We’ve passed several days of rejoicing over our internet before remembering that cable TV was included in the deal. So, this afternoon, we hooked up the TV borrowed from Josh’s coworker. We have something like seventy channels, and as I started flipping through, I found one playing. . . GILMORE GIRLS. Now, I have not before had a public forum in which to admit my Gilmore Girls fixation, so you might not have known that I’ve missed Lorelei’s pop culture references and Rory’s demure mumbling. But now, I’ve been reunited with Sookie, and Luke, and all the Stars Hollow gang, and can completely justify spending hours with them since now they’re speaking (extremely rapid) French! It’s a little weird to hear Alexis Bledel enunciating, but she and Lauren Graham both make total sense as French women, and TV here has no commercials during programs. What a great Christmas/Hannukah present! It could only be topped by a vacuum . . . oh, wait, my mother in law is giving us one. I love holidays!
Today's ideas for looking more French: 1. get a pair of knee high leather boots. (This will not make me look young and hip, since even grandmothers sport them.) 2. Wear a woven scarf. 3. Put on more eyeliner.
It’s common wisdom that holidays are a time to think about what’s important, and it’s no different in a foreign country. Being far from home makes me realize what I can’t do without. For example, when Thanksgiving rolled around, we realized something would be missing if we didn’t have friends over for a “big Thanksgiving dinner” with all our favorite traditional foods. So, we started researching recipes. It turns out that most things you make for Thanksgiving require an oven or brown sugar, or both. We had neither. We decided to make a little countertop oven our Christmas present to each other, and figured that maybe adding some honey to sugar would make it brown enough to make a good pumpkin pie. We also decided to skip a turkey (which wouldn’t fit into our little oven anyway) and buy a few of the succulent rotisserie chickens sold along the streets each night as people head home for dinner.
We spent the week leading up to Turkey Day pre-cooking and pre-chopping. As we went, we found more and more “basic” American foods missing from our grocery store aisles: powdered sugar. Oatmeal to make apple crisp. Canned pumpkin. Cranberries. The pumpkin pie I could make from a fresh pumpkin from our local farmers market, no problem. (Result: two burnt fingers and a pumpkin pie that was like eating soupy mush with a delicious flaky crust. Oh well.) The apple crisp I could make with cookie crumbs. (Result: it was pretty good.) The cranberry sauce was faked with cherries, lingonberries, dried cranberries and raspberry jam. The chorizo brioche stuffing was pretty good, too. Crowning achievement: a white wine-spinach-leek-wild mushroom bisque. Not entirely traditional, but served as a nod to my cousin Karin’s lobster bisque, which taught me the meaning of good holiday cuisine. Josh pitched in with roasted fennel green beans that have since been elevated to the status of family staple.
Thursday morning, getting up to go to work felt just plain wrong. It was almost painful to get dressed and leave the house instead of staying in my pajama pants, curling my hair in the bathroom with Erica, and watching the Macy’s Parade on TV. I rushed home from work (try teaching the word “thankful” to a room full of six year olds with no “th” sound in their language) to finish cooking and get the apartment ready for our horde of guests. Josh headed out to grab our rotisserie chickens and our friends started arriving. An hour later, Josh was back. The other Americans had all had the same idea, and not a single rotisserie chicken was left within a twenty minute walking radius. So, minus the chorizo in the stuffing, we had a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and I, personally, realized that the turkey is the one thanksgiving food I’m perfectly happy leaving off my plate. Gives an excuse for an extra helping of garlic smashed potatoes.
After Thanksgiving, we started waiting for the Christmas lights, already hung, to be lit. Since Thanksgiving is NOT officially the start of the Christmas season here, we had to wait until the beginning of December. The ritzy shopping center was decorated and luminous long before Thanksgiving, but since that’s blatant commercialism, it doesn’t count. I like the lights here. Most streets have swags of greenery and twinkle lights swung across, with a star or a little icicle decoration hanging from the middle. Very simple and homey. The main “places” (my spanish soul still wants to call them plazas) have these giant nets of lights swooping from the trees like giant chandeliers, but I like our little side-street sparkle better. Cours Mirabeau, the big “main drag” of the town, has trees with the swoops alternating with trees hung with dangles of lit stars that look like earrings. My friends Kim and Jessica and I wandered around there last night, enjoying the lights, but REALLY enjoying the hot spiced wine and gourmet cotton candy (I now know from first-hand experience that peach-apple cotton candy is better than cherry-coconut). The Cours Mirabeau is home to our Christmas Market, in which the usual stalls of tablecloths and quilts and local snacks are replaced by little wooden-cabin-shaped booths filled with fancy gift items. It was fun to shop, but I can’t shake the hope that Santa passes by the jewelry and brings me a vacuum cleaner. That’s another something I realized I had been taking for granted back home. Hanging our area rug out the window and shaking it is romantically old-fashioned but not particularly practical.
