Sunday, December 26, 2010

Un Noël Blanc

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicolas soon would be there." *

an ice cream yule log
This year was definitely a very white Christmas, and not only because of all of the gently falling snow that created quite the winter wonderland, but also because of its newness. I experienced a whole new kind of Christmas this year, first and foremost because it was the first without my family. Although this year marked my third Thanksgiving sans famille, it was my first Christmas. Luckily though, I was still able to spend it with a family, even if it wasn't my own. This was also my first Christmas abroad, in la belle France.

So the big event in France is the réveillon, the big, family, Christmas Eve dinner (and Christmas mass for those so inclined). Around 5pm, we headed to Belley, a town of 12,000 where my host dad grew up, to have dinner with his family at his sister's apartment. His 91 year old mother and brother's family joined us as well. I quickly got over the awkwardness of being the sort of odd-man-out and meeting a bunch of new people because they were so warm and
welcoming, and most importantly, hilarious. After the first half hour, my cheeks were already hurting from laughing so much.

the dessert spread

As this is France, we of course had round after round of food, (though I abstained from certain parts of it), small hors d'oeuvres, then huitres (oysters), foie gras (made by my host mom's brother), salad, saucisson chaud aux truffes (a lyon specialty, hot sausage with black truffles), then an entire spread of desserts. My host mom said that in Provence, it is a tradition to have 13 different desserts and we came pretty close--chocolates, chocolate dipped oranges, clementines, meringues, 3 buches de noël (yule logs)...needless to say I was rather stuffed by the end of the night, and warm too after champagne and at least 4 different kinds of wine (a couple of which I was politely forced to try, though I didn't put up much of a resistance), including a fabulous 1985 Burgundy, from a dusty bottle, saved for just such an occasion. I happily savored it with a wedge of comté, a match made in heaven. The evening's entertainment included a rousing round of "Silent Night" (en francais of course) sung slightly off-key by the adults crowded around an iphone from which they read the words (one of the cousins captured the magic on her camera haha). I answered all of the typical questions about where I'm from, what I'm doing here, Obama, explaining my masters and what I want to do with it, etc. They especially liked my answer to the "why France" question, toasting me when I explained that after spending a semester in Paris, I fell in love with France and voilà, the rest is history. At one point I made a point of defending California wines, though I didn't get a chance to tell the "Bottle Shock" story. Another time, another time Frenchies.

After the meal, it was present time, and to my surprise, I had my own little pile of cadeaux! Around 1am, the snow had finally stopped falling, the food was almost gone, and (after the typically lengthy French au revoir) we headed back to Lyon for "a long winter's nap."

The next day I stayed up late again to have a skype Christmas with my family. I finally got to see them open their European presents and I finally got to open my American ones from the box I had received a week earlier. Despite the thousands of miles separating us, and the blurry webcam, it was almost like I was there, a true Christmas miracle.

"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

*Stockings are definitely not a part of the French Christmas tradition. When showing "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to my students, I had to explain the concept to some very confused faces.
Also, in general, their idea of "christmas decorations" is a Santa climbing in the window and a sad, lonely string of lights hung randomly from the roof. They are clearly much more energy conscious than we are, and are just beginning to catch on to the Hallmark, commercial-y aspect of the holiday, but I definitely missed driving through neighborhoods past extravagantly decorated houses (à la National Lampoon) listening to the 24/7 Christmas radio station.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chocolate & Other Drugs

It's Christmas eve eve and I just returned from five days in Switzerland. Three years ago, during my undergraduate study abroad in Paris, I stepped over the border and spent a few hours in Geneva and Lausanne, but this time, I went deeper, tracing a route from Geneva up to Zurich, stopping in Interlaken and Lucerne along the way. Switzerland is really a very unique country; it is most definitely not another mini-Germany (like Austria for example), even though German is spoken in a large chunk of the country. Despite this, it actually has four official languages: French (west), German (middle), Italian (southern areas around Italian border) and Romansh (east). This linguistic and cultural diversity has created a very decentralized country, where each canton is like a US state, so that each one has different laws, unlike centralized, single-law France. As well, the country's official name is in Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica, hence the "CH" abbreviation you might notice on websites, bumper stickers, etc. This name comes from the Celtic Helvetii tribe that originally settled here.

To be more accurate, the German most often heard around here is actually "Swiss-German," which seems less harsh than German-German, and is sprinkled with French words, like "merci" for example. It must be odd to travel across your own country and hear so many different languages, and perhaps not even be able to understand them (though I'm sure most Swiss learn at least German and French.) Often, things are written in English, the language of globalization.

In Switzerland, swans glide gracefully through crystal-clear rivers, lakes are encircled by snowy Alps, which often dominate the horizen, tall, thin church spires punctuate the city skylines, while their clockfaces survey the scene below, larger versions of one of the country's non-edible specialties--watches. Wooden chalet-style houses dot mountain towns and valleys, and the red flag with its white cross, synonomous with neutrality, waves proudly in the crisp, alpine air.

Each stop on our (ie Lindsay and I) journey had its own atmosphere. Geneva, home to the UN, is a truly international city, just across the French border, where Italian, English, French, German and more can be heard from every corner. Even though French is the dominant language here, it is just as often tinged with an Italian or German accent, and seems to be only one of 2,3, or 4 languages they speak fluently. Geneva is also a commercial center, with neon signs topping luxury stores such as Rolex and Cartier surrounding the lake, a classier version of Times Square. We would have to wait until the next day to experience the "Swiss charm" awaiting us a couple of hours away in the Alps.

