In this journal:
baguettes, crepes, wine;
roman amphitheatres, medieval streets, postmodern plazas;
I’ve got my ticket for the long way round♪—Cups by Anna Kendrick
Two bottles of whiskey for the way~
And I sure would like some sweet company♪
And I’m leaving tomorrow what do you say?
Upon exiting the gates, a familiar figure was just around the corner. Slim yet tall, short-haired, and dressed unequivocally black: Anna was there. Yeah it is pretty strange how all of my great friends are named the same, and fun fact, if you shift all the letters of Anna by one, you get the word “Boob”. But enough horrible inappropriate jokes, I gave an enormous hug to the French fluffy goof met in Osaka during Voyager1.5, as I was about to spend the next week, including Christmas, with this unbelievably silly girl. Excited? That would be an understatement.
The whole family, including Anna’s parents, her rather shy brother, and her cat Manzana, all greeted me with warm hugs and kisses on the cheeks. Okay okay, maybe her cat was a bit shy, and maybe her brother even a little bit more timid, but that does not matter. I was received like a royalty, even though the concept had not been too hot since 18th century here. Anna’s mom is like a goddess, with unbelievably strong spirits, truly the mother of a girl infused with the French fiery soul; she also cooks like no other, truly a perfect idol glowing with energy. She whipped up a delicious meal without even paying attention, and just shocked me with the amount of butter used in just one pot of spaghetti. I braced myself for uncontrollable weight gain the moment I saw half a bucket of butter disappeared from the fridge after dinner.
Her father, however, is a giant, gentle teddy bear, complete with the most amicable smile one can physically put on. His tone is soft but firm, and exudes the unmistakable certainty in voice. The family lives on a very quaint little hillside in a giant, post-modern, airy and bright house, just outside the little suburban village of Miribel. The town sits on a little ridge overlooking the entire valley, offering ridiculously photogenic panorama. Right at the edge of the village, an enormous virgin Mary statue graces the entire city with its 20-story-tall rocky stature. However, I am much more interested in the sweeping view right next to her, as I could easily see till the edge of the world, given when the weather is not horrendous, of course.
Days here in Lyon is rather slow, given it was holidays. Everyone wakes up at different time, ranging from Anna’s dad at 6 or 7 heading to work, to my 9 to 11 after inexplicably comfortable nights in the guest room, and to Anna’s brother some time in the afternoon after a night out partying with friends, or just like Manzana, never fully awake and just napping everywhere. It is a strange time and a strange place, as the perception of what is a day has been rendered completely irrelevant. We just decide what to do base on the time we meet in the dining room, no matter what time it was, 3 am or pm.
Yes, dining room is the most important place in the entire household, undoubtedly French. A large open table, unbarriered access to the full kitchen, and a large cupboard full of wine, that was everything needed. If liberty is the soul that lives within every Frenchman’s body, then food is what flows within their veins. I had the honour to enjoy many different food with the family, thanks to Anna’s generosity as well as hospitality. I gained a minimum of 12 pounds during my week with her.
Surprisingly, with so much delicious food options to choose from, the French in Lyon adopted shwarma and Turkish food more fervently than many other places in Europe. However, they would rather start another revolution than not improving on what they have. In the image below, you can see a taco. Yes, they call this thing a taco here in Lyon, and after listening to me complaining what a real taco should be like, describing what I had in Mexico City and Tulum in detail, Anna smiled as if one more sentence out of my mouth tarnishing her taco would be my last word:”No, this is a taco.” I gulped, and nodded mechanically, in fear of my life. This is nothing like the real thing. The normal taco is tortilla based and this taco is flatbread based; normal ones are open so you can add salsa or other things onto it, but this one is completely wrapped around so you cannot see the inside; normal ones include meat and rice, yet this Lyon version has fries and usually mutton. However, as you can see, people here LOVE their Taco Lyonnais, and who am I to judge? (I am definitely not held at gunpoint by Anna as I am typing this, definitely not.)
However, like what I experienced in the last section of this trip, in the Disgusting Food Museum in Sweden, I had to face my mortal enemy, who I had been acquainted with since the young age of 10: cheese, specifically, smelly French cheese. It was one thing to be prepared as I enter the museum that has vomit bags as tickets, but it is another to face it unexpectedly, just in a small deli in a family gathering. It is one thing to dry vomit together with Swedish Anna while laughing uncontrollably, and this is another to face French Anna’s full family staring at me with eager eyes prompting me to eat a slice of hell. I thought peer pressure was unbearable, but cultural pressure in this circumstance trumps it by miles.
