Sunday, July 23, 2017

My favorite season in France

I'll give you a hint... it comes not only once, but twice a year! And it's called les soldes! 

Les soldes Galeries Lafayette à Nice

'Soldes' is French for 'sales.' Twice a year, the whole country of France is on sale. That's barely even an exaggeration. The French government fixes dates for nationwide sales in winter and summer (each lasting 5 weeks). Things start out at about 30-50% off, and the prices gradually get better and better!

It's no secret that I love shopping and fashion in France, so this is a very enjoyable time of the year for me. It seems pretty bizarre that the government chooses when stores put things on sale- but it might just be the most fun consequence of socialism there ever was. 

I'm not familiar with the in-depth laws, but stores are allowed to have sales at other times during the year. However, I believe they are restricted and regulated.

A few weeks ago we drove by what looked like a BRAND new, 21st century American mall near Nice. On a cloudy Saturday (not optimal beach weather), I convinced David to go take advantage of prices I could actually afford.

Polygone Riviera is an open-air mall built in 2015. Do you know how rare it is to go somewhere built in 2015 in Europe? They tend to build things to last a long time over here.

I love me some medieval buildings, but it also made me so happy to be somewhere that felt so shiny and New World. Can you say air-conditioning?

Polygone Riviera

David went to go hang out at FNAC (basically the French equivalent of Barnes n' Noble). He managed to keep himself entertained browsing the music and books long enough for me to hit up 3 stores. Not too shabby, especially considering that one of those stores was Zara, where I always take my sweet time.

Since it was Saturday, during the soldes, AND during peak tourist season in this area, most stores were a complete zoo. I almost got Black Friday vibes.

The next week I took the train to Nice to stop by one more of my favorite stores. Despite the 90 degrees humid weather, I still enjoyed my walk through Vieux Nice- hadn't made it there since February!

Bell tower in Vieux Nice

Colorful buildings in Vieux Nice

French flag on the streets of Vieux Nice

They were busy setting up a patriotic stage in Place Masséna for the French president Macron to use 2 days later on July 14th (the French national holiday, in case you weren't aware). After hanging out with Trump on the Champs-Elysées, Macron came to Nice for a ceremony honoring the victims of the awful attack there last year. 

I suppose this post wouldn't be complete without showing off a few of my purchases. I wasn't able to track down pics online or take them myself of everything, but here's a taste :)

Everything in these pictures combined (shirt, 2 necklaces, skirt, 2 pairs of shoes) cost under 40 euros.

All I have left to say is Vive la France!

Mairie de Cannes 14 Juillet
The Cannes town hall decked out for July 14th

Monday, July 10, 2017

Not an illegal alien.

Last week was my first trip to France's second biggest city... Marseille! 

A lot of French people stereotype Marseille as being dirty and full of crime. David has certainly never had an interest in going there. I, however, have been interested in checking it out for a while so I could form my own opinion.

I FINALLY (after 9 months of living in France) received a letter scheduling my immigration appointment to validate my long-stay visa. We debated if it was even worth it at this point, but ultimately decided that I should in order to be completely legal, have health insurance, and be allowed to work (just in case).

Early Thursday morning, I took a 2 hour train ride to Marseille. I only had limited time to sightsee, so I took a taxi directly to the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde from the train station. 

Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille

This church sits on a hill overlooking the city. I was pretty pleased that I took a taxi since it was 90 degrees and humid, and that hill was steep.

View of the Vieux Port in Marseille

I knew the views would be amazing, but the inside of the church was a pleasant surprise!

Interior of Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica in Marseille

Ceiling of Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica in Marseille

My favorite part of the view was being able to see the Château d'If, of Count of Monte Cristo fame.

View of Chateau d'If in Marseille

I decided to walk down the hill and hope that just by going downhill and following other tourists, I would end up at the Vieux Port. My plan worked, with one small hiccup. The walk down was mostly just a sloped sidewalk, but there were also random stairs at uneven intervals. Of course I had to miss one, fall flat on my face, and skin my knee like a toddler. 

