Monday, November 26, 2012

Faits Divers

The "Faits Divers" section of the newspaper is where they put all the stories that don't really go anywhere else, and consequently, one of my favorites. It's all the weird random interesting stuff, instead of the usual dreary news. Today I bring you my own Faits Divers, not from a desire to avoid dreary news, but from simple lack of having much to say on any one topic. {That's also why I haven't posted in like a week and a half}.

  • You know, you hear all the time from a variety of sources that French women dress nicer than do American women on a day-to-day basis. Even up until this trip I would have said that this is true. But now that I'm here and paying attention to what everyone else is wearing, I'm not sure it is. Now obviously, I'm looking at only a small sample of the population, and it's only my opinion, but based on the women I see at work, on the tram, walking around town, and in stores, I don't think there's really a big difference. Certainly there are differences of style, but not so much in terms of quality or "fanciness". The things that women wear to work here look just about the same as what I generally see women wearing to work in the US. The moms shopping at Carrefour look more or less like the moms shopping at Target. I'm going to conveniently leave out Walmart; that's a whole different beast. So I think we need to move past this stereotype of well-dressed French women; sure, they look put together, but not any more so than women of other nationalities. 
  • The other day I was just in a macaron kind of mood, and when you're in a macaron mood there's only one thing to do. Buy some macarons. I got two salted caramel, a chocolate, a mint, and one that I'm honestly not sure about. They were super delicious!
  • I contributed to the crossword puzzle! Twice! Every day after lunch all the grad students go get coffee together and do the crossword puzzle from the paper. I don't like coffee, so mostly I'm just there for the conversation and the puzzle. Side note: I'm the only non-Frenchie who goes. There are other foreigners in our group, a guy from somewhere in Asia, and a Russian girl for example, but they don't speak French and they just head back to the lab after lunch. Anyway, since my French is not to the extant that I can guess a word given a tricky clue and a number of letters, I generally just sit there trying to look pensive. It has become a goal of mine to contribute to the crossword puzzle. And Friday I did it! The clue was "limite" and I (correctly) guessed "terme", and to put the icing on the cake, it was a clue that stumped the Frenchies. Today I helped too, in a less glorious way. The clue was something indispensable, and they wanted to put "necessaire", but it wouldn't fit. A few minutes later, after doing a lot of counting on my fingers, I proffered up "necessité". So proud of myself. 
  • I have Christmas lights! Let's be real, I got gyped out of Thanksgiving. No turkey, no pie, no football, no Macy's parade. I guess I could've had turkey if I'd gone to the dinner the Fulbright people put on for us, but four total hours of train riding is a bit much for just a dinner. And a round trip train ticket plus the entry price would make it a pretty pricey meal. So I stayed in Caen and didn't really celebrate. To compensate, I spent the better part of Sunday making a Christmas music playlist and putting up lights I bought at Carrefour. They are of course multicolored and on top of it, the lights have 8 different animation programs so you can go absolutely schizophrenic with holiday joy. 
  • Walking around Caen I came across this in a park. Apparently this is a modern art piece entitled "Modified Social Bench" according to the plaque. Feel free to offer interpretations. You know what it says to me? Don't sit here. 
  • I also came across this awesome thing. This is the most awesome house ever. They have their own castle tower. The street is lined with like row houses, and some of them are now businesses (or at least their first floors are). So I kind of couldn't resist verifying that it was indeed a home and not like offices or something. And I may or may not have slowed to a snails pace in order to sneak a peek in a window. Definitely a private a residence, or else the most cluttered waiting room in all of history. I'm so jealous of these people. 
    The most awesome house ever.
  • I have yet to figure out my thermostat. I'm either freezing or it's like 90 degrees in here. Thank god my utilities are included in my rent or they would be through the roof.
  • I saw an article on CNN about a calendar's worth of trips you could take, a sort of list of the best place to be each month of the year. One of the places was some tiny town in a Scandinavian country that's apparently the best place to watch the Northern Lights. Someday I am going to see the Northern Lights. I have a lot of places on my travel dream list, but someday I am going to see the Northern Lights. It will happen. And it occurred to me that I am right now probably closer to the Aurora Borealis than I have ever been before. I'm still over 2000 miles away, but right here I'm closer to that goal than I have ever been. Mind boggling. 
  • Interesting Fact: Marseille is a French city on the Mediterranean coast of France, and is at approximately 43.3 degrees North. New York City is a city in the northeast of the US and is at approximately 40.7 degree North. o.0 Mind boggled. 
  • I'm currently reading Lord of the Rings in french in preparation for Hobbit movie #1. I can't wait; it's going to be awesome. 
  • There are quite a lot of things that I consider kitchen staples that I can't even find in France. Peanut butter for example. Monoprix had two jars of Skippy (which I refuse to buy on principle; give me the good stuff or none at all), but Carrefour didn't carry any at all. There are a whole host of things though. Like bacon the other day. Where do they hide it? Even when I do manage to find what I'm looking for I'm confronted with a selection of brands that mean absolutely nothing to me. You never really notice how much your decisions as a consumer are determined by packaging until you move abroad. In your local grocery store, you know which brands you like and which you don't, because you've used them before, or your mom did. You're brand-loyal on certain products, probably the ones you unconsciously label as "the ones that matter", but for others you go with whatever's cheapest, "because you can't really taste a difference". However in a foreign country that goes out the window. I'm not really brand-loyal when it comes to bread, but all the same everyone has their quality standards to be met. Do I go with the cheapest one? Why is this one so much cheaper? It looks okay...Maybe I better go with this middle range one...It looks a little nicer. Why? Because subconsciously we assume that a company that puts more effort into their packaging probably also puts more effort into their product. Almost certainly not true, but that's how we work, and the advertising industry knows it. Thus grocery shopping takes me forever because I'm staring at a variety of brands the quality of whose products I know nothing about, and I'm stuck guessing based on which ones have packaging most similar to what I consider a balance between good quality and well priced. It is such a relief to run into a familiar brand. I had to buy a bottle of shampoo and it was so nice to see the familiar brand names lined up and all I had to do was decide which sent I liked best. Thus we get to the real point of this diatribe, my innocuous walk down the ethnic foods aisle. Ok, technically this happened ages ago, but stick with me. They had the usual assortment of Asian food, and then, lo and behold, right there in northern France was a whole collection of Old El Paso products. Old El Paso! The tex-mex kit people! In France! I just about fell over. And they didn't just have a couple bottles of salsa and a few taco kits, they had the whole line. So I bought some tortillas and some shredded cheese and made myself a quesadilla. Just like home, except the cheese was Emmental (swiss cheese), instead of my normal mozzarella. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mystery Meat

