Saturday, May 28, 2011

I love my research

I come across a lot of random places, diseases, and other things while I'm collecting the data for my project. It's quite interesting. For example:

-Note: Monkeys are not suitable pets. In case you were wondering. The bolding is theirs, not mine.

-The French claim a territory called Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean. The Scattered Islands are all just scraps of coral, but France wants them. So do Madagascar, the Comoros, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. It seems to be more about claiming the sea around them for fishing rights, but it has to be funny to bring up any official business relating to a place that you can't be bothered to call anything other than "the Scattered Islands."

-South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Not a lot going on here either, just another great territory name (UK this time). 

-Giant kidney worm infection. Enough said. 

-A disease called simply Orf. No, it does not turn you into an ogre or orc, which it sounds like it should.

There have been others I'm forgetting, but just thought I'd share a few for laughs.

Happy weekend!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

This bag makes you French

Just in case any of you desperately want to look French, this bag does it. Everyone's got it. Longchamps, Le Pliage.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Avignon

So I was supposed to get to go to a classmate's beach house in Spain this past weekend. Unfortunately, it fell through :( Too bad--it was the driver's spider mites needing attending to on a Saturday (good reason not to work with insects)! That would have been amazing. I tried to find something else to do and discovered that everywhere within reasonable traveling range had a 70-100% chance of thunderstorms.  I don't usually trust weather forecasts, but most of the places I would go are best when you can just wander around, which would not be so much fun in a storm. Or even rain. But I finally saw that while Avignon had 100% chance of rain/storms Saturday, it was 0% on Sunday! So a classmate and I decided to go. I'm trying to see new places, but I have to admit I was in Avignon once before, in 2000. I didn't remember it well, but kept hearing how amazing it was and so decided to check it out again (PS same with Barcelona, only that was in 1997 maybe).

We grabbed an earlyish train so that we'd have a good chunk of the day to explore. The first thing I noticed when we got off the train was that they weren't kidding about Avignon being windy!  The wind blew nearly constantly throughout the day. A serious wind too, in the 20+ mph range. But it was an absolutely gorgeous day with blue sky and white fluffy clouds.


This is the view from a tower of the Palais de Papes, which was our first stop. It was pretty cool-there were remains of a lot of cool frescoes on the walls (no pictures allowed) and the building itself was quite impressive.


My favorite part of the palace was the view tower, for sure. Panorama mode, earn your keep!

After the palace we wandered around for a while. Avignon is in Provence, and what I do remember from the previous trip was confirmed in the touristy shops-lots of the stereotypical but beautiful Provence yellow and blue cloth and tons of lavender products.

 Then it was time for one of those lunch menus I'm so fond of--lamb and mashed potatoes both with garlic sauce, followed by a cooked pear with chocolate sauce, ice cream, and chantilly (a heavy whipped cream). Yes, the pear came with all three of those! Delicious. I'm not a pear fan, but it was cooked well and covered in three types of sweet :)

After lunch we wandered off to see the Pont d'Avignon from the song (pont=bridge, and there's a famous song called "Sur le pont d'Avignon"). It's actually called Pont Saint-Benezet, and it has a history of collapsing. They got sick of fixing it and so just turned the remaining bit into a tourist site. This is the view from another bridge just downstream (that you don't have to pay to walk on).


And back towards the city--told you the palace was big...



My favorite part of the day though, was the Jardin du dom (remember jardin=garden). Beside the palace is a large rock outcrop that used to have I think a castle on it, but is now just a huge garden way up on this massive rock. That's the garden at the top of the picture below! It was beautiful--great views of a lot of the surrounding area, plus just nice in itself. It was at about this point that my camera died... fail. 


After wandering around the park for quite a while, doing as much window shopping as you can in Europe on Sunday and grabbing a beer in one of the main areas, we headed back home, but it was a great day trip. And now you get the rest of the pictures I really liked.

A stained glass window in the palace

Another bit of rock outcrop with a lantern and a house built on top

Soap! Each color is a scent.

At the top of the Jardin-a cool painted ceramic representation of the town and 
distances to various other places

Monday, May 16, 2011

The bf's visit, Part 2: Food

Finally coming back to the promised food post related to the bf's visit!  I'd like to start this food post by stating that I realized in a very odd way that French food was really as good as they say it is. What was this weird way? I moved from the Netherlands to here by train. I had to switch trains around lunchtime, so I grabbed a sandwich at a place I've since learned is your every street corner sandwich place. I took one bite and was astonished. I wasn't thinking about it being my first try of French food and expecting anything or even paying attention--I was just hungry! But the bite of sandwich completely took my by surprise. I knew I was going to eat well this semester.

