Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Next Chapter

It's the middle of the night in Paris and I can't sleep. I'm not on U.S. time though, more like China time, but I know this only because I teach English to Chinese kids.
My alarm is set. In a few hours, it will go off and we will begin the journey back to the States. 7:30 shuttle to the airport and we're scheduled to land in Orlando at 7:30 tonight -- 17 hours on the road (only 5 hours time difference because France turned back the clocks on Saturday and the U.S. doesn't turn back clocks until next week).
This grand France-living experiment has been ongoing for 10 months now. It has been everything I hoped it would be and everything I dreaded it could be. My year has been filled with highs and lows from the thrill of leaving for France to the plunge of sadness when someone in my family needed me and I realized that I couldn't be there for them.
To borrow a phrase, "France, I wish I knew how to quit you," but you still have my heart.
Cathar Castles under blue skies

Sunflowers

Mountains and sunrises
Things are more complicated here -- going to the doctor, figuring out how to buy property or rent property, utilities and driver's licenses and visas. But they're all things I'd have to figure out in the U.S. if I moved to a different city.
And the benefits are lovely.
*Community dinners and hikes.
*Concerts every night until 2 a.m. with the whole village standing in the square singing along -- "Hey, baby, I wanna know, will you be my girl." Or mangled English songs like "Born to be Wide."
*The sheer hedonism of slicing into a foie gras and spreading it on slightly sweet toast then washing it down with a Sauternes wine.
*The joy of sinking my toes into a sandy beach then walking into the Mediterranean, the water only slightly cool on a 90-degree day.
*The spring in my step as I hang a cloth bag on my arm and walk down the hill to the town bakery for a chausson framboise (raspberry turnover) and exchange cheek kisses with the baker.
*The aching blue of the sky above the peeks of the mountains that surround Quillan.
*The lyrical, expressive language spoken all around me, and the hope that one day I will overhear people speaking and not realize that it is French instead of English.
*The thrill to watch in person the Tour de France buzz past and to share in the happiness, watching the game in the square all together, as France won the World Cup
*The new friends we've made because we have so many hours to socialize, secrets shared over cake and laughter escaping like so many bubbles of Blanquette sparkling wine.
*My morning runs throughout France, past ancient churches or the town baths, the sky slowly turning light and casting colors
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We have our return tickets. We have our visa appointment scheduled. We have our friends' spare bedroom piled high with our belongings -- three cutting boards, a bread knife, a wine bucket, 12 drinking glasses, barbecue tools, a skillet perfect for omelettes. Another friend stores our bicycles and bike carrier. Slowly, we have begun to accumulate things after purging ourselves of everything in our Ohio home last year.
We have plans and roots in France.
Still, I can't help wondering how everything might change during the nearly three months we're home.
Dad's surgery and recovery, hopefully so he can get back on the golf course.
Our kids' security. People urge us to let the kids go, let them make their own mistakes. I'm not trying to be a helicopter mom, just a safety net. 
So leaving France behind is melancholy - excitement to see my family, to just sit and catch up in a half hour what cannot be conveyed through awkward Facetime conversations caught here and there. Followed by fear that we might not get to return to this complicated, idyllic life we dove into.
I confide in Earl that if something happens that we don't return, this has been the most spectacular 10-month vacation I could ever hope for.
We haven't visited or explored all the places we want, but we've made a nice start of it.
So today, this chapter closes and when we land in Florida to 85 degree weather and my parents waiting, another chapter begins.
I know the trajectory this plot line is headed, but I can't skip ahead to the end of the book. I'll just try to find joy and love as we move forward.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dominoes Falling Into Place

