Saturday, September 25, 2010

navigating the grocery store

Grocery stores in France are a lot like their counterparts in other countries; indeed, the invention of the "super store" is a French one from what I understand. The first hypermarché opened in 1963 and they have taken over the French landscape ever since. There are some differences, of course, between what I grew up with and what is available to me here.

the smell
I've heard that they use aerosols to make the supermarkets smell appetizing. I think they've got their scents wrong. When I enter a French supermarket, I am usually greeted with a odorous mix of baking (good!) and fish (bad!).

the selection
This is France after all, so there are lots of things you can't get in Canada. In the wine section, they have a special area for wines to go with foie gras and there is a whole aisle dedicated to tins of cassoulet, terrines and confit de canard. The meat counter has all sorts of pâté, charcuterie and sausages. The yogurt and pudding coolers are to die for; there are at least a hundred times more types of yogurt, fromage frais, pots de crème and crème fraiche than I have ever seen in Canada, and most of the items come in individual servings, so the visual effect is overwhelming. Let's not forget the cheese, too; it goes without saying that you can find hundreds of cheeses at reasonable prices (and I've even recently seen local cheeses in the big chains). Anything to do with whole grains or slightly "alternative" products, however, is pretty much impossible to find, so I go to the organic co-op stores to pick up brown rice, whole wheat flour, almonds and other things such as natural peanut butter (you can take a girl out of Canada, but you can't take the peanut butter away from the girl!).

organization of aisles
There is a different logic to the aisles and shelves of French supermarkets. Many items can be found in three or more different locations, depending on how you view them. Here are some examples:
- chocolate: candy aisle, fair trade aisle, organic aisle
- tortilla chips: apéritif aisle, chips aisle, international food aisle
- canned tomatoes: pasta aisle, tinned vegetable aisle, organic aisle
- cookies: cookie aisle, breakfast aisle (!), organic aisle,
- coffee: breakfast aisle, fair trade aisle, organic aisle
This is means that if you want to compare prices and packages of certain items, you need to run around the store. I personally would love to see all the coffee - fair trade, organic and regular - in the same place, so that I can compare and make my choice in one location. I'm not sure why they've broken it down they way they have, but somehow it's what works for them. The thing about cookies in the breakfast aisle is a bit of a concern for me, but apparently there are cookies (sandwich-type chocolate ones) that are considered a breakfast food. This reminds me of the typical after-school snack given to children: a chunk of white baguette with a slab of chocolate inside.

Bright lights, white tiles and annoying music. There is nothing sexy about these supermarkets! I'm not sure if the North American trend of tolerable lighting and more pleasant interior design will ever catch on here, but I think there's a market for it! I have noticed that some of the megastores are starting to open up boutique markets in the city centres. This is a start. We'll see if something like Whole Foods, or a European counterpart, can make a go of it in France.

Of course not all supermarkets are the same and there are different selections and styles of organization, depending on where you go. Ideally, we try to go to the outdoor market and the organic stores, but organic products are even more expensive here than in North America and the markets are only open in the morning, with the weekend ones being the furthest away. We also go to the little asian supermarkets that carry things like soba noodles, rice vinegar and soy sauce. Savennières, our village-to-be, is lucky enough to have a small cooperative supermarket that carries organic and regular products. It's also got a killer wine cave with local wines! I plan on becoming a member and volunteering my time there in order to meet people and to help the store along. Maybe I can even make some suggestions!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

back to school

I officially started giving lessons again on August 16 and my work has been very intermittent since then. Before the summer holidays I was offered some work at a professional high school, but there was an autorisation d'enseignement to apply for from the school district and at the end of August, I was still waiting to hear if it had been accepted. On August 30 I heard that I was expected to be at the school's pré-rentrée meeting (la rentrée is the start of school); I guess I'm officially allowed to teach in the school district! I showed up for a day of rules, regulations, expectations and powerpoint presentations of pie charts showing the numbers of tardies from the previous year. The 'school speak' was filled with acronyms that I didn't understand; each class is referred to by an acronym and there are 32 of them! I was given my emploi du temps (timetable) and was told that I would start teaching the following week Friday. Super! Jean-Marc and I had planned to go to the farmhouse for a few days before school started and this gave us a week to get away.

