Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Looking for Lancelot

Yesterday, for a short time, I was in a medieval village with a ruined castle from the 14th century, complete with the slits for the arrows and a real moat too linked to the village stream.

Pascal's again too busy to take a trip to Mont St Michel which is very disappointing so I made do with a quick trip to the village of Fougères. Axel needed to buy a present for his Mum. We took a stroll in the thick fog around the castle. You can see the ruins in the photos; the moat, the village. What I can't show you is the ancient washing area for clothes etc. There are stones leading to the washing area and big pots set in stone for boiling the linen. None of it functions now of course but I've included the signage.

The fog was terrible for taking decent photos and it was rather early in the evening before we could visit the town. The stonework of the houses is terrific and there is so much character. There are some good quality shops and it's bigger than St Aubin du Cormier where Pascal lives but still there's nothing to do there for the inhabitants. A bit like Rambouillet I suppose, but lovely to visit.

Tomorrow I leave for Paris and Rambouillet. It has been wonderful to spend time again with Pascal and his family. He is such an attentive, kind and loving father-I haven't seen much of that in Men before though I know it's out there. We have a lot of laughs. But I'm not used to such an indolent life. Yes, Ok I'm on holiday but it's time to leave lovely Brittany and get back into the rhythm of life in Rambouillet before I'm back at work on Monday. I also need to start preparing to buy a car - I really need one to help my integration and independence.

Tonight Pascal and I will visit one of his female friends for a drinks and nibbles evening. I shall pay special attention to what is served, including the wines. If my consumption of wine is anything to go on I should be getting healthier and healthier because I rarely drank it in NZ but drink it every day when I stay with Pascal. Hope your New Year's are shaping up the way you'd like.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

A french family Christmas

Thanks to my friend Pascal's generosity I am enjoying and learning about a french family Christmas. It's my first Christmas here in France so it's an important milestone. I arrived in his village outside the main city of Rennes and have settled in. Pascal's friend (Pascal2), whom I met earlier this year, and his new girlfriend Michelle arrived to join us. Pascal's daughter, whom I've previously met, was there too.

It was Christmas Eve and Pascal had gone all-out with his catering: apperitifs (including pieces of quiche for me because I don't eat fois gras or seafood), Cocquilles St Jacques, leg of lamb crusted with lemon juice and honey, roasted slices of potato, green salad, cheeses, a chocolate and cream log for dessert. Lots of wine, rose champagne to start with. Certainly, with the Pascals together you know there will be a lot of laughing and teasing and maybe some general silliness amongst them.

I managed to cope with the language situation. Sometimes the Pascals would assist with some English but mostly everything was in French. Christmas presents were exchanged and the night became morning without my awareness of it.

On Christmas Day we collected Pascal's son Axel from his mother and drove deep into Brittany, the Morbihan, to spend the day with Pascal's mother and extended family. Along the way we drove near the Forest of Broceliande. Legend has it this is where King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table spent much time, Merlin lived there and so did his not-so-nice half-sister Morgan le Fey, as well as the lady of the lake. It's an ancient place of legend, druids and great deeds. One day I'd like to walk in this forest and see Merlin's 'tomb', ancient megaliths and watch the little 'theatre pieces' in the warm weather. Check out

This is of special interest to me because the website I am working on at work is called la Foret de Broceliande.

Pascal's family are incredibly wonderful people. The acceptance and warmth I experienced in just one afternoon and evening with them completely overshadowed my experiences with my own family of a lifetime. Sad but true. I wanted to experience a true French family Christmas - I couldn't have had a better experience. Warm hugs and smiles, kisses and laughter all around. Those who could speak a little English tried to but most of the time I found I could use the French I know to be part of things. It's a little easier this time around the social circuit. I met Pascal's older sister, his younger brother, his mother Marie and her boyfriend Raymond, partners, children, neighbours.

