Going to town

Each week, there are three open-air markets where Claudine may sell her cheese, but not every market every week, usually just one. There is one Saturday in Arles, one Wednesday in Marseille, and one Friday in St. Martin de Crau, the town where we live. Apparently I might end up in a French Magazine because Claudine had to take some pictures of her market cart for a magazine. Her niece worked behind the counter and I acted as the customer for the picture. I also got to explore St. Martin de Crau on my own which was pretty easy since the main part of town is not very big. I went to the ecomusée and saw some giant dead beatles on display, cool pictures of dragonflies, and tried to read captions about geography of the region in French.

The first Friday night I was here, we went to a party celebrating a lady’s first 6 months of her farm opening. Ashley’s host family was also at the party so I was glad to catch up with her and not stand awkwardly by myself. We had hotdogs in baguette buns and sampled some cheeses and talked to a scottish girl who just finished her first year of ‘uni’ and she is being an au pair here for the summer. She studies French at school so she was way better than me. She called the Mediterranean sea ‘the Med’, and I’m totally adopting that, lol. We took Ashley home for the weekend so we could explore the city of Arles together while Claudine visited her friend. It was quite small but very pretty and historic, and the feel of it reminded me of Spain.

When we met up with Claudine in the afternoon, we were a bit surprised to find that she had two German girls with her, and we were even more surprised when they effortlessly switched from speaking French with Claudine to English with us to German with each other. They both just graduated from high school in Germany and are backpacking through the south of France for a month before they leave to do volunteer jobs for a year, one in Turkey, one in the north of France, because they don’t know what they would like to study at university. So I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with them and they are very fun and interesting and inquisitive.

On Tuesday Ashley spent the night again so we could wake up early to go to the market in Marseille, and we got to be tourists while Claudine sold her cheeses. Nothing much was open when we got there so we walked around the Vieux Port (old port) and admired the sights and sounds of Marseille, even though it rained a little bit. When the office of tourism opened, we got a map and a touristy booklet and found out we could take a bus to the top of the hill to see Notre Dame de la Garde, the obligatory must-see landmark of Marseille. The inside of the church was so beautiful, with intricate mosaics and paintings all over and model boats, and the outside was just as beautiful, with a view of the city and the Med, and the mountains. Then we decided to head way to the other side of the city to see the Palais de Longchamp, a beautiful building which houses some museums, however we did not have time to see the museums. It was definitely worth the journey though, it was a magnificent building! I thought ”wouldn’t it be cool if I went to school here and I could come study here”, but then I realized I don’t even take advantage of all the cool places in the Lansing area, so I must do that this year!

For la Fête Nationale (that’s Bastille Day for you Americans) Claudine and some of her friends took me and the German girls to Avignon, the city where the Pope once lived in Medieval times, where there was a big theater festival going on. There were posters and flyers everywhere for zillions of different shows and there were a lot of cool street performers, and some annoying ones who kept trying to hand out flyers for thier shows. We walked around looking at all the shops all day which were all overly expensive because it was such a touristy town. I was so exhausted that when I finally got to sit it felt so good. We went to a cafe and I got a smoothie that definitely wasn’t worth it. Don’t be fooled: just because milkshakes and smoothies go by the same name, they are not the same here as in America. They are not thick and creamy and delicious, they are watery, overly-blended, foam drinks. Ok, maybe not that bad, I am just missing all the good old American desserts. Apparently in Germany they have very large chocolate chip cookies which they call ‘American cookies’. Haha.

That night just outside of Avignon, we saw a ‘spectacle’ (that’s a funny word to say in French, it’s pronounced like ‘spec-TACK-la’) in a circus-like tent. It was a musical-theater show about a man without arms and a man with mullet wig trying to win over a woman. It was very funny, especially when they sang Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ in English, with French accents. And one of the characters had the greatest laugh, which I wish I could do an impression of, but Claudine does it excellently. Most of the show was visual, but when there was dialouge it was very annunciated and dramatic so I could actually understand a lot.

See ya later alligators!

