26 December 2009

16 Years Later and A Little Munchkin

After leaving picturesque Annecy, Chris and I traveled a little farther north to a relatively small city called Thonon-les-Bains. It is situated right off of Lake Geneva, in the Savoy region, with a little over 30,000 inhabitants. We stepped off the train into more cold and snow and were greeted by a very, very special person...

I have to put this picture first and foremost because after not seeing seeing one another for SIXTEEN years(when Chris was just 6 years old)...Chris and his former au pair, Sylvie, were reunited!!! It was a truly wonderful and joyful reunion to witness in every way- recounting memories of long ago, comparing old photos to new ones, and getting to know Sylvie's husband and 4 1/2 year old daughter Elina(pronounced El-een-ah).


We went to visit Château d'Allignes, a gorgeous place where Sylvie and her family frequent on Sundays to hike, picnic, and see the stunning views.

Little Elina badly needed new boots and constantly had freezing toes...lucky her got to be carried...I miss those days!!

Snowy peaks in the distance.

View of Lake Geneva from the Chateau grounds. In the summer the lake is flooded with tourists, vacationers, and boaters but this time of year people flock to the surrounding mountains to ski.

This path leading up from the Château was lined with holly bushes, the tiny red berries standing out against the stark white snow.

Evian happened to be a very close drive from their house, so we took a little visit to see if the infamous water was really THAT good right from the source...it was pretty spectacular. There were 3 different places throughout the town with fountains where people line up with bags of water bottles to fill with fresh Evian water.

Each holiday season Evian commissions an artist to decorate the town. This year, the artist collected piles and piles of driftwood from the lake and formed them into faces, animals and unidentifiable creatures and lit them with an eerie orange glow. OoooOOOooOOOOO

Many of the creatures had big enough hollow insides to accommodate kids climbing in and out.
These creatures were pretty daunting and seem like recreations of a child's nightmare...I guess French children are just extra brave...

Carousels have been huge in France ever since the first carousel was built for the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris. The Exposition was a World's Fair held on the 100th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, and is also the reason the monumental Eiffel Tour was built. This particular carousel was great because it was free for little Elina to ride for as loooong as she pleased...well...only because the pour daddy's got to push it around in circles themselves. HA!

And of course, like everywhere else we've been, we could not stay away from the local market. The only difference at this market is that it was FREAKING COLD and people were still out spending their Euros. Incredible.

Tough market-goers.

Elina was a little unsure about the cheese guy...

Wrapped in their warmest winter garb...

Back at the house, a snowball fight ensued. They recently moved to a small area on the edge of Thonon and built the whole house themselves. The house is mostly finished- with new oven arriving only days before us. Their big, snow-covered yard was perfect for making tons of bonhommes de neige(snowmen).

You can't catch me!

Oh yea, wanna bet?!
Elina wanted so badly to "faire l'été", or make summer, which to her meant making snowmen out of all the snow in the yard so that it would disappear and feel more like summertime. She is in an only child and absolutely loved having Chris and I there for a while so we could play games and make snowmen together.

I cannot emphasize enough just how wonderful the three days were that we were lucky enough to spend with Sylvie's family. We will hopefully be able to go back in the summer some year to go paragliding with Eric and swimming at their special place on Lake Geneva. While I did not want to see Chris go, this was a perfect end to his 12 days in France avec moi!!

25 December 2009

Walk like an Egyptian!

Some of you may have noticed a little change in the blog over the past couple of weeks. The dynamic duo split up for a brief time (thank God we're finally reunited!!!!). I thought I'd fill everyone in on what I've been up to...

Ever since I was a kid, I've always dreamed of going Egypt. A lucky combination of impulse, dear friends in Cairo, sense of adventure, and cheap airfare thanks to Orbitz (I'm willing to be a spokesperson if they are looking!) allowed me to live out my childhood dream and fly to Egypt for a whirlwind week.

Here is the lovely, funny, brilliant, sassy Farah who hosted me in her home in Cairo for the week. She is the ultimate tour guide and made sure to show me as much in one week as humanly possible. We saw all the tourist spots and so much more. She showed me a whole spectrum of places that tourists never go: from the graveyard-turned-slum called the "city of the dead" to the swanky restaurant where the chicest of Cairo residents go to see and be seen.

Even though I was only there for a short period of time, I feel like I got a true glimpse into this vibrant, exotic, constantly-changing country. Egypt is a placed deeply marked by its layered and fascinating history. But, it is also a country entrenched in modern geopolitics, religion, and culture. She helped me see how much more the place has to offer than pyramids and pharaohs (though those are incredible, too!).

One of my first impressions of Cairo was how colorful it was. Tapestries, carpets, colored glass lanterns, apartment buildings, cars...everything was so vivid and bright...a striking contrast to the constant presence of blowing dust and sand.

Personalities on the street reflected this brightness as well. For the most part, I found the people friendly, interested (sometimes far TOO interested), generous, and open.

Some of these streets seemed like they were right out of Aladdin! The streamers here are left up from Ramadan celebrations. From what Farah and her family told me, during the month of Ramadan, Cairo is transformed into a kaleidoscope of light and color with these streamers decking out the streets and colored glass lanterns hanging all over the place.

After spending two and a half months in a predominantly Christian country where every city is built around a glorious cathedral and each village has its little chapel, the mosques of Cairo were a beautiful and fascinating change. The elegant domes and sky-reaching minarets dominate the cityscape while the call to prayer is a constant reminder to the faithful.

Though the vast majority of Egyptians are Muslim, there was still a little Christmas cheer to be found. I really liked the contrast of this very American looking Christmas tree tucked into a very Oriental-looking cove. These guys selling Santa gear were also all over the place selling eerie looking masks.

One of the things I loved most about Egypt was the architecture and design. Like the scene on the street, traditional Egyptian interiors are colorful and every little corner has interesting design elements. This was in an old merchants home we toured -- it was a haven of tranquil and artistic touches. Arches, stripes, and nature-inspired designs are the dominant features.

On my first night in Cairo, Farah took me to a folk music and dance concert. It was held in an incredibly well preserved medieval caravansary which is a covered market place bazaar. The rhythmic drumming, energetic horn melodies, and dizzying dancing were a wonderful introduction to Egypt. I was completely entranced.

Apparently, this kind of dancing is part of a tradition related to Sufi-ism. The man in the green spins around for an extended period of time (in his case, an entire hour). The spinning is supposed to put him in an elevated state of mind, closer to God.

And finally, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to the pyramids. You know how sometimes you can build something up in your mind, imagining how great it is all your life, and then when you finally see it, there is a bit of a let down? This was definitely NOT one of those times. Whatever expectations I had, they were completely surpassed by the pyramids. The sheer size and grandeur were breathtaking.

Surrounding the three great pyramids are several smaller pyramids and temples. The walls of the temples are covered with hieroglyphics. I desperately needed my hieroglyphic-reading kit I got for my 7th birthday so I could decode this secret message but sadly I didn't think to bring it with me to France. Too bad! From my elementary knowledge of ancient Egyptian, I think this says something along the lines of "King Tut is the bomb."

Because the pyramids are a hot-spot for tourists, there are lots of guys wandering around trying to offer various services to visitors. We were approached by about one thousand different men trying to offer us tours, camel rides, horse back rides, and fake VIP tours of the pyramids. Our practice was to just look away and say "shukron" meaning "thanks, but no thanks."

Unfortunately, a few people didn't really get the message and were in a fierce competition for our business. The argument devolved into a full blown fight. I was the only one who seemed to find this strange, they're apparently incredibly common. In the end, I didn't end up getting on either of their camels...but eventually, I did get on one!!!

Back in France now, it's hard to believe all that actually happened. It was a trip I will never forget -- Farah and her family showed me an incredible amount of humor, warmth, and generosity. Now, I just have to figure out a way to go back!

23 December 2009

Baby It's COLD Outside

Annecy, home of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a beautiful town in the Savoie(Savoy) region of eastern France, only about 26 miles from Geneva. It is a big ski town on the northern edge
of Lac d'Annecy, with the mountains which seem to rise straight out of the water. The
Thiou canal, a former industrial route, runs through the center of town. With the stone
bridge crossings and little island, it gave Annecy the nickname "little Venice".

Upon arrival we were greeted by bitingly chilly air and dramatic cloud-cover over the
town and lake. Were we at all prepared for the weather? Hells no. Did we still attempt
to venture out of our cozy 10' x 10' hotel room? Hells yes.

Annecy is situated more or less on the northwestern tip of the lake. We walked for a good 2 hours along the path across the entire northern edge(ok fine, so that's the short end, so what...) to Annecy-le-Vieux, awed by the clear water of the lake and cursing our frozen, dripping noses.

Annecy has recently been noted as being one of the oldest inhabited sites in the
Northern Alps, with research dating Annecy-le-Vieux back to 3,100BC.

Believe it...or not...because we didn't believe it at first either- we witnessed the process of a woman strip down layers of jacket and fleece and pants and gloves and socks to nothing but a skimpy bikini and, to our absolute horror, wade slowly into the ice-cold water.

Her bright pink body emerged from the water after what seemed a long enough time that she should no longer be breathing, and proceeded to run, barefoot, along the path toward us.
We stood, shocked, in utter disbelief...

Bird line- it was way too cold, even for the birds, to do much else
than stand at attention and shiver together.

This, dear friends, is nothing other than a swan butt on Lac d'Annecy. Look closely, almost as if you were going to be quizzed on the subject later…The water was so clear that when a swan did dive down for food, you could still see its entire head digging around on the lake floor.

Annecy by night. Like every other French town/village that we have passed through, regardless of their size, there were Christmas lights here too, strung in the sky above the major streets.

Our second morning we woke to a wonderful surprise just out the window- SNOW! Throughout the day the town was being covered with powdery fluff, adding to the Christmas cheer and décor.

This is the Palais de L'Isle in the center of town, dating back to the early 12th century.
It was originaly home to the lords of Annecy, then became a prison in the Middle Ages,
and is now a historic site and museum.

From across the way we could see that the seagulls were going crazy, as if something major
was interrupting their lives… On closer inspection something amazing was indeed happening
in their world- baguettes. This woman stood on the edge of the bridge, holding bread out
in her hand and letting the seagulls grab it with their beaks right from her fingertips.

Pont des Amours and the canal in the winter wonderland.

Ok, so you remember the image of the swan butt right? Here is the test- can you distinguish
the swan butt from the buoy in this picture? At times, looking out over the many boats lining
the lake and canal, it seemed as if hundreds of swans were all diving for food at once.

The mountains were invisible in the background.

Chilly, chilly day looking down over the city. Two of the churches we visited in Annecy were made of white stone, which blended in nicely with the white city after the snowfall.

Avez-vous des gants?” (Do you have gloves?) This became Chris’ most frequently repeated question, always with spitting sarcasm, after we were not allowed to skate in Rodez because
we didn’t both have gloves. Apparently the French take their skating very seriously and
under NO circumstance do they skate without their gloves. It’s a very dangerous affair
you know? ...But once you are on the ice you are allowed to skate in whichever direction
you choose… hm, so maybe the lack of gloves isn’t the real problem after all.

Ice dotted with colored lights.

Our stay in Annecy ended much too quickly, but was filled with many wonders despite the cold. We are moving on to Thonon-les-Bains, only an hour and a half away to the north.