Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What can I say. My father visited me in Europe and all we did was drink beer, wander through trenches from WWI, cheer on Tom Boonen in bike races, and, did I mention drinking beer? BORING! One can only take so much walking through the picturesque streets of Flanders, eating at the best restaurants (like legendary Tom's Dinner), and perfectly sunny 70 degree weather! It is just too much for two people to bear.

I arrived, by train, and met my father in Bruges, Belgium, which became our headquarters for the next week and a bit. Our hotel was located on a quiet street across from one of the main churches in Bruges. For anyone who has never had the opportunity to visit this city, allow me to paint a picture... all of the three storey buildings are either brick or pastel plaster with one unique feature - the attic window is framed by a stepped pyramid faux-front that gives the illusion of another floor. The streets are all cobbled and the churches are crowned by tall towers with "wooden" roofs. Throngs of British tourists window shopping and hundreds of people crowding the outdoor cafes which overlook the Bell Tower (which rests at a wonky-angle) complete the picture. Honestly, one of my favorite places in the world.

The Spring Classics are the BEST day races. Why, do you ask? It is a bit hard to explain really...They are some of the earliest in the season, a place where riders can test their stuff. They twist and curve their way through beautiful fields and meadows. Did I mention they have hundreds of riders flying at break-neck speeds through narrow cobble streets and curvy ascents lined with crazy European fans who crowd the riders? Translation: there is a good chance you are going to see a spectacular crash. We picked some great spots to watch them coming, but no crashes. Although we were almost on television, twice.

My favorite, non bike day, was spent doing something I usually don't like: tour group. This one, however, was different in every way. Dad and I, along with an Irish mother and son and an elderly Scottish couple, piled into the mini-van for a day-long tour of Flanders's WWI battle fields, museums, and cemeteries. Our guide, a middle-aged Belgium with floppy blond hair, was crazy excited about everything WWI - including the spent artillery that farmers still find in their fields. On a funny aside: the Irish boy, who was around 14 years-old, was obsessed by WWII and moderately excited about WWI. As we were barreling down the one lane dirt roads, our guide was talking about how farmers come across live mustard gas shells and corroded, unexploded hand grenades and pile them along side of the road where army collection personnel will see them on their next pass. Just as he said this, he spotted such a collection in front of a barn and pulled to the side of the road. The Irish boy asked if he could hop out and get something and the guide enthusiastically allowed him. He was picking up a grenade when the mother cautiously asked, "Is that grenade still live?" "Oh yeah," responded the unconcerned guide. The mother jumped out of the van yelling, "Son! Put the grenade DOWN!" In the back of the van, where the Scottish couple sat, one said to the other, "Its just like the Irish, they like blowing up things." Ah! Culture. One of my favorite parts of the day was the In Flanders Fields Museum, in Ieper. It is a new museum, built in the rebuilt market of a small town. Ieper, in my opinion, became the unfortunate example of what modern war could do to a civilian city - the first town to be destroyed by bombs, air raids, and machine guns. It is here the Belgians made their last stand against the invading German army. They were able to hold their position until the British, American, and Canadian soldiers could arrive and entrench themselves. Anyway, the museum is very interactive and allows the visitor to explore many different facets of the war - poetry, individual lives, quotes from soldiers, actual effects from the war, etc. Very informative overall, enabling me to get a better understanding of the Belgium front. The whole day we drove through the fields, piecing together troop movement and gaining an understanding the role a "ridge" (a mere 20 feet above sea level) played in this first modern war.

Later in the week we journeyed to the coast, to Oostand, to see a preserved WWII bunker and trenches that were built to keep the British out. This Atlantikwall was interesting to compare to the first trenches built. These were more solid, more entrenched, and had bigger guns; however, the general theory was the same as the originals... dig a hole and hope no one comes.

