confessions of an expat, part I

One of my favorite possessions is a super-small-wheely suitcase my parent got me before moving to France.

Rose blush and berry lipstick are my staples on-the-go daily.

(*Foodies close your eyes*) Out of financial and situational desperation, I once ate at a kabob stand instead of tasting local cuisine (ok, this could have happened more than once).

I may or may not keep a wine opener in my purse.

No matter how many smelly old men are sitting next to me on the train, I can fall asleep simply by putting my “sleep” playlist full blast on my ipod.

When the going gets tough I head to the vending machines and calm myself with a Bueno Bar (anyone who has not eaten one has not lived).

I do my best writing on random scraps of paper in my purse while waiting in cafés.

I have a secret hatred for Anna Karenina, my bike (Verdun is hilly!)

I don’t like to admit it, but French boys have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about them. And they know it!

Stay tuned for part II!


Last weekend I left the Lorraine for Alsace. The other department that was annexed by Germany, this area is known for the regional language of Alsacien, the route des vins, and the beautiful houses aux columbage.

We took a walking tour of the city, zipping tightly our coats and snuggling into our scarves. The place in front of the cathedral was not always a hot spot for souvenir shops and overpriced coffees. The used to be a sort of circus; there were entertainers night and day that passed by. People would climb up the balustrades of the cathedral, drinking beer and occasionally falling when they’d had too much. The city had to put a fence in front of the cathedral so no one would climb up!

We also learned about the traditions of the winstub. Not really a café, not really a brasserie, this traditional Alsatian restaurant was open all the time for a snack or glass of wine. We peeled off our coats for a petit degustation in traditional wine glasses with green stems. The grapes known for wine in Alsace are Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Sylvaner, Muscat; all white, all delicious.

Overall, I loved walking around and taking in the Christmas spirit. We snacked on some roasted chestnuts, watched the decorations being put up, and trotted around the beautiful cathedral. It has some of the oldest stained glass windows in the history of Christianity! Still, I am partial to the Reims cathedral.

As we headed back to Lorraine, tummies stuffed with tarte flambée, I drifted off on the train, head woozy from a winter wonderland weekend.


Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and it will be my first time celebrating it away from my family. I find it bizarre, explaining to all of my students and friends here in France exactly what the tradition is. Yes, it recognizes the history of America. Yes, we can say the first Thanksgiving started when the Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims to the country. Yes we eat turkey and pie. But really, it takes living from a distance to see how special this holiday is.

No matter what your background, religion, or social status, if you are American, you celebrate Thanksgiving. No matter where you are in the country, everyone celebrates togetherness. And even if you cannot get home, there will always be an invitation for you. In college, one of the priests from our church had a Thanksgiving dinner with his mom for all of the students who came from far away and couldn’t make it home for the day.

My favorite part of Thanksgiving is each family’s own unique traditions. At my house, I run a 5 mile charity race in Philly early in the morning with my parents; it’s such a calm way to start the day. Family and friends arrive around noon, the wine is opened and we start snacking on appetizers. My cousins play football outside, and by the time dinner times comes we have worked up an appetite. We stuff our plates full, making sure our plates are colorful, with a little bit of everything. Everyone goes round the table and gives thanks for all of our blessings. After we cannot possibly eat anymore, we all lay down together and watch some football. Dessert comes later, after we have loosened or belts (or put on the elastic pants!).

I love to be surrounded by family and friends. Tomorrow, the Americans are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner party for all of our new French friends. I am so lucky not only to have Americans to celebrate with, but also new friends to share our tradition with.

What are some of your Thanksgiving traditions? What will all of my fellow ex-pats be doing? I hope wherever you are, your day is filled with many blessings!

champs de bataille, verdun

After living here for two months, I finally got the full tour of the battlefields from Jean-Luc, a retired principal at one of my schools. Although I’m not a big history buff (ok, I was honestly the only person in my AP US History class to fail the exam) It was fascinating to see with my own eyes the massacres that happened right in my own backyard. Before my arrival, I was a little hesitant to be moving to the resting place of hundreds of thousands of French, German, and American soldiers. Now, I gained a true appreciation for the history of my little town – it’s hard to believe this all happened here, in Verdun.

The first place we visited was a small cemetery just around the corner from one of the schools I teach at. After visiting many times the beautiful Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arche de Triomphe in Paris, I was very surprised to learn that that soldier was chosen in Verdun. Out of six unknown French soldiers, one was chosen by a veteran in Verdun to go to Paris, and the five other rest here.

Next we went to the War Museum, and saw footage of some of the battle. I saw old uniforms and weapons, American cigarette cases and medals. Most touching was the newspaper articles from the time period, filled with pages and pages of ads from families looking for missing loved ones. The museum also had displayed letters written by soldiers before their death, describing life on the terrain.

