22 March 2010

In which I eat too much, go to thermal baths, and watch Romeo & Juliet

Last night we finally had the dual birthday party for me and Thibault (Lupita's boyfriend who shares my birthday). After all the date changes, it was a very belated party, but very nice nonetheless. We squeezed 22 people into Thibault's parents' living room and ate for THREE AND A HALF HOURS straight, what with all the side dishes and salads people had brought, various cheese courses, quiches, charcuterie course (meat + meat), chocolate mousse, fruit salad #1, fruit salad #2, two birthday cakes, and then there were the beverages: spiked punch, limonade, corona, red wine and champagne (my head tells me this is not a combination for readers to try at home). After the massive meal, which had begun to walk a fine line between pleasure and a new torture method (like water boarding, just with food), we all played the French version of Cranium, which, as it turns out, is nearly impossible for foreigners to play, seeing as none of us grew up watching the same tv shows, and we have only a cursory knowledge of French music from the '70's (uh, Serge Gainsbourg, uh...). It was 3am before we made it back to the apartment and this morning I've enjoyed lazing about in my pajamas, reading Junot Diaz's awesome new short story in the New Yorker and watching Fado videos (I've recently become obsessed with Portugal, and I'm sad that I don't think I'll be able to travel there this time around). Here are two good ones so far:

 Mariza's Rosa Branca
The video itself is really lovely, and she's beautiful to watch...Here are the lyrics in English, though I'm sure it doesn't do the Portuguese justice:

From: http://lyricstranslate.com
White Rose:
With a rose at my breast on the dance floor
I danced with whoever was there
I danced so much
That the rose fell to pieces
Whoever has, whoever has
The gift of love
Picks the white rose
Puts it at their breast
Oh rose bush, little rose
Rose bush in my garden
If you love roses so much
Why don't you love me?
Whoever has, whoever has
The gift of love
Picks the white rose
Puts it at their breast

And this performance is incredible, though not for the faint of heart/ear:
Mariza Primavera

In other news this week, I got to go to a bain thermes (thermal bath) in Luxeil, which was fairly similar to the baths in Budapest, but with far fewer people (this was a Weds pm, though) and slightly newer facilities (the baths in Luxeil were built in the late 1800's, whereas the Rudas ones in Budapest were truly OLD). Here's a photo of the baths on the left; on the right, a photo of one of the many 19th century hotels built for the wealthy bourgeois crowds who came to take the waters, but are now falling into aesthetically pleasing disrepair (an interesting side note: the waters in Luxeil are supposedly renowned for curing "genital difficulties." VD? Fertility problems?? I don't know, but it made me feel kind of germophobic, I'll tell you that...).
The baths were very peaceful (and cold, unfortunately) with high ceilings above the jacuzzi, a hammam, and a heated pool with jets of all sorts grouped in different stations, allowing you to rotate to the foot station, the back station, etc. We all came away feeling decidedly more relaxed!
Also this week I got to accompany a group of kids to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet,  a special adaptation for three actors that was done by the European troupe Theatre en Anglais, who travel all over Europe performing English language works in English for school groups. I am normally pretty wary of watching Shakespeare's tragedies performed, since it seems really difficult not to overact those roles, but these three actors blew me away, they were incredible performers, and struck just the right tone for our high schoolers, keeping it light and funny in places, yet showing emotional depth. They highlighted R & J's youthful immaturity (and whining) balanced with the characters' enthusiasm--bravo!

12 March 2010

Birthday à l'étranger

Monday was my 23rd birthday, the first one I've spent away from family and chocolate cake.
All things considered, it passed quite pleasantly. It was very cold and windy, but sunny (which always helps). My classes went well. And I was touched by the messages and (e)cards you all sent!!
To celebrate, I made a reservation at a nice restaurant in Vesoul, le Caveau du puits (the cave of the wells? this would make sense since there is an old stone well near by). Pam, Kathrin, Elaine, Lupita and her boyfriend and I all got dressed up and braved the horrifically cold wind and cobblestones in heels. We were rewarded with a superb dinner in an old wine cave with fairy lights and slender branches hung over our heads from the arched ceiling. The food was simple and hearty: salmon with a creamy sauce, perfectly cooked steamed veggies and tiny roasted cherry tomatoes that we were all swooning over. We had some local wine, a pinot noir from the Franche-Comté region that was light and fruity and a bit bubbly like champagne. Much to my embarrassment my friends insisted on singing their countries' birthday songs in their various languages: English, French, German, and Spanish. The other diners were tolerant, then joined in, then grew pissy. At the end, someone from another table came over and offered my a glass of wine. I was pretty ready to crawl under the table by this point, but accepted graciously (I think).

Tuesday night there was a get together at another teacher's house for her 50th birthday. Kathrin and I set about making things to take for the potluck, battling with our Toaster Oven That Could, as always. Her quiche was tasty tasty and my artichoke dip wasn't bad (forgot the salt--oops!). A former teacher had crafted a tribute song for Marie-Anne, the birthday girl, set to the tune of "Hallelujah" and basically roasting her in a delightfully funny and sweet way. Lyrics sheets were handed around and we all sang to her. Everyone was rowdy and giggly and having a great time (it occurred to me at one point that the teachers were acting just like the students: telling bawdy stories and covering their mouths and snickering, pretty cute!). There is a visiting Artist in Residence for the school who has just arrived, a photographer with a quiet smile and very profound eyes. One of the art teachers had brought him along, but I think the poor man was overwhelmed by all of these crazy singing people!