Even if Santa doesn’t hook me up this year, I’ll always have my mom. Her box full of wrapped presents, apartment decorations, peanut butter, and oatmeal arrived the same day that we got . . . internet! HOORAY!!! It might become an official Kraut Family Holiday: December 15th, the day France Telecom and the Post Office both got something right. Tears ran down my face as I pulled out bags of Hershey’s Kisses and little wrapped box after little wrapped box. The packages are in a stack now, under our mini Christmas tree. Maybe it’s a bad sign about my maturity level, but seeing a pile of presents and knowing that my family will soon be getting a similar box in the mail makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. When Josh and I lived far apart from each other, presents in the mail were our best substitute for hugs and kisses, and maybe that’s why they mean so much to me now. Looking at the tree makes me excited to wake up on Christmas morning. That’s one holiday I won’t spend going to work. Hopefully we’ll get to video-chat with our family as they open their gifts, and then head out (or stay in) to spend time with our friends here, our little makeshift Aix family. That’s something that you just can’t have a holiday without.
Christmas is coming, and the lights are lit (and flashing spasmodically) in our ritzy shopping area. A stroll through the shops reveals: Marilyn Monroe Christmas stockings Marilyn Monroe Candles Marilyn Monroe Christmas Ornaments
I woke up the morning of my twenty-sixth birthday to find that I had lost my distaste for housework. I then proceeded to spend the day sweeping the floors, cleaning the bathroom, cooking dinner for ten people, and enjoying every minute of it. (Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration.)
Our dinner party was a success. We expected eight guests, got eleven, and have five chairs and dinnerware for six. But we really enjoyed everyone’s company, and the central event of the evening went over fabulously. This wasn’t just a dinner party. It was a pudding taste-testing party. That afternoon, Josh and I went out and bought a stack of packs of various single-serve puddings (and a bottle of champagne. And the guy at the checkout didn’t bat an eye.). Here’s the list: -Bonne Maman milk chocolate -La Laiterie cherry clafoutis -La Laiterie petit pots creme caramel -Dannone praline -Store brand panna cotta with forest fruits (mixed berries) -Store brand ile flottante -Store brand peach-mango mousse
After a dinner we set up a pudding table and everyone tasted as many of the different puddings as they could stomach. There were a number of favorites, with the most votes going to the La Laiterie creme caramel (which was rich and smooth and tasted exactly like those little square caramels you melt to make caramel apples) and votes for texture going to the ile flottante, which tastes like a giant fluffy marshmallow floating in caramel and vanilla pudding. The peach-mango mousse, which was composed of 50% fruit and was fat free, was thrown out.
So, I have to “apologize” for not updating for a month, since as one of my blog-savvy friends has informed me, this violates the unspoken contract between blogger and reader. Let me ennumerate all the reasons I have not been blogging (i.e., what we’ve been up to this month). (Note: I also have to apologize for any really long sentences. I just finished reading Sense and Sensibility and I think I’ll be using very convoluted syntax until I get something else in my head.)
1. We went on an awesome vacation. First, we took a train North to the Alsace to visit the parents of a friend of ours. We spent a day with them driving to some of the most quaint little towns I have ever seen, all of them looking like something out of a Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale. There were snug timbered houses, happy little creeks, towers on wooded hills, and storks on chimney tops. We got to see riesling grapes being brought in from the morning’s harvest in one of the towns, and it turned out the winery was called “Charles Baur”—I took a bunch of pictures pretending it might be a distant relation (we’re Bauers on my mom’s side).