We visited the Ossuary, where many of the unknown French soldiers are buried. I gasped when I peeked my head through the window and saw nothing but piles upon piles of bones. Each regiment has a plaque inside recognizing the men lost, and outside, the building is said to resemble a sword plunged into the ground.

During the battle, 1,000 people died every day for 300 days straight. Right behind the ossuary was the remnants of an entire village that was destroyed during the war. There are little white pickets that mark where the school was, where buildings were, and draw to mind the eeriness of the region.

We went to the different forts, and saw the conditions in which the soldiers lived and fought, which was eye-opening. We also walked along the trails where the soldiers fought in the mines, which Jean-Luc explained was absolutely horrifying; they would hear the silence before a bomb exploded, and wait their impending death.

We passed by little villages in the country, even stopping in the town were Louis XVI was stopped and arrested while trying to flee the country with Marie Antoinette.

The visit ended very poignantly; we visited the American cemetery not far away, in Argonne. The biggest American cemetery outside of the United States, the area was incredibly moving. The entire day we had been visiting the sites of lost French and German men, but something hit close to home when I walked along the graves of my own country’s soldiers. As I climbed up the hill, and there were crosses are far as the eye could see.

At the top of the hill, we walked into the chapel. Inside was a guest book, filled with messages from visitors of the cemetery. I couldn’t believe what I saw – the book had notes from hundreds of French people, thanking the United States for their generosity and for saving France. When I think back of the American people who cannot let go of their loss, I wish they could all see what I see living in Lorraine. In almost every town in France, there is always some homage to the United States. This makes me proud of my country, and proud of my new home as well.

**The last picture is taken from my good friend, Christine. Merci ma belle!**

avoiding social suicide – how to perfect la bise

Recently, I have had some super awkward close encounters en faisant la bise. What is the bise, you ask? It’s an age-old French greeting. The double kiss. You see men in Paris, strutting about, getting off their mopeds and riding their hands through their hair, taking time to be noticed as they slowly bestow a small kiss to their female friends. In fact, men who are very good friends can kiss each other, and they are not considered gay (This may come as a shock to “dudes” in the US, even though they themselves delight slap each other on the butt during sporting events).

Because of the importance of this cultural ritual, I have assembled a “how to,” which can help even the coldest and most unaffectionate American bise like a pro.

When is it appropriate to faire la bise?

When you meet someone formally for the first time, and every time you see them thereafter for the first time in a day. Also, when you are leaving after spending a sufficient amount of time with someone (dinner party, outing, basically any time a hug would be appropriate). No, you do not bise the grocer, nor do you bise your teacher (thank God). But, I do bise my favorite bartender (don’t know if that is a small town exception?).

What do I do with my hands?

If you are just meeting the person, you can keep your hands strictly at your sides, and just lean your head in for the kill. If you know the person, you can gingerly half-hug the person, embracing their shoulders. If you think this sounds awkward, you’re right. It is.

Which side to I start on?

This is a tricky question. I always go to my left, the person’s right cheek. However, tradition depends on the different regions in France. There are also regions, like some areas of the south, where two kisses are insufficient. People feel they must do three, four, or five kisses to show affection. Make a show of it.

Do I actually kiss the person?

No! In fact, you actually PRETEND to kiss someone, by making a kissing sound, but never actually touching your lips to their face. Just cheek touching. May I also note, it is important to keep fair distance when crossing the person’s face. Depending on the length of your nose and the other person’s nez there could be contact. Happened to me last week, safe to say I am a little scarred.

Of course, I am no expert on the bise, because I am foreign. Most people who know I’m American have a “special reaction” when they meet me. First, they stare at me and instantly become very get nervous (does she know what she’s doing?). Generally, they stick their hand out very stiffly, and shake my hand. Some just continue staring, and talk about me as if I don’t speak French (oh she’s American, what is she doing here?). It has begun to become frustrating, as it pins me as the foreign freak. Next time someone does this, I have contemplated teaching them the good ‘ole American bear hug. That’ll really give be a good kick in the fesse!

Questions? Bise horror stories? Laissez-moi un mot! Leave me a comment!

beaujolais day

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

The new beaujolais wine is here! Last night was even more exciting than Christmas Eve, as Frenchies everywhere awaited the arrival of Beaujolais’ new wines. The tradition of celebrating the new harvest has become very popular in France, as people race to be the first to try the goods of the season. I had never heard of this tradition before, but find it absolutely divine! National wine parties are just my style.

