The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Late-Season-Powder Porn

Thus far in our stay in Lyon, the nearby Alps have been more a concept than reality, white shadows glimpsed on clear day but not much else apart from a hiking trip to Grenoble back in the summer. [photo, click to enlarge: the white thing at center far distance is Mont Blanc.] Still, we see people carrying skis and snowboard bags on the metro or through the train station all winter long, and the sidewalks of Lyon are often blocked by someone hobbling along on crutches wearing plastic casts to protect their boot-top tibia fracture. (As the closest major hospital to the world's largest skiing area, the doctors at the Lyon public hospital must be the world's most expert at treating tibia fractures, much as LA County General was once where the Army sent its medics to learn to treat gunshot wounds).

V's dislike of heights in general and mountains in particular has meant that free weekends find our rented car aimed toward the beach rather than the mountains. So when the local English Mums Club (technically English-speaking Mums Club, as it includes a fair number of Irish and the odd Aussie or South African) put out the word that they were organizing a late-season ski trip, I prodded V until she agreed to let Boog and me go--she doesn't ski, and wasn't heavy into the concept of hanging around a lodge with the baby while we went off skiing.

Unfortunately, as with many things in France, things were not necessarily well-organized for the trip (I'm thinking of the words "couldn't", "piss-up" and "brewery") and our lodging reservations fell apart two days before our departure date. Having already made reservations for a car, I decided to press on and go anyway. Hearing our enthusiasm (and talk of going dogsledding) V decided to come along with the baby as well.

Villard-de-Lans and Correncon are among the closest ski resorts to Lyon, an hour and a half by car: You just go to Grenoble and hang a right up a hill...a really really big hill. The Vercors massif is a huge plateau that is mostly at about 3000 feet but goes up to 7-8000 at some peaks. It's incredibly isolated, with one road going up it from the Grenoble side and one road going up it from the south. During WWII, it was a Resistance stronghold, so much so that after the Normandy landings, the Resistance declared the Rebublic of the Vercors and scraped out an airfield to await the arrival of Allied tranport planes. Unfortunately, the first planes the Resistance greeted at the airfield were gliders full of SS commandos, with disastrous results ensuing for both the Resistance and the villages that supported them.

With happier times came the establishment of a few winter resorts, though limited in size and scope by the difficulty in access. Villard and Correncon lack the glitz of Courchevel, the expanse of Les Deux Alpes, and the altitude of Chamonix, but have a reputation as a family-friendly resort that is good for beginners to intermediates and is close to Lyon--score on all counts.

Correncon, where we stayed, is quite literally where the road ends and the National Park of the Vercors begins. You need cross-country skis, snowshoes, or a dogsled to go any further, and many people do so. [photo: Correncon] There's an alpine church, a tourist office, a boulangerie, a Petit Casino store, and about 4 places that rent skis and snowshoes. That's pretty much it.

The hotel where we stayed was incredibly cosy, though (and correspondingly pricey), with a lounge and fireplaces and saunas and hot tubs and so on. Hotel du Golf--so named because of its proximity to the area's only golf course--if you're ever in the area. [photo: Boog checks out the night's snowfall]

As for the skiing: If you ever get the chance to ski in the Alps, especially if you happen to be, like me, a mediocre skiier from the neither-high-nor-snowy southeast, DO IT.

The ski areas are huge, for starters; the linked Villard-Correncon area has something like 120 kilometers of pistes. During the few hours that Boog was in ESF ski class [pic], I was able to explore only a tiny corner of it. More space means less skier density, too--I never waited in a lift line (except for the initial cable car from the parking lot) and I was occasionally completely alone on the slope. The snow was perfect as well; I may have been the lucky recipient of good snow, but it was all powder, nothing granular, no ice. The pistes were butter-smooth, too, without the moguling one usually sees in the Appalachians.

Nice views, too.

All in all I skied as well as I ever have, and I don't think that was a result of a sudden uptick in skill.

Up at the top of the mountain the cloud ceiling dropped over the slopes, creating a sort of whiteout condition in which there was no horizon, no visual differentiation between the snow underfoot, the air ahead, and the sky above [pic]. Interesting and a little disconcerting.

