Cooking Abroad

I am no renowned cook, but I’ve always thought, if you can read a recipe, then what’s the big deal? You follow the instructions, it tends to turn out.

In France, that was challenging. Problem 1: everything was in French. Problem 2: all of the measurements were different. Problem 3: the grocery stores didn’t always have everything or anything I needed (see my post on making cookies to see just how challenging that can be).

So now that I’m here in Ireland problem 1 is gone, which helps a lot, and I have a few American measuring cups, etc. here so problem 2 is also not really a problem. But pesky problem 3: ingredients.

While my tales of cooking woes aren’t nearly as epic as in France, the results were far less edible.

Shortly after arriving, I bought a crockpot. I’ll admit, I don’t  love to cook and I figured I would have little time to cook with grad school anyway. However, I enjoy variety in my meals and wanted to have little hassle with delicious results. A crockpot seemed like the answer and mostly it has been. Except when pesky cultural and linguistic differences get in the way.

First casualty: crock pot chicken marsala. I found a Betty Crocker recipe for chicken marsala in the crock pot. (How can you go wrong with Betty Crocker, right?) Everything looked good and I was able to get all of the ingredients except cornstarch. Fine, I said. You can substitute flour for that. I’m only missing one ingredient…seems like a win. I found a couple of websites that gave amounts for substituting cornstarch for flour. And I did the conversion. This seems like a lot of flour for a little bit of cornstarch, I thought. But, then again, what do I know about cooking or chemistry? Just follow the recipe.

So I did.

Even as I was pouring the first of two cups of flour into the meager amount of liquid to thicken the marsala sauce, I questioned the conversion. I double-checked it, came out with the same number and said, well, I’ve never made chicken marsala before, maybe this is just how it is supposed to be?

As I poured the gelatinous paste onto my chicken, I could only laugh bitterly at how this looked nothing like Betty’s perfect meal and that this is what I planned to eat for at least the next three meals.

Second casualty: tacos. How in the world can you screw up tacos, you ask? This was an error of translation. Meat, particularly that which comes from a pig, has different terms for everything than what we have in the United States. Crispy bacon doesn’t exist, but the term bacon is used to describe something that looks more like ham, etc. So I went to the pork section of the meat aisle. Nothing said “pork”. I remember that the previous time I’d made this recipe, what turned out to be “pork” as I know it wasn’t labeled that way. So I looked for what most closely resembled pork. Looking back, I have no idea what the label said, but I remember thinking, this is probably close enough.

It wasn’t.

So I seasoned the meat with a blend I found online for a carnitas, stuck it in the crockpot and left it to cook all day. Eight hours later when I went to check on it, I sliced it down the middle and saw that it was still pink. Like REALLY pink. How could this be, I thought, it has been cooking all day? Then it dawned on me. This wasn’t the pork loin or whatever I thought it was. It was ham. I had just seasoned ham as taco meat. I was going to have shredded ham tacos for at least the next three days.

And you know what? I was really looking forward to this meal. Why? It was my first meal after I finally finished the gelatinous paste crockpot chicken marsala.

I cleansed my palate eating out in Dublin for a few days after that.

When your name is not your name

Growing up, my dad’s family was vocally proud about their Irish heritage. Not only was his hometown called “Irish Settlement”, but their home church was St. Patrick’s. I took Irish dance classes when they were offered in my town. We would always mark St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green and obnoxious shamrock paraphernalia, going to the local parade, having a visit from leprechauns who would leave pots of gold coins around our house and attending parties when I was older.


Totes adorbs, right?

My Irish ancestors moved to the United States almost 200 years ago now, but being Irish was certainly part of my identity as an American.

That was a big part of why I wanted to study here — my Irish heritage. However, when people ask me why I wanted to study here, I sheepishly reveal that part of my interest. It isn’t so much that I’m embarrassed, it is simply that I don’t know how to convey my family’s pride in our heritage without sounding like a creepy cultural stalker.

Then there’s my name. It’s Irish, but apparently we pronounce it differently in the United States. That’s been surprisingly weird for me here. For example,  I’ll give my name to sign in at an event and I’ll say “Kristina McLaughlin (Mic-lawf-lynn)” to which they will often repeat my name, but pronounce it as “Mac-lock-lynn”. Before I left, one of my cousins told me a story about my late aunt traveling through Ireland. She would say her name was “McLaughlin (Mic-lawf-lynn)” and would get a similar response “McLaughlin (Mic-lock-lynn)”. After awhile it drove her a little crazy to the point where she turned to my cousin and said, “Why can’t they just say it right!?”

