August Bucket List

Hello. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Carol. For those who do, I got a tattoo!

Just kidding! (Seriously, Mom and Dad. I’m kidding…)

I think it’s safe to say that, based on July’s Bucket List item, everything I’ve done for the past two months has been new and scary to me. I’ve moved to Belgium, travelled around France, met old friends in London, and explored the tourist-y areas of Brussels to get acquainted with my new home. If I wrote about every new, strange, or exciting experience, I’d be writing until next month, and I have a resolution to uphold!

Instead, this month I decided to try something different: get out of the house and meet new people. This may not seem like a big deal, but for me, it really is! I’m, inherently, a shy, reserved person who prefers to stay at home rather than go out and meet people. That is, until you get to know me. That’s whyI sign into these blog posts the way I do. For those of you who don’t know me, I politely introduce myself and invite you to read about my adventures. For those of you who have the pleasure of knowing me personally, you’ll know I can be loud and a bit silly. A majority of the time, however,I’m actually very quiet around strangers, especially in social gatherings. I hardly ever initiate conversations, but when I do, it’s mostly to apologize for something (“*GASP* I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to purposefully run into you so that I had something to say!”) To save people from spilled drinks and broken toes due to my “clumsy” way of starting a conversation, I’ve made this month about working on my people skills and, hopefully, making new friends.

Within the month of August, I went to a pop-up dinner and an Ex-Pat social event. These types of organized events are more personal and intimate gatherings of like-minded people, not to mention it’s safer than finding a random person in a bar and striking up a conversation. Still, the evenings didn’t come without difficulties.

Has a friend ever dragged you to a party because they didn’t know anyone who was going and wanted at least one familiar face there? Well, just about everyone who showed up to both events was accompanied by their “familiar face”. I completely understand why, too. They want to look like they are “getting involved” without really getting involved. Translation: they BYOF (bring your own friends) to an event and talk amongst themselves, all the while hoping some courageous, outgoing person will come to them, introduce themselves, and make their evening a little more interesting. If no one stops by, the friends still look like they are participating in the social event. Based on what I know from my own experiences, when people BYOF, they do it out of the fear of looking “abnormal” or anti-social. (I’ve been using a lot of air quotes…). They don’t want to be that shy person sitting by his or herself, fake-texting to look busy while everyone else is making friends and engaging in interesting conversations. I’ve been there. It’s a bit embarrassing. I’ve dragged and been dragged to parties and I’ve been the loner staring at my phone. This month, it finally dawned on me that everyone is as uncomfortable as I am in these types of social situations. It’s a satisfying feeling to know that I’m not the only one who finds speaking to strangers difficult (see, Mom and Dad? Even at 23, I’m still not talking to strangers! Stranger danger, am I right?)

Even with this newly realized epiphany, I was still the lone wolf in a forest of BYOFs. That meant I needed to suck up my social anxiety and release my irrational fears of public rejection. I needed to force myself to speak to someone, even if I had nothing interesting to say, and pray that my go-to conversation starter (“Hi. I’m an American. Nice to meet you”) will propel the conversation forward. I could be at a party, in a classroom, or in front of an audience, I’ve never been comfortable speaking to large crowds of people. But not this month! This month, I was going to make an effort to join in the fun, and not look like a lone wolf, playing on my phone in the corner of the room. I was going to be a social butterfly, gosh darn it!

The month started out with a pop-up dinner in London. I had rented a room on Airbnb for a couple days from a London-based chef. As well as working with the takeaway website, Just Eat, she hosted pop-up restaurants around London through GrubClub, a website that is like Airbnb but chefs advertise dining experiences rather than homes. She had an extra seat at one of the dinners, so she invited me to join. When have I ever said no to food? Plus, I’d never been to a pop-up restaurant before, so might as well take advantage of the opportunity.