Villard-de-Lans itself, while not exactly a pulsating ritz-tacular apres-ski nightlife mecca, is a pleasant enough rural town that tries pretty hard to maintain its Alpine roots. There is a quaint downtown area that features lots of cafes and creperies, and on a sunny day like Sunday was, the cafe terraces are full of people in coats and sunglasses sitting outside in the sun, drinking wine and loooking up at the mountains. Would have been a postcard picture, but I didn't have my camera on me.

One of the local specialties is raclette, which besides being the name of a cheese, is a dish (or a meal, rather) made from that cheese. For raclette, you need a raclette apparatus. I saw one in a shop window but didn't buy it, the price being a bit much [pic]. A quarter-wheel of raclette cheese is mounted on the spiked bit at left-center, and hot coals from the fire are loaded into the top of the V-shaped hopper at right. The spiky bit and the tray underneath it slide on the rails to move the cheese close to the coals, where it warms up and starts to bubble and melt. The alert raclette-tender then uses the wooden handle (far left) to swivel the cheese away from the heat, and slices (or spoons) off a portion of the hot cheese onto a waiting plate piled high with potatoes, sausage and other dried meats. It's a little like fondue in reverse, but with the added bonus that the tablecloth may burst into flame at any minute, or a burning ember may pop off onto baby's bib.

In the afternoon, before heading back to Lyon, we sledded for a while at Correncon's sled hill, a steep rise just below the intial ski lifts. Pretty much every kid in town was there, which I suppose is what one does when one lives out here in the middle of nowhere [pic from top of sled hill].

[pic: V and Boog on the way down]

I'm ready to go back, and V says she might even have to try skiing next time. And that, dear readers, is an endorsement.

Our next trip is to Paris for the long holiday weekend, if we can find a decent place to stay on short notice.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Well, That's Not How I'd Go

Wanna come pay us a visit? Try this:

Go to Google Maps and click on "Get directions". Enter Chapel Hill, NC and Lyon, France as your start and finish.

Sounds good right up to item #24...

[Quirk found via]

{edited to add photo: Tourists and Westie looking down at the city from Notre-Dame de Fourviere}

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Five Words on Visiting a French Dentist

Not actually all that different.

Here are just a few more words:
There are the golf magazines in the waiting room, the familiar chair and high-intensity lights in the examination room, a picture of a relaxing locale on the wall to focus on while en detartration (Villefrance-sur-Mer rather than the Outer Banks) the same nasty-tasting stuff to rinse out your mouth with.

The principal differences are that the dentist does all of the work--there is no hygienist--and that the whole process only costs 21 euros (ah, socialism!).


Follow-up to the previous post: The Gare du Nord station in Paris was evacuated last night as cops using tear gas battled with 100 or so youths following what some perceived as excessive use of police force against a turnstile-jumper.


We're just back from a ski trip to the Alps, hence the lack of posts over the last week or so; stay tuned for some fresh-late-season-powder porn whenever I offload the pictures from my camera.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

So We Brought In Bruckheimer to "Punch Up" This Blog

So, not enough police chases and car crashes for you on the ol' blog? Need some more excitement, rather than blurry vacation photos and musings on the inherent contradictions in French society? Let's pick up the action a little...

(all photos in this post courtesy of my colleague R. Dray)

Tuesday, around noon. I'm in my office, idly wondering what to do for lunch. There's a sudden sound of a car engine gunning right outside on the street, loud enough that I almost turn around to look out the window. But I don't, because I hear this all the time--traffic usually clears right out there after being snarled on the Place Sathonay roundabout, and motorists and motorcylists happy for a little breathing room often celebrate with some throttle.

But this time, the roaring engine turns to the squeal of tires and a sudden crunch, followed by a cascade of breaking glass. I turn around now, a split second too late to see the impact, but a quick look tells the story: Some hoon in a 90's Toyota MR2 Turbo has plowed right through a glass-and-steel bus shelter [2nd pic].

Amazingly, there was no one in it at the time--and a bit surprising, since because our entire grounds are non-smoking, some of the staff go right across the street to have a cigarette where they can sit down out of the rain and wind. [pic 3, my office building in background] A good thing that it was vacant, too, because anyone there would have had no place to go.

The driver appears unhurt, shaking windshield glass off his jacket, still talking on his cell phone. Ah, mec, you wouldn't believe what just happened...

