Friday, March 16, 2012

Spring is in the air!

We're having wonderful spring weather!  The sun is shining, the birds are singing and our small garden in the front is full of bees.  I was a bit more prepared this time by planting the bulbs in November (last year I've only planted in March after clearing the jungle that we've inherited!).  And it is good for the soul to look through the kitchen window watching the colourful display of flowers.
Yesterday I could brave the outdoors with a shirt.  And washed my very dirty car, after months of winter when one does not dare to get wet in the cold outdoors and with snow and ice changing the car from white to brown/black.  Just using the hosepipe didn't even make a dent in the dirt.  After washing the car twice, it is shining as new.
And today I'm wearing a t-shirt.  The freedom to wear a t-shirt instead of layers of clothes only a child of Africa now living in Europe can describe!  But now it is back to business - spring cleaning the house...

Strasbourg - the European capital

But if you do not like to visit cities, please do not let the word 'capital' make you not visit Strasbourg.  It is a beautiful place and the town centre, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, can be easily covered by foot. 
What makes Strasbourg even more beautiful, is its location along the left bank of the Rhine River, with attributes channeled through the city to the Rhine.
The choice of Strasbourg as European capital following WWII was made as a symbol of reconciliation between people and of the future of Europe.  Being on the border of France and Germany and being part of France, then part of Germany, then part of France, briefly again part of Germany during WWII and then part of France it sure is a mix of both cultures.
It houses the European Parliament, the European Court for Human Rights and the Council of Europe.  New York, Geneva and Strasbourg are the only cities in the world which are home to international institutions without being national capitals.
Strasbourg is famous for its Christmas market.  Unfortunately I haven't yet had the opportunity to visit Strasbourg during Noël.  But due to its fame, you can buy beautiful Christmas decorations at a dedicated shop throughout the year.
Perhaps less known to some people is the fact that the national hymn of France, the Marseillaise, originated in Strasbourg.  France was disrupted during the Revolution, the Bastille falling on 14 July 1789.  Peace didn't last long, as in 1792 France entered into war against Prussia and Austria (the European royalties very concerned that the movement in France can threaten their future). On 26 April, on demand of the mayor of Strasbourg, un chant pour l'armée du Rhin (a song for the Rhine army) was composed, that became the Marseillaise and also a symbol of the French Revolution.  A warrior song, one can understand that it is sang with so much passion along the rugby fields and other matches.  I am convinced that no other country sings their national hymn with so much passion and as encouragement during international sport matches!
One thing that will strike you visiting Strasbourg is the windows.  The roofs are comprising various windows and I am always amazed at that.
A famous landmark in Strasbourg is its cathedral.  Building commenced in 1015 and its tower (142 m high) was completed in 1439.  It is a feast of gothic art and its windows dates from the 12th & 14th-c.  You have to visit the astronomic clock inside the cathedral, with its mechanics dating from 1842.  Every day at 12h30 you can watch this masterpiece in action.  It displays the position of the sun and moon, solar and lunar eclipses, but the main attraction is the procession of the figures of Christ and the apostles, with the cock crowing three times (but he sounds a bit like having a flu, so might give you a good laugh).
The most beautiful quartier in the old town is La Petite France, an area along the river, with its colourful timberframed houses dating from the 16th and 17th-c, once inhabited by fishers, millers and tanners.  You'll still see the openings in the roofs of some buildings, to dry the hides (see the photo below).
The building on the left is a restaurant where we had a wonderful dinner
Another 'not to miss' is a boat cruise on the river and canal.
Below: the market square from where the boat cruise departs
It is an one hour cruise and takes you all the way to the European Parliament, which is a bit of a walk from the old town centre. 
Arte, a TV channel shared by France and Germany, has its studio closeby.  We love to watch movies on Arte, as they tend to broadcast interesting historical and cultural movies.  And I found it amusing that they have a giraffe in front of the building, having a bit of Africa in a French/German environment!
Alsace is a region, like many others in France, known for their regional cuisine.  One of their specialities are choucroute (sauerkraut), with cabbage growing in abundance in the region.  The grated cabbage is pickled in barrels and was once the only vegetable available in winter.
France is perhaps less known for producing beer than its neighbouring countries Belgium and Germany.  But they produce their fair share in Ardenne and Alsace, more than half of all beer consumed in France is produced in Alsace! The Alsatian brewers formed their guild already way back in 1268.  There are a few that you can visit if in the area, but in that case you'll have to spend more than a day in Strasbourg!
Other famous Alsacion food/snacks are the bretzel (pretzel), already an emblem of bakers in the 14th-c, knack - a sausage that you'll often find accompanying sauerkraut dishes and that owes its name to the sound that it makes when you bite it.
A very good dish, and you'll see the pottery dishes in which it is prepared in numerous pottery shops in Strasbourg and other Alsacian villages, is baeckeoffe (but be hungry when you order it in the restaurant!!).  It is a potato dished simmered in Alsatian white wine and includes pork, beef and lamb.  The farm workers used to prepare it before going to the field, letting it cook slowly, and by the time they arrive hungry at home, they had a delicious, filling meal waiting for them!
Flammekueche is another item you'll find on many menus, some restaurants are in fact only serving flammekueche.  It looks a bit like a pizza, being a thin (very thin) pastry covered with cream, onions and bacon.
One tend to think foie gras originated in the south west of France.  However, pâté de foie gras (goose liver pâté) was invented by a Strasbourg cook in ca 1780.  And when you become more familiar with French cuisine, you'll have to answer the question 'Which to you prefer, goose or duck liver? (oie or canard)
Kougelhopf is a cake, made from brioche dough which I love, that is baked in a tin that has a unique shape (like a ring tin, but higher and almost a spiral shape on the sides).
Each region in France has its particular wine that it is famous for. Alsace is no exception.  If you like white wines like gewurstraminer, muscat, pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling - this is your region.  They also have a lovely pinot noir, although I think I prefer Bourgogne's pinot noir.

