France

Strasbourg gets it’s due

maison de tanneursThis blog took off when I was in Strasbourg however little credit has been given to the picturesque city that I very briefly wrote about in one of my first few posts. I’m making those amends now.

While filling up the form for the ‘teaching programme’ in early 2011, I had 3 cities (in France) to choose from a complex list of 3 columns. Paris wasn’t an option simply because I wanted to to be in a less ‘touristy’ and less expensive city (I was a teacher but living on a student stipend, mind you), Sapin du Noelcommute less and more importantly attempt my terrible french on a few poor souls and not get away with English. But which city? After short-listing a few closest to Germany and Switzerland (cold over warm any day, baby!) Strasbourg was ranked No. 1, also thanks to a friend who’d stayed there earlier and raved about it.

Et voilà, Strasbourg it was! I fell in love with it the minute I ‘googled‘ it. And within a month of living there, I felt like a local, complete with beret in the head, nose in the air (cold one, that!) and baguette in the hand. Along with a bottle of vin rosé that was bought every Tuesday for the most-awaited weekly soirées!

Tarte flambée or FlammkuchenThat said, Strasbourg really isn’t that city you’d include in your to-do list if you visit Europe considering there are more popular and raved-about cities.  But here is why I think you must absolutely visit it should you ever be fortunate enough to smuggle a bank and go to that side of the world.

  • skiYou can be in France and Germany at the same time! Having been a German city for ages, the city alternated between both countries eventually staying put in France. The German city of Kehl is just a 10-minute bus ride away!
  • Alsatian architecture that’s oh-so-pretty with flowers dotting every household. Don’t buy any of those postcards – just take a photo and you’ll see they are just as good. (Trivia: Strasbourg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  • Tarte flambée or Flammkuchen. The Alsatian version of pizza, cheese replaced with crème fraîche. And choucroute ofcourse, of which I have nothing to say except that it looks scary!
  • ChristkindlmarktThe usual tourist haunts worth seeing:  ‘La Petite France’ and ‘Notre Dame’ – try climbing the spiral for a breathtaking (literally) view of the city. A batorama or guided boat ride if you are not upto walking or cycling (which by the way, is a fun way to cover the city in a couple of days) is also a decent alternative.
  • If you are here around winter, Christkindlmarkt or Christmas markets (and consequentially gluhwein) are definitely a must.Parliament
  • Riquewihr & Ribeauville- an hour away from Strasbourg and villages that appear to have sprung out of fairy tale books. In fact, Riquewihr is classified as ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’ and along the famed Alsatian wine route.
  • Finally, if politics is your your cup of mulled wine, visit the European parliament (which by the way is a ‘modern’ building standing out sore) in session and entertain yourself listening to various country representatives put forth their case in native languages.
The strasbourgeios' love for the animal is omnipresent!

The strasbourgeios’ love for the animal is omnipresent. In more ways than one.

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Melting Pot Mardi

Raclette – simple yet complex French dinner

Allow me to explain the title right away. Mardi is Tuesday in French (oh yeah, Mardi Gras!) and Melting Pot is a reference to the sought-after dinners that I went to, every Tuesday, during my brief stay in Strasbourg.

What – The Dinner Club

Who – An always-present group of 8 teaching assistants comprising 1 American, 2 Canadians, 2 Italians, 2 Germans and of course the Indian. The youngest being all of 21 and the oldest …well, lets not get there. And every once in a while, a few other invitees gracing their presence.

Why – A random but brilliant suggestion from Rach, the Canadian in the first week we met. We got so taken by the concept that it became a weekly ritual thereon.

Why Tuesday– Because none of us had to teach on Wednesdays!!! (One drink was always reserved

Mexican!

Mexican!

for the French Education Ministry, bless them.)

Where: Mostly at the humble but comfy abodes of Mr/Ms Canadian or Miss. American and occasionally at others.

When: Starting around 1930 / 2000 . Typically ending at midnight when some of us rushed to catch the last tram of 0030.

Now for the interesting part – what ensued every Tuesday?

