Revisiting the City of Lights

Paris. There really is nothing like it…something new every time you experience it…

and with that, I’ll leave you with a lazy Friday evening picture post. If you like them and want to see the rest, all you have to do is click here. Enjoy!

Sacre Coeur close-up
You-know-what
Ossuary in the catacombs
Catacombs city carving
Garden near Notre Dame
Louvre by sunset
Tree wisdom at Jim Morrison's grave

Voilà, ça y est.

„Eets no problem, eets no problem“  said Turgot with a huge smile. He was our covoiturage (ride-share) driver from the chaos of Spain into the relative sanity that is France. Headed to Bordeaux, we were apologizing for our terrible French skills, having had them scrambled from our recent escapades with the Spanish language. Little more than 10 minutes into our drive, he asked us if we’d like to stay with him instead of paying for a hostel we had already booked. Making a gut decision, heavily based on his happy-go-lucky vibe and the fact that all my past experiences with Cameroonians have been wonderful, we decided to take his offer!

That night we initiated him into CouchSurfing by cooking him dinner before making a round of “the blonde city” by night. Bordeaux’s train station has a beautiful front, but behind it is where the prostitutes work, waiting in parking lots in vans, often with the lights on to read by. He told us he wanted to show us both sides of the city, and that was exactly what we got. The place de la bourse and the accompanying reflection pool was the perfect spot to sit by the riverside and share a bottle of Cava.

Bordeaux by day was aesthetically pleasing to be sure, but it didn’t seem like the city had much to offer besides photo opps and countless dégustations, which we decided to skip in favor of sipping a few local reds on our own time. Turgot surprised us by cooking a fantastic meal, and we spent more time frolicking in the water on the place.

Moving from one very hospitable host to another, we found ourselves in La Rochelle, the last stop on our journey together. (Michael will continue traveling until September, so if you’d like a slightly different perspective on a trip through Europe, take a minute to read his journey on Transnational Considerations).

You might remember Kyra, another Fulbrighter in Gießen? Her brother Alex took us in for a few wonderful days in the city that has been his hometown for the past eight years. A scathingly funny writer (author of The La Rochelle Times, a blog inspired by The Onion) I’m very grateful to have met Alex as he was not only a fabulous conversationalist, but as an expat who taught English for a year in France and never left, he also gave me hope for the future…

Bordeaux was the blonde city, La Rochelle was the white city. We didn’t run into any knights of Gondor, but the Knights Templar had left their own marks on the town. If I had to pick a favorite place from the trip, the decision would teeter between Valencia and La Rochelle. Coastal cities seem to have a hold on me…La Rochelle caught me with its ocean air, bike-friendly streets, fresh and inexpensive seafood and a quiet hum of people/sounds/smells that floated pleasantly in the background. The fact that Ryanair has a conveniently located airport there means I’ll be back someday soon. Perhaps my pictures can convince you to take a trip…

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I’ve come to terms with the realization that if Germany and Spain were somehow geographically and culturally merged (besides the utter havoc it would create…can you imagine a well-oiled, workaholic machine of a society working well with the concept of siesta?), it might just create my ideal living conditions. Take the two climates, average them, stick a beach in there somewhere and I’ll call it home without hesitation.

Then again, I always seem to breathe a huge sigh of relief when I’m back in France…hmm.

From Metz to Mansaf

From Lyon to Metz, we whizzed past l’opération escargot going down in the lane opposite the direction we were traveling; French truck drivers were stopping traffic, driving only a few kilometers per hour, doing their part to protest the government’s increase of the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 (ohhh la, la).  Luckily, the road to Metz was clear, and in a little over 4.5 hours we were dropped off at the train station.

Again, Rick and I weren’t exactly sure where we would be able to stay that night; another guy named Julien had responded to our CS request, but could only meet up with us after 22:00, so we decided to camp out in the first place with free WiFi we could find: McDonalds.  After a couple hours of checking out CS possibilities and (as a backup plan, hostels in the area), Julien confirmed that we could surf at his place and our two remaining days in France were set.  We chilled with Julien at his extremely nice flat that night, exchanging travel stories and learning about his software job in Luxembourg.