Other things in the region you should consider to include in a visit is the Northern Vosges Regional Nature Park, listed as a World Biosphere Reserve.  JL and I took a drive through the Vosges on our way back two years ago. One needs time, but it is well worth doing if you have a car.  It is beautiful to drive through the forests and then find a small village in a valley.  You can also follow their wine route, visiting the many winefarms in the region.  Or take a cruise up the Rhine river (which is still on my to do list, but looking at the beautiful pictures on the brochure I took two years ago, I really need to make a plan to do that sooner rather than later!). Colourful Alsace definitely merits a visit!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My first 'interview' in France

Thanks to my previous boss' recommendation to a new European investment fund (thanks Rian!) I had to send my CV through, then I was asked to compile a list of projects that I've worked on and finally I got the invite for a meeting with him and others in Paris the past Friday.  I had no idea who will be in the meeting, but I had an idea that it will be more a 'get to know each other', ask me more questions and tell me a bit more about the fund.  Fortunately I had a week to prepare, even though I have already studied the brochure of the fund, googled the people mentioned in the brochure (shocking how much info you'll find on the net!), read as much as I could on agroforestry, carbon credits, REDD+, bioenergy and who knows what. I even went as far as looking at the map of Africa again to ensure that I am up to date with the latest names and borders.  JL's daughter was called in the previous weekend while visiting us to have a look at my cupboard.  Working in Paris, she behaves like a true Parisian.  Needless to say, my cupboard didn't pass the test....
On Monday I've decided to sort the outfit out sooner rather than later, that I can focus on all my reading.  The benefit is that after living in France for two years, I know by now that if you have a Woolies fit (like me), Caroll is your answer (at the beginning all the names meant nothing to me, except that some were famous).  To my dismay it was the start of the ski holidays for our region - so the Caroll shop was closed (what a pity, I had a 10% discount voucher to use at Caroll shops).  Lafayette had to do, as they also stock Caroll.
Fortunately, as the sales lady managed to dig out a black coat from the sales box that was due to be send away later that day - in my number!  The suit (a grey skirt and jacket and a cream top with it) was the only one in my number.  On her advice I bought all, sure I can bring it back (except the jacket that was on sale) if hubby doesn't like it or faints himself into another sphere as a result of the huge damage to the credit card. My Lafayette discount wasn't accepted, Caroll is a point rouge, a designer desk not valid for the Lafayette discount voucher I was counting upon as the Caroll one is not working in Lafayette.
On Monday night sure hubby wanted to faint when he heard how much the damage is to the credit card, but once I've paraded he was happy. But he didn't like my boots with the outfit.  Nor did he like my answer that other shoes will mean more damage to the credit card as it is the only option I have.
That evening in the bed I've remembered there's a Caroll shop close to the hypermarket where I do our monthly shopping.  On Tuesday, off I went to Caroll.  And purchased black pants and jacket and the same top, getting my 10% discount.  Then the parade again on Tuesday night, proud of getting 10% discount, but JL prefered the Monday night's selection.  On Wednesday I was fed-up, I had to focus on preparing for the interview and do not have time to drive up and down for an outfit.  I've decided I'm going to stick to the black suit, even though it is not JL's choice. And even though it will mean that I have to shorten the pants. On Wednesday night when I've asked him to pin the pants for me he was complaining so much about the black suit, that I've agreed I'll take it back and see if I can still get 10% discount if I exchange it for the same suit than Lafayette's. (Considering the time to shorten the pants will be about the time to drive up and down)  Fortunately I could exchange it, still get my 10% discount, then it was to return the other suit to Lafayette. All that effort for one outfit for one interview!!
On Friday morning JL and I managed to get a seat in the same voiture (wagon) of the TGV (the high speed train) to Paris, despite our tickets indicating different wagons.  I was weaponed with his cellphone, as I am still enjoying my cellphone free life in France.  The guy warned me it is difficult to find the building, so I need to phone him when arriving at the closest metro station. 
When we left the train I've seen a fold-up bicycle under the bagage seat. I didn't even know one get fold-up bikes! So I was happy when I saw the owner that evening on our return pushing the bike with its funny looking 40cm diameter wheels!
