Authentic Morocco

In February Cyril and I had the fortune to travel to Morocco with our friend Chédid. He acted as our guide, and did an awesome job welcoming us and giving us an authentic taste of his home country. We stayed with him and his aunt, first in their home in Agadir, and then in the mountain village where his family is from.

Cyril went to Morocco once before with his family, thirteen years ago. However, they didn’t venture very far from their beach-side resort. This was my first experience on the African continent and in a predominantly Muslim country.

Day 1

When we arrived, Chédid took us straight away to one of the largest walled markets in Morocco. The Souk El Had (Sunday Market) is an impressive maze of 6,000 stands overflowing with fresh produce, spices, tableware, rugs, furniture, and tailor-made clothes. It is possible to buy almost anything here.

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In France, as long as I don’t dress like an American tourist, they can’t tell that I am a foreigner until they hear my accent. However, they would describe me as ‘blonde’ even though by Minnesota standards I am far from being one. In Morocco, you could spot me from a mile away. Cyril has a Mediterranean complexion so he didn’t stand out as much as I did. Cyril and Chédid gave me a lot of flack for being so pale. Chédid began referring to us as the ‘white man and the transparent woman’.

For lunch that day Chédid’s aunt, Tahra, prepared couscous for us. We ate our dessert outside in the sun while Chédid and Tahra tried to teach us a bit of Berber and Arabic. I struggled; it took me a full day before I could remember how to say hello and thank you. The words went in one ear and out the other.
Cyril was much better than me. When Chédid spoke with his aunt, Cyril would pick out random words and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ He was pretty good at remembering words that Chédid explained, but often forgot their meanings, so he would whip them out at random times and use them out of context.

Chédid speaks four languages fluently, which is humbling. He can switch easily between French, English, Arabic, and Berber. Berber and Arabic are about as different as Arabic and English. Berber is Chédid’s first language because he is a Berber, an ethnic minority from the south of Morocco with its own culture and language.

Tahra only speaks Berber, but we were able to communicate just fine. She is such a cute lady, with an infectious laugh and a great sense of humor. It was hilarious because occasionally she would embarrass Chédid with her jokes and he would just shake his head and refuse to translate them.

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I think this picture captures Tahra and Chédid perfectly

That afternoon we explored the Crocopark, a cool botanic garden/crocodile zoo fusion. It was a delightful park with a design that cleverly integrated its two aspects while making it seem much larger than it was.

It offered several opportunities to get up close and personal with crocs, as well as croc-themed playgrounds, a laboratory to see the babies, and an ecologically-themed art exhibit.
I had pushed the guys to go because I had really wanted to visit a botanic garden, but in the end they enjoyed it as much as I did.

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As we were driving through Agadir on the way home we passed a verdant green, gated estate. Chédid pointed it out as the king’s palace. I said, ‘Ooh! Can we visit it!?’ Chédid laughed at me, ‘You are so cute and so American! That is definitely off limits unless you are invited!’

That evening after dinner Tahra prepared tea for us.
Moroccan tea has no equal and Chédid’s aunt makes the best:) She prepared numerous pots of tea for us during our stay- to accompany every snack and to help digest after every meal. Even the way they serve it is elegant; I would fly back to Morocco just for her tea!

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Day 2

We started off the morning with a stroll along the beachfront and visit to the little city zoo.

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It was the perfect time to see the Bougainvilleas in bloom!

The most striking feature of the city is a hill to the north on which is written God, Country, King. It is even lit up at night, Hollywood style.

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The afternoon was chill- we ate a late lunch at a sumptuous restaurant that specializes in tajine, stew slow-cooked in a special earthenware pot, followed by a nap on the beach.

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Quite a lovely restaurant

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Chédid took us to a resort golf course on the way home so that we could watch the sunset. This was the only place of the trip where alcohol was on the menu. It was a bit strange to be on vacation and not drink alcohol, but we survived just fine.

