Thursday, May 22, 2014

Expat excitement... discovery au supermarché

Made quite the discovery in the condiment/sauce aisle at my local Auchan the other day:


Never in a million years did I really expect to find Frank's Red Hot for sale in a regular French supermarket, and especially outside of the produits du monde aisle (though I do check this section of the store every time I go shopping...just in case). So imagine my surprise when I quickly scanned the bottles and jars this week, comme d'habitude, and actually saw these little bottles nestled on the shelf!  My excitement level was similar to when Philadelphia cream cheese first came on the market here in France (and I'm sure most American expats in France felt similarly about that one!).

I was half tempted to buy them all to ensure that Auchan continues to stock it, but in the end I didn't since I still have quite the stock at home (I bought a gallon of it earlier this year through Amazon UK, very reasonably priced I might add). But now I can rest assured knowing that my life as an American expat in France has gotten that much easier because Frank's Red Hot is probably the one product from the US that I personally can't live without.  It's practically an addiction; I would probably go through withdrawal without it. At this rate it won't be long before I can find all the US products I need/want on a regular shopping trip here in France!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Thoughts on Bordeaux

*Let me preface this by saying these are entirely my thoughts and opinions based on my experiences so far in Bordeaux.  I'm not looking to offend, just presenting my feelings at this point in time, which are always subject to change.  Also, a little warning that I may have gotten a bit longwinded and I do jump all over the place, perhaps because I wrote this over the course of three days.


Today marks one year since I landed, exhausted and jet-lagged, in Bordeaux.  And so in honor of my one-year Bordelais anniversary, I thought I would do a post about my overall thoughts, impressions and reflections on this city I now call home.

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Lionel and I would one day call Bordeaux home, primarily based on the fact that most of his family lives in this area.  And while I always thought that it would one day happen, I never really looked forward to that.  Overall, this is probably the area of France I’ve always felt least corresponded to my personality, character and preferences.  It’s not that I didn’t like Bordeaux or the region, but I didn’t love it either…truth be told, I didn’t have a lot of feelings at all about this city.  So, when we decided to move back to France and realized that we would be going to Bordeaux I started making lists in my head of all the positive aspects of Bordeaux and the area to try to psyche myself up and really get excited about calling this city home.  And here I am, a year after arriving, and I can’t say that my thoughts or feelings have really changed.  When it comes to Bordeaux I generally just feel indifferent.

See, with Paris I had a very love-hate relationship.  There are so many things I love about Paris and so many things I still miss, but there are also a lot of things that I hate and reasons why I know moving back wouldn’t be a good idea.  But I have never felt indifferent to Paris.  I feel very strongly about Paris whereas I just don’t feel much of anything about Bordeaux.  I like it fine enough, I haven’t really found anything I hate, but I can’t say there is anything I really love about this city.  I can think of quite a few other French cities I would choose before Bordeaux, but also a few I would never want to live in.  I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there is something about Bordeaux that just creates a lack of feelings in me (if that is even possible).  Or maybe I still just haven't figured out how I really feel about this city.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Bordeaux is a horrible place, on the contrary, overall I’m happy here.  However, whenever someone asks me how I’m liking Bordeaux, I struggle to find an answer or to come up with anything to say, positive or negative.  I just can’t seem to form an overall opinion.  Yes, it is quite pretty, especially in the historical center, but I hate the Garonne and how wide, dangerous and ugly it is, cutting Bordeaux in half with no charm or life.  It feels more like a barrier than an integral part of the city.  Bordeaux’s location can be quite convenient with easy access to the beach and mountains along with lots to explore within a 2ish hour drive – Spain, the beautiful Dordogne region, Pays Basque, Toulouse, La Rochelle and the nearby islands, chateaux, vineyards, etc.  The list really goes on and on.  But at the same time, I’m much more interested in Germany, Belgium and Eastern Europe than Spain and Spanish culture (nothing against Spain, it’s just my preference) and from Bordeaux it is quite difficult and expensive to travel to any of the other European countries that really interest me.  And I don’t ski so the mountains in the winter are basically my nightmare.  Though I will never complain about having the beach only a 45 minute drive away.

Travel, that is a big issue for me here in Bordeaux.  I feel like you can’t go anywhere from the Bordeaux airport without paying an arm and a leg and making multiple changes.  Gone are my days of hopping the next inexpensive EasyJet flight to Eastern Europe.  Now I’m going to have to content myself with the countries that match my personality the least – Spain and Portugal.  Of course, I can also get to Italy fairly easily, but a lot of the possible destinations are places I’ve already been multiple times.  I suppose I could always plan one hell of a European road trip to get to some of my preferred and/or dream destinations.  Or hope that Lionel and I win the lottery one day, which should be quite difficult considering the fact that we don’t play.

