Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whatever You Do, Do Not Turn Around

In spirit of a quick approaching Halloween, I decided to divulge a frightful event that happened to me when I was only about 12 years old.

I had gone to visit my grandparents in Peru (yes, I am Peruvian) to spend my summer there, and during that time my other cousins had gone to visit my grandparents as well. From time to time my grandparents would go entertain themselves in the casino, which exists on every damn corner of Peru.

One night, my grandparents decided to take me and my cousin out for some fun, but it all ended too quickly when they decided to go to the casino for a few minutes, leaving my cousin and I in the car.It was a nice night out, but of course I was stuck in the car with a 6 year old, who had nothing better to do than to bother my very existence. As I waited for my grandparents to return to the car, I decided to talk to my cousin, which required me to turn my back to the side window.
Forgetting all too quickly that I was waiting for my grandparents, my cousin looked past me, outside the side window I was leaning on, and horror struck her face. Noticing her face, I turned around to see what had made her widen her eyes, and I screamed in fright.

I will never forget what I saw.

It was a sight I did not expect to see, it was that of a figure who stared inside the car with a hard face.

and then...

the figure....

started to laugh.

Then I heard my cousin laugh as I realized that the figure that was staring inside the car was only my grandmother coming to check-up on us.

I felt a sense of relief, but I also felt embarrassed that I did not realize sooner that it was my grandmother.

So the next time you find yourself in the back seat of a car with your back to the side window, I recommend that whatever you do, do not turn around because eventually someone you know will try to scare you or it might just be the axe murderer...

Happy Halloween!

Hanny the Coffee Bean

The TEF is Tough

Yesterday, I took the initiative and enrolled for the Test d'Evaluation de Français (TEF for short).

Right about now, you may examine the lengthy title and decipher a certain meaning based on the similarities to the words in English. "Okay," you may ask, "is it a test that evaulates your level of French?"

You are correct, my friend!

(Johnny says you've won the satisfaction that you were right.)

This exam places its takers through a series of rigorous listening, writing, and oral comprehension sections to determine just how badly they can communicate in French. Each candidate can be classified into six categories:

A1 and A2 (your French ranges from beginner to just above basic)

B1 and B2 (your French doesn't make native speakers cringe too much)

C1 and C2 (Uh, you are remarkably fluent. Are you sure you're not French???)

Based on your result, you are awarded a certificate that proclaims the level you've achieved. Technically, there is no way to fail this test because it is not a question of being right or wrong; it's about being able to express your thoughts and opinions in French.

So, why I am I taking this test? Why is my knowing what my classification is so important to me? Is it for the sheer pleasure to gloat that I speak French well?


I am taking the TEF because I have a slightly more ambitious goal in mind: to continue my studies to become an English teacher in France. I've looked at various French university websites and very often one of the requirements for foreigners is that they possess a TEF certificate that states they have at minimum a B2 level of working French (but they recommend that we have C1).

I'm not gonna lie: this petrifies me. I have not taken an exam since the summer of 2009 when I completed the last course for my B.A. On top of that, I have noticed with much alarm that my French has indeed digressed. I'd like to blame the 4 months I spent alternating between speaking Spanish with my family and watching The Office in English in Miami.

Let's bring back the handy-dandy Conne cone ...

However, there is no turning back for me. I've already paid the fees. 80 euros for the standard test and 35 euros for the "optional" written exam (some universities require this as well). I am now short 115 euros...but I sincerely hope that this becomes one of those expensive investments that will later pay off in the end. I at least have given myself a monetary incentive to study for it, mainly because I do not wish to feel like I've wasted my time and money!

Yes, the TEF claims that there is no way I could possibly fail the exam, but if I do not at least acquire a B2 (or even a C1), then I can see only view it as a failure. Such is the American mindset of winning and losing... I only have until November 18th to brush up on such wonderful grammar gems like the plus-que-parfait de l'indicatif and the subjonctif après certaines conjonctions.

Barb the French Bean

Monday, October 25, 2010

Well, I Caved in and Did It.

I'm 23 years old and I've given up hope on finding the elusive Mr. Right, A.K.A. Prince Charming. I am fairly convinced that the Disney Prince Charming that was hammered into my brain as a little girl is really just a big farce that has completely distorted my perception of what I should look for in a man.

