29 March 2008

Easter Weekend Travel

Sometimes you happen upon really amazing people. Sometimes, these amazing people invite you to visit them. And usually, amazing people live in amazing places. Or they make them amazing just by living there.

Oh the places you'll go

So, I had the chance over Easter weekend to visit A-people in A-places, starting with a voyage to Lille, an underestimated city in the north of France. Though my bike ride to the train station that afternoon was the worst ever (rain, wind, and temperatures dropping), and though the weather was not very cooperative at my destination (it rained the entire weekend), I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I stayed with two girls from Quebec, studying this year in Lille, who I met (and this is where it gets complicated) at the hostel in Rome in February. I came to know these two (Nancy and Emilie) and their friend the Porto Rican English language assistant (Adlyn) pretty well in Rome, and their company was no less enjoyable in Lille! They showed me around the city, forced me to sing karaoke (they’re big fans of 80s music), and made me lots of delicious meals, despite the (in)voluntary simplicity of foreign college student life that leaves you with only a Bunsen burner for cooking.

Mostly we spent our time sitting around and chatting, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. You think you know French, and THEN you start learning Quebec French. Lots of people I know here turn up their noses at the Quebecois accent, but I don’t mind it; it just took some getting used to. My first theory was that, like everybody says here, it’s the “Old French” (which can’t be true, since whatever French was when it arrived in Canada has forcibly evolved over the centuries, just as the French in France has). My second take was that it’s French spoken with an English mouth, wider and more exaggerated. Then I started catching hints of “flar” (“flower” in English, “fleur” in French) that made me think they’d been hanging around the Carter family in deep Appalachia. Whatever the story, our first evening together involved a lot of repetition for my sake; I felt like I was back at the level of French I had last October. Things improved over the weekend, and I really enjoyed parading around with them: no one noticed my fumbling accent next to their distinct Quebecois flourishes.

The old section of Lille is really quite beautiful. I say its an underestimated city because the entire Nord-pas-de-Calais region has a bad rap in the rest of the country. The film Bienvenue chez les ch’tis (Ch’ti is the name for the habitants of the region) by Dany Boon (very, very funny French comic) captures all the stereotypes of the north in recounting the story of a postmaster who is transferred to the north and expects nothing but the French equivalent of hillbillies. He actually finds the people very welcoming, even if they have funny accents, lunch at hotdog stands, and consider the chimes as the highest form of artistic ability. Now he just has to convince his wife, a (French) southern belle born and raised, who’s convinced that her husbands co-workers are drunks and that the weather is akin to that of Siberia. Anyhow, a long way of saying that I saw this film in the theaters and understood it, even with its talk of accents! And to say that Lille is a beautiful city that I should like to visit again some sunnier day.

Pretending I come from the farm

I left Lille Sunday afternoon and headed to Angers, to stay again with Bev, the woman who graduated from Manchester and lives with her half-French family on a farm in the Loire valley while running this micro-loan program in west Africa called Echoppe. Bev invited the three of us from Manchester studying here in Strasbourg (Leslie, Cassie, and I) for Easter, to talk about Echoppe’s ties with Manchester, and just to get us out of the city a bit. Both Leslie and Cassie are from rural Indiana (Bev is originally too), and there was lots of talk about missing the smell of cows and doing animal chores, so I chimed right in. Even though I much prefer horses to cows and, though I gave it a good shot last summer while visiting a friend in Idaho, I’m not much of a farmgirl. I’m a gardener. It was good to get out into the countryside, though, and especially fun to go horseback riding with Bev’s two highschool-age kids. We ate well, played with the sheep, talked, and learned a lot from Bev about the kind of work it takes to change the world. “Social insertion through economic integration” is the motto, meaning that small loans are accompanied by social health requirements: a woman must present the vaccination card of her children before receiving her first loan; she must learn to write her name and recognize it in a list before receiving her second. Participation in the neighborhood council and family planning are also part of the process. Eventually, women save as much as they’ve borrowed. Those who graduated from Echoppe’s four-step loan program founded their own mutual, giving bigger loans for personal purposes. The hope is that the women’s mutual will start funding the Echoppe loans. Bev has been at this work for twenty years now: no less dedicated, hopeful, and passionate. I like hanging out with people like that!


I returned home late Tuesday night, and have been dashing around ever since. Good news: I FINALLY RECEIVED MY RESIDENCY PERMIT!!!!! After seven months of bureaucratic run-arounds, I won out. Now I have the right to stay for five more months. I hope it’s not like this for people who renew their residency cards.

ps. Nancy, who runs her "hAIR Force One" hair salon out of her room, was kind enough to clean me up. Quite a change!

20 March 2008


Manchester College has made a very small change in the email system that will result in huge inconveniences. Allow me to apologize. Technologically speaking, this probably has a good reason behind it. I will leave that to the techies, and continue to fume about it for the rest of the semester.
My new email address (for those of you using the Manchester account) is:
As of 20 April, I will no longer receive emails in my old account, so please do make this change.

