Tag Archives: poverty

Loire by bike

I’m currently on spring break, which is a mixed blessing. It should be wonderful to have two weeks of vacation with all of Europe at my fingertips. Oh but wait. I ran out of money last month, so I couldn’t book tickets anywhere, and the places I’m most excited to visit are all (a) prohibitively expensive during vacation periods and/or (b) no fun to visit alone, and my friends in France are dropping like flies (that is, leaving).

I realize that someday (with any luck, soon), I will wish I could have two weeks of vacation in France with absolutely no responsibilities. On that day, EJ, please remind yourself that vacation is no fun when you’re alone in Angry Town with an extremely limited budget. First World Problems, right?

Trying to make the best of a bittersweet situation—and battle my pastry belly, you know, two birds, one stone style—I made a resolution to avail myself of the extensive Loire by Bike path that runs from the Atlantic all the way to Germany.

Like most things in this country and life, my opinion of it vacillates rapidly from high to low.

I’ve passed through some scenery lovely enough to inspire me to become an Impressionist painter, if only I had paints and a canvas and knew how to paint.

A village dripping in wisteria, for instance,

the convergence of the Maine and Loire rivers,

and this lovely lane that made me gush like Anne of Green Gables.

As wonderful as it is of France to provide such an extensive bike path, however, I’m afraid I must look a gift horse in the mouth for a moment. What kind of bike path has stairs? Only a slick, squillion-dollar mountain bike could charge up and down them safely. I have to climb off my clunky three-speed and drag it up and down steps and sharp bumps. (If I do that section of the path again, I’ll get a picture of it.)

Even more frustrating, most of the path isn’t easily accessible to me, and in addition to the ridiculous stairs, the closest segment is, frankly, not that interesting. Technically, I’m not supposed to take my municipal-issue bike out of Angers. I think it’s fair for me to take the bike as far as I can ride it, but my dear bike is kind of a fattie. She’s just not cut out for a very long trip. I like her as a friend and all, but I get irritated because she just can’t move very fast.

But she does look pretty cute against the backdrop of the Loire, doesn't she?

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Switzerlandia

Based upon our brief sojourn, my opinion of Switzerland is (quite appropriately) neutral.

We spent a lovely weekend in Lausanne, a smallish city best known for being the international headquarters of the Olympics. (Relatedly, I saw more people jogging, mountain biking, and wearing Patagonia fleeces than I’ve seen since I left Minnesota.)

Three days is hardly long enough to understand a place, and since Lausanne is in the francophone region, Switzerland felt basically like France to me.  I was, however, quite amused to observe a few ways that the Swiss resemble Americans.

1. They carry around coffees in big To Go cups.
2. They prefer hard cheeses.
3.  I was not the only person wearing running shoes.*
4. They post disclaimers!

Loosely translated: The City is not responsible if you fall in the fountain like a dumbass. You do not see this kind of thing in France, because in France it goes without saying that no one will take responsibility for anything.

My favorite thing in Lausanne was the Collection de l’Art Brutessentially, Museum of Outsider Art. Sorry, Walker and Pomidou: I have a new Favorite Art Museum in the World.

The collection features self-taught artists who have never been recognized formally by The School. Much of the collection is melancholy. Many of the artists were schizophrenics and other mental patients for whom the art was a way a cope with an undoubtedly sad life. One woman tore up sheets for thread to crochet a wedding dress that she never got to wear. Another, for lack of gouache, stole medications and iodine from the dispensary to use as paint. The melancholy, however, is precisely what made the collection so inspiring: it is a testament to the human need to create.

And not all of it was sad. Some of my favorite pieces were by artists with Down’s Syndrome. The collection also featured a number of delightful eccentrics, such as a man who eats shellfish every day just to have enough shells to make intricate bas-reliefs painted with nail polish.

Oh, and the museum had the most gender-balanced collection I’ve ever seen! Point: it’s great to see a museum where women artists made about half of the collection. Counterpoint: Why does it take an outsider museum to feature women and artists with handicaps?

