Thursday, April 20, 2017

Les Sables d'Olonne - Bookends on a Winter a of Transition

Welcome to my 100th post!  

Les Sables d'Olonne.  I was disappointed that I'd made the choice to return to a place I've already been (after all, there's A LOT of France still to see), but on my second day walking along the beach, I realized that my two trips here were the perfect bookends on a challenging winter of adjustment.
The neighboring town I stayed in

When I was here last, I still felt I had something to prove.  To whom, I don't know, but I felt that I had to prove this was the right decision, that I didn't just move here on a whim.  I had to make friends, especially French ones . . . maybe find a boyfriend too in order to really assimilate.  I had to sink down roots, become fluent in the language, figure it all out.

I no longer feel that way.  Moving here has mostly been a great adventure.  Even if I only stay a year, two years, it wasn't a mistake to come - it was a dream for 10 years that I finally fulfilled.
And life in France shares some things with life in the US - it's still life and can be just as unexpected.  The person I thought I'd be great friends with divorced and moved away.  A friendship that I thought would be brief, due to a large age difference, has instead become a solid friendship that is going on 6 months now.  I just met his parents and he announced to them that he hopes to do his foreign apprenticeship near my hometown next summer, even though it means switching from the food division to hard cider.

I understand more of the common phrases said around me as well. "C'est bon" - it's good.  "Ce pas grave" - it's no big deal, it's not important.  "Le même" - the same.  "Ce comme ça" - it's like that.  I understood enough to survive dinner with four French people, who don't speak much English, without needing constant help.  Even if all of the details weren't clear, I could pick up talk about the elections, the migrant camp burning down and them asking him if he had difficulty communicating with me ("no").  It helped to learn he'd done very poorly in English until recently, meaning he became fluent as a adult, so surely I can too!
As for my actual weekend, it started with a bit of a disappointment.  Even though the ad stated where the flat was, I didn't know the town and so I looked at the map on the site.  The blue "x" represents where the map showed the property . . . the blue dot is where it actually is.  In typical fashion, I made the best of it and set out on the lovely path that continued all the way into Les Sables d'Olonne.  The below photo gives a visual of the distance - it's the city wrapping around the curve!
Even though I prefer to walk on a sandy beach, the rocky shorelines are often visually prettier and make for better photos, so I really did enjoy the walk in every day (less the walk back though)!
Saturday was actually the best day on the beach.  There were surprisingly few people for it being a holiday weekend, so I walked for a while, then sat against the sea wall (there are lower sections and many people sit on or against them and read for a little bit.  If you're looking for a nice coastal town with a lovely beach to just relax on, this is a great place for it!  It also has the best boardwalk area of the towns I've seen - a nice broad pedestrian portion, designated bike lane (a full car lane split in two) and one lane for traffic, although this was closed off on Easter due to the high number of pedestrians.
I don't find Les Sables d'Olonne to be one of the French towns with particular cultural or historic interest (I'm sure a French person could tell me all about why I'm wrong), so I've decided that my long weekends will be spent elsewhere in the future . . . but for a normal weekend getaway, this is still a place that I can imagine owning a "weekend flat!"

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dealing with the Expat Blues

When you're living in a gorgeous country and you like most things about it, it can be difficult to admit or acknowledge when things simply aren't going well.

There are cultural differences between the US and France, but the ones that get you in trouble are the ones that aren't as obvious and you don't know about.  The issue largely happens to me when the same behavior is assumed to have two completely different motivations in the two countries.
Safely on the list of things that do NOT make me want to move - French food

When these things happen, it's easy to miss home.  Obviously, there can be misunderstandings that happen in your home country too, but not usually over things that are normal behavior in your country.  The problem here is when you do something completely normal and somebody is upset about it because, well, it's not normal here.

