Springtime in Alsace!

I can’t believe my time in France is almost coming to an end. These past seven months have gone by incredibly fast. I’m really going to miss the beautiful countryside here, the friends I’ve made, the great food, and my 12-hour work week. Still, I miss the redwood trees of California, the lights on the Bay Bridge, and most of all good ethnic food. I’m ready to go back.

But first, during the month of May and the first half of June, I will be traveling all over Europe. I’m nervous and excited to travel around for such a long period of time without a home base to come back to. First I’ll be heading to Italy to work on an organic farm, then to Germany to visit Munich, Dresden, and Berlin. Somewhere in the middle of those cities, I’ll see Prague in the Czech Republic, and I may stop by Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Brussels in Belgium too. Finally, my last stop will be Spain, where I will meet up with my parents. I think once I get back home to California, I will be traveled-out for a good long while.

During this past month, since I came back from my vacation in Italy and Lyon, I have not been traveling much. Instead, I’ve actually taken a lot of day trips around the Alsace area. A few weeks ago, the high school where I worked welcomed a group of exchange students from the U.S.A. The teachers who organized the trip were nice enough to ask me to accompany them on some field trips around the area with the visiting Americans. I had a chance to see even more interesting sights in Alsace, and to appreciate them in the springtime weather, which is a big improvement from the chilly winter weather that we had a few months ago.

A half-timbered house at the Heritage Museum

A half-timbered house at the Heritage Museum

Corinne, one of the English teachers here, took me and her American guest, Jill, to the Heritage Museum, near Mulhouse. The Heritage Museum, which in French for some reason is called the Ecomusée, is the size of a small village and contains reconstructed traditional houses from all different parts of Alsace. Many of them are half-timbered houses, the most typical type of house you see in Alsace. It’s apparently a very easy type of house to dissassemble and reassemble. Essentially, the house has a main wooden frame to support it, and then the holes in the frame are filled in with stones, hay, or other materials. Apparently, this technique gives the houses good insulation and resistance to seismic activity (not that there are many earthquakes in Alsace).

Volunteers at the Heritage Museum

Volunteers at the Heritage Museum

The museum was really fun to visit because it was a lot more interactive than your average museum. You can walk into buildings and see exhibits, but the buildings are set to look how they would have looked 120 years ago. We visited the barber shop, the school house, and an actual functioning traditional bakery where you can buy typical Alsatian pastries, There were a lot of volunteers at the site dressed up in 19th century clothes doing traditional activities, such a using an old-fashioned saw mill to cut timber, embroidering samplers, and cooking traditional food. All of the volunteers (most of whom were probably retirees) were really friendly and willing to explain how life was back in the old days.

The one-room schoolhouse at the Heritage Museum

The one-room schoolhouse at the Heritage Museum

One of the highlights of the day was seeing the storks nesting on top of the buildings. Storks are the symbol of Alsace and up until that point, I had only seen stork figures in tourist shops and not the real thing. I was really happy to get a chance to see them before I leave the region.


A stork building its nest

The next outing I had while the Americans were visiting was a trip to see Haut-Koenigsbourg, a castle on top of a large hill by Selestat. We took a bus there, winding our way up the hill. The castle itself is a reconstruction from the early 20th century of a medieval castle that was destroyed in the 1600’s. It is a really faithful representation of the original castle, and it feels very authentic. There are interesting medieval murals on the walls, an armory, and a hunting room filled with animal head trophies. You can also climb to the top of the tower to the parapets where cannons were fired to defend the castle. As a Game of Thrones fan, I particularly enjoyed imagining that I was in some smaller lord’s castle, such as the Eyrie.


The castle of Haut-Koenigsburg

The hunting trophy room

The hunting trophy room

After visiting the castle in the morning, we walked around Colmar in the afternoon, which is even prettier in the springtime than it was during the Christmas markets. We let the American and French students roam free while we the teachers had food at a restaurant that served traditional Alsatian food (a Winstub, to be specific).

My last outing with the American exchange group was actually to a place in Germany, not France. On their last day here, we took the Americans to Europapark, which is not far from the border between France and Germany. Europapark is like Disneyland, but on steroids. It is grouped into different sections based on country or region (Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Scandinavia, etc.), and each section has its own rides, attractions, and food. There’s even a Grimm Brother’s fairy tales. Some of the resemblances to Disneyland are uncanny and questionable under copyright law, in my opinion. For example, the main mascot of Europapark is a mouse. Also, we went to one pirate ride, which was a log right out in the open air, but while we were in line their were animatronic figures who seemed really similar to the ones in Pirates of the Caribbean, but they were speaking in German. However, Europapark has much more intense rollercoasters than Disneyland, and, trust me, I know, because one of the teachers from the French high school apparently adores rollercoasters and dragged us on all of them, even the one that went upside-down. It was a lot of fun.

The strangest part of Europapark was definitely Colonial era, which had the most offensive, stereotyped jungle decorations that I have ever seen in my life. I guess they don’t really understand how offensive it is to have an area about the parts of Africa that Europe colonized that, first of all, just generalizes them all as being the same typical African country, and depicts them as backwards places with primitive people cooking, beating drums, and climbing trees? Yikes.

My favorite part of Europapark was probably the Russia rollercoaster, which was supposed to be the Mir space station. There was glorious techno music as we ascended up through this fake space station in the darkness, with only glittering disco ball lasers lighting the way. It was hilarious, a little confusing, and very fun.

The Americans left, but I still have a couple of weeks to explore Alsace. This past weekend, I went to Colmar for the Spring Market. It’s like the Christmas Market, but Easter themed. It was fun to view all the interesting arts and crafts that I couldn’t afford, but the real attractions were the bunnies, chicks, goats, and lambs at the market. They were not for sale, just there to look as cute as possible. Sadly you couldn’t pet them.

Easter Decorations in Colmar

Easter Decorations in Colmar

A lamb!

A lamb!

I also visited Strasbourg this past weekend, and both Colmar and Strasbourg are gorgeous in the springtime. The flowers are blooming, and the weather is finally sunny.

This weekend I had a chance to see my assistant friends for the last time before we all head back to our respective home countries. I’ve really enjoyed having the chance to make friends with so many interesting, international people who I one day may visit. This week is my last week working at the high school, and I’ll soon be saying goodbye to Alsace, at least for now.

And then Molly had yet another vacation, Part III: Lyon

After returning from Italy, I still had half a week left of my break. Instead of chilling out, I tried to squeeze in as much traveling as I could. So my next destination was Lyon, the city where I spent four months while studying abroad in college.

I love Lyon for so many reasons. It’s truly my favorite city in France, and I was very pleased to be able to visit it again, even for just a few days. Lyon is a vibrant city, with all the history and culture of Paris, but without the tourists. It has lots of students, activities, things to do, combined with picturesque neighborhoods and lots of good food. It’s definitely more expensive than the little town where I live in France, Altkirch, but it’s a fun place to live.

I had considered applying to Lyon for TAPIF (the teaching assistant program in France), but, first of all, I had wanted to discover another region of France, and second-of-all it’s highly likely that even if I had been placed in the Académie of Lyon, I could have been sent to a remote town outside of the city, just like Altkirch. I don’t regret my decision, because I love my life in Alsace, but it still nice to visit Lyon again.

