December in Annecy

Christmas is fast approaching.  Today, a Sunday, many shops are open and it is glorious.  I went grocery shopping at Monoprix and did some general browsing in town because I could.  I went into the old town to buy some honey at the Sunday outdoor market and I could barely get in there!  It was packed with tourists, mostly Italian.

The biggest thing going on right now is the Annecy Christmas Market.  It started on Nov. 28 with vendors selling stuff like jewelry, hats, blankets, and food:  vin chaud, diot sausages, crêpes, gingerbread, pretzels, and Poutine.  Yup, one French Canadian vendor is here selling maple syrup (of course), Canadian beer, and Poutine.  I’ve had some of all three.  The vendors are selling all day and night with weekends and evenings being the busiest.  Night time is more magical because of all the lights and an animated show projected onto city hall.  It’s also dang cold and super crowded.

Side note:  I love vin chaud.

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Retour des Alpages

Every second Saturday in October there is a festival called Retour des Alpages.  It honors a tradition dating back to the middle ages when shepherds and cowherds would bring their animals from the high mountain pastures, “alpages”, to the spend the winter months in barns.  It also marks the end of the harvest season and the entire Vieille Ville is filled with booths of people selling crafts, food, and drink.  There are also several performances of music.  The highlight of the day is a parade through the cobblestone streets with people in traditional costumes, horse or dog-drawn carriages, St. Bernard dogs with barrels around their necks (dream come true!), sheep, and geese.  Yes, these poor geese had to walk a fairly long parade route, waddling along with ribbons around their necks!  The parade route went right past my apartment but we wouldn’t get the best viewing advantage from my balcony so we watched from a nearby corner.  I love this sort of community stuff that involves animals, plus the historic setting can’t be beat.  My friend Karyn flew down from Amsterdam, she loves this stuff too.  The cows are the stars of the parade and they come last.  They had flowers and tree bough wreaths on.  By this time my iPhone camera died but Karyn took lots of pics. Unfortunately the weather didn’t totally cooperate but we still had a great time.  Except for the part where I got stepped on my a sheep.

French Food

By now I’ve been able to sample a lot of French food, mainly from the Haute Savoie region where I live.  This consists of the following food groups:  cheese, wine, bread, ham, and chocolate.  This post is all about FOOD!  I haven’t eaten out much but someone recommended a restaurant called L’Estraminet.  I’ve been there twice with a friend and both times we got the same thing:  fondue with a mixed ham plate and small salads.  It is SOOO good.  OMG, so good.  Afterwards there’s the guilty feeling of “I just ate a ton of melted cheese” but that feeling doesn’t last long.  It’s worth it.  I’ve also been invited to some friends’ home where they served raclette.  In restaurants it’s a self-serve type of dish where a half wheel of cheese is heated.  You scrape off the melted part and eat it with potatoes and maybe some ham and miniature pickles.  A lot of families have raclette machines where you melt the cheese in your own little metal tray, and this is what my friends had.

Most of the pics are from the market in La Vielle Ville (The Old Town) every Sunday morning.  There’s other markets throughout the week but I can’t attend weekday ones since I’m at work.  There’s not a huge amount of variety.  Produce vendors carry the same fruits and vegs, and same goes for the cheese, bread, and saucissons (dry, cured sausages).  As the weeks creep towards summer, I’ve noticed the market getting busier and busier.  There’s a few standouts:  the rotisserie chicken with potatoes roasted in chicken fat drippings, fresh goat cheese, and Vietnamese (or Thai?) food.  The food at this last booth doesn’t look good but it’s one of the few non-French stalls in the market.  I bought a small bottle of Sriracha from them.

There isn’t a lot of cultural depth to the cuisine here.  I’ve heard of one decent Mexican restaurant sorta nearby.  A basic American-style burger can cost up to 19€.  No Indian, Korean, Greek, and a surprising lack of Italian restaurants considering they’re a neighboring country.  There are a few sushi places but I’m a bit leery of them.  There are however, a lot of Turkish doner and kebab places.  One is across the street from my bedroom window and another is a few doors up the street.

