30 January 2009

Right in my own backyard

met up with jj and his friends for lunch and afterward was introduced to some places not more than 5 minutes from our apartment.

right on the plaza where i work there is a moderate-sized mall. didnt know this. i think i was thrown off by the magnetic repulsion of the mcdonalds by the entrance door. anyway, inside there is a sporting goods store, a department store/fancy grocery store, an electronic store, tons of clothing stores, and upstairs is a cafe/cafeteria where we ate lunch. they had 2 "plate of the day" choices: duck or whitefish. got the whitefish. we spoke at the table first in french, of which i think i got maybe 60% of the conversation. then, we switched to english. the people sitting around us were dumbfounded. why are you speaking in english? we think this is why we didnt get served our bread. frenchmen and their bread-at-every-meal...it was a real blow.

one of jjs friends is from scotland, so we chatted the most. he was asking me if we had found any bbq sauce here. i hadnt been looking for it, but he said no one likes it here so that is one thing he misses. i said i missed hamburgers (surprise, surprise). then we all discussed american tv shows. i mentioned the office, 30 rock, and friends. no one had heard of 30 rock, but they all love desperate housewives and greys anatomy (wtf!?). too funny. then i mentioned my difficulty with students and jj said it was very disrespectful of the students, but his scottish friend (who said he is also an english teacher) says that if you get a group of mostly male students together they can be awfully hard for him to manage to teach as well. c'est la vie i guess.

next jj took me over to the champs libre museum. it was finally open when we wanted to visit. inside, there are 3 choices: the museum of brittany, the library, and the planetarium. jj chose the brittany museum. it went threw prehsitoric times to current day brittany. i learned about: the early people with their celtic ancestry, that the official breton language is closest to welsh, not french, and that during WWII, brittany actually had some nazi supporters/sympathizers. apparently after WWI, brittany tried to gain independence from france. a fascist group was formed inside brittany and when the germans invaded, they joined forces. there were also bretons who were part of the resistance, but the nazi support is a blemish on their past.

after the museum, jj introduced me to the library in the champs libre. there is nice periodical reading room on the first floor where you can come to sit and read for free. the rest of the library is in a tall glass tower of the building. the top floor gives a pretty good view of rennes, and its free to go up there. also on the top floor is the re-constructed home of a famous breton author, henri polles. he was a very eccentric man who donated all his house contents to the library. they recreated his home that was filled with books, art, and knickknacks galore. even his bathroom looked like a cluttered library.

next we went to the TNB (national theater of brittany), which is located just at the end of my street. they have theater, dance, and concert performances as well as independent movies there. there is also a cafe inside that jj said attracts the intellectual crowd. it is always open to the public. the building is mostly glass so you can sit on the higher floors on a comfortable couch and read and people watch. they also have the schedules for all the happenings around rennes. so it is a good place to know about, and now i know i can come hang out whenever i want.

28 January 2009

I will choke you here or there. I will choke you anywhere. In a box, with a fox...

let the record show that i lasted 5 weeks as a teacher before thoughts of attempting bodily harm to any of my students crossed my mind.

fuzzy memories come back to me now. back to a time when my mom and brother, chip, were talking about the future. my mom is a teacher and we were discussing how chip could be a teacher because he is personable and patient. it was then decided that i would not make a good teacher because of my impatience and unwillingness to be polite when people are idiots. i remember being slightly offended at the time...alas, they know me too well.

i am very good at being efficient and organized and giving instructions, but the futility of coming to a class everyday and trying to engage people who may or may not want to learn completely frustrates me. much of my family and friend population is comprised of teachers. and man do i respect you people. always have, and most certainly always will.

this is what has shocked me in the last week:

1. we had a course on preparing an english cover letter. the text for the course said "bring your english cover letter to class" AND i emailed them as well with information and links to help them create the letter. in class, i went around to the students to help them out. one student didnt have anything on his screen. i asked him why. he told me "the class was titled 'HOW to create an english cover letter,' so i didnt think i had to bring anything." good use of your english skills buddy. A++ for being cheeky. did you read my email? no excuse. im coming back in 10 minutes and i hope you have something on your screen...

2. one night i had a student two hours in a row who talked throughout the ENTIRE class. i tried a billion different ways to get him to shut up. he would shut up for a second and then continue on. i have two more ideas if he does it to me again, and then, i may jump over the desk and throttle him. also, i spoke to glen about this kid. he says he recalls the kid being the same way to him, so perhaps there is no way to get through to him. grrr.

3. we had a team debate about fashion magazines and whether or not they send the wrong message to teenagers. i could just see the crash-n-burn aftermath if i believed these computer nerds had thought about this topic and would come to class prepared, so i found some strong examples of magazine covers that definitely sent a message. one had a busty angelina jolie on it, the guys giggled for like 3 minutes straight. then during one of the debates, one guy was trying to reference one of the magazine covers and burst out laughing. he got everyone else laughing and in seconds he was crying from laughing so hard and had to put his head down for a minute to calm down. awesome. you are adults. why is this so funny? did you just get your first erection? dear god, you should get out more.

4. my tuesday class this week totally infuriated me. no one had read the TINY preparatory text that accompanied the class. there is SO little that is asked of them for this class its amazing. because no one read or had thought about the topic, their debate was AWFUL. i basically calmed myself down and reprimanded them at the end for not preparing.

5. for the team debates, i tend to give them ~10 minutes to gather info and make sure everyone will have something to say. most of the time i hear them discussing the debate a good portion of that time (although they are speaking in french so i only hear snippets). a few times, we have gotten to the debate and they all act like their thumbs are up their butts, so clearly they werent using that time wisely. ridiculous. the class is so short, just play along and stop being asswads.

6. often, i repeat my questions a couple times, each with a slightly different wording so that as many people as possible will understand what i am asking. sometimes they still ask me to rephrase a second time, which is fine, at least they are willing to try and get it right. this week, in the second hour, we were discussing whether you can or should impose democracy on other countries. i first asked what was good about democracy, and then switched to what was bad about it. i dont think the question can get simpler than that, but i still worded it two different ways and asked a guy what was bad about democracy. he launched into a pre-typed monologue, reading directly off his computer screen about why he didnt think we should impose democracy. he was reading it in monotone and super fast without enunciating. i had to calmly tell him that: 1. you didnt listen to my question, 2. you were just reading off your computer, 3. you were reading way too fast and i couldnt understand you.

7. during the "imposing democracy" discussion, within his opinion/answer, one of the students used the word "fuck" and "sucks." i was so shocked i didnt say anything. i mean, he wasnt directing those words at me, but i dont know why you would think that is language that we should use in a classroom. i guess i will have to talk about that issue if it comes up next time. joy!

one of the young geologists at daves university is married to a woman who is a middle school teacher here in france. it is her first full year of teaching and she has some stories. it seems that, historically, teachers were very strict and could hit students and held a very "evil" image. then, the laws were changed a few years back, completely ripping any power from the teachers hands:
1. there is no touching, of any kind, the students
2. you cannot reprimand a group of rowdy students. you can only single one out and punish him/her accordingly
3. you are not allowed to make a student leave the classroom. if they act up during class you have to deal with them in the classroom, no sending them down to the administrators.

obviously this is bad for all teacherkind. the students know the short rope teachers are on and so they push all the limits. there is even some pretty serious violence against teachers because they cant fight back...hitting them is easy. apparently, the parents arent bothered by this and the government sees no need to modify the laws. so, perhaps, growing up in these disrespectful teacher times (and being a woman in a male-dominated school), this is part of the reason it feels so difficult for me. that, and a short list of about 50 other reasons. :)

26 January 2009

Hot lunch in the hot seat

met jj again and had lunch with a vip.

we walked from the city center to a youth work program building. france has a program to create city working opportunities to kids who grew up in the countryside. many farmers and their families live in small, sometimes fairly isolated communities and so the level of exposure to big city life, travel, and non-farm work is very limited. this program helps bring interested kids from their family farm into a city and supports their lifestyle within a program building giving them information and access to city life, inexpensive rent, a community room where they can gather together, and a cheap cafeteria.

the cafeteria is open to the public but it is restricted to people from non-profit organizations who are "members." so its like a country club for social servants. pretty neat. anyway, we met jj's brother-in-law for lunch here. he happens to be the president of the regional office for frances government work and retirement program, CRAM.

so there are three things this program does: distributes retirement money to retired citizens, manages/provides work insurance (each individual worker is required to have work insurance here in france. if you fall or get sick at work, this insurance, not your private insurance, will be what covers you), and they aid in the payment of retired/assisted living programs (they try to help you stay in your home as long as possible by providing maids, cooks, or other aid, but then they also provide for your care once you have to go into assisted living or a nursing home until the end of your life).

anyway, the three of us went through the cafeteria line (i got: bread, french fries, rabbit, and fruit) and sat down for lunch (we were basically surrounded by all the do-gooders in rennes). the CRAM guy didnt speak english so we spoke in french. i was so nervous i couldnt eat very much. he was very kind, but the entire lunch he devoted to telling me about this government program he managed. he spoke slowly and jj helped me understand but i still felt like i was in the hot seat. after lunch he gave me his business card.

then we walked, all together, to a cafe and got some tea/coffee (these lengthy lunches are normal). i asked him if he lived in rennes. he said no, he and his wife (jj's sister) live in a small town NW of here. his wife is the mayor of their town. what a family! pretty cool!

24 January 2009

The village of books definitely has character

when the sun came out around lunchtime, we decided to plan a small excursion for the day. we hopped a bus to bécherel, one of brittanys "historical towns of character."


when the bus dropped us in bécherel the sun was still shining, so that was a plus. the town is high up on a hill so the wind made us quite chilly, but the panoramic views of the countryside were spectacular. 

near the towns church, in the old part of the village, is a little square where every shop is a bookstore. this town has less than 800 inhabitants and yet supports 15 bookstores. each store has an adorable facade and sign, and there is even a café that sells a few books called "the cow who reads." they have festivals honoring books, reading, poetry, and all other literary endeavors throughout the year apparently. 

behind the church is a series of stone walls and gardens which are very pretty and fun to wander around in. it is also the highest point in the village. 
(dave and i among the walls and gardens near the church)

once we got down from this area, we found a seriously steep trail leading down, down, down. it took us all the way to the lowlands below the village. there were quaint country homes, farmland, ponds, and greenery. the sun was shining all along this path and it was very peaceful. i would love to see the area again in the spring. 

