Friday, December 19, 2008

Home is where the Heart is

Alright clever person that coined that phrase, what do you do when your heart is sliced in two? What then? Hmm?

Grégoire and I flew home for the holidays. Home. I suppose it would less politically and emotionally charged to just call it Seattle. Eight months after moving to Paris I catch myself often referring to Seattle as home. Should I be worried that I don't always refer to Paris as my home? Can you have two homes? If you live in one city and call another city home is it considered cheating? How long will it take for me to consider Paris home with a capital H and Seattle a place where I used to live? Do I even want that?

Oh la la. That's quiet enough of that. No more exhausting self-analyzing questions for today. From here on I am officially eliminating home from my vocabulary and using the cities' proper names. There. Problem solved.  

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's not ALL bad.

In case people feel like we are getting down on the French here I should say that there are a few aspects to this process which are really great. 

1. It's all free. Except for the photocopying, the ID photos and the flight to San Francisco. Obtaining a visa in the US costs over a thousand bucks. 

2. They haven't asked me to fill out a questionnaire about my past. In the US they sent Grégoire a form with questions like: Are you a prostitute? Are you a drug dealer? Are you a communist?

3. They haven't sent me to prison or deported me even though technically they could.

So it's not all bad. France, I know we are going to get through this.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Arg!!

Well that didn't take very long. As noted in my previous entry about immigration one should be wary of lines that move too quickly. It often means that the people in front of you, and thus you, are likely to receive a no.

That is what I got today. A big fat NON.

Looks like I will be making an unexpected detour to the French Consulate in San Francisco. They are lucky that I happen to like that city and that I happen to be going to the states for Christmas anyway. The problem is that I entered France as a tourist. It is impossible to transition from a tourist visa to a resident visa. So I need to go back to the US and visit my closest Consulate (a 2 hour flight from Seattle, thank you very much) and apply for a Visa D Long Sejour, famille ou conjoint d'un Français in person. Once I have that little sticker in my passport I can fly back to France and then I can ask for a resident visa.

"But Mary, what about the 6 months worth of rent receipts they asked you for? What about all the time you wasted waiting for those?!" you say? I know. Believe me, I know. Apparently that only applies to people married in France. If you get married to a Frenchman in France you have to wait 6 months before you apply for the visa to prove that you are not only married but that you survived living together in France for half a year and are therefore surely in love and worthy of a resident visa. Alternatively you can ask for a fiancé visa, which you have to apply for in person at the French Consulate in the States, then fly to France get married and then you can ask for your resident visa right away. 

However, if like me, you were married in the states, you have to have an entry visa in your passport before entering the country, period. Then, and only then, can you ask for a resident visa. Why the workers at the filtering counter of the Prefecture de Police failed to mention that when I first visited them in August? I can't say.

Immigration Offices - Here I come

Lip gloss? Check.
Pearl earrings? Check.
Sexy yet professional sweater? Check.
Husband? Check.
Piles of wildly personal original paperwork with photocopies? Check.

Prefecture de Police, I am ready for you.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Metro Moments - Part II

The list of ways in which Non-Parisians can offend Parisians on the metro is lengthy. Today I am going to focus on two key areas where we tend to make mistakes.

The Pole: The pole is designed to be a shared space that several people can grab on to in order to stabilize themselves while the train is in motion. One should NOT use the pole as an accessory for dancing or twirling. Only sweet little girls under five can occasionally get away with this and even then it is frowned upon. One should also, NEVER, use the pole as a footrest.

Do NOT use both hands or LEAN against the pole thus hogging all the room and possibly smashing someone else's hand. Do NOT use both poles at that same time. Passengers should use ONE hand to hold on to ONE of the poles.

On that same note, do not be a hero, use the pole or other available handles while the train is moving. Your natural sense of balance and soft ski knees are no match for an urban metro driver. If you accidentally fall in to the lap of a passenger while holding on to a pole you might be forgiven. However if you bump in to a fellow rider because you were stupid enough not to hold on to the pole, Lord help you.

The Folding Seats: This can be a real point of tension. Use of the folding seats is a treat only to be enjoyed if the train is relatively empty. As soon as the car starts to fill up you MUST surrender your privileged seats so your knees are not driving in to the crowd in front of you. This creates more space for more people to grab on to the bar (using one hand) and pack in around the door.


Misbehaving on the metro can result in a sharp elbow in the back, an exasperated sigh, a dirty look, an eye roll or a nasty combination of these things. Children and tourists are not given any slack.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Just a minute!

In America we say things like, "Just a minute" or "Hold on a second" or "See you in a sec". In the last example it's apparent that we are so busy and things are moving so quickly in the States that we don't even have time to finish the word second, we shorten it to sec.

Instead of one second or even one minute the French use two minutes. They say things like, "Je reviens dans deux minutes ~ I'll be back in two minutes" or "Ça prend deux minutes pour y aller ~ it takes two minutes to get there" or "La table sera prête dans deux minutes ~ your table will be ready in two minutes". While two minutes may still be a gross underestimation and it may actually take five minutes to get where you are going, it is slightly more realistic than a sec.

The difference in word-choice boils down to more than who is better at guessing how long it takes to do things. More importantly it illustrates the sense of time in France. Everything takes longer here than it does in America. Allow me to point out that two minutes is 120 times longer than a second. Don't even get me started on how much longer it is than a sec.

