Great place to visit: Corsica

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One of the most beloved vacation spots of the French, Corsica is an island paradise situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to the Southeast of mainland France. It has been part of France since it was ceded by the Republic of Genoa in the 18th century, just before the birth of Napoleon in the Corsican city of Ajaccio. The island is split into two French administrative departments: Corse-du-Sud (2A) and Haute-Corse (2B). While French is the official language, a few rare residents still speak Corsican, which greatly resembles Italian (to me). Corsicans are very proud of their culture and language, which is distinct from other regions of France.

Like most of our vacations, we went to Corsica because my husband and I have friends there. We rarely go anywhere that’s not motivated by visiting friends or family since we have loved ones scattered all over two continents and wouldn’t get to see them otherwise.

Getting there:

Ferries are available from Toulon or Nice and take about 8 hours or more depending on what port you are going into (Bastia or Ajaccio). Easy-jet and Air France flights are also possible. However, be wary of low cost carriers, as we recently had an airport controller strike in France and a lot of flights were cancelled without the possibility for rebooking.

Things to do:

For those who love hiking, the valley of the Restonica, located near the town of Corté is really worth the visit. We hiked up to the first lake in the park and had lunch up there, though it was a bit cold and windy. The views were breathtaking. Did I mention there were waterfalls?

Melu Lake, Valley of the Restonica

Melu Lake, Valley of the Restonica

The limestone cliffs of Bonifacio are another must see of Corsica. When you get to the city, you park near the port and then walk up to the citadel, perched atop a limestone cliff. From there you can visit various historical points of interest such as the staircase of the king of Aragon. My favorite part was taking the path up the cliffs away from the citadel so we could see the ancient part of the city as a whole. If you’re planning on visiting, it’s best to go during the off-season and early in the day. Even on weekdays, the crowds are horrendous well into the month of September.

Citadel, Bonifacio

Citadel, Bonifacio

Finally, go to a beach, any beach, and go snorkeling. The Mediterranean is like an aquarium at bathtub temperature. We went to Ostriconi beach in the North and really appreciated the calm and the sea life. Small alert for nudists and yellow jackets (eat in the car, not on the beach).

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The food:

Corsica is famous for really stinky sheep milk cheese, pork products, hard cookies called Cannistrelli and sparkling muscat wine. Our neighbors had Corsican cheese that smelled so bad they closed the package with duct tape before putting it into refrigerator. There’s also a Corsican cheese that has worms in it (on purpose). The most famous Corsican pig product are lonzu, coppa and figatellu. Lonzu and Coppa are dried pork products similar to ham, while figatellu is a dried sausage containing pig liver. Finally, to wash down all that pig liver and wormy cheese, try a good sparkling muscat. Corsican sparkling wine is tasty and not too expensive, so why not indulge.

The people:

There’s a whole whole lot of tourist traffic that comes through Corsica, so don’t be surprised if people are a little gruff. If you are respectful and easy going, you won’t have too much trouble. Just remember that the customer service culture is not the same as in North America, so you might be a little taken aback at first.

I hope this little post about Corsica got you inspired for your next vacation to France or elsewhere. If you have already been to Corsica, I’d love to hear about your own experiences in the comments.

Until next time, au revoir.

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Feeling like snails tonight

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My husband, M., and I have the luck to have a couple of really great neighbors. Every summer we watch a reality show about French famers finding love (L’amour est dans le pré) and have a great time laughing about all the particularities of French agricultural life. Tonight, we’re going over to the other side of the landing (palier) to have escargot.

Ready-to-eat escargot can be found in the frozen foods section of just about any supermarket. For the more adventurous, cans of escargot and their shells can be bought and prepared separately. For the Marthas among us, starving and salting your own snails is possible, but very oozy. Yum…

With enough butter and garlic, I find that these little mollusks are pretty tasty. They’re one of those foods that taste descent frozen and then baked, so I wouldn’t bother going to much more trouble than that if you’re curious about having these little invertebrates as a snack.  Cassoulet is another French food that’s good from a can for those looking to have lunch on the cheap, but I’ll get to that in another post.