The Vieux Port is the center of Marseille and was a nice place to walk around for a while. I saw a few places I wouldn't mind coming back to someday and exploring more.

Vieux Port of Marseille

Ferris wheel in Vieux Port of Marseille

After a light lunch (okay, it wasn't actually a lunch... it was a nutella crepe, let's be honest), I hopped on the metro to get to the immigration office. Sightseeing time was over.

I've gone through the French immigration process once before during my teaching internship, so I knew to get there early. They give you an appointment time, but they give the same appointment time to 30 other people. I got there at 1:00 for my 1:30 appointment. Since it's France, they completely close the building down for a nice leisurely lunch.

I was the first one in line outside. I talked to some Canadians who were shocked that I wasn't one of them based on my accent. Those beautiful nasal vowels. #stillgotit

By the time they let us in at 1:30, I was surrounded by a crowd of people from all over the world who were in the same boat as me. The process was a bit different from a few years ago because this time I'm the spouse of a French citizen, and have the right to renew this visa indefinitely. 

So with a group of about 20 people who also have the right to stay in France on a more permanent basis, we started off the afternoon with a written French test. Basically, if you don't have at least a basic level of French, you're required to take (free) French classes.

It was fun to hear where everyone else was from. There was several people from Morocco and Algeria, a couple from Armenia, a handful of people from China, and others. An older lady from Kazakhstan struck up a conversation with me and kept me entertained while we were waiting. She was confused at how long the French process took because apparently in Kazakhstan... anyone and just cross the border and move right in!

The written test was very simple and I got 100%. The next step was an oral interview to make sure we could speak French, and also to give us information about settling in. I was surprised at how nice my interviewer was (not usually a trait of immigration/government officials). She was so complimentary about my French and even said she wished I lived in Marseille so she could hire me to teach her kids English. She gave me tips on finding a job, getting a French driver's license (which I won't be doing- I've seen how they drive here), and explained how to sign up for social security.

After a long wait, the medical checkup began. First up was a lung x-ray to check for tuberculosis. Has anyone ever met someone in the western world that contracted tuberculosis in the 21st century?? Last year for both of my jobs in the U.S. I also had to be tested for this. I find it pretty amusing that I've been tested for TB three times in the last year when I've never heard of any friend of friend of friend ever catching this, but what do I know.

The next steps were meeting with a doctor and then a nurse. They did basic things like checking my blood pressure, blood sugar, and vaccination records. I was very happy to finally get the official stamp in my passport and get out of there. The whole process took 4 hours. Most of that was waiting time and not actually doing anything.

As far as Marseille goes, I found all the stereotypes I've heard about it to be untrue. Everything I saw seemed clean and safe for such a big city. So don't be afraid to visit! I would happily go back.

It feels good to not be an illegal alien any longer... even though we'll likely only be staying in France for another 3-4 months. Better late than never!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Small Town Provence

After a crazy month of traveling in May (Paris, Carcassonne, Geneva, Monaco, Florence, Venice)... we took a little breather in June. It was the first entire month (since I moved to France in October) that we didn't sightsee anywhere. No flights or even road trips. We had a lazy month hanging out at home and enjoying the beach.

I mean, it's not a bad life. This is our "go-to" beach- it's about a 10 minute walk from our apartment. We've been enjoying that every weekend. It's starting to show- I noticed the other day that my legs were very distinctly a different color from our white sheets.

View of downtown Cannes

Beach in Cannes la Bocca

We did make it to Gap twice in June- once to celebrate (belated) Mother's Day/our birthdays, and again for Father's Day/David's mom's birthday. We've gotten pretty used to the scenery between Cannes and Gap, since we generally make it there at least once a month. 

