Making a home

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Since arriving in Paris for the first time nearly a year ago, I've struggled with identifying myself as a resident rather than a tourist or visitor. For me, home has always been defined as a place where I can navigate myself around without challenge; someplace wherein lies a support system of people who I can turn to for just about anything - for comfort in times of crisis or to share a good laugh with.

My first few months in Paris were riddled with jet-lag, over-sleeping, meet-ups and parties with Gui's friends and family and occasional headaches from trying to communicate between languages. I rarely left the house without someone else in tow to show me where to go and how to get there, and the few times I did venture out on my own, it was only to familiar spots or after two hours of preparation and mapping on the internet. I guess I was living like a tourist then. Now, I'm noticing myself growing braver about finding my way around the city. I'm at the point where I'm confident enough to trek through town with an address and arrondissement in my head and capably find where I need to go. Perhaps my bravery comes from carrying my trusty Indispensible or my wireless connected phone that can search Google maps for me, but even so, my new home is starting to feel more familiar everyday.

And, I suppose it helps that recently I've had a lovely group of anglophone ladies enticing me with invites to fun places around town. It's unbelievable how much of an impact having friends can have on an etranger's life (well, at least on mine). To be surrounded by impossibly friendly folks who've often gone through (or are going through) similar circumstances as mine, who are looking for like-minded friends to enjoy this amazing city with, who miss the same things I miss, who still pull out their cameras to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower for the zillionth time, who aren't afraid of a little rhum-rhum (or beer, or vodka/orange) and who don't mind occasionally shelling out 20€ on a glass of champagne and a plate of macarons just to check out the latest fancy bar on the Champs-Elysées is, more than anything, what makes living in this great city so much more like being at home. I never imagined my life with friends here. I guess I always figured I'd live my life here, meeting French people from work or school but spending my free time with Guillaume and his friends. Envisioning a large group of intelligent, adorable and generous (English-speaking) women available for happy-hour, house parties, movies and lunching, was never even in my periphery. I feel like I've hit the jackpot in the friend department!

But, beyond my newfound social life, I'm still trying to get into a routine with my "professional" life. After mulling it over in my head and soliciting advice from my well-informed friends and my practical-minded husband, I've decided to put my career ambitions aside for these next few months while I focus on conquering the ever-frightening French language. I've been on a few interviews for really decent job positions, but each time my lacking French skills were what kept me from getting the offer (or so they told me, anyway - maybe they didn't like my shoes or haircut - I wouldn't blame them, I'm in serious need of both). And, when I eventually found myself applying for a really great job teaching business English, I felt a twinge of relief and excitement that I'd finally found something to challenge me, get me back to work and help me gain some experience. But, even though it would have ideally been a perfect solution to my unemployment problem, in the end, I decided that taking on 20 hours of French courses a week was enough to keep me busy without the added distraction of a challenging part-time job. I guess a lot of other factors weighed in there, too, but I know keeping French classes at the top of my priority list is the best route for me to take for now, and so I'm taking it.

Still, I'm managing to keep myself occupied these days as a volunteer for an English-speaking non-profit organization in Paris, and above all it's been a really great place to keep my normally sharpened computer skills from getting too rusty. I'm getting a good idea of what it would be like to work with French folks, too, and on more than one occasion I've found myself on the receiving end of a phone inquiry in French, in which case my limited skills are definitely being tested. I don't mind that. And, it makes me feel quite good when I can get a point across or at least tell the person to hang on long enough to fetch someone who can understand them.

Summer's come and gone (in a blink, it seems), and there are a lot of changes going on in Paris and in my little life. It's getting colder, streets are full of people, shops are donning knee-high boots, wool coats and chunky sweaters (yay!) and I'm starting to get a taste of what it's really like to make a life here. I'm finding my groove, setting up a routine, and making myself at home. And, it's actually rather nice.

A glimpse of Saturday in Paris

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Things have been unusually exciting around these parts lately - well, things in my little life, not necessarily in Paris (an update on my little life is coming soon). Although, last weekend all of Paris (and I believe the rest of Europe, too) was treated to a rare a peek into the usually formidable, mysterious and often private palaces, monuments and government buildings in and around the city. I honestly couldn't say I know much about the event, but Gui was all over checking out a few government palaces, so that's how we spent our Saturday.

