Monday, January 23, 2012

Berlin, Paris, and Le Havre!

Berlin was pretty cool, but to be fair I didn’t get to see a lot of it. I went on a walking tour on the first day and saw checkpoint Charlie (apparently the spot in the past where you crossed from East to West Berlin), Museum Island (where most of the main museums are located), the remains of the Berlin wall, and a cool memorial to the Jews who were killed during the holocaust (it is uneven squares in a pretty large area and the ground is uneven as well; it’s meant to give you the impression of graves).

I did go to one museum where there were beautiful buildings from ancient times inside of it. That’s right, buildings inside buildings. Somehow, the Germans figured out how to get whole ancient buildings from Greece, Rome, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. It’s unbelievable!

Besides all this cool stuff to see, Berlin also has a crazy nightlife. I really believe it is more of the city that never sleeps than New York is. I was there on a Tuesday to Friday, not usually the best time to go to a city if you want to party. But in Berlin, there’s always a party and the music there is my favorite kind: electronic music. There is one specific area where there is an abandoned train station and the whole area seems so shady, but it’s actually awesome and full of clubs and bars. One of the nights when we arrived, we found a party set up under a bridge: it seemed that some people just brought their dj speakers and lights and set up a party and there were now over 100 people there dancing in the street. It was unreal. I’m told that if I had been there on a weekend, you can literally party from Thursday night until Sunday night; the clubs and bars never close, even during the day!

The hostel I stayed in was called the Circus Hostel. It was one of the more expensive ones in Berlin, but it was still pretty reasonable since Berlin is so cheap. I decided to go there because the guy I was Couchsurfing with in Strasbourg told me that he had stayed there and it was great and the reviews for it were excellent. The hostel was super nice, with a really nice front lounge and a cool bar at night. One of the nights there was a local band playing and they were pretty good. The beers in Germany in general are much cheaper than in France (about half the price!) and I made a good few friends in the hostel and we would split a boot of beer between us! Very stereotypical, but so awesome. One of the people I met in the hostel was a girl who is from Bellmore, just a few towns over from Massapeqeua! I also made friends with two guys who are professional divers; the kind that live in a decompression chamber for 3 months at a time and go deep down in the water to work on wells and what not.

I only stayed in Berlin for three days and then was off again back to Paris. I spent most of my time in Paris with my friends from Le Havre. New Year’s Eve wasn’t anything too crazy or exciting. We just went to a few bars in a part of Paris that I knew well and had been to a lot when I was studying there. Then we returned to Le Havre and I spent the next few days recovering from travelling.

Since New Year’s Eve, I’ve been staying in Le Havre, trying to save up money and research what to do with my life after I finish teaching. I think because of the New Year’s resolutions thing, I got into a bit of a health kick as well and have started running, swimming, and biking. I’m training to run a marathon with a friend (we’re splitting the marathon) and I’ve also gotten a ten hour card to a local pool. The pool is very modern. The architecture is all white and geometric. The pool is also half indoor and half outdoor. You enter the pool in the indoor portion and then go under a plastic kind of divider and then your outside. The pool is heated and once you start swimming it’s really warm and it’s actually really refreshing to have the fresh, crisp air while you swim. Unfortunately, I imagine it’s not very efficient in terms of energy use and I’ve heard that they built it too quickly and not well and now it leaks water into the ground and they can’t fix it. Not terribly eco-friendly I suppose.

My birthday also passed on January 12th. Had a great time seeing all of my friends. The festivities started on midnight when it turned my birthday (Wednesday) until Saturday night! During the week I had a Couchsurfer from Quebec, so lucky him, he got to see the most fun side of Le Havre. He left on Saturday morning and Saturday night was the big night where I had all of my friends out for dinner at a couscous restaurant. The restaurant was great and the woman who owned the place knew us and she gave me a bottle of champagne!

I also went to see a burlesque circus. The circus was from Australia and did cool acrobatics and contortion tricks. I really loved the theme of an adult circus; it made circus arts seem a bit more serious and artistic. The music that they performed to was also all live. I think the best trick they had was a girl lined up bottles of champagne on a piano and then walked on the tops of them on her toes! And because I am registered as a student at the university here, the tickets were 1/3 of the price!

