Back To Reality

I cannot believe it’s almost Christmas and also that it’s been almost two months since my last blog. The last time I posted was just before I headed off to Morocco which I have so much to write about that I want to share with you. On coming home, I got caught up in a fairly busy time at work with exams and also had a fairly lively social life in the past few weeks as well. For now, I thought a little recap of my first few months back in Mulhouse and France after the summer should come first. It’s been a busy time, reconnecting with friends from last year, making new ones, getting to know my new flatmates, settling back into my routine and surviving my job. I’ve already spoken about how I’ve lost a little enthusiasm for my job, although there are always some highlights, good classes or weeks where my lesson plan worked particularly well. However, on the whole this means that I’m living even more for my life outside of work, packing it full of lots of activities and fun things to look forward to.

Let’s start with my first weekend back in France. I flew from Edinburgh to Paris at the end of August and straight into a long weekend at Rock en Seine, a music festival on the outskirts of the city. I was going with my friend Anna, fellow Edinburgh uni graduate and lectrice in France. We went to three out of the four days that the festival was running and had an amazing time. The location itself was really well set up, even once it got really busy there was still plenty of space for everyone. There were lots of food and drink stalls which did have very long queues around dinner time but we avoided these by eating a little earlier or later. The headliner on the Thursday was Arctic Monkeys, one of the big selling points of the weekend. I like the Arctic Monkeys, I know a handful of their more popular songs really well, but Anna is from the north of England so the Arctic Monkeys run through her veins. She had such a fantastic time watching them that it made me enjoy it even more! Just as the song I had been waiting for came on (I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor), someone near me yelled ‘Do it for Yorkshire!’. Another highlight from our first day was a band called Inhaler, a group of Irish boys that includes Bono’s son, that I had never heard (of) before but have become a fan of! There was also a very serendipitous moment when Anna and I were queueing at one of the bars after eating dinner. I saw a girl walk past with a Scottish flag tied around her shoulders so I stopped her to talk to her. It turns out that she and her friend were from Falkirk, 30 minutes away from my hometown! And of course, because everyone in Scotland knows each other, we had a few friends in common.

We didn’t go to the festival on the Friday so we had a day to kill in Paris – oh no, what a shame! We filled it by just wandering around the city on a bit of an impromptu tour of bookshops. A lovely way to spend a day. We were back at it on the Saturday which was more of a chill day. The headliner was Tame Impala but they weren’t coming on until 11pm. We were both feeling tired and only knew a couple of songs each so we called it a night early and were in bed before they even came on stage! Highlights were a French singer called Mr Giscard and a chocolate and pistachio soft serve ice cream!

Finally Sunday – the big day! The headliner and the main reason we, and probably many other people, had bought our tickets was Stromae! For anyone unaware of the genius of Stromae, he is a Belgian singer who is a strong favourite of most high school French teachers. That’s how Anna and I were introduced to him anyway. In the run up to Stromae’s set, we enjoyed a lot of smaller acts that made the day as a whole my favourite of the weekend. The first act we saw that day was Olivia Deane who has since become a favourite of mine and later on we caught part of Joy Crookes. As a warm up for Stromae we went to the main stage to watch Parcels, an Australian group that are straight up vibey, that’s the best way to describe them. It was golden hour, someone near us was blowing bubbles and a spontaneous flash mob started in our area, it was great! And finally it was time. Stromae came on to Invaincu, the first song from his newest album. Listen to it and you’ll understand why this was the perfect choice. I swear I felt my soul leaving my body. The production value was through the roof and we even got treated to an a cappella version of one of his songs, Mon Amour, as the encore. Overall, it was the perfect end to a great weekend which itself served as a very satisfying ending to an incredible summer.

It wasn’t long before I was back in Paris. In fact, it wasn’t even a week! I had a trip planned with my best friend of twenty years. We had both been to Paris before and done the main touristy things so we were looking forward to doing a few more off-the-beaten-track type things. Unfortunately the trip did not get off to a great start as Kathryn’s flight was delayed by two hours. Originally we were supposed to arrive in Paris around the same time as each other and were going to meet in the centre. Instead I decided to make the most of the delay by going out to Charles de Gaulle airport to meet her off the plane. I figured that seeing a familiar face at arrivals might be a nice way to counteract the annoyance of being late. 