From Alsace, we took a train to Saarbrucken, across the border in Germany. Saarbrucken didn’t have much to entice us to visit, just a bus link to the airport where we would be headed the next day. After checking into my first hostel ever, which I was relieved to find neat, and clean, and actually really comfortable, we went on a walk through the woods outside the town. Even a hike didn’t give us enough of an appetite to finish a traditional German meal. We walked into the cute town center that night and had local beers and “flammenkuchen,” a sort of bacon-and-cheese white pizza, and a local dish that was basically baseball-sized globs of starchy dough stuffed with meatballs and covered in cream sauce with a side of sauerkraut. I hope we get back to Germany some time, because something tells me there’s a lot more to it than we’ve experienced.
From Germany, on to Italy. Friends of ours who live in Britain were going “on holiday” with a bunch of their friends and invited us along. We all rented a big, luxurious holiday home on a farm in the Tuscan countryside. After feeling cooped up in downtown Aix, stepping outdoors each morning to see sunlight sparkle across sweeping views of hills and fields was a joy. By the end of the week I felt cooped up by having to drive an hour to get anywhere, and was almost glad to come home. Almost. Tuscany was gorgeous, and the people we stayed with were hilarious, and kind, and interesting, and fun. We really enjoyed getting to know everyone and taking part in their crazy antics. Josh and I are the hiking or museum going kind of tourists, but our friends are much more creative. We filled the evenings with dramatic readings and competitive cooking. Finding ourselves alone in a cathedral, we sang hymns and listened to the echoes fill the space with sound. One morning, a walk to the tower on top of a nearby hill turned into a race, with the other team cutting directly across fields and our team taking the road. We all expected to see each other at the top in about an hour, but the light is tricky in Tuscany, and a distance that looked like three kilometers was really ten. After climbing in and out of ravines and wading across a windy river several times (during a thunderstorm), the other team made it to the top ten minutes before we got there . . . in a car. We had found a local farmer on the road who was willing to drive us home, but offered to take us up to the tower first, since we were only a few more kilometers away. When we all piled out of the back of his Land Rover, the looks on the other team’s faces were PRICELESS. And they weren’t too mad at us, once we explained that “Luciano the Italiano,” as he has since been affectionately christened, was willing to drive us back to pick up a car and come get them.
Now back in Aix after our break, we’re getting into the swing of classes. We’re still waiting for internet chez nous, but I have decided to take a zenlike attitude toward France Telecom and Neuf Box and may even celebrate our upcoming two month anniversary of not having internet after ordering it.
Status update. Tomorrow we will have been here four weeks. It seems a lot longer.
According to friends who have lived in developing countries, France is worse. I don’t know if I mentioned that our apartment doesn’t exist. We rented number nine, but there is no number nine, so our apartment must be number ten. It’s even more complicated because the street diverts into a little alleyway, and that’s where our door is. It’s called an “impasse” here. Most of our mail has had no problem getting here, no matter what number it is addressed to. However, important packages don’t seem to make it. Yesterday we got a letter from home mailed last Wednesday. It made it here in three business days. We’re still waiting for an envelope that was overnighted two days before that. And we’re also still waiting for our internet router package, the infamous “neufbox.” “Neuf” is French for nine, so we’ve started asking, Q: “what time will our neufbox get here?” A: “Neuf heurs” (9:00, pronounced “neuv-eur” = never). We ordered it over a month ago, but it takes up to ten days for the company to ship it to you. Apparently ours was undeliverable for some reason, so it sat in the post office, and was then shipped back. We can’t order a new one until our phone service, which was cut off for some reason, is reinstated. We can’t call to get our phone service reinstated because you can’t call official numbers from phone booths here. I’m wondering if I should have seen it as ominous when we moved to an impasse, because that’s where we’re at.
But we agreed last night that we need an attitude adjustment. There are wonderful things to see and do here, and if no human efforts will possibly get us internet chez nous any sooner than next week, we may as well go have fun. This weekend we might try to go hike Mount Sainte-Victoire, or go to the beach. Something to get out of the city and smell trees again!
In the mean time, we both like our classes reasonably well, and are settling into our jobs fairly easily. I’ll report back about those topics once I have some time to digest them. But here is an update on how my French is coming. I have almost successfully made it through a phone call with the electric company (that was the day our electricity was accidentally cut off). I was also able to have a full conversation with the woman in the post office. However, when I tried to tell her “I don’t understand how the postal system works here because I’m a foreigner,” I instead informed her that, “I don’t understand how the postal system works here because I’m strange.” I can’t even begin to ennumerate all the other ridiculous things I have said while thinking I was communicating in a clear and dignified manner. But, it’s all part of learning a new language!
