These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.

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Posts about Regional travel

The Fete.

Posted by: Updated: February 18, 2012 - 3:56 PM

Again I find myself awaking without an alarm clock, getting up, and eating a breakfast of fresh-baked bread with Nutella on it along with some tea and milk. I finish eating quickly and get dressed. Today is the day of the Fete, and we want to demolish a stairway on the hillside before we leave at noon. Keith has told me that the Fete is a large gathering arranged by the local hunters in order to share the meat they have gotten. Hunters have spent the prior week participating in the Chasse, (hunting in English), and killed a large amount of the excess wild boar in the area. I am very excited to participate in this cultural event.

I walk outside on this beautiful day and meet Katie over by the old ruin that Derek and Ben have been tearing down. She has already started to remove some of the decayed wooden steps from the hillside, so I get to work on helping her. The wood is damp and rotten, and there are a lot of sharp thorn bushes covering them, so it turns into a minor pain. I go into the shed and retrieve a set of trimming shears to get rid of all the nasty thorns so we can continue our work. With those cleared it doesn't take long to get the wooden steps removed and the rocks carried off that were underneath. Under those rocks though there is a pile of rubble that was used as a base for the stairs, so that needs to be removed next. It takes us until noon to get half of the rubble shoveled up and carted away. We walk inside the house and clean up. No lunch today because we need to save room for the big meal.

Everyone piles into the trucks once we are ready. We take both trucks since there are seven of us. Derek and I take the Hyundai and the rest of the crew loads into the Mitsubishi. The place we are headed is the town of Mouchan, and it is not far away. With me driving we take off following Keith in the other truck. The drive doesn't take long and we arrive at the gathering around 12:30.

I follow the others into the building where the Fete is held. Inside there is a large number of older French people mingling and talking with each other. There must be a majority of the citizens of this area in this one building. This is one of those times where I would love to have a good grasp of the language. Our group mingles around for a while and enjoys some of the Armagnac drinks they are giving out. Soon we make our way over to the tables and find a place with enough room for the nine of us. There are a lot of people here and long tables, but they are able to ensure that everyone has a spot to sit. Derek and Justin have started to have a nice conversation in French with the older couple next to them. I can't understand a single thing, but can pick up a small amount of intent based on hand gestures.

It is another hour before the meal begins. First course is a rather bland soup with noodles in it. Not really the start to the feast I was expecting. Still I eat two bowls worth of it because at this point I am starving. The soup is accompanied by some more wine. After the soup is finished the servers bring out more plates with a meat dish. I'm told that the center slice of meat is a wild boar pâté and there are sausages and lettuce around it. This in itself is very tasty and I enjoy it. The servers now have Armagnac and have been wandering around the tables filling glasses. Next dish up is a stew made from more boar meat along with some sliced baguettes. It is satisfying, but has a weird texture to it. Almost gelatin like. Thankfully they soon bring out the main course, which is sliced boar meat along with a very delicious bean soup. I eat two servings of this easily. At this point they switch Armagnac for a very sweet, peach white wine. The final course is dessert. They serve a peach pastry and it is delicious. I am quite stuffed, and so happy to be here.

After the meal they begin with a meat weighing contest. The mayor of Mouchan is walking around the tables with a haunch of ham and handing it off for guesstimate weighing. The fee to guess is 2€, so I pass. As it turns out a kid probably around the age of 12 wins the prize and gets a nice cricket set out of it. After the weighing a group of people start to gather on the other side of the building. I see a flicker of flame every so often from between the people and I am now very interested in what they are doing. The group and I walk over there and find an old man sitting in a chair with a long ladle looking device that is resting in a steel bucket in front of him. The bucket itself is engulfed in flames. I'm told that it is a tradition after the meal to take a bucket like this and fill it with a mixture of Armagnac, sugar, and lemon juice. Then they ignite the mixture and let it burn until a good amount of the sugar and alcohol is burned off. The man tending to it also uses the ladle to lift some of the mixture about six feet above the pail and then pour it back in causing a very beautiful stream of fire raining down. I'm entranced. For nearly 30 minutes I stand there watching the fire flicker up and down and the mixture slowly burning away. When the liquid is reduced enough that the flame goes out they pour the mixture into large pitchers and serve it up to the guests. I take a glass and sniff it suspiciously. The alcohol nearly burns my nostrils. One small sip and I realize just how strong it is. This is after they reduced it. I can't even imagine how strong the pure stuff is.

By this time we have been at the Fete for nearly six hours. Katie, Ben, and I want to go into town to get some cash from an ATM and try to find some groceries for baking. Derek and Justin have started to talk with the mayor and another fellow, who I later find out is the leader of the Chasse of the Gers, so I let them know we will wait out in the truck for them. Nearly 45 minutes of sitting outside in the truck goes by before we decide to go in and disrupt their conversation. When I walk in I see they have moved to a table and the four of them are in deep conversation. They finish and say good-bye and come out to the truck. As we drive off towards Condom, Derek and Justin tell us that they were invited to go along on the next hunt. That is a great honor in this area.

We arrive in Condom soon after only to realize that because it is now 7:00pm on a Sunday everything is closed. Oh well. We are still able to get some cash, and actually get a rather good picture of all of us on the musketeer statues next to the cathedral. On our way back to the house we get lost in Condom and basically experience the entire town through our truck windows. That provides endless entertainment for the crew.

When we make it back to the house it's only 8:00pm. We sit down at the kitchen table and spend a few hours talking about a wide range of topics from space and the environment, to politics and sex. Overall it turns out to be an extremely interesting evening. Around 11:00pm we all decide to get some sleep and rest up for the work ahead of us tomorrow. I sense more rubble clearing and car fixing is in my near future. As I climb into bed and lay my head on the pillow I think to myself just how great it is to be doing this kind of work and experiencing the French culture from this point of view. Soon after I am floating around in dreamland.

