Category Archives: France

Postcard from Dijon

(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

I was in Dijon in October for a conference. All I knew about the city before I went was the story from some friends about how they’d been on a roadtrip in France and ended up spending the night in a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Dijon, where instead of a reception desk you were supposed to collect your keys via some kind of vending machine arrangement(!) and the room had bunk beds(!!) (If I’m remembering their stories correctly, this was also the trip they camped on the nature strip in a supermarket carpark in the north of France, so their time in Dijon was actually pretty luxurious.)

While it’s fair to say I went to Dijon with zero expectations, what I discovered there was a fascinating mix of gothic and renaissance buildings. And unlike many towns where the historical centre is a few streets surrounded by 1960s concrete blocks, Dijon came through WW2 with little damage to its buildings and the centre is large and well-preserved, perfect for wandering around on a sunny autumn afternoon.

PS: More postcards from


Practical information for future reference: Dijon is 2 hours by regional train from Lyon, which is a major transport hub (from Turin I travelled via Lyon), or 1.5 hours by TGV from Paris.

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Fountain at Place des Jacobins, Lyon

Speaking French and buying wine in Lyon

I spent the last week in Lyon, France, for a work trip. To be honest, the most exciting part of it was that my hotel room was a lot quieter than my apartment (which is on 3 tram routes) and had airconditioning. “How was your conference?” people have asked me. “It was amazing,” I’ve replied. “I slept so well.”

In Lyon, I discovered that if you speak French to me, I will automatically reply with perfect Italian. Like, better, more fluent, Italian than I have ever used in Italy. I feel like I have discovered a brilliant language-learning strategy here. Pretty sure if I spent a month in France I could come back and write a novel in Italian.

The annoying thing is that I do have some French… At least, I studied French in highschool. To be fair, Australian highschool French is not much, and it was far and away my worst subject, but still. Well, and ok, by “worst subject”, I mean a language assistant once laughed at my accent. But still.

The thing is, in Italy if you’re not obviously fluent in Italian and you’re speaking to someone who does speak English, in my experience at least they’ll switch to English for you, without you asking. (Which is frustrating if you’re trying to practice!) Whereas in Lyon at least, people would often keep going in French, even with me. I went to a tea shop one afternoon and went through the stage of saying I wanted a black tea, and into the stage of indicating I quite liked Darjeeling tea even though I couldn’t remember any conjugations of plaisir, and was well into the oh my goodness when will we end this awful charade that the nonsense coming out of my mouth is French stage before I finally apologized for saying instead of oui for the 10th time because j’habite en Italie and the shop assistant finally offered to switch to English.

At least I got some French practice in.

Apart from the tea shop, my other French shopping experience was wine. In a foolishly generous mood I had texted a friend saying, “you want me to get you any food from France?”. I was thinking about chocolates or biscuits or a tin of pâté or something. The reply came back: “How about a bottle of wine, red or white, anything up to 20 euros and I’ll pay you back”.

I know nothing about French wine. (Actually, any wine.) So then I was asking every French person I know for wine recommendations, and not getting very far. Who knew I knew so many French beer drinkers? Eventually I triangulated what information I had and put myself at the mercy of the guy in the wine shop — who didn’t seem to understand when I said I was looking for a wine quite different to Piedmontese wines, possibly because he didn’t believe that Italian wine could really be called that.

But I wasn’t too worried, since I had a backup plan. A colleague had pointed out that the conference organizers were giving out a free bottle of wine to all attendees.
“So you can tell your friend you have a wine that was recommended by French people,” she said. “You can even say you saw other French people with this wine.”
“And I’ll say it cost me 19 euros,” I added. “Turn a profit.”

I really did buy a 20 euro bottle of wine, I swear.

Postcard from vallée Étroite: How is this even possible.

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Earlier this week, a friend sent out a group message that she and her family were going on a hike on Saturday, anyone was welcome to join them, adding “it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever seen”.

She wasn’t wrong.

“How is this even possible?” we asked ourselves, repeatedly, as we walked through alpine meadows with walls of dramatic jagged rock formations above us and a clear cold mountain stream running next to us. We saw a herd of cows, an enchanted lake with a million shades of green algae growing on the bottom, half a dozen marmots, a pond with tadpoles, wildflowers in pink and yellow and purple and orange, and new views opening out to us every time we climbed a hill.

At one of our many pauses for photos, I asked one of the guys if he wanted a photo “with that stuff over there.”

“Stuff?” he laughed.

“I’ve run out of words.”

 

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Practical information for future reference: vallée Étroite (valle Stretta in Italian) is just over the French-Italian border from Bardonecchia. We drove from Turin, which takes 1.5-2 hours on the highway; parking near our start point of Rifugio i Re Magi (website in Italian) was 2 euro for the day. We walked from 1780m  above sea level at Rifugio i Re Magi to 2500m above sea level at Refuge du Thabor (website in French), a distance of about 7km each way on well-marked trails — just make sure you follow the signs to Refuge du Thabor and not Mont Thabor itself. You can buy lunch at Refuge du Thabor or even sleep the night. I was glad of my waterproof shoes for the stream crossings but everyone else got on fine in running shoes.

 

Notes from a week in the mountains

  • Probably it’s for the best that the american lady on the bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel who was loudly discussing how she finds australian accents “sooooo sexy” didn’t hear me turn to my colleague sitting next to me and dramatically sigh “why does no-one take us seriously?”
  • Until now, when people said they quite like snow, I always thought they were a bit funny in the head. It’s wet! It’s cold! There’s mud everywhere! But having finally seen thick, fluffy, pretty snow, I start to understand:

    No slush in sight!

    No slush in sight!

  • Skiing: ahahahahahahaha. Not my forte at all. As predicted, hilarious. Picture a 76-year-old french winter-ski-instructor-summer-mountain-guide who’s just come off his cigarette break yelling “snowplow! wider!” and me yelling “I’m so sorry!” as I nearly mow down a row of small children who at age 4 are better skiers than me. Speaking of which, the small children body count from a 2 hour ski lesson: 1 collision, 1 accidentally closing the chairlift barrier onto a kid’s leg.
  • Apparently, there is a St Bernard dog museum near Les Houches, which we didn’t get a chance to see. This must be rectified. (A museum about dogs!)