Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vacances de Décembre, part 1: Nantes et Noël (Brace yourself)

So evidently, I've got a LOT of stuff to write about but I'm gonna break it down into two posts. This one, obviously, is the rest of the time I spent in Nantes, Christmas that I passed there, and Christmas that I passed at Béhuard. This also going to be majority pictures because collectively, I've taken around 500 in the last week. So, Nantes. After the wine cave, we passed the rest of the week there, up until Christmas morning. Thursday, Guillaume and I took a train into town, about 10 minutes, much preferable to the 2.5-hour bus ride that was the other option. Because neither of know Nantes, we started off in what looked to be a promising direction only to find out it was the direct opposite of downtown. A 180° turn and 10 minutes later we were in downtown, with about 5 million other people. The downtown of Nantes is really cool, at least during Christmas, because all the store fronts and the plazas are decked out. We went through numerous "marchés de Noël" which is something very common in France. They're set up in plazas or squares, like la Place de Ralliement of Angers, and they consist of little huts that sell just about anything you can imagine. The most common are, of course, jewelry, little souvenirs and Christmas toys but there are also tons of stands for cheeses and sausages, chi-chis and other fairground food and vin chaud (hot wine, it's actually pretty good!). Guillaume and I toured those for a little while...

This is the vin chaud. I'm not sure exactly how it's done but here it looks like they just put wine in some kind of clay pot and then over a burner for a while. It's pretty popular, you see a lot of people just chilling, drinking their wine chaud, talking... you know, very Frency!

This is just one of the marché Noël that we passed through in downtown Nantes. 

Guillaume and I posing in front a fountain, me in my classic move-right-before-the-picture-is-taken-and-end-up-looking-pretty-ridiculous poses. 

Later we passed by the Château des ducs de Bretagne of Nantes. We didn't do the full tour, just kind cut across the courtyard, snapped some pictures and moved on.
The front of the castle (really not a necessary tag but I like to stay consistent!

 This a giant cathedral downtown that we passed, kinda looks like Notre Dame, I guess that's just the style of that age...? 

 This is just a little street loaded with cafés, but smack in the middle of the semi-modern houses, you've got this super-traditional French woodwork. It's a shame I didn't take a close up because in the wood on the right, under the windows, there's some really beautiful intricate carvings. 

 Haha, this was a bar that we passed. The name is Au Chien Stupide, literally translating to At Stupid Dog. No, I have no idea why it's called that or why they put in the speech bubble MIAOU (French cats?!?) but I thought it was pretty funny. 

 All over town, on walls or arches, discreetly tiled on the walls are these little illustrations. Here we've got Mario but I also saw Luigi, Pacman and a lot of other little things like that, not all of them videogame characters. I don't think this is something the city did, it seems to street-arty but I guess they don't care too much. It's funny, I actually saw the same thing in Paris... but that's another blog post.

 Le Passage Pommeraye is a little rue, but indoors and lined with tons of little shops. It being Christmas, the whole thing was covered in lights and decorations and it was packed with other last-minute-present hunters. 

This is about half-way down the passage; it opens up into a two-floor section here and as you can see, tout le monde était là! 

This I'm not really sure where it was, or whether it was on a church. Actually it might be from Paris, now that I think of it... But in any case, it's pretty nice!

Skipping forward to Saturday night, la soir de Noël chez la maman de François à Nantes, la qu'on a resté avec pour tout la semaine. So Christmas dinner here in Nantes is, I guess, always a theme and this year it was Greek. 

The table was all white and blue, in honor of the Greek flag and the colors of almost all the buildings on the islands. We had sashes that we wore, un peu bizarre, mais ça va. At every place setting was also a photo of something Greek: the beaches, the houses, the flag... Definitely going back to Greece sometime, seeing all the picture made me miss it!

Of course, they still do French stuff but for dinner we had tyropitakia (spanikopita but with cheese), a Mediterranean seafood dish and for the main course was turkey but roasted in some Greek way (don't know where they got that recipe, it doesn't sound Greek to me but it was good!). Dessert was a very French thing: 
 Les Madeleines, French butter cookies that everyone knows because they're so delicious!

 Macarones, petits gateaux, in many different flavors, always present at Christmas!

 La Bûche: this is the most traditional French thing about Noël. It's a cake with chocolate frosting, in the shape of a log, decorated with little Père Noel's, plants, loggers and saws. 

 In the middle of the bûche, there's a trail of chocolate or coffee frosting, in this case it was coffee. It's delicious, vive la bûche! Something else that I didn't take a picture of are little candies called dragées, almonds in a layer of chocolate. They're traditionally given out at weddings and baptisms but we had them here too. 

 Christmas trees are a very different thing in France. Very few people go out and get a real tree like us Mainers. In France, they're often small, artificial trees that they keep year-round. Of course, they decorate it, like us. This is the tree at the grandparents in Nantes, our's here at the house is bigger and color-themed, all white and sparkly with little glass ornaments! 

