Friday, September 30, 2005

If you ever go to breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, this is what you will be presented with. You will then die of happiness when you taste all the spreads and have to resist the urge to eat the entire pot of chocolate-ganache-like spread. You will maintain composure, but then have a small crisis when you can't open your soft-boiled egg (not pictured). It's still a good morning, though. (pyramid-like arrangement by Rachelle, petit-dejeuner companion extraordinaire)

Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting, the Centre Oregon. Well, part of it at least. And in a sort of bizarre re-organization by work-study students phase (hence the open drawers). This is where I spend much of my time, chatting with students, filing and copying passports and birth certificates and organizing activities. Sometimes I even get to run the office by myself, as I was doing this day. I still get a rush sitting at Laurie, our director's, desk. What, am I still in 3rd grade?

Monday, September 26, 2005

You’re always Igna to me
where Gina learns to text message in French, plans are made, and everyone rejoices

I have become one of the people I always used to make fun of. I blame French portable culture. They are craaaazy for cell phones, or portables, here. And even more so for the famed SMS, or text message for the uninitiated. I’ve had a cell phone before. I was, in fact, attached at the hip, or umm, earpiece, to my little phone back in the States. But even after my wonderful friend Jen taught me the ways of the text message, I still scoffed at it. Sure it was a good idea, but don’t you just hate those people who walk down the street constantly pushing the little buttons to send messages to their friends and remaining impervious to everything going on around them? Mea culpa, mes amis. I am now one of those people.

I have a compte bloqué here, which means that I pay SFR a set amount each month (or rather, they take it out of my account) and when those minutes are used up, I can’t use any more. Because incoming calls are free here (I KNOW! how great is that?) I can still receive calls, but can’t call out myself without recharging. Those 18 euros of time go pretty quickly (especially when you’re on the phone with UPS), so the cheapest way to communicate has become to simply send text messages. They take up less minutes than calling, and you have the chance to review your work, thus lessening the amount of stupid things said.

I swear, some people, especially the French, must have been text messaging since birth. Am I the only one who has trouble with this? I had enough trouble getting the words out in English, and now I’m supposed to do it in French? While it is cool to be able to use accents on text messages, it is much more time consuming and requires more concentration en français. Hence the reason I walk down the street, entranced only by my phone (I even ignore shiny things).

Through my continued practice with “texting,” my friends and I have developed an un-official code for this method of communication. And because I care, I’ll share it with you-

Thou shalt use “texter” as a verb. It is conjugated as a regular –er verb, and is common in all tenses.

Thou shalt continue all conversations begun in text mode in text mode. Said conversations shall be in French, as we are in France. Exceptions include when one is very tired and the thought of continuing to text is too much to bear; when long sets of directions are to be given; and when important decisions, like which bar one is going to, must be made.

Thou shalt maintain text conversations with several people at the same time. For example, this evening I held simultaneous conversations with Marc, Mandee and Emily (confirming that the concert we just bought tickets for is, in fact, not really in Lyon, but in a mini-suburb. Stay tuned for updates, because I AM GOING TO SEE PARIS COMBO AND YOU ARE NOT!)

Thou shalt be a self-motivated grammar checker. No one likes textos with bad grammar.
And finally, thou shalt strive to spell important things correctly (see grammar, above), unless it is endearing, as Mandee’s frequent mistyping of my name as “Igna” is.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Gina's kitchen, the photographic evidence. Oh petite cuisine, comme je t'aime! Even though my head touches the ceiling all the time and I have to bend over to cook, you have been the source of much good food. Hopefully you will soon include a mini-oven, and baked goods will emerge from your tiny walls!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Theatre des Celestins Posted by Picasa

Statue de Louis XIV, Place Bellecour. Posted by Picasa

Macarons a la fraise et au cassis- otherwise known as gina's all-time favorite way to spend time while waiting for students to return from a scavenger hunt. Especially when it's cold and windy. Posted by Picasa

Kitchen conquered
in which Gina learns to deal with the lack of plaques, cooks things more complicated than pasta, and only hits her head a few times.

When I moved to Eugene, 2 whole years ago, I had a full (albeit small) kitchen and wondered how I was ever going to cook anything. I learned how to cook and bake and how to enjoy it (I think it’s in my blood or DNA or something) and went on my merry way, all the way to Lyon. Faced with a cooking area about one third the size I was used to dealing with, I was ready to throw myself from the terrasse onto the train tracks. Ok, so maybe it wasn’t so dramatic, but doesn’t that make a better story? Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the kitchen is very small. I ate a lot of pasta for a while (including during the period that you may remember where I thought the plaques didn’t work at all) then got fed up and made a life changing decision- I would cook something more complicated! (again, I admit that this is an exaggeration and that the decision was not so much life-changing as food-changing, but it’s all in the name of interest, people!)

The first challenge- curry. I chose to face off against Iron Chef Italian, because then I’d definitely win. Or maybe I chose to face off against the entire grocery floor of Carrefour and scores of very determined French power shoppers (I also landed in the equivalent of food-shopping rush hour). The fact that I had no recipe made the entire experience that much easier, too. After the great chicken-broth quest, with ended me searching madly in every aisle for the bouillon cubes , I was faced with the prospect of making something that made an enormous mess in my Eugene kitchen every time I made it in ma petite cuisine lyonnaise. But have no fear- ingenuity is here! I made make-shift hotplates to rest food on, chopped everything on one cutting board on a tiny space, balanced things on top of each other, and tried to will the plaques to have a better temperature control. After it all (and after making the recipe from memory) I had a lovely curry, leftovers, and a huge fan club. All of that is true except for the part about the fan club. But applications are being accepted!

Fueled by the success of the curry and an unexpected dinner guest, I moved on to my next challenge- my very own PBS cooking show to air after Jacques Pepin and Breaking Bread with Father Dominic. And I shall call this show risotto. What? Me, exaggerate? Never! Anyone who has followed my other blog, the venerable Quel est ton problème?, may remember the trials and tribulations of my first risotto. This time it was not so much the technique that was the problem (I was greatly aided by my American-style measuring cups, and my mad skillz in figuring out how many cups are in a liter), but the space. Anyone who saw the kitchen would have laughed at my manipulation of space, but I wanted that creamy risotto! After an epic battle (not so much a battle as a triumphant victory on my part) I had my food. And a lot of dishes. Which my roommate washed, because I did all of the cooking, aided by unexpected dinner guest’s chopping.

I am now happy with my ability to cook in this apartment. I almost feel that since I can cook here, I could probably cook anywhere. Maybe not anywhere, but I’d say on at least six continents. Besides the complete lack of oven (I’m inching closer and closer to buying a mini-four, basically a toaster oven), I’m doing ok. There’s just this one problem. It’s not really even the plaques’ fault this time, but rather the shape of the apartment itself. Since I’m on the very top floor and basically in the roof, there are very nice exposed beams, as well as a very slope-y ceiling. This means that I can only stand in a little part of the kitchen without bending over. A friend of mine, who is even taller than I am, said that the very thought of cooking in this kitchen made his back hurt. But I am determined to cook, even if it ruins my posture! Besides, my landlords just gave me a pressure cooker, and I have to learn to make stews for winter. And to prep for the cooking show and my next Iron Chef battle.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Photos from the "Centre Oregon Scavenger Hunt"

Category- where are they?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The OL Accident

Last Tuesday there was a football game in Lyon. I'm not talking silly American football. I'm talking real, French football. It was quite an important game- OL (the Lyon team) versus Real Madrid, one of the best soccer clubs in the world. Everyone in town was in a tizzy about it. I was in a tizzy, too, but mostly because David Beckham plays for Real, and that meant that there was a possibility that a Spice Girl would be in Lyon. I considered cutting out of work to search for her, but ultimately wrote it off as not one of my best ideas ever.

Nonetheless, I was interested in seeing this game. After turning down an invitation to watch with Marc and his friends (I was worried about being ridiculed for my impressive lack of knowledge about OL), I set off with two friends to find a place to watch the match. None of us have televisions, which made this mission just that much more difficult. We decided our best bet was to head for Place Bellecour, where a giant screen had been constructed so that the general population of Lyon could watch the match and revel in public. We, however, had a problem. We were hungry. Before we could watch the game, we needed food. This, of course, led to a large spell of that wonderful activity beloved by students, meandering through Vieux Lyon. We stopped at a mini-grocery store to pick up cookies and kept going.

Finally, the three of us ended up at one of our favorite places- the Sol Cafe. How ironic that we wanted to eat at a Spanish restaurant the night Lyon was taking on Madrid. The prices weren't too bad, we sat down at a table in the cozy spot with red and yellow napkins. We drank red wine out of heavy glasses and I ate moules frites (mussels and french fries) seasoned with saffron that turned my fingers yellow. We sat and talked and ate, and before we knew it two hours had passed. Walking out of the restaurant, we discovered that we had missed the whole game. Whoops.

Instead of being sad, we walked home through Place Bellecour and saw the end of the reveling. We ate the previously-mentioned cookies and were happy. But, I couldn't tell you a thing about the match.

Oh, and OL won- 3-0.

Les moules frites de Gina au Sol Cafe, before. Posted by Picasa

Les moules frites de Gina au Sol Cafe, after. Posted by Picasa

Giant screen being constructed at Place Bellecour for the Real Madrid-OL game that we missed. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 12, 2005

A La Poste train outside my apartment! How excited I was. Posted by Picasa

The rollerbladers again, but more like a blur. Sorry. I'll try again next time. Posted by Picasa

Crazy Friday-night rollerblading activity. They go all over Lyon. Posted by Picasa

Cafe and raspberry macaroon, on my birthday last week. Posted by Picasa

Velov! Posted by Picasa

My terasse, in the rain. Obviously, not so useable at this moment. Posted by Picasa

Sainte Blandine Posted by Picasa

Le tramway! This sticker was advertising the extension of the T1 line. I don't know how much partying I'll be doing with the tramway, but the concept is nice. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Vieux Lyon

A park in Mont Cindre, a little town outside of Lyon (2)

More Vieux Lyon

One day in Vieux Lyon…

Ahh, Vieux Lyon. What could be better for a first outing with the students than a jaunt through the medieval and renaissance part of town, complete with a stop at Lyon’s best ice cream parlor? Well, a lot of things would be better when it’s TEN MILLION DEGREES OUTSIDE. But I digress. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah, the outing.

Laurie had asked me to organize an optional outing for students on their first full day in Lyon. Not all of them are with host families, and some don’t know any of the other students, so this would give them something to do and a chance to meet the other kids. The last two Graduate Assistants, Ramon and Emily (oddly, one of my very close friends), had both taken the group to a café, then to the Parc de la Tête d’Or. Not that I don’t adore both of these people, but I decided to break free from the norm, and take them all skydiving. No, not really (actually, I wonder if skydiving is big in France too, and if you really could skydive in Lyon. I’ll look into it). I love Vieux Lyon and I love ice cream, so the thought of a trip that could combine the two made me very happy. Plus, sugar is good for jet-lag, right?

To prepare for the fated day, I had taken a (gasp) touristy guided tour of Vieux Lyon. Actually, it was very well done, especially since I did it in French. The Office du Tourisme, conveniently located in the middle of town at Place Bellecour, is great for things like this. Because it was raining the entire tour, I couldn’t take notes, but I did manage to memorize some things, and between that and the books various people had lent me, I could regurgitate information to my kids. Ha- they thought I was smart! It was a much better idea than I thought, this tour, because Vieux Lyon can get complicated. There’s the cathedral, Saint Jean, which has a clock with automated figures (including the Virgin during the annunciation- she looks surprised) and plays music. It’s not too impressive until you remember that it was built in the 15th century and still works. The cathedral itself actually took 250 years to build, and thus passes through a few architectural styles. Sorry, that was Tour-Guide Gina butting in. But anyway, there’s the cathedral, plus several other churches, the crowded streets, interior courtyards and the traboules. Traboules are interior passages between the narrow houses and can cross several streets. They can be especially fun, because people still live in the houses (now apartments), and so you get the thrill of passing through other people’s space and of passing through time.

But really, I wanted to talk about the visit. I met up with the kids (about eleven) and had them introduce themselves. Then I made them all go buy water. “Yes, I mean it. Yes, go! You don’t want to melt, do you? We’re going to be walking a lot!” After this grocery-store excursion came the first big hurdle- crossing the street. No, really. Traffic signals here don’t always have the same, umm, authority, that they do in the States. Sometimes cars don’t obey them, sometimes people don’t. Sometimes the only way to get cars to stop is to step out into the street. Sometimes when the crossing light is still red, you cross anyway. Which is what I made everyone do. “Go! Cross! Yes, now!” Then I saw a group of police officers and hurried past them.

It was at this point that I decided to count the number of students with me. My worst fear was (and still is) losing one of them, having one run down by a car, or get attacked by a roaming band of Lyonnais ninjas. (This fear was not helped any by the fact that the next day two students walked into the office and said “Gina, we almost got hit by a tram!”) I’ve been in charge of groups before, but never been the person who has to take them out places and be the only person in charge. I felt sort of like a mother duck being followed by her ducklings (and they really were all in a line, how sweet). Taking these students out was such a great feeling- I got to share my interests in the city and get to know them. It also increased my confidence knowing that I could do things like this. But I did almost melt.

After the counting, a few more street crossings, a bridge crossing and a nice little Centre Oregon line to get ice cream (yum, violet ice cream) we were on our way. After a bit of time in the cathedral, we met up with my friend Marc, who had agreed to help with the tour. Marc and I met in Eugene, where we were both French GTFs, and then he came back to Lyon, where he’s from. I figured a native would be an asset to the outing. At this point, it is still very hot, we’ve been out for about an hour, and the kids are still jet-lagged. Marc and I, in typical Gina and Marc style, then took them on a long, meandering tour of the streets of Vieux Lyon. We wove in and out of streets, courtyards and traboules. We shared information, both useful and random in both French and English. We couldn’t tell if the students were bored or just tired. Everyone was still really hot. Finally, a group broke off to leave. We walked the rest of them around for a while longer, then got them all back to Place Bellecour, where it took about fifteen minutes to explain to everyone how to get home on their various metros and buses and tramways. Marc and I then collapsed into a café, while I worried that people would get lost in the metro and we’d never see them again. Sometimes I worry too much. Everyone did make it back, though, and after resisting the urge to throw myself into one of the rivers, I eventually sort of cooled off.

Monday, September 05, 2005

My day at the Part-Dieu point rencontre, or “You’re on which train?”

We’ve all gone through the process of meeting someone coming to visit. There’s the exchange of emails with flight plans, the telephone calls confirming arrival times, the last-minute checking of delays and finally the meeting at the airport. Imagine this process twenty-seven times over, once for every student on the program. Insane! Luckily, this wasn’t my job, it was Laurie’s. Ha! Every student, with a few exceptions, was told to arrive at the Part-Dieu train station in Lyon between 11am and 6 pm on a certain day. That meant that if they arrived in Paris they would need to take the train (and get off at the right station) and if they flew into Lyon they’d need to take the special airport bus to the station. My job, I figured, was easy enough. Hang out at the train station with Laurie and Rémé and talk to the students as they arrived.

Part-Dieu is huge. If you’re going somewhere by train from Lyon, then there’s a very good chance that you’re leaving from there (or the smaller and not-important-to-this-particular-story Perrache). We were going to meet students at the fated “point rencontre” (meeting point), findable by its blue sign with a dot and it’s proximity to two arrival tracks. If you’re going to Part-Dieu and lose sleep over the fact that it’ll be hard to find the point rencontre, don’t. It’s the only one. It’s not really that hard to find, especially when there are three people standing there with a huge pile of welcome packets and a bright red sign that says “Centre Oregon” (I made the sign using the most obnoxiously bright color I could find).

By the morning of the arrivals, I already knew that a lot of planes, trains and automobiles were running late (ok, not the automobiles. But just “planes and trains” doesn’t sound as good). But with such a large group, you just have to roll with the punches, so I agreed to stay late if the necessity arose. So off to the point rencontre I went, running into Laurie on the way, and arriving only to find students already there. I have to say, in the interest of pure self-promotion, that I had spent time looking through everyone’s pictures, and throughout the day I used my mad student-identifying skillz to correctly ID every single student, many before they even reached us. But I did have additional identifying resources- we were constantly on the lookout for people with lots of luggage who looked tired and slightly lost. It’s true! This is the easiest way to spot study-abroad students arriving- it’s like an international code. There’s nothing wrong with it- I’ve arrived in a similar manner before and we expected everyone to show up like that. We pulled in our jet-lagged kids, called their host families, and handed over welcome packets. I flitted around, talking to students, explaining the packets, chatting with their families, and answering questions (some easier than others). It was fun. But not oh-my-god-this-is-so-fun-that-I’d-like-to-do-it-for-10-hours fun.

Because of some ultra-late arrivals and us not knowing when these people were coming in, Rémé and I (and Zach, one of the students who arrived very very early and hung out with us at the train station for a very long time) were at the Part-Dieu until after 9 in the evening. The point in all of this is that if you’re going somewhere and meeting someone and you’re going to be late, or your travel plans change significantly, CALL THEM. By the end of the day, we didn’t know which flight some people were coming in on, or even when they would be there. But despite these little blips, everyone got in and is now roaming around the city.

After this day ‘o fun at the train station, I went home, collapsed, and the next morning went into the office, then took a part of the group on a jaunt around Vieux Lyon. We very nearly melted.

Waiting for Godot, I mean, the students.

You may think that all I do here is sit around and drink wine and eat paté and cheese.* But no! I have a job. Yes, that’s right. I work, not just eat and wander aimlessly around Lyon. After several study abroad experiences it’s my turn to see the operation from the other side. Our director, Laurie, returned from maternity leave at about the same time that I arrived, and once we could get into the office again (yes, Lyon 2 is once again open) we were joined by Rémé, the program assistant. What can I say except that both of these women are exceptional in their own way and know how to run an excellent program. We spent the final week before the arrival preparing final details for the students and for us. As the graduate assistant, I basically do whatever they need. This vague job description has led me on some pretty interesting adventures.

All of the students get a TCL card for the month of September (as I have). This is the card that allows access to all public transportation in Lyon (metro, bus and tramway). It includes a picture and the all-important “puce” (a computer chip with personal information, like what you’ve paid, name, favorite color, etc. Just kidding about the color. Or am I?) But once it gets towards the end of August, beginning of September, the lines at the offices all over town to procure these carts become almost as long as the Great Wall of China. It was much simpler to send me to collect all of the cards before the lines became massive and before the students even stepped foot on a plane. This is, and should have been, an easy task. The office had all of the information, I had the Centre Oregon credit card (how exciting!), I made nice conversation with the woman in the office, she finished everything, added it all up, I handed her the card (still exciting for me at this point) and then, the clincher, she said “Oh non, il faut payer avec une cheque!” (translation- “Oh no, you silly girl, you don’t get to charge this insanely large amount on a credit card that’s not your own- go get a check!”) I quickly called Laurie and returned to the Centre Oregon, where I was presented with the oh-so-desired check. Rémé also asked me to pick up the cards for another group she works with, so I left armed with several checks. I thought I had beaten the system and would return triumphant, and soon. This, however, was not my destiny. When I returned to the office, the woman working there was in the middle of charging the cards for the other group. This in itself can take a while, and the process is made even longer when the computer crashes. TCL has apparently just changed computer systems and so crashes are common (Laurie mentioned today that this is another reason the lines are so long). After a very long while, I was on my way with all of the cards and more receipts than you can imagine. I swear, this TCL woman and I are now best friends, after all the time we spent together.

