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Archive for April, 2011

Seven months ago, nearly to the day, I arrived in France. Slightly terrified, mostly excited, I managed to simultaneously have no expectations and extremely high ones of what this aventure française would be like.

In the irrational, dream-land part of my brain I had the rather childish notion that as soon as my feet touched french soil I would be transformed into this french goddess. A perfectly made french life (complete with language skills and a fantastic wardrobe) would simply be handed to me with my passport stamp, just because I thought I deserved it and wanted it.

Funnily enough, this didn’t happen.

Instead, the first few weeks/months were difficult. The language, the transport, the bureaucratic formalities, the work; all were a challenge. I think back to my first week in France in Yssingeaux and I was totally overwhelmed. At the end of each day my brain physically hurt and I’m afraid I probably scared people by staring intently at their mouths trying to lip read.

My french language skills have not improved as much as I expected. I am slightly disappointed by this-I like to blame my lack of complete fluency on the region and our proximity to Switzerland but maybe I didn’t make as much effort as I could have. Before I left New Zealand I was told that things happen for a reason. Maybe the reason for aventure française was not to master the language but, rather, to figure out what I want for a life, for a career. I may not be able to slip in and out of french and English as easily as I could have hoped, but I am returning to New Zealand with a clear sense of direction. I feel this is far more valuable to me at the moment.

The past seven months have presented other opportunities for learning new skills, other than language. I have learnt to ski in one of the most spectacular mountain areas in the world. I worry I have the potential to be an adrenalin junkie at the speeds I enjoy reaching on my skis. Bring on the bungies and canyon swings.

I have improved my cooking skills. I love being able to open my fridge and semi-invent a recipe in my head. Mother, you will be pleased to know that cooking in such cramped conditions has forced me to become a cook who tidies as she goes. Sometimes I am still far too ambitious for my own good though. The weekly grocery bill is testament to this.

I have learnt to be independent and “keep house.” Monday afternoon grocery shopping is one of my favourite parts of the week and let’s not mention the obsessive checking of the letterbox. I have learnt to build a home away from home: it is absolutely necessary to have a fruit bowl. A full bowl of bright coloured fruit will make everything seem alright. Though, a bottle of wine in the pantry doesn’t hurt either.

I have learnt that my Mother was right (not that I ever questioned her) when she said “there is a meal in the house if there is a can of tomatoes in the house.” I have consequently learnt that my father’s motto regarding the importance of ironing is somewhat misguided. Having not owned an iron for seven months, this is a domestic practice I have let go…

Maybe one of my most important discoveries is that I am a New Zealander at heart. I think part of me will always be at home in France but I do feel proud whenever I tell people I am from Nouvelle Zélande and it is followed by an “oh la la la, il est beau là bas.” The ground moves beneath us, we are so very far away and we tend to have four seasons in one day (a concept lost on the French). But we also have beautiful landscapes, a wine and food industry gaining international recognition and… pineapple lumps. (My students love these!)

Tomorrow when I leave Bonneville I feel like I will be stepping off into a sort of void. I don’t really know what to expect when I travel during May, nor when I return to New Zealand. All I can really say is that the past seven months have been some of the most challenging and the most rewarding. I have met some wonderful people, had incredible opportunities and made memories that I will cherish forever.

Au revoir Bonneville, a la prochaine…

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This market, along the banks of the River Saône, is the most beautiful market I have ever seen. A quintessentially French Sunday market; the sky a brilliant blue, the red and blue umbrellas of the stalls forming a canopy under the avenue of plane trees.

Elle and I wandered through; I was trying to take it all in. It was crowded, it was noisy. The smell of fresh strawberries, of fresh fish, of coffee, of cheese all blending together. It was wonderful.

The sellers shouting at each other, at us, like at a cattle market, “Mesdames, Messieurs, oranges-kiwis-bananes, venez, venez.” All in one breath and often with thick foreign accents.

I saw artichokes nearly the size of my head and leeks nearly as wide as my arm. The root ends of green and white asparagus were being broken off with a resounding “snap.” Strawberries sat in little wooden wicker tubs, as if you had picked them yourself. All the fruits and vegetables were so delicately arranged in aluminum pans: red, yellow and green peppers, their rounded surfaces almost glinting in the sun; mangoes, cut in half and arching their backs, showing off their hedge-hogged flesh.

We passed by the “resto” part of the market. Families were out for Sunday lunch, their tables weighed down by plates of iced oysters from the fish stall next door and chilled white wine from the wine stall opposite. Apart from large cauldrons of vin chaud at Christmas time, I have never seen wine being sold at a market before. But what a fantastic way to buy it-immediate access to the vineyard, or at the very least, the representative label.

The market was of significant size. The stalls continued along the river: rotisserie chickens, flowers, cheese, bread, condiments, butchers. A beautiful hippie in a long floaty skirt played accordion music.

Markets such as these is what I associate with France. It may be idealistic, I may have my head in the sand, but even after seven months of living in France that association and love of markets remains strong.

After the market, Elle and I wound our way up through a spring green park to the Basilica on top of the hill. The last time I visited the Basilica it was freezing cold and foggy…

Need I say more?

We had been to visit Sophie’s family in Yssingeaux the day before (and to drop off my two suitcases!) and they very kindly gave me three quarters of a brioche praliné. I nibbled on my brioche while I looked over Lyon, enjoying the heat of the sun. I could vaguely make out the path of the incredible market we had just walked.

Days like that make me wonder why would I ever leave?

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Two things

This week my enthusiasm for creating new and exciting things for my students to do has been kind of waning. Really I just want to play games, feed them pineapple lumps and get them crazy on sugar highs. But, for the sake of teacher’s sanity and the kids learning I have restrained from causing raucous havoc, and instead made a darn cool work sheet.

It is so cool and I am so proud of my artistic abilities I am going to share it with you. It made me very happy.

Guess who?

I think most of the finer details of the characters which I had painstakingly hand drawn were slightly lost on the children. I noticed afterward that Nancy seemed to be the only one truly happy and thought this was clearly due to her gravity-defying air-hostess hair style. Tim and Sharon are crying precious jewels which must be a gift in financially challenged times so I am not sure why they are so unhappy. Tim may be mourning the loss of his hair… Sam is unsure of his hair style which clearly his mother did for him and sorry, Georgina, but you are just one angry lady.

I think it is clear that I either have too much time on my hands or need to be committed that I am creating individual personalities within my teaching materials.

In other news, tomorrow I am taking my suitcases to Yssingeaux. Sophie and her family are very kindly looking after them for five weeks while I go exploring. I have no idea how I managed to accumulate so much stuff… I have gone from this:

luggage coming into France...

to this:

luggage leaving France...

plus a back pack and a satchel…

Help.

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Our big bob sleigh adventure

I had a taste of nomadic-on-a-shoe-string-backpack traveling last weekend.

And I liked it! All I needed was a floral hippie head scarf and I would have been set.

I will explain… Elle, Pippa and I set off from Annemasse early Saturday morning for our big bob sleigh adventure. So early in fact, that we nearly missed the train. It was 8.30a.m. Our bob sleigh was due to take place near a ski resort in Savoie called La Plagne at 18.45-and finish approximately 1 minute later.

It was a complicated journey. Our 35 hour weekend getaway felt more like a traverse of the entire European continent. From Annemasse we took a train to Annecy, then a train to Chambéry, where we missed our next train by 4 minutes and were stuck for nearly a hour and a half. Fortunately there was a wonderful Saturday morning market. We bought apples and strawberries, eating them straight from the punnet as we strolled past stalls of fresh flowers, cheese, saucisson, honey and bread.

Chambéry to Albertville. After staring directly at the Albertville spot on the map of France in my french room at Uni for a year and a half, Albertville feels strangely dear to my heart, like I have visited it many times before. I was glad to arrive here and to see that it appeared a very pleasant town. But the journey was not over yet.

We walked through Albertville in near scorching heat to find our sweet little bed and breakfast. After a brief chat with the lovely woman who ran the “gîte” we were off again, back to the train station. A la gare, we discovered that the train we had intended to take was reserved for passengers only from Brussels… A strange rule indeed but, this break in trains did allow us to have a long leisurely lunch. Creamy salmon and spinach lasagna pour moi and while I sat aching over the richness of the lasagna, delicious chocolate ice cream was being consumed next to me which I had to try…

Back on the train, a little siesta, ready for our next mode of transport. Slightly less luxurious than the TGV, we took a bus up through the winding mountain road towards La Plagne Centre. This is a custom built ski resort town and in the late afternoon spring sun, skiers wandering around with bare arms, it was lovely.

At 6.00pm we took a taxi a little way back down the mountain to the bob sleigh place. The excitement was truly beginning to take hold as we saw the track and realised what we were about to do. Thirty minutes later we had signed the release forms, donned our helmets and were strapped into a slick blue bob sleigh. Photos were taken, au revoir was said to the children standing on the side watching us and the rope was released. We built up speed at a cracking pace, soon reaching a maximum of 120km/h. For the first few seconds I could hold my head up high enough to see around the driver and anticipate our movements. I was giddy and in the in between stages of laughing and crying. But soon, I could make no noise whatsoever and my mouth was just filling with air. Nor, could I lift my head up: the intense forces took hold of my neck, pinning it to my chest. At the bottom we stepped out with slightly wobbly legs and goofy expressions on our faces, looking at each other but the words weren’t coming.

