where we've been and where we're going

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Literary Movement

Coming to London to hang out with L gave me a very pared-down agenda. I had been there twice before and therefore had already been to most of the tourist highlights. I also was missing my art-loving husband, and so I did not want to spend time visiting art museums to which I would surely return. I had only a few things I wanted to accomplish in London: the Portobello Road market (a bit of a disappointment), delicious Indian food, a play, and the British Library.

The Library had only come to my attention via the Frugal Traveler…and I love to travel frugally. The Library is free entrance and is home to a large collection of original prints of Britain's great literary works. Even more impressive, many works are written in the author's own hand. So I was excited. We saw an original print of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 13th century, heard James Joyce reading from Finnegan's Wake, and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary.

As we moved through the collection, I began to have moments of emotion. We came across a text written in John Milton's own hand in the 17th century. I was amazed and began to tell L the story of Milton's role in my life, of senior year advanced English, of how much I was moved by Paradise Lost and what great prose could be in my life. I began to cry, staring at the handwriting of a person who had so moved me by his writing centuries before I could ever read it. We saw the original copy of Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Bronte's pen; Persuasion written in Jane Austen's perfect handwriting; the very first copy of Alice in Wonderland that "Lewis Carroll" wrote and illustrated and gave to the girl who was the inspiration for Alice; and Sylvia Plath's erratic penmanship in an early draft of a poem, Insomnia.

And then came Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which was of course inspired by Mrs. Dalloway and featured Virginia Woolf, is my favorite novel. After reading The Hours, I read Mrs. Dalloway and came to love Woolf. As we moved along the row of originals, we came upon the original hand-written draft of Mrs. Dalloway, open to the first page. At the top of the page was written the original title of the work, The Hours. My breath caught in my throat and tears came to my eyes again. Remembering how much this book meant to me when I read it made me feel all the depth of that wonder all over again.

I turned a corner to be in the section of original music. Henry Purcell kept an anthology of his own works in his pen. Mozart's Horn Concerto in E flat, dedicated to his friend, the horn player for whom it was written. The original performance score for Handel's Messiah, open to The Trumpet Shall Sound. Ravel's Bolero. Schubert's An Die Musik, which fit on a single page. A work by Beethoven, with half of it scribbled out in edits. Mendelssohn's Wedding March. To be in the presence of the original scores of these great works was momentous. They also had lyrics by the Beatles, written on the backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, and the back of a birthday card to Julian Lennon!

There were other incredible highlights as well. The Library houses the oldest known complete Bible, and Psalms 1 through 3 written in Greek on Papyrus in the 3rd century. It has centuries-old religious texts from every religion, with the most beautiful illustrations. There's a Gutenberg Bible, of which there are only four. The diaries of great British explorers, like Captain RF Scott and Captain James Cook, and the earliest known written star chart. The Library is also the home of the Magna Carta, or the earliest known copies of the Magna Carta, which was the first instance of written and legally binding human rights. (There is no evidence of a single official Magna Carta, ceremonially signed by all negotiators, like there is for the Geneva Conventions or the Declaration of Independence, for instance.)

There's a page believed to be the only example of William Shakespeare's actual writing in existence, though it's not one of his plays---none of those exist. All we have to go on are the printings of his works that were done during his lifetime, of which a few were on display there. There are also pages from Leonardo DaVinci's journals, in which he famously wrote backwards in Italian. Somehow, being in the presence of the writings of these geniuses awed me in a way their works have not. Of course, to look upon a DaVinci painting or to read or watch a Shakespearean play (see earlier post) is one of the great treasures experienced in life. But to look upon their scrawling words made their genius more real to me, somehow. Beethoven, too, with his scribbled edits, and Milton with his stilted handwriting. These geniuses---who have influenced me in indescribable ways, moved audiences, onlookers, and readers for centuries, and will be known to the world for all future generations as those who make our civilization what it is---had a beginning. They had greatness pour out of them onto a page as their thoughts were bigger than their minds could contain. They made mistakes and scribbled them out. They wrote on scraps of paper as ideas came to them in odd places. They had messy handwriting and disjointed thoughts. They failed. They were frustrated. They were real people with all of the difficulties of all real people and yet they strived for better achievement in all things that they did. They failed and continued on. They had glorious successes. They painted the Mona Lisa and wrote Macbeth and Paradise Lost and the 9th symphony. Seeing their works in their hand helped me to understand the glory of human achievement and that greatness is the reward not of genius (though that helps) but endeavor.

