Spring in France

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been six months since we moved to France and began this new adventure. An entire half year already; it truly feels like just yesterday that we arrived, and yet the days in perpetual lockdown can seem so long…it’s funny how that works.

Since there’s nothing much to report in terms of fun new cultural discoveries, here’s a photo dump of Paris in the springtime.

We’re lucky that the weather has (mostly) been nice enough to spend lots of time outside, taking long walks. Before the latest round of lockdown restrictions that came at the end of March, we were even able to sneak in a small day trip down to Fontainebleau, a small town about an hour south of Paris. There’s an enormous château there in the middle of the town, and a huge park/forest to explore. I was too busy enjoying the weather to take any photos, but luckily for me Dani is good at documenting these things.

Lucie has also been enjoying the sunshine. Our apartment, while bright, does not get a ton of direct sunbeams, much to the consternation of our sun-worshipping pup. However, she’s recently discovered that our window ledge does get some sun for a short while in the afternoon, so she quickly got over her fear of the ledge and is now back to begging to be let out, and then back in, and then back out, about 30 times a day. (I hesitate to call it a balcony, because it’s not really, even though we can squeeze two small stools out there and pretend we’re on a terrace.)

Unfortunately for her, the direct sun doesn’t last for that long, which means she has to get creative.

My office reopened at the beginning of 2021 to welcome back a limited capacity of workers. We’re each allowed to go to the office one day a week (though not required, since we are a “remote first” company). While I enjoy remote work and truly don’t mind hanging out at home most of the time, I’ve been taking advantage of the one day a week rule and braving the metro up to the 19th arrondissement so I can get out of the house and, you know, see real people on occasion.

Dani’s position with Duolingo is fully remote with no option right now for office access (since their only European presence is in Berlin) but once the COVID situation calms down a bit she might be able to find a nice coworking space. For now, working from home full time doesn’t seem to be a bother.

Here are a few photos of my office:

Normal, quoi.

My commute is a bit longer than I’d like (~1 hour) but I do make it a little harder on myself since I try to minimize my time on public transportation as much as possible; that means about 45 minutes of that hour is actually spent walking, so I only have to use one metro line. But it’s a good way to get my steps in and catch up on some podcasts, so I don’t particularly mind ; plus, it beats having to wake up at 5 AM so that I could get to work by 6:45, which was my typical day as a teacher. I admit that it’s really nice to have a more “traditional” 9-5 job that I can leave at the office when I’m done. My anxiety has decreased exponentially – no more “Sunday scaries” or late nights grading, lesson planning, or worrying about what’s going to happen the next day. I feel much, much more balanced and healthy, mentally and physically.

That’s it for now! We’re looking forward to the next couple of weeks when there should hopefully be a lightening of lockdown restrictions. The latest round has not been particularly successful, as cases remain high (we’re on a plateau of about 35,000 new cases per day) and vaccination remains slow, but it seems like the French government has decided to adopt a “live with it” attitude for the time being. People are very, very tired of lockdown, and it’s been a nightmare for the cultural sector in particular, which has been entirely closed since the end of October.

Hopefully the progressive reopening doesn’t result in a new explosion of cases, and that the vaccination campaign will start to pick up more speed so that we can have some more interesting things to report!

Pâtisseries à la folie

With few other activities to engage in outside of the four walls of our appartement thanks to dear old COVID, Dani and I have clung to life’s simpler pleasures: like daily visits to our neighborhood bakeries and pastry shops.

We have the great fortune (or misfortune, if you’re my waistline) to live on the same block as two highly-reputed bakeries, and a mere stone’s throw from about a dozen others, all vying equally for our love and attention (and money). With places to go being limited to food stores and shops, spending our precious daily minutes outside before curfew often means popping over to a boulangerie for a fresh baguette and the occasional (okay, fine, habitual) pastry.

Behold!

I mean, just look at those layers!

Our regular go-to pâtisserie has nearly always been this, a pain au chocolat. It is the croissant’s fancy sibling, stuffed with two slim bars of dark chocolate and enough butter to ensure that your fingertips and lips remain well-moisturized for the remainder of the day. The best ones are a mess to eat – they pastry flakes apart all over, and when they’re warm the melted chocolate on the inside smears all over the hands and face, making grown adults look instantly five years old again (or perhaps it’s just me). I simply don’t care. To me, a pain au chocolat is heaven on Earth and I never, ever get sick of them. I wish there was some kind of candle or room spray that could reproduce what it smells like when you pass in front of the bakery and these bad boys are just on their way out of the oven.

This one is from the bakery Terroirs d’avenir on the rue Paul Bert in Paris 11. They also have another bakery in the 2nd on the rue du Nil.

in the window of Terroirs d’avenir

And yet, despite my deep, deep love for the chocolate croissant, there has been a recent new contender for the number one spot atop my favorite pastry list (and I think it may have usurped the pain au chocolat on Dani’s): the escargot – or, as we’ve seen it called more regularly, the roulé:

The “plain” ones are usually filled with raisins and a light, creamy custard. However, bakers have been getting creative with other fillings…

…like pistachio and chocolate (from Du pain et des idées)…

…or even praline (this one is again from Terroirs d’avenir).

