Adventures at the French Post Office

By   June 27, 2010

Since I work from home at the moment, I haven’t been going out most days because 1. the weather has been crap until about 2 days ago and 2. I’m slightly anti-social, so living in Europe with its high population density stresses me out. And usually when I do go out to accomplish some mundane task, something ridiculous happens and I wonder if it’s France getting back at me for loving Germany more or if it’s just a natural inclination of mine to end up in strange and awkward situations.

Right after I got home from traveling, I needed to run to the post office to mail the rest of my postcards and presents. If you didn’t get a postcard from me, either I didn’t have your address or France didn’t want you to receive it. And I hope the 4 people I sent the presents to actually received them or my 2 hour ordeal in the tiny post office of downtown Chambéry was all for nothing.

I hope the boîte à lettre did not eat all of my pretty postcards.

I only live 5 minutes from the main post office, which is actually open between 12 and 2 PM – a rarity even in a “large city” such as Chambéry, with its massive 50,000 inhabitants. I thought I would be able to run this errand in a few minutes and get home before the storm came in and go back to lying around watching L’Agence Tous Risques because I was still too sick and tired to do anything else. So I grabbed my jacket and the 4 packages and dashed outside, noticing that it was in fact already raining and I should have probably brought my umbrella. But the post office is only a few blocks away, right?

Right. Except when I get there, I notice signs posted all over the walls and windows that this particular branch is closed for construction until June 29. Of course.

It starts raining harder as I try to figure out where the other post offices are. Of course x 2.

I reach into my pocket where I thought there was an entire packet of tissues, but only find one slightly wet kleenex. Of course x 3.

I shove the packages under my coat and start running towards the downtown pedestrian area, hoping that none of my former students are out and about. They already think I’m the weird American who can barely speak English anymore (remember Do I still speak English?) and I really did not want them to see me with a runny nose, unbrushed hair, and a bulging coat like I had just shop-lifted something.

Finally I find the tiny office and go inside to see 9 people waiting in line. A woman asks me why I’m there, and I respond intelligently “to send some mail.” She asks how I’m going to pay, and I say “with my bank card?” almost as a question because I have no idea why this strange lady is so nosy. Then I realize she actually works there and is trying to get people through the line as quickly as possible. A fonctionnaire who is helping customers in a timely and orderly fashion? What? Am I still in France??

She wants to know what I’m sending, and of course I forget the word for fridge magnet (oops, just spoiled a gift) and can only think of aimant, which does mean magnet, but not a fridge magnet. I explain it’s for the frigo, and she says ah, un magnet. ::facepalm:: I need to stop forgetting that French nowadays is just English spoken with a French accent.

These are magnets in English or “magnets” in French.

She informs me that I can use the automatic machine to weigh and print shipping labels for my packages, so I don’t need to wait in line. She even stands next to me and helps me choose the correct buttons on the screen. I weigh all 4 packages and pay with my card and I think everything is working like a charm, until the machine spits out one of the four labels I need and then barks at me “transaction interrompue” and won’t give me the rest of the labels even though my card was debited the amount for all four.

Um, ok. The woman has no idea why it didn’t work and even apologizes for leading me to the machine because it’s just wasting my time instead of saving it. I look back and still see 9 people in line, albeit 9 different people, and sigh. This is going to be a long day. And my one kleenex is not going to last much longer.

Another postal worker comes out to help but he can’t find the right key to open the machine. Third postal worker tries to help but he doesn’t have the code to punch in the machine to put it into maintenance mode. Finally fourth postal worker gets the thing open, but can’t figure out why the labels didn’t print. The woman is busy writing a note on official La Poste paper stating that if my card had been debited the full amount even though only one label had been printed, I could come back to the office and try to get it sorted out.

Number four asks me a bunch of questions about what buttons I pushed, and it becomes clear that he has no idea how the machine works. He thought it was only for buying stamps.

Number three returns and seems to be a little more knowledgeable about this mystery machine from the future, but doesn’t understand why I was weighing four different packages. He thought you could only do one package at a time.

I just stand there with my kleenex in one hand and the packages in the other. Is this really happening?, I ask myself. I know more about La Poste’s machine than the people who work at La Poste. And then I realize Why yes, I am still in France. The familiarity of the “everything in France ends up becoming a strange and bizarre adventure that I will never forget” feeling begins to set in and I’m surprised I haven’t been given the Gallic shrug yet.

