Road Trippin’

I read Jack Kerouac’s The Road when I was fifteen. I don’t remember much from that book, with the exception of the infamous trip to Mexico, but I remember the feeling I got of the beat generation: wanderers, jazz lovers, go with the flow, nonconformists. While I have almost nothing in common with beatniks, I have to admit that there is something seductive about the open road. I have a destination in mind and a new life to begin, but I can take my time getting there. I can see places and people. I’ve got sixteen or more hours of alone time along the way.

Capture d’écran 2013-07-09 à 8.25.18 AM

This is my first real road trip. I used to drive several hours home from school, but it was never so far or so long. I’m crossing through six states including the entire length of the state of Pennsylvania. I’m entering a foreign land… I’ve never driven through or visited most of the Northeast United States, except for New York City, which I hope I never have to drive through.

Here’s to a new beginning, and the open road.

Categories: United States | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Back from Outerspace

My transatlantic journeys are always trying.  This one was no different.  As I am trying (and failing) to overcome jet lag, I thought I’d give you the latest update of my journey back to the States.

Yesterday involved Skype, a Yellow Cab, lunch with a close friend, and a five-hour delay.  And it looked a lot like this:

Got technology?

Got technology?

By the time my brother and father picked me up at the St. Louis airport, I was on the point of flaking out and hardly uttered a word at the back of the car.  Two days of travel plus two taxi rides plus two bags of almost 50 lbs each equals one very tired traveler.

And now it’s 7 a.m. in St. Louis and I am wide awake.  I might as well go for a run and enjoy the sunshine that had been absent from my life for the past ten months…

I’ve got a big blog project that I’m going to launch in a day or two, so keep your eyes peeled!

Categories: Daily Life, United States | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

When in New York…

I have a few hours to kill here in New York before making the next leg of my trip to Saint Louis, and while curing the aftereffects of a nuit blanche in a nicely ventilated New York apartment, I thought I would update you on my travels.

I slept on the plane, which resulted in a stiff neck that will take a few days to become fully functional again. And then I didn’t sleep until the equivalent of 7 a.m. Paris time, at which point I fell comatose onto a couch without bothering to remove or change a single article of clothing.  This persisted until around 9 a.m. New York time, 4 p.m. Paris time, because my close childhood friend who is kindly letting me squatter her apartment had to go to work at her big girl job in New York. Which reminds me… that’s why I’m here in the first place. I’m a grown-up now.

Transitions are hard, and I don’t necessarily recommend this one.  Gotta love an American apartment full of twenty-something-year-olds, including your best friend, but I went from a week spent with my belle mère – where everything was made from scratch, even the pasta, or came directly from Tunisia: mloukhiya, a deep green stew that takes four hours of preparation, coffee bubbling in a pot on the stove, cayenne pepper paste consumed a spoonful a day, spicy tomato-based sauces soaked up by crusty baguettes or round whole-grain bread or, even better, homemade flatbread and little cakes and Hedi’s semolina crêpes – to investigating a cupboard full of instant packaged food, “food in a box,” as I like to call it, in the hopes of finding something palatable.  I stumbled upon the remnants of Frosted Flakes at the bottom of a cereal box and a container of Folger’s Best.  Nothing like the intensely sweet “this can’t actually be food” flavor of the one cereal that I wasn’t allowed to eat as a child because it was so sugary, tempered with the industrially standardized flavor of Folgers Best.  Sugar and Caffeine, all you need to make it in the City.

Times Square 2011

Times Square 2011

For all my friends back in Europe who have never been to New York, you’re probably imagining episodes straight out of Gossip Girls, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother or Friends, but my experience last night was more along the lines of Seinfeld.  As I bought a last-minute ticket from an unknown French airline (XL airways, I wouldn’t highly recommend them), I had to suffer through a variety of experiences on par with my flight on Lot Airlines in 2012.  My very heavy second bag cost me €100, and I still had to stuff some of the books from my “carry on” book bag into a suitcase in order to avoid the over 5 kilo surcharge.  The flight attendants’ uniforms were very interesting, but their inability to read written English less so.  I mostly talked to them in French when having to accept my standard “hot meal” (they charge you for drinks! like $2 for an orange juice! and no peanuts :/).  Most of the trip, besides sleeping and reading a book a friend gave me for my birthday on the French language, was spent talking to the Russian man on my left and the French/Tunisian (albeit no longer identifying as Tunisian) woman on my right.  Both were U.S. residents, and the French woman was a U.S. citizen whose English was perfect.  Our conversation was interesting, to say the least, and most of it prompted by questions of who I was, what I was doing with myself, and why. (That’s as existential as I want to get on my blog without having gotten a full night’s sleep).

