15 December 2010

December Snowfall

It's a little late reporting this because the snow has all melted, but two weeks ago Lyon woke up to a pre-Christmas snowfall that threw early morning commuters into a panic.

Those who couldn't drive tried the metro. Others chose the more sane option of walking. I even saw one man riding his bicycle, business suit and all.

 La montée de la grande côte, Lyon 1st district

Place Maréchal Luyaty, Lyon 6th district

More snow is predicted for the end of this week with temperatures well below 0° C. Only six days out from the solstice and already it's feeling a lot like winter.

11 December 2010

Danger! High Creativity

I recently bought myself an A4-sized sketch pad with unlined white pages; it's where I record my inspirations and dreams, all the fabulous things that I want to create for myself in the future.

What caught my attention was the catchy phrase on the cover by Swiss born artist Bejnamin Vautier (commonly referred to as 'Ben') repeated five times in alternating colors:

danger haute créativité
(danger, high creativity)

 There's another artist, a local boy from Lyon, whose imagination and craftsmanship merit the same warning. His name is Pascal Mallet and he's furiously passionate about his art - making colorful glass jewelery with a creativity that flows like a fire hydrant.

But it wasn't always the case. For 25 years Pascal enveloped himself in the world of professional music, playing piano, harpsichord and organ in concerts.

The turning point in his life came a few years back when he was following another of his passions, wood working, and had an accident that left him partially handicapped in one arm.

Unable to continue a career in music, he embarked on an intense search to 're-invent' himself. Very quickly he was drawn to the creation of jewelery - the touch of the glass, the manipulation of the material with his own hands to create an
object of lasting beauty,

a sensation he admits didn't exist for him when he was interpreting music.

Several times during the year Pascal can be seen selling his creations, for men and women, in artisan markets throughout the region.

If you're visiting St Flour in the Cantal this weekend, you can stop by Pascal's stand at the Christmas market. He'll be there all day on Saturday and Sunday, December 11th and 12th.

The following week will be your last chance to buy a Mallet creation before Christmas. From Friday 17 December through to Christmas Eve, Pascal will be at the Christmas market of Issoire in the Puy de Dôme.

But if you can't make it to either of the Christmas markets and you're in Lyon next week, you can stop by his workshop to browse, ask questions, pick up a gift or two, and maybe even see a demonstration of how Pascal heats then works with his special Murano glass and turns it into art.

His workshop - and creations - will be open to the public on Tuesday 14 and Wednesday 15 December, from 10am to 8:30pm. Address: 50 Grande rue de la Croix Rousse, Lyon's 4th district. Interphone "Pascal Mallet", 2nd Floor.

Heating a glass baguette with a special blow torch to create a 'pearl'.

Rolling the glass to create different forms.

The glass changes color depending on the chemical mixture of the blow torch.

Inspecting a glass pearl. I call this one 'Jupiter'.

An assortment of original ear rings.

Fixing a clasp to a pendant that will be worn as a necklace.

Close up of two pendants.

Pascal also makes his own writing pens from wood, glass and leather.
Like his glass jewelery, each one is unique.

The new collection of rings on display.


05 December 2010

Winter Wedding (updated 15 December 2010)

I was invited to take the "unofficial" photos at a wedding yesterday. So while the hired photographer was doing her thing, posing the couple and family members, I got to roam freely and do what I like best - take candid shots.

The "behind the scenes" feel is what I think makes this photo interesting, and the fact that nobody else captured the moment from the same perspective. Although I have to admit, the photographer's flash in front of the couple adds a nice element.

A few days ago the bride's father sent this clipping from the local paper. The image looked strangely familiar; that's when I saw myself behind the bride's right shoulder, taking the above photo.

21 November 2010

RB (Retirement Blues)

Earlier this month the French government signed into law the controversial reform that raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. A few days after a letter came in the mail outlining my pension status based on the number of years I've contributed to Social Security (not many).

