Thursday, December 29, 2011

Les fêtes

I hope everyone had a great Christmas.  Mine was great.  On Christmas Eve we had a big dinner with my parents and my brother and then we spent some quality time together opening presents and playing games.

Then on Christmas Day, as is tradition, we drove up to my aunt and uncle's house and had a big Christmas meal with my extended family.  It was so nice to see everyone, especially because it has been so long since I've seen a lot of my family.  Lionel and I even got really motivated this year and made a traditional bûche de noel, which actually turned out to be much more complicated than expected, but it sure was good in the end!

Then on Christmas night we were invited to my friends house for her 2nd annual Naughty Santa Christmas party.  "Naughty Santa" because the whole premise is that everyone brings a bottle of alcohol for a gift exchange, and then afterwards everyone ends up drinking it all, along with the beer and wine everyone brought.!  It was a lot of fun and I ended up seeing a lot of people I knew in high school and haven't seen since high school or early college and it was really great to see them again and to catch up.

Unfortunately, because we were so busy with our arrival in the US and all that goes with that, we didn't really have the time to do any of the other holiday activities I usually enjoy so much in the US.  But I'm still very glad I was able to be in the US this year for the holidays, even if it made the move even more exhausting and stressful with all the Christmas shopping to do!

And I know someone else who really enjoyed Christmas, or at least the Christmas tree:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays to everyone out there in the land of the internet!

Enjoy whatever plans and celebrations you have.  I know I'm looking forward to a wonderful Christmas in the US with friends and family that I haven't seen in quite a while.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I'm back!

Sorry I've been a bit MIA lately, things have been very busy and just completely crazy here.  But I wanted to post really quick to let everyone know that I'm still here!  The cruise was amazing and we had a wonderful time exploring new places, meeting lots of wonderful people and relaxing for 8 days while crossing the ocean...but more on that in another post.

Lionel and I arrived safely in the US on December 3.  After a slight snag at the port in Fort Lauderdale (they didn't have the materials necessary to process someone arriving with an immigrant visa and they had to drive to the airport to get a fingerprinting kit), Lionel's visa was processed and he is officially good to work, live and travel in the US for the next year with his stamped visa in his passport while waiting to receive his green card in the mail (which will hopefully arrive in around 6 months, or so we've been told).

Since then we spent a few days enjoying the hot and sunny weather in the Fort Lauderdale area with our friend Amy, then we headed up to Ohio, where it is considerably less hot and sunny...in fact it is freezing here and I've already seen a little bit of snow!  Quite a shock for someone who hadn't worn her winter coat until the arrival in Ohio!

Since we've been in Ohio things have been going incredibly smoothly and we've pretty much finished the mile-long to-do list we arrived with.  As soon as I get a chance I'll publish a more detailed post on the stuff we've had to do for Lionel since arriving, but for now I'll just say that I LOVE the US for the ease of the administrative/bureaucratic tasks and the friendliness of the people who work in all those offices!

We still haven't really processed the fact that we are in the US "for good" and sometimes I still feel like I must be here only for vacation (which is strange because I've already started working and everything), but I'm sure that as time goes on it will set in.  So far I have to say I'm pretty happy to be here and I'm not yet regretting leaving France, though I'm sure that will come after a month or two.  But for now I'm just enjoying being back in the US and I promise I will try to post again soon with more details and photos from the cruise!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The move encore and feeling like an SDF

As planned, we are still in the process of moving.  I think this must be the longest, most drawn out move ever!  I'm starting to feel like it will never end!

We are still at Lionel's parents' house in the south.  Tomorrow we leave to head to Bordeaux where we will be staying the night and visiting with his grandfather in his nursing home.  Then on Saturday morning we are heading to Carcassonne.  We are going to spend the afternoon visiting Carcassonne (because it's a city I have always wanted to visit and never been to and it's mostly on our way) and then stay the night in Carcassonne intra muros.  Sunday morning we are getting up bright and early to drive the rest of the way to Barcelona to catch our cruise which leaves Sunday late afternoon. 

