Tuesday, October 30, 2007

First day and already hated by my classmates

So, French classes started yesterday. As part of a getting-to-know us exercise, my French teacher asked the motley crew that is my cohort about our travel experiences. For some reason, rather than asking me where I'd been, she asked me for a bad travel experience. I replied that I don't believe in bad experiences, just good stories. I then launched - in French - into this sorry tale.

My saga of suffering and woe was so well received, that she made it a homework assignment for everyone in the class to tell their own travel story for the next class. This includes me, despite my heroic efforts yesterday. Any readers have any favourites?

The Roof of Europe

Eiger, Eiger, shining bright...

There has probably been no phrase I’ve repeated so much since my arrival in France, upon encountering some new, old, or particularly Euro thing as “I can’t wait to show my parents this!” Why this is, I’m not sure – I guess you never really get over the desire to impress your folks.

In any case, my parents came for a visit about two weeks ago, thus the blog silence. It was an eye-opening experience. Your parents are always the ones who are on top of things: my Mom’s hyper-organized, my Dad able to navigate his way across the country and in strange cities effortlessly.

It was a little different this time. The only specific goals they had, after the Paris portion of their trip, was the Vimy Ridge memorial near Arras. Everything else was up in the air, other than a caution that they weren’t too interested in churches and castles.

This was awkward - as my parents, historically speaking, they're supposed to be in charge. Also, as anyone who has been paying attention to this blog knows, castles and churches are a bit of a specialty of mine, so I was left at a bit of a loss as to what to do with them for a week before heading north. The answer, as usual, came from my beloved, who suggested we head to the Alps. Where Amynah had been to Basel several times, the inner reaches of Switzerland had thus far eluded us.

Saturday, after a few days of taking them on my usual, top-secret tour of Strasbourg and the highlights of the Alsace region, we piled in the car and headed to the Jungfrau. At 4,158 metres it is probably the highest mountain I’d ever been on.

Fortunately, you don’t have to actually climb the Jungfrau. Instead, you take the Jungfraubahn, a train that goes up incredibly steep slopes with the aid of a third cog-rail, inside the mountain, through a tunnel hewn out the mountain leading to the peak.

Looking back on the cog-train. My Mom admirably resisted the urge to tell me to stop sticking my head out the window.

At the peak is an enormous metal and glass building that wouldn’t look out of place as the setting of the villain’s pad in a James Bond film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed nearby). Since there aren’t exactly any competing businesses in the region, the station was filled with overpriced restaurants and overpriced winterwear.

My elders, wondering what possessed them to leave late-Autumn Canada for a colder locale on their vacation.

Fortunately, we had brought our own and ventured out onto the viewing deck. I was immediately hit with a blast of homesickness, in the form of – 15 degree temperatures, the likes of which I haven’t experienced in nearly two years. Refreshing! The platform was haunted by some very furry-looking black birds. Why they were there and what they ate were a mystery, but they didn’t seem nearly as uncomfortable as the many visitors at the station from India, none of whom, presumably fooled by hundreds of Bollywood movies featuring sari-clad starlets frolicking in Alpine snow, seemed to have brought gloves.

Where the heck am I?

Inside, the station featured an ice-palace, featuring well-crafted polar tableaux. These, for some reason, included a representation of an igloo. Given that this is a structure already normally made of ice, seemed to me to make the Swiss copy somewhat redundant.

Ghost penguins!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Star Chamber

The tuna moose, courtesy Craig Martin. Thanks Craig!

We join our intrepid trio where we left off in our last installment of “And this guy wants us to visit him?”

Last we saw Val, Andy and my own fine self, we were wet, tired, frustrated and hungry in the Alsatian village of Ottrott, having utterly failed in our second attempt to see the Medieval castle there. We elected to regroup over lunch.

Driving into town, (population 300, not including livestock) we espied a sign for the local restaurant. Parking the car, we trudged dinner-ward, minds dancing with visions of choucroutte and tartes flambées. Alas, arriving at the door of the establishment, we were crushed, upon reading and laboriously translating the sign hanging on the door, to learn the restaurant was closed.