My natural tendency is to gloss over these things.  Usually, it's small and passing, plus what right do I have to complain?  I'm "living the dream after all" and I moved here voluntarily.  I have a good job, live in a nice (albeit old) home and have even managed to make some friends.
There are still times when it seems like EVERYTHING is going wrong though.  Such as:
  • My oral French lesson online made no sense, even though the written lessons are fairly easy.  Am I *ever* going to understand spoken French well?
  • My colleague seemed REALLY angry with me about . . . pastries?!?
  • My friend had to cancel a trip with me after I'd already paid for a non-refundable hotel room.  
  • I couldn't figure out how to pay my first electric bill because my "account balance" online was apparently only the most recent bill and I'd thrown out the original payment slip.  I received mail demanding payment, but still with no clear way to actually PAY.
  • My very first brand-new car was custom ordered (this is normal here - you don't really find huge lots full of cars) and the former employee who submitted the order put the wrong color.  I am now driving my custom BLACK car, not blue.  Really a disappointment to have your first brand-new car not ordered correctly!
Ok, so it doesn't look that bad in black . . . black is considered a "distinguished" color here, so I suppose it works for a cadre

While there is nothing major that went wrong, when it feels like many small things are going wrong due to cultural differences, language barriers, etc. it can be tempting to consider packing up and moving back.  Just considering it put me in an even worse mood though.

Since I knew I wasn't ready to return to the US, it was time to deal with the "blues" head-on!  Here's what worked for me:
  • I met up with a new French woman and practiced French.  Considering that I spoke no French at the end of 2015 and have only had 21 hours of formal lessons, I focused on how much I have learned and can understand now.
  • I spent time with French friends, which helped remind me of the many things that I love about living here (and about the future plans I've already made)
  • I went for a nice long walk in my town.  Over an hour of enjoying the sun and really looking at the various little houses, shops, gardens and other lovely things in the area helped! This is the source of the photos here!
  • I spent time catching up with US friends also - strangely, it helps me feel more settled in my life here when I maintain my connections with the people I love back in the US
  • Since I love seeing new places and learning about them, I looked at my list of places I'd like to travel to in Europe and neighboring areas.  There are at least 3 years worth of countries that will be much easier and cheaper to see if I live here - that's good motivation to stay for me!
  • I had a good conversation with my colleague about what was really going on - pesky cultural differences as it turned out.  It's really easy to assume that "you did X, so it means Y" when it actually means Z because I'm American or because he's French.  The same behavior cannot be assumed to have the same motivations or same meaning when you take it out of the cultural context.  It's an interesting learning experience for sure.
These are some of the same things that worked for me the last time - get some exercise, focus on the positive things about living in France, socialize with friends in both countries and cut myself (and the French) some slack when it comes to language and culture issues.  If you're also an Expat who is having a low moment, I hope these same ideas may work for you!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Random Road Trip in France

I'm quickly learning that a real "plan" is perhaps not necessary in order to see beautiful things in France - you can just pick a random place and go.

In this case, my only plan was "let's do something" and Alexis took charge!  He wanted a town that was new for both of us, so slightly south of La Rochelle, he made lunch reservations in Rochefort.  While prices are a little steep near the coast, the lunch was excellent.  I was jealous when his cake came out, but it turned out that my mascarpone was divine, absolutely divine!

