of a painkiller similar to Tylenol, a prescription dose of Naproxen Sodium and a pain relieving cream . . . except I'm allergic to soy, which I told the doctor (in French), yet I was prescribed a soy-containing pain cream.  Unlike in the US, you apparently cannot just call your doctor and tell them that there's a problem with your prescription or that your pain is not even remotely well-controlled.  You can try, but you'll be told by the receptionist that the doctor is too busy to return a call and you'll have to make an appointment.  Are. You. Freaking. Kidding. Me?!?!  The doctors here will make a house visit to ensure you have your required note for missing a day of work, even for a cold, but not return a phone call.  Not even to correct their own mistake.  Incredible.
Now that I know that, I've changed my mind about continuing to see a doctor in the town 20 minutes away who speaks the best English because, as I also learned, they won't make a 20 minute drive for the house calls.  I learned this when I tried to contact the recommended nurse for my DAILY injection.  This is another interesting difference from the US.  I've had limbs splinted or immobilized before and never had an injection required.  After having it prescribed in France, I looked up why this might be.  It's because they've studied the risk of a clot and it's near zero if you don't have at least 3 risk factors (I don't), so it's been determined that prophylactic treatment is not recommended.  The French all took it as gospel that I would need this treatment (but of course you need the injection!) and joked that Americans are simply content to let natural selection take its course for the poor tiny percentage of the population that could be impacted by this.

I'm guessing it also has something to do with the fact that a daily house visit from the nurse isn't so objectionable when the combination of your socialized health care and extra mutuelle coverage is footing the bill.  Can you imagine the cost of a nurse coming to your home for three weeks to administer a daily injection in the US? 😨  Not only would people not agree to pay for it, the for-profit insurance in the US would surely refuse.

So, outside of the apparent reluctance to prescribe anything remotely suitable for the pain caused by a torn ligament, French doctors have no qualms about prescribing you the entire remainder of the pharmacy stock.  This is what I left the pharmacy with:
There's also no need for silly bottles.  If you were prescribed 14 pills, they just sell you the full box of 16.  Presumably nobody cares since they're not paying out-of-pocket.  Of course, if you're not French, then you've probably also encountered the most incompetent branch of the French government well before you've needed any medical care.

In direct contrast to my experience of getting my work permit issued in a week and my visa arriving promptly, plus the prefecture finding me an appointment before my visa expiration, CPAM seems to delight in it's ability to be completely dysfunctional.  First, they incorrectly told my human resources department that I was not eligible for a social number (or Carte Vitale) until I'd been in the country for 3 months.  My immigration attorneys assured me that this was not true with the visa type that I have, plus they sent the link to the French government website that proved this.

It's unclear whether the next problem was CPAM or my co-worker, but somehow this issue never progressed further until I complained to PB that I'd been in the country for nearly 3 months, paying high social taxes and for a mutuelle policy that I couldn't use, with no Carte Vitale to show for it.  He followed up with my co-worker, who possibly never tried to clarify with CPAM about my visa type.  My dossier was finally sent over and, several weeks later, PB followed up again.  CPAM informed us that they'd received no such dossier.  My co-worker forwarded the proof that we'd filed.  CPAM then miraculously found my file, which had been assigned to somebody who was out on leave of some sort.  It seems that CPAM was content to leave my file waiting on a desk until whenever the person returned, but they were finally persuaded to do something with it.

PB laughed a bit while telling me that I was having my first experience with TRUE French bureaucracy.  Apparently, the French just accept this as the way things are here, which could be why so many of them are in favor of politicians who want to fire a significant number of civil servants!  Finally, in early January, I was issued my "temporary" social number and told that a bill of rights would be mailed to me.  The mutuelle insisted that my temporary number could not be used for registering with them.  Fine, I'll continue to wait.

Well, this became a problem when I injured my knee.  Even though I should have been covered from the day I arrived, because my human resources folks didn't persist and file until December, I'm told I have coverage as of December 22.  But, without a Carte Vitale, I have to pay upfront and hope that the French government will actually reimburse me.
The cost in France for an uninsured "urgent care" visit to a doctor?  Twenty-three Euro.  Yes, that's the entire cost.  The pharmacy, on the other hand, set me back over two hundred Euro, but that was for the entire stack of medication and the knee splint.

So, financially, the lack of proof of insurance has not been so terrible.  Of course, I have no idea where to send my "factures" or invoices, in order to be reimbursed.  The CPAM has quit responding to my employer when an update is requested as well (I should have pushed for my US HQ to include this in the services that the immigration attorneys were hired for - they seem able to persuade the government to actually do its job).  I will say that PB has made it his personal mission this week to resolve the issue and has our HR staff working on it studiously.  My understanding is that they will help me get reimbursed and to register with the mutuelle, regardless of my lack of Carte Vitale.

