Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bastille Day Weekend!

Two weeks behind? Uh-oh! And with less than a week left to go in France? Well, better get to it then. My actual research work has finally wrapped up and I am just putting the finishing touches on my poster for the Merial symposium in Michigan, which is coming up August 1st. All that's left to do is probably make 20 more changes to the color scheme (these things are important, you know), show it to my professor for any commentary, then it should be ready to go. I'm also presenting my research (again) tomorrow, but this time in front of the entire toxicology team. So, essentially, showing what I've been up to all summer, in French, but in front of a much more discerning and critical audience. The questions are sure to be more technical, and probably more nitpicky. Fingers crossed I don't make a fool of myself; worst-case scenario, at least I can dazzle them with my acceptable French, right?

Besides that, it's also the time that I'm squeezing the last bits of favorite food before I go. I took myself out on a date to a family-owned restaurant I'd been dying to go to called Chez Raymond, tiny but known for its simply delicious food and generous portions (for French standards), which gives you a four-course dinner for around twenty-one bucks, cheaper if you choose the more "budget" meal option (which still looked tasty - I just decided to "splurge" a little!). So, while that sounds expensive, what did I get for it? You can usually choose from three or four options per course, so here's what I went with:

-An apéritif (some tasty liqueur that I can't remember the name of)
-Soup (I chose a delicious gazpacho, amazing chilled tomato soup with tasty croutons on the side)
-Appetizer (a big helping of steamed white asparagus, served chilled with a vinaigrette sauce - delicious!)
-Main course (steak and potatoes, plus salad. I'm not quite bold enough to have my steak saignant, or bloody - medium is fine for me! Also wonderful. By this point I'm getting kinda full)
-Dessert (I chose a traditional french comfort dessert, riz au lait, which is a delicious rice pudding - seriously, don't knock it till you've tried it. They make it super creamy and divine. I requested caramel sauce on top)
-A carafe of wine all to myself, of which I had three glasses of rosé during the meal before cutting myself off for the bike ride home, feeling waaaay too full and happy.

But food aside, back to the weekend. France's Fête Nationale, its national holiday known as Bastille Day to us English speakers, falls on the 14th of July. A Canadian friend I met here had here brother visiting from work plus a rental car, so they invited me along on their adventures! Saturday was a return to a place you may have seen me visit before if you tuned into my old blog posts - Carcassonne! For those who haven't, it is an impressive place known for its magnificent double-walled fortified inner city, with its castle inside. It's one of THE must-visit places in Southern France, or even France as a whole, but it seems that so few people have heard of it! The city has existed since the B.C.'s, but during Roman times became a strategic point. And thus, with any fortification, walls must go up! The inner Roman walls still exist today (though somewhat rebuilt), but since the city pretty much screams "Hey look, I'm medieval!" it's only right that its most famous contribution to history falls during these times. Long story short, it was another city known to have many of those pesky Cathars, which the Catholic rule didn't like, so it was crusaded against, sadly forced to surrender after a noble fight (in which the ruler Raymond Troncavel was imprisoned in his own castle's dungeon and died during the negotiations), and became a strategic point on what was once the border between France and Spain. A couple hundred years later, France's border moved west (tough luck, Spain) and Carcassonne became much less important and fell into such disrepair that in the 1800's the government was going to have it entirely torn down. Naturally people weren't huge fans of this, the city was rebuilt and refurbished by an enterprising architect, and thus you have the tourist mecca that is Carcassonne. Altogether a very fun day trip :)

Entrance to the walled city. Imposing!

Sitting outside the castle. Strong, functional - my kind of place (sorry, Versailles. You're just for decoration!)

Looking out from the castle walls.

In between the inner and outer walls, in the space known as a lice (pronounced "leese"). It was kept this flat during medieval times to make sure their trebuchets/catapults were level and stable to chuck things at unwanted invaders!

A giant pickaxe in the city. Modern art....?

Playing soldier on the ramparts :)
 All in all, I'm glad I got to come back and explore the city properly this time - coming with a group in the Montpellier exchange felt a bit rushed, so it was nice to be on my own time to see the things I wanted to and at our own pace with friends :)

After that fun but very hot and sunny day, was our weekend done yet? No! There was still Sunday, in which we decided to go west instead of east, back to the Pyrenees to see what this little place called Andorra's all about. Now, I don't even know what is going on with the governance of this place. It's its own tiny country smack-dab in the Pyrenees between France and Spain but is technically a principality, which I'm not really sure of the meaning. But interestingly enough, it's ruled by two co-princes: a bishop from Spain, and the President of France.

