Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Welcome home, travelers

The Rotary Group Study Exchange trip from Texas District 5840 to France District 1780 has come to a close. Our last few days were fun and a little more relaxed than the rest of the trip, other than the Rotary District Conference in Chambéry. Our group coordinator in France, the gracious Claude-France Godeau, introduced us to a huge roomful of French Rotarians and told everyone a little about our trip, including some of the fun photos we took. Our fearless team leader presented Claude with a Texas-shaped necklace as a symbol of our appreciation for all she has done throughout the trip.

Claude speaks at the Rotary District Conference in Chambéry about the GSE team’s eventful month of traveling in District 1780.

During the conference, in addition to our special GSE presentation, we offered an information booth about our trip and what the Group Study Exchange is all about. Many Rotarians are unaware of this wonderful program, so it was really great to share some of what we’ve learned and experienced because of it. The group also assisted one of the hosting clubs with their philanthropy fundraiser during the conference. That club was selling DVDs and promoting the wine of a local vineyard to raise money. After the district conference, many of the Rotarians gathered on a dinner boat in Aix-les-Bains, to wish the French District Governor, Charles Imbert, farewell and thank him for his year of service to Rotary.

My handsome group members at dinner on the lake in Aix-les-Bains.

The next day, the whole group had a cookout at the home of one of our host families. French-style barbecue, I must say, is excellent! But it’s not at all what we’re used to in Texas. No barbecue sauce and absolutely, positively NO eating with your fingers! There was, of course, lots of bread, cheese and wine.

One of our hosts, Patrick, barbecues at his home in Chambéry with his brand new Texas apron!

French style barbecue, with a fork and knife of course!

I think I can speak for everyone in the group in saying that this has been a very exciting and informative adventure. We have all met some really, really wonderful and generous people. I can’t say enough about these French Rotarians. Great people to meet and to know. We learned so much about French culture and the way the French understand and do Rotary. All four of us have made new friends to last for a lifetime. We four Texans helped spread peace, understanding and culture in a small part of the world, one step closer in bringing the world together. We shared a little about our experiences and understanding of the world, and we took away a little understanding from another part, hopefully to be able to share that with Rotary District 5840 and the rest of our community. Interestingly, as Kent has pointed out to me several times, many of the French Rotarians have children who have studied, are studying or would like to study in the United States. It’s very important to realize that culture and education in America are valued as well as study abroad from the U.S. to foreign countries. These students are getting similar opportunities that we have had, to learn about foreign values and culture, hopefully to help spread understanding, like we hope to do.

This GSE team of 2008-2009 wants to express our sincerest thanks to everyone who has followed along on this journey of ours. We also want to give a most special and grateful thanks to Rotary District 5840 and District Governor Jim Montgomery for sending us, to the San Antonio Downtown Rotary Club and team coordinator Doug Cross for sponsoring us, and to the Rhone-Alps Rotary District 1780 for hosting us. I think I can speak for all of us that it has been a pleasure and an honor to be a part of this team. This has truly been a life-changing experience.

And now a few last words from our team leader, Dr. Kent Fischer, from the New Braunfels Rotary Club:

It has also been an honor for me to serve Rotary’s worldwide mission of promoting peace and better understanding through the month long GSE trip. The three young San Antonio professionals that served on this team, I learned, are indeed very special people whom we are fortunate to have serve the San Antonio community. As the team prepared for the exchange, discussion centered on Rotary and its mission; while in France, the French culture and workplace were center stage; and now on the way home, we are overwhelmed with memories of the PEOPLE that made the experience special. ‘Service above self’ best describes the wonderful, dedicated and tireless French Rotarians that made this exchange possible. The trip’s success depended on the many French Rotarian Club coordinators and hosting families, and these people will be thanked individually. But we must mention that Valence Rotarian Claude Godeau, our trip’s constant guardian angel, kept watch over us and gave us the support that was necessary to accomplish a successful exchange between two cultures that are leaders in the Rotary world making dreams come true.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hello, everyone, from Annecy!

