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: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150420563541319.354075.544216318&type=1&l=e223e7ae22

Picutres of Reims:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150445476836319.358656.544216318&type=1&l=a82ef55e30

Pictures of Strasbourg:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150445489021319.358657.544216318&type=1&l=ae61d4ec37