My fears before this experience centered more around what I would do if I were seriously injured in a country where I don't have any long-term friendships yet and no family to call on.  As it turns out, I was worried about something that hasn't really happened yet.  Le Américaine has helped a lot with buying my groceries for the week, driving me to the doctor and taking me back and forth to work.  Alexis, who is back in the area, brought me an ice pack and is going to help with my furniture assembly.  Another co-worker has also offered to pick up groceries for me or help with any other errands.  A new friend offered to accompany me if I needed surgery, so I'd have an interpreter.  On the other hand, PB had a brief moment of acting like I'd injured myself during the WORST POSSIBLE TIME (our CEO visited this week) just to inconvenience him, but then he recalled that I just received a large set of knives as my 5 year service gift 😈 . . . er, I mean he recalled that he generally likes me and should be more concerned that I'm injured than about the poor timing of the injury.

I have learned that there are a lot of things that are a bit of a challenge when you can't bend one knee.  Like getting up from any sitting position without something to grab on to.  On the other hand, my left leg is going to have quads of steel and I'll be able to swing my lower body around using my arms like a gymnast!  My poor right quad is having a time of it though as I pulled it trying to swing my sock around and catch my foot in it like a net.  You know, socks are overrated anyway.  As are shoes.  I posed this question on my FB, but fuzzy blue slippers are proper work attire, right?
To my relief (and surely that of PB), I managed to wrangle a sock and (untied) shoe onto my foot prior to our CEO's arrival and have not yet had to wear fuzzy slippers in public.  Which I'm pretty sure a French person would view as sufficient public humiliation to justify a home visit and a doctor's note to skip work.😊

Thursday, January 19, 2017

More French and Seasonal Eating (aka 100 Varieties of Soup)!

So, learning French is hard.  Like, "my brain is going to explode" hard.  First, you have to get used to the fact that "the" is in front of everything.  As in, "I am studying the French" meaning the language and NOT the people.  Except, not always.  Because my colleagues don't speak "in the English" to me.  They just speak "in English."  Oh, and languages are not capitalized in "the French."

And, when you think you're managing to remember "le français" and you mention "le France," a polite French person tells you it's la France.  Because the country is female, but the language is male.  Clearly. 😨

I've realized that I have to keep studying daily though.  If you think you'll learn a language through osmosis by just living in the country, you're wrong.  You will pick up on things here and there, but it isn't super easy to meet French people (generally) and my co-workers speak English to me, so I'm only becoming really good at the things I have to do often, like order food, ask where something is, etc.  For those forced into using the language more often, I'm sure the learning comes more quickly.  I could be a little hard on myself though because the new French exchange people I've met have all been surprised that I've only lived here 6 months total with 15 hours of tutoring and my only other learning has been online . . . well, until they try my SPOKEN French.  Then, they realize that I write well because I have time to think about what I'm going to say and how to phrase it using words I know (and look up ones that I don't). 😀

Winter Soup
One of my absolute favorite things about France is that you never really have an opportunity to become bored with the menu options.  There are always two things and, outside of a restaurant where one of the two is always the same beef steak with fries & salad, I don't think I've had a full meal (starter and main dish or main dish and dessert) that was completely the same.  I don't eat out like I used to - when my co-worker mentioned having salad on Mondays, I'd made a face; however, the salads aren't basic.  There are a few with all lettuce, plenty of ham, peppers and mozzarella, etc, which I like, but my favorites are half lettuce and half pasta with either chicken and eggs or French ham and mozzarella.  There's  a tuna option and crab option, but I've taken a pass on those and any with a non-vinaigrette dressing - the French do a REALLY good vinaigrette!  I frequently have salad two to three days a week now, but always with either a starter (galette or quiche) or a dessert (apple crumble, rice pudding, etc) since lunch is my bigger meal.
Speaking of the variety of foods, one of the reasons is that they take full advantage of both what's in season and the time of year.  Winter is soup time!  And the sheer variety of soups is incredible (incroyable in French).  From a basic carrot soup (above) to a lentil soup served with a cold poached egg in the middle (didn't get a pic of that one), if it's growing this time of year, the French have probably made a soup out of it!
And the texture is completely varied.  You can have totally smooth soups (first one) or a soup that is a little more coarsely blended (second) with celery and carrots.  I also enjoy the veggies that aren't so common in the US.  We eat pumpkin pie, but the French have pumpkin soup!  I've already missed out on soup one day though because they have so many different words for it.  There's the basic "la soupe," but a thicker soup is "le potage."  The one that means a creamier soup (and I never remember is a soup) is "le velouté."
Soup is a big enough thing here that I think there are probably 3-4 other names for different TYPES of soup.  I am a little sad that chèvre chaud salad was EVERYWHERE in the spring, but doesn't seem to be as popular in the winter; however, this gives me something to look forward to come spring!  See, never a chance to get bored!  Of course, there are veggies that seem to be ubiquitous in French cuisine throughout the year and are used in 100 different ways, such as the leek.  There is even leek soup.
I have always been one of those people who hated vegetables and viewed it as a monumental sacrifice (that I made for my health) to force myself to eat them, but in France, they are served up in so many tasty different ways and varieties, that I find it easy to eat my veggies.  It's just one of many reasons that I love living in France!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Learning French, McDo's and How the French Diet Turns US Advice on Its Head

