I Have Spent More On Highway Tolls Than Shopping In France

Yes.  That title, although said, is true.  Let me explain.

While some highways and bridges in the US need of repair, our highway system is pretty extensive.  For the most part, it’s cheap or free.  Switzerland got a late start building their highway system.  They haven’t even finished it yet.  In typical Swiss fashion, it is extraordinarily engineered and well maintained.  Their infrastructure is impressive; our visitors are always amazed by the tunnels.  Some of it is also rigged to blow.    Foreigners who drive through Switzerland complain about having to pay for vignettes, stickers that allow the vehicle to travel on Swiss highways.  You purchase them at the border (or at the post office) for 40 CHF and they are good all year.

Not surprisingly, they do things a bit differently in France.  Here are some of the main differences:

Highways in France require paying tolls.  Lots of them.  I can’t remember exactly how much we spent in tolls heading from Geneva to the south of France and back, but it was well over 100 Euro and probably more like 200 Euro.  It was too painful to tabulate and made Switzerland’s 40 CHF vignette look like a bargain.

Highways in France are privatized.  Therefore, if your car happened to break down on one,  your auto service cannot come get you.  Only certain specified highway-approved tow trucks are allowed to come get your car.  I learned this little tidbit of information the hard way.  In case you were wondering, you must always pay the toll when exiting the highway… even when your car exits on the back of a truck.

Rest areas in France are a little different than in North Carolina.  They serve real food… and wine.  I was busy worrying about my car and chatting with the police, the tow truck driver, etc., so I didn’t partake (not that I had to worry about driving in the near future).  It looked pretty tasty.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: Alain Bachellier)

On some highways in France, they have wildlife overpasses (also known as wildlife crossings) for animals to cross the highway.  A practice in habitat conservation, it connects habitats, countering fragmentation.  They also help prevent animals from entering onto the highway, avoiding the resulting accidents.   Below is a photo of one of them.  Sorry I couldn’t take one, but I was busy driving.  It’s handy to avoid the scene above…or worse.

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au pa...

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au passage de la faune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Kickin’ It With The Dropkick Murphys At The Caribana Festival

In Charlotte, North Carolina we bemoaned Tuesday night concerts.  In Geneva, we just want someone, anyone to come play nearby.  When we saw that the Dropkick Murphys on the bill at the Caribana Festival in nearby Crans-Sur-Nyon, we immediately bought tickets. We see them every chance we get and they always put on a great show.  It was nice not to have to hop a plane to see some good ol’ punk rock-n-roll like we did for Groezrock.

We weren’t the only ones who were pumped. This guy was really cool. So were his friends.

He left work (gasp) at five and we got there early.  It took awhile for the punks to arrive and we were able to get in the first row.   Although a lot of people came specifically to see the Dropkick Murphys, the Caribana Festival has a diverse selection of artists (Lou Reed, Kasabian, Pony Pony Run Run, The Specials, Beth Ditto, Marina & the Diamonds, Gossip, Haight Ashbury, Stephen Marley).

Our view was amazing and I was cursing that I didn’t bring my real camera.  We did so much jumping and fist pumping that it wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway.  It wasn’t too crowded up front.  He even felt good enough to leave me up there and mix it up in the mosh pit.  He reported that it was a little tamer than in the US.

Al Barr had tons of energy.  We couldn’t believe James Lynch was right in front of us!

Stephanie Dougherty did a great job.  We saw her walking around before the show.  I got a picture of the back of her head in front of the tour busses.  I should have asked her to pose for a photo.  She was watching from backstage and looked toward us.  I mouthed “you rock” and she smiled.  It’s nice to know that I can make someone besides the Queen of Sweden smile.

Ken Casey was amazing.  We’d seen this guy in a wheelchair crowd surfing earlier in the concert.  Ken got out into the crowd and passed him the mike to sing “Kiss Me, I’m S***faced.”  When he was back on solid land, Ken went out into the middle of the circle pit where he was mixing it up to sing next to him.  That guy was impressive.  Heck, they both were.

Our new friend holding a setlist.  We got one too.  Score.

