French chapter

French chapter is all about my 7-month European sojourn (Merci, French education Ministry) and I have attempted to recount some of the wonderful experiences encountered.

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!

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

Once upon a time in Andalusia.

I came. I saw. I fell in love.

With Granada.

I loved both cities in the Andalusia region – Granada and Seville. It was hard to choose between the two. But with deeper introspection, Granada won me over. An affair that lasted just 2 days.

I have never been to Greece but the first image that comes to mind is white-washed houses infused with blue set atop hills alongside bright colourful flowers. Granada looked like that. But with orange trees ofcourse.

We reached on Christmas morning after a tiring overnight bus journey. The hostel was the first positive sign. Quaint and home-like with wonderful staff around. Then started the walk to nowhere. Through narrow alleys, trudging uphill, running downhill, encountering a few souvenir shops, seeing families in their festive best coming out of IMG_4085churches laughing. And inhaling the cold air fragranced with the smell of citrus. I should have seen it coming.

Amidst this, a chance encounter ensued. Being Christmas, I sincerely hoped someone would invite us to eat, perpetually hungry and food getting the better of me as always. So here’s what happens: the road forks into two, we pause, ponder a bit and then decide to take left for no particular reason and walk along. 5 minutes after, we pass a house, with an old man drinking beer at the porch. He acknowledges with a “Namaste” and I smile, impressed. Then follows a question in Hindi. And then “Ungaluku Tamizh theiryama?” (do you know Tamil?). Okay Ol’ man, so you now have my full attention. And before I knew, we were invited to his “Cave”. A cave in the real sense of the word. Turns out our 70-year old Mexican friend got the ‘calling’ in his heydays and went to India, co-founded Auroville, lived a spiritual life for a few decades serving people and now settled cosily in the caves of Granada with a beautiful LemonsPorsche for company. Oh, and did I tell you he happens to be the cousin brother of Carlos Santana. How ‘Smooth‘ is that?!

Funny how fate takes its own course. Here we were, almost skipping Granada from our itinerary as it was stretching our budget. The BEST hostel stay was here, albeit a night. A bartender who served a super Polish dinner for us. Interesting people I met – a physicist couple from Slovenia. A gay couple. An american who didn’t know why he was doing an MBA (and thats not something I intend delving into, mind you). The Alhambra ofcourse. Along with perfect weather in a region that is otherwise known to have rainy season this time of the year. And finally, a great 24-but-acts-like-34 travel buddy.

Hasta la vista, Granada mi amor.IMG_4093

Seville helped with the transition and pain of separating from Granada. Another city with culture & traditions that it fiercely protects. The flamenco dance was definitely the stand-out event of the stay. Another chance conversation with Mr Antonio Banderas from Israel while cooking at the hostel, and the next thing is we are invited for a free show. I went along, being a tad suspicious, but returned that evening totally overwhelmed. The dance moves, the passion and the way the band and audience were deeply involved for those 45-odd minutes is something that will forever be etched in my memory.

IMG_4096Muchas gracias España. I was waiting to see you for many years and you didn’t disappoint me at all.

My 2 cents:

Barcelona: Well, you cant go to Spain and not go to Barcelona. So go!

Valencia: For a way-too-beautiful drive along the coast from Barca. For Paella. And for all the good looking men (and women!), to put it mildly.

Granada & Sevilla (Andalusia): Beyond Recommendation. Bliss.

Categories: French chapter, Spain, Travelogue | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

In Bruges

Undoubtedly the most well-maintained city I have seen until now!

On an icy-cold misty night, we (me and a friend) landed at the Bruges railway station. Contemplating whether to take a bus or walk, we decided on the latter, a) to see Bruges at night and b) to save a few euros, being perpetually on a budget. First impressions are forgotten – it being colder than Strasbourg, and the hostel a very long walk away with not a single soul on the road to ask directions for.

Eventually we reached, only to find that the hostel cafeteria had closed and no restaurants around were open after 8pm (being a public holiday). Now that can definitely mar the impression of 2 hungry travellers. We walked more with some hope and lucked out in finding a small store with a “who-else-but-an-Indian owner” (or so I thought, but later read about Hindoestanen) and bought some gauffres/waffles (one of Belgium ‘s specialties) and juice.

Next morning, a quick breakfast over, we took a walk to the centre-ville. The scene was stunning, to say the least. A combination of the cold air, mist and sunlight, horse carriages and cobbled streets, ancient but pretty castle-like buildings, autumn leaves and water bodies, friteries of course and people aimlessly walking. I swear I could have been transported to the medieval ages, except I’m not sure that they had the much-loved Andalousie sauce for the frites (fries) then!

Everyone says this and it is true – Bruges is a city best seen by foot. Or a cycle, if you dont have too much time. Having had more than a normal proportion of fries and beer, we decided that walking was the best option and did an entire circle of the city during the day. Moreover, I must add that we were lucky that the rain gods had spared us, especially with the city having a reputation for lousy weather.

Bruges is a must-visit for any traveller coming to Belgium. We spent a night at Brussels as well, charming in its own way but like any other big european city. Ghent, somewhere between the above two cities is another little university town not as beautiful as Bruges but definitely with more life and a character of its own.

Overall, the interesting graffiti and comic strips bande-dessinée as they are popularly known – on walls makes one realise how ‘seriously’ the Belgians take their animation industry! This is afterall, the land of Tintin & Asterix.


And unlike France, you can find your way with English especially in the northern dutch-speaking Flemish region

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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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The final countdown

3 days to go as I write this!

And what a ‘last 3 weeks’ it has been! Making sure everything is in order – getting the visa, translated birth certificates, insurance, forex card and what-not on time especially being the last-minute latifa that I am. Going by past history of ‘packing-stress cum phobia’, this time I am almost done with it a week in advance – and I don’t believe it!!

In normal circumstances I consider myself a smart packer  if I may say so, i.e. I can make do with minimal clothes, avoid the usual pickles, masalas and ready-to-eat mixes so famously carried by indians overseas. But REALLY TELL ME HOW one fits 7 months of living in a foreign country, into a 23+12 kg baggage??

Ok, so even if you cant tell me, fine. Luckily for me, my cousin sis is coming to France for Toussaint vacation next month and the third black bag you see, is going to be passed on to her through the husband. Yoohoo!

So thats that. Super excited about the next 7 months and all that I will learn and discover. Oh, and teach ofcourse 😉

Au revoir, till we meet again en France!

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