About a month ago, we realized that we needed to head back to the States sooner than we had planned.
Our original travel plans called for us to go home about a month over the holidays.
Then Dad was scheduled to have surgery, and we decided to get home by November 1 to be with him.
The number of tasks we had to accomplish to make this happen seemed insurmountable. Some of those tasks onerous, and others pleasurable.
See, October was our traveling month. We took trips to Lake Como, Italy, and Dublin, Ireland. I know you're feeling bad for us now, lol.
But we had a lease that lasted until December 19, and we needed to apply for our French driver's licenses and we needed to renew our visas. Plus, we had to cancel our flights and reschedule them.
Some of these things went smoothly, and others crashed and burned, not to use an airplane analogy when talking about flights, but...
We had been warned by American friends who moved to France and by numerous online sources that we had only our first year of residence to get a French driver's license. If we waited, we would have to go through driver's training in France and take an arduous written test -- in French. The driver's training alone costs thousands of dollars.
Luckily, Ohio is a reciprocal state, so we knew that France would accept our Ohio license and exchange it for a French one. But we had to get copies of our driving records from Ohio and have them, along with our licenses, translated into French. Once we had that done, we needed to go to the prefecture in Carcassonne and have an appointment with one of the clerks.
It's tricky, this French bureaucracy. We had people tell us to get in line at 7 in the morning or other people say that they only take the first 15 people in line. We didn't know what to expect, but we caravan-ed up to Carcassonne (about an hour away) with Jules and Jack, getting there about 8:15, while the offices opened at 8:30. There were some people milling about outside, but there was no line like there might be in the States, so when the door opened, we were some of the first through to the "Etrangers" line. Etrangers means we're foreigners, not French. We took numbers for both the driver's license and for questions about our visa, having brought that paperwork along as well.
Earl and I were called back together after about 15 minutes. We were given forms to fill out and then told to skip the line to wait for him when we finished. The man went through all of our paperwork and said he would send it off. But, our driver's licenses might not physically arrive for eight months. That's a pretty long wait.
Until then, we have papers with our pictures that attest we have applied for our French driver's licenses. I don't think the car rental cars would accept these pieces of paper as our proof of license though.
As for the visa renewal, the man tapped a pen against his teeth. The problem, he explained, is if he found a way to get me an appointment before I left at the end of October, he would also need to get one for him. And he pointed at Earl. Yes, that was true.
So two appointments? I suggested. Not possible. He was already scheduling for December.
He decided to schedule our appointment for when we return at the end of January.
But, there's a 180 Euro fee for a late appointment, I pointed out. He took our paperwork and our story and went to visit his supervisor.
No problem, he said, upon returning. We would have the appointment in early February and the fee would be waived.
I left the prefecture dazed from our success.
Giddy with joy at our success. 
So many people moving to France write numerous posts about the hard time they have with appointments and paperwork and temperamental paper pushers. This man was whistling while he helped us with both our driver's licenses and our visa issues.
He gave us a form to fill out that listed the documents we will need to bring with us in February. That gives us three months to get everything in line.
What a relief to have those things off our plate!
We happily drove off to Italy for a week, but when we returned we had to tackle the flight issue.

We had bought flight insurance, but when we called, they said we would need to cancel the flight and buy a new one. Then we could ask for reimbursement for the cancelled flight. That made me super nervous, but we'll see what happens.
Obviously, we couldn't find a new flight as inexpensive as the first one. We paid about $450 each for our flights from Paris to Orlando. The new flights are about $700 each and we just paid an extra $125 to sit together. Crazy!
Brief Rant: So, don't book through Expedia and avoid Brussels Air and Air Canada. The cost of the flight, with assigned seats ended up being $800 because we wanted to sit together. They should tell you straight up what the total cost would be rather than nickeling and dim-ing you. You can't compare total prices if they hide some of the costs.

We also needed to arrange to return the car we were borrowing, which meant our friends needed to find a garage in Paris where they would store the car.
I found a hotel room for us in Paris and now we have two nights in the City of Light before we fly out to Orlando.
I'm looking forward to seeing my parents again. And the following weekend we'll drive up to Ohio to see the kids (and vote) before returning to Florida.
But my joy at seeing the kids, my parents and my friends is tempered by the realization of all the good friends I'm leaving behind.
An Australian couple had us over for dinner last night, serving us glasses of Blanquette (a local champagne), a shrimp and tomato salad with dressing, and a lasagna moussaka. We walked out into the dark night sated with delicious food and slightly tipsy from the red wine that accompanied dinner.
The nearly fully moon sat over our adopted village, and I snapped a shot to remind me of this village and the people that I love.
The view from above Quillan
Jusqu'à l'année prochaine! (Until next year, Quillan!)