We took a little walk around Rochefort, which I realized was the city where the Hermoine replica boat is.  The Hermoine was originally sent by France to help the Americans in the American Revolution (for those who've forgotten, the French originally helped us win a war).  A replica was built and it sailed to the US and back in 2015, but the ship remains in Rochefort and can be toured.  There was no tour for us, but I have a lovely photo with it!
After a brief walk around the town (and the purchase of two French books much more suitable for my current reading level), we decided that this wasn't ACTUALLY the beach, looked at the map, and decided that this tiny finger of land looked interesting to see.  We didn't see the island out in the water (or paid no attention to it) until we arrived at the end and people were walking out onto a raised "road" across the tidal flats.
When we first entered the town, I was surprised by the resemblance to other French coastal towns that I've seen - it reminded me a little of the outer portion of Biarritz (clearly, nothing like the main town there though).  As you can see from the location of the blue dot on the map, after arriving in the town and going to the very end of the tip, we decided to head out to see the fort.  The tide was out when we started, stranding this fisherman's hut far from the water!  I had no idea what it even was, so having a Frenchie along was quite useful.
Even though we were about halfway across when the tide clearly started coming in, we were on a mission to make it to the fort!  Despite the fact that all of the people with oyster buckets were clearly headed in the other direction, Alexis was confident that we wouldn't get trapped, so I took his word for it and kept going (to be fair, we had cell service, so it couldn't be THAT difficult to get a boat out there if needed).  It turns out, it's about a 30 minute walk out to the fort over a road that has disintegrated badly over the years; however, it's great exercise and lovely views all along the way.
I haven't really tried just picking a random spot on the map before and going there, but it turned out to be a fun idea.  I saw my first oyster farms, a random abandoned fort and the island had lovely views of the bridges from the coast out to the two big islands in the area . . . plus it was kind of cool to WALK out to a spot shown as an island in the middle of the ocean on a map.  To get a feel for the distance, in the photo below that white dot is a van - look past it on the horizon and you can see the buildings where the car park is.
And not a photo from the road trip, but rather just a typical Saturday afternoon in France from the day before.  There are certain parts of living in France that are EXACTLY what you expect.  The French cafe scene is one of those things!  People really do just sit (even on the same side of the table), chat and just watch the world go by.  Truly one of my favorite things about French culture!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Abroad Edition: An American on Palawan

While my primary purposes in choosing the Philippines was to visit the girl I sponsor, I was also feeling like I just needed a relaxing vacation.  I tend to plan vacations that are quite busy and full of seeing and doing things, so it's uncommon that I feel the need for a vacation that involves just laying around.

It turned out to be exactly what I needed though!  I arrived with bright ideas of doing morning yoga, swimming, etc.  I did . . . some of it.  First, the flight on AirSwift was great!  It's a little tricky figuring out what to do after you book your flight online because the contact info doesn't appear to be correct, but they give you a nice bag of snacks and water after check-in and you have your own designated seating area at the gates.
When you land at El Nido though, you're nowhere near anything that has the appearance of an airport.  You really get to enjoy a little local experience though with the bus to the airport!
And then you arrive at the airport.  This is the arrivals hut and there is a second one for departures.  I've traveled quite a bit now, so it's uncommon that I see something REALLY shocking, but this was certainly a first for me - clearly, I haven't traveled enough yet!
I was really happy with the place that I chose, even though it was in a secluded location an hour from town.  As you drive through, you really get a sense of the lifestyle of the local people on the island, which introduces an interesting conundrum.  On the one hand, it feels a little uncomfortable (for me) to cruise past a large number of people crammed into a small "bus" for transportation while you're alone in your air conditioned 8 seat van on your way to your "quaint" cottage that is larger than most of their homes.  On the other hand, tourism is the lifeblood of many of these communities.

While I'm not particularly comfortable with Americans buying up islands and prime real estate in impoverished nations so we can turn them into expensive resorts for other Americans, if it provides options for people so they can earn a living without leaving their island, maybe it isn't all bad?
Having said that, the particular American who built this resort did a really nice job with it.  It isn't one of those overdone all-inclusives and has a limited number of cottages.  Above is the beach, which you can see is not crowded with a sea of humans.  You are in the jungle and it feels it - huge plants, more strange looking bugs than I've seen in my life!
Really, this is the place to go if you want sun, tropics and to just relax!  There were water sports (wooden kayaks, stand-up paddle boarding and kite boarding) and island hopping tours, but I was ready for basic relaxation.  I find it difficult because part of me is like, "did I just pay all of this money to lay around, read and swim?  I can do that any number of places!"  Realistically though, it was exactly what I needed!  

