Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Have you ever seen a flying soccer?

This has been a strange week so far.  I have been flying Air France/KLM for years now, and I am debating switching alliances, so I left home at 6am Monday to fly on a competitor airline out of CDG Terminal 1. I spend so much time in CDG2 that I am usually on autopilot mode - I know exactly where to check-in in each terminal, which security lines move the fastest, where to stand on the train so I am the first one off and up the escalators.  I haven't flown in or out of Terminal 1 though since my very first trip to France back in 2001, so I felt a bit like a fish out of water trying to find my way around.

It also always stresses me out to go through Russian customs - you just never know if they are going to pull you aside or not.  Luckily this time I was able to scoot on through and catch my connecting flight out to the middle of nowhere.  The plane I was on was so small that I could not even fully stand up inside.  And when we landed, the airport was so tiny that the plane actually pulled up right next to the parking lot exit and everyone just walked out of the plane to their car.  I checked my luggage, so I had to go through security and back inside the airport to get my suitcase!  Pretty crazy.

Then it was another 1.5h drive to the hotel. I wasn't expecting it, but I again ran into the "no seat belts in the back seat" situation. Except unlike China, the seat belts were actually there, just tucked behind the seats. So I asked if we could pull the seat forward to get them out, and the driver said "No".  I explained that I really preferred to have it, and he kept saying Niet and so my interpreter jumped in and said "No, no, it's not necessary in Russia".  I said "I know it's not necessary, but I want one for my safety".  She said "The driver is very safe, he is ex-military".  I replied "Don't you realize that he could be the safest driver in the world, but that doesn't account for everyone else on the road??"  And the whole time they were looking at me like "Oh you stupid American."  In the end, I did not get my seat belt, but I luckily made it safe and sound to the hotel at 10:30pm. 

They came back to get me at 5:30am the next morning, and again, we had another 1.5h seat belt-less drive. :/ They entertained me however with their insistence that they had seen a flying "soccer" that morning on the way to get me (it took me a minute to realize what she meant lol).  The interpreter insisted that she had seen many over her lifetime, and that the driver had even seen one close up.  He used to be a fighter pilot and one day he was testing a secret new plane over Kazakhstan and he saw a large flying triangular object with many bright lights.  It followed him for a while and then left.

Next, she told me about the trip to Paris she took last fall for work.  She kept mentioning about how she loved all the castles in Paris.  I was like "Um, okay", and then she started showing me some pictures, and I realized she had been in the Loire Valley, likely to visit a nearby customer of mine, and that she hadn't really been in Paris at all. I couldn't figure out if she was just mixing up the words Paris and France, or if she really thought she had been to Paris, but I didn't dare correct her.

She did have an interesting background story though - she signed up to be a mail order bride to the US back in the mid 90's, and she and her 6 year old daughter ended up moving to Ithaca, NY.  She unfortunately had a very troubled marriage with her husband and they ended up separating after seven years.  It took another seven years to fully separate from him, because he was constantly spying on her and threatening either deportation or calling child services.  But she was eventually able to get a degree in the US and a good job at Cornell, and she made a life for herself there (with a side hobby of body building) before moving back to Russia in 2007 to take care of her aging mother.

Then I spent the day bossing around a large group of older Russian engineers and technicians. It was one of those rather surreal moments where you think - what a random path my life has been to lead me here today, to Middle of Nowhere, Russia, telling all these dudes what to do and keeping everybody on track. It also reminded me of how I used to always tell myself  before these trips "Okay Ksam, you just have to go there and fake it until you make it". I can see now how much my confidence has grown since the early years.

So my job may be strange, but it's definitely never 'just another day at the office'.  Tomorrow is another early start, and then Friday I will begin the long journey back home...for a short 12h, and then I will turn around and head back to CDG for a flight to Athens!

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Friday, August 19, 2016

To Bise or not To Bise - that is the question

I've got this kind of funny situation going on at the gym. You see, working out does not become me, and I don't stay fresh like those perky girls in designer clothes and perfect hair.  I'm also still self-conscious about my accent, and I don't like people knowing I'm a foreigner if I can help it. So I do my best to stay anonymous, both when entering/exiting my building and at the gym. That's worked out pretty well for me for the past few years - I go in, do my thing, and then go home.

