Category Archives: France

The Time I Skied to Switzerland

Sorry, it’s been rather quiet around here lately.  Please direct all complaints to the Astronomical Institute Anton Pannekoek at he University of Amsterdam.

IMG_1583

There comes a special moment in every young woman’s life who skis when you are struck by the urge to ski to Switzerland.  This moment is roughly defined by the moment you first hear this is possible, and it is if you head for a weekend to the Portes du Soleil just south of Lake Geneva.  It is the second largest ski area in the world, with 650km of ski pistes, on both the French and Swiss sides of the border, and this massive network has a circuit that goes through all the main areas.  Sure it’s 20 miles (32km) of skiing, and sure it takes a full, long day to complete, but there was the urgent matter of deciding which side had superior fondue and scouting out the route in case enemies attacked Europe again (be they Nazis or Tripods…).IMG_1584

Now it turns out it is rather easy to ski to Switzerland from France and vice versa- I was based in Morzine, the biggest village in the Portes du Soleil, and you just follow the signs pointing to Switzerland once you get onto the mountain.  Eventually you reach a chairlift that grandly says it goes to Switzerland (the one in the lower left of the above image- the French-Swiss border follows the ridge line in the first picture of this post) and admonishes skiers to make sure they have photo ID to enter Switzerland at the top.  Turns out you aren’t checked at all, just deposited by a rest house at the summit with a cheery red Swiss flag flapping in the wind, but that’s just the letdown nature of most border crossings in Europe.  You sorta expect a pat on the back or at least a stamp to show your efforts, but instead just admire the view and press onwards.

IMG_1588

 

Of course, border crossings might be more low-key these days in Europe (there wasn’t even a sign when returning later in the day to France!), but that doesn’t mean you don’t spot differences even in a few miles.  Geographically, the view changes to mountains towering above green valley floors in Switzerland, and the little villages you traverse have buildings exclusively made out of wood (the French villages are almost all wooden, but the French still use stonework for their churches and chimneys).  If you are curious about any differences in the skiing itself, there is one- for whatever reason, the Swiss side has several T-bar lifts in places that these days would be replaced by chairlifts elsewhere, which can take several minutes to go up very steep slopes and require an effort of concentration to manage without incident. (I fell once the entire day… while trying to grab a T-bar.) Maybe the Swiss just assume everyone knows how to ski?  Either way, it’s impossible to complete the circuit without them!IMG_1593

Now here’s something also worth noting about the Portes du Soleil circuit- it is exhausting.  Not because it’s technically difficult, mind- at no point do you need to do any expert runs, and most are fairly flat pistes cutting across mountainsides… but when it’s 3pm and you realize you still have a few hillsides to traverse before the chairlifts stop, and the runs are rather icy with inadequate snow cover, well let’s just say you stop noticing the scenery around you so much as concentrating on not falling.  And, of course, pondering just what sort of dinner you’ll have in between your plans for a long soak in the tub and sleeping like the dead.IMG_1596

All told, though, it was a very epic journey that I’m glad I did, involving 2 gondolas, 12 chairlifts, three t-bar lifts, and two short little bus transfers to get from one side of a picturesque village to the other (and Alpine Replay tells me was 19.4 miles and 18.9k vertical feet of skiing).  Just what you’d expect from something as crazy as skiing to another country for the day!

That time I saw a Protester Climb the Eiffel Tower Lattice

Now picture this: it is a weekend trip to Paris (because if Paris was only three hours on the train from where you live you’d keep feeling like you ought to go more often too), and the weather is rather sunny for November so it seems an excellent idea to cycle past the Eiffel Tower.  Like many others I am a fan- it’s essentially a structure that serves no purpose other than to show what cool things people can build, and I get to practice my memory of French mathematicians/scientists by looking at the names on it, so what’s not to like?  Seems like a good day to take in the view, so I join the tourist queues to tackle the steps.IMG_1420

IMG_1421

I last tackled the steps by the way in 1998 on a family vacation when I was 12 years old, and I distinctly recall thinking of the entire endeavor as something akin to a death march… meaning I was rather surprised to bound up the steps in half the estimated time, passing many a tourist group along the way.  I then remember that I was a bit of a wimp at age 12, and take solace in how I’ve left behind a large fraction of that in the intervening years…

Anyway, touristy moments done it was time to find lunch, when I took one last glance up and noticed a fellow on the outer scaffolding on the Eiffel Tower.  He was pretty high up on one of the legs and I confess at first I thought he was a cleaner (I’d just admired a postcard of a precariously perched one) until I realized wait, this was not normal, not normal at all…IMG_1427

IMG_1426

He was a protester of some sort, who had somehow managed to climb up on the leg and up on the framework quite a ways, and was now busily trying to tie a banner onto the iron struts. (He was not, however, thinking far enough ahead to make the banner or lettering big enough to be seen from the ground, so he gets an A for effort but F in execution for getting his message out.) I and the two other tourists were in fact getting really nervous watching him move around so high up with nothing to secure him whatsoever, and we realized this was kind of weird that no one in a position of authority was paying any attention.