I stayed in an Airbnb apartment that belongs to a teacher at a primary school in Lyon. She and her daughter actually live in it, and they rent out the spare room to travelers. It was not as cheap as staying in a hostel, but I much preferred to have the privacy of my own room for three days. The apartment itself was adorable. It is located in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood, which is a hilly quarter of Lyon. That area was once the home of many silk-workers, called canuts, who had giant silk-weaving machines in their houses. The apartments are built with a wide windows to maximize the sunlight, and their layout is usually one very large living room (where the machine would be housed) and a loft that leads up to bedrooms.

My host was extremely gracious. She offered me a coffee when I arrived and I sat down and talked to her about my job as a teaching assistant, my time studying abroad in Lyon, and how I like France. In return, she told me about her job as a teacher and about her daughters and their studies. That is another bonus of Airbnb: it can connect you to interesting locals who have a much better knowledge of the area than any guide book. I really enjoyed my discussion with her, and I asked her for recommendations for restaurants. She was really helpful. She also told me that my French was very good, but when French people tell me that, I usually think it’s because they’re surprised that I can speak at all, so I didn’t let the comment go to my head.

That day, I took the metro into the Presqu’île, the city center. It started hailing as I was walking around, so I took refuge in one of my old haunts, Pomme de Pain (a French fast-food chain) near Place Bellecour. Staring out into the square, watching people walk around with umbrellas batted by the wind, I was taken back to some of the gloomier days I spent during my time in Lyon, which was great overall, but definitely not always happy. It was nice to sit there and realize how much I have matured since then.

Miraculously, it stopped raining and the sun even peeked through the clouds. I strolled down Rue Victor Hugo, reminiscing to myself, and visiting some of my favorite places near that street: the cafe Little where they sell delicious cupcakes, and the candy store Tentations, where you can scoop up as many sweets as you want for only .75 euros per kg.

The underwhelming Confluence

The underwhelming Confluence

Then, since I had a lot of time before I was going to meet up with one of my friends for dinner, I walked farther south, past Perrache, and all the way to the Confluence, where the Rhône and the Saône (the two main rivers in Lyon) meet. The sight, which I remember was one of the few places I never got around to visiting last time but was told I should see, was rather underwhelming. Not as beautiful as I thought it was going to be. But still, it was a pleasant walk.

That evening, I met up with my friend Eva,  another assistant who went to UCLA and whom I saw during the Christmas break while she was in Strasbourg. She was traveling around France with her aunt, so we met up for dinner at a traditional bouchon in Lyon (a small restaurant serving lyonnais specialities). It was fun to catch up and eat some delicious Lyon food, since Lyon is known for its gastronomy.

On Thursday, the 5th, my second day in Lyon, I decided to explore the neighborhood of Croix Rousse. I did not spend much time there when I studied in Lyon. Croix Rousse is an adorable neighborhood with a bunch of cute cafes and chic restaurants. It is definitely not party central, but it seems to attract a lot of artists and young professionals who work in Lyon.

That morning, I took a tour of the Maison des Canuts, a museum dedicated to the history of the silk-workers and keeping their traditional silk-weaving methods alive. It was a really fascinating tour, although it wasn’t that long. They showed us the giant machines that the canuts use for weaving, and explained how it took multiple people to work the machines, and how the workers had to train for years as apprentices before having their own studio. The canuts were able to make incredibly intricate designs on cloth by using patterns made from perforated paper. I am still not clear how it works, but the patterns are run through the machine and they determine which strings are suspended taut in the air. Then the weaver takes the spools going the other direction and weaves around the suspended strings. Then the machine stamps the perpendicular strings together, creating a cross-hatched pattern. Eventually, it turns into the desired pattern on the cloth.

The silk-weaving machine that canuts used

The silk-weaving machine that canuts used

We also learned about the silk-workers’ lives, which were very humble. They were their own bosses and only had to answer to the merchants to whom they told the finished cloth. They were paid by how much cloth they produced, so the amount of money they made depended on the market, their skill, and how hard they worked. Thus, they worked from sun-up to sun-down. During the 1830’s they protested rising taxes on their work, and in response were beaten and killed by the police and the military. In response, they revolted, barricading their neighborhood and refusing to surrender. This happened twice during that decade, and while in both cases they ended up surrendering, their struggle was part of a larger struggle for revolution and greater rights in France during that time period. If you get a chance to visit the Maison des Canuts, I definitely recommend it. The guided tour was seven euros. Be warned however, the tour was entirely in French.

The rest of the day I spent re-visiting some of my favorite places in Lyon: Fourvière and the Roman Theaters. The church of Notre Dame de Fourvière sits up on a hill where there is a fantastic view of the city. I didn’t stay up there for too long that day, because it was incredibly windy. I walked down to the Roman Theaters, which are reconstructed open-air theaters built in the style of the enclosed theaters that once dotted the hillside during Roman times. As always I took a minute to appreciate the incredible view of Lyon and the surrounding area from my seat in the Odéon, the smaller theater. Looking into the distance, I couldn’t tell the mountains from the clouds. Those theaters are still one of my favorite places on Earth.

The view from the Odéon

The view from the Odéon

The rest of my time in Lyon was not very remarkable. I met up with different friends who still live in the city: one friend from UCLA who is doing the same study abroad program as I did, my former Japanese roommate in Lyon who still lives there, and another girl who is doing TAPIF near Lyon that I knew from study abroad.

I met up the with last girl in a cat café in Croix Rousse. In case you don’t know what a cat café is, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a café where cats roam free and you can pet them. There are a number that have popped up recently in Paris and in other parts of Europe, including Cologne. I guess that have more relaxed health laws here, because I don’t think the idea would fly in the U.S. While a cat café sounds like a brilliant idea, in reality it wasn’t as interesting as you think. The most remarkable part was when we entered, we had to use hand sanitizer and the workers gave us a sheet of rules (don’t pick up the cats, don’t feed the cats, etc). We sat down and had tea, waiting for a cat to come up to us. During the hour or so that we were there, a cat only approached us one time. I got to pet it for a second. But in general, the cats seemed very indifferent to the presence of so many humans. They are probably just overstimulated. I have a mild allergy to cats, but the cafe was impeccably clean, and I think they had powerful air conditioning on, so I wasn’t bothered at all. The tea, at least, was very good, if a bit overpriced. I had lavender tea, which I had never tried before.

I also visited the Parc de la Tête D’Or, which used to be one of my favorite places to hang out in Lyon. It’s a giant urban park, with a lake, a zoo, and a lot of open space. I went on a sunny afternoon, and it was very peaceful, although a little chilly.


Parc de la Tête d’Or

On Saturday, March 7th, I took a train back to Altkirch, very content with my brief visit to Lyon. I was thinking recently about how I haven’t visited Paris in all the time I’ve been in France this time around. But honestly, Lyon will always mean so much more to me than Paris, which I associate with crowds and smelly metro stations. I was so glad I got a chance to go back to Lyon.