I'm a little sad that I won't have any time to visit Barcelona, as I have never been, but oh well.  I'm happy to see Carcassonne and that's where Lionel's parents wanted us to stop to break up the drive some, and since they are the ones who are driving, I can't really complain.  They will be staying an extra few days in Barcelona because they've never been either, and we will be heading off on our cruise to visit Alicante, Spain; Malaga, Spain; Funchal, Madeira; and Tenerife, Canary Islands before spending 8 days relaxing while we cross the Atlantic.


Once we arrive in Ft. Lauderdale we have a friend of mine, Amy, who is coming to pick us up and we are spending a few days with her before heading up to my parents' house in Ohio, where we will be staying until we find real, full-time employment and can get a place of our own.

I hope we will be able to find decent jobs quickly (though I'm really freaking out about this because of the unemployment rates and the crisis and everything) because I really want to be able to get out of my parents' house as soon as possible (no offense mom and dad!) and get our own place.  For the moment, even though we haven't at any point been without a roof over our heads, I'm feeling kind of homeless.  And I guess I technically am an SDF (sans domicile fixe or homeless person) because I don't have a permanent (or even semi permanent) home.  While we have a place to sleep and a roof now, and we will in the US, I won't feel stable or like this move is really over until we have our own place.  Someplace where we can unpack ALL of our things (instead of just what we need to get by) and do things how we want, when we want.  I'm sick of living out of suitcases and having to eat what people tell me to eat (even if it's good and I can't really complain) and always having to be considerate and keep my little bit of mess controlled and of not really having a space that is mine.  Unfortunately, and I'm not trying to be pessimistic, I fear that we won't have our own place for another couple of months which really makes this feel like the move that never ends!

I really can't believe we are leaving France in a few days.  So far everything has gone more or less according to plans, with a only few little snags along the way.  The only remaining issue is transferring our money to my American bank account, but hopefully (and I'm really crossing my fingers on this one because I don't want get to the US and discover that our money has disappeared somewhere in cyberspace!) we have figured that one out and the money will transfer while we are on the boat.  Luckily with all the people who came to visit and the increased luggage allowance of the cruise, we are able to get all of our things back to the US without having to pay to ship a single box!  It only took 12 suitcases (I know, it seems insane, but I had a lot of things I had brought from the US over the past few years thinking I would be in France for much longer than this) and 7 different people (us included) to get it all back across the Atlantic!

I must admit that I'm getting more and more stressed about this move.  It's kind of funny because when I decided to move to France, I wasn't stressed about it at all, I was just excited.  But now I am very stressed and I shouldn't be because I'm going back to my country, to all the things I know, to my family, to my friends, to everything that used to be so familiar.  But now it is freaking me out and I keep asking myself if we made the right decision.  We were starting to establish ourselves here.  We had a decent apartment (even if we didn't want to stay in Paris much longer), jobs (even if we didn't particularly like them), a whole apartment full of furniture (that we finally managed to sell) and we were creating a life together.  And now we are back to having next to nothing (except each other and a furball waiting for us in the US) and starting all over from scratch.  We have to look for jobs, which I hate more than anything in this world, buy cars, get an apartment, get some furniture, find cell phones (which are very expensive in the US!), open bank accounts for Lionel, get a drivers license for Lionel, find health insurance (damn the US for that one!) and probably a million other things I'm not even thinking of at the moment because it stresses me out too much and really makes me wonder what we are thinking.

But I guess it doesn't matter now.  I can have all the doubts I want, but we are still going to move, especially now that we have gotten rid of everything we have here in France.  So I guess all I can do is look forward and start this new adventure in the US.  After all (and is it a bad sign that Lionel and I are already telling ourselves this?) we can always come back to France if we want, though we are giving the US at least 2 years before making that possibly very expensive decision!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The visa process

Here it is, the long-awaited, very detailed post explaining the process we went through to get Lionel’s visa for the US. Warning: this post will be very long and boring for those not interested in the visa process!
 