Based on my experience thus far, things in France take approximately 120 times longer than I want them to. Getting your bill at a restaurant for example, takes forever. Waiting for your internet connection to be set up takes up to 10 weeks, an eternity in my opinion. Trying something on at H&M can take the majority of an afternoon. Obtaining a legal immigration status in France has taken seven months and counting.

Transitioning from a life in Seattle to a life in Paris requires a serious increase in patience. Rushing the post office employee or your hair dresser can result in disaster. The only thing a busy bee American girl can do is surrender and accept life at a slower pace. I am trying. Really I am.

Ommmmm. Ommmm. Namasté.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How much soufflé is too much soufflé?

In my opinion you realize that you have ordered too much soufflé somewhere between the last bite of your first and the second bite of your second. The knowledge that a third was on it's way was also a factor. 

My sweet husband brought me to a restaurant called Le Soufflé which serves, get ready, a multi-course meal composed uniquely of savory and sweet soufflés. While their soufflés are highly acclaimed and acknowledged as the best in Paris, I suggest limiting your consumption to one per meal. My dining neighbor, who had clearly eaten here before, wisely combined a cheesy mushroomy soufflé as a starter with a meaty main dish. I feel like I learn new things here everyday. One soufflé per meal. Got it. 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Repatriation

Although we arrived in France back in April I feel like I am only just starting to get my bearings. Spending six months on a tour bus visiting Europe was wonderful but not helpful in making me feel at home in Paris. 
Grégoire, however, is taking to Paris like a fish to water. After a matter of weeks he fell back in love with his mother land. Feasting on duck confit, nutella crêpes and tiny cups of espresso, he is re-assimilating at an impressive rate. Yes, these days he looks, walks and smokes like a Parisian. I have to trot to keep up with him, I can store things in his new French man purse (he claims that the English translation of sac makes it sounds much girlier than it is) and I enjoy knowing that he has matches on hand. 

Here is a fun set of before and after shots. This top photo was taken in 2007. We stopped for fried chicken on our way home from a weekend in Manzanita Oregon. Note the bud light being consumed directly from the bottle, the country style table cloth and Greg's van T-Shirt. 

This second shot was taken last weekend a few blocks from our apartment. Note the ever so French mustache, the man in the béret behind Greg, and of course the cigarette au bec.

Oui, a frenchman in his native environment is both a beautiful and dangerous beast.  

 

Monday, November 24, 2008

The BIG Day

By all reasonable measures the party was a success. We woke up the following morning to find my underwear on the kitchen floor and dishes piled up in the shower. So. Yes. It was a fun night.

It was not, however, all smooth sailing. Far from it.

Allow me to present article A. This innocent looking little piece of paper almost ended my marriage. As Grégoire and I sipped coffee discussing the big day ahead of us, he asked me a few questions, like when are you going to put the turkey in? What time are we eating? All fine questions which I thought I gave fine answers to. Turns out he was unsatisfied with my vague answers and decided we (read me) needed a schedule so we would not double book the two burners and one stove. Did I mention that Greg is a quarter German?

He breaks out the colored pens, scissors and graph paper. Then asks me questions like how long does the turkey need to rest. My reply was, "well at least 20 minutes but it can rest for up to an hour if it is tented with tin foil". Then he asked about the green bean casserole, "how long does that take to heat back up?". I say, "well if we preheat it on the stove then top it with the onions then pop it in the oven, then we would need about 15 minutes of stove time and 10 minutes of oven time. But we could do the whole thing in the oven and that would take more like 50 minutes.". At this point Greg throws down his pens and says, "Mary you can only give me short answers like yes, no, or a number. How can I write 20ish minutes on this graph? and how do you want to heat up the beans, oven or stove?! Just pick one!" Needless to say, things spiraled from there and we butted heads for about an hour.

In the end, as you can see, the schedule was created and although I HATE to admit it, it was mildly helpful.

The second obstacle hit around 4 o'clock. We have the discount electricity plan which heats our water during off hours (11pm to 7am). When we wake up in the morning we have a fresh tank of hot water that is supposed to last us all day. This is usually no problem. However, that day, I was using hot water like never before. I own two pots and one pan. I would boil the beans in my one large sauce pan then pour them out and quickly wash that pan so I could put the potatoes in it. This heavy rotation caused frequent dishwashing, which when combined with our two showers meant that we ran out of hot water hours before the party began. Reaching back to my food handlers permit class I am pretty sure not having access to hot water is an issue. I would boil water in a pan but of course they are all full of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and according to Greg's schedule the burners are fully booked from now until 8:30. The show must go on.

Grégoire's two main tasks for the day were cleaning the house and getting the table and chairs set up. Moving any kind of furniture in Paris is a pain and damn near impossible when you don't own a car and neither do any of your friends. Greg was able to borrow the van from work and picked up two unbuilt ikea desks from the new office in the 9th and brought them home. He was hammering and screwdrivering all afternoon and then it dawns on him that he doesn't like the lighting in our living room. AHHHH! For those that don't know. I HATE with capital letters the lighting in our living room. For the past five months we haven't been able to decide what to do about it thus the bare light bulbs are still in place. 45 minutes before the guests arrive Greg announces that he is going to run an errand. Where is he going, you ask? Castorama. The French equivalent of Home Depot. Why, you ask? Because he has decided that NOW is the perfect time to fix the vintage lamp I bought in June and pick up some christmas lights.

He arrived 15 minutes before the guests were scheduled to arrive and they all arrived 30 minutes late (very French) so in the end Greg had just enough time to rewire the lamp and hang the lights which looked beautiful. So, again, in the end he was right. But I experienced a very stressful 45 minutes while he was absent.

