Adventures and misadventures in France.

Posts tagged ‘History’

Good things come to those who hustle.

While my fellow Bostonians were celebrating their Irish heritage with kelly-green accessories, celtic music, and alcohol, I spent St. Patrick’s Day in Nantes for a day of French civic training. As I mentioned before, this was the last step in a series of required appointments to qualify for extended residency in France. In addition, I would need to find time to get to the préfecture of Nantes to obtain the actual carte de séjour.

6:45 – Bus

The training session was scheduled to last all day beginning at 9 am. I requested the day off from work, and planned to race across town during the lunch break to pick up the carte to avoid an additional day wasted on public transportation. I caught an early bus into the city but managed to choose the longest bus route (two hours instead of one), which meant a stressful speed-walk to the training center.

9:15 – France 101

I followed another latecomer into class and sat down to begin taking notes. It soon became apparent that a room full of middle-aged white French women was not the OFII class at all, but a nursing course, so I apologized and slipped back out the door with their laughter echoing into the hallway.

Finally I arrived in the correct class, which presented a fascinating level of cultural diversity. The instructor who appeared to be French had immigrated from Kosovo almost twenty years ago. Half of the class was from Africa, but each from a different country. I was seated next to a woman from Mongolia and two nuns from New Zealand. The morning session was filled with lessons about the rights, responsibilities, and advantages of seeking naturalization in France. Next came an overview of French history. The instructor offered hilights of the French revolution (incoherent anecdotes about Mary Antoinette and the guillotine), the European Union, and WWI and WWII. Some how he also managed to fit in a lesson about the most recent French presidents, gay rights, and the legalization of abortion.

12:00 – Lunch

Pausing for lunch, we were offered a complimentary three-course meal in the training center cafeteria. Scooting through the line, I could hear a server arguing with one of my classmates, a man from Cuba. “Monsieur! That salad has ham in it! It has ham!” The classmate responded quickly with “Yes I know, I can see that,” and turned to me with an exhasperated expression, “Everyone here thinks I’m Muslim. It happens constantly.” We ate, chatted about the class, and discussed my plan to run across town for the carte de séjour. He wished me luck, but offered a warning about notoriously long wait times. Confident, I promised to signal the outcome when I got back.

Soon I headed uptown. The immigration office closed for lunch until 1:30, but I needed to buy timbres fiscaux (stamps used as tax payments). They can be purchased in most convenience stores, but I had to ask in three different stores before somebody had them in stock.

1:00 – Préfecture

A crowd had already gathered at the préfecture, and people in the hallway started to get agressive. When the doors opened, everyone rushed to take a numbered ticket. Remembering previous visits, I didn’t bother, and patiently waited in an area reserved for people with appointments. Ten minutes later, a woman at the counter explained that I was in the wrong line and needed a ticket. Apparently, only one window is reserved for people picking up their cartes. Merde. I grabbed a ticket marked with the 30th place in line, which would mean hours of waiting. It was over. I handed off the ticket to someone else and shuffled out the door as a failure.

2:20 – Afternoon session

Late to the afternoon training session, I apologized to the instructor and gave a sullen “thumbs down” to the Cuban. The instructor launched into a lecture about democracy and the organization of local/regional/national government offices. He showed us some symbols of France, including the flag, national anthem, and Marianne. Soon the class was drawn into a discussion about French laïcité (secularism) and its impact on the rights of men and women, which led to the following dialogue :

“So if I understand correctly, here in France it is recommended to take only one wife?”

“Not recommended! Illegal! You may only legally have one wife.”

“Women here have too much power. But I have another question. If my wife and I are separated but not divorced, and I’m living in a different house with another woman, is it legal?”

“Well your wife won’t be happy, but yes, it’s legal.”

3:30 – Coffee break

The instructor came over and complimented my doodles and notetaking, so I took the opportunity to ask what time the class would end. Five pm. Earlier than expected, but too late for the préfecture. I launched into a tale of woe about living so far away, missing days of work, and just hoping for the opportunity to go pick up my new visa. He paused for a moment, shrugged, and offered to let me go early for “special circumstances.” Shocked, I thanked him profusely, whipped out a pen to sign my attendance certificate, avoided eye contact with jealous classmates, and ran out the door.

3:45 – Préfecture part deux

Twenty minutes later, I was facing a sign taped to the préfecture ticket machine.

“No more tickets. Office closed.”

Of course I hadn’t bothered to keep my ticket from earlier. A few people were still waiting to be called, so I hunted on the floor and under seats to see if anyone had dropped a ticket. No luck. Finally, the line cleared and I cautiously approached the window. A cheerful man benhind the counter took my paperwork and timbres, asked me to sign some documents, then handed over the carte de séjour! I shook his hand, high-fived some fellow étrangers, and skipped out of the office…

… directly to a pub for a celebratory Guinness.

