Tag Archive | Grenoble

French Friday #53: Meeting of minds


Oh, the things Molière and Hugo could talk about…
I always liked this corner in downtown Grenoble. I first saw it when I did my study abroad in Grenoble in 1999. Later, I went back to visit with Mr. Gren and baby Rana in 2006 and made sure to get a picture. There’s not much to it, but something about seeing those two names together… It’s like the convergence of history and possibilities…

French Friday #48: Merry-go-round

Before our first daughter, Rana, was born, we decided to decorate her room with a carousel theme. We found carousel crib bedding that also came with a matching diaper hanger and wall hanging. To finish off the decor, we took pictures of carousels whenever we found them. Most French cities of any size have at least one beautifully carved and gilded carousel. And there are plenty of people, young and old, who still enjoy them! Enjoy some of the photos that we took of these lovely works of art!

Pretty little carousel in Grenoble.

Mr. Gren and Baby Rana checking out the carousel at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.

Large display horse with the Seine and Trocadero in the background.

Top of the carousel at the Eiffel Tower

I love the hot air balloon on this one.

Fantasy horse!

Some funny and beat-up animals on a tiny and well-loved carousel at a park in Paris.

Double decker beauty at Montmartre with Sacré Coeur in the background.

Stunning! On the Montmartre carousel.

Rana still loves carousels. Since we moved to the cabin, we’ve had to pack away all of her pretty carousel figures and pictures. She does still get to use her carousel horse sheets and any time we go to the zoo, the day is not complete without a ride on the carousel!



French Friday #41: Show me the way to go home

(All photos are mine. Map is from www.mappy.fr)

Growing up, my dad used to tell people that Hansel and Gretel had a better sense of direction than I did. I couldn’t get offended or argue because it really was  true. During driver’s ed, the instructor once told me to drive to my bank. I had to admit that I had no idea how to get to the bank or even where we currently were; if I were lucky, I might be able to get myself back home, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And, despite an extensive unit in second grade on how to read maps, I have a hard time translating a map into real life. Part of the problem is that I navigate by landmark and not by street names. That’s fine until somebody builds a new building or chops down a tree or moves that rusty car. Then I’m screwed. Knowing this about me, I’m sure my parents were a little concerned when they shipped me off to do a semester-long study abroad in Grenoble. As well they should have been.

Fortunately for me, the two places I really needed to know in Grenoble (home and school) were connected by a tram line that had a stop right outside my apartment door. Couldn’t ask for more for a directionally-challenged person. There were a couple of times, though, when even this fool-proof method threw me for a loop, either because of strikes or mechanical failures and I would have to walk home. It was an hour-long walk (versus a 15 minute tram ride) through winding streets with plenty of opportunity to get lost. But I always told myself, “If I can find the river, I can get home.” It wasn’t the most direct route, but it was safe.

It’s a lot bigger than it looks on a map

The river in question was the Isère which snaked its way across the north end of the city, running close to the university and, eventually, close to the neighborhood where I lived. Knowing that the river flowed West, I’d follow its course until I got near centre ville where I could turn south and find my way to my apartment, a few streets in. Signs might change, trees might get chopped down, but I could count on the river.

A view of Centre Ville from the Bastille with the Isère just visible through the trees.

Until one day when I decided to take a walk and explore. My host mother, Hélène, was gone for the weekend and I was bored sitting at home by myself. It was a nice day out, so I set out with no particular destination in mind. I just wanted to see a little bit of the city. And it was fun. I saw new shops, interesting architecture, fountains, statues, all kinds of things. I was beginning to feel hungry and decided I should head home for lunch. But I had absolutely no idea where I was. I had wandered down so many side streets that I couldn’t even retrace my steps. I guess I should have been crumbling a baguette behind me, although the pigeons probably would have eaten it all up. So I fell back on my reliable old plan: Find the river. Feeling more primitive than ever, I checked the sun to try and determine which direction I should go to get to the river. But… it was noon, so that didn’t turn out to be so helpful. I made my best guess and started walking.

