Sunday, August 17, 2014

La dolce vita

We've been back from vacation a week now and I'm just getting around to writing about it.  Blame it on the post-vacation blues.  I really was not ready to return to reality after only one week of vacation and I'm jealous of the friends we were with who were on 3 or 4-week vacation sprees.  But at the same time I realize one week is certainly better than nothing so I can't complain too much.

Our vacation ended up being more of a whirlwind trip through the south of France and Italy but I still found some time to relax beachside.  We left Bordeaux on Friday night and drove out to the Arles area where we stayed the night.  On Saturday we visited the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue and Arles before continuing on to Nice where we were staying with a friend for two nights.

a lake and salt deposits in the Camargue

Les Arènes in Arles

a square in Arles

Les Arènes

While in Nice we went out in the old town, relaxed on our friend's balcony with his incredible view over the sea, enjoyed his pool and beached it in Antibes.  It's been years since I've been to Nice and I think I had forgotten how beautiful the area is.  Though it will never be my favorite city in France, the location is perfect as any French person will be quick to tell you.  On the sea and near the mountains...perfect for summertime water sports and winter skiing (though I personally do not ski).

out in Nice...a cocktail at the American bar our friend took us to

the view from our friend's apartment

the port in Antibes

Antibes

the beach and town of Antibes

Monday we headed off to Italy where we met our other friends at their apartment in a small beach resort town called Lido degli Scacchi on the Adriatic.  Their building is directly on the coast with its own private beach.  We spent two glorious days being as lazy as possible at the beach and then going out at night to enjoy delicious Italian foods and wines as well as a number of cocktails at different bars and clubs in the area.

a morning at the beach in Lido degli Scacchi

out for cocktails in Italy

our final afternoon at the beach in Lido degli Scacchi

Lionel and I drove up to Venice for the day on Thursday since it was only an hour and a half away and Lionel had never been.  It's been ten years since my last trip to Venice and I had forgotten how magnificent, romantic and charming the city is.  We got an early start and then wore ourselves out spending the entire day exploring Venice on foot.  Originally we planned to take a vaporetto from the train station to Piazza San Marco but after seeing the line to buy tickets we decided we would just walk.  In the end it was a great idea. We were really able to explore a lot of Venice on foot that way, winding our way through the city, and we knew we would keep going because our final destination was Piazza San Marco.  Lionel couldn't go to Venice and not see Piazza San Marco! On the way we got lost along the tiny streets, alleys and canals of Venice but made sure to check out the highlights such as the Canal Grande and the Ponte di Rialto.  We also stopped to see almost every church on our way.  Once we made it to San Marco we decided to continue on, all the way to the Arsenale di Venezia. Originally we thought we would walk all the way back to the train station along a different route, but at the point we were so exhausted that we decided to catch the vaporetto and at least see a little of Venice from the water as well.  And it was definitely worth it!  We had a great day in Venice, except one little mishap. Half way through the day I may or may not have very stupidly slipped on a step and ended up halfway in a canal, in a white skirt.  My skirt was stained and drenched and we could say that more than just my ego was bruised.  Not exactly the way one dreams of strolling around such a stunning city but I tried to make the best of it and enjoy the rest of the day.

the Canal Grande

wandering around Venice

the Canal Grande and Ponte di Rialto in the background

view of the Canal Grande from the Ponte di Rialto

a canal and gondolas

Piazza San Marco

view of San Giorgio Maggiore

Our final day in Italy was Friday and we, of course, spent it soaking up some more sun on the beach. Saturday we headed back to Nice, hoping to make it in early enough to hit the beach for a few hours.  But, alas, traffic near the French boarder was not in our favor and it took us about 3 hours longer than expected to make it back.  We spent one last night in Nice and on Sunday we made the long drive back to Bordeaux which was, surprisingly, traffic jam free.

Probably the most disappointing part of the trip, at least for me, was realizing just how badly my Italian has suffered from lack of use in the past 7 years since I finished studying in Rome.  I mean obviously I know it is easy to forget a language when you don't use it and I knew it would be nowhere near as good as it once was, but still I didn't expect it to be quite as bad as it was.  I could barely even manage to get my mouth to form a coherent sentence, though my brain seemed at least somewhat up to the task.  Guess I should see this as motivation get out my old books and start studying!

