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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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Okay, so the flight across the world to France was the most miserable 11 hours of my life, no exaggeration. Just for the record, I’ve never, ever gotten sick on an airplane before and I have been on probably 100 flights in my life. About 5 hours in, I started to wonder if I had made a really, really bad decision because I was so incredibly sick. Like, the kind of sick that requires a mid-flight outfit change into your husband’s clothes because you puked all over yours. Have you ever changed clothes in an airplane bathroom? They are definitely not designed for it…Anyway, after 11 hours of horrible vomiting and nausea, we landed in France and I sat there dreading the rigmarole of French customs. But actually, it was surprisingly easy. We just gave our passports to the border control officer, then he stamped our visa pages, said bon journée, and sent us on our way. We grabbed our bags and walked out. Easy peasy.
First stamp in my married passport!
We were immediately accosted by some guy pretending to be an Uber driver who offered to take us to our destination. I was so tired that I just agreed and got in his car. When we got to our airbnb (12 minutes away by car), he tried to charge us 25€ but I only gave him 20€ because 25€ seemed ridiculous. Apparently this kind of haggling and adjustment is acceptable here, because later that night we walked to an Italian restaurant in the next town and were told 20€ would suffice for our 21€ bill when I tried to pay 25€. Bizarre.
We both slept like rocks last night. I’ve never slept so well in a strange bed, between being sick and the jetlag I was just exhausted. We woke up this morning in search of a car for the time we are here. After we’d both gotten around for the day, we sat looking on leboncoin, which is the French equivalent of craigslist, for something affordable and reliable.
We found one Renault Clio for sale fairly nearby that was listed by a car dealership. We figured that buying from a dealership was probably the simplest, safest route, so we hopped in an Uber and headed there. When we got there though, the address was just an apartment building, and nobody answered when we knocked. We had no cell phone service and no idea what to do. Dustin made me walk next door to a car registration place and ask about the car. The employee there said he knew the guy selling the car, but it wasn’t him, so he let me use the phone and I had to talk on the phone in French for the very first time with a French audience. Lovely. Somehow I got across that I wanted to see the car and the seller said he’d be there in an hour. Parfait. That gave us time to wander around and find some lunch.
I’ve discovered that it’s much less clear whether restaurants are open here. The door might be unlocked and the restaurant might be closed. There’s not very many signs listing store/restaurant hours. It seems like you just have to be in-the-know, I guess. But we eventually found a crêpe restaurant that was actually really good! All of the food was really fresh and delicious and we enjoyed two savory crêpes for lunch. We still had some time after that so we meandered through a pharmacy and a little grocery store. We also went into this cell phone store and bought a French sim card, which took me all day to figure out.
Then we headed back to meet the car seller, who still wasn’t there. So I awkwardly had to ask, again, to use the phone at the car registration place. The employee informed me, in very annoyed French, that I was the last person to use the phone so I could just hit redial.
The car seller said he’d be there in 10 minutes, so we sat outside waiting for him and hoping this was a real thing. And somehow it was! He eventually showed up with his 3 kids in tow in the car and in 20 minutes we became the owners of a 1999 Renault Clio, a tiny little egg of a European car that rolls down the road pretty darn well. Dustin drove us back home with pretty much no navigation direction (protip: your iPhone will recognize your location on the map with no wifi or cell service and you can create your own directions home in a pinch.) It took me several hours and a customer service phone call to figure out how to load money on the French sim card, but I eventually managed to exchange 15€ for unlimited talk/text and 10 GB of data, which will make finding our way around way easier.
After I’d figured that out, we headed to get some gas for our new car! This was kind of more complicated than I thought because the gas stations only accept AmEx (? I don’t know why AmEx ?) and French bank cards, so we had to find a full service gas station where we could pay cash. We eventually managed to put 20€ of gas in the car though, so go us. We were feeling pretty ambitious after that success so we decided to go to the grocery store, since the local CarreFour was only a few minutes away. It was really fun to wander around the grocery store and look at all the differences. Things like fruit, vegetables, cheese, wine, and whiskey are considerably cheaper than in the US. Also, readjusting to non (genetically) modified produce is a little bizarre — these strawberries are so small? Those apples don’t glean with wax? For 20€, we bought a baguette, two kinds of cheese, strawberries, an apple, a beer, shampoo, 8 liters of water, and conditioner. Not bad.
