Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas in America

How is Christmas already over? How are we already 4 days away from a brand new year? I literally cannot believe I've already been in France for 3 months now. Trying to figure out my au pair duties, how to get around Paris, studying French, and making friends has definitely made it feel like I haven't been here that long. Back in October, I decided that I really wanted to come home the week of Christmas. I hadn't planned to come back to the States until next summer, but I really just wanted to spend this particular holiday with my family.

The weeks leading up to the day I left were hard. I could feel myself getting more and more down about life; particularly, what in the world I am going to do when I come back home next summer. Where will I go? When should I start applying for jobs? As much as I am enjoying my time over here, I've really missed having a full-time job, my own place with my own things that are currently crammed into a storage unit in Lynchburg, my car, and of course, being able to easily communicate with everyone wherever I go. I know I've said this before, but living here really is like an out-of-body experience. I left the job I had for nearly 6 years, the town I lived in for 11 years, all my possessions, my friends and family, and hopped on a plane to live in Paris. In many ways, I am so proud of myself for finally doing something I've talked about my entire life. But nothing could have prepared me for the level of isolation and loneliness I feel sometimes. I think a lot of that stems from not feeling quite myself here. I have made wonderful friends, but I was even talking to someone here once who is also American about how making friends here can't really compare to the friends and family back home who truly know you, that you have history with, and who know exactly how to encourage you on the hard days. If I'm having a hard day here, chances are I won't talk to or see anyone. It's just different for sure, and I can't count the number of moments when I've felt like a ship without a rudder. Again, mostly asking myself what comes after this adventure abroad when I return to my normal life.

I've been trying not to long for this time to go quickly so I can get back to normalcy. It sounds crazy that I've been doing that at all. But need I remind everyone that I'm not here on vacation. A vacation lasts a couple of weeks and you try to cram as much touristy stuff in as possible. I live here. Temporarily, yes. But this is my home until July. Perhaps there's this misconception that I see the Eiffel Tower every day, and life is so easy and great and I spend my days sitting at cafes reading books. I can assure you, that is not the case. I have work to do at home with G, working on French (it's hard...really hard), and let's not forget it's winter here. I just picture all my old LUO friends hopping in their cars outside their house, driving to work for 15 minutes, then parking and having a 1 minute walk to get inside. And I'm over here walking probably 1-3 miles on any given day in the cold and rain. When spring comes, there will be zero complaints on my end. Walking around in the warm sun will be a breath of fresh air. But winter...ugh...winter. I've never been diagnosed, but I'm positive I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (appropriately nicknamed S.A.D.). But seriously, when it's gloomy and cold, it's like a gloominess that seems to creepy down deep into my soul. On cold, damp days, I have to make myself go out and take advantage of this incredible city that is my current home. The minute the weather is warm, the skies are blue, the days are longer, and everything starts to bloom, it's seriously like I'm reborn and everything just feels better about life. There's more skip in my step and I'm just an overall happier person. *sigh* Just a few more months till spring. Just a few more months until the many Parisian gardens are in bloom, and I can grab a blanket and a book and go spend my free afternoons basking in the sun. I. can't. wait.

Christmastime in Paris was fun, and very beautiful. Lots of wonderful things to see and the Christmas markets were great. But knowing I would be home, and not very many people knew, I was just counting down the days until I got a break. The morning of December 18th, I dropped G off at school and walked back to the house as fast as I could. I called an Uber and 10 minutes later I was finally on my way to the airport. I flew AirFrance round trip, and it was a direct flight into D.C. The flight was long, and had been delayed a few minutes. Nearly 9 hours to make the trip. I got to D.C. around 5 PM on Friday, which is 11 PM in Paris, so I wasn't very tired. I was pretty much running on pure adrenaline knowing my parents were waiting for me. And good grief, the security to get into the U.S. It wasn't horrible, but there were just so many check points, and now they have these kiosks at customs where you have to scan your own passport, type in your info, then it spits out a ticket that you have to take to the immigration officer. They stamp your passport, then you head to baggage claim. After finally loading my bags into a cart (I took back a lot of stuff I didn't need in 2 suitcases, and only brought back 1), I was literally running toward the exit. Then there was another checkpoint where I have to give some other person the ticket from the kiosk, and then there was an officer with a drug sniffing dog literally right before the exit. I wanted to say "Seriously, I made it though security in two airports, had my luggage scanned, flew 9 hours, just picked up the luggage I haven't had the entire flight, and NOW you think I somehow smuggled drugs?" but I refrained. Finally I made it out the doors, saw my parents and ran over and gave them hugs. I was talking a million miles a minute because...they could understand me speaking in rapid English! AND they could understand my sarcasm, so no need to dial it down! Best day ever! I chattered like a child that won't shut up most of the way home, and marveled at the American flags at the airport and all the signs in English.