Why I Love Running

I had a bad day yesterday.  It was crushing.  After bawling for a few minutes, I decided should just go for a good long run because it never fails to make me feel better and clear my head.  On the run, I saw Mont Blanc behind lush, green fields and thought “god, I love this.”

Here’s why I love to run:

  1. There are no shortcuts.  What you get out of it is what you put into it.
  2. I am a nicer person when I’ve run all the piss and vinegar out of me.  I swear it’s true, just ask him.
  3. I love how train running forces me to be in the moment.  To avoid roots, holes, etc.  I must be hyper-aware of my surroundings.  My brain can’t make grocery lists or worry about trivialities.  That being said…  While I am thinking about getting up the hill, my subconscious works on things.
  4. Running clears my mind.  I solve problems, write blog posts, prioritize…
  5. I am almost a midget little person.  There aren’t many activities where I get to feel physically powerful, running is one of them.  Catching (and dropping) a couple of big, strong guys running up a giant hill yesterday brought me my first smile of the run (FYI, Switzerland isn’t flat).
  6. You don’t have to be pretty or dress up.  Most of my favorite things to do necessitate a shower and don’t require makeup.  Running, cycling, hiking, painting, skiing, gardening…you get the idea.
  7. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to run.  Even when my day is bad, if I am still healthy enough and safe enough to have the opportunity to run. It reminds me that I am pretty lucky.
  8. Gettin’ high.  Who doesn’t love themselves some runner’s high?
  9. You don’t have to wait for the gym to open.  You don’t even need a gym membership.  There’s no fancy equipment.  All you need is a good sports bra (or two if you are double-bagging) and you are off and running…literally.
  10. I love being outside.  It is a great way to experience beautiful places.  Some of my favorite runs have been on vacations, but I could probably wax have waxed nostalgic about my high school cross-country course too.
  11. Running has taught me how to break down a big task into smaller manageable ones.  A marathon training program is a series of smaller activities that add up to something huge.
  12. Energy begets energy.  It’s true.
  13. I have no natural gift for running, but the longer I do it, the better I get.  I am one of those who will have to age into her Boston Marathon qualifying time.  I’m okay with that.  I should be so lucky as to be the last woman standing running.
  14. I love to eat and would be overweight if I didn’t exercise.  Period.
  15. Better nutrition.  Running also helps me to make healthy choices.  I may not be smart, but I learn from my mistakes.  Eating fried pickles (dipped in copious amounts of ranch and bleu cheese) and sweet potato fries (dipped in honey mustard) for dinner the night before a long run was a mistake I will only make once.  I don’t eat as much crap when I know it will feel like it (yes crap, a pile of steaming poo) on the next day’s run.  Decent food nourishes me and allows me to have the energy, the stamina to do long runs.
  16. The camaraderie.  In Geneva, I have run by myself.  Our incessant traveling has gotten in the way of joining a weekend running group.  It is better for the blog, but worse for socializing.  In North Carolina I used to gleefully hop out of bed well before dawn to go meet my running group.  I am not a morning person and can’t function without a cup of coffee, but even without coffee I would be excited to go (and not just for the caffeine in the GU’s).
  17. It’s a challenge.  Challenges are good for us.  They teach us how to push ourselves beyond our limits.  Running has taught me about strength, how to push myself, that I am capable of more and how complaining doesn’t help (even if I still do it).  Trying something new and pushing beyond our comfort zone, even if it is hard, is good for us. It can also be habit-forming tackling one challenge makes me want to tackle others.
  18. I am always happier at the end of the run than at the beginning.  It is (almost) never because the run is over.  Running is a great stress reliever.
  19. I love the sense of accomplishment.  Even if I did nothing else productive during the day, knocking out some miles is a measurable, quantifiable accomplishment.
  20. It is something that I do for me.  I like to help others, but running is something I do because I love it.  There aren’t many things (or weren’t until we started travelling so much) that I do just because I want to.
  21. I love a good project.  Training for a race, particularly a marathon, is definitely a good project.
  22. It’s easy.  I am short and have no coordination.  You don’t even want me in right field.  Any sport with a moving ball is out of the question.  Running = a sport for the uncoordinated.
  23. It is a great way to explore.  I have learned how to navigate Geneva and the surrounding area not by studying a map, but by running its streets.  I am constantly intrigued by what I see.  Sometimes I even run back with a camera to take pictures of cool stuff for the blog.
  24. It is supposed to be good for my health.
  25. Running here, I get to see more men in spandex.
  26. Who doesn’t love an hour (or more) with a rockin’ playlist?