Wishing you the happiest of springs,

16 March 2008

A Rich Life

The French have rightfully earned their reputation as connoisseurs of cuisine: if there’s one thing they do well, it is to eat. Meals are an affair surrounded by formalities, tradition, and intentionality. Main courses are scrupulously paired with wines, the meal proceeds through certain stages in a certain order, and everything has its purpose. A few basic guidelines of French mealtime ideology:

Eat with someone: No one should eat alone, especially if there are other people in the house. Eating is a social activity, the focus being the discussion and the time passed together, with good food as a backdrop. Take time to be together.

Begin eating only when everyone has been served: Since each meal is considered more an experience than a necessity, that experience has a definite beginning (bon appetit) and ending.

Stay at the table: Forget time efficiency—this is no time to get up and run the vacuum while others are finishing their soup before the cheese course. There is a sort of “team mentality." You can’t very well begin one thing before you finish another, and you can’t very well be finished until everyone is. Sometimes there’s even transition time between courses, while one is being cleaned up and the next one warmed up, when you’re left with only conversation on the table (which, among friends, is sustenance enough).

Appreciate everything: From the smells wafting through the room to the color of the food on your plate to the feeling of it in your content stomach, every aspect of a meal is meant to be enjoyed. Take time to do so, and thank your host. My two particularly favorite moments of a meal are the mixing of wine and cheese and bread in my mouth and the smell of the last sip of coffee after the last bite of dessert.

So, a week ago a friend and I decided to forgo solo dinners (I rarely eat at the same time as my host family, since I cook for myself and often return home late evening; Alex’s host mom was gone for the week) and take part whole-heartedly in this French tradition. We spent much time cooking, more time talking, and the best time enjoying ourselves and our meals. Here’s what we came up with:

Always cheese: you can see here some goat cheese (chèvre), comté, gruyere, and camembert. The wine was Alsatian pinot gris in traditional Alsatian wine glasses.

Baked potatoes with onions, beets, and pureed carrots on a bed of peas; bread; red wine from Anjou in the Loire Valley.

Cubed squash simmered in white wine with dill, served on a bed of rice; classic Alsatian riesling (white).

“Pot-au-feu” or vegetable soup with cabbage, carrots, onions, celeriac, leeks, and rutabaga; bread; olives; red wine from Corsica.

Homemade bread: although very, very unnecessary in France, it still felt good to get back into the flour and bake some.

Go clean yourself up—you’re drooling.

10 March 2008

I Like to Ride My Bicycle

I really do.

I ride it to school, to market, into town.

My bike and I go along canals, through parks, along windy streets, on bike paths.

It helps me not be so late all the time:

I am inevitably five minutes behind, which made me very late

when I had to wait for the next bus

but sometimes not late at all on my bike.

You can hardly hear my bike it runs so smoothly.

Except, of course, when I ding the bell

but that has a nice ring too.

I like riding my bike out Wednesday mornings to la Wantzenau

where I teach English and have lunch with a nice family.

I pass bus stops called “Unterjaegerhof”

(I’m convinced it’s an Alsatian insult)

And one called, literally, “Fields.”

Being on my bike

puts me real close to the blossoming

forsythia and lilacs and magnolias.

I try to breathe in as much as I can when I pass by,

but not so much that I get light-headed—

you always have to be watchful on a bike.

I’ve already given in and named it.

It’s a she.

Her name is Rembrandt,

though I don’t call her that here

(I don’t like the way it sounds in French).

There is a little French flag painted on the frame

above her name.

I like bicycles.

All Roads Lead to Rome

So, I took one. Then another to Florence. One to Venice. Then, finally, a road home. Over the course of a week, I explored these parts of Italy with two other BCA spring arrivals, Amanda and Charlie.

We arrived Saturday (16 February) night in Rome, with just enough time to catch a fine pizza dinner in a neighborhood bistro. I like how I just used the words “pizza” and “bistro” in their “native” contexts: I was enjoying Italian food in Italy. And it was everything you imagine! Pizzas, pastas, bruschetta, gnocchi, lasagna, stuffed ravioli, eggplant parmesan, calzones, and Italian cheeses and olives everywhere smothered in olive oil and topped off with tiramisu, canola, espresso, and limoncello. Not to mention loads of gelato: what an excellent excuse to eat ice cream all week long! I tried to photograph the food in this land of ambrosia, but pictures just don’t do it justice.

Sunday: Ambling around Rome, Stumbling upon Ruins

You really can’t avoid them. Old means one thing in the US (18th century), something different in France (15th century, 6th if you’re lucky), and something completely different in Rome (into the big BC). The most wonderful thing about Rome was that, no matter which corner you come around, the city surrounds you with character and history. We covered the Roman forum, the biggest and oldest playground in the world (pictured below), and the center of THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. All in a day’s walk!

Monday: Paying to see the really famous ruins

The Coliseum, Palatino, Circus Maximus: check, check, check. Here, I have a confession to make: finding that the European Union has wised up and started charging non-Europeans less to enter historical sites (in place of a student reduction!), I pretended to be a French citizen to get a half-price ticket. I sort of felt guilty about it. But only sort of. So I worked up some good Catholic guilt and went the next day to repent of my faux-Europeanism.