I had a lot of fun surprising my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I think the best reaction was my dad's mom. We pick her up for church on Sunday. My mom goes inside to get her, and I'm in the back seat with my head turned away. She had just been asking my mom if they were going to Skype with me this week, and was excited to do that. Then as she is getting into the back seat she said "well who is this?" She thought it was my sister, so she wasn't even looking at me when she said it. Finally, she looks up and sees me, and looks shocked and starts crying. I'm surprised I didn't give her a heart attack. Later that day, she embarrassed the heck out of me at a restaurant when she tried to set me up with a Marine who had just returned from Okinawa to surprise his family for the holidays. My dad knew the friend who had picked him up from the airport, so as they were all leaving, my not-at-all-subtle grandma openly asks his mom if he is single. The more she talked to his mom, he ended up right behind her and directly looking at me. Yes, he is hearing all of this, and I'm covering my face in horror, pretending I'm not hearing any of this. Finally they left, and I hope to God I never see that guy again.

I also got to spend an entire day with my wonderful best friend, Sarah. I picked her up the night I got in, and we had the entire next day together. We got Diatri's (a staple in my hometown), manicures, I got to drive everywhere, went shopping, and chatted about life. That night, we came back to my place and watched movies with my sis. The rest of the week, my mom was off work, so we got to spend a lot of time together. I made sure to hit all my favorite restaurants, and Sarah made sure I got the one thing I didn't think I'd be able to have...Cheerwine. They don't sell it in my town, but she ended up picking some up later in the week. I drank them all in one day and it was glorious.
On Christmas Eve, we hit a lot of parties that my parent's friends were throwing, and that was a lot of fun. Christmas Day was the best though. After a nice, relaxing morning where I finally got to give all the Christmas presents I had accumulated over the last month, my aunt, uncle, and cousin from North Carolina arrived, and the rest of my family in town came over. I don't think there is much in this world that beats sitting around with my extended family and enjoying each other's company. I love my family, and I am so thankful I have so much of it. They love to have fun, and they love each other like crazy. One of the most encouraging things that happened was chatting with my uncle that night. We talked about potential job opportunities where he lives and he said he would help me find a job. I've wanted to move to Charlotte for so long, but recently, more and more people have told me to check out Raleigh instead. My aunt and uncle live in Chapel Hill, which is close, and they invited me to come live with them for a little while when I get back so I could find work down there.

That conversation did so much for my recent mood. I don't like not knowing what my next step is going to be in terms of a job, and I didn't know what I was going to do when I got back next summer. I figured I'd just move and hope for the best, but now having people in my corner that are going to help me look and are giving me suggestions for which companies to look at, and I sent him my resume too, it just makes it more realistic, and I will have family support while I make that transition. So that has been a huge step that I've taken this week, and it has put this whole Paris experience in perspective for me. It will only be another 6 months, then I'm going to have to come back and find a new job. It'll go by quick, and I have a list of things I still want to do. But it feels like it has put me in motion again. I have a plan, a goal, a next step. I don't feel like a ship without a rudder anymore. My mom told me any time I start to feel a bit lost or lonely, to start researching the Raleigh area, and realize that this adventure I'm on will end, and not to miss out on it. 6 months sounds like a long time, but then I look back at how quickly this entire year went, and how quickly the last 3 months went. It's really not that long at all. That same aunt and uncle, and one of my cousins, are likely coming to Europe while I'm still here for various reasons, but that gives me something awesome to look forward to as well. I've been dying to go to Normandy and Omaha Beach, and if I could somehow make that happen with my uncle who retired from the Army, that would make it so special.

