Wednesday, July 29, 2009

French Health Care

I've had it up to here with people misrepresenting the French health care system. As the U.S. discusses the kind of country it wants to be when it comes to providing its citizens with access to medicine, doctor's visits, and life-saving surgery, France is often used as a bogeyman. "Ooooh, watch out, we might turn into France! We might become Socialists!" As my second favorite country's name gets dragged through the mud, I can't help thinking about my own experience with health care in France. It wasn't perfect, but it certaintly wasn't the nightmare some people would lead you to believe.

As a graduate student at Sciences Po in Paris, I was covered under the French health care system. I paid the equivalent of $300 for the semester, which granted me comprehensive coverage. During this time, I went to a doctor's office three times and got lab work done once. I never waited longer than one waits in an American doctor's office, the facilities were not sub-standard, and the government didn't come between me and my doctor. No piles of paperwork to fill out (like I have in the U.S.). No worrying about whether or not my insurance would cover it (like I do in the U.S.). I simply chose the physician I wanted to see (none of this in-group, out-group crap), paid a few small fees (generally 22 euros for a visit, much of which was refundable), got my instructions or prescriptions from the doctor and went on with my life. The security of it all felt amazing.

Of course, no system is without flaw. I do remember the incident of the laboratoire misplacing my payment record for some lab work I had done. They kept sending bills to my apartment long after I was back in the states, and a French friend eventually had to go pay the bill for me, but hey, shit happens. The cost of said lab work? About 20 euros. For lab work, people! Does this sound like a terrible system to you? I know, I know, French people pay taxes to get this stuff. That's true, they do. But the French people I know, who are roughly my age, and who are employed, and who have the same level of education as I do are not crippled under the weight of taxes. They drive nice cars, go on three week vacations (leaving them still with two weeks or more for the year), live in comfortable apartments, and aren't saddled with thousands upon thousands of dollars of student loan debt. They also will never go bankrupt because they get sick. Wow, aren't you glad we don't have that system?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Moving to Brussels, One Task at a Time

It's crunch time. Exactly three weeks from today I will touch down in Brussels, Belgium and begin a 5 1/2 month overseas stint. It's the fourth time I've left the U.S. to spend multiple months living in Europe, so you'd think I'd be really good at executing trans-Atlantic moves. You'd think. But instead of feeling like I'm making progress on the ever-growing pre-trip to-do list, I feel like I'm swimming upstream. The list isn't getting shorter, it's getting longer, and time is quickly running out.

Moving your entire life to a foreign country is no easy task. There are boxes and suitcases to pack, financial matters to rearrange, purchases to make and friends and family to see one last-for-now time. You might have to find new housing, renew your passport, buy international health insurance, or prepare for a new job. My current to-do list includes such daunting tasks as "research/buy a new laptop," "clean apartment from top to bottom," and "rent storage unit; fill with worldly possessions." I have managed to find a nice couple from Seattle to sublet my place, which I admit was a satisfying cross-off, but the anxiety level of too much to do and too little time is still threatening to put an end to my sanity, once and for all.

Why doesn't moving overseas seem to get any easier the more I do it? Denial, perhaps? I do always tell myself I have a ton of time to get things done, but it's never true. The preparations are enormous, and distractions of regular, daily life don't just stop because you tell the universe you have an overseas adventure on your hands. The result is that I'm taken by surprise each and every time the big day starts to creep up on the calendar. My only consolation is that on the first three times I moved to Euorpe, despite everything I had to do last minute, I never once missed the plane because of unfinished business. And with the prospect of living la vie en Belgique, I'm not about to ruin my perfect record.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Chicago is nothing if not a land of nicknames. The Windy City, Second City, and Chi-Town are some of the most common local monikers, and a Wikipedia search for "Chicago nicknames" even turned up "Paris on the Prairie," which was used in a 1909 city planning document. I always knew I liked this place. Growing up in nearby Minnesota, the nation's third-largest city was a frequent destination for trips with friends and family. Now I'm back, and realizing already that Chicago is going to be a tough town to have to leave.

I arrived here yesterday evening to attend a blogging conference (yes, they have those) and promptly set out to explore a bit on foot. One of the first things that struck me was how tall the buildings were. DC is a relatively small town that doesn't have any skyscrapers. Zero, ziltch, not even a single big, ugly disastrous one like Paris has. Walking around downtown Chicago reminded me how much I love the feeling of being in a city that makes you feel small. In an odd way, it makes everything seem heightened, more exciting, even sexier. What's more, Chicago's buildings are a visually striking mix of the old and the new, where some towers' modern glass façades reflect their stone counterparts who seem to recall the age of the great American industrialists.