On the night of my return, I met up with my roommate Annemarie and her parents, who were visiting. We went out to a traditional restaurant which served the specialty of the Sundgau (the most southern part of Alsace where Altkirch is located): carpe frites, or fried carp. I’m not usually a fan of fried fish, but I have to admit it was very good, especially when it was smothered in mayo.

That about sums up my winter vacation! For the past few weeks, I’ve been back to teaching at the high school. My roommate Annemarie is leaving this week, because the Germans end a month earlier than us, and I am really sad to see her go. I, on the other hand, have one month left of my contract, but I think it will go by very quickly since I have so many fun things planned. Stay tuned for more of my adventures!

And then Molly had yet another vacation, Part II: Rome

During the second half of my “winter vacation,” I headed to Rome from Florence.

On Friday, February 27, we took the train from Florence to Rome. On our hurried walk to the train station that morning, disaster struck. While trying to use my smartphone’s GPS to navigate, I actually lost my grip on it, and it tumbled into the air, landing smack down on the cobblestones. The screen was cracked. It really wasn’t the end of the world. Much worse things could have happened, and i was glad that I was all in one piece and everyone on our trip was safe and sound. Smartphones, after all, are just a very expensive material possession. I took it as a personal challenge to not let this incident ruin the mood of the trip, and while I was a little bummed, I got over it as soon as we made it to Rome. That city was just too incredible for me to remain unhappy there for long.

When we arrived in Rome, we went to our hotel, which was not far from the main train station, Termini. We lounged around for a bit, waiting for another one of our friends who is also an assistant, to meet up with us, as planned. Then we headed to our first destination: the Vatican.

Me in front of Basilica San Pietro in the Vatican. A peace sign felt appropriate.

Me in front of Basilica San Pietro in the Vatican. A peace sign felt appropriate.

Even in the off season, Rome is packed with tourists. I remember going to Rome when I was fourteen with my parents in the height of the tourist season, but I think there are a lot more tourists in the city all the time now because I think it was busier during the most recent time I was there than it was before. Or maybe I just don’t remember all the waiting in line because I was much younger. We decided to visit the main free attraction in the Vatican city: Basilica San Pietro. The wait time was *only* an hour long. Once inside, we marveled at the vast church. I remember visiting it before with my parents. We even went with a tour guide, but all the details he had given us about the church escaped me. Still, I could appreciate it grandeur without any background knowledge.

After the church, we headed out into the streets of Rome, searching for lunch. We happened upon a bubble tea place. I hadn’t seen a single bubble tea place since coming to Europe five months prior, so I got pretty excited and had to buy some. It was delicious, although it didn’t really compare to the boba you can find in LA. Next, we found piadina restaurant (if you don’t know what a piadina is, it’s like an Italian taco or a pita sandwich, with slightly different bread). We wandered around looking for a place to eat our piadinas and finally settled on eating them in the moat of Castel Sant’Angelo. The moat was dry (obviously) and filled with green grass. We sat down at a bench and admired the view, hardly believing our luck to be in Rome on such a sunny day. That was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip.

That evening, we walked to the Spanish steps and sat there, watching Rome come to life. From the Spanish steps, Rome feels very similar to Paris. Maybe it’s just because it’s a cosmopolitan metropolis, or maybe it’s due to the swarms of tourists, or the romantic atmosphere. For some reason, looking down at the designer shops, and despite being harassed by men trying to sell us selfie sticks, I felt like I had found a truly remarkable city. Like Paris, but warm. Like Paris, but more friendly.

The view from the Spanish steps in the evening reminded me of Paris.

The view from the Spanish steps in the evening reminded me of Paris.

On Saturday, our second day in Rome, we visited the Pantheon, which was crowded with tourists. The Pantheon is a remarkable building, considering how ancient it is and considering how it would probably have been destroyed as a pagan temple if it had not been repurposed as a church. But that was the best part of the day. The best parts were wandering around the city of Rome, seeing ancient monuments everywhere we looked, but also seeing people going about their daily life. We visited Piazza Navona, walked by the Tiber, and found the French embassy.

Area Sacra

Area Sacra


We spotted a cat!

The highlight of the day, however, was in the morning when we walked past Area Sacra on our way to the Pantheon. Area Sacra is one of the many random archaeological sites that you pass while walking around Rome. It was the home of several ancient temples, but now it’s the home of something much more wonderful (in my opinion): a cat shelter. There are feral cats all over the site. I don’t know why watching cats stroll through ancient ruins is so fascinating and therapeutic, but it is, and I highly recommend it. A couple of the cats actually came up to us and insisted on being petted. We got sidetracked there for probably about half and hour, and it was time extremely well spent.

During that Saturday in Rome, there were apparently a bunch of anti-immigration protests going on throughout the city. We knew where the main one was and decided to avoid the entire area. Still, we ran into some problems when we tried taking a bus back towards our hotel. Instead of taking us in the direction we thought it would, it skirted around the protests and dropped us off in an entirely different area, by Circus Maximus and the Colosseum. Not to be deterred by this detour, we hung out at Circus Maximus, which was once a grand chariot racing stadium, and is now where many Romans run laps. From up on the hill facing the stadium, we had an incredible view of the Palatine. We walked over to the Colosseum next, and sat in its shadow as the sun set.

The Colosseum at twilight

The Colosseum at twilight

We were planning on taking the metro from the Colosseum area, but all of sudden, police cars started showing up at all the exits to the piazza, and protesters came out in droves from the metro station. Suddenly, taking the metro didn’t seem like such a good idea. So instead we decided to walk to our next destination, which was a restaurant in a more residential neighborhood of Rome.

Before leaving for Italy, I had asked one of my childhood friend’s parents, who are chefs and who have spent a lot of time in Italy, for recommendations for places to eat. Above all other places, they recommended one restaurant in Rome: Da Oio a Casa Mia. It’s a very traditional restaurant mainly for locals, and it has one specialty that they said I couldn’t miss: pajata. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s only served in Rome. Apparently it’s veal intestine with curdled milk inside of it. I was skeptical, but I decided to be brave and to try it. It was pretty good, especially since it was served with rigatoni pasta and tomato sauce, but I don’t think I’d choose to have it for lunch every day.

Rigatoni alla pajata. Doesn't look too shabby, right?

Rigatoni alla pajata. Doesn’t look too shabby, right?

I also was told by Karen and Vito (my friend’s parents) that Vito’s picture was on the wall at the restaurant, so I tried to explain to the waiter who I was talking about and we managed to communicate somehow with a mixture of his broken English, my broken Italian, and a lot of gestures. He finally understood who I was talking about and brought out a picture of Vito and pointed to him. It was really funny!

Colosseum Selfie!

Colosseum Selfie!

The day was Sunday, March 1st. Apparently, during the first Sunday of the month, most of the museums and archaeological sites in Rome are free. We had no idea this was the case, and we didn’t plan to be there on the first Sunday of the month on purpose. We just lucked out. In the morning, we got up early to go inside the Colosseum before the line became too long. We only had to wait about forty minutes before going inside. Being inside the Colosseum is incredible because, despite the fact that some of its walls are crumbling and the middle reveals the innards of the stadium where there used to be a stage, it still has the presence of a giant stadium. You wouldn’t be surprised to watch a performance there, or even to see a gladiator fight playing out. Unlike many ruins in which you have to imagine what it looked like back in the day, the Colosseum springs images into your mind for you. Also, it’s very cool to look out at the view and listen to people chattering in different languages all around you. Of course, it’s also fascinating to think about how something that is now a cultural landmark was once a place of entertainment that catered to people’s most base desires. A desire to watch bood, violence, and gore, while stuffing one’s face. Then again, humans haven’t changed much since then.