It was quite the trip but just what I needed!  Definitely much more relaxing than my trip to the US in June, the weather was perfect and we had a blast with our friends!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

FATCA

The realities of being an American expat abroad really hit home yesterday when I looked over my newly arrived bank statement and read the important note it contained:


FATCA.  The dreaded "agreement" between pretty much every country in the world and the USA to force banks in other countries to share the information of any bank account belonging to an American citizen or resident in an effort to "prevent" tax evasion.  For those Americans abroad who somehow haven't heard about this law or its effects on the banking world, or for those who don't know much about it, I suggest you do a brief internet search for more information.  I would provide links here but I am in a hurry, sitting in a McDonalds shortly before closing because we lost internet in a storm on Friday and still haven't gotten it back.  It's been a true delight for someone working from home..

Anyway, back to FATCA.  I first really heard about and read up on this law last year and have been dreading its implementation and uncertain consequences ever since.  So far I've remained hopeful as La Banque Postale hadn't informed me that they were closing my bank account, and as I didn't hear anything for so long, I started to forget about FATCA.  Until I got my bank statement in the mail and saw the note informing me that American citizens would be required to provide information about their "situation" to the bank as a result of this overreaching law.  Sigh.  Still, I suppose I should be thankful I still have an account.  Now we just have to decide how to handle Lionel's situation...should he still be considered an American "person" because of the 10-year green card he had received?  Or would the US have cancelled his green card by now?  The dilemmas...I guess we will make a final decision if La Banque Postale contacts him regarding his American "personhood." 

Though I honestly have much much much more to say about FATCA, its impact and my thoughts and feelings on it, I unfortunately don't have the time.  Not to mention I will be on vacation all of next week in Italy with friends and certainly won't have any time to blog.  So, I leave you with this parting question...what are your thoughts/feelings on FATCA and have you been affected by it yet?  And maybe when I get back (assuming I have internet by then) I will do a follow up post on FATCA (and this is where I imagine all my readers will run away screaming in terror because isn't the world of international banking just oh so interesting).

Bonne vacances!


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My thoughts on Canada

Though my friends and I were only in Ontario for a short time, and for a wedding nonetheless, leaving us with very little time to explore the area, we did walk away from the experience with a number of impressions stuck firmly in our minds.  With this post I don't intend to step on any international feet, offend anyone, judge an entire country based on a very short trip or otherwise feed stereotypes or risk insulting anyone.  I just want to share some over our overall observations and impressions from our short time in Canada, more for the sake of discussion and for memories than as a means to analyze and evaluate an entire country and it's people.

So, what were my overall thoughts and impressions after my trip?

1.  Canadians are SOOOOO nice.  It's just unbelievable really.  The stereotype about Canadians being extremely polite is definitely true, at least in my experience.  Laura, Delaware and I were just floored by how welcoming, open and kind everyone was.  They didn't even know us and were willing to bend over backwards to make us feel comfortable and at home...lending us their phones and GPS when we needed to find a supermarket, their homes for impromptu pool parties, running out to the store to pick up burgers, beer, etc, letting Delaware borrow some items he had forgotten, always checking to see if anyone else needed a drink or anything else, worrying about our experience with border control, making every effort to talk to us and make sure we were having a good time in their country.  The list just goes on and on.  It was amazing!  Canadians must be the nicest people on earth.  Makes me kind of ashamed to be American; we are not nearly as warm, welcoming and friendly as our neighbors up north.

2.  The border crossing was much easier than I expected.  Just goes to show you can't believe everything you hear.  I had no issues driving into Canada despite the fact that I couldn't even correctly answer the first question the border control officer asked me.  He asked where I lived and I said Ohio (because that was where I was coming from) then had to correct myself to France.  And rather than harass me because of it he just asked a few other questions (how long I was staying, why I was coming, what I was bringing with me) and let me go on my way.  Very simple and straightforward and the entire process, from getting into line to driving away only took about 5 minutes.  On the way back out we got a few more questions, but it was also very quick and painless (and I remembered where I lived that time).

3.  While Americans are known for being perhaps overly patriotic and displaying American flags nearly everywhere (and much of the rest of the world likes criticize us for this), I did notice quite a few Canadian flags (though nothing like in the US) like this one at the entrance to the supermarket:


Seems they might have a bit of patriotic pride as well!  Though not as overwhelmingly so as Americans.

