29 November 2012

Paris, je t'aime

Paris was AMAZING!! This weekend was the fourth time I've been to the City of Lurve, but each time I forget quite how much I love it there, and so each trip never fails to disappoint.

I met Tamsin at Place de la Bastille on Friday evening in the pouring rain where we began our weekend of Christmassy adventures, as we are both a teeny weeny bit over-excited about the fact that Christmas is just one month away. As soon as we got to her flat the Christmas radio went on and the Christmas period officially started. With the Cimetière du Père Lachaise just up the road from Tamsin's flat, we spent a couple of hours there during the daytime on Saturday, spotting celebrities who are no longer with us. I still can't get over how big the cemetery is; I reckon its surface area is pretty much the same size as the whole of Melle.

La Cimetière du Père Lachaise

Being both musicians, we had a good old nose at the graves of Chopin, Poulenc, Fauré and Rossini, although apparently the latter is no longer actually in the grave but is instead enjoying himself back in his homeland for a bit. The cemetery itself is beautiful with cobbled paths, lots of trees, hills going up and down, and loads of mahoosive mausoleums which are good fun to get creeped out by.

Ici repose Frédéric Chopin

Late afternoon we went to Galéries Lafayette to see the giant Christmas tree, and it did not disappoint.

However, the best bit was when we stumbled upon the roof of the building just as the sun was going down, which gave us some pretty spectacular views of the city, including of course the Eiffel Tower. I have never seen a more busy shop though, even with there still being 4 weeks until Christmas.

Paris, from the top of Galeries Lafayette

We then walked to Place de la Concorde to begin our walk up the Champs-Elysées in all its Christmas glory. With impressive lumières de Noel, a big Christmas market lining the Avenue, and a cup of mulled wine (or 'hot wine' as they call it over here), Tamsin and I were loving life.

And it got a whole lot better when we discovered they were selling mince pies in the mini M&S there. Making it through the crowds up to Arc de Triomphe, we then walked down a disappointingly non-Christmassy avenue to Trocadero in order to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower. And as luck would have it, we arrived there a few minutes before it was next due to sparkle for 5 minutes. It was so pretty! 

Having walked for hours, we decided to call it a night, eager to get home eat mince pies and homemade cassoulet. If the M&S on Champs-Elysées is the only place in France that sells mince pies, I'm not sure how I'm going to survive these next few weeks.

Mince pies, one of Britain's greatest inventions

We decided on Sunday to go to church in Notre-Dame, to say that we'd done it. Arriving there early, we popped across the river so that Tamsin could introduce me to the most amazing bookshop ever. It's called 'Shakespeare & Company' and I actually felt like I was somewhere on Diagon Alley. It had crooked stairs, thousands of beautiful old books, velvety covered seating areas, ladders on the bookshelves and was generally just so cute. The kids books section was definitely my favourite part. If it's no longer socially acceptable to read Barbar The Elephant at 20 years of age, I might just have a baby solely to be able to read it bedtime stories every night.

Mass at Notre-Dame is not something I'd recommend; the fact that hundreds of tourists are walking around the edge taking pictures and paying no attention whatsoever to the 'Silence' sign means that there are constant distractions, and there were no hymns, which of course is everybody's favourite part of going to Church. The best thing about the mass though was definitely whenever someone in the congregation started to take a picture this Chinese guy would just appear out of nowhere and tell them off like they were school kids, and when a man 2 rows in front of us got his camera out, another guy a couple of seats along just stared at him for about 2 minutes giving him the biggest evils I've ever seen.

After mass we visited a little Christmas Fayre in some random building, then we walked back to the flat along the river. After lunch we took the metro to Montmartre and once again timed it perfectly to watch the sun going down from Sacre-Cœur. There was also some amazing busker who was standing on the pillar at the top of the steps doing football tricks and doing handstands and stuff with it. Then he climbed a lampost whilst continuing to spin and balance the ball. The fact that he would have probably died if he'd fallen off was pretty impressive. We walked around Place du Tertre then went into Sacre-Coeur, which we decided is more striking than Notre-Dame due to its sheer vastness and trhe fact that people actually observe the plea for silence. No trip to Montmartre is complete without getting a glimpse of the Moulin Rouge, so we wandered down to Paris' red-light district, then hopped back onto the metro to the centre, walked along the river, then went to the cinema to see Skyfall as I had been unable to see it in English thus far. And it was definitely worth the wait. Although it made me pine for London.

So there you have it, mon weekend à Paris.

Merci mille fois Tamsin!

Sacre-Coeur at dusk

Climbing a lamp post at the top of Montmartre

La Tour Eiffel at sunset

22 November 2012

Je vous remercie d'avoir lu mon blog...

I always knew that coming to France for a year would be a cultural experience, however I hadn't realised I would be getting insights into cultures other than that of France. For last night I experienced my first ever Thanksgiving! With there being lots of American assistants in the region, Maggie and Anna organised a Thanksgiving Dinner at their house in Niort, for which people brought along a dish to add to the table. Knowing nothing about this festivity, other than the fact every American seems to celebrate it, I had to do a bit of good old Wiki'ing. For anyone as ignorant as I was, the reason for which the Americans give thanks for what they have on this day every year is because hundreds of years ago when pilgrims came to the States, they died the first winter from not having enough to eat. So the following year the Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to grow crops, and so at harvest time they had plenty to eat. As a result, the pilgrims gave thanks to the Native Americans (and to God). History lesson over.

I also had to decide on a dish to bring so needed to read up on what traditional Thanksgiving dishes were. I settled on a green bean casserole, which is basically a mix of green beans, mushrooms, onions and cream. Therefore rendering a potentially healthy side dish fattening and calorific. It seemed to taste nice, although I have no idea if it was anything like it should have been.

Mike and I got a lift to the soirée and back thanks to a young woman called Aurélie who lives in Melle and was also going to the dinner! So it was great on 3 levels; firstly we had transportation otherwise we couldn't have gone, secondly we were able to practice some French on the journey, and thirdly we now (fingers crossed) have a French friend in Melle vaguely our age! As well as Americans, Brits and Frenchies, there were also Spanish people there, so it was quite a multi-national evening! Because of this, when we had to say what we were thankful for in our life before tucking into the food, it was all in French.

The food was delish overall, with chicken, stuffing, roast veggies, mashed potato, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, tarte aux pommes, chocolate mousse, ice cream, bread, cheese, wine, champagne....NOM. Anyway, I can now say I have experienced American Thanksgiving, albeit with a few French influences thrown in.

Literally nothing else interesting has happened in my life since my last post. I've kept up the jogging though! And I'm actually enjoying it, which I never thought I'd say. Teaching has also gone pretty well, although once again I've only had 5 hours this week (partly due to the fact that a colleague forgot to pick me up on Tuesday), but I'm really enjoying it and I love the authority I have over my pupils!

Right now I am very excited indeed because I am off to Paris tomorrow to stay with Tamsin, who I haven't seen since uni 6 months ago. She's studying music there so it'll be great to hear all about her life there and to see Paris in winter for the first time. Can't wait! I shall tell you all about it when I get back on Monday, and hopefully I'll have taken some cool photos. Ciao for now.

17 November 2012

Smiles all around =)

Another weekend means another week gone of my Year Abroad. I have now been here for almost 2 months, and it is scary to think this time in 5 weeks I will be back on the better side of The Channel for the Christmas holidays with only 4 months of my teaching contract in France remaining.

It's safe to say I haven't progressed in the language as much as I'd hoped I would by this stage. I still can't really follow a conversation of more than 2 Frenchies, and I'm pretty sure I'm permanently stuck in the present tense when I speak. I still panic when a randomer asks me for directions, and I still use the excuse that 'je suis anglaise' when I freak out and can't reply to someone.

HOWEVER, today I am feeling relatively positive for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Christmas playlist is currently playing on my iTunes and I'm having a nice sing-song with The Pogues. Secondly, they've put Christmas lights up in Melle (!!!!) which I was worried wasn't going to happen because a) France don't seem to be quite as Christmas-obsessed as the UK, and b) Melle is Melle, ie. slightly behind the times.

For less festive and more serious reasons, teaching went really well this week. OK so I only worked a total of 5 hours the whole week, but they were 5 good hours. And they all took place at the lycée because I wasn't at the collège this week. In the classes I was in on Tuesday I wasn't actually teaching, I was just doing mock-speaking exams with them. It was a strange role-reversal, with these super stressed-out kids sitting in front of me one at a time whilst I grilled them with dreaded questions like 'tell me about yourself'. 

On Thursday I was back to normal teaching, and I had been asked to prepare a class on weapons and military to use in 2 consecutive classes. Knowing that I had to keep the level really basic, it still required me to do some research on the subject, and I now know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle. Well, kind of. Anyway, struggling to think of a way of making it an interesting lesson that would make them speak English as much as possible, I then remembered a certain A-Level French lesson I had a few years ago. Basically, my teacher got us to write a short story that consisted of newly-taught vocab, along with a few other totally random and comical words. I decided to apply this idea to my classes on Thursday, thus asking them to come up with a story, in groups, that contained the new military-related words that I'd just taught them, along with a few others such as 'One Direction' and 'cabbage'. They found it difficult, and for the first few minutes I was worried they weren't going to be able to do it. But then, after I started the story off for them, their imaginations got going and they were actually managing to produce a string of sounds reminiscent of the English language. But the best part was the fact that when the bell went they told me it was a really good class and that it was 'much better than with Madame'. To top it off, the English teacher later told me that one of the pupils had approached her in the corridor and said how great my class was. Result!

Another reason for the smile on my face is that I FINALLY got the forms signed to show that I have arrived in France and started work, which means that I can receive my Erasmus grant. Yay to more money :)

Despite what I said earlier about my French not having come on as much as I'd hoped, I have noticed an improvement this week. Having had 2 weeks of holidays during which I had barely spoken any French, I thought this week was going to be a real challenge to get back into things. But at school on Tuesday and Thursday I didn't have to concentrate as hard as I usually do to understand what Manue and Sandrine (the English teachers) were saying to me. I also spoke a lot of French with Alfredo and Mike these past couple of days and in general conversation between the 3 of us it comes quite naturally now, and I no longer find myself quickly translating in my head before I speak. It helps a lot that none of us are native French speakers because therefore we all make mistakes so just don't worry about it. As long as the meaning behind what I'm trying to say is conveyed and I am understood, then I don't mind. I still lack confidence when speaking to natives though.

This week has also been gorgeous weather-wise; most days have been clear blue sky, and the past couple of days have been 18/19 degrees, so it is hard to believe it is mid-November. This has resulted in more walking, but don't worry, I won't bore you with more photos of trees and sky.

This weather and beautiful countryside, combined with the fact that my 21st is coming up and I've thus been hunting for dresses, has inspired me to get out the flat and shape up a bit. So today I went for my first run. I've signed up to a '3 Weeks to a 30-Minute Running Habit' program. Let's just say Day 1 wasn't as easy as it was made out to be... As with any exercise I try to do, this whim is unlikely to last longer than a week, but we shall see. 

I'm sorry, I couldn't resist:

Until next time, grosses bises.

12 November 2012

Mother Nature and Me

I never thought I'd say this, but I have become a bit of a naturist. No, I haven't suddenly started walking around town starkers, but rather I've realised how beautiful nature is.

I've just arrived home from an early evening walk all by myself, and I feel like Wordsworth. Picture this: 
I'm taking a stroll on a crisp but relatively mild autumn evening, vivid shades of red and orange are blanketing the paths as the trees shed their leaves, and flocks of birds are swooping through the cornflower blue sky which is slowly fading to purple and then orange as the sun gets ready to sleep and make way for the stars. 
Yeah, so Wordsworth has nothing to worry about quite yet...

I also managed to time my walk so that Laurent (one of the teachers that takes me to and from the college every Tuesday) drove past me and proceeded to get out of his car, give me the standard kiss, and talk to me in his deep mumbly voice which I rarely understand, where I just smiled enthusiastically and made noises like I knew what he was talking about. Then towards the end of my walk I hear someone calling my name, so I turn around and see that Laurent is now talking to me out of an upstairs window of what must be his house, then rushes downstairs and out the front door and into the road to talk to me further. He's a babe really, but not having spoken or listened to French for the past fortnight means that conversing in the foreign language is not particularly desirable right now.

Throughout the rest of this post, please enjoy my photos of all things God-created.

In other news, I'M GOING TO PARIS!! And I'm so excited, I just can't hide it. I'm going to stay with Tamsin who studies music with me at uni, and she's currently doing a year at the gorgeous Sorbonne University in "La Ville-Lumiere". I shall be there in 2 weekends time, when the Christmas lights will be on, so I am very very much looking forward to that.

And FINALLY my CAF (like a kind of housing benefit) has been sorted, meaning that my 440€ monthly rent is now only 100€. Winning.

To conclude, today marked the final day of the holidays for me, so I am back to work tomorrow...meaning that you should expect a fed-up and frustrated Mademoiselle Melle in the next post.


11 November 2012

Robert comes to Melle

Hello, I'm back! Apologies for my absence over the past 10 days; I have been rather occupied since my last post, as my boyfriend came to visit me this week. I also apologise for the fact that this is going to be a long post. I'll make it more bearable, though, by including a wide selection of pictorial matter.

So I met Rob at La Rochelle airport on Monday afternoon, after not having seen him for 6 weeks. To say I was excited is an understatement! As the weather was much sunnier than I had expected, and this was my first time in La Rochelle, we sat and admired the beautiful 'Vieux Port' (old harbour) whilst munching on a croissant and pain aux raisins for a good hour.

Boats in the harbour with La Rochelle's famous towers

Pain aux raisins, my new best friend

A panoramic view of the Vieux Port

Enjoying the blue skies, we then looked behind us to see a huge grey cloud heading our way, so we decided to make our way to the station. It was quite a dramatic change in weather, and we got back to the station just in time before it started hammering down. Having not properly consulted my train timetable, we got to the station about 1 minute before the train to Niort was due, without having yet bought a ticket. So we had to wait for the next one which was an hour and a quarter later, and with it now raining comme une vache qui pisse, further sightseeing was out of the question. Long waits in stations now seem normal for me.

Dark skies approaching
Here comes the rain...
A very moody sky
Monday was also very exciting as it marked the first time I used the oven at home! Being Rob's favourite dish, I went all English and cooked Shepherd's Pie. And it worked, yay!

For those of you who don't know what
Shepherd's Pie cooked in a French oven looks like

On Tuesday, I took advantage of having a man in my company by taking him to SuperU, buying a new TV and making him carry it on the half-hour walk back to the flat. Whoever said men are useless?! With a lovely LED TV now successfully installed in my lounge area, I will now hopefully get more listening practice as I immerse myself in French television...or more likely, American TV dubbed into French.

On Tuesday night I cooked Steak Haché avec une fondue de légumes, aka Burger and veg. And yes, of course I took a photo of it:

Rare burger. Nom.
Having seen on CoVoiturage.fr that someone was driving from Melle to Saintes and back, and with sun forecast for the whole day, we decided to profit from this and take a daytrip there. Apparently there was some miscommunication in arranging with Monsieur Jean-Louis, however, because after waking up early and making our way to the centre of Melle, M. J-L's green Renault Mégane never materialised. Not wanting to waste being up bright and early on this glorious Tuesday morning, I took Rob for a tour of Melle. It was so nice finally being able to show my town to someone. And with the weather as it was, I was once again reminded of what a gorgeous town I live in. Especially now in autumn, I can't get enough of all the different coloured leaves.

Cimetière Saint-Pierre with a backdrop of autumnal beauty

Nearly all that's left of the medieval
fortifications of Melle

Getting home and realising it was now too late to travel too far for the day to make it worth the journey, we decided to go to the town nearest to Melle called Celles-sur-Belle where I knew there was a nice abbey and gardens. So after lunch we took the 10 minute bus ride there and enjoyed a lovely relaxing afternoon in the grounds of the 12th century Abbaye Royale.

L'Abbaye Royale de Celles-sur-Belle and its beautiful gardens

Awaking on Thursday to an overcast sky, we decided there wasn't much point in venturing off somewhere, as nowhere looks as nice when there's no sun. Instead, I dug out a leaflet the tourist office lady gave me in my first week in Melle, and suggested going for a walk along Melle's 'Chemin de la Découverte'. Part of the walk is on an old railway line, and for those interested in trees and flora-related things, there's apparently 1800 different species of tree along the route, as well as 250 roses, but I'm assuming they're only there in spring or summer as I didn't see any.

Autumn leaves lining the old railway line

The route also follows the small rivers that run around Melle
La Béronne

The walk also contained the old wash houses of Melle (one of which is about a 3 minute walk from my flat, but I'd never discovered before) which I found fascinating to imagine the women washing there however many centuries ago.

Lavoir de Loubeau

Lavoir de Villiers

Interior of the Lavoir de Villiers

With the walk coming to an end as the sun was going down, this made for some water-colour-painting-esque skies.

My landlord had said there was going to be a meal for all the residents in the block in Chef-Boutonne (a town about 10 minutes away). Reluctant to go (because I've seen a grand total of 2 other residents in my time here) but knowing we probably should attend, we got ready for around 7pm. We weren't too sure how we were getting to there, but my landlord had said on Tuesday that he hoped there'd be a car to take, so we assumed we'd get a text or a knock on the door around then. By half 7 we came to the conclusion that no one was going to take us there, and so made the decision to try out the steak house, Côte de Boeufin the centre of town. Pâté followed by one of the tenderest steaks I've ever had, and finished off with a crêpe, it was a damn good meal for just 17,50€ per head.

One of the things Rob had most wanted to go to was the Friday market in Melle. So we went along in the morning and got our dinner sorted by buying a lovely fresh piece of salmon from the fish stall. We also bought a huge slice of French cake without having a clue about what it was, and a nice slab of Faume d'Ambert cheese. No trip to Melle is complete without soaking up the French conviviality of the Café du Boulevard, and when we'd tried to go there earlier in the evening for a drink with Mike it was closed. Knowing they serve food there but not yet having been there for that purpose, I suggested we go there for lunch, as they have a different main dish everyday. Friday's plat du jour was haddock steak served with a big mix of vegetables, salad and bread. It was delicious and great value, so I'll have to eat there more as the dishes are totally French.

There was a section of Thursday's walk that we hadn't had time to complete, so we did the rest of that on Friday afternoon, then came home and cooked the salmon to absolute perfection.


After: Salmon poached in white wine, onion, garlic,
peas and carrots, served on a bed of rice

Today, Rob went home. I took him to Niort to get the train, and after lots of cuddles and crying we said our goodbyes and left in opposite directions.

Heart-wrenching love ballad plays to footage cutting between me gazing out of bus window and Rob out of train window, as rain pours over the bleak French countryside...

Rob and I on the ramparts of Melle

A few things I've learnt this week:
  1. Autumn might just be my new favourite season; I didn't realise nature could be so colourful;
  2. Going on walks is ten times more enjoyable with someone else;
  3. Boyfriends are great for carrying your shopping bags;
  4. How the stock exchange thing works. Well, the basics;
  5. Time really does fly when you're having fun.

01 November 2012

Reunited in Tours

Monday to Wednesday saw my first main excursion of my Year Abroad, and it was a very enjoyable couple of days indeed! I travelled a couple of hours north-east to Tours in the Loire Valley. My very good friend Rachel lives and works there so Morgan and I stayed with her for a couple of nights. I was fairly familiar with the city, having spent a week there doing work experience a few years ago, but this trip confirmed that Tours is one of my favourite cities in France. It's got everything; a big grand station, a huge river, a stunning cathedral, loads of shops, millions of gorgeous churches, an old part of the city where all the streets are cobbled and the buildings are really cute and full of character, a pretty square full of bars and restaurants, and generally a really nice ambiance.

La Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours

The impressive Hotel de Ville, albeit with roadworks all around it

But of course the most exciting part of my mini holiday was seeing my two old housemates and sharing stories of our Year Abroad. Rachel is working in a primary school so it was interesting to hear about the different teaching strategies between her age group and mine and Morgan's.

Despite the low temperatures, we couldn't have hoped for better weather at the end of October. There was not a cloud in the sky as we visited the nearby town of Amboise and had a look at its château. We picnicked on the bank of the Loire eating our way through much too much fresh baguette and cheese. 

Eating al fresco on the banks of the Loire

View of the Château d'Amboise

The next few hours were spent in the grounds of the Chateau d'Amboise, learning about its history and appreciating the spectacular views onto the river. It was interesting to learn that only about 20 percent of the original château is still there, and was hard to imagine what it would have been like in the 13th century.

Château d'Amboise

Perfect weather for a panoramic view from the top of the Château
I realised when we got there that I had in fact briefly stopped off in Amboise with my family years ago as we were driving south for a holiday. I didn't remember the town being so picturesque though.

A typical Amboisien street with its timbered buildings

In our uni house last year, cooking was one thing we all loved to do, so being together again we took the opportunity to make dinner together. The first night we made a courgette, red pepper and mushroom in white wine sauce pasta dish, and day 2 we made red onion and feta tarte tatin. Both were delicious and have made me want to cook more exciting dishes whilst in France. The trouble is, it's difficult when there's just one of you, as you then end up eating the same thing for the next few nights.

Red onion and feta tarte tatin served with a side salad
We then set off for an apparently amazing pirate-themed bar which Rachel had been to before. But in true Rachel style, after walking for 20 minutes, we came to the conclusion that it wasn't where she thought it was, so we walked back to the old part of town and had a lovely drink in an English-themed pub called Sherlock Holmes.

The rest of my time in Tours was spent eating more bread, more cheese, lots of brioche, homemade croissants, gelato, and treats from the patisserie. It's fine, I was on holiday...