Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Right here, right now

Is anyone else feeling like it's crazy that summer is almost over?  I had all these plans for Paris fun in mind, yet so little of them have come to fruition. I guess the weather hasn't helped - first too cold, then too hot.  But after five years in Bretagne, French météo no longer really has an effect on me, so I guess I "weathered" the extremes better than others it seems.  Plus we are lucky enough to have an air-conditioner to help on those oh-so-hot days.

But time is just going by so fast. I often think of how when I was little, sometimes days just seemed to drag on and it took forever to get to summer vacation or Christmas break.  But now they're here in the blink of an eye.

I'm starting another big traveling spree - between next Monday and September 13, I will be home for a grand total of two days. I have a quick trip to the US squeezed in there too. And then it will be mid-September all of the sudden and only two weeks until my masters starts. 

I received my first few books for the course and they are LARGE and SERIOUS looking.  They cause these moments of minor freak-outs - like "What on Earth were you thinking going back to school? And in French? While working full-time? And with whole bunch of grown-up, businessy-type people?"  And then I remember that I too am technically a grown-up and that everyone else will be working full-time, and we will all likely get through it together.

In the mean time, I am just trying to make a conscious effort to be appreciative of what I have right now.  There have been several deaths of people around my age in my hometown these past few weeks, and I can't get their spouses and their families out of my mind.  Like one minute these people were here and the next they're not, and it's so crazy.  So I am trying to take a few minutes every day to focus on the good things in my life - my wonderful husband who notices the bottle of water on my nightstand is almost empty, and gets up to fill it even though he was already in bed, just in case I get thirsty during the night. My new job title, while sometimes intimidating, that is pushing me to grow & get outside of my comfort zone. My friends, who despite my crazy travel schedule, still make an effort to keep in touch. 

Life is good now, and I need to remember that, instead of constantly looking forward and imagining what it will be like once I'm done with my masters, once we finally buy our own place, once we have the fancy car I want, etc.  Once, once, once.  But what about today?

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Friday, August 17, 2012


After our mountain extravaganza, C & I head to Annecy for the week. I've seen pictures of the city on various blogs over the years, and have always wanted to visit.
Plus there is the beautiful lake filled with the clearest water I have ever seen in France - and coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, proximity to water is important to me.
I was a bit nervous about spending a full week in one city since it's something I rarely do, so I thought I would share here what we did to keep ourselves busy. We arrived at about noon the first day and took a two hour boat tour around the lake just to get our bearings. Our tour also had the option of doing a stop-off at one of the ports, so we did that and spent a few hours lounging around in the sun before hopping back on the boat.
The following day, we spent in the city of Annecy itself, just walking around and enjoying the scenery. We also visited the Palais de l'Isle et the Château d'Annecy. If you're planning on visiting both, make sure to get the combined "Palais-Château" ticket since it offers a reduced entry price. Though personally we were really disappointed by the Château - it was filled with all kinds of art that looked like piles of garbage and then the other section had some random expos about local flora and fauna. Not really the château experience I was looking for....

The third day, we headed a bit inland to the Gorges de Fier, which I had heard about from Crystal. It was a cool site to visit, assuming you are not scared of heights. When we got to the last bit, we saw a bunch of people swimming on the other side of the Gorges. We'd been planning on finding a nice place to eat outside anyways, so we decided to go investigating.  After trying to get at the Gorges from all angles, we finally found the secret access point to this swimming hole:
I'm telling you, it was pretty dang cool. We had a lot of fun hanging out there and cooling off in the sun. After that, we headed up the road to the Château de Montrottier.  Again, if you're planning on visiting both, be sure to get the combined ticket to save a few euros.

And then we tried to go to an Ostrich/Orchid farm, but you had to pay to see the ostriches (and they looked kind of mangy), and the orchids had all been eaten by rats five years ago.  First of all, WTF?? Rats??  And second of all, why are they still putting up signs and brochures saying they have orchids?  End rant.

The fourth day, we spent hiking - we first went up to the Roc de Chère. As we started out walking up the hill through the forest, I had a slight panic attack thinking about the previous mountain we had climbed and how difficult it was.
I pushed through it though, and was really glad I did because we had absolutely amazing views at the top:
We had lunch on the walls of the Château de Saint Bernard. I had decided not to visit this château since we had already done two and C is not a huge fan, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have skipped the other two and gone to this one. Unlike the other two, this château was actually decorated and lived-in, instead of just being filled with random collections and modern artwork that clashes with the ancient architecture.

After lunch, we headed on another hike, to see the Angon Cascades. It was another brutal one-hour hike straight up hill and the whole time I was thinking "These better be some damn good cascades".  But they weren't, it was basically just a small trickle mostly hidden by the trees and rocks. So unless you like torturing yourself for nothing, I'd say skip it.

