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December 31, 2010

Wes Anderson's Happy Place

I'm coming off of a week of hardcore Paris touristing with the little brother, which came on the heels of a week of hardcore Morocc'ing, both of which I fully intend to tell you about. But I want to wait till I'm back in my Digoin palace and have the leisure of staring contemplatively at the wall for hours on end, which is how I usually prefer to blog.

I spent yesterday and today at a much more leisurely pace, and tried my best not to feel too bad about wasting precious Parisian hours in a movie theater watching Love and Other Drugs (en version originale, no less) and in St. Nicholas and Kelly's apartment reading March by Geraldine Brooks.

But then the guilt was just too much, so Kelly and I hit up the NYT-approved Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. It's full of taxidermied animals and velvet wallpaper and twee hand-written explanatory signs and drawers with elaborately decorated guns in them and boar heads and stuff.

And bears!

And weird stuff in jars!

And the heads of small horned beasts arranged geometrically on the ceiling!

And stuffed gorillas about to dine near an artist's rendering of their innards!

And the insides of hunting cabins so twee you can hardly stand it!

I know of several people who would get a huge kick out of this place (Will, I'm looking especially hard at you), so why don't you just drop the pretenses and fly to France this month? I'm looking at at LEAST a 1.5-month-long visitor drought till manf gets here.

Just saying.

December 20, 2010

Morocco en bref

I'm sitting in an Internet café in Meknès right now, a city where our host Fayçal studies the science of plant protection. I promise to do an in-depth, day-by-day recap when I return to Francey, but for now a few quick observations:
  • I have experienced incredible hospitality here. Fayçal's friend Hattim has opened his home to us and made sure we have everything we need. Fayçal's mother has gone all out preparing us not one but two elaborate, multi-course Moroccan meals, during which she frequently insists, "Mange, Nina," despite my protestations that I might actually die if I force something else into my mouth. The flavors and textures and smells are all divine; it would be a happy death.
  • The city of Fès, where we're staying, is full of small, red Petits Taxis, which can hold three people at a time and cost the equivalent of 1-2€ for a cross-town voyage.
  • We visited the 1200-year-old Medina on Saturday night, designated by UNESCO as the oldest in the world. There were stands with heaps of dates, figs, dried apricots, and nuts. There were stands selling traditional caftans and the ubiquitous robes for men with pointed hoods. Stands for felt hats (including fezes, bien sur). Stands for live chickens with one glassy-eyed camel head. Goat heads. Pottery decorated in famous Fès blue. Silver. Leather. Etc...
 I'm going to head out in search of lunch, but look for more Morocco Pants on Thursday, Inch'Allah.

December 17, 2010

Holiday melancholia

Right now, at this very moment, my fiancé is sleeping in my bed at my parents' house, having just eaten a scrumptious dinner prepared by my dear mama and presumably having been schooled in Scrabble by my older brother, entertained by He Who Makes Noise (my younger brother), and philosophized to by my papa. And I am so, so jealous.

I'm not usually one who gets homesick very easily, but this is the first holiday season I've spent so far from all my peeps. Oh, how I miss them! How I miss Duluth and Minneapolis and Portland, the places where I've left the largest, most irreplaceable chunks of my heart.

I miss pumpkin pie and Blue Moon beer and doggy bags and big American breakfasts and customers always being right and cookies and gyms where everyone ignores you and always having correct subject/verb agreement and COUCHES and ovens big enough to cook two turkeys if I wanted to and wearing bright colors and cheap haircuts and hot apple cider and knitting and being 100% comprehensible (unless I'm mumbling) and personal space and people caring that Sarah Palin might be our next president and keeping Portland weird and reading real books in English and soft water and...

You. More than anything in the whole entire world, I miss you.

December 12, 2010

Bonne nuit, Francey Pantsers!

I hope this gives you as much gut-busting, creeptastic joy as it gave me. 

*Sent to me by my Main Mec, Baptiste

December 11, 2010

The most adorable two hours of my week

I ran into one of the English teachers from the local middle school at the cantine a few weeks ago, and he requested that I come into some of his classes of sixièmes (10- and 11-year-olds) to talk about about what life was like for their compatriots across the pond.

After enlisting the help of fabulous Texas middle school teacher Aberdeen, who was also in my French classes of yore at the U of M, I compiled answers to the teacher's list of questions: How long is the school day? Do the students wear uniforms? What kinds of clubs are available? What food do they have in the cafeteria? Etc. (Thanks Aberdeen! Now everyone go read her blog.)

I got to the classroom a bit early, and the students were crowding around the door, waiting for their teacher. They. Were. Adorable. Some of them seemed barely 3 feet high, and they just had the cutest little French faces. Once they discovered that I was The American talking to them that day they encircled me and chirped, "'Ello! Good afternoon! 'Ow ah yoo!"

When the teacher came he unlocked the door and they filed in, each repeating, "Good afternoon!" before going to their desk. They all stood politely beside their chairs until they were told to sit down. They started the class by practicing their questions. The teacher would prompt them in French, telling them to ask me things like whether I had any brothers or sisters. Those who knew the sentence structure would point their index finger in the air and moan, "Mister! Mister!" when they wanted to be called upon. Some of the questions I was asked included:

Do yoo lahk flowers? Do yoo lahk Michael Jackson?* What ees your address mail? Haff yoo got a boyfriend? Do yoo spek Portuguese? Do yoo spek...attend...c'est quoi le mot...Chinese? What ees your telephone numbah? Do yoo beleef in Fazzer Christmas? Do yoo lahk leesen zuh blues? What your muzzer do for job? Do yoo lahk your fiancé? Do yoo sink Barack Obama ees good president? Do yoo haff an animal pet? 'Ow old ah yoo?

For the latter I told them 25, and they whispered among themselves trying to decide what that translated to in French (numbers in another language are always so hard). One of them announced, "Elle a trente-sept ans! (She's 37 years old!)"

After my interrogation was over, I told them about life in America. They were envious that students there get out of school at around 2:30 or 3:00--here they have school until 6:00--but astonished that Americans have to go to school all day on Wednesdays. Elementary students here have Wednesdays off, and everyone else only goes to school till noon. They were similarly incensed that the kids only had about a half hour for lunch. Here they get two hours.

The Duluth Public Schools lunch menu was another source of envy. Several clutched their chests and smacked their lips when I told them their friends overseas enjoyed chicken nuggets for lunch last Friday. They also thought Rotini Hotdish sounded divine, which means I did not explain it correctly. Turkey hot dogs, however, did not sound as appetizing to them. They were impressed at the number of sports available for students, and that if you're a member of a high school team you practice your sport every day after school. Jaws literally dropped.

I offered to teach them the "We've got spirit, s-p-i-r-i-t spirit" cheer, which is always a big hit. They were amazed at the complicated clapping that accompanies it, and when I finished I got a deafening round of applause. When the bell rung the teacher told them all to thank me, and I got a chorus of adorable gratitude.

One student, who still hasn't mastered his "th" sound, beamed and yelled, "F**k yoo!"

*Fun fact: The school has a Michael Jackson club.

