Thursday, 15 February 2007

A dinner at L'auberge du bon fermier

We had a lovely evening on Wednesday night, Emilie gave me the bottle of Scotch you see pictured. Similarly to how we had our photos put on the "cuvée des mariés" Champagne that was served at our wedding, this one has a personalised label as well. I'm still waiting for the title deed for the distillery though!

I got Emilie the two-player version of Settlers of Catan, a game I'd been hearing great things about for a long time, but until recently I only knew about the 3-5 player version—but it turns out that there is also a two-player version of the game that's just as popular. We haven't played it yet.

For dinner we went to the Auberge du bon fermier, an amazing restaurant/hotel in Valenciennes that is over 400 years old. It's full of mediæval tapestries and suits of armour, and they roast a pig on a spit right there in the restaurant. It was a delicious four-course meal, and we had a wonderful evening. The photo is a picture of the restaurant from when mom visited with Emilie's grandparents last summer.

Posted by jon at 9:25 PM in France 

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Big weekend

[UPDATE 09.05.2007—Added a picture gallery for invited guests (restricted page).]

This was a big weekend, both temporally, nationally, and personally.

Temporally in that, like a large number of Frenchmen, I took Monday off to benefit from today being a holiday, making a second consecutive four-day weekend (since I did the same thing for May Day—and will be doing the same next week for Ascension).

The ridiculous amount of time we get off from work in France is something I've written about before, and it appears that I am far from being the only one to think it's a bit much. I say this because on Sunday the French electorate voted Nicolas Sarkozy into office as the next president of the French Republic. Sarkozy's policies are largely centred around economic reforms, doing away with some of the more luxurious benefits accorded to employees here, with the aim of making it easier for French companies to do business. We'll see what he's able to achieve, however, since the French president is largely a figurehead; he'll need to win a parliamentary majority next month in order to have any real power to bring about his reforms. I will say that Sarkozy is one of the most impressive orators I've ever heard speak, in any language.

Finally, personally we had a busy weekend as well. Friday night we had a lovely evening at another couple's in Lille with whom we played Mah jong (first time Emilie or I have done that). Then Saturday we boarded the TGV early to spend the day at Disneyland Paris (formerly known as Euro Disney) with another couple we're friends with who live in the south. It was my first visit to the park—but Emilie's eighth! I think it's safe to say she's a big fan. It's a nice park and their Space Mountain in particular is breathtaking, so it was a good trip, and it was good to see the other couple again.

Posted by jon at 9:54 PM in France 

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Bizet: Carmen

Carmen is my favourite opera. It has pretty much always been my favourite opera (Don Giovanni being the only one to ever seriously threaten it in that position), and I have listened to it easily fifty or sixty times. (Callas' under-appreciated studio version being my favourite.)

Carmen also occupies a preponderant place in the pantheon of French-language opera. There are a lot of great French-language operas, but Carmen towers over them all—and unlike the way in which Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen towers over German-language operas, Carmen, being more accessible, also continues to be hugely popular with the general public, as well. (I think a good analogy would be The Nutcracker's broad popular appeal with audiences in the US, which transcends the usual ballet crowd.)

So, when a French opera company puts on Carmen, it is a big deal. The Opéra de Lille rose to the challenge with an extra-long run of ten shows, a recording, and a live retransmission on one of the public squares in order to bring this production to the largest possible audience. Even so, tickets were considered nearly impossible to get. People began queueing up before dawn on the day they went on sale, and they were sold out that very morning. I had many co-workers who had wanted to get tickets, but came away empty.

Fortunately, I was not one of the ones to go away empty-handed. (I got lucky on the online ticket counter.) So, last Tuesday, Emilie and I got to see the Lille production of Carmen, and wow, was it ever worth it!

