Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


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...


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

48h in Hong Kong

I returned back to Paris this weekend, after two weeks in China.  It was a crazy trip, and left me fairly exhausted. I do okay when I travel by myself, but when I travel with my boss and/or co-workers, we tend to all enable each other into too much food and booze, and not enough sleep and exercise.  Plus, I'm fairly introverted, so things like trade shows really take a lot out of me.  Having to be smiley and friendly all day long is hard work for this girl. ;)

I traveled to two different parts of China, and had a free weekend between the two weeks, so I decided to take the train to Hong Kong.  I didn't really want to hang around where I was nor go back to Shanghai, plus Oneika was back in town for an extended stay, so I figured why not?

I didn't really know much about Hong Kong besides that it was a major financial center full of expats, but the more research I did, the more I was looking forward to going. In the end, I actually had a hard time trying to fit everything I wanted to do in the two short days I had there.

And unfortunately my two short days became even shorter after a 3h+ train delay.  About 30 min after leaving the station, my train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after, several men with shields, guns and batons started surrounding our train. Announcements were made in Chinese, but I couldn't understand a word they were saying, and no one around appeared able to translate.
As time went on, the train turned into one hot, sweaty mess and other passengers became quite agitated. People were banging on the windows and the doors, and being very aggressive with the train employees. One hour became two hours, and then two hours nearly three hours, and I was getting progressively more and more anxious. I had no water, no money and no clue what was happening.  I finally had the bright idea to send a message to one of my Chinese colleagues, and he was able to talk to one of the train employees for me.  The train was broken, they would not be sending a new train, and we would sit there on the tracks until it was repaired.  The guards were there so that no one would try to escape off the train.  Whew, finally some information.  And luckily not too long after that, the train started up, the A/C came back on, and we continued on our way.

I lost no time after arrival, quickly dropping my bags off at my AirBnB, and then heading up to The Peak for some 360° views of the city. 
I meandered back down, took a quick shower (HK is hot, hot, hot!), and then headed out for a night out on the town. I was lucky enough to be invited to a bachelorette party and experienced the best of the city's nightlife.  So. Much. Fun.
The next day, I rolled myself out of bed at an ungodly hour and made the long trek out to see the Big Buddha.  I climbed the 260 steps up to see him and to enjoy the aerial views.
And then I headed back down to do some hiking. It turns out that Hong Kong is mix of islands, city and scenery, and I only got a short taste of it all during my stay. 
After following the wisdom path, I looped back around to check out the Po Lin Monastery. The lunch there came highly recommended.  My opinion?  If you're with a large group, it's worth it because you get to try 8 dishes, but if you're alone or with a small group, you only get 4 dishes and you pay the exact same price...  The food was good, but I could have gotten pretty much the same thing for 1/4 of the price from the vendors just outside of the restaurant (with a lot less waiting).
Those of you that know me know that my travel style is pretty thrifty, but I also like to splurge every once in a while. So for example, C & I may get a super fancy hotel and then have a romantic picnic for dinner. To get up to the Big Buddha, most people take the cable car there and back (at a cost of around 29€/$33).  That seemed a little pricey for me, and thanks to Google, I found out there was a bus that went up there for 1.90€/$2.10. The bus ended up providing some great scenery, and also let me enjoy guilt-free the 360° crystal cabin ride on the way back down (19€/$23).
Once back on hard ground, I checked out several markets. My verdict - meh. Cheap shopping is definitely better in China or Thailand.
I meant to watch the city scape light show before heading home, but Oneika talked me into a foot massage instead.  :)
It was a quick ferry ride back to Central, and then I had to take the longest escalators in the world back to my AirBnB.
I ended up having an unexpectedly great time in Hong Kong, and I would definitely like to go back for a longer stay in the future. From the little I saw, there are a lot of other islands, beaches and trails still to be explored, as well as several other cultural sites in the city that I didn't get to see.  Public transportation was great and easy to use, most people spoke decent English, I felt very safe walking around alone, and the food options are plentiful.  The only downside is that it's a fairly expensive place to visit, but it can be done for a reasonable price if you use options like AirBnB and eat locally. It would be a great place to spend 3-4 days before heading out on an Asian Cruise for example!

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid when Renewing a US Passport!

One of the biggest frustrations when renewing your passport is receiving your application back in the mail because of a mistake.  This is frustrating 1) because you've wasted precious renewal time and 2) you've wasted your precious argent on that darn Chronopost envelope.