December 9, 2010

More creepy French mannequins delight, terrify American tourist

I know I've been posting like a mad dog this week, but I'm trying to make up for the time I'll be sans computer in MOROCCO in a mere week and change. Did I mention I'm going to MOROCCO? I'll be travelling with a very lovely lady named EJ, an assistant in Angers (pronounced /ON-zhay/, not /AIN-gurrs/). You should read her blog. Anyway, we're going to have a lovely five days in Fes wearing the eponymous hats, huffing spices and riding magic carpets. Bonus: she speaks a little Arabic.

But MOROCCO (did I mention I was going there? In like a week?) is not the reason why we're gathered here today. No sir; we're here to talk about the creepy brand of museum mannequin that France does so very well.

"I hope you don't mind if I stand here and get a really good vacant stare going, my good sir. It is ever-so-tiring to maneuver through Medieval France with these ridiculous wings on my shoulders." "Oh, not at all, Sister! I intend to do the same."

One of my cousin Kiki's very most favoritest hobbies is to go wine tasting. Living but a wee distance away from Nappa Valley in California, it's something she's able to partake in on the reg. As she is currently residing in Burgundy, it was only natural that we sample the local, world-famous brand of delicious fermented grape.

My partner in crime Missy Rococo wrangled her buddy Atomic Tom into chauffeuring us to Beaune, a city known for its beauty, hospices, and wine, of course. Every year the city holds a gigantic wine auction to benefit charity.

"No, I don't think I shall sew anything today. I'll just fondle these spools of thread and stare vacantly into the distance. Tis the new fashion, you know."

After we sampled what the caves at Patriarchie had to offer (b-t-dubs... you're left completely alone in their cellars and can sample as much of the wines on display as you dare), we made our way to the Hospices de Beaune, a hospital founded in 1443 under the rule of Burgundy Duke Philip le Bon. It features beautiful tiled roofs, examples of red-blanketed hospital beds tailored to the short men of yore, and a healthy stock of be-wimpled creepy mannequins. Jackpot!

"I'm famous 'round these parts for being one of the few people who can appear to be engaged in the task at hand. That and skinning rabbits."

December 7, 2010

Why you should always be nice to secretaries

Meet Sophie and Christianne, two of the coolest chicks Diggy Town has to offer. These fabulous ladies really take care of me. They're the ones who moved me into my palace from the cell when they learned I would be having guests. They're the ones who thought it imperative that I learned the wonders of French chocolates and promptly bought me a box. In short, they rock.

Whenever I try to thank them profusely for their generosity they say, "Bah, mais c'est normale!" 

When Christianne found out my cousin was going to be in town this week, she hatched a plan to make us real French crêpes ("Not zuh pan-cake!") one afternoon. She'd go home and make them during her lunch period, and then we would feast at precisely 16:00.

As toppings she brought Nutella, honey, and a homemade fig-almond jam. She also brought me marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) and speculoos cookies, which I plan to crumble into my speculoos paste to make chunky speculoos paste. I apologize if I just blew your mind. As we noshed on the excellent fare, she gave us advice on the best wines (Burgundy, of course) and a great Chinese buffet 45 km away. 

I translated their French for Kiki and her English for them, but they said they didn't need a translation for our grunts of satisfaction.

Thumbs up for crêpes!

December 6, 2010

Strasbourg: Capital de Noel

I spent much of my life resenting Christmas. As one of three Jewish kids at my grade level in the entire city, I had a yearly obligation to bring my menorah in and explain dreidel and respond to questions about the "Jewish Christmas," which got really old, really fast. In protest I would merely mouth the words of Christmas carols at school holiday concerts, and snottily retort, "And a Happy Hannukah to YOU!" when I was wished a Merry Christmas.

Thankfully, I eventually got over it and realized that people were not trying to rub my other-ness in my face when they genuinely wanted to know why I didn't have a Christmas tree. This year, I decided to fully embrace the holiday by going with my cousin to Strasbourg, the self-proclaimed Christmas Capital of the World, for their famed Christmas markets.

Our six-hour train ride there was the perfect way to get into the spirit. A light snow was falling as we wound our way through the Alsatian countryside, passing picturesque hilltops and frozen lakes. Our Couch Surfing host picked us up at the train station, and after a snack of St. Nicholas pastries and hot cocoa we left to freeze our tuchuses off at the Christmas Markets.

We got there right at dusk, and were delighted by the fairy lights covering the old city. We wandered around the merchants selling pretzels, choucroute (sauerkraut, lardons, and spaetzle), lots and lots of vin chaud (mulled wine) and every kind of Christmas present you could want. Ornaments. Little Alsatian houses and figurines to accompany them. Beer steins. Tablecloths. Ceramic molds for making kugelhopf. And the gift for the man who has everything: a CD from the local Peruvian pan flautist.

There were about a half-dozen pods of wooden huts grouped together in various parts of the city. The streets connecting them were all decked out with lights, ornaments, and stuffed animals. Despite the frigid cold, the decorations made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

After a few hours our feet had turned to blocks of ice, so we headed back to our host's abode to thaw out. But we were right back in the thick of the action the next morning, wearing three pairs of socks and two pairs of leggings under our jeans and boots.

We scoured an outdoor antique market, where I found a lovely vintage something-something for my dear m'ma. We also visited the Alsatian Museum (which I'd highly recommend) and the Historical Museum (meh...skip it). We tried to make it to the Cathedral in time to watch the astronomical clock do its thing, but it turns out you need tickets and by the time we got there it was sold out.

I guess that means I'll have to go back, which is quite alright with me. This place is charms-a-minute, and melted my cold Grinchy heart.

December 5, 2010

This is why I'm fat

My cousin Kiki is currently visiting, and she's rekindled my desire to eat my way through this country. The girl is fearless, and as such in the last week we have sampled fare not for the faint of heart. (Literally. This food is so rich it would kill you if you had a faint heart.)

Without further ado, this is why I'm fat:

Lunch at Le Relais des Canalous, Digoin
Entrées: Tartine de chèvre chaud et pesto sur saladine, demi-douzaine d'escargots
Plats: Joue de boeuf confite à la Bourguignoone, Cuisses de grenouilles à la persillade
Fromage: Roblochon with mustard seed, Brie de Meaux, Stinky goat
Dessert: Profiteroles au chocolat, Tiramasu

A blizzard hit Digoin Thursday night, dumping a whole five inches on the town by the next morning. As a result, the buses weren't running, and I had only a handful of kids in each class. Kiki and I had hoped to go to Beaune that afternoon to sample some of their world-class vino, but the roads were impassable so we had to stay in Diggy instead.

In order to make the best of our predicament, I suggested we get Burgundized at a nice restaurant. Like a rockstar, Kiki was all about getting the fixed price menu with escargots and frogs' legs. Unlike the none-too-appetizing specimens I'd encountered in Paray-le-Monial a few months back, these were served piping hot and drowning in a delicious parsley-garlic-butter sauce.

The frogs' legs were pan-fried and looked like chicken wings. They were to be eaten by hand, and were, "so garlicky and good and delicious!" quoth Kiki. I sampled one, and was shocked by how many itty bitty bones there were to eat around. What do frogs need so many bones for, I ask you? There's a joke in here somewhere about "jumping your bones," but I'm carb crashing and can't find it.

