mardi 31 décembre 2013

Happy New Year everyone! (and Blogging about Blogging)

So here I am again finally. Barely 2 hours into 2014 and I am writing here! That's a record considering I have not blogged in a few weeks.

I should be over at my sister-in-law's house celebrating with all the other 'young people'. Instead I am here at my in-laws place writing a blog post while the parents and Mémé get ready for bed. What am doing here and why am I writing?

I suddenly had a longing to write. Pure and simple. Who cares if nobody is reading and if everyone is out celebrating.

I just read Paris at my Feet's latest post:

Her post, Blogging about Blogging, is exactly how I feel about blogging. I'm not in this to promote myself and I want this blog to be my place to write whenever I feel like it. Even if that means disappearing for a few weeks and coming back less than two hours into a new year. A few weeks ago a blogger I really liked suddenly stopped blogging, saying that the reason she was quitting blogging was because she felt she wasn't a good writer and that she felt too much pressure to blog. I've got to ask myself, why?

The answer is clear to me. Like Paris at my Feet said, there are more and more lifestyle blogs that read like advertisements and less 'assistants in France + years later' in France blogs. Like Paris at my Feet, I would love to be more personal in my writing, and goodness knows if any of my acquaintances ever found my blog they would know it was me, but for now if I want to keep sharing and keep this a semi-personal blog, I need to be semi-anonymous. I will never become a lifestyle blog. I want to be honest with myself and anybody who comes here wanting to know about life in France (or Paris for that matter).

I hope that other bloggers can find the inspiration to just be whatever they want to be and not follow social media pressure. Please just stop fighting the push towards having a 'perfect' blog and pleasing anyone and everyone that might just pass by your blog. Before I started blogging I thought it would be great to have a blog with many followers. Now I think the opposite. It's better to have a few followers that are true followers.

So to answer Paris at my Feet's question, blogging is definitely not dying but metamorphosing into something else. Yes, there are more and more lifestyle blogs, but there is definitely a group of us 'personal' bloggers that still exists and is strong. I'm glad to be part of that group!

Ok, I'm off to celebrate whatever is left of the night. Happy New Year to all my blogger readers and best of luck in 2014.

Here's a confession for you: I can't wait to dig my hand into those M&M peanuts. Yes, that's just how humanly weak I am. Oh, well!

Foie gras as far as the eye can see! Author of photo: Den Nation.

mercredi 6 novembre 2013

The city that was never meant to be

This is the tale of the city that was never meant to be…

I absolutely love this place. Really, I could totally see myself living there.

So the city I almost moved to (twice) was…

Panoramic view. Photo by Den Nation.


I’m not surprised that nobody recognised it from the pictures. Hardly anybody has ever heard of Besançon. I certainly had never heard about it.

Back in the spring of 2007 when I was in my 2nd year of university all the language students were deciding where to go on their year abroad. A language degree at a British university usually lasts 4 years; the 3rd year is spent in the country or countries where your language(s) are spoken. You could spend your year at a European (Erasmus) or non-European university, on a work placement, or as a language assistant teaching English. The year abroad is obligatory for most students, but if you have a good reason not to do it, you could be exempted from doing it and go directly into 4th year. Most mature students, which was what I was, that ask to be exempted receive the exemption.

I asked to be exempted from the year abroad, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me not to it. I knew that I probably would never have a chance like that again, and that if I didn’t do it I would regret it forever. So I told the head of my programme that I changed my mind. That decision changed the rest of my life forever.

Comté and Morbier come from the region surrounding Besançon.
Photo by Den Nation.

As I had changed my mind quite late in the process, there were no spots left at the universities (Erasmus) that were reserved for my programme (translation).  So I had to pick from the universities that were reserved for regular language students. Brest, Arras and Besançon were the cities that still had spots. I couldn’t see myself going somewhere as remote as Brest and while I was tempted by Arras, I chose Besançon. It fit all my criteria: surrounded by small mountains, small city known for its friendliness, bucolic region, beautiful architecture, great local cuisine, campus in the city centre, low cost of living, safe, easy access to other countries (Switzerland, Italy and Germany), etc. I read everything I could get my hands on about Besançon and stared at countless pictures. I really had my heart set out on going there.

Then, one day, my euphoria ended. I was leaving the language building at uni when a professor stopped me, “Did you hear, Den Nation, a spot opened up in Bordeaux and you’re no longer going to Besançon! Isn’t that great?!”

My heart just fell to my stomach. “No, I hadn’t heard, that’s good, thanks for telling me,” I replied, trying to feign some enthusiasm.

I didn’t want to go to Bordeaux. I was absolutely against it. However, because of the programme I was enrolled in, I didn’t have a choice if one of the reserved schools had a spot. I was going to Bordeaux whether I liked it or not.

I had the summer to try and get used to the idea, but I couldn’t. I tried to tell myself that it would be great; that the weather would be better, that the city was beautiful, that the food was good, anything to convince myself. But I couldn’t fall in love with it: I didn’t like wine at the time and Bordeaux is pretty isolated from other countries; except for Spain that is, and I was going to Spain during the second semester of my year abroad.

Along the Doubs River and facing the Citadelle. Photo by Den Nation.

I decided that I would just stay and travel in the region and concentrate on learning the language. Now, years later, I’m glad that I took that attitude. I was there to learn about France and the language after all.

It was during my semester as an Erasmus student in Bordeaux that I met my husband (I think I’ll save that story for another post) so now when I think back on when that professor told me about the change and how I felt… I am so grateful that a spot became available at the last minute!

