Sunday, October 28, 2012

Carving out a new experience

Autumn is definitely upon us, and the temperature has plunged this week. Still, we have blue skies and crisp weather for the moment, which is not a bad thing. The clocks went back today, which is a bad thing. It's already been getting dark quite early, so now it will be all short days and gloom for the foreseeable. On the bright side, once again, I headed to the local park to capture a few pictures of the autumn leaves:

Last night, on the other hand, I had an entirely new autumn experience: pumpkin carving! I expected I would be terrible at this, since I have pretty much zero artistic ability and my knife skills are poor at best (and not enhanced by drinking wine). So on balance I think I did a pretty good job. I was pretty terrified of the bold stabs with a butcher knife you had to do to get into the top of the thing:

You can imagine the Psycho music here
And surprised at how much scraping and pulling out of gooey handfuls of flesh and seeds that had to be undertaken once you did get the top off. It's hard work!

It was a lot of fun though! I did a double-sided design, a pretty basic scary face on one side (and I managed to screw that up even) and hearts and stars on the back. It made a nice change from going out on the booze for once!

Marcia, Laura, Margot, me, Mathilde, Caroline and our pumpkins

The back of my pumpkin. The other ladies took the piss that I made a heart,  but you know, love's a scary thing, right?

Mathilde's pumpkin was far superior to anything I could have managed. Unfairly, this was her first time as well!

Spoooooky! I cut the bottom teeth the wrong way round so they all fell off. Whoops!

Yes, someone did a jizzing cock pumpkin...
There's more Halloween fun to come. On Wednesday I think everybody I've ever met in Tours and more are all headed to one of the Irish pubs. Handily, the 1st of November is a public holiday in France, so everyone can kick up their heels without worrying about work the next day. You'll have to stay tuned to discover my (not very exciting) costume!

Just a technical note to finish on - I reached my free photo storage limit on Blogger, so I added my other gmail address as a "blog author" and hey presto, I can upload photos again! So now you'll see some posts by Gwan and some by Gwannel, but it's all me. Everyone seems to say Wordpress is better than Blogger etc. but I've had the blog for over 6 years now, so I'd rather just keep the continuity going if possible.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The land of wine and cheese

On Friday, my lovely kiwi friend Marion came to stay the night. She used to live in Tours, but her boyfriend had a last-minute move to Poitiers for his studies and she decided to go back to London to work, since it was too late for her to enrol at uni and she doesn't have the right to work here (and didn't want to spend another half a year hanging about doing nothing in the middle of France). Anyway, you can fly directly from London to Poitiers, I believe, but on this occasion she decided to take a detour via Tours to catch up.

We had a fun evening - caught up on the gossip while sipping cocktails and champagne at mine before hitting up three different bars along with Charlie. I got into another argument with a French guy. Sigh, seriously, even I'm getting tired of fighting with French men, why can't we just get along? Actually, I got into a minor disagreement with one who, in the middle of chatting up my friend, poked me on the breastbone to tell me that he could see the safety pin that was holding my dress together in the front (then stop looking down my dress maybe? I probably need a smaller safety pin, but that's neither here nor there), and then later I had a HUGE fight with an old man.

I'm not a crazy person though, it was totally justified. I was standing next to him at the bar, talking to my friends. He grabs my arse, and I barely even reacted, just like "don't touch me". And then I had my eye on him, so a little bit later out of the corner of my eye I see him going for it again, so I put my hand down next to my side and grabbed his wrist. And then what really made me absolutely furious was that he denied it! I almost literally caught him red-handed! He was all "how could you say that, I would never do such a thing", and I completely flipped my lid at him. If nothing else, I'm proud that my French skills have progressed to the point that I can shout "casse-toi, vieux connard" at a dirty old pervert in a bar at 4 in the morning. Quite cathartic.