Today at the market I found raw beets for the first time.  I don’t like beets but I need them for some of my juice recipes.  They sell them cooked and vacuum-packed in the grocery store.  Kale, another veg I don’t like but juice staple, can’t be found anywhere.  In fact I found that there is an American woman conducting a campaign online to bring kale to France.  http://thekaleproject.com   Any berry other than strawberries are a bit hard to find, too.  They sell blueberries and raspberries at the store but they’re not very fresh and are expensive.  Booo!  That said, the French do a wonderful job of making wine, cheese, Viennoiseries, bread, and saucissons.  Dried sausage I used to buy from Olympic Provisions at the Hillsdale Farmer’s Market in Oregon costs over twice as much as a similar product I can buy here.  I haven’t had any huge cravings for food I had in the US but if that day comes, I hope one of you can send me a care package!

Rue de la Paix

I’ve been living in my apartment for 2.5 months now and although it’s not “complete”, it’s time for a post on it.  I live in a brand new apartment building in the centre of Annecy in the Villa Sophia on Rue de la Paix. The location is absolutely fantastic and there is underground parking, which is so key to have in this part of town, though it’s a bit dodgy to navigate at times.  I can walk to so many places in minutes.  Some basics:  it’s 60 square meters, on the 2nd floor (3rd floor by US standards), 2 bedrooms, balcony, good sized bathroom with two sinks and shower only, and the toilet is in it’s own separate little room.  One small coat closet by the entrance and that’s it for storage. Mainly dark gray tile floors with wood-looking floors in the bedrooms.  The balcony is triangle-shaped since my apt is on the corner and it’s accessible from one of the bedrooms, which I’m using as an office, and the living room.  The kitchen and living room are all in one rectangular area.  I downsized a lot from my house in Portland and sold almost all of my big furniture.  I should have sold more!  The sad thing is there are a lot of things I thought I wanted to keep and when I unpacked them, I had forgotten about them.  This includes clothes and shoes. It is common in France for a kitchen to be “non-équipée”, or unequipped.  This means no appliances or cupboards.  People take them when they move and this is why IKEA does such big business in kitchens.  There was one cheap-o sink and that’s it.  To make a very long and dramatic story short, I bought a fridge, washer/dryer-in-one, and stove at half price from a former Salomon employee.  This was a feat in itself as I had to buy them by only seeing photos, rent a van, and get co-workers I just met to help me.  Luckily it went down without a hitch.  I soon realized it would be too difficult and ugly to fit cabinets around them so I kept the fridge and sold the other two items to a new Salomon employee.  I hired a new friend who is an interior designer to design and plan a kitchen for me using the store Leroy Merlin, which is like Lowe’s or Home Depot, and oh boy–they’re open at lunch time!  This is better than IKEA because LM is local and will handle the installation.  As of this post, the kitchen has been designed.  I have to go to LM and approve the purchase order and in the coming weeks, I’ll have a kitchen!  Yayy!  I should point out, as a renter, this is all at my own expense.  The owner does not want to pay for anything.  This is so stupid because he should treat this property as an investment.  When I leave this apt, I will not leave the kitchen behind for free.  I will try to sell it to the next tenant or dismantle and sell it on Le Bon Coin.  In the meantime, I’ve gotten creative in making meals with my George Foreman grill and electric kettle.  I also bought a juicer.  The bathroom is too cluttered to show you right now. I have found comfort in realizing that things will get done.  Maybe not in the instant I want them to or without headaches, but nothing is impossible.

PS  I have framed artwork to put up.  All the walls and, trim, and doors are white and I don’t want to paint them.  I can also post a floor plan, that will help you visualize the layout. PS2  I also changed the banner photo from Mt. Hood to the French alps.  I’d like to have both at the same time in some clever, splicing way.