Sorry, the photo above is an old pic. I didn’t bring my camera.  I should have.  Yesterday was clearer and even more beautiful.

The Hunger Games Filming Locations In North Carolina

We used to live in North Carolina and have been to many of the areas where the new movie, The Hunger Games, were filmed.

From http://www.worldatlas.com, Courtesy of GraphicMaps.com

The arena scenes were filmed in Asheville, North Carolina.  It is way cooler than your average quaint little tourist town.  Asheville‘s vibrant streets are filled with cool restaurants, cute shops, art galleries and a large number of good microbreweries.  If you visit, check out:

  • The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home, is located there.
  • The same people who built the Biltmore also built the Grove Park Inn.  Its Sunset Terrace, a massive back porch, is situated for an optimal view of the sunset over the mountains.
  • Located in the Appalachian Mountains, there are tons of great hiking and outdoor activities nearby.
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the world’s most beautiful drives also runs through the mountains nearby.

Other scenes were filmed at the North Fork Reservoir near Black Mountain (not far from Asheville).

Capitol scenes were filmed in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Shallow Hal, The Patriot, and Leatherheads were also shot in Charlotte.

If you are in Charlotte, stop at the US National Whitewater Center.  Our favorite places to eat there are:

Capitol scenes were also filmed in the nearby town Concord, North Carolina.  Concord is best known for its giant NASCAR track, the races held there and its role as the center of the NASCAR industry.  Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was filmed there.  Homeland, a show popular in the US right now, is also filmed there.

There were outdoor scenes filmed at one of our favorite hiking spots at the DuPont State Forest, North Carolina.  The Last of the Mohicans was also filmed here.   Some of the movie’s most climactic scenes were filmed at its majestic waterfalls.

District 12 is actually Hildebran, Shelby (eat at  Bridge’s Barbecue if you go)  and another one of our favorite hiking spots, the Pisgah National Forest.

 

How To Explain March Madness To A Foreigner

U.S. President Barack Obama picks his winners ...

U.S. President Barack Obama picks his winners for the 2009 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We moved from North Carolina, where the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is practically a public holiday, to Geneva, which doesn’t even have a European league (or any other quasi-professional team).  While some of our friends are American, most are not.  Some friends may know that something called the “Super Bowl” exists.  Heck, they may even know a bit about it.  However, even basketball fans over here don’t know about March Madness.  We have found it is surprisingly difficult to explain to a foreigner the frenzy that overtakes America, why it’s such a big deal and how the NCAA Tournament works.
Basketball

Basketball (Photo credit: mvongrue)

 

March Madness is a basketball tournament for college teams put on by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA).  If you try to read up on it, know that it is also called “The Tournament,” “The Big Dance,” “The Road to the Final Four,” and even “The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”  While it seems basic, trust me when I say that using such lingo will trip up a non-native English speaker who hasn’t lived in the US.

 

The fun starts the week before the tournament when college basketball conferences play their tournaments to determine a champion.  The winner of each conference championship tournament automatically gains entry to the NCAA tournament (“get their ticket/invitation to the dance” is slang used to describe this).  This means that a team with a poor record who wouldn’t normally “get an invitation to the dance” can make it into the tournament by winning their league’s tournament.  This is a huge opportunity for some teams.  Almost every year, you see a team break down crying after winning their league’s tournament because that win just earned them a chance to compete in March Madness.

 

The “Madness” starts after the last league championship game when the teams that will compete in the tournament are announced.  This always occurs on a Sunday evening in early March.  This day is known as “Selection Sunday”.   American TV will show teams huddled together in front of a TV waiting to hear their name announced as an entrant.  The TV cameras show the teams cheering, hugging each other, dancing, or even breaking into song.

 

The winners of their respective conferences automatically make it into the tournament.   A selection committee composed of select university athletic directors and conference commissioners choses the other entrants.  They use criteria like the team’s record, the number of wins against ranked opponents, the number of wins on the road and the team’s ranking in determining which teams to invite.  There is always controversy over teams people believe should have been invited or left out.  Regardless, once they announce the Tournament entrants, things really get crazy.