Roll on, Isère

And then the rain started falling. Besides making me wet, the rain also had the added bonus of clearing the streets of anyone I could have asked for directions. Finally, I saw the river! I knew that this time, I needed to follow it against the flow, so off I headed. But nothing was looking familiar. I had walked the river before, surely I would begin to recognize something. Oh no, this can’t be right. Maybe I do need to go downstream? With wet hair sticking to my face and wet socks squishing in wet shoes, I turned around and went back the way I had come. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

Is that… the train station? The train station?! With a river running behind it. There’s only one train station in Grenoble and it’s on the Isère. I turned around and looked at the river I had been following. Not the Isère. That was certain now that I could see it beyond the train station. No, the river I had followed was the Drac which runs north along the western side of the city and joins up with the Isère a bit northwest of the train station. No wonder I hadn’t seen anything familiar! I never came to this side of the city at all. And it had never occurred to me that I had walked so far as to end up at the Drac. With a sigh, I bid the Drac farewell and moved closer to the comforting flow of the Isère, following it upstream as I had intuitively known I should. And, four hours after I had set out on my walk, I gratefully returned to the empty apartment. Dry clothes, a warm blanket and a little music on the stereo never felt so good.

A wrestling match between the Drac (lion) and Isère (serpent).

I am glad to say that my navigational skills have improved some since that time. (Some, I said. I’m still plenty adept at getting lost). I still navigate by landmarks. But I know better now than to assume that all rivers lead the way home.

French Friday #27: Have an epiphany

Today is Epiphany! Aren’t you excited? Don’t you have big plans? I spent the better part of the day searching through both laptops, an external hard drive, and cd-roms trying to find photos that I remember taking but that seem to have disappeared, all for you, dear readers, so I could tell you about Epiphany in France. As it is, we’ll all have to swallow our disappointment and forge ahead with what little I’ve got in the way of visual aids.

So first, Epiphany, also known as the Fête des Rois — King’s Festival, is celebrated every year on the 6th of January. It doesn’t get much press in the United States, especially once you get outside of Catholic or liturgical circles. But it’s a nice little celebration in France, commemorating when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus. Obviously, date-wise, it’s a complete shot in the dark because the Magi, or kings, most likely didn’t show up 13 days after His birth (and that’s all based on the tradition that 25 December was, in fact, Jesus’ birthdate, which it probably isn’t). But who cares! It’s a day to celebrate and, in France, you can usually get off work, too.

Traditionally, guests are invited for dinner on the 6th of January. Dinner may vary, but dessert is always galette des rois (or, in Provence a gâteau des rois, which is a slightly different confection), loosely translated as King’s cake. If you’re familiar at all with Louisianan Mardi Gras traditions, you may think you’re also familiar with King’s cake. I don’t know where that gaudy purple and green thing came from, but it bears little resemblance to the King’s cake served in France, although the tube shape is more like the Provençal gâteau. In most of the rest of France, the galette is made of a top and bottom puff pastry crust filled with almond cream. It’s good stuff and I could probably eat a whole one by myself, but tradition says I have to share. Here is a fantastic recipe that I have used a couple of times. Mama Lisa’s Galette Recipe It was given to her by a real live French woman, so you can trust it. Plus, I also like the “grinded almonds.” I grinded my almonds in the blender and it worked fine. You might need to pulse them a few times to get them into a fine powder.

My galette from 2010

Once you’ve got your galette baked and ready to go, it needs a crown, usually made of paper. A Burger King crown would probably work in a pinch, but you might owe it to your guests to make one that doesn’t smell like hamburgers. The cake is topped with the crown and then presented at the table for all to admire. Here’s where the real fun starts. The youngest guest at the gathering then has to crawl under the table where he or she can’t see anything. I had the privilege of doing this during my study abroad in Grenoble. I had arrived only a few days before and my brain was swimming from all the French around me. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know anything about the tradition and I was awfully suspicious of the whole thing, so I was a rather poor sport; I thought they were making fun of me. One of my regrets now.

So, while I was reminiscing, we left the youngest guest there under the table. Up above the table, the hostess slices the cake into the correct number of pieces for each guest present. As she slides her server under a slice, she asks the youngest guest to designate who will receive it. This goes on until each person is served. The reason for all this secrecy and impartiality is that, hidden somewhere in the cake, is a little trinket called a fève. The word fève means fava bean. Back when the tradition of galette des rois originated, the cook would have hidden a fava bean inside. After awhile, somebody probably decided that winning a dried bean wasn’t such a great prize and upgraded it to a coin. That was great until some germophobe received the winning slice of cake and was nauseated at all the places that coin had previously been before showing up in the night’s dessert. So that brilliant person came up with the idea of little porcelain figurines which were 1) hygenic and 2) actually fun to win.

The fève industry is thriving now. Several companies make all sorts of fèves, ranging from the traditional (sailor, baby, sheep) to pop-culture (Scooby-Doo, Harry Potter, Peter Pan) and anything else you can think of (Roman monuments, symbols of ancient China, all kinds of animals, sports, and other historically-themed ideas). This site has an online catalog and they are very excited about the fact that they SHIP WORLDWIDE!!!!!! But hey, now I know where to get some fèves. For the cake in the above photo, I had to use a heart-shaped marble. Not quite the same.

Ok, so everyone has been served, the youngest person is allowed to emerge from underneath the table and join the rest of the party and then everyone chews very, very carefully. You don’t want to bite down on one of these things. The person who is lucky enough to find the fève and not break a tooth then gets to wear the crown that the cake had been wearing and are declared the King for the Day! [insert fanfare here] It was at this point in the Grenoble celebration that I wanted to crawl back under the table. I’m not a big fan of being the center of attention. Again, I wish I had known better then. The King for the Day is also responsible for hosting the next gathering and providing another galette. This can go on all through the month of January and up into early February. It’s a rotating kingship, marked by tasty and peaceful coups.

Some bakeries will advertise the fact that they have a certain collection of fèves to entice people to buy their cakes, much like your kids want you to buy ten boxes of sugary cereal to get the entire collection of super secret decoder rings. One year while Mr. Gren and I were living in France, there was a rooster-themed fève collection that seemed to be very popular. The French love roosters.


Even though it’s too late for Epiphany, you can still find a fève, whip up a galette, decorate a paper crown and have a party this month. Everybody likes to be King!

French Friday #12: Arrival in Grenoble

During my junior year in college, I decided that I would like to do a study abroad in France. Through the fall semester, the professors in the Language Department at my university encouraged me and helped me work out the details from choosing a program to figuring out how to apply my scholarships to the cost of the program. There were a few times when I thought it was all going to fall through, but by the time I left for Christmas break, we had nearly everything settled. During my month at home before the spring semester began, I made contact with the program director in Grenoble, a man named Alexis (a-lex-y). He told me about my host parents and I let him know when I was scheduled to arrive in Grenoble.

Cathedral Notre Dame of Grenoble, just a short walk from my future home. I could hear the bells chime from my bedroom.

I left for France at the end of January in 1999, flying from Seattle to Paris with a stop in between. I found my way through Charles de Gaulle airport to the train station at one end. This would be the second time in my life I had ever ridden a train. The first was an Amtrak from Denver to Portland when I was 10. My dad took care of our luggage and ticket-punching and whatever else was involved then, but this time, I was on my own. I dragged my two suitcases through the train station (you aren’t allowed to take the luggage carts from the airport side) out to the platform. While I was there, I met two students from the University of Arizona. We talked for awhile, but discovered that our seats weren’t anywhere near each other, and they were going to be studying in Lyon. Too bad.

The TGV — train de grande vitesse (high speed train) pulled in and after stowing my luggage, I found my seat and realized that it was going to be a very lonely ride. There were only a couple other people in the whole car! So I settled in and decided to absorb as much of the French countryside as I could as we shot off towards Lyon. After awhile, I was freezing and there really wasn’t much to see, so I tried to sleep. In Lyon, I successfully managed to switch trains; I owe thanks to a stranger who saw me struggling with my suitcases and wordlessly snatched them up and hefted them to the top of the stairs for me. The French do love to help a damsel in distress. Just another couple of hours and I was in Grenoble.

The Isère river on a cold winter day in Grenoble.