The first officials to arrive on the scene, oddly enough, are two TCL guys (Lyon transportation authority) in a van. [4th pic: TCL guy in red jacket] While they are clearly not amused about what this knucklehead has done to their bus shelter, they also appear to think it's a little bit funny and are giving the guy a hard time.

The cops show up a few minutes later and start taking a report. The MR2 driver is using his hand, palm down, to illustrate what happened in the universal gesture. So I was just driving along and this big dog ran out, and I kinda swerved like this...what? No, I wasn't speeding, officer, of course not...

By the time I get back from lunch, there's a tow truck extricating the car from the wreckage of the bus shelter as a TCL crew tries to salvage what they can of it. When the car is gone, they start sweeping up the glass [pic: So much broken glass it looks like snow].

By mid-afternoon, a TCL flatbed truck with a crab loader has arrived, and starts ripping the twisted steel frame apart and out of the ground.

By the time I leave work, there's no trace of the shelter at all, and workers getting off shift at the Renault Trucks plant wait for their bus at an unmarked spot on the sidewalk.

By the time I get to work the next morning, a brand-new bus shelter is in place.


Another scene:

Sunday afternoon. Boog and I are on our way home from having ridden the new T3 tramway to the end and back, just to see where it goes (report: to the middle of nowhere in the eastern suburbs. This is the type of thing you do when you have a four-year-old son). We're standing on the Metro platform at the Saxe-Gambetta station, waiting for the Gare de Vaise train. Even though Saxe-Gambetta is usually a busy station, as it's where two major lines cross, Boog and I are the only ones on the platform.

Suddenly there's a commotion on the platform on the other side of the tracks: shouting, running feet. A young man in jeans and hoodie bursts from the tunnel leading to the escalators, followed by about six blue-uniformed cops. He looks across at us, back at the cops, down the train tunnel....and jumps down off the platform onto the metro tracks.

At this point I'm bracing for a bright electrical flash and puff of smoke, but he somehow manages to avoid finding the third rail. A wind blowing down the tunnel announces the impending arrival of the northbound train. The cops pull up short at the edge of the platform then split up, rushing up the stairs in both directions, taking the longer but infinitely safer method of crossing the tracks. By now the miraculously-unfried guy is pulling himself up onto the platform on our side, like someone getting out of the pool at the deep end, and bounces to his feet, breaking hell-for-leather for the exit stairs that lead to the Sunday crowds milling on Cours Gambetta, and freedom. The stairs are about 15 feet directly behind me.

I am faced with a split-second decision: I can grab the guy, or just stick out my foot to trip him, and the cops will be all over him in a second. The heroic, All-American, stand-up guy thing to do. Then I remember I have Boog with me, and I do the French thing: Get out of the way and pretend like nothing's going on, because it's not my problem.

The guy rushes past and makes the stairs, misjudging the intial leap to the third step and crashing in a pile. The cops are crossing the bridge on the near side, and have reached the platform behind him. He gets up, bounds up the stairs, and makes another critical error, trying to go out through an "In" turnstile--which he bounces off of rather comically. Forced to backtrack, he runs toward an exit turnstile... and is utterly flattened by the first cop, who lays an NHL-quality shoulder check on him. Three more (slightly beefier and out-of-breath) arrive a few steps behind and dogpile the guy. Perhaps a few extra licks are thrown in for good measure--it's hard to tell since they are a level above us and partially screened by the railing.

Our train arrives before the cops drag the guy to his feet, so we don't see the aftermath. We can only guess at what the guy did that he would risk getting fried on the rails.

[Last pic: Advertising on side of bus shelter--It reads "Download at the SPEED OF SOUND". This photo was published in Le Progres the next day.]

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The South of France Will Rise Ag'in

Spotted at an autoroute rest area somewhere in Provence. Click to embiggen to see what Gino's got hanging in his windshield.

Everywhere, indeed.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

La Bataille des Fleurs, Nice

Nice is not Rio, though it does have a grand sweep of beaches, and it is not New Orleans, though it does have its proud historic district colored with the patina of grander days past. So it's not surprising that Carnaval in Nice is a little different from Rio's samba-ing bacchanalia and Nawlins' midwestern-college-kids-puking-up-hurricanes.

