where we've been and where we're going

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jazz with the Forgotten, and Marie's Playground

June 9 and 10

On Saturday, I worked all day.

In all honesty, I did try. I chose not to leave my apartment in favor of sightseeing in Paris so I could actually get work done. Seriously. I did a mediocre job at this, but I got, well, some things done.

In the evening, I went out to hear some jazz in the Latin Quarter. Specifically, Kate, Judith and I went to Le Caveau des Oubliettes - the cave of the forgotten. Quite a few of the bars and clubs near Saint-Michel were once basements and even prisons. This one in particular was a prison where people were once left and then forgotten, only to be found again when their bones were pulled out. Now the cave is a jazz club, and a great one at that. It was very cheap, and the music we heard was fantastic. Seriously great. I was so glad we went.

On Sunday, we took a group trip to Versailles, the former home of King Louis IV, V, IV, and Marie Antoinette, before they met their fatal ends. It was even home to Mona Lisa, for a while. We toured the castle, seeing where they slept and the ridiculous wallpaper they chose. Of course, there was also the hall of mirrors, most famous (for me) for being the location of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, ending WWI.

Afterward, we spent the afternoon in the grounds. On Sundays in the summer, from 3 to 5, they turn on all the magnificent fountains in the gardens, which really is something. It must cost a fortune, explaining why they don't run them all the time. They also spout grand royal marches from speakers throughout the park, making quite a spectacle. It was really something. I think I would have been fine, had it been MY backyard.

Finally, we had a group dinner at a little pizza place nearby in Versailles. Pleasant evenings with pleasant people surely make life a happy existence, don't you think?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Le Destin de Emily

June 7 and 8

The 7th was spent working, although I did a little reading in the Luxembourg Gardens, created, as most public parks were in Paris, as a playground for the royals. The really are beautiful, mostly because they are simply enjoyed. Everyone comes to relax, picnic, read, and exist. It's wonderful.

On Friday, the 8th, the study abroad group visited the US Embassy, located on the Place de la Concorde. One of the officials of the US government gave us a briefing on French politics and US-French relations. I thought is was fascinating, and I was reminded of my undergraduate desire to be a member of the diplomatic service. I'm not designed for it, but I did want it, once upon a time.

In the afternoon, though somewhat cloudy, Shama and I went to Montmarte for a leisurely walk through the playground of Amelie Poulin. We exited the metro system via a bajillion stairs, since we decided to walk rather than lift out of the deepest metro station in Paris. However, we ended up outside of one of the beautiful art nouveau metro stations around Paris, this one made famous from the movie (and other things, I'm certain).

More stair climbing to the top of Montmartre, past tourists and shops to the Basilica Sacre Coeur. It's the highest point in Paris, so says the guidebook, and it really is something. Amelie sent her tricky metro photo booth lover up the winding stairs in from of the church, and the top provides a beautiful view of Paris. Well, when it's clear. The inside of the church is incredibly beautiful, with tiny chapels tucked back behind the alter and mosaics everywhere. Not as breathtaking as the St. Louis Basilica, but oh so much older...

We walked past the myriad of artists attempting to sell their mediocre oil renditions of the Eiffel Tower and had a crepe covered in chocolate, ice cream and goodness. A walk past Van Gogh's former residence and the last remaining real windmill in Paris (Moulin, of course, means windmill) brought us to the Cemetiere de Montmartre. I, for one, love to see buried famous people. I think it rocks. So we paid respects to Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz, Edgar Degas, and Francois Truffaut, in the (dead) flesh. Remarkable, how the French can stuff so many people in tiny tiny spaces. They just stack them one on top of another. Incredible.

We also got a little too close to the red light district in an effort to photograph the Moulin Rouge. It's super expensive to catch a show and dinner, so we just hit the outside. It looks just as you'd expect, but it's still worth it to see it in the flesh. (Heh heh.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My Favorite View

June 6

I went off on my own today after class. Sometimes sightseeing on your own is fantastic, since there is no one to slow you down or rush you through anything you want to see. On the other hand, there's no one to whom I can turn to say, Holy Gargoyles! Look at that rose window! It's the largest in Europe! which makes the experience slightly less cool, or at least not as cool as it could be.