The visa we had to get for Lionel was an immigrant visa for immediate relatives (the spouse, widow(er), unmarried children under 21 and parents of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older), though immigrant visas exist in four different categories: immediate relatives, family based, employment based and Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (also known as the "green card" lottery). Immigrant visas are necessary for anyone who plans to reside permanently in the US, whether or not they plan to work there. Non-immigrant visas (for those who which to reside temporarily in the US for work or study) and emergency visas are also available for the United States. However, since we are planning to move to the US, with the idea that this MIGHT be a permanent move, we had to get an immigrant visa, and since Lionel and I are married we needed the immigrant visa for immediate relatives.

For the most part we relied on the visa section of US Embassy in Paris website for information about the process, though the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website is also very helpful.

In order to get Lionel’s visa we first spent a lot of time researching our different options and the process, finally deciding to go with the normal, longer process (which usually takes anywhere from 4-6 months) rather than the faster process (K3/K4 visa) which is more complicated but much quicker for those in a hurry to enter the US (but not yet have permanent residence status). Since for personal and professional reasons we did not want or need to rush to the US, we didn’t see the point in spending the extra money and doing the extra paperwork in order for Lionel to be able to enter the US faster.

Once we decided what route we wanted to go and had learned more about what was involved, we actually started the process of getting Lionel’s visa. First we had to file a petition for an alien relative. Once this was approved we had to gather all the documents necessary for the visa interview. Then, finally, we had to go to the visa interview and provide them with all of the documents they requested and then wait to be “approved” and receive the visa in the mail, “postponed” meaning they need additional documents, or “denied” meaning we are screwed.

Because this post is meant to be informative, rather than entertaining, I am going to talk about each step of the process individually, provide any helpful hints, insight or tips I can and include all possible links to helpful websites and necessary documents. And if you get lucky I might even include a little rant or two! So here we go:

The Petition:

When we did our Petition for an Alien Relative, we were still able to do it at the US Embassy in Paris, which is no longer possible. So for us we just had to prepare all of the documents and then show up at the embassy on a Friday morning between 9am and 10am (first come first serve). To do our petition we first had to go see someone and show that we had all our documents, and while we were going through the documents, one of us had to go and pay the petition fee, which is a whopping $420. After turning all our documents in, we sat back down and waited for them to call our number again for a short “interview” where they asked us a few basic questions and then we were able to ask any questions we had about the process. They also explained how the rest of the process would work at this time. After this short “interview” we were done, all in all 45 minutes at the embassy (a far cry from the 4-5 hours I usually spend at the prefecture for my carte de sejour!). We were told that we would normally receive a letter in about 4 weeks telling us if our petition had been approved or not (if it’s not approved, you lose your $420), and if it had been approved we would also receive a list of the documents we would need to prepare to bring to the visa interview and further instructions about the interview process.

However, since August 15, 2011 you can no longer file a petition at the US Embassy in Paris. It now must be done by mail. I know that some people were worried about this, but I really don’t think it will change the process much. In my opinion, the only differences will really be that you won’t have the opportunity to ask questions in person at the beginning of the visa process and you will need translations. Otherwise, you are still gathering the same documents, and instead of bringing them to the embassy and handing them in personally on a Friday morning, you are mailing them to Chicago to the USCIS Lockbox where they then review the papers and decide whether the petition is approved or not. You would then be notified by mail of the decision, and if approved, receive the list of documents needed for the visa interview as well as the additional instructions. I really don’t think that change will make the process take much longer, and it saves you from having to take time off work to file in person. The only real problem this new system might create is the need for translations. Before, when filing in Paris, you could submit any documents in English or French, but now I imagine that all documents must be submitted in English, therefore increasing the cost.

