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December 9, 2001
Lyon: la fête des lumières (Russell)

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La rue de la république

Back in the early 1800s, during a pestilence that swept through France, Lyon was one of the only cities that was spared.  The people attributed their good fortune to the grace of the Virgin Mary, and ever since then they have celebrated every year by lighting candles in their windows.  While December 8th is still the official "fête des lumières," the festival now runs for an entire week.  The celebrations have grown to include the arrival of Advent and the Christmas season.  And the candles themselves have turned into a dazzling spectacle of lights that completely takes over France's second-largest city once a year.

Lyon is only two and 1/2 hours north of our home in Crest, and Therèse (a relative of friends) invited us to stay at her home in nearby Charbonnières, so we took a weekend trip to see France's second "city of lights."  Now that we have a home base, we enjoyed being able to pack quick overnight bags instead of shoving all of our possessions into the car.  We added the boys' Lego and chocolate Advent calendars, locked up the house, and set out on December 7th.

We avoided the autoroutes (freeways) and took the more scenic backroads instead.  We made a quick stop in Lyon before heading into Charbonnières, so that we could pick up some long-sought English books and DVDs (there are not a lot of these kinds of things in Crest).  Unfortunately, from there we got completely lost, despite following Therese's meticulous directions (Russell was not able to decipher the notes he had made two weeks earlier during a telephone call in French).  We finally arrived in Charbonnières after five o'clock -- almost sundown -- where we were warmly met by Therèse and her dog, Dik.

Therèse's four children are grown (she has just become a grandmother for the second time), so she had lots of spare room in the house to put us up.  Cameron and Joss took a room on the ground floor (just after we wrote in a previous letter that the boys enjoyed separate rooms, they approached us and asked to be moved back into a room together), and Russell and Gail took one on the third floor.  (Therèse also rents some of her rooms to students.  Her current boarder, curiously enough, is a Chinese fellow who speaks a little English but no French -- and Therèse doesn't speak any English.  Russell was therefore in the strange position of being able to speak to both of them, despite not speaking a word of Chinese.)

We joined Therèse for dinner out at a restaurant in Charbonnières (to give you an idea of Charbonnière's size, the entire town has one signal light).  While the boys had hamburgers and french fries (which they didn't actually eat), the adults tried the seafood.  Gail ordered something French off of the menu, and was presented with a gigantic platter of shellfish, including oysters, clams, shrimps, and sea snails.  Not normally a shellfish eater, Gail gamely tried a little of everything anyway (her favorite was the sea snail -- she declared that after Tanzanian baboon, she could eat anything).  But when Gail was ultimately only able to finish a small portion of the entire platter (it was only supposed to be the appetizer, after all), the chef actually came out of the kitchen very upset, wondering what was wrong with the dish.

Fortunately, Gail's main course was a more traditional beef steak, which was absolutely delicious.  Russell had lobster with mushrooms, which seemed delicious at the time.  (Unfortunately, after a very filling combination of duck paté, lobster with mushrooms, two cheeses, three sherberts, and eucalyptus tea that evening -- it was the first restaurant we'd been to in a month -- Russell ended up spending part of that night in the bathroom "praying to the porcelain god").  We spent a wonderful evening with Therèse, sharing travel stories and photo albums until after midnight --Therèse has been to even more places than we have.  Despite not speaking each others' languages, Gail and Therèse hit it off wonderfully -- they both love to work with their hands, indulging in everything from making homemade jams to doing embroidery to refinishing old doors.

December 8th started out as a very relaxed, lazy day.  We knew that we would be out late walking around in Lyon, and we didn't want to overextend Cameron and Joss.  We lounged around at the house, where Therèse made a wonderful lunch of poulet de la campagne (think of a chicken pot roast) that included pintade (our old friend the guinea fowl, which we had seen all over the place in Tanzania).

We finally went to the train station at 4:00 PM to catch a train into Lyon.  (Driving through old town is not recommended during the fête -- there are so many people, you wouldn't be able to move your car, let alone find a place to park it.   Unfortunately, the French also picked that day to put all of the metros and buses on strike.)  Our first problem was in trying to buy train tickets -- the machine wouldn't accept Russell's foreign credit card, and he didn't have enough coins.  Fortunately, we were able to give paper money to a woman who then charged our tickets to her own credit card.   Our second problem was in trying to figure out what to do with the tickets -- were we supposed to validate them in the machine here in Charbonnières, or in Lyon?  We asked a nearby woman, who confessed that after 20 years she was taking the train for the first time, and she had no idea what to do either.  We finally boarded the train and made the 12 minute ride into Lyon, arriving at the Gare de St.-Paul.

It was just beginning to get dark, but Lyon was already wonderfully full of lights, people, and ambience.  We bought hot dogs, gyros, and cotton candy from the many street vendors.  We walked by the Cathédrale de St.-Jean and Nôtre Dame de Fourvière in the old city before crossing the Saône River into downtown Lyon.  At Place Bellecour there was a gigantic ferris wheel that Joss really wanted to go on, but we knew he would end up cold and terrified.  At the Théâtre des Célestins, the entire front of the building became a screen on which artists projected weird art, using light to paint designs that looked like dripping water and splattered paint.  The fountain at Place de Jacobins was transformed into a gigantic flower whose petals opened and closed.  But the most magnificent spectacle was at the Hôtel de Ville, where the entire square became a stage for a laser light show.  Colorful images were projected onto the buildings, fire and lights sprang from the ground, and laser lights filled the sky as music played.

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The laser light show at the Hotel de Ville...
...where the buildings themselves are part of the spectacle

It was a long evening, especially for the boys (at one point Cameron, in classic pre-teen fashion, declared "I don't understand the point of what we're doing here"), but we ended up fascinated and entertained.  Joss finally found a stuffed animal to represent Tanzania -- a plush lion that he named "Genet."  We even saw street performers who juggled fire.  We ran to the train station just as the 8:15 PM train was pulling out, and had to wait for the next one at 8:45.  The boys slept very well that night.

On December 9th we bid a reluctant farewell to Therèse (both she and we would have liked us to stay longer, but we have another appointment in two days) and made a relaxed backroad drive back to Crest.  We made one stop along the way in Hauterives in order to visit an attraction that Gail had been wanting to see ever since we left the US (she found it in the book Weird Europe).

Back in the 1800s, Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval dreamed of building a palace for himself, despite the fact that he was a mailman and he didn't know a thing about architecture.   One day during his route, he stumbled over a stone in his path, which sparked a lifetime quest.  For the next 33 years, he collected stones and other bits and used them to construct his palace.  The result, the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, is now recognized as a national monument (and the first -- and only -- example of "naive art").  It embodies various forms of architecture from around the world and incorporates his own sculptures of people, plants, and animals.

We arrived at the palace at lunchtime, but just about everything was closed on Sunday.  We dragged the boys several blocks in the cold to the only open restaurant, only to discover that it was full.  We finally found a pâtisserie that had just closed, but the woman took pity on us and opened up.  We ended up having pastries for lunch in the lobby of the palace.  The palace itself was as amazing as we hoped it would be, with spiral staircases and little passages that wove around and poked through little windows.

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At "The Ideal Palace of Cheval the Mailman"

After several more wrong turns along the way (we're still getting used to French road signs), we finally made it back to Crest in the late afternoon.  The boys immediately ran out to the tree swing, and Gail was able to whip up yet another one of her amazing dinners despite there being no food in the house.  It was good to be home.


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