Thursday, March 28, 2019

A French Social Life

When I returned from the States, I was determined to be in the moment wherever I am. Last year, I felt like I longed for the States when I was in France and longed for France when I was in the States. I needed to make the most of wherever I am living because I could become one of those perpetually unhappy people, always wanting the grass on the other side of the fence.
So I was eager to reconnect with all of our friends in France.
I set up coffee dates, dinner dates and even decided to hold a game night at our new apartment.
Add to that my teaching 4 hours a day on weekdays and 7-8 hours on the weekends, and my time in France has flown past.
Our new apartment is 1.9 miles from the town where we planned to live. Like an episode of House Hunters International, we couldn't find a house or apartment that offered everything we wanted. We had to compromise. We could have the apartment in the town that didn't offer any outdoor space, but had a nice open living/dining room and remodeled kitchen. The toilet situation wasn't ideal either because the toilet faced the door and it was so tight, I wasn't sure that someone with long legs could sit on the toilet and close the door.
Outside Quillan, up a steep hill that I used to run toward, was an apartment that the owner was just finishing with a new kitchen and bathroom. Two bedrooms, a great view, and some outdoor space.
The view out the window from our living room
We decided to take the place farther out of town, figuring that by the end of the year, we'd be in great shape by climbing up to our apartment.
So the first test of commuting to town à pieds came Friday evening, after I had arrived Thursday, we made plans to meet our French friends for dinner in Quillan. We walked. The sun was just setting as we traipsed down the switchback roads and into town. We realized as we went that we were both wearing black, not the best color to be seen by passing cars as we later would walk home in the dark on the winding road. The walk took longer than we anticipated, so we arrived late (en retard) and as we exchanged cheek kisses, they remarked on our cold cheeks, so we revealed that we had walked down from our new home. They were amazed and insisted on driving us back up the hills after our dinner. It was too dangerous to walk on the winding road at night, insisted the former police officer.
We ate at a crêpe  place, and we practiced our French as our friends practiced their English.
The only picture I got from our evening out was when one of the restaurant cats wandered through. He was a huge cat, and when Cedric got up to pay, the cat jumped up in his seat as if it was his rightful place at the table.
The cat rubbed himself against anything hanging off people's chairs. No one seemed bothered. 
Everyone has heard how difficult it is to make friends with French people. We lucked into Cedric and Valèrie. He was working as a bartender in a local bar and enjoyed speaking English and telling us about his adventures in the States. Luckily for us, they love the U.S. They were even married in Las Vegas.
Valerie doesn't speak very much English but she is trying to learn, so we hope to start meeting and practicing English for her and French for me.
As they dropped at us our new apartment, we invited them in to take a look. Valèrie, who has a certain sense of aesthetic (like most French women) gave a nod of approval to the decorations of the apartment with its bold black and white tiles in the kitchen and the open room that gives way to a view of the mountains, but on that night, we could only see the nearly full moon and the outline of the mountains.

