Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The French Riviera and Normandy

We have just returned from about a week of travelling all over France. It was absolutely wonderful. We spent the first half of the week in Nice, which is in the French Riviera. To get there, we took a high speed train. The journey was about 6 hours.  It’s pretty amazing to me that I can be to the Mediterranean in 6 hours, when it took me 5 hours just to drive to Indy from Detroit! Ha!

When we first got to Nice on Wednesday, we checked out the beach. This was my first view of the Mediterranean!

After wandering along the coast, we spotted a waterfall that was very high up on a cliff. I could tell that people were up there, so we decided to climb up to it. It was beautiful – and the view from up top was amazing!

Next, we walked through “Old” Nice. It was a pedestrian only area and it was exactly how I had always envisioned Europe. Narrow roads, laundry hanging from the windows, cute little shops….you get the picture.

On Thursday, we took a bus to a medieval town called Eze. It is situated up on top of a cliff and was originally built as a type of fortress to keep its inhabitants safe. The bus let us off at the bottom of the village, and then we climbed and wound our way up tiny streets to get to the top. There were adorable shops, cute places to eat, and the view was incredible. It was hard to imagine what this little town must have been like when it was bustling with people.

From Eze, we took the Bus to Monaco. It is one of the smallest countries in the World (second only to the Vatican). The wealth dripping from this place was mind-blowing. You wouldn’t believe the cars and the yachts that we saw. I wouldn’t even need a house if I lived in Monaco – I would just live on my boat. Did you know that the residents of Monaco don’t have to pay taxes OR for their cable?

While in Monaco, I was hoping to see some famous people. My camera was out at all times just in case. I didn’t see anyone famous (sad face) but I did get some pretty awesome pictures.

On Friday, we were supposed to go on a bike tour of Nice. Unfortunately, it got rained out. Which we came to find out NEVER happens. It hardly ever rains in Nice. Bummer. Instead, we decided to have coffee and croissants while waiting for the rain to stop (the croissant that we bought was my 5th croissant of the day….I’m not kidding). Once the rain cleared, we walked around, shopped, and ate the rest of the day. Perfect!
On Saturday, we went to the beach and went swimming in the Mediterranean before it was time to catch our train back to Paris.

We spent one day in Paris in order to recharge, and then we set out in a rental car for Normandy on Monday. We first went to Mont Saint Michel, which started as a monastery for monks and has history dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries. In the 1800s, it was converted to a prison. Now, it is just a tourist attraction….and a busy one at that. I couldn’t believe how far away you could see Mont Saint Michel as you approached it. It basically has farmland on one side, and water on the other.

On Tuesday, we met a tour group at 8:30 for a D-Day tour. Although the sites we saw were not as breathtaking as things we saw earlier in our trip, it was definitely the best thing we did. Our tour guide, Vincent, was awesome and knew so many interesting facts.

For example, when the Allied troops arrived in France, they had to rebuild everything that the Germans had destroyed (ports, airports, roads, etc.). The Allied troops basically had to create an airport in a few days, so they laid down metal grating as a landing strip. When the war was over, metal was very hard to come by. So, the French scavenged everything they could from places left vacant after the war. They pulled up this metal from the landing strip and converted it into fences. We saw a lot of these fences still up to this day! How cool is that?

Anyway, the first place we went was Pont du Hoc. It was a cliff area that 250ish US rangers climbed up to get to some very powerful cannons that the Germans had in place. These huge guns could shoot up to 14 miles. If left there, the Germans could potentially use the guns to ruin the Allied troops strategy of taking Omaha Beach (just a few miles down the coast). So, before the rangers climbed up the cliff, the Allied troops heavily bombed the area where the Germans were thought to be. Then, they climbed up the cliff to take anything that was left. What the rangers didn’t know was that the guns had been moved inland. So everything that they just did was for nothing. You can still see all the craters left by the bombing.
craters left by the bombs

The cliff the rangers had to climb.

Dustin in a bomb crater

Dustin in a German bunker.  This is where they would have had someone watching at all times what was going on outside.

Next, we went to Omaha Beach. This is where the most casualties happened on D-Day. There was a memorial there to the lives that were lost. The water and the cliffs are really quite beautiful – it was hard to imagine war happening there.
Our guide pointed out a new house that had just been built in 2007 at the top of a huge hill. Believe it or not, when they broke ground for the new house, they found 2 German soldiers who they identified with their dog tags. He told us that there are bodies still found quite often.

