Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year’s in Strasbourg

I’m about to start writing up an account of our recent travels, but in keeping with the day, it feels appropriate to do specifically New Year’s post.

Tonight, Amynah and I are heading to a small party at Julie and Sebastien’s place. They live in a slightly sketchy part of town, which should make it interesting for us. Remember those riots they had in France last year, when all the cars were getting burned? Well, about the only thing we knew about Strasbourg before we came here is that car burning is the local New Year’s custom – especially out in Meinau, where the party is. I just hope those guys have somewhere safe to park.

I’m getting a little nervous as midnight approaches – fireworks aren’t restricted here, and we’ve been hearing window-rattling Howitzer-like booms for days, set off by over-enthusiastic teenage boys. Once the hour strikes it’s going to be insane.

Though I knew it was coming, it's still a little strange to be celebrating New Year's here. It’s been a heck of a year and Canada feels much further in my past than just six months. A year ago, my job at McGill was becoming enjoyable again, both because I loved the work I was doing but more because I enjoyed being around the people I worked with. That made it harder to quit than it might have been a year earlier, but on the other hand it was good to leave on a high note. Even before I came here I got to do a lot of traveling, to New York, Nashville, Costa Rica, Alberta, BC and Nova Scotia. I also lost my Uncle Richie far too soon. That I was able to say goodbye to him first is no consolation at all.

Since coming here I've managed to get some writing done, but far, far less than I intended. On the other hand, I've managed a couple of European commissions along with the Globe articles, so I'm on the right track. I've also been to Germany, Switzerland and England, driven on the Autobahn, visited a handful of castles, a zillion churches, a few museums, two spas, shared many excellent meals with remarkably kind and hospitable French-folk and learned when to serve Gewurztraminer (dessert, apparently, though I prefer "never.")

My friends are moving on in their lives as well: a few have had children, others have or are planning on buying houses, some are going back to school or changing jobs, moving to places like Japan or the Congo; they're grown-up people doing grown-up things, and since they're my friends then I must too be a grown-up. All of which is enough to make a guy feel pretty old (having a friends five-year-old daughter guess that I was “fifty-eight years old” didn’t help).

So, after six months in France, what happens in the New Year? We have a horde of guests descending upon us in the coming months, so there’s that to look forward to. I’ll be doing more travel writing, and I’m planning on getting back into magazine writing as well. We have tentative plans to visit Ireland, Serbia and Romania this year. I don’t do resolutions so much, but that’s not a bad agenda for keeping myself occupied.

I hope the New Year brings all of you health, happiness and good cheer – and travel! To France, for instance!

Now I have to go mix me up some Molotov cocktails – those cars don’t burn on their own, you know.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Velocipedic villainy

Spent the last two days scooting around Alsace and the Black Forest of Germany in a rental tin can masquerading as an automobile. It went well - despite nearly smashing into a highway abutment in the Rhine fog (it was probaly marked, but how was I supposed to know what "Achtchung! Detour! Speedreducktionzone" meant?)

Anyway, other than that and the general feeling of imminent fiery death that driving on the Autobahn in a car with less power than a wind-up dancing monkey entails, it was an awesome two days, all of which will get a proper write up with amazing photos soon (not to mention a continuation of the Baden-Baden spa epic , wherein our hero incurs ocular strain in his efforts to avoid getting an eyefull of dangling Deutchweiners.

But first, sad news. My bike has been stolen. Due to doctors orders and lack of enthusiasm for activities where limbs - my limbs, especially - can be broken, I haven't been riding it much lately. But as my arm has healed, I've got out once or twice, most recently on Christmas Day. I've liked it, and the car trips have reaffirmed my desire to get out and about the country more under my own steam.

This morning Amynah and I headed out to return the little-engine-that-almost was-adequate. We were gone for about an hour. When we left, my bike was safely locked up, leaning in the corner of the main floor hall of our building, behind three other bikes, including Amynah's. When we came back - gone.

My suspicion is that a tenant or landlord simply put it outside because the tangle of bikes was partially blocking the hallway and it was opportunistically stolen from there - it's happened to other tenants, apparently. Mine is not used much (see above), and is the biggest. For a casual thief coming in off the street (the door is usually locked, but not everyone is careful) it would have been the most difficult to easily remove, but also the most obvious for an irritated resident to take out, so I suspect an inside job.

A bit of a bummer way to end an otherwise delightful holiday.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas all (or belated, if any of you are actually here on Christmas - go away! Spend time with your families!)

Christmas here, so far, has been awesome. Amynah cooked up a magnificent roast chicken with all the trimmings last night, then we read for a bit and then watched the 1951 "Scrooge" (the only one worth watching). We started it at about 11:30 PM, and so got to hear the cathedral bells go off at 11, 11:30, 12 and 1 AM for midnight mass, which was delightful (I didn't go, though we could here snatches of choral singing and organ music as we watched the film).