And what I saw frightened me.

It wasn't the fact that I'd have to work nearly a quarter of a century more in this system before I can stop, but that it will probably take me that long to wade through and understand that murky world of the RSO (retirement system organizations) and their equivalent acronyms.

Here's just a sampling from the letter I received.

AGIRC             ARRCO          CARCDSF           CARMF
    CARPIMKO           CARPV               CAVAMAC
CAVEC          CAVIMAC        CAVOM           CAVP
      CIPAV          CNAV      CNAVPL       CNBF
CNIEG        CNRACL              CPRN              CRN
          CRPCEN           CRPCF              ENIM
FSPOEIE        IRCANTEC         IRCED        MSA
                 RAFP                  RSI
Say that 10 times as fast as you can.

The French certainly have a knack for reducing government organizations to a few letters. What's even more frightening is that I too have been infected. After 10 years the acronym virus has taken root.

It's quite common now, even in casual conversation, for me to comfortably use abbreviations like HT and TTC (when talking about the price of good and services), RTT (for days off), TVA (for value added tax), VO (generally used for movies in their 'original version'), VF (movies in French), PDG (the president of a company), OVNI (French for UFO), EDF (the French electric company), CNED (for distance learning) and DIF (employee's right to training).

In some cases it's definitely more practical to say CNRACL rather than the Caisse Nationale De Retraites Des Agents Des Collectivités Locales.

The downside of course can be a loss of energy and power when we replace a real word with an acronym. The 'President' certainly carries more oomph than PDG. The mere mention of 'mountain bike' has me humming over rock and tracking through thick mud at 30mph with the scent of pine-filled air swirling about me, while the French abbreviation, VTT (vélo tout terrain), well, doesn't really take me anywhere.

SDF (sans domicile fixe) is a sterile, politically correct euphemism that just doesn't conjure up the same image as 'bum' or 'homeless' or even 'street urchin'.

While I agree that they can sometimes be useful, the overuse of acronyms can run disturbingly close to double speak. So when I receive a letter with an entire page of insanely long abbreviations, the temptation is too strong to hold my tongue.

I open my mouth and out flies, 'WTF!'

14 November 2010

An Autumn Day in La Dombes

My family and I just returned from a long weekend in La Dombes, an agricultural region north of Lyon.

It's definitely worth taking the time to explore the area's traditional farmers' markets, historical sites, bird park and nature walks.

But my favorite thing to do here, especially in this season, is wander the fields by myself. I love to watch how the light filters through the clouds and falls on the oak woods and rows of drying corn stalks. Sometimes I just find a quiet spot near a tree and look up at the sky. It's a great place to watch and listen.

And breathe.

The seven photos below span the length of one day in La Dombes, from sunrise to after sunset. Hopefully they convey some of the magic I feel when I spend time here.

Sunrise. Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain peak on continental Europe
can bee seen here as a small bump where the two tree lines meet near the 
bottom left. Click on the photo to see a larger image.

Late morning in the garden.


Trees at sunset.

These last three are all time exposures I took well after the sun went down.

The moon about to fall into a fiery horizon.

 The strong night wind eventually pushed the clouds away long 
enough to see stars in the western sky. Here they can be seen shining 
above a farmhouse that dates back to before the French Revolution.

08 November 2010

Did You Know...? Part 3

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the human with the most bizarre diet was the Frenchman Michel Lotito (1950 - 2007) from the city of Grenoble.

Mr. Lotito's Wikipedia page says that he began eating glass, metal and rubber from about the age of nine. When he was 16 he began performing publicly, entertaining crowds with his eating antics.

Throughout his career he ate 18 bicycles, 15 shopping carts, 7 televisions, 6 chandeliers, 2 beds, a pair of skis, a Cesna 150 airplane and a computer.

He is also the only known human to have swallowed an entire coffin, including the handles.  Though the Guinness book doesn't elaborate on this point, one can only assume the casket was empty at the time of consumption.

