Monday, July 18, 2011

13. Bastille Day

While the 4th of July passed with very little proclamation (besides loud and slightly ironic declarations of “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” in a heavily American bar, accompanied by a round of flaming shots), Bastille Day was celebrated with great gusto.
The city was deserted during the day. Most every corner café and tabac was closed, everything except the boulangeries—you wouldn’t dare ask the Lyonnais to go a day without their fresh baguettes. Around mid-afternoon, however, the world exploded. Restaurants and bistrots suddenly opened their doors, catering to the instant crowd of families, dogs, couples, and tourists. Jazz musicians and neo-soul bands warmed up along the Quai Saint Antoine. While I was slightly nostalgic for funnel cake and bad hot dogs, the mouthwatering scent of kabobs and chocolate crêpes was enough to make me want to eat for days.
After sunset, the city gathered along the Saone to watch the display of feux d’artifice over Fourvière. The bridges and paths along the river were packed with people—sitting, standing, smoking—all waiting expectantly for the show to begin.
The fireworks were unbelievable—I’ve never seen a more beautiful or well-designed display. It was a thunderstorm of colors, gold and silver spiraled upward in quick bursts. A waterfall of fire streamed from the top of Fourvière, illuminating the cathedral in red and gold. Each time I thought the stunning display was the finale, another would begin, even better than the last.
The rest of the evening we spent in Vieux Lyon. We first hit up Nardonne with the rest of the crowds, the world-famous café-glacier that specializes in both exotic flavors and very attractive waiters. (It’s a good thing the ice cream costs an arm and a leg, otherwise I might have visited much too often.) Then commenced a tour of the Irish pubs.
If you ever have the sudden urge for a Guinness while in France, make a pit stop in Lyon. Flanigan’s Bar and Pub (located right at the bottom of Croix-Rousse) has Guinness on tap, Bulmer’s hard cider, and even traditional music on Tuesday nights. (The bartender once played me a few bars of “Galway Girl” on the pennywhistle and was delighted when I knew the song.) While Bastille Day was sadly lacking in Irish music (I can’t imagine why), the pubs were lively and filled with Irish, American, and British tourists as well as plenty of local students.
It was interesting, however—while everyone was clearly in a celebratory mood, I saw very, very little in the way of patriotic clothing, flags, and other paraphernalia that dominate our 4th of July celebrations. And yet the night never lacked spirit and excitement—on the contrary. It seems that the French take their national holidays and celebrations very seriously, with just as much planning and enthusiasm as Americans. And this is just what I have come to realize in Lyon: the French don’t overdo things, they just do them right—the first time. Coffees are small, but strong and full of flavor. You don’t need three helpings of pasta because the first is so deliciously satisfying. Take things slow: window shop before you buy, stop for a drink and a chat. Don’t rush, just relax. Stop to enjoy the flowers—or the fireworks.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

12. Annecy

I am now embarrassingly behind with my posting, but I just couldn’t skip last weekend’s trip to Annecy, a lakeside resort town west of Lyon. Somewhere in between the set of Heidi, Venice, and Busch Gardens, Annecy is unbelievably and breathtakingly beautiful. The town and Caribbean-blue lake are surrounded by the Alps—I felt like I should have been singing “Climb E’ry Mountain” en français.
Intimidated by the vast multitude of things to do and see—water sports, biking, hang gliding, hiking, and of course, lots of shopping—we decided (like true French denizens) that the best course of action was first to eat. Wandering towards the gardens, we discovered a cheap and delicious crêpe stand right near the lake, with an adorable Saint Bernard to boot. The weather was lovely, so renting a pedalo seemed like the obvious next thing to do. We paddled (slowly!) around the lake, trying not to run into other boats or ducks and stopping occasionally for a swim.
The evening we spent in the Old Town, wandering across canals and ducking in and out of shops. We stumbled upon an incredible free jazz concert—it was unfortunately just ending but hearing the last piece made my night complete.
Saturday morning, I rented a bike (I highly recommend the rental shop—the rates were reasonable and the garçons who worked there were très beaux AND helpful) and went for a leisurely ride around the lake, stopping to take pictures every 5 seconds. We picnicked in the gardens for dinner, watching as the sun set over the lake.
Saturday night, karaoke was a must: we bopped in a place right down the road from the hotel and found ourselves in the middle of a bachelorette party belting out bad French pop songs. This was a situation clearly in need of rescue—in the form of half of the Grease soundtrack and some Christina Aguilera. (I, of course, stayed far away from the mic but had no problem advising everyone else on the best way to humiliate themselves.)
Our last day began with a visit to the hilltop chateau for a spectacular view of the city and the lake—the dark clouds only made the terracotta roofs and dark wood paneling more striking. We encountered the Sunday marché, an enormous sardine-style affair that wove through the old town streets. Besides the usual spread of fruits and vegetables, vendors sold everything from glass jewelry to tapenade to hand-carved wooden owls. The sun eventually broke through and we were left with another beautiful afternoon to relax by the lake. Annecy is the perfect place to spend your summer vacation, a big family affair with lots of planning and anticipation. Yes, it is kitchy and touristy and expensive. But it also oozes happiness and excitement—it’s the type of place that makes you want to bounce up and down and ask “Arewethereyet?! Arewethereyet?!” And while it does at times resemble Disney World (sans the roller coasters and giant Mickey Mouses everywhere), it is also incredibly genuine. Everyone is relaxed and friendly, willing to recommend the best bike paths or explain the difference between a kabob and a galette.
With (mostly) perfect weather and Annecy’s charm, it was hard not to smile all weekend.

