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Things French People Like: Saying Hello

31 Jan

Imagine that you enter a small shop you’ve never been to before. The cashier hears you come in, but is visibly busy attending to one thing or another. Do you:

A) Wait a bit for the cashier to finish, make eye contact with you and exchange greetings
B) Wait a short time and then politely say “Hello” to get the cashier’s attention
C) Immediately and loudly say “Hello!” as soon as you walk through the door

As an American, my intuitive response is A), unless I’m convinced the cashier is simply ignoring me, in which case I might opt for B). I think it is generally considered good manners in America to wait a bit and let the worker finish their task before interrupting them. However, I have found that waiting to make eye contact with the cashier before saying hello is simply not the norm in French culture; in fact, it can be considered quite rude.

The French almost always choose option C). According to the mysterious unwritten but universally accepted 876,324 rules of French propriety (rule #127,533 I think), it is customary to say “Bonjour” as soon as you enter a shop. Sometimes, “bonjour” doesn’t even cut it — rule #127,533 subsection 5b strongly advises that you add “madame” or “monsieur” to the end of your greeting, just in case there was any ambiguity about the sex of your interlocutor (although I have, on occasion, witnessed some embarrassing mix-ups).

When I first arrived in France, the following would happen on some occasions: I enter a shop. The cashier knows I’m there, but is hunched over the register, working diligently on something (rolling either a croissant or a cigarette, I’m not sure). I wait for the cashier to look up at me and say hello. I wait a little longer. Finally, the cashier lifts her head and, with a suspciously passive-agressive tone of exasperation, says, “Bonjour, monsieur.”

It’s easy to see how this kind of behaviour might seem rude to an American. But now I understand the cashier’s point of view. “Okay, this guy just walked into my store. Why hasn’t he said hello yet? What’s he waiting for? God, how rude. “Hello, sir.””

Granted, this particular situation doesn’t happen that often. Usually if the shopkeeper isn’t busy, she will say “bonjour, monsieur” as soon as you walk through the door.

Bonjour is important. And it’s not just for shopkeepers. One time while waiting in line at the small post office in my neighbourhood, a man walked in and collectively greeted the eight or so strangers in line with “Mesdames, messieurs, bonjour.” This would be like a man in America walking into a post office and saying “Ladies and gentlemen, good day.” Usually this kind of person is unshaven, smells like urine, and hears voices.

But “ladies and gentlemen, good day,” is a standard salutation in France.

Artist's rendering of an average Frenchman

The situation becomes more complex when you replace the shop or the post office with your place of work. I don’t know most of the teachers who work at my schools, mostly just the English teachers. But whenever a teacher walks into the teachers’ lounge, they are compelled by the laws of Frenchdom to say hello to everyone. My natural behaviour, of course, is to walk into the room, head towards my seat, and say hello to anyone I make eye contact with along the way, or to anyone I know personally. I feel awkward saying hello to everyone as soon as I walk through the door, but usually not doing so earns me a multitude of curious stares.

Then there’s the bise. Oh God, the bise. That’s the kisses you give people on the cheek to greet them. There are so many variables to take account of before you go in for the kiss. How do I know when to kiss someone? How many kisses do I give? Do I start with the right cheek or the left cheek? Do I have to kiss men too? There is no easy answer to any of these questions, as the answers all vary by region. These are covered by French code rules #701,668 to #702,109 and the corresponding geographic amendments.

In my region of France, you kiss friends (male and female) and newfound acquaintances (usually introduced to you by a friend) if they are a woman or a child (I’m not sure what the exact age cut-off is; I’ll check the manual again). Unless you’re a woman, in which case you pretty much have to kiss everyone.

The standard number of kisses in this area is 2. I think you’re supposed to start with the right cheek but so many people have gone for my left cheek first, resulting in some narrow escapes from catastrophic labial contact.

I have, on occasion, extended my hand to girls that were introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance. They were quite perplexed and a bit putt off by the idea that I was shaking their hand, almost as if I was treating them like they were men. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.

But wait. Wait! What if it’s past 5 PM? Ohhh, sheeeeeeiiiit. You just opened up a whole nother can of worms.

If you don’t speak French, I assure you that that was hilarious.

Best Film of 2010: Sausage?

8 Jan

Earlier this week with one of my middle school English classes, I asked the students to reflect on the year 2010. They apparently remembered very little in the way of world events, aside from a volcano somewhere (Ireland?) and Rhianna’s concert in Marseille, so I decided to steer them towards a more accessible subject. “What films do you remember from 2010?” I asked them.

One of the quieter girls raised her hand quite excitedly.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Saucisse !” she answered, smiling.

Saucisse is French for “sausage.” At first I thought this might have been some French kids’ movie that I’d never heard of (or simply a mean joke on the English assistant), but the rest of the students in the class were just as clueless as I was. “Saucisse?!” several of them asked incredulously, while the rest just burst out with laughter.

