Month: October 2017

it’s the little things

“There is a difference between arrival and entrance. Arrival is physical and happens all at once. The train pulls in, the plane touches down, you get out of the taxi with all your luggage. You can arrive in a place and never really enter it; you get there, look around, take a few pictures, make a few notes, send postcards home. When you travel like this, you think you know where you are, but, in fact, you have never left home. Entering takes longer. You cross over, slowly, in bits and pieces. It is like awakening slowly, over a period of weeks. And then one morning, you open your eyes and you are finally here, really and truly here. You are just beginning to know where you are.” ― Jamie Zeppa


The oldest building in Cognac, which sits among the shops and all the hustle and bustle of modern life here.

Subtle differences in culture are sometimes the most difficult to accustom ourselves to. Personally, I’ve had several situations even in the past 24 hours where my American expectations got the best of me. I tend to think that the world is not so different, that people are people, and different cultures are simply products of different circumstances. But the truth is, sometimes the smallest of differences can make me feel like I’m living in a totally different world.

Scenario 1: The French “DMV”

So, as you all know by now, when Dust and I got here, we pretty much immediately bought a little used car to get us around. It’s been a good decision, I’m very happy to have the car. It’s been a great investment and has allowed us to go a lot of places already that we wouldn’t have been able to visit otherwise.

But the caveat to this privilege is that there is a whole lot of bureaucracy which goes along with buying a car, no matter what country you are in. In France, aka The Land of Bureaucrats, this is especially fun.

In France, to sell your car, you have to get something called a contrôle technique, which is basically an assessment by a mechanic that will let the buyer know everything that’s wrong with the car. As the seller, you also have to declare to the French government that you have sold your vehicle. The buyer has 30 days from the time that you make this declaration to go and obtain a new carte grise, which is the equivalent of an American car registration. You need about half a dozen documents and a dozen ounces of patience to complete this process.

The French don’t have a dedicated government office for vehicles like the American DMV. Instead they have préfectures and sous-préfectures, which are places where many different types of government business may be conducted. Sous-préfectures are much smaller than main préfectures, but many smaller towns don’t even have a sous-préfecture, so their residents must travel in order to visit the establishment. This can be particularly challenging because the hours are horrible. Luckily for me, Cognac actually does have a sous-préfecture, so I went there. They are only open 4 days per week from 8:30AM-12PM, to give you an idea of their operating hours.

To put it nicely, it was pandemonium in there. There are just as many people as you would expect at the DMV in the US, but they are crammed into half as much space with a quarter as many chairs. I have always hated going to the DMV and taking a number, but I will never complain about it again. In France, there’s no number to take, it’s just a shoving elbow fight to the desk to try to get your documents reviewed.

You need to have the old carte grise from your vehicle, the contrôle technique, a declaration of cession of the vehicle, a bill of sale, some kind of ID (I was super surprised they didn’t complain about me just handing over my American passport instead of a French state ID card), and also, you need proof that you live in France. The requirements are pretty numerous. So you pass all that over through a glass window, and then they take it all from you in exchange for an application, which you then have to go fill out. Hopefully you brought your own pen, because there is only one pen in the entire office and it’s attached to the desk.

So once I had filled out my application, I had to wait again to fight my way back up to the desk, and give it to the lady. She then took my application with no indication of whether I’d filled it out correctly, and told me to wait. Wait, wait, wait. I had arrived around 11AM, and at 12PM on the dot, even though 4 of us were still waiting, they locked the door and closed the curtain. Nobody else was coming in now.

“Should we keep waiting, then?” A girl around my age asked me in French. Heck if I know, but apparently I don’t come off as foreign as I feel, because she thought I was in the know. Another woman kept mumbling complaints to me under her breath (how French, right?) as if I could understand a word she said.

After 10 minutes or so, it was just me waiting alone.

“Madame …. er…. Sw—an,” the woman at the counter said. That “sw” blend does not roll off of the French tongue.

