Saturday, September 25, 2010

Visiting a brothel with my sister & other adventures

Worth it just for the blog title!

Anyway, my sister Jess visited me the week before last, finally getting around to blogging it because I was pretty tired & busy last week! We were really lucky to get some amazing weather and no strikes screwing things up, perfect timing!

Jess arrived in Tours on Thursday, & this was the first time we'd met up in about 2 1/2 years, owing to our various voyages around the world. After supplying her with a brioche and coffee and dropping off her suitcase, it was pretty much straight out to a cooking class, a bargain at 15 euro each! I had emailed the lady in advance asking if she could accommodate a vegetarian (yes) and if she spoke English (yes). As it turned out, she kept her end of the bargain by preparing a fish meal, but I didn't hear a word of English out of her & although she promised to try & speak slowly & clearly, I don't think she did anything differently! It was fine though, we arrived a bit early & she walked us through what we were going to do & I was able to translate for Jess. The final meal was pretty yummy too, sole soaked in a vinaigrette (which I would never have thought would work) and steamed carrots and some yummy little cheese cakey frittery things.

My effort at making lunch

Jess gets ready to tuck in.

After that, we came back home so Jess could have a bit of a nap, having had to get up pretty early to make the trip over, then spent the rest of the afternoon shopping & having a look at the sights of Tours. In the evening we went out to a cheese-themed restaurant that I had heard good things about to fulfil one of Jess's main goals for her France trip, namely eating a lot of cheese. We both had tartiflette, a dish from the Savoie region of France that is made up of layers of potatoes, cream, reblochon cheese and lardons (bacon bits, so none of those for Jess). I had had tartiflette when I lived in Haute-Savoie, but not since, and this was seriously as good or better than I remembered, absolutely delicious and washed down with a green salad, fresh baguette and lashings of lovely Chinon rosé wine. Jess loved it too!

Jess meets the Tours monster

The next day we got up earlyish and headed to Chinon, home of the aforementioned wine and a lovely little well-preserved medieval town (I've been before, you may recall). The goal was to head to a vineyard and do some wine-tasting (and buying). So it was off to the station to catch our 'train', which turned out to be a bus! This was really not made obvious on the tickets or the information board, so lucky we realised since the next one wasn't for hours. Our first call was the castle, which turns out to be where Joan of Arc recognised the dauphin of France as the true king, pretty cool!

We also made Jess's day by walking on some ramparts :

But we also encountered disappointment after trekking down to the castle basement lured by a sign saying 'underground passage', only to discover that you couldn't go in it.
However, this was not a wasted trip, because if we hadn't gone down to the basement we would never have seen the castle's feature mould! Seriously, this was hilarious - all dark, spotlight on this mould and not a word of explanation. Must be high-achieving mould...

Jess at the castle

Et moi aussi

View from the castle

After the castle and a lunchtime crepe and cider (yummy) we headed out on the 20-minute walk into the countryside to find the vineyard where we were going to do a wine-tasting. I think we did a good job finding it, since our instructions were to "go neither to the left nor to the right" - um, except for the bit where we had to make two right turns that she didn't tell us about! We're smart girls though, so we had no trouble and it was a pleasant walk into the Chinonese (?) countryside. The wine tasting was good, although it was a little bit like drawing teeth to get the guy to talk! All very good wine though, like everything I've had from Chinon. We got 3 bottles of rosé and one red (Chinon is particularly known for their reds, although they do rosés too and a small amount of white. Rosé is my favourite though.)

After that, we got the bus back to town and then crossed the river (the Vienne - this département has got a zillion rivers I swear) to chill out in the sun a bit and soak up a great view of the town :

Bridge over the Vienne

The Vienne

View of Chinon

After that, we still had some time to kill before the train back (a real train this time) so we went to the wine museum. Pure hilarity! It consisted of clumsy animatronic figures and a cheesy narration in English that sounded somewhere between a Birmingham accent and someone who'd been dropped on the head (and I know my dad will chime in to say that everyone from Birmingham sounds like they've been dropped on the head. Apologies if anyone reading it's from there, but it is a bit of an unfortunate one!) Oh, and it taught us how to make a barrel as well, we joked that we'll never be able to look at one the same way again (I could probably make a barrel too if I had a boy on hand to bring me wine BEFORE I WAS THIRSTY like the coopers in the display!) It finished off with a domestic scene between Rabelais and his wife, where we learnt some new words to live by - "drink and never die"! Well, it was amusing (glad I had a coupon for a euro off the entrance fee) and it ended with a wine tasting, so that was good! Bought another bottle of rosé there.