But the girl was confident in her answer. “Mais oui !” She repeated the title, this time more slowly and with a distinct pause between the two syllables: [so sis].

The class had a collective a-ha moment (and more laughter) as we realised she was talking about Saw VI (using the French pronunciation of six, [sis]).

Apparently the similarity between the film title and the French word for “sausage” hasn’t gone unnoticed by the general public. A quick Google search reveals a number of French fanmade posters for Saw VI exploiting the pun, e.g.:

I'm pretty sure there's some meat-grinding in the film anyway

Of course, the English pronunciation of “saw” involves a lower / more open vowel than the French [o], namely [ɔ]. French actually has the same vowel (or at least a phonetically similar one). Compare the following two French words:

sot [so] – “silly” (masculine)
sotte [sɔt] – “silly” (feminine)

The question, then, is: why do the French approximate the English [ɔ] vowel (as in “saw”) with a more closed [o] (as in “so”), when the French [ɔ] is phonetically more similar?

One of my linguistic idols, John Wells, addressed this question last year on his blog, referencing a conference paper by Nicolas Ballier. He refers specifically to the French habit of rendering “law” as [lo] (sounds more like “low”). The explanation:

The French vowels o and ɔ, too, are in complementary or near-complementary distribution, with the higher o again being preferred in open syllables and the lower ɔ in closed syllables. Although English law would sound much better with French ɔ than with French o, … nevertheless the syllable structure inhibits its use.

In other words, the French [ɔ] almost always occurs in syllables that end with a consonant (closed syllables), whereas the [o] vowel almost always occurs at the end of a syllable (open syllables). This was the contrast we saw with sot and sotte above, and the same pattern can be seen abundantly elsewhere in the French language:

beau [bo] – “beautiful”
bonne [bɔn] – “good” (f.)
peau [po] – “skin”
port [pɔʀ] – “port”
gros [gʀo] – “fat” (m.)
grosse [gʀɔs] – “fat” (f.)
faux [fo] – “false”
folle [fɔl] – “crazy” (f.)

As a result of this systematic pattern, the French will prefer [o] in English open syllables that are supposed to have [ɔ], like “saw,” “law,” “gnaw,” etc.

This seems to suggest that [o] and [ɔ] have become allophones of the same phoneme in French, although this was not always the case. Traditionally, there have been minimal pairs such as paume [pom] and pomme [pɔm], but presumably many French speakers now use the latter pronunciation for both words. I’ll have to do some surveying to confirm this, because my intuitions are muddled — personally, I still make the distinction.

12 of 12 for December 2010

16 Dec

On the weekend of the 12th, I was up in Lyon with a few other assistants to see the annual Fête des lumières, or Festival of Lights. Since we were out past midnight on the 11th, I took this shot of a colourful light installation around 1am on the 12th as we walked back to our host’s apartment.

After a very restful sleep, we woke up late in the morning. Our host (who is also an English assistant, in Lyon) had a really nice apartment, complete with a variety of artwork provided by the French subletter.

Fellow Toulon assistant Vanessa and I headed to Lyon’s Christmas market to experience the local holiday atmosphere. Being a chestnut fanatic, she couldn’t resist some hot wine with chestnut flavour.

The Christmas market was really bustling with people.

Since we hadn’t eaten dinner at a restaurant in France for a couple months, we agreed that we would look for a reasonably priced place to experience a Lyonnais meal that evening. We scoped out the picturesque Rue Mercière to find a suitable restaurant.

Seeking shelter from the cold, we went inside the Eglise Saint-Nizier and discovered this nice candle display on the altar. As per tradition during the festival, the Lyonnais light candles in recognition of the Virgin Mary, whose protection they prayed for during the plague of 1643.

Inside the church was also this “hands-on” display (pun intended) where visitors express their thanks to Mary and write prayers on their hand outlines.

Continually seeking shelter from the winter weather outside, we found refuge in a small, infinitely charming café where we got cheap hot drinks and shared a mouth-watering tartine with chèvre cheese and thyme.

We swiftly scuttled over to FNAC, a big entertainment / book store. We used the display iPads to check our e-mail until the store closed.

Although the festival officially ended on the 11th, a lot of the illuminations were still up on the 12th. I’m not sure if the Palais de la Bourse is always lit up like this or if it was just for the festival.

We finally rendez-voused with our host, Maggie, and headed off to a Lyonnais restaurant for a delicious dinner. Our table was at the very back of the restaurant, essentially inside the kitchen. Saucisson chaud in a beaujolais sauce was the main course, followed by a very tasty fondant au chocolat. Only the French know how to eat so well.

Since it’s very difficult to see major English-language films in Toulon without French dubbing, I promised myself before going to Lyon that I would take advantage of their version originale screenings. Maggie accompanied me to see the new Narnia movie, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (in 3-D). It wasn’t quite as solid as the first two films, but it restored some of the vibrancy and optimism of the first installment, and I quite liked the ending.

I took the above picture during one of the previews. My next 12 of 12 will be in – you guessed it – 2011.

Out and About in France: Auvergne

16 Feb

Another absurdly overdue post. This time I’ll take you back to my brief journey last May to heaven, or, as it is more commonly known, Auvergne.

Auvergne is a region in south-central France that has captured my imagination for quite some time. It is home to the Massif Central, a mountainous region shaped by dormant volcanoes. It is one of the least densely populated areas of the country (and in all of Europe) and has a plethora of tranquil nooks and crannies free of any tourists. There is a mystical allure to the place which, along with some photographs of its incredibly beautiful landscapes, compelled me to visit Auvergne at the end of my semester in France.

It began with a train journey from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand, the largest city and central hub of Auvergne. As the train reached the outskirts of the city, my attention was drawn to the towering cathedral in the city centre. Built of black volcanic rock, the rather ominous-looking Gothic spires are hard to miss. Like the Strasbourg Cathedral, I was fascinated by its massive size and stark contrast to the surrounding buildings.

From Clermont-Ferrand, I took a train that winded its way up into the volcanic highlands to the west of the city. As the train sped through dense deciduous forest, I knew I wasn’t in Paris anymore — this was a truly “wild” part of France. Eventually, the forest began to gradually give way to beautiful rolling pastures, carpeted in colourful spring flowers. The sun was shining over this idyllic scene and I had my first indication that I had found paradise.

My destination in Auvergne was Le Mont-Dore, a small town known for its thermal spas and winter skiing. Being there in the “off season,” the first thing that struck me was how remarkably quiet and peaceful it was. This wasn’t the sort of place that foreign tourists flocked to — in fact, the few other tourists mulling about town seemed to be 60-something French couples. Most of the activity was on the pétanque field, where some schoolchildren were playing under their teachers’ supervision.

The other thing that struck me right away in Le Mont-Dore was the purity of the air — it seemed so fresh, so cool — the weather was absolutely perfect.

The town retains a lot of Belle Epoque architecture and everything seems immaculately clean. I think this contributes a good deal to its charm. A park full of bright pink azaleas lines the famous Dordogne River, whose headwaters are found in this mountainous region and which runs through town. My first stop in town was my hotel, which, like many buildings in provincial French towns, was inexplicably closed in the middle of the afternoon. However, I called the hotel and the proprietor directed me to the back entrance, where I climbed a spiral staircase up to my room.

The room was unlocked, and I soon realised that I had no key and no way to lock the door when I left. What kind of hotel was this? Well, probably a hotel in a place where crime is practically unheard of. I wasn’t particularly concerned about someone stealing my clothes or anything, so I just went with it. It actually felt kind of liberating.

I set about exploring the small centre of Le Mont-Dore. Several closed ski shops. A handful of nice restaurants, which, as I later discovered, close much earlier than their big city counterparts (this also seems to be a truism of small French towns). The requsitie boulangerie and boucherie (with all kinds of Auvergnat specialties). I headed to the small grocery store near the marketplace for my lunch. Pretty much every item was cheaper than in Paris, especially the bottled water.

36 CENTS for a bottled water. That’s the cheapest price I’ve seen anywhere. This would make sense for the spring water that comes directly from Auvergne (Volvic), but the prices were universally low for all brands. Maybe Evian just wants you to think that their water comes from the Alps, when they’re secretly getting it in Auvergne.

My next stop in town was the tourist information office, where I inquired about hiking maps. The only one they had was a massive 3′ x 4′ map covering a huge portion of the area, but I dished out the 9 Euros for it (I only had to use a minuscule fraction of the map, but I figured it was better than getting lost). By this point, it was already late afternoon and I didn’t want to go on a major hike, so I set my sights on a couple of waterfalls not far from town.

A short jaunt along some quaint, winding streets brought me to the outskirts of town. I had to stop for a few minutes to photograph a knoll covered in a perfect springtime array of bright yellow, white, blue, and pink wildflowers. As I continued heading away from town, I was delighted to find the hiking trails well-signed and consistent with the map I had bought. My trail entered into a dense mixed forest of lush greenery, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the previous summer in New Hampshire.

Although the walk wasn’t terribly strenuous, there was at least one major hazard: black slugs. The trail was literally covered with these slimy creatures at points. They were probably three or four inches long, to boot. Yuck.

I proceeded on to discover the Cascade de Queureuilh and the Cascade du Rossignol (pictured above). Although I came across a handful of fellow afternoon walkers, for the most part I was on my own in what felt like a mystical ‘fairy tale’ forest. I know, that sounds wicked corny. Perhaps ‘Zeldaesque’ would be more apropos.

After a very enjoyable walk, I returned to town to settle in for the night. It was at this time that I realised how early all the restaurants had closed. I did manage to find a nice little pizzeria that was still open, so I ordered a pizza to bring back to my hotel room. The woman working at the pizzeria was remarkably friendly (even offering me some magazines to read as I waited), and I found this to hold true for my entire experience in Auvergne — the people were by far the friendliest I’ve ever encountered in France, and probably all of Europe for that matter. Just another reason to love the place.