Finally, we went to the American Cemetery, which is part of Omaha Beach as well. It was quite powerful and emotional. You don’t really realize how many people were killed until you see all of those white crosses and stars of David. There really aren’t words to describe how I was feeling as I walked between the headstones. I was so proud to be an American. So grateful for the sacrifices others have made. I was completely overwhelmed.

It is interesting to note that the land the American Cemetery is on was given to the US for free forever. It is considered to be US soil. So, for about an hour on Tuesday, I was back in the United States of America. It felt good to be home.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tough Tuesday

Tuesday was a particularly frustrating day. I awoke in anticipation of the day to come… it was new carpet day! Although the green carpet is full of character, I was ready to see it go. So, Dustin and I set out in the morning to go wait at our apartment for the installation guy to get there. We waited for several hours for him to arrive. When he finally got there, he immediately started measuring and shaking his head. We could tell that something was wrong. He didn’t speak any English, and the French we have picked up has nothing to do with carpet. I could already tell this was going to be tough.

He shrugged at us, and we shrugged back. What could we say? Obviously something was so wrong that he wasn’t even going to rip out the green carpet. Dustin got one of his coworkers on the phone. We put him on speakerphone and he translated for us. Basically, the size of carpet the man brought with him was too small for our space.

But how could that be? I took the measurements myself (they do not come out and measure for you like in the U.S.) and I was pretty sure they were right. I got out my drawing that I had taken to the carpet store when we purchased it. My dimensions and the dimensions on his work order didn’t match. Mine were right, his were wrong. The guy from the carpet store told Dustin’s coworker (who then told us in English) that we would need to go back to the carpet store to get this worked out.

Fortunately, Dustin’s coworker offered to go with us. At the carpet store we were told that we would need to purchase a new piece of carpet in order to have enough carpet to cover the bedroom floor. On top of that, they couldn’t install the carpet until the middle of September. Are you kidding me? It is a good thing I can’t speak French, because very rude American comments were going through my head. Things like, “This is your mistake, not ours. You should fix this, not me. Isn’t the customer supposed to ALWAYS be right?”

We could live with having to pay extra to fix this, but we couldn’t live with a middle of September installation date. We need this carpet in before our things arrive from the U.S. We basically told them that we would need to go to another store if they couldn’t install it earlier. Amazingly (please read that with a sarcastic tone), they were able to fit us in on the afternoon of August 25th. Hopefully the installation will go smoothly this time…

By the time we figured everything out with the carpet, it was late afternoon. We went to a store to buy a few things for the apartment. After dropping off a coffee maker, iron, and Brita at our new apartment, we quickly checked the mail before heading back to the place we are temporarily staying.

In our mail were some documents that needed to be signed and returned in order to get my work permit. The problem was, the post office was already closed and it was starting to get pretty late. We were leaving early the next morning on a train to Nice. How were we going to get this stuff sent back? We didn’t want to wait until after vacation because I need that work permit to start my new job. In fact, it is possible that I won’t even be able to do the job if I don’t have the work permit very soon.

I decided to call my new friend, Megan, for some help. Megan is wonderful and has been so helpful with tons of tips for living in Paris. And to all my Chi Omega readers, she is a sister of ours! I knew I could count on a Chi O to help us out. She did more than help us – she said we could come to her apartment, copy anything we needed, and print anything we needed. And then she took the envelope and Express mailed it the next day. Thank goodness for Megan!! She saved the day.

We are learning that things in France are much more difficult than in the United States… and I am learning that I need some more patience. I am so used to being able to get things done quickly and correctly. That is a lot harder here – especially since my French is not good. But at the end of the day, I realize that I am lucky to be here. We have made a few friends and are starting to feel a bit more connected. That helps a lot!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Installations and My Birthday

This past week was full of getting things installed/ordered. On Monday, Dustin’s boss helped me order new carpet (YES!!) for our apartment. And yes, we are going from Astroturf to boring beige. But hey, it makes me happy. The carpet is being installed next week.
On Wednesday, all of our items that plug in got delivered from a store called Darty. It is similar to Best Buy. I was pretty stressed about accepting the delivery – Dustin was at work and I had to buzz these people up to our apartment. We are on the 7th floor, so when I buzz people in, I have to say “Septieme” (I have no idea if I spelled that right, but it tells people that I am on the 7th floor). I had a window of 5 hours that they could come, and for the first 3 that I waited I kept practicing what I would say when they buzzed.