The purpose of the Petition for an Alien Relative is to establish the nature of the relationship that exists between yourself and the potential immigrant in order to determine if the potential immigrant should be given a visa. As such, the documents that must be submitted when filing a petition are primarily documents that prove the nature of the relationship. When filing a petition for a husband/wife you need the following (a more complete and detailed list is available in the instructions for the form I-130):
  • Completed and signed form I-130
  • Birth certificate of US citizen
  • Unexpired passport of US citizen
  • US citizen’s carte de sejour in France (or proof that the US citizen has been residing in France for more than 6 months, and not as a student)
  • Copy of marriage certificate
  • Photos of yourself and your husband/wife
  • Completed form G-325A for yourself and your husband/wife
  • Divorce records for yourself and husband/wife, if applicable
 And a few of the following:
  • Documentation showing joint ownership or property
  • A lease showing joint tenancy
  • Documentation showing co-mingling of financial resources
  • Birth certificates of any children from your marriage
  • Affidavits by third parties about your relationship
  • Any other documentation establishing a marital union and ongoing relationship
We also needed the completed and signed form DS-230, part 1 (part 2 should be brought to the visa interview and signed in front of a consular official), though apparently with the new procedure you don’t need this form for the petition, but you send it to the embassy after the petition has been approved…this is not how it was done for us.

These documents are all very easy to get, as you should have most of them in your home already, and therefore you just need to make photocopies, get translations when necessary (because of the new system), download, fill out and print the appropriate forms and voila!

Once you have all the documents, and you have verified that everything is correctly filled out, you send it all to the Chicago Lockbox along with form G-1145 (if you wish for e-notification that your petition has been received in Chicago) and then you wait to hear if you have been approved and to receive further instructions regarding the visa interview.

The Visa Interview:

Once we filed the petition we waited impatiently for the response. They told us it would probably take about four weeks, but in the end we had the response in only two weeks! Obviously, the petition was approved and our relationship was established in the eyes of the government. Included with the approval was a packet informing us of the documents we needed to prepare for the visa interview as well as a form to fill out, sign and send back to the embassy once we had gathered all the documents.

Again, in general, the documents were not too difficult:

  • Completed form DS-230, part 2 (but NOT SIGNED, you must sign it in front of the consular official)
  • Birth certificate of intended immigrant
  • Unexpired passport of intended immigrant
  • Criminal record of intended immigrant (they even sent us the form to fill in and mail to request the criminal record in France, though this can also be done online)
  • Military record of intended immigrant, if applicable (since Lionel comes from the time when they still had mandatory military service in France, we had to provide a copy of the exemption he had received)
  • Recent photo of intended immigrant
  • Deportation record of intended immigrant, if applicable
  • Marriage certificate (again)
  • Divorce records, if applicable (again)
  • One Chronopost envelope (1kg or more) self-addressed
  • And, the most complicated of the documents in my opinion, form I-864 Affidavit of Support., which can be found here, and the instructions can be found here
The Affidavit of Support must be filled out by the petitioner (the US citizen) pledging to financially support the intended immigrant for the next 10 years (the length of the green card they will receive) should the immigrant fail to find employment, in order to avoid the immigrant becoming a public charge. Basically, if you are in the same position as mean and live in France, you basically cannot pledge financial support unless you already have a job in the US (and even then I’m not sure unless you have been working this job for a while already) or if your job will not be changing, even when you move to the US. Because my job was in France and I wouldn’t be continuing it, and I didn’t have a job in the US that I had been working for awhile and therefore showed on my US taxes, I couldn’t sponsor Lionel alone. And even if the intended immigrant has a job, they cannot sponsor themselves.

Since I couldn’t sponsor Lionel, I then needed a joint sponsor. The joint sponsor can be anyone, as long as they are willing to fill out all the papers, provide you with a lot of their financial information to bring with you to the embassy and to pledge to financially support your husband/wife for the next ten years, even if you get divorced (oh yeah…even if you get divorced the intended immigrant could come at you for financial support!). In our case we used my dad as the joint sponsor, and then he had my mom fill out form I-864A Contract between Sponsor and Household Member saying that he had her agreement that he could use her income as well (because they fill out joint tax forms in the US). In order to sponsor someone you must me the income guidelines based on the number of people in your household. These guidelines can be found here or you can get more information from the embassy.

