Friday, October 30, 2009

Fécamp !

I went to Fécamp last year, at the very end of the year, but never blogged about it because I am lazy. So this year the procrastination bull is being taken by the horns, and this post is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of travel posts that get written very soon after I return from said travels.

Well, we can hope, can't we?

Fécamp is a relatively small town (about 20,000 inhabitants) on the Normandy coast, a little northeast of Etretat. Not only does it have pretty cliffs and pebbly beaches and Norman charm, it also has a palace! But not a royal palace; no no, this palace was built for advertising, pure and simple. You see, in 1510, a Venetian monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli brought exotic herbs and spices with him to the Fécamp abbey. Dom Bernardo became the abbey's pharmacist and created a "health elixir" from these plants and spices. This elixir was used in the abbey until the French Revolution (no mention of how alcoholic the stuff was at the time, but if it's anything like it is now, it certainly had some medicinal purposes...). Then the recipe was lost until a businessman, Alexandre Le Grand, saw that he could make a killing from "rediscovering" this lost recipe, steeped in ancient lore. So in the late 1800s, Le Grand created Bénédictine, an amber-colored liqueur made from 27 plants and spices (not distilled essence of Benedictine monk, as I thought at first. So no Brother Cadfaels were harmed in the making of this drink). Being a savvy businessman, he trademarked it (waaaaay ahead of his time), started to export it (the Palais de la Bénédictine is still the only place on earth that it's made), paid talented graphic designers to make posters and stained-glass windows advertising it, and built this ridiculous Gothic-Renaissance palace to promote his brand:

So yeah, the guy took his brand seriously. It paid off, though - 150 years later, Bénédictine is still widely sold, exported all over the world, and blogged about by silly expat Americans. There are worse fates. Also, it's delicious (full disclosure: I am drinking some as I blog. For inspiration, of course. The inspiration that only 80-proof liquor can provide).

Before I get into the palace and its museum, however, I will share the rest of our excursion. Ben, Lauryn and I took a train and a bus from Rouen to Fécamp. We disembarked, then realized that we had no idea where to go, not having any maps. But wait Lisa, didn't you say you'd been there before? Why yes, dear reader, I have. I didn't know where to go last time, either. Brave Ben found a map, which directed us to the tourist office, which directed us in turn to some viewpoints. So we set off on the route highlighted for us, which took us to this path:

Certain of finding homeless people around every corner, we bravely entered the mysterious doorway and confronted the narrow, winding path. Also, there were stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. Halfway up, I paused to document how far we'd come:

Then we encountered a helpful tourist information board, which told us that this path, up which we had been huffing and puffing, was the very same path up which pilgrims and sailors would climb, sometimes on their knees or in bare feet, to reach the chapel at the top. Didn't stop us from whining, though.

Finally, we reached the chapel, which was quite lovely.

The real draw, however, was the view; cliffs, village, ocean, beach.

We walked along the cliffs for quite some time, taking oodles of pictures of all sorts of lovely views (more pics here)

until we got hungry and had to head back down. Ben had invited an Estonian friend, Nikita, who in turn brought his Canadian friend Kaylee (no, she hasn't heard of Firefly). They got to Fécamp just as we returned to town, so we met them and set out to find lunch. We were planning on going to a bakery, a cheese shop, and a butcher shop to make our own sandwiches, but because this is France everything closes at lunchtime, just when you'd want food. So some of us went to the one open bakery and got pre-made sandwiches, and some of us found the one kebab place and got greasy, lamb-y, delicious kebabs. Oh how I have missed them. We hiked to the beach to eat,

and then the bravest member of the group went wading!

Also, because of the stones, the waves make a really neat tinkly sound as they recede, from all the pebbles moving around. I tested the video function of my camera to try to capture it:

Yes, the cameraman is a scaredy-cat. Now shush.