Since arriving, I had eaten a few amazing meals in various restaurants around town and had realized  that wherever you go, pretty much everything is going to be amazing. French places frequently have a menu of the day, which is a choice of a plat-du-jour (usually several options), and you can  often add an entree (yeah English speakers, we got that one wrong: It's the appetizer, not the main plate) and/or a dessert for not much at all. It's a great way to try several things. I love the menus! Unfortunately, being a busy student and with a few weeks of having no money after the pickpocketing, I had really not eaten out nearly enough. I had eaten at the dining hall entirely too much (really the only lunch option with class timing). And while French dining halls serve things like duck, mussels, snails, and other things you would never see in American dining halls, they still cook them like a dining hall (read: they're gross). So by the time classes ended, I'd had enough. In the month and a half since I've eaten at a dining hall once, which reminded my why I was done with them. So long story short, I'm cooking again.

BUT, when the bf came, we went all out. He was in France and he was going to eat French food! We're not big planners, so our restaurant selection process usually involved deciding we were hungry, heading into town, and wandering and reading menus until something struck us both. It was fun! We went to all different parts of town and ended up at all kinds of places depending on their menu, atmosphere, whatever we were looking for that particular meal.

Well, I guess we did that except for the first dinner. I had told the bf about mussels and fries (moules- frites) places, and he had to eat at one of those, no question, his first night here. I told him it was a Belgian thing, but he was insistent (hehe I didn't actually fight it--it's an awesome meal). You get a kilogram of mussels (yeah that's 2.2 lbs) steamed in whatever sauce/broth you want.  I tend to do moules marinieres, which is your classic white wine garlic sauce, just because it's so amazing! We went to a great little place built into the side of a building and were one of the few tables in there. The proprietor was a fun Belgian guy who gave an enormous spiel and fun recommendations from his Belgian beer list, all while I was translating as fast as I could both his suggestions and the bf's questions. We split an order of the mussels and an order of some scallop dish with a beer-based sauce. I was not a huge fan of the scallop dish, but bf was in love.

But other than that we just wandered around town. I won't bother with place names, but if you're ever going to Montpellier and are scared to just wander freely, let me know and I'll get you names!  The first thing we had was a menu midi (lunch menu) in a square I like. Bf's first meal was a fish tarte (sorta like a fish and cheese pie) and steak-frites. So French!

I think we would probably agree that our best meal came from a place in this beautiful courtyard. The picture isn't great, but it was a cute square with a fountain in the middle and a restaurant on either side.

Bf got an utterly amazing plate of scallops. They were big, beautiful, and cooked perfectly. I had magret de canard (duck breast) with the most amazing sweet apple sauce. Drool, seriously.

We also went to once place where the appetizers were good, the meal was not, and the desserts were amazing.

 To the left is my appetizer--shrimp beignets (doughnuts). Kinda like extra-breaded fried shrimp. Very good. Below is bf's--terrine de something. Don't remember the details. Terrine looks a bit scary, and is some kind of fatty meat loafy thing (not like our meat loaf). It's really rich and delicious though.
I won't bother with pictures of the main dishes. The side vegetables were good, but that was about it. The desserts though. Mmm. First is a picture of my cafe gourmand. A cafe gourmand is a plate with a French coffee (they have tiny coffee) and several small desserts. This one was actual several reasonably normal-sized desserts, but less than the size was the utter amazingness of nearly everything. Top right was the worst thing on there, and was a not bad red fruit compote on some kind of cake. Bottom right was a dark chocolate mousse, bottom center was the coffee, bottom left was an apple tarte with some kind of flan-like base and caramel sauce, top left was a little meringue, and center was a creme brulee. The chocolate mousse and creme brulee were spectacular in true French fashion. The apple tarte really got me though. I am not a big cooked-apple person, so I didn't expect to like the thing. Bf is not a big dessert person at all though, and when I saw his face after he tried it, I knew I had to as well. And...uh...I still can't even describe it other than to tell you that after either of us took a bite, we would not be able to respond to any conversation while we were savoring it. It was amazing. I highly recommend cafe gourmands just because they're very French and fun, but that was my most amazing dessert ever. His dessert, a frozen lemon sorbet, was also great.

 


Oh French food. It's amazing. We also just had a couple meals with sandwiches or pizza bread and a bottle of wine or something like that, and it was still good.

Then Spanish food! We hit Barcelona right during Easter, which was awesome in that there were not many people anywhere, but not great in that a lot of places weren't open. We did manage to get paella though! Yum.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Course Camarguaise!