We waited a good thirty minutes in the plane before being allowed to get off, at around 10:30 p.m. New York time. Then, we waited to pass through Customs (no worries there on my part) and I had to declare that I hadn’t taken any plants or animal products (meat, etc.) with me into the country (just psisa, coffee, and crema, so that shouldn’t count).  Plus another 35 minutes waiting for my two bags, a good 25 minutes trying to figure out if my debit card still works, and another 30 minutes waiting in line for a yellow cab – altogether 2 and a half hours after landing before being able to sit comfortably in a taxi (don’t do the math, it probably doesn’t add up right).  Once I was in the taxi, it was smooth sailing, but the taxi line was ridiculous.  I spent most of it talking with a Frenchman about what he was doing in the States, where I learned to speak French, and how both Fresno, California, and Amiens are “des trous perdus” (don’t ask).  If nothing else, the experience convinced me of three things: 1) I love New York, despite how crazy it is; 2) I always want to live somewhere where I can interact with people of other cultures; and 3) I might want to move closer to New York in a year from now, if all goes well at my company in Connecticut.

Rule of thumb:

When in New York, try to find at least someone you know who lives there. It’ll make your life a lot easier.

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, United States | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Hello, Goodbye

What a whirlwind of a week! In less than three hours I will be leaving Amiens, and in a little over that I will be leaving France.  If it all hadn’t happened so quickly, I’d have thought I was still dreaming!  Done with the French Masters, done with the English language school, the private tutoring, les Tombés de la Charrette (although I’ll still be an “honorary” member), the speaking French to buy groceries, the headaches and bureaucratic nightmares, the laid back rhythm of life.  For a good bit of time, I’ll go without seeing good friends and loved ones, and in many ways, my life as an Expat will be temporarily on hold.

I’ll soon be going through the shock of repatriation, and moving halfway across the country in the span of a few weeks, beginning full-time employment in a city I have never seen… in some ways you could say I am expatriating to New England and to suburban Connecticut, a land I had only known from its obnoxious spelling.  I have to find a used car and face a good number of months alone in a furniture-less apartment.  But believe me, I’m ecstatic about the prospect of a new adventure!

Leaving Hedi behind for a few months, on the other hand, is not at all appealing.  Back to the reality of long distance phone calls, Skype dates, and marathon emails.  This time, we know (more or less) what the future will have in store for us, and the total duration should be much less than the last time.  For those of you who have ever had to go through the process of filing for a visa (K-1 Fiancé visa in our case), I sympathize with your ordeal!

It hasn’t all been good-byes this week, even with the four-something going away parties I had attended scattered throughout the week.  I also got to know my future belle mère (such a lovely French term), to pick up a few more Arabic words and sample some delectable cooking.  Every week is a learning experience, every day is a hello to something new.  When you are used to packing up and moving somewhere else, the important thing to keep in mind is not to be sad you are leaving… you are probably going somewhere new!

To all my wonderful friends and family in Europe and North Africa, I will do my best to stay in touch (I am very good at it after years of experience) and I will come back to see you, sooner or later! Now that I’ll be making a decent salary, I’ll finally be able to travel a bit more frequently.  Gros bisous, vous allez me manquer tous et merci pour tout. 

The heart has reasons that reason cannot know

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.



Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, Expats, United States | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trains and Planes

While I should really be working on my five-page paper that’s due at midnight on Wednesday, I thought I’d take advantage of a spare moment to talk about my trip back to France.  For the first time in about five years, nothing strange or unusual happened to me.  No late departures or arrivals, no strikes, no dogs sniffing the luggage or an overnight stay in a posh hotel.  Just one very long trip home on very very little sleep.  And, I had to deal with the intricacies of European train stations.

For those of you who have seen the film Hugo, train stations in Europe bring to mind adorable ten-year-olds, old-fashioned travelers, sleek super-fast trains, and the occasional flower seller.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find a lot of that, but you’ll also find peddlers, policemen, creepy single men who sit down next to you uninvited, and, when it gets closer to dusk, a somewhat “rougher” crowd mixed in with your average backpacker or travel-worn business person. I suppose Americans have such a glam image of European train stations precisely because our own are so terrible.  I remember taking the Amtrak at 5:00 am in Omaha once, a train station that is open a mere three hours a day, from around 5-6 am, for the one departing train, and 10-11 pm for the daily incoming train.  And it’s located next to a dark and scary abandoned parking lot, underneath a bridge.  No wonder we tend to envision ax murderers.

Train stations in Europe, I know several of them.  Geneva’s, Lausanne’s, Zürich’s, Bern’s, Paris’s, Amiens’s, Lille’s, and now Bruxelles Midi, to name a few.  And good thing I had a minimum of seven hours to figure out the Brussels train station, because I felt completely out of my element in it.