I guess you could say we’ve developed something of a love affair with the escargot.

Of course, we’ve also dabbled in some seasonal delights as well. Most recently was the galette des rois that we enjoyed for Epiphany in January. We aren’t Catholic, but who really is going to turn down another excuse to eat an almond cream-filled puff pastry? Far be it from us to turn up our noses.

from Boulangerie Gana on rue de Charonne

And since we couldn’t let the season pass after sampling only one single galette des rois, we thought it was best to also try a slice from pâtisserie Nanan. We do work in quality assurance, after all.

This one had slices of candied citrus fruit inside, which I am clearly very excited about

Of course, we used Christmas as an opportunity to really go ham on the pastries and brought out the big gun: Cyril Lignac. Cyril Lignac is an uber-famous pastry chef whose pastries have become something of a sensation, especially here in Paris. There is a Cyril Lignac pastry shop AND chocolaterie right on our corner and there is a literal line out the door and down the block every single day. I won’t tell you how long Dani waited in line to score us some goodies on Christmas Eve; just believe me when I say that they were totally worth it.

This was a mini bûche de Noël, pear and chestnut cream flavored. It looks much less appetizing than it tasted: surprisingly light and fluffy and utterly pleasant.

We also had some kind of chocolate concotion, which we did not get a photo of – I can only imagine it was because we were distracted by THIS:

The mother of all Cyril Lignac creations, the famous baba au rhum. An ultra-spongy cake that is positively drenched in rum and syrup, topped with whipped cream…when I say this is the best dessert I have ever eaten in my entire life, I am not exaggerating in the least. It was divine. We split this one on Christmas Eve and went back a week later for another on New Year’s. Zero regrets.

Now where’d I put my running shoes…?

Life, lately.

While I wish I could come into the space with tons of fun new updates and glimpses into our terribly glamorous life in Paris (ha!), the reality is that there has been not much to report. My intention was to do a write-up of how we spent Christmas, but the post has been languishing in my “drafts” folder since…well, we really didn’t do anything worth writing about. The pandemic continues to have a profound impact on our day-to-day — most everything here is still closed, and with a newly-imposed 6 PM curfew, we’ve been in an endless cycle of wake up–work–watch some TV–repeat, with the occasional long walk thrown in on my lunch break or the weekend. Our almost year-long, real-life “Groundhog Day” continues, with no end in sight.

Numbers in France continue to rise, and while the French government first insisted that a third confinement (lockdown) was not in their plans, it seems like they’re quickly changing their tune. My boss is insistent that we’ll be in lockdown again at the beginning of February, once the fifteen-day trial period of the 6 PM curfew is up. Rumors have been circulating that the reopening of restaurants, bars, and cafés — once slated for the end of January — has been pushed until April at the earliest. This makes me think my boss is probably right about the imminent arrival of a third confinement.

People in the States tend to think that everyone else has managed to figure out how to handle the COVID situation except for them, and while it’s true that the US is in particularly bad shape due to the federal government’s complete abdication of any responsibility whatsoever toward ensuring the well-being of its citizens, I really can’t say that France seems to be handling things any better as of late. Cases in France are considerably worse now than they were last spring when the government instituted a total lockdown that lasted for two months. The second confinement that coincided directly with our move to France in November brought cases down from the 30- and 40-thousands to about 10 or 11 thousand per day, but we’ve never approached the goal of 5,000 cases originally set by the government that would allow for a gradual reopening.

Still, France seems to be floundering with how to really get a handle on things. I’m generally a fan of big government, but frankly, I’ve been mystified by the approach here. I’m no scientist, but the decisions being made seem contradictory, only partially rooted in scientific evidence (when convenient, it seems) and, worst of all, totally ineffective. Schools and shops (of all varieties) remain open, yet cultural institutions and cinemas/theaters remain closed. Apparently being crammed into my neighborhood grocery store or shopping center, where no one bothers to limit the number of people allowed inside (as they’re supposed to) is fine and safe, but timed entry at the 650,000 square foot Louvre is not? Restaurants and bars are allowed to remain open for takeaway only, but no one ever seems to enforce the “away” part, since the places around my apartment are regularly crowded with scores of people standing outside where the terrace would normally be, drinking and having a grand old time, while the police simply walk by and shake their heads. Why not allow these places to be open, then, where they could at least place tables at a safe distance apart and say you must be seated in order to be served? What’s the point of keeping them closed if people are allowed to hang out in front anyway?

The government has stubbornly insisted that schools must remain open, but workplaces are to institute restrictions (we’re currently allowed at our office one day a week), though the adults I’ve encountered have been infinitely more responsible in wearing masks than the teenagers, who congregate maskless in groups, often passing around a single vape pen to share amongst ten people. Similarly, curfew has not stopped people from getting together at home and having parties — their guests just simply spend the night now. And since the institution of the 6 PM curfew, public transportation and bakeries and grocery stores have become a true nightmare as everyone scrambles to get home and/or get their daily provisions all at the same time.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the completely disastrous rollout of the vaccine here in France. As it stands, if things continue at the current pace, it will take eight years for the population to be vaccinated against COVID. Of course, only about 50% of French people are currently planning to receive the vaccine — needless to say, I am not hopeful we will be getting back to “normal” anytime soon.