I looked around, and saw three French police officers busily chatting with each other not fifty feet away.  This seemed odd in itself so I went over to say excuse me, but don’t they see the man up there…?  The annoyed looks at my interruption turned to a look of horror as they saw where my finger was pointing, and minor pandemonium broke out as they ran off to their positions shouting into their walkie-talkies.  Ah, the French!

Now that my civic duty was done I had no real interest in watching a man accidentally fall to his death should it happen, and more importantly I was pretty hungry, so I went off to a corner cafe nearby.  Ended up having a rather nice chat with my cafe neighbors as the police, fire, and medic cars kept turning the corner where we were sitting while heading towards the tower- it turned out they were American expatriates who lived in the neighborhood.

“Does this happen often?” I asked, as they were only mildly interested in the uproar.

“Oh yes!” the woman told me.  “It’s an internationally recognized monument, of course, so I’d say the Eiffel Tower has something like this happen every few weeks.  They shut it down a few times a year for bomb threats too, of course.”

Some onion soup, foie gras, and wine later I headed back to the Eiffel Tower where the fire department was packing up, and they told me they got the protester down without incident.  Paris, as she has for centuries when the politics of her people unfold, shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

Chamonix Skiing

When people ask me why I love living in Amsterdam I always tell them truthfully that it’s because I could do anything I can imagine wanting to do here… except for alpine skiing.  So to remedy this situation somewhat, I took a long weekend to go skiing in Chamonix, France, which turned out to be a most excellent idea-
Continue reading

2011: A Year in Review

When I think back on 2011 it will undoubtedly go down as the year where I did more in 12 months than most people do in a lifetime.  If I didn’t personally already defend a thesis, become a published author, move to a different country, and explore 20 countries on 4 continents along the way I would accuse myself of lying because I’m tired just thinking about it.  But I apparently did because I lived through all of it! Continue reading

At A France vs USA Soccer Match

Now let me ask you this- can you think of a better way to celebrate 11/11/11, ie Armistice Day, then going to a France- USA soccer match?  Me neither! Continue reading

Sampling French Food in Paris

I read a book once in which the main character had a French mother who would cook up a storm whenever she and her husband visited.  The girl would always say about all the meats and cremes and everything “mother, you’ll be the death of us,” to which the mother retorted “can you imagine a better way to die?”  Indeed.

It’s hard not to love France because good food is everywhere, even in a tiny convenience store.  See this sheep cheese?  I bought it in a tiny convenience store that had a better selection than a gourmet shop in the USA would for cheaper than it would be here!  It’s just so much easier to eat well in Europe honestly… and yep before anyone asks, the cheese was delicious.

But of course the food only gets better from there.  For starters, who can resist a crepe in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?  Banana and chocolate in my case, cooked while I waited so there was the additional benefit of a piping hot snack on a cold day.

Another great street food on a cold day- this is one of many, many roasted chestnut vendors in Paris.  It is a great sadness that the concept of roasted chestnuts is nonexistent in the USA because they are absolutely delicious so whenever I see a seller abroad I can’t resist buying some, served straight from the fire in a sheaf of old rolled newspaper.

Ok, off the street and into the cafes!  Things get interesting because as a traveler you should always go into places that only have menus written in the local language, and even if my name implies I should I don’t speak French.  The thing is by this point I can read it and all the other romance languages pretty well due to a combination of a year of French in 6th grade, several more later of Latin, and the simple fact that we know most international foods by their names anyway.  So when a waiter slaps down the daily specials board next to you clearly expecting you to know what the hell is going on you pick one that sounds like you have a chance of knowing what you’ll get because whoever heard of bad food in a French cafe anyway?

The above result is what happened when I saw the word “pesto” and figured I should go for it- the pasta was tossed with pine nuts, prosciutto ham, and cheese that melted as you ate it.  Tres bien!

A side note by the way- see the Kindle on the left?  I got one for Christmas this year and brought it to Europe with me to see how it would fare while traveling, and in short I recommend it because in addition to the weight factor you get free wifi everywhere!  So it was great for quick email checks during the day and looking up details plus had the additional factor that every French waiter got really excited and struck up a conversation as I guess they’re not sold there yet.  It probably won’t last long, but even the most huffy waiter seemed to melt at the prospect of inspecting new technology.

Lots more delicious meals along the way but I’ll just stick ahead towards the last night where I treated myself to a beefsteak, aka steak tartare.  It’s definitely one of those foods that you either love or are horrified by- raw beef?!- but I honestly don’t see how people can embrace sushi and not this stuff.  Plus trust me, it’s delicious!

