Monday, April 25, 2011

b-log: Joyeux noël

This post begins what will be a rather long series of backlog blogging, or b-logging, as I'm going to call it, to recount exciting things that happened in my blogging sabbatical. I started writing this post back in January, but somehow never got around to actually posting it. So, without further ado, a very, very belated Joyeux Noël to you all! I spent more of the holiday season in France this past Christmas than ever before (it's funny how having a job really limits your vacation schedule) so I have a whole collection of photos to share, and I thought 'hey, better late than never, right?' I hope y'all agree.

To start off with, here is my Christmas tree at work, and two of the students that helped me decorate it. Note that it's not abnormally tiny to fit in the office; this is the average size of sapins de noël in France:
France's holiday pastry of choice is a bûche de noël, or 'yule log'. The real deal is a big roll cake, filled with marzipan or cream, that resembles a log and will feed a family. For those with more modest needs, the local bakery also sold these smaller "bûchettes":

A 'green' Christmas tree in a shop window near where I live, fashioned from recycled bottles:
The French Père Noël swiggin' some vin; a window painting from a corner Tabac in the 5th arrondissement:
The Galeries Lafayette, Paris' premiere department store, all lit up for the season:
The 7-floor tall Christmas tree and suspended gift boxes inside the Galeries:
Christmas tinsel strung through the walkways of Printemps, another department store:
Haute couture in a Chanel window:
A kid admires another delicious-looking display:
A simple crèche from inside Notre-Dame:
Street decorations on Avenue de Wagram, just off of the Arch de Triomphe:
A view of the same street from the 5th floor window of the family I tutor for:
Lights on rue Daguerre, the street I work on and live near:
One of a million booths selling vin chaud (mulled wine) at the many marchés de noël:
Moon-pie like 'boules de noël', filled with marshmallow, biscuit and one of several flavors (coffee, rasberry, etc) and covered in chocolate:
Christmas tree in the above-ground center of the Halles of Chatêlet:
Chaperoning ice-skating on the Eiffel Tower (yes, literally ON the tour; they set up a little temporary rink on the first floor) for the study abroad program that I work for. That's me on the left side with the dorky hat and backpack, looking like Mother Hen.
I did manage to actually make it back to Washington DC for Christmas, as did Tom, who met the fam' and had the opportunity for the first time in his life to freeze his butt off in our Nation's capital :
...and to be under-whelmed by the frozen reflecting pool in front of the National Monument.
On the bright side, he did get to try ribs, Mexican food, Capital Brewery burgers and soft pretzels, and attend a winning Washington Wizards basketball game with unlimited snack buffet privileges (cracker jacks and nachos galore!). He was probably five pounds fatter by the time we made it back to Paris.

Storming the Castle

Yesterday, in the spirit of putting the three-day weekend to good use, we accomplished a rare and commendable goal: we got our lazy selves out of bed before 11am on a Saturday morning.

In fact, we got up at a time that experts refer to as "ass-early" to catch a pre-dawn train to the provincial town of Amboise in the Loire. Here's what Amboise looked like in the early morning light as we walked across a double bridge from the train station to the town center:

Close-up of cool river seaweed (or, as I called it, Ophelia's hair):
And here's the town itself, with a cute central marketplace and medieval, fortified Chateau on the hillside (whose cool, stony basement caves now host local winetastings):
We rented bikes and set out along a low-traffic country road, riding between fields of yellow-flowered fields rapeseed crops and endless rows of stumpy black grape plants sporting newly-sprouted vines.Although the ride was only about 15km each way, I found myself out of breath and struggling with my French-food padded tummy through the uphill portions. I definitely need to exercise more. Tom found the journey challenging for a different reason: it was one of the first serious bike rides of his life. He started out a bit shaky, but by the return journey he was switching gears and coasting to a stop like a pro.
Our destination: the Chateau de Chenonceau! Spanning a river, this Chateau was built on the foundation of a medieval castle that made use of the protection of a natural moat. François I reclaimed it as his own in the 16th century, and it was in use as recently as WWII (as a hospital for injured soldiers and as a strategic river crossing point from occupied to free territory for allied forces).
The first thing we did was park in the picnic zone for a cold roast chicken feast that Tom had prepared the night before. Mmm.
Then, with our bikes safely tangled in the anti-vole ('anti-theft', the French word for a bike lock), we set off to explore the grounds.
Gatway to Catherine de Medici's hedge maze:
A pair of sphinxes guarded the Chateau entrance. I felt like Atreyu passing through them; I kept a close watch on their eyes.
The Chateau itself had some standard, castley-fare, like gargoyles...