I'm not saying I haven't encountered my fair share of men. I've met plenty of Mr. Oh-So-Wrongs, Mr. HELL NOs, Mr. Way Out of My Leagues and Mr. Ha-Ha, Yeah Rights. And let's not forget Loser Ex-Boyfriend (A.K.A. Mr. What-The-Hell-Were-You-Thinking, Moron?).

I've been told several times that I shouldn't look for love. Love will come to me. I shouldn't waste my time searching for the Right One. The Almighty and Most Sacred Right One will just magically appear before my eyes when I least expect him to.

Whatever. I'm sick of that bullshit. I caved in and signed up for a dating website. It was a bit bizarre having to write a profile for myself, and in French, no less.

I'm still a bit wary about the whole experience, but we'll see how that goes...

Barb the French Bean

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My French Obsessions (#1): Vine-Covered Buildings

Thanks to my sickness-induced cabin fever (I've decided to sagely stay at home until I feel well enough to go outside), I commenced as some form of amusement sifting through some of the recent photographs I have taken with my trusty Canon PowerShot A530.

While admiring these pictures and dreaming of the day when I would finally feel in excellent health, a wave a nostalgia kicked in.

I then started to dig through some older photographs from my various trips around France last year and this springtime.

Semur-en-Auxois (La Bourgogne)

(Not Semur, but it's in Burgundy.)

Le Castellet (South of France)

Bougainvillea in Bormes-les-Mimosas (South of France)

Windmill that is somewhere in Montmartre (Paris)

Back in Burgundy

Flavigny (La Bourgogne)

Once I feel like I've got kick-butt stamina again, I will travel a bit. As it is, I am now on what will be my first set of school holidays: La Toussaint. I won't start working again until November 4th (Hey, that's my Mom's birthday! I gotta mail her a card!) so I had better take advantage of my SNCF 12-25 card to explore a bit of la Bourgogne.
That is, of course, assuming the trains are no longer on strike...

Barb the French Bean

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The One Thing I Can't Quite Ignore

Yes. France is on strike.

Yes. The French government is attempting to pass a massive reform that will potentially change the retirement age from 60 to 62...the French are up in arms about it. They march in the streets in a wave of human force, proudly waving their union banners and deriding Président Sarkozy for the elitist tyrant he is. They warn the bastard who lives in the luxurious Palais de l'Elysée and threaten his UMP cronies to watch their backs.

Yes. French high schoolers who want to play hooky and make a nuisance of themselves by destroying plastic barricades make a political statement have deemed it essential to join forces and cut class march down the street proclaiming how their rights are important as well. (I sincerely doubt that they will be so energetic to state their political exuberance once the two-week Toussaint holiday break starts next week.)

Yes. The French media are plagued by stories of drivers forming lines just to buy gas/petrol for their cars due to a massive imposed pénurie d'essence by gas stations all over the nation, thus causing panic all over the country. The lack of petrol is reported to be so dire that planes are not even taking off for international flights.

Yes. There will probably be fewer buses running around if the gas strike continues. It's bad enough that the Divia have changed all of their bus lines due to setting up a Tramway system. The lack of transportation will surely violently halt the country to its knees. I briefly consider the thought of the same thing happening to the United States, where Americans are far more dependant on their cars than their own two feet; the notion of it sends a ripple of concern across my brow.

Yes. I am slowly coming to terms with the possibility that all of my Carrefour supermarket shopping may potentially require me to hoof it rather than depend on my trusty Divia buses. I also am trying to make peace with the reality that food prices may increase due to the pénurie d'essence.

But the one thing I truly can't ignore is the fact that the temperature becomes more frigid with every passing day here in Dijon. Just for fun, I wanted to compare how different the climate here is from my native sunny Miami, FL.

(See? Even MSN reports that the sun is "Not Available" in my neck of the woods. It must be on strike, too.)

What was I to expect? I've left a fairly tropical area for a temperate zone, after all, but my body is still trying to recover from the physical shock of now facing a more than 20-degree change along with dressing in thousands of extra layers of clothing. It seems that my light cardigan days are OVER.

Of course, seeing single-digit numbers followed stoically by a capitalized C doesn't mean much to my Farenheit-wired brain.

Ah, that makes more sense.

Here's a lovely side-by-side comparison.