While he was out, I Skyped my mother to both complain about my insane husband and have her take a look at the stuffing. My mother's stuffing recipe is one of those mysterious Debbie Campbell recipies that has a little bit of this and a little bit of that and in the end I'm not sure anyone knows (including her) exactly what's in it. I held up my webcam to the bowl and squeezed the bread cubes so she could gauge the moisture level. She approved and I tossed it in the oven. Speaking of ovens. In addition to disowning my husband I almost killed his best friend Mathieu. He was supposed to arrive at 7pm sharp with his portable oven so I could start heating up the sides. He saunters in at 8pm. By that time the other guests had all arrived and we were busy eating deviled eggs and drinking crémant, so at that point all was forgiven since I had forgotten all about my side dishes! We fired up the second oven which was stacked on my washing machine and by 9:45 we were finally ready to eat.

I gave a short speech on the history of Thanksgiving and in true Campbell family tradition we all stood, held hands and went around the table to say what we were thankful for. This year I am thankful for the luxury of choice. Thanks to the support from my friends, my family and my loving husband I am able to choose things like what part of the world I want to live in, what kind of fancy cheese I want to buy and where I would like to work. I am able to take my time and am lucky enough to have a wide selection of things to choose from. Choice is a luxury and I am thankful for it.



Friday, November 21, 2008

Turducken

The butcher on Rue Lepic is my new best friend. Based on several measurements, discussions with my mother and online research I decided that a whole turkey was out of the question. I thought the next best thing would be a roasted turkey breast. So yesterday I dropped by my local butcher shop to inquire about a skin on, bone in turkey breast. I peered in to the case and saw turkey legs, wings and skinless boneless breasts but these turkey parts weren't going to add up to a platter worthy bird. So I asked the butcher for what I wanted using my sweetest, gee I'm new here voice. I told him that I need a skin on, bone in breast. He said he didn't have anything like that and didn't think that cut was a very good idea. I pleaded and explained that of course I would rather buy a whole turkey but given the fact that I am working with the smallest oven on the planet I think this cut wouldbe a good compromise. I would have the rib bones for structure and the skin for presentation which I would slather with butter and herbs and all the glorious white meat we needed. He frowned and said, "Come back tomorrow afternoon, madamoiselle,  so I can think about it.".
I returned the next day at 2:00 only to find the shop closed. They close between 2:00 and 4:00 so apparently by afternoon he really meant evening! Fine I thought, more time for him to think about my turkey. I popped back down the hill at 4:00 and found my guy. "So?!" I said, "what did you find?" He pulled a whole turkey out of the case and says, "Voilà!". Oh god. He didn't understand me at all. My eyebrows furrow as I explained, again, that a whole turkey simply isn't going to fit in to my shoe box sized toaster oven and he said, "No no my dear, just show me what part you want and I will cut it for you!". Perfect! He then chops off the legs and cuts out the backbone leaving me with a perfectly sized, skin on, bone in breast! Hurray!

As the butcher was preparing my bird, the man behind me, who overheard my duress, tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a happy Thanksgiving. We got to talking and he told me that last year he was visiting some American friends in New York for Thanksgiving and he had something called a Turducken. The butcher stops chopping at this point to ask what, pray tell, a Turducken is? It is, for those unfamiliar, a chicken stuffed inside a large duck stuffed inside a turkey. The butcher shakes his head in disbelief and disgust. The frenchman who ordered the dish agreed. "How absurd! How extravagant! Why would anyone do that?" they proclaim. I laughed and said, "I know. We are nuts. But this dish speaks volumes about good old American ingenuity. Yes, our taste for excess can sometimes lead us astray but what can you do?" I left the store turkey in hand, feeling relieved an oddly proud of my wacky compatriots. 

Deep Breaths

28 hours and counting until I am hosting my first solo Thanksgiving party. My poor little fridge has never been so full, my knives are dulling from all the nut chopping and my turkey is yet to be purchased. I have spent the last 5 minutes turning in circles and I have decided it would be prudent for me to sit down for a moment and take a few deep breaths.

I originally invited 6 people to this little soirée, the guestcount has recently grown to 11 and I am wondering what the safe maximum occupancy is for an apartment the size of my childhood garage. In addition to limited square footage, we also are working with limited supplies. I am cursing our romantic idea of piecing together mismatched vintage silver to create our collection of flatware. I currently own, 7 forks, 9 large spoons and 3 knives. Up until yesterday I owned 6 plates, I now own 10 which still leaves us 1 short of a load.

So what's a hostess to do? Out source. Our dear friend Matthieu is bringing the requisite bottle of wine in addition to his kitchen table and his portable oven. Other friends are bringing coffee cups, pies, butter knives and folding chairs. Should everyone remember the list of odd items, we should be in pretty good shape for eating dinner.

Dinner. That of course is the ultimate source of anxiety. Earlier this week I rode the metro 45 minutes away in order to find cranberries which cost €5.60 a bag. I dove deep into the Algerian neighborhood to find large orange fleshed yams and yesterday I spent 10 minutes trying to convince my butcher sell me turkey breasts with the skin on. He told me that he will think about it and that I should come back tomorrow.