One part that I realized I have neglected are the breweries and beer museums. I thought I would save the best for last, of course. We visited the Brugse Zot brewery which is the last remaining one in Bruges proper. During the tour, we got to see the old cooling rooms and old equipment as well as the new and improved techniques. What surprised me the most was the fact that what used to take five floors to do now is contained in one room not much larger than my college apartment. The beer itself was a nice malty beer, amber in color, with a light wheat fog. Later, in Brussels, we went to the old brewer's guild which now houses a small museum and tasting room. What is interesting here is that you don't know what you are tasting. They ask if you want light or special (dark). The special was AMAZING and we think that it was the Westmalle Tripel ("Tripel" meaning it was made in an actually Abby, only 7 of which still exist, vs. Abby beer which isn't). Our last real beer trip was to the Hops Museum which was one of the best museums we went to the whole week. It was "interactive" meaning Heather can touch everything. The museum explained the history of hops and then followed it from planting to processing to shipping. Too bad there wasn't any tasting here though.

Overall not a bad way to spend a week. I got to spend time with my Dad and enjoy the unique Belgium atmosphere... I believe that a summer home in Bruges would be an amazing idea (**hint**hint** Dad).

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Arriving in Dijon, I fell in love with the city itself tout de suit and during the following week the love spread from the city to the whole region of Burgundy. It is more than mustard and expensive wines, but a je ne sais quoi that rolls in from the countryside. (Too much???)

Day 1: After an interesting train ride involving a not-quite famous actor, I wandered the beautifully Medieval streets of Dijon. I found myself on a pedestrian-only street surrounded by half-timber houses, staring up at my quaint hotel. Three narrow, steep flights of stairs later, I found myself in a comfortable single room with a sink and toilet down the hall.

Day 2: I decided to spend my first full day in Dijion enjoying the atmosphere... although, nothing went quite right all day. I set out at 9am with a stop at a pastry store where I ordered a pain au lait chocolat but got a pain au chocolat instead. I tried to find an open cafe, but all were closed tight. I wondered the maze of perfectly French streets (meaning dirty and poop-filled) of some half-timber homes... many leaning at awkward angles. Then I walked to the old convent, but, to my embarrassment, I couldn't find my way in - so I quickly gave up; however, after some lunch I returned determined. The sad part is that it was quite easy... you open the door that says "Museum." The set of the museums - Musee de la Vie Bourguinonne (Burgundy Life Museum) and Musee d'Art Sacre (Sacred Art Museum) - were surprisingly well done. The first, like all small local museums, had wax statues wearing traditional clothing. The second story was designed to look like Dijon in the 1800's with copies of old store fronts. The Sacred Art Museum had all of the artifacts from the Convent. There was one huge room dedicated to goblets... I tried to guess which one I would choose if I were Indiana Jones and needed the Holy Grail. Finding a place for lunch was a trial. I wondered for an hour, passing some places, going in and leaving others right aways, and, meanwhile, my stomach was speaking its own language. That was until I found a Moules et Frites place that, as its name suggests, serves only mussels and fries. You order the sauce you want, and they serve you a HUGE cast iron pot of mussels in sauce and a plate of french fries. So delicious and a great French option.

Day 3: Cluny!!! Anyone who studied Medieval history can understand my excitement about traveling three hours to see a building that doesn't exist anymore. At one time, Cluny monastery housed the largest structure in Europe and was the seat of religious power that rivaled that of Rome. I wont bore you anymore with my thoughts on the really cool Cluny III church... but the bus ride from Maron to Cluny was beautiful. Burgundy architecture is unique in France. Each manor has a square tower rising above the main part of the home that is topped with an intricate iron weather vane. Some with roosters, but many more have flowers, geometric designs, or clover. The rough, rocky hills are topped with rustic stone castles that are older than any others in France. The original "capital" of the very, very first Kings and Queens of France was in this region. In fact, this is where the concept of "France" came to be.

Day 4: I don't have a car, nor can I rent one. This is fine, until I want to tour the vineyards. So when I visit such wine-rich areas, I pay a lot of money for the ability to ride in a bus with people who are wine illiterate and who ask stupid questions just to see the vines and taste the wines. This tour wasn't so bad. Very small (8 people total) and I sat shot-gun so I was able to talk to the guide in detail about the differences in wine regions and the particular problems with wine making in Burgundy. By far, this was the best wine tour I've ever done! The region is unique because it is very small. Half a mile wide and 15 miles long, to be exact. Also, there have been pinot noir grapes planted on this land for more than 1000 years. Many of the cellars used today were build by monks in the 10th century. The growth of the villages is limited by the vineyards and the vineyard growth is limited by the villages. I was able to see the plot of land (20 ft by 40 ft) that produces the most expensive bottle of wine in the world - bottles start at $4,000 dollars and have been sold for ten times that amount. It looked like every other plot of land to me, but apparently it has the perfect blend of sand, slope, and limestone. I settled for a 59E bottle of Grand Cru and a 58E bottle of Premier Cru. The only problem was I wasn't really in the mood for robust reds at 10 o'clock in the morning, but what can you do? Suffer through.

