Thursday, January 31, 2008

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Snow Seekers

What is the opposite of a snowbird? Well, whatever it is, that is how we have been feeling lately. When we set upon this adventure to live in France, we could not have predicted what things we would miss from home. Turns out, it’s winter. Now, I realize that those of you who have suffered through this week’s deep freeze in Alberta would gladly trade places with me, and find yourself sipping on a cocktail in my sunny backyard. Or even better, trade places with Gilles and be sunning yourself on a beach in Gabon. But believe it or not, we would like to trade places with you! Well, maybe not on a day when the windchill is -50°C, but you get the drift.

To cure our atypical winter blues, we are heading to Chamonix/Mont Blanc in the French Alps this weekend for some snow fun. We’ll spend our days skiing, snowshoeing, skating, and rolling in the snow. Now, I am not anticipating our trip to be as warm and fuzzy as our past snowshoeing experiences with friends in Alberta. Those trips were made memorable by good company, snowbank beer, elusive lakes, kamikaze jumps, and dizzying heights (not recommended for those who have just given blood!). We’ll reminisce about those great times as we explore a new set of mountains, and hopefully finish the days off with a comforting cheese fondue. Mmmmm…cheese!

I’ll post some photos of our trip once we return. For now, enjoy some photos from the past.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Last Friday night I realized how much Gilles and I have adapted to French culture since arriving here last September. This realization came over diner with friends at a local restaurant that serves dishes typical of this region of France. I was with a Norwegian couple and two Scottish couples, all of whom arrived in Pau before Gilles and I. One of the Scottish girls had two friends visiting from Aberdeen, her hometown.

These visiting girls did not speak a word of French, except for a heavily accented bonjour, merci, and enchante. They were wonderfully pleasant and eager to befriend the waiters with their limited vocabulary. They received English versions of the menu, not that these were of much help. The English descriptions of the French dishes on offer were still foreign to these girls. They opted for a dish that appeared safe and familiar: steak, well done.

As I helped them with the menu from across the table, I could not help but reflect back to our first dining experiences in Pau. We did not have the luxury of the English menu; everything listed on the French menu was a mystery. In comparison, we interpreted menus in Italy with ease, and we don’t speak Italian! Gilles and I are adventurous with regards to food, but we do like to know what we are eating. So, for my first French meal, I ordered a salad with goat cheese toasts drizzled with honey.

Last Friday, when this memory came to mind, I was taken aback by how easily I was now reading the menu. I ordered chipirones farci avec piment d’Espelette. Several months ago, I would not have had a clue what this was. But last Friday, I enjoyed skid stuffed with peppers from the town of Espelette with no surprises. I was quite proud of myself.

I may be advancing my French language skills, but I still have plenty to learn when it comes to the Scottish language. When the visiting girls were asked if the speak English, they said “no, Scottish”, and I think they truly are different languages. Here is what I have learned so far:

Tatties = potatoes
Skive = to skip something, ie to skip school
Uni = university
Hogmanay = New Year’s Eve

With all the languages floating around in my head, I did not dare ask the Norwegian couple for a few lessons in their language!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Holiday Traditions

We spent a wonderful holiday season in France. My parents and sister joined us to celebrate Christmas and the New Year French style. We incorporated some new traditions into our celebrations, yet managed to squeeze in a few familiar touches from home. Mom brought me chicken bones (only Maritimers will know what these are), one of my favourite Christmas treats. She also brought summer savory to season the stuffing, and I managed to find cranberry sauce. We blared the Christmas tunes, and had a wonderful time.

As for the French traditions, we enjoyed oysters on several occassions, and had a Buche de Noel for dessert after Christmas supper. We cooked a chapon (the castrated rooster discussed previously) for that same meal. The butcher stuffed it with ground veal and mushrooms. It clearly has more fat than the average chicken; it could have been cooked for days without drying out! It was delicious, and Gilles and I did prefer it over a turkey. We visited a bakery at least once a day. My father, who does not speak French, was so accustomed to the procedure by the end of his visit that he was ordering the baguettes. We sampled many, many French wines and cheeses. The fantastic wines were easy winners with our guests; I can’t say the same about some of the cheeses. They did not agree with my theory that the stinkier the cheese, the better the taste.

