Monday, April 16, 2018

My First Doctor Appointment in France

I successfully visited the doctor in France, but truthfully, even now, I have no idea how to get into her building.
The doctor's office is located on the Cours Mirabeau. Tres chic!
I didn't go early because articles I read talked about doctors always being late because they spend one-on-one time with patients in France, so I walked up to the outer gates at 4:28 for a 4:30 appointment. That's when I realized that I had no idea how to get into the outer gates.
I could read on the name plate that she was in building B, in the RDC (rez de chausseé), but I looked at the code and wondered what to enter.
I had called her that morning on her phone number, which was also listed.
I assailed a woman walking past, "Madame!" And I asked her in French what code to push. As we started to examine her placard on the wall, another woman entered a code and pushed open the gate!
Voilà! I could enter. I scurried after her while waving thank you to the woman who had started to help me.
I passed through a courtyard to the buildings numbered 50 and turned toward the door on the right, building C, so I kept going and turned to the left, building B.
At the next door I hesitated again. How to open the locked door.
A panel on the wall told me to scan up or down until I found the doctor. I did and entered the 4-digit code for her, but then what? Was there a "validate" or "enter" button. I waited too long and had to scroll through the names again, Press the number then press the bell symbol, which looked totally different than the bell symbol in the instructions.
Okay! I heard the door click and pressed into the building. A door to the right had my doctor's name on it, so I pushed on the door, which was luckily open and went to the Salle d'Attente, the waiting room. No one else was in there. I had also read that I should greet anyone in the waiting room, so I dodged that bullet.
In just a few minutes, a woman dressed in a white blouse and white pants stuck her head into the waiting room and nodded at me. I assumed that meant I should follow her, so I did.
She told me to be seated and she sat across a desk from me, entering information into the computer. But I had read enough blogs about visiting the doctor in France to know that this was actually the doctor, not a medical insurance clerk or a nurse.
I wasn't there that long, probably 15 minutes, and I didn't have to get undressed or really even examined other than having  my blood pressure taken.
That's why I went to see her. In the U.S., I take a pill, or half a pill, but my doctor, when she convinced me to take it, assured me it was only a "water pill." In France, they went straight with "diuretic.
The doctor at the immigration office said my blood pressure was too high. A technician at the pharmacy took it and said it was fine. I figured I'd better consult a doctor.
She agreed that it was too high, but France doesn't carry the diuretic my doctor had prescribed. Then she proceeded to tell me why taking a diuretic is only masking the high blood pressure symptom but not fixing it.
She suggested another prescription, and I nodded. She also advised me that I needed to buy a blood pressure machine to keep track of it. I nodded again. I had one in the U.S., but have no idea where it ended up.
We used to keep it in the armrest between the two chairs in the living room. Who knows if it is still there when Spencer sits down in his living room.
The doctor spoke in French the whole time, sometimes very quickly. I hope I understood everything she said.
She gave me a prescription and I carried it to the pharmacy across the street where they filled it for 5 Euros, giving me a receipt so I can send it in to my insurance carrier.
Then they sold me a blood pressure machine for 45 Euros. Guess I really should have held onto that old one.
Afterward, I felt pretty blah. I know high blood pressure runs in my family, but I bicycled 14 miles yesterday and ran 5 miles this morning. I don't think I should have to be on any medication.
But I'll swallow a new pill tomorrow, and maybe try to increase my wine consumption and café sitting to see if it brings that blood pressure down on its own.
The Plane trees along the Cours Mirabeau are finally sprouting pale green leaves. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Bicycles and Sunshine

Yes, I noticed that it has been more than a week and a half since I posted. As Mark Zuckerberg has said numerous times when testifying before Congress, "Sorry."
Even now, I'm not feeling especially inspired to write a blog post, but I'll fill you in a bit on our life.
We've had some temperamental weather here in Aix en Provence. All the cushions for the outdoor furniture are stacked up behind metal chairs to keep them from blowing away in the high winds. And we've seen our first thunderstorm plus a lot of steady rain.
The bad weather has been beneficial to me as I have been working steadily to jump through all the necessary hoops to begin a new online teaching job. Lots of quizzes, studying and mock classes, which I'm hopefully at the end of. Waiting on a background check.
We aren't spending more money than I had anticipated in France, but I'm making less money. I didn't get any classes to teach for the one college where I work, but I have gotten one class every semester at the other. Still, some unexpected bills mean I need to find a way to earn more, thus the latest online job, which will hopefully make up the difference.
But, a lack of money didn't keep us from one of the objects we consider a necessity while living in France.
We made a foray to Burgundy, France, about a 4-hour drive, to buy new bikes.
You may be wondering, don't they sell bikes in Aix en Provence? And, I'm sure they do. But we wanted nice bikes at a low price.
Long ago, when Earl and I took a bike tour of Provence, we rented hybrid bikes from a company called Bourgogne Randonnees. They delivered bikes to us in Avignon and picked them up at the end of our trip in Aix en Provence. The bikes were topnotch.