Before they left, Cedric invited us to their home in a village about 15 minutes away. They were having a barbecue the next afternoon for their neighbors. The barbecue started at noon, but, unfortunately, I taught until 3.
Come after, he insisted. The soiree would still be going on.
So after meeting friends for coffee the next morning during the Saturday market, I taught until 3 and we texted Cedric. Yes, we should come, he said.
With our bottle of red wine in hand, we followed the GPS and pulled up to a table outdoors in the sun with several French people sitting around it. Cedric and Valerie made introductions and then gave us a tour of the house they are redoing. They've done a lot of work and are turning it into their dream house.
How to describe this gathering of French people? They were all very accepting of us. They shared some great stories, and I got into a discussion that was beyond my French abilities as I tried to describe the differences between Americans' freedom to and the French freedom from. Well, I'm not doing a very good job describing it in English either, but basically it's about the French security net. The entire outing was all very jovial as they counted how many bottles of wine they had drunk since they began at noon, and we realized that when going to a French person's house, perhaps two bottles of wine should be the gift. There were discussions about whether I looked more Mediterranean or Latin, which made me laugh since I have frequently been mistaken for Irish. It must be my wild, curly hair.
Earl and Cedric
The only hitch was the the woman who got sick because she drank too much wine, although her husband claimed it was because of the sun. Our hostess ended up having to clean up the bathroom afterward, and then when the woman later got sick outside, she cleaned that too. I had my hackles up, thinking the woman should have gone home to her house -- only two houses down. After another French couple excused themselves, I reminded Earl that we needed to stop by the grocery before it closed at 7, so we exited with me driving.
After we had dinner, we drove down to Quillan where a brew pub had blues music playing. We ran into more acquaintances there and were invited to join them. They had all the inside dirt on the inebriated French woman who was ordering everyone to stop talking so they could focus on the music.
To hear our friends tell it, she'd been thrown out of every bar in town except this one, and she had a famous parting line when she got ejected from a nearby bar, but I won't share it with you because I'm sure I'll be able to use it in a novel someday and you'll think I'm awfully clever rather than simply quoting someone.
On the weekends, I teach a lot, starting at 7 (or 6 when I get the time change wrong) and going to 3 or 4, so I've been trying to schedule some down time during midmorning to enjoy my French life. Sunday mornings there is a market at Esperaza, a nearby artsy town. I meant to schedule 9-11 off work, but got 8-10. France hasn't sprung forward with their clocks yet, so that messed up my calculations.
We were too early to meet with friends but wandered into the market anyway, buying a new scarf to replace the one I lost in the States, and a blue one for Deb, because she always tries to steal her husband's.
We got vienoisseries (breakfast pastries) at the bakery and took them to the nearby cafe for coffee and pastries.

The sun in our face as we enjoyed a coffee at the Esperaza market
There we ran into some acquaintances we'd met the year before. We ended up chatting for quite a while and exchanged numbers so we could get together.
But even before we ended our chat with the new friends, some other friends showed up and we wandered through the market catching up. It's just a pleasant surprise to find people I enjoy socializing with at every turn -- not that there weren't wonderful people in the States, but I guess we didn't have as much time to socialize because we were running to kids' events or had to get decent sleep before going to work the next day.
By the end of the weekend, I felt sated with socializing, but that gave me time to gear up for game night. We made a go of it with one American couple and two British couples, so eight total and lots of food, drink and conversation. My team did not excel at the games, but it was great to have everyone at our new place, which isn't so bad, once you duck to get in the door.

An attempt to get everyone in the picture at game night

I think I've kept my end of the bargain, promising to live in the moment, as I continue to meet with friends, making new connections and renewing old ones.
I recently saw an article about how it is difficult for women over 50 to make new friends. I recommend moving to a new country and not being shy about showing up for quiz night and market days and town dinners. It certainly has grown my social circle. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Flying A New Airline -- Norwegian