That being said, I traveled to Notre Dame. I'd visited it before on my weekend trip to Paris in 2002, but I didn't go in at the time because mass was being said, and I didn't climb to the top. Today I did both, and it was well worth the wait. The vaulted ceilings are monumental, and incredibly gorgeous. Without those famous flying buttresses, the whole place would cave in on itself. Incredible. And there are THREE marvelous rose windows telling Mary's story. Mind-boggling. My pictures are only okay....you'd be better served by a google image search than my flashless photos.

I then suffered through a French woman's (fairly common) inability to respect lines in order to climb to the top and see Paris from above. On the climb you get a closer look at the delicate intricacies of the facade, the archways, the gargoyles made famous in a WB cartoon, and the bell Quasimodo rang only in fiction. It was pretty cool...particularly the views of Paris. The Eiffel Tower and the Seine, or Sacre Coeur at Montmartre on the other side.

I had dinner that night in a cafe by myself. That's when I missed Darick. Dinner by myself used to be fine, and now I'm spoiled.

As a side note, the French ability to eat beef tartare (raw ground hamburger meat) baffles me. Baffles.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Phantom's Opera House

June 4 and 5

On Monday, I found that it is an unfortunate thing to be in Paris without an umbrella. Despite mentally reminding myself 3 or 4 times before leaving, I did not bring one with me, so of course I had to buy a new one. It was orientation day, including a walking tour of the Left Bank, and of course, as is the norm in June, it was raining.

However, once I purchased la nouvelle parapluie, it ceased raining. Luckily, I've needed it since then, so it wasn't a waste.

The tour was lovely, walking past Notre Dame and Ste.-Chapelle, with highlighted bars to visit at some point in the next month. It was kind of quick and dirty, but it made us (or at least me) excited to be in Paris. However, after all of that, and some grocery shopping for necessary things I had forgotten to pack, I retired to the foyer to read the readings for the next day's class. I'm here, at least in part, to co-teach one of the courses the study abroad students are taking, so if anyone in the room should be prepared for class, it's me.

On Tuesday, though, I did go out in the evening. Class was really nice. (I have class, Human Rights in Europe, from 10-12 M-Th.) The students are all really smart and participate without goading in class. It's a really nice atmosphere in which to learn and teach, and I hope they get as much out of it as I do. We ate lunch as a group (as we do on all class days) and then they have other classes while I either do organizational work for the program, sight-see a little, or (most often) return home to work.

That night, though, one of the students and I headed to the Opera. The national opera offers student rush tickets of 25 euros (down from 150) the last 15 minutes before the show, and I was determined to go at least once, if not more. We saw a very modern opera entitled Da gelo a gelo, which is an interpretation of several Japanese love poems. Though the music did not translate the story well, which I think operas should do at least to some extent, the music was interesting and the staging was gorgeous. And the opera was in L'Opera Garnier, which is the famous opera house of Paris. It was built under Napoleon and was made famous by the Phantom of the Opera, who has his own box you can visit on the guided tour during the day. I would have watched boy scouts rub sticks together in that venue...the ceiling was painted by Chagall.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Airline Travails

(June 2nd and 3rd....I'll label these for a while until I catch up with myself in time.)

After landing in Atlanta post-Italy, Darick and I drove through the night to Saint Louis to be with family on the week of his brother's wedding. Dane and Megan were married on Friday night, the night before my flight. Because of short notice, I had to add a leg to my original flight from Atlanta to Paris, so I now was flying St. Louis to Atlanta to DC to Paris. I wasn't looking forward to it.

So after dancing until around 11, Darick and I drove the hour from Potosi to St. Louis, stayed the night with Aunt Tootsie (about 3 1/2 hours worth) and then Darick took me to the airport.

I was tired, but not exhausted. However, I landed in Atlanta, picked up my luggage so that I could re-check in for my international flight....only to find that the travel agent had not ticketed it, and my reservation was cancelled. No flight for me from Atlanta to Paris. Granted, we paid for one, but it didn't exist. The details are still sketchy, and I'm not sure how it happened, but it did. So after a few emergency phone calls that were of little help, and one panicked call to Dr. Davis in Paris, I booked myself a brand-new ticket for that day. It was outrageously expensive. Luckily I'll be reimbursed. So after dealing with all of that, I was pooped. Flew ATL to Miami, and had to walk to kingdom come because they're renovating the entire Miami airport, and then take a terribly uncomfortable flight from Miami to Paris.

