A blog in pictures and words and anecdote.

Yeah, we are in France. We do that.


My Mohawk’s Short and Tragic Life in France (Montelimar and Paris #3)

My Mohawk was born on a boring Sunday afternoon in the quiet nuclear industrial town of Pierrelatte.  A welcome respite to the minutes (hours?  days?) of staring around rooms and boredom-eating, My Mohawk was brought into this world at one-ish, celebrated by its parents and godparents— fellow-American Katrina, and Italian resident, Daniela.  Aided only by beard-trimmers and mousse my wife gave birth to My Mohawk— the labor lasted for two hours, but with no modern conveniences and an at-home birth this time can be counted a blessing, and after minor surgeries (trims) My Mohawk had a slightly above average height and could be proud of its relative symmetry: a healthy birth weight as well at perhaps a quarter of a pound with gel.

Far away from the land of his birth and from his ancestral origins in Native American culture, My Mohawk was unprepared for his reception into French society.  Born with an innate desire to overdose on drugs and destroy institutional establishments My Mohawk knew his path would be different.  Proud of our progeny we first ventured out the day after his birth to show him off to the world.  But we were so naïve.  Barely ten feet from our building a group of boys started shouting what sounded like “flamer” but was clearly not (as it was in French) but the shouts were no less directed at My Mohawk, at his difference, his uniqueness.  We tried to explain to My Mohawk that he was different, that society would not accept him.  With angst and British-accent he responded that “society must die” and ran off to his room to listen to The Sex Pistols.

Seeing glares from passing motorists, from burka-less Muslims, and receiving jeers from any boy between the age of ten and eighteen My Mohawk was becoming more and more self-aware.  Filled with rage against the Man he approached me, bending down a gelled spike, and asked if they (the Man/the French) could make it illegal for Burkas to be worn in public could they also make him illegal?  Could his very existence be outlawed?  We shrugged our shoulders, and answered, “I don’t see why not.”

Trying to look into My Mohawk’s eyes.

Aided occasionally by My Hat, My Mohawk became more and more adventurous.  Along with Katrina, the three of us headed to Montelimar for a day trip, convincing My Mohawk to join us.  As he ate the delicious dark chocolate and hazelnut chocolate ice cream in a non-leaking waffle cone he could not help but feel he was doing something contrary to his very own nature.  He asked us “do Mohawks eat ice cream?”

You can tell he’s furious at being forced into a picture with ice cream.

My Mohawk sought greater sights, expansive places filled with others, the hope always being that there would be other Mohawks with whom he might mingle  and start a punk-rock band.  At the Chateau in Montelimar My Mohawk did at least feel at home on the parapet of the castle gazing out at infinite possibilities, the wind catching in his gelled spikes as he asked where all the Mohawks had gone.  We did our best to explain that after the movie “The Last of the Mohicans” the remaining Mohawks had fled to London and alternative 80’s bands.  He spat on the ground in disgust and shouted “Society is poison!” but we could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

Katrina about to take a picture (probably of My Mohawk).

The feel of fresh air through gelled spikes.

The art at the Chateau allowed him an outlet for his tortured soul though— it was obvious the art was speaking about the violence of society, about the killing it unlawfully committed towards inconvenient races like Native Americans, Africans, Jews, and, this one tripped him up, People.  He asked “who are People?  Are Mohawks People?”  Knowing the answer would upset him we distracted him by showing how awesome he looked in profile pictures, especially if put in front of a projector showing a movie that involves a child with miniature-landscape hair walking through what appears to be an abandoned house (the movie was inscrutable but I am convinced it was about violence).  Momentarily he forgot his struggles.

Kayley and Katrina doing a Charlie’s Angels pose.

And then, this happened.

Soon, though, the glares of Pierrelatte goaded him to wish for yet more expansive places, for other Mohawks.  We reminded him that poorly produced music videos were where most of his kind lived, but he shouted his epithet, “society must die” and we all decided on a nice trip to Paris.

We met Devon (high school pal, and future BFF) in La Defense in Paris on March 22nd.  The weather was perfect, as was the setting— a band in the background with an English singer, who would speak in between songs and say things like “you guys know how to do the twist?”  and then command the crowd to “dance!”  My Mohawk obeyed, though noted he’d rather be the one giving orders, or “non-orders” as he called them, like disassembling public arts projects and spraying graffiti on trains.

My Mohawk at a concert.

