30 November 2009

Just Dance!

I love sharing a home with a 10 year old. Nicolas makes me laugh more than anyone I know, and while his behavior is every bit what one might expect from, well, a 10 year old boy, I have to admit, life is much more exciting with him around! 

I recently introduced him to the music of Lady Gaga, and the priceless results are on film for your viewing pleasure. The most adorable part is how clearly he sings the chorus part "Just Dance," but how the rest of the song becomes gibberish. Adorable! Enjoy! 

29 November 2009

Bringing Thanksgiving to France

Thanksgiving is never easy when spent away from home, so last night, seven homesick and turkey-starved Americans, three Frenchies, and an Aussie gathered to recreate the traditional American feast à la française! Michelle hosted the event at her apartment, and with a little innovation, couches and coffee tables were rearranged to comfortably seat 11! I brought Hélène as my guest, and when we stepped inside from the blustering cold and rain, our senses were greeted with a room full of cheerful friends and the aroma of Thanksgiving dinner and hot spiced wine. It felt like we were all at a family gathering in the States. Homemade decorations graced the walls, and the apartment was filled with laughter, music, and an abundance of food.

We all pitched in for the dinner, and the delightful fixings were all there:

  • A large turkey (not commonly eaten in France, and was finally located at a butcher)
  • Cranberry sauce (again nonexistent in France, and was made from scratch.)
  • STUFFING!!! (Michelle's boyfriend Brett was briefly on leave in the USA, and brought back several boxes for our Thanksgiving fête!)
  • Mashed potatoes and gravy
  • Sweet potato bake topped with pink marshmallows (marshmallows are also hard to find here! I notice that the French like to add pink dye to things like marshmallows and toilet paper!)
  • Corn, salad, and brussels sprouts
  • Pumpkin pie (you won't find canned pumpkin in France, so Kathy made it from scratch... as in she went to the market and bought an actual pumpkin!)
  • Apple pie (can't go wrong here!)
  • Homemade whipped cream
For me, the dinner was an enormous morale boost. Not only was I able to eat my favorite meal of the year, I was surrounded by my fellow assistants, Hélène, and our French friends. As homesick as I've been lately for my own family, it's reassuring to have formed a family here in Metz with people from all over the States, France, and Australia. We assistants have weathered what seems like years of experience together in only two short months, which has obviously created a strong bond. We all understand what it feels like to be thousands of miles from home, missing our loved ones, and we support one another. 

It was also so wonderful to share it with Hélène, Thierry, Cyril, and Elli, who had never celebrated Thanksgiving before. They eagerly participated in the overzealous rounds of eating, and would have made any American proud! One of the best moments was trying to explain what to do with the cranberry sauce and gravy. It was also fun assuring them that pumpkin could indeed be consumed as a dessert!

This Thanksgiving (albeit a few days late) was one of the more meaningful of my life, not only for helping me appreciate my loved ones at home, but also for granting me the opportunity to break bread with new friends from different cultures and parts of the world. Thanksgiving is not uniquely American. As I've said in earlier posts, the most important things in life can be reduced to loved ones gathered around a table, sharing good food, drink, and conversation.

26 November 2009


Today is Thanksgiving, a holiday not celebrated or even widely known in France.  While I won't be celebrating with loved ones back home, I still recognize and give thanks for all I've been given during my first two months abroad.

I'm thankful to be living and working in France, realizing a dream I've had since 7th grade French class with Madame Boehmer.  I never expected to be granted an opportunity like this, and I won't for a moment take it for granted.  

I'm thankful to see sights like this every day in the beautiful city of Metz.  The honey colored stone buildings, the picturesque rivers, the gardens, the cathedral... Almost daily I resist the urge to shout out loud "I can't believe I LIVE here!" 

I'm thankful for Hélène and the miraculous circumstances in which we met which led to me being welcomed into her beautiful home like part of the family.  I feel very much as though I've been adopted by her parents, Bernard and Christianne, and I adore Nicolas, her son.  I can't wait to introduce them to Jim and my family, because I sense that I have made a lifelong friendship with these delightful people.