 

 

To understand this madness, you need to understand how the tournament works.  Originally, 64 teams received invitations to the tournament.  4 seeded regions are divided into groups of 16 teams each.  In each region, teams are assigned a “seed” number 1 through 16 based on their perceived skills.  The best team in each region is awarded the 1 seed and the weakest, the number 16.  In each bracket, the number 1 team plays the number 16 team, the number 2 team plays the number 15 team, and so on.  It is a single elimination tournament, so a single loss means you are out (unlike the World Cup).  Each round cuts the number of teams in half (64 to 32 to 16 to 8 to 4 to 2).  A win means advancing to the next round, a loss means crying and a trip home.

 

Each of the more advanced stages of the tournament has its own nickname.  The second round of the tournament is known as the Sweet Sixteen.  The next stage, with 8 remaining teams, is known as the Elite Eight.  The following games, where only 4 teams remain, is known as the Final Four.   The Tournament’s last game is known as “the final” or “the finals”.

 

Immediately flowing Selection Sunday’s announcement of the Tournament’s teams, papers and the internet publish the brackets.   Almost as instantaneously, the gambling begins.  The NCAA is proud that their athletes are “ametuers” and likes to tout it, but they (and the universities involved) make a lot of money off the tournament’s popularity.  As a result, they do little to discourage it.   Just about every office has a pool (or several).  Families have pools.  Friends have pools.  It’s not unusual for people to enter multiple pools.  Although there is a large about of informal gambling among friends, Vegas and professional gamblers really go nuts.  There, you can bet on almost any aspect of the tournament.   People pack Vegas’s sports betting parlors of Vegas casinos to watch the games on giant screens (and gamble).

 

It is extremely difficult to predict each game’s winners in such a large, single elimination tournament.  Usually the winner of a pool correctly picks the final four teams.  It helps to correctly pick most of the winners at the Sweet Sixteen level as well.  Here’s another vocabulary term for you non-American English speakers, the science or art of picking the winning teams (in a bracket) is known as Bracketology.

 

 

In theory, a number 16 seed can win the tournament.  In reality, it has never happened.  While the 1 and 2 seeds typically survive into to least the third round, half of the number 3 seeds are typically eliminated in the second round.  Inevitably a low seeded team (or two) will, unexpectedly, advance a few rounds.  When this happens, they are known as Cinderella’s (like the fairy tale).  Cinderella’s rarely make it to the final games, but they garner tons of attention and support as Americans love to root for an underdog. 

 

The Tournament begins in earnest on Thursday.  In recent years, to include more teams, the NCAA introduced play-in games.  In these games, two teams play for to be a 16 seed.  These games take place on Tuesday and Wednesday before the regular tournament.

 

 

Starting at 12:00 on Thursday, everyone is glued to the nearest television.  On Thursday and Friday,  teams play all the first round games.  This means that there are 32 (mostly) outstanding basketball games in 36 hours.  People gather to watch them and coverages switches from game to game televising the most exciting games.

 

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

 

On Saturday and Sunday, there are another 16 games (the second round).  People gather to watch the games together.  One year we watched our low-ranked Michigan State Spartans battle it out to beat (upset) a more highly ranked opponent.  We watched it in a room with over a hundred other fans and two projection TV’s.  Each time our team scored, there were screams, high fives, and even hugging.  This energy and comradery is one of the reasons we love the Tournament.

 

We hope to stay on speaking terms with our friends in Geneva (who are from Kentucky) after March.  If not, it was nice knowing you.*

 

Kentucky is a big-time basketball school and they are big-time fans.  We are Michigan State fans.  If these two teams play each other in the tournament, it could be the end of our friendship. 🙂

 

 

 

Being An Expat Makes It A Little Easier To Be A Detroit Lions Fan

I love him.  One of the things that I love about him is his commitment.  When he commits to something, he always follows through.  He is not the kind of guy who switches to something newer, flashier or trendier once he has fallen in love with something (which bodes well for me).  As a small child, before he knew any better, he fell in love with the Detroit Lions.

