Georgia on our minds

Monday night when we got home, I sat down and wrote out the day’s itinerary. I keep staring at it and wondering how these times can possibly be accurate and correct. On the left is Paris time; on the right is Georgia time:

04:00 on August 3 / 22:00 on August 2: Buses roll out from Cité Universitaire after a brisk hour spent collecting room keys, banging on the doors of some really sound sleepers, and in one case seeing a student just returning to his dorm room from the night out, 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave.

06:20 / 00:20: Flight leaves CDG for Frankfurt with all students and faculty on board, even that guy. We enjoy a Nutella-filled croissant and some coffee and try not to think about leaving Paris behind.

10:00 / 04:00: Flight leaves Frankfurt for ATL. Settle in for some sleep, watching lots of movies, or a combination of both. Daniel and I slept through our turn for the lunch service and had to ask for food after we woke up. Props to Lufthansa as always for very efficient and thorough service; God bless the flight attendant who was constantly circulating with cups of water and juice during the second half of the flight.

20:00 / 14:00: Arrive in ATL. Selected for a “random survey” by a customs officer to verify that we were not carrying any agricultural products. Fully a day later I’d realize we brought home 2 pounds of coffee that I forgot to declare on the form or mention to the officer. He did not see them in my suitcase, so I didn’t have to be hauled off to immigration jail or anything.

We got to our house around 6 p.m. (midnight Paris time, but by then, who’s counting?) and I managed to stay up till 8:30 and sleep till about 6 the next morning. My sleep cycle is not too messed up (I’ve been treating it with large quantities of espresso) but I can tell I’m jet-lagged because the mornings seem dark and the days seem long. That will pass and at least I don’t feel as tired and foggy as I sometimes have after an overseas trip.

But I do miss Paris an awful lot.

Chow Italia, Part 2

It was late by the time we returned from Alberobello on Friday night, so Saturday we blew off a trip to the beach (probably a bad decision, in retrospect) in favor of relaxing, watching Italian TV (i.e. American TV dubbed in Italian, plus some baffling infomercials), and spending time with Karine and Antonio’s kittens. In Italian, “kittens” is “gattini.” Easy to remember because kittens are teeny!
This is Maurice Ravel.

This is Coco Chanel.
(also pictured: the nifty tile floors in the apartment)
In the afternoon I went with Karine to buy cheese and vegetables at some of the small shops in Corato. The whole weekend was a linguistic and cultural adventure and this may have been the highlight. The man who runs the cheese shop loves Karine so he dished out some fresh mozzarella knots for us to try as soon as we came in the door. Then he chatted with her while taking her order even though there was a line and some people were griping at him to hurry it along. Karine says she is not always accepted everywhere in Corato but obviously she is well beloved at the cheese shop and at the fruit-and-vegetable shop where she got guidance about her lemon trees. It was fun just to tag along even though I couldn’t understand everything or contribute much. Karine would just point at me and say “Famiglia!”
That night after serving as Antonio’s roadies (broken elevator, music gear up 6 flights of stairs: let’s try to forget that this ever happened) we went and got takeout pizza from a place called Pizza Teatro. It was jam-packed and boiling hot with a disorderly queue and one beleaguered waiter rushing back and forth with pizzas for the people eating at the tables outside the restaurant. Naturally, the pizza was delicious. I had a “Caprese” which was black olives, fresh tomatoes, and onion on a thin crust cooked in a brick oven. Worth the wait and the strange drama of ordering and paying there. Afterward I told Karine that it’s called Pizza Teatro because they could film a reality show in the restaurant.
It was very interesting being a native English speaker/second-language French speaker on this trip. Daniel and Karine have French as their first language and English as their second. Antonio is a native Italian speaker (of course) with English as his second language and no French. And Karine has learned to speak Italian incredibly well in only a year and a half. So when Daniel, Karine, and I or just Karine and I were together we would speak French because she doesn’t get to speak French very often. When the 4 of us were together we would speak English, and I would be the only one without (to my own ears) a melodious accent. But I learned a few words in Italian, such as “Molto bene!” which means “Very good.” Lots of things in Italy are molto bene.
Yesterday morning we went to the Adriatic coast for a photo op before heading to the airport. It was very crowded but so pretty!