Day 5: I followed a hiking path 6 k through forests, pastures, and fields to a monastery hidden in a valley. Actually, this monastery is the only intact monastery still in existence from the Medieval period in France. What a peaceful, beautiful place to sequester yourself in? Grow some grapes, eat some cheese and mustard, and walk in the garden. Forgetting, of course, that only one room was heated and the rest were completely open to the elements. I was the only one on the path that day which gave me the opportunity to peacefully and leisurely walk among the wild flowers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Sights...

The Duchess Anne castle has finally reopened after nearly a year of construction. Ever since I have been in Nantes, the Castle, which sits in the center of town, has been covered with blue tarps, freshly dug mud, and yellow hatted construction workers. It is quite an interesting building - roughly oval with high brown stone walls and approximately five towers. From the far side of the moat, you can make out many bleach-white spires peaking out from above the ramparts. Every time I past it, I wondered what the inside looked like. While my extended family was visiting I finally got the chance to see for myself. The huge inner courtyard is surprisingly bare with six or seven buildings flanking the walls. Each building looked as though it belongs to a separate century - there is every era of Gothic you can imagine making for a quilted blanket of towers, spires, stone, arches, etc. The most interesting part is that the ramparts still exist and you are able to climb up and walk around the entire castle, looking out on the many different views of downtown Nantes. (The Duchess Anne castle is famous because it is the location where the houses of France and British royalty were united).

...and (unfortunate) smells of France.

Many Americans have a stereotype about French people. Okay, there are many types of stereotypes; however, one I am often asked about is body odor. Sure, at the schools I work at, I often want to hand the occasional pubescent student a stick of Sure, but overall the population smells fine. Actually, I should say this is true of the younger generations. The older members of society tend to offend the nose more than most. It falls into two categories: unwashed or over perfumed. Generally I can handle offending body odor well, but when there is an unwashed gentleman next to you at a buss stop who reeks of cheep tobacco it can turn your stomach. Perfume was created here and they do amazing eau de toilettes, but there are many who over do it. Many more than you would find in the states. These I can stand perfectly well with barely a flinch to cross my face I switch to mouth breathing and carry on with my day. Nevertheless, when both types of odors melt into one, the result is toxic. Toxic is not an overstatement. Yesterday an elderly woman, well dressed, slowly boarded the bus. She selected the seat in front of mine and gingerly sat down. Within seconds I began to get a whiff of some undefinable smell... Was the bus leaking gas? Was there engine trouble? Slowly I began to realize where the smell originated from, the woman in front of me. After a few stops, I found myself doing the unthinkable: holding my hand over my nose. Each time I breathed with my nose, the smell would go straight to my stomach and make me wish I had gone easier on the roast beef at lunch. Then, after a few minutes of breathing through my mouth, my throat began to sting. Seriously, sting. I couldn't take it any more and my hand went casually to my nose. I felt horrible! I began to notice soon after that I was not the only one with a hand at my face. Everyone seemed to suddenly have a very runny, itchy, or cold nose. Remarkably, every time the door would open the entire bus would take a huge fresh breath of clean, non-toxic air. There was a decided inward moan as the doors closed and the bus would continue. In the end I got off the bus a stop before my own and walked, enjoying every lung full of air.

Friday, March 02, 2007

February 21st - The day Heather became legal!!!