Vive Les Différences!

Now that I have some time, I’m trying to catch up on my blog.  The hard part is thinking of titles for each entry!  I’ve been looking forward to this post for a long time and it will be an ongoing theme:  cultural differences, new experiences, and comparing them to what I know.  I try to stay away from comparing things in a negative way and accept things for the way they are.  “Try” being the key word here, haha.

As I was gearing up to leave the USA, I became acutely aware of my experiences in grocery shopping.  In Portland I had little to no trouble finding ingredients I needed and the selection was very deep.  Take orange juice, for example.  I could get it with lots of pulp, a little bit of pulp, no pulp, calcium + vitamin D added, or lots of pulp with calcium + vitamin D.  The cereal selection is a whole aisle and often times I would spend several minutes pondering what toothpaste to buy because there was too much to choose from.  Then there’s Costco, no comment needed there.  I love Costco, btw.

Grocery shopping in Canada was a unique experience in that I never lived there as an adult where I was seeking specific foods and comparing prices.  The grocery stores are smaller and don’t always carry the same brands or selection I was accustomed to in the US.  There’s a chain of discount grocery stores called No Frills and that’s exactly what it is.  Nothing fancy–I’m not sure if they even have heat in there, it’s always cold–but I find the distinctive, generic, yellow packaging with bold, black Helvetica font for their “No Name” brand an interesting graphic design study.  In Ontario, beer is sold at The Beer Store and liquor at the LCBO, or Liquor Control Board of Ontario, (sexy, huh?) and is accountable to the Ministry of Finance.  It’s true, I just Googled it.

Now to France.  If you love cheese like me, the selection is incredible.  There are many boulangeries (bakeries) and the croissants and baguettes are delicious.  An unfortunate thing for my waistline!  The wine selection is huge as well and very affordable.  I can get a decent bottle of wine for €4 or less.  Like the cheese, there is a huge variety from my region.  I now interrupt this blog post for a mini geography lesson.  I live in the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France.  Within this region, I live in the Haute-Savoie department, the capital is my new hometown, Annecy.  There is an abundance of chocolate here, too.  The French seem to LOVE chocolate.  I’m starting to love chocolate too….ruh roh.  Seriously, in shopping for cereal, it’s hard finding something I want that doesn’t have chocolate in it!!  It’s cereal!  No Honey Nut Cheerios or ANY Cheerios, no Life, well there is Life cereal but it’s not Life as I know it.  Haha, pun intended.  Sorry folks, trying to make this post more fun to read!  Then there’s the store hours.  Grocery stores are open through lunch but many shops, banks, and even gyms are closed at lunch time.  Thinking of using your lunch break to run errands?  Forget it.  Even some big box stores close for lunch.  My bank’s hours are Mon-Fri 8:30am – 12pm / 2pm – 5:45pm.  Yup, that’s a two hour lunch break.  In fact many shops near me don’t open on Mondays until mid-afternoon and they may be closed part of Wednesdays as well.  It’s hard to say and is at the whim of the proprietor.  Almost everything is closed on Sundays, even pharmacies.  I try not to view this as an inconvenience and think of it as a day off for leisure.  In the US, it was a day to run errands at Home Depot, Target, Fred Meyer, etc.  You know, the frantic effort to get the most out of the weekend before Monday.  Now it’s a day to enjoy the outdoors, go to the farmer’s market, or see friends.  As the weather warms up, I’ve noticed more businesses in the Old Town are open on Sundays for tourists.  More food pics to come.