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Enjoying the sunset
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Quel beau gosse!!

For dinner we met Jalal and Soufiane at a kebab place.  They are long-time friends of Chédid’s that Cyril got to know at grad school. With all of the time we spent with friends it was a homey vacation! The place was great too; there was a butcher counter in the restaurant where we could pick out the kebabs and the meat we wanted, and then they grilled it up at the restaurant.

When we left the restaurant we had to pay for our parking. Even at restaurants like this one with their own parking lots and at the beach far from the city, there was always a parking attendant hanging around that would ask Chédid for money as we left. Sometimes they looked semi-official with a badge or a neon vest, but other times it seemed like the attendant was just some random guy that had camped out for the day at the parking lot and claimed the territory as his own.
Once we asked Chédid if a particularly-suspicious looking parking attendant was legit and he shrugged, ‘I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyways, besides I would rather have someone here watching over the car.’ In any case, it was a fixed rate that was never more than 50 cents.

After dinner we went up to the top of ‘Hollywood’ hill to get a good view of the city at night. On top there are the ruins of Agadir’s old walled city, its medina. It has been abandoned since it was flattened by a terrible earthquake in 1960. Agadir was completely rebuilt after that so it doesn’t have an old fashioned city center.

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Day 3

Off to the mountains! All four of us piled into Chédid’s car for the three hour drive to his family’s home in the mountains. We took a pit stop in Tiznit to check out its medina and have lunch.
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Another souk

As we drove to Chédid’s village the land became progressively more arid and we steadily gained altitude.

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On the way Chédid pointed out several ‘saints’ shrines. Technically saints aren’t allowed in Islam, but the Berbers have bent the rules a bit. They kinda do their own thing, the Berbers…

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This made us laugh- “Ici on fait le crédit berbére” It means, “We take Berber credit here.” aka cash only

According to Chédid, Berbers are very rooted to the land and to their families. Even though many have moved to other parts of Morocco and abroad, everyone maintains a connection to their village and their roots. People are very loath to sell their land, even after moving away. In the mountains we saw almost no beggars because people there take really good care of relatives, no matter what. In contrast, there were an abundance of beggars in Adagir, even by Parisian standards.

After settling into the house and checking out their orchard we took a hike around the area just before sunset. Chédid showed us the argan trees that this region is famous for. They dominate the vegetation here, but grow nowhere else in the world.

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Chédid’s family’s orchard
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Mostly olive trees- Cyril and I took some of their homemade olive oil home with us!
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They had a few almond trees mixed into the orchard. We came at the perfect time to see them in bloom! Their scent is heavenly. If we had come two weeks later, we could have partaken in the region’s almond tree festival.
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An argan tree- its seeds are used to make a high value culinary and cosmetic oil
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The argan tree seed shells were striking
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We crossed paths with some shepherds bringing in their flock for the night
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Chédid’s village (photo taken the next morning in better lighting)

His little village was picturesque, with its own mosque, just like the other little villages in the mountains. Religion was more present here than in Agadir. The call of prayer echoed off of the mountains 5 times a day. We even heard it at the top of the Jebel el Kest mountain.
Cyril, Chédid, and I drove to the small capital of the region to eat dinner. We met with Chédid’s cousin and one of his best friends, Amina and Hicham, who are married (what a matchmaker Chédid is!).

After dinner we walked around the village and I couldn’t help noticing an abundance of cats!
In Morocco, stray cats, some scruffy but most regal, were omnipresent. They seemed like the Moroccan equivalent of squirrels. Homeowners and market vendors put out scraps for them but people don’t keep them as pets.
There had been a cat hanging around Chédid’s family home earlier that day, so I had asked him, ‘Is that actually your cat?’ ‘No it is more like the village cat; it makes the rounds to all of the houses, as it pleases.’