(view of the town from down below; dave and i enjoying the sun by a pond)

while climbing back up to the village, we followed the sound of pop/techno music to the town center where a bumper car amusement was set up. apparently this was the only entertainment in town. we grabbed a pear tart at the nearby bakery, watched the kids having fun, and waited for the bus to come take us home.

Hey, theres a weasel on your flag

met jj at the market, it was icky drizzling but we managed to learn a few things.

first, on the direction of jj (and glen and martin previously) we got our first galette saucisse. this is a medium-sized cooked sausage wrapped in a warm savory galette, i guess a french pig-in-a-blanket. it was delicious. a new market staple.

next, we learned where to buy the best brittany alcoholic cider, best regional bread, best prawns, fish, oysters, mussels, scallops, and crabs. he told us why each item was, in his opinion, the best and which times of year things are in season.

after being chilled to the bone, we ducked into a nice pub/café for some tea. then jj told us about the symbol of brittany. a past duke hunted ermine (a kind of weasel) and had it as his symbol on his shield, later brittany adopted it as their symbol. the symbol of brittany is a representation of the pelt of an ermine being tacked up to dry. the head on top, the arms out to each side, and the two legs with the tail in the middle at the bottom. this symbol is also on the flag of brittany. the flag creator drew his inspiration from the u.s. flag. pretty neat. and now that my eyes are open, you can find both this symbol and ermine representations all around town.

22 January 2009

I think i just got adopted

met up with jj (jean-jacques, the older dude who i now hang out with) and saw some more of rennes and planned out the rest of my life here in france, i think i got pseudo-adopted...

beginning at 9:30a, i met jj at the museum champs libre...it was closed. thats okay, he started telling me about the nearby square and how the military use to use it for drills and marching. then we made our way to another nearby museum, the beaux-arts. it is remodeling and the permanent collection is closed until this summer. we spent some time in the gift shop area looking at the art postcards so jj could show me his favorite paintings. the museum actually has a few very famous paintings. he bought me a small card of his favorite one in the collection: Le nouveau-né by Georges de La Tour.

     
(pablo picasso painting; paul serusier painting)
(georges de la tour painting)

we came out of the museum and walked up toward the city centre. jj took me into the historic city pool, built in 1923 and hasnt been modernized. it has beautiful tilework inside and out and definitely looks like something from a time gone by. after the pool we continued the uphill walk into the centre. jj said the first buildings of rennes were built on the hill because the river area was marshy and uninhabitable. later on, napolean ordered the river banks to be fortified and built a canal that connected saint malo (the port on brittanys north coast) south to the atlantic ocean (exiting from a port city on the south of brittanys coast). this river/canal system goes right through rennes and made it possible to move the french military while english ships were blockading the northern french coast. 

next, we went inside the old parliament building (from when brittany was its own nation) which is now the regions court of appeals. it is a large, open building with lots of stone and wood. there was obviously lots of security, but the trails are all public (if you bring ID). there was a three-man robbery trial going on while we were there. the second floor of the building had a grand, open room with a balcony out over the plaza where the leader made his speeches to the people. the ceiling was decorated with gold, carvings, the fleur de lis, and the symbol of brittany (not sure of the name), as well as several block "N"s, which stand for napolean. it was very interesting. 

lastly, we headed back to the same place as before to have tea where we met up with his colleagues. we sat down as a foursome and first spoke in french, then switched to english so his friends could get practice. they were a couple, about his same age, very nice. they talked about several things including their dream to fly to new york city, rent a car, and drive route 66 to san fransisco...i think they were getting this idea from the movies of their childhood, "easy rider" came up a few times...too funny. then jj started raving about obamas inaugural ball. he thought it was very classy and spectacular. he had never seen anything like it before. he was totally in love: the gowns, the powerful people, the celebration. he loved all the musical performances. he remarked that there were so many kinds of genres. then he pulled out his notebook and started listing them: Beyonce, Springsteen, Josh Grobin, Sheryl Crow. he loved it. he said sarkozy could never have had such a grand party, because people dont like him enough. he always has to get local bands to perform at his parties...hilarious. 

they also mentioned former french president, jacques chirac, recently was bitten by his "clinically depressed" dog (apparently the dog is now dead). then somehow the discussion changed to the new view of french people with obama. i said it was dumb when we had freedom fries and a moral ban on french wine for a while. they said it was silly too, but their citizens get like that too, that its understandable but hopefully things will change.

anyway, then i was getting hungry (it was after noon) and i hoped we would break soon. jj got out his calendar and suggested he meet us at the market this saturday to show us some good things, and that monday we should meet again to re-try the champs libre. there was also mention of, in the future, being taken to "the best spot in thabor park" to see the earliest spring flowers emerging. then his friend, anne, said that she was free next thursday. i should wear comfortable walking shoes and go with her and her friend (who she said speaks better english) to the countryside. it was totally bizarre how they just opened their calendars and wrote me right in there without having known me for more than a few hours. but, they are nice and open people and if they wanna show me around and havent gotten tired of my poor french, then im down with that. 