Here’s my recipe for having an escargot night chez vous:

1. Go to Casino/Carrefour/Auchan/other supermarket (these are all French stores) and buy some frozen escargots garnished with butter, garlic and parsley. Buy some beer or hard cider plus Tyrell’s chips (the British make the best chips) while you’re at it. Maybe pick up a salad if you’re worried about being healthy. I’m lazy, so I buy the discount jug of grated carrots in salad dressing at Casino.

2. Put escargots in the oven. Open beer. Pour chips into serving dish (optional).

3. Call neighbors and put on Danse avec les stars. You’re ready to have a great night.

Having a good time in France doesn’t have to mean going to an art exposition or visiting a Michelin rated restaurant every night. You can have a good time at home with a bucket full of snails and some beers. Gastronomic restaurants and cultural events are a part of life here, but a lot of French people are much more down to earth than the stereotypes let on.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll go see the movie that won a palme d’or at Cannes this year (La Vie d’Adèle or Blue is the Warmest Color in English). Le bleu est une couleur chaude is the BD that inspired the film and the English title. A few of my co-workers said that the film was pretty good, but thought the sex scenes were a little over the top. Apparently, there were also some questions about the director pushing the actresses way too far.

I’ll let you know if I go to see it. Right now my motivation to go out tomorrow is moyenne (meaning not so much) as they say here.

Bonne soirée et à bientôt.

Enki Bilal and other treasures of the French comic book scene

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As a comic book nerd, one of the coolest things in France is the great comic book (bande dessinée) selection. Comic books or BD as they are often referred to here are read by a wide variety of people and available in great numbers at your local Fnac, Virgin, or library (I mean than in the English way). Here’s a few of the BD that I personally enjoy. It is in no way a comprehensive selection, but certainly somewhere to start.

For those learning French, what better way to learn how to read in a new language than looking at pictures?

Enki Bilal

A well known French comic book artist originally from Yugoslavia, Enki Bilal is best known for the Nikopol trilogy, first published in 1980. Readers will recognize a lot of characters strait out of Star Gate or the Fifth Element. I’m not sure who inspired who, but fans of space opera and science fiction will find their fill.

Jacques Tardi

The Adèle Blanc-Sec series will appeal to those who like murder mysteries combined with supernatural elements, think Sherlock Holmes. It’s a fun look at a classic France, complete with stereotypes of baguettes, striped shirts, cigarettes and wine. I’ll admit that the series gets more complicated and stranger as time goes on, so you were warned. Don’t miss out on this classic of BD.

Margaux Motin and Pénélope Bagieu

Much as I like space opera and murder mysteries, I like getting my hands on a good dose of chick lit from time to time, combined with a hot cup of tea and some cozy slippers. I’m not pretending that this is great literature and it does not do a whole lot for women’s rights, but sometimes I need a good dose of Twilight or Juliette Society.

Pénélope Bagieu writes the well-known Joséphine series about a young woman with an abnormally large rear and a very small chest looking for love. Joséphine was also recently made into a rather charming firm if you are the type that likes romantic comedies about awkward women.

Margaux Motin is a humor blogger and comic book artist, who writes about her own experiences as a 20-something woman in France (she’s now in her thirties). Readers will get an insight into French life and maybe find a little of themselves in Margaux as well. I recommend J’aurais adoré être ethnologue and La théorie de la contorsion. In the fantasy genre, she also wrote Very Bad Twinz, but there’s a lot better out there.

Finally, if you’re still missing American comic books, there’s a lot of great series translated into French (thank you Urban Comics). This is critical for me since my husband refuses to read any fun books in English. He claims that reading for pleasure in English defeats the whole purpose (too much work).

I’ll be looking out for the newest Fables, Fairest and Saga this winter and spring. If you haven’t heard of it yet, Saga is a great new sci-fi series from Image Comics. I didn’t know about them until Saga, but I’m really glad Urban Comics took on the translation of this series. There’s a lot of great art and the writing is thoughtful and funny.