Next, we hiked to the Palais de la Bénédictine, which is Fécamp's real claim to fame. It has a museum of sacred art, as well as a "how Bénédictine is made" section. One of the museum's highlights was the stained-glass window made to advertise Bénédictine:

Yes, that is an angel bringing Alexandre Le Grand a bottle of Bénédictine. Because he must have had divine inspiration to create something so delicious! Or something...

I also liked the small room of engraved manuscripts, which were so gorgeous and detailed that it's hard to believe they were created by people. By candle-light, no less.

The second part of the museum, having to do with the fabrication of Bénédictine, was a little more interesting. First, we walked through a room full of herbs and spices, showing where they come from and what they're used for. There were bowls and jars full of them, as well as these works of art:

The ceiling of this room had 5 stained-glass advertisements for Bénédictine. I wish advertising were still this luxurious and well-designed...

Then, it was down to the basement, where the magic actually happens. There's an incredibly complicated process, involving four different mixtures of herbs, which are distilled and aged separately before being mixed together, aged again, having honey and other things added, then finally aged some more. All I really took away from it, though, were the dozens of huge oak barrels:

There's a little sign at the top saying "14,000 litres". And there were a bunch of these! All this big!

Then it was down into a deeper basement with smaller barrels, connected by some gorgeous red piping, labeled with enameled plaques. The French just do it better:

By this time, some of us were really ready for the free tasting that awaited us at the end of the visit:

Here we are!

And the gorgeous amber liquid itself:

Then, of course, there was the boutique, where I restrained myself (I still have most of the bottle I bought last year) and only bought one postcard and a bag of Bénédictine bonbons. We tore into the candy on the way home, ensuring constant entertainment from the quiet shrieks as the candy part melted, giving way to the much stronger Bénédictine flavor.

Thus ends the lovely trip to Fécamp. I love that I can just decide that I want to go to the coast, hop on a train, and get there in about an hour for under ten euros. France, je t'aime.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Partner in Crime, and Other Updates

Oh dearie me so much to catch up on!

First, and most exciting, Franglophone Fou (well, he's really more of an anglophone at the moment, but that's going to change rapidly) is coming to join me in the joyous insanity of being an English assistant in France! Franglophone Fou, aka Logan, managed to nab the last English assistant spot in the region, in Le Havre. It's less than an hour away from Rouen by train, and he has free housing there; we both got really really lucky. So I've spent the last few weeks translating oodles of e-mails from French to English and English to French, summarizing visa requirements, and generally smoothing the path for him, since I've done it all twice now and I speak French. The translating has been really fun - it's pretty straightforward stuff, but it's still satisfying when a certain phrase clicks just right in one of the languages.

Second, my chest x-ray and medical visit both went swimmingly (this time it was a woman who didn't pull up my shirt and didn't lecture me about having scoliosis, so definitely an improvement from last year) except that they didn't have the little sticker to put in my passport, so I have to go back to collect that tomorrow. This year, instead of having to go to the oh-so-intimidating Préfecture to get our titres de séjour, they've streamlined the process and all we need is the sticker! So as of tomorrow I will be all set with the immigration office, and the only paperwork I'll have left will be for Sécurité Sociale.

Third, we have Internet now! Well, we've actually had it for about a week and a half, which may or may not be why there have been no blog posts for a while... I am a very easily distractible person, and part of me (related to the part that still thinks I'll eventually read every book in the world) likes to catch up daily on every single web page I read regularly. This, obviously, poses a problem, but it's getting better.

Fourth, I've started teaching for real, and this year I got the idea (from one of our training days) to say that my classroom is a little tiny part of the USA, so when the students walk in, they speak English and everybody's happy! It worked the first few classes, so we shall see how it goes as they become more comfortable with me and less intimidated, and therefore chat more. The students are much the same as last year - some are amazingly motivated and adorable, and some quite simply hate English (one boy actually said, when the teacher asked if he had heard where I come from in the US, "Non, mais on s'en fout, quoi" (No, I didn't, but I don't give a shit anyway). What a lovely way to start class!). I did run into two of my best students from last year out and about in Rouen; both of them approached me, remembered my name, and chatted for a bit in English! It's those students that make it all worthwhile.