In some respects, producing Carmen is like shooting fish in a barrel: there's enough material here to fill a whole "best of the opera" CD just with well-known songs from this one opera. The overture, Habanera, and toréador song are enough to send any crowd away happy. But to the cognoscenti, a real succesful production—one that brings out just how excellent this opera is, has to get a number of other elements right in order for everything to click the way it should:

I. The cuadrilla in Act IV. The whole opera leads up to this climactic moment, and done right, it is one of the most powerful moments in all of the fine arts. However, it is hard to do it right: not only do you need a full children's choir and an adult choir, but the staging must somehow come together in such a way that the size and excitement of the bullfighting festival are brought across. It requires big sound and big staging. Shamefully, some productions cut this scene out entirely. I suppose they reckon that it is better to remove it rather than do a poor job of it, but it really castrates the entire opera. Well, Lille not only did not cut it out, but executed it brilliantly. That alone made this Carmen better than the one I saw the Opéra de Montréal produce many years ago, which given the relative sizes of the two companies is really something.

II. Frasquita and Mercédès. These rôles are pivotal to a succesful Carmen. However, because they are not involved in any of the big, famous songs, they are too easily overlooked. Acts II and III depend on their rôles for characterisation and for the pure fun they bring to the whole opera. When they deliver, the opera becomes one masterful whole, and not a collection of classical "hits". The production we saw was completely sensitive to the importance of the smugglers to the opera, and not only were Frasquita and Mercédès brilliantly cast and performed, by Eduarda Melo and Sarah Jouffroy (more on them later), but Dancaïre and Remendado were too. Raphaël Brémard and Loïc Félix were so spot-on with their interpretation of these rôles that it really cemented Acts II and III.

III. The opening of Act II. The song that opens Act II (Les tringles des sistres tintaient) is probably my favourite of the whole opera, and the most under-appreciated. A production that captures the magic of that piece of music is really a production that "gets it". This production exceeded my expectations by a mile, with the scene and choreography coming together with the music wonderfully. The most wonderful, though, were the bohémiennes: Eduarda Melo and Sarah Jouffroy, as I mentioned above, are beautiful women who really embodied their rôles to perfection. Stéphanie d’Oustrac, however, was born to play the rôle of Carmen. Somehow, this is her first time in the rôle, but I think it is a safe bet that it won't be the last. (And I'm not the only one who thinks so.) For starters, it is uncanny how much she looks the part. Beyond that, her acting on stage was excellent, of a higher level than one usually expects in opera, and her ability to dance and sing make her a natural leading lady.

Anyway, I don't want to get carried away in superlatives, but I am pretty discerning when it comes to this opera, and this production really did surprise me. It delivered on all the key points (such as not skimping on more difficult elements like Act IV or the children's choir—who were also great, by the way), and by showing a real sensitivity to the more subtle factors that make this opera great (namely, the smugglers' importance to the whole). Finally, Stéphanie d’Oustrac was a brilliant, brilliant Carmen, and from now on, when I listen to this opera and visualise it in my mind's eye, it is her face that will be Carmen's for me.

Posted by jon at 7:40 PM in France 

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

CNN travel article about Lille

I usually stop in to to get caught up on American news. So when I saw the headline, Fleur de Lille, I did quite a double-take. Lille is the city where I work, and the article is a little overview for travellers. If it seems a bit light that's because, as major French cities go, Lille is probably not in the upper-échelon from a tourist's perspective (it's more of an economic hub, being equidistant from Paris, London, and Brussels). Nonetheless, I thought I'd mention it for anyone who might be interested to read about the city in English.
Posted by jon at 9:59 PM in France 

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Code de la route

Although I have long put off getting a French drivers' license (largely out of pride, being miffed that my American license is not recognised here), the fact that my wife was pregnant was a sufficient impetus to get myself in gear on attaining one. An endeavour which, unlike in the US, is both difficult and expensive.

Once the financial barriers of paying tuition to an "Auto école" are settled, the next step is studying to pass an examination on "le code de la route", or the rules of the road. This test is nothing like the cake-walks Americans are accustomed to (having taken written examinations in Iowa and Massachusetts previously). Instead there are 40 questions, of which 35 must be answered correctly to pass. And these are not the elementary questions one might expect from the American tests: they are often ambiguous, even for one with a perfect knowledge of the rules of the road, and the correct answers often hinge on linguistic nuances—"the markings permit me to pass", "I can pass", "I pass" (in the situation pictured)—which can only be correctly navigated once one has attained a great deal of familiarity with the examination itself. The exam is so difficult that many people require multiple attempts to pass it (each one preceded by still more expensive Auto école classes)—indeed Emilie has never met anyone who has passed it with a perfect score.

Until I got one today, that is :-)

Still, as happy as I am to have this achievement under my belt (I had to take a day off work to do it, after all), there still remain two more steps in the process before I have an official French drivers' license: more Auto école lessons (this time actual driving lessons, in a real car), and then the in-car driving test (which also places the bar a fair deal higher than in the States: the test lasts at minimum 30 minutes, whereas my US test barely lasted 5).

All the same, getting the written test out of the way is considered the lion's share of the task, and so having passed (and since I took the whole day off work anyway), I was happy to treat myself to an afternoon of Guitar Hero III on the Wii :-)

Posted by jon at 7:57 PM in France 

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


When French people meet me for the first time in a social setting, upon learning that I am American one of the first questions they always ask is what I miss most, not living in the US any more. My stock response has always been "baseball". In reality I miss the whole cycle of American sports, but there's no quick way to explain this to a Frenchman, and since baseball is the sport I miss the most, it's a handy simplification.

Usually they simply reply that, indeed, no one plays baseball here and quickly the conversation turns to soccer (or food, because the French will steer any conversation towards food if they can.) Occasionally though they will try to talk a bit about baseball, and point out that, although they don't understand the rules of the game that well, it seems like it is a bit dull since the batter doesn't always hit the ball. I feel bad when this happens, because my response—that it's more exciting when they don't hit the ball!—inevitably leaves them even more mystified about what the appeal of this sport could possibly be.

So, given this, and given its failure as an Olympic sport, I had given up all hope that the French would ever take an interest in baseball, and as a result, I had no hope of getting to watch baseball on TV. Fortunately, technology has caught up to my expatriate isolation, and I can at last watch every Major League Baseball game, with the home or away announcers, through the internet. is not a new service, but it is new to me, and a lot of important features have been added for the 2009 season, the most important of which is the addition of an HD quality picture if your internet connexion is up to it (and in Europe our connexions are much faster than in the US because the infrastructure was put in later—and the population density makes such things easier to roll out). This means I can watch full screen on my iMac, from the couch, and anyone would think I'm watching real TV, not some jerky, pixelated internet feed. If it didn't have the quality I don't think I'd be able to sit through nine innings of it.

The worst thing about the service, of course, is that you have to pay for it, and if you live in the US, then blackout restrictions apply, so it's only worthwhile if the team you're following is far away. Although if you're in the US, you would probably pay for cable or satelite instead of an internet service anyway. Still, for one in my situation, I believe that it will be worth it since it is the only way to get TV coverage of baseball.

The other issue I've seen so far is that although archived games are supposed to be added 45 minutes after the game ends, a lot of games are missing (marked "available soon") even a couple days later. (With the time difference, I can only watch early afternoon games live, so most often I'll be watching games the next day.) The season has just begun, though, so maybe they are still working out some bugs, which is annoying in a product you pay for. But, there still are a lot of games, and I've been baseball deprived for so many years that just having any is so nice, that I'm willing to be forgiving.

So thus far I'm a happy customer, although at some point I'll have to work out a technology solution to get the picture on in the living room, because although there's nothing wrong with viewing on a 22" LCD, it is a little strange to do so when there's a 42" plasma downstairs... If I get something workable set up I may post a how-to guide later on. Until then, play ball!

Posted by jon at 11:57 PM in France 

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Eating in the dark

I have talked once before about Lille's India-themed Lille 3000 thing that they've had going on. Well besides covering the city with Indian decorations, another thing they had was the Resto dans le noir, based on an idea that already exists in Paris and London: a restaurant in total darkness.

Besides being something new, the point of this was to discover Indian food (which is unknown in France), to rediscover food in general (since not seeing what you are eating forces you to focus much more on taste and smell), and to gain an appreciation for the blind—for in this restaurant, the waiters are all blind (which is actually quite reassuring, since they are totally at home).