The other main thing we did in Annecy was to rent a boat for the morning. Not having a boat and not being able to spend time out on the water is one of the main things I miss about Minnesota.  So we splurged a little and it was totally worth it - definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.  We got out there early in the morning before their were crowds and had the lake almost entirely to ourselves, minus a few fishermen. It was amazing. We just cruised around, enjoying the calm and looking at all of the beautiful lake homes.  I honestly think I may have found the one place in France I could live besides Paris - and that is a lot coming from someone who has said she will never again live en province.  There's water, mountains, châteaux everywhere, lots of outdoor activities and easy access to ski stations in the winter. Not to mention the great rollerblading and bike paths that are absolutely everywhere. What's not to love?  I can totally see why so many bloggers enjoy living in the area.
After that, we went to spend some time on a "beach" - and I say beach in parentheses because we didn't really find many sandy beaches. A lot of them were just grass that went up to the water or had really rocky shores with sharp rocks.  Also, as a side note, some of them you have to pay to get into - for example, this one in Sevrier cost 2€ a person in the summer, but they had really cheap summer passes and it'd definitely be worth it for a family. The facilities are only two years old, and they had lifeguards giving swimming lessons, a nice kids playground, really cleaning changing cabins, clean toilets and lots of shade.  It also had a gigantic parking lot, and finding a good place to park was one of our daily hassles.
It was a wonderful vacation, and a place I will definitely be going back to, which is rare for me - normally I visit a place once and then it's on to the next thing. After all, there's so much left to see out there, both in France and elsewhere in the world!  But I can definitely see us renting a place here for a week (and a boat!) and alternating between just hanging out and visiting sites, because there really is a lot to see & do in the area.

Any takers for going in on a house with us next year?? :)

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The hills are alive...

Back in June, my SIL sent us an email asking if we would be interested in doing a two-day hike with them in the mountains.....with a donkey. I'm always up for some nice scenery and figured if nothing else, the donkey would make good blogging fodder, so I said "Count us in!".  

**Note to time your hiking aficionado in-laws tell you it is an "easy" hike, don't believe them.  

So off we went on a beautiful Saturday morning to meet Romeo, our donkey for the weekend:
He looks about as excited as I did....

The scenery really was beautiful, but I have to admit, hiking those mountains was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.  I'm no Olympic athlete, but I do work out on a regular basis, though you wouldn't have known it from how much I struggled.  That last stretch was about an hour of climbing the longest and steepest hill I have ever seen, and it took every last ounce of strength I had to make it to the top.
In fact on the way back the next morning, I actually thought we were going the wrong way at first because I didn't recognize the trail. That's how exhausted I was - I had zero recollection of the last twenty minutes of the hike.

This was our home for the night though - it was a bit rustic, but had everything we needed included a hot shower, grassy area for Romeo and a lot of wine for me:
What I found so interesting though about the weekend is that normally I am up for a challenge and then get a great feeling of satisfaction from completing it, but I definitely did not feel that rush here. I just felt exhausted and got very little enjoyment out of the whole thing.  Most of the time, I was just thinking "Just a few more steps. Around the next corner will be the end" (I must have repeated that to myself about 500 times).

But we did see some absolutely amazing things, including a lot of cows. With bells.

It made for several Sound of Music moments:

Needless to say, I have discovered that mountain hiking is not for me. Especially when I discovered that you could take the télésièges up to the top and then hike around on relatively flat land to see the same views. And probably enjoy them more since I wouldn't have to be looking at my feet all the time in order to avoid tripping over roots and rocks.....Oh well, live and learn, right? 

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Global entry

A few months ago, I wrote about Parafe, the free fast-track customs program available in French airports to EEA & Swiss citizens.  At the time, I also mentioned that US was rolling out a similar version of this program, but with a much stricter background check and a limited five year validity. And surprise, surprise - a $100 fee.  But since our job requires us to travel on average two weeks per month (and my co-workers travel internationally), I was thinking it would be money well-spent for The Company, so I decided to test it out when I was back home this past trip.

According to their website, Global Entry is currently available for US citizens & residents (& minors), Dutch citizens enrolled in Privium, Canadian citizens enrolled in Nexus and Korean SES members. I also remember seeing somewhere online that UK citizens could also apply, but couldn't find that online. 

I spent a fair amount of time filling out the forms on their website - you need to list all of your addresses, employers & countries visited in the last five years. Once that is done, you need to wait for them to approve your application. I applied to the Minneapolis office, and it took them a week to do so.  From there, I was able to to make my interview appointment.

A lot of frequent travelers are applying to this program, so the interview wait times can be up to three months in places - for example, when I was there in early July, they were signing people up for October.  But I had called for information a few weeks earlier, and the gentleman I spoke with said to check back regularly since there were often cancellations.  So I did, and ended up scoring a spot for the day I was flying out back to France. 

The interview itself was pretty straight-forward.  I was worried they would be suspicious about me living abroad, but he just asked what my job was & why I had been to so many different countries. There were a few more questions about why I was signing up, etc and then that was it - I was approved for the Global Entry Program. 

The agent then showed me how to use the automatic kiosk, which was very similar to the French one with the exception that you could also do your customs declaration on it, meaning you no longer have to fill out the blue form on the plane and you get priority processing (passing even before the flight attendants & diplomats).

Unfortunately I wasn't able to test it out since it is only for entering the US and not leaving, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes when I go back in September!  The French version has saved me loads of time already - when I came back this past time, there was some sort of customs problem and so at least two or three hundred people were lined up waiting.  I zoomed right past them to the Parafe booth and was through in under two minutes.

There is also one last benefit to this program if you do a lot of domestic US travel. Once you are approved for Global Entry, you are automatically signed up for the TSA precheck program, which means you get to go through a special security line where you no longer have to take off your coat, shoes, etc and you can leave your laptop in your bag. That in itself is almost worth it, and I hope they expand the program to international travel soon.

Happy Travels!

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