Backroads Coffeehouse & Cakery: Life Is A Highway With Plenty of Detours

Imagine stumbling into a café whose owner sees you run down by life’s unexpected hit & run disposition. She reaches out her hand and says, “I feel you. I’ve been there, too.”

Just when I thought London, Ontario was void of any decent third-wave coffeehouses, my hometown pulls a fast one and Backroads cruises into town.

Presenting…

Backroads Coffeehouse & Cakery

[680 Dundas St N5W 2Z4 (London, Ontario, Canada)]

Arriving at the height of summer 2017, Backroads has become a shining beacon of hope for Old East Village (OEV). For anyone who grew up in London, the OEV or anything east of Adelaide St (known colloquially as EOA) for that matter was stigmatized as “sketch city”; complete with old decrepit buildings, broken storefront windows, and gang-related graffiti. This part of town wasn’t a place you would want your mother to find you hanging around. Well thanks to recent and much-needed urban renewal, this area is redeveloping, restoring, and repurposing those old decrepit buildings, welcoming in plenty of millennial-approved establishments: third-wave cafes like Backroads and 10Eighteen, independent art studios like East Village Arts Collective, 100% organic restaurants like The Root Cellar, weekend farmers’ markets overflowing with local goods, and refurbished factory-turned office spaces/craft brewery such as the former Kellogg’s plant. It’s become a blossoming hipster’s paradise: London’s very own Williamsburg.

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Quality of Service:

With 10-year coffee veteran Sarah Levine at the wheel, Backroads has opted for a We Heart the Environment mentality, and why not? Caring about one’s impact on our lovely planet is a natural and sometimes profitable attitude in this day and age. Separate paper and plastic recycling bins are placed ceremoniously by the exit to encourage customers to recycle; instead of plastic stir sticks, metal spoons are provided to encourage the reuse of materials; as well, take-out cups and napkins are made with 100% decomposable paper to encourage a reduction of waste. If Backroads was a car, it would be a solar-powered coffee mobile.

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Quality of Product:

Sarah and her team of baristas are no amateurs when it comes to good coffee. The cappuccino I ordered was made with the deservedly-named Punch Buggy Espresso from Hamilton-born roaster Detour Coffee and was worth every 375 pennies. Giving these beans the TLC that they deserve, they were ground with the sleek ‘n shiny Nuova Simonelli Mythos One Clima Pro and brewed with none other than top-of-the-line La Marzocco GB5. The barista who looked after my order was sweet and darling, but don’t let her pretty face and kind demeanor fool you. She served up an expertly poured cappuccino topped with a delicate foamed milk flower. But the star of the show was Sarah’s handmade dark chocolate cupcake with raspberry frosting. To. Die. For. Did I mention that she’s a cake goddess!?! Check out her Insta here!

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Leading with her empathetic nature, Sarah chose to buy coffee beans from Detour Coffee not just for their amazing product but also for their incredible service. They really care about their clients and do everything in their power to make sure their customers have all the know-how of serving a cuppa joe Detour-style. They even go as far as providing in-house barista training by coffee gurus. Bought a new batch of beans? Don’t know how to brew them? Ryan (@detourbrews) to the rescue! Detour also cares deeply about fair, incentive-driven labour practices, choosing to source their beans through direct trade, which is one step beyond fair-trade. This means Detour spends the time to develop a relationship with each individual coffee farmers and are then each farmer is given full credit for their product: full credit can be found slapped on the bag’s label. It goes without saying that Backroads and Detour go hand-in-hand like a twins on a tandem bicycle.

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Quality of Atmosphere:

Like a classic ‘66 Ford Mustang with a 412 horsepower 5.0 litre engine, Backroads is where the warmth of antiquity meets the incandescence of modernity. Under the floorboards lies a century of laminate on top of vinyl on top of hardwood; the displayed antiques such as a wrought iron Singer sewing table, and vintage brass scales are points of attraction throughout the café; and a stack of turn-of-the-20th-century books invite you to curl up in the upholstered winged back chair and snuggle beside the cozy fireplace. On the contrary, new life is brought in through a smorgasbord of local craftsmanship. A luminous painting placed above the mantelpiece adds a touch of colour to the room while the handcrafted ceramics which encompasses the beverages and baked goods add a touch of energy (@Amy Leigh Art); locally grown plants grace the tables (gifts from landscaping friend); and several wood crafts (a wondrous raw wood window-front bar, adorable tree-trunk-cross-section coasters, and refurbished sewing table turned self-serve station) are marvelous additions to the salon.

