Thursday, 30 August 2012

My Adriatic Swimming Pool

We actually wanted to go to the south of Italy for the last week of our holidays this summer, but a combination of cheaper flights and some pretty pictures in the travel supplement of the newspaper tempted us further east so, with very little advance planning, we touched down in Dubrovnik airport on Monday of last week.

When I say very little advance planning, I mean neither of us had actually opened the guidebook before we got on the plane. We had, however, booked our accommodation in advance and, after a quick overnight stay in Dubrovnik, we were on the fast ferry to the island of Korcula, just as was intended in our very sketchy planning.

Had I paid a bit more attention to the guidebook, I might have been less surprised by how small the town of Korcula actually was. If Dubrovnik is the pearl of the Adriatic, Korcula is a tiny gem nestling  in the setting of its ramparts and surrounded by rolling green hills and azure sea. You could visit it in half a day but it's the kind of place where you can wander the same streets again and again and always find something new to notice.

Nevertheless, it's fair to say that the island is more suited to outdoor activities and there is plenty of gentle hiking and biking to do. One day we hired bikes in Korcula and cycled to Lumbarda, where there are a couple of the Dalmatian coast's rare sandy beaches, then got horribly lost trying to walk to a lighthouse with a very inadequate map, and on another we got the bus up to the inland town of Krnovo and hiked back down, enjoying stunning views of the town, the sea and the mainland on the way.

Mostly, though, it was a bit hot for walking and cycling, especially up steep hills, but that didn't mean that being active was out of the question, because the coast of Croatia is a swimmer's paradise. Like a visual reminder that coastline really is as long as you can measure it to be, it zigzags in and out, with tiny pebbled beaches hidden in every nook and cranny among the rocks. Because of the shingle and the sea-urchins, it's a good idea to wear plastic shoes, and a mat for lying on the rocky (or sometimes concrete) surfaces is a good idea, but the water is crystal clear and sparkling, then turning into the deepest blue as it stretches out in front of you like a genuine infinity swimming pool. There's barely any tide, and the waves tend to come from passing boats, but it mostly gets deep quickly, meaning that you can really swim, rather than just splashing around, and it's so salty that when you get tired you can just lie on your back and float and admire the scenery around you.

The other memorable thing we did on Korcula was watch a performance of Moreska, which is a type of traditional dancing/martial art combined with swords. The dancers/fighters were members of a local association and they were truly amazing. Sparks were flying from the blades of the sword as they struck right and left, with the dancers spinning in circles in the combat, and the weapons were definitely sharp because one of the performers was injured and had to discreetly wipe his bleeding hands on the white cloth they all wore as part of their costumes. That show was probably the one stressful moment in what was otherwise a very relaxing four days!

Friday, 24 August 2012

Where Was I? Competition Solution and Winners

If you've been reading my past few posts, you'll have figured out by now that we were indeed in Brittany for the first part of August. Congratulations to Ksam, who also got the exact location and purpose of our visit: the Festival Interceltique de Lorient.

The Festival Interceltique is a week-long annual gathering of Celts from around the world where strange languages are spoken and the sound of the bagpipes is everywhere. The Celtic nations are the ones on the flag in the photo (clockwise from top left: Brittany, Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland) plus Asturias and Galicia in Spain, while the Celtic diaspora includes populations in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Mexico and this year's special guests, the Acadians from Canada, whose homelands were shown in the map photo.

Galician Piper
Normally the town is heaving during the festival but this was a quiet year and we strolled around the market and watched a free concert with no difficulty. We visited a stall selling cheese from Cornwall and tried some bizarre but delicious flavours of cheddar: curry, onion and vinegar and strawberries and champagne. The British reputation for eccentricity is being well upheld. We also couldn't resist a Kouign Amann (the cake in the photo), a Breton heart attack in pastry form that is essentially bread dough with lots and lots of warm, melty butter and caramelised sugar. We could have had haggis for lunch but my mother always told me not to eat haggis unless I knew where it came from, and a thousand miles from its possible origins seemed a bit too far away to be sure, so we opted for an Asturian menu instead: sausage with spicy sauce, meat and potato stew and rice pudding for desert. Despite numerous opportunities, we didn't actually drink any Guinness.

Asturian Lunch

Having eaten our way across the Celtic nations, we watched some Breton dancing, which involves lots of walking around in circles stamping your feet and turning your hands forwards and backwards in the right direction, but is a lot more technical (and interesting) than than makes it sound, so we didn't feel we could join in. The dancers were accompanied by musicians playing the fiddle, accordeon and bombarde, which is the instrument in one of the quiz pictures.

Celtic coast walk to burn off some celtic calories.
We opted instead for a walk along the coast west of the town and I caught my first glimpses of the Breton end of the Earth (Finistere). It was a fun day but the best part of the festival is actually the closing show, which we didn't have tickets and so ended up watching on TV at home instead.