Obviously, I am feeling very negatively about all of this. That’s not to say I’m not happy to be here or that things were better in Michigan (they weren’t), but “COVID fatigue” has set in. Moving to a new place is lonely enough as it is — not being able to go out and do things to meet new people and really settle in to a LIFE here has been extremely challenging.

On a slightly brighter note, I got to actually go to work for the first time last week, as our office reopened for us to attend one day a week. It was nice to finally meet some of my colleagues in person, after two months of only seeing them through a webcam. Then, last Saturday, we had our first real snow of the season! It didn’t stick around for long, but it made for a really lovely scene and Dani and I enjoyed a long day of walking around and enjoying the sight of Paris dusted with snow. We might get flurries again this weekend, but I doubt we’ll get anything like the snow we had last week again.

A few photos:

Attempting to move internationally during COVID

Make no mistake, COVID has totally upended the way we travel internationally — potentially forever. Moving abroad is never easy, even in the best of times, but the pandemic brought some additional anxiety and stress to a process that is already challenging, both logistically and emotionally.

There was one aspect of this whole process of moving abroad that hadn’t changed though, and that remained as (frustratingly) familiar as ever: applying for a French long-stay visa!

The process varies from country to country, but applying for a long stay visa almost always involves a massive amount of paperwork, a lot of prayers, and — more than likely, at least if you’re me — some crying. When we moved to Lyon in 2018, we were under the naive impression that the process would be difficult for Dani since she was applying as a non-traditional student in a language school and easy for me, since I was the one that, you know, actually had a job lined up. Needless to say, we were sorely mistaken — Dani’s morning appointment was over within twenty minutes, whereas mine involved a four-hour wait past my scheduled appointment time, only to be turned away because I did not have the right kind of work authorization paperwork. I had to re-do the entire process — including a second trip to Chicago — and cross my fingers that my passport came back in time before our flight.

What a pile of visa paperwork looks like!

Applying for a French long-stay visa during a pandemic

When we first decided in late spring that we wanted to return to France, we weren’t sure if it was even going to be possible because nearly all flights between the US and France had been grounded and the European borders closed. The French Embassy had quit issuing visas of any variety, and there was little indication as to when they would start accepting applications again. This uncertainty persisted until well into the summer, when finally, in August, the Embassy gave word that they would begin allowing visa appointments again, but only for students, language assistants, and — luckily for us — those applying for a passeport-talent. Once my work authorization paperwork came through in mid-October, we hurried up and booked a last-minute appointment in Chicago, hoping again that our passports would come back in time for our flight that was planned for Halloween (we had already rescheduled about five times).

We were lucky to even get an appointment in Chicago at all; there were so few appointments available because of how severely VFS Global had to limit their staff to comply with Chicago’s COVID-19 restrictions that it had never appeared before as on option on the visa appointment scheduling platform. Plus, Chicago is the only visa center for the entire Midwest, which means it’s almost always booked solid pretty much immediately. There was a slight snafu when the system gave Dani and I two separate appointment times (one morning, one later afternoon), despite the fact that we had applied as a family; thankfully “my” appointment was scheduled for first thing in the morning, so Dani came with me and we pretty-pleased the receptionist who allowed us both to go back together. This was a huge relief, as not only were we worried that our files would be sent separately (rather than together as they were meant to be), but there was also another woman with the same last name as Dani scheduled for a visa appointment at the very same time that afternoon! I shudder to think of the miscommunication that might have happened if the visa agents thought that Dani was applying as the spouse of this other woman.

At our hotel in Chicago, getting the last of our documents ready to print

Compared to our previous visa experiences, the waiting room was nearly empty — it was just the two of us and one other gentleman, whose appointment was ending just as ours began. There were less than a dozen people on the list for the day, a stark contrast to 2018, when there were at least a dozen people crammed together in a single room during my long afternoon of waiting. We had our temperatures checked upon entry, and wore masks for the duration of our appointments, except for a quick minute when we had to have our photographs taken for the biometrics procedure.

We dropped off our half-ton of paperwork and watched like hawks until we saw that our files were bound together into a single envelope that would later be sent to the Embassy in Washington, D.C. for further processing (for the low-low price of only $105 per person…not to mention the cost of an overnight trip to Chicago. WOOF). The turnaround time was going to be tight, but I knew from past experience (both mine and others’) that though it was uncommon, it was possible to get a visa in a week to ten days, if you could prove imminent departure — and we had included receipts for our flights. There was nothing left to do but to cross our fingers and wait.