Unfortunately, the sim card phone died while we were in the store, but oh well. We still managed to find our way back home. After sharing a quick dinner of wine, cheese, apples, and baguette, we are pretty well exhausted again.
It makes it easy to adjust to the time change when you just constantly feel like you might pass out from fatigue. We’re looking forward to arriving in Cognac in a few days and settling into our semi permanent home.
I’m sitting on a plane in first class right now and it feels like I’m living in some kind of dream world. Somehow my husband and I are actually going to manage to leave our home, lives, and responsibilities to spend nine months in France together. It definitely feels surreal.
Today is the first day of our two day journey to France. We woke up early this morning to finish up packing and have one last breakfast with my family. It was really hard to leave my mom and my little sister Cassidy at the airport, but I am trying to stay positive and excited about this amazing opportunity.
Things at the airport went off mostly without a hitch, with the exception of my husband getting a very intimate full body pat down. I felt horrible for him because I have flown at least 3 times a year (typically more) since I was a kid and I’ve never gotten a full pat down. This is the second time he’s flown in his whole life and he got the complete, invasive treatment. Poor guy.
Oh, I guess one more thing did go wrong at the airport — I overpacked. By kind of a lot. Somehow one of our suitcases needs to weigh about 15 pounds less before tomorrow afternoon, so wish me luck with that.
We had a little while to hang out at the airport before our flight, but I think we boarded the plane in less than an hour honestly. We were the first people on there and our very nice flight attendant immediately offered us a drink. Dustin decided to go for it and order a whiskey, neat and I got a “sort of strong” (according to our flight attendant) mimosa. Our first flight was pretty much up and down, so we were at SeaTac before we knew it.
Now we’re headed to LA for the night before we head to France tomorrow afternoon. I am a bundle of feelings, anxiety, and nerves. Eugene has been my home for my entire life and I’ve never been away for more than a few weeks. Now I will be spending a year of my life halfway around the world and living in a different language and culture. It’s incredibly intimidating. It seems like the only way that I can calm down is to try my very best to live in whatever moment I’m experiencing and to focus on the short term. So, right now, that means trying to put these feelings in words and getting excited to see my childhood best friend Olivia in a few hours and all of Mindy Lahiri’s clothing in an exhibit tomorrow. We’re almost to France! oh my gosh.
Part 2 (September 21)
Okay, so I forgot to post this last night before I went to bed so I’m going to go ahead and do that now. Last night we made it to Olivia’s house and went and got some delicious Asian fusion food with her. She let us sleep in her bed because she’s a sweet, hospitable angel. Then, in the morning, Dustin and I drove around looking for a FedEx because, like I said, I overpacked and had to send 15 pounds of my crap back home. This was surprisingly hard because a lot of my clothes are light weight and cotton, so taking them out really doesn’t make much of a difference. But we eventually managed and then we headed to breakfast near Olivia’s at some random diner. After a little breakfast, we headed to Beverly Hills to the Paley Center because a ton of the costumes from The Mindy Project are currently on exhibit there. It’s amazing! I had so much fun looking at all the clothes and remembering the episodes they were in. The Mindy Project is one of my favorite shows, so I was incredibly excited that the exhibit was going to be up when we were in LA.
The Mindy exhibit at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills
We killed a few hours at some tap house that served pizza by the airport because we wanted to be nearby for our flight. It was really cool because they had self serve beer! They give you a little bracelet connected to your tab and you hold the bracelet up to the tap to activate it. The light turns green and then you’re able to pour the beer and it charges you per ounce of beer dispensed. It was pretty nifty! We also had a really good mushroom pizza as our last meal before France.
