Dreaming in Color: Two Days in Annecy

IMG_1844

Forget a pool-side resort or a month-long cruise. To lose yourself in the beauty of summer, head to the French town of Annecy, just south of Geneva and the Swiss border, where sun, mountains, and lakes come in a million hues of blue, gray and green.

Our two-day visit there this summer left me stunned and wishing that I had come sooner to benefit from weeks of this cozy city of just 50,000 inhabitants.

We were welcomed by a friend with whom we spent a lazy afternoon picnicking on the lake and staring out over the glistening light blue waves. Then we rented a pedal boat from a wide choice of vendors, rode out to the middle, and enjoyed a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and the other boats of all types and sizes.

IMG_1818

Later, we took in that same view, but this time from atop the Col de la Forclaz at 1157 meters of altitude and a quick, twenty-minute climb from the lake. Apart from the landscape, entertainment included the amused observation of an endless stream of paragliders sailing into the wind from a take-off pad nearby. Annecy is one of the few locations in the world that has perfect conditions for paragliding: its rock formations allow for upward drafts of air that set the paragliders on their way. We sat and watched for hours, weighing the pros and cons of the sport, in admiration of its enthusiasts and wondering if we would ever find enough courage to give it a try.

IMG_1827

IMG_1820

IMG_1830

IMG_1831

IMG_1828

Then it was back to town to savor some specialties of Annecy’s Rhône-Alpes region, including tartiflette. Though it is understandably a winter dish- it is essentially composed of potatoes topped with thick layers of various melted cheeses- the long hours in the sun and water had worked up enough appetite to enjoy it with salad and few glasses of white wine. We followed it with heaping ice cream cones from a choice of what seemed like hundreds of ice cream vendors in the small cobblestone streets, which teem with tourists of all ages and nationalities during the summer months.

IMG_1835

IMG_1836

The next day, we meandered through the downtown area with our friend and excellent guide. Our tour started near the lake, whose shores wash right up to a small park in the city. Then it was a march through the historic district, a cross of Alsace’s brightly colored buildings, Swiss chalets, and typical French cobblestone streets. Its charming canal winds lazily through gaping tourists, scores of restaurants, movie theaters and wine shops. The fact that everything one would need is packed into such a small city, combined with the nature that surrounds it, has given me yet another option for an ideal place to settle down in France…

IMG_1842

IMG_1852

IMG_1851

IMG_1849

IMG_1848

 

 

Posted in Annecy, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

1000-year anniversary of the Strasbourg cathedral 

This year marks the 1000-year anniversary of the Strasbourg cathedral. We celebrated by enjoying the city’s summer light show projected onto the cathedral. This annual event had a new twist this year: the lights were projected onto the southern side of the cathedral instead of the front to offer a larger, more spectacular show that can be viewed from the newly-constructed Place du Château. 

    
    
    
    
    
 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

10915166_10152754057729818_7833069325224978823_n

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Slideshows from Ardèche and the Jura

Between Lyon and Montpellier lies a hidden gem: the département called Ardèche. It has all the essentials of a perfect relaxing vacation, including mountains, hiking, camping, great wine, lakes, and rivers. Most importantly, it is not overrun with the tourist rush that is found in other regions of France. Here are some slideshows of our relaxing and refreshing hiking trip last summer. It ended with a weekend in the Jura, another road-less-travelled département 1 1/2 hours north of Lyon near the Swiss border and known for its delicious Comté cheese, unusual wines, and rolling green hills.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From Rocher, we headed 20 minutes southwest to Balazuc, a village whose architecture stands still in medieval times.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We then stopped in Ruoms, 15 minutes south of Balazuc and founded in the 5th century.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We then headed 1 1/2 hours north to Saint-Eulalie, a town of less than 300 people in the Rhône-Alpes region.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next day, we began our day-long hike to and from the Mont Gerbier de Jonc, through pastures, lost country roads, and wild meadows.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next’s day’s hike took us to the Ray Pic waterfall, but not before a challenging 6-mile obstacle course over steep slopes and through a dense, dark forest. The destination was worth it, as well as the walk home through a flower-covered meadow. We made it back to our car parked in Sagnes-et-Goudoulet, the village at the start of the trail. We paused to explored its church, which has been a pilgrimage site since the 17th century. Back then, it was known for healing a local skin disease. Then it was back to Saint-Eulalie for some well-deserved rest.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next we drove one hour northwest to Le Puy-en-Velay in the Haute-Loire département. This city is a step on the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle trail.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Finally, we stopped to visit some friends in a small lakeside town in the Jura département, 1.5 hours northeast of Lyon near the Swiss border, before heading home to Alsace.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