Nachst halt: Interlaken! We sped away from the urban, commerical Geneva, gaining in altitude as we ascended to this town between two lakes (Thun and Brienz) and surrounded by ginormous Alps. We used Interlaken as our home base for exploring this mountainous area, known as the Berner Oberland. Our hostel was rather quiet for the winter, as the avid skiers opted for rooms higher up, such as in the resort town of Wengen (Vengen), where we attempted to take a lift up to a trail, but because of the snow, the trail was closed, so we ice skated on the natural rink instead! Day two was gloriously sunny, after a cloudy morning and a menacing forecast, and we rode a gondola up to an elevation of 5360 ft to Murren, caught a panoramic view of the big three (peaks that is): Eiger (13,026), Monch (13,449) and Jungfrau (13,642), and were once again stymied in our attempt to go higher up to the Schiltorn for our James Bond breakfast in the revolving restaurant, this time because of the wind rather than the snow. The 007 film On Her Majesty's Secret Service was filmed up there.
Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau

Click on the link for live-cam action from Schiltorn:

We once again suffered this setback with dignity, sighing that we had at least saved ourselves 92 francs. Heading back down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, we admired the sun glinting off of the reinforced waterfall, as the blazing sun melted leftover snow, causing avalanches every now and then, sending snow tumbling down the mountainside with an explosive crack. We stopped in a charming coffeeshop to enjoy warm drinks (including a chai latte!) and friendly locals before returning to Interlaken to explore our homebase, where were actually able to shed some layers under the afternoon sun.

I found this area to be a combination of rustic and real small village life and major tourist outpost, especially in Interlaken, the largest town in the area, and the transportation hub to the outside world. Swiss army knife, watch and chocolate shops line the main drag between luxury hotels, quite a contrast with the tiny mountain enclaves of Murren and especially, Gimmelwald (vald), with its 120 residents, cow farms and perfectly Swiss wooden chalets. I imagine this area is crawling with families and college students in the summer and fall, but in the winter, its mostly skiiers, Japanese tourist groups and a few stragglers like ourselves, spending Christmas vacation in real-life Christmas villages. Santa should really consider a move down to Switzerland.

Finally, we hit up two more Swiss cities, the charming, medieval/renaissance Lucerne and the larger, more buisness-like Zurich (with a nonetheless lovely Old Town center). Lucerne is truly as cute as a button, and gorgeous to boot, with two medieval, covered, wooden bridges, the more famous of which is Chapel Bridge, supposedly the most photographed monument in Switzerland. Though we had descended from our alpine retreat, huge mountains still surround the city, rising up as a beautiful backdrop to Lake Lucerne, and with Mount Pilatus (7000ft) hovering behind the water tower end of Chapel Bridge, completing one of the most picturesque sights I've ever seen. Our last day found us in Zurich, and unfortuately, Lindsay wasn't feeling well, so she took an earlier train home (apparently I have a penchant for getting my travel partners sick?), so I took on this last Swiss city on my own. At least I still had trusy old Rick Steves to guide me and keep me company on his "blitz tour" of the center of town, through 3 churches and their competing clock towers, a delicious hot chocolate break in a plush Christmasy cafe, Conditorei Schober, and a cruise on Lake Zurich. Though the morning started out rainy, by noon, the clouds had parted and the sun came out shining once again, thankfully proving another forecast wrong. I climbed 200 steps up the Grossmunster ("Big Cathedral") tower for a grand city view (and to work off that hot chocolate), wandered along glizty Bahnhofstrasse, and purchased a few mini-macarons known as "Luxemburgerli" at Sprungli, a perfectly soft, creamy and flavorful snack I enjoyed on my long train ride home. Three trains and 7 hours later, I was finally back in Lyon, as usual relieved to be back in familiar France, though I'm missing the mountains (they're just a little smaller from Lyon than Interlaken). Financially speaking, I also breathed a sigh of relief. Though the Swiss franc is about 1:1 with the US dollar, and thus things are technically cheaper for me, Switzerland is an expensive country, be warned!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Everything is Illuminated

Every year, during the second week of December, Lyon holds its biggest event of the year: the Fête des Lumières (the festival of lights), also known as "le 8 decembre," as the celebration is to commemorate an event that occurred on December 8th, 1852. For 4 days, the city is beautifully illuminated, transformed by an inundation of colors, lights that sparkle, blink and twinkle, light shows projected onto familiar monuments--and of course, a flood of visitors from all over the world, attracted like moths to a flame (but much pushier).

The story begins in 1643, when the south of France, including Lyon, was struck by the plague. The municiple councillors promised to pay tribute to Mary if the city was spared (which it was), thus inaugurating an annual procession on this day (actually September 8) up to the Fourvière Hill to light candles and present offerings in her name.

It wasn't until 1852 that December 8th became a day of festivities dedicated to Mary. When the statue of Mary was erected next to the Fouviere Basilica, the inauguration was meant to take place on September 8th, but a flood forced them to move the date, and they settled on December 8th, which had already been a celebration of the Immaculate Conception in Lyon. On this day, the statue was lit up, fireworks were set off from the hill, and many residents even placed candles in their windows, lighting up their own buildings. Today many people still take part in this tradition, placing candles along their window sills.

I had been anticipating this event since I applied to the program, determined to attend even if I didn't get Lyon. Luckily for me, I didn't have to fight the masses for a cheap hotel room. Right at 6pm on December 8th, I eagerly waited in Place Bellecour for the festivities to begin. A projection on the ferris wheel put up for the event flashed images from past Fête des Lumières. Then the dramatic countdown began--10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Balloons burst into the air, the Fourvière Basilica turned blue, and the Fete had officially begun! Lindsay and I wandered around the unusually warm evening (no hats or gloves necessary!), past colorful teepees (still wondering about that...), windmills, blue and red streetlights and an endless number of vendors shouting "vin chaud! vin chaud!", pausing to enjoy the fireworks just after 8. The next night (Thursday) we complemented our tour, hitting all the big sights before the out-of-towners poured in for the weekend. Our favorite was the fountain in Place des Terreaux (pictured above).

