18 December 2011

Price of Gas in France, Part 3

27 days ago I posted an update here on the price of regular unleaded gasoline in France, comparing it to what we were paying in April — 1.56€ per liter.

Walking to the gas station this afternoon to take this photo, I was not prepared for what I saw.

Today Agip is selling one liter of unleaded for exactly the same amount as last month — 1.50€.

I have no idea how these things work. Have fears about Europe's debt crisis finally calmed? Is winter putting the freeze on the Arab Spring? Something else?

The only thing I know for sure is that at this price, driving from Lyon to Le Croisic for the holidays will cost approximately 100€ in gasoline.

Even when paying highway tolls, this is significantly cheaper than taking France's fast train, at least for a family of four. So much for our geste pour la planète.

Next up: Christmas au Croisic.

07 December 2011

Almost Gluten-Free Holiday Cookies

Here's a cookie recipe I threw together today using the ingredients that inspired me as I walked into the pantry.

It was 3:15pm, about an hour before the start of that great French institution (one worth keeping) that kids around the hexagon

observe with ritualistic gusto — goûter, or afternoon snack time.

To be fair, goûter really deserves its own post. And it'll get one in the near future.

So for now let's get back to the cookies.

I call them "almost gluten-free" because there's still a little wheat flour in them. I know that doesn't do you any good if you're allergic or intolerant. But for anyone trying to reduce their gluten intake, I think this can be a good compromise. You can always substitute with more rice or chestnut flour.

They're also entirely dairy free. Instead of butter they're made with an equivalent measure of palm oil.

Here's what you'll need:
  (petit disclaimer - some amounts listed below are, well, approximations. I tend to cook and bake the way my Nona did - a handful of this, a pinch of that. But I've made variations of this recipe a few times now and have never been disappointed with the results. I also usually bake by weight and not volume. Get those conversion charts out!)

   - 150 grams of rice flour*
   - 200 grams of chestnut flour*
   - 50 grams of wheat flour (T80 seems to work well)
   - 100-150 grams of sugar (any kind'll do)
   - 200-250 grams of palm oil* (room temperature and cut into cubes)
   - 1 egg, also room temperature
   - zest and juice of one lemon (preferably organic)
   - 1 or 2 tablespoons of vanilla
   - about 3 handfuls of shredded coconut
   - 4 handfuls of shelled sunflower seeds
   - pinch of salt

* you should be able to find this in your local health food store

Before I get to the "How" of these amazing cookies, let me draw your attention to the heavy artillery I turn to when baking.

This Kitchen Aid mixer, a gift we offered ourselves two years ago, has already seen enough action to merit a medal of some sort. Now, you don't absolutely need an electric mixer to make these amazing cookies, but it sure helps.

Not only is it robust, handling the thickest cookie, bread and pastry doughs effortlessly, it's rather handsome too, with its shiny, nail-polish coating. Ours has found a permanent home on the kitchen countertop.
(thank you kitchenaid.co.uk for the photo)

Here's how to do it: 4 easy steps
1) preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F)
1) mix sugar, palm oil, egg, vanilla, lemon zest and juice until smooth
2) slowly add remaining ingredients until everything is well mixed
     (cookie dough should easily form a big ball. Option - refrigerate for 1/2 hour)
3) scoop onto greased or paper-lined cookie trays (I use a small cookie scoop)
    then gently press hash marks into each cookie with a fork dipped in sugar
    (the way you would for peanut butter cookies) - makes 45-50 cookies
4) bake for around 15 minutes (depends on your oven - today's batch took 20)
5) cool on a wire rack before eating

I call these "holiday cookies" because they're crispy and nutty with little bursts of lemon that dance around on your taste buds. But mostly because the taste reminds me of the Russian tea cookies, the ones shaped like miniature snow balls, mom used to make during the holidays.

Bon appétit and happy holidays!

04 December 2011

Lyon's Festival of Lights

2011 marks the 13th year the city of Lyon has hosted the Fête des Lumières, a multi-day/night festival which draws millions of spectators from France and beyond.

