Ten Years

Ten years ago today I hugged my parents goodbye, got on a plane, and left for France.

What was supposed to be a seven-month once-in-a-lifetime experience turned into a life.

When I think about that trip over it’s really pretty astonishing I stayed, since I was actually really sad and nervous to go. Weather was bad in Texas that day, but I had been spending the month at my mom’s condo in San Antonio and had gotten very comfortable there—not to mention there were poodle puppies. My flights got rerouted twice and I eventually was on a tight connection through Chicago and London, arriving four hours later than I was supposed to in Paris. Here’s that story told in a jet-lagged state from the lycée computer room.

I magically still managed to meet up in the Gare de l’Est with Zandra, who was identifiable only by her sparkling smile and the orange ribbon on her suitcase. I called my responsable at the school from a pay phone with an international calling card to warn her I was on a later train. She picked me up at the little train station in Bar le Duc, took me to her house to send an e-mail home, and then dropped me off at the internat to sleep. I woke up in the night and cried, wondering what craziness had taken over me to go so far away from home to sleep in such a cold, hospital-like bedroom.

It is not one of my best memories. Somehow in the following weeks things turned around and I fell in love with this country and this language. Sometimes I take a step back from the day to day and marvel at how I somehow live a normal life in France after all this time.

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Why would you move to France when you could live with these faces?

 

Ten years means:

  1. Boris and Otto are no longer puppies but progressing practically into thoroughbred old age.
  2. Ten years since my mom dropped everything and changed careers (sort of), moved to a new city, and introduced us to San Antonio.
  3. Three different French cities
  4. Four different French teaching jobs
  5. Six different French housing situations
  6. Extensive travel both near and far on my own and with new friends, family, and a partner
  7. Eight cartes de séjour (in 2006 the year-long visa and the OFII didn’t exist yet) and a new nationality
  8. Four absentee ballots (not counting the 2016 primaries)
  9. A huge stack of bulletins de salaire that I’ll keep till I die—and a ton of other files in hard copy
  10. Numerous expat friends who’ve come and gone, or stayed when I’ve gotten lucky

And of course a thousand other things, but ten seems like a nice, round number, doesn’t it?

Pregnancy Misc, French Admin Version

The heat finally broke this week. Hurray! I’m now feeling pretty confident I’ll be able to keep working till October 8th so I called my doc Monday for an extension to push back my leave.

There are a couple of maternity leave related things people have told me over the past few weeks in conversation that appear to not be true:

  1. the congé parental pays well*
  2. you can get extra maternity leave for breast-feeding

It’s nice the dreams people feel like selling you on when they aren’t up to date on any current info. But I’ve been doing so much reading about this stuff over the past few months that as soon as they said these things I was pretty sure they weren’t true. Like the things people say to expats, be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true!

(*Congé parental or parental leave is something you can take after your maternity leave, or the dad can take it, but you aren’t paid a salary, just an “indemnity” of a few hundred euros a month. Needless to say that is NOT enough for us to live on.)

It’s been interesting realizing how fast pregnancy and leave laws change in France. Even as recently as two years ago, parents got a “prime de naissance” from the governement during the 7th month of pregnancy (or before an adoption) to help defray the costs of preparing for the baby’s arrival. Guess when it arrives now? Two months AFTER the birth. So… who exactly does that help? Only people who have the money in the first place. (Though I certainly won’t be complaining when it finally arrives.)

Then there are the people who ask questions that I have trouble making sense of. Like J’s mom, who as recently as last weekend asked me if I’d looked into the allocations. Umm, yes? I did that about seven months ago and there was no real reason to because for your first child you get a grand total of 2€50 per month. Woohoo.

At the beginning of the pregnancy I felt like I was totally uninformed about paperwork and health-related things, and as time has gone on I’ve realized that I (and probably all other pregnant women) am actually way more informed than all the non-pregnant people I talk to. Which, I guess… duh.

What IS interesting to talk to people about is the more human side of things, like other women’s experiences with pregnancy (no labor stories kthx), or things they remember from when their babies were very little. But the admin stuff is just sort of a waste of time, unless they had a baby in the past year or are actually a midwife or doctor.

The Past Week

This past week J was in Angers for work, but we spent yesterday in Paris at the World Rock-Climbing Championships at the arena in Bercy. J got free tickets since he is a regional elected official in the escalade world, but we only accepted them for yesterday since I wasn’t sure what physical shape I would be in. We were right to, it turns out, because those seats gave me some serious back pain by the end of the day.

