2015 Round-up: Where I Went

One of my 2015 resolutions was to travel more. I went to nine countries and sixteen new cities, which is not much if you’re a travel fanatic but is still pretty good if you’re me.

For me, it’s always a battle between traveling, saving money, and just taking the time to enjoy life at home. Sometimes I feel like I should go somewhere, but I wonder if I’d actually be happier strolling the cobblestone streets of Lyon with Hugo and gelato (my other main squeeze), than I would be pinching pennies in Rome, even though the latter makes a more interesting story. So I try to be honest with myself and not travel just for the sake of it, just to say I did, or because I think I ought to. I know I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t travel at all, but I also know that I can’t go everywhere I want to and still save and have stress-free time at home, so the hardest part is deciding where to go, because there are so many interesting places to visit just a short plane ride away. OMG MY LIFE IS SO DIFFICULT!!!!!!!

Kidding, kidding.

Continue reading “2015 Round-up: Where I Went”

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6 things to cook for your French friends

I stopped making crêpes in France. In Chicago, they were always a crowd-pleaser. They somehow seem fancy to us, even though they’re just flatter pancakes. Julia Child’s recipe was my go-to.

IMG_3760

But in France, Julia Child isn’t remotely famous, and crêpes are a culinary staple that Frenchies all know how to make when they pop out of the womb. (Hyperbole? No.) This means that everyone has an opinion. You’ve used too much butter, or not enough. Your crêpes are too sweet. Why would you add fleur d’oranger, or rum? Hugo puts beer in his crêpe batter. (It’s very good, except for that one time we ran out of milk and added extra beer to balance out the liquid component. That just resulted in beer-flavored crêpes.)

Honestly, if I was nice enough to make you crêpes, I just want you to shut up and eat them. I don’t want to hear about how I made them wrong. I love to eat, but I’m not a gourmet cook like my dad. So I don’t make crêpes for French people anymore. They are in charge of making the crêpes.

Instead, I make pancakes. Snickerdoodles. Quesadillas. Sesame noodles. And no one gives me any crap about my cooking, which is just how I like it. Here’s what I cook to make my French friends love me more.

Chocolate chip cookies

sugar spill

It’s not like no one in France has ever tasted chocolate chip cookies before. But ever since I found this salted chocolate chunk cookie recipe from Smitten Kitchen, I bring them everywhere. And people are always happy when I do.

I had to get used to making cookies without an electric mixer – I either make sure the butter is close to room temperature so that I can cream it with the sugar by hand with a spoon, or I melt it, mix it with the butter, and put it back in the fridge for a bit. You really feel like you’ve earned your cookies that way.

Brown sugar is not as readily available in France as it is in the U.S. but you can buy it at Monoprix. It’s in a blue resealable bag and it’s called “cassonade douce.” (Don’t let anyone tell you that “cassonade” is brown sugar, because it’s definitely raw sugar, not the magical cookie sugar.)

Pancakes

It doesn’t matter if it’s brunch o’clock or if I need something to feed unexpected tipsy guests at 11 p.m. Pancakes feel good in bellies. They just do.

I rarely made pancakes when I lived in the U.S. but now, this Martha Stewart recipe adapted on Buzzfeed is my go-to. I like the tip about using yogurt or lemon juice to substitute for buttermilk. (Who has buttermilk in their fridge anyway?)

 Cupcakes

Cupcakes 3

So American, right? Cupcakes are kind of a trend in France… but many bakeries either don’t get them right, or charge an arm and a leg (or both). This chocolate cake recipe is amazing, and there’s a buttercream frosting recipe along with it. I don’t know if I would attempt the frosting without a mixer – I don’t have the upper body strength for that! It has been pointed out to me that frosting is not “très français” so now I just put a thin spread of it instead of a big swirl.

Snickerdoodles

Snickerdoodles

Sometimes I think I like snickerdoodles even more than I like chocolate chip cookies. You know how I like funny words. I always use this recipe. If I don’t have brown sugar on hand, I just use all white sugar. If I don’t have cream of tartar (and I never have) I just mix in some baking powder and baking soda. Nothing bad has ever happened.