And now, more important than a status update, a yogurt/prepackaged dessert cup update: On Saturday, we realized that the cheap yogurts that were “just passable” only cost about 17 American cents a yogurt, so perhaps you get what you pay for. We doubled our yogurt expenditure this week and spent about 35 American cents per yogurt, and were once more met with dairy bliss. Coconut flavor is totally the way to go. Along with the yogurts we got coffee custard and “apple dessert,” applesauce that makes Mott’s look like child’s play. We got raspberry (good) and “tarte tatin” (interesting). Tarte tatin is a carmelized apple pastry, so this was basically apple sauce with carmel in it. Carmel flavor here isn’t like the sweet, sticky American stuff. It has a deep, burnt tone to it, like homemade caramel (at least the stuff I make—is there anyone out there that can make caramel without burning it? ). It took some getting used to but of course, now I’m addicted. We haven’t eaten the coffee custard yet, because we made a rule that we’ll only have dessert on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and once a weekend. We’re sticking to it really well, as long as you don’t count desserts eaten before dinner.
This morning, I had a rather exciting experience with boulangerie. After eating a sparse but healthy breakfast, I needed something fluffly and full of carbs to fill my tummy. I poked my nose into the boulangerie across the street to find something delicious that wouldn’t send me on a sugar high. That’s a tall order around here some times. While I waited in line, my eyes grazed across the rows of patisserie and brioche. Then I spotted something in a basket on the counter: “Tonipain, 1,40.” They looked like giant round. . . dog biscuits. “C’est sucré?” I asked the shopkeeper skeptically: “Is it sweet?” She gave me the sales pitch: made of cereals (whole grains) with no added fat and no added sugar, just dried fruits for flavor. “Is it as good as a brioche?” No, but it’s healthy. After having spent the morning doing crunches for the first time in over a year, I thought the trend might be worth keeping up. I shelled out the euro forty and tucked the tonipain into my purse. I planned to eat half now, and half during break from classes. Well, we all know what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men. After my first bite, I wanted to cry. The tonipain was perfect. The natural sweetness of the grains felt fresh and wholesome, like a farmhouse kitchen on a sunlit morning. The dried fruits were exotic, with rich, subtle flavors and little bursts of citrus. The biscuit was a little firm on the outside, but the perfect balance between doughy and cottony on the inside. Never had I had bread with tastes like this: they danced across my tongue. After five minutes of blissful nibbling, my tonipain was gone. Now all I have to do is justify spending a euro forty every morning for breakfast . . .
One of the first lessons we’re learning here: the difference between French and American ideas of customer service. Imagine that you walk into the AT&T store. Not a single employee acknowledges your presence. Even the guy over in the corner filing papers stays focused on his drudgery. You wait several minutes. Nothing happens. You wait several more minutes. Finally, the guy who was filing papers is done. He looks up and says hello.
If this happened in the US, you wouldn’t have waited past the first several minutes. Here, things are different. I have already spent more time waiting to be acknowledged than I have spent in museums and at sidewalk cafes combined. At first, I was frustrated. Actually, I’m still a little bit frustrated. But I have to acknowledge the flip side of the coin. As soon as it’s your turn to buy bus tickets, ask a question, or file a form, you have the person’s undivided attention until you have completed every task with which they could possibly help you. The woman at the bus station talked us step-by-step through purchasing month-long passes as if we were sitting on her back porch drinking iced tea. Never mind the twenty people in line behind us. They’ll get good service when it’s their turn.
When we got here, Josh called Madame Lehman, his boss at the Academie. He felt slighted when she told him, “I’m too busy to talk right now. Call back in ten minutes.” But when he called back, he got, “Let me see if I can help you—and does your wife want a job, too?” Of course I did! It means that I get to spend six hours a week with adorable French children, and someone else has to file my papers to get permission to stay in the country.
So, off to orientations, as language assistants and at the schools where we’ll be studying. Our language assistant orientation took place in Marseille. A forty minute bus ride away, the city is big, dirty, and wonderful. It sprawls over hills on the Mediterranean, with a deep blue jewel of a port, flanked by medieval fortresses, nestled in the heart of the old city. We used one of our lunch breaks to sit on the docks and watch white sailboat masts bob against the blue sky.