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Last Remarks:

Backroads didn’t have the easiest beginning and required taking plenty of backroads before opening day. Delayed construction, discouraging customers, long commutes, and dishonest contractors, the setbacks seemed endless, but evidently this wasn’t Sarah’s first time experiencing life’s many unexpected twists and turns, and has since mastered its terrain.

Life doesn’t always go as planned… and that’s ok! The important thing is to keep driving and enjoy taking the backroads… and why not with a coffee in hand and a fresh-out-of-the-oven cupcake on the seat next to you!?!

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Comfort Rating:

five out of five

5/5

Helpful Coffee Tips:

Ten benefits of direct trade coffee:

  1. Prices are flexible and agreed upon by the farmer and the buyer
  2. Ensures the farmer gets paid a fair wage despite the highs and lows of the market of the buyer’s country
  3. Revenue goes directly to the farmer and not through a co-operative
  4. No Fairtrade licensing fees
  5. The Fairtrade Foundation doesn’t take a cut of the profits
  6. Increased demand encourages higher quality crops
  7. Producing higher quality crops is an incentive for farmers
  8. Chance to build relationships with the farmers
  9. Benefits the farmer’s community (e.g., employment opportunities)
  10. Opportunity for the buyer to invest in the farm

Now go out and impress people with your random coffee knowledge.

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Go ahead! Take the road less traveled.

Journey Update: To Quit or Not to Quit

Il faut toujours viser la lune, car même en cas d’échec, on atterrit dans les étoiles.

~Oscar Wilde

(Always aim for the moon, then even if you fail, you’ll be among the stars.)

QUIT:

It’s a simple four-letter word, but when it happens, causes us an insane amount of distress, not to mention, inherent disapproval from our mothers and unspoken disappointment from our friends. It can be quite a dramatic event when we decide to quit something. “OMG! You want to leave your xyz!?!” Yet despite our guilty conscious, we’re not likely to pass up on a well-deserved quit. After some consideration, we quit schools, we quit jobs, we quit hobbies… we even quit people! Don’t like your job? Not happy in your relationship? No problem. Just quit! Toss that stress from your life! All power to you.

I’ll admit it! I’m a quitter. In fact, I’ve quit so often that it’s become kind of a past time of mine. As soon as something requires too much time or energy… *BOOM! “Peace out, mothaf*ckas” for example, I put together six memorable times I’ve quit something (or someone) and why I thought it was a great idea at the time:

  • High-school chemistry class (culprit: too difficult) *definitely had a major meltdown after this quit because at the time I wanted to become a sports doctor (I know, weird, right) and chem is a must-have.
  • Playing clarinet (culprit: stage fright) *my grade 9 teacher made us perform solo in front of the entire class for the final exam, which is basically a death sentence for an introverted-omg-my-hands-were-shaking-too-much-to-play-properly-despite-having-practiced-a-million-hours-beforehand-and-I’m-getting-anxiety-just-thinking-about-this teenager.
  • Teaching English in Japan (culprit: lack of inspiration) *there’s only so many times I can hear “see youuuuu” from students before I start to question my impact as a teacher. Haha… silly kids! o.O
  • Running/Swimming/Cycling daily (culprit: exhaustion) *I’ve always liked the idea of doing a triathlon. It’s definitely doable… it’s just so exhausting to train for. *newsflash*
  • Living at my parents’ house (culprit: not enough independence) *independently owned and operated since 2009, baby!
  • Numerous romantic relationships (culprit: all of the above… lol) *boys are weird and stupid. Duh.