At one thirty, a comfortable 15 minutes early, I arrived at the massive neoclassical building of the Nantes' Prefecture. Waving my appointment conformation paper, I was directed a machine where I took a number - 47. In the familiar waiting room (this was my third time waiting in this particular room) I wondered why I was given a rendez-vous if I still had to take a number. A few minutes later the middle-aged, brightly lipsticked lady at the desk asked if anyone had a certain paper which she then held up. One look at the paper on my lap confirmed that I did. For the first time I was able to bi-pass the long lines and I relished those dirty looks with every fiber of my being (as I had given people the same look many times before). The desk she directed me to was staffed by a good-looking, thirty-something man with a freshly shaved head. Some weird spasm contorted his face when I walked up - was that a smile? I had never seen one of those in the Prefecture before. After handing in my documents he began to ask the lipsticked lady some questions. He was new! That was why he smiled, he was too new to be jaded! He verified my documents and handed me my EU ID card. I have never seen anything so ascetically perfect in my entire life, with its intricate pink and green design backing my picture and strong black lettering. At that moment I felt like laughing, but I restrained myself long enough to smile broadly, ask "C'est tout?," and respond to the handsome man's reserved tip-of-the-head with an entirely too ecstatic "COOL!" As I left, giggles started escaping my throat. They weren't even stopped by my graceless tumble down the stone steps. I must have looked the picture: laughing while laying sprawled on my back, half on the steps and half on the sidewalk, laughing as I struggled to get upright clutching my sprained thumb, and laughing as I narrowly avoided an incident with an irate Vespa driver. I was never so happy! I will NEVER have to stand in the Nantes prefecture again!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Day 5: The Tate Modern - my home away from home! Modern Art museums are where I could spend days, let alone hours. My favorite artist of all time is Mark Rothko who was prolific in the 1940s-1960s. Overall, his paintings are not paintings but "washes" - a technique that involves using layers and layers of diluted paint over a canvas. He belonged to the school of abstract expressionism and his works attempt to pull the viewer in and overwhelm them with the subtle differences in color (colour). Each large canvas evokes an emotion and takes up one's entire field of vision. Anyway, it is rather rare to see Rothko's work because he worked on commission for hotels, restaurants, individuals, etc, most of whom still retain the art in their private collection. So - I hope I have conveyed my passionate obsession with this guy, because I entered a room in the Tate Modern and my eyes fell upon an ENTIRE ROOM of maroon, rose, lavender, and blood red washes. Each so absorbing. The rest of the world class museum fell to the wayside as my memories are mostly devoted to that one room. After that sensory overload, Amber and I enjoyed a walk around the amazingly ideal quarter of Greenwich where there is huge white-columned and red bricked University campus and a castle favored by the Tudors.

Day 6: On my own, I took the tube to Paddington Station and boarded the train to Windsor Castle. I won't bore you with my extensive notes on the Church and the Castle itself, but I was very impressed. I'm not a souvenir buyer, in fact there are a few people who can vouch for my impatience with that kind of tourist. However, there was some sort of magical pull about the many stores within Windsor. It was either the massive amounts of British monarch history objets or the very friendly, elderly knights and ladies who maned the till, but I wanted to buy everything! I managed to whittle it down to a hand forged pewter jam spoon. When I returned home with my proud purchase, Amber laughed.

Day 7: Westminster Abbey was SO COOL (for lack of a better word). One of my favourite parts was the "Poet's Corner" where you will find Chaucer's tomb and monuments to people like Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lord Byron, Shakespeare, etc. The most startling addition, in my opinion a glaring oddity, was Oscar Wilde's name on the stained glass window memorial. When I visited his grave in Paris, I was struck by the sadness that marked the end of his life. He was discovered having a homosexual affair with a Lord and was forced into a de facto exile by the same Church that is now claiming his genius. This event caused him so much pain - being removed from his beloved country and separated from his beloved wife and child(ren) - that many speculate it caused his premature death. I just question what the people who put his name up their were trying to accomplish: acknowledging the unfortunate role the church played in these events or just claiming him as a British national resource regardless of their actions. From there I walked along The Strand, into St. Paul's, and around the Tower of London before collapsing in a pub.

Day 8: I helped Amber move to her new (and much improved) dorm room which was followed by a walk around Oxford Circus and a pint of ice cream.