I've suddenly realized that this semester is done in two months and it's travel crunch time. I don't know if I'll be back here next semester, so just in case I'm not, I have to see everything now! I was trying to figure out where to go last weekend when a friend emailed me a link to a flyer for a Spanish Festival in a beach town near here. It looked like several food stands and a few shops, but there was also a schedule, and on that schedule was Course Camarguaise. I had no idea what that meant, but I soon discovered that it's the version of bullfighting practiced in this region. It's nice and friendly--the bulls have a good life spent mostly at pasture on the marshes, but every once in a while they're herded into town by about 6 cowboys that form a triangle to herd 1-3 bulls at a time (sorry for the blurry picture--they don't move slowly).


The event we went to was actually a training event for new rasteurs (the guys who do the "fighting"), so I'm not sure if this is always how it goes, but that day there were about 10 guys in the ring competing. I do know that the goal is to remove ribbons attached to the bull's head and horns. No red cape, just getting the bull's attention and getting him to run at you so you can get a good grab at the horns before you vault yourself out of the ring to safety. 
 
video

They brought out five bulls in succession, and each was bigger and more aggressive than the last. It was really interesting to watch! But the bulls are definitely not hurt. I was reading more about the Course Camarguaise and apparently you'll get bulls that are quite famous, and their names will be printed bigger than those of the rasteurs on posters advertising the events! I'm really not sure how I'd handle watching a real bullfight where they kill the bull, and I'll happily take this as my proxy.

Of course after the fight we were hungry and had a nice paella and sangria lunch. It was a Spanish festival after all!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The unnamed plant lives on

Since there are doubters in your ranks (you know who you are) I provide proof my plant lives on.


Look how happy it is! I say "it" because the plant remains unnamed. I'm convinced that is contributing to its non-deadness.

P.S. Yes, there is a food post coming. Later.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The bf's visit, Part 1: Travel

The bf finally came to visit! It's, you know, a little expensive to get to Europe and back, but his friend's awesome mom came through with the Buddy Pass to make it possible for cheap! Thank you thank you thank you friend's mom! Buddy passes let you fly standby, but since spring in Europe is rather popular, we were having trouble finding flights he could be relatively sure of getting on. Then apparently someone said something nasty about Barcelona on the Travel Channel or something because there were a string of completely open flights to Barcelona! So he hopped on a plane with just a few days' notice.  I finished a school project like a mad person and got on a bus to meet him at the airport.  Yes, a 6 hour bus trip and a night in a chuzzle-decorated hostel to be waiting in the arrivals lounge. Awwww. It was awesome.

He was, however, dead when he arrived (even though he got to fly business class!) so we jumped on the bus and headed back to Montpellier, where he promptly fell asleep without trying any more French food than the dried strawberries I had in my bag as bus food. This is the travel post though, so more food talk will be reserved for the next post.

I had to wake up early Wednesday morning for an appointment to get my French residence permit (yup, I'm finally official). He slept till I was done and then we wandered around Montpellier. We did my favorite parks and squares, and then I showed him the center of town/shopping/eating area. I realized that morning that while Montpellier is a nice place to live, it's not a very good tourist town. The few things (that I am aware of I guess!) that you should see, you kinda just see and are then done with. But he enjoyed it anyway. We were both still tired so we had a nap that afternoon, then a relaxed dinner and a few drinks with some classmates and a set of parents who were in town.

Thursday we decided on a small adventure! Nîmes is a town about a 25 minute train ride from me (yeah, no long voyages yet). It was one I hadn't heard much about, but when going through the guidebook bf decided it looked interesting and off we went! First impression was that it was just a really pretty town, with lots of shady tree-lined avenues. We arrived and immediately decided to grab lunch (yeah, we slept late. Hey, it was both of our vacations!), but were being indecisive, so we wandered around town for a while before settling down, and it was very enjoyable! The tree-lined avenues are everywhere, not just near the train station. We wandered by a cathedral or two and then finally sat down. Afterwards, we wandered a bit more until we suddenly came upon the Roman arena! It was the first one I'd seen, and they're really cool! This one looked kinda small, but can hold 24,000 people. While were were there they were setting it up for some mock Roman Games they were having over the weekend.





The arena was pretty open, so we were able to wander all around the top level and check out the views, which were great. While up there, we saw a watchtower on top of a hill and decided to head that way. I then heard in the arena audioguide that it was a Roman tower built on top of an old Celtic tower, which made it sound even cooler.

We meandered our way towards the watchtower (nice to have a companion with a great sense of direction). The city continued to be lovely, but we were both surprised by how nice the Jardin de la Fontaine (Garden of the Fountain) was. You walk through the garden to climb the hill to the tower, but we spent quite a while wandering around the garden, enjoying the big open areas and old Temple of Diana. Once we realized that the whole thing was actually spring-fed, it was even cooler.


Eventually we decided to climb the hill, and it was great! The whole park was really well done. There were hidden grassy areas, little gardens, nice paved paths and little rocky trails up through gardens, all kinds of things. It was quite steep and had us both puffing a bit, but it was totally worth it. The tower was cool, and while trees obstructed a lot of the view, the bits we got were nice!