Art Brut: A++++++!

As much as I liked Lausanne, not everything about Switzerland was so peachy.

Switzerland makes itself interesting by doing its protectionist politically neutral thing. Part of me really respects that. As an American, I’m continually fascinated by the fact that geographically tiny European nations that all crammed into one another nonetheless maintain distinct national identities. But, as an awesome piece of graffiti in Lausanne read, “Nations are hallucinations,” and Switzerland’s stubbornness has several irritating effects.

First off, it’s outrageously expensive. The going rate for a shot of espresso is around $4 US. A glass of table wine would run at least $8 US. Just out of curiosity, I checked what a movie would cost and then did a double-take and nearly fainted: a movie in Switzerland costs $19.97 US.

Switzerland’s staggering prices are compounded by the fact that they insist on maintaining their own currency instead of being reasonable and taking on the Euro. The Swiss Franc is only slightly stronger than the U.S. dollar—and to its credit, the bills cool, really colorful—but since you always lose some money to the exchange rate, it’s really just a pain in the part of the ass where you sit on your wallet.

Second, I consider it a symbol of Switzerland’s irrational nationalism that they have their own plugin, which is only very slightly different than the one used in the rest of Europe. Irritating.

Third, Geneva was awful. Just terrible. So bad, in fact, that Jef and I will forever call it The Place That Shall Not Be Named. I don’t want to upset myself all over again by rehashing the rest of our horrid morning there, so I’ll leave it at this:

1. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the UN was set in a place even uglier than a suburban American office park.
2. Despite being a major world city that (unfortunately) receives a lot of tourism, The Place That Shall Not Be Named had the most backwards, illegible, unnecessarily confusing public transit system I’ve ever encountered. Jef and I are both reasonably intelligent people and avid users of public transit at that, and yet it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the bus station we should have been able to reach in 20.
3. I understand that timepieces are a point of national pride, but I’m outraged that we were not allowed to join a 12:00 guided tour of the U.N. when we showed up at 11:58.

To be fair, we’re both glad that we saw the Red Cross Museum. The last time I cried in a museum, I was in the Anne Frank House. It was very moving, and if I had money to donate, I would definitely give some of it to the Red Cross.

Overall, though, after four hours we couldn’t wait to leave Geneva and breathed a big sigh of relief when our bus crossed the French border. There’s nothing like a weekend in Switzerland to make me think France is dirt cheap.

 

*I do not condone the wearing of running shoes as everyday footwear. The habit is especially tacky in francophone Europe, where the population is particularly well-shod. However, my black leather everyday shoes are about a half size too big, which has resulted in crippling tendinitis pain in my right leg, rendering me incapable of walking in any reasonably attractive shoes.

Fare well, fair welfare!

I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile, and now that I receive the rent reimbursement I am owed, I thought I might say something nice about a French administrative system for a change.

Yet another clear symbol of the differences between French and American politics: the welfare office I visit is on the nicest block in town. No joke. It’s located across a gorgeous pedestrian boulevard from a house that might as well be a castle and is probably almost as old.

This is the Caisse Allocations Familialles. (Or, in American terms, a Welfare/Section 8 office.)

And here is the castle across the street.

I’m fortunate enough never to have visited the Welfare office in the United States, but I’m confident in my assumption that it’s probably a lot like visiting the DMV, which is even worse than visiting the dentist or Purgatory. It’s definitely not on the same block as old mansions. (I know because I’ve lived on that block.)

In Angers, France, though, visiting the Welfare office is literally a walk in the park! (…until they demand paperwork.)

Food, Part III of III (for now): La gastroconomie

The title is a pun of my own creation, combining la gastronomie—the typically French ideal of the art and science of good eating—and l’économie—the typically Home Economics ideal of feeding oneself as well as possible on a tight budget.

Except for one fantastic meal Rosie’s dad so kindly bought for a few of us when he visited, the only restaurant foods I’ve eaten in France have been pizza, sandwiches, and crêpes (that is, things that are tasty but ultra-cheap).