My last two weeks of work have been busy with year-end and my weekends have been mostly spent doing highly exciting things, like assembling furniture and unpacking boxes.  The upside is that I have a complete living room, guest bath and kitchen now (pictures to come soon)!  The guest room is also usable, although the furniture isn't refinished yet.

Only a dining room set, coat closet, bedroom armoire, utility room stand, upstairs bathroom cabinet and office furniture to go! 😐  I finally caved and hired people with power tools to help with the kitchen because EVERY thing had to be assembled, including the drawers, and it both required power tools AND more than two hands.

Since there isn't a lot to report, I thought I'd share a few cultural gems with you!

Learning French
French culture comes through even in a textbook to learn French.  First, the list of annoyances, where a husband who is always absent AND an American boyfriend both make the list.  Why only have one man to annoy you when you can have two! 😂

Also, all nouns are either male or female in French, which I've been exposed to with Spanish, so it wasn't a big surprise for me.  I did find this example of "male" and "female" nouns funny though - remember folks, "the problem" is male and "the solution" is female!  I will say that I doubt I'll forget that "eme" is a male ending and "tion" is female now, so this was a clever choice!
While I really enjoy the text that I'm learning from, I'm glad that PB is supportive of me taking more actual French lessons because I find that I can read quite a bit of French, but I'm uncomfortable speaking French because I'm not quite sure on the pronunciation.  Of course, Alexis is back this weekend, so reading with him again will help, and I have a few new people I met through a conversation exchange site who are helping me with my French in exchange for help with English.  

There are varying degrees of help that you get through the conversational partners though.  Some of them seem content to only correct me if what I've said cannot be understood.  Most of them start off correcting everything, but as the conversation starts to flow, they switch to only asking or correcting when they don't understand.  I only have one person who has continued to correct everything, which is what I need!  There are seven total people that I started talking with, but the first woman only replies about once a week, which isn't enough for me to really build on my French.  One other woman and one of the men have sent a sentence here and there, also not really helpful.  I do have consistent daily conversations with four people now, who vary in age from 21 to 43; however, the consistent writers are all men.  One of them lets me use my very limited spoken French to practice speaking on calls and another leaves messages in slow French with the translation in English.  I then respond in as much French as I can, mixed with English when I don't know the word.  And he then replies with the correct French, so that's helping as well!  It seems like you could potentially make friends in this way, so it's a little disappointing that the women haven't been more responsive. 😩

I discovered shortly after returning to France that it doesn't seem like I'm allergic to cow dairy anymore.  My docs had said it is an allergy that people can "grow out of," but I didn't have high hopes (even though I'm no longer allergic to eggs).  Since dairy is not a life-threatening allergy for me, I'd occasionally try something to see.  I tried something small here and nothing happened.  So, I tried something with a higher amount of dairy - nothing.  Time for a full-on dairy meal - cheese in salad, butter in potatoes and dessert was ice cream with whipped cream on top (and fruit).  Still absolutely nothing.  In the past, I would have felt like I had food poisoning.  I've cautiously eaten dairy since then with no issues still after several months.  Of course, after not eating it for so long, I no longer have a taste for many dairy products.  I prefer coconut milk, many types of chèvre and sorbet still (especially dark chocolate); however, I am thoroughly enjoying real French butter, soft mild cheeses (like brie) and cream-based sauces!