The summer after my Erasmus year was over I finally made it out to Besançon. It was everything I thought it would be and more. It was such a moving visit: it confirmed what I knew all along, that it was the place for me in France. In my 4th year at university back in the UK I befriended a girl from Besançon (she was as Erasmus student) and we are still friends to this day. All the signs kept pointing me in that direction…

Fast forward to June 2009. I was finishing my 4th year at university in the UK with my bisontine friend. My husband had applied to be a fonctionnaire and had taken and passed the competitive exams to be accepted at a fonctionnaire. The nature of his job (academia) meant that he had to audition for a particular position in front of a jury – he couldn’t just be muté (sent by the French government to work in a certain place). So he went around the country auditioning in several cities, including Besançon.

We had left Bordeaux together after the summer of 2008, me to complete my 4th year of university and him to Paris for a CDD. We really didn’t think that we would ever go back to Bordeaux and Besançon had already slipped from my fingers. There was no guarantee that he would get an academic job. We were almost certain that he would be working another CDD job another year as he was inexperienced and applying again the next year.

Besançon is famous for its grey and pink façades. Photo by Den Nation.

He got the job in Besançon!

I just couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking excitedly, “It’s baaaaaaack!” I was so ecstatic; it was like I was walking on air. I couldn’t believe I was being given another chance.

But guess what? A few days after Besançon offered him a position, good old Bordeaux called and offered him one too. I was incredulous; how could it come down to the same two places again?

You already know which one we picked. Well, my husband picked Bordeaux, not me. I actually think that professionally Besançon would have been easier for me (close to Switzerland), but the position in Bordeaux was more prestigious for him. Thanks to Bordeaux’s prestige in my husband’s field, it will be easier for him to obtain a more higher ranking fonctionnaire position one day. That’s why I said yes.

That was the tale of the city that was just never meant to be.

Bordeaux, the city that was always just meant to be. Photo by Den Nation.

vendredi 25 octobre 2013

The day after the harvest

"Aaahhh," I screamed to my husband from the bedroom, "I can't move, help me!"

This was me the day after I picked grapes for a vineyard near Bordeaux. Today I'm going to tell you about the reality of grape picking.

There are loads of people with romantic views of coming to France and spending a few weeks getting "back to the basics" by participating in a grape harvest. The reality of the work is very different from the image these people have in their minds. How do I know this? I was one of these people.

Most of the work is done by family, interns who are paid next to nothing, immigrants from developing countries, or people who are "experts" at this kind of work - people who are used to physical labour and toiling in the fields.

Looks so innocent, doesn't it? Author of photo: Den Nation.

There are opportunities for tourists to experience picking grapes during a harvest, but let me tell you something: make sure that the owners are aware that you are a newbie and don't ever try to work as fast and as hard as the "experts". The wine chateau will have their own employees, either the immigrants as seasonal labour or the "experts". I find that the chateaux are not hiring immigrants like they used to: they prefer cheap interns or free help from their family or friends. There are also tons of wineries around Bordeaux looking to hire labourers, but my feeling is that they want to hire skilled labourers (the "experts") not immigrants who are just passing through. This is probably because technology has erased the need for the immigrants doing manual picking; the chateaux need skilled labourers that know how to handle machinery.

Please don't do what I did:

Me: "There's nothing to this, of course I can keep up with the "experts".

Me the next day: "What was I thinking..."

The experience is wonderful, but this is the reality: it is back-breaking work, you will be dirty, the sun will burn you, and your muscles will scream in pain the next day.

At the end of the day I felt fine. I laughed all though the evening with my fellow workers during the dinner at the chateau. I declared that I had never felt better. Haha!

You know how you feel the day after having done some strenuous exercise after a long break? You know the pulling and burning in your muscles that you feel that make walking uncomfortable? Well, the day after I picked graped I felt that. I felt like that times a hundred.

It was the worst muscle pain I had ever felt. So bad that I physically couldn't get out of bed. I went to move my legs and was doubled over with pain. I crawled on the floor to get to the bathroom in the mornings and it took 5 minutes to crawl a few metres. My legs were the worst, so I would use my arms to pull myself on the floor and drag my legs behind. It even hurt just to move my head to the right 5cm. And you know how that pain you feel after exercising lasts a day or two? Well, this lasted 10 days. I'm not kidding, I dragged myself around the house for at least a week.

The moral of the story? Don't be like me and assume that anyone can pick grapes. It's a great experience, but it's not for everybody. You have to start at the crack of dawn as grapes are best picked when it is cooler outside. You work the entire day because when the harvest has to come in, it has to be done ASAP. 10 hour days are not uncommon. A grape harvest is an extremely intensive and delicate operation, one where timing counts for everything. I had these thoughts of spending the day outside under the sun eating the grapes while I worked, talking with the others, admiring the grapes while I picked them, taking the time to breath in the fresh vineyard air... Yeah, right.

The "experts" are like robots - they are so fast you can't even see them picking. I wanted to be just like them, to be part of the gang.

My neighbour works at a wine chateau. She gets up everyday at the crack of dawn and spends the day doing what she loves. This involves a lot of physical activity, but she is used to this and is very athletic to begin with so has little problems with the physical aspect of the job. Being a woman in this industry makes everything harder, but she has such motivation and she works even harder.

Me? I had these ideas of doing some harvest work every year to pick up a little bit of extra money. Who was I kidding?! There's not an athletic bone in this padded body of mine!

I think I'll just to stick to doing what I do best...

Drinking wine!