Special treat, courtesy of Papa Gilly: pâvé de saumon à l'oseille.

It would be nice to eat out more often, in the bitty hole-in-the-wall sorts of places all over France that serve fantastic food, because I’d like to try a variety of French specialties that cost more than one euro. Luckily, though, grace au marché plein-air, I have been taking great pleasure in preparing my own meals.

What have I been making?

I don’t have an oven, which rather drastically limits my options of what to make and I’ve always found it challenging to prepare meals for one, anyway.

In the absence of an oven, I make-shifted a way to make warm bread (as opposed to toast) (they are very different things). A regular MacGyver, that EJ!

I can’t do the Just Make Enough Soup for a Week method of cooking for one. I avoid having leftovers because, unfortunately, they tend to become neglected at the back of the fridge. (Which is a passive way to say that I don’t eat them.) (Which is a passive way to say that I’m a privileged, wasteful First World brat.)

I don’t have a ton of ideas of what to feed myself and I don’t use recipes. I’m sure there’s some vegan hipster in Brooklyn who writes a blog devoted specifically to ovenless recipes for one that I could, theoretically, read for ideas, but I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I am categorically incapable of following directions.

So I keep it simple. I’ve been eating much more produce than I do in the U.S., which somewhat balances (or at least makes a good supplement to) my diet of bread and beurre demi-sel, among a few other staples.

A typical day in EJ’s gastroconomie
Breakfast

-Coffee, latté-style
-Grapefruit juice
-Special K (which is totally different than American Special) (by which I mean, what’s inside the box is exactly the same, but everything on the outside of the box is written in French)
-Toast made of yesterday’s bread, topped with butter and either Nutella or apricot jam
-Fromage blanc
sprinkled with sugar*
Morning snack

2 clementines and/or a banana
Lunch

-2-egg omelette, usually made with an extra bit of pasta from last night’s dinner. I learned that trick from Cameroonians, who add pasta (cheap) to eggs (expensive) to make them go farther.
-Breakfast potatoes, seasoned with a generous pour of herbes de Provence and sautéed in a bit of butter
-Toast, if there’s even more bread left
-Clementine
-Fromage blanc
sprinkled with sugar
Afternoon snack

-Earl Grey with a splash of milk
-Pastry (usually an almond croissant) or cookies (usually almond tuiles)
-And sometimes fresh bread
Dinner

-Small glass of red wine if I’m alone, 2 or 3 if I have company
-Fresh bread and cheese (I went through a lot of chèvre until I discovered store brand garlic & fine herb Boursin. Then I fell in love with the market. Last week I bought fromage du lait cru de vache—semisoft cheese of raw cow’s milk—and this week I chose a super creamy brie.)
-Mac & Cheese à la française (my own creation of torti, buttered and sprinkled with herbes de Provence, then I stick it in the microwave to melt in some gouda and some chèvre)
-Steamed garlic green beans and/or broccoli
-Comice pear
-Fromage blanc
sprinkled with sugar
-Cookies and/or a hunk of dark chocolate for dessert

Not half bad for around 7E per day, right?

I take a long time to prepare my meals. Presentation is everything, of course, so I set myself a place and arrange everything on the plate just so. I’ve been taking pictures of most of my meals, which means I’ve taken a lot of pictures of omelettes and potatoes…

See?

Allow me, s’il vous plait, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert. I recently reread Eat, Pray, Love because it’s been on my mind a lot. (If you’re scoffing at me for that, then you haven’t read the book. Shut up and go read it.) Musing on her love of Italy, Gilbert says:

Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. [Italians, however] ‘are the masters of il bel far niente.’ This is a sweet Italian expression. Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing.’ [It] has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. You don’t necessarily need to be rich in order to experience this, either. There’s another wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi—the art of making something out of nothing. The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich.

And so, like a proper French (or Italian) lady, I sit, relax, enjoy my simple arte d’arrangiarsi, and linger. I’m usually alone in the apartment when I eat, so I sometimes watch something or read something or listen to something while I eat—but often, I toast il bel far niente and simply…eat.

