Thursday, August 26, 2010

my choir

When I first moved here, I started looking for professional choirs to audition for and I ended up getting on two rosters (with no promise of work). After a few months, I started to really miss singing with other people, so I asked my voice teacher for a good local choir, even an amateur one. He suggested the choir of the local orchestra and I auditioned at the beginning of May and joined right away.

The choir is a regional one - as is the orchestra - and is based in two cities: Nantes and Angers. There are two groups of singers who meet in their respective cities for most rehearsals and then there are combined rehearsals before the concerts. Because it's supported by the regional government, there are all sorts of perks. First of all, when the combined rehearsal is in one city, there is a bus that picks up and drops off everybody from the other city. When there is a concert or dress rehearsal in the "other" city, there is a 15€ reimbursement for supper for each singer. If singers drive more than 50 km to a rehearsal, they are reimbursed for the kms driven. There is a singing teacher present at each rehearsal who listens along and gives suggestions for  ways to make things sound better and there are also free mandatory individual singing lessons for every singer. The downside is that regular rehearsals go from 8:30- 11:00 PM, and when the rehearsals are in Nantes, I don't get home until 1:00AM, making getting up early for work the next day almost impossible. This weekend, we are heading away for a 3-day retreat on the Atlantic coast. All expenses are paid!

It is an amateur choir - and a large one at 75 people! - but the level is quite high. Sometimes I miss the intimacy of the 12-voice professional ensemble I sang with in Vancouver and I'm even playing with the idea of creating my own here (if you can't find it, make it!).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

marianne is france

... or at least is a symbol of it!

Growing up with the first name Marianne, I never really had too much opinion about my name. It was unusual and a little old-fashioned, and it was something I neither loved nor detested. Little did I know that the name is actually a symbol of the Republic of France, the country that I would come to love!

When I first came to France as a jeune fille au pair, I remember the family's mother telling me about La Marianne, how she represents the values of France (Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité) and how she was on all the stamps. My name as the spirit and values of France: imagine! I began to like my name more and more - plus it was easy for French people to understand and pronounce.

She's currently also on the government's logo, and I now find myself running into her everywhere I go. I doubt that my parents knew anything about it when they named me, but now I'm very thankful that they chose this name!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

old world / new world: storage

Jean-Marc and I gave our notice for November 1 and we are currently looking for a place to live that is a bit bigger than what we have and a little closer to where we both work. At the moment I drive 28 km each way to work and Jean-Marc drives 25 km each way - and with gas being 1.35€/litre, it adds up to a lot of money spent on commuting!

One thing I have noticed in our search thus far is the lack of storage in every apartment and house. The French do not build closets into their rooms; they would rather have wooden armoires, which I personally find to be cumbersome and imposing, especially in small rooms. This means that you can find places to live where there is not one single place to hang jackets, store linen or hide a vacuum cleaner!

Another shock is the lack of kitchen. There is a "kitchen" but more often than not it only includes a sink with a cabinet below. There are no fancy schmacy things like countertops, shelves, cabinets, stove and fridge; indeed, renters must move in with their own kitchen appliances and furniture. Only if you are lucky enough to spot the words cuisine américaine will you find a real kitchen. I find this to be ironic, considering how much the French place importance on good cooking.

Since there are no communal laundry rooms, you also have to travel with your own washing machine, which will usually end up in the bathroom or the kitchen. Bathrooms are also lacking in storage units and towel bars. To top it all off, none of the lights are ever "finished" and all light fixtures are just bare lightbulbs hanging from a wire. I don't understand why, in this modern world of cheap and neutral light fixtures, the landlords don't make an effort to present a more finished apartment. Haven't they seen the 5€ pendant lamps at IKEA? Surely they could get a little extra money for the effort, based on what everybody else is proposing!

I am finding it difficult to come across rentals that have everything I'm looking for. One big disappointment for me is the lack of charm in the majority of what I see. It could be that it is exaggerated in the area around Angers and not true for all of France. More often than not, owners opt for white ceramic tile EVERYWHERE for flooring material. What's wrong with hardwood? Well, I guess they think you can't wash it. Personally, white tile in living areas gives me the heebie-jeebies (almost as much as compact fluorescent lights) and I can't imagine putting it anywhere outside of a bathroom and maybe a kitchen. A bedroom? A living room? I can assure you that it is used everywhere.

