Tuesday, October 28, 2008

de livrais (delivery)

So, France is great. We have been writing about the phenomenal quality and variety of the food available here, the beautiful and infinitely variable scenery, the relaxed pace of life. In order to be fair, and to demonstrate the occasional absurdities of life here--which even natives must deal with--this post will detail our adventures with various parcel delivery services.

Package #1: Fedex from the US (subcontracted with France Express)
On the expected delivery date, the delivery driver calls to ask where our apartment is, and after a brief exchange in hazy French, as we try to figure who is calling Rebecca's cell phone at this hour and why, we realize who the caller is and that he is only slightly lost, nearby in the street somewhere. When we poke our heads out of the door of our building, he is 100 feet away. He was looking in the wrong part of the street.

Package #2: Fedex from the U.S. (subcontracted with France Express)
Despite the fact that we knew the package was coming, and stayed home all morning in anticipation, we aren't home at the time the delivery person came by on a Friday around lunch (which only goes to show that our cognitive map of the complex nuances that determine whether or not a service will be operational during the lunch hour is wretchedly incomplete). They leave a note under the front door to our building, which one of our neighbors places in front of our door. The note seems to contain information concerning the various agencies that have handled the package, and possibly also the current location of the package, but is nevertheless entirely incomprehensible and contains no instructions on how to have it redelivered. (to be cont'd).

Package #3: DHL from Germany
Delivery driver first rings the wrong doorbell, and then calls. Jeff goes downstairs, phone in hand, to retrieve the package. The guy holds out the delivery slip for Jeff to sign. "What, you haven't brought your own pen?" his expression seems to ask. Well, he doesn't have one either. They walk across the street together (Jeff in his pajamas) into a trendy clothing boutique to borrow a pen.

Package #2 (cont'd)
After checking the status on Fedex.com the Monday following the initial delivery attempt, we realize that they may not try and redeliver it without getting a call from us. We call twice, one time we get transferred to a number that doesn't stop ringing, and the second time no one picks up the phone. Well, since Jeff likes to ride his bike, and we want our package, Jeff decides to ride the 10 miles to the delivery warehouse (in Dissay, which also has a really fantastic 'Disneyesque' chateau). Once there, after a few inquiries and intra-building transfers, he finds the right place within the France Express compound. They happily get his package and set it on the counter, at which point he has to explain he can't take it with him (remember: no car! and it weighs 30 lbs!) and would prefer to have it redelivered.

Package #2 (part three)
The next day, Rebecca wakes up a little early (remember, daylight savings time can do that to you). While waiting for the coffee water to boil, she hears the doorbell ring in the apartment below. "My my, a bit early for visitors, isn't it?" she thinks groggily. Ten seconds later, it's our doorbell ringing. Loudly. She trots to the door and buzzes the guy up, and then changes her mind and decides to walk down (in her pajamas); they meet in the middle.

In other news, Jeff got this cool wool sweater (to go with the wool hat) for winterbiking:

and Rebecca voted by absentee ballot (still waiting to get Jefe's ballot). After filling it out, she had to find two witnesses to sign the envelope and give their addresses. She felt a little awkward asking the clerk at La Poste to sign and give her his address, but swallowed what was left of her pride. He consented, which is what counts. We also went to a bar to watch a blues band called Malted Milk. Rebecca might have seen one of her students there, but she wasn't wearing glasses so she isn't sure.

She also finished the first painting (which actually consists of six small paintings...

(Rendering of Parc de Blossac in the center of Poitiers)

Finally, as we sit here drafting this blog, we are trying to avoid the scary France Telecom technicians who have invaded the apartment as they sort out the antiquated wiring and bestow internet upon us.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

La Cocotte...and other recent discoveries

(The town of Sanxay. Photo taken on one Jeff's bike rides, Just to get you into the old timey mood)

A while ago, when we were furniture shopping at Troc Depot , we took a casual pass through the kitchen section, looking for a tea kettle to go with our Bodum french press (which we brought with us from the US--our priorities are evident here). Well, we didn't find a tea kettle because the area was mostly full of old glasses, plates, and flatware. However, one large, enameled pot hiding among some trinkets caught our eye. The enamaling reminded one of a sunset, with red fading into orange. The color was strikingly similar to our own Le Creuset cast iron skillet, currently in storage in Illinois, and we decided it merited closer inspection. Just picking up this heavy beast was enough to tell us it was a promising find. The telltale name "Le Creuset" molded into the bottom told us we had found another key weapon for our kitchen arsenal. A true pot for the ages...and for only 10 euro($13--according to today's exchange rate!).

