Lisbon, Portugal

As I said in my last post, I’ve been trying to cram in the travel.  Portugal was on my short list of places to visit and I had some friends that would be in Lisbon June 4-7.  I booked my ticket on Tuesday afternoon and I flew out Thursday morning!  Hooray for EasyJet!  I also booked an AirBnB that turned out to be sort of a hostel in that it hard shared bathrooms.  It was fine, I had a tiny private room with a key and it was safe.  The bathrooms and showers were private and very clean.  The price was right and the location is very central–walking distance to the metro and so many sights. I got into the city no problem, the metro links directly to the airport.  Finding my AirBnB was another story.  I had directions from the far exit of the station and I didn’t know that I emerged from the (much) closer exit, so I walked back and forth in the hot sun with my wool backpack 4x before I figured it out.  I’m so glad I wasn’t schlepping around a suitcase and my pack wasn’t heavy.  Another plus of inter-Europe travel in the summer!  Once I checked in, I changed and quickly set out to explore–simply wander wherever looked interesting.  There was so much to look at, Lisbon is vibrant with colour.  I had no idea there would be so much tile everywhere–on the sidewalks, public squares, and on the buildings.  I wore sandals the whole time and I had to be be careful as the sidewalks were worn smooth over the years and had become very slippery.  One store I knew I wanted to hit up is Luvaria Ulisses.  It’s a very small shop that sells handmade gloves.  Fitting was a unique experience.  The woman looked at my hand and immediately knew my size.  She brought out some gloves and I propped my elbow on a small cushion.  She used a wood tool to open up the glove fingers and blew in some talc.  Then she put the glove on my hand–this must be where the saying it “fit like a glove” comes from.  It was a perfect fit!  I bought a pair then I met up with my friends nearby at the Santa Just a Elevator.  It’s a Neo-Gothic structure that connected the lower streets with the higher Carmo Square.  Lisbon is hilly with some very narrow streets.

Day 2:  I got up early to beat the heat and tourists to take some photos in the Baixa Chiado neighborhood by my AirBnb.  The weather was perfect–slightly cool and dry with the sun rising.  I found an old café for breakfast and had a traditional custard tart; a pasteis da nata.  It was OK, not my favorite.  Then I walked to my friends’ AirBnB and we took a very noisy and bumpy bus ride to the Jeronimos Monastery.  Then we had lunch at the Time Out Mercado da Ribeira which is a really good food court.  The vendors are made up of some of the city’s top restaurants all in one accessible location.  I highly recommend it if you’re in Lisbon.  It’s a great way to inexpensively sample different types of food.  The rest of the day was more exploring to work off my big lunch.  Side note, a lot of people in Lisbon speak English.

Day 3:  I walked to the Alfama neighborhood, which is the oldest district in Lisbon.  It is very hilly and known for it’s narrow, winding, cobblestone streets.  I had to be extra careful to not wipe out.  A lot of streets were festooned with colorful garlands and littered with bottles and trash so it looks like I just missed a party the night before.  I have no idea what the occasion was.  I followed this up with some shopping then hopped on the metro back to the airport.  Lisbon is an incredible city, I hope to go back.  I had a great time and I’m so glad I made this last minute trip!!

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Paris!

Now that my days in France are numbered, I’m making every effort to travel and take advantage of the close proximity of so many wonderful cities and countries.  At the end of May I booked a train ticket to Paris and had the added bonus of seeing and staying with some friends who moved there from Portland less than one year ago.  I took a 05h00 train from Annecy that got into Paris at 09h15.  It’s not a direct route, otherwise it’d be a 3 hour train ride.  It’s not bad though, in the context of “hey, I can take a train to Paris!”  My plan was to have the full day in the city, spend one night, then take the 18h00 (I think that was it) train home the next day.  That would give me two full days!  The only “must see” on my list was to go to the Jeanne Lanvin retrospective exhibition at the Palais Galliera.

The Lanvin show was exceptional; so inspiring!  Photos were not allowed but I snuck one in.  The amount of detail and craftsmanship was incredible and a lot of the pieces still look so modern.  Another highlight of the trip was not having any French food, haha.  For lunch Jane and I had Vietnamese food then dinner was Korean.  Lunch the next day was Mexican!  All very good.  Add in some exploring around Montmartre and day 1 was huge success and I was ready for bed.

