Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Get her to the mairie on time!

For those who want to enjoy a meta-experience, you can read Ella’s version of these events here.

Unsurprisingly, for me the morning of Ella’s wedding began much more calmly than for the bride. I woke up reasonably early – in the bride’s bed, which was a first for me! – with plenty of time to wash my hair, grab breakfast from a local bakery and do my hair and makeup before chilling out and waiting for the rest of the guests who were also making their way out of town on the RER. When the rest of the girls arrived, they brought a wave of stressed energy and lively chatter with them which was slightly overwhelming at first, but with the addition of bubbly and the realization that *they* weren’t going to be holding up proceedings since the bride was running late, I soon got to know them and felt we clicked very well. Of course, Ella has great taste in friends!

A series of slightly frantic phone calls, asking for overnight bags to be packed and bubbly to be cracked alerted us that all wasn’t going quite so smoothly on Team Ella over at the hair salon. Deep breaths, a glass of champagne (although no Xanax) and a reminder that nothing starts without the bride were needed when Ella finally made it in the door, late and more than a little frazzled.

When Ella had first told me she planned on taking the RER to her wedding, dressed in her wedding dress and sipping champagne en route, I had imagined us commandeering an entire section of the train, clinking glasses while posing for photos and laughing at the stares of French people all agog to see a bride on the train. (Generally, the French will stare if you speak English on the RER, or wear a bright colour or go outside in 13° weather without a coat, so that part at least wasn’t much of a stretch.)

It was an Interesting Trip, but not a Very Bad Trip. (Photo stolen back from Ella's blog)
The reality wasn’t quite like that. I’d like to say that things went off like a military operation, but the main thing our journey had in common with one was the amount of running and shouting that went on. We were women on a mission, with no time for hesitation or stragglers. Problems with the ticket barriers were dealt with with ruthless efficiency; we were assigned buddies to make sure everyone made it on and off the various metro and RER trains, and instructions for each step of the journey were barked out in advance: “We are getting off at the next stop, turn left, right along the platform, up the stairs. GO GO GO!”

Piling on to the RER, our last connection, was an opportunity for a breather, or so you’d have thought. Visions of the nine of us sitting companionably beside each other splitting a bottle of bubbly were thwarted by the lack of free seats in the carriage, and specifically an aggressive man and his jungle of plants. Allow me to set the scene – there are bench seats on either side of the aisle, enough to fit three or maybe four people at a pinch on each bench. Multiply that by four (two facing each other on each side), and you have seating for 12-16 people. Ample, one would say. Except that there was one couple on one side of the aisle who, instead of putting all their fricking plants right next to them, put them all on the floor across the aisle, hence taking up space for said 12-16 people between the two of them.

 Now allegedly the guy did offer to move the plants before we got there, and allegedly (or, um, actually) Ella and I might have steamed in a bit later and expressed our displeasure with the situation in a vocal fashion, but that still doesn’t change the facts that 1) your plants shouldn’t have been all up in everyone else’s business to begin with and 2) you don’t shout at a stressed bride, dude. Still, Ella and I held our own (most of the art of French arguments can be reduced to “make a lot of random noises” – “eh oh, pfft, bah non, quoi”) although we continued to get evil looks from his direction for the rest of the train ride, not improved by the fact that we were all swigging straight from a bottle of wine. I think it’s safe to say, though, that the rest of the train were on our side, despite the Rowdy Anglo Factor being particularly high on this occasion.

The way I look like I'm popping out of Ella's suitcase amuses me
It wasn’t the way I pictured it, it wasn’t how Ella had pictured it either, but it was the most memorable wedding dash I’ve been involved in, and I was proud to be a part of it!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fabulous Fontainebleau

I’m blogging Fontainebleau first in order to leave the blushing bride time to blog about her own wedding first (she said it was fine to steam ahead, but no bother).

So the morning after the big day, I woke up in the “prostitute hotel” (apparently a favourite with local hookers due to the fact that you can get a triple room for 30€) feeling a bit out of shape but not too terrible. I actually slept quite well, no prostitutes within earshot, although perhaps not as long as I would have liked. I had accidentally booked two rooms – although, name and shame here, what actually happened was that the Formule 1 site froze in the middle of my transaction, I refreshed, waited a while to make sure that I didn’t get a confirmation of the booking, then booked again. I got a confirmation email HALF AN HOUR LATER to say that I had, in fact, booked two rooms. Then they wouldn’t refund my money even though it was clearly a mistake. Seriously, I’ve never been double-charged in all my years of buying stuff online, and the one time it’s with bastards with a no refund policy. Anyway, it had a happy ending since Ella kindly put me in touch with some fellow guests who were looking for a hotel room, and they bought it off me. Anyway, this meant that I had decided to leave the wedding the night before at about 2.30 am, since they were getting a ride back to the hotel (about a kilometer out of town) and I was pretty tired after a long day of wedding fun.

I had planned to take a trip to the nearby château of Fontainebleau, hangover permitting, since I was in the area. Deciding I didn’t feel too seedy, I got ready in a fairly leisurely manner and calculated that it would probably be okay to knock on the door of my fellow guests at about 10.30 and see where they were at in the getting-ready process. Turns out the answer was “still in bed in their underwear” but they actually got ready super quick and we set out together towards town on foot, suitcase in tow, having failed to reach either the groom, the groom’s father or the local taxi for a ride. Hungry and thirsty (especially thirsty, in my case) we were eventually rescued by Aurélien, the groom, going above and beyond on the morning after his wedding. I was dropped off at the RER station just in time for the next train (and they even came back to deliver my suitcase, which I'd managed to leave in the boot in my hungover state) and from there it was just a quick trip to Fontainebleau.

I hadn't really done much forward planning on this front, and mistakenly believed that the train station was right by the chateau. Turns out it's nearly 3 kilometres away, well-signposted for the most part, but with a significant portion running through a large park. Despite my hangover, I tried to view it as a fun Sunday outing, rather than as a neverending forced march through trackless woods, but I wasn't 100% successful...

After a sandwich and a Coke at the château (I normally can't abide Coke, but the situation called for a bit of a caffeine injection), I was feeling slightly better, although my first impressions of the château were not great. The tour started off with a series of poky little guardrooms, which didn't particularly impress me. However, as soon as I got into the first of the royal state rooms, the bedroom of Anne of Austria, I shook off my hangover in order to marvel at the amazingly sumptious furnishings and, especially, the lavish wall and ceiling decorations. Whatever you picture when you think of magnificence, Fontainebleau is it.

It was a shame I didn't have the time to go on any guided tours to the parts of the château that aren't open for independent visits, and even more of a shame that the guy who sold me my ticket didn't tell me that the audioguide was free, so I missed out on all the historical detail, but it was still definitely worth the trip, much better than lying in bed in the prostitute hotel feeling sorry for myself. And it didn't rain, unlike in Paris where it was absolutely bucketing down while I waited for my train! I arrived back home tired but happy after a great weekend, and collapsed into bed at about 9 pm, feeling very grateful that the next day was a holiday as well.

Going through my photos, it seemed about half didn't come out due to lighting or other issues, but that may be a good thing since I still ended up with a ton...

The ballroom

The chapel

In the Chinese museum

Ceiling in the throne room

There was an exhibition on the influence of Fontainebleau's art and design - here you can see some of the notable features, chiefly the huge "frames" for paintings and the decorative use of nude figures

Not the most lavishly-furnished room in Fontainebleau, but that little table is supposedly where Napoleon signed his abdication papers

Napoleon's "camp bed"

Napoleon's throne room

More of the signature Fontainebleau style

Friday, May 17, 2013

DJ Pie

Just a few photos from some recent celebrations before I come to you as Special Correspondent from Ella's wedding. We went out for at least two rounds of drinks to celebrate my getting a job and staying in Tours. The first, at the Cave à Manger, was meant to be a sophisticated mid-week soirée, but predictably turned in to us wandering from bar to bar and, in a particularly low point, paying for cloakroom facilities at a gay bar only to find there was NOBODY downstairs on a Wednesday night. And that the shots were 5€ each! But for most of the night, the bubbles were rolling (to the constant cry of "To Gwan! Bubbles!", which I enjoyed very much.
Celebratory bubbles at the Cave à Manger
Then just before starting my new job (I always like to start off fresh), I hosted some more drinks at my place. I decided to make mini mince and cheese pies (that's beef mince, not Christmas mince) for the occasion, to give a bit of New Zealand flair to the evening. If I do say so myself (for the second blog post in a row), they were a Great Success. Probably no-one was more excited than myself, which for some reason led to me being christened, or christening myself, DJ Pie for the evening.

DJ Pie's pies

DJ Pie

DJ Pieface


We also recently had an Xbox Kinect night at Philippa's place, which involved dancing, karaoke, and getting a bit cray cray.
The très classy Domaine de Cray Montlouis bubbly
Plus we celebrated Marcia's birthday at The Pale pub, which was also celebrating its own birthday. To mark the occasion, they were giving out free drinks to the regulars all evening. Unfortunately though, we were all too dim to figure this out! Each of us just went up individually for a round when it was our turn, and then just thought "hey, they shouted us a round, that was nice" without actually working out that ALL the drinks were free. Would have had more if we'd realised, d'oh!

Anyway, that's all in this round-up, I'll leave you with a couple of pretty pictures while I jet up to Paris!

The Cher on one of the rare nice days we've had!
I put the ipad version of this on Twitter, but the colours weren't right at all

Friday, May 10, 2013

Great success!

May is a busy old month for me - this weekend (and week, with the bonus two public holidays in the middle) is a quiet pause, but otherwise, with the society wedding of the season and a visit from my sister coming up, things are pretty hectic. The same went for last weekend, when I finally hosted my Kiwi friend Amber in Tours. She had meant to come around a year and a half ago, but the trip was cancelled at the last minute when she realised she'd lost her passport, and never rescheduled.

So this time, I wanted to make sure the trip lived up to its long-awaited hype. And, if I do say so myself (using the most current pop-culture reference in my bag of tricks), it was a Great Success! I tried to achieve a balance of the different experiences the Loire Valley has to offer: from châteaux to good food to (obviously) wine, and mix in some of the more off-beat experiences you might not have on your list as the average tourist. And we were lucky enough to have perfect weather, despite forecasts to the contrary, and some interesting unexpected encounters thrown in.

After a girly wine and nibbles evening at La Cave à Manger on Friday night, we were up relatively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a short (c. 30 minute) road trip to Azay le Rideau, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch in a sunny courtyard and checked out the château. Azay was mainly chosen because Philippa and I had yet to go there, but it is also to be recommended for its beautiful setting on a small island on a lake, and its small but pretty style. It probably only took around an hour and a half to see, with the interior not being particularly outstanding, but I think that was plenty to be satisfied but not bored traipsing around for hours. Just taking photos of the beautiful exterior was probably the highlight.

I was brave and had the "goats cheese and raspberry crème brûlée" for my starter at lunch. It was nice, although it could have passed for a dessert, to be honest
Me and Amber at lunch in Azay-le-Rideau
A strange optical phenomenon in the sky - around the sun was a dark circle lined with a perfectly round rainbow. I did some research afterwards and found that this is a 22° halo, caused by the refraction of light in tiny ice crystals in the clouds. It was pretty impressive seeing it in this setting, and imagining what people in the Renaissance period might have made of such a sight. In fact, a related phenomenon, "sun dogs", is believed to explain the appearance of "three suns" in the sky before a key battle in the Wars of the Roses.
A pretty café in the château grounds which was presumably once a gatehouse or something
Me in front of the château
The château and its lake
Me and Amber at the château
View from the castle windows
On Saturday night, I rounded up the ladies to check out one of the premier events in Tours' glittering social calendar - the Foire de Tours (tradeshow)/Fête Fouraine (carnival). According to one of the vendors I spoke to on saturday night, this is the biggest event of its kind in France outside Paris (whether it's true, I don't know). By day, you can check out a variety of stalls selling everything from plumbing to furniture (exciting stuff), but you can also take in carnival rides to your heart's content or - and this is where it gets interesting - sample the delights of the massive "gourmet village" i.e. eat and drink as much as humanly possible. And so we did, in a bustling (and crowded - my floor-length dress was, in hindsight, not smart) fairground atmosphere.

By some miracle, Amber, Liz, Philippa, Mel and I were all up and at 'em again on Sunday (after about 5 hours' sleep) and ready for the last of my planned activities, a wine-tasting trip to the nearby small town of Vouvray, an area particularly known for its sparkling wines. (Did you know the Loire Valley is France's second-biggest producer of sparkling wines, after Champagne? And at a fraction of the price too.) I'd carefully researched half a dozen wineries that were open for tastings on a Sunday, and plotted out the route between them on Google Maps. First stop was the splendidly named Domaine d'Orléans-Bourillon, which Liz had seen on Facebook was having an open house that weekend. This turned out to be a fortuitous discovery, an experience a little bit more special than some other wine tastings I've been to in the region, where you were invited to spit your wine into the gutter of a barn (not that I think I'm too good to spit in a drain, of course). From the original glimpse of the cave (French for wine cellar, but also often literally a cave, as in this case), which was decorated with candles and an illuminated picture of Marilyn Monroe, this was a special visit.
The cave's tasting area
Amber and I enjoy a VIP tasting of 30€ moelleux wine
Basically, the people who turned up for the open day were the owner's mates, and us. So it didn't take long before we were basically being treated like the owner's mates too. This included being treated to free Thai food, quickly moving to addressing everyone as "tu" like old friends, and basically being just given whole free glasses of wine, rather than the tiny tasting sips you often get at these events. We even got escorted into a special posh tasting room and treated to a 30€ bottle of moelleux wine as a special VIP treat. I didn't really get too much out of the wine side of things, since I don't drink a lot of white wine and particularly detest sweet wine (I slipped my glass of the expensive moelleux to Liz when the owner wasn't looking), but the whole experience was a lot of fun!

It was one of the more bizarre encounters we've had, and I hope (and imagine) that it was a different experience than Amber would probably have had if she was just your typical tourist. It's not every day you end up spending an entire afternoon (because yes, we failed to move on to any other wineries as planned) basically hanging out with a vintner and his mates. There wasn't a lot of dégustation in the sense of really focusing on and discussing the wine, but the fun atmosphere more than made up for that I think! And maybe it provided a contrast to the often snobby and stand-offish reputation the French (or should that be Parisians who work in the tourist industry) have amongst tourists. We left with bisous all round, bottles of wine in tow (he managed to sell two of the 30€ numbers, and even I got a white wine for guests). So I think I can declare it a successful weekend in Touraine!