Most of our orientation involved sitting around filling out forms, waiting to fill out forms, or waiting to hand in the forms we’d just filled out. It gave us lots of time (but still not quite enough) to talk to the other assistants. There was something spectacular about being in a room full of people whose ideas had so closely aligned with mine that they had just made the same weird life decision. It was one of the best “meet‘n’greets” I’ve been to.
Madame Lehman (or, as Josh calls her, Monique) was the protagonist of the week. The “grande coordinatrice” of our program, she’s a US Marine, a grandmother, and MC Hammer rolled into one. When I first met her, I made my customary error of backing up in surprise when she went in for the “nice to meet you” cheek kisses. She grabbed me and planted them on. Many of my conversations with the other assistants were about something Madame Lehman had said or done. They went from, “Did you see her with the girl that was crying? She patted her on the bottom!” to, “I’d skip out on this orientation, but I’m afraid of Madame Lehman.”
And Madame Lehman had a special place in her heart for, as she calls him, “Jo-su-ah.” I had to explain to the other assistants why she called on him to do things like help her load a powerpoint presentation at one of our big meetings and to make announcements on the bus. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to tell them.
When Friday morning rolled around, we were prepared. We’d heard from second-time language assistants that at the big meeting with everyone there, Madame Lehman would call on a few of her “favorites” to come up and do various things in front of the assembly (speak Chinese, tell a joke, throw a football). It seemed like she was showing them off as representatives of how great she thought we all were (confirmation of this view: she had photographers roving around taking pictures of us). The humiliation part of the assembly would happen after the long and boring welcome speeches, but before the visit by the regional official (whose entrance would be preceded by trumpet music). Luckily we decided not to bail on the whole event. The first several welcome speeches came and went, each about forty-five minutes. A few of us assistants were called on to undergo public humiliation and answer questions asked too quickly in French. Another language assistant came out playing the violin, at which point the regional official came down the long flight of stairs from the back of the auditorium.
And then it happened. After the regional official finished his own welcome speech, Madame Lehman joined him at the front of the room. She took the microphone, and: “Josua?” Josh looked up from his reading. “Josua?” “Maybe it’s not you!” I whispered. It was him. “Ou est Josua?” He stood up. She called him to the front. He and the regional official exchanged some kind of communication unintelligible to the rest of us. He scurried back to his seat. The procedure was repeated with another victim (I mean language assistant). When he got back he told us what had happened: Madame Lehman had simply told him to “speak French.” She wanted the regional official to guess where he was from. He began by saying, “Bonjour” in the thickest American accent he could muster. He turned to Madame Lehman. Her face was stone cold. He proceeded to say something in his real, “French person French,” and then the regional official guessed that he was an anglophone. And then he was free.
Why are they doing this? We all asked each other. Our only guess is that this is the French idea of team building. Madame Lehman seemed to be enjoying it like a proud parent at kindergarten graduation.
Lest you get the idea that our orientation was not pleasant, let me give you a few details: bottles of wine set out for us on the college cafeteria tables. Patisserie and free meals every time we turned around. “Formacion pedagogique,” teacher training. And best of all, meeting the American consulate.
Madame le Consul had a special presentation for American language assistants to give us a welcome speech (surprise) and tell us what the consulate could do if we needed it. After years of French orientation, being “presented to” by an American was a relief. In fact, it felt nostalgically like our college orientations. And Madame le Consulate not only welcomed us with a speech. She welcomed us into her home. Thursday evening was crowned by a visit to the official consular residence. Sweeping seaside views from the terrace and delicious regional specialties awaited us. I had: provencal tabouleh, eggplant terrine with red sauce, two kinds of quiche, meatball stuffed tomatoes, frangrant grapes and cheeses, and meringue topped with sorbet and ice cream.
But best of all was Madame le Consul herself. She manages to seem, at the same time, like both your favorite aunt, and your gracious monarch. She has all the dignity and decorum of a head of state, but is down to earth enough that I bet she could talk about how much dog poop there is on the sidewalks here. The majority of students I talked to or overheard were completely in awe and suddenly planning careers in foreign service. Madame le Consul warned us that it takes years of difficult and demanding posts to earn a position as clutch as Consul in the South of France. I know that she’s managed to work her way through some pretty adverse situations (she spent years in the Middle East). But she never alluded to the part of the job I’m sure must be the hardest: thinking before she speaks. I know I could never do it, so I guess I’d better give up dreams of living in a seaside mansion and giving out emergency passports. I’m sure teaching English has its own perks.