Our appointment coincided with Dani’s birthday (lucky her) so we went for a beer on a patio the evening before our appointment

A wrench in the plan: France’s second confinement

About a week after we turned in our visa applications, the President of France announced a second nation-wide confinement in attempt to re-flatten the COVID curve after a worrying second wave. Borders would remain closed and travel restrictions within France would go into effect after the weekend of Halloween/la Toussaint, which is typically preceded by a two-week holiday period when children are off of school and families take time to travel. Immediately we began to worry that this new confinement would mean a denial of our visa applications, which meant that my new job was in jeopardy. I had to be in France to begin my new position, since I had signed a French contract. It was already clear at this point that we weren’t going to make our Halloween flight…but now we began to worry that we wouldn’t make it at all. That all of this would be for nothing, and that we’d have to begin the job hunt again, back at square one.

After several days of feverishly Googling the “small print” of this second confinement, we were relieved to find that it at least appeared as though some visas were still being issued, and that holders of a valid long-stay visa would still be allowed to enter France. However, our new departure date of November 12th was creeping closer, and still — no visas.

Nevertheless, we had to continue to plan as though we’d be able to leave on November 12th. Part of the travel restrictions to France include a mandatory COVID test within 72 hours of departure, so on November 9th, we took a chance and scheduled our COVID tests for the following afternoon. That day, as we drove to our appointments, we got the notification from FedEx that a package from the Embassy would be delivered to Dani’s parents’ house that afternoon, while we were in the middle of our COVID tests — our passports! Hopefully with visas inside.

Let me tell you, that 50-minute drive from our COVID testing site (don’t ask — rural Michigan problems) back home felt like an eternity as we tried not to worry too much about what we might find (or not) when we got there.

Would France let us in?

Once we arrived home, we nervously raced to open the packages that contained our passports. My hands shook as I flipped through the pages in search of my visa — and there it was! Thankfully, Dani had received one, too. They were accompanied by a small slip of paper with instructions that we were to ask for a multi-year carte de séjour (residence permit) within two months of our arrival in France.

Our relief was palpable but temporary, because there was one hurdle remaining: actually getting on the flight and entering the country. As you’re warned when applying for the visa, receipt of a visa does not actually guarantee entry into France — that’s up to the border agent. With only 48 hours to go until our flight, we had no time to do any more research or to contact any more authorities to verify that we’d be allowed in — we’d just have to fly into Paris and see!

We all know how that part of the story ends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our departure was without complication. I’ll have to save that story for next time!

Oops, we did it again…

…moved to France, that is!

Last month I was finally able to share some news we had been sitting on for a while: we moved back to France! While it wasn’t exactly a secret, per se, we had avoided telling too many people beforehand because we just weren’t sure that it was actually going to happen. We also knew that if it was going to happen, chances were high that we’d have to leave relatively quickly; given the current situation with COVID — and the fact that the more people we told, the more they wanted a chance to see us before we left — we just couldn’t risk any potential exposure, no matter how nice it might have been to say a proper goodbye beforehand.

Similarly, because of COVID, there was a huge possibility that we wouldn’t have been able to come to France at all. We had already had one opportunity fall through and were incredibly lucky that there was even a second opportunity at all — but that’s a story for another day.

So how’d this all happen?

Though there’s always a lot of planning when it comes to moving abroad — planning that often lasts for many months — it was not our original intention to move to France at all. It had been our plan (had been for years, in fact) to move to New York at the conclusion of my Master’s degree. Dani and I have both spent a good amount of time in the city, and it’s been our dream for 10+ years to move back there permanently. Leaving our jobs in Michigan so that I could attend graduate school seemed like the first logical stepping stone in a move further East; after all, a program of study is always finite, and once I finished my Master’s, we’d be forced to move on to something else. For us, that “something else” was New York or nowhere, and early in 2020 we began making plans in earnest.

And then March arrived, COVID hit, and the world ground to a literal halt.

New York was particularly badly affected, but in the early days of the pandemic, we naively assumed that things would be fine by the time we actually planned to arrive in the city, sometime in mid- to late-summer. We didn’t know just yet how seriously COVID was going to affect the economy, but unfortunately for us, it didn’t take long to find out.

I can’t speak for Dani, but I must have sent out a hundred resumés in the month and a half between my Spring Break in March (which marked the end of my Master’s exams) and my graduation in early May. I applied to every single teaching job for which I was qualified in the city of New York, in public schools, private schools and charter schools. I applied for jobs teaching French and my secondary certification, history. I applied for “humanities” positions at private schools, hoping that my background in French, history, and music would be enough to qualify me for those jobs.

Then the NYC Department of Education announced an indefinite hiring freeze. Dani’s entire industry, live event production, essentially evaporated (and still has yet to return). I began looking at jobs outside of the classroom, in education-adjacent positions that I thought might be a good fit: jobs in Edtech, instructional design, educational consulting, and even copywriting and editing jobs in the hopes that my freelance experience might let me get my foot in the door.

We received no phone calls.

At this point it was late May, and it was very clear that we were likely in this COVID situation for the long haul, with no indication as to when things might start getting back to some variety of “normal.” While we were still committed to moving New York, we realized we had to be realistic and start considering some other options as well. New York also isn’t the kind of city you can just move to without a plan — at least not for us, anyway. Financially we knew we could weather maybe a month or two of job hunting in the city itself, but with the uncertainty of the pandemic’s long-term effects on the economy, we also knew that we could wind up getting really, really screwed if we decided to just try our chances. Plus, we knew that the absolute last place we wanted to be without access to employer-sponsored health insurance was in one of the most expensive cities in America during a global pandemic.

Back to France…during a pandemic?

Sometime around Memorial Day weekend (if memory serves), my old boss from the university I worked at in Lyon reached out to see if I would be interested in re-joining the team as a lectrice d’anglais, and I decided to go for it. Dani was also excited by the idea of returning to Lyon, and since we didn’t have any other serious prospects — well, why not? Unfortunately for us, that opportunity fell through at the literal last second — as in, the university’s semester was already underway, and “my” classes were being covered by a colleague until my arrival. We were back to square one, and had been living with Dani’s parents for more than three months since our lease ended in Pennsylvania in June.

And then…an e-mail. From an educational technology company based in Paris, for a job as a Quality Assurance Manager that I had applied to on a whim when we were still living in Pennsylvania. I didn’t actually believe I had a chance at getting it (the labor laws in France make it extremely difficult to be hired as a non-European, or at the very least as someone who doesn’t already have valid French working papers) but since it fit my background and, from what I could tell on their website, seemed like a fun place to work — I went for it anyway.

First, I was contacted by one of their recruiters for a quick introductory chat. From there, they expressed an interest in a formal interview process, and I went through a barrage of Zoom calls over the course of about 10 days, one of which I messed up so spectacularly that I was certain that was the end of it. And yet…it wasn’t. They wound up offering me the job, with full visa sponsorship for myself and Dani. Whether or not the Embassy would grant us those visas remained to be seen, but we decided to go for it anyway, despite having been recently burned in our attempt to get to Lyon for my teaching position. We managed to snag a last-minute appointment in Chicago (as in, we made the appointment on a Friday and had to leave from Michigan the following Tuesday) and crossed our fingers for the three weeks in between the submission of our file at the visa center and the return of our passports, with visas enclosed, just days before our scheduled flight from Detroit to Paris.

Bonjour, Paris!

So here we are — just wrapping up our very first month in Paris. We arrived on a Friday in November, and I began my job the following Monday. In light of the pandemic, my company has adopted a “remote first” policy, so I work from home full-time and could really be based anywhere in France. We’d like to eventually move to Lyon, but given the current travel restrictions/confinement in France that have made it difficult to travel between regions, and the fact that we have to apply for residency now rather than at the end of a year, we’ve decided to stick it out in Paris for the time being. We spent the first few weeks in an AirBnB, and have since moved into our own apartment that we look forward to making our own, for however long we may be here!

My job has been going really well. Despite being fully remote, my team has gone above and beyond in helping me feel welcome and supported. Everyone has truly been so kind and helpful — I truly can’t believe that this is the job I managed to stumble into. It’s a great mix of my professional background in education, curriculum design, and writing and editing. While I do sometimes miss being in the classroom, I have to admit that I do feel more than a little bit relieved. The prospect of starting a new teaching job in a brand-new school, in the conditions under which teachers are being forced to work currently (whether fully remote, hybrid, or — insanely — in person) was something that had been causing me intense spells of anxiety all spring and summer. I truly feel for my colleagues in teaching right now, many of whom are really, really suffering, both mentally and physically.

Other than that, Paris is still pretty heavily restricted due to COVID, so we’ve mostly been hunkered down at home. Nevertheless, it’s still the Paris we know and love, if a little quieter — and we’re making it work.

I’ll share a little more later on what it was like to move abroad during a global pandemic, but that’s it for now — dinner and a glass of red beckon…

A Do-Re-Mi Day Trip

As Dani and I planned the itinerary for our time in Munich, we looked at a few possible day trips to get out of the city and see some of the other cool stuff that Germany has to offer. I was originally most interested in visiting Schloss Neuschwanstein, that giant castle that was supposedly the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, but given that it is a Mecca for Instagram “influencers” (and wannabes) and knowing that it would be likely overrun with people all vying for the same exact shot, I decided against it. A deal on GetYourGuide for a day trip to Salzburg, Austria, however…well, it piqued my interest. We hadn’t realized how close Munich actually is to Salzburg (a mere 2 hours on the train) and being pretty big fans of The Sound of Music, we decided to go for it. Popping over to Salzburg for the day also offered an added bonus: another country to cross off our “visited” list!ACS_0003

The morning of our day trip we had enough time to grab breakfast and a coffee before wandering over to the meeting point at the train station. Once we boarded the train, our guide, Maxine, gave us a historical overview of Salzburg and also talked quite a lot about The Sound of Music and the different places around town where key scenes were filmed. Dani and I have a tradition of watching the movie every year around Christmas time, so we were definitely excited to see the locations in real life! The trip itself was quick and just before we rolled into the train station, we got a stunning view of Salzburg from the train – fortress atop the hill and all.