Quesadillas

Quesadilla

Your French friends probably won’t know what quesadillas are, but their initial suspicions will be quelled when you stuff their mouths with cheesy tortilla and homemade guacamole. (They’ll call the tortillas “crêpes” or “galettes,” but nevermind.) I made these this week with Mexican rice.

Noodles

I am obsessed with noodles right now. This year I found the Asian grocery stores in Lyon. (They’re in the 7th, by Guillotière.) I can buy sesame oil, rice vinegar, and a zillion kinds of soy sauce. I can’t stop making these sesame ginger noodles, and I’m working my way through some new recipes from The Woks of Life. (Although Hugo has made it clear – “beurk! dégueu!” – that he won’t eat any more hoisin sauce.) I pair the noodles with my favorite Asian cucumber salad. Sometimes I drink the leftover dressing out of the bowl. Don’t tell anyone.

I’ve only included links to recipes I love and use on a regular basis. If I have linked to your site and you are displeased, please let me know via my contact page.

          Other useful stuff

IMG_4739I use “levure chimique,” a levening agent that is sold for super cheap in little pink sachets, for baking powder. It’s probably not exactly the same thing, but I don’t really care.

The baking soda in my kitchen is the orange Arm & Hammer kind and it came straight from the USA, but you can buy it in France – look for “bicarbonate“.

Do not accidentally set your oven to 375 Celsius. Sometimes ovens aren’t even in Celsius. They just have numbers (like, 1 to 10) on the dial and you have to guess.

French spicy and American spicy are two different spicies. (I’m kind of a spice-wimp, so French spicy suits me just fine.)

Links

Ingredients for American baking in Paris by David Lebovitz

My Pinterest, where I got all of these ideas in the first place. (I’ve divided the recipes into dessert, brunch, and everything else, because I’m compulsive like that.)

What do you cook for your French friends? Or if you’re French, what is your favorite foreign food?

Hyères

Hyeres La Vie En C Rose

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Renewing my visa in Lyon: 9 hours at the préfecture 

In Lyon, going to the préfecture is surprisingly like a transatlantic flight (minus the in-flight entertainment). You pack snacks and something to read, and then you sit in a chair until you lose all feeling in your ass.

(If you’re wondering what the préfecture is, it’s a big bureaucratic office that deals with things like immigration and drivers licenses. You go to your local préfecture if you need to renew your visa, or if you’re extremely masochistic, for example.)

Not all préfectures operate the same way. At some, you can make an appointment. Sometimes you can show up at 9 a.m. Sometimes you can make an appointment online. In Lyon, you wait in line outside the building to get a ticket, and then you wait inside the building until your number is called. They give out about 150 tickets per day starting at 8:30 a.m., and you have to come early to get one. Last year, that meant showing up before 6:30 a.m. This year… well, let’s just say that things have changed.

2 a.m. Alarm rings. I consider going back to sleep but instead I get up and drink a weird iced coffee. I think it’s been tainted by fridge smell.

2:30 a.m. I walk to the préfecture with an enormous bag filled with snacks, books, a cushion, and photocopies of all the documents I need to renew my visa. Plus a folding chair. I call my parents because it’s only 5 p.m. in California and they’re like, will anyone be at the préfecture so early? Is it safe?

3 a.m. I arrive at the préfecture and the line is already all the way to the end of the block and around the corner. There are about a hundred people ahead of me. The girl at the head of the line tells me she’s been there since 6 p.m. the night before, and at least thirty people are stretched out sleeping because they’ve been there all night. I set up my chair at the end of the line and get as comfortable as I can under the circumstances.

4 a.m. I’m glad I brought Calvin & Hobbes with me. I thought about bringing L’Écume des jours, but then I got real and reminded myself that this was not the time to challenge my brain.

5 a.m. My phone battery is already down to 30%. This doesn’t look promising.

5:28 a.m. The line is now so far down the block that I can’t see the end. I’m vaguely paranoid about not getting a ticket, but I think it should be fine. The people next to me are speaking a language I don’t understand. Ukranian? Only three hours to go…. until the préfecture actually opens.