In the end, we ended up with a lot of documents for the Affidavit of Support. I still had to be the primary sponsor, as the petitioner, then my father had to be the joint sponsor with my mother’s household member contract. For each sponsor, and for my mother as a household member who signed a contract, we had to provide (and the documents, except for the tax returns, all really depend on your case and financial situation):
  • Completed form I-864
  • Completed form I-864A, if applicable
  • The most recent years US tax return (or transcript of the tax return which can be obtained from the IRS, but it is generally recommended, but not required, to bring the 3 most recent years of US tax returns
  • Any bank account information proving liquid assets, if necessary
  • Other documentation proving assets (such as cars, houses, etc), if necessary
  • Copies of the passports of each sponsor and/or household member
  • Proof of employment or most recent pay stubs, if necessary

Once you have gathered all of these documents, you can inform the embassy that you are ready for the visa interview using the form they provided with the instructions they sent you. They will then schedule your appointment for the visa interview and send you an appointment letter about one month before your appointment. The appointment letter will tell you how much you will have to pay in visa fees (these are in addition to the petition fees and range from $400-$800 depending on the case…we were very happy to only have to pay $400 more!). With the appointment letter (which you must save and bring with you to the embassy the day of your appointment or you will not be allowed to enter) you will also receive your final instructions concerning the medical exam. For the medical exam the intending immigrant must contact one of the few doctors permitted to give US visa medical exams (I don’t know if there are any in other cities, but there were only 3 doctors possible in Paris) and pay a hefty doctors fee of about 180 euros which is not reimbursable through French social security. The medical exam includes a blood test, chest x-ray and a basic check up (and you must bring the carnet de santé and vaccination records). The doctor then gives you a sealed envelope which you are not allowed to open. Only the consular officer can open this envelope. We had not problem getting Lionel and appointment with one of these doctors, but we were upset to see how inconveniently located they were for us…they are all on the western side of the city or in the western banlieu.

The appointment letter also includes information on the visa interview and what to expect the day of your interview. All visa interviews are conducted on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1pm at the US Embassy in Paris. The interview was pretty easy, we just showed up the day of our appointment, went through security and then got a number from the machine. We then sat down and waited for our number to be called. The first time we were called it was to go pay the visa fee. Then we sat back down and waited to be called again. The next time it was to go turn in all the documents we had prepared and for Lionel to provide his fingerprints. Then we sat back down and the final time we were called it was for the “interview”. They tell you that the length of the interview depends on your case and that it can take up to half a day. In our case we were asked one or two simple questions such as “how long have you known each other” and that was that for the interview. The entire process took maybe an hour at most.

After the interview you go home and wait for them to send the visa in the mail with the chronopost envelope you provided. I imagine that if you are denied they tell you this when you are there and they don’t keep your chronopost envelope and your passport (though they do keep your visa fee), but I don’t know for sure. It takes about 7-10 days maximum to receive your visa in the mail, but for us it took less than this. When they send you the visa it is already stuck in the immigrant’s passport and they also send an envelope with (I’m assuming) your visa documents in it which you are not supposed to open and you are supposed to give, still sealed, to the US Customs Officer upon arrival in the US. Once you have the visa, it is good for 6 months, meaning you have 6 months to enter the US. Upon entry in the US the immigrant will receive a stamp in his or her passport with an alien registration number. This allows the person to live and work in the US for one year while waiting to receive the 10 year green card. I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty jealous of this since I had to wait 5 miserable months in France before having the right to work, and Lionel will be allowed to work the second one of his feet enters the United States!

The USCIS will be informed when you enter the US and provided with the alien registration number that was assigned to you. At this point they will begin to prepare the 10 year green card, which you receive by mail (!!!) usually a few months after arriving in the US, but it can take up to a year which is why the stamp is good for one year. You will also notice that when filling out form DS-230 that you can choose to check a box requesting a US Social Security Number. If you do this, then the immigrant will receive their US social security card automatically, in the mail too (!!!), about 2-3 weeks after arrival. Obviously, we haven’t even gotten to the US yet, so I can’t really tell you how all of this works out, but I will keep you posted.