As I disembarked from the train, I was approached by another “helpful” stranger who wanted to take my bags… for a fee. I held on tight and kept walking out to the main waiting area. I had never seen a picture of Alexis, so I scanned the crowd for anyone who might be looking for someone to arrive. A couple of times I thought perhaps I’d found him, but then the man hurried past to greet somebody else. Pretty soon, the station cleared out as everyone met relatives or got a taxi. And there I was, sitting on my suitcase in the middle of a train station. I remember it was pouring rain outside, so I didn’t venture out to have a look. I could barely see across the street, it was coming down so hard. I waited for close to an hour, trying to give Alexis the benefit of the doubt. Surely he would come for me, right?

Looking up at the Bastille from centre ville.

Finally, I purchased a phone card for the pay phone and dialed the number he had given me. A weary, croaking voice answered on the other end. This didn’t sound like the voice I remembered, but I did my best to conceal my shock and in my most polite French, asked if I could speak with Alexis. The voice replied that he was Alexis.

“Alexis…? Ah, c’est Jennifer. Je suis à la gare.I’m at the train station.
“Oh hello, Jennifer. We look forward to seeing you. What train station are you at? Let me know when you arrive.”
“But, I’m at the train station in Grenoble! I arrived an hour ago. Is someone coming for me?”
“Grenoble?? Today?!” His voice croaked. He was flustered now. “We didn’t expect you until tomorrow!”
“But… I gave you the dates…” I answered helplessly.
“Ah, yes, yes. Just… just stay there!”

As if I had anywhere else to go. I dragged my suitcases back out to the middle of the lobby where I had a good view of both doors and settled down to wait. Twenty minutes later, a voice crackled over the intercom throughout the station:

“Zheny-fair All, veuillez aller au centre d’informations.”

They had made several announcements in the time I had been waiting, but this one pricked up my ears. I listened again and was introduced for the first time to the French pronunciation of my name. Zheny-fair = Jennifer. Startled to realize that I was being paged, I hopped up and dragged my suitcases to the information desk. The man there passed me the receiver of his telephone through the small window, telling me, “Vous avez un appel de téléphone.” Bewildered, I took the phone, and heard Alexis’ strange, croaking voice.

“I’m sorry, Jennifer. I am so sick today. I can’t get out of bed. I have called André (one of my host parents) to come get you. It might be awhile. Hélène was not ready for you today; they are trying to prepare your room!”

I thanked him and settled back down to wait. A few minutes later, I heard my new name announced over the intercom again to take another phone call. This time it was André. He cheerily informed me that he would soon be on his way and that he would wear an American flag in his cap so that I could recognize him. I found that quaintly endearing and knew I would like him. Another half hour or so passed and two college students ran through the main doors of the train station and made a bee-line straight for me. They introduced themselves as Adam from Oregon and Jen from New York, also staying with André, who was out finding a place to park. A minute later, in he came, wearing a tan cap with a little American flag fluttering from the side and a big grin on his face. I knew it was going to be a good semester.

Jen from NY, me, and Adam a couple days after we had arrived with the Belledonne mountain range behind us.

French Friday #11: The Doors

When I made my first trip to Paris in high school, there was a guy in my class whose name was Kenny Rogers, but he looked like Jim Morrison. He carved my name on a safety rail overlooking the gardens at Versailles because he thought it would be funny. Thanks, Kenny. And on our “free” day in the city, he chose to go to the cemetery Père Lachaise on the east side of Paris to visit Jim Morrison’s grave. Maybe it’s because he looked like Jim or maybe that was just a coincidence, but he was a fan of The Doors’ music. And that was the first I knew of Jim’s inglorious end and burial in Paris. But, those aren’t the doors I’m going to talk about today.

Once upon a time, architects designed buildings for quality and permanence and with the future in mind, they made sure that their buildings were as beautiful as possible. All sorts of artisans were employed to enhance these edifices — carpenters, masons, sculptors, painters, tile workers and more. Every part of the building received special artistic care, knowing that generations and generations would admire their work. In our young United States, a door is rarely a decorative feature, so enjoy some of these stunning works of art.

Portail St. Etienne at Notre Dame de Paris

This door is exclusively for the use of the bishops. This door is dedicated to Saint Stephen and the sculptures represent his martyrdom.