Nicknames and skyscrapers aside, Chicago has something extra that makes me love it. Only here, right in the middle of flyover land, do you get all the big city excitement without any of the usually accompanying big city pretension. Chicago is relaxed, it's citizens are Midwest friendly, and you can simply come as you are. It might sound strange, but this city actually feels content. It knows it's not a coastal powerhouse (unless you count the fact that it's on one of the Great Lakes), and it couldn't care less. Let New York and Los Angeles get all the international fame and domestic glory! Chicagoland is happy right where it is, and so am I.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Another National Holiday

Did you know that today is the Belgian national holiday? This one really caught me off guard. After the quick succession of Canada Day, Independence Day and Bastille Day, I just wasn't expecting yet another fête nationale in need of celebrating. Thankfully, an article in the local free daily tipped me off with its list of best DC places to drink beer, eat frites and crack open some mussels all in celebration of the 21st of July.

What exactly are the Belgians commemorating today? No, it's not the signing of an eloquently written document, or the crazed storming of a prison. They mark July 21st because on that day in 1831, in the city of Brussels, Leopold I swore allegiance to the constitution. Known as the first King of the Belgians, he reigned for 34 years, leaving the crown upon his death on December 10th, 1865. The current King of the Belgians is Albert II. It makes me wonder: will Belgium ever overthrow its monarchy in dramatic fashion, an act that could have the power to create an entirely new holiday? If so, maybe they'll select a time of the year other than July in which to enact their plan. The seventh month is starting to feel a bit overbooked.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Picnic out of Provence

An intense craving for fresh French food recently hit me out of nowhere. Maybe it's the memories from this time last year when I was getting some of my meals from a market on the Mediterranean coast, or maybe it's just that I've been stateside long enough for the novelty of eating my favorite American foods to have finally worn off. Whatever it is, I'm really starting to hope that Belgian markets and bakeries will be able to give me my fix. Belgium isn't France, but maybe the two country's marchés and boulangeries offer equally tasty wares?

In the meantime, I found a how-to article on creating a "grand and simple" Provençal feast that isn't helping matters much. My mouth waters just reading about the spread of fresh veggies, crispy baguette, and traditional aioli dip that typifies summer in one of France's most beautiful regions. The article offers up a simple recipe for Medjool dates stuffed with feta and spice as well as one for aioli. Top off your creations with items from the author's list of accompaniments and start enjoying a fresh taste of Provence at home. Lavender-scented breezes and rolling fields of sunflowers not included.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fast Travel in Vegas

A lot of travelers would say that when it comes to visiting far away places the longer the stay the better. Some of us like like taking our time to become familiar with our surroundings and to learn about the local culture, customs and maybe even the language. We want to feel like we actually live there. I agree wholeheartedly with this assertion. In my opinion, slow travel , while not always possible, is highly desirable. This approach has worked for me in France, and I'm giddy about my upcoming chance to employ it in Belgium. But while taking your time in a new city or country is often a good idea, there's at least one location on Earth where this travel wisdom doesn't hold true: Las Vegas, Nevada. As anyone who has been there for a family vacation, a girls' weekend/guys' getaway, or a romantic trip for two can tell you, when it comes to Vegas, less is generally more.

The best way to describe Las Vegas is as a 24-hour Disney World for adults. There is no shortage of fun to be had: Great restaurants, exciting casino floors, dazzling shows, and swank dance clubs all conspire to ensure you have a non-stop, thrilling visit. Unfortunately, along with the fun comes all manner of human vice. Sex, drugs, gambling, gluttony, name it and Vegas has got it to the extreme. Even if you don't partake heavily in any of them, you can't help but feel their influence on you. There are all-you-can-eat buffets, people losing their money and them some at the tables, and advertisements for girls!girls!girls littering the streets. In my experience, Vegas has a shelf life of approximately 48 hours.

Don't get me wrong, I love Vegas. Last weekend was my third trip to Sin City and I've had a fabulous, exceeds expectations time on each and every occasion. Nevertheless, you get to a point where enough is enough. I think I reached that point last weekend when the front page of my Sunday paper featured a shooting at a strip club and the results of the UFC 100 match rather than President Obama's latest initiative or the state of the global economy. It was time to leave Vegas World and find my way back to reality, but I'll definitely be back again someday. Not so I can have a deeply rich and life-changing cultural experience, or anything. Just so I can enjoy my 48 hours of fun.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How to Celebrate Bastille Day

On July 14, 1789, French citizens stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and set in motion events that would abolish feudalism and lead to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Centuries later (220 years, to be exact), Bastille Day is the national holiday of France, and is celebrated all over the world by Frenchmen, Frenchwomen, and Francophiles alike. Feel like joining in the fun? Here are some suggestions for how to celebrate the Fête Nationale:

1. Attend the military parade that runs along the Champs-Elysées. Though it is often ignorantly bashed in the U.S., the French military is in fact one of the world's most elite, sophisticated, and technologically-advanced fighting forces. Check out their equipment, their soldiers, and wave after wave of jaw-dropping fighter jet and helicopter flyovers.

2. Catch the dazzling fireworks display that takes place at the Eiffel Tower. Pack your baguette and cheese picnic and claim your spot on the Champs de Mars in the early evening. Be sure to sit lined up with the center of the tower for the best view. One warning: the crowds can be downright scary as you try to get home after the show. I did not enjoy this part of last year's festivities, and I attribute the frenzied, run-you-over madness to the day's legacy of violent prison storming.