Nice's Carnaval centers on a series of parades, mostly by night but some during the day, along the Promenade des Anglais, the kilometers-long walkway that stretches along the beach from the Chateau at one end, past the Hotel Negresco (where Isadora Duncan met her end via a bizarre combination of her extra-long scarf and her open-topped Bugatti with wire wheels), all the way down to the airport at the far side of the bay.

Our decision to go to Nice for Carnaval was rather last-minute; we had been planning a trip to southwest France but rethought things after, when I mentioned our plans to my boss, he said "It's gonna be cold." The warmest place in France in February is the Riviera, so we reformulated. Upon learning that Carnaval would be happening the same weekend we planned to be in Nice, we immediately tried to get tickets.

Tickets? Wait, what? They sell tickets to an open-air parade that covers public streets? Yep. In a move that somehow seems very American, the city erects green 3-meter barriers all along the parade route to prevent the nonticketholding public from getting a peep at the festivities [which they do anyway when topography permits, see photo]. In the center of the parade route there is a grandstand, the only place with guaranteed seating for a good view of the action. By the time we decided to get tickets, only one parade still had seats available--the Sunday-afternoon Bataille des Fleurs.

As it turned out, we must have got some of the very last seats, because we were on the very top row of the grandstand: by turning around, we had a pleasant view over the beach. It would have been more pleasant if a steady 40-mph wind wasn't coming off the water.

[photo: keeping each other warm. The water was remarkably blue and clear, even on this blustery day.]

There are worse places to be a bum [photo].

Despite the name, the Bataille is not especially combative; the only salvos exchanged are the bouquets of flowers tossed into the crowd by participants, not unlike the beads thrown at Mardi Gras, minus the flashing of boobs.

[photo: Look, mom, I caught one! Taken from beneath the grandstand]

Each year the Carnaval has a theme; this year it was La Grande Melee, which translates loosely as The Big Free-For-All. That doesn't make too much sense unless you know that Melee is also a French term for a rugby scrum, and that France is hosting the Rugby World Cup this fall. Also, the presidential election, described as a melee, is this year... which goes a long way toward explaining the giant statue of Jacques Chirac in a rugby uniform.

I'm trying to imagine this happening in the US--a giant statue of President Bush at a major festival--but I can't picture a scenario that doesn't end in mass boycotts, protests and counter protests, violence and a giant bonfire. The French must take their politics a lot more lightly than Americans do, or at least be able to take a little ribbing of their guy when it's all in fun.

Well, besides flowers being launched, Silly String also seems to play a major part in Carnaval; vendors hawk it for 5 euros a can on every street corner, and people launch surprise attacks to cover the unsuspecting in pink or green string. Boog got stringed (strung?) as we walked through the market to get a bite to eat beforehand. Some of the marchers in the parade had backpack-mounted silly-string launchers--something like silly-string flamethrowers--and would occasionally gang up and bury somebody [photo].

As for the parade itself, general Gallic quirkiness and whimsy prevailed.

There were marching bands and elaborate feathered costumes...

breakdancing robots [pic],

floating rugby footballs covered in bizarre humanoid shapes [pic],

giant stiltwalking black velociraptors directed by a similarly stiltwalking Cruella DeVille [pic],

and scantily-clad women bravely displaying their, erm, professionalism on a chilly, windy day [pic].

All in all the affair was rather tame, more Rose Parade than Mystic Krewe of Zulu, but I suppose that's fitting of a town that echoes of a more genteel age.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood? your neighborhood
In your neighborho-ood
Who are the people in your neighborhood
The people that you meet every day?

[photo: neighbors across the way, watching the parade]

With apologies to 5 rue Sesame (as it's known here), let's take a look at the people I run into on a daily basis here in Lyon:

Cosmetology Students
There's a cosmetology school on the other side of our building, and in the mornings when I'm taking Boog to school they are often lingering by the door for a last cigarette before class starts. These girls--and they're all girls--are easy to recognize: Besides the enormous black duffel bags each carries (stenciled with the name of a cosmetics company, and bulging with...what? A quiver of hair dryers? Make-Me-Pretty Barbie Styling Heads?), they uniformly dress in solid black, sometimes accessorized with a scarf or jacket in solid white. It's unclear whether this is a required uniform or a microcultural affectation. Despite their cloud of cigarette smoke and perfume, they're cute in that bridge-and-tunnel cosmetology-school way and have nice words for Boog. Quel amour de 'ti garcon!