And then, tragedy struck. As in, we went to go to the gas station to fill up the rental car before returning it, and I realized I didn’t have my wallet, which contained my passport, of course. We frantically sped back to the restaurant and the really nice employees there helped me frantically look for it (they even looked in the trash for me!) to no avail. It had apparently fallen out of my bag in the parking garage, where Dustin found a Russian woman looking through it for my phone number. Thank God. That was a true moment of panic and my wallet is now very securely zipped into my purse.
Going to return the rental car was pretty weird, but fine. There was a dead bird sitting next to the reception area, perfectly intact, that the girl working told me she was absolutely not touching, so that was a bit creepy. Whatever. We made it to LAX though! and we found the mysterious XL airways! And we made it through security and I’m sitting at the gate. Next time I write, we will be in France! How exciting that we’ve almost made it. Travelling is seriously exhausting.
xo for real this time,
Bonjour mes amis! I see a lot of posts about packing or how to pack from others who are traveling abroad, so I figured I’d write my own… because the way that these people pack does not resemble the way that I packed in any way, shape, or form. The pristine, exact lists of others that detail how you should bring exactly 3 sweaters and 7 pairs of underwear feel distant and unrelatable to me. I guess I’m not very precise and organized, because I have no idea how many sweaters ended up in my luggage. Definitely more than 3 though.
For me, the more interesting part of packing is the process. How do you approach deciding which of your personal possessions bring the most comfort and functionality for your plans? Going from a two bedroom house to a few pieces of checked luggage is a trying process! Especially when your second bedroom has been functioning as your personal walk in closet… I was admittedly unorganized in my own process, throwing anything I might possibly want into a pile and then condensing it to the things I liked most that would fit.
My husband and I are fitting 8 months worth of personal comfort into 3 small suitcases and a couple of backpacks, so in my opinion we are travelling pretty efficiently. We are leaving the US in a little over a week, and we are pretty dang close to fully packed up. I started packing a little less than a month ago, which seems a bit overzealous, but it really helped me with my stress levels. I just started taking everything that would be too warm to wear for the rest of my time in Eugene and packing it up. Voila, winter wardrobe, check. My closet is completely empty at this point, I’m basically living in my favorite 3-4 outfits that will go into my carry on bag until we leave next week. As my clothes went through the laundry the last week or so, I’ve just been plucking them out, rolling them up, and wedging them in my suitcase until it’s full of all the things from my wardrobe I like most. Make sure you roll instead of folding! It saves so much room in your bag to pack this way.
I don’t have the discipline or desire to break things down by category or to try to achieve some perfect clothing balance. Nope. I probably have way too many pairs of tights and Free People sweaters in there, and not enough jeans or socks, but that will feel like home to me. Packing is not a one-size-fits-all solution — you have to take the things that are important to your comfort, happiness and well being. There’s no universal checklist for that. If I end up desperately needing something during my time in France, I’ll go find it! It’ll be part of the experience of living there.
With that said, there are a few things that I’ve specifically packed because I don’t think we will be able to find them (easily) while abroad, including:
- Random items of convenience that are difficult to find, like Euro-to-US plug converters, reusable water bottles (which are not as culturally ubiquitous as the US), and silicone wine glasses for drinking while traveling.
- American Foods
France is a foodie’s dream destination. My husband and I are both excited to try a variety of new wines, cheese, and cuisine. But we also anticipate missing the comfort of home, and we’ve heard that French Mexican food is less than delicious. So we are traveling with a couple of American food items, including taco seasoning for when the Mexican food cravings hit. We are also bringing along some stuffing mix for our Thanksgiving in France, as well as some onion soup mix because I have no idea whether they have it and we always use it to make burgers. Hopefully the customs agents don’t have a problem with these sealed, dry foods.
- BO control…My freshman year of high school, my world history teacher Mr. Muilenberg gave us a piece of sage advice: Always bring your own deodorant when you travel abroad. Many American accounts of French deodorants confirm that this is indeed pertinent wisdom. Costco size pack of Dove Extra Strength, check.