Layout of Bruxelles Midi train station

Layout of Bruxelles Midi train station

My journey to Brussels was pretty straightforward: one forty-five minute flight from St. Louis to Chicago O’Hare, a brief layover, one hour and a half flight on one of United’s awesome new Dreamliners to Washington Dulles, a longer layover, and one seven-hour flight to Brussels.  Plus a very loud baby behind me, little to no sleep, and a wonderful opportunity to watch The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen in German), which I highly recommend.  Everything went so smoothly I was amazed.  The man working at Border Control looked at my passport and stamped it 5 seconds later, which makes me still angry about the whole Belgian woman incident on my way out of the country (see Home for the Holidays for more on that story).

Once I got to the main part of the airport, that’s when things started getting confusing.  I had two suitcases to drag, and luckily I had read up on where to find the airport train station (do your research on the Brussels Airport Website).    It’s located on the lower level, which confused me, as you couldn’t take the main escalator to reach it (I eventually found an elevator that went downstairs).  They had a little ticket counter, which was luckily open on a Sunday, where you could buy the train ticket to Bruxelles Midi for 7,70€.  There are about four stops until you get to the Midi train station, so the whole trip took a little over 30 minutes, including wait time.  Once at the train station, I had one of those freak out moments where all the train departures are written in a foreign language – that is to say, in Flemish instead of French.  To make matters worse, I had originally bought myself a ticket that left at 16:55, whereas my flight arrived in the Brussels airport at 7:10.  I was not about to wait around on no sleep, so I tried not to panickly call Hedi (not too many times at least) and figure out when the next train to Lille would be and where to change my ticket.

Thanks to the power of the internet, Hedi told me that there was a TGV headed for Lille leaving at 10:18.  The only train I saw was listed as Perpignan, in the South of France.  Was it passing through Lille? No way to tell on the departure screen.  I eventually ventured over to the ticket counter for le service national, where the man rudely told me in French that I would have to go over to the service international in order to change my ticket.  It, unfortunately, did not open until 10:15 on Sundays.  Dragging my two bags behind me, I eventually found the Thalys information center, hoping to at least pass through Paris if I couldn’t get my tickets changed.  The woman and man working there listened to me, laughed, told me quite clearly that the counter for buying new tickets was not yet open, but changing tickets already sold was possible.  “You are not in France, we work here on Sundays,” he told me confidently.  Whatever, I just wanted to change my ticket.  I finally arrived at the fourth ticket counter/information desk, where, to my pleasant surprise, the woman told me that it would only cost me an additional euro to change my ticket to the 10:18 train for Perpignan, with the first stop at Lille Europe.  A mere thirty-minute train which I still had to wait another hour for.

Luckily I’ve taken a train to London before, and I’ve had to change train stations between Lille Flandres and Lille Europe when taking a Eurostar to London.  For those of you who are unaware, if you pass through Lille to another European city outside of France, your tickets will reflect two train stations but not tell you how to get from one to the next.  Rest assured, they are a mere 200m apart from one another, with certain helpful signs or helpful individuals ready to direct you when you ask, like an idiot, what you’re supposed to do.  No platform 9 and 3/4, however, but an eight-minute walk or 15-minute tram ride (depending on if there’s one already waiting for you) from one train station to another.  Kinda sucks when you have to drag two heavy suitcases behind you.

How to get to Platform 9 3/4, I mean, from Lille Flandres to Lille Europe

How to get to Platform 9 3/4, I mean, from Lille Flandres to Lille Europe

Apparently there was no problem changing my next ticket back to Amiens to an earlier train, although the earliest train was two hours later, at 13:00.  The woman working the ticket counter basically told me that there was no point in changing the ticket, as it was cheaper to leave four hours earlier than scheduled.  The worst part of this whole train-changing business? No one checked my ticket on either train!

Finally, I arrived home-sweet-home, to the Amiens train station.  An ugly piece of work, but a familiar one.


Categories: Belgium, Travel, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Home for the Holidays

Well, I did it.  I made it home.  I suppose I can say that the curse has been lifted, because after three times in a row of missing my connecting flight and having to spend the night in a hotel, I finally made it home the day of my TransAtlantic flight. The night of Christmas Eve, to be exact.

That’s not to say that my trip was without incident.  When I travel, something bizarre is always bound to happen.