The food. Pascal was rather concerned about me because most of the traditional fare is impossible for me to eat, but really, it wasn't a problem. I tried some special mushrooms- edible but not to my taste, little aperatif biscuits which were fine. Champagne to commence, white wine and then later red wine, seafood (pass) bread and Breton butter, leg of lamb (cooked differently to how we do it in NZ and it was Australian. I think NZ lamb is better), mixed vegetables and french fries, green salad followed by cheese (I tried some new ones and enjoyed them)dessert logs of different flavours but, of course, my favourite is always chocolate. And amazing dark chocolates too, offered by Raymond. I was moved to tears by the richness of the experience and then Raymond started crying too. This wouldn't happen easily in a NZ family. Nothing is superficial with this french family, the members are all genuinely close.

Since then I've had many french conversations with Pascal and today I had a mini conversation with his son Axel to encourage him in his learning of English. Living with a family is the best way to improve your language, that's for sure.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Oh, for Goodness Sake!

Gritting teeth. It's just never simple is it?
I left work, popped the cheque into the bank and waited for a train to Paris. Arrived there and headed out to Chatillon-Montrouge on the Metro. Got a bit lost because this crazy town has decided to split itself in two depending on how schizophrenic it felt about the railway line through the middle. And how was I to know that? I expected the road to stay in one town. First I picked the wrong one but an extra walk got me to the other side and the OFII immigration people.

They only speak French. Good grief- they are handling immigration. So, it's as well I can hold my own enough to get on side with those I can and make a point with those I can't. I'm sick of them expecting me to be FREE. That is not my legal name and hasn't been since I was 21. Officiousness, arrogant and pompous doctor, robotic radiographer. At least I managed a joke with a couple of nurses. There I was with a heavily bandaged finger (from the breadknife)and then they put a big plaster on another one - test for diabetes. We laughed about my two bandages and they asked if I would like a third. Non merci, ça suffit.

Blood pressure, urine, Xray of chest. How old was I? (should have been obvious from my records). Have I ever been sick or had an injury in my life? I looked at him incredulously- how stupid. I said at my age, of course. He asked if anything serious so I replied no. He told me I should get an eye checked out. Well I couldn't see the silly wee numbers that small, especially when I pressed my hand very hard to the eye to test the other one and probably pressed too hard so I took ages to work out what they were until my eye recovered. Oops. The doctor insisted on listening to my heart but didn't notice my heart condition. Weight and height had been checked - they don't admit giants or pygmies? Chest Xray OK. I was told I'm supposed to be vaccinated for polio. Done that I said. He insisted that in NZ you have to do it every 10 years- really. After a further long wait I was seen for all the paperwork. I had done my homework  meticulouslybecause I didn't want any foulups.

Young guy studied everything and then said "Malheureusement..." oh oh that's not good. Cockup by French staff. They did not create a carte de sejour with the matching numbers of my VISA and they must match. Not my fault but I must go away and come back another time. That cost me half a day of work and money travelling 4 trains. They will contact me in a few weeks and I'll have to come back at my expense. I didn't see that one coming.

But as I walked home in the rain I felt the wetness harden into snow-that was expected as there is a major alert on for more serious snowfall. Shit, I am catching trains and the TGV from home to Paris to Rennes to see Pascal. There could be no problem but there COULD be delays with connections so I will have to leave an hour earlier than necessary to hope I can arrive in Paris in time to catch my TGV.

Agghh! stress already. Ahh, but at least I'm in the black for 2011.

Will keep you informed of my Breton adventures as they unfold.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snow Bunny's Ultimate Winter

Saturday was a great day. I met Alex at the parking building in the morning. He's an American missionary with a growing family, needing a larger car. We were both relieved we could conduct the exercise in English. He was very thorough in his inspection and seemed to know what he was doing. He expected every bit of documentation available to me. In the end, after a test drive, he agreed to buy my car for a discounted price which was reasonable. He was to meet with me today but the snow was too bad so hopefully I will have the money and he will have the car on Tuesday night.I felt so incredibly lucky, but more was ahead.