It's generally understood that Mr. Lotito was able to ingest metals and other objects normally considered poisonous thanks to a doubly thick stomach and intestinal lining.

Ironically, soft foods like bananas were difficult for him to eat.

You can follow this link here to watch a 5-minute YouTube video of 'Mr. Eat Everything' in action.

And as you watch, keep in mind that oft-quoted cliché - don't try this at home.

Kids At Christmas

Kids in France love this time of year.

Not because of the legal - and free - glucose-induced high they could get from trick-or-treating (Halloween isn't really celebrated here). And not because of the school vacation that extends into early November.

No, what really gets the adrenaline pumping, and sets off weeks of feverish list making, letter writing...and some not-so-subtle hinting...is the day the Christmas toy catalogues arrive in the mail.

They come for adults, too - high-fashion glossy mags selling the 'sexy' holiday essentials, from designer handbags and evening gowns to stiletto heels and lingerie. Everything to put the nutmeg in your Noël.

In our family, kids are told that when they reach 10, the gift-giving burden shifts from St. Nick to the parents. We find it a gentle way for them to ease into the "truths" about Christmas.

Last year, when our oldest was nine years old, and, theoretically, still under the auspices of Santa, a gigantic - and ridiculously expensive - box of Leggos caught his attention as he was flipping through his catalogue.

His younger brother noticed he was hesitating to put it on his list. So he took him aside and with the candor of an inside trader who knows how to work the system, whispered:

"You should go for it now. Mom and dad will never get if for you next year. It's too expensive. And besides, Santa's loaded."

02 November 2010

All Saints

With all the strange and sometimes chaotic events manifesting in the world recently (and I'm not referring to Halloween) - riots in Lyon, flooding, letter bombs, mid-term elections in the U.S. - one could easily get caught up in an endless sea of fear and feelings of being a victim.

But no one says we have to.

Last month a friend sent me a quote from Marianne Williamson's 1992 book A Return to Love (page 191). Each time I read it, I remember that I have a choice, lofty - and impossible - as it may seem, to feel differently.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

If you gave yourself the choice today, right now, to shine, what would happen?

And finally...what are you waiting for?

12 October 2010

In Tartiflette We Trust

We spent this past weekend with friends who live in the mountains near Grenoble.

They told us it had been cool and rainy just before we arrived - perfect weather for hunting fungi.

"Make sure the kids don't touch the mushrooms," they cautioned us. "They're dangerous".

Wandering up into the pasture behind their house, we found some of those "I am a bunny" mushrooms, also known as Amanita Muscaria, or Fly Agaric Mushrooms.

It was the first time I'd actually seen them in the wild. My college buddies who collected them in the forest behind our dorm used to swear they were magic, not dangerous.

I quickly learned that anyone intimate with Fly Agaric simply called them 'shrooms. Like friends on a first-name basis.

For lunch our hosts made Tartiflette, a specialty from Savoie. The basic ingredients are potatoes, onions, bacon cubes, fresh cream and reblochon cheese (sorry, no 'shrooms in this recipe).

After one bite, or several, it's easy to see why this dish is popular with people who spend their winter days skiing or climbing mountains.

To make a tartiflette, peel and lightly boil 1 kilo of potatoes, then cut into thick slices.

Sauté the onions and bacon cubes in olive oil.  In a baking dish, layer the potatoes, bacon and onions, then cream.

Cut a full wheel of reblochon cheese in half laterally and place face down on top of the potatoes.

Bake at 200° for around 20 or 30 minutes, or until the cheese forms a golden crust on top.  Serve hot.

 A pre-cooked tartiflette.

Hot Tartiflette right out of the oven.

Tartiflette has been described by some as the greatest comfort food in the world. I'm sure it has something to do with the combination of fat and carbs.

Others say it's part of the French patrimoine (heritage) and that you really don't know France until you've experienced Tartiflette.