But eh, whaddaya gonna do, right?

The machine seems to be functioning again, so I decide to weigh the remaining packages and hope it works correctly this time. Number three stays next to me, presumably so he could help me, but I really think it was so he could learn how to use this new and exciting technology.

Finally, everything works perfectly and it prints the labels and accepts my card and I’ve taught a fonctionnaire how to use a stupid machine. I hand over the packages to the woman because she is the only one that I trust and wish an old lady who wanted to buy some stamps from the machine bon courage as I leave. Now all I have to do is check my bank statement and hope La Poste didn’t charge me for 7 packages instead of 4 so that I don’t ever have to come back to this place ever again.

Walking home I was so grateful that my level of French is near-fluent because I think I might have just started crying dealing with all of that ridiculousness in any other language.

And that pretty much sums up every encounter at a French store/pharmacy/bank/post office/train station/anything located outside of my apartment that I’ve ever been in. It’s like one big series of bizarre events after another. Like the time the bank lady said she didn’t know how to do a cashier’s check or where to find them even though I needed it within 2 hours so I could buy my car or when we needed to buy a new box spring and had to drive the scary minivan that we rented from the mafia men or every single time I have ever stepped foot in the préfecture. I’m on residency card #7 in less than 4 years, mostly thanks to screw ups by… you guessed it, La Poste!

So other expats, is it me or is it France?

Non-French French and Why Am I Just Now Learning This?

By   June 22, 2010

I studied French for 3 years in high school and another 3 years at university between 1997 and 2003. Then I took some time off from languages while I was doing my Master’s in Linguistics and ended up moving to France in late 2006. So I guess you could say that I’ve been learning French for 10 years, though those first 6 years were just grammar and literature and not so much useful stuff like comprehension and conversational skills. Granted, I haven’t actually been “studying” French while living in France because I’ve been teaching English most of the time. Nevertheless, after all that time I am still learning new things about the French language that I can’t believe I didn’t learn years ago.

Some French books make a tiny effort to teach you other varieties of French instead of focusing solely on Parisian French. They may mention that Belgian and Swiss French use septante and nonante for 70 and 90 instead of soixante-dix or quatre-vingt-dix. They may also mention that in Quebec, the meals are déjeuner, dîner and souper instead of petit déjeuner, déjeuner and dîner. And that’s about it.

What they forget to tell you is that octante was also once used in Belgium and Switzerland for 80 instead of quatre-vingts – though it’s rarely said nowadays, you can still find it in literature – and that some parts of Switzerland (Vaud, Valais and Fribourg) use huitante. In addition, Belgium and Switzerland both use the same words as Quebec to designate the three meals of the day. I just learned that yesterday. Seriously, I’ve been learning French for years & years and I just now learn that?!?

Obviously I don’t live or work in Belgium or Switzerland or unfortunately don’t regularly talk to Belgians or the Swiss so I understand why it’s harder to pick up the vocabulary differences. I’ve studied in Quebec and still watch Quebecois shows and read blogs written by Quebecois people so I’m familiar with chum, blonde, char, magasiner, dépanneur, vidanges, piastre, niasieux, etc. and I definitely know NOT to use gosses*.

But when it comes to le français belge or suisse, I’m lost. I can’t even detect a Belgian or Swiss accent because I have such little exposure to them. David’s super scientific explanation opinion is that Belgians sound too guttural and the Swiss talk too slow. I love guttural sounds (I think Dutch is the coolest-sounding language EVER) and a slower rhythm would be nice since French people talk way too fast sometimes. Maybe I need to watch some Belgian and Swiss movies. Anyone have any recommendations?

Here are some websites for learning other varieties of French:




*Gosses means testicles in Quebec, not kids!

Traveling in Western Europe on 100€ a Day

By   June 19, 2010

Traveling throughout Europe can actually be quite cheap if you do your research and reserve/buy certain things in advance. Here’s a rundown of the costs for my two week trip. We spent 3 nights in Brussels, 2 in Amsterdam, 2 in Köln, 3 in Munich and 4 in Strasbourg. I paid for one hotel and all major train tickets in advance to take advantage of lower prices and special deals.