Cousin love!

Look, I was there!
Soon it was time to take our flight back and our Italian adventure was over. Karine says we need to come for 2 weeks next time so we can travel around. Good idea or GREAT idea? In any case I am so grateful for the warm welcome we received there and the fun and relaxing time we had. Hooray, Italy! 

Chow Italia, Part 1

Daniel and I are back in Paris after a fantastic weekend in Italy with his cousin Karine and her boyfriend Antonio. It was terribly hot the whole time we were there, and neither of us speaks any Italian, and we flew Ryanair, and the whole thing could have been disaster, but instead we had a great time. Karine and Antonio are excellent hosts! Let’s click through, shall we?
Thursday afternoon we took the Paris Beauvais Airport shuttle from Porte Maillot to the Beauvais airport. It calls itself “Paris Beauvais” but is actually an hour and fifteen minutes away. On that logic I am going to start calling our house Paris Lizella. However, the shuttle is pretty convenient and quite cheap: 32€ per person round-trip if you book online, which is less expensive than the Groome shuttle and it’s a much nicer bus! Ryanair was a better experience than I expected as well. They do charge for EVERYTHING (drinks, snacks, newspapers, checked bags, printing your boarding pass) but the flights ran right on time and the planes seemed decently maintained (albeit not pristinely tidy because their turnaround times are very short). I would definitely do Ryanair or another low-cost carrier again if I travel within Europe for a weekend. As long as you travel light it’s an excellent deal.

We landed in Bari, which is about 35 minutes from Corato, the city where Karine and Antonio live, and they picked us up at the airport. Let me just say right now that everything you have heard about Italian driving is true. Antonio is an excellent “Italian style” driver; I am both terrified by and jealous of his skills. He says he does not drive fast compared to his fellow citizens, which is probably true. “What if I had an Audi?” he speculated.

After a stop at their apartment to drop off bags and freshen up, we headed out to dinner and that’s when the real fun began. They are regulars at a local restaurant called Le Stagioni di Puglia that does typical cuisine from the Puglia region (which grows a lot of olives and other vegetables as as making some unbeatable cheeses). First we got a crash course in Italian dining, which goes like this:
1. Start late. 8:30 is about the earliest you can eat dinner.
2. Antipasti: small dishes of preserved meats, cheese, or cooked vegetables
3. Primi: pasta
4. Secondi: meat or fish dishes
5. Dessert
6. Depart restaurant in a wheelbarrow, probably.
We gave Aldo, the owner, free rein to choose antipasti for us, and they just did not stop coming. Moreover, everything Francesco, the waiter, brought out was delicious: ham, salami, pecorino, parmesan, stuffed mushrooms, grilled zucchini, bruschetta, fresh olives, cooked zucchini leaves (who knew?), grilled string beans . . . It was all so good but we were expecting 2-3 more courses. Finally we had to ask them to stop bringing out antipasti!

This was AFTER we’d already eaten so much we thought we might die.
We had pasta (I had orecchietti with I forget what but it was yummy), canceled our secondi, and went straight to dessert. Karine was not feeling well but she did perk up after a chocolate mousse. I tried limoncello for the first time. It was good but I’m not sure I will order it again. Liqueurs are just not my thing, maybe. Meanwhile I’m still wondering if we should have canceled our pastas as well and just eaten antipasti all night. 
After traveling and a late dinner we simply did not get a jump on the day Friday but sat on the terrace at the apartment most of the morning:
Views from the 6th floor!

Corner apartment = Lots of skyline

At right, one of Karine’s lemon trees. 
Karine & Antonio’s apartment is big and very pretty; the only drawback is that it’s on the 6th floor and the elevator is not 100% reliable (as we learned!). We did eventually get dressed and venture out for lunch at a small café called Cofy Cloud (panini: average, gelato pops: A++++). 
Daniel wanted to rest but Karine and I decided to take the train to visit Alberobello, Alberobello is known for its domed houses called trulli, for which it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train journey was a little grueling and we thought we would not have much time to visit before needing to catch the train back. But Karine had the excellent idea to call Antonio and invite him to come out with Daniel in the car and meet us for dinner. So we had time to take quite a few pictures, taste some locally made liqueurs, and sit down for a beer before the gentlemen arrived. Here are some of my pics. I’m so glad we went to Alberobello. I might never have known there was such a place and it is unique and beautiful.