Yeah, that's right! The President of France is also technically the prince of an entirely different country, and he also holds the distinction of being the world's only elected monarch. Lucky guy, eh? To add to the weirdness and rattle off some random facts, it is not part of the European Union but is a member of the Euro zone (therefore using the Euro as its currency), and the official language is Catalan, which plays tricks with your mind because it's similar to the romance languages - French, Spanish, Italian, Occitan - so you think you know what they're saying without actually having a clue. It has around 80,000 people and its capital, Andorra-la-Vella, is the highest capital in Europe. It is also a shopper's paradise because of its duty-free status (no taxes? Yippee! For those who have money, anyway?).

So, that's Andorra in a nutshell. Picturesque, great for hiking and skiing, and perfectly isolated for your little summer place, as no trains access it, and there's only one road in from France...perhaps more from Spain? All in all an agreeable day trip, albeit without too terribly much to do and see in the capital. It's best for shopping or if you have days to spend enjoying the outdoors. Here are some photos!

Mountains over here...

Mountains over there! (Stopped off along the highway to admire)

Random lil' church along the way. More mountains.

In Andorra-la-Vella itself, run through the middle by this here river. Lots of greenery!

A tribute to Salvador Dali - one of his famous melting clocks from The Persistence of Memory!

In the old town - not the best picture, I know.

Being silly in one of many duty-free stores (this was actually part of a huge duty-free mall. I kid you not. But look, giant lollypops! Can I have one, mom?
 Following this day trip it was back to good ol' Toulouse for a nap and quick meal before going out at night, because remember, it's Bastille Day! Gotta go celebrate! So what did we do, exactly? There wre festivities going on all weekend, but we managed to get into town in time for the events we really wanted to see. The first was the outdoor concert from the Orchestre Nationale de Toulouse, which was absolutely magnificent! They played a variety of incredible music, from touching classical pieces to music from the West Side Story, to a piece from the opera Carmen and more. Funny enough, they even played what everyone knows as the "Graduation march." In our culture, it's played on an endless loop when hundreds of people go up to receive their diplomas, but did you know that it's actually part of a larger piece called Pomp and Circumstance? (An oddly appropriate name, that.) Anyway, we couldn't stop looking at each other and giggling when the actual "graduation" part came on. Seriously, dunno why it made me laugh so much!

There were also some pretty big French singers invited to sing and accompany the orchestra; all the French people seemed to know who they were, but alas, I did not. Moving on, after the concert proper there were fireworks accompanied by said orchestra (amaaaaaazing), and an awesome light show at the Place du Capitole that was simply breathtaking. Photos below.

Obligatory fireworks photo here!

The light show was a musical story/presentation of sorts, set against the backdrop of Toulouse's grandest building. Magnifiaue! (This is a boat, in case you're stuck)

Ladies dancing along the building's surface.

Pont Neuf over the Garonne River - a tribute to lovely Toulouse.

Pimped out in red, white, an' blue. Patriotic!

Moving along, the Pont Neuf lit up at night (my camera stinks for night shots - sorry!)

Finally, the Grande roue - a ferris wheel, set up specially for summer!

That's all I have for now! I'm gonna try to be speedy in getting up my next post - because this past weekend, I returned to my faaaaaavorite city ever, Montpellier! Fun times were had by all :)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mini Tour de France - 70km along the Canal du Midi!

Two blog posts in one day? What blasphemy is this? Just me trying to catch up on my backlog, of course. I've got a ways to go...but this post is one I knew I had to get to. Why? What's so important about a canal, you might ask?

Built in the 1600's, the Canal du Midi stretches 240 kilometers from Toulouse to the coast of southern France. Along with a smaller canal (the Canal de Garonne), it connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through France. Why is this important? Well, it was a very strategic shortcut at the time. The voyage at that time sailing around the country took a full month, and passed by not-always-friendly Spain. It was a massive project at the time and even today is considered a major, impressive feat of engineering! With 91 locks along its length, some having to even use a staircase effect to get boats up and over hills, it is world-famous and even is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So, why do we care? Well, some bright soul decided to add pedestrian trails - along its entire length. (Well, actually they're technically tow paths where people used to tug boats along, but never midn that!) With my curious penchant for bipedal locomotion on the crappiest bicycles I can find, decided that now was the time to do it. I had wanted to make the trek from Montpellier to bike part of it the first time I was studying in France, but alas, I never got around to it. In a way, this feels like some personal achievement and a culmination of some tiny life goal - another little 'X' off the bucket list, if you will. (I don't actually have a bucket list, but if I do, this was a good one). Note: I wasn't crazy enough to try to bike all of the canal, as that would be more than my poor bike (an old, noisy piece of crap, but functional), legs, and time could afford. However, since the Tour de France was passing not too far from where I lived just the day before, I felt this was the perfect time to resurrect this little old dream of mine and take a day ride.