So Earl contacted the bike shop, and they had two used bikes that were just our size. Mine, of course, was much smaller than Earl's. They offered them for 200 Euros each. The Gitanes bikes are 27-speed with shifters on the handlebars. They're so simple, even I can figure them out.
We left Aix around 7 a.m. after a thunderstorm-filled night, driving on the wet roads. Getting out of Aix was the hardest part, but then we took the freeway almost the whole ride, and our credit card can vouch for that since we had a 24-Euro toll on the first leg and a 12-Euro toll on the second leg.
The amazing thing, as we left the sunny south of France and its rain clouds behind was that we actually found glorious sunshine in Beaune, France, a town in Burgundy.
We worried we wouldn't get to the bike shop before lunch, and if we didn't arrive before noon, the shop would be closed until 2 or 2:30 for lunch. We pulled up around 11:30 a.m. and the two owners, Cedric and Florian pulled out the bikes they had set aside for us.
Look how much taller Earl's bike seat is than mine!
They let us try the bikes during lunch hour, so we rode along a path around the ancient walls of the city before  bumping over some cobblestones and locking up the bikes. We needed lunch too.
Ouch, those cobblestones on the bike tires, but oh the blue sky.
We ate outside, even though the owners thought it too chilly, but the sun warmed us and we ended up taking off our coats while we ate. 
We took a selfie in front of this fountain.

Here's the square with the fountain. 
Earl had a velouté soup, that's a cream soup with lots of vegetables, then a chicken burger, which is basically a chicken sandwich. I had a salad with ham and tartine of vegetables(vegetables cooked in a foil packet). There was zucchini, eggplant, radish, and not sure what that yellow round thing was. Plus a baked potato with a sauce. Yes, that probably cancelled out the benefits of all those vegetables.
Oh, did I forget the bread with cheese on it? That's part of a salad too, right?
We walked around Beaune some after lunch then rode the bikes a few miles. Earl was impressed with the bikes. He had feared they would be in worse shape since they had been rentals. But the tires had good tread on them. The gears all changed smoothly and the mechanics of the bike appeared to be great. We gladly paid them for the bikes and two helmets.

Happily rolling the bike to the car
Once we removed the front tires, we were able to fit the bikes in the hatchback of the car and drove four hours back to Aix.
Unfortunately, we left behind the clear skies as we headed south.
The South of France is supposed to be the sunny part. 
But for nearly an hour, a rainbow shone in the sky, sometimes pale, sometimes intense as if leading us back to our current home in Aix en Provence.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Unamazing Race for a Visa

The man at the corner tabac turned the pages of a notebook before he looked up at our anxious faces.
"I don't have enough," he said.
Our hearts dropped to our stomachs. We were counting on the tabac by the immigration office having the tax stamps we needed to get Earl's visa. His appointment started in less than an hour, and his temporary visa expired today.
Would this mistake cost us our "Amazing Race" to spend a year in France?

Today was the day that Earl had his appointment with the French immigration office. It should have been no problem. I went through it two weeks ago. We knew what to do.
One thing that tripped us up at my appointment was buying tax stamps. Our friend told us to go to any tabac (that's just a tobacco store that also sells coffee and lottery tickets and various other items) and buy the stamps. For my appointment, we went to a tabac in Aix en Provence, but the woman gave us a paper with an electronic stamp printed on it.
When we gave the immigration office woman the paper with the electronic stamps, she sadly shook her head. We needed physical stamps. So Earl ran to the tabac on the corner near the immigration office in Marseille and purchased the 250 Euros worth of stamps allowing me to complete my Visa.