The Detroit Lions have been one of the, if not the, worst franchise in all of professional sports (other articles about what a poor franchise they aremorethis one with financial info).

  • They have never made it to the Super Bowl.
  • They have only won one playoff game since 1957.
  • In 2008, they set a record by going 0-16.
  • The best running back ever, Barry Sanders, prefered to retire young rather than to continue to play for the team (and did it just short of breaking Walter Payton‘s rushing record).

When we were in North Carolina, he would get the Sunday Ticket just so he could watch the Lions play. He and his friend Steamer would watch every game (usually right at 1:00 p.m. because the Lions aren’t good enough to play later in the day).  In 9 years, I don’t think he missed more than about one game and that was when he was travelling.  He even watched every game in the disastrous 2008 season (see above).

 
Every week, he and Steamer would shout at the TV, complain about the Lions, dream of what should have been and look like someone had just kicked their dog.
In the offseason, they talk (usually with their brothers and other Lions fans) about the possibilities and potential for next season. Despite the abysmal track record, they are excited and hopeful that something will change and the next season will be good. Maybe they will be able to make the playoffs?  Even to them, a Super Bowl seems a bit unrealistic.

Yesterday, about 2:00 a.m. our time*, the Lions played the formidable New Orleans Saints in New Orleans in the playoffs.  If the Lions had won their previous game they would have had an easier game against the New York Giants.  Instead, they had to play the New Orleans Saints who won the Super Bowl in 2010 and still have some of the players from that team.  They are known to be hard to beat at home.  He was not optimistic.

Here, we are not surrounded by American Football.  If we didn’t seek it out, we could go months (or longer) without ever seeing evidence that the sport exists. This morning, the first thing he did when he got up was check the score.   After seeing the Lions lost (45-28), he did not watch the game.  Being over here spared him the game’s frustration, agony and humiliation (or at least it did until I posted this).

*Thank you to those who called at 2:00 a.m. to make sure we were watching the game.  Although we miss you, we’d spent the day falling on our butts (aka skiing).  We were sleeping like rocks and didn’t even hear it ring.  Sorry.



 

My Uncle Mame

I am trying not to embarrass anyone by writing about them.  That being said, some people are so important to my life that I can’t imagine ignoring them.  One of these people is my Uncle Mame (not his real name).* When I left North Carolina, I did not head directly to Switzerland.  I did something even better.   I saw Uncle Mame.  I am so glad that I am able to see him before I leave.

Here are a few reasons why Uncle Mame is Marvellous:

  • He loves my husband.
  • While he shall always remain 30ish in my eyes, he is not. Nevertheless, you can take him to a Gogol Bordello concert and he will fit right in.  He showed up decked out in American Apparel and ready to have a great time.  It was epic.
  • He is a very talented artist. He has an amazing eye and has taught me tons.  He even bought me my first art set when I was little. When he showed me Broadway Boogie Woogie and explained it to me, I fell in love with art.
  • He likes to do new and different things (horseback riding in NC).
  • He is good with languages and will chat up anyone from anywhere.
  • He loves kids and gets a kick out of them.  Growing up, he always made my sister and I feel special.
  • Wise like Yoda he is.
  • He likes to laugh.  If you hang out with him you are guaranteed to do so.

* I am trying to give everyone an alias to protect the both the innocent and the not so innocent.

 


 

Dear Charlotte

Dear Charlotte,

Thank you for all of the good times over the past nine years.  We will miss you. As we sit here at the airport(frantically taking care of last minute details), we are afraid to think too much about leaving you.  We worry that if we do, we will start crying and fall apart.  Hopefully we will see you again soon.

Love,

Us

 

 

Getting Ready to Say Goodbye to NC

Enjoy the gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Instead of relaxing and enjoying North Carolina, we are frantically preparing to leave.  The list of things to accomplish seems to grow instead of shrink.

Mom came over and helped clean the house to ensure everything is tidy and in order before we leave.  I need to change our addresses on our bills, sell my car and a host of other really boring things.

If we don’t get to see you before we leave, we are sorry.  Please keep in touch.

FYI – After the previous post, we have given up on the slanted Aerobed and have moved to the neighbor’s spare bed.