Getting out of Paris

This could’ve been a lot worse…
Travels usually come with a bit of the unexpected. That’s part of the reason to travel, right? Well, today I got trapped in my hotel room when the lock got jammed and wouldn’t allow the door to open. It seemed a bit ridiculous to call down and tell them I was stuck, but it took two guys nearly thirty minutes to finally get the lock disassembled so I could get out.

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Aftermath of getting set free!

Actually, I’m not staying at a regular hotel. It’s a small, family-run winery with guest rooms in the Alsatian village of Colmar. I’m not sure how old the building is, but by the look of the wooden beams and worn plaster, it seems like it’s been here a while. (One of the buildings I saw nearby this morning had an addition dated from 1613.)

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Wine making equipment. My room is on the floor with the three windows.

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Looking down on the courtyard.

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Sometimes you have to dodge the tractor to get in.

The room was a bargain, both because it doesn’t include regular maid service and because the toilet’s down the hall. That’s how I discovered my predicament—I was just stepping out to take care of some necessary business when I realized I was dangerously close to being caught up in a bad plot straight out of Mr. Bean. I even looked out my window to see how far down it was in case my situation became desperate. I’m grateful it only took them half-an-hour to let me out—and I’m really glad it didn’t happen in the middle of the night!

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Looking out my window–not a great escape option

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Mission accomplished: brand new door lock

France, German style
This week the girls and I have France covered: I’m in Alsace in the east, Carolyn is in the Loire Valley in the center of the country, and Evelyn is in the Basque region on the coast near Spain.

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At their school, because around a third of the student population is new each year, each class goes on a weeklong field trip at the beginning of the year; the idea is that by the time they get back, they’ve all gotten to know each other and there aren’t any “new kids.” Since they were going to be gone for the week, I decided to take the opportunity to check out this region that’s passed back and forth between France and Germany over the years. Lots of half-timbered buildings, sausages, spätzle, pretzels, and plenty of German-speaking tourists give the area a much different feel than Paris.

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The back of the Customs House.

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“Petite Venice”

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“Maison des Têtes” (House of Heads)

Mediterranean retreat
This marks the second week in France when I’ll be overnight somewhere other than Paris. Last week was the first: I went to the Mediterranean town of Sète for a retreat for Covenant missionaries serving in Europe. I was asked to lead the times of worship each day.

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It was my second year at this retreat; last year it was held in a tiny village in the hills above Turin, Italy. It was one of the highlights of my year, so I was grateful to be invited back again this year.

When something is so perfect, the danger is that nothing else will live up to it, that past glories will eclipse what God is doing now. Thankfully, I didn’t consciously have any such expectations going into this year’s retreat. And as it turned out, things were very different from last year.

While the Mediterranean was lovely, we were staying at a much larger facility with all sorts of vacationers all around; last year we pretty much had the small retreat center to ourselves and the village was way, way, way off the beaten track. We had more cows and sheep for neighbors than people. So last year it was easy to go for prayer walks through the sleepy town and up into the forest among ruins of ancient stone dwellings and find time alone with God. I had some profound times of prayer on those walks last year. But this time we were in a tourist area with people getting to the water for the last gasp of summer. Even so, I managed to get out by myself and have some times alone with the surf breaking on the rocks.

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This year, I also came into the retreat with a deeper appreciation for what missionaries go through to minister in a cross-cultural setting. I’ve experienced more of what it’s like to not be able to communicate like you want to. I’m learning what it’s like to adapt to a new culture and how it can be difficult to know how ordinary, everyday things work (I still don’t understand half the functions on our washer/dryer and I haven’t managed to set up my voicemail—since the interface is in French). I’m still dealing with the aftermath of having surgery and dealing with paperwork I can’t read completely. My preconceptions and expectations about what language fluency means have been broadened as I’ve developed a deeper and more nuanced view of what learning another language really looks like. All of this has given me more compassion and flat-out awe for what missionaries deal with. And I think it made me a better worship leader for them.

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On our free afternoon some of us visited the medieval city of Carcassonne. 

It’s been such an honor to be among such wonderful people serving with all their hearts and facing all sorts of challenges and situations that I’m just beginning to understand and appreciate a bit more now by living in France. It’s been great to be welcomed into their midst. They’ve asked me to return again for their next retreat in August—back in the same little Italian village we were at last year. I’m already looking forward to it.

Thankfulness

In these past weeks I’ve come face to face with how much I have to be thankful for–especially people who have helped me in ways big and small. Here are just a few:

For my new French teacher who helped me fill out a non-intuitive form I had to submit to the government so we can stay in the country.