While enjoying the farmhouse and the late summer weather, I had the idea to check phone messages on the Monday. To my shock, there was a message from a school principal at the other school site (I work at two sites) saying that I was expected to be teaching a class that day and that they were waiting for me! Yikes. I had no idea I was supposed to be teaching that day and nobody had informed me that I needed to pick up the other timetable from the other site separately. I also learned that I was expected to teach a class on the Wednesday. So Jean-Marc and I packed everything up a little earlier than expected and headed home so that I could start my new job.

I am teaching apprentices who are salaried workers who work for two weeks and then come to school for one week. That means I see each of my four groups every three weeks for two hours; that's not much English! So far my groups (CR2A, CR2B and MHL) are people studying to be road builders and maintenance workers. Most of them are 16-18 years old but I also have one student who is 21. The groups are fairly small, with a maximum of 10 students per class, and so far they are all boys. I have to say that I never thought I would go back to teaching high school, but in little doses - two to six hours per week - it's actually kind of fun. They're very cute and even though they are not crazy about learning English, we've been having a good time so far. This week I will meet my AEM1/2 group and I'll find out what they are studying to become. Since they are salaried workers, it is in their best interest to show up on time and to do their homework. If they show up late, their pay is docked and if they misbehave, they can be fired. I like this kind of high school! Oh, and I should mention that three of my groups are at the site that is based in a castle. Of course I don't have my classes in the castle - it's reserved for administration - but it's still kind of cool to go to the château to teach school.

This new work has added a lot more running around to my already busy schedule and I'm madly trying to keep track of the rotating classes. So far, aside from the one missed class, things are going well and I'm managing to keep on top of it all. The best news for me is that this work pays more than double what I make elsewhere, so the 2-6 hours will make a difference to the bottom line (although I'll have to wait until December for my first cheque - they pay two months after the end of the month worked!).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

our new place: savennières

We've actually known this for a few days now, but we have finally found a new place to live. It's been quite a long process, starting in July when we gave our 3+ months' notice. We focused on a few villages and areas of Angers where we were interested in living and we both had our criteria: I wanted charm and loveliness and Jean-Marc wanted access to outside. We both wanted a place that was bigger, closer to work and affordable.

Before we took off for Holland, my yoga teacher emailed to say that he was moving out of his great apartment in Angers. It had 3 bedrooms, wood floors, lots of windows and some (non-working) fireplaces. It felt meant-to-be because he was moving out exactly when we needed to move. It had the loveliness I was after but there was no access to outside, it was a bit more expensive, and the kitchen was tiny. It was an option that we kept in our back pocket while we looked at other houses and apartments, most of which were in the 600€ price range.

In the meantime, I went to a few mairies (town halls) in our preferred villages and asked about any rentals that they might know about. When I was in Savennières - our first choice for a village - the helpful secretary at the mairie asked if I had applied for social housing. I had heard of it and knew that it was widely available even for those with a regular income but I had never applied. She gave me the form and explained how the process could take a number of months or years (!). I filled out the form, attached all sorts of paperwork (tax returns, pay stubs etc.) and within a week we had a applicant number. One week later, a social housing agency, of which there are many, called to offer us a 3 bedroom 1000 square foot apartment in Savennières. We had a look and we decided to take it.