As we prepared for Earl's appointment, I leaned toward waiting until we arrived in Marseille at the immigration office. We knew the tabac had the stamps, it was right on the corner, and we didn't risk getting the wrong thing.
We stopped at one tabac here in Aix en Provence to ask, but they didn't have the stamps. "Let's just wait,"I convinced Earl.
After waking up in the blackness of the early morning, we left the apartment at 6 walking down the darkened Cours Mirabeau as vendors began to set up their booths, emptying large white vans and unfolding tables.
We caught the 6:30 bus to Marseille, arriving at 7 before we descended to the Metro and exited on the street of the immigration office. The route was familiar. We didn't hurry. All we had to do was buy the stamps, and we had all the other papers in order.
When the man in the tabac told us he didn't have enough stamps, I asked him where else we could go. He pointed to the left and said take the third street to the left.
We scurried down a street, stopping at a couple of other tabac shops. The people behind the counter generally gave us strange looks as I asked for "les timbres des taxes." I didn't know what else to call them, but they all shook their heads and sent us on our way.
Of course, they suggested places in French, and I was in a tizzy, unable to understand what they said or to take the time to ask for clarification.
One woman suggested something that sounded like "ampoules" and motioned down the street. I searched the buildings for a sign that might say "ampoules" which I later found out means bulbs, so it wasn't the correct thing.
After about five tabacs, following the map on Earl's phone, I suggested he go back to the immigration office for his appointment. He would need to have a chest xray, meet with the nurse and the doctor before he would need the stamps. I would arrive at immigration before he needed the stamps - I promised him.
He gave me a kiss and the 250 Euros to buy the stamps. He also handed me his phone since it is the one with French service. I could use it for directions.
The last tabac we had asked at pointed down the street and said "vingt-deux." Twenty-two? I wondered. But the phone was directing me toward another tabac so I decided to follow that.
I walked about three blocks in the opposite direction before I turned back, heading toward the direction the woman had pointed. That's when I saw a sign for the City of Marseille Prado office.
Maybe someone in city government would be able to help me.
The building with the sign said the office had been moved down the street, so I hurried to the new office, which was closed until 8:30. Next door was a hotel, so, just like on The Amazing Race, I decided to consult with the hotel concierge.
The man buzzed me into the building and told me he spoke English. What a relief! I explained what I was looking for and he looked me in the eye and said, "Ma'am, I am a hotel."
If I hadn't been so desperate, I would have laughed.
"I know you're a hotel. I thought you might know where I can look."
He read the letter that explained what I needed. "It says you can buy it online," he said.
"The woman at the immigration office wouldn't accept an electronic stamp," I explained. "We need actual, physical stamps."
He went on a brief tangent, suggesting that we deal with someone else in the office, but I just wanted to find the right kind of stamps so Earl could get his visa.
"When I need stamps, I go to the tabac to the right of the white church in the old port," he said.

We were miles from the old port but I nodded my head. "Could you call and ask them?"
"I don't have the number there, ma'am," he said.
Now, if I were pushy, like the contestants on The Amazing Race, I would have offered to look up the numbers if he would just do the French speaking, but I didn't.
 "Do you think the city office next door will know?" I asked him.
"Have them write it down then come back to me and I'll explain it," he said.
I waited for the office to open and got in the building second, in front of another couple who were distracted by a phone call. There were no numbers to pull from the ticket machine, but I stood, shifting from foot to foot.
The man in front of me was there for his passport and he got called to a worker right away. The other workers didn't seem to eager to start their day. They compared papers and plugged in printers, exchanging cheek kisses as they greeted one another.
Finally, a woman called out for the next person.
She looked at me like I was crazy too. She said a word that I didn't understand.
"Will you write it down?" I asked.
"Impots" is what she wrote, followed by "Bar Tabac." Yes, I knew about the tabac already.
I ran back to the concierge.
"Of course, des impots," he said.
"Where is it?" I demanded.
Down the street, turn right past the tabac, past a restaurant called Bozen, and there was the office. The office said "Centre de Finance Publique." I marched up the walkway and saw a notice on the door that they did not have "timbres fiscaux." Damn. That's what I needed. The man inside the door waiting to direct people to lines looked at me. I entered and asked where I could find "timbres fiscaux."
"Vingt-deux," he said pointing to the right.
"Vingt-deux?" I repeated. And he nodded.
So I raced back out to the street. I just needed to go to number 22 on this busy four-lane street. I looked at the first building on my right -- number 179! Oh, no.
The numbers aren't the way they are in the U.S. where one block might be the 100s and the next block would be the 200s. Nope. One block was the 170s, and the next one was the 160s.
I don't know how far I walked before I finally reached 24, which seemed like a much better bet than 22, which was a clothing shop. Number 24 had a big entrance with several buildings inside with other numbers on them. I hesitated and perused the map before I let out a decidedly French sound like a raspberry. The woman beside me laughed, equally perplexed by the maze of numbers and buildings.
I asked in the next building, but that was a phone company. The concierge at building 24 was missing. I couldn't wait. I had to hurry.
Maybe I misunderstood the man. Maybe he said "cent vingt-deux" 122. I walked back to 122 but it was a doctor's office.
I pulled out Earl's phone and searched for "tabac" near "vieux port" the old port. Several popped up and I called one, maybe not the one beside the white church, but in that general vicinity.
I sputtered my way through a French phone conversation. Yes, they had the stamps. He would check to see how many. Yes, no problem, but blah, blah, blah.
"What?" I asked. "I didn't understand."
He repeated and I gathered that I needed cash, no credit cards.
"I'm coming," I called into the phone, or maybe I said "I'm coming back," who knows because it was in French.
Now, I needed to find a taxi. Enough with walking. I'd already covered more than 8000 steps and it wasn't even 9 a.m.
I saw a man striding up the street with a folder under his arm and I called, "Do you know where I can find a taxi?" He kept walking but then stopped and turned around, realizing I was talking to him. My mistake was not saying, "Bonjour, Monsieur," before I addressed him.
I told him where I wanted to go and he started to tell me where to go, then suggested I just come along with him since he was headed that way. "But  you could take the Metro," he said, "or even walk there, it is only 20 minutes or so."
I wanted to scream that I'd been pacing the streets for nearly two hours, but I refrained and walked toward the metro or the taxi that awaited up the street.
"Can you make it from here?" he asked as we came upon the Metro entrance. I thanked him and headed down to the subway. Just a few stops later and I emerged into Marseille's old port area. A gorgeous port with sparkling water and lots of good restaurants when one has the time to be a tourist.