(Oxtail with chorizo)

Once we had our wonderful cast iron enameled "cocotte" (casserole dish) in hand, we had more freedom at the farmers market. First to go into our fabled dish was the oxtail pictured in the last blog post. Oxtail is so full of cartilage it has to braise for a few hours (in this case in tomato sauce) before the meat will easily come off the bone. A cast iron pot is perfect for this task, it helps evenly distribute the heat in the oven and the tight fitting lid keeps the liquid from boiling away.

Though we'd made a steal of a pot which normally retails at around $150, we did not yet have our fairytale ending (but this, dear reader, has of course been the resounding theme of all our adventures!). So, the first time our pot went in the oven, we realized the handle of the lid wasn't prepared for oven temperatures (when it started to melt and smoke!); and in trying to remove the lid in order to unscrew the now-deformed handle, we discovered another flaw of our used cookware: the lid was slightly stuck to the pot because of years of caked on "fonde" (the brown sticky bi-product of cooking meat) between the rim of the pot and the lid. Apparently, "le fonde"--given enough time--turns into Nature's own adhesive.

Undaunted, the melting handle problem quickly made it onto what we refer to as "The List" --a running list of things we'd like to accomplish (for reference, we put "finding a new handle for the cocotte" above "meeting the remaining requirements for our residence permits"). Accomplishing something on The List is often a multi-stage project requiring at least two people working in tandem, and this was no exception. Replacing the handle with something ovenproof required a hardware store. Hmmmm...where to find a hardware store? First to the internet cafe to look in "Les pages jaunes". Wait...what's the word for "hardware" in French? Okay, more internet. (Okay FINE, now we realize how much we rely on the internet). So we found a hardware store, and now have a fabulous, fully functional, and still very heavy pot.

(Farmer's Market frittata with vegetables and aged goat cheese)

In one other update, we have found the only known source of painfully hot peppers in Poitiers, and possibly all of France. We neglected to mention that we bought some "hot" salsa a few weeks ago that was basically mislabeled, very bland spaghetti sauce. Luckily, we found some peppers at a tiny grocer advertising asian and african specialty foods. The peppers look much like habeñeros, but taste much, much hotter. Like eating a handful of habeñeros while being electrocuted and grabbed at by the Thing Under The Bed.

Rebecca's students have the next week off from school, so she'll have a little breather before classes start up again. The tentative plan is to take a quick trip to Berlin (hands down one of our favorite European cities) for Halloween. Another possibility is going to Paris for the bike film festival. Speaking of bikes, Rebecca has a bike now! It should be ready by Tuesday--so now we'll be able to go on cycle-outings together...she is beyond excitement.

This post is in loving memory of Lee Baughman, who we will remember as a lively and charming soul, who made every day count. She provided Jeff's first experiences with the kind of large-gathering home cooking to which he will always aspire, and she has forever linked the notions of food and family--particularly the delicious pies shared among Jeff's wonderful extended family, who he remembers devouring steaming, homemade rhubarb, apple, cherry, pumpkin, blackberry, and blueberry pies at innumerable gatherings in rural northwestern Illinois. Jeff would also like to add that it was Grandma Baughman who taught him how delicious rhubarb could be.

Monday, October 20, 2008

residence permits, furniture, parks&recreation, and FreeBox Internet (...Huh?)

Big news--we now have our Cartes de Sejour (residence permits)!!! Okay, well, that isn't exactly true, but we have temporary ones that are valid until Christmas (the real ones are pending our mysterious medical evaluations and the translation into French of a few documents).

So, now that our first (of many) prefecture visits is out of the way and we have our temporary residence cards, we have moved onto the next task on our list: getting internet in our apartment. We left off with the promise of the impending connection in our very own apartment. Turns out, things are not quite so simple in France--go figure! One of our major discoveries here has been that it is only reasonable to expect to be able to accomplish roughly two things every day--one thing in the morning, before the French take their two-hour lunch, and one thing after, before the businesses start to close (around 6pm).

There was a time when we thought about resisting the urge to get internet in our apartment to keep from spending too much time online. But, it turns out that Rebecca could do a lot of the work for her class from home on the internet and being able to talk (via Skype) to people at home is also a BIG plus.