The next morning, I got up early to embark on my major hike of the trip. My target was the Puy de Sancy, the tallest mountain in the Massif Central. Well, to be fair, I wasn’t planning to hike the mountain itself — I decided to take the ski lift to the summit, and then hike along the Massif du Sancy, descending and ascending some of the neighbouring peaks. My journey began with a trip to the boulangerie, where I stocked up on some pains au chocolat for energy.

I followed the road south of town towards the Puy de Sancy, stopping at a seemingly deserted campground by a pond to eat my breakfast. Some ponies near the campground provided a picture-perfect scene with the Puy de Sancy in the background:

After another 2.5 miles following the Dordogne through this pastoral landscape, I reached the Mont-Dore ski station and hopped on the ski tram to the top of the mountain. On the ride up, the tram operator pointed out a chamois perched on a nearby cliff.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that mountaintops are climatically quite different places than low elevation valleys. But I wasn’t entirely prepared for the strength of the wind at the top of the Puy de Sancy. The gusts were easily in excess of 70mph, comparable only to wind speeds that I’ve experienced at the summit of Mt. Washington. Since the ski lift doesn’t bring you all the way to the summit, I had to trudge my way to the top whilst fighting against the wind, which really wanted to blow me off the mountain.

After my struggle, I was a bit humbled to see the summit crowded by a large group of white-haired retirees. These fit 60-year-olds were apparently on a lunch break during a rather intense hiking trip. I needed a breather, so I took in the expansive views across the Auvergne landscape.

I followed the hiking group during the slightly treacherous descent of one of the mountain’s rocky slopes, but then diverged from the crowds and headed northward along the Monts Dore range, climbing up and down several summits. The wind died down a bit, and although there were still patches of snow on some of the slopes, temperatures were probably in the high 50s or low 60s and it wasn’t bad at all with the sun shining. The only major challenge came when the trail was hugging a fairly steep slope, but was unfortunately covered by a patch of ice and mud. I had to carefully tread across the couple of metres of ice at the risk of rolling down the mountain, but I made it.

At one point, I noticed a man with binoculars gazing intently at something on a nearby cliff. He called out to me and said that there was a chamois with a pair of baby chamois, then gave me his binoculars to have a look. I’m not quite sure if I ever spotted them (I did notice a couple of brown smudges that might be mountain goats), but I kept trying to see something without luck and didn’t want to hog his binoculars for too long. So I thanked him and gave them back. Just another example of Auvergnat courtesy.

The scenery at every turn was absolutely breathtaking. The hiking reminded me a bit of the Lake District in England, where you have an uninterrupted view across expansive grasslands. There is a very open, exciting, and epic feel to these landscapes — very Lord of the Rings, if you will. I had bought a baguette sandwich for lunch, so I sat down in the grass and ate while my eyes feasted on the beautiful scenery all around me.

Eventually, I began to descend along a trail that would lead me right back to town. First, the trail passed by the postcard-perfect Grande Cascade (pictured below), a stunning waterfall with a small rainbow effect that made for an amazing photograph. The mist from the falls were refreshing at this point of the hike, especially since it was getting warmer in the lower elevations. From the cascade, I entered into thick forest and began the steep descent into town. I felt bad for the people who were doing the hike in the opposite direction — a couple of 50-somethings stopped me and asked how much longer it was to the waterfall. I encouraged them by saying it was well worth the hike.

In all, I think I spent about 8 hours hiking, but it was extremely enjoyable. I even entertained the idea of doing another shorter hike that evening, but I decided to take it easy and watch some TV in my hotel room. I stumbled upon a French equivalent of The Amazing Race, which was just the kind of mindless entertainment I needed.

The next morning was my last day in Le Mont-Dore. I had to leave in the afternoon, so I decided to spend the morning on a moderately easy hike towards the Puy de la Tache, at the northern end of the Monts Dore range. I retraced my steps along the woodsy trail towards the two waterfalls, continuing on through some more cool pine forest and eventually reaching some breathtaking farmland. A shepherd dog even ran up to me to say hello.

Since my backpack had all my clothes in it, I had left it with the hotel staff. This meant that I was carrying my camera, my map, my lunch, and two water bottles in the small plastic bag I got at the grocery store. It wasn’t long before I realised that the bag wasn’t very sturdy — with every step it seemed to stretch a little more, gradually opening up a hole for my water bottles to fall through if angled the wrong way. I was starting to get a little concerned, since it would not be practical to carry all that stuff in my hands.

Although my original plan was to summit the Puy de la Tache, I wanted to play it safe so I wouldn’t miss my bus back to Clermont-Ferrand. So I settled for a very brief ascent just to give myself a decent view of the valley. Heading back, my little plastic bag was reaching a critical state — miraculously, it seemed to hold out right until I got to town, when it virtually disintegrated. Close call.