If you are interested in reading about my previous adventures through Europe please check out my other blog.

Wienerschnitzel and Maturaballs: Styria, Austria

Posted by: Updated: November 17, 2011 - 4:43 AM
And here we pick up where the story last left off: on the gorgeous three-hour train ride from Vienna to Graz [the capital city of the region of Styria]. After arriving in Graz, we were picked up by our friends and headed off to a party with Bavarian pretzels, delicious open-faced sandwiches, and weisswurst (which we later found out was sausage made of pig brains…). So after restoring our empty tummies to full, we went straight back to the hostel and passed out.
 
The next morning, we were picked up bright and early for our first adventure in the Austrian countryside:  the Riegersburg. It was about an hour away from Graz by car- apparently it’s rather difficult to find by public transportation, so we were feeling pretty lucky that we had an Austrian at the wheel! First of all: the Austrian countryside is beautiful. Especially in autumn, the rolling hills and changing leaves seemed never-ending and were just spectacular- my little eyes were glued out the window the entire way!
 
As I mentioned, I’m not positive about how one would hop a bus or train to Riegersburg, but I’m sure it can be done and is absolutely worth the trip. Photos do it better justice than I can explain [so take a peek below], but Riegersburg is an ancient medieval fortress built atop a long-extinct volcano- incredible, right? We parked the car at the bottom and started the long, winding ascent to the top. It’s absolutely a manageable climb that takes you past vineyards situated upon the hill, crenellated stone walls, and breathtaking views of the trees below. Once at the top, we stayed true to our poor little student habits and elected not to pay the 9.5 euros for a tour of the inside of the fortress, but instead ate lunch at the Austrian restaurant after checking out the moats around the fortress. We ate outdoors on the small patio overlooking all the scenery and had a DELICIOUS lunch of fritattensuppe and holundersaft- Austrian food is my hands-down favorite (sorry, Chipotle!) Next time, we will be sure to enter the fortress, if only to see the Witch Museum on the lower level that sounds fascinating! And for children, the raptor exhibition is supposed to be very exciting. All in all, it was a great Austrian find that we probably never would have visited on our own, so we felt extremely lucky.
 
From a distance: Riegersburg from the car window.

From a distance: Riegersburg from the car window.

 
Breathtaking views were the result of a long climb.

Breathtaking views were the result of a long climb.

 
 
My delicious meal of fritattensuppe!

My delicious meal of fritattensuppe!

 
It was a steep path...

It was a steep path...

 
The patio where we ate lunch

The patio where we ate lunch

 
Stunning.

Stunning.

 
Next up: The Zotter Chocolate Factory. And yes, this experience was as ridiculously great as it sounds! The factory was only about a ten minute drive from the Riegersburg, and is known for being one of the best chocolate factories in Austria. They are also known for their sustainability, fair trade, and more importantly- making so many different flavors of chocolate that you just can’t believe your eyes! On the tour, you learn about their ethics of business, how the chocolate is produced, and get to sample—oh, hundreds of different types of chocolate! You can sample different flavors of chocolate fondue, chocolate bars, marshmallows, hot chocolate, and essentially chocolate in any form that you could ever ask for it to be in. My favorite was either the Himbeer (raspberry) or the chili-flavored chocolate, and you can bet I bought more than a few bars home with me.
 
The man himself, Josef Zotter!

The man himself, Josef Zotter!

 
One of the many candy flavors we could taste...

One of the many candy flavors we could taste...

 
 
Look at those pleased, chocolatey faces!

Look at those pleased, chocolatey faces!

 
Now, here’s where the trip gets exciting. Our roommate’s younger sister is graduating from high school this year, and when Austrians graduate: they have a ball. Not a party, not a small gathering, a ball with gowns and tuxedoes and champagne and lots and lots of Austrians! We were lucky enough to be invited to this maturaball, which took place at the Congress building in Graz. Needless to say, it was the classiest event I’ve ever attended!
 
The graduates all wore white gowns or suits, and performed a dance that they had been practicing for MONTHS. There was the opening ceremony (all in German) where the graduates brought out roses to thank their teachers and the headmistress, who later came out to officially announce the opening of the ball. The entire event was filled with prizes, the graduates selling baked goods, families and friends mingling, ballroom dancing, and performances- it was incredible. There was also a casino attached to the Congress that we visited- I felt as if I was in Casino Royale! Jackets were required, ladies and gentlemen were gambling in gowns and tuxedos, and we blended right in. We also won twenty-five euros at roulette- and I’m never one to scoff at extra euros. The party lasted until 2 a.m., when the Congress closed and the graduates went off to a club in Graz until sunrise. It was undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us, while being a fairly standard event for the Austrians.
 
The view as we entered the ball. The graduates are all standing on the stairs in line.

The view as we entered the ball. The graduates are all standing on the stairs in line.

 
The room the dancing took place in

The room the dancing took place in

 
Pretending to be Austrian...

Pretending to be Austrian...

 
Ballroom dancing that the graduates performed

Ballroom dancing that the graduates performed

 
 
 
Quite pleased about winning my money at the casino!

Quite pleased about winning my money at the casino!

 
Since I don’t want to skim over Graz and the rest of our time in the city, I’ll end the Austrian tale here for now. Check back for more on Graz, Styrian pumpkin-seed oil, some very delicious wienerschnitzel, and how one should travel with miniature Jagermeister bottles- it’s trickier than you think…
      

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