Some over the counter American medicines are not sold at all in France. Others, like Ibuprofen, are sold in tiny quantities (think 8 pills). I’m filling my checked bag with a Costco sized package of DayQuil, NyQuil, and Advil to keep colds and headaches at bay. I’m also bringing a couple of big bottles of Vitamin C sour gummies because the gummies are better, and what if they don’t have them???
- English language resources
One of the most exciting (and simultaneously, scariest) parts about moving to France is that we will be living in a non-English speaking country for the first time in our lives. Originally, I planned to bring a lot of English language books and literature to make up for this, but luggage weight limits make this idea a little implausible. I will be traveling with my trusty iPad as an e-reader instead! I am, however, bringing English language phonics/educational flashcards, English language stickers for my students, and English language resources that show off Oregon, like local newspapers and brochures from the parks & rec department.
I’m also bringing some German workbooks with me, because one of my goals for the year is to work on learning a 4th language since I’ll have more free time than I’m used to. I don’t know that I’m quite ready to learn a foreign language from French (yet. But soon!)
- Beauty products
I know France is supposed to be beauty/fashion paradise, but I’m really attached to my shampoo, you guys. I’m also not sure how much of a thing purple toning shampoo is in France. So I’m taking 2 liter bottles of it and hoping that’s enough. I’m also bringing an ungodly amount of makeup because I’ve heard brands that are mid-range here (i.e. clinique) are outrageously expensive there. So I’ve got myself a compartment of glossier, mac, benefit, and chanel. Super prepared.
Next week when I am completely packed, I’m going to try to make a much more detailed post about my carry on bag…That’s where I’ll be trying to stuff all my true essentials…This backpack has to get me through a 5 day trek from Eugene, to LA, to Paris, to our new home in Cognac in under 5 kg…quite a challenge, it would seem.
Do you have any amazing packing tricks? Share them with me below!
If everything I’ve always heard about French bureaucracy is true, the visa application process functions as a great introduction to a special kind of hell. This process is filled with small, important details and long, complicated forms. It’s largely devoid of human contact (there’s definitely no phone number for questions or concerns) and it sort of makes automated customer service calls feel personal.
We applied for our visas at the San Francisco consulate, where we were required to appear in person as part of the application process. We couldn’t just appear at our convenience, either. Appointments are required, and they book up months in advance. The consulate is over 500 miles from our front door in Oregon, but others there had trekked even further. This one location is responsible for serving the residents of Northern California, Northern Nevada, Alaska, Hawaïi, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and the Pacific Islands, including Guam. That’s quite a geographical reach. I guess we should count our blessings…at least we didn’t have to fly there!
The beautiful drive to San Francisco
But before we ever got to the Bay Area, there was so much to be done. We applied for two different types of visas. I applied for the Long stay visa for “lecteurs” and “assistants,” a visa that requires a particular, special status that I had because of my work contract.
My husband, Dustin, applied for a long stay visa for visitors. There were a few main differences worth noting between our two visa application processes:
- The assistant visa was far simpler than the visitor’s visa. My husband had to produce information about his income and profession that was never demanded of me
- My husband also had to pay a fee for his visa of $113.00, a fee that is waived by the TAPIF program for assistants
- To obtain the visitor’s visa, my husband was required to purchase and show proof of health insurance coverage for the time we plan to be in France, whereas I was not required to purchase any coverage (my job includes health insurance)
- He also was required to promise not to work, and obtain a notarized letter stating that he wasn’t planning to work during our time in France
We were both required to produce various documents that demonstrated our identity and status in the United States, such as passports, our marriage certificate, birth certificates, etc. We spent weeks gathering all the required information and documents and on Thursday, August 3rd, we took off early from work to make a short lived road trip to California. We drove, almost without stopping, to Oakland, where my old debate coach Steve lives. Steve had kindly offered to let us crash at his place before our 9am visa appointment, but when we got to Oakland he wasn’t there, even though it was a little after 10pm. We were greeted instead by his partner, Becky, a kind and bubbly woman who was eager to welcome us to her home and introduce us to her various cats, some of which were honestly kind of scary. I mean, one of the cats only had one eye and really hated me — I’ve never seen such an intense one-eyed glare in my life.