Friday, July 8, 2011

11. The Relative Uselessness of Classroom French #2: SLANG

While numbers and question words will get you far in the world of restaurants and soldes, real French people do not actually use the vocabulary you learned in 101.  Many Americans proudly declare themselves to be the creators of improper grammar and words never seen in Merriam-Webster’s, but this is a misconception.  The French are just as talented at breaking rules and spouting vulgar expressions.
For some reason, this is not the français they teach you in school. Yes, you know three different ways to politely greet your grandmother, but are unprepared for when creepy European men whistle and call you a meuf or ask you for a clope.
A brief dictionary of words and phrases you will actually hear on the streets of Lyon:

d’ac: short for d’accord or okay
bobo: literally “bourgeois-bohème,” basically a hipster
baba: retro, hippie
bagnole / caisse: car
boire un verre / un coup / un pot: to have a drink
branché: cool, with it
ca craint/c'est nul : That sucks
casse-toi: Get lost (Sarkozy spouted this one on national television)
chaud: tipsy, buzzed
con/conne: idiot
claquer: to blow money
clope / sèche: cigarette
débile: pathetic, stupid
flic / keuf / poulet: cop
flipper: to go crazy, flip out
fric / blé: money
frimer: to show off
impec: great, terrific
je m'en fous / Je m'en fiche: I don't care
kiffer: to like
un mec bien foutu: a hottie/muscular guy
mec / type / bonhomme / keum: guy, man
nana / nénette / minette / gonzesse / meuf: woman, girl, chick
et patati et patata: blah blah blah
putain: an all-purpose swear word
pote: mate, friend (guy)
raté: loser
reum: Verlan for mother
reup: Verlan for father

And, when in doubt, forget every grammar rule you ever learned.

Monday, July 4, 2011

10. Chocolates, macaroons, coussins, oh my!

While I was aware Lyon is well-known for being the gastronomical capital of France, it seems to also be the chocolate capital. Partially hidden between cafés and boutiques, chocolateries and confiseries can be found on every street. Some are well-known—les maisons of Voisin, Bernachon, and Bouillet among the most famous—but the piles of colorful macaroons and glistening truffles that line all the window displays look equally scrumptious to me. I constantly want to press my nose against the glass, drooling over miniature tarts topped with sugar-coated raspberries and squares of dark chocolate ganache.
It is perhaps fortunate that these confectionery concoctions are almost too pretty to eat and cost a fortune to boot—close to 1€ for a single truffle or macaroon. We’re talking the same price as a baguette or enough lettuce to feed a family of 10, so indulge wisely.
One must-have while in Lyon is the Coussin, a specialty of Lyon and the chocolatier Voisin. Made of pale green marzipan filled with chocolate ganache, it resembles a miniature silk cushion, or “coussin,” and is a nod to the city’s past. During the 1643 plague, the aldermen of Lyon organized a procession, praying to the Virgin Mary for relief from the epidemic. They carried a seven-pound candle of wax and a gold crown on a green silk cushion—the inspiration for this delicious confection.
And it seems the Lyonnais take their chocolates seriously. In 2005, a crowd prevented Nicolas Sarkozy from entering the famed Bouillet chocolatier, located atop Croix-Rousse. Protesting the politician with signs that read “Vous n'êtes pas le bienvenu,” they also deprived him of melt-in-your-mouth macaroons in every flavor imaginable. A true punishment, indeed.
Luckily this was an unusual occurrence—the chocolateries are warm and inviting, with chocolate makers ready to explain every last citrus-infused filling or flavor. A warning, however: once you enter, it is impossible to leave without something sweet. Or two.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