I was always raised in a house of "Eat it or starve". There was absolutely no room for picky eaters, and so generally speaking, I'll eat anything. However, I draw a line at cafeteria food. I absolutely give myself right to be picky in the face of food that is cooked with an emphasis on quantity over quality. Most of the time the food in our cafeteria is fairly normal stuff, but yesterday we had something a little different. Different enough that one of the girls from our lab group felt the need to warn me about it as we were waiting in line.

I got some interesting guesses on facebook: horse steak, liver, kidneys, pigs feet, chicken gizzards, escargot...But the winner is Jan for correctly guessing Tongue! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I ate cow tongue, and I liked it. In retrospect, I'm glad the girl warned me what it was because I'm not sure I would've known otherwise. It just looks like a piece of beef, and it really doesn't have a very unusual flavor. Furthermore, I would it eat it again. My labmates kept asking how I liked it, as if expecting me to be grossed out, but it really was fine. It was just like any other piece of beef. So I will echo Andrew Zimmern of the travel channel, "If it looks good, eat it."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Experiments in French Cooking

Ok, I will admit that my favorite cooking method is microwaving, and microwaveable meals are the best things since sliced bread. The flip side of this is that I am a serious pinch-penny (thanks Dad). Since coming to France I have fallen in love with the Boeuf Bourguinon microwaveable meals, but I'm not really willing to pay for them all the time. So I decided to make this very classic french meal my first adventure in french cooking. Ambitious? Maybe.

