Friday, September 30, 2011
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
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 http://www.cathedraledereims.fr/) 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.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
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'
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
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!