27 November 2010

Ceci et cela - this and that!

Because it's been a little while since I've been inspired to write a full blog - here are some extracts from my Facebook posts over the last couple of weeks.

Friday (26.11):
  • “Il neigait quand je suis arrivee a Lyon! It was snowing when I arrived in Lyon!!”
(Lyon is my last big adventure in France for this trip. As well as checking out the traboules of the Croix Rousse - the old tunnels used by the silk workers hundreds of years ago - I hope to catch up with a friend from Montpellier who’s visiting her son here this weekend. Quelle chance!)

Wednesday (24.11)
  • Posted new photos of Montpellier at night and said "Not only snow forecast, but the Christmas lights are up, there's a festival of the vines this weekend - and to top off my night, found the cutest little restaurant that I'd be happy to take girlfriends too again!!"
  • Earlier that night "Susan est etonné par the prévu météo pour ce weekend – il fera neige!! Oui, ici a Montpellier!! (Susan is surprised to see that snow is forecast here in Montpellier this weekend. We are on the Mediterranean!!
(For the record, the forecast has changed since Wednesday - it's just going to be cold instead! And the restaurant is called L'acolyte.)

Sunday (21.11)
  • Posted photos of the Cite Mediaeval at Carcassonne, which is about halfway between Montpellier and Toulouse and noted “Dame Carcas was one hell of a PR practitioner - way back in the middle ages!! Legend has it she defeated a siege by tossing a pig stuffed with grain over the ramparts. The surrounding army took this as a sign that the inhabitants had enough food to withstand the seige and decamped!! Great thinking!!"

Saturday (20.11)
  • After arriving in Carcassonne, courtesy of friends living in Montouliers, near Bèziers (and if anyone is looking for a fabulous rural gite in the south of France, do check out 6 Place Aux Herbes in the charming town of Bize-Minervois - I can personally recommend this for value and location!!) “OMG - died and gone to heaven - dinner at La Barbacane in Carcassonne. Even the mint tea was made from fresh mint leaves. Don't want to know about my credit card any more :-)” and
  • “is cocooned inside the old city of Carcassonne in 5* luxury. Oh bliss!!!"
(For the record – the hotel was the Hotel de la Cite).

Friday (19.11)
  • “can't believe her holiday is officially halfway over (or to be more positive - I still have half my holiday to look forward to!!!!!!!)”
(And that goes double today, a week later, but less holiday remaining. Watched a timelapse video of the aurora borealis this evening – things are looking good for a spectacular season for the northern lights).

. . . and on a similar note . . .

Wednesday (17.11)
  • “The Ice Hotel in Sweden is already open for business this winter - I will visit (but not stay) here in three weeks' time! It's an amazing construction and design feat each year."

Looking back over the last 14 days, I can add the following:
  • I’ve attended french school for 44 lessons (45 minutes each lesson) and that includes four 1 on 1 lessons, where you just can't hide!
  • Had at least two long conversations in french with native french speakers and fellow students
  • I’m now good friends with the man and his wife who make my coffee each morning (of course!)
  • I’m no longer fearful of ordering taxis, meals, train tickets, and heaps of other day to day activities – but I will do anything to avoid a phone conversation in french with someone I don’t know!
  • I've started reading Le Petit Prince in french. And loving it!
All in all, a good couple of weeks. I love getting comments on my posts - so don't be shy, post away!!

17 November 2010

Finding my way - linguistically - in France

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Erin picked my mum and me up from our Paris hotel to spend the day with her in Versailles. It was a splendid coincidence that we were talking about how to make ourselves understood by native french speakers, when we were stopped by a minor traffic accident in front of us.

After some thought and with horns blaring behind us, the drivers immediately in front of us carefully edged their way onto the footpath, behind a removal van and back onto the road ahead of the accident. At about this time, Erin was telling us a story about how she needed to make herself understood - so that she could work out whether to move her car out of the way of another vehicle. After several attempts to say "is my car in the way?" in French, she sidetracked and said instead "would you like me to move my car?"

The symbolism of this story combined with our manouevres to get round the traffic accident has stayed with me these last couple of weeks as I try to come to grips with speaking French for most of the day. I start out to ask for something, or tell a story as I would in English. And then I have to stop - and find my way around the "traffic accident" that is about to occur with my current skill level!

So lesson 1 in learning French: if you have some vocabulary and some grammar, just keep working with what you've got and find a way to express yourself. Don't be afraid to have a go.  This works really well in Montpellier, where the locals are very patient with students such as myself. They don't rush you (as the Parisians do) and they don't try and second guess you (as the Parisians are also wont to do!)

I'm in a different class this week - there are students from England, Spain, Italy and Switzerland (Suisse-Allemande), whereas last week, most of the students in my class were English-speaking. The teachers here like having a mixed class, because it promotes the use of French between students during breaks and socially. Mondays are tough - especially if you've spent the weekend with English-speaking companions - it takes an hour or so for the brain to reset into "I'm speaking french" mode again.