Day 9: Back to Waterloo station, through the (still awesome) Chunnel, and back to Nantes. Someone told me that leaving France would improve my French because it would have solidified in my mind or something... what a load of crap! While I was waiting for the bus, a gentleman asked if the 10:30 bus had come or not. I could not understand him to save my life. After asking him to repeat himself a few times he switched into English and I felt like an idiot. However, in the past few days I can boast that my French is back up to the pre-London level of moderate to fair.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A week in London/Londres...

Day 1: Starting out around noon, I took the train from Nantes to London. I cannot describe how much I anticipated the Chunnel! Everyone says that it is a disappointment, but they are so wrong. For an entire 20 minutes you are flying underground in a dark tunnel that just keeps going and going. After that excitement, my old college roommate, Amber, met me at Waterloo Station. Then we took the metro (while I insisted on humming Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks) to Amber 's dorm in Barking, a bit east of London.

Day 2: When we woke up and saw the sun shinning brightly, we knew we had to take advantage of this rare situation (meaning no rain). After we emerged from the Tube station we followed St. James Park towards Buckingham Place. Actually, we had perfect timing (we think). There were hundreds of people looking and soldiers marching rhythm in ridiculous ensembles. Changing of the guard? Then on to Piccadilly where we stopped for tea and Amber showed me the most spectacular bookstore with old oak shelves and squeaky floors. On to Piccadilly Circus... the square itself was great, but I believe I was more excited about the Virgin Mega Store where you can find any CD you want. It was particularly exiting because I listen to random British bands whose CDs are not available anywhere in the States. Think kid in a candy shop (though that could be used to describe me during this entire week). On to Harrods, Covent Garden, and China town for dinner. There is just a great vibe in this city. There is a "what you see is what you get" attitude here. All of the unique districts that blend into one another - plus not a hill in sight so you could just keep walking all day!

Day 3: Museums, museums, museums. I have to give it to the people who decided that the massive London museums should be free. It is a good way to bring art and history to the masses, but also the poor student. We started our day at the Victoria and Albert Museum... we went from the Mongols to the chair in which Queen Victoria may have sat in the course of two hours. My favorite part was the Egyptian section where I came to an important decision. A friend and I had a conversation about hobbies a while back... we came to the conclusion that hobbies are those things you do after you graduate to fill the time homework and a social life occupied in college. Wandering through the artifacts I decided that my future hobby would be "arm-chair Egyptologist." Amber laughed. After my first pub lunch of beer and fish and chips, we headed to the British museum where my Egyptology dreams were cemented. After waiting for the picture-taking tour-groups to clear from in front of the Rosetta Stone, I pushed my way through. Even though I was standing there, they kept taking pictures - of the back of my head. Also, mummies are so cool... sorry, but after hours of intellectual activity and thousands of artifacts, that is the most enlightening thought I could muster.

Day 4: I love art museums! Love, love, love. Day 4 was reserved for Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. The latter is such an interesting concept. Just as the name suggests it is reserved for portraits and is displayed in a manner that puts forward the subject more than the artist. It was fun reading about the lives of the smiling faces and trying to imagine what it had been like to be them.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

An unfortunate cultural lesson... in poor taste.

I have had a run-in or two with one particularly high-strung teacher at one of my schools, but this one takes the cake and provided an unwanted cultural lesson.

She took over for one of the teachers a few months back, and just before Christmas break her and I had a discussion about me assisting in some classes. Now that things have settled into the new year and I have been re-introduced to the classes, yesterday was to mark my first independent teaching with one of the groups. Last week we talked about where the class was and that I would be taking half of the class for half the time and then switching. She promised to contact me over the weekend (by e-mail because I don't have a phone). Well, she didn't. It really didn't matter - after all I knew what she wanted and I am used to creating lesson plans from nothing. On Thursday I went to the school to talk with her, excited about my lesson plans. The moment I mentioned the lesson, she pulls out these papers and says that I should do these activities. She will be doing the same activities with the other class. Strange, I think. What is the point of doing the same lesson? But it was what she wanted. She makes me a copy of the material and I head home. After reviewing the papers and making a few changes, I felt confident and ready for the class.