Post landing, it was morning in Paris, so to get myself on the new time schedule I had to stay up the whole day. And when I arrived at the student dorms where I'd be staying (le foyer), I couldn't check in because the lady at the desk was having a Parisian 2-hour lunch. I was crabby, clearly. But a few of us had croque-madames for dinner, and I went to bed a little early, and everything felt a little better. After all, I was in Paris.

Friday, June 15, 2007

An Italian List for Darick

Things to do with Darick when he and I come to Italy together (some I've done, and some I want to do):
  • In Rome:
    • The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
    • Mass at St. Peter's
    • Lunch in the Jewish Ghetto
    • Ruins, especially Circus Maximus
    • Wine at night at the Trevi Fountain
    • Villa Borghese
    • Burial place of Raphael, Pantheon
    • That great gelateria
    • A short ride in the world's largest hot air balloon
  • In Florence:
    • The Uffizi
    • The Galleria della Accademia
    • Burial place of Michelangelo, Santa Croce
    • That great restaurant
    • A trip into Tuscany for grape pressing and wine tasting
  • In Venice:
    • Gondola ride at dusk
    • The Guggenheim
    • The view from the church across from Piazza San Marco
    • Murano
    • The library (really a church) from Indiana Jones and the last Crusade
  • In Milan:
    • Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper
    • An opera at La Scala
    • Football game (Inter Milan!)

Swiss Wine and Fish

I realize I said that Milan was our last stop, which is no lie. However, on our last full day in Italy, we crossed the Italian border into my personal favorite European state: Switzerland. We spent most of the day in Lugano, home of a former winter Olympics, southernmost Swiss canton in the Italian area of the state. And it was a perfect day. We had seafood in a restaurant known for its seafood. Everything tasted like it had been taken from the lake that very morning, and three of the five courses had incredible fish in it. It was phenomenal, rivaling the wonderful dinner I had had in Florence (though not surpassing). After lunch, I circled the lake a bit in search of the center of town, so that I might purchase Swiss wine while still there. The Swiss make wonderful wine which they absolutely do not export, so you can only buy it there. I, therefore, vowed to get some. In fact, I bought a white Merlot, something I of which had not before heard. Really, it's for Darick, but I'd be really excited about it if I drank wine.Finally, we headed off to a little town just outside of Milan for our final concert of the tour. It was the perfect way to end tour, since the church was filled and the audience was so into the experience. A little boy in the front pew just was thrilled with everything we did, and we even sang an encore. It was perfect, as I just said. Here's a youtube video of the men of concert choir in rehearsal just before the concert. It's a piece entitled Ave Maria by Biebel, arranged by Chantecleer. Though it's just the men, it seemed to be everyone's favorite piece, especially that of the women. Enjoy.

Castles and Cathedrals

Our final tour stop was Milan(o). I'd been to Milan twice before, and though the shopping was great and the Duomo impressive, it was hardly mind-boggling. I think I'd survive if I didn't return, yet it seems to keep pulling me back.

Our tour guide for Milano was much better than that of Venice, not repeating herself nor making racist comments. We first took a little tour of the Castle, where the family who once ruled the city-state of Milan (before Italy was united) lived. One half of the castle was ornate and had many windows, which is where the family lived most of the time, but when the castle was attacked, the family would move into the other half, where there were no windows so they were more likely to safe.

From there, we moved to La Scala, the
premier opera theatre in the world. I'm not sure what identifying characteristic makes it so, but I recognize that when you sing opera, here is where you want to do it. It was so beautifully ornate on the inside. It was destroyed in WWII (I think), but it was one of the first buildings to be rebuilt, as a symbol of the city. A few of the choir members went to see the ballet there that night, though I didn't make it out.