Tonight, I’ll be heading to my friend’s house for a petit dégustation. Yesterday, one of my co-workers took me on a beautiful tour of Verdun and the battlefields; I learned so much about my new city and the history of the horrible war. Updates to come!

I will trinquer to you this evening! Santé!

why venice is not just for lovers

As the temperature gets colder and colder here in Verdun, I find myself thinking often of Venice. When arriving in this magical island, I could not keep my jaw from dropping at the fairy tale ambiance in this unique city. I took on a romantic persona, traipsing through the canals of sinking Venice, drinking spritz while balancing a skewered olive in front of my lips.

I pretended I was a princess while walking through the Piazza San Marco, stopping between each visit for a little cone of gelato. Italian men coo’ed as I walked by, and I certainly did not tell them to stop. The people, food, architecture, and museums are enough to keep you occupied for weeks, but to see the real Venice, do this:

1.)   Stay at A Venice Museum (S.Polo 2812, Calle del Traghetto, Venice, Italy)

Our hostel was in a prime location; it was also far from tourist traps but totally accessible to all of the main attractions. Not to mention, it is located in a former palace, and the high ceilings and chandeliers give it a luxurious feeling that is rare in hostels. We met people from all over the world by joining together for a free dinner every night, thanks to our lovely Italian host. Alberto was an amazing cook, and by the end of our stay we were back in the kitchen, throwing pizza dough in the air and patiently stirring risotto. Nothing better than a free cooking lesson in Italy by a handsome Italian man – who adored us and called us his pattatinas.

2.)   Buy a Vaporetto pass

We frequently just hopped on the vaporetto just for fun! Who knows where we’d end up? We rode with the locals on their way to work in the morning, reading their paper and sipping their coffee, passing picturesque buildings along the canals.

The traghetto was another mode of transportation we indulged in. Instead of paying hundreds of euro for a tour around Venice in the expensive and touristy gondolas, we gook the traghetto (we loved emphasizing the ghetto) one way across a canal for a mere fifty cents!

3.)   Go to the islands!

We stopped at Murano, in hopes of getting a tour from an artisan glass-blower. When the saleswoman apologized and said the artist was not working today, all we had to do was flash our young-disappointed-ohno faces, and out popped an old man with hands who spoke all too well of his métier. But then, out of a little blue glob, I didn’t even blink and a beautiful, individual glass horse was presented right in front of me . Each unique, the artist had haphazard boxes around his atelier, marked for Nordsrom in New York or Macy’s in Las Vegas. A real Italian family business, I left with a beautiful glass blown ring.

4.)   Eat at All’Arco (Calle dell’Arco 436 San Polo)

All I had in my hands was a torn up piece of paper given to me by my French teacher, with the address of an authentic Italian restaurant. Walking through the fish market, I remember struggling through Italian and thrusting the paper in his face, asking a gentleman to direct us the right way. Tucked behind the Rialto bridge, this treasure is a must-do for authentic Italian chicheti.

Good luck and buon appetito – when in doubt, follow the gondola men! (They will lead you to the real Venice.)


After P took me out for a night on the town in Nancy (we agreed that Place Stanlislas at night is the most beautiful plaza in all of Europe), we had a beautiful breakfast with his parents and set off to Deutschland.

Three countries in two days? It’s all too much.

Every time I opened my mouth to speak in French, the realization that I should be speaking German hit me. I didn’t even know how to say excuse me! What a terrible, terrible tourist I am.

Because my lovely host is only half skinny French man, and other half German, he and his family love to head over to Germany when they can. We went to Saarbrucken, a town just over the border of France.

After shopping for a little while (I got a fabulous purple scarf for the rough winter ahead) we headed to a typical German restaurant, where of course they brew their own beer. Because it was the feast of St. Martin, I ordered turkey with potato dumplings and apple cabbage.

Afterwards we headed to a local art museum. Never before had I realized what amazing German artists there are (since living in southern France, home of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, I have been more concentrated on les francais). We checked out the main exhibition, and then on a jeté un œil at the main exhibit, on Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. His work was vibrant and colorful, just like the images I was used to seeing in the south. In fact, he was one of the pioneers of German expressionism. Who knew?

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976). Corner of a Park (Parkecke), 1910. Oil on canvas, 83.5 x 75.5 cm (32 7/8 x 29 3/4 in.). Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

Finally, before we headed home, we took the 4 heure. We walked into the bakery, and the smell of sweet pastry was overwhelming. I got a dense creamy apple cake to go with my coffee, and we sat in the booths and watched the crowded restaurant as people rushed in to escape the cold.

Soon, the dream was over, and we were in the car going back to Verdun. Merci à P et sa famille pour cette très belle visite!