 This seems to change from house to house because at Béhuard we put the presents under the tree, but here in Nantes we put our shoes in front of the fireplace (this picture doesn't do justice to the warm coziness of the fireplace, damn flash!) and then we stack each-other's presents around the shoes. 

The next morning we drove back to Angers area and went directly to Béhuard, ours cousin's house. I don't know if I've explained this yet, probably have but for all you newcomers: Béhuard is a tiny island in the middle of the Loire about 20 minutes from Mûrs with, at maximum, 20 houses, a restaurant and a church. Our cousins live in a farmhouse that has been added to. It's two floors but each floor is essentially one giant room. On the bottom floors it consists of the kitchen, dining room and general space and on the second floor it's a living room thing but really big with a massive fireplace. Then there are bedrooms of to one side on each floor and another two rooms on the bottom that I'm pretty sure were part of a renovation. It's the house with the glass windows in the floor, I'm pretty sure I mentioned, at least, that because it's really cool!

This is on the first floor, the dining table and the bottom floor fireplace. The whole house is a mix between traditional French and modern furniture and for Christmas it was all decorated in white/silver sparkly/shiny beautiful decorations.

The dining table, set for thirteen! My family, the cousins and the grandparents- Christmas is a very family-oriented event in France, like in America also. 

Just a decoration in the corner that I thought was really cool. A wooden Christmas tree with little niches for candles. 

This was a present our family made for the sister of Laurence, my "host-aunt". It's an paper-collage angel, évidemment, with a tube thingy for flowers. Pretty bangin'!

Because the youngest of my cousins are 4 and 9 years old, and therefore still believe in Père Noël, we took a little tour around the island-village with them to give the others a chance to put the presents under the tree.  We kept pretending to see reindeers in the sky and hear "HO HO HO" and every time we said that the kids would say "Oh I saw him too, he was going to our house!" It was pretty hard to procrastinate for 25 minutes with present-crazy little cousins but I got a chance to snap some pictures of the village. 

We went to the old church and they had the crèche de Noël set up. It's actually a pretty big thing in France, le crèche: families set it up under the tree, churches set them up, there are even city crèches!

This church that we went to is really old and has some unique features, like these faces carved into the bottoms of the benches. They express just about every kind of emotion you could think of but unfortunately I didn't get a very good picture. 

Some of the walls are carved directly out of the stone face, as you can see below. 

It's half a church, half giant mound of rock, so more or less bad-ass old church. 

In the outer wall of the church, there's this niche from 1698, with Mother mary and baby Jesus: I wouldn't have guessed it's those two from the picture but that's what I was told. But yeah, it's old!

I think I might have already shown this but Béhuard is notorious for flooding and here they've got marks for how high the water came, the most being 6.78 meters (0 meters being the level of the Loire normally) in  1910. There's also a bunch of pictures dating back to 1984 with various scenes of people boating through the streets and stuff like that.

This is a collection of really bizarre glass beakers that one would think of for science experiments, but these are for wine! It's a collection of Xavier's, the husband of Laurence's sister.

This is a plate of foie gras, made by Laurence's mother (her specialty, along with la bûche), chilling outside...

... next to plates of huitres (oysters). Oysters here are pretty common for big meals. People here either love them or hate them. Me, I don't like them at all. Cold, slimy, gummy, fishy nastiness you slurp out of a shell, along with some sand? No thanks!

Interjections: I noted some of the dishes we had, but not all of them so I'll tell you what I remember. We had around of little puff pastry things with ham, cheese, pesto, chorizo and other toppings for an amuse-bouche (pre-meal snack, for the purpose of waking up you taste buds) with champagne. For the entrées (remember, in France, those are appetizers not the main course) we had a carpaccio de St. Jacques à la truffle (yes, truffle mushrooms, it was really good!), followed by the foie gras et baguette, then a dish of langoustine (a kind of mini-lobster) with a mousse, cauliflower and caviar. That last one was a little weird, not my favorite but it doesn't matter because after was the plat principaux (main course): ballotin de caille au foie gras (quail in a layer of dough, with some kind of foie gras mixture somewhere there) et purée de panais (a vegetable like a white carrot but with a different taste). It was absolutely amazing! Apparently, the sister of Laurence has a friend who is a chef at a top restaurant in Angers and he gave her the recipes. 

Of course the cheese plate between le plat principaux et le dessert. I tried a little of everything, yes even that blue moldy one on the left. Since I got here, I've been more and more adventurous with the cheeses I've been offered and now I'll eat just about anything. I love French cheese!!!!!

This was the bûche again, (x2 to accomodate everyone) from Laurence's mother. On top of this one were little sugar mushrooms and Père Noël's: it was really good!

And then of course, the omni-present box of macarones!
There's going to a second post going up shortly with my trip to Paris, but for now I'll stop because Gabe just got here so we're gonna go hang. 
À plus!

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