Thank you to everyone who entered the competition - it was fun to read your comments and see what the guesses were. Ksam, you win first prize but I decided to have a runner up chosen at random from everyone who commented and Understanding Frenchman picked Zhu at random. If you guys email your postal addresses to englishprof at hotmail dot fr, I'll send you your prizes!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Belle Ile

Back in the summer of 2003, a friend and I tried to go on a trip to Brittany. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of a massive train strike and the man at the ticket office just laughed at us and told us to go and ride our bikes in the forest instead. I suspect that we probably did.

And so it was that I had a dream of north-west France long before I went there. In my head, Brittany was the wild, Celtic west of France, and my imagination was fuelled by images of ragged coastline under permanent attack from an angry sea, with hinterlands covered in heathery scrub and fiddle music in every pub.

I didn't want to admit it to myself, but the first time I actually found myself en Bretagne, I was a little disappointed. The sea was a gorgeous azure blue, the coastline was somewhat rocky and the gwenn ha dubh fluttered from the ramparts of Saint-Malo but the beaches were seaside resorts patterned with stripy parasols arranged in perfect rows and the coastal path was a concrete promenade bordered by the civilised gardens of English-style houses. (The crepes, on the other hand, were delicious.)

Since then I've learned a little more. West of Dinard, the sentier des Douaniers winds its way along an increasingly wild coast where modern bungalows and sandcastle shops are interspersed with promontories covered with heather and gorse. Particularly inland, the pretty stone cottages are there, and I even managed to find the fiddle music in Normandy. Still missing, though, were the jagged rocks and the roaring waves, and those magnificent lighthouses surrounded by clouds of sea-spray that you see on Breton calendars everywhere.

And then I went to Belle-Ile, and found everything that I was looking for.

Le Palais
We took the ferry from Quiberon, arriving at Le Palais just after 11am. You can also sail from Vannes and tickets from either cost about 30 euros return. I would have bought a day ticket for the bus but Understanding Frenchman was feeling adventurous and wanted to hire a scooter. By walking a few hundred metres from the sea-front, we were able to find one, but if you're interested in hiring a car (there are some dinky little ones that look like they're made of Lego if you're not bothered about going too fast) it would be worth arriving early or booking in advance. A little fearful, I wrapped my arms around his waist and we were off!

Boats at Sauzon
Our first stop was Sauzon, another port further up the coast, where we ate galettes and kouign amman sitting on a wall, then we made our way west as fast as our little 50cc bike would let us.

Pointe des Poulains
I was already happy with what I had seen and was looking forward to exploring the coastline some more, but when, still a good 5 minute walk from the cliffs at the Pointe des Poulains, we could already sea the waves exploding over the rocks, I realised it was going to be even better than I expected. And I was right. The photos don't really do justice to either the scale or the movement of the water, even although we stayed for at least an hour with me trying to capture everything on camera and Understanding Frenchman being particularly understanding.

After that, we went on to L'Apothecairerie to admire even higher cliffs, a huge natural arch, and this little staircase cut into the rock where you used to be able to walk until it became too dangerous.

Aiguilles du Coton
We had accidentally timed it so that high tide occurred around the time we arrived at the Aiguilles du Coton, so named because the spray rising behind them looks like the heads of cotton plants. The rocks themselves are supposed to resemble Mont-Saint-Michel, a howling dog, a
chicken, a sphinx and the profile of Louis XIV. Can you work out which is which?

We finished by taking a tour around the east end of the island, which was also very pretty, although less exciting, especially as we had mastered the technique of going round the bends on the scooter by that point!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Of Mary and Motorbikes

Anybody who lives in France knows that the 15th of August is a big national holiday. And, as such, as well as being the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is a day when you probably want to stay off the roads, because the whole country is probably trying to go somewhere.

Here in Brittany*, not only is the religious aspect of the day well-celebrated, with statues being paraded around villages in the traditional fashion, but there's an extra reason to stay off the roads as well: ten or twenty thousand motorcyclists descend on the small town of Porcaro to be blessed by the priest in a ceremony named "Madonne des Motards" or "Madonna of the Bikers" before riding around a circuit of 60km or so, waving on the way at the residents of the local towns and tossing sweets to the children.

Alternatively, if parading petrolheads aren't really your thing, you can head to the fabulously named town of Pleucadeuc, where you may start to wonder if all those roaring engines have given you double vision, because the 15th August is the date of the Grand Rassemblement des 2 et Plus, a grand gathering where twins, triplets and other multiple-birth siblings can attend mass together and enjoy a free aperitif.

It's all happening here en Bretagne!

* I realise this is a big clue in the Where Am I competition in my last post. The answers so far have been close but I thought somebody might figure out a few more details. You can post as many answers as you like but I'll only enter names into the prize draw once!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Blogger Travel Quiz: Where am I?