That afternoon, we visited the National Monument to Victor Emanuel II, the king who unified Italy. It was a stark contrast to the ancient places we had been visiting in previous days. Some Italians think it is ugly, but I thought it felt more familiar, since it reminded me of similar monuments in Paris and in Washington D.C. like the Arc de Triomphe and the Washington Monument. It’s made of white marble and it has that sense of being nationalistic, patriotic, and self-important. It also afforded us a great view of the ancient ruins.

That day we also visited the Trevi Fountain, which is currently under construction. You can still see it and visit it, it just doesn’t have any water in it and there is scaffolding all around it. Normally, there is a tradition of throwing a coin backwards into the fountain. A Roman Catholic charity actually takes the money from the fountain and apparently fishes out, on average, $3,000 per day. They probably didn’t want to sacrifice that money due to the renovation, so there is actually a small pool of water with the image of the fountain at the back into which you can still toss money. Which we did, of course, because we were tourists.

Our last stop of the day was the Roman Forum and Palatine. The ruins are absolutely enormous, and you can wander around there for hours and nearly get lost. We were only there for about two hours, but we saw so much, I can’t even begin to describe it here. It would have been helpful to have a guidebook for the ruins. Everything was labeled with signs, but they were not very descriptive, and I knew there was background history that I was missing. But you don’t have to know everything about a sight to appreciate its beauty and importance.

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum

That night, we found a pizzeria on the Internet that had really good reviews. It was also in a more outlying neighborhood of Rome that was less touristy. It had more of the air of a bakery than a pizzeria, and it sold giant slices of rectangular pizza by the kilo. I had a slice of prosciutto pizza which was delicious, and I tried some of their lasagna too. There is not other way I can describe their lasagna other than divine. It had a number of different cheeses in it and the flavors burst in my mouth one after another. It was probably the best lasagna I’ve ever had. I also tired an arancine, a stuffed rice ball that is fried.

During our last full day in Rome, Monday, we didn’t do that much. We had planned on going to a museum, but it turns out that most museums are closed on Mondays. Instead we wandered around Rome some more, visiting Piazza del Popolo and the gardens by Villa Medici. We did make one stop at a museum: the Shelley Keats house. The Shelley Keats house, which is located next to the Spanish steps, is actually located in the apartment where the poet John Keats spent his final days. He came to Rome with tuberculosis, hoping that the climate would improve his health since there was no cure for consumption in those days, and he died in that very apartment. When I had visited before, I was fourteen and obsessed with the Romantic poets. However, I didn’t have much of a background on them at the time. While I loved soaking in the atmosphere of the house (which has been re-furnished in the style similar to that of Keats’s day), I didn’t fully appreciate its significance. This time, I did. I have a fondness for literary places, and just standing there, where I knew Keats died invoked all the wonder that I had every felt reading his poetry or the poetry of the other Romantics. It was tragic and wonderful at the same time.

I said goodbye to Italy, a little regretful that I didn’t have time to explore more, to actually live there and immerse myself in Italian. But if I were to live there, I would have to go somewhere outside of the three very touristy cities that I visited, where everyone spoke English. Still, each of those cities is well-visited for a reason.

Some of the best parts of my trip to Italy are hard to put into a blog post because they weren’t places I visited, or things I did, they were just conversations that I had with my friends on the trip. Conversations about our different cultures and backgrounds (two of my friends on the trip were British, one was Scottish, and another was American), about the different slang we used and our respective childhood experiences, conversations about our time in France, about the future.

One example of the silly fun things we did as a group was nun-spotting. Whenever we saw a nun in Italy, we would get everyone’s attention and announce that we had seen one, and we began counting how many nuns we saw. I think we ended up seeing at least thirty or forty by the end of the trip.

I am so grateful I had the chance to go to Italy, to visit all the places I did. But I am even more grateful that I had the chance to share that time with friends, new friends that I have met this year. From my past study abroad experience, I know that friends you make while traveling do not always stay in touch, that distance causes you to drift apart, often even faster than it does for normal friendships. Still, I treasure the friends I have made here and I know, no matter the distance, we’ll always have a connection because of the things we’ve seen together and the experiences we have shared.

Me in front of Circus Maximus and the Roman Palatine

Me in front of Circus Maximus and the Roman Palatine

And then Molly had yet another vacation, Part I: Venice and Florence

I have not written a blog post in a while, but it was because I was off having adventures. During the last week of February and first week of March, I had a two week vacation officially called “Vacances d’Hiver” in France, which means Winter Vacation (not to be confused with Christmas Vacation in December, because even though France is technically secular, they still refer to their break in December as Vacances de Noël”). I honestly don’t really understand why France has so many long vacations during the middle of the school year, and as an educator it makes me slightly concerned for the students since having these breaks interferes with their learning. But, I’m not complaining, I got two more weeks of paid vacation. During my two weeks off, I visited three cities in Italy: Venice, Florence, and Rome, and then during the last few days, I re-visited my favorite city in France: Lyon.

For this blog post, I’m just going to talk about the first part of my vacation: visiting Venice and Florence. Italy is one of my favorite countries, because of its mixture of culture, food, and history. I also have always felt welcome whenever I have visited Italy, even as a tourist, and I really enjoyed my time there. I actually took one class of Italian in college because I was so enamored with the country, and would have taken more if I had had time. Needless to say, I was extremely pleased to finally have a chance to practice my Italian.

Venice from the Campanile

Venice from the Campanile

On February 22, the first Sunday of vacation, I headed off to Venice on a plane with two of my British friends who are also assistants in Alsace. We were super excited about the trip, since we had been planning it since December. That afternoon, we flew into to Venice from Basel without difficulty, figured out how to get into the city via public transportation and then started our Italian adventure.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited Venice. In fact, I went there two years ago while I was studying abroad in France. But I had only been there for a few hours, and the whole time the streets were flooded from the recent rains. So I was looking forward to having a dryer experience in this remarkable city.

Night had already fallen when we arrived, and once we reached the island, we took a vaporetto to go to our hotel. In Venice, vaporettos, or water taxis, are the main form of public transportation. They’re a little expensive, but very useful, because there are no real streets or roads. If you want to find a direct route to somewhere in Venice and don’t want to spend a ton of time lost in its alleyways, then vaporettos are the way to go.

Once we arrived at the hotel, we weren’t sure of where it was. We knew we were on the right street, but we could only see a bunch of non-descript apartment building doors that had buzzers. We asked for directions from the guy at front desk of the Best Western at the end of the alley. It turns out the hotel only had its Italian name on the plaque by the door, and we were looking for its English name “Bed & Venice.”