“Oui!” I said, excitedly. Maybe I was actually going to get the carte grise. I was getting a little nervous at this point because I had seen about 4 French people be refused theirs because they were missing something. I was also nervous because there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason to what I was going to have to pay. One man had paid 70 euros, one had paid 100 euros, another had paid more than 200. I was not particularly prepared to pay quite that much for a car registration.

Cent vingt neuf euros,” the woman said, with no further decorum or explanation. 129. I held up my credit card and waved it around like an idiot. “Avec une carte?” she said. Yep, lady. With a card.

That’s an hour and a half of my life I’ll never get back.

Scenario 2: “Welcome” to the Public Library


The rather posh courtyard of the Cognac public library.

After that fun experience, I went shopping with my Scottish friend for a good chunk of the afternoon, and we stumbled upon the public library, which, like the sous-préfecture, is only open for like 12 hours a week. It happened to actually be open! So I put on my brave face and we decided to try to go in. But the door was locked. I could see the librarians staring at us from their desk, and there was a buzzer. “Should I press it?” I asked my friend. After some confused and embarrassed giggles, I finally pushed the buzzer.

The librarian came out rolling her eyes. “Are you open?” I managed, in heavily accented French. “Well, the lights are on,” she responded, a bit irritated. Okay then. We wandered around the library for a bit, which was quite austere for a public space. The stairs were made of stone that looked like it had been there unaltered for centuries and people were working intensely throughout the building.

After wandering through all the books, I asked my friend how hard she thought it would be to get a library card. “I imagine it will be quite easy,” she said. I don’t imagine it will be, I thought. I nervously asked the librarian about it, and indeed, there is an entire list of documents, a fee, and an application required. The librarian and I discussed the details inefficiently, as she replied in broken English and I responded in my less than perfect French to create an interesting kind of franglais.

“It’s free for students,” she said. “Are you a student?”

“Yes, I am, but in the United States,” I told her. “What do I have to do to prove it? I have an American student ID.”

“That won’t work,” She said.

“Oh okay, what would work then?” I asked.

“A student ID card,” She replied. Helpful.

As I turned to put away the book I was hoping to borrow, she sternly snapped at me.

“You can’t take that.” I turned and said that I understood that I couldn’t just take the book and was going to put it back where I found it.

“Come back tomorrow.” It was more of a demand than a request. “I’ll hold it for you.” Great.

Scenario 3: You Can’t Have Food


After a laid back afternoon of browsing through the shops with my Scottish friend Kirstie, the two of us decided to stop for glass of rosé at a local coffee/wine bar. Politely in French, we asked for two glasses of rosé and a menu. The waiter informed us that he could not give us food. It was around 5PM, and what kind of heathen eats dinner before 6, I guess.

“Don’t you have a drink menu?” I asked him in French. Yes, he did. “Okay,” I said, still in French, “Can we have two glasses of rosé and the drink menu, then?” Kirstie had wanted to see it. He agreed, but then came back with just the menu. UGH. I waved down a different waitress and asked for the rosé again, but as soon as we ordered the wine, the menu was taken away.

As our wine arrived, we looked over to see another table being given menus and served a basket of bread. But we couldn’t have food? That makes a lot of sense.

“Do you suppose it’s just because I’m British?” Kirstie joked to me. I suppose it’s just because French cafés are among the country’s biggest non sensical mysteries.

Scenario 4: Teaching on my Own

I’ve typically been starting my classes in the main teacher’s classroom, and then taking half of her group to a different room. This morning, I waited in my own classroom for half of the group. The class was meant to start at 8:55, and by 9:05 I was wondering where on earth they could be. I didn’t realize that in France you have to actually invite the students into the classroom and not just wait for them to bust inside like in the US. They were all outside the whole time, and finally one bold boy came in and asked me if I wanted them to come in.

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you,” I told him, in French. “We’ve been waiting for you too!” Oops.