My Mohawk, Kayley, Devon, Pierre-Charles, and Raphy (roommate to the couple) ate a delicious tarteflette followed by apple and ice cream.  A little bit of France and a little bit of America blended for an entertaining meal in which Kayley and I went through our now familiar shtick of telling of the horrors of living with “roommate” from the “Apartment Troubles” post— it’s really much worse than I’ve expressed, but it makes for good story-telling when we see people.  We had a wonderful weekend that included meeting actual French people in France and seeing a friend we hadn’t been able to spend time with since our wedding.  A good time was had by all excepting  My Mohawk who pretended not to listen during the meal and didn’t touch a bit of food but kept asking me to buy him cigarettes and a beer— I, of course, refused.  “You’ll kill yourself,” I told him, and he muttered “good” and kept to himself.

The next day he could not be roused and at the crown of my head expressed his profound melancholy and angst by drooping continually to the side.  No matter how much gel he asked for he seemed not up to the task.  So we asked My Hat to fill in and were off.  We visited the Centre Pompidou (a modern art museum with such highlights as a giant mushroom) and Notre Dame (but we forgot the camera!).  That night we saw the lovely Devon Graves in concert and chatted it up with some French peeps who’d been to Chicago and informed us of our now-future city.  Despite the concert and the dancing that followed My Mohawk decided to let My Hat take the lead, even when we passed by a couple other Mohawks.  I will say it was not his kind of dancing (it’s sort of lovely that in French dance “clubs” they actually do dances like the twist— it’s amazing and will make any white man with two left feet feel better about himself).  It seemed, however, that My Mohawk was incapable of recovering from his despondency.

The next day however My Mohawk made a bit of a turnabout and accompanied all of us while we carried Devon’s keyboard through the metros, and then later when we went out for falafel in a Jewish neighborhood in Paris, followed by some delicious gelato.  He seemed generally in good spirits and I was surprised that he enjoyed the Hunger Games that night, but there were lots of interesting Hairdos— it seemed an alternate universe where he might fit in.

Pierre Charles, Devon, and Kayley.

The next day we all rose early and said goodbye to Devon and Pierre-Charles who were lovely and gracious hosts— we had an awesome time.  But I couldn’t say the same for My Mohawk who on the news that we were returning to Pierrelatte once again asked that My Hat might take over for awhile.  The next day, while Kayley worked My Mohawk complained of the uselessness of life, of how he was no longer fit for it, had never been fit for it, and thought, selflessly, how he might impede my ability to procure a summer job.  “This world,” he said, “will never accept my kind.”  And with one last flourish of the phrase “society must die” we euthanized My Mohawk, leaving him in various pieces upon the floor.

But every night before we go to bed and brush our teeth we cannot help but allow our eyes to wander to his favorite gel with extra strength— the stuff that made him who he was.  And we take two fingers to our lips, kiss them, and press them upon the lid, and wish him an eternity of anarchy.


Nimes, Montpelier, Marseille, Cassis, et Aix-en-Provence : February Vacation

So, anyway, Nimes was like “look at that Roman coliseum and that old Roman temple and wow, I think that’s the coolest park in all of France, and gee wizz why don’t more French cities have indoor markets?”

And Montpelier was like “lets go to that art museum and eat mussels.”

And then Marseille was like “hey, let’s stay with Vanessa and her family and have some good times with French people”

And then Cassis was like “man, this is beautiful, but looks really expensive, so I’m glad we’re not staying the night here, but just passing through and taking pictures.”

And in Aix-en-Provence it was like “that was a great lunch and I’m sad we went to that tapestry museum because it was boring and the highlight was seeing a little kid pee on the floor.”

Picture Book

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Christmas Vacation with the Musterzynskis: Wherein I test the Bounds of Parenthetical Notes

Timeline:  Pierrelatte: December 14th through 16th  Orange day-trip:  December 15th   Lyon: December 16th through 18th  Strasbourg: December 18th through 20th   Paris: December 20th through 23rd  Amsterdam: December 23rd through 27th

The Arrival and Pierrelatte:

The anticipation of waiting for Andy and Emily was almost too much for Kayley and I.  For at least two weeks we’d been saying.  “Well, you know, Andy and Emily will be here in two weeks…a few days… five hours!”  We had just passed a holiday in Pierrelatte (a very nice Thanksgiving as I described in the last post) but you know, there’s no place like home for the holidays.   “Friends,” we said to ourselves, “people who like us, coming to France.”