Then there is public transportation in Bordeaux.  Apparently it is quite the hassle to get to the airport, should I ever actually have plans to travel.  And while the tram is very nice and new and clean, it is slow and there are only three lines so there are a lot of places you can’t get to without either a car or a lot of time to transfer to another tram or multiple buses.  From what I’ve heard I should be thankful I live within 15 minutes walking distance of a tram stop though, so there is that.  And luckily, since I don’t have to leave the house for work, our tram line takes me straight into the center of Bordeaux and through the administrative district, so it pretty much gets me everywhere I need to go directly, except the train station.  The Bordeaux tram system is also quite refreshing after the Paris metro.  I can usually get a seat, people aren’t constantly pushing and shoving each other, beggars aren’t harassing me left and right and people are actually polite and will give up their seats to the elderly, the injured, children and pregnant women.  It’s quite shocking!

I have found some very nice restaurants and some bars and cafés that I quite enjoy, but the lack of reasonably priced Asian food is starting to make Lionel and I go mad.  I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t found the Asian grocery store out at Bordeaux Lac making it possible to recreate most of our favorites in our own kitchen.  Plus I’m still exploring and I’m sure I’ll find other restaurants to enjoy.  I also enjoy that there are quite a few things to do in and around Bordeaux, though I wish there were some more interesting museums.

However, one of my biggest issues with Bordeaux would have to be the wine bars.  Now, if you are like me, when you think of Bordeaux the first thing that comes to mind is wine.  I mean, Bordeaux is basically the wine capital of the entire world.  So, naturally, I expected to come here and have a plethora of fabulous wine bars at my fingertips.  What I didn’t expect was that every one I would go into would require you to purchase some sort of food along with your wine.  I mean, really!?!  Perhaps I’m not hungry.  Perhaps I just want a glass (or bottle) of wine.  Perhaps I was just planning to stop in for an aperitif before dinner elsewhere.  Or perhaps I just want to grab an after dinner drink and am too stuffed from said dinner to eat any more food.  And perhaps, with all of those perhapses, I just wanted to be able to go somewhere with a great selection of wine to have that drink.  I mean, this is Bordeaux, shouldn’t I be able to have a glass of wine without having to buy food?   On a side note, if anyone who is reading this knows Bordeaux well and knows of wine bars in the center that don’t require the consumption of food, please leave a message!

And since this awful discovery about the wine bars of Bordeaux (or at least every one I’ve been to so far), I’ve also noticed the same problem present itself in some other bars and cafés.  Especially when they are in a nice location.  Like on the quais, or Place St. Pierre.  Is it really not possible to enjoy an alcoholic beverage with a nice view without eating something?  Or is it just me and I go to all the wrong places?  Though honestly, along the quais I’ve found both with and without food options, but as far as I can figure you can only have a drink on the beautiful Place St. Pierre if you are eating.  And with policies like these how is it that the Bordelais don’t all weight 100+ kilos?  This is the city of wine people, just let it flow free without any rules or regulations!

And on the subject of wine, I’m ashamed to admit it (and so please don’t tell on me) but I’m really not a huge fan of Bordeaux wines.  I mean, I’ll drink them, don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy or anything.  But they are not at the top of my list of preferences.  Hell, they don’t even make it in the top 5.  Give me anything from the Val de Loire and I’ll be a happy camper (and so will my wallet).  However, I would never admit this to a Bordelais for fear of being thrown out of the city immediately.  In Bordeaux they sure do love their wines (though only with food apparently)!  Better to not insult them and if you are invited over to anyone’s house here in Bordeaux, it is definitely best to bring a bottle of Bordeaux.  Though sometimes I don’t just to spite them and their wine snobbery!  Even at the supermarket I am pretty much always the only person in the wine aisle not looking for a bottle in the enormous and imposing Bordeaux section.  Nope, I inconspicuously make my little American way over to the Loire section, or sometimes Rhône if I feel like a change, and happily pick out one of my preferences, though each and every time I feel like I should hide my head and be ashamed of myself.   However, slowly but surely I’m learning more about the Bordeaux wines, and who knows, maybe one day I might turn into a Bordeaux wine snob as well.  Until then I will definitely at least enjoy the pleasing sight of vineyards everywhere you turn.