Another thing that occurs to me as I eavesdrop conversations on the tram or train these days (and yes I'm getting better at it!) - is that it doesn't really matter if I know the words or sentence construction or not, if I'm missing the context, the history or the culture, then I'm really not going to be able to understand what is said.

Alors - lesson number 2: don't just learn the language, get out and about and try and work out what makes people tick in the particular city or region. For example, on a tram yesterday, I sat opposite a man wearing a baseball cap with the words "Diable Rouges" on it. That would have meant nothing to me a couple of weeks ago, but yesterday, I was able to place this man as a rugby (league) fan. Diable Rouges is the name of Montpellier's league team!! Of course, you can read Wikipedia or a travel guide, but the most useful things are to read the local papers, watch local TV, or just talk to the locals (as best one can).

And for today's post, the final tip is to stop people trying to practise their English with you!! As Erin said - and I paraphrase - "For goodness sake, we're in France, we're supposed to practise our French, not their English!" So even if people try to help me out, I generally respond "J'essaie en francais, ca va?"

Oh - and if you want to learn to speak french in France - the school I'm at (Institute Linguistique Adenet) is good - and there are options in many other cities as well.  Check out the website of the International Association of Language Schools and search for courses by the language and country of interest.

12 November 2010

Discovering Montpellier

11 November 2010: Today was a "jour férié" - a public holiday - in France. In Australia, we get a minute's silence for Remembrance Day, in France it's an entire day! And when the public holiday is mid-week, lots of workers take an extra day - a practice known as "faire le pont" or literally to "make a bridge" to create a long weekend. I'm starting to think I could live here.

Because of the public holiday, I didn't have classes this morning, so I decided to extend my tour of discovery a bit further, especially as we had beautiful sunny weather as well.

Montpellier is a fascinating city, in one of the oldest region in France - the Languedoc-Roussillon region. If you're interested in the history and geography of the city, Wikipedia does a pretty good job of outlining the main points of interest.

What Wikipedia won't tell you directly is that the greater urban area of Montpellier is known as an agglomeration, so you have the transport system - TaM - which stands for Transports de l'agglomeration de Montpellier. For someone who loves great brand and design - Montpellier has really pulled it all together. And I love the notion of being part of an agglomeration, rather than just an urban sprawl. 

The tram system is great, with two lines currently in operation. The lines intersect in a wavy, wobbly "X" shape that crosses at 2 or 3 key points around the city. "La comedie" as it is known, is the heart and symbol of the city, but it definitely pays to move on and out from the main plaza to discover some other hidden gems.

Today, rather than get off at Gare St Roch as usual, I went on for a few more stations and got off at Le Corum where the main congress/exhibition centre is situated. From here you can stroll through a long allée (or park) that would be fabulously leafy in summer, with heaps of open air cafes, and take in a photographic exhibition (free) or the beautiful Musée Fabre, which was unfortunately closed today.

Montpellier has many famous people connected with it, but its modern hero - or perhaps anti-hero would be a better term - is a young man called Remi Gaillard. Remi is a bit of a prankster, with a wicked sense of humour that is often directed at authority figures. His website links to heaps of short video clips, many providing great travelogues of Montpellier. I found out about Remi from the sons of some new friends at dinner last night. Not the sort of thing you see in guidebooks, but maybe they should be there.

Montpellier is also known as a centre for study. On any day there's something like 70,000 students in Montpellier, many of whom, like me, are here to study for a short period of time. This ensures a lively cultural life in the city throughout the year, not just in the peak summer travel season. Good restaurants, clubs, bars and shops are dotted throughout the narrow stone alley-ways of the old city. Most areas in the old city are free of traffic, apart from delivery vehicles, taxis, trams and buses.

I'm still checking out the best places to eat, shop, get coffee and so on - at the moment I've got some worth going back to and others to avoid! Hard to know what will be good - everything looks wonderfully quaint because of the fabulous setting.

09 November 2010

La peniche Anjodi

We were lucky. The weather was better than expected. Especially as this was the last week in the canal cruising season in the south of France.

The Canal du Midi - the normal route for our barge ("la peniche") Anjodi - closed the week before our cruise, so we headed off in the opposite direction towards Provence.

Forget the superliners that cruise around the world. Cruising the canals and waterways in the south of France on a hotel barge offers so many opportunities to just simply sit and reflect, and move at a pace that is very much in harmony with the local culture.

Please indulge me while I quickly catalogue what was fabulous about this cruise: the location in the ancient region of Languedoc-Rousillon - and our cruise covered the most historic ports in France, through the "sauvage" Camargue, to the edge of Provence; the barge and her crew - of which more later; wonderful excursions to historic towns; and a mad bicycle ride into St Gilles.

I think we had the best crew one could imagine - four crew for five passengers - we couldn't have had better service or attention had we been in a five star hotel. Our captain Julian had the challenging task of rounding us all up in Montpellier and helping me to leave one of my bags at a local hotel to save space on board - and then drive us to our first port Marseillan, a charming, historic fishing village, just south-west of Montpellier. Here's the pier where we moored overnight, taken very early Monday morning.

Throughout the week, our chef Ken and supergirl Lauren kept us well-nourished, but more than that, made us feel like we were the only people in the world (and we really do know that we aren't!)