4.  I love that everything is in French and English!  It is so much fun and I find myself, as an American, being somewhat jealous of that bilingual tradition.  It was just really cool to see street signs, labels, products, almost everything in both languages.

5.  Canadian roads are very nice to drive on and much more similar to the US than Europe.  I was much less stressed than I am driving in France, and after making it through Windsor I was able to just sit back and cruise along without a worry.  Everything is well indicated, the roads are in good condition, the drivers aren't crazy.  It was just nice.  Except the speed limit - 100 km/hour is far too slow for highway driving!  Especially for such a large country!

6.  Canada is more expensive than the US.  I was surprised by the cost for a number of different things.  Gas overall cost more (not surprising), but not nearly as much as in Europe, but various foods and drinks were more than I expected.

7.  Tim Horton's literally is everywhere!  Trying to get into the Canadian spirit, I stopped at one in Michigan for dinner before crossing the border, but as soon as you step foot into Canada you can't help but find a Tim Horton's.  And they really do love that place!  We ended up stopping at the Tim Horton's near Marybeth's for coffee before heading back to the US.  We just felt obligated to go at least once while we were there.

8.  All Dressed/Assaisonnées chips are incredible.  And that is what happens when you set three Americans loose in a Canadian grocery store.  They make discoveries.  Once we saw the bag we just had to buy them out of curiosity.  And they are very, very good and extremely dangerous.


9.  Everyone really does say "eh."  All the time.  It's kinda adorable.

10.  I like that the culture, while similar to that of the US, is still quite different in many ways.  I was afraid that everything would be like in the US and so was pleasantly surprised that there are quite a few differences, more than I expected.  It was just enough to make it quite clear that we were not in the US, while also not being overwhelming.

All in all my impressions were quite positive, as I expected them to be, and I hope to have the opportunity to return to Canada one day to do some more exploring and visit with friends.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Canada

I'm finally getting around to posting about my trip to Ontario for my friend's wedding while I was in the US.  Admittedly the only other time I have ever been to Canada was during two prior trips to Niagara Falls when I was much, much younger.  So I wasn't really sure what to expect.  Plus I was driving up from Cincinnati with no real knowledge of Canadian roads or rules, so I was a little nervous.  And I was even more nervous about the boarder crossing.  But it didn't matter because I was looking very forward to my friend, Marybeth's, wedding and to having the opportunity to catch up with some other friends as well.  We are all friends from back in our assistant days in Paris, and the last time we had all seen each other was at my friend, Laura's, wedding two years ago.  So I knew that, no matter how nervous I was about the trip up, the wedding and the entire weekend were going to be a blast.  And I was right!

I'm going to split my Canada trip into two posts so first, the wedding and the weekend with friends and then I'll do a second post about my impressions of Canada.  Since I was driving up on the Friday night from Cincinnati after a full day of work, I didn't end up arriving at the wedding location (where we were staying the night before the wedding as well) until about midnight.  The second I stepped out of the car I was almost knocked over by my assistant friends, Marybeth, Laura and Delaware (actually named Rob but we always call him Delaware).  And the fun began.  I FINALLY got to meet the groom and we all stayed up late with some of their close friends and the bridal party catching up, getting to know one another, goofing off, drinking and just having a good old Canadian time.

The following day was the wedding day and we helped with some of the setup and preparations and then just took it easy (i.e. drank with some of the others who were not in the wedding and therefore not needed for photos) until it was time for the ceremony.  They held the wedding at an outdoor recreation area in Paris, Ontario and the location was beautiful.  The spot where they had the ceremony was surrounded by trees and the sun was shining while they said their vows.  Overall a very nice ceremony, not too long but not overly short, and Marybeth's mother officiated.

 the ceremony

After the ceremony we had some free time before the cocktail hour and reception and they had a bunch of activities set up all over the grounds to keep their guests entertained.  Of course, we didn't really check any of those out, we just met up with a bunch of the people we had met the night before and continued with the drinking festivities! I swear, this group of friends really brings out the alcoholic in me.  Sometimes I think it might be a good thing we don't see each other very often.  At one point (I think it may have been the bride who originally brought it up, but then she took off) the idea of drinking games was introduced, and somehow we ended up playing flip cup and the mother of the bride even joined in.  Finally, after a few too many rounds of boys vs. girls flip cup (and the girls kicked butt!) it was time for the rest of the festivities to begin and we headed over to congratulate the happy couple, grab a drink and sign the guest list in the cabin where the bar was located before finding seats and snacks in the reception tent.  They had a slideshow set up with photos of their lives, including far too many embarrassing photos of us all and our adventures as assistants in Paris, which made for quite the laugh.  A delicious dinner of barbeque ribs was served (I would have been terrified to eat that in my wedding dress so props to Marybeth) and afterwards the dancing started.  And we danced a lot.  In fact, I danced the most I probably ever have in my life.  I was a veritable dancing queen!  Finally the formal reception started to die down, the dancing ended and most of the guests left.  Those of us who had booked a cabin at the wedding location, however, were treated to another surprise - midnight snacks and a late night campfire complete with smores!  We all stayed up chatting, drinking and being merry until the wee hours of the morning.  I think when Laura, Delaware and I finally tucked ourselves into bed in our little cabin the sun was starting to come up.  Overall it was very good times and one of the best weddings I've been to, country theme and all!

 Laura, Marybeth and I before the reception

 Delaware, Laura, Marybeth and I

 The first dance as a married couple!  I'm so glad I finally got to meet her husband...I've heard about him for years but he never made it out to visit Paris and he unfortunately had to miss Laura's wedding two years ago as well.

The following day we woke up in time for the buffet breakfast and mimosas, helped with some of the cleanup, then headed over to Marybeth's new mother-in-law's house for a relaxing day at her pool.  We hauled some of the left over food and booze with us and all just took it easy, enjoying the sun and warm weather while lounging around the pool all day with plenty of snacks and beer.  In the evening we grilled out hamburgers and watched some of the World Cup before heading back to Marybeth's house in Hamilton where we were staying for Sunday night.  Monday we had to head out and I dropped Laura and Delaware off at the Buffalo airport for their flight to Philadelphia on my way back down to Ohio.

All in all an incredible weekend and I'm so glad I was able to make it, even if Lionel couldn't (which ended up being sort of a blessing in disguise as Laura's husband and Delaware's fiancée couldn't come either so we were all without our other halves).  It was so great to catch up with my assistant friends and to see Marybeth get married.  Plus, who knows when we will all see each other next.  Probably for Delaware's wedding, whenever that might be (they have been engaged for 5 years and still haven't set a date), unless I can convince them to all come out to Bordeaux!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Two and a half weeks de ouf

I got back to Bordeaux last night after two and a half crazy busy weeks packed full of friends, family, fun, travelling, shopping, drinking far too much, working and a definitive lack of sleep!  I have basically dubbed this trip across the pond a "fake vacation" because I didn't really get to relax at all, I was constantly busy, I barely slept, and I went into my company and worked from the office for one of my two weeks in the States.  But, even though I'm currently exhausted and jet-lagged, it was definitely worth it!  Lionel ended up staying in Bordeaux but I still had plenty of fun on my own.

I had a wonderful time in the States visiting with friends and family, catching up, making plans, and just spending time together.  I also drove up to Ontario for a long weekend for a friend's wedding and had an incredible time (but more on that later as the trip to Canada will get it's very own post) celebrating her marriage and visiting with my "assistant" friends.  I ended my whirlwind two and a half weeks with a weekend in Paris.  I specifically planned my return flight to land in Paris because my friend, Amy (who has appeared on this blog a number of times), was in town from Florida and I wanted to see her while she was in Europe.  Lionel came up to visit as well and we spent a busy weekend visiting with friends all over Paris, including a stop at my favorite wine bar!

Sadly I didn't take any pictures while in the US, but that doesn't mean I didn't keep myself busy.  Between visits with friends, checking out their new homes, meeting their children, dinners and drinks, movies and shopping, a World Cup party, family meals and barbecues, a full week of work, driving all over the place and dealing with some paperwork and other necessities I barely had a second to think let alone sleep.  I got to see most of the people I wanted to see and spend some quality time with them.  If I had had more time in the States I also would have made a trip out to New York to visit with some other friends, but alas that will have to wait for another time.

