Monday, July 4, 2011

Porto, Portugal and Port Wine

If you haven't heard by now, the Portuguese know their wine.  Producing it, aging it, consuming it and enjoying it.  So, you wouldn't be surprised if I told you that I can't recall too much about the weekend that the boy and I recently spent in Portugal, visiting his parents.

Except that I can...Because another thing that the Portuguese know how to do? Serve humongous portions of food.  Serve and eat humungous, colossal sized amounts of food, mitigating the effects of all the wine you're drinking to wash it all down.  And then, here's what happens: after all of this eating and drinking and "Oh, Lauren, you only ate one plate full; here are seconds, but save room for cheese and dessert," you're left in a coma the rest of the afternoon, in perfect synchronized time for the non-stop soccer matches that just happen to be playing on tv; and if you're me, this will further induce the catatonic state.

Thank God for the Kindle.

But in between eating and drinking and comas, we all managed to tour the beautiful waterfront city of Porto (Parents included).  And while I awkwardly tried to dodge parental discussions of marriage and my desire for him to move to California, we admired Porto's impressive architecture, lively squares, river-front restaurants and countless churches.  And here's what I thought:  It's nice, quaint and historic.  I envy their relaxing spirit, their incredible seafood restaurants, and their tolerance levels for alcohol.  I hope to visit again, because only in Portugal, is it okay to tour wine caves at 10 a.m. and indulge in every tasting.  As the Portuguese say with their wine glasses up, Ching Ching!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Antiperspirant is Important

A supposedly fun thing that I'll never do again?

Take a 11 hour flight sitting next to a ceaseless PDA couple.  I get it.  Really--You're young, you're non-conformist, you want me to know that lesbian is the new black.  No problem.  But on an extremely long flight with extremely little personal space, the least you could do is wash your dreadlocks and put on a little antiperspirant.

22 hours, two failed naps, and one double-espresso later, I finally made it to Lyon, via a seemingly endless Amsterdam layover.

Sunshine and Starbucks could only keep me grounded in California for so long.  I became nostalgic for the French. For the city life. For the language....and obviously, flan.  But even more so, for a certain someone.  A certain French someone.  Did I mention I've been dating a French man?  There, I said it. 

Let's back up.                               

Once upon a May 2010 ago, I met this French someone.  However, after ending a long distance relationship a few months earlier and being the quintessential commitment phobe that I can be, I was timid to start something new.  But along he came promising to never have dreadlocks and to always wear antiperspirant, and so I thought, why not just one date?!

And well, one date turned into two and three, which progressed and turned into a year.  The truth is simple: he's a man who makes me laugh, treats me well and as a result, I missed home, less.  He speaks four languages, eats the same two chocolate croissants for breakfast every morning, and has a penchant for ironing.  He loves scuba diving, soccer and me.  The language barrier is difficult at times, but he has a patient soul, a swoon-worthy 5 o'clock shadow and a kiss that makes my knees weak.  He didn't give up on me with my indecisiveness; Instead, he stuck around, planned weekends away and romantic dinners in French towns I had never seen.  He does, however, critique my inability to sing, but in return, I remind him that he can't pronounce his "H", because well, he's French.  "It's not an ug; it's a hug!" 

Somewhere between living far from my comfort zone, and his ability to make me feel so comfortable, I let the proverbial guard down and a love story transformed.  Except that for a girl that's absolutely not French, and a boy who is sometimes too French, that love story transformed into long distance.  That's what brought me back to France for two weeks. 

And you were thinking it was because I missed being an Au Pair. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Change of Plans

What was originally planned as a two-week vacation back home to California with a return ticket to France, has now turned into an indefinite stay. The reason: assorted. My feelings (along with the contents of my suitcase): various and scattered.