Cheers! Author of photo: Den Nation.

vendredi 4 octobre 2013


Ok, so I'll just come out and say it: I'm starting a master's programme this autumn. Actually, I've already started. I am going to keep on blogging as to be honest, I am really enjoying interacting with my "Den Nation Blogging Family." I can't believe how many great blogs there are out there and I am happy to finally have "met" you all (after lurking for a couple of years).

I've decided to enroll as a full-time student while still working part-time on the side and travelling (of course, I can't give that up, but this means I'll be working in my hotel room all of next week). Maybe I am crazy, but after spending months of wallowing in my self-pity, I've decided to finally get out and try to change things. This involves finally completing a master's degree. I can't explain it, this has been something that I have wanted to do for a long, long time. A dream you could say. I want to prove to myself that I can do it.

Thankfully I have found an online master's programme that I can fit around my schedule (and my travels!). I am really intimidated by some of the other students, not because they are unfriendly, on the contrary, but because it seems like they know so much compared to me. I feel like I have years of reading to catch up on in order to reach their level of knowledge.

I'll leave you with a few pictures of the city I'll be staying in next week. Any guesses as to where I'm going?

Along the river. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Panoramic view of the city. Author of photo: Den Nation.

For anybody who has been to this city, this picture is a dead giveaway.
Author of photo: Den Nation.
I know there are some of you who know where I am going - please abstain from guessing!

Note: This is one of my favourite places in France and this was where I was almost sent to by my home university on my Erasmus year. At the last minute, the placement fell threw and I was sent to Bordeaux instead. In my last year at university in the UK, I met a French girl from this city who remains my friend to this day (one of my few French friends). I always wonder how my life would have turned out had I been sent here.

jeudi 26 septembre 2013

My language gaffe - in English!

Those of you who live in a country that speaks a language that is different from your mother language know all about language gaffes.

Every native English speaker living in France knows about the preservative/préservatif false friend. Never, never make the mistake of telling your French hosts at the dinner table that you think American food is full of condoms and that you prefer French food because it's not full of condoms.

But what if your language gaffe wasn't in French, but in English? It's kind of hard to imagine when your native language is English. But it happened to me. 

So, without futher ado, I present my British language gaffe. Enjoy! 

Cardiff Castle in Wales. Author of photo: Den Nation.

It is my second year of university in the UK. I am going down the stairs and am in between classes. My teacher stops me and asks: 

Male teacher: "I heard you talking in class about how you have a really important appointment later today and that you don't have enough time to make it over there on your bicycle after your last class. I'm heading to that area after your last class so I can drive you there."

(Note: This teacher had a really relaxed attitude and a friendly approach with his students. He was the type of guy that would say hello to his students in the supermarket and drive them home. He was always up for a chat and a cup of tea. He had absolutely no ulterior motives in his offer.)

Me: "Oh, thanks, that's really nice of you, but Dave (not his real name) is going to give me a ride in his car." 


Later, once I am in Dave's (my classmate) car. 

Me: "The teacher was really quiet today after I told him that you were going to give me a ride."

British Dave bursts out laughing.

Me: "What?" I am slightly annoyed. 

Dave: "You basically told him that we were going to have sex in my car." 

Me: "I did not!" Now I am really annoyed.

Dave: "Yes, you did. 'To give somebody a ride' is British slang for having sex."

I am just gobsmacked. And really ticked off. Please somebody just open a hole and swallow me up. How could I not know this?

Me: "So what was I supposed to say?"

Dave: "You should have used 'giving a lift' instead or something along those lines."

Needless to say, I couldn't look the teacher in the eye for weeks afterwards.

Edit: Read my comment to Crystal about another British language gaffe I committed. 

mercredi 18 septembre 2013

Not your everyday houseshare

We all know how difficult it is to find affordable, and acceptable, housing in Paris. It is so hard that many people are scammed in the process - I've read some blog posts written by expats who have been cheated out of their money. Finding a place to live in Paris is a long and expensive process, one that I am relieved to not have to go through.

I'm not here to talk about finding housing in Paris, though. I'm here to talk about another "type" of housing. One that I never imagined existed, at least not in cold Paris.

A few years ago my husband's friend was looking for a place to live in Paris. This friend came from Algeria and had an Algerian name. It's already hard enough for a Frenchman to find accommodation in Paris, but it's even harder for somebody who has a foreign name (especially for someone from Africa or Asia).

When my husband's friend would call a potential landlord, the conversation often went like this:

Husband's friend: "Hello, I'm calling to ask about the room to rent. Can I have an appointment to come and see it?"

Potential landlord: "What is your professional situation?"

Husband's friend: "My name is .... and I work as a scientist at the ..." (gets cut off)

PL: Rambles off some excuse to get off the phone and get rid of my husband's friend.

Two months go by like this. My husband's friend is getting tired of crashing at friends' places. One day he sees an ad for a room that looks promising. He calls the number and the person who answered the phone was surprisingly friendly. He feels that something is not quite right, but he goes over to visit the property anyway.

A café in Paris. Author of photo: Den Nation.
He is interviewed by a friendly couple in the apartment's living room. The apartment was clean, the couple was friendly, the price wasn't too expensive (for Paris), the location was all right. Everything was too good to be true...

"Oh, by the way, we are nudists," the couple mention at the end of the interview.

"Nudists, what?" said the friend.

"That's right, we believe in nudism, this is a nudist apartment."

Our friend is silent, obviously confused.

The couple continues, "Yes, there is a no-clothes allowed rule here." "As soon as we enter the apartment we remove all of our clothing and the clothes stay off." "We know what you must be thinking, but we are serious and this is something we really believe in."