I enjoyed my time in Auvergne immensely. The landscape was a wonder to discover and the climate was absolutely perfect. The sunny, breezy weather held out for all three days I was there. On the ride back to Clermont-Ferrand, I got a glimpse of even more of the region’s fascinating and breathtaking scenery, including a number of the distinctly volcanic peaks (particularly the epic Puy de Dome). If I do get a chance to return to France as a teaching assistant in September, I’d be more than happy to wind up somewhere in Auvergne.

For more photos of my trip to Auvergne, click here.

Spring Break: Nice to Sorrento

24 Jul

Ok, I know this happened like a million years ago (well, about 13 weeks ago), but I need to finish recounting my trans-European adventures.

The big “detour” in my Spring Break was our side-trip to the French Riviera, where we met up with LB, our high school French teacher, and the Newfound kids who were doing the same trip that we had done 5 years prior.

The trains along the coast from Cinque Terre towards France were quite slow and had to make stops at pretty much every station. Fortunately, at some point along the Italian coast, we finally emerged out of the clouds and rain that had dominated the previous two days. We changed trains in Genova, where our brief attempt to see some of the city led us only to a statue of Christopher Columbus.

It was a relief when we got to Ventimiglia and boarded an SNCF train. Madeline was particularly excited to hear French instead of Italian, but we also realized how much nicer French trains are than, well, pretty much any other trains in the world. As the train crossed the border into upscale Menton, the cityscape seemed a sharp contrast to the graffiti-plagued Italian cities we had seen in the past week. Even Monaco’s underground train station was incredibly immaculate. But that’s not really a surprise, considering it’s Monaco.

It was nice to be in Nice again (no pun intended). Our hostel was in the less glamourous area near the train station, but that was fine. It wasn’t a long walk to the beach or the Place Masséna.

Although we had planned to meet up with LB the following day in Nice, we decided to surprise him. We had the address of the hotel in Cannes where the Newfounders were staying, so we hopped on a train to Cannes and began our stake-out. We didn’t know whether they were still inside the hotel, but we figured they had to drop by at some point before dinner. We set up an observation point on a bench in a plaza near the hotel entrance, and Madeline and I took turns making surveillance passes in front of the hotel lobby to see if we could see any Newfounders. We thought we saw Albert, the group’s tour guide (the same tour guide for our trip back in 2004), but we weren’t sure.

Finally, we spotted the entire tour group departing the hotel, presumably heading to dinner. At this point, we were already quite giddy with excitement, but suddenly our adrenaline jumped tenfold. It was a challenge to follow the group without being seen — we had to be careful to keep our distance and blend in with the locals. It was wicked fun. Although the group took a scenic route through Cannes that made our stalking an even longer adventure, they finally entered into a restaurant. Unfortunately, they filled up the entire interior of it.

Madeline and I decided to eat at the single table outside, and wait for an opportune moment to go in and surprise LB. But the waiters were quite busy and the space inside the restaurant was limited, so we decided not to get in their way. We ordered our own meals (which were absolutely delicious, although we had made the mistake of eating lunch rather late) and waited until after we’d finished to go in. Upon seeing us, LB’s reaction was, “Oh my ****ing Lord.” Mission accomplished.

We spent the evening looking (unsuccessfully) for a geocache in Cannes with LB, Mrs. Mills, and the entire Newfound crew. But it was fun nonetheless. We returned to Nice that evening and spent the next morning lounging on the beach.

After a few bad directions given by Albert, we eventually established a rendezvous point with LB and then went out to lunch in the old city along with a chaperone and a student on the trip. I tried the local specialty, daube niçoise, which was very wine-y. After lunch, we got gelato at Finocchio, renowned for its variety of flavours — I got cinnamon and white chocolate. We concluded our time with LB by (successfully) finding a cache in Nice.

That evening, Madeline headed to the train station to return to Paris. I had only completed one half of my spring break, and it already felt like an eternity. I felt so exhausted that I could have gone back to Paris right then and there, but I was committed to my plans to see more of Italy. First, I needed to do laundry.

I left before sunrise the next day to get the train to Ventimiglia. Once in Italy, I had to retrace my route along the painfully slow coastal railway. Even worse — the weather was cold and rainy, and for some reason our train car had no heat or electricity. Since the coastal railway is comprised largely of tunnels, this meant long stretches of pitch blackness. Oh, and there was nearly an hour delay at one station. Announcements were being made about the delay which I couldn’t make out, but even the Italians had no idea what was going on. I was afraid I needed to change trains, but in the end things seemed to work out.

The next stop in my journey was Siena, an attractive Tuscan city near Florence. Still dominated somewhat by tourists, but less crowded than the bigger cities. The Piazza del Campo was nothing short of impressive, and I managed to climb the Torre del Mangia shortly before it closed. The views of the city and the surrounding countryside were amazing in the late afternoon light. When I reached the top of the tower, I was greeted by two French children who said, “Bonjour,” to me, not expecting me to respond in French. They giggled when I told them I was American. I don’t think they believed me.