Later in the evening the other teachers suprised me by singing to me and bringing in an incredible chocolate coffee cake oozing with rich chocolate sauce. They also presented me with a Crepe Maker, basically one of those hot plates that you use for pancakes, but with  circles for tiny, perfect crepes!
Kathrin and I tried the crepe plate out yesterday with enormous success. We made around 100 tiny crepe-lettes and filled them with spinach and cheese, fresh cream and strawberries, dates and honey. I think this will be a new favorite!! It's a genius idea for a dinner party, too, and since the plate is fairly compact, I will absolutely be bringing it back with me, even if I have to give away some shoes to fit it in my luggage!

04 March 2010

Ricelexia and Lists

I have never eaten a lot of rice or been particularly adept at making it (not like SOME people I know;). But the rice packages in French and the metric system (so logical and simple to understand, but so hard for me to grasp in actual quantities: what is 100g? A handful? two handfuls?) give me a further, significant handicap. I am ricelexic, unable to produce soft, fluffy rice that goes so well with curries and stirfries. This evening, for example, I was trying a new brand of basmati rice. As I read it, one needed 125g of rice with 1.5L of water. It was after several minutes of head-scratching that it occured to me that this was a great deal of water in a very large pot for a very little quantity of rice. In a panic, I grabbed the package and hastily tried to reread it--no, it definitely said 1.5. Were they crazy? How was all that water supposed to be absorbed in only 11 minutes?! Oh.
Oh, I see. Oh, it was 1.5 volumes of water for every one volume of rice. Oh dear. I quickly poured some of the boiling water into a measuring cup and drained the rice, then poured the correct quantity of water back in. It turned out to be my best rice-making attempt thus far, but I long for the day when I will effortlessly be able to produce my dream-rice. Perhaps I should look into buying a rice maker...

I have only seven more weeks of teaching, and two weeks of vacation before the end of my assistantship. With that in mind, I will make a tribute list of things I wish I had known before arriving:
1) I wish I had brought less STUFF. I am dreading the trip back with 3 luggage pieces. It was total folly to think I could toss three 60lb. bags through one of those super-narrow train doors one after the other and haul them through three different stations (none of which had escalators/elevators). I think I will be donating clothing and books to the local salvation-army type place!
2) In spite of the surplus of STUFF, I do wish I had brought more office supplies with me!! Buying basics like scissors, whiteout and pens has been a surprisingly huge expense, since nearly all office supplies are imported here, and yet it's generally been very necessary for my work.
3) How difficult it is to find English language books. I might have brought more books and fewer pairs of shoes.
4) Speaking of shoes, why did I bring three pairs of heels? I wish I'd known a bit more what to expect in terms of Vesoul and the, er, lack of social life. I have worn heels twice since I have been here.
5) Wish I had brought travel-sized toiletries. They don't seem to have them here. As a result I have bought toothpaste and deodorant in three countries now because I couldn't take my full-sized ones on airplanes.
Hmm. This list is depressing me. I think instead I will list things I am looking forward to doing while I am still here.
1) The market is marvelous, as always. Today one of my favorite vegetable vendors and I shared a moment over a particularly lovely lettuce. I am not kidding. She remarked, "Oh, but this one's beautiful!" in a very satisfied way, and we both stood there admiring it. I have become, without a doubt, a dedicated food-lover. I don't claim to be able to have special knowledge or skills, but my Lord. I love good food: good cheese, good bread, good wine, and of course, good chocolate. I have cooked more while I've been here than I have in the last 4 or 5 years probably, and even though I've had relatively few cooking implements, my roomies and I have managed to produce some pretty tasty things.
2) My birthday is next Monday and as Lupita's new boyfriend and I share the same birthday and I know virtually no one here, he has very kindly offered to share his party with me. The date has changed twice so far, but I think it will be one of the upcoming Saturdays. I have no idea what to expect, but if there is cake, especially chocolate cake, I shall be content. (Do they do candles here? I wonder...)
3) Our Easter vacation is coming up at the start of April and Pam and I are looking at making a trip to Spain and perhaps Portugal or Italy. We have already bought some cheap tickets to see Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanca in Valencia, so we had better figure out a way to get there!! I am very happy to be traveling with someone who speaks Spanish. I'm sure in the bigger cities lots of people would be able to speak English, but memories of the withering looks we got in Budapest when asking for things in English is still fresh in my mind...
4) Teaching. Surprisingly enough, it is getting easier and more fun. There are a few groups of kids that I have stayed with for several months now, and we've got a kind of rapport, finally. I'm more sure of myself now and I have a better idea of what they can/can't (won't) do. I've also finally got an understanding of how to work with the other teachers. Unfortunately this basically consists of me doing my thing and them doing theirs and sometimes we say hello in the hallways, but that is still a lot better than me desperately emailing/trying to contact them to find out what they prefer me to prepare for the next class. They don't seem to care that much, and I have found that I am much happier when I am leading a class that's based on a theme/activity I came up with!

Here is a picture of me on a recently sunny day with the statue of the First Lawyer of Vesoul. I love this statue. It's not at all distinguished and I can't really imagine the historical First Lawyer would have been very pleased, but it makes me grin every time I see it. Well, that's all the news from Lake Woebegone!