One last brush with French office life: Friday afternoon, we were finally done, but I had one more paper to drop off. I went with two of the other assitants, Michelle and Julia (who’s from Central PA—woot, woot.). Julia just had to turn in a bank information card—A “RIB.” Banks print them out in sheets of three and you need them for most major financial agreements, like phone contracts, or to get paid by your employer. Julia had carefully torn one off the top of the sheet, and handed it to Madame le Office Person. There was a kerfuffle in French, after which Julia handed over the rest of her sheet of RIBs, and Madame le Office Person pulled out a pair of scissors to cut off a different one. When we were back outside, I asked an indignant Julia what that had all been about. “She didn’t want a ripped one! She actually said, ‘Is this the best you have to give me?’” “Can I put that on my blog?” “Please do.”
Sitting in the snack shop across the street eating a nutella crepe while I share some pictures. . . too bad I can't share the crepe, too (for you, anyway). The first picture is the street near our apartment. That's the bell tower of Saint-Sauveur. The picture was taken about five feet from where I'm sitting. We spend a lot of time here.
This crepe is really good.
The second picture is part of the old town walls of Aix. This tower was built during the hundred years' war against England, to protect the town from roving groups of soldiers who had gone AWOL.
The third picture needs a little more explanation. It's a door across the street from my school, and I took a picture of it because it's completely unremarkable. It falls right in the middle of the spectrum of cool doors in Aix. It's actually pretty boring, as doors here go. So, if this is boring, imagine how cool the cool doors are.
Today's Marilyn count: 4 throw pillows (one with pink glitter lips!), several printed canvas wall art pieces, a set of coffee mugs, and a fancy chair. To be fair, there was also an Audrey Hepburn chair.
Mme. Walker, our landlady, asked us to put down a rather serious security deposit on our furnished apartment, since their last tenant had moved out with a number of the Walkers’ posessions. Among the things he took was a large portrait of Marilyn Monroe. At the time, I remarked to Josh that if I ever met this prior tenant, I would thank him. We thought that was the end of our connaisance with Marilyn.
Since then, however, whenever we have been out buying things for the apartment, voila, there she is. In almost any home decor aisle in the south of France, there is at least one poster of Marilyn Monroe. Often the selection is wider, with both Warhol technicolored Marilyns and black and white photography Marilyns. I’ve seen her more often than pictures of Le Tour Eiffel.
So it was no surprise to see her staring at us out of the shop window of Bricorama. A store dedicated to bricolage (household fix-ups), it was the perfect place to find ourselves stuck on the only seriously rainy day since we arrived. After about an hour of gathering little things we needed (a hammer, nails, picture hangers, a candle that smelled like cat pee), we plunked ourselves down in the furniture section to wait out the downpour. We played 20 Questions and read cookbooks from the kitchen section while the giant red folding screen emblazoned with Marilyn had one vibrant eye toward us and one toward the sodden street. We stayed there about an hour or so before deciding to make a run to the FNAC (media superstore) down the block. A few minutes before we left, we watched one of the employees, on the phone with a customer, come over and measure the Marilyn screen and read the measurements into the phone. It sounded like he made a sale. Au revoir (until next time), Marilyn.
If the goal of the first part of our week was finding an apartment, the goal of the second part was making it livable. I’m not sure how close we’ve gotten.
Our apartment is in the “Centre-ville,” the medieval (or maybe even Roman) center of Aix. We’re a block from the cathedral, Saint-Sauveur. It’s not very big, but it’s very gothic—gargoyles, pointed arches, sculpted saints—the works. There’s even an older section dating from the 600s. We can hear the bells echoing in our little alleyway throughout the day.
Our apartment has one room and one window, but the window is tall, and has old-fashioned, paint peeling shutters that you have to lean out to open and close. The building was built before the advent of electricity, but after the late middle ages. We know the building predates electricity because of the wires tied to the outside of the building and running along the baseboards. We’ve fixed the earlier parameter based on the building across from us. It looks just like ours, but part of its first story wall incorporates a section from a medieval stone mansion. The man who lives on the third floor of our building started a conversation with us today as we were running out the door to try to get our cell phone plan before the store closed. We somehow got around to asking him what the old door across the street was. He told us that it was part of a mansion built by one of the Italian nobles in the retinue of the king of Naples, who was also king of Provence in the 1400s. They all lived here in Aix, a center of power and culture. Our neighbor then proceeded to tell us the entire history of the region, starting with the Greeks settling Marseille. We didn’t make it to the cell phone store. But, the medieval* link between Naples and Provence explains why our neighborhood looks so much like Italian cities I’ve seen. Those strong square blocks forming bases for stately rows of windows say, “Vasari wuz here.” It makes me miss my traveling buddies from my trip to Italy.**
*I use the word “medieval” loosely. Technically this building is from smack in the middle of the Italian Renaissance, but I’m not sure what date we use to signal the start of the Renaissance in France. You’ll know about it once I do. **Vasari was an Italian Renaissance architect.