I've put an album of Ken's cuisine online - I can't do it justice in words, so will let the pictures talk for themselves!

Lauren was and is one of the world's quiet achievers, who managed to anticipate our every need, before we even knew we needed something. Not only were our beds made in ship-shape fashion each day, and turned down each night, she somehow managed to clean the boat from top to bottom one day while we were touring the countryside. And we suspect she also managed to keep the rest of the crew very much in line and organised from day to day.

And last, but by no means least, was Jules - our matelot, our tour guide, and fixer of all things that needed fixing (including, finalement, my SFR internet connection). It was Jules who had to run between the boat and the van, trying to find the three of us who went cycling in the countryside while the Anjodi sailed quietly to her overnight mooring near St Gilles. It would have helped if my phone hadn't been on silent, and that I missed two calls from Jules, while my mother was quietly wondering whether we would return in one piece or not.

Our new friends from the US, Gregory and Brenda, and I decided that after all the rich food, we really needed some exercise, and we imagined ourselves quietly cycling the quiet villages en route to our overnight mooring. Instead, after a km or so of quiet village roads, we ended up on the main road between Aigue-Mortes and St Gilles and on to Arles. We really did hit peak hour traffic, on a two-lane road that generally had no shoulder and had deep ditches very close to the edge of the road. After quietly panicking for the first little while, we found that the french drivers are very careful and respectful of cyclists - perhaps because they feared the french bureaucracy they would face if they killed a foreigner more than they cared for us I suspect!

The most amazing part of this trip was that Gregory managed to video the entire trip, with his camera strapped to the front of his bike - I have a copy that I can bore everyone to tears with when I get home.

To everyone on the Anjodi - vous êtes sans pareil. Bon jour, bon app et bon fromage!!

07 November 2010

A very sad day

A couple of days ago, I was looking forward to catching up on some of backlog of blogs. I've been quiet for almost a week because it's taken me that long to get my internet connection sorted and fully functional.

My barge cruise on the delightful Anjodi was everything I hoped it would be - peaceful (mostly), great food, beautiful countryside, and we made some wonderful new friends from the US who were the only other passengers on board. An artistic couple and his mother - intelligent, curious, generous and unfailingly kind people.

My birthday coincided with the last day of the cruise. I can't think of a more splendid way to spend a birthday than wandering through the streets of Arles and then back on board for yet another five star meal, followed by a bonfire and fireworks - complete with traditional Guy Fawkes on the fire! I understand the captain's girlfriend would have been delighted to see that suit burnt at last!

It was a foggy evening, followed by a foggy morning. The older woman was called Marjorie. Although Marjorie was unable to move around much, and did most of her sightseeing from a wheelchair, she was always gracious, dignified and determined to make the most of her holiday in France.

On Saturday morning when she woke, she was not well and struggling to breathe - but nevertheless we all made it into the minivan to head back to Montpellier. My mum was flying out from the airport for Australia at around lunchtime, so that was our first stop.

Just before we arrived at the airport, Marjorie went to sleep - we thought. As we pulled up at the airport, it became clear that she had stopped breathing and had no pulse - and despite prompt CPR and attention from the paramedics at the airport, did not make it. Sadly, she died there in the chaos and traffic, just outside Montpellier airport. 

Her son, Gregory, and his wife Brenda are naturally distraught and caught up in all of the tough decision-making that goes along with any death, but is exacerbated by being in a foreign country.  I will be their "family" here in Montpellier. If I know anything, it's that you need people around you when this sort of tragedy strikes. 

I won't go into any more detail, but I wanted to say, that even though I only knew Marjorie for a week, she was truly a great lady, with as much style and class as could be imagined under the circumstances.

Rest in peace, Marjorie. You will be sadly missed by your "nouvelles amies". Yeah, yeah, yeah.

05 November 2010

Village people

30 October 2010: After a fashionably late breakfast at Cafe Ladurée on the Avenue Champs Elysées (where else!) we were picked up my friend Erin, who bravely agreed to tackle the Paris traffic - with the help of TomTom - and take us to the village of Versailles for lunch and a natter.

Of course Versailles is best known for the fabulous Chateau de Versailles, home of French kings since 1682, when Louis XIV decamped from Paris, which he apparently loathed.

But we gave the palace a miss this time, heading instead to the village and its quaint cobbled market square, surrounded by the various market halls.

First, lunch in Au Chien Qui Fume (the dog who smokes)! The Coquilles St Jacques were fabulous, washed down with a glass of something rouge and french (apparently hard to find a bad wine in this country).

Then on to browse the market food halls.  All I can say is that the Belconnen and Fyshwick markets have got a way to go to catch up. Where else can you get your snails already pre-prepared with garlic butter to just pop quickly under the grill!!

And rather than pre-prepared chicken roasts, well here it's duck, cheval (yep, they eat horse meat!) veal, pork, turkey - and on to seafood, including such delicacies as sea urchins, and as many types of oyster as you can imagine.  Here's just a small selection of what was on offer!

So if it comes to a choice, I'm going to skip the palaces, and head for the villages while in France!