Friday, October 26, 2018

Semi-Gastronomique Lunch

Our French friend Cedric is going to culinary school now and working at a restaurant in Limoux, a town about half an hour away.
The restaurant is listed as semi-gastronomique. Gastronomique is probably what we consider a gourmet restaurant, but as our friends Jim and Theresa learned in French class, a gourmet is a person, not a kind of restaurant or cooking.
So we gathered for a semi-gastronomique lunch the other day, three American couples and Cedric, whose French wife Valerie wasn't feeling well.
The restaurant is called L'Odalisque and it  hasn't been in operation for that long.
The sign on the side of the building, along with a knife and fork
It has a simple decor with beautiful stone walls. Lunch is served from 12-1:30, so be prompt. The lunch prix fixe menu is 21 euros per person for three courses -- entrées, plats (main course), and dessert. The price is 26 euros if you include a glass of wine and a coffee at the end. 
The seven of us had just received our starters or entrées, when the waitress took this picture.
We had three choices for starters. A long thick strip of salmon with dollops of wasabi on top, a ricotta cheese mousse with tomato confit, or a oeuf cocotte, that is egg white baked over vegetables in a serving cup then topped with the egg yellow. Earl and I got the last two options and traded half way through. But Jim gave me a bit of his salmon and it was yummy too.
For the main course, we had two fish dishes to choose from or lasagna. Cedric, although he's from Corsica, doesn't like fish, but he told us that the fish he has eaten at this restaurant has been converting him, so I had to try the fish.
Here's my plat, with a crispy coating on top of the fish and mashed potatoes underneath.
Even the presentation was beautiful
Halfway through the plats, Earl and I switched again. He had strips of fish in a fennel sauce (maybe) along with tiny half potatoes topped with broccoli. The potatoes were crispy with a crunch of sea salt.
Cedric also gave me a bit of his lasagna which was delicious. In France, they don't use a tomato sauce in lasagna, but a bechamel sauce.
You might think I would be too full for dessert, but the bowl of chocolate mousse was so tempting that I finished more than half of it before letting Earl have the rest.
I've eaten a number of chocolate mousse(s) in France this year, but this one was the best, light and airy with just enough dark chocolate.
Some of us finished with little cups of espresso, that were accompanied by fingertop-sized meringues.
The restaurant only accepts cash, so we scrambled to figure out the bill before toppling out to the sunshine of the afternoon.
Cedric next to the restaurant where he's sharpening his culinary skills
We said goodbye to Cedric and made our way home, through all the roundabouts that lead back to Quillan, our home for a few more days before we fly back to the States for a three month hiatus.
Still wringing joy from the good life in France.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Dublin Visit

We decided to take a trip with some American friends who live in France. We spend a lot of time together and have become close enough to endeavor traveling.
Although we considered exploring Lyon, France, just a train ride away, some convincing from our British friends convinced us that we should go to Dublin, Ireland, a place none of us had ever been.
As I explained in a previous post, traveling from within Europe is relatively inexpensive, so we got seats on RyanAir and flew for about $75 round trip each.
The view over the Irish Sea as we flew into Dublin
I didn't really know a lot about Dublin, other than Guinness, pubs and Irish accents -- and I found them all delightful.
We used a lot of taxi drivers, since there were four of us, it was about the same price to take a taxi as a bus, and all of them were charming and interesting. Some of the accents were so thick that I got bruises from my thigh where Jules would poke me every time a cab driver said tink instead of think. One also said "whores" for "ours" and it took me a while to figure out he meant our house rather than whore house.
So the people delighted us right from the beginning.
The first day we focused on pubs, finding ourselves at O'Donoghues pub, which we squished into with people standing three deep along the walls and reaching for drinks from the bartender. An alleyway set up with tables and bar stools allowed us to examine the culture a little bit.
You can see the crowded bar behind us. 
Whoever started the idea of an Irish goodbye, one where people slip off without saying goodbye, had obviously never been to Ireland. I watched people say goodbye, shake hands, share hugs, one last cheek kiss. Go already! I wanted to say. But the intoxicated young people had more goodbyes to share before they parted.
We asked one of the young men serving where we could find the music. Apparently, it was going on inside, in a couch and chair right inside the front door. We muscled our way in and listened to some Irish men playing songs then taking a break. The main musician stopped to chat on his way to and from the bar (or bathroom), but had no interest in playing my favorite singalong song from the Irish bars in Washington, D.C., where I went to grad school (The Unicorn Song). The music was hard to hear over the crowd so we eventually made our way to a hotel restaurant.
The next day, we took the tram to a fishing village called Howth and escaped from the wind in a seafood restaurant called Crabby Jo's, probably related to all the other "Crabby" restaurants in the U.S., maybe around the world.

A reflection of me in the bar mirror as we waited for a table

Grafton Street
Jules and I did some shopping that evening along Grafton Street before we went in search of bars again.

Our first stop was an Applebees-type place. We had a drink and followed my daughter's advice to find O'Shea's Hotel and restaurant.

Drinking Guinness
Finally, some good Irish music to enjoy while we had seafood chowder, fish and chips and bread pudding.
The next morning, Jules and I embarked on a day-long tour.
Luckily, the sky was a glorious blue even though the temperatures were a bit cold.
Our first stop was the Rock of Cashel, the ruins of a castle and church that dates back to the 12th and 13th century.
The contrails of a plane let you know this is modern times -- okay the fencing along the front too. 
One of my artsy shots from inside. 
Next, the tour bus chugged on to Blarney Castle near Cork.