After a wonderful night’s sleep on a very orange couch, Rick and I enjoyed the following day by frolicking (quite literally at times) around the quaint, picturesque streets of Metz.  We honestly hadn’t originally planned on going there, and weren’t expecting it to be as beautiful as it turned out to be!  For my photos, you may delight your eyes here.

We each had quiche lorraine for lunch and continued walking around the city until it was time to have yet another adventure in a French supermarket, searching for chicken andouille, okra, and other fun ingredients for dinner…this time, we had promised to make our CS host gumbo, another southern dish.  Julien really enjoyed what Rick cooked up (I’m simply the sous chef)!

Another good night’s sleep later and Rick and I were off again, but not before being good little CouchSurfers, making sure to leave Julien’s flat spotless in our wake.  We were lucky to find a 16 Euro covoiturage ride from Metz directly to Frankfurt, and left the French-speaking realm the moment we got into our German driver’s car.  It was sort of sad and comforting at the same time to not be speaking French anymore…at least now I’m confident in my conversational French abilities, both in person and on the telephone.  The whole two weeks definitely solidified the idea of Germany as “home”, since France is a very nice place, but not a place I’m completely comfortable in quite yet.

We spent the homestretch from Frankfurt to Gießen in the company of our final rideshare driver, Mahmoud, a Palestinian guy who has been living in Germany for more than ten years.  Rick and I thought we were going to be heading directly home, but after a few minutes of talking about our lives, Islam, and our travels, Mahmoud had invited us to dinner at his Jordanian friend’s apartment and we were off on another culinary adventure…

Apparently mansaf was on the menu for dinner that night, which is as delicious as it is easy to make!  I had had similar yogurt/rice-based dishes before, but never as wonderfully spiced as this.  Mahmoud and his friend (whose name I can’t seem to remember, apologies) showed us every courtesy and engaged us in hours of conversation.  Topics ranged from life in Germany from a foreigner’s standpoint (obviously resulting in very different experiences when you consider our various backgrounds), our perspectives on the “stoic German” stereotype and difficulty in integrating into German society, male-female familial/sexual relations in modern Islamic society, and how silly it is that English tea is called English tea when it is obviously not grown in England.

It was, I suppose, a fittingly interesting and spontaneous ending to an equally interesting and spontaneous trip.  Mahmoud drove us back to Rick’s apartment, we said our good-byes, and planned to invite the two of them for some American cooking in a few weeks.

I’m not really sure how to end this train of Frenchyblogpostings, but I hope they’ve been entertaining to read!  I guess I’ll just have to think of some other new trip to plan since I certainly don’t want my ratings to go down 😉

Thanks to all of our CouchSurfing hosts: Gabriel, Fred/Flore/Pomme, Eléonore/Julien, Erika & roommates, Clément, Cayce, and Julien, as well as to all of the drivers who safely transported us 2.700 kilometers (1,677 miles) and shared their life stories, jokes, food, travel tips, and good vibes with us.  The road trip wouldn’t have been as rich of an experience without you!

À la prochaine!

Cornbread & Butterbeans, Turkish Rugs & Pepper Spray

^ You may be wondering why this post is entitled as such.  For a visual explanation (and plug for my friend Erika’s video blog about her stay in Rodez, France), take a moment and watch the following clip starting at minute 5:15.

Seriously, cornbread is amazing.  Do yourself a favor and listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a minute or two and see if you can restrain yourself from nodding your head to the banjo and spoons…

The weekend was a refreshing taste of home (read: Madison), mostly in that Erika and I went salsa dancing, spent hours in a tea house, and were generally silly in our regular fashion.  Travel-buddy Rick bonded with Erika’s roommate and fellow Kentuckian, Laura Beth, who was actually the inspiration for the spectacularly delicious meal of buffalo chicken wings with bleu cheese sauce with the side of cornbread.  We were both sad to go, but had to continue on our way back to Germany.

