Monday, September 27, 2010

Reward Points

Monday Memories today. An article from this same time last year. As I read this article, it was fun to compare my hopes last year to this year's reality. I spent the weekend with my girls in the Camargue this weekend. I DID discuss the nuances of a recipe with the man who made our fabulous seafood dinner. I DID make plans for the next outing with my 3 friends, and I DID understand one joke. One out of ten ain't bad! Next year, I will tell one. And I'm signing my lease for a second year this week. If I can get the damned landlord to actually put down his Pastis long enough to install a heater.

I move to my new apartment tomorrow. I am restless, and anxious. …and so excited that I am turning circles. It’s a big apartment, about 645 square feet, it has a kitchen with a regular sized refrigerator, a real oven, and even a dishwasher. It’s completely furnished and the furniture is …well…let’s just say it’s not my old down and leather furniture but it's one step up from college student furniture. It has 2 windows in the bedroom, 1 in the kitchen and 1 in the living room. The apartment itself is on the 3rd floor but it’s a duplex, which means it’s situated on 2 floors, which puts my bedroom and ….ta da…. my terrace…. on the top floor of the building.

Having a private terrace on the top floor might possibly make me the luckiest woman in Aix en Provence. Okay, I know another woman with the same feature (and far larger) but she is paying a whole lot more for her bliss. I can't even imagine how much because I'm paying a fortune.

The new place is great but what excites me the most, and makes me the happiest and the most tranquil, is that this is my place for at least a year. I’ve signed a lease, bought the insurance that is necessary, negotiated the contract and for the first time in 3 years, I have a permanent place to live. A place to unpack my few belongings. A space that I have no immediate plans to leave. An apartment that I cannot be removed from at a moment’s notice. A nest.

My friends were a little astounded (or maybe not) that I had signed for a year. The original plan was that I would come to France for a year, get it out of my system, and return to the U.S. and start a new life in a new city. What that life was going to be, I had no idea. But that was the plan. Well, plans change. I mean really, what person in their right mind would actually leave the Mediterranean and return to Minnesota in the middle of January!

So I’m here…. indefinitely.

Yesterday my young, British friend, Simon and I were having a conversation about our first days in France and how one proceeds through the often desperately lonely and very frustrating obstacle course of acclimating yourself to a foreign country. We were having this conversation while he was here attempting to teach me the proper pronunciation of French phonemes. We discussed the reasons why we have both spent so much time in the dark, not understanding conversation or culture and how often we asked ourselves “what the hell am I doing here?” The reasons are a story unto themselves but the fact is, he has done it, and I’m in the process.

And as Simon said, you spend the first years learning what you need to know, going through the work and the pain of becoming a part of a new, strange place, and when you’ve finally reached the comfort zone you do what? Go home???

That’s like losing 50 pounds and never buying fabulous clothes to show off your new body. It’s like spending a day cooking your favorite meal and throwing it in the garbage before you eat it. It’s like giving all your Christmas presents back before you open them... working a new job for a year and then leaving before you receive your bonus check... accumulating credit card reward points and never using them.

I cannot leave France before I cash in my points. And I imagine what I will receive with those points. I envision a lovely long dinner with friends, in the French fashion. It will be a beautiful, early-September evening and the arbor under which we are sitting will be laden  with dark, ripe grapes.  We will begin with aperitifs and I will ask my hostess how her son is doing in Paris and where she found that beautiful antique desk I spotted in her living room. She will tell me a funny story about finding it in an alley next to the garbage in a little village near Toulouse and I will laugh because I too am a garbage digger and we’ll make plans to go on a furniture finding mission.

Then we’ll all sit down to dinner, toast each other’s health with a lovely bottle of white wine and begin the seafood appetizer. One man will tell a hysterical joke and I will not only understand the words, but I will comprehend the nuances of french humor enough to know why the others find it so funny. And I will genuinely laugh.

The main course will begin with a new bottle, a nice, round, red this time, and we’ll dig into our pasta with a fabulous sauce that I know I must try to make. I will ask for the recipe and the hostess will tell me it’s so simple and will rattle off the recipe by heart. I will understand everything, and write the recipe (in French) in my little notebook. The conversation will remind me of a joke I heard last week and I will actually recount the joke and the others will laugh uproariously.

