10 February 2017

L'être qui ne vient pas souvent à Paris ne sera jamais complètement élégant. Honoré de Balzac

"Whoever does not come to Paris regularly will never really be elegant."  Honoré de Balzac

It had been a long time since I'd spent quality time in Paris (I don't count last summer's forty-five minute train connections, struggling from the Gare Montparnasse to the Gare du Nord, hands full of suitcases, to be "quality Paris time"), so in November and December, I found excuses to take the train in for a couple of weekends.

One weekend in November, Jeff and I attended my third consecutive colloquium for English teachers in France.  It's a rather popular colloquium, with presenters and attendees coming from several countries in Europe.  Meeting other teachers from all over and learning about a variety of topics in English teaching is like a breath of fresh air, as there aren't many other professional development opportunities in France.

On Saturday afternoon, though, I did quietly slip away for a few hours to the 7ème arrondissement to join a few thousand fellow angry expats and other concerned citizens of the world to march in protest of the then American president-elect giant orange Twitter egg.  We met at the end of the Champ de Mars, marched up a side street along the Champ, passed in front of the Tour Eiffel, and ended near Trocadéro.

While we maybe didn't accomplish anything concrete, it was a cathartic experience to finally be surrounded by other expats who felt the same way I did instead of having to continually come up with answers to the "why?" and "how?" questions from my non-American friends.  I know protests in the U.S. have gotten and are still getting a lot of flack, but in France they are a normal, expected way of expressing your political opinion.  I (and many French people too) do think that protests and strikes disrupt everyday life far too often in France.  But I've also noticed that Americans often spend more time huffing and puffing over the personal inconveniences that they've endured as a result of protests, or at the handful of inappropriate signs they observed, or at the one or two people who turned the protest destructive, than they do listening to and trying to understand the purpose behind the protest itself and the societal problems that are screaming to be brought to light.  That is what frustrates me to no end.  It is easier to label and dismiss others than it is to stop and give a sympathetic listen.

On a more positive note, here are some fantastic musicians doing what they do best at the Châtelet Métro stop.

Just before heading back to Lille, Jeff, his friend Shiana (our host), and I topped off the weekend with a meal at a delicious and reasonably-priced Indian restaurant near the Gare du Nord.

I headed to Paris again in December, this time with Dana.  Ten years ago, we both studied the music and lyrics of the French musical Notre-Dame de Paris, the story of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame, in our respective high school French classes.  Late last summer, when we discovered that the show was going to be revived twenty years after the original debuted, we were quick to snag tickets.  We arrived at the Palais de Congrès for the Saturday afternoon show.  While all but one of the original actors were different, a lot of the choreography and staging were the same or similar, and there were several actors whose interpretations I preferred over their predecessors'.  We had great seats in one of the upper sections that mysteriously had almost no one else in it, so we were told we could sit anywhere we wanted within the section.  While we kept our seats, we did take the opportunity to sing along au maximum since there was no one around to bother, especially during the encore which recaps the opening song.

Bisous de Paris!

Yes We Cannes, Take II

Just as I came out of my start-of-the-year mono stupor, les vacances were imminent, as they often are in France.  The university had one week off at the end of October, and having a bit more energy, I quickly made some last-minute travel plans.  Destination:  Côte d'Azur, my old study abroad haunt.  It took about seven hours to span the country from Lille to Nice, but (perks of living in the big city), it is a direct high-speed train.

I didn't plan too much as I still got tired easily, but I also already knew the region well; I looked forward to visiting my favorite villages and towns, soaking in some sun and nice weather, and taking in the beautiful views of the south of France.  And oh, was it gorgeous.  Between the hills looming in the background behind every town, the endless deep blue sea, and the signature colorful Italian-influenced buildings, every picture I took was effortlessly stunning but still didn't quite capture the full beauty of the area.

Place Masséna in Nice
Though Cannes was my homebase back in the day, I stayed in a hostel in Nice and did quite a bit of village-hopping along the train line that borders the Mediterranean over the five days I spent there.  Nice is a lively city to stay in (also, there are no hostels in Cannes), and I enjoyed seeing the center of town light up in the evening as I'd never spent a night there before.  I could definitely feel the tourist vibe, but really enjoyed visiting in October when the area wasn't swarming with visitors.  There was even some jazz flute to be heard.

la salade niçoise
My first stop when my train got in Tuesday evening was a pizzeria; the pizzas in that region are some of the best I've had, maybe because it's so close to Italy and maybe because French cheeses can't be beaten.