5:29 a.m. I should have gotten fries on the way here.

5:46 a.m. This is when I GOT HERE last year. I’ve been here for almost three hours now.

5:50 a.m. A man asks which way to the end of the line. This means that the line is so long in both directions that he can’t tell where it starts. He sits down on the sidewalk and is politely informed that he actually needs to go all the way to the back of the line, because apparently he either doesn’t understand how queuing works, or he thinks we are all dumb or passive enough to let him cut in. Never assume that about people who have been in line since 3 a.m.

5:55 a.m. Three hours down! I can’t wait to go home and sleep later. And maybe eat a burger.

6 a.m. The street lights click off. I guess this means it’s officially morning.

6:30 a.m. A mosquito buzzes around my head. Seriously?! A mosquito?!

6:50 a.m. People are munching on pain au chocolat and I can smell the butter. #jealous

7 a.m. The line starts moving. We round the corner… and wait some more. Queuers step off the sidewalk to smoke their morning cigarettes. Blech.

8 a.m. I’m now all the way up to the employee entrance on the side of the building. There’s a steady stream of fonctionnaires coming in to work, sliding through the throng of immigrants outside. I wonder if they know how long we’ve been waiting.

8:45 a.m. I’m in! I set up my chair in the corner by an outlet to charge my phone. I’m ticket number E118… And they’re on number E019. Settle in and wait, part two. I eat my last cookie to celebrate.

8:57 a.m. A dude comes up to me and asks to borrow my glasses. He needs them to sign a paper. I try to explain that they’re not reading glasses and I forget the word for “near-sighted” because my brain is set in English/zombie right now. No one has ever asked to borrow the glasses off my face before.

9:16 a.m. omg I smell coffee.

10 a.m. They’re up to E055. Only 63 more to go. I just want to go to sleep. I look at the woman soothing her four-month-old. It must be tough to come here with a baby. There are a lot of families. A seven-year-old with a cast on her leg riding on her dad’s shoulders, a woman breast-feeding her baby, a blonde with a sequined top pushing a double stroller.

10:01 a.m. The people who wanted to borrow my glasses an hour ago have just finished at the guichet. No wonder it takes so long to bing-bong through all the ticket numbers.

11:26 a.m. E100! Only 18 more to go. I feel brain-dead but Josh and Chuck (of Stuff You Should Know podcast fame) are helping me stay zen. (With a podcast on road rage, ironically.)

11:39 a.m. The room is emptying out. There are less than 30 of us remaining.

11:45 a.m. Yes! E118, guichet 22. My turn!

I get a nice girl who is probably younger than me. Her supervisor is the dude with glasses who wouldn’t accept my dossier last year. I called her window a “guichet” but it’s really a glass cubicle. There’s a transparent wall separating us. It’s nothing like stepping up to the window to buy a train ticket, even though that’s also called a guichet. You don’t wait in line for half a day to buy a train ticket, even if you want to go somewhere really cool like Croatia.

I hand over copies of my carte de séjour, my passport, my justificatif de domicile, aka proof that I’m not homeless (my lease and electric bill, just to be sure), my last four paychecks. She compares them all to the originals and initials each page. I give them the attestation from the university that says they’re hiring me next year and my autorisation de travail from DIRECCTE, the department who gets to say, “Yeah, it’s cool if you work in our country,” or not.

Wait, there’s a problem. “No, this work authorization is from last year. We need the one from this year.” I start to panic. Should I have gone to DIRECCTE first? Did I screw this up? Then I remember I can’t get that form by myself – the university has to do it for me, and they won’t until September.

Another person is telling her that I absolutely need the one for this year, not last year. She comes back to the window. I’m shaking my head and internally freaking out.

“Don’t worry,” she says before I have a meltdown. “I’ll still take your dossier. You just need to bring in the form when you get it in September. You don’t have to come back early in the morning.”

She takes my fingerprints (“Uh, your right hand is the other one”) and has me fill out a form and sign my récipissé, the temporary document that says I’m legal while I wait for my new carte de séjour, my visa.