On the last night, we headed up to the big park--Parc de la Tête d'Or--where they had set everything on fire! Well, sort of...they had little flower pots of fire placed in trees and other sorts of displays. This was pretty cool (but can you say fire hazard?? in a PARK?? with millions of people??!!), and the fire kept us warm while wondered around.

All in all, it was quite an experience, but a lot of people--including my host parents--commented on the fact that it wasn't as good as previous years, and having seen postcards and pictures from other Fêtes, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it, saw a few really great displays, and am happy to have had the experience. However, the millions of toursits invading Lyon made it feel like Paris in the summer (minus the dripping sweat), so I'm glad they will have all returned home by now. While the sign next to Fourvière says "Merci Mary," I'll end this with a "Merci Lyon!"

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men...

...Often go awry. Yes indeed they do. Yesterday, I set off for a day trip to Colmar with some other English assistants. Colmar, like the larger Strasbourg, is also located in the region of Alsace and known for its Christmas markets. For those not familiar with Alsace, it is located near the German border, and spent much of its history flip-flopping between France and Germany, thus a trip there is like traveling to Germany, but everyone still speaks French (apart from the many German tourists of course).

After a 4.5 hour train ride, we arrived in the Colmar, and stepped straight into the pages of Hansel and Gretel. Colorful, half-timbered buildings, snow-dusted Christmas trees, and a marchés de noël around every corner--add a few gum drops and you've got a veritable gingerbread village! Despite the cold and the Disneyland crowds, we shoved our way around the town and through the many Christmas markets, even managing to déguster (taste) some vin chaud (mulled or hot wine) and eventually find a restaurant that wasn't complet (full). After sitting at said restaurant for about 45 minutes waiting to order and then get our food, we devoured our meals in 10 minutes flat, already thorougly defrosted and anxious to finish winding our way through the markets before our 17h44 train. After wandering through the quartier of Petite Venise, lined with--what else--a canal, we made it through the last couple of markets (at one of which I bought a bag of thé à la noisette--hazelnut tea!), we numbly marched back to the train station, a little early for a our train, but in need of a second round of defrosting. Unfortuantely, as the sun had just set, we missed the town being lit up. Apparently, every night (during the holidays or no), the town is beautifully lit with different colored lights. Dommage.

Anyway, though we didn't yet know it, our real adventure had just begun. First, the train left 20 minutes late. Ok, no big deal, we would still be able to make our various buses, trams and metros. Well, the train gods had other plans in store for us. At about 20 till 11pm (after we'd already been traveling for 4.5 hours--we had stalled in a couple of other stations), the train just stopped en plein voie as they say, ie just in the middle of the tracks. We didn't fully understand the problem, because they used a couple of words we didn't know, but suffice it to say, because of the cold, stuff was frozen, and the train couldn't go any farther. We were about an hour outside Lyon (probably about 30 min on the train). Super. Next announcement: if we don't move in 40 minutes, they'll send buses. What?? Why do we have to wait 40 minutes? What is that going to solve?? It's not getting any warmer out there! So for about 2.5 hours, we boiled inside the train (luckily we could cool off in the sections between the cars), exhausted, hungry, thirsty, etc waiting for something, for anything to happen. When they finally announced the buses had arrived, we still had to wait another 45 minutes or so for them to clear the tracks or whatever so they could slide the train 10 minutes to the nearest station.

At 1:30am, they piled us into 3 coaches, and an hour later, we finally arrived in Lyon. Then we got to wait some more while they got organized, splitting us into groups (those who needed a hotel, those who needed taxis, then grouping the taxi people by location), giving us refund forms and a prepackaged box of unappetizing food, before I finally got into a taxi with 3 other people who lived in my neighborhood, and walked into my room at 3:30 am, only 6 hours later than I should have. Thus a 4.5 hour trip turned into a 10 hour trip. Moral of the story: take a tip from the bears and hibernate for the winter. At least we got to speak some French with the nice people in our train car and play some trivial pursuit (where we learned Americans are smarter than Brits--duh).
On the way home, the taxi driver (like every single French person) asked me what I liked about France. The food, the beauty, the language. And obviously, the reliable trains.

Just another Saturday in France.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Lyon en noir et blanc

One of my favorite things about Lyon is its color, such a contrast to the Parisian monotone of white/gray limestone. Vieux Lyon is a delicious sorbet-colored palette of rose, orange, peach...even the more Parisian Presqu'ile has shades of pink, blue and yellow, not to mention the many trompe l'oeil frescoes, incredible works of art that often cause viewers to double-take when they catch one decorating the wall of a building. Still, there is something so romantically timeless, so effortlessly vintage and magical about black and white photos, creating a completely different image of the exact same city. Alors, enjoy!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Beaujolais Nouveau and Amélie Poulain

Yes yes, these topics seem completely unrelated (except the French connection), but the magic of Lyon has brought them together.

First, the Beaujolais Nouveau. I know that for many of you, these words might just be total gibberish, so I shall explain. "Beaujolais" is a wine region just north of Lyon, full of cute, little villages and rolling hills covered with vineyards. I almost got to go on a tour of this region, but because of the strikes in October, it was, of course, cancelled. Dommage. Beaujolais is also a type of wine, that is really more famous because of the festival around it, than because of its taste. It is a very young wine which is released on the third Thursday of November every year (sort of the kickoff for the holiday season like Thanksgiving is for us). The release of the Beaujolais Nouveau (nouveau=new) is a big celebration all over France and in fact, around the world, as the wine is shipped all over, including to the US. You too can hop over to your local wine store and sample this year's vintage yourself! Around this time, signs start appearing in wine stores and restaurants announcing the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau, and free samples can often be found when you're not even looking...