3. Not in France? Eat at your favorite local French restaurant. Many will probably be offering special deals on drinks and/or food in honor of le 14 juillet. For example, Napoleon in DC is offering free Champagne!

4. Watch a French or France-themed movie. I like Marie Antoinette for the French Revolution preview, or Casablanca for the rousing, German soldiers-drowning out rendition of La Marseillaise. You'll be shouting "Vive la France!" in no time.

5. Wear red, white and blue. If you're an American, it's possible that you have plenty of clothes in these colors hanging around from the recent Independence Day celebration. Get some additional use of of them by paying hommage to the drapeau tricolore.

Joyeux Jour de la Bastille!

Where in the World is This?

At first glance, you might think this photo was taken in Paris. In reality, the French capital, and its famous, towering symbol, are a world away from where I took this shot. I just returned from a weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada, home to dark casinos, over-the-top stage productions, and themed hotels. What looks here like the Eiffel Tower is actually a replica that looms over a Vegas hotel called Paris. They also have a smaller version of the Arc de Triomphe and typically-Parisian art nouveau porticoes over entryway doors.

France isn't the only European country that has inspired hoteliers in Las Vegas. In addition to sipping wine under a fake Eiffel Tower, visitors can take a gondola ride at The Venetian, wander ancient Rome at Caesar's Palace, and experience the era of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table at Excalibur. It's the Old World done anew, complete with the kind of outlandish cheesiness the city of Las Vegas has painstakinly mastered. Nothing can match the real Europe - Roman ruins are exponentially more powerful when they're authentic - but it's still fun to wander the indoor streets of "Venice" or "Paris," taking note of the details builders used to channel these cities' spirits. And though I knew it was just a replica of La Tour Eiffel, I couldn't resist taking a moment to marvel at Vegas's glowing faux tower, camera in hand.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Does Living Abroad Help Stimulate Creativity?

Those of us who have lived abroad know what a magnificent, frustrating, life-changing experience it can be. But can it also be good for our brains? A recent study found that living overseas may help to stimulate creativity, especially for those who fully immerse themselves in the local language. The study also found that the more time you spend overseas, the better your creative boost will be. And if you'd really like to see results, it's best to avoid isolating yourself in expat communities. Maybe all this will convince your boss to let you do your work on a sunny beach in Greece rather than in your one-size-fits-all cube?

I can't remember if I felt more creative while living in France as compared to living stateside. At the same time, I do know that learning French definitely changed the way my mind works, and I often feel as though all my senses are heightened when I travel. What do you think about the study? Do you feel more creative when you're living overseas?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day, DC Style

Are you someone who keeps a running list of travel goals? Do you know the places you want to visit, the events you want to experience, and the sights you want to see before your voyaging days are done? If so, then allow me to suggest the following addition to your travel countdown: Washington, DC on the 4th of July. DC is a great place to visit any time of the year, but if you really want to have a powerful and unique experience in the U.S. capital, there's not better time than Independence Day. Saturday was the third 4th of July I've spent here, and I've picked up a few tips to help you make the most out of your patriotic visit.

For starters, if you plan on entering The National Mall and its surrounding areas, remember that you'll need to pass through security checkpoints. Sometimes they'll ask you to drink your liquids in front of them, other times they'll ignore one of the two bags you're holding, but they probably won't allow you to bring a large cooler into the secured area. Before the fireworks begin at dusk, there are concerts and patriotic ceremonies that take place on The Mall and at the various memorials. Don't worry, the crowd won't be as intense as it was on Inauguration Day; you will be able to move around the area freely. The best spot for watching the fireworks is the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. This location puts the entire city out in front of you for a beautiful view, and also lets you see the fireworks as they're reflected off the tidal basin. It's absolutely gorgeous. Bring some snacks, arrive before 7:30 to have your choice of a step, sit back and enjoy. After the show, avoid the Smithsonian and L'Enfant Plaza metro stations like the plague. To ensure you get a seat on the train and have as enjoyable of a ride home as possible, walk an extra few blocks to a station past the popular ones.

The atmosphere in Washington, DC on the 4th of July is unlike anything else I've experienced. Independence Day has always been one of my favorite holidays, and there are enjoyable celebrations all over the country, but here in the nation's capital it feels even more special. Surrounded by the monuments, memorials and symbols of American society and government you will truly feel the beauty and power of this day. When the fireworks end in a rousing grand finale, you'll wander home in the DC heat with ash in your hair, a smile on your face, and one more item to cross off your travel goals list.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Day Trips from DC

It's official: Double-wide strollers and fanny packs have invaded Washington, DC just in time for the 4th of July weekend. As I do every year, I'll be joining the masses - outsiders and residents alike - on The National Mall tomorrow for an Independence Day celebration like no other, but today I'm going to try to limit my American flag T-shirt exposure by reliving the experiences of my pioneering ancestors and heading west.

The day trip possibilities from DC are endless. Do you want wine or walking tours? Civil War battle sites or beaches? Travel and Leisure lists their top 8 destinations, and suggests trips to satisfy every interest. My suggestion for a day trip? Anything that doesn't involve Metro escalator traffic jams.