Monday, March 21, 2016

the last 3 weeks of winter

SPRING IS HERE!!! IT’S FINALLY HERE!! I've been waiting months for March 20th to arrive. It has been such a COLD experience so far here in Paris. It’s unfortunate the school year takes place during the coldest months. If I could have chosen any 9 months to live in Paris, it would have started around March and finished with a spectacular Christmas. Christmas in Paris is for sure worth seeing, but after they pack up all the decorations and festivities, you can tell the residents are just playing the waiting game until spring emerges. But printemps has finally made its debut. I had a countdown on my phone that I started 72 days before spring, and I can’t believe all of that time has now elapsed and here we are. It’s still cold. It’s been hovering around high 40s, low 50s most days, but the sun is starting to shine more, so the days are easier to get through. And the forecast for this week has several sunny days and mid-50s. So while all my friends in the USA are enjoying their 70+ degree weather (and yes, I have in fact been insanely jealous of you all), we are slowly but surely catching up across the pond. This coming Saturday, March 26th will mark 6 months since I moved to Paris. Half a year already! That’s crazy. It has felt slow and fast at the same time. And It’s been 3 weeks since my last post, and I have so much to write about, so prepare for a long update!

During the first week of March, G turned 9 years old. I’ve been really happy with how comfortable he and I are with each other now. We can communicate a little more in French, and sometimes I will ask him “comment dit on ____ en anglais?” (“how do you say ____ in English?”) to quiz him on words or teach him new ones. Since they teach English in the schools here, he actually knows his colors, numbers, and a few other things already. He will really start to take English classes in school when he’s a little older, but he has had to learn a few things here and there at his age. Some evenings, he’ll come in my room just to sit and play with his iPad or Rubik’s cube, which he usually hands to me to solve for him. I can honestly say I’m gonna miss that kid when I leave. He will have an au pair for 1 more year, then he’ll be old enough to do without one. To be honest, I like the family and G a lot, and I can see myself keeping in touch with them after this experience, but I’m kind of over being an au pair in general. It has nothing to do with G or my host family, and everything to do with just being ready to get back to work and have my own place.

But as it gets warmer and I’ve been doing more and more fun things, time is starting to slip through my fingers like sand, and I feel like I’m going to blink and find myself on a plane back to America in the middle of summer. I have made so many wonderful friends here, and the closer I get to being back in the States, the more I realize these friendships will just look so different when I’m gone, and that’s really sad. It’s a strange thing to do when first living overseas to try so hard to put down roots and make a home away from home, knowing that your days are numbered and they will be uprooted again in the end. Then when I get back, I’ll be starting all over again in NC. But I can say that Paris does feel a bit like home now. When you’ve become used to the commute times, the language barrier, and develop favorite go-to places, you know you’ve started to acclimate to living the life of a local. When I inevitably come back to visit one day, it’s not going to feel like a foreign city. It’s going to feel like coming home. That’s really an awesome feeling.

But back to what I’ve been up to so far this month. On March 9th, I had a mandatory appointment at the OFII, Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration or French Office for Immigration and Integration. As part of my visa requirements, after living in France for at least 90 days, I am required to visit the OFII for a medical exam.  I knew that this was coming since I arrived, and I was not looking forward to it. Just more paperwork and a mandatory visit, which of course had to be on a Wednesday, my busiest day with G since the kids get out of school at 11:30 on this day each week. My appointment was at 8:30 AM, in a town south of Paris, so I had to leave about an hour prior to my designated time and my host mom took G to school that day. Thankfully, I made it back in time to pick him up, especially given the fact there were train strikes happening later that morning. They like to strike here in Paris. A lot. It was also one of those horrendous rainy and windy days where using an umbrella is pretty useless because I got soaked anyway. Cold, rain, and wind…nature’s winter trifecta out to make my life miserable. But I digress…

Before my visit, I received a letter in the mail telling me what I needed to bring to my appointment. My passport, obviously, a document proving that I’m living with my host family (I took my banking paperwork), and some kind of stamp paying a tax of sorts of 58 euro. At first, when asking my host mom where to get this stamp, she told me they sold them at Tabac (tobacco) stores, but not all of them sell this stamp. That part was so strange to me. Going to a Tabac store to ask for a timbre (stamp) for my immigration appointment. I was not looking forward to running around my town of Houilles to all the Tabac stores trying to communicate what I needed, and not knowing if they would sell it there. But after reading through my paperwork again, the OFII now has a way to purchase the stamp and pay the tax online through their office. Yes! I was so happy when I saw that. Easy.