 

Apartment Wanted

By now I have found an apartment so this is a journey back in time, reminding me of the dark days of when I was still at Appart’City. The gallery is a sampling of some places I saw.  Let me preface what I’m about to write by saying the rental market in Annecy is hot. Nice apartments are scooped up fast and I have a feeling you need an inside contact at an agency to know of these places before they’re listed.  My criteria heading into the search were:

  • in or near town center, walking distance to shops and restaurants
  • two bedrooms, one for all the guests I’m going to have *hint-hint*
  • a balcony or terrace with a view
  • parking, preferably a garage
  • un cave (storage space separate from your apartment)
  • old, French charm but with modern updates in the kitchen and bath

Apartment availability is thin and these criteria narrowed my options further. I had a woman showing me places and I thought she’d have places lined up every day. But it was two here, one there, wait a few days and there’d be two more. I combed internet listings on my own for hours.  After seeing a few places, the last item went out the window. “French charm” meant extremely outdated kitchens and bathrooms, single-pane glass windows, no parking, and if there was an elevator, two people riding in it would feel crowded. Trust me, I know.  I got to ride in one and there were three of us.  I quickly had to temper my expectations and budget. Annecy is an expensive resort town and a lot of Europeans retire or have vacation homes here. Then there’s all the rich people who work in Geneva and live in Annecy.  Side note, Switzerland has 3 of the top 10 most expensive cities to live. I knew I would be downsizing a lot, too. I left behind my 2000 sq ft, 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house in Portland with a 2 car garage and PLENTY of storage and electrical outlets. Those last two things you never have enough of in apartments, am I right?  But all the apartments I was seeing were so small. I silently thanked myself for leaving behind my queen-sized bed and bringing the double bed from the guest room. I am used to big, super-sized everything and in my new world, even closets are a luxury. Many kitchens are “non-équipée”, or unequipped, meaning there are no appliances–you have to move in your own or buy new ones. In some instances, there are no cupboards. Wow. I was somewhat prepared for this but the reality of it alarming. This involves the added expense and hassle of acquiring everything needed for a functioning kitchen. More on this in a future post!

Before I knew it, weeks were going by and I wasn’t finding “the place”. I felt like Goldilocks.  Apartments were too small, too far from town center, too expensive, too outdated, etc. I had to go with my gut and nothing felt like home. After all, I was in a foreign country thousands of miles from home and starting a new job. My apartment had to be the one place where I could relax and be stress free. Again, more on this in a future post.  Another thing I was faced with was not having any employment history in France. Agencies did not want to rent to me for this reason, even if I had Salomon’s support and could prove my solid credit rating from the US. This was really frustrating and how one apartment I liked was kept out of my grasp. Then it happened. I was shown two great apartments on the same day. The first place was being completely renovated in an existing building called Golden Parc. Some of the pluses: extra storage, cupboards and oven in the kitchen, nice sized terrace. Some of the minuses: not that close to town center and a view of a parking lot. The second place was much older and had that French charm I was initially hoping for. No parking but through the agency I could rent a spot in a garage closeby at a really good price. Some pluses: wraparound balcony with an incredible view of the lake and mountains, walking distance to all the good stuff, and for an old apartment it had a nice, open space. Some minuses: puny aforementioned elevator and an unequipped kitchen. I felt really good about the latter apt and felt the positives greatly outweighed the negatives so I submit my application. I was dreaming about how I’d decorate it and the “wow” factor for when I had guests over and they saw the stunning view. My application was accepted and I got renter’s insurance. I successfully negotiated having an oven installed. Now all that needed to be done was signing the lease. Then the floor dropped out beneath me. The owner had decided to sell the apartment, not rent it. Nooooo!!! So long sun-filled apartment. So long parties on the balcony. So long French charm. I was back at square one and had to extend my stay at Appart’City, Crapsville. I was utterly deflated, not to mention the fact my window of time to find an apartment before I started work was diminishing. I had given myself 6 weeks to find an apartment, settle, and be prepared for my first day of work.

The search was back on and a few days later I found the apartment I’m in right now, typing this post. It’s a brand new building and on the same street as the apt I lost, but even closer to town center–like can’t get any closer.  Things have a way of working out and I have to remind myself of this when things get tough.