Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Getting settled

Written on Sunday, September 23, 2007, but not posted due to lack of internet at home, something we won’t enjoy here until October 5 [note during editing: we actually got our internet on September 27!]; more about French bureaucracy later. My apologies for such a long post, but since we’ve left the hotel I have had to save it all up until we get to an internet café or the library.

The last ten days have been a whirlwind of administrivia as we try to get settled into our new digs. We have applied for residency cards, moved into the apartment, worked on getting the gas, electricity and internet, and enrolled the kids in music lessons. Along with these are the usual daily chores of doing the grocery shopping, schooling the kids and taking our "get to know Strasbourg" walks.

Applying for residency cards: a lesson in bureaucracy

On Wednesday and Thursday last week Mark and I went to the prefecture to get our residency cards. On Wednesday, we took a number (52 when they were on 22) and waited to be given a list of the documents we need to get our cards. On Thursday when we came back, we took a number and waited to show them that we had the correct documents. Then we were given another number and waited for another person who processed our documents. After an hour or so, we walked away with temporary cards that say that we have applied for the permanent cards. Both Mark and I need to apply to our home provinces for an original birth record that states our parents’ names. Très importante, the woman says…

Moving into the apartment

We moved into the apartment in stages over last Friday and Saturday. On Friday morning when we went to the rental agency to make the last cash payment for our two-month rental deposit, we were told that the gas had been cut off in the apartment. While the kids were still at the hotel, Mark and I made a run down to the apartment to try to get the gas reconnected before we moved in the next day. (Each one-way trip from the hotel to the apartment involves about 1.5 km of walking and a 10-minute tram ride). But the gas man could not cometh… Tuesday, they said, which would mean four days without cooking. (And in the end, after much anxiety, many phone calls on the cell phone, and a search for a missing key that involved the caretaker who would be away until next Sunday, we found out that the gas hadn’t really been cut off after all…) Friday afternoon we made another trip back to the apartment with the kids and a load of luggage.

On Saturday Mark and I made an early trip with more luggage, then went back to the hotel to pick up the last load of kids and bags. As happy as we were to finally be in our own place, we were not happy that the woman who had been hired to clean the apartment on Friday had done nothing – no vacuuming, no dusting, no scrubbing of floors or windows, no cleaning of bathrooms… so you can guess what we did on Saturday and Sunday. My hat is off to Mark who spent about four hours on Saturday afternoon cleaning the fridge and scrubbing a year’s worth of grease off the kitchen floor and walls.

It’s quite a nice apartment, but as time goes by we find that we’re still dealing with a few small problems: a toilet that doesn’t flush properly, a washing machine that has to be cranked through its cycles by hand, and last, but certainly not least, a pigeon living (stuck?) in the chimney. We haven’t heard it so much the last few days, so we’re thinking this might spell the end for the pigeon (good thing no one got really attached to it.) The really good news is that someone is coming first thing Monday morning to clean out the chimney.

Enrolling in music lessons

We are now the proud owners of an electric guitar (a copy of a Telecaster) and a keyboard, both purchased after the first music lessons – Cameron on guitar and Meghan on piano. It’s the first time the kids have really had to interact with people in French, and they both did really well, but I’m not sure how much actual music they learned. For Meghan especially, most of the learning was about trying to convert to the French system of calling the notes do, re, mi, etc., instead of c, d, e. It’s a 10-minute walk to the music school, which we will do for the next four Wednesdays. French kids don’t go to school on Wednesdays (but they do go Saturday mornings), so most extracurricular activities happen on that day. At this particular music school the music lessons run in cycles of four weeks – three weeks of individual lessons and then an ensemble – and we only enrolled the kids for one session, thinking that we will be traveling to Italy and Greece by the time the second session gets under way.

The life of nomads

Cameron asked me the other day if I knew how long we’ve been living out of a suitcase.

"A week," I answered, thinking that he meant since we moved into the apartment.

He then informed me that we have not unpacked our clothes since July 14 – well over two months! We’re getting a bit desperate to unpack and truly settle in, but we still have to clean out the closets and cupboards and firm up the bedroom arrangements. Currently Mark and I have the master bedroom, but we’re thinking of switching with the kids for the smaller room so that they can have a bit more space to spread out. We were trying to find a way to give them a bit of privacy, perhaps with a screen or other type of room divider. However, after going over our budget a few days ago, we’ve decided that maybe the kids will have to make do with ignoring each other!

At the end of our initiation period in the apartment, we have decided that, on the whole, things are going very well. We are very happy with the apartment and its location near the centre of the city; Strasbourg is a beautiful and safe city in which to live; and we are looking forward to the prospect of traveling to Italy, Greece, Germany and Great Britain. Today was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and as Mark and I took a stroll around Petite France, I could feel happiness welling up inside. Who can ask for more? : )

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Five neat things about Strasbourg

(in no particular order; some are particular to Strasbourg, and others are more generally European)

The bike lanes

We are definitely getting bikes when we get settled into our apartment. It almost seems that bicyclists have more rights than pedestrians, with 2/3 of the sidewalk generally reserved for those on bikes.

