Archive for April, 2010

If you arrived in Annecy today, you’d think it was well into June or July here. The sun is shining at its brightest, the sky is a gorgeous blue with practically no clouds, and the beach near my apartment is full of sun-bathing beauties (and then some not so beautiful beauties – going topless at the beach is perfectly fine here…). After a lovely outdoor farewell lunch with the English professors from my college, I headed off to Monoprix (a French grocery store) to find Thank You cards and ended up walking out with a bathing suit as well! With all the beautiful weather we’ve been having, I’ve been meaning to buy one anyway, and this one is cute, inexpensive, and stereotypically French (a two piece with blue and white horizontal stripes). Then after seeing that the weather may change for the worst tomorrow (and Saturday, Sunday, and the following week), I decided to “profiter” (take advantage) of today’s soleil (sun) and check out the water at the lake. After reading a bit more of my latest Harry Potter book (number 5 – bought for 3 euro at a 2nd hand bookshop in Paris), I figured I was sificiently sweaty enough to dip my toes in the water and maybe, just maybe it wouldn’t be too cold. (I’ve been asking my students what they’ve been up to and several of them said they went “swimming” in the lake. Though after further probing I discovered this “swimming” was more renting a pedal boat and then dipping their legs into the water for about 30 seconds at a time). It has been even warmer in the past few weeks, so I figured there might be a bit of a chance I could stand the slightly less frigid waters – in truth, my feet lasted about a minute. lol. But I’m told that in June, July and August, the water is quite nice, but I’ll just have to take their word for it because I’ll unfortunately be long gone by then.

Last night was my last “repetition” (choir practice) with the lovely ladies and gentlemen of Ste. Bernadette’s Church. Everyone kept asking me when I was leaving, we exchanged addresses, and several ladies even gave me small parting gifts. They have truly become like a second family for me here – inviting me into their homes for meals and offering help any time I need it from rides to a cup of tea to a scale (to weigh my suitcase). I am going to miss their encouraging words and trusted advice. I will see them all again this Sunday at mass, but just before practice began was when it finally hit me that I’m leaving this beautiful place and so many lovely friends. Then I was so touched when a woman whose name I don’t even know (she’s an alto so she’s always on the other side of the room) came up to me and handed me a small bag with a patch of Annecy and several little Haute Savoie/Rhone Alpes pins. At this point I couldn’t keep my feelings inside any longer and the tears started trickling down my cheeks. Thankfully I was able to compose myself before the rehearsal actually began!

Last night I also received another pleasant surprise – a full moon hovering just across the lake over the village of Talloires, reflecting gently on the lake and casting an eery glow behind the mountains. The effect was magical, and one I will never forget. (I am not alone in this opinion as many other people had taken to the benches lining the lakefront just to stare out across the glistening water.)

Now I have begun to pack my life away into two suitcases (one giant and the other my carry-on). I’ll be leaving quite a bit of clothing behind (since I came here with two giant suitcases and two carry-ons), but it feels good to downsize a bit and I’ve made sure that the left-behind items will go to charity.

Ooh, Annecy, tu me manques déjà! Je ne veux pas te quitter si tôt…


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This weekend marked the end of my spring vacation in France. It also means that I have only one more week of work and 8 days left in Annecy! I couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather or more enjoyable activities to finish off this fabulous (and incredibly cheap) two-week vacation in my own backyard.

Lac d'Annecy from Mont Veryier - I still can't believe I live in such a fairytale land...

The following are just a few things I have been fortunate enough to experience: learned how to cook French delicious french cuisine, explored photographs of Egypt and South America over Savoyarde fondue, sung with the local church choir, cheered a friend in a marathon, made new friends, enjoyed the Paquier (big, open, grassy area by the lake) with picnics, tennis and books, biked All the way around the lake, went on two hikes – saw waterfalls, danced salsa, learned a bit about refugees and dances from Kosovo (thanks to a foreigner’s dinner last night), helped a French couple move – surprisingly a lot of fun, rented pedal boats on the lake, listened to a friend play at a bar, and generally just enjoyed myself immensely!

I have one more day off (don’t work on Mondays), but I have a feeling that this next week will be a sad one – lots of “last times.” I will definitely miss all the friends I have made and this incredible place I have called home for the past seven months!

P.S. The city is in full-bloom!

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In less than two weeks I will finish packing up everything in my French apartment and will embark on a month-long journey toward Dublin, Ireland, where I will catch a plane home to the US for the first time in 8 months. Having been in a similar position twice before (after returning from Wales and Nova Scotia), I know that my transition back to “normal” life will be hard. This article by Amanda Kendle on Vagabondish.com is the best I have read in giving advice on “how to survive reverse culture shock” goes. But you don’t even have to take my word for it. Just read the never-ending list of positive comments it received…

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For anyone who goes abroad to a French-speaking country, the verb “manquer” will come in handy quite a bit. Everyone is always asking me who or what I miss about home, and what I will miss when I leave France. I first learned the word two summers ago at Ste. Anne’s in Canada, but I didn’t quite get it when explained entirely in French. So thanks to About.com, here are some direct translations for this somewhat confusing French verb.