In short, it was magnificent. I did 50 kilometers along the canal itself, 70 total if you include backtracking to the train station and actually getting to and from the canal from the outskirts of town where I live. It's pretty much a straight shot, tree-shaded and flat for most of the way (it gets hilly later on). Since it was mid-afternoon and really hot, I hopped a train once I got out to where I wanted to be. I would have liked to go a little farther (to a village called Castelnaudary), but didn't start quite early enough. I decided that I had a great ride and to quit while I was ahead. Here's a map, because who doesn't love maps?

I started at the top left, and got down to a little past Port-Lauragais. About halfway between Toulouse and Carcassonne! (Not bad, eh?)

Anyway, it was a day well spent, and I biked those last few miles from the Toulouse train station quite sore, but went to sleep happy that night. Here are some neat photos from the trip:

The canal near Toulouse. Basically miles on end of nothing but beautiful green.

The canal is also home to many pleasure boats. You can usually see people lazing about on or below deck. It's really the life.

If I get a boat (one day...), I'll be decorating it as flamboyantly as this.

Just outside of Toulouse - everyone sleepin' late on a Sunday.

Just some more of the canal...much farther out, though! Love the reflections on the water.

The day was perfect - hot and sunny, but the shade trees kept me cool.

Every lock (écluse) along the canal, tended by an éclusier to let the boats through, has a sign like this letting you know how far since the last one and how far to the next.

Once I got far enough out, fellow cyclists were few and far between. It was very peaceful.

Lookin' rough.

Another rest house by the second-to-last lock on my journey.

Stopping to watch a boat squeeze through. It's quite a fun process!

One last photo before it's time to head back.

Had to leave the canal and bike a mile to get to this tiny town of Avignonet.

Lil' lonely, this train stop...but allowed me and my bike to ride home in comfort :)

That's all for the canal du midi adventure! Hope you enjoyed, and I'll be writing more soon. Until next time!

Hiking in the Pyrenees - quicktime recap!

What have I been up to lately? Well...lots of stuff, including biking, revisiting a medieval fortress, leaving the country, and Bastille Day! Sadly, I'm going to have to make some strategic cuts to actually somewhat catch up on this blog. So you unfortunately won't be regaled extensively on my hiking adventures in the Pyrenees, but here are some photos to show you how awesome it was:

The hike started out like this. (Distinctly NOT awesome.)

So...much...mist. Felt like we were in a scary movie.

Going up!

Nearing the lake - still disappointingly grim.

At the travelers' rest stop near the lake (our destination). Is that a touch of blue I see?

Whaaaat? This wasn't even here five minutes ago! (Seriously - the clouds were so thick at our elevation that this was all invisible.

Awwww yeah. Postcard-perfect.

The hike back down. What a difference!

Snow-capped peaks in June.

Snow-capped peaks plus cows (Happy cows aren't from California - these are happy cows!)

Nope. No words here. Sorry!

I look icky here. But hey, I was hiking.

Our point of departure - now a lot sunnier than it once was. Bye bye, Pyrenees!

Well, that's it - your whirlwind tour of my day hike in the mountains (don't worry, I wasn't alone!). Hope you enjoyed! More stories to come!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nantes and Mont Saint-Michel! And elephant riding! (What?)

Hey, guys! Sorry it's been so long since I've written something. Life is busy busy busy here. Work is intense and deadlines to finish things are approaching, so there's that. The weather here is also nice and hot, which with no A/C in the labs or my room means like I feel like I'm melting 75% of the time. On the plus side, that means outdoor activities are twice as fun, and with the sun not going down until around 10 pm, there's loads of time to enjoy oneself.

But I did want to share a bit from that "science week" I was talking about in my last post. I left Lyon for Nantes by plane Monday morning, and returned back to Toulouse on Friday afternoon. Nantes is a small-medium sized city in western France, not too far from the Atlantic coast and on the Loire river. So, what was the week like in a nutshell? I'll hit some of the highlights photo-reel style in a minute, but first, the science! (Because I know everyone is just so jazzed about research...sorry!)

