We are Richard (English) and Anne-Sophie (French), we met in England and after too many years living the rat race in London we decided to finally take the jump and start a new life in the French countryside (Alsace). We moved to a small town called Cernay at the end of 2009. This blog is about us settling in, to keep in touch with our friends and hopefully also to give some inspiration to other people who are thinking of changing life!
Yesterday I thought I'd go for an explore. As I mentioned, we live about a 30-40 minute drive from Basel which is just over (pretty much on) the French/Swiss border. I've heard that Basel is a typically wealthy Swiss city with a pretty Old Town and also the centre for much of Europe's chemical and pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, my Dad used to visit frequently while working at Boots before setting up his own business. I was excited to look around.
Now, my first mistake was wearing brand new shoes for a day walking around a hilly city, fortunately I was on my own so wasn't able to whine about my sore feet like a little girl.
It was soon apparent that Basel is a slightly strange city - one might say a city of contradictions. As you drive into Basel you are surrounded by large factories and enormous bellowing chimneys. The highway then dips under the city for a few miles before spitting you out into one of several underground parking lots - I figured the one called 'City' would be a safe bet (I'm now close to perfecting the comedy/camp run around the car to the ticket machine that's on the wrong side for a UK right hand drive Honda - it never fails to raise a smile from the driver behind - they do love laughing at 'Les Anglais' over here).
So I leave the car in the ultra clean car park (there is a guy wandering round with a hose and a brush cleaning the already clean floor) and take the shiny glass elevator to ground level. Here I find myself in a Barbican-like concrete jungle, complete with immaculately tended gardens, to find everyone wearing white plimsolls (just like school PE ones), white trousers and a white jumper! EVERYONE! The only people wearing anything else were a group of trainee gardeners, in safety neon overcoats, who give me a strange look for being dressed in a grey winter coat, blue jeans and (already painfully new) brown trainers. What the.....?
As my internal battle rages between turning & running and a desire (morbid curiosity) to explore this city from the 1960's/2060's, I notice a sign that says something like "Citeschúlehospitalishaftsgung". Which, from my years of studying German, I have no idea what it means. However my brain was so desperate for an answer that it decided I must be in an enormous training hospital. Eventually finding a sign for the Marktplatz I quickly walked that way. After a few minutes of weaving my way around ultramodern 50's blocks I finally emerge to the slightly more pleasant sight of the Rhine.
As the Rhine passes through the middle of Basel it is still nearly 400 miles from reaching the ocean in Holland, however the river doesn't seem to have realised this and it's already pretty enormous - certainly a lot larger than, say, the Thames as it passes Limehouse. It's from hear that I have the first real view of the city. I have to say, at this point I regret not bringing a camera, but for the sake of demonstrating a little of the contradictions here are a couple of 'google image' pictures from close to where I was standing showing the view in both directions along the Rhine:
I felt I'd already had enough concrete for one day so I headed for the old town with its museums, cathedrals and, hopefully, shops that sell more than just French bread and haircuts.
As I walked along the streets into the old town, one of the first things that struck me was a cyclist. Actually lot's of cyclists. Fortunately I use the term 'struck' in the metaphorical sense and I wasn't the cause (or the target) of a 2 wheeled pile-up. Now, I've recently gotten back into cycling both commuting while I was in London and for fun/fitness in my spare time (something I'm enjoying immensely in the Alsace and will doubtless be the subject of some future blogwittering). What caught my attention in Basel though was just how many normal people were on bikes (despite me clocking a thermometer at -4 Celsius) dressed in casual winter clothing (I'd escaped the white plimsoll gang by then) going about their everyday business as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I really do hope that the trend for more cycling in cities like London and Manchester continues to grow beyond the urban-warrior/spandex/power-ranger clan that I embarrassingly count myself amongst.
Then, after wandering around the usual mixture of cathedrals (Erasmus is buried in one) and shops (I very nearly brought some over-priced walking boots in the Mammut store), I decided to stop for lunch.
I managed (not without a little temptation) to avoid the inevitable McDonald's and Starbucks offerings of this historic town and chanced upon a small café above a bakery on one of the side streets. I sat down and read the menu, this didn't take long as there we're only 2 dishes available each day - one meat and one veg option. Obviously I decided to go for the meat option which was a sort of French Sheppard's Pie called hachi parmentier, a dish I know and like. A couple of minutes later the waitress comes over and fortunately speaks excellent English, as I found everyone to in this German (with a very weird accent) speaking part of Switzerland. "unfortunately sir, I am out of the meat and I only have the veg left", hmmmm, don't know what it says and the waitress can't translate it: "it's vegetable" is all she can offer. Ahh well, it's the same price as the meat dish (about £10) so it must be fairly substantial "ok, I'll have the vegetables and a coke".
5 minutes later I am presented with a small bowl of lettuce. And a coke. And nothing else. There must be more coming, there must be, I'll eat my lettuce reaaaalllly slowly whilst I wait for her to bring whatever is supposed to come with it. 10 minutes of slowly munching lettuce later and I've nearly finished, and nearly finished deciding how strongly I'm going to refuse to pay £10 for a small bowl of lettuce. I eat the last bit and catch the waitress' eye. Then, just as I'm about to mutter the words "There is a problem", a large dish of veg casserole arrives in front of me from waitress clearly wondering why I've taken so long to eat my lettuce starter. Ahhh, that's better - thank god she put that down before I started mouthing off!
So; a good lunch, a new city explored, back home for a bike ride, some pasta and an episode of the Tudors (which Anne-So is addicted to) and that's my day done.
Thank you for listening and I hope I've not bored you senseless.
So, I thought it's about time I contributed to this Blog, especially it was partly my idea and certainly the excellent name was my doing. For anyone wondering: The Vosges (soft g) are the range of mountains that we live at the base of and it combines well with our ex local/favourite restaurant "La Vie en Rose". Anne-So has to take credit for the logo / banner though which I think is amazing and actually looks a lot like the view from our, well one of our :-) , balconies. For anyone who doesn't know where we are living, the region is the Alsace and we live in a small town called Cernay which is about an hour drive south of Strasbourg (where Anne-So's parents live) and about 45 minutes north of Basel which is just over the Swiss border. A cursory glance at the map will show just how many amazing places there are to visit within a few hours drive. Not least the western Alps and all the skiing, snowboarding, hiking and mountain biking that goes with it. There are also some really beautiful parts of Germany (really!) near by like the Black Forest and even Munich is only a couple of hours drive away.
To say that I underestimated just how difficult it would be to move our stuff from Hackney to Cernay is probably an understatement. One of my best friends (and now brother-in-law) Chris was on the receiving end of this mis-judgement: Chris had agreed to help me shift over our remaining possessions in a supersized Transit van a week after New Year once I'd had time to finish packing up and, importantly, after we had already sent almost 30 shipping cartons over by international freight. Chris arrived from Wales on the Friday night and after a brief inspection of the things to be packed up we went for a kebab (the proper sit-down sort, not a pissed-up Doner one - just to reassure) certain that we wouldn't have too many problems loading the van in the morning and heading off to France for me never to return. Unfortunately after getting up at the crack of dawn and loading for a couple of hours it became apparent that we were just as likely to fit everything in one van as it was for Anne-So to ever drop her French accent - Impossible! So plan B - text everyone I can think of in London for help with the remaining packing (Massive thanks to Simon and to Matt - and to Sinead for volunteering Matt so readily), and to quickly pick up a 2nd transit van. All this meant that the relatively leisurely 15 hour drive each way through the snow ridden motorways of Europe would now not be shared but driven in convoy twice in 2 days. Words can barely express my gratitude to Chris and as we turned up in Cernay at 4.30 am on the Sunday knowing that we needed to wake up and drive back the same day, the best I could do was a room temperature beer each. Still, if it doesn't kill you...
Perhaps its time for some brief first impressions of living in France.
1) It's cold! For some reason, perhaps because it's the clichéd thing to do, a lot of people have assumed we're moving to the south of France. Well, it's a big country (just ask Chris) and we're a fairly long way north in a pretty mountainous region. Everything is just as snow covered as it was when I left London except this isn't a "coldest in 20 years" event it's just how winter is. All winter. Every Winter. Still, my expensive habit of buying outdoor coats and technical base layers which, some say, was excessive for London is now coming into it's own :) Speaking of snow, I haven't been Snowboarding yet and my board is being serviced and ready on Friday so I will report back how the local slopes are when I know.