We took some more photos deciding photographic evidence would come in handy later as we were still unsure how to describe what we had just done. Once we had recovered, received our certificates and eaten about 5 chocolate biscuits to re-stock our blood sugar levels, we began our next challenge: getting back to Albertville.

We followed the track along the side of the bob sleigh to the bottom of the hill where there was a bus stop. The next bus wasn’t for another hour and a half so we contemplated calling the taxi company again or hitch hiking. Dad, you will be pleased to know we decided against the latter. The taxi’s were all booked so wait we did, munching on a very nutritious and sustaining meal of more chocolate biscuits and jus de fruits. 8.45pm, darkness was truly upon us and the bus was due to arrive any minute now. It came and it went. It didn’t stop. Momentarily stunned, all we could really do was giggle. What were we going to do now? Stuck in the mountains on the side of a road, freezing and now with no means down to the train station to catch the last train back to Albertville in an hour… Hitchhiking suddenly seemed a good option again but as we couldn’t see who was in the cars in the dark and the cars were becoming less and less frequent this wasn’t going to work.

Just below the road was a car park, the bottom of a ski slope and a bar. There appeared to be people in the bar, so leaving Elle and Pippa on the side of the road to practice their car-hailing abilities, I went to the bar to see what help I could find. As I walked through the car park, quickly trying to think in french of how to explain our current situation, comedic road trip movie scenes were playing through my head. I stepped into the bar and discovered that I had stumbled upon the bob sleigh workers end of season soirée. They all seemed to remember me, I am hoping because we were a group of girls doing a bob sleigh and not because, at times, I appear to have written on my forehead “I am not French!” The men had drunk sufficient amounts of alcohol that they were both overly helpful and extremely unhelpful, in the way only slightly drunk people can be. A fair amount of pigeon English was thrown about, lifts from drunk men were offered and then taken back when they thought their wives wouldn’t approve, and meanwhile, the bar woman just stood in confusion, wondering what was happening in her bar.

Elle and Pippa gave up trying to hail, and suddenly we were three lost English speakers in a bar, in the mountains, in France. A taxi was called and the bob sleighers found new interest in their drinks. We jumped in the taxi and quickly explained to the driver that we had a train to get. She didn’t need to be told twice; we were even early for the train. When the train arrived we were delighted to discover that it was an overnight train to Paris so, like children, we silently ran through the sleeping carriages, darting into spare rooms and taking photos.

We arrived back in Albertville near 11pm. It had been a long day but one I am not likely to forget. I will tell the tales of my nomadic back packing days to my children. And like the stories of my father’s travels where the snake’s head gets bigger or the mountain ridge gets narrower every time it is told, perhaps the bob sleigh will be faster and the men in the bar falling over drunk.

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I like to think I have become somewhat of a macaron connoisseur during my time in France. I most certainly judge the quality of an establishment based on their macarons. Does the person behind the counter use white cloth gloves or tongs or only their bare hands to serve them? Brown paper bag, cellophane bag with a ribbon or a box? Are they too crunchy, too soft, too much filling or of indistinguishable flavours?

(I work less than 12 hours a week: I have a lot of time on my hands to ponder such matters.)

I like the perfect symmetry of a macaron and the smooth, unblemished surfaces. But mostly, I like feeling like Marie Antoinette.

I also love that macarons hold the same cheering-up qualities as a square of good dark chocolate. I think that’s quite impressive for a biscuit, albeit, a biscuit steeped in history and cultural icons. After I spent €250 on a pair of beautiful Italian leather boots and left the shop in near hyperventilation, the only way to come to terms with my gross over spending was to buy 6 macarons from the nearest patissière and eat them one after the other while I waited for my train, looking like a girl on the verge of a mental break down. I felt much better after that.

I remember the first time I tasted a macaron. I was 17 and on holiday with my family in Paris and blindly unaware of celebrated French institutions like Fauchon, Ladurée and Pierre Hermé. We treated ourselves to a box of Ladurée macarons and ate them walking around Place de la Concorde. I remember the pistachio flavour the most clearly as it was like nothing I had ever tasted before: salty and sweet and the most unusual shade of green.

At about €4 for one macaron (compared with the average .80c elsewhere) I will have to content myself with only taking photos of Ladurée...

Macaron tree anyone?

At Angelina's in Paris

I include the above photos as an apology to the macaron forefathers for the confession I am about to make. Last weekend I bought 6 macarons from a McCafé. And I admit I was pleasantly surprised: clear cut flavours, bright colours and they even came in a box. It is true that the romantic luxury of Marie Antoinette had diminished, but maybe I should stop being such a macaron snob…

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