Step One: Find a recipe. Ok, this is not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, the only thing smaller than my kitchen is my repertoire of kitchen skills. The first instinct of course was to look up Julia Child's famous Boeuf Bourguinon. No way. I just can't. I'm sure that The Art of French Cooking is a wonderful cookbook, and I'm sure that everything in there is absolutely delicious, but there's just no way I can do that. The ingredient list is really long and all of the steps are super complicated. My mom might be able to make Julia Child's version, but I'm not there yet. Julia Child had the training of a French Chef, and a huge kitchen to boot. Next, please. Many of the 'easy boeuf bourguinon' recipes I found required an oven. Nope. Many of them were variations that 'your family will love!'. Sorry, I just want the regular one. Then I came across this British 'lady' that prefaced her "Beef Bourguinon Easy" with this statement:

Easy? Well, that is to say if you cut out some of the finer points of the exercise and are content with the thought that Boeuf Bourguignon of a kind is better than none at all!

Rude. Easy can be delicious too, you snob. Apparently this woman is very popular in the UK, but I personally won't be visiting her site again. I'd link the quote so you could see for yourselves that she really did say that, but in the words of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she "deserves no such attention!"

I did finally find this recipe, which satisfied my requirements of easy and simple.

Step 2: Shopping. I had every intention of going to specialty stores (the butcher, the baker, etc) and buying everything that way. No really, I did. Unfortunately, a lot of items on my list required a supermarket. I mean, I needed things like salt and pepper, and cooking oil, and flour...So then once I was in the supermarket, the temptation to just buy all of my ingredients there was just too great. I found everything without too much trouble, except the bacon. I looked and looked and saw no bacon. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I could not find any bacon and finally had to admit that it was not really a necessary ingredient. The red wine was also an adventure, because I know nothing about wine. Not a thing. So I just grabbed a really cheap bottle and moved on. The guy at the meat counter was super nice too. Since I don't generally buy much meat, I have no idea what I'm doing. I told him what I was making and how much the recipe said I needed and he was like 'Here. This is what you want.' Thanks dude. My only other divergence from the recipe was to add in two potatoes and take out one of the onions. One chopped onion seemed like plenty to me and every beouf bourguinon I've had included potatoes.

Step 3: Cooking. So I don't think I'll be appearing on Chopped anytime soon. My knife skills leave a little something to be desired, and I'm terribly slow. Really it's almost embarrassing how long it takes me to do any amount of prep work. My only excuse is that with only one decent knife and one itty bitty cutting board, I have to stop to do dishes fairly frequently.

In retrospect, I think that just one onion was definitely plenty, but I could have done with less potato. It was fine, but next time I make I think I will cut down on some of the potato. 

Simmer away my lovely, simmer away.
This is one of those dishes that you just leave simmering all afternoon. It smells so heavenly. Oh goodness. Have some snacks in the house because all afternoon I was practically drooling it smelled so good. I ended up only putting in half of the mushrooms because when I sliced them, it looked like a lot. However, they add so much flavor that next time I will add in the full amount. That's what I love about this dish: you can play with it. It's not like with baking; you can alter the amounts of different ingredients to get the taste you want. While it was cooking, I spruced up and even shoved my bed into place and pulled out my table.

Eating dinner like a big girl
Step 4: Eating! Yum! This is my favorite step. It was sooooo good. The thickener really did the trick for the sauce too. With some fresh bread, what could be better? It's a good thing I like it, because I'm going to be eating it all week. I filled three tupperware containers with leftovers. I think I can get another 6 to 7 meals out of it, for a total of 8 Jackie-sized servings. With my grocery costs (adjusted for items that will carry over for multiple recipes) divided by 8, my Beouf bourguinon costs 1.89 euros a meal. Much better than the 4 euros per microwaveable meal. And now I don't have to cook this week. Win!


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Jackie's Tram Rules

I ride the tram everyday to and from work. There are two trams that run the entire length of town that diverge on the ends, and on weekdays you can generally count on an A tram showing up every 8 minutes or so. Despite this frequency, if you try to take the tram between say about 8:30 and 10:30 in the morning or around 5 pm, you will be lucky to find room enough to stand. Seriously, people pack it in. It's not my favorite, and really I think the greatest frustration comes from how other people respond to the situation. People these days seem a little short on common sense, so I decided to put out a list of Rules for Riding the Tram. I don't thinking I'm asking much. I just want people to follow a little simple etiquette and exercise some common courtesy, but maybe that is asking too much.