After checking into the hotel, we decided head out into the streets of Venice to find dinner and to explore. One thing we quickly learned about Venice is that once you get off of its main canalways, it becomes a mess of little alleyways that lead to dead ends, with twists and turns. To make matters even more complicated, sometimes you’ll reach the canal and be looking for a destination on the other side, and have no way to cross the water. We initially set out to look for a particular restaurant with the aid of GPS, but after about an hour of searching, we gave up. In Venice, and actually in all of the places we visited in Italy, restaurant owners will come outside and aggressively try to invite you to eat at their place. The first night, we were taken aback by this, and ended up eating at one of these restaurants that may have been more of a “tourist trap.” Tourist trap or not, we had our first Italian pizza of the trip, and it was delicious.

After dinner, we headed to Piazza San Marco, which I recognized from the last time I was in Venice, but this time it wasn’t drenched in a foot of water. It was a little surreal to suddenly be in another country, especially since it didn’t feel like we had traveled for very long at all. We went back to wandering through the alleyways of Venice, and as it got later and later, we saw fewer and fewer people. It was a Sunday night, and none of the locals were out. In the shadows of the streetlamps, the canals had an eerie look. We felt like we might be in the middle of the Italian job or some other action movie taking place in Venice, waiting to see smugglers or Mafia members speeding by on a speedboat.

After getting lost for another hour and panicking slightly, we managed to find our way back to the hotel for the night.

The next day, Monday the 23rd, we woke up early and opened the window of our hotel room, which was a large dormitory-style room with five beds (even though there were only four of us). We noticed that we actually had a view of the lagoon! It was neat, considering how low the price had been for the hotel. We had breakfast at the hotel, and then visited the hotel terrace, where we could see a wonderful view of Venice and we could even make out the Dolomite mountains in the distance. The weather was fantastic: about 12 degrees Celsius (around 53 degrees Fahrenheit), but compared to Alsace, where the weather in February hovered around freezing, it was practically balmy. And the sun was out too!

Refreshed and reveling in the good weather, we set out to explore Venice. We went back to Piazza San Marco in the daylight, visited the Basilica, and took an elevator to the top of the Campanile (the Bell Tower), where we had another incredible view of the island and could even seeing the islands surrounding Venice. When you look at Venice from above, you realize just how small of a city it really is, surrounded on all sides by the sea, constantly asserting its existence against the waves that would destroy it.

Next we visited one of the most famous sights in Venice, the Ponte di Rialto, which had a gorgeous view of the Grand Canal, where couples were floating down the river on gondolas. It seemed right out of a film. Of course, the Venice of romance movies is not quite the one you encounter when you visit.

The Venice that exists today is one filled with tourists and tourist shops, even during the off-season. Hardly any residents actually live there, most locals just commute in from the mainland to work at restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops. Still, the grittiness of its back alleys, filled with interesting political graffiti and signs here and there people actually live in these cute little backstreets- a windmill hanging from a window, boots on a windowsill, a bike chained up in a courtyard, shows glimpses that the real Venice that is still there, but hidden in plain sight.

A sculpture and clocktower in Murano

A sculpture and clocktower in Murano

We spent the day tootling around Venice, with not particular aim in mind. After exploring the main island for a while, we took a vaporetto over to the island of Murano. Murano is known for its glass-making. There are a ton of shops where you can buy incredible glass trinkets (if you want to spend an arm and a leg). There wasn’t much to do on the line except for window shopping, since we didn’t want to pay to go into a workshop. The island is less touristy than the main island and also less picturesque, but it also seemed more authentic. It was clear that real people lived there. We saw some fantastic glass sculptures in the piazzas of Murano.

That night, we tried out this pasta place that we found on the Internet called Dal Moro’s. It was quite an experience. It’s a to-go pasta place hidden in a back alley in Venice, but actually not that difficult to find if you have a map. It has more of the feel of a start-up that you would find in San Francisco or LA than a traditional restaurant or cafe in Italy. They serve fresh pasta in Chinese take-out boxes, and their menu is very simple and inexpensive.  You choose the type of sauce and the toppings. A minute later they hand you your dish, and tell you eat it immediately. In Italy, we noticed that whenever we ate pasta, people insisted that we eat it at once. It’s meant to be consumed as soon as they put it in front of you and not a minute later. The only problem is at this little hole-in-the-wall establishment there were no places to sit. But they didn’t want us to leave with the food. The workers there basically ordered us to stand in the alley and eat it. It was a good decision. The pasta was fantastic. But still it wasn’t the most comfortable meal.

Tuesday (February 24th) was our last in Venice. We had a train to Florence in the afternoon, but we managed to squeeze in some more sightseeing in the morning. We went to the Palazzo Ducale, which is the Doge’s former palace (the Doge was the leader of Venice). The Palazzo was definitely worth a visit because we were able to see the incredible, ornately decorated chambers where Venice was once governed by a council and then we were able to visit the prisons. The only drawback was that the Doge’s apartment, which is usually included in the visit, was under renovation. Seeing the prisons was probably my favorite part. It was really eerie, but it gave you an idea of the horrible conditions the prisoners experienced. We also walked across the Bridge of Sighs which connects the palace to the prisons. It’s a very famous for being the place where prisoners got their last glimpse of freedom.

In front of the Bridge of Sighs

In front of the Bridge of Sighs

That afternoon, we sped off on a high speed train to Florence, which took about 2 hours. We didn’t see much of the city that night. We just arrived at our  hostel and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant. But the next day (Wednesday the 25th) we went into the city center to explore. We took a free walking tour of Florence in the morning. It was a “free” tour in the sense that we didn’t have to pay for a ticket, but the guide did ask for tips at the end. On the tour, the guide showed ups different examples of Renaissance architecture and explained their style and history to us. It was a very informative tour, and there was so much to see that I can’t possibly describe it all. We passed by the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, and, of course, we saw the giant Duomo, the big cathedral with its giant dome. We also passed through Piazza della Signoria, which has all of these famous statues in the open air. Probably the most famous statue there is a replica of Michelangelo’s David, which is absolutely enormous. On the tour, I was really excited to recognize several landmarks featured in A Room With a View, one of my favorite films of all time.

After the tour, we walked over to the Arno river and looked out at the incredible view, which I also remember seeing in the film. For lunch, we headed to the indoor market where they had cheap and delicious fresh pasta on the ground floor. We explored the top floor, too, where they had the more expensive restaurants and even a cooking school.

That afternoon, we headed back to the Duomo and visited it. The Duomo is an incredible piece of architecture, designed by the architect Brunelleschi. Next to it sits a tall bell tower designed by Giotto. We climbed the bell tower to get a better view of the Duomo and the city. The view from the top was incredible. We could see the ochre rooftops of Florence, dotted with so many different churches and beautiful buildings, and in the distance we could see its hills and countryside covered in green vegetation. Climbing up the tower was exhausting, however, and there was only way to go up and down, which made the narrow staircase very claustrophobic.

Il Duomo di Firenze

Il Duomo di Firenze

That afternoon we had the best gelato I have ever tasted at La Carraia, not far from Santa Croce.