And then it’s over. All her coworkers have already gone to lunch. It’s 12:15 p.m. so I wish her a bonne journée and get out of there so fast I almost forget my chair. The line for the 1 p.m. tickets is already spilling out the door. (Afternoon tickets are for different orders of business than morning tickets.) The sun is shining but it’s not too hot. My adrenaline keeps me running just long enough to eat lunch and walk poor Tigrou the dog, and then I crash.

Today of all days, I give myself permission to do nothing but sleep, lounge, and Netflix all afternoon. Because I won my préfecture battle of 2015 and got my récipissé on the first try, dammit.

And it only took nine hours.

This was not my worst trip to the préfecture, even though it was the longest. You can read about my past adventures in French bureaucracy here.

Eating My Way Through Paris (Again)

When I go to Paris, I really just want to eat. I have an ongoing list called “Stuff to eat in Paris” that I pull out every time I’m back in the soixante-quinze. (Because Paris is in department # 75 and French numbers are funny.) I enjoy hitting up much blogged-about hotspots and deciding if they live up to the hype, and discovering new gems by chance, like the Bar à Soupes in the 11th.

I was back in the City of Lights in June, juggling my love of food with my loathing of Paris prices. (It’s like if you attacked normal prices with helium. Because they’re inflated. No, I’m exaggerating. It’s not that bad.) You’ll notice that I spent a lot of time in the 10th, my current favorite arrondissement for doing stuff. (The 12th is my current favorite arrondissement for chilling, in case you were wondering.)

If you’ve ever lived in Paris, you’ll know more than a few of these!

Continue reading “Eating My Way Through Paris (Again)”

Winning an epic battle with French lab billing

A great pastime, particularly among foreigners in France, is complaining about the bizarre inefficiency of the French system and all the frustrations that come with it. I’ve ranted about French bureaucracy a considerable amount, but all of these experiences that make you want to clunk heads together are the rule, not the exception. Everyone has lived them, even French people.

So I’m happy to present to you a France success story! I like to tell it because I get to rant for most of the story (ranting is only fun after it’s all over) and it still has a happy ending. Are you ready?

In January, I went to the doctor. She said she was going to do a test that would cost 7 euros once it was reimbursed in part by social security. Fine, I said. In France, the doctor actually gives you your lab sample packaged in an envelope and you have to take it to the post office to mail it to the lab yourself. Weird, but okay.

A few weeks later, I got a bill for 23.10€. I sent a check, because that was the only way to pay. And that was that.

Except that a couple months later, a scary collection agency note showed up at my door, threatening to fine me over 100 euros for not paying the bill, which I had paid. So I called them up.

“Um, actually I did pay this bill a few months ago,” I explained.

They insisted that there was no record of my payment.

“Fine, then I would like to pay it now. Can I use an American credit card? I’m having some problems with my French bank.”

“Yes, clearly you are,” the woman smirked condescendingly.

(My French bank problems are an entirely different saga, and do not involve a lack of funds to pay a 23 euro bill.)

I argued with her until she conceded to let me pay the original amount owed, minus additional charges.

And that was that.

Except that it wasn’t, because in May (remember, this all started in January) the laboratory cashed my check. They cashed the check that they had said they had never received, after sending a collection agency after me, months after I had paid the collection agency!

I only had the number for the collection agency, and naturally, this debacle was not their problem.

“You’ll have to take this up with the lab because they are the ones who cashed your check.”

“Okay, could you please give me their phone number?”

“I can’t share that information with you, but here is there address. You can write them a letter.”

I can write them a letter?! (Side note: Sometimes, in France, you will be told that the only way to accomplish something is to write a letter. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t.)

Thankfully, Google seemed to think it was okay to give me the lab’s phone number. You’re the best, Google.

So, in my best polite French, I explained that there seemed to have been an error.

“You’ll have to take that up with the collection agency, that’s not my problem,” the receptionist brushed me off.

“Oh no no no no nononononono.” My polite French got less polite. “I have paid almost fifty euros for something that was supposed to cost seven. Do you find that normal and correct? I did send the payment on time, and when I was told you had lost the check, I paid immediately a second time to resolve the issue.”