Hotels: I try to stay in apartment or residence hotels that have a kitchenette, mostly because I hate eating in restaurants all the time, but also because it is much, much cheaper to buy your own groceries. For example, we stayed at Citadines in Brussels for €39.50 per person per night and at Citéa in Strasbourg for 37.50€. If you can’t find any apartment hotels, you can always try private rooms in hostels that have access to a guest kitchen, like at Flying Pig in Amsterdam, or book private accommodation at regular apartments owned by individuals. Staying in dorms at hostels is obviously a cheaper option (some places are only 8-10€ for a bed), but not such a good idea when you have severe insomnia and are a huge germaphobe (that would be me). Couchsurfing is of course the cheapest option of them all (free!)

Total price for hotels for 14 nights = 575€

Trains: Buy long-distance train tickets 3 months in advance for the lowest price. This means you have to be prepared and know your exact dates, but it is worth it. For shorter trips on regional trains, the price doesn’t change so you can just buy it at the station (such as a day trip to Bonn from Köln). I made sure to buy all of our train tickets as soon as I possibly could and these were the prices:

Chambéry-Paris: 22€
Paris-Brussels: 25€
Brussels-Amsterdam: 25€
Amsterdam-Köln: 21.50€
Köln-Mannheim: 29€
Mannheim-Paris: 39€
Paris-Chambéry: 22€

We also rented a car in Mannheim to use for a week while we were in Munich and Strasbourg and the price was 111€ per person, plus we both paid around 70€ for gas and NOTHING for tolls since Germany does not make you pay to drive on their roads (unlike France, or Switzerland or Austria with their stupid vignettes). I think we paid around 75€ for other trains for day-trips to Bruges, Bonn, Düsseldorf and public transportation in Brussels, Munich and Strasbourg.


Alternatively, I could have met Michelle in Brussels instead of Paris since there’s an Easyjet route from Geneva for as low as 25€. But I would have to factor in another 18€ for the trains to Geneva airport, whereas my train to Paris was 22€ and I could take as many liquids as I wanted. Not having to deal with other air passengers, metal detectors and the liquid ban is worth an extra 4€ to me.

Total transportation costs = 440€

Food: Because of the kitchenette, we always ate breakfast and dinner at the hotel and a few of the places actually had free breakfast included. For lunch, we would usually just buy something light, like sandwiches, especially on days when we would be on the train heading to a new city. Every once in a while we did have an actual meal at a restaurant, but I never spent more than 10-12€. Buying breakfast and dinner at grocery stores was incredibly cheap and I would say we never spent more than 8-10€ for those two meals each day.

Total estimate = 250€ (this is probably a bit high)

Admission: Admission to Mini Europe was 13,10€ and Europa Park was 35€, which were our biggest expenses. Anne Frank House was 8.50€, the waterfalls in Triberg were only 3.50€ and Dachau was free. The rest of the time we stayed outside since we’re more into architecture and nature than museums.  We did do a bus tour when we were in Köln (because I had blisters!) for 11€ but normally we walk everywhere.

Mini Europe

Total = about 75€

Souvenirs: Stamps to the US from Germany are 1€, from the Netherlands 0.92€, and from France 0.85€ so I’d recommend mailing your postcards from here unless you really want stamps from other countries.  I didn’t buy too many things to bring home because my suitcase and backpack were already full.

Total = about 60€

…which brings us to a grand total of about 1,400€ for 14 days away from home.  I basically saved 115€ per month for the year to pay for the trip. We got to explore 12 cities in 4 countries (sorry Luxembourg, maybe next time) so to me, it was definitely worth it.

I’ll be updating my Contributions on TripAdvisor with all 5 hotel reviews and my Travel Tips page with information on traveling around the cities I visited in a few days!

France is Distorting my Childhood Memories

By   June 16, 2010

I don’t watch much TV in France, and I certainly don’t like to watch American shows dubbed in French, but since Michelle and I were both sick last week we often returned to the hotel early and watched The A-Team. In French it’s called L’Agence Tous Risques and it’s like a completely different show because the theme song that every child of the 80’s instantly recognizes is missing.

In case you need to be reminded of the awesomeness of the original theme song, here it is:

And here is the French version, which is not awesome:

Why, France, why??

Plus the names of the characters are different: Face became Futé, B.A. changed to Barracuda, and Murdock was called Looping. At least they left Hannibal alone (though without the initial /h/ sound, of course).

