Archive for May, 2010

Reflections on France

Friday, May 28th, 2010

On Tuesday I said my goodbyes to Grenoble and came to Winterthur to join Seth. His last day of work is today, and we are going to head to Turkey on Monday, and then back to Vancouver on June 16th.

Even though I am looking forward to both Turkey and going back to Canada, it was extremely difficult to say goodbye to France. Despite all my efforts to NOT put down roots, over the course of 8 months I established some really strong and special ties. For me, no matter where I am in the world, it is the people who make it feel like home. As I was leaving Grenoble on Tuesday, I realized that I was saying goodbye to a home that I won’t soon forget. The following photos and descriptions summarize the incredible memories I have forged over the last 2 months.

In April, I was invited by a friend, Claire, to stay with her family for a few days in a small village outside of Nîmes. I jumped at the chance, and was warmly welcomed into her family, where we spent 4 sunny days BBQing, chatting with the neighbours, suntanning, and reading. I really appreciated how her family made me feel so at home. They took some time to teach me some cooking, as well, and I learned how to make a chocolate fondant (chocolate cake that is warm and runny in the middle) and a blackberry charlotte (a dessert named for it’s shape). Her family had built their house, and had an ingenious, although slightly precarious, method for storing their dry goods – they bolted the lids to the ceiling!
The rest of April and May was spent finishing up work at the high school and fooling around with my roommates. We did lots of hiking, and even planned one epic trip into the mountains for a big weekend of climbing. Sadly, it was aborted at the last moment due to bad weather. However, to make the best of a disappointing situation, we decided to all ‘camp’ in the living room, which was thankfully big enough for all 6 of us. We ate camping food (sardines and bread) and put up a sort of sheet-tent. It was really fun. I really lucked out finding those roommates, because they were creative and always up for adventure. The final art project we did together was a really amazing and huge painting, (2 by 2.5 metres) which was a metro plan, which each roommate designing their own metro line. We named the stops for important moments in our lives, or things we really liked or that had influenced us, and when we had something in common, the metro lines crossed. We all, of course, crossed at 3 rue lesdiguières. I took a picture but seem to have lost it, so will post it later when I get ahold of a copy.

The last 10 days in France were some of the most special. My good friend Sarah invited me to go on a roadtrip with her and her cousin (yet another Claire!) to visit all of her aunts, uncles, and cousins in Normandy and Bretagne, and then to stay for the weekend with her mother in the Bay of Arcachon, near Bordeaux. We spent 9 days traveling around and visiting family, which gave me the chance to see so much of France that was new to me.
Our first stop was Sarah’s uncle in Verneuil. He was a farmer and made his own apple cider and honey. Everything that came from his garden and farm was so delicious, and I think we spent an average of 3 hours eating each meal. We had fresh egg omelettes with chives from the garden, roasted duck, and fresh sausages. If there is a heaven, I am almost sure that it is exactly like that farm. When we weren’t checking out the big tractors, he showed us around the region to see the birthplace of Laval, an important figure in the history of Canada, and some really beautiful chateaus. We had fun picking out the one we would buy if we were multi-millionaires!

Next stop was cousin Armelle and her 2 impish daughters, who live in Corneuil. I was greeted at the door by Maiwan, age 7, and her dog. I said, ‘Bonjour, j’aime ton chienne.’ (hi, i like your dog) She replied directly, ‘Ca n’est pas une chienne. C’est un chien.’ (It’s not a ‘chienne, it’s a chien). I had, actually, meant to say ‘chien’, the masculine version of the word, but I still make lots of pronunciation errors, and had said the feminine version. That started a beautiful relationship between me, the student, and her, the teacher. She thought it was hilarious when I talked, and treated it like her personal duty to correct me every time I made a mistake. Thankfully, both girls were really sweet, and we spent lots of time in the backyard playing games. You can see one of the games in the photo, a brilliant concept where you fish for objects in the whale’s mouth, and if you are too clumsy the whale squirts you with water. However, as fun as the kids were, I think the highlight was the dinner of galettes (crepes made with buckwheat flour) that Armelle made for us, using the crepe machine that her grandmother had used. They were light, crispy, and so delicious.

Next we headed to Bretagne to stay with Sarah’s other cousin Lena, her husband Fred, and her 3 little boys. We stayed there for 3 days and were EXHAUSTED when it was time to go. The boys ranged from 14 months to 7 years, and had so much energy. I was really impressed by the calm, laid-back way the parents ran the household. Lena and Fred worked during the days, so Claire, Sarah, and myself had lots of time to explore the coast of Bretagne. The sun shone on us for 3 days straight, which is apparently a record for rainy Bretagne. The thing that was the most impressive, I think, was our boat trip out to an island literally covered in a kind of bird called Faux Bassan. Apparently they only like to nest in very particular places, and they really liked this rocky island. We hung out there for about an hour, amusing ourselves by watching them come in for a landing, which was not easy seeing as each bird had a space of about 10cm squared. An interesting thing about this bird that I learned is that they catch fish by diving headfirst into the water at a speed of about 110km per hour, to a depth of 40m. Not all babies learn the good angle of entry right away, and after their first 2 years, 70% of the birds have injured a wing and died. Nature can be really cruel.

In this last picture of Bretagne, see if you can see my napping spot.

We finished this wonderful trip by a few days in the Bay of Arcachon, near Bordeaux. We stayed with Sarah’s mom and her boyfriend, who treated us to walks on the sand dunes, swimming, boating, and a day trip to Bordeaux. Again, the weather was great and the food was wonderful. The highlight of this part of the world was an ice cream shop that we visited after dinner every single night we were there, because it had 80 flavours of delicious ice cream to try. I even found the flavor ‘popcorn’, which would have been better without the soggy popcorn pieces that they put in there. In fact, by the end of the trip Sarah found out that she had gained about 2.5 kg, but happily, that knowledge didn’t bother us. It is not every day that you get the chance to taste so many amazing foods!

One of the photos below is of a cool art installation in the centre of Bordeaux. It is a flat surface that they spray water onto every 10 minutes, and in the summer it is really refreshing and fun for the kids, but is also really beautiful because the surface reflects the beautiful, old buildings around it.

It was hard to come back to Grenoble, knowing that it was all coming to an end. And after a week of giggling with Sarah, I realize that I am really going to miss that girl! We do hope to see each other before too long, because she just finished a bike trip from France to Turkey, and has the next one planned from Alaska down the coast to South America. Hopefully we will be able to join her and her boyfriend on at least part of it.

As things come to an end, Seth and I are both starting to get really excited about seeing all our friends, family, and the dog again. We are looking forward to bringing the best of all we have experienced culinary-wise in Europe and have lots of delicious dinner parties back in Canada!

God comes out in the spring

Friday, May 21st, 2010

It’s spring time, and you know what that means!  Well, normally showers and flowers, but here it apparently means that Jesus was very active dieing, rising and doing all sorts of very holy traveling. As a consequence, in modern Europe we have all sorts of holidays! Yippi!


To take advantage of this illustrious time of year I decided to take a rather unholy trip to München and then follow it by a trip to Nürnberg. München has been one of the towns that I’ve wanted to visit my whole time here and I really had a good time.


p5130253.JPG The weather in Marienplatz may not have been warm, but but the beer gardens sure were.


I was in München for the a large, biannual religious festival that is held in a different city every time. It drew huge crowds to the city and every square in the old town had a stage with music being played in it. It was totally crazy, but many of the festival goers were young and they were all in an inexplicably good mood.


The downfall of the religious holiday was that the bar in my hostel was closed, so I had to visit the famous Hofbräuhaus alone. As it turned out this wasn’t a problem as I quickly found a table of English speakers that I got along quite well with – a group of PhD students and a computer scientist from the Southern European Observatory! I had instant streetcred when I dropped The Big Bang Theory (the TV show, that is) and PhD Comics. We had a great time and after two, 1L beers we went to a club and I didn’t get back to my hostel until nearly 6 in the morning. Wow!


p5130255.JPG I am now the owner of that mug. When you serve that much beer at a time, people tent to act out of character.  Also, that photo is an uncanny reconstruction of that beer garden…


p5140257.JPG The crew from SEO


The next day I met Tim and Franzie at the train station and we went for a trip around the city, having lunch with some of their friends (I was rather unsocial, owing to my three hours of sleep, sorry guys) and then went out to the Olympic park and saw more of the religious festival.  That included stopping by the tents that T&F’s scout troop had set up. After that we went back to their home town of Erlangen, about 1.5 hours north of München.


p5140267.JPG The really cool construction of the canopy at the Olympic park was amazing even to my bleary eyes.


p5140268.JPG Tim and Franzie at the scout camp


The next day Tim and I took a trip into Nürnberg and checked out the local famous brewery, the Nürnberg Schöner Brunnen (literally ‘beautiful fountain’) and the Deutsche Bahn Museum (aka The Traffic Museum). The DB museum was only €2 if you had a train ticket on you and was well worth the visit. Very interesting stuff.


img_0220.JPG The Schöner Brunnen.  img_0219.JPG There’s a loose ring in the fountain gate, and myth has it that it brings good luck to turn it once – but only once!


img_0224.JPG All aboard!  I can’t believe they let me drive that antique.


On the last day of the trip Tim and I went for some hiking (very nice) and caught the train home (which was very bad). Our plan was: leave Erlangen at 5pm, and be home at 10:30pm. Unfortunately, our first train was 20 min late and we missed our connection by 2 min. When we went to the help desk they gave us our new schedule – arriving in Winterthur at 5:38 am, the next day! Naturally we were livid, but nichts zu tun, and we started on our way. In the end, 3.5 hours of that were waiting in Zürich for the first train in the morning, and three of us (we met another disenfranchised traveler on the train) ended up taking a $100 cab from Zürich to Winti, which Tim is trying to claim from the German rain company.


seth-and-tim-hike.JPG A nice waterfall – all I really wanted though at this point was a drink of water. I was coming down with the flu but thought it was the Bavarian beer that had done me in!  That flu was another factor that made that train ride so rosy…


p5160270.JPG Even the gnomes here had had a bit too much to drink!


Overall it was an action packed four days and a lot of fun as a last bash in Europe. The Bavarians were friendly, foreigners were fun (all the physicists were foreign), and the landscape was really beautiful. Good stuff.


erlangen-beach.JPG Chill’n on the beach in Erlangen. No worries about that landlocked ‘problem’.

The view from a bicycle

Friday, May 14th, 2010

This Friday evening is the first time in as long as I can remember that I have my apartment here in Grenoble to myself. The silence is lovely. I decided to take advantage of it by going for a swim at the pool and then coming back for some dinner and a movie. But just now I decided to organize all my recent photos, and got inspired to update the blog. So I sad down with a pot of fresh mint tea and some dark chocolate, and am ready to share some photos and memories from our recent cycle trip through Switzerland and Germany.

Seth and I have been wanting to explore the region by bike for awhile, and as ski season finally wrapped up, we decided to take 9 days in April to head out, starting from Winterthur, where Seth lives, and just going as far as we could along the Rhine River. We started from Seth’s front door, and made it all the way to Freiburg, Germany! We were hosted along the way by friends, colleagues, and even a really cool Australian lady who we found through, which is a kind of couch surfing for bike tourists. Our route took us northeast to meet up with beautiful Lake Konstanz and one of Seth’s colleagues, Maria, and from there we pretty much followed the Rhine all the way to Freiburg. It was such a wonderful route, almost completely car and hill free. (our biggest hill day was a 100m climb…) We rode through forests, fields, industrial sites, and all kinds of towns and cities, and met interesting people along the way. (thank goodness for Seth’s German!) We liked it so much that we are sure we will be hopping on our bikes again as soon as possible, although it will be hard to measure up to this rainless, flat, gorgeous, beer and sausage filled adventure! What follows is some of the highlights.

The pictures above show us leaving from Seth’s house, and encountering our first baby animals a few hours later. Against all dire weather forecasts, the sun was shining and we were feeling good. We made sure to keep our energy levels up by frequent stops for coffee, beer, or ice cream, and we soon learned that with all the lovely cafés and sunny terraces, our smushy brown bananas would NEVER win the battle for the most appetizing snack. I think the photo below summarizes the tempting assortments…
For the next few days we followed the river, crossing the border between Switzerland and Germany frequently. The border doesn’t follow the river exactly, so some days we would end up crossing the border 4 or 5 times. But the picture here shows how relaxed it was!claire-german-boarder.JPG
The scenery was really beautiful, and we really liked all the quaint little German towns that we stopped in.
We made a 2 night stop in Basel, a really cool town that is actually located in Swizerland, Germany, AND, France. It was here that we met our Australian host Biff – she was so laid-back that she sent us an email, never having met us, giving us her address and telling us where her hidden key was in case we arrived before she did. She hosted both us and another couple at the same time, an american guy and a french girl, and we made dinner together and relaxed in her apartment. The city of Basel was really cool too, and I got the chance to see it from the water, because Biff was, in fact, a champion dragon boater, and invited me to head out with her team for a practice. Unfortunately one of the team members was away, and in order to ‘balance the boat’ they made me paddle. With all the former Olympians and such, it was obviously useless to even have me try, but I did my best!basel-dragon-boat.JPG
The end of the road for us was Freiburg, where we stayed with a friend of mine Franzi, who was also a language assistant with me in Grenoble. We stayed for 2 nights and really liked the feel of the town. With all the university students and the old center, it was a lot like Grenoble, but with cheaper beer!

One thing about this trip that was really interesting for me, was that it made me realize I had some random prejudices against Germany. I don’t know if it was due to the emphasis on WWII in my history classes, or the rampant stereotypes of beer and sausages being the only consumable items in Germany, but I definitely didn’t think I would love Germany as much as I did. The people were so nice, the food was diverse and delicious, and the scenery was really beautiful. I will just finish with our last photo, which does not in any way summarize our adventure, but more shows all the maturity and wisdom we have acquired so far on our European adventure.