The weather was warm and wonderful while they were here. We enjoyed a lunch in the backyard wearing only t-shirts. The weather also made for some great day trips. We visited both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The Atlantic Coast is only a little over an hour away. While there we visited the French town St Jean de Luz, and the beautiful Spanish town of San Sebastian. The closest point on the Mediterranean is three hours away. There, we walked along a beautiful sandy beach, wider and longer than any we have ever seen. On the way home from that trip we paid a visit to the medieval town of Carcassonne.

Our visitors left a week ago, with full bellies and memory cards. They spent a day in Paris before returning to Canada. We miss them, and are anxiously awaiting our next visitors.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Sisters in Switzerland

My sister, Julie, and I spent four days in Switzerland before Christmas. The first two days were in the country’s capital, Bern. I have previously visited Geneva, and Bern had a lot of similarities, which I now assume are typical of a Swiss city. Switzerland is clean, punctual and very expensive. The Swiss are extremely environmentally friendly; they choose to walk, bike, or take public transportation to work. The city streets are eerily empty of vehicles. The parking lots devoted to bicycles are crammed, even in the winter. Wherever one travels in Switzerland, it’s hard to avoid the reminders that Switzerland has a long tradition of watch making. It seemed as though Bern had a large clocktower on every street corner in the historic part of town.

After Bern we voyaged to the mountain village of Murren. To access this village, we had to take a large gondola, then a rickety train that chugged along the side of a mountain. Murren is a car-free village. It was traditionally a farming town, but now survives mostly on tourism. I felt more in the mountains while in this town that only a day of snowshoeing or hiking has allowed me to feel before. It is more common to see people sledding or skiing through the village’s narrow streets than walking. Even the mailman gets around on a large toboggan! The gentleman who owns the chalet we stayed at plays the alphorn, and we were fortunate to hear him play a tune one sunny afternoon.

We went sledging, which is what the Swiss call sledding. The ‘sledges’ are like a short and raised toboggan. The sledging trails start at the same elevation as the ski trails, and are accessed by a gondola. We had so much fun flying along the trail, and occasionally crashing into a snowbank.

Julie and I were in German speaking Switzerland. Despite the language barrier, we managed to order all the Swiss specialties for supper. We enjoyed two cheese fondues, which barely resembled any that I have had before. They were so delicious and soothing after a cold day of sightseeing. We were served bread and small boiled potatoes for dipping into the melted cheese. We also sampled several rosti, which were delicious and oddly similar to a hearty breakfast served in a cast iron pan. Rosti are grated potatoes, shaped into discs and shallow fried or baked in the oven. We had it served with fried eggs, sausages, bacon, and cheese (not all at the same time!). We also sampled several Swiss beers that resemble those made by their German neighbours. And to put the finishing touches on a well balanced diet of cheese, potatoes, and beer, we ate chocolate...lots and lots of chocolate. Yum!!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A Paris Christmas

Gilles and I spent a wonderful weekend in Paris before my family arrived for Christmas. We had this trip planned for several weeks, but an extended stay in Gabon for Gilles almost canceled our plans. But thanks to a wedged tool in the well, Gilles and I arrived in Paris the same day!

Paris stays true to form and dons a very classy look for the holiday season. No plastic santas or reindeer in this town. The famous department stores of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette were breathtaking. They come alight at night, with my favourite being Printemps which was covered in delicate pink lights. We were shocked with our first look at the interior of Galeries Lafayete. The large Christmas tree hung above the cosmetics department, and reached up for almost four stories. The buzz inside the store was almost as big as that outside, where thousands of people gathered to get a glimpse of the storefront displays. The animated winter scenes had adults and children alike in awe.

The Champs Elysees was beautiful at night with blue lights lining both sides of the street. We had a wonderful (and chilly) bird’s eye view of the City of Lights Christmas-style with a ride on a ferris wheel that was set up at the end of the Champs Elysees.

We managed plenty of shopping, and avoided getting crushed in the busy gastronomic stores like Fauchon. The French were out in full force stocking up on speciality food and wine for the holiday season. We have never seen a store so crazy and chaotic! Oh, and I finally got the Furla handbag that I passed up while we were in Italy. Merry Christmas to me!