The interview went fine.  There were an English man and two French men.  The French were very happy to hear that I'm married to a French :). I could leave with the answer that my name will be passed on to the CEO of the company who will create the position (a bit complicated to explain here, it will be too long winded).  It might be during the summer, it might be later.  Nous verrons! (we'll see)
By then it was close to lunch time, so I went to have lunch with JL and my dear friend Sophie.  Sophie is very French, elegant, classy and she has a heart of gold.  At the end of the lunch, she has decided to spend the afternoon with me and go shopping with me (possible for her as she is the boss).  Knowing her, we've made her promise that she will not buy me anything, she is not allowed to. Alas, off we went, her being determined to introduce me to some Parisian secrets.  And what marvelous secrets! I cannot even give the detail on this blog, one need to keep this information away from tourists otherwise they'll flock there.  It is an area where you can find designer clothes at 20% or less of the price that you'll have to pay in the shops.  And Sophie, who loves buying clothes, has befriended some of these shop owners.  And I got introduced to them. 
The one shop is the best shop I've ever seen in France.  Colour, colour and colour.  And classy cuts.  You actually want to buy everything you see in this shop.  I was telling the guy I am so happy to discover them, as the black that everyone wears are so dull.  And his answer to me when I told him to just look at me in my sad state, was 'Comme une parisienne!'. Now, normally I would have been happy if someone accepted me as 'being integrated' into France - but not if that means looking as sad as the rest!
The catch of these beautiful clothes is....there are not price tags on any of the items...  Knowing our credit card already took a serious knock with my interview outfit, I've insisted I'll come back before my next interview, I'm not there to buy.  But Sophie could not get rest for her soul.  Eventually I've said I'll fit the one suit.  To hear that one is not allowed to fit in the shop, you buy it as is.  But as I'm a friend of Sophie, I was granted the privilege to fit the suit in their little 2x1 m store room/coffee making room with a door that cann't even close.  I didn't complaint, grateful for this privilege.  I cannot buy clothes without knowing how it fits.  And sure, you see the true benefits of the true designers.  It is cut so well, you really look as if you've just shed a few kg!  I loved it.  Then the fight started, as Sophie wanted to pay.  Eventually she agreed to phone JL to ask his permission, as I was threatening her that he'll be angry with me. So out she went.  By then I was willing to forget about more damage to the credit card, rather me paying than Sophie paying.  But the lady refused to accept my credit card. Sophie is her friend and she cannot do it to Sophie.  Eventually Sophie returned and swiped her credit card and I became the proud owner of a beautiful colourful classy designer suit.  After spending more time searching some items for Sophie, we've returned to the office. 
As I'm not used to wearing stockings anymore, my feet were so sore, they felt raw.  There were still some time before our return train, I've decided to go to Galerie Lafayette.  After seeing the shop of Sophie's friends, Lafayette was a dull experience.  And the inside was changed since I've last been there. The luxury is so overwhelming, one just cannot accept that people can spend so much money!  But I have to add, you'll hear Russian and see Asian faces. These are the people having the money to spend.  I couldn't help smiling when a group of French tourists stopped in shock at a dress of €1 040 (and it was nothing to write home about) - and that was less than the jacket of only €1 200 I've seen.  Tired, I've decided to follow the same strategy of me and my mom years ago in Harrods, London - to buy a tea in the tearoom (at twice the price you'll normally pay for a tea) in lack of being able to buy anything else.  Pierre Hermé nowadays has a stand in Lafayette.  For the uninformed, he is a very famous patisserie chef and makes the best macarons you'll find.  Don't even listen to what other people tell you. I, and a number of other people I know, are convinced that he produced the best macarons you can find.  If you'll only have one opportunity in Paris to buy macarons, then let it be from Pierre Hermé!! I've decided to buy some for us for the weekend and some to thank Sophie. The poor sales lady was helping me, then calling to the crowd of tourists surrounding the stand 'no photo's please', help me, calling again 'no photo's please' and so it went one until I finally got my macarons.
The macarons we've finished that evening after dinner. And as you might have guessed, I was out of action for the rest of the weekend following such a busy, stressful week!