For the sales staff at the phone store who, between their rudimentary English and my even more rudimentary French, helped me get all of our cell phones set up. (Let me tell you, buying groceries where you can point and nod is far easier than picking out phone plans in a foreign language.)

For the concierge of our apartment building and her daughter who helped me get my phone plan recharged when the time came (another simple thing that is far more difficult when you can’t speak the language). 

For the extremely friendly Frenchman at our church who helped me read my paperwork on preparing for my surgery (which was entirely in French, of course).

For my light-hearted anesthesiologist:
Him (swabbing my arm for the IV): Do you like needles?
Me: No—I can’t even watch.
Him: Okay then, on three… Three! (jab)
Me: I knew you were going to do that.
Him: Yes, I have lots of tricks.

For nurses at the clinic who patiently explained things to me, even using their phones to find the translations of things I needed to know.

For new friends from the girls’ school who met me after the surgery, walked me home, and gave me a wonderful quiche along with a carrot salad.

For new friends from Poland, Egypt, Finland, South Korea, France and other places (even America) who have been so welcoming.

For the girls’ new trapeze coach and the other students who have welcomed them right into the program. One has offered to carpool with us so we don’t have to take the train as long and another has invited us to go rock climbing!

For all the people who have been praying for me and sending me encouraging messages during these past few weeks—it’s made a huge difference.

For the welcoming people at Trinity International Church where we’ve gone the last few Sundays—being greeted and invited to join in seems like such a simple thing, but it transforms a nice service into something to look forward to.

Baking diversion

Carolyn is turning 13 and she really wanted to make chocolate chip cookies, so we embarked on our baking adventures in France–which of course has entailed its own learning curve. For one thing, our apartment’s kitchen isn’t exactly fully equipped for even all the cooking things I’ve wanted to do, much less for baking. We bought a baking sheet yesterday, but didn’t manage to find a hand mixer. No worries, we’ll figure something out; after all, humankind baked for centuries without electric mixers.

Only once we were underway did we realize that we didn’t have real cooling racks or even a real mixing bowl. But we got by. Another crucial element of hardware that wasn’t to be found was anything to measure with—either measuring cups or spoons! But no problem, there’s a great kitchen shop right nearby. Except they don’t even sell measuring cups or spoons. Instead they have these glass containers that have all sorts of measuring systems on them. Okay, got it.

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Then there are the most crucial things of all—ingredients. Butter? No problem. Sugar? Check. Brown sugar—uh, Google to the rescue. I picked up two things that look like brown sugar: sucre complet muscovado and sucre roux de canne. My French translation app said sucre roux was what to look for and a baking forum I found said muscovado was expensive and unnecessary to seek out. Still, I bought them both—and was glad I did. The sucre roux turned out to have the coarse consistency of Sugar in the Raw while the muscovado was much finer and packed like brown sugar. (Looks like I’ll be saving the sucre roux for coffee.)

Then there’s the flour. I found two small bags in the kitchen, so I should be set right? Not so fast. Maybe I should call on the power of Google to see what kinds of flour I’m dealing with. After all, even I know there are differences between all purpose, whole wheat, and cake flour. Here’s what David Lebovitz, the American baker-gourmand in Paris, has to say:

Flour varies from country-to-country. French ‘all-purpose’ flour (type 45 and type 55) is closer to American cake flour: it’s milled very finely and has less-protein and gluten (strength). In most cases, you can’t just substitute French all-purpose flour in American recipes like cookies and cakes. I know too many Americans who opened the oven door and found all their carefully rolled-out chocolate chip cookies, melded into one, giant blob. [Learn more here.]

Wonderful! Guess what kind of flour we’ve got—that’s right, one is Type 45, while the other? It’s not clear. Maybe I’ll just do half of each…

So we get the butter and sugar creamed and the eggs beaten in. Without a mixer we found that Carolyn’s hands worked better than a wooden spoon or whisk (thanks again to an internet tip). Next up: vanilla—or at least the closest thing I could find: Arôme Vanille, which is really flavored sugar syrup. Oh well. Then baking soda, which turned out to be called bicarbonate alimentaire and not anywhere near the other baking items in the store. (Thanks to the English speaking woman at the grocery who sent her little girl to go find some for us since I didn’t know what it would be called or where it would be! The French are rude? Not in my experience. Given that I’m the one who’s trying to get along without being able to speak much of their language, I’ve received no end of patience.)