The big festivities take place in Lyon, the big city in the region, the night before its official release. There is a saying that Lyon actually has three rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais. Fireworks, free tasting and barrels rolling across the city see the new vintage off in style. Unfortunately, since all of this starts at about 11:45pm, the night before I have to wake up at 6am for work, in a city where buses stop running at midnight, and add to that rain and cold, I was unable to join in this experience.
However, the next evening (enter the Amelie Poulain part), Lindsay and I had bought tickets to see a sneak peek, or avant première of Audrey Tautou's newest film, De vrais mensonges (English title, Full Treatment, which I definitely recommend whenever it comes out in the US or on netflix!), which would be followed by a q & a with the director (Pierre Salvadori) and three stars, including, evidemment, Audrey Tautou! Anywho, we decided to grab dinner before the movie, but of course we were a little too early for French dinner time (restaurants generally open for/start serving dinner at 7), so we wandered into a grocery store across the street. Not the best idea to distract our starving stomachs. BUT, while sampling some fromage, a man standing next to me asked if we would like to sample his Beaujolais. Baah oui! Bien sûr! And voilà! Beaujolais Nouveau 2010. Check. How was it? you may ask...well, as one lady said during the post-film q & a in response to the same question, "C'est une tradition!" It's a tradition! I think I'll stick with the other local wine--Côtes du Rhône.

De vrais mensonges - Bande annonce VF
envoyé par _Caprice_. - Regardez des web séries et des films.

For the French speakers out there, here is a preview of the movie and then (also if you just like Audrey's voice) here she is talking about her new movie!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Home Sweet Home

It's been a few weeks since my last post--apologies to what are surely thousands of avid readers, waiting with baited breath for new entries (je suis modeste moi!). My excuse is also the subject of this post--I recently got back to Lyon after 10 days of traveling around Germany and France with my dad during my fall break (also known as the vacances de la Toussaint--Nov 1, All Saints' Day, is a national holiday in France and some other European countries).

I met him in Cologne, Germany where he had gone on a business trip. If any of you are thinking of going to Cologne, don't, unless it's just for 15 minutes to check out the amazing and giant cathedral, which seems to be pretty much the only thing that was left standing after WWII. Otherwise, there are many more exciting places to explore in Europe, and in Germany. After that, we spent two days visiting different small towns along the Rhine River, first by train, then on our second day, on a 3 hour boat tour (luckily we didn't meet the same fate as Gilligan and co), on which we saw many a medieval castle and oogled the gorgeous fall colors painting the hills of the valley. With the tourist season there pretty much over, we often had places practically to ourselves, which definitely spoiled us right before Paris, which was still overrun. From there, we went to Paris, did a D-day beaches tour and ended in Lyon, where my dad got to talk politics with my French family, while Oscar (the son) and I did our best to translate words, concepts and cultures. We had a great time, and I even had a few revelations along the way.

First of all, while in Germany, I suddenly became very aware of being an American tourist. It might seem odd that I remarked on such a feeling, when it's not like this was my first, second or even third time traveling to a foreign country, nor even to a country outside of France. Nonetheless, I began to feel like an "ugly American," something I have always done my best to avoid, and criticize whenever I see it (something I mostly do while in France). It made me realize that perhaps I have been a little unfair to the vast majority of Americans who are not in my special position of speaking the language as well as the culture. Normally, when I travel, I try to "do as the Romans do," and at least say hello and thank you in the native language, but I found it difficult to remember to do so, as I fumbled for the right words, and found myself assuming (whether right or wrong), that everyone spoke English. Spending so much time in France, somethings I forget how overwhelming and even scary it can be to not understand one word that is spoken or written, and hoping that that announcement they just made wasn't important. While it's nice to get out of France for a few days--I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Amsterdam this summer, and the Rhine Valley was lovely--I can only last for so many days before I start grumbling about getting back to France ASAP. Hey, I need my buttery croissants!

More than ever before, this country is feeling like my home away from home. With the states currently out of the question, France is definitely the next best thing. Though while I'm there, I usually feel a bit out of place and I'm always certain I'm missing something, I'm missing a whole lot more when I'm elsewhere and I realized just how comfortable--and at home--I do feel in France. On the train from Cologne to Paris, I sighed with relief when we crossed the border, and smiled to myself when we reached Gard du Nord, where I could once again read the signs--and, more importantly, the people.

An even more shocking realization came over me on returning from Paris to Lyon, a realization which really materialized as my dad and I ate dinner with my host family, taking a break from politics to compare France's top two cities. I will always have Paris. It was my first love. Before New York, and before Lyon, there was la ville lumiere. I have far too many memories there--good, bad and all life-changing--and am far too fond of the Eiffel Tower, the Orsay, my Bastille neighborhood and my favorite boulangerie, for anything to change that. Cependent (however), after only a month in Lyon, I found things that bothered me about la capitale, that never had before, and kept hearing myself remark: "Well, in Lyon..." First of all, despite the fact that it was the beginning of November--theoretically the off season--I wanted to murder all of the tourists that were still flooding the city. Granted, I was technically one of these tourists, but after living here twice, I hardly feel that that applies to me anymore, but nonetheless, I had already gotten used to a city ten times (or more) less touristy than Paris. Second, the metro I had always loved so much began to lose some of its hold over me, and I started resenting how much time we spent underground--and how dingy, dirty and crowded it was compared to the metro lyonnais. In Lyon, I normally use a combination of walking, buses and trams--all of which are obviously above ground, and much more scenic than the subterranean metro. Even when I use the metro, rides are generally shorter than in Paris because Lyon is so much more compact--there are only 4 lines, and far few stops on each than in the big city. As my host mom remarked after returning from a weekend in Paris: "The problem with Paris is that you spend so much time underground that it makes you feel like a rat."