Antonio and Karine

. . . and Daniel

Looking down on the beer festival in Alberobello just before we left
We ate another huge meal Friday night: I had bruschetta and orecchietti (again) plus part of a grilled cheese entrée that Antonio ordered. It was literally a thick slice of a gouda-like cheese, cooked on a grill. Unbelievably delicious and I want to try making something similar at home. By the time dinner was over we had to go straight back to Corato as Antonio, who is a musician, had a gig the next day. Did I fall asleep on the autostrada? I’ll never tell . . . 
Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the Italy Report, featuring KITTENS!

Epic Loire Valley Sightseeing Weekend

This year, the EC Paris program and other European Council programs decided to add a “bonus” to each program in some form, both to take advantage of this year’s favorable exchange rates and to help attract students. The Paris program’s “bonus” was a weekend trip to the Loire Valley to see some of the famous châteaux. It was an excellent trip and I am writing this post in the autocar on the way back. It will be light on narrative but heavy on pictures, so get comfortable and click through…

We set out Friday morning from Paris in 2 autocars. Ours was piloted by our trusty driver Guy and we were led by our old friend Tour Guide Josh. We arrived at our first destination, Amboise, before lunch and had plenty of time to visit the castle and enjoy a good meal in town. I had not been to Amboise before. It is very impressive and definitely shows the military and strategic roots of chateau architecture.

Amboise castle from below

Tour Guide Josh gives the history of the castle

Exterior views 

For lunch, Daniel and I and Dr. Mann went to a charcuterie and got “ardoises” (slates) of mixed cheese, charcuterie, and cold salads. Everything was delicious! I can’t remember what the cheeses were called but one was a goat cheese that’s grey on the outside–we would see it again, twice, before the weekend was over. We had more than we could eat and yet we still managed to get ice cream afterward. How does that happen?

Getting lunch in Amboise

Our lunch!

The view from our table

From Amboise we continued into Tours, which would be our base for Friday and Saturday night. Because we are a large group (almost 100 people counting students, professors, bus drivers, and tour guides), we were split between 2 hotels. One hotel, St. Eloi, was closer to the center of Tours. Our hotel, La Terrasse, was outside of town but right on the tram line so we could easily go downtown. We had a very quick city tour from Josh including some cathedral ruins that are right in the town center. Standing in front of the two towers, which once made up the northwest and southeast corners of the transept, respectively, you suddenly have a new perspective on the size of a cathedral that comes from examining how many normal-sized houses and shops can fit into the space where the cathedral once was. It’s amazing.

This is the southeast corner tower

Looking northwest to the other tower

This is the basilica that replaced the ruined cathedral but not until the 1800s.
Close-up of the northwest tower which is called the Charlemagne tower
View from where we ate dinner–a medieval half-timbered house.

We had a very traditional French dinner that night at a restaurant called Le Bouchon Tourangeau that is right off the main square, Place Plumereau, in Tours. For my entree I had chevre chaud (there’s that goat cheese again) on a salad, followed by andouillette and frites, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. Let me explain about andouillette: it is delicious, but like a lot of delicious French food (especially cheese), it smells terrible. The most polite word I can find to describe the smell of andouillette is “Swiftian.”  Or maybe “earthy.” And yet it is sooooo tasty. Again: how does that happen?

Saturday morning we had breakfast at the hotel and got a leisurely 10 a.m. start for our winery tour and tasting in Vouvray. We toured the “cave” (in this case a literal cave though sometimes it just means a cellar!) where Vouvray wines are aged for at least a year before they are sold. It was a fascinating enviroment and interesting to learn about. Then we went on to taste 3 different Vouvray wines plus some local snacks (GOAT CHEESE). Tasting wine at 11:30 a.m. was a little unusual but fun! I bought a bottle of my favorite of the wines we tasted, a “petillant,” “demi-sec” Vouvray. In the wine world “petillant” means “half-fizzy” (all the way fizzy is “mousseux”) and “demi-sec” is semi-dry. I am excited to open it next time the professors get together to raise a glass.