French-American Friendship in Nancy

american flag

The American flag flies above the Place Stanislas in Nancy for the 70th anniversary of city’s liberation from the Nazis.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nancy in the Lorraine region, the city welcomed French and American troops and veterans, school groups and the general public for a commemorative ceremony.

After a military parade on the Place Stanislas, participants were given the opportunity to join Laurent Hénart, the mayor of Nancy, in a ceremony in the Hôtel de Ville. With its 18th-century grand hall as a backdrop, Mr. Henart not only paid honor to the heroes of 1944 but also expressed his condolences and strongly condemned recent acts of violence towards American and British journalists and humanitarian workers, reminding his listeners that threats to democracy still exist today. Despite small disagreements that the United States and France may have over societal structures or globalization, the alliance will endure, he assured, and the United States will continue to be supported by their long-standing ally.

Amy Westling, the Consul General of the United States in Strasbourg also paid tribute: when it comes to peace, “there is no way to fully honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice here in France and across Europe,” she declared, and then addressed the youth in the audience, reminding them that peace and freedom is never won, but is a constant process of hard work and dedication.

nancy embassy

Amy Westling, Consul General of the United States in Strasbourg, reminds youth of the importance of working for peace.

Finally, Mr. Hénart paid  tribute to the “youth of Nancy,” who, he reminded his listeners, were a major part of the resistance against the Nazis: their names appear on several street signs in the city along with the words “fusillé par les Nazis” (executed by the Nazis) as a solemn everyday reminder of their sacrifice. Several high school students were then awarded citizenship awards in honor of their service to the community, and then everyone was invited to come together over refreshments in a symbol of French-American friendship and to enjoy the spectacular view from the Hôtel de Ville overlooking one of France’s most splendid treasures: a plaza where, 70 years ago, the two countries came together to preserve democracy, freedom and friendship among all people.

nancy troops, place

French and American troops march through the Place Stanislas after a commemoration ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville.

Posted in Nancy, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer Night Magic: Light Shows in Strasbourg

vaubaun 4

A perfect August night in Strasbourg follows an almost unbearably hot, sunny day because when the sun goes down, a fresh breeze arises to cool the heavy air, and the streets come to life with both tourists and residents looking for free, relaxing, family entertainment. In Europe, light shows projected onto landmark buildings provide just what they’re looking for. After viewing a spectacular one a few weeks ago in Nancy (click here), I couldn’t wait to see the ones in my own beloved city of Strasbourg.

Around 10pm, we joined the crowds milling about downtown and headed towards the historic Petite France quarter to see the light show at the Barrage Vaubaun. This towering flood barrier was constructed in the 17th century and could be used to flood the area, if needed, so that an attacking army could not cross it and access the rest of the city. Today, you can climb to the terrace constructed on top for a beautiful panoramic view of the city like this one:

vaubaun

This summer and until the end of August, it serves as the backdrop to a summer light show that is built around the theme of Strasbourg and Alsace. While it has been greatly simplified compared to last year’s light and firework show at a different location on the river, the images are strikingly beautiful and it fulfills its purpose as family entertainment as well as a tourist’s introduction to Alsace with its symbols of the stork, the European Union, and many others.

