Goodbye France!

I have been back in the US for a month now and have had time to reflect more on my experience in France. I wanted to wrap up my blog with a few of the highlights of my time abroad.

  • Friends and family

First and foremost, it was special forming a real relationship with Cyril’s family, getting to know his friends to the point of them becoming my friends, and also adventuring out and making my own friends. Learning French enabled me to do this which brings me to my next highlight.

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Cyril and I with his mom and stepdad

The sunny south

  • French

I am now comfortable speaking French! It is no easy task learning another language; living in France and surrounding myself with French was necessary. I still remember how the language sounded before I started learning; completely alien and unintelligible! The process has been like a blurry picture slowly coming into focus. Very rewarding as one of my life goals was to become fluent in another language.

Thoughts on learning French

Embarrassing things I have said in French

Embarrassing things I have said in French Round 2

Embarrassing things I have said in French-round 3

  • Volleyball

I loved playing volleyball with ACBB, first as part of the Panda’s and then with the departmental woman’s team. I am not sure if the endeavor was a net loss or gain of calories though, with all of the aperitifs after the games and drinks after the Friday night practices:)

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  • Visitors

Visits in France from my favorite people were the best. I adored playing the tour guide and showing them around.

  • Paris

What an amazing city! I got to know it intimately by walking around and getting lost, biking with velib, and doing a book of paper chases. The museums are world-class and the parks are lovely- one of my favorites was right next to my home.

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Parc de Billancourt cannot be beat in March!
  • Food adventures

French cuisine lives up to its reputation; eating out and family meals were always a treat. My favorites were cheese and fresh bread. We had 4 bakeries within 10 minute walking distance, something I will miss dearly in the US.

Six week mark ramblings

Escargots

Misadventures in Easter egg dyeing

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Mmmm frog legs!
  • The Euro football championship

Last June and July were crazy with the Euro in full swing. If only France had beaten Portugal in the Finals!

Euro 2016

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  • The 2017 French presidential elections

It was a roller coaster election that unfolded with scandals, plot twists, and unlikely candidates gaining prominence. It was fascinating to see the process from beginning to end. The political atmosphere was tumultuous with the French wrestling with many of the same issues as Americans had a few months before. In the end there were many records broken, some good some bad, including the youngest president ever, the largest voting abstention rates ever, the first time that neither of the two major parties’ candidates made it to the final voting round, and the most legislative turnover ever. Even though it was long, drawn-out, and stressful at times, this was a highlight because I felt like I bonded with the French through the process.

  • Teaching

I enjoyed the challenge of teaching. I learned a lot about myself and more about English grammar than I ever cared to know. The students were really the best part of the gig. My elementary class students were so darn cute and my private lesson students all had interesting personalities and different learning styles.

Le commencement

Week one impressions

French kids say the darnedest things

French Kids Say the Darnedest Things Round 2

French Kids Say the Darnedest Things Round 3

French Kids Say the Darnedest Things Round 4

French kids say the darnedest things round 5

English is Weird

English is Weird Reprise

American and French Education, contrasted

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  • Comedy

It was a lot of fun going to the smallest, most tucked away comedy clubs of the capital and paying 10 euros to see talented comedians who weren’t famous yet.
Cyril went up on stage at our favorite open mic, first as a special audience guest, then as a performer doing his first ever 5 minute stand up set! (Pst if you speak French don’t forget to ask him to see the video).

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  • Traveling

We traveled extensively, often to visit family and friends in far off places.

In France we visited Normandy, Alsace, Angers, Verdun, Dreux, the French Alps, the Drôme, and Montpellier (more times than I can count). We also went to the Netherlands, London, Venice, Munich, Vienna, and Morocco (Blog post #2).


It was a lovely two years of my life! Leaving was bittersweet but tomorrow I am opening up a new chapter- graduate school at Rutgers in New Jersey!

À très bientôt la France!

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The Beer Tower

Recently, in the foothills of the Alps, we stumbled upon a new extreme sport: the beer tower.
The goal? To stack up as many beer crates as possible without falling.

It was hosted by the local outdoor adventure base and the local craft brewery so all the necessary equipment was provided: harnesses, beer crates, helmets, belay devices, and beer!

The atmosphere was convivial and laid back. It was funny to see all of the French hippies that came out for the event, although not surprising with the craft brew/ climbing combo.

For the qualifying round there was a 1 min 30 sec time limit.
Cyril and his cousin Thomas stacked 10 each and qualified for the final round. I just missed it with 9.

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And the fall!!

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Thomas just barely got to 10 before the stack toppled!

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It’s not as easy as it looks folks! And I swear, I only drank one beer before my attempt;)

In the final round, contestants stacked as high as possible with no time limit. It kicked off with a guy that stacked 21 crates. Easy! He ended up ‘winning’ but wasn’t officially part of the contest because he was an employee of the adventure base.

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The winner

Cyril only stacked eleven before falling. He was disappointed to have cracked so quickly but in the end he got 5th place and some sweet goodies to take home.

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Thomas took home the third place prize with 17 crates. Bravo!

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And here is a video they made from last year’s competition. Enjoy!

 

 

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:)