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Bienvenue à la ferme

It was a little sad to leave all the people I was just getting to know at Purpan, but I love my internship so far. It has been quite the cultural experience! The train ride was a pain, but I got to travel with Ashley, since her internship is near mine, so I was glad not to have to figure everything out on my own. There are a lot of sunflower fields in the south of France; I think I may have to add ”own, or live on, or at the very least frolic through a sunflower field” to my bucket list.

Claudine picked us both up from the train station along with some friends of hers who are retired goat farmers who just returned from Greece, and Ashley’s host family picked her up later. She speaks enough English to communicate if I don’t understand her French. For the first few days I felt like I had actually gotten worse at French, just because everything is so fast, but I think I’m back on the upswing now.

When we arrived, I was shown my bedroom and then we went out to milk the goats. They have to be milked twice a day, morning and evening, and we of course feed them and give them water, and make cheese. So those are the main things I do every day, and the middle of the day is usually free to read or nap or sometimes run errands in town, and lunch is pretty important, the biggest meal of the day. We eat a lot of fresh things, vegetables and fruits, mostly everything is organic, sometimes Indian recipes because Claudine visited India earlier this year. The first night I had authentic south-of-France ratatouille. And there is bread with every meal, my favorite! For breakfast we usually have tea, bread with jam, and yogurt with granola. They don’t drink a lot of milk here, they seem to prefer making milk products.

There are 44 female goats that get milked, 10 baby goats, and one buck. The goats are named based on the year they were born, so this year all the baby goats have G-names, and the oldest is Roxane, who is 11 years old because she skips W, X, Y, Z, K, and Q. There is also a dog, whose name is the Portuguese word for ‘cheese’ and I don’t know how to spell it, a very sweet cat who I have made best friends with even though it probably has lots of fleas, and a peacock which just had 3 baby peacocks! For milking, there is an apparatus which suctions to the teats, and they eat a mix of barley, wheat, peas, and vitamins while they are being milked. They go in groups of 12, so there are 4 rounds of milking, the last group only having 8 goats, and it takes about an hour. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain in a blog, I’ll have to take some pictures. The milk from the previous evening and the morning are mixed and there is a certain amount of rennet and whey added to help the milk curdle, depending on the type of cheese you are making. After the morning milking, we go to the fromagérie (the cheese-making ‘laboratory’, I guess I would call it). For the main type of cheese, we have to drain the whey, scoop the curd into cups that have holes in the side to let them drain more, and wait until they form little cheeses. Then one side is salted, then you wait awhile, then flip them and the other side is salted, and then they go in a drying room. After that, they are moved to a cold room to ripen. It is not as cold as a refrigerator though, so that the natural bacteria which protect the cheese are not killed off, which is necessary since the milk is not pasteurized.

Claudine’s house is full of bright warm colors, red, yellow, and orange. She used to work with her husband but he died 4 years ago. She has two grown sons and 3 grandsons, and I will get to meet them later this month at a party celebrating her parents’ wedding anniversary of, I think she said 60 years(!), but I forgot. She had an intern 2 years ago from the same program I’m in, and she also used to have a helper, Nadine, who fell in love with a sailor and is now sailing around the Pacific Ocean, through the Panama Canal and next visiting the Galapagos. Claudine is hoping this will be her last year before she retires, then she is going to rent out everything to someone who will take over, and she wants to travel around the world. She has lots of friends always visiting and it sounds like she has met a lot of people around the world to go visit! I think that is enough for now, but I have seen so much and I have plenty to write about so I hope I will be back soon!

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Packing again

Time has flown here and it’s my last full day in Toulouse! I will just recap this week before I commence packing for my internship.

Monday started with learning about the history of wine, how to make it, and how to taste it. What I learned is that I am never going to be a wine connoisseur. First you look at the color, then you swirl it around so the aromas are let out and you take a good sniff, then you taste it, then you do a retronasal smell (I guess it’s like smelling it using your mouth…I’m not exactly sure about that one). We got to try a rose wine (lighter red wine), a white wine, and two red wines. We were equipped with a paper that had a wheel of all the different aromas/tastes we might encounter to help us distinguish them. Some people were really good and descriptive, but I have a horrible sense of smell so I thought it was pretty hard. And it’s so subjective, varying from person to person. It was funny though, because it seems like every time someone would mention a flavor such as citrusy or nutty, everyone else would be like “yeah, yeah that’s what it is.” And to sound like you know what you are talking about, all you have to do is use the word “yet”. Such as, “it has an oaky taste, yet slightly fruity like cherries, but the cherry comes later.”