I went to a improv comedy show here as well. I had gone with Kristen way back in October and it was hilarious because they had some funny skits that were a lot of miming, but this time there was a lot more talking so it was a bit difficult for us, as we didn’t understand a lot of it.

In other news, I got a roommate! The upstairs to my apartment is quite large so I have rented it out for low cost to a French guy. He is 27 and works for the soccer team here. He’s very nice and fun and can get me free tickets to the home soccer games! Apparently Le Havre has a great soccer team for its division. He has met all my friends and we all love him. It’s especially great for me because I speak only in French with him, and I really think that in the last week that he’s been here I’ve improved a lot in my speaking. His sister came over yesterday to visit him and see the apartment and she brought us food his mom made! It was veal wrapped in what looked like bacon but it was from the cow. And for dessert his aunt had sent us some real ginger bread.

I have also started tutoring two adorable little boys for an hour on Wednesdays in English. Last week we worked on telling time and saying numbers. Today I met a father about babysitting his daughter on Sunday. He has a Magic the Gathering tournament (it’s a card game) this Sunday and he needs me to watch her. The girl is super cute and 7 years old. She was very shy when meeting me, but I think she liked me. I’ll be her first sitter! I also got an email that someone from the business college here would like tutoring in English! Woo! Makin’ money!!

I have a friend Ali from the US visiting me now! I’ll write all about her trip soon!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Manchester for Christmas!

Sorry I’ve again slacked off and failed to write for ages! Luckily, after this post, I go back to Le Havre and I’m just kind of relaxing so there’s not terribly much to write about…

When I left off, I had been heading off to Manchester to visit my friend Gemma. The journey was long. I left Le Havre early in the morning doing a Covoiturage. Unfortunately, the night before, my French friends in Le Havre and I had a big night since it was the last time we’d see each other for a while. Slightly hungover is not the best way to go about Covoiturage, since you’re expected to talk, not puke in their car- haha. Luckily, I pulled through and made it to the Champs Elysees (that’s the famous street in Paris with the Arc du Triomphe in the middle of it). It was the first time I had been on the roundabout around the Arc du Triomphe in a car. To give you an idea of the chaos that is that roundabout, one time my mom was looking down from the Arc and witnessed an accident. Another time, a friend was being driven to Paris as well and the driver said, “If you’re a little afraid, it’s ok. I am too.”

After getting dropped off, I went and met my friend Kristen who was on vacation with her mom and grandma. They had a really charming hotel called the Hotel de Nice (I think) right near the Hotel de Ville (town hall). The area is an awesome location- right near the Marais, the gay and Jewish quarter, and also a very lively one with winding streets and cool shops and restaurants. I met them for a little breakfast and then chatted with them in their hotel for a bit. It was very sweet to meet them! Then, they were off to the Louvre and I headed to Charles de Gaulle airport.

I happened to be travelling at the end of a week of major strikes in the airport by the security checkers. I got their early, but the airline I was flying on was small and I was misdirected to the wrong terminal (good thing I was very early!) and I happened to pass the strikers. They just suddenly came out of nowhere and accumulated, banging on drums, and with loads of cops surrounding them. Quite interesting.

Luckily, despite the strike, getting through security was a breeze. After a quick litter hour and a half flight, I was in Manchester airport. I took a train into Manchester city and met Gemma’s sister, Ellie, at her shop. Ellie makes clothing and has a shop in this old warehouse building that has been converted into this epic kinda vintage and handmade clothing mall called Afflecks Palace. Then we took the train out to Congleton and drove to Gemma’s house. Overall, took nearly twelve hours. But so worth it! I love spending time with Gemma’s family! They are so warm and inviting.

I spent most of the weekend eating and relaxing. Food highlights are: pigs in a blanket (sausage wrapped in bacon), toasties (grilled cheese made in a kind of Forman’s grill), turkey, sprouts… and real milk that is delivered by a milk man!

One of the first days, we went on a beautiful hike around a lake with all of Gemma’s friends. Can’t remember the name of the lake, but it was a beautiful hike and she has very sweet friends.