Our guide started us on a walking tour, and the first stop were the Mirabell gardens, where much of the iconic “Do-Re-Mi” sequence from The Sound of Music was filmed. We had a few free minutes to wander through the garden, then met back up with the group to head over to the Old Town. We’ve seen a lot of Old Towns, living in Europe, and Salzburg definitely didn’t disappoint. Mozart’s birth house, the tiny corner cafés, the winding streets with the iron shop signs hanging out front…it was so charming! Maxine gave us a thorough tour of the main sights of the Old Town, and we finished in front of St. Peter Stiftskulinarium, one of the oldest restaurants in the world. It was first mentioned in a letter to Charlemagne in 803 A.D. Maxine had taken the liberty of making a lunch reservation for our group, but given that it’s kind of a pricey place, Dani and I opted out and hit the market for a quick bite instead so we could maximize our three hours of free time.

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We knew we wanted to see the Sound of Music abbey, which is at the top of the hill, just next to the fortress so after our snack, we set out through the old town to find the trail to the top. Thankfully it wasn’t too challenging of a walk and we made it up the hill to the abbey relatively quickly. We spent some time poking around the outside and inside the smaller chapel; everything was peaceful and quiet. Of course we couldn’t stop ourselves quoting the moving as we stood at the gate where the Von Trapp children come to see Maria after her sudden departure from the Von Trapp household. Unfortunately, there was some cloudiness/fog/pollution that day, so the view of the Austrian alps from the abbey – which is magnificent, or so we heard – was somewhat obscured.

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Coming back down from the abbey, we stopped to split a beer at one of Austria’s oldest breweries, Stiegl, founded in 1492 and supposedly frequented by Mozart. While we were there, we ran into Maxine, our guide, who let us know that lunch at the restaurant had run a little longer than she’d thought, so we had the option to stay one hour longer in Salzburg if we so chose. Score! With the extra time, decided to go for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at a little family-owned café that our guide recommended, where we indulged in two different kinds of cake and milchkaffee.

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After our afternoon dessert, there wasn’t a ton of time left before our departure, so we did what we do best – went and sat next to the Salzach river and enjoyed the sun. Unfortunately our train ride home – though beautiful, as the fog/cloudiness had lifted and we could see the mountains and countryside – and our enthusiasm from the day were marred when an accident on the train tracks delayed our already late return to Munich by about another hour. Then, as we were sitting on the tracks, came the news that Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was burning. Joy tempered, we returned back to our hotel.

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Reflecting on our day in Salzburg now, however, I can only smile! We knew we would enjoy it, but like our experience in Poland, we had no idea just how lovely Salzburg would actually be. It definitely has inspired us to visit Austria again in the future, and to perhaps spend a little bit more time in the countryside.

 

Spring Break in Munich

We kicked off our weeklong spring break (two weeks for Dani!) by hopping on a quick flight over to Munich, Germany. You’ll remember from our trip to Krakow that technically, we have been to Munich before, but this time we actually went there on purpose!

I was going to title this post “Mediocre Munich” because, to be honest, we both felt kind of meh about it, but I changed my mind once I was reminded of Nomadic Matt’s recent blog post about globalization. The fact that I feel kind of “blah” about Munich is not really about Munich at all, but rather my warped tourist’s perception of what I thought Munich should be. The reality did not match the myth that I had created for myself, which isn’t Munich’s fault at all. It’s mine. Munich does not owe me shit.

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That said, Munich was fine. We had a good time, but it’s not a place I feel particularly compelled to go back to. We got in to the city really late on Saturday evening and went straight to our hotel, so that we could be up and at ’em for our 10 AM free walking tour. The walking tour was a basic introduction to the city, but we enjoyed our guide so much that during the tour’s short bathroom break, we immediately booked his afternoon Third Reich-themed walking tour, which was just as excellent. So the bulk of our first day was devoted to learning more about Munich itself, and we did enjoy ourselves quite a lot on the walking tours, though the weather left a bit to be desired. In fact, it was cold! 

Naturally, we used the cold weather as an excuse to hang out in Munich’s most famous beer hall, the Hofbrauhaus, both in between our two walking tours and right afterward. Is it touristy and ridiculous? Yes. Did we care? Not even slightly. I mean, the beers were as big as our heads!

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The very next day we took a day trip to Salzburg, and then we had one more full day in Munich before we took off to Brussels. We chose to spend the majority of it at the Viktualienmarkt, a huge open-air market in the center of town that also has a beer garden right at its center. It’s much more frequented by the locals and quite reasonably priced. By this time, the weather had greatly improved, so we didn’t mind spending a few hours outdoors in the beer garden at all. After, we went to the Royal Residence museum and then popped over to spend a few minutes in the Englischer garten, Munich’s version of Parc de la tête d’or.

The part that sort of soured me on Munich, though, was how we were treated by the people there. We got the royal tourist treatment on several occasions – and not in a good way. There were certain things going in that we expected, like being brought and charged for a bottle of water at dinner instead of getting a pitcher of tap water, because I lacked the German skills to specifically ask for a pitcher. The same kind of thing happens in Paris, though because I speak French we are usually able to avoid that kind of price gouging for tourists. But in Munich we just felt like we were being constantly ripped off – a bottle of water was twice as expensive on our bill than what was shown on the menu. Our meals were more expensive – on two occasions at two separate restaurants, our servers heard us speaking English and swapped our German menus for English ones, which had higher prices. And on two occasions at two separate restaurants, when the dinner bill came the waiters “reminded” us that, “the price doesn’t include tip! How much would you like to tip me – 20 percent??” which not only is far from the general European practice of rounding up to an even figure on the bill, but is just a tacky way to communicate. And our cab ride to the airport the morning we left (public transit didn’t run that early) was seventy euros for a twenty-six minute ride. I couldn’t help but compare it to my experiences in both New York and Paris, where a cab ride to the airport (often up to an hour of driving, especially in Paris) has never cost me more than 50 bucks.