We got a late start and only made it to two places, the Assemblée Nationale and the Bank of France. The Assemblée was interesting, and the 30 minute wait we had to get in was worth having a glimpse at the huge, ornate palace where laws are made in France - a place that I often see on snippets of news pieces.

Voting buttons for the Assembly members.


Just outside the building.

The bank tour was pretty lame. We didn't have to wait in line, but we realized shortly after walking into the place that our "bank" tour was simply a tour of the Galerie Dorée, no money making or counting in sight. Borrrring. The closest we got to seeing gold was this gilded room that reminded me of a room I saw in the Vatican.

But the best part of our day was getting there. We decided to Vélib between tours, which is something that I've been dying (and a little scared) to do since arriving in Paris. For a measly 1€ a piece, Gui and I made our way around Place de la Concorde, and up to Palais Royal without a hitch. I was surprised at how scared I wasn't, in the end. Afterwards, Gui and I talked about taking regular Vélib rides through Paris on the weekends. There's always more to see than we realize, places we have yet to uncover and our favorite spots we don't see often enough.

Cute boy on a bike.

Riding through Place de la Concorde.

At at light at Place de la Concorde.

I hope you're happy, mom & Gui!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Now that I can finally benefit from what many consider the best health coverage in the world, I'm making overdue appointments with doctors to get back on track with my santé. The first order of business is replacing embarrassingly old "two-week" contacts that I've been using for over a year. Yes, a year. I was without health insurance for more than a year, and there was no way I was going to afford a $400+ doctor's appointment plus the price of new lenses or glasses on my barely sustainable salary living in L.A. Plus, my contacts have been working fine, and there's no reason to fix something that ain't broke, right? Despite my valid reasons, my mom and husband have been on me since forever to get some new lenses, so needless to say, it was first on my list of doctors to hit up with my shiny new securité sociale.

On Saturday, Gui and I went to see his good friend, who also happens to be an outstanding optician, at his place of business to get me some new eyes. I had spoken to him at the wedding we went to in La Rochelle last month and he was completely lost for words when I explained my long-term relationship with these two-week contacts. "You must come in and see me so I can at least give you some sample contacts while you wait for your carte vitale," he had instructed me, after getting over the initial shock of my statement. So, there we were, and after taking off my lenses, he lead me to a tiny room that had a familiar big machine which I attached my chin and forehead to and read letters on a wall from. It was clear after a few moments that I'm basically blind. He gave me a 12-week supply of a stronger-than-before prescription of THREE-week contacts with very clear instructions to change my lenses after three weeks, not three years. Then, he gave me a couple of names of ophthalmologists, who he said were the best in town, but who would likely have a 1-2 month wait to see. Apparently, an optician can't give me a prescription for glasses, so seeing an ophthalmologist is necessary before I can get glasses or purchase contacts.

Gui called the doctor right after we left, and keeping in mind that this is a Saturday, he was greeted with a chipper (well, as chipper as a French secretary can be) scheduler who notified us that the doctor had just had a cancellation and could see me on Monday - that's in two days! Sweet! But, after booking the appointment, we realized that I'd have to go solo, as Gui would be doing a team-building thing off-site that day and couldn't accompany me to translate. I was a little intimidated, but not enough to keep me from going. Facing my fear of French is the only way I'll ever conquer the language.

So, giving myself plenty of time, I took the bus a short ride away to the doctor's office that was really just a converted couple of apartments on the second floor of a random building. I read the signs carefully, pushed the buttons to get through the door and waited patiently as the secretariat finished a call with an annoying woman who didn't want to wait for the médecin to call her back about an emergency she was having with her eyeballs. After a quick check-in, I sat down on one of the three chairs in the small secretary's office until she told me that I could wait in the waiting room, if I wanted. Waiting room? I had no idea. So, I made my way back to the hallway where I discovered a sign directing me to the salle d'attente - doh! I walked in, smiled at the elderly lady that looked up at me and took a seat. Every time someone else walked into the room, they broke the silence with a bonsoir, one girl saying it rather boisterously before looking around at everyone for a response. I mumbled a soft 'soir, but no one else looked up from their interesting magazine. I think it's kind of funny to greet a room of waiting patients, but it is polite, so now I know not to make the same faux pas on my next doctor's visit.