For lunch.

Muttering many a dark imprecations against the French, Frenchness and France, our merry trio returned to the car, and headed to the nearby village of Klingenthal, the ultimate destination of our ill-fated bike trip two days before.

We stopped upon spotting a sign for a Restaurant l’Etoile which promised cuisine moderne. This is code for “Not cabbage and ham.” As I was in the mood for cabbage and ham, I was disappointed, but not about to argue with the increasingly murderous looks Val was shooting in my direction which promised that her cold, wet hands would soon be wrapped around my throat were a plate of something not in front of her post haste.

We dragged our muddy, damp selves inside, and ordered the 15 Euro menu. Though my French has improved greatly since arriving here, vast swathes of technical jargon remain beyond my ken. This includes the broad, and highly specialized category of “things French people do to food.”

The only item I caught, in fact, was “tuna,” which was supposed to be the appetizer. What form this tuna was supposed to come in was a mystery, though were I to hazard a guess I would have said “mousse.”*

Things went hairy immediately, when Andy attempted to order a coffee. I reluctantly translated this request to our waitress, who immediately blanched. “But are you going to eat?” she demanded. I replied yes, at which point she took a step back, looking at us with suspicion mixed with distaste. I quickly explained to Andy that coffee comes after the meal, and changed the order, lest we be thrown out entirely for food heresy.

This illustrates a theory I’ve developed about French waiters. Parisian waiters are famous for their rudeness, even within the rather high standards for such things in France. Some credit this to the lack of tipping, but I’ve another theory. In North America (and almost everywhere else I’ve eaten) the waiter sees his job as bringing you the food you order. In France, they see themselves as experts, there to guide you through your dining experience and enforce the norms and values that govern French cuisine. Ordering coffee before your meal violates customs so sancrosanct they were enshrined in the Treaty of Wesphalia. When we declined to order any wine, her contempt was palpable.

This incident set the tone for the next episode. Our waitress returned, making it very clear she felt we should be grateful that mud-stained wretches such as ourselves were even allowed to breath the rarefied air of her restaurant. She set down a porcelain cup, similar in size to a tea mug in front of each of us, filled with a steaming white liquid.

Andy immediately tasted a spoonful, reporting that it tasted like chowder. He went to take another but, panicked, I stopped him. “It might be sauce for the fish!” I said, terrified that the waitress would come back with our tuna, see us slurping the condiments and toss us back out into the rain.

However, a few minutes passed, and the waitress didn’t show. Andy decided that, as he believed all France now knew him as the Bermuda-shorts guy, he had nothing to lose and started spooning up the gloop. For my part, I would take furtive sips when I was sure the waitress was out of sight, while Val, risking nothing, had none at all.

It was Val that saved us, in the end. Soon though, our autocratic attendant returned, to be confronted with three teacups in varying degrees of fullness. Stymied by our tri-partite strategy, she elected to attack the closest target, turning on Val with eyes of fire; “Do you not like it?” “No, no, it’s great! I’m just slow” said Val, grabbing her spoon.

I am convinced that if Val too had eaten any of hers, the tuna-tyrant would have informed us with a sneer that we were eating our gravy and asked us to leave.**

* Please, someone with art or photoshop skills: can you make me a tuna-moose? It would make me so happy.

** In the interests of fairness, I must add that the chef greeted us personally and was very friendly. He gave us pretty much all of his leftover desserts, meaning we each received a slice of cheesecake, a slice of chocolate torte, a slice of wildberry pie and of apple pie.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Waiting for Ottrott

Amynah and I have had a lot of visitors here in the 15 or so months we’ve been in France – well over twenty in fact. Right now I’m catching a breather between my younger sister’s visit and that of my parents, who are expected in about a week’s time.

Most of the time when people come to visit, I give them my Strasbourg city tour, a harrowing ordeal that has left more than one participant in need of first aid by its end. I like to describe it as “being hit over the head repeatedly with a fact hammer.” I intend to put up a pictorial version of this before I leave, but not before, lest I spoil the joy for others. Past visitors are required to swear a strict oath of secrecy to not reveal the tour’s details, should they remember any through their haze of pain and exhaustion.

Outside of Strasbourg, things get a little dicey – I like exploring the region, but get a little bored hitting the same highlights again and again. Thus, when I discovered Val and Andy have recently taken up biking, I was happy to lead them on an exploratory bike tour.

My goal was a place called Ottrott, which has the nearest medieval castle to Strasbourg in the region. We started late, having a hardy breakfast in the local café before wandering down to my favoured bike shop to pick up Val and Andy’s steeds.

They were not pleased. Turns out when Val told me they were into biking, she meant the kind you might see on the Tour de France - narrow tires, thin seats, frames that were not constructed from recycled Panzers.

That’s not quite what they got.

The beasts with which I saddled them were large, and decorated with baskets in which a family of four could, if not live, then store a year’s worth of groceries. Undeterred, we hit the trail, and were soon on our way to Ottrott, via the Rainbows and Ponies Trail.

After about 18 km, Val started to complain she was thirsty, so we made a quick detour into Ergursheim. I asked a passerby for directions to a store where I might by water, and he directed me to a tobacconiste up the street. It was closed. We wandered on a little further and I asked some guy on a scooter leaving the village town hall the same question. He directed me to a hose behind the building, the water from which we slurped straight from the tap. This, and some apples we picked up from a local farmer, proved to be the only nourishment we’d get for the next five hours.

I won’t bore you with details of the bike trip. My repeated claims that Ottrott “was just around the corner” “just over this hill” “it’s only one village away” were met at first by cheers, then frowns, then sneers. As our protein reserves and hydration petered out my claims of Ottrott’s proximity were met only with grunts. At the end, these had given way to piteous cries for mercy. Needless to say, that while we made it to Ottrott the town, by the time we got there we were too tired to actually climb up to the castle. *

Rather than bike back, we coasted downhill into nearby Obernai and caught the commuter train back to Strasbourg, on which poor Andy was mercilessly mocked by French teenagers for his horribly square bike and plus pas chic Bermuda shorts.

Despite this ordeal, and the five-hour walking tour of Strasbourg we took the next day, I refused to give up. So on their last day in town we rented a car and drove out to Ottrott once more. That it was pouring rain didn’t deter me, nor did Val and Andy’s disingenuous claims of not being that interested in the castle – I do not suffer defeat lightly.

Therefore, we set up the mountain, mud running in rivers around our feet, in quest of the chateaux. It took an hour and a half (not including the inadvertent detour where we managed to walk right past it (fine medieval marauders we would be!) and by the time we got there – disoriented, shivering, legs trembling, clothed in muddy, sopping rags - it was closed. Which is to say, it is always closed – it had been sealed off for fear of collapse for years, a handy fact my guidebook had utterly failed to mention.

That my sister was still speaking to me is a testament either to her inherently forgiving nature or the fact that I had the keys to our only means off the mountain.

* To be fair, there were a lot of unexpected detours on the bike trip, one of which was to a village called Klingenthal, that prides itself as being a manufacturer of "armes blanches (swords) for the King of France. Way to pick a stable, long-term industry there, Klingenthal town fathers!

This I'm just throwing in here on the principal that blogs should have entertainment. The singer's name is Camille - she's like a French Bjork, but less aggressively weird. I think I'm becoming a fan, but am reserving judgement until I get a tranlsation of the lyrics to confirm she's not singing "Hit me baby one more time" or something.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Rome redux

Trevi Fountain

As Travis noted in the comments in my previous post, I have a certain fascination for Catholic religious iconography. There’s a number of reasons for this, almost none of which have anything to do with my own religious heritage (having been dunked as an infant, I can ignore it until the penultimate moment, say sorry, and still get a ticket to the Big Show. Betcha they regret letting word of that little loophole out).

For one with my interests (Amynah might characterize it as an obsession) all roads lead to Rome (I just came up with that phrase. Remember it).

St Pete's

We didn’t see the Pope, but I did see dozens of priests (all on cell phones) a few monks, two bishops, nuns in every hue of habit from black to deep blue and, in a sighting that would probably earn me twenty points on a scavenger hunt, an honest to goodness cardinal.