As is the tradition in my family, we slept in, before starting with our stockings, which apparently aren't too common in France. They do sell them, but not in great numbers, and they're very expensive. Amynah and I bought a pair of small ones made from burlap, with little felt Santa's brandishing sticks of indeterminate purpose (ski poles? reindeer crops? cudgels?) Mine held socks, one pair of which were green with black death's heads on them and Toberlone. Amynah's had a half-dozen People magazines and Toberlone. I then made pancakes (from a mix).

Then on to the presents: we had far more than I had expected, thanks to my parents and older sister. My folks, smart-asses that they are, had sent a care package with all sorts of things we had requested from Canada wrapped up in Christmas finery - peanut butter, deoderant, more socks - but they also sent me gloves, chocolate, and slippers for Amynah.

My older sister went nuts, as usual - Tim's coffee for me (woo-hoo!) tons of family photos including a homemade calendar with all the important birthdays and anniversaries and Nova Scotia cookbook and oven mitts. All of which seems calculated to ensure that I spend the next three months bedridden with homesickness, but appreciated nonetheless. I'm looking forward to making Blueberry Grunt for the first time.

However, the tippy-top gift of awesomeness came from Amynah. In addition to a book of travel writing for me (inspiration, that) she also gave me a framed ten sous note from 1792, from the French Revolution. Printed as the Terror was about to take off, it has a note on it that warns people that counterfeiting it is a capital offence, and that those that denounce such criminals will be compensated by the state. Very, very cool.

Amynah seemed fairly pleased with Santa's offerings - she received a pajama pants, a sweater (too big) and a traditional Alsatian pottery tea set (and an alarm clock, but that's no fun). The tea set is beautiful - Santa has good taste.

Tonight we go for a second Christmas meal at the house of a Canadian family we know here (a professor who is on a year's sabbatical from Queen's in Amynah's lab, her husband and their two kids). After that, we plan to create a new Christmas tradition of our own by settling in for the night with a Bollywood movie.

Anyway, sorry to have dwelt on the material things, but they are a lot easier to write about than the happiness I feel for having such a wonderful life, good friends, great family and an amazing wife who, despite it being her first kick at the can, is taking to Christmas like a duck to water (though she still seems to identify with pre-reformed "humbug" Scrooge much more than post-reformed "Merry Christmas" Scrooge).

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Longish post folks – though I beg you to click the links, not because the photographs are so great, but because they are a huge pain in the butt to put up. I'd hate to think I was doing all that cutting and pasting for nothing.

This year marks the first time Amynah and I have spent Christmas together as a couple without our families around. That’s not counting last year’s trip to Costa Rica – Christmas simply does not count if you live in a country where you do not at least have the option of cutting down your own conifer (those with sensitive eyes might want to put on some shades before clicking that- tropical sun and my pasty flesh combine to create quite a glare).

It’s been interesting, so far. By visiting England, we managed to cram in a few of the Christmas traditions that I had become accustomed to in Canada: malls, visiting family and friends, shopping for pirated Bollywood movies in the South Asian neighbourhood of South Hall, sipping a spiced chai while watching a parade of tabla-beating revelers sing “O Holy Night” in Hindi… you know, all that Norman Rockwell-esque type stuff.

Back in France, Christmas is a big deal. Strasbourg is currently Europe’s most illuminated city – each street has its own lighting theme. There is a tree, pictured above, that must be 100 feet tall in Place Kleber. And of course, the largest/oldest Christmas Market has completely taken over the city.

The market consists of three hundred shacks grouped in locations around the city that sell all sorts of things – spiced wine, crepes made while you wait and enough ornaments to encase the forests Northern Canada in an impenetrable shiny shield of tinsel and plastic.

There's more, but I can't tell you what, largely because I cannot actually visit the Christmas market myself, despite the fact that two of the squares are within one minute of my front door. Sadly, entry points to its wonders are clogged with gape-mouthed tourists who flock from town to town in their busloads to see the marvels of… a bunch of huts full of destined-for-the-flea-market dustcatchers.

Not that there isn’t some gold amongst the mountains of scented-candle-etched-glass-healing-crystal-Dungeons-and-Dragons-chess-set dross. Nor do I mind scented candles, etched glass or themed chess sets when they are not ensnaring swarms of slow moving Germans with their irresistible hypnotic power. I just wish they were all in a section by themselves, so I could more easily locate the good stuff, especially as I have not yet found a present for Amynah, while I know she’s bought me something absolutely amazing. Probably a couple of amazing somethings.

We have located a tannenbaum to call our own, which if you click the link, you will see we have overcome our lack of a stand by employong the string we use to truss our chickens for the rotisserie, tying the tree to the oh-so-quaint exposed beams in our ceiling. And yes, it is sitting in a soup bowl. It has been topped by what we have dubbed “The Ayatollah Claus.” It’s an ornament that my friend Jon made for Amynah eight(!) years ago, inspired by Amynah's childhood confusion between Kringle and Khomeini (they both had beards, dressed in robes, ruled over distant, desolate realms and seemed to inspire hysterical paroxysms of joy in their populace wherever they went - understandable, really). I shudder to think what the consequences of being an Unbeliever in that Santa would be - a bit more traumatic than a lump of coal, I'd imagine.