Our field trips this week were to a flour mill and a foie gras factory. The flour mill was really loud but had a lot of really awesome, colorful machines that cut the grain and filtered it and put it in bags and stacked the bags and all sorts of things. And it smelled amazing! The foie gras place was interesting. We all had to wear plastic jackets and hair nets and shoe-covers and mouth-covers. There are higher quality livers which they process with just spices, and there are slightly lower-quality livers which are wrapped in ham to give them more flavor. So I learned that if you ever prepare some good foie gras for a French person, don’t put ham in it because that would be atrocious!

For the food option, we broke into groups of 2-3 people and we had to work on a project and present about it to the class, so we had some time to work on that this week. Mine was about merchandising of products and different brands. We did a survey comparing the taste of Nutella and store brand chocolate-hazelnut spread and found that a lot of people actually prefered the store brand or couldn’t tell the difference, however the real Nutella still won. The store brand uses cheaper ingredients and packaging to bring the price down, like more sugar and chocolate and less hazelnuts so it is a lot less creamy, and it is packaged in plastic instead of glass. I also noticed that some of the glasses in my apartment match the small-size nutella jars in the store…way to recycle!

We also had some interesting discussions about signs of quality, organic food and whether it is really better for the environment than non-organic food, traditional French cuisine, and differences between US and French food consumption. I encountered a big differenc while searching for marshmallows this week and I thought I might find them in the baking aisle, but I noticed there wasn’t a designated “baking aisle.” There was sugar and flour near each other, chocolate chips a few aisles down, and I didn’t notice any cake mixes or frostings, but I wasn’t really looking for those. I think we must make a lot more cookies and cakes and brownies in America.

The reason I was looking for marshmallows was to make rice krispies treats for the farewell dinner where all the American students make an “American” dish. It was really hard to think of the perfect dish. We don’t have ovens, only stoves, in our apartments here so that was pretty limiting. And I feel like in America we eat food of a lot of cultures: Mexican, Chinese, Italian, etc. But being mulit-cultural is America. That’s what we were founded on. I was definitely glad when someone suggested rice krispies treats. I did end up finding marshmallows in a candy aisle, but they had pink and orange swirls in them, so I put a chocolate drizzle on my creation just in case the marshmallows tasted funny, because it’s all about good presentation, right? But everyone seemed to like them a lot.

Friday afternoon in French class we had a “final exam”, part of which was a skit to make up dialogue for and act out in front of the class. We have done a few skits in class that turned out really hilarious, but these were more mellow. I have really come to appreciate French language since coming here. Everyone says it’s a really pretty language, but I always thought it sounded a bit gurgly. But it is really flowy and melodic and airy. And it’s a lot more formulaic than English, in which everything is changing and evolving all the time. What comes to mind is internet language, where people have bad grammar and abbreviate so many words and make up acronyms and then spell out acronyms phonetically. I’ve been learning English for 20 years, so I recognize all the nuances of the language, so that’s really what makes learning a new language so difficult. And whenever anyone speaks, they talk so fast that it’s hard to understand. I don’t know how much English my internship host speaks, but I hope to learn a lot more, or maybe I’ll just be an expert at charades when I come home!

I’m leaving on a train tomorrow to go about 4 hours southeast of Toulouse, and I found out I should have internet there, so see ya soon!

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“Une petite glace pour la petite americaine.”

Friday started out with another mini scavenger hunt for French class, only it was pointless because we finished it really fast and 2/3 of the places we were supposed to go weren’t even open. But our third stop was the big multimedia store, Virgin Megastore, and there I finally bought Harry Potter in French! I’m so excited to read it, but I am going to wait until I get home so I can compare with the English version and it will give me a way to continue practicing my French for when I come back to fully experience Paris. After the morning activities, it was our free weekend. For the longest time I had my heart set on going to Paris, and I even found some people who were also going there, but we have been going on so many fieldtrips and I didn’t want to spend 6 hours on a train there and back and be rushed to see everything one can see in Paris in only 1.5 days. So I figured it would be worth it to explore Toulouse a little better, since this has been my home for a month, and promise myself to come back to France soon to see Paris outside of the airport.