I did check off one huge culinary bucket list item:  finally ordering une salade niçoise in its hometown of Nice.  Its signature ingredient is tuna, but also can include radishes, hardboiled eggs, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, anchovies, and a light dressing.  I had tried to do this several times during my study abroad days but kept missing the typical French mealtimes, and it never panned out.

One morning, I made the hour-long trek on foot from Nice to one of its neighboring towns, Villefranche-sur-Mer.  I stopped to climb the Colline du Château, the hill that sits to the east of the center of town, for a brilliant view on a perfectly sunny day.

View of Nice from the colline
Port de Nice, just east of the colline
I continued my walk east and even broke off the main road to explore some trails in the rocky hills between the road and the sea.  Eventually, I arrived in Villefranche, which has a tiny town center with a handful of restaurants and tourist shops.  That day, those who weren't relaxing and eating lunch outside were all at the beach - there didn't seem to be a free patch of sand available anywhere.  I spent a little while walking, enjoying a lavender ice cream cone, and people-watching before hopping on the train and moving along.

Another new place for me this time was Menton, the last town in France just west of the Italian border.  It is truly charming, romantic, and artistic, and now one of my favorite villages in that area.  It has a port, a hilly town center with lots of small streets to explore, small shops with interesting local products, and several unassuming little art galleries.

One of my favorite shots of Menton

Being so close to Italy, I decided to duck into Ventimiglia for a pasta lunch.  The last time I was in Ventimiglia, I was passing through on my way back to France with two friends and we were nearly stranded overnight due to a French transportation strike (luckily we had a very kind professor who drove all the way from Cannes to pick us up).  This time went much more smoothly.  I spent a couple of hours in town; I tried a spicy pasta arrabiata at a restaurant full of French vacationers and then took a walk through town before heading back to France.

Another of my nostalgic stops was the picturesque town of Èze, which I visited nine years ago by bus.  Word to the wise:  if you get to  Èze by train, it is an hour-long uphill hike to get to the village itself.  The views of the sea along the way are gorgeous, but the path itself is rocky and sometimes difficult.  It's well worth the climb, but I arrived at the train stop late in the afternoon and missed the opening hours of Èze's famous garden by the time I'd hiked up to the village.  Outside of the garden, though, there are several small ateliers where artisans sell their creations like paintings and jewelry.

There was one small town that stole my heart when I studied abroad, and that was Antibes.  We went on a group visit to the Picasso museum there and I returned to take my senior flute recital pictures along the coast.  When I stopped this time around, a small ferris wheel had been installed as part of a carnival, and I wasted no time taking a ride for a unique view of the town and of the port.  I had a picnic on the rocky beach, admiring the distant hills across the bay, reflecting on what a different impression the Côte d'Azur had on me this time around after having lived in other regions of France.

rue du Suquet, Cannes
That feeling only intensified when I visited Cannes, my first "home" in France.  While I never felt that Cannes was a particularly livable place for me, returning did feel like a small homecoming.  I also did notice different things this time around, especially how tourism-driven the city is.  It's almost too perfect and polished, and I had the impression that everything is done for show.  But there were a lot of experiences I had during study abroad I felt I carved for myself, that were truly authentic, and the one I was able to experience again was watching the sun set on the beach over the hills just to the west of Cannes.  As the sun would go down, I'd watch the tiny pinpricks of city lights flick on one by one as I listened to the waves crash harmlessly onto the beach.  Once the sky was black, the lights seemed to glitter and dance at the edge of the black abyss of sky and sea.  It doesn't fully give justice to the glittering effect, but this is what my phone was able to capture on my last evening in the south.

04 February 2017

Un petit tour de Lille, ma nouvelle ville

French Word of the Day
une parapluie: an umbrella

Bienvenue à Lille!  This has been my home since the beginning of September, an hour's train ride north of Paris, very near to the Belgian border, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.  The people in the north of France are known for being extremely kind and friendly (true), and the weather is known for being incessantly rainy (also true).  Compared to my old home in the west of France, Lille is quite the international city, not far at all from Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, and London.  Lille is the 4th-largest French city by urban population, though the city center is rather small area-wise, and you can definitely see and feel the Belgian influence as you wander the streets...not to mention taking in the sweet smell of traditionally Belgian gaufres (waffles).

My first two months in Lille were unfortunately not full of my usual exploration and adventures; I first had a plethora of visa difficulties and then was put on sick leave for mono and it wasn't until mid-October that I finally started to be able to function again.  Ever since, I've been discovering Lille and le nord (the north) bit by bit with the help of some friends.

After visiting Portugal in late August, I moved into a studio apartment in a quartier (neighborhood) called Vieux Lille - the old town.  It's a charming and safe area with confusing cobblestone streets and endless cafés, restaurants, and shops.