“We didn’t lose your check!” She was indignant.

I was confused. “Then… why… but… the collection agency?”

“I don’t know what my colleague did, but we didn’t lose your check. We sent you the reimbursement form, didn’t you get it?”

“Madame, the issue is not the assurance maladie reimbursement. The issue is that you have charged me twice and you need to reimburse me.”

Here, there was some hemming and hawing, and she put me on hold. Apparently, she didn’t share my view that reimbursement was obligatory in this scenario.

Finally: “My supervisor says we can send you a check.”

“Wonderful! When might I expect to receive it?”

“Bah, je sais pas madame! We have other clients, not just you. It won’t be tomorrow.”

“I understand, but could you give me an idea? A week? Two? I’ll be moving in a month.”

“You had better give me your new address. Ca ne va pas être demain!” she repeated.

“I don’t have it yet, and I really think that three weeks is sufficient time to send a check.”

“You’re moving in a month and you don’t have a new address? You’re really pushing it, madame.”

It sounds polite because we were calling each other madame, but the whole thing had turned into quite a spat.

“Look,” I said. “I am sure that you will be able to successfully mail this check in two weeks. In the event that I don’t have it before I move, I will contact you again. Will that work for you?”

“Yes. Au revoir.”

“Thanks so much for all your help and bonne journée!” I spit out sarcastically, sure that I was going to have to call and harrass her for the money in a few weeks.

But. BUT! Here’s the happy ending. Are you ready?

The check came in a few weeks time, and I cashed it. HOORAY!

The end.

Have you ever battled the French system? Tell me your story, or leave a link to your own rantings!

Working in France: Lectrice Q & A

Most Americans in France know how hard it is to get a visa and a job. If you don’t have EU nationality, a French spouse, or a rare and in-demand professional specialty, job opportunities are slimmer than the supermodels France recently banned, especially if you weren’t educated in France.

There are a couple solutions. You can work part time on a student visa while going to school (check), you can be a language assistant in a French elementary, middle, or high school (check), and, if you have the required education, you can be a lecteur or lectrice in a French university (check!)

(Other ways to live and work in France include being an au pair and getting your visa sponsored through the Franco-American chamber of commerce. If you’re Canadian or Australian, you may qualify for a working holiday visa.)

I’m about to embark on my fourth year in France and my second as a university lectrice. Here are some insights into my experience as a lectrice so far.

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Two things you should never say to your French boyfriend

I’ve made my share of silly mistakes in French. I’ve progressed a lot in the last few years, but (much to my chagrin), I’m still not perfect. Sometimes just accidentally adding a single consonant to a word leaves les français giggling at my expense. (The word for down jacket is “doudoune” not “doune-doune,” in case you were wondering.)

Usually, my slip-ups just leave me subject to ridicule, but sometimes they get me in trouble. Here are two ways to accidentally offend your French copain or copine.

Continue reading “Two things you should never say to your French boyfriend”

Lost in La Défense

Have you ever been to La Défense? It’s the cluster of shiny towers a ways down the road from the Arc de Triomphe.

[Not so fun fact: if you take the metro line 1 to La Défense, all you need is a regular zone 1 and 2 metro ticket, but if you take the RER A to La Défense, it’s considered zone 3 and you need a more expensive ticket or you risk a fine.]

Well, even though it looks straightforward enough on the map, La Défense is kind of trippy if you don’t know your way around (and I definitely don’t).

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One day in Cassis

Fun fact: Cassis the town is pronounced without the final s, ca-see, unlike the liqueur that goes in a kir, Crème de Cassis, which is pronounced ca-cease and comes from Dijon, not Cassis, oddly enough.

I didn’t love Cassis as much as I thought I would, but I didn’t not love it either. I’d wanted to go for awhile, but good heavens not in the summer (too crowded) or the winter (too cold! need beach!) Instead, I grabbed the chance to go in September. I spent one lovely day there… and that was enough for me.

Continue reading “One day in Cassis”