By the time the cheese course arrives, I’ll be telling a story about my first days in France and how I sat through so many similar parties but couldn’t participate. They will tell similar stories and we will commiserate and complain, and laugh some more.

Three or four hours later, while we are drinking our tiny cups of dark, rich coffee 3 other women and I will make plans for a trip to the beach next Saturday…with a little shopping thrown in on the way there.

Finally, at 1 AM, we will all kiss goodnight, I will invite a few people to my house for lunch next month, and we will all go our separate ways. And I will know that I’ve finally gotten my new clothes…. I’m finally opening my gifts.

That will be the reward. The work is good, when you can get it…. and I have!  But the bonus check...the reward points...are going to rock!


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Top It Off

I HATE fall. Sorry to all of you who love the smell, the colors, the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet.

Those leaves that you're trodding upon are in a state of rigor mortis, the color is that of leaves and plants that can no longer get the proper temperatures, nutrition or sunlight,  and the smell is DEATH! Oh, goody. A cheerful post!

I can't help it. Autumn always gets me in a funk. I'm not in a funk yet, but I can smell it coming and am glad I've got school starting next week to keep me preoccupied. So, in my state of denial I'm going to keep talking about summer. And beaches. Sun, the color blue, and life giving water.

And so, you ask, what’s the deal with topless sunbathing in the south of France? Okay, maybe you didn’t ask. But I write about life in France. And spent 3 days at the beach the last week in August in order to fend off the impending, unwelcome days of autumn. So even if you didn’t ask, you’re going to hear about it anyway!

Yep, southern France is the land of topless sunbathing. It exists in other countries in Europe as well, but apparently France, southern France in particular, began the trend in the late 1960’s. On any given day at the beach, you will see women of all ages sunbathing sans top. All ages, all body types, all stages of beauty. They might just sunbath topless, but many walk topless, swim topless, eat ice cream topless, or chat with friends topless.

This is what I observed around me the last day I spent at the beach at Carry de Rouet.

Behind me, under a tree sat a 30- something, thin, attractive woman reading her book…topless. Next to me, tanning and talking sat two women, both in their 60’s, not so thin, not so attractive and clad only in their monokinis. A family strolled in front of me searching for sea creatures…husband, wife (topless) and child…. bucket and net in hand. Off to my left a group of men and women, a club of snorklerers I believe, stood chatting about the things they had seen on their earlier excursion. Two of the women involved in the conversation were bottom-clad only…the rest were in full bikinis. Several couples nearby lounged and picnicked, some old …some young. Several of the women in these duos were topless. And of course, scattered among all of them, were women wearing their entire ensemble.  I might add, that all the men on the beach were topless!

And so you say, (or maybe you didn’t) the beaches must be ripe with 14 to whatever-age gawkers, combing the beach, not for seashells but for sneak peaks. Well I’m here to tell you (whether you asked or not) that this just isn’t the case.  I’ve had plenty of time to observe beach behavior.

As people walk by…. children, adults, grandparents and great-grandparents…not a second look is taken. In the group of snorklers, nobody’s eyes were involuntarily wandering away from a face and taking in the titty topography. The husbands of the women baring their chests were not glancing around in embarrassment, or attempting to shield their uppity, half-naked women from view. Groups of young boys were not perched on the rocks, passing a pair of binoculars among them. Nope, just another day on the beach.

And then you might ask, why do they do it? Good question. I believe it began in the 60’s as part of the women’s movement. You know “free the breast and you’ll be free” sort of thing. Perhaps that was the case then but it is no longer. Some say they don’t like tan lines. But most say it just feels great. The beach is a place to relax and be free of the confines of daily life, which includes bras. And I’ve got to say, they’re completely right. It just feels good. Remember the first time you went skinny dipping? Absolutely glorious!