vaubaun

 

vaubaun 3

vaubaun 2

Afterwards, we headed north towards the Cathedral, winding our way through the small cobblestone streets of Petite France and then through the wider, shop-lined Grand’Rue where the small wooden tables of sidewalk cafés and bars overflowed onto the streets. Finally, we found ourselves standing in the plaza beneath the looming Notre Dame Cathedral, and there we were treated to a much more artistic presentation that far surpassed last summer’s show in terms of creativity, variety of colors and music. In fact, it has been so highly appreciated that it won’t end on August 31 as originally planned: the city has extended it until September 7. Instead of just simple flashes of colors, a storyboard has been introduced: angels fighting demons and then destruction by stone and fire, followed by the blossoming of giant, glistening pink roses and a dazzling grand finale of all colors imaginable. And when it was finished, appreciative applause and cries of delight arose from the cluster of hundreds (thousands?) of tourists and residents alike, a small party in Strasbourg’s honor at the very heart of the city.

cathedral 2

cathedral 3

 

cathedral

These pictures don’t do them justice: you’ll have to see these yearly traditions for yourself- if not this summer then in the summers to come!

 “Strasbourg d’eau et de lumières” at the Barrage Vauban: Every night until August 31 at 10:15pm, 10:30pm, 10:45pm, 11pm and 11:15pm

“Les transfigurations de Notre-Dame” at the Cathedral: Every night until September 7 starting at 10:15pm and every 15 minutes thereafter.

More information at: http://www.ete.strasbourg.eu

Posted in Alsace, Entertainment, France, Strasbourg | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Subjective but Useful Guide to TAPIF

tapif

First, thank you to the prospective and/or accepted TAPIFers who checked out my blog—your kind messages were greatly appreciated!

Thank you as well for sending me requests for more information or advice on the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF). Your questions are always welcome and I’m always glad to help out a fellow Francophile interested in my “alma mater” job as a teaching assistant!

I remember the nervous excitement as I was preparing my TAPIF application and just after getting accepted, so to make it easier on you, I’ve compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions that I’ve received. In order to avoid being redundant, I’ve chosen the questions that aren’t already on the official TAPIF website, or ones that I thought I could elaborate on with my own experience. You can check out the FAQs of the official TAPIF website here.

**Please note that my answers are based on my own personal experience and are not universal to all assistants, schools, regions, etc. While I keep myself updated about changes in TAPIF rules and procedures, please also note that I did the program during the 2012-2013 school year.

FREQUENTLY ASKED PRE-ACCEPTANCE QUESTIONS

What are my chances of being accepted? And how can I improve them?

 Ah, the most-asked question from November until January. According to the official website, “For the 2013-2014 program, approximately 2,100 people applied for roughly 1,120 available positions… Approximately 375 other applicants were kept on the waiting list. A large number of accepted applicants withdraw over the course of the summer, meaning that most waitlisted candidates were eventually offered positions for the 2013-2014 program.”

Rumors have been spreading that the TAPIF program has become more competitive over the last few years, and statistically speaking, that seems to be the truth. However, “more competitive” does not mean “impossible” and by highlighting the right credentials and providing an attention-grabbing statement of purpose (see next question), you should do fine. You don’t necessarily need a French major—in fact, most of my fellow assistants in Strasbourg had studied subjects such as Political Science or Education but had minored or taken classes in French in college (and met the B1 requirement, of course!). On the other hand, they all seemed to have experience tutoring, working with children and/or teaching in some way or another, so that could speak to importance of playing up any of those elements on your application, since acceptance is no longer based solely on language skills or a mad love of all things French.

What should I write in the essay?

So that TAPIF doesn’t send me an angry letter next year because it receives 800 essays with the same outline, I’ll keep this one general. In my essay, I focused on all of the international experiences I had had (travel for pleasure—even if it was just a day trip to Canada, study abroad, assisting with the International Festival at my university, French club, language exchanges—even those unofficial online pen-pal things, etc.) with an emphasis on my French ones. I rounded it out by talking about my future career prospects and how working in France would help develop the skills I would need for them. Instead of making it sound like a 9-5 duty, I tried to make teaching sound like an adventure, but one that I would handle seriously and professionally.

Which region should I pick?