Lastly, the contrast between the calmer, less touristy, less metro-dependent smaller city and the comparitively crowded and harried capital really struck me. I'm a big city girl through and through, and NYC is still my life-plan, but returning to Lyon, I breathed a second sigh of relief to be back in the provinces (ie the rest of France outside of Paris). Still a big city (second after Paris), life moves a little more slowly down here (I know, it's France, isn't everything slow around here?). Just because the Eiffel Tower is practically the universal symbol for France, doesn't mean that this extraordinarily diverse country can--or should--be reduced to five letters (no I don't mean merde). It's really only outside this city that one can really taste and appreciate the delicious Frenchness of France.

Monday, October 25, 2010

And they lived happily ever after...

Villandry and its gardens--mostly edible!
Villandry's famous gardens, reproduced exactly from the 16th century!

Azay-le-Rideau, named after the village, built by the wife of one of the Gilles Berthelot, Tresurer-General of the king, because he was caught for embezzlement in 1528 and left his wife in charge of construction.
Chenonceau, one of the most famous of the Loire Valley chateaux, as Rick Steves says, it is "the toast of the Loire Valley," also designed by women. King Henri II gave it to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers in the mid-16th century. At the time, it was just the square part on the far right side. She got tired of using a boat to cross the river, and had the arching bridge built. Upon the king's death, the queen, Catherine de Medici, made the mistress leave this castle, and she had the second story built over the bridge, thus englarging the castle to have more room for her lavish parties.

Chambord, the largest of the Loire Valley chateaux, and second largest in France (after Versailles). As the tour guide said, it was designed by a man, so the inside is a completely unlogical, but the outside sure is something to look at!

Il était une fois...

"Il etait une fois"= Once upon a time

Despite the strikes which caused our train to be canceled, Lindsay and I made it to the Loire Valley, chateaux country! The Loire River is the longest in France and cuts it horizontally. The famous Loire Valley is located in central France, and for a time, stole the royal glory from Paris. In the 16th century, Paris was not the nice place it is today, so the kings of France decided to migrate a bit south and build their magnificent homes along the Loire river. This was also a strategic decision, as the Loire river was the main artery of transportation of goods and people. Thus during the French Renaissance, hundreds of castles were built in this area by kings and nobles, who had of course, like moths to a flame, followed the center of power everywhere, from Paris to the Loire, and later from Paris to Versailles (under Louis XIV in the next century). Many of the chateaux were built on the site of ancient fortifications, and some of the "chateaux" are actually fortresses, and not royal residences, those the latter are of course, the main tourist attraction.

Francois I was the first king to establish the Loire as the new center of France, and while his main residence was the chateau in Amboise (pictured above; also where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last 3 years as architect and painter of the king), he had several other chateaux built, some of which he visited only a handful of times (no wonder France was going bankrupt by the mid 18th century!). Other kings followed suit, and while the money may have been better spent buying peasants bread, luckily for us, there remain many gorgeous chateaux to visit today, allowing us all to feel like kings and queens, if only for a moment.

Addendum to "faire la greve"

In the last week or so, I have read, heard and discussed more about the retirement reform issues and just wanted to add a few things to my previous post.

First of all, now that it is the Toussaint vacation (a 10-day fall break around the Nov 1 "all saints' day" holiday), the strike scene is starting to calm down. To add to this, the Senate has finally voted in the law, and it should become official within the week. However, the unions have called for two more official strike days--Oct 28th and Nov 6th, but those will likely be smaller than previous demonstrations, and hopefully less violent.

For those of you who have seen reports about the violence in France during the strikes, just know that it is not coming from strikers themselves, who are demonstrating peacefully as usual, but from younger, well, delinquents, mostly in the poorer suburbs, many of whom have been coming into the city causing trouble--breaking store windows, melting trashcans, etc. The police have retaliated with tear gas--which, lucky me, I stumbled upon one day. Trust me, not fun. Lyon especially has been the site of many a clash between the police and these troublemakers, but it's really not as dangerous as it may sound, especially if you know the areas to avoid.

On top of this, other big problems caused by strikers are: gas shortages (caused by blocked oil refineries), fewer trains, and even piling trash in Marseille (garbagemen on strike). Many people have canceled their Toussaint travel plans due to these issues, and lines at the gas stations continue to be rather long.

Anyway, back to the issues over the reform. For many, the specific issue of working two years longer is not really the most important; generally I would say those most angry over that are those close to the original retirement age. Rather, this reform (soon to be law) is really just a symbol of the direction in which Sarko has been leading France. Both the straw that broke the camel's back, and a foreboding harbinger of what is to come.

France was a pioneer in the area of "droits sociaux," or social welfare state, and they have some of the best in the world. Like I have said previously, the French are used to and expect these rights given them by the government, and they pay for them as well. With this reform, they see these rights getting chipped away, and especially with Sarko at the head, they fear that they will see more and more rights taken away until France is just like--gasp--the US, which is not exactly a forerunner when it comes to social welfare, and could honestly take some tips from Europe (those socialists!). Since most Americans really know next to nothing about the French president, aside from the fact that he is married to singer and former-model Carla Bruni (trophy wife!), it is perhaps hard to understand the extreme distrust and fear he inspires in many French people--even those who voted for him in 2007 (he currently has an all-time low approval rating of 29%). Just imagine the French equivalent of George Bush (only shorter) and maybe you can understand the problem.

Sarko insists this law is necessary because of the economy. It's not that the French can't understand that the economy is still in trouble. However, this law hits those already struggling because of this economy, rather than those (like Sarko and his cronies) who could stand to lose a few euros. The point is to try to find a solution that isn't targeting the middle and lower classes, ie the majority of the country (hence the general outrage). Even members of parliament don't want this reform for their own retirement, having rejected just this in early September. If this reform is so unavoidable and mild, why would they refuse it for themselves? The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. One of Sarko's slogans in 2007 was "Travailler plus pour gagner plus!" (Work more to earn more!). Well, people are working more and earning less. Well, taking his own advice, Sarko too is workisng more (to piss people off) and earning less (approval).