I arrive for my medical exam and am ushered into a waiting room. About 10 minutes later, one of the staff returns and calls about 6 of us into the next room. This room has a small waiting room, and numbered rooms. One by one, the lady calls us forward to check us in and is asking us questions…in French…thankfully, she spoke enough English to say a word here and there and I just answered yes or no. She didn’t seem too excited about my lack of French, however, all of the other staff I found friendly and helpful, and much more inclined to speak English if I couldn’t understand them. After being checked in, I was told to go to room #1 Analysis, aka pee in a cup. After that, they took my height and weight, and I was back out waiting for my turn in the next room. After waiting what seemed like a while, Not Happy Lady took me to room #2 for an eye exam. She asked me in French if I wore lunettes (glasses) or contacts, then I had to read from the chart on the wall across the room. Thankfully, knowing a word here or there gave me enough context to understand what she was asking, and she seemed more satisfied with my language skills since I could at least give letters and numbers in French.

After this, I was taken to room #3, which was less a room and more of a tall cubicle in the main room, with a door inside that led to an x-ray room. At this point, she opens the cubical door and points to a photo on the wall which explained what to do next…strip from the waste up. Great. So after I do this, I awkwardly wait inside the cube until I hear the girl in the cube next to me return from the room beyond. I knock and peek through to the next room, and there’s an older male doctor waiting for me. I make my way into the room with my arms across my chest, and he tells me I need to pull my ponytail up higher so it’s not falling down my back. Thanks for letting me know. He’s standing there waiting, so I turn around so I can rip out my ponytail and put my hair high on my head. “Awkward…this is so awkward…” is all I’m thinking at this point. He calls me over to an x-ray machine, tells me how to stand and goes back to take the x-ray. I know he’s a doctor, and he was very nice and professional, and to him I was just one more of probably a hundred people a day he sees walk through those doors, but I was not a fan of this particular part of the visit. He dismissed me and I went back into the cubical and got dressed. I was hoping that was the last awkward thing I could expect.

Hah…I wish. The next part was when a doctor came and took my file and called me into another one of these cubicles with a door into the next room inside of it. As I walk in, he tells me to strip from the waste up down to my bra then come into his office. Ugh. I do this, and walk in. There is a table on the far wall you’d find in any ordinary doctor’s office and I expected to be told to sit on it, but no. He calls me over to a chair at his desk, and I’m sitting there practically knocking knees with him, cold, in my bra and jeans. He has my x-ray up on his screen and is looking over my file. In what I’m assuming was an attempt to make me feel more comfortable, he starts asking me about the origin of my name. I said it was English, and like everyone else here, he made a joke about the English soccer team. Then he asks what I’m studying, and I told him I finished school a long time ago. He asked what my degrees were in and poked fun when I told him I was studying French here, but couldn’t speak it. I tried to explain it was a requirement of my visa that I take French classes, but at this point, I’m trying to limit the conversation so I can get this over with. So why did I have to strip this time? So he could take my blood pressure and listen to my heart through my back. Really? In America, I don’t recall either of these ever requiring me to take off clothes. After he did this, he told me I could get dressed then come back in. After a few more minutes, he stamped my paperwork and told me to take it to the receptionist. Gladly. Bye Felicia.