Overall, I’ll just let you know how Christmas goes in England. Christmas Eve isn’t really the big deal like it is in the States. We just relaxed at Gemma’s house. The Christmas Day is the big day. Gemma’s brother, sister-in-law, and nephew came over and we exchanged gifts, had loads of wine, and ate tons of food. Their Christmas Day meal is usually Turkey with sprouts and cranberry sauce; very much like Thanksgiving! They also have Christmas pudding, which is a kind of fruit cake that has a lot of brandy or something in it and you pour some liquor on top of it and light it on fire! It’s very traditional, and traditionally not well liked!

That was pretty much a summary of the four days in Manchester… On the last day, we had lunch near Leeds at her aunt and uncle’s home, and then Gemma put me on a bus to London at 6pm. I arrived at around 10:30pm. Hung out in a pub until about midnight, then took a bus to Stansted airport and waited there for a few hours until my flight at 6:30am to Berlin! That was a crazy trek.

Ok, I think that’s enough for one day! I will tell you all about Berlin next time!!!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Christmas in France

So, now that Christmas is over, I’m going to tell you about how it goes in France:

Even in poor Le Havre, they still go all out for Christmas. At the Hotel de Ville (town hall) there are Christmas windows that tell a story about how Santa is kidnapped and his elves are trying to find him. The story continues inside of the Hotel de Ville, where there are even more elaborate windows and one whole area is done up like a wintery forest. It’s amazing! All the characters move as well and they have really elaborate costumes and set ups.

There is also a little Christmas market, though it is not nearly as nice as some other ones I’ll tell you about later. There you can buy specialties from all over France as vendors come and go, such as foie gras, spiced bread or pain epicie or something like that, and really fancy jams and sauces. The stalls are cute little wooden stalls. There is also a little Santa village with different houses where you can see Santa sitting in his bedroom and elves reading children’s letters and making toys. They also have a stage with different little shows. My friend is in a gospel choir here, and his group had a little concert at this stage, which we got to see.

(up until now everything is in the present tense because when I wrote it , it was still Christmas time! Now that Christmas is over, moving to the past tense! Sorry!)

There was also a “Parade Blanche” or white parade with floats that were covered in fake flowers that I think were actually lays. They were really cool and very creative. They had floats with different themes, especially of a lot of different regions in Europe. My favorite one was the fire department : their float was a life sized giraffe that they rode on and had a hose shooting soap suds (meant to look like snow) of its mouth. They drove around crazily and haphazardly, right up to the crow, and would shoot these suds in your face, sometimes lingering over you so that you couldn’t see! Very funny.

They also had organ concerts in one of the churches in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Obviously, if you’re going to host an organ concert, it has to be in a church. The organ boomed over us and it was quite uplifting. Unfortunately, one of the speakers must have a little problem because in constantly rang a really high pitch over the music, ruining it a little bit and making you cringe from time to time…

Near my house there is a little square called Place Danton and one day after school they had a little show for children. There was a Christmas fairy, which was an actor standing on stilts, and a little wind up toy, an acrobat. They put on a cute little show for the kids and did some interesting stunts, juggling, and magic tricks. One that was particularly interesting was when the fairy stuck a long pin straight through a balloon and it didn’t pop- and then pulled it out again! Amazing. Then there was a little concert put on by the children. It was absolutely adorable, especially one where the children were so little none of them were really singing so they just gave the microphone, mid-song, to one of the older boys (about 5 years old) and he just ploughed through at the top of his lungs.

During the Christmas season I also went to Reims and Strasbourg. Reims, important to know, is pronounced like raince (with a real thick French “r” sound at the beginning). Here I also got to stay with a really cool French girl that I met on CouchSurfing and luckily she didn’t have anything to do that day so she showed me around!

Reims is in the Champagne region where, you guessed it, they make champagne. I did do a little wine cellar tour. Normally you have to pay for the tour (plus extra for a tasting at the end), but on the day I was visiting I was lucky and it was an open house day so the tour was free (still had to pay for the tasting though!). I’m told that it wasn’t the best wine cellar to see, but it was free so I can’t complain. It was cool to see how the cellars look (and feel! They’re a little chilly!). Favorite part was watching how the bottles are slowly turned. I don’t really understand how the champagne is made, since the introductory film was in some pretty technical French and the tour was in French and I was a bit tired so I zoned out a lot. Overall though, it was good. I didn’t taste the wine at the end of the tour, but I bought their cheapest bottle (my birthday is coming up!).