The French aren’t nearly so puritan as the Americans when it comes to this partial state of undress. Their advertisements and billboards can include a bare breast without a second glance…. except by maybe and 18-year-old American student who’s just arrived in France to study language, history and…. women. You will see this on TV as well and nobody thinks it’s unusual. The French would never dream of spending $8000 of taxpayers money to cover the bare breasts of a Lady Justice statue as has happened in the United States. When I ask them about this attitude, which is so different from that in my country, they reply simply…it’s just natural. What’s the big deal? I have to agree with them. What’s the big deal?

The trend is changing however, and more and more younger women are choosing to sunbath bi rather than mono. This has caused a bit of a stir in the media in recent years. I mean, my goodness, what is HAPPENING in France? And the reports say that younger women consider the practice passé…out of style…. only for the old folks. Some site health concerns, some say it’s a growing trend toward prudishness, and others claim it’s the younger generations reaction to today’s insistence on perfection. Whatever the reason, it’s true. Most of the women on the beach who have chosen to soak up the sun on more square inches of their personal real estate are over 40 or 50. And like most of us at this age, we’ve stopped giving a rip about the latest fashion. Which is just as freeing as going topless!

So, for me the question is not whether or not topless is good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, liberating or just sexual, passé or fashionable. The Real Question…the one I still can’t figure out…is….

What’s the deal with all these Speedos on the beach in southern France?

By the way...I'm not including any topless photos (ok, you might be able to find one!).  I don't need any more problems with spammers.


Monday, September 20, 2010


I am going to keep doing these Monday Memories posts, even though some think they're confusing. Come on...this is simple! I wrote this a year ago at this very same time. This year, I'm in my own apartment and my biggest noise problem is the bruyant girlfriend of my neighbor. But that is today, this article was then.

French Word of the Day
Bruit: noise 
Bruyant: noisy 

I decided long ago that I would always live in a University town. There’s just something about the energy that a college brings to a city; the exuberance and the life that the students contribute as well as all the cool stuff that University offers the community. You, educational forums, musical parties!

I bought my first house in a college neighborhood and really loved it there. Of course, there were people my age and elderly people as well as the students but I loved how we all lived together. It wasn't white bread. It was a club sandwich with dark bread, light bread, aged cheese, spicy sausage, sweet tomatoes and some some piquant mustard that often would make my eyes water. And really tasty.

Sure, there are always problems.  For instance the night the students cut down my elderly neighbor’s’ evergreen to use for a Christmas tree.  It was a rotten thing to do but certainly not the norm and when we moved from Chippewa Street to “suburbia” I was sure I would die of boredom.  Luckily the new baby that arrived just after the move did a thorough job of preventing that little problem but I always wanted to move back down into “college land.”

When it was time to make a decision about what city in France I was actually going to move to, I had no problem selecting the region. I had been to Provence before and knew it was where I wanted to return.  But after that, it was just a crapshoot. I chose 3 towns that began with the letter A (it seemed a good place to start) and then did a little research.   After learning that Aix en Provence was not only beautiful and cultured but also had a large University presence (1/3 of the population is students), I decided this was the place for me. Finally!

But let me digress just a little.  When I lived in “college land” in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I had 4 insulated walls and insulated windows, a yard and a fence, and a wide street that distanced me from my neighbors. Not enough to prevent a morning chat but enough for privacy and peace.  The students would often have parties and I spent many a morning picking up beer cups that seemed to procreate in my yard (for that matter, so did the students...well maybe they didn't procreate but they did copulate... under my pine tree) but it was never enough to get too worked up about.

However, because my apartment won't be ready until October 1st, I am now I am staying with French boyfriend in the central part of the city, 2 blocks from 2 Universities, in a building that is at least 400 years old and all that separates us from the neighbors is a floor, a ceiling, a wall, a street the width of a European car, and a couple of very old and very large windows.

The students have returned for the fall and I don’t think they have much to do right now because the parties begin on Wednesday night.  And believe me, when you live this close together, the party might as well be happening in your own living room. If two apartments across the street from each other are partying simultaneously, the revelers can chat (or shriek...this form of communication is saved for after 2 in the morning when the music has become so loud they can’t hear each other) out the windows, pass each other beverages and pretend the rest of us don’t exist. And of course, they only choose to do this when I have to be up at 6 am.   Actually, I will be up at 6 am no matter what because the street cleaners live elsewhere and have obviously gotten plenty of sleep. They are hell bent on getting that street done by 6:30 and they have to shout at each other as well to be heard above the gushing water. 