The kids, their family and I all got a shock when the bells on top of the tower decided to ring deafeningly loud.

It was funny being with a French family on vacation in Italy — they suddenly felt like my compatriots. It was strangely comforting. As much as the French get a bad rap, I felt more uncomfortable interacting with Italians — not because of my language skills, but because it seemed like the Italians were less likely to conceal their “attitude” and often communicated rather bluntly. I hate to make generalizations, because the bad apples are few and far between (just like in any other culture in the world), but overall my personal interactions weren’t quite as “warm” as I expected in Italy.

Anyway, my experience in Siena was sadly limited due to my timeframe. It seemed like it would’ve been a cool place to spend the night (that’s what Rick Steves says, anyway), but at this point in the trip I was pretty tired of super-touristy cities anyway. I enjoyed the train rides through the green Tuscan countryside, however, weaving in and out of forested thickets and fields covered by golden flowers, with the occasional castle or villa around the corner. On the departing train from Siena, I sat near a couple of Belgian girls who kept code-switching between Dutch and French…pretty cool.

After a very long travel day, I had completely retraced my steps back to Florence, where I arrived rather late in the evening. I stayed at a different hostel this time — it seemed good on paper, but the reality was quite different. It was the epitome of a party hostel, almost all the patrons were obnoxious American college students, and the noise level from their collective squawking was deafening. They all seemed to know each other already, which made things more awkward, and I had to politely decline their invitations to go party at some bar because I needed to get up around 5am the following morning. Of course, I was awoken early when they all came back from a night on the town at 4am.

The manager of the hostel had tricked me into paying extra for Internet access and breakfast by making it sound as if they were included in the basic price. Upon realizing this, I thought I would take advantage of these extra features, but the one computer with Internet access was powered down and password-protected (no one was around to give me the code) and breakfast didn’t start until 8 or 9am (well after I had to leave). However, there was a large bowl of cookies on the front desk, so I helped myself to a generous portion of them for breakfast.

My much-needed respite from the big city came in the form of San Gimignano, a small hilltop village adorned with some impressively huge Medieval stone towers — kind of like 12th Century skyscrapers. I left Florence at the crack of dawn and alighted in Poggibonsi, where I almost missed the bus to San Gimignano (in Italy you can’t seem to buy tickets on the bus, you have to go to a newsstand).

In a bizarre flashback to my time on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, my bus was full of loud Italian teenagers being brought to school. So much for a relaxing morning ride through the Tuscan countryside. That said, my first glimpse of San Gimignano was breathtaking, and it was even greater once I got there. It was early, so the Medieval streets were virtually empty and I felt like I had the whole village to myself.

Whilst waiting for the “Big Tower” (Torre Grossa) to open to visitors, I explored some Medieval wells on the edge of the village. Now they have fish swimming in them. When I headed up the tower, I was the only person at the top. It was a glorious moment of solitude, with the wind blowing across the endless green fields and the rolling hills in the distance.

San Gimignano was beautiful, and it made me regret that I had not explored more of the Italian countryside. But there will always be other trips to Italy, right?

I returned to Florence for one final time, bought a cheap Italian travel magazine to keep me occupied on my next train ride, and hopped on a high-speed train for Naples. Despite all the stress and fatigue of my journey, something happened to me during this train ride, and I just felt intensely happy for a brief, fleeting moment. I haven’t felt that way in years.

I think it was the recognition that all my dreams about places on a map were being realized in front of my eyes. I was in Italy, for crying out loud.

After passing by some incredible scenery — towering Apennines, ancient fortified hilltop cities, awesome rock formations — I arrived in the massive ghetto of a city known as Naples, in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.

That’s the view of Vesuvius from Sorrento — to get there, I had to take the Naples commuter rail system for what seemed like an eternity. I had to stand for most of the ride, and all the while I was very aware of where my backpack was. The constant reminders about pickpocketers didn’t help my paranoia.

I could tell that the people in Naples were of a different breed. These were the stereotypical Italians that we Americans think of, with the exaggerated hand gestures, Fonzie-esque speech patterns, and generally “gritty” appearance. One particularly outgoing Italian man decided to strike up a conversation with everyone in his general vicinity, even if they didn’t want to talk. He also began to sing.

When I finally got to Sorrento, it was raining pretty hard. I couldn’t find a map, either, so I had no idea where my hostel was. I trekked back and forth down the length of the city’s narrow pedestrian lanes with my heavy backpack on. Despite being totally lost, there was something soothing about being in the evening rain, with the warm lights from all the tourist shops shimmering on the wet cobblestones.

After finding my hostel, I realized I had no cash so I couldn’t check in. I then had to search for an ATM — specifically, one that accepted American Express. I literally spent hours that evening criss-crossing the city. Finding an ATM was hard enough; I came across three of them before finding one that took my card. Boy was I relieved.

