Sunday, January 23, 2011


C'est la semaine des examens. Alors, I procrastinate by giving you photos to look at!

Soirée Internationale - Korean presentation
A couple of Japanese friends: Keiko and Yuri

The beautiful monitrices!

The handsome boys - Adrien et Matthieu

Becky and Melissa, last night with us all together :(

Becky, Melissa, me, Jamie, and Carolyn

Galleries Lafayettes, all decorated for Christmas

Centre Ville in its festive glory
Marché de Noël, first thing in the morning

The Grand Théâtre

Chez Matthieu for a little fun

Aurélien, Laura, Matthieu

Matthieu found the thingy inside the Galette des Rois, hence the crown

Why so serious??

Matt (Canadian) and Kelli (American)

Chez Aurélien for a little mid-day feast

And another Galette des Rois

We all got to try the crown on for size

One of the most beautiful streets in Angers, with some of the old aristocratic houses

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bonne Année!*

*Happy New Year!

I'm back in France! My Christmas holiday was so lovely, but I was actually excited to come back. My first few days were really strange. My roommates Jamie and Melissa have gone home, as well as all sorts of other good friends. Most of my classes have been chopped in half because of the number of students who've left. But there's only one more week of classes to go, then a week of exams, and then the semester is done. I find I prefer having my exams a few weeks after Christmas because it means you don't have that added stress before the holidays. And considering I'm not one for studying far in advance, I wasn't worrying about them while I was home either.

I'm really quite sad that my langue class is ending. I think it's been my favourite university class so far. It's been kind of fun having a smaller number of students than usual in that class. During the first week back, our professor Florence showed us a French tradition. Throughout the month of January, the French eat these cakes called Les Galettes des Rois. There are two kinds: one is like a sweet bread and the other is an almond pastry. Each cake comes with a paper crown, and inside the cake is baked a little porcelain figure called la fève. The youngest person in the room sits under the table (so they can't see the cake) while someone else cuts it. The youngest person then decides who gets which piece. Whoever gets la fève is the king/queen, and they must wear the crown. At the end of the meal, they pick a queen/king and  faire la bise (cheek kisses) to that person. I've taken part in that 3 times now - once in class, once at my friend Matthieu's, and once at Aurélien's.

It's been bloody warm here the past couple of weeks. I've been wearing my spring jacket, and even then I'm hot. It's usually around 13 degrees during the day. Some of the locals tell me that it's not usual weather, but then, all of Europe has had unusual weather for the past 5 years or so, so unusual is the new usual. I'm not complaining though - there's nothing lovelier than it being sunny, warm, and flying down the road on your bicycle when you're in a good mood.

Two wonderful weekends to catch up on. Last Saturday Matt, Laura, Aurélien, and I went to Matthieu and Adrien's. They taught us a game that's a mix of that game where you have to describe a word without saying it, and charades. Oh my goodness it was funny. We had everything from abortion to fireworks to blushing. We played a bit of charades itself too. Matthieu made me act out Brokeback Mountain. I tried acting out a sheep to suggest the shepherding part of the movie, but when I got down on all fours... well... anyway. Matthieu in turn acted out Home Alone. You know the part when Macaulay Culkin puts on his father's aftershave? Matthieu's face was perfect. Highly expressive. We just laughed and laughed and laughed. These boys are so sweet and charming. They've each spent a semester abroad in the States and are fluent in English. They work as moniteurs, that's to say they each teach an oral expression class at CIDEF. I learn more from hanging out with them than I do in many of my classes. And little cultural things too, like last night we had a long conversation about la bise, the cheek kiss. It really is an important social ritual, and you can offend people if you don't greet them or say goodbye to them with cheek kisses. Oopsies. I often forget to do it unless someone else initiates it. If you're my age, you're basically supposed to cheek kiss everyone you meet. You start off by just touching cheeks and making a little kissy sound, but if you know them well you can actually go in for the lips to cheek kiss. If there are twenty people in the room, you may find yourself having to go around to every single person. Compliqué! I find it's a nice way to acknowledge someone to whom you would otherwise just wave awkwardly while you're standing a few feet in front of them, but for someone I know well, I really just want to give them a big squeeze. When I feel so inclined, I'll usually do the bises and then say, "And a Canadian hug too!"

Last night we all went back to Matthieu's place and had another excellent night of drinking wine. We played the card game King's Cup, where each card drawn has some game involved. One of the best games was the one where whenever someone drew a 5, we'd have to switch to English or to French, depending on what we'd been speaking before, and anyone who spoke a word of the wrong language would lose. We ended up staying at Matthieu's until 2:30 am or something. My host family was all laughing at me today because they heard me come in at 3 in the morning, rattling my keys and bustling around far too loudly. Merde. Just a little embarrassing.

I have two new roommates now, Liz from Manchester, England and Bianca from Switzerland. They're both really lovely girls. Bianca is only staying until the end of January, which is a shame, but Liz will be around until June. We don't all cross paths very often because our schedules are pretty different, but it's nice to know they're around.

Oooh last Tuesday, I did something so nerdy it was fantastic. Laura, Aurélien and I went to the Grand Théâtre to see a choral concert by the British choir Oxford Voices. They specialise in 16th Century music, but they also did a few Christmas carols and some African spirituals. They were really quite good, although the acoustics of the theatre didn't carry their voices as well as a church would have. Cultural things are pretty cheap for students in France, as the government wants to encourage the rowdy youngsters to channel their enthusiasm in classier ways. One of the tenors in the choir was amazing to watch. His face was so expressive and happy that there were times we laughed out loud watching him. When the concert was over, the choir gave its second encore in the front hall of the theatre, so that they could chat with the audience members afterwards. I went up to my tenor in an unusual moment of bravery, and told him he was my favourite. He started chatting with me and Laura, and ended up inviting us out for dinner and drinks with the choir. Laura and Aurélien wanted to go get a crêpe, so I sucked up my courage and went by myself. It was a hoot. They were all so kind to this random ginger Canadian fan of theirs, and I got a free dinner of boeuf bourguignon and pommes de terre dauphinoise. And wine, naturally. My tenor and one soprano were from New Zealand, and the rest from Britain. They were so funny. To think I almost chickened out of joining them, but Laura said (in front of the tenor) that I would regret not going. So, carpe diem! That's going to be my New Years' Resolution. Seize every damn day I have here, because if I don't, what on earth did I come to France for?

Oh gosh, one last thing I must mention. Last weekend Laura and I went to a cooking class! We learned how to make chocolate macarons and crêpe suzette. To dieeee for. I am a veritable Julia Child now. Iron Chef, here comes your latest wonderchef, fresh off the streets of Angers.
Major kidding here, but seriously, it's not actually that hard to make one of the most addictive desserts in the world. Génial!!

With that, I give you all a grand bisous (that's the friendlier form of bise) and bid you all bonne soirée!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Au royaume du bonhomme hiver*

*French title of the French version of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland"

I think it's rather a tradition now to start my blog posts with apologies for how long it's been since I last wrote. I promise I'm not getting sloppy, just busy! But then, December seems to be like that no matter where you are, wouldn't you say? You've only just begun to get excited for Christmas when suddenly BOOM!, it's upon you. I absolutely can't remember all the things I've done in the past month (and it's really a month's worth of events that I've neglected to write about), but I will record what I can recall.

Bonhomme hiver ("Good Man Winter") has breathed a breath of festive life into Angers. On December 1st, a Christmas market sprung up like a North Pole village in the streets of centre ville. Little wooden huts vending a variety of goods, from Canadiana (not kidding, there's a Québec booth run by a man from Trois Rivieres) to children's toys to picture frames to purses and more. But the very best of these little booths are the ones that sell hot mulled wine and apple cider. Mmmm what better way to rechauffe l'âme (warm up the soul) on a cold winter's day than to walk around the Christmas market with a cup of hot wine in one hand, a hot crepe in another hand, and to be surrounded by friends? There are lights strung up from building to building across the cobblestone streets and little speakers emitting sumptuously traditional Christmas songs. No 90s pop Christmas, no country Christmas, no RnB Christmas; it is real, talented singers singing the good old tunes. Just picture the magic: Pavarotti's booming voix singing Ave Maria serenades you as you walk down a street that is older than Canada's recorded history. The first opportunity I had to visit the Christmas market was a Thursday night. I took my bike over there, and just as I got on it, it started to snow. It was light at first, and didn't stick on the ground. But as the evening went on, the flakes came down harder and fluffier, and they began to make a delicate blanket on the ground. What an image, eh?

Skipping back to the previous weekend, I've got to tell you about my funny Friday night. Becky, Melissa and I had gone out for lunch (just to give you a time perspective, this was the Friday after Jamie and I went out for the Beaujolais Nouveau) and we tried to figure out what interesting thing to do that night. I happened to have a local performing arts schedule, and we found that there was to be a ballet on the life of William Shakespeare that evening. After class I biked over to the theatre to buy tickets, and that evening I returned with the girls. I must say, we were not a little proud of ourselves for going to something as cultural as a ballet. "We're going to the ballet tonight," we told our friends. We wanted to get dressed up, but the theatre itself was not one that encouraged very formal outfits. Its design was modern and functional. The performance began with a showcasing of the university orchestra from the Université d'Angers Belle-Beille. We thought they were just going to give a prelude to the ballet's music, but they ended up playing for 45 minutes. They were really fantastic. They captured some very complex pieces. After their bit, some man came up and made a thank you speech. We were worried for a second that the show was over and we weren't going to see a ballet at all, but then the dancers came on stage. It's almost a shame they did. There were four of them: two men and two women. Each of them wore a sort of Robin Hood tunic-dress in a different pastel colour. That should have been our first warning. The dance began. One man was plainly supposed to be Shakespeare due to the odd quasi-Elizabethan cape he was wearing. The others... no idea. I was unsure whether the dance was supposed to represent Shakespeare's life or his works. The only imagery I picked up on was the Romeo and Juliet scene. Otherwise, all I saw was a bunch of contemporary leaping and spinning. It really was much more of a modern dance performance than a ballet. We had to keep ourselves from laughing outright (how tacky!) multiple times. There was one scene where Shakespeare and the other guy share a blazer - Shakespeare would put on one sleeve, the other guy would put on the other one. They would leap around for a while squeezed together, then suddenly would stop. One of them would take his sleeve off, do a weird flip over the other man, and then put the sleeve back on. Repeat. This ridiculous flip flopping lasted for about 10 minutes.

So, our high culture night did not go exactly as planned, but at least the dancing wasn't prolonged for more than an hour, and we were free to enjoy the rest of our night. We had no other plans, but knew of a carnival/fair that was going on across the river. We walked over and were met with the sight of flashing lights, whizzing rides, and endless waffle/crepe stands. It reminded me of a less-tasteful version of the Rosedale Mayfair (to those who don't know, it's a fair that happens in a park in Toronto). It was plainly not a high-budget affair, but it had enough rides and games to be significant. We walked through the fair enjoying the sensory spectacle that it was, but none of us was feeling in the mood to partake. The rides were just a little too expensive and a little too underwhelming to be very temping. Having satisfied our curiosity, we walked back across the river. Upon crossing the bridge, I had a rather ingenious idea. This bridge was absolutely made for Poohsticks. If you've been deprived of Winnie the Pooh stories in your childhood, Poohsticks is the game where each player chooses a stick, everyone drops his/her stick off the bridge at the same time, and then you run across the bridge to see who's stick appears first on that side. With the lights of the city shining around us, it was the perfect night for a little childhood fun.

The rest of that weekend I spent at the house of a French family with whom I had been paired through AFIA (a host-family organisation). AFIA families are supposed to invite their foreign student to dine with them or go on an excursion with them to inject some more French culture into these students' lives. The family that I was paired with, the de Cenivals, live in a lovely old country manor out in the campagne. They own a winery and several vineyards just outside of Angers. This was my first time meeting the family. I, along with a student from Notre Dame University in the US (Carolyn) were picked up by Catherine and her daughter Sophie in town. When we got back to their house, Carolyn and I could hardly prevent ourselves from being embarrassingly overjoyed by the house. Old wood floors, exposed beam ceilings, great stone fireplaces, deep window bays with carved shutters, and three very excited dogs. Unfortunately, we never got a full tour, so my nosiness had to remain in check. Dommage. In short, our programme for the weekend was to visit their winery (and taste!), eat (such tender chicken), walk into town, and generally loaf around. We spent a few too many hours playing Monopoly with the youngest son - and when I say too many hours, I consider any time beyond the purchase of Park Place and Boardwalk to be irritating, so spending a full afternoon in playing this game was um... a little stressful. The best part of the weekend, however, was waking up on Sunday morning to find the world outside dusted with a layer of snow. It almost never snows in Angers, so to see this was like having my own private Christmas morning. The spectacular beauty of the green French countryside and an old French house covered in the first snowfall was lovely.

Another weekend I have fond memories of was the weekend after the Soirée International. A bunch of us students, some of the monitrices, and a collection of their friends came out to the bar after the show. The show, by the way, was kind of like a talent show for the students. It's supposed to be a presentation of culture, but it ends up being a little more broad than that. Laura played some Nova Scotian tunes on her fiddle, and I sang "She's Like the Swallow," a folk song from Newfoundland. There were some really incredible performances. So, afterwards at the bar. We all had a wonderful time chatting and laughing, and doing one of those hand games that you learn at summer camp where everyone has to hit the table in a certain way. I sat next to Matthieu and Adrien, friends of my friend Maëlle, at whose place we ate one of our Thanksgiving dinners. The three of us got talking about the Saturday morning market, and so it was decided that we would go together. On Saturday, the three of us set off together with no specific ideas of what to make for lunch, but knowing that inspiration would follow. We examined the fruits and veggies at our leisure and finally came up with a menu. I made a salad to start (endives, peeled apples, raisins, walnuts, honey, and balsamic vinaigrette - SO GOOD, learned it from my AFIA family), the Matthieu made rice with beef, veggies, herbs, and cream, and then Adrien prepared various fruits for our dessert and a wonderful french lemon drink. We had Christmas music going, and the three of us were bustling around the kitchen peeling and chopping and cooking. We ate like kings! It was a true French meal in that it lasted for a couple hours at least. I didn't leave until about 4:30 pm.

The night before, my typical "sortiring" friends (such an awful franglais word you've never heard as "sortiring" - Anglicization of sortir, to go out) were all otherwise occupied. It was my last Friday night in Angers before the holiday, and I had no intention of sitting by myself. So I went out to one of the typical CIDEF student-filled bars and happened upon a bunch of CIDEF girls there. We ended up wandering around centre ville for a while, and then stopping at a wine bar. It was such a good girls' night. Chatting, gossiping, drinking wine like fancy connoisseurs. It was a bittersweet occasion, because I hadn't realised how well I got on with these girls. And to think that they were leaving in a week was a little sad. All the same, it was excellent just to be mixing up the routine.

Oh, remember me mentioning Aurélien, our new French friend? Well, after not so much time (and to no one's surprise) his and Laura's friendship rather... blossomed. The three of us went to see Harry Potter, and the night was crisp and fresh and full of possibility. After the movie, we walked around a little bit, and the two of them walked side by side, shoulders and elbows bumping occasionally in that comfortable way that couples have. I was supposed to meet up with my roommates after, so we stopped by Falstaff. Laura and Auré stayed for a minute or two, but decided on going for a walk instead. I almost laughed when they asked if I wanted to join. There was no question in my mind how the night would end for them. And sure enough, the next morning I turned on my phone to a text from Laura: "WE KISSED." Anyway, I am absolutely the happiest third-wheeler. They manage to be simultaneously intimate and inclusive. We eat lovely meals chez lui, watch episodes of How I Met Your Mother, and generally have a good time. And we speak French!

Ok, last couple of things to recount. First, weekend of going to Normandy. The Friday night, Melissa, Jamie and I stayed at Becky's overnight. Our bus to Normandy was to leave at 6:30 am, and we figured it would be better to be close by the school. Becky and her roommate Mackenzie invited some girls over for a slumber party. Lovely typical high school sort of event (except for the wine; we weren't that sophisticated in high school). At the ungodly hour of 5:30, my roommates and I woke up high off our lack of sleep. We got to the bus station, me feeling feverish and flu-y, the others not feeling too peachy either. Nevertheless, we hopped on the bus with the other students and prepared for the 3.5 hour ride. I passed out pretty immediately, and completely missed an important view or two on the way north. Our first stop was Caen, to the WWII museum (excellent, if you ever get the chance), followed by the American cemetery, which was moving and beautiful, and then a disembarquement beach (where the Allied troops landed), and finally to a cliff that the Americans scaled in order to take over the German bunker at the top. You can still see the original barbed wire and what's left of the bunkers and shell pits. It was really worthwhile seeing, the whole trip.

Unfortunately, the illness I felt that morning didn't go away, and I was home sick for the next couple of days. Normally, I think I'd feel miserable, but I slept most of the time, and I knew that I'd be home in less than a week. That was a rather sustaining thought. The rest of the week was a busy one. All the American students who were staying just one semester leave at Christmas, even though the semester ends in January. They have to be home to start their 2nd semesters in the US. As a result, we had a lot of tests and assignments before the break which would count as exams for the students who were leaving. What's more, I had to mentally prepare myself for the departure of my own dear friends. Two roommates and a collection of others were leaving definitivement. The night before we all left, we went out to our typical bar and just sat, contemplating the 4 months. It was hard to be chatty when everyone was stressed, tired, and a little sad. But more people came along, and eventually we were convinced to get up and dance. We shouted the words to the songs we knew, screamed with laughter as we swirled each other around, and generally made a spectacle of ourselves, releasing all our pent-up tension from the week. It was such a great way to wrap up my time with them. I miss those guys, and it's really strange being here without them. I really lucked out on my roommates and on the people we made friends with.

Now, it's after Christmas. I've taken more than a month to tell you everything I should have ages ago, and I had an entire 2 week holiday in between. So refreshing. My week has already been full of excitement, so I'll raconte (tell) you the next installment soon! Bisous*!
* Funny story, I said gros bisous (big kiss) to a Canadian friend of mine in a message, and she responded "So I am going to assume GROS BISOUS means "gross bison" and so I will leave you with an equally passionate signoff:

Fermented Chicken."