15 December 2009

Metz Illuminated

Walking through Metz at Christmas time is one of my favorite pleasures of life in France. Seeing my beautiful city illuminated like a fairyland just fills me with joy, and temporarily makes me forget the bitter cold.  The Christmas markets only add to the splendor of Metz after dark, but the lights alone are worth seeing.  No photo could possibly do justice to the sights here, not even my fancy new Canon.  It's times like this I wish I could share this with my loved ones at home.
Christmas tree in front of the train station

Street leading to the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne

The cathedral itself seems to take on a different glow this time of year. 
I may be the only person who notices that.

Centre Saint-Jacques, completely covered with tiny lights

Carousel at Place Saint-Louis

Rue Serpenoise and throngs of Christmas shoppers

14 December 2009

A Christmas Adventure in Strasbourg

Elli, Liz and I fell in love with the Strasbourg today!  The capital of the Alsace region of France, Strasbourg is situated on the Ill River, which becomes the Rhine as it flows into Germany. The German influence is undeniable, especially in the medieval Rhineland timber-framed architecture.  At one point, the three of us burst into the opening song from Beauty and the Beast, because the atmosphere is just as picturesque and charming as a fairy tale. 

We arrived before dawn, and watched as the city came to life.  We wandered the city center, delighting in the quaint and beautiful architecture, munching on delicious food and drinking chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) and jus d'orange chaud avec miel (hot orange juice with honey) Strasbourg boasts the largest Christmas markets in France (Metz comes in second!) and they did not disappoint.  I enjoyed these markets immensely more than those of Metz or Saarbrücken, because they seemed much more authentic, and much less commercial. Alsatian pottery, cuckoo clocks, hand dipped candles, and hand spun cloth were just a few of the delightful gifts being peddled.  Naturally, the vin chaud (hot mulled wine) permeated the air, as well as sausages, cheeses, and pain d'épices (gingerbread.)

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which at one point in time was the tallest building in the world, and is today the sixth largest church in the world.  Talk about gothic splendor.  I was in art history heaven. I was thrilled to see the world-famous astronomical clock which predicts the positions of the sun and moon, leap years, the date for Easter on the Christian calendar, and many other astronomical events. To think that this could be accomplished before the time of computers is simply awe inspiring. This mathematical marvel moves each day at 12:30pm, retracing the steps of Christ and the Apostles.  Legend has it that the clock's creator had his eyes gouged out to prevent him from duplicating the masterpiece for anyone else.  If my math genius of a boyfriend visits Strasbourg, I can guarantee his favorite attraction!

Despite temperatures dipping below freezing, we managed to stay warm as we ducked into several shops and restaurants in between sightseeing and wandering around the markets. Elli and I donned a Santa hat and reindeer antlers, the latter of which attracted an enormous amount of attraction from passers-by, children, shop keepers, and even controllers on the the train home!  The Christmas spirit was definitely in the air, visible on the faces of every child and wanderer throughout the Christmas markets.  There is something about this season, no matter if you're in France or the US, that just makes people open up and become more approachable.  People smile more, defenses are lowered, doors are held open, and hearts are opened.  I couldn't help but notice this as an elderly stranger raised his glass of vin chaud and winked at me across the crowded market.  Maybe it was prompted by my antlers, maybe it was the wine, but I like to think it was the Christmas spirit coming alive. 
Liz and I in the Petite France district

Typical Rhineland black and white timber framed buildings in the Petite France district

Petite France 

Place du Marché aux Cochons de Lait, with the cathedral in the distance

Breakfast! Bonhommes au chocolat and café au lait!

Elli in the Petite France district

Notre Dame cathedral of Strasbourg 

Hustle and bustle in the city center

Elli is from Australia... even the sight of fake snow got her excited!

"Little town, it's a quiet village. Every day like the one before. Little town, full of little people, waking up to say... BONJOUR! BONJOUR! BONJOUR BONJOUR BONJOUR!" Where's Belle?

Hmm, where are we? 

Spectacular Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame interior

Awestruck in the cathedral

Notre Dame interior

Notre Dame interior

Famous astronomical clock inside Notre Dame catheral. It displays the positions of the sun and moon, as well as solar and lunar eclipses. I love the idea of this high tech gadget in a church.  Science and religion can coexist in harmony.