 Some things to consider in choosing your regions are:

  1. General interest and lifestyle. Do you also like hiking and outdoor adventures? Try Franche-Comté, Champagne-Ardenne or Rhône-Alpes. Can’t stand French business hours? Think about setting up on the border. Don’t like rain? Then the north is not for you. Or if, like so many other Francophiles, your stay is mostly for oenological reasons, Bourgogne will be your friend.
  2. Language purposes. Do you want complete French immersion? Avoid border towns, Paris and Brittany. Do regional dialects interest you? Places like Alsace and Brittany provide access to such French varieties—but don’t worry, standard French will still be the norm! If you also want to improve your German, Alsace is a great choice and for Spanish, head southwest, of course.
  3. The people you already know in that area—or better yet, the French people you already know there. This will be a huge advantage for having some company, meeting new people, getting help with administrative matters, crashing on his or her sofa if you don’t have housing on arrival, etc. However, I strongly urge against studying in the same city where you did your study abroad… I almost did, and now I’m grateful that I tried instead to discover a completely different area.
  4. Costs. Housing and living costs vary across the country. See the question about housing below.

 

FREQUENTLY-ASKED POST-ACCEPTANCE QUESTIONS

Was the stipend of 790 euros truly enough money to live on?

 TAPIF answers in the affirmative on their website, and I back them up on this, despite other blogs that seem to see it the other way around. Think about it: when you arrive in France, you will probably:

Not have a car and the insurance/parking/gas/maintenance fees that come with it,

-Have the possibility of deferring your student loans (contact your loan provider),

-Have had almost 5 months after graduation day (if you’re coming fresh out of undergrad) to get a temporary job and save money beforehand,

-Benefit from numerous student and “jeune” advantages depending on your age and where you live (travel discounts, tram/metro/bus discounts/ free museums, etc).

-Be able to receive a CAF housing allocation (https://www.caf.fr),

-Have incredible health insurance coverage and paying almost nothing out of pocket for medical expenses.

-Get 50% of your commuting costs reimbursed, if applicable. Ask at your school.

A helpful tip is to come with savings—the TAPIF website recommends 2000 euros for start-up costs, but I think you could get by on much less outside of Paris. However, do be sure to check the exchange rate before you come.

Yes, your visa forbids you from working more than 20 hours per week; however, looking back, I find this limitation helpful for several reasons:

First of all, you will probably have quite a lot of administrative things to do throughout the year (yes, “throughout”) that at times seem to be the equivalent of a part-time job. Housing, the Sécu, your OFII medical visit, signing up for your CAF allocation or various subscriptions (transportation, etc.) sometimes require a lot of running around, and might take a lot longer to get in order if you have to juggle it with a second work schedule.

Secondly, if I had worked more than 20 hours, plus the 12-15 hours per week at my school, I would not have had near as much fun nor learned as much as I did in that year. Fresh out of undergraduate studies, I found the year a nice “break” from the stress of the 40-hour-plus-per-week-working-world that many of my friends back were thrown into (too) abruptly after graduation. With the rest of my time, I navigated the complicated French administration system, travelled, enjoyed the scenery, met new people, started a blog, improved my French level to C1, discovered and started two new other hobbies, and made a final decision on my career choice; in other words, I was able to take my time in finding out who this “post-graduate me” really was and in deciding my future without the hustle and bustle of a full-time work week. Now that I’m back in the post-graduate degree/working world, I’m so grateful that I took that slow-paced year after graduation to figure everything out… even if it meant more crashing on friends’ sofas instead of 5-star hotelling (but with the crêpes they had ready for me in the morning, was it really all that bad?).

How does housing work?

 Either your school will set you up in housing (usually local university residences or church housing) or you will be on your own. I would recommend searching for housing a week or so before you arrive and contacting landlords from the U.S. You can search on http://www.leboncoin.fr or http://www.seloger.com. You can also go through an agency, but this almost always requires a garant.