An artsy shot of me with Blarney Castle behind me. 
Note the shortness of my dress in the picture above, and you won't be surprised to see that I stole Jules' shawl to throw over my legs while I stretched upside down to kiss the Blarney stone.

These are a series of stones mortared together and the bottom one is the Blarney Stone.
The guy holding onto me has a job to help each person lie down, slide upside down, kiss the stone and then pull herself back up. He keeps people from falling to their death. Why kiss the stone? Allegedly it gives the gift of gab, which is something neither Jules nor I need, so I'm not sure why we kissed it. Some say it gives the gift of eloquence, something I could use many times.
An American woman in front of us who kissed it claimed she would now win the lottery. So maybe the ideas about the Blarney Stone have evolved.
It's a bit nerve-wracking when you're as short as I am, but I gathered up my courage, and Jules' scarf, and dipped backward. You can see my curls hanging down beneath the stone.
Blarney Castle
The castle is gorgeous, although the stairs are treacherous. In the U.S., they would either close it off or make all kinds of changes to make it safer.
The stairs went up like this for several floors
 There was even a bedroom for Earl.

The castle also has a murder hole, an oubliette, plus a poison garden. It has pretty much everything you want to see in a Medieval Castle.
The bus deposited us back in Dublin that night, after a brief stop in Cork, and we felt like we'd caught a glimpse of Ireland before we flew back to France after three nights speaking -- kind of -- English. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Planning Dinners in France

We're trying to make contact with many of the friends we've made here in France before we leave.
That means having a dinner with actual French people here. In case you wonder, yes, most French people are passionate about their food, so the gauntlet has been laid.
Our first step was to decide on the menu, and we chose chicken cordon bleu.
I wanted something that could be in the oven while we drink our apertifs and then eat our starter.
We stopped at the butcher (he's closed on Thursdays) and told him we wanted chicken breasts. Earl added that it was for cordon bleu, so the butcher carefully sliced each chicken breast in half so it can be easily filled with the ham and cheese that go inside.
There were other people waiting in line, but that did not rush the butcher.
Next we ordered the ham, and he revved up the meat slicer to cut large "tranches" of ham.
This morning, we went to the grocery to buy the other ingredients we needed, including wine.
I assumed we would serve white wine with chicken, but I was wrong.
As we stood in the wine aisle, I eventually went to the special price section and asked some women working at the store which wine I should choose. They directed me to the wine man who was putting bottles on a shelf.
He accompanied me back to the wine aisle and suggested a Cote du Rhone and picked up a bottle of wine.
The bottle picked out by the wine man at the grocery
"Oh, we serve red wine with chicken cordon bleu?" I asked (in French).
"Yes," he confirmed.
If I had consulted the English-speaking online community, they would have recommended a chardonnay, but I'll take the advice of the French wine drinkers every time.
Since I had asked for his recommendation, I prepared for him to choose an expensive bottle of wine.
Once he handed it over with the advice to open the bottle at least an hour before it needs to be served, I looked at the shelf. I needed at least two bottles of wine.
The cost: 4,90 Euros. That's about $5.65 in US dollars.
He could have recommended a much more expensive wine, but, another passion for most French, is finding the correct, good wine with meals.
I splurged and threw in a nearly $10 bottle of dessert wine to go with our apple crumb pie.
After all, even French friends needs a little Americana when they come to dinner

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

I posted this picture of Earl swimming one morning during our week in Lake Como and a friend commented that we were living the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
And maybe it does seem kind of bragg-y to post pictures of our travels to places like Italy and Spain.
But truthfully, the trip cost us no more than a drive to Florida from Michigan and a week in a hotel. Since we're living in France though, we can skip across borders in quicker time than driving from the north to the south of the United States. It was a 10-hour drive there as we stopped overnight in the French Alpes, a night in Chambery for $65 and quite a nice hotel.
Then we drove on to Lake Como the next day.
The most expensive part of the trip was the tolls, and through the Alpes, we had the 44 Euro expense of a tunnel. The tolls were much cheaper on the way back along the Mediterranean. So we paid about $115 in tolls on the way there and probably $80 in tolls on the way back. Each trip took a tank of gas.


As for the hotel, on the banks of Lake Como in Gravedona, Italy, I found it on Travelocity and we paid $133 a night for a room that faced the lake and included a balcony.

Earl made the most of the balcony
The price of the room also included a breakfast buffet.
Plenty of food, including meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt and fruit. 