So, we’re trying to make our apartment feel like home, and the place to get things at good prices is the grocery store. We can take a bus to a big supermarket called Carrefour, which we have done twice this week. We will also be going again tomorrow. “Why?” you may ask. “For the yogurt?” Ay, there’s the rub. Carrefour’s yogurt in no way compares to that of our first grocery store, Auchan. Carrefour store brand multipack has added fiber, tastes a little chemical-y, and comes in four flavors: pineapple, strawberry, mango, and PRUNE. Yes, prune. I did not come to France to eat anything prune flavored (although even the prunes are good here). So, why have we made so many trips to Carrefour?
Well, we noticed very quickly that our matelas (mattress) was not going to do the job. It was about three inches lower in the middle, which meant that we kept rolling into each other and waking each other up all night long. In our eagerness to settle on the apartment, we failed to realize that the bed was not a full, but something only just enough larger than a twin to make us think that it was intended for two people. We were obviously mistaken. The rolling effect made it impossible to sleep. We made our second trip to Carrefour to purchase a new matress. We will be making our third to return it. It turns out that French matresses are sold in sizes varying by ten centimeters. We purchased a 140 x 190 cm matress, while our tiny lofted sleeping space is only big enough to fit one that is 120 x 190. There is no way the new mattress can be smushed into the frame of the “mezzanine” (loft area) without us knocking out some vital support or wall. So, after paying 30 euro for this sucker to be delivered by truck, we are hoping that we can A) take it back on the bus, B) find a suitable replacement and C) manage not to buy more storebrand yogurt while we are there. We’ve gotten four eight packs so far because the price is too good to ignore.
Already expecting to have difficulty with the French beaurocracy system (extremely strict return policies at stores, miles of paperwork and red tape), I have not been disappointed. To get a telephone you need an electric bill. To get an electric bill you have to call the company. To get an apartment you need a French bank statement. To get a French bank statement you need a local address. The high point of this all was finding that our apartment did not exist. We rented number nine. The street has only even numbers, and everyone else in our building gets their mail at number ten. The post office had never heard our address. We have to go back to all the places we set up accounts and re-order things (phone service, checks, etc.). The only organization that had no problem with our address was the store that delivered the matress.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m doing a lot of complaining, and that’s because I am. Moving to another country is not like taking an extended vacation, at least not yet. But there are a few bright spots, and their names are Kim, Emilie, and Swann. Kim is an American woman we met at church. She’s a student in the program I’m going to be starting next week, and she’s been over a few nights for Josh to help with her homework. She’s also bummed around with us on some of our grocery excursions (and she made me buy a rug which does WONDERS for our linoleum floor). It’s great to know someone else in such a similar situation, to share discoveries and cold remedies. Swann and Emilie are our upstairs neighbors. We’ve just come from dinner in their apartment (multi-rooms. So jealous). And they’re so funny, and fun, and nice. As we let ourselves back into our apartment tonight, we were like, “Yeah! We’ve got friends!”
We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but we’ve been too busy to stop and take pictures so far. Hopefully by next blog post we’ll be able to show you what our new town looks like, but in the mean time, here are about a thousand words. :)
We left Harrisburg on Tuesday afternoon and flew Air India out of Newark. We weren’t sure what to expect from our flight, since we’d heard mixed reviews from friends who had flown with Air India back in the day. But the experience was a good one. The plane had the feeling of a sari, with red and yellow patterned seats, stewardesses swathed in gorgeous fabrics, and yummy food. We took a break from watching The Darjeeling Limited (a movie about a trip to India) to eat our curried lamb and felt like something had gone right.