On Thursday, we headed to one of the most famous art galleries in Florence, Gallerie Uffizi, where we found ourselves over our head in incredible art. After two hours of gazing, pointing, and remarking, we had only seen half of the entire gallery. Some of the highlights included The Birth of Venus and Primavera by Botticelli, a few paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, and one by Michelangelo. We also saw many,  many more, and we had a lot of fun commenting on how bizarre and misshapen most of the paintings of Baby Jesus were. Seriously, had the painters in the Renaissance never seen a baby in their entire life? We also found one room of statues which we concluded must be the disco room because all the statues were posed as if they were dancing at the disco.

That afternoon, we went to Santa Croce to see the inside of it. Santa Croce holds the graves of Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo, and it also has incredible art including frescoes by Giotto. My favorite part of the church was actually it’s courtyard, which was very tranquil and beautiful in the afternoon sunlight.

The beautiful courtyard in Santa Croce

The beautiful courtyard in Santa Croce

After Santa Croce, we checked out a bookstore/Wi-Fi cafe near our hostel called Libri Libreri Sit N Breakfast. It was really cute, and I really liked its premise: you pay to stay there by the hour. It was 4 euros for the first hour, and with that four euros, wi-fi, tea, coffee, and snacks are included, and you can look at the books they have out. I really liked its atmosphere, although I was disappointed to find out that the coffee provide came from an instant coffee machine. Still, it was nifty, and I had a chance to practice reading Italian.

I should mention that throughout the week, we all tried to speak Italian whenever we ordered food or tried to buy anything. However, since we were visiting mainly touristy cities, everyone usually spoke English. So they would just respond to us back in English, except for a couple times when they must have thought we were Italian because they started speaking super fast, faster than I could follow and probably using tense I don’t understand. Then we had to ask them to translate. Still, it was really helpful knowing basic Italian so I could understand street signs and other notices easily.

The next day we headed to Rome on the train, but that will have to be the subject of the next blog post.

La Vie Quotidienne: Visiting the European Parliament and Everyday Pursuits

“La Vie Quotidienne” means “daily life,” which is what my life in Altkirch has become to me by now. The word “quotidian” in English carries the connotation of boring and routine. Routine might be a good way to describe my weeks, but I still wouldn’t go as far to say they are boring. I’ve definitely got into the habit of teaching my students, knowing how to plan lessons for them, and having some general idea of whether those lessons will succeed or not. But when your job is to work with teenagers, they always surprise you. For example, while working with my professional students, who generally have a lower level of English, I had them take a quiz in English to see whether they were an introvert or an extrovert. When they didn’t understand those terms, I translated them into French (although the words are pretty similar in French “introverti” and “extraverti.” Turns out they just had no idea what an introvert or an extrovert was. That concept is not that common here, so I also had to give them an impromptu lesson on that topic. It was certainly a challenge, but not impossible. Ever since I got back from Winter Vacation, I haven’t been doing much traveling or sightseeing. Maybe it’s because I traveled so much in my first few months that I’ve grown a bit weary of it. But now that I’ve had a rest from it for about two months, I’m heading off to Italy in one week for another vacation, and then I’ll be visiting Lyon, where I studied abroad two and half years ago. Although I haven’t been doing many touristy things lately, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been having fun. Ever since New Year’s, I’ve gotten to know the assistants who live in my area a lot better, and I’ve been to their houses or apartments for soirées (which almost always turn into sleepovers because I can’t catch the train in time to get back to Altkirch). This past weekend, I had friends over for a potluck. Did you know that potlucks are apparently a concept that only exists in North America? My German roommate was not familiar with the word, which did not really surprise me. But then I told my British friends I was having a potluck, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I had to explain to them that a potluck is a meal where people bring different dishes and we all share the food. They told me that such a thing does exist in the UK, but it’s usually only among family members. Weird. My British friends quipped that perhaps English people were too polite to have something like a potluck, because they didn’t want to seem rude by eating other people’s food. Anyway, the potluck was a smashing success. We made handrolled sushi, potstickers, and sandwiches, and people also brought salad, chips, bread, homemade guacamole, cookies, mac n’ cheese, and wine for us to consume. We didn’t really do much except for eat, but we sat around playing card games and got to know each other a little better. I think it’s really cool that any given party organized by assistants there are usually at least four nationalities present. At my party there were Americans, one Canadian, two Brits, and one Taiwanese person. The only nationality we were missing was French, of course, but since we all interact with French colleagues and students on a daily basis, I think the lapse was forgivable. I was really pleased to show the other assistants my little town, although they had to suffer the walk uphill with all the food they had brought. I did go to Strasbourg recently for a training day for the assistants. Why they decided to gather all of the assistants and give them training four months after we arrived is beyond me. But gather us, they did. They held our training in the European Parliament building, which was pretty cool. So I had a chance to visit it and take a tour of it! It takes me at the minimum 1.5 hours to get to Strasbourg from Altkirch, and since we were supposed to meet in Strasbourg at 8:30 AM, I realized that to get there in time I would have to take the train at 6:50 AM and leave my house around 6:30 AM. I am the opposite of a morning person, so I opted to stay with an assistant friend who lived closer to Strasbourg so I could wake up one hour later.

Entering the European Parliament

Entering the European Parliament, Photo credit for all the EU Parliament pictures goes to my friend Clayton because I forgot to take pictures that day.

The training day was probably one of the most pointless conferences I have ever been to in my entire life. The main pluses were that we got to visit the European Parliament and hang out/ commiserate with the other assistants. However, we spent most of the morning listening to the people in charge ask us how our jobs were going, then when someone revealed that they were not following the rules to the letter, they were subsequently publicly reprimanded and told that they should know better. By rules, I mean certain specifications about our job that they mentioned to us one time when we had our day of training and of which they never formally notified us in any document. For example, you’re not supposed to have more than sixteen students at a time (I think the max is sixteen, but I don’t remember the exact number). You’re also not supposed to work with the students who have already graduated from high school but are doing a training course there (I am guilty of this one, since I work one hour a week with college-aged accounting students). You’re also not supposed to help them train for the bac (the big exam at the end of high school), which seems rather silly since that’s the main reason why these students need to improve their English, so they can pass their bac. Anyway, after being berated on this topic, and also being berated because most of us did not turn in our health insurance documents on time (which was actually not possible for some of us because we had to procure said documents from immigration, and our immigration appointments were after the deadline), they gave us a lunch break. We had a chance to eat in the cafeteria where the E.U. deputies eat. Hey, maybe the pope has even eaten lunch there!