Well, this comic book nerd needs to go to bed. Happy reading and bonne nuit.

How I became broke (and in France)

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The inheritance from my great grandmother let me get out of undergrad debt-free. At the time, I didn’t know how lucky I was. After a couple years of working at a job that was going nowhere fast, I decided to go back to my alma mater and get my master’s in Environmental Engineering.   

In the meantime, my parents had invested the money from my great grandmother’s estate into a fixer-upper in the country for their retirement (after the bubble popped, thank the lord). Thinking that student loans where the way to go and imagining my exorbitant post-graduation salary, I went back to school without thinking twice.

I took out loans, they disappeared into tuition and living expenses and I didn’t look at them anymore. It was like they didn’t exist. Everyone told me that government loans came with great interest rates and terms, so I believed them. I remember being proud of the fact that I no longer depended on my parents.

A moment of foreshadowing came when I went to the doctor one day and the secretary asked me about my ability to pay. In the income section, I asked if I was supposed to put how much I had received in loans. No sweetie, replied the secretary, you write down zero.

With some money I earned from a summer internship, I arrived in France thinking I was going to live it up. I bought clothes and ate out like the upper middle class person I thought I was supposed to be. When the money ran out and I had to live off a 500 euro a month intern stipend, things started getting hard.   

Eventually, I ran out of food one month when my stipend didn’t come through on time. On the metro, I can remember glaring at a girl eating a vegetable tart and thinking about how I could go about stealing it. Another time, I sold books to buy my tram ticket to go to work. Things always perked up again, but I won’t forget how much I didn’t like being hungry or walking 45 minutes to work because I couldn’t afford a tram ticket. That really stunk.

On the metro, I can remember glaring at a girl eating a vegetable tart and thinking about how I could go about stealing it.

Doing a PhD at a French school without a recognized partnership with an American institution means that my loans are now in repayment and represent about a third of my PhD stipend of 1300 euro per month. Luckily I have a loving and understanding husband who helps me get through the tough times. I’ll be graduating in a year which will hopefully lead to a raise and broader perspectives. Things are looking up even though I’m down on myself quite a lot for having been so foolish with my loans.

If you have student loans or know someone who does, remember to be supportive and forgiving of yourself and others. While you may have been foolish, paying them back can be really rough and it’s important not to measure yourself against impossible goals. For example, certain ‘Debt Free’ bloggers make more than my yearly stipend in one month. That sure helps with debt!  

I hope to use this blog as a way to share my life in France with others, while helping them to understand that they are not alone. Okay, repeat, “I am not my debts. I am a human being.”      

How to Halloween in Europe

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In the United States, decorations for every holiday imaginable pop onto store shelves weeks or months ahead of the intended date. Towards the end of September, I’m already stalking the aisles of Target, ogling sparkly pumpkins and other Halloween goodies. I’m also the only person in my family to be able to stomach candy pumpkins. One of my favourite snacks is diet coke and candy corn. Yes, I am aware that this is not normal.

Being in France has put an abrupt end to many of my Halloween festivities. No more pound bags of Brach’s candy corn and candy pumpkins, no more miles of fake spider webs decorating my neighbour’s porch. Oh wait, we don’t have a porch anymore, we have a stoop.

Halloween is one my favourite American holidays, so it helps me to feel more connected to my roots to be celebrating it here. I’m also kind of proud of it as an American institution. Dressing up and visiting the neighbourhood is a great way to bring communities together. Watching scary movies and celebrating death is also a way to be less afraid of it.

Here’s a few ways that I try to celebrate Halloween in France while sharing it with my friends and co-workers:

1. Buy some squashes

What we would call a pumpkin (citrouille) in the States is usually defined under the more general term courge or squash in France. Whether buying courges or citrouilles, varieties here are usually grown for their taste and the quality of their flesh. That doesn’t mean they aren’t as festive and cute as their American cousins, but it does complicate carving a bit. A good compromise is to place a candle on or next to your pumpkin without cutting into it. You can use it for a delicious pumpkin soup or pumpkin pie afterwards.