Gosh! Now that I think about it, I’ve even quit this blog… it’s definitely been a year since my last post. Oops! Although, there’s nothing like a really good quit! It’s such a relief to let something (or someone) go after an intense internal struggle, and in return, focus on something/one new. I mean why continue putting your precious time and effort into something/one that starves you of energy and happiness!?! Seriously, what’s the point? If whatever you are pursuing doesn’t bring you satisfaction nor contentment, why struggle for it? Quit.

Just to recap for new readers, after I quit teaching English and left Japan in August 2015, I set out on a new adventure: to learn about the world of coffee, become the queen of baristas, and to eventually open my very own café with the aim of helping my fellow traveling souls. Simple enough, right? Hahaha, too bad that having dreams are a b*tch.

A year of wild globetrotting and hectic job searching passed by, and soon it was November 2016. After countless rejections, I finally scored a job at the French franchise: Columbus Café, finished a one-month training program in Reims, and started at the brand new café at the Marché Rungis in the suburbs of Paris. Life got crazy and I honestly couldn’t find the time to write since then. So, what has been happening?

Now it’s September 2017: two years since I parted from Japan and a year since I arrived at Columbus Café Rungis. I’ve returned to my old Canadian stomping grounds and have a little time to reflect on life in the coffee industry. To tell you the truth, I wanted to quit every day. E.V.E.R.Y.D.A.Y. Because working in France as a barista in a newly opened café is both a dream and a nightmare, and here’s why:

The Nightmare:

  • My boss: was, at times, very difficult to work with. You might have heard of the stereotype that the French are horribly cheeky, cynical, and haughty. Picture the flamboyant chef from The Little Mermaid. Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but as much as we hate to admit it some stereotypes are hidden under a blanket of truth and my boss was no exception to this stereotype français. Call it cultural differences if you must, but he thought it was perfectly normal to make jokes about my weight. If I munched on a cookie during my break, he’d chuckle and nonchalantly tell me to be careful of becoming fat because then our customers will stop coming to our café. He said it was just sarcasm after I called him out on his obnoxious humor, but still WTF, he totally overstepped our employee-employer boundaries. As for his pessimistic tendencies, he would refuse to acknowledge even our small victories; for example, one time I told him we raked in our highest revenue to date (which is a huge deal for a new business), another time I told him we sold out of our signature ice-teas, but he dismissed them with a “It’s nothing. We can do better.” I realize that keeping a business alive is astoundingly stressful, but you’ve got to have at least a sliver of optimism and positivity, or else you’re going to drown under the pressure and never feel content with your accomplishments. Above all, the hardest part of working alongside him was the shame in watching dollar signs gradually embezzle his sight. Because of his fixated concern of being financially successful, he slowly lost his love for the coffee world, shut out the joy being part of this world created, and became blind to its beauty of bringing people together. His obsession became so prominent that he kept tabs on the surrounding restaurants and would throw tantrums if he perceived them to be more successful than his cafe. Of course business is business, but when one’s happiness is fully dependent upon the amount of revenue coming in, one’s mood will inadvertently fluctuate like a middle-aged woman going through menopause.

 

  • My customers: could be critical at times. They were my ever-vigilant audience, and I their dancing marionette. Honestly, it was as if my every move was on display purely for their amusement, which undoubtedly, created an unhealthy cycle of stress, anxiety, and insecurity, which then, effected my work efficiency. Things got messy! If I changed anything about my appearance or if I looked tired or unhappy (heaven forbid), some of my customers would make a stupid comment about it. I couldn’t dress as I normally would and I dare not show my true emotions. Basically, I couldn’t be myself. So every hour on the hour, I felt the need to check and re-check my clothes, my makeup, and my smile, aiming for that delicate balance between sweet and sexy. In the end, it was rather emotionally taxing having to market myself all the time. “Dance, barista, dance.”