When I discovered the inexpensive flight from Tampa to London, it felt like Christmas morning. A direct flight from Tampa to London for $175 (153 Euros).  I splurged on the upgrade so that I could take a checked bag, pick a seat and get two meals on the plane for about $250. Still, an amazing price on Norwegian Air.
I visited Mom and Dad, and they are about an hour and a half from either Tampa or Orlando. The dilemma was that I flew in on Friday afternoon and took off in a rental car at 4 p.m. The car was already expensive and I didn't dare splurge on late check in, so I had to be back at the airport by 4 p.m. The problem? My flight didn't leave until 10:50 p.m.
So I was looking at a 6-hour wait at Tampa.
For my carry-on bag, I had switched to Earl's backpack because he hopes to go hiking when he flies back to the States next month. The backpack has no wheels and is a bit unwieldy, especially since it is made to fit a man who is a foot taller than me. But it weighed only 30 pounds, rather than the 40 pounds I was allowed to check. Once I got it onto my back, I was fine to walk from the car to the terminal.
Backpacking woman -- feels less cosmopolitan
The problem, this flight to London was the only flight out of Tampa for Norwegian that day. The check in didn't open until after 6, which left me holding the bag. I couldn't check the backpack and wander about the airport, smelling perfume and sipping coffee. I'm not sure if I'd flown another, more traditional airline, like American, whether I could have checked my bags six hours early or if they would have made me wait until closer to the flight time. Nevertheless, I ended up sitting in a row of seats across from the counter waiting. Norwegian also didn't allow online check in, so I if I hadn't checked a bag, I still would have needed to wait to get my boarding pass from the desk.
I met a few other people waiting for Norwegian to open. At one point, I needed to use the bathroom and didn't want to carry the backpack along with my carry-on bag.  The nice British man had dozed off, so I asked a woman who was waiting for Norwegian if she would watch my backpack while I went to the restroom. The door was within sight, I wasn't making a run across the airport, but the woman refused. Perhaps that's the smart thing to do, but the exchange woke up the British man who said he would watch my bag. And later, I watched his while he went to the bathroom.
I reached someone on the Norwegian app and they said that the check in would open three hours before the flight.
Once the check in began, apparently, people in line strategically pick which counter attendant they want to talk to. I was oblivious, in my own American way, assuming everyone would be equally helpful.
So I got the very gruff man who took the backpack, no problem, then said I had to weigh both my carry-on bag and my personal item and they had to way less than 10 kilograms. 10 kilograms is 22 pounds. I knew that my carry-on suitcase alone was 25 pounds, which is a normal allowance. Add my purse, which held my computer and the total weight was 18 kilograms, 39 pounds. The attendant suggested I could pay $15 per kilogram that the bag was overweight. Eight kilograms times $15 is $120. I was not going to eat that cost.
I always feel like the weight thing is unfair. My husband weighs nearly a hundred pounds more than me -- shouldn't I get to take extra baggage to make up for the weight I'm not using.
Anyway, I asked whether I could move things from my carry-on to my checked bag, since it was underweight. The man agreed and wanted me to do it while I stood in line. That's the worst. Now I have to open my suitcase and start making decisions. I moved a folder of papers (paper generally gets heavy) that I use for teaching, and I stuck a pair of boots on the top of the backpack. Then I struggled to get the backpack closed again. The attendant ended up helping me and didn't weight the bags again. But just in case he planned to, I had taken my computer out and set it on the floor in front of the check in. I figured that would help with the weight issue and then I would surreptitiously slide it into my purse again after the weighing. Instead, he waved me on and I scooped up my laptop.
So let the luggage thing be a warning to you if you plan to try Norwegian Air -- the carry-on for the overhead bins, and the personal item that goes under the seat in front of me had to weight less than 22 pound together.
I finally could move on to take the shuttle to the gate. The security guards were testy. I overhead them discussing whether overtime would be given. The TSA Pre check area wasn't open, much to the consternation of some pre-screened passengers. I went through the machine and they patted down my arm.
Then I found that my carry-on bag needed to be checked by hand. The guard (this one was nice)  gingerly moved things around in the suitcase, plunging his hand down between the (luckily) clean clothes.
"There's an umbrella down there," I said.
"No, I can see the umbrella. This is something like a bag of candy."
"Black jelly beans!" I said. Earl's favorite. I had stashed a bag in my suitcase.
"Yes! Where are they?" He explained that jelly beans are dense and hard to see through on an x-ray machine.
I reached in and got them. He took a cloth and rubbed it again several spots on the jelly bean bag.
"It tested positive," he said and set off an alarm that brought another agent.
"Positive for what?" I asked, imagining that jelly beans were about to send me to the Homeland Security secret office where I wouldn't be heard from for weeks.
The security guard assured me that it could be lotion, or anything that set it off.
Another guard arrived, looked at a machine and declared it "Not a match."
Ok, I was allowed to go on my way.
"Want me to lift the bag down for you?" the guard asked. "It's pretty heavy."
"Shh," I warned him. "Don't let on that it's heavy."
Finally, I was free to wander about the airport terminal until it was time to board the plane.
But I got a coffee at Starbucks, my last until the holidays next year, and I sat down to watch another episode of the Great British Baking Show.
The flight from Tampa to London was uneventful, which is the best you can ask for from a flight. I am never crunched for space because I'm short, but I did feel like there is less leg room. My husband would have had a very hard time in theses seats.
And the airplane did have screens with movies, television and games, but I have to say that they weren't as up-to-date as we might see on a mainstream airline.  And the food wasn't worth the time. 
Nope. Not even the Ghiradelli chocolate in the cup got eaten. 
Chicken, mushy broccoli along with instant mashed potatoes for dinner. It was after 11. I shouldn't have taken the few bites I ate, but since it was Norwegian, maybe I should just be grateful they weren't serving smoked trout or Tørrfisk. 
The next morning, breakfast was a piece of ham sandwich.