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So yeah, we left Munich feeling a little underwhelmed and turned off. I don’t want to make generalizations about a place and its people – I’m sure if we spent more time there, off the beaten tourist track, that we would have a much different view. Talking to the locals we encountered in the Viktualienmarkt was really the highlight of our experience in Munich, and I would have enjoyed a lot more of that and a lot less feeling like the “stupid American abroad” trope. Perhaps we’ll go back one day – to Germany, certainly, there’s just so much to see and experience – but for now, we say auf wiedersehen.

 

Odds & Ends

Life has been rolling merrily along here in France. My teaching schedule this semester has been mercifully easy – so easy, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll ever adapt to having a “regular” job again. I only teach one class on Thursday evenings, and then three classes in a row on Fridays, from 8 AM until 2 PM. That’s left plenty of time to explore Lyon, read the MA list, and put in some hours for freelance projects.

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Some of our best moments in March

We’ve not done as much traveling this semester as we would really like (the passage of time has always and will forever follow an academic calendar), mostly due to the dog and Dani’s school schedule which is a bit more punishing than my current five-and-a-half-day-weekend situation. Taking a trip back to the States also set us back a bit financially, as one of those trips was an unpleasant surprise. Spring Break is on the horizon, though – and we’ve got an adventure planned!

Until then, we’ve just been enjoying the little pleasures that come along with living here. The weather has been exceptionally nice, so that has meant lots of afternoon picnics in the park and walks along the river. We try to hit the open air market at least once a week, and enjoy a coffee or a pint on a terrace in the afternoons. I also recently had the pleasure of finally meeting someone in person who I have known for years online; she is part of my personal learning network on Twitter and was in Lyon with students for their spring break. We were able to have dinner together, and it was so nice to finally get to speak with her face-to-face!

Also, just a few days ago we went to our first European soccer match. It was a match between the local team, Olympique Lyonnais, and the football club from Rennes for the “coupe de France” which, as far as I can tell, is the game that decides the best team in France. In an attempt to fill up the stadium, tickets went on sale for only 1 euro! A local friend of ours, knowing that we’ve wanted to make it to a match this year, bought a few and invited us along. Unfortunately, OL lost to Rennes in the last few moments of the match, but it was fun and exciting nonetheless! A few months back Dani bought a ticket package to the last three matches of the women’s World Cup, so we’re looking forward to (hopefully) seeing the United States play at the same stadium in July.

We’ve also settled on a return date to the United States: August 7th. It’s exactly one week shy of the one-year “anniversary” of our arrival in France. I’m trying not to get too down in the dumps about going back home, but it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the countdown. There is still a lot to look forward to in the months to come – we have a TON of travel plans coming up and our best friends are coming to visit in June. I just know that once the “busy” season sets in, as summer begins, that the days and weeks are going to fly by even faster than they have been. So for now, I’m enjoying this “slow” season and trying to soak up as much as I can with the time we have left.

Carnival in Nice, France

One of the (many) upsides to spending this year in France has been the ability to finally go and see all of the cool things I spent five years exploring in class with my students. La Fête des Lumières? Check! Christmas Markets? Drank all the vin chaud we could stomach. The gorgeous lake and canals in Annecy? Done and done.

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A few weekends ago I got to cross another literal textbook experience off the list – the Carnaval de Nice! It is one of the biggest Carnaval (or Carnival, for you anglophones) celebrations in France; and it is a family affair, for those of you more familiar with its raucous cousin from New Orleans. Going to the carnaval in Nice was on my France bucket list before we even boarded the airplane last August, though I was worried it wasn’t going to be able to happen as the bulk of the events would be happening during the one week I had already planned a visit back to the States to see my new baby niece (of course). However, given the flexibility of my teaching schedule this semester, we were able to make it work by heading to Nice for the very last weekend of the celebrations, and staying until Monday afternoon.

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We got to Nice at about noon on Saturday – just in time for a quick lunch and for me to sprint to the ticket booth to buy our entry to the bataille des fleurs, which I (mistakenly) thought was free for those in the standing-room only area. Luckily, Dani held our spot in the long security line and I made it back to her literally just in the nick of time – thirty seconds later and she would have had to step aside, all progress lost.

The bataille des fleurs is basically exactly what it sounds like: a relatively short parade, where the floats are completely covered top-to-bottom by fresh flowers. The parade route is a circle, and it begins with the performers on each float tossing branches of mimosa (the flower, not the cocktail) to the spectators. After about one full circuit, when all the mimosas are gone, they start to dismantle the floats themselves and toss the other flowers to the (very eager, as we found) parade-watchers. At the end, if you’re lucky – or athletic – you leave with a lovely fresh bouquet.