After dropping our things off at our hotel, handily situated right next to the Saint Lazare station, our first stop was the Catacombs! Neither of us had ever been here before but having done a history degree and her dissertation on Jack the Ripper’s London, the catacombs are right up Kathryn’s alley. The Catacombs of Paris house the bones of more than six million people in tunnels that were originally part of the city’s stone quarries. The bones were transferred from various cemeteries around Paris towards the end of the 18th century but only became a popular attraction after concerts and private events started being held there in the 19th century. If you visit today, prepare for a climb because it’s 131 steps down and 112 steps back up. Personally I thought they were a little uncomfortable but overall an interesting place. It was weird to be so close to the bones with nothing in between us. I’m not a squeamish person but there was something about it that just made me squirm. We had an audio guide included with our tickets which cost about €30. Without the audio guide you’re really just walking through some damp tunnels surrounded by bones and reading the occasional sign, not all translated from French either. I still thought it was a little expensive for just over an hour of walking through tunnels. We emotionally recovered with a cocktail in the sun near the exit of the catacombs (half a mile away from the entrance) and then went in search of food. We ended up at a pizza place in the Latin Quarter with the nicest bathroom ever. After our long day of travel, especially for Kathryn, that was about all we had in us so we headed back to the hotel. 

Day two started with a coffee and a croissant followed by a short metro ride and a walk through the Tuileries and along the Seine. We arrived at Sainte-Chapelle, one of my favourite tourist sights in Paris that I think goes a little unnoticed by lots of people. I really think it’s a must do and if you time it right, either earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, the queue isn’t that long either. From there we wandered down towards the bookshop Shakespeare and Company and then found somewhere for lunch. It was hot and very humid in Paris so we headed back to the hotel for a little siesta. 

That evening we went out to Bouillon Chartier for dinner at Kathryn’s request. A bouillon is a traditional Parisian restaurant that serves quick, simple French food. Bouillon Chartier is is located in a 19th century cartridge factory in the 9th arrondissement and has only had four owners in its entire 100 year history. Kathryn had a steak and chips with pepper sauce and I had pork belly and sausage with lentils and some green beans on the side. All that, plus a bottle of white wine, the Chartier profiterole and a creme caramel was only €44! It was a great dining experience with good quality food for a great price and classic service! It’s a great option if you want to escape some of the more exorbitant pricing in Paris while still enjoying a great meal. 

And with that, our time in Paris was almost done. The next morning we dropped our luggage at the Gare du Nord and then went for a little wander through Montmartre. We had a very overpriced Coke which was worth it to enjoy one of the best views of Sacre Coeur. After a quick lunch I sent Kathryn off on the Eurostar and I headed back to Mulhouse. 

This was back at the start of September and it was only after this trip that I really settled back into life in Mulhouse. I still had a bit of time before I started teaching. I have a whole new set of flatmates this year. In fact, I knew one of them, Mahmoud from Tunisia, a little already as we had crossed over during my final month in Mulhouse before the summer. The new arrivals were Alexis, a French engineer from Haute-Savoie, and Lilly, a German teacher working in a nearby bilingual school. We’ve been getting along great since we’ve all been there, hanging out in the apartment, going on trips to Colmar, for drinks in Gambrinus and most recently doing a Christmas dinner. 

Eventually I did start teaching again and now I’m at the end of what felt like a long semester. I’m not going to go into it too much right now because I have some thoughts and feelings around this semester that I want to unpack in its own blog post. For now I’ll say that it was nice coming back and knowing two-thirds of my students already. The groups were different to last year which is a bit of variety. I get to see a new mix of people interact and it changes it up for them as well. I have to say though, never mind that it had been five months so I had forgotten a lot of names, it was also really difficult to place people without their masks on! When it came to my first years, they were all a bit shy which is understandable because they’re new to the university, to each other, to me. Because of that I had to put in a bit more energy and not be bothered when I didn’t get anything back. Progress has been slow but steady throughout the semester (with most groups at least) so hopefully that only continues after the holidays. 

This year’s flatmates!

