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…

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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!