Days of Wine and Transportation

Wine

I do like wine and am somewhat picky about what I’ll have. I will not spend a lot for any particular wine and delight in finding a great wine at a good price. Although I know my way around most American and South American wines, I have not spent a lot of time learning French wines as of yet. One of the principal differences between the U.S. and French wines is that the French tend to blend wines a lot more and that they are known by their region, e.g., Bordeaux. Even within a region there are different blends, so you unfortunately need to be pretty knowledgeable about the particular producer to know what it is. It’s hard to fake it. There is a famous line in Sideways about the lead character not wanting any more “f@#$king merlot” and then having a particular French wine that is largely made of merlot grapes. This was the classic inside joke that most everyone missed, including me. Given the challenge of knowing what to order, we mostly went with house wines, and I can say they were all really good. There was only one white that was not great, but to be fair the waiter warned us that we had just ordered “liquid sugar.” We all loved the Côte de Rhône best of all, and we’re bringing some back. Wine knowledge is pretty good here; it’s more of any “everyman” thing since wine is a standard part of many meals. It’s not perfect though, since some restaurants served us red wine that was almost hot in temperature. Beer tends to be Heineken, Leffe or another Belgium brand. Kronenbourg, which we think of as a marquee French beer, is considered like Bud light. There is also a beer/tequila mixture called Desperados, which no one wanted to try since we thought that basically nothing good could come of that.

Transportation

As I mentioned earlier, Uber is a great choice for getting around, as well as taxis. We made good use of the Metro, which is incredibly cheap and easy to use. It’s set up like the system in Montreal, with rubber tires on the cars that removes that perhaps romantic but more likely annoying clack-clack of the train cars. If you come to Lyon, learn to use the Metro- it’s the best way to go.

For intercity, there’s been a huge issue over the past couple of months due to strikes. Labor issues are very common here, where labor rights are prized more than profitability in more cases than not. There have even been cases of CEOs taken hostage by the workers in a sort of French Revolution fashion. As I’m writing this, our flight home has been canceled and we are re-routing through Los Angeles due to the strike. We are sitting in the Air France lounge but to be clear are not being held hostage.

What seems unaffected by strikes is the use of intercity buses. New, private companies such as Flix and Oui have started jazzed-up bus service at incredible prices. Riding the bus is cool again. Well, maybe it was never cool, but at least it’s an alternative. Adam’s friend from college came to visit using the Oui bus, and it was a good deal with on-time arrival. You can see them below holding the UVM banner.

Visit to Salon and French

Salon

We had the chance to meet with our son Adam’s godparents in Salon, which is about two and one-half hours south of Lyon. One thing we realized coming here is that Lyon is not really convenient to a lot of other places. My cousin Ken lives in Germany and suggested meeting, but the closest meeting point for that would have involved a high-speed train to Paris which would have been difficult to manage and also expensive. We had a similar issue with our former exchange student Vera who lives in Germany. Every train connection was long and expensive. The only connection that was manageable was a college friend of Adam’s who was in Geneva and who came by bus to Lyon.

In any event, our meeting in Salon also worked, although it was a bit of a drive for one day. Salon is a picturesque little village that has wonderful, well-preserved buildings and quaint restaurants. Consistent with every place else, parking is at a premium. If you come France, it’s really worth the time to visit villages such as this, since it will provide a much broader view of the country. Just as visiting New York is by itself not all of the U.S., so is a visit to Paris alone not all of France. Paris has a population of around 11 million, out of a total of about 65 million in France. Lyon is the next largest city, with slightly over 2 million. The point of those statistics is to understand how Paris really is so different than the rest of the country, and the importance of visiting things beyond the usual tourist spots if you can. Salon was a pleasure to visit and well worth the journey.

French

Coming to France has always been a bit intimidating for the anglophone since we have heard numerous stories of rude treatment when you don’t speak French and lack of anyone who can speak at least some English. Having come here over the years, my unscientific conclusion is that English knowledge has gotten much better, especially among the young and in touristy areas. And at least in Lyon, we were never treated rudely. In contrast to, say, Germany and The Netherlands, you will be able to find more people in France who don’t speak some English, but it’s easy enough to find someone who does. It however always helps to try to speak some French, even if very limited. It is appreciated and what I find really polite is the fact that native speakers who also speak English well do not automatically switch to English- they will allow you to practice, make mistakes and be nice about it. In Germany and The Netherlands, people will very often switch once they hear the slightest accent, which does not help you learn and also can be taken as a bit insulting even if not so intended.

I spent a fair amount of time preparing for this trip by listening to podcasts and using some of the most common language apps, including Duolingo and Babbel. It’s so much easier to learn these days. I am just a beginner, but was able to survive in restaurants, returning the car and other basic activities. The more complicated items, such as renting the car and complex hotel issues, such as the maid left the door open for the second consecutive day, were done in English since none of us is that fluent.

French is an interesting language for English speakers to learn since roughly 30% of our words have French origins. That’s what happens when a bunch of French Normans decide to sail north and invade England in 1066 and stay for about 400 years. It’s notable that some people will say that the two languages have so much in common since they are both based in Latin, but English is not Latin-based, but rather a German-based language. Anyway, since we have so much common vocabulary, it tends to be easy for English speakers to read French, but that’s where the easy part ends. Pronunciation is very difficult to learn, although there are conventions, and spelling is too. The grammar is complex, although logical. Somehow the way words are spelled and pronounced changed over a long period of time, although it’s hard to understand exactly why. One theory in the internet is that it was a natural evolution of the language and every language has this. The problem with this is that, for example, German and Spanish have been around just as long and don’t have these issues at all; there are not spelling bees in either country. English has spelling bees I am convinced because English has taken on so many foreign words due to, principally, invasions such as the Normans.

One thing that most everyone agrees is that French is a beautiful language to listen to in song and poetry. That will never change.

Soccer and driving

USA/FRANCE 1:1

Our trip coincided with the U.S. National Men’s Team playing a “friendly,” or a non-competitive soccer match against the French national team. The friendlies are often not really as amicable events as the name might imply, although in this case the match was intended to mainly help both teams in different ways: to help the French team prepare for the World Cup and to help the U.S. team start its painful process of rebuilding after not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1994. Since we were here anyway, we decided to attend and luckily were able to buy on-line tickets the day before. The prices were comparable to the U.S., but I have to say I was delighted to not have to pay any convenience, delivery, service or other made-up costs that you do when you buy a ticket for any event in the U.S.

The event was well organized, with special trams set up for easing transportation. Our train included about 200 French fans and four of us. We listened to loud and off-key renditions of The Marseillaise and it was clear the fans were really ready to support their team.

The stadium was essentially sold-out with approximately 56,000 in attendance of which I would guess there were maybe 200 U.S. supporters. The French fans were enthusiastic, but incredibly respectful. We did not feel unsafe as we might have in some U.S. stadiums if we were sitting in the opposing team section. The fans brought tons of French flags and sang songs in support of their team loudly. For a game that did not count, they made it seem that it did.

France clearly outplayed the U.S. team, which was composed of largely European-based young talent. The U.S. coach is a temporary, and this was to be used to experiment a bit. France dominated play on the first half, possessing the ball about two-thirds of the time, and having numerous great opportunities. However, for those that know soccer, it is the cruelest of sports for rewarding good play since, despite a solid French performance, the U.S. had a great breakaway at the end of the first half and scored to lead the match 1:0.

After another half of solid pressure, the U.S. conceded a goal, well earned by the French. There was a lot of tension and good opportunities for the French until the end, but it ended in a tie at 1:1. The U.S. had to have been happy with that result and they held firm under pressure. We left the stadium and joined a huge group and got back on the tram. There was no drunkenness, no trash and only one vendor selling scarves; a much different vibe than a post NFL game.

Driving

When I think about driving in France, I inevitably think about mob-like meetings of cars rushing around the traffic circles in Paris or driving through the French countryside in a beat-up car in a black and white and impossible to understand French film. It’s obviously a bit different than that, but still has some great surprises. To start with, the cars are small and need to be so. Parking spaces are at a premium and the roads are narrow, even in large cities. It’s a challenge at times to understand if you’re driving into a road or an alleyway.