As noted in earlier posts, I own an oven that is smaller than a conventional mailbox. No whole chicken, let alone turkey, would ever fit. Matthieu suggested that I let someone with a larger oven cook the turkey. Days later Kristen, who does indeed own a full sized oven (she is American), offered to preform this service. Grégoire accurately replied to Matthieu when he said that this idea was hors de question. That having someone bring the turkey to a Thanksgiving party would be paramount to asking someone to bring in an already decorated tree to a Christmas party. Matthieu shrugged not seeing why that would be a big deal either. Mary would never let that happen! I was simultaneously touched by how well my partner knows me and concerned that I may have a fatal case of MSS (Martha Stewart Syndrome) which was no doubt passed on to me from my mother during childbirth.

Speaking of my mother, her voice has been present all week. Unbeknownst to her, she made me buy the more expensive paper napkins, serve 4 side dishes instead of 3 and attempt to make gougères  just before the guests arrive so they will have a hot little snack when they walk through the door. Her voice almost drove me to bake individual banana breads as a party favor but that's where I drew the line.

Wish me luck. I'm going to need it. 




Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Metro Moments - Part I

This is the first of a new series called Metro Moments. While riding around the city on this amazing network of underground trains you find very fertile grounds for people watching. In this series I would like to share a few of my favorite moments in the metro. 


Here is one. This young lady is so starved for privacy in this crowded train that she is holding her scarf over her mouth to muffle her cell phone conversation. This technique also has the added benefit of shielding her mouth so that people can't read her lips. Why go to such extreme measures? I can't say. In my opinion she looks totally nuts and I argue drew more attention to herself than if she just talked into her phone like a normal commuter. Personally as soon as I saw her trying so hard to conceal her conversation, I leaned forward even further so that I could better eves drop on her conversation. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cats in Europe

I have often thought that in my next life it would be nice to be a cat. Specifically my mom's cat. That way I could laze around all day sitting on stylish leather chairs while being fed salami ends and fried up giblets extracted from the envelops inside whole supermarket chickens.

It turns out the Europeans take pretty good care of the cats too. While Parisians are notorious dog lovers they also hold a great fondness for cats. Just this afternoon I was sitting in a park listening to This American Life and a perfectly normal looking lady sits down next to me with a very chic siamese cat on a thin blue leash. The cat comes over to me and the lady says, "Don't worry, she wont bite. When I see the sun shining like this I just cannot resist taking her out for a little fresh air." Italians would agree. Please note the nice old man parked on a bench in Levanto, Italy with his cat in a bird cage enjoying the afternoon sun and the view of the port.

The Italians, however, take thislove affair with cats to the next level. They don't just love their own cats, they love all cats and for anyone who has spent some time in Italy you know there is a lot of cats to love. Rome is crawling with them. There is a ruin in the middle of the city called Largo Argentina that has been officially transformed in to a sanctuary for disabled felines. While hiking between the Cinque Terre villages this summer I ran across a cat encampment. Complete with a donation box, free food and tents. Yes, Italian cats are familiar with the Dolce Vita.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Oddly Affordable vs Annoyingly Expensive

Paris is expensive. It's expensive like London, like New York, like any other metropolis where the population is so dense. Produce is pricey, rent is high, and parking is outrageous. Moving to the big city we knew we were going to see high prices for certain items and services but every once in a while I still get sticker shock. Dental floss, for example, is wildly expensive, €5.90 the pop. Shoes are another crazy expensive item, I rarely see any shoes worth wearing for less than €90.00.

It's not all bad news though. We have run across several things that are surprisingly cheap!
  • Leg Waxing ~ €12.00
  • Bottle of decent wine ~ €6.00
  • Internet/cable/phone package with unlimited US calling ~ €29.00
  • Baguette ~ €1.00
  • Flying from Paris to Rome ~ €70
I guess it boils down to priorities.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Milk Honey and Rum

The French have a lot of unusual theories about what does and doesn't make you sick. Eating raw beef? Drinking expired milk? Pas de problem. Not wearing tights in the winter? Exposing your delicate neck skin to the wind by not wearing a scarf? Attention! These are sure fire ways to get sick.

Gregoire has a long standing belief that being cold can give you a cold. Whenever he brings this up I nod and smile and think how quaint. This theory must have come from the olden days in France when they didn't have microscopes and modern medicine. Or possibly the theory was launched by the booming scarf industry here in France and he is just a victim of the propaganda machine? Either way, until today I thought he was absolutely nuts.

As it turns out, he may be on to something. Yesterday I stood for three and a half hours (That's right! Enough time to drive from Seattle to Portland! Enough time to watch two movies! Enough time to bake a banana bread!) in line outside the Prefecture de Police waiting to have my immigration papers validated. The line snaked around the sidewalk, ducking in and out of covered alleyways and finally into the police station. The first two hours were cold and then it started to rain. In the cold, in the rain, I stood with the other people who love this country enough to wait in these kinds of conditions for the chance to live here legally.


France, I think at this point my feelings for you are clear. I do love you. I did stand in line for you. And what did you give me in return? A cold and another five week delay until my paperwork can be settled. This morning I woke up feeling stuffy and unwell. The only explanation for my cold is the exposure to the cold yesterday.

Tonight I am going to make an old French cold remedy to fight this French cold. A mug of hot milk, spiked with rum and sweetened with honey. They say this potion packs a punch. It should knock you out for the night and the next day you should wake up sweaty yet refreshed.
We shall see.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hip Hip Horray!



France celebrated with us this week. There was honking and wooping and dancing in the streets! Europe is thrilled with our choice of new president. I received this photo from Monsieur Senior this week! Check it out. He is wearing a T-Shirt of his own design. In case you can't read it, the shirt says "Change Yes YOU Can!".

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Go Obama!!!

