A wet winter in France and the Pine Processionary caterpillar


Chenille processionnaire in a line.

Chenille processionnaire forming a line.

January and February 2014 are shaping up to be one of the warmest winters on record for France. Heavy rainfall led to flooding in the South of France (Aquitaine and separately Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) and Brittany (the meteorological vigilance for the Finistère region was just recently removed). In Toulouse, the ground has been so saturated that moss is starting to grow everywhere, even on the parking lot at work. In case you were wondering, the French word for moss is mousse, which is also the same word for foam, as in the chocolate mousse that we all know and love.

February is also the month when the Pine Processionary caterpillar (chenille processionnaire) makes its apparition. What makes these insects so remarkable is that they when they leave their nests to pupate, the follow each other in a neat head-to-tail line. You can see them on the ground following each other in groups with as many as a few dozen individuals – I see them on my way to the cafeteria at work. Pine processionary caterpillars are hairy, but unlike the friendly woolly bear, they have irritating hairs that can invoke serious allergic reactions in some individuals, so be sure to look but not touch. One of their few natural predators is the very cute Great Tit (mésange chabonnière).

Mésange charbonnière. Photo credit: Marek Szczepanek.

Mésange charbonnière. Photo credit: Marek Szczepanek.

I hope this little post will inspire you to take a look at the flora and fauna in your neck of the woods. Writing it has certainly helped to take my mind of things like politics and money troubles in order to concentrate on the world around me and to appreciate my life here in France.

Until next time, au revoir.


Are plans to raise college tuition in France an American hustle?

Credit: Françoise Class

Credit: Françoise Class

On January 28th 2014, Mediapart published a blog post entitled, “Students: your registration fees are going to increase!” that you can read here: http://blogs.mediapart.fr/edition/les-batailles-de-legalite/article/280114/etudiants-vos-frais-d-inscription-vont-augmenter (in French). The tuition hikes, which concern France’s elite engineering schools, l’Ecole des Mines and Télécom, represent an over 70% increase compared to last year’s tuition and registration fees.

As an occasional reader of Le Monde and the free newspaper that I pick up on the metro in the morning, this information passed quietly under my radar. No reports of student riots made it onto the news and if the story was reported, it was done so in a most discrete manner.
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Saving money by eating weird meat

Is horse the new beef?

  Is horse the new beef?                 

A few days before the horse meat scandal broke out, my husband and I stopped by the Huit-à-Huit (French minimart) to pick up something to eat. It was late and they were fresh out of the blood sausages that I was craving, so we decided to buy a bargain basement brand steak in an opaque plastic sachet with a delicious looking broiled steak printed on the outside. When we got home and I opened it up, it looked much redder than normal. I supposed that they must have used red food dye to make it look fresher, not surprising given the price. After a few minutes in the pan, it was still nearly fuchsia in color. Then we tasted it.

“Hey, this steak is really strong for beef.”

“That’s strange it tastes just like horse meat.”

“I think it is horse meat!”
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Student Loan Update and Tips

Is that money growing on a tree? No, it's the Toulouse Violette Festival!

Is that money growing on a tree? No, it’s the Toulouse Violette Festival!

With a stipend a little over the French minimum wage, about 25 to 30% of my total monthly income goes towards my loans.
This obviously doesn’t make me particularly happy, but it’s not going away anytime soon. Learning to live within my means while trying to pay my loans off as soon as possible has proved to be the best remedy against the debt situation (sorry, no miracle remedy). I’ve also studied up a bit on student loans in order to understand the terms of my loans and the possible recourse I have with my student loan servicer. Let’s take a look at my loans:

Current total: $ 34 170 all federal
Monthly payment: $500
Interest rate: 6.55% with capitalization
Repayment period remaining: 7 years
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Sunday Strolling in Toulouse: the Garonne River

Le Pont Neuf, Garonne Toulousaine

Le Pont Neuf, Garonne Toulousaine

After several weeks of rain and gray weather, the sun finally came out for a while today in between sessions of hide-and-seek with the clouds. It was the perfect time to go out and get a little vitamin D before settling into another week under neon lights and computer screens.

Last week, the Garonne was at flood stage with a height of 3.78 m (right now it’s back down to around 1.2m) and the banks still bore some remnants of the flood this Sunday, making the river walk a little muddier than usual. The flood gates were closed on the right bank after the Pont Neuf (literally the “New Bridge”) and the river, while much lower, was just below the walkway. If you look closely at the photo of the Pont Neuf, you can see a set of holes above the archways. These are called dégeuloirs (a word which could be interpreted as vulgar depending on how you use it because dégeuler means to throw-up and this also means a recipient for throwing-up) and they allow flood waters to run through the bridge, relieving stress on the structure. Continue reading