After a stop in a café (more rosé), we headed to the station, loaded up with cheese at the supermarket in Tours, and finally arrived home after a full day to stage our own little wine and cheese tasting (two goats cheeses, the famous Touraine St Maure and Petit Billy, gotta love that name, and a sheeps cheese) with my flatmate.

We went for a more relaxed start to the day on Saturday, starting off with a bit more shopping for Jess and then lunch (bruschetta for Jess and chèvre chaud salad for me mmm). I had put Chambord castle on the agenda, but we decided to stay in Tours instead of rushing around the countryside again. As it happened, last weekend was the 'journées du patrimoine' or 'heritage days', so we stopped by the tourist office to check out what was happening around town. Our attention was quickly caught by the fact that you could go visit the last legal brothel in Tours still preserved as it was when it was operational (in case that sentence is confusing, which I think it is, brothels are no longer legal - although they're debating making them so again - and it is no longer a brothel, but it's the last in Tours to survive in its original state). It was a pretty interesting tour, although unfortunately a bit difficult for us because all in French & I had to try and interpret for Jess, which is tough! One bitchy lady made a big deal of shushing me at one point, gave her a dirty look. I was trying to whisper and I think it was pretty obvious that we weren't just chitchatting through the whole thing, at least judging by the tour guide who asked me afterwards how I got on with translating! Anyway, amongst other things we learned that all the working girls had to register at the mayor's office and then after that they were basically prisoners in the brothel and only allowed out under escort for things like doctors' visits. If anyone disappeared from the brothel, the brothelkeepers would get into trouble with the police, so they kept a tight rein on them. There was even a windowless "punishment room" for recalcitrant girls. Sadly, since medical bills were the madam/pimp's responsibility, they would often just kick the girls out if they got sick or past it. Under the Nazi occupation, there was a German soldier stationed at every brothel who was responsible for keeping a register of who every soldier slept with, so that outbreaks of VD could be swiftly isolated and dealt with. The tour only consisted of two rooms, one of which was a sort of bar where you could come for a drink as well as to pick out girls, and the other of which had a secret two-way mirror into the first room - legend has it that the local priest would come to spy on badly-behaved parishioners, but it was most likely just for the shyer clientele. The brothel also had a system of bells meant to alert the prostitutes or the madam about the clients' movements, so that no-one should meet on the stairs.

After the war, the legal brothels were shut down, and it was meant to be used to rehouse people who had lost their homes after the war, but apparently no-one wanted to live there because of the odd configuration of the rooms (I think too many bedrooms, too few kitchen/bathroom facilities), so the last madam and her lover lingered on there for a while, from memory I think she died first and then he was basically squatting there until he died of syphilis. By that stage, the local residents rallied round to save this unusual piece of Tours history and it was bought by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, who are still there today.

Frescoes in the brothel :

So, that was something different & interesting, anyway! I don't think either of us had anticipated a brothel visit! By the way, we also stopped into the Tours archives on the way, which are in a very old building but they just look new inside. There was a small exhibition on early aviators in Tours, which neither of us was the least bit interested in! Some interesting photos of Tours before and right after the war though.

Saturday night we went out for dinner & I had the world's strongest onion soup. First bite, on a piece of bread, okay. Second spoonful, absolutely overwhelming! But my confit de canard was melt-in-your-mouth lovely. After that we went back to the guinguette, where we had also had a drink in the afternoon, and ended up sharing a bottle of wine with some very young French gentlemen! We were also amused by the band names - Bad Billy and F--king Butterflies! It was the last night of the guinguette, summer is officially over. :( Stopped in at another bar for a cider on the way home & got back about, dunno, 1?

Not a great photo, but the only one of us together - at the guinguette

Sunday was Jess's last morning in Tours, and I was a bit hungover I must admit. We tried and failed to find brunch (well, we did find one place that did brunch, but it was like a massive 3-course extravaganza) so just got a croissant for Jess and a bit of abject misery for me, before it was time to put Jess on the airport bus and crawl home to spend the rest of the day in bed. Fun time had by all I hope!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coaty goodness

Squee! I got a lovely new trenchcoat today! For ages I've longed to have a 'coat wardrobe', changing colour and style daily according to my whims. Sadly, in Auckland it's rarely cold enough for *a* coat, let alone multiple coats (plus I'm usually too poor to shell out the $200 or whatever it costs for a good coat at home). But perhaps this winter I shall MAKE IT SO! My existing pea coat is really on its last legs - it was really already before I even came to Europe, but it made the trip instead of my nice, relatively new grey coat (which I'm hoping will come over this winter with M & D) because it's short and thus better suited to Nice winters. I'm expecting sterner stuff in Tours though! Anyway, this trench is not going to be super super warm, but it should be perfect for autumn. At the moment, it's still cardigan weather at most, I was out in shorts and singlet today (current forecast for my sister's visit is sunny, low-mid twenties, fingers crossed it stays that way) but it is, as I think I've said, starting to be a bit chilly first thing. And it's even machine washable, which is lucky cos I got foundation on it just now :(
On my wishlist: a red coat (must-have!) and maybe a tweedy-type coat. We shall see... Have my upcoming jaunt to Venice to pay for, plus seriously considering taking advantage of an Air France sale and hitting up Munich for the Christmas markets.

The classic trench. Oh and there's my haircut. Actually I already put pictures up with my haircut, but I suppose Mehm forgot to remark upon it.

And open. Bonus : I changed up posing central! Bet you've always wondered what I would look like strutting my stuff on the other side of the room :) Also pictured: the chair I liberated from the street, not bad au.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Screw you, Google Books

So at work today I was grabbing some book covers off Google Books & noticed for like the millionth time that the cover image has the lower right-hand corner of the page turned up about 50% of the time. See here, for example. Which annoys me because I don't want a picture of the book cover with a dog-ear, I want a nice picture (normally I source the images off the publisher's site, but sometimes they don't have them for out-of-print books & Amazon often doesn't have downloadable images).

Anyway, I was curious enough to Google and see if there was a reason for this - if you look at the images, it looks like they digitally add this 'turn up' rather than it being physically done to the book. So why? To discourage people like me from nicking the cover image? Then why isn't it on all their books? Why, why, WHY?

Anyway, I found a contact for Google Books and emailed them this message :


Love Google Books*, but I have a question that's driving me crazy. Is there any reason that the cover image of books often has the bottom-right hand corner turned up?


*This was pretty much a lie to butter them up, okay it's useful, if ethically dubious - I think it's actually potentially good for authors and publishers, and they should be using it as a marketing tool - but the whole non-consensual way they went about it initially is dodgy.

Anyway, then I had to go to a meeting, & was surprised when I got back to my desk about an hour later that they'd already replied. What service! But here's the reply :

Thank you for your e-mail.

I appreciate you taking the time to offer us this feedback and encourage you to continue to let us know how we can improve Google Book Search.

As this is still a young programme, new features are under consideration and your feedback is very helpful.

Please feel free to reply to this email if you have more questions or comments about Google Books, and we will be happy to assist you.

What? Did you read my message? I don't have any more questions, I have the original question that I asked you and you totally ignored! So I'm still being driven crazy with wondering & that's why I say screw you Google Books! Anyone know the actual reason???

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Au boulot

I think I've mentioned that at work we are having constant meetings about the website, so most days I do my thing in the morning and then the équipe meets in the afternoon to discuss the re-organisation of the site. This is good because I actually pluck up the courage sometimes to express my opinion about what I think should happen to the site. (This is the exact opposite as at my last job in NZ where I was all over the project to build a metasearch engine. Le sigh!) Contrary to most of these sorts of meetings, we are actually making progress. Then every so often we have a meeting with my big boss (where my colleagues are nice enough to voice my opinions with credit where credit's due) and get to discuss everything all over again...

What really annoyed me the other day was that I for once managed to express an opinion in the big meeting about what I thought we should do with the site (social networking tools! Web 2.0! Interactivity! Typical "cool librarian" guff...) Anyway, I probably expressed myself badly as usual, but one of the things I said was that as well as just improving the search function (which we really really need to do, but is getting taken care of separately. I hope) we should be pushing information to people by creating themed recommendations etc. My boss's opinion of this was (and I forget the exact word she used) that we didn't have the 'right' or the 'standing' or something like that to tell real researchers which resources were useful. Of course I don't think I'm in a position to critique the arguments of the researchers in this field I know nothing about, or write a thesis on it or whatever, but evaluating resources is my job! (Yeah, librarians do something other than shush people and stamp books, who knew?) Every day I have to make dozens of decisions on whether or not I think something is appropriate for our library. Of course I don't know the subject the way a researcher does, but I tell you what, point to an item in our catalogue on whatever subject & I'll be able to tell you that I entered a podcast on the same subject the week before last and a conference proceedings the month before.

Well, in our normal meeting without the boss one of my colleagues kind of brought it up and he totally got what I was meaning and thought it was definitely a good idea & sort of represented it at our next meeting in a slightly more coherent way, so I felt a bit vindicated, but still a bit annoyed. It's bad enough that 90% of the people you meet think that librarians are essentially unskilled workers, you don't want to feel like your boss thinks so too! Hopefully it was more the way I said it than a reflection of her real opinion.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Braderie etc.

My flatmate went and bought some miscellaneous stuff at Ikea the other day, and that made me jealous and wish that I could go buy some Ikea junk ha ha, so on Saturday I made the pilgrimage out to Saint Pierre des Corps, my second home when I first arrived in Tours, and bought some useful things like another duvet cover and towel and some covers for the couch and a few other bits and pieces designed to make having guests and doing laundry a little bit easier. All very practical, although as I said to my Mum, when everything's so cheap you really do find yourself thinking "maybe I could do with a jar full of coloured pebbles or a pink hat box". I refrained though.

I do like my new duvet cover, very hepcat!

On Sunday it was the braderie de Tours. A braderie is basically a big street flea market. The most famous braderie is in Lille, and it attracts 2 million visitors! I think I read somewhere that Tours got a more modest 150,000. Which was still a bit overwhelming, I hate slow-moving crowds! Anyway, I went to the one in Lille back when I lived in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and it was terrible, you could hardly move for all the people. I ended up getting separated from my workmates and of course, being me I had no idea where we had parked the car (we had just ditched it on a grass verge somewhere, to be fair). Luckily we had arranged an emergency meeting point and somebody came and found me, but I ended up being very slightly late for doing the dinner service at work. I called ahead and arranged for someone to cover for me, and then ended up being there in my uniform just as dinner service started - and one of the French staff still narked on me to the manager. I couldn't believe it! He really yelled at me too, I think partly because my attitude was pretty much "it was an unforeseeable circumstance, I arranged for someone to cover me and I didn't actually miss out on doing any work anyway", which I still think is totally reasonable, but I suppose when you don't work a professional job, you don't get treated like a professional... Still kind of pissed off about that... Hooray for working in sensible places where what they care about is that you turn up and do your work, not whether once in a blue moon (and I do actually care about being punctual wherever possible) you might be a tiny bit late.

Anyway, completely sidetracked there. The braderie was okay, I bought one book and just spent the rest of the time wandering around looking at things. It was a really beautiful sunny warm day, unlike yesterday and today...

Stopped by the Cathedral :

And the gardens of the Musée des Beaux-Arts (should go in one day, maybe when winter comes...) :

A couple of other random observations - some guy came up to me in the supermarket today and was speaking to me in French, I totally didn't understand. It's so frustrating that I can sit through 3 hour meetings every day at work and understand virtually everything, and then often for some reason I just can't understand word one when people come up to speak to me randomly on the street. I'm not sure whether it's because my brain isn't in French mode when I'm just running around listening to my ipod, or whether my colleagues make an effort to speak slower for me (which, I dunno. Maybe if they're speaking directly to me, but in my opinion they forget and speak pretty fast in meetings). Anyway, I told this guy I didn't understand and he goes (in English, mega French accent) "you are marvellous, I loooove you, I want to be weez you, I want your number, is this possible?" Lately I have been just extremely short with guys who have hit on me, because in the last week of the holidays Tours was absolutely deserted and yet every day I went to the park someone different came up and hit on me and they wouldn't leave me alone even when I flat out said "I don't want to talk to you". But who can help smiling when someone says you're marvellous and they love you? He was easily 50 though, so after some giggles I told him it was *not* possible, sorry.

And I forgot to tell a story from when I was in Porto. Before Carolyn turned up, I went to a café by myself in a big plaza, so you would expect it would get some tourists. I asked for a vino, since surely that's the international word for wine... So imagine my surprise when the waiter trotted back with a beer. Ugh, beer, couldn't do it. So we had this ridiculous scene where I was trying to tell him that I was sorry, I didn't want that, then he sent his "English-speaking" colleague out to deal with me, who didn't speak a word of English. I was even trying to point to people drinking wine at the next café over (should have gone there dammit) and mime the shape of a wine glass. Got absolutely nowhere with this. Then she made me come inside to inspect the inside of their fridge, they didn't even sell wine! I pretty much wanted to sink into the floor at this stage, but instead I just ran away ha ha! But what kind of country is it where asking for vino gets you beer!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Just passing through?

Today 'Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H. Lawrence', a book by Geoff Dyer about not writing a biography of D.H. Lawrence arrived in my mailbox (yay for Amazon!) Not that I have any interest in D.H. Lawrence, in fact I've never read anything by him, but I read somewhere or other that it's a great book. And 5 pages in, I already feel compelled to quote it on the blog, so it must be doing something right I suppose :

"Although I thought I had settled in Paris, really I had just been passing through, extremely slowly. That is all anyone English or American can do in Paris: pass through. You may spend ten years passing through but essentially you are still a sightseer, a tourist. You come and go, the waiters remain. The longer I stayed the more powerful it became, this feeling that I was just passing through. I had thought about subscribing to Canal Plus as a way of making myself feel more settled but what was the point in subscribing to Canal Plus when, in all probability, I would be moving on in a few months? Obviously the way to make myself more settled was to acquire some of the trappings of permanence but there never seemed any point acquiring the aptly named trappings of permanence when in a couple of months I might be moving on, might well be moving on, would almost certainly be moving on, because there was nothing to keep me where I was."

This really resonated with me (other than the fact that I was itching to put in extra punctuation while typing that - I think I do use too many commas though), because every time I buy a simple thing like a fan or a lamp or whatever it may be, I feel that I'm not just buying a lamp, I'm making a tiny little vote for France, a small investment, one more miniscule root into French soil. I know that sounds ridiculous, but when you have 'things' you do feel so much more settled here. And despite my love of travelling, I'm starting to feel like that's what I need. It's been 4 years since I left New Zealand the first time, and I've since lived in nine different cities in five different countries. NINE. In all but two of those places (my hometown of Auckland and London) I turned up knowing not a soul. It's hard starting again all the time, it's hard saying goodbye.

Depressingly, I have this contract for a year, and then after that there's no guarantees. At the moment, it doesn't look good for renewing it, but I'm not panicking yet. But if I can't renew it, there's really no reason to be particularly optimistic that I can even get a decent job in France, let alone in Tours, not exactly the centre of the universe. I'm smart and educated and good at my job (not to sound full of myself, but it's true), but I think the youth unemployment rate here is something like 25% (correct me if that's wrong). Even if I don't count as 'youth' anymore, I'm instantly at a disadvantage because of the language thing.

Looking back, I've been in plenty of situations over these last four years when I thought things would work out one way and they didn't, and I've always bounced back and become stronger from those experiences, so who knows, maybe my furniture and I will find a way to have a long & happy life together in France after all.