Émilie, écrivain

I’ve spent a lot, like, a lot a lot of hours in the past two and a half weeks sitting in front of my computer, so I suppose it’s weird that you haven’t heard more from me. After about four years of thinking, “You know, that’s really something I should try,” I finally have both the will and the free time to participate in NaNoWriMo. The challenge: write 50,000 words in November. Edit later.

It’s a daydream realized, right? I mean, didn’t the sixteen-year-old version of myself, fresh out of a summer creative writing class for nerds, daydream about living in Europe with barely enough money for ramen noodles but an epic story in her heart?

Right. A note to the naïve-but-well-meaning younger version of myself: the poverty part is no fun adventure, babe.

Though I must say, my room is almost exactly what I imagined. Creaky wooden floor, vaulted ceiling—I’m just like Jo in Little Women, only better, because I’m in Europe, where she always wanted to be! Unfortunately, that doesn’t help much when I feel desperate for a change of scenery and can’t even afford a cup of coffee for the sake of having somewhere else to sit.

So, really, NaNoWriMo is perfectly timed. I have no money to go anywhere and it’s rained every day for over a week, anyway, so I actually have nothing better to do than sit in my room, tapping away. Another factor working in my lofty goal’s favor is that the elusive WiFi connection included in my charges doesn’t reach my room. In fact, there’s only one place in France, as far as I can tell, that I get a WiFi signal, which is why you haven’t heard much from me online…

The one place I get the signal is on top of a six-foot shelf, so I have to stand on a stool to use the 'net.

The fact that I’ve spent so much of November writing has had weird secondary effects on me. I’m usually not one to spend so much time in my room, nor so much time alone, period. Luckily, spending all this time alone in my room (I should just go all-out pretentious and call it my “writing studio”) hasn’t bothered me as much as it once would have, except for one deeply significant aspect:

Mon français souffrit. My French is suffering a slow and painful death.

Here I am in my French apartment on a French street in a French town full of French people, but I’ve spent so much time alone, thinking and writing in English, that when I have had occasion for French conversation, it’s been more difficult than it was in October. Shouldn’t I be getting better every day?

So today, dear readers, since I’m unqualified to reflect upon anything else in France, I thought I’d give you a tour of the one oui, oui part of the country I’ve gotten to know entirely too well. (That was a pun on wee, as in, wee little…in case anyone missed it…)

I should note that in the absence of WiFi, my iPhone has provided plenty of distraction. I was pretty good at resisting it until last night, when I impulsively splurged 1E79 on the “Hipstamatic” app, which led me to a pinhole app for another 79 cents. In other words, I bought seven new cameras for under $4 and have done nothing but take pictures of myself and my room since then. If I don’t show them off, then I really can’t rationalize the (already several) hours I’ve spent distracting myself from NaNoWriMo.

Here is my writing studio: drafty window, desk, folding chair I outfitted with a luxurious 3E cushion.

Closer up, you can admire the sundry objects I've acquired: a festive mini-pumpkin, two little petryoshkas who are kind enough to have stakes in their heads so that I may display pictures of my amazing boyfriend, and a gift from a student (one of those things where you put beads on the thing and an adult irons them in place.)

Moving right along, voilà my computer and the plant I bought at the Farmer's Market to improve my studio's feng shui.

Here's my plant's pinhole camera double exposure glamour shot.

Here is the snack I eat to fuel my fingers as they clackety clack away:

I took a picture of it because I find it interesting that unlike in the U.S., where the organic version of something always comes in green and off-white packaging with a sedate label, my French supermarket puts its store brand organics in hot pink and highlighter yellow packaging that even Las Vegas would envy.

My view of France.

Oh, and here’s the view from my window. I took this one several days ago, without fancy photo apps. I’ve spent a lot of time gazing distractedly out that window, and this sweet old Citroen is definitely the most interesting car to have parked out there.

So, there you have it, friends. My life in France. Next month, I’ll try to make it more interesting.