9. L’atelier des Chefs

Monday evening, we headed to the esteemed L’atelier des Chefs for a crash course in French cooking.
After a warm welcome (accompanied by a glass of wine, bien sûr!), the chef and staff ushered us into the kitchen of my dreams. Mounds of fresh vegetables lined the counters, stainless steel sparkled, and there were more burners than I could count.
After a very brief demonstration, the chef left us to our own devices. I reveled in my new-found knowledge of how to prepare artichokes, then chopped vegetables until I never wanted to see a bell pepper again. “Our” chef then showed us how not to burn lamb as we sautéed and stirred and tried not to fling onions everywhere.
Sweating from the heat of too many woks, we sat down to a delicious and extremely satisfying meal. The first group, who had prepared the entrée and the dessert, presented us with a summer vegetable tapenade served between rice crackers and topped with creamy chevre. We (the plat principal group) then proudly displayed our new skills with tender slices of roast lamb served with sautéed peppers and artichoke hearts, two vegetables I formerly disliked but devoured in copious quantities. Everything was tender, light, and perfect. We finished with a delicate butter pastry topped with crème Chantilly and poached cherries accompanied by a café.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the pre-dinner course on wine tasting. We sampled three French wines (two whites and a red), discussed their color, scent, and flavor, then guessed at the type and origin. We swirled and swished and sniffed, trying to find that taste of green apple and earthy texture. For me (who can barely remember which types of wines are which), this was an excellent introduction and left me feeling like quite the connoisseur.
One cours de cuisine is an expensive endeavor (even with a group rate), but the experience is well worth it. There is great comfort in knowing everything you make will turn out magnificently; the chefs can turn even the “dicey-ist” of situations into a culinary masterpiece. So indulge: drink good wine and learn from the best at L’atelier des Chefs.

Friday, June 24, 2011

8. Les soldes

While most aspects of French culture strike me as very reasonable and efficient, one does not: les soldes.
In the United States, sales and promotions run throughout the year—they are unexciting, expected, and usually unhelpful. Yes, you will occasionally find that perfect skirt on mark-down at J. Crew, but it is more likely you will buy it at full price, knowing that only 30% off isn't worth the wait when in a month the only size left will be XL.
In France, however, there are two gargantuan, countrywide sales that happen every year: les soldes d’hiver in January/Febuary and the soldes d’été in June/July. Every store everywhere, whether it sells clothing, household appliances, or magic trick supplies (yes, these do exist, I saw one today), puts tout on sale. And as French clothing is exciting to own and is generally longer than anything sold in the US, I jumped at the chance to buy these expensive rarities ON SALE.
Heading out on Wednesday afternoon, I remember why I shop online. The summer soldes, while fantastic in theory, are a little nauseating in reality. I make it through one block and two shoe stores before claustrophobia overwhelms me and I’m sweaty from trying on twenty pairs of jeans that I knew looked too short. I cower in a corner, trying to pull myself together and picking through belts I don’t really like—it’s times like these I realize I would never survive in the jungle.
Further complications arose with the arrival of an afternoon thunderstorm—the sky opened and it was not euros that fell (like I had hoped) but sheets of drenching rain. Now I not only had purses and shopping bags to contend with, but wet umbrellas as well. Store floors became roller derby rinks as determined French women slipped and fought their way towards the cash registers.
Despite the rain and the crowds, I must admit that my shopping expedition was both successful and surprisingly educational. I am now quite knowledgeable about dressing room vocabulary and can make excuses to salespeople (and myself) about why those perfect leather sandals just won’t work today.
And I realized something—while I love clothing and fashion, I am not a shopper. Indoor malls make me want to kick and scream. I dread carrying around that armful of clothing because the hangers ALWAYS fall off or get stuck on cable-knit sweaters or other people’s purses. I hate waiting for a dressing room for 20 minutes, only to find that everything I love is too short or too big or designed by monkeys with no knowledge of the human form.
So yes, I like that dress in the window. But as I stand there considering its high waist that will hit me somewhere around the collarbone and the fact that its excellent reduced price is cancelled out by the exchange rate, I decide it is not even worth a visit to the cabine d'essayage. Luckily, I eventually realize these sales do last more than a day and with Lyon being a city of considerable size and style, there are more than enough stores to go around. Chic will have to wait until another day.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Brief Aside to Venice

