Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The chocolate-almond croissant challenge lives!

It's baaaaaack! I hadn't had a chocolate-almond croissant in forever! I got away from my rabid new Frenchie bad-pastry-a-day habit and started eating more normal things like regular croissants (which are of course not healthy, but are certainly better than what I had been getting) and only doing so relatively rarely. But on a recent Saturday, I was shopping, saw a bakery, and suddenly remembered those delightful pastries I was hunting! It was a bakery I hadn't been to before and I had to see if they had my croissants. They did! I didn't take a picture of it, since it was in the bag with something else that got all over it and made it look odd (yes, I did jump back into the super-sweet pastry world by getting two things at once, don't judge me).

This croissant was goooood. It may have the advantage of being the first in a while, but it was really excellent. It had none of the sogginess that tends to plague these croissants, but it wasn't crispy either, so it sat in just the right zone for the dough texture for me. And the chocolate-almond filing was well done--there were two stripes of chocolate near the edges with an almond stripe in the middle, so you could create differently flavored bites easily. I was sold. But, since you're going to demand it, I'll re-up my  challenge effort and find others to compare this one to, ok? Wouldn't want it having an unfair advantage!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

WTF French Bureaucracy

This post is rather epic. I will start by saying that French bureaucracy is at least as bad as the stereotypes! There are so many small episodes it's kind of hard to pick good examples, but I think I will recount for you the tale of renewing my residence permit. It covers a lot of bases!

We'll go ahead and start when I already have the thing that let me legally reside in France last semester. I'm calling it a thing because there is not agreement on what it is. It was presented to me as a residence permit, but when I went to renew it, I was told that I was actually making my first application for a residence permit since my old thing was a vignette, which google translate helpfully tells me means either "vignette" (whoa there google, don't hurt yourself), "thumbnail" (um, no), or "sticker." Not the normal word for sticker, but it is actually a sticker in my passport, so ok. I didn't have a residence permit, I had a sticker. Oooh, stickers... it even has a shiny part.

SO. When given our stickers, we were told to apply for renewal at least two months before the sticker expired. When it came time to renew, we searched for lists of required documents for the renewal application online (we of course hadn't been given any such information), and find two very different lists both "for renewal of student residence permits." Hrm. Well anyway. I got back to France a few days before the two months and set about collecting the required documents on both lists. I did, however, get back to France in August. This was not smart. France absolutely shuts down in August. Like, most stores and restaurants close for the month type of shuts down. This of course meant the university was rather unresponsive to my requests for documents. Long story short, I eventually got a completed application together. Or so I thought.

When I went to my appointment to deposit my application, they asked for documents on both of the lists, but they also wanted stamps. And self-addressed stamped envelopes. And a medical certificate. The post office near the prefecture (house o' government) helped with the stamps, but the medical certificate was at home. I had forgotten about it (I got it when I got the sticker), but even if I hadn't forgotten it, I would have assumed that since it did not appear on either of my two lists I probably did not need it... assuming is a very bad idea in this game. Anyway, not a big deal, the international student office opened in a few days and I could drop off the last few things to complete the application. WHOA. That was relieving.

Until it got to a week before my sticker expired and I hadn't heard anything, despite being assured that "two months is plenty of time and why [was I] renewing so early anyway?" (Perhaps because I was told to. Just maybe.) I was no longer relieved.  I headed go the international student office to see what was up with another girl who applied the same day and whose sticker expired when mine did. We sat, we waited, they called the prefecture, we waited for the prefecture to call back, you get it. Time rolled on. Finally they got back to us. Turns out my application was fine, all processed and approved, they were just waiting for something to be sent from the main office in Paris. Which should take 3 weeks to a month to arrive. I said "Ok, but my sticker expires next week, what should I do?" The answer? "Don't leave France I guess." Um, really? Now, when we first went to the prefecture, one friend had gotten a receipt proving that she had applied for the visa, but they only gave her one, and it was because she had less than two months until her sticker expired. But because my application was processed and approved, I could not get the receipt, which leaves me with no proof of my legal presence in the country while I hope nothing goes wrong or I don't need to go anywhere for a month. Awesome. For my friend, who did the application at the same time, the whole process was several weeks behind, so while she won't get the residence permit for a while, she could at least get the receipt saying she had applied for the renewal.

Nearly three weeks to the day after my sticker expires, I get a self-addressed stamped card inside a self-addressed stamped envelope from the prefecture. (Glad those stamps were put to good use.) My residence permit is ready! All I have to do is bring my passport, sticker, and "30 euros-timbre OMI" and "19 euros- timbre fiscal" to the prefecture any afternoon between 1:15 and 3pm (timbre=stamp). Another friend gets her notice the same day, so the next day, off we go! We get to the prefecture at about 1:35. And take our numbers. They are 130 and 131. And yes, they started at one. The ticket helpfully tells us that there are 116 people in front of us when we pulled the tickets. They are on number 15... We figure we have a while, so we head off for a while, but are back before 3pm. They are on number 60. Joy. We weren't sure if they would stop calling numbers at 3pm, but happily they did not. They kept going (very unexpected pleasant surprise).