Through the beautiful galleria (shopping center with a ridiculously beautiful ceiling), we ended up in the plaza in front of the Duomo. St. Peter's Basilica is the largest cathedral in Christiandom, followed by one in Seville, Spain, and then the Duomo in Milan. It was incredibly beautiful, particularly on the outside. It is also the home of an incredible sculpture of St. Bartholomew...email me if you want to know why I thought it was so cool.

That night I stayed in, but Milano won the UEFA cup in soccer, which means I definitely didn't sleep until the streets calmed down around 3 am. The honking, screaming, firecrackers, etc. were riotous. I am clearly not brave enough to attempt to act like an Italian when there is football involved.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Glass Orchestras and Inky Tentacles

Off to Venice, or Venezia. I had been there before, when I studied abroad in Geneva, so I didn't take many repeated photos. However, the sights are no less breath-taking the second time around. I imagine I could return to Venice a thousand times and never get tired of the beauty, the smallness, the romance, the tourists, the shopping, the pigeons, the Italians, or anything. I care not that it's almost overrun with tourists. It's incredible, with nothing to which I might compare it. Venice is among the most incredible things I've seen in my short lifetime, and though other things might compete with it, nothing will compare to it.

Our courier, Sebastian, who was our companion on the entire tour, coordinating with venues, hotels, restaurants, tour guides, everything, was a Venice resident, so he took us on a little walking tour on the way to meet our guides, informing us of good places for gelato and groceries. We then went on a cool walking tour with a terrible, racist guide. He kept cracking snide remarks about Japanese tourists until one of our (half-Japanese) choir members spoke up. We saw the Rialto bridge, packed with shops, the beautiful Ca d'Oro, and a fish market. We also saw a beautiful spiral staircase, which my guidebook (though not our terrible guide) told me is rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Since the choir sang a wild piece about Leonardo, we were particularly interested in those things related to him. We also saw the opera house, and progressed our way to the Piazza San Marco, made famous in so many movies and diamond commercials. We went into the Basilica for about 4 minutes, but it was fascinating. Most fascinating, I thought, was the fact that the floor is sinking in various places, making the marble floor very uneven as you make your way through the cathedral.

After breaking off from the group, a few of us walked up the grand canal, shopped a little, and slowly made our way back toward the hotel, getting lost in corners a few times. We stopped for dinner, and true to my conviction to eating local food, I had cuttlefish in the Venetian style. When reading that the specialty in Venice is seafood, I should have paid attention to the section of the guidebook explaining that the Venetian style is boiled in squid ink. I only ate about a third. It was too, um, rich, for me.

The next morning, Emily, Dipika and I headed to the islands. I was determined to buy gifts for everyone while in Venice. What makes a better gift than beautiful, hand-blown glass from Venice? So we walked once again to the Piazza San Marco and jumped on the Vaporetto (water-bus) around the main island. Our first stop was the cemetery island where the Venetians are buried. There is buried one of Darick's favorite composers, Igor Stravinsky, so I took a photo for him. Also of note were the cypress trees all over the cemetery. These trees are all over Italy, but they are particularly notable in cemeteries, since they reach toward heaven.

Finally, we ended up at Murano, where artisans blow glass that is reknowned around the world. The trade is passed through families rather than through schools, and one must be an apprentice for 20 years before having one's own shop. We were able to watch a demonstration, and it was fantastic. We then shopped, all day. It was fantastic. You'd never believe the kinds of things they can make of blown glass. I bought, of course, Christmas ornaments for myself, and gifts for others. At one point, I saw an entire tiny orchestra, no player larger than an inch and a half, made of delicate glass. It was incredible.

We sang that evening in a church built in the year one thousand, to another really receptive audience, composed of about half tourists. It was really nice, with another decent performance. Afterward we ate dinner on a dock on the canal, facing the sunset. It was perfect, as only Venice can be.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

To flourish

Fiorenze. The city of Florence was named from the verb meaning to flourish. And flourish one does.

The city is beautiful, if not filled to the brim with tourist curiosities, like Rome. We began our tour, after a beautiful drive through Tuscany to get there, at the Duomo. The cathedral of Florence is built of marble. Though marble is common inside many buildings in Italy and greater Europe, it is rare on the outside, since it weathers so poorly. The builders of the Duomo were not to be deterred, though, and the building is covered in gorgeous designs in white, red, and green marble. Inside is also an architectural marvel - a dome created of gothic arches, never to be repeated to this day in human history.