Well, when they finally buzzed, I told them in French that I was on the 7th floor and buzzed. I thought it was going perfectly, until they buzzed me from below again. Oh no….they wanted to talk to me. “Madame! Madame!” They started asking me a TON of stuff. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. So, in French, I apologized and explained over the intercom that I do not speak French. To that, I got a huge sigh and then silence. Not knowing what to do, I just buzzed them in again. A few minutes later they arrived on my floor (SUCCESS!) with my things. In came a washer/dryer combo, freezer, TV, crockpot, vacuum, dust buster, stand mixer, grill, and toaster.

Now all that was left to do was install the washer/dryer. No problem, right? Wrong. It didn’t exactly fit. I almost cried. How was I supposed to ask these men if I could send the washer back and get a new one? One of the delivery men noticed that I was getting upset. He signaled to me something like, “One minute.”

He literally ripped off a piece of wood, grabbed some tools and took off a cabinet door that was in the way, and shoved with all his might. He got it to fit! However, the cabinets will never be the same…

On Friday, I had to wait for the guy who was coming to install our phone/cable/Internet. Again, I was a bit nervous about it. Our cable line was currently in the bedroom, and we wanted it in the living room. How was I going to communicate that?

Well, when he arrived, he said in English, “You obviously don’t speak French.” HA! His English was really pretty good, so we communicated with a bit of French, a bit of English, and some made-up sign language. He was a bit perplexed by the way our cable line was going through the apartment. It took him quite awhile, but he finally got the cable re-wired into the living room. Another moment of success!

To celebrate my birthday this weekend, we went on our first European adventure outside of Paris. We drove about 2 hours south to the Loire Valley in France. There we toured several chateaus – they were pretty breathtaking. I have decided that one of them is going to be my next home…

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Friendly Encounter!

A few days ago, I encountered a man who is quite possibly one of the nicest I’ve ever come across. And believe it or not, he is Parisian! It all started when I was trying to find a university where language classes are offered. I had a general idea of where I was going, but I was definitely venturing out into new territory.

After wandering for a bit, I found the university. I didn’t realize it was going to be made up of many different buildings. I had no clue which building to go in to get information about the classes. Somehow, I managed to wander into a courtyard in the middle of several buildings. Feeling frustrated, I sat on a bench to try to figure out where to go next.

Not two seconds later, an old custodian came out of one of the buildings carrying a huge load of trash. He greeted me with, “Bonjour!” and then a stream of French followed. In halted French, I think I told him, “I am sorry. I don’t speak French.” He immediately switched to English and tried to find out how he could help me. It took awhile, but he finally started to understand that I was looking for information about French classes.

He told me to wait a minute and he would be back. I sat on the bench not knowing what I was about to get myself into. As I waited, he literally ran inside to drop off the trash he was holding, and then ran back out to where I was sitting. He told me to come with him. From the courtyard, he led me across the street to another building with a front desk inside. In French, he explained to the person behind the desk that I was an American looking for information. The lady told him that I needed to go to wing “B”. I thought the custodian would say goodbye there. Instead, he escorted me to wing “B” where I got all the information I needed. I thanked him over and over again. He kept responding with, “No problem!” I would never have found the right spot without his help! I just couldn’t believe that he would drop everything he was doing to help me. I am definitely thankful for that random encounter.

We had a less-friendly encounter on Saturday. Dustin realized that morning that he left a few things at work that we needed to get our year-long metro pass. So, we went to his office building to pick the things up on our way into the city. Since it was Saturday, the office was empty – or so we thought.

A man rounded a corner into Dustin’s office area and was speaking to us in French. He wasn’t exactly yelling, but we could tell he was not happy that I was there. He ended up personally escorting me out of the building. How crazy is that? I’m not exactly sure what happened. Oh well….I guess you win some and you lose some.

Our goal on Saturday was to buy a year-long metro pass. In order to buy it, you have to provide all sorts of identification, bank information, proof of address, etc. We knew that this could get pretty complicated. The lady behind the desk spoke absolutely zero English. Dustin had printed off exactly what we wanted, but it was still pretty tough. We relied on a few phrases we knew how to say….and the translator app on Dustin’s Iphone. We ended up having to type a few things in English, then press translate, then hand the phone to the lady. Luckily, she was very friendly and willing to try to help us. It is a pretty humbling experience to constantly feel like you don’t know what is going on.

To celebrate the purchase of our passes, we got a crepe Nutella. It was my very first crepe and VERY tasty. Whenever I get frustrated about my inability to communicate, I just remember all of the yummy food we can get here. :)