I had a short checklist for the weekend: picnic by the river, get ice cream/gelato, and go to a service at a fancy church. And of course, see more parts of the city which I haven’t seen yet. Friday I achieved the first two items on my list. It wasn’t exactly a “picnic,” but I and the group who stayed in Toulouse got sandwiches to go and sat by the river in the early evening eating them. It was very quaint. Then we went to an awesome gelato place some people had found in the Capitole, where you can get multiple flavors in a cone and they shape it into flower petals. Here is a picture so you can get the full effect (haha, I would put a picture of ice cream and not of most of the rest of my trip…now that I have figured out how to insert pictures, I will do a picture post soon summarizing my first month for those of you who have not seen them on facebook):
The man behind the counter speaks really good English and he remembered the girls who had gone there earlier, so I didn’t get to test whether I could pass as a French person. But all the flavors were in Italian so I couldn’t pronounce them very well anyway. Luckily they have pictures, and I ended up with a good combo. Then we went back the next day, so we are basically regulars. I have to go at least once more before I leave for my internship! Also, they have a branch in New York, if I ever end up visiting there again.

On Saturday basically every store in the city had big sales starting, so of course I and some of the other girls went shopping. I got a few good things, and then our group broke into smaller groups so I wandered around with Ashley for a few hours. We took the metro to the nearest stop to the Grand Rond, a large circular garden/park. But Before we got there we were sidetracked by the St. Etienne cathedral. It looked so amazing from the outside, but there was a wedding party out front so we didn’t go inside. The grand rond was alright; it was just a normal garden-park and we rested our feet there for a while. Then we walked toward the Palais de Justice (the courthouse), which was just another building that blended in with the rest of them, not very interesting. So we called it a day and headed home.

The only church we could find any services at was Basilique St. Sernin, which was fine with me. Four other girls came, and we were afraid we would stick out or they wouldn’t let us in or something. We decided to dress on the safe side with skirts/dresses below the knee and have our shoulders covered with a cardigan or a scarf, but it turned out not to be a big deal. There were plenty of touristy people there, some taking pictures from the back of the church. It was a very pretty mass, even though I only caught a few words here and there. And I couldn’t sing any of the songs except the one where the only word is “hallelujah.” There is a large organ that was played at the beginning and end of mass and it was kind of haunting but cool. It sounded kind of like Phantom of the Opera music to me. The inside of the church is very long and narrow so I couldn’t see all the way to the front and where the people came from, but after the mass there was a parade out of the church into the Capitole. Everyone was wearing different varieties of what I would describe as “traditional” clothing and clogs and playing accordions and bagpipes. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on or if this was a regular thing, but it was cool to see! And outside the church was a big market all the way around, mostly clothes and shoes and fabric. They have a lot of street markets here.

Overall, an interesting weekend! I can’t believe I’ve been here for 3½ weeks already, and I’ll be leaving for my internship in a few short days. I have much to write about before then, though, so à bientôt!


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Food, food, and more food.

This week we started the “food option” of the program and the “wine option” people split off and did their own thing. Monday and Tuesday mornings, we listened to French students present about various French food products or companies with which they are doing co-ops. It was a combination of an English project for them and a learning experience for us. We had to grade them based on clarity and interest of their topics, grammar, vocabulaty, etc. We also got to try some samples of sausage, calisson, nougat, and foie gras! The foie gras came out of a can and was sliced much too big for anyone to finish, but it was interesting nonetheless. My favorite however had to be the calisson, a sweet almond-shaped treat.

Tuesday night there was a big music festival in downtown Toulouse, and it was very funny to compare to American music events. At the main stage in the Capitole square, everyone just stood in front of the band and watched appreciatively. Nobody was dancing or loud, it was very chill, and it was perfectly possible to have a conversation at a normal volume without screaming or lip-reading. Down the street there were more musicians including a French Cristian band, a country band singing bad English music, and some techo and reggae-type stuff. I think it got more crazy later on, but I didn’t stay very long.