Not only do you have to invite the students to come in, they all just awkwardly stand at their desks until you give them permission to sit down. It feels archaic, disciplined, and just plain weird compared to my laid back public high school in Eugene. Even compared to the stricter Catholic schools I attended, it’s a little intense.

“Uhhh…yeah, go ahead and sit down,” I uncomfortably instructed them.

At that point, I was hoping that all of the awkwardness was over for the day, but then a girl asked my permission to get up from her seat and throw some trash away — American students would never ask permission to do something like that. Once again, it was crystal clear. I was not at home in this place. I may have arrived in France nearly a month ago, but I am only just starting to enter.

(but perhaps someday I will be at home here)

((i hope so — here’s to my entrance))




I realized I haven’t yet had a chance to write about our trip to LYON last weekend, which was super fun and memorable. Lyon is about a 6 hour drive from our home in Cognac, and it’s either the second or third biggest city in France, depending on who you ask.
When I was making plans for the trip, I told Dustin it would be just like driving to Seattle, but of course, with French roads and French tolls that really wasn’t the case at all. Plus, the roadside views were much less drab than the straight concrete hellscape that is I5. We would constantly look out and see beautiful hillside villages, green valleys, and un-clearcut forests. It was a truly beautiful drive. I’m really glad we were able to buy a car, it’s been amazing to drive through the French countryside and I think it will really shape our experience here in France.

The beautiful drive 

The main reason I had planned this trip to Lyon months ago was that my very favorite artist, Lorde, was performing there in a (relatively) tiny venue. In the States, she will play the Staples Center and Rose Quarter sized arenas, but in Lyon, she was playing at the Transbordeur, a tiny concert hall that only holds 1,800 people. AND, the tickets were half the price they were in the States.

I was sold. I bought the tickets, booked the AirBnb, and told my husband we were going way back in August, before we even got here. And although in the weeks leading up to the trip I was a bit overwhelmed and daunted by the task of actually getting ourselves to Lyon, I am super glad we made the trip. Lyon is a really beautiful city and we had a great time.

We got to Lyon late on Saturday afternoon, and did some crazy illegal parking (parking in the cities here is truly crazy) until our AirBnb host showed us how to get into our private underground garage parking spot, included with our stay. We didn’t move the car until we left because driving in the city just sucks too much. Dustin and I were both exhausted from the drive, and we took a long nap before heading downstairs to check out a place called “International Tacos.” Yep, I’m still craving Mexican food, everyone.

International Tacos was not what I had hoped. In France, a “taco” is apparently just any kind of meat in a flour tortilla — wrapped like a burrito. International Tacos had zero remotely hispanic options. You got your tortilla with meat and a weird housemade cheese sauce, plus your choice of other sauces. I got the sweet chili Thai sauce because I wasn’t about to order a “taco” with mayonnaise or ketchup slathered on it. Dustin got overwhelmed and just ordered the exact same thing as me, so there were no options to taste for variety. The chicken sweet chili wrap — I won’t call it a taco, because it wasn’t — was actually surprisingly good and filling. The first night, we also made a quick beer run and got a real treat for us — ice cream! At our apartment in Cognac, we don’t have a freezer at all, so we can never buy ice cream. I was super excited.

Cheesin’ at the Musée

On Sunday, we spent a good chunk of the day at the Musée de Confluence, which is a really cool, huge museum in Lyon. They have a bunch of permanent exhibits about the history of species and mankind, and the progression of technology. They also had a couple of temporary exhibits, including one about the history of poison and one about filmmaking. It was very enjoyable to spend our morning there. We wandered into a kind of crappy café for lunch after, where neither of us were all too impressed with our food, but hey, nothing is open on Sundays, so what can you do?

Amazing architecture. 