I was the second person called by the doctor, who was middle-aged, well-dressed and rather kind. He took me to his office which was a large, dark room with piles of books and papers, and had a large machine by the hidden window. We sat at his desk and discussed the history of my eyesight, while he jotted down a few notes in scribbly French. I apologized for my bad French and he seemed amused that I was even trying. His office seriously reminded me of a Charles Dickens book - it was old, creeky and untidy with a dissected eyeball on the desk and several piled books in the glass-door bookcase. It was lit almost entirely by a vintage desk lamp and the light coming from the big machine being reflected high on the wall. Every time he paused to scribble something down, a hypnotic tick-tock from the desk clock broke the silence. I could practically see Bob Cratchit burning the midnight oil in there.

I took a few tests with the swiveling machine in the corner, and he checked my vision as I wore a pair of funny metal glasses; he chuckled a few times at my grammatical errors (someone saying "more better" in French is just as funny as it is in English, apparently); and we there were a few awkward moments when I didn't know what line (if any) I should be reading on the wall or whether I was saying the letters in French or English.

The visit went smoothly, and I felt a little proud of myself for having accomplished such a task completely solo. But, the best part of the visit was when I paid. The total bill for nearly 30 minutes of the doctor's time and expertise was 37€ (roughly $50). That means, if I didn't have insurance and I wanted to get a prescription for glasses and contacts, I'd be out a measly 50 bucks! Since Gui and I are covered under his insurance plan, we'll be reimbursed by direct deposit the 37€ plus however much my glasses and contacts will cost us. I know my mom will be very happy to hear that I'm no longer torturing my eyes, and with amazing health coverage like this, I don't really have an excuse for not keeping myself in tip-top shape from head to toe!

What we've been eating

Monday, September 15, 2008

There's been a lot going on around here these days. Most of my usually free time has been occupied with job interviews and bouncing around the city with France's latest transplant, and my now partner in crime, Juliet. What crime, you ask? Well, between massacring the French language and boozing it up on red wine at several outdoor terraces a day, I'm sure we're culpable of a few infractions.

Meanwhile, I've been dishing up a few missed favorites at home while my family and friends back in Texas get hit by hurricane Ike. From what I've heard, even Austinites have been affected by the hurricane. For those of you back home, I hope you're staying dry and safe and I'm keeping y'all in my thoughts!

Taco soup. Usually, I make this with pinto beans, but red beans worked fine. I can never get enough of this soup!

An attempt at mom's Spanish rice.

I finally made cheese enchiladas with my corn tortilla and cheddar cheese finds. They turned out pretty good, but the tortillas were so big! Next time, I'm making beef enchiladas. The rice wasn't nearly as good as mom's is, so I've still got a lot of tweaking to do on that.

I made migas, ranchero sauce and gratin for dinner with my leftover corn tortillas. The ranchero sauce was so simple and seriously delicious. Gui and I finished an entire casserole of potatoes gratin. It was a surprisingly great meal!

I made apple coffee cake again. I tried to get away with using less butter this time, but it turned out less coffee-cakey. It was still pretty good, but next time I'm keeping it buttery.


Chorizo, mushroom, bell-pepper, mozzarella pizza with an over easy egg on top. It was my first time making a marinara sauce, which actually turned out quite good (albeit a little salty), but the pizza was delish! Definitely making it more often.

Reason #388,204 to go shopping

Saturday, September 6, 2008

This is why skinny jeans and boots are so popular in Paris. Even an umbrella can't save the bottoms of my wide-legged jeans from the incessant puddles in the uneven streets of this city on a drizzly day. I guess I need to invest in a new pair (or two) of skinny jeans. Thank you, Paris for yet another excuse to go shopping in your tantalizing, eye-popping, over-abundant magasins.

First Interview

Thursday, September 4, 2008

So, I've been sending my CV off for various job postings that I've found mostly on the lifesaving Fusac website and magazine. I'd say that I've applied to about five different places, and I've received three calls back, which isn't as bad as I expected. Despite the fact that the information about my basic French skills is clearly stated in English on my CV, the first two people who called me only spoke French and told me that I would need to have a good grasp of French for the job. I've been really upfront about my skills (or what I perceived as being upfront), but apparently that's of no consequence to some folks. Thankfully, I've been getting great advice from seasoned transplants who've gone through the ropes of job-searching and interviewing with French companies, and it's really been invaluable. Now, I know a little more about what's expected of me, what "basic French" means to prospective employers and how to handle myself a bit more on the phone. (Thanks Sam and Emily!)