I'm thankful for the American, Australian, and Jamaican fellow English assistants in Metz who have become a support system of amazing friends, reminding me that I'm not alone in this experience.  As important as it is to have friends to laugh with, it's equally necessary to have people to commiserate with.  (see below)

I'm thankful for the difficulties and TEARS I've endured in France.  Establishing myself here, finding a place to live, learning the city layout, mastering the mass transit system, starting a new job, opening a bank account, starting a cell phone contract, battling the most miserable flu of my life and expressing my needs to pharmacists, tolerating the nasty teacher at one of my schools, the impossible days where my lessons failed and the students acted up, the endless array of paperwork, the loss of self confidence, the daily awkward situations... all of this has culminated into the most difficult endeavor of my life, and completely in FRENCH, no less! I literally had to carve out my existence here, and for that I'm very proud.  I've become stronger, smarter, and independent. 

I'm even thankful for the snotty-nosed little French kids I teach.  Despite the fact that they consistently drive me to the brink of insanity, they genuinely care about me and make me laugh like no one else.  It is a privilege to introduce them to the English language, and to know that I am their first exposure to a skill that will bring them success in their future endeavors.  I hope to be remembered as fondly as I recall Madame Boehmer.

Most of all...

I'm thankful to be COMING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS to visit my boyfriend, parents, sister, extended family, and friends, all of whom I've been missing terribly.  Even from thousands of miles away, they are my greatest support system.  As much as I love La Bise, it just doesn't compare to a huge, warm, American HUG.

Happy Thanksgiving!

23 November 2009

Cookies for breakfast and cheese all day: A family weekend in Abreschviller

This past weekend was hands down my favorite that I've spent in France.  Hélène, Nicolas and I spent the weekend at her parents' beautiful home in Abreschviller, a tiny village near the Alsace region.  Abreschviller is about an hour and a half by car from Metz, and has a population of less than 1500.  

When we arrived at Bernard and Christianne's home, I was elated to find it exactly the way I had always pictured a French home in the country: Copper pots and floral serving platters hanging on the walls, hand painted alsatian pottery, an old grandfather clock, an ancient tiled wood burning stove, a massive handcrafted dining room table, a climate controlled wine cellar, homemade jars of jam, an old piano, and a beautiful hand carved armoire that has been in the family for generations.  Hélène's parents (whom I've already had the pleasure of meeting a few weeks ago), are incredibly warm and welcoming people, and I feel incredibly at home with them, Hélène, and Nicolas.  Over the weekend, I also met Hélène's brother, Gilles, his girlfriend Caroline, and Hélène's grandmother Marie-Joseph.  

The weekend was a succession of traditional French meals prepared by Bernard and Christianne. Bernard made sure my cup was never empty, eager to share with me his knowledge of wine from the Alsace and Lorraine regions.  Who was I to refuse his expertise?

Saturday, the family ate at an Alsatian restaurant, where lunch consisted of three types of cheese, fried potatoes, and salad.  Dessert was café gourmande, which is a cup of espresso served with a platter of several tiny desserts. Bernard would not hear of my paying for my share. "You were invited, ma cherie!" 

After lunch, Hélène, Nicolas and I decided to walk off the calories and explore Abreschviller and the nearby city of Sarrebourg, which is 10 times smaller than Metz in pop
ulation. Sarrebourg was a meaningful visit for me since it contains a chapel with a huge stained glass window by Marc Chagall.  Although the cathedral of Metz boasts several Chagall windows, they did not compare to the size and detail of this one.  The whimsical blend of animals, flowers, lovers, and the crucifixion of Christ was presented in enormous detail, in every color imaginable.  I could have stood in the chapel for hours.  

Dinner was prepared at home by Bernard and Christianne: Raclette! This was my first encounter with the deliciously calorific dish.  Boiled potatoes, ham, bacon, and onions are brought to the table, along with thick slices of Raclette cheese.  Each person prepares their meal to their own specifications on a raclette grill in the center of the table.  The result? Cheesy, potatoey, melted goodness!  After dinner, Bernard brought out a series of cheeses (brie, goat cheese and Münster.) When I joked about the crazy amount of cheese we had consumed that day, Bernard patted his gut and declared in French "If you consume good quality food, I assure you, you will will not gain any weight!" With that, he plopped another sizable slab of cheese on my plate and opened a second bottle of red wine.

After dinner, Bernard, whose father was butcher, gave me a lesson in meat cutting with a huge slab of lamb, which would be served for lunch the next day.  To demonstrate the sharpness of the knife, he glided it across his arm, leaving a patch of skin completely hairless!  Everyone laughed hysterically at my shocked reaction.

Late that night, Hélène, Nicolas and I visited with Hélène's brother Gilles and his girlfriend Caroline, where we shared conversation and homemade tiramisu while playing with the rambunctious pet ferret, Dora.

Sunday, I awoke to the sweet scent of baking, and wandered downstairs to investigate. Christianne had risen at the crack of dawn to prepare tarte aux myrtilles (a wild blueberry pie), which would be served after lunch.  "What would you like for breakfast?" Christianne asked.  I told her it didn't matter, and that I would have whatever she normally ate.  I was picturing perhaps biscuits with yogurt, or maybe some bread and jam, so imagine my surprise when she presented me with a platter of chocolate chip cookies!  I almost laughed out loud, but I realized she was completely serious.  "Merci beaucoup!" I said, grabbing a handful of cookies.  "These will go great with my tea!"  I can honestly say I've never had cookies for breakfast, and the idea of it was just so hilarious I broke into a huge smile whenever I thought about it throughout the day.  

Christianne and Bernard sing in the choir at the tiny little village church, which reminded me so much of my parents that I asked to go to Mass with them.  It was a charming little church, and I was easily the youngest person there by 40 years.  I sat with Christianne's mother, Marie-Joseph, who seemed very impressed that I had brought my French Missal with the responses highlighted. After Mass, I noticed that Bernard and Christianne greeted everyone by name as we walked through town.  Abrechviller is truly a village where 'everyone knows everyone.'

Lunch was exquisite to say the least: Lamb (cut the night before), served with mashed potatoes blended with carrots, baked beans, and salad. The meat was impossibly tender and flavorful. This was followed by a healthy serving of (what else?) CHEESE!  All this was accompanied by various red wines.  Afterwards, Christianne's glorious pie was received by a an appreciative series of "oohs" and "ahhs."  Strong coffee and vanilla ice cream were a beautiful embellishment to the pie.  When offered, I accepted a second slice of pie, joking that I would have to take up running again if I intended to eat at this pace for the rest of my time in France. Again, Bernard assured me that the ingredients were too high quality to allow a weight gain, and we all laughed. 

After lunch, Hélène, Nicolas and I went sight-seeing to the neighboring town of Saint Quirin, which has been proclaimed one of the most beautiful villages in France.  The three of us wandered through the beautiful church of Saint Quirin, explored a tiny hilltop gothic chapel from the 10th century, played with some friendly goats, and enjoyed the picturesque streets lined with homes that resemble doll houses.

I was sorry to leave, since I loved the nonexistence of time in the countryside.  There, the persisting demands of my university French class, my lesson-planning for my students, and my upcoming observation and medical exams for the French government seemed to have no power over me.  Life slows down in the country, and it was a welcome change of pace for me.

To be welcomed into a family has meant so much to me, since I've been missing my own so deeply.  Even though I live in France, a land of immeasurable beauty, architecture, shopping, and excitement, the most important things are universal.  Nothing can top being around a table with family, friends, sharing good conversation and good food and wine.  The French truly understand this importance, as meals here last hours! Slowly but surely, I'm learning to stop eating like an American, who tends to eat rather hurriedly, as if there is a need to get the meal out of the way.  I notice that when I finish my plate before others in France, I tend to attract amused expressions and am asked if I had missed a meal. Food is consumed slowly, to be savored, and conversation is the centerpiece.  This tradition is so lovely, I plan on bringing it back with me when I return home.

This morning, I approached the scale with trepidation, remembering the cheese, the wine, the cookies for breakfast, the pie, the tiramisu, the bread... did I mention the CHEESE?  I nearly fell over when I saw my weight.  It was exactly the same as the day I left for Abreschviller.

I should have known better than to doubt Bernard!

Lunch with the family at Auberge Bel-Air

The house in the countryside

Making Raclette on the special grill

Blue tongues from eating wild blueberries (myrtilles)

Nicolas, Moi, Marie-Joseph, Cristianne, & Bernard

The meat cutting lesson

Taking a stab at it myself!

How idealistically French is their house? I adore it!

Bernard's wine cellar

Home cooked French meal

Christianne's Tarte aux Myrtilles


Nicolas having a great time with his uncle Gilles and his 
girlfriend Caroline

Hilltop chapel and cemetery in Abreschviller

Church of Abreschviller

Church in Sarrebourg

Interior of church in Sarrebourg

Chagall's stained glass window in a chapel in Sarrebourg

Saint Quirin, proclaimed "one of the most beautiful villages in France"

Hélène and Nicolas praising the heavens at a 10th century outdoor Christian alter

Crucifixes like this are all over France

Saint Quirin

A friendly goat in Saint Quirin

Hélène and I in Saint Quirin

Hélène and Nicolas climbing the hill to the chapel of the Red Rose, 10th century

Homes look like doll houses in Saint Quirin!

Another view of the church of Saint Quirin

Glorious view

16 November 2009

Lovely Ladies in Luxembourg

One of the great joys of living in northeast France is its proximity to several countries, which are easily reached by train in less than an hour.  Saturday, Michelle and I took a day trip to Luxembourg, which is less than 4o minutes from Metz on the high speed train.  Despite getting hit on by a toothless train controller, we arrived in good spirits, armed with our cameras, a guidebook (which would go unused), and a tiny umbrella.  

Often overshadowed by neighboring France, Germany, and Belgium, Luxembourg is a tiny (999 square miles) but gorgeous country.  One of the founding members of the European Union, it's also one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  I've met a number of people in Metz who actually work in Luxembourg for the higher wages. Luxembourg is trilingual, speaking French, German, and Luxembourgeois (a German dialect with French influence.)  Michelle and I got by quite well using French, and we noticed that it was the written language of choice for signs, menus, and advertisements.  

We had no set schedule, and instead wandered the city with a map, stopping at places that caught our fancy.  Highlights included a breakfast of pastries and café au lait, exploring the Cathedral of Notre Dame, enjoying the breathtaking views of the Petrusse Valley from the Adolphe Bridge (New Bridge), stumbling upon a rehearsal for Handel's Messiah in the lovely church of Saint-Michel, laughing as we noticed that a certain group of street performers played nothing but Hava Nagila all day long, wandering through open air markets where our senses were inundated with the fragrance of fresh flowers, various cheeses, raisin bread, and sausages.  We were spellbound by the dramatic valleys and high bridges that connect the various levels of the city. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, and I fell in love with the charm.  We even found the time to do some shopping in the chic boutiques that line the city center (thanks to the rain in the middle of the day.) Luxembourg is more than a cute fusion of France and Germany.  I can't quite describe it, other than it's... itself!

After a full day of exploring, we hopped back on a train to Metz, making it back with ample time to attend a birthday party for one of the other language assistants, which was a lovely way to end an already lovely day!  
View of Adolphe Bridge (New Bridge)

Michelle and I enjoying the view of Adolphe Bridge (New Bridge)

Constitution Square and the Petrusse Valley

Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Interior of Notre Dame.

Clairefontaine Square near Notre Dame.

Place de Metz (Luxembourg City and Metz are 'sister cities,' so the naming of this square makes perfect sense!)

This interesting street division is a perfect example of the 
multiple levels of the city.

Michelle browsing through the delicious cheese selection at an 
open air market in Place Guillaume.

Open air market held on Saturdays in Place Guillaume.

Beautiful street.

View from Bock promontory 
(photo credit: Michelle Blair) I couldn't resist using this gorgeous photo she took!

Michelle posing on the Foundation walls

Ruins of Wenzel Wall

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