Overall the Bordelais seem to be quite nice, despite their affinity for mocking my accent and their wine snobbery and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by most of my administrative encounters (though I hope I’m not putting my foot in my mouth as I still haven’t had my interview with the préfecture for my naturalization request).  I also like the fact that people don’t wear as much black as in Paris, and I’ve been noticing the influence on my wardrobe.  I certainly can’t complain about the weather in Bordeaux and I enjoy having such easy access to nature and outdoor activities, something that always was an issue for me living in Paris.  I would have to say Bordeaux is probably overall a better size city for me.  It still has the culture, restaurants and amenities of a city without being as stressful.  And well, Rasteau absolutely loves it here and since he’s our baby that is definitely important.  Though I could do without some of his furry escapades!

Nonetheless I’m a bit disappointed in how difficult it has been to find friends here.  While I’ve met a few people that I see on a regular basis and with whom I quite enjoy spending my time, by the end of June they will pretty much all have left Bordeaux, leaving me to start all over again.  Luckily we still have Lionel’s friend and his wife who live here and their group of friends who are all quite nice giving us at least some sort of permanent social life.  But I still want to make my own friends.  People who I choose to spend my time with because I met them on my own and we clicked and really enjoy each others’ company, have common interests, are in similar situations, etc.  Not just people who, in a way (and not to sound mean or anything because they are all very nice, we just don’t have a lot in common for the most part), I am sorta forced to socialize with.  And luckily we also have a lot of Lionel’s family to see as well, so we are not entirely alone.  It’s just, I need friends of my own as well, people I can relate to more and who can relate to me.  And I’ve pretty much given up on meeting other Americans here…I’m just not having any luck no matter how hard I try!  Even the American bar, which would be a surefire bet in Paris, didn’t prove fruitful.  Le sigh.

Regardless, I do appreciate the beauty of the city center, full of winding streets, beautiful churches and historic buildings.  And, even though it may not be my first pick, I’ve enjoyed having the chance to explore a new place.  While part of my frustration may be a direct consequence of my precarious social life and the fact that we don’t actually live in Bordeaux but in les banlieues proches, we do still have people to see, things to do and places to go.  And our less-than-central location at least provides quick and easy access to a lot of stores and the highway for speedy escapes when we want to get out of town.  Though unfortunately a lot of this requires driving, which we all know I am less than keen to do in France.

Overall I have to admit that I’m quite happy with my life right now, which I suppose just goes to show you that happiness doesn’t entirely depend on where you live.  Or perhaps it’s just the peace of living somewhere that doesn’t inspire heated, passionate feelings of love and hate.  Maybe it’s that lack of strong sentiments and quick fire reactions that I need…that overall feeling of indifference.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the past few years with our numerous international moves and I think I’ve finally come to understand exactly how I want to live my life and what is going to make me the happiest.  And while I wouldn’t currently say I’m thrilled to live in Bordeaux, I would definitely say I’m OK with it.  I find myself being more optimistic than in the past and I’m trying to focus more on the pros.  While I do just feel indifferent to this city at the moment, I do realize it has a lot to offer and that it is a perfectly fine place to live.  I also realize that nothing is forcing us to stay here forever and you never know what life will bring.  Perhaps, with time, I will begin to feel more of an affinity for this place.  Or maybe one day we will move again and who knows, in the future I might just end up in one of cities that really attract me and fit more with my personality.  So until my dreams of Tours or Strasbourg come true I’m feeling good about working to build my life in Bordeaux, hell I’m even looking forward to it.  In the end I suppose that feeling indifferent really isn’t that bad, just as long as people stop asking me how I feel about Bordeaux!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Portes Ouvertes à St. Emilion

This past weekend we took advantage of the improved weather and headed off to spend the day with some friends in St. Emilion. The city is beautiful but we really wanted to go over the weekend to take advantage of their Portes Ouvertes. Because, really, who says no to free wine tastings in a region very well no for it's incredible (and often times expensive wines)?

We went with friends who had never been to St. Emilion so we spent some time visiting the gorgeous town and we did tastings at places within walking distance of the city, though I could have happily been chauffeured around the area to visit château after château and drink of their delectable nectar!