So what we have here is a “before” and “after” picture of the tartare I got in a swanky Parisian cafe-bar because there’s definitely a do it yourself quality to the meal. (Yep, they just crack an egg on top of the raw meat and give you various things like onions and spices to mix in.) The strangest thing to me was how this giant plate arrived without the traditional toast or in fact any other starch product to spread the meat on, as whoever heard of just eating this stuff by itself?  That might make you sick actually… Anyway I made my complaints to the waiter known, and after being a little confused he brought out a few slices for me.  Sooooo good…Last but not least, the chocolate mousse.  I’m not sure why but I’m not much of a dessert person- I guess my sweet tooth just isn’t terribly developed- but one huge exception to this rule is chocolate mousse.  How can you resist?  Particularly when you still have some French red wine left and happen to know that chocolate and red wine are superb together?

Now with that you’ll have to excuse me, as reliving all these delicious meals has made me extremely hungry.  Time for dinner!

Versailles Palace and Gardens

Continuing my Spring Break in France series of posts…

There’s something to be said for being a French monarch.  Sure you’re the last one holding the debt your head gets chopped off, but on the bright side you get to live here!

I came out to Versailles on the train from Paris that swiftly takes you out of the city and deposits you a five minute walk away from the palace, which is just enough space for touts to warn you that you should sign up for their tours to avoid the lines.  They do this all over Europe at the main sites (such as the Vatican Museum) but I knew from my prior European romps to not pay attention in March- I’m sure it’s terrible in summertime, but how many people do you see around me in this picture?  That’s right, enough to sort out tickets and the audio guides in five minutes!

The thing about Versailles is it has played such a huge role in the history of the world that it’s hard to say something incredibly unique.  After all, it’s big.  It’s ostentatious.  It’s a place filled with so many details both in decor and history that you get overwhelmed trying to take it all in.

Take this room, the famous Hall of Mirrors, which was originally a ballroom but then took on a scattering of functions such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  Not only are we talking about a room literally fit for kings, we’re talking about the one where World War II and the fate of the world was set in motion!

The view from the second floor of the king’s private chapel, which only he and his family would use.  If you were lucky and a favored courtier you might be permitted to hide up here on a second floor side balcony.

What I really liked about this chapel was a picture of a photo exhibit currently going on at Versailles which was showing important moments since the palace has been a museum. (Which, it’s curious to think, it has been much longer than it was ever a palace.) This picture took place towards the end of World War II and showed American G.I. soldiers who had liberated the palace.  What I loved about it so much was the expressions on their faces that was a mixture of amazement and awe, as the bunch of boys off the farm clearly hadn’t even considered that there might be places in the world such as this.  But there are, and the amazement of the modern age is we are all allowed to see them.  As long as you have about 20 Euro that is.

Now I may get carried away by history sometimes, but forgive me as it’s kind of hard.  For example, can you imagine the absolute horror of Marie-Antoinette if someone had told her that in the future thousands of commoners would be filing into her royal bedchamber and it would be exposed for all the world to see?  And about half of them would have nothing more interesting to say then “hey Annette, look at that fancy wallpaper!  Doesn’t it look like that stuff your great and Gertrude wanted to hang in her second bathroom?” The horror!

Plus really now, the wallpaper isn’t the most interesting thing in this room anyway.  You know what is?  It’s that little door in the lower left of the jewel cabinet that looks completely hidden when closed: Marie-Antoinette escaped from the Parisian mob calling for her blood through the secret passageway it connects to during the French Revolution of 1789.

It took a few hours to get through everything in the palace, but I headed out afterwards into the garden to explore a little.  The grounds of Versailles are huge- it would take more than one hour to walk from one side to the other easily- and they’re also free so the locals make good use of what is essentially a giant park as well.  Makes me wish I had the former grounds of a palace to go biking and jogging in!

Also, it should be noted that the trivia fact of the day is the reason aristocracy trimmed their bushes so precisely like in the picture above is because it was supposed to symbolize their triumph over nature.  Something to think about next time you trim the hedgerow!  No word on how that triumph over nature thing worked out when it came to the physics of sharp slicing blades though.

There’s a fair bit of the grounds itself to see- I ended up doing a bit of geocaching as it was a perfect for it- but the best thing about the grounds of Versailles this time of year were the snowdrops.  Thousands upon thousands of snowdrops blanketing the ground and covering everything in sight.  I was in love, and can’t imagine the forests are half as pretty in summertime!

After that, footsore but happy about how the day was turning out, I headed back to the station for the ride back to Paris.  Feeling plenty hungry too, and sat down for a dinner which I’ll detail later!