The breakfast room overlooked the lake. The waitress served us cappuccino each morning
As for  other meals, I figure we have to eat when we're home so the cost of food isn't going to be that much more while we travel. We eat out too much in our current rental in France, but French food, come on!
Me on the balcony with Gravedona in the background
So although our lifestyle may look glamorous, it's only our location that allows us to travel from place to place, soaking in the atmosphere, the culture, and stumbling over languages we don't know.
People are generally very accommodating as long as we say hello, please and thank you in their languages, they work with us.

Earl in front of some sailboats that he unfortunately didn't get to try.
We had some things we wanted to do. One of those was sailing. Earl has always wanted to take sailing lessons but back in Columbus was told he was too big for the teaching boats they had.
The poster for sailing said we needed sneakers and a waterproof jacket. So we spent our first morning searching for sneakers for Earl, but I resisted buying a waterproof jacket, insisting they must have some on hand.
We tried calling the sailing place several times but never got an answer. When we went looking later in the day, they weren't open so we took out a kayak from a neighboring boat place.
Earl rented a motorboat one afternoon while I worked.
Other than that, we walked around the two neighboring villages, enjoying the ambiance.

The scenery around Lake Como was breathtaking.
I had some great runs along the lake. Most mornings the mountains were covered in mist. 

I took this sunrise shot on the morning we were leaving. Goodbye Lake Como

Now don't hate us, but next week we're off to Dublin, where the round trip flight is $75 per person. Can't pass it up.


Saturday, October 06, 2018

Lessons Learned

It's been awhile, but I wrote this post last week when we were in Spain, and I wanted to share it with you.
It might explain why life has suddenly gone into warp speed.

In the middle of the night, I lay awake, a sheet pulled up to my neck, not to keep me warm but to protect me from voracious mosquitoes, and I tossed and turned. I kept returning to a story that Mom and Dad had shared with me as we talked on Facetime, the camera sometimes focusing on Mom, sometimes on Dad, but most of the time on the couch in between them, a fair way to divide the camera.
Our cat Tupi, who now resides with my parents, climbed up on Dad's chest, royally placing his paw on Dad's chin whenever he started to talk. Mom wanted to share what a good companion Tupi had become.
Mom and Dad with Tupi in January. A new
family photo.
While Mom was out playing golf, Dad had moved from the living room through the game room to open the sliding door for Tupi. He likes to go out to the screened-in area that surrounds the pool. He considers the pool the biggest water dish in the neighborhood, and he likes to chase down lizards or give birds the evil eye as they flit from tree to tree.
Dad's foot is still healing from a sore. Since he is diabetic, he is prone to sores that refuse to heal. So he is using a knee cart that keeps his foot off the ground.
As he scooted through the game room, the knee cart caught on something, and Dad fell, pulling down three bar stools as he went and hitting his head on a metal trash can. He lay on the floor, having skinned himself in the fall, and assessed the damage, making sure he hadn't done serious damage.
As Dad lay on the floor, Tupi joined him, attempting to lick the places where Dad had skinned himself then finally curling up next to Dad, as if the two of them were just having a nap on the floor for no reason.
What a good, caring cat Tupi is, Mom explained.
Dad eventually managed to get up, in spite of not being able to use one foot, and cleaned up his wounds, ready to greet Mom when she came home with the news of a hole-in-one on the golf course that morning.
Tupi is a good companion, even though he is the reason Dad tripped going to let him out, but I couldn't stop picturing Dad on the floor.
And I wished that I'd been there with him.
A shot of me and Earl with Mom and Dad
before we embarked on our adventure.
True I might have insisted he get up right away when maybe he needed a few minutes on the floor to assess any damage, but I wondered why I'm not there while Dad heals. Nothing is keeping me here in Europe. I can do my job from Florida.
After years of raising kids, I thought I had earned the right to be selfish, to travel and explore and put worries about others behind me. But when you love people, you never leave behind those worries.
As we returned from Spain, Mom told me Dad would have another surgery on November 1st, a stent to unclog an artery, and I knew we had to go.
So we returned to France and began making plans. We have two vacations planned in October, one to Italy and another to Ireland. We have to figure out how to renew our visa. We need to get our French driver's licenses, deal with the car we borrowed and change our flights.
Just a few hoops to jump through before we can return to the States to be with my parents as Dad heals.
Soon, I'll let you know what we've accomplished so far, cause we're leaving for Italy on Sunday.

Guilty Pleasures

It's funny that I have traveled throughout Europe, snapping photos of delicious meals, breathtaking landscapes, and castles built ston...