We did have a few snags along the way, two out of three of which were caused by the damn Poste (my enemy). The one that wasn’t La Poste’s fault was with our Affidavit of Support and the documents our joint sponsor gave us…it’s a long, long story and had to do with one of my dad’s businesses. In the end we didn’t even notice it until the consular official was examining the documents at the embassy for our visa interview and then we thought “crap” we are going to be denied for the visa! In the end they were really nice, postponed the visa application, and explained everything we could provide to remedy the situation, as well as who we could contact with further questions. We went home that afternoon and started gathering the other documents and sent them in the mail the following afternoon, after communicating through email with the embassy about further questions, and received a confirmation that the documents had been received, the visa had been approved and had been sent in the mail two days later.

La Poste, however, was not very helpful (not a surprise)! They lost our packet with our appointment letter and medical exam information and we only knew we were supposed to receive it because, after a month and a half of waiting, I started to get nervous and emailed the embassy to make sure they had received our notification that we were ready for the interview. When I told them we never received the packet, they were happy to send out a second one. Also, when the visa was sent, La Poste once again failed to leave us an avis de passage in our mailbox. Luckily it was a chronopost so I had the tracking number and the email from the embassy telling us when it had been sent, so we knew to go get it. However, we had an adrenaline-filled hour when we went to our Poste and they couldn’t find our chronopost and we thought we would have to take them to court for all the visa fees, the lost passport and certainly the missed cruise to the US because I’m sure it would have taken us quite awhile to get all those documents again. Luckily, after two trips to La Poste in one afternoon, they were finally able to find the envelope and we were extremely relieved, especially when we discovered, upon reading the envelope, that chronopost is only liable for up to 250 euros in the case of undelivered/damaged/lost mail. The visa and cruise certainly cost a hell of a lot more than that!

Regardless of those little problems, all in all the experience was very good, very well organized, and quite simple. We now have the visa in our hands and we are ready to go in less than two weeks! The things I really like about the US process compared to my experiences in France are how organized it all was, the small amount of time you need to take off to accomplish it all (for us we only spent about 2 hours total at the embassy on two different days in order for Lionel to get a 10 year green card which will arrive in the mail and will require no more visits to government offices compared to my carte de sejour which requires 3 days per year and usually at least 3 hours per trip to the prefecture). I love how the US is so willing to do so much by mail. I also love that you can email them with questions and get quick responses whereas with the prefecture I have to go there every time I have a question. Another plus, in my opinion, is that we just had to check a box and Lionel will have a social security number and card issued very shortly after his arrival in the US, whereas I spent 3 years battling the secu in order to get my number and carte vitale, even though I was working and paying for it! In the end we ended up paying $820 for the visa, but he is good for 10 years, so I feel like it was worth it. Besides, here in France I spent 300 euros for my first card and then 110 euros to renew the first time and 85 euros to renew the second time, not to mention all the time taken off work to do all of it, and I still only have a temporary, 1-year card.

People used to ask me how I could criticize the French immigration process when I didn’t know about the US one, but now I feel quite confident that I have every right to criticize the French system because I have also been through the American one, and ours is definitely better.

Well, I’m very sorry for how long this ended up being, and congratulations to anyone who managed to make it to the end of this post! I just wanted to be as thorough as possible and I really hope this ends up helping someone out one day!

 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Le sud

The last post on my recent trips...while my parents were here we also went to the south of France.  We spent 4 days in the south.  On the first day we took the TGV to Nimes where we spent the day visiting the city and we stayed the night.  We spent most of our time visiting the incredible Roman ruins in Nimes such as the Roman arena, La Maison Carée and the Tour Magne.

Roman arena in Nimes

La Maison Carée, a well preserved Roman temple

Jardins de la Fontaine in Nimes

The next morning we woke up and hopped the train to Avignon.  We spent the day visiting the city and then stayed over night.  I had always heard that Avignon was an amazing city, and I really enjoyed it.  While we were there we made sure to see the Palais des Papes and the very famous Pont d'Avignon.  We spent the rest of the time just walking around and exploring.

Palais des Papes

Pont d'Avignon

view of Avignon from the Rocher des Doms

The next morning we got up, went to the train station and picked up our rental car.  We rented a car for the day so we could drive out and visit the Pont du Gard, Glanum and Les Baux de Provence, all of which are in the Avignon area.  The Pont du Gard is a very well preserved ancient Roman aqueduct, Glanum is the ruins of an ancient Roman city in the Alpilles and Les Baux de Provence is a famous village and chateau on top of a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles.  Les Baux was absolutely beautiful, but there was a lot of very strong winds when we were there and we were afraid to get blown of the top of the chateau!  We dropped the car off at the train station that night and then hopped on a train to Marseille. 