2) Everyone speaks French. Funny that. This has a couple of effects on me. Firstly, I can't really understand much when people talk to me, but I do try and listen with intent which in turn makes them think I understand perfectly and get's me into even more difficulty (I must master a look of completely confused incomprehension!). Secondly, a bit at a time, I'm learning more French. Certainly more vocabulary if not that much grammar yet. Lessons are to be booked soon.
3) The food's good! But buying it, and shopping in general, is very different to the UK and certainly London. Our little town has a few bakers, a couple of butchers and about 10,000 hair dressers (I can only assume that the average French person's hair grows at bamboo worrying rates). However, for a country that I've always thought of as quite rural/village focused, I've discovered that French people are Hypermarket obsessed! Cernay is a small 5,000 - 7,000 person town yet it contains more Supermarkets than say Nottingham, including one to eclipse any I've seen in the UK and which they are currently building an even larger replacement for! Crazyness! On Friday, however I discovered a small (tesco sized) Hypermarket that specialises in organic food from around the world - amazing! and the perfect antidote to the rows and rows of Alsacian food that takes up most of the others. No more fantasising over the Donnald Russell website for me.
So, enough for now. I'll try and write more and briefer posts in future.
Love and (French) kisses to everyone back in England!
Friday afternoon, 5.03pm. I'm sitting at my desk at work. Blizzard outside, wind hurling through the windows. Night is falling. All my colleagues have gone home to avoid being stuck in the snow. Only I remain, on probation and reluctant to leave without having been authorised to. Great.
We could not possibly have chosen a worst weekend for Richard and Chris to drive over all our furniture from London to Cernay. We're not even sure Chris will be able to find a train running from Wales to London tonight. Nor that Eurotunnel will work tomorrow. Nor that the roads will be cleared in France later on.
Moving house is supposed to be one of the most stressfull thing in life. Moving house + country is a real pain. Especially in January ! We're keeping our fingers crossed for tomorrow.
Happy new year everyone! I hope you all had a great time celebrating.
After 4 1/2 weeks of being here alone, Richard finally came to visit for a week, and that made NYE pretty special on its own.
I was working until midday on the 31rst, we then packed up on nice food for dinner and decided to quickly go and buy some fireworks. In France, everyone buys fireworks and bangers for NYE and fires them in the street at midnight. For security reasons the sale of fireworks in nonetheless limited from 1am to 6pm on the 31rst.
I had read about a shop called 'Au Travesti' (The Tranvestite!) in the village next to ours selling them, so we headed straight there hoping we could then spend the rest of the afternoon going to a walk in the nearby mountains. Oh no. The shop had taken over a massive hangar full of every kind of fireworks ever created, from 20c bangers to €600 massive fireworks display boxsets. The whole place was a massive queue of people - perhaps 200 or even more. So we ended up queuing there for 2 hours, trying not to get too upset by it. Still, we got there in the end. Followed a flawless evening of grand food cooked by Richard and lots of champagne, white wine, red wine and a liter of mulled wine that made the whole flat smell of aniseed. Nice!
Yesterday we braved the heavy rain for a first long walk discovering our surroundings, amongst which a stork reserve (where we also spotted a few herons looking a bit confused), lots and lots of cycle paths and steep vineyards. We also spotted a huge bird cage outside a house with weird looking brown pigeons that looked very inbread to me. I'll have to go back with my camera and send a shoot to Pigeonblog some day.
Woke up to a wonderful sight this morning - it snowed overnight and the whole village was covered of snow with bright sunshine and blue sky, it felt like being in some ski resort. Unfortunately Richard had to go back to the UK today, this time for a last week of packing up. Next Saturday he'll be back permantently, driving all the way with all our stuff. I have to say, the flat as it is at the moment i all very feng-shui but it will be nice to have some furniture, like a sofa, and no more echo when I'm on the phone.