On day 2 Jane and I went to Jardin des Plantes on the recommendation of her friend who had just been there.  He showed us one photo on his phone and we were hooked.  I had not been to this part of Paris before.  There is a small zoo here, a botanical garden, a natural history museum, and this one place that we made the trip out there for:  http://www.mnhn.fr/fr/visitez/lieux/galeries-anatomie-comparee-paleontologie, the Galeries d’Anatomie Comparée et de Paléontologie.  It’s incredible!!  An enormous 3-floor collection of skeletons and fossils.  The first floor was modern era animals, everything from birds to primates to whales.  The 2nd floor was dinosaurs and other mammals with huge antlers, teeth, or tusks.  The 3rd floor was fossils, ancient arthropods, and that type of stuff, but by then we were burnt out from spending so much time on the first two floors.  I took a ton of photos.  It was a treasure trove of inspiration.  We had such close, intimate access to the skeletons, many of which had old, hand-calligraphed labels.  There were not many visitors there, which was nice.  I highly recommend this museum if you go to Paris.  I’m looking forward to going back and visiting the other museums in the area!

Marrakech, Morocco

I went to Marrakech, Morocco for 3 full days and 3 nights.  I saw and experienced so many things but I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.  I stayed in a lovely riad which is a large, traditional Moroccan home with a central courtyard.  The courtyard has a fountain or water feature like sort of like a pool in it and there are 2-3 floors of rooms surrounding it.  This one is called the Riad dar Sheba and is run by a very friendly, young French couple, which brings me to my next point.  The official language in Morocco is Arabic but French is widely spoken and taught in schools.  I was extremely thankful with my improved French because it came in handy.

Day one was a day of exploring. My riad was located in the medina, the walled old part of the city with a labyrinth of streets.  Street signs and logic don’t apply here.  I was worried about getting lost but the main landmark is the Koutoubia Mosque.  If I needed to gain my bearings, I looked for the tall minaret.  I walked to Jamaa el-Fnaa, a large open square and market.  My senses were inundated.  Horse drawn carriages, smells of oils and spices, sounds of snake charmer horns, drums, extreme dry heat, and the sticky sweetness of fresh pressed orange juice.  One thing I picked up on right away is how in tune the market entertainers and vendors are to the tourists.  Anyone seen with a camera is immediately approached and asked for money.  As I sat with my OJ, two women applying henna to hands and feet came to me.  One grabbed my hand and in seconds applied a design on one third of it.  Then she commanded, “now you have to pay me”.  She wanted 450 dirhams, about 41€. I said no way and after some back and forth, gave her 20 Dhs.  A check for me to be sharp and mindful. During my exploring, I came across La Mamounia, a 5-star hotel.  I read about their gardens so I walked in for a peek.  Let me tell you, this place is the most deluxe hotel I’ve ever seen.  Enormous rooms of plush chairs, tables, and lamps.  Long arcades of intricate tile work and wood doors and a large garden with a high wall of fuchsia bougainvillea.  I went back here on Day 3 and felt all fancy ordering a shrimp-avocado salad and Coke Zero.

Day two I hired a private guide to take me around to the biggest attractions.  We walked around Koutoubia Mosque.  I did not go inside as I am not Muslim.  We went to the Saadien Tombs first.  It is a large mausoleum dating back to 1578-1603.  Sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty are interred here, surrounded by ornate cedar and stucco work.  My guide told me that the cedar comes from the Atlas Mountain region.  There were several feral cats and kittens amongst the tombs.  Some cats were friendly as they are dependent on humans for food.

Next stop:  Bahia Palace.  My guide, Salim, said it was built in the late 19th century and pointed out the ornate painted cedar ceilings.  An influential guy named Abu Ahmed brought in craftsmen from Fez and took up residence here along with his 4 wives and 24 (!!) concubines.  After the palace, Salim took me through the winding streets of the medina.  He walked fast and I had to tell him to slow down so I could see things and take photos.  We walked through areas where artisans were tanning leather, dying wool, hammering metal pots and lanterns, making rugs, and pressing argan oil.  They were mostly crammed into small workplaces often in bare feet.  This is where Salim took me to his friends and the hard sales pitches began.  I bought a few things–a pair of sandals and a scarf.  I was more interested in the artisanry and process than coming back to France with rugs and glass tea sets.  Besides, I only brought a backpack with no carry-on luggage.