There aren't many jobs around here that don't involve at least a good grasp of French, so my choices have been pretty limited. Even if a job posting says that the work will be done completely in English, it usually involves working with other francophones and having the ability to casually converse with others (which is the type of job I'm hoping to land). So, I was a little relieved and surprised when I received a call back from someone speaking perfect American English, requesting a phone interview with me. When I called back, I realized that the American voice was just a proxy to the real interviewer and I had the daunting task of speaking French for the first half of the phone interview. After a rough start, I was finally and thankfully asked to switch to English to be better understood (yikes!). Despite my acknowledged basic French skills, my prospective employer seemed to like me and asked me to come in to see her for a face-to-face interview.

My interview was scheduled for this afternoon, and knowing that I'd be interviewing in the 1ère arrondissement I was a little intimidated. Even though I spend my days in and around Paris, buying baguettes and drinking wine, I'm no vraie Parisenne and am always very conscious about my position as an outsider. The 1ère is the physical epicenter of Paris, the heart, the point from which the entire city radiates from. And, it's home to the Louvre, Palais Royal, the Ritz and Les Halles. It may not be the most popular or populated district in Paris, but to me it's where Paris begins. I had no idea what to expect, how to prepare and I was especially distraught with how to dress.

After raiding my shabby closet, I finally threw together a modest ensemble, slipped on a pair of the second-tallest heels I own, grabbed my passport and hit the cobblestone. I quickly realized why my heels had been tucked in a shoe box at the back of the closet since I brought them here in April. And now I know that only vraie Parisian women should wear heels higher than two inches when walking around the city.

I made it to my rendezvous with time to spare, but was quickly let into a first floor converted office. The woman who was to conduct the interview was apparently busier than she'd expected to be and kept me waiting a long time before seeing me. When we finally got to talking, I felt a little more comfortable about the job description and understood the basic daily operations of the business. Then, just when I thought the interview had come to an end, she asks me to do some on-the-spot writing samples for her. Writing? Ok, cool. I can do this - I write all the time, and I've written countless business letters on a multitude of topics, so I've got this. But, oh no. She wants me to write a mock business letter and then translate it into French. Even after I laughed, asked if she was serious and gave her a you-obviously-don't-understand-what-not-knowing-French-means look, she said she wanted to see a French translation. Fine. But, knowing that translating practically word for word is a big no-no, I did it anyway (seriously, I had no other option) and had my told-you-so face ready when she finished reading the first sentence, responing with pas de tout and what I swear was the phrase c'est nul under her breath.

But, apparently that wasn't enough to persuade her to end the interview because she then asked me for one more writing piece. This time, she wanted me to write her a letter, to tell her why I should be hired and what I can bring to the position (in English, thank goodness). In an attempt to redeem myself, I wrote a pretty decent cover-letter-type letter to her, which she read right in front of me. (Awkward.) I was worried that maybe I didn't mention enough specifics or provide enough information, but then she responded by saying that she was rather impressed that I was able to compose such a letter in a few moments. And then I breathed a sigh of relief and felt a little redemption. 'Guess those standardized writing tests in high school really paid off.

Two hours and three letters later, I walked out of the office still not knowing if I'd be offered the job, but feeling rather satisfied with my first French interview. I'm not putting much pressure on myself to find a job quickly, and I still have a few options, like continuing language classes full-time and doing volunteer work until I have the skill set I need to work in a French environment. But, I'm taking every opportunity seriously even if as nothing more than a learning experience. It feels really strange to have nearly 10 years of working experience yet feel like an entry-level candidate. There's a big part of me that's dying to get back to work and willing to take whatever I can get. But, I've still got a little pride to knock out of the way before I can feel comfortable starting at the bottom again. Right now, it seems my options are to take what I can get now and hope to advance my French skills while on the job, or dedicate my time to mastering the language until I'm comfortable to apply for a more agreeable bilingual job (which could take at least 6 months of full-time studies). I'm hoping the answer comes to me soon, but in the mean time I'll be preparing for more writing exams and 2-hour interviews.
TEXAS SARAH. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.