Our walking tour, behind a slow-moving but well-informed Italian guide, took us past all of the glories of Florence - the original home of Michelangelo's David, a demonstration of the world's first graffiti (a derivation of the Italian word for scratching), the reported home of Mona Lisa, and many, many churches. Post tour, Dipika and Emily and I wandered back to most of the places the guide had breezed past, such as Dante's home and some gorgeous churches. We went past the Uffizi. Without Darick to enjoy them with me, I chose not to indulge in most art museums on the trip. While I realize I passed up some of the most world-reknowned art there is, such as the Sistine Chapel and the Uffizi, I'll be back. I married an artist, after all. However, we did visit the real David in the Galleria della Accademia, and it was incredibly impressive. The true masters are known as such for a very important reason. No pictures allowed in the museum, so I took mine with the replica in its original location.

We then crossed the river (Arno? maybe that's in Rome...) via the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge is lined with shops, which were once occupied by livestock vendors. Merchants, however, decided it was too smelly and ran all of them out. Now the bridge is lined with fine jewelers....thirty or so all lined up next to each other. It's quite a sight. On the other side, one finds the Medici palace, where the family lived who once ruled Florence and commissioned great works of the Renaissance.

On our way back to meet the group, we stopped at a restaurant off the beaten path recommended by the trusty guide book. I can't emphasize enough how much my guide book rocks, and I'd highly recommend traveling with one and relying on it for guidance. This restaurant was all Florence, with Florentine ingredients and recipes. It was hands down the best meal in Italy, and perhaps one of the best of my life. The recipes were rich with sausage and truffles and ham and the ingredients were just exploding with flavor. And cheap! So so good. If you are headed to Florence, ask me for the name of this place when I can look it up at home. You won't regret it.

We stayed at a hotel in Montecatini, about 45 minutes drive from Florence. There was nothing to do there. I won't bore you with details.

Next morning we went as a group to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a point (now really a parking lot) on a hill near the city where you can see the whole city. Apparently it's one of the best sunset views in the universe, but we didn't catch it at sunset. It is still remarkable though. After that, a group lunch that couldn't compare with the dinner of the night before, plus there were clandestine chicken livers making the meal a bit spoiled. However, we then shopped, which is really what one does in Florence. Ice cream and shopping for leather and paper goods. I purchased both, plus olive oil. Then the choir packed up and headed to the Tuscan countryside to sing at a 700 year-old church as part of a chianti festival. This time, well rehearsed, we sang much better, and the audience seemed so excited to have us there! They even threw us a reception afterward, and though none of us could talk to them (except one of our students) we were all appreciative of each other. It was a great time. Here are olive trees next to the church, in a Tuscan grove. Sigh.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Empires and Ice Cream

Choir tour began after a (thankfully) non-stop flight to Rome. We de-planed, passed customs, checked into our hotel (actually a religious institute run by nuns) and then went on a guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman forum. It really is remarkable to see the things that you've seen your whole life in books and in mediocre Academy-award-winning films. The Colosseum was, well, colossus. It has weathered time well, and is awe-inspiring.

Our tour guide knew much more information than we, jet-lagged and weary choristers, could really handle, but it was great all the same. Once you get inside, you can see the rooms that were underneath the wooden floor in ancient times, where the gladiators powdered their noses and the animals took their final snooze. You can also see the marble stairs where royalty watched the events from shaded areas and the archeologists still digging for lost artifacts. To attempt to get a mental handle on how old the place is can be baffling.

We then continued to tour the Roman forum and the various temples and archways around the area. The forum is where the soldiers hung out, gambling and going to market and whatnot. The house of Vestigal Virgins provides a good story, though not much to see, and the nearby palace was restored by Michelangelo himself. Though I didn't see where Julius bit the dust, we did see the place where his funeral pyre burned.

