Sunday, 19 August 2012

Car Charades

There was a bit of a car charade the morning after we returned from Morzine, when instead of our hire car parked in the parking space behind our place, Michael found the Tuesday markets selling African bracelets.

The story goes (because I am relying on hearsay here) that after a nice drive to a fairly uninteresting, and aptly-named, town called Gray, we came back and parked at the same place where we’d parked the night before. We knew the market was on the next day, but thought that it didn't extend that far. We were wrong. At 9am the next morning, the time he thought the paid parking started, Michael went to take the car back. Needless to say, the car was no longer there when he went to get it. The paid parking started at 4am, and it was illegal to park there after that time on market days!

After a series of enquiries, the stall owners told him to go into the market where there would be a police stand. No police stand. It hadn't been there for 3 years. He went back around to the Prefecture, where we’d often seen Policemen standing, and he asked the young policeman for advice. He told him to go to an office in Chenove on the outskirts of Dijon because they were the ones who looked after that stuff. He'd need to get the paperwork and then they'd tell him how to find the garage the car had been taken to. His instructions were to go to the Route de Chenove, near an Intermarché supermarket. Surprisingly, Michael actually knew where he meant (from past explorations by bus).

He dutifully caught the bus there and sure enough came to an Administrative Building for the Police. He was doing his second tour of the building to try and get inside (the front door was locked), when he found someone who told him to go in the front door (which was locked). Luckily someone else came out the locked front door just in time to let him in. Inside he asked a lady for help. She sent him to the Hotel de Police, about 2kms away.

Luckily, a bus came along at exactly the right time and he was able to catch it a few stops to the Hotel de Police. He waited in the queue for 5 minutes and calculated the time he had to get the car back to the hire company. It didn’t look too bad at this stage, it was 9.25am and the car had to be back at 10am, or so he thought.

When he got to the counter the police lady gave a half-smile, looked up the information on the computer and asked Michael if he had the vehicle's paperwork. He said he didn’t, that it was in the car. She told him he'd have to get the papers from the car in the garage, go to the Police station in Chenove via bus route 16, get the relevant paperwork for releasing the car, and then go back to the garage to collect it. She said that the car was at Garage Jolimet (he couldn't work out whether she was saying Jolimet or Olimet, but he figured he’d see the sign anyway) and she vaguely pointed at the bus map and muttered something about Voltaire.

Michael saw a Boulevard Voltaire and a bus stop called Voltaire around that area on the map. It was all the way across town and no buses went that way directly. So, he walked (everything really is within relatively easy walking distance, especially if you don't own a car and live in the very centre of the town which is car-free!). When he finally got to the Boulevard Voltaire there was no Garage Jolimet in sight. He started to get a bit panicky (now 10:10 am). You never know whether they, the tow truck people, have damaged the car, especially since it had been in gear and the handbrake had been on. He didn't know what the fine would be, and whether the hire car company was going to charge us horrifically for any damage on the car!

Michael decided he'd have to enlist the help of someone from uni to help him with faster transport from place to place (ie. someone with a car!). He called, but PhD student Yannick wasn't in. Michael’s supervisor, Ronald, wasn't in. Benedicte, who was on the other end of the phone, offered to get the big boss (whose two kids I’d been babysitting for the past few weeks). Michael was desperate so he said yes to her suggestion. She came back with Philippe, another PhD student, who said he could come and get him, but would have to be back at 11am. Michael was prepared to take any help he could get. Philippe had no idea where the garage was, and even thought that there wasn't one around!

While waiting for Philippe, Michael asked a few passersby if they knew the garage. One guy said it was the Garage Jolinez ("pretty nose", or so Michael thought. Turned out to be Jolinet - still sounds like "pretty nose" but spelt differently). But he had no idea where it was. Everyone else had no idea. One person cleverly suggested Michael ask a bus driver, but since he was waiting for Philippe he couldn't.

Philippe arrived and thought the car collectors (fourrières - same as dog collectors) were in Chenove (back where Michael had just come from). That would have been typical if they were, but since the policewoman had looked it up on the computer and said it was here, Michael was loathe to extend the goose chase any further.

They drove around some back streets to where Philippe thought there was a garage, then down Boulevard Voltaire, up Boulevard Voltaire, and then they stopped at a service station for directions. Luckily the lady knew where it was, not far from the Voltaire bus stop, where the policewoman had vaguely waved on the map, but down a side street, so not obvious.

He went in, got taken down the road to a yard, and the car was there (found it!). It looked in good condition, but was squeezed in between other vehicles so he couldn't see the front of it. He got the papers and got back into the car with Philippe, who agreed to take him to Chenove, but would then have to go to his meeting (it was now 10.45am).

In the garage Michael had seen some prices up in the office, so he was starting to get some idea of at least part of the cost: €90 for the tow, plus maybe a bit more here and there. Then there was the fine for parking in a no parking zone in the first place. He had no idea whether he'd have to pay more at the police station. He was getting very worried about the cost of our mistake (I, at this stage, had no idea that all this was going on!).

