Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31, 2011: Grenoble - La Fin du Premier Mois

This morning was the French conversation coffee get-together at Pain et Cie with Open House. We switched over to a bit of English at the end, because Sophie's son stopped by. He studied English in school, so was quite good, but a bit shy about speaking in it, so she welcomed the chance for him to be "immersed".

After that it was back home, where I had some proof-reading work awaiting me. Between that, some reading and trip planning, and the daily trip to Monoprix to pick up some things for dinner, time flew by.

No new photos or other activities to report - today just felt like a regular day of life, which just happened to be set in France. Which is perhaps appropriate, at the end of our first month in France, that I've developed a daily routine of life. Some observations, looking back over the past month:

- I look French. All I have to do is put on a scarf, and I resemble the French women around me, who have simple hairstyles and minimal make-up. This is rather strange for me, because in other countries where I couldn't speak the language, like Mexico, Greece or Cyprus, it was obvious that I was a newcomer because I lacked the all-pervasive tan. On the one hand I get a kick out of blending in here. On the other hand it means that strangers are far more likely to launch into a barrage of French that I can't understand.

- I hear far more singing on the street. Kids singing out loud. Parents singing songs to their children. I can't think of the last time I heard anyone singing in Toronto.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30, 2011: Grenoble - English Tutoring, Good-bye Julie, Work

This morning I was invited over to the home of a new friend from Open House, Anne. She's interested in giving her young daughter more opportunities to practice English, and they live in an apartment building only a short walk away from my own. Because French children don't go to school on Wednesdays, it was a good day to arrange for some tutoring for Naola.

For an hour we played card games (which gave Naola a chance to explain the rules and instructions to me in English) and did some drawing (Naola asked me to draw a wolf, and seemed delighted by my rather cartoonish effort). She clearly understood most of what I said, but was shy about speaking in English herself. When we finished tutoring we dropped her off for catechism classes, and Anne and I went back to the apartment to chat in (mostly) French for an hour - good practice for me.

After a quick stop by the apartment I was off again to a good-bye lunch for Julie, who is returning to England this upcoming weekend. The lunch was hosted by Maureen, and several of us from the Open House group were there. Maureen served a lunch of some typically American dishes that she hasn't seen much of while in France: deviled eggs, bean salad and coleslaw. However, like a French meal, it unfolded at a leisurely pace, and we didn't part ways until 5:00.

When I got home I discovered that I had a bit of freelance work - a proof-reading job that I managed to finish off before supper, and then another one that I would be able to polish off the next morning. The time difference from Toronto really works to my advantage - I can head out for a day of activities and get home just as the Toronto work world is getting started for the day.

March 29, 2011: Grenoble - Préfecture, Painted Caves, Julia Child's Cabbage

Today we returned to the Préfecture, hoping that we'd successfully gathered and translated all the appropriate documents for the carte de séjour application, based on the list we'd received on our last visit. And indeed we had! The woman we dealt with was rather severe and abrupt, but by the end of our transaction seemed to have softened up a bit - perhaps my extreme preparedness with five photocopies of every possible document showed her how willing I was to work with the French bureaucracy. She pulled out all the pieces of paper she wanted, stapled them into a folder, and told us we'd receive a letter in the mail that would tell us about the next step.

To reward myself for our Préfecture triumph I went home and purchased Jean M. Auel's new book, "The Land of Painted Caves". Her series, set in prehistoric France/Spain, had been on my mind since seeing the cave near Seyssinet-Periset on the weekend. When I Googled to find out where the caves in the novels were located, I found out that a new book was being released on March 29, 2011 - what a coincidence! The last novel wasn't very good (very derivative of the first four books in the series), but I can't help but wonder how it's all going to turn out. This was also my first e-book purchase ever - although I don't have an e-reader, I can read it on my laptop.

While I sat down to an afternoon of reading I planned a leisurely dinner dish - Julia Child's red cabbage, braised in red wine. Here's a modified version of her recipe, which is what I made based on our small oven and a few ingredient substitutions - delicious!