 

  • My experience: hadn’t always lived up to my expectations. Before I landed my first barista job, my mind swam with images of laboring in hipster-perfect cafes, alongside eager-hardworking coworkers, while making Instagram-worthy lattes, for my pleasant-considerate clientele. In reality, I worked at a café where coffee goes to die. Columbus Café is basically the “Starbucks of France”. Neither the baristas nor the customers cared how good ‘n tasty the coffee was, as long as it was served instantaneously upon ordering. So, there was no time or reason to add those pretty hearts and delicate flowers on top of our lattes. There was no time to explain the difference between brewing methods or the difference between coffee beans. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” and frankly, no one cared. As for my coworkers, I personally watched 10 hired girls up and quit since the café’s inauguration (Nov 2016). I don’t blame them. Working as a barista can be monotonous as hell and the pay is abysmal. If you’ve ever worked in the food industry, you’ll know that we spend more of our time cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets than creating anything earth-shattering. We work afoot for more than 40 hours a week and come home with a paycheck that barely covers the rent. It’s a little disheartening. And then to top it all off, you have to deal with the ridiculous requests and expectations of our customers. “Can I have the cheese sandwich without the cheese?” “I would like an iced coffee with an ice-cube… just one!” “Oh are you closing in 5 minutes!?! Ok I’ll order a meal with a dessert and a coffee… for here.” Sometimes you have to laugh to stop yourself from crying.

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Of course, it wasn’t all horrible bosses and ridiculous customers.

The Rainbows & Unicorns:

  • My boss: despite his horribleness, relied on me to keep the café running even when he wasn’t around, and within 4 months, I was promoted to assistant manager. From taking inventory to balancing the cash register, my boss took the time to teach me almost everything about owning a café. When I first arrived in France, it took 6 months of job searching and countless rejections before I was offered this job. While other café owners were afraid to hire a foreigner, my boss gave me a chance.

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  • My customers: despite their ridiculousness, taught me about true French culture, and I don’t mean haute culture and hors d’oeuvres. The French, like most Europeans, are quite social, and in fact, they look for any opportunity to gather together and talk. Working the morning shift, I witnessed their longing for community come to fruition. Every morning without fail, people come together with one or two colleagues for a coffee. They talk about their families, last night’s game, and the latest political fiasco. It lasts only 10 or 15 minutes, but nevertheless they take a moment to connect with each other before they’re engulfed with the stress of work. There’s a real sense of community among the French, and within this connectivity is where the fantasized happiness truly exists.

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  • My experience: despite its disappointments, was a culmination of lessons learned, and were nothing short of extraordinary. It’s one thing to learn a theory at school, it’s an entirely different matter experiencing that same theory in the real world. For the past year and a half, I’ve had the pleasure of jumping head first into the revolutionized world of coffee. At first, I acquired a barista certificate from the Canadian Barista and Coffee Academy in Toronto and then additional latte art training from Café Lomi in Paris, Next I was also fortunate to pass a 1-month internship at Caffe Ficini in Rome, where I received my first ever behind-the-counter experience. And finally, I was hired as a barista at Columbus Café in the Marche International Rungis, and was quickly promoted to assistant manager after 4-months of very early mornings and hard work, all the while managing my café inspired blog and social media empire: Kaeru Domicile. Now with millions of espressos pulled, thousands of lattes poured, and hundreds of pages written, I’m left to ponder how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime these experiences actually were. I mean… I was on a billboard at one point. lol

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Quicker than I thought, my roller-coasting time in France has come to an end; a year and a half of nightmares, rainbows and unicorns. And now I’m left with the question: do I delve deeper into the café world in hopes of realizing my 生き甲斐 (purpose) or do I QUIT?

I know what mon amour would say, “TOUJOUR PLUS – ALWAYS MORE!”

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Quitting will never subtract experiences from your life. This accumulation of skills and knowledge will always be a part of you.

Black Walnut: A Café of Village Proportions

Imagine walking into a café in a quiet, quaint village, hidden from tourists, but frequented by the locals.

Once upon a time, the mid-sized industrial city of London, Ontario had a streetcar running from the center of town to the neighboring beach town of Port Stanley, transporting beach goers to and from the city without fail. At the turn of the century, this streetcar picked up swimming costume clad families stopping diligently at several designated stations in London and the next town over, St. Thomas before arriving at the lake. One of these stops was in the quaint village within the city, Wortley Village.

 

Today, Wortley Village has maintained its quiet, exclusive, intimate demeanor, while individually owned artisan shops and cafés have flourished within this tight-knit community; a reminder of a simpler time.