I swear to god though, I know there are bad apples everywhere, but I've had it up to here with all these French men who think they're entitled to comment on what you're wearing or yell things at you or touch you. We're going out for Halloween next Wednesday, so I pinkie swear I'm taking this weekend off and staying in, watching the F1, maybe buying myself some winter boots. (I really really need them cos mine have holes in both the toes, but waiting to see what's left in the bank at the end of the month. I'm like a raggedy Victorian orphan, ha ha.)

Anyway, on to happier subjects, I got woken up on Sunday morning (grumble grumble) by a text inviting me out to a last-minute wine and cheese tasting tour (yay) with my friend Philippa and a visitor from Australia, Zach. Our first stop was a goat farm in Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, where we sampled four varieties - fresh, semi-dry, dry and very dry - of the eponymous cheese. I love Sainte-Maure cheese, it's very yummy. I'd only had the fresh and semi-dry before, and the intensity of flavour of the other two was a big surprise! The very dry variety is almost spicy, it's so strong, and the flavour stays with you for quite some time! It's also very dry in texture, not at all soft and creamy. I liked all of them, but my favourite was probably the demi-sec, so I bought a roll of that (for about 2€ cheaper than it would be in a supermarket).

Sainte-Maure is pretty much a one-horse town as far as we could tell, so we went straight on to Chinon after the cheese farm. We stopped just outside Chinon at a winery offering dégustations. We were a bit confused about where to go once we got into the place, as there was basically a barn and an open door leading into what looked like someone's living room (with two very cute cats on the steps). While we were wondering, some people who were obviously friends of the family turned up and found the vintner for us. With hindsight, I think we must have delayed the start of Sunday lunch, because it was about 1 pm. Sorry!

He was very nice though, and ushered us into a barn for the most sophisticated wine-tasting you're ever likely to find. Philippa was driving, so I asked if there was a crachoir she could spit into. Much to our amusement, he said she could spit into the drain running behind the barrel! Think on that the next time you're around wine snobs... (PS she's much too refined to spit in a drain on a barn floor, she just had a sip of each.)

Small-scale wine-making. The barrel represents the "salon de dégustation"
We tasted a rosé and three reds, and very nice they all were as well. I love Chinon wines - I'm not a big red-wine drinker, but they are nice and light and not oaky or tannic, which I don't like at all. I suppose some sophisticated types might find them a bit lacking in body or flavour, but that doesn't bother me at all. And the rosés are of course lovely as well. I'm not sure the name of the actual vineyard, but I bought one red called Domaine du Grand Portail and one rosé called Clos de la Grille. But don't go looking for them in a supermarket near you - I was chatting to the vintner about where to buy them, and he doesn't sell to any wine shops or restaurants, even locally - they all get sold to individuals turning up and buying them, or at wine fairs etc. It is frustrating sometimes to find great wines and then you can't buy them anywhere even if you're only living 50 km away!

We continued on our merry way to Chinon, and stopped off first at the Couly-Dutheil wine tasting rooms. I was dying for the loo, but Philippa assured me that they had a bathroom I could use, since she'd been there with her parents the weekend before. However, the door was locked and the wine tasting lady earned my undying hatred by acted all shocked that I dared to ask about using the facilities and made us go across the street and up the hill to the chateau in the pouring rain to use theirs. She also made some kind of snobby remarks about people who "didn't know what they were doing" buying wines to store - apparently if you know what you're doing, you have to buy a case and drink one every year to see the evolution of the wine. (By undying hatred, I mean I vowed to seek revenge by tasting her wines without purchasing any. I've had Couly-Dutheil wines before and they are quite nice, but they started at about 8€ a bottle, so this wasn't a huge hardship.) I don't know if this post is reflecting very well on me - I'm really quite mild-mannered, I promise.

Oh, I just read on the internet that there is a bit of a family feud between the Couly-Dutheil and Pierre & Bertrand Couly winemakers. My sister and I visited P&B Couly back in 2010 and enjoyed the wines we had there very much, so with that and the snobbish salesperson, you can put me down on Team Pierre & Bertrand. The t-shirt to that effect is being designed as we speak.