Finally, at 4:45 they call my number. I practically skip to the window I'm so happy to be done, and I slide my ticket, passport, and card through the window. I pull 49 euros out of wallet and immediately get "oh no no! That will not do! You must buy the stamps before you get here!" Um, WHAT? "We do not sell those here now! You can either get them here, in the morning, or you can buy them from a tabac." A tabac is basically a street convenience store--it sells tobacco, magazines, newspapers, lottery tickets, candy and the like. I thought I had misheard, so I asked to be sure--"A tabac?" "Yes, any tabac sells these stamps. Go buy the stamps and come back tomorrow! Have a nice afternoon."  ARG! Nowhere was it written, and never was it mentioned, that you can't buy the stamps when you pick up the residence permit! How am I supposed to guess that I can either buy the stamps in the morning at the place where I can only pick up my visa in the afternoon or that I can go grab a newspaper, a candybar, and 50 euros in official government documents in the same transaction just around the corner??  What utter ridiculousness. So friend and I head to the nearest tabac. Sure enough, the guy ahead of us wants cigarettes and a paper. The guy behind us wants a lottery ticket. And we drop 49 euros each on what are, actually, stamps. Really expensive ones.

We both spend the next period of time in some foggy area between laughing at the idiocy and admitting we're not surprised that something stupid like that happened, and being so very angry. There is, of course, nothing to be done but to go back the next day.

Which we do. We're good little girls and get there just before 1:15. And we walk into a disaster zone. There is an enormous herd of people gathered around the machine that gives the numbers. Le sigh. When the machine finally starts working at 1:40 (wtf: even the machines are late/don't want to work) the inevitable mass crush breaks out and lasts until a security guard comes over and starts issuing the tickets himself. What a mess. So on day two we're 60 and 61. Better! It only takes until 3pm to be called, but the time passed slowly due to the dueling screaming infants and the dreading that we were about to be told we'd done something else wrong and would have the pleasure of coming back tomorrow. Again. But they finally called my friend's number! She went up to the window, and the person at the other window finished, so I thought I was up--and then they skipped my number. WHAT? The machines can't count? I feel reasonably confident that it's automated, so for example when 60 has been called it's pretty likely that 61 will be next, right? The lady at one window doesn't yell at the other to ask which number she is serving and inputs the next number in the big screen telling me which window to go to, right? It's automatic? Ok, thought so. Then further evidence of French machinery being very French. So when my friend is done, I run up to the window, even though they called another number (after mine). The lady tried to tell me she hadn't called my number and I was about to... um, probably get myself kicked out of the prefecture/country/... but she she either recognized the look in my eyes or decided that 61 did probably come before 63 and she could go ahead and take care of me, even though the machine told her not to. She stuck the stamps all over each other on some piece of paper and handed me my residence permit. With my first name spelled wrong in two ways. Apparently if your name exists in French but is not spelled the French way, they save you from your parents and their barbaric language and Frenchify it for you. Le sigh. CLOSE ENOUGH! So I am no longer illegally in France. And I don't have to worry about not being able to get back in after I go to Monaco for my birthday!

Excuse another epic post. There were a lot of parts to this saga! I've left a lot out, but I think I captured the general frustration. Or maybe I don't want to revisit the any more details :)  But there is, for your pleasure, a taste of French bureaucracy. I hope for your sake that's the strongest taste you ever get!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

WTF French Toilets

So. Toilets. These are sorely under-appreciated participants in our daily lives. You might ask why I suddenly appreciate toilets. Let me show you the two bathroom options in one of my classroom buildings last year:

Yeah, I'm serious. Those aren't random pictures I got off the internet.

Complete toilets are a rarity here. I have no idea why, but a large percentage of toilets have no seat. I have tried to come up with a funny potential explanation for this and have gotten as far as "French people don't use the toilet and they don't want anyone who does to be too comfortable," "everything is designed for guys by guys (who don't have to go Number 2)," and that "at some point in the early 80s it became very cool to steal toilet seats and no one ever bothered replacing them." None of those really work, so I'm open to further suggestions. I am happy to report, however, that this semester the bathroom at work contains a complete toilet!

As for the hole-in-the-ground, I don't even know what to say there. I have seen it before, in China several years ago. I was shocked then, but seeing it again in a wealthy European country blew my mind. The hole-in-the-ground is much less common than the missing toilet seat, but it exists, clearly. The bathroom in the pictures above was mixed-sex, so I suppose it's passable, but I've seen it in female-only bathrooms as well. I do not understand...