The day after Christmas, I had an evening flight back to Paris. The flight back was only 6.5 hours, compared to the 9 to get here. Don't ask me how that works. When I got back to the house, and slept for a while, the jet lag wasn't as bad as I anticipated. I'm back on my normal sleep schedule, and to be honest, it's a strange feeling knowing I was just in the States and now I'm back "home" in France. France is somewhere you go on vacation for a week, not the other way around. And it's also weird to think I'm so far from my family after just seeing them. I was telling my sister while we were sitting in her room watching movies that being back in my parent's house felt like I had just been there. I've definitely gone 3 months without visiting home before, so she and I both felt like it was almost like I've just been down in Lynchburg, working like normal, not half way across the globe. But coming back to Paris was different this time. I have friends here waiting for me (I've already had one welcome me back and invite me over for dinner with her family). I know my job duties now. I know how to get from place to place. It's familiar, not scary, not unknown. I'm definitely looking forward to warmer months and more adventures, including planning a fun night out for New Year's Eve with my friends. 6 months left in Paris, and many, many things on my list of things to do. I'd better have at it. North Carolina will be there when I get back. :)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

150th anniversary of Printemps

So this is just a mini post about the 150th anniversary of the giant department store Printemps. I happened to hear about the window displays and how elaborate they were, and I had intended on checking them out at some point. But the other day, my normal RER was experiencing crazy delays, so I had to use Gare Saint-Lazare to get home. After class, I had lunch with a friend and afterward got some Starbucks and read for a bit at Saint-Lazare. I didn't feel like heading home yet, so instead I decided to wander around the area, and just happened to end up on this super ritzy shopping street, Boulevard Haussmann, where Printemps is located. Happy coincidence! And the window displays were no joke. A lot of the major designers you can find at Printemps combined their efforts and created some truly amazing Christmas displays. I took so many videos and pictures, I decided to just post them all here so everyone could see how incredible they were. I think this weekend I'm going to make it a point to go all over Paris at night to see the lights, and I definitely want to come back and see the Printemps buildings lit up. But for now, I hope you enjoy these as much as I did!

This next one actually scanned your face and put it on this fairy, so that's me!

Disneyland, nuns, and fainting spells

Is Christmas really 10 days from now? How on earth did this happen? That means in 11 days, I will have been in Paris for a full 3 months. 3 months?! How has time gone so quickly? I literally can't believe it.

The last few weeks have been pretty chill. A couple of Fridays ago, me and some friends went to see a showing of the famous, award-winning film Amélie at this cute little theater in Montmarte (a Paris neighborhood). The theater was kicking off their new series "Lost in Frenchlation," which they will be hosting once a month. They will be showing French films with English subtitles. This was exciting to me for 2 reasons. 1) I have never seen the movie and knew it was a "must" since moving to Paris, but still never got around to watching it. 2) The movie was actually filmed in Montmarte, so seeing it for the first time on location was really awesome. Not only that, but the screenwriter for the movie, Guillaume Laurant, was actually there to introduce the movie. Keep in mind, this is a very small theater that wasn't even close to being full, so it was such a cool thing that he came out to talk a bit about the film. What's more funny is that me and my friend actually were squeezed into the tiny bathroom with him before the movie and had no idea who he was. Hope we didn't insult him by not realizing it. Oops hah. But he smiled at me and was friendly so perhaps not.

The next day, I FINALLY got to go to Disneyland Paris! You can check out the full album on my Facebook, but here are some pictures from this super fun (albeit very cold) day.

The day after Disney (it was a very full weekend as you can tell), it was the first Sunday of the month, which meant free admission to Musée du Louvre. I went with 2 friends from church, and we ended up waiting in line for an hour. Security to get in took forever because of everything that happened last month. But we finally got in, and wandered around the wing with all the paintings. I'm not exactly Miss I-know-all-about-art, but it was still really nice to walk around and see the artwork. We did stop in to see the Mona Lisa, which is way smaller than you'd imagine, and the most crowded room in the entire Louvre. But I hadn't been in there for 10 years, so I wanted to see it. On the wall facing the Mona Lisa is the largest framed painting I've ever seen, and it depicts the first miracle of Jesus when he turned the water into wine.