I typed in the address of the tabac in Earl's phone, but it kept saying a 13 minute walk. 
I entered another tabac. The man did not have enough stamps for 250. 
Desperately, I finally flagged down a taxi. 
"Take me to 4 rue de la Republique," I said. 
He turned the corner and drove about 20 feet. "It's right here," he said.
And just like on The Amazing Race, I said, "Wait for me!"
I jumped out of the taxi and ran into the shop. "I'm here for the stamps," I said.
He opened his notebook and said, "I don't have enough."
Ok. I wanted to call it quits. Earl could leave the country. I was not up to this task or tax. 
I stood aside but didn't leave as the clerk waited on the next man in line. I didn't understand how he could have told me on the phone he had enough, but now he didn't. 
"I can sell you what I have, " he said. "90"
So I bought it. One tiny stamp worth 90 Euro. I tucked it in my wallet and ran for the taxi. I was taking a calculated risk that the tabac next to the immigration office still had the 160 stamps it had earlier in the day. 
The taxi driver wove through the crowded streets, and 16.20 Euros later, pulled up outside the tabac. 
"I'll get out here," I said paying him and grabbing my bag. I ran into the tabac. "I need 160 timbres fiscaux."
The woman counted them out and took my money. My task was completed. 11, 435 steps, about six miles, and I had victoriously gathered the necessary stamps for Earl's visa. 
I walked to the immigration office and climbed the stairs, settling into the waiting room before Earl came out of the medical exam. I tried to look relaxed, like it hadn't been a big deal for me to chase down those stamps, but my feet are telling a different story. 
And,  yeah, I understand a little better now why all of those contestants are praying, "Oh, please, Lord, let me find it."


Saturday, March 31, 2018

My Days in France

As we round the corner to three months in France, you might be wondering what my days look like.
In some ways, they aren't that different from when I lived in Ohio, but the biggest difference has to be the amount I'm working (or not working). Perhaps my days would look the same if I was only teaching one online class at home, but my life obviously revolves around food much more here than it did in Ohio.
If it's just me and Earl, no visitors, then I go for a run in the morning. I'm still finding my way. This morning, I tried to run toward the small roads that lead to Mont Sainte Victoire, but I turned around when the sidewalks stopped. I've also discovered a park with running paths, but I barely get two miles when I cover all the trails, so then I have to repeat them, which is fine.
No dogs on the grass!
The park has a beautiful creek running through it and some sweeping weeping willow trees just changing from their winter blonde to a springtime green.
The landscape is beautiful and I don't have to dodge cars or cross streets. 
But my favorite way to run is to run out two or three miles then run back two or three miles. That way I can't wimp out halfway through. I have no option but to take the route back.
When I return to the apartment, I make my coffee. I'm currently drinking caffeinated, which is something I didn't do at home, but usually only one cup, unless we have espresso after lunch, or dinner.

This morning, baguette, butter, jam and a cappuccino. 
Most mornings, we spring for croissants or pain chocolates or pain au raisins, some sort of vienosseries from the bakery, but this morning, I knew I was going to the market, so I made do with bread and jam. And sometimes, I'll eat oatmeal and Earl will eat cereal. We don't want to be too addicted to delicious baked goods. As a matter of fact, I'm a little jaded already, eschewing one bakery in favor of another because of the quality of their breakfast breads.
Today, the Saturday before Easter, I knew we had to visit the market and stock up. Easter Sunday should see most things closed, including restaurants, and then Monday is a "bank" holiday known as Easter Monday, so most things will be closed again.
Who cares about the street full of market stalls, look at that sky!
I wanted to plan meals but only got some vague ideas, picking out asparagus, a melon, some premade paella and rotisserie chicken a la moutarde.

