Thursday, November 28, 2013

Christmas spirits

(I don't actually)

Officially, I think Christmas should start after my birthday. But it is in full swing in these parts, and I've got to say, I'm getting in to the Christmas spirit. It's hard not to when there are twinkling lights in (it seems) every tree, to light up the dark that otherwise arrives around 4 pm, it's proper cold and there's Germanic treats to warm your hands and stomachs on offer.

Germany, of course, is widely known for its Christmas markets, and quite a lot of the festive spirit rubs off on neighbouring parts such as Eastern France and Luxembourg. I haven't been to the Metz Christmas market yet, but the Luxembourgish version has a distinctly Germanic feel to it. You can gorge yourself silly on bratwurst, rösti, or speck (or fondue, waffles, chocolate...) while sipping glühwein served from novelty mugs, browsing the usual assortment of Christmassy tat and listening to live carols (on a Wednesday night, no less).

A Christmassy wonderland

The view from afar

Bit blurry, but you get the idea

I went along after work with some of my colleagues, and whether it was the company or the mulled wine, we had a lovely time. There were many laughs after Em and I bought "sneeballen" (which I assume is German for snowballs) - a dense shortbread-like ball (folded as though someone had scrunched it up like a ball of paper) covered with chocolate, caramel, nuts etc. It actually wasn't that good, but we got our money's worth in laughs trying to bite into the things. It was nearly impossible to get any purchase! Defeated by the balls...

Attacking the boules

Hot dog!

More mulled wine
Definitely a good idea to cheer up the winter season! And the atmosphere was great as well. A little secret about Luxembourg - due to the multiple languages spoken in the country anyway, plus the European institutions, the international banks and the thousands who pour across the borders to work every day - it's actually very cosmopolitan. I love walking around the markets and hearing people speak different languages (and being fairly sure most of them aren't tourists). I think this will not be my last Christmas market of the season, it would be a shame not to experience a German one being so close!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Two-month report

Well, a little bit late, but anyway...

Two months in to my Metz/Lux adventure, and I think I can say I've fallen on my feet pretty well. In a way, I'm a bit of an old hand at moving to new places now (I think my little self-profile blurb used to say something like I've lived in 9 cities in 5 countries, so now it's 10), but I was in Tours for a very long time by my standards, so of course it takes some adjustment to picking up and leaving all your friends and familiar surroundings.

There has been some positive progress on the friends front though. Everyone (at least those I interact with on a regular basis) at work has been really nice and welcoming, and a lot more social than my old work. I think it's largely down to the expat vibe. Even though the great majority of those I work with are French, a lot of them aren't from the region or have moved from Lorraine to Luxembourg, so they have a bit more of that good old open-minded expat outlook that can sometimes be lacking in our French amis. I went along to Friday night drinks last week (we only work Friday afternoons about once a month, so it's a tradition to go for a drink afterwards) and I've been out a couple of times with some of the girls from work as well. Tonight we're going to meet up for a raclette evening, yum yum. I also got to meet the lovely Andromeda of Blonde in France, so hopefully we can catch up again some time! I even (whisper) have been seeing someone (The Brit) for the past month or so...

The report is a bit more mixed in some other areas. I feel I'm doing well at work, although that's not hard because it is very easy. Bit depressing at times to be doing the same unchallenging stuff day in and day out (and with days up to 9 1/2 hours long, not counting lunch, that drags). But at least it's something. And it pays well. And... I just heard yesterday that my and my counterpart's contracts are being renewed for the whole of next year. A little stability? That calls for champaaaaaaaagne...

The commute is still going okay, although it is getting colder (we've had the first snow of the year, more on that later). I'm a bit worried down the track since I've heard a few horror stories about the trains descending into chaos over winter. It can definitely be wearing, especially the weeks where I have to do 40 hours in 4 1/2 days. The other night it was 9.45 pm by the time I'd eaten dinner. I'd only been home for 1 1/4 hours and by that time, it was time to go to bed. That's the worst part really, just having literally no time to do anything at all. It took me about 5 days to watch the Downton Abbey season finale since I only managed about 20 minutes a time before I had to go to sleep to get up again at 6 am. And then any administrative or other tasks have to be plotted out pretty carefully since everything's shut by the time I get home, and even telephoning from Luxembourg can be tricky (my cellphone bill last night was 30€, not that much, but huge compared to the 2-4€ I used to pay in Tours).