However, this summer, a sort of 'gang' has formed, made of people who do basically the same classes I do everyday, an alternation of spinning, weight-lifting and cardio. I usually smile and say Hi and Bye to these people, but haven't made any effort to actually go beyond that.

One day though, the instructor was way late and everyone was hard-core complaining, but in true French style, not doing a thing about it, so I thought "I'm just going to go to the front desk and ask - no sense in us all waiting around if she's never going to show up".  So I asked and then came back and told the whole group that we just needed to wait a bit longer.  The next day, everyone in the 'group' came up to bise me, and I thought - "Oh no, now it begins. I'm going to have bise these people every single class for as long as I stay at this gym. Darn it."  Long-time readers will remember my dislike for the bise, and will understand my internal hissy fit.  I mean, I don't like bise-ing people in the first place, let alone when I'm sweaty and red-faced and just trying to squeeze a workout in over my lunch break.

The following day, I got held up with work so I came just right before class started, and everyone was already on their bike, so I just waved and said "Bonjour" and hopped on mine, and luckily there have been no more bise-ing incidents since, and I'm back to just Hi-ing and Bye-ing them.

Until last week.

I was setting up my stuff in the weight-lifting class, and this random guy comes over, says "Ca va?" and leans in for the bise. I was lost in my thoughts, so he caught me off-guard and I totally stole a scene from the Matrix and did this:

He righted himself very quickly and turned back to his weights, and we both pretended it had never happened.  And I figured "Okay, he must have mistaken me for someone else".

But then it happened again yesterday!  My normal spot was full, so I set up on the other side of the room. When he came in, he looked for me, and then came over to say "Hey, you're not at your usual spot?" and then tried to bise me again!  I still have no clue who this guy is, so I avoided him a second time by bending down to add weights to my bar and said "Yep, well my spot was taken...".  I'm so perplexed by the whole thing - could he really still think I'm someone else?  Or does he somehow think we're gym buddies*?  I mean, I guess now that I think about it, he probably has been setting up his matos next to me for quite some time now.  But we've never even spoken before. Or is that French-guy game and he's just trying to hit on me? 

(*I'm sure he's a perfectly nice guy, but he really doesn't seem like someone I would click with...he reminds me a bit of that kid in middle school who is always trying just a bit too hard).

It almost makes me glad that I'll probably end up going to Russia next week, just so I can put off dealing with it for another seven days. :D

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Burkini ban

I've been thinking a lot lately about the rising number of religious clashes going on in France, with the most recent one being the "Burkini Ban".  (In case you've never heard of it, a burkini is a piece of swimwear that covers the whole body except for the face - think a slightly looser version of a wet suit with a hood). I believe the whole talk of bans first started in Marseille, where a local pool had a Burkini event planned.  This was eventually canceled after the organizers received death threats. 

The city of Cannes then announced their decision to ban all burkinis from their beaches, and other communes have followed suit, most recently a small seaside resort in Corsica.  Some are trying to cover it up by saying it's a "hygiene issue", not a religious issue, but that argument falls a bit flat.

As background, the French government has banned the wearing of head scarves (or any other outward religious symbols) since 2004 I believe, but this only applies to public institutions such as schools or government offices. What people wanted to do or wear on their own time was still up to them. These local bans however are taking things one step further by applying them to public spaces, and I think this is where I start to become uncomfortable.

I get that outward religious symbols can be cause for discrimination or perturbations in a school setting, especially when institutions are offering a supposedly secular education. But telling people what they can or can't wear when they go swimming on their day off?  That just seems like plain racism.  I mean, people got all outraged when five Muslim women insulted and beat-up a teenage French girl for wearing short shorts...well, this is just the same thing flip-flopped.