Understanding Frenchman and I are on holiday. If you can guess from the pictures below where we are and what we've been doing, leave a comment in the box for the chance to win a mystery prize!
Lunch: Sausage with spicy sauce, bean casserole, meat stew with plenty of garlic and bean broth.
A Helpful Map ... sort of

A piper ... but where's his kilt?
There was plenty of this around ...
And a few of these...

We bought some of this

Some local scenery

How many flags do you recognise? And what is the connection?

Monday, 13 August 2012

How to be a Happy Expat Part 2

"You're must be quite a Francophile," people have stated to me on more than one occasion.

The response is a resounding "no", but only in my head. Outwardly, I just shrug my shoulders and say, "Perhaps."

Because how do you explain to someone that hasn't been there that twenty years of language learning, an honours degree, five years in a country, the ability to bluff convincingly about the difference between the different wine regions and a long-term relationship with a very nice French man are not enough to justify the slapping on of that label?

There are many things that I love about France, from the vast scope of its landscapes to the smallest details of its social customs. There are many things I dislike too, most of which I've ranted about  discussed in a mature and sensible manner on this blog already.

When I go home, I experience the exact same thing in reverse. Things to love, things to hate. Things that are better in France, things that the French could learn from us. Comparisons are inevitable.

But while I still enjoy examining the differences on an intellectual level, I find that, the longer I live in France, the less these external differences provoke me to agonise over whether being here is the right decision. It's partly because the longer I've stayed, the better things have worked out. But it's also because I've figured out that choosing to live here doesn't mean I have to love everything about it, and nor do I have to buy into all of it. Likewise, as this very funny blog post explains much more humorously than I could, when things go wrong, it's not necessarily France's fault either.

And that's why I dislike the term "Francophile". A country and its culture is far too much to love or admire in its entirety. Trying to decide whether the country deserves it or not is exhausting as well as impossible. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy being here.

In summary: am I a lover of France? Perhaps not. Do I love living in France? Oh yes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How to be a Happy Expat (Version Two)

This summer for me marks the end of my fifth year in France. 5 years, four jobs, three addresses, two attempts to return home, and somehow, I find myself feeling settled and happy in this country, with no real desire to move on any time soon. I don't regret (m)any of the experiences I've had along the way and I suspect many of the lessons can only be learned the hard way, but, for what it's worth, here are my pearls of wisdom about how to turn a university year abroad into over half a decade of international living.

1. Location is important.

When I was young and naive, living in France was my goal and I didn't think terribly hard about the finer details. I've had some great experiences in the less visited regions of provincial France, and in my first year in particular, there were lots of advantages in being off the beaten tourist/expat track, but in the long term, a place that wouldn't make you happy in your home country isn't going to be that much different just because it's abroad. This isn't to say that everyone should live in the capital or the tourist havens, just that you need to weigh up the pros and cons just as carefully as you would in your native land.

2. Find your career

Not an easy one for foreigners in any country, and particularly not in France, where being different is often not an advantage. I happen to work in a sector where it's fairly easy to find a job anywhere in the world, but ironically it was returning home after years 1 and 2 that gave me the option of coming back to France to continue a satisfying career that I love. If I had been more focused on staying in France, either for myself or for somebody else, that would never have happened.

3. Have a balanced attitude to language.

During my first two years in France, I was very focused on speaking French at every opportunity (and luckily, in deepest Picardie, the opportunities to do anything else were pretty limited!). Now that my French is fluent, though, I really appreciate that I have a lot of contact with native English speakers as well. My French may have plateau-ed a little, but I think this is an OK trade-off for the fact that I get to maintain a linguistic balance in my life. There was a time when I avoided speaking English, and often felt taken advantage of if French people wanted to speak English with me, but I suspect I lost out on some interesting friendships as a result. By all means work hard to learn the local language, but don't underestimate the value of being able to express yourself in your mother tongue too!

4. Make local friends

Again, not always easy, but very important. Many of the best things about life in France occur in private circles (and, more specifically, around the dinner table!). Having French (or whatever nationality) friends, or (and I hate to wheel out the old cliche, but it's true) a French partner, allows you to enjoy all the things that make these crazy "What is going on here?" moments of the first year or so worth putting up with.Take the time to get to know people well and you'll gradually start to understand why things are they way they are too.

5. Make international friends.

Easy to do in Paris, perhaps harder elsewhere, but this is one of the best parts of living abroad for me. Being fellow-foreigners is an excuse to meet all kinds of interesting people and international friends can sate your appetite for foreign culture long after your French environment has started to feel like home.

Those are my tips. What are yours?

How to be a Happy Expat, Part One

The original version of this post was written in the middle of the night after a couple of hours in the pub, with the inevitable consequence that much of what I wrote was the blindingly obvious stated in a somewhat incoherent way.

I think I will re-post it later after some much-needed editing.