A few weeks ago I attended an early morning (3am to be precise) live broadcast of the third presidential debate. My friend Caroline is a camera-woman for BFM Télé which is a 24 hour news channel similar to CNN. She told me she was assigned to this event and I promptly invited myself to tag along. The event was organized by the Democrats Abroad and held in an Irish pub near the Louvre. The bar was packed with American girls looking rather French and sounding rather French but being very American in their choice of beverage. Smirnoff Ice straight from the bottle.... a dead give away.

At 6am when the debate was all over and the bar was emptying, Caroline interviewed me and my clip made it on to TV! Essentially I told all of France that this last debate proves that Obama is going to be a great leader because he knows how to eloquently and politely express his views in the face of provocative and unpleasant politicians. What a man. Go Obama! Here is the clip!

video

Sunday, November 2, 2008

3...2...1..Sarkozy!

Last May I was lucky enough to be traveling through France during the presidential elections. As our election day approaches I thought I would write a little something about the French election process as I experienced it.

The presidential election dominated the news and cafe conversations. I was having lunch with my friend Matthieu, a radio journalist, who was trying to explain the French voting process to me. Mid sentence he stopped and said, "I know Mary! Why don't you just come with me to vote in the primaries tomorrow morning?! That way I can show you how it works."

So I woke up extra early the next day to stand in line with Matthieu. 84% of the French population voted in 2007 so the line was long (64% of US voters turned out for our 2004 election). We finally entered the gymnasium. Matthieu showed his ID card and signed his name in a giant book documenting his participation in the election. He was then handed an unmarked white envelope and 12 post-it size pieces of paper with one of the 12 candidate's names printed on it. Matthieu then ducked into the voting booth closing the velvet curtain behind him. All I could see was his feet and a waste paper basket.

Two seconds later he popped back out and dropped his envelope in the big box. "So? What happened in there?" I asked. "Simple, you put the name of your candidate in the envelope and you throw the other pieces of paper away. Then tonight they will open all the envelops and whoever has the most pieces of paper wins." Aside from the obvious environmental concerns (all that wasted paper!) I loved the simplicity and anonymity of this system.

Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union pour un Movement Populaire and Segolene Royale of the Parti Socialiste emerged as the two front runners. They now had two weeks to win over a majority of the electorate and piece together political coalitions with the remaining political parties. France has a mutli party system, there are roughly 18 parties ranging from the Parti Communiste Français to the Front National. This multi party system prevents any one party from dominating the political scene and forces politicians to work together inorder to gain enough support to win the national election.

Let the games begin! During the next two weeks the candidates were not immune from mud slinging, but it seemed to me that they both spent most of their energy talking about the issues. I mentioned this observation to the hotel owner I was dining with and they said, "Mais oui! In the states your election is a glorified beauty pageant! All you care about it personality, not zee issues." While I found that observation a little harsh, I could see where he was coming from. The conversations that I had been overhearing all week were all about complex tax policy and how best to restructure the French medical program with a level of understanding and detail that would be lost most Americans.

Two weeks later it was election day and I was sitting in my hotel room in Bayeux. The restaurants were empty that night so there was no use trying to get any book research done. So I was munching on my dinner (a sanwich) half listening to the TV thinking we wouldn't have the results for at least a day or two. Two film crews were following Royale and Sarkozy. The shots were jumping back and forth between the two official galas and then at 9 o'clock à la Time Square on New Years Eve the news anchor begins a countdown 10...9...8...shot of Royale...7...close up of Sarkozy...6...Royale...5...Sarkozy...4...3...I am thinking they can't be serious! Are they really going to announce the winner tonight?!.....2....1...The next great leader of France....Sarkozy! My mind was blown. How on earth did they already count all the votes? Don't they need to double check the for hanging chads? Aren't there any law suits? No scandals of voter discrimination? No. It all seemed so easy. So simple. It could have something to do with the fact that France comfortable resides in one time zone and only has 60million residents verses America's 305million, but still, I was impressed.

As our election day approaches I am humbled by the interest Europe has taken in our politics. The US election is consistently covered on the nightly news and makes the front page of most daily newspapers. The level of detail in which the French can discuss our politics is both flattering and slightly embarrassing. Their knowledge and interest inspires me to be the most well informed and active American I can be.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Drunkin Punkins

I realized that I was suffering from Halloween withdraw as I stood in the greengrocers by my house seriously considering carving a butternut squash. Just then my phone rang. It was my fellow American tour guide buddy inviting me to a pumpkin carving contest! With real pumpkins! I promptly put the squash down and went home to get ready.

We entered the Irish bar which was stuffed full of British and American ex-pats. The floor was sticky with pumpkin guts and spilt beer. It was perfect.

We joined a carving team called the Seed Spitters. The creative vision was already decided by our group leader, a four part series of drunkin punkins. I offered to handle the vomiting pumpkin.

Traditionally I carve what we call in our family the Grandpa Day pumpkin. It's a classic design that has been carried on through three generations of carvers in the Campbell family. My mother (all star pumpkin carver) fearlessly works an eight inch chef's knife and can carve a pumpkin with her eye's closed. My other teammates were working with round tip serrated knives....I went for the henkles paring knife. While this new age design was a little outside of my classic pumpkin carving tastes I think it turned out well. It was paired with three other pumpkins who had various party night props. One was smoking, the other was grinning with a beer bottle hanging from it's lips and the last was crossed eyed and green.