  • Advance as much as you can. If there's room further in the tram, move that way. Don't stand there and make the everyone else push around you. Worse, you prevent anyone else from standing in that space and force other areas of the tram to be even more crowded than they need to be. 
  • If the tram is full, the tram is full. There comes a point where there just is not any more room on the tram. Sometimes you will have to wait for another tram to come along. They run every 8 minutes. I think you can wait. 
  • Try to take up as little space as you can. Now I'm not saying you need to squeeze yourself into a tiny ball in order to provide others with greater comfort, but you shouldn't be taking up unnecessary space. For example, allowing your backpack to lay sprawled on the ground is just rude. If you would just hold it, probably two people could be comfortably standing in that space. Similarly, your over-sized purse does not need it's own seat. 
  • The rush hour tram ride is not a good time for a make-out session. I don't care that PDA is much more socially acceptable in France than in the US. I don't care if being packed like sardines just ignites you with passion. Your passion can hold it until you get off the tram. The rest of us do not need to be involved in your relationship. 
  • Unless you are getting off at the next one or two stops don't stand right by the doors; you're blocking everybody from either getting on or off. So go look at the first rule again and get away from the gosh darn doors. 
  • If you have to bring your giant stroller on the tram with you, perhaps you should avoid running errands at rush hour. Just a thought. 
  • If you are going to the train station with a large suitcase, you may want to consider adjusting your schedule so as to ride the tram before or after the big rush, or you may want to find an alternative means of transportation. Don't haul your gigantic suitcase on here when there's barely enough room to breath. 
  • If someone's trying to get off the tram, move aside to let them through. Don't just stand there like the Tinman from the Wizard of Oz. People getting off means more room for you. 
  • There is no rule that you have to stand or sit next to your friends. You just might have to be separated for the 10 minute tram ride. 
  • Guys, be gentlemen. Don't make a little old lady stand when you have a seat. That's just so wrong. If I was your mama, I'd smack you. So rude, inconsiderate, and on top of it, un-manly. If you're such a tough guy, why is a nice little old lady standing while you're sitting down like a weakling? Get up and give her your seat, you jerk. 
These are just a small compilation of things I think the other tram riders need to be aware of. The number one request I have: Please Remember You Are NOT The Only Person In The World! Thank you. I'm Jackie and I approve this message. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Word of the Day

New Word of the Day: poireau.

Lunch in the cafeteria is really pretty much like lunch in any university cafeteria. They may serve different things here in France, but the quality is pretty much the same. Generally I get whatever the main dish of the day is, unless it just looks too awful (or I have tried it unsuccessfully) and then I get a steak-frites from the grill. A steak-frites is a plate overflowing with fries with a grilled hamburger patty. They cook it until it might maybe be liberally called medium-rare, so I don't get it often. Anyway, yesterday was a day in which I was willing to get the main dish of the day, noodles and two slices of ham. I chose not to get what I originally thought was green beans. I love green beans, but many years of eating school lunches has taught me to avoid them in cafeteria situations. However, one of my lab friends, Victor, got them and said what do you call these in English?

On closer inspection I could see they were not in fact cut-up green beans, and I had to admit I had no idea what they were. He tried to explain.

Victor: They're vegetables.
Me: Not any vegetable my mother cooked.
Victor: They're white on the bottom and the top is green leaves.
Me: Gee, that narrows it down.

Thus we turned to The Great Google. Google translate failed us though. All it gave us was that the french poireau is poireau in english. Liars. Maybe British english, but that is not a word I am familiar with in American English. We turned to Wikipedia knowing it would at least give us a picture.

photo by Philippe.OSSWALD
Leeks. Thank you Alton Brown for teaching what they look like. I was right, my mother has never cooked leeks. Not a common veggie in American school cafeterias. Maybe next time they serve them I might be brave enough to give them a shot, but frankly they really didn't look that great.

Crunch bars!

So how long have crunch bars looked like this?

Is this a French thing or did they change the way they look? Is it just me or didn't crunch bars used to look just like regular hershey bars? I'm also fairly certain the French crunch bars are thicker. And they offer more varieties. I have never seen white chocolate or dark chocolate Crunch bars in the US.

Fun at the Prefecture

Did I tell you about how much fun I had at the prefecture? No? Oh well then get ready because I had all kinds of fun at the prefecture.