My hard work was rewarded. My hostel in Sorrento was one of the least expensive hostels I’ve stayed in, but it was also by far the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It was called a “deluxe hostel” and looked a lot more like a hotel, with a huge lobby, well-dressed reception workers, magnetic room keys, huge bathrooms, and marble flooring everywhere. To make things even better, I had an entire 6-person room to myself.

I delighted in Sorrento’s incredible values, getting an extremely filling one-person pizza with plenty of toppings for only 4 Euros that night. I slept like a baby.


The Riviera


San Gimignano

12 of 12 for May 2009

13 May

My last 12 of 12 in Paris. Where has the time gone?

Le petit déjeuner. I like Nutella, but only in moderation — I’ve been a eating a little too much lately, and the appeal starts to wear off after a while. It’s also one of the only foods in the house that isn’t organic.

My first class was French 300 (Grammar and Composition). The theme of today’s class was French cuisine — we watched a mouth-watering cooking show by this guy, my professor Anne-Catherine’s best friend. We also gave reports on regional French specialties (I discussed my experiences with Alasacian tarte flambée and Daube niçoise). I snapped this shot of my professor during our 5-minute break, when a few of my hungry classmates went to the boulangerie.

My “Paris Avant-Gardes” course was next. We watched A Bout de Souffle. Well, not exactly — I had only had about 4 hours sleep the night before, so I accidentally slept through much of the film. I really wanted to see it, too, since the last time was in high school. I managed to get this shot at the end of it.

When I got home around 2pm, I re-heated the piece of the tomato quiche left over from the previous night’s dinner for lunch. Pico was interested.

Unfortunately, this moment prompted an event that pretty much ruined my day. You see, my host mother makes delicious quiche. There’s always some left over, so the first time she made it she offered me to re-heat it for lunch the next day. Every time we’ve had quiche since then (maybe 3 or 4 times), I’ve always asked if I could have some of the leftovers for lunch, and my host mother has always obliged.

When we had the tomato quiche (a new recipe) for dinner, I wasn’t particularly hungry so I didn’t eat that much. My host mother was surprised I didn’t eat more and thought I didn’t like it, despite my reassurances. When I saw the leftovers in the fridge (only one piece), I figured my host mother had already eaten lunch and would’ve wanted me to eat the leftovers.

Later in the day, my host mother, visibly upset, confronted me and told me that she had wanted to eat the quiche for lunch. When I said I was sorry, she replied, “I hope you’re sorry.” It was the first time we’ve ever had any tension of the sort, but it made me feel terrible. If she had wanted me to eat more quiche the night before, why was it a problem if I ate it the day after? It cast a shadow on the rest of my day, and has been weighing on my mind ever since.

The thing that bothers me the most, though, is how she’s never expressed any kind of anger towards me until this point, which in all reality was a rather trivial affair. It makes me suspect that she’s kept any frustrations that she has with me pent up inside, because I can never gauge her mood. But how can she expect me to read her mind? Or am I just worrying for nothing?

The quiche wasn’t even that good when I re-heated it.

When the cloudy, drizzly morning gave way to a sunny late afternoon, I decided to go for a walk along the Canal Saint-Martin between the 10th and the 11th. When I got out of the metro at République, I stumbled upon a massive congregation of Sri Lankan Tamils who were sort of camping out everywhere. I soon discovered that they were protesting the alleged genocide of the Tamil people by the Sri Lankan army.

In the bed photographed above (hidden behind the two men sitting), were two men who have been leading a hunger strike for 35 days. Apparently, the protestors were forced to leave this morning, but the hunger strikers came back in wheelchairs. It’s amazing how much stuff going on in the world we just don’t hear about in the West.

This was my first time walking along the canal. Paris has so many cool things.

I suppose the canal isn’t as well known as a lot of other Paris attractions because it’s located in a “popular” (working class) area of the city (which is essentially the entire eastern half). There’s such a hugely different vibe between this area and, say, the 8th or the 16th, but it always feels much more lively (I also find that the more touristy the area is, the ruder the people are). I liked the brightly colored shops in this view, which reminded me a lot of England.

I walked through the Square Villemin, a nice little park that was bustling with people enjoying the (recently rare) nice weather. These old French women caught my eye. Nobody in the world is as well-dressed as French women, especially Parisians.

I got on the metro around rush hour at a busy Gare de l’Est to go back home. Line 5 direction Place d’Italie, changing at Oberkampf for line 9 direction Mairie de Montreuil. Descente à Charonne.

After dinner, I met up with Madeline at Ecole Militaire to visit the Eiffel Tower. It was her second-to-last night in Paris, so we wanted to do something special. It was our first time up the tower since 2004.

I think we had to wait in line for about 45 minutes (long for a Tuesday night, eh?), but it was well worth it. There’s just something magical about taking the elevator through the iron patchwork of the tower and then seeing the city of lights from the top. We’re now experts at pointing out all of Paris’ landmarks — we could even see the Ferris wheel at the Foire du Trone.