Wednesday was field-trip day. We started out with a French cuisine workshop in which we divided into mini groups and made lunch. There were veggie-cakes, duck kebabs, apple tarts, and many other things. I was part of the group that made sweet tabbouleh: couscous with mangoes, pears, kiwis, raspberries, mint leaves, and I think vanilla? I actually think it was one of the best dishes 🙂 The main chef kept coming around and speaking to us in French and the recipe was in French, but food is an international language!

After a long lunch we visited another dairy farm. They had a baby calf that was only one day old! Plus lots of other young cows and the biggest full-grown cows I have ever seen. They treated the cows very well and they could get milked whenever they want with an automatic milking machine, or go outside, or whatever they fancied at the moment. They also had 3 St. Bernard puppies which were so adorable! They were so fuzzy and they had big cute paws and everyone loved them. After the dairy farm we made one more stop at a vineyard where one of our program assistants grew up. It was beautiful there, and we learned that they operate organically. I also learned that they are not allowed to use irrigation because it is not part of the “terroir,” the natural environment of the land and the region.

Today while the wine group was visiting more vineyards, we got to learn how to make cheese! We made a semi-hard cheese and a soft cheese, and the main difference is how big you cut the curd and how you drain the whey. The harder cheese seemed to shape a lot faster, but it is supposed to ripen longer. We didn’t get to eat the cheese we made because it was not ready and it was more of an experiment than a real food item, but for lunch we had a bunch of different types of cheese to sample and compare. There was more Roquefort cheese there, and I tried a bite again but I found I didn’t like it much this time. Maybe it was the magic of being in the caves last time, or the option of more types I prefer this time. My favortie was one of the milder soft cheeses, but I don’t remember what it was called.

We also got information about our internships finally! I will be working on a goat-cheese farm with a single lady in the Provence region. Honestly, I don’t know much more. Some people got information sheets that said stuff about children, religion, pets, but mine was very sparse. However, I am told that she is very nice, she is good friends with the professor at this school who taught us all about cheese today, and another girl in this program is interning with her sister, so she will be the closest person I know to me but I’m not sure how far. It also looks somewhat close to the Mediterranean, but maps can be deceiving. I am very excited that I got what I asked for and something that I am happy with, and I’m sure I will tell you much more about cheesemaking later on!

Vive le fromage(hopefully that translates to “long live the cheese”)!

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Weekend in Barcelona

Hola amigos! I didn’t realize how much French I knew and how little Spanish I knew until this past weekend. I had forgotten how to say “goodbye” and “thank you” in Spanish, which is pretty basic. And when we arrived back in France, I felt a sense of comfort in that I could read words on the signs! I should start at the beginning though.

The bus ride was about 5 hours and we had a dinner stop near the border which made it even longer, then there was a mix-up with the hotels and to finally it was 10:30 pm when we were able to do anything. Most people wanted to go to the beach, but Claire and I were hungry and didn’t want to be stuck staying out until 4am with everyone, so we set off to find food. We made sure not to stray too far from the hotel, and we found a pizza place. They were nice enough to give us an English menu* and we took some time looking over all the delicious-sounding options before deciding on a simple prosciutto and some sangria, because what else are you supposed to do in Spain, right?.

The next morning we headed out to find Park Güell, designed by Antonio Gaudi and supposedly having a great view of the city. None of the touristy locations open until 10, so we headed out around 9:30 with a map of the city showing our location and a map of the metro station. We stopped for breakfast at a little bakery and got chocolate-filled criossants (you know, the usual) and after a lot of choosing random directions, finally found a metro station. When we got off we heard drums and loud music and thought there might be a parade, but it was actually a large gathering of kids playing soccer with a drumline on the field!