One thing you need to know is that I'm here on an internship visa ("stagiaire"), not a student visa. Part of that situation is that you have to go and get your visa stamped. I was told that this was done at the prefecture. The woman at the CNRS who helped me with my paperwork and finding housing and stuff was nice enough to agree to come with me. My french is probably sufficient for me to have gone by myself, but I really wasn't willing to trust to my own abilities in such a situation. She called ahead to clarify the protocol, and asked what documents would be needed and all that. She also distinctly remembers saying that I was a stagiaire. Remember that; it'll be important later.

From what I had been told, the prefecture sounded a lot like going to the DMV. Hell, and that's on a good day. Having been warned to get there ridiculously early, I arrived at the Prefecture at a quarter to 8, a full hour before they opened. It, uh, it turns out there is a main entrance to the Prefecture for French people, and there's a, uh, back entrance for anyone who is dealing with immigration related stuff. Guess who waited at the wrong entrance for 25 minutes. Oops. To be fair, they're on opposite sides of the building, and the front entrance has a giant sign and the back entrance barely has a label. Don't worry though, you'll know you're in the right place because there will be a giant line of people. In retrospect I wasn't too badly off even considering my "late" arrival. At least I was within the line dividers.

{Side note: in trying to figure out what to call those divider things with the retractable belts I came across a website called Crowd Control Direct which sells them. Their motto? Because lines happen. I don't know what I find this incredibly funny but I do.}

Anyway, people were pushing and literally crowding each other towards the front of the line. One guy tried to cut the line and I thought we were going to have a riot. Finally 8:45 rolled around and the workers came out to start handing out tickets. That's when I heard someone say that they only give out 40 tickets a day. Uh oh. Oh man please do not make me come back and do this again. I don't like crowds or waiting and we're already pushing my limits. They yelled several times for people to stop pushing and back up, but I don't think it really worked. Slowly they began handing out tickets, based on why people were there. There's a separate line for refugees versus the three counters for cartes de sejour. The workers verified with each person that they had a valid reason for being there before giving them a ticket, and some people did get turned away. When I got up to the front we once again explained that I am a stagiaire and that I was there to get my carte de sejour. They gave me a ticket: number 429. The tiny room was already overcrowded with people and small children (running absolutely rampant I may say) and crying babies. It stayed that way too, for the next 2 and a half hours. You can imagine my joy. Oh and did I mention we had to stand the whole time because for the 50 to 60 people in the room there were only maybe 10 seats? Lovely.

Finally, my number is called and we went up to the window. Once again introducing myself as a stagiaire. The worker proceeds to ask for a number of different documents, which I proudly produce from my collection. I fill out a form while she goes to print something. She comes back and says,

"Oh, I'm sorry. We don't handle the cartes de sejour for the stagiaires here."

Excuse me? What do you mean you don't do that here?

"No, you have to go to the OFII office first."

Argh. You mean that I woke up super early, waited for ages, and finally got up to this window, and I'm in the wrong place? And not one of the many people who spoke with us could have mentioned this earlier? Argggh.

Completely exasperated, we went to the OFII office, with every expectation of another horrendous line and more waiting and possibly being told to come back another day.

Nope. I walked in while she looked for a place to park and five minutes later I walked back out. All I had to do was turn a form (one which I had already completed stateside) and hand it to her. They'll send me a thing in the mail letting me know my medical appointment time in 3 to 4 weeks. An entire morning for five minutes.

And the truly agonizing part? All those people who knew I was an intern, knew I was here on a stagiaire visa, and did not point out to us that we were going to the wrong place. Gosh darn it.

On the bright side, we made it back just in time to go to lunch.

Free Museum Day in Paris

As previously mentioned, the first Sunday of every month in France all the museums are Free. Free is my favorite price, so I couldn't resist going for the day and taking advantage of the free museums. After all, such a program was surely designed to attract people to museums they might not otherwise visit. The train tickets were not as bad as they could have been, at about 40 euros. If I had bought them a little earlier I probably could have gotten a better price but it'll all even out in the end. Thanks to my carte jeune I think I still saved a good 30 euros or more so even if I only buy train tickets one more time this year my carte jeune will still have paid for itself.