No matter. My beef cheeks were unbelievably tender, and accompanied by crisp, thick frites and vegatables. Next up was the cheese course. I've been trying really hard to get excited about cheese despite my mild lactose intolerance. But sometimes stinky cheese is just stinky, with no redeeming qualities. There was a representative from this genus of fromage-dom on the plate, but there was also a lovely roblochon with a spicy mustard seed exterior that I got friendly with.

Dessert was to die for. My tiramasu was the lightest, creamiest slice of heaven on earth. The chocolate sauce on the profiteroles were sinful, dark, and daring. Clearly, I could write a romance novel about this.

Dinner at Le Merle Blanc, Digoin
Entrées: Filets de bar superposés en duxelles de champignons et escargots, Oeufs en meurette à la bourguignonne
Plats: Canard confit avec purée de pommes de terre, Faux-filet de charolais et sa garniture
Fromage: Fromage blanc
Dessert: Ile flottante avec pralines rosés, Crumble aux pommes et aux noix en caramel laitier
Wine: Domaine Michel-Andreotti Montagny 2009 1er Cru Chardonnay de Bourgogne, Michel Sarrazin 2008 Givry Sous La Roche

Suzanne picked us up on Thursday night and took us back to her house, where Christian had been watching their two grandchildren. The boy approached me and looked like he wanted to tell me a secret so I knelt down. He planted a quick kiss on my cheek, and then went up to Kiki to do the same. The 4-year-old girl was next, and removed her pacifier to give me a bisou. It was the cutest thing, possibly ever.

We braved the icy roads and went to Le Merle Blanc, which Suzanne had deemed the best quality food for the price in all of Digoin. After our meal I'm inclined to agree. My entrée was delicious skewers of mushrooms and escargots on toasts, with a gratinéed cheese topping. Kiki sampled the local specialty oeufs en meurettes, eggs in a red wine sauce with lardons. She said it's the best thing she's eaten in France so far (she's had Ladurée macarons, so that's really saying something).

The next course brought me deliciously rich duck confit, made from the same beast used to produce foie gras. The creamy mashed potatoes made the perfect complement. Kiki's Charolais steak (another local specialty) had a chunk of herb butter melting on top, and was flanked by chestnuts and cabbage. She was already getting incredibly full, and could only finish about half of what was on her plate. France, please get doggy bags already.

She was the only one with a cheese course ,and had to really psych herself up to be able to stand even a spoonful on such a full belly. But, like I said, she's a rockstar. She liberally sprinkled sugar on her fromage blanc-- very fresh cheese that almost has a yogurt consistency. Christian informed us that he prefers to eat it with salt, pepper, and garlic.

All the while, we were downing the excellent Burgundy wines that Christian had selected-- a very floral red from Givry and an impeccable Chardonnay from Saint Vallerin. Myam.

I must admit, I was more enamored with Kiki's dessert than my own. She got an apple cobbler in a divine caramel sauce. I was lucky enough to get a bite, and had to restrain myself from grabbing the rest and running away to savor it in private. I had wanted to try the Ile Flottante, meringue in an anise-flavored English cream. It was alright, but not really my bag.

Chez Couch Surfing Host, Strasbourg
Entrée: Sauerkraut topped with sliced magrette (smoked duck breast)
Plat: Chicken sausage, andouille (blood) sausage, apple sauce, chestnuts
Dessert: Tarte flambée

We arrived in Strasbourg on Friday afternoon for a weekend of Christmas marketing. After dropping our stuff off at our host's apartment, we braved the frigid temperatures to go back in the city and enjoy the lights, gift displays, and vin chaud. We were pretty frozen solid by the time we returned a few hours later, and we were more than ready for some hearty Alsatian fare.

Both Kiki and I adore sauerkraut, and were delighted by the flavor combination of the pungent cabbage with the flavorful duck. She was brave enough to try the blood sausage, but I opted instead for the infinitely more Kosher chicken. The healthy portions of chestnuts and homemade apple sauce left me full to bursting, but I of course squeezed in a slice of pie.

So when they have to roll me down the aisle at my nups, you'll know why.

*One more food-related revelation from the weekend: hot orange juice with honey. Try it. You're welcome.*

December 2, 2010

Those Puritan Hearts Will Go On

Today I played an American trivia version of Jeopardy with some seniors.

A: This is the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to New England in 1620. 

Q: What is... Titanic?

December 1, 2010

From the mouths of babes

Last evening it started blizzarding in Digoin, and didn't quit until this morning.  I thought for sure classes would be canceled since the buses weren't running anywhere in the Saone-et-Loire department, but apparently they're obligated to have classes, even if the only people who are able to show up are those who live in the dormitory.

I had tiny numbers in all my classes, and not a soul showed up to my 10:00 one. I had only three students in my last class of the day, and decided to use my Chat Pack in lieu of a real lesson. The Chat Pack consists of hundreds of questions intended to get a conversation started, everything from, "If you won $1 million, what are the first three things you would do or buy?" to "If you could be anywhere in the world on New Year's Eve, where would you be and why?"

Luckily the three kids in the class were real characters, and gave the following amusing answers to the Chat Pack's scintillating questions:

Q: If you could uninvent any invention, what would it be?
A: Crazy people.

Q: What movie had the biggest emotional impact on you?
A: La Rafle (a film about the horrors of the Holocaust). And Titanic.

Q: Who is the most famous person you've ever met in real life?
A: My boyfriend (one of the two other students in the room).
Q: Where is your boyfriend famous?
A: Everywhere in France.
Q: What is he famous for?
A: Being handsome.

Q: If you were to die tomorrow, what trait would you want your friends to remember you for?
A: That I'm lucky.
Q: Do you mean that you're lucky to have your friends in your life?
A: No. I'm lucky in games.

Q: If you were to write an autobiography, what would the title be?
A: My Horrible Life.

November 24, 2010

How to make a French person laugh

When asked why you decided to come to France, tell them, "J'ai voulu beaucoup des aventures avant de me marier."  Literal translation: "I wanted to have many adventures before getting married." What it really means: "I wanted to be very promiscuous before getting married."

Ask for une trompette (trumpet) when what you want is une trombone (paperclip).

During a conversation about Thanksgiving, tell your French friend how hard it is to be far from your amants (lovers) instead of your bien-aimés (loved ones).

Give your height in kilometers.

When politely motioning someone to go in front of you, tell them "Va t'en!" (get the frick out) instead of "Allez-y!" (go ahead).

November 22, 2010

Francegiving 2010: The Turkey's Revenge

Last week I asked my students if they knew what was happening in America this Thursday. Blank stares. It's a big holiday, I hinted. Nothing. It's a big holiday that happens in America but not France, I said. Eyes glazed over. "It's Thanksgiving!" I stage-whispered. A light bulb went on over some students' heads, who turned to explain it to their still-confused comrades. "C'est Noel pour les américaines," they said. "Tout le monde reçoit des cadeaux." (It's Christmas for Americans. Everyone gets presents.) Where they are getting this idea, I do not know.

My favorite muggle Missy and I decided it was high time to show the Frenchies what Thanksgiving was really about. We planned a grand feast, and invited all our Burgundian BFFs: Suzanne and Christian; Baptiste, Bonus Jonas, and their parents; and Thomas, an English teacher at Missy's school.