So maybe it's a pie-in-the-sky dream to find an affordable, charming stone house in a village de caractère where the original materials speak for themselves, or maybe a tranquil city apartment with big windows and wood floors, but we're going to keep on searching until the right thing turns up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

plum tart

Last Saturday we invited a friend over for lunch. We had very little in the house but I managed to put together a tasty menu:

appetizer: homemade crackers with a tomato salsa made from our own garden's heirloom tomatoes

main dish: pasta with mushrooms and chorizo in a tomato/red wine sauce

dessert: homemade plum tart (with plums from the garden) and homemade frozen yogurt

It was kind of a busy morning but I managed to get everything done before 1pm. I started the frozen yogurt the night before so it would be ready for lunch. I don't have an ice cream maker and I just put the mix into a metal cake pan and put it in the freezer, giving it a stir every couple of hours.

The plum tart was a new one for me and I thought I'd share it here, just in case you have an abundance of plums! I just made this recipe up, based on my experience making fruit tarts.

plum tart

1 1/2 cups flour
pinch salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter (plus 2 tablespoons) or 125 grams
1/2 tsp vanilla (I forgot it this time)
1 tablespoon water

(I added lime zest to the crust this time)

cinnamon (optional)

Make pie crust according to the instructions here.

Pit and halve the plums. I took some of the mushier plums and mixed them with a little sugar and cinnamon in a saucepan to make a plum compote. Even though the plums were sweet to eat, I found that they turned quite acidic during the cooking process, so if you don't like tart tarts, you may want to go a little heavy on the sugar, in which case I would add a little water to the mix. Let compote cool down. Spread the plum compote over the rolled out crust in your pie pan. Then put all the halved plums over the compote layer (you may want to toss them in sugar first, to up the sweetness factor).

You may want to sprinkle more sugar on the plums at this point. Throw it in the oven (375 F or 190 C) for 30+ minutes until the crust is golden brown and the plums are cooked and bubbling. A great all-purpose fruit tart recipe!

Monday, August 16, 2010

old world / new world: identity photos

Sometimes getting motivated to write something on this blog feels similar to trying to find the motivation to exercise; I want to - and I have ideas about what I want to tackle - but somehow laziness and procrastination kick in and I end up putting it off. It's been a lovely summer and we just got back home from a 12-day trip to Holland and I'm slowly easing into a bit of work before September hits. A perfect time to start running and blogging!

This summer has been administration-heavy for me, with needing a new passport, a French driver's licence, a new health care card as well as a new visa de long séjour. When applying for various cards and visas, as well as jobs, an identity photo (or four!) is always required. Remember those photo booths where you took goofy photos with your friends? Well those are considered "official" photos here, according to the government, and I've already made four trips to my local photo booth for all my official photo needs!

New job: one photo
Driver's licence: four photos
Health care card: one photo per card (I'm already getting my second)
Visa de long séjour: four photos

Of course when I needed to renew my passport, I needed two photos taken to Canadian standards, so I had to search out a photographer who could do them for me.

I'm not sure what they do with all these photos, but they  obviously don't believe in in-house digital photography or scanners! I think that this is a bit of an old world/ new world thing, even though photos haven't been around all that long. In France, even when you send in a job application you need to attach a photo (I've scanned mine into my CV) but in Canada I've never had to do that, and it's probably discouraged so as to avoid discrimination. Not so here!

In addition to providing photos, they also require stamps or prepaid envelopes. Just for my driver's licence, I had to provide two BOOKS of stamps! That's a lot of mailing! Apparently before I can apply to take the theory test - a 40-question test filled with trick questions that requires hours and hours of studying to pass - the driving school had to send my application to foreign services to be approved. Once my application is approved, we can book a time for the test (they're group tests given in large rooms to a limited number of applicants). Once I pass my test, I can have driving lessons, at which point they will evaluate the number of lessons I will need before doing my practical test. If I fail my practical test I will need to wait at least 2 months before trying again. Did I mention that I've been driving in France for 10 years and have owned a car here with no problem for the last 7 years? I was allowed to drive here every summer for 3 months maximum at one time and then when I moved here they told me I was allowed to drive with my BC licence for one year and then I would need a French licence. I fail to see the consistency and it feels a bit like a money grab, but oh well. It's probably not a bad exercise to go through!

Once my passport, visa, licence and health care card are here I think I'll be done paperwork (until next year!).