The theme song for The Dukes of Hazzard (Shérif, fais-moi peur ! in French) is also completely different. No love for Waylon Jennings and The Good Ol’ Boys. Instead we get this:

I do have to admit that the French intro for Dallas is slightly better than the instrumental American one. It’s kind of catchy and it is actually the most famous TV theme song in France:

You can find lyrics and other theme songs at Génériques TV. Sometimes they have both the original and French versions and other times it’s just the French one, but of course, you need to know the French translation of names of the shows too. You can always just use Wikipedia and “Languages” in the left column to figure them out.

I am not a fan of dubbing at all and I wish the translations of titles were more direct (The Avengers is Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir! ::sigh::), but I don’t understand why new theme songs are written in French, especially when the original version has no English lyrics anyway. Why can’t they just stick to the original as closely as possible? As with dubbing, it diminishes the authenticity of the work. Subtitles cannot convey this entirely either since they are merely translations, but it’s better than adding something new as if the original writers had created it.

And now the L’Agence Tous Risques song keeps getting stuck in my head and I instantly think Barracuda instead of B.A. when I picture Mr. T. I still understand pop culture references to classic American shows and movies, but I can’t make them anymore because the French names or titles come out of my mouth first so Americans have no idea what I’m talking about. Thanks France for distorting my memories of the 80’s!

It’s good to be home in France, but I miss Germany. And what is happening to Belgium???

By   June 14, 2010

I returned home from my 2 week trip yesterday with a cold and over 800 photos. Getting back into a routine is a little hard because I’m so exhausted, but I have managed to upload Dutch, German and French realia as well as several new photo albums. We went to Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Munich, Hohenschwangau (Schloss Neuschwanstein), Triberg & Titisee-Neustadt in the Black Forest, Strasbourg, and of course Mini Europe in Brussels and Europa Park in Rust, Germany.

Mini Europe

Mini Europe in Brussels: Learn about  the 27 EU members!

Michelle and I only see each other once a year since she lives in Arizona, so we try to make the most of the two weeks and see as much as possible. Next year we’re planning to head to Eastern Europe to visit Prague, Krakow, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and perhaps even parts of Slovenia. Or we were thinking of doing an Adriatic Sea/Greek islands cruise; or even a Nordic/Baltic capitals cruise.  Ah, so many places to see!  After visiting the two educational and fun Europe parks, I really want to see all of Europe (not just the EU) someday, but there are just so many interesting places that I don’t know how I’ll ever find the time or money.

Europa Park

One problem, Europa Park. Finland is not really Scandinavian.

I had been to Brussels and Amsterdam before, but I honestly don’t remember seeing much since it was very cold and I was extremely sick at the time. Plus I could barely speak French back then so Brussels was intimidating instead of familiar. Obviously I feel much less stressed about traveling in French-speaking areas nowadays. I absolutely loved listening to Flemish/Dutch in Bruges and Amsterdam and wished that more people studied it so there would be more resources available to learn it.


I heart the architecture in Bruges

I had also been to Germany before, but not along the Rhine River or in Bavaria. My German was a bit rusty but I was surprised at how much I could understand (much more in written form than spoken, unfortunately). I didn’t feel completely at ease like I do in France or southern Belgium, but ordering food and buying stamps were not too difficult. The only hard parts are when the other person responds in an unexpected way and you can’t understand what they say, or even if you can understand the words, you don’t understand why they are saying it. When buying groceries at a small store in a suburb of Munich, the cashier asked if I wanted Herzen after I paid. I knew that Herzen meant hearts but I had no idea why she was asking if I wanted them or what type of hearts she was referring to. She showed us some heart stickers, but I just said Nein, danke instead of asking what I was supposed to do with them because I was so caught off guard. (Anyone know why German supermarkets try to give you heart stickers?)

Disney Castle

Schloss Neuschwanstein (Disney Castle)

Because of my interest in WWII and Holocaust history, German is my 3rd language and I’m hoping to attain the same level that I have in French. French has an obvious advantage (I’ve lived in France for nearly 4 years and my boyfriend is French) but with enough exposure and interaction with other German speakers, plus plenty of return trips to Bavaria (fingers crossed!), I think I’ll manage. Strasbourg was a lovely place and hearing two languages constantly spoken on the streets because of all the German tourists made me wish I lived there. Not that living in the Alps is bad. It’s just that I would prefer to live in a bilingual nation or at least closer to the border where I can always be exposed to at least one other language besides French. One foreign language will never be enough for me.


