Friday, November 18, 2011

Trip to Paris! Warning - long...

Well, we got the news we were waiting for. On Friday November 4, 2011 we got the phone call that our passports were already back at the French Consulate and we could pick them up. They didn’t mention if our Visas were in there, but we were hopeful. I was “dreaming” all week that they would be ready on Friday in time for us to join S in flying to Paris on Saturday for a house hunting trip. The call didn’t come in until Friday night though, and we could only pick up the passports Monday through Friday between 9am and 11am, so my trip up to San Francisco to get them would have to wait until Monday.

We enjoyed a great dinner with a bunch of friends Friday night, and then S left Saturday afternoon for Paris. He had business meetings on Monday and Tuesday, and then had appointments set up with the relocation company for Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday to view houses. Because it seemed that our Visas had been approved, we decided to try to get the girls and I over to Paris in time to view the houses also. S checked with his company that it was ok for us to fly over last minute (though I’ve been bugging them for months to send us on a house hunting trip) on Monday afternoon. I would pick up the passports Monday morning, pick up the girls after school and head to the airport to catch a flight to Paris. Luckily it was conference week for R&C, so they were only missing three ½ days of school. S’s company gave us the approval, the Visas were indeed in the passports, so we were off to Paris!

The girls & I left San Francisco at 3:30pm on Monday November 7th, and arrived at CDG on Tuesday November 8th at 11:15am. Unfortunately I had messed up my ankle Monday morning right after visiting the consulate when I stepped off the curb wrong, so the flight was very uncomfortable with my hurt ankle – I barely slept at all. But we were on our way to Paris! We flew Air France on a nonstop flight, and they had individual screens with lots of movies and tv shows, so that kept us occupied.

I had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at the airport and take us right to the first house viewing appointment which was at 12:30pm. S had meetings in the morning, and then headed to the house on his own to meet the relocation person there. The girls & I made it at 12:45pm, so not too bad, though it didn't give us much time to look at it. Unfortunately the house just didn't do it for me and this was one I really had high hopes for. A family from ASP had lived their previously and really liked it. It was located in Garches - a town very near the school. On paper it seemed to have everything we wanted – location, a good stove/oven, 4 bedrooms, a yard, a TV room, etc. But in person, it just didn’t feel that great. It felt shabby and run down and slightly depressing – it was grey and drizzling, and my ankle was killing me, so that didn’t help. Not good. I was super disappointed as I really hoped that would be the one. We were only there for about ½ hour and then the agent had another appt so we were off to look at our next house.

Our next house was also in Garches. It was in a nicer, residential area. The house looked cool from the outside – the nice French stone type of house; very tall and a bit thin. The yard was nice and big with lots of room for the dogs and kids. It had nice woodwork inside on the 1st floor where there was the living room/dining room combo. The 2nd floor had 2 decent-sized bedrooms with no closets/wardrobes. The top floor contained a big open room with a bathtub and sink (in the open). The girls loved this room and said they would share it. That would allow us to have a guest room which would be good. The BIG drawback to the house was the kitchen – or should I say the lack of one! I was prepared for some houses to not be “fitted” – as in no appliances - but in addition, this one is down in the basement area. Though that part of the house had been fixed up so it didn’t totally feel like a basement, and there is a door and windows to the yard. The kitchen was teeny tiny – we would have to expand some work space out into the adjoining room (which I assume would be a kind of tv/hanging out room for us). It would also mean that when we would eat at the table we would be carting food upstairs to our kitchen table in the living room. A bit odd, would require a bit of work to get the kitchen set up (Ikea here we come!) and the adjoining room to feel cozy & not subterranean, but we could make it work. This house was a possibility – good location, nice (except for the kitchen), clean, felt good. But I love to cook and putter around in the kitchen, so that would be hard for me.