The chilly weather (45°F) followed us north to Clermont-Ferrand, where we had found Clément, a very accommodating last-minute CS host who happened to be one of the city’s CS ambassadors.  Rick and I had originally wanted to drive straight to Saint-Etienne to visit an acquaintance of his, but the trouble with relatively small towns is that not as many people drive between them, naturally.  It turned out to be a comfortable, relaxing night filled with tea time and talks of Turkish rug dealing tactics, as our host had worked in Istanbul for a few months doing just that.  Selling a carpet is a science: cleverly crafted small talk helps the dealer categorize you so he can most efficiently sell you a rug.  If you are American, according to Clément, the dealer automatically assumes you have money coming out of your ears and will likely charge you a higher price (just as you are unlikely to buy it at a price you deem ‘cheap’, coming from your cultural standpoint).  Timing is also important; reveal that you’re only visiting for a few days and you’ll be hit with hard and fast selling tactics.  Say you’ll be staying for a week or two and the dealer will encourage you to think about your purchase and come back a second time.  Clément’s advice for Rick and for me was to speak German amongst ourselves and English with the dealer, so perhaps if we get the chance to venture eastward, I’ll be able to test his theories.  The whole conversation was made more interesting due to the fact that it 1) made me think back on my Aflac sales internship and 2) was conducted entirely in French.

Rick and I left Clermont-Ferrand early the next morning with our next covoiturage driver, a young student.  She drove us to Saint-Etienne, where we met up with another Kentuckian, Cayce (pronounced Casey), who let us stay overnight in her dorm room while we planned our next leg of the trip.  At this point the travel was beginning to wear on us, with the unpleasant weather and relative lack of covoiturage opportunities, but we were able to figure out a way from Lyon back up north to Metz, our next and final French destination.

Apparently when two Kentuckians get together some cosmic rule dictates that fried food must be involved, so Rick and Cayce made fried chicken with sweet potato fries (and a salad) for dinner that night.  “Dessert” turned out to be a nice light dusting of pepper spray, as Rick got curious about a small black tube on Cayce’s key chain.  He failed to notice the label “Spitfire” on the other side, pressed a button, and by a stroke of luck, escaped spraying himself directly in the eye.  The dorm room was a prickly-cough-inducing zone for the next twenty minutes (I was in the shower at the time, but escaped to the dorm room of yet another two Kentuckians who lived down the hall).  I’m still not sure why Cayce had pepper spray in the first place…I often feel safer in European cities than I did/do in American ones…

Without trains due to the tendency of the French to strike whenever possible, and no prearranged ride from Saint-Etienne to our next covoiturage rendezvous in Lyon, Rick and I resorted to hitchhiking the next morning.  We trekked over to a roundabout leading to the highway, held up our two “Lyon” “SVP” (s’il vous plaît) signs and smiled.  Fifty minutes later, after being offered a ride halfway by a businessman and being warned by a cute old French grandmother to not get in a car “with just anyone” because she had a petite fille just like moi, a woman named Isabelle picked us up just in the nick of time.  We got to Lyon with time to spare, had espressos, did a bit of grocery shopping, and met our next driver.

The following ride was comfy yet squished, as I was sandwiched between an older Algerian gentleman and Rick, with our French driver and a Syrian cellist (with the cello on his lap) in the front.  Four and a half hours later we had escaped the dreary weather and were in Metz, whose accompanying stories shall have to wait until the next blogpost…

Ô Toulouse!

Ok, where was I?  In a car, on my way to Toulouse with a French and Belgian guy.  Right.  The adventurous thing was, Rick and I had no idea where we were going to stay that night in Toulouse, because only one CouchSurfer had gotten back to us (but he was already hosting people, so thought it would be better if we didn’t try to squeeze in too).  We relayed this issue to Olivier and Julien, and Julien promptly texted his ex-girlfriend whom he was going to visit to ask if we could stay with them.  As luck would have it, Eléonore was also a CouchSurfer and had no problem with it, so after a few hours of driving (during which we discovered the awesome iPhone app, iDaft, which basically creates an instant party), we met her in Toulouse and crashed on a couple of mattresses in her living room.

The next day, after a breakfast of croissants and pain au chocolat, we explored Toulouse with Julien and Eléonore.  It was a day of discovery for all four of us, because Julien had previously only been there for a few days at a time, and Eléonore had just moved there from Lyon to study at the theatre conservatory.  Being theatre people, we clicked instantly, and actually ended up talking a lot about “serious life stuff” throughout the weekend.  In retrospect (now that I’m back in Germany) I think Toulouse was my favorite city out of all the ones we visited…I could absolutely see myself studying/living there…even more than in Strasbourg.  For some reason, I’m finding it difficult to convey the city’s vibe in words, but I just got an immediate feeling of comfort/happiness/freedom/relaxation when I was in Toulouse.  That manifested in how courament I spoke French, helped along by the fact that Eléonore didn’t speak any English with us.