All of that said, I am looking forward to the end of this constant strike state--it definitely gets tiresome after a few weeks. As it looks like the passage of the law is now inevitable, hopefully France will soon return to "normal." Then they can put all of their energy into electing a president from the left in 2012 (looking iffy at best right now, despite Sarko's unpopluarity) and hope that he/she will repeal this law, or at the very least, halt the trend towards less social rights.

Wish me luck for my train to Cologne (and to my dad) on Thursday!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Faire la grève

Retrait de la réforme des retraites! Remove the reform on retirement! (withdraw is a better translation of "retrait" here, but trying to keep the alliteration!)

"Faire la grève"= to go on strike.

"grèviste"=someone on strike.

"syndicat"=labor union.

It's finally here, the one you've all been waiting for with baited blog about France's favorite pastime: striking. Even the chiens (dogs) go on strike here: "Grammy, 67 years old, still here to serve us!"

Along with wearing berets, walking around with baguettes, and playing a rousing game of boules, this is a cherished, and time-honored tradition in French culture, starting with, if you will, the original strike of 1789, aka, the French Revolution, and in more recent history, with the blow-out of May 1968. In 1968, students were protesting and revolting all over the world, and considering France's revolutionary history, she certainly couldn't be left out of the action. Students, and eventually workers, joined to advocate change to a society stuck in the past. In fact, they caused so much commotion that the venerable General de Gaulle couldn't even handle it and hid away at Baden-Baden, leaving his prime minister (and eventual successor), Georges Pompidou to attempt to negotiate with the unions.

Anywho, since then, the French have not hesitated to faire la grève whenever a controversial reform is proposed, especially when it has to do with changes to retirement law. I remember back in 2007, while studying in Paris, several strikes broke out throughout the year, preventing some students from getting to class, and putting a bit of a wrench in my weekend trip to the Alps, as strikes often end up involving transportation personnel. While I don't remember the exact issue being protested, it was definitely related to la retraite (retirement). This time around, the strikes are even more ferocious and and the strikers perserverant. Sarko (Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and I say that with all the disdain I would when mentioning our former president) is trying to reform the retirement laws, changing the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age when they can receive full benefits from 65 to 67. He believes this will help alleviate some of the government's economic problems, still struggling to recover from the recession.

As teachers' unions are the largest in the nation, this has meant some missing teachers on big strike days--thus less work for moi!

A few grevistes gathered in Place Bellecour,
a popular spot for demonstrations in Lyon

To Americans, brainwashed by the Puritan work-ethic on which our nation was founded (and with which it has since prospered), all of their commotion over this reform falls on deaf ears, and many probably look at the French and roll their eyes while calling them lazy, or as my dad said: "Tell them to stop whining." This, along with their "35-hour" work week (which doesn't apply to everyone, btw), 5 weeks of paid vacation (vs our maybe 2 weeks), and (exaggerated) 2 hour lunches, can paint a false picture of the French for those who know little or nothing about their
culture, and fail to realize that despite the fact that, yes France is also part of the Christanized, Occidental world, it has a history, and therefore mentality, completely different from our own. (Refer to 60 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong for an excellent read on the subject).

They don't want the retirement age to change because they have in fact worked very hard for 40+ years and don't want to wait another 2 years, especially when this has been the norm since Mitterrand lowered the age from 65 to 60 in 1982. They would like to relax and enjoy life while they still have all their teeth and can remember what day it is. Who wouldn't like to retire earlier? This is especially ennervating for people on the verge of retirement--suddenly they are being told they have to wait a couple of years longer. Young people--college and high school students--are also joining the strike. First of all, if people are working two years longer, then prevents jobs from opening to young graduates. As if the job market weren't already difficult enough. Secondly, many feel the need to join in solidarity with their teachers, mothers, uncles, etc, and hopefully keep the status quo for them and for themselves in the future.

One last important side note, retirement works differently in France and the US, which I found myself struggling to explain to a bunch of confused high schoolers the other day (especially since I wasn't even totally clear on the issue). In the US, though we do have Social Security, most people save their own money for retirement. Thus, they can technically retire whenever they feel they have enough money (they just won't receive Social Security until around 66). In France, retirment is all based on something similar to our Social Security, so unless you are super rich, you have to wait to retire until the government says you can. As is quite common, things that are handled privately in the US--health care (grr), retirement, even museums (with the exception of the Smithsonian museums in DC)--are handled by the government in France (and many other European nations). Across the ocean, we have always been terrified of big government and anything that smells of socialism (dare I even metion the other -ism?). From the "Red Scare" in the 1920s, to Blacklisting in the 1950s, to calling Obama Hitler, this country has consistently proved hostile such ideas. In France, though, the government is expected to handle almost everything--and the French pay good money for it too. And they're about to pay two more years of their life.

Sous les pavés, la plage!

--Under the cobblestones, the beach! (A famous slogan from the 1968 student revolution).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ça y est !

While this expression can have a million and one meanings, depending on the context (just try looking it up on word reference, no quick easy answer), basically it's a kind of woot woot, it worked/is working out, it's done (exclamation point!!)! In this case, I am of course, refering to where we left off with my previous post--well, previous previous post--about my life being on hold until I found housing. As I said quickly in my pink praline post, I HAVE A HOME!! Chez an incredibly nice famille française--mom (Sophie), dad (Gilles) and 18-year old son (Oscar). Oh yeah, and the giant, but friendly, dog (Rita). I have taken over the room of the older son (don't remember his name...). It's a beautiful house nestled on the Fourvière Hill, overlooking the lovely city of Lyon. I know, my life is tough. I just had my first dinner with them (as well as Sophie's brother), and everything about it was so typically French, I almost can't believe it myself. Needless to say, this is going to be a delightful and educational 7 months. I never envisioned this kind of living situation when I thought about coming to Lyon--I figured I would find an apartment with some other French people my age--but this is so much better! I wanted cultural immersion, and boy am I going to get it. Duck, champignons, squash gratin, wine from the Rhone valley, and of course, some fromage, plus your average French dinner table discussion topics: wine, food (while eating other food), and politics. For my part, I taught them the words for squash and pumpkin, and shot down their sterotype that Americans don't like fresh cheese. Apparently, we only like it cooked and are afraid of French cheese, including goat cheese. Oh no, I said, although I don't like goat cheese, I know many Americans who do, and we have many other French cheeses in the US. It is, of course, a much more central part of the French gastronomical culture than in the US, as is foie gras, bread, wine, well, food in general.

View from back of the house, same view as from my room (snow-capped mountain is Mont Blanc--apparently when it is so clear you can see it, rain is coming soon!)
My room (a bit bigger than it looks)

As for other things that are off and running, I had my first, sort of, real day at work this afternoon. For the first week or so, I'm basically just introducing myself and observing. I did jump in every now and then when the teacher asked me to explain an expression--"live and let live"(I almost started singing "Let it Be)-- give a synonym for "profess" or "anxiety," etc. It's really a challenge to suddenly have to explain things you just say all the time without even thinking about them. It was a really interesting 3 hours, and I was really impressed by the students level of English and, especially, by their eagerness to participate. They were expressing ideas in English that I could never have done in French when I was in high school. Even in college level French courses students weren't usually so vocal. Of course, today I apparently had some of the best students at the school, so my impression is a little one-sided. Probably the most hilarious part of the day was when a student said the F-word while performing a skit. In France, les gros mots, or cuss words, aren't as strong and offensive as they are in English, and you'll hear them much more often, including out of the mouths of children, than in the US. As a result, when French people speak English, they often drop more cuss words than many of us would in an everday conversation. The teacher kindly explained to the student that this word was extremely inappropriate, much more offensive than he thought, and was never to be used in the classroom, while I nodded vigorously from my seat.

Besides a little F-bomb dropping, the rest of the day was spent with another teacher who had had her students watch a short video in which New Yorkers were inteviewed about their opinions on the mosque near Ground Zero. I appreciated that she emphasized that only some Americans confuse terrorists/extremists with Muslims. Others of us realize that it was not in fact the Muslim community that flew planes into the twin towers. Then again, it's probably the same people who compare Obama to Hitler and insist that he was not born in the US. In that class, I realized I would be spending some time this year teaching the students differences between British and American English, starting today with autumn and fall (next week--can't and cahn't). I'll probably learn some things along the way too, and before I know it, I may even become fluent in British (I kid, I kid).

Ok, that's all for now folks. Tomorrow I'm opening a bank account, getting a metro pass, and hitting up the Monoprix for some essentials. Look out Lyon, Lindsey really lives here now! :)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Les Pralines Roses

So I finally have a home, just moved in a few hours ago in fact! It is the room in the maison bourgeoise that I wrote about in the last post. As I'm leaving early in the morning for a weekend in Paris (already? I know right?), I don't have time to do a proper blog entry, so that'll have to wait till I get back. But, I will post some pics, as promised, of these pink pralines I keep going on about, one of Lyon's many gastronomic specialties. So feast your eyes, try not to drool on your computer and yes, you can get diabetes just looking at these pictures...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Hold

Hello all!
So still apartment hunting, which basically means that my life is on hold till I find something. Until then, I can't: open a bank account (therefore get paid or do a myriad of other things which require a French bank account), receive the box with my winter coat (which apparently I may need sooner than I thought), go to Paris to visit mes amis, post pics, use a normal keyboard...the list goes on and on. I can't really breath till then, pour résumer (to sum up).

I have a couple of possibilities which I'm waiting on with baited breath, as I'm sure you all will soon be as well. First, a co-worker of the sister of the teacher I'm staying with has a big, beautiful maison bourgoise (as my teacher called it), which basically just means that it's a big house, and as their older son is now out on his own, working in Lyon, they have an empty room, possibly for me. I went over to this maison bourgeoise Saturday afternoon to meet him and his wife and see what they had to offer. Their house is located up on one side of the Fourviere hill in Lyon's 5th arrondissement and a quick bus ride takes you down into the center of town, so it's definitely in an awesome location with a an awesome view. They were really nice and I told them that I would happily accept the offer, only I have to wait until Friday to find out if it's definitely ok (for a few reasons, don't really feel like explaining them). So that's a "definitely, maybe." In the meantime, however, I have to keep looking, especially since I can't mooch off of M and Mme Kawak forever.

With fewer and fewer ads put up everyday, and even fewer responses to my inquiries, it's not easy. The couple of places I have seen have been extremely OK (emphasis on the ok), with, nonetheless, an endless queue (line) behind me, 20 people fighting for 1 room. Student housing is expensive and requires French guarantors and other complicated paperwork (but desperation could drive me to it), and getting together a group of other assistants or even a group of French people, to look for our own apartment sounds complicated (and most likely unfurnished) as well (though again, desperate times).

A second possibility just popped up a few hours ago--the assistant liason at my school called today to let me know that a girlfriend of her son's (or her son's girlfriend, not sure which as the word "copine" could potentially mean both), has an apartment right in the center of Lyon--seriously awesome location--and she's looking for a coloc (roomie). I'm going to see it tomorrow, but apparently the downside is that it's pretty small and really only for one person--the second "bedroom" is the living room, so I guess I'll see tomorrow what exactly that means. I also don't know anything about the furnishings (or if she smokes, dun dun dun), but at least it's a great location, probably not to cher (expensive), and could be at the very least, a temporary solution to my soon-to-be dire situation.

Other than my apartment troubles, and the quite sudden change from summer to cold and rainy fall, I have been enjoying many Lyon treats, promenades and have started meeting up with some of the other assistants. I met up with one last night to prendre un verre (have a drink) and tomorrow I have plans with one, possibly two others (one of which is also a Lindsay, but -ay, and she is also teaching in St. Priest, but at the elementary school!). So, wish me luck for my big Monday--two apartment viewings and nouveaux amis (new friends)!

mille bises

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bienvenue à Lyon!

Bonjour tout le monde!
So I arrived in Lyon Tuesday night, after nearly 24 hours of traveling, plus a 9 hour time difference. While waiting for my two American-sized suitcases, i met one of the other assistants, Emily. Nqturally, we had recognized each from Facebook, thank you once again Mark Zuckerberg. Thankfully one of the English teachers at my school had offered to house me while i look for an apartment; and even better, she even came to pick me up at the airport, so no lugging heavy suitcases through pubic transportation, hallelujah!

We arrived at her house around 8:30 at which point she homemade some zucchini soup for dinner, and as usual got the "you don't eat very much do you?" from her husband because although i seem to eat plenty by American standards (no one ever says that to me in the US), paradoxically, i can't seem to keep up with the French (though i still can't figure out where they put it all). Trust me, I eat PLENTY.

Anyway, she and her husband are super nice and welcoming, the only slight annoyance is that they live about 20 minutes outside the city, so once i go into the city, i have to stay until i'm ready to come home for the night, and even that is really only a problem because i'm apartment hunting and so far my rendez-vous have been scheduled at 8pm. Oh, and we can't get the wireless to work so i have to use their computer and it's evil French keyboard--so blame the typos on that!

Yesterday i wandered around Lyon for a few hours, mostly just hanging out until I had to head over the the 8th arrondissement (Lyon is split into 9 arrondissements or administrative districts like Paris is split into 20) to see my first apartment. So what did i do the pass the time? Well luckily it wa a nice sunny, Indian summer sort of day, so I just meandered along the river, down a few Vieux Lyon backstreets, and of course passed through Place Bellecour, Lyon's huge central square. I took care of a few necessities, buying phone credit, stumbling upon a Gilbert Jaune (French bookstore chain) where I was able to find a little Lyon map-book like its Parisian counterpart that i never leave home without when I'm there. I was hoping to find something like this so I don't have to whip out my giant "hello i'm a tourist" map everytime i need directions. More importantly though, i stopped at a boulangerie for some sustenance à la lyonnaise: an orangina and a tarte aux pralines roses. When I can use my own computer again, i'll be sure to post a picture of this pink delight. Last time I was in Lyon I became obsesse with their speciality, the pink prailine; which they crush up and add to an array of pastries, most commonly in a brioche or tarte. The delectable tarte has a shortbread crust and a beautiful, crunchy pink praline mixture on top. If you ever come to Lyon, make sure to try it, especially for those with an incurable sweet-tooth like me!

After wandering around some more to walk this off, i sat down in some random little park determined to make a few phone calls and set up some appointments to see apartments. Speaking on the phone in French is not one of my strong points and it definitely still freaks me out. I used to do it fairly regularly at the Chamber of Commerce, but that feels like forever ago, and besides, they always spoke English just in case. But since emails dont seem to get many responses here, i knew this was my best shot at finding something, so I finally just made myself dial and push the call button. Well it seems my fears were justified because I was a total idiot during the first call, but somehow i did manage to make an appointment for tonight, so hopefully she'll realize i'm not really as retarded as i seemed on the phone. Here's to hoping I get better at this, as i'm sure there are many more French phone calls in the near future.

At about 8:15 I showed up at the apartment I had scheduled to see that night. Located in the 8th arrondissement, it's not exactly in the center of town, but it's a quiet neighborhood that seems pretty safe and a 10 minute walk from the tram i'll take to my school in St. Priest (Pre-est, not Priest). My roommates would be a 25-year old couple from Madagascar (French-speaking). They were really friendly, and the apartmen really nice and pretty new, but the room is unfurnished, so not ideal. Plus I would prefer to be more centrally located if possible, though I know beggars can't be choosers, and yes, as the song goes, "it's hard out there for a pimp," so we'll see. I'm supposed to let them know on Friday. Hopefully I'll have a couple more options by then.

That's all for now! Wish me luck on my hunt and hopefully in a few days i'll have some good news to share! (and eventually pics as well!)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Presque Lyonnaise

Tomorrow I am once again off to France--no surprise there. But this time, it's for 7.5 months. Straight. Now we all know how I feel about France and les Francais, but after 7.5 months in the Hexagon, we'll see how many Eiffel towers still decorate my room. Just kidding...sort of ;)

I'm super excited, but beyond nervous, especially about finding an apartment. The hunt is on starting Wednesday, but for now, I just have to sit tight and pray to the Lyon apartment gods that something awesome is just waiting for me to knock on the door.

Apartment nonsense (and other bureacracy) aside, I am looking forward to really getting to know another city in France, and am interested in making all sorts of comparisions with my golden standard: Paris (don't worry, when I say golden, I say it in a tongue-in-cheek manner, I know it's far from perfect). I'm already well aware that Paris is NOT France and once outside it, it's a whole different world. I'm also looking forward to frequent 2hr tgv trips up there :)

Anywho, more packing to do before embarking on my 20 hour voyage and my next life adventure! Wish me luck, keep in touch and stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Give me a break

I'll be hanging out around here for the next month, so French posts will be on hiatus until I move to Lyon at the end of September. Till then, enjoy some Lake Tahoe pics, and if they make you feel so inclined, come visit me :)