Assuming they’d want to rest a bit upon their arrival it was planned that the vacation should start in Pierrelatte, where we would meet them at the train station.  Well, the fateful day arrived, and standing on the train platform Kayley and I were suddenly struck with a deep fear that maybe they had both fallen asleep on the train, and oh no, could it be, they’ll sleep through the stop!  As the train had already been there for about a minute we jogged off in opposite directions searching in the windows, my own plan to find Andy’s slouched figure and start banging on the window, screaming.  But no, they got off on the other side of the train, both weary but excited looking with their backpacks strapped on.  (And this is all to say that we were really excited and anxious and therefore expecting some sort of disaster, that was thankfully avoided.)

While in Pierrelatte we went to a restaurant that had just opened up about a week before where Andy had what he claimed was the best meal in all of France, maintaining this to the end.  No doubt, it was those delicious raviolis and “that brownie thing” that swayed him.  And indeed it was a delicious meal, and fortune was smiling on us that day as the owner would also later solicit Kayley to tutor her daughter which she has been doing once a week for about two months now.  (And news here!  The turoree—made-up word—recently passed an exam that Kayley worked really hard helping her with that will allow her to study abroad in America next year.  So big congrats to Kayley who is an awesome teacher!)

Day trip to Orange:

An extremely well-preserved Roman Arena is at the center of Orange, and after a “strenuous” climb (I am here imitating the language that guide books and parks use to designate trails as either “easy” “moderate”  “strenuous” or “very strenuous” [anything not flat is “moderate”, anything that includes steps or is more than one mile is “strenuous” and everything else falls into “very strenuous”, which, as you might imagine, makes the rankings extremely unhelpful]) up and into a very pretty, and very empty at the time, park, we gazed out on the skyline and beyond.  Andy’s eyes lighted on a particular jewel: a very ugly water tower.  For those of you who don’t know Andy works for a company that specializes in the painting and building of water towers, so with his eye always on business, and the shrewd knowledge of when the French were using his business’ copyrights (which are not applicable here) in the building of their water towers, Andy proceeded for the duration of the trip to point out and discuss the various designs of water towers.

And off to Lyon for more sights, tastes, and water towers:

Upon arrival in Lyon we skipped through some Christmas markets, hand in hand, joyfully singing carols and enjoying the tastes of France including Bretzels (big pretzels with cheese on them) as well as perusing various craft items, and tasting some nice hot beverages (including real hot chocolate, that is, made with actual chocolate and not powder).   On our first night we enjoyed our most American dinner since arriving in France at a place called Ninkasi, where we dined upon American-sized burgers and American-sized portions of fries, and regretted our American-sized sense of disgust with ourselves concerning the amount of food we’d consumed.  On day two we visited the local Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyon (the French have a real knack for naming their churches and museums [see repetition of this museum name and of “Notre Dame” in other posts])—the first of many museums on this trip.  We spent the rest of the day perusing the streets (eating mussels for lunch) and we happened by a Pipe shop where Andy “bought a pipe from the pipe-makers daughter” (a phrase that we caught on as truly indicative of a French experience) after our entreaties for him to buy a “Genuine Lord of the Rings Merchandise!” Gandalf pipe failed.

That night we scaled a “very strenuous” sloping hill/street that lead us up to the beautiful basilica (Basilique de Notre Dame) and while on the climb Andy did us the favor of pointing out the Frenchs’ propensity for breaking Heineken bottles in public spaces.  (You often find scattered green glass all over the ground, seemingly broken in a fervor of nationalistic pride proclaiming wine as king of France.  [Besides this, it is worth noting that graffiti is absolutely everywhere—these things considered in contrast with France’s extremely efficient recycling and energy conservation is maybe odd, but I suppose we all have our way of wasting and defacing property for funsies.])  The view from the basilica was breathtaking, beautiful, and (insert cliché[though honestly, it was quite a sight]).  Andy, after asking a few times how big the city really was (I think out of the sense that it wasn’t that “tall”—skyscrapers don’t exist often here), had to admit from our view, “oh, yeah, I guess it is pretty big.”  (Factoid:  Lyon is the third largest city in France behind Paris and Marseilles.)