Anyway, to escape the evil feline, Dust and I decided to go find some dinner. Cue the Yelp search for nearby food that was a) good and b) available after 11pm. We jumped back in the trusty Honda (that thing has taken us thousands of miles at this point. A true soldier) and headed for a reasonably reviewed Mexican restaurant that was, for some reason, operating on a bizzarely night-owl schedule. When we arrived there, I could quickly see why — we were across the street from a mammoth hospital. Nurses and doctors in full scrubs trickled in after their swing shift or in the middle of their graveyard for chips & salsa and big, refillable glasses of soda. My husband and I joked that this place was the Shari’s of Mexican restaurants, with its late hours, diner booths, and multiple page menu. I couldn’t tell you much about the food, except for that it tasted pretty dang good after a long day of traveling.
Exhausted and waiting for FOOD
After we finished eating, we headed back to Steve and Becky’s place to find Steve, finally, in the flesh, on his own couch. It was late and he had worked all day and we had driven all day, so we only had the chance to chat for a little while, but it’s always nice to catch up. Dustin and I got a fitful night’s rest (or lack thereof) and woke up early in the morning to head to the BART station. I pulled on a long dress and made him put pants on (the French consulate just seems like a no-shorts place to me. I recently read an article about how the Parisians call shorts “half-pants,” which pretty much confirms my theory) and we hopped back in the Honda and headed to the most convenient BART station.
Basically, driving to the BART on the outskirts of Oakland and taking a less than ten minute BART ride into the city would save us a bunch of time because we wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on the bridge. Steve had assured us that there was a huge parking lot that rarely filled, but I don’t think he uses the BART very often…the lot was jam-packed by 8am. We parked on the street a few blocks away, hoped for the best, and walked to the station.
By this point, the nerves were really getting to me. My visa through this program was pretty much a guarantee, but my husband’s was much more up in the air and I still wasn’t quite sure what we would do if they denied his application. I desperately wished that he spoke French fluently, that we had more robust bank accounts to show them, anything to increase our chances of getting that magic approval. So when my husband tried to tell me something about the automated ticket purchase machine, I was nervous and also my stubborn self and didn’t listen. The BART tickets are a little paper card that you load with the fare amount you want and scan when you enter and exit the station. Different stops cost different amounts. We needed a total of about eleven dollars, and so I put the entire fare on one ticket because I thought it would just be debited off of the card. Nope. Each rider needs her own ticket, as the security lady smugly informed me when we tried to enter. I stood on the other side and watched Dustin struggle with the ticket machines, which, for whatever reason, absolutely refused to read either of our debit credits and five credit cards.
The BART lady seemed less and less smug the longer I stood outside her little security booth. Eventually, after five minutes or so, she came out and said, a bit annoyed, “Ma’am, can I help you?” I pointed to Dustin, who was still struggling to jam as many credit cards as he could find into this stupid ticket machine so we wouldn’t be late. “I’m just waiting for my husband, since we can’t use the same ticket. We’re from out of town and didn’t know.” I’m not really sure why I said this, because it was glaringly obvious that:
a) we didn’t know how to use the BART tickets and
b) we were from out of town – my cream colored Lucky Brand floral maxi dress and leather ballet flats were not really vibing with the scrubs and work uniforms of this commuter train station. At all.
The BART security lady then proceeded to give me the low-key kind of eye roll that adequately expresses your dissatisfaction with a customer without getting you fired. Then, she walked through her special security gate over to Dustin and helped him run the card but even she had to try more than one. So it seriously wasn’t just him…
We (somehow) made it onto the train that we’d originally planned. The BART trains are weirdly loud and claustrophobic feeling, inside and out. There are a lot of whoosh sounds, and there are people all around you inside, and walls outside every window while you’re in motion. And then somehow, in eight short minutes, we went from a parking lot in Oakland to the middle of Montgomery Street in San Francisco. We’d actually made it!