I remember hearing that story and thinking, but they are saying in right and we are the ones saying it wrong. And at the time I couldn’t quite understand why it would bother her.

Now I get it.

Mind you, it doesn’t bother me (probably in the same way I imagine it didn’t really bother her), but it has fueled a bit of an identity crisis…or maybe just a slight stutter when I say my name. Because when I give my name, how should I pronounce it? The way it is pronounced in America? They way I have grown up pronouncing it? Do I insist that they pronounce it my way? Or do I just pronounce it the way it is supposed to be pronounced? A way that feels very foreign to my tongue? A name that doesn’t feel like it belongs to me?

This became really apparent to me on a recent flight back to the United States. They were looking for a passenger with the name “McLaughlin (Mac-lock-lynn)” and it took awhile before I realized, oh that might be me. I raised my hand and said, “I guess I’m a McLaughlin”. (Which got a few looks – like you guess you know your own name??) As it turned out they weren’t looking for me, but that moment stuck…”I guess I’m a McLaughlin”?


We loved those glasses.

Many people in the United States think of themselves as (something)-Americans. And while I would never have introduced myself as an Irish-American because my family had been in the U.S. for so long (and to be fair, I have ancestors from the majority of countries in Western Europe), it was a part of my identity. However, it was in one of those instances where I was internally frustrated with someone was telling me how to pronounce my own name that I truly lost my “(something)-Americaness”.  In that moment I realized just how American I was. While the pride and interest in my heritage didn’t melt away, the 200 years, the five generations suddenly felt like a much greater distance than it ever had before. For all the pride and representations of my Irish heritage in my life, it was really a manifestation of being American. I never felt so American in my entire life and it felt a bit strange.

I haven’t settled on an answer. I’ve noticed that I pause before giving my last name now. It probably looks as though I’ve forgotten it, but I’m really just trying to decide: do I give my name as I’ve said it all my life or not?

Highlights from my first semester

Over my holiday break, I had the pleasure of visiting two of my home Rotary clubs. With them, I shared these highlights of my experience in my first semester.

  • Going on the set of The Vikings. One of my professors last semester works for the series, The Vikings, a show on The History Channel, as the historical advisor. I mentioned that this was one of my career goals, so he let me tag along. It was SO interesting. Anyone who knows me, knows I am a sucker for a good historical/period drama. For as many as I have watched (she admitted sheepishly), I hadn’t previously conceptualized all that goes into making a good historical drama. Specifically what surprised me was the time, vision and attention to detail it takes to film a scene that captures exactly what you want to show. Between takes, my professor was fantastic about introducing me to everyone he could from the directors to special effects to costume designers to actors (everyone was super nice). I’m hoping if it works out, I’ll be able to go back this semester to learn and observe more.
  • My class in Belfast. Since my dissertation is going to discuss The Troubles, I decided to audit a class taught by Trinity in Belfast to ground myself in the history and continued discussions. While I largely underestimated the time commitment of going there each Tuesday and tempted fate by committing to getting on a 6:30 AM bus each week, it was absolutely worth it. The class was taught by two different professors who were able (and willing) to share different viewpoints on the conflict. My favorite were the field trips. We spent two classes walking around the neighborhoods of Belfast to look at the peace walls and the murals. This was fascinating.









  • My classmates. Can I say enough good things about them?? Somehow, I managed to find my way into a course with sharp students who are also supportive and kind. I don’t think you could ask for a better combination. With a fairly diverse (four students from the Republic of Ireland, one student from Northern Ireland, three students from the U.K., one student from China, one student from Italy, two students from Canada, and three from different parts of the U.S.) and quite well-traveled group, the points and examples make for excellent conversation as we contemplate the larger questions of public history. It has been especially interesting to learn more about China – a county I know too little about – and how culture and governmental structures play into what is and isn’t remembered.


  • The Rotary Ireland Conference. Not long after I arrived, the national conference was held in Kildare (not too far from Dublin). There were some amazing speakers including Enda Young who spoke about conflict resolution/mediation and Jim Sheridan, an Irish film director, who spoke on many things, but was mostly just very entertaining. While we met many Rotarians from all over Ireland, it was also the first opportunity we had to meet most of the other scholars studying in Ireland this year. (Yet another group I can’t say enough wonderful things about!) There are nine in total split evenly between Dublin, (London)Derry and Belfast. We had a great time at the conference and the ball where the Tánaiste/Minister for Justice and Equality (roughly the equivalent of our Vice President in the U.S.) came to our table and personally introduced herself to all of us speaking briefly about our research and experiences so far.


The second semester is well underway and already off to a good start! More on that another time.


Traveling as an American Under a Trump Presidency

This post is mildly political (as in one chili pepper on the salsa jar mild), but if you don’t want to think about politics or the election, this is your warning to stop reading now.

Since the election, I have found myself thinking about what it will be like to be an American traveling abroad with a President Trump. For all of my international travel experiences, except one, it has been under President Obama. (And even for that trip in 2007 it was the transition of power in Britain, not our own government, that caused us problems. With several thwarted terrorist attacks across the UK during the days we were in London, it was quite a time to be there.) Whatever your personal opinion of President Obama, he was loved abroad which made it so much easier to be an American abroad.

I think back to some of the experiences I had in Africa. President Obama had just visited a month or two before I arrived and left a legacy of goodwill towards Americans. Let me share one of my favorite stories (I always thought this is the story I would share with President Obama if I had the pleasure of meeting him).

My friend and I decided to take a trip to Benin for a few days. On our way back crossing the border from Benin to Togo, we had to fill out some paperwork. As we were filling out our paperwork, one of the immigration officers grabbed my friend’s left hand, ripped it away from her paper and held it up. Unsure about what was happening, we gave each other this terrified look. We knew one thing. Using your left hand is not done in polite society because it is associated with “unclean” things. In some circles and social situations it is highly insulting. For example, you would never wave hello to someone with your left hand – that would be an insult. (Even seven years later, when I do raise my left hand to wave, I experience a bewildering moment of panic until I realize that I still unconsciously carry this association.) Remembering that my friend is left-handed and was using her left hand to fill out her papers, my mind started racing. In Benin, the language spoken is French. Based on our experiences the past few days and during a previous trip to Togo, I knew my French was at a level sufficient only to keep us from starving and from living on the streets. It was not sufficient for calmly, rationally, and diplomatically explaining that this was merely a cultural misunderstanding and that my friend did not mean to insult this officer or anyone else. Struggling to translate the words in my head in preparation, we braced ourselves for the worst. Sternly and in English, he said, “You are left-handed…”. We stood there cringing. Then his expression changed. A smile crept across his face and exclaimed excitedly, “…like Obama!”. I think the whole room heard us sigh and laugh with anxious relief. We spent the next few minutes chatting with this officer and his colleague who were, after all, very friendly.

In a place where people excitedly greeted you with the word, “Obama”, comic books portrayed a young Barack in the likeness of a young Clark Kent and you could buy any piece of merchandise with Obama’s likeness (watches, flip flops, you name it), the goodwill towards Americans because of Obama was palatable. This was one instance of many where the simple fact that Obama was president made our travels easier.

A sign in Cape Coast, Ghana for Obama's visit in 2009.

A sign in Cape Coast, Ghana for President Obama’s visit in 2009.

In all of my travels, people have asked me about politics – where I stand on international politics and my personal opinion of the president. That’s not going to change. What may change is that underlying feeling of goodwill and the epithets used to describe our president or my fellow Americans, which, depending on how it goes could be the same profane epithets I encountered abroad used to describe President Bush.

In the days since the election, I have been surprised by the responses I have received from non-Americans who have discussed it with me. Knowing that I am American, many would cautiously ask, “How do you feel about the election?” After I disclosed that I was unhappy with the outcome, they apologized to me. (And I thought I was going to be doing the apologizing!) While most people think the outcome is absurd, they aren’t shocked. We are just in another global cycle of nationalism, like before World War II, they say, suggesting that while concerning, this was inevitable (thanks, that’s really comforting). Others say, it is just like Brexit – people want change and they thought this was the only way to make that change happen. Most have said that while the president of the United States has monumental impacts across the globe (to the point where it was suggested to me that the role was too important and too impactful on a global scale for the decision to be left to Americans alone…to which I was surprised that for how open and international and “enlightened” I think I am, my inner Uncle Sam was like, “Now wait just a minute…”), they believe in our system of checks and balances and don’t think that he can really do that much damage. Others still, especially from countries much older than our own, said that every country takes their turn with bad leaders and if he turns out to be one, it will be okay. (Completely unrelated, but equally interesting was one comment about the US/Russian relations. Having grown up in the Cold War, they just couldn’t fathom this new close relationship between Trump and Putin. After all this time and everything that happened, this would be the next chapter in that story.)

The most comforting words have come from my classmates who don’t blame me personally for whatever may come next (and have kindly offered to welcome me to their countries…). Because of this, I don’t think I’ll need to fear for my safety while traveling in the near future. However, I will need to be ready to articulately discuss this election and Trump’s subsequent policies. As much as I am ready for it to be over (and not just because of the outcome, but because as an Iowan for whom the election started in what, like 2013 (?), I have been ill with “election fatigue” for some time and I’d like to have permission to think about something else for awhile), but as an American abroad I am a spokesperson for our country and I think that will be truer now than ever before.

Thoughts on today’s election

Yes, this is a political post.

I know. I’m sorry. I, too, am sick of this election.

On top of that, I don’t like doing political posts because I have friends and family I respect across the political spectrum. (So this is your chance to stop reading if I am going to offend you.)

I don’t intend this post to overtly political, instead I want to reflect the views, the questions and the general impressions of people on this side of the pond when it comes to that thing that we really just want to end…this election.

Photo Credit: Mary Libertini

Photo Credit: Mary Libertini

When people find out that I’m American (I have to talk first because I naturally trick them with my Irish looks), they ask about the election. If it is culturally taboo to discuss politics, I wouldn’t know because apparently it goes out the window when speaking with Americans about the current election. My American accent is an invitation to ask who I’m voting for.

Some people start with a “so…what do you, uh, think about this, uh, election?” with a twinkle in their eye that says, “some circus, huh?”. Others look intently, to the point where I feel like I’m being scolded, and say, “you’re voting, right?” Many just go for it, “who are you voting for?”

In France, several students told me that they paid attention to American politics because it had a direct impact on their lives. I understood what they meant, but I didn’t feel it until coming here. People who talk to me in class, on the bus, in pubs, etc., seem personally invested in my vote. Time and time again, they tell me that what happens in the U.S. will affect their lives. To not vote, to tell them that I wasn’t going to vote in this election would have been personally insulting. (I have voted, by the way.) In many of these conversations, they seemed to suggest that I was voting for them, on behalf of the world. That my vote had implications far beyond what was going to happen in my hometown, my state and my country. For something that affects them so much, they have no say and I think that’s why the people I’ve casually talked to since I arrived seemed so invested in my vote.

As far as their opinion of us – they are laughing at us. Not with us, at us. And not like a jolly laugh, instead like a “this was hilarious at first, but now we’re just anxiously giggling hoping this is just a nightmare we’ll wake up from…anytime now…” laugh. Here are some examples:

Now, these signs may give the impression that people here are completely against Trump and absolutely for Hilary. That isn’t true. I’ve often heard people in the U.S. refer to this election as a competition between the “lesser of two evils”. I also hear that here. I don’t know if that is what people think I want to hear because that is how it is portrayed in the media or they truly feel that way, but it seems to be a little of both. It is assumed that most Americans aren’t excited about either candidate. Additionally, many of the people I’ve met here share the concerns about Hilary that I have heard voiced in the United States. While they aren’t sold on Hilary, the abhor Donald Trump. Most frequently I am asked that with everything he has said about immigrants, women (one man I talked to was especially disturbed with what Donald Trump has said about his own daughter), tax evasion, you name it, how he is even a viable candidate. They are disgusted, confused and scared about what it says about the current state of the United States that he would be popular enough to secure the nomination and what that means for the future, whether or not he is president.

Most people I’ve talked to don’t expect him to win. They will say that, but quickly qualify it with (or someone nearby listening in will add), “but we didn’t think Brexit would happen either.”

The moral of the story here is GO VOTE. Your vote matters. It matters back home and it matters to people all over the world. For better or worse, what we do has significant impacts beyond our borders. Please, make sure that the impact that we have is the one you want us to have, that the impression of America is the one that reflects you, your values and portrays us in the way we want to be portrayed in the world. Do your part to stop the Trumpocalypse…I mean, just go vote.

And…if you want to hear about the perception of the election in Denmark, go check out this post on my friend Maddie’s blog: Does everyone own a gun in America? It is a little more political than mine, so just keep that in mind if you found this post offensive.