The experience put my dissertation frustrations in true perspective. I can do this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Bridge Project

While in London, I was morally obliged to take in some theatre. After a bit of research as to what was available and immediately crossing off anything I’d be able to see on tour in the states (Spring Awakening or Avenue Q) or anything I believed Kander and Ebb would scoff at (Sister Act, the Musical or We Will Rock You), I settled on and convinced L to join me for The Cherry Orchard.

Some of you might know that it is very difficult for me to choose a favorite movie, but I can list favorite directors. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) is in the top five, and his first love is theatre. He won a Tony for his direction of the revival of Cabaret with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming. Anyway, he’s currently directing a very special three-season project called the Bridge Project, which is an attempt to connect London and New York with a talented British and American cast and shows in both cities.

The company is doing two plays, with the same director and cast, alternating nights and occasionally doing both the same day. They are The Cherry Orchard, written by Anton Chekhov and interpreted by the witty Tom Stoppard, and The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean romance (?). The cast includes the brilliant British stage actor Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona and the Prestige), Josh Hamilton (Away We Go, Diggers, Kicking and Screaming), Richard Easton (Revolutionary Road), Sinead Cusack (Eastern Promises, V for Vendetta), and Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Gattaca, Reality Bites).

The project did a run in NYC a while back and is now in London at the Old Victoria Theatre (the Old Vic), where L and I went to see the Cherry Orchard. The performance was hilarious and so superbly acted. The plot revolves around a family who is in the process of losing everything to the combination of financial ruin and proletariat revolution. Stoppard’s interpretation emphasizes the comedy of their situation while the subtlety of the performances emphasizes confusion, fear, naïveté, and inevitability of it. Beale, Hall, and Cusack were absolutely stunning in their roles. Hawke was distracting and overwrought. I was so very pleased, and reminded how thrilling excellent theatre could be. I missed St. Louis and the days when I went to two or three plays a month.

In fact, I enjoyed the Cherry Orchard so much that I convinced a student, K, to join me for the other play in the double-bill, The Winter’s Tale. It’s not a “great work” in the scheme of all things Shakespeare, but it was so very perfectly Shakespeare in that no one could have written the same tale as wrenchingly or marvelously. It’s considered by some to be a romance, as it contains the elements of comedy and tragedy so fluidly in the same piece as to make neither category apply appropriately.

According to a review I read afterward, directors and actors have always had great difficulty interpreting this text, and the motives of King Leontes in particular, who Simon Russell Beale played with incredible ambiguity and nuance. Rebecca Hall was stunning and glorious as Queen Hermione, and Sinead Cusack was once again wonderful in this, though I felt like her talents were underused in a role that felt too small. The scenes without one of these three players felt lesser, somehow, and like filler until we were able to return to the scenes in Sicily, though of course Bill Shakes would have never written filler. Ethan Hawke was better in this play than in the Chekhov, playing the rogue in a way that lent itself to being a bit overdone more appropriately than the other role of the tutor. In fact, he was hilarious.

The staging of the Winter’s Tale was also gorgeous. The lighting was outstanding and set a terrifying and glorious mood. The transitions between scenes were very fluid and felt like a dance signifying the passage of time rather than just the movement of props. Oh. I love the theatre. For as many performances of as many kinds of plays I have seen in my life, there are only a few moments that I can recall as magical and true insights into humanity: Blue/Orange, The Last Five Years, Doubt, A Little Night Music, Porgy and Bess. I want to add both the Cherry Orchard and the Winter’s Tale to that list.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Fox news on LSD"

We visited the Parliament building for a tour and a meeting with a member of Parliament (MP). The building itself is, of course, lovely. The main chapel area is the oldest part, having survived the London fires, at something like 1200 years old. Here is where kings and queens lie in state after they die but before they are buried, and Winston Churchill was the only non-royal to do so (apparently they break a lot of rules for the old war horse). It was also the place of famous trials, including kings and William Wallace (Braveheart).