 

Presenting…

Black Walnut Bakery Cafe

[134 Wortley Road N6C 3N8 (London, Ontario, Canada)]

Located in the heart of Wortley Village, Black Walnut has thrived from the village’s small community, providing the locals with a gathering place to take solace from life’s woes and an excuse to gossip over a warm brew. For the past four years, co-owners and brother-sister duo, Edward and Mandy Etheridge have graced their customers with scrumptious delicacies and tremendous coffee, and they must be exceptionally good because their success has allowed them to open a  new location downtown London (724 Richmond Road). Read all about it in our local paper, the Londoner.

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Quality of Service:

My family and I were there at their busiest hour, but despite the mass of customers, the baristas kept their cool, patiently took everyone’s orders, and served them in a reasonable amount of time. Just don’t forget to smile from time to time. (‘∀’*)

Upon entering the cafe, my mother was a little flustered by the 3 panel chalkboard menu, this having been her first time to go to a 3rd wave cafe. Not being a coffee drinker, it was cute to see her astonish over the seemingly endless variations of caffeinated beverages.

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Quality of Product:

Their cappuccino (3.50 dollars) and double shot espresso (2.89 dollars) were brewed with their well-balanced espresso blend. Black Walnut roast and package their own line of coffee blends, which are only available for purchase in store. Reason alone to come visit the charming Wortley Village.

Their sleek & shiny machines: Mazzer Grinder & Elektra Espresso Machine.

But you can’t come all this way and not indulge in their delicious baked goods. Their white cheddar & cranberry scone and lemon poppy seed cake were phenomenal.

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Quality of Atmosphere:

The interior is beautifully designed with dark wood counter, tables & floors, giving the cafe a warm & cozy feel. A quintessential chalkboard menu adorns the wall, and on sunny days, the outdoor patio is the perfect place to enjoy a cup of home brewed joe.

Interestingly enough, they don’t offer free WiFi contrary to most cafes. Some would be inconvenienced by this lack of connection, but I think it contrarily enforces connection. Instead of being distracted by beckoning texts & tweets, patrons are encouraged to engage in conversation with each other, and ergo, enriching the community feeling of the cafe.

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Last Remarks:

I will always cherish the time spent with my family at Black Walnut, a welcomed change from reviewing cafes par solo. Thank you for providing the means for such an occasion, cafe of village proportions.

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Comfort Rating:

4/5

four out of five

Helpful Coffee Tips:

Coffee beans are cultivated in over 70 equator-hugging countries around the world. The most prominent exporters are:

  1. Brazil
  2. Vietnam
  3. Colombia
  4. Indonesia
  5. Ethiopia

Although not the highest producer of coffee, beans from Kenya, India, Ivory Coast, and Costa Rica are notably recognized in the coffee world.

Now go out and impress people with your random coffee knowledge.

Life is all about great food, great drinks, and great friends. These 3 things are what inspire us everyday.

Fire Roasted Coffee Company: A Diamond in the Rough

Imagine walking into a café that’s a little rough around the edges, but polished in all the right places.

Presenting…

Fire Roasted

[105 King Street N6A 1C1 (London, Ontario, Canada)]

Located in downtown London, Ontario across from the coveted entertainment conglomerate, Budweiser Gardens (formally the Labatt Center) and the venerable Covent Garden Market, Fire Roasted is a marveled addition to London’s Starbucks infested core. Local lovers of the bean unite! Started by coffee, beer, wine, and chocolate enthusiast Dave Cook in 2005, the Fire Roasted Empire has since expanded to two café locations (105 King St. & 138 Wortley Rd.), a mobile café, and an offsite roastery (900 King St. 2nd floor of Western Fair Farmer’s Market), giving London’s coffee scene a touch of sophistication it desperately needs.

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Quality of Service:

My sister and I were served by the hiptastic, Stephan. (Trust me! This adjective is suitable.) If his sweet demeanor and on fleek style doesn’t put a smile on your face, his extensive insight certainly will. Although newly employed at Fire Roasted, he wasn’t a stranger to the world of coffee. He and his co-worker enthusiastically described the origins, mixed genealogy, and expected flavors of their featured beans while they served us samples of each.