Next stop before lunch:  the Ali Ben Youssef Madersa.  Try saying that 5 times fast.  This was the highlight of the day.  So much so that I went back early the next day to see it again at my own pace and I ended up having the place to myself for a while, which was amazing.  This was a 16th century school for young men to study the Qu’ran.  There was a large courtyard surrounded by two levels of 130 small, austere rooms.  4 students slept in each room unless their families had money to pay for a 2-person room; same size.  Even with 2 people it would be crowded!  As many as 900 students attended the school in its prime.  It was hard to find on my own the next day but I asked for directions and a kind man walked me part of the way.  The school closed in 1960.

Are you still with me?  Next stop was lunch then Le Jardin Majorelle or, Majorelle Garden. Salim left me for an hour for lunch and during this time he did his ablution and prayed.  He was originally going to leave me at a place that served a 3-course lunch for 15€ but I didn’t need that much food.  I also wouldn’t spend that much on lunch in France so I asked for a simpler, traditional place.  I ordered a meat tagine and bottle of water for about 45 Dhs, 4€.  A tagine is the ceramic pot used to cook the food.  A blend of savory spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, with onions, carrots, and zucchini in a bit of broth, not much.  I’m not sure what meat it was, possibly goat.  It was a bit tough but the seasoning was good. The other highlight of the trip was Le Jardin Majorelle.  I was really looking forward to going here.  From it’s website:  “It took French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) forty years of passion and dedication to create this enchanting garden in the heart of the “Ochre City”.”  It was a nice break from the hot, dry city outside of the medina.  The bold cobalt blue used extensively in the architecture and garden is named after him–Majorelle Blue.  Yves St Laurent first visited the garden in 1966 and was enchanted.  When he later learned that the garden was to be sold and replaced with a hotel, he purchased it in 1980 along with his life and business partner, Pierre Bergé.  Together they nurtured the garden to respect the vision of M. Majorelle and took up residence in the villa.  St Laurent was inspired here and created his paintings and collages in a studio.  Now I’m inspired, too!  When he passed away in 2008 in Paris, his ashes were scattered in the garden and a memorial placed on the premises.

I was done with my guided tour before 3PM so for the rest of the day and the following day, I did more exploring, food sampling, and shopping.  I had planned to go to a Hammam spa to be exfoliated and massaged but since I was recovering from chickenpox this wasn’t a good idea.  I got a foot massage, which was great.  I never felt unsafe but quickly avoided making eye contact with vendors and men to avoid unwanted attention.  There is so much more to say and photos to share but this post will go on for a very long time.  It was a unique travel experience that I recommend to you!

Everyday Beauty

Today is May 1, a national holiday in France.  Fête du Travail / Labor Day.  I was expecting some sort of protest march but it’s been raining all day.  I don’t mind that it’s raining because I’ve been cooped up indoors on a self-imposed quarantine because I have chickenpox for the first time!  Today is Friday and I stepped out briefly to get some food.  Not an easy task since almost everything is closed but good ol’ Chevallier bakery is always open.  I put on a scarf, hat, and raincoat and hoped with the rain not many people would be out or take notice of the red pox and scabs on my face.  Naturally this one time a woman asks me for directions to the train station.  It was nice to get some air and move my legs.  Up ’til that moment, I had stayed in my apartment since Monday night!  I left my apartment once to take down the trash.  This doesn’t involve leaving my building.  I was able to go outside but sitting on my balcony. The time I’ve spent indoors hasn’t been too bad.  I’ve eaten up leftovers, got my scanner working again, and am tending to my neglected blog.  Cleo is thrilled to have me here all day.

This post is dedicated to some of the things I pass by very often or noticing the detail of everyday things.  It is about taking the time to stop and appreciate the beauty of my town and savor every last minute.

365+ Days in France

It happened.  My one year anniversary of moving to France came and went with no fanfare while I was on a work trip to China on January 13.  So much has happened and at the same time I feel like I just got here.  So…where to begin?