Anyway, after arriving in Paris, I really didn't have a specific plan in mind. I mean, there are sooo many options. I started by paying a visit to Notre Dame de Paris. It's such a beautiful cathedral, and I just couldn't resist.

*Sigh*... It's so beautiful. I just have one problem: photographing the stained glass windows. My photography friends, how do I do this? In even the best of my pictures I still can't seem to capture the vivid colors or the detail I want. Part of my problem here was that I couldn't use my flash, but even still. What settings ought I to be using?

After my time at Notre Dame, which I personally felt was less crowded than I would have expected, especially for a Sunday, I chose the Musee d'Orsay as my museum of choice. Upon arrival one thought immediately struck me: Tanstafl. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Everything costs. Sometimes you pay with money directly, sometimes you pay with money indirectly, and sometimes you have to pay with less tangible items. Yesterday I paid with time. Time and patience. The lines were...long. They kept moving, which was encouraging, but they were long. Before getting in line to enter, I bought myself a crepe and a soda. Crepes are such delicious distractions. Once inside, I really had to shell out some hefty amounts of patience. I hate tourists. Yes, I know that's hypocritical because I am one, but all the same, I hate tourists. No one has any consideration anymore. Everyone is just interested in making sure they get a good long view at whatever they want without any thought for anyone else. In short, people are rude and thoughtless. I can't tell you the number of times people walked into me or bumped me out of the way or suddenly blocked my view by stepping immediately in front of me. There are quite a few people who deserved tickets for their traffic violations.

That said, I enjoyed the art. Well most of it. I was good; I took notes. I went through every exhibit, walked through every room, looked at every piece. If it's worth doing, it's worth over-doing. I liked Degas and Pissarro, but not so much Renoir and Cezanne. I got to see Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, a favorite of mine.  I loved a piece by Henri Fantin-Latour of Charlotte Dubourg:

Picture from Wikipedia, Public Domain.
Monet for me was hit or miss, and I think it's largely based on subject matter. Some paintings I liked, some I just passed over. You know, when the Impressionists bother to paint something other than naked women, they're really pretty good. I have question for them though: where on earth did you find so many naked women in fields? As a woman with many female friends, I have never nor do I know anyone who has ever spent an afternoon lying naked in a field of flowers, so who are these girls and why do they not have clothing? So much for realism. 

They had an exhibit on Neo-Impressionism, which didn't do much for me. Henri Provensal and Francois Garas and their 'architecture of the strange', a sort of fantasy architecture, was interesting though. They had an exhibit that was labelled something really mundane but I thought of it as Weird Furniture, which is basically what it was. I'm not into symbolism as it turns out, but I can excited about a beautiful ornate room. The Salle des Fetes is just gorgeous. 

Finally, they had a temporary exhibit on Impressionism and Fashion, which was awesome. I love old clothes. I'm glad I didn't live back then, because it would take me half a day just to get dressed, and they went through 3 or more outfits a day. It was cool exhibit, although heavily over-crowded. The main message was that even though impressionists didn't necessarily paint their subjects with an incredibly amount of detail or even necessarily correct physiognomy, they recorded what people, especially townspeople, were wearing day to day at a variety of events. Everything from a dress for an afternoon at the park to a ballgown is represented in their work. They were obsessed with modernity and focused on Parisians, and Parisian women were known for their particularly meticulous outfits. I found one that struck me as absolutely a Meredith dress. My sister is a big fan of purple and as soon as I saw this dress I just had to smile. 

Madame Bartholomé, Albert Bartholomé
Dans La Serre, and the dress of Prosperie de Fleury
Purple polka dots. In the 1800s. Love it. 

All in all I had a great day. My feet hurt and I fell asleep pretty quickly when I got home, but it was worth it. And I learned some stuff about impressionism. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

4 Day Weekend

Four day weekend! Day one: Did nothing. No, wait, I did laundry. But besides that, nothing. It was awesome.