So here is my list of the Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid when renewing your US passport:
  1. Don't use the same photo as last time - your passport photo must be different from that of your last passport, and recent. 
  2. Along the same lines, don't use a French size passport photo - it must be 2x2" or 5x5cm with a white (not grey) background. You can read more about the photo requirements here. As of today, there is only one official photographer approved by the US Embassy. It is Photo Madeleine, and they are located at 41 rue Boissy d'Anglas 75008 Paris. The current cost for US passport photos is 10€.
  3. Your passport application should be filled out on the computer.  Filling it out entirely by hand will mean a longer processing time. Do not forget to sign and date your application by hand however!
  4. Wildly different signatures. It's true that if you got your last passport at 16 and then another one at 26, your handwriting may have changed (no more hearts over your i's for example...).  But if your current signature looks too different from the signature on your previous passport (or you never signed your previous passport), your application could be refused.
  5. French or American checks are not accepted. Applications sent by mail must be paid with a chèque de banque (mandat cash are no longer accepted!); applications done in person can be paid in dollars, euros or by credit card.  
  6. Don't purchase your chèque de banque a long time in advance before you send in your application.  This is a little known fact, but the passport price in Euros is changed every few months due to exchange rate fluctuations. And if your chèque de banque does not match the current amount (even if it is for more), your application will be returned.  So you're better off checking the website for the current rate on the same day you send your passport (more instructions can be found here). 
  7. There are different prices for payment in dollars or euros, so be sure your chèque de banque is also for the euro amount. 
  8. There is no need to send your passport application via Chronopost. You can save yourself 27€ by using a normal letter (if you trust La Poste!), or a registered letter. 
  9. Don't try to get away with including a registered letter for the return however - your application will be sent back with a request to include a pre-paid, self-addressed Chronopost*.
  10. This last piece of advice is one of the most important ones - be sure to write down your Chronopost tracking number before you send off your application, and set a reminder on your phone to check it once a week (or sign-up for delivery notifications if possible).  A phenomenal amount of passport applications are returned to the Embassy each day because the Chronopost envelope was not picked up within the two week time frame.  This is (mainly) through no fault of the American - it's most often the Chronopost deliveryman who never leaves a delivery attempt note - but it means that your passport could be sitting at the Post Office without your knowledge. And then you will need to send the Embassy another Chronopost letter in order to get it back!  So keep that tracking number and check it regularly online. 
*The US Embassy used to accept pre-paid registered mail envelopes for return, but so many of them got lost and/or stolen on top of the fact that delivery notifications were rarely given out, that they eventually decided to go with the Chronopost. So even though the Chronopost is more expensive and there is still the issue of delivery notifications sometimes not being given, they have at least greatly reduced the possibility of your passport being stolen along the way.

Here's one last bonus DON'T - US Passport applications are country-specific, so do not waste your time looking at the US Passport site or the US Embassy websites for other countries. Requirements differ according to the country, and you'll only end up getting even more confused!

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Renewing your US passport in France

I've been seeing a lot of expats in France on social media lately expressing frustration regarding their US Passport renewal process, so I thought I'd break it down step by step for any future renewers.

Major caveat here - this information is valid as of today, May 5, 2016. Things can change, so please verify the US Embassy in Paris website before sending in your application.

All normal adult renewal applications should be done by mail. If your application is not a normal renewal, it will have to be done in person (see the lost or stolen passport section below). 

Adult renewals
Adults who already have a US passport in their possession that was issued fewer than 15 years ago and after the age of 16, will need to send:
  • Your most recent US passport (don't worry, it will systematically be returned!)
  • 1 recent passport photo (2x2" or 5x5cm) with a white background
  • 1 self-addressed Chronopost envelope (1 per family)
  • The payment in the form of a chèque de banque (mandat cash are no longer accepted!)
  • Form DS-82, filled out on the computer, and signed and dated by hand
Lost or stolen passports
If your passport was lost, stolen, or issued more than 15 years ago, you'll need to appear in person at the US Embassy either in Paris or Marseille. You'll have to make an appointment online, and be sure to bring everything on the list above, plus the following:
  • Form DS-11 (filled out on the computer, not signed - you'll sign it at the Embassy) 
  • Birth certificate (or report of birth, naturalization or citizenship certificate)
  • Recent valid ID (original plus photocopy)
  • If your passport was lost or stolen, Form DS-64 (filled out on a computer and signed)
  • If your passport was lost or stolen, provide any photocopies you have of it
  • If your passport was lost or stolen, provide the original of the Police Report declaration
  • Payment can be made at the Embassy in dollars, euros or by credit card (no US or FR checks allowed)

Passports for Children
Children aged 15 or under have to follow a different process.  All applications, be it their first passport or a renewal, must be done in person, either at the US Embassy in Paris or at the Consulate General in Marseille.  An appointment is needed, and can be made online at the website.

For a child passport application, parents must submit the following documents. If you are applying for multiple children at the same time, you will need to provide the originals and photocopies listed below for each of the applications.
  • Form DS-11 (filled out on the computer, not signed - you'll sign it at the Embassy)
  • Child's birth certificate, or report of birth or naturalization or citizenship certificate (original + photocopy)
  • Both Parent's passports or IDs (originals + photocopies)
  • Notarized consent of Form DS-3053, if one of the parents cannot appear in person
  • The most recent US passport if the child already has one
  • 1 recent passport photo (2x2" or 5x5cm) with a white background
  • 1 self-addressed Chronopost envelope (1 per family)
  • Payment can be made at the Embassy in dollars, euros or by credit card (no US or FR checks allowed)
As a side note, for children's passports, the US Embassy staff understands it can be difficult for both parents to take a day off of work and travel to Paris, so they sometimes spend a day or two at the various American Presence Posts around France to allow parents to apply directly there. The APP offices are located in Rennes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon and Strasbourg.  If you are interested in being informed of the next renewal day in your region, you can sign up for the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) and APP-specific dates will be sent out to those living in that region roughly a month before they occur.

 *The official payment amount can be found at the bottom of this page. If you are applying for multiple family members at the same time, you can send in one mandat cash for the total amount.

Check back tomorrow, when I'll be posting about the top ten mistakes to avoid when sending in your passport application.  I'll also explain why Chronopost envelopes are needed, since that is another sore point for many fellow Americans.

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