Lionel and I also stayed quite busy while in Paris, running around trying to see as many friends as possible and spend some quality time with Amy while she was in the country.  In the end I think we did a pretty good job without completely running me ragged from jet-lag induced exhaustion as I landed in Paris on Friday and we stayed out very late that night, first hitting Nicolas and the Frog in Bercy Village and then heading over to the Batofar for some late night fun.  We kept it a little more calm on Saturday with the World Cup, a restaurant, and drinks at a friend's place.  Sunday we took it easy in the morning having a late breakfast with friends and then we headed back to Bordeaux so I could get back and have time to unpack and get situated before having to go to bed for work today.

 with Caroline, Amy and Elias in Bercy Village

I'm also very thankful I was able to pick up my residency card before I left the country because, while I didn't have any issues getting back into France (and they didn't even ask to see it) I wouldn't have been able to get on my flight from Amsterdam to Detroit or my flight from the US to Paris without it.  I was shocked when I not only had to show it when making my connection in Amsterdam (I mean, after all, I'm flying back to my home country), but also when they asked for it in the airport in Ohio before letting me start my trip back to France.  That has NEVER happened before and I'm pretty sure my expired card with a ridiculous looking récépissé in French and the French law printed out in French wouldn't have gotten me very far in either situation.

Not too shabby for two and a half weeks!  More on my trip to Canada and the wedding coming soon!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Happy day

Today I literally feel like jumping for joy, celebrating this momentous occasion and overall feeling of peace and liberty. Today (drum roll please) I went to the préfecture and picked up my 10-year carte de résident!!!!

At the Préfecture just after receiving my carte de résident

I feel so free - free from yearly préfecture visits and piles of paperwork, free from the stress and frustration of spending multiple months a year without a proper, valid form of French ID, free from the hassle and the need to waste so much time dealing with administration, just absolutely, completely free. And it feels good!  So, so good. I almost want to abandon the entire citizenship request (which is not going nearly as well, by the way) for the time being and just relish in the delight and happiness that this 10-year card brings. I want to enjoy a few Préfecture/Bureau des Etrangers-free years before throwing myself back into administrative battles. But I won't because that would be silly and who knows how long the entire process is going to take, especially considering all of the obstacles I've already encountered.

The entire process at the préfecture went very smoothly. I was able to buy my 260€ de timbres fiscaux at the préfecutre and then get in the line to pick up my card. I only had to wait about 30 minutes, which was quicker than I expected, and then I had my card in my hands. I was surprised to see they updated the format and that all new French ID cards are now credit card-sized rather than the gigantic cards they have been using for years that don't easily fit in a wallet. It also now contains an electronic chip with a digital copy of my photo and personal information as well as having all of that info appear on the card. Quite impressive and modern...way to go France, finally entering the 21st century!

I'm also thrilled that I was able to get my card today because I leave for a two-week trip to the US on Thursday and I was starting to worry how I was going to fight my way back into the country without a valid titre de séjour (my old one expired in May) and only a récépissé de demande de renouvellement. Though in theory this shouldn't be a problem I read a few horror stories and a lot of sites recommended printing out a copy of the French law as you would most likely encounter problems at passport control. Now I'm just happy I don't have to worry about it. Ever again!

As ridiculous as it may seem (though anyone who has experienced the titre de séjour process will probably understand), today I just feel victorious.  And it feels great.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Weekend à la campagne

We spent a relaxing and calm weekend in Corrèze last weekend, visiting with friends, enjoying the weather and decompressing in the peace and quiet. I had never been to Corrèze before and wasn't really sure what to expect; all I had ever heard was that it's very agricultural and the middle of nowhere.  Well, I was pleasantly surprised!

We had an incredible weekend and really took advantage of the opportunity to destress and enjoy nature. We drove out Friday after work and when we arrived the barbecue was being prepared. After a delicious meal we hung out, caught up and played some games.  We spent a lazy Saturday lounging in the sun, barbecuing and we went in a hike to a nearby lake.  On our hike we encountered all kinds of creatures - horses, a donkey, a goat, ducks, the largest slugs I've ever seen, a dog, chickens, roosters, cows and even a squirrel (first squirrel I've ever seen in France!).

 Lac du Coiroux

one of the adorable old buildings on our friend's property

 
 a family of hourses we encountered on our hike

 a nearby pond

Finally, after another barbecue on Sunday we headed home, making a pit stop in Collonges-la-Rouge to visit one of les plus beaux villages de France. And it definitely lived up to its reputation! In the end it was a great weekend, we had a lot of fun and it was just what I needed after quite a few hectic and stressful weeks.