At the heart of Vieux Lille is la Place du Général de Gaulle, or la Grand Place, the main city square.  Several iconic buildings line the square, as well as sprawling cafés and a fountain in the center.  In the north of France, the typical structure that can be found in each city is called a beffroi, a tall clock tower.  Le beffroi de la chambre de commerce (Chamber of Commerce) is the looming clock tower that you can see in many photos of the Lille city center next to the Opéra.  The white triangle-shaped building is home to la Voix du Nord, the regional newspaper; kitty-corner is la Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange, a square building whose courtyard now houses a daily book sale.

La Voix du Nord

Le beffroi and la Vieille Bourse

Book sale
A few winding streets away is Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille, Lille's neo-gothic style cathedral.  It is quite unique architecturally, as construction began in 1854 but the final modern façade wasn't installed until 1999.

Gare Lille Flandres
A five-minute walk from the city center takes you to one of two train stations, Lille Flandres, where regional trains stop.  This is where I head very early on weekday mornings to catch the 6:35am train to Valenciennes, the smaller town where I work.  This area of town is rather modern, and right across the street from the station is a large, often over-crowded mall called Euralille.

La Citadelle
On the northwest corner of town is one of my favorite haunts, la Citadelle.  If you look at a map of Lille, it looks like a giant star from above.  At the center is an old military fortress encircled by a walking path and creek.  There is also a small zoo and park nearby.  On Lille's few non-rainy days, especially Sundays, la Citadelle bustles with people - runners, walkers, bikers, picnickers...

Palais des Beaux Arts
For Lille's typical rainy days, I'd suggest a trip to the Palais des Beaux Arts, the fine arts museum in the Place de la République.  The outside is undergoing construction at the moment but inside it's cozy and relaxing, and you might recognize this work of Monet's hanging on the wall upstairs:

After only five weeks in my studio, a room opened up at my friends' house and I decided to move in with them.  It's a cozy four-story home in a neighborhood called Wazemmes.  My roommates Jeff and Dana are also midwesterners who each had my job before I did, and Dimitri is an engineer from the Nantes region of France.  South Wazemmes can be a bit of a rough neighborhood, but we live on the north side in a lively and safe area.  Wazemmes is best known for its epic Sunday market; part of it is covered, and another part outside.  I particularly like a new grill in the indoor part called Canard Street, which makes amazing duck burgers.

Turkish crêpe
Speaking of food, cuisine in Lille is much different than in the west of France.  Most of the traditional regional dishes consist of hearty meat and fries on the side (as it can get cold in the north), and Belgian-style beer - not wine - is the drink of choice.  There is also a wide variety of ethnic food here - Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, and even Mexican.  One of my favorite market finds was a kind of savory Turkish crêpe; I waited in line for a half-hour, but it was very much worth it.

Being so close to England, there is a coffee chain here called Notting Hill, but my favorite tea shop is in Vieux Lille called Elizabeth's.  Like many cafés, the storefront is rather small, but there are two or three stories of small, cozy rooms upstairs to eat in.  Elizabeth's has a nice tea selection and delicious sandwiches for lunch.

Back in Wazemmes last summer, I went to Tsing Tao with some friends and a colleague for some legitimately spicy food!  It can be difficult to find truly spicy dishes in France; I can't count the number of times I've asked for all the spices, s'il vous plaît and been sorely disappointed.  But this was the real deal; I asked for "really spicy" and halfway through the meal, my cheeks were burning scarlet, as they should be.

My favorite regional specialty so far is the carbonade flamande, meat cooked in a thick, sweet beer sauce with fries on the side.  The best I've found is at a restaurant near the train station called Les 3 Brasseurs, which is also a brewery.  The restaurant has several regional dishes that they pair expertly with regional beers, just as other regions of France would pair the meal with an appropriate wine.

If you're in the mood for a pastry or fancy cake, Vieux Lille has you covered.  I've only ever ogled over this place from the front window, but I am sure it tastes just as good as it looks.  It's called Meert, and it's been around since 1761.  It has pastries, chocolates, and a tea shop too.

For une soirée (an evening) out, I'd recommend Le Dandy, one of the top cocktail bars in France.  The drinks are a bit expensive, but they're expertly and artfully crafted, and you can also order une planche (a cheese and/or meat plate) to go with.  You'll need to make a reservation to get in, and like many places in Vieux Lille, it's got several small, comfortable rooms split between three floors.

If you want an out-of-this-world planche, then I'd suggest the Vieux Basque, which has about the best in Lille in my opinion.

That is your crash course in Lille/northern France life.  Come visit soon, and pack your umbrella!

Bonus street music:

Lille 1

Lille 2

02 February 2017