And if we’re really, really lucky, by Saturday night the students are either exhausted or in some other poor sucker’s neighborhood. However, we are also above a restaurant run by Sicilians. They don’t talk.... they yell. In fact, at first I thought they were constantly mad at each other until I heard them talking affectionately to a child in the same manner.  So they yell before dinner as they’re preparing the evening’s menu, they yell at the customers throughout dinner and afterwards, and when it’s 2 am and all the diners have gone home and are sleeping soundly in their homes somewhere outside the city, they sit down for a little vino and a yell fest.

I guess I can’t blame my bad humor and baggy eyes on just college students so I will continue to believe in their good qualities. But something has to be done about this before I collapse in my croissant!

So I went to the pharmacy to purchase earplugs yesterday.  I didn’t know what they were called so I asked for some bouchons des l’oreilles, which translates to “cork for your ears” and the woman knew exactly what I needed. I’m obviously not the first to ask because they had stacks of them.  I bought a lovely box with a set in 3 different colors, because if I’m going to be having parties with beautiful, young, French strangers practically in my living room, and dark, handsome Italians just below my window, I want to make sure my earplugs match my shoes. 

Hey! What do you mean, you don't think this is me? Of course its me! I'm wearing my red earplugs, you just can't see them.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Putting the Summer to Bed

I just woke up from a very long nap and I’m still a wee bit groggy. My little sister just left France to return to Minnesota after a two-week visit. She was the final visitor of the summer season.  That is both the good and the bad thing about living in a place like Provence.  I have not been lonely, that is for sure. I haven’t had the chance. The steady stream of visitors began in May, most stayed for 2 weeks, I had maybe 2 weeks in between them and I… am…. truly…. exhausted. But oh my goodness, thanks to them and their visits, I’ve had a hell of a summer!

I have hiked in Italy, gotten lost and lost someone in Monaco, antique shopped in Isle sur le Sorgue, 

lunched in Loumarin, lazed on the beaches of Carry le Rouet, Bandol and Cassis, dined street-side in St. Tropez (and also examined all the enormous yachts in the harbor… I think my future husband owns one of them), drank both coffee and absinthe in Antibes, 

swam in the turquoise waters of Lac du St. Croix,

 and wandered the rows and rows of purple lavender in Valensole. 

 I’ve driven the Route des Crêtes that snakes its breathtaking way along the highest maritime cliffs in Europe and traveled the rim of the Gorge de Verdun, one of the most beautiful river canyons in Europe.

I’ve learned how perfume is made in Grasse and bought my first REAL bottle. I’ve felt the thrill (and terror) of the enormous fighting bulls running down the streets of Arles and St. Marie sur le Mer, 

I’ve been horseback riding in the Carmargue and spied on the flocks of pink flamingos as they graze (do flamingos actually graze?) in the wetlands. 

I’ve watched the white Camarguaise horses galloping freely through the salty grasslands. 

I have visited the bird market in Paris 

and sat entranced before the brilliant yet transparent colors of the enormous Water Lily paintings of Monet at Le Musée de l’Orangerie.

 I have tipped a glass of red on the stairs of Montmartre

and sipped champagne in the cool shade of a friend’s grape arbor. I’ve attended concerts in vineyards and castles and even a grand circus in the country yard of a friend.

I have eaten fat, warm grapes from the vine and figs from the trees. 

I’ve savored wild boar and bouillabaisse and can now eat a fish with the head still attached.  I’ve been taught to make a mean mussel mouclade and I’ve even learned to almost like chèvre.

I have learned to drive like a true French person and finally become somewhat skilled in the fine art of both being charming and being charmed (and that this does not apply while driving!). I’ve learned to barter at the market and joke around in French. I’ve learned that the French bureaucracy will always be aggravation-times-ten but I’ve learned (and will continue to learn) how to get what I want through the back door…. like a native.