But it was a pretty great show. Sunday we saw the women’s bouldering final, the handi-escalade amputee (leg) category final, the women’s speed climbing final, and the men’s lead (=wall) climbing final.

The most physically spectacular was of course the amputee category. Showing different handi-escalade finals in the middle of the other finals (it was all in the same arena) was an important improvement from four years ago when the handi-escalade competition wasn’t even open to public viewing!

There are a few pictures on the Equipe website here. Rock-climbing has been officially selected for the Tokyo olympics in 2020 for the first time, and everyone is buzzing with talk about the effect that will have on the sport, not the least because the olympic committee decided to have one “combined” category rather than have bouldering, speed, and lead climbing. Speed climbing is a very new discipline and hardly anyone who does bouldering or lead climbing practices it seriously. So in the next few years everyone who wants to compete at the olympics will have to start speed climbing. (IMO Speed climbing is cool the first time you watch—they go SO fast—but gets boring fast. And you can’t start out rock-climbing by doing speed climbing since the route is actually pretty difficult just to get up.)

We took advantage of the trip to go to the newly opened Five Guys in Bercy Village. The walk there allowed us to discover the very pretty park at Bercy. As a former Five Guys employee there were a lot of things that I saw going wrong in the restaurant but I still got my perfected burger out of it (little bacon cheeseburger: hot sauce, pickle relish, ketch-up, grilled onions, lettuce). The hot dog and milkshake will have to be for next time.

Nothing else really going on, except that I’m blowing through The Americans.

The Past Week

Well the rentrée is now fully under way. Things are going well except for this ridiculous heat that just won’t stop. Hopefully Tuesday will actually be the last day because French schools do not have AC and I am carrying around a personal space heater all day from which I cannot detach myself (at least for another 9 weeks). It sucks.

Otherwise work is fine and I should be able to push back my maternity leave a little though of course I have to play it day by day. I have a date for a baby shower and I started parenting/labor classes yesterday so things are getting sort of real (I mean, sort of—it’s still almost two months off theoretically).

Not a whole lot else is going on. My mom made and sent us this beautiful baby blanket, which gave me an excuse to take a picture of the crib.

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Summer Over

Tomorrow is the rentrée. These past weeks, this entire summer really, has just zipped by as they seem to always do now. I remember my first summers as a teacher felt luxuriously long—I don’t know what happened to that feeling. I really don’t mind going back to work tomorrow and meeting the students, though maybe part of that is that it all feels sort of like background noise for the impending gigantic change in our lives that should arrive around November 5th.

Speaking of changes in our lives, J and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary in the Dubai airport during the night of July 18th in the company of his witness. We didn’t actually do anything to celebrate, and even the pieces of cake that J’s dad froze last year have been lost because they had a freezer problem (really, we should have frozen it ourselves).

In the name of celebrating the anniversary we told ourselves that this canvas was our wedding anniversary gift to each other:

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We bought it at the open air art market in Knysna and we actually had a frame to put it in so that it got up on the wall pretty quickly.

I don’t know when I’ll be on maternity leave, though officially the date is September 23rd for now. The coming weeks, and my doctor, will determine whether that gets pushed forward or back.

Table Mountain and Its Cableway

What’s a trip to Cape Town without going to the top of Table Mountain? Obviously I wanted to do this from the get-go but it’s apparently also one of the around 15 things you just HAVE TO DO in Cape Town, which I found to be unnecessary pressure for people who only had five days there…

…because taking the cableway up was NOT that simple. First of all, Table Mountain is often under cloud cover, or what locals call its “table cloth,” meaning you can go up, but 1) you won’t see anything of the view 2) you may fall off because you won’t see the edge either. Also, when it’s windy, the cableway closes. Even if you’re already up there, and almost 6 months pregnant, and in no shape to hike down.

We discovered further obstacles when we stopped by after visiting the botanical gardens on Sunday afternoon: for a full week or so before we arrived (including that Sunday), the cableway had been closed for maintenance. It re-opened Monday August 8th. August 9th was a national holiday (National Women’s Day) and South Africans, like the French, do the “pont.” So, needless to say, when we stopped by around 3 pm on Monday (because all the guidebooks say there’s less of a line in the afternoon), it was swamped. Not only would we have waited two hours to get the car up, but we would also have waited two hours to come back down, and the final car down was at 6 pm (so… logistically impossible). We gave up and planned to go up on Wednesday morning before our evening flight home.

So, here’s how we eventually managed to go up the cableway with beautiful weather on our final morning in Cape Town.