View of Chinon castle from inside the Couly-Dutheil tasting room
We then intended to get some lunch, but it was about 3 pm on a Sunday by this stage, and everywhere had stopped serving :( Zach had to be back in Tours for about 5 to catch a train, so we just had a little wander around the pretty town centre (I think this was my 3rd or 4th trip, but it's still very pretty) and then headed back to Tours. We walked along the Vienne river to get back to the car, which is lined with trees that look nice but turned out to be full of spiders! Kept feeling strands of spiderweb on my face, or seeing them floating about, and then there was a spider in my hair!!!! Major freakout.

Moi in Chinon

The Vienne river, lined with scary spider-harbouring trees
But spiders aside, it was a pleasant trip! And I went home and made jacket potatoes stuffed with pesto and Sainte-Maure cheese - delicious!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Apocalypse at Angers

Much to my distress, I only have ten days left before my beloved and useful under-30 discount card for the train expires, and I won't be able to get another one since it was a one-off promotion. (Of course now they've gone and extended the normal discount card up to the age of 28, grumble grumble.) With that in mind, I've thought about taking some grand escapade, but I don't really have the money, so instead I took advantage of Monday's sunny weather to take a day-trip to Angers. As it happened, no-one checked my ticket either way, so I could have gone for free, but oh well.

The main draw of Angers was its château, and the main draw of its château is the Apocalypse Tapestry. Created between 1377 and 1382, the Apocalypse Tapestry is notable not only for its age (the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry, apparently - which seems an odd wording... Are there earlier, non-medieval tapestries? Fun fact: the Bayeux "Tapestry" is actually an embroidery), but also its size. It's fricking massive - 71 scenes still exist, out of an original 90, each measuring 78 feet by 20 feet. That's a lot of tapestry.

The tapestry was produced during the 100 Years War, and a notable feature is that it draws on the uncertainty and troubles of the time both to reflect the mood of the people (war, famine, and pestilence were probably not too unfamiliar) and to spread propaganda on behalf of the regime (it was commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou, a member of the ruling Valois dynasty). Our guide pointed out several panels where various beasts and other baddies were subtly identified with the English enemy. (I kept my mouth shut.)

For obvious reasons, the lights in the gallery are low and flash photography is not allowed, so my photos in no way do justice to the true colours of the tapestry (despite this, I'm going to put up far too many of them). I don't know that the colours matter too much though - I found them interesting more for what they were depicting and how, rather than the details of the colours used. That said, they were wonderful to look at. After our guided tour, I had about 15 minutes all by myself in the quiet of the empty gallery to look at them. I could have stayed longer, but they shut the gallery about 15 minutes before the rest of the castle closed. I had just enough time to scamper up onto the battlements and take a few pictures of the view before running for the exit. 

It's a very old-school château, built between the 9th-early 13th centuries

The entrance to the château
Gatehouse into an inner courtyard of the castle

View from the ramparts of the courtyard gardens and chapel buildings

They have a small vineyard up on the terraces as well. Sans vines at the mo. The guide said they tried making wine from the grapes, but it wasn't very nice

View of the Maine river and a suburb of Angers (the city centre is on the other side of the château)

View of the old town and cathedral

The Apocalypse Tapestry stretching out into the darkness. This is only one side of the L-shaped gallery

Angels attacking one of the beasts

People try to attack the beast, but it won't die

At the end of the story, Jesus (?) finally does manage to defeat the various beasts

This was an interesting one - the first beast, who I think is the Beast of the Land, but maybe the Beast of the Air, hands his sceptre over to the Beast of the Sea. The guide pointed out that the sceptre is topped by a fleur-de-lys. There is a theory that the Beast of the Sea is the English, coming across the Channel and taking control of France.

