The Fields of Verdun (Where They Had A Giant Battle In The War To End All Wars)

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The Battle of Verdun was one of World War I Western Front‘s first major battles.  For 11 months in 1916, the German and French armies fought it out on the  hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse (unsurprisingly located in north-eastern France, near the Champagne region).

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I knew the area was a historical battleground for France and Germany, but driving from Alsace to Verdun, I was shocked by the sheer number of military monuments I saw from the highway.  When Charlemagne‘s empire was divided under the Treaty of Verdun (843 A.D.) the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Later, the Peace of Westphalia (1648 A.D.) awarded Verdun to France.  France and Germany continued to butt heads.  Verdun was part of the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

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There were even more monuments when I got off the highway.  I had a little bit of driving time because I got off at the wrong exit.  I couldn’t believe that I just happened upon places like this in the countryside 20 miles (32K) from the battlefield.

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The Germans hoped a decisive strike and victory would demoralize their opponent, forcing a quick surrender.  Hey, it worked pretty well in the Franco-Prussian War.  Verdun seemed like a logical point of attack; it was almost surrounded.  The Germans failed capture the city of Verdun and to inflict a much higher body count on the other side.  The Battle of Verdun ended as a French tactical victory.  Unfortunately, it came at an extremely high cost to both sides, there were about  800,000 casualties!  Cemeteries surround the museum and contain 15,000 tombstones.

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L’Ossuaire de Douaumont, an ossuary next to the cemetery.  It is the final resting place for 130,000 French and Germans who died in muddy trenches. The tower is shaped like an artillery shell.

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Armies (British, French, American, and German) fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.  Even today, entire areas remain cordoned off and live bombs are turned up by farmers plowing their fields.  Notice the trees are relatively young.  Artillery shelling demolished the existing forests.  It also created craters that are still visible (see the photos below).

DSC_0955DSC_0950The shelling destroyed villages of Cumières and Chattancourt.  Believe it or not, there used to be a town where the chapel now stands!

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The museum is amazing.  I was stunned by how low tech some of it was.  There were carts that had been pulled by horses (they had an ancient looking car too) and a hot air balloon.

DSC_0918DSC_0936They still had enough technology, machine guns, flamethrowers, poisonous gas, etc., to be very, very deadly.
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The museum has photos and a recreation of the trenches.  It’s hard to imagine the conditions the soldiers endured.

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After mobilization of the German Army during World War I, the government identified notable artists to be withdrawn from combat to protect them.  Franz Marc (one of my favorites) was on the list, but before orders for reassignment could reach him, he was struck in the head and killed instantly in 1916 by a shell splinter.

By the way, November 11, is Armistice Day.  On November 11, 1918, fighting ceased in “The Great War” when an armistice, a temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect.  It started on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but the “war to end all wars” officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France.

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Mrs.? Ms.? Miss? Just Call Me Madame

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One of the hardest parts of French is getting the genders straight.  French nouns are either masculine or feminine.  There’s no logical way to discern whether the noun is masculine or feline, you just have to memorize it.   Adjectives change to agree with the gender and number of the nouns they modify.  This means that most of them have four forms!

Traditionally, when you saw the name of a profession, you would immediately know whether the professional referred to was a man or a woman from the form of the noun.  It’s comparable to using the term policeman or policewoman (instead of police officer) in English.  In Switzerland, French is changing to make professions more gender neutral by standardizing the names.   The poster above reads “the times change the language changes too.”   It’s not the only way the French language is changing in Switzerland.

As a newcomer, you don’t want to make a faux pas or embarrass yourself.   Knowing the correct way to address people is part of this.  It is made a little easier by the Swiss custom of not using Miss.  That way, you don’t have to find out someone’s marital status refer to them appropriately.  All women, regardless of their marital status, use Mrs.   It’s a sign of respect…just call me Madame.

What is a Ch’ti?

Most Americans have never heard of “Ch’ti.”  Every Frenchman and woman knows.  Most of the French speaking moviegoing public knows.  Why?  The highest grossing French film of all time is “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis” which loosely translates to “Welcome to the Home of the Ch’tis.”

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis

Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A  is someone from northeastern France,  the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in particular.  The inhabitants are French and speak French, their regional dialect is heavily influenced by the local language Picard (a Romance language closely related to French traditionally spoken by people in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy areas of France and the Walloon part of Belgium).  As a result, their pronunciation is slightly different from the rest of France and the local slang draws heavily from Picard.   These differences were played upon to great effect in the film, with several sorts of Abbott & CostelloWho’s On First” type of interactions.

