sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

November 16, 2008

shall we take bets?
posted by soe 5:27 am

My goal last night was to go to bed at 9. That’s 3 a.m., Central Europe Time, which seemed reasonable. But I forgot that with an 8-hour flight and the whole up ridiculously late trying to protect the glass bottles in the luggage thing that I might be done before that. Rudi lasted until he sat down in his chair at 7:30 and two cats piled on him. Then I watched as his head literally dropped right over to his shoulder in the course of a minute. We talked to his mom for a few minutes, and then Rudi was out.

I returned to the living room, drank a cup of tea, and curled up on the sofa to watch some Britcoms. I probably lasted until 8:15…

The side effect of this is, of course, that I was suddenly wide awake at 4:45 (10:45 CET) a.m. I don’t think this has ever happened before. I mean, I’ve woken up before 7 on my own before, but before 5?! Ridiculous!

Here’s where the betting comes in. How long until I return to my normal night-owl ways? It took me two days to find myself up past midnight in Paris… For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind going to bed earlier here, although I do think it will be problematic if I doze off before 8.

Now, I just have to wait for Rudi to wake up and then I can start doing laundry…

By the way, I’d expect France wrap-up/retrospective posts for another week.

Category: life -- uncategorized. There is/are 5 Comments.

November 14, 2008

france, day 9: the final countdown
posted by soe 7:55 pm

Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse.
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond.

On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there.
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring.

Today’s highlight was the Pont d’Avignon (or Pont St-Bénezet), the ruins of the oldest bridge crossing the Rhone in the southern part of ancient France. It was built in the 1100s (nearly 1,000 years ago — yikes!) at the behest of a shepherd who heard the commandment from God. After laughing at him, the town/church clerics said they would build the bridge only if he would start it himself with a boulder left around from the building of a church. Feeling pretty secure in their taunt, since 20 men together hadn’t been able to budge it, weren’t they surprised when he picked it up (with or without angels’ assistance — the lore is unclear) and flung it into the river to begin the foundation?

Today was sunny again with more ridiculously strong winds, so perhaps it was better to say that we were buffeted about on the Pont d’Avignon, rather than that we danced on it, as the popular French children’s song suggests.

After doing a little shopping and grabbing a bite to eat, we caught the TGV back to Paris. We should have booked ahead, though, because while one of our tickets had a seat assignment, the other one essentially said to “grab any open seat once we take off,” a disconcerting discovery for Rudi. Luckily, he found a seat kitty corner to me, so it wasn’t too bad.

We returned to our Latin Quarter hotel and promptly headed out to supper, trying to catch some luck by arriving without a reservation at the start of the dinner hours. Luck was with us, so we ate out, then headed back to the restaurant at the Mosque for mint tea and sweets, and ended up at a bar for beer and tea. (I want American bars to serve me tea.)

Rudi is dozing and I’m trying to figure out the packing situation. We bought some liquids whilst over here and so will need to check my bag. But how to pack it to avoid breakage… This is the first time I’ve encountered the new safety regulations when they’ve actually affected me. Darn those stupid terrorists and our reaction to them…

I’m off to empty my suitcase….

Category: travel. There is/are Comments Off on france, day 9: the final countdown.

November 13, 2008

reprieve, got it, and childhood
posted by soe 10:21 pm

Despite knowing intellectually that today was Thursday, I sort of forgot that I ought to post three beautiful things from the past week. Possibly because I’ve been blogging about beautiful stuff all week… Regardless, it’s a tradition and who am I to break with it now?

1. Despite the sign-rattling wind, it was great to see the sun today. We haven’t had many blue skies during our trip, so it was especially nice to see it as our vacation wraps up.

2. The waiter at Les Deux Garcons pretends to misunderstand our order, and we realize that it’s a joke. In French.

3. In the same way that French life seems a step more civilized with it’s closing for lunch and its greetings, it also seems to retain an appreciation for childhood as a special time. Rudi and I have now passed a number of toy stores and rare is the one displaying computer games or electronic toys. Dolls, toy cars, tinker toys, and hands-on games still populate the French childhood. Even the tv ads show toys that we would have been comfortable with back in the ’70s and ’80s. I know it’s good to have kids who are acclimated to computers, but it strikes me that maybe that’s why we have a culture of kids diagnosed as hyperactive. Regardless, it’s nice to see a culture where children can be children and not mini adults.

Category: three beautiful things. There is/are 4 Comments.

france, day 8
posted by soe 9:57 pm

A really quick post because, night owl that I am, I find myself awake at 3:30 a.m.