…Well, almost. Now we had to find Kearney Street and the Consulate itself. You would think that this building would have some kind of grand facade, since you have to make appointments to enter three months in advance, bring your appointment booking receipt, and go through two security guards in order to get inside. But no, the San Francisco French consulate is nestled into just another boring office building and there is no obvious sign indicating its presence from the outside. We found it without much trouble and were informed by the friendly lobby security guard that there was no way in heck we would be admitted a minute before our 9am appointment, so we ventured across the street for a coffee. The coffee shop we found was very bizarre, it had been purchased by Capital One and you received an automatic discount on your coffee for using one of their cards. While you waited for that java, you could apply for a new credit card or bank account. Handy, I guess.
We went back to the building where the consulate was to find a line of other people waiting. We let them crowd the first elevator and claimed the second for just the two of us. Dustin shook his head at me as I pressed every available elevator button on the way to our actual floor, but hey, I wanted to know what else was in this mysterious, unmarked building (answer: a lot of Bank of the West offices). When we finally arrived at our floor, we were greeted by another security guard who asked us to put our stuff on the counter and walk through the metal detector, which I set off. The security guard didn’t really care though — he just waved me through and we entered the waiting room.
I thought we’d be taken back into an office and interviewed, but instead we were told to sit and wait in what was a truly bizarre waiting room. The chairs were arranged in forward facing rows, and signs on the wall requested that we please keep our cell phones put away. It reminded me of the social security office but more of a spectacle situation — everyone in the waiting area could directly see the person having their application processed while that person stood at the glass window with one of the two Consulate employees. The processing areas looked strikingly similar to a social security office, honestly, but there were no numbers to indicate an order for those still waiting. Instead, we were forced to remember and implement some kind of order among ourselves. A test of politeness or a social experiment in civility, perhaps.
When it was finally our turn, I was truly a bundle of nerves as my husband and I approached the glass window. I, being the well trained overachiever that I am (thanks Mom…), had taken all of our documents, ordered them as indicated by the list on the consulate’s website, and organized them in glossy sheet protectors before binding each of our applications in a 3 prong folder. This way, I figured, the processing employee could simply flip through the folder and slide out any documents she needed to keep. I was trying to be helpful, but the young French woman processing our application was truly irritated by my efforts. She tossed the folders back at me and told me she would see us after I’d taken all the documents out. Of course. Sorry for trying to simplify your job, lady.
It took everything in me not to start bawling hysterically right then and there. I was fighting back real, big tears as I pulled out the documents I’d spent hours organizing. The combination of humiliation and exhaustion is consistently brutal. When we finally returned to the desk, it took all my self control not to glare at this French lady. I was exhausted, nervous, and irritated by this point. And of course, my husband tried to diffuse the tension by telling this processing woman that he “liked her meme,” aka the one that was posted on the social security office style glass between us, which was basically this with correct grammar:
This was the first time the woman actually looked at us directly, and there was a moment of awkward silence during which I kind of wanted to melt into the ground and kind of wanted to smack my husband for not being on his best, one-hundred-percent prim and proper behavior. But that was before the visa lady cracked a smile and burst into the biggest belly laugh I’ve ever heard, and literally snorted. So, I guess maybe she was just sick of everyone acting so serious all the time. She quickly looked through our papers and asked us a few very basic clarifying questions before shuffling them all back to me. Dustin asked her if everything looked good, and she said it all was in order. She took our fingerprints digitally, and then we were out of there. I have never felt such a feeling of relief — there had been months of build up to this appointment and it was finally over. I grabbed my husband’s hand and we took the BART back to Oakland, walked to our car, and drove straight back to Oregon, stopping only for a brief Chipotle break.