Venezia: the one place I have always wanted to see the most. As my friend Maddie is currently staying there and taking courses in Italian and Art History, a weekend visit seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up.
After a quick and easy Air France flight (yes, I am promoting the airline—they serve croissants instead of bags of pretzels), I arrived Friday afternoon to a swamp of tourists and delicious humidity—I must be one of 10 people on the planet who delights in muggy warmth. Following a gaggle of German 13-year-olds to the Rialto Bridge, I met up successfully with Maddie (the combination of bright red hair and that fast walk is hard to miss). We went back to her apartment to wait out the rain and chat, then headed off on a tour of the historical Jewish ghetto led by a VERY sassy guide. After dinner, we loitered like true Italian university students at Campo Santa Margarita, speaking Italian (and in my case, very bad French) over a bottle of wine.
Saturday morning, we headed to the market where Maddie successfully battled old Venetian women for our zucchinis in Italian. The afternoon was spent laying on the beach at Lido, working on my non-existent tan, after which we sautéed up a fabulous dinner from our morning market finds.

I was incredibly (and unknowingly) lucky in my choice of weekends. Not only was it the Venice Biennale (an international culture and arts fair), but Saturday evening was also the 2011 Art Night Venezia. One night, every year, all the galleries and museums in Venice are completely free and open to the public. Everyone was out, stopping to listen to free concerts, ducking in and out of art shows, having an evening drink with friends and family. After wandering the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I experienced the Venetian Spritz, a traditional drink that combines white wine, Aperol, and sparkling mineral water—just right for dusk, evening, or really whenever.
Sunday we crossed the lagoon to Murano and Burano. Known for its brightly painted houses, Burano was our first stop. It was perfect—kitchy with just a smattering of tourism, Burano is where you want to spend a lazy summer vacation, or where your grandmother should live. I must admit I went a little camera crazy—the combination of the rainbow of houses and clear sky was just too much. We wandered around Murano, admiring the glass sculptures and trying to avoid the buttery smell of frying seafood and margarita pizza (which turned out to be impossible).
The afternoon I spent in a long walk on the main island, exploring its narrow streets and attempting to get completely lost. Drifting in and out of shops and Biennale art pavilions, I eventually arrived at St. Marks as the sun was beginning to set over the canal.
While Venice must hold some record for tourist crammed into tight streets, it is a beautiful, almost magical city. As you happen upon hidden alleyways and turn the corner to find a sun-lit canal filled with fishing boats, it’s easy to pretend you are a 16th century denizen, fleeing a masked assassin or in search of a missing painting. Or maybe I just read too much historical fiction as a child.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

7. Un café, s'il vous plaît

This is a fact: America has become a nation of coffee drinkers. While perhaps 30 years ago we existed on Folgers and the occasional limp cup of Dunkin’ Donuts, we now live in a caffeinated haze of organic Guatemalan blends, double shots, and venti white chocolate mint mochas. We have entered the realm of the espresso drink and find ourselves addicted to a morning mug of Jo and toasted bagel with expensive cream cheese.
We imagine ourselves to be très chic and European, sitting in our local fair-trade coffee shops, surrounded by avant-garde posters of the Louvre and antique advertisements featuring the Moulin Rouge. If you’re a real regular, you order the same thing every time—a non-fat latté or an espresso. You would never dream of drinking one of those sugary concoctions dreamt up to appease people who don’t like coffee (or worse, those damn decaf drinkers) and preteens. Starbucks? Never. You’re much too continental.
I am here to sadly report that America has been hoodwinked—in reality, the French café is nothing like our local favorites. The idea of a “coffee shop”—complete with a large variety of fancy-pants espresso drinks, overpriced fruit parfaits, and muffins that can clog arteries—doesn’t seem to exist. Instead of a room filled with the sound of furious typing, over-caffeinated college students, and the stench of stress and dark roasts, the café breathes relaxation. It seems to fit effortlessly into French life as a place for lunch with coworkers, an afternoon crème with friends, or maybe even for a light dinner. Laptops (especially PCs, God forbid!) are nowhere to be found; cigarettes are more common than pens. Around 6, the Lyonnais instinctively gravitate towards their corner cafés to gossip with friends, relax, and drink an espress (with maybe a dash of sugar)—not because the caffeine will last through another thesis page, but because it is part of their daily routine.
I love the simplicity—no frills, no flavors. And while I occasionally miss my non-fat no-foam latte, the café is perfect the way it is—4 sips of fresh, strong coffee.

NOTE: However, if you are looking for a more "coffee shop" atmosphere in Lyon (while still maintaining a French profile), I highly recommend Café du Bout du Monde—with good coffee, wifi, and excellent music, its calm and slightly indie vibe is hard to beat. There are even a few laptops out to set your American workaholic tendencies at ease. However, it is still without a doubt a French café, and seems to be favored by many of the young Croix-Rousse professionals.