Strasbourg in Alsace, France

Speaking of bilingual nations, I am completely fascinated by the elections in Belgium. I adore Belgium and love that they speak French and Flemish, but I can see why there are problems since the two languages are separated geographically instead of nearly every citizen being bilingual such as in Luxembourg. Flemish separatists who want the country to be split into two took the lead in parliamentary elections this weekend. It’s still too early to tell if Flanders will become an independent state, what would happen to poorer Wallonia, and if they both would still be part of the EU, but it’s extremely interesting to follow how the history of language use and politics are so intertwined in certain areas. Luxembourg and Switzerland have far fewer problems with regards to language, but Belgium and Canada have always had vocal separatist parties.

So tomorrow it’s back to work, which will hopefully include catching up on e-mails. I do have another real, bill-paying job that I need to do until the end of July so I won’t be able to devote as much time as I’d like to the website, but I’m really excited about it and will explain more later.


New Photo Albums:

* Belgium and the Netherlands have a few photos from the trip in 2005 first.

Traveling through Germanic Languages and History

By   June 5, 2010

I’ve been traveling for the past week through Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Munich. I have been trying to listen to as much Dutch and German as possible and collect all sorts of realia to learn more vocabulary. Of course I’ve also been going to educational places like Mini Europe, which I highly recommend for learning more about European Union geography and history.

I returned to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam after 5 years and it was still just as overwhelming, depressing, and humbling as before, yet it remained impossible to not be touched by Anne’s optimistic words in such a dark time. Otto Frank’s remarks on why he started the Anne Frank Foundation – to fight against the prejudice and discrimination of people of different races and religions – is partly the same reason why I learn languages. It’s not just so I can travel around Europe more easily. It’s so I can talk to people who are different from me and learn from them, and hopefully help them if they are being discriminated against because they are “too different” from everyone else.

Tomorrow morning I am going to Dachau, the very first concentration camp. Yet another reason why I learn languages: not merely to learn, but to experience, history. A lot of meaning can be lost in translation and we can never fully understand the how and the why unless we truly understand the language and culture. I know neither the perpetrators nor the prisoners spoke English so why should I only learn the history in English? I want to listen to the victims’ and survivors’ own words, not a translation.

I want to read Anne’s diary in its original version. The words that she actually wrote. When I read Hélène Berr’s diary in the original French last year, it really affected me because I knew the places and dates she mentioned and the significance of them. I could picture her life in occupied Paris until her arrest. It made the diary all the more real to me, instead of simply stories in a book. Anne’s diary is poignant enough in English, but I can only imagine at this point what it must be like to comprehend it in Dutch.

Jennie en France #2 in Top Language Learning Blogs 2010!

By   May 28, 2010 announced the winners of the Top 100 Language Blogs 2010 today and I was very surprised to see that Jennie en France was #2 in the Language Learning category and #3 in the overall top 100 blogs! Thank you to everyone who voted and a special thank you to Benny at (who ranked #1 and #2 in the same categories) for nominating me!  The competition was based on votes (50%) and Lexiophiles’ ranking criteria (50%), explained here.

Top 100 Language Blogs 2010

I’m leaving tomorrow for a 2 week trip through Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. I will be collecting more realia in French, Dutch, German and perhaps even Luxembourgish and I hope to be able to update the blog and respond to e-mails while I’m gone, but that depends on my hotels’ internet connections. When I return in mid-June, I will be able to focus more on updating the language tutorials and listening podcast on a regular basis. The rest of the summer will be devoted to!

Multilingual Goodness of the Eurovision Song Contest

By   May 26, 2010

The Eurovision Song Contest is going on this week in Oslo and even though I’m not watching it, I am using the unofficial website to learn languages through song lyrics. It is called the Diggiloo Thrush and it includes the lyrics and translations into English of almost all of the songs ever performed for the contest. This year there are 39 participating countries, but far fewer languages are represented since countries are not required to choose a song in their official language. Nevertheless, the collection of lyrics starts in 1956 so there is plenty of material available to help you learn languages.

The quality of the songs isn’t always great but Eurovision always motivates me to learn more about my European neighbors and their languages. There are even a few countries outside of Europe that participate, such as Israel, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The official site has a webcast if you want to watch live (or on-demand later), or you can find some songs on YouTube or Spotify (if you live in a country that has access to it).