Ah yes, the famous question of the garantgarant is basically a co-signer of your lease who says that if you don’t pay your rent, he/she will be responsible for footing the bill. Most—almost all—landlords require one for students but even for working professionals. Explaining that you will have an income in the coming year doesn’t usually work well either: landlords usually want to see your last few pay stubs, your tax filings from last year, etc., which, of course, you probably haven’t done in France or don’t have at all if you were a student the year before. Usually, only French citizens or occasionally European residents are accepted as garants, so unless you have family over there that is willing to sign for you, you are pretty much stuck. One of my friends got around this by having a teacher at the school sign for her, but the teacher had offered: I don’t recommend flat-out asking a teacher who hardly knows you to sign away their life savings in your name.

There are other options, including:

Getting extremely lucky and finding an owner that doesn’t require one. Now that owners can take out risk insurance, more and more accepting to take in foreigners without French garants, but they are still few and far between.

-Using your bank as a garantThis gets expensive, as they charge interest and “block” up to one year’s worth of rent in your accounts, so this essentially means you will be paying this up front.

Organizations such as Amallia offer to stand in as your garant.

Do NOT accept any lease agreement that agrees to let you go garant-less but makes you pay an excessive amount of money up front in return (like the landlord who asked if I could pay for the entire year in advance!). Technically, it is illegal to ask for more than one month of advance payment although it could be justified if the renter proposes it, but do you really want to take the risk of ruining your year with legal problems?

For pricing estimations, it all depends on whether you want a student dorm room, a studio, an apartment or a roommate situation. Because I can only speak from my Strasbourg housing experience, this article from LesEchos or this one from 20minutes could be helpful.

Will I be alone? How do I meet people?

It’s become the trend for assistants in the same region to start a Facebook group for their year. If you connect to TAPIF’s Facebook page, you will have an easier time finding out if your region has created a Facebook page. My region even had two: one for mostly English-speaking assistants, the other for assistants in general.

Since spending time with the natives is also essential to your experience, not to mention your French level, get out and meet them! People are usually interested in meeting foreigners who are doing more than just the tourist thing, and they are even more interested if you actually speak their language (don’t hesitate to bring out your accent from time to time). I and/or my fellow assistants accomplished friend-making in a few ways:

-Choosing a region in which I already knew a few people, even if only vaguely from my previous study abroad experience or pen pal programs,

-Finding French roommates who can help you expand your social circle. Sometimes this worked out well, sometimes not, so choose wisely. Check out: http://www.colocation.fr or http://www.leboncoin.fr*

-Joining a running or other sports group (free, if you’re worried about the stipend) on http://www.sport-partenaire.com *

-Joining any group that has to do with your interests (again, plenty of free options if you’re worried about the stipend!): church groups, book clubs (check library web pages), wine tastings, etc.,

Creating a profile on http://www.onvasortir.com, where other users propose outings—everything from swimming to apéro to picnics and cinema—and if you’re interested, just show up *

*Common sense applies in any culture: take all precautions for meeting your Internet acquaintances in person. Bring along another assistant, do some background-checking, tell someone where you’ll be, stay in a public place, etc.

What’s the best part?

There are so many… Learning about French students and their opinions of the U.S., plus my friendly and kind co-workers were the most memorable parts of teaching. Outside of work, it was the great friends I made, followed closely by Nutella, wine and desserts like this: IMG_4968

… Otherwise, see the last paragraph under the question Was the stipend of 790 euros truly enough money to live on? above, or the blog post I wrote during my assistantship here.

What were your biggest hardships there?

Everyone seems to expect me to answer with “the French administration,” but actually, I’ve found that this stereotype has been way too exaggerated. While I find the administrative process long, meaning a lot of going back and forth to retrieve and hand in documents that always seem to missing from the applications you hand in, I have never found it complicated or bothersome, but a natural part of being accepted into a foreign country. Taking a deep breath and keeping in mind that it will all get done in the end (it will!) has kept me from ever getting stressed out about such things. Therefore, my answer to this questions is “finding housingsans garant. Once you clear that hurdle, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the Frenchified year ahead.

 

Best of luck to this year’s accepted TAPIFers and good luck to future applicants!

Posted in TAPIF | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments