In American Soil

Two weekends ago, I went back to America.

Don’t get too excited, it was not the America where all my friends and family live – it was the American soil in France, where soldiers died in the final battles of World War II on the D-Day beaches.

I used to dislike studying WWII. It was boring and seemed irrelevant to high school (read: self-centered adolescent) Anne. Coming to Europe changed it all for me: here, I can see the conflict in the dilapidated buildings of bombed-out Northern cities, in the ubiquitous remembrance plaques and war memorials that stand on street corners. It became harshly real when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. I recently met a French person who had worked in fields as a lookout for buried land mines. Everybody here has ancestors, relatives, friends, and favorite places that were impacted by the nearness of the world war battlegrounds. Being American in the war was a privilege, simply because – at least at a national level – we could choose whether or not to get involved, when, and for how long. Europe did not have that choice.

The day dawned appropriately: somber gray rainclouds hid the sun and an icy wind whipped around us as we strolled through the American Cemetery, searching for connection with the dead bodies by finding people from our home states. We stumbled upon some anonymous graves. I wondered if there were families that never found their loved ones. 

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After the cemetery, we hiked down the hills and through the dunes to the beach. We touched the sand where hundreds of American, British, and Canadian soldiers had fought to stay alive as they were fired on by waiting German troops. We took windblown pictures with the flag.

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And, on the way home to Lille, we stopped by Arromanches – the Canadian beach – for a 360 degree film about the Allies’ role in the conflict. We didn’t spend very long here due to the icy wind and rain (the “Normandy goodbye”)…but there were nice views nonetheless.

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It was important to be reminded of the USA’s place and participation in the world. In the grand scheme of the war, we played a small part, but that part was essential. In the world, we play a small part — but that part is likewise essential. I felt humble and necessary. Global events can overwhelm even the most powerful countries, and if I’ve learned anything from all my meanderings in the former war zones, it’s that we must learn about how they happened before so they will happen differently, and never “again.”

In American Soil

Un Retour à Paris

Paris. I have experienced it over and over again since my first visit. A study abroad friend personified Paris as a bad boyfriend: it takes you from honeymoon period to love-hate relationship (Paris in the slush? Yuck) and back again. Now, Paris and I have settled into the companionate love of old friends. I know it’s always there; it feels familiar and safe. But every time I come back we have new experiences together, just to keep things spicy.

I’ve been there three times since September. The first time, Caro and I brunched the day away at a Breton buffet and made new friends in the street by night. The second time, I picnicked, then ended up in a hole-in-the-wall bar watching rugby, drinking beers, and reminiscing about college days with a friend from Whitman. This time, I reunited with my mom and aunt for museums, classical music, and shopping. There really is something for everyone 😉

My mom’s visit was long overdue. She and Paris had their own relationship — she studied there for a year during college. Part of my motivation for studying there was her stories about spending days in the Louvre, mornings in Parc Monceau, living in a mansion-flat owned by the sister of François Mitterand whom she exclusively called “Madame.” She was a hitch-hiking adventuress, covering much of Europe by car-hopping, ending up in random bars and houses, and in one case, a barn. Though she advised me not to follow that particular example (it’s okay mom, we have the internet to arrange carpools now), as I chased the ghost of past-mom around Paris for my study abroad semester I wished that she were with me.

And this time, she was!

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To make things more fun, her sister came with her — here we are with my lovely aunt!

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In the spirit of making their dreams come true, I found us a Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons concert in the Eglise de la Madeleine to end our first day. The violin soloist blew my mind. I can’t say I’m a connoisseur of classical music (mostly because I don’t even know where to start), but I deeply admire those who can make it. [This is especially thanks to my elementary school best friend Nellie, whose life is classical music — and she’s brought it into mine. She’s even on Youtube, playing her own arrangement of a very popular song…]

We got to revisit my favorite impressionist sites (Musée MarmottanMusée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie) and visually feast on Sainte Chapelle’s stained glass. I was in the throes of a what-will-my-future-be crisis and bowed out of some of these adventures, but we always reconvened in the apartment at night for some family fun! There was much sitting, laughing, cooking, and bothering Claire with “hilarious” videos (of my mom and I, of course).

I somehow convinced them to take me to Breakfast in America, my favorite American restaurant! What can I say, I desperately needed some pancakes. (Look, they liked it too!)