You are very welcome

These words I heard over and over again when I arrived. “You are very welcome.” This is a common greeting here. Naturally I responded with “thank you” each time until orientation when we were told that we weren’t expected to say thank you every time and that it would actually come across as a little strange if we did.

So, I’m off to a good start. But nonetheless, I feel very welcome here in Ireland.

It wasn’t really so long ago that I was in France. Having spent extended time abroad a few times in my life, I was ready for the culture shock. Each time it is a little different and always catches me by surprise. Sometimes it comes as profound homesickness. Sometimes it is more of a euphoric excitement for literally everything (Pastries? YAY! 18th century plumbing? Cool!). This time it felt like a reminder. Like every time I’d do something, I’d say to myself, “oh yeah, I’m in Europe”. Like, “Why is this in kilometers? Oh yeah, I’m Europe.” Or, “They use celsius in Europe…so I’m not going to know what temperature it is this year.” Or, “Oh yeah, I’m in Europe so I have to weigh my own produce before I get to the check out.” And, “Grams. Right, Europe. Hmmm. No idea how much that is, but it looks approximately like what a pound of chicken looked like back in the states.” “15:30…forgot that people use the 24 hour clock in Europe.” Occasionally, there is a “…look right. I MEAN LEFT! LOOK LEFT!” as I remember that I am in Dublin and crossing the street is far more of a mental exercise than one would imagine. (Now, almost two months in I just look both ways several times – I’m sure I look like a crazy person and have absolutely given away that I’m not from here, but no near misses with cars.) And last but not least, “I can walk there. I can walk there? Oh yeah, I’m in Europe and I can walk EVERYWHERE!” (I don’t know what it is, but I find such simple joy in being able to walk to a destination. When I returned from France, I was irrationally upset that I couldn’t do that in the states.)

The transition has been great. People have been so friendly. When I have looked lost, people have stopped on the street and offered to help me find where I need to go. For everything from picking me up at the airport to connecting me people throughout Dublin, Rotary has been instrumental in making everything go so smoothly and has just taken such excellent care of me.

It’s going to be a good year.

Packing for 2.5 months in Europe

There are plenty of blogs and posts about what to pack when backpacking in Europe. I know because I have looked at many of them in creating my own list. Here are a few that I recommend:

As we traveled during the year, I took notes on what was important to me. Here is the criteria I came up with for packing:

  1. Must be able to put everything in one load of laundry so I don’t waste hours at laundromats, but not restricted to 50 shades of gray in terms of color.
  2. Must not make me look distinctly American. (American flag shirt = yes?)
  3. Must not look completely ridiculous in pictures either.
  4. Must have comfortable shoes that can conquer cobblestone streets by day and nice restaurants by night.
  5. Must have shower shoes.
  6. Must have hiking shoes.
  7. Must have shoes that work well in the rain.
  8. Must have shoes that can be worn with jeans and skirts.
  9. Must not have a suitcase with only shoes.
  10. Must have clothes that can be worn in Scotland and Spain (in hot climates and colder, rainy climates).
  11. Must cover knees and shoulders when entering churches.
  12. Must not have awkward tan lines because I will be wearing a strapless dress for a September wedding.
  13. Must be comfortable.

When I get a chance, I will add a picture of what I have packed to show you what decided. For now, you’ll just have to enjoy seeing what pops up in my pictures.

Speaking of pictures…let’s make a deal. If I do, in fact, look ridiculous, pretend with me for now that I look awesome and then we can laugh at the pictures together later. Capiche?

Bon Voyage

Thursday marked the final day of my contract with TAPIF. Over the past few weeks it has been truly sad to say goodbye to these students, teachers and assistants that I have gotten to know over the past few months.

As bittersweet as these goodbyes have been, I am incredibly excited for what I have planned for the next 2 1/2 months. I will be traveling all throughout Europe from the Glasgow to Istanbul with friends, family and at times, on my own. On this blog, I have included a page with a map of my travels. I will update the map with my locations as I travel.

During this time, I will have limited access to the internet which will restrict my ability to text/iMessage and write in this blog. I have brainstormed and planned a number of ways to keep friends and family posted about my adventures, but there are no guarantees as to what will work. My Instagram and Twitter feeds are both visible on this blog – they will likely be updated the most, so keep an eye on those. I will also try to post pictures to this blog as I am able. I’m bringing only a carry-on sized suitcase and a purse with me, so I will likely be doing laundry about every 1-2 weeks. Although the updates may be brief, I am hoping to provide an update from the laundromat during that time.