Another view of the astronomical clock

View from the top of Notre Dame cathedral. Notice the ice skating rink!

View from the top of Notre Dame

We made it! View from the top of Notre Dame

View from the top of Notre Dame

View from the top of Notre Dame

Christmas markets (Marchés de Noël)

Christmas markets (Marchés de Noël)

Charlie Brown trees!

Christmas markets (Marchés de Noël)

Elli and I at the Christmas markets (Marchés de Noël)

Place Kléber

Sleeping on the train back to Metz

Yes, I wore antlers all day!

11 December 2009

A de-stressing celebration

This week was a candidate for one of my most stressful in France.  

Since September, I've been taking a 20th century French literature course toward my French degree.  Since I did this class by correspondence, I was obligated to read not only the six French novels required for the course, but also scores of analyses and articles about the works I studied and the 20th century literary movements, and be in frequent contact with my instructor to inform her of my progress.  Nearly all of my free time was consumed by reading, scouring libraries for literary analyses, writing essays, and doing exams.  I even gave a live 12 minute presentation on Skype with my French prof. I can't begin to count the amount of times I asked myself why on earth I thought I could handle this class while working in France, but I'm happy to report that my efforts were not in vain.  I earned a 97% in the class!  Yes it was miserable at times, but I was introduced to some very interesting literature, and my reading and writing skills have certainly improved.  What better place to study French literature than France itself?

The reading list:
  • Un Amour de Swann, by Marcel Proust
  • L'Etranger, by Albert Camus
  • Huis Clos, by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • En Attendant Godot, by Samuel Becket (Yes, Waiting for Godot was first written in French!
  • Moderato Cantabile, by Marguerite Duras*   My personal favorite!
  • La Place, by Annie Ernaux
Adding to the stress of the last week of class, I also had my classroom observation this week. My responsable from the French government observed me in own of my CM1 classes, which also happened to be a Christmas lesson.  I've been agonizing over this for weeks, but happily, she was pleased with my performance, and discussed my strengths in the classroom with me afterwards.  She also offered plenty of good advice for the future, which I will definitely take to heart.

To celebrate the end of my stressful week, Hélène and I retreated to Amnéville to an exclusive spa called 
Villa Pompei.  Villa Pompei is built over natural hot salt springs, and resembles Ancient Rome, complete with columns, frescoes, and countless hot and cold baths.  It was glorious to swim in a hot bath in the outdoor portion, since it was below zero outside!  Steam billowed into the freezing air, and it was such a strange sensation to experience! The various baths have built in air jets to massage various parts of the body, like the knees, neck, back, shoulders, or even full body.  I also had my first experience with hammam (also known as a Turkish bath), which is a heated steam room scented with eucalyptus that causes the bather to sweat profusely, cleansing the body and rejuvenating the skin.  There were also saunas and hot marble to recline on.  In my entire life, I've never seen something so incredible, this environment brought me straight to ancient Rome, I fancied myself in a toga.  (maybe next time) It was the ideal ending to the week from hell, and I'm pretty sure I was in lullaby land before my head even hit the pillow. 

05 December 2009

The Christmas Markets of Saarbrücken, Germany

Why do I love living in the Lorraine region? Take today, for example. I was working on my final essay for the grueling French Literature class I'm taking, and Hélène walked in and said, "You look like you need a break... So, wanna go to Germany?" An hour later, we were there.

We arrived in the town of Saarbrücken, which is a very ordinary German town near the French border.  It's not exactly a tourist paradise, but Hélène and Nicolas wanted me to experience the Christmas markets (Christkindlmarkt in German), which are often less expensive than the French variety.  We had an absolute blast strolling through the wooden chalets of Christmas decorations while sipping hot glüwein and nibbling on pretzels, sausages, and chocolate covered bananas!  The city was beautifully lit for Christmas, and the cold was a distant memory as we huddled for warmth around our hot drinks, laughing and singing along to familiar holiday melodies. 

I have a true family here. It's hard to believe that we've only known one another for a few months, because it seems like we've been laughing like this together for years.  

03 December 2009

Officially legal to work in France!