We were able to meet with an MP of the ruling Labor party, though he's not a member of government. For those who don't know (or haven't previously cared to know), the British govt is not known for its separation of powers, and this, in fact, does not exist. The people vote for parties, who then choose the representatives. The majority party (or a coalition to create the majority) choose the members of government, including the Prime Minister. This means the executive branch IS the legislative branch, and the legislative branch has no ability to oppose the executive except, essentially, in debate. Additionally, there is no written Constitution in Britain, so the courts have no ability to declare a law unconstitutional or sanction executive action. Absolutely no separation of powers.
This works for some Britons, but not others. In particular, the MP to which we spoke spent a long time praising the American system of checks and balances and expressing his wish that the citizens of Britain be better able to control and have a hand in their own governance. He was very outspoken in his criticisms of the system (though not specifically the current govt led by PM Gordon Brown). He also blamed the media, saying it was like "Fox news on LSD" and hindered the ability of the citizens to focus on important political debates rather than distracting scandals. It was a very cool meeting, and the students really fed off of his energy.

Finally, we were able to sit in on a session of the House of Commons, which, though sparsely attended by MPs, was like I'd always imagined/seen in films. MPs grilled the minister of energy (or something like that) on the newest plan for climate control, sometimes being quite aggressive and rude to one another. Yes, some people wore wigs. I love what I do.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fashionable Marketing

L lived in London for a few months while studying fashion in undergrad, so it was particularly fun to explore fashionable London with her. On Thursday we spent the afternoon in Soho, stopping in fabric and trims stores, as well as RD Franks, a fashion bookstore. Of course, we also browsed boutiques and clothing shops that were out of our price range to dream the day away. And I bought tea, for a person must drink and purchase tea in Britain, no?

On Friday we visited the Spitalfields Market, a market for handmade goods and designers with a different theme each day. Fridays are Fashion and Art. Quite a few booths were disappointingly mass-market goods, but there were quite a few booths in which you were able to speak to the artists about their work. I bought a perfectly marvelous purse handmade from lovely vintage fabric, as well as a dress and a cute top. With a willingness to wade through the mass-produced goods, there were some really nice finds. Of course, it’s not as diverse as Etsy

Saturday morning is the time to go to the Portobello Road market, made famous in my mind by my childhood experiences with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie I recently rewatched and enjoyed much less than I did as a child. Unfortunately, I think we ended up on the less interesting end of the market, which mostly consisted of goods that seemed to fall off the back of a truck and fewer curiosities. By the time we arrived at the interesting end of the market, it was noon, my arches were falling, and the market was stressfully packed with people. I’d do it differently next time, but I did enjoy wandering and watching.

Monday, July 20, 2009

St. Vincent, Rockin' Out

Leaving Paris, we headed to London for the beginning of a week-long tour of Western European political institutions. I’ve always enjoyed London, but never loved it, which is okay. It makes other places better when not everything is amazing, right? A friend of mine, L, lives in Cork, Ireland, and she decided to meet me in London for the four days I was there, and I’m so grateful! She is a great travel partner, and I really had such a great time exploring with her. Having been there twice before, I had already done the touristy stuff, so I just wanted to wander, explore, and discover the city as someone might who lives there, and I left with a much better impression of London than I had previously had. Verdict: I’d be happy to live there, even with the rain, especially to trade visits with L in Cork.

I arrived with the group at St. Pancras Station, which is right next to King’s Cross Station, but whose façade was used as King’s Cross Station in the Harry Potter movies, since it is much prettier. I met L at the dorms in which we stayed and we headed to the Institute of Contemporary Art to see St. Vincent in concert. It was an intimate concert with maybe 100-150 people in the audience (correct me if I’m wrong, L), but she rocked it like there were a thousand. It was so incredible. What a great show.

She’s a really inventive artist, distorting traditional sounds to find the sounds she wants, with a really guttural feel. I’ve liked her albums a lot, but seeing her live was totally different and enthralling. Her guitars are dirty, her drums and intense, and her musicians look super nerdy but can each play at least three instruments. I’m so glad we did that. Here’s a video of one of her songs:


and L's post on the show:


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Moments in Paris

This is my last post about Paris for this trip, as we left and traversed Western Europe for the last week and a half of the trip. In honor of this, here's a slideshow of moments in Paris. I tried to capture a bit of the feel of Paris by taking photos of moments around the city (a few of these photos are from one of our students, KW).