Nun, keeping an eye on St Peter's square, plotting something

Because we arrived only an hour before closing, we didn’t see much in St Peter’s itself: the area with Pete’s grave was barred off. We saw a couple of pickled Popes in glass caskets, many Pope statues (only one, interestingly, that was depicted praying) and Michelangelo’s Pieta, his only signed work.


Outside the many, many churches of Rome, we saw plenty of old Roman ruins. The Colosseum (named, I learned, after a long destroyed and brobdignagan statue of my favourite Emperor and yours, Nero) was surprisingly only a ten minute tour, while the Forum and Palantine hill next to it was another hour. We took another No Name tour for this one, and they were just as competent and the previous one. The guide, Marco, was a particular hit with the many older ladies in our group, who were practically cooing over him.

Ye olde hockey arena: Senators vs Bruins tonight!

We ran across another ruin in the middle of town. To go by the prominence of the signs there, it was primarily built as a shelter for feral cats (all of which, we were assured, were spayed). It also might have been a temple complex, but that seemed to be of far less importance.

Temple to Bobbus Barkerius

Coming from a town where traffic is practically banned downtown, Rome’s traffic was quite a noisy shock. Half the population rides scooters, even while dressed for a five-star dinner. These tend to arrive in flocks, desperately trying to stay ahead of the four-wheeled traffic bearing down on them from behind. The buses, we discovered, have two speeds: barreling and hurtling. Cars do not stop at crosswalks, and waiting for a gap in traffic is a mugs game (they don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing). The accepted means of getting across seems to be: pick a saint, pray to it, close eyes, start walking. Amynah, being fearless, just gave drivers an “I dare you” look and strode into the chaos while Val, Andy and I scampered in her wake.

Piazza de la Scooter Sacra

Near the Forum (and also where we saw the Cardinal) there was some sort of street festival going on. It's hard to make out from the picture, but this is a faux church steeple, on which a full band is being carried, bouncing up and down in time to the dancer/porters below. When we left the party, they were playing a high energy Italian version of Petula Clark's "Downtown." When Amynah asked a spectator what it was for, he tried to convince her to stay and join the dancing.

In our wanderings, we also ran across a post-wedding photo shoot. This crowd of twenty was the bridal party. There's no shortage of lovely backdrops for wedding photos - puts my Holiday Inn pictures to shame. Mind you, our photographer never made our wedding party do this:

And, just because I took a lot of pictures of the thing, and this is the best of the lot, I give you St Peter's, again, over the Tiber. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Rome, preview

Roman sunset, Vatican in lower right

Just got back from Rome. Had a wonderful, if exhausting time. I’m a little torn on how to describe it – as previous commenters have noted, long, drawn out descriptions of my suffering seem to be the main draw here. And while there was plenty of that earlier in the week (subject of a later post) Rome was incredible.

The only anguish (other than in my feet) was mental, on the second day. We (Amynah, my sister and Andy, her fiancé) were trying to get into the Vatican museums. The lineup was incredibly long. As were approaching the end of it, a shady looking guy with a Russian accent approached us with an offer for a thirty Euro tour that would get us in two hours earlier than everyone else with an accredited guide.

Not wanting to stand around in the late-September heat we agreed, even if we were fairly sure we were being taken for suckers. We trooped to the office of “No Name Tours” (honestly the name) and picked up our radio devices through which we would hear our guide. We were then escorted to our guide, who had bribed a Korean guide to let us in ahead of his group. Our group was then brought in six at a time – which fooled no one, and led to someone behind us telling our guide off.

Ceiling in one wing of Vatican museum, which will have to do in lieu of the Sistine Chapel, which I wasn't allowed to photograph

Our guide also proceeded to get into an aguement inside the museum – while his radio was still broadcasting to his charges – with another guide. He then explained that he and the other guy have a history “but it’s ok, we’re friends, sort of.” Anyway, despite all of this, he was quite knowledgeable, and very entertaining, if not entirely intentionally. If you’re ever in Rome, I highly recommend them. Their office is in the back of a van in the dark alley by the Papal dumpster.