The apartment is in a building that was once a manor and then a retirement home. It was redone about 4 years ago. The building is set back from a tiny winding one-way street and it has a large piece of land around it, so it's quiet. We are on the ground floor, with access to outside: the front has a shared outdoor courtyard and the back has a more private large patio surrounded by trees. They say it's 3 bedrooms, but it's actually got more rooms. It's airy, bright and neutral. The kitchen and two of the bedrooms have windowed doors that lead to outside. There are a few downsides: no actual garden - just paved courtyard and patio - the whole place is tiled in cream tile (Why, oh why? I'm writing my rug list!), and the charm is a little lacking but not completely missing. As I mentioned, it's neutral and I think I can create something lovely with this blank canvas. The real clincher for us was the price: 415€/month. That's less than we are paying right now! Plus it's in a charming village a stone's throw from the Loire, in a wine-making area with lots of walking and cycling trails, and only 5 km from Jean-Marc's work and 15 km from mine. It's pretty much win-win with just a few compromises.

Our notice was for November 1, but we will get the keys on October 1 and get two weeks free. It means paying two rents for the last two weeks of October, but the amount that we are saving (real estate agency fees which are normal for rentals) and the ability to move in slowly makes it worth it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

favourite things: no ads at night

This is just a little hats-off to the French public television stations (France 2, 3, 5 and Arte) that don't show advertisements after 8:30pm. It's so much more enjoyable to watch movies and documentaries without the annoying breaks!

Saturday, September 11, 2010


There are some words, as I mentioned before, that have been borrowed from English by the French to mean something completely different than their original definition. Sometimes they even invent English words!

Take the word self, for example. Do you have any idea what it means in French? I'll give you some hints: you can eat in it! I had somebody ask me where the self was at school. Give up? It's a cafeteria. Presumably it comes from self-service cafeteria and the French have reduced it down to one word.

One of the invented words is relooking. It also exists as a verb relooker. No, it doesn't mean to do a double-take, but rather a makeover. You can find it related to homes (a house makeover/renovation) and personal style. I have been tempted to use my interior design skills and enter the world of relooking as a side job. We'll see!

Then there are the words that are used with the same definition but are pronounced in a French way (we do the same with French words in English). One such word is discount. It is pronounced dees-koont and if it's a big discount, it is preceded by the word hard:  aard dees-koont.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

learning to drive (again)

Well, maybe I'm not so much learning to drive as jumping through some hoops (and costs) to get a French driver's licence. First step is to pass the theory test: le code de la route.

What I have found interesting is going to my "lessons" which are not lessons at all but just a bunch of students in a room who take practice tests on DVD with explanations. There are 60 possible tests to take in order to learn all the information that is required. I would argue that some of the things are not relevant to being a good driver and that much of it is tricky and vague. For example, they show a picture of a country road and ask if it's safe to pass. Personally I see a curve coming up in the photo, so even though the lines on the road say it's safe, I would wait. But no. It's safe to pass and I get the question wrong. But if I didn't pass the car in question, I wouldn't be driving dangerously, but no matter. The trick is to learn the tricks and play by their rules. The test is multiple choice with 40 questions and I'm allowed to get 5 wrong. There can be anywhere from 1 to 3 correct answers per question and if I miss one I get the whole thing wrong. I've got to study up on my percentages, mathematical equations and statistics!

I've also been learning new vocabulary. Some words that I didn't know at first I made up my own silly meanings for, knowing that they weren't correct. Here are some examples:

my definition: something to do with burping or perhaps vomiting
the real definition: a junction or a fork in the road

my definition: delight
the real definition: crime or offence

my definition: ride a horse
the real definition: to lap or cross over (a lane or a line), but to be fair it also means to ride a horse or to sit astride a horse

my definition: the sock of the road (I figured it was the side of the road)
the real definition: the full road surface

my definition: attractiveness
the real definition: speed or pace

my definition: evil, ominous
the real definition: an accident (in case of)

I'm still waiting to find out if my application to apply (yes, that's right) for a driver's licence has been accepted by foreign services. When I get that stamp of approval I can apply to take the test and move on to preparing for the practical test, while continuing to drive about 700 km per week on my Canadian licence!