Our friend is speechless.

"There are 3 of us living here now and we are totally comfortable with being nude and you would have to be too." "So what do you think?"

"I'll have to think about it," responds our friend.

He really did think about it. It's not that this kind of living arrangement bothered him, it just really caught him off guard, but ultimately he decided against it. He found a place to live shortly afterwards.

A Parisian residential building. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I'm not against this type of living arrangement either, but a few questions come to mind. What do you do if you want to have company over? And what about the winter? I asked our friend about this and he didn't ask the first question, but the answer to the second question was that, yes, they kept their clothes off all year, even in the dead of winter. I just can't imagine that! When I think about how cold some apartments can get in France, I can't imagine living nude in January in a freezing apartment. Either their heating bill must be really high or, in the case of shared heating (where the temperature is controlled by a central source so the apartment units of a building are all at the same temperature) there are some elderly people living in the building that have managed to convince the building's management to keep the temperature high. That, or the building is insulated quite well. Can you tell I suffer during the winter here in cold apartments?

So, I wonder, has anybody else had any experiences like this, in France or anywhere else?

mercredi 11 septembre 2013

Home alone

I'm home alone.

"Yeah, so what," you may be thinking. 

It's not very often that my husband goes out without me. Yes, that's right, we rarely go to any social event separately. 

I know, I know, it sounds clingy and needy. But this is the way things are done in France, especially out here in province. 

If you are in a couple, you attend social events as couple with other couples. If you are not in a couple, you spend a lot of time with couples. You tag along. 

At least, this is the way it works when you are around my age, 30. It's unusal to go out without your other half. I wrote another post about this here:

I can picture it now, my husband arriving alone at the meal, a meal where there are only couples, and greeting everyone with la bise and having to awkwardly explain to everyone that I stayed home because I have too much work. Only it's not because I have too much work (well, I do have a lot on my to-do list).

I'm at home because I can't stand another evening of being socially awkward and being ignored. 

Maybe it's my introverted side, but I just don't want to force myself anymore. I can't tell you how many times I've forced myself to go out with my husband to these "couples' evenings" when I just wanted to stay home. I know that the best way to meet people is to force sometimes, but if I am not having fun, then it's just not worth it. 

I was out walking today and reflecting on how I feel lonely in France sometimes. But then I thought, "Yeah, but so what? You're so happy alone in your den, avoiding people that don't really care to be with you." (If you want to know more about my "den", read this post: And you know what? I am so much happier here. I feel a bit guilty about him having to deal with the social stigma of being out without me, but I am just so happy to be back in my den.

My Den. Home sweet home. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Saturday I want to a bachelorette party. I hesitated to go - I didn't want past experiences to come back to haunt me. I went because there would be no in-the-street dancing and dressing up. I also wanted to get to know the bride a little better. I don't have any problems with people who do dress up and dance in the streets, but it's not my idea of fun. No, the programme was excellent, right up my alley. Spa, medieval festival, good food, wine bar - all things that I love to do. So what was the problem? 

These women knew each other quite well. So maybe it wasn't really a cultural problem, but my introverted side rearing its ugly head. They sang along together to girly songs in the car, talked about other people they knew and made jokes that I would never understand (some cultural, but some related to their past). They are nice women, though, but I wondered why they invited me. It's my husband that is friends with the groom. My husband says it's because they found me interesting and wanted to get to know me better. Now I wonder what they think...

It is very risky for me to go out with a group of people I don't know very well. At the end of the night, I went home exhausted and was in a bad mood. Every fibre of my being was screaming out for some alone time. And believe me when I say this, that bachelorette party was not the worst of it. That was actually a success compared to some of the other epic failures I've had. No, don't feel badly for me - I have enough experience now to "feel" the potential for a failed evening. And tonight I had the strength to say no! 

So I've come to the conclusion that, while I know I should force myself to go out more, I'm just going to accept that I'm an introvert and a foreigner and I need to stay home in my den when I don't like the social setting. It's better if I get to know people one-on-one first and not in a group setting. 

I sound like I'm ranting and maybe I am, but at the end of the day, I am not an accidental expat/immigrant. I chose to leave my comfort zone in Canada and I choose to stay here (my husband and I can find jobs in Canada, unlike other French/North American couples I know), so it's up to me to do something about my problems/challenges or like tonight, just accept that this is who I am and realise that I actually prefer being like this rather than fighting it. 

You know what? I think I'll go and make myself some tea, just like a good old granny. I'll drink that in my den while listening to some cheesy 80s music and eat some goodies from the Alps. I think tonight is the night to bring out crystalgoestoeurope's Bonnat chocolate (thanks again, Crystal, I was saving the chocolate for a special occasion) and Biscuits de Chalais (cookies made by nuns living in the Alps). Crystal also inspired me today to drink some rose tea. 


vendredi 6 septembre 2013


I'll just go ahead and admit it: part of the reason I decided to go to Bulgaria was to eat. And let me tell you, Bulgaria did not disappoint. So much so, that I'm still paying for it now as I try to lose the weight I gained in Bulgaria, the food lovers' paradise.

Of course that's not the only reason I decided to go to Bulgaria. I first visited Bulgaria 10 years ago when I was 20 years old at the height of the 2003 European heat wave. I wanted to go back exactly ten years later to see what, if anything, had changed. 

