For the last week of winter break and the first days of 2013, my host family took me on their annual journey to my host dad's childhood home: Sarrebruck, Germany, located just north of the Franco-German border.
We stayed with his mother, brother, and sister-in-law in a small, quiet village nearby.
After our 11-hour car ride from Auch, one of the instantly obvious changes from one country to the next was in architecture; the German houses were more spread out, bigger, and more reminiscent of Playmobil toys than their French neighbors.
I learned during our stay that the stereotypically German sauerkraut and sausages are in fact quite good and quite prevalent, but I also discovered the lesser-known Germany practice of eating sliced meat, cheese, and rolls for breakfast. Overall, our visit was relaxing, consisting of shopping, taking walks, and enjoying the German cuisine.
One day, we made a trip to Strasbourg, located a hair west of the border, yet home to as many pretzel stands as creperies and one of the few cities where "Ja" and "Oui" are used interchangeably.
We visited the Strasbourg Cathedral, home to an astronomical clock dating from 1547 (one of the oldest in Europe), felt dwarfed by the city's famously enormous Christmas tree, and generally enjoyed Strasbourg's lights and festive atmosphere.
The best moment of my stay, however, was during New Year's Eve, when the entire village (and country, for that matter) sent up fireworks together to herald the New Year.
The day after our return from Germany, I moved in with my second host family. They live at a three-minute drive from my first, and the family consists of a retired couple, Mary-Yvonne and Alain, and their cat, Pistache. Soon afterward, I headed back to school, where we have seven weeks of class before the "vacances d'hiver," or winter break (here, holiday break and winter break are separate).
In France, January is the month of "les soldes" (sales) and "galette des rois" (literally, "kings' cake"). Last weekend, I took the train to Toulouse with some of my friends from school to take advantage of the biggest clothing sales of the year, where the city was teeming with like-minded shoppers.
The "galette des rois" is simply a January tradition; this buttery, flaky tart filled with "frangipane" (an almond-based cream) is eaten regularly all month, and kids hope to find the "fve" (porcelain figurine) hidden in their slice. There is a single "fve" hidden in each cake during its preparation, and whoever finds it gets to pick their "roi ou reine" (king or queen) among the others at the table. Maybe its beginner's luck, but I've found the "fve" in my slice three times in a row.
So far, winter in Auch has proven very mild, with temperatures in the mid-30s, lots of rain, and a rare dusting of snow.
Academic life continues as usual, and my classmates are starting to prepare their applications for "la facult," or college.
I've recently been doing a lot of tagging along with my host parents to their various meetings, clubs and more, as they are very involved in the Gers (Auch's department) community.
I've been to the annual New Year gathering at Ordan-Larroque (the little village I live in near Auch), a "gastronomique" meal at Auch's classiest restaurant, a meeting in the Prfecture (the most important and ornate government building in the department, home of the Prfet), and a couple of Mary-Yvonne's numerous bridge gatherings.
In other words, I'm discovering many previously-unknown aspects of Auch's community through my new host family, and I'm sure it will only continue.
Bonne anne et la prochaine (have a good year and until next time...)!