An hour before the class started, I am sitting in the salle des professeurs (teacher's lounge) when she comes in. From across the room she asks if I'm ready. "Absolutely," I reply. "Really, do you have the dominoes cut out?" "No, I thought the children could handle that." "Well you have all of the materials, right?" "Everything but the copies." "Then you are not ready." "Yes I am. I just need the copies." "You should have made them by now." "I don't have the code for the copier." "You are sitting in a room of people who have codes, ask them." Now at this point I was getting too mad and had to switch into English. Also, other teachers were streaming in because it was morning break and the teacher's voice was getting louder and louder. "I didn't know how many students I was going to have. You never told me." "You are an assistant. Your job is to make my life easier. All you are doing is making me more stressed." "I'm sorry, but your directions were unclear." Here I became aware that we were attracting the attention of my co-workers. These are intelligent people. Besides the fact they often speak better English than I, they could tell by our voices that there was something wrong. "I have a lot on my plate. I am a full teacher and you are my assistant." Honestly, I stopped listening at this point but I remember something about being overwhelmed... seriously concerned about my effectiveness... doing my job... etc. Anyone who knows me well is probably marveling at my reserve. I know I did. I think it was not from a change in temper, but from the twenty sets of eyes I felt staring at us. Yes all of the teachers were there and the room had quieted. That is why I did not mention how long I worked on my original lesson (which involved strips of paper, a hat, and tongue twisters) and how her anger at me was just displaced stress and that there was no way I could have mad the copies for the reasons she failed to appreciate. Luckily, the bell rang and she headed to class.

Later that morning, during a particularly angry journal entry, I remembered something my high school French teacher mentioned. In France it is considered normal and proper to scold your children in public. More than that, if your child is misbehaving it is your duty to spank or punish them right then and there. The same thing applies to bosses and subordinates. If your boss has a reason (or at least think that they do) to be upset with you, they will find you and deal with the situation then and there. So, this teacher, under the misapprehension that I was a subordinate, was doing something normal and excusable. However, I don't think that she realizes that from my American point of view this public verbal flogging was unacceptable. That is why she was unhindered by the presence of the others and why they really took no notice (I was just assuming they were).

In hindsight, this may have been a valuable cultural lesson. Nevertheless, it is one that I hope never to have repeated.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Alright, alright. I'm back (Dad)...

Actually, there is a very good, legitimate reason for not writing a post - I've done nothing. Quite literally, metaphorically, etc. Nothing. It was not out of slothfulness or an overwhelming fear of everything French, but a lack of funds. Yes, the school system forgot to deposit my January paycheck. Normally, I receive a healthy 752 Euro cheque de paie around the 18th or 20th of the month. By January 23rd, I was starting to squirm and by the 25th I had a word with the secretary. She made a call or two and said that they lost the paper work. I had to wait one to two weeks. Well, at this point, I had 60 Euros and no real payday on the horizon. Rice and buttered noodles ensued. Finally yesterday I saw a wonderful balance and promptly boarded the bus and headed to E. Leclerc, French Walmart. An hour later I trudged home with so much food and drink, though no rice or noodles!

With the lack of flow, dough, or green backs (really, pink, blue and green backs) I did a lot of reading... umm... I watched YouTube for hours a day... oh! there were many walks in there... I stared out my window... I avoided e-mailing, like normal... played tag with the kids for a bit... fed the rabbits. Worry not, I now have money and I will be heading to the great ile to the north in a week or so. Hopefully, that will give me an interesting antidote or two.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The best day of the week... Tuesday.

I live an a quiet residential area of Nantes, just off the busy star-shaped Plaza Zola. On my road, about a block closer to the plaza, is a large supermarket with a parking lot around back and a moderate blacktop in front. Most mornings this blacktop is home to renegade shopping carts and the occasional beggar. However, Tuesday is different. Sometime before dawn, the Abid family park their large van there. It is not a normal white van, but one of those you see at fairs where the side flap opens up to reveal the counter of a food vendor. The Abid family sells one of the most important foods from this particular region of France: crepes and galettes (whear, savory crepes). On two huge crepe cookers (they look like a large skillet turned upside down) they keep cooking the crepes all day. For less than 15 cents you get the basic building block of the crepe dinner - the cooked batter. People line up, in fact I rarely see any less than three people in line at any given time. In general, I buy three huge crepes (31 cents) each week - in the afternoon, when the wife is working. She is really nice and likes to small talk... anyway... Each week I plan on saving them: eating one when I get back, one after dinner, and one for breakfast the next morning. Nothing fancy, mind you. Just butter, lemon, and sugar. No matter how forcibly I remind myself about the planned rationing, I have yet to have a crepe remaining after two hours. They smell too good to leave on my shelf for too long. I end up eating them in rapid succession - usually ending in a stomachache. However, this never stops me from buying three crepes each week from my favorite crepe-mobile.