Even as a pedestrian, you have to shoulder-check (as Mark says). You may think you have the right-of-way, but you always have to keep an eye out for cars nosing into the pedestrian lanes while making turns. We have become very Strasbourgois in our strolling; no one waits for the “homme vert” (green man on the lights) to cross the street. You just check both ways and go, whether it is homme vert or homme rouge.

The toilets

For the most part, toilets get their own rooms (la toilette or WC). Everything else is in another room (la salle de bain). This make sense, but I find myself going into la salle de bain and locking the door before I realize that the toilet is not there.

The architecture

Except for some big, blocky apartment buildings in Esplanade that were put up in the 1970s, most of the buildings here have amazing character. I find myself wanting to take a picture every time we walk down a new street, because it’s all so different from what we’re used to seeing.

The wonderful little shops – pattiserie, boulangerie, etc.

Although there are grocery stores that have almost everything – we have been shoppng at ATAC and MarchéU while staying at the hotel – there are still little shops everywhere that specialize in one or two things. This goes for almost everything from pastries, wine and flowers, to electronics. The idea of the megastore has definitely not arrived here yet (and that’s a good thing, in my opinion).

We ran into this while looking for an apartment. There is not one single agency that has information about all of the furnished apartments available in Strasbourg. This is not unlike Canada, but here each agency may only have five or ten properties (apartments or houses) that they look after. There must be 60 – 80 agencies in Strasbourg. We had no idea what we were up against when we started looking for a furnished apartment.

The cathedral

It’s absolutely magnificent (and none of my pictures do it justice). It’s so big, and the square in the centre of Strasbourg where it is located is so small, that it’s impossible to take a picture of it unless you’re far away and up high. We haven’t taken the tour yet, but it’s on our list of things to do once we get settled into the apartment.

For more of our pictures, see our Flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/christina-t/

Email us: christinateskey @ yahoo.ca

Keep in touch! We'd love to hear how you're doing.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Epic Journey to Germany

Ok, so what we really did was hopped the D-line tram to the Aristide Briand station, walked half a block, squeezed on to the #21 bus with about 60 other people, and then sweated through the 10-minute ride across the Rhine River to the town of Kehl, Germany.

A few people have recommended Kehl to us as a place to go shopping and relax. We had a nice day walking through the pedestrian mall, checking out all of the stores. The prices in Kehl are very reasonable, and it seems to have more of a selection of the types of stores that we patronize in Canada than does Strasbourg. Both Meghan and I got warmer coats, as the weather in Strasbourg has been decidedly cool for the last few days (although yesterday was very warm and sunny).

It’s amazing how the Rhine River absolutely divides the two countries; although Strasbourg seems mostly French but faintly German with its street names and gastronomic influences, Kehl is all German. The only French we saw or heard was at the café, where the menu was in French and German, and the waiter spoke French (albeit very badly – poor Mark wasn’t sure what language the waiter was speaking and so kept switching back and forth between French and German!)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Finding an apartment

I've been reluctant to post for the last week or so because of our anxiety and frustration in finding a furnished apartment. I wanted to wait until I could say, "We've found an apartment!", but I also want to report the realities of our trip, not just the good parts.

Last Wednesday we lucked into finding a three-bedroom furnished apartment near our hotel, which is in a very nice area close to the European Parliament. We were able to view the apartment that day, and although it is a bit older, we decided it would suit us. The kids were especially impressed because it comes with a cat. The main drawback is that the apartment is far from the tram, which can be an issue when you're on foot. It also has a tiny kitchen, even smaller than the one we had in Burns Lake.

The next day we looked at another apartment closer to the city centre. The building is located on a busy street and the area is not as friendly as the one where the first apartment is located. However, the inside of the apartment is much newer and nicer looking than the first. This one only has two bedrooms, but it has a very spacious living room area.

We decided we would take the first apartment and phoned to let the woman know on Friday. At this point we found out that she is only the caretaker, and she had to phone the owners.

We have been in the grips of anxiety ever since, waiting for her to call back. Mark phoned on Monday, to hear her say "one or two more days" before she would let us know. Compounding the frustration was the knowledge that our room rate was escalating due to the sitting of the European Parliament, which convenes for three days once or twice a month. When Parliament sits, the room rates go up and hotels are full. In addition, the staff at the front desk of the hotel were never sure if we could get another night since our original seven-day reservation ran out.

Today things are looking up. We befriended Rawad, a young Lebanese-Canadian man who works at the hotel front desk (and is also a Masters dental student), and he has taken on our challenge of finding accommodation. Last evening when we told him we were moving to a different hotel because it was becoming too expensive, he encouraged us to speak to the manager and strike a deal. We did, and then the manager also tried to help us find an apartment by phoning around to a few places. We also made an appointment to see Bernadette, who showed us the second apartment. Luckily it is still available, and we could move in on September 15 if we want. She speaks excellent English, and she would be able to help us get our electricity and gas connected.

If this doesn't work out, we are also considering renting an unfurnished apartment and furnishing it ourselves. This is a scary thought, considering the maze of bureaucracy that surrounds every business dealing in France, but we would do it if we had to. There is a wide selection of unfurnished apartments here, and in the end, no matter how difficult, it's all part of the adventure!