As I walked back from the meeting, I was accosted by a guy and his colleague with a PA system and a microphone. It seemed I had been chosen to win a prize at the markets. ERR, how was my French, he asked, not good I replied, so he proceeded to ask me a question on famous monuments, in French. I understood 60% which was enough for me to reply with the answer in French. Hello 10 euros to spend at the markets...awesome. Hello thermal underwear- top and bottom for an amazing 10 euros.

The snow had been falling for 14 hours so I decided to get reckless and splash out 30 euros at the market on cheap snow boots. They are rather cheap but are better than the running shoes I've been wearing until now. I was so happy. Not a moment too soon as the snow got thicker and thicker. I changed into my new boots and headed to the gare to meet Brad at the station.

Brad is a fellow couchsurfer who lives in Antwerp, Belgium. He was in Paris for the weekend and we arranged to meet up in Cafeolait. Despite our age difference we have a lot in common. We headed back to my studio where we chatted and I made lunch. Then it was time for a hot chocolate  and then off to the Rambouillet and the Chateau. We were a bit early so I decided we would explore the park in the snow. More good luck- as we were walking, along came two men in a wagon drawn by a drafthorse. The driver invited us up for a free ride. Cool, Brad and I were beaming. The horse picked up speed and the slipstream blew the driver's hat off into the snow. His colleague retrieved it and we all laughed like school kids.

Brad enjoyed seeing the inside of the Chateau. It's a pity I'm not allowed to take photos. More good luck... they decided to give us a commentary in English. The young lady who is training to be an archeologist had a strong accent and spoke quietly but I picked up a few new bits of historical info. The snow was turning into a whiteout as Brad and I and our guide set out to walk a kilometre to the seashell cottage and then on to the Queen's Dairy. This was my third visit but it's always impressive. By the time we had finished the tour the sun had gone down and night was on us. We walked along the snow-covered road in the dark- it was so beautiful even though it was not comfy. My hands and feet were freezing but I can dress now to keep my body core temperature at a normal level. The exercise helped too. Brad caught a train safely back to Paris and I watched the young ice-skaters enjoying the temporary rink in the snowstorm.

There's no point in stopping doing things just because the weather is awful, because it's like that most days now. Today I walked down the middle of the snowy street hauling my trundler to the laudromat and back twice. I'm an expert now. After lunch I decided to catch a bus to the shopping mall. Yuck, it was now raining with a stiff icy wind that rattled and shook the bus shelter where I huddled for the bus. No bus came...still no bus came. After 40 mins I still saw no buses or passengers so back home I went. Checking the internet revealed all buses were cancelled for 3 days due to the snow.

All up it's been a great weekend, except I cut a finger again on the bread knife. Again? Yeah, lost my co-ordination as my hands were frozen and I was desperate for something to eat. Lots and lots of blood again but this time I had the stuff to make a bandage. Things are definitely looking up.

Photos of Brad and I and our snowy day

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Lewd and light moments

Yep, that's certainly something I didn't need, expect or want to see.
I was standing at the bus stop outside the train station at Cafeolait (peaceful village, reasonably affluent )waiting for a lift from a colleague to attend the staff luncheon. It was very cold and wet and here and there were still patches of snow from a week ago. People were starting to collect at the bus shelter across the road. One man took off his coat. I was surprised because it was bitterly cold. He seemed warmly dressed with a beanie. I looked away but moments later looked back. You what?????

The guy was virtually naked. His trousers and underpants were around his ankles and he was holding his top up high around his neck so there was this very large expanse of nakedness in the middle of the street. He had his dick in his hand (not small)and he was pissing into a person's property.

I find it pretty disgusting that men find pissing on personal and public property of no consequence- it stinks (consider the subways) but this guy was making a real display. There's no need to take your clothes off if you are a guy so seeing that big lump of a guy doing that next to the bus stop-well... it's puzzling.