Our team clenched second place. I think Grandpa Day would be proud.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

French Kissing and American Sandwiches

From French Fries to French Kissing I would say that whoever is in charge of PR for France is doing their job. The French are generally associated with nice things but why are they so lucky? Why is their culture associated both with fancy kissing and delicious potato dishes when officially speaking they did not invent either?

If you were get in a conversation with a French person about French Fries they would at some point chuckle and shake their heads saying, "I do not know why you call them French Fries when everyone knows they are from Belgium, bien sûr!". When it comes to French Kissing, which is another claim to fame that the French don't necessarily deserve, they are less likely to pass the credit along to the Belgians. Although if you push them to define a French Kiss they
are likely to say, "Je ne sais pas, kissing a French person?". In fact the French word for French Kissing is to "Rouler une pelle" which roughly translates to digging a hole in someone's mouth using your tongue as a shovel. Not very romantic sounding if you ask me.

Recently I discovered that the French are not always associated with beautiful and romantic things. The case in point being the so called Turkish Toilet. When traveling in Europe, especially by bus or car, you often run in to Turkish Toilets when you stop to fill up the gas tank and empty yours. It is essentially a porcelain hole in the ground with grips for your feet and occasionally toilet paper. You are expected, male or female, to drop your pants, hover over the hole and try to tell your bladder that this time it's ok to pee standing up. Sometimes you will find handle bars on the walls, these of course are for the foreigners who have not yet built up the thigh muscles to handle these toilettes.

Whilst traveling with a Belgian coworker last month we were giggling in a the ladies room of an Autogrill rest stop about the faces Americans make when the only stall available is the one with the Turkish Toilet. Nina, stopped me mid sentence and said, "Wait, what did you just call
that toilet?". I said, "A Turkish Toilet! Everyone knows that!". Nina laughs and laughs and says, "Mary, that is too funny. Do you know what we call them in Belgium? French Toilets?!"

So were the french just trying to pass the buck? Blame the Turks for this messy invention? It happens to the best of us.  For example, you can often find cafés in France selling something called a Sandwich Américain. This is not a turkey sandwich with miracle whip and iceburg lettuce on untoasted wonderbread. Oh no. It is a meat sandwich that is stuffed with French Fries and topped with mayonaise and/or ketchup. Has anyone EVER seen one of these sandwiches in the US? No. Were the French ashamed of this caloric nightmare? I think so. Thus they came up with the name Sandwich Américain. Genius.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My bubble has burst...

No. I am not talking about the real-estate bubble or the economic crisis. I am talking about my bubble of personal space.

Americans need an average of two feet between them. Be it at a party, in an elevator or in line at the grocery store, we feel at ease if we have an arms-with between ourselves and a stranger. The Europeans, the French specifically, work with much less. In Paris, the space between you and the person sitting next to you on the train or at a restaurant can be a matter of inches. How are you supposed to deal with the closeness? How are you supposed to enjoy a romantic dinner while knocking elbows with a stranger? How do you get used to having several arms reaching around you to grab the pole in the metro? Makebelieve.

Most Parisians have mastered the art of ignoring each other. When sitting on the metro, shoulder to shoulder with a muttering crazy person you simply pretend you cannot hear them. When walking down the street and passing pedestrians at a rate of 100 people per block you pretend you're the only one on that sidewalk. Because if you paused to process the people around you, you wold loose your mind. So Paris has decided to ignore its fellow residents for sanity's sake.

When my mother stayed with us in May, she would open our shutters every morning and greet the world like Mary Poppins meeting her bird friends. She would then break the unspoken Parisian Apartment code of conduct and wave to our neighbor across the street. We can plainly see in to his apartment and he can obviously see in to ours. We have been mutually observing each other for some time now but we pretend that we aren't. If you acknowledge the fact that a stranger can see in to your life and that the banging coming from above is likely not a basketball and that the reason the hallway smells bad because the garbage from the 40+ people living in your building are stacked at the entry, you would go nuts. So you just simply pretend it's not happening.

At first I thought this practice was cold hearted and an impossible habit for me to get in to. But as I rode the metro yesterday with a tangle of arms between me and the pole, I took deep breaths and successfully ignored the overweight couple making out inches from my face, ignored the crazy old man talking to himself about the pot smoking youth and ignored the tall kid behind me breathing on my neck. All for the sake of sanity because otherwise I would have to cover my eyes and start screaming, "get me out of here!".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Original Madame

This week Grégoire's mother came in to town. Her much anticipate trip to Paris was an overall success. While she lives a mere four hours away from the capital this was the first time she's been to Paris in 18 years.

I have been enjoying a break between tours and thus have been home all day...all week... with Madame. Mrs B is the queen of domesticity. She includes cleaning as one of her hobbies in life. While I posses many interests, cleaning is not one of them. Despite this, in fear of being judged a poor choice of wife for her only son, I spent the entire day before her arrival scrubbing the apartment. It was a long day's work but I was pleased with the results and felt sure my mother in law would agree. These dreams, however, never came true. Shortly after her arrival I found her cleaning the grime stuck in the rubber seal of my fridge. I caught her red handed and she smiled apologetically saying, I just couldn't resist. 

Later that day she and I went grocery shopping for dinner. As we hopped from cheese shop to wine store, Madame gently suggested that I not waste my money on designer food and organic vegetables. Rather I should learn to bargain hunt and shop at large scale grocery stores. We did just that the following day and admittedly she made a mean dessert out of discount raspberries.

