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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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

Christmas gifts from Toulouse

The Nutcracker, Repetto store front.

The Nutcracker, Repetto store front.

My annual holiday visit to the states is almost here and it’s time to stock up holiday gifts for the family before heading back home.
After all, what is the point of living in France if you don’t bring back souvenirs? Christmas shopping is always a stressful time. After living in France for a few years, I’m starting to run out of good ideas for Frenchy things to get for the family. Foie gras, Mariage Frères tea, opinel knives and t-shirts from assorted regions are just a few examples from previous years.
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Save France from deep-sea bottom trawling

Yesterday, one of my favorite comic book artists posted a great piece about upcoming legislation concerning deep-sea trawling in the European Union. Her witty piece brings to light a very important case of government subsidies going to a destructive and unprofitable industry.

You can visit Pénélope Bagieu’s site today to learn more about the impact of deep-sea trawling in the EU.
En:  http://www.penelope-jolicoeur.com/2013/11/take-5-minutes-and-sign-this.html
Fr:   http://www.penelope-jolicoeur.com/2013/11/prends-cinq-minutes-et-signe-copain-.html

Even if you’re not so environmental, she has a lot of funny comics about everyday life. Take a look!

Saving money on fashion and makeup

advertising-188993_640A few months ago, I walked into a store specializing in makeup to ask about their options for replacing my current foundation which was a little too dark and didn’t offer enough coverage. A pleasant woman in her mid-twenties, who seemed to be advertising the store’s entire makeup line on her face led me to a product that she swore was just right for me. She proceeded to apply said product and then show me just how wonderful it was under the store’s carefully engineered spotlights. A few minutes later, I was outside and happened to see myself in the reflection of a store front window. There was a lovely orange line running down my jaw line from this so-called perfect makeup.

Sound familiar? Becoming a fashion/beauty victim is a sure way to significantly lighten your wallet. Often, advertisements and salespeople play on fears that if a women doesn’t buy this or that then she doesn’t care or doesn’t want to be pretty (how about doesn’t have the money, hein?). How many of us have pimples only because we are too lazy or cheap to buy the right cream?

To save money in Toulouse, I’ve discovered a few simple ways to shop for makeup and clothing without breaking the bank. While these techniques might not work for everyone, I hope that they will remind you that other women struggle with budgeting in beauty as well and that you’re not alone if you can’t afford to buy luxury skin care products.

The techniques:

1. Buy organic/bio makeup
Since makeup is already rather expensive, the extra cost for organic ingredients often represents a small mark-up or none at all compared to drug and department store brands. For example, Lily Lolo is a really nice organic English brand that I order online for the same price or less than non-organic drug store brands.

I buy most of my products from Ecco Verde, an Italian organic makeup website, which ships around the world. This keeps me out of the stores and focused on the products I really need (need being a relative term here). Note: I am in no way paid/free-sampled by Ecco Verde.

2. Shop seasonally
Unless something that I really need rips or gets stained, I buy clothes two times a year: the after-Christmas sales and the end of summer sales. In France, this are the only two periods when stores can legally put items on sale. Sometimes they get away with special promotions, but the real sales are only twice a year.

During this time, I stock up on the things that I really need. Are my t-shirts getting funky? Are my shoes holey after a year on cobblestone streets? Can I see through my socks?

Having limits on my shopping helps me to appreciate what’s already in my closet more and leads to a delightful anticipation of the biannual sales in France.

3. Buy USA
But isn’t Paris the city of fashion? Yes, if you’re pulling down about 90,000 euros a year. A lot of more affordable French fashion is made in China or the Middle East and is of very poor quality (think cheapy strip mall stores). I’m not saying that you can’t find reasonably nice clothes here, but they cost a lot more than in the US. Most people (in my social sphere) in France consider Levis like a luxury brand.

Stores like Marshalls, Ross and TJ Maxx allow Americans to buy high quality clothing at relatively low prices. Those don’t exist here, so for the same price, you are looking at Tati, which is comparable to K’mart. Clothes and luxury items are much cheaper in the USA, so take advantage of it!

Well, there you go, a few pointers on how to save centimes on your fashion and makeup budget. Don’t hesitate to share your own advice on how to save money as well.

Until next time, au revoir.