A Beautiful Idea for Some Ugly Produce

5-Fruits-et-Légumes-Moches-par-jourTake a look at French supermarket Intermarché’s brilliant strategy at reducing food waste:

Effectively, the French grocery store bought the ugly produce their vendors would usually discard and sold it for 30% less. To convince people that ugly fruits and vegetables could be just as good as beautiful ones, they made soup and juice from the lackluster produce and handed them out as samples.

To everyone’s surprise, the fruits and vegetables now sell out regularly.


Now isn’t that a beautiful idea?

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bastille Day (But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

Paris – July 1789

It is a hot, summer morning in Paris. Like the humidity which lies heavy upon the city, a spirit of unrest stews in the air. Thanks to M. Réveillon’s recent, ill-conceived proposal to the city council on combatting poverty (and the subsequent razing of his factory), rumors and complaints buzz from mouths hungrier for conspiracy than for bread. The word on the street is that a plot is being hatched in the halls of power— though the would-be perpetrators and victims remain unclear. One thing is clear, however: a storm is brewing, and the question on everyone’s lips is not whether, but when it will break upon Paris.

The epicenter in this hive of discontentment is a little neighborhood in the eastern end of the city, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, couched in the shadow of the Bastille— or bastion— which has protected the city gate here since the late 1300s. What is the source of this discord and why does this particular quartier stir like a kicked ants’ nest? To answer “why,” we must first ask “what.”  That is, “What is this fortress of stone standing before us?”

The Bastille

Bastille,_1790_retouchedThe Bastille was constructed as a guard post for the Porte Sainte-Antoine in 1370, during the Hundred Years’ War against the English. Over the centuries, it grew into a rather formidable state prison, though the prisoners kept there were often of the noble or royal variety. Despite the fact that many of these prisoners lived in rather lavish conditions (some even brought their own furniture, held dinner parties, and could even leave during the day as long as they slept there at night), thanks to some of their colorful autobiographies, the Bastille developed an ominous reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors.

While it is true that abuses did occur there, the denizens of the surrounding Faubourg Saint-Antoine seem to have been able only to guess at the atrocities allegedly committed within its walls. In those days, it didn’t take much to be thrown into the Bastille: no judge or jury were required, only a lettre de cachet. In any case, the imposing structure eventually came to be associated with arbitrary authority and the abuse of royal power.

Defecation, Demonstration, and Decapitation

Marquis_de_Sade_portraitOne such prisoner of the Bastille was the “deviant” Marquis de Sade (from whose name we derive the word “sadism” and “sadistic” thanks to his libertine writings on sexuality and even more violent practice of it). Imprisoned by his own mother-in-law’s lettre de cachet, the Marquis was living quite high on the hog within the Bastille.

However, this did not stop him from… ahem… bullshitting a bit:

“He took hold of a long white metal pipe equipped with a little funnel which, when the urge arose, he attached to his bottom— a portable toilet in which he could more conveniently dispatch his excretions down below into the moat. With said instrument Sade formed a kind of bullhorn that he used to harangue the people of the faubourg.

‘Good people! They are slitting the throats of the prisoners in the Bastille! Come immediately to our rescue!’” (Lorànt Deutsch, Metronome)

Faced with the threat of royal troops gathering outside the city, on the morning of July 14, the good people of Paris first stormed the military hospital Les Invalides for guns before setting their sights on the Bastille, which was full of gunpowder.

Now, the governor of the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay, was not about to simply open his gates to the mob amassing outside, but he did allow a delegation of city officials from the Hôtel de Ville (or town hall) entry into the fortress in an attempt to negotiate— and probably buy time for reinforcements. Two more such delegations were forthcoming, but the hoped-for reinforcements, alas, were not.

Eventually, the crowds outside grew restless enough that shots were exchanged. Thus, the first 100 casualties fell to the ground, and the Revolution had begun.

Thanks to some defectors from within the ranks of the Swiss army commanding the defense of the Bastille, the gates were eventually burned down with cannons from Les Invalides (apparently, someone found some gunpowder elsewhere), and the governor was forced to surrender. The Marquis de Sade was saved. However, the poor Marquis de Launay, was not.

Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille - Jean-Baptiste Lallemand
Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille – Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

Undismayed by their meager liberation of only seven petty crooks and forgers, the mob exulted in its symbolic triumph over the forces of monarchy and set about dismantling the Bastille within only a few short days, but not before dragging Launay through the streets and decapitating him with a knife (the guillotine still a distant threat on the horizon). The governor’s head affixed to a pike and paraded through the city, the révolutionnaires’ bloodlust, far from being quenched, was only just beginning…

Studying Abroad in France: Housing

Trying to find housing even in the United States can be something of a trial, so arranging a living situation in a foreign country can seem downright impossible, especially if you’re trying to do it before you arrive.

The good news is that most program providers include housing in their cost, so you never have to worry about the hassle of finding your own. However, should you decide to go it alone, there are options, but be warned: it won’t be cheap, and unless you know someone in Paris, it is not an exaggeration to say that locating an apartment in that city really is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.


Like most things in France, universities and their housing departments are administered by a centralised organisation called CNOUS (Le Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires). This agency oversees everything from scholarships and grants to cafeterias to housing at France’s many public universities. Each major city with a university has a CNOUS presence called CROUS (Centre Régional).

Each CROUS maintains student housing complexes called Cités Universitaires or just Cités-U for short. For example, when I lived in Caen, I lived in the Tilleuls residence on the university campus. Another example is in Paris, where there is a stop on the RER Line B named Cité Universitaire.

Most residences administered by the CNOUS are reserved for students with French government grants, though it’s still your best option as a student for affordable housing since the rent is fixed between 120 EUR – 350 EUR per month, depending on the type of residence you live in.

Host Families

It would be impossible to give an accurate portrayal of what a homestay is like since every family is different, but having been “adopted” by one when I lived in Normandie and having lived with another in Paris when I worked there, I can say that in my personal experience, host families can provide some of the most genuine, authentic experiences of French life.

P1000113It’s true that you will have to decide whether you want to live in such close quarters with strangers, but I still keep in touch with my host family from when I studied abroad four years ago, and I have found that host families can go from being complete strangers to becoming some of your most cherished friends in France.

I will never forget meeting my family in Caen for the first time and being invited to the birthday party of my host mom’s niece, complete with 15-20 people and me, the sole American. Being invited into a family is rare enough as it is, so to experience an extended family celebration was really special for the first time meeting them.

P1000998Then, in Paris two years later, I lived with the same family my friend lived with the year prior. It was a lot of fun making a Fourth of July dinner and then later, a full Thanksgiving dinner for them to share my American culture with them and thank them for taking me in during my time in France.

I would highly recommend a homestay if it’s available to you. Many people opt for something “safer” by sticking with fellow American students in a dorm or apartment, but if you really want a fully immersive experience, go with the homestay. You won’t regret it.

For Paris, check out Homestay-in-Paris.com.

Renting in France

This could be an entire blog post in itself, but suffice it to say, for the first time student in France, I would definitely not recommend trying to find your own property unless you have connections or friends. The inn is always full in Paris, though you might get lucky. Other cities will not be as difficult in terms of locating housing, but France is the queen of catch-22s, and trying to rent an apartment without a French bank account is… tricky to say the least, especially when opening a French bank account often requires a French address!

Should you decide to explore the world of French property for let, as a tenant (un locataire) you’ll usually apply through an agent (un agent immobilier). You can find properties in local newspapers or in estate agents’ windows in the downtown areas of most towns. Be prepared to provide documents ranging from bank statements to letters of reference to proof of employment to income tax returns.

For a more detailed guide on renting in France, take a look at this Expatica article on the subject.

Resize Your Expectations

Keep in mind that North America is a continent of wide-open spaces and frontiers, urban sprawl and endless wilderness. Everything here is bigger than in most other parts of the world– whether that’s cars or streets, food portions or the availability of utilities like electricity and water.

Generally speaking– and especially in crowded cities like Paris– no matter what type of housing you go with, your living space will be considerably smaller. As a student in Caen, I lived in a dorm room that was 9 square meters, a monk’s cell by comparison to my bedroom at home. When real estate is at a premium, you’ll adjust eventually, but for the first-time visitor to France, the sudden size-difference can be a bit claustrophobia-inducing.

Be prepared for shared bathrooms and kitchens, stairs instead of elevators, and radiators and open windows instead of centralised air conditioning and heating. That’s not to say that you’ll be living in second-rate conditions, but it is important to remember that most buildings in France are hundreds of years old, and therefore not built to modern codes or sensibilities.

Whatever your living arrangement, it’s important to keep an open mind and a sense of adventure. The very point of studying abroad is to experience something different from home and to come to appreciate how other people live. With the right attitude and a bit of diligence, you’ll soon be right at home in France.

Studying Abroad in France: The French Visa Process

Or as I like to call it: 3 mois d’enfer

Actually, it’s not as bad as all that, though the process of obtaining a French visa really can take about two to three months. But first:

What is a visa, anyway?

Simply put, a visa is a special sort of stamp issued by a government to non-citizens entering that government’s country. There are many different types of visa issued by every country in the world, but for the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on French visas, and more specifically Long Stay Student Visas or Visas de long séjour in French.

Thanks to the United States’ geopolitical hegemony, Americans can travel to many countries throughout the world using just their passport. They might not realise it, but there are many people from less developed countries who actually need a visa just to enter a country for any amount of time, even a short vacation or tourist trip.

The 90-Day Rule

Thanks to friendly ties with European Union member states, Americans can enter the Schengen Zone for a period of up to 90 days using just their passport. However, if an American wants to stay in France for more than 90 days, he will need a visa affixed to the inside of his passport specifying his reason for living in France and the duration of his stay.

If your program lasts less than 90 days, you can visit France using just your passport, but you will need to leave the Schengen Zone when that time has passed or you risk being deported (and prevented from returning).

If your program lasts longer than 90 days (and it most likely will if you’re studying during a semester as opposed to a summer program), you will need to obtain the French Long Stay Visa. The good news about this is that once the visa expires, you may still travel freely within the Schengen Zone for 90 more days.

Obtaining the French Visa

Hold on to your patience because this is going to take a while, which is why you need to start this process at least 3 months before you leave for France. There are two parts to the whole affair (possibly three if you’re staying for a really long time), but for now, we’ll focus on the two major parts.

Part 1: CampusFrance

CampusFrance is a sort of national database of all foreign students in France at any given time. You will need to create a Pastel account with them in order to receive a document which you will bring to the French consulate, but more on that later.

Like many French websites, CampusFrance is rather poorly designed and given to weird quirks, but they have kindly provided this PowerPoint presentation to walk you through the process. Some of the fields in the application will not apply to you as an American student (the “scholarships” field, for example), so you may leave them blank.

As of this writing, once you have validated your application, you’ll need to send in the $100 money order made out to “MCUFEU,” a copy of that money order, and a letter of acceptance or proof of enrollment from your institution. According to CampusFrance:

This should be a copy of your official acceptance letter or acknowledgment of enrollment, addressed to you and mentioning your full name. It should be printed on institutional letterhead and specify the exact beginning and ending dates (day, month, year) of your academic program, including full contact information for the individual issuing the offer or acknowledgment, as well as the full address of the educational institution.

For students taking part in an exchange program between an American and a French institution, the acceptance letter may be issued from either institution. The formal exchange agreement should be identified in the letter.

For students enrolling in an American study-abroad program in France (operated by an American institution), the acceptance letter must come from the American institution.

You should mail these documents to

Campus France
4101 Reservoir Rd NW
Washington D.C. 20007

Once that is finished, you will need to check your Pastel account’s inbox periodically over the next month to receive a a confirmation email and proof that they have received your money order. You will print that email out and bring it with you to your French consulate appointment (don’t worry, the email itself tells you what to print).

Part 2: The French Consulate Appointment

Because of the size of the United States, not only does France have an embassy in Washington, D.C., they also have consulates all over the country.

Map of French consulates

General Consulates of France: Atlanta|Boston|Chicago|Houston|Los Angeles|Miami|New Orleans|New York|San Francisco|Washington

You will need to make an appointment at the consulate for your region of the United States. French consulates do not allow you to walk in; they are government offices with security, and due to the high volume of applicants, they cannot accommodate people without appointments.

You cannot book an appointment more than 90 days before your program start date. Ideally, you would schedule your appointment at least 2 months before you leave the United States, though this can be difficult if they are booked full. You should take the earliest available appointment, and if the only one is a couple of weeks before you leave, call the consulate and (very politely) explain your situation to them. They will often work to move your appointment back, though you should also keep an eye on their website’s calendar for any openings.

French Press TIP: If you attend a university in a different jurisdiction than your permanent address, you can sometimes apply at the consulate which covers your school’s address, but you will need to put your school’s address in your CampusFrance application the FIRST time you fill it out. While the address can be changed within your CampusFrance profile, they only keep the one you first signed up with on record.

What to bring to your visa appointment:

Each consulate is slightly different, but fortunately (as of this writing in 2014), French consulates accept faxed/copied documents instead of requiring originals. If you click on the link to your consulate above, you can find an entire checklist of documents you’ll need to bring with you to the appointment.

Generally, this includes:

  • The application for a visa from the consulate website (printed)
  • Residence form from the consulate website (printed)
  • Your passport
  • Your CampusFrance attestation email (printed)
  • An ID photo (you can have one taken at Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, the post office, etc.)
  • A letter of acceptance/proof of enrollment from the institution where you’ll be studying (Note: this must include your full name, the address of the school, and the dates of your program).
  • Proof of financial support while in France (this can be as simple as a notarised Word document from your parent, spouse, employer, etc. stating that they will provide you with a monthly allowance of around 615 EUR, though you should check the consulate website to see how much you should be guaranteed for)
  • Your credit/debit card for the visa processing fee (this is different from the $100 money order you sent to CampusFrance and varies by location; check your consulate website for details)
  • A self-addressed, pre-paid envelope with a tracking number from FedEx, UPS, USPS, etc.) for them to return your passport to you.

French Press NOTE: This list is not exhaustive; the French consulate will be the final authority on all required documents and fees.

 What to expect at your visa appointment:

You will not be able to bring any visitors with you into the consulate itself. In my experience, the one in Houston was basically a suite in an office building with a small waiting room and a couple of windows where you will conduct your interview with one of the French foreign ministry workers.

You should bring a large envelope with all of your documents as well as a copy of each one for your own records. They will likely take your photo for the visa itself and ask you a few questions about why you are studying in France. Don’t expect them to be terribly friendly; they are there to process you as quickly as possible, and being French on top of it, well… just expect the whole affair to be rather brusque.

The whole process won’t take longer than 15 minutes, at which point, you will leave your passport with them (they will mail it back to you using the pre-paid envelope you provide). It may take up to a month or slightly longer for them to return your envelope to you, which is why it is imperative to book an appointment as early as possible. However, I have had my passport arrive at my house literally the Friday before my plane departed for France the following Tuesday. As long as they know when you will arrive in France, they are generally pretty good about getting your passport to you in time, but be prepared to come down to the wire. I would highly recommend purchasing refundable or transferrable plane tickets in the unlikely– though possible– event that you do not receive your passport in time.

Final Thoughts

The visa process is by far the most arduous and nerve-wracking part of the whole preparation stage, so keep calm and trust your checklist. Once you have your visa in your passport, the biggest administrative hurdle is passed, and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the flight!

Studying Abroad in France: Getting Started

Where or What?

The first thing you’ll need to do is decide whether where you study or what you study is more important to you.

If you’re already enrolled at a university in the United States or Canada, you’re probably on some sort of degree track, which means that if you want to graduate on time (whatever that means for you), you’ll have to take certain courses which will count for credit toward your degree. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to limit you too much as to your choices of where you’ll study abroad since with a little research, you can probably find a program that works with your degree in almost any major city in France.

Of course, if you’re really dead set on experiencing Bordeaux or Paris or Strasbourg for themselves, you could just take an extended vacation there, but often your best bet in this sort of situation is to take French language classes since they will almost always count toward a degree back home.

Which Program?

You’ll then have to decide on a program– whether faculty led, independent study, third-party provider, reciprocal exchange… The options can be overwhelming, so your study abroad office on your home university’s campus should be your first stop to gathering information about the programs available to you.

Many times, American universities will have well-established programs with partner institutions abroad, or they will have good working relationships with third-party companies like CEA who provide their own academic programs. For the first time traveler, a program led by a faculty member from your home university or a third-party program provider is a good bet, since they tend to provide more onsite support and planning (CEA, for example, offers all-encompassing package programs for a lump sum which includes pre-departure advising, housing, airport pickup, onsite staff, and more).

For the more seasoned globetrotter, a reciprocal exchange or independent study program will likely give you a more fulfilling experience and can save a lot of money by cutting out services and amenities you may not need if you already know how to live abroad.

Course Approval

Whatever you decide, you’ll need to start applying at least a semester in advance of when you want to study abroad, and you will need to visit your academic advisor at some point in order to get his/her approval for the courses you will take while abroad.

French Press TIP: Be sure to get more classes approved than you will actually take since course schedules can conflict with each other, classes can be dropped based on student interest or professor availability, or other unexpected changes. This will ensure that what you are able to take will still count for credit at home.

The time it takes to plan a semester abroad takes just as much time as you will spend in France once you’re there, so get going early, and brace yourself: it involves a fair amount of legwork, but the rewards are definitely worth it.

Next up: Everything you ever wanted to know about student visas for France

In Memoriam W. Tim Bartlett, Jr.

Tim photo

It was two years ago that my beloved Mr. Brian Jacques passed away. Now, I find myself saying goodbye to another man with a more personal connection to my life.

For the past twenty-eight years, my mother has worked with Mr. W. “Tim” Bartlett, Jr., owner of Bartlett’s restaurant in Austin. Since I last posted, I began working part-time at the restaurant as a greeter, but I grew up knowing Mr. Bartlett more as a friend than as a boss.

On the morning of February 2, 2013, Tim passed away peacefully in his sleep at only 61 years of age. I had spoken to him less than 24 hours before my mom broke the news to me on Saturday morning, and– needless to say– the announcement has been quite a blow to all of us at the restaurant.

Mr. Bartlett was “the best boss in the world,” according to many who have worked under his command, and I can personally attest that he has always taken care of not just my mom for her service to his business, but everyone who makes up the larger Bartlett’s family. Despite being the owner of a successful, upscale restaurant, Tim was always present in his place of business, never above helping out with a broom and dustpan or personally attending to his regular guests who came to support their favorite local restaurateur. Just a few weeks ago, while I was in the process of buying my first car, Tim was only too eager to connect me with his used-car dealer friend, even offering to go look at vehicles with me.

The suddenness of Tim’s death is, I think, both a blessing and a curse: the former because he was up and about in his restaurant, chatting with regulars just the day before he went instead of languishing through a terminal illness; the latter because of his youth and our inability to properly bid him adieu.

Mr. Bartlett’s death has reminded me of this quote by William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

I am happy to say that in all the years I knew him, Tim embodied this philosophy to a “T.” His passing has reminded me of the fragility of life and its fleetingness, of the words we will hear next week on Ash Wednesday that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and of the importance of doing our very best, expressing our love, and living our lives with energy and passion as did Mr. Bartlett.

Thank you, Tim, for everything. We will miss you even while your spirit carries on in the restaurant that bears your name here below, but I can’t wait to join you with the best of company at the eternal feast soon.

You can read Mr. Bartlett’s obituary in the Austin-American Statesman here.

Balancing Big Picture Brainstorming with Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Photo via ecooper99 Flickr

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but have you ever felt that you couldn’t see the individual trees because you were too occupied taking in the whole forest?

Sometimes, in the brainstorming phases of writing, the ideas are flowing, the big idea is clear in our mind’s eye, and we have no problem seeing the overall theme or message we want to convey. We might be going along with our day when we get a cool idea for a story; initially, everything seems to make sense, but when we sit down to really begin planning each scene, the going can get pretty tough.

It’s not often that I’ve liked getting into the details of any project, whether it’s planning a retreat, crunching the numbers on a new purchase, or even plotting a book. My high school English teacher once told me that I was a “big picture” person or an “ideas” person, which explains my aversion to doing math, and it’s true that I have always found mathematical concepts fascinating– whether I’m learning calculus or discussing quantum physics with my engineering friends– but I simply can’t be bothered to actually work out the details. This is hardly surprising, as I am an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgemental) personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test, and my intuition and preference for holistic thinking lends itself to generating concepts rather than concrete details.

This way of thinking is necessary for most endeavors, especially writing; after all, you have to know what you want to say before you can properly say it.

However, there is a Japanese proverb which states,

“Vision without action is a fantasy… action without vision is a nightmare.”

There are a lot of would-be writers who seem to have no shortage of ideas for the next big thing but who never seem to act on that vision and write. On the other hand, a quick trip through Amazon’s indie published titles reveals that there are just as many people with the ability to hammer out a book but who seemingly have no vision directing their writing.

It would be too easy to say, “Well, I’m a visionary. I’m just no good at the nitty gritty.” And frankly, this seems rather lazy. Writing is a particular business, and it takes a rare breed of person– one who possesses both the free-spirited creativity necessary for generating ideas and the analytical, no-nonsense practicality of organisation and discipline– to do it well.

It’s true that we all have differing balances of right and left brain proclivities, but there are ways we can leverage our strengths to help shore up the areas where we’re weak and to trick our brains into thinking they’re playing when the task at hand would normally seem like work.

For example, yesterday, while I was feeling particularly stuck with plotting my current WIP, I did something I’ve never done before. Usually, I resort to mindmapping, but this time, I just began writing down impressions and words connected to the scene I had in mind without circling or drawing connections between them. In this way, I created a sort of “cloud” where I could see the overall “feel” of the scene I needed to write, but I didn’t bother trying to draw connections between them until my subconscious tired out and the flow of ideas dried up.


In the past, at this point, I would have probably tried to jump into writing the scene, but the problem is that I still only have an impression: I can kind of see what the scene needs to be, but it remains shimmering, effervescent, and vague.

So instead, I then turned to a new page in my notebook and, still in that creative state of mind, began writing in linear fashion the progression of events in the scene. I was still pulling ideas from the air, but now that I had an impression of what the scene would be, it was easier to focus my creativity into coming up with individual events that would be plausible within the scene. Now, I have a list of targets to hit as I progress through writing the first draft.


I like to think of this method of brainstorming as “telescoping,” much the same way you can go to Google Earth and look at a map of the whole United States to get the big picture, then you can zoom in to your particular city to see the roadmap of where you’re going, and finally, you can enter Street View to get an on-the-ground perspective.

Similarly, we can first come up with the big idea for what we want to write, then we can organise those ideas into something resembling a roadmap for the draft, and finally, when it comes time to write the prose, we put ourselves actively into the scene and fill in the details on the level of sentences and paragraphs.

I’m going to tweak this method and see how it works for other scenes, but for now, I feel much more prepared to write the first draft.

How do you go about planning a piece? How would your process differ for blog posts versus fiction? Do you prefer to work backwards, writing scenes from the ground up and later organising them into a big idea for a story?

Pure, unadulterated France

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