Here’s the thing: Being an Au Pair? Not so much the ideal job, but yes, being in France was pretty ideal. More so, with my third au pair experience, I ended up caring for some pretty incredible girls. There were still moments of doubt; still moments where I had to muster up some courage, remind myself to breath, because the bottom line is that living with someone else’s family is just plain hard. Seeing your boss at the breakfast table in his briefs is no delight, either. The unfamiliarity of another country, trying to navigate the things that we normally take for granted (ie: depositing a check!): also hard. Ditto homesickness, snow, and a somewhat pessimistic culture.

But that’s not why I left, and I know that a few bad days don’t make the whole story. I know that aside from all of the coulda-woulda,-shoulda moments, it truly was an incredible experience. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of laughing it off and practicing the art of adaptability. I’ve learned the payoffs of being a risk taker, a follower of adventure, a truster in the universe. It all works out.

When living in a country that considers Nutella a breakfast food—a place that’s six hours from Barcelona, three hours from Italy, and a train ride to the Mediterranean—that I probably am where the grass is greener. Or, I was. But now, it’s time to get my life back on track, organized and time for me to tie up the loose ends that I left before going to France. Then maybe, just maybe-absolutely-hopefully, one day, one day sooner rather than later, I can return to France…..sans Au Pair.

Because, France, tu me manques.

On the other hand, sunshine and short-sleeves in March is always nice.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Being an Au Pair is full of surprises; surprises that aren't nearly as boring as you might imagine.

Like being told by a 6 year old on a Wednesday morning to stay in bed.  As if this wasn't delightful enough, 13 minutes later, I got this:

Plain yogurt with granola, green tea, bread and butter, and a glass of apple juice just the way I like it: 3 parts water, 1 part apple juice.

These girls learn quick.

So you see, it's not all bad, this job.

Except, guess who cleaned the kitchen from their breakfast making project?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Soldes

My dad (my real dad, not the host-dad), lover of black cashmere, modern men's fashion, and all things bargain, paid $1.20 a minute to call me internationally from California.

"Lauren, the soldes (aka sales) are going on in Lyon right now!"

The clouds parted, the skies opened up to the heavens and the angels started to sing.

But reality shook me as I immediately remembered:
1. I’m an Au Pair. I'm an Au Pair who is not inherently wealthy by any means. At all.
2. My dad was only telling me this so I’d remember to see if Celio Club had marked down the sweater he saw during vacation here.

And then the inevitable happened. I became nostalgic for a time that I previously loathed: the nine-to-five day job, a time of direct deposit and a salary larger than three figures.  Here’s the thing: the sales in France (and all of Europe) only happen twice a year.  None of this every-holiday-sale-stuff  (Name-drop: Macy's!)  Furthermore, they may not have soldes often, but when they do, they really do.

Some people collect antiques; some spend their earnings on restaurant outings; sports events, drugs, whatever.  I even know a woman who collects editions of Quicken software (sorry, Mom), and well, so what if I enjoy the occasional clothes and shoe sale.  I mean, can you really have enough pairs of black leather boots?!  Call me shallow, call me materialistic, call me selfish--I am all of those things and more; I’m American.

I don’t want to advertise, by any means, that money or materialistic goods will bring happiness.  Hell, I was the girl at North Country Elementary School who got her clothes from second-hand stores and Target; but then came the day that I tried on my first pair of Nine West heels, marked 50% off and take an additional 40%, and it was all over--I fell victim.  So all I’m trying to communicate is that if you’re between the ages of 20 and 29, looking at the possibility of becoming an Au Pair and you enjoy the occasional purchase, it’s highly possible that this job may not be for you.  Ditto if you place high importance on independence, privacy and vegetables.

Sorry, Dad, they didn’t have your sweater.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Happy 2011

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. So I didn't. For two (plus) months. I turned my back on the "project" and retreated into the background. But I'm baaaack. Yes, after a month of health issues, infections, a root canal, what I assume was the common cold, constant nausea, a much needed European family holiday vacation, and a partridge in a pear tree, I'm back!

Happy 2011! Finally! Can we agree that 2010 was a bit rough? Okay, maybe "challenging" is a more appropriate word choice. But before you think I'm being egotistical, self-absorbing, or anything else that is socially unacceptable these days, let me offer up that I’m not just referring to my life. Let's reflect.