I turned to the old woman at the bus stop next to me and remarked to her. She wasn't fazed, as if she's seen everything and is past disappointment in humanity. She informed me that Cafeolait is one of the better areas-as she pointed out the smashed glass in the shelter. There are worse areas, she said to me. Surely the naked guy is not right in the head, I remarked. Probably too much drink she calmly explained. She wasn't happy about the state of the world but...well...there you are. Indeed, ugly naked man pissing on the lampost to start the day.

It wasn't quite the start of the day though. Earlier I had been following my language instruction via the TV. I try to catch a children's programme before work to get me into the French language for the day and pick up on some phrases and vocab. I watch either Dora the Explorer, or the Mickey Mouse Kids Club (that's difficult with the accents of Donald and Pluto). Babar the elephant is too difficult for me because they have long conversations and speak too quickly. Dora is ideal because it's education-based rather than entertainment. She repeats things, asks simple questions and follows a formula. No wonder babies can learn - they hear things over and over again and their heads aren't full of adult cack.

Lunch was, expectedly, challenging for me. Social situations always are because I don't understand what people are saying. This is when I designate myself as the official photographer- it keeps me 'mixing', and visible and occupied. I had vegetarian meals as the menu is confined to animals hunted in the forest. No beef and lamb. Eventually we got internet access and could view 3 animations I had prepared, featuring some staff. That seemed well-received.

Tomorrow is Friday, the last working one for 2010. On Saturday morning I am expecting an American chap to come and look at my car- I hope I can manage this OK. In the afternoon Brad from Antwerp is arriving in Cafeolait. We'll then travel to Rambouillet so I can show him around the place. He is a fellow couchsurfer. I can't offer a couch anymore so I try to be available for meet and greets.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Sell, please sell!

I'm putting a lot of effort into trying to get the car in an almost fit state to sell. Actually, it will never be in a decent state, it has been so horribly abused and neglected, disgusting. I think back to the car I had to sell in Auckland. My Toyota was spotless inside, clean, tidy and didn't need to be spring cleaned.

What I've got now needs fumigating and stripping and recarpeting and shampooing but that's not an option for me. The carpet in the back is rotting from dampness. Of course I never saw any of that in the dark.

It just goes to show what can happen when you are so far out of your comfort and knowledge zone and especially when you cannot communicate in the local lingo- how vulnerable you can be, how non-assertive and passive. I certainly made a mistake buying it, trusting its owner. Too big, too expensive, too shabby.

The women in the office have been great sports checking out prices on the internet, popping a wee ad on there for my car, taking photos. I've been washing the damn thing in the snow. Why?

Because I have to do it when there is time, when my colleague has time to be at home (I clean it at her place) and the fact that we had a truly serious dump of snow this week was an inconvenience. It wasn't really fun even though I'm laughing at the absurdity in the photos.

It's not possible to wash the exterior with water in these conditions because water would freeze. The snow was free and a bit crunchy in texture so it worked OK though my hands and feet became VERY painful from the cold. I also had to wash the inside of the car- water in a bowl for that.

Today I went around to my colleague's place again to do the car vacuuming and polish all the interior plastic, after walking for a bit to find a petrol station. That's the only place I could get to to buy some cleaner. Without a car (ha) it's difficult to get around to do anything or buy anything so i must walk or not do it.

What do I mean, no car? I can't face driving the Station Wagon. Having had an 'upset' with it at night in the countryside and left with huge (for me) bills and shock I have NO interest in driving it. A smaller car would enable me to get my confidence back and I would be happier with a clean and tidy car. Something I could take pleasure in, instead of looking at my car with regret and distaste.

Eventually I will be able to put this mistake behind me but at the moment I'm in the middle of it and in the red financially. Getting paid monthly is hard when something major goes wrong. I need to sell it to get back into the black.