Our time in Toulouse was relatively short, only two days, but we tried foie gras for the first time (blegh..not so great…poor ducks) and enjoyed other French culinary pursuits, including magret de canard with a honey-onion sauce made by Julien.  I didn’t focus on taking too many pictures, but the ones I do have are here.  It’s a different atmosphere altogether in the south of France… One thing to remember is that they kiss on the cheek three times when introduced to someone, whereas in the north it’s just twice.  Aside from the beautiful weather, the high concentration of students, the alternative/artistic nature of its citizens, and the surprising number of dashingly good-looking people are making me want to have a second taste of Toulouse…

P.S. Two things I forgot to mention in previous posts that I found noteworthy:
-I kept up my tradition of making French toast for my CS hosts at least in Strasbourg, so huzzah for that.
-In Lyon, I answered a public telephone that was ringing.  Definitely one of those things that movies teach you to expect a spy or some sort of exciting super villain on the other end of the line, but it turned out to be a nice-sounding French lady who accidentally called the wrong number.  Ah, well, c’est la vie!

CS Adventures Continue in Lyon

After Strasbourg, Rick and I hopped a ride with a nice French man named David to Lyon, where we stayed for three days with a new CS host, Fred.  His apartment was perfectly cozy, with a garden courtyard that had a cute little two-room house on the other side specifically meant for CSers and the occasional party.

We got in at night, went to sleep early and explored Lyon the next day.  It’s a very different vibe from Strasbourg, and definitely larger/not as clean, but there are many more students.  After seeing the Cathédrale Saint-Jean, we hadn’t gotten enough Catholicism for the day so we took a half-hour walk up the side of a very large hill.  It was worth it; the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière that overlooks the city at the top is absolutely impressive; the detail and decoration of the architecture itself, the frescoes and mosaics inside, and the view it offers are reasons enough to take a hike.

That afternoon, we wandered through le Vieux Lyon, the ‘old’ part of the city, explored a bit more of the ‘main’ part of Lyon, and headed back to Fred’s.  That night, he had several of his and his roommates’ friends over for a fête which started with aperitifs, cold cuts, vegetables and regional cheeses at 8 pm, and, after couscous, pork tenderloins, and sausages were served, and many bottles of wine (and one bottle of rum) later, ended around 2 am. The quality and quantity of French and English (and German, Spanish, Russian? etc. etc.) spoken by all of us throughout the night varied as much as the quality and quantity of beverages consumed…need I say more?

We took it easy the next morning after the festivities of the previous night, but Rick and I were still fit enough to walk from the apartment up to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we had planned to be productive in attempting to write postcards, but actually just ended up lying on crunchy leaves, people-watching, and talking for a few hours.  Actually, we talked so much that we completely forgot to visit the free public zoo in the park until we realized that it was almost time for dinner.

Fred taught us to make tartiflette, a regional specialty from his hometown of Annecy, which turned out to be both delicious and incredibly easy to prepare.  The downside?  Depends on your diet, but it’s extremely heavy, being as it’s simply baked potatoes, a mixture of onions and fried pieces of ham (lardons), with baked reblochon cheese on top.  Good food to prep for winter hibernation.  That night, France beat Luxembourg in football, so everyone was in a happy mood.

Our last day in Lyon was another relaxing one, as Rick and I spent most of the day wandering around the free zoo in the Parc de la Tête d’Or and sampling all of the various smells the different roses in the Roseraie had to offer.  This was the part where I really started wishing I had a better camera, so if any of you have any suggestions of where to find a decently good one for a reasonable price, please let me know.  For now, you’ll have to content yourselves with my lower-than-preferable resolution pictures, which can be seen here

We left Fred’s place that evening, and after having a small issue in contacting our next Covoiturage driver, met up with him and a very nice Belgian man named Julien, who were extremely amusing throughout the 4.5 hour drive to Toulouse.  More on that in my next post…till then, be well!

You’re a right lairy bastard, Strasbourg.