Fifth, I finally cleaned up my room, so I can now share before and after photos. The night I arrived:

I know, I know, the horror, the horror. It didn't stay like that for long, but then I just shoved everything into my closet or onto my shelves or my desk, and things stayed there for waaaaaaaaay longer than I'd like to admit. But then life got much prettier when I finally just girded my loins and dealt with it, with these happy results:

Hooray for clean rooms! Living here will (I fervently hope) make it easier for me to get rid of things back home that I haven't used in ages, because I can live quite happily on everything I have here. Except I do miss my sewing machine... and my lap desk... and my comforter cover... Okay, I will never be a minimalist, and I'm at peace with that.

Sixth and finally, I went on my biggest market trip so far this year, having a few recipes in mind. First, a roasted vegetable and goat cheese sandwich for lunch, which turned out beautifully if I do say so myself:

I cut part of an onion and half a zucchini into slabs, drizzled them with olive oil, and chucked them into the oven for a bit (a red pepper joined them later). Then I took my plain fresh goat cheese (not the kind with a rind) and added lemon zest, oregano, and thyme. Put that all together, along with some salad greens, on good fresh bread and you have happiness in the palm of (or in this case, all over) your hand. Yumyumyum.

I also bought persimmons, which my Russian roommate from last year introduced me to. The nice man at the stall asked me when I wanted to eat them and picked out a nice range of ripeness so they won't all go bad at once, a service that is very common at the market and incredibly useful. One looked like it was about to burst from juicy sweetness, so I ate that one today and it was very good. Once you get your mind wrapped around eating something that looks like a tomato but tastes sweeter than any other fruit I know of, persimmons are delicious.

On the way home, I screwed my courage to the sticking point and went into the poissonnerie whose oysters and mussels and clams always look so good and yet so scary. I tend to become a vegetarian when I cook for myself, only because cooking meat frightens me deeply, so I'm trying to conquer that fear. My recipe is for bronzed sea bass with lemon-shallot butter (from The Pioneer Woman, who is hilarious and wonderful and has really good recipes). I couldn't find "sea bass" in my online dictionary, but the Pioneer Woman, always helpful, said that halibut or salmon would work too. Armed with the French translations of those varieties (flétan and saumon, for those of you who care), I stepped into the briny world of lobsters, scallops, and more whole fish staring at me than I've ever seen in one place. There were even flounder! Being all flat! The only fish they had available as a filet was something called "cabillaud", but it was white and looked innocuous enough, so I bought a small chunk and headed home, my reusable pink shopping bag full to bursting with fresh delectables. After making my delicious delicious sandwich, I decided to look up what kind of fish I'd actually bought. "Cabillaud", I typed into my trusty French-English dictionary. "Cod", it told me. Oh. Good to know. Here's hoping cod works with my recipe...

Wow, this is kind of turning into a cooking blog. Sorry about that. I just really enjoy having enough time to plan meals and shop for them at the market - I feel all grown-up and French!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Comment dit-on "jury-rig" en français?

I have arrived! Got here with absolutely no problems, despite the complexity of my means of transport (bus, plane, plane, bus, walk through Paris with gigantic bags, train, car) and the escalator at the Rouen train station was working! (In the past, the likelihood of the escalator’s working was inversely proportional to the size of my bags.) Anne, my professeur référent, invited my American flatmate Lauryn and me to dinner, which was lovely, and then I went back to my apartment and slept for 12 hours.

Speaking of the apartment… it’s just downstairs from the one last year, and since it’s not right under the roof, it’s much bigger and nicer (carpeted bedrooms!). It’s still free, and we have another American flatmate, Megan. So it’s all USA, all the time, instead of the mini UN last time.

Friday was the welcome day for all the assistants, and this year 11 of us renewed, which is an unprecedented number (thank you stock market crash) so they read our names to the whole auditorium! After hearing about all the paperwork, which was just as confusing the second time around, a few of us went out for drinks and I had my first demi-pêche in months. Oh, how I have missed demi-pêches… After that, I went back home and fixed my curtains so they don’t drag on the ground, and now my room looks mildly more civilized, at least.