Here are a few more from that day at the Louvre:

Painting of Louis XIV King of France

View from the second floor

The Winged Victory of Samothrace

David and Goliath

As far as my French classes go, I had a bit of good news. The intensive course that I'm currently in runs Monday-Friday 9AM-12PM. I've learned a lot, but it has been very difficult getting to and from class and being in class so much on top of being an au pair. The au pair sections of the class were full, which is how I ended up in the intensive course at the beginning of the trimester. But now, there are spots available in the au pair sections, which means instead of 15 hours of class a week, it's only 6 hours and only 3 days of the week. I have Wednesdays off which is important for au pairs since kids get out of school half day, and now I will have Fridays off. The classes are also not in session when the kids have school holidays, so now I won't be missing important information and have to play catch up. Plus it costs €190 less than the intensive course, so that was a huge blessing.

The downside to having to switch classes though is the fact I will have a different teacher and different classmates. I really like my teacher and my class is so great. Half of our class is made up of nuns from all over the world, and 3 of them in particular have been so much fun. They are such joyful and generous people, and they love to joke around. Plus they think I'm really funny so we've had a lot of good times. They spent 3 years in the US before coming to France, and after this year they will be heading to Australia. They sure get to travel a lot! A nun from another class is actually from New Jersey, and on our class field trip last month, she and I got to talking and turns out she has heard of my alma mater Liberty University, and had a friend who actually went there. Small world! Hopefully I will still see them all around the halls, but I still am not sure what time my classes will be, so we'll see. It would be a huge bummer not to see them at all though.

The only other interesting thing that happened lately was nearly passing out on the RER yesterday. I was on my way to class, and thanks to tons of train delays, there were tons of people packed in this particular train. I was standing with my back to the door and the couple in front of me had their kid's stroller pushed up against my shins. So in addition to be exhausted from a bad night's sleep, I was standing in a stuffy train car in my parka with my knees locked. Not normally a problem. I've only ever nearly passed out once before in my life (while I was a bridesmaid in my cousin's wedding...that was embarrassing...). So at first when that vaguely familiar feeling started creeping over me, I was thinking..."no way...NO way am I about to pass out on this train. I'm going to fall on this kid, people are going to freak" Ummm yeah. I reached for the nearest handle I could find and decided to get off at the first stop (which is not the stop I was headed for) and just sit down as quickly as I could. The train was CRAWLING and I was getting a bit frantic. Finally we are almost to a stop, but at this point I was swaying pretty badly. I didn't realize how badly until I staggered off the train when the doors finally opened and haphazardly walked over to a bench, and turned around and two people had followed me asking if I was ok. Ahh...great. So you noticed? After asking if they needed to call someone and if I was ok, and telling me to eat something, I finally waved them off assuring them I was fine. But thanks to this particular station, the trains usually sit at this platform for about 5 minutes. So yes, that was 5 minutes of me sitting there alone eating my sad banana, looking at my phone and trying to ignore the 100 or so people staring at me like I was going to collapse on the floor. Awesome. As soon as that train finally pulled away, I went home and went to sleep for a few hours. So not only did I miss another French class, I was exhausted for the rest of the day. Oh well. I guess it makes for a good story.

But that's all for now! The cold weather is still a drag and is really putting a damper on my mood. But that's winter for you. I still need to make my way down to the Champs to check out the Christmas lights, so I'm going to try my best to do that on Thursday. Hopefully I will have some good pictures to share.

À bientôt!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

tis the season

Christmas cheer has descended upon the City of Light. The rues and storefronts have been strung with lights and decorations, and the Marché de Noël is in full swing along La Défense and the Champs-Élysées. I’m currently sitting in a decked out Starbucks in Saint-Germain-en-Laye trying to recall all the things I want to write about since it has been a while since my last post. Saturdays are the only days where I am able to shut off my alarm and sleep as long as I want, so waking up today I felt like having a relaxing day catching up on blogging, studying, and reading instead of venturing out into the city.