Here in France they don't celebrate Halloween, despite the very earnest efforts of the commercial world who would dearly love to cash in the way the candy and costume industries do in the US. To be honest, I understand. We have a holiday where everyone wears strange costumes, both scary and otherwise, and then you go around and demand candy from complete strangers. It's a little weird. Delicious and lots of fun, but not exactly abounding in sense. Anyway, the French do have a national holiday on November 1st, for All Saints' Day. No one does anything, but everyone has the day off. It being a thursday this year, of course no one is going to work on Friday either. This whole week has been a sort of Fall Break for the kids, so the Friday after a national holiday was just bound to be considered a holiday too. Now in the US, I think the general situation would be that the administration would sort of turn a blind eye to the complete lack of workers on such a Friday. Not here. The lab is having a power outage all day while they do repairs. They're basically telling you to take the day off. Thus a four day weekend for moi.

And, I reiterate, that on Day 1, I did nothing and had a fabulous time doing it.

Day 2: Chateau Falaise

A quick recap of my family history is in order here. If you go back far enough on my family tree on my mother's side (and you can go back pretty far) after about 20 generations or so you will eventually end up with some dudes from Normandy. Specifically one dude called Fulbert the Saxon de Pollock may in fact have been one of Charlemagne's buddies although there's a little confusion on this point. Spelling back in the day wasn't really standardized so there's some question about whether a Filbert mentioned in a document is actually our Fulbert or if there is in fact an entirely different person being described. Anyway, Fulbert the Saxon's grandfather was Fulbert de Falaise, whose daughter was the mother of William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquerant). So I am the descendent of William the Conqueror's cousin. Not a very direct connection, but I'll take it.

William did not live in the castle you are about to see; it was built in different stages by his son, grandson, and great-grandson. However, archaeologists have found remnants of an earlier castle underneath the current structure which definitely dates from William's lifetime. Whether there really was a castle there or just some other structure is debatable, and even if there was an earlier castle, we have no records supporting the idea that William ever lived there. However, he was definitely born in Falaise and although his mother was not noble (Fulbert of Falaise was a tanner), it's clear from legal documents that from a very early point his father the Duke considered him as his heir, despite his illegitimacy. Thus, there is a strong likelihood that William spent a good bit of time with his father in whatever structure was there at the time.

Practical information: Falaise is about an hour from Caen by bus, and frankly I don't think you could drive any faster than my bus driver did. It's not a big town; it really doesn't matter which bus stop you get off at in Falaise. Just walk up the hill and you'll be there. It was 7.70 euros for the round trip bus ticket, and then 6 euros for the guided tour. You could go with just a self-guided audiotour, but I personally feel you get more information out of a real person.

I encountered this statue outside of the castle. Apparently, statues of William the Conqueror are rare in France but plentiful in England, which I find hysterically funny. I suppose it's because he was Norman and not French, but still. I would have thought the French would enjoy taking credit for someone who conquered all of England. Anyway, the statue is huge, and although you can't see them in this picture, the base is surrounded by the 6 Dukes of Normandy.

This by the way is Normandy weather. Constant threat of thunderstorm.

A copy of a famous bust of William. I personally think he has sort of a weird expression on his face.

Cocky in Normandy!

Cocky in Normandy! Go Gamecocks! Cocky the Conqueror is standing in front of the keep and tower of the Chateau Falaise. William the Conqueror's youngest son Henri the First built the earliest surviving building, the square keep, in the early 1100s. He grew up in England which probably inspired this style. Remember, this was a military building. It's job was to intimidate the enemy and to look imposing and vaguely threatening. The walls in this part of the castle are a good 7 feet thick, fyi.

Ah the feeble attempts at restoration...Ok, see the nice white stone blocks on the far right? Those are original to the castle walls. It's a stone native to the region and highly prized. Many castles and palaces in France and elsewhere are built out of it. In fact, today it is only quarried for renovations to historic monuments. Well, even two hundred years ago it was too expensive. In the mid-1800s they first started doing work to actually protect historic buildings and monuments. Fortified castles very rarely made the list, but this castle was one of the earliest buildings to receive attention. At the time, the sole thought was to simply keep the building from completely falling apart. Since it had been abandoned for a couple centuries, it really was fairly close to doing just that. They wanted to save the castle, but they really didn't want to spend much money. Thus the two phases of 'restoration' to the left done with whatever stones they could find.