Area of the picard language

Area of the picard language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Picard, “ch’ti” is local parlance for the language.  In southern France, they are referred to as “cheutimi.”  Ch’ti refers to both the language and people who hail from that part of France.  Now that you know what it is, we can move on to pronunciation.   It sounds like, well, um….

enseigne de café en picard, Cayeux-sur-mer (Somme)

enseigne de café en picard, Cayeux-sur-mer (Somme) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This area is stereotyped as a remount unsophisticated, cold,  and rainy place.  It’s inhabitants had traditionally been stereotyped as: alcoholic, uneducated yokel who eats disgusting (to the French palate) food, and speaks an incomprehensible version of French (which may be an unpardonable sin in France).  The genius of the film is that it exploits these stereotypes and debunks them in such a hilarious way.

Spoiler alert – the main character ends up falling in love with the area’s friendly, unpretentious, helpful inhabitants and is able to see past the grey skies to appreciate the rich local culture.  Outsiders tend to think of other countries cultures as homogenous, when they can be incredibly diverse.   It’s a good reminder that France’s culture differs dramatically within the country.  Think about the differences between New York City, New Orleans and Salt Lake City for example.

One final thought, there’s a line in the movies that says it could be worse, you could have to go to Belgium.  Anyone that reads this blog knows my love for Belgium.  If it is better than that, it must be heavenly.

Colorful Colmar

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair amount in Europe, but never to Alsace (France) and always wanted to see it.  On the way to visit some friends in Germany, we stopped for a night.  We chose to stay the night in Colmar because it is a Rick Steves’ pick.  If it’s good enough for Rick, it’s good enough for me.  As usual, he didn’t let me down.

Alsatian towns are known for cobblestone streets, restored half-timbered buildings painted a myriad of colors and decorated with flowers.  Colmar is no exception.   Colmar is a larger than most with several distinct neighborhoods.  The Petit Venise quarter doesn’t look much like Venice (its canals don’t look much like Brugges either).  Regardless, you still want to stroll the streets and take pictures.

The “Fishermen’s quarter” is where fishermen and merchants sold fish and seafood here until mid 20th century.

Another famous neighborhood, the Quartier des Tanneurs contains tall houses with rooftop porches where Tanners dried their hides.  These tiny neighborhoods look wonderful in the summer, but are apparently also popular in the winter.  Colmar (and nearby Strasbourg) are known for their Christmas market and festive decorations.

Colmar has several unique old buildings.  The Ancienne Douane (Old Customs’s House), La Maison des Têtes (its intricate façade is ornamented with 106 heads, têtes in French), and the gothic Cathédrale Saint-Martin.

Colmar’s Museum of Unterlinden houses Matthias Grünewald‘s Issenheim Alterpiece.  Acclaimed as one of the most dramatic and moving pieces of art, it is unique and filled with iconography.   While I’m not one for most religious art, it was impressive.  The story behind it is interesting.   The religious community of Issenheim cared for the sick and terminally ill.  Depicting realistic pain, misery, Christ’s death and resurrection, analogized their suffering.

Although it might not be immediately obvious, many consider this one of the most exciting works in the history of German art!

We spent another couple of hours examining the museum’s other art, weapons, gold beer steins and other everyday objects from Alsace’s history.  From masterpieces to the everyday, it is one of the better museums we’ve seen.  Even on one of the first sunny summer days it merits a visit.  For us, the 10 most interesting things were:

  1. We saw people performing restoration work on a painting in the middle of the museum.  It was fascinating to watch them work.  I don’t think my eyesight or hand-eye coordination is good enough for that job.
  2. I stumbled into a room with a series of woodcut prints by Albrecht Durer.  I’m a fan of his and excited to see them up close.  They were pretty sweet.
  3. He liked the collection of old wine making equipment.  If you need to hide some bodies, you could definitely do in their giant wood casks.
  4. I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the suits of armor.  Just like the suits we saw at the Tower of London, there were excessively large codpieces that made me giggle and suits large enough to fit Pavarotti.
  5. He liked the old guns, swords helmets and instruments of punishment/torture.
  6. It was fun to compare the old paintings of Colmar to what we saw strolling the streets.  Some of the areas above were instantly recognizable!
  7. How could you not want to drink out of the gold and silver beer steins?
  8. Populated since the Neolithic era, the museum had archaeological finds in the basement, including burial sites replete with skeletons from Alsace.
  9. The museum itself is pretty sweet.  Housed in a former convent from the 13th century, it remains calm, orderly and detailed.
  10. Cheeky sculptures

Someone should have gone easy on the tartes

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statute of Liberty is from Colmar.  The town is justifiably proud of its hometown boy made good.  His sculptures (above) and tributes to his work decorate the town…and the traffic circles.  They are clearly proud of their hometown boy who made it to the big time.   Thanks for Lady Liberty Freddie!

We Didn’t Know The Valley Of Hell Was So Beautiful, Les Baux

Near the end of our whirlwind trip through the south of France, we went to Les Baux-de-Provence near Aix (where we saw a knife fight) and Arles (where we saw the Roman ruins).  It is another adorable and charming hill town, but the real reason to go to  Les Baux is to enjoy sweeping views of the Provencal countryside from atop the ruins of its medieval citadel.   The first citadel was built in the 10th Century.  Although the lords were deposed a couple of centuries later, it didn’t stop it from becoming a cultural center and renowned for its chivalry.  When the last dynastic ruler (Alice of Baux) died, it became part of the kingdom of France.

 In the 17th century, Protestant Baux led an unsuccessful revolt against the Catholic King.  The all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu retaliated by ordering the destruction of the castle and its walls.Shortly after, the town was granted in 1642 to the Grimaldi family of Monaco.  In fact, it still belongs to them (even though it’s administered by France).  Princess Caroline of Monaco uses the title Marquise des Baux.

Having seen plenty of cute shops and art galleries in the hill towns of Eze, St. Paul-de-Vence, and Vence, we checked out a photography exhibition then headed straight for the castle.  Climbing around the ruins was cool (they even had a catapult demonstration), but the dramatic views are the real star of the show.  The rugged moonscape is the perfect place from which to survey Provence.  We watched the weather traverse the countryside, descending only when we saw rain clouds headed toward us.

The Val d’ Enfer (the Valley of Hell) is also renowned.  It allegedly inspired Dante’s poetry. Bauxite, an aluminum ore, was discovered here in 1821.  French geologist Pierre Berthier discovered it and named after the town (Les Baux).  When it’s that cute, how could you do otherwise?

Being short, I love, love, love my heels, but appropriate footwear is recommended.  She was having a devil of a time getting around the town and down the steep hill to the parking.  At least they are cute.

Everything You Don’t Need And Can’t Live Without

In English, terms like into attic sales, flea markets, secondhand, garage sales, car boot sales, all mean cheap prices on used stuff.  In French, terms like brasserie, vides greniers, marche aux puces, brocantes, all mean about the same thing.

In 1754, Carouge, just beyond Geneva’s city limits, was granted to Victor Amideus, King of Sardinia.  It became a refuge for Catholics, less puritanical Protestants, and even Jews.  Its streets are laid on a grid pattern with lots of trees and planters.  The city has low Mediterranean style buildings and interior courtyard gardens.  We like to go for a stroll there and aren’t the only ones.  It’s become a trendy ‘hood.

Some people have a problem with buying or using people’s old stuff.  I have no such compunction and am a sucker for these sales.   This one didn’t have much furniture (which is fine because I don’t have much extra space), but had a lot of everything else including Mexican food (which is a rarity here).   It was great, but perhaps the least spicy Mexican food ever.  The Swiss don’t eat spicy food and so most foreign food is toned down for the Swiss market.   We didn’t care.  I have a supply of assorted hot sauces at the apartment.  If you come visit us, please bring more.

We don’t have children, but I wanted to buy some of the toys anyway.  When I was young I had one of the Fisher-Price castles like the one below and loved it.  It was hard to pass this puppy up.

I think these sales are great places to pick up unusual souvenirs.  We’ve had visitors pick up paintings, books, beer steins, cool glasses, tastevins, vintage t-shirts, Swiss army knives and other cool Swiss army gear at the flea market.

I got a couple of Swiss army knives, a couple of old champagne buckets (to use as planters on my balcony), a leather purse big enough to hold my giant camera (super cute for summer), and a Sherlock Holmes book (in French).    While I didn’t need any of it, apparently I could live without it.

I love these sales because you never know what you will see.  They are like a mini cultural time capsule.  Although you might be able to find an old wheel in the US, you probably won’t find some old spraying equipment or watch parts.

How Do You Pronounce Ouchy?

How do you pronounce this?

 

Ouchy is a town on Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) near Lausanne.  It is known for hosting Byron (and Shelley), the Olympic Museum next-door its castle and its beautiful lakefront.

 

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Ouchy fontaine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

When we went with Pitbull, it was gray and freezing cold.  Last year, we were able to enjoy the beautiful waterfront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ooo-she? Ew-she? He likes to pronounce it like a minor injury, ouch-ee.  I’ve been trying Ew-chi.  After a bit of research, I found out Ouchy is pronounced ūshē‘.  How would you pronounce it?

 

Getting even more advanced, how would the French pronounce this?

 

 

 

Swiss Languages, What is Romansh?

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Switzerland has four national languages: Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh.  Swiss German speakers make up 63.6% of the population, French speakers make up 20.4%, Italian speakers make up 6.5% and Romansh 0.5%.*  In fact, Switzerland’s diversity, particularly it’s diverse languages, is one of the primary ways it differentiates itself from its more homogeneous neighbors.

Romansh is only spoken in a few valleys in the southeastern alps, but is one of four national Swiss languages. It is a national language, but not an official language.  Therefore, it not used in Parliament, government and the army.  Also, laws do not have to be translated into Romansh.
When the Romans conquered the area in about 15 B.C.E., they latinized the area. Today’s inhabitants of the area speak Romansh, a descendant of Latin.
The area is very remote and isolated. As a result, five different versions of the language exist.   Notice the lack of roads (due to the Alps) in the southeast, where Romansh is spoken.
These are some of the largest, most easily accessible and well-known areas.  You can see how transportation and contact with the outside world might have been (and still be) difficult.
It is a unique phenomenon to have so many dialects in such a small area. In fact, Romansh is spelled many different ways including: Romansch, Rumants(c)h, Romanche, Romansh, Rumantsch, Rumantsch, and Romontsch. To help keep it alive, a standard written form was developed in the 80’s.
Check out the Romansh keyboard.  Despite my frustration with them, French keyboards are starting to look a lot easier.
*Those who add will note that this does not total 100%.  Other language speakers make up around 9%.  Expats, like us, are a good example.

 

A Sunday Drive

With the exception of a visit to Evian, we’d never spent much time on the French side of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).  Everyone had told us that there wasn’t much there.  Last Sunday, we took a drive up that side of the lake.  It’s true, there aren’t any really large towns.  There were a few places we would like to visit again.
carte tour du lac leman a velo seminaire seminaires evian les bains
We started out in Hermance, the last town on the Swiss side of the border.  It is a cute, old town.  On a Sunday morning, it was very quiet.  They have a beach and a playground that could be very child-friendly in the summer.
Next, we went to Yvoire.  It was our favorite stop.  We walked around it’s historic walled town checked out the lakefront.  We will probably take a ferry there for a late afternoon meal, stroll around the town and take a boat back around sunset.
Yvoire was surprisingly busy.  It’s very steep and built into the hillside.  As a result, it’s a bit more difficult to navigate.  The beaches on the east side of town are rocky.  We stopped and picked up tons of beach glass.
Evian can be quickly seen in an hour or two.  We continued all the way to the Swiss border at Saint Gingolph.  During the drive, it became clear why the French side of the lake is so sparsely populated in comparison to the Swiss side.  It is bordered by steep mountains.  There is very little land that is suitable for building.
We need to clean our windshield, but you get the idea.
We joked that Switzerland (which needs as much farmland as it can get its hands on to feed its citizens) took all the farmable, buildable land around the lake and said to France “you can keep the mountains, we have enough of those.”
 

Another French Lesson For Y’All

First page of 19th-Century version of original...

I have been busy translating my resume into French.  Translation is an art and I am no Da Vinci.*  I met with someone (a native French speaker) to review a draft of it.  There were two points where he laughed out loud (not a good sign).

In trying to describe myself as professional, I wrote “Je suis une professionelle”.  I said that I was a professional.  The problem with this is that it is slang for a certain occupation and really only used in that context.  Needless to say, I revised it.

When talking about reviewing something, I used the word “revue“.  Unfortunately, a common connotation of the word “revue” is familiar to many Americans who go to Las Vegas and see shows with dancing ladies.  It goes without saying that when that connotation of the word dawned on me, I didn’t want it anywhere near my professional qualifications.

*If you want further confirmation that translation is an art, “The Situation” from the Jersey ShoreMichael Paul Sorrentino‘s nickname is translated into “Le Problème”.