À tout à l’heure, mes amis!

Fête des Lumières in Lyon

After weeks of searching for lodging, communicating rapidly with other assistants, contemplating simply staying out all night and trying to convince myself that it was something could miss, we found a way. Take the first train Sunday morning and the last train Sunday evening. We would spend only a few hours in Lyon, but we would get to experience the city, even if only slightly, and with the early sunset in our favor, we could catch a few hours of the festival. Alex, another assistant, and I decided, yes, let’s do it.

We didn’t have to get up too early. The first train to Lyon was at around 9 AM and would get us to Lyon just before noon. Alex and I enjoyed a lovely chat for the 3-hour trip. Can I stop for a minute and just say how much I love trains? We rode throughout the beautiful countryside, enjoyed plenty of space for both, ourselves and our stuff, and got to face each other, so we could have a lovely conversation without strain.

Before long, we found ourselves at Lyon Part-Dieu, one of the train stations. Up until that point, I had nearly forgotten how small Clermont-Ferrand is, but it subtly and abundantly became clear how much bigger Lyon was than Clermont-Ferrand. We certainly saw it walking in circles trying to follow the signs to find the metro and/or bus station (literally right in front of the exit of the train station as it turned out). We saw it walking around the city with buildings several stories taller than what we were used to seeing in Clermont-Ferrand. The real kicker though was probably the presence of a Starbucks at the train station. (There are no Starbucks in Clermont-Ferrand, but there are a few McDonald’s. We are not entirely cut off from the rest of the world.)

The first thing we did, a habit I developed when traveling when visiting my brother in the Netherlands that continues to serve me well, was go to the tourism office. They were friendly and incredibly helpful – even in spite of the huge crowds, long lines and long hours they’d likely already worked. They set us up with a walking tour and directions to bouchonneries (the specialty of Lyon). We picked a couple of restaurants and decided to see what the wait would be.

Ha. Wow were we rookies. The first 3 places we went to were full – either booked well in advance for the limited seating or had an hour wait. We decided to try something a little outside of the city center in hopes that they would be less crowded (and less expensive). We were really hungry by then and had to use all of our willpower not to buy every delicious temptation along the way (beignets, churros, waffles, roasted chestnuts…even McDonalds was tempting). Finally, after inquiring at two restaurants, a third neither took reservations nor had an hour wait. We sat in a coat room for about 10 minutes and then were seated.

The restaurant was awesome. The style of the decor was like the Hapsburgs meets the 1970s. The wallpaper was a deep, scarlet red with an old-world design, but felt like velvet and the decorations were an eclectic mix of pop culture in black and white photos and baroque-style furniture. The food was incredible. We chose the 3-course fixed price meal and had a glass of wine each. Here is the menu:


Alex and I both picked different options so we could try everything. In case you want to drool:

It was all simply delicious. It was also incredibly filling, the kind of meal where you could just lay your head down on the table and sleep…

Wait, what’s an andouiette, you say? Funny you should ask because I didn’t (and I’m glad). Apparently, it is a sausage made of intestines. Bon appetit 🙂

After our scrumptious meal, we walked around a little and then headed back to the city center for our tour. We met our group and started on our tour. The English tour was sold out, so it was all in French…luckily I could at least manage by then.

The tour was nice. We saw the churches and learned a little about their history. We walked through one of the infamous passageways called a “traboule” and learned about medieval plumbing (yuck – no wonder disease killed so rapidly). We also learned about the influence of Italy and families like the Medicis. The tour ran over, so we left the group to go see the light displays.

“Festivals of lights” to me meant trees and buildings decorated in Christmas lights. This was so not that. The trees with lights were merely the appetizer. Instead, these displays would use buildings to display art, play games and fool your eyes. In theory, my favorite display was the disco ball that the basilica hung from their steeple on top of a hill – I always enjoy displays of humor from the Catholic Church.

In practice, my favorite was the “main attraction”, a combination of art, music and dance projected on the main city buildings. The description doesn’t do it justice. See for yourself in the video clip:

Another favorite included “eskimo minions” and a large video game. See below for “eskimo minions”:

It was wonderful, but we certainly didn’t get to see everything we wanted. Main culprit? Crowds and crowd control. Honestly, the barricades designed to conduct traffic were confusing and nonsensical. What should have taken 5 minutes took 20. Space was wide open and then packed. Several times we had to make a 10 minute or more detour to see an attraction that was 100 feet away from us. On top of that, just getting from one attraction to another took 2-3 times longer that it should have due to the crowds. Before we left, I met an old friend who is also an assistant in France. After fighting crowds, we talked briefly, saw the main attraction in the square and then had to catch the metro to make our train in time.