Given that I can eat cheese again, the other day I decided to eat something I haven't had in over 5 years - a BigMac.  While the McChicken tastes different here (better I think), the BigMac tastes the same as I remember.  I don't eat McDo's often - usually only a couple of times per month and primarily only when I get busy and realize I've missed the dedicated French lunch hour (good luck finding a restaurant that will serve you after 1-1:30 PM) or I have no food at home on a Sunday (when stores & normal restaurants are also closed).  I have occasionally stopped in there when I was feeling particularly challenged with French as well - even though I order from the French menu now, it's a touch screen and I don't have to speak French, just read it!
On another random McDo's trip, I tried a chèvre burger because I find the local touches interesting (same reason I tried a McDos special in Switzerland, where you can design your own burger - bacon avocado in my case).  The chèvre burger  wasn't bad, but it wasn't really good either.  The beef isn't greasy, like at home, nor is it drowning in sauce, so if the bread isn't "same day" fresh, the McDos burgers can be a little drier than I prefer.
In addition to the normal local offerings, McDos appears to experiment here more than I recall occurring in the US.  They temporarily replaced the potato wedges, that I love, with "New York style" chips shortly before I left France.  Right after I returned, the wedges were again replaced with thick herb fries, which I also liked.  I don't care for the regular fries here though - they aren't like the US.  It isn't just the potatoes they experiment with; currently, the special offer is a burger with ketchup and ranch or mustard and ranch or a fish sandwich with ketchup and ranch.  To the best of my knowledge, ranch is not popular in France, so this seems like a strange offering!

While I'm a little embarrassed that I eat McDos while living in France, it's clearly not hurting me (nor is my weekly pineau and random glass or two of wine) because I've lost 15 lbs in 3 1/2 months of living in France.  And that's with working 10-12 hour days nearly every Monday-Thursday (9ish hours on Fridays) and no real exercise, outside of walking on the weekends.

Update on the French Diet
It's interesting because the French diet throws everything you're taught in the US about "how to lose weight" out the window, yet I lose weight here without really trying and it was a constant struggle to avoid gaining weight during the three months that I was back in the US.

It really makes one question the wisdom of the US diet industry.  Whereas the current advice is to eat 5-6 small meals per day (for blood sugar, metabolism, etc), the French do not snack generally.  While this is not true of EVERYONE, the majority of the French that I know eat a small breakfast (piece of baguette with jam, croissant, pain au chocolat, etc) and/or fruit with coffee.  Lunch is a large meal with 2-3 courses, unless dinner is expected to be large, then the lunch and dinner meal will be switched.  If lunch is 3 courses, dinner will often be just soup or fruit or a similar small thing; however, I choose to do a 2 course lunch and have a 1 course "plat" (main dish) dinner at home.

The primary difference between how I was eating in the US and here ALSO goes against common diet advice in the US.  I consistently eat more carbs in France.  My breakfast is basically just carbs and fat, no protein (pain au chocolat or with raisins or a croissant with jam) and coffee, whereas I used to eat primarily protein (eggs).  My lunch is usually a slice or two of baguette with a starter that varies from veggie soup to quiche to a meat pâté or terrine - so, sometimes good protein and sometimes not.  The main dish is typically about half carbs (couscous, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc) with a small amount of salad (think 5 leaves of lettuce) in vinaigrette and the other half of the main dish is about half meat and half veggies, often with a sauce of some sort.  Again, less protein than my typical US lunch, although a lot more veggies (and carbs).  Along with less protein, the protein source is different because red meat is less common here and there are a lot more turkey, duck and rabbit dishes.  If you have dessert, it's also basically carbs and fat (usually with fruit), but lunch is always followed by hot coffee.  And most of my dinners have also evolved to about half carbs, half veggies & meat.  I still eat red meat at home with about the same frequency as in the US though.  In total, my lunches are bigger and my dinners smaller, but I was never super hungry between meals when I first moved here, so I've never had the feeling that I'm eating less.

The other change is one that I made in the US, then slacked off on, and have now re-established here.  I traded out artificial sweeteners for sugar in the US, yet I lost weight.  Again, contrary to the "more calories=more weight" mantra.  I continued to do so in France because artificial sweeteners are almost non-existent here, especially in restaurants.  More recently, I replaced all added sugar in my coffee and tea with honey at work and at home, so the only sugar cubes I'm using are 2-4 times per week when I have coffee at a restaurant.  The honey usage is a personal thing, not French, but again, they use sugar here, not artificial sweeteners.  

And while not all French people are thin, they have much lower rates of obesity than the US and the rest of the European Union.  It really makes you question the health advice in the US and what we've done to our food to make maintaining a healthy weight so challenging!  I just started an regular "30 minutes a day" exercise routine, so the contrast won't be as clear going forward.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New Year's Eve in Vienna and Reflections on 2016

