Monday, 10 April 2017

Five Places to Visit in Paris in Spring

Spring has sprung in Paris..! Probably my favourite time of the year in Paris, Spring has this magical fairy tale effect on the city, like we needed yet another reason to be swept off our feet hey..? 

Blush pink cherry blossoms cover the skies, beautiful magnolias bloom from their branches, delicate little petals resembling rose pink snowflakes cloak the ground and the hint of warm sunshine and clear blue skies gently awaken us from our Winter hibernation.

While there are many stunning places to visit in Paris during Spring, here are my top five unmissable recommendations.

1. The Eiffel Tower

Sure it's been done to death but who can resist having one of these photos on your camera roll for a pretty Parisian keepsake...?

My Love for Paris tip: If you are facing the Eiffel Tower with the giant park behind you, head to the left side where you will find a big magnolia tree. There you'll be able to capture a shot like this from below the tree. Head to the right from the same central position to find the other different coloured blossoms.

2. Parc de Sceaux

I've dedicated a whole blog post about this well hidden Parisian secret. It is a little further out from central Paris but easily accessible by RER if you have a spare afternoon up your sleeve. Definitely worth the trek to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

My Love for Paris tip: Drop by a supermarket and grab some picnic essentials to make the most of your afternoon amongst the cherry blossom trees.

3. Notre Dame Cathedral

If you are directly behind the Notre Dame Cathedral, head to your left towards the water but don't cross the bridge just yet. Keep walking towards the front of the cathedral and you'll find a little sandpit and benches and a beautiful big cherry blossom tree to sit underneath.

My Love for Paris tip: Grab an almond croissant (my favourite!) from your local boulangerie and shotgun a seat under the cherry blossom tree for some people watching - the kids playing in the sandpit are super cute to watch (in the most non-watching-kids-on purpose way of course..!).

4. Jardin du Palais Royal

This was where we attended our very first Diner en Blanc event! 

Magnolia heaven is all I can say.

My Love for Paris tip: Bring along your current book. This place is much more peaceful with lots of seating available on the park grounds. Escape the crowds, opt out on the people watching from above and just enjoy a quiet moment under the magnolia flowers to yourself.

5. Saint Germain des Prés

And finally, another cherry blossom spot in Paris. This one you'll be more likely to find locals than tourists.

My Love for Paris tip: Make the most of this spot by escaping the tourist dense areas and visit the surrounding Saint Germain des Prés quartier.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Wedding in Paris

I originally never planned for any of this to happen. Truth be told, I had decided to move to Paris to ACTUALLY BE SINGLE. I had needed (another) change in my life having moved back to Australia from a stint in London and came across a "now or never" moment at the end of my twenties. The Working Holiday Maker visa for Australians to spend a year in France had an age limit of 18-30 attached to it. I was 30 when I received my visa for Paris. 

However, my plans to spend a year in Paris quickly changed when Frenchie and I became serious. We had met randomly, in a bar in Oberkampf, 6 hours before I was about to hop on a plane and fly out to Stockholm the next morning. What started out as a chance meeting and two follow up dates a month later surprisingly developed into a long distance relationship between Adelaide, Australia and Paris, France that lasted a year. All this taking place AFTER I had already decided to move to Paris to be single which I was never able to do funnily enough.  

Fast forward 3.5 years from when I arrived in Paris in July 2012, I was walking down the aisle ready to tie the knot with that very random Frenchie I had met for a few hours in a bar in Oberkampf. It was Saturday the 12th of September 2015 (yes I know this blog post is ridiculously late!) and we were at our very own personalised Australian-French-Chinese-Vietnamese wedding.

We survived a year's long distance, overcame numerous language and cultural barriers and misunderstandings, as well as a myriad of other interesting character building experiences to end up exchanging vows that day. Now that I think about it while writing, it is pretty surreal to think that our story ever realised itself. There was the Australian vs French experience, the broader Anglo-Saxon vs Latin experience, the Asian immigrant upbringing vs French upbringing experience. 