For four consecutive nights (8-11 December), Lyon will shine with more than 70 light shows scattered throughout the city. Monuments, hillsides, bridges and façades will all flash and glimmer with innovative and artistic video and light projections.

This short clip below (from previous years' festivals) captures the magical ambiance that reigns over the city during four of the darkest (and sometimes coldest) nights of the year.

Fête des lumières 2011 par ville-de-lyon

But it's not just the artists or out-of-town spectators who appreciate and participate in this festival; the heart and soul of La Fête des Lumières belong to the Lyonnais themselves.

Wiki lore has it that the Virgin Mary saved the town's inhabitants from plague in the year 1643. To express their gratitude, the residents of Lyon decided to place small candles in their windows every year on December 8th.

But I know of at least one window in Lyon where the candles on this night burn for a different reason.

Several years ago I was teaching English to an automotive engineer who happened to be Jewish. As December 8 approached, I asked him to tell me why this day was important in Lyon, fully expecting to hear either about the Virgin or the Basilica of Fourvière.

Instead, I was treated to a fantastic story mystics and martyrs. All Jewish, of course. With the lights taking on a whole new significance.

Whatever the "real" origin of this festival, one thing is for sure: it creates the opportunity for throngs of people to gather in a cheerful atmosphere of light and joy for several nights. It's also a great runner-up to the end-of-year holidays that follow.

As you're walking (elbowing) your way from one projection to another (the city center is closed to cars) you can buy mulled wine, hot chocolate or apple cider from hundreds of stands set up along the streets. Others sell beer, hot dogs and other cold-weather munchies.

For the first three nights (8, 9, 10 December) the light shows begin at 6pm and go until 1am, unless noted otherwise. On Sunday the 11th, the programs run from 6pm to midnight. For the complete program, including information about parking, public transportation and a comprehensive map of events for all four days, click here.

Two years ago I braved the masses to take a few of my own photos of the illuminations. Below are three of them.

Looking down into the city from the Croix-Rousse hill.

These lights "planted" in front of Hotel de Ville
resembled the fluorescent flora on Pandora from the film Avatar
which premiered in London during Lyon's 2009 Fête des Lumières.

Looking up the Rhône from the Morand Bridge on December 8.

28 November 2011

The Salon du Chocolat Comes to Lyon

Imagine roaming freely through nearly one acre of exhibits, demonstrations, conferences, workshops and fashion shows dedicated to the consummate cocoa bean and all its derivatives.

For the first time ever, the Lyon Convention is hosting the renowned Salon du Chocolat from Friday December 9th to Sunday December 11th.

For those who don't know, the Salon du Chocolat is the quintessential meeting place of growers, artisans and consumers of cocoa, all who share a passion for this extraordinary product (you know who you are). For a city known the world over for its gastronomy, it's surprising this international trade fair hadn't come to Lyon sooner (Wikipedia says that this yearly chocolate show began in 1994).

Practical Details
Location: Lyon Convention Center - 50 quai Charles de Gaulle

Entrance Fees: 10€ for adults, 5€ for children 3 - 12, free for kids under 3

Date and Time: 10am to 9pm Friday 9 December
                        10am to 7pm Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 December

Not to be missed: On Friday and Saturday at 7pm, haute couture and chocolate come together in a parade featuring chocolate dresses at the Convention Center's Raymond Barre Esplanade.

But the best way to appreciate this year's Salon du Chocolat in Lyon is through the tasting opportunities that will be offered throughout the weekend, of which there promises to be many.

24 November 2011

Best Thanksgiving Day Question

A few days ago I started drilling my kids on the origins of Thanksgiving, telling the story of the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic, meeting the Indians, and how the first Thanksgiving Day feast was celebrated.

Because we live in France, and are vegetarian, my kids have never experienced a true American Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, including the turkey. 

Even so, this is their history too. And I wanted them to know what it's all about.

Then during dinner tonight, I noticed my 11 year-old concentrating hard on his plate. After pushing his mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce to the side, he looks up and, with an air of suspicion in his voice, asks: "Do you think the pilgrims ate tofu too?"