At the suggestion of our innkeeper, this morning we caught a local bus over the Rhone to Villeneuf lez Avignon, which holds their market day on Thursdays. As you may have noticed, I love farmers’ markets, and this was no exception. We chatted briefly with a few farmers and vendors, but most were busy trying to avoid damage to their property and wares from the nasty wind that cleared today’s skies. As folks began to pack up, Rudi and I hiked up a few blocks into town to wander a bit. Unfortunately, our timing was bad, as we arrived during the lunch break. Yep, that’s right. In much of France (particularly outside of Paris), shops close for lunch — for two or three hours. We had a bite to eat, possibly as the only non-locals in the restaurant, weighed our time constraints, and decided to forgo visiting the town’s castle in exchange for more time exploring Avignon’s Papal Palace.

The palace is impressive in size. I’m sure it doesn’t begin to compare to the Vatican, but when you consider that the construction was completed in the 1300s, it’s hard to scoff at its vastness. Audio guide tours are included with your ticket, but, oh my God!, do they go on! I’m not sure who would have time to listen to each and every feature, but that would have you there all day! The highlight of the palace has to be the view from one of the turrets. The winds were nasty — a gust tore my hat from my head — but even with numb fingers and runny noses, we were really glad to get outside to see the views over the Rhone.

After pausing at a small patisserie for warm refreshment, we wandered back toward the center of town and found ourselves in the pedestrian-only shopping district. Surprised to find stores open still (because, yes, after reopening at 3 following lunch, generally stores close promptly at six), we realized that Thursdays are the one night a week that shops remain open later. The atmosphere reminded me of the Christmas season, but without the stress. Lots of residents out and about, shopping, picking up odds and ends… The spirit of goodwill is probably emphasized because the French, being a polite people, dictate that the shopper greets the shop owner upon entering (“Bon jour/soir, madame/monsieur.”) and that they also exchange niceties before departing (“Au revoir, monsieur/madame.”) It just seems so … connected. I wonder what the clerks at Rite Aid would think if I called a greeting to them every time I stopped by for cat food or toilet paper…

After the shops closed at seven, we continued wandering for a bit, but the wind (have I mentioned the wind?) just tore at us, and I demanded that we seek shelter. Seven is really too early for a French dinner, so we headed to a bar on the main drag where I could get tea. Rudi sampled the local anise-flavored liqueur, pastis, which is so strong that it’s served with a carafe of water to cut it to your taste. He describes it as ouzo done right.

We finished the night with a late dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. As with most of our meals in France, this was well-cooked and quite tasty. And I have to say that the wait staffs of nearly everywhere I’ve visited have been very helpful in explaining to me what certain culinary terms mean as I attempt to navigate around the meatier dishes. And when I end up with food that contains things I don’t eat (such as tonight’s ravioli and shrimp dish), Rudi is always happy to pitch in and consume the expensive parts of my meal. I like it when everyone leaves happy.

Tomorrow we go to see the Pont d’Avignon, a broken bridge across the Rhone. Our hotel owner says that every year they dance on it. I hope to find out why tomorrow. I do know there’s a French children’s song about it — kind of a “London Bridge”-type thing, I believe. In the afternoon, we catch a train back to Paris. How sad to be leaving already; it feels like we just arrived…

Category: travel. There is/are Comments Off on france, day 8.

November 12, 2008

france, day 7: on to avignon
posted by soe 7:07 pm

Today was laid back. We spent most of the day in Aix, retracing many of last evening’s steps through a now-open city. The day was rainy, so we either moseyed under umbrellas or sat in cafes or restaurants. We ate a ridiculously late breakfast (I slept in this morning and nearly caused us to miss out on a morning repast), wrote some postcards, and then moved on to lunch at Chez Maxime. Despite the fact that I ended up with an appetizer that had ham in it (I just scraped it off and passed it on to Rudi) and sat myself in a spot with a drip (darn those “covered” dining sections), it was a great meal — and I learned a new word. “Volaille” means chicken, and I was pleased to be able to use my new vocabulary this evening when perusing the dinner menus. (By law, menus in France must be posted outside restaurants so you can see your options before walking in…)

After visiting Aix’s cathedral, a lovely, living building, we returned to the hotel, where we’d stashed our bags, bid adieu to the city, and caught a train northwest. The train, which plodded along compared to the one we were on yesterday, took us past hobo camps (I’m embarrassed to say my first thought was, “Oh, look! Some locals are having a picnic in the rain!”), and deposited us in Marseilles, France’s oldest and second largest city. An hour’s layover later, and we were bound for Avignon.