Bon Appétit!
Discovering the joy of Socialism...

In general, I am a healthy person. As my mother may proudly boast, I have used antibiotics less than ten times in my entire life; however, the weather and the climate in my new home caused an interesting health condition. Nothing serious - just a circulation problem in my toes - common in old men. This brought about an interesting situation: Heather had to go to a French doctor.

After putting off the inevitable for two weeks, I attempted to get up the nerve to make "the call." I hate talking on the phone in French. Much of my ability to understand the language is based on context clues and facial expression, all rendered impossible by the phone. After the first dial-and-quickly-hang-up call, I managed to control my irrational nerves long enough for the nurse to answer. In halting French I explained that I wanted an appointment with Dr. Tauty for a problem with my feet. She gladly (and speaking in wonderfully slow French) gave me an appointment for the following morning at noon.

Figuring I would have many forms to fill out and with my dictionary in tow, I arrived at the office a comfortable 15 minutes early (as the receptionist in the States tells you to). The nurse showed me into the waiting room, though I am missing the paperwork. I sat there for 20 minutes, along with the typical crying babies and sneezing businessmen. When the door opened and my name was called, I was surprised to find that the doctor himself had come to fetch me. Dr. Tauty is a short, balding Dutch-South African man who was dressed in a perfectly tailored three piece green tweed suit and white doctor's jacket. Plus, I was still concerned (obsessed?) that there was a mistake - I had yet to fill out any forms.

After the traditional and mandatory French introductions, he (he himself, mind you) directed me into his office and motioned for me to sit in the comfortable leather chair opposite his desk. I wasn't weighed, wasn't measured, wasn't asked to sit awkwardly in an empty closet-sized room silently waiting. None of these. Before we began he asked me where I came from and why. Then he got down to business... after I explained he directed me to the examining table on the far side of the room and took a look at my feet. Then he told me to put my shoes back on and to return to the comfortable chair where he explained the problem. Dr. Tauty even took the time to translate the diagnosis into English.

Now I was sure that the paperwork would come, but it didn't. He handed me a prescription and a form I had to send to the Social Security office because I only have a temporary number. Then his face became grave and apologetic. Because I only have a temporary number, I have to pay him the full amount and be reimbursed later. Alright, I was ready. Before I went to the appointment I purposely went to the ATM and withdrew a decent amount of cash for such an occasion. With down cast eyes, he asked for 21 Euros. I had to have him repeat the sum, I thought I hadn't heard correctly. But he assured me that it was 21 Euros. I let out a hardy laugh which elicited a perplexed look from Dr. Tauty. After explaining that a similar visit in the States, without insurance, would cost at least 60 Euros if not 100, he joined me in laughing. "Thank goodness for socialism then," he chuckled.

As he guided me back through the hallway, he shook my hand and kissed my cheek. Then he said, "If I ever see you with anything less than two pairs of socks and thick boots on, I will hit you upside the head with my Hippocratic oath." Out the door I went.

And that was my cultural experience for the week. When I tried to explain to my Danish landlady how weird and bizarre the doctor's visit was, she explained that much of it was the same in Denmark; however, nothing prepared her for the first time a doctor volunteered a house call when her youngest had the flu. Apparently, the house call is a uniquely French custom - I am glad that I did not have to have that cultural experience. If one appointment at the doctor threw me for such a loop, I cannot imagine what it would be like to see the doctor chez moi!

A Votre Santé! (To your health)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Christmas Day...