The whole idea of wearing a hijab or a burqa has always been an interesting one for me. Over the years, I've had a lot of conversation with women in various Muslim countries, and every single one has always said wearing the head scarf has been their own choice.  (Though whether or not they would feel comfortable saying otherwise is another story I guess).

I also got a chance to talk a bit more about it a bit more with my two lovely Egyptian guides.  We were in the bathroom at one point, and they both took off their hijabs.  As they were readjusting them, I asked "If you don't mind answering, at what age did you start wearing the hijab?"  They said "No, of course we don't mind". My customer's sister explained she had started at the age of 16, but I was surprised to learn that his wife had just started 6 months ago.

She and her family had the opportunity to go to Mecca, where the women are required to wear the full-on burqa. She mentioned she was worried beforehand that she would feel oppressed by wearing it, but what actually happened is that while she was there, she was filled with such a sense of joy and peace.  Not having to worry at all about outward appearances ended up being really freeing for her - so much so that when she came back home, she wanted to hold on to that feeling, and so she decided to wear the head scarf.  The decision was completely her own, with no pressure from her family.  She was of course worried about being treated differently when traveling outside of Muslim countries, but decided that it was a sacrifice she was finally willing to make.

I asked what she meant by sacrifice, and she said that at least in Egypt, wearing the headscarf was not about hiding your sexuality or being someone's property, but that it was about making a personal sacrifice for God.  As-in, sacrificing your own vanity about your hair, your make-up, being perceived as attractive, etc.  That led to another discussion about what men in turn 'sacrifice', which was not entirely satisfactory for me, but I was glad to at least be able to learn a bit more about at least their motivations for wearing it.

Anyways, all that to say - maybe there needs to be a distinction between countries that force women to wear them and countries that leave it as a personal choice?  I could be wrong, but it is my current understanding that most of the Muslim women in France are choosing to wear the burkini, and I also think that they should have that choice, just as I can chose to wear a bikini, a one-piece or nothing at all. (Kidding!).  I mean there are other religions where the women can only wear long skirts, and we don't try to force them to wear pants, even though that in itself is an outward sign of religion.  It just seems to me that banning burkinis is only going to serve as more propaganda for both sides.  French racists are going to feel that their thoughts are justified and it will also fuel the fire for extremists on the other side, which only opens us up to more attacks down the road.

I'm interested in what you guys think, so let's do another poll:
Is France right in banning burkinis?
A) Yes, they have a right to defend their cultural beliefs.
B) No, it will only fan the flames more.
C) I have no clue, it's a complicated issue.
D) Stop judging France, you ignorant American.
Sage Quotes

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Discover Egypt

I mentioned in a previous post that I was feeling slightly nervous about having to travel to Egypt alone for work. C & I had gone on a cruise down the Nile back in 2010 and loved the scenery and the history, but not the constant harassment. And obviously now things have changed with the current political context and all the unrest going on in various parts of the world...let's just say I wasn't feeling super reassured about driving out into the desert with some men I had just met.  But I also very strongly feel that continuing to travel and learn about other cultures is what will bring us all together in the end, so off I went. 

I had three full days of work planned, and had left a fourth day free "just in case".  Things usually don't go as planned in developing nations.  Meetings get pushed back or rescheduled, the car breaks down, etc, so you always have to leave a bit of wiggle room in your itinerary.
Sunset on the Nile
This time however, things went smoothly and I found myself with a free day before flying home. I had looked at the possibility of getting a private guide before leaving, but they all wanted horrendous amounts of money, so I figured if I did end up having time for touristy stuff, either my client or the hotel could recommend someone cheaper (and hopefully trustworthy).

I had booked a room at a small hotel just across from the Pyramids for my last night, figuring if nothing else, I could at least see them from afar before I left.  I lucked out and got a room with this view:
Don't look down. ;)
Luckily however, when our future customer realized I'd be staying an extra, he offered to help organize someone to show me around.  In the end, he ended up having his wife take a day off of work to give me a private tour, along with his sister, their driver and a body guard so we'd be tranquil while looking around.  

I know, right??