We had to wait a long time for the elevator back down, so we didn’t get to the bottom until around midnight, just as the tower began to sparkle. We relived one of our early nights in the city by buying waffles from the stand across from the tower. Fearing that we might miss the last metro, we ate them while walking back to Ecole Militaire. Messy, but delicious.

Out and About in France: Normandy and Brittany

6 May

A month ago, USCers invaded Normandy.

At the outset, the weather was not in our favour. Thick fog and rain threatened to jeopardize the operation. It was a long journey to the landing beaches, and everyone was tired due to the early departure. We attempted to sleep, but were inhibited by our tour guide Mirek’s hour-long lecture on the history of Normandy.

As awesome as Mirek is, his tour guide “method” can be quite fatiguing. He tends to talk well beyond people’s attention spans.

Anyway, our first stop was the Caen Memorial, probably one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited and certainly the best on World War II. The exhibits do a great job of tracing the events that led to the war, the operations during the war itself, and the aftermath. The museum has a rather chilling atmosphere — the section on the Holocaust is particularly poignant and haunting. Unfortunately, we barely had an hour to visit the exhibits, which was not nearly enough.

We then watched two films about the Normandy invasion. The first was a side-by-side comparison of German and Allied footage, showing the preparations for the invasion and the battles themselves. It was incredibly captivating, especially with a dramatic, Williamsesque musical score. The film culminated with the two sides coming together in a flyover shot of Omaha Beach, cutting between the invasion and footage of the beach today.

The second film was a very informative account of the invasion, the strategic movements of each army and the battles. More sweet music too.

Afterwards, we headed to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery for ourselves.

The beach was beautiful and tranquil, and it was impossibly difficult to imagine the death and violence that had taken place there 65 years earlier. Similarly, it was difficult for the painful reality of the endless rows of crosses to really sink in. All in all, a very emotional place.

I made it my mission to find at least one soldier from New Hampshire, which I thought would take forever. As soon as I made this vow, however, the very first cross I saw was for someone from NH. Quelle coincidence.

After our visit, we drove through some lovely Norman countryside on our way into Brittany and Saint-Malo. I was happy to return to this area, as it was (and is) one of my favourite parts of France. A few of us ate dinner at a nice creperie, where I had a “galette complete” for my main course and a delicious crepe with apple cider-flavored ice cream for dessert. Breton food, mmm mmm.

That night, we walked out to the Grand Bé, a small island accessible at low tide that overlooks the city . Although the tide was coming in and the footpath to the island wasn’t far from water’s edge, we ignored the warning signs and enjoyed the view and the darkness on the island. We made sure not to spend too much time there, heading back to our hotel after stopping for a little bit in a nice rustic bar.

The next morning was rainy and grey, making for a somewhat less enjoyable tour of the city walls. I managed to score major brownie points when Mirek asked what the 7 Celtic nations are and I gave them all. I have no life.

I was thrilled about our next stop — Dinan — as it’s one of my favourite little towns in France. The wonderfully preserved architecture, especially on the “Rue du Petit Fort,” my favourite street in France, is so fairy tale-esque. I hyped it by referring to it as “The Beauty and the Beast Street,” and I don’t think my friends were disappointed.

For lunch, we hit up yet another creperie. Whilst eating, the sky finally cleared up and gave to way to some beautiful spring weather. We spent the rest of our time in Dinan visiting a little park / zoo with deer and some colorful but aggressive birds.

The group returned to Saint-Malo for the afternoon, which turned out to be wonderfully relaxing. We spent most of the day on the beach and on the rocks, taking in the sun (and dipping our feet in the frigid water). The Emerald Coast was gorgeous.

Our group dinner that night was amazing. I regretted not ordering the impressive seafood platter for my appetizer, but I did get my first taste of foie gras instead. Pretty good, but maybe a little overrated. That much fat definitely isn’t necessary. My main course, however, was a delicious melange of fish, scallops, and mashed potatoes (both regular and purple!) Made me miss New England food. We also had some good Breton Cola to go with it.

The highlight of dinner, however, was Sylvie’s “bonanza” (or was it “extravaganza”?) dessert. It was a surprise to all of us, but it didn’t disappoint. The dish was essentially a sampler with raspberry sorbet, chocolate mousse, fig ice cream, and creme brulee. Wonderfully delicious.

The following day we headed to Mont Saint-Michel. Sadly, my favourite thing about the place — the impressive view as you approach — was ruined by some heavy morning fog. It was Palm Sunday, so we had to tour the abbey before the hordes of tourists and pilgrims arrived. I would have rather spent more time exploring the village and surrounding areas than the abbey itself, which I find rather underwhelming.

I did end up having some time to eat lunch in a nice little park under the sun. By the time we left, the fog had cleared and we got a great view of the Mont:

All in all, a nice weekend trip and definitely more relaxing than our trip to Provence. I love the Norman and Breton countryside, but I’m hesitant about applying to those regions for my teaching assistantship in 2010-2011; the constant rain and greyness puts me off a bit.