The park was way up a hill, and there were even outdoor escalators to take us up. It was true, you could see the top of the whole city, with mountains on one side and the Mediterranean way out in the distance! After walking around the large park and seeing various performers including musicians and a statue-man, we decided to go to the Picasso Museum. I never realized how much stuff Picasso made, and how much variety there was in his work. My favorites were the paintings with really thick paint, because if you get up close you can see the different colors and brush strokes deliberately placed there to make a certain image, and you realize you are so close to the famous artist who made it, and that he must have put so much work into it. After the museum, we were very hungry for lunch, so we stopped at one of the outdoor cafes near the museum and tried paella because we wanted to eat all authentic Spanish food even though there were burgers and sandwiches on the menu. It was full of shellfish, pork (I think), and lots of rice all doused in a bright orange sauce. It was much more food than I expected to get, but it was interesting and good to try an authentic Spanish dish. It was about 5 by the time we finished our “lunch” and we headed back to the hotel to get ready for the beach.

The bad thing about not having cell phones is that you never know where anyone else in the group is. So Claire and I arrived at the beach when most people were leaving to get dinner, but we had plenty of sunlight left. The water was pretty cold, and of course salty. After swimming for a bit, we dried off on the beach, taking everything in. People walked around selling things like water and coupons for a 5€ foot massage. At one point, a group of teenagers showed up and one had a guitar and was singing American pop music. I was interested to know whether he knew what he was singing or just memorized all the words to Howie Day’s “Collide” and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”. As the sun was getting lower, it got a bit chilly so we walked around then went back to the hotel and showered. It seemed much too early to go to bed and we didn’t want to waste our one night in Barcelona, so we went to a restaurant across from the hotel to check out the tapas, since neither of us were sure exactly what it was. They gave us a variety of starchy appetizers, most of which were yummy because I love carbs, and they also gave us some gazpacho, which is a tomato-based drink. I took a sip but I thought it was gross.

The next morning we went to a little cafe for a breakfast of coffee with milk and donuts before it was time to check out of the hotel. There was a lady there who had the cutest baby boy and I wanted so badly to take a creeper picture because he was so adorable! But I resisted being a creeper. On many occasions, in fact. The fashions in Barcelona were quite interesting.

* Most places had someone who spoke English, which made me feel lucky that I know the “universal language”, but uncultured because I have never considered how hard it must be for people visiting the US who don’t know English. I don’t want to be ignorant. It’s difficult being in a country where you can’t communicate with anyone!

Sorry for the delay on this post–we have been doing some interesting things this week so I’ll be back soon!

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Say cheese!

Since this week we are shifting from European culture to agriculture, we visited the place where they make Roquefort cheese. Roquefort cheese is made from sheep’s milk, and can only be called Roquefort cheese if it is made in the Roquefort region of France, just like Champagne is only Champagne if it is made in the Champagne region of France. The tour of the cellars was really cool. First, we watched an animated diorama of how the caves came to be. At the beginning, there was some land with a bunch of cliffs. Then there was a big earthquake and strobe lights, and the city as it is now fell down from the sky. As you can see, it was a very interesting history. Then we learned about the legend behind the creation of the cheese. A man was in a cave and he saw a beautiful girl and followed after her, leaving his bread and cheese in the cave. He never found the girl, but he came back and he was famished so he ate the cheese and decided he liked it very much, and so it became famous.

There are three kinds of Roquefort cheese, depending on the strain of Penicillum added to the milk to make them. One is more mild and firm, another is very rich, and the last is a bit creamy. The cheeses are salted to prevent pathogens, and as the cheese ripens the mold grows through the cheese and the salt melts and diffuses through, making the final product very salty. It tasted pretty good but it would be hard for me to eat in large portions. The cellars were dark and cold and humid, with a natural ventilation system that is perfect for cheesemaking. Also, there is a cheese master who makes sure the quality of every cheese wheel is perfect.

Then we drove by the tallest bridge in the world, the Viaduct, which I had no idea was in France until today, and it was very impressive. We watched at a video about its construction, and it was very cute because they showed the workers celebrating at every milestone of construction, and when the final pieces were pushed together, it was like a marriage of the north and south.

Then we went to a sheep farm which provides milk for the Roquefort cheese. The farmers were very proud and said that they have to be ambassadors for getting people to try the cheese because it is their region’s tradition. Also, the sheep were very cute! Some people got to milk them and hold a baby sheep and I was jealous because I was not in that group. But I did see some tiny days-old puppies to make up for it!

A bientôt!

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