Avignon is a walled city and the train station sits directly opposite the front gate, so it’s really an impressive introduction to the place. The main paved streets have sparklies embedded in them, while the older ones are rough cobble stones. All I can say is that good walking shoes are a must in any visitor’s wardrobe to this country.

The Let’s Go! Guide worked out for us again, offering us a great recommendation for a family-run hotel. We may have neglected to inquire about staying a second night when we checked in, so we’ll need to take care of that in the morning.

Tomorrow we plan to take in the Papal Palace, home to the pope for 68 years back in the 1300s. Crazy, I know! Also on the agenda is figuring out our return to Paris on Friday, buying stamps (our hotel is right across the street from the post office), and finding some souvenirs/cadeaux to bring back with us. We haven’t done so well on that front thus far (baked goods just don’t travel well…), and are running out of time. Suggestions for good gifts so I don’t have to result to the lame duty free shop at the airport are much appreciated.

Category: travel. There is/are Comments Off on france, day 7: on to avignon.

November 11, 2008

france, day 6: now reporting from provence
posted by soe 8:04 pm

Sitting on the high-speed train out of Paris, it doesn’t take long before the city and its suburbs fade away and you’re out into the country. After the U.S., France exports the most food of any country in the world, and it’s obvious when you travel away from the capital region. The rolling hills, bright green fields, and straight rows remind me of driving across the country, particularly the Midwest, and call to mind that France is known as Europe’s bread basket.

That’s not to say that there aren’t regional changes. It’s much flatter in the north. Hills develop in the middle of the country, and by the time you reach the south, you can see some of the Alps. There are more animals as you get further south, and there is clearly a beef region — where herds of off-white cows graze. The south’s building material of choice is a yellowish stone. I don’t know what it is, but I imagine it contributes to outsiders’ positive impression of the area.

Aix en Provence (imagine if the mouthful it would be to say Springfield in Massachusetts every time you wanted to say where you lived…) is a city of 170,000, although I’d be hard-pressed to guess that. The TGV station is 20 minutes outside of town, and Rudi and I caught a bus in. My initial impression was one of dread, as you come in through a suburban sprawl, and the bus deposits you in the area near the police station and psychiatric hospital, with depressing little shops, all of which were closed today. Less than a mile away, though, and you reach the Cezanne fountain, where you begin to realize that life isn’t all that bad.

Given that I only decided at 2:30 a.m. that we were headed to Aix, I didn’t have hotel reservations, although our guide books did offer some affordable suggestions. After stopping at the local tourism office, which generously staffs a person who speaks English, we found ourselves headed to L’Hotel des Quatre Dauphins. Our room is on the second floor (although the French would tell you it’s the first floor, since it’s above the ground floor) and is wallpapered in the same reassuring yellow of the Provencal buildings. The bedspread, the bathroom, and the curtains are a delft blue, and modest white painted furniture rounds out the furnishings.

We arrived mid-afternoon and, after checking in, headed out to check out the town. We toured the Granet Museum, devoted to European art from the 14th-19th century. This hometown of Paul Cezanne houses a modest museum with a surprisingly large collection. From the outside, I would never have guessed they managed to squeeze as many works in as they do. They also get high marks from me for just putting the works up on the wall, where you can get up close and personal with the art (although I did witness one man open up an antique harpsichord, so perhaps I can understand why most museums opt to forgo that policy) and where the lights are surprisingly bright so you can get a real feel for how vibrant some of those paints were.

Ready for some refreshment after our excursion, we ended up on the town’s main drag, a broad avenue of shops and restaurants. We seated ourselves at Les Deux Garcons, an ancient cafe that predates the Revolution and that was a haunt of Cezanne and Emile Zola. Their chocolat chaud was delicious. We wandered some more after sunset and roamed the twisting streets now lined with shops closed for the night. Several squares offer cafes and many of the streets include fountains. Aix was created by the Romans around its thermal spas and its ancestry is obvious. (Aix derives from Aquae Sextius, the town’s original name.) We walked as far out as the ring road around the center of town and then headed back past the cathedral and the city hall. We stopped for another hot drink (it’s warmer in Provence than in Paris, but still nippy after dark) and then went on to dinner. Afterwards, we took in a current movie — Les Bouquets Finals — a funereal comedy.

Tomorrow, we’ll spend some more time in town before catching the local train up to Avignon, the one-time home away from home for the Pope when the Romans chased them out.

Category: travel. There is/are 2 Comments.