There are several cute towns along the way (we are driving through Provence, one of the most famously picturesque regions of France). Now that it stays light out so much later, we've tried to start stopping and seeing more.

We walked around Rians in the beginning of June. Population: 4,289. I've admired their church from the road for months. 

Unfortunately, as is often the case in small towns, the church was closed when we got there. So we didn't get to see the inside. But it was still nice to see the outside, along with lots of colorful houses and quaint little streets.

Church in Rians

Houses in Rians, Provence

A few weeks later we took a different route to Gap that took us more through the mountains (by way of lots of scary cliff roads haha).

We made a quick stop in Castellane. Population: 1,579. 

Castellane town sign


I loved the combination of the pastel houses and the mountain surroundings. Notice the church way up on top of the mountain!

On the first day of July, we finally broke our no-sightseeing spell. As in, we drove somewhere specifically to sightsee (vs. just stopping somewhere along the way). 

Saint-Paul-de-Vence (population: 3,477) is one of the oldest medieval towns on the Riviera. Besides the cute stone buildings and views of the surrounding hills, it is known for being an artist hangout. I lost count of how many art galleries we saw. If I had been there alone, I probably would have spent a while browsing in the little jewelry and clothing boutiques. But since David was already not as enchanted as I was with the adorableness of the town (jaded European...), I was nice and didn't indulge.

View of Saint-Paul-de-Vence
View as we were driving up to the city.
Entering through the medieval walls.
St. Paul de Vence

Church in St. Paul de Vence
Inside a 12th century church. 
Church in St. Paul de Vence

Flowers and stone buildings in St. Paul de Vence

I love the purple flowers!
Well in St. Paul de Vence

Cemetery in St. Paul de Vence, France.
A cemetery with a view.
St. Paul de Vence

St. Paul de Vence

St. Paul de Vence

For you Wisconsin people, this town gives me Cedarburg vibes because of all the little shops! That's my favorite town to visit in Wisconsin, by the way.

We also found some authentic Italian food for lunch. I'm spoiled living so close to Italy. Going back to American pizza next year will be a struggle. First world problem right there.

So that's a little bit of what we've been up to in the last month or so! Do I have you convinced yet that France is a beautiful place? I don't think I quite have David convinced ;)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

New favorite city??

I'm kind of glad that I'm behind on writing about Venice... because it means I get to relive it!

Venice is made up of about 100 islands connected by about 400 bridges. There are canals instead of roads, and boats instead of cars.

This is a canal near our AirBnb. 

Small canal in Venice

Oh yeah... and everything there is beautiful, colorful, and unlike any city I've ever seen!

First of all, let's talk about St. Mark's Square. That's where we started out our day. It's surrounded on three sides by these arched buildings. Most of the buildings hold luxury shops and restaurants. St. Mark's Basilica is on the fourth side. 

St. Mark's Square in Venice

St. Mark's Square in Venice

St. Mark's Basilica in Venice
St. Mark's Square in Venice
I'm so happy that there weren't many pigeons :)
St. Mark's Square in Venice
View from above

I'm thankful I have a smart sister, because she thought to pre-buy our tickets to the basilica. That meant we got to skip the hundreds of people in line and go right on in. I wasn't expecting what was inside...

Mosaics in St. Mark's Basilica

Mosaics in St. Mark's Basilica

Mosaics in St. Mark's Basilica

Gold mosaics cover the whole huge interior. I had so many flashbacks to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul! They are both in the Byzantine style. I overheard a tour guide say that it took 8 centuries to finish these mosaics.

After the basilica, we went off in search of a gondola ride. We wanted to make sure our boat went through the tiny little canals and not the open water, so we set off into the maze of central Venice. It was a great place to wander.

Canal in Venice

Marissa Houdek Rubino in Venice

Venice canal

Leaning church and bridge in Venice

Eventually we found a gondola and all 6 of us climbed in. It was pretty surreal to actually be in a gondola in Venice!! 