After seeing those major sites, we just wandered around town a bit more and finally headed back to Montpellier. It was great. Nice, laid back traveling.

Friday we decided to be around Montpellier again and had a lovely picnic in my complex. What? The dorm complex? Why? Well, being in a Mediterranean climate seems to mean that grass is not all that common in "parks" which are often paved or gravel. My favorite park in town (the one by the arch) is mainly gravel with just a few grassy places. And for our picnic, we wanted grass, so we ended up in my complex, which is actually nice and grassy and didn't bother me at all.

That day we were planning our trip that we wanted to do to Lyon the next day, where we would spend Saturday and then head to Barcelona where bf had to leave from Tuesday morning. For some reason the train sites were being cranky, so we had to go to the station to try to book. Turns out almost everything was full! GAH. People must do a lot more Easter traveling than I thought. All we could get would leave us with only about 22 hours in Lyon with a 70% chance of rain all day. We decided to skip Lyon and book the bus to Barcelona for Sunday. We decided to just wait and check the rain when we woke up Saturday morning and go on another day trip if it looked nice.

Good thing we waited! It poured almost all day Saturday. We took it as a sign and were lazy and watched DVDs. Except for the adventure we had just trying to get something to eat.

Sunday morning it was time to finish packing all my winter stuff into bf's suitcase and head to the bus station. Got on the bus to Barcelona for the second time. This one was interesting though, with lots of Spanish temper flaring before we even left Montpellier. My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to follow those lightning-speed exchanges, but several people were angry at various points. After that it was an uneventful bus ride (although even just taking the highway it's very pretty) and we arrived in Barcelona. We had grabbed a hotel near the train station (where the bus arrives and the train to the airport leaves) and got all checked in. Then it was off to find something to eat. This was, of course, Easter Sunday. Oops. Whereas most things had been open in France, almost NOTHING was open in Spain. Luckily we were in just enough of a touristy area there were a few small places open. Then it was back to the hotel, as we'd planned a full Monday of being tourists.

Oh that alarm Monday morning. We were both excited, but it was still not nice to wake up. We quickly decided to snooze for a while and take the metro up to Parc Guell instead of walking the 5 kilometers. SUCH a good call. Barcelona has an amazing natural setting--it's on the beach, but the city goes up into the few serious-ish hills behind it. Parc Guell is on one of those hills. It's up there. It's a park that was going to be a neighborhood, designed by Gaudi, the same crazy architect behind the Sagrada Familia. The project failed commercially, so it's mainly a park, but there are a few completed buildings, some amazing architecture built into the environment, and the main hall type thing with awesome lizard fountain. Can you find me in the last picture? 



Being on a hill, Park Guell also gave amazing views of Barcelona below. Panorama mode on!

The bf and I both loved the park, and I'm pretty sure we walked almost the whole thing. And it's large. But finally we were satisfied and headed downhill towards the Sagrada Familia, stop two on our tour.

The Sagrada Familia is amazing. Whether you like it or not, there is no other way to describe the monster that rises out of Barcelona. It was started in 1882, but Gaudi took over in 1883 and it became another of his crazy creations. It hasn't been worked on continuously since then, but now they're really going. It's supposed to be completed sometime in the 2030s. I told you, it's crazy. This thing is utterly enormous already, and the largest spire (not started) is supposed to dwarf what's already been built. It is so impressive. If you're ever in Barcelona, you absolutely must check it out. And you have to go inside. The inside is so unexpected from the outside--it's intricate and ornate, but in a totally different way.





So we spent another large part of our day in Barcelona being entranced by Gaudi. Even after we left, we detoured to check out some more of his creations (Casa Batllo and the Pedrera) in another part of town on our way towards the sea.

Finally, we ended the Gaudi part of our day and headed to Las Ramblas, which we both found disappointing. It may have had something to do with it being Easter Monday, but after talking to others who have been, it seems like it's usually just a crowded tourist street with pickpockets and people selling postcards and trinkets. The real cool thing to do in that area is get off Las Ramblas immediately! Wander in the Barri Gothic, the quarter around it, and enjoy the cool old feel.  We did that for a while, coming across the few old cathedrals (which just didn't seem so impressive after the Sagrada Familia), and then finally came to the seashore. It was nice! Big harbor with yachts and a nice big beach. We grabbed a beer at one of the beach restaurants and just watched the sea and the people for a while, and it was great. Finally the sun began setting and since the bf had an early flight, we headed home. It was a wonderful day in Barcelona, and if you ever have one day there, I think it's a great itinerary!

And then suddenly bf was on a plane home and I was on a bus back to Montpellier alone. It seemed entirely too short, but it was an amazing trip and writing this has brought back all the fun memories!