The huge pan of paella. We added some St. Jacques (scallops) to the mix too. 
We stopped in the Monoprix grocery in the basement of a department store for some necessities, like lunch meat, some noodles and sauce as a back-up meal.
But we couldn't walk home yet; we needed to stop at the bakery, purchasing two loaves to get us through until Monday, or possible Tuesday, depending on which bakeries were open on Monday.
These loaves from Lavarenne are not quite baguettes. They're shorter and wider with
 some leavening so they don't get hard as quickly as baguettes do.

Once we got back to the apartment, we unloaded all our goodies and prepared lunch so we could eat the market food while it was still warm. And, of course, we included a glass of wine, even though it's lunch time.
Eating outdoors. I put the melon on the plate with the paella, but the French
would definitely have served it as a starter or as a dessert on a separate plate. 
We have to do some cleaning. Dishes, laundry, sweeping the floor, changing the beds. And there's always some sort of crisis to handle. Today we saw a huge credit card charge from a medical device at home, so that eats into our day, calling and messaging the bank, the company, trying to sort things out.
Many times we're still dealing with kid things, like Tucker applying for jobs and needing an insurance card to prove he’s insured, or Spencer texting because his car won't start and the red key light is blinking.
Sometimes we can solve things; sometimes we just have extra things to worry about. Would we be better able to handle it if we were home, I wonder? Or, are the kids learning to take care of things better since we are not around? Hopefully.

In the afternoons, if we aren't out sightseeing or going to appointments, we might read or take a nap.
Reading on the terrace
Somewhere in the day, I have to find time to work. Many days, that might be half an hour responding to students online, but other days it might be hours of grading essays.
I haven't been doing very much writing, but I know I have to work that into my schedule. I've signed up for Camp Nanowrimo (by the same sponsors who do National Novel Writing Month in November). This is more free form for people who write other things, but my plan is to try to finish my current novel which is already 36,000 words. My goal is 80,000 words by the end of April, but there will be much editing to do after that.
Some time in the afternoon, we might walk back downtown and pick out a pastry for dessert to take home, or we might settle at a table and order a drink -- a pastis, a kir au vin blanc, a porto.

We'll sip the drinks and watch the people walking past.
Our evenings are not very active. They might simply consist of dinner, starting around 7:30 or 8 p.m. If we're eating out, we definitely won't have time for anything else.
At home, after dinner, we may watch some television on Hulu. Now that it is getting warmer and lighter, I hope that we'll have more outings, maybe some concerts or just walking along the Cours Mirabeau listening to all the street musicians and an occasional trip to the cinema.
So, that's an average day for me now that I live in France.
But if visitors come, all bets are off. Who knows where we might end up.

Friday, March 30, 2018

An Inadvertent Train Ride

Our friend Najah had to fly back to Ohio on Wednesday. Her flight left Paris at noon, so we decided that at 6:30 a.m. train that reached the airport at 10:02 was the best option, rather than her taking the train to Paris the night before her flight left.
We had planned to leave the apartment at 5:30 a.m. to get there by 6 and get loaded onto the train with her luggage.
My alarm went off at 5:05. I skipped putting in my contacts and opted for glasses since I planned to return to bed when we got home at 6:30. I even contemplated leaving my pajama shirt on and just putting a sweater over it, but at the last minute I decided to get fully dressed and brushed my teeth. My hair was still braided on the side from the day before when the wind along the Mediterranean started whipping it.

Of course, the braid was looser and a little sloppy, but I would be home in bed again soon.
We waited in the enclosed room, and checked the train numbers in time to know that the train on the quai was not the right one for Najah. The next one arrived 10 minutes later. The doors slid open.
"I'll say goodbye here," I said hugging Naj.
"No come with me," she said, so I went aboard to help her find her seat while Earl carried her suitcase up the steps and placed it on the luggage rack.
Hugs goodbye and we turned to leave as an announcement was being made. I didn't focus on the announcement, but the man in front of me was moving to the opposite side of the aisle and his bag got caught on the armrest of the chair and blocked the aisle.
I smiled, one of those tight-lipped smiles that says I'm impatient, as he unhooked the bag and we continued on. We descended the interior stairs and I saw that the door to the platform was closed.
I didn't panic, merely pushed the black button to open the door, but it didn't open and at that moment the train began to move. That's when my heart started to beat frantically. 
"The train's moving!" I said to Earl, in the most obvious statement ever that didn't need to be said.
We glanced at the little red hammer at the top of the door. It wasn't an emergency though. We were stuck on the train.
I took a minute to calm myself, to talk myself down from the panic rising in my chest.
We didn't have a job that we'd be late for. We hadn't left the doors unlocked or the tea kettle boiling. We had no children at home alone and had let the cat outside before we left.
We might be taking the train to Paris and back, but the only thing to worry about was the time and the money.
We walked back up the stairs to the top floor of the train and Naj looked up.
"What happened?"
"We couldn't get off," I said.
"We thought you could use some company," Earl said.

