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.