I left Innsbruck and made it to Vienna in time to head to one of the music stages and follow the rush of people to one of the main celebrations.  In comparison to the US, the fireworks started much earlier - huge displays were already going off at 10 pm and seemed to start, stop and start again.  There were also fireworks going off everywhere and people lighting large fireworks themselves.
There were 8 or 9 stages of music earlier in the day, so I'd taken the easiest subway route towards one, but following the crowds led me to the main celebration area.  This was still a few blocks away, so not as busy!  You could already hear the music a little though and spiced wine stands were all over the place!
I think I'd burnt myself out on spiced wine after my first time here because I hadn't tried any in Salzburg or Innsbruck.  I decided to grab a final glass of spiced wine since it was NYE, but hadn't realized the "Malibu" didn't just mean the types of fruit used in the juice, but rather a shot of Malibu would be added!  It was pretty good, but not what I was expecting!  I debated keeping the cup, but decided my original Vienna cup was cuter and how many novelty cups do you really need?
It was interesting that people were still showing up barely before midnight, then the actual transition to midnight was barely noticeable.  I wouldn't even have known if some drunk Americans hadn't yelled out, "Holy shit man, it's midnight!"  Then promptly busted a bottle on the pavement.  That appeared to be somewhat common here though as I saw several people throw their champagne glass and break it on the ground.  The only thing that really changed after midnight was that MORE people started to really dance in the area I was in, which was just slightly outside of the main party zone.
It was a little disconcerting to hear some sort of firework that sounded like an explosion a couple of times because I've never heard anything similar in the US.  I suppose that big gatherings of people do make me a little nervous given the attacks in Europe (and an attack actually did happen in Turkey 😭).  Fortunately, nothing happened in Vienna though, other than a high amount of smoke!
The next day, it was absolutely lovely to arrive in Paris to a light dusting of snow!  My home city has been hit hard with snow this year, which is really unusual, but down in the southern part of France, we haven't had any snow.
Reflections on 2016
My timeline seemed to be full of people who were happy to see the end of 2016 and to welcome a new (and hopefully better) year.  At first, I was in agreement with the sentiment, but then I realized that I really can't complain about what 2016 brought me.

It certainly wasn't a perfect year, but at the start of 2016, I was at a loss as to what I wanted to do.  I knew I was ready for a change, but I hadn't decided exactly what type of change.  One of my strengths at work is problem-solving, but I'd been in the same role for several years and wasn't feeling particularly challenged anymore . . . of course, this could be a case of "be careful what you wish for" because I'm certainly challenged in my new role!

I also knew that I didn't want to stay in Portland.  I'd wanted to leave to go to college, then wanted to leave when I transferred schools, but stayed both times for various reasons.  Portland is a nice place to live, but it wasn't "my" place.  Every time I left on vacation, I was never really excited to go back and it was always a countdown to the next time I could leave.  I wasn't sure if it would be different somewhere else, but when I had the opportunity for a "trial run" project in France, I learned that I didn't feel that way when I came back to France.  Even with a limited social life.  Even with a very challenging project to finish.  Even in a tiny, sleepy country town.

I've been to Germany, Switzerland and Austria while I was staying in France and I enjoyed all of those trips and still have a passion for traveling, but I am always happy to be coming "home."  I've had people discourage me from leaving Portland in the past by essentially telling me "wherever you go, there you are," meaning that if you're unhappy, it isn't because of where you're living.

I would have to disagree.

Not that I was constantly unhappy when I was living in the US by any means, but I did not like living in Portland.  I didn't like the 200+ days of gray skies and dreary rain and the culture just wasn't quite "me" either.  As much as I love my dear friends and family there, Portland never felt like "home" for me, even after 36 years of living there.

And that's particularly striking given the fact that my independence is seriously thwarted by my lack of French and I've had to learn to ask for help (constantly).  Yet, I'm also incredibly blessed to have so many people who've offered their assistance, even if the most convenient person for me to ask is usually PB.  Can't figure out how to get my trash pick-up started?  PB makes a call and my packet arrives within days.  Can't understand the lady speaking in French about a delivery of some sort?  PB calls and my furniture will arrive that week.  Once he got over his initial grouchiness about helping me, he's been incredibly nice about it, even calling the trash company multiple times, without me asking, after he received a busy signal the first time.  It certainly makes it easier to ask for help when people seem genuinely happy to do so!

I really like my sleepy little town; I really enjoy my co-workers; My house here definitely feels like "home;" I absolutely LOVE French cuisine and the sheer variety of dishes with loads of tasty veggies that are common here.  Even with the 2 hour train ride, it's a super easy jumping off point for my International travels too and often quite a bit cheaper since Paris is a major hub for a large number of airlines (I'm headed to the Philippines in March and China in May).

In short, don't run away from your problems, but if you genuinely feel that the place you are living in is not "home," you may be right!  When people asked where I'd want to live in Europe, France was always at the top of my list, even if I sometimes listed Scotland or Ireland as well, thinking it was more "practical" for language reasons.

And if you have a dream place to live, make sure that people know!  When circumstances in my life changed, one of the first things that I did was tell the Senior VP of my department that if anything ever opened up in Europe, particularly in France, to let me know.  The response was that Belgium was much more likely, yet telling him I wanted to go to France is part of the reason that I was selected to help train here in 2015.  And the successful training is why the plant specifically asked for me to help when their Controller left.  And, of course, that project is why I was offered the job and live here now!