They found the police station in the dodgiest part of town you could imagine. It was a bit like the city called Cluny that we’d passed on our way back from the Alps – all high rise apartments and very ugly!

He went to the front desk and said he was there for the paperwork to get his car back. The lady called upstairs and said “Encore un autre!” “Another one!”. She took him upstairs to the copper in charge. Michael made sure that he slipped into the conversation that he was Australian, but the policeman ended up looking at his passport anyway (thank goodness he had it in his bag!). Didn't help, but didn't hurt. He said he'd have the paperwork ready ASAP. He had to sign 3 sheets of paper in 2 spots each (gotta love French bureaucracy), and then he was given a printed piece of paper to pick up the car.

His bus luck continued, thankfully. Just as he left the police station, a bus came by which took him into town. He got off and managed to catch another bus straight away to Chenove. In the bus he thought he might actually check the time he was supposed to take the car back (it was now 11.20am). Luckily, the hire car company had put down 10.30am, the time he’d picked it up, not the time he’d booked it. They usually charge by the hour when you're overdue (so we’d heard anyway), and it ain't pretty.

He got off at the Voltaire bus stop and went back to the garage. He handed over the paper and she tapped away at the computer. Sure enough, €103. He handed over his card, hoping that it had enough money on it. It was all ok, luckily. He picked up the car, pulled his extra €35 parking fine from the windscreen (of course…) and drove off thoroughly enjoying the air conditioning, because it was really, really, really hot.

He pulled over out of sight of the garage and did a tour of the car. Not a scratch! Yay! He got back to the car hire place at 11.45am, 1 hour and 15 minutes late. He squeezed into the tiniest car park and went to hand back the keys. The lady went out to check the car, came back and said: “It's OK” (in English). He said in disbelief, “Finished?, I can go?” and she replied yes, so he went. NO LATE CHARGES! Yay! If he'd been any later they'd have charged for sure!

Tourers de France

This was a doozy of a weekend if ever there was one! Being the long weekend (Bastille Day on a Monday), we’d planned to make the most of our hire car with two friends, Rose and Bado, and take a trip down to Morzine in the French Alps to watch the finish of a mountain stage of the Tour de France. By a stroke of luck, Rose and Bado's return trip on the Eurostar on Sunday had been cancelled and they had to book for the Monday night instead. Which left us plenty of touring time. And so that's what we did!

Rose and Bado arrived by train from Paris at about 9.30am on Saturday morning (we were very excited to see them!). We did a tiny tour of Dijon, and then hopped in our hire car to head down to Morzine to catch the end of Saturday's climb stage of the Tour. Each year, France plays host to the most prestigious cycle race in the world. The race comprises of around 20 stages spread over 3 weeks. Each stage takes the racers on a journey through a different part of the country, from the flat meandering roads of the centre to the leg-breaking climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenées. The final stage always finishes in a sprint down the Champs-Elysées in Paris and prizes are presented in five categories. During the race, riders get to wear the Yellow Jersey (Best Racer), the Spotty or Pokerdot Jersey (Best Climber on the mountain stages), the Green Jersey (Best Sprinter, based on designated sprint sections during stages), and the White Jersey (Best Junior Racer). There is also a prize for the Best Team Performance based on overall team performance. I learned all this from our cycle hero, Bado, during the long car drive to Morzine.

Blissfully, the car was air-conditioned. However, we only found this out after an hour of driving with the windows down, when Michael suddenly realised that there was air-conditioning and the reason the car was so hot was because the heater had been left on (and he calls himself a male?). We arrived in Morzine with about an hour to spare before the end of the race, just time enough to check out our chalet, Le Petit Cheval Blanc, and its breath-taking view out over the valley.

Morzine is surrounded by imposing tree-covered mountains that rise up to the sky. The ski fields are somewhere on those mountains but you have to catch a gondola from the centre of town to reach them. The houses and hotels are wooden chalet-style with big overhanging eves and sloping rooftops, like you see in children’s stories, Hansel and Gretel and Heidi (both not set in the French Alps!). The main streets are very touristy but in a quaint way, with tacky souvenirs and winter jackets always on sale, and lots of restaurants with obligatory mountain fare, fondue!

After checking out the hotel’s pool we headed off to find a good viewing spot near the finish line. We ended up about 325m from it which I think isn't bad - not too congested and a pretty good chance of seeing the winner zoom past. There was a real party atmosphere as the publicity caravan went past with their trucks and vans blaring out music and throwing prizes to the cheers of the crazy crowds.

It's interesting how we love getting free stuff, isn’t it? Even if it’s crap! The stuff the caravan threw out was. They were all promotional things like bangers (two inflatable plastic tubes that you bang together to make noise) with the name of a sponsoring team on them, mobile phone straps in the colours of another sponsoring team, caps also in the colours of a sponsoring team and bread rolls made by the sponsoring team (and sure to turn you off buying their bread in the future!). This apparently is a normal feature of the Tour. About an hour ahead of the racers, the publicity caravan stirs up the spectators and whips them into an excited frenzy about the advancing cyclists. It’s all an advertising gimmick I know, but it was fun the first time at least.

After the caravan and a couple of roadside beers, the riders swished past (and I mean they were literally a blur going past) amid cheers in all languages - Belgian (very drunk and very rowdy - very sporting spirits!), Swedish, Aussie, Italian and more. It was fun but all over so quickly. And we didn’t even get to really see the riders (although Frenchman Richard Virenque won the stage and my heart along with thousands of other French housewives!).

After all the excitement of driving 300km to Morzine from Dijon and seeing the riders arrive at the finish line, we were all in need of a bit of relaxation and what better place than in the pool at our chalet! We soaked up the late afternoon alpine sun and even got a bit tanned.

The evening very enjoyably ended in a dinner at the chalet which was included in the accommodation. What a meal! Rose and Bado got to experience the beauty of home-style French cooking for the first time, and Michael and I thoroughly enjoyed watching their delight, safe in the knowledge that should we eat (or more likely drink) too much, we only had to climb a flight of stairs to our room. Over the course of the meal, we had mini-conversations with the waitress as she brought plates and took them away, and we found out that the landscape around Morzine changes dramatically with the seasons. At this time of year everything was green, but we could imagine orange and red-coloured trees in autumn and snow-covered rooftops in winter. It was then that we had the idea of returning to Morzine in different seasons and it was then that I fell in love with the place.

As soon as we arrived I felt like I was at home, comfortable and in my element. Living in a foreign country, I found that I gravitated towards certain places or people because they made me feel relaxed. It was like this with my colleague Lynn when I started teaching English later in the year. I felt very relaxed with her and although we were the same age, I felt she was far more mature and sure of herself than me. It was comforting in a way. Maybe it’s the comfort of something or someone that reminds you of home and the family, friends and places that are a part of you. 

Don’t ask me why I had this feeling about Morzine. I grew up in Sydney where snow is non-existent and even frost is rare in my part of the city. The closest mountains are 100km away and the closest real mountains that actually get snow in winter are over 500km away. I loved going skiing with my family when I was little so maybe it was this aspect that gave me a comfortable feeling in Morzine. It was a breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically). No wonder we ended up visiting it three times over the year and we would have gone more times if we possibly could.

The next morning, we’d planned to drive to Sallanches to see the start of the next race stage. But we narrowly missed it because of the 2-kilometre walk from the car park, which had been taken over by bikies with very bad music taste and mullets to match (who could blame them, at €2 a car?) to the starting line. All we saw was the caravans and trucks from all the teams and reporting crews packing up and hauling out, no doubt heading to the next destination. 

So we decided to make full use of the day to go to Chamonix (1037m). From there, we caught a cable car up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (3828m), a mere 8km away from the Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in France. It was a sweltering 35°C down in Chamonix but we weren’t too sure about the temperature at the top of the mountain. So we walked 20 minutes in full cold-weather gear (well, jeans anyway) to the bottom of the cable car and almost died from heat exhaustion! When we arrived at the summit, the temperature had dropped to just 10°C so our near-death walk hadn’t been in vain!

Because we’d risen almost 3000m in altitude so quickly, Rose suffered a bit of dizziness and Michael too, although his was due to the metal grating stairs that showed just how high up he was (and just how far down he could fall if he took a wrong step). Bado got to see snow for the first time, strangely enough in the middle of summer. And we all got to watch the people coming and going on trekking trips over to the Mont Blanc and across the mountains to Italy. (Later in the week we heard on the news that the very glacier that those people had been trekking on was melting too fast in the heat and was becoming dangerous. We were lucky not to have been witness to a disaster!)


First of all, I must mention that everyone had told us that it was pointless going to work during August because no one would be there. Everyone heads to the south of France to soak up a bit of sun and sand and generally relax. So we decided to take the whole month off work (well, Michael did, I still didn’t really have a proper job yet) and instead of heading towards the crowds, we decided to headnorth to Strasbourg and the Alsace countryside, away from them!

We shared the trip with our friend Sammy, who'd just finished her PhD in Oz and was on a well-earned post-thesis holiday. We hired a car (air-conditioning included of course!) from Dijon and took the fast route to Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament. It was a beautiful place to visit. The River Ill surrounds the island which is also town centre. The centrepiece is the Cathédrale Notre Dame (apparently they have one in every city in France!), which is a massive stone cathedral in the heart of the old city. Inside is a late 16th century astrological clock that strikes the solar noon (when the sun is theoretically directly above Strasbourg) at 12.30 every day. Going to the top of the tower and viewing Strasbourg from above is well worth the 324 steps (should have done it a few more times to remove the beer from our systems!).

Price was an issue when we were deciding where to stay for our 3 days in Strasbourg. We thought it would be a good idea for the three of us to share a room and, after much debate, we hesitantly settled on a no star hotel in the centre of town. We weren’t too sure about staying in a hotel without any stars to recommend it but we were pleasantly surprised when the hotel man showed us the room. It was much better than we’d imagined (and much better than a few 2 star hotels I was to use later on in the year).

We walked all over the island, stopping only to refresh ourselves by tasting the local beers (there are so many!). One evening after taking a boat ride around the island, we stumbled across the Fête des Lumières, a display of how different coloured lights and water could be used to make pretty pictures on a big stone building by the river. It was fantastic. After the show, Sam went back to the hotel (she was still in jet-lag mode too) and Michael and I got to wander around La Petite France, a very pretty area in the old part of the town.

From Strasbourg we headed west to the start of the Route des Vins (Wine Route) in Marlenheim. The whole area of Alsace has a very conflict-filled history and so a lot of the places have both German and French names and one or the other has stuck depending on who was the ruler of the region at the time. It's amazing to look out east and see Germany right there. Unfortunately we couldn't cross over for a visit because the car deal we got limited our travels to France only.

There were too many interesting places to visit and not enough time to visit them all. And so it was that even though it was the Route des Vins, we only went to 2 wine tastings! Each of the places we saw along the way was different. And the food! One night we ate out at a restaurant recommended by the guy who ran the B&B we were staying at. And it was the hugest meal ever! Being in Alsace, Michael thought he’d try the local fair and ordered the set menu with sausages and sauerkraut as the main meal. I can’t even remember what Sam and I ordered because Michael’s overshadowed everything. It was the biggest plate of food I’ve ever seen and Michael almost ate it all, and then had to get through his dessert. I don’t know if we just have small stomachs or whether the locals are just huge eaters! Either way it was certainly value for money.

The next day we went to the Château Fort du Landsberg, a ruined fortress at the end of a long, hot and exhausting uphill bushwalk (punishment for eating too much?). We got to pick our way along disused tracks around the fortress, shimmying past stinging nettles, to climb onto the dangerous-looking ruins. The walk down the path led to a hiker’s refuge where Sam and I had Alsacien salads (consisting of the obligatory sausages and sauerkraut!) and much appreciated beer. Michael found his stomach was still packed full of the goodness of the night before’s meal and so had as little food as possible!

In complete contrast to Landsberg, was the Château de Haut-Koenigsbourg. German owner, William II of Hohenzollern, authorised restoration of the castle in the early 1900s, when Alsace was under German rule. In 1919, under the Treaty of Versailles, France became the owner of the assets of the German crown and hence Haut-Koenigsbourg. It is now a tribute to the life and weaponry of the late Middle Ages through to the mid-1600s. It’s one of those tourist attractions that has rooms with scenes set up with themes of the times and a few too many people around to fully enjoy it. For us it was another long hot walk to the top and then we had to pay to get in! And not just a little but a substantial amount. Luckily we didn’t have kids otherwise we’d have been bankrupt after a visit there! We tried to tack on to the end of a tour group (where you have to pay more!) but it was in French, which Sammy didn’t understand so she went off by herself to explore while we tried to learn something from the tour group. It was a bit of a miss in the hit and miss stakes so we gave it a miss and just explored by ourselves too.

When we got back to the car, we found a flyer advertising a winery at nearby Mittlewihr that also sold eau de vie (literally water of life), brandy made by the distillation of fruit. One family in an area would own a distiller (alambic) and they would take it to surrounding villages, where the townspeople would bring their fruit (apples, pears, plums, cherries or any other fruit they could grow) to have it distilled into eau de vie. Not only was it a means to make good use of fruit from the orchards but it was also an important method at the time of communicating between villages. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the French government gave an official title to the distillator, bouilleur de cru, and restrictions were put into place concerning the level of alcohol and the amount of eau de vie each bouilleur de cru could produce. In the past the right to distil was passed down from generation to generation however in the mid-1900s these rights were abolished and taxes introduced on all production. The result has been a gradual reduction in the number of producers of eau de vie (other than large commercial companies) and the slow death of a national tradition.

Michael had first tasted my grandfather’s eau de vie with my Dad in Australia a number of years earlier and loved it (not just because the homemade stuff can get upto 60% alcohol!). In Australia, it’s illegal to distil without a licence and so the tradition of brandy has never really existed. Maybe that’s why the beer drinking tradition started – you’re allowed to brew your own beer?

Anyway, some government officials have been fighting the laws of distillation recently and the government is constantly looking at ways to ensure the tradition doesn’t die completely. But from our experience talking to people in Alsace, it hasn’t worked yet. Let’s hope it does in the future, for Michael’s sake – he’s addicted to the stuff!

So obviously Michael was very interested in going to the winery in Mittelwihr (you could see the sparkle in his eyes). We hadn’t known that eau de vie was produced in Alsace (I’d thought it was just a central France thing but it’s a France-wide thing!). So when we were looking for accommodation that evening we kind of gravitated towards Mittelwihr and ended up at a B&B run by a nice chatty old lady. The B&B happened to be just across the road from the winery!

We went over at about 6pm, hoping to have a quick taste and maybe buy a bottle for dinner. THREE HOURS of talking and tasting later (!) we walked out of there a bit unstable. The lady who ran the winery was the most talkative person I’ve ever met in a winery. She chatted about everything under the sun! Unfortunately, it was all in French and so all Sam could do was taste more wines and get bits and pieces of the discussions that Michael or I translated for her. I think the lady had a strategy because at the end of the 3 hour tasting, we’d tried 15 wines and 5 or 6 eaux de vie and bought a dozen bottles between us! But we’d had a good time and that was the main thing (even if the bank accounts didn’t enjoy it that much!)

Next on our list of sights to see (like the hundreds of other tourists in the area) was Mont St Odile, a peaceful conventon a mountaintop overlooking the plains of Alsace. It was definitely worth the visit and somewhere you can see most of, on the cheap. There’s a story about the saint the convent is named after. Legend goes that when the wife of Etichon, a duke of Alsace, had their first baby, it was a girl born blind and very ill. Etichon ordered her to be killed but his wife helped the baby girl escape to a convent. She lived in the convent until she was twelve, when she was christened by a bishop and suddenly recovered her eyesight. She was given the name of Odile, the girl of the Light. She wanted to return to her family’s home and her brother offered to help her to do this but Etichon killed Odile’s brother upon their return for going against his wishes. Etichon then repented and, wanting to make it up to his daughter, tried to have her marry a rich prince. Odile refused and escaped into a rock that miraculously opened up and hid her as she was about to be captured. Etichon was thrilled by the miracle and allowed Odile to become a nun, giving her the Castle of Hohenbourg, which she turned into a monastery.

With this story in mind I wandered around the grounds losing Michael and Sam to their own wanderings. I love getting lost in another world, letting my imagination go wild in places like this. I came across two chapels during my exploration. One was the Chapel of the Angels and was filled with beautiful mosaics depicting scenes of angels. I really like mosaics because I think you have to have a good visual imagination to create a picture with random coloured glass or tiles. The second chapel was also beautifully decorated with mosaics and I read that St Odile used to come and pray for her dead father’s soul here. You’ll be happy to know that legend has it that her prayers eventually released him from Purgatory.

Last but not least on this tour of the Alsace Wine Route was the corn maze at Ribeauvillé called Labyrinthus. We came across it by accident and it turned out to be one of those accidents worth having! Each year, the Labyrinthus is redesigned and a new story is told by actors playing their parts in the dead ends (cul-de-sacs?) of the maze. This time it was a chance for us to get to know the stories of famous French writer Alexandre Dumas in his novels D’Artagnan, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. If we could find the actors that is! After twisting and turning and following first one theory then another, we finally fell upon a stage set in the prison cell of the Count of Monte Cristo. But the actor needed a helping hand from the spectators. And what better helping hand than tall, muscular Michael? So Michael got to help tellt he Count’s story to the entertainment of all the little kids in the crowd! The only downer of the day was that it was so bloody hot! And it was even worse being out in the sun with no escape…not even the 2m tall corn plants could give us enough shade from the blazing sun!

On the way home Michael tried to take us to Le Corbusier’s church, the Notre Dame du Haut, on the outskirts of Ronchamp. Apparently Le Corbusier revolutionised concrete architecture and the church at Ronchamp is his most famous work. After driving around aimlessly for what seemed like hours, we finally came to the car park of the famous architect’s strangely shaped church. Unfortunately for us (or was that just Michael?), it had closed its gates just minutes before we arrived. Michael was so disappointed. It was a shame because he’d wanted to visit the construction ever since his grandmother spoke about it when he was little. To this day we haven’t been back to sneak a peek inside (but I’m not really sold on the architectural design myself).

The next day was another rest day and where else would we rest but inside an air-conditioned car! We’d heard that the Jura Mountains were always a few degrees cooler than in the plains of Dijon, so we packed ourselves once more into the car and headed southeast and upwards. First stop was Poligny, where we found a tourist information centre and a couple of free but not very detailed maps of the area. We noticed heaps of lakes around so we drove as best we could with the little navigation facilities on hand (this was well before navmans and google maps!) and made it to a lake (not entirely sure which one!). We pulled the car in, looking forward to a splash to cool down, but then the car stopped…behind a queue of cars lined up to pay a fee to park near the lake! Paying to swim in a lake in the middle of nowhere that was owned by no one? No way! We flat out refused to pay for nature and so after careful study of the maps we decided on the Cascades du Hérisson as our backup destination of choice.

And a good choice too (we don’t mind paying for waterfalls!). We found ourselves on a bushwalk uphill in the shady forest, winding across and back over the river and small falls. It was soooo hot! But then it was cooler further up the hill than back at the car so it was kind of refreshing without the benefit of feeling the freshness! As we started to drag our feet in the heat of the climb, and Sam started to look really red in the face, we decided to stop at a waterfall about two thirds of the way up the hill (after an hour of walking). Water trickled over the edge of a cliff and landed lightly on the rocks below. Some of us decided to have a shower and cool off a bit (me!). It was beautiful. Only thing was, in the picture on the information sheet you get when you enter, the falls were supposed to be massive. But these were like a mini waterfall. As we sat on the rocks sunbathing like lizards, I tried to imagine what they would really be like if it wasn’t the hottest summer on record and decided that I really didn’t care because it was better than sitting in the horrible hot apparte in Dijon!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Bowling for Friends

People who move to a new country on their own, whether to work or study, must find it really lonely. With no one around they know or can talk to, it would be very scary. I was lucky, I had Michael. However, in another way I think we were unlucky in that we were a couple. It seems to be harder to make friends if you have your partner with you. Anyone who is on their own is immediately taken under the wing of the people around them and they quickly form friendships. This is what we experienced anyway. Maybe we arrived with the wrong attitude to making friends in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that we didn’t really have anything more than acquaintances in the first few months living in Dijon.

When we first arrived, Michael and I hadn’t gone looking for English speaking friends. We’d wanted to speak as much French as possible and making mostly French friends would ensure this. So one thing we did was to have lunch with French post-graduate students, lecturers and professors from the Psychology department almost every day (we lived on campus after all). We even went so far as to speak French with Freya, an English girl doing a post-doc in Michael’s lab, until we all realised it was a bit stupid! When one of the PhD students suggested a group of us go bowling, we were delighted. We were in! Bowling nights would lead to evenings at the pub and dinners at each other’s houses. And friends!

The first bowling night was when we were living à la fac. The whole experience was a novelty because we hadn’t played for a while and playing in French could turn out to be a challenge. We soon found out that bowling in French goes a little something like this: “Oui! C’est un strike!” and “Oui! C’est un spare!”. The only real French vocab we had to learn was the word for gutter, lagoutière (My 300 scores were a thing of the past and gutter balls were all I could muster!).

Not only did we learn some French vocabulary but we also picked up how to exclaim in French. It’s probably one of the hardest things to learn in a language because it feels so stupid yelling out exclamations that sound strange and meaningless in your own language. The exclamation of the day was “Super!” when someone made a good bowl and “Ahh, dommage!” when a bowl was not so good.

As for the following bowling nights, which only happened 2 or 3 more times during our stay, they were pretty uneventful compared to the first. It was the same ritual. First we’d get a lift to the bowling centre, then we’d wait for stragglers to arrive. We’d all sit down for a quick meal before getting our clown shoes on ready to play. We formed two teams and the competition between them was fierce. The team that had the Aussies on it either cheered for our bowling excellence or got harassed by the other team for our lack of bowling talent, which seemed to be all based on luck of the evening rather than any particular level of proficiency.

Over time, the group of people changed a little but bowling was all we ever did. No one suggested we become close amis over a few beers at the pub and no one invited us to dinner. It seemed we just didn’t know how to turn French acquaintances into French friendships.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Babysitter drives a hard bargain

My first few weeks living in the centre of town were spent walking around and deciding which café to sip coffee at next. That was in between my babysitting duties of course. My first job after arriving in Dijon was looking after the children of the director of the lab that Michael was working at. It was a nice gesture to help me occupy my time while I was without work. I soon discovered that at 5 euros an hour it wasn’t such a nice gesture.

The boys, Felix and Victor were 7 and 3 years old. The parents both worked, as is common in France I noticed, and were hardly ever home together during the week. I found it a bit odd that a couple would have kids and not see them very often but I’ve been told that’s very common throughout the world. I guess it’s my upbringing.

Anyway, I would pick these kids up from school in the afternoon around 5pm and sometimes take them to school in the morning. On Wednesdays I often looked after Victor before he started going to the daycare centre at the university. Then they paid me pittance to spend half an hour on the bus taking him there. And remember that the father went to work at the university every Wednesday too. It wasn’t like he couldn’t take his kids himself. Maybe it was all part of the nice gesture thing.

I absolutely loved the kids. I actually got to be a kid again myself (except when cooking with hot water - very dodgy with a 7 y.o who wants to help). And despite what the father said about lazing on the side of the pool at the Cap Vert water centre while Felix amused himself in the wave pool, I didn’t. Maternal instinct told me to be observant with little kids at a swimming pool and so I followed him around incessantly in case he should fall or drown (he consequently kept moving from pool to pool). I spent every hour that I was with the boys playing their childhood games in French and I learned the rules of soccer (le foot) and basketball (le basket) in French too.

But the French of games wasn’t the only French I learned. I thought of my time playing with these kids as valuable French language learning time. From Felix I learned the current French being tossed around the primary school playground. Words that cannot be repeated in polite company and definitely not in front of the parents. I, of course, was a babysitter loyal to her 7-year-old boss and never told his parents about the bad language he’d employed in my company (obviously I wasn’t polite company).

From 3-year-old Victor the story is a bit different. Bad language was rarely used at home and he was too young to understand that it was bad. That is, until he started going to Maternelle (pre-school but in the same school as the primary kids). I was flabbergasted one day to hear him say ‘Pipi Caca Merde!’ (Wee, Poo, Shit!). I ignored him at first (I wasn’t his mother) and tried not to laugh because it really is funny to hear little ones try to shock you with their naughty words. In the end though, he let the words slip during dinner with Mummy and he got into big trouble. After that, whenever he repeated the words, I got angry, to no effect of course – I wasn’t his mother!

