Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It's been five years

Well, to be exact, as of today it's been 4 years, 7 months and 3 days since I moved to France in September 2009. But that (plus six weeks or so) is going to have to do. I'm not going to make it to that magical 5 year mark where you can apply for French citizenship (I wasn't 100% sold on that anyway), because it's time to say au revoir France...

...and bonjour Belgium! Hello frites, yummy chocolate and endless rain (apparently) and adding a sixth country to the list of places I've lived. As of mid-June some time, I'll be on the move again (sigh), this time for hopefully a bit of a longer run in the same place - Brussels. My last move, a mere eight months ago, was so traumatic that I had zero interest in moving again any time soon (despite hating my apartment and the mega-commute), but a fantastic opportunity came up (hence my January trip to Brussels) which was way too good to say no to.

I had more-or-less settled in to commuting for around 1.5 hours each way, and my work for the first few months of the year was a lot more interesting (I'm back to deathly boredom now), but the new job offers so much more financially, in lifestyle terms and (hopefully) in the kind of work I'll be doing. Ever since I've known I'm moving, it's been more and more of a drag when the alarm goes off at 5.45 every day and when I stumble back in my front door at 8.30 pm. After working 40-hour weeks with 15 hours' commuting time, 38 hours plus about 5 hours' commute a week will be a breeze! As well as being character-forming, having to go through tough times of whatever description also helps you to appreciate any upturn in fortune.

Plus the payrise means I could shop around for somewhere I really wanted to live. Absolute non-negotiables: a balcony/terrace/garden and a bathtub. I've been dreaming for years of having some kind of outdoor space, and having a bath (with book, music and glass of wine) is one of my absolute favourite things to do whenever I'm in a hotel or wherever. I never quite had the budget to find exactly what I wanted before, so this time I didn't want to compromise. Jules and I spent last weekend in Brussels, and I've lined one up that ticks all the boxes, and is in what seems to be the perfect neighbourhood, balancing distance from work and the city, amenities, quietness etc. Happy days!

Talking of Jules (who reads the blog, so this is a bit weird), that's the part that's obviously not so great. I was waiting to hear back about the job before we met, and after a few good dates I kind of rolled my eyes and thought "I bet I'll get the job now, that'd be typical". It's almost a cliché that you meet someone when you're not looking (I wasn't - despite it being online, I had taken my photos down, which is basically man-repellent) or when circumstances are going to make things awkward. Sure enough, I got the news after we'd been dating for a few weeks, just before the trip to Cologne. I had planned on waiting until afterwards to tell him, so as not to spoil the weekend, but in the car conversation turned to my job (level of interest therein) and what my long-term plans were, and by the time we got to the hotel I was wracked with guilt and had to break it to him.

He took it very calmly. He's a calm guy, so that's not a big surprise, but after only going out for a few weeks, it would have been reasonable on his part to decide he wasn't into the prospect of a long-distance thing and that it was easier to pull the plug there and then. Which would have been a tad awkward stuck together in Cologne. But, happily, we decided to see how things went over the next 2 1/2 months or so until I left, and then... Brussels isn't that far from Luxembourg, really. It's still only been two months, but things are going well, so hopefully it'll be okay. I think the fact that we already don't live in the same city will help the transition, although I'll miss being able to catch up in the week for a drink after work.

So, I'm super excited! The stress is starting to kick in a little bit now too. It should be much less chaotic than last time (I can hire professional movers for starters), but with the added complications of being an international move to worry about. Who knows how things work in Belgium? And, naturally, I already have trips to Mallorca and Tours lined up for the end of May/beginning of June to suck money out of my bank account and time out of my schedule, but hey, there are worse problems!

I'm a bit sorry that, mostly due to those long hours, I haven't really got to know Metz at all. The last eight months have flown by at warp speed, I swear. The bi-country work/home balance is difficult to maintain: very hard to make friends in Metz, where I was never home, and I'd be tired at the end of the day in Luxembourg and just have to rush off to the train anyway. I still have a little time (moving formalities and holidays notwithstanding) to tick a couple of things like the Pompidou Metz off the list, and I'll be coming back to Luxembourg to see Jules, so all is not lost.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The worst hangover food in the world

Let's go back in time a bit to my trip to Rouen, all the way back in February (where does the time go?) Last time, I shared with you the wholesome sightseeing and gastronomic explorations we got up to, but we all know a girls' weekend isn't a girls' weekend without a few shenanigans.

We managed to head out quite early by our standards (thus avoiding the torturous search for a restaurant that was still serving after 10 pm that we had in Nantes), and for some reason ended up in a "ham cave" (sounds slightly classier in French). Unsure why, since in general I don't really like ham, but it's true that if I'm going to have ham, I do quite like the fancy Spanish variety (champagne tastes and all). I think we were mostly attracted by the cute pig logo and the opportunity to just graze a bit rather than eating a big meal. We ordered a cheese and a charcuterie platter, which looked quite small, but we were there for literally hours snacking away and didn't finish either of them, despite them both being very good.

As the night wore on, the restaurant got emptier and emptier until it was just us (caterwauling away to Bohemian Rhapsody) and the table next to us. We kept thinking "we're okay to stay as long as there's one other table, we're not bothering the staff" until eventually we realised that the other table were their mates. Luckily by this time we'd managed to make friends with the waiter, and much like our trip to Toulouse, the doors were locked and soon the free drinks were flowing with our new chums. Why do we only seem to end up best mates with bartenders on holiday though?

Awww, heart! I tried to do the heart symbol but it interpreted it as broken HTML and wouldn't let me

There were many, many blurry selfies

It took me quite some time to understand this photo the first time I saw it on my tiny camera screen. Who's the blonde?

Making new friends
After a little playing on the dumbwaiter connecting the restaurant with the cellar, it was time to hit a club with our new friends. Fun was had, and then at some point around 3 or 4 am, we very sensibly decided to head home. Problem being that we had no idea where we were, and I'm not convinced we didn't just head off in a random direction for quite some time before it occurred to us to consult a map. After a slight unbloggable detour involving a spot of light party-crashing, we managed to find our way back to the hotel by about 7 am, by which time I'd been awake for more than 24 hours, so a wee lie-down was much appreciated. Liz was rather out of sorts the next day, but I managed to be up and about by lunch time and actually wasn't feeling that bad.

That is, I wasn't feeling that bad until I discovered the Worst Hangover Food in the World...

As my mum is fond of remarking, I was quite the little meat-eater as a child. Times have changed, and I no longer enjoy big bits of meat like a steak or whatever, but I still like to think of myself as quite an open-minded gourmand who'll try pretty much anything. Part of the legend of little Gwan the Carnivore involved my alleged love of sucking the marrow out of lamb chops, an activity I haven't indulged in in many a year. But when I saw that the one of the choices of entrée on the menu prix fixe was bone marrow, I kind of thought, "I wouldn't normally order bone marrow, but since it's on the set menu, this is an opportunity to give it a go". I was slightly put off by the British woman on the next table loudly remarking (to her partner) that bone marrow was supposedly "like dog food" (seriously, this woman spent the whole meal complaining about things, particularly the fact that it wasn't fair that Liz's crème brûlée had a proper crust on it and hers didn't), but I forged ahead.

Bear in mind that with a lamp chop, you generally get a teeny tiny bit of pretty well-cooked marrow. I wasn't quite expecting that, but I think I had in mind a neat little terrine of something resembling foie gras. The reality was quite different...

Sooo much marrow... What are those, ox bones??
As soon as it was put in front of me, I knew it was a grave mistake. I think all I could say for the first five minutes was "oh my God, oh my God". Just looking at it was making me sick. Liz told me afterwards that the sight of it seriously almost made her vomit as well, although she was quite the little soldier in not revealing that to me at the time. Not so the Brit on the next table, who felt free to make several uncomplimentary remarks on the topic (not sure whether she didn't realise we spoke English or she thought we couldn't hear her, but wrong on both counts).

Still, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and cautiously dipped the spoon into one of the bones. It got even worse. It emerged from the bone as a quivering, wibbly lump. Suppressing the urge to hurl, I cautiously spread a small amount on my bread and took a bite. It tasted just like pure fat, with a greasy, jelly-like, tongue-coating texture. The small bite pictured in the photo was all I managed, but unfortunately, since I obviously wasn't progressing through the dish, the waiter didn't come to remove it until I eventually went to the bathroom around half an hour later and he spied his chance. So that was half an hour of Liz and I valiantly trying not to look that monstrosity in the eye lest we be sick.

On the bright side, the meal finished with the best moelleux au chocolat that I've ever had, but bone marrow: Never. Again.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cologne cathedral and the Romano-Germanic museum

I don't know if I have that much to say really (cue very long post), but I had too many photos to put up on the other post without boring you all, so here goes.

As noted in my last post, Cologne was pretty much destroyed in World War Two, leaving the cathedral as more or less the only significant old landmark in the city. So we ended up spending quite a lot of time in and around it - first attempting a visit on Friday, when it was mostly shut for Mass (who goes to Mass on Friday evening?), then looking around on Saturday before having to go back to the hotel to watch qualifying with the intent of visiting the crypt on Sunday, except it was closed again until 1 pm, so we just took some photos since there was a blue sky for a change.

I wasn't blown away, to be honest. The outside is quite impressive, but also quite dark, and the inside is even darker. All the windows are modern (in fact the whole thing was only finished in the 19th century, after being half-completed for some 400 years), with most of them bright and attractive, but a pastiche of medieval style. It's also too crowded - according to Wikipedia, it's the most visited tourist site in Germany, attracting an incredible 20,000 visitors per day. There were certainly enough people milling about in early April, so I'd hate to be there in the middle of August.

Cologne cathedral

Hey, looks like that guy's drinking Starbucks coffee. Let's shame him!
Now that's a cool stained-glass window. Apparently the Archbishop didn't attend the unveiling, because he would have preferred a depiction of 20th-century Catholic martyrs. This is proof that archbishops have no taste.

One thing Cologne Cathedral does have going for it, though, is the world's most amazing and spectacular ceiling fresco. Move over Monkey Jesus, there's a new masterpiece in town. To say I was excited to document this chef d'oeuvre was something of an understatement. Forget what I said in the last post about Cologne not being a must-see destination and drop everything to wonder at who let a troupe of artistically-challenged school-children decorate the (up to) 800 year-old ceiling of Germany's most visited site. (My money's on the philistine archbishop.)

The best fresco ever

That time a small Peruvian woman dressed up as King Solomon

A touching memorial to traumatised choirboys everywhere

Caw! Caw! That eagle is definitely swooping in for the attack on the cowardly lion. Not for the first time on the blog, something reminds me of the epic Moa vs. Haast's Eagle animatronic battle that used to be at Auckland Museum (RIP André the Giant Eagle, we hardly knew ye)

It was like this, but better

And here we have Gregory the Great as Sad Cartman. Standing over the corpse of the Spirit of Jazz from the Mighty Boosh?

Two enthusiastic thumbs up from me
And now for some jumbled photos I forgot to upload last time:

Finally some nice weather

A park and the TV tower. Weirdly reminds me of the Japanese gardens in Monaco

The Rhine
I uploaded the photos the wrong way round (not that it matters): we actually visited the Romano-German museum first thing on Saturday morning. Getting to the advanced age where I need all my energies to tackle a museum, and even then I was looking forward to lunch and a sit-down by the end. We made the rookie mistake of taking too long studiously reading every label in the downstairs part (mostly full of pottery and tools etc.), and then being a bit over it by the time we got upstairs, which actually had a lot of cool jewellery and statutes.

That said, overall it was a good museum. The stand-out is definitely the large, detailed and amazingly intact Dionysus mosaic, around which the museum was actually built (it being easier to do that than to try to move it). One thing I liked was that there's a huge picture window in the side of the museum, allowing people in the square by the cathedral above to look down at the museum without coming in. Maybe that's just clever advertising, but it seemed like a generous and inclusive gesture. I would say, though, that it is actually worth shelling out to see the mosaic in more detail. The figurative scenes are really lovely and the patterns are impressively complex. It reminded me of being forced to tessalate things in maths class - one of those activities which you think could never be of any possible use to anyone, and since I'm not likely to be called on to create a mosaic anytime soon, probably won't be. Still, amazing to think the planning and skill that must have gone into it, all the way on the fringes of the Empire.

Aww, these little fishies look so happy

Now I'm annoyed I didn't crop off the grey bit at the top, but can't be bothered correcting it

The Dionysus mosaic

There were several depictions of birds pulling mini sledges or performing other tasks

The Dionysus mosaic was discovered while building air-raid shelters in 1941. The museum didn't say when this mosaic was found, but it was from "the villa next door", so presumably at the same time. Can you imagine how excited the Nazis must have been? Probably saw it as a sign from divine providence, suckers.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Cologne weekend

I spent an age trying to think of a clever Cologne pun for the blog title. "Oh de Cologne", "Colognie de vacances", "Eau, to be in Cologne" (French puns, haut cinq!), "Colovely, not Colognely". Clearly, I failed hard. And Cologne is not all that colovely anyway.

So try to swallow your bitter disappointment at not being treated to a pun (I know, I know, it's hard, but my Dad will probably be along in the comments to suggest something) and let's forge ahead with the substance of today's post. That being, this weekend's impromptu trip to Cologne.

Why Cologne? It turns out it's only about 2 1/2 hours' drive from Luxembourg, and I'd heard nice things about the cathedral, so it was the perfect choice for a spontaneous weekend away. Even just typing "spontaneous weekend away" makes me happy, and it's definitely one of the fringe benefits of living/working somewhere there are 5+ countries within a few hours' drive (Luxembourg, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland...) Really, it's hard to find a better argument for living in Europe than that you can travel so easily to another country with a different language, food, culture and history. That goes double for those of us who come from a small island country which is about as far away from everywhere else as you can possibly get. Drive 2 1/2 hours from Auckland and you end up in Tokoroa:

The 10th result in Google images for "Tokoroa"

In case you think the other top results were full of hidden gems: police, fights, carparks, fields, a weird tree, a cow and a statue of a guy with a chainsaw which is notable enough to appear 3 times

At first glance, however, Cologne doesn't appear to have much more charm than the mean streets of Tokoroa. After parking in Europe's longest underground parking garage (I was told to put that in) (despite taking a photo of our lot, we managed to walk about 600 metres in the wrong direction when retrieving the car - the whole thing is nearly 2.5 miles long), and checking in to our lovely hotel on the banks of the Rhine, we headed out to see what Cologne had to offer early on a Friday evening. Wandering around the deceptively-named old city, it looked like pretty much everything had been bombed to oblivion and rebuilt c. 1965. This turns out to be not too inaccurate - Cologne was effectively razed in World War II, so other than the cathedral, something of a lone survivor from the bombing raids, we were struggling to find much to look at as we wandered through the city in search of a promising-looking cocktail bar that ended up to be non-existent. I spent an inderminate amount of this period, by the way, walking with my skirt inexplicably hiked all the way up at the back. Not tucked into my knickers or anything, it just somehow decided to head north of its own volition. Mortifying.

View from our hotel room, with bunny

In front of the Colonius TV tower

Oh hai! It's Jules

Friend, head friend

It was fine though, we managed to grab a cocktail at a tapas bar that was too full to eat at, and had dinner at what looked like a classy art-deco-style restaurant from the outside but which turned out to be a touristy German beer-hall on the inside. But hey, while in Germany, why not do the cheesy thing and chow down on some Wiener schnitzel and super salty fries (even if those are Austrian and Belgian respectively), washed down with French wine? Authentic!

The next day, we visited the Roman museum and the cathedral (separate post to follow), and had lunch and dinner at separate spots next to the Rhine. I think it's fair to say that Cologne grew on me a little more on further acquaintance. The museum was interesting, even if museum fatigue set in a bit towards the end; it was pleasant eating flammekueche outside on the banks of the Rhine while I basically stared at a guy on another table while trying to eavesdrop on enough of his conversation to determine whether or not he was a fellow Kiwi, and we had a nice dinner accompanied by champagne and some surprisingly half-decent German red wine. The banks of the Rhine have been developed in a nicer way than much of the rest of the city - there's that (somewhat generic) modernist style that's common to many port areas around the world, but it works well and certainly feels a cooler place to hang out than some of the fairly grim urban neighbourhoods we walked through on the Friday. I also had a bath while drinking wine (that's got to be in my top ten favourite activities) and we watched the F1, which are not Cologne-dependent pursuits, but which were fun nonetheless.

On Sunday, we were planning to visit the cathedral crypt and/or the chocolate museum (whose giant golden bunny, visible from our hotel room, had been luring Jules to a frankly inappropriate degree), but it turns out Cologne gets up fashionably late on a Sunday, so we wouldn't really have had time to wait around for them to open up. Instead, we made the most of the blue skies and sunshine to walk around the city a little more, in a quest for Sunday brunch that took way longer than it should have (the place we found online didn't start serving until 11 am, and everywhere else just had people drinking coffee or beer - they might rise late in Cologne, but they start drinking super early: there was an impressive collection of really quite drunk people out and about from around 7 pm on Friday). We finally got our bacon and eggs (me) and sausages and gross lard spread (Jules) and enjoyed the last of the sunshine before heading back to Luxembourg. (This trip was my first autobahn experience, by the way. Mum will probably be horrified that we were going up to 140 kph, but it didn't actually feel that fast.)

Jules and the evil chocolate bunny

Just look at that smug bunny face
So it was a really nice weekend, but I'm not sure I'd recommend Cologne for anyone's must-see list. I think, to be fair, there were quite a few museums and other sites of interest that we didn't get around to, so by all means it's not a bad place to spend a weekend, just perhaps not the world's most charming city. It was interesting for me as well being somewhere where I don't speak the language, but with someone who does. Usually it's me translating for people who don't speak French, or just muddling by on my own with the few words of Italian or Spanish or Russian (etc.) that I do know. Jules is practically a native German speaker though (technically a native Luxembourgish speaker, but I'm not entirely convinced that's a real language), so I spent quite a bit of time sitting there feeling like a bit of an idiot while waiters and hotel staff (very politely) directed conversation in German to both of us and I pestered Jules for translations of the menu. I did take great pleasure in reading random signs etc. in my best German accent though!