It's a shame to go into Christmas like this but I fear it may be some time before I have the sort of Christmas with friends and family I would like-in France. Though, having said that, I have decided to join Pascal in Brittany for a few days. It will be a lot more enjoyable spending the festive season with him and his son Axel and it looks like I will meet his Mum this time. It will be good to be with nice people and have my days warm instead of huddling over my little heater on my own. I'm interested to see what happens in a typical French family Christmas time.

I will then come back to Cafeolait, get my domestic chores done and consider whether I will go into Paris for New year's Eve; I hear they have fireworks- maybe if I can stay awake long enough it might be fun to take my camera and do that.

Next week we are supposed to have our staff Christmas lunch but the meteo service suggests more snow and it's possible we might have to cancel it, to be safe. Darn. Will keep you posted.

Photos are pretty obvious- the crazy Kiwi cleaning her car in a snowstorm.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Urban Glaciers

I've stood on the Tasman Glacier in the South Island of New Zealand. I've been snowed into my home on a hill, with no electricity/cooking/heating/entertainment for 3 solid days and night but this... is in a different category.

France has been blasted with an incredibly serious snow dump. It paralysed Paris yesterday and my colleagues had trouble getting home. It took Victoria four hours in her car. I'm glad I left early but the Social Security office was closed when I arrived. They had shut up shop hours early due to the terrible weather conditions.

There I was in my coat, NZ boots and scarf and gloves but no hat. The snow flakes fell thickly and stuck to my clothes and hair. Walking was treacherous. By the time I got to Cafeolait cars were queuing up to be pushed up inclines or guided down slopes. In the end a number of central streets were closed to cars because they could not keep on the road. Traffic jams were everywhere. The streets of Cafeolait are narrow so it's easy to have a snarl-up.

My boots could not cope with snow up to my mid calves. My feet were wet and freezing but, hey, if you are already like that what are a few more minutes so I decided to capture the event digitally. Climate change may make such extreme events more common but I wasn't about to let this one pass. You can see from the photos that as the day faded the snowflakes continued. The castle, the grounds, the town, my street; all smothered by snow. The grounds of the chateau were like a wonderland-stunningly beautiful.

A family had just finished making a snowman in the car park of the castle, the waterways looked frigid and bleak. I saw no sign of any birds or animals anywhere.

Pictures also include my car that I'm selling. A colleague took these photos just before it started snowing and I hope to have some photos for you of me cleaning the car in the snowfall later in the day, soon.

Today the snow softened and then froze. The streets and pavements and station platforms are like walking on glaciers. The ice cracks beneath you, you so easily lose your footing and if you are unfortunate to step in some water, well, walking on the ice becomes hellish with wet feet. Several of my colleagues could not make it into the office today. My train to work was cancelled, in fact they all were for a time and I had to stand in the freezing conditions for 90mins until a train to work was available.

The train station staff, women included, had to pitch in with shovels to chip the concrete/ice off the edges of the platforms so we could board the trains. I felt sorry for them- it was bloody hard work and the shovels soon became bent out of shape.

Tomorrow we are expecting slightly better weather.
Enjoy the photos.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Go slow and inevitable disappointments

I used to be a very busy and productive person. Now my days are so different and I don't feel as if I'm using my time well. Doing domestic things takes forever.

Claire drove me to Carrefour supermarket on Friday night and we did our shopping together. This gave me an opportunity to shop somewhere that provides more choice but it's big and takes ages to get around and there was much of it I didn't have time to look around. Well, I don't have any money so maybe that's just as well. I splashed out and bought a bottle of ruby Port from Portugal in case I am ever lucky enough to have guests in my little studio.

On Saturday I walked to Monoprix to buy a hammer so I could put some pictures up and feel more homey but when I tried to hammer the nail it it kept bending and eventually a thin slice of plaster fell off the wall. It appears that beneath the plaster surface there must be stone or other masonry. That makes it impossible for me to put any pictures up. I'd have to hire a 'bricoleur' (handyman )to use a special drill. I'd need him to put up a rod for a shower curtain too. Well that's all going to have to wait at least a month or until my car is sold.

