France

Parc des Oiseaux / Bird Park in France

When I visited Berlin all by myself for its Natural History Museum (click to be mesmerized by a Vogel mustache) in November 2011, it was freaking cold I literally froze (my ass off) yet I’ve nonetheless learned that the birds’ evolutionary descendants were dinosaurs. Such a remarkable discovery, I know! It was also during this trip that I met a young, early twenty-ish Spanish guy who felt guilty over Spain’s colonization of the Philippines centuries ago, and a 40-ish Spanish hobo whom I’ve recently seen on Facebook to have visited the Philippines!

Back to the museum, after spacing out for a few minutes looking at a glass-laminated fossil of birds’ supposed link to dinosaurs (that really looked like pigeon ribs – they were so tiny & as incomprehensible as how a pigeon’s ribs would look like, etched into a hardened mud), I was like, man, being able to fly is not enough huh. Birds are such a kick ass species! What can they not do?

And so it is with great honor that I present to you some photos from the bird park we visited yesterday. A living proof that humanity will always make the most out of its shortcomings… by holding those with greater abilities in captivity. Aha! I love them birds. The park is in France and the website has a proper version in English (hurray!). I tried my best to capture more than 3,000 bird varieties but alas! I’m only human. Enjoy!

Dinosaur in the flesh! Be very afraid…

Uh huh, someone was not quite pleased!

While others simply walked away.

To Remember Winter By: A First Time*

 
*Contains language not suitable for children.

Everyone was up before 8 in the morning. By nine, I was out with the rest of the Strasbourg boys and was told to slide through the mountain of snow to get to the Tourist Office. Slide through the mountain of snow, I never knew that’s a real-life command!

“But where are the stairs, Couz?”
“There are no stairs.”
“What do you mean there are no stairs?”
“It’s okay, let’s go!”

I told him my legs are too stiff, I couldn’t move, I’m paralyzed, I’m shaking, I will die – in this exact order.
He laughed and took a photo of me, instead. Priceless or heartless?

I don't recall being that shit scared my entire life than right here on this bed of snow.

I don’t recall being that shit scared my entire life than right here on this bed of snow.


 
I focused on my breathing to avoid being in a state of hysterical panic. Coupled with an escalating embarrassment from my inability to walk down an (ironically) angelic slope while everyone flew me by in their skis and snowboards, I gave myself no other choice than to brave this snow ordeal one step at a time.

So… I would slowly put a foot forward to descend into the base of the mountain where the Tourist Office was. And each step would feel like I’d roll down nonstop ’til I die. You hear? Non-stop, roll down, each step, die.

Putain /pyutah/ (“fuck”). What’s so strange is how the utter whiteness gives this weird illusion of falling forever. Me and my ski-virgin ass, I know. But the million dollar question is really this: will I do it again?

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Morning view from the balcony.

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Comme ça! /kom sa/ (“like that”)

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On the other side of the balcony.

Charming chalet-styled hotels, I mean.

Chalet-styled hotels only.

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Other things to do.

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Dog poop-proof.

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Strasbourg boys meet and warm-up.

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All set.

Cable cars.

Cable cars.

Snow everywhere!

Snow everywhere!

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And ski-ers.

And white mountains, too.

White mountains, too.

Free bus ride around (mountain) towns.

With free bus ride around snowy mountain towns all day long.

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At night.

Oui. I will do this again in a heart beat!

 

Strasbourg is Christmas Capital

The Christmas Tree
Strasbourg is pretty much known around here for Christmas. I was informed a few times, and enthusiastically each time that it’s the Christmas Capital. I normally reply with an overly flexed face to show excitement to make up for my very limited French vocabulary, yet once I finally asked, “Christmas capital of what – du quoi?,” the question bothered me from the very start. “Just the Christmas Capital,” Julien, an Alsacian born and raised in Strasbourg, said with a shrugand his usual air of nonchalance. And that’s the short story behind why Strasbourg is the Christmas Capital, period.

It was finally in Strasbourg one December weekend that I realized how my question simply merited a shrug. The city is in full Christmas bling swing and one simply steps into the plaza to be transported to the heart of Noël – the Christmas tree, one illuminated, unimposing, huge Alsacian sapin. What follows is the starting line for the famed Strasbourg Christmas market, the oldest one in France and the largest in the world. Ahhh, c’est bien ça!

The Christmas Market
During winter, Christmas markets are in every towns and villages in Alsace, the North East region from France (right on the border with Germany). The capital city of the region, Strasbourg and its Christmas market, draws in about 2 million visitors each year. The market sprawls in the town center periphery, sometimes bundled up in spacious (mini plaza-like) areas and sometimes making up a stretch of temporarily set-up wooden stalls called chalet mushrooming along the streets. Did you know that this market started in 1570? The earliest Christmas market, however, started way back. The oldest one in the world is recorded to be in Munich, Germany first held in 1310. Meanwhile, Vienna’s “December market” was traced back to 1294, but only became a “Christmas Market” in later years.

n the Strasbourg Christmas market, one can find traditional and artisan products such as spice bread, bretzels, confectionery, pastries and mulled wine on offer. From here you can also find and buy your real Christmas tree and be able to choose from a huge selection of tinsels, Christmas baubles and other trimmings to decorate your tree and home. If you are thinking Christmas Bazaar, this is indeed it.

You might be interested to know how much this whole festivity costs. Let me tell you then that the city spends $3.3 million for the holiday preparations and decorations each year and is said to maintain this investment level. Why? Because the period from the last weekend of November to Christmas generates more than $210 million in benefits for Strasbourg. Oh la la!

Hot Wine and Nutella Crepes
Roaming around the Christmas market is never complete without stopping by a chalet that sells mulled or hot wine or vin chaud, another Christmas season staple. Since the weather can be very cold, more or less 5 degrees Celsius when I was there on 13-16 December 2013, people drink this traditional recipe to warm up. One cannot miss it in the Christmas market, just follow the smell of cinnamon in the air. It normally is the more crowded chalet and juste à côté would be the crepe stall, go grab one with the Nutella spread. This ensemble tops my favorite Christmas market festivity list. If you are not anywhere near these Christmas markets, try making the crepes yourself with this simple recipe by yours truly, and this promises to be a vin chaud recipe from the Alsace region itself.

“When the switch was thrown in here to signal the start of the holiday season, 2.75 miles of streets strung with 38,000 feet of cable flashing 35,000 bulbs confirmed Strasbourg as France’s Christmas capital. Nowhere else in France – not even in Paris – is Christmas celebrated with the natural conviction, respect for ceremony, and generosity of spirit that it is here.”

“Nowhere else in the world!,” declares ze Couz.

Mémé in the French Countryside*

Location: Saint-Trevier, France

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Meme’s house.

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Front yard view.

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Meme now and then…

The Equally Awesome Other Side of France

Mémé is 82 years old. She lives in her house in Saint-Trivier-de-Courtes, France. This small village in the middle part of France is four hours by drive from Paris and one hour away from Geneva, Switzerland. In 2008, it was reported to have a total population of 975. Everytime we go to Yoann’s hometown of Montagnat /mon-ta-nya/, we drive for about 45 minutes to her house on our way back to Belgium. When we visit her, we make sure to go around the garden and we always end up with some more fresh produce on top of the carrots, potatoes, salad, onions we already have in the trunk.

The Garden’s Keeper

When we visited Mémé last week, we changed our usual routine of going straight inside the house and visited the garden right away. Winter has passed, you see. Like us, the plants are also stretching and basking in the springtime sunlight amidst occasional cold breeze. In truth, we are too weak, the sight of flowering salad leaves lured us into the yard almost immediately.

In the garden, I saw the neighbour’s cat, Ismi, walk through the newly ploughed land from outside the fence. I watched him approach Mémé. Not a glance back. This cat, Ismi, he seems to have completely forgotten our last visit. As if reading my thought that I expect him to merely pass us by, Ismi started rolling his dark, fluffy body around infront of me and Yoann. Ismi has a bright tummy! Mémé also laughed at his playfulness. I have no clue what he’s going to do next.

We met Ismi for the first time around two months ago during our last visit chez Mémé. We were having dinner and he was by the window sitting outside. He would glance at our small group once in a while. I got up to talk to him and that’s when Mémé mentioned his name. She also said that Ismi is her neighbour’s cat. That first encounter, Ismi looked at me once or twice. Have you met a cat that glances instead of stare? That’s Ismi.

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Meme still prepares her garden plot for planting at 82.

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Lunch is ready for picking! Meme’s garden fresh salad!

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Greens have never looked this good!

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Inside meme’s nursery, a hodge podge of herbs and baby veggie plants.

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Her garden tools!

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Meme with Yoyo.

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Meme and me.

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Fur ball Ismi.

Dining With Mémé At Last

After a good 30 minutes of admiring Mémé’s beautiful budding plants, coupled with constant head shakes in slight disbelief and total admiration of how she does gardening all by herself all these years, we headed back inside her house and settled in the dining area where Mémé has prepared a feast before our arrival. The three of us, Yoann, her and I would share her red wine, saucisson, cornishon, baguette, a variety of French cheeses, creamy desserts, and finally a good cup of coffee.

Mémé drinks wine, pas beaucoup /pah bukuh/ (not a lot), she would say when she sees you are about to pour wine into her glass. I would oblige and pour in un petit peu /uhh petih pwu/ (just a little bit). Yoann makes sure to remind her not to prepare a main dish since we’ll be passing by after lunch, but we will be too full and happy by the time we remember we just had lunch.

Yoann loves Mémé very much, and I love her. Happy mother’s day, Mémé! Bonne fête!

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Comforting best describes meme’s dining room.

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A few French starter plate staples: cornichon (pickles), baguette with pâté, radis, ham & watermelon slices, salad & more pâté!

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Main dish.

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Cheese platter.

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Dessert.

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Coffee!

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Ze boss, chillin’!

The end (of famine).