One of my favorite things was going on a tour of a local fishing village.  My big plans up until then had been getting a 90 minute massage, but I wanted a real sense of the local life.  On this trip and my trip to Egypt, I've perhaps been a little too brave about trying things because I got sick both trips and, by far, this trip was the worst.  It may or may not have been because I tried coconut wine out of a very dirty bottle!  Of course, it was fermented, so it may not be the most likely suspect!  You can see the tiny bottles in the tree if you look closely.
I will say that my first trips to places with unsafe water, I followed all of the rules.  I relaxed a bit after being told that most major tourist hotels and restaurants use filtered or purified water; however, both trips since then, I've gotten really sick . . . I think it's back to no ice (no matter where from) and only sealed beverages for me.  I know people who take many more risks and never get ill, but I don't seem to have that luck!  Coming down with a serious illness on a flight wasn't as bad as I'd thought though - you have somebody to bring you water and you're forced to rest.  As long as you have an aisle seat, it could be worse!

It was really interesting to see the local houses, then go through one that has been set up as a museum.  There's also a huge traditional boat that you can view as a museum.  It's interesting to see how they manage to make such clever use of everything in their environment with coconut shells, bamboo, etc. employed as spoons, containers to store documents, food storage and even weaving leaves to make the roofs.  The houses are raised off the ground both for storm surges and because of wild pigs.
While it was fascinating to see, I also enjoyed knowing that the local village benefits from part of the fee for the tour.  It was also interesting to see my first mango grove!
At the end, I had the opportunity to participate in a traditional healing, so I figured, "why not?"  The healer burns some herbs in a small pot and you breathe in the smoke.  A small white item is placed in there and will turn a color with a shape on it to indicate what type of evil spirit may be troubling you . . . except I apparently have no evil spirits around and mine stayed pristine white.

The women seemed a little perplexed by this (hopefully not because I'm an American) and decided to try a slightly different second process.  This time, there was some bubbling, but still pristine, which I was told means that I have been around evil spirits before, but passed them by because my own spirit is too strong and fought them off.  They weren't trying to sell me anything else, so I'll take it!

Shortly after, it was back on a plane to Manila, then the next day was my flight home.  Palawan was a lovely place to get some relaxation and to see another corner of the world where people still live in a very traditional way!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Abroad Edition: An American in Manila

I elected to fly Emirates this trip because I've heard from frequent travelers that their service is fantastic . . . and it's true.  The food was good, they had an amazing entertainment system and the legroom in standard coach was more than adequate.  The chairs recline partially into your own space, but enough that it's the first decent sleep I've had on a plane since my 2006 trip to Europe.  Of course, my connection was in Dubai, which was using an impressive amount of water for this display.
I've also realized how privileged I am to be an English-speaker.  Everywhere I've gone in the world, airport signs were in the local language and English.  Egypt and Dubai?  Arabic and English. Japan? Japanese and English. France? French and English.  I can't imagine how much more difficult traveling would be if I couldn't read the signs or the departure boards.  Not to mention the large number of people globally who speak English as their primary second language.
Upon arriving in the Philippines, I quickly learned that the internet is not up to Western standards - the WiFi at my hotel didn't work two of the three nights I was there.   Even the WiFi card that I rented barely worked.  I also hadn't planned for a wait while they checked my room for additional charges.