Okay, the coffee and orange juice made it worthwhile
Just ham bread and some wilted lettuce, along with a pre-wrapped Sara Lee pound cake that is in our kitchen now. The coffee and orange juice were necessary though.
So my recommendation, if you fly Norwegian, watch the weight of your carry-on and under seat bag. Don't buy the meals.
I landed in London Gatwick airport with three hours to kill before my flight to Toulouse. I wandered around in search of a crumpet. I never found any. Crumpets are similar to English muffins but better. The Brits I asked were astounded that we didn't have crumpets in the States. We're deprived, I guess.
A man in a kilt -- always worth a picture. Yes, those are two bottles of liquor in his hands. 
The flight from London to Toulouse was only an hour and 20 minutes, and when I wandered through security, there was my husband waiting with a bouquet of tulips.
Unfortunately, I couldn't tilt my head back to kiss him because his backpack against my neck prevented me looking up, so it was an awkward hello kiss.
We're back in the groove of spending time together and enjoying it.
Me and my guy
Since I returned (only three days ago) we've had adventures already. Can't wait to share them with you -- soon. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

France Hiatus

A bird's screech woke me from a sound sleep and I looked at my watch -- 3:54 a.m.
I'd never heard a bird cry like that before. I wondered if it was an exotic species. The sound came again, a frantic squeal, followed by the guttural grunt of an alligator.
I put a pillow over my head. I knew alligators ate birds, fish and other small animals that ventured near them in the lake, but I couldn't stand to hear the last moments of an innocent bird.
Two months ago, I slept in this same bed in Florida, preparing for our return trip to France -- year two of our grand adventure.
And for a few weeks, we adjusted to French life, braving the sometimes cold weather, remembering favorite restaurants, running paths, and friends.
The mountains with a sprinkling of snow

Me and Jules enjoying an outdoor cafe

My running path with the river on one side and a cemetery on the other side. 

Out with friends -- and Bella on Earl's lap. 
Then a call came from home.
We had agreed when we moved 4000 miles from our family that we would need to be able to return if an emergency arose, and this was an emergency.
But we couldn't both go because we had agreed to a 3-week housesit in Italy. I decided to go home to take care of the emergency while Earl went to the housesit. (In retrospect, I would have asked the homeowner in Italy to advertise for a last minute replacement, so we could both return home.)
I set off early on a Sunday morning with Earl driving me to the train station in Carcassonne. In Narbonne where I switched trains, I settled in the cafe, sipping a coffee and finishing a book that I didn't want to lug along with me. I felt slightly cosmopolitan, traveling on my own with just a carry on suitcase along with my computer in my over-sized purse.
I had emailed friends in Paris to ask if I could spend the night at their apartment before my flight on Monday, February 11. We hadn't seen them since our move to France, but we had hosted their daughter one summer and had helped find a home for a second daughter the summer before. They enthusiastically agreed to have me overnight, but cautioned it was the fete for their son's 25th birthday. I offered to find other accommodations, but they insisted I would be welcome at the celebration which began at 6:30 that evening.
My train was scheduled to arrive in Gare de Lyon at 3:30, so I should be at their apartment by 4 or so. But I hadn't counted on the delay. After the train stopped in Montpelier, somewhere along the line between Montpelier and Paris, was an accident.
The train was delayed for more than two hours. As I watched the minutes tick by, I realized that I could never reach our friends' apartment before they left for the celebration.
The WiFi (which the French call wee-fee) wasn't working in the train and even when I switched out of airplane mode, I couldn't get a carrier on my American phone to notify my hosts. I ended up borrowing someone's phone to call Earl, asking him to email our friends that I wouldn't make it on time. They should continue to the celebration, and I would see them another time. Then he contacted our friends Linda and Maurice asking if they would let me crash there over night. Poor Linda and Maurice always get called upon when I'm in a tough spot, but they always come through.
It wasn't until I got to Gare de Lyon well after 6 p.m. that I was able to connect and learn that my hobbled together plan had worked.
During the more than two hours the train sat stalled in Montpelier, the train workers passed out an emergency rations box -- kind of like an airline meal. Truthfully, it was the middle of the afternoon so most French people were not going to be eating anyway, but it's interesting that they have back-up food boxes for when there is an emergency.
The food rations from the train

A bounty of food choices within
The next morning, I made my way by train to the Paris airport. I flew Wow Air, landing in Reykjavik. A headwind caused our flight to be late getting to the capital of Iceland, and a medical emergency required us all to stay seated after we landed, waiting for paramedics to tend to the person who was ill. When we finally escaped the plane, shipped on buses to the terminal, I raced through the airport to get to the connecting flight to Detroit.

Iceland looked like the moon. I know there are beautiful places there, but the airport doesn't show off the best view.
Iceland from the air
The flight to Detroit landed a bit late, and once again, we were told to wait on the plane. One young woman was called forward. As we anxiously anticipated disembarking, the flight attendant thanked us for allowing the authorities to handle the situation. We all speculated on what the young woman might have done.
Finally, I found the bus that would transport me to the rental car. Nearly an hour and a half after I landed, I got on the road. I hate driving at night and as the snow began to fly, mixing with freezing rain, I debated whether I should get a hotel for the night. February in Detroit might not be the best weather. But I had seen on my weather app that the temperature was warmer in Columbus, so I kept driving and eventually the snow changed to rain.
I had planned to stay only a few weeks, and the weather in Quillan had fooled me into thinking that spring was not far away. In my minimalism, I brought back two pairs of pants and two cardigans, along with my trench coat. I was totally unprepared for the 13-degree weather (-10 Celsius). Luckily, I had left a winter coat with Grace, and after she moved, I found it lying on the floor near the coat tree. I shook it off and wore it the rest of my five-week stay in the States. On mornings when I went running, I found myself wearing both pairs of running tights I had packed, along with three running shorts and a cotton sweater thrown on top. It was cold!
I got to celebrate Tucker's birthday with him. 

I got to walk with Grace on her lunch hour 

The waiter got a little artsy on this picture of me and Spencer with my brother and sister-in-law

Met Najah and Noreen for some runs and for coffee

Walks with Sheila on a rare warm day.
Meanwhile, alone in Italy, Earl walked a dog and explored some villages in Umbria. It sounds like an enviable position, but he was isolated with only animals to talk to, plus we'd never been apart for so long.

These are Earl's photos, so I'll probably identify them wrong, but this is the church in Assisi where Francis died in 1229. 

This is the mountaintop town Orvieto

And this is a judgmental cat that kept Earl company
As I saw our emergency under control, I added a trip to Florida to visit my parents. 
Mom made me a birthday cake. 

Dad took off golf while I was there. Always a joy to spend time with my parents. 
We had originally talked about visiting the States in April or May, but after this five-week trip, I'll be staying in France for awhile, so that's why I headed to Florida before back to France.
I'm so thankful for all the support from friends and family while I was in the States (see my previous post).
And thanks to my readers for your patience, perhaps curiosity, about my silence over the past few weeks. I hope to be posting about life in France again soon. I'm at the airport now, preparing to fly to London then Toulouse, France.
à tout à l'heure

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