Christmas vacation started out nicely, with an extra day of vacation because of the snow. We spent the first couple of days sleeping in until 10:30 and reading in bed. We walked around the lovely Christmas markets, admiring the ice sculptures and chocolate displays.
A couple days before Christmas, we ate dinner at my colleague's house. She and her husband and two daughters welcomed us into their lovely home and fed us til we were bursting, comme d'habitude. On the menu:
Kir: champagne with currant syrup
Black and white boudin: blood sausages (surprisingly good!)
Noix de St. Jacques "puffs": a kind of scallop quiche
Filet mignon with pears and potato puffs
A cheese plate
Eau de vie de poire: really strong 45% liquor made from pears
After all that food, our hostess was dismayed because she forgot to cook the escargots, or snails for us. Needless to say, we did not leave her house hungry. We were so full it hurt.
Christmas Eve was another culinary adventure. We spent it with another of my colleague's family. All 21 of them. It was a long night, and we didn't return home until 3am. We ate and talked and drank and played card games until I could barely keep my eyes open. Her family was so sweet and welcoming, and insisted our French was amazing. They asked Andrew to dress up as Santa Claus to surprise the baby of the family, little 3 year old Leo. Santa Claus and Leo passed out a present to everyone there, including us! I received a French cookbook and Andrew a bottle of homemade eau de vie de poire, which was first introduced to him by this family.
Santa Claus, Sandrine (our hostess) and her son Leo
The menu was quite complex.
1. Kir à la liqueur de coing: champagne with quince syrup
2. An assortment of mise en bouche, or appetizers, such as sausages and quiches
3. Chantilly de foie gras de canard et ses mouillettes de pain aux épices: Duck liver pate mixed with whipped cream and served with gingerbread cake
4. 1 dozen escargots (me) or 1 dozen oysters (Andrew)
5. Charlottine de St. Jacques: scallop pie (Andrew)
Cassolette de gambas et écrevisses: shrimp casserole (me)
6. Pavé de biche au vinaigre de framboise et baies de cassis: venison in a raspberry and currant sauce (Andrew)
Millefeuilles de lasagnettes au homard: lobster lasagne (me)
8. Cheese platter
9. Bûches glacées: traditional ice cream "log"
10. Truffes: Truffles, made by me!
Sylvain, Sandrine's brother, eating my truffles like they're cheerios
Of course, each dish was accompanied by a different wine, and there was coffee and tea served at the "end" of the night. There were multiple choices for numbers 5 and 6, but I didn't want to write out the whole thing.
We returned home around 3am to notice that Rudolph, previously coralled in a pen right in front of our door, was missing. Andrew and I speculated that he must be off doing his job, since it was Christmas Eve, but the next morning we found out from our landlady that he had actually escaped earlier that afternoon and went running down the street! She's unsure of whether they eventually caught him. Obviously, Santa Claus needed him.
Christmas morning was fun. We exchanged presents, new boots and a toaster for me, warm sweaters and Tolkien Ensemble CD's for him. We also received a hand mixer from my mom, which I went to use to make cranberry banana bread. Amazingly, the inside of the mixer started flashing red, blue, green, yellow! Wow, a color-changing mixer! And then I saw and smelled the smoke. Oops. Products from the U.S. need a converter to handle the different voltage. Hopefully it's okay, but we're not using it again until we get a converter for it.
Christmas dinner was spent with our friend Anna and her parents who were visiting from the states, and three other assistants spending the holidays in France. We ate at a "normal" time, around 5pm, and had the traditional fare: chicken, cranberry sauce, stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes, etc. It was really nice being able to share Christmas with other Americans (and two Trinidad-Tobagans!). We did introduce a French Christmas food to our dinner, for those who were new to the game: Escargot!
Andrew teaching Sam and Megan (from Trinidad) to eat snails
We had another weekend where we mostly hung around the house, sleeping and reading and eating. On Monday, we took the train into Paris, where we met a French friend, Diane, who generously gave us the keys to her apartment. We finally ventured into Galeries Lafayettes, a gigantic 8-story, two building department store that sells everything from Chanel perfume to foie gras. It's way too expensive and I don't even like the designer stuff they sell in there, but everyone has been insisting we see it because they decorate the window displays at Christmas with moving stuffed animals. I guess it was cute. What was neat was the building itself, and the giant Christmas tree that extended up to the third or fourth floor.
We walked around a bit more and saw a new side of the city before catching a late train to Strasbourg, in Northeastern France, right on the German border. Strasbourg made me wish even more that we had been placed there as assistants instead of in Orléans (Strasbourg was our first request). I love Orléans, but Strasbourg was just amazing. There's so much to do and see, and it's not as expensive as Orléans, and I would have had a great opportunity to practice my German. We had heard from pretty much everyone in the world that Strasbourg had an amazing Christmas market and an even more amazing cathedral. Both were pretty neat, but the constant drizzle kept us from spending a long time outside. Instead, we spent three days visiting the various cool museums, walking around the old quarters of the city with its charming half-timbered houses, and eating regional delicacies, such as flammekuche, an Alsacien pizza on cracker bread, made with crème fraiche (kind of a mild sour cream) instead of tomato sauce, and baeckoffe, a four-meat stew with potatoes. One of the meats was an entire pig foot. Eeww. Other than the pig's foot, it was delicious!
Me rocking my new boots in Strasbourg
This cathedral is so big I couldn't get a good picture of it
My mother asked me if Andrew has a drinking problem...