The 3rd house was our last one in Garches. And boy, this one was crappy. The minute we walked in it smelled musty and old, looked dirty and run down. We didn’t last long looking at this one. We were feeling pretty down, tired, hungry, etc. We drove around Garches a bit, stopped in a boulangerie to pick up snacks (quiche, bread, etc.), and then were onto Vaucresson to look at the next house. Vaucresson is a bit further from the school, but the neighborhood where the house was seemed nice. More suburban-like for some reason. It looked nice from the outside, nice big yard, and felt & smelled fine when we walked in. But the main living/dining area seemed super small. The kitchen was pretty nice and updated (especially compared to all we had seen thus far) which I liked. The bedrooms seemed decent, but the girls weren’t too excited especially as one was painted an awful purple/pink combo. R&C don’t seem to have the vision necessary to look past things that are easily changeable, and they form their opinions quickly. One little thing & they decide they don’t like a place. Even though the room could be painted, they decided this house was not the one they wanted. I liked the house except the living area seemed extra small, and it was farther out than I was hoping for.

5th house was located in Sèvres on the border of Ville d’Avray. We had some extra time so we drove around these 2 towns, and they were super cute and right next to the great Parc St. Cloud. We really liked this area, so we were hoping this house would be great. Nope. It was awful. Musty, old, run-down, dirty, crappy – none of us were into this house. Bummer. We were supposed to see another house at 5:15, but I had rented an apartment in Paris in the 16th for the week for us, and we had an appt at 5:45 to pick up the keys so we didn’t have time. We re-scheduled it for the following morning instead. We grabbed a cab at the Garches train station and headed into Paris. The cab drove us through Parc St. Cloud, and it is so huge and gorgeous – what a great park. And dogs are allowed off-leash in it! Woo hoo!

The apartment we rented in the 16th had a wonderful deck with an amazing view of the Eiffel tower. It was located right on the Seine across from the tower. It was great to go to sleep staring at the blinking lights on the tower. I know Parisians like to hate the Eiffel Tower, but to us visitors it really does just say “Paris” when you see it. We wandered to a local bistro and had a good meal – my salmon was yummy. We were doing our best to keep our eyes open as long as possible. In spite of staying up late, I woke up in the middle of the night and lay there for hours stressing about the housing situation. I was just really down that nothing seemed right. The 2nd house we saw was probably our favorite, so I spent much of the night trying to visualize how to create a kitchen and nice area in the downstairs/basement part. I also worried if the girls would really be able to share a bedroom – they fight so much and are no good at sharing with each other. Worries, worries, worries…

The morning came around much too quickly as I had probably fallen asleep just an hour before S woke me up. Bleh. I am totally not a morning person on a regular basis – add in jet lag, lack of sleep, and a bit of depression about how dismal the housing scene looks, and I was not a happy camper. But we had to get up as we were being picked up by the relocation person for a look at more houses and touring around towns. First house was the one we didn’t see last night – it was located in Sèvres right near the awful one we saw yesterday. As we walked in the gate, I just about gasped out loud. It was so nice looking! A long driveway with a big gated front yard and a pretty house at the end. I glanced at Sean and we exchanged a look that said “no way – I hope the inside is good too”. And it was. The family was still living there, so the house was still furnished which of course helps (or hurts) with the visualizing. It was open downstairs with a soaring ceiling open to a loft upstairs. There were 2 bedrooms downstairs, one big with an en-suite shower, and the other small and currently being used as a playroom. The kitchen was nice and actually had granite counters! It was small, but very functional. Nice backyard also with a patio. Upstairs was another large bedroom with a closet area, and another small bedroom. The girls immediately started fighting over the bedroom situation and decided that they didn’t like the house because of it. Me, I loved the house. So open, clean, good feeling, roomy, etc. The loft was huge – the girls could put a couch, their desks and play stuff up there. There was also a basement level that had a nice room that could be the girls’ tv room, an area for storage, laundry etc. S & I really liked the house and the price was right. The house is located right down the street from a pedestrian entrance to Parc St. Cloud where I could run with the dogs off leash, and we could also walk to the station to catch the train to Paris. We were very excited except that the girls kept fighting and R even started crying saying she hated the house. I couldn’t figure out if she was just being difficult and tired, or if she had some really valid objections. She would come around (I hoped). The house was very nice, the location was awesome – I wanted it.

Next we went to see a house in Saint Cloud. It was neat looking from the outside, and not too far from the school, but it was pretty old inside. It totally reminded us of an old San Francisco flat. Very cool, but not too practical. It had no garage, and was very thin and tall. From the top you did have a view of the Eiffel Tower far in the distance, which was cool, but it just felt too old for me.