I forgot to mention that as of Thanksgiving day, I'm officially legal to work in France!   Nearly two months after sending my paperwork to the OFII (Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration), I was finally summoned for my medical appointment and validation of my visa.

The American assistants from Nancy and Metz were herded from one waiting room to another for our respective chest x-rays, eye exams, and medical exams, before having a new visa affixed to our passports, which will serve as our residence permit throughout our sejour in France.  

Admittedly, my puritan American roots made me quite uncomfortable for the chest x-ray, when I was ushered into a closet and told to completely disrobe from the waist up.  No paper gowns here in France! Moments later,  a door on the other side of the closet sprang open, which opened into a larger room where I was asked to flatten myself against a machine for the chest x-ray... It was bizarre to stroll around topless, but I sucked it up and strolled in with a cheerful, collected "Bonjour!" and proceeded to make small talk with the X-ray technician. Mercifully, the technician was a she, and the whole process lasted less than five minutes.

I struggled in the eye exam.  My right eye is perfect, but my left eye is significantly weaker. After a certain level on the obligatory eye chart, I was having trouble seeing the letters with my left eye.  "O?" I guessed.  "Non." replied the unpleasant woman administering the test.  Her pointer remained on the letter.  "D?" I ventured.  "Non." she replied curtly.  "C?" I tried.  "Non."  I explained to her that I simply couldn't see the letters.  At this she appeared exasperated, and went on to a higher level or letters, which I also could not see. I again tried to explain that I couldn't see and for all I knew the letters could be hieroglyphics. She didn't laugh, but scribbled a note on her clipboard.  I was hoping it didn't say "Send the unfunny, blind American back home." Finally, during the medical exam, the doctor told me it would be wise to see an eye specialist, but otherwise, I was in perfect health.  

I will wait until after the holiday chaos for the eye exam, but I have noticed some rather irresistible Chanel eyewear in Metz, and dare to wonder if my French health care would provide it.  I have heard of French national health care covering spa visits, acupuncture, and skin treatments, so why not?  If one has to suffer the inconvenience of glasses, shouldn't it be done in style? I am in France after all, legally!

01 December 2009

Marchés de Noël - Christmas Markets

The Marchés de Noël have commenced in Metz, transforming the city into the veritable Land of Christmas.  The Christmas markets, which originated in Germany in the 15th century, are now also popular throughout Austria and Alsace-Lorraine region of France. Typical Christmas markets sell a variety of goods, which, depending on the area, range from artisan-made crafts like toys, pottery and jewelry to overpriced commercial holiday knick-knacks.  While open all day, the markets are best enjoyed after dark, when the city is lit in all its Christmas splendor.

Metz boasts one of the largest Christmas markets in France (second only to Strasbourg), and has clusters of chalets situated in various city squares.  The scent of German and Alsatian sausages, cheeses, cooked chestnuts, and hot mulled wine fills the frigid air, offering warmth and cheer to the crowds of families who brave the elements to celebrate a timeless tradition. The hot spiced wine (glüwein in German, vin chaud in French) is prepared with cinnamon, vanilla, oranges, sugar and brandy is served in delightful little mugs which can be purchased after the drink is enjoyed. I also spotted visitors enjoying a variety of chocolates, frog legs (cuisses de grenouille), snails (escargot), oysters (huîtres) and churros, a deep fried Spanish doughnut.  

My dad, who has been to Germany on a number of occasions, has always regaled me with the charm of the Christmas markets, so I have been looking forward to Advent for quite awhile. Adorable as they are, I suspect that the markets in Metz are a bit more commercial than those in the quaint villages, so I may need to venture outside of Metz for something a bit more authentic.  

Commercialism aside, I find this tradition quite captivating, despite the fact that the Christmas music and visions of blissful frolicking children leave me yearning to be home for Christmas. Bizarre that I'm consistently teary-eyed when I wander through the markets, knowing fully well that in a few weeks, "I'll be home for Christmas..."

Marché de Noël at Place Saint Louis

Cheese from various regions in France

Sausages and meats from Germany and France

Hélène and Nicolas enjoying churros and chocolat chaud 
(hot chocolate)

Marché de Noël at Place Saint Jacques

Train shaped Marché de Noël near the train station... how appropriate!
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