We resumed our normal lives only slightly preoccupied with worry that the French government would find some reason to reject us. This worry was fruitless, since our passports and visas came back to us in the mail a week and a half later. Thank goodness. I was surprised to learn that a visa is basically a fancy, computer printed sticker that they place inside one of your passport pages. I’m not sure what I imagined, but that’s not quite it. The relief of having our visas in our hands was even greater than that of leaving the Consulate in San Francisco. In short, I’m glad that’s all sorted.
It was the fall of 2016 and the end of university was in sight. I was living with my long term boyfriend (now my husband!)
I would come home from class, eat some pre-planned crockpot dinner, and sit on the couch with him wondering what was next. What exactly do you do with a degree in French and history? People had been asking me this question for quite some time, and they always seemed dubious about my future prospects. I had applied to law school and been accepted, but I wasn’t ready for the monotony that school inevitably brings to my routine to take over my life for another 3 years. Not quite yet.
I didn’t really know what my other options were. I had begun to accept the prospect of jumping directly from undergrad to law school, although I wasn’t thrilled about it. Then one day, a dangerous and exciting seed was planted in my mind. I had come to speak with my French literature professor about a presentation on a beautiful, rainy fall day. It was the kind of day that made me grateful for the University of Oregon’s thick, omnipresent trees and their shield from the wet, blustery world. Everything glistened green and dewy around me.
My professor was a sweet little French man who encompassed tradition with his very presence, a true gentleman who could barely stand to let the young ladies in his classes open the door for themselves. Although he was certainly past the days of his youth, the brilliant sparkle in his eyes clearly revealed the jovial person within. He looked at me with those lit up eyes, and told me that I absolutely MUST go to France when I graduated. It would change my life, he promised.
My professor grabbed my notebook from my hands and scrawled 5 letters in it with determination: TAPIF. I didn’t think much of it. I studied two languages in college, and professors were always urging me to go abroad and immerse myself. But something about this interaction stuck with me. I wasn’t sure whether I would get into the program, or whether I would even apply at that point, but it was definitely on my mind.
Then finally, last winter, I made the life changing decision to apply for a job with the program my professor suggested: TAPIF. For those of you who aren’t familiar with TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program In France), it is a program sponsored by the French government that places native English speakers like me (as well as speakers of other languages) in French public schools as teaching assistants. You have to speak French at an “intermediate” level, but high level fluency is by no means required. There are 1,100 spots available to Americans and about 1,800 people apply for those each year. It’s a desirable program because the government sponsors and streamlines your visa process (they even pay your visa fee!) Anyone who has attempted to live abroad or lived abroad understands the struggle of visa sponsorship/the visa process in general, so this is a pretty big advantage.
As wonderful as this program is, the process definitely is not designed for those lacking in patience. Applications are due mid-January and decisions don’t arrive until April 15. This year, there was a delay and many participants, myself included, didn’t receive their acceptance until days after the decision deadline. I was relieved to (at last!) open mine, which announced that I had been accepted and placed in the Poitiers region. This was my third choice, which is obviously better than not having my preferences considered at all, but also not completely ideal. Nonetheless, I was excited about my acceptance into the program and thrilled at the opportunity to live in France for part of the year.
After I received my acceptance, the waiting game recommenced. Now it was time to await my actual work contract — I wouldn’t know which specific town I would be teaching in until I received this document. The program told us that it could arrive as late as mid-August, and our contracts begin October 1. This doesn’t provide much turn around time for the assistant to arrange housing and other accommodations for their arrival. I was very lucky and incredibly grateful to receive my assignment early in July and find out that we would be living in Cognac, a sweet medieval town of about 20,000. This seemed much preferable to the 900 person villages some others were being assigned to, plus all of my friends and family can say “cognac” consistently because they enjoy drinking. “Poitiers” was a lot more difficult for the non-French speaking part of my tribe.
I was also grateful to find out I’d be working with two very kind English teachers, both of whom made an effort to contact me immediately. I will be working at a middle school and a high school, and both of the teachers I will work under have been extremely kind and helpful as we prepare to make the move to France. At this point, I am not entirely sure what I can expect to find when I arrive in France, but I will definitely keep you posted.