Pont du Gard

Glanum, in the Alpilles

view over the village of les Baux de Provence and the Alpilles from the chateau

We spent the last day in Marseille and we stayed mainly near the port and went out to visit the Chateau d'If because I've already been to Marseille and I'm not a big fan of the city.  Plus, the coast is really nice and there is a lot to do in the Marseille area.  This time we only went out to the Chateau d'If because we were catching a train back to Paris that night, but last time I spent more time in Marseille and I also visited the Ile de Frioul by boat and did a boat trip to the Calanques and Cassis, which was really nice.  I had also already been to Nimes and the Pont du Gard, but my brother was with us and he absolutely loves all things ancient Roman so I thought he would really enjoy it.

Vieux Port of Marseille

Chateau d'If on the Ile d'If, made famous in the book The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

view of Marseille from the Chateau d'If

the Chateau d'If and Marseille from the boat

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Exploring Normandy

While my parents were here they wanted to see some more of France since they have only been to Paris and Bordeaux.  We decided to take them to Normandy for a weekend since my dad has always wanted to see the D-day beaches and it's a region I haven't explored much either.

We decided to go by car and go see le Mont St. Michel the Saturday, then drive north to stay in a hotel near the beaches and visit the beaches on Sunday.  In the end, this plan worked out great.  We had beautiful weather and we spent the Saturday afternoon visiting le Mont St. Michel, which is the only place I had already been to in Normandy.  My parents really enjoyed.   Then we drove up to a town called Grandcamp-Maisy along the coast where we were able to find a cheap place to stay for the night only a few minutes drive from the start of the D-day beaches and sites we planned to visit.

le Mont Saint Michel

port of Grandcamp-Maisy, where we stayed the night

On the Sunday we headed off to visit D-day sites, starting with the Pointe du Hoc, which was right outside of the town where we stayed.  The Pointe du Hoc is the clifftop site of an attack of the US Army Ranger Assault Group against the Germans in WWII.  When you visit you can see bomb craters all over the ground as well as some German fortifications such as shelters and artillery casements.

Pointe du Hoc, complete with bomb craters and German fortifications

view from the Pointe du Hoc

After the Pointe du Hoc we continued to drive along the coast to see some of Omaha Beach and some memorials along Omaha Beach.  Then we stopped at the American Cemetery, which overlooks a part of Omaha Beach near Colleville-sur-Mer.  Finally we continued on to Arromanches-les-Bains where you can see the remains of one of the Mulberry B artificial military port which was constructed to aid the Allied forces and is located between Omaha and Gold Beaches.

a section of Omaha Beach

the American Cemetery

part of the Mulberry B harbor in Arromanches-les-Bains

Once we finished with all of our planned D-day sites, we headed back toward Paris, and stopped along the way to walk around Honfleur, a city I had always wanted to visit.  And I was not disappointed, Honfleur was just as pretty as I had heard!

the port of Honfleur

Lionel and I in Honfleur

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Metz

On the drive back from Germany, my friends and I stopped for a couple of hours in Metz.  We had just enough time to walk around and explore a bit, grab a quick lunch, and then hop back in the car for the drive back to Paris.  Even with such little time in the city, I was very impressed.  Metz is a beautiful city and I really liked it.  I don't know what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Since I wasn't there very long, I don't know much about the city, we mostly just walked around to see a few of the sites recommended on the map.  So, if you want more information about the city, or what it is like to live there, check out this blog by an American living in Metz.  But here are a few photos to picque your interest:

The Moselle River in Metz

Temple Neuf

Cathedrale St. Etienne

Porte des Allemands

Friday, November 4, 2011

Poland

Well, I guess this is the next in a series of posts about some of my recent travels.  Back in October I also headed off to Poland for 5 days with a friend.  I had already been to Krakow before in 2008 and loved it, so I was thrilled to go back.  But this time in Poland we also went out to Wroclaw, which I had heard was supposed to be another very beautiful town, and I was very happy to get to see a bit more of the country.

