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12 of 12 for December 2010

16 Dec

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Christmas market was really bustling with people.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Overseas Dilemma: How to Say Where I Come From

2 Dec

When traveling abroad, the first question you’re asked after you introduce yourself is almost always, “Where are you from?”

As an American, this question poses an interesting linguistic dilemma. Our country is blessed (or cursed?) with an exceptional number of different names, abbreviations, and nicknames. When you’re in your home country, you don’t think too much about this, because it’s not often that you actually have to specify the name of the nation that you’re in.

When a foreign acquaintance poses the aforementioned question at, say, a youth hostel, my brain usually experiences a delay of a few hundred milliseconds as I mentally scroll through the Rolodex of names for the United States of America, attempting to weigh the pros and cons of each one:

1. The United States. Given that “the United States of America” is definitely too wordy and would probably earn you some strange looks (although not as many as “the Republic of the United States of America”), “the United States” seems like a reasonable alternative. Except that like most Americans, I’m a fan of convenience and efficiency. “The United States” is still too clunky to fit in the drive-thru of my mouth, so sometimes it sounds awkward and unnecessarily verbose, as if my interlocutor had never even heard of this country before and needed a detailed explanation of how federalism works.

2. The US. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the liberally truncated form of “the United States.” It’s easier to say, but it risks not being understood, especially when your newly-met acquaintance is not a native English speaker. Acronyms are not universal (for example, NATO in France is OTAN and the UN is the ONU).  It could theoretically be misinterpreted as “University of Saskatchewan,” “unconditioned stimulus,” or “Ugandan Shilling,” all of which would make you sound crazy.

3. America. It has a dignified air to it, and it’s fairly current among Brits. However, it doesn’t translate so well with speakers of other languages. For the French, “Amérique” typically evokes not only the United States but also Canada, if not the entire North and South American continents (the French seem to be a few hundred years late on the memo that we’ve actually divided “the New World” into two parts). Even for Americans, the word has a bit of a bombastic quality, usually reserved for 19th century patriotic hymns or impassioned political rants about how Mexicans are ruining everything.

4. The States. Ooh, would you like a chai tea latte with that plate of pretentiousness? Even though “the States” is a convenient and common moniker in the rest of the English-speaking world, requiring the smallest number of syllables, no true red-blooded American can say it without feeling slightly treasonous. Dropping off the rest of the name around “States” almost feels sacrilegious, like the habits of a disillusioned ex-pat who’s trying to “act European.”

5. The USA. This one has certain advantages, namely that it seems to be recognized by speakers of many languages (unlike the “US” acronym). Probably because they’ve seen news clips of people chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Which is precisely why you’d rather not use it.

6. Say your state, not your country. If I want to avoid the name dilemma altogether, I can opt to tell people that I’m from New Hampshire instead. There’s one minor problem with this method: nobody knows where the hell New Hampshire is. It doesn’t fit into the average foreigner’s perception of the continguous United States:

A foreigner's view of America

Since “New Hampshire” is usually met with a blank stare or a face contorted in confusion, I have to qualify: “It’s near Boston.” If that fails, “near New York” will usually do the trick. Then they ask me if I’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty.

In practice, I most often use “the United States” with non-English speakers, despite its wordiness. With Brits, Aussies, etc., I usually assume they can already tell that I’m American because of my accent, so I typically say “New Hampshire,” followed by the clarifier “in the US,” “in the States,” or “in America,” depending on my mood.

It’s near Boston.

12 of 12 for May 2010

15 May

I rounded off my two week trip home with a side journey to Washington, DC to visit Madeline. She and her roommates were packing up their dorm in preparation for graduation, so I had to buy some breakfast for myself. I hadn’t eaten Froot Loops in years, but they didn’t disappoint.

Our main destination of the day was Annapolis, Maryland. I had visited back in December of ’08 and was eager to see it again (in warmer weather). This colonial seaside town has a lot of charm.

The grounds around the Maryland State House were overflowing with schoolkids on field trips. They were led by costumed guides like the fellow pictured here.

We decided to tour the interior of the State House (the oldest state capital building in the country!) This is the Senate chamber.

Annapolis has a lot of these colourful colonial clapboard rowhouses that are perhaps more reminiscent of New England than the Mid-Atlantic. You can see the top of the State House in the background.

We headed down to the harbour for lunch. Most of the restaurants were out of our price range, but we stumbled upon an authentic Italian restaurant with cheap paninis. The quality was fantastic. I got a “Napoli,” with chicken, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella, pesto sauce, and sauteed broccoli rabe. We ate them on the edge of the harbour near the Naval Academy.

Here’s Main Street in Annapolis. (Maryland, by the way, has by far the best state flag).

It was a warm and humid day, and it definitely felt like a beach day. Although we had originally thought about going to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, we realised that the Atlantic was just too far of a drive. We aimed our sights instead on Chesapeake Beach, MD, which turned out to be a major disappointment. The one small stretch of sandy beach had a ridiculous entrance fee (I took the picture from behind a fence). I’m not sure I’d want to swim in Chesapeake Bay, anyway.

With time to kill, we decided to head further across the countryside of southern Maryland towards Calvert Cliffs State Park. A 2-mile walk to the shore brought us past some lovely flowering trees.

The trail also brought us past some interesting wetlands, snakes and all.

Finally, Calvert Cliffs! The cliff trails were closed because of all the landslides, but we admired the view. Out on Chesapeake Bay, we spotted a number of shipping barges headed out to the ocean.

After a very full day, we returned to DC.