In any case, it's a dish worth trying at least once. Already tartiflette has made its way onto our Christmas Eve menu - two and a half months early!

08 October 2010

Cerdon Perks

What do English lessons and sparkling wine have in common?

Not much, unless your student has a massive guilt complex for never having done her homework.

Yesterday was the last lesson of a 30-hour course for "Brigitte", a project manager who works for a local IT company.

Each week she had a homework assignment

                                (photo: www.lingot-martin.fr)

to complete. And each week she'd arrive with apologies of all sorts.

So five minutes before the end of yesterday's class, she excused herself from the room only to come back with a chilled bottle of Cerdon sparkling wine.

We drained half the bottle in record time, discussing the beauty of this hilly and picturesque region halfway between Lyon and Geneva on the western edge of the Jura (Ain Department).

We talked about visiting the caves, walking through the verdant canyons and touring the vineyards that produce this wine.

I first went to Cerdon in 2008 to climb the rocks towering over the valley. You can find out more about climbing in the region from the book Roc'in Bugey

that you can buy on-line here.

It was a day of firsts, then - never before had I indulged in the bubbly during a lesson, but it went down too cool and refreshing to stop, like sipping sweet, liquid rubies.

And never before had I stayed so long after the end of a lesson. I'm usually very draconian about leaving exactly on time.

But as the makers Lingot-Martin say of their sparkling wine, its aromas of red fruit and subtly sweet bubbles make it a drink of delight and celebration.

Who wants to rush away from that?

If only more students offerered wine or the equivalent when they don't do their homework, I might be forced to re-think my opinion about teaching for a living.

25 September 2010

Tibetan Soup

It was at a beautifully restored, underground café/bookshop in Lyon where we discovered Tibetan soup for the very first time.

We didn't actually taste it, not that day anyway. But we did memorize the ingredients that had been chalked into the black board at the entrance.

It was a late autumn day when we ducked into the café to get out of the cold and to drink a hot chocolate, the kind that's served in those elegantly tall glasses and comes with a tower of crème chantilly on top.

Tibetan Soup

-chop and sauté two medium onions in some olive oil
-add two or three whole garlic cloves
-add two medium eggplants (not peeled), chunked
-when you see the eggplant start to soften and turn brown, add one can of whole peeled tomatoes
-cover with water, add about 5 handfuls of red lentils (that's about a cup and a half, I guess) and bring to a boil, then let simmer for about 20 minutes.

Next, add one 400ml can of coconut milk and mix with an immersion blender until smooth.

Season with salt, fresh or dried corriander, cardamom and red chili powder or cayenne pepper.

If you get the seasoning just right, little bursts of flavor will pop in your mouth and the tastes won't overpower each other.

This is a great soup when the weather is cold, and goes particularly well with a side dish of rice or semolina (couscous).

Bon appétit.

21 September 2010

September Sunset

Last Friday we were gathered around the table for a 40th birthday dinner bash, the last one we'll have in our family for another 30 years.

Somewhere between the salad course and the grilled salmon, I looked out the window and said, "Excuse me, I gotta go for a second."

One minute later the light had changed, as it always does. But not before I got this shot.

Enjoy, and if you were born in September, happy birthday!

19 September 2010

Cultural Heritage Weekend

Every September France celebrates its cultural heritage by opening the doors to its museums, libraries, historical monuments, gardens (public and private) and various government buildings for an entire weekend, all free of charge.

Music was an integral part of this year's heritage weekend, with the national orchestra of Lyon performing eight free concerts throughout the city on Sunday afternoon.

They played Mozart. They played Berlioz. They played Vivaldi, Dvorak, Bach and Brahms. And in the courtyard of the hôtel de ville, four cellists played melodies coming from the high Kenyan plateaus.

If you didn't want to listen to music, but rather wanted to see how it was 'made', luthier Christian Charlemagne, a stringed-instrument maker, offered free tours of his workshop with demonstrations of how violins (and cellos and altos) are made and repaired.