Victor wasn’t all bad. I realised just how young and fragile he was one day when we were walking past a building site on the way to the park. Two beefy guys were digging up the dirt with a big tractor thingy (bulldozer?) and then depositing it in the trucks. Victor stopped to watch (his favourite toy was a tractor thingy that digs up dirt). After a few minutes I noticed he was facing the opposite way to the work that was going on. I asked him what he was doing and he replied, (read out loud in a very high-pitched voice) 'Je regarde le mur' - I'm looking at the wall. I asked him why (secretly laughing because he was so cute!)? He replied very seriously, 'Parce que j'ai peur' - Because I'm scared. I was confused so I asked him to repeat what he’d said, thinking that maybe I had misunderstood the French bit. ‘Je regarde le mur parce que j'ai peur'. He was scared of the noise the trucks were making and so obviously the thing to do when you’re scared (and 3 years old) is look at the wall! It was so cute and it took all my willpower not to laugh at the poor little guy!!

I’m afraid the language learning might have been a one way thing. I learned a lot but all the boys learned from me was the word ‘oopsidaisy’. It’s the best word to teach a kid of any language, not just French. It’s a nonsense word but is so useful in preventing a kid from launching into a crying saga if he/she falls over or hurts him/herself. I used this ploy with Victor several times and it actually worked. And his parents thought I’d actually taught him some English when he came out with it one rare dinner time that they were all together (little did they know!)! 

I guess they took this as a cue to my being an excellent English teacher because they subsequently asked me to tutor Felix for a week during his summer holidays. It was basically glorified babysitting (and not that glorified really). So I demanded a pay rise. Felix’s father argued back that since I was going to be doing around 35 hours in just one week, I would already be getting lots of money (strange logic). I argued back that teaching deserves some form of extra payment and being a hard woman to bargain with, he acquiesced. I got a whopping 1 euro pay rise. But I guess it gave me an extra big paycheck at the end of the week (again strange logic). Needless to say, as soon as I got a real job I got out of there (although I was sad to say goodbye to the boys).

I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be sitting in cafés sipping cappuccinos all day. The few ‘cappuccinos’ I tried at different places were all the same. A long black coffee topped with whipped cream and a chocolate on the side. Where was the milky coffee with the frothed milk and sprinkling of chocolate on top? I couldn’t believe that they couldn’t make a decent cappuccino in Dijon (according to my professional coffee-drinking standards). I soon discovered that the Dijon idea of a cappuccino was the same as Paris and other towns in France, which was very different to the Australian idea of a cappuccino. So very quickly I adapted to the cappuccino climate change and got used to black coffee. I also noticed that one cappuccino cost twice as much as a petit café (equates to a long short black by Australian standards), which meant that if I bought these instead, I could sit for twice as long at one café and drink twice as many coffees! 

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Pondering #3: Social Security

One of the first things that we had to do when we got to Dijon was sort out Michael’s working visa and my social security. These proved to be two things that took longer than we thought possible. It was Michael’s introduction to real French red tape and my introduction on how to become Frenchified.

To be able to work legally in France, most foreigners need a carte de séjour. Even citizens of EU countries other than France need this work permit apparently. However, because of the red tape many people are living and working in France without the necessary papers. Some of my friends had been living and working in France for 3 years before finally getting the piece of paper that allowed them to be legal money-earners. Michael went to the Prefecture (regional immigration registration office) countless times and even travelled in and out of the country in the time it took for the ‘system’ to award him his carte de séjour.

Michael’s first brush with French red tape was in Sydney with the French Consulate before we left. They had told him he needed a visa to enter France, which would allow the process of getting a work permit to begin. As part of the paperwork requirements for this visa, Michael had to provide the Consulate with an itinerary of his trip. They said that this is normally obtained from your travel agent. Alas! We didn’t have a travel agent. We were flying standby. And alas! Michael made the mistake of telling them this fact! They then refused to award his visa without proof that we were definitely travelling to France. They needed an official itinerary or he wouldn’t get the visa. So, being a smart person, I printed out an itinerary of our standby flights on United and, not being smart people, the French Consulate accepted it! Phew! Michael could now enter France legally. All he had to do was visit the Prefecture within 7 days of his arrival in France and he would be given a carte de séjour.

You would think this was too good to be true, and it was. After lining up for an hour, he was swiftly told that he could have his carte de séjour only after he provided another set of papers. These needed to be faxed over from Australia. Several months later, when he went to hand in some more required documents, he came across another man at the window of the Prefecture office who suggested he get a 10-year carte de séjour, since his wife (that’s me) was French (on paper anyway). This process cost more time and finally after 9 months and many renewals of permit pendings, he was granted his 10-year carte de séjour. Yay!

But what about me? I am French on paper but I wouldn’t know how to be French if I tried. Having a French passport and a French Dad should automatically give you a free ticket to access the French health system, shouldn’t it? Apparently not. The first 2 or 3 three visits were pointless. Each time I explained how I had dual nationality but had never lived in France and each time I was directed to the same desk (the one for foreigners). There I was told the same thing yet again, that I couldn’t have access to the French social security system with an Australian passport.

So one day, having learned my lesson, I went in there and only showed my French passport, explaining that I was born in Australia but had never lived in France and needed to know how to get social security now that I was living in France. This tactic worked and I was directed to take a number to make an appointment to come back (in 6 weeks!) and see the man who could help me.