Merry (early) Christmas Everyone!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Just got back from Merrie Olde Englande (where they're evidently still suffering from a glut of silent "E's"). Had an excellent time, met many members of Amynah's extended family, all of whom were warm, generous and funny. Also met Maarten, the newest member of Todd's family. He has his Mother's hair, as far as I can tell, and his father's slow way of speaking - "Wah!" (long pause...) "Wah!" (furrowed brow, as he ponders what to say next) "Wah!"

I will write a more full account of those adventures and the Strasbourgian Christmas we're in the midst of soon, but first a final bit of self-promotion: the Globe printed my article on Grasse, on Saturday, along with two photos that don't appear to be online.

That it was a Rocky-themed article that bumped me off the front is a perverse honour. Amynah's gearing me up to get back on the front page. She keeps yelling at me - "Eye of the tiger! Eye of the Tiger," and whacking me with a side of beef. I suspect she might be mixing up some of the details.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I just finished my piece on Grasse (which, if the magic beans I purchased worked, should be manifest on the screeens of your thinking machines). I have been told that it will be out next weekend. I was also told that it's part of a Christmas movies special, which could cause problems as I barely mention the movie (Perfume) which, loyal readers will recall, I hated. The book was great however (as is my article) so pick up the Globe next week. I'll do my best to post a link here and send out a great big self-congratulatory email as the time draws near, if I can.

It might be difficult, as I'm not sure how much posting I'll be able to do in the next few day, since Amynah and I will be in London. I've never been, and am looking forward to being able to understand the language. Though my joyful singing of the Clash as the day gets nearer means I might be mistaken on that last point: "London calling! Drew Barrymore frowns! Two squared is four! Batman eats clowns!... and aaaaaaaaargh... I ripped out my liver!"

Those guys must have been awesome live.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I just checked my mail (not an easy prospect - it involves going down four flights of stairs, then back up) to learn that I had received my first two Christmas cards of the season. One, unsurprisingly, is from my preternaturally considerate friend Carol.

The other is from my neighbourhood garbagemen.

I am a little weirded out here: our garbagemen gave us a Christmas card. Now I feel I have to start throwing out nicer stuff.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In an effort to prevent this space from degenerating into a space for writerly one-upmanship (thanks anonymous!) I am forced to write about my own life here for you, my loyal, yet not entirely responsive audience.

I recently earned another commission for another travel article. This one took me to a small-ish town not far from Nice, in southern France - the Côte d'Azur. I'll spare you an account of the trip (for that you'll have to watch this space) but I will take the time, just briefly, to praise the friendliness of the French.

I flew on an airline that I won't identify here, other than to say that they seem to be taking their business model from big box home renovations stores. They pay attention to all the details, from the shopping-cart-orange colour of their aircraft to the polyester stock-boy smocks their flight attendents are forced to wear and on to the passenger-as-livestock treatment as we boarded (by lot number, through aisles in which passengers jostled with each other in a manner that reminded me of nothing if not cattle entering an industrial slaughterhouse).

On my flight back I had the pleasure of sitting by the window. Shortly I was joined by a couple of French vacuum cleaner salesmen or penny-stock promoters or drudges in some similar profession that doesn't remunerate its members well enough to allow them to purchase non-shiny suits or decent deodorant. The one next to me kept up a non-stop patter of what could only have been unanswerable Buddhist koans, judging by the relative silence of his companion. However, he evidently felt it was rude to leave me out of the conversation and so, in an effort to make me feel included, tried to cross the language barrier by leaning over in such a way so as to take up half my seat. I appreciated the thought - after all, we're all travelling and probably in need of a good cuddle.

So, in a similarily friendly spirit, I jabbed him in the back with my elbow. He sensed, evidently that I was just one of those stand-offish North Americans and persisted in his efforts to overcome my resistance to his hospitality. So great was his ardour that I had to repeat the point three times in an increasingly emphatic manner before he shifted enough that I wasn't forced to sit as if I were attempting to impersonate a bonsai tree.

Due to the fact that the airport I flew from is jointly run by French and Swiss authorities, I had to go through customs at both ends of the trip - despite the fact that both my departure and arrival points are in France. My Canadian passport threw them for a loop as well - they pulled me aside and asked me if I had anything to declare. I pointed out I'd never left France, to which they replied that I'd gone into an international area after clearing customs before, and could have purchased things in a duty free shop. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the point of duty free was that it was free of duty, i.e. customs charges? And if not, weren't the other people on the flight also a risk to smuggle French-purchased items into France?