While I stepped off a plane on January 1st to a new city, new job, and a new life, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake took almost six-hundred-thousand lives in Haiti. We're off to quite a start for 2010! I am now an Au Pair to two French children. I am on top of my game. I am in control. I am not fooling anyone.

Because one earthquake just isn't enough, a second one hits in Chile; one so powerful, it shortened the planet's day by a microsecond. However, it didn't shorten it enough to make the time pass faster in a job I realized I was quickly starting to loathe. So during the winter vacation, I took off with a special someone to Corsica to get away… far, far away!

I return from vacation and was immediately hit with what I convinced myself was a bout with death—it turned out to only be the flu. But because the snow won't cease and the French are so cold, and most of all, I just miss my family and warm-hearted Californians, I start brainstorming for a change of pace.

I learn the feeling of relief after finally quitting my job. I learn that Easter really is for rebirth and new beginnings. I learn that Barcelona is easily one of my favorite vacation cities and that it takes 6 hours by car to return to Lyon from Spain because Eyjafjallajokull Icelandic volcano has erupted, canceling all European flights. I don't care though because the pendulum is on the upswing...

Until it's not. Despite reading all of Oprah's and Women's Health articles on how to boost your mood, sleep better and look great, I can't seem to master any of it. Although grateful for the American family who brought me in, I quickly find myself over-worked and underpaid (who are we kidding, I was never paid!). I become stressed--stressed that I don't have another immediate option; stressed that I'm losing my French, losing my health, my hair and my mind. To make matters worse, can we really live in a world without Gary Coleman?

The World Cup is in South Africa, a huge sinkhole has opened up in Guatemala and I'm on weekend in the South of France. Though I never mentioned this until now, I have successfully managed to inadvertently set a mattress on fire using only a hair dryer and my savvy. The mattress is in the apartment of my friends who let me vacation there for the weekend while they were out of town.

Something-something-something in the media about Wikileaks and internal reports, but I can't really tell you much because honestly, I was completely oblivious to everything. Everything except being the most fortunate "homeless" girl that ever lived because after calling it quits with the American family, I spent four days in London with my very best British friend, two weeks roaming around Croatia, the islands and the Adriatic Sea, and then ten days with Rachel, road-tripping from Paris down to the South of France.

August arrived and I was either drunk off of relaxation or hell-bent on not yet giving up France because I signed up with a third (and FINAL, I swear to God) French family as their Au Pair to three awesome girls in the center of the city. It also doesn't hurt when your job starts with a week vacationing with them on the coast of Spain. During their second week of vacation, I sneak off to the Italian coast to explore everything mozzarella covered and garlic infused. Not a bad summer.

Here's a real tragedy: I turn another year older. I spend it with my new French OBGYN, which makes me feel even older. I'm nostalgic for previous birthday parties spent with frilly dresses, party favors, the Moon Man from McDonalds and colorfully wrapped boxes of Barbies. However, I put on my incredible new party dress, to spend an incredible night on an incredible riverboat/peniche, eating incredible vanilla and strawberry cake, and blowing out a candle for what I plan to make an incredible year.

Oh, the delightfulness of the French. They make unforgettable pastries, they speak beautifully; they enjoy their lives. When they're done, done with their (minimum) 5 weeks of vacation, they complain. They stir, they storm, they strike, they set cars on fire and they make the front page of the NY Times.

But the strikes don't bother me because the French policemen are easy on the eyes. I am keeping my head up (literally). I am going with the flow. I am okay until I'm stuck listening to my host-dad (fill in the appropriate blank) his new girlfriend for 3 hours. I am now sleep deprived, annoyed and longing for my independence again.