When the day finally arrived, the man did actually appear to know what he was talking about but I still had to obtain documents from Australia to complete the dossier they needed to process my request (part of the problem with the bureaucratic system in France). I, of course, gave up and only tried again after a few more months. This caused the lady at the front desk to remonstrate me for not organising it straight away when I arrived and she promptly sent me to another counter to fix the situation. And wouldn’t you know, this time, at last, the lady simply said, “Oh yes, all you need to do is fill in this form and return it to us. You should have you social security card in the mail within 14 days.” And get it I did, within 14 days!

The most frustrating thing about the system is the system itself. The employees at the respective offices seem to be armed with a minimum of information and a maximum of buck-passing tools. If a customer has a query or question that the employees can’t answer, they’re taught that obviously the customer hasn’t come with the right form or piece of identification and they should be promptly sent away. But don’t dismay, the French people themselves know that perseverance is the key and this always works in the end. As it did for me. I ended up receiving my social security card in January, a mere 8 months after starting the whole process.

In the meantime, while I was still trying to sort out my social security problems, I had the bad luck to need to visit a dentist. I’m not one for going to the dentist every 6 months for a clean and $60 thank you very much. I hadn’t been to the dentist for a clean for maybe 10 years? So, silly me, after brushing my teeth one night before bed, I felt a hole on the inside of one of my bottom teeth. I thought I’d chipped one of my teeth and even my aversion to dentists had to be put aside in this case. Michael was worried about how much it was going to cost to go to the dentist and I slept very badly for several nights, dreaming that one of my teeth actually fell out! I have these dreams sometimes...I wonder what they mean? Actually, don’t tell me – maybe I don’t want to know!

Anyway, after ringing a dentist and having a very rude lady on the other end of the phone tell me that I needed to find out what health cover I had before I could see their dentist, I got in touch with a different dentist, a lovely lady who booked me in that afternoon.

To my great relief, when she saw my teeth she said it was only tartar! Yay! And she inspected my other teeth with interest then stopped and asked me how old I was. That's when I started worrying again. Were my teeth really going to fall out? But no need to panic! She just asked me why I had such good teeth and why I didn't have any holes or tooth decay! Phew! (I did start wondering that maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to have no holes or decay…why else would she be so shocked?)

In the end I had to go for two tartar cleaning sessions and she even told me how much it was going to cost before I committed to making a booking with her. It was unfortunate that I didn’t have my social security to claim back the expense but she was such a nice dentist! She has completely changed my view of dentists (but she has also confirmed that I don’t need to go for cleans every 6 months…not yet anyway).

Bread and Keys

The day came (finally) to exchange the keys for our new apartment in Rue Musette. I call it an apartment because it wasn’t really a unit (too old for that) and it wasn’t really a flat (it wasn’t flat - the floor was a bit not level in places!) so it was an apartment. In French they shorten the French l’appartement to l'apparte so that's what I'll do too. And it was our dream apparte. It was tops! We moved in as soon as it was legally ours and began to make it our home.

We did find some minor problems with l’apparte but they paled when we thought about living at the fac. There were a couple of leaky taps and gurgling frog-like sounds that came up from the bath drain. The plumber who gives quotes came to see about making a quote to give to the landlord to see if he’d ok the fixing of the leaks for the quoted price, after which time he would call us to make an appointment for the plumber who fixes things to come and fix things. So the leaks got fixed eventually. Ah the French! But the frog lived with us for almost the whole 14 months we were there (mysteriously disappearing after we finally tried frogs’ legs at a local restaurant)!

The markets woke us up on our first morning but we soon learned to close the windows on the nights before market days. We could people-gaze from our bedroom windows! And our windows had shutters (a strange concept coming from Sydney where shutters are pieces of wood nailed to the sides of windows to give the appearance of having shutters). Real proper French shutters! Cool - or as they say in French - supercool! (I learned that saying quite easily - I wonder why?!)

The apparte was located above a very poor-quality chain bread shop called Point Chaud, but no matter how bad the final product seemed to be, the smells of chocolate, butter and pastry, creeping up from the ovens were absolutely divine (and enough to destroy the strongest person’s diet!). Also very warm and welcoming when leaving for work early on winter mornings. When it came to choice of bread shops nearby, there were many. And we tried most of them before deciding on making one of them our local. It wasn’t the closest but it worth the extra 50 metres in walking (walk off the bread). It had scrumptious baguettes and bread loaves that didn’t go hard and inedible after 2 days like the ones we’d been buying at the fac. This bread shop used fresh dough every day, which really made a difference in the end. It also had variety, not just the usual baguettes and patisserie selection that other bread shops provided. 

And the ladies who worked there, obviously sisters, were charming. When Michael’s parents came for a visit in October, we told the bread shop ladies that they would be coming in to buy our bread but that they didn’t speak French. The ladies were happy to oblige and Michael’s parents commented on how friendly and helpful they had been. It probably wasn’t the best bakery in Dijon but it was all we needed in a bread shop.