20 January 2009

Inauguration day

it finally arrived and it was awesome!

only trouble...living here, we are 6 hours ahead. my class starts at 6p so we were in prime time for all the opening celebration, speeches, and swearing in. i figured dave and i would just catch a replay on cnn or something when i got home. but actually, nearly half the students wanted to watch the inauguration during class time. they were very concerned that they might miss this momentous time in history. it was funny that i was the only american in the room and all of these french kids and glen the australian were eager to watch the live festivities. so strange to feel the far-reaching energy of your country from across the ocean. 

we ended up spending lots of time trying to make computers, projectors, and speakers all work in unison so we did actually miss the inauguration speech as a group (many were watching it individually on their computers). they did get to watch some of the post-inauguration stuff on the screen. but it was just a nice feeling that while i couldnt be home to experience things, i was able to share the event here with some people who cared. 

later on, at home, dave and i did get to watch the speech. huddled at our desk eating pasta, staring at the computer, we felt the swelling pride for the new energy being breathed into the country. i couldnt help it when a tear rolled down my cheek, i am glad we have a great country to return to. 

       

My own, personal tour guide

for anyone wondering what became of the older guy who emailed me in "Fishing without bait sometimes attracts the perfect fish," i met up with him yesterday.

he is in his 50s, i think, and he and his wife seem to be social workers, of sorts. they are very involved with the homeless in rennes. apparently there are 3 shelters: one for women and children only, one for men, and one for men with major alcohol and drug problems. their children are also in similar lines of work, so i guess you could say they are a nice do-gooder family. he was born and raised in rennes and still lives here. we met and went for tea. he was a little self-conscious about his english but it was great, and he was very kind to give me time and encouragement with my french. i may actually have some functional success with this language after all.

after tea, between bursts of rain and high-speed wind, we walked into the city hall building in the place de mairie. at least a couple of the staff members knew who he was, which was pretty neat. he directed me upstairs and into the wedding room. the space is used for weddings, special events, and town hall meetings. he told me about some of the history of the building and of rennes and eluded to giving more information on a future date. he also pointed out some names carved into the crown molding near the ceiling, of famous people from brittany. one of whom invented the stethoscope. he made a point to switch from english to french and visa versa every 15 minutes or so.


(mayors office/city hall)

once we were back outside, he told me a bit about the opera house which is directly across from city hall, and then we briefly popped over to the place de parliament where he said he would take me on a tour inside those buildings one day. i asked if he would like to meet again, since i only work at night, and to my surprise he suggested this thursday from 9:30a-noon. long time! this time we are going to meet at a museum near our apartment called the champs libres. how fun!

18 January 2009

The brunch club

we met up today with our rennes friends glen, martin, and christina in what will hopefully become a somewhat regular sunday brunch group. we enjoyed crêpes and walked in the park. 

we randomly chose to eat at a place called "Le 31 Crêperie" and we werent sorry. for the first round we ordered galettes (savory crepes). i had a mushroom one, dave had a ham and cheese one, and the others had similar variations. they were delicious and not too expensive. next course were the sweet crêpes. half of us chose a butter, sugar, and salted caramel crêpe, while christina and i chose chocolate and pear crêpes. mine was delicious with the mild sweetness of the pear dancing with the bite of the dark, smooth, liquid chocolate. dave let me have half of his caramel crêpe and i can say that tastebuds designed anywhere else than brittany have no idea what they are in for. it isnt the sugary sweet caramel from the u.s., this is mixed to perfection flavor, fat, faint saltiness to enhance the flavor and cut the fat, and slightly sweet to leave a lasting memory on your tongue. mmmmmmmmm.

(glens caramel crêpe. he licked his plate clean. i neglected to take a pic of my chocolate pear crêpe because i started devouring it as soon as they set it in front of me)

after all this gastronomic fun, we decided to attempt to walk some of the calories off in the nearby thabor park. it was a nice day and i had only been in the park once since weve been here. we found a bird aviary with many different colorful birds on the grounds, a pond of koi, some lovely paths with moss, stones, bridges, and trees that will bloom with beautiful flowers.

     
(greenery in the park; the old abbey on the edge of the park)

15 January 2009

Kids say the darndest things

this week at work was one hour of discussion dealing with the question "Do you think men and women are equal now?" and a one hour class of presentations on your favorite book. it triggered me to mention some of the notable items ive gotten from them lately.

1. last week, while discussing the economic fraud case, topics kinda shifted to the general bad economic times. one student said it has forced him to eat at cheaper restaurants lately. he said that this was okay because he loved mcdonalds...i laughed at him. i said i was sorry this food came from america. he said he loved our hamburgers. i said please, dont think that all our hamburgers taste like that. they can be so much better. he then mentioned that he also loves subway. seriously? you are in the land of good bread and sandwiches and you think subway makes decent stuff? oh man. he is a nice, charismatic kid, so it was fun to tease him a bit.

2. this week during the "men/women equality" discussion, i mentioned that dave is the one who does the cooking while we were talking about traditional roles at home. one of the guys raised his hand and said that this was because 'you emasculate him.' i burst out laughing at this one. you cant formulate complete sentences but you know the word emasculate? hilarious. he too is a nice guy who was enjoying himself in class so i felt fine teasing him a bit. these guys can be so funny sometimes. i wonder what fun we could have it this class was in their native language?

3. at the end of that class, another student came up to ask me about the family roles in the u.s. and if husbands and wives behave similar to what he sees in france. i couldnt quite tell why, but he seemed so genuinely interested in the topic that it was really sweet.

4. during the book presentations, one of the guys who is normally shy and quiet and uncomfortable speaking went on about his favorite book series for over 5 solid minutes. he had read this sci-fi series several times and never got bored. it had action, fantasy, life lessons and a love story. he said the love story initially scared him, but they folded it well into the story so it didnt make him uncomfortable. he spoke with such passion and confidence and well-thought out sentences about these books that i just wanted to give him a hug afterward. 

5. lastly, i had a class with two females on thursday. whoa! one of the women presented twilight as her book. and she had seen the movie! awesome! that made my day.

11 January 2009

When its coooo-ld ou-tsi-iiii-de…i gotta stay in all day

with sore muscles and a crummy weather day of clouds and wind, all i wanted to do was teleport to warm places. we managed to have a nice social day, but we didnt get to explore a ton.

as a foursome we decided to do a boat tour of part of stockholm. we bought the tickets and tiptoed into the lobby of the grand hotel to sit and be warm while we waited for the tour time to near. the lobby was not super awesome like you might expect from the name 'grand hotel,' but the bathrooms were way sweet (if you havent figured out by now i am most fascinated by the food and hygiene of different countries). i was happy to pee in a place that charged 13 euros for a piece of cheesecake.

we then boarded the boat for the tour. there was a nice, toasty warm inside part where we got to listen to an enthusiastic swede tell us about all the buildings we had been seeing along the waterfront for the past two days. the boat also took us farther out to some small fishing islands closer to the open baltic sea. for a brief moment we wrapped up in blankets and sat on animal skins to keep warm and enjoy the view from outside the boat.

  
  
(outer fisherman village island; me cold on the boat; view from the boat; view of gamla stan)

after disembarking the boat, we headed back to sodermalm to find lunch. we settled on a decidedly wacky choice of tapas. the food was decent and we sat for a while and chatted to plan our next move. we had wanted to go see the famous woodland cemetery called skogskyrkogården. its apparently a world heritage site and greta garbo is buried there. alas, it was getting too dark and chilly to make the trip so we headed in the direction of some pubs. 

on the way, i found a bakery to pop into called gunnarsons. i got some gingerbread cookies and a tart filled with yummy lemony goo and topped with raspberry icing. then we found a highly rated pub called oliver twist. they have like 25 different beers on tap and over 100 bottled beers from around the world. i enjoyed the atmosphere as i got to eat my sweets while the others enjoyed their beers. 

next up was an irish pub playing the manchester united vs. chelsea soccer (football, whatever) match. the sporting fans in every country are the same. its hilarious. the match was moderately interesting to watch but the people watching was more interesting to me. men, beer, and sport...oh my. and to reflect on more observations of the swedish:

we saw more strollers per capita than i think i have ever seen in my life (and virtually no pregnant women). calculations would say that most of these children were conceived during the cold ass months of last year. even the guys remarked on the strollers. and some of them were burly things with snow tires and awesome suspension for the rugged sidewalks. we also saw that most steep staircases around the city had ramps propped on the stairs. we were thinking these were for strollers? or the handicapped? either way, it looked scarier than any amusement park ride. i guess you gotta trust the ones who are pushing you... 



also, with windchill temperatures below freezing, i was bundled up with 3 layers on the torso, 2 layers on the legs, a scarf, gloves, and a hat. the swedish people were wearing light jackets, no hats, and some women wore only tights on their legs. ahhh! maybe this is why you people are all blonde, you freeze the color right out of your body. 

also, this wealthy, technologically advanced city had minimal evidence of typical internet cafes. instead, we found that every few blocks there was a 7-eleven, and every 7-eleven had computers available for internet access. weird. woulda thought they coulda come up with something better. also, every time we passed a mcdonalds, it was packed...maybe these people arent as advanced as i thought. 

cars: while the cars in stockholm were certainly bigger than any we have seen elsewhere in europe, they still didnt have a large percentage of huge SUVs. there were TONS of sporty volvo, bmw, audi, and saab station wagons...my kinda town. 

also to note, the swedes have contributed some wonderful famous celebs to history: greta garbo, ingrid bergman, ABBA, and author astrid lindgren who created pippi longstocking. i found out later that they have a pippi museum in stockholm. boo. i didnt get to see it. how fun would that be!? 

Cold weather swedish amuse[u]ment

today we visited some museums and ate to keep warm.

we met up with geology friends jason and nadja and headed over to the vasa museum on another island (djurgården). the museum houses the shipwreck of the swedish war ship from 1628, the vasa. this is a silly story. the ship was built is 1628 to go off and fight in the war with poland. the shipbuilder was rushed and on its maiden voyage, the ship took on two large squalls of water and sunk…about 1020 meters from where it started. nearly 50 people reportedly died in the disaster. later, the ship was re-discovered in the 1950s and was still in near original condition (95%) due to the brackish waters of this part of the baltic sea. it took several years to raise it off the ocean floor, and then 17 more years to restore it. apparently 25 skeletons were found in the ship. it is quite a sight to see though. very impressive.

       
  
(front of the ship; me in a fake crows nest of the ship. note the 1/10th-sized ship reproduction in the spotlight behind me; me and a swedish statue in awe of the ship; the back end of the ship)

after seeing the ship, we found a café to grab a quick bite to eat and refuel because next we were going to the worlds largest open air museum, skansen. basically, it is a historic swedish village with old buildings and people walking around in traditional swedish peasant clothes doing swedish handicrafts. they also have a nordic zoo with the animals of the region. unfortunately, during the winter, the handicrafts and costumed people arent out and about, but we did get to see the animals. there was a wolverine that was quite active (the worker who was feeding her had a UM wolverines hat on, how cool?), a pack of grey wolves, a pair of red foxes, some brown bears that were hibernating, moose, elk, reindeer, pigs, otters, and seals. the seals were so cute and were totally hamming it up for the crowd. worth the price of admission in my book.

(wolverine licking her lips; adorable seal, one of five in the tank)

the sun started setting and it was CHILLY up on the top of the park at the top of the island, so we headed back down to town. once we crossed over the bridge back to the main island, we encountered an enormous protest. the part that we saw was at least a mile long, 5-6 people wide. it was way cold outside and getting dark, but the swedes had gathered a huge group of sympathizers to march with their pets, kids, and elderly to protest issues in the middle east. it was pretty impressive.

(area where we noticed the protest. apparently this is also the 'beverly hills' of stockholm, where celebs live. tiger woods reportedly owns some property here)

we found a place to have a late lunch called ‘soft kök and bar,’ no joke. dave and i shared a yummy thin crust pizza with kalamata olives, mushrooms, and swedish prosciutto. mmm. then we headed home for a nap.


(is this town phallic-centric or what? saw this book after lunch at the soft kok...)

later we met up in sodermalm to pass the evening hours. its really tricky when its dark at 3:30p not to want to go to bed at 7p. we found a place for dinner that was decent and then wandered into a pub called ‘the old beefeater inn.’ everyone got hobgoblin beer and sipped and chatted for a while before we split off to go to bed.

09 January 2009

The hills are alive...with the sun of sweden

we met up with daves geology friend jason (who we had planned the trip with) at his b&b (in the norrmalm area) this morning and explored the city together.

the sun was out and the temperature was great and we were ready to see what stockholm had in store for us. this is a country that created IKEA, H&M, Volvo, and Saab, i mean, theres nothing these people cant do. we didnt have a plan except to hit a few islands and maybe a museum.

stockholm is a coastal city that is broken up into 14 islands. there are about 3 islands that are considered the ‘city center’ area, and the others have their own characteristics. stockholm has the opposite problem of venice, instead of sinking each year, it actually is stilling rising at a rate of 10 mm per year (due to glacial rebounding).

we came out of the area where we were walking and hit the water where several islands and bridges converged. we could see the brilliant sun shining off every beautiful building on the waterfront. everywhere you looked was a postcard. it felt futile to point the camera in any one direction and the low angle of the winter sun made it nearly impossible to do it justice in any picture we did end up taking. the city felt magical, like it can only truly live on in your memory.

after gawking at the waterfront, we crossed a bridge to the small island where the ‘old town’ historic center is, called gamla stan. touristy, but also full of character. the buildings were painted in lively colors and the roads were very narrow. for being such a small piece of land, it had quite a steep hill on it. we quickly got to the other side of the island and hit more water, more sun, more beautiful buildings and we spotted a large bluff across the waterway. we aimed for that direction as we crossed another bridge and walked onto another island (sodermalm).

(buildings in the old town area of gamla stan)

we strolled along the water of this island taking in the scenery. we climbed higher and higher until we came up to a historic fishermen village. sodermalm used to be the working class island (now being gentrified by young people) and apparently this is a little protected village with small old houses that use to belong to the stockholm fisherman. each house was well cared for, had a great view, and was the size of a cottage. it musta been some consolation for the hard work of a fisherman to get to climb the hill at the end of each work day and be able to look out on your beloved city.

(a fishermans house, painted red supposedly to emulate bricks that they could not afford to build their houses out of; dave and i playing on a nordic playground. that sled was fast!)

we came down from the high bluff to get back to the waterway on the south side of the island to finish our loop and look for lunch. we grabbed a generic coffeehouse lunch at a place with eclectic american music playing. we then headed back to our starting point. it was around 2:30p when we noticed the moon was out and the sun was starting to set.

  
(the moon is up on the left and the clock on the right says 2:32pm; us)

we made it back to ostermalm (a main island) and headed to the tiny island (skepps-holmen) where the modern art museum was. while crossing the bridge to the island we took some nice sunset shots (time approx 3:15p) and enjoyed the beautiful colors of the sky.

(a swede fishing in the canal; twilight on the way to the museum)

the modern art museum was well laid out and had some nice pieces from artists we knew. thankfully it was a strong but small collection because our feet were crying from all the walking. we got a snack in the café and rested. I chose a nice swedish cinnamon roll with large sugar crystals on top, mmm, and a cookie that was basically flour, butter, sugar, and cinnamon that melted on your tongue like a huge sugary snowflake. yum!

when we left the museum at 5:30p, it was pitch black, looked and felt like it was 9p. the lit-up buildings and the water and the near full moon made the city look just as magical at night as it did in the day.