We ended up flying from Paris Beauvais to Krakow with Ryanair (which I really don't recommend and years ago I had sworn never to fly with Ryanair again, but I gave in for the price and I definitely regretted it, especially for the extreme hassle of the Beauvais airport) but Easyjet also offers a Paris-Krakow route that leaves from Charles de Gaulle.  Once we arrived we headed into the city center to catch the bus to Wroclaw.  It takes about 3 hours and is very inexpensive, 39 zloty (less than 10 euros) each way.

We stayed about two days in Wroclaw, which was probably a bit too much as the city is relavitely small and the most beautiful parts are the main square and the cathedral district, which can certainly all be seen in one day.

After Wroclaw we headed back to Krakow and spent 2 days/3 nights there.  We rented a studio apartment that was only a one minute walk from the main square, and thus the city center, and it was incredible and very inexpensive (about 20 euros per person per night) and included a kitchen, loft with bed and nightstand, a nice bathroom, living room area and a washing machine that we could use.  Last time I was in Krakow we found a one-bedroom apartment and paid about 10 euros per person per night for it, but it was about a 10-15 minute walk from the main square.  If you ever go to Poland, I definitely recommend looking into an apartment as it is very inexpensive and convenient.

Last time I was in Krakow we stayed 4 days and so we went on day trips out to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to the Wieliczka Salt Mines but this time we just stayed in the city, relaxed and explored.  It was just as beautiful as I remember (and as inexpensive!) and we spent one day wandering around the city center and the other day visiting Wawel Hill.  All in all we had a lot of fun!



a square with a 24 hour flower market in Wroclaw

Michelle and I visiting Wroclaw

Wroclaw has this strange tradition of small dwarf statues, and you can find them all over the city. We made an attempt to find as many as possible, but there are more than a hundred of them hiding all over.  This was one of my favorites but there are also dwarves riding bicycles, going to the atm, eating pierogis, fighting fires, dancing, riding motorcycles, swinging on lamp posts, kissing, etc.  We were really  surprised because we didn't read about this in any guidebook or on any tourist website and didn't discover the tradition until we arrived.

the Wroclaw Cathedral and the cathedral district, the oldest part of town

the main square of Wroclaw - the architecture is amazing!

Wroclaw city hall

in the main square of Krakow at night - giant head statue and city hall tower

Rynek Glowny, the main square of Krakow, and also the largest square in Europe.

Rynek Glowny at night with St. Mary's church

atop Wawel Hill, part of the royal castle and the cathedral

the market building in the middle of Rynek Glowny

Germany

Well, the move went well and we handed over our keys to our little Parisian/Kremlinois apartment on Monday.  It was actually pretty sad, I was so happy to move into that apartment a year and a half ago.  Lionel and I started really building our lives there, but now it's all over.  We are just waiting to hear if the Etat des Lieux went well and if we will get all our deposit back.  The weekend before leaving we had a little going away soirée with some friends, which was a lot of fun, but alo pretty sad.  Even though they are all Lionel's friends, I've now known most of them for 6 years and they have been a big part of my life in Paris, so it was pretty difficult saying goodbye (or I guess, "till the next time").  Now we are in Arcachon at my in-laws' house, relaxing and dealing with the administrative part of the move, since all the physical labor and packing is finished.

Since I've got a little free time now, I finally managed to upload my photos from all my travels in October, so here are some of the highlights from my trip to Germany for Oktoberfest and to visit the Romantic Road (a trip I've already done twice before, but still enjoyed this time!):

Rathaus (city hall) in Munich

Oktoberfest 2011

inside the Paulaner beer tent, where we spent the entire day enjoying
liters of delicious Oktoberfest beer

Hohenschwangau Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

the gardens of Linderhof Castle

Nordlingen, Germany - a little medieval city along the
Romantic Road

Nordlingen's main square

Rothenburg ob der Tauber - another medieval city
along the Romantic Road

Rothenburg ob der Tauber