I do as he says, then am directed to the second floor to another waiting room. This is where I have to present my stamped medical report, passport, stamp from the tax, and proof of address. It took about 5-10 minutes for each person, but thankfully I was the 3rd one to arrive. The lady was actually very nice and asked which language I spoke. She already had my file full of documents I hadn’t seen since I was compiling my paperwork last summer. I had everything they needed from me ready to go, and it only took about 5 minutes. She told me to hang on to the medical report I had stamped because if I wanted to renew my visa in September when it expired, I had to have this and it could not be replaced. Not a problem, I won’t be here or be renewing my visa. Finally, I got the final stamp I needed in my passport, and the entire reason for the shenanigans I had just gone through downstairs, my long-stay/temporary resident visa. And then I got the heck outta here. But in case you were curious, here is what a French visa and my long-stay visa look like, with my important info and bad photo blacked out, of course. ;)

French Student Visa

Long-stay Visa I received the day of my OFII Medical Exam

The rest of the month went uphill from there. The Saturday after my OFII visit, I got to spend the day with my French friend Isabelle, who took me to the beautiful Forêt de Montmorency to go hiking. It was a bit warmer than it had been at that point, and we enjoyed being outside the city for some fresh air. We finished our hike with a picnic by the beautiful lake in the forest, then went back to her place for tea and Netflix, then headed to Bercy Village later that night to see a movie. Lately, my weekends have included a movie with her because of this special ticket she pays a monthly fee for that gets two people into an unlimited amount of movies each month. She gets the tickets, I get the snacks. Here at movie theaters, you have a choice between sweet or salty popcorn. I explained to her that movie popcorn in the States is always salty and always hot. Here, it’s generally popped beforehand, so you don’t get that fresh popcorn and melted butter taste, and most people here will choose sweet popcorn. What a shame. But I convinced her to try the famous combo of salty popcorn and MnM’s, and now she thinks I’m a genius. That’s now our go-to snack when we see a movie. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her and so thankful for her friendship. As it gets warmer, we have lots of outtings planned and places she wants to show me. It’s awesome having a French friend that knows the best places outside of the city. I also signed up for the Color Run Paris next month, and she’ll be doing it with me. I’m so excited for it! It’ll be a really fun time.

The last 4 days have been the most fun I’ve had in quite some time. Thursday was GORGEOUS. Clear blue skies, not a single cloud, and the temperature reached 60 degrees by the afternoon. Me and my American friend Amanda had planned to meet for a day in the city and visit Sacré-Cœur, the cathedral in the Montmarte district of Paris. We couldn’t have asked for a prettier day for it. The warmer it got, the more excited we got. She and I have both been so over the winter season. It hasn’t helped our homesickness for America. Her older two kids had school, so it was just us and her 2 year old cutie Penelope. We met up for coffee, then headed to Montmarte. Our first stop was to the Le Mur des Je T'aime, The Wall of I Love You, just outside of the metro Abbesses. The wall was created in 2000 and has the words “I love you” written in 250 languages. The splashes of red paint symbolize parts of a broken heart. There were a lot of people around, so it was clear it was a popular spot, but it was still really beautiful. One day I'll get a picture without the horrendous shadows ruining the shot. But can you spot "I love you" in English??

After this, we started the uphill trek toward the cathedral. Getting to the cathedral is tiring enough. If you want to go to the top, it’s 300 steps. We definitely got our workout in that day. We stopped for a few minutes at the main square near Sacré-Cœur, where artists come and show off, sell, and create artwork right there for anyone to watch. It is a pretty touristy location, but still felt very Parisian to be watching all these artists showcase their work. We continued on to the front of the cathedral then went inside to see the interior. The mosaics inside were incredible. The main one featured Christ and was basically the size of the main dome inside. We had to be quiet because there was a mass happening at the same time, and you weren’t supposed to take pictures but everyone was. Oh well. After walking around, we came back outside, then went around to the side of the building to head to the top of the dome. It was only 6 euro, but man was it an exhausting climb. Tight, spiral staircases, and 300 steps. Poor Amanda had Pen on her back the whole way up, so I took her on the way down. The views were worth every step. Perfect day, though a little hazy, but man…Paris is beautiful. After leaving Sacré-Cœur, we found a cute little café called Le Carroussel. It was so nice by this point, we took off our coats and sat outside in the sun. It was wonderful! There was even a guy playing the accordion outside, so we sat there eating pizza and enjoying the ambience, chatting about how this was going to be a regular occurrence as the weather got nicer. So excited.