Now, in reality, I've been thoroughly enjoying the cooler weather. Being able to promenade for hours outside not sweating bullets and wrecking my expertly-coiffed hair is a luxury that humidity-and-mosquito-ridden Miami has never been able to offer.

Frankly, I probably wouldn't be bitching as much about the cold if it were not for the continuous nasty Cough that has been pestering me since Monday night. Rather than taking a hint and leaving me in peace, the Cough has stuck around to bully me. Its insults have become progressively worse and worse. I've been chugging hot fluids nonstop in the hopes that they might soothe my raspy vocal chords, but I've seen no improvement. I just keep hacking out what remains of my throat.

But this morning, I am hopeful. The sun has taken a break from its pénurie de lumière grève and has awakened me with golden beams of warmth shining through my window. I greet them as I would an old friend.

I think I'll go for a walk.

Barb the French Bean

Disclaimer: the images were directly taken from MSN Weather. Obviously.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Some French Bathroom Humor, Or: Trying to Find a Free Potty

Let's face it: Everyone has to use the bathroom. Purging one's body of wastes and toxins is one of the most basic of natural needs (akin to breathing and eating). Yet when you have the chance to escape your familiar surroundings to, say, vacation abroad, the "gotta go" aspect of life is either placed on the back burner or heightened by a thousand-fold.

Perhaps you have heard complaints from unsuspecting tourists who have visited Croissant-and-Baguetteland that you absolutely have to pay money to take care of your business.

This, for the most part, is not too far from the truth, quite honestly...

BUT that does not mean you have to pay your hard-earned money EVERYTIME you have to pee in France.

So, arm yourself with the most important question you will need during your trip to France: "Où sont les toilettes?" (Ooh sohn lay twalet), and embark on your worry-free journey!

For FREE (or semi-free) bathrooms:

1) Your hotel room bathroom.

I mean, sure, you have to pay for the hotel stay, but you can use your bathroom before you leave. My suggestion is that you DON'T drink too many fluids before you head out to explore the city.

2) If you are visiting a proper French city with a sizeable population (like Dijon), try out the Office de Tourisme. Their bathrooms should be free and you can also pick up a couple of maps to navigate your way around town.

For Dijon, the "WC Gratuit" is found outside of the actual office, just around the corner. "WC" stands for "Water Closet," a term which apparently originated in Britain (so said my high school French teacher).

And I simply have to share this with y'all: as I stood with the camera poised directly on the "WC Gratuit" sign, a Frenchman, who clearly thought that I was a stupid, non-French speaking tourist (instead of a Dijonnaise-native blogger), walked past and commented to his girlfriend about how idiotic I looked taking a photograph of a public bathroom. I wanted to retort saying "hey buddy, I found a FREE PUBLIC BATHROOM in France. That is a rarity which is worth eternal conservation!", but he was already out of earshot.

3) If you sit down to eat at a restaurant or café, DO remember to take the opportunity and use the bathroom. I've been to some Parisien restaurants where you have had to pay to use their loos. In Dijon, they should be free.

4) If you are truly desperate and really, really, really gotta go...try the self-cleaning toilettes that are shaped like a futuristic booth. Like this one:

(In case you were wondering: I have used one of these before, and they are fairly clean. Just don't expect any toilet paper. What is meant by "self-cleaning" is that they do clean themselves in regular 15-minute intervals. When the cleaning happens, try to NOT be trapped inside it.)

I must also say that you may not encounter these booths on a regular basis. You may see them around Paris's most famous tourist traps but for some reason, the French have deemed it a good idea to place them in rather obscure areas where most tourists would not think of venturing. For example, the booth in the picture above is located in a tiny parking lot that is between a very narrow street; hardly anyone passes by it. So it is almost as good as if it didn't even exist.

5) When all else fails for your cheapskate self, just do like the drunk 20-something locals do and pee in the bushes at a public park. Please note: I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS.

In the end, after undergoing so much hassle just to find a free bathroom, most tourists just give in and accept that paying 20 or even 50 cents to make their bodily deposits is just an easier (if not better) option.

I must also add that, should you be fortunate enough to experience it at a crowded bathroom that has a coin-operated door, the French have a surreptitious system in which one person pays to open the door and then everyone else just takes his or her turn. They will even HOLD the door for you to prevent it from closing behind them and thus cause you to waste 20 or 50 cents.