Brothers-in-law on gondola ride in Venice

Gondola ride in Venice

I guess it makes sense because it's a small boat... but it was a little surprising how unsteady it felt at times! We weren't expecting to feel like we might fall out. It was still fun though, in case you were wondering.

From Jenna's last trip to Venice, she remembered a delicious take-out pasta place (Dal Moro's). It must have great reviews online, because it was packed with tourists. 

The funniest thing was the salty owner of a sit-down restaurant down the street. As hordes of tourists passed his restaurant to get take-out, he yelled things like "You'll regret it! You should eat with dignity!!" (accompanied by Italian hand gestures, of course). 

It turned out to be worth it. It was very fresh and served in cute Chinese takeout boxes. We took it back to the apartment and ate with "dignity" there. 

We kept right on going after lunch. Well, after a short nap for the rest of the family while me and David went to go buy more milk. Read the story of the milk here. It was a big part of the trip, believe it or not.

Our next activity was riding to the top of the bell tower next to St. Mark's. Once again, it was super satisfying to skip the line (grazie, Jenna!). I'm not a big fan of heights, but I didn't feel too much like I was going to die thanks to the top being all enclosed.

Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Campanile

There were some stunning views. We thought it was strange that you couldn't see the canals from up high- it almost looks like a normal city from above. Well, a normal European city with cathedrals and old buildings.

View of Venice from bell tower

View of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice from bell tower

View of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice from bell tower

View of Venice from bell tower

View of Venice from bell tower

The Doge's Palace is right next door. This was where the doge, (the ruler of Venice) used to live back when Venice was independent. Of course, it looked like this...

Exterior of Doge's Palace in Venice

Courtyard of Doge's Palace in Venice

Doge's Palace in Venice ceiling

Doge's Palace in Venice ceiling

Doge's Palace in Venice

This mural by Tintoretto was one of my favorite parts. 

Doge's Palace in Venice- Tintoretto painting

As part of the palace tour, you can walk on the famous Bridge of Sighs.

Bridge of Sighs in Venice

View from the bridge
I don't think I've mentioned it before, but this marathon day in Venice was important for another reason as well.... it was David's 25th birthday! We sacrificed having an Italian meal to let David have an American burger at the Hard Rock Café.

We decided to do some shopping and window shopping after dinner. Venice has some unique shopping. Instead of typical souvenirs, you can buy glass and masks! It sounds pretty random when you put it like that haha. Glassmaking has been an industry in this area for centuries. The mask thing comes from the traditional costume in Venice for Carnival (Mardi Gras). 

There are glass sculptures, figurines, vases, chandeliers, and jewelry. I got some sparkly earrings. My parents got a glass version of Buttercup and Jenna found a panda. These people get me. 

Shopping in a Venetian glass shop

The last event of the evening was a Vivaldi concert. David, mom, and Cabren opted to go and me, Jenna, and dad opted to sit it out. I'm still a little scarred from the 3 hour Bach concert in London a few months ago. I'm not ready to risk another concert quite yet ;)

Before heading out the next morning, David and I were the only ones with enough energy to run out and track down the famous Rialto Bridge. I think it was worth it!

Rialto Bridge in Venice

On the drive back to France we stopped for lunch in Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame. Of course, we had to stop to see the Juliet balcony. It was kind of a tourist trap. It was a challenge to take the obligatory picture without someone coming onto the balcony for their own photo op. 

I'm too cynical to believe that real Capulets actually lived here, but that's the claim. 

We didn't go inside, but Verona has a nice Roman arena.

Roman arena in Verona

Here's my last shot of Italy. Arrivederci for now.

After a few more hours of driving, we had one last family dinner in France. What a trip!! Switzerland, Cannes, Monaco, Florence, and Venice! Venice was my favorite part- it totally blew me away.

It will be hard to ever top this family vacation. Thanks for coming, family! It was an amazing week.