It has been nice being back in Mulhouse for a second year because I already felt very at home here. Even so, there has still been lots to explore and discover in Mulhouse, new places to try. I went back to an old favourite, Nomad, where the cocktails are great and happy hour makes them affordable but this time to try some food. My advice – skip the nachos but try the crispy chicken and the croquetas. I also finally got myself to the Petit Marcel casse-croûterie to try the drool-worthy sandwiches. Petit Marcel has a rotisserie in Mulhouse as well that I have been to before for a staff dinner last December (the memory slightly tainted by the fact that I got covid the next day) but I’d never made it to the sandwich shop. I tried their version of a chicken caesar because I knew that the chicken would be from the rotisserie and therefore amazing and I wasn’t disappointed! A shoutout for their homemade, slightly minty lemonade! I haven’t made it back but I hope to at least a couple more times in my remaining months. Some other new spots that I tried have been Tilvist, a cute tea house full of nick-nacks and loaded pretzels that I want to go back and sample, and the patissier Dany Husser in Maison Engelmann where I had an interesting strawberry mojito tartelette. 

As well as trying new spots around Mulhouse, I’ve also branched out a bit in terms of activities. Mulhouse has a few sports teams that are well known and very strong, notably the women’s volleyball team, the men’s basketball team and the Scorpions ice hockey team. I haven’t gone to a volleyball match yet but it’s on the list. I went to one basketball match with a couple of friends and loved it! I’ve watched quite a few basketball matches in my time because my sister used to play but it had been a while. The real surprise is that I’ve now been to about four ice hockey matches! Part of this is because I’ve been surprised how much I enjoy it but also because I have a new friend who’s boyfriend is on the team. Sam found my friend Àine (also known as Une Bouchée A Day) through TikTok and we’ve all become fast friends, bonding over coffees, the highs and lows of moving abroad and cheering Tyler on during Scorpion games. 

I’ve been up to a few more interesting things in the past few months. I have attempted to more officially embrace France’s love for wine by doing a ‘dégustation de vin’ (a wine tasting) at the wine bar La Quille, run by the wine shop Clos 3/4. It was a little bit of an expensive attempt at becoming more cultured but it was something a bit different and Àine and I learnt a lot (even if I don’t remember most of it!). It was split into two sessions of about two hours each, one for white wine and one for red wine. I enjoyed the white wine session a lot because that is what I enjoy drinking. We were given a couple of wines at a time to compare them and talked through how to look at them, smell them, taste them and what we could tell about the wine from that. Red wine is less my speed but I learnt a little more about what I like which is what I wanted out of it. In general, La Quille is a lovely spot for a glass or two of nice (but not too expensive) wine and some nice nibbles. 

Also at the suggestion of Àine, I attended a talk between a psychoanalyst from Strasbourg, Jean-Richard Freymann, and a famous chef from Lyon, Michel Troisgros. It was called ‘Rencontres Épicées‘ and was about the link between pleasure and food. I was pleased with how much I was able to follow because it was all in French, even if some of the ideas went over my head. All in all, I wasn’t the biggest fan. I think it’s a really interesting topic but neither of the speakers seemed to know much about the other’s speciality which meant that it was almost two completely separate conversations. There were also some comments from the psychoanalyst that were… questionable at best. I also would have loved for one of the guests or even the mediator to have been a woman or for any of them to have acknowledged a woman, chef, psychoanalyst or otherwise, outside of them being a family member. I did appreciate the buffet afterwards though, with some excellent little tarts, beef bouillon and cakes. 

Last but not least on my road to cultural betterment, I attended a talk organised by a colleague and 47º Nord bookshop. Jan Carson is a Northern Irish writer whose most recent novel ‘The Firestarters’ uses magical realism to explore the post-Troubles environment in Belfast. I raced through the book and was really looking forward to hearing Jan talk about it. I actually got a little emotional hearing her speak so beautifully and powerfully about the unshared stories of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, from women, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community, that are now getting the attention they deserve. Another theme in the book that really moved me looks at what happens when good people see or do terrible things. I’m a little bit obsessed with her now and can’t wait to read more of her books!

And that brings us to the halfway mark of the semester, marked by my week off and trip to Morocco. I want to really do justice to Morocco and the incredible experience I had there so I’m going to be taking my time writing those blogs. I managed to pack a lot into my week there during which time I really fell in love with the country. I want to convey that in what I write so it might take a little longer than normal. Or maybe I won’t be able to stop the words from flowing through my fingertips and onto the page, we’ll have to wait and see!

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