That night, after a bit of a necessary rest, we had a group dinner. We had one provided group meal in each city, which was a nice reprieve from the money that I didn't have but was spending anyway. The Italians eat what I would consider an outrageous amount of food at any given meal, and we did the same at these group meals. So bread, two pasta dishes, a meat dish, and a dessert. While the first meal was fairly uneventful, the dessert was remarkable--mille folgie--or a thousand leaves. It's many layers of pastry filled with a delicious custard. I melted.

On our way back to the institute, we traversed through the Vatican City, right through Saint Peter's Square. At night, the fountains and the buildings are lit on all sides, which is quite remarkable to behold. Since I am old, and a wuss, I did not go out after dinner that night, but the walk home through the Vatican City was a perfect way to end the evening.

The next day began with the Piazza Navona, a cute little piazza surrounded by cafes and filled with fountains. From there we walked to one of the great architectural finds of the world, the Pantheon. Its dome is poured concrete, and it's still unknown as to how it was constructed. And at the center is a hole for light, which tells the time on the walls of the internal structure. Here lies great emperors, and Raphael.

We then continued on a walking tour of the beautiful sights of Rome. We visited the Trevi Fountain, of La Dolce Vita and Frank Sinatra fame. It's the fountain of "Three Coins in the Fountain." According to local legend, if you throw one coin into the fountain, you'll return to Rome within the year. If two, you'll find love in Rome, and if three, wedding bells will soon ring. Since I didn't need the latter two, I only tossed one. We also went past the former home of Lord Byron, and took a hike up the Spanish steps, most famous, for me anyway, from Roman Holiday. A jaunt into Piazza Populi, then we headed out for pizza and some gelato. It was a busy day. In the late afternoon came our first performance of the tour. We sang, as a choir, as part of a mass at Saint Peter's Basilica. While I expected it to be, say, "neat," I was amazed at how wonderful the experience was. Being in the cathedral itself was remarkable, knowing I walked on ground over the body of Saint Peter, and passing the marvelous Pieta, now behind bulletproof glass to protect it from axe-wielding maniacs. We sang our own pieces as the regular parts of the mass, during the preparation of the gifts, communion, etc. The whole experience was very solemnifying for me--perhaps not for others in my group, but at least for me. While the mass was said in Italian, I could tell at which point we were and go along in English. It was incredible. Except the pigeon traipsing his way across the altar. The altar boys almost lost it.

Dinner that night on a side street near Vatican city with some fellow graduate students. In each city I attempted to eat at least one dish that was not only Italian, but was specific to the region in both recipe and ingredients. In Rome, that was pasta ala carbonara, and it was delicious in this particular place. Again, I ate too much. However, I still managed some gelato for a passagiata (post-dinner walk) through Vatican city. The place we ate that night remains my favorite gelateria of Italy--it was so incredibly creamy and wonderful. The flavors were gloriously vibrant. It was like a masterpiece of Italian ice cream.

On our last day in Rome, Dipika (my roommate for the tour) and I did a little more back-street exploring.
We climbed to the top of the Castel Sant' Angelo, where the pope once saw a vision of an angel sheathing his sword, bringing an end to the plague in Italy. From the top, you can see the whole of Rome, which is fantastic to see. From there, we walked to the Campo dei Fiori--the flower market--to wander the stalls. I purchased spices, ready made for delicious pasta. We had pizza for lunch in the Jewish ghetto, which was once run down but is now a great place for liveliness and food. In this area, which pushes up against the ancient city, there is a church, called something I can't remember but is similar to Our Lady of the Fish Market. This is where the Jews were once forced to go to mass, but they defiantly put wax in their ears. It's a beautiful medieval church, and in the front is an old drain cover known as the Bocca della Verita, or Mouth of Truth. According to legend, and Gary Cooper, the mouth bites off the hands of liars. I passed the test.

That night we left the city of Rome for a concert in the surrounding hills, in a town called Fiorentino (I think). The roads in the city were so small that we had to park the bus outside it and walk to the center to the church. It was perfect. My camera battery had died, so I have no photos of this place, but it was remarkable. It was a smallish crowd, and we sang terribly on almost every piece. It was a nice experience, nonetheless. Back to Rome that night for a pizza dinner once again, and the next morning we headed off to Florence.