Daniel & Dr. Mann with Guy
Students walking into the cave

Madeleine, our tour guide at the winery, in front of a rack of 15,000+ bottles.

Goat . . . (wait for it)

CHEESE!

The wines we tasted–the middle one is the one I bought.

From the winery we went on to Chenonceau, a short hop down the road. I had been to Chenonceau before but was more than happy to go again. It is so beautiful. I could probably have sat all day just looking at it!

Students listening to Josh’s introduction

I was there! (And using my worst posture, apparently.)

After lunch in Chenonceau we returned to Tours and had time to catch a nap before heading back downtown in Tours for dinner and some fun. We ate pizza (don’t worry; it was French: there was a fried egg on it) and walked down toward the riverfront where there is a little strip of bars and restaurants called La Guinguette. On the way, we stopped to ride the Ferris wheel that is in another square right next to the river. The views were breathtaking at sunset.

Down at the river Daniel managed to befriend some guys with guitars (OF COURSE HE DID) and they jammed around playing classic French music for a while as everyone relaxed and enjoyed the riverfront scene. But today was an earlier start–9 a.m. departure–so we did not stay out too late. Today we had a slightly packed agenda with a stop at Chambord for photos, followed by lunch in Chartres and a look at the cathedral, and then “home” to Paris. These were also the longest sections of the drive with a generous 90 minutes separating each stop, so we have been a bit rushed to get everything in. But it was worth the stop to see Chambord again (less worth it to pay 50 cents to use a porta-potty, merci beaucoup, domaine de Chambord):

And I am always thrilled to see Chartres again especially now that the restoration is really coming along. A large part of the nave is covered in scaffolding right now, but there is plenty left to see. And the restoration is extraordinary. The somber gloom that we associate with cathedrals is wonderful enough, but seeing the stone scrubbed white and the faux marble painted is thrilling. I can only wish we’d spent a bit less time eating cheeseburgers with our students and a bit more time in the cathedral. On the other hand, we are here for the students and lunch was good fun.

I love this plaque because it talks about students coming to Chartres on pilgrimages.

Notre Dame du Pilier

Left to right: completed restoration, non-restored, restoration in progress

The main altar: already fully restored

Arches & keystones above the main altar
Look, I was there too!

So now we are rolling back to Paris in our autocars and getting ready for next week. It’s going to be a mad scramble for the washing machines but a good weekend trip is always worth the laundry you have to do afterward.

Update at time of posting: Going straight to the laundry room from the autocar is the secret to success. À bientôt!

Paris HQ 2015

Daniel and I arrived at CDG (I have learned that the French call it “Roissy”) on Sunday morning, June 28, after a turbulent flight from Atlanta and some fun speaking German in the Frankfurt airport (Taschentücher = Kleenex). This year we were the advance team who came over early to set up the office and classrooms and make the last-minute arrangements before the students’ arrival on July 1. We hit the ground running but we also hit the ground sweating, arriving in time for France’s most severe heat wave in a dozen years. And I had to hit the ground speaking French, as we’d decided to be 100% Francophone once we arrived in Paris. For 3 days I spoke French almost exclusively; by the time the group arrived yesterday I actually felt a little strange speaking English. Not to say that my French is perfect but it’s easier when you’re surrounded by it. Immersion: it works!

This year is my third on the European Council Paris program and I am amazed by how my reactions to Paris have evolved. Last year I was surprised at how much I remembered from year one. This year, it feels a little like I never left. And people remember me, which is always a surprise. Mme. Gabrielle, who is the concierge at IPT (our classroom building), knew who I was, and even the front desk staff at Maison des Étudiants d’Asie du Sud-Est (where I stayed last year) remembered me. Probably because I went all Loud American in their lobby last year while checking students in. This year I am back in Maison des Provinces de France where I stayed in 2013. Daniel and I have a “Studio” room which has a double bed, a huge desk for the his-and-hers laptops, a kitchenette, and a decent-sized wardrobe. It is an improvement over the hotel room we used for our first 3 nights, which was as small as only a Parisian hotel room can be. On the other hand, the room was impeccably clean and the staff were very nice. In fact, we have dealt with so many friendly people on this trip so far. Perhaps the Parisians’ reputation for coldness owes something to Americans being intimidated.