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I also got to see Cara for a lunch at Les Pates Vivantes, an Asian noodle place formerly frequented by the Paris Crew. It is always a joy to see my former French major inspiration!

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Another highlight was a dinner with my old host family: Marlène, Jeff and Lulu, the cat! Caro (my byootiful study abroad partner in crime) even got to join us for this one; we used to brunch and dine together all the time, so Marlène knew her and I finagled her an invitation. We ate foie gras, drank champagne, and our main course was fondue, homemade by a true savoyarde (the name for the fondue region, where all the best cheeses come from). And my mom and aunt got to pull out their dormant French skillz! In true Reflective Anne fashion, being back in my former Paris home made me think about how many things had changed since the last time I’d been there: I’ve graduated college, for one, and I succeeded in coming back to France. Plus, my French has come a LONG way.

On our last day, we did a trip out to Chartres, a nearby cathedral and town famous for having 12th century stained glass, saved from fires and wars by diligent townspeople for hundreds of years. They also invented a color there: the famous “chartres blue.” The cathedral was amazing, and the town was a charming escape from Paris!

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I was very sad to say goodbye! Seeing family both refreshed and comforted me: I remembered what it was like to be with people who have known me forever, and I remembered that I’m going back home someday…which inspired me to live France life to the fullest, while I still can!

Un Retour à Paris

Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

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In the above photo, the mayor of Dunkirk is tossing shrink-wrapped fish out of the window of town hall, into a cheering crowd of intoxicated, disguised Dunkerquois (and their friends). As far as I know, fish-tossing is an exclusively Northern France tradition. Out of the whole weekend in Dunkirk celebrating Carnaval, this was the moment when I realized that I was seeing something I would never see anywhere else in the world.

A little background: my housemate Dana works at the Language Resource Center at the university where she also teaches English. The director of that center invites all the lecteurs who work with him to Dunkirk every year to experience Carnaval with his family and friends. His mother has a huge and beautiful house where everyone gets a bed, and his sister’s family hosts a party (une chapelle) before the ball. Because there were extra spots, Dana invited Laura and I to come with them!

The unlucky few who had to take the train (me, Laura, Dana, and Jeff) left at around 3 PM, to arrive in Dunkirk around 5 PM. We had some preparatory Ruby on the train.

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When we arrived at the house where the pre-party would be, we donned our costumes and put on make up (after a last minute run to the costume store, which was teeming with shoppers).

Here are some before and after pictures.

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Our man friends were required to respect the Dunkirk fishing village tradition of men dressing like women for Carnaval. As the story goes, Carnaval was a celebration before all the fishermen went out to sea for a very long time, and they disguised themselves as women to avoid having to go. We decided to dress as men in solidarity. A trip to the Ressourcerie in Val before leaving was all we needed to acquire 50 cent crazy ties and a 6 euro blazer. Our artistic lectrice friend did all the makeup.

The chapelle was full of dancing and eating (croque monsieur, yum) and drinking and merriment. There were a large dog and several small children running around, which made it sometimes hazardous to be on the dance floor, but everyone had a blast. I was surprised to see some teachers from my school amongst the family friends of our host’s sister! Turns out, his sister’s husband is one of the teacher’s brother. Crazy coincidence, crazy small world…

Around midnight, we left for the bal de Dunkerque, which was in the exposition hall of the town.

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As you can see, it was quite the party! Everyone was dressed up. Like Halloween plus. 

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Here we are, sweaty and tired mid-ball!

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We were dancing in one of the rooms when suddenly a different tune started to play, and everyone linked arms and started walking around a large centerpiece in the middle. We got caught in the crowd so we turned with the rest of them, and almost got knocked over and trampled in the fray! Eventually we got out and watched. This tradition is called le rigodon, and it happens at every carnaval.

We left the ball at the respectable hour of 4:30 AM, returning home to eat onion soup (another tradition) and sleep for a few hours. 1 PM was the official wake up time on Sunday, and we had a feast of meats and patés and cheese and bread and nutella and jam. And lots of coffee. Then, we took to the streets to see the daytime festivities.

The streets were covered in costumed people. There were thousands of them, just as there had been at the ball. We were a little more conspicuous this time, having not re-donned our smoky, sweaty costumes from the night before. Touristes!

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We also walked by the port, which was beautiful. The air was full of the sea and crisper and cleaner than air I’d breathed in other parts of France. It brought me to tears with how homey it felt.