However, most of the cheese I was given were not too bad, and a lot of them tasted fabulous. The creamy soft texture of some of them are very different from what I call American cheese and what the French call abomination. The complete palette of flavor as well as texture forms a stark contrast with the chemical, factory taste of most of North American cheeses. I also tried Anna’s dad’s famous dish: snails. These lipids are covered in butter and garlic, completely overwhelming my taste buds. As a result, it was just like chewing another bicycle tire with nice sauces, so I will give it a “huh”.
For dinner one day we had the smallest crepe I have ever seen. They are made on top of a special cooker (of course in France there are special cooker for tiny crepes, does that even have to be asked?) and topped with all kinds of things I normally would not even imagine should go on tiny slices of pancakes. From large slices of salami, to a spread of deer pâté, or marmalade of all kinds of local fruits, all the way to straight up whip cream. Needless to say, fibre to the French is as foreign of a word as the concept of yoga pants.
Of course it would be criminal to come to Lyon without trying bouchon food. Bouchon, literally meaning cork, appeared during 19th century, but only exploded in popularity during 1930s. The economic crisis meant that many wealthy family who relied on banking and financial sector fell under, firing their cooks in the process. These cooks proceeded to open cheap, delicious, innovative food for the working class. These folks, mostly women, are endearingly named mères, literally, moms. (awwww~!) One of the best, Eugenie Brazier, is the first chef to be ever awarded with 3 stars in the Michellin Guide. I, however, could not find a single bouchon with an empty seat during the holiday season, so I had to opt for a smaller restaurant serving similar food, including this cute little dish, well, that applies to both Anna and the veal kidney in mustard sauce, or as a real local would call “rognons de veau a la moutarde”.
Of course, Anna, along with her parents, who both spoke English surprisingly well, gracefully showed me around their hometown with pride. The city of Lyon is almost a stark contrast to Paris as a defiant second sister to the most prominent city of lights. She has a rich history just like any other major city in France. After the refugees from Vienne were expelled in ancient Rome, they settled down at the confluence of two large rivers, Saône and Rhône, now called Presqu’île . 43BC, the emperor ordered a permanent city to be built, named Colonia Copia Felix Munatia, as the capital of the region called Gaul. Romans quickly recognized the strategic importance of this place as the intersection of two large navigable rivers, and built many roads leading to the city.
The ancient Romans settled on the right bank of Saône, on the hilly side of now Fourvière. A cute tram-like railway, like the funicular I took in Valparaiso and Bogota, whisks people up and down the steep hill with ease nowadays. On top of the impressive mountain, the ancients built a large auditorium in the year of 15BC, and until today, you can still see the large platform built for the enormous stages used for plays and other theatrics.
The incredible preservation is thanks to the lack of any natural disaster in Lyon: no earthquake, flooding, or major siege. As a result, many things are left intact, including the other famous landmark of the city: Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the city’s largest church and primary worship destination. As I approached the jewel on the hill, it was clear that the number of faithful followers clogged the paths so frequently that numerous controls had been established.
The basilica, finished in 1890s, was strangely not Gothic at all, instead combining Romanesque and Byzantine styles to evoke a rather unfittingly ancient vibe. In fact, it is a combination of two churches, one on top of another, thanks to the different layers and floors of shrines. The main character worshipped here is Virgin Mary, who supposedly saved the city from bubonic plague as well as the Prussian invasion.
As a result, every year, on December 8, the date of Immaculate Conception, the entire city of Lyon lights up in a splendid display of colours, in order to thank Virgin Mary for protecting the city. This has turned into the famous Lyon Festival of Lights, Fête des Lumières, which attracts so many tourists that hotel prices skyrocket to quintuple the normality.
From the viewing platform in front of the church, one can take in all the beauty of the ancient city. On a good day, you can also easily catch a glimpse of the looming Alps to the east. Fortunately, on my day of the visit, the lights illuminating the edge of the snow-covered mountains reflected perfectly into the city, so you can see the light band of colours to the depths of horizon.
Coming back down to the area of Vieux Lyon, the Medieval part of the city, and further down in history. In this area, most of the city from the 1500s were preserved perfectly, demonstrating the power of the wealthy Italian, German and Flemish families residing here for businesses during the Renaissance era. The city grid dates from the Middle Ages, but the entire structures are from 16th and 17th century predominantly, making Lyon the second largest original Renaissance area in the world after Venice.