Interior doors in the Napoleon III apartments in the Louvre

Check out the gilding on those doors! They practically glow.

Main doors on a church in Dijon

Note how all the shapes on the door are raised.

Doors on the Palais de Justice in Grenoble

I like the waffle effect on this one.

Doors into an apartment in Grenoble

Around the corner from the apartment where I lived in Grenoble, was a tiny little street called Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For such a short and unimportant little road, it had some of the most interesting doors in the whole city. This set was one of them and the next is my very favorite.

Ancient mystery on a door

It features a Sator Square or magic square. It is a palindrome in all directions, reading Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas. The Latin words mean, roughly, Sower Moves towards Holds Work Wheel. No one knows for sure what that signifies, but theories abound! One idea is that it was a code for early Christians to find safe houses during times of persecution. The phrase Pater Noster can also be found in the square leaving AO for Alpha Omega. Alchemists and folk magicians have also laid claim to the Sator Square. Whatever it is, it’s fascinating!

How many interesting doors have you seen around town lately? It’s probably more likely that you’ve been listening to The Doors.


French Friday #7: The wheels on the bus

When I did my study abroad in Grenoble, I chose to live with a host family rather than in the dorms. I was placed with an older lady named Hélène who lived in centre ville. We got along quite well and I loved being smack in the middle of the city. Another plus was being able to walk out the door of her 400 year old apartment building and right onto the tram which took me straight to the university. This was a wonderful bonus not only for its convenience but also because Hansel & Gretel are better with directions than I am. Not having to switch lines or even remember which stop to get off at (the university was the end of the line) saved me from inevitable backtracking and tardiness. I had never taken any form of public transportation before and the tram was a nice introduction: clean, fast, simple.

There's the door on the left and my bedroom window is the one on the far right in the middle. Great view! The tram stop is right below.

I participated in the CUEF program (Centre universitaire d’études françaises) at the Université Stendhal. All of the international students were placed in a grammar class according to their proficiency level in French. The grammar classes had from 15-20 students and met every morning; in the afternoon we had elective classes, divided  into merely Upper Level French and Lower Level French. Those classes were much larger, taking place in auditoriums that seated a couple hundred students. Because of the small size of the grammar classes, we got to know the other students there fairly well. I became friends with a Korean girl named Kyung Jin. Just a few months before, I had taken some Korean classes at a Korean church in my town. I used the little bit of Korean that I had learned to break the ice early on with Kyung Jin and it was well worth it.

Université Stendhal, my school for a semester

Kyung Jin invited me to lunch at her apartment one weekend, along with a Danish and a Norwegian girl from our class. I was excited to do something social outside of school. Trepidation began to set in, however, when I realized she lived far off my trusty tram route. I was going to have to expand my public transportation horizons. I was going to have to take the bus. Kyung Jin gave me the bus number and I picked up a route schedule on my way home from school. I studied it for quite awhile that evening until I was sure confident not completely terrified about venturing off my beaten path.

Kyung Jin and my host parents, Hélène and André

The next morning, I made it to the bus stop and onto the bus without incident. It was going to be a ride of about twenty minutes, so I settled in and stared out the window at this area of Grenoble that I had never seen. About halfway to Kyung Jin’s place, the bus pulled into a designated bus turn-out. People began filing off. It seemed like a lot of people. But I noticed that most of them seemed to be junior highers, so I just figured that there must be a school nearby (French schoolchildren all ride the public buses; there are rarely buses reserved just for shuttling kids to and from school. Something a lot of American communities could take into consideration…). But wow, it sure did seem quiet after that. I sat patiently in my seat in the middle of the bus, waiting to continue my journey. Huh. The driver turned off the engine. Strange. I was beginning to feel a little nervous as I watched the driver in the mirror at the front of the bus. He lit a cigarette; he turned slightly in his seat and put his feet up on the dashboard; and then he unwrapped a sandwich. The dimmer switch on my brain slowly brightened to a full glow and I realized, “He’s on break!”