Manquer = “to miss”

When missing people or living things, this verb can be a bit complicated for native English speakers. But once you get the hang of it, it’s quite simple.

ex. Est-ce que je te manque? = Do you miss me? (It helps to think “Am I missing to you?”)

  • Tu me manques. = I miss you.
  • Il me manque. = I miss him.
  • Je te manque. = You miss me.
  • Tu nous manques. = We miss you.
  • Ses amis manquent à Anne. = Anne misses her friends.
  • Céline manque à Guy. = Guy misses Céline.
  • Mon chien me manque. = I miss my dog.

You can also miss things like the bus or the train. In these cases, the literal French translation is closer to English.

ex. Il a manqué le train. = He missed the train.

  • Tu vas manquer l’avion! = You’re going to miss the plane!
  • J’ai manqué de trouver ton livre. = I didn’t find your book.
  • Nous avons manqué de faire la vaisselle. = We didn’t do the dishes.

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A great little intro article about using “credit cards” in France by Laura K. Lawless has prompted me to add my own experiences with paying for things in France (and in the UK).

First of all, in order to receive a “credit card” in France, you have to open up a bank account. This is because France doesn’t really have the American equivalent of credit cards that allow you to buy things and pay for them later. Here, everyone functions with debit cards (often called Carte Bleue or CB). Each CB normally has a magnetic strip on the back (like in the US), but they also have a smart chip in the front which is the most common way by which the card is electronically read. When I studied abroad in Wales from 2006-07, the UK was changing over to this system of smart chips, but none of my American credit and debit cards had this technology (as far as I know, most still don’t). As a result, I occasionally encountered problems when I tried to use my American cards in stores and restaurants overseas.

Don’t be alarmed, however, if you’re planning a big European adventure fueled by various forms of plastic. Most of the time card readers are still able to swipe cards if the chip option doesn’t work (or if there is not chip), though you may have to suggest this option if the cashier looks at your card quizzically. But if worse turns to worst, it’s always best to have a bit of cash on-hand to pay for  emergencies. In fact, you’ll find that most people in France still pay frequently with cash (they haven’t become quite as attached to plastic as Americans – yet).

Speaking of change – it seems like I ALWAYS have a ton of coins rolling around in my purse. But the truth is, I really do have more change because 1 and 2 Euros only come in coin form. Here’s a quick breakdown of the various coin denominations you will find when using EU currency:

  • 1 cent, 2 cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent, 1 euro, 2 euro

If you’re counting, that’s 8 coins to our 5 (penny, nickel, dime, quarter – and occasionally, the dollar coin). The EU decided on more coin denominations because they last longer than paper money, although they are a heavier trade-off. Once you reach 5 euro, that’s when the paper money starts, and the euro system uses basically the same denominations as the US:

  • 5 euro, 10 euro, 20 euro, 50 euro, 100 euro, etc. (I’ve never actually seen a euro bill larger than 100 so I can’t speak for anything higher than that)

My first experience with foreign currency wasn’t the euro, however, but the British pound. This currency also has 8 different coins (labeled 1p for 1 penny, 2p for 2 pence, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, 1 pound, 2 pounds). The slang name for denominations from 2 pounds and up is “quid” – ex. “Let’s buy lunch here. It’s only a fiver.” or “It’s only 5 quid.”

I also have experience with Swiss francs and Swedish krona, but I’ll let you find out about those on your own. But one thing to note: since Switzerland is surrounded by euro-using countries and it is also a part of the EU, tourists can sometimes get away with paying in euros in Swiss grocery stores, hotels, and tourist attractions. In Geneva this is common almost everywhere since the city is almost entirely geographically surrounded by France, but I’ve also done this in Lucern. If you pay in euros and want change, however, it will almost always come in Swiss francs.

One last tip for traveling in France: when paying for a meal at a restaurant or a coffee in a bar/cafe, you don’t have to tip the server. Restaurant meal prices already include a tip, though if the food or service was particularly good, you are welcome to leave a bit of extra change if you so choose.

Hope these little bits of info help you on your first (or next) European adventure!

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Life in the Alps:

The everyday trials and tribulations of an English language assistant in France

Trial 6: Carnival!

I was raised on king cakes, home-crafted parade ladders, and colorful costumes. There was always a healthy supply of Mardi Gras beads and doubloons at my house, and what didn’t end up in the dress-up box was given to my uncle who rode with the Endymion parade krewe every year. I grew up going to the family-friendly truck float parades in Metairie and learned how to hone my vocal skills with the infamous phrase, “Throw me something, Mister!” In spite of my shy nature, I always managed to capture more hard-earned “loot” than my little arms could carry.

As I grew older, Mardi Gras grew with me, maturing both in content and in style. I began to understand the sometimes quirky traditions, symbolism, and even the not-so-great sides of the celebration. But in general, the intricate floats, wacky decorations, and vivid characters became even more intriguing. In moving to France, I was eager to compare my version of Mardi Gras with that of another country. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed.

Just after Christmas I discovered the first similarity between Louisiana’s and France’s Carnival celebrations: king cakes! The French cake, called a “galette du roi,” makes its appearance for the Catholic holy day of Epiphany (January 6th) and looks much simpler than the purple, green, and gold masterpieces found in the US. Some of the cakes are oval-shaped with a hole in the middle (like chez nous), but most are of a simple pie style and are filled with almond paste or jam. They all include a small, porcelain favor, however, usually in the shape of a rectangle and decorated with a local scene. The lucky favor-finder receives a crown that comes with the cake and chooses a fellow king or queen to reign with him or her for the rest of the party.

But Carnival is not just a feast for the taste buds, so I set off on my next quest: to experience a bit of organized revelry. When mid-February passed and I still hadn’t heard about any events, I began to worry that I wouldn’t see Mardi Gras at all. Little did I know, many of the celebrations here in France would take place AFTER Fat Tuesday during Lent (a traditionally solemn period in the Catholic religion reserved for prayer, fasting, and penance). This was largely due to the fact that this year’s official date was early, and French weather still quite wintry. But after debating with several Frenchmen, we came to the conclusion that, regardless of the year, Carnival in France has more do with festivities and tourism than its traditional Catholic roots.

Thankfully, I did find several celebrations to attend. The largest, in Nice, was a bit out of my reach (seven hours by train for just a weekend), but the two I did experience were just as interesting. First, my host city, Annecy, held a Venetian Carnival, though the label “carnival” was a bit misleading. The event was more of a subdued spectacle of people (covered from head to toe in elaborate Venetian dresses, costumes and masks) promenading around the lake and the Old Town while tourists flocked like paparazzi trying to capture the best angles on their digital cameras. Although I had fun and managed to take some nice photographs, this festival was far from the lively party I was looking for.

Then, by surprise, I came across a much bigger Carnival celebration in Albi, a charming city in the southwest of France. The sky was rather gray that day, but the city center was bustling with people, noises, and color. There were food stands selling crêpes, gaufres (waffles) and giant sandwiches on French bread. Teenage girls in florescent jackets wandered around, their arms overflowing with bags of confetti. Glittering carnival rides advertised with flashy lights and the delighted screams of their customers, while game hawkers called out their latest gimmicks.

But away from all the music and commotion, crowds began quietly gathering on the sidewalks for the afternoon parade. Little children, dressed as Piccachus, fairies and pumpkins, waited impatiently for the floats to arrive. When they finally did, I learned a major difference between American and French celebrations: instead of calling out to receive beads like at home, the crowds here engage in mini confetti (and occasionally, silly-string) wars with float-riders and parade walkers alike. Since I was in the front row, I was pegged several times by handfuls of the multi-colored paper – twice by a 4-yr-old girl who giggled after she saw my surprised reaction. Though I hadn’t bought any confetti, myself, I quickly learned from the little, masked monsters around me and grabbed handfuls of fallen paper off the ground to get ready for the next “attack.”

After several hours of amusement thanks to elaborate floats, confetti bombs, marching bands and some hilariously-dressed, typically French, parade characters, it was time to go home. I topped off the festivities with an order of sugary, hot churros (long, Spanish-style beignets), and made my way to the train station. Trying to rid my clothing and jacket of the clumps of confetti that had compiled proved to be a hopeless feat. Even several weeks later, I’m still finding little bits of colored paper in my backpack and around my apartment.

My first Carnival experience outside of Louisiana turned out to be a great success – a lot of fun, and culturally educational as well. And even though the traditions varied a bit, it was nice to know that our cultures aren’t so different after all.

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Get-Fit Lifestyle

I love living in a city that inspires me to live a healthy lifestyle. Here in Annecy my main form of transportation is my bike, and now that spring has arrived and the flowers are in bloom, I can’t help but want to spend every spare moment outside. This means lots of fun, exercise activities such as long walks along the lake, rollerblading, canoeing, paddleboats, etc. Today I watched a friend run alongside 8,000 other people in a half-marathon, and I couldn’t help but be inspired to want to do something similar (though I’ve never been a runner, so perhaps a much shorter feat would suffice). I’m even seriously considering going paragliding this week (not exactly much exercise for my body, but definitely for my heart when it goes into overdrive from fear of falling). Now if only I could resist the countless gelatto stalls on every corner of the Old Town – oh wait, I can!

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