 I now know that it’s cheaper to rent a car through U.S. websites but more economical to buy a train ticket through a French website. And that hostels are a perfectly acceptable place to stay…if I don’t mind being 30 years older than the rest of the guests (which I don’t).

I’ve visited with old friends and made new ones. I’ve ended relationships and begun fresh ones. I now know that if I ever date again, le monsieur must understand “girls night”.

I’ve locked myself out of my hotel room after-hours and filled up a friend’s diesel consuming car with regular gas (oops!). I have had not one single run-in with the French police or crazy Frenchwomen.  And I have not had enough sleep!

So today, I’m washing the beach towels and putting them away, returning the last rental car of the summer, writing this article and finishing my test for my courses at the University, which starts in two weeks. And after a brief babysitting stint this afternoon (this should be interesting…French 3-year-old cared for by a 51-year-old American who speaks French like a 2-year-old), I’m going to sleep for a very long time.

There were times this summer when I really wondered why I continue to invite endless summer guests to my little section of heaven (and sometimes hell). But the time eventually comes, like today, when I know exactly why. 

My big thank you to all who have taken their time this summer to make my life richer.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

School Daze

It has come to my attention that my Monday Memories articles are confusing. In fact, sometimes I confuse myself. Particulary when I post them on Tuesday instead of Monday. So here's how it goes. Monday Memories means I wrote the article a year ago...during my first year in France. I was writing them for a newspaper back home but I think they tell a fun story. So I use them. Today's article is a Monday Memory. On Tuesday. Tomorrow's will be real time. If I can manage to get myself back on REAL TIME.

Yesterday was my first day of school. I did not buy a new pencil box, fresh crayons or new shoes and I did not write my name and address on the inside label of my jacket. However, the night before I was nervous and excited and sleep was hard to come by. Some things just never change, I guess.

This is an intensive French course that I will attend for 4 hours each day, 5 days per week for 12 weeks.  I took one French course when I first arrived. It was a course mainly for Au Pairs and others who are new to the country and need some basic French to get around. You know…. “How much is that tomato?”, “I would like 6 slices of beef tongue, please.”, “Do you have these shoes in a larger size that will actually fit a large person of Danish/German descent?” (Ok, they didn’t teach us that entire sentence), “Does this bus pass any vineyards with free tastings?”,  “Will you please speak more slowly?”, “I would like a coffee and a chocolate croissant please”, “No thank you, that is too expensive.”, and “Do you have any clothing in a color other than black?”

These are simple but important things.

They did not teach us to say,  “My Carte Bleu doesn’t work for the third time and I know there’s enough money in the account”. Or “My computer has been stolen off the bus and I really think the bus driver took it.”. Or  “I need insurance for my new apartment but I only need to cover damage to the structure caused by my own stupidity because, in fact, I have no real belongings.” Or “Please take the red wine back. It’s cold and the only reason you are serving it that way is because it’s cheap and you probably opened it 3 days ago.” Or  “No officer, I am not a thief and I did not steal those items. I would like to register both a harassment and a character defamation complaint.”

 These problems are not so simple and require a little more command of the language!

So yesterday I woke up at 6:30. Well, I got up at 6:30; I had actually been awake for a lot longer. I did a bit of verb conjugation study and headed to school for the 8:30 bell, exactly as my email instructed. When I got to the head of the line of students of all ages and nationalities, I was told I really didn’t need to be there until 9. I went for coffee, regurgitated the conjugations, and returned at 9. I was then informed that there had been an email error and today my class didn’t actually begin until 2. Oky dokey…. I’m used to this!

At 2 o’clock I sat down with my new class. There are 8 of us and we represent the same number of countries: Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Croatia, Finland, England and the United States. This was to be a day of testing so first we had to do an oral presentation about ourselves and ask and answer questions. Vreni, the woman from Switzerland who is “older” like me, began. She began rattling off French like a pro and the more she talked, the deeper I slid down into my straight-backed school chair. Uh oh! I think I’m in deep doo doo. It was my turn and I began my presentation by saying that I am quite sure I’m in the wrong class.  The teacher made me continue and I struggled through my story.

