United States

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.

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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!

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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.

IMG_0852

 

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.

f1020001

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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

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