So they picked me up at my hotel and we drove down the block to the entrance.  The first thing that surprised me was how empty the whole site was. Granted, it was the middle of the week, but there were literally more vendors than tourists. The only other tourists I saw the whole time there was a small group of Chinese.
And because there were no tourists, everything was being sold at rock-bottom prices.  I didn't really have a strong desire to ride another camel, but it was over 100°F and the guy was offering 5€ for one hour, so why not?
As it turned out, the two women accompanying me had never been inside the Pyramids, so when they asked if I wanted to go in - Um Yes! - they sent the driver off to buy tickets and in we went.
It was pretty incredible, and totally fulfilled one of my childhood dreams.  We crawled through crazy tunnels:
And climbed up hella long flights of stairs:
It was magical and amazing and every other adjective I can think of right now. It was an experience that was so much more than I ever could have imagined or hoped for thanks to my gracious hosts.
Then it was off to the Egyptian Museum - which is currently across town, but an absolutely gigantic new museum is being built right nearby the Pyramids.  That thing is going to be amazing once it's open!
The current one is fairly run-down, but it also contains some pretty amazing artifacts, many of which you can get right up close and personal to. The mummy room was also neat and definitely worth the extra entry fee.
I really enjoyed my time in Egypt, and I am looking forward to going back in a few months. The people I met were all so kind and generous, and they are really wanting the tourists to come back. I heard so many sad stories of people barely making ends meet now due to no foreigners coming. For instance, the guy who picked me up at the airport used to own a whole cruise boat with hundreds of employees and guides, three homes, etc, and spoke English, French and Flemish fluently. But he lost it all after the Arab Spring and now had no choice but to earn what he could as a taxi driver.

I definitely felt safe there - compared to most of the other countries I travel to, most people barely blinked an eye at me, even though I'm sure I stuck out like a sore thumb given the lack of tourists.  If you're wondering, most women wore a head scarf, but I felt no pressure to wear one, even in the countryside*.

Prices were low - my hotel right across from the Pyramids cost $50 a night including breakfast, and both food and other tourist attractions also offered rock bottom prices (especially if you negotiate).  The water was clean and the restaurant hygiene was top-quality, at least in the restaurants we ate at.

All in all, I think now is a good time to visit Eypt, though if it's your first time, I would still probably recommend going with an organized tour, or at least hiring a guide.  Things are not very well sign-marked and you'll probably enjoy your time more if you've got someone to show you the ropes.  It's also not always super clear online, but you can buy a visa on arrival at the major airports - it costs $25 and they prefer if you pay in USD (cash). I also heard that a few of the tourist ports have waived the visa fee if you are just staying within their resort areas - Sharm El Sheik, etc.

*In case anyone was curious, as far as clothes went, most women were wearing long-sleeve tops and full-length pants or skirts.  I didn't think I could handle full-on winter clothes since I'm not used to the heat, so I packed long skirts, cropped pants and three-quarter length cotton tops and felt just fine.  I think as long as you're not wearing tank-tops or booty shorts (outside of the beach resort areas anyways), it would be fine.  And also, pack comfortable walking shoes that you don't mind getting dirty - pretty much everything is gravel or sand, and beige colored shoes would fare much better than black or white ones.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

The Ultimate Travel Jacket?

A while back, I blogged about some cool travel items, including the Baubax travel jacket. I ended up seeing it on sale on one of my favorite luggage sites, and decided to do some more research before purchasing it, and I came across their competitor - Scottevest.

I couldn't decide between which one I wanted, and they both had certain features the other didn't (and both were on sale), so I decided to purchase them both and see which one I like best. 

Baubax travel jacket:  The main idea of the Baubax jacket is that it has a million pockets so that you can stuff everything you'd need on the plane into it, which makes going through security easy since you just place the jacket & everything in it into the bin.  It can also be handy for flights where carry-ons aren't free.

