Friday, September 30, 2011

On the primacy of Paris

Paris obviously reigns supreme over all other cities in France in terms of size, global reputation, tourism, musuems and galleries, political influence etc., nesting like a spider at the centre of the transport network. And plenty of people like it that way. I've never (as a grown-up as opposed to a 13 year old starting to learn French) really wanted to live in Paris, but I know many people do. I think when I was that 13 year old starting to learn French, we were only given the vaguest of ideas that a country existed outside Paris. I remember learning about the different arrondissements of Paris, how to purchase a carte orange to travel the metro (probably via screenshots of the Minitel, which seemed such a futuristic wonder to us at the time), about the pooper-scooper scooters and much more about Paris, but I have absolutely no memory of learning about any other city other than Paris, and from what I can gather, nobody else does either. I've lived now in 4 different regions of France, but it's guaranteed that if, outside of France, I tell someone "I live in France" they'll instantly come back with questions or anecdotes about Paris. It's a bit like when you tell someone you're from New Zealand and they tell you they used to have a mate called Bob who lived somewhere in Auckland. Well, it's not really, but in both situations people somehow assume that an entire country is collapsed into a tiny zone of connections and you really ought to have something to say on the subject of Paris (or Bob).

Anyway, today I came across a particularly flagrant example of this in an interview with Rem Koolhaas, architect of the Euralille complex. In case you're wondering where Euralille could possibly be, the clue's kind of in the name. But here's how the interviewer described it:

"Euralille, the massive urban development you finished building outside Paris in 1994"

Outside Paris?? Allow me to illustrate just how "outside Paris" it is:

By these standards, I live "outside Paris" too. "Massive urban development next to Belgium" would have been more accurate! And getting back to that transport system thing, it can be extremely difficult to get from A to B in France by train without hitting Paris. I was just looking at tickets to maybe take a trip to La Rochelle. On the map above, you can see Tours around the middle south-west of Paris. Where's La Rochelle? South-west of Tours, on the coast above Bordeaux. Does the train website suggest you get there via Paris? You bet it does!

Anyway, this is just a reminder that this is a big country, relatively speaking (and yes, I know it's still only the size of Texas) and there is life outside Paris!

And I probably don't know Bob.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reims part 1

On Thursday evening, Jess and I headed out to dinner with my friend Liz to a local place called Mama Bigoude's. It's pretty much your standard crepe restaurant, except every room has a theme - you can eat in the living room, bedroom, laundry room etc. I chose the bathroom. It was a lot of fun - it's sort of clichéd but true that fun and playfulness are sometimes rather absent in the French ethos - and the food was actually pretty good as well. Often with these sorts of gimmicky places, that gets put to one side, but I was pretty happy with my duck crepe (confit and magret in the same crepe yum yum) and salted caramel and chocolate sundae (with amazing caramalized pecans) and I think the others enjoyed it too.

Me and Jess dining in the bathroom

Liz and Jess

Afterwards we ended up at a tiny little wine bar. It was nice to be out somewhere for once where I didn't feel like the oldest in the room (Tours has a pretty studenty scene, after which I think the majority of people go off and have babies and dinner parties or something) but the flipside of that was getting periodically bothered by middle-aged men, one of whom stood right next to me and said "we can say anything we like in front of them, they don't speak French". My sister was right, I should have waited to see what they would say before disabusing them of this notion, but let that be a lesson to all of us that just sometimes, people can actually speak more than one language. I'm sure I'm sometimes guilty of saying things a bit louder than I should, but it never fails to amaze me whenever I hear English-speaking tourists in France having what they obviously think are private conversations right in the middle of the bus or metro or whatever. Funny how they forget the (mythical) idea that "everyone speaks English" as soon as they feel the need to whine about how everyone on the metro stinks (usually true, but keep it to yourself).

We didn't have a big night, because on Friday it was up early to catch the train to Reims. Despite having two changes (shuttles from the TGV on both sides) everything went very smoothly and we got to Reims about 11.30, checked into our hotel, and headed out in the direction of the wine houses. I hadn't got around to booking anywhere, for various reasons, so we ended up going to Taittinger, one of the only houses where you don't need a reservation. Apparently this was one of the busiest weekends of the year for some reason, so most of the others were booked solid. We got there just before they closed for lunch, got tickets for the afternoon tour, and then traipsed around in the hot sun trying to find food. You'd think that there would be some options around a major tourist draw like that, but after being turned away from a fancy restaurant that was full, we opted for the other end of the scale and got croque monsieurs from a tabac. Mine was pretty nice, but the dude panicked upon being asked to make one without ham for Jess and just shoved 10 ccs of extra cheese in, so I think hers was a bit much.

The champagne tour was actually more interesting than expected. I learned of the existence of people called Riddlers (LOVE that) who have to turn the bottles in the racks over the course of months so that the sediment gradually gathers in the neck. Apparently they turn something like 60,000 bottles in an hour, if I'm remembering correctly. Can that be true? They must have the wrists of an 80 year old prostitute! (Sorry for that.) Once the sediment is in the neck, they plunge it into a very cold solution so an icecube forms around it, then open up the bottle, it shoots out, and they add a bit more sugar and something else I forget to get the bubbles back in it, then cork it up again. Who knew? The house are on the site of a former monastery, where the monks used to make wine, and the champagne is actually stored in Roman quarries excavated in around the 1st century A.D. We didn't know this going in, so it was an extra treat to have that special dimension to the tour. And of course the tour concluded with a glass of the main attraction, which we drank while chatting to a lovely mother and daughter from Los Angeles. Very nice the champagne was too, good flavour and nice fine bubbles. I don't get to drink champagne very often, but I would say that's one of the chief differences I noticed compared to other sparkling wines - you can actually really taste the delicate flavours as opposed to just getting the sensation of bubbles hitting your tongue.

In the Taittinger cellars

We had dinner at an Italian place, and then we were lucky enough to get to see a light show put on for the 800th anniversary of the cathedral. If you are in France and you possibly can, I would really encourage you to go see this! It is far and away the most impressive spectacle of this sort (including fireworks and lazers and so forth) that I've ever seen. It lasted about 25 minutes, and was more than just a projection on the front of the building, it was really tailored to the cathedral, with the lights tracing out individual features or giving special effects like projecting workmen lifting statues into place on the façade or showing the effect of a royal procession entering the cathedral, etc. I'm sure my photos don't do it justice (I also have some videos that I'll try to upload later, or you can look on their website but might give an idea of some of the different effects. By the way, there was a bush in the way on the lower left-hand side, so that's why there's a dark spot there. Definitely a memorable event and really pleased to have been able to be there while this was happening - it wasn't planned that way, I just knew Jess had been wanting to go to Champagne for ages, and I had realised on the way to Strasbourg that there was a TGV past there that didn't go through Paris, so it was fate. Especially since I just saw that if we had gone next weekend, there would have been no show!

I think this was meant to show beams on the cathedral as the workers 'constructed' it

The workers rolling the rose window into position etc.

These flags were 'lowered' down until they covered the whole façade (as you can see in the next photo)

I think this is meant to give an idea of how the cathedral may have looked in the Middle Ages, when the exterior would have been painted. My sister was asking how that could be true when she'd seen far more ancient preserved painted façades in Egypt. I was just having a look on the cathedral website, and according to them, it and other cathedrals have been cleaned over the course of centuries. It doesn't go into further specifics, but what I gather from other websites is that people's sense of aesthetics changed and even in Catholic countries they came to prefer gleaming white edifices to brightly coloured ones. Of course, even Roman and Greek statues were once painted (those creepy blank eyesockets weren't always that way) but to us it is really hard to imagine them any other way than pure white marble.

An impressionistic-style projection

All these lines opened up so it seemed like the cathedral was sort of unfurling from the centre

Bit hard to see, but this is the builders again, who sort of danced across the façade like in a ballet

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Chenonceau, again

Yesterday after work I went to pick up my sister, who had arrived off the 2.10 flight. After stopping by my place, we headed out to the guinguette. The guinguette was meant to close last week, but obviously the weather and the mairie conspired to keep it open so Jess and I could revive our memories of dancing to Bad Billy and F@cking Butterfly while plying a 22 year old with cheap wine. Things were a bit tamer this time, but one wine still turned into several wines... and some cider... and a delicious tartiflette (each)... and I decided to text my boss and say I wasn't going to be in the next day (like, legit holiday, not pulling a sickie or anything). Say what you will about my job, but it is at least very easy to not go to if I don't feel like it!

I was very pleased about that decision today, as we headed out to Chenonceau in some lovely sunny weather, much warmer than expected. Much better than sitting in front of a computer in the quasi-basement room (it's actually above ground, it just doesn't feel like it is) at work. I had been to Chenonceau way back when I first came to Tours for my job interview, but that was in the middle of February, and it was quite a different experience seeing the place with flowers in the gardens, leaves on the trees, the sun in the sky, windows open, and, of course, packed with coach-loads of tourists!

Some Chenonceau photos:

Me in front of the giant caryatids

Jess made it to the centre of the world's cunningest maze!

The gardens of Diane de Poitiers

Me with the bed in the 'room of the five queens'

Culture vulture

This weekend was the journées du patrimoine, i.e. the festival of cultural heritage, when there are all sorts of events from guided tours to exhibitions to special openings of normally private buildings, most of it free. Last year my sister and I went to a brothel, heralding a year full of people coming to my site looking for brothels in San Diego (or worse, brothels and sisters). It's a great opportunity to be a tourist in your own town – I must admit that I am quite lazy about going and seeing the fabulous sites around here. I know plenty of people dream of just a trip to the Loire Valley, but in between apathy, laziness and saving things up to visit with out-of-towners, there's still lots I haven't seen.

I was busy on the Saturday (waiting for a delivery (new microwave!), trip to Ikea, and then I was helping someone move, fun times) but I was determined I would be up and at 'em on Sunday for a guided tour of the city. When I got to the tourist office, I was annoyed (since they didn't say anywhere that numbers were limited) to see that the tour was full, so I hot-footed it over to the town hall instead, since there was a guided tour just about to start there as well. I can report that it was built around the turn of the twentieth century by noted architect, local boy Victor Laloux, who not only has an awesome name but also helped design the Gare (now Musée) d'Orsay, which is inspired by his work on the Gare de Tours, not the other way round – take that, Paris! Is it weird to be quasi-patriotic about the achievements of Tourangeaux (people from Tours)? It also enabled me to check out the marriage hall, just in case I ever get married in Tours (ha!), which is decked out with some very bourgeois-looking frescoes.

In the afternoon, I visited the cloisters of the cathedral, which ordinarily you have to pay for. Glad I didn't, since apart from a nice staircase that looks a bit like the one in Blois château but not as good, there's really nothing of interest in there. Then I went on a guided tour of another set of cloisters, the only remains of the old basilica of St. Martin (the new one was built in the nineteenth century by our old mate Victor Laloux) and to the museum of St. Martin (also free). My favourite part of the St. Martin story (which I think I've mentioned before, but it's still fun the second time) is that the Tourangeaux tricked him into becoming their bishop by luring him out of his monastery by pretending a sick person needed him, then capturing him and making him bishop. Heh. My second favourite part of the story is that later on they nicked his body from where he died in Ghent by getting the locals drunk on (delicious, I'm sure) Loire wine and taking his body out through the window and on to a barge. Cheeky monkeys! Of course it paid off, with Tours becoming a pretty important pilgrimage site. You can still see the palm symbols going through the town on the route of St. James of Compostella.

My sister arrives today, and we'll be spending the weekend in Champagne! (The place, not in a vat or anything, although honestly you never know...) Yay!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Back to school

As some of you might remember, back in July during my professional assessment interview at work, my boss suggested I might like to pick a course of my choice at uni in order to work on my French. What's not to like about that suggestion? I get to learn for free and I get to do it in work time, win-win! So after going through the course brochure and finding something that looked interesting but not too much hard work (yes, learning is fun, but let's not push it) I settled on a 3rd year undergrad paper in comparative literature entitled "Novels of Transgression", emailed the professors to ask if I could sit in, and had my first class on Thursday.

First off, in case, like one of my colleagues, you're about to get all excited at the idea that we're going to be studying the Marquis de Sade and The Story of O or something, calm down, it's not that exciting. We're doing Crime and Punishment, The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Confusions of Young Törless. That last one was new to me, but I've read the other two and so I thought it would be a good start tackling books I was mostly familiar with.

I only just started reading Crime and Punishment in French the other day. It's slow going, I will admit, but actually not all that difficult to understand. I even think it forces me to pay closer attention to the text and thus I may even be getting more out of it in a way than reading in English. I have been underlining words I don't understand, since after all the goal is to improve my French, but haven't yet gotten around to looking any of them up. Thus the only word I think I've learnt so far is désarrois – the 'confusions' plaguing young Törless (presumably the same root as 'disarray'). I'm also getting practice on the passé simple tense, a tense that is now used virtually only in literary writing, with the result that I never bothered to learn it (but I do know it when I see it, which is pretty much all you need where that's concerned).

As for my first course, it was pretty interesting. I have an MA in English Literature, but I never did any Comp Lit, so it was something new for me in that sense. The first lecture was mostly taken up with discussion of translation issues and what place these novels had in French intellectual history, which for some reason we usually neglected to discuss back in New Zealand. I think I managed to follow most of it, despite the very loud susurration of the willows outside (and yes, I wrote that sentence just to throw in the word susurration, but they were unusually noisy, sounded like someone was sweeping the pavement outside except we were on the 4th floor). Next time I might have to do the classic "mature student" thing and sit in the front row. I've heard stories from people who teach in uni that French students are particularly immature and talkative, but this crowd seemed okay, perhaps because they're third years or perhaps because we were in more of a large classroom than a lecture hall.

I was also at the uni this week to go to a conference work was sponsoring. When we turned up, for some reason the entire entrance hall was full of cardboard boxes which the students were flinging about with gay abandon (they were particularly delighted when someone broke a light fixture). One of my colleagues described this as 'a happening' (or, to be precise, 'un 'appening') which made me laugh. Has anyone called anything 'a happening' since 1975? I later discovered that this particular 'appening involved transporting 5000 cardboard boxes on a tour of the city by manpower alone. Apparently they came from Nancy, but I'm not sure if people carried them all that way, because that seems very far! I did my bit by carrying one box inside anyway.

Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to make a pun in French! There was a professional-looking photographer there and I said that if they wrote about it in the local paper the headline would definitely be "ça cartonne!" If you're not laughing already, I should explain that "ça cartonne" means something is really great or successful, and that "carton" is obviously a cardboard box. I think I mostly got sympathy laughs out of my workmates, but I think that was a pretty decent effort!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thank you fellow bloggers

First up, a big thank you for your kind comments and useful suggestions. It's always helpful to know that struggling with feeling lonely and isolated is one of those expat things and not a side-effect of me being wrapped in a giant ball of fail or something - and that there are ideas out there to overcome it!

I got a lovely email from Mumsie as well saying how proud she was of me for being resilient and so forth. And you know what, it's true! Probably for every expat, there are moments where you can just crumble or you can take things on the chin and roll with the punches (hmm one too many boxing metaphors? Nah...) Apart from the recent housing debacle, a couple of moments in my travelling career that really stand out are turning up in France for the first time with 12 euros - as in 12 euros *total*, not 12 euros cash. And I promptly went and spent about 5 of it on a kebab because I didn't want to look poor in front of my new colleagues. (Annnnd, you know, maybe I wanted a kebab, it happens to the best of us, just no-one usually talks about it.)

Another biggie was when I moved to Russia. I was looking back over my blog for that time, and while I remembered the stress it all caused when my wallet was stolen just before I had to buy my Russian visa, I had sort of forgotten the time frame. I think it was something like wallet stolen on a Tuesday, and I had to organise picking up my letter of invitation, getting a visa, and booking flights (or, in the end, a train to Germany and then a flight), all with very little money and no credit cards and no idea how much the visa would cost or how long it would take, in order to start work within about a week. Looking back, I shudder at the concept of thinking "Ok you've got a week to move to Russia... GO!" even without the added complication of losing my wallet at the last minute!

Of course, it helps enormously that my family have always been there looking out for me with support, whether it's been ringing up banks in New Zealand, helping me out financially, or putting me up on couches etc. xxx

Anyway, I started the week on the right foot by going out to the cafe des langues last night. I don't know if I met any lifelong friends, but I chatted to a few people and promised I'd be back next week, so it's a start.

Then tonight, in what was not a friend-making activity but is at least more jolly hockey sticks than sitting around drinking gin and weeping or what-have-you, I cooked spaetzle - German egg noodles. I adored these when I had them in Strasbourg, then Starship blogged about them and made me want them again, so I thought I'd give them a whirl. The internet made them sound VERY EASY, but they sort of turned out like dough porridge :( Actually not that terrible tasting, but I do now feel a bit like I swallowed a ball of raw dough. The trickiest part was getting them to be noodley. The internet told me to squeeze the dough out of a plastic bag with a hole in it directly over the boiling water, cutting the dough into lengths as it went. Clearly, the dough they had in mind was significantly firmer than mine turned out to be, because as soon as I chopped the end off the plastic bag it just all started splooging out uncontrollably. I was scissoring away frantically, but with rather uneven results. Plus I got a little bit burnt from splash-back of the dough falling in the water. Oh and later I found the corner of the plastic bag in my meal, which had boiled happily away with the "noodles" for 10 minutes. So, perhaps not the world's best culinary masterpiece, but I suppose the internet has enough blogs written by people who make you jealous with their cordon bleu creations.

Oh and PS I have real live internet of my own! No more secretly squatting on the unreliable, slow hotspot of a friend's boyfriend! Huzzah! I gave up on getting fibre optic with Numericable when it emerged they would have to run a cable up the house and through the wall, and to get the landlord's agreement I would have to make a little drawing of how this cable would look and I didn't want the responsibility of translating a vague conversation I had with a technician back in August into a drawing that would doubtless come back to haunt me once the technicians came (probably sometime in November) and fecked up the whole front of the facade somehow. So I went with normal ADSL and thus will have to continue to only imagine the glories of super high speed internet.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Starting over

Last night I met up with a kiwi girl off couchsurfing who's just moved to Tours to be with her French boyfriend, who's just about to start his masters here. It's such a cliché to come across the other side of the world and hang out with only expats, especially if it's expats from your own country, but, as we talked about last night, Tours is not London, and kiwis aren't Americans or English - there just aren't that many of us around, so it suddenly becomes special when you get the chance to hang out with someone who just gets your accent and cultural references and sense of humour (whereas in London I felt more like, geez, came all the way over here to get away from you people ha ha! Not really, but there are heaps of Kiwis and Aussies running around there).

We started out at the guinguette - after a miserable start to the day, it turned hot and sunny in late afternoon, so it was great to actually get to spend some time there before it closes for the season (next week I think). What started out as a quiet drink after work ended up with us splitting a bottle of rosé and, a bar and a club later, only getting home around 4 in the morning. She's going to be a bit back and forth in and out of Tours, as she doesn't have a visa and consequently has no job and no real plans for the moment. But it was great to meet someone new that I clicked with straight away.

One of the other things we talked about - hence the title of this blog post - was making friends. It's kind of hard for me to admit it, but I am feeling lonely at the moment and quite down about feeling like I've ended up, a year in, with hardly any friends here. It's just sinking in how much time I used to spend hanging out with G. Weirdly for someone who seemed to know just about everyone in Tours, she never really seemed to 'make plans' to go out and meet up with friends, so if ever at 5 pm on a Saturday I was bored and felt like going out, she was pretty much always up for it, and we'd head in to town and usually run into people she knew. Otherwise, we were often organising drinks at our place or in town, usually with my friend Liz and maybe one or two others, so I always felt pretty busy and content to hang out with the same small group of people.

Now, as well as pulling the rug out from under me in terms of my living situation, my social life has kind of crumbled as well. Liz and I are still tight, and there's a couple of other people I can hang out with, but especially with now living alone, I really feel quite isolated. In many ways, I'm in a bit of a difficult situation. I don't have a lot of the resources other people have to call on - no French boyfriend (despite everyone's confident predictions that, having failed in New Zealand, I'd catch me a man in France), I'm not a student and I'm older than student age but not old enough to fit into that middle-aged family expat scene, not many people at work who are around my age and sociable etc. Last year I made friends with some of the assistants but - while you never know - I feel like this year I'm probably too old and too far out of the whole assistant experience to plan on doing that again. Marion the kiwi is a little bit older than me, which is great, because everyone else who seems to fetch up in Europe seems to be straight out of uni or something. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but as time marches on it does get a bit weird hanging out with 22 year olds and I imagine they would feel the same way about hanging out with me!

But I've decided that I need to make more of an effort. Perhaps I did get too cosy, relying on G for a social network, and not trying to get out there and do things and meet people. Hopefully last night was a good start and I can motivate myself to do things like go back to the Café des Langues language exchange or figure out some other ways I can meet new people (suggestions welcome!) It's hard not to feel like there's something wrong with you or you've failed somehow in this situation, but I'm trying to be optimistic and think that I can change things up this year.

On a funny note, we were at an Irish pub last night when suddenly a bunch of English guys were surrounding us. I discovered they worked for EDF and you should have seen one of their faces when I said "Oh my gosh, I know your brother!" At first I think he thought I was full of it, but I was able to convince him of it in the end (despite not being able to remember his brother's name)! I had met him in town a couple of months ago when he was visiting and he'd promised to put me in touch with his brother but he never did. Anyway, we swapped numbers and I suppose in the friendly spirit I'll get in touch again. They all had that very laddish Brits abroad immature sort of a vibe, but hey, might be fun to go have a pint and watch football with or whatever.