Having said that, I enjoyed my time in Manila.  My first day was a visit with my sponsored teen.  The majority of the details on that day are on my blog for sponsor travels here:
Manila VisitHere is a photo of us together though.
I will say that sponsoring kids is one of my great joys though.  It's such a small amount ($32) to make such a difference for them!  In a country, Guatemala, where less than 10% finish high school and youth unemployment is unimaginably high, my first two teens are both employed high school grads. My Filipina is the first in her family to be in college also.  I like to spoil the whole family when I visit though!
My second day in Manila was spent on a tour with Philippines Tours and Holidays.  The guide is originally from Europe, but married a Filipina and moved here several years ago.  We went to the American Cemetery first, which is soldiers who died in WWII.  When you see the massive walls of names, you can begin to understand why, at the time, the US thought dropping a couple bombs and ending the war was a good idea.  More, you wonder why the world keeps fighting endless pointless wars.
It's sad to know 50% of the globe lives in poverty, sadder still that it means each of us who aren't only need to help one person to end it.  Think how peaceful the world could be if we treated everyone as equal human beings and traded fairly for the things they had that we wanted?  You can't help but notice the disparity in income levels present here.
The weather was not cooperative, so the views of the bay were ok, but a little hazy, so we headed to the park earlier.  I was unaware of José Rizal before, but he's a national hero in the Philippines - he's even on the one peso coin, "because everyone can have one peso" as my guide told me.  Rizal was an advocate for better rights for Filipinos during Spanish colonization and supported women fighting for their rights.  He was falsely accused of been part of a violent rebellion and executed. 
The rest of the park is a little more peaceful, with the Japanese and Chinese Gardens and other areas we didn't make it to because my knee decided it was time for a break!
 We were off to Intramurus then!  This is the old Spanish walled city.  We went to the Fort first, where they're constructing a new lovely plaza, but you still have access to the old ruins, which were heavily damaged in WWII.
 This section is still original, but some areas were rebuilt with red brick after the war - not the best idea, but it's interesting to get a feel for the design of the fort.  There's also a museum about Rizal.  We then saw two famous churches in the area - I somehow missed a photo of the first, but did get a quick photo of the San Agustin church. 
It appears that the same five guys who built many of the churches in France also had relatives building them here!  There are clearly shared features and they hold their own in comparison, although not as ornate as Austrian churches.

The nice thing about a private tour is that you can customize, so the early departure from the park resulted in a tour of an old Spanish colonial house instead.
It was a lovely tour and more like spending a day with local friends than a formal tour.  The company will customize tours and even multi -day trips, which sounds like a great plan for a return trip!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

French Banking vs. American Banking

Contrary to my love of most things French, I am not a fan of French banking (so I'll share photos of German food with you today).  
Here are the key differences:

  • Online-Only Banks: They exist; however, they're not accessible for Americans.  You can't submit the IRS-required proof of your social security number for FATCA, so this is a no-go.
  • (No) Free Banking: There is no such thing as free banking in France, at least that I've been able to find.  Sure, you might be able to get a basic account for free . . . with no bank card . . . and potentially no checks?  So, if you can live strictly on cash payments and wire transfers, you're good to go.  Otherwise, get used to paying a fee.
  • Account Withdrawal Limits: There are limits on virtually everything that involves your bank card.  If you didn't receive your PIN for TWO MONTHS like me, then have a lot of things to buy due to an International move, your card will simply stop working.    There is also a limit on cash withdrawals.  I could only guess at the other limits, but I don't seem to have hit them yet . . . you do begin to understand why people still pay for groceries and gas with CHECKS though.  If you hit the limits, you then have to contact your personal banker to raise the limit.
  • Personal Banker: Which brings me to the next item - you will have a personal banker.  Mine seemed very nice and friendly at first, even helping me largely in English (which, considering the bank advertises itself as having English-speaking services, is not that surprising).  Since then, he's been a total pain in my butt.  Primarily, I suspect that it is not his fault, but all of these ridiculous rules that France seems to have . . . however, when I again couldn't use my card and requested an appointment to resolve the issue, no appointment was ever made.  It was finally fixed, without the documentation I was told was MANDATORY, after I threatened to close my account if it wasn't resolved within 24 hours.  My card is AGAIN not working consistently (and not at all for online purchases) and his response was completely unhelpful.  He also ignores any communication I send in English . . . why advertise your bank as serving the needs of English-speakers if my banker will refuse to communicate in that language?
  • Paperwork: You will spend 90 minutes signing your life away just to open a bank account.  You will then receive notifications roughly every other day that some other random thing has been sent to your online message system.
  • Even More Paperwork: Forget about opening an account without proof of address.  I you're lucky, like me, you can provide the insurance attestation (it's good enough for the prefecture to issue a Residence Card, so it should be good enough for the bank) . . BUT, when you move and provide the updated attestation, be prepared for them to tell you that this is not adequate proof of address.  Really?!?  It's adequate proof for immigration purposes, but not banking?  When you then inquire if a water bill is adequate, you'll be told that only an electric bill is sufficient and it needs to be sent within the month . . . for a utility that only sends a bill every two months.  I wish that I were joking.
  • Interest: You can pretty much forget about any sort of interest-bearing account.  The banker opened something for me called a "savings" account, but the only purpose appears to be to stick 30 Euro in there to reduce my monthly maintenance fee.
  • Credit Cards: From what I've seen, a French credit card comes with insanely high interest rates and no grace period, so you're charged interest from the day of purchase.  While this still seemed like a good deal with the discount it would get me on the purchase, PB warned me that they come with all sorts of fees and generally should be avoided.  There does not seem to be credit cards of the US variety, where you have no annual fee and can collect points . . . so that my US card actually pays me for using it.
    • Credit Score: This could be because there are no credit scores in France.  It seems that you're extended credit solely on the basis of your income.  If you fail to pay something, it's also unclear if there is any actual recourse for them to collect the money (probably just the court system)
  • (Lack of) English-Speaking Services: Even the bank that advertised itself as having English-speaking services apparently just meant it has a single English-speaking phone line.  Once you open the account, your online portal, all documents, etc will be in French.  You may, like me, have a personal banker who refuses to respond to English messages.  While I am working on learning French, banking is a pretty complex topic and CRITICAL to understand, so the lack of ACTUAL English-speaking services is a serious challenge.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Friendship and Dating in France