And so we sat down with Naj and felt the sway of the train. I made Najah rebraid my hair so it wasn't quite so messy. Earl fell promptly to sleep. We looked at Najah's ticket trying to figure out if the train would stop anywhere before Paris.
It's a high-speed train, a TGV. It would normally take about 8 hours to drive from Aix en Provence to Paris, but the train covers it in 3 and a half hours. Wherever we were going, we were headed there fast.
I checked out the train app trying to see if we could buy tickets while on the train or at least find a return trip, but the WiFi wasn't working.
I walked down to the dining car to ask who we could talk to, but they weren't open yet. I had no idea where a conductor was but knew that eventually they would be coming along to check out tickets and we wouldn't have them
As Earl slept, I analyzed my continuing anxiety. The truth was, I hated anticipating that moment when the conductor would arrive and I would have to explain that we were accidentally on the train and we had no tickets. And I'd need to do it in a foreign language.
My friend Delana had advised before to just speak in English and pretend like I didn't understand what the train conductor said. I know that my daughter once fell asleep on a French train and her tears ended up with a hand-written note to let her get the next train back. I didn't think I could fake not understanding the problem, and I'm not one for crying on cue.
After nearly an hour, a familiar tone sounded and the announcer said we were arriving at Valence.
Map from Google Maps
We'd never heard of Valence, but we were grateful to hop off the train at any place farther south than Paris. We gave Najah more hugs and waited anxiously by the door.
At the ticket machine, we bought return tickets for 68 Euros total. We could have tracked down a train official and told him/her our story of woe, but I feared that we would have to pay for the trip to Valence and back, plus a fine, so we opted to simply buy a return ticket.
With an hour train ride back, and only one stop in Avignon, now I could worry about what might have happened to the car. We pulled into the parking lot and parked in the very front spot for what should have been 45 minutes of free parking. I hoped I hadn't missed a sign about cars being towed after a certain amount of time.
When we exited the train at 9:30, after our three-hour unplanned trip, we found the car there and had to pay 14 Euros to exit the lot. So for 82 Euros, about $100, we had an unintentional train ride to nowhere and back.
We didn't go back to bed when we got home at 10 a.m., but we spent a bit of time decompressing from the stress, and we learned a good lesson about staying on the platform to wave goodbye to friends when they leave. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Adventures and Bubbles

There's always so much to write about, but I find myself zoning out once I finally sit down in the evenings, rather than writing a blog.
My friend Najah came to visit a week ago. We met her in Paris and took the train down to Aix en Provence where we're staying until May although she leaves this week. We've had lots of adventures.

A trip to Marseille on Friday almost ended in a few international incidents as I stood up for us as women being ignored in a Tunisian shop and then again as I demanded why a waiter had asked Najah if she was eating at the restaurant when she went in to look for the bathroom and he hadn't asked me, a white woman.
The result was the waiter grabbing me, his fingers closing around my wrist like a handcuff, and pulling me into the restaurant to meet one of the black chefs. "This is my brother!" he proclaimed before making a gesture I had never seen before as he used his fingers to slash across his chest where his heart would be and said I had broken his heart.
I felt bad if I had falsely reproached him, but when I went to sit down, Earl and Najah asked me what he had said when I accused him of being racist. "He introduced me to his black friend," I said. And then it hit me. That's what people always do when you accuse them of being racist, tell you they have black friends.
We spent the rest of the day without fighting with any French people. The sun shone on the sparkling Mediterranean. Najah and I walked arm in arm while Earl traipsed ahead. At one point as Najah and I laughed, heads together, a young man called out to us.
"Mesdames," he said, "vous êtes belles."
And it's true, our joy made us beautiful.
We laughed as we turned back toward the ancient buildings and the sea.
On Saturday, we spent the morning at the market in Aix, returned home to make lunch and then headed to the March For Our Lives. We were surprised and overjoyed to know there would be a local march.
"I just hope there are more than 10 people or so," I muttered as Earl, Najah and I walked to the meeting point. I hated to be the center of attention, yet that is exactly where Najah and I ended up.