The mood since the Paris attacks has been fairly normal. I’ve talked to a few French people just asking what the general attitude was among the French. While I think it’s safe to say people are worried, at the same time you just have to carry on and go about your normal life. You can’t be afraid to step out of the house. You just have to be vigilant (every time I use this word, I think “Constant vigilance!” Harry Potter fans will understand that reference.) and just keep on keeping on. People have asked me if I’m scared, and the answer is no, I’m really not. I can’t really put a finger on why I’m not afraid, but I guess it’s a good thing. If I was too afraid to be in the city, then I might as well just come home to America. But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to come home and live in fear, and I’m certainly not going to let anything steal my time in Paris from me. I just have to hope that the city stays safe, and that the collaborative efforts of the governments fighting ISIS will be successful.

A week ago, I came to Saint Germain for the first time. It’s a suburb (or banlieu) further out than my town from the city center, but it’s so quaint and charming. As soon as you exit the RER, you see the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a beautiful building that sits on a large park that must be just gorgeous in spring when everything is in bloom. If you walk to the end of the park, there is a great view that overlooks the city of Paris. You can see La Défense and just make out the top of the Eiffel Tower. I will definitely be visiting the park again when it gets warmer. After walking around the park, I started wandering around the winding streets and went into a couple of little shops. 

I ended up at Starbucks to work on some French, and by this point it had started to rain on this already cold day. I was wearing my warmest coat and thought…this is not going to get me through this winter. So I hopped back on the RER and headed to Les Quatre Temps in La Défense in search of a parka.

The winter chill really only began a few weeks ago, and it will get colder still. And if you haven’t gathered from my previous posts, if I want to go anywhere, I walk. The rail system here is really good, so most people in the city don’t own cars. Many in the suburbs own them, but it’s really not common for someone my age to own a car. There’s really no need, because even if you did own one, you really don’t want to be driving in the city. Much more convenient to walk, because with the RER/Metro/Trains the entire city is easily accessible. When I first arrived, the weather for the first couple of weeks was amazing. It was warm and beautiful with clear blue skies, so having to walk anywhere was no problem for me. But it’s now November 28th. It’s cold and it rains a lot in Paris. I don’t have the luxury of staying inside on a particularly cold or nasty day, or the luxury of driving a car and only being outside long enough to walk from a parking lot into a building. I was laughing to myself the other day thinking about the few times where it was raining so hard in Lynchburg, the staff that left LUO at 4:45 would just stare out at the torrential downpour not wanting to walk the 50 feet to their car. I was one of those people. If that had been Paris, you just suck it up and walk. If it’s freezing and/or pouring rain, the kiddo still needs to get to school, I still need to go to French class, and the walk from the house to the school to the RER station is 0.8 miles. I use the RER and 2 different metros to get to class so it’s a lot of walking through different stations, then it’s a short walk from the last metro to my language school. I definitely get my exercise, that’s for sure. No complaints here though. Keeps me skinny.

So the key to not being miserable while making the trek all over the place in any weather condition is all-weather gear. I invested in some really good rain boots and snow boots before I came. I’ve only needed my rain boots so far, but they’ve been a life saver. No need for me to avoid puddles or be worried about walking all over the place with wet feet. Nope. I’ve noticed that the French don’t seem to wear wellies when it’s raining. Standing on the platform in my Hunter boots, I feel like I stand out, but I don’t care. I’ll keep my warm, dry feet; they can keep their cold, wet ones. My nice snow boots are going to be awesome once winter is full blown and the rain is freezing. The problem though was my coat. I didn’t have much room to pack more than 3 coats. I brought a trench coat, a black winter coat, and my Burton jacket. Last week when I wore my black winter coat in Saint Germain, I realized that I needed something water resistant and something the wind wouldn’t cut through. And while my Burton is warm and all, it’s not really ideal if I want to stay super warm, but I’m going out on the town with friends. I wanted something a bit nicer that I could wear everywhere, but would keep me sane when having to walk around in the elements. So I went to La Défense and found a black parka filled with down feathers and a big hood. After a week of wearing it around, I can honestly say that the €99 I spent on it was totally worth it. I literally can’t believe how warm it is, and with the rain we’ve had this week, I can just brush the water right off. Money well spent. Parka, rain boots, and umbrella are necessary if you ever visit Paris in the fall or winter. Take it from someone who hates winter, rain, and the cold. I will own this season. I will not be defeated.  

Sunday after church, me and a friend took advantage of the beautiful weather to visit the Marché de Noël. The Christmas markets are full of booth after booth of artisan goods and foods, places to eat, and there are even stalls of donkeys at the one in La Défense. I bought some Christmas presents here and then we went down to the market along the Champs-Élysées, which is much bigger since it runs down both sides of the street all the way to the temporary ferris wheel that has been set up in Place de la Concorde. We wanted to go on the ferris wheel, but at 12 euros for a ride, we were both feeling cheap and decided to skip it. There were some carnival rides and even a temporary ice rink as well. Yesterday, I went back to the market in La Défense with another friend, and I tried vin chaud (hot wine) for the first time. It was like a hot sangria with cinnamon, and was really good. I still need to take a stroll down the Champs when it’s dark to see the lights, but I have a month to make that happen before the markets pack up for the season. I’m also hoping to make it to Disneyland Paris before Christmas as well because…well, hello, it’s Christmas at Disney. I don’t need to explain why.

The only other thing that has kept my mind occupied is the French language. In the last two weeks, we’ve learned future and past tense, so I am finally able to start saying things like “I’m going to go study in Saint Germain” (Je vais étudier à Saint Germain.) or “I just learned passé composé” (Je viens d’apprendre le passé composé.). But passé composé (past tense) is super complicated. Ce n’est pas facile. On top of that, the French articles have been my biggest challenge. There are so many, and they are of the utmost importance: la, le, les, du, de la, de l’, aux, à, des etc. etc. Use them incorrectly, and what you’re saying won’t make a lick of sense. I’ve stopped resorting to asking “parlez-vous anglais” when I go somewhere, unless what I need to ask is completely beyond my ability to communicate, or they start speaking back to me and I have no idea what they are asking me. For the most part, the French I hear in the classroom and with my host family I am able to understand. Sometimes, that’s not the case, but I can usually figure out what I’m hearing. In class, I’ve done pretty well on both my tests so far, so my ability to read and write at the beginner level is definitely coming along. What’s still super difficult for me is hearing really rapid French, and trying to comprehend it, and also forming the words on the spot to respond in a conversation. If I’m alone in my room and relaxed, I can typically figure out how to form a basic sentence that would answer a question or explain what I am doing. But in the moment if I’m put on the spot, it’s like everything I’ve learned falls out of my head. My language teacher keeps telling me not to stress, because it will cause me to shut down. She hasn’t been wrong about that.

PS, at this very moment, Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is playing over the speakers, and it’s everything in me not to start singing along. Fun fact, that song was written for one of my all-time favorite movies Meet Me in St. Louis. That’s right. That song wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that movie, and if you haven’t seen the movie, you need to see the movie. Moving on…

The only other significant thing that happened was missing Thanksgiving with my family. My mom is an amazing cook, so missing out on her perfectly brined turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish was a big bummer. But thankfully, I got to Skype with them for about 3 hours after I got out of class and even got to watch some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, so I was there in spirit. 

It’s a strange feeling seeing them and the house and the lake and realizing I’m thousands of miles away and can’t just hop in my car and drive to see them. But a positive thing about being an expat that I’ve noticed lately is how comfortable I feel in Paris now. I still am learning the language (obviously), but after being here now for a full 2 months, this has become my new normal. It’s normal for me not to drive anywhere, it’s normal to not understand most of the conversations happening around me, and it unfortunately feels normal to not be able to call or text my friends and family all the time. I literally am in my own world across the pond. I can’t believe Christmas is almost here, and by that time I will have lived in Paris for 1/3 of my time here already. As much as I don’t want to wish away time, I’m super excited for spring in Paris. I want to be able to walk through all the gardens and spend my days outside. But winter is the red-headed stepchild of the season family, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it pass by faster. Oh well. I’ll make the best of it while I can, and use the winter to visit indoor places. Around May or June, I plan to visit Normandy to see Omaha Beach, and ideally I’d make one more trip to London to visit the Harry Potter studios before coming home.

That’s all for now! I hope all my American friends and family had an amazing Thanksgiving and are gearing up for Christmas. I love this time of year (despite it being in the winter) and I so badly wish I could be home with my family.

À bientôt!