I decided to spend a miserably cold Saturday night at the Laundromat and learn how to use the machines. Whoever had used it before had turned the place into a swimming pool. It took me a while to work out how to do it all because all instructions are in french and I don't know a lot of the terms. Really, my acquisition of French language is ridiculously slow, much slower than I would have expected. After an hour and a half there I had a small load done but I didn't trust the machines with my bras and delicate jersey so those I am doing in the sink at home.
Back in NZ I was busy but at least I had the gear to get multiple things done quickly. Washing and drying didn't need my constant presence.

I'm also concerned about my fitness levels which are plummeting. In NZ I had regular dance classes and sometimes dance gigs, especially at this time of year. I haven't danced for months and there are no teachers within 50 kms of me. To take up dance classes again I would have to travel to Paris after work- that's a LOT of time and expense on top of the cost of lessons. How do I make this happen? My choreographies are vanishing from my memory, my costumes are languishing in the cupboard, my French isn't good enough yet for me to start advertising myself and I can't drive anywhere safely at this point. Lots and lots of frustration here because my body is feeling even more stiff and sore than usual. What to do? I don't know-hibernate until spring? That's a very long way off.

At least my little efforts at trying to turn this cave into a home are starting to succeed. The curtains work OK (not perfectly)and they brighten up the place. My bits and bobs from NZ give me little luxuries such as DVDs and music and books to re-read. When you have less you can certainly appreciate what you do have.

Still to be done when money allows are: get some more sheets and towels. I have only one set- lucky I am a 'clean' person. Get some footwear for the snow, as my current stuff is being burned and stained by the snow. Get some warmer PJs, sometimes I must sleep in my dressing gown to to keep warm. Maybe I can splash out on an electric blanket one day-these are not commonly used in France. I don't understand that. France is even colder than NZ. Back in 2008 Nicolas was very surprised by my electric blanket in Auckland and soon became very keen to get one when he got back to Paris. He did that and thought it a good investment, but found it difficult to find a fitted one. Small differences between the countries pop up every day.

My diet is not very good at present as I lack some essentials for proper cooking - such as a decent-sized fridge, a food processor, a toaster, decent pots and bowls, a microwave, a real oven, a quiche pan. The smaller items can be acquired in time so I eat a lot of bread and try to boil up cans of veges. Meat is expensive here and I can't find my usual cuts of meat such as scotch fillet steak. To buy a leg of lamb (if I could even fit it into the silly little oven thing I've got), would cost the equivalent of nearly $60.

Things with shelf-lives here have ridiculously short lives. Often you only have a couple of days from purchase to expiry. No doubt there are ways around this but on my own with limited resources- I haven't found them yet.

Folks who change countries thanks to a work relocation have little challenge from my perspective- they have all their stuff at little expense to themselves and limited inconvenience. I was reminded of this when I saw the Christmas section at Carrefour. I really miss my beautiful Christmas tree and all the decorations I had carefully saved for many years. Each had a little story. No one wanted to pay a reasonable price for them but I couldn't bring them with me.

Little things like that tug at my heart. I can brush aside the furniture I liked that's gone but these little personal things- I remember them from time to time and it's surprisingly hard to accept they are gone. I didn't want to give them away but I had to in order to create new unknown possibilities.

Losing connection with past hobbies is beginning to bite. There is no possibility of me gardening for the forseeable future and there are no Toastmasters clubs within 50kms of home or work. They are all in Paris so that's probably not an option right now. The ladies at work suggested that Cafeolait is not a good place to make friends and develop a network. It's too small and 'narrow' in its interests. I was advised to move to Paris somehow, if my contract gets extended. Cafeolait is lovely in a semi-rural way and I don't want to deal with the hassles of Paris living but they may have a point.I'm just not logistically, financially or emotionally ready to contemplate that yet. And what if I only have 9 months left here? Horrifying thought.
Photos show my studio (with a WIDE-ANGLE lens folks) and some of the things I'm missing