Christmas ’11

To give you a better idea of my 24-hours of travel, here’s a brief portion of my travel log:

“It’s been a long day. First, I had difficulties falling asleep last night and had to wake up at 5:00 am on less than five hours of sleep. Hedi and I rushed to the train station in order not to miss my 5:35 am train to Lille, but it turned out that there wasn’t any train heading to Lille.  Apparently there had been a planned grève ponctuel and no trains were coming or going to Lille on December 24.  Very sweaty and starting to panick, we ended up at l’Escale of the Amiens train station where the most organized, efficient Frenchwoman I’ve ever met instructed us to take a train to Paris Nord (us being myself and a Lebanese girl also trying to get to the Belgian airport), from where we were supposed to catch a TGV to Brussels. Unfortunately, once we got to Paris, the men at l’Accueil had no idea what we were talking about, despite the fact that the woman had called ahead and given our names.  Luckily, every time we explained our situation to the conductor and ticket inspector, they let us pass without an issue.  (Perhaps it’s good and bad to travel on Christmas Eve!) We ended up sitting in the wagon-bar, where I ordered an espresso and a pain au chocolat. All good so far.

Upon arriving at the gare Bruxelles-Midi, we asked how to find the train to take us to the airport and buy a ticket.  Once at the airport, I said good-bye to the Arab girl and went to the United check in, which took forever, as usual. The security was really intense: even before reaching the counter, they scanned my passport and asked all sorts of questions. Much worse than the grilling I had previously experienced in Lille when trying to board the Eurostar for London. At the check-in counter it was very straightforward. Baggage, passport, boarding passes, instructions, gates.  Unfortunately, I had to pass through border control, and I definitely chose the wrong line. The woman checking the passports took her sweet time, holding everyone up for who knows what reason. Either super serious about border control or bitter about working on Christmas Eve. The Lebanese girl was in front of me, ironically, and I heard her arguing with the woman in French (I wonder whether she realized that I wasn’t French, as we spoke French to each other the whole time – she tutoyéd me, and nous avons fait la bise before parting).  When it came my turn, the Belgian woman point-blank asked me for my residency card.  Which, I might remind you, I don’t need to have my first year in France, since I have both the visa de long séjour and the vignette OFII.  I pointed this out to the woman, but she mentioned some nonsense about how I couldn’t travel in and out of Belgium without a residency permit or something like that (her English wasn’t making much sense to me at this point).  Oh well, I just hope that I can get back into Europe through Belgium on my way back in.

After Border control, I had to go through Security, which was a pretty intensely long line.  Luckily I had plenty of time and found my gate.  On my Transatlantic flight, I sat next to a Belgian woman who only spoke French, which made things sometimes difficult for her when asked what she wanted to eat, drink, etc.  I asked for a halal meal, so it’s hard to compare the quality of the food with what the rest of the plane ate.  I really enjoyed the main dish, some sort of beef in biryani rice.  I was so tired that I slept a good deal on the TGV as well as on my two flights.  I also took advantage of the touch screen on the international flight.  Ha, I played maybe 2 hours worth of “in-flight trivia.” I dominated the Geopolitics category.  How many of you can name the only country to have a square flag? (Hint: it’s Nepal).  I also took advantage of the movie selection, finally watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and then an indie writer-themed love story called Ruby Sparks.

Like all other passengers, I had to fill out the customs declaration form.  No to animal products, time spent on a farm, valuable merchandise, or more than $10,000 in cash on my person.  At the Washington international Dulles airport, we had to pass through immigration and then take off our luggage (thank goodness it took less time than in NYC, I’m never traveling through JFK again if I can help it!).  Then we had to re-check our luggage, deliver our customs form, and repass through Security.  They are now starting to do a random sampling of “chemicals present on your hands” in addition to the full body scan, metal detector, and screening of luggage.  My plane to Saint Louis was tiny.  I’m happy to say that I slept for most of the flight.  Unfortunately with my contacts on.”

It’s great to be back.  Back with the two dogs and cat, my three brothers, my parents.  Spending some quality time, eating, running, watching our cult family musical/play/movie, Les Misérables.  Eating Creole shrimp gumbo.  Exchanging gifts and IOUs.  Drinking a lot of coffee.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Categories: Belgium, Seasons, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saying Good-bye

When you know a lot of foreigners or are a foreigner yourself, saying good-bye becomes part of your everyday existence.  You, or they, might be passing through, but they touched your life, they shared their culture, and became part of something you still cling to after their departure.

I first experienced the good-bye syndrome when I myself had to leave my adoptive countries, twice thus far in my life.  In one sense, it feels like a relief to leave an existence that, in some way or another, is difficult simply because you are foreign, be it the language or the culture or the fact that nine times out of ten you’ll miss the punch line of a joke because you don’t get the reference.  Culturally speaking, you’ll always be somewhat dépaysé while living abroad.  But it is the people you meet that really tug at you, especially when knowing that your stay abroad was supposed to be temporary and that you won’t be able to maintain such constant and consistent contact with your new friends and family once you go home.  This happened to me two times already.