Monday, June 20, 2011

6. A Weekend in Saint-Chamond

Escaping the city Friday afternoon, we traveled to Saint-Chamond for a weekend of bad French jokes, history lessons, and (of course!) good food with Alain and Marie-Claire.
As any day in France should, Saturday began with a visit to the marché and the boulangerie—with a necessary stop to Yves Rocher in between. (After all, who knows when you might find that perfect perfume?) In the afternoon, we traveled to le Prieuré de Pommiers, a 9th century abbey right out of a fairy tale. Despite the fact the guide spoke French at a speed equivalent to that of the TGV (I’m afraid I missed a decent portion of the 17th and 18th centuries), the visit was well worth it. The evening led to one of Marie-Claire’s simple but delicious meals—and much recipe thieving on my part. After dinner, my brain gave up and I passed out, completely and totally exhausted from French.
Sunday we spent with Florence, Pierre, Alexandre, and Louis and continued our glorious trend of eating and visiting historical sights (it’s unbelievable how many random chateaux you can find—they’re more common than gas stations.) We first sat down to a beautiful déjeuner of melon and prosciutto kabobs with sauce, chicken and tomato curry, and (of course) plenty of fromage and fresh baguettes. And as I stuffed my face, I came to the conclusion that Conté is indeed the best cheese ever created.
After some serious digestion and Trivial Pursuit en français (even the kid’s version made me feel dumb), we rallied for an afternoon visit to Château de Bouthéon. When we arrived, the streets were jammed with people, dogs, and an assortment of used microwaves, vases, and statues of the Virgin Mary—it appeared that we had stumbled upon a gigantic, closet-emptying neighborhood yardsale.
Past the vintage bikes, we found the castle and gardens. Luckily, the tour guide spoke a great deal more slowly and I retained a passing amount of history and architectural knowledge. The château was beautifully restored, and the view from the tower breathtaking on such a clear afternoon.
We returned to Florence and Pierre’s for an afternoon snack of Cherry Clafoutis and of course, more wine. Pierre and I made a quiche under Florence’s supervision (she didn’t quite trust our cooking skills), and we sat down to a dinner of bad jokes in French and English (Unfortunately, the French word plays were lost on me—they flew straight over my head.)
Monday saw us back in Lyon, tired (in my case) but well-fed and happy. And I once again passed out for a much-needed afternoon nap—the castle-storming, chocolate-eating, and French-speaking had caught up with me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

5. The Relative Uselessness of Classroom French

After a week and a half, I have come to this conclusion: I completely and totally fail at real French. Yes, I can discuss Pierre et Jean with relative success and amuse small children with a rendition of “head, shoulders, knees and toes” en français. These fine accomplishments, however, have absolutely nothing to do with exchanging pleasantries with shopkeepers or asking how your neighbor’s kids are doing in school.
I find myself using phrases I learned the first week in French 101 and completely avoiding the subjunctive and the plus-que-parfait. My noun-adjective agreement has gone flying out the window. I must relearn a language of grammatical errors, interjections, and slang in a variety of accents spoken at the speed of light. It makes me wonder if we should even bother trying to “teach” ourselves foreign languages, but instead just throw ourselves into the fray of a different country and culture and just absorb.
Then again, the cliff-diving approach does seem a bit impractical and frightening. While your second year of French may not have taught you the verbal crutches you need to sound like a français, there was probably one chapter filled with useful food vocabulary and directions on how to conjugate “avoir.” So, in the true spirit of counter-arguments, I have provided a list of useful classroom French lessons to which you should pay close attention:
1.     Numbers: never underestimate the power of knowing the difference between 15 and 50—this could save you beaucoup de centimes AND aid you in your quest to become the perfect haggler.
2.     Ways to avoid using the subjunctive—hey, it’s one less conjugation pattern you need to memorize.
3.     Question words—the combination of who, what, when, where, and how and lots of descriptive hand gestures can get you a long way in the (hopefully) right direction.
4.     Useful phrases such as “Il y a” (There is), “c’est” (it’s), “beaucoup de choses” (many things), and “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (What is it?)—Again, accompanied by the right gestures and facial expressions, these can get you far in the pastry shop.
5.     OF COURSE, you should always always be polite. “S’il vous plaît” and “merci” are musts in any circumstance.
And really, discussing Pierre et Jean is a start. You never know when you may need to draw upon 19th century home décor vocabulary or describe the overall theme of your trip to the grocery store.