Somehow, when we posed with the 100 or so people for a group photo, we were at the far right side, until the organizer said everyone should turn to the right for the picture and, voila, we were at the front.

When the march started, we tried to hang back, but somehow ended up leading the chants. I remembered a few from previous marches, like the Women's March, and the protests when the state government tried to take away the rights of unions, but I had not prepared enough for this.
"Tell me what democracy looks like?" I'd call and the group would respond, "This is what democracy looks like."
Of course, a French woman who had lived in the U.S. for 20 years explained that a legal march should have two police officers at the front and one at the back. We had none. Was it a wise idea to march past the Hotel de Ville? Earl still didn't have his next visa.
But we continued and even led the chants as we marched back toward the plaza, before deciding we'd peel off from the group and go for a glass of wine.

As we sat in the square, I took this artsy photo of Najah's glasses reflecting the buildings along Cours Mirabeau.

Earl went in search of a baguette and wine for our dinner, but Najah and I stayed at the table long enough to see a young woman set up her bubble stand, using long sticks to create magical circles that captured rainbows and floated down the old street amongst the peeling bark of the plane trees. Just another day in Aix en Provence.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Visa Adventures

It happened today -- an official, shiny seal of blue, white and red in my passport showing that I am approved to stay in France through 2019.
2019! That seems so far away.
I was notified by mail that I needed to report to the Marseille Immigration office for my official medical exam.
I also needed to bring a passport-sized photo, a certificate to show I had a place to live, and 250 tax stamps. (That sounds like something from the Colonial times, doesn't it?)
Curiously, although Earl entered the country at the exact same time as me, he did not have an appointment. He came along, mapping the route the day before, in case they meant both of us but only named me.
The appointment had me spooked. I'd read enough books about Americans visiting French doctors and being asked to wait completely naked in the exam room, or, God forbid, the David Sedaris story, In the Waiting Room, about going to the doctor and being sent to wait in his underwear.
I knew that the medical exam included a chest xray to check for tuberculosis, so I anticipated that clothes would be removed.

The man at the tourism office convinced us we needed to catch the 5:45 train from Aix en Provence to Marseille. So we walked out the door of the apartment at 5 a.m., which means I was in the shower at 4:15 a.m. It makes my eyes droop just thinking of it. I had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. the previous morning to drive my friend Delana to the Marseille Airport.
So, at 5 a.m., with the city still dark, we walked one of the spiral streets that leads to the Cours Mirabeau, the famous tourist street in downtown Aix. We passed the tourism office and continued to the bus station.
The dark and empty bus station in Aix en Provence
The man at the tourism office warned that later buses get quite crowded, still, at 5:25 a.m. with the temperature right at freezing (O in Celsius, 32 in Fahrenheit) I thought a gaggle of warm bodies might have been better.
As we stood waiting, a Japanese man approached us carrying two bags. He sat them down and began to talk to us in superfast English, telling us of his travel adventures. It helped pass the time, and he bowed as we boarded the bus.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at St. Charles train station in Marseille. Yes, 6:15 a.m. for an 8:30 appointment. We were prepared, carrying our folder full of official papers.
I insisted we stop for coffee and pain au chocolate at the train station, after using the pay toilets.
The trains were striking today, so workers gathered in the station, preparing for their demonstration.
Strikers gathered at St. Charles station in Marseille
Luckily, the buses and the metro were not affected. We descended to the Metro and bought a roundtrip ticket on the subway. A few stops later, we climbed into the city to see daybreak in a clear sky.
Finally the sun rose on our morning
We walked to the office to make sure we knew the location then we searched out a boulangerie, some place warm to wait, sipping a coffee to make it last, and last, and last.
We'd seen a sign for a "McDrive" a McDonalds with a drive through, so we walked in search of it because after all that coffee, we needed a bathroom, but we couldn't find it so returned to the immigration office. A few people had already gathered outside the door.
Once the workers opened the door, precisely at 8:30, everyone pressed in, no matter what time they had arrived. There was no sense of first come, first serve. I was escorted past the reception desk to the medical waiting room. By 8:35 I sat in a wooden chair, alone, separated from Earl. The woman said something in French I didn't understand but then explained I would be first.
After she left, I saw the sign that explained the medical staff didn't begin until 9. So I was first, once they arrived.
The radiologist came in carrying a motorcycle helmet under his arm. A tall thin woman nodded bonjour to me. She was the "infirmier," the nurse who would later weigh me, after covering the standing part of the scale with a piece of paper to protect me and the rest of the patients from foot germs.
The radiologist called me in first. "You are perhaps wearing a little tshirt?" he asked hopefully.
No, my instructions had not included wearing a little tshirt. But I had a tshirt dress on. Wasn't that close enough?
No. I needed to get undressed and put on a see-through green smock. I didn't know which way it tied, in the front or the back.
I opened the door a crack and called out, "Monsier, ..." I asked in my halting French whether it should open in the front or derriere. He didn't care and led me to the board where I pressed my chest against the plastic and held my breathe. Then I could get dressed and prepare to see the nurse and the doctor.
The nurse asked questions about my immunizations, my eye prescription, the number of pregnancies. She weighed me and measured my height then did some calculations. The weighing part didn't bother me at all, even though I had eaten breakfast and had two coffees. At home, if I'd been going to the doctor I would definitely have fasted for a day or at least the morning before being weighed, but since I didn't know what was light or heavy in kilograms, it didn't faze me. (Don't tell me. I don't want to know.)
Next, she pricked my finger with a needle to check my blood sugar -- very good.

