Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Monday, July 18, 2016

Deep thoughts for a Monday

My mind has been somewhat preoccupied for the past few weeks.  You see, my dear husband would like to go back to school and start a masters degree in the fall. It's a subject he absolutely loves and is passionate about, and the program director is someone who is really well-known in his field. Sounds good,  what's the issue you say?  Well, luckily, this being France, it's not cost!  It's that this is an after-hours program.  It would be a minimum of three nights a week (and sometimes four) for the next two years, with C getting home around 9:45pm each time.

But ksam- you did your own masters and C was so supportive!  I know.  I know.  But I hunted around and chose one 1) the shortest master I could and 2) the one that encroached the least on our time together. I was lucky and had class every other Friday and Saturday, so it really only ate up two days per month of our time together.  And because I work from home, I was able to do all of my studying during the day, so it didn't really impact our time together.

This would be most weeknights, and then weekends spend studying. For Two Whole Years. I feel so selfish even writing this. My husband is one of the most selfless people I know, and has never once complained about all of my travel or asked me not to go on a trip.  He turned down a job that he really wanted because it would have required him to travel too.  When I am home, he does everything to ensure that he is home at nights so we can be sure to spend time together given my crazy travel schedule. He constantly accompanies me to the airport/train station, and is there waiting for me when I get back, even if it's just so we can take the RER together.  He spends most of his vacations on location with me, while I work.  So he deserves this. 

But I can't help be worried about us - our time together is already limited as-is, and this is going to cut it back even more.  I feel we have a strong relationship, but I also firmly believe that relationships take nurture.  We have been very thoughtful thus far about ensuring we spend enough quality time together. And C, bless his heart, is convinced will we still be able to do that.  I on the other hand am not so convinced. Out of the 30 people in my masters program, 8 people had divorced by the end of our program.  And they were all in situations closer to C's, ie needing to do all of their studying at night and on the weekends. Two more are still in an on-going affair with each other, four years later. C's take on it is that they must have already been in 'fragile' couples going in, but I saw firsthand how much time the program took up for them outside of class, and how much pressure it put on their personal life.

So I don't know. I want to be able to support him on this.  And it's really important to him that I do.  We've made my career such a priority for the the past five years. It almost hurts me to even write this, but is it time to think about slowing down on travel?  I've worked so hard to get where I am, and to establish a 'real' career in France. And I love my job and all the crazy opportunities it has afforded me. How can I give that up? But then the other half of me says "That's so selfish! You're a team. It's his turn now."

I guess the good thing is that we've got the rest of the summer to figure out how to make it work. And at least 50% of us is convinced that we will. :)  But if anyone has any suggestions about successfully combining working full-time+studying+family, I'm all ears!

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Friday, July 8, 2016

C and I are back from two weeks in the US. It was a total whirlwind for me, and a lovely, relaxing vacation for him (at least one of us is doing it right lol).  Between work, after-work activities and family, there are never enough hours in the day and I always come back more tired than before I left, but I know I'm lucky to have all of these basically free voyages to the US. Or at least they would be free if I could stop myself from doing all that pre-US online shopping...

My birthday was pretty low-key this year since on the same day, C & I became godparents to my cousin's baby girl.  Why she chose the two France-living, childless, non-church goers of the family to be godparents is still not exactly clear to me, but I'm touched we were chosen and I hope we can live up to her expectations of us.

The following weekend (the weekend of the 4th), we had gathered 25 family members to have a gender-reveal party for another cousin, but she very sadly miscarried at 22 weeks the day before the party.  It sent everything into a huge topsy-turvy and our plans were up in the air for a while, but in the end, we all still came together at the lake and spent a family-filled weekend together. It was also a bit awkward for my Paris bff, who is currently doing an internship in NYC and who had flown to MN to join us for the holiday, but I've been missing her terribly and it was so great to catch up in the sun.

On the way back, I ended up losing my French passport. The Delta check-in agent had trouble understanding how I could have two passports and it took a lot of back and forth for her to get it (and this was at the priority counter).  We finally got checked-in, but I realized much too late (ie just after boarding), that she had never given back my French passport.  I informed one of the flight attendants, and she walked me off the plane and back up to the gate so we could see if I could get it back.