Saturday, Lauryn and I tried to start the phone/Internet process, but will have to wait for some paperwork. It shouldn’t take as long this year, but I’m still betting it’ll be November before we get us some sweet Internet love. Also, the McDonald’s no longer has wifi, due to construction, and my old favorite Internet café has doubled its prices, so until I figure out a new routine, don’t count on regular anything. Hooray France!

After the phone disappointment, our other flatmate, Megan, called to invite us to lunch with her teacher, the teacher’s boyfriend, the teacher’s two sisters, and assorted other teachers and significant others. We went to a lovely little restaurant called Le bistroquet, where I had a salade de mer. It had lettuce, tomatoes, smoked herring, smoked salmon, and this really delicious seaweed that wasn’t too briny. The three of us tried to keep up with the rapid, slangy French conversation, but really only talked when one of the Frenchies took pity on us and asked us a direct question. There were lots of grammar jokes, so my little nerdy self felt right at home.

Saturday night, I finally decided to tackle the closet problem: no rod (seriously, French people care so much about their clothes that I fail to understand why NONE OF MY CLOSETS EVER HAVE RODS IN THEM). I had bought some cheap rods that were meant for curtains (all I could find, in three different stores), some fishing line, and some screws, and my closet already has adjustable shelves, so I had a plan. First, though I had to take the sliding doors off the closet to be able to get at everything. No problem, right? I’ll just yank. Except that they weighed a ton, and I had to figure out the mechanism so I’d be able to put them back on. So I pushed and pulled and slid and finally got one out, staggered across my room with it to put it out of the way, and turned my attention to the other one. Same process, except this time something fell off the top. And the bottom. Uh-oh. By careful inspection of the other side of the door, I managed to shove everything back into place, but the bottom piece (the part with the wheel that rolls along the track – rather essential to a sliding door’s function) kept falling out. Well, I’ll deal with that later, I thought, and turned back to the closet to tackle the straightforward task of getting the shelves out. They were just resting on three brackets, the brackets hooked onto vertical tracks to allow adjustment, so I simply lift the shelves out, pop out the brackets, and replace the brackets and shelves where I want them, right? Well, no. Nothing is ever that easy in France. First, the shelves were particle board, and I swear each one weighed as much as a small cow. Second, the shelves were cut to the full width of the closet, despite the slight jamb on one side, so much angling and tipping and near-dropping of shelves and grunting was required. Finally I got them out, set them aside, and adjusted the brackets. My plan was to put one shelf as low as it would go, then attach the rods to the bottom of the other and place it high enough above the first to be able to hang clothes. Next problem: how to attach the rods. Here is where the title of the post really starts to mean something; I present to you my wardrobe.

The magic floating closet rod! Oh wait, the only magic here is the magic of modern synthetics.

Yes, those are screws with nylon fishing line tied in (bowline) knots around them and threaded through the rods. I’m officially changing my name to MacGyver tomorrow. If this doesn’t work, I have other plans, but everything has stayed up for over 24 hours now, and everything that needs to hang is hung, so I’m calling this project good.

Except wait… weren’t there doors on the closet? Oh right, there they are, patiently leaning against the wall waiting for me to restore them to their rightful place. I taped up the mechanism on the bottom that kept falling down, which worked a treat, and cajoled/shoved/begged/pushed the doors back into place. And almost tipped over backwards doing so, as they’re floor-to-ceiling doors and we have 8-foot ceilings. Then I untaped the doohickey and lo and behold they slid! French closets 0, Lisa 2 (see last year’s entry).

Sunday was market day, as always, so I took my flatmates and off we went. Everything is just as I remember, down to the locations of the stalls and the fresh chèvre with cracked pepper on top (France, I love you so much). I got zucchinis and onions and chèvre and a demi-baguette and cider-apple bread and will now proceed to eat myself silly. Oh, how I have missed France.