The week was divided into scientific presentations and lectures, visits to various scientific sites, and, the most fear-inducing part of it all, our research presentations. The scientific lectures were largely very interesting...professors and researchers came just to see us three students (me and the other two Americans here) and our accompanying professors, and I was so flattered by how engaging and interesting they all were. Subjects ranged from Type 1 diabetes research to comparative work on muscular dystrophy, and there were even presentations specifically showing us how the French educational and research system works. It feels a lot more team-based than from my impressions in the U.S., with many different labs working under different agencies (often multiple ones) rendering the system hierarchical and almost labyrinthine in its complexity. On the cool side, they apparently are working quite hard to encourage North American students to come to France to pursue Ph.D's (paid for!), so if the vet thing doesn't for whatever reason work out here - thank you, crappy job market and veterinary education system compounding the problem - at least I know I'll be welcome abroad!

The scientific visits were also really cool. We got to check out the vet school's wildlife rehabilitation center, visit a cyclotron (a particle accelerator), a very spiffy research lab, among other places. The thing that had us three students incredibly nervous were our presentations in front of our professors and hosts. Asked to be approximately 25 minutes long and exclusively in French, followed by a Q&A session (and these are all Ph.D's, so they know what questions to ask!), it was certainly a challenge to prepare and perform. However, in spite of this, I was extremely proud to have done it - my presentation actually exceeded the time with no issue, and the listeners very very complimentary of my level of French - both spoken and grammatically on the slides themselves, which I painstakingly edited to be just right...took a while. They also liked the presentation itself, which they said was very clear and well-presented! Victory!

With that done, we could breathe a little easier and enjoy the rest of the week. Of course, Nantes was awesome, involving visits to castles, an island of machines (more on that in a bit), tons of awesome food all week long, and...Mont Saint-Michel! So here's the week, photo-style:

La Cigale, the fancy restaurant where we at Monday night. Right next to the opera house, and decorated accordingly. A feast for the eyes (and tummy!)

The château des ducs de Bretagne, where the rich folk stayed. (13th-16th centuries)

Very interesting looking, and slightly out of place in the city today!

Courtyard on the inside.

The crêperie where we had dinner Tuesday night. This is the second floor, with its very low ceiling! Dinner and dessert crêpes...yum!
Mont Saint-Michel from the outside. At this point in the morning, it was still surrounded by water! Legend has it that back in the 8th century, Archangel Michel appeared to the bishop of the area in a dream and said, "Hey you! Build a church on this piece of rock!" The bishop ignored the dream twice until the third time, when Michael got angry and burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger, which was present when he woke up. The bishop listened.

And just after lunch, water gone! If you look reeeeally closely, see those people over my shoulder? This place is known for its dramatic change in water coverage with the tides. You have to take a guide if you want to go barefoot walking out there - if you don't, you run the risk of dying one of two ways: trying to outrun the incoming tides and failing, or falling victim to the many spots of quicksand. You've been warned.

Today, this piece of rock hosts a lovely monastery, lots of tourists, and around 90 permanent inhabitants (who can't even park their cars inside!)

Inside one of the grand halls. Life even here was segregated. Wealthy pilgrims had the nice areas (with chimneys for heat! Fancy!), the monks their spaces, and the poor pilgrims the least assuming rooms.

And, if you were really naughty, you get stuck here. (Just kidding - the monastery was converted to a prison around the time of the French revolution. Only a temporary setup - but full of interesting stories. Ask me if you want to hear a few! We had a really awesome guided visit)

At the Ile des Machines (Machines of the Isle of Nantes)! Much more awesome than it looks. Basically a bunch of creative people got together and converted an old shipyard into an awesome artistic haven. They started by making awesome machines out of recycled and thrown away parts. Here's a caterpillar you can ride!

And here's a three-story elephant.

Who likes to squirt water at random unfortunate passerby who spend too much time gawking ;)

The intricacy was amazing. The eyes, ears, joints...everything moved! Here she is blinking.

It's a, it's a plane! Is it both? Two people going for a ride.

Scary looking digging insect. One day all these machines (minus the elephant) will be incorporated into one huge project - a gigantic tree, with all these insects and birds and things, which will be a massive playground...for kids and adults!

And, last but not least, the Lieu Unique - famous cookie factory (LU cookies - you may have seen them before if you like tasty French treats!). The square thing on top represents a box of cookies, and is supposed to show the "power" and grandeur of this impressive old factory (which is not a cultural site). Somehow, to me, "power" doesn't really go hand in hand with cookies...

Whoo! That was a lot! And I've still more catching up to do! I've yet to regale you on my hiking in the Pyrenees, so hopefully I'll get to that...and there are still more adventures to come. Thanks for reading!