Once inside the castle, it's a weird hodgepodge of the very ancient castle and some very modern restoration work. The 'architect', for lack of a better word, who worked on the most recent renovations, had some very liberal interpretations. For example, in the oldest part of the castle, instead of putting a roof back in, he put up a tarp ceiling, to represent the mobile nomadic nature of the Dukes. It's not a furnished castle, but to be fair, there really isn't anything left from that time period to show anyway. First off they didn't have much in the way of furniture. They had a bed, a couple of planks they used for tables, maybe a few chairs and game tables. {Side note: medieval beds were super small because they slept sitting upright. They were superstitious that if they slept laying on their back, like a dead person, they would die.} Secondly, since they took their furniture with them when they switched between castles, which they did pretty frequently, their stuff didn't last long. So the 'architect' put in a bunch of theater lights and projected images of tapestries onto the walls. An interesting choice to say the least.

The main keep consists of a banquet and receiving hall, for both business and play, a bedroom for the Duke, a private chapel for the Duke, and a storeroom below. As a good medieval Christian, the Duke would need to attend mass several times a week and pray as many as seven times a day. To squeeze all that in, he really needed a private chapel so he wasn't constantly running out to the regular castle chapel in the courtyard all the time. The little keep was added on by Henri II in the mid 1100s. By that time, castle comforts had increased considerably and it was no longer acceptable to just have a room in the keep; if you were going to be King you needed your own apartments. You can see a lot of improvements in this part of the castle in that  there is a fireplace and more windows. {There's a fireplace in the main keep as well, but that one's not supposed to be there. The early restoration people did not do their homework and so just assumed there would have been a fireplace when in fact there was not.}

The tower was added in the early 1200s and is remarkable for some real innovations in castle building. Within the tower walls is a water well, completely undetectable from the outside. A common siege tactic was to poison the water supply with say a dead animal, so having a secret water source was important. They also built the foundation of the tower in the form of a cone, preventing would-be attackers from digging their way in. The floors of the tower have layers of stone as well as wood beams to prevent the spread of fire. Apparently no one had thought of this before because it was fairly common practice to start a fire in your opponent's tower and have everyone die because the floors burned up. And finally, although the walls are about 3 to 4 feet thick, they still put in archer's windows, so from the outside it looks like arrows could come raining down on you at any minute even though they're completely useless.

 If this doesn't scream medieval countryside, I don't know what would. What a view. Also, see that cliff on the right side? You would think that it being fairly close and at approximately the same height as the castle might be a problem. You would be wrong. Medieval weaponry couldn't even come close to killing someone from that distance.
This was just a park in town, but I thought it was pretty. I think it also gives you a good idea of Normandy weather. Cloudy on the verge of rainy, but sunny and pretty 100 feet to the right.

All in all I liked the castle, and I was glad I did the guided tour. I learned a whole bunch of stuff, even if it was in French. I understood the guide pretty well, but the other people in my group had really thick accents and I have no idea what they kept asking her about. She did say that they were going to do some pretty impressive sounding upgrades to the staging and scenery of the keeps this winter, so I think I'll go back in April and see it again.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Princess Lessons

Yesterday I did laundry and that's about it. I spent a lot of time on the internet. My only defense of my complete and utter laziness yesterday is to offer you these lessons and morals from various disney princesses.

Cinderella: Ladies, the moral of this story is clearly that the right pair of shoes makes all the difference in the world. Gentlemen, if you fall head over heels in love with a girl, it might be a good idea to get her name. Or at least remember what she looks like.

Beauty and the Beast: Guys, if you want to get a girl to like you, give her a library. And dance with her in an awesome ballroom. Girls, remember he may be a beast now, but proper grooming and a little training in gentlemanly behavior can do quite a lot.

The Little Mermaid: Don't trust sea witches. Also, there's a fine line between 'collecting' and 'hoarding'.

Pocahontas: Always listen to your father. Seriously she would have been better off with that hotty Kokoum.

The Frog Princess: As with The Little Mermaid, don't trust voodoo witch doctors.

Aladdin: Always keep your silver well-polished. You just never know. Boys, don't ever lie to a girl. It will come back to bite you in the butt.

Sleeping Beauty: Gentlemen, when you meet the girl of your dreams, to win her heart you should slay a dragon. If that doesn't work or if your neighborhood is short on dragons, a romantic kiss will do the trick.

Snow White: An apple a day will not necessarily keep the doctor away.

Rapunzel: Always do your hair; you never know when you'll meet a dashing stranger.