Except that the last time I didn’t want to say good-bye to certain individuals, to the point that I became obsessed with the idea of returning to France, to my friends and my new home.

It becomes trickier when you befriend foreign students, knowing all too well that they have a train ticket that will take them away at the end of a few months’ stay, that your wonderful new group of friends is only temporary.

Saying good-bye is never easy.

Categories: Daily Life, Travel | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Photojournal: Paris and Automobiles

The Saturday before Hedi left for Tunisia, we took a day trip to visit a close friend of ours and take advantage of the City of Light.

Conservatoire de Paris

We decided to check out the very expensive neighborhood near the Place de la Bastille, walking along the Avenue de Paris until we got to the pricey, name-brand stores such as Gucchi and Prada.  (We partook exclusively in what the French call faire du lèche-vitrine – “window shopping,” – I find the French to be a bit more desperate, “window licking”).

We tried very hard to see the interior of the Opéra House, but apparently the tours would have cost us a lot of money.  We kept our entire day’s expenses to a minimum, apart from the numerous times we had to spend money on RER or Métro tickets.  (Since the RER D was closed the weekend at the Gare du Nord for “travaux”, we had had to make a very roundabout trip to get to our friend’s apartment.  As a result, Hedi and I repeatedly bought the wrong Métro/RER ticket and had great difficulty in passing the turnstiles with all the luggage he was carrying with him.)  Once we got back to the city center, we were no longer weighed down with luggage and could enjoy the mild, end-of-the-summer weather in the most expensive quartier of Paris.

Opéra National de Paris

Palais Garnier

Place Vendôme

We turned onto the Avenue de l’Opéra and then made our way to the Place Vendôme to take pictures, directly across from the Ministère de la Justice.  We all agreed that the bâtiment is frightening and imposing.  It makes me think of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Disney version of course.  Check out some of the ridiculously expensive stores in the background and the ominous cloud hanging over the obelisk.  We might have just been a tad paranoid, given the location and our status as foreigners.  Ha ha.


Posing for the camera

Ministère de la Justice

Afterwards we continued on to the Jardin des Tuileries, and its benches were much more crowded than they were the last time I had taken a tour of Paris, in February of 2011.

Jardin des Tuileries

View of la Place de la Concorde, seen from across a pond at the Jardin des Tuileries

The gorgeous obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, where the famous Avenue des Champs Élysées begins, is always just as stunning, especially on a beautiful summer day in late August.  We stopped to get a drink and to catch our breath.

Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde

Drinking fountain

Petit or Grand Palais?

We then strolled down the mythic and equally expensive Avenue des Champs Elysées.  It’s my favorite place in Paris to people watch, as you can get literally within inches of people from all different walks of life.  We didn’t buy anything or loiter at any of the expensive cafés.

One thing I was not expecting to find along this Avenue, however, besides cafés and tourists with deep pockets and a penchant for shopping was renowned French car manufacturers.  But then again, rarely had I strolled along with two males in tow…

Citroën race car

Sébastien Loeb, champion racer

Shortly after admiring Sébastien Loeb’s race car, we were presented with a bizarre and somewhat enticing spectacle: “driving” beside Sébastien Loeb in a 4D environment.  It was a bit expensive (5 € per person), but the boys thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  We were strapped into cars that moved left, right, forwards, backwards.  We could smell the gasoline, watch the screen as we hurtled through the race course.  At one point we saw a puddle of water and inwardly sighed – we had a full spray of mist as we crossed!  I was slightly alarmed and rather uncomfortable, certain that I would fall out of my seat despite being tightly strapped in.  I suppose I lacked that childhood dream of racecar driving that so many little boys have cherished.

The boys

Me and my Mercedes

Before returning back to Amiens, I rested against the Arc de Triomphe, at the northern end of the Champs Élysées.  We had done a lot of walking in a short amount of time.

Arc de Triomphe

Categories: France, Paris, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Baguettes and Red Tape

As a recap of my first month spent in the North of France, I have decided to divide my narrative into the good, the bad, and the (somewhat less) ugly.  Not to state the obvious, but the three categories are French food, French bureaucracy, and international air travel.  I’ll let you decide which label fits which topic.
But first, a brief anecdotal mash-up of my past few experiences flying across the Atlantic ocean…

The Hazards of Air Travel

January 2011

I have traveled via airplanes more than perhaps any other form of travel, in total kilometers and trips abroad.  Perhaps statistically speaking, the odds are therefore somewhat less in my favor in regards to missed flights, lost baggage, and flight cancellations.  I mostly chalk that up to two airline carriers: American and Delta/Air France.