Also in Reims is the cathedral. The cathedral here is super famous because it was where all the French kings have been crowned! As you can imagine, it was huge. There is a really cool beautiful clock and I coincidentally happened to be there at noon and got to watch in chime (apparently a big deal, everyone was crowding around). When it chimes these angels come out and ring the bell. Pretty cool.

That night there was also a “spectacle” (as the French say) on the cathedral. They projected the really cool 3d images onto the fa├žade of the church. A lot of the lighting highlighted the statues that were on the building (if you know European churches, then you know they are completely covered with statues). They brought some of the statues to live and had them moving and everything. It was really a sight to see!

In Reims I really liked their Christmas markets. They were all in a row and there were tons of them. At least 5 times more than in Le Havre, and there was some cool stuff. Because they were in one long line, it was much easier and less crazy to stroll and look at all of them and there was a bit more room. I didn’t buy anything, but it was tempting.

For lunch we went to an Irish pub (they’re really popular here). The French girl I was staying with ordered Tripe! That’s right, intestines! She really likes them, and I'm glad she ordered them because then I got to try it. And I didn’t really like it (a bit rubbery and chewy), so I'm also glad I didn’t order it! Instead I ordered a massive burger with Munster cheese on it. I know, you’re all thinking, Ah, yes, Munster. But no, you don’t know Munster. Here it isn’t pasteurized, so it’s much stronger (and smellier) than at home and it is specifically from this region.

I also got to go to the church where the Emperor Clovis was baptized. It’s not really a popular tourist spot because it’s a little out of the town center, but if you happen to be in Reims, I would recommend it. It’s a lot quieter and the stained glass is very beautiful (much of the stained glass at the cathedral is lost from WWII). I just swiped this info from Reims’ tourist info website: Clovis, Frankish king was baptized by Remi, bishop of Reims on Chritsmas Day 498 in a baptistery which is today situated where Notre-dame Cathedral of Reims stands. Clovis’s conversion to Christianity, religion of a Church which inherited the Roman power, legitimized Clovis to a military takeover of a Gaul then still very divided. A consequence of this baptism was the bringing together of Church and State from which was born the monarchic government of the French divine right. It is also thanks to Clovis’s baptism that Reims became the seat of the coronation of the kings of France.--> The guy who wrote this clearly was doing his best to translate from French to English, so it’s a little rough, but I think you get the idea!

I also got to go ice skating! In most of these larger French towns/cities there were free ice skating rinks, but Le Havre doesn’t. The French girl I stayed with hates ice skating, so she nicely took pictures of me and held on to all of my things for me while I went around, trying to avoid the crazy children skating around.

So I pretty much saw Reims in a day. The girl I stayed with invited me to come again in the spring. Her dad works for one of the major champagne factories and her friend has a car so maybe we could go out into the country when it’s nice and actually see the vineyards! I’m so lucky!

Then I did a covoiturage (rideshare) to Strasbourg. The girls driving me were pretty interesting. They clearly seemed really well off: the car was sleek and one of the girls had a rabbit scarf. They were also pretty nice and chatted with me in French. The other girl they were driving was a tattoo artist somewhere in the middle of nowhere France, outside of Reims. It was Sunday morning and she must have had a big night/it was a bit of a trek for her to get to Reims because she pretty much slept the whole ride.

Also, when I woke up in Reims, it was the first snow of the season! Just a light dusting on everything, nothing too bad. But the girl who was driving was from a bit outside Reims, in the country and she said her car was snowed in and she was late because they had to dig it out! During the ride it was pretty dry, but at one point I fell asleep and woke up in the middle of a winter wonderland! It pretty much died down by the time I got to Strasbourg, the Christmas capital of Europe!