The Hemi-cycle where the Parliament meets

The Hemi-cycle where the Parliament meets

We were also given a tour of the building, which would have been more interesting if I wasn’t already exhausted from lack of sleep and starting to feel like I was coming down with a cold. The E.U. Parliament is notorious for being a labyrinth, so it’s probably good that they didn’t let us wander off on our own. We saw the entrance and the Hemi-cycle, the floor where the E.U. parliament meets. They explained to us how each country has their own separate elections, but then once they get to the Parliament they group themselves by parties and political affiliations. The extreme left party members sit way on the left and the extreme right ones on the right, which I thought was rather neat. I don’t think it works like that in other legislative bodies that I know of. I wonder if that leads to an even worse lack of inter-partisan cooperation though (still, they ain’t got nothing on American partisanship dysfunction). Probably the coolest thing they told us was about the way the translation works on the parliament floor. There are translators from all the countries. All documents that are prepared for official review are translated into all of the official languages of the E.U. When a person makes a speech, if their language is a relatively common one and is being translated into another common language (such as English to French, French to German, or Spanish to English), then a translator who knows both languages will handle the translation. Otherwise, if one of the languages is rare, then there might be only one or two translators who know that language. In that case, when someone talks in say, German, and the Romanian delegate is listening, then one of the main translators will translate the speech from the more common language to English (German to English). Then, one of the translators of the more obscure language (a Romanian translator) will translate it from English to Romanian. Translators only ever translate into their native language. Not only do they translate it, however, but they also read the translation to the delegates from the country that speaks that language, who wear earphones. So it’s not uncommon for people to laugh at a joke several minutes after it is given because they just finally heard the translation. I wonder how much gets lost in this whole hectic translation process. It sure sounds like a challenging job, especially because making a mistake could screw up relations between two countries.

Where the important people get to enter

Where the important people get to enter

That afternoon, we worked in groups to create a sample lesson (which I found kind of odd since all of us have been getting along fine doing our own lesson plans so far, so I don’t know why they decided to give us training now). At the end of the day, I wish I could have remained in Strasbourg for longer, because I do love that city. But I was far too exhausted and just wanted to go home. Last week, I visited Mulhouse with some of my friends who lived there. We went to the fine arts museum (which was free!). There was a really fascinating exhibit there on French propaganda against Germany after World War I, in which Alsace was often pictured as a chained maiden. A lady who worked at the museum overhead my friends and I speaking in English and asked if any of us were willing to tutor her in English. It’s probably not feasible for me, since I live so far from Mulhouse, but my friends might be able to do it. Anyway, the woman, who had a strong Spanish accent, told us she was from Saint Domingue. I think she was talking about San Domingo in the Dominican Republic. She seemed like she would have an interesting life story. I wonder how she ended up working at a museum in Mulhouse. After she talked to us, she began answering all of our questions about the artwork in the museum and ended up giving us an impromptu tour of each room. She knew so much about all the works, and it was really cool to have her explain them to us, since I know I would have missed out on the subtleties in a lot of them otherwise. There was actually a whole room devoted to Jean Jacques Henner, the artists after whom the lycée where I work is named. He apparently was in love with one of his models, and most of his paintings were of her, but he was never able to marry her. My favorite painting by him was this one painting of the girl in which he started out painting on the canvas and then switched to painting it in the other direction, but you can still see the outline from the first time he painted it. To me, it looked almost intentional, and striking.


This is the painting I am talking about: La vérité (1896) avec repentir (1898) by Jean Jacques Henner

The Book Box!

The Book Box!

After our visit to the museum, we also discovered that there’s this really neat book-sharing box in Mulhouse, where people can leave books that they don’t want for other people to take and discover. I might leave most of the print books that I’ve accumulated in my time here there at the end of my stay here. (And if I see anything good, I might take a couple from the box too). So that’s what I’ve been up to here lately. And I’ve had a couple of interviews for a possible position in the Bay Area next year. I won’t here back on whether I got it for a couple of weeks. One thing I learned in recent weeks, however, is that I really hate skype interviews. My internet here is rather weak, and when I skype with friends and family it often cuts out. And of course, it kept on doing that too in my most recent skype interview. Maybe it was just freezing on my end though, because the person interviewing me seemed not to notice the interruptions… I just kept talking as if she could hear me the entire time. Well, hopefully she won’t hold any technological issues against me. We shall see. Less than one week until I leave for Italy!

Christmas Vacation: A Three Country Tour

I can’t believe it’s been a month since my parents came to visit me. My time here is flying by. I’m basically halfway through my stay in France. It’s weird because I remember at this point in my stay the last time I was in France, four months in, I was preparing to leave. Right now, I can’t imagine leaving. I feel very accustomed to daily life here now, at my job being a teaching assistant, socializing with the teachers in the teachers’ lounge, hanging out with my assistant friends on the weekends or taking day trips here or there. I think I’ll be tired of this rhythm of life in a few months, maybe, but for now I’m quite content with it. I still have at least two more big vacations in front of me, and those will be the most costly ones so far… Luckily I still have some graduation money leftover!

So here’s an overview of what my parents and I did while they were here. We spent some time in places I’ve already visited and talked about on this blog, so I won’t go repeat myself to much.

My parents flew in to Europe on Saturday, December 20th, landing in Frankfurt, Germany. From there, they took the train to Basel, where we met up. It was very strange to see them, almost unbelievable. After months of being thousands of miles apart and only communicating through skype, here they were, in the flesh, like I had never left California. It was difficult for me to imagine just how long their journey had been. For me, all I had to do was take an hour-long train ride to Basel and then wait for them at the train station.

We spent three days hanging out in Basel, Switzerland, visiting the Christmas markets and exploring the city. At that point, I had already been to numerous Christmas markets, but nevertheless, the one in Basel impressed me (and my parents). It was smaller than the big one in Strasbourg (which we went to next), but it had a very quaint feel that was quite unique. It was a little different from the French Christmas markets, with more artisan and local products from Switzerland. The food served there was a little different than the food in Christmas markets in Alsace. The night we arrived, I had a Bratwurst sandwich from a stand, while my dad chose to have a Schnitzel sandwich. The next day, we also tried out sort of flatbread that resembled a pizza, but just had cheese and mushrooms on it.

On Sunday, we took a vintage tram tour of the city. It was fun, because the narration was provided in both English and German, and we had a change to see the city center and the outskirts of the city, all the places that city is connected to by the tram line. We even saw the French border, which you can actually cross via tram in Basel. However, there was one problem: the seats of the tram were heated. This, at first, seemed like a pleasant benefit of the tram, which clearly did not have any other form of heating, hailing as it did from another era. But by the end  of the tram ride, our behinds were literally burning up. It was not so fun.

During the ride, we learned a lot about the city: it’s history and geography. We found out that Basel is the home to some major pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis. The next day, my mom wanted to check out the Novartis campus, which apparently has beautiful architecture. Unsurprisingly, you can’t just walk into the campus, however. But at least we got to take a peek at the modern buildings from the outside. We also explored some more of the city’s old town by foot, and saw some of the highlights I had already visited, including the Town Hall and the Cathedral.

One of the highlights of our time in Basel was a trip across the Rhine by ferry. It was a sunny afternoon, and not too chilly, so we decided to hop on the ferry. The ferry, which is attached by a zipline to a cable above, has no motor and is driven only by the current, which carries it from one side to another and back. It was a really pleasant, unhurried boat ride across, with beautiful views of the city. It took maybe ten minutes total, and while we were on the boat, the ferryman made conversation with the other passengers (but not with us because we can’t speak German). It didn’t cost that much- I think only a couple of euros per person. I would definitely recommend it.