The gate agents also had trouble understanding how I could have two passports and started frantically typing in their computer and insisting I couldn't fly and that they were going to take my luggage off the plane.  I was like "Wait a minute. Please just STOP and listen to me before continuing. 1) My husband is still on the plane and I can't just leave without telling him and 2) I can still enter France on my US passport, so everything is OKAY. There is no need to freak out". (Even if it's not technically legal for a French citizen to enter France with a US passport, I sure wasn't going to tell them that!).  We finally got it sorted out and I was allowed to reboard, but my Fr passport was never found. I was a bit nervous throughout the whole flight since we were transiting through Amsterdam and they always ask so many more questions then French customs, but luckily the guy waved me on through without asking why I didn't have a visa nor a return ticket.

I'm flying to Egypt in a few weeks (eep!), and given the current political tensions, I would rather go on my French passport than my US one, so that meant I had to go get a new passport asap. The fonctionnaire I dealt with was a complete tool. He didn't like that I had used a paper clip to avoid losing my ID photo and spent two full minutes examining my pic for the tiniest of scratches or creases.  And then he almost made me redo my ID photos anyways because 25% of my ears were covered by my hair. WTF??  He was upset I had not signed the 'lost passport' declaration form before coming - but sometimes you have to sign those sorts of things in person, so I figured it was better to wait. Then I almost had to redo my application too because I didn't have accents on the letters. But the instructions specifically stated it had to be done on the computer, in all caps - and the majuscule letters don't come with accents, so I would have had to go in and manually insert them one by one.  I was like come on dude - stop looking for any excuse to refuse my application and just process the darn thing. Anyways, in the end I got it done and I'm crossing my fingers it will show up here sometime in the next two weeks.

As a side note, I also learned that you can now buy timbres fiscaux on line here, which I think is a great leap forward.  That was the one step I was dreading in the application process, and I was happy to learn there will be no more of having to go to five different tabacs in order to find one that finally has enough in stock to purchase.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Transferring money back home

Quite a while back, I mentioned that I was looking for an effective way to save money for retirement since French savings account only offer peanuts in interest and getting a French assurance vie policy equals mega headaches for US tax declarations. (If you're looking for more information on why you shouldn't get ever sign up for an assurance vie, this article does a great job of explaining it here. As a side note, this also applies to investing any mutual fonds/stocks offered by your local bank).

So that doesn't leave a whole lot of options for Americans in France, and I started to look back to investing in the US.  I came across a group of Financial Advisors called Thun Financial, who are dedicated to helping expats abroad, and I have since watched several of their webinars.  While I have not hired them since the amount of money I have isn't nearly enough to be of interest to them, I have been able to get some good advice from their website and frequent free webinars (which is basically invest in the US in both US & World funds).

That means however figuring out how to conveniently and regularly get money back to the US in a cost-efficient manner.  Going through my bank means paying a wire transfer fee here, a wire reception fee there, plus getting a sometimes questionable exchange rate, so I definitely didn't want to do that on a regular basis.  I use XE.com (and their app) regularly for calculating exchange conversions, and I'd heard a lot of good things about them online regarding their money transfers, so I decided to give it a go last week.

The whole process was initially a bit confusing, despite their promises of "it's so easy to use!", so I thought I'd detail it here in case anyone else is looking to transfer money back home.

First of all, you have to sign up with XE, and there is a bit of information verification - including your home address, your French bank account, your home bank account, a photo ID, and a RIB or EDF bill.  Once that has all been approved, you can start your first transfer.  It starts by logging on to their Trade website, and completing a trade. You can either do an immediate trade, set up an automatic trade when the exchange rate reaches a certain rate, or you can set up a rate alert for the next seven days.

To do an immediate trade, you enter in the amount you would like to transfer, and then it gives you an immediate quote of how much money you will receive in the foreign currency.  If you're happy with that, you press "book trade", and you'll receive an email asking you to transfer the EUR amount to their French bank account, specifying your unique trade quote as the object of the transfer (be sure to select "EFT Trade" - it takes a day or two longer than a wire transfer, but it is the free option).  They will then transfer that same amount to their account in your home country, who will then do an internal transfer to your home account.  So as you can see, there's a few more steps involved, but in the end, it means you don't pay an international transfer fees on either end.  The rates they quote are also better than I've seen quotes at least by the BNP.

So voila - a little how-to on an inexpensive way to transfer money back to your home country!

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lost in Translation

One of the other reasons I don't really enjoy going to China is that our Chinese team doesn't really have a great level of English.  This makes anything more than basic communication difficult, and also means that they rarely translate anything for me (besides the gross dishes we eat lol), which means I spend most of the day in the dark. It also means that I don't really connect with our customers, and there's no sharing of cultures - two of the things that help make all this travel bearable. So instead I spend a lot of time staring at the wall, daydreaming or on my phone.