Half Batch of Julia Child's Braised Red Cabbage with Red Wine


1/8 lb sausage
1 cup thinly sliced carrots
1/2 cup sliced onion
2 Tbsp butter
1 lb (3 or 4 cups) small red cabbage, quartered and cut into 1/2" slices
2 cups diced tart apples
1 clove mashed garlic
2 ground bay leavves (if you only have dried leaves, soak first and then chop as finely as possible)
1/8 tsp clove
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1 cup good, young red wine (Bordeaux, Chianti)
1cup chicken stock
Salt & pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees (or in Europe, th 7).

Chop the sausage into strips 1 1/2" long & 1/4" across. Cook the sauage, carrots and onion in the butter slowly in a large, covered pot for 10 minutes on medium-low heat without browning. Stir in the cabbage leaves and when well covered with the butter and vegetables, cook at the same temperature slowly for 10 minutes. Add all additional ingredients and increase heat. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove.

Transfer to a glass casserole dish, cover tightly with foil and place in the middle of the preheated oven. Regulate heat so cabbage bubbles slowly for 2 to 3 hours until all the liquid has been absorbed by the cabbage. Serves 4 people.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 2011: Grenoble - French/English, Laundry, Post Office

This morning I went to Sweet Home Grenoble's coffee get-together. Today was the first time in a new cafe - opinion was divided on whether it was an improvement. Top of the list is the desire for good acoustics - we're all working so much harder than usual on trying to listen and understand each other.

In the afternoon I did the laundry again. This time I divided it into two smaller washes and two smaller dryer loads - it dried much more satisfactorily than last time (although it still took about 2 hours).

While the laundry was in the works I ran errands, including visiting the Post Office. This turned out to be my most involved French transaction thus far. I had three letters to mail, but I also needed stamps for two envelopes that I wasn't mailing yet - just submitting with our carte de séjour application to the Préfecture. I prepared a script for what I needed ("J'ai trois lettres à envoyer. Je voudrais aussi des timbres pour deux enveloppes que je dois donner à la préfecture."). It seemed straightforward, but when I went to the office down the street it turns out that it is closed on Mondays. I rushed home, pulled up the French Post Office website, and searched for a way to find another nearby location that was open - a function that I finally found buried several levels deep in an obscure link. When I found the new office, I was confronted with five different desks - French Post Offices also serve as basic service banks, and I had no idea what desk I needed to visit. Happily a woman stepped out from behind one to greet me. Unhappily she replied to each of my carefully worded requests with a barrage of options (I think) in French. All I could do was keep repeating what I needed, hoping she would select the appropriate solution for me, which she did eventually, after a great deal of one-sided conversation on her part. Phew - far more complex than buying train tickets, which I would not have expected!

For supper it was a quick supper of couscous with warmed chicken and arugula and tomato and caramelized onions (the caramelized onions wouldn't have been quick, but I'd made them a few days before, during a leisurely afternoon of cooking).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March 27, 2011: Grenoble - Market, Rain, Musée d'Ancien Eveché, Asperges

Today we bought two new cheeses at the market: Beaufort and St. Nectaire. Both are milder than the Crayeuse we bought yesterday, although the St. Nectaire rind had a similar kind of appearance. We also bought a new kind of charcuterie, which is very smoky and sweet - we've been referring to it as meat candy.

Because it was raining quite heavily, in the afternoon we opted for an indoor activity and visited the Musée de l'Ancien Évêché. It reminds me of the archaeological museum Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal, which is one of my favourites because you go below street level to an archaeological dig. In Montreal it's the first European buildings of a few hundred years ago, but in Grenoble it's the remains of millennia-old Roman city walls and the original Baptistery. Upstairs there were exhibits of Grenoble area residents, from prehistoric times to modern. The tiny dioramas of cave-dwelling prehistoric people made me think of Jean M. Auel's novels set in that time period. The museum building is a very striking contrast of contemporary and historic, along the lines of the Grenoble art museum. The only drawback was that there were no explanatory panels in English - where I could I translated from the French for Mark.

For supper we had white asparagus ("asperges"), which is more commonly seen in the market than the green variety. A new all-asparagus stand had popped up, so it seemed like the time was right to try it. All the recipes agree that it must be peeled - this must be why all the stalks sold are quite stout (whereas in Ontario the thinnest, most tender stalks are prized, and are cooked unpeeled). We enjoyed it, but weren't blown away - it's hard to know if we were eating really fresh asparagus - perhaps we need to wait to see if we can get some picked just that morning from the local region that might be more flavourful.