I’ll start with accomplishments; things I’ve done.  Most of this has been documented on my blog already.  I quit a great job at a fantastic company.  I sold most of my furniture and awesome car.  My heart breaks a little every time I see an Audi A3 here.  I rented out my house.  I said goodbye to my wonderful friends, all of whom were strangers at one point and became like family, partners in crime, and confidantes.  I saw the moving truck come and take everything I owned in boxes.  I spent my last night in town at my neighbor’s house.  I said goodbye to quirky Portland and beautiful Oregon and flew one-way to Toronto, Canada with my cat, Cleo.  Thank you to Chris Mazelin, though we hadn’t stayed in steady contact since she left Nike, who drove me to PDX.  From mid-November 2013 to January 13, 2014 I moved back in with my parents at my childhood home.  It was a particularly harsh winter that included an ice storm and power failure right before Christmas.  I handed in my OR driver’s license to get an Ontario license that would be easy to transfer into a French one.  I got all kinds of paperwork translated, authenticated, and apostilled.  I experienced some culture shock being back in Canada.  I never lived or worked there as an adult since I left after high school so I was accustomed to American stores, brands, services, and not so much hockey.  While in Canada I got all of Cleo’s veterinary papers to move her to France.  I saw relatives I hadn’t seen in ages and friends from high school and *gasp* grade school!

Fast forward to January 13, 2014.  I land in Geneva and my ride is there to take me to my temporary miniature apartment.  You can revisit my earlier posts to read about that.  No turning back, I was thrown into everything at once.  There were many struggles along the way, from finding an apartment, to installing a kitchen, to buying a car, and of course, starting a new job. Now I’m more settled in my apartment and neighborhood.  My neighbors recognize me.  I know my way around town and where the good coffee and burgers are.  I’m recognized at the Boston Café with a friendly greeting and smile.  I found a dentist for me and a great veterinarian for Cleo.  I’m making new friends both at work and through the expat community, some I hope to stay in touch with for years to come and have made life here so much better.  I’ve learned patience, organization, and to be an advocate for myself.  I’ve learned to ask for help and that Things. Will. Get. Done.  Maybe not in the way I wanted or planned or in the timeframe I had in mind, but they will get done.  I will find a way.  I can do just about anything I set my mind to.

I’ve also learned that I can survive without a TV, a microwave, a dishwasher, and a washer/dryer, though the last two are open to debate now that it’s winter.  I can live in a much smaller space.  I can manage with stores closed on Sunday.  I no longer buy stockpiles of food and sundries.  I buy fresh food that will be eaten that day or in the next couple days.  Milk and eggs here are not refrigerated and it’s OK.  In fact, I’ve grown to really like the eggs here.  Water can be cheaper than wine on the menu.  My French has improved.  It’s still a daily struggle; it’s tough not being able to fully communicate and express myself.

In general, I’m learning that a slower pace of life isn’t bad.  Some people have told me that I’m brave and living a dream.  I don’t feel this way at all.  I decided at one point that I wanted more life experiences and for me that meant living and working in Europe.  Learning the culture, the language, getting familiar with a new place–I’ve always liked the challenge of this.  What was once foreign becomes familiar and part of my regular routine. I’ve done it a few times now and the result is always the same.  Any place can become home after a while.  Even the tiny, crappy temp apt I had for 6 weeks when I first arrived became my nest and comfort zone.  It has been very, very difficult and beyond frustrating at times and I still have some of these moments.  These parts have not been dreamy or a romantic ideal of what living in France is like.  My experience with this is that these low points to turn and go back up.  They have to.  I’ve questioned if I made the right choice in moving to France and I still do, I think it’s normal.

So what’s next?  Definitely more travel.  That’s a huge part of why I came out here, so I have to take advantage that so many places are a short, cheap flight away.  I want to start being more creative at home.  Make time for art and creating with my hands.  It’s something  I stopped doing several years ago and now I have the time and desire to get back to it.  They say the first year is the toughest so we’ll see where I’m at 4 months from now.  Then 6, then 12–the two year mark.  I’m looking forward to it.

What’s Cookin’?

I can’t believe it’s been over one month since my last post, I’m really behind!  This post in particular is long overdue.  It’s about my long-awaited KITCHEN!!  As I’ve said in earlier posts, I moved into a brand new apartment with no kitchen set-up whatsoever.  Une cuisine “non-équipée”, save for a flimsy sink and cabinet.  No appliances or storage.  All my things were on the floor and piled up on every available surface and it was very depressing to come home to this day after day.  The proprietor did not want to install or pay for a kitchen, which is ridiculous.  When the time comes that I move out, I will try to sell the kitchen to the next tenant or sell it online.  The proprietor will not get a free kitchen from me!  What a cheap jerk.