Embarrassed and horrified, I gathered my things and hurried towards the front of the bus. The driver, thinking himself alone, nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun around and slammed his feet back to the floor, yelling, “Que faîtes-vous?! Vous ne savez pas?! — What are you doing?! Don’t you know?!”Je sais maintenant! — I know now!” I called back as I sprung out of the bus and hurried across the street to where the rest of my fellow passengers were waiting for the bus that would complete the route. I can only imagine what was going through their minds as they saw me exit the bus a full five minutes after them.  Secret tryst with the bus driver or just an ignorant foreigner?

It's a big city, Grenoble

I did eventually make it to Kyung Jin’s apartment (not before I arrived in the general vicinity, couldn’t find it and had to call her from a beer-soaked payphone) and we all had a wonderful afternoon together. I learned interesting things like Korean chopsticks are shorter than Chinese chopsticks, Danes and Norwegians can understand each other speaking their own languages although they prefer to just use English.

And, if everyone gets off the bus, even if you don’t know why, you should, too.

French Friday #1: How it all began!

For most of the week, the topics here will be craft-related, but on Fridays, we’ll (see how I included you there?) have a little feature on France or French-themed things. Why France, you ask? Well, it’s a good thing you’re reading today then, because I’m about to tell you. It’s like instant gratification! And if you really want to get into the spirit of things, kick back with a pain au chocolat and play a little accordion music in the background. I’d recommend some good wine, but some of you might be underage. 😉

Park behind the Hôtel de Ville in Grenoble

The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I was in a funk. We had moved to a new town just six months before, I didn’t have any friends and I had nothing to do. My mom decided that, if I was just going to hang around the house, I may as well get something out of it and handed me a copy of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I sat out in the backyard under the big shade tree and read. I wasn’t expecting much at first. The last time I had had a parent-initiated book assignment, I was underwhelmed (Sorry, Dad, I still don’t like The Red Badge of Courage). But this book was different. The swashbuckling appealed to my romantic imagination (yes, Dad, I know there were swords in the Civil War; it’s not the same), it opened up an entirely new world to me, and I learned lots of fun words like sacre bleu and carte blanche. And that, my friends, is the key. I had already taken three years of Spanish at this point in my education, plus, I had memorized the “Ape-English Glossary” in the back of my Dad’s boyhood Tarzan book (there, Dad, that was a winner!). The little light bulb blinked on and I realized: “I love learning languages!” So I signed up for Spanish and French in 10th grade.

Hôtel Sully in Paris

Aside from a few funny moments at the beginning when I answered my French teacher in Spanish (not helped by the fact that I had Spanish class just before!), I was quickly picking up the new language. I continued taking both French and Spanish concurrently through high school and, by my senior year, it was obvious that French was the stronger of the two, so I chose it for my college major. My philosophy was, “Do what you’re good at.” And I was very good at it. (It’s ok, I’m allowed to brag a little: it’s my blog. Besides, very few people know this about me). There is a National French Contest for high schoolers called Le Grand Concours. The first year I took it, I placed second in the state. The next two years, I placed first in the state and was just a couple points shy (ie. perfection) of winning outright. When I got to college, I tested out of the first year and a half of classes. They had to invent classes in order for me to have enough credits to fulfill my major. I graduated magna cum laude.

Inside our apartment. I loved the sun coming through in the late afternoon.

And what did I do with all that fabulous French knowledge? Not a lot, at first. But a year and a half after I got married, an opportunity came up for my husband to pastor at an English-speaking church just outside of Paris, where we stayed for three years. It was just right for us — he got to speak English, and I got to speak French to my heart’s content and live in a country that I love. And not a day goes by that we don’t wish we could be back there!

This is not the church he where he pastored. 😉 Interior of Notre Dame de Paris.

I have plenty of stories from our time in France (and photos!), plus the semester I spent in Grenoble, and the week-long trip I took with my high school class to Paris. Plenty of things to share on French Fridays! In addition to my love of the language, the history, culture, architecture, and art all fascinate me and all play a role in my aesthetics. So even when I’m not directly talking about France, it’s likely that it has somehow influenced what I do. I hope you will enjoy hearing about my other home. And don’t worry: I got all the bragging out of my system this go ’round.