This man spends his days repairing old violins, some dating back to the 1700s. He explained that there are several factors which can damage a violin, including excess humidity and lack of playing.

Then he held up this violin in front of the lamp and said, "Worms are the worst."

If you look carefully, you can see the light shining through the bottom of the violin where the worms have eaten through the wood. This, he said, is the most difficult repair of all. (Click on the photo for a larger image.)

Walking out of the workshop and back onto the narrow cobblestone street after the tour, I mentally added another profession to the growing list of careers I would choose if I could do it all over again.

I'm not that skilled with my hands, and I've only just begun my fourth year of violin, but the thought of being able to unlock centuries' worth of music - past and future - all for the preservation of our cultural heritage, is for me a most enchanting prospect.

Expats en Photo

I recently met with a photographer in Lyon who's showing some recent work, parallel to 'US Today After' exposition.

Her name is Rose-Marie Loisy and you can visit her website here.

Rose interviewed, then photographed, five Americans living in Lyon, including myself.

She wanted to convey a sense of what it was like for us, as expatriates, to make the transition to living in France.

What was challenging? What was fun? What was new and interesting?  Not surprisingly, food and language came out the dominant themes.

You can see Rose's photos at the atelier des Moirages in Lyon's 1st district every Wednesday from 5 to 7pm and on Fridays and Saturdays from 2 to 7pm until October 30th.

16 September 2010

Two Rivers Run Through It

Two rivers run through the city of Lyon - the Rhône (actually called a fleuve in French - a river that flows into the sea) and the Saône, which flows into the Rhône at the southern edge of the city.

Below are two photos of the Rhône.  I'll post more of the Saône soon.

From the banks of the Rhône, looking across
to the opera house (the domed building on the left)
and the Croix Rousse hill on the right.

Looking across from the west bank. Some of the péniches, or barges, 
docked along the river are private residences while others have been 
transformed into bars and restaurants.

11 September 2010

USA Today After...

There are only a handful of moments in my life, compared to the total number lived, that I can recall with absolute clarity:

-sitting in 10th grade biology class and hearing the principal, Glenn Fisher, announce that the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded seconds after liftoff

-listening to our high school valedictorian compare life to a tossed salad

-getting married in a black tux with tails

-watching (or nearly so) my wife give birth to our two children

-driving home from work one September afternoon and thinking that the radio announcers must be joking about the twin towers falling to the ground

On each of these occasions I can remember where I was exactly, what I was doing, who was with me, even what I was wearing.

I've heard other people describe with uncanny accuracy the details of what they were doing when they heard about Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nixon resigning, or man first landing on the moon - all events which, for the American psyche at least, were supercharged with emotion.

Coinciding with one of these powerful events, the anniversary of September 11, is a photo exposition hosted by the city of Lyon titled "US Today After". The exposition runs from 9 September to 4 November in selected galleries around the city.

The organizers of the exposition speak about the theme here. But because it's a translation from an original French text, and therefore mostly word-for-word (and not always so clear), I've summed up my own thoughts about it below:

The driving force behind the exposition is to explore that place where documentary photography meets contemporary art.

America's steps through history, though always moving forward, are often marked - and sometimes marred - by major events that are at odds with what we normally identify as American idealism or the American way.

The media's reactions in the wake of these turbulent events are continually pushing the boundaries outward, rendering the search for an American identity more complicated and at the same time, that much more necessary.

In this post-Katrina, post-September 11 America, we see a paradox of a disenchanting American dream, but there is also, always, the dream of a happy future.

The photos in this exposition, by these photographers, will explore these themes visually, no doubt in their own unique and artistic ways.

Intense emotional events - political assassinations, natural disasters, financial crises, terrorist attacks - leave their mark both individually and collectively. The ancient Greek philosophers referred to such moments as kairos - moments in time that signify opening and opportunity, the chance to manifest a future potential into the present reality.

The other side of a kairos moment holds the possibility of transformation. Go through it and you - and the reality you once knew  - will never be the same again.

If that's the case, America, like much of the world today, has had plenty of opportunity in the recent past to forge a new identity.  Will we still be struggling with the paradox of disillusionment and happy future on the other side?

Philosophers and scholars and artists can show us what they think.

But one thing is for sure: that reality is the responsibility of each one of us...and the experience of how we got there will be unforgettable.

10 September 2010

What do you hear?

Imagine 10 people see the same movie and you ask each one, separately, to tell you what it was about. What generally happens?

Everyone tells you something different.

Someone remembers the love story. Another remembers the violence, while someone else recalls the motorcycle chase through congested city streets or the camera slowly panning across a windswept desert or lush green countryside. In fact, you often hear 10 very different accounts of the same movie.

Sometimes we see the same phenomenon in our social interactions.

The other day two old men were sitting around the table after lunch and shooting the breeze about whatever it is old French buddies like to talk about, in this case their past hunting exploits and World War II.

The women in this story were in the kitchen cleaning up (please don't send me any sexist hate mail - I'm just giving you the facts as I heard them) and were listening to the two men talking away.

In the course of conversation, man no.1 mumbled something that neither of the women understood with absolute certainty. So they asked for clarity.

Man no.2: "Mais bien sur, he said un grand cerf", meaning, a large red deer. Man no.2 is a hunter after all.

(from the kitchen)
Woman no. 1: "No no no, he said a concert." Woman no.1 plays the cello.

Woman no.2: "But no, he said cancer. What's ironic - and sad - is that this woman has had serious problems with cancer in the past.

In English it would be hard to mistake the words deer, concert and cancer. But in French the words grand cerf, concert and cancer have nearly identical pronunciation.

After a brief, but heated debate, the word in question was revealed: un grand cerf. The two men were thinking along the same lines after all. And the women? Well...

The kitchen that night was noisy with utensils and ceramic plates clanging around in the sink. So was it bad acoustics...coincidence...or something else?

What do you hear?

04 September 2010

Climbing the Gerbier - Vercors

About 33 kilometers south-west of the city of Grenoble is the Gerbier, an impressive - some say mythic -  mass of limestone in the Vercors mountains whose summit reaches 2109 meters.

To get there, you park in a place called le hameau des Clots, then walk up a meandering trail that takes you past a shepherd's house and then high up into the valley. After two hours of walking up, you reach the start of the climb at the base of the mountain's west face.

You can get to the top in four pitches, about 120 meters of vertical climbing, then walk the narrow ridge to the summit. Just past the summit, and at the southern end of the rock, you can rappel down (15 meters) to a hard-sloping, zig-zagging trail that takes you back down the valley.

Guidebooks claim that the Gerbier constitutes an excellent introduction to mountain climbing. It's not for the beginning climber, however. Or anyone afflicted with vertigo.

These photos are courtesy of Laurent Fondacci, the guy who brought me up and back down the Gerbier...safely. Thanks Laurent!

The south-west face of the Gerbier in the morning light.

 Getting closer.

The slope leading up to the base - west-face.

 Almost there!

The start of the climb. You can see two climbers 
already on the rock, about 3/4 of the way up.

Laurent leading us to the summit.  It was late August but cold
and windy enough to wear polar fleece and Gore-Tex jackets.

Enjoying the view from the top.

25 August 2010

Skyscapes - Le Croisic

Moonrise, côte sauvage, Le Croisic.

Returning to port before nightfall.

The view from our bedroom at the vacation house. In the morning 
I stick my head out the window and check the weather for the day.


This one bedroom rock house sits on a hill and has
a commanding view of the ocean. And it's for sale. If you have 
750,000 euros ($950,000), it can be yours. You can see the ad for it here.

The sky's forever changing character; 
soft and vulnerable one minute...

...dark and sinister the next.

Upside down arc.

Looking up.