Decorating tools at our disposal: seven sheets of construction paper, one black gel ink pen, and a pair of children's left-handed scissors. All things considered, I think the turkey turned out pretty well, despite his unfortunate feet and lack of gobble.

Missy arrived on Saturday so we could start plotting the next day's feast. After getting the necessary preparations out of the way (a viewing of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, natch), we set out in the drizzle for LeClerc, a supermarket 30 minutes away, on foot. We spent more than an hour finding and considering the most succulent ingredients known to Digoin. Whole turkeys wouldn't be available until December for Christmas, so we had to make do with turkey legs. It was just as well, really, since the size of my oven is better suited for elves than human beings.

By the time we had finished amassing all our other ingredients (50 kilos' worth, give or take a few grams), it had begun to rain in earnest, and the prospect of lugging all our loot back to the lycée was thoroughly unappetizing. We resorted to accosting patrons leaving the building, pleading with them to take pity on our feeble selves and ferry us home. One kindly gentleman at last relented. I've said it before and I'll say it again: God bless Diggy and all her lovely, non-serial killer, ride-giving inhabitants.

Our table may have had mismatching plates and a rather ridiculous clementine pyramid as centerpiece, but at least it had what was really important: wine.

We got up early yesterday to gather a few remaining items (such as scissors and construction paper for decorations), and then set to work cooking. We had to get a bit creative, as my kitchen here isn't home to the luxurious gadgets I'm used to in the States. In lieu of a masher, we overboiled the potatoes and used a pair of forks to get our mashed potatoes nice and creamy. Since we didn't possess a roasting pan or even a baking dish, we had to divide our turkey legs among three metal pans and constantly rotate them through the two oven racks to ensure even cooking. We didn't have tongs to flip the turkey, so we made do with half a plastic salad tosser and a slotted spoon-type instrument. We didn't have a beautiful cornucopia for a centerpiece, so we made a tower of clementines.

Our guests started to arrive at the all-American dinner time of 6 p.m., and since I don't have a sitting room they were forced to congregate awkwardly in my entrance hall as Missy and I made the finishing touches. They brought me not one, not two, but three bottles of champagne, some homemade crème de cassis, a bottle of Burgundy, and luscious chocolates. Nom.

This little elf oven is where all the magic happened.
With the call of "A table!" we ushered our friends into the dining room, and urged them to serve themselves, American-style. There wasn't a whole lot of room on the tiny plates for anything but the massive turkey leg, meaning we had quite a bit of leftovers. Over the delicious pear cake that Thomas brought, we went around the room and said what we were thankful for. My French was at a dastardly level all evening due to my nerves (mainly fear that the turkey was undercooked and I was going to kill everyone with salmonella), and I was feeling a bit emotional after the Burgundy and the champagne, but I managed to make it through my thanks for my family, friends, the health of the same, having such wonderful faces around my table, and the opportunity to be in La Belle France. A bit more heartfelt than last year's thanks for indoor plumbing and the fact that I'm a vertebrate.

Suzanne was thankful for Facebook, which had brought us together. Bonus Jonas was thankful for his intelligence. Baptiste was shy and said his thanks in English so half the table wouldn't understand: "I am thankful to be feasting my first Thanksgiving, and I hope to feast Thanksgiving next year in the United States." 

Missy et moi, Francegiving hôtesses extraordinaires
And with that, Father Thanksgiving swooped through the water heater and showered us all with maize and French's onion topping.

PS: My Thanksgiving care package from the 'rents was held up at customs and thus is arriving today, a wee bit late for my feast. If anyone has any ideas of what, besides sauce, I can make with a gigantic bag of cranberries I'm all ears.

November 18, 2010

Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé!

I know, I know exactly what you're thinking. "Another post about wine? What are you, some kind of lush?" To that I say: touché.

Today was the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine in its tender infancy of but six weeks in the bottle. My Diggy BFF Suzanne called me up and asked if I wanted to go to a soirée with her to celebrate, and eat some pot au feu while we were at it. "You're going to think all we do in France is eat and drink wine!" she said. To that I say: "Et...bon?"

The Beaujolais herself, fresh outta the cave.

Suzanne and Christian's English friends Bryan and Pita came round to pick me up, and Christian explained that the whole Beaujolais phenomenon has become a commercialized tourist trap to get foreigners, particularly the English, to buy this très young wine. Bryan told me there are races in England to see who can get their hands on the very first bottle.

We arrived at the restaurant and met two of S and C's other Diggy buddies, and cracked open a brand spanking new bottle toute de suite. Apparently the bouquet contained aromas of cherries and bananas, but my palate is so undeveloped I resort to making nonsense comments like, "This wine is sly, but witty," or "It tastes awkward and menacing."

Pot au feu, containing boeuf, carrots, potatoes, leeks, and love.
Next came the pot au feu, a beef (kind of but not really) stew served with the carrots, leeks, and potatoes it was cooked with. We passed around Dijon mustard and a very coarse seat salt to sprinkle on top. It was the perfect hearty meal for this chilly November day, and accompanied the wine quite well. (I suppose I should say the wine was a good accompaniment to the meal rather than vice versa, but today was all about the Beaujolais. Plus I'm a lush. Shhh.)

That big bowl in the center contains a heaping pile of calves' femurs, prized for their creamy marrow innards.
 Then our waitress came out with a rare treat: a big steaming bowl of cow femurs, the marrow inside just waiting to be spread upon a slice of baguette. When in France, right? So I dug in and spread a gelatinous, greasy spoonful onto my bread. Mmmm... offal.

November 14, 2010

In which I get thoroughly soused at 10 a.m.

The program I'm participating in over here in Franceland allows applicants to choose the top three regions they'd like to be placed in. Because my previous sojourns here had been restricted to the Paris region, I really had not a clue what to choose. Should I go to Brittany, where crêpes and cider reign supreme? Should I go to Strasbourg, where I could just hop, skip, and jump into Germany whenever I so choose? What about the south of France, where I could spend all winter on the beach, convincing myself that I was getting tan?

Domaine René Fleurot in Santenay is guarded by a vicious taxidermied weasel. So don't get any ideas.
In the end, Burgundy was my top pick, for no other reason than I had just seen Julie and Julia and thought bœuf bourguignon looked pretty good. And wine! Wine. I didn't know a whole lot about wine, but I figured going to the home of some of France's most celebrated could make me into a connoisseur. Or a least a wino.

Les caves de spook
I got a good start on a career as the latter yesterday. My buddy Suzanne had invited me to go with her and her husband to a cave in Santenay, the first city on the Cote de Beaune. She was kind enough to let Missy, my best buddy in the entire Saône-et-Loire, tag along too. Suzanne's brother-in-law had organized a group of business associates to taste at 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning, also known in France as wine o'clock.

After tasting a few premier cru whites, we headed downstairs to the spookiest, scariest, horror movie caves this side of Transylvania. There was gobs of thick dust hanging from the ceiling and coating the oldest bottles, some of which dated back to the 20s. Those gems were locked in their own special spooky cellar, and one of the fellow tasters joked that if we weren't good we'd end up there too. Scared straight.

So... much... wine
We were with a real connosieur, someone who was able to take one taste of the wine and guess its year correctly.  He taught us to look at the color (older white wine is more yellow; older reds are more brick colored rather than purple), swirl the glass to "open" the flavor, and slurp it in your mouth to get the full effect.