We walked to the metro station and were astounded. It was a mob. Not an angry mob, but a mob. Luckily we just decided to get an all-day metro pass so we got in the shortest line (at least 10 minutes of waiting). Everything beyond that was pretty smooth sailing except they closed exits in the metros. This meant that to get to a connecting train you had to leave the metro station, go down the block, find the other entrance to the station and go in that way. It made absolutely no sense and only added to the chaos and stress of making it back on time. (We decided to run because it made us feel better. So yeah, we were those tourists.) However, we made it back just in time to catch our train (which turned out to be a bus) that would get us back home in 6 hours (not 4 like we thought) because it had to traverse literally every roundabout between Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand (you haven’t felt motion sickness until…).

But we made it home, safe and sound, after a great day in Lyon.

Touissant Vacation: Visiting the Cathedrals

This post is long overdue. Before I talk about the cathedrals and some of the other things I did during my first break, let me explain a little about the schedule. All of the assistants arrived in France late in September for our October 1st orientation. Although many of us visited our schools during that first week, most of us didn’t have to work during the first half-week of October. We worked for the next two weeks and then we had a two week vacation for Touissant (All Saints Day).

I’m sure to most of you this sounds kind of ridiculous. However, I was so grateful to have those two weeks to complete many of the necessary tasks for immigration, banking, etc.: everything that needs to be taken care of when you move to a new country that I couldn’t get done while I was afraid of being homeless. Additionally, it provided me a great opportunity to see Clermont-Ferrand and learn more about the region, something that many others had already started doing once they had found housing.

In Clermont-Ferrand, there are several beautiful churches and cathedrals. During this break, I went with a group of assistants to tour two of them: Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption and Notre Dame du Port.

We went first to the Cathédrale. It was a brisk (for me, but cold for the less temperature averse) October morning with beautiful blue skies. We met at mid-morning and decided to immediately climb the stairs to the top of the cathedral to see the view before it closed over the lunch hour. We found the keeper of the keys for the tower, drew straws to see which unfortunate person would have to speak to him in French (I was one of the lucky ones), paid the fee and opened the door. In front of us were hundreds of stairs encased in a narrow spiral staircase that went on, well, as if it were ascending into the heavens.

We climbed. Although it did not take long, it was grueling. All of us were in at least “decent” shape and this was not fun. Approaching the top, the first of us in line, yelled “light!” to give hope to all those below still wandering in the dizzying climb. With an audible release of exasperation we flung the door open and kind of toppled out onto the observation deck. (Which was repeated multiple times by other groups that followed after us. We were glad to know that it wasn’t just us.)

The view was worth it. It was breathtaking. The mountain range was fully visible. You could see all of Clermont-Ferrand and the surrounding cities in the distance. We all tried to find our apartments and schools. Some did, some didn’t. What I thought was the most interesting was getting to see the weather in the cities around us. You could see rain clouds rolling in to one city and then the skies clearing in another.

We spent about 45 minutes up there, taking pictures, enduring the extreme gusts of cold wind, etc. before making the trek back down the stairs. Now for anyone who hasn’t climbed up narrow and questionable staircases to the top of a church in Europe, let me tell you, going down is worse than going up. For me it always starts with this image of me tripping and somersaulting down the remaining steps to my…demise. With that image in mind, I always step with confidence, not. When we opened the door to make our descent, there were no lights. We couldn’t tell if this was because our eyes had become accustomed to the bright sunlight or what. So we began going down in the dark. Luckily within a few minutes, someone discovered a lightswitch. Otherwise, we would have been sidestepping and hugging the wall slowly descending for an hour.

Once back in the cathedral, we walked around looking at the stained glass windows and statues trying to piece together Bible stories with what little we knew about medieval/renaissance art to identify the stories being told. For some windows, it was very challenging, but for others it was much clearer.

All in all, it was a beautiful cathedral, reminiscent of other gothic cathedrals I have seen in France.

The next day, we met and went to Notre Dame du Port, the romanesque cathedral located just miles from the cathedral. There isn’t really much to say about this church. It is beautiful and mostly we just wandered around in silence taking pictures. I’ll let my photos do the talking for this one.