So we arrived (along with Aurélie and Emilie's godson Michaël) and were taken to one room, where they explained how the evening would go and took down our orders—except they weren't really orders, since the three-course meal is all a surprise—they only took down if we had any dietary requirements or allergies. Then we went to the coat room where they took coats and purses (which people might trip on), and also cell phones, cameras, and watches—anything that might give off light. After that we were lined up by table, everyone putting his hands on the shoulder of the person in front of him, and led through a serious of heavy black curtains as we moved progressively into total darkness. So by the time we were seated, we were really and truly in complete darkness; it was quite a strange experience.

Of course, it took less than five minutes for Emilie to spill her bottle of coke on me :-) Luckily I was able to avoid getting it on me, and from then on things went fairly smoothly. We did hear one other big spill at another table later on, but that was it. Afterwards we were led out the way we came in (so we never actually saw the room where we'd eaten), and shown the menu of what we'd had. It was a fun experience and much more of a challenge than I had thought it would be.

Posted by jon at 12:08 PM in France 

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Elephants and flu

This weekend was meant to be spent in Lille, where we were going to check out the parade and festivities for the India-themed Lille 3000 celebrations. I have absolutely no idea what Lille 3000 is (it's not a reocurring festival or anything), but whatever it is, it has a big budget. Witness this photo of downtown, where the train station has got a wooden façade like an Indian palace, and the road is lined with lamps and gigantic elephants.

Lille 3000

(Sorry for the low quality, it was taken with my cell phone. Note that those elephants line the street, there's probably twenty of them in all.)

Unfortunately, though, we didn't get to go though. Just as I was laid low two weekends ago with a cold, this weekend it was Emilie's turn, only she's got the flu. The joys of teaching a class full of sick kids :-/ So far I'm not showing any symptoms; it may not last, but I sure hope it does.

So we mostly stayed home; we did pick up Dominique and Pascale at the airport (they were in Marrakech) and finally got rid of Igor (the dog, whom we were babysitting). Emilie and I both agree that we do not want a dog now—especially as long as we're in an appartment: it's no fun for the dog or its masters.

Emilie spent the weekend (when she wasn't rushing to the bathroom) playing video games and watching her Quantum Leap DVDs, while I did a fair amount of programming, further deepening my mastery of JSF and Enterprise Java Beans and getting some neat administration stuff working for the blog.

Posted by jon at 8:18 PM in France 

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

France destroys Italy


Some of the bad taste left in my mouth from the World Cup final has gone away, as in tonight's rematch les bleus 0wn3d Italy 3-1.

Better that would have been the score when it counted, of course, but this at least shows what we all felt after the final, that France were the better team even if they couldn't get the regular time goals to prove it. It wouldn't have been such a disappointment to lose if Italy had outplayed us; everybody would've just said 'well, we never expected to make it that far' and that would've been that. But to see Italy take home the cup when we'd played the better match was hard to swallow, especially since chances like that don't come along that often. (And Zidane's red card only made it all worse.)

So while tonights victory hardly makes up for France's loss, I hope it will at least serve to put an asterisk on Italy's win; that's justice enough for me.

Posted by jon at 11:06 PM in France 

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

French elections

François Bayrou, candidat à l élection présidentielle 2007

Primary hype may already be underway in the US, but in France it's coming down to the wire, with the next presidential elections being held this Sunday. It's a different system from the US one (our electoral college is pretty weird, when you think about it). But the big differences are there are no states or similar federal structures, and it's not a two-party system. This time there are twelve candidates on the ballot, and four of those have over 17% in the polls, so things are a little more up in the air. If no candidate gets more than 50% (which is virtually certain, as none have over 30% in the polls) there will be a second round between the top-two vote getters on May 6th. So it's more like an MLB play-offs than a Super Bowl. The stakes are high though as the top four front-runners are neck-and-neck, but only two will be on the ballot in round two.

I still can't vote myself (that and the lack of NFL and Major League Baseball are the worst things about living abroad). The time required for citizenship has been bumped up to (from two) to five years after marriage, so I'll have to wait until 2009 (assuming they don't bump it again in the mean time). But Emilie and I still had a good time and learned a lot at the big UDF rally in Lille last night. At the Zenith auditorium, (the same place where rock concerts are held, supporters of darkhorse candidate François Bayrou packed the house—in fact there were over 1000 people who couldn't be let in (due to the fire code). It was a very good rally and we were both glad we decided to go.