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Quality of Product:

Their cappuccino (3.75 dollars) and double shot espresso (2.75 dollars) was brewed with their delicate, multi-origin Expression Espresso. Before you start cringing over the price, 90% of FRC products are Fairtrade certified. Yea for being socially responsible consumers! AND they are locally roasted and packaged. Yea for supporting local artisans.

Other beans “on tap”: Grand Bend Biker Blend & Brazil Santos. The former will give you the caffeine kick-in-the-butt you need (thanks to those added Robusta beans) while the latter is a much smoother, single-origin blend.

Their sleek & shiny machines: Mazzer Robur Grinder & Nuova Simonelli Aurelia ll Espresso Machine.

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Quality of Atmosphere:

Typical café décor: wooden counter, chalkboard menu, exposed brick walls, and wrought iron furnished terrace. Frequented by professional, on-the-go clientele [white collar, telecommuters, and students] with a splattering of chill people watchers, day dreamers, and conversationalists. FRC has the makings of a free WiFi wielding coffice; I just wish they had plush couches for that added touch of comfort.

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Last Remarks:

If you’re downtown London, and need a hiptastic ((๑˃̵ᴗ˂̵)و) place to study, meet friends, or get some work done while getting your daily dose of the glorified bean brewed by experienced artisans, FRC is calling. I mean the only other option is Starbucks… so… Your choice!

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Comfort Rating:

4/5

four out of five

 

 

Helpful Coffee Tips:

Did you know that sweet, savory, and salty tastes are preferred during prenatal development while contrarily, bitter and sour are rejected? For those who don’t like the taste of coffee, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. Blame biology. Want to introduce a new food or drink into your preprogrammed catalogue of tastes? Frequency and quality play an imperative role in developing a preference for it.

Frequency: Coffee, like wine, beer, and dark chocolate, is an acquired taste, and so, you’re not going to like it overnight. It can take months or years to trick your mind into liking it. My magic number has always been 10 attempts, which has worked for sushi, beer, green tea, goat cheese, salad dressing, tofu, and Brussel sprouts. I’m still working on olives, but I might take my bitter resentment of those failed pickles to the grave. Damn you, olives. Damn you all to HECK.

Quality: Until quite recently, I hated coffee with a passion. Even after numerous shots of le petit noir, I couldn’t understand why people willingly drank burnt, bitter tasting water? Weirdos. It turns out, I was just drinking terrible, poor quality coffee my whole life. Thanks Nescafé instant. It wasn’t until I went to Belgium in autumn of 2015 that my previously accosted taste buds were introduced to a choice brew. And the rest is caffeine-saturated history.

So if you want to join the coffee cult, keep drinking. But only the good stuff.

Now go out and impress people with your random coffee knowledge.

 

“What makes our coffee different? Passion and intent. There is a belief in some quarters that foods know the emotions and intent of the person preparing it. If you truly pay attention to your product on a personal level, be there, the resulting product will taste better. We believe this to be true.”

Journey Update: Proud & Panicking

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

John Lennon

Last week, life turned a little brighter. I had a series of job interviews with a host of cafes in Paris, thanks to hospo.jobs and coffeepeoplefrance, and there was one barista possibility that particularly caught my eye.

But here’s the catch: I need to renew my visa before they give me a job offer.

So now, the panic ensues. It’s me versus the French government, and time is not on my side. In fact, I have 22 days to renew it before it expires.

I have most of the paperwork in order:

  1. passport
  2. visa
  3. residence card
  4. photo id
  5. birth certificate (sent by my ma via xpress post. Merci, mama!)
  6. health insurance
  7. bank statement
  8. CV & lettre de motivation

[By the way, I’ve never been so thankful of being Canadian as I am now. When applying for a French visa, all documents need to be officially translated into French. Newsflash: Canada is a bilingual country, which means documents are automatically written in English & French, saving me a ton of time and money.]

The last thing that is creating the most panic is securing an appointment with the Prefecture de Police (i.e., immigration office) to give them my paperwork. My housemate and I tried calling and emailing, but haven’t received a response. I guess the last resort is to show up without an appointment and see what happens.

Fingers crossed.