Around 12:30 a knock on the door roused me from my coffee and alternate news reading. I opened the door to find a very large Danish man who informed me that I should head to the "main house" around 1:30.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. Camilla and Guillaume invited me to have Christmas dinner with them and their family. You have no idea how excited I was - a real French Christmas! Guillaume's mother (Mdm. Micheal), father (M. Micheal), and brother Matthieu from the coast were coming in along with Camilla's brother and mother from Copenhagen would be there as well.

I walked in through the back door a comfortable five minutes late (as French custom requires or at least as close as I can come) and Guillaume was ready with a glass of Drappier Champagne and began introductions. I was happy to learn that Camilla's mother and brother spoke perfect English, because my Danish is a bit rusty or nonexistent. We all stood around the fire as the children were jumping out of their skin to open presents. Apparently, this was their second Christmas. The Danish tradition is to open presents on Christmas Eve while the French celebrate on Christmas Day. As we all enjoyed our second and third glasses of Champagne, presents were handed all around. I even got some - a beautiful plume pink scarf, Danish chocolates, and a potted flower! I gave the kids those Lifesavers Storybooks from the States.

After the gifts were given, we all continued to chat and enjoy the fire. Guillaume and I discussed the wine selection for the evening - he comes from a classic gastronomic loving family and knows my interest in wine. He even agreed to introduce me to his merchant. I can't wait!

Dinner/Lunch started promptly at 2:43 and, from what Guillaume's father said, it was THE traditional feast that they have been having in Breton for centuries. The first course was fresh oysters... plates and plates and plates of them. French oysters are usually rough shelled and large, everyone was impressed with my skills which started a conversation about Seattle sea food. Along with this they served a local Muscadet wine (light, dry, easy to drink) which is produced by a friend of the family 20 miles outside Nantes. M. Micheal is an avid clam hunter and provided me with a lesson on how to eat live clams. You have to surprise them or they clam-up (too bad the joke doesn't work in French) and slip a thin knife in through their shell. Then you scrape them out and enjoy like an oyster. They taste like the sea - iodine.

Second course was foie gras. No, that doesn't even do it justice - it was the most creamy decadent foie gras I have ever had, even M. and Mdm. Micheal were impressed (and they have eaten foie gras their entire life!). To drink with this, we had a very sweet Cote de Rhone wine whose name I have forgotten. I am not generally a sweet white kind of gal, but with the foie gras I felt as though I was eating/drinking the most decedent thing in the world. So rich, so sweet, so lovely.

Following this we had the main meal - duck with potatoes and red beets. I believe that my dad is laughing to himself - I hate beets. However, if he had made them like this growing up I think I would have had a permanently red-stained mouth. They were cubed and lightly pickled in a sweet vinegar. With the beautiful duck and amazing potatoes they served a Crozes Hermitage Papillon 2005. A bit of a shock after the Cote de Rhone, but it brought out the duck very nicely.

Salad and cheese were a nice way to fill in the gaps after such a rich and exciting meal, although I still don't understand eating the salad after dinner... but oh well.

Desert was a homemade Bouche de Noel, a rolled cake that looks like a log. But the wine, in my opinion stole the spotlight at this point. We has a Loire Valley sparkling wine from DomaineChevrot, Cremant de Bourgogne. A little sweeter than champagne, but still dry - many light fruits and a touch of oak. If I could only take one wine home - it would be this one.

Over coffee we had some Danish marzipan candies, and great discussion. I loved talking to Camilla's mom, but my main accomplishment was the small talk with Mdm. Micheal. She was the only one who didn't speak English and my French is better than Camilla's family's French so, from time to time, I felt bad because we were speaking mostly in English. At one point she came back to the table where the ladies were lingering over coffee and candy. The moment the conversation dropped for a second, I took the opportunity to switch the language. I am not a small talker, but we did have something in common - the sea. Mustering all of my nerves (I still get a bit nervous to have a chat in French), I started by confirming that she lived by the sea. To my great relief, I could see that her face lit up - she liked the sea. We chatted for quite a while, going over all aspects of the ocean, Pacific and Atlantic, and she even invited me to Sunday dinner at her house sometime in the future.

When the party was breaking up, I realized that, next to being with my family, I really enjoyed myself. By the time I returned to my petite maison it was 7:30. In true French style, lunch lasted six hours! Experiences like this are why I decided to spend time here!

Joyeux Noel!