The next house was even farther from the school and on a busy road, though it had new windows & you couldn’t hear the traffic when inside. Once again though it just didn’t have the feeling we wanted/liked. Felt a little too neglected and run down, and we didn’t like the location. I can’t remember what town it was in because I dismissed it from my mind quickly.

We had some time before our last appointment, so we drove over to Versailles for some lunch and touring around. I’ve never been to Versailles and enjoyed it. We ate downtown at a great patisserie/café which served the most amazing quiches. I’ll have to look up the name of it because I definitely want to go there again. Great recommendation by our relocation gal. Versailles (the town) was very cool – I can’t wait to go back for their amazing farmer’s market. It’s supposed to be very good.

After lunch we went to meet the agent to look at our last house. It was located in La Celle Saint Cloud which is further from the school than I wanted to be. But as the relocation gal kept telling me all day “everything is very close” – she told me this over & over again. I feel like she really wanted me to look in other towns further from the school. But that also means further from Paris! The girls loved this house though I’m not sure why. It was a nice house but nowhere near as nice as the first one we saw that day. They liked the “secret room” upstairs, and that one of the bedrooms had another loft area in it. The kitchen was decent, and it had a huge, cool living/dining room. But the bathrooms were blah, it was carpeted in this crappy, grey carpet, the “master” bedroom was not very nice, and the guest room/office didn’t have a very good feel. It has a nice yard, but is also right behind a pony farm. I can imagine that there might be some interesting smells come warm weather. :-)

This ended our house viewing part of the trip, and we just drove around through lots of the lovely towns (the West of Paris is beautiful – lots of impressionist painters have painted this area). We talked about our housing choices. Our number one choice was the nice house in Sèvres. Our next choices were the house in Garches (with no kitchen but nice) and this last house in La Celle Saint Cloud (those 2 houses came from the same agent/agency). Apparently you can’t put in your request for more than one house at a time, so we stated that we wanted the house in Sèvres. We had to get all our documents for the application to the relocation agency and they would present them to the agent for the house we wanted. In the meantime, there is always the risk that one of the other houses we wanted would get rented out as they would continue to be shown until rented. The housing market is very tight with very few options, and houses move quickly. We had all our documents ready to go and hoped that our dossier would be good enough for people to want to rent to us. We had to provide bank statements to show we have money, provide the letter from the company showing what they were paying for our rent each month, copies of mortgage statements, pay stubs, passport copies, letter from the company saying they were paying for the kids’ school…

Our agent dropped us in Versailles, and we caught the train back into Paris. Lots of fighting on the way as the kids (especially R) voiced their objections to the house in Sèvres, and said how much they wanted the one in La Celle St. Cloud. Fun, fun – everyone’s tired and cranky. We wandered around Passy in the 16th checking out shops and looking for a place to eat dinner. Ended up at another French bistro that was pretty good. I really need to find a better way to remember the places I eat!

Thursday Nov 10th we went to visit the girls’ new school. We were very impressed – I think it’s going to be an amazing experience/opportunity for them. All the teachers and administrators seemed so nice and like they really enjoyed their jobs. There was an international volleyball tournament going on, so we watched that for awhile. Very fun. That night we relaxed on our deck with cheese, crackers, hummus, pita, olives, etc. and wine. Nice and relaxing.

To be continued…

Friday, November 4, 2011

While waiting...

While we are waiting in limbo land, I thought I would post a couple of recipes that I made recently that were pretty good - the kids really liked them also.

 Big Beef 'n Bacon Meatloaf
6 slices center-cut bacon or turkey bacon
1 cup chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 1/4 lbs. raw extra-lean ground beef
1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp. hickory-flavored BBQ sauce, divided
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
2 tbsp. ketchup