The evening parade, though, is really the main event. Each year the Carnaval de Nice has a theme; this year it was Roi du Cinéma (King of Cinema) and the floats are designed around the theme. I have to say, these are not your typical parade floats. These things are absolutely massive creations, often satirical in nature, and truly are amazing to see. They move slowly around the parade route, surrounded by dancers in costume and smaller versions of costumed characters related to the main subject of the float. Confetti explodes at random intervals, and the music never stops.

Plus – it’s in Nice. It doesn’t get much better than that, in terms of locale. It really was the perfect weekend; we can’t wait to go back once the weather is a bit nicer, and hopefully enjoy some more time in the water.

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Delicious Krakow

I know this post is super late, given that we traveled to Krakow in November, but I just really have to talk about our food tour experience since it was such a great one. We’re food tour people – I’ve posted about our amazing experience in Rome here – and food tours have become our go-to activity in new places that we visit. It’s a fun way to see a city, and the guides typically make excellent restaurant recommendations for places that provide quality food and are authentic and not too overtaken by tourists.

We knew we definitely wanted to do a food tour while we were in Krakow, and we opted to book through Delicious Poland. They’re locally owned and operated, and though the company has expanded to include tours in other cities like Wroclaw and Warsaw, it was created in Krakow. In fact, our guide for our food tour through Kazimierz, the city’s former Jewish quarter, was the company’s CEO/co-founder, Kamila.

Having done several food tours, Dani and I have a pretty good idea of what we like and this one ticked all the boxes. It was a group experience, but small – there were only six of us, plus Kamila. We’ve been on larger tours and we’ve been on smaller tours where it was just us and the guide, and we definitely like the group atmosphere – there is just something fun about discovering and sharing new food with other people. But the one thing that we really loved about this particular tour through Krakow was that we tried foods that were totally traditional to Poland and that we also would probably never have tried on our own. I mean, everyone likes pierogies and potato pancakes – but pickled herring? Chilled beet soup? In all honesty, I would never order either at a restaurant, but I’m so glad we had the opportunity to try them on our food tour and that the food choices were not tailored to the palates of finicky tourists.

So, what did we eat?

We kicked off the tour at a pierogi take-out joint and sampled four different kinds of pierogies, three savory and one sweet. As it was getting close to the Christmas holidays, Kamila explained that the pierogies she chose were typical of those served at Christmas time in Krakow, and she explained how they are typically made (it sounds super tedious). From there, we walked further into Kazimierz and stopped at a restaurant where we the aforementioned chilled beet soup, which was surprisingly delicious and not at all “earthy’ tasting as one normally expects with beets. We also had zurek, a hot soup made from a sourdough starter. It reminded me a lot of the dill pickle soup at the Polish-American restaurant my family frequents. I’m not sure why I was initially put off by the idea of a sour soup, given that I quite like the dill pickle version, but the zurek was excellent.

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From there, we went to a Polish vodka bar where we sampled two different kinds of vodka – one traditional/plain, and one flavored – accompanied by herring and other small bites, like smoked sheep’s milk cheese. I’ll be honest: this stop was my least favorite, food-wise, as I’m just not normally a fish person under the best of circumstances and herring is quite particular. But it’s typical in Poland to have herring alongside vodka, as the grease of the fish complements the bite of the alcohol, so I tried it. Final verdict: herring is not for me, but Dani liked it (as did the others in our group) so definitely don’t be put off by my unpopular take. I’m glad Kamila included this stop on the tour, since herring is everywhere in Krakow, so it added authenticity to the whole experience.

Wisely, we took some time to “walk it off” before heading over to a craft brewery, Ursa Maior. Krakow is big-time into craft beer (definitely NOT a problem for us) and this brewery in particular was cool for two reasons: one, the head brewer is a woman and two, they only serve their own beer, which is 100% vegan, natural, and locally made. Not much else to say on this stop – we love beer, so we loved it (obviously).

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Finally, we had our stop for dinner at a restaurant where Dani and I had actually stopped for a light lunch earlier in the day…whoops. No matter – we were more than happy to eat there again because the food was amazing. We had a beef goulash and potato pancakes, followed up by a dessert (which I unfortunately don’t remember) and kompot, a juice made from a variety of boiled fruits.

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It’s hard to make this look appetizing in a photo, but believe me, it was delicious.

To say that we left fat and happy would be an understatement. And, as a little side note and shout out to our awesome guide, Kamila, she helped me read the instructions on the cold medicine I had bought earlier in the day. She also recommended a great paczki place that we tried the very next morning (there was no way I was going to Krakow and not getting paczki). I went with Kamila’s suggestion of rose jam filling and all I can say is that the Michigan paczki market needs to get on board with that particular flavor, STAT.

Really, we can’t recommend Delicious Poland enough. This is not a sponsored post – we just know a good food tour when we see one, and this is right up there with our epic experience in Rome. If you ever find yourself in Poland, check them out – you won’t regret it!

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I see you looking at my donut, pigeon.