This is what happens when he drinks...;)
Andrew gets to try on helmets at the History Museum
These are old grain chutes, used to spit out the chaff, on display at the Alsacien Museum
Strasbourg is not only the "Capital of Christmas," (a disputable claim) it's also the Capital of Europe (this was actually voted on). Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament, which doesn't seem to actually do anything but mar the classical landscape with bizarre modern constructions and take up exorbitant amounts of space.
On our last day in Strasbourg, we decided to take a short bus ride out to what was supposed to be a very cool bridge. It was a cool bridge, and we decided to walk to the other side. We noticed tons of people walking back across the bridge, toward Strasbourg, with their arms full of fireworks. Strange. On descending the bridge, we noticed something peculiar: all the signs were suddenly in German, not French.
Yes, this little bridge connects France and Germany across the Rhine River
We continued walking until we reached the city center of Kehl, where people were actually speaking German! We had walked into Germany. The difference between the two cities, so close to each other, was remarkable. Most things were a little cheaper, including food, alcohol, and shampoo. There was even a 1€ store! In France, we have 2€ stores. As we walked the streets of the little town, my German came floating back into my head little by little. I tried to communicate as best I could, but when I couldn't, English was the preferred common language, not French. We ate a delicious, and cheap lunch of sausages and bread with a sweet curry ketchup sauce. Everyone was so friendly and wished us a good new year. We were a little sad to have to leave Germany and pass the stringent border control on the bridge (here, stringent= non-existent) to head back to Strasbourg and catch our train to Paris in time for the New Year's celebration. So we bid auf wiedersehen and bought some roasted chestnuts for the trip back to Paris.
Once in Paris, we met up with our Canadian friend Catherine and dropped our bags off at Diane's apartment. Metros were free, because of the holiday, so we zipped over near the Louvre with the intention of eating at Au Pied de Couchon, a restaurant that our friend Emily mentions often in her blog. Of course, being New Year's, it was packed, even at 9pm, so we settled for a decent, not-outrageously-more-expensive restaurant just next door. Unfortunately, it was a bad night for restaurants. The waiter wouldn't give us tap water, because it was interdit (not allowed) for the holiday, and everything on the menu had a (hidden) 2€ surcharge, which meant that even though we only ordered appetizers and drinks, much to the annoyance of the restaurant, we still spent $75 between the three of us. Not what I was expecting to spend on one bowl of soup, a bowl of risotto, and two drinks, but there wasn't much we could really do. We left the restaurant, much poorer and a little angry and headed to the Eiffel Tower to see the festivities. After a quick look around, Catherine had to hop back on the metro and catch the last train to Orléans, as she wasn't as lucky as us to find accomodation in Paris on New Year's.
For those who don't know, December 31, 2004 was when Andrew proposed to me, in Paris, in front of the Eiffel Tower, at midnight while fireworks were bursting above us and lights were sparkling on the tower. So it was our five year engagement anniversary, and we were very happy to be in Paris. It was really cold and it seemed like the whole world was there. At least all the pushing and shoving kept us a little warmer! Andrew gave me a little key, the key to happiness, which opened a very pretty inlaid box that had a sweet little note written on it for me. We waited until midnight, watching the light show on the tower until at midnight, the tower was lit up in gold and white lights and the music stopped. We had expected a countdown of some sort, and fireworks, but there were only the crazy people who had illegal fireworks (from Germany, no doubt). Andrew's French friend told us today that every year many people lose a hand or a finger because of fireworks (300+ this year), which is why they're illegal in France, but people don't seem to care. We pushed and shoved our way out of the mass of people and walked an extra mile to get on a different metro line rather than fighting to get in at the Eiffel Tower metro.
Sacre Coeur Basilica
On New Year's Day, we slept in at Diane's apartment til almost 11am, then ventured forth to see Avatar in 3D (and English!). We both really enjoyed it but think it's not worth the extra money for 3D. The rest of the day was spent lazing about and trying to find a supermarket that was open so we could make dinner (we kind of hate restaurants right now). On the 2nd, we took a walking tour of Montmartre, seeing the Sacre Coeur, the Place Tetre, where all the artists paint, and the old windmills that distinguish Montmartre. Of course we walked by the Moulin Rouge (if I ever have money, I'll see a show and have dinner there) and the Cafe Deux Moulins, where Audrey Tatou works in the film Amélie.
Nicole on the steps of Montmarte, and one of the old moulins, or windmills
We then tried to get into the Musée d'Orsay, but despite our teacher passes they wanted us to wait in the general line, which of course was a mile long, so we went to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, just next to the Louvre, and skipped ahead of everyone with our free passes. It was nice seeing a new museum. It makes me feel like we're not just tourists. There were a lot of cool jewelry displays and even a huge PlayMobile section that the kids, and Andrew, were drooling over.
Noah's Ark PlayMobile display
From there, we made a quick stop at WH Smith Books, the largest English bookstore in Paris, and bought a couple cans of cream soda. We then picked up our bags and headed back to Orléans.
Classes started again on Monday, and unfortunately I've been sick, which makes it difficult. But it started snowing today, and it's supposed to snow even more tomorrow, which means that either I'll get really lucky and won't have to go to school because the buses won't be running, or I'll be really unlucky and find a bus in the morning going to school before the snow gets too bad, then I'll be stuck at school until someone can give me a ride home. The way my luck has been lately, it'll be the latter.
Check out the rest of our photos on www.picasaweb.google.com/nicoledcwallace.
Happy New Year!