We'll see what happens on Sunday; the only thing that I think is sure at this point is that it will be a tight race.

Posted by jon at 9:04 PM in France 

Friday, 12 March 2010

Haydn's L'infedeltà Delusa

On Tuesday I returned to the Lille opera house to see a production of Haydn's L'infedeltà delusa. This little opera has a lot to recommend it: with only five vocal parts and a small orchestral score, and clocking in at under two hours long, it is an ideal size for smaller opera companies to stage, without seeming 'small'. (This is in contrast to Rameau's Dardanus, whose grand scale is the major thing keeping it from being better appreciated. And I don't know if I'll ever get to witness a full staging of William Tell.)

Composed of two acts, the unfolding of the plot was surprisingly excellent: what begins as a bog-standard tale of rural lovers having their lives turned upside down by the rich takes a surprising and original turn in the second act, so that the outcome of the opera is totally unlike what I had expected, and quite fun. It also gives a fascinating, versatile rôle to the soprano Vespina, who was played by a very good Claire Debono.

At the performance I saw, the role of Nennio was played by Thomas Tatzl, who was however too sick to sing his part, so he only acted on stage while his understudy Andreas Wolf sang from the orchestra pit. But it was Mari Eriksmoen as Sandrina who had me looking into the orchestra pit to try to see where that voice was coming from! Her small build and active role did not keep her from performing admirably vocally, and I only wish there was more of her character in the story so I could have heard more of her.

All in all it was a very well-put together opera, and the staging was also imaginative and well done. I was sceptical when the curtain first rose (it looked too abstract for my tastes), but the surprises that the stage revealed throughout the performance won me over, and by the second act (when the costumes got really outrageous) I was totally on board. Unfortunately I can't describe it well here, though, so I guess 'you had to be there'. (I could go on for paragraphs with vague descriptions, but none of that would make up for being there, or give a very clear picture of it all.) The pictures included in this review may help give you some idea of it, or they may only confuse you further!

In any event I enjoyed it quite a bit!

Posted by jon at 10:31 PM in France 

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata

One of the most magnificent buildings in Lille is the neo-classical opera house that sits in the heart of its downtown. One of my biggest embarrasments as a resident of the city was that, until this weekend, I had not yet ever attended a performance of the Lille opera. This was not entirely my fault: the opera was closed for a while to bring up the very old-fashioned theatre in line with modern safety codes. Also, tickets are only on sale for a few weeks out of the year (with the few major operas like Figaro selling out on popular dates within twenty-four hours), so getting them requires planning ahead.

The small number of major operas put on per year underscores the most unique facet of opera in Lille: how lucky we are to have a dedicated opera house at all. This is definitely a city that punches above its weight when it comes to what I consider the finest of the fine arts (in that it brings together so many others: drama, acting, vocal and instrumental music, poetry...), and the Lille opera house is beautiful—a candidate for most beautiful building in the city. The interior is if anything more ornately neo-classical than the exterior; it's too bad I couldn't find a CC-licensed photo to show here. But it reminded me of the Marinsky theatre in Saint Petersburg (home of the Kirov ballet), and it's not exagerating to say that it holds up well in the comparison, in appearance if not in history. And being "in the provinces" like we are, tickets were ludicrously inexpensive.

As for the performance, it too was excellent, with a new mise en scène that worked great, a uniformly solid cast with particularly shining performances by Hélène Guilmette (as Susanna), Matthew Rose (as Figaro), and Kate Lindsey (Cherubino). It was a wonderful outing.

Posted by jon at 7:05 AM in France 

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Live and in concert

This weekend sort of spilled over into the week, since we went to a rock concert on Monday night, and visited Céline in Cambrai last night. (We slept in Wavrin Monday though and I actually got more sleep than usual, so it wasn't too tiring.)