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Every so often, I have a weekend that reminds me why I came here. Carnaval was a huge moment of “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world right now,” and that is one of my favorite feelings. I couldn’t help but grin stupidly in the crowd as I reveled in the ambiance, and tried not to get hit by a fish.

Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

I recently discovered that aside from my “chatty” and “angry” neighbors, I have another neighbor who is much worthier of being visited: BELGIUM.

Some of you may have already seen my post about Ghent with Dana. That was my first Belgian adventure. In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, I’ve been there twice more.

A trip to Belgium from Valenciennes involves:

1. Taking the city bus from the train station to “Frontière,” the last stop on the line which is right on the Belgian border (30 minutes).

2. Walking across the border, down the street which consists of nothing but Tabac shops (bulk tobacco, booze, etc. for much cheaper than in France), and end up at the grimy and desolate, not to mention closed down indefinitely so we can’t actually go into it, station. (15 minutes)

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3. Catching the train from Quiévrain (the border town) to St. Ghislain. (20 minutes)

4. Catching a train in St. Ghislain to basically anywhere in Belgium (1 hour to Brussels, where you can catch another to Ghent, or about 1 hour to Tournai)!

In other words, it takes me about as much time to get to Belgium as it does to get to Seattle in traffic at home. My friend even worked out how to get to Luxembourg or Aix-la-Chapelle this way.

I had Tuesday off this past week, so Matt and I went to Tournai.

The belfry, which is the oldest one in Belgium

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The view from the belfry (cue intense feeling of vertigo)

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On the main square

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Then, this weekend, my friend Laura and I went to Brussels, having heard about their amazing Christmas market. It definitely lived up to our expectations.

Inside the market rows

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Bison burger (!? they invited Québec to do a few stalls) and vin chaud (mulled wine)

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Smoked salmon! 

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Sometimes (all the time), a change of scenery does wonders for one’s mentality. There is nothing better than arriving in a brand new city with a bunch of new things to do and see and feeling like every little victory (navigating a new metro system? finding the grande place?) is a championship achievement.

Also, I loved the Brussels Christmas Market because so many of the stalls contained things I would never be able to get anywhere else in the world. It was mostly a visual feast, because after I got some Christmas presents there wasn’t a reason to spend more money…but the number of beautiful artisan home decorations, jewelry, food, etc. we saw was insane! The market went on for blocks and blocks, and we got lost several times…but it was a GREAT day.

Goal of the year: visit every Belgian city worth seeing? 🙂

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

Day Trips: Le Quesnoy, Cambrai, and Ghent

This week, I visited three new cities, one of which was in another country! The proximity and accessibility of new places is one of the reasons I love living in Europe, and this week was a huge reminder of that.

Tuesday was a jour férié for Armistice Day, so nothing was open — a friend suggested we attend a memorial ceremony in a neighboring town called Le Quesnoy (le kay-nwah). It ended up being one of the loveliest French towns I’ve seen! We began the day following the parade around the city, finishing with a memorial service. The town was liberated by New Zealanders, so most of the monuments are dedicated to them.

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It’s tiny, but very unique. It was founded in 1150, and there used to be fortifications built all around the city that were protected by a moat. After the Armistice ceremony, we climbed around on the hills and were rewarded with some amazing views.

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After Le Quesnoy, I tagged along with a few friends who were going to see another city close by, called Cambrai. It had a tower that was (yet again) older than America. The only thing I remembered about it was that Proust’s Auntie lived there, and he wrote about it in his In Search of Lost Time series.

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Then, on Saturday, my friend and I decided to go to see Ghent, a little city in Belgium! We had free train passes, which means that the whole voyage cost nothing but the money spent on snacks and postcards when we got there.

First, we took a Val city bus to the border, then we walked across. Here I am on the border:

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The city was beautiful! The cathedral and canals were two of my favorite views, and when we toured Gravenstein Castle we got a view of the whole city from above.

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Here’s Gravensteen, a medieval castle and museum. There was a room full of medieval torture instruments, and a guillotine model with an original blade…

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Gent was FULL of bikes. There’s even a bike road! We saw fewer cars here than I’ve seen anywhere else I’ve been…and way more parked bikes.

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It was a great day. Thanks to my friend Dana for suggesting the trip, and for being great company!

Day Trips: Le Quesnoy, Cambrai, and Ghent