Eventually, we made it to my friend Siobhán’s house. Siobhán is a friend that I met in high school who also lives in France because she attends university here. The Lorde concert just happened to be on her birthday and in her city, so when I told her that I bought tickets, she decided to go with us to the show. Even though it was her birthday, she wanted to host us at her super cute apartment, which has amazing high ceilings and is in a beautiful neighborhood of Lyon. We drank wine and ate crackers with some delicious olive stuff that I still need to find here in Cognac, and Siobhán made us some delicious ratatouille before the show.

Beautiful painting at the Musée de Confluence / how I imagine Siobhán living her fabulous French life in Lyon. 

We wandered our way to the metro and then onto a few trams before finally stumbling into the concert. Riding French public transportation was pretty novel because there are no open container laws and Siobhán and I were literally just passing back and forth an entire bottle of wine the whole ride to the venue. The concert was packed.

French concerts are kind of different than American concerts. I feel that people have even less regard for personal space (true of all things here), and they dance a lot less. Everyone just kind of awkwardly sways back and forth, which suits me because I’m a horrible dancer. Also, listening to the French girls try to sing English songs in their cute accents was super endearing. Lorde was amazing and put on a great show (although I had higher expectations for the encore than just a 2 minute performance of half of a song, if we are being honest here.) But I really enjoyed the concert, the backup dancers and the ambiance of the performance was awesome.

An amazing show. 

Our first dance song at our wedding was a Lorde song, so being able to dance to that song with my husband again in Europe was a pretty surreal experience. Even though I’ve known that we were coming to France for awhile, sometimes it still doesn’t feel real that I’m actually and really here and so is Dustin. I will always treasure the memory of that song.

The next day, we slept in a little but got around pretty quickly and went on a Mexican Food Finding Mission™, part 2. I had heard there was a pretty good knock-off Chipotle in Lyon called GoMex, and it did not disappoint — although I did have to beg for a corn tortilla. The food was really yummy, although not as spicy as the Mexican food I make at home. Nothing is as spicy here. Also, GoMex had a small selection of Mexican ingredients! (they only have crappy Old El Paso stuff in the biggest supermarkets in Cognac). So we bought a couple of cans of adobe chiles to make barbacoa at home. I can’t wait.

Stolen from my husband’s Snapchat 🤓

With our bellies full of Mexican food, we headed out with one final pit stop — Starbucks. Dustin had seen a Starbucks on the way to GoMex and he really wanted to go to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte, because he’s basic like that. I love it about him. So we went to the Starbucks to get his PSL, and the barista even spelled my name right. The trick seems to be to say ah-mah-n-d-ah instead of uh-man-duh. Otherwise the French spell it “Emenda” instead of “Amanda.” It still feels a little silly to me to say my name in a French accent, but I’m getting used to it. With caffeine in hand, we finally headed home to Cognac on Monday morning. It was a great weekend full of adventures, and I can’t wait to experience and share the exciting upcoming weekends we have planned!


wherever you go, there you are


Each day Cognac feels more and more like a second home for us. Dustin and I have both spent our entire lives in the beautiful state of Oregon, so relocating to the French countryside has been a rewarding challenge. Each day, the society around us is teaching us to slow down and appreciate life’s simple pleasures and victories. My patience increases every day as I navigate bureaucracy and face the reality of other people having more control over my schedule than I do.

Some things that I’ve always taken for granted in the US, like being able to go to the grocery store or to a restaurant whenever it’s convenient, are incredibly difficult here. Businesses and stores close incredibly early by American standards, they are all closed on Sundays, many close in the middle of the day for lunch, and in Cognac lots of businesses also close for an additional, random day during the week — my favorite neighborhood bakery is closed on Wednesdays, for example. These things take some adjusting to when you’re accustomed to 24/7 convenience.

