Monday, 18 February 2013

Annie, Alisa, and America

I’m not quite sure how it’s the 18th of February, I seem to lose a fortnight every time I blink at the moment. It really is terrifying how fast the year abroad has sped by – in just 8 weeks, I will no longer live in France. I love the UK and I’m sure I’ll soon settle down back at home but at the moment the thought of leaving France is really sad. I’ve really come to love this town (in spite of its many quirks!) and, as I was discussing with a couple of assistants the other day, there won’t be many other times in our life where we’re so free and unrestricted as we’ve been these past few months. I’m also terrified that my fourth and final year of university will pass as quickly as this third one has. At the moment, the “real world” seems like a distant battle but leaving France will signify at enormous stride in the direction of that struggle.

February has been no quieter than any other month since I arrived here in France. In fact, if anything, it feels like it’s been the busiest yet!

To begin with, the lovely Alisa and Annie popped over to France to stay for the weekend. I love getting to show people around Le Havre – it makes me feel like I’m a local rather than someone who’s only been here for two minutes! I showed them all of the normal sights – the town hall, the beach, the St. Joseph Church, the volcano and the palace of justice, to name just the main ones – and we got breakfast at Le Fournil de Montgeon which remains the best bakery anywhere in the world. For lunch on day one we went to the Crêperie Maryvonne, the first of two visits to this particular restaurant in this post. Maryvonne is one of the oldest crêperies in Le Havre and I really love it – the staff are always friendly and the food is out of this world. I didn’t really understand savoury pancakes before I came to France but I now realise how wrong I was. Galettes (the proper name for savoury crêpes) are delicious! They’re so much nicer than their sweet relations and the ones at Maryvonne are the best I’ve found in France so far.

The rest of Alisa and Annie’s stay was really lovely and chilled. On Saturday we did some shopping in the sales at Les Docks Vauban (French sales last forever) and that night one of the other assistants came over to watch movies with us. I’m glad that the bakery and the crêperie proved how good food is here because the rest of the weekend was somewhat of a disaster in culinary terms – the pizza place we ordered from on Saturday night screwed up our order in a really odd way and the normally reliable steakhouse La Courtepaille was way below par on Sunday. It’s so typical for things to have gone wrong when I had people staying!

Sadly, the time eventually came for the girls to return to the port. Due to a slight timing hiccup, they arrived at the port fairly late and a rather brisk French woman with a clipboard was waiting for them. Luckily, she turned out to be really lovely and softened as soon as we spoke to her in French. All checked in, Annie and Alisa headed off through passport control and back to England.

Proving that there’s no rest for the wicked, I immediately headed for Les Docks Océane to watch a handball match with the other assistants. I enjoyed watching the match but sadly it wasn’t Le HAC’s day and they lost to Norway’s Bergen pretty convincingly for the second time in a month. Any away team that can win under the conditions that Le HAC subject visiting teams to has got to be good!

After the handball game, there was still yet more Sunday to come. A lovely French family that we met at the language café invited four of us to their house for a crêpe evening. It’s really lovely to get the chance to speak some French in an environment where it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes. We had such a lovely evening and (as usual, for France) the food was absolutely fantastic. Alex and I were enthusiastically persuaded to eat a second galette (they were enormous) – I think our facial expressions across the table said it all as we battled our way through the pancake mountain. The family have the cutest excitable little pug named Gibson. I am not normally a fan of dogs (mainly because I’m allergic to most of them) but I could quite happily have stolen him to live here in the apartment. We arrived back in Le Havre in perfect time for me to jump on to a tram – never a bad thing!

On Tuesday night, I arranged to meet my friends Céline and Laetitia for food before the language café. They took me to a British-pub style restaurant named Au Bureau in Les Halles which I’d never even noticed existed before. The décor really wasn’t a bad attempt at recreating a pub feel and the food was really nice. It wasn’t dirt cheap but it wasn’t unreasonable either – similar in price and quality to the steakhouse with quite generous portions. After this, we tried to go to the language café but unfortunately it was full. Recent experiences with the language café haven’t been amazing though I’ve certainly kept up my commitment to keep going. Theoretically, I like Café Victor as a venue but it’s frankly just too small for the number of people that want to attend. Two weeks running we had to take our drinks and stand outside the front door because there was no space inside and this week we decided to just give up and go and speak our languages elsewhere. Céline’s sister Elise and her friend joined us and the five of us ended up in a great bar called L’étable (The Cowshed) just across the road. The decoration of the bar matched up to its name – it’s quite hard to explain but next time I go I’ll take some pictures. We had a really great night alternating French and English so I think we’re going to just have our own language café away from the one at Café Victor.

Thursday was a brilliant day. I received a letter from my lovely friend Vic, author of Vic in Marburg, in response to a birthday message I had sent her the week before. In my original message, I tried to integrate the names of as many songs from different musicals as I could and Vic did the same in her letter. This is our new way of communicating – I love it!

The rest of the day passed quickly, the highlight being my 2nde students writing Valentine’s Day poems which were (almost without exception) utterly hilarious. They’re such a lovely class to work with!

In the evening, the assistants travelled back to the USA of the 50s/60s with a meal at Whoopies Diner on Rue Emile Zola. Seated next to a floor-to-ceiling Uncle Sam, our visit to the diner was certainly an experience. The music consisted of 60s lounge-style remixes of songs of the last 50 years (including Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love – bizarre!). The restaurant was really cheap compared to other places in Le Havre and there was a great selection on the menu. Whoopies also get enormous brownie points for having Dr Pepper, which I love and haven’t found anywhere else in France.

Finally, on Saturday night I went out with my teacher Sylvain and his lovely friend Martine. We started our evening eating tapas and drinking a cocktail aperitif at Cuba Libre, the new bar opposite the library. It’s really easy to forget you’re in Le Havre once you’re inside – the tables and chairs are on sand and there are planks to walk across to get to the bar. It’s quite quirky but I really liked it!

After this, we went on to the evening’s main activity – a showing of the opera Rigoletto streamed live in HD from The Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera was a modern version set in 60s Las Vegas. The director and set designer had previously worked on American Idiot and from pictures I’ve seen of that production I could see the similarities between the two. The sets and costumes were just beautiful – so rich and decadent. I was also a huge fan of the lighting which was really intelligently done. It’s gotten to be quite fashionable to stick a modern spin on traditional works and I’m not normally a fan but this had been done with remarkable precision and attention to detail. Everything about it was perfect.

In particular, the German soprano Diana Damrau who sang the role of Ginda had an absolutely spellbinding voice. She was hilariously excitable when she was interviewed in the interval too, which I liked – it’s nice to see performers enjoying what they do. The interviews and the back-stage perspective on set and costume changes during the interval(s) really do add value to the Live in HD experience – it’s fascinating to watch the crew work their magic behind the curtain.

After Rigoletto, we went for a late dinner at the Crêperie Maryvonne (I told you there was another visit coming!). I tried a new galette, une ecossaise, which contained smoked salmon, emmental, spinach and crème fraîche. It doesn’t sound like much but trust me when I say that this is the galette you want to be getting – I almost feel the need to start a fan club.

Everything about Saturday evening was perfect. I arrived home utterly knackered about 1am but in spite of being tired I really want more of my evenings to involve going from tapas to opera to crêpes.

In summary, then, France is pretty darned sweet at the moment. Good food, good friends and good students have made my life pretty easy over the last few weeks and now it’s the holidays. Tomorrow I’m off to Southampton to have some English adventures and then the week after I have the lovely Emma-Louise coming to stay. Can’t wait!

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