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To Christmas town/real-life Hogsmeade/Strasbourg:

So many markets, ornaments, and hats!  Goodness, the hats!  I’m not sure what came over me on the vacation but I was suddenly certain that I needed a new hat (I first purchased a very practical winter hat that makes me look a bit like Goofy and then later bought an awesome Stetson which I enjoy modeling in my free time [it is possible that I am making up for cutting off my ponytail with a new eccentricity]).  Perhaps the biggest highlight of Strasb6urg, though, was the awe-inspiring church, a huge copper-colored slightly evil-looking monstrosity that dominates the landscape—it is incredible.  Besides admiring from outside we also climbed up the steep and creepy stairway all the way to the tippy-top, or the farthest up you can go anyway, and were once again rewarded with an amazing view of a French city.  (Of note:  This church is shown in the beginning scenes of the new Sherlock Holmes movie which we saw shortly after in Amsterdam.  Of further note:  According to a random tourist Andy talked to before arriving in Pierrelatte the church in Strasbourg is so well preserved because Hitler wanted to use it as his own church, and so did not harm it.  Of FF note:  I have no idea whether this is true or not [I have not double-checked, and do not intend too because I enjoy believing this.] but can only say that we could easily see what Hitler saw in it.)

Other notables of Strasburg:  1.  Since Strasbourg is so close to the border of Germany it is heavily influenced by its culture and along with this influence comes something I like to call flim-flams, but which is really called Flam (the “A” is pronounced “ah”)—in short, it is a thin crust pizza, and we went to a place where we could eat unlimited amounts (an all-you-can-eat restaurant in France is about as common as a drive-thru, which is to say not common-at-all to the point that you would expect your common Frenchmen upon the mention of either to a) look completely perplexed and bewildered or b) slightly disgusted).  2.   Andy wandered briefly off on his own and bought a sucker flavored “Coco”—after telling us the flavor, Kayley asked him if he liked coconut and he said he hated coconut (you see what I’m getting at here, the sucker was coconut flavored, not cocoa flavored).  However, despite his dislike of the flavor he claimed it was the best sucker he’d ever had.  3.  We walked to a very lovely part of the city called “Petit France” (see the pictures!)  4.  We enjoyed our first real foie gras (a paté of goose liver) at an imitation American 50’s diner.

And yet again we venture into lovely Paris:

Okay, so, first of all, after being to Paris a couple times, and then spending two hectic nights there as a travel stop on the way home or somewhere else, I must say my initial impressions were not good.  In fact, I remember emerging the first time from the cavernous metros and glancing back and forth, saying out loud with obvious disappointment, to Katrina (who accompanied us on the first trip) and Kayley— “so, this is Paris.  It just seems like a foreign and slightly dirtier New York.”  So, let me just say that Paris is overwhelming.  It is enormous, and the people there speak a foreign language!  (I know, right?)

Anyway, I think I expected something magical, and instead got a hard slap of reality.  But if there was one thing within first trip (and then the second trip) that somehow transcended reality and restored my romantic view of the place, it was gazing at the Eiffel Tower at night from the steps of the Palais de Chaillot.  It’s really hard not to believe in the romantic essence of the place when you’re there— similarly hard not to pose for kissy pictures.  Apparently, it was a favorite gazing spot for Kayley when she spent six weeks in Paris in 2006 (and you can get a glimpse of why!  pictures!).  But, not all of it is romantic—you will still contend with the annoyance of peddlers with their mini-statues of the tower and their glowing handheld whizzy-thingys that fly around you and sometimes hit you in the face (it is, at least, easier to ignore in such a picturesque setting).

And what else did we do in Paris?  We went to museums.  A lot of them.  We visited the Louvre, Musée D’Orsay, the Orangerie, and Musée Rodin.  Of the four, I have an easy favorite, but I’ll start by explaining why the Louvre is both an amazing collection of art in a beautiful building and a great example of the general anxieties I have with Paris on a miniature scale: it contains a ridiculously large percentage of the most famous artwork in the world, it’s in an awesome building, but still it’s overcrowded, overwhelming, and despite the fact that the building is beautiful it is perhaps not the ideal place to display art.  After we waited in line for almost an hour we struggled to see what little we could, splitting up to cover more ground (Emily, in particular, had some specific stuff she wanted to check out [which makes a lot of sense, by the way, considering her art background and her work as a graphic designer]), but where to start?  Of course, the Mona Lisa, (see massive crowd around painting in picture above).  And then, well, what else?  My favorite parts included the areas least ruined by the presence of massive amounts of tourists (I do not here claim that we were not, in a very real sense, part of the problem) including the sculpture gallery and the less popular exhibits.  It’s just too much, and my and Andy’s disappointment was all too plainly written on our faces— let me just say it would be better to visit in the off-season, and we did at least get a pretty awesome picture out front of Andy with his hand on top of a fellow tourist who had their hand on top of the pyramid which is on top of the Louvre (a trick of perspective).

However, excluding the Louvre, all the museums steadily became better.  For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just rank them: 1. Orangerie (NO PICTURES!  And we followed the rules, sorry.)— it’s main claim to fame are the wall-sized Water Lily paintings by Monet, for which the building was specifically designed.   They are indeed well-displayed, but beyond this you find on the lower level a great collection of paintings from a diverse group of impressionists and cubists, and what have you— basically, people who started painting after photography, and for whom, therefore, realistic portrayals are unimportant.  What is so easy to like about this museum is that the paintings are consistently good, well-displayed, and there are a manageable amount so that you can see them all while taking your time, in about two hours— which is about my limit when it comes to museums.  2.  Musée D’Orsay— housed in a former train station, it also holds the world’s largest collection of impressionist paintings.  It’s pretty cool. 3.  Musée Rodin— A collection of Rodin’s work (the artist who sculpted “The Thinker”) displayed in his former residence.  The highlight here is the garden where the sculptures can “interact” with “real” life— particularly awe-inspiring is “The Gates of Hell” sculpture.  4.  The Louvre which wins the claim of being at once the most overwhelming and underwhelming museum ever.

To sum up the remainder of Paris I should add that we also went and walked around some of the city (travelling on the metros while Andy giggled at Kayley’s metroface [which is basically Kayley somehow frowning but not frowning and looking really angry but also unconcerned] which obviously made it so that Andy had a particularly bad metroface [On “metroface”:  It is the face of all faces.  A statue, unmoving, unconcerned, unhappy, and just plain fed up with the world—to understand the reasons for “metroface” consult previous post on “Successful Travel…”]) and we also had a couple fancy dinners, none of which compared to Andy’s surreal dining experience in Pierrelatte.  But to be fair to these restaurants, and the fanciest in particular, Andy did have the worst meal at the table— a veal that was good, but also bland, and well, just meaty.  I enjoyed a pigeon freshly cudgeled on the street outside (Of note: There are more pigeons here per square mile than people.  Of further note:  I just made that up, but it’s probably true.) and it was much better than I would have imagined pigeon to ever be.

The last day in Paris Kayley and I woke early to say goodbye to our friends and catch our train to Amsterdam.  Honestly, their presence was the best thing that’s happened to us since we’ve been in France.

Note:  Reading over this I realize that Andy’s presence in this post seems almost only to be in order for me to make him the butt of jokes, but to clarify I only did so because he often said aloud what I was thinking.  Note on Andy: Though I neglected to mention water towers after the first sections you can assume that every few hours Andy said something about them.  Note on Water Towers:  The way I write about it makes it seem like maybe I minded that he kept talking about them—I didn’t.  In fact, pretty much anything that anyone says in English I’m willing to hunker down and listen to.

Christmas in Amsterdam:

Our first journey outside of France since arriving in Europe.   And boy oh boy, do you notice the French people’s metroface-syndrome when you leave the country.  It was like people were happy here— it was like they weren’t afraid to show others they were enjoying themselves.  Even on the metro people were (a big no-no on French public transportation) talking, and smiling, and even ( it’s almost too much to consider) laughing.  And beyond that, they weren’t talking in French.  (Which is not to say that I wouldn’t rather hear French than any other foreign language, because I at least understand some of it.)  But really, what made this so exciting was the sort of fun feeling you get listening to people speak Dutch.  Often, I was overwhelmed with a desire to speak like the Swedish chef, (which I assume Muppets’ fans would also be compelled to do when hearing Swedish) leaning in towards Kayley and whispering my “horty-dorty, hoopdee, doopdee, it pushde chicken in da pot.”  Further, a reason to immediately like the Dutch language, is that the inflections they use seem to be almost identical to English (which, by the way, we did not run into a single person that did not speak English in Amsterdam) which is not the case in French, and can make comprehension rather hard at times.

Our first night in Amsterdam we went to see The Nutcracker ballet at an extremely nice venue.  Excepting an incident early in the performance (in which, as the set was transforming [a large piece of wooden set piece being lifted into the air] an enormous crashing sound could be heard, and for a moment [as I was quite impressed with the way the different sets and the high-tech stuff was working] I thought it was purposeful to make some sort of artistic point about the ballet, and the modern sense of what makes “art”) it was a really enjoyable experience, it being both Kayley and I’s first ballet.  Upon retrieving our coats at the end there was a notable occurrence that illustrates how deceiving understanding inflection but not the words can be— the coat-check woman told Kayley that she didn’t have our coats because we were in the wrong numbered line (of course, she said none of that, at least not in English, but we understood it clearly enough, Kayley responding by saying “okay” and leading the way to the other, appropriate, coat-check line).

The rest of our time was spent enjoying the amazingly nice hotel (which had all the comforts one might wish for including room service which we ordered and ate for dinner on Christmas) and skipping from museum to museum (Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and the Anne Frank House).  The Rembrandt museum was an enormous waste of money (there are like ten paintings and the cost was something like 15 euros).  The Van Gogh museum was interesting and fun because the way they have it set up is so it feels like walking through an autobiography: the paintings they’ve gathered there are set in chronological order and on the walls are written descriptions of the different periods of Van Gogh’s life (in English) as well as descriptions under the paintings that not only discuss the aesthetics of the piece but it’s placement in Van Gogh’s life as well.  The Anne Frank House is the building in which Anne Frank hid with her family— you tour through the outer-office areas reading about the family and the friends that helped them, and then you walk through the actual bedrooms, seeing how cramped of a space it really was for eight people.  We actually visited on Christmas day which seemed like a possibly odd choice but was really quite nice.  There is nothing like walking through an example of true historic courage and suffering and a picture of the cruelty humans do to others to both help you understand how extremely blessed you are and also, strangely, give you a real hope for humanity.  Despite the Nazis and the horror of that time you get to see the people that risked their lives to protect them and the utter-normality of the young girl Anne Frank, who like many young girls, spent much time worrying about boys and such.  In a sense, it was the perfect place to visit on Christmas.  (By the by, we took a bit of a photography vacation while in Amsterdam, and the museums did not allow photos, so there’s not much to look at.  Apologies.)

And so, shortly after, we returned to Pierrelatte, content with all the wonderful clichéd feelings that come after such long and “strenuous” journeys.

Back to Food Again…..

Okay!  It’s been way too long since we talked about what really matters in France (the food of course!), so finally I’ll get back on track to what’s really important.  The photos below are a random collection of what we’ve been eating over the past few months – or to be more accurate – what we’ve been eating over the past few months that I’ve actually taken the time to photograph before devouring.  Rest assured, what we’ve tried and enjoyed, even if it’s not represented here, has been varied and delicious.   Enjoy.

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A Grand Summary: Apartment Troubles, and From the End of One Vacation to the Beginning of Another

It’s time to do a summary.  We’ve gotten so far behind on where we are currently that I think a good dose of perspective, as to what we’ve been doing to how we’ve been living, is necessary.

To start, the pictures on “Notre Petit Apartment” are of an apartment we no longer live in.  This studio space was set up by Vanessa and others prior to our arrival.  Upon our arrival we learned about “expenses” which increased from week to week.  We asked about living with the other assistants at the Lycee (the high school apts where we now live) and were told it would be 7 euros per night per person, and that we’d have to pay utilities.

We had talked to the other assistants— they weren’t paying anything.

When this was brought up we were told they must be “misinformed” and would be subsequently informed, we assumed  by way of bill, that they were under the wrong impression.  This, however, turned out to be untrue.

On the contrary, the Lycee was free, and in fact, we could have been living there from the very beginning.  It turns out that someone (unnamed person in charge of finance) wanted to make money from us, or have the old hole-in-the-wall apt lived in and so chose not to tell us of the opportunity we had to live rent and utility free at the Lycee.  Though, I must say this still seems unlikely to me as they had to prepare the apartment by buying things like a toilet and they were only charging us 50 euros a month— I’m not sure this could realistically be used for anything other than occasional repair.  Regardless, there was much miscommunication and confusion compounded with the first experiences of culture-shock and moving to a new place.  I’m still a little confused.

Fast-forward two and half weeks.

With the help and kindness of Vanessa and Natacha we move to the Lycee and take up residence on a futon in the living area with our things stuffed into a room the size of a modest walk-in closet.  (A wet cough I’d been suffering from for two weeks goes away upon reflection that the previous apartment was damp and probably had excessive mold in the air.  We are secure in the fact that we are living in a place for free.  There is much rejoicing.)

This rejoicing is short-lived however as we come to know one of our roommates a bit better.  As a caveat, I am only publicly airing this because I believe this roomate was at times purposefully rude and disrespectful towards us, and the purposefulness behind it makes me feel okay in saying this: when we moved in it felt like we were taking up residence with three screaming children: this roommate and the two or more relatives she skyped with constantly on her computer.

If you know anyone with an unnaturally high-pitched voice maybe you can sympathize.  Sometimes, our ears hurt.

But beyond this, these skype sessions would sometimes last past bedtime, and then skype sessions would turn into this roommate perusing dating websites as I laid on the futon a mere foot away, able to see what she was doing.  Night after night for about two and a half weeks we obligingly let her walk all over us.

We asked her “Are you about done?” and she would respond with something like “I hope” after which she’d sigh, intimating the time demands put on her by the dating websites were really dragging her down.  And it seemed to me this roommate had somehow or another figured out the perfect time for her to leave the room because right when my anger had built up to a breaking point (when her “just five minutes” had turned into a half an hour) and I was about to start screaming nonsensical French sounds she would lazily gather up her computer and plug, say good night, and depart.

There are other anecdotes I could give, but suffice to say, it was pretty awful for awhile.

Fast forward another two weeks.

All hail the glorious internet and wifi capabilities and its arrival in our apartment which solved the majority of our problems as this roommate no longer had an excuse to stay in the living room and keep us awake boiling in anger.  Now that I feel better, I’ll get off my whinebox.

So, back to that first vacation.  We have thus far discussed Dijon, Paris, and Mont St Michel, so here’s a quick look at the other three cities we visited: Rennes, Rouen, and Amiens.

Pictures!  Oh the places you will go!

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As a stopping point on the way to Mont St Michel (which I saw one picture of in a guide book and said “I want to go to there” and thus it was decided upon) we weren’t really sure what to expect out of Rennes, but knew going into it that they were known for their cider and crepes (for those of you who don’t know what a crepe is, it is a breading similar to a pancake but that is nothing like a pancake that is stuffed with sweet things such as bananas and nutella or savory things such as ham and eggs, all combinations of which are delicious).

Our time there, as anticipated, was spent eating crepes and drinking cider both of which were just as delicious as purported.  Beyond this, the city had a different look than what we’d seen before— as you can see in the pictures, there were long avenues of tall stone and brick buildings that hovered over the river and bridges below, and also cozy back alleys where one could rest and have a crepe with some cider.  We also visited a museum detailing the history of the Bretagne region including their money-saving habits (which are solid) and an exposé on the Dreyfus Scott affair (which some may remember from world history classes as an absurd trial and punishment that basically showed how anti-Semitic much of the world was).

Moving on, we went to Mont St Michel (see previous entry) and then from there stopped over in Paris for a night (which is always an awful place to stay for one night as it is hurried and you have to sleep in a hostel with stinky people) and then to Rouen.

Rouen is actually the site of Joan of Arc’s burning so we anticipated seeing the church they built on the spot, but unfortunately it was closed.  We did chance to see Daniela and Michael wondering on the streets of Rouen (though neither of our parties had discussed our travelling plans).  In fact, we ran into them three times as we attempted to find what turned out to be an awful Chinese restaurant which served luke-warm meat porridge over white rice (but it was cheap).  Longing for the good ol’ days of crepes and cider, we returned to the hotel.

The rest of our time in Rouen was spent looking at other churches (see pictures) and going to the Musee des Beaux Arts, finishing off with a dinner of crepes and cider (though not a regional specialty, it’s a good combination anywhere).  Also of note in Rouen is the largest gothic building façade in France(largest gothic building to come) which was rebuilt after being bombed by Allies in World War II.  This history is further made of interest when one learns that before the building was erected it was in fact the Jewish quarter, which the Jews were efficiently kicked out of, their homes given the equivalent of the middle-age bull-dozer.  (For more on France’s anti-Semitic history see current presidential hopeful Marie Le Pen.)

From Rouen we headed for the last destination of our first vacation, Amiens.  Despite our short visit ( a day and a half) and the ultimate tragedy that befell us there (Kayley’s sprained ankle) Amiens was decidedly awesome.  The gothic cathedral there (aforementioned largest gothic building in France) is not only amazing in the amount of detail seen in the architecture, but is also purportedly the home of John the Baptist’s Head (see above picture of me, John, and Kayley smiling for the camera).  The city of Amiens is interesting also in the fact that so many of the buildings are obviously fairly new, as most the city seems to have been destroyed in World War II.

Amiens also boasts an under-advertised area (our guide book barely mentioned it)  called the hortillonnages which is basically a little island in the middle of the city, where canals have been constructed around floating gardens and where the cutest Tim Burton-esqe houses ever have been constructed (see awesome pictures above).  On the island a path has been constructed that completes a loop of its entirety, about three miles and well worth the time investment (it really was an exceptionally beautiful area).

Amiens ended that vacation, and we thankfully returned to Pierrelatte, exhausted but happy.  From here we experienced the first real lull of our time here (the second we are currently in) which did however include the happy highlights of Thanksgiving with all of the assistants and a lot of the professors (followed by impromptu singing in every language that was present at the table, at least one song of each which included English, Spanish, Italian, German, and of course, French) and also the sort of commencement of Christmas in Pierrelatte which included Pere Noel (Father Christmas) repelling down the clock tower followed by a fairly large and impressive firework show.

The rest of the in-betweens have been spent waiting for Fridays (market day in Pierrelatte) which we sadly/unknowingly slept through the first few weeks we were here, occasionally seeing a movie at the local theater if an English film happens to not be dubbed, and taking day trips to places in our immediate area.  Our free time is spent studying French, walking, eating, reading, and for myself, writing.

And that brings us to the arrival of our awesome friends Andy and Emily in mid-December and the travelling that followed in Lyon, Paris, Strasbourg, and Amsterdam.  So, next time then.

Gone Travlin’…

So, thus far, we’ve been doing our best to catch up on all the things we saw on our first vacation and all the things going on in Pierrelatte around us, but it’s hard.  We still haven’t got to some of the food, a lot of the gorgeous churches (including one that claims the head of John the Baptist), the hortillonnages (you won’t know what this refers to, simply know it’s awesome for now) of Amiens, and yes, more museums.  But, today, our friends Andy and Emily are arriving in town (Woot!) and we’ll be off on our next great adventure.  A bonanza of travel that includes Lyon (one of three largest cities in France, known for its gastronomy— the science of food), Strasbourg (very near the border to Germany and therefore heavily influenced by its culture— supposedly it has the best Christmas markets in France), Paris (known for being Paris, we are visiting it yet again), and then, after Andy and Emily head back to the US we’ll be going to Amsterdam for Christmas before finally making it back to good ol’ Pierrelatte on the 28th of December.  So, lots more to come.  But, in case we don’t get a chance to post soon we wanted to wish everyone Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from your favorite expats!  We miss all our family and loved ones back in the states.

You may recognize this from a very early post concerning the various plant sculptures in Pierrelatte— well, the stuffing of living material has been removed and our carriage driver is now Santa!


Mont St Michel et L’abbaye de Mont St Michel

If your goal is to avoid tourists then you would not come to this place.  There was much English spoken, and though that may be encouraging or provoke a feeling of home in the misplaced anglophile, it is usually a bad sign.  (For example: The one dinner we ate out which turned into a disappointment was at a restaurant in Paris that had both a French and English menu— what you can infer is that if English is spoken with regularity then the particular place is probably geared towards tourists, which means you generally want to avoid it—bad food, overpriced, etc.)  But, regardless of crowds, there was thankfully an English-spoken tour available at the abbey which was, I admit, a very nice change of pace.  He had his appreciative quirks, as well as frequently complaining about things and using the phrase “too much for the white man,” which I honestly couldn’t tell if it was racist or ironic, or what.  Sometimes, it seemed particularly inappropriate like when he complained about Japanese tourists, citing “too much for the white man” as the completion of his complaint.  Then, other times, he might be explaining how the abbey was a prison briefly and how they had to go about bringing supplies up there, which was also, apparently “too much for the white man.”  He was informative, regardless.

In general, Mont St Michel is an absolutely gorgeous destination, a town built on the coast of Brittany region where tide changes turn the surrounding area from car-filled beach parking lot to an isolated island, literally a “city on a hill.”  These swirling waters surrounding Mont St Michel can be dangerous as well though (the day before we arrived a car was taken by the water).  The descent to the abbey as well as the abbey itself leave you with breathtaking views and sites.  It’s worth it despite the mass of people that visit, but be prepared for bone-crushing crowds (we, going in an off-season, still encountered people anywhere and everywhere).

Of note:  We ate a couple overpriced sandwiches for lunch sitting in a little rock nook by the abbey and whilst sitting there a French tourist took a picture of us.  We looked that French or that foreign.

On to the pictures!

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