In addition to been a very good cook, Madame also cuts her son's hair, paints her living room walls according to the season, coifs her west highland terrier herself and sews like a professional seamstress. During the week she tried to pass some of these money saving household skills on to me. This week we made white linen curtains for our living room and bedroom and three cushions for our couch! While I did play a big role in selecting the fabric, for the most part I was not allowed to touch sewing machine. 

I am looking forward to Christmas this year. I can see Madame made a long mental list of things that I simply must have, ranging from microfiber dusting towels to scissors that actually cut. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Unofficially French

Even though the French government may disagree I am feeling more French than ever. The proof? I now own and frequently use an outrageously small oven and I dry my clothes to crispy perfection on a drying rack the size of a golf cart.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Immigrating

Americans can enter Europe without a visa. All they need is a plane ticket and a passport. They can travel freely from country to country without going through boarder crossings, thanks to the European Union, and can stay in any Schengen state (which includes almost all European countries who are EU members) for a combined total of 90 days as a tourist. If you leave the Schengen states for a certain period of time and reenter then you get a new 90 days. 

When I arrived in France no one stamped, scanned or otherwise marked my passport. They just mumbled bonjour and waved me and the rest of my flight through the gates to France. While touring I have visited many countries both in and out of the Schengen states but since we were crossing the boarder as a tour group there was no one there to stamp my individual passport and thus document my exit and reentry. 

Being married to a French person means that ultimately I am allowed to be here, I just need to tell the right people, in the right order, with all the right forms filled out, in the right color of ink etc. Since I have been on the road so much I haven't had a chance. My 90 days came and went and before I knew it I had been here almost 150 days.

Thanks to a very last minute trip to Egypt (see separate posting) I exited Europe and reentered with a brand new stamp from the Italians dating my arrival in Europe last week. Now that I have some time off from touring I started to look around online to see what I need to do next. 

According to the various websites I found, I am in trouble. Supposedly you cannot change from a tourist visa to a long-term visa without going back to the US and applying from there. If you are already in France without applying for a long stay visa then you must present yourself within seven days of your arrival in Europe to the Prefecture of Police. Gulp. 

The office which handles immigration paperwork is conveniently located in the police station of the 17th arrondissement. Genius if you ask me. That way illegal immigrants who need to be detained are already in the right building. 

I get my paperwork together and start walking towards the police station to turn myself in. I turn down a dark street and see a massive brick building with lots of little windows. As I am walking I prepare myself to be stuck behind one of those little windows assuming those are the jail cells for illegal immigrants. As I approach the building, I breath a sigh of relief, it's just an elementary school near the police station. Not a jail. Phew. 

After passing through the metal detectors I take a number and have a seat. 171. They are only on 125 and I prepare myself for a serious wait. There are a few other immigrants in the room. Some from the Philippines, most from North Africa and one fellow American who is chatting with the person next to her talking about her cats and dogs and what she does for a living and how she ended up in France. In true American style she is telling her life story and sharing personal details with anyone who will listen. To my surprise the numbers are ticking down quiet quickly and 171 pops up on the screen in no time. 

"Bonjour! I am here to ask for a carte de séjour." "On what grounds?" the lady behind the desk asks me. "Why, I am married to a French man" I say and I hand her the yellow folder of paperwork the website told me I needed. She shakes her head and says that she needs proof that we have lived together in France for at least six months. I told her that was not on the list online and that she can plainly see on our wedding certificate that were married in August of last year so we have officially been living together since then. That did not impress her and she said I needed to bring in six months of bills or rent checks that show both of our names on it. "Should I get them now and come back today?" I ask. "Do what you want lady" was her reply. The whole interaction took about a minute and I now understood why the line moved so quickly. It doesn't take long to be told no and sent away. 

Based on the indifference shown by the lady behind the counter my fears of been arrested were somewhat soothed. Earlier this month I was watching the news and saw President Sarkozy give a rousing speech on immigration, pledging to crack down on les sans papiers meaning illegal immigrants who are living in France without the proper paperwork. Grégoire and I were discussing this news story with his parents on skype who both agreed that while I officially fit in that category I was not the kind of sans papiers Mr Sarkozy is looking for. But still, I was breaking the rules and as I returned for a second time that day to the police station, I remained concerned that they might haul me upstairs to the jail cells and force me to fly back to Seattle. 

Turns out the second guy was just as indifferent as his co-worker. He told me that the paperwork I brought in wasn't enough. Grégoire and I started renting this apartment in May so we only have paperwork proving we have been living together for four months not the required six. He told me I should come back in November when I have the necessary six months. Not wanting to rock to boat, but dying of curiosity, I asked him a few questions, "Ok. So then what is my current status? I mean, how can the French government ask me for proof that I have been living in Paris with my husband for six months when technically I am only allowed to be here for three?". The guy shrugs and says appologetically, "I know, it's not easy". Then I carefully confirm that what he is suggesting I do is to continue living here illegally until November when I will have six months worth of rent checks and then come back to this office? He stares at me blankly and says, "Oui". And I ask again, "So then how would you define my current legal status?". He replies, "Bah, rien quoi" which roughly translates to, "You don't have one". With that I take my yellow folder and ride the metro back home. 

It appears that the French government is using a don't ask don't tell policy with me. As long as I am not looking for a job (thankfully I am employed and paid by a US company) and willing to pay for my doctor's visits in cash, they don't really care that I am here. Instead of arresting me when I presented myself as an illegal resident they simply suggested that I get my paperwork inline so they get me out of their office and pass me along to the next one with as little hassle and additional work for them as possible. For the time being the uniquely unmotived French workforce is working in my favor. Stay tuned for the November installment of Immigrating. 