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with nonstick spray and set aside.
2. Bring a large skillet sprayed with nonstick spray to medium heat on the stove. Add bacon and cook until crispy, about 4 minutes per side. Remove bacon and, once cool enough to handle, chop or crumble. Set aside.
3. If needed, clean and dry skillet. Re-spray skillet and return to medium heat. Add mushrooms and onion. Stirring occasionally, cook until completely softened, 5 - 7 minutes. Remove from heat and, once cool enough to handle, blot away any excess moisture with paper towels. Transfer veggies to a large bowl. Add about three-fourths of the bacon, and set the rest aside for topping. To the bowl, add beef, tomatoes, 2 tbsp. BBQ sauce, salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Mix thoroughly.
4. Transfer mixture to the loaf pan; if needed, smooth out the surface with the back of a spatula or spoon. Set aside.
5. In a small bowl, combine ketchup with remaining tablespoon of BBQ sauce and mix well. Evenly top meatloaf with the BBQ-ketchup mixture and sprinkle with remaining bacon.
6. Bake in the oven until meatloaf is fully cooked, about 50 minutes.
7. Slice, serve, and enjoy!
Serves 5
Notes: Serving Size: 1 slice (1/5th of recipe), Calories: 224, Fat: 8g, Sodium: 707mg, Carbs: 10g, Fiber: 1g, Sugars: 7g, Protein: 26, PointsPlus® value 5*
We made this as muffins instead of a loaf. The kids like them in this form, the muffins cook in half the time and are easy to freeze/reheat as individual portions.

Mongolian Beef
2 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons dry sherry
2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon chile paste with garlic (such as sambal
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 pound sirloin steak, thinly sliced across the grain
16 medium green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1. Combine first 8 ingredients, stirring until smooth.
2. Heat peanut oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add minced ginger, minced garlic, and beef; sauté for 2 minutes or until beef is browned. Add green onion pieces; sauté 30 seconds. Add soy sauce mixture; cook 1 minute or until thickened, stirring constantly.
Serves 4
Source: Cooking Light magazine
Notes: per 1 cup: WW pts+=6, Calories: 237, Fat: 10.5g, Saturated fat: 3.5g, Monounsaturated fat: 4.3g, Polyunsaturated fat: 1.1g, Protein: 26g, Carbohydrate: 9.1g, Fiber: 1.7g, Cholesterol: 60mg, Iron: 2.7mg, Sodium: 517mg, Calcium: 67mg. Kids really liked this! They wanted more sauce - so maybe double the sauce.

Back to the move - this is where we stand:

  • Waiting to hear back from the French Consulate
  • S is going to Paris on Monday for a meeting & will look at houses & neighborhoods on Tuesday and Wednesday. There are very few houses available where we want to live & they go fast, so keep your fingers crossed for us. We really only have a couple of possibilities...
  • S needs to meet with his boss and HR guy to go over the bid from the moving company. I want them to approve this ASAP so we can get scheduled - it's a 3-week window to get scheduled. Since I want to move around the holidays, it could be a very busy time.
In the meantime just living life here. It was nice having S home for a week - he leaves on Saturday. We have our last sports event on Saturday, then will have more free time. Trying to see friends as much as possible while I'm still here, and looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with my parents and my sister & her family down at the beach.

Happy Friday all!


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Document Overload!

Around and around we go….

Getting prepared for our meeting at the French Consulate required tons of organization, printing, emails and collecting. Lots of stress and a dining room table covered in papers…