During one particularly long dinner, the big boss had spent 5-10 minutes telling a story that had everyone laughing. At the end of it, I asked one of our staff what he had said, and he replied "He had a stroke".  I was like "Hmm...Are you sure that's the right word?"  So he double-checked the translation and it was indeed stroke. What?  How on Earth is that funny? But my further attempts to understand were met with blank stares and it's still a mystery today...

On a completely unrelated note, the ladies from my masters program organized another night out last night. We've been taking turns hosting, and it's always a good time. Somehow we got to talking about various theme parties we've been to (the "Come as your favorite metro station" was voted the best idea), and I mentioned that the night I would be attending a sort-of costumed party.  The wonderful Lily will be celebrating her recently-acquired French citizenship, and asked us all to come dressed as a French person.  So I jokingly asked the girls if they had any ideas of what I should wear, and I was just met with blank stares. I offered "You know....stuff like striped shirts...berets...a baguette under your arm?"  Cue the crickets!  I tell ya, it was pretty awkward there for a minute, but I sure was laughing on the inside.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Back before you know it

It's not often you get to say "So this week I went to China for four days".  I was told a few weeks ago that the trip was canceled, and then all of the sudden last Friday, they were like "Actually, can you leave on Sunday?".  All of this mega travel must have really changed me, because instead of freaking out about having to literally go to the other side of the world in two days, I just sighed and said "Let me check out some flights".

I ended up finding an excellently priced ticket on Finnair, an airline that I used to fly all the time when we would go visit our family in Finland, but it's been probably 20 years since the last time I used them. I wasn't super excited about having a connecting flight, since I've got a pretty good routine going on those 12h flights now that helps me avoid jet lag, but I was looking forward to picking up a few Finnish items for my family there.

It was actually really enjoyable to fly Finnair - I loved the blueberry juice they served and the Marimekko blankets and pillows.  The flight attendants were super nice, and extremely patient with my attempts to speak to them in Finnish. It actually ended up making me feel really nostalgic for my Finnish-speaking days, and I loved letting the conversations of fellow passengers roll over me.  For some reason, my last trip to Finland didn't jog my memory as much, but this time, I had memories and Finnish words popping up left and right. I understood much of what was said, and was able to order my food and have brief conversations, and it was lovely.

It made up for the rather difficult trip to China - I spent a LOT of time speeding down terrible roads in cars with no seat belts. This actually represents a sort of moral issue for me.  My father passed away in a car accident because he was not wearing his seat belt. It was all a big mystery to us because he always wore a seat belt, and always insisted that we do as well.  So why not that day? Needless to say, buckling up in a car is kind of a big deal to me, and I'm pretty principled about it, ie I won't let someone ride with me if they don't strap in.  But what do you do when there is no other option?  Taxis didn't have them, most of our customer's vehicles didn't have them, and I couldn't exactly refuse to get in when we had a three hour drive in front of us... It all left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable and ill at ease.

The food was also difficult this time around. One lunch consisted of boiled cow stomach, larynx and spine. I'm all for trying new foods at least once, but I must admit that organs are the most difficult for me to swallow, both literally and figuratively.  There were no other options, and I didn't want to be rude, so I just had to suck it up, even though the sight of them was making me gag.  I tried to psyche myself up like I did in Japan when I had to it raw egg over cold rice by saying "Look, they eat this stuff all the time. They must know how to cook it to make it tasty, or they wouldn't eat it".  Boy was I wrong - it must be one of those acquired taste things. The stomach was like rubber and I could feel every single one of the villi as I chewed. And chewed and chewed. The larynx was even worse. And I could barely swallow the fatty/cartilageous spine. I'm telling you, it was rough, and I'm getting a bit green just thinking about it again.

Luckily not all of the meals were that bad, but those were a long four days, and I sure am happy to be back home in Paris, strikes and all. Summer appears to be in full swing at last, and we've got an action-packed ten days before we take off to the US.


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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Discosoup

This past Saturday, C & I participated in an event at our local market called Discosoup. It was co-sponsored by the Discosoup Movement and Les Rencontres Cuisine et Santé.  The goal of the event was twofold - to raise awareness of food waste and to show how fruits and veggies that would normally be thrown out can be turned into appetizing and healthy meals.
Prior to our arrival, they had gone around to several market stands to collect the fruits and veggies that would be thrown out. They ended up with quite the selection - eggplant, zucchini, carrots, onions, bananas, strawberries, kiwis, apricots, apples and loads and loads of peaches.