So I (Jeff) stroll into the cellphone store on the ground floor of the building adjacent to our apartment and ask the Sales Associate about the poster advertising "FreeBox," a package deal of Internet + Cable TV + Phone for only 30 euros/month (less than we paid for internet alone in the US).

Associate: Do you have a phone number?
Me: No, that's why I'm here.
Associate: You need to go the France Telecom office to find out what your phone number is before I can give you FreeBox.

...I walk down the street to France Telecom and wait in line for a while...

France Telecom: Address?
Me: 35 Rue Gambetta
France Telecom: Which floor?
Me: Second.
FT: I have two numbers listed on that floor. Do you recognize any of the names listed on these accounts? (since there are no apartment numbers or letters, they can't tell what name goes with which apartment)
Me: Uh, no.
FT: Well, you'll have to talk to your landlord and find out where/when/if these people lived in your apartment in the past.
Me: Great.

Long story short, it may take a little bit longer for the internet...

Now for some good news.

We have furniture, and it rocks: a beautiful pine table to eat at, comfy chairs to sit in, a stereo to listen to, and a bed to sleep in, a fabulous blue couch, coffee table--even a TV (which we haven't turned on yet :P). What more could we want? We've filled up some of the floor space, and now we're working on the wall space. Rebecca took a walk to Parc de Blossac (the large park in the center of town) on Sunday to sketch some landscapes (and some surprises) to paint. We also plan to frame a few of the "ride a day" pictures Jeff has taken (the blog is called A Ride A Day, after all).

The Poitiers Farmer's Market takes place on Saturdays in La Place de Charles de Gaulle. Last week, we did a quickie trip, getting only a few things because we didn't yet have electricity in our apartment (no cooking, no refrigeration), so as expected, this time we bought two trips worth, WAY too much stuff. Well, maybe not, since it all fits in the fridge...

(Fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheeses, cured sausages, a case of assorted local wines, ...

....and an entire oxtail to make "Soupe a la Queue de Boeuf")

The weather has been wonderful, with cool, crisp mornings and warm, sunny afternoons. The leaves are starting to change, and Jeff has been taking advantage with a couple of long bike rides exploring the countryside. He has developed a set of pre-ride map-reading capabilities to make the rides more enjoyable--routes with both low traffic and an abundance of scenic distractions, mostly in the form of old churches, chateaus, castles, and abbeys, which are plentiful in the Poitou-Charentes region.

(an 11th century church in Morthemer)

(one tower of the medieval city in the center of Chauvigny, which is one of the most well-preserved in all of Europe)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The view out our balcony

Now that we have officially taken possession of our apartment, we are even busier than before, trying to make it feel like home. The first few days were taxing... with no electricity and no furniture, but we made do...

The furniture, including bed, couch, kitchen table, chairs and much more will be arriving Wednesday evening.

On Sundays everything closes (really...everything; except a handful of restaurants), so I took advantage of the sun and went for a long bike ride in the countryside surrounding Poitiers. There were lots of roads with very little traffic and enough hills to keep me entertained. The fall colors were also starting to show themselves. There are very few road signs per se, most of the signs mark the direction to the nearest town or simply the family farm that lies down the road. Most signs in the rural areas simply signify what might be called a rural neighborhood of one or two farmhouses.

A self portait (if you look hard enough)

The weather was lovely this weekend, and, aside from the extended bike ride, the best thing we got to do was to go to the Saturday market in la Place de Charles de Gaulle. At this enormous outdoor market, we purchased goat cheese, three different kinds of cured sausage, peaches, apples, a fancy "original" German can opener, cereal spoons, wooden spoons, and a delicious hot lunch of curried chicken and sautéed potatoes. Now that we have a functioning refrigerator, we have only begun to imagine the wonderful possibilities of the Saturday outdoor market...we'll be sure to buy way too much stuff for the first few weekends...