Did I mention that I love Thanksgiving? Did I mention that it's up there on my list of Top Favorite Holidays, along with Black Friday and the Vernal Equinox? Did I mention that baguettes and fromage, no matter how chewy, carb-y and creamy, will never take the place of my mom's turkey and Trader Joe's pumpkin pie?! Did I mention that nothing sounds more appealing than an entire day sitting around with family, admiring the dysfunction and keeping our aggression passive? No, I never mentioned it because Thanksgiving arrives and cue the arrival of my tooth infection that leads to a root canal, and two more weeks of other infections. But I'm still thankful because in two weeks, I will be vacationing with my dad and brother for the holidays.

Oh yeah, I also misplaced a 7 year old child. There, I said it.

So it's official, marijuana is still illegal....But wine isn't!

I've mentally checked out of my job, this project, and I'm trying to muster up what little energy I have left. Instead, I focus on improving my French and reading every book in sight. Escapism.

I'm in need of family, which I fly to meet in Milan December 20th. This turns into a two week adventure with the boys, including Paris for Christmas and, wait for it, yes that's right, Barcelona for New Year's Eve. We tour the sites, we spend way too long in museums, we eat flan every day for breakfast, we make inside jokes, we quote youtube clips, we see Europe together and we spend what is now the Best New Years I've Ever Had eating The Best Paella that has ever been made. We each eat our 12 grapes of good luck, even the soft ones, and hope they keep their promise.

Similar to last year, I spend January 1st on my way to Lyon. This time, I'm greeted with open arms and the best chocolate cake I've ever eaten in my entire life.

So it's official-- 2011. I'm a believer in new things, new beginnings; out with the old, in with the new...hence my shoe collection. I'm ready to take the lessons of 2010 and start anew. This past year has taught me a lot, from keeping track of my scarf and gloves, to learning to accept help from others. I've realized that I'm stronger than I thought, but it's okay to let your guard down once in a while; that at times, you just need to jump and most likely, you'll land on your feet; and even when you don't, just get back up and dust yourself off. I've realized that when all is said and done, I have an incredible support system; and that seriously, no but like seriously, no one makes baguettes like the French. So at the risk of begging, please be good to us 2011!

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A BNP Affair

I didn't think I would succumb because yes, I'm a bit of a stubborn soul.  I keep my guard up and I hold a soft spot for the familiar.  I don't like to get too involved, too hooked in, too personal.  After all, I arrived in France with the mindset of a single gal without no plans to stay here long term and little constraints. But you know what?  It happened.  It happened one sweet day. I've finally jumped on the bandwagon, let my guard down, opened myself up to possibility and well, the whole seems pretty promising.

Yes, ten months in and I finally opened a French Bank account. 

It feels pretty good. I'm treated well.  They call, but they don't call too often; just to see how I'm doing or invite me to an information session that offers student incentives.  I don't want to get ahead of myself, but they're better than some of the other banks I've been with in the past.  I'm being shown experiences that I haven't yet had until now in France--like being able to rent movies; like renting the city bikes; taking road trips with ease, because for most of the things here in France, your bank card needs that special chip; that chip that I didn't get in America; the carte bancaire.

I quite like my California credit union and despite the distance, we've made it work, which is probably why I stayed committed.  Plus, you know, it's hard.  It's hard once you've trusted other banks that looked good on paper, that your parents approved of, that promised not to disappoint, and then little by little, you start to notice that something's not right--a small fee here, a small fee there.  And that's how it begins.  It never ends well.

Sure, it's still difficult at times with a new relationship and of course, the language barrier can be a bit touchy, but there's patience; like the time they spent 17 minutes explaining to me how to deposit money into the machine versus how to deposit a check into the machine (because it's different than in the States).  Or the fact that I wasn't belittled when I hopelessly admitted, "umm, I don't know how to check my account online. Did you realize your website is all in French?" 

Yes, they did realize this.

I feel the way that I'm assuming my grandparents felt during the age of cell phones and email, but it's okay.  I'm making progress, I'm making efforts and BNP and I, we have a basic communication.  It's the foundation, right? Who knows what will happen when it's time to pack up and return to California, but for now, I know that I'm living in the moment.  I'm happy….with my new bank.