If you plan to rent a car in France, it’s good to know that the majority of rentals are manual transmissions. One website recommended making reservations well in advance and even suggested bringing proof you can use a manual transmission (what would that proof look like, by the way?). I made the mistake of not doing full research on driving rules before booking and would recommend you either do so well before your trip or not at all, the latter approach following the “ignorance is bliss” standard which I unwittingly went with. Some of the things that I did not know, and wish I had: a) your license needs to run a year beyond the rental date (seriously, for a two day rental?), b) you need a compete safety kit in the car, including a breathalyzer and safety vest, which was of course not in our rental, c) there is a presumption in France that the driver coming from the right always has the right of way, even if he’s coming from a side road and you’re headed straight. On the last point, France has gone to considerable measures to work around this really unique rule and installed signs at intersections indicating if you do have the right of way or not. Most U.S. drivers would not know what these look like, so spend some time on the internet before you think about driving. Note too there is no such thing as “cushion” for speeding, having known someone who got a ticket for driving 93 in a 90 zone.

Oh, and by the way, French police can stop you for any reason. You’ll of course need a notarized translation of your U.S. license or an international license according to the French government website; I had neither.

On driving, despite the fact the city streets were designed by LEGO engineers, the pay highways are spectacular. They are very well maintained and clearly marked. There is a “but” of course which is that they are incredibly expensive. We paid around $28 to drive two hours. That’s even more than the famous California “Lexus lanes.” I think we would not mind paying higher amounts in the U.S. if we got better roads in exchange.

Getting around with a nav system is really a great experience compared to the impossible-to-fold maps that used to be the standard. I would recommend using the car nav system to avoid heavy data roaming costs with an app such as Waze. Our nav was in French, which was fine for us except that it hit me that French does not have a separate word for “bear” versus “turn.” This became really annoying since every slight bend in the road was instructed as “turn.” It was like a bad game of hokey-pokey.

My last story is about gas, which is predictably expensive here. The last time I rented a car here in had to stop for gas and was confronted with either choosing “sans plomb”or some odd number on the gas pumps and I had no idea what to do. This time I confidently knew that “sans plomb” meant “unleaded” and was ready to go. However, things have changed mightily over the years and I discovered that both the unleaded and the mysterious numbered gasoline were gone and replaced by an unlabeled green nozzle and a yellow nozzle labeled “gazeol.” When I opened the gas cap, it was labeled “diesel,” which made it abundantly clear to me that I should use the green nozzle since diesel nozzles in the U.S. are always green. In addition, the yellow nozzle was not labeled diesel, and there is no way they would try so hard to confuse us. Yet they did. It turns out gazeol is the French word for diesel and that was the correct move. Thankfully they made the nozzles idiot-proof and only the right one would fit. But I had to rely on the idiot-proof mechanism to not completely ruin the engine with the wrong fuel- I suspect I am not the first who’s been confused on this and not the first idiot to visit.

Eating, museums and more

Paul Bocuse

Paul Bocuse is a local hero here and it’s all due to food.   He is the man that started the nouvelle cuisine movement which incorporated fresher ingredients in traditional French cooking.  He is famous for having achieved record 3 star Michelin ratings for his restaurants.  For those not familiar with Michelin ratings, they are issued to restaurants based upon the quality of offerings, and range from no star to three stars.  And yes, it was started by the two French brothers who owned the tire company.  The Michelin Guide began in 1900 and was developed to help motorists find good places to eat and good mechanics.  Mechanics are however no longer rated, which is a darn shame since it would make car service appointments so much more interesting.  Although it’s been around for a long time, the U.S. only began to receive ratings in 2005.  The top-rated restaurants are described as being “worth a special journey,” which sounds pretty understated considering that there are, for example, only a dozen or so of these in the U.S.  Of note is the fact that service quality does not affect the star earned; that part is separately rated along with the ambience by the amount of forks and spoons assigned. To most of us simple folk, having good service is a huge part of our liking of a restaurant or not, so  you can imagine, the stars alone are not the full story.