We spent Monday and most of Tuesday preparing for the students’ arrival–interspersed with a few breaks on café terraces–and trying to beat jet lag while simultaneously learning to sleep through Paris street noise (I’m getting pretty good at it). On Wednesday, arrival day, we took the RER out to Roissy to meet the first group of students that landed at 10:45 a.m. Everyone stayed until the last group came in around 1:20; then, we loaded the buses and most of the students slept through the ride into Paris.

I almost did not get on the bus myself–a student lost an important item on her ATL-FRA flight and I went to the Lufthansa desk to pursue its retrieval. I was unsuccessful but I learned something: when you think someone might tell you “No,” but he also hasn’t really committed to saying “No” (“Eh ben, vous savez, c’est difficile parce que . . . Fin, peut-être si c’était . . . Mais ça c’est différent . . . Alors”), the trick is just to keep standing there till he decides to help you. (“Je peux téléphoner à quelqu’un.”) I got the definitive “Ce n’est pas possible” just in time to get on the bus, and today we managed to replace the lost item.

Today was also a pretty good day for passing as French, as I had to take a student to the doctor and then to the pharmacy, and we were asked twice for our Social Security cards. The doctor said I spoke French very well (which I always like to hear). Then I wanted to tell the pharmacist that her English was very good but I was afraid it would be patronizing. I guess I think everyone but Americans knows a second language (most likely English).

The week has gone by in a flash so far. We had orientation today (presentations followed by a quiz game with prizes and then a scavenger hunt), tomorrow is the first day of classes, and Saturday is our first field trip day. Once we get into the routine I hope to post more regularly. Meanwhile here is a photo of me with some of the students from MGA. Arrival day was also our first official day as Middle Georgia State University so I wanted a photo to commemorate:

Vive le Québec libre!

The Francophile is branching out. I returned this afternoon from spending Labor Day weekend in Wentworth-Nord, Québec at my beloved Daniel’s son’s lake house. Québec, of course, was originally part of New France and remains a bastion of francophonie. Some people think that English is invading the province and French is losing ground, and there are a range of opinions about whether Québec would be Québec without the French language as its cultural backbone. I’m a fière québecoise (if only by marriage) and an optimist: I do think French is extremely important to the province’s identity and I don’t think it will die out. Everyone has something to say about the value of French and it’s exciting to be in a place where people think critically about their language. Not to say that they are snobs–rather the opposite–but no one ever seems to say “Whatever!” about French the way we sometimes do on fine points of English usage. Saturday night we had a 30-minute conversation about the word la relève and whether an English equivalent exists (at length we decided on “successors”). That is this nerd’s idea of fun! When I go to Québec I am very glad to be a French speaker not only to be able to communicate but also because, even more so than in France, it’s a way of connecting with people. And of course that’s especially important when the people in question are your in-laws!

So Daniel and I flew from Atlanta to Montréal on Friday morning, then picked up our rental car and drove to Dany and Nadine’s chalet (“Chalet” sounds fancy but it is just a regular-but-great lake house) by way of St. Sauveur, a gorgeous little tourist town next to a ski area. I was a tiny bit disappointed not to spend any time in Montréal this time around but St. Sauveur and Wentworth-Nord are so pretty that I got over it quickly. Dany and Nadine have two girls, Marguerite (6) and Céleste (2 1/2). They live in Montréal but come to the chalet most weekends. We spent the weekend doing ordinary chalet things: sitting around the fire pit and talking, watching DVDs, taking pictures, entertaining the kids, swimming, NOT getting up early or hurrying to get lots of stuff done. It was a lot of fun, very relaxing, and also a great challenge for me: having to speak French the entire time. There were occasional moments of confusion: Marguerite said “Quoi?” almost every time I spoke to her and I don’t think it’s because she wasn’t paying attention. And I still have not figured out the real word for the landing/storage area above the basement steps. It sounds like concombre (“cucumber”), so that’s how I have remembered it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not technically correct to say that the broom hangs on a hook in the cucumber. It’s very good practice to speak French in a domestic (rather than professional or academic) situation–even if you find yourself getting corrections from a 6-year-old.

Photos after the jump! Click through . . .