That night before going to bed, we headed outside to stargaze. I have never seen stars that bright before. In the mountains, far away from blaring lights, the milky way shows its splendor and all of the little stars that make the up the backbones of the constellations are visible. It was incredible!

Day 4

My favorite day of the trip! We took a scenic hike up to the top of the second-highest mountain in the range. It merited a separate blog post.

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Before hitting the road to go back to Agadir, we stopped by Amina and Hicham’s house for a snack and to say goodbye.

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We could have spent more time in Morocco, especially in the mountains where the company and scenery was excellent. We said our goodbyes and promised return!

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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!

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!

Adventures in food disenchantment

A few times in Europe I have had the strange experience of realizing that foods I thought were part of my ‘European’ heritage actually don’t exist over here. It has been a little disappointing, disenchanting, and frustrating.

St. Patrick’s day kind of snuck up on me, and I had no real desire to drink green beer in an overcrowded Irish pub. St. Patrick’s day isn’t big in France anyway so that wasn’t much else to do.  As I went over my options a thought popped into my mind…what better way to celebrate than with a heaping plate of corned beef and cabbage? And once I thought about it I couldn’t let it go. I had a craving that only salty, savory corned beef and cabbage could satisfy.

Corned beef and cabbage Photo credit: http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/corned-beef-and-cabbage-as-irish-as-spaghetti-and-meatballs

I am a wee bit Irish. (But really, I have proof!) My mother’s maiden name was Reilly, a heritage she received from John Owen O’Riley (He changed his name to Reilly when he arrived in the US). He was an Irish farmer who immigrated to the US in 1872 and homesteaded a farm which was also passed through the generations to my mother. I grew up there, a fact that I am very proud of.

My mother made corned beef and cabbage rarely. When she did it was on St. Patrick’s day. I remember her explaining that the Irish ate the brisket cut of the cow (the fatty neck part) because it was a cheap cut. They were often poor.

So on St. Patty’s day, I searched the net long and hard for Irish pubs serving the dish. Nothing. At most, I found posts of American expats in Paris discussing how to find the right ingredients to make it here. Turns out if I wanted to do it myself I would have to special order the brisket from a butcher because they don’t parcel up the meat in the same way here.

I dug a little deeper and found out that the Irish don’t actually eat corned beef and cabbage. Bacon is considered very traditional in Ireland because it was inexpensive. However, when floods of Irish immigrants landed on US soil, they found that pork was expensive, and beef was cheap, so they changed their eating habits. The story is actually quite interesting; I suggest googling it. In the end I wasn’t too disenchanted by the fact that it isn’t Irish. It is something uniquely Irish-American which I think is pretty neat.

The only ray of hope to find the dish would be to find an Americanized Irish pub in Paris. In my dreams! So I was left with a very intense food craving that I wasn’t able to satisfy. At least I didn’t go Ireland and expect to find corned beef. I would have been really disappointed.

Two years ago when I traveled to the Czech Republic I encountered a similar bit of food disenchantment. I expected to find my Great-Grandma Tuma’s kolackies and vomacka there, but couldn’t.

Those foods are the main connection I have to that part of my heritage. I turned down an opportunity to run for Miss Czech Slovak a few years ago because I thought I would feel like a phony running for such a prize. Now I realize that it probably would have been a compelling opportunity to learn more about what being a Czech-American means.

I made some casual inquiries to to my tour guides and other people while I was in Prague but I had no luck. So I turned to the internet.

Turns out that kolacky it is actually a general term for a pastry traditionally made for weddings in Central and Eastern Europe.

The picture below is how I remember my Great-Grandma’s ones looked and (surprise!) this picture was taken in New Prague, the town right next to where my Great-Grandma grew up. Apparently, there are a lot of variations, but the kolackies as I know them are from a small area in Minnesota. It is decently easy to find kolackies at bakeries there, but none of them can touch the ones she used to make.