 Lionel and I on top of La Tour du Roy

Cloître des Cordeliers, in the heart of St. Emilion.  Definitely want to go back soon to explore the site a bit more and sit outside enjoying a bottle of their bubbly such a remarkable setting.

 view over St. Emilion and La Tour du Roy

vineyards on rolling hills surrounding the city

 
 view over St. Emilion from La Tour du Roy

 taking a break after some serious wine tasting

looking down the valley

 cloître de l'église collegiale with the clocher de l'église monolithe rising in the background

The first producer we visited was Clos Badon-Thunevin. As they explained, they started in 1990 with a very small production in the heart of St. Emilion and at the time they were made fun of by some of the bigger producers for being a "vin de garage" as their chais were located in an old garage. I guess now they are having the last laugh as they were classé in 1992 and have been producing amazing and well-known grands crus ever since. We were delighted by our visit. One of the owners showed us around their location in the city (the original garage that has since been expanded) and she was very friendly and informative. Afterwards we were given the opportunity to taste some of their wines. I was expecting to only get to taste a few of their less expensive bottles, but in the end we ended up tasting about 10 different wines which were on sale for a range of 15€-150€ in their store. I couldn't believe they would open such expensive bottles for a free wine tasting weekend, but I enjoyed it none the less!

 
The chais in the heart of St. Emilion in the original garage

wine tasting!

Afterwards we headed over to visit Clos des Menuts located on the edge of the city. They have incredible monolithic caves under their property that we were able to visit before proceeding back upstairs for a more typical tasting of four different wines chosen based on our general preferences. The wines were also good, but nothing compared to the first visit, and that was definitely revealed in the prices with most of their bottles ranging from 12€-30€ rather than the bottles going up easily to at least 300€ at the first location. But while the wines weren't quite as impressive the cadre was exceptional with the amazing caves.

 bottles and bottles and bottles all over les caves

 
and wine barrels lining the walls

 more barrels and bottles

and the walls of les caves were covered in carvings

It really ended up being the perfect way to spend our Saturday and next year I think I'll make a point to do led portes ouvertes in St. Emilion again and maybe head out to some of the other châteaux outside of the city!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Récemment

I was hoping that by now I would be able to do a post full of photos of our newly renovated bathroom, but unfortunately it's still not done. We got the new shower installed 2 weeks ago and shortly after that the sanibroyeur and then finally last week the sink and vanity. There were just a few details to finish before it was beautiful and picture ready. And so, naturally, today our shower decided to go en grève. After showering this morning we noticed a rather large puddle of water on the floor and came to discover that some pipe somewhere was leaking. So we ended up having to rip out our brand new shower and are once again sans douche until we manage to redo the évacuation d'eau. And I'm not going to lie, it was quite a blow.  The bathroom renovations have put a lot of stress on me this past month and on top of that I was pretty unhappy to travailler pour la fête du travail  today and this just killed my day even more.

 So, to try to improve my mood, voici some photos of positive, non-bathroom-related things that I've been up to lately.

 We got a beautiful new fridge!  And my friends and family in the US kept making fun of it saying it was only "half a fridge."  Well, I'm sorry if I don't need a $3,000 fridge that is big enough to store food for a family of twenty when it's just Lionel and I!

 I've been out and about quite a bit in Bordeaux recently, meeting up with friends for food, drinks and fun (as I've needed something to help me get through all the stress).  This is la cloche de St. Michel at night.
 
 
Porte Cailhau and Place du Palais

 
La Garonne and the Pont de Pierre

  
La Grosse Cloche 

 
I checked out Grind House, the American bar in Bordeaux with some friends.

 I was hoping to meet some fellow Americans there, but alas, the only one I met was the bar's owner.  However, I did get a kick out of the fact that they serve NFL team themed shots (go Cincinnati Bengals!).

And there are American flags everywhere (though I shouldn't have been surprised I suppose).

 Rasteau has been invitng his friends over to play in the backyard...here we have Rasteau, Le Petit and La Petite meeting up for some fun.  We really need to get more creative with the names however.

 We spent Easter out at the Bassin d'Arcachon.  Easter Sunday was also Lionel's birthday and we went out for lunch with my in-laws at a delightful little restaurant called Le Cabanon.  Afterwards, even though the sun wasn't shining, we went for a walk at le Port de la Hume.

 view of the bassin from le Port de la Hume

So all in all, despite the ongoing bathroom issues and renovations, the past few weeks haven't been completely horrible!  I just have to keep reminding myself of that when the stress starts to get overwhelming!  And if all goes well (meaning our bathroom doesn't explode or something) we have plans for a pretty enjoyable weekend.