I was a 30 year old fiercely independent twice moved countries woman from a fairly left brained logical pharmacist background. He was a 36 year old divorced Frenchman with a daughter coming from a fairly right brained creative musical background. He didn't have plans to re-marry, I didn't have plans to move in with anyone who wasn't serious about our future. So we compromised and got "PACSed" before I agreed to give up a symbol of my independence, my little Parisian flat on the 6th floor (with no lift!) that I loved in the 11th arrondissement. It was a big deal for me.   

So what is getting "PACSed"? 

PACS (pacte civil de solidarité) is a legally binding civil union between two individuals which came into practice in 1999, primarily to give legal status to same-sex couples. However, what we are noticing is that more and more couples (same-sex and opposite-sex) are becoming "PACSed" each year in France. 

How do I describe it? Well, to me it is like a cross between a "boyfriend/partner" and a "husband". Rights and responsibilities still come with a PACS agreement however slightly less when compared to a traditional marriage.

The PACS procedure itself is extremely unromantic. Documents need to be sourced, apostilled, translated and presented at a meeting to a registered clerk at your local court office. You both sign a mutual contract bearing details of your "civil solidarity pact". The preparation takes a while however the process itself is finished within 15 minutes, barely enough time to start gushing and reflect on how you will start the next chapter of your life with your legally binding partner. 

Some couples have PACS celebrations with family and friends, like a mini-wedding while others might have a little photo shoot to commemorate the moment. We just asked the registered clerk to take a (blurry) photo of us and off we went to celebrate on our own.    

What about marriage in France? 

Weddings in France are legally required to be conducted at your local city hall (la mairie). Following this civil ceremony, couples can then get married with a religious ceremony or a secular service however without this civil ceremony, the marriage is not recognised under French law.

Once again, a whole load of paperwork needs to be submitted to the local council including birth certificates, IDs, certificates proving you are not already married, information about your witnesses just to name a few in order for you to register and obtain a time slot to be married. You also need to have lived in your particular commune for at least one month before you can get married there.

We chose to have our civil ceremony with just our family and our two witnesses before having our proper wedding reception a few days later. This was mainly due to the fact that we wanted our wedding to have French, Australian, Chinese and Vietnamese influences and we wouldn't have time to do everything on the same day! Having said that, classic French weddings do normally include the civil ceremony as part of the events of the day.

The civil ceremony is conducted by the mayor or deputy mayor of the commune in front of at least two witnesses. Carried out entirely in French, depending on the commune, the proceeding often requires the witnesses to be able to understand French as well. It lasts around 30 minutes and to my surprise didn't include personal wedding vows. We were read the legally binding acts that defined a marriage in France, signed the papers to officiate our marriage and exchanged our rings before being handed our "livret de famille" - a little maroon "family book" that would stay with us as our family grows.  

And what constitutes a typical French wedding?

A typical French wedding to my knowledge normally consists of firstly, the civil ceremony at the local city hall where everyone can be invited (family, friends, colleagues, neighbours etc..). This is followed by the "vin d'honneur" which is a cocktail event lasting a couple of hours in the afternoon. Canapés and champagne are served and generally speaking people from the civil ceremony attend the vin d'honneur as well.

After the vin d'honneur is when things become a little tricky (in my personal opinion) as the reception which includes the sit down meal has a smaller invite list. Usually, the reception is reserved for family and friends and it is not uncommon to be invited to the civil ceremony and the vin d'honneur but for the sit down meal.

Lastly, sometimes, there may be a brunch organised for the following morning but it's not always the case.

What did we do for our wedding? 

We decided to fuse different cultural elements into our own wedding in order to make it really ours. As I mentioned before, we had the civil ceremony a couple of days prior with just our families and witnesses. On the actual day, we started off with a traditional Asian tea ceremony in the morning. This is where tea is offered by the bride and groom to different members of the families. We walked down the aisle together and remained standing while the elders came pair by pair/one by one to receive and drink the tea we offered and gave us their well wishes. I designed my own dress so that it reflected both a traditional Chinese dress and a traditional Vietnamese dress.