...and celebrations of chivalry... a few more unique offerings, like this very DaVinci-looking bust of the Virgin:
Most of the original tiles inside the Chateau have been worn down and erased by centuries of scuffing feet. However, I managed to find an intact, hand-painted bunny in the corner of one of the rooms:
Here's Tom, peering out onto the river from atop the arch-supported hall you can see in the earlier picture of the Chateau. The area below this hall was a kitchen, with a door providing direct river access for easy delivery of groceries.
The Castle is covered in this symbol, the conjoined initials of King Henri II, and his wife, Catherine de Medici, which combine to not-so-subtly produce the initials of Diane de Poitiers, a court widow who was Henri's long-time lover (and who had her own room right across from his in the Chateau, while poor Catherine was on a separate floor entirely).
A royal salamander and stoat. Bonus nerd points to any history majors who can identify the kings they represent.
The castle gardens, as seen from the Chateau:
And again, from the inside:
All in all, a fantastic day trip.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Resurrection

"And on Easter Sunday, the blog arose, as if from the dead..."

Hey folks. I's been a while. Since last we spoke, the gray, dreary, un-ceasing and sun-less Parisian winter has blossomed into a fragrant spring. The outdoor 'terasses' of cafés have exploded with sunglass-clad clientel, cigarettes in hand as they gesture to the waiter for another midday 'demi'. I've awoken from my drawn-out midwinter slump and realized that my hibernation dreams of living in the best city on earth are the reality of Paris in the Springtime: magnifique. And I've decided, (following a few recent 'whhhhhhhy aren't you bloooooogggging anymore?' emails) to recommence sharing my life in this magnificent city with all of you. Joyeuse Pâques! (Happy Easter!)

And now, a corny Easter franglais joke:

Q: Why do the French chasse aux oeufs de Pâques (Easter egg hunts) always end early?
A: Because for the French, one egg is un oeuf ('en-ough!')!

The flower shots are from a trip to Giverny (the garden town famous for being the home of Monet) that I chaperoned last Friday for the study abroad company I work with. It's true that the journey is getting a bit repetitive at this point, but if visiting Monet's house, getting a comped three-course lunch and having two hours to read among the flowers in the afternoon is becoming routine, I feel that I haven't got much to complain about with my job.

Easter is sort of a big deal in France. Schools have practically the entire month off to celebrate: a two-week spring break followed by a national holiday on Easter Monday. The day itself is a family affair, rich suppers and wine for the adults and chasse aux oeufs for the enfants to discover the delights delivered by the Easter Bells that fly from Rome. Yes, they actually believe that over here. True comment from one of the girls I tutor: "American children think rabbits deliver eggs? But rabbits don't even have hands!" She was incredibly smug while saying this, as if sure that the superior logic of her 8-yr old brain had defeated me. I can't say that I blame her for her incredulous attitude, though--even if the belief in inanimate belfry benefactors seems a bit silly, it must be a bit of a stretch to take an animal best known as a main course with Dijon mustard sauce and suddenly make it into a hero. No, here it is not the rabbit, but (perhaps more logically) the chicken who is ennobled and immortalized in advertising in the windows of the chocolaterie. One shop on the road I worked actually had four live chicks running around day and night under heat lamps in a window display. Another had this larger-than-life model (for an idea of scale, yes, that's an American football the hen just laid):

The hen worship makes sense, though, when you see the care and craftsmanship that goes into her eggs:
Adventurous chocolateries like the following branch out from the traditional egg and chicken chocolates and tackle a more seaside-y theme...
Love Actually fans should note that there was (apparently) more than one lobster present at the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not to mention the fish:
For me, the fish were a little too reminiscent of a different holiday that occurred earlier this month: Poissons d'Avril. This equivalent of April Fools is the day when you attempt to stick fish-shaped "kick-moi" signs to the backs of your friends and loved ones without them noticing; you also eat chocolate fish. To end with, here's the poisson d'avril I received as a gift from my boss, back on the 1st of the month.
Little did I know as I started to munch that I had actually received the Puppy Surprise edition, and out popped a surprise (sadly, as was also the case with the classic 90s toy, mine held far fewer 'surprises than originally hoped. Seriously, did ANYONE actually get '...or 4...or 5!' out of theirs?)
Happy Holidays everyone!