But, for whatever reason, I HIGHLY ADVISE that you always try to keep a 20 cent and a 50 cent coin stored somewhere in your little change purse. This is due to the fact that some public restroom doors are operated by a coin machine and the only way of going inside one is to pay with a coin of the amount required.

Don't feel bad if the uncomfortably irksome moment of not having the right change happens to you. Even a lives-in-France veteran like me has had the unfortunate experience to be walking around in a desert of non-bathroomness and be stuck without the proper money needed for an immediate transaction.

The Setting: Dijon's Rue de la Liberté

The Time: Nearly midday
State of My Bladder: Overly confident

I had just arrived in the Centre Ville after temporily leaving my job to grab a bite to eat. Since I had sagely chosen to pee before leaving my area of employment, I didn't expect to find myself to embark on an immediate quest to find a bathroom. The level on my personal Pee Gauge was this:

But as it was, I had drunk far too many fluids earlier that morning for my own good. By the time I had waited 12 minutes at the bus stop then spent another 20 minutes going Downtown, the state of my Pee Gauge had dramatically elevated to this:

My need to have lunch was temporarily placed on the back burner as the need to find a clean toilet decidedly took precedence.

As I mentioned in this post, Rue de la Liberté is a street that is filled with plenty of shops. Most French shops will not have a bathroom for shoppers. Now, if shopping in the good ol' U.S. of A. has taught me anything, it is that most places do have a public restroom on the premises. I could easily walk anywhere and ask to use the bathroom. This mentality is starkly different from the French one. As the French see it, you are going into their stores to shop, not pee. Walk into a small boutique and ask where their bathroom is; you will promptly be directed to go somewhere else.

In the trained American mindset, if you want to use a free available bathroom, all you have to do is to go straight to your neighborhood McDonald's and discreetly sneak in to use their lavatories. I reasoned that the concept would be the same for a French McDonald's.

Unfortunately, I went in at a time when other people had the intention of eating. LOTS of people.

Unlike some U. S. Mickey D's that only have chirping crickets as their sole customers, French McDonald's are PACKED at nearly every hour. Especially 12 o'clock. For the French, lunch is the heaviest meal of the day and it should never be skipped.

Fat chance that I was gonna sneak in successfully: McDonald's had one of their hired goons asking all the hungry French McFatties what they wanted to eat.

Well, it was true. I didn't want to eat at McDonald's.

I glanced across Rue de la Liberté to what I expected would become my second beacon of toilet hope: GALERIES LAFAYETTE. I vaguely remembered that the one in Paris had free bathrooms, so I decided to give the Dijon GL a shot.

I walked in and found the elevator. Which took a long time to get to my floor.


Ever notice how with every little delay that impedes you from going to the bathroom, your urge to go jolts sharply up a notch in an instant? I honestly felt like I was just going to wet myself in that elevator!

But no. I simply had to hold it. It would only just be a mere few seconds until I would be able to relieve myself.

The elevator doors opened. I rushed to the public restroom door. Lo and behold, I saw this:

The bastard.

Yes, this did yank at my insides, but at that point, I simply DID NOT CARE that I had to shell out a 20 euro cent coin. I was more than willing to do so.

I angrily fumbled with my handbag and extracted my change purse. The coins jingled unto the palm of my trembling hand.

Out of all these coins, which one would fit in the 20 euro cent machine?

That's right. NONE.

Why did I just have to drink so much water that it overloaded my bladder? I NEEDED TO GO. And I needed to go NOW.

What was I going to do?!

Suddenly, a moment of ingenuity: I'm in a store! There are cash registers in this store and cashiers who handle the registers! I'll just ask them to do an exchange of two 10-cent coins for one of 20 cents!

Prize in hand, I rushed back to the coin-operated contraption, viciously yanked at the taunting door handle and...

...saw a line of women waiting to use the two occupied toilets.

Amazingly, I didn't pee right on the spot. It truly was a miracle that I was able to wait my turn.

Why didn't I just walk to the Office de Tourisme, which had free toilets? Why didn't I go look for the futuristic booth? My mind wasn't thinking about neither the Office de Tourisme nor the booth; it was set on FINDING A BATHROOM.

So, in short, when in France, always have some spare change to use the bathroom.


Barb the French Bean