I lost count on how many whites we tasted, but there must have been at least six and maybe as many as nine. Thank Bacchus Suzanne's brother-in-law (or his wife, more likely) had thought to provide us with all manner of snacky-poos. Salami on toast, smoked salmon on toast, paté on toast, foie gras on toast, toast on toast...

Quoth Louis Pasteur, "Le vin est la plus saine et la plus hygiénique des boissons." (Wine is the healthiest and most hygienic of all drinks)
We thought we were done, until the proprietor busted out the reds. The first one was totally nom, and Missy and I each got a bottle for our upcoming Thanksgiving in France: The Turkey's Revenge (a topic for another post).

Missy and I were swaying a bit after drinking the equivalent of an entire bottle of wine before noon, but don't judge. It was wine o'clock in France.

November 11, 2010

Dessert chez un vrai pâtissier

I've been hinting broadly to my students that I have more leisure hours than I could possibly fill. Last week a junior in one of my classes approached me and offered to remedy that situation. I was pleased as punch when he invited me to go to Vichy on Saturday, for as a WWII nerd it was my not-so-secret wish to see the place where Pétain played the puppet. We spent the entire afternoon there with his parents, brother Valentin and dog Corneille, before going to their home for dinner. I suffered from permagrin upon my return chez moi at midnight, for his family had made me feel truly, absolutely at home for the first time since I got here.

I emailed Baptiste this week to say that if he and his brother wanted extra English practice I would have nothing but time today since we had the day off from school in honor of Armistice Day. He replied asking if I would like to join him at his grandparents' house for dessert.

Baptiste's grandfather is a retired pastry chef. The answer to the above question would be, "No duh."

Baptiste's grandfather with his chef d'oeuvre
I arrived at his grandparents' beautiful home near the canal full of stately 17th and 18th century furniture at precisely 2:00 and, after a round of "les bises" (kisses on both cheeks) I was offered a seat for the grand presentation of the gateau. Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of this confection, but it was puff pastry with a mousse interior, topped with candied almonds. Oh my. It was pure heaven. 

Gateau of Dreams, rosé champagne, and china made in Digoin's own ceramic factory (natch)
Though I had eaten a light lunch of pumpkin soup in anticipation of this treat, I was unable to finish the gargantuan slice I was given. That's probably just as well, for I have recently discovered that calories do indeed exist in France, and it might be time to cool it a little on the Nutella and the Speculoos and the butter. Just a little.

In further social news, my Facebook friend Suzanne called today to invite me to go wine tasting at a Burgundy vineyard this Saturday. Diggy, I gots such mad love for your peeps.

November 9, 2010

Father Thanksgiving

Me: What's a subject you'd like to discuss when we have our classes together?
Student: Sanksgeefink!
Me: Tell me what you know about Thanksgiving.
Student: Fazzer Chreesmas come and gif everyone muhnee.
Me: Um... Are you thinking of Christmas? Father Christmas waits until Christmas to come. He doesn't come on Thanksgiving.
Student: But yes! Fazzer Chreesmas come and gif zuh muhnee and zuh geefts.
Me: I promise you, there is no Father Christmas on Thanksgiving. There's a big meal and people spend time with their families. No presents.
Student: But I saw eet on zuh Seempsons!

Toussaint Vacation Days Five and Six: Grenoble and Lyon

I got a little slowed down in my constant updates. I've suddenly become very popular. In the past few days I've had so many meaningful interactions with the townsfolk that it would make your head spin. In fact, I'd much rather write to you about that than about my last two days of vacay, so I'm going to make this one a bit short so I can move on to bigger and better things.

Back to Grenoble. Our first stop on Saturday morning was the Musée de la Résistance, which details all the things Grenoblins did to resist the Nazis. As it turns out, they did a lot of things. Many, many things, none of which I can remember, in fact.

Rabbit trail: I've started picking up some of the English phrases the Frenchies are fond of using. It's very common for them to say "En fait," (in fact) at the beginnings and ends of the sentences, and it makes sense they would translate it when speaking English. I had lunch with some of my students today, and one of them said, "In fact, I do not like making my homework on the weekends, in fact." FACT.

After a stop at Gus and Line's to have leftovers for lunch, we returned to the Musée Dauphinois to check out the ski exhibits, which we had skipped the day before. They had ski examples from all of time and from every conceivable material, which were probably fascinating if you had actually been downhill skiing more than once, and if that one time you didn't end up in hospital. Ahem.

We went to one more exhibit on the Holocaust called, "Spoilé!" and then raced to get our bags so we could make our train to Lyon. Kelly accidentally left her scarf there, and Line's going to send back it to her for free. That's how cool she is.

We arrived an hour and a half later in soggy Lyon, and went on a forced march to our soggy hotel, where our room smelled like gerbil food. Despite being totally exhaustified (vacations are hard!), we dragged ourselves to the Old City to eat dinner in a bouchon, a type of family-owned restaurant that Lyon is famous for. On the way there, I stopped at a supermarket to stock up on some staples, since I knew everything in Digoin would be closed when I got back Sunday, and they would remain closed on Monday in observance of Toussaint. We spied a bouchon that advertised a 15E fixed price meal, but only until 8 p.m. As it was 7:55, we hurried inside and asked the hostess if we could still get it.

She took one look at my sac en plastique with a bag of roasted chicken potato chips and cans of tuna inside and promptly sat us between the kitchen and the bathroom, warning us that we could only be there if we promised to leave by 9. I ordered a delicious smoked salmon salad as my entrée, and was desperate for a basket of baguette to nom the last morsels of sauce. As we were situated directly adjacent to the kitchen, I could see the waiters bringing bread to every other patron in the place but us. Our waiter managed to whisk away my plate before I could make my request.

Just before he was about to scurry off after bring the main courses, I asked for some bread. I saw him go into the kitchen and remove all the bread from one of the baskets save for three slices. Shocking treatment, I tell you.

One stop at a crepe stand for a chestnut cream confection later and we returned to Gerbil Land.

Notre Dame de Fourviere
The next day we hit up the Roman ruins, the beautiful basilica Notre Dame de Fourviere, and the Musée des Tissus et Arts Decoratif. We were bone tired. Could-not-bear-to-hit-up-another-tourist-site-if-our-life-depended on it tired. So instead we decided to go to Quick (France's version of McDonald's) for lunch and see The Social Network afterward.

When you order American food in France you have to try to say it with a French accent. You can't order a hamburger; you must request a 'amboorgahr. You can't order the rustic fries on the menu; you have to ask for frites roosteek. The cash register lady recognized that we were Anglophones and insisted on practicing her English, though when we responded in kind she couldn't understand us. It was a total communication melt down.

We headed across the street to the theater and stood in an epicly long line, only to find out that they only accepted French debit cards (carte bleue) and American Express. Thus we were forced to go to a cash machine and milk our American bank accounts even drier with the terrible exchange rate plus ATM fee. We stood in the ginormous line again and finally--finally!-- got into the theater and had the pleasure of being the only people laughing at many of the jokes.

Lyon really got me down, man. I suppose it was a good way to end an awesome vacation, though, because it made me look forward to going home. And Digoin really does feel like home now. More on that later.