Once when my family of six was trying to catch a flight to Colorado on Christmas day, we were promptly told that our entire family was on stand-by.  With much pouting (and a few spontaneous tears on my part), we were rescheduled for two flights the following day, forcing my father to cancel his entire 3-day ski trip.  In the end, after more pouting and tears on the second stand-by failure the next morning, we ended up with a travel voucher that allowed my entire family to take a vacation in Puerto Rico – alas, on the same airline.

One year, my family was touring Switzerland, toting massive backpacker gear, and two of our backpacks never made it to the Zurich airport.  My poor father and younger brother wore the same clothes three days in a row, until we broke down and bought them new clothing.  Since we kept switching hotels and cities, the luggage only caught up with us after half the trip had gone by.  Flying home on this adventure, we had chosen to lay over in London Heathrow airport.  Unbeknownst to us, the airport must have received some sort of security alert that they chose not to explain to the passengers.  Instead, my entire family was selected to undergo a comprehensive search (my father always claims that since he has a small build that corresponds to the profile of a Middle Eastern man, they choose him as an example of reverse racial profiling).  Not only did we have to pass through full body scanners (in the days when these were not yet compulsory) and submit to pat-downs, they also went through every single article of our carry-on bags.  For my thirteen-year-old brother, this meant turning on and off his Gameboy, and they also flipped through my fifteen or so books.  To make matters worse, they made all the passengers wait for an indefinite amount of time in this terminal without the opportunity to leave – they gave us potato chips and snacks as compensation.  Finally, we got the green light to walk to another, undisclosed, terminal, where we went down a flight of stairs, got on a bus, and boarded the plane.  I still to this day do not know why they went to all that trouble.

Once I began traveling internationally on my own, I began to experience what I call “the homecoming curse.”  For three transatlantic flights in a row heading back from Europe to the United States, I have failed to catch my connecting flight and, as a result, have spent the night in an airport-sponsored hotel.  In 2009, I once again (for hopefully the last time) found myself in Heathrow, waiting to catch a plane through to Chicago.  We were boarded without a problem, but once aboard the plane, the flight crew informed us that something was wrong with the second gas canister (I might be mangling the details on this one), and that they would have to replace it before take-off.  Granted, like a good traveler, I had given myself two to three-hour leeway room for my layover in Chicago, but by the time an hour had passed without us taking off, I started to panic.  Upon arriving in Chicago, I found that I needed to take off my luggage and recheck it for my American Airlines flight.  As I finally reached the line (which moved at a snail’s pace), I frantically called my mother about my missed flight.  I was very sleep-deprived, and so I blatantly told the woman at the counter to put me on the next available flight – which happened to be at 6:00 am the next morning.  In retrospect, as they gave me a free hotel room, it probably would have been a better idea to choose a flight that doesn’t require me to wake up at 4:00 am.

For my second international homecoming, in May 2011, I flew from Paris to New York JFK on an Air France/Delta flight.  This time, the waiting took place at the terminal, again for an undisclosed reason.  My fellow passengers and I happened to notice, however, that there were at least three trained dogs on the tarmac sniffing the luggage apparently belonging to our flight.  The delay must not have been longer than thirty to forty minutes, but it was significant enough that it put my 3-hour window in jeopardy.  Especially since upon arriving in New York, I realized what chaos it is to pass through customs at JFK and to attempt to recover your suitcases from among the millions of other suitcases pouring out at the same time.  I made my way to the Delta/Air France counter once I had been told that I didn’t have enough time to recheck my luggage.  Feeling somewhat wiser than I was at age 19, I told them I wanted a direct flight home to St. Louis the next day.  My only option was to fly out of LaGuardia, so I convinced them to book me a hotel room at the adjoining hotel.  The only problem was how to get there.  Still incredibly naive, I almost got into an unidentified cab after being guided by an incredibly pushy “cab driver” in New York City.   As he started loading my bags into his car, I stuck to my gut (and the realization that $60 was probably way out of the park for my short drive), and went back to the line of Yellow taxis.  Luckily, I called my mother again, who was able to confirm the address of the hotel.  All worked out eventually.

