Lyon, language and some Snails

The idea that France is the land of cheese is not some myth. Fromage is everywhere. So therefore, if you are a French citizen of any span of time, you should have a cheese guy. My brother embraced this requirement. One grey morning, we perused the local farmer’s market and met *Ian* His black apron was firmly in place, his hairless head bore no sign of sweat and his eyes swiveled around constantly. He shook my hand and said my name with a grin as my brother explained I was his sister. Same old story, except that this time I was not following my brother’s footsteps through the K-12 system.

The farmer’s market was under a bridge and featured many vendors proudly displaying their products. Definitely worth a stroll to view the baskets of cured sausages, trays of flowers and flower-shaped tomatoes, rows of baguettes and dark jars of olives. Plenty of plastic jugs of milk and brown eggs, free and open to the world without a refrigerator around them.

Squeezed underneath the yellow overpass and with vans forming a barrier on each side, the market was an industrial version of a pastoral pastime. I think this style is very much akin to Grenoble’s history. The city is sunken between mountains, hosted the International Exhibition of Hydropower and Tourism and became known as an epicenter of French resistance during WWII. I saw that in the plain concrete walls adorned with funky murals.  Lights strung across the avenues glowed quietly as the sun set.  Patterns and petals of small balconies jut out next to blockish research facilities.

My mind and eyes were drawn to the glistening pan of potatoes and tomatoes sizzling away in oil in a huge cast iron pan. We realized it was time to eat. We bid adieu to *Ian* and shuffled our way through the people and cars to a nearby sidewalk cafe.

The “we” in this case was 9 people, and one large fluffy dog. Situating ourselves around the tiny round tables was tough. But the cappuccino I got was worth it. I am not exactly sure why it was so good and desert-like. It was sweet and creamy. By American/Italian standards, the whipped cream should not have been there. But I am very glad it was. I happily scraped the little cup, downed the even tinier cup of chilled water (rare in Europe!!!) and pushed away the little cartoon tray. Time to take on Lyon.

Dennis, Aaron and I boarded a train and headed away to the North. We walked off the train and rented out more bikes.The bikes were red this time, and the local air seemed a little more spring-like. Lyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is known for its medieval quarters (Vieux Lyon) and its historical production of silk. It is on the river Saone and is topped by the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere. When I say topped, I mean topped. I will get to that later.

But first it was time to reward ourselves for the bike ride. We pedaled through the modern perimeter of the city. Wide streets, leafy trees and fancy apartment buildings. The river was adorned with hanging flower baskets and somewhere down the road was a Gothic church that I could only see for a distant instance. Awnings and a tiny flower shop. Relaxed and pretty.

We were with Dennis, and as Dennis was the expert, we followed his lead for lunch.

The restaurant was called Restaurant L’Entrecôte. It is a chain, but distinctly stylized to be a French bistro. Black and yellow awnings. Manicured shrubs. I recall the place was pretty full and there were multiple floors, designed to accommodate a healthy fan base.

There was one dish only: Steak and Steak-Frites. A light salad with walnuts and goat cheese was first. Bread and butter arrived. The bread was not as…lavish as other types we had tried.  The main attraction was the steak. Thinly cut and spread out on our plates by the server at the table, it arrived in this silver heated pan with a sauce. The sauce was savory, some combination of oil and herbs and maybe some olives. Whatever it was, I poured it liberally over the small cut, crispy and very unhealthy fries. I don’t like fries unless there is some real flavor to offset the fattiness. And more crispiness than starchiness. Those satisfied my requirement 🙂

Bellies full and lips hydrated from fat (hey, its a vacation right) we biked over to the center of town. And hiked up. And up and up. Our target was the Basilica, which sat gleaming on  the top of a green hill overlooking the vast city. I was wearing jeans and a black sweater with cutouts – mistake. By the same we got up there, my legs were aching and I was sweating. I got some great pictures to capture the relationship of Aaron and Dennis, star-crossed lab mates and hopefully good life-long friends.

When we finally reached the top, we toured the gaudy and intricate basilica. The mini-Eiffel tower stood nearby.  The wind was blowing, as you can see, and we were hungry. So down the narrow streets we went. I peered into a gated tunnel buried in the buildings.  I tried to discern the light at the other end while I imagined using that small space in its prime. I may be mistaken, but this feature is a traboule. Traboule are secret passageways originally built to facilitate quick commutes for the silk workers, but also credited as a saving grace that shielded the residents from complete Nazi control. With Dennis leading the charge, we passed through.

When we finally reached the end of the hill, we emerged into a crowded cobblestone area. The medieval streets below the Basilica were really crowded. Tourist central.

Then, one brilliant moment happened. We are not French, but we are American. Dennis turned to Aaron, in his grey T-shirt and light blue pants and said “I am hot for you.” A blank stare, a “what?” and a good few moments of laughter followed before Aaron corrected him. Dennis meant to say he feels bad for Aaron because he must be warm. That is not how it came out. Later, I wrote down the moment in my journal. Too priceless to not remember.

My quest to find something reasonable, attractive and distinctly Lyonnaise was unsuccessful.  I did find Jack, along with traditional puppets, expensive clothing and an absinthe store. I walked past a man sitting against the wall. He was homeless and carefully watched his 5 adorable puppies squirming and rolling over each other in play. My heart sank, and I gave him 3 euros. Financially, not a smart move, as I still have an enormous amount to pay back to my brother. But emotionally, I couldn’t help it. It’s me.

I helped all that I could, said a quick prayer as always, and rejoined my company across the square. We opted for ice cream.  I think I chose the Saint Helen Sundae. Of course, the name was in French, so it was much more eloquent. But mine featured vanilla ice cream, fresh pears, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Not a chance I was letting that go to waste.

By the time we got back to Grenoble, it was evening. We laid low and cleaned ourselves and Aaron’s room up. It was almost time to leave his time as a Grenoble resident behind….but there was something still left to do. Escargot. Yes thats right.

We walked to another part of the city and waited for more of Aaron’s friends, *Caroline* and *Alex*. As we waited, I watched French parking techniques. Finally, an SUV pulled up and two female faces with dark hair smiled out of them and we climbed it. We drove around for a good while trying to find a spot. The car was large for that urban ecosystem and perfectly average for an American one.

Caroline was tall and lengthy, while Alex was shorter and more of an athletic build. Both were Brazilian and very nice. Marianna joined us. The couple jokingly pressured Aaron into eating that infamous French delicacy of snails. And they jokingly said that if one American ate a snail, so did the other. I nervously agreed. Marianna, the Italian, did not.

The restaurant we went to was very unique. Very. And very fun. It was like a deli in that you could go up to the glass cases and point and chose. Or you could order off the menu. There were newspapers covering the walls, carnival flags swooping over checkered plastic table cloths, a table and chairs glued upside down to the ceiling. The restaurant was a shack in the corner and had a vintage phone inside. Don’t ask me why.

We got red wine, a charcuterie tray and escargot. Ready???

I admit I only ate one. My heart was leaning against the back wall of my chest in resistance. But I ate it. It wasn’t that bad! It was similar in texture to a mussel (which I love). Its flavor was simple, with a little garlic and parsley and olive oil. The hardest part was getting over the concept and trying to use the clamp and stick to get it out of the shell.

Aaron ate three. The first two went down easy. The third was cold, and he clamored for the red wine immediately.

There is my lesson to you: eat cooked snails. But only when warm.


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