Next up was our Australian secular service. 

I had both my Mum and Dad walk me down the aisle and we had my best friend (who is actually a legal celebrant in Australia) officiate the ceremony. John's friend acted as the translating MC so that both English and French versions were communicated.

We exchanged our personally written vows in French (as that is the language we met in and speak) in front of our family and friends who had travelled from all around the world to witness our special day. This moment for me was what defined our wedding.

Following the Australian secular service, we continued on with the French vin d'honneur in the afternoon in another room. We had delicious catering with flowing canapés, hors d'oeuvres, brut champagne as well as little mini desserts which provided a nice opportunity for guests to chat among each other and get ready for the marathon event that would follow.

A little photo shoot then followed before we seated our guests for the main meal. Now this is where I find it hard to manage French weddings! The vin d'honneur is usually held in the afternoon however by the time you get to the sit down meal, you are already a) a little full from pigging out on the delicious canapés being circulated and/or b) a little tipsy from the early afternoon drinking. What I've found personally is that by the time you sit down for the meal (which includes entrée, main, cheese, dessert) your stomach isn't hungry enough to appreciate all the elements! However maybe the French are used to their long marathon meals growing up. I myself had to really concentrate to stay focused for our 7 hour meal at Christmas with Frenchie's family! 12pm to 7pm I kid you not.

A cheese platter is served following the main course but not in any old way. Platters of 8+ different types of cheese were brought around and guests chose which cheeses and which quantities they wanted to be individually served. Dessert followed after the cheese with a matching demi-sec champagne we had sourced from Champagne, served in another room. The wedding "cake" was a croquembouche, a tall pyramid tower of choux puffs covered in crackly caramel on the outside ready to burst with a soft smooth custard filling on the inside. BUT WAIT THAT'S WAS NOT ALL! Alongside the croquembouche tower, we also had to have two different cakes because one dessert option was (obviously) not enough.

Finally after dessert was served and finished (we are looking at around 11pm-midnight), the dance floor opened and guests stayed on until 4-5am in the morning.

What about the venue and decorations?

After lots of weekends spent venue hunting, we finally chose a manoir about 30 minutes by train from Paris, le Château du Bois La Croix which fitted our budget and personal style. We had plans to have half the wedding outside but it rained non-stop so we moved everything inside last minute! 

All our decorations were hand made, including these upcycled chairs that we found in Cannes on the side of the street. We carried them back to Paris and Frenchie got to repurposing and repainting them. The curtains were sourced from Ikea and the structure was also put together by Frenchie himself.

Our bonbonnières were sourced from an old grandpa-grandma couple we met while visiting a little market in the Loire Valley. They had their own stall where they sold their hand made wine/champagne preserves. Supporting small businesses all the way! 

As for our table decorations - we collected old Bonne Maman jam jars and crème caramel dessert jars, found reasonably priced basic cream coloured candles and ordered our flowers from a florist to put together ourselves the night before.  

And the food and wine?

We went with a local caterer who took care of the vin d'honneur and evening reception meals. Produce was locally sourced and made from scratch, without any unnecessary industrial processes involved. Obviously we hardly ate anything on the day! But we made up for it with the tasting beforehand.

Wine and champagne was of course Frenchie's territory. We spent months and months visiting independent boutique wineries all around France's famous regions to find the perfect wine and champagne pairing. We wanted to once again support small businesses and went out of our way to do so. I learnt a lot during this period. I learnt that my husband has an obsession with champagne and that he was happy to go champagne tasting, in the Champagne region (which is very close to Paris) at 10am in the morning, again and again. I also learnt about the size and effervescence of the bubbles and when to serve a brut champagne and when to serve a demi-sec champagne.

I also learnt that Frenchie was happy to do at least 2000km in the months leading up to the wedding to source the perfect white, a Pouilly-Fumé and the perfect red from Burgundy.   

Hair and make up?

After plenty of research, I went with the lovely Onorine from Honorine Makeup Studios for my hair and make up. I really appreciated Onorine's approach for someone like me who isn't used to wearing much make up. She explained everything she did during the relaxed trial and gave me plenty of different options to make sure I felt comfortable on the big day. I can't stress enough the importance of feeling comfortable on the day. Lucky for me, this was Onorine's priority as well. I wanted a loose, simple side chignon and natural make up that would hold for the long day/night and Onorine delivered!

Dress and accessories?

Like my traditional Chinese-Vietnamese tea ceremony dress that I designed and had made via the Internet (with no fittings!), my wedding dress was also an idea that I came up on my own as well. It was actually a dress with a skirt placed on top. I made sure there were pockets in the skirt that was made, because I love having pockets in my skirts :)

We also chose ethically sourced modest diamonds for the ring from a little small owner-operated business in Paris and my shoes were old shoes from 10 years ago! 

As I look back on our wedding back in 2015, I'm very happy to see how it had turned out. We had a budget to stick to and also we didn't want to go nuts buying up too many things that would later be thrown away. We tried to support as many small owner-operated businesses as we could and tried to source locally, ethically and mindfully.  

Now that I'm finally finishing off this blog post ready to be published, I'm very excited to write that there's a little bébé kicking up a storm in my belly in 2017 and that we are expecting bub's arrival any day now..! 

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

WEEKEND GETAWAYS FROM PARIS - Alsace region (Part 2 : Strasbourg, Colmar, Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr)

Continuing on from our previous post - we finally reached the Alsace region to see France's most famous Christmas markets, the oldest in Europe too. The whole region is incredibly charming, it feels like you have travelled back in time to the Middle Ages or to another era with its characteristic timber framed architecture, to a classic French fairy tale. Here's the essential information:

DESTINATION : Alsace region 

EXACT LOCATIONS : Strasbourg, Colmar, Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr

DURATION : 2.5 days - left Paris Friday afternoon, came back Sunday night (ready for work Monday morning)

DISTANCES AND TRAVEL TIMES : Paris - Nancy (385km, about 4 hours depending on traffic) 
Nancy - Strasbourg (160km, about 2 hours depending on traffic)
Strasbourg - Colmar (73km, about 1 hour depending on traffic)

The other little towns we visited were super close to each other 20-30 minutes max and very easy to reach (trust me you'll spend longer looking for a car park than actually getting there!)

So we started off with Strasbourg as it is the most famous and known as the Christmas capital of France. The old town is a must visit even though it has become a little touristy over the years. Just take a deep breath, be patient for the crowds to pass and imagine yourself there without everyone else around you. You'll be able to take some snaps without too many people in them and recreate memories from there. Each time I look at my photos taken in Strasbourg I don't remember the crowds, instead I remember what my photos reconstruct for me.

Apart from Strasbourg, what's really worth visiting are the little towns that are nearby. We had driven from Nancy to Strasbourg on Saturday morning and spent the day in Strasbourg (tucking into the typical Alsatian dish "flammkuchen", thinly rolled bread dough topped with fromage blanc, creme fraiche, thinly sliced onions and lardons) before heading to Colmar for the night. Colmar is a must see that I cannot recommend enough. After that, we chose three little nearby towns Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr to try and visit. 

We spent Saturday night and Sunday morning in Colmar and surprisingly enough were able to squeeze in all three towns on Sunday before returning to Paris on Sunday night.

Some snaps of the Alsatian Christmas markets at night. Mulled wine, hot chocolate, Christmas lights, hand made arts and crafts as delicious local market food galore!

These are some magical snaps from Colmar - my favourite place in the Alsace region. I woke up to this ridiculously fairy tale like scene outside our window and went nuts. I couldn't believe my eyes. Of course Frenchie and his daughter didn't flinch too much. To them this was considered "normal". NORMAL??! Some people just don't know what magic they have on their doorstep!   

Oh and before I move from Colmar, I have to mention that when we arrived in Colmar on Saturday night, we realised that I had made a booking for the um, wrong YEAR haha. As Strasbourg and the whole Alsace region get booked up really fast during this season, if you're thinking of going make sure you get in fast. I think that's what happened with me when I accidentally booked the dates A YEAR IN ADVANCE haha. 

Luckily as fate had it, we were able to find accommodation last minute due to a family whose car had broken down and weren't going to be able to make it to their accommodation in Colmar. 

Thank goodness the universe had my back..!  

Now put the Alsace region on your list. Like all these posts from the "WEEKEND GETAWAYS FROM PARIS" series, I've shown how it's very doable leaving Friday evening after work and getting back in on Sunday night. Why waste a weekend catching up on the housework when you can visit another region of France, spend your Friday night in a random 13€ per person triple share motel, then the following night scrambling around for last minute accommodation because you'd booked the room for the wrong year haha :)

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

WEEKEND GETAWAYS FROM PARIS - Alsace region (Part 1 : Nancy stopover)

Carrying on from our previous weekend getaway post, here's a quick post about our visit to the Alsace region of France during the Christmas season, via NANCY. I needed to separate it from the others otherwise the Alsace region post would get too big! Here's the essential information:

DESTINATION : Alsace Region via Nancy


DURATION : 2.5 days - left Paris Friday afternoon, came back Sunday night (ready for work Monday morning)

DISTANCES AND TRAVEL TIMES : Paris - Nancy (385km, about 4 hours depending on traffic)

So I've always wanted to visit the Alsace region of France, notably for its famous Christmas markets in Strasbourg and surrounding little cities. We covered more or less everything we wanted in two days - here's how we planned it. Friday afternoon after work, we hopped into the car and drove to Nancy which was on the way to the Alsace region. I didn't expect much, it was just meant to be a quick stopover to break up the drive. I booked a cheap triple share motel for myself, Frenchie and his daughter for 39€ which was clean and more than sufficient for our pit stop. I've always believed that travelling doesn't always require loads of money and this was a prime example of my theory in action. 13€ per person for a night's accommodation was a pretty good deal if I say so myself. 

We arrived late on Friday night after driving for four hours from Paris, checked into our basic motel and headed to the city centre where we were very pleasantly surprised by the UNESCO World Heritage listed Place de Stanislas, decked out in its best Christmas attire. 

Radiating out from the central town square were lots of streets with restaurants and lively bars. We stumbled across a little cheese restaurant (I kid you not it was a restaurant purely devoted to cheese based cuisine) called "La Puce d'Oreille" (literally "The Thumb of the Ear") with several meanings from sensing something to suspecting something. On the windows it advertised "la cuisine de fromage" - cheese cuisine I told you right? And the menu did not lie, tartiflettes, raclettes, cheese fondues - everything cheese related was possible. At 10:30pm we were digging into our raclette and tartiflette dinner. Gooey, melty cheese, potatoes, charcuterie, tart cornichons - all those rich, heavy cold Winter flavours and textures piled up on a plate to keep us warm well after we'd finished our meals.  

Here's a picture of a dog on the counter I took. I remember thinking, you really know you're in France when you see something like this. OHS rules, take that haha! 

The next morning we woke up early to try and squeeze in a little Nancy by day before driving to our proper Alsatian Christmas destination, Strasbourg. Turns out the Place de Stanislas is just as stunning by day as it is by night. 

Free books anyone? A great Nancy initiative, drop off your books that you no longer need and pick up something else that might interest you!

We found a gorgeous little boulangerie to pick up our breakfast, a finalist for the Best Boulangerie of France. 

And how could I resist picking up some dessert at 9am in the morning when the mouth watering baked goods on offer looked like this..?!

Although breakfast was a fleur d'orange croissant, devoured while seated in front of the 18th century Middle Ages cathedral, as you do when you are in France. Next stop : the Alsace region of France - home to Europe's oldest Christmas markets, Strasbourg!