Monday, September 1, 2008

Visiting the Doctor

As I was packing up my toiletries kit for my last tour it came to my attention that I forgot to reorder my birth-control pills. With two days before the August vacation season and a quarter of a package left I realized I need to move quickly if I wanted to remain unpregnant this summer. During the month of August ALL city dwelling Europeans run for the hills and the beaches to enjoy some of their copious government sanctioned vacation time. Cities like Rome, Paris and London simultaneously empty as signs are posted in windows saying things like "Vive les Vacances! Closed!" and "Fermé! See you in September!". During August most tourists don't see a difference since all major sights and shops are open, but if you live here and are in need of a dentist, mechanic, hairdresser, or attorney then you are fresh out of luck. So I quickly googled doctors in my neighborhood and found Dr Delfieu whose office is just two blocks away. 

I dial the number and as it's ringing I am trying to figure out the best to say, Hi I'm an American and I don't have health coverage (as a matter of fact I am not legally living in your country) but I would really like some birth-control pills and am willing to pay cash and so I need you to write me a prescription and I know you are going on vacation this week and therefore are surly very busy but I really need to see you this week. One of the cardinal sins Americans make while trying to communicate with the French is over sharing. Giving far too many details and information about our personal lives. Grégoire has gently, and not so gently, reminded me of this many times and yet most of the time I just can't help myself. 

So, the phone rings and a man picks up and says, "Allo". Not "Bonjour you have reached Dr Delfieu's office" or "Hello this is Dr Delfieu's office, how can I help you?" Just a man's voice saying hello. I reply, "Hi, is this Dr Delfieu's office?" He says, "This is Dr Delfieu speaking". Oh my. I have NEVER ever called a medical institution in the US and had the doctor pick up the phone. There is usually an army of nurses, medical assistants, receptionists and recorded messages to keep the public far far away from a medical expert until it's time for your appointment, so I was shocked silent when the doctor himself picked up the phone. I tried my best to be brief and explained what I needed and he says, "fine, come in before five" and hangs up the phone without asking my name or contact information or anything. 

It being one in the afternoon I wasn't sure when between now and five he was hoping for me to arrive so I split the difference and headed out at three. At three o five I run in to my first obstacle. The front door. This office, like many offices in Paris, is part of a larger building 
of other offices and apartments that are hidden from your average passer by. I see two tiny plaques on the wall indicating that the doctor's office is in the building but not indicating how one enters the locked front door. After a few minutes brainstorming I give up and call the doctor from my cell phone. Since he didn't ask for my name earlier and in a effort to not give not much personal information I didn't volunteer it, so now that I needed to call back and I had to introduce myself as the American that needs birth-control who is now standing on the sidewalk and cannot figure out how to open the door. The doctor explains that I just need to hit the big black button next to the keypad. I do so and the door opens and it makes me wonder why have a lock and password panel if all you really need to do to get in the building is press the back button but those thoughts were quickly chased from my mind when I realize there is a second locked door and again no obvious way of opening it. Just as I think, oh god, I am going to have to call him again, a lady exits the doctor's office and I sneak in behind her. 

There is no one to greet me. Just a small hallway leading to what I assume is a waiting room and then a big door leading to what I assume is the doctor's office itself. I join the other two people in the waiting room and try to blend in. After 20 minutes the doctor pokes his head in the door and the lady sitting next to me stands and follows him. Hmm, did she have an appointment I wonder? Do I need to tell anyone that I am here? The second question answered itself because there was no one to tell. So I wait. And wait. The man next to me either gives up or leaves to run an errand. A few minutes later the doctor comes into the waiting room and points at me. I follow him into his office. 

Before my bottom hits the chair opposite his desk I am halfway through telling him my life story in true American style.  I start to trail off as I look around his desk. It is pilled with unusual objects. Animal skulls, feathers, African masks, porcelain vases, ancient books, stacks of paperwork, large pieces of coral and a carved wooden ape who is holding on to its pink painted penis. 

At this point I gaze up at the doctor to get a feeling for who this man is that has choosen to decorate his office with these kinds of treasures. Dr Delfieu is a man in his late 60's with wild wirey hair, thick round black glasses and bad teeth. Around his neck is a silver necklace with a whale's tail charm and he is wearing a Chinese style white linen shirt and an unbuttoned blue vest. Since I could not figure out how to discreetly take a photo of the scene, I drew it from memory. Please note the ape on the left hand shelf above the computer. 

I handed him the package of the birth control pills I am currently taking and he sighs as he reaches for a giant book. While he has a computer on his desk I got the strong feeling that it doesn't get much use. This book, he tells me, translates medicines from American brands to the closest French equivalent. He finds just the pills for me, writes me a prescription and asks for €23. "Vraiment? Really?" I say. He says, "Oui, désolé, but since you don't have state coverage you have to pay in cash, I'm sorry it's so expensive." I smile, thinking that it costs me more to see a doctor in the US when I had insurance, and hand over the cash. 

As I get up to leave I can't help inquire as to whether or not he has a receptionist. During our visit his phone rang several times and he had to answer each call. He says, "biensur, I have a receptionist, she works from 9:00-2:00 three days a week. If you need an appointment you need to call her, otherwise you can just show up for the open appointment hours like you did today". "By the way," he adds "when you get your paperwork all sorted out and need to choose your permanent doctor here is my card".  Still disturbed by the ape, I thanked him and left.