On Saturday we had Céline and José over for lunch and a walk around Valenciennes. Sunday we relaxed and played Carcassonne and video games on the DS. Emilie also rented a chick flick but I don't remember the name—I think it was a French movie. I got a little personal programming in too, but with Netbeans 5.5, the Visual Web designer, and Sun Application Server all running simultaneously my iBook G4 gets very slow, so I quickly moved on to Mario 64 instead.

The concert we saw on Monday was Garou, the gravelly-voiced French Canadian singer, who is probably Emilie's second-favourite artist after Céline Dion. So I sort of felt like it was the French equivalent of being dragged to a Michael Bolton concert. But they did put on a big show, with the full gamut of lasers and fancy lighting and giant screens. You can't tell much more from the photo than that it is a rock concert, though!

The opening act was a French Canadian metal band with a female lead. I suppose they were pretty good, but I just can't get used to certain styles of music being played in other languages. Hard rock and the blues in particular are just too American—it seems too out of place for me.

Posted by jon at 7:04 PM in France 

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

On rugby

What with the rugby union world cup happening and all, I thought I'd weigh in with my thoughts on the great sport of rugby, especially in how I appreciate the game as an American.

So, there are two kinds of rugby, called League and Union, because one is run in England by the Rugby Football League, and the other by the Rugby Football Union. American and Canadian football are also kinds of rugby, since they are clearly variants of the same game and have a lot of similarities, once you look beyond the surface. Soccer/football actually also is related, although going further back, and is run in England by the Football Association and so is sometimes called "Association football" to distinguish it from the other types.

Anyway, between rugby league and union, my prefenence has been for league, both because it is the variety most popular in Yorkshire (the Craven homeland), and because it is much closer to American football: The ball is narrower than the union ball, the field's gridiron markings look the same, and (especially) because of the "set-of-six" tackle rule, which makes the offensive/defensive flow of the game similiar to American football with its use of downs. Also the traditional point of contention that Rugby Union had with League (the paying of atheletes), seems pretty silly to an American used to the idea of pro sports.

Rugby Union has in its favour that a try is worth five points, and the conversion two, while drop kicks and penalty kicks are worth three, leading two a similar scoring structure to American football's, advancing by threes and sevens. The gameplay in union is more wide-open with no downs, but understanding the offsides rules and mauls and rucks takes a little knowledge in order to appreciate the game as something more sophisticated than "kill the guy with the ball".

But the main advantage of Rugby Union is that it is far more popular, both worldwide (as witnessed by the 20-nation world cup, vs. rugby league's 3), and in France. Here there is a well-developped pro rugby union but not so much for league. Add to that that French rugby is mostly based in the south and west while I live in the northeast. So while I may prefer rugby league there isn't any on television for me to follow, so the preference is purely theoretical. Still I hope that the day is not too far off when the explosion of cable channels will mean that I'll be able to watch the Super League, and NFL, from France along with any other country's sporting events I choose. The way content keeps becoming availible I keep hoping it's just around the corner, but for now I'm still waiting.

Posted by jon at 5:52 PM in France 

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Our dreary region

Lately I've been rereading John Keegan's excellent history The First World War, since so much of the action on the Western Front took place around where I live, and now that I know the area pretty well I'm trying to connect what happened then with the places I know now.

As the front solidified in 1914 in the "race to the sea", things came to the point that things had stagnated all along the line from the Swiss border up to just below where I live. So the only open areas left were "Flanders' fields"—one of which lies about 300 yards from my front door. Keegan accordingly takes a moment to describe the area to the reader:

There is one of the dreariest landscapes in Western Europe, a sodden plain of wide, unfenced fields, pasture and plough intermixed, overlying a water table that floods on excavation more than a few spadefuls deep. There are patches of woodland scattered between the villages and isolated farmsteads and a few points of high ground that loom in the distance behind the ancient walled city of Ypres. The prevading impression, however, is of long unimpeded fields of view, too mournful to be called vistas, interrupted only by the occasional church steeple and leading in all directions to distant, hazy horizons which promise nothing but the region's copious and frequent rainfall.

That just about sums it up, I'm afraid.

Posted by jon at 8:00 AM in France 
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