Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rebecca ran (a) 10K

Breaking News: 

Yesterday, For First Time Ever, Girl Runs 10k

Well *cough*  it wasn't an actual, like scheduled 10k event, per se.

Ok, so maybe it was only on a treadmill, and not on real pavement...
maybe it was all by herself and not with thousands of screaming bystanders...
and maybe it took 71 minutes and 45 seconds to do it (a time which doesn't even qualify as "real running," according to some)

But even if it was just a snail-paced 6 mile run at her local gym -- that's pretty awesome, right?!? Next stop, half marathon.


France-related posts will be back soon...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


We've been fortunate to be hosting a few visitors lately. We're trying to impress them as much as possible with our intimate knowledge of Poitiers and French culture. This can be a little time consuming. So while we gallivant around Poitiers and Paris, pointing out French quirks and foibles, here are a few photos to keep you entertained until we get around to writing again...

Jefe and Josh eating desert from Claud Lafond, the local high-end pastry shop
Jefe and Josh eating dessert from Claud Lafond, the local high-end pastry shop (by Rebecca)

La Serrurerie
La Serrurerie (by Josh)

Parc Blossac at Night
Parc Blossac at Night (by Josh)

L'Isle Jourdain
The town of L'Isle Jourdain along the Vienne River (by Jefe)

Grand Prix de Buxerolles
The Grand Prix de Buxerolles, 12 laps totalling 155km (by Jefe)

Eglise St. Pierre in Chauvigny
Eglise St. Pierre in Chauvigny, immaculately restored (by Jim)
***Just wanted to clarify that Jefe meant that the picture was taken by Jim.  
Jim did not immaculately restore the Eglise St. Pierre.
-Rebecca's edit 4/1/09

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How to fill your mouth with sand in 3 hours

While France is the center of the cycling world for 3 sunny weeks in July during the Tour de France, let's not forget that there is racing here year-round in all kinds of weather. In fact, the one-day road race from Paris to Roubaix is famous for it's inclement spring weather and inhospitable roads.

While the weather around Poitiers is milder than in the regions of Northern France, there is plenty of rain. So it should come as no surprise that the annual Vienne Classic Espoir, the first date (Sunday, March 8) on the road racing calendar in the region was an extremely wet and windy affair.

Even though we were expecting my brother at the train station around 4 pm, I couldn't pass up the chance to catch a glimpse of French bike racing (although at a much lower level than the Tour de France). The draw wasn't the prospect of watching a bunch of plastic-wrapped riders race their plastic bikes, but the chance to see racing through the countryside I have become so familiar with lately.

route map (more detail)

After poring over the race maps and time estimations, I picked out a few spots along the route that might be conducive to taking pictures. I also had to find shortcuts so that I could meet the racers farther along, since they would be riding almost twice as fast as me.

The race start and finish were located just a few kilometers from Poitiers in Chasseneuil du Poitou. I arrived about 30 minutes before the start during the introduction of the teams. With the wet, blustery conditions, it didn't look like there were too many spectators.

The largest contingent present was the multitude of support staff. There was a fleet of motorcycles, official's cars, team cars and people manning the feed zones.

I left the start area before the racers left so I could make it to Chateau Le Fou before they got there. Unfortunately, I got a little lost trying to take a shortcut (maybe I don't know the area that well after all) and ended up in the Forêt de Moulière trudging down a water-logged horse path in the rain wondering if it was perhaps time to head home.

Luckily for me (and you), I found an exit over the next hill. I had missed the rendez-vous at Chateau le Fou and headed for Archigny for the next photo-op in the course. On my way, I passed through the feed zone with cars and vans parked on every driveway and side road awaiting the racers for refueling. Some of the denizens of the cars were looking at me a little funny. Maybe because I appeared to be the only non-racing cyclist anywhere near this racecourse. And while I had to fight the wind and rain to catch up with the peloton, they had to sit in cars and wait for the racers to come to them. I wouldn't want to be in their situation.

Once I had found a good spot for photos (around 50km into the race), I parked the bike and waited. After a parade of motorcycles and cars with lights flashing, the peloton finally came into view. There was a lead pack of around 20 riders, with the rest of the riders 15 seconds behind.

All of the riders were soaking wet and most were heavily spattered with dirty water coming off the bikes of the riders around them. When you're trying to draft off someone who doesn't have fenders you get a steady stream of waterlogged road-grit coming off their rear tire right into your face. Not very pleasant, and a good way to fill your mouth with sand over the course of a three hour race.

After the main pack passed, I took a shortcut back through the feed zone to Bonneuil-Matours to take more pictures at the bridge over the Vienne River. Once I found a spot, I could hear the radio of the race official directing car traffic. It was crackling every few seconds with updates on the time gap between the lead group and the rest of the field; Quinze secondes...Onze secondes...huit secondes...dix secondes...huit, dix, huit, dix. The peleton was slowly closing on the leaders (see the race play-by-play here at around 15:59).

Turning the corner at Bonneuil-Matours into the feed zone

The riders passed and I headed to Bonnes for the last time I would cross paths with the race course. They were faster than I had anticipated, and I had to pull over as I was overtaken to snap a few pictures.

Once everyone was out of sight I headed home. Their was a stiff wind in my face all the way to Poitiers, but the rain had finally let up. Someone eventually won the race, but I was at home by then and had more important things to worry about.

The final sprint (photo taken from the Nouvelle Republique)

Rebecca picked up Josh at the train station, and I made it home about an hour after they did. I got to take a hot shower and have a few snacks before we made baked oysters for dinner. A wonderful end to a wet day.

Jefe and Josh debating oyster (on the towel) opening techniques.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Moving mountains...of paper

The cliché of France being a bureaucratic country is well known (comments #62 and 122), and we certainly had plenty of first-hand experience negotiating the maze getting visas, an apartment, residence cards, bank accounts, and (soon) paying taxes. But more surprising than having to change our flight twice while we waited for someone to send an "official" piece of paper to the consulate because a phone call wouldn't do, were the reams of paper we would soon accumulate. Not just paperwork, but --literally-- paper, and folders to keep it all organized. Making and storing copies of everything, just in case our utility company wants a copy of the lease, or the prefecture wants a copy of the utility bill. Or in case we needed a birth certificate to open an account at the local video rental store (turns out we didn't, but we've taken to arriving everywhere a bit over-prepared...)

The French love everything about paper. The way it feels, the colors, the weights, the pens you use to write on it, the folders you put it in, the envelopes you mail it in, the tampons (rubber stamps) you use to certify it, and the signatures used to sign it.

Papeteries (paper stores) are numerous and they stock every imaginable size, color, and weight of paper, envelopes, and folders...

...as well as accessories to make everything more official, like multicolored wax and personalized seals. In case you need to disseminate a decree to your serfs.

They sell pens too, but unless you're one of those serfs, you'll go to a proper pen store and get a nice fountain pen to give your completely illegible signature that special flare.

Luckily, since they love it so much, most things associated with paper are well designed. Paper is lined both ways so you can draw graphs and make sure your L's are the same height as your H's. Envelopes have easy-open seals...

Note the scalloped perforation (click to expand for a better view).

... and folders are ingeniously designed to make sure nothing falls out. The common grade-school prank of bumping the school nerd and sending their papers flying doesn't work here. Nya-nya.

Not only do they love paper, they trust in it. If it isn't written down, stamped, and signed, it isn't real. In order to change anything regarding your bank account, you must return to your specific branch so they can find your actual paper file and change the info. With white out and pen. Only then will they enter it in the computer database. The digital version is the backup of the physical copy, not the other way around. I imagine that somewhere in Le Nord among the industrial parks of Lille, is a warehouse full of printouts of everything that has ever been written on the internet in French, just in case it goes down someday.

Once you start accumulating this paperwork, you quickly learn to modify your signature. Who knew that writing "lu et apprové..." (read and approved) on each page of the four copies of your 25 page lease can actually make you break a sweat. Pretty soon your signature starts to look like this:

(actual signature, with printed name removed)

Below, in a photograph from a local art exhibit, we have everything coming together in one glorious photo. The numerous rubber stamps of various designs, the filing boxes, stapler, hole punch, folders, hanging files, and a computer that hardly ever gets used:

Close-up of the desk:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Things that hold your bike upright

A lot of cyclists complain about poorly designed bike racks. The ones that you had at your middle school that you could slide the front tire into (see picture). 

Since you can only get your front (or rear) tire in contact with any part of the rack, you can only lock that one part to the rack. For those who use quick-release wheels, these racks are even more troublesome. If you only lock your wheel to the rack, it is pretty easy to remove the wheel and abscond with the remainder of the bike.

These kinds of racks are everywhere, and somehow more are being installed! But I'm not here to complain about these run-of-the-mill, poorly-designed bike racks and the poorly-informed jerks who install them. Instead, I want to point out certain bike racks that are especially insulting to the user or which border on complete uselessness.

First, we have this bike "rack" at the main post office in Poitiers:

It is conveniently located just steps from the entrance, though if anyone were to actually use it, people would have to walk into the street to get around the bikes.  As you can see above, my bike is blocking the entire sidewalk.

And once you've locked your bike to it and stepped back, you should notice something odd. The part of the rack you've locked to is open!! 

If you rotate the wheel a little and slide the lock down, the lock comes right off the rack. How convenient if you lost your key while in the post office. Or perhaps this is the mayor's attempt at a bike-sharing program?

Incidentally, if you were to lock you wheel slightly differently, like this:

...the trick doesn't work and the bike is slightly safer. Another interesting area of common interest between cycling and knot theory.

The second location for insulting bike racks can be found at (where else?) Géant Casino... 

This is the side entrance with no bike parking, though many people lock to the railing pictured above. But since the railing is only a few inches from the plastic backing, I can't get my bike close enough on one of the three sides to the railing to use my small u-lock. So, I end up hanging it off one of the corners (as pictured above).

Around the front of the store there is a something resembling a bike rack, and it is sheltered from the rain:

It is also located on top of a grate where you can conveniently deposit your cigarette butts (and beer and urine from the smell of it) before entering the store.

In case you do find real bike racks that are protected from the rain, chances are that the motorcyles and mopeds have taken all the spots. Because everyone knows those can't stand up by themselves...

And just to prove that Poitiers' cyclists don't necessarily know any better, here's two local bike shops, which are completely free of bike parking:

Keep up the good work everyone.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tourist towns without any tourists

Rebecca's students were on vacation again last week, and since we've got some visitors coming in a week, we decided to preview some local destinations that people might (or might not) find interesting to visit. We had two criteria: things we haven't seen, and train access.

While the winter in Poitiers has been pretty mild by Jefe's standards, the sun has been playing hard to get. And poor Rebecca grew up within two hours of the East Coast of the U.S. and has been craving the beach since we left Wilmington. We quickly settled on the sunny, seaside locale of La Rochelle as the perfect destination. In order to maximize the discovery factor, we were looking for another destination close to La Rochelle. Following the local train routes and trying not to stray far from the sea, we decided on Rochefort.

When Rebecca mentioned this duo of destinations to people, trying to solicit ideas for things to do in the area, she got a bevy of similar responses.
La Rochelle: Oooh, how nice, you're going to love it, it's beautiful!
Rochefort: Hmmm...(Silence).

Well, La Rochelle is nice. A popular summer destination for French and English tourists, the area boasts one of the highest concentrations of vacation homes in France. There are almost as many hours of sunshine every year as the Mediterranean coast but without the endless stretches of beachside hotels that you find in Nice.

Nice, France: land of beaches and hotels

Despite its un-Nicey-ness, La Rochelle remains a primarily tourist-driven economy. Restaurants have different hours hors saison (out of season) or are closed entirely for their congés in late winter; hotels are cheaper; some museums/attractions are closed. It's not as though we're panting to fight the throngs during the Festival Francopholie, but there is something a little odd about port-side restaurants in a tourist haven who have to fight for the few off-season visitors. We even spotted one restaurant with a designated crier, an older woman standing out front listing the delicacies inside in a loud voice to no one in particular.

Even though some of the posted menus of the restaurants in the tourist area looked interesting, we were disconcerted by the prospect of having people watching us eat, peering in the restaurant windows and trying to determine if you're enjoying yourself enough to merit them coming inside to try it.

Port-side restaurants in La Rochelle...probably to be avoided

Luckily we were able to find excellent restaurants away from this area. La Rose des Vins was wonderful, small, earthy restaurant serving traditional French fare with a little bit of a twist, and occasionally featuring ethnic cuisine from around the world (Jamaican chicken). They also have an extensive wine list, with some wines available by the centimeter (get a bottle and only pay for what you drink), and excellent recommendations.

We also stumbled upon Le Cabanon des Pêcheurs while craving a seafood restaurant. Baked oysters topped with melted cheese, salmon terrine, and fish with spanish chorizo were more than enough to satisfy our urges. And Jefe couldn't pass up a post-meal rhum arrangé (rum with fruit soaking in it) as the giant jars (pineapple, passion fruit, strawberries, and more) were lined up enticingly on the bar.

Lovely Rhum arrangé at Le Cabanon des Pêcheurs

We also wandered along the coastline and the ramparts of ancient castles. And, perhaps even better, we went to the sprawling central marketplace, got snacks, and took them to the beach. We ate our picnic while basking in the sun. Sublime.


Rochefort-sur-Mer (as opposed to en-Terre) was just a short train ride away. We noticed something odd about it almost immediately. The city blocks are square! How un-French. Apparently, it was a planned community started in the 17th century as a naval base and shipbuilding yard (wiping out the former pesky Protestant town that was there before). The military influence led to the straight streets and right angles.

Apparently, Rochefort is one rung down on the tourist ladder from La Rochelle, it was mostly a ghost town in late February. There are a few interesting things to see (as our extremely enthusiastic hotel personnel pointed out), notably the Maritime Medical Museum, the house-cum-museum of Pierre Loti (author, seaman and general eccentric), and the rebuilding of the frigate Hermione (which La Fayette used to aid in the American revolution).

On top of everything, it seems we picked up some nasty stomach bug while we were there. Not so nice. Reminded us a little of our friends Jessie and Tom, who came home from their honeymoon early because they got sick. And bored.

Well, we stayed it out, but we were happy to get back to good 'ole Poitiers. And now we have the first of our visitors to look forward to, the Jefe's brother, Josh...we can't wait!