Kolackies! Photo credit: http://heavytable.com/testing-kolacky-new-prague-area/

For vomacka soup, the only hits I found on the internet during my frantic search for info came from the small area of Minnesota that my great-grandma came from. Vomacka soup, by the way, is a creamy, vinegary vegetable soup (although Great-Grandma Tuma added chicken too).

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Vomacka soup Photo credit: http://heavytable.com/vomacka-round/

My mission to find the foods in Prague was a failure. I wasn’t able to eat either of those foods while I was there. I was really upset. I think it hit me hard because at that point I had been in Europe for 4.5 months and I was emotionally exhausted and ready to go home.

I think it also boiled down to me missing my great-grandma and some regrets I had about not asking her about her life and heritage or not eating more of her Czech food when she was alive. As much as I adore vomacka now, I didn’t like it when I was little. When my brothers and I went over to her house after school she always made the same thing, at our request: pizza rolls, cottage cheese, and jello. I was only 13 when she died but I feel like I could have done a better job.

Maybe I had also hoped to feel a little bit of a connection to Prague or the culture there, but I didn’t. I felt like just as much as a tourist and stranger as I did in places like Italy and Croatia.

Cyril didn’t understand at all, which was frustrating for me too. One of his grandmas immigrated from Belgium to France after WWII but I only found that out 2 months ago. He never mentioned it because he doesn’t think of himself of being part Belgian. It is a very American concept to think in terms of being 3/4 German, an 8th Czech, with a dash of Swiss and Irish. If you told a French person, ‘I am half German, half Italian,’ they would think that your mother was German and your father was Italian and that you are a duel citizen of the two countries. The subject never really comes up here like it does in the US.

Another sad but true food fact. Chicken alfredo is not Italian. It is a dish that Italian Americans created. Luckily I learned this from my Italian language classes before I headed over to Italy, and I have never had a sentimental or emotional attachment to the dish. For me it is just a fun fact but for some others it is quite disappointing!

Until next time!

La mer de glace

One day during our week in Megeve, Benjamin, Dominique, Cyril and I packed into the car and drove to Charmonix for a day trip. Charmonix is a little skiing town right on the border between France and Italy. It is very close to Mont Blanc and is situated in a tiny valley dwarfed on all sides by mountains. Because of this, Dominique told me that she preferred Megeve. The mountains there are present but not imposing. I loved it though. For me the mountains were more awe-inspiring than anything.

(To read more about my week in Megeve, click here)

We reached Charmonix early in order to catch the 10 am train up the mountain to the glacier, but the first train was delayed until 11. The crew needed time to clear all the snow from the night before off of the tracks and from the welcome center near the glacier.

The delay was actually a blessing because then we had time to go into the small city center to explore a bit. Charmonix had a beautiful city center, but with a noticeably more touristic air than Megeve.

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Cyril and his aunt Dominique in Charmonix

After a very steep train ride in a charming old-fashioned red mountain train we arrived at Montenvers and were greeted by this spectacular sight.

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La mer de glace!

It was my first time ever seeing a glacier in person so I was thrilled. Glaciers are incredibly fascinating for some reason that I can’t quite put a finger on. Is it their strength, age, rarity, perils, or immensity?

What’s more, we had the opportunity to visit a cave carved inside the glacier. We took a cable car down half way to the glacier and walked the rest of the way down many flights of stairs. They had plaques affixed to the rock every so often to say what year the glacier was at that height. Even though the glacier has had natural cycles of gain and retreat over the past 200 years, it is alarming to see how much it has retreated since 2010.

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The glacier is constantly ‘flowing’ and moving so they carve a new cave every year. It has been done since 1946!
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The new cave under construction
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Ice sculpture
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I just couldn’t get enough of the beautiful ice

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Back up by the visitors center, there was a small museum with displays about la mer de glace: its history, morphology, and importance. It was very well put together! The fact that blew me away is that there are actually little tiny organisms that live in the glacier. They can survive at very extreme pressures and temperatures, like at absolute zero (-273.15 Celsius) !!! The biology nerd in me was excited.
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Like science fiction come to life!!!!!!