La Crêperie Bretonne in St. Sauveur. We ate here with my parents almost 5 years ago. 
It’s still delicious!

Québec’s official motto on the license plate of our car.

It’s MILK in a BAG! (inside joke for my mother–
bagged milk is a Canada thing, not strictly Québecois)

At the chalet
Daniel relaxing in the back yard

Trying out the “vignette” setting on my camera

The church in St. Sauveur

Looking out from the church steps

A Cuban festival was in progress, so obviously we danced the mambo.

On the main street in St. Sauveur

Lake Wentworth

Lake Wentworth

Lake Wentworth

Sunday, August 3: Bonjour la Georgie

Morning came VERY early today. We had to meet at 02h45 to get on the buses that would take us to CDG airport. As it happened, I never went to sleep last night but stayed up finishing Travail Soigné. Didn’t plan it that way but it worked out all right. I had just enough residual energy/travel adrenaline to get me through loading the buses. Our students did great–everyone was on time with little or no last-minute pounding on doors required. The ride out to CDG went very quickly, partially because there was no traffic at that hour and partially because I fell sound asleep about 20 minutes in. We were so early that the Lufthansa desk wasn’t even open yet, but we all got checked in by about 05h00, got through security, and had time to spare for snack-buying and duty-free shopping (to the student who was getting perfume for his girlfriend: I hope you went with Hermès).

I think most of us slept through the CDG-FRA hop. I actually missed the snack service–chocolate croissants–but they were giving out the extras as we disembarked and that was most welcome. In Frankfurt we had to go through passport control, which was pretty quick, and then walk a long way to our gate. On the way I stopped to get some juice and a package of crackers and was very excited to be able to use some of the German that I am learning from Duolingo. I picked up a package of what I was pretty sure were crackers but the picture on the packaging also looked a bit like butter cookies. So at the register I held up the package and asked the clerk “Ist das suß oder salzig?” (Is this sweet or salty?) “Salzig,” he answered. “Das ist alles?” (Will this be all for you?) “Ja,” I had the presence of mind to answer. HOLY COW. I CAN SPEAK GERMAN.

As I write we are about 45 minutes from Atlanta. This flight has been long but I was so tired that I slept on and off through about the first half of it. In fact, I fell asleep while we were taxiing, woke up as we took off and realized that the sound of the plane taxiing had made my sleeping brain think I was on the metro! My only complaint about this flight is that it has been freezing cold the entire time. The baby sitting next to me (who has been an angel, by the way) has on footie pajamas and I am wishing for footie pajamas. Of course, after an hour in Georgia I’ll be wishing I were freezing cold again.

40 minutes to go. Then Baggage Claim and Customs (merde, where is my customs form?) and then hoooooooome!

Friday, August 1: Giverny & Val d’Oise

To round out the program we took the whole group to Giverny (Claude Monet’s home and garden) this morning and to Auvers-sur-Oise (village where Vincent Van Gogh is buried) in the afternoon. It was a beautiful day; Giverny was miraculously not-horribly-crowded; Auvers is lovely and seemed like a real change from the city despite being part of the Île de France region (i.e. part of “greater Paris,” sort of). As we drove into town I was entertaining myself by choosing the houses I’d like to live in. Unfortunately the one I liked best had an asking price over 500,000€ ! So I am not moving to Auvers-sur-Oise any time soon.

We did have an unexpected adventure when it was time to come home but even that turned out all right as I got to come back on train “H,” which I think is one of the suburban lines that Annabel mentioned a while back. It was a really snazzy train! Now I am taking a break from packing. I decided to start tonight so I could have more of tomorrow free. So far, so good. I’ve stopped worrying that my suitcase will weigh 100kg and there are no longer clothes all over my bed. Tomorrow will be strange as I will feel like the clock is ticking–because it will be! So let’s hold that at bay a while longer and look at some pictures instead. Fair warning: if you don’t like flowers, you should NOT click through . . .

Toward the entry to the Japanese garden at Giverny

The famous water lilies

Maybe the best pic I took all day?

I love this flower.

A mum that has not even begun to think about blooming

They claim that this fluffnugget is a chicken. I’m skeptical.

“I’m not just a rooster; I’m a rooster that lives at Monet’s house!”