So the moral of the story is the next time you go to the bathroom, take a moment and appreciate the toilet you're using. And if you have toilet paper, go ahead and appreciate that too!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

WTF French Dorm Internet

I ran an experiment last night. I tried to load a 2 minute and 38 second YouTube video. I bet you didn't even know 2 minute 38 second videos needed to load, did you? They do on a French dorm internet connection!
I started downloading the video around 11:16. It took me a minute to get the camera, so we've already got a bit of the light grey progress bar loaded--a good sign!

Four minutes later, however, we've only progressed approximately one millimeter, to just near the yellow bar...

Another 12 minutes on, we're still in the same place. And this is when I quit.

At 11:45 it is suddenly all loaded (I forgot to close the tab). I get excited. I press play and get exactly 10 seconds of music. And then, I hit the mystery spot. This is the spot in the video where playback stops. You can move the timer forward and it jumps back to this spot. You can move it backwards and it plays until this spot then stops. Gah. I don't understand the spot--it's not always there, but it is pretty frequent. No watching the video past the spot. All that build-up and time spent waiting for the download wasted. I'll just catch up on music and pop culture when I move to a different country...

I realize this is a silly example--YouTube is not critical for anything. It is in fact the opposite of critical. But imagine trying to load your email on this. Skype? You can only hear every fifth word, and only if the video is off.  Downloading papers to effectively do research as a Master's student? Haha no, silly girl! I really shouldn't complain though. Two of my classmates live in a dorm without internet. Yeah, they make those here! I cannot imagine what chain of thought led to the conclusion that students do not need the internet (and I do mean need, not just for YouTube). But it happened. They are saved by access to a wifi network run by one of the cellphone companies, but that really shouldn't be necessary.

I am in a different dorm complex this semester and it hasn't helped the internet at all. We sometimes also have an issue where the internet will go out at all the dorms, but not anywhere else (since we all scatter to nearby cafés with working wifi when that happens). I think it means the organization that runs the housing just forgets to pay the bill sometimes and they cut us all off :) The most recent day this happened was Nov. 1, All Saints Day, which is a holiday. It was a perfect, rainy, work at home kind of day, only the first thing I needed to do was send an email to my supervisor (who is in Thailand right now).  Nothing like starting a holiday running around town in a monsoon looking for an open café with wireless!

 Ahh, WTF.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

French Fashion, part II

I don't know how I did it, but I somehow forgot both the manbag and cowboy boots in the first fashion post! This has to be remedied.

I'll start with cowboy boots. This semester particularly, but over the past couple as well, I've noticed that something about Texas fascinates Europeans. They make fun of it, but they are also just interested and ask me lots of questions about it.My knowledge of Texas does not run very deep, so I'm not much help, but that doesn't stop them from trying.  I think they've all seen too many Westerns or something. But anyway. I find it funny that people who love so much to make fun of Texas simultaneously think it's ok to wear cowboy boots. Doesn't compute to me, but that's how it is! The cowboy boots here aren't usually of the weird material (skin other than cow), crazy embroidered, funny colored type. They're pretty classic, like the ones below. But they've definitely got a cowboy boot shape. 

Now enter the man bag/murse/man purse. I can understand why guys would want a bag (have you ever seen a guy's wallet?? Can you imagine sitting on that thing all day?), but it unfortunately just seems odd to most Americans. Here, however, the manbag is allowed.  I see a lot of crazy artsy ones with interesting prints (Jimi Hendrix and Che Guevara are two of the faces I've seen on bags), but a lot are just relatively plain messenger-bag style things, like the two below.

The thing that really makes me laugh, though, is the fanny pack slung over the shoulder. Wait what? People wear fanny packs?? They do. Only not around their waists (except the tourists). They wear them like cross-body purses. I had trouble finding a picture that did this one justice, but imagine the one below is a fanny pack instead of whatever it is. Then imagine that since it's a fanny pack, the strap is too short to be used as a cross-body bag and so it sits just below the person's armpit... it's very strange.
I also forgot scarves. People wear scarves all the time. Men and women wear them, which again seems weird to me as I think most guys in the States only wear scarves if they're in danger of neck frostbite. I had never worn scarves before I came here, one because it's not usually cold enough in Georgia for winter ones, and two because they're not an accessory I would have ever considered. It's nice though--I have a lot of basic clothing pieces, but with a scarf, all is good. You can change things up a lot. A scarf-related story I like is from one of my classmates--when she first came to Europe she spent a few days in Oslo, and at first, everyone immediately knew she was a tourist and spoke to her in English, but as soon as she put on a scarf, they started thinking she was European and speaking Norwegian to her! It's really that common to wear scarves here.

Ok, and I thought of one more thing--weirdly shaped pants. I'm not talking harem pants, but mainly ones that have enormous hips (?) cut into them but then taper to normal/skinny size, like the ones below. This may be just a changing fashion thing (and could be in the US now too I guess and I wouldn't know), but they're here now! And odd...