21 November 2011

Price of Gas in France, Part 2

Seven months ago when I reported on the rising price of gas in France, customers at this station in Lyon were paying 1.56€ for one liter of S/Pb 95 (unleaded).

Today they're paying 1.50€ per liter, six cents less than at the beginning of the year.

What's the reason for this drop?

According to this on-line article from last Thursday, anxiety over Europe's debt crisis has caused oil prices to drop 4 percent.

Maybe. But my guess is that this is a temporary tumble and that prices will be back up again soon.

Next "Gas in France" report — December 2011.

18 November 2011

Did You Know...? Part 5

Celebrated French architect and engineer Gustave Eiffel engraved the names of 72 engineers and mathematicians on the four sides of his famous Eiffel Tower.


To pay tribute to their scientific contributions to the world.

Aside from being scientists, these 72 people share one other trait — they're all men.

To find out whose names (including occupation) have been engraved on the tower, you can visit this page on the official Eiffel Tower website.

13 November 2011

Weekend Photos - Lyon

Parc de la Tête d'Or

Setting sun reflecting off the greenhouse glass.

The Saône River

Mid-morning on the Saône.


Looking up to the Fourvière Basilica from the Rosary Gardens.

01 November 2011

Copywriting Business Website

 *** UPDATE: 6 March 2017 ***

My website is currently being updated. The address is the same (www.alexquici.com) but the look is different.

The French version is gone but now there are several pages with samples of projects I've worked on for various clients. You can also buy my ESL training book (more to come in the future).


It's official — today the English and French versions of my business website went live. But chances are good I'll still be tinkering with it for many days to come.

The activity, as the logo to the left indicates, is for copywriting services, especially for companies in Lyon (or anywhere else for that matter) whose websites and brochures and annual reports could benefit from a native English plume.

Here's the address: www.alexquici.com

Have a look around and let me know what you think.

12 October 2011

A Good French Word To Know

When I first moved to France nearly 12 years ago and began learning the language, one word in particular caught my attention: si.

I noticed that si (pronounced see) was used liberally by everyone. Even if I didn't understand the context, its strategic placement left me with the feeling that a debate or argument had just gotten underway.

And that wasn't too far off.  Because in French, the word si means "yes" in a remarkably useful way, one that doesn't exist in English.

It's very simple: if someone says "no", either in a statement or question, and you want to contradict what they've just said, you say si.

"You don't like vanilla ice-cream?"

"Si" (yes I do).


"You're not wearing THAT dress tonight, are you?"

"Si" (yes I am). That's when the conversation gets interesting.


"You'll never get into Polytechnique if you don't study more!"

"Mais si" (of course I will). Which leaves us to believe this person is brilliant beyond measure, has rich parents, or is the mastermind of an illicit entrance strategy. But one thing's for sure - they're convinced they're getting in.

Si wields a power that effectively undercuts the staunchest, most well-thought out negation. In just one unassuming syllable.

So the next time you're conversing in French and want to turn someone's negative into a positive, give si a try. Just be ready to back up what you've said and you're good to go.

01 September 2011

White Dove

When your three-week vacation in California scores a near-perfect 10 in all categories, it can be a bit disconcerting for life as you knew it to get back to "normal".

Imagine now the effects of a longer stay.

I've heard numerous stories of French businessmen and women who felt they had been unmercifully yanked back to France after working for two or three years in the U.S., only to find themselves in a deep state of confusion. Not only did they have to re-adapt to their native homeland, they weren't totally sure they wanted to be back.

For them, the casualness of the lifestyle had taken root. Everything was less compact, they found, more expansive, as if they'd just taken off a pair of shoes two sizes too small.

Never mind that the food doesn't taste the same — driving to your favorite fast-food restaurant in a large comfortable car (automatic transmission) on wide open avenues with automatic windows and finding free, easy parking is well worth it. And there's no need to worry about putting on weight. To help you make the healthy choice, all chain restaurants in California are now required by law to display the calorie count of each menu item.

Then there's the seductive convenience factor — stores and gyms open 24 hours a day, drive-through fast food and banking, Netflix (DVDs that come to your house by post, and now video streaming 24/7), electric clothes dryers, automatic ice cube makers. The list goes on. Bill Bryson puts his own spin on American convenience in this article.

For these expats, there were also welcome changes in clothing (more casual), convivial relations with neighbors, and perhaps most importantly, they felt less time was wasted on worrying about the company hierarchy and job titles than working together to get the job done.

The bug had bitten. Hard.

I understand completely. Perhaps too well. Three weeks might not seem long enough to "slip" back to the other side for good, but it does take a mental effort — not to mention a robust fight with jet lag — to come back. And then the surprise: Oh, yeah, this feels good too. Like riding a bike.

This dove "visited" me late one afternoon by the pool a few days
before we flew back to France.

Whereas one place resonates naturally by right of birth, the other feels comfortable out of habit, and repetition. Over time the two begin to blend, and though you may develop a preference for, say, crème brûlée over frozen yoghurt, pretty soon you're dreaming of a country that combines the best of both worlds. Something my wife and I often talk about but have yet to find.

Until then, perhaps the best strategy is to make peace with both.

Legos & Aircraft Carriers

Legoland, California
A fun way to spend a day with your kids is to visit Legoland, located just 30 minutes north of San Diego in the seaside village of Carlsbad, California.

There are more than 60 rides, shows and attractions to explore, including a water park (great for those hot, summer days), the Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium, plus plenty of eating and shopping opportunities throughout an expansive 128 acres.

Legoland entrance.

Bison Lego, façon Chia Pet.

Entrance to the Land of Adventure.

Spectators and riders aim their water canons at each other
on the popular ride "Splash Battle".

Miniland USA is said to be the heart of Legoland California. 20 million Lego bricks were used to reconstruct the instantly recognizable architecture from seven well-known American places: Las Vegas, New England Harbor, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Southern California and Washington, D.C.

Entering Miniland USA.

The Hollywood Bowl.

Hillside homes, San Francisco.

San Francisco skyline.

Street scene, Los Angeles.

New Orleans at Mardi Gras.

Les Vegas.

Washington, D.C.

Consult the schedule here for Legoland's opening days and hours.

USS Midway
The USS Midway is an aircraft carrier that was commissioned in 1945 and served in the U.S. Navy until the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. For the first 10 years of its life it was the largest ship in the world.

Today the Midway is docked in San Diego harbor as a naval aviation museum with more than 60 exhibits and 27 restored aircraft. It's a fascinating museum that has, since its opening in 2004, welcomed more than 5 million visitors.

Some Midway facts:

  • 1,001 feet long
  • 4.02 acre flight deck
  • 4,500 crew members, including 225 cooks, 200 pilots, 5 physicians and 3 dentists
  • 10 tons of food were served daily, including 3,000 potatoes and 1,000 loaves of bread

Boarding the USS Midway.

Exploring the planes on the flight deck.

Climbing up to tour the bridge in the island.

Three sets of steep, narrow stairs and you're almost there.

View from the bridge. The aircraft carrier in the foreground is the USS Carl Vinson, recently returned from duty in the Gulf.  This was the ship that launched Osama bin Laden to his grave in May of this year.

The underside of an F/A-18 Hornet.

An F-14 Tomcat.

The rear of an F-14.

F-14 face on.

The War Room, where battle plans for the first Gulf War were hashed out.

The USS Carl Vinson.

The USS Midway Museum is open everyday from 10am to 5pm, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

General admission for adults is $18, $10 for retired military and kids (6-17). Those 5 and under enter free of charge.

Balboa Park
On our last day in San Diego, we breezed through Balboa Park, an expansive open-air part of town that's home to many museums, performing art venues and magnificent gardens, including the San Diego Zoo.

The grounds of Balboa Park are open 24 hours a day. Opening hours for the museums and other attractions vary, so be sure to consult the Balboa Park website here before you go.

This Fountain sits just opposite the entrance to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

Alcazar Garden.

San Diego Garden Botanical Foundation.