On December 23rd, my parents and I headed to Altkirch, to spend the night at my apartment. Thankfully, it was a sunny day, so I had a chance to walk around the town with my parents and show them the “sights.” It didn’t take very long because Altkirch is not very big. That night, I impressed my parents with my ability to cook pasta (now they know I’m really an adult) and afterwards, we hung out at my neighbor’s apartment for a little bit. My neighbor, who is a history teacher at the school and who speaks English, was so kind to let us spend the evening with him and his family. His parents don’t speak English, and my parents don’t speak French, so my neighbor, his sister, and I had a fun time translating the conversation back and forth for the benefit of our folks.

The next day, we headed to Strasbourg, just in time for Christmas. Strasbourg and its Christmas markets were packed with tourists from all over the world. It was incredible. My parents and I were not as impressed by the extensive Christmas markets, however. They were just too big, and they seemed a lot more commercialized, with vendors that did not seem as local or authentic. Still, the city did have some really great Christmas Decorations, including a giant Christmas Tree.

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The Great Christmas Tree of Strasbourg


One of the Christmas markets in Strasbourg

My parents enjoyed seeing the astronomical clock in the Cathedral, however. On Christmas Day, we took a river cruise on the Ill because it was a fascinating way to learn about the city’s history and because it was probably the only attraction open that day in the entire city. For dinner that night, we went to the first restaurant that we could find that was open, an mediocre Italian restaurant in the Cathedral district.

The day after Christmas, my parents and I saw a record three museums in one morning. We bought a day pass to the Strasbourg museums and the three museums situated in the Palais Rohan, which is a splendid palace and the former residence of the Bishop of Strasbourg, once the ruler of the city. It now holds the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Archaeology. We liked the Decorative Arts museum the best, mainly because it shows the original furnishings of the palace and how the main rooms were set up during the 18th century. We saw where the room where King Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon stayed (not all at the same time, of course!), and the palace’s magnificent library. The Decorative Arts museum also housed collections of ceramics and other local art and it had the remnants of the previous astrological clocks that were in place in the Cathedral before the current one.

The Archaeological Museum and Fine Arts museums were pretty cool too. The Archaeological Museum focuses primarily on Alsace, and it was interesting to see how the region developed from scattered tribes to civilization under the Romans to battling fiefdoms in the middle Ages. They also had a really cool exhibit showing how archaeological digs of First World War trenches are contributing to our knowledge of daily life on the front. In the Fine Arts museum, there were a few famous paintings, including one Raphael and one Giotto, and the museum also featured some Alsatian painters, including Jean Jacques Henner (the high school where I work is named after him!).

That afternoon, we met up with one of my friends from UCLA who is also currently a teaching assistant in France. She’s working in a different region entirely, but her parents also came to visit her for Christmas and they happened be in Strasbourg when we were. We had coffee and then dinner with them at the apartment they were renting. That was one of the highlights of my trip, because we got to spend some time together and exchange stories about our time as assistants in France so far.

We headed to Frankfurt, Germany, the next day, by bus, and arrived that evening at the Frankfurt airport (we stayed in a hotel in the airport). The airport is gigantic, literally a maze, especially if you don’t speak German. Although there were signs in English and we had a map, we were still confused. The next morning, we went looking for the welcome desk to buy city passes for Frankfurt and subsequently spent an hour lost in the airport. Luckily, we finally got our bearings and our city passes and left the airport, heading in to the city.

It had snowed in Strasbourg the day before, and in Frankfurt it was even colder. We were chilled to the bone as soon as we stepped out of the metro. The snow did make the buildings and the sights much more beautiful, however.

Frankfurt in the snow

Frankfurt in the snow

We wandered around until we found refuge in the Goethe House. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous author of Faust and the Sorrows of Young Werther, grew up in Frankfurt, in a middle class family, and his house (which was destroyed during the air raids in WWII) has been rebuilt and is now a museum. I’ll admit, I have not yet read any Goethe, but I can’t resist a literary attraction, so we visited the house. Luckily for the museum, they had the foresight to put all of Goethe’s family’s belongings and furniture in storage during the war, so they were not lost. The house, which has been completely rebuilt, is set up just as it was when Goethe was growing up and living at home as a young adult. He couldn’t make a living as a writer, he didn’t really want to be a lawyer, so he just bummed at his parent’s house. You know the type. Of course, that’s where he started writing his masterpieces, so maybe that’s a sign that writers shouldn’t feel bad about living at home with their parents until the age of 26. I wonder what my parents think about that.


Goethe’s desk- I kind of doubt that he had that statue on it while he was writing. It looks a little precarious.

Of course, I was in writer heaven when I got to see his writing desk. My mother and father were not quite as impressed, but they were impressed by other parts of the house, like the laundry presser and the house’s central heating mechanisms. I’ll admit those things too were pretty fascinating.

After visiting the Goethe House, we ate lunch in the main square in the Old Town. I had Frankfurters, which basically are hot dogs, but a little fancier. They were delicious. I’ve really taken a liking to German food ever since moving to Alsace. After lunch, we headed to the Frankfurt Historical Museum, which was a veritable labyrinth. It’s composed of several different buildings that were integrated into one, including an old toll gate and important family’s house. So it was easy to get lost inside, which we did, several times. You can climb up to the toll gate’s tower, which is pretty fascinating, and you can also see the building’s dungeons too. They had some interesting exhibits about the history of the city, comparing how it looked before it was bombed in WWII and after, and it had a cool special exhibit about African and Muslim soldiers during World War I who were fighting for France. The exhibit showed how some of these soldiers were caught by Germany and sent to a special prisoner of war camp that was actually nicer than most. It even had a mosque. The Germans were trying to convince these colonial soldiers to give up their loyalty to their colonizer and to instead fight for the Ottoman Empire (because it was also Muslim). Of course, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were on same side of the war, so it was in Germany’s interest to treat these prisoners well and to try to get them to switch sides. It was really interesting to learn about this whole population of soldiers that are not usually discussed and that I, personally, did not know had existed. They also discussed how scientists “studied” the physical characteristics of these non-white soldiers, coming to racist conclusions about them that would later justify horrible atrocities of racism committed by the Nazi state.

On our last day in Frankfurt, we took another river tour, this time on the Main, Frankfurt’s river. We saw Frankfurt’s skyline, which is christened “Main”hattan because of the river and because it’s Germany’s equivalent of New York City. Frankfurt is the location of the European Central Bank and the main stock exchange in Germany, so it is similar to NYC in more ways than one. My roommate has told me that many Germans see Frankfurt as an interesting anomaly because it has a skyline with skyscrapers, although she told me that it probably wouldn’t impress me because I’ve been to New York. Still, I found it to be a beautiful, albeit modern city.

Sadly, it was time for my parents to leave. They left on December 30, and I headed back to Altkirch. I ended up spending New Year’s with three other assistants from Alsace, and we had a blast. We went ice skating in Colmar, sang karaoke past midnight to ring in the New Year, and then hung out together for a couple more days. We built a snowman (although he tipped over immediately after he was built. actually, immediately after we gave him eyes. The world was too much for him, poor thing.), we geocached, we went rockclimbing, and generally had a great time. Too soon, it was time to go back to school, to actually get back to work. Sometimes during my two-week long vacations I forget that I’m not here to travel and hang out, but to actually work. But after a month back, I’m well into the swing of things and happy to have a job that I really enjoy and the chance to visit three countries within the span of a week if I feel like it.