Another adventure, another staple of French life- la Poste (the ever-recognizable Post Office, that of the bright yellow signs). Anyone who’s known me for several years will know that I used to be obsessed with la Poste. During my stay in St. Brieuc I spent excessive amounts of time there and always ran into my friends. Later I discovered that this is not a phenomenon that occurs at every la Poste, and that sometimes employees of la Poste aren’t all that nice. Case in point- the family mailing. Rémé and I had put together a mailing to be sent to all the host families. Envelopes stuffed and addressed, they now needed to be mailed. She sent me on my way, with yet another check, to mail the envelopes (on a separate note, the post office she sent me to is, in fact, next door to my apartment. But I couldn’t go home! It was heartbreaking, and not the last time this would happen). When I got there, the clerk decided that the easiest way to mail the twenty-six envelopes was not to run them through the computer, but rather to sell me stamps and have me adhere them all. Needless to say, these were not self-adhesive stamps. The best part of it all was that he sat there and watched me lick twenty-six stamps with a severely annoying smirk on his face. Oh la Poste, your spotless image is gone!

But, regardless, after these and other adventures, the students arrived. Stay tuned for the next installment- My day at the Part-Dieu point rencontre, where students arrive, several gazillion pounds of luggage is lugged around, and I spend ten hours at the train station, followed shortly by One afternoon in Vieux Lyon, where Marc and I lead jet-lagged students around, ice cream is consumed, no one gets hit by a car or bus, and I don’t lose any students.

*Note- this does not mean that I never sit around and eat paté and drink wine. This has occurred on several occasions, and I hope it keeps occurring.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

First pictures from Lyon...

Lyon from the Croix-Rousse, an area of town where the silk ateliers used to be. As you can probably see, it's on a hill.

Resto-Pirate, in Vieux Lyon. Who knows what this is...

The basilica of Fourviere, from la Croix Rousse.

Interior courtyards in Vieux Lyon, dating back to the Renaissance.

St. Jean from a distance.

I’ve been Cooking for Mr. Latte, sort of.

First of all, I need to deliver the following important news flash from Lyon- The plaque problem has been resolved. After much experimentation and a phone call, they are now functioning in a normal fashion. Much rejoicing ensued, followed by much cooking (at least on my part). I’m still consuming about a million times my normal cheese intake, but it has been augmented by many other things now, including- gasp – vegetables! The first night I really felt like I was at home was the first night that the apartment smelled like garlic and I had wine and a real meal and found the classical radio station. As you may be able to tell, a large portion of my life is food-centric. I love to eat. And cook. Because of these two qualities, my chosen reading for the plane ride over (which ran sans food, thanks to the grand British Airways catering fiasco) was Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser. It’s toted as being a “food lover’s courtship, with recipes” and I had been waiting months to read it.

The book traces the author’s relationship with the man she eventually marries through food. While I think everyone I know, and many people I don’t know, should read this book, I don’t want to spend forever talking about it. After all, if you’re reading this then you obviously have access to the internet and can google it or something. Go on, do it. But read this first, because I’ve already started talking. Ok, anyway, the each chapter of the book ends with recipes. Since I’ve been anxious to prove (umm, to myself?) that my cooking skills aren’t a figment of my own imagination I decided that tonight was the night to enfin try out a recipe from the book. After quite a long decision process (which recipe? will the leftovers keep? Can I find this stuff?), a trip to the store (by metro, ha), cooking time, my end result was delicious, if not the exact replica of the book’s recipe. You should all be proud of me- I overcame many obstacles to produce this lovely meal to be eaten by, well, me. I will now detail the rocky path that led to dinner.

Conversion crisis!- recipes are all in American-style measurements. This was overcome by the fact that I brought measuring cups with me (although, I admit, I didn’t really “measure” the crème fraiche, unless measure means dump a lot in because I really like it). So, not really so bad. I got lucky in that I could eyeball how much pasta I needed, and that the arugula was measured in handfuls.
Shopping substitution- weelll, maybe I should have gone to a more well-stocked market. This could be my fault. But substitutions weren’t that bad. No linguine? I bought the largest spaghetti they had. Lack of arugula? I’ve had this problem before, and always throw spinach in instead. Meyer what? Regular lemons will be fine, thankyouverymuch. The crème fraiche was the easiest part of this quest- I had a choice between about two zillion brands and types. I also got the ONLY chunk of parmegianno regiano in the ENTIRE STORE. Ce n’est pas français.
Gadget gaps- even though the kitchenette is fairly well equipped, there are things that are missing. I haven’t decided yet what I want to buy and what I can do without, so I improvised a lot. I juiced lemons by hand into a teacup, used a grater (with holes that were too large) to zest a lemon, and used two dinner forks to toss everything together.

So yes, it’s possible to cook well here, even in very different circumstances than I’m used to. And it’s worth it. All it takes is a meal that I’ve cooked by myself to put me at ease in the evening (even more so if there is wine involved!).

The results of the "Mr. Latte" experiment, version Gina

I am locked out of the university.

It’s not that they don’t want me there, it’s just that it’s closed for the summer, you see. No, really. The entire university is closed. On vacation. Can’t go in. Haven’t seen the office yet. Even our director can’t get in. It’s August, and it’s vacation time in France.

Unlike in the US, when vacations are more spread out and things run as usual, vacations here are much more of a serious deal. It seems as if most of Lyon is on vacation right now, and consequently, lots of things are closed. It’s not uncommon to waltz up to a boulangerie, craving a croissant, only to find a hand-written sign attached to the window saying that they’re on vacation and will return the …. August. Luckily, that day is this coming Monday for many places (including my dear Université Lyon 2). Even stores that are open will often have special August hours. It’s not just the small establishments, either. My new bank, Credit Lyonnais (possibly the most beautiful bank I’ve ever been in, and yes, the same Credit Lyonnais that sponsors the maillot jaune, or yellow jersey so often worn by Lance Armstong, in the Tour de France) has different hours.

For everyone here, this is a normal phenomenon. It’s accepted and expected that there won’t be too many things that retain their normal hours during this period. For someone who’s just arrived it takes some getting used to. It will be interesting to see how things are when everything is open, as I’ve become accustomed to special hours and closures. And hey, if someone told me I could leave for two weeks to a month and close my store, I’d go too.

I think that my cholesterol must have tripled in the past four days.

Before I left, Sarah and I joked that I could eat only bread, cheese and drink wine and be happy. Then we’d laugh, because it seemed silly to think that I would eat only bread and cheese while I was in Lyon. Everyone who has been eating mostly cheese for the past several days, raise their hands. If you look carefully, there I am in the back timidly holding up my hand. Yes, it’s true. Between my roommate’s love affair with French cheeses (which I seem to share) and my desire to try everything I lay my eyes on (it is research, after all), I’ve eaten quite a bit of cheese. Scratch that- I’ve eaten a LOT of cheese. I opened the door to our dorm-sized fridge one afternoon after Sylvain had been to see his parents and to find it suddenly full of cheese. I’m not talking about a few kinds here- we must have had seven or eight varieties scattered among the shelves and drawers. I closed the door, thinking that it was some sort of French-induced hallucination. But when I opened it again (and many subsequent times, just to check), the mass quantities of cheese remained. I’ve always loved eating cheese (thanks Mom and Dad), but never thought that I would make entire meals out of it. And that’s why Sylvain and I have done. More often than not, we’ll decide that we’re not terribly hungry, and sit down at our table and eat some Chèvre, Compté, Brie, or a multitude of others, sometimes with bread, sometimes without. Every once in a while I feel a pang of guilt, wondering what this diet consisting mostly of milk products is doing to my health, but then I’ll have another piece and forget all about it. It could be worse, I could be lactose intolerant.

You may think that my eating habits are going rapidly down-hill, and that it’s all my fault. But don’t despair, I have eaten other things, some involving cheese (mixed with other things, bien sûr!) and some not. And it’s not really my fault. The one thing that all of these “other” meals have is that they’ve been eaten outside of the apartment. You see, we’re having trouble with the “plaques éléctriques.” Our tiny kitchen has two plaques, or hotplate-type contraptions. The first time that Sylvain tried to make pasta and it took the water half an hour to boil, I thought it was odd, but I chalked it up to him not putting a lid on the pot. When I waited forty-five minutes for the Italian cafétière to provide me with coffee, and still got nothing, I was annoyed and de-caffeinated. But tonight, when after AN HOUR the water holding my potatoes hadn’t even come close to boiling, I was upset (and hungry). I made a hunger-based decision, fished the potatoes out of the non-boiling water, thinly sliced them, and threw them in a sauté pan that I had, ahem, attempted to pre-heat. Over half an hour later I had passable food. But the plaques? I’ve had enough. We’ve tried preheating them, using both, waiting exceptionally long periods of time, and still nothing. I don’t think this is normal. And although I really love this cheese-eating phase I’m going through, I would like to cook something else. (Don’t worry Mom, I’m eating yoghurt too! And I even bought salad, but we’re sadly still without salad dressing, which is another story entirely.) Especially since I’ve already bought things for tomorrow night. Breakfasts are fine, we can have bread and marmalade and juice and coffee without using the “stove” (Sylvain luckily has brought a coffee maker, so even if I follow my urges to throw the other one from the terrace, I’ll still have my coffee). But it looks like it’s off to Carrefour for us, to buy one or two free-standing plaques so that I can cook something without any milk in it. As for right now, I’m rewarding myself after the dinner mess with some coffee (but espresso, really) and chocolate. So yes, sleeping is going to be really easy.

No matter how many times you’ve been someplace, there’s always something special about the moment you arrive and the first few days that follow. This is not my first time in France (although it is the first time in Lyon), but there’s something about arriving that makes it feel like it is. That feeling of being completely surrounded by people speaking another language and knowing that at the same time you belong and don’t belong. I feel guilty listening to my iPod, and have switched it out (for the time being) to listen instead to the noises around me. Every time I might forget for a second where I am, all it takes is three seconds of listening and I’m immediately reminded that I have, indeed, arrived in Lyon.

I suppose a more appropriate way to begin would be to answer the question Marc asked me Thursday night: “So Gina, what are you doing this year?” The simple answer is that I’m here in Lyon, France, as the Graduate Assistant on the Oregon University System study abroad program. I’ll be working at the Université Lyon 2 in the Centre Oregon for the resident director and assistant director. I am also partly a student, as I have the possibility to take classes if I want. When our thirty students arrive I’ll be helping them with various things (to-be-determined) as well. From the impression I have now, I’ll be a type of go-between for the director and the students. They’re here for the year, I’m here for the year. I live in a little apartment on the 7th floor of an old building less than ten minutes from the university. I have a French roommate. I now have my very own carte TCL (a pass for public transportation- bus, metro and tramway). Even though I am still very American, I am attempting, as the title would imply, to live this year “à la lyonnaise.” This is the first time I’ve been abroad for a year so there will be lots of new experiences. I’m using this blog to document what it’s like to adjust to a completely different culture and city and to try to integrate myself into it. I’ve got a year, anything could happen.

Are you still reading? Well, what else do you want to know? Do you have questions? Specific things for me to find out? Would you like me to find the best coffee in Lyon? The most expensive shoes? (and if I find them, would you like to buy them for me?) Do you need to know exactly how long it takes to get to IKEA from the middle of town? Leave a comment, or email me. I’ll try my best.