The paperwork battle is not quite over; we have yet to apply for our residence permits. Today, we did a lot of photocopying and got a few "tampons" (French for 'stamps') from local offices (and though this may seem irrelevant and/or ambiguous to the uninitiated, the importance of tampons is never to be underestimated when in France...). We also sat in line for Rebecca's bus passes for her commute to the University. Soon to come also, internet access at our apartment, which will afford us the convenience of not having to blog on a French keyboard--theymre qll screzy///)

Rebecca's classes are going well. This week will be her first week with the first year (freshman) students; the plan is to begin with Surrealism (an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland, the famous Magritte painting that Foucault loved so much, and a quote from William Gordon: "Trust things that are alien, and alienate things that are trusted.") How does communication function within the Surrealist framework, when nothing means what it says, or says what it means...? We'll see what they think...more soon.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

La paperasse = (n) paperwork (pejoratif)

In a whirlwind of activity, we believe we have secured a beautiful apartment on a quiet pedestrian street... It was a magnificent team effort with the apartment viewing, deposit depositing, renters insurance purchasing, and electricity turn-on-ing all taking place within a few hours. Luckily, most of the relevant offices are within a few blocks of each other on a street adjacent to our hotel. To gain the courage to take on the rental agency, we stopped in a bistrot for a very french two hour lunch. After dining on scallops with bacon (Rebecca) and veal head stew (Jeff) and a bottle of wine, we were ready for the agency.

At the rental agency, Bruno and the secretary were very helpful and patient with us while we made sure we had all the necessary bank numbers and identity documents. Afterwards, we trotted down the street to the insurance agent. After some dissertation-related small talk between the agent and Rebecca, we got their spiel about everything that would and would not be covered. Then "home" to the hotel to call the electric company to schedule a start date. There were a few false starts with the automated phone system, but we eventually got through to an operator. She seemed to have a good humor about the situation and didn't mind repeating herself frequently.

If I understood everything correctly, and I probably didn't, we will be moving in on Friday, but won't have electricity until Monday. Hopefully, a few extra blankets will be enough to stave off the night cold.

As a prelude to all this copying, signing and stamping, Rebecca taught her first two classes today. She got on the bus at 7 a.m, before sunrise, to teach two consecutive classes of two hours each (no breaks!). The students in the first class were a little bleary-eyed (a word they learned this morning), but the second group demonstrated their "impetus for social change" (their new idiom of the day) by conceding that French hipsters require a kick in the pants just like their American counterparts. The lesson built off of a recent Adbusters article "Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization." 

As her students are the most advanced English-speakers at the school, she wanted to make sure not to underestimate their intelligence, and the result was satisfactory for all.  Even though the article was full of bizarre and nuanced American slang, there was plenty of time for the students to ask for Rebecca's help to gloss (and sometime physically act out) the terms.  Try translating phrases such as: "hunched over," "leaf through,""go for a stroll," and "Pabst Blue Ribbon" without getting fairly creative, and she'd be impressed.  In the end, teaching for two hours per class was a new experience for Rebecca. She doesn't have to teach again until next Wednesday, enough time for her vocal chords to recover and enough time to plan the eight hours(!) of lessons for next week.

Up next: finding used furniture, a co-signer, kitchenware, un clic-clac (a fold out sofa--for visitors!), and all the necessary knick-knacks for a cosy French abode.  

A quick shout out to Teresa of the CWS.  Rebecca says: You've made things so much easier than they could have been!  Thanks Teresa!!

Monday, October 6, 2008

We're Here...

It has taken a few days to beat the jet lag into submission. In between midday naps and sleepless  nights, we have been scoping out the local restaurant scene, looking for an apartment and trying to decode various regulations.

Rebecca will start teaching on Wednesday. While she meets all of her colleagues and signs paperwork so she can get paid, Jefe will be looking at apartments and getting the cellphones operational. Sorting through all the fees and exceptions associated with renting an apartment is pretty daunting. It takes both of us listening to one leasing agent to try and catch even about 50% of what is being said. We are hoping to have an apartment by the end of the week, but we'll see what comes.

The first night here (Saturday) was the final day of a free local arts festival. There was four days of music, theater, and artwork in the streets of the center of Poitiers. We were pretty sapped from the three planes and the train, so we mostly listened to the music wafting in our hotel window.

The view out of our hotel window onto the Place de l'Hotel de Ville with a music tent and temporary beer tent, which they didn't finish taking down until two days later...

We would like to thank everyone who helped us along the way and made it possible for us to move here, especially:

Carla & Griff for the lodging and patience, Luke for that phone call, William Savage for the Baltimore crab dinner, Mr. Jim & Sherri for their encouragement, Josh for even reading our blog, Kristi for the empathy, Kyle Wehman for the...beach, Eric Day and Stacy for the guest room, Paul Prior for the "sabbatical", and the ESIP for claiming that Rebecca's paychecks should nonetheless start on the first of September.