After I was finished, one of the girls in the class asked the Swiss woman and I if we should be addressed as “vous” or “tu”. Both of these words mean “you” but vous is the formal form and tu is familiar. Unless you are good friends, you should not address another person as tu unless you’ve asked to do so or if you’re in a familiar situation…like a classroom. But vous is also a sign of respect for someone of a greater station or someone who is older.  Since we are all students our station was obviously not the reason for the question! Vreni and I both laughed and assured them they could call us “tu” but deep down inside I wanted to knock off the head of that sweet, young thing!

Then we began the listening portion of the test. This one was not so difficult. You really only need to get the gist of the conversation which I’m now an expert at and I aced it! So maybe I’ll get demoted, maybe I won’t. But this ain’t going to be easy! Everything is taught in French and no English is allowed so I guess it’s sink or swim.

I’m getting ready for day two right now. It’s chilly out today so I have to get out a pair of jeans that I have not worn for 4 months. And I really don’t know which is worse. …Trying to squeeze this fall’s body into last year’s jeans or drowning in verb conjugations.  Either one is going to leave me gasping for breath, I’m sure.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Le Rentrée

This is my Monday memory for this week. Written this same time last year. Of course, it's not Monday...and it's not September 1. It's September 3rd, the day after this year's rentrée, and I'm...again...behind. Geez! This is supposed to be the time of the year when we get all our ducks in a row! However, I am at this very moment, sitting at sidewalk café in a lovely neighborhood in the 18th in Paris, sipping a café crême and waiting for my little sister to wake up. Yeppers...I spent my rentrée making the journey to Paris to meet my sister, Jennie, who will spend the next two weeks with me. My best friend. We have a few adventures lined up (well actually we have not one single plan but I'm sure some adventures will evolve) and if I can manage all these ducks, I will try to keep them in something that resembles a row.

Today is September 1, and we have now entered that special time of the year when everybody has returned from their holidays and school and work begin again in earnest. It’s such a big change that there is actually a term for it…la rentrée.  And if you say to someone “à la rentrée”, what you mean is “see you in September”. It specifically means the re-entry into the new school term but it has become a generic term for the beginning of almost everything. From what I’ve read, this is when politically rhetoric heats up again, all the new books are released, television shows and their time slots all change, new movies are released, and the stores are packed with parents and children positively loading up on school supplies. Yup, they’re all back and the tourists are filtering out.

And of course, as it is in the northern mid-west, the weather is changing. The nights are cooler and those days of energy-sapping heat are gone. In the country, the grape vines are heavy with fruit and you can see some of the vine leaves hinting at the impending color change. I picked blackberries and hazelnuts this weekend and was nearly killed by the fallen,slippery, over-ripe figs as I walked under my neighbor’s fig tree.

And so I begin my rentrée also. Sunday I signed a lease for my new apartment and I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. My own place for a whole year which means no more moving for a while. It’s more than I wanted to pay but this mid-western girl needs access to outside space and this place has a terrace! It won’t be ready for a few weeks and since I had to move out of the mansion yesterday, I will stay with friends until the big day.

My new computer arrived and so I’m back in the driver’s seat. The transfer of the information that I had so luckily backed up onto a portable hardrive the night before it was stolen went without a hitch and I feel like an old friend has returned. Just a few moments ago, I spent an hour talking on Skype to my boys. It was so great to see both of their faces and to spend as much time as I wanted talking to them about almost nothing.

I signed up for a semester of school and took my “entry test” last week. Believe it or not, I skipped one level since I was last in class and though, in fact, I probably should have progressed more, I’m still just a teeny bit proud.  So now I’ll be attending 4 classes each day, 5 days a week for 12 weeks. In French…. to learn to speak French.  Yikes!

It’s all a beginning…. again.  And that feels really good. And now I’m going to go dig some clothes out of whatever box they’re in, find my toothbrush and hairbrush, and go out to lunch. It’s time to celebrate. Here’s to a wonderful, exciting, and hopeful la rentrée!