Our group spent several great days in Chamonix, visiting the mountains. Our host families there really love the mountains, so much so that the people we stayed with live on top of them, instead of in the valley. From my bedroom window, I could see the Mont Blanc, the tallest point in the Alps at more than 4,800 meters high! The drive down was about 10 minutes of twists and turns, and gorgeous views of the city of Chamonix. It’s quite the touristy town, with many people coming in to ski. On Monday, we rode a gondola to get to the top of l’Aiguilles du Midi, one of the mountains. It goes nearly straight up! Unfortunately there was a cloud sitting right at the top of the mountain, so we couldn’t see much, but apparently the view of the city is outstanding. They warned us to dress very warm, and I’m very glad I took their advice! It was about -10 degrees Celsius at the top, windy and snowing!

It was REALLY cold at 12,602 feet in the sky!

After lunch, we visited the Mont Blanc tunnel, which bridges the distance between France and Italy. It’s nearly 12 kilometers long, and takes about 12 minutes to go through if drivers obey the speed limits of between 50-70 km per hour (less than 50 miles per hour). The other options of getting over the mountain are to take a helicopter or drive the two hours to get around it. In March 1999, there was a huge fire inside the tunnel that killed 40 people and kept the tunnel closed for three years. There have been vast improvements in the safety of passage. The tunnel now has safe rooms in which a person in trouble can seek shelter, and the tunnel is always monitored so a person in the control room will know what’s going on inside the tunnel at all times. Any time a car stops inside the tunnel, an alarm automatically goes off inside the control room to alert the works to a problem. One of the most interesting things is that they have three fire trucks especially for the tunnel, unlike any others in the world. The truck has a cabin on both ends for driving (so it can drive backwards and forwards) so it doesn’t have to turn around in the tunnel, which would waste precious time in an emergency. The French control half the tunnel and Italians control the other half, and though sometimes working together has been a challenge (especially because more than half of the tunnel is in the country of France and Italians work in that part of the tunnel), they have learned to work together in emergencies.

This is the double-sided fire truck that is used to maneuver in the Mont Blanc tunnel during emergencies.

On Tuesday, we visited the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France. The Mer de Glace (or “sea of ice”) is a 7-kilometer long glacier that twists like a snake through the mountains. Sadly, because of global warming, it is melting away. We could see the amount it has melted over the years by the marks left on the side of the mountain, and there’s also a restaurant at the top that displays old photographs of what the glacier used to look like. There were photos of men and women dressed up in fancy clothes climbing up on the glacier, the women wearing long dresses!

The Mer de Glace.

Kent checks out the view across the Mer de Glace.

Afterwards, we visited the Musée des Cristaux, a mineral museum displaying a collection of crystals that have been found in the mountains, in France and elsewhere around the world. There was also a temporary exhibit called des Glaciers et des Hommes, which was about the history of glaciers and mankind.

On Wednesday morning, the group trekked down the mountain one last time to visit the Gendarmerie before leaving Chamonix and coming to Annecy. The Gendarmerie is a military body in France, and we learned about the territory this particular office covers. Because of the mountains and snow, there is a huge need for safety precautions, and the Gendarmerie conducts rescues of people in trouble on the mountains. Anytime there is an avalanche, several rescuers go up in helicopters to the area to scan for people who might be stuck under the snow. Rescue calls can range anywhere from fatigue and sprained ankles to people who have fallen into a hole in the snow or are buried under an avalanche. The men conducting the rescues (no woman has yet passed the exam to serve in this way) rotate areas, because it is such a privilege for them to be on the team risking their lives to save people in trouble.

John, our San Antonio police officer, poses with two officers from the Gendarmerie.

After the Gendarmerie got a call about an avalanche, the helicopter took off to scan the area for people buried in the snow.

One of the officers prepares to leave to help with a possible rescue.

On Wednesday evening, the group made the move to Annecy, also in the region of Haute-Savoie. This morning, the group is going to visit the hospital here, and after lunch we’ll do more professional visits. I’ve been lucky enough to be meeting journalists all along the trip. On Sunday, my host father happened to run into a newspaper correspondent he knew while we were eating lunch, so he brought her over to introduce her to me. I explained to her (in French!) that I do speak French, just slowly, and she responded that she speaks a little English, just slowly. So I was able to ask her questions about what she does and tell her about journalists in the U.S. There’s really something very cool about exchanging ideas in another language. Today I’m visiting the public relations department of l’Université de Savoie, the university here in Annecy. This evening, we will have dinner with the Annecy Rotary Club.

Coming up on Saturday is the Rotary District Conference in Chambéry!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Catching up

Bonjour messieurs et mesdames. I’m here again, and terribly sorry for not posting for a while. Finding the energy to post after such busy days is sometimes a challenge. Anyway, I’m back with an update!

On our weekend break in Grenoble, John enjoys his favorite French treat – coffee!

And my French treat – a French baguette and cheese in the park.

After a relaxing weekend in Grenoble, our group is off to another busy start. From Saturday to Monday, we stayed in a hotel without host families because of the Easter holidays. Easter is a very big deal in France, and even this week, it was difficult for the Grenoble Rotary Club to find people willing and able to host us because so many people are on vacation. We kept ourselves busy over the weekend, including going up in the gondolas to Fort de la Bastille, which overlooks Grenoble, for a beautiful panoramic view.

Kent enjoys the snow at Chamrousse.

We met with our new host families bright and early Tuesday morning. After lunch, we visited Chamrousse, which is a long ride up the mountain, to see the ski lifts and the beautiful view. That evening, there was a meeting with the Grenoble Rotary Club, and we made our presentation for the fourth time. It’s getting easier, I must admit! After dinner, Kent traded banners with the Grenoble club and thanked them for their hospitality. Amid much applause, he emphasized our purpose for being here – to show that Rotary promotes understanding and peace with all nations and the opportunity to learn from others.

Wednesday was very busy, starting with a visit to the distillery where Chartreuse is made. We learned the history of the monks who created this elixir. St. Bruno was the founder of this group of monks, because he wanted a quiet, isolated place in the mountains to meditate and grow closer to God. There were difficulties feeding the monastery and several methods were investigated before the invention of Chartreuse, a rather strong plant-based alcohol. The distillery makes a million bottles of Chartreuse a year, and only three monks know the secret of exactly how it is made. They are able to control the computers from the monastery, and there is one room in the distillery in which only these monks are allowed to enter! The liqueur cellar is the largest in the world at 164 meters in length.

The Museum of the Grand Chartreuse.

After visiting the distillery, the team visited Le Musée de la Grande Chartreuse, the museum of the monastery, to learn more about the history of the Chartreuse monks and their dedication to God. These monks are some of the most solitary in the world and have survived much social and political turbulence. The monastery and monks are only a couple of kilometers away from the museum, but visitors to the monastery itself must travel on foot and are not allowed inside. In the evening, we meet with several Rotary clubs for dinner. Conversations are always interesting at the meetings because there is a wonderful mixture of English and French language, along with the sharing of ideas, jokes and wine! I have found that the French Rotarians are patient and understanding when speaking with me in French. And I am constantly surprised at how much I understand of the French conversation and how much I’m learning!

Early Thursday morning, despite the rain, wind and cold, the team went on a walking tour of Grenoble. What a lovely city! Grenoble is the largest city in the French Alps. Our bilingual guide showed us where the old Roman wall used to stand, and she pointed out the part that is still left. We learned about the different monuments and statues around the old part of the city. Grenoble rests between three sets of mountains – the Vercors, the Chartreuse and the Belledonne. The Isère River, which runs at the edge of the city near the Chartreuse, is 290 kilometers long, making it the longest river in the French Alps. I talked with our guide about her former job as a correspondent for a newspaper. She said she liked the work, but didn’t make enough money so she had to stop doing that job. I explained to her some of the problems that journalists are having in the U.S. It’s very interesting the number of journalists I’ve met unexpectedly on this trip.

One of the statues in Grenoble. This one depicts a man mourning the death of his beloved deer.

Dinner that evening was with our host families, which is always an interesting experience. The food is magnificent, and seeing the culture from that perspective is irreplaceable.

Friday morning there were more professional visits for team, and then we attended another Rotary lunch for another presentation. Then, we were off to our new host families in the region of Haute-Savoie. Today, we visited a clock museum, which displays clocks and parts from at least as far back as the 9th century. People have been creating methods of measuring time from so long ago, and it’s incredible. In another part of the museum, the tools for creating these clocks are displayed, and one of the staff showed us how one of the machines from about the 1930s worked.

Richard, our host dad, is quite a competitive pétanque player!

We won – beginners’ luck!

Also Saturday, we learned a bit more about French culture. John and I played a couple of games of pétanque with our host father and some other Rotarians. Such fun! The idea of the game is similar to horseshoes, but still very different. Check it out. Kent and David played in the snow! For dinner we gathered at Kent and David’s host family to enjoy good food and good conversation.

Thanks to all who are reading!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Au revior Pont de Beauvoisin!

Bonjour, dear readers, from Pont de Beauvoisin. We have had a lovely time visiting this gorgeous town. John and I stayed with a family in Pont de Beauvoisin, and Kent and David were with the president of the local Rotary Club a bit closer to Lyon, France.

The GSE group and several members of the Tristan Rotary Club at the Gerflor flooring company.

We haven’t been here very long, and we’re already packing up to leave. C’est dommage! Early Wednesday morning, we visited Gerflor, the third largest flooring company in the world and the second in Europe. After an extensive tour of the inner workings of flooring, seeing how the machinery works and speaking with some of the employees, we gathered at Michelle Bouchet’s (French GSE team leader) home for a meal and then to pack. Then, we were off again! The group left Pierrelatte and made our way up to a small town called Pont de Beauvoisin (Bridge of good neighbors), and we all got a chance to know our host families a little bit better. On Thursday, April 9, the group met up in Vienne, France. We were supposed to meet at the amphitheatre there, but Kent and David took a wrong turn and kept climbing up the hill to a gorgeous church overlooking the entire city. They definitely got the best photos of the day from their vantage point. Unfortunately they missed the amphitheatre, which was great, and enormous, with its 11,000 seats!

The view of Vienne from the top of the amphitheatre steps.

After lunch, we toured a museum displaying and explaining the Roman ruins that have been found in Vienne. This was a fascinating look at life almost 2,000 years ago.

The GSE team with Stéphanie, a member of the French GSE team who will go to Texas in just a few days, in a plaza in Lyon.

Early Friday morning, we made our way to Lyon for a city tour. On the way, we stopped to pick up Kent, and I got a chance to talk with his host mother, who is the editor of a magazine in France. She worked on a magazine for the airlines, but now has just published the first issue of a magazine for airline passengers, including interesting articles about people and places in the locations to where the airline flies. They published 50,000 copies for the first issue, but plan to double that number in the future.

That evening, Kent and David had the pleasure of dining on coeur de boeuf and cooked carrots. If you don’t know what that is, check it out. An experience, to say the least. In another town, John and I ate pizza with our host father and his son. Later that night, the four of us had quite an interesting cultural exchange. Léo, our 16-year-old dinner partner, pulled out his iPod and showed us his music collection. Denis, our host father, popped in some CDs and exposed us to some great French music. Now we’ve exchanged e-mail addresses so we can continue to share our musical tastes after we return to the U.S.

Starting April 11, we were on our own in Grenoble because of the Easter holidays. In the hotel, we ran into an Englishman with his daughters to ski the French Alps nearby. He’s in the newspaper business – selling printing equipment. He told me that the problem with newspapers is also in Great Britain, but he seemed optimistic. Advertising, he said, is the first thing businesses cut back on in a recession. But it’s also the first thing businesses spend money on when things pick up, so he is optimistic that newspapers will be the first to recover from the economic downturn.

The team left the hotel to discover local shops. We met at 7:30 p.m. at the restaurant Le Dix Vin or 10 Wines for dinner underwritten by the Grenoble Rotary Club. We found ourselves alone in the restaurant until we left at 10 p.m. when the tables were filled with diners. It is difficult to get used to the late evening hours to which the French are so accustomed. The team returned to my room overlooking the busy Victor Hugo Plaza where we summarized the days’ events and sampled some of the consumable gifts we have accumulated along the way, including Easter chocolate. On Sunday, the team will meet at the gondola to ride to the top of the city for a view of the French Alps. Look eastward, and you just may see us waving bonjour! To all reading this, have a wonderful holiday, and we’ll catch you later.

Bonne nuit!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Salut de Pierrelatte !

Hello again everyone, I’m back today. Thanks very much to Kent for updating everyone on our activities for the past few days. I think I still haven’t had enough sleep to recover from the jet lag, but I’m feeling better today.

The group went to the crocodile farm here in Pierrelatte on April 6. There are nearly 400 crocodiles, with 10 or more females for each male so there is little fighting. Eating crocodile meat is not allowed in France. The crocs are raised from the time they hatch until they can be released back to Africa. A veterinarian looks after them so they stay healthy, and Kent had a professional rendez-vous with a veterinarian here in this region, and another veterinarian here joined the group, and he was the doctor who looks after the crocodiles. The farm also raised giant turtles, and in the back room there was a replica of a pre-historic crocodile that could have eaten at least three of us just for breakfast.

Crocodiles often keep their mouths open to help regulate their body temperature.

Afterwards, we visited a couple of greenhouses, one for tomatoes and one for roses. Both of the greenhouses get energy from the nearby nuclear plant. After the greenhouses, we stopped for lunch at a lovely restaurant that is situated within a greenhouse, with lots of plants (including banana trees!). We dined on guinea fowl and, of course, wine.

Then, we actually had a chance to visit the nuclear power plant itself. Despite fears of glowing green when we exited, we all were up for the challenge. The top-security plant required our passports and several other security measures so that we could get a chance to see all the inner-workings of nuclear power. The guide explained to the team that with nuclear power, two tiny pellets of uranium are able to create the same amount of energy as one ton of gasoline. Incredible.

The Texas GSE team with a group of French Rotarians outside the nuclear power plant.

Our last stop for the day was a trip over to Orange to see the huge amphitheatre built back in Roman times. It can seat 8,000 people, which is more than the population of the entire town when the amphitheatre was built.

On Tuesday, our first stop was the goat farm, where goats are milked and cheese is made next door. We watched as the goats were fed and milked, and the dog who herded the animals to where they ought to be. Each goat eats one ton of hay each year!! They are milked twice a day, and each goat produces nearly two gallons of milk each day. There were some one-week-old baby goats there as well, and they will be ready to produce milk when they are one year old. The team headed next door where we bought all sorts of goat cheese, which we all thoroughly enjoyed tonight for dinner. Absolutely delicious!

David has finally found a girlfriend!

Immediately after, we walked over to a truffle farm, where truffles are harvested in the winter (November through March). So unfortunately the season was over, so we didn’t get to see Tina, the truffle-sniffing dog, in action. However, she did seem quite at home on the land and was always in the mood to chase a stick when not on truffle duty.

The team headed over to an old castle (one of the many in France) called Le château de Suze-la-Rousse, where the Université du Vin, or the University of Wine, is housed. Those enrolled learn the art of tasting and describing the flavors of different wines.

We were all dazzled by the gorgeous interior of this castle.

For lunch, we visited a family-owned (and Rotarian!) winery called Château la Croix Chabrière. A Rotarian Kent has deemed Mr. Truffle (because he knows just about everything there is to know about truffles) was generous enough to give time from his day to cook us all a fantastic lunch. We had all sorts of truffle-infused yummies – truffle butter on bread for the pre-appetizers (yes, pre-appetizers!), truffle and meat pate for the appetizer, truffle omelets for the main dish, and cheese with truffles in it afterwards. Then we had a chance to tour the private winery of the other Rotarian family who dined with us.

Then, we toured an enormous winery called Celliers des Dauphins which is in Tulette, France. They produce 400,000 bottles of wine every day and can store 7 million bottles in the warehouse.

Thanks to everyone who is following along on the blog! I’m glad you’re enjoying my photos and everything else. If you have comments, please leave them on the blog itself instead of emailing Kent because I love to know what you think!