And after that another first- snowshoeing! They had free rentals at the little glacier museum.

It was incredibly quiet on the trails; the softly falling snow muted everything. It was like Cyril and I had completely left civilization behind, even though I knew that the bustling glacial overlook was a stone’s throw away. The snow was deep at that altitude, probably about three feet. I couldn’t remember the last time I was surrounded by that much snow. To add to the ambiance, it started to snow huge fluffy snowflakes. I had never snowshoed before but I would do it again in a heart beat.

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Winter wonderland

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Towards the end we ran into rooms that were built into the huge mounds of snow.  They were spacious and surprisingly warm inside. It looked like they were renting them out for travelers. I would love to stay in a snow bunker like that for a night!

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Thanks for reading:)

To the mountains!

Ski culture is strong in France. From anywhere in the country, the French Alps or Pyrenees aren’t too far away. A lot of the French people I have talked to have been skiing since they could walk. Some families take a whole week or two to go to the mountains in February. The way the school system is set up almost encourages it. Public schools are in session for about 6 weeks and then there are 2 weeks of vacation, then 6 weeks of school, 2 weeks vacay, and so on. In the end, it evens out because the kids have school until the 5th of July. This is very strange for me because we didn’t have huge breaks in the middle of school in MN. At most it was two weeks for Christmas, two days for Thanksgiving, Easter Monday, random teacher work days, and unpredictable snow days. My school didn’t even get the week-long ‘spring break’ that some other schools did. As a teacher the long French school breaks are a bit alarming; I hope desperately that my kids aren’t going to lose everything over those two weeks!

We don’t have this culture of skiing in Minnesota. I learned how to ski (kind of) on ‘Mount’ Kato. Mount is a bit of a stretch. Real mountains are just too far away from us for skiing to be a big deal, like it is for people in Colorado and other mountain states.

Cyril and I had the opportunity to take part in this cultural phenomenon. A few Saturdays ago, we caught a BlaBlaCar ride share to take us to the alps. (BlaBlaCar is an awesome website that sets up ride shares in Europe.) We left at 4 am to avoid traffic on the six hour ride. Most people go from Saturday to Saturday and the traffic on the highway from Paris is horrendous. Even with leaving that early, the traffic built up just behind us.

We made it to Megeve without a worry and met up with his Aunt Dominique and Uncle Benjamin. They had graciously offered to host us for the week.

The town of Megeve is beautiful, but has changed a lot with the skiing tourism. Dominique has been going to there to ski her whole life and has seen the transformation. Megeve has more luxury clothes boutiques and art galleries than is natural for a town of 4,000. One day when we walked through the village, she pointed to a luxury macaroon chain shop that came from Paris.’That used to be a cheese shop that sold local cheeses.‘ She pointed to a few high fashion clothes stores, ‘And those shops used to be a really nice local book store.‘ It is difficult for people who are actually from Megeve to afford to live there year round. That is gentrification for you:/ Skiing towns are also reputed to be very expensive places in general, whether it be to rent an apartment or order a hot chocolate at a cafe. Honestly, coming from Paris, the prices seemed normal.

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Central square of Megeve
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Sketch of one of the little bridges in Megeve, one rainy morning

The first day we went skiing it was so clear that it seemed like I could reach out and touch Mont Blanc even though it was 10 miles away. The tallest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc is saddled right on the border of France and Italy. The weather was just perfect. Sunny and not a cloud in the sky and warm, almost too warm at times (11 C/ 50F!). By the end of the day the slopes were a bit beaten up and the snow very heavy and wet.

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Mont Blanc, just can’t get enough of it!

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This is my third year of skiing on real mountains but I was admittedly a little nervous before the first descent. Skiing looks easy, but ski boots are so clumsy and heavy and restrictive, and skis are so long and slippery and somehow the synergy of these two things is supposed to transform the wearer into something fast and graceful?

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Well, graceful isn’t a word I would use to describe myself, skis or no skis. But I can do red slopes with minimal wipe out and hang ok with people like Cyril who have skied their whole lives. However, there was one red slope that was my kryptonite. It felt steeper than other reds, and I wiped out three times in a row. After my second fall, Cyril turned on the camera, just in case. You can follow this link to see my humiliation. In my defense, it is much steeper than it looks on the film!

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We skied for another day, but the snow was melting too fast, so we took a break the next two days and explored the village. One rainy afternoon we went ice skating, but it seemed like everyone else in Megeve had the same idea. That was the most crowded ice skating session I have ever been to. It was more entertaining than usual because it became a game to try to skate through the crowds of slow beginners that blocked the way at every turn. (I am not a good skater, but I am still Minnesotan.) Cyril and I also had a fun time watching a select few little kids that were disasters on skates. They were so cute! There was one little boy wearing a red body suit and a helmet (thank God) who didn’t actually skate. His form could be more accurately described as running… on his toe picks. His whole body leaned forward at an alarming 30 degree angle. He had the most terrific wipe outs but he always got up right away, brushed himself off, and set off running again on his toe picks towards another inevitable fall.

Another day we all went to the border to see the largest glacier in France. To keep this post from becoming a veritable book, I made a separate post for this day. Click here for my glacier adventure!

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‘La mer de glace’ glacier

In Mevege it started to snow again on Thursday so we jumped at the opportunity to get back to the slopes. The snow was a delight to ski on, but the big, soft flakes were not so soft and lovely when speeding down the slope. The world was one big wall of white punctuated by blurry, colorful objects: other skiers and poles marking the edge of the slopes. The bright side was that the lines for the ski lifts were non-existent. We took it easy and stopped early to have a drink at La Folie Douce (Sweet Craziness), a fun bar at the top of one of the slopes. On sunny, busy days at the ski resort, this place is hoppin’. Check it out with this link:) They have an outside bar and dance area, with a live DJ, singers, and dancers. The dancers all have super cool styles, the kind of fun, inclusive dancing that makes one want to join in even when wearing clunky skiing boots.

Our last day of skiing was perfect. The snow was fresh and the weather was clear. Now I understand why skiing is so much better with clear, sunny weather. I have skied before when it was foggy, cloudy, or slightly rainy and I always thought that my skiing buddies complained too much about it. But now I realize that the best part about skiing is when one looks up from the slopes and sees the mountains towering above. They have an amazing energy!

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There is absolutely nothing better than the fatigue after a long day of skiing and knowing that you have the right to do nothing and eat everything afterwards.

Two of the nights we ate raclette, a popular Swiss/French melted cheese meal. It is so amazing and delicious that I think I am going to dedicate a whole blog post to it later. Just a warning for anyone who visits me in France-raclette is the first meal I will treat you to and your life will never be the same again.

In between the raclette meals, Cyril and I went out to a restaurant to eat a traditional Savoyard cheese fondue. A cheese revelation, but my heart still belongs to raclette.

Mmmmm, Fondue! Image courtesy of http://www.cerisesurlegateau.fr/une-fondue-savoyarde-aux-trois-fromages/

Another interesting food encounter: on the slopes one day we stopped at a restaurant that served a ‘sandwich americain’. It turned out to be hamburger patties, onions, tomatoes, and FRENCH FRIES all smothered in a sauce of one’s choosing and stuffed into a baguette bun. I am not sure how to interpret the name of this sandwich. Is it a compliment or an insult that this creative, delicious, fatty, outrageous sandwich is named after my county?

Cyril and I caught a night train back to Paris on Friday night. We had bunk beds reserved in the sleeping cars. With the rocking of the train I dreamt that I was skiing all night during the ride back into Paris.

Night train, image courtesy of http://www.asie360.com

 

 

 

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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