Michelin stars are nonetheless a big deal, and Bocuse was one of the top collectors of three star ratings until his retirement.  Bocuse passed away in early 2018  but his legacy lives on and it’s something Lyon continues to be proud of. As I finished this article, we were all saddened to here about the passing of another famous chef, Anthony Bourdain, coincidentally in France for shooting his television series. I had first seen Bocuse in an interview conducted by Bourdain a number of years ago. Both of them contributed mightily to our food culture in different ways and will be missed.

Museums

We were able to visit two museums in Lyon and both were interesting and ones I would recommend.  The first museum we visited was The Museum of Confluences located at the meeting or confluence of the Rhône and the Saôane rivers.   It’s hard to get a really clear description of what the museum is supposed to cover, but the best way I could describe it is as anthropology meeting science.  The museum had a permanent collection covering the origins of the universe, the age of dinosaurs, the evolution of man’s inventions, burial customs and how these developments intersect, playing off the confluence theme. As you can imagine, it’s a bit confusing but seems to work.  Above all, the museum is a spectacular building and well worth a visit.

Exterior of the Museum of Confluences

The second museum was the Musée Miniature et Cinéma. This museum includes a large display of miniature rooms that are spectacular. Although they look like they would be used in filming movies, they are in fact simply works of art. This museum is located in a a restored Maison des Advocats, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Miniature restaurant and apartment

The miniatures are generally 1/12 scale, but honestly seem smaller than that. In addition, the first few floors of the building include famous movie props such as the Back to the Future Hoverboard and the prop used to show the ill triceratops in Jurassic Park. We spent a long time in this museum, much more than we would initially expected. This museum is truly something that you’ll see not see elsewhere.

Movie props

Lyon

Tourism 101

Over the years we’ve developed the habit of including one of those hop-on, hop-off buses in our plans for any city that we visit. Yes, they are very touristy, but you can really get a sense of what you do want to explore. It’s much better than leafing through a guidebook that is filled with useless coupons and which details the places every tourist should go, but you may not want to because every one else has the same book.

We took the Lyon bus tour yesterday and it was actually pretty good. Lyon does not have the number of attractions that Paris does, but there are certainly things to see. Above all, it is just a very pretty city. There were of course some technical problems and we had to change buses since the audio did not work. It was interesting to get a sense of the rivalry between Lyon and Paris since there were some comments made on the tour and by locals to us about how much better Lyon is than Paris. There’s likely a story behind that I am sure.

Another fascinating point in Lyon is the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône rivers. Most of us knew the Rhône but being able to remember the Saône was like trying to conjure up the name of that fourth member of The Three Stooges. There’s a museum at the confluence of the two rivers named, not surprisingly, The Confluence Museum. We’re planning on visiting it today and I’ll let you know what’s there– even the guidebook was a bit vague about what’s on display so we’ll see.

Eating out

We’ve been pretty spoiled here by the wealth of good eating. There are so many choices, with a mix of local venues and also the standard Italian, Thai and Middle Eastern haunts. It’s refreshing that restaurants here provide portions that you can really eat versus the massive sizes that we see in the U.S. In spite of this France recently passed a law that requires restaurants to provide a doggie bag container if requested by the customer. Such a container is called “Le Doggie Bag” in French representing one of the new English expressions brought into French. Given the less than sterling reputation that American food has here, choosing to use our word will not help assist in changing that. As you can imagine, of course we wanted to try out this new thing and asked for, and received, a box for our leftover pizza in an Italian restaurant.

“Menus,” which include pre-selected courses, are popular here and found in most every restaurant. Wine and beer are common to see at both lunch and dinner. The wine choices are excellent and varied, but basically varied only to the extent of which French region. Speaking of wine, one of the interesting facts we heard on our tour is that Beaujolais is not as popular here as it seems to be outside of France, making me wonder if we have once again fallen for a massive marketing gimmick such as the ones that brought us fondue, St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. Beer choices seem to be Belgium based, with Heineken appearing on some menus as well. Extreme caution should be taken with some of the Belgian beers since they include some essentially weird choices such as blueberry- ugh.