I had some time to kill before meeting up with the person I was staying with that night, so I walked around the center of town. Because Strasbourg is this famed Christmas capital, they have a lot of stuff going on. First of all, they have ELEVEN Christmas markets. That’s massive. To be fair, each individual Christmas market is a lot smaller than the one in Reims, but about the same size as the one in Le Havre. There were all kinds of things, and here each little market had it own theme, such as Switzerland and it had all products from Switzerland.

I also was lucky and one of the first instants I was there, I noticed there was a large crowd on the opposite side of the street looking up the road. So I turned to a French guy and asked what was going on and he said “Miss France is coming!” We have Miss America, and here they have Miss France. Not Mademoiselle France. Miss France. There's the spread of American culture for you. But anyway, I got to see her, which was pretty lucky. And random.

Another cool thing that I saw was there was a radio booth near the cathedral (I’ll talk about that soon). I just walked in because I saw a little crowd and I wanted to keep warm and then suddenly they were live on the air, talking to some guy and then he played a song! Turns out he’s some French singer. Don’t know his name or anything, but I remember the song he sang. It went something like “S.O.S. (something in French) S.E.X.” haha I’ll have to Google it and find out.

Ok, so the main highlight of the city is it’s cathedral. I would definitely say the cathedral was more beautiful than the one in Reims, which I was surprised about. Inside there are a ton of beautiful hanging tapestries along the sides of the pews. In the back right corner of the church is a huge astrological clock that is very, very old and really cool looking. They also had a really immense and beautiful nativity scene for Christmas that even had running water! I was also pretty lucky and happened to walk in when they were doing the story of Christmas with a bunch of children and adults. The acoustics were great and I was able to be there for the song “Noel,” it was just so much Christmas at once, I started to tear up.

Another really great part about Strasbourg is the French quarter. Strasbourg is on the border of France and Germany and in its history it was often switching who was in control: the Germans or the French. At one point it was controlled by Germany and all of the French were forced into a ghetto, now the French quarter. It’s a very beautiful area, with the river running through it, controlled by old wooden locks. The building are all squished together, peering over the river and streets, all different colors (pinks, even teals, whites, etc) and with the exposed wood beams.

I ate in some fancy restaurant that was one of these buildings overlooking the water. And I sat right next to the window overlooking the water! Lucky me (since that’s why I picked the place). For lunch I had a tartufflette or something. Basically it’s flat bread with bacon and Munster cheese on it (really large). I also had a little Riesling with my lunch, which is also from this region.

I wish I could also tell you about the church I stumbled on, but I can’t remember its name. Apparently Beethoven had played on an organ in this church, and you can see that organ in this church today. The church itself was also pretty cool and quiet with some interesting statues to look at.

The person I stayed with in Strasbourg was really cool. On my second/last night staying there he invited some friends over for dinner for me, but since it was a Monday night/work night, only his girlfriend and one of his friends showed up, which is fine by me, because I was worn out from all the sightseeing. We had some cheese from the town where he’s from (I think it was Mont d’Or or something). It’s a small town and apparently to get this cheese in Strasbourg it’s very expensive, but he had some his parents had recently given him. He served it melted with baked potatoes and sliced meats. It was delicious!

Turns out his girl friend is also super cool and I really loved her lots! She works for Cronenburg (totally spelling it wrong, but if you live in Europe, you know it!). I love Cronenburg because the bottles make it look like Heinekin but it’s a lot cheaper. She majored in college in biochemistry and now creates the different flavors for the beer, so I got to try some really cool beers! One is their special New Year’s edition and another was an unreleased beer that I really liked. She has the coolest job I think- she taste tests beer all day! She said the only downside is, sometimes they work on flavor preservation, and they put the beer the extreme conditions (usually heat) and she has to taste the flavor after and sometimes they taste pretty nasty! Yuck!

The next morning I shipped off at 6am on another covoiturage that took about 7 hours to get form Strasbourg to Le Havre (basically from the east side of the country directly across to the west). I rested in Le Havre for a few days before heading off to celebrate the real thing in Manchester and then a quick visit to Berlin!!!

I’ll post about it soon, I promise!!

Pictures of Le Havre during Christmas:

Picutres of Reims:

Pictures of Strasbourg: