Hiking in Morocco

My favorite day of our trip to Morocco was the one which we spent hiking up Jebel el Kest, the second-highest mountain of the anti-atlas mountains. This mountain range is in Berber country, deep in the south.

We drove the car a third of the way up on a winding one-lane to a scenic village called Tagdicht. We met our guide there and set off on foot.

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Tagdicht

Our guide was a wizened, surefooted old man that kept up a constant stream of chatter in Berber. Our friend Chédid translated occasionally when it was pertinent.

‘This plant is used for tea.’

‘Do you see the entrance to a cave up there? Apparently it’s huge; they don’t know how deep it goes.’
‘This path leads to a village on the other side of the mountains.’
‘Those are gazelle droppings.’

The rest of the six hour hike the guide went on about his life, told tourist stories, and gossiped about so-and-so in such-and-such village.  Chédid was a good sport, showing interest in the right places with the Berber equivalents of hmm-mm’s and yeahs. I would not have been capable of following a conversation; I spent my time admiring the plants and landscape, taking pictures, and trying not to sprain my ankles on the loose rocks.

Chédid translated one tourist story about a woman that went hiking without a guide and got her leg crushed by a rock. They had to take her all the way to Agadir, three hours away, for proper medical care. ‘So what is the moral of the story?’ Cyril joked, ‘That we shouldn’t go out without a guide or that we should tip extra well so that the same thing doesn’t happen to us?’

In any case we wouldn’t have found our way without him. The path was not always clear, its only marking an occasional cairn.

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It was quite steep in some places
The colors were magnificent. The ochre-red soil contrasted beautifully with the vegetation and the abundant yellow and purple flowers.

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A pool under an almond tree

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Taking a break at a mountain stream
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Still a ways to go!
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What colors!
The inhabitants of the village used to cultivate lentils on the terraced mountain slopes up to an hour’s hike up from the village. Now those fields are mostly abandoned, and wildflowers have taken over.  I wasn’t expecting to see so many this early in the season; the variety was delightful.
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I had trouble identifying many of the plants- so let me know if you have any suggestions!

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Rumex simpliciflorus Murb.

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Asphodelus fistulosus L.
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Fumaria
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Erodium cicutarium (L.)
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These daffodils dominated at the top of the mountain.
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Narcissus romieuxii

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Androcymbium punctatum Baker
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Adenocarpus bacquei Batt. & Pitard
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Aizoon canariense L.
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Dipcadi serotinum
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What awesome spines!

After a solid three and a half hours, we reached the summit!

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2375 m (7792 ft)

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Cyril, Chédid,  and I

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Back to civilization! We didn’t cross a soul the entire hike.
Stay tuned for more about Morocco!
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Versailles in four seasons

The Palace and Gardens of Versailles are a must see for anyone that goes to Paris. It is an essential place to go to understand the old monarchy of France and be wowed by the splendor and grandeur that ultimately caused the French Revolution.

I have been fortunate to visit Versailles in all four seasons with different family and friends. I love this place. Every time I go I discover something new and see things in a different way, especially in the gardens. That is one of my favorite things about gardens; everyday they grow and change, and the garden that you visit at the end of May is completely different come the beginning of July. Also Versailles is so immense that it is impossible to truly cover it all (and appreciate it) in a single day.

Another wonderful thing about Versailles is the huge contrast between the awe-inspiring grand axes and views that seem to continue forever and the surprising, intimate gardens and small fountains that one stumbles upon while meandering through.

The first time I visited Versailles was in a few years ago in January with Cyril. The gardens, although wintry-brown, impressed me with their scale and splendor. The fountains weren’t running but this made it easier to appreciate their sculptures’ forms.

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The grand axis of the gardens- when the grand canal was designed, the landscape architect took the tilt of the earth into account.

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The Saturn fountain- the allegory of winter- how fitting!
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A detail of the famous Apollo chariot fountain, the Sun King’s symbol.

We spent a long time in the palace, which was free because it was the first Sunday of the month, a lucky coincidence. My impressions: the hall of mirrors was the highlight of the palace, a truly incredible room, and court life was quite stifling. I would have hated to be the king. There were official ceremonies for when he got up in the morning and when he went to bed, and the court would come and watch him and the royal family solemnly dinner in silence to classical music.

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That spring Cyril and I returned for the musical fountains show in the gardens. In the spring and summer during weekends and random weekdays, the fountains are turned on for visitors and classical music is played from hidden speakers in the garden. The ambiance is incredible: this is truly how the gardens should be experienced.

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The Apollo fountain in all of its glory
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My personal favorite, the giant Enceladus defeated by Jupiter

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Two years passed and I returned with Jasmine, one of my best friends, during the beginning of June. We chose to go on a musical fountains show day. Unfortunately we visited the palace first. It was so crowded that we had to push our way through the different rooms. I felt bad because that ruined the palace experience for her a little bit. When we finished the palace, we went outside for the musical fountains show, but there were only twenty minutes left of it; whoops, where had the time gone?

After the musical fountains show finished, most of the people left, so we had the gardens to ourselves. We made the best of it; I had found an interesting audio guide app that did a great job of explaining the history of the gardens and the fountains’ themes.

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The English garden was especially lovely at this time of year.

Then as we were leaving, the suns broke through the thick cloud cover that had been there all day and illuminated one of the main fountains on garden’s grand axis. It slowly turned on and danced for us, bathed in light; the highlight of the day. It was awe-inspiring!

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A few weeks after that, I returned with my brother Matthew, his wife Brooke, her sister Alicia, and Alicia’s husband Matt. The weather was fickle, changing quickly from sun to rain to sun, chasing away the crowds. After strolling though the main gardens we paid a bit extra for a side area that I had never visited before, the Grand and Petit Trianon, and the Queen’s Hamlet. What a treat! The fountains there were running there even though they weren’t in the main garden.

The Grand Trianon was a palace that the king had ordered built as a retreat for him and his family from court life. The Queen’s Hamlet is an idyllic corner of Versailles that Marie Antoinette had designed to be a ‘rustic country retreat’ for her and her closest friends, complete with a pond, stream, windmill, farmhouse, barn, and tower in the form of a lighthouse.

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The Grand Trianon-It had poured not long before-the blue sky reflection on the wet tile was magnificent.

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Alicia and I. Photo credit: Brooke Pfarr

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The English garden behind the Petit Trianon was lovely. The landscape was full of little hidden gems like this one.
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The Queen’s Hamlet
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One of the cottages for the Queen’s friends.

I recently returned with my friend Erin and was charmed by the gardens on a sunny autumn day.

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À la prochaine!

Until next time:)

Mountain wild flower mania

Cyril and I spent last weekend with Cyril’s lovely aunt and uncle in Die, France (pronounced Dee). We spent a day hiking from the Col de Rousset ski resort to the Parc naturel regional de Vercours.  It was a lovely, long hike, with decent elevation changes, even though we were on a plateau.

The view driving up to the plateau in the morning was a bit ominous with the fog spilling over the cliffs.

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Luckily the fog cleared up after an hour or two. On the way back it was fun to see the view we had missed on the way there.

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At times, it was so pastoral on the top of the plateau as to be ridiculous, with the baaing of sheep, mooing of cows, and ringing of cow bells. We also encountered some herding dogs along the trail. They rendered the scene a little bit less idyllic when they came up aggressively barking and snarling in order to protect their flock. We had to slowly back away and take a little detour to avoid them.

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Not as cuddly as he looks…
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Almost there!

 

After three hours we made it to our goal, the Plaine de la Queyrie, a high prairie (Altitude 1800 m, 6,000 ft) with a single majestic tree.  We were thrilled when we saw the tree because we weren’t sure if it was still going to be there. Cyril’s uncle had heard that it had been cut down. The prairie was impressive because I have never seen such an immense, green space without any sign of humans or human development.

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A very huggable tree
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The view from the other side.

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Gophers were the real kings of the area. We spotted several, and more often heard their sharp barks echoing through the mountains.

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Gopher!!

My favorite part was the wildflowers! The diversity, especially on the Plaine de la Queyrie, was astounding.

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I would have spent a lot more time taking photos of the flowers, but we had a train to catch back to Paris that evening and we couldn’t dawdle.

If you know the names of any of the unlabeled plants let me know. Also, feel free to correct me if I mislabeled something; sometimes the species are difficult to tell apart! 🙂

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Hoary Plantain Plantago media L., medicinal plant
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Fairy’s thimble Campanula cochlearifolia
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A thistle obviously… but I have no idea what kind!
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Brown Knapweed Centaurea jacea
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The closely related Perennial cornflower Centaurea montana, medicinal
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Fringed pink Dianthus monspessulanus: With the deeply fringed petals I didn’t recognize it as a dianthus at first!
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All-heal Prunella vulgaris, medicinal, flowers used for brewing tea, leaves used for salads
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Mouse-ear hawkweed Hieracium pilosella, medicinal and allelopathic (secretes chemicals into soil to keep other plants from growing around it)
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Alpine aster Aster alpinus
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Hyssop-leaved mountain ironwort Sideritis hyssopifolia, medicinal and used for tea
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Cheese rennet Galium verum Dried plants used to be used to stuff mattresses, in cheese production, as a dye, and for making a Danish spirit
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?? Rock thyme Acinos alpinus ?? medicinal, and used to brew tea
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Edelweiss Leontopodium alpinium: Edelweiss is one of the most beloved, unique flowers of the alps!
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Common yarrow Achillea millefolium, traditionally medicinal
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Probably the most common flower I saw up there, it loved the spaces inbetween rocks. Alpine lady’s mantle Alchemilla alpina
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These lovely seed heads remain a mystery to me!
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I have these in my garden at my parents’ house: Pincushion flower Scabiosa sp?
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Mountain St. John’s wort Hypericum montanum
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??? but even its dried-up flowers are beautiful!
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Creeping baby’s breath Gypsophila repens
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The grass was gorgeous too, it lent a reddish hue to the tops of the gentle hills in the valley
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Our last stop before the car, at the highest slope of the ski resort

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Buon Giorno Italia!

Last weekend I visited my brother Brett in Italy, where he is spending a few weeks working and traveling around. After taking 2 and a half years of Italian classes he finally gets to try out his skills!

I joined him in Alonte, a small town an hour west of Venice. He is staying with Chiara and Paolo and helping them with their vineyard, La Pria, and their horses. Here is the link to their website

I took two and a half years of Italian classes and even studied in Florence for a semester. But that was two years ago and I haven’t had much opportunity to practice since. Everybody I talked to in Alonte was patient with me and my Italian skills, even though a lot of what came out of my mouth the first day was French! The extent of my regression was clear, but I could also tell that if I were ever to spend an extended amount of time in Italy I would be able to get it back. By the end of the third night I was doing pretty good! Remembering a language is much easier than learning it for the first time.

I love French, but I have missed Italian. Even though they are both Romance languages, they are fundamentally different in character and intonation. French is sophisticated and sexy in a smooth way. Italian is passionate and animated to the point of being over the top. I also adore the way they use their hands when they speak. There is a joke that goes, ‘How do you make an Italian shut up?’ ‘You tie his hands behind his back!’

But I couldn’t choose between them, their cultures, or their food. I just love them both!

I think the rivalry between them is hilarious. Cyril is not fond of Italians. As I was leaving he jokingly asked me not to go. ‘Their wine isn’t even good!’
The Italians in Alonte told me things like, ‘But seriously, between us and France, it isn’t even a contest, we have the best food.’ or ‘France is beautiful, yes, but the people are not very friendly at all!’

One of my old Italian teachers explained the animosity like this, ‘It all boils down to the fact that they are competing to be the best at the same things: wine, food, and soccer, even the reputation for being the best lovers.’

Brett is thriving there. He has the right kind of temperament for language learning because he is super outgoing. Brett constantly jokes around with Paolo and the farm hands. He also has a notebook with pages and pages of new vocabulary that he has learned since he got there. It is an amusing mixture of normal vocabulary, farming terminology, regional slang, and swear words.

Brett and Paolo picked me up at the train station on Thursday and drove me to the pizzeria in town for an aperitivo with Samuele, the man who held the guinness world record for the longest pizza for a year (1595 meters, 5243 feet). Someone from Napoli broke it the day before I arrived in Italy. He is also very proud of his prize of second best pizza in the world. Unfortunately I never actually got to try it. A few days before I came, Brett was initiated into cult of Neapolitan pizza when he spent time in the pizzeria’s kitchen.

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After the aperativo we went to a neighborhood restaurant for lunch with some of the farmhands. It was a classic Italian style meal, with a first course of pasta and second course of meat or fish. Brett is already famous here for how much he can eat, and like proper Italians they are basically force feeding him. ‘What do you mean you don’t want a second steak? Mania, mania, mania!’ (Eat eat eat! in the regional dialect) Brett is going to be a heavyweight by the time he leaves!

In the afternoon it rained, so we chilled in the farm house and talked to farmhands and whoever happened to pop in. Paolo and Chiara have a business boarding horses and giving horse riding lessons, so people are always dropping by. I got the impression that in this region western riding is very popular, along with the whole culture that comes with it: country line dancing, American and confederate flags, flashy belts, and cowboy boots. They all dream of the famous wide open spaces of the western United States. Some of these horse aficionados have taken trips to the southwest or Wyoming to tour ranches and ride horses.
It is a facet of Italian culture that I never encountered in Florence!

At night Brett and I ate dinner with Paolo and Chiara and their son Giulio. Again, there was too much food!

Friday I helped Brett and two farmhands, Giovanni and Denis, prune the vines. I figured I shouldn’t freeload on Chiara and Paolo’s hospitality. I have missed working with and being around plants since I have lived in Paris.

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The landscape there is similar to Tuscany with its rolling hills and vineyards. At this time of the year poppies (Papaver rhoeas), common agricultural weeds, are in full bloom in fields and ditches.

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Saturday Brett and I took the train into Venice to explore and get lost in the winding streets. I adore Venice; for me it is the most beautiful city in the world.

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The view from San Marco Campanile

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I am sorry, I can’t help myself, I have to throw in pictures of beautiful flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that I spotted there!

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Brett wanted so badly to speak Italian to people, but it isn’t easy in a place as touristy as Venice. Most people hear the accent and switch right away to English which is frustrating. However, we did find some nice Italians to humor us in little shops.

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Carnivale, mad max style

That night back in Alonte, Chiara and Paolo hosted a huge steak grill out with their riding friends.

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They took out wine from their cellar as well as homemade grappa and rosolio alcohols. Grappa is made from the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from the winemaking process, and rosolio is made from rose petals. It was the first time I had ever heard of or tried rosolio- it is so good!
We ate and drank and talked until one in the morning, a lovely end to my time in Italy.

 

Tulip Overload

Keukenhof  is a huge 79 acre garden in the Netherlands that shows off the might of spring bulbs. Even though it is only open for 2 months a year, it attracts 800,000 visitors.
Last Friday when Cyril and I went it was perfect timing: peak bloom. Of course, that meant it was incredibly busy too!
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I was in heaven!
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Literally one of the most exciting days of my life
As you can see, Cyril loved it too:)
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But I promise I didn’t drag him there against his will; it was actually his idea to go to Holland during the spring flowering season.
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That’s more like it!
So when you think of tulips, this image probably comes to mind.
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But there is actually an incredible variety of forms.
You think you know tulips? Think again!
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Alien tulips
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M I N N E S O T A! Minnesota! Minnesota! Yaaaaaay Gophers!
That isn’t even showing off the foliage.
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Those are LEAVES people!!
And of course there are more than just tulips, they had all manner of spring flowering bulbs and flowers.
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White flowers: Anemone blanda ‘White Splendour’
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Anemone coronaria ‘Mr. Fokker’
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Hyacinths have a lovely, strong fragrance! Hyancinthus ‘Fondant’
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These crazy looking guys are Fritillaria inperialis ‘Rubra’
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The blue one is Muscari ‘Armeniacum’
I was impressed by the layout of the garden and the variety of things to do there. They had an area that was more naturalistic, with bulbs and flowers and ferns in a woodland type setting.

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I don’t know what this is but I adore it!
And they had a garden that showcased the different types of cultivated tulips and explained the plant breeding process. Represent! A small section showed different wild species of tulips. The difference between the cultivated and wild plants was interesting to see.
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Beautiful in their own right, but not as striking as the cultivars
They had a very formal garden, with excellent spring flowering mixes, fountains, boxwood hedges, and trellised archways surrounding cages of exotic birds.

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Half of Keukenhof had a lanscaping style in between the naturalized and formal gardens: huge swaths of flower beds underneath the tall, old trees.

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Just hugging my katsura tree:)

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There was a typical dutch windmill to climb up, and indoor pavilions. One had a cut flower show, changed weekly, and the other showcased the newest, coolest varieties.
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A corner of the cut flower show incorporating The Milkmaid, a famous Dutch painting
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Because there weren’t enough tulips outside:)

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The Keukenhof garden is a must see. If you want to go to the Netherlands, I suggest planning your trip during the peak spring blooming season and doing a day trip out to the garden. You won’t be disappointed!

Salon du Végétal

Tuesday and Wednesday I took a break from my regularly scheduled life and took a dive back into the world of horticulture. (I just graduated from the U of MN with a degree in Horticulture and ambitions to become a plant breeder.) After English classes in the morning, I hopped on an hour and a half train to Angers, France (pronounced Ahn-jay).  Angers is a little gem of a city, complete with a castle and moat. The city center is very old, with narrow streets, sometimes cobbled, for only pedestrians or one car lanes. At the same time it is very modern with bustling cafes, fancy restaurants, small fashion boutiques, and fun, unexpected stores that specialize in comic books, Scottish whiskey, or oriental jewelry. And to top it off it is impeccably clean and though old, not dilapidated.

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Angers is the hub for horticulture in France. It is located in the Anjou area which is nicknamed the Garden of France. The fertile river valley produces more apples, bulbs, and ornamental shrubs like hydrangeas than anywhere else in France.  The best schools for horticulture and plant science call it home too. There is even a PLANT themed amusement park nearby called Terra Botanica. Seriously this place is horticulture heaven.

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Even the street art is plant themed! ‘Plant Escape’

And why did I go in the middle of the work week? Because February 16-18 was the annual Salon du Végétal, the largest trade show for all things horticulture in France, and the third largest in Europe.

Tuesday afternoon I explored the city a bit by myself then met up with Corinne Liquiere, the plant breeder from Pépinières Minier for supper. I was put in contact with Corinne through my old boss from the Morton Arboretum, Joe Rothleutner, and she graciously offered to be my guide when I was in Angers and at the Salon du Vegetal. However this generosity didn’t surprise me very much because ornamental plant breeders are a small, tightly-knit group.

Corinne speaks English better than I do French but she humored me and spoke French with me and encouraged her colleges to do the same.  For the two days in Angers I spoke mostly French, but horticulture vocabulary is pretty similar between the two languages so it was not as hard as usual. At times like these I am so thankful for our universal scientific nomenclature system! Sometimes it took me a moment or two to recognize the genus names she used.  Even though we use the same names, everybody naturally applies their own language’s accent to the pronunciation.

It felt so good to be among people who speak the language of plants! I really missed it.

The next morning before going to the Salon, Corinne took me to see the private arboretum at the Pépinières Minier. They use it to collect and trial plants in a garden-setting. They also use it to show off the grown specimens to consumers because it is tough to know the quality of a tiny tree in a pot just by looking at it! In Angers they are zone 9a hardiness by USDA standards (An average annual low of 20 to 25F, -6.7 to -3.9C.) Normal early spring stuff like Magnolias starts blooming this time of February, because of the mild winter they started blooming already in January. This just blows my mind as a native Minnesotan, because it is so early in the year! In Minnesota we are still buried under 2 feet of snow over Valentine’s Day. That morning it froze and the combination of green leaves, flowers, and frost was stunning.

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Nandina domestica GULFSTREAM
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Magnolia ‘Genie’
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Buxus henryi? This one might have been mislabeled.

Off to the Salon!

The salon was organized into different areas in the exhibition hall: floriculture, innovation, production, landscaping, education and professional organizations, and equipment.There were over 600 exhibitors and 15,000 visitors: like I said, very impressively sized!

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One of the smaller exhibit halls

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Student creations for incorporating horticulture into the urban landscape

The innovation area was especially interesting. Exhibitors could enter novelties in one of three different categories to be judged: plant cultivars, equipment, and marketing strategies. Corinne was pleased because her nursery did well in the competition. Their flowering quince won the silver prize and their new brand, ‘Silence, ça pousse!’ (Quiet, it’s growing!) won gold the marketing competition.

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Chaenomeles x Mango Storm(R) ‘Minacha01’

Corinne is so proud of her new series of Hibiscus syriacus cultivars, the French Cabaret series. They are the first cultivars that has she developed from the very beginning, from choosing the parent plants and crossing them, all the way through trialing, marketing, and finally releasing onto the market. It took 13 years! That is a pretty standard time for the development of a ornamental shrub. Plant breeding is a slow process!

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Corinne and her cultivars

At trade shows I have been to in the states it is common for vendors to have a bowl of candy to offer visitors. French vendors take booth hospitality to a whole nother level. Everyone had hot drinks and real snack food like biscuits and dried fruit to offer visitors. The booths tended to be a little bigger, with little appetizer or coffee tables for people to gather around. At lunch time, hearty appetizers and wine made an appearance. The uncorking pop of champagne bottles was a common sound. Very French!

I remarked on the difference to Corinne. She explained to me, ‘Exhibitors don’t necessarily make a lot of sales during the Salon, it is more about taking care of relationships with customers and partners. And although it might seem like a lot of alcohol, there is a lot less alcohol than there used to be. They have toned it down in the last few years.

Of course there were demonstrations and presentations. I finished off a great day by watching a pretty intense florist competition. Visiting florists had 30 minutes to make flower arrangements using certain materials, like a fish bowl or a straw hat.

I had a great time among my fellow plant lovers and came back to Paris Wednesday night feeling rejuvenated.

A la prochaine!

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The florist section of the Salon was very impressive!

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Six week mark ramblings

I have already been in France for 6 weeks! I feel like I am adjusting pretty well so far; it helps that I have a support network here in France. Here is a little reflection about what I really enjoy and don’t enjoy about France, and what I miss about Minnesota.

Things France does well:

  1. Bread! With a boulangerie (bakery) on every street corner, the only problem is trying to not eat too much of the fluffy stuff. It is usually only 1 euro for a whole baguette. In the same vein, great wine and cheese are relatively inexpensive here too.
  2. Public transportation. It is possible to get almost anywhere without a car here, and the buses come often enough during the day that one doesn’t have to plan that hard to catch them. This past summer I lived in a suburb of Chicago and without a car, I would have been stranded. My poor roommate from Brazil had to depend on me if she wanted to go anywhere because the public transportation was so bad.  An equivalent Parisian suburb is much better connected. The only real complaint I have is about the public transportation trip planning application, RATP, which has led me astray on multiple occasions.
  3. Cafes. All the street corners that are not home to boulongeries are housing little adorable cafes. Most have outside seating with seats facing the street, all the better for people watching. Even in the winter, they put out heating lamps so that people can still sit outside. Cyril and I often meet friends at cafes for a casual drink before comedy shows and movies or just because:)
  4. Meals. French meals are long and luxurious at restaurants and when sharing with friends and family. They really take time to enjoy their food and company. First, before the meal, there is the aperitif, which is when everyone sits down in the living room and has a drink with a light snack like nuts or chips or charcuterie (cured meat). Then at the dinner table, there is usually a first course, followed by the main dish. After that, comes the bread with the smelly cheese, and then dessert (fruit is considered a dessert here, so it isn’t always a sweet). After dessert, people drink coffee. Somehow French people stay skinny though!

    Aperitif fare, photo credit: http://sf2.viepratique.fr/
    Aperitif fare, photo credit: http://sf2.viepratique.fr/
  5. Les bisous. When greeting and saying goodbye to a friend or a meeting a friend-of-a-friend it is common to faire des bisous, which is when you kiss each other on the cheeks. More accurately, you usually just touch cheeks and make a kissing noise. The number of kisses depends on the region of France.  In Paris, it is 2 (one on each cheek) and in the south it is 3. I think it is a very charming way to say hello and goodbye to someone!
  6. Pizza. French pizza is awesome. One normal sized pizza serves one person, because the crust is very thin. Four cheese french pizza usually has goat, emmental, mozzarela, and blue cheese- how amazing is that? It is great because it combines the greatness of American and Italian pizza. It is complex like American pizza with the high quality, fresh ingredients of Italian pizza.  Italian pizza is too simple, with usually just 3 ingredients.

Things that I am having trouble accepting about France:

  1. The smoking culture. It is unbelievable how many people smoke here! It seems like I am constantly breathing in second hand smoke in public places.
  2. My next complaint is something that 95% of people wouldn’t even notice, but as a plant lover, it is my pet peeve. Pollarding, the way that they prune trees here, is horrendous. In pollarding, the tops of the trees are cut off, and then every year or two from then on, the sticks that grow out of the trees’ stumpy branches are also cut off. Many municipalities hire people to do it. It is so ugly and sad that it literally hurts me. And it is bad for the trees too. The Parisian municipality has stopped doing it to the new trees that they plant, but once something is pollarded, it needs to continue to be pruned that way. Of course, pollarding’s fiercest proponents are the people that do it for a living.

    WHY? photo credit: https://thebest5years.files.wordpress.com
    I am all for pruning trees when they need to be pruned and when it is done the correct way. But this is like surgeons going around giving unnecessary amputations, and even worse, doing a shitty job of it. As fall progresses, I notice it more and more because without their leaves, the trees’ twisted, unnatural architecture is exposed.
    Whew! I needed to get that off of my chest.
  3. Bureaucracy. No wonder the word is French in origin. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork! In my experience, everything has to be mailed by snail mail, and they ask for a confusing combination of original documents and photocopies, and then it takes a long time for them to process everything. Italy is also famous for its bureaucracy, but I was a little bit sheltered when I studied abroad in Florence, because my study abroad program helped us out a lot.

Things that I miss about Minnesota:

  1. Fall. The leaves change color here too, but the culture of fall is stronger in the Midwest. Minnesotans milk it for all that it’s worth because we are forced to hunker down and hibernate for the winter afterwards. I miss football games outside, pumpkin carving, Halloween mania, gathering squash from the family garden, corn mazes, and apple pie. I even miss hearing people obsess about pumpkin spice! Halloween isn’t a french tradition at all, but it has become more popular in recent years. Cyril and I had a small Halloween get together and half the people dressed up- the half that had lived in the US for at least a semester of college:) Wrestling season is starting in Minnesota, and I wish I could be there to watch my brothers duke it out for the Gophers. But the worst is that I am going to miss Thanksgiving with my family:(halloween2
  2. Dressing casually. I don’t wear sweatpants/ yoga pants/ t shirts in public. The French are dressier than Americans, and I am trying hard not to stand out, so goodbye yoga pants! But sometimes a girl just wants to be comfy!
  3. Communicating easily. Doing simple things like going to the post office are harder here. I have to mentally prepare myself and plan what I am going to say. Then of course, they ask me a question that I wasn’t expecting and that throws me off! Talking on the phone is even worse. But it is all a learning experience, and my french is improving tremendously.
  4. Most of all I miss my family and friends! So don’t hesitate to get in touch via facetime, skype, or google hangout!

Le commencement

Today began my seven-month English teaching stint in France! I will be working with elementary school kids in three schools in Velizy, a suburb of Paris. The TAPIF program is run through the French embassy. Every year, they bring 4,500 assistants in from 60 different countries to teach 15 different languages. About 1,200 are American.

For the first day today, there was a training and administrative session for all of the English language teaching assistants in the region. The whole morning was spent signing on dotted lines, checking boxes, and learning the subtleties of French insurance. French bureaucracy and paperwork are infamous but it wasn’t too bad to go through when there was someone there to hold our hands.

The teaching training session was quite helpful. I feel more comfortable now I know their expectations for me as an assistant. I will be working with the teacher, facilitating activities that increase cultural awareness and enhance the pupils’ speaking, reading, writing, listening, and conversation skills. The ministry of education has gathered tools and links to websites upon websites of games, stories, songs, videos, and texts that I can adapt for my lessons.

The importance of speaking extremely slowly, clearly, and simply was stressed. I was surprised to learn that we should never, ever speak to the students in French, although this is a relief to me because I am not yet fluent in French. When they don’t understand we have to get the ideas through with gestures, repetition, and pictures. Another surprising thing is that we should not write the English words on the board for the younger students. French kids are taught English by ear until they are 10. The logic is that English spelling is so wacky that it will confuse the young students beyond repair. When I am learning another language, I need to see new vocabulary written down, otherwise it goes in one ear and out the other! But that might be one of the differences between learning a second language as an adult as opposed to as a child.

It was a relief to meet the other English assistants of the region! 2/3rds are British, and most of them are French majors still in university. This kind of program is an option for them instead of studying abroad or doing an internship abroad. Most of the American assistants are recent graduates, like me.

My fellow assistants  and I
My fellow assistants and I

It was surreal to hear the British assistants talking about going home occasionally for a weekend. To think that London is so close is incredible! Only 4.5 hours away by car. Myself, I am just looking forward to going home for Christmas.

One of the most important reasons that this program exists is so that French students can learn English from someone with a ‘bon accent’. But there are many kinds of English accents and they are quite different from one other! I think it would difficult to learn from an American one year, an Australian the next, and then from a Brit. I had to concentrate quite a bit more than usual over lunch while I was chatting with some Brits in order to follow the conversation.

I am lucky because my contact person in Velizy has reached out to me and been responsive through email, which is not the case with some other assistants, who still weren’t sure what school they would be working in, or what time to show up there for their first day tomorrow! At 9 am tomorrow I will report to Velizy to meet teachers and staff at the elementary schools and probably fill out some more paperwork. Next week I will spend time observing the English classes and the 12th, I will begin teaching.

Notre Dame

I arrived a week ago to settle in and enjoy myself a bit before work started. This past week has been beautifully sunny, (which is rare in Paris) and not too cold yet. Cyril’s friend Chèdid remarked to me, “It is incredible, it seems that you have brought the sun with you!” I spent a great deal of time outside exploring the city.  This past weekend was the ‘Fête des Jardins’. All the gardens of the city of Paris were free and open to the public, including the ones located on historic sites and in ancient monasteries.  Saturday I dragged Cyril to the other side of Paris to visit the Parc Floral. The botanic garden has several prominent botanical and horticultural collections, including Dahlias, Irises, Astilbes, Geraniums, Pelargoniums, Ferns, and even Jurrasic plants. The Dahlias were breathtaking in full bloom. My plant geek self was in heaven.

Lovely Dahlias
Lovely Dahlias

We took a group tour of the garden, and I was very encouraged by how much of the French I understood. It helped that french botanical terms are almost identical to their English counterparts, albeit spoken with an accent. I normally have difficulty understanding French people in normal conversation. They don’t enunciate clearly and speak too fast. I cannot wait until I am fluent.

Parc Floral de Paris

In the park, Cyril and I played a game of minigolf, which is a rare treat in France. The concept of the course was fun. All of the holes were represented by mini Parisian monuments, and they were arranged spatially in reference to each other as they would be in real life, complete with a moat for the Seine River.  Unfortunately, Cyril won, so I will never hear the end of it.

Cyril tried to convince me to pose with my losing score
Cyril tried to convince me to pose with my losing score

Sunday was ‘Journée sans Voiture’ or a day without cars. Parts of the city were closed off to cars from 11 am to 6 pm. It was lovely! Cyril and I biked from Boulogne to the city center using the bike share system Velib. Most impressively, in the center of Paris,the famous boulevard Champs-Élysées was full of people and bikes. The sight reminded Cyril of photos he had seen of the boulevard in 1998 after the French won the world cup and shut down the streets with their partying.

In front of the Champs-Élysées
In front of the Champs-Élysées

That night we met up with some friends to see a variety show. Many of the performers were comedians, and about 95% of what they said went right over my head. The excellent in-house band played mostly american music in between acts so they were my reward for trying so hard to understand what was going on.

More adventures to follow. Thanks for reading, friends and fam:)

Dinner cruise on the Seine
Dinner cruise on the Seine
Théâtre de la Ville
Théâtre de la Ville