January of 2012, I found myself yet again taking the same flight from Paris to New York.  This time I was afraid that I wouldn’t even make my transatlantic flight.  I spent two hours waiting to check my bags, which didn’t get loaded until literally 1:00 pm for a 1:30 pm flight, as there were various problems with AirFrance, including the fact that the workers kept leaving for lunch breaks and not coming back.  They delayed the flight for us, as it was a double-decker AirBus missing a good percentage of its passengers due to baggage delays, but I still sprinted through the terminal and was only calm once I buckled my seatbelt.  I got red wine spilt on me twice by my seat-mate (the same Chinese guy who asked for champagne, red wine, and another bottle of red for the meal), but the food was good, seats comfortable, and the movies wonderful.  Of course, there was no chance of me passing through customs in time to get my bag (among 300 other bags) and make my connecting flight within 30 minutes.  So Delta/Air France put me up in the Double Tree.  Not too shabby.  Of course, I had an additional layover the following day and a 7-hour drive to Omaha the day after, but I eventually made it back to my university.

From St. Louis to Amiens

Valentine, Nebraska

My journey abroad this time was without a doubt the most ambitious I have yet planned: it involved four planes, fourteen hours round-trip in a car, a 30-minute RER train, and an hour and a half train ride before arriving at my final destination.  Of course, it was much more meander, for good reason.  Two of my close friends were getting married the day before my international flight!

My itinerary was thus as follows: I’d catch a plane from St. Louis to Omaha on Friday, where I would meet up with friends still studying in Omaha or otherwise living there, and spend the night at a friend of a friend’s place (with the said friend there of course) and his roommate, a mutual friend.  It resulted in a lot of hilarious adventures through Omaha’s Old Market with two full suitcases, as well as some quality time spent with good friends.

Me and my bags, with friends, in the Old Market

The next stage of the journey was a bit more cumbersome.  Saturday morning, my friend and I woke up early to be picked up by two other college friends – the four of us were roadtripping seven hours to Valentine, Nebraska, a little town in the north of the state with absolutely gorgeous vistas and a real “Wild West” flavor.  We took a tour of the town and then helped out by visiting with the bride and the groom, separately, until the wedding extravaganza took place.  It was so worth traveling a day and a half to see them there!  We spent the night on the floor of the bride’s childhood bedroom, and then Sunday morning, we were back in the car, another seven hours to get back to Omaha.  What a wonderful way to say good-bye to close friends!

In Omaha, the weekend happened to coincide with move-in at my Alma Mater, so my friends who were Seniors ferried me around as the went to used bookstores, a local pizza joint, and a cellphone carrier, before I got ready in their college apartment.  Finally, I arrived at the Omaha airport (tiny that is!) and, with the help of a Chinese friend – an almost 100k United Gold member himself –  managed to convince United to check my bags all the way to Paris!  It cost me $100 for the second bag, but as I had packed literally my entire wardrobe, it was worth it.  The flight was smooth sailing until arriving in Chicago, where I had to walk for a solid half an hour before arriving at the LOT Polish airlines check-in.  I needed to print out my boarding pass and, more importantly, ensure that they had transferred my bags to my international flight.  The wait was excruciatingly long, and I must have been the only non-Pole to board my flight.

Finally, at 10:00 PM, I managed to get onto the flight – let me just say diplomatically, the Polish people must either detest lines or have been in quite a hurry, because it’s a miracle I got anywhere with all the individuals who cut in front of me in line.  The flight was so incredibly different from my previous AirFrance experiences.  I had the impression of being in a Soviet-era airplane, complete with the old communal film projector and the enthusiastic clapping for the pilot as we landed in Warsaw (I had never had the experience of clapping upon arriving at my destination, leaving me more worried than I had been the previous 9 hours! – aren’t the majority of landings safe and smooth?).  The food, as I had chosen a special “Moslem” meal on the online website, was also drastically different from what I had eaten aboard the French airline – fish, in a word.  Grilled fish, smoked fish, something resembling fish for my breakfast.  I wonder what the “Vegetarian” or “Hindi” meals must have been like!  As the seemingly only non-Pole on the flight, I was also constantly addressed in Polish, of which I am sadly totally ignorant.  All in all, it was a good flight, although the nine and a half hours crossing Greenland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries was a bit long.

I passed through customs and immigration in Poland, which was a surreal experience.  Luckily I had a decent layover before my Paris flight, for getting through the line was not the most productive time I have spent.  As a bonus, however, it meant that I wouldn’t have to go through customs in France, which meant that arrival at my final destination took less time and hassle.  I picked up my two bags (I had had to convince the woman at the counter in Warsaw that I did indeed have two bags and had paid for the second) with the other Europeans, and I strolled my way through the European terminal.  Unfortunately, as Hedi was to meet me at the Gare SNCF, it meant I had a ten minute shuttle to wait before finally arriving, tired and sweaty.  As luck would have it, he arrived from the Parisian RER just in time.

The rest of Monday evening was hazy, spent being jostled in the RER and then nearly falling asleep in the TER train to Amiens.  We dragged the two bags across the Rue 3 Cailloux to my apartment, where Hedi spent two trips lugging my 20 kilo suitcases up five flights of stairs.  Finally, I was home.