IMG_7059When I arrived, there was a long table set for about 20 people. I was the first to arrive (I am incapable of arriving fashionably late), so I sat down and waited as the rest of the dinner guests came through the door. The dinner was a delicious 5-course meal, featuring peaches in each dish. At first, I was nervous to say anything. It was difficult for me to think of anything to say. I just looked around the room hoping for some inspiration to fly out of the air. As each course was served and the wine glasses were filled, conversation became much easier. The guests at my side of the table managed to talk about a very wide range of topics, from the “conversation starter pack” like work and weather, to Brexit and traveling in Southeast Asia. The experience as a whole felt like I have been teleported back to a time when wealthy aristocrats hosted lavish dinners in their family mansions for their friends in the hopes of creating connections, romances, and learning all the recent gossip. I thought I was in Downton Abbey! Checking “pop-up restaurant” and “be on Downton Abbey” off my bucket list.

After a couple days vacation in London, I, reluctantly, traveled home to Brussels (that’s weird to say… “My home is in Brussels”. AHH!). I spent several days exploring the city on my own, then realized how lonely and, especially, homesick I felt. I went to the trusty, sometimes-reliable internet to look up some clubs and events I could get involved in during my year abroad. Little did I know at the time, but Belgium in August is practically deserted! Everyone leave for vacation during August. Shops close, work stops, people leave. It’s a great time to sightsee and explore, but not for meeting people. Many hours of research and a few good meltdowns later, I found the Irish Club and the American Club of Brussels (I just wanted to hear someone speak English). The American Club was the only one hosting events in August, so I registered myself for the next event they hosted, the Last Friday event. On the last Friday of every month, the American Club of Brussels hosts a social event at a restaurant or bar somewhere in Brussels. It’s great for newcomers and old friends to intermingle and talk about our home of the free, land of the brave.

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The Last Friday event was held at a California-Mexican restaurant called Chez WaWa. It’s like Brussels’ answer to Chipotle (and it’s delicious). I arrived first (…again), and was welcomed by the owner of the restaurant. He showed me to the back patio, where the event was being held, and I waited as more people arrived with their BYOFs. After speaking with a couple people, I eventually found a group that I stayed with until the event ended. Everyone was incredibly nice, and I enjoyed talking to people that understood 1) English, 2) where Florida is, and 3) how much I miss peanut butter. It’s refreshing to know I’m not the only American in Brussels, because sometimes, it feels like I am. I’ll most definitely be attending another American Club event in the future.

I didn’t go to as many social gatherings as I would have liked (why does everything shut down in August? It makes no sense!), but this may just be a work in progress. I have another 10 months in Brussels. There will be more events, more people to meet, and more friendships to come. Fortunately, I feel more confident in my ability to engage people in a conversation. Before this month, I was scared to say anything to anyone. Maybe I’m too boring? I never have much to say, anyway. I don’t hold any strong opinions on politics, sports, or whatever people are interested in. Nothing exciting ever happens to me. Wait a minute… I’m living one of the most exciting years of my life! What better conversation starter is there than “I learned to surf, ran a 5K, and donated blood for the first time all this year”? I’m awesome, and it’s time other people knew that too.

Until next month,

Carol B

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What to do in Fouras, France

After leaving St. Maxime, I found myself back on the Atlantic Coast. As a life-long East Coast gal, I was unable to wrap my head around the fact that the Atlantic was now on the West Coast. Why is the sun setting on the Atlantic? It was weird.

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For about 2.5 weeks, I stayed in Fouras, France, a little town situated in the Charente Estuary famous for it’s nutrient-rich mud and seafood. When I first arrived in Fouras, I didn’t think much of it. It was, like I said, a small town. That was before I looked outside my bedroom window and saw the towering fortress that is Fort Vauban overlooking the beach. The area around Fouras is filled with old forts because they were the first defense against the British who sailed down the Charente Estuary, which led to Rochefort, a major navy base and arsenal. With that being said, I was very excited to be there!

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Within the next few days, I had done quite a bit of exploring and fell in love with Fouras. The small town way of life coupled with the rich history and culture made it hard to leave at the end of my trip. If you ever find yourself on the Western coast of France, here is a list of things you can do when traveling to this beautiful town:

  • Fort Vauban/ Regional Museum of Fouras

Right on the Grand Plage, the first thing you will notice is Fort Vauban. Probably the most well-preserved fort in the area, it now hosts the Regional Museum of Fouras.

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Fort Vauban from La grand plage

When you first walk across the draw-bridge, you will find the main keep/ museum to your left and some gift shops straight ahead. The different shops sell art from local artisans, postcards and mugs targeted at tourists, and gems. The gem store is filled with mystical materials like giant geodes, crystal displays, and small sculptures made from jade or polished stone. Off to the side of the gem store is a jewelry store with every kind of jewel you can think of: emeralds, sapphires, amber, rubies, etc. It’s fun to spend a couple minutes there, even if you don’t buy anything!

 

The fort is free to enter, but you must pay to visit the museum. From the bottom floor, you are taken through the history of Fouras. Your travel through time concludes in the present day when you reach the very top of the keep. On the roof, you’ll get the best view of the area, from La Fumée to the Plage Sud.

  • Spend a day at the beach

Fouras’ main beaches are la Grand Plage, la Plage Sud, and la Plage Nord (literally, the big beach, the south beach, and the north beach). The Grand Plage is (obviously) the biggest and most popular beach. The Plage Nord is big for sailing and fishing, while the Plage Sud is a quieter version of the Grand Plage.

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La grand plage

The tides on the beaches are very drastic; bigger than any tide I’ve ever seen on the Eastern US Coast! While the tide is out, however, what is left is mud. The mud is, apparently, very good for the skin, and is often used or replicated in high-end spas. On the beach, you’ll see people walking through the mud, lathering it on their entire bodies, and come out looking like a monster you’d see on Scooby-Doo. They, then, lie on the beach and wait for the mud to dry before using the showers (provided on the beach) to wash off the mud revealing their new, beautified skin. I didn’t try this mud bath because unfortunately, the showers weren’t working, but that didn’t stop some people from a free spa day!

If you have children, there is a beach club that is held on the beach every day except Sundays. They have trampolines, swings, a swimming pool (yea, a swimming pool on the beach!), and scheduled activities for different age groups. Just follow the Mickey Mouse flags and you’ll find the camp counselors/ supervisors. They will sign you in and your child can play from just about all day!

  • Take a long walk to Fort Enet

Starting from the Grand Plage, it takes about 30 minutes to walk to la pointe de la Fumée, which seats Fort Enet, a fort built by Napoleon 1 to aid in the defense of Rochefort. On the way, you will see the Casino, some charming beach homes, la plage nord, and the oyster/mussel farms.

The only way to reach Fort Enet is when tide is at its lowest. Even then, you can’t go in because it’s considered private property. Unless you happen to be in Fouras the one day they offer a tour of the interior, you’re out of luck. I was able to walk around the fort and get a great view of Fort Boyard, so it’s not all bad if you can’t get in! The tidal pools were interesting to look at too. Lots of crabs and snails, mostly!

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Fort Enet

  • Sample Fouras’ famous mussels and oysters

If Fouras is good at one thing, it’s their seafood. If you visited Fort Enet, you would have seen the giant oyster and mussel beds along La Fumée. The nutrient-rich water as well as the warm currents make for great conditions for growing seafood! Fun fact: a majority of the mussels and oysters eatten in France originated in Fouras! One dish you must to try is moules-frites (mussels and fries). The mussels are cooked in a creamy, wine sauce and served in a bucket with crispy fries. It’s delicious! I haven’t tried the oysters (I don’t eat oysters… too slimy), but I have it on good authority that they are just as delicious as the mussels.

  • Visit the town market area

The life of Fouras lies in the main market road, Rue de la Halle. In the big building labeled Marché, there is a produce market that is open every morning from 8-12:30pm that sells fruits, vegetables, meat, and ready-made meals.

Next door is a huge seafood market with all the seafood you could ever want: fish, different kinds of shrimp, octopus, mollusks, and even shark! This, too, is only open in the mornings.

 

The shops along Rue de la Halle are quaint, meaning they just carry the essentials. There is a pharmacy and grocery store for toiletries, food, and medicine, a bookstore and beach store for entertainment, then there is a butcher, several bakeries, spice shops, cafés, and cheese shops. You know, the essentials.

For the kids, there are several carousels –manège in French– they can enjoy. Two are very old carousels from the early 1900s, but the modern carousel nearest the St. Gaudens Church is the crowd favorite. As the ride is going, the carousel operator dangles and swings a Mickey Mouse stuffed animal over the heads of the kids, and whoever catches Mickey gets a ticket for a free ride!

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  • Saturday night market

Every Saturday, Fouras comes alive with people as stalls and food stands are set up starting from St. Gaudens Church, and continues along the boardwalk. There are stalls for jewelry, clothes, personalized mugs, electronics, art, and food vendors. It can get crowded, however, so keep your purses closed and wallets hidden! Pickpockets can happen here too.

  • Attend a mass at St. Gaudens ChurchIMG_6800

In my opinion, the best way to see a church is to see it for the purpose it was used for. I understood absolutely NONE of the mass, but I followed what everyone else was doing and it all worked out. Honestly, there were some times during the mass when no one knew what to do. Some stood, some sat, it was awkward. Not Catholic? Don’t worry! You can take a seat and just observe. If you’d like to join in communion, just cross your arms over your chest and the priest will offer you a blessing. Whatever you do, don’t take the cracker! It’s not as tasty as you think, no matter where you are in the world…

  • Sail over to one of the islands off the coast of Fouras

I didn’t do this myself (ran out of time), but there are ferries that can take you to the neighboring islands like Île d’Aix, Île d’Oléron, and Île Madame. There is also a famous fort called Fort Boyard that you can sail around. Fort Boyard is the setting of a popular TV game show in France called Fort Boyard (original…). Unfortunately, tours don’t stop inside the fort because it is a popular filming location. In my opinion, it’s not really worth it. You can see the fort really nicely from behind Fort Enet, so it’s not necessary to spend money just to sail around it.

Tips for traveling in Fouras

  1. Unfortunately, not many people in Fouras speak English. Just as long as you smile and greet them politely, you shouldn’t have any problems. When ordering, the best advice is to just show your waiter what you want, whether it’s in a glass case or on the menu.
  2. When shopping at the market or grocery store, bring your own shopping bag. In the market, they don’t provide bags for you; in the grocery store, you have to pay extra for one of their plastic bags. I always traveled with a backpack so I wouldn’t run into the problem of forgetting to bring a bag.
  3. If you plan to walk all the way out to Fort Enet, wear sturdy rain boots or waterproof boots. The ground is uneven and slippery (wet rock and algae can do that) so be careful and wear appropriate shoes.
  4. Like I’ve mentioned before, the tide in Fouras can be shaky. Before walking to Fort Enet, make sure to consult a tidal chart to see 1) if the tide is out enough to explore Fort Enet and 2) the tide won’t be coming in for a couple of hours! The last thing you want is to be stuck at sea until the next tide. Best tip: if you don’t see anyone around the fort or if a lot of people are walking back to land, get out!

Still not convinced that Fouras is a must-see destination in France? Well, here are some extra pictures I took during my exploration, including some Bastille Day celebrations!

 

Until my next journey,

Carol B

A Day in St. Maxime/ St. Tropez

Recently, I had the pleasure of traveling to St. Maxime and St. Tropez along the French Riviera, a.k.a. la Côte d’Azur. I’ve never been to the French Riviera, so this was quite a learning experience for me! I expected beautiful beaches, warm weather, and a laid back atmosphere, and that’s exactly what I got.

I flew into Nice Airport in the afternoon and drove along the A8 to St. Maxime, where I was staying for six days. The home I was staying in was at the top of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. From my bedroom window, I could see St. Tropez on the other side of the Gulf of St. Tropez, as well as the city of St. Maxime below. The weather was dry, warm, and breezy, which makes for great weather to sit outside and read a good book. It was everything I could have asked for and more; perfection.

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During my visit, I decided to do a bit of exploring around St. Maxime. I went into the old town center (the oldest part of St. Maxime) around 11am and found an outdoor market full of produce, spices, cheeses, meats and so much more!

From there, I walked toward the old church, passing shops and cafés along the way. The St. Maxime church is a small, stone church honoring the namesake of the town. In one of the alcoves, there stands a display of St. Maxime herself adorned with a crown of jewels, and a large painting depicting her turning away the riches of her royal family to live a life of poverty. There is a beautiful stained glass over the main alter which tells the same story. At noon, you will hear the church bells play a melody for a minute or so. Don’t worry if you aren’t at the church when it happens. You’ll hear it no matter where you are in St. Maxime.

The next day was spent in St. Tropez. In the morning, I took a taxi boat (Les Bateaux Verts) from St. Maxime to the crowded docks of St. Tropez. Most of the day was spent walking around and window shopping. I didn’t have much of a plan for the day except to explore. All the shops and restaurants are ULTRA expensive and the weather was REALLY hot, so I didn’t spend much time in St. Tropez. I did get some great photos though!

St. Maxime is more family friendly compared to the high-end, pricey St. Tropez. Both are wonderful in their own way, but I’d recommend staying in St. Maxime and taking Les Bateaux Verts to St. Tropez for some day trips. A 13,50€ ticket gets you to and from St. Tropez, and you can leave anytime (a boat leaves every 20 minutes). St. Tropez is very expensive (you’ll figure this out quickly when you see the Dior, Oscar de la Renta, and Gucci store fronts), so plan accordingly. Maybe set a budget so you aren’t tempted to spend 900€ on a purse.

It’s hard to plan a day in either town because there isn’t much to do unless you own a boat or like going to the beach for an entire day. You will quickly realize when you arrive that you are meant to relax and just enjoy being in the moment. If you are an adventurer like me, I’d recommend starting your day at the outdoor markets (they close around noon for lunchtime), then get lost in the many back roads and alleys of St. Maxime and St. Tropez. The city is very safe (just be cautious of pickpockets), so you don’t have to worry about meeting a Wayne family type of end in a back alley.

My Tips for Visiting St. Maxime/ St. Tropez

  • Don’t speak French? Don’t worry! Just about everyone I talked to in town spoke English. I would start conversations in French, but when I started looking confused, they switched to English. If you are uncomfortable speaking French with them, just ask if they can speak English. Worst case scenario, you mime your way through a conversation.
  • The air in St. Tropez is dry and can get very hot during mid-afternoon (at least in the summer months). Make sure to drink plenty of water and bring a bottle of water with you everywhere (a giant 1.5 liter bottle of water cost about 0,75€. Just bring a backpack or a large bag so you can carry it around with you while you explore). It might also be wise to plan some indoor activities or pool/beach time during the hottest part of the day.
  • I’m told there is great nightlife like clubs and bars in St. Tropez, but I haven’t experienced it for myself. If you’re into that, enjoy!
  • If you’re looking to meet some new people, go to the closest café! Especially in the morning, many people will be drinking their morning coffee at the zinc bar. If you want to sit down at a table in a café you have to pay extra (you are basically renting the table). Instead, people drink at the zinc bar for free. It’s like any other bar you’d find in your local pub, but there are no chairs to sit on.
  • TRY THE TARTE TROPÉZIENNE! They are a local specialty and worth every carb and calorie. Sweet brioche buns filled with pastry cream and topped with crushed sugar. It’s as good as it sounds.
  • St. Tropez can get expensive. If you aren’t looking to spend 30€+ per person for one meal, go to the local supermarket. Ready-to-eat sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and dessert could cost you 10€ per person, or less! Then you can sit along the docks, at the park, or on the water and eat while you take in the views.

Some extra photos:

Until my next adventure,

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Carol B

July Bucket List

Hello. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Carol. For those of you who do, je m’appelle Carol.

