A Travellerspoint blog

Duck and Cover

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Waking late as I spoke for several hours with my (Canadian) family the previous night, I slowly made my way down to the kitchen for breakfast. There, I found Myriam in the midst of some obviously serious cooking. There was vegetable debris strewn around the counter and table from her preparation of a stuffing and soon-to-be soup, while she herself was cooking the stuffing on the stove top and studying a 'cannette' (a young duck) on the table. It had been received (deceased) the night before from the farmer's cooperative and Thierry had obligingly chopped off its head this morning. Relinquishing the idea of breakfast, I jumped in to help where I could, becoming her sous chef and cleaning up as best I could in her wake. I have to say I felt really French as I was helping her stuff the duck with the liver- and mushroom-based dressing and tying it off with string she keeps handy for such purposes. Realizing anew I had offered to make the dessert, I also started to prepare a chocolate zucchini cake to replace the duck once it was finished cooking. Sadly, there were no eggs so we had to recruit Nico to drive me to the store. In the middle of the fracas, her parents arrived as planned. Myriam's dad was immediately recruited for a bricolage task by Thierry while her mom jumped into the kitchen fray. When the bird came out of the oven, there was a bit of a discussion (there always is) about how to cut it, what utensils were best, etc. But, shortly, we all sat down to hearty meal of puréed vegetable soup, roast cannette, warm carmelized pears, salade verte, and green beans. When the cheese came out, the First Nations-styled cheese knife that I had bestowed upon them as a gift was used (perhaps the first and last time). We finished with coffee and cake, a surprise to the parents as they couldn't believe zucchinis were used in it. Her mom leaned over to tell me she never has seconds but would this time because it was 'très bon.' I liked her even more.

After her parents left, Myriam retired to her room to finish marking and I elected to hold down my bed for a while, suddenly tired after all the chatter and hubbub. That evening, I did significant research into a journey I'm making to Paris in two weeks' time. (I was wondering how to celebrate Ben's birthday and this seemed like just the way to do it. Sadly, I shall miss him.)

Posted by mzemliak 08:10 Archived in France Comments (1)

Going Back to University

Friday, September 23, 2016

On Thursday, I determined the best way to access the University of Lorraine by bus and foot and made my way to the centre of Nancy. I had an appointment scheduled to discuss possible French classes with someone from the language faculty there. The secretary had actually said they would be assessing my language skills at the same time, and that I was to meet this individual at her office. Gulp. I tried not to be nervous. Arriving with lots of time to spare, I sourced out the building, unimaginatively named 'J' (there seem to be ones for 'A' through 'I' as well). Entering it, I climbed the stairs to the third floor (the fourth floor, in our world) and looked around for 306. I found it and patiently waited outside for my allotted time. After some minutes, I wondered whether this was indeed the right place, as it had the picture of a fire extinguisher on it and the words 'poste d'incendie.' I tried to check what that translated to, pretty sure it had something to do with fire, but my phone's connection wasn't working for some reason. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I must have the wrong place. I went walkabout again and retraced my steps, coming upon another room labelled 306. This one looked lots more promising so I loitered about there. Presently, it was my turn to enter. I explained what I was here for and the faculty advisor reviewed the various courses. She asked me a few questions like why I was taking French, whether I wanted to concentrate on oral or written components, and how often I wanted classes. From that, she seemed to be confident about the level I needed to be in so offered me the available options in Group 3, not at the 'debutante' Group 1 level, but also nowhere near the expert Group 7 course. I elected to sign up for 6 hours a week for the time I have left here. It came to $30 per 2 hour session, which is about 35% more than UVic's continuing education courses. It should prove interesting to compare the approaches and value between the two universities.

That night, I introduced the family to homemade cabbage rolls, trying to hide my disappointment that their local store doesn't have frozen perogies, my usual accompaniment.

Friday at Emmaus provided some free hours in the morning to tackle some of the drawbacks of the clothing area. Jean-Paul focused on creating a new scarf display while Josiane and I rolled up our sleeves and embarked upon a rash of much-needed cleaning and tidying. Tidying doesn't appear to be Jean-Paul's first priority although he does seem serious about trying to engage the clients' interests in other ways (via displays and highlighting certain brands). During our cleaning frenzy, he said you me in French, "This is crazy! You didn't come all the way from Canada to be a 'femme de ménage' (cleaning lady)!" Oh, but I have, Jean-Paul, if that's what it takes to get me this exposure. Despite 'not progressing very much in French,' as Marine admitted to me that other day (adolescents can be so honest!), I have been more appreciative of the wide range of activities in which I've been able to partake. I am now making it my goal to 'collect experiences' rather than just to improve my French. This objective, too, seems worthy of my time and supports my interests. Consequently, I now feel more relaxed about my time here. But if David (a colleague at work who often spoke a few words of French to me once he learned I was going on this trip) approaches me the first week back and expects me to be spouting rabid French, I expect I will attack him with a baguette.

Posted by mzemliak 13:15 Archived in France Comments (3)

Sierra Leone Up Close

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

This morning, Myriam had finally succeeded in arranging for a 'femme de ménage' to arrive, through a local agency. However, as she was going to be away at school that morning, she asked if I would orientate the woman when she came. She saw it as a 'bon exercice' for me. I brushed up on my housework-type words and walked the new hire through the expected routine, showing her where 'les produits et les outils' were. She did a bang up job so obviously I didn't throw her off too much.

I cheated a bit at Emmaus today and had a long conversation in English with Mbinti, hearing some of her story of life in Sierra Leone. When she was 16, her father approached her to indicate he had selected a husband for her. When she declined, he ordered her out of the house but, fortunately, her mother stepped in to smooth things over. Mbinti was much more interested in finishing high school and going on but university there was too expensive for the family to consider. A friend told her that she might be able to apply for a grant so she acquired the money for the application and finagled a way to get her request through to the Ministry of Education. (She says the only routes that work are those through the 'back doors,' i.e., knowing people; all standard approaches disappear into the ether.) When she heard she had been accepted and would receive a grant, she was overjoyed and ended up completing a degree in human resource management. She moved on to Gambia and married a Gambian (of her choice). She says she now knows that Gambians and Sierra Leoneans shouldn't mix (!) and elected to leave her husband when he took a second, 17-year-old wife. She returned to Sierra Leone and worked for a number of years. Just prior to leaving for France, she worked at an NGO on a much-needed human rights campaign; however, it ran out of money so after several months of working for no wage, she elected to leave to start over in Europe. Headed for Germany initially, circumstances lead her to stay in France; she faces her asylum hearing in November, when it is decided whether France will accept her for good. She intends to ask for refugee status due to working on the dangerous civil rights campaign and her rejection of Islam, which can result in prosecution in and of itself. So, at 35, she finds herself starting over but says she likes adventure and has always been stubborn. She feels her stubbornness helped her get her education and paved the way for her three younger sisters to follow suit (they are all currently studying at university in her native country, with a British relative helping with the funds). Her father recently admitted to her that she was right and he was glad things had turned out the way they had for his daughters. They are all part of the 10% of females that are educated in that country. He too, at 80, is remarkable in that he has survived 35 years longer than the country's usual life expectancy. Sierra Leone is rated at 181 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index, "a measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living." I found it very sobering to hear such a tale and recognize the incredible opportunities we in the west have. The odds of survival or of realizing a good life seem so daunting for them.

After lunch, Halim gave Dominique and me a tour of his 'area' down in the basement: he works in electronics, testing and fixing (if possible) all the computers and appliances that come through the depot. It is a well-lit, albeit windowless and cavernous, collection of rooms strewn with washing machines, dishwashers, fridges, computers and monitors. There are shelves of spare parts donated from appliances past their prime, several precarious mounds of recyclable materials, and desks with equipment in various states of repair. Continuing the tour, Dominique took me to the attic to show me where some of the extra supplies are kept. The room is massive and stocked to the gunnels with the 'Noel' corner, all the extra unsorted toys, and endless boxes and boxes of every type of simple building materials you could want, all residing together in some nameless sort of order that escaped me. Dominique works in 'bricolage' this week so if a customer requests a certain type of screw, nail, fastener, light fixture, or whatever, and it isn't in the bricolage department in the store, some luckless person is sent up into the attic to ferret out the wanted article. Somehow, this store seems to work, despite the haphazard approach used for many things.