The cobbled main street leads to the St. Jean Cathedral, a large, medieval place of worship that is still the seat of the bishop of Lyon. The cathedral houses a mesmerizing astronomical clock dated to 14th century, but unfortunately, due to the fact that it has been under repair and renovation since 2011. The French, as usual, take their sweet sweet time in the repairs. So by the time I was visiting Lyon, it had “only” been under renovation for 8 years, and during the mean time, China went from having 100km of high speed railway line to more than France, Germany, Japan, Spain, USA and every other country combined. Talking about efficiency. On top of the main gate, an impressive “Rose Window” depicts the life of St. Stephan and St. John the Baptist, yet it is completely covered by barriers as they were cleaning the window.
In the area also housed most of the touristy stuffs that Lyon has to offer, such as the famous Museum of Light, since Lyon is the very origin of modern film, and many many tourist traps. Let’s move on to the next important period in the city history. After the boom of Renaissance, Lyon became the center of silk textile production in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of low tier workers took shifts in horrendous conditions under the dusted roofs of about a dozen major factories. The period is dominated by the tales and lives surrounding these canuts, such as the hundreds of traboules in the old city.
The word traboule is a corruption of Latin’s trans-ambulare, meaning “to pass through”. There is said to be more than 400 of these tiny paths in the city, which allowed citizens to weave through other buildings and courtyards directly for easier access to water sources in the 4th century, but more notably, for the silk workers to congregate inconspicuously during the 19th century. As industrialization approached, the wages fell and the working conditions got worse and worse, so the canuts organized 2 enormous rebellions trying to combat the aristocrats and merchants, as well as the inevitable advancement of time. Both of them were bloodily quashed, and over 10000 of the workers were sent onto trial in Paris.
One of these rather unfortunate weavers is Laurent Mourguet, who lost his job in the crisis. He later tried dentistry, which, at that time, was just the glorified name for pulling someone’s teeth out. Service is free but the money is at the painkiller afterwards. In order to attract clients, he set up a puppet show right in front of his stand, and strangely it worked so well that he gave up teeth-jerking for full time puppeteering quickly. His beloved Guignol is close to every Lyonnais’s heart since he has always been modelled as a typical citizen. Most of the time a silk weaver, he can be a cobbler, a valet, or unemployed, but his poverty is the constant, so is his sense of justice and the charming wit. His ultimate victory in every show is the optimistic outlook of good’s triumph over evil, despite the word guignol means a buffoon in French. Last real descendant of Laurent passed away in 2012, leaving a hollow legacy behind.
Continue our journey through time, we move through the rivers and arrive at the other side of the bank, onto the little peninsula sandwiched between the two rivers, Presqu’île. The city layout is almost a miniature version of Chongqing, where two large rivers meet at the centre of the city.
One of the most famous plazas is Places de Terreaux, where the above magnificent fountain can be found. The 21 ton lead-and-copper based Fontaine Bartholdi is installed during the end of 19th century, and the artist, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, is the designer of Statue of Liberty in New York. The lady on top of the chariot represents France, and the four horses each represent a great river of France, demonstrating the country’s prosperous road is led by its navigable rivers.
The whole gang took a stroll in the garden of Palais St. Pierre, seen above. This beautiful courtyard houses the Modern Arts Museum, and is one of the most poetic place to ponder about life, death, and why I am always single.
We also paid a visit to Parc de la Tête d’Or, which is a giant park of unknown purpose, because it is not only an urban green space but also a large lake, a rose garden, a zoo, a botanic garden, a boat club, a fairground as well as a bike park. However, one thing is for sure, people love this place as it was crowded even on a cold Thursday afternoon.
We went all around the park while trying to find elephants or giraffes. Unlike in Kenya, where the likes of such rarities were all but rare, the giant icons were hard to find, but we did find a huge number of birds roaming free in the waters, such as a herd of flamingos just like in the highlands of Chile, as well as many kinds of primates from just about any corner in the world which reminded me of my glory days playing with spider monkeys in Peruvian Amazon. One bizarre thing to note, however, is the merry-go-around in the fairground. It is animal themed, so you have the standard collection of animals from just about anywhere: camels, lions, polar bears, kangaroos, but there was one thing that caught my eye.
Amongst all the animals stood a Chinese guy. How do I know he is Chinese? Well firstly he is wearing a rice planter’s hat, and secondly he is pulling a cart, which the child can supposedly sit on. It was so jarring that among all the animals from all around the world they could not figure out one single animal that could represent China, not the giant panda, not the small panda that they have literally next to the fairground in the zoo, but an adult grown ass man complete with 1880’s moustache and a face of suffering. I am so sorry that I do not have a picture of the said monstrosity because I was laughing so hard that my hands were busy holding my mouth to prevent blood from coming out.
A quick ride away from the family house sits the little walled village of Pérouges, which kept its medieval walls, streets, houses and most importantly, soul, in tact. Perched on top of a steep little hill overlooking the Ain River plain, the little village mainly serves local French tourists from around the prefecture. However, due to the fact that the weather was absolutely miserable and everything appeared to be dying from the blistering cold wave, the little settlement seemed to be teleported directly from the 1500s, leaving her residents behind in time.
One famous produce from Pérouges is galette, which usually means a large cookie in Canada as a Quebecois specialty. However, here, the food is better described as a pizza with sugar instead of cheese and toppings. Surprisingly, it was very good, given that it was warm, also because the sugar became slightly glazed on top of the fluffy bun. However, this is just another showcase of how unhealthy the local food is. You thought McDonald’s is bad, but at least Big Mac has a piece of lettuce, and this is carbohydrate on top of another layer of carbohydrate.
Needless to say, the place looked gorgeous even in the gloomy weather so cold that icicles might be growing in my groin. Most of the plants were limping between life and death, and the shops were all completely shut. Imagine a warm spring morning, as dew drops slowly slide down the freshly bloomed wisteria flowers, reflecting the lazy sun rays into a tiny rainbow, scattered on the cobbled streets… Ahhhh, how amazing that would be! I cannot wait to come back during a warmer season and experience the other side of Pérouges!
Holidays with Family
For the dinner of Christmas Eve, the family decided to go for the absolute extreme of French-ness. What you see is fondue, the real version. Forget about all the cheese in a pot or vegetables, real French go for the energy harnessed from the flesh and blood of meat. Feel the power! A large special oil cooker is set up in the middle of the table, while everyone gets a steel stick that one can poke really hard, unnecessarily hard, like, enough to poke a hole in the table kind of hard. You stick the meat with the pointy end, and let it sizzle in hot oil, so that it can be eaten directly off the stick, dipped with a myriad of sauces along with bread and wine of course.
And the day after, as the entire large family came together for a gigantic feast of festivity, we began our best celebration of the yearly holiday season. However, unbeknownst to me, they picked the dish that had become my sworn mortal enemy. Remember last year with Cathrin in rural Germany? Yes, what I was about to enjoy, was a large party of raclette, or as I call it, the smelly cheese orgy.
Needless to say, I had to give a sniff to every kind of cheese on the chopping block. And even more needless to say, each and every single one of them smelled absolutely horrendous. I can still practically smell this picture even half a year later as I am writing this journal, and the very reason that this particular one is delayed is because every single time I come across this image, I question my sanity. It is my perpetual belief that French cheese is created to punish humanity of its sins, to instill the dire consequence of our greed, lust, and most importantly, to combat our gluttony. Come on, whoever catches a whiff of the rotten milk curd is gonna give up eating for half a millennia. At least I did.
However, as I started eating the potatoes covered with cheese that one could not even try to name, it turned out to be… quite alright. Do not get me wrong, the cold slices could smell like the end of the world, but once heated, the sterilizing block of death turns into odourless gooey goodness. Coupled with slightly sweet potatoes and a plethora of cured meats, the final meal with the family was actually splendidly fun. Even though I could not understand what Anna’s cousins were talking about, while the classic drunk uncle and curious aunt argue about the virtue of lobsters on the other end of the long table, I sincerely enjoyed the moment. I began to understand: raclette is not the demon I have always perceived it to be, given I have only known it for about a year at that time; it is the food that unites the whole family, a reason to congregate, and for a damn good time having fun heating cheese while enjoying each other’s company. I looked beside me, as Anna tried to slurp a cheese slice through the gap of a potato in a typical goofy fashion, I smiled. This is what a whole feels like; this is what not being alone, feels like. Anna seemed to realize I was staring at her with a strange smile, and gave me a stern look that instantly shut me back. Her cousin laughed, unknowingly letting a slice of cheese slide onto his pants.