Unfortunately you can’t take photos inside the house.

Notre Dame d’Auvers-sur-Oise. Originally built in the 12th century.

WWI memorial in the church

Vincent and his brother Theo Van Gogh’s grave

A statue of the other well-known painter from Auvers, Charles-François Daubigny

Main street in Auvers–
we had a cold drink under one of those red umbrellas and it was very pleasant!
Fair warning #2: Depending on how tomorrow goes, I may or may not have a chance to blog. Next entry may be datelined “Macon, Georgia.” Stay tuned! 

Saturday, July 26: 11 hours in Strasbourg

(written on the train back to Paris this morning)

Yesterday, events required that one of the assistant directors go to Strasbourg, and I was given the honor (or drew the short straw, depending on your point of view). By the time arrangements were arranged, it was evening and I took the TGV at 6:55 to arrive there at 9:17. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside. The TGV trains are fantastic and the barman only teased me a little for not knowing what a café viennois was (coffee with whipped cream, FYI). 

I was not on a sightseeing mission but tried to at least look around as I did what needed doing. It seems like a beautiful and very friendly city. There are medieval-style half-timbered buildings and narrow shopping arcades and of course the famous cathedral (which honestly looked creepy in the dark). Being there on short notice and with no preparation meant that I kept throwing myself on the mercy of hotel clerks, bus drivers, and in one case a pharmacist to help me get around. Everyone was very cheerful and helpful. I am sorry I was not there long enough to enjoy the city but it is definitely on my list for next year. 
When my work was done (finally), I checked into the Ibis next to the Gare Central and got a short but high-quality night’s sleep. The beds at Ibis are peculiar but magically comfortable, the place was quiet as a tomb, and the combination of air conditioning (probably superfluous, come to think of it) and a duvet knocked me out in seconds. 
It was hard to wake up and shower so I could get the train back to Paris but here I am riding in first class–not because I am fancy but because it was cheaper, oddly enough! 
Still hoping to go down to the Étoile this afternoon to see the Tour de France come in. 

French Trains For Noobs

Most of us from non-train-taking parts of the country are perplexed, at least at first, by the wealth of rail-based transit offerings in Paris and throughout France. Maybe we group them together under the broad heading of “The Train” (or even “The Métro”) and try to generalize about them on that basis. However, the generalizations will not be sound or helpful. Herewith, what I’ve learned about French trains so far. May it serve you well. (And may you correct me if I get things wrong.)

You should know that there are (approximately) 3 types of trains that will take you around and in and out of Paris. They are:

  • The Métro: The métro is what New Yorkers would know as the subway or Londoners would know as the Tube. It runs (mostly) underground within Paris, with trains running every few minutes from roughly 6 a.m. to midnight. It is run by the RATP, Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (Paris Public Transit Company, which also runs the buses and tramways within Paris). If you have a transit pass such as a Navigo you can use it on pretty much any métro train, bus, or tramway and also on the funicular that takes you up the Butte de Montmartre to Sacre-Coeur. 
  • The RER: The RER is a small train that runs within Paris and out to the Paris suburbs. The letters stand for Réseau Express Régionale, i.e. Regional Express Network. For certain destinations within Paris it is easier to take the RER than the métro. If you go outside the city center to a place like Euro Disney or Charles de Gaulle Airport, you will take the RER. It is run jointly by the RATP and the SNCF, Societé Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (French National Railway Company, which also runs the grands lignes). The RER, like the métro, runs from roughly 6 a.m. to midnight. Your Navigo will take you only so far on the RER, so be careful. If you are going to Charles de Gaulle, for example, you will have to pay extra because it’s a longer trip.
  • The grands lignes (“major lines”): Run by the SNCF, these are proper trains that will take you from the main train stations in Paris to other cities in France and beyond. For this type of train you have to buy a ticket and, in many cases, get a reserved seat. They leave from one of the seven main stations depending on the direction/region they serve. The hours are more limited because the journeys are longer. The SNCF runs several different types of trains, including the well-known TGV high-speed train. 
If you know the differences among trains you can figure out how to get where you need to go and how to pay for it. The métro and RER are very easy and fast once you learn to use them. The major lines are a great way to see some countryside en route to your destination.