Lunch! Clockwise from top: smoked charcuterie,  Beaufort cheese, St. Nectaire cheese, Crayeuse cheese

Model of prehistoric settlement, with a 'rainbow' along the perimeter

A computer display about cave dwellings in the local area has a photo of the very same rock overhang I photographed from le Tour Sans Venin the day before! The accompanying information reads: "Located at the foot of the Tour Sans Venin, the Cave of the Sarrasins is a huge overhang that can accommodate an entire village. Shards of pottery and human bones were discovered during excavations and surveys in 1889 and again in 1965. The site has revealed a continuous occupation from the Neolithic to the medieval period."

Examples from Grenoble's famous glove industry

A model shows the 1883 concrete facade of the cathedral (which I heard about on my tour on Friday), which was removed in the 1990 restoration

For some reason this window had a blue film over it, casting an eerie light into the room

A model of the Baptistery as it would have appeared in the 10th century

An ancient lead pipe that supplied water for the Baptistery

Excavation of the Baptistery floor

Excavation of Roman-era walls, several feet below street level

Saturday, March 26, 2011

March 26, 2011: Grenoble - Market, Hiking, Tower Without Venom, Terrine

Today at the market we bought yet another new cheese (I think our goal may be to buy a new kind every time we visit) - Savoie Crayeuse. It's stronger-tasting than most cheeses we've bought so far; quite goaty (even though I believe it's a cow's milk cheese), with a luxuriant texture like Brie and a hint of strong taste like a blue, even though it has no blue colouring. In reading up on it after I've found that Crayeuse was just invented recently, by Max Schmidhauser in 1997, which surprised me, since many of the other cheeses at the market are varieties that have been made for hundreds of years locally - you'd think they'd have already come up with all the possibilities.

For lunch we feasted on our market purchases: slices of herb-encrusted sausage and cheese on fresh baguette; also fresh pasta (filled with artichoke and ricotta) with tomato sauce and arugula. We haven't bought any actual artichokes yet, but they're very popular here, with maybe half a dozen different varieties available at market.

We used the Guide de Balades to pick a hiking route that we could reach via the TAG transit system. We took a new tram line and a bus for the first time, up to the village of Seysseney Periset in the hills; then hiked from there about 1.5 hours up higher to the Tour Sans Venin (in English: Tower Without Venom). It's a 13th century tower, 666 feet above sea level. The origin of the name is disputed (but doesn't the elevation of 666 feet seem significant?) and it is one of the seven wonders of the Dauphiné region.

After a leisurely walk down we had the same bus driver as before; both times there was no one on the bus but us - did he drive all afternoon with no other passengers?

For supper: rice casserole with mushrooms, onions, chicken stock, cheese rind, tomato paste and rabbit terrine; roast brussels sprouts and parsnips. The rabbit terrine was quite pungent - I'm glad I only used half a jar. I'd scooped out several spoonsful and placed them throughout the casserole - they cooked up almost like little meatballs.

St Nizier - Mark Nitz. Coincidence?

We passed a house en route that has a tower. Just imagine "Oh honey - would you get the spare blanket - it's up in the tower"...

Sunlight streams across green forest floors - it really felt like spring today!

We sighted a large overhang down below in the distance - I'm thinking Clan of the Cave Bear!

The famous Tour Sans Venin (this is the intact corner - from the other direction it's mostly gone)

A small cemetery beside the tower overlooks the city with an amazing view to the Belledonne mountains - not a bad resting place for eternity

Mark 'pretends' to lock me in the cemetery

I love the simplicity of the big curving wall in this old stone church

I was almost able to 'touch' this lizard with my shadow finger before it moved

A small stream was channeled into a stone-lined chute in which the water rushed by with great force - lots of fun to trace it back into the forest to the point where it was naturalized

Rabbit terrine - just another everyday product from the supermarket shelf...

Friday, March 25, 2011

March 25, 2011: Grenoble - Doors of Grenoble, Royal Dining, French Parking

This morning I went on an architectural tour organized by Sweet Home Grenoble. The theme was "Doors of Grenoble", although it really covered the gamut of architectural features and history of an assortment of Grenoble's buildings. Because the organization's focus is to equally promote both French and English, our tour guide would first recount her information in French, and then it was translated into English (providing good practice for French comprehension - I think I picked up on at least 35% of what was said). More details with the photos below, but overall the tour was great: a wide range of buildings, from ancient to contemporary, and we went into some spaces (particularly interior courtyards) that I never would have been bold enough to venture into on my own.