People worshipping the second and third beasts

More beast worship

The guide said the central figure on the horse has been identified with the Black Prince, father of Richard II, who fought in various battles in France, including at Crécy. In Henry V, Shakespeare refers to him 'forag[ing] in blood of French nobility'

Death, one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The apostle John eating a book. According to the guide, this signified something like John ingesting the meaning of the vision. The book was sweet and easy to eat, but bitter in the stomach.

The elect, dreaming of being saved. Apparently the elect like to share a bed, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style

The horseman of Famine. It seems strange to represent famine with lots of trees and plants, but the guide said this was to show it wasn't a natural famine, which could be blamed on God, but a man-made famine triggered by war and human actions. The French peasantry would be used to destruction wrought by soldiers passing through and taking or destroying their crops.

To give you an idea of how the panels look hanging together

The Whore of Babylon combing her hair and admiring herself in the mirror

I think this is right at the beginning, but it could be the vision of the celestial Jerusalem at the end. Either way, I think it's an angel and St. John

An angel blowing a trumpet and opening one of the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. This leads to a shipwreck

The Whore of Babylon on the beast's back

After the château, I had just enough time to duck into the cobblestone streets of the old town and find the cathedral. Conveniently enough, it started to rain just as I went in, and had stopped and gone back to blue skies again when I came out (quite a short time thereafter - I was a bit worried about possibly getting lost on the way back to the station for the last train of the evening, and the cathedral wasn't all that impressive, although I probably could have looked some of the stained-glass windows in a bit more detail).

Rose window in the cathedral

Window with Stars of David in the cathedral

Fountain outside the train station

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Undercover opera and other adventures

I have quite a jumble of things to catch you up on, so this post will probably be a bit bitsy. First off, the beloved guinguette is no more. I didn't go to the guinguette too much in the early part of summer, because it rained so goddamn much, but since getting back from holiday, we were down there most weekends. On the second-to-last weekend there was a pretty awesome swing dance battle, and on the last weekend of all I managed to score free wine for the girls off the manager, who I'd somehow got on bisous terms with just by showing my face around the guinguette so often and chatting to him. He beckoned me to follow him up to the bar, and when I returned triumphantly bearing a bottle of rosé, my friend Laura asked what I had to do to get it. "Erm," I replied, "I suppose he held my hand for a sec". So there you go, I'm a hand-holding whore for wine. A far cry from my early 20s when I would refuse any free drinks for feminist reasons! Guess that's what getting old and poor does to a girl.

A daddy-daughter dance at the guinguette
View of Pont Wilson from the guinguette
As I've said before, the demise of the guinguette (a few weeks ago now) spells the end of summer in these parts, and it has lived up to the legend by raining pretty solidly for the last week or so (except Friday, Friday was lovely). So for the most part, we've had to get our kicks in more indoor settings. In an unrelated fact, I've had a run of three or four weekends where we've been out pretty much till the sun's come up, with way too many shots consumed for ladies in their late 20s/early 30s.

Caroline and Philippa gear up for a shot with a naughty name

The sight of all that whipped cream is enough to turn your stomach. The shot was actually quite nice, but I refused to lick the trail of cream up from the bottom of the glass, as you're meant to. Did do the shot with no hands though!

On Thursday, Philippa's parents were in town from Australia, and she invited a big group of us out for dinner at Mama Bigoude's a fun and funky crêpe house, where I last went with my sister. "Meeting the parents" is one of those quirks of expat life. At home, I wouldn't think someone who invited me out for dinner with their parents was weird or anything, but it would be rather unexpected to meet the parents of a girlfriend you've only known for six months or so. Here it's much more normal to meet parents or other family members if they come into town and I think as much as anything it's that you want your parents to meet your friends and be able to visualise your life when they're so far away and know who you're talking about when you mention such-and-such a person. You also kind of want them to know "hey, I'm doing well, I have friends!" because it isn't always easy to a) make friends at all and b) make friends that you actually click with, rather than just hang out with because hey, you need someone and they're there. The crêpes were yummy and it was great meeting Philippa's dad (her mum was ill and couldn't make it, unfortunately) and hanging out with everyone. The vibe at Mama Bigoude's is all about fun and frivolity and we had a good night.