(on the way back from the art museum)

we made it back to our apartment (on ostermalm) in time to regroup and head to the restaurant our host family suggested. it was a nice restaurant in a little theater. when we sat down and were handed menus, we realized it was a french restaurant. we contemplated bailing on the place to find something else (how embarrassing to eat at a french restaurant in sweden when you live in france?). alas, we stayed and had a nice meal. good olive bread, a tasty bourgonion beef dish for dave with great flavors and a fish and seafood dish for me that was pretty good. most impressing was a family of four sitting near us. their two children were maybe age 7 and 9. the family comfortably switched between swedish and english throughout their meal. everyone in stockholm speaks at least 2 languages. no one expects you to know swedish and is perfectly capable of communicating in english with you, apparently without a grudge. how nice!? and yet i felt kinda guilty. i dont know any swedish except that their word for hello is ‘hej’ but it is pronounced ‘hey’ and thank you is ‘tack,’ pronounced 'tek.'

i nearly crawled home after dinner, as my legs and hips protested further agitation and decided to crash in for the rest of the night. dave went out to enjoy the company of his geology friends (another geo colleague named nadja was also there to get some training at a stockholm university).

08 January 2009

All is quiet on the northern front

today was travel day to sweden.

landed in stockholm at 9:30p. it was two degrees celsius, which was actually quite pleasant. after we deboarded the plane, i needed to find a drinking fountain. i wandered in by the bathrooms and found a cup dispenser in the ladies room. adult-sized cups available for you to acquire your own tap water (scandinavia has wonderful tap water)! how cool? i initially just wanted the water, but now i felt it necessary to try the bathrooms. they were actually nothing special, just clean, simple, and well-designed. peculiarly though, each stall was equipped with its own sink, soap, hand dryer and trash can (this bathroom layout was found all throughout stockholm, even the mens room).

gotta love european cities. we easily hopped on an airport shuttle bus and began the 40 minute drive to the city center. once in the city center we went in to the central station area to get warm while we oriented ourselves.

(blurry pic, but these are the internet stations in the central station. you have to sit cowboy style on the seats, pretty strange.)

after sitting so long while traveling, we wanted to walk the 2km to our bed and breakfast. it was a nice walk, not cold or windy. the streets were still decorated for christmas and the feeling in the air was calm. it was about 11pm at this point and the streets were nearly devoid of cars and people. we were told it had been a COLD day and had snowed earlier, so the people must have been home, warm and snuggly.


(my first night view of the city)

we found the building where our b&b family lived and let ourselves into their apartment. we had our own private part of a residential apartment: bathroom, closet, bedroom, and breakfast nook all to ourselves. the b&b website we used was pretty cool. great locations in the city, with families, for a good rate. we quietly organized ourselves, wolfed down some of the breakfast laid out for the next day, and fell fast asleep.

My travel partner in crime

brief travel note.

i had mentioned to dave that the alps in march, right after his birthday, would be the best idea because we could go to celebrate him becoming ancient, use his new ski stuff, and all the french school holidays will be done so perhaps travel and hotels will be cheaper. the best place to ski the alps in france (so weve heard) is grenoble. there also happens to be a good university there with well known geology faculty. dave emailed the geology guy there who most closely does what he does and told him the dates we were thinking of being there and that it was primarily to ski but that dave would like to see the campus and visit this guys lab. he responded back and said he would love for dave to give a seminar talk the friday we would be there... score! in march it should be close enough to spring that perhaps the city of grenoble will be fun to walk around and warm-ish, while still providing amazing snow and skiing fun at the higher altitudes. other potentials: the university may pay for our travel to grenoble, and the guy apparently has two houses in grenoble...

secondarily, dave kept seeing signs to 'ski andorra,' the tiny ass country in the pyrenees bordering france and spain. due to high altitudes, skiing can occur nearly year round there. he checked it out and told me the idea last night. we are thinking of taking a train after easter (again avoiding french vacation time) and seeing what this little place has to offer. it looks doable. then perhaps tacking on a stop in barcelona? its all good to me. its fun having a travel partner in crime...

07 January 2009

To be, or not to be status quo?

just a thought i was pondering after 'teaching' again this week. 

i think it is the paris branch that dictates what all the other french branches of the university have to do in these 'english' classes. and they are crummy at it. the first hour of class this week was a formal debate with the question: is it appropriate to make fun of a president? this could have been okay, but it was difficult for the students to come up with tangible, arguable points that were unique to argue with each other about. some classes did much better at it than others. 

the worst, though, was hour two. it was a discussion: what is your opinion of Madoff's case? this was the discussion question. mmm. gee, can you give me anymore to go on? i didnt even have a clue who madoff was. the small text that came with the question was about bernie madoff and his recent wall street pyramid scheme gone bad. i dont know much about economics. most people dont, especially if they are in school for something other than economics. its a hard enough thing to discuss in ones native language, and these are french kids. this article was about a scam in the u.s. and its investments and stock markets. how would these kids even have a clue? and if they did, why would they have an opinion about it?

ugh, so i knew i would be pulling teeth all week. the article was also full of big, difficult words. good choice for people without a strong command of english. basically, i had them read the text out loud and worked on pronunciation, definitions, and summarizing the text. once we actually opened up the topic for discussion you could see the pained look on their faces and all i wanted to do was crawl into a hole. why was someone making me teach this? they give no guidelines of what we have to do. "just make 'em talk. make sure they can communicate." cool, thats very helpful. it doesnt even really affect their grade much in the school, this class must be as much torture to them as it is to me. 

should i attempt to shake things up? is it worth it? will i still be met with blank stares even if i prepare for several hours each week? im not getting paid that much...and yet these things are not worrying me half as much as the idea that i could be doing my job so much better. i could shovel them these forced discussions each week and perhaps convert a few people to loathing the english language. but maybe i could choose the more difficult but potentially satisfying path of putting a little effort in to hopefully convert a few kids to be interested in the english language. seems like a david vs. goliath battle, but perhaps i have it in me since i have nothing better to do. and glen seems along for the challenge too. 

next week, depending on the topic 'suck factor,' i was going to find an exercise to help them pronounce the 'th' sound of our words. 100% of the kids pronounce 'the' as 'ze.' i am sure i wont permanently convert many, but i would think maybe a few kids would want to work on getting it right. i dont know, again, perhaps i am delusional. also, most kids cant say the 'h' in the beginning of words. so 'happy' sounds like 'appy' and 'humor' sounds like 'umor.' which can be difficult to understand, usually requiring a short lag time before you comprehend. anyway, we shall see if this idea pans out, or how much guts i have to try and make grown men embarrass themselves in order to pronounce silly english words...perhaps i'll base it on how many nightmares i have on this idea...

04 January 2009

Alice in wanderland

today technology failed me, but it actually gave me the gift of more information. dave had an all day ultimate frisbee tournament and i stayed home to loaf around. when the internet crapped out on me, i ate, stretched, read, then got bored and noticed the sun was out. i mapped a new path in rennes and set out with my camera. 

there is a canal that basically goes all the way around rennes. i had mostly walked along the south and eastern part. today i found a nice walk on the western part. it was about an hour long walk and most of it was new to me. i followed the canal away from the edge of the city centre until i came across a bridge, after crossing it i was at the beginning of a city maintained promenade. a nice, well groomed path along the quiet parts of the canal. there were different kinds of bridges and plant life and being that it was chilly and sunday there was no one on the trail with me. it was lovely. eventually the path got closer to returning to the city centre but it remained peaceful until i was right on top of a main road. 

  
  
(the canal and city buildings at the start of my walk; scenes from the walk)

i can see from the trail that it will be a great place to watch for the changing seasons. wildlife and plant life seemed abundant and varied and i was very happy to find a new area that i enjoy so much. even when i connected back with the main road i saw city buildings i hadnt seen before. i even saw another part of the ancient walled part of the city of rennes. i think dave will really like this route and hopefully we can have a few more good weather weekends to get back to this path soon. 

(part of historic city wall; one of 4 lady statues near the area with public toilets. just what you want while waiting in line to pee, a naked statue in a water fountain...)

01 January 2009

Return to the land of subtlety

after a bus ride to the dublin airport, a short plane ride, a four hour wait in the paris airport, and a three hour train ride back to rennes, we basically just felt like vegging in the apartment. 

we got back at 9:30p and promptly turned our heater on. damn it got cold in here. after unpacking and getting things back to normal we caught up on the office episodes we still hadnt seen. happy new year to us. we rock at partying it up!

later on, dave and were discussing what it felt like to be back and our impressions of rennes/france now. (mind you we hadnt spoken to a single french person since landing in paris). we were looking forward to the bread, butter, soft cheese, pastries, and daily marketing lifestyle. 

after having such intense food experiences in dublin, i noted that we never had anything like that here in france. sure some of the pastries have been heavenly, but even those usually didnt make me go crazy. its more like a gradual appreciation and understanding of food and your meals. i now know that french bread is the best. i never want to eat another sliced bread sandwich again if i can help it. the butter here, in the brittany region, is rich, flavorful and salted to perfection. the rest of the butter we encountered outside brittany was crap and just artery-clogging for no reason. this butter has ruined us for life. and who doesnt love soft, spreadable, creamy cheese? there arent as many varieties anywhere else in the world. and the sad excuses for croissants and other pastries i saw outside france looked like shriveled corpses waiting for their burial. in short, when we landed here in october none of these things struck us strongly right away, but now with perspective, i can see what all the fuss is about.

and our most favorite thing to get back to is the daily marketing. you need to interact with a merchant every day for your dinner bread. you get to know your neighborhood and they know you. a simple dinner of sausages, potatoes, and bread can come from three different places. they are all fresh and sold by local, friendly faces. our small kitchen is not a huge problem because you actually crave fresh things. the french dont seemed affected by the idea that you should stockpile food so that, in case of nuclear holocaust, you will have enough supplies to survive the fallout underground. if they had to re-emerge into a world where their cuisine and culture was obliterated, it wouldnt be worth living. i think there is a logic to this. at any rate, i thank the french for showing us a good way to live. i can learn to have my simple, fresh dinners and the sense of calm that comes from the subtle way it strengthens my life, and the occasional frenzied burst of foaming at the mouth that comes from enjoying amazingly prepared food from my favorite restaurants around the world.