For dinner we went out for Indian food, which I'd been craving awhile. We ate at Royal Tandoori; they had a nice pakora and samosa assortment on lightly dressed greens, but the main dishes had no heat - we were a bit disappointed. However, unlike our other restaurant experiences thus far our waiter spoke English readily, asked where we were from and was curious about life in Toronto. I was happy to relate that that are lots of Indian people there, particularly in the area of town where we live - he seemed surprised but pleased. We did not, however, tell him that we'd found his food lacking in spice.

On the way home I took photographs of some of the more cleverly parked cars. Parking is at a premium here in the old city center, and cars are wedged in every which way - I can only imagine that the parking laws are more lax than in Toronto. Tonight we saw a series of cars parked end to end and nose to nose, and then another series that were parked perpendicularly from the street onto the sidewalk. Crazy, yet it was all done in a very systematic, logical fashion.

Our tour started here, in front of the Cathedral. We learned that in the early 1900s an elaborate cathedral facade was added in "gray gold" - concrete! Grenoble was famous for its concrete industry, but decades later the facade was falling apart and was entirely removed during restoration. The cathedral does look oddly plain, and the photograph we saw of the facade was attractive - gray gold might not have been so bad after all.

While listening to the history of this stone and concrete building, I realized that the tree in front of me was wearing a "scarf". Which someone must have carefully sewed i place - you can't pull it on over either end of the tree!

A beautiful Juliet-style balcony juts out into this narrow city street: La Tourelle de l'Hotel Rabot; 16th century (hotel doesn't mean what it does in English - it was the private home of a well-to-do family).

Crazy doorknocker on the Hotel Coupier de Maille; 17th century.

Window of many-paned glass at the Parliament building.

Which of these windows are not like the others? "Trompe l'oeil" didn't need to be translated into English - we use the same expression.

A door with a fast-moving French woman in front

Headquarters of the publishing company Glenat; housed in a former convent, with fantastic red cross-themed contemporary doors

One of several stained glass windows into Glenat - look closely and you'll see a family of book-headed cartoon characters - the windows tell the story of publishing books

A brilliant blue door, with a characteristic window above (for letting in air and light in the days before plentiful windows) 

Looking up from this courtyard was looking at a framed picture of the sky 

Cars parked perpendicularly from the street onto the sidewalk

Cars parked end to end and nose to nose

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24, 2011: Grenoble - French Conversation, A Walk in The Alps, French Shopping

In the morning I went to the Open House French conversation group at Pain et Cie, where I had the chocolat chaud. I met some new people, and talked mostly in French (last week we were more diligent in sticking to French; this week I think that there were too many English folks close together, so we kept lapsing).

Upon leaving I had an invitation from Sheree to join her and Julie for a walk in the Alps, with her dog Einzel. We ate a quick lunch at her apartment before heading into the hills - Sheree has a car, so it made our trip very easy. After a few switchbacks up a somewhat narrow road we parked in the village, and then headed out for four hours of walking in the beautiful sunny weather. It was so warm in the sun that I took my cardigan off some of the time, so that I was only in short sleeves. There won't be a day like this in Toronto for at least another month!

On the way home I stopped in at the grocery store to pick up just a bottle of red wine and fresh baguette; with my colourful scarf tossing in the breeze it felt like a very French kind of day.

Paragliders alongside the cliff

A hazy view of distant mountains
I pose in the snow - there wasn't much left, but patches remained here and there

Sheree, Julie and Einzel

There were crocuses in bloom everywhere throughout the meadows

A shepherd's hut up on the hillside
The view at the far point of our hiking circuit

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 23, 2011: Grenoble - Sunshine, Drawing, Chicken Soup, Téléphoner, Métrovélo

Today was the warmest day here yet - a high of 19 Celsius, and fantastically sunny.

Since the weather was so nice I wanted to walk up to the Bastille, but the road was closed part ways up (I could hear them chipping away at something - probably more wall maintenance). So instead I went up one of the side sets of stairs a bit of the way and sat with my sketchbook, drawing cedar trees and stone walls. Not as much exercise as I'd hoped, but just as much sun.