Le Puy du Fou


If Disney World and a Renaissance Faire got together, the Puy du Fou would be their beautiful French love child. Le Puy du Fou is a historical theme park nestled in the heart of France that serves as a tribute to French and Christian culture throughout the ages. Add in thousands of eccentric employees and volunteers, animals, and over-the-top special effects, and you’ve got the attraction voted 2012’s Best Theme Park in the world.

BUT WAIT!  That doesn’t look like any theme park I’VE ever seen before! Where are the roller coasters? Who makes a family theme park that revolves around periods of war? Was that a colosseum? Where are the anamatronic woodland creatures, and whose idea was it to include gigantic flame throwers?

Le Puy du Fou was unlike any other amusement park (or Ren Faire) that I had ever visited. Instead of the usual rides and attractions, it’s filled with a series of reconstructed period villages and outdoor theaters built to accommodate 300-14,000 spectators.  We only visited for the day, and with six shows on our priority list, it took a bit of scheduling wizardry and hustling to see each 20-50 minute show.

Middle Ages

The first show we attended told the story of Marguerite, a shepherdess who must defend a castle from invaders. Plenty of cool horse tricks, an immense castle set disappeared into the ground, an another castle appeared in its place to spin around and shoot flames, and Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc) made an appearance.


The vikings show came next, and I began to realize a common theme across each show – conflicts of the French Christians versus their barbaric enemies. A full battle ensued, including a viking invasion by boats that appeared out of the water (with living people inside! how did they DO it?) They had wolves attacking people not 10 feet from the front row, someone got lit on fire, towers exploded, and people were dragged behind galloping horses. Easily one of my favorites.

Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur pulled the sword out of the stone, faces challenges, and earns the respect and authority he deserves. Except that the stone spurted flaming water (another SFX mystery), the round table emerged out of a lake and re-disappeared below the water, and a table spun around. Not to leave anyone unimpressed, they included an actual swimming mermaid.


Set in a 7000-seat colosseum, this show represented Christian Gaul rebellions against the brutal Roman empire. We got to see plenty of gladiators and wild animals roaming around. The highlight, however, was an actual full-speed chariot race. There are only a handful of people in the world qualified to race 4-horse chariot teams, most of whom are employed by the Puy du Fou.



The Puy du Fou has its own falconry school. One show was meant to showcase their expertise, but also managed to include the story of…

Blah blah blah spirit of the falcons blah blah blah friendship and harmony singing singing…

Which was not particularly interesting until they unleashed 150 birds of prey simultaneously into the crowd. The birds are even trained to perch on spectators’ hats!


After char broiling in the heat all afternoon, it was time to visit the Richelieu Theater, the only indoor show at the Puy du Fou. As the name suggests, the show is loosely based on the story of the Three Musketeers. The stage is enormous – 80 meters long – 2600 square meters total. To put it in perspective, that’s half the size of an American football field. After some witty banter and fight scenes, we were thrown into a world of glowing horses, flamenco-dancing women – and the stage became a lake. The splashy dancing, horses, and crazy lights continued as the entire stage flooded with six inches of water.


Beaches of France : Guerande and La Turballe

Part 3


This funny instrument is called a vielle à roue, or a hurdy gurdy.

Guerande is a fortified medieval city just north of La Baule and St. Nazaire. We decided to drop by the inner city on the way home from our beach weekend to visit the original church, get some lunch, and maybe sample their Brittany wares. The region is known its heavy Breton influence, sailing culture, and coarse salt production. Today, the city is filled with artisans and their shops selling paintings and sculptures.


Later in the afternoon, we wanted to get a look at the marais salants, salt flats, in La Turballe. Not much to see, just piles of delicious lying around.


Oh boy! Salt!

Next to the flats, we found a parking lot with signage leading to a beach. Adding to our weekend of spontaneity, we decided to take a stroll to check it out. Fifteen minutes of marching through a forest filled with picnicking families and the beach finally came into view. On such a hot day, we were excited to finally see a natural and tranquil beach. We finally reached the top of the dunes and looked down to admire the clear water and the bay below.

The face of ignorance

The face of blissful ignorance.

Look at that view! The sand is so soft! Let’s go dip our feet in the water!

Hey that’s weird… there’s a woman swimming – naked? And there’s another guy and he’s – also naked? And those people over there… and… uh oh…

As it turns out, this particular beach was far more natural than anticipated. We had stumbled upon an unofficial naturist beach. Standing at the top of the dunes, we tried not to stare as couples, families, and groups of friends all paraded past us to enjoy their naked day at the beach. After a few moments of shocked silence and attempts at nonchalance, Max turned to me and asked:

Can we go back to the car now?

Maybe next time, Naked Beach.

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