2. Decorate even if you feel silly

Halloween decorations aren’t a big deal in France, so you might hesitate to put out your ghosts, pumpkins and fake spider webs. Don’t! Your friends and co-workers will be interested in your traditions and want to learn more about them. This is a great way to make friends and share something positive about American culture. What we’re most known for here in France is obesity and drink holders for litre-sized cokes. Help change that.

If you’re looking to dress up, Claire’s sells Halloween costumes in France. Yes, there are Claire’s in France. Not sure if that’s good or bad. Mostly weird.

3. Have a pot

The pot (pronounced po’) is a French term for a party that typically celebrates a major event in your life such as your arrival at a new workplace, your depart from your job, a thesis defence, a birth or a marriage. It normally refers to the party thrown for your co-workers during work hours to celebrate said event. Appetizers and drinks are served. They can be very elaborate involving foie gras and champagne or very simple with hard cider and chips or peanuts.

Why not throw a pot for Halloween? Plan on bringing treats like candies, American style apple cider or candied apples (pommes d’amour). This is a great way to have fun and make friends with your co-workers or fellow students.

4. Pumpkin pie (tarte)

If you’re throwing a pot, why not make a traditional pumpkin pie as well. Pumpkins are normally prepared in savoury dishes in France, so your French friends or co-workers will appreciate trying out new ways to eat pumpkin. Muffins are another American treat that the French really appreciate, think about making them with roasted pumpkin.

A small caution : French food tends to contain fewer spices than American treats. Adding too much cinnamon or nutmeg may offend French taste buds. Try increasing the quantity of butter and pumpkin instead.

Here’s a link to one of my favourite pumpkin pie recipes :
http://charlestonchow.blogspot.fr/2010/11/drunken-pumpkin-bourbon-tart.html

I’ve made it for a couple years in a row now and it’s a big hit with my family. Conversion to French measurements coming soon.

5. Watch scary movies with a friend

Sharing the motion picture culture of your home country is another way to feel a little more connected during the Halloween holiday. Drag Me to Hell (Jusqu’en Enfer) is one of my recent favourites. You also have timeless classics like the Exocist, Halloween or Psycho. Add popcorn for a uniquely American touch. Sometimes you can find the microwave version in the Anglo-Saxon section of your local grocery store next to the marmalade, marshmallows and ketchup flavoured chips from Canada.

Try to get your hands on subtitled (French) versions of the films you plan on watching. Your friends, who may have varying levels of English oral comprehension, will thank you. Dubbed versions, while usually not that bad, are still disappointing.

Until next time, Happy Halloween.

Over 25 and living in France

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When I first arrived in France,
I could never figure out why people would ask me for my age every time I went to a movie theatre or a museum. Geez, French people sure are weird about their census information, I thought.  

A few months later I realized that people under 25 have all kinds of discounts here. A lot of museums are free, movie tickets are about 4.50 euros each, and the metro in Toulouse is a quarter of the price of the regular metro pass. Talk about benefits. You can even sign up for a special discount card from the rail company (the SNCF).      

Unfortunately, this situation has a rather unpleasant downside: when you are over 25, you pay full price for almost everything which can be quite a shock. When I started my PhD a couple years ago, I had just turned 26. I went down to the Tisseo (the name of the metro company here in Toulouse) office and, surprise, I couldn’t get the student price anymore because I was over 25. My stipend is the lowest salary legally acceptable for a PhD student in France, so this was a tough break. The yearly metro pass suddenly ballooned from around 100 euros to over 400 euros. Ouch.  

Public transport here is still a great deal even paying a lot more and I’m awful glad to have it. I just wish I’d gone down and bought my pass a few weeks earlier when I was still 25.
 
The moral of this story is if you are less than 25 and living in France, live it up. There’s a lot of really great activities available at reduced prices for people of your age group.  

For those over 25 (like me, just turned 28 a couple months ago), most museums in France are still really reasonably priced. There’s even some that are free, like in Cassis near Marseille on the Côte d’Azur. Plus, on the first Sunday of each month, all museums in France have free entry fees.