I’ll continue with Baguettes and Red Tape another day…

Has anyone had any interesting experiences with air travel? Any “unusual circumstances” that have never been explained?

Categories: France, Poland, Switzerland, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Visa Woes

Exactly a month has gone by since I last posted on Expatlove, and a lot has happened since then.  I want to update you on a few of the key developments in my life before moving on to a topic of interest – obtaining a visa for living in France.

I graduated, summa cum laude, and with one recognition, “Outstanding French Senior.”  I am not sure whether or not this particular degree will come in handy in the future, but it was a journey, an education, and a mostly positive experience.  I have no regrets.


In a way, American university is like a fairy tale compared to the rest of the world’s higher education.  Luxurious, manicured lawns, professors who invite students to their townhouses to talk over dinner about philosophy and politics, fully-equipped fitness centers with swimming pools.  There are sororities and fraternities and honors societies and pre-professional programs that have little to do with Law School or Medical School or Dental School.  It’s the Life of the Mind, and it’s a nice retreat from the real world.  A few of my friends would like to spend the rest of their lives in this environment, as college professors.  Nothing could be a more apt ending than the iconic American graduation ceremony, where with tassel, cap, and gown we stride across a stage to receive an empty diploma case – it’s all symbolic, of course.

Commencement ceremony

I’ve also been doing a bit of local traveling, such as over Memorial Day weekend when I attended a family reunion at my father’s family’s historic residence for over four generations, in the middle of Northern Missouri.  I caught up with cousins and second cousins and first cousins once removed, and I snapped quite a few shots of the family graveyard, which holds the tombstones of my grandfather, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and great-great-great-grandparents, the patriach and matriarch of the family.  This man was quite wealthy and made the town into something back in the 1860’s, when he built this big brick house and barn, which are both in sad states of decay.  The façade is worth a peek, though.

Red brick houseI met up with my female friends from college in Chicago, Illinois, and Naperville, Illinois this past weekend.  Besides touring the city, we also ran like crazy painted fools in the Chicago Color Run, where at every few kilometers volunteers throw colored powder at us.  Chicago is one of my absolute favorite cities in the United States, of the few that I have visited.  It has fantastic architecture, lakefront promenades, beautiful parks, and plenty of culture without losing its good-natured Midwestern laissez-faire attitude.

Here’s a snapshot of my favorite café in Chicago, Intelligentsia, which is a specialty coffeehouse that rivals, and in some ways surpasses, the one I work for in St. Louis.  It was the highlight of a trip full of bad to mediocre coffee experiences, after now four weeks of endless cups of free cappuchinos, side cars, pour overs, and espressos under my belt.

Naperville was truly a paradise for a recently-graduated-from-college shopping trip.  Cute little boutiques, bookstores, cafes, William Sonoma (just for ogling), and a nice shady tree for picnicking.

What else have I been doing with my time?  Working non-stop mostly, in order to pay for my upcoming Master’s in France.  And trying to figure out all the items needed for the difficult process of obtaining a French visa.

  • I decided to accept the offer from Amiens, France, to pursue my Master’s in English literature at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne.
  • I bought a one-way plane ticket for the end of August to fly from Chicago to Paris.
  • I pulled out my hair trying to figure out how to come up with the $820 per month that is required to prove my financial support as an independent student.

Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, you might say.  A few clicks of the mouse and I am already on my way to France…  not exactly.

This is the third time I have sought a visa to live for more than three months (which is granted “visa-free” to Americans who choose to travel to Europe) in Europe in the last four years, but this is the only time I have felt the stress and anxiety of the whole process.

Unlike other countries’ consulates, the French consulate of Chicago, which represents the greater Midwest, requires that you arrive in person for a pre-arranged visa appointment.  If you are missing even a single required item, you must return at a later date and rebook an appointment.  Like any great bureaucracy, France requires a multitude of items in order to be granted a visa, and even a student visa is hard to obtain when the student is applying directly to a French university (as opposed to an exchange faciliated by an American program or university).  The scariest element of the process is the unexplicably negative response that you might be given, as you are left feeling helpless and must request an appeal to your visa refusal before ever setting foot in France.  And the waiting as the verdict is delivered.

Okay, so I am exaggerating a bit, and no, I have not yet received my visa for this Fall.  I have an appointment booked for later in the summer.  Next post, I will walk you through the steps of applying for a visa along with an explanation of the types of visas that you might encounter if you choose to live in France.

Has anyone else experienced applying for a student visa in France?  What was the experience like for you?

Categories: Bureacracy, France, Immigration, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

Blog at