After the meal, everyone exchanged gifts, well, except me. I, as always, only had one medium backpack full of everything I needed for survival, so there was no space for gifts. Seriously, how bad of a guest am I? I eat like an elephant that is raising 2 baby elephants, and sleep like a sloth who has lost its will to live, but I do not even prepare any basic gift for the family. Everyone was there exchanging kisses, as Anna’s dad got a nice bottle of wine from one of her uncles, they hugged so hard that I could hear the floor tremble. I watched on as everyone engaged in either embarrassed laughter for getting a strange gift or elated screaming for getting a useful gift that was eagerly desired. The whole room was filled with excitement and joy, as everyone went around congratulating each other for another wonderful year spent with the people they love the most. This is what a family means, I realized at that very moment, as I watched human relationships came to a boiling point: it is so warm, so fuzzy, so, so nice… I wished, I just wished, that I had some growing up. Suddenly, Anna’s mom jumped onto me, giving me a bear hug that I almost mistook her for Anna’s dad. I was stunned, as I always thought that I was just an outsider, a silent observer who is destined to be ignored, but I was not an observer in this household. As she handed me a Darth Vader figure since she heard me humming his theme often, she apologized profusely as she did not know what I want exactly, but I was not paying attention. Tears started clouding my eyes, because I got exactly what I wanted.
I just wanted a Christmas.
I had never had any Christmas gifts given to me because of something I like, because most of the time, nobody paid attention to who I am, let alone what I enjoy. So most of the people either give me a random thing that probably is a regift from another person, or just forget about me altogether. However, Anna’s family paid enough attention: that already beat my parents who had no clue what kind of person I am. While my parents raised me, this French household had only known me for 5 days. I was overwhelmed, because it was so strange to be taken care of when I had to climb out of every hell hole life prepared for me before.
I was shaking, having no idea what to do. I felt incredibly lucky to even know the warmest French family ever, but I also felt even more guilty as I could not give anything return. Stupid! Stupid Young! Why do you hurt those who you want to care for the most! I clumsily put the little black figurine onto my bag, and it has accompanied me to this very day. As everyone kissed each other joyeux Noël on the cheeks, my tears got smothered everywhere, but nobody seemed to mind. I could not believe, as someone who grew up singing happy birthday to himself in bed, I could eventually celebrate the holiday season with a best friend’s family thousands of miles from my birthplace. I am ever so grateful to the world which has let that happen, and I would never ask otherwise.
Yet, it was time for me to stop annoying Anna and her family, the best family there ever was. I wish that I could stay forever, but the last thing I want in this world is to overstay their hospitality, which I already could never pay back. The entire family drove me to the airport, and accompanied me to the check-in desk, and then walked me all the way to the security. Normally, I would not even sweat about anything related to airports, as I had travelled enough distance to circle the world 15 times after all. However, I was extremely anxious this time, as I felt like I had a full tag team coming along. Last time anyone ever sent me off at an airport was like, oh, right. Nobody has ever sent me off at an airport before. I am such a loner that I flew to Los Angeles for my first day in university alone, as I took a bus all the way to the airport to check in for my flight, as my mother was too busy and my dad did not want to bother with the hassle. I came to a realization.
Nobody had ever cared about me enough to see me off at the airport, except Anna and her family.
As I waved them goodbye the 13th time as I was ushered into the security, I started crying, uncontrollably balling like the 12 year old me who had just lost his Gameboy since my mom wanted to take away my only “friend” so I could get better grades. It was a mix of tears of a broken heart as I did not even know when would be the next time that I get to see these lovely people again, but also tears of joy as I realized it was the first time for me to feel sad about leaving my best friend and her family. I, I actually got to have a best friend. Even though we fight; we argue; we bicker; but we also support each other and understand the time we shared is invariably valuable. This is real, as anything real has ups and downs, hiccups and smooth sails. I can’t believe I am saying this, but I think I have made my first friend in my life, who I know will be on my list of favourites until the day I die, along with ice-cream and kittens with mittens. I thought that day would never come.
The plane slowly whirled into power, and whisked me away from the ground. I just sat by the window in the flickering cabin light, wondering what had just happened. I do not want to be cheesy, but given the amount of cheese in this journal already, I have no other choice. I would love to say that they are like my family, but it is not true: Anna and her family ARE my family. They are the closest thing I have that is to blood, as they took me in like adopting a stray cat, even though I am ugly, smelly, horribly-behaved and ignorant. They saw something in me that nobody else did, and what have I done to deserve such honour? Je t’aime tout, my family in France; je t’aime tout, my short-lived but ever-so-lovely few days in Lyon; je t’aime tout, as I have been reborn as a part of my new self. For I am no longer alone, I want to love everything this life has on offer for me. As for my dearest Anna, thank you.
Because without you, I would be long dead by now.
Thank you, for a new life.