  • Integrated eye mask - this was one of the major selling points for me
  • Zipper includes a hidden pen for filling out customs forms
  • The sleeves were extra-long with half-gloves - great for staying warm on the plane
  • There are only 4 styles on-line and all are quite casual, except for the blazer - but the women's blazer had poor reviews.
  • All comments on line bring up sizing issues, and it was really stressful to figure out which size to order. I normally wear a size S or M in the US, but commenters online recommended buying an L or XL due to the China sizing.  I ended up getting an XL, thinking I would need the extra room if I filled up the pockets, but the jacket is actually much too big and exchanging it was a pain, so I'm stuck with the bigger size.
  • The look of the jacket is a little bit more 'sporty' than I would have liked - I'll probably literally only end up wearing it on the plane. 
  • The pockets seem a bit flimsy and like items would fall out if you bent over.
  • The free travel neck pillow is completely worthless. 
  • I was looking for a light-weight jacket I could wear in Asia when I didn't want to carry a purse, but this one would be too warm.
Scottevest Molly Jacket

  • A lot more stylish than the Baubax jacket (plus many other style options are available)
  • Pockets are labeled and sturdy
  • Seems like a high-quality jacket
  • The integrated headphone holders won't fit my Bose headphone cable
  • There is no hood (and no eye mask!)
  • Also too hot for wearing in Asia
In the end, I decided to keep both jackets - the Baubax jacket eye mask has definitely helped me sleep better on long-haul flights, but it isn't one that I would wear around town.  The Scottevest jacket is on trend right now and one I have felt comfortable wearing around Paris. It also has enough pockets that I can get by without needing my purse, which is great for safety.

As far as price goes, the Baubax jackets range from $149-199 full price, which I think is a bit much. The Scottevest I purchased is normally $160 full price, but is currently on clearance for $72.00 - which is totally worth it in my opinion. (It also comes in black, but pretty much all of my jackets are black, so I went with the khaki).   I'm also really interested in their trench coats, and will probably check out their black Friday specials this fall...

**Both of these brands also have multiple men's versions available.
***This is not a sponsored post, I paid for both of these jackets with my hard-earned moola. :)

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Ateliers gratuits aux Galeries Lafayette

This past Thursday, I received an invitation to participate in one of Galeries Lafayette's free summer workshops. This particular one had a focus on hair, with the theme being "Learn how to do summer's hottest hairstyles".

The atelier was held up on the 4th floor of the Coupole, in the "Salon Opéra". 
Each of us had a small work station set up with a head of hair, brushes and photos of hairstyles we could learn how to do. 
Here are some close-ups:

There were four stylists for 8 participants, so it was pretty hands-on. But what was frustrating was that none of the stylists really seemed to know how to do any of the hairstyles. They would try to show us first on the dummy, and it would end up looking like a hot mess. And they'd be like "See, voila!"  It was really odd though, because they had already been doing this same session every Thursday for a month, so you'd have thought they would have had some practice by then.

I ended up next to a really nice French girl, and she was much more of a hair expert than they were, so once they'd leave, she'd end up redoing it.  We had a good laugh each time, but in the end, it was sort of a waste of time. 

The stylists were from a makeover agency (that was uncreatively called "Makeover and Style Agency" lol), and they were supposed to give us a hairstyle of our choice at the end of the session.  I ended up with the guy you see in the first photo, and he was so slow and did an absolutely horrible job.  I asked for a braided low bun, and he ended up putting on this strange leather headband, and then doing a sloppy updo on one side and a very intricate braid on the other.  And then on top of that, he wanted to add a very large, bright red flower right on the back of my head. The French girl next to me thankfully, and very diplomatically, said "Um, I think if you do that it will hide your creative work".
Even without the flower though, it ended up being very bipolar and strange looking.  But oh well - it was an "experience" and I walked away with a few free accessories - the strange leather headband, a daisy headband and a foam donut for making hair buns.

If despite all that, you're interested in trying it out, there are two more sessions - one on August 11 and one on August 18, from 4-5:30. The sessions say they are full online, but if you just show up a few minutes beforehand at the salon opéra (4th floor, in the lingerie section), there is an extremely good chance you will get a spot as all the previous sessions have only had 25% of the enrolled participants show up.