May 2017 be the year that you too chase your dreams!

Monday, January 9, 2017

And Now There Are Six of Me, plus My First Virtual Reality Experience - Innsbruck Day 2

While Swarovski's Crystal Worlds starts out pretty tame . . .
and I found the huge "crystal" room entertaining - although a world with six of me is a scary thought  . . .
it rapidly started to feel like the designers were tripping when they created portions of it.  But, it was open later in the evening when everything else was closed, so it was worth a visit.  Each room had a display in several languages that explained what the theme was as well.  The second one below kept changing colors and had strange audio along with the visuals.
There was also a display of different costumes, jewelry and dresses that they've made for the rich and famous (the second photo is from their store, but representative of what is here).
I *might* have been enticed into buying myself a Christmas present as well . . . which is pretty much what they're hoping you'll do I think.  The nice coach bus that brings you leaves about 30 minutes later or 2 hours later, but this place only takes about an hour to finish, so you can shop or sit in the cafe.  There's not much else to do unless you have kids, in which case there are some play areas for them.  Overall, it was nice to see, but I wouldn't go back (except they had a pretty good sale in the store, so maybe just to there).
I only realized late on the 30th that many things were closing even earlier than normal the next day due to NYE, so I'd have to choose what I really wanted to see.  I was a bit done with history and museums, but Court Church looked unique.

I figured it would be a quick stop for me and it was, although I wouldn't have paid 7 Euro without the card.  The combined ticket with the Tyrolean museum would be a better option, but my time was short and I skipped it!
The reason this church sounded interesting was partly because a giant Emperor's tomb is here, Maximilian I, and partly because the non-Royal wife was also here.
But, the 28 giant statues captured my attention the longest.  In particular, I was again intrigued to find female ancestors represented along with the men!  It's an unusual aspect in Europe that seems to be more common in Austria.
After a short time here, I was off to stop two - the Tirol Panorama.  I expected this to be similar to the panoramic painting in Salzburg, and it was, but it depicted a later form that memorialized famous battles.  This one was of the Tirol Uprising; however, it was attached to a museum about the Tirol region and special soldiers.
Due to not realizing it was a larger museum, I didn't have much time set aside, but honestly, in-depth war details aren't really my thing.  I was happy to see the panorama, learn a little through the audio guide, see the view for myself and be on my way.  I spent an hour here, but 90 minutes to 2 hours are probably needed to do the whole thing.  I could have taken a little longer, but I wanted lunch!  
When I passed a Thai place and saw them chopping fresh vegetables, I was in!  The food was ok, but I'm beginning to understand why the French don't like spicy - when the dominate flavors of your food are salty and spicy, it's not the greatest; however, I was thrilled to have a heap of veggies!  I'm sure Austrians eat vegetables, I just couldn't seem to find any that weren't just a salad (or lettuce and tomato on a sandwich).  I've been seriously spoiled by French food, where I now eat more veggies regularly than ever before in my life.

The last place I visited was a favorite, although it didn't make for good photos!  It was a museum about hearing, but all interactive.  They had a special exhibit on vision too.  I really enjoyed the different displays about optical illusions and the explanations for why our eyes play tricks on us.  The best part in that section for me was a virtual reality roller coaster.  You are completely immersed and can look in any direction, such as looking down and it appears your coaster is right over the ocean.  Even better, when it drops you over a straight-down drop, the illusion is so real that I was holding on to my chair so I didn't fall out of it!  I've never been interested in virtual reality before, but this may have changed my mind.  With your site and hearing involved, it really tricks your body into feeling like it's experiencing whatever is happening.
The normal sound exhibits are also fascinating, like you can scream in a sound booth and find out how loud you yell - I can get almost as loud as an elephant, so I'm in no danger of being abducted any time soon.😉  You can also learn how you can "hear" through your bones by leaning your skull against an exhibit and still hearing music, another that shows you what it's like to have partial hearing loss up to being nearly deaf and even a hearing test (my hearing is perfect at all four decibel levels they test - clearly, my problem is just selective listening)😝.  I'd recommend Audioversum if you enjoy learning about your senses in a fun and interactive way (great for kids too).  I made it through everything in the hour I had, but it would have been better to have even more time.
Since the Stadtturm (City Tower) was open an hour later, I made it my final stop.  I have begun to wonder why I always feel that climbing a zillion stairs is a great way to spend a weekend or vacation though - these tight spiral staircases make me a little dizzy on the way down!  This one is clever though in that it's a double-helix, so a completely separate flight up and down.
It's just above the famous Gold Roof, where the NYE festivities had already started.  It was kind of fun to enjoy the early music in Innsbruck, but to end the day in another city.  Plus, there was a serious issue with sexual assaults in Innsbruck that night (11 out of the 16 reported in Austria when I saw the coverage) and mostly of women alone, so I'm perhaps glad that it was easier and cheaper to fly home from Vienna.
Tuesday I'll be posting more about New Year's Eve in Vienna and reflections on 2016.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Q&A: Are French People Accepting of You?