I was sent to the waiting room to look longingly at the doctor's door. Frequently, the doctor, nurse, radiologists, or receptionists would pause in what they were doing to exchange cheek kisses with co-workers who arrived to start their days. I couldn't imagine such a ritual in the U.S.
The doctor called me in. My chest xray was good. My weight and blood pressure a bit high (for French or Americans, I wondered). He listened to my heart and my lungs, looked in my mouth. Felt the glands in my neck and sent me on my way.
No. I moved to the reception area where I got to sit by Earl. He urged me to ask about his appointment, but I put him off. "Let me get my visa complete than I'll ask."
The clock ticked toward 11 and I was getting worried. The office closed from 11:30 to 2:30 for lunch. Would we have to return?
But as the reception area thinned out, a woman called my name, or part of my name. I proudly handed her each document she requested. When we got to the stamp tax, I gave her a piece of paper printed with squiggly lines that could be read by a phone or computer. Electronic stamps worth $250.
My friend Delana had explained that we pay for the stamps in a tabac -- a corner store that sells cigarettes, post cards, newspapers, and apparently tax stamps.
The woman behind the counter, who had been quickly moving through all the steps shook her head. "We need the actual physical stamps, not electronic," she said.
"But I showed them the letter," I protested.
She just shook her head again.
The woman spoke in French the whole time, so I'm sure I missed some of the points, but she kept saying she was waiting for my vignette. The vignette is that sticker with the shiny French flag stamp, but I had no idea. I thought a vignette was a story that someone might tell.
She printed out a paper explaining how to redeem the 250 Euro electronic tax stamps we'd paid for and I sent Earl down to the nearest tabac for 250 Euros in actual, physical stamps. He returned quickly and I handed them over.
Once she used her glue stick to adhere the "vignette" into my U.S. passport, I asked her about an appointment for Earl.
I knew that our original visas were good for travel in and out of the country for three months, and that deadline was fast approaching. As of April 4, we would have passed three months since arriving in France.
He plans to visit Italy, I explained, to see his sister.
The radiologist had stepped out to reception at that point. Was he still picturing 50 year old breasts as he commented about the joys of visiting Italy and asked what part?
"Pisa," I explained.
"Ah, yes, Americans love Pisa."
But, getting back to the subject, could Earl travel to Pisa and return on April 5th, one day after the three-month mark?
Better not, the woman advised with a look that said he could be banned from France, stranding me alone in Aix en Provence.
He doesn't have an appointment (rendez-vous) yet, I pointed out.
She looked him up and told us his appointment was scheduled for April 3. He just hadn't been notified yet. Should we try to reschedule the appointment so he could go to Italy?
Well, there were no earlier appointments, and he might not get back into the country.
Probably best to keep the appointment and change the trip, we agreed quickly, afraid of losing our spot in the immigration line
What a relief to be finished with the hoops, for now.
Before I left, the woman pointed out the date on the visa. "If you want to stay in France," she explained, "you must apply to renew the visa two months before it expires."
Okay, eight months before I have to start the paperwork again, and two months before we take the early morning trip to Marseille for Earl's visa journey.
Don't worry though, we made the best of it, walking down to the old port and enjoying a lunch along the harbor
The waiter took our photo during lunch. We should have leaned forward to get the shade off our faces. 

The view from our lunch table, over the harbor and the beautiful Notre Dame de la Garde high above
before we returned to Aix en Provence and my friend Najah who is visiting from Ohio.
We may take her back to Marseille tomorrow, and maybe I'll share some of our adventures with you. 

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