[photo: the Saone and the 2nd arrondisement]

The Flyer Crowd
The intersection where Rue de la Republique runs into Place Bellecour may be the place with the most foot traffic in the entire city. It's prime real estate for people handing out flyers or information of all sorts: For example, there are the club promoters, passing out flyers for dance parties; they are very selective and only hand flyers to pretty girls and hip-looking guys. I, uh, don't get many of these. There are people handing out pizza coupons, or flyers for an oriental rug store's going-out-of-business sale, or Jesus-is-coming tracts.

There are also the Save-the-World types collecting signatures or donations for Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders or the anti-land-mine groups or whatever. I'm something of a cheapskate and don't like being pressured into donating money, so I usually just give these people a dismissive wave or shake of the head to let them know not to waste their time. And usually they get it, though sometimes they won't take non, merci for an answer and keep reciting their script, attempting to guilt-trip me into coughing up some euros; this makes me angrier than it should, and I've been known to abruptly switch to English, as I do under pressure, and blurt out "I think land mines are awesome!" or a more succinct "Fuck off!" which has the benefit of not requiring translation.

I'm not proud of that. [photo: park St Just, overlooking the city]

The Pollsters
Our building is also home to a polling agency, and frequently their clipboard-wielding employees patrol the street looking for people with opinions. These folks at least have come to recognize us, and know that (a) my French is only so-so, (b) I lack an opinion about nearly every French political issue, brand of yogurt, or TV program, and (c) we're not French citizens and our data probably would just be thrown out anyway. They're good neighbors, though, and once when our elevator was broken one of them helped V. up the stairs with a stroller, a baby, and a load of groceries.

[photo: getting a better view of the parade]

The Free-Newspaper Guys
There are 3 free daily newspapers that can be found littering the floor of Metro trains in Lyon every weekday: LyonPlus, published by the leading local paper Le Progres and the best free source of local news and information; 20Minutes, a national publication with a Lyon bureau, useful largely because its smaller format allows one to read it on a crowded train without elbowing anyone; and Metro, another nationwide that reads like a cross between Parade and your high school paper, and is useful only for its TV listings and sports scores.

Each of these papers hires people to hand out copies to people entering or leaving major Metro stations, and the impression I get is that once an employee has handed out his allotment of 1000 papers or whatever, he can go home. So each morning I see the LyonPlus guy, the 20Minutes guy and the Metro guy at the entrance to Bellecour station. They know that I will only take 1 paper a day to read on my commute, and that I'll wave the rest of them off, so when they see Boog and me approaching, there's a brief scramble to be the first to stick a paper in my hand, a Bonne journee, monsieur to me, and then some good-natured taunting of the other two by the winner.

Oh, on Fridays there's also the weekly Sport, which I never fail to pick up for its 2-3 pages of NBA coverage, plus its back-pages topless pinup spread with amusingly tenous connection to sports ("Aurelie was a fencer at university! En garde!").

[photo: Levels 2 and 3 of Metro Bellecour]

The Metro Boulangerie Lady
Subway stations around the world smell like stale urine, body odor, and desperation. But the Metro station at Saxe-Gambetta smells like fresh-baked bread, because there's a boulangerie right where the Gare de Vaise line interchanges with the Gerland-Charpennes line. For a long time I resisted buying anything there, because the concept of buying bread in a Metro station seemed roughly equivalent to buying meat at the Greyhound bus station. But the sheer convenience of it won me over--I don't even have to go 20 feet out of my way to get fresh bread.
And the boulangerie lady: what an oasis of calm among the rush-hour madness! She is able to understand orders mumbled in broken French over the din of 200 simultaneous conversations, running feet, and braking trains. She smiles benignly when V pays for a 80-cent baguette with 16 euronickels, and waits patiently while they are counted out and the line begins to stretch toward the Cours Gambetta escalators. She may be a quasi-human cyborg who will one day go haywire and turn on her masters, dealing gooey, delicious oven-fresh destruction.

[photo: Late afternoon, Hotel-Dieu and the Rhone]