I walked past this graffiti on the way to the restaurant. It says (don't know what the initial "l" is there for if anyone wants to enlighten me) "we shouldn't say happy birthday to Luna by writing on a public space", but the weird part is the Sept 11th date and the cartoon of two planes flying into the smoking twin towers. What's with that?

Downstairs at Mama Bigoude. The chandelier is decorated with balls of wool and knitting needles.

Our group plus crêpes! Clockwise from left: Laura, me, Johanna, Caroline, Marcia, John (P's dad), Philippa and Mark

Yesterday I started off the day by watching the F1 qualifying at the Korean Grand Prix, and then had to rush to get ready and out the door for an entirely different cultural experience. Braving bucketing rain in my split-sole shoes (d'oh, but I did have heels in my bag to change into later), I headed across town to the opera, where they were having an open house event. In the morning, you could tour the opera behind the scenes, the costume stores etc., but we missed out on that and arrived in time for the afternoon dress rehearsal. We got some of the best seats in the house (for free), right in the centre in the first floor balcony and settled in to watch the show - Verdi's Rigoletto.

I had expected that a dress rehearsal, especially with an audience, would be treated as a dry run of the actual performance, i.e. they would just go straight through whatever happened. However, after the opening dance number, it didn't take long for the conductor to step in: "Excuse-moi, mais non." "Trop tard ?", Christophe, playing the Duke, replied. He had come in fractionally too late for a cue and they began the song again. It was fascinating to see the actors receiving notes from the conductor and stage director on everything from how they were singing to how they were moving. In a particularly funny moment, the Duke and Countess Ceprano practised a move where he spins her around, pulls her in close and she breaks free. She kept getting tripped up by her long train, and the actors mugged it up a bit for the audience, with Christophe the Duke jokingly wanting to recommence each take by kissing the Countess.

We only got to see the first act (twice), which ended with a murder and abduction. Talk about a cliffhanger - I now want to get a ticket to see how it ends! The worst seats in the house are pretty cheap, but I've heard it's quite hard to get tickets. They only play three dates! It seems an amazing amount of work for just that, but I suppose there's not the population to support long runs, so they have to keep changing and draw in a loyal crowd of season ticket holders plus people who might go to see one or two operas a year.

Staircase in the opera house

The opening scene with the Duke about to whirl the Countess around

Some of the cast take five on the side of the stage while the director (in the centre) gives notes to the actors. He had a microphone so we could listen in.

Can you spot the Duke hiding in this scene? Pretty good camouflage!

Sinister masked men arrive to abduct Rigoletto's daughter. I enjoyed this song, which you can watch here, starting at about 3'30".

Finally, after a short nap, I got ready to meet Liz, her boyfriend David, and Charlie at a cool wine bar Liz had been raving about. I'd tried to find it the week before, but Liz gave me completely wrong directions (see, it's not just me). Packed into a small space were about 350 different bottles of wine, and the friendly and knowledgeable staff helped us choose the perfect wines. I started with a sparkling Vouvray, moved on to asking for a "dry but not too acidic rosé" and then a "light and fluid red, easy on the tannins" and was very happy with the wines I was served. Can't remember what they were unfortunately! It was great catching up with David and Charlie, who I haven't seen in ages, and after the aforementioned all-nighters, I was glad to have a civilised soirée and get back to bed by 1 am! It was nonetheless tough to wake up again at 7 to watch the grand prix, but after all, I didn't have to get out of bed for it.

This photo was meant to show my peacock headband (a present from Liz), but I soft-focused it out

Can kinda see it here
Just a few of the wines on offer

Liz and David left me this surprise photo while I was in the loo