Okay, time to measure in the flour. I decided to go with half of each kind we had. Only later did I discover that both bags were “Type 45”—the kind that’s not supposed to work correctly…

We interrupt this baking account to remind you of an amusing moment from Star Trek IV:

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Kirk: Mr. Spock, have you accounted for the variable mass of whales and water in your time re-entry program?
Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral, so… I will make a guess.
Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That’s extraordinary.
Spock: [to Dr. McCoy] I don’t think he understands.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.

What does any of this have to do with baking? Everything! I’m bad enough keeping my cups and pints straight without having to convert ounces to grams or Fahrenheit to Celsius. First off we had a 500g brick of butter and according to my math, needed 225 grams. And the packaging doesn’t have any kind of unit markers printed on it, so right of the bat I’m guesstimating how much to use. Then comes the sugar and the flour. I’m pretty sure I got the sugar right, but the flour? Our measuring glass has units for measuring farine (flour) but to my eye it looks like way more than what I’m expecting a cup of flour to look like. So I guessed again and used only about 2/3 of what my math said I needed. We got it mixed in to what seemed like a reasonable consistency and Carolyn loaded up the first sheet for the oven. Here’s hoping my guesses are as good as Spock’s…

Well, it took longer than the recommended ten minutes (who knows how accurate the oven is–another unknown!), but in the end… we had tasty chocolate chip cookies! The consistency was slightly more cake-like at first, but they firmed up and at least we didn’t end up with a giant cookie glob.

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See–not bad! In fact, they’re pretty good. The flavor isn’t exactly what we get in the U.S., but then we’re using different flour, different butter, different vanilla… really, different everything (along with some dodgy measurements). So I’m pretty happy.

Now I can get some rest. ‘Cause it’s time for surgery in the morning!

Learning things about France I never expected I’d need to learn–like how to go in for surgery

It’s been quite some time since I last posted—mostly because I had to get the hard drive on my computer replaced, which was an unexpected adventure… and one that took three weeks! Then, when I got it back, the operating system was set up in French (of course). I’ve got it mostly into English now (although it still has a few quirks).

During that time, it’s been easier to post pictures on Facebook and I’ve focused on the fun and interesting things we’ve been seeing and experiencing. But at the same time, I’ve been learning things about living in France that I wasn’t anticipating—like getting to know the French health system up close and personal as I prepare for a minor (I hope) surgery on Monday.

A few weeks ago, we visited Barcelona and I discovered I’d developed a hernia. No heavy lifting, no horrible incident, but there was no doubt about it. I’d seen a doctor years ago in Helena who essentially told me it was only a matter of time. Well, the time had come.

In the past few weeks I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone, I’ve forgotten what my comfort zone looks like. When my computer’s hard drive failed I had to deal with French and then British tech support and finally a repair shop where the people spoke minimal English. Talk about jumping into the deep end! But now I’m figuring out health care in a foreign country. Thankfully I started with a British general practitioner recommended by my insurance company, so communication wasn’t a problem. But already I was learning that things are much different than in the States.

How so? Let me count the ways… Doctors’ offices aren’t in professional buildings; they’re scattered among apartments (there’s one in our building). Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to even get in, since most such entrances require a code—and in one case they didn’t bother to tell me what the code was! They often don’t have nurses or receptionists. You meet the doctor in an office and the examination room is attached. Then pay in cash. In ways there’s a lot less paperwork than in America, but then other things are more complicated. I had a blood test this morning and at the end of the day I had to go to another facility in a different part of town to pick up the results that I’m expected to bring to the surgery so they’ll know my blood type! Pharmacists do way more than we’re used to in the States—and fairly quickly. Walk in, hand over the prescription, they hand you the drugs (so now I’m loaded up with pain-killers), and you’re out the door in just a few minutes.

The hardest part of the process has been dealing with my surgeon’s receptionists; it’s been more than a little stressful trying to communicate with them about what my insurance company wants. They’re not used to dealing with that, since most everyone is on the national French plan–show a membership card and you’re good to go. And my French might be better than their English–and my French isn’t good at all! I’ve discovered that most waiters and shopkeepers speak better English than many of the medical professionals I’ve had to deal with.

I’m grateful for connections I’ve made at the girls’ school. It’s been encouraging to meet other parents who know what the learning curve is like in adjusting to a new culture–and have lived through it. And I’m especially grateful for new friends that are going to help me get home after the surgery, since Merideth is back in Seattle right now. The clinic where I’m going is literally a seven minute walk from where we live, which is especially convenient. And my new French teacher has assured me it’s a great facility–it’s where the former French President’s wife chose to deliver her child!