In a way, it's lucky I'm not home that much, because I live in a dank pit. Everything is covered with mould - I pulled out a pair of gloves the other day, they had some sort of orange mould growing on them. I grabbed a packet of breadcrumbs, it was just a block of mould. Worst of all, I unwrapped a theoretically sealed packet of Munchies I'd brought back from the UK with me, and had to wipe drops of moisture off the sweets before eating them. When it starts messing with my chocolate, things get serious! Between that and the depredations of Bob, it's demotivating trying to keep the place looking halfway decent, particularly when I'm only home (awake) for about 2 1/2 hours each day.

Even so, I've managed to explore a little bit of the Lorraine/Luxembourg region...

Protestant church on an island in the Moselle in Metz

View of the Moselle in Metz

There was no fricking way I was going in this church

The Luxembourg Philharmonic on a rainy evening

I had a lovely trip out to Rodemack, voted one of France's prettiest villages, with some work colleagues. We turned up too late to visit the castle, but still had a nice walk around the old ramparts and played a fun board game in a local pub

Church in Rodemack

Rodemack town walls. The middle arch is a reconstruction, the original having been blown up to allow the American troops in during WWII

Herb garden and medieval wall in Rodemack
I also took a trip up to Vianden with the Brit. This was my first time out of Luxembourg City, and it was nice to see a little bit of the countryside. As with Rodemack, we managed to miss actually going into the castle, but it was still a lovely little town. We had lunch in a Portuguese place - Luxembourg has a surprisingly large and active Portuguese community. I had a bifana sandwich which was very tasty, even though the photo on the menu made it look remarkably like a pair of shoes.

Luxembourg is so small that this cross-country trip is actually only about a 50 minute drive

In front of Vianden Castle

View of Vianden

Vianden Castle - it was apparently in ruins by the start of the 20th century, so it seems that much of it is a reconstruction

Vianden from the river

And as I said, we've already had the first snowfall of the year. I was pretty excited, although that might not last! It didn't stick in Metz, but it was properly snowing in Luxembourg and stuck around for most of the day.

Snowy fields from the train

In Luxembourg City
So two months down, and possibly many more to come...

Saturday, November 09, 2013

A slightly more civilised look at Dijon

So, when we weren't dining with a nudist, what did we get up to in Dijon? Compared to that story, I've got to say the rest of the trip wasn't quite as exciting, in blogging terms. That doesn't mean we didn't have a great time though! There was a lot of good food and nice wine, a spot of retail therapy, and even a little bit of culture.

On Friday night, we headed out, accosted some guy on the street to tell us where the party was at, and went first to a bar where everyone was kind of dickish. First, as soon as we walked in, a group of 20ish year-olds immediately started whispering things in French about us to each other and giggling and going "Where is Brian?" (this is a famous French comedy routine about learning English - you can watch a short clip here with subtitles - it's quite funny, but it gets old hearing it every five seconds). One of the guys from the group came up to us outside and wanted to practice his English with us. He did actually turn out to be quite a nice guy, but we were rather cold at first and explained to him that, yeah, you're not necessarily in the mood to hand out free English lessons when his little friends were laughing and saying things presumably they thought we wouldn't understand the second we walked in the bar. Newsflash French people: sometimes those crazy foreigners actually do speak French!

Then later we were still outside, sitting on stools and a guy came up practically with his nose in my cleavage and goes "wow"! He then proceeded to try to explain, first in French and then in broken English, that he was admiring my boobs, with accompanying hand gestures. I found it more amusing than anything, he just kept going as though there was some sort of communication failure between us. You're staring at my boobs from a few inches away and drooling, dude I think I'd understand what you were getting at even if you were speaking Swahili...

So anyway, we left there and moved on to a club which turned out to be a lot of fun! Upstairs they had a live band and more of an all-ages feel, whereas downstairs was a club with a DJ which was mostly filled with early 20s tossers (god, getting old). I asked one guy to take a photo of us and he made such a fricking meal out of it, sighing and rolling his eyes like I'd asked him for a huge favour. And then he didn't even take it right (you have to hold the button down until it flashes, so many people don't actually succeed in taking the photo and then they don't get that it hasn't taken. Since this guy was being such a baby about it, in the end I just said it was fine. Actually, I may have said something along the lines of "geez, if it's that big of a deal then eff off". Whoops!) So we went back upstairs and got our dance on. Fun times!

Someone else was nice enough to take this one
On a medival Dijon street - those pretty patterned roofs in the background are characteristic of the area
Saturday was essentially taken up with much-needed restorative carb-loading at lunch and then shopping (yes, we bought mustard!), before the infamous dinner with Jérémie. Then on Sunday, again after a hearty lunch to soothe whatever wee hangovers we might have had (coq au vin, mmm), we finally got a spot of culture at the Dijon Museum of Fine Arts. This is fabulous, and it's free! Definitely recommended if you ever find yourself in Dijon. The girls had to leave after 45 minutes or so to start the drive back home, but I stayed for a couple of hours and thoroughly enjoyed it.

A bit of background - Dijon used to be home to the Dukes of Burgundy, who were pretty wealthy and powerful in the Middle Ages and the patrons of the arts. The Burgundy territories changed quite a lot over time, but they ruled over parts of the Low Countries at one point, so there are links to the artistic traditions in that part of the world. The museum is located in their ducal palace and filled with some fantastic medieval art (which I love, as we all know). Some highlights:

Ancient aliens didn't build the pyramids, Fraggle Rock did!

I love how adorably dopey zombie Jesus looks here. He's even standing on that poor guard

A chinesey-looking dragon

Vs. a mad sword-wielding dragon

Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy. Tell me this isn't the most amazing thing you've seen today

Each statue of mourning monks around the base is different

Looks a lot like the photo before last, but it's not the same!

I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse #godfatherjesus

There were these two fabulous gold altarpieces opposite each other (photos below a bit of a mishmash I think)

I love medieval horses

I love how Jesus just kinda looks like he's having a bummer of a day, not going to his death. And check out that weird little dog to the right

Statues by local boy François Rude. This means there is a Rude Museum in Dijon (and I did actually pop in - it's also free!)

So pretty!
I don't think I would have ever put Dijon on my must-see list (we ended up there just by picking somewhere vaguely between Tours and Metz that none of us had ever visited), but it really was a great trip! Largely down to the good company, but I would definitely recommend it for a weekend if you get the chance.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Dîner des cons?

Saturday night in Dijon began with a bottle of champagne in the hotel room while getting ready (after some discussion of whether this would ruin our palates for subsequent wine tasting. Naturally, we decided it would not), and then we headed out to a wine bar to sample some local Burgundy wines. The wine bar was lovely - friendly owner, nice quiet atmosphere, freshly hand-shaved deli platters - but we were a bit disappointed that there was only two red and one rosé Burgundy wines available by the glass. Seems a bit weird for a wine bar! I thought my rosé tasted a bit like fruit juice (although not too sweet) and Liz found her red insipid - it was that beautiful Burgundy colour though. We actually moved on to a bottle of non-AOC "vin de France", which we all quite liked. Well, at least we made the effort with the local wines!

It was getting lateish by this stage, and time for a spot of dinner. After being turned away from a full restaurant, we came across an obviously drunk guy who wanted to speak English with us. It's fair to say we were a bit reticent at first to engage in conversation. Sometimes drunk dudes who want to try out their rusty high school English are a dime a dozen in France, and it does get old. But he asked if we had eaten, we asked for restaurant recommendations, and, in between telling us a million times that he'd had a big apéro already that evening (as if it wasn't obvious), he somehow persuaded us to accompany him to a restaurant. The fact that he claimed to have just won 50,000€ on the lottery and planned therefore to treat us all to dinner may also have been a factor (although we were all a bit sceptical).

He took us to one of the fanciest restaurants in town, but it was just before 10 pm and they weren't serving any more. The maître d was unfailingly polite even when confronted with a drunk French guy and three Anglo girls, and told us just about the only place likely to be still open was around the corner. We headed in, ordered a round of kirs (white wine with crème de cassis, which I don't actually really like, but they're a local speciality of Dijon, so...) and started enjoying a fun dinner.

Jérémie was, I will say, very charming, and we were all having a good time. He pressed us to order whatever we wanted - it was on him! My confit de canard with foie gras duly arrived, and was very nice, if a little over-the-top with the double richness of fatty duck and foie gras, and we accompanied the main course with a bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges wine, which I'd never heard of, but is a red local to the Burgundy region.

There had been murmurs between us girls before going in about Jérémie's offer to pay, and the consensus between us was that we were going to eat out anyway, so whatever, we'd work it out when the bill came. But as the bill racked up - I didn't actually look at the price of the Nuits-Saint-Georges, but looking online, it seems to start at about 25€ and up, so with restaurant markups, perhaps 50+€ - there began to be certain glances exchanged between us. Jérémie made a joke - "ladies, I'm homeless, but you see I manage to eat and drink well". Melinda replied by saying that she was sure we could run faster than him, but I think we all had a sinking feeling at the backs of our minds that we might be about to be played by a charming smooth talker who would disappear and stick us with a huge bill.

Then the Veuve Clicquot arrived... We love champagne as much as the next girls, but again, this starts from around 35€ online, so maybe 70€ in a restaurant. Naturally, we wouldn't have minded paying our share if it was food and drink we'd ordered, but there was a bit of a whispered conference between us when Jérémie disappeared to the bathroom over whether he was coming back.

At this point, the bill arrived on the table, and we were confused to see that it was only for about 9€ or so, the price of the crème brûlée Jérémie had eaten (and tried to feed to the rest of us, much to my displeasure). We cautiously flagged down the waitress and enquired whether the bill had been paid. To our surprise, our suspicions about Jérémie had been completely unfounded - he'd paid for dinner for four, the apéros, two expensive bottles of wine... everything. It must have easily been over 200€. And he had tried his best to talk us into getting dessert. I guess sometimes not everyone is out to screw you after all? I'm sure, if it had come down to it, we could have sucked it up and managed 80€ each or whatever to cover the bill, but just the fact of being played for fools would have been the worst part.

Jérémie re-appeared and, after an interlude in an Irish bar until we got kicked out at closing time into the pouring rain, we headed to a karaoke bar. I had been harping on about going to karaoke all weekend, since I had walked past not one, but two karaoke bars on the short walk between the train station and our hotel on Friday evening. Jérémie, by now even drunker, warned us that he wasn't sure he could get in since he had a habit of taking his clothes off and giving people the finger and had been kicked out before. Given that he had already briefly taken his shirt off in the restaurant, we probably should have taken this more seriously, but at the time I just laughed and said if he didn't do that, he'd be fine.

The karaoke bar was a bit mixed - there was a looooot of waiting around for endless dreary French songs until we got our turn. The other patrons might have turned in more professional performances, but we all know who brought the fun! I did "Back to Black", with an unhelpful and unsolicited accompaniment by Jérémie, and then we did "I Love Rock and Roll" as a group, which was fun. Again, Jérémie insisted on paying for all the drinks, even ambushing the bartender at the other end of the bar so he could pay before she got back to me with the bill. At one point, we were sitting down after our group number when a bottle of Piper Heidsieck appeared at the table (terrible waste to drink champagne at 4 am, in my opinion, but not complaining).

Trying to stop Jérémie ruining my rendition of "Back to Black"
Mel, Liz and me at the karaoke bar

We Love Rock n Roll!

Late-night champers

Moments later, amidst a general commotion, Jérémie was rushed past our table at a rate of knots, hauled out by an angry bouncer. I didn't see what happened, but apparently he had dropped his pants in the middle of a gaggle of karaoke-singing ladies up by the stage. I guess we had been duly warned! Partly through embarrassment that we had been with him, partly because he had left his wallet and jacket at the table (and he had, after all, been good company and very spendy), and partly because, even with gaining an hour due to the end of Daylight Savings, it was after 4 am, we duly made our exit from the bar as well.

Outside, we had no idea where he had gone and no way to contact him, so we were debating what to do with his stuff when he suddenly ran past with some angry-looking dudes in hot pursuit. We basically threw his stuff to him and skedaddled ourselves. Felt a bit bad leaving him when, it would seem, he was about to get his arse kicked, but seriously, getting involved in street fights on behalf of a rogue nudist is a step too far. Guaranteed fun when I'm with my ladies, but this night was crazy even for us!