For dinner, the new adventure was trying quartered tomatoes drizzled with liquid honey and topped with soft goat cheese. Myriam raved about it but it wasn't really to my liking. I guess I felt about it the same way she felt about eating fresh strawberries in salad. We like all the ingredients on their own but not 'ensemble.' I made what are commonly referred to as 'Abby bars' in our house: a graham cracker base (had to improvise that), covered by sweetened condensed milk (much cheaper here), and topped with chocolate and caramel chunks and sliced almonds. I had been missing those.

Posted by mzemliak 10:24 Archived in France Comments (3)

Sea Life

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

This morning, I returned to the English school to try to register for the brief 6 hr course they were offering but for some reason, they wouldn't let me register. I understood that perhaps it was just meant to be an introductory class for foreigners and wouldn't be appropriate but I'm not exactly sure if my understanding is correct. Myriam said she will call later for me to try to decipher the exact issue.

Since I was out and about, I took advantage of being in the city to use my museum pass and see the small aquarium Nancy supports. There's a handy tram line that runs every five minute and connects several areas with the downtown core so I hopped on that and found myself at the aquarium in no time. The upper floor is reserved for an unusual collection of animal horns, stuffed animals (the real kind, not stuffies), and jarred specimens of sea life. They also have an impressive display of mounted beetles, moths, and butterflies, which made me think of Calvin, as I believe he had prepared something similar in his junior high days. Surprisingly, the stuffed animals included a few items from North America so I looked with fondness upon l'elan (moose) and le phoque (seal). They also had a stuffed platypus, which I briefly considered stealing for Abby (to augment her Grade 6 school project) but it wouldn't fit in my knapsack. A temporary exhibit hall displayed several black and white photos taken of the Antarctic, showing pitiable penguins that looked to be trapped on ice flows and the like. They had a running soundtrack of what appeared to be the calls of wild birds and the cold southern wind to provide more reality to the exhibit.

On the lower floor, a series of small aquariums lined two large corridors, each anchored with a larger tank offsetting a viewing area. While small in comparison to most aquariums I have frequented, all the tanks were in pristine condition and the sea life, very healthy. Most of the species were familiar but I did note three that were new to me, and piqued my interest, the first being the garden eel, which lives in burrows on the sea floor, and is named such from its practice of poking its head out while most of its body remains hidden beneath -- a few of these grouped together resemble plants in a garden. The next one was a really ugly thing called a batfish. It's quite odd looking and has a face only a mother batfish could love. The third was my favourite. I love rays and these appeared to be a marbled variety that I don't recall seeing before. There were several in one tank and they continuously floated over and under each other, sometimes stacked like three or four pancakes, seemingly taking turns being the one on the bottom. I became mesmerised by them and felt I could watch for a long time.

After dashing into a nearby cathedral for a quick look, I caught the next bus back. About ten minutes into the ride, four men in black boarded the bus, two at the front door and two at the back. These guys look serious, I thought. They then began approaching passengers and asking to verify their tickets and bus passes. Each time a person gets on a bus, they must validate their ticket or pass independently by swiping it against one of the machines. This is so that the ticket is marked as used; I'm not sure why validating a pass is necessary but perhaps they want to count uses. At any rate, I displayed my pass when the pair came over to check out my pass. But then, shortly after, there was a bit of a commotion as they discovered some poor, luckless young teenager near me who didn't have a ticket, validated or otherwise. Thug 1 and Thug 2 surrounded him and started their questioning. Thug 1 then got on his walkie talkie and made a big deal of calling in the infraction -- I understood the words 'use his phone to call his parents' and 'police.' They sat beside him or blocked the aisle so he couldn't make any kind of exit. They then remained on the bus with him for the next thirty minutes. At one point, the third guy came by and used the seat next to me, facing towards the aisle. [After two minutes, he turned around and apologized to me because he felt it was rude of him to be sitting with his back to me. I was quite surprised but of course said, 'Pas de problem!' Actually, I find the French people here generally very polite. This is one instance, but there are other habits which I notice too: virtually everyone in Ludres, the small town in which I live, greets me when I am out for a walk. And it is considered essential to start any conversation with anyone when you're out (e.g., at the post office, grocery shopping, buying bread, at a clothing store, etc.) with 'Bonjour' first before continuing the interaction or asking a question. And just like Canadians, if someone bumps into you or gets in your way, they are quick to say 'Pardon.' Makes me feel right at home.]

I finally had to get off a few stops before the end of the line but was curious as to what was going to happen to the kid. I understand that there's usually a fifty euro fine imposed but this seemed pretty serious to involve four guys for that length of time. I wonder if they make a big deal in order to try to deter people -- it's seems a pretty embarrassing experience.

Posted by mzemliak 14:51 Archived in France Comments (4)

Plants Galore

Monday, September 18, 2016

When I first discussed the crazy idea of coming here with Myriam, we talked about how I might tak some French courses while here. She spoke to a professor at the university and assured me I could sign up for some continuing education courses with the University of Nancy. However, it hasn't proved to be that simple. Firstly, I had to wait for her to call them after September 5, when they were accepting enquiries. Then, once I had sent an email confirming I was interested, I got no response. When Myriam checked back with them a week later, they indicated they needed to wait till the 'intensive, seven month course' filled up before they saw what was left over for those like me who wanted to take an 'a la carte' course. Finally, this morning, they called and left a message for me to get in touch with them. I had to listen to that message about a dozen times to get all the words straight -- I thought they might speak more slowly to a person wanting to take French courses but, alas, no. Anyway, before I had a chance to call back (I admit, I was putting it off a bit), they followed up with an email. That was an easier route to deal with so I have an appointment on Thursday morning with someone to figure out what level I should be in. Considering this was taking so long, I did some more investigation the web last week and discovered one other agency in town that may offer a short course for foreigners. I went down there today to enquire and possibly register but found their offices closed, contrary to what they advertised on the website.

Fortunately their office was located fairly close to the botanical gardens, a place I have been meaning to visit. Google, my best friend in France, told me to walk 20 minutes south so I did just that, stretching my legs up the long hill. Upon arriving, I discovered my best friend had let me down and while I could see the park, there was no access to it at that point. I ended up walking back down the hill and discovered the actual way in some time later. It all added up to exercise.

In terms of the gardens, I found them fairly tired looking and past their prime. It may have been largely due to the heat wave but I still suspect that they are somewhat neglected. That said, there were a couple of rare gems and some interesting ideas employed there. I think at one time it must have been a stellar place. I started my tour by visiting the greenhouses, a complex that housed carnivorous, tropical, desert, and rainforest species. The most impressive plants here were the gigantic lily pads, which Jean-Paul suggested could support a person's weight (I didn't confirm this). I exited the greenhouses to walk the various paths depicted on the map, coming across some interesting ideas. For instance, they have an area with various sections allocated to plants of the prehistoric age, the bronze age and the middle ages. Though quite dried up by now, it was interesting to imagine our ancestors cultivating and relying on such plants. They also devoted a large section to a living family tree of flowering plants, which systematically and diagrammatically attempted to explain how the species have evolved and the relationships between each species; the 'family' tree' extended over 100 metres in each direction and had paths between the related plants. Another unusual pathway was called the 'invasive species trail,' which depicted various 'weeds' (carefully contained within large planters) and how unwanted they were. So, while the gardens were somewhat lacking in colour and health, it was still an interesting walk and provided a chance to spend time outside seeing something different. In terms of other living things, I saw a total of 12 other visitors, a few workers and five sheep, the latter of which intrigued me enough to want to take a couple of pictures through a wire fence. It was only after the second attempt that I realized that weird sensation was telling me the fence was electrified.

Coming home on the bus on a new route, I actually ran into someone I knew from Emmaus. That sure made me feel as if Nancy was becoming 'my city.' For dinner, Myriam made a (new to me) recipe of fried kohlrabi with feta cheese; having never had this vegetable before, I was quite surprised it could be so delicious. She ended the evening by preparing a 'pot au feu' (something akin to a beef pot roast with vegetables) and left it cooking in the oven as she went off to bed. She seems very undisturbed by leaving food out for hours at a time (even 24 hours!); I guess the Food Safe course has yet to reach this area of Europe. So far, we've all stayed healthy and no one looks askance at the meals. I'm trusting all will stay well.

Posted by mzemliak 13:50 Archived in France Comments (1)

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