1) Food! The idea was that one person would cook and bring the food of his/her respective country. Repetition wasn’t allowed. So once we were done with pancakes, pastas and rice we moved on to exploring other cuisines – notably Cuban and Japanese among others. At this point, it is only apt that the rest of the group express their gratitude to me – how else would they have known that such amazing vegetarian options existed in their countries if not for me? *evil grin*

Games

Some serious work there o’er wine & games!

2) Wine! Some secret clubs have passwords. Ours was a bottle of wine (Champagne if you may, but no one ever got that generous barring once). The sane exception to this was the insane German boy who religiously got a carton of jus d’orange (we suspect he bought them wholesale). Must admit though that it was a wise decision, especially when other bottles had dried up. On that note, here’s some trivia: A bottle of wine from the supermarket can be bought for as little as 1 Euro. Les français, they sure have their priorities right.

3) Games. I’ve learnt some whacky and absolutely rip-roaring games over those dinners!

4) French. Being in the country that gave us an opportunity to come together, we kept it as the medium of communication. Occasionally cheating every now and then with English. I’d safely say that my French improved from 5% to 25% thanks to these dinners.

Santé!

Santé!

5) Swear words! In French, German  Spanish  Italian, Polish, you-name-what. Some in Hindi were promptly imparted. (All my hindi speaking friends, I can see y’all smirking at the girl from south. @#$!)

6) Melting pot. Of different nationalities. The serious fun part. Being the lone Indian who went to Strasbourg (there were more than 5 who went to Paris and other regions likewise) turned out to be such a blessing – it ensured that I dint roam around in ‘clans’ and consciously got out of my comfort zone to meet and make new friends.

All in all, a cultural/gastronomic enlightenment! So many new things observed, eaten, learned, experienced. Now I know that referring to USA as America can annoy the life out of a Canadian, that nothing could be more scandalous to an Italian than eating vegetarian bolognaise (no, not even Berlusconi), and my changed perception of Germans who have already got due mention in my earlier post! And finally an inference from this group that Indians seem to be the only ones who cant sip their drink patiently with dinner.

While each one of us are so different, there were so many things we liked and so much we all felt strongly about. If only being together was as easy as this, the world would be so much more peaceful! I’m starting to feel a li’l preachy now so time to bring this to an end.

With our Secret Santa Gifts

With our Secret Santa Gifts

Merci mes amis – all of you in the above pic – for all of the above!

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The white weekend

I had this dream where I entered a village enveloped in snow. Everywhere I saw white. Snow and ice and even glistening snow dust that fell over my face. I was staying in one of those ancient roofed houses with chimneys – the one’s that you look at while driving past a village and say “oh, I wish I could stay there for a while”. The air was ice cold. At -17°C and with gusts of wind, it felt like -22°C ? Who knows, it all seemed surreal.

And then I pinched myself – no, I wasn’t dreaming.

When Corinne, my e-friend invited me to ‘Goux-les-usiers’ a village unheard-of near the Swiss border, I happily accepted it, always on the lookout for the ‘authentic’ travel experience that comes when you have a native hosting and showing you around. And so I set off one early Saturday morning. Getting up at 5 am? Oh, never a problem when it comes to travel.

Everything was normal till I reached Besançon, the nearest big city. Corinne came to pick me up, along with Fifi her cute pooch . It was -11°C. And then it happened out of nowhere. As she drove away from the station, everything suddenly turned white. And I mean WHITE. Heaps and heaps of white. Trees covered in white. Houses with white roofs. White cars. And white roads, though that is quite dangerous and not a good thing.

Then we reached her village. -17°C. Yes I could feel it. Call me crazy if you may, but how often does someone from a tropical country get to see something that as a child, only witnessed and visualised in fairy tales. An old but well-maintained house built sometime during the 1850’s with a huge garden, overlooking acres of mountainous forests of Christmas trees,  – all snow-covered ofcourse. An office (where she works) that looks like a portion of a resort that’s been plucked from a far-away beach and planted here. So well, you get up on a Sunday morning, look out through the window sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on some of the region’s best cheese and just soak in all the white. Bliss!

And that closed on another eventful trip – merci Corinne.

3 highlights of the voyage:

1. The yummy Fondue (Comté cheese, white wine & tomatoes) in a small café just off the breathtakingly beautiful Lake St. Point. You definitely emerge energised, happier and ready to take on the cold!

2. Source de la Loué – a spring. While it is more ‘touristy’ during summer-spring, trekking up to it right in the middle of winter and seeing what awaits is quite another experience that cant be described in words.

3. Its almost like being in Swiss with all the snow and the typical wooden houses and plenty ski options. But a lot less cheaper! And ofcourse, you are unlikely to see Bollywood stars break out into a song-and-dance sequence!

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An evening on top of a cathedral

We were looking forward to a gospel rock concert (free!) at the Notre dame Cathedral this evening.

Turns out that it happened last evening. Disappointed, we decided to climb the steep spiral staircase that goes right to the top of the cathedral. Normally, one has to pay 5 euros to enter but clearly the Lord wanted to make amends, and so we paid nothing, it being the first Sunday of the month!

We huffed and puffed and huffed and puffed and after 15 minutes that seemed like 60, we reached the top.

And got a lovely view of Strasbourg, and a bonus of watching the sun set!

On our way down the cathedral I did the counting act, and figured I had lost a few calories climbing more than 600 steps (both ways). Its a different story that I made up for it by eating a cheesified home-made italian dinner afterwards.

Categories: France, French chapter, Strasbourg, Travelogue | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Around France in 10 days

I kicked off my first European travel with a mini tour of France. Knowing that I’d have only a temporary visa initially (that confined me to stay within borders till I got the ‘visa de sejour long’) I planned my first trip 3 months in advance – the only vacation done with so much foresight!

French school kids are wonderfully lucky – they have 2 months of summer vacation in July & August, 10 days of Toussaint starting end October, 2 weeks for Christmas, 2 more for winter (which is in February!) and yet another 2 weeks for spring end of April. Needless to say, as an English teacher, I am not complaining!

Having commenced work on October 1st, I had just 3 weeks before Toussaint (All saints) started. As the trip was planned in advance, I got some super cheap fares on the TGV, the speed-rail network. Moreover, my cousin sis was making a small trip during the same time so we were all set to have a blast together.

 

 

 

 

 

2 days in Paris

We did everything a tourist would do in Paris. Pored over the metro maps and filled our stomach at local crêperies.

We visited the Louvre (Bless the french education ministry for little benefits like free entry), the Sacré-Cœur and the colourful and bustling Montmartre market (note to self: repeat visit next time). We walked down Champs-Élysée treating ourselves to a Häagen-Dazs just for the Parisian effect while we posed stylishly in front of Louis Vuitton and the likes. We saw the Eiffel Tower shimmering on a full moon night – magnificient and overwhelming, in short. AND, we also saw Paris from an Audi – thanks to Remy, brother of Lucie and gracious host who kindly chauffered us around for a day.

But are 2 measly touristy days enough for Paris? Ofcourse not!         Soon, very soon….

5 days in and around Bordeaux

What better way to travel than stay with a french family and have them take you around? And what a better way to start the Euro experience!

Château Pichon-Baron

I admit that I got super lucky. Lucie was one of my first french forum‘ friends whom I got in touch with to write emails, improve my french and in turn let her know that there was more to India than snake charmers, slumdogs and cows. She was 60, retired in profession but not in her quest to travel more (and she had already traveled half the world). So we got mailing till I told her of my proposed 7-month stay in France and my first vacation. The next thing I know, I was booking tickets to go to her little town, south-west of France close to the famed city of Bordeaux to the for the holidays. And there she was, excited and preparing my itinerary and making plans on what we could do and see in those few days.

Lucie and Christian’s (her husband) enthusiasm for the road clearly showcased a few truths:

  • Ya never too old to travel
  • Ya always should be eager to visit the same place like ya visiting it for the first time bcos ya see it from a different perspective each time
  • Ya always maintain a travel photo book with select ones from every trip – yes, a hard copy, not one of those e-books

For 4 days we woke up at 8, got ready and hit the road by 9. Christian did all the driving – the good ol’ fella! We passed through towns, stopped in little villages for lunch and returned home for dinner. We did the château-visits and the red-wine tasting. Got invited to a ‘grand’ lunch by Thierry, a meat-eating friend who had spend hours fretting on what to cook and ended up with a varied spread of chopped vegetables! We visited Lucie’s sisters house and greedily pocketed fallen walnuts off a tree (yes, we behaved like citizens of a third-world country). We gorged on sugar-crepes made by Lucie’s charming cousin and charmed her into giving us more by highly appreciating her culinary skills. We stared awestruck at some of the most exquisite houses along Pays Basque (Basque Country) and even made an illegal (for me) drive into San Sebastian in Spain.

In short, this is what our road trip looked like (with Cestas being the home base)

  • Day 1: Cestas – Bordeaux – Cestas
  • Day 2: Cestas – Archachon – Lanton – La Teste de Buch – Cestas
  • Day 3: Cestas – Saint Sebastian – Saint Jean de Luz – Bayonne/Biarritz – Cestas
  • Day 4: Cestas – Saint Emilion – Sarlat – Perigueux – Cestas
  • Day 5: Cestas – Pauillac – Andernos les bains – Cap ferret – Cestas

Merci encore Lucie & Christian et votre famille. You gave us the first positive glimpse of french hospitality and an interesting insight into french family life!

2 days in Montpellier

In hindsight, Montpellier could have been better than we made it out to be. Having had such a brilliant 5 days at Cestas coupled with all the hype of moving towards the Mediterranean Coast – the place ‘to be’ – this little town dampened our spirits in the first afternoon we were there. Lack of vegetarian food worsened it. We starved and sulked for a while and when dusk arrived, a couple of drinks followed by dining at a nice inexpensive tapas bistro with a customised menu just for us, ended the evening on a high note.

After a hectic week, two lazy sisters decided to go the lazy way out, bought a day-pass for the tram and spent most of the next day moving from Point A to B across the lines till we got tired of the city and its graffiti-laced walls. In a last desperate attempt to do something more meaningful, we took a bus to the beach (we were here to see the Mediterranean coast after all, weren’t we?) and spent a couple of hours looking at blue waters and sun-tanned women with their Chihuahuas.

Till it was time to head back, get on to the TGV and return to good ol’ Stras.

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Black forest vs. Bureaucracy

I had the most amazing forêt noire or the Black Forest cake over the weekend. Christina, my german pal who recommended it at a café at Selestat offered to share it with me, at my insistence. I love a good dessert but I am not a sweet-o-holic so I wasnt sure if I’d finish it.

I am still so sorry for having shared it.

It was different from the ones I have had back home, and I am told it was almost close to the original german cake (from where it has its origins).

Just as I was coming out of the cake hangover, I got to know that my bank account had not been opened as yet. The lady at La Poste had not even called me and after 10 days, I went to find out why I had not received the RIB (an essential document here) and other bank details. Apparently they wanted a more recent date of my work contract (which happens to be the same date for all other assistants who have got their account opened). To cut a long story short, I am not going to receive my salary for October until the end of November. That comes as a bummer especially when I was trying my best to avoid  ‘french bureaucracy’ and submit all my documents on time. I cant do much about it now, so the alternative is to be happy that I will receive a lumpsum for both months at the end of November. December should be quite a blast!

I shouldnt generalise, but if you ever come across this sign, you know you should be wary!!

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C’est la vie francaise!

This is the french life.

Now that it has been a fortnight since I arrived, some random observations & notes from here and there:

  1. Each time I cross the road, I need to tell myself – I dont want to die, I must look LEFT and then RIGHT and not the other way round. By the time I get used to it, it will be time to go back!
  2. Who said the French are rude? Bureaucratic and standoffish – Maybe. But Rude – No! To some extent they are like the people of Madras/Chennai – if an outsider attempts to talk their language, they are extremely pleased and go out of their way to help you, if not then find your own way out!
  3. There is no end to greeting people. And I love the fact that they greet with enthusiasm, be it a shop assistant, a teacher you meet on the hallway or even the odd clochard (beggar) that I came across. Bonjour & Au revoir are possibly the most used words in a French person’s life.
  4. Difference between Indian and French schools? Yes, vast difference. And between students – Yes again. In short, Indian students are much more disciplined; at least it is imposed on them. But here, teachers cant do as much as point a finger at them. Try tapping a student on his/her shoulder and you could be behind bars. Really!
  5. A 2-hour long lunch is normal. Particularly on weekends. Wine, dinner, cheese, dessert. Interspersed with more wine. Nothing should be done in a hurry. And that extends to work and vacation. Oh and I write this since I’m waiting for the post office to open – they are on a 90 minute lunch break! C’est la vie, vraiment!
  6. Les Vacances (Vacation) The most loved french word, I suppose.Apart from the 35 hour working week, they are eligible for 5 weeks of vacation that can extend as much to 8 weeks depending on companies. Add to that, public holidays. You forgot the weekends as well, dint ya? India Inc.– are you listening?!
  7. Extension of point 6 to a rather personal observation – I think the average french homme or femme is not too ambitious. The goal in fact, is to get a job that pays you and you stick to it until you retire. You may not go higher up the ladder, but you will earn enough to live a comfortable life for yourself and your family. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? That is subjective and altogether another point of debate, if it is of any importance.
  8. WALK till you drop. For the amount of cheese, wine, meat and canned stuff consumed, the Strasbourgeois (and I’d generalise it to rest of France as well) walk a lot. A LOT, even if it a 2 km walk with a pair of stilettos. No kidding!  I might have cribbed about lugging heavy stuff around until I saw an old lady, easily on her way to the 70’s, walking with 3 heavy bags of groceries!
  9. Lots of children. By couples, married or otherwise. It doesnt matter. The government encourages people to have babies and actually funds their education and health. Its funny especially when you are from India and hear of this!

There are more, and with age I forget – so will add to this in a month or so.

Now for some wine & cheese after all that typing…. so long!

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Alsatian architecture

I love the french-german influence on the architecture here in Alsace!

Now if only it were a cake that I could slice out and eat…..

Alsace architecture

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Of transition & technology

And I am finally here. At Strasbourg. In person.

Ideally I should have been jumping with excitement looking at the pretty houses and trams and the city in general but Google spoiled it all.

I for one, will not blame technology but as soon as I got the address of my 2 schools and the place where I’d be staying, immediately got on to Google maps and had a great 360° view of these places, the roads they led to, the supermarket and even the pizzeria nearby! My famille d’accueil (host family) too sent me photos of their apartment and my room.

So when I reached here, I just knew the way it was going to be, the way it would look like. It was annoying in a sense that I wanted to be excited, to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the prettiness, the cleanliness and the European charm, but well, lets just say that I possibly looked like someone who had been staying there for well over a year!

However, the upside is that I found the place easily because of one landmark I had seen on Google and recognised it just in time to get off the tram! (Please note that i lugged 23+12 kilos from the airport to the train and then on to the tramway and finally to my apartment).

And so here I am, in my cozy little room with a wonderful view and a host family that’s doing their best to make me feel at home. More about them later!

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Strasbourg, the German city? Nice. — But NOOO!!

Which is the reaction I have had from tons of people. And I dont blame them: for one, the word is germanic and then, there also exists the lesser-known city Strasburg (without the gallicized ‘o’) north-east of Germany.

So while I am at it, why dont you acquaint yourself with the city I’ll call home for the next 7 months?!

Strasbourg is located pretty much at a centre point in Europe and is the official seat of the European Parliament. A city with famed heritage sites, illuminated noël markets, german-influenced cuisine, and more importantly winstubs (local Alsatian taverns!).

I will be teaching at 2 lycées (high school) ~4 kms apart and staying somewhere in between with a Trinidad-French family. What I am looking forward to, weather consenting, is cycling to work!!

Here are a couple of photos of the schools that I managed to find:

The second school looks so calm and serene — will it be wishful thinking to hope the students are similar? Teaching 15-18 years old’s is not going to be the easiest task, but more on that a month later, when we are in the real-world!
More on Strasbourg

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