Bonne journée tout le monde!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Team Update

The view of Valence from Crussol, a 5th century castle on the top of a mountain.

Bonjour from France!! I am Kent Fischer, Rotary GSE team leader from 5840. I am privileged to be asked by Ashley Festa to continue the blog discussion and review the next few days. The first week progresses with many visits lead by our wonderful Rotarian hosts to plants, schools and awe inspiring sites. The Rotary GSE team has visited ISTM, Institut Supérieur Technologique Montplaisir, a specialty technical school for 19-25 year olds to learn the making and fitting of artificial limbs. Interestingly the students must begin by building a rudimentary limb and it’s properly fitted orthotic before they progress to the computerized robotic limbs used in some cases today. This is not only to teach the profession from the ground up but in the event that the graduate goes to a part of the world where no modern conveniences exist. The headmaster stated that students come from all over the world and that there are 22 applicants for each admission. Radiology technician training and commercial art are taught as well. Interestingly, one of the French GSE team members is a teacher at this institute.

A student creates a model of a foot at the technical institute for orthotics.

One of the displays in the Corima manufacturing plant.

Later our team enjoyed a tour of one of the top leaders in the world of carbon racing wheels for bicycles. Corima is run by a Rotarian and his son. They have expanded their state of the art carbon product line to include the entire frame of racing bikes, bike seats and wheelchair wheels and components. Check out this exciting company online.
This evening, like all evenings, end with a return to the loving French Rotarians who have graciously opened their homes to us and shared their families and their time to make each of us feel loved and safe. This evening, Ashley, journalist and trip blog coordinator, was treated with observing a German journalist interview her host family regarding his business involving agriculture production.

The team stands in front of a helicopter outside Thales Corp., which manufactures electronics.

Thursday a.m. the team toured Thales, a super-secret manufacturer of electronic components for helicopters. Their primary devices are navigational equipment and guidance systems for military use. We were not allowed to take photos so none are available. However, this company is also a cutting edge provider of GPS and navigation systems for commercial aircraft, ships and trains. Although highly technical, this tour was exciting and interesting as the engineers provided many models and materials to help us understand their product and mission.

Friday the team was welcomed by the county or “departmental” government of Drôme in which Valence is a part. An elected member of the governmental body explained how taxes are levied, collected and spent by this group of elected citizens. Much of their efforts are of a humanitarian, environmental and educational nature. Wine and regional olives were served and questions were answered and discussed.

The stone palace created piece by piece by a postman during the span of 50 years.

We quickly left the city’s center and headed north within the region of Rhone-Alps. The agriculture and activity dramatically changes from olive, grape and peach production to row crops, legumes and cattle production. The team toured a “palace” created over 50 years by an ordinary postman with an unordinary imagination. This postman, named Cheval, for 5 decades walked his route and picked up rocks and admired the fronts of postcards his postal clients received from all over the world. He created a palace that was a shrine to faraway places and the people of the world.

Saturday a.m. we changed clubs that would move us further south toward Provence. First, however, we were re-routed to the most beautiful town in the region we have seen so far called Aix les Bains. There we were greeted and recognized by the mayor, the Rotary District Governor of 1780 and by other local dignitaries. We presented our PowerPoint presentation of the proud state of Texas and Rotary District 5840. This presentation was beautifully lead by team member Ashley Festa, our primary French speaker. The presentation was well received as the color and content were put together by team member John Marshall. Here we met the French GSE team of 3 young, bright women Virginie, Stephanie and Claudie and led by Rotarian Michelle Bouchet. Madam Bouchet is also the current president of her Rotary Club. They will be arriving in Texas to D-5840 in mid-April. We had a wonderful lunch buffet and then strolled along the gorgeous lac du Aix les Bains where we watched sailboats and games of patank carried out by locals. We had a chance to sit and relax at an outdoor café and enjoy the company of our French Rotary hosts, the French GSE team and a cool beverage and ice cream.

The District 1780 GSE coming from France to Texas. They are Claudie (from left), team leader Michelle, Stephanie and Virginie.

The team at Pont du Gard, which was built by the Romans about 2,000 years ago.

Sunday the second Rotary club in the district provided members to take us to the fascinating Roman site of Du Pont du Gard. This is the only remaining example of the aquaduct system built in the first century following the birth of Christ. We drove from here to a stone quarry that has been in use for over 400 years. A yellow stone of sedimentary, fossilized rock is carved out of this quarry today in 1 meter by 1 meter by 3 meter blocks weighing 20 tons each. The French government imposes strict environmental controls on such a manufacturer including dust and noise control and replacement of material so as not to leave a large empty space behind. The quarry owner is a Rotarian and gave a wonderful explanation of this important enterprise. At the end, Rotary Club banners were exchanged and wine, sausage and black olives, all from the area, were enjoyed by all. The Rotarian owner was very interested in “The Quarry” in San Antonio, and you could see the wheels spinning as this development was explained to the operator of an active quarry with a very large space in the ground.

Sunday afternoon found the team winding its way along a deep canyon in Provence where we took a short break to share the fine art of stone skipping with the French. Lunch at a marvelous sidewalk café was provided by the USA GSE team in the ancient city of Uzes. Next an underground cave was explored by the team and their hosts. The cave was beautiful and the similarity of both the cave formations and surface landscape to the Texas Hill Country was striking. The evening ended with a dinner hosted by the Rotary Club at a restaurant within an ancient walled city that dates back over 4 centuries. We concluded the evening with champagne and a tour in the home of one of the Rotarians living within the walled city. When asked why Texas sparkling wine was not served, our host said that he would have but that there was just none to be found.

Monday we will be up to our elbows in alligators and then explore the depths of one of France’s nuclear power stations. Alligators, roses and greenhouses exist here because of the nuclear plant. Please check back to see how and why they are all related. We hope this blog is helpful to those who read it and we love the opportunity to bring it to you and give many thanks to our District 5840 and its leader District Governor Jim Montgomery. Love to all, your humble team leader Kent Fischer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Nous visitons Valence

Look carefully and you can see the faces in the building, although some have deteriorated through the years because they are made of limestone.

March 31 was a busy day. First, the GSE team met at a building called La Maison des Têtes, which translates The House of Heads. It is called by this name because the façade of the building has many faces carved into the stone. Our tour guide, who is fluent in English, explained some of the history of the building (put very simply: the mayor of Valence wanted to be noticed, so he decorated) and showed us many other historic and artistic places in the city. We stood in a square where a man was very cruelly executed because he stole from Louis XV, and we saw a monument that used to be a tomb and is one of only two buildings in all of France that uses a particular architectural style. The style is one in which a building begins with a square frame on the bottom and becomes a dome at the top, but the stones in the top aren’t laid in a circular fashion; they are still laid in a square. Also on the tour were two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant. The Cathedral of St. Apollinaire is the oldest monument in Valence.

After the tour, each person in our group visited a place that corresponds with the team member’s job. Kent visited a veterinarian’s office where there were several surgeries were taking place. David visited the magistrate’s office, John visited police station. I went to Le Dauphine, which is the local newspaper. Valence’s newspaper is having some of the problems that newspapers are having in the United States, but as of yet, it isn’t as serious. The director of the newspaper said many people are going online for their news there, too, but it’s impossible to get news for each small town in the region online. Therefore, the circulation for Le Dauphine is still doing well, for now. The director said the newspaper might begin putting the small-town news online but charging a subscription fee for readers who want this section of the online edition. Advertising makes up about 70 percent of the revenue in the print edition. This newspaper still uses color on many of its pages, and as yet has not had to reduce the size of the pages. However, Le Dauphine is not really in the same league with the San Antonio Express-News, so it will be interesting to see how larger newspapers fare in France.

This is the room in which the designers at Le Dauphine put together the pages.

After our professional visits, another small architectural history lesson, and then we were free for the evening. I went on a walking tour with my host dad, who explained to me (in French!) lots of the other lovely things in Valence, such as the three beautiful parks. One of these parks is near a canal of the Rhône River, and years ago some nuns had a monastery nearby to escape the busier city.

A demain !