This July, I took a big step. More like a leap of faith. At the end of May, after my second Disney attempt, I was contacted by a woman from an au pair agency. She asked if I was interested in becoming an au pair for a French family (wait for it…) in Belgium for (it gets better) a year! Naturally, I said, “I’ll think about it… yes”. After a couple Skype interviews with the family of three and the au pair agent, I had a job within 2 weeks! (Thanks GreatAuPair.com 😉 ) Officially, I will be an au pair in Brussels starting July 2!!

The family I will be staying with this next year is a French family living in Brussels, Belgium. They have an 8-year-old son who loves all things Lego, Star Wars, and airplanes. The father is a businessman and the mother is a dentist/ professional dancer. For the purpose of this blog, I’m concealing their names so they can maintain their privacy. They will now be known as Father, Mother, and Boy (so inventive, I know…) Boy and Father know English because 1) Father works with many offices around the world and 2) Boy went to an American school in Brussels for several years. Mother knows enough English to be conversational, but not a lot. I guess we can learn from each other: I’ll work on my French and she can work on her English.

June became a busy month after that. I had to get together some important documents for my work permit and permanent residence card (I’m going to be a European citizen for a year!! Woot woot!), buy anything that I might need before going abroad, and then wait. A lot of waiting… To pass the time, I visited friends from out of town, practiced packing my luggage a couple times (I had to make sure everything fit! Also, I was too excited to wait until the day before), and spent as much time with my family as I could.

The waiting did nothing for my nerves. I started creating best case and worst case scenarios in my head: is the family is as nice as they seem? Is Boy poorly behaved or not? Do I know enough French to make my way through Belgium? Will I meet some like-minded people and make friends with them? Am I ready to take care of an 8-year-old boy? Am I ready to live on my own? I’ve never been to Belgium before, so there was a lot of uncertainty and fear during the past month. All I really knew of Belgium was that it’s famous for its beer, chocolate, and waffles, it’s 6 hours ahead from Florida (Eastern time), and they speak French and Flemish. I did some research, but I wasn’t learning much. What I did find, though, was that Brussels is the home of several European governments/ agencies like the European Union, the European Council, and NATO. That made me feel a bit safer. They also have their own monarchy!

 

All I’m certain of in the coming year is I’m given two weeks holiday in December and April. During the school year, I’m tasked with picking up Boy from school, feeding him an afternoon snack, helping with homework, playing with him, and occasionally, putting him to bed. The mornings and weekends are up to me. With so much free time, I’m planning on traveling a bit (hopefully), taking some courses on writing and graphic design, and learning French (kind of important if I want to live in Belgium). Maybe I’ll take some fun classes, as well, like dancing or cooking. There are so many options! Don’t worry, I’m putting the family first; their needs come before mine. After all, they’re the reason I’m going to Europe in the first place!

As the day got closer, I began felling more emotions: excitement, nerves, fear, curiosity, sadness. The night before I left, I slept soundly. My room was empty except for two suitcases, but it still didn’t feel like I was going to be moving across the ocean to Europe. I had to keep reminding myself that it was actually happening: I’m REALLY moving to Brussels. I’m living the dream. For some reason, though, I didn’t want to let myself believe it was happening in case it all went wrong somehow. I’d rather expect the worst, but hope for the best.IMG_0925.JPG

I woke up the next morning at 4am for my 7am flight to JFK. In New York City, I spent a couple hours with Evelyn before the long-haul flight to Dublin. Luckily, I was in a row all to myself. First class at coach price. After three flights within two days and a full 24 hours of traveling, I finally landed in Brussels Airport! After spending about half an hour reporting my lost luggage (good news is it was returned with in a couple days!), I was met at the airport by the family, who displayed had a sweet “Welcome Carol” sign that Boy had made. I felt very special. I’ve never had a sign at an airport before, but I’ve always wanted one! When I got through the crowd, they greeted me as if I was already part of the family. My nerves were instantly settled.

The next two days were full of appointments and filling out paperwork for my visa. On the afternoon of the second day, I was whisked away to the French Riviera for a couple days of rest and getting to know Boy and his routines.

It’s going to be one crazy, thrilling year. I can’t wait. Send good vibes my way!

Until next time,

Carol B