I’m also facing the challenge of an inconsistent and inconvenient work schedule. I’m only contracted to work 12 hours a week for my French schools. In theory, this should give me plenty of time to teach online and work on my freelance projects. In reality, it means that my schedule is at the whim of no less than fourteen teachers, who ask me to come for an hour at a time throughout the week as they see fit. So today, for example, I worked at the high school from 10 AM-11 AM and have to go back from 1 PM-2 PM and then go over to the middle school from 3-4:30 PM. So even though I’m not really working that many hours, the job still takes up a lot of my time.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t have way more free time than I did at home in the US. I definitely do. At home, I would work at least 30 hours a week and attend university full time, so this is certainly less intensive than that. I just don’t have quite the freedom of schedule that I imagined when making plans to come here.

A few weeks in, Cognac is starting to feel more like home, like I said. This is somewhat comforting, because we are starting to settle in and find our way around more easily. We have a grocery store that we go to regularly. We have a favorite neighborhood bakery and pizza joint. But the more that I settle here, the more I feel like I’m living reality instead of vacation. I think people tend to think that making a move to a new and exciting place will change the reality of their life (I’m definitely guilty of this, personally).

The truth is that wherever you go, there you are. You can move to the country that you’ve always dreamed of living in, but that won’t make you the person you wish that you were. I have dreamed of visiting France since I fell in love with the language at 17 years old, and I think I always imagined that being here would make me somebody other than who I am. And for all the ways that France is changing me and growing me as a person, I am still Amanda. I’m still myself. I still have the same faults, shortcomings, strengths, and weaknesses that I always have. And for all the ways that I’ve idealized France and French people…it’s like my parents have always told me: people are people, for better or for worse. I might be on a different continent, but I’m still living my life in a way that’s not all too different from before.

That said, I think moving to a new place is a great way to improve yourself. You are forced to see which parts of your life situation and your character faults exist as a result of your environment and which exist because of you. You must come to terms with your own participation in creating and fostering the less desirable things about you as a person. The only path to self improvement starts with recognition of the problem. I am happy to have this time and space to improve my patience, my temperament, and my numerous other flaws.

There are no perfect people, and there are no perfect places. But I believe that right now is the perfect time for each of us to consider our personal responsibility in creating ourselves and the lives we are living. You only get to do this once. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, wherever it might be.   

lazy sundays/homesick

 use this.jpg

This past week has been jam-packed with adjustment and activity. We went to IKEA in Bordeaux to get a few things to make our little apartment more homey. We’ve made a few anglophone friends here — some very kind and welcoming British expats, as well as the Scottish English language assistant for another high school in Cognac. It’s been great to spend time with them and share wine and meals in our old language in this new place. My husband and I also finally got to go out for a meal in Cognac, at the local Indian restaurant, which was a very fun, interesting, and tasty experience.

But to be honest, for me, being in a new place has been exhausting and I don’t have the energy to write about all that right now, so this is going to be an uncharacteristically short post for me. Between going back to my ESL teaching job this week and taking up a new freelance project and immersing myself in French all the time, I’m truly worn out.  

Today, I just wanted to write a short blog post to let everyone know something — moving to a new country is just as difficult and draining as it is fun and glamorous. I am tired, homesick, and not used to having to put so much effort in to go about my daily life. But I have to remember each day how rewarding this will be once I figure out the ropes. My husband looked at me the other day and told me something very wise. “Amanda,” he said, “You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  I think that’s true, but as someone who has spent her whole life very close to home, it’s been an quite an adjustment.

So even though I’m homesick for the comforts of the place where I spent 21 years before this one, I feel rather grateful on this drizzly Sunday. Grateful for weather that reminds me of home, a cool rain to clean off the streets of my new little town.  And I feel gratitude for something new I get to experience here: the laidback French attitude towards Sundays, the lack of expectation of productivity that allows me to hang out in the house all day curled in a blanket. Everything is closed on Sundays. I have no choice but to give myself a much needed break.

I’m looking forward to an afternoon that will allow me to recharge with some comforts of home — a home cooked Sunday dinner, a Meet the Fockers marathon with my husband, my blanket, and lots of snuggles. Tomorrow, I hope that I will feel more rested and ready to keep trying to make this new place my home. I love and miss all of you back in Oregon.