Our plane landed at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris (we could see le Tour Eiffel from the air), and then we took a train to the south. Josh managed to get us first class tickets on the upper deck of a double-decker car, and we made the most of this wonderful sightseeing opportunity by sleeping through the majority of the three hour trip to Aix. We did wake up in time to get our ridiculously heavy and bulky suitcases down to the exit of the car before we reached the gare (station), and in time to see the craggy mountains of Provence sweep into view. The countryside here is great. It has the feeling of a dryer, rockier Pennsylvania, with welcoming, homey mountains that don’t look too big to climb in an afternoon, and lots of rolling hills of scrubby green trees. My idea of France was of snug little black-and-white timbered houses, but I think that must be the north. The hills of Provence are filled with square buildings made of stone or blocks, mostly a peachy-yellow color, with tiled roofs. It feels a little bit like Italy and a little bit like Mexico. We got to form most of our ideas of the countryside today driving around with our landlady, but that part of the story comes later.
After we got to Aix and dragged our suitcases to our hotel, we set out to set up. We combed the apartment classifieds, visited the bank (multiple times), started setting up cell phones, and tried to find a long-term hotel in case it took more than a few days to find an apartment. I’ve never traveled like this before: this is going to be home, which means we don’t feel like we have a limited amount of time to enjoy it here, and we can take it in and experience it a little more slowly and deliberately. On the other hand, it’s not home, so we kindof resent the things we do enjoy, because they don’t make up for the comforts we’ve just left. Anyway, hopefully we’ll feel settled in and less conflicted soon.
Aix, the town we’re staying in, is beautiful—I think. Mostly I’ve been looking at it with appraising eyes, trying to find the best grocery stores, the best places to live, and the best places to buy shoes and tablecloths. It’s a lot dirtier than I expected—a little bit like a slightly rough-around-the-edges version of the Williams and Sonoma catalogue. We repeatedly stopped in our tracks to just smell the air—rich, buttery smells (I’ve figured out which one is croissants), seasoned meats, the foods from cafes, and in between, the smell of France. In three days, I’ve forgotten what it smells like, but when we first got here, I kept smelling “France.” Weird how noses work. Anyway, our first morning walking around was Thursday, which is market day in the Cours Mirabeau, the sort of central plaza area of town. We mostly rushed by stalls swathed in bright fabrics with olive, floral and cigale (cicada) patterns, but I’m looking forward to indulging my passion for quality textiles.
After a lot more running around trying to set up various things you take for granted once you’ve lived in a place for more than a week, we headed up to the north of city center to look at the only apartment that wasn’t rented yet when we called the lessor. It wasn’t quite what we were used to in our “luxurious” suburb of Philly, but we took a walk after seeing it, sat in the little square across the street and saw the green-shuttered houses, the medieval cathedral, and the gourmet Swiss ice cream stand, and turned around and put down a deposit. We can live in one room for a year. :) I’ll blog more about our aparment once it’s something other than a depressing mish mosh of suitcases and grocery bags, but in the meantime, our landlady. She was completely aghast at the idea of me showing up in a foreign country, knowing no one, and not knowing where to buy a set of bedding. She kept referring to me as la pauvre (the poor thing). As we were signing all the paperwork, she volunteered to drive me to an Ikea knock-off and the super amazing mega grocery store near her town, 40 minutes away. She said she couldn’t bear to see me carrying heavy grocery bags and looking bewildered. (At least I think she did. The majority of our conversation with her was in French.) So, we spent today power shopping for our new little (LITTLE) place. Afterward, we packed into Madame Walker’s tiny Peugeot convertible and zipped around hills and villages as she brought us back to Aix on the back roads.
One more thing, and then I will be just past my thousand word mark. Puddings. I said multiple times that I was excited about the pudding aisle in French grocery stores. I’m adding yogurt to that. We got a big multipack of store brand yogurts for two euro, and the flavors are lemon, mango, coconut, and litchi. They taste like they’ve come right out of the cow. How can I be so homesick when I have such dairy products?
PS: a funny story: We were buying that gourmet Swiss ice cream (creme brulee flavor), and a guy about our age heard Josh say that I was an American and didn’t speak French. He came over to us and started up a conversation. It turns out that he works at the “American Institute,” a place for Americans studying abroad. After he and Josh chatted a little bit, he gave Josh a knowing look, and told him that if the two of us stay together, Josh could end up getting a US visa. I knew there was a reason he’s put up with me for so long. . .