November 2, 2010

Toussaint Vacation Day Four: Grenoble

I want to you know that I have tasted heaven and its name is speculoos. As you may recall, this manna first passed my lips in Arles, when I was suffering from a horrible clogged face and couldn't verify its deliciousness because I couldn't smell/taste a blooming thing. After days of searching, I finally picked up a jar of Speculoos a Tartiner at the supermarket this afternoon and it is amazing. Don't be surprised if I buy a crate of this to take back with me to the States, and dole it out as gifts for only very important occasions. Your half birthday. Presidents Day. Armistice Day. I'm not going to share this stuff for just anything.

Um... writing that made me hungry and I need to go get some more.

OK I'm back. Whew, that was delicious. Good thing I got an extra baguette on the way home. Alvays sinking, I am...

The périphérique balls we took to the top of the mountain.
Kelly and I woke up on Friday morning after having finally gotten a great night sleep on the bed of clouds. We didn't have to spoon each other for warmth-- there was a gigantic and perfect down comforter that kept things cozy. We went back upstairs to Gus and Line's apartment, where Line was waiting for us with homemade bread, homemade fig jam, and a tea infusion. I think I'm in love with her.

Gus scolded her for keeping us inside talking on this glorious Grenoblin day, so off we went to take the périphérique to the top of the mountain for some incredible views. I could not have been happier. The sun was shining, it was actually warm, I was wearing my super cool new red imitation leather jacket I'd gotten in Dijon for 29€, I could breathe through my nose, and I was gazing upon the most beautiful mountain vistas I'd ever seen in my life. I could have stayed up there all day.

Look at all the patrimony down there!
But alas, one needs to eat. We descended our mountain perch and found some sustenance at a sandwich shop in the old city. Our next destination, naturally, was the Musée des Automates, because robots are like family to me. It was closed when we got there, so we amused ourselves by going to the gare to arrange train travel to Lyon for the next day and stopping in a patisserie to sample the local specialties.

Along with Chartreuse, which comes in yellow and green flavors that are equally alcoholic, Grenoble is famous for their caramel walnut cakes. Uff-dah, were they good. If I thought it would have survived I would have bought one and saved it to send home as a present. Unfortunately, there was just no way, and I was forced to gobble a mini one right then and there, and buy two more the next day that weren't long for this world.

Having wasted enough time, we returned to the Automates museum only to see that they charged more than 5€ per person. In what appears to be a pattern, this turned us off of the museum and instead we headed for the (free) Musée Dauphinois, which is nestled in one of the foothills.

Kelly tried to take a picture of me jumping for joy. Instead I look like I'm being carried off by a condor.
Did you know that the word dauphin can either mean dolphin or heir to the throne? I have to wonder which sense of the word came first.  Either way, the French must revere the dolphin as a very noble beast. Aha! Wikipedia to the rescue:
In the 12th century, the local ruler Count Guigues IV of Albon (c.1095–1142) bore a dolphin on his coat of arms and was nicknamed le Dauphin (French for dolphin). His descendants changed their title from Count of Albon to Dauphin of Viennois. The state took the name of Dauphiné.
In any case, the Musée Dauphinois concerns itself with the history, culture, and, yes, PATRIMONY of the people living in the surrounding area, namely the Alps. Much like the Museum of Burgundian life, there were artifacts from la vie quotidienne (minus all the creepy mannequins). Did you know that the Alps farmspeople and their animals lived together under the same roof in the winter? It reduced heating costs, apparently. I can just imagine the townies coming across such a situation and yelling, "You live in a barn! No, seriously! You live in a barn! With your animals! In a barn!" That must have been really tough for the Alpers to take...

The museum's first floor was dedicated to technology, which is a big industry in Grenoble. The exhibits included... robots! Take that, expensive Musée des Automates!

My robo-bretheren
After leaving the museum we embarked on what was easily the most frustrating part of our journey. We had promised Gus and Line a dinner that night to thank them for being the Best Hosts in the World. There are only so many things I can produce with neither measuring cups nor a recipe on hand, and if you're a longtime Neenuh friend odds are I've made them for you more than once. We were going to start with goat cheese and pear crostinis, with a main course of orzo with roasted vegetables, feta, and pine nuts. Dessert was going to be Lynn Rosetto Casper's wine-and-honey-marinated figs with marscapone to dip them in.

If you haven't figured this out by now, France is not like the United States. In the US you can get pretty much any ingredient you want at any time of the year. They taste a lot fresher when they're in season, of course, but it doesn't need to be June for you to find strawberries. In France, they seem to only stock the produce that's available at that moment in time. Which is great for the environment and all, but really maddening when you're looking for specific ingredients for a specific meal.

One thing I've found particularly shocking is the paucity of fresh herbs. Can't a girl get a little basil up in hurr? I was also lacking a non-wrinkled red bell pepper, green onions, eggplant and red onion, all key ingredients in my dish. I ended up having to make a poor man's version of my orzo with zucchini and slightly less-wrinkled yellow bell pepper, pine nuts, and feta, with a pasta that was close to orzo but was not orzo. Oh, the shame. I promised everyone involved that if they ever popped over for dinner in the US I would make them the real thing and their mouths would explode in happy.

The Best Hosts in the World, Line and Gus.
 All was not lost, however, for the pear and goat cheese appetizers and the fig and marscapone dessert were declared delicious.

Next up: another day in Grenoble, and a soggy trip to Lyon.

Toussaint Vacation Day Three: Dijon and Grenoble

I woke up before 6 a.m. I still haven't adjusted to Daylight Savings Time, which happened in France this weekend. After two hours of reading a dear friend's blog from her time here during the 07-08 school year, I decided to scrap my plans for a morning nap and get back on that blogging train.

Thursday was the big day of my medical appointment in Dijon, the one I first heard about during my orientation in the beginning of October. We needed to get examined to make sure we didn't have TB, and as a present for good health they would give us a stamp in our passports that would allow us to leave the country and re-enter. Back then they told us it was going to be on Oct. 19, the day before our second orientation in Montceau-les-Mines. Being the responsible lass I am, I immediately sent away my birth certificate for a 39€ official translation (a requirement of the visit, they said). I also gathered every conceivable document they could possibly need, including my college transcript, to bring along.

Then they emailed to say just kidding, the appointment will actually be on Oct. 28 in the middle of your vacation. Hope you didn't already make plans!

The one thing I still needed on the morning of my appointment was a passport-style photo. I got up and out the door of my hotel at an ungodly hour so I could get some snaps at the train station's photo booth. You're not supposed to smile for official French portraiture, but I did my best to smize. The result made me look like an exhausted stroke victim. But hey, at least my hair looked good.

Pretty much the best photo ever taken of me.
Kelly had never been to Dijon before, so we spent the morning before my appointment sight seeing. First we went to the Creepiest (and Best) Museum in the World and grilled a young docent about her thoughts on the ubiquitous mannequins. Did she ever change their clothes? (Answer: No.) Did she ever change their positions? (Answer: No.) Did she ever put them in different rooms? (Answer: No.) But the guy mannequin in the baby cradle scene looks hungry. Shouldn't he be in the kitchen scene instead? (Answer: No.)

On the second floor they have recreations of several storefronts, including one for candy. I tested one of the lids to see if I could catch a whiff of stale, late-1800s bonbon, and incurred the wrath of the Upstairs Docent. She spent the rest of our visit shadowing us to make sure we didn't get any other wise ideas.

After leaving the Creepiest (and Best) Museum in the World, we headed for the Notre Dame church that bears an owl statue on one of its corners. If you rub the owl with your left hand you're supposed to get any wish you desire. Except, apparently, for a shower of gold doubloons to come raining from the sky into your pocket. Trust me. I tried.

Kelly is mini and can barely reach the owl!
We had lunch at a pretty swanky place, where Kelly ordered the local specialty oeufs en meurette, eggs poached in a heavenly white wine sauce. I ordered spaghetti bolognese because I'm a cheap jerk. I could have really used that gold, Monsieur La Chouette.

True to form, I had a burning desire to get to my medical appointment an hour early. I had only originals of many of the documents I had brought with me, and had tried in vain all morning to find a photocopier to make duplicates. Dijon suffers from a serious lack of FedExes and Kinkos. FYI. I tried the machine at the post office, but it was broken (of course). The lady there directed me to the nearby department store Galleries Lafayette, which was "Exceptionellement fermé" all day so they could do inventory. Of course! Of course they were. So I guess I thought if I went early enough to my appointment the kindly front desk lady would allow me to copy whatever I wanted, and for free. Except this is France, and the offices were closed until 1:35 for lunch, at which point the crowd of about 40 people (all with 1:30 appointments) swarmed the door.

I managed to be second in line, and after presenting my summons from the Office of Immigration and Integration, I sat in the waiting room for about 10 minutes. The doctor there asked me if I had any health concerns, anything I thought she should know about. I kept my bubonic plague, malaria, and diphtheria a secret, but told her everything else. Then she asked me for my weight and height. The metric system still stumps me (thanks a lot, America!), but thankfully I have a conversion system on my new genius phone. "Would you like my weight in kilos?" I asked. "Yes, that would be preferable," she deadpanned. I gave her the number. "And my height in...kilometers?" I asked. "Uh... no. One uses kilometers for highways," she said, stifling a guffaw at the immeasurable stupidity of Americans.

In the next room I was told to strip to the waist and then enter the x-ray machine, which had two bulls eyes on the wall to indicate where I was to aim my bosoms. "Plus proche! (Closer!)" the brusque X-Ray Doyenne demanded, as she flattened me against the cold plastic partition. I got to keep the x-ray as a door prize, and it would appear from the faint outline of my flesh that I'm alarmingly lopsided. Also, they only document they needed from me was my Attestation of Logement, which says I officially have a roof over my head.

That horrific experience over, I was free to do what I came to Dijon to do: taste mustard.

I quite liked the chèvre mustard. Myam myam.
Outside, of course, they were rioting. Pourquoi? Pourquoi pas! The streets were filled with smoke, and every now and then they would light something in the street that made a terrific noise. Dijon go BOOM! A month ago, this would have really freaked me out. Now it's just annoying. Yes, yes, I know the government is trampling all over your rights but could you just please go back to work? Please? Who knows? You might really like it. I know I would.

What are they manifesting? Probably destiny.
Thanks to this selfsame strike, our train to Grenoble had been canceled, and we got to the train station about 30 minutes before the one train we could take was set to leave. We waited patiently in line to buy tickets as the time ticked away, and finally got to an agent 10 minutes before go time. She told me she couldn't sell me a reservation for my train pass because they were all sold out. With the stress of our imminent departure making her frantic, she somehow gave me a 1€50 first class ticket to Lyon, and a 19€ adult 2nd class ticket to Grenoble. As was typical for this trip, no one even checked my ticket on the train, so I kicked myself for shelling out.

Finally, finally, after much durm und strang, we weary travelers two arrived in the promised land of Grenoble, the land woefully lacking in Patrimony according to our dear Arlesian friend. We trudged through the city center to our hosts' apartment. We were enthusiastically greeted by Line (pronounced /leen/) and her husband Gus (pronounced /goose/) as delicious dinner-type odors wafted about our famished heads. Kelly had contacted them through, and they came very highly recommended. They ushered us into the salon for some wine and port before giving us the best surprise of the trip: the aforementioned delicious odors were from dinner! Dinner we could eat too!

We ate herbes de Provence-y roasted chicken, onions, and tomatoes, with salad and squash au gratin. Cheese course! Fruit for dessert! Heaven. After dinner, Gus poured us shots of Chartreuse, a spirit that gave the color its name. It's made with a secret recipe that is closely guarded by a nearby sect of monks. It's 54% alcohol.

With that, they sent us to bed in our own private apartment (!) on the other side the building, with a bed made of clouds. We were so, so happy.

Coming up: Grenoble, Grenoble, Grenoble! My new favorite city.

November 1, 2010

Toussaint Vacation Day Two: Arles and Dijon

I had major plans for today, my first back chez moi in 10 days. Most of them included laundry. Since I only have 3€24 in small change to my name and a load costs 6€, and everything's closed today for Toussaint, there's nowhere to get change even if I did free even more cash from my American account. So that gives me license to have spent the ENTIRE day on my computer, right? There was really nothing else to do. I swear. Nothing. (Stop looking at me, sink full of dirty dishes!)

Moving on. We woke up on our second morning in Arles to the sounds of Cécile fighting with her alarm clock. "No way!" she yelled when it first went off. "I do not want! I so do not want!"

Our lovely hostess Cécile chez elle.
A brief aside to tell you how adorable Cécile's English is: whilst hanging out this summer, we were discussing how weird it is that in French the subject and object are reversed when you're talking about someone/thing missing another. Ex: In English you would say, "I miss customer service." In France you would say, "La service à la clientèle me manque (Customer service misses me)." I asked her if it would be funny if I said, "Je manque le frommage" instead of "Le frommage me manque." "Yes," she said. "Because then, is like the cheese need you." She'll also stare at you intently while you're talking and then say, "Sorry, I do not listen to you," when she means she didn't hear or understand what you said. Mignon!

After Cécile got her booty to class that morning, Kelly and I enjoyed a breakfast of leftover baguette, homemade jam we found in the fridge, and swamp tea. We had been introduced to swamp tea the day before. It's when you have loose leaf tea but no bag, so you're forced to fish the sodden tea leaves out with a fork, say, and pile them on an old receipt, say. The level of difficulty is exponentially increased when you're drinking from a dark bowl that camouflages errant leaves. 

We headed out in search of the museum with the really old statue face they found in the river that runs through Arles and may or may not represent Julius César. We got a bit lost getting there, which wasn't so bad when we happened to meander past an olive tree. Now, I've never met an olive I didn't love, so I went ahead and popped one right in my mouth. Holy bitter nasty poison. My sense of taste chose that moment to come rip-roaring back after its vacation, causing me to "Kak! Kak! Kak!" all the way down the street. 

Oh, so many places to go!
We finally arrived at the museum after a few additional wrong turns, and I suddenly lost any and all interest in going inside. I'd already had about as much patrimony as I could take. Cécile called, wondering where we were. We told her we'd gotten really lost (true) and weren't able to find the museum (lie) but now we were hungry for lunch (so, so true). After a couple of false starts we ended up at a place called La Mule Blanche, where they served bull meat. Cécile was really insistent that we try the regional specialty, especially since we weren't able to see the statue face that may or may not have been Julius Cesar personified. 

I ordered the boeuf stew made with bull, and Kelly ordered a glorious salad with quail eggs, duck cutlets, and a hefty portion of foie gras on the top. We ate about half each and then switched. Did you know you're not supposed to spread foie gras? It's not pâté, you animal. In any case, it was really f'ing delicious, topped only by the raspberry millefeuille with English cream and meringue cookies for dessert. This may have been the best meal I ever had in France.

Bull bourguigno
 We then had to bid our hostess adieu and take off for the train station. We were treated to the most sunshiney glorious weather as we rolled through Provence in our Harry Potter-esque train compartment. The only thing not charming about that train ride was that Kelly beat me in Scrabble. By a lot. 

Our next stop was Dijon, where I was required to go for my medical visit that would garner me a very important stamp in my passport that would allow me to keep all my limbs if the government ever found out how often I buy purchases under 2€ for the express purpose of breaking a 20 into more manageable sums. Or something.

After a very blasé dinner in one of the few bistros still open, we happened upon a sight that made Kelly squeal in delight (rhyme!): Workers hanging Christmas lights in the streets. Seeing this was one of her long-cherished dreams since girlhood. And the French government made it happen for her, by forcing me to cut my trip in Arles short so I could get that shiny new stamp. And you said they never granted any wishes...

Christmas lights go up in Dijon, joy explodes in Kelly's heart.
 Next up: medical visit in Dijon, meeting awesome Couch Surfing Grenoblins in Grenoble.

Toussaint Vacation Day One: Arles

Remember how I'm only working here seven months, but I still get two months' worth of vacation in that time? I got my first chunk of vacay last week, which was well-deserved after my first two arduous days of actually teaching the students by myself.

That means I probably shouldn't complain about the fact that I opened my French bank account more than a month ago, and I still can't use my check card because I don't have the PIN code, which has probably arrived at the school but it's a national holiday and I might not be able to get my mail until school reopens on Wednesday, which might not even make a difference because I haven't been paid yet even though I was supposed to be on Oct. 26, and thus I've had to use my American debit card and I imagine it's going to be a nightmare to transfer funds back to that account so I don't overdraft after my next student loan payment. So I won't complain about that one bit.

Ahem. I plan to do a post for each city, and then aggregate them into an overview post on Truth Pirates so you can read only the parts that interest you (although it's bound to be entertaining so you should probably just read all of it). Allez-y!

My travel buddy was Kelly, who is doing the same thing I'm doing but in Paris. She and her husband are kind enough to host me in their love nest whenever I pop up to Paris, which has been alarmingly often. Kelly is really f'ing funny, super good at saying "merci" and sounding French, and teaches me a lot of useful things, like that WTF can mean "Welcome to France." She has also been instrumental in ensuring that I don't die by showing me a number of dishes than can easily be prepared in teeny tiny French kitchens.

Kelly getting blown away by Arles
The strike, as always, made traveling difficult. The French don't like to tell you what platform your train will be on until 5-10 minutes before the train is scheduled to depart. This results in huge masses of people crowded around the departures board, getting cricks in their necks from gazing up. As soon as a platform number appears, a great horde will detach from the larger mass and run there as fast as they can to ensure good luggage storage and a seat. Yes, in these dire times of strike, your ticket purchase does not necessarily guarantee you a seat on the train. Ours was stuffed to the brim, with people packed into the aisles for about an hour before things thinned out enough for them to sit down.

We were going to Arles to stay with my friend Cécile, who I had met in Portland last summer while she interned at a dance studio and worked on a paper about American cultural institutions. She was coming back from Paris the same night we were due to arrive, but had arranged for one of her friends to meet us and give us the keys. I got a flurry of texts from said friend, some of which didn't make a whole lot of sense in English ("Ok so marjo waiting you to the place du forum. She gives you the keys. You can eat to the restaurant and wait Cécile."), and some of which made absolutely no sense in French ("Marjo va o ciné moi je sortiré du sport dc jvé pa lé amené juska ché toi et veul alé o resto els oront lé clé dc el tatendron envil.").  In the end, our train from Lyon was more than an hour late, so we just waited for Cécile herself at the train station.

Roman ruins in Arles
The wind was just HOWLING when we got in, and did nothing to warm up my Frenchy friend's frigid studio apartment. She made us some bowls of ramen and then Kelly and I huddled together for warmth in Cécile's bed as we tried to get enough feeling in our toes to go to sleep. I had been feeling poorly since a rain-soaked tour of the Versailles grounds a few days earlier, and awoke completely encrusted in sick. My head was pounding and I couldn't breathe out of my nose, which was probably for the better for it prevented my two favorite allergens-- cat and cigarette-- from gaining access to my face.

We scooted out the door by 9 so Cécile could go to class and went to a café for a typical French breakfast: crossaint, baguette with butter and jam, and a hot drink of your choice. Then we mosied around the Roman ruins while trying not to get blown over by the wind. We made a stop at an antique shop, where Kelly happened upon this gem in a newspaper from 1916:

Who better to relieve constipation? Mini WWI-era soldiers!

Next stop was the Musée Réattu, home to some fine art by Réattu himself, a few Picasso drawings, a few carpets and dresses from hometown hero Christian Lacroix, and a whole lot of contemporary art I was not too fond of.  Not represented at the museum was Van Gogh, whose scenes of Arles are some of his most famous. My favorites were the photos of museum workers unpacking the Louvre's masterpieces once the war was over. I also really like this guy, who managed to embody exactly how I felt that day:

Ay wad do suff'd up
After all our forced marching in the wind, it was time for a pause that refreshes. We settled at a tapas restaurant and ask if we could see the menus. As it was 3:00, it was clearly no time for food, stupid Americans! We could have drinks, crepes, or waffles, and that was IT.  I ordered a crepe with speculoos, a gingersnap cookie cream I'd read about on one of my favorite blogs. I think I liked it... I'm pretty sure I liked it... I know I definitely enjoyed the texture... but I was incapable of tasting anything that day. Now that my sinuses have cleared I've become obsessed with finding speculoos so I can properly give it a whirl, and it has of course chosen to elude me. Welcome to France.

We made dinner for Cécile that night (which both she and Kelly assured me tasted good since I wouldn't have known a truffle from dog poo at that point), and then she took us out to a bar to meet some of her friends. Understanding French is hard. Understanding French over loud music when the speaker is turned away from you is harder. Understanding French over loud music when the speaker is turned away from you and you can't hear anyway because your head feels like it's wrapped in styrofoam is impossible. And that was my evening, in a nutshell.

This café was supposedly inspiration for one of Van Gogh's famous paintings. Cécile says it's a fake, but I'll always believe, Vinny!
The one part of the conversation I was privy to was about Kelly's and my future destination: Grenoble. One of Cécile's friends insisted we wouldn't like it because it didn't have any patrimony. Patrimony was clearly a big deal to the Arlesians, who had not only Roman ruins gracing their fair city, but they had the head of a statue that may or may not have been a likeness of Julius Cesar sitting in one of their museums.

We went to sleep prepared this time with long underwear and all the Minnesota heritage we could muster. Next up: Day Two: Arles and Dijon.