I have a new friend named Sophie who is an interior designer.  Her husband works with me at Salomon.  She designed my kitchen and together we picked out the materials and finishes from Leroy Merlin.  It’s a store like Lowe’s or Home Depot.  She did all the communication and liaising with the store and contractor, or “artisan” as they’re called here, who installed everything.  I’m really pleased with the results.  It looks modern, is good quality, and didn’t cost a fortune.  Now I can prepare hot meals!  I have counters and a place for my dishes!  This was especially important as my Mom was coming to visit.  *btw, this visit already came and went, Aug. 18-30.  That’s how behind I am on my posts*

I needed more storage beyond what the Leroy Merlin cabinets offered and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I bought two Malm dressers from IKEA.  These are great for lightweight things like towels, Tupperware, Ziplocks, etc.  I like that they don’t look like kitchen cabinets and thus don’t make the room look like one big kitchen with no living space.  I was also able to use a console table as a kitchen island.  I wish it was a bit taller to match the height of the counters but hey, it works and I don’t have to spend more money.  Again, it helps to enclose the kitchen area and confine it to one part of the room.  There’s a space where I was going to put a washing machine but I haven’t bought one yet; not sure I will.  I’ve been going to the laundromat.  It’s not that far to walk and it’s fast.

Here’s some photos.  I’m re-posting some of the pics to remind you what I started with.  

 

187 Days, or 6 Months + 6 days

Deep breath; gut check.  I have been in France for 6 months.  A friend from college had the great suggestion that I do a self-evaluation at 4 months.  That date came and I didn’t feel ready.  I marked on my calendar to check-in at 6 months and here I am.  So much has happened–the many obstacles I’ve written about, making new friends, trying new foods, adjusting to the culture, starting a new job, etc.  I take each day as it comes and when I look back, I have to say I’ve accomplished a lot!  Everyone asks if I’ve “settled in”.  At what point is one “settled”?  When you have a fridge and a microwave?  When every item you brought with you has a place to go in your new home?  When you stop thinking about where you used to live?  No, I don’t feel settled in yet.

Here are some things that have happened in the last 6 months:  I’m fully stocked on all the ID cards I need to live here.  My driver’s license, work/resident permit, carte vitale, bank card, and Monoprix carte de fidélité.  I’ve travelled to Paris, Lyon, and Germany.  I’ve been to IKEA near Geneva 4x, soon to be 5x.  I bought a car and can drive like a French person thanks to living in MA for over 6 years; I can navigate the rond-points (roundabouts) like a pro!  I’ve made some good friends and continue to make new ones.  I can talk to the vendors at the outdoor markets in French.  I hiked part of the Mont Blanc Trail.  I caught World Cup fever and cheered on Team France.  I know my way around the winding streets of La Vieille Ville.  I’m surviving without a TV, dishwasher, and microwave.  I’ve gained some weight–ooofff!!  I know where to find dried black beans.  I joined a salon/spa club….and perhaps the most important thing, my work-life balance is really, really good.  I live in the heart of town so it’s so easy for me to head out the door at any moment to go shopping, meet friends, go to the lake, and see some of the many activities that are going on now that it’s summer.  It’s mid-July so school’s out and people are starting to take their holidays so my commute is noticeably faster.  The other day I got from my parking spot at work to my spot at home in TEN minutes.  I was changed and on my balcony having a beer in the sunshine in less than 20 minutes!  How about that?

I do have my moments.  It hasn’t been this romantic ideal of sitting at outdoor cafés eating croissants or sipping wine on my balcony.  If I look back on my posts, there were some huge obstacles and moments of frustration.  I’ve come to realize that “no” or “not right now” is not the end of the world, I just have to alter my expectations or change my course.  Things WILL happen and things WILL get done.  Maybe not in the timeframe I had in mind but I’m learning to roll with it.  I will reserve the right to bitch about it and having friends here to share troubles with makes it easier.  In some ways it still feels like I’m on holiday; like I’ll be returning to Portland soon.  Another thing everyone asks me is if I plan returning for a visit this year.  I’ve avoided making too many big purchases that make my stay here more permanent because in the back of my mind I think, “I’m not staying for long, this isn’t my home.”  I’m still trying to decide if I want to buy a washing machine vs going to the laundromat.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d LOVE to go to PDX to visit, but to do so now would feel like a step backwards.  I still have one foot in that city and when I’m trying to move forward and embrace my new surroundings, it won’t help. Everyone that has experienced what I’m going through has told me it takes one year to acclimate and feel like I “live” in my new town.  I remember it with Boston and Portland.  I can’t remember how long it took, but it’s that feeling when you get off the plane after a trip somewhere.  You’re on your way home and you feel a sense of relief and contentment.  Here’s looking at the next six months and whatever they may bring.