The chef gave each one of us a knife and then we started sorting through all of the boxes of food, first cutting out the bad parts, then washing, then cutting into pieces and peeling. 
They also had a live band (of anglophones!) playing 50's music to accompany us while we chopped and peeled. 
Then it was time to start cooking, mixing and assembling.There were several different tables going at once:
And what kind of meal would it be without some wine? :)
Once it was done, everyone was handed a bowl and a spoon and invited to dig in. The various tables had prepared a vegetable soup, an asparagus soup, an eggplant dip, a spicy salsa, and several different fruit smoothies (apple-kiwi, banana-strawberry, pear, peach-apricot, etc).

A torrential rain started pouring down right at that point - which was right when those poor kids were struck by lightning in the park - so everyone started packing up and leaving.  They had suggested in the welcome email to bring tupperware, and no one else had really brought any, so C and I loaded up ours with the leftovers and it made for a lovely "recycled" dinner that evening.

This event was a great time, and I would definitely participate again.  The chef was so inviting and friendly, and you could definitely tell he had experience in juggling a lot of pots at the same time. It was pretty inspiring to see how he could take a quick look at the available ingredients and then spout off several recipes to prepare.  The other participants were also much more open than I was expecting from French people, given that most people had come in groups of 2-3 and I was expecting them to stick together and not mingle.

I'd definitely recommend checking out their website - I believe their next Discosoup is in a few weeks in Vincennes, but both organizations have other events scheduled elsewhere all over Ile de France.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

La Fête des Voisins

Last night was the annual Fête des Voisins, or "Neighborhood Party".  It was only my second FdV - the first one being years ago when I lived in my shoebox in the 5th.  Because of my on-going battle with the travaux-loving nuns in our last building (long story), we never attended any when we lived in the 15th.

And I was in Asia the past two years for the FdV, but this year was finally around to attend one in our new residence.  I had mixed feelings about going - on one hand, it would be nice to meet more people in our building, and on the other, I worried about losing the anonymity of appearing like just another French person.  (All those years in Bretagne have made me sensitive about being known as "The American).

We also had tickets to go see a Franco-American Comedy Hour (more on that later), so we eventually decided to attend for the first half hour and then head out.  We went downstairs at 7pm on the dot, and surprisingly not only was the party already in swing but there were several young couples in attendance.

Our building is mainly full of original owners who bought their apartment back when it was built, and most of them are now well into their 70's and 80's.  If you didn't know better, our residence could almost be mistaken for a nursing home...  But I have been seeing more and more posted signs saying "Mme X on the XX floor passed away" over the past year or so, and then shortly after a "for sale" ad, and it appears that several other young couples have recently moved in. Notre immeuble se renouvelle...

So we had a quick drink with a Romanian-British couple, a Romanian woman, and a Russian woman, and then off we went to the spectacle.  After it finished, we tried to find a place to have a drink outside, but the bars were so packed that we decided to just come back home and have a drink on our balcony. However on our way in, we saw the commons room door still open, so we decided to go see if the FdV party was raging on.

We found the last few stragglers, including our concierge and his wife, the Russian woman, and the extremely frail and elderly lady who takes care of the building's garden.  It was an odd mix, but they invited us for a drink, so we sat down to join them.  A little while later, the Russian woman's husband and another guy around our age came down.  More bottles and glasses were brought out and one drink turned into several.

I made it for about two hours before the Russian woman's husband turned to me and said "Wait a minute, you have a small accent, where are you from?"  I immediately thought - darn it, my cover is blown!  (However, I found out later that he also said the same thing to C, so I possibly could have just pretended to be from Bretagne or somewhere else in France).   His wife heard and immediately started talking to me in English.  Turns out she had lived in NYC for two years and was a big fan of the US. I didn't really feel comfortable speaking in English since I knew the others didn't understand, but she was a persistent one. 

As the night wore on and the alcohol kicked in, she became progressively harder to understand.  It's not like she was slurring or anything, just that the words she was stringing together didn't make any sense, and then she'd finish with "You know what I mean?".  Um, no, actually I have no clue!  That went on for quite some time, and we finally wrapped things up around 2am.

But not before this one really spacey guy told a story about how several years ago, a child he'd had with his ex-wife had been kidnapped by some Circus folk in the south of France, and it took the police three days to find him. Once the kid was found, this guy was thrown in jail for three days!  It wasn't really clear why - possibly for negligence?  It did make me think twice though when they suggested we all meet for dinner in the future.  I know I keep saying I need to meet new people, but...


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