This word, “lairy”, I happened to learn on our first night in Strasbourg, France in a pub, shortly after a Welshman managed to tip an entire table of beer onto my lap.  Said Welshman then informed me of this extremely useful word (which vaguely rhymes with “dairy” or “hairy”), which is employed in situations when a person is enjoying themselves while drinking, carousing, being loud and/or bothersome, etc.  So really, I don’t mean to say that Strasbourg is a right lairy bastard, it’s just that the phrase is sticking in my mind when I think of the city.

In fact, the city itself is quite beautiful, and Rick and I had a lot of fun exploring it with a fellow CouchSurfer staying at the same house, a Canadian named Jacqueline who is teaching English outside of Strasbourg.  She’s lucky in that she’s the Francophone kind of Canadian, so it was helpful to have her along to get back into the swing of speaking/hearing French.  We all stayed in the attic of a guy named Gabriel, which was set up with three relatively comfortable beds.  Throughout the upcoming series of France-related posts, you’ll see a common theme of CouchSurfing and Covoiturage, so to make sure you have a good idea of what I’m talking about, read below:

CouchSurfing: official website here.
CouchSurfing (CS) is a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.  It’s a way of meeting natives of a city, getting a perspective you can’t attain by staying in a hostel or hotel, and it opens you up to countless other opportunities on the way (as you’ll see in the Lyon blogpost to come).  The added benefit is that you don’t pay for a place to sleep, but to be quite honest, that is secondary to the benefit of meeting awesome people.  Although it’s not suited for the unadventurous, CS is extremely safe overall.  Check out the website, have an open mind, and try it yourself.  I’ve surfed in New Orleans, Germany, Holland, and now in multiple cities in France, and each time I’ve had a uniquely positive experience.

Covoiturage: official website (in French, English and Spanish) here.
Also known as Mitfahrgelegenheit (two German websites, here and here), covoiturage is the French equivalent of ridesharing/carpooling.  Pros: great way to travel inexpensively between cities, meet cool people, practice your language skills.  Cons: can be extremely difficult to arrange if you don’t speak the language of your driver, scheduling pick-up time/place can be tricky, potential of smelly driver.

Right, so back to the roadtrip:
We Mitfahrgelegenheited from Gießen to Frankfurt (45 min) for 4 Euro.  A train would have cost 17.  Chillaxed in Frankfurt for a couple hours, watched Glee on my laptop in a Starbucks (Don’t judge — we were bored and didn’t want to carry our backpacks around the city.  Ugh, I know, “how American of us, honestly”).  Mitfahrgelegenheited from Frankfurt to Strasbourg (2.5 hrs) for 10 Euro.  The train would have cost about 50 Euro.  Not as cheap as hitchhiking, but you get the idea…

We met Gabriel in Strasbourg, where he greeted us (well, me) with kisses (ah, the French), and immediately said (in a very Frenchy accent), “ok, now we make party!?” and off we went to the bar.  There, we met Jacqueline, the Welshman, and a few other internationals/CSers, and despite my soaking wet shirt (seriously, it was a stroke of luck that I wasn’t wearing a white shirt), it turned out to be a very good night.

The next day was full of exploring.  Gabriel is extremely proud of his city, and was an excellent host; after splitting up for a couple hours while he ran errands and Rick, Jacqueline and I took an hour-long boat tour through the canals, he showed us his favorite places in Strasbourg (pictures are all here) and taught us how to make Flammekueche/tarte flambée for dinner.  Besides having a great CS host, I really enjoyed the mélange of French and German cultures, architecture, and food that Strasbourg offers.  It’s a city that’s easy to feel comfortable in quickly, and I think I would like living there if for no other reason than for the opportunity to speak French and German (well, at least to all the German tourists) in the same place.

The next day, Jacqueline invited the two of us to meet up for a picnic with some of the other foreign language teaching assistants in the orangerie by the Conseil de l’Europe.  It was a beautiful day for exploring another part of Strasbourg, we got asked for directions by a French man (yay for looking like natives?), met a two guys from Cameroon and Taiwan, a girl from Jordan and walked through the free zoo in the park, learning French animal names in a very hands-on way.

That afternoon, we said good-bye to Gab and Jacqueline, left Strasbourg via Covoiturage and drove 4.5 hours to Lyon for 28 Euros.  Our driver was superbly nice and drove us all the way the door of our next CS host, Fred.  And that, I’m afraid, is where I’ll have to leave you, for there is duck roasting in the oven and it needs to be eaten!