I'm in Germany this week, but I finally feel like I'm adapting to French friendship and dating.  Last weekend was the best weekend that I've had since I arrived in France - it was the perfect mix of fun with a new person, plus great food (see below) and great conversations with existing friends.
There are some serious adjustments that you have to make when you come to France though.  For example, French men will convey a level of emotion that is just not common with American men . . . unless you're seriously dating or have been friends for a very, very long time.  They will say things like, "You should have known that I will take care of you.  I will always take care of you if I can," or "I don't want to have distance between us" or they will tell you that they care about you and they just want to take care of you until you feel better.  And it's all completely platonic.

They will, however, accuse other French men of liking you . . . for the exact same behavior that they themselves exhibit.😉
At first, this will drive you slightly crazy as an American.  You'll keep reminding yourself that French men are normally VERY obvious if they like you (from what your female French friend told you) and these odd displays of sentiment don't necessarily mean what they would in the US.  You'll occasionally feel slightly put off, like the relationship is bordering on "too much" and wonder if you're going to have to end the friendship.  At some point though, they've stayed safely in the "friend zone" long enough that it just becomes one of those endearing traits of your French male friends.

You'll also learn that French men loathe it when a woman in their life appears to be mad at them or upset with them.  Rather than high-tailing it away from a woman who shows emotion, it seems to launch them into a full campaign to win you back over.  And, for me at least, it's virtually impossible to stay mad at, or upset with, somebody who will not stop acting silly, giving me big puppy dog eyes and calling me "Broooouuuuuk" until they finally get me to smile at them.  I think the only possible way to stay mad at a Frenchman is to refuse to speak to him, look at him or even be in the same room with him.  Otherwise, he will use literally everything that he knows about you to find SOME way to convince you to forgive him.
As for female French friends, my first one moved out of the area for a job, although I plan to visit her in her new town now!  I have a couple of co-workers who may become friends, but people seem to be very cautious here about friendships with colleagues.  Other than that, I've found it more challenging to get women to exchange conversation or to agree to repeated plans.  I did recently find a woman looking to learn better English though, so I've been enjoying our conversations.

This week went exceptionally well for work and I'm visiting friends this weekend, so I'll be back with a German edition next week!