The next day, I started my private French lessons. I was super nervous about this. I’m not really sure why, I’ve just been so hesitant and shy about it. But when I arrived, I saw my old teacher and chatted with her for a few minutes. I missed her. She really was a fantastic instructor, and if she had taught a class that would have fit better with my schedule, I would have stuck with her. She was really kind and gave me a pep talk to not be so hard on myself and that it was just me and the instructor and I would be ok. Next week, I hope to get there a bit early and see some of my old classmates. Once I was taken to the private classroom, the instructor walked in and I recognized her. She had been our tour guide to the museum we visited the morning of the Paris attacks, and she and I had chatted on the metro after class that day. She wants to move to California really bad to be a French teacher, and hopes one day it’ll happen. But it was great to see a familiar face. She told me about her own experiences learning English and asked me how I would like our lessons to go. I told her I needed to be forced to speak the language, because my reading and writing is better than my oral comprehension and ability to respond. She said that was exactly what happened to her when she was learning English too. Overall, I felt way more comfortable, and it was a much better environment then a full classroom. She said if you need to take a few minutes to respond, I could do that in private lessons, whereas a classroom can be more challenging since everyone has to participate. But I will have these lessons with her every Friday for a total of 8 weeks. Hopefully, that will help me a lot.

By far the most awesome thing I’ve done this month is the cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu I signed up for this past Saturday. I learned how to make French macarons and everything from the chefs to the class to the macarons themselves were fantastic. It was a little pricey at 110 euro, but worth every penny. I got to learn from pastry chef Xaviar Cotte, who began teaching at LCB 14 years ago after a stellar career. He has a translator for the class, an American from Texas actually, but was so funny and clearly loves what he does. French cook Julia Child learned her cooking skills from this very building. So amazing. They are actually opening their new facility in June and will be moving locations. I guess I’ll have to do another class when I come back to visit one day and see the new place. In the end, my macarons turned out really good, just not perfectly round since my piping skills leave something to be desired. But hey, I’ll practice and get better. We did everything by hand, so it was pretty labor intensive, but I feel like I earned the end result. They had certificates of completion ready for us at the end, and we got to keep an official apron, hat, tea towel, and isothermic bag. If you ever come to Paris, this is truly an experience worth paying for. Such a blast.

Confession. I only took this next picture because of the tall, handsome chef.
We kept catching each other's eye, not gonna lie. ;)

Yesterday, I finally got to see my friend Alicia after about a month and a half. It had been a while since we hung out because we are equally intolerant of the cold weather we’ve had. She’s from Columbia, so her intolerance might be higher than mine, but in any case, neither of us have been thrilled about the lack of color on the trees and the gray and cold skies. When it gets warmer, we’ll both be out with our cameras photographing every corner of the city. Cannot wait. It was supposed to be pretty yesterday, but it turned out to be 40s and gray, so we opted for an indoor activity instead. We went to the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Modern Art Museum of Paris. The first painting we saw was really beautiful. It had a room all to itself, and if you started from the right side of the room, it told the story of how electricity came to be over time, specifically in France. I didn’t realize this until I started from the left and saw the beginning, then it dawned on me. Oh well. The rest of the museum was really not my taste. I’m clearly not an art connoisseur, because about a half a dozen times I found myself saying “I could make that.” And really….I could. A wall of huge canvas paintings of vertical stripes in various colors? Umm…yeah. Can’t say I really can appreciate most of what I saw, particularly the giant spider sculpture that horrified me. But oh well. At least I tried it, right?

I named him Aragog. If you don't get that, I'm sorry for you.

Well that’s been a lot of experiences to pack into one blog post. Thanks for reading though! I have a feeling that the arrival of spring is going to spark more adventures and more to write about in each post. I truly believe my best days of this journey are ahead of me, and I can’t wait!

À bientôt!