 This was just the beginning - it was completely covered by the end

 Here is the list of documents required for a Long Stay Visa application according to the French Consulate website for each applicant (we needed 3 packets – 1 for myself, 1 for R and 1 for C):
  1. One application form (English version) filled out completely and signed by the applicant.
  2. One ID picture glued/stapled onto the application form
    1. Had to go to Walgreen’s to take new pictures with neutral facial expressions – no headbands, jewelry, etc.
  3. Original passport or travel document + ONE COPY of the identity pages.
  4. Letter promising not to engage in any employment in France (signature certified by a notary public)
    1. E&Y wrote it in French for me.
    2. Had to take it to UPS to get notarized.
  5. Letter of employment in the US stating occupation and earnings
    1. We gave a copy of S’s employment contract
  6. Proof of means of income - letter from the bank, investment certificates, pension slips…
    1. Gave copies of bank statements, added letter from S’s company that they are paying for housing & schooling in France, notarized letter from Sean saying he is supporting his family…
                                               i.     Official said to Sean “it is good that you will be supporting your family” with a smile.
  1. Proof of medical insurance
    1. This was a fun one we spun in circles for awhile trying to get. Luckily it ended up that S’s company was negotiating a new International contract with Cigna (which we currently have), so it all worked out at the last minute. We needed to make sure the proof of insurance from Cigna mentioned France specifically in the coverage.
  2. Marriage certificate or family book + Birth certificates for children
    1. We had to show the originals with the apostilles attached, and left them with copies of marriage certificate and birth certificates of all 3 of us.
  3. Proof of accommodation in France (title deeds, lease or rental agreement)
    1. This was the tricky one – why would we have accommodations in France now if we aren’t even sure if we are getting the Visa! So we had to figure out some work-arounds. We got an “official” letter from the relocation company saying that we had retained their services to find us a rental. We provided the letter from S’s company saying that they are paying for the rental. We also made a month-long reservation at a hotel in France. The official at the consulate hesitated a bit at this, but ended up seeming fine with the solution. This is just a really strange thing to ask for – I guess it’s mostly for people who are moving over the France to live with someone else.
  4. Processing fees
    1. It cost $138 each for the fees.
  5. One residence form duly filled out (upper part only) – also called the OFII form
    1. These will need to be sent to the appropriate place once we are in France in our residence.
  6. E-Ticket or reservation confirmation email showing the date of departure to Europe.
    1. Another strange request – why would we book a flight to Europe if we don’t even know if we an go! We booked 3 totally refundable flights so that we can cancel them. We booked our departure as of December 1st, since that was 1 month out from our appointment at the Consulate. In reality we will leave later than that, but we wanted to give them an earlier date to work towards.
  7. A self-addressed prepaid EXPRESS MAIL envelope from the US POST OFFICE ONLY - NO FEDEX / UPS / AIRBORNE EXPRESS accepted.
    1. We had this with us, but then the official asked if we would rather return and pick up our passports ourselves. Absolutely!

In addition to the above items, E&Y had given us a list of documents that we needed, which turned out to be useless. They sure didn’t add much value to the whole process, and in fact, E&Y missed many of the items that we really did need. Thank goodness we checked the Consulate website ourselves. Too bad S’s company has paid them a lot of $$ to help us though this process – we ended up doing most of it on our own!
  1. Long Stay Visa application to be completed, dated and signed (we also attach an English version for ease of reference only - please note that only the French version should be completed)
    1. We did not complete this form in French as the Consulate website specified English
  2. 2 passport size photographs taken within the last 3 months (loose not glued ) - (1.36 x 1.75 inches - on a white background, front view, neutral expression, bare-head and no dark glasses)
    1. We only needed 1 attached to the application
  3. Certified translations of our marriage and birth certificates.
    1. We hired someone to do this for us who was listed on the Consulate website. She was super fast and responsive. But they didn’t need these for this appointment at all. Maybe we will need them in France.
  4. A Letter of Motivation in French from me basically stating why I want to live in France.
    1. When we offered this to the Consulate official, he basically laughed saying “isn’t obvious why someone would want to live in France?” and refused to take it. Maybe I will need it in France.
  5. Letter of acceptance and Student registration at the American School of Paris
    1. He didn’t care about this at all.

We were very nervous for this appointment as our future kind of hinges on it, and we were probably over prepared for it - but that was much better than being under prepared. The official turned out to be very nice, friendly and helpful – he definitely appreciated how organized we were & that every time he asked for some document, we had it ready for him. He of course could not give us a “yes” or “no” right then, but S thinks the implication was that we will be approved. He also told us that our passports will be ready to be picked up in 1 week to 10 days! That’s way earlier than the month we were expecting. So all the drama about where we will be moving could be settled soon. Woo hoo!

We had to schedule 3 half-hour appointments at the consulate – one at 11:00am, one at 11:30am and one at 12:00pm. We pulled the girls out of school and headed up there around 10:15am. We were early for our appointment, but there was only one person ahead of us, so we got seen before 11am. He did all the documents at once, and we were done at 11:10am. Probably only took 20-30 minutes! He didn’t even speak to the girls, just took their pictures. While Sean & I were dealing with the documents, the kids got a kick out of watching the French show on tv that seemed to be some sort of crazy sketch show.

Since we were done early, we took a walk through Chinatown and then down to the Financial District to have lunch at a place where Sean & I used to eat (separately) when we worked downtown – a little French bistro named Cafè Bastille. We treated it as a bit of a celebration lunch even though there is nothing definite to celebrate yet. At least one big giant step is completed! Keep your fingers crossed, and you know I'll be jumping every time the phone rings!