Tuesday: Getting Holy at the Vatican

I thought I’d cross an international border and enter the smallest country in the world: Vatican City. Walking along the Tiber River, I kept my eyes open for Roman legions, chariots, and togas, and having one of those moments of realization: I am walking along the Tiber River in Rome, on my way to the Vatican from the Coliseum. It’s one of those sentences you say to yourself only so many times over the course of a lifetime, you know? Walking around the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica was just as flooring, though I broke my own sense of awe by giggling at the funnily-dressed Vatican guards. After passing through metal detectors and almost having my passport checked, I entered Vatican city and quickly climbed 550 steps to the top of the basilica’s cupola to get a good look. Here’s what I saw:

Impressive, huh? And the inside of the Basilica even more so. You honestly don’t know whether to look at the floor, the walls, or the ceiling: all is so highly-decorated and incredibly beautiful. I wonder what God thinks of it?

Wednesday: To Florence

Trains are probably my greatest source of joy at the moment. They represent the highest form of public transportation: clean, efficient, fast, comfortable. Like a tour bus, trains take me on tours through the countryside and then onto everywhere I want to be. Better than Visa. We left Rome in the morning for Florence, admiring the scenery of Tuscany and enjoying the chance to rest our feet for a few hours. Once arrived and checked into our hostel (hostels are also a great source of joy: mostly clean, safe, fun, cheap places to stay in the hearts of cities; the one in Rome even had a pasta dinner every night), we paid a visit to David. Take my personal guarantee that he is just as beautiful today as the day he was carved (Michelangelo, 1504). It may sound a bit pompous, but I feel no need to ever see another statue: David is that good. From face to hands to…feet, he is a masterpiece.

Florence is the artists’ city, and that much was obvious when I visited the Uffizi art gallery, which features a large collection of the work of the fifteenth/sixteenth century Florentine school. Even outside the gallery, everything in Florence is artsy. Well, except for the Ponte Vecchio, a very famous touristy bridge, the only one not destroyed during World War II. At some point the Duke of Florence gave the bridge from the Woolmakers’ Guild to that of the Goldsmiths, so the shops on the bridge, like the Rialto bridge in Venice, are exclusively jewelry stores. Expensive, to say the least.

Thursday: Obligatory picture holding up the tower of Pisa

No, you’re right: I didn’t take it. I thought this post was a fine substitute, though. We spent the most pleasant afternoon in Pisa: the weather was so nice, we bought a soccer ball and played on the grassy area around the tower. It was possibly my favorite part of the trip, and I’m thinking of catching a cheap Ryanair flight back just to visit Pisa again. It’s a smaller town, relatively unremarkable except for this strangely sunken tower. You can buy a ticket and go up the tower, but as a general rule I don’t climb on falling buildings.

We came back to Florence that evening and had dinner with a dozen Italians, friends of our friend Elisa (studying in Strasbourg now but who had studied in Florence in high school, and was back visiting). She played translator a lot, but through hand motions and facial expressions and over good food and wine, we all managed to communicate and have a wonderful time. Really, nothing beats a calzone, tiramisu, and espresso.

Friday: To Venice

Venice was like a playground: no two bridges look alike, no roads are straight or wide, gelato calls to you from every corner, and boats take you around instead of bikes or buses. It seems very odd, in a playful sort of way. It’s not worth having a map: give yourself an afternoon and content yourself with wondering around wherever your fancy takes you and getting lost. When you want to head back, just ask someone, and he’ll point you on as far as he can (about three turns), then you ask someone else. Once you’re back in the tourist/main area, gold plaques point you toward the five main sites, sometimes pointing in both directions. Welcome to Venice.

Saturday: Of Dukes and Pigeons

When in Venice, BE SURE TO VISIT THE DUCAL PALACE. This is probably the most impressive building I have ever been in, and I’ve been in quite a few buildings in my time. Through this former palace-turned museum, you learn about the history of the Venetian Republic while wandering through vast meeting rooms, private court chambers, dungeons, and golden staircases. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been to call places like this my own, without tourists walking through it to interrupt my contemplation of the largest tableau in Europe.

When you leave the Palace and enter St. Mark’s Square, WATCH OUT FOR THE PIGEONS. Even if you don’t pay a euro to buy a tiny packet of birdseed, the pigeons will still love on you. I was glad to be fully covered with coat, hat, and gloves, because the pigeons land everywhere. Very sociable animals. I named this one Chet.

Sunday: HOME

Well, after a night flight and bus into Paris, we arrived at a friend’s house to spend a short night before catching a morning train back to Strasbourg. The Strasbourg cathedral never looked so good.

01 March 2008


If you,
just so happen,
to have the time,
and the mind,
to drop a line...
that little piece of happiness should be sent to:
7 Avenue de la Foret Noire
67000 Strasbourg FRANCE