During the last week or so in Paris, it was outrageously hot. Not outrageously hot comparatively to either St. Louis or Atlanta, mind you, because it never got hotter than, say, ninety degrees Fahrenheit. However, the French don’t believe in air conditioning. In the states, when it’s hot, you just try to avoid going outside and sit around inside where it’s cooler. You might be hot in the transition to your car, but you have an alternative. In Paris, if it’s ninety outside, it’s ninety in your room. And if you live on the sixth floor, as I do, it might even be hotter. And it’s ninety in the restaurant. And like a thousand on the packed metro. So you cold shower three times a day, you go to museums, which might have AC, “You sit in your room in your bikini,” as my friend F says, and you spend as much time outside as possible, since it might be hot, but at least the air moves in the out of doors.

On a lazy day after an adventurous trip to a better grocery store than the one by my residence and standing in the freezer section for ten minutes longer than necessary, I took a long walk for the afternoon. With the intention of checking the Canal St. Martin off of my list of things to do, I began at the Parc la Villette, a park that is almost outside of Paris proper. (All of these photos are in the last post, by the way.) This area of Paris is not touristed, which was lovely and felt like being a part of the city. Lots of kids played in the fountains to keep cool and kicked “footballs” around. There’s a science museum and a museum of music (with a café and ice cream), though I didn’t visit either. There’s a very overdesigned but cute garden.

It’s also at the outside edge of the Canal St. Martin. From here, you can jump on a boat that will cruise all the way down the canals to the center of Paris, leaving you at the Musee d’Orsay. Unfortunately, I missed this boat, so I just walked for a while. I probably walked three miles down the canals, observing people, listening to music, and watching the locks change the level of the water for boats to move through. There are lots of parks and people along the canals and restaurants and cafes where a person can sit and watch people. It was lovely, though I think if I were to do it again, I would either be sure to catch the boat or start closer into the city and walk out, or something like that.

The last day before leaving Paris was the premiere of a very special performance at l’Opera Bastille. The Opera commissioned the great modern artist Anselm Kiefer to do an installation/performance in honor of its 20th anniversary. Those of you in St. Louis will know Kiefer’s huge work in the art museum that has been both in the modern section and in the main hall: it looks like bookshelves with shards of glass throughout the papers and scattered all over the floor. I really love his work, and was really excited to see what he would do for the opera.

It was a work entitled Am Anfang, or the Beginning, and it emphasized that the beginning of things arises from the end of the previous, focusing on the trials of the Jewish people. It began with an enormous painting and moved to have slaves building a wall very slowly and a dancer moving slowly throughout. It was narrated entirely in French, which made it difficult to follow, but I certainly got the point. It was so beautifully staged, in very stark contrasts, and with gorgeous lighting. It was done in conjunction with a very dissident and disturbing work performed by the Orchestre de l’Opera de Paris.

At curtain call, Anselm Kiefer himself was there! I adore having moments like this, in which I’m able to be part of something special. I felt super cool, like I was rubbing elbows with the elite, even though I didn’t get any closer to him than 30 yards. I was still moved, both by the work and the experience itself.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Parisian Cinema

During my last week in residence in Paris I was able to take in a few films as part of the Parisian experience. First I saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Whatever Works (not Parisian), at La Pagode (very Parisian). La Pagode is a movie theatre that was built by the owner of La Bon Marche for his wife over a hundred years ago. It resembles, surprise!, a pagoda, with Japanese style roofing and a lovely outdoor terrace, where movie-goers can have tea before showtime (we would have, if they had served us). The window detailing looks art nouveau to me, but it certainly fits the theme. The theatre itself is also lovely, with gold detailing and a celebratory atmosphere.

The movie was in the original English with French subtitles, of course, though it seemed that most of the audience didn’t need the subtitles. There were little cracks at the expense of the French, at which they laughed louder than we did. It was an okay movie, better than I expected, but still way down on my list of Woody Allen films, but the experience was worth the show. At the end, not a single person rose to leave the theatre until the credits were almost entirely through. It was a very respectful engagement of the entertainment and appreciation of the art. I love seeing films in this manner.

I was also able to attend a show that was part of the Paris Film Festival, called Sell Out! that was introduced by the director himself. It’s a Malaysian comedy about the choice between making high art versus commercial art. And a musical! It was extremely witty and well written, and the director’s choices were very elegant and insightful. It was very poorly acted, but highly enjoyable despite this. Here’s the trailer, which is very representative of the movie. It also has my favorite song, Money.

Not only did the director introduce the film, but he also stayed to answer questions we might have after the movie. It didn’t seem like the audience was full of critics asking incisive questions, but no one there seemed to be a movie novice, either. It was really interesting to hear about his thought process and choices, pointing me to things I hadn’t noticed while watching it. Cinema feels more cultural here. Like it did when I lived in St. Louis, and like I miss desperately in Atlanta.
Photos of the theatres and the festival, as well as the Canal St. Martin, Amelie’s canal that I wandered along on a lazy Friday:

Saturday, July 11, 2009


We went to Strasbourg in order to view a hearing in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights and talk to someone at the Council of Europe. We arrived late on Tuesday with only enough time to walk to the old town and have dinner. On our walk, though, I was reminded how quaint and beautiful Strasbourg is. It's so lovely, and so very quiet at night. We walked past the Cathedral, which I had somehow managed to miss the last time I was in Strasbourg, and found it astounding. It's really a remarkable gothic building that towers over a square like the giant over Jack. I was very impressed and so wished I would have had the time to visit it and go inside. Sigh.

We had dinner at a place called Le Hanneton (Chez Denis), a small place recommended by the trusty guidebook. We ate traditional Alsatian food, which was so flavorful and delicious compared to some of the food I'd been eating for so long in Paris. Oh goodness do I love flavor. I had a Baeckoffen (sp?), potatoes, carrots, onions, and beef baked in some sort of alcohol in a crock. Delicious. Some meal tasting revealed the flammenkuchen (tartes flambees) and the baked munster were also yummy (though I personally thought mine was best). Service was brusque and sometimes rude, but I thought the food made up for it.

We had meetings all the next day, with a yummy but forgettable lunch at Jardin de l'Orangerie, and so no time to explore the city. I was sad for this, but it's all the more reason to return, non?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dancing Fleas

We visited Les Puces on a Sunday morning (L&D plus me) for a bit of antique shopping. Les Puces, or the fleas, is a gigantic market composed of (I think) 15 sub-markets that branch off the rue des Rosiers on the very northern perimeter of Paris. Each sub-market has about 150 vendors in booths in winding alleyways. The place is just fascinating. Every booth has something different and new. There are art nouveau furniture dealers, crafters, postcard sellers, beads, trinkets, vintage clothing, kitchenware, artwork, and junk. So much junk. We walked into one booth market "Curiosities" to find scientific instruments and snakes in formaldehyde. Amazing. I'm so glad we went.

We then spent the rest of the day in Montmartre. We had lunch at La Sancerre, which was crowded and more expensive than I expected, but boy was that cheeseburger delicious. It was a bustling bar with lots of people there to congregate and be seen, especially on the terrace. Unfortunately not many vegetarian options for my friends, who were beginning to get tired of cheese and bread...even though we still had fondue that night for dinner.

We did a tour of the great things of Montmartre: the Moulin Rouge, Amelie's haunts (her apt, her cafe, her greengrocer, her Sacre Coeur moment), a million stairs, and the APC surplus store for fashion at half price. I stress, a million stairs. Montmartre can be a killer if you don't plan to make it easy on yourself.

That evening we went to a traditional French cabaret Au Lapin Agile. No naked ladies. A bunch of people sat at a table and sang rousing traditional French country songs and shanties and things, engaging with the audience and having a great time. There was a bit of poetry and comedy, but mostly group singing. We had a good time, and I felt very cultural, but something was a bit farcical about it all, and not intentionally. I don't know. It was all in French and enjoyable, but difficult to follow and a bit expensive for the reward. For the same price I could have seen an opera and bit much more satisfied.

The next day I worked in the morning and then met another friend at L'Orangerie for conversation and art. I had never been before (I could take or leave Monet) but everyone always reports that it's something remarkable. And it definitely is. It has two giant oval-shaped rooms with Monet's waterlilies. The natural lighting is breathtaking, so I only recommend you go when it is sunny in Paris (which is 50-50) and not when it is closed on Tuesdays. It was really quite remarkable to see the kind of depth an artist can put in such a gigantic work. Amazing. The museum also had exhibitions downstairs, in which I discovered two new artists I had not known but now enjoy: Chaim Soutine and Didier Paquignon. Beautiful.

After a coffee next to La Madeliene, I met L&D at the Palais Garnier for a ballet, La Fille Mal Gardee. It was lovely, and pretty traditional, though not quite worth the standing ovation it received. Afterward we trekked to Le Bistrot Victoire, on the recommendation of The Frugal Traveler. The service was pleasant and the creme brulee delicious, but our meals were nothing to get excited about. And I'll be honest, I hated my meat. But everyone's experience is different....

I'm so glad L&D came and had me as a part of their honeymoon...I had such a great time with them, and Paris is so much better shared!

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Circus Indeed

With L&D in town, I had an excuse to put work aside for a few days to explore the city with them. L has exceptional fashion taste and interests, so we spent a day shopping in La Marais. La Marais has both the best food and affordable fashion shopping in all of Paris, in my and others' opinions. We also happened to be wandering during the semi-annual sales in Paris, so it was a good time to be out. We were able to visit both chains (APC and Kookai, for instance) and vintage stores, which were a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, I did not think ahead and a great deal of establishments were closed for the Sabbath on Saturday, so we were not able to experience falafel or any other great food. Instead we ended up at Bar de Cirque on rue Amelot in the 11th for pizza. We had the strangest service experience I've ever had. No fewer than three people asked us what we wanted, put in our order separately, and confirmed our order. Nevertheless, both our drink order and our pizza order came back wrong. And we weren't complicated: we ordered three vegetarian pizzas. That's it. No special order, not even three different pizzas! Yet we received three (yummy) margherita pizzas. Unexplainable. Then all three different people charged us different amounts. Amazing. Disastrous. Don't do it.

After shopping, we stopped for a sit and mint tea at Riad Nejma, and enjoyed each other's company over some really delicious ice cream. We walked to Notre Dame with the hope of entering and managed to get there at the exact time they were closing the doors. Grr. We had another drink at another cafe, and then delicious dinner at Le Grenier de Notre Dame. Boy, I love that restaurant. I had the lasagna, and it was really something. We ended the night with jazz at Le Caveau des Oubliettes, one of my favorite places to be in Paris. I know it's touristed, but I don't care. I love interesting jazz. Let someone else listen to the standards.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg

We took one of our three classes of students to a meeting at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg City two weeks ago. Wow. Does that even seem possible? Anyway, it was. After our briefings, we had lunch in the lovely, very European cafeteria, and had a tour of the building, which was amazing.

The theme of the building is transparency, so the spaces are very open and filled with glass. There are gorgeous works of art donated by various states, like a Rodin from France and a Miro from Spain. We saw three courtrooms, each bigger than the last. It was really something.

Afterward, we had a bit of free time in the city. Lux used to be a fortified city, so there is a ville haute, or high city, and the valleys below, on the other side of the walls. In the walls, there are tunnels one can go through, if one were to arrive before they close (grr). We looked over the valley, and then walked through the Judicial Center of the city to an elevator that took us down to the Grund. We crossed a lovely river and had a drink at Scott's Pub outside on the beautiful day. I spent most of the afternoon just walking. Enjoying. Breathing. I think Luxembourg is wonderful. Photos in the slideshow.

It is worth making special note that this was the day we all learned that Michael Jackson had died the afternoon before. If you know me at all, you'll know he was my fave. Oh, Michael Jacks, I'll miss you so much. Many very important moments of my life centered around MJ, and it's very difficult to grasp that we now live in a world without Michael Jackson. This is worse than when Gene Kelly died. Or Princess Di. Sorry Farah Fawcett. I'm sure you were cool too.

Because of this momentous event, all of Europe seemed to be celebrating his life. Cars would drive by with their windows down playing Billie Jean. Buskers played his music in metro stations. European versions of MTV played his videos all day. You would walk by bars with their doors open to hear Thriller. The weekend after a giant crowd gathered under the Eiffel Tower to moonwalk in his honor. I'll miss you, Michael Jