The Capital of Christmas

Last December, just before heading back to the US for the holidays, we took a quick weekend trip to Paris. Somehow we had spent the whole year in Amsterdam without ever jumping on the Thalys, and I was determined that we would get to France before 2015 ended. It was unseasonably warm, making what is already a great strolling city even more irresistible. We told ourselves we were going for the Christmas market, but to be honest, the setup along the Champs Elysee was disappointing: tacky, touristy, over-lit stalls hawking cheap ornaments and barbe a papa. We enjoyed Paris (because, after all, it’s Paris), but we didn’t feel like we had the traditional European Christmas experience we were looking for.

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Well, we more than made up for that error this year, when we chose to go to Strasbourg, the “Capital of Christmas”.  Strasbourg claims the oldest Christmas market in Europe – theirs began, they say, in 1570. I don’t know what it was like back then, but today it is a well-organized event that consumes Strasbourg’s Grande Ile, bringing in about 2 million visitors over a 4-week period. And, as we were told by the charming 4th generation wine maker we met, 1 million of those visitors will be carrying a cup of gluhwein.

imageGluhwein is a mulled and spiced wine, which we first encountered here in Amsterdam last winter. On a cold winter afternoon or evening, it is just what you want to warm you up. The selling of gluhwein in Strasbourg is so organized that there are standardized plastic cups used by every vendor. You pay a 1 euro deposit for the first one, and then every time you buy another glass, you swap your old cup for a new one. The used cups are picked up every night, washed and redistributed the next day.

We learned this and lots of other fun facts during our almost-2-hour adventure with Food and City Tours. We’ve gotten a bit hooked on food tours, and they’ve become our preferred way to get to know a city. Our culinary tour of the Christmas market was led by Virginie, who was friendly and charming and very knowledgeable. At 4pm on a Saturday, the market is wall-to-wall people, and Virginie did a great job navigating our group of 10 through the very crowded lanes. We enjoyed gingerbread, kuglehopf cake, butter cookies, and, of course, gluhwein (this time, made with white wine). Virginie introduced us to the merchants, bakers, and winemakers, and shared some of their history and expertise. This kind of personal interaction is usually a highlight of any food tour. Why travel if not to meet and talk with other people?

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As beautiful and festive as the city is, the crowds can be overwhelming.  We enjoyed Strasbourg the most when we wandered away from the crush and found some quiet corners. My favorite discovery was the Church of St. Pierre le Jeune. Compared to the long entrance line and marked visitor paths at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, this church was peaceful and let us wander at our own pace.

The Cathedrale, of course, has its own beauty, especially the exterior.  We learned that there are building ordinances in Strasbourg to limit the height of any new buildings; nothing can be taller than the Cathedrale. Its spire can be seen from any point in the city and from miles away.

We left Strasbourg with the expected souvenirs: Christmas ornaments, decorations, cookies, and gingerbread. We also had a few surprises sneak into our bags: new French books for me (hooray for FNAC!) and a Portuguese chorizo. Portugal was the featured guest country at this year’s Christmas market, and we took advantage of this little piece of Portugal in the middle of France. (The chorizo caused some trouble at airport security, but the French know how to deal with a saucisson.)

I left Strasbourg fully in the Christmas spirit – the city pulls out all the stops, so it would have felt ungracious not to go along. It takes its name and its primacy seriously: the Capital of Christmas does not disappoint. Go, enjoy, eat and drink, shop and stroll, and soak up Christmas in all its wonder.

 

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Only Lyon

Many years ago, I spent my 30th birthday in Paris, the fulfillment of a dream / decision that I made in my early 20s. It was wonderful, of course. I mean, it was Paris. I was with my husband, my best friends, in a city I had loved from afar for years. It made entering my 30s feel like the start of a great adventure.

img_2579Since then, I’ve been back to Paris several times and have been able to explore other parts of France. But it’s a big country, and there’s always more to see! So for my birthday this year, we found ourselves in Lyon, widely known as the gastronomic capital of France. Around that same time, the World Travel Awards named Lyon as the “European City Break” winner. Great pick, World Travel Awards. Lyon is a beautiful city that is perfect for a long weekend getaway. What did we love about Lyon?

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Lyon Cathedral, dedicated to St. John

It’s easy. Easy to get to, and easy to get around, thanks to a robust public transportation system. Our Lyon City Card (bought online in advance, and picked up at the airport) gave us unlimited access to trams, buses, and the funicular. We also took advantage of a walking tour, a boat tour, and museum admission, all included in the price of the City Card. You can also try out the Vélo’v bike share system.

It’s relaxed. In early September, the weather was lovely – if a bit too warm – and other than Sunday, the streets were uncrowded. The pace of the city is leisurely. There’s no shortage of cafes to stop for a drink. There are shady quays on the banks of the Saone to sit and watch the world go by.

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Inside the Musee, looking up

It’s different. There’s so much history in Lyon, dating back to its founding in 43 B.C. There are Roman ruins to explore, if that’s your thing. Or you can seek out the traboules, the hard-to-find passageways that cut between buildings in the old city. You can spend a lovely afternoon at the new Musée des Confluences, a gorgeous building at the meeting points of the Saone and the Rhone Rivers.

It’s delicious. Lyon is all about the food. We didn’t eat at any Michelin-star restaurants, but believe me, we didn’t need to. Every bouchon, every small neighborhood cafe, every patisserie…they’re all amazing. The quality of the food and the care that goes into making (and eating!) it, is extraordinary. The best potato gratin I’ve ever had. The best ice cream I’ve ever had. Everything we ate was the most delicious version of that thing. Ever. On our last evening we ate at L’Ebauche Restaurant, which had been recommended by the owner of a wine bar we had enjoyed the night before. It was a local place, with tables spread over 2 floors, and a small menu. A prix fixe 3-course dinner was just €30, and included brilliant dishes with fresh ingredients, simply prepared. Inventive and creative without being fussy.

And then there’s the wine.

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The valley seen from the church in Oingt

On my birthday, we took a great 1/2 day wine tasting tour that got us out of the city and into the area known as the Yellow or Golden Beaujolais, so named for the golden stones used in most of the buildings. We of course hadn’t really considered that doing a 1/2 day tasting at the START of the day would mean that our first tasting was before 10am. 9:48am, to be exact, in a church yard overlooking a valley, where our guide had set out a picnic blanket and three bottles. Not a bad way to start a birthday.

Our guide then took us and the two other couples (all Americans) to the town of Oingt, before heading to meet Etienne, the owner of the Domaine des Averlys. Etienne and his wife Mireille run every element of the vineyard, from the cultivation to the harvest to the labeling of the bottles. They produce about 45,000 bottles annually on an estate that has been in the family for 8 generations. Etienne was funny and generous, and the wine tasting in his cave was accompanied by saucisson sec and local chevre. All before noon.

Once back in Lyon, we met up with my dear friend Jon (hi Jon!), who had detoured from Paris for a couple of days, mostly to eat and drink with us. Thanks to his research, we found some great wine bars, including the quirky but wonderful Chateauneuf du Peuple. The outgoing owner offers a taste of whatever bottles he has open (with others available if none of those suit you), and every glass was just €5.

Paris is Paris. For many of us, it occupies a significant place in our imagination – even after we have seen some of the less-dreamy realities of the city. Lyon isn’t Paris, and to its credit, it doesn’t try to be. It doesn’t need to be. Having spent time in Lyon, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of France’s greatest secrets.

Stop passing through Lyon on your way to somewhere else. Just stop. In Lyon. And enjoy.

Fin.

Mon Dieu! My French tutor has left me.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you live in the Netherlands and you have a French tutor? I do. Well…I did. And finding him was one of the first things I did when I arrived here. I invested so much into learning French two years ago that I want to be sure to keep it up. Plus, everyone in Amsterdam speaks at least three languages fluently, which usually leaves me feeling like the dumb, mono-lingual American. Hence, the French tutor.

Alors, my tutor is moving back to France next month to start a PhD program. And I am left, once again, on my own. Back to misusing the subjunctive and failing to remember the proper concordance des temps. This surprise departure of my tutor has literally come on the eve of a trip to Paris…we leave tomorrow for a weekend visit, our first since we moved to Europe. I was hoping one more lesson would get my confidence up, and help me remember all those marvelous little phrases that make social interactions in France – asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – more pleasant. (Readers from the Institut de Francais…where is Julian when I need him most??)

So I send my apologies in advance to the good, language-proud people of Paris. I’m coming, and I’m speaking French. I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. I’m not going to be intimidated if you roll your eyes or start to switch to English. I will persist. Because I love your language, and the ferocity-bordering-on-arrogance with which you defend and promote it. You think it’s worth protecting. I think it’s worth learning. Let’s help each other out. À bientôt!

 

 

Les mystères de la France, #3

This post would more accurately be titled “les effets mystérieux de la France”, since it’s less about a mystery in France and more about a mystery from France. Something I can’t explain, but that I’m choosing to credit to my time in France, even though there are probably a dozen other reasonable explanations.

It’s this: since I’ve returned from France, I am a better runner. I am running farther and faster than I have before. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that generous quantities of rosé and chèvre have given me bionic abilities (although that would be something…).  All I know is that when I left for Villefranche I was, as I’ve ever been, a struggling runner who did not enjoy running. Ever. And now that I’m back, well, things have changed.

A bit of background so you can appreciate this transformation:

I’ve always hated running. As a pre-teen softball player I was given some constructive criticism by a coach, which a sibling of mine (who will remain unnamed) translated into, “Kathryn runs funny.” So I avoided running for years, until I decided, sometime around 2005, that I wanted to do a triathlon. (For those of you who care, I promise I’ll get around to talking about my tri experience one of these days…) I joined the local running club and participated in their “Walk to Run” program. I realized something important during this program: with the rare exception of a few graceful, beautiful, gazelle-like people, everyone runs funny.  Flailing arms, hitches in their gait, bobbing heads – you name it, I saw it. So I lightened up about my own running style, such as it was, and just got on with it.

For the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve just been surviving my runs. I’d manage 3 or 3.5 miles, slogging along around a 10-minute mile pace.  I never enjoyed the run itself, it never seemed to get easier, and I never got any faster. I read Runner’s World and tried to do fartleks and tempo runs and long runs and all the things you’re supposed to do, but nothing much changed.

Then I go to France. I brought my running gear thinking I’d need to do something to work off all the bread and cheese I expected to eat. Villefranche was very hilly, and running in and around the town was too much for me. I found a relatively flat route out-and-back on Boulevard Princess Grace, a busy road on one side and a lovely view of the sea on the other, with a monument to the late Princess where I’d often stop to pay my respects. And by “pay my respects” I mean, of course, “try to catch my breath while appearing to gaze thoughtfully at the sea“.  I probably only ran about 5 or 6 times during the month I was there, and I didn’t feel particularly fast or strong during those runs.

I come home to Boston, and a few days after returning I head out to do a 3 mile loop in our neighborhood. I notice that the effort is easier, and when I check my GPS I see that I’m running a sub-10 minute mile. Huh. That’s interesting. But then it keeps happening. On my shorter runs, I’m going faster. And just today, I did a 5-mile run (which is long for me, at least), and felt great. I probably could have kept going.

So do we give France the credit for this breakthrough? Could it be that the few pounds I lost in France made a difference? I was considering writing a diet book, “Eat Chèvre for Breakfast and Still Lose Weight!” or “Drink Your Way Thin with Rosé!”, but I think someone has already got that covered. Could it be all the hills I climbed in Villefranche, strengthening muscles I hadn’t paid attention to? Whatever the actual reason, I’m happy to see this improved performance as yet another souvenir – hopefully a lasting one – of my French adventure.

The waiting game

I’m sitting in the business center of the airport Holiday Inn.  (Why are the Brits so stingy with the free wi-fi?)  I had grand plans to go to London for the day, but after arriving at the hotel after 1am and feeling very run down, I opted to sleep in.  So now I’m just running down the clock until my 7:30 pm flight.  It is currently 12:57 pm. Bit of a way to go, still, but I’m making forward progress.

I left Nice last night after a full day of visiting museums and wandering the streets, trying to take in every last bit of the city, and to absorb and savor every memory.  My thoughts about the past month are fragmented, and they’re coming to me in snapshots: the view from my classroom; finally understanding the pronouns “y” and “en”; too many bottles of rose; my comic attempts at stand-up paddle boarding; learning a few words of German; a long-promised and finally-delivered harmonic riff; using the séance practique techniques to get directions; a couple of great conversations with the Swiss/Italian owner of my Nice hotel; the 60-something, motorcycle-riding fellow who helped me at the ATM (poussez, pas tirez!).

When you have access to the language of a place, you realize that you also have the ability to peek a bit behind the curtain.  You can get a glimpse – imperfect and incomplete, of course – of a culture.  It’s not much, but it’s been enough to make me feel more connected, and more affectionate, and more curious about the French than I was at the start of this adventure. And for that I am nothing but grateful.

Friends, France: we will see each other again.  Of that I am certain.

Christophe, c’est pour toi.

Un ami (bonjour Christophe!) m’a demandé à écrire quelque chose en français.  C’est  un peu dificile parce que le program sur l’Institut se concentre sur la langue orale; on n’a pas écrit rien.

Mais, je vais essayer écrire quelque chose pour Christophe et les autres lecteurs francophones. Je suis désolé (en advance) pour les erreurs et je demande votre compassion.

Demain est la derniere jour de notre program. Il y aura un examen dans le matin; c’est le meme examen que nous avons passé la premiere jour de la program, avec les exercises écrivants, un examen orale, et aussi les activités de comprehension et une dictée. Aprés ça, nous allons dire notres “au revoirs”, et finir ce mois incroyable.

Pendant les quatre semains, j’ai appris beaucoup des choses de la langue français, mais aussi j’ai appris quelques choses de moi.  Ce mois a été un rappel de les choses que je connais, mais j’ai oublié.  J’éspere que quand je continue d’apprendre le français, je me souviendrai les leçons de France aussi. France peut nous apprendre sur le rythme de la vie, l’importance de plaisir, et la valeur de l’amitié.

Donc, c’est tout pour maintenant.  C’est trop tard, et, comme d’habitude, nous avons bu beaucoup de vin ce soir. Bon soirée à tous!

“There’s not a word yet, for old friends, who just met…”

I’ve never been a big fan of the Muppets.  The Sesame Street gang is fine, but the Muppet Show Muppets freak me out a bit. In college someone made me a mix tape (remember those?) with Gonzo’s song, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”.  A recent Muppets tribute album has a new recording of the song by Rachel Yamagata.

Eric and Jaclyn

Eric and Jaclyn

It’s a sad, lovely, sentimental song, and it’s been skipping through my head for the past several days, particularly the line above. In some strange ways this month has reminded me a bit of college, just condensed into a much shorter span of time.  We spent the first day or two tentatively sorting everyone out, figuring out our place, finding folks to pal around with.  We moved and ate in large groups, much like freshmen, until we settled into smaller bands of friends with common interests.  And now we’re saying our goodbyes, too soon, it seems.  I’m taking with me some crazy in-jokes and silly photos and wonderful memories and offers of places to stay if I ever find myself in Germany or Australia.

René, Laura, Wolf and Lee

René, Laura, Wolf and Lee

My journey home will begin tomorrow and take me through London, arriving home at long last on Sunday to see my husband and welcome some dear friends for a visit.  I’m sure the next few days of travel and transition will give me a chance to reflect and share more about what this time has meant.  But until then, I want to send mille mercis to the people who have made this month unforgettable.  In rough order of appearance: René, Laura, Jaclyn, Wolfgang, Karen, Sandy, Ian, Lee and Eric.  I don’t know if there’s a word in any language for the true affection I feel for these funny, creative, giving, and talented folks.

A plus!