This week has been busy with close, so I'm publishing a culture blog that I had in reserve!  I'll be back with the last of Innsbruck and Vienna's NYE celebration soon!  Since I've had several people ask me the same questions, I thought my cultural posts could include answers to these questions (since others may find them interesting as well).

The first is: Are French People Accepting of You?  And the answer is, generally, yes.  There are a handful of French people (one co-worker, the doctor and maybe one or two random people) who clearly had an issue with the fact that I live here and do not speak fluent French though.
How could the French not love me with my super jolie French shopping basket!

Outside of those people, most of the French people I've met have been reserved, but polite.  Once I became a "regular" locally, they were more than just polite - the cashier at my usual grocery store always shakes my hand now (we're not quite at cheek kissing yet), the servers at the local restaurants know what I can't eat and advise me on what to order, the ladies at the bakery helpfully correct my French, the waitress at the beer bar made sure to catch my attention and smile when greeting me and even the servers at the pizza place remember me and seemed pleasantly surprised by my improvements in French when I last went in.  Becoming a "regular" is clearly helpful as it seems to take French people longer to warm up to you than it does Americans.  Once they do though, it feels much more genuine - you actually had to earn it a little!
While the majority of the French are in that middle ground of politeness, there are also a handful of French people who seem fascinated by the idea of actually knowing an American.  They think our accented French is "cute" and are curious about what the US is really like (vs what they see on TV) or they want to improve their English with a native English-speaker.  There could be more French people who actually fall into this category, but it isn't culturally acceptable here for a French person to approach a stranger and say, "Hey, are you speaking English?  Oh, you're American though?  How cool!  Why are you in France?"  If a French person is curious about you, the odds are that you won't find that out until you've become friendly over time.

I can't say that my experience will be the experience for everyone though.  When I mentioned being concerned about anti-immigrant sentiment in France right now, several people responded with some variation of "you're clearly not North African" or "you don't look Muslim" or "you look like you could be French" with a shrug or "your name is good since it's English" and so I have nothing to worry about.  Of course, this implies that if I did look North African or Muslim or somehow "not French" or had a different sort of foreign name that I could have something to worry about.

While this is sad, it clearly is not specific to France.  Even in the US, there are "desirable" immigrants with "sexy" accents and there are other immigrant groups that are frequently called out as "undesirable" or at least subject to constant controversy.  The irony, of course, is that these groups of "undesirables" change - at one point, the Irish were looked down upon in the US and now we love them and they clearly fall into the "sexy accent" category.

It is also fortunate that our general manager doesn't seem to care about any of this.  Since I've been here, he's hired virtually anyone he thinks is qualified for the job - young, old, male, female, Middle Eastern-sounding name and even a non-French-speaking American! (poor guy)😂

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

I Can't Get Over How Stunning the Alps Are - Innsbruck, Part 1

Due to general busyness, I had to take a short break.  I used to joke that I had the plague when I was really sick, until I found out that people can actually still get plague!  So, I don't have plague, but I am ill . . . which is not uncommon for me after traveling unfortunately. 😧