When I got home I made chicken stock from Saturday's roast chicken carcass. I added a good dash of the herbes de provence spice mix, and even before it started to boil it smelled amazing.

Today I made my first local phone call, to the bank, having planned out in advance the likely phrases I would need to say in French. That all went right out the window as soon as someone answered - eventually she switched over to English and I found out that I had gotten through to some kind of technical assistance line, rather than the main line.

In the evening I met Mark at the train station to rent him a bicycle for the next 3 months from Métrovélo. It's only 50 euros to rent, but we had to pay 90 euros as a deposit. I realized I had no idea how to ask "can I pay in cash?" when we found that we couldn't pay the deposit with our credit card. But we got the bike in the end, and Mark rode it home. He says it's a bit of a tank, and doesn't like it too well, but it will make his commute much faster.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22, 2011: Grenoble - Open House, British Lunch, French Shopping

I returned to Open House's English coffee get-together this morning - by now it's becoming a group of familiar faces, although every week there do seem to be newcomers, or new introductions amongst people who haven't met yet. Useful information learned this week: there are two snakes in the area. One is venomous and the other is not. The venomous one can be recognized by being the smaller of the two (this is not, however, much use if you haven't yet seen either of them).

Afterwards Maureen and I went back to the apartment of another group member, Julie, who is British. She served a raspberry and blackberry crumble with custard - it was nice to have some home baking.

In the afternoon I went shopping at Monoprix, where I got a jar of rabbit terrine from the Dordognes area (I was inspired by the television show about charcuterie that we'd watched the night before - it featured a terrine), a jar of herbes de Provence (savory, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano) - very fragrant, and a jar of tarragon mustard.

Yesterday's leftover chicken and vegetable béchamel sauce casserole was improved by having a day to sit in the fridge before re-heating - that or I was more charitably disposed because we didn't have to wait so long before eating it.

Yet another collection of empty wine and beer bottles...

Monday, March 21, 2011

March 21, 2011: Grenoble - French/English Exchange at Bookworm Cafe, St Roch Cemetery, Béchamel Experiment

In the morning I went to a French/English exchange group at the Bookworm Cafe. This one is run by an organization called Sweet Home Grenoble, and all of their activities are conducted equally in both French and English, so that both languages can be practiced. For the first hour we chatted in French and for the second in English. It was good to get more practice conversing in French, and nice to see the Bookworm Cafe - it has a number of second-hand English language books for sale (I was tempted, but held off on buying any yet).

After the Bookworm Cafe, Maureen suggested going for a walk through the cemetery. I'd been meaning to check it out, but it's a bit far from my usual walks, so I hadn't been yet  (although we did pass by the outside of it our first weekend, on our long walk along the river). It reminded me quite a bit of cemeteries in Cyprus - not many trees or grass (unlike cemeteries in Toronto, which are often some of the lushest park space) and many elaborate graves (photographs of the deceased, elaborate floral arrangements - often in ceramic), and you could tell that space was at a premium, with family plots detailing a series of names, rather than individual markers for each grave.

Dinner was a bit of a failed experiment - I wanted to make something like a chicken pot pie with our leftover roast chicken. Although I could buy béchamel sauce right off the grocery shelf (so convenient!) there was nothing like a pastry shell or puff pastry in the freezer section, and I'm not equipped with enough baking supplies here to make pastry from scratch. So it was a collection of chopped vegetables, chunks of bread and chicken in a casserole dish baked with béchamel sauce - it took a long time to cook and was really too rich in the end to be worth it.

A Citroen, in what I thought was an appropriately bright citron colour

One of the stranger sights at the cemetery - a polychromatic plaster head, safely ensconced in a plexiglas box - is it the colouring or the box that makes it feel weirdly disembodied?

The village I grew up in was called "La Salette", and there isn't any real consensus as to why (there wasn't anyone French living there).

My favourite gravestone, possibly ever - just a big interesting rock with information carved on it, an little plants growing in crevices - like something from a bonsai arrangement, only bigger

A gravestone you wouldn't see anywhere other than in the Alps. Note also the Italian name - you really got a sense of the high Italian population in Grenoble while reading names at the cemetery.

An interesting "temple" with a view through to a cross-shaped window

Strange profusion of plaques and other "offerings"

Many plots were in disrepair, with stone structures subsiding or dismantled - a bit sad