One of the things that struck me the most about Bulgaria back then was how poor the elderly people were. I remember getting off the train in Burgas and being met by a crowd of elderly people offering rooms to rent in their homes. I was struck by the numbers - there were at least 30 elderly people, mostly women, offering rooms. 

This time around I noticed that there were less elderly people milling around the stations offering rooms. However, I felt that the elderly people were still very poor. On more than one occasion I saw elderly women begging on the streets. These were not homeless people - it was clear that they were begging because their retirement pensions don't cover their basic costs. 

Since the fall of Communism, elderly people have seen the value of their pensions fall greatly as after the fall of Communism, wages increased and prices skyrocketed. A lot of elderly people don't even have the money to live in proper accommodation; I saw a lot of elderly people come out of homes I would only describe as being shacks. 

While there were still very little signs or information in English (or any other language), there were a lot less scammers looking to take advantage of tourists. Back in 2003, the bus station was full of men calling out to foreigners, offering this or that, and making false promises. I remember one conversation with a young man: 

Young Bulgarian: You know that there are no more buses for Varna today. The last one left 20 minutes ago. I know of a place where you can stay cheaply for the night. I'll take you there in my van. 

Me: Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure there's another bus. 

Young Bulgarian: No, there isn't, I'm telling you.

Well, yes there was. I just turned the corner and there was the bus loading passengers for the trip to Varna. And that was not the last bus of the day. 

Another reason why we went to Bulgaria? It was the cheapest ticket we could find at the last minute. I wondered why that particular airline flew to Burgas, as Burgas is not a particularily attractive city. On arriving in Burgas we discovered why - organized buses were waiting to take all the Danish tourists to Sunny Beach. I had never heard of Sunny Beach and from the sounds of it, I will never go there.

I have Danish friends who loved going to Sunny Beach in the early 2000s, back before it became the Danes' place to get drunk for cheap abroad. I went through Sunny Beach and was horrified to see all the new high-rise buildings. It looked just like the places I had seen along the Spanish coasts. The coast is now being built-up for mass tourism, but I can't really say I'm surprised by that. 

While the Black Sea was warm, in my memories the water was of better quality back in 2003. There was a lot of seaweed in places and the lifeguards yelled at everyone not to go in too far because there were a lot of waves. I am not an expert on currents and am unfamiliar with the Black Sea, but to be honest I didn't enjoy swimming in the Black Sea as much as I enjoy jumping around in the cold waves along France's Atlantic coast. Trying to swim in knee-length water full of seaweed is not my idea of fun. To be fair, I visited beaches that had a high number of visitors, so maybe if I went closer to the Turkish or Romanian borders where the beaches are quieter, I would have enjoyed it more.

In my opinion, the heart of Bulgaria lies in its historical sites. There are so many monasteries to visit, Roman ruins, fortresses, medieval towns, coastal landscapes (where there are rocks and cliffs), mountains, vineyards (yes, the wine was actually very good), intricately decorated churches, folklore festivals, wildlife, etc. Not to mention the food. 

I'm happy to report that the food is just as good in 2013 as it was in 2003.
Fried fish along the coast. Author of photo: Den Nation.
Poached eggs with yoghurt and cheese. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I know the above photo doesn't look like much, but it was one of the best dishes I had in Bulgaria. Bulgarian yoghurt is delicious, slightly-sour with a tangy lemon flavour.

Shopska salad. Author of photo: Den Nation.

How can something so simple be so good? The Shopska salad is to Bulgaria what wine and cheese is to France. It is so good on its own that there is no need for any dressing. We ate a Shopska salad at almost every meal. What is its secret? Fresh ingredients. And what they call "snow cheese", or Sirene cheese, a feta-like cheese that is eaten all over the Balkans. Other ingredients include tomatoes, bell pepper, red onion and cucumber. That's it.

Sea bream. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I love, love, love grilled fish, the speciality along the Black Sea coast. This fish was so good that we ordered it for lunch and dinner. I have to say, last night I ordered the same fish in Arcachon, the closest beach to Bordeaux, and it wasn't as good as the sea bream I had in Bulgaria. Not all food is better in France!

Pizza in Veliko Tarnovo. Author of photo: Den Nation.
I'm serious, this pizza was so good that I can comfortably say that it was better than most of the pizzas I've had in Italy. I don't think that all Bulgarian pizza is created equal, though. I think that it's this particular restaurant that makes excellent pizza. This restaurant is famous in Bulgaria - people from around Bulgaria travel to Veliko just to eat at this place! If you are ever in Veliko Tarnovo, please go and eat at Shtastlivetsa.

Bulgarian dessert in Veliko Tarnovo. Author of photo: Den Nation.
This is Shtastlivetsa's signature dessert; you will not find it around Bulgaria unfortunately. I'm not really sure what it consists of, but I know it was made of marscapone, walnuts, chocolate and honey. Desserts are not Bulgaria's forte, but this was one of the best desserts I've ever had in my life. 

Tarator soup. Author of photo: Den Nation.
 Tarator soup is perfect on a hot summer's day. It is a cold coup made of yoghurt and cucumber (garlic, walnuts, dill or oil are sometimes added).

Roasted peppers. Author of photo: Den Nation.
When I was a child I would recoil in horror every time my grandparents would eat roasted peppers. Now I love them and they were everywhere in Bulgaria. These peppers were served with chunks of garlic bread and Bulgarian cheese. I could hardly move the night I ate them.

Veliko Tarnovo's fortress. Author of photo: Den Nation.
Veliko Tarnovo's fortress reminds me of Carcassonne in France, only without all the crowds and souvenir shops. The fortress contains the ruins of 14 churches which leads me to wonder: What kind of fortress needed to have 14 churches? 

I hope to make it back one day to discover the western part of the country. I'd like to make it out to Bulgaria's wine country, Melnik, in the south-east part of the country. I would also like to visit the city of Plovdiv and Rila Monastery. 

The food is enough to pull me back one day!

dimanche 1 septembre 2013

I'm back

Hello everyone and welcome to September, my favourite month of the year!

This summer just passed me by in a blur; it seems like just yesterday that it was only starting. I can't believe I last posted in July. I missed posting and thought about blogging, but I physically couldn't find the time to sit down and post. I couldn't even keep up with all the blogs I love to read. It was all I could do to keep up with my professional work. Every year I swear I will work more in August when everyone else is on holiday, but every year I get caught up in the French way (not only French actually) of travelling in August.

I spent July in Copenhagen welcoming many visitors to Denmark and into our home. I never imagined that we would have so many people come visit us! I also took Danish classes the entire month of July and discovered that I liked the language more and more as the month wore on. August saw us travelling a lot: we came back to Bordeaux to bring back some of our belongings, went to visit family and friends in Grenoble, went on a last minute trip to Bulgaria and spent one last week in Copenhagen. Our last few minutes in Copenhagen saw us running in the rain to the metro. In all of our months in Copenhagen, it only rained a couple of times. Then, just as we are leaving, it was as if the gods were angry and all of the previous months' built-up rain was dumped on us in the span of a few minutes. Seriously, I have rarely seen it rain that much in such a short span of time. I guess it really was time to go.

Bordeaux hasn't changed that much and I am so glad for that. Before leaving in January I was so afraid to leave because I was afraid of change, but now I am just so happy to be back here in our apartment. We had a couple of issues with public transport (every time we fly through CDG I swear it's the last time), but of course it wouldn't be France without some sort of pesty problem coming up.

I'm just looking forward to September: the last few days of hot weather, the availability of so many great fruits and vegetables, the leaves changing colour, grapes ripening on the grapevines and the way the light hits the landscape.

When did I become like this? When I was an adolescent in Canada I used to abhor the last months of the year. I swore that I would never like autumn and winter. Now the crushing summer heat bothers me more and more. I like long winter nights, isn't that weird?

Christiana, an autonomous hippy neighbourhood of Copenhagen.
Author of photo: Den Nation.
Good-bye Denmark, Copenhagen and summer.

Monument aux Girondins during the October fair in Bordeaux.
Author of photo: Den Nation.
Hello France, Bordeaux and autumn.

dimanche 21 juillet 2013

Learning Danish vs. learning Dutch

I'll never forget my first day of Dutch classes, way back in 2003 when I was 20 years old.

I went in for my intake interview at 11AM on a Monday in the first week of September. I knew that there was a new intensive class starting that very afternoon so I was hoping to be placed in that group. I sat through a set of aptitude tests and then had an interview which involved being asked a series of questions in Dutch. I didn't do very well during the interview, but my aptitude tests came out fine. The school was still very hesitant to put me in the class, as it was for people with a lot of higher education and I was only 20. I remember being told that if I could convince the teacher to let me into the group, then I could go. And it just so happened that that teacher had a few minutes to chat with me that morning.

And that was the start of some of the best months of my life. I was let into the class and that class became one of the most defining experiences of my life.

View of a windmill in Leiden, the Netherlands. Author of photo: Den Nation.

That's how I found myself, a few hours after that interview, standing outside a door waiting to be let into a classroom on my first day of Dutch classes. Nobody spoke to me and I certainly didn't know anybody.

We sat around in an L-shape around the teacher. He went around the class asking everyone to introduce themselves. And that's when I realized that I was the one with the lowest level of Dutch. No kidding, I'm not bringing myself down, even the teacher agreed with my opinion when I told him after the final test what I had been thinking on that first day. I tried frantically to follow and pick up some of what people said so I wouldn't look like a fool when it was my turn. It didn't matter because I was terrible. I remember the teacher asking me questions, me just shaking my head and everyone laughing when I was finally able to spit out what my address was (I had been able to figure out this question because it sounds very similar to English).

That day the teacher introduced the course in English. But that day was the last day I heard him speak English for many months. On the second day I walked into the classroom and he was speaking Dutch with everyone including me - he didn't care that I was the weakest student. And this was the best thing he ever did for me.

Windmill and polder in Leiden, the Netherlands. Author of photo: Den Nation.

It was really, really painful. By the fourth day I cracked. We were working on an oral exercise where we had to go around the classroom and interview the others. I remember the other student just staring at me waiting for a response. "Well," he said, "just say something!" That's when I lost it and ended up running outside. I ended up crying outside in the street and having a walk around the block while blowing off steam before going back in there to face the music. No one said anything when I went back into the classroom.

I studied like crazy. I was so motivated, so eager, so willing, so passionate. I have never put as much effort into anything I have ever done in my life. By the end of that first horrible week I could introduce myself in Dutch without any problems.

And so started my Dutch language learning experience. 15 hours of classes a week plus endless hours spent in front of the books.

At the end of my second week of classes I started working as a weekend cleaner in a hotel. That weekend I spoke English with everyone. The next weekend, after my third week of classes, I started speaking Dutch with my colleagues.

It happened by accident. I was paired with a lady at work who didn't speak any English. That's how I got over my fear of speaking Dutch. That and the no-English rule at school.

While I did speak English at home, I took any opportunity to speak Dutch outside of my home. I would lie to people when they asked me if I could speak English just so I could speak Dutch with them. My classmates consisted of people from all over the world - some could speak English and some could not. That meant that when we were on break together in the coffee room we spoke in Dutch. I became so used to speaking Dutch with them that even when I was alone with my English-speaking classmates, it never occured to me to speak English with them.

After 4 months of Dutch classes my cleaning job at the hotel ended. I applied for a bunch of other cleaning jobs, going to interviews conducted completely in Dutch. I worked a series of jobs during my stay in the Netherlands, eventually even working at the centre where I sat my final Dutch exams.

A street in Leiden, the Netherlands. Author of photo: Den Nation.

My teacher was amazing, the best teacher I have ever had in my life. Not only did he know what he was doing, but he often sat with us during the breaks and was so inspiring. He was demanding, especially with the no-English rule, but we became friends. Thanks to his encouragement he made me want to work.

The course lasted 8 months. It not only included grammar lessons, but lessons on Dutch history and culture. A few of my classmates dropped out over the course of the 8 months, but the majority stayed on until the end. A few new people joined the group as well. Everyone got along well. I saw my classmates outside of classes and met their families.

After 8 months of intensive study from scratch, I sat and passed the B2 government language test. I scored over 70% (the minimum pass rate) on all 4 sections of the test, the speaking section surprisingly being my strongest area.

It was one of the most fulfilling times of my life. Every time I think back on my time in the Netherlands, I feel so sentimental. I actually don't like to think about that period in my life that often because I wasn't ready for my life there to end. I went on to live out other great adventures as well, but I have a special soft spot for my Dutch life. I have often thought about what it would be like to go back, but I know that it could never be the same. I broke off my life there, and I can never go back to what it used to be. Anyway, I have a great life now with a wonderful husband!

Stay tuned for my post on learning Danish.

mardi 9 juillet 2013

Things that surprise me about Denmark - The pastries and other desserts

I never knew that Denmark had a pastry tradition. Maybe that's because my in-laws lived in Denmark in the early 90s before the "food revolution" and had nothing good to say about the desserts (or anything else, for that matter). So I had no idea the pastries and desserts were so good. But I am here to tell you that they are awesome! For me, this is the best thing about the local cuisine; the Danes really know how to make good pastries. That includes croissants - my Frenchie actually admitted that the croissants are actually quite good!

I've tasted pastries in Norway and Sweden, but I must say that Denmark is the winner in my books for the best pastries of the three countries.

"The Danish" in Canada is more bready and has less cinnamon and often has jam in the middle. "The Danish" in Denmark is more flaky and is usually topped with a dallop of chocolate or icing. The cinnamon is the key ingredient. I really enjoy Denmark's danish because I love cinnamon and I am crazy about its French-style pastry which is loaded with butter and slightly crunchy.

The Danes are amused that foreigners use "the Danish" as the name of this pastry. The Danes themselves call it the Snegle, or Snail. All pastries are called wienerbrød, or Vienna bread, because these type of pastries originated from Vienna. That's why they are called viennoiseries in French as well.

A selection of Danish pastries. Author of photo: Den Nation.
In the above photo "the Danish" is at the top. It is actually quite a flat pastry. To the right is the Tebirkes, which is an airy pastry covered in poppy seeds and filled with a thin layer of marzipan inside. It is quite simple, but you can really taste its buttery flakiness. And the poppy seed taste is so pronounced! Then finally there is the Træstamme, which is not a pastry but totally deserves its place next to the pastries. The filling consists of ground-up old pastries, chocolate, sugar, butter and rum. It is covered with a layer of marzipan. I think it may originate from Sweden, but it is everywhere here in Denmark.

Pastries in a shop window. Author of photo: Den Nation. 

I believe that the pastries on the left in the above picture are variations of the French croissant. I have tried Danish croissants and I guarantee you that they are pretty close to the real thing, confirmed by my own resident frog. Now that I never expected! On the right are pieces of brioche-like bread covered in icing, nuts and cinnamon. There is also some cinnamon baked into the brioche.

Drømmekage. Author of photo: Den Nation. 

I think Drømmekage may come from Sweden as well, but again, it is pretty popular here in Denmark. The cake itself is pretty ordinary - it is the brown suger/coconut topping that takes the biscuit. I was afraid that the coconut taste would be overpowering, but there was a perfect balance between the coconut and the rest of the ingredients.

Then there are flødeboller of course. I believe that flødeboller actually originate from Denmark. Flødeboller and different variations are found in several countries. It is in Denmark, however, that you find the best flødeboller in my opinion. Fløde means cream and boller means balls. The filling consists of whipped egg whites and is mousse-like in appearance. It is very light and airy and not dense and spongy like a marshmallow (some variations around the world are more marshmallow-like). They are covered in chocolate and often sprinkled with coconut flakes or other toppings. 

Flødebolle. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Bon appétit !

dimanche 30 juin 2013

Sunday ramblings

As I am writing this I am listening to the noise of people in my building moving out. It is the last day of the month, and the last day of June, so today is a typical moving-out day for students. Outside is a mix of clouds and sunshine which perfectly matches my mood. What is my mood exactly?

I knew before coming to Denmark that I risked coming to the end of my stay here and not wanting to leave. And I think that day has come. The day where my current state of mind matches the weather outside: all mixed up.

With roughly one month left in Denmark, I have mixed feelings about going back to Bordeaux and France. Of course there are some great things in France for me (just as there are some not so great things about Denmark), but I know that I have spent the past few years in Bordeaux having a great time but not really living for me. I feel like I just bobbed along on the surface, just floating down the river.

I know that my feelings today are related to losing a friendship in Bordeaux. I wish that I could give all the details out here on my blog but I cannot. Suffice to say, I really believed that we were really good friends, that we were two peas in a pod, but I guess these were just ideas.

Rocks on a beach near Bordeaux. Author of photo: Den Nation.

So how are things going to be when I get back to Bordeaux? I shudder to think. To be honest, I think I have made more "friends" here in the past 5 months than I did in all the years I spent in Bordeaux. I don't really have true friends here yet, but I get along so well with some of the people from my Danish class that I know that I could be great friends with some of them if I just stayed longer. But do I really want to risk that? Put myself out there, believe that something exists, only to discover that I have only imagined it existed in my mind, and then be disappointed again?

As I approached 30 I felt that I was becoming more and more introverted. Now I am sure that I have a bit of a problem. I am getting TOO introverted, cynical of everything and everyone and not putting myself out there more. Sure I took a chance with my Bordeaux friend, but just because I was disappointed once doesn't mean that the next friendship I seek has to turn out the same way. I am introverted, and I tell myself that I don't need friends, but I know that that is not healthy. I do need friends.

I just feel strange "begging" people for their friendship. I don't want to push people because I feel that friendships should develop naturally, but if I don't push a bit more than I have been I'll just continue floating along like I was doing in Bordeaux. I can't get over my introverted self, though, and get myself out there. I just can't "beg".

This is why my Bordeaux friendship is such a blow for me. It was a friendship that seemed to come naturally and I kind of put all of my hopes onto that friendship. And that's not healthy either.

I do have some true friends, but they are scattered around the world. Such is the life of an expat.

The failed friendship is not, however, the only reason why I am apprehensive about going back to France. I have gotten used to Copenhagen: there is an anything goes attitude here, there are so many rules in France that the easygoing way of life here has really grown on me. I like Copenhagen; it is a capital city without feeling like one, big enough to have everything you need without being overwhelming.

Who knows, maybe when I get back to Bordeaux I will get back into my old life and forget about Copenhagen. But something tells me that I won't forget...

Ebeltoft marina on a party cloudy day. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I do thank you all, my dear readers, for reading my Sunday afternoon ramblings. For anyone who is thinking about becoming an expat, this is the real expat life, not what you read on some Paris blog about picnicking beside the Seine river with all of your new-found friends.

Which leads me to telling you that...

I think that this is the perfect moment to tell you why I picked the name Den Nation.

Den is short for Denmark. As I started this blog shortly before moving to Denmark, this is no surprise. But I also choose the word because it also means a refuge or a hiding place. This blog is my den. I also have a physical den which includes my desk, my computer and my living room. I am an introvert and I hide in my dens. I work from home and sometimes spend days without seeing another person besides my husband. And I choose Nation not only because Denmark is a country but also because this is my nation, my den country. There may be only one person that is physically present at all times in my den, but you, my readers, are regular visitors to my den. And I think we, being immigrants and expats, do share a lot of things in common, one being the difficulty of making and maintaining friendships with people of cultures different for our own. So you are part of my den nation as well. One last tidbit: if you say Den Nation quickly enough you will hear... well, I think you know what word comes out. No, this blog is not an eternal punishment! It's more like my mind I can't get away from, my cynical ways, my lack of self-confidence and self-worth. This is part of my nation, my Den Nation.

Have a good Sunday!

samedi 22 juin 2013

Things that surprise me about Denmark - Where is the ketchup?

You can find ketchup in pretty much any shop in Denmark. Ketchup is certainly not hard to find. So what is this post about? 

I have noticed over the past few months that whenever I order fries/chips, they are served with a remoulade sauce.  Now, remoulade sauce exists in France, but I have only really seen people eat it with a beef fondu. The only remoulade sauce I have seen in France comes in a small glass jar. I tried it once but didn't like it so I never ate it again. Here in Denmark it's everywhere; it seems that some Danes will eat it with anything. The colour of Danish remoulade is lighter than its French counterpart, which tends to be more yellow in colour. The Danish remoulade often tastes like pickles, and they pride themselves in serving you their own homemade remoulade in a glass bowl. 

Fish and chips in Denmark. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I'm not a big mayonnaise fan so I am really hesitant to eat remoulade. I am always eating tomatoes so it's no surprise that I love my ketchup! I don't refuse remoulade when I am served it, but I always ask for ketchup. Imagine my surprise when they tell me that they don't have any ketchup, that they only have remoulade. The first time, I was in such shock that I repeated the question when I was told no because I thought the person helping me didn't understand my question. 

I realise that Danes love eating this sauce with fish. I usually order fries/chips from a place that sells fish and chips. I just can't let go of my North American ideas, though, how can a place that sells fries/chips not have ketchup?! Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen a chippy (place where you can buy fish and chips) in the UK that didn't have any ketchup. Even France has always had ketchup for me, haha. 

So no, it doesn't happen very often that there is no ketchup, but whenever it does happen I am surprised because ketchup seems to be so readily available here and fast food is everywhere. I have eaten fries/chips in many European countries and have never been to a European country that physically didn't have ketchup in their café, not in my experience at least!

Danish remoulade. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I'm not shooting down Danish remoulade, though. I had my doubts about it, but actually, much to my surprise I like the stuff. Fries/chips do taste good with remoulade. I like its sweet and sour taste.

For those of you who live in France, do you eat remoulade sauce? Is it more popular in a certain region? Do you like it? And for anyone in Denmark, do you like the Danish remoulade?