The sharing economy

One of the more visible ways this country has embraced change is through the sharing economy. My son Wes landed here for law school last week. He’s rented part of an apartment through Air B&B, takes Uber to go from place to place and has made good use of Uber Eats. We’ve seen Uber Eats bicyclists throughout the city and also around through Uber. None of this would have been possible five years ago. In addition, Lyon introduced the first major city bike sharing program and we’ve seen their iconic red bikes all over. I should mention that of course the city made a point of noting that their program was in place before the program in Paris. All of these changes make doing things so much easier for everyone, despite the disruption they’ve caused for many existing businesses. And they especially make it easier to visit- for example, when we take Uber, there are no communication difficulties about where we’re going!

Trip to France

Travel nowadays is relatively easy and cheap, yet we love to complain about it as much as we do talking about the weather. I do find it’s best to set low expectations as a good way to ensure that we’re not basket cases after a single day in an airplane.

Our flight is from San Francisco to Lyon and the connections should not be hard. We booked the flight with a travel agent (remember those?) who finds inexpensive business class tickets. The neat thing about this travel agent is that it is a person, not a website, and thus someone we can call with our problems, abundant as they may be.

We were, for our standards, surprisingly ready on time for the limo to the airport, and started our trip off with a schedule mix-up since they thought we were going to San Jose. After straightening that out, we were off to San Francisco. If you’ve flown from San Francisco recently, you’ll know they do a terrific job of ensuring scheduling delays, late luggage arrivals and providing an airport ambiance that is about 15 years behind the times. They did not disappoint since the security line was similar to a depression-era bread line- and it’s not as if they didn’t know the planes would be taking off.

We boarded the plane on time, in this case an Airbus 380. This Airbus is massive— you have the joy of flying with over 500 of your best friends. We were on the top floor, which felt like an entire plane itself. Of course we were delayed by 90 minutes before departure, which was attributed to having a passenger in a wheelchair. I wonder how he felt being rolled aboard when it was just announced that this delay was due entirely to him! It was an interesting yet uneventful flight to Paris to make our connection to Lyon. I was able to watch a couple of French movies, subtitled, which somehow all seem to have two required scenes– an argument in a smoke-filled bar and also a journey through the French countryside in a beat-up Peugeot.

Arrival

We had a reasonably scheduled connection in Paris to Lyon which of course was a flop since we left so late. We arrived at the gate exactly two minutes too late and missed our connection. In contrast to flying domestically, we were then scheduled for the next flight that same day and each given a food voucher for 26 Euro for our trouble. Hard to imagine any of that happening in the U.S.

France- some first thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve been to France and it was interesting to see what’s changed. Driving seems no different, with an apparent national pact known only to the French that cars have to be really small and driven with high velocity. Smoking has, on the other hand, visibly decreased, with national bans in bars and restaurants. That said, it’s still at a higher rate than in the U.S.

France has had a great ability to be part of Europe and still remain distinct. There has always been an effort to protect the French language from foreign invaders (that’s us, anglophones) and it is the only country that I can think of that has three domestic automobile makers, i.e., Renault, Peugeot and Citroen, which principally serve their own domestic market. The British tried to defend their auto industry as well, but we know how that ended with any remnants of British auto manufacturing now being foreign owned. Under De Gaulle, keeping France separate but part of Europe reached its apex with France’s withdrawal from NATO, closure of all U.S. bases and then his push to not allow the U.K. to join the Common Market— maybe he was ahead of his time on the last point.

Any discussion of France needs to lead with food. It’s excellent, abundant and highly regarded. Even the local discount supermarket has a large cheese and wine selection. Eating is something that is to be enjoyed and not rushed through. We gladly adapted to that. Art, architecture and style are also highly appreciated.

Relative to the language issue, which has always been a challenge for the visitor, there are now a lot of English speakers here, although it’s really helpful and polite to start with some French if you can. So far, we’ve been very well treated, and people are polite to the visitor. Patience is not in abundance for drivers, though, so be prepared for some tense moments in traffic.

This remains a great country to visit and well worth the trip!

UVM Graduation!