I'm not a morning person and I wish that I was in regards to trains.  I tend to take the late evening train, after everything has closed, but in the winter this means you miss out on one of the best parts of train travel - seeing the area that you're passing through!  I also realized that virtually everything closes by 17h00 (5 PM) in the winter, so my trains were later than necessary.  A 6 PM train would have been fine.  Or even 7 PM to allow time for dinner.
I did start my first day in Innsbruck rather early to beat the crowds, which I strongly recommend.  When I arrived around 9, the funicular was fine, but when I came down about 2 hours later, people were packed in like sardines!  I went to the funicular at Congress Station - this is important because putting in the name of the funicular (Hungerberg) will get you to the TOP station.  Of course, if you're going later in the day, the bus might be a better option.
The first cable car leaves from a nearby station at the funicular last stop and the views from that platform are lovely, although I imagine they'd be better with more snow.  Many areas in the Alps (not all) are suffering from lack of snow I learned.
The second cable car takes you to a height of 7,401 feet and you can see the entire valley, ringed by mountains.  Interestingly, I learned that this ring of mountains has some unusual effects on the city.  Innsbruck has an above average amount of sun because the mountains create a strong downward wind that pushes out clouds, but also causes headaches and aggressive behavior!  The view below is from the top, where there are several levels of climbing courses and also one of the steepest ski slopes in Europe.
My next stop was the Imperial Palace Hofburg (yes, there's one in Vienna too) because it's right by the bottom of the funicular.  Unlike the Mozart museum, where the no photos symbol is on every sign (I only missed it due to using the app), there is only one tiny spot where it tells you this here, which is right as you enter and I never saw it.  Consequently, I had several pictures before a staff member told me it wasn't allowed!  I'm glad that I have some photos though because it's really moving to see the obvious signs of Maria Theresa's love for her husband in multiple places in Austria.  This palace is no exception and she converted his bedroom into a chapel after his death here.
Sadly, a grand celebration here turned to tragedy when this palace became the location of her husband's death during a multi-day celebration of their son's wedding (son and wife shown below).
There was once a Tyrolean line of the Habsburgs and this palace was the main residence around 1500.  For me, Maria Theresa was a more fascinating historical figure than Sisi.  She was the only female Habsburg ruler and yet she managed to pull it off!  One of the steps towards this was managing image, so she included paintings in this hall of all of her children, with her daughters represented equal to her sons to help reinforce the new rule of the Habsburg-Lorraines.  Only the heir to the throne had a unique position of honor, pictured between his parents.
Another unique feature is that she memorialized the children she'd lost at a young age on clouds in the heavens.  I think this shows that, even in an era when losing children was much more common, that didn't mean they weren't grieved.
While the Bavarians ruled the area from 1806-1814 from this palace, the only time it was frequently occupied after Maria Theresa was by Franz Joseph's brother.  In 1848, his uncle, Ferdinand I, was viewed as too compromised to rule, so 18 year old Franz Joseph became ruler.  The next story was also intriguing to me - young Sisi was originally intended to marry Franz Joseph's brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig, and Franz Joseph was to marry her older sister, but the emperor fell in love and was stubborn enough to insist he'd marry Sisi or nobody at all.  Of course, he needed to provide an heir, so he was allowed to marry her.  We all know how well that worked out!  His only male heir committed suicide and Sisi was an unhappy wife.  She actually went against the common custom of double beds and shared rooms even and this single bed is part of the brightly-colored interiors that Karl designed for Sisi here.  One can only hope that Karl hadn't loved her also!
This is a really lovely palace and you can expect to spend 60-90 minutes here, although they only have 100 audio guides and you're stuck just reading or waiting for a guide if it's a busy day.  Although, if it's considered busy in December, I can only imagine how much worse it is during tourist season!  Ironically, for being "busy," I was often the only person in a room, which made for a nice visit.

The next stop was Schloss Ambras, which I was at first disappointed with, then loved.  The original fortress was destroyed in 1133, but part of the 13th and 14th century rebuild is still there.  I Interestingly, it was also built for a woman, Sigmund's wife, Katharina of Saxony.
The first part and much of its current appearance was from the 15th and 17th century when Ferdinand II remodeled it for his wife also.  Compared to other European countries, the Austrians seem to have more rulers who bucked tradition and married for love as his wife, Philippine, was not royalty and his children were removed from the line of succession as a result.  The castle continued to be used by the Tyrolean rulers until 1665.
The first part of the museum was all armor and military items, which don't interest me, so I was thinking that seeing a different style of castle was the best thing that I'd get out of my trip.  Then, I saw this very unique ceiling from 1586.  They have mirrors so you can get a better view of the details even!
One of the best parts was the cabinet of curiosities though.  It was far better than the one in St Peter's.  Plus, you're free to take pictures here!  This 1596 glass bell piano is the only one that still exists.
The collection here is just really, really impressive and with good explanations of the pieces.  There were even paintings of an ACTUAL hairy family with the family history of how many of the children were hairy and how many of the grandchildren also ended up with this unusual condition.
The hall of portraits is closed in the winter (the ticket is cheaper as a consequence if it wasn't part of the card), but the older part of the castle still has many things worth seeing - just be aware that it is nearly as cold inside as out!  You begin to understand why they had such massive fireplaces.  The Spanish Hall was a standout highlight of the castle though.  The painting was phenomenal, as was all of the wood carving.
It wasn't entirely clear to me how this particular castle escaped all of the looting and depredations that other locations have suffered and how it was able to retain so much of the original collections, but it's certainly to our benefit that it has!  There was even an original stained glass window that had the Ferdinand II's coat of arms.
By the time I made it back into town, I was pretty tired, but the Swarovski Crystal Worlds site was unique in being open much later than the other sites (and having it's own fancy bus).  It's in a subterranean cave, so it was fine to do as a night activity.  But, I'll start with that in the next post!