  1. We lucked out and had beautiful weather. I had brought my coat because it can apparently be much colder up top than down below, but I didn’t need it.
  2. We bought our tickets online the night before to avoid the hour-long ticket line. We obviously couldn’t print them but I could download them onto my iPhone.
  3. We arrived at 8 am. The cableway opens at 8:30. We were on the first car up. People who arrived at 8:30 had an hour’s wait.
  4. We came back down at noon, when there was no line for the ride down.

Table Mountain was really beautiful and a great way to spend our last day in South Africa but given the number of potential obstacles I would say not to stress if you can’t make it during your trip. Of course if you’re in good physical shape and not afraid of a little light climbing, you can hike up for free in about 3 hours, which is what our friends did the day before. But if it’s cloudy you can still fall off.

So, here are some pictures.

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Ju on the car on the way up

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The view of Cape Town and Robben Island from the top

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The plateau

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Ju and Lion’s Head

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Signal Hill

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Finally managed to get a decent selfie

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Dassies near the cafe

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View on the way down

The cable cars are pretty fancy, with both closed and open windows and a revolving floor. I was a little too afraid of heights to deal with the open windows so sat on the little bench in the middle of the car that didn’t turn. The car was much emptier on the way down (very few people leave at noon apparently) and J managed to get that last shot.

There is a restaurant that opens at 10:30 where we had second breakfast (after getting up at 6:30). There’s also a shop and a mail box where we sent off our post cards. There’s an open picnic-type area between the two and the dassies hang out nearby taking advantage of dropped crumbs. Otherwise there are a number of different hikes you can do on the plateau. We didn’t really do any of them but wandered around the shortest one, because I didn’t want us to get lost and waste time—we did have a flight out that evening, and also, my legs were pretty tired.

 

Visiting Robben Island

It was absolutely imperative for me to visit Robben Island on our trip to Cape Town. There were other cultural and historical excursions that we didn’t do: a tour of a township, the District Six Museum, etc. But I wouldn’t have felt I had really visited South Africa without at least seeing this prison.

It’s the only activity we reserved before leaving France, because the tours fill up a few days ahead of time. But tickets are really easy to buy online and then print out or keep on your smartphone.

The trip starts with a ferry ride out of the V&A Waterfront after passing through security detectors. The ride itself is nice and allows a sea view of Cape Town and its ridiculous gigantic mountain in the middle of the city.

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Table Mountain and Cape Town from the bay

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The stadium (built for the World Cup in 2010) from the bay

Besides the ferry ride, the tour includes a tour of the prison with a former prisoner and a bus tour of the island with a professional guide.

Our prison guide was a man who was arrested in the student movement of the late 70s after having left the country to get military training in Angola and other places (which in itself was illegal). He was 24 when he was arrested and sent to Robben Island after a period of detention before trial during which, like all the other prisoners, he was tortured and unsure whether he’d make it to trial alive.

He showed us a group cell for forty men, explaining the different rules for the different “races”, an effort by the prison to divide the prisoners.

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Group cell for forty men (obviously there were no longer forty beds in here)

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An example of an ID card with the prisoner’s number

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The different meals according to the prisoner’s race

We then moved on to the individual cells which we saw from the outside before passing in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell from the inside.

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The yard outside the individual cells

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Nelson Mandela’s cell (pre-bed)

I learned a lot from this part of the tour about the functioning of the prison, including the different meals and uniforms according to race, the absence of beds until 1969, the limitations on visitors and the censoring of letters (all letters and visits had to be in Afrikaans or English).

The guide was actually quite difficult to understand and I had to concentrate to catch as much as possible, and then try to quickly interpret for J. There were a lot of foreign visitors on this tour and I think a lot of them probably didn’t understand much. To be honest the group felt too big for such a heavily historical place with a guide who wasn’t professional but rather someone directly concerned by what he was telling us. It felt like some of the other tourists were more in a “consumerist” tourist mode and some of the respect for the place was lost. But at the end a lot of people thanked this guide personally so I think it was a visit that counted for a lot of people too. There’s so much demand that I don’t know if they could make the groups smaller, but I felt it would have been more appropriate.

As for the bus tour around the island, we learned a bit more about the prison and the stories of the island, which served as a prison as early as the 1600s and also as a leper colony. We got a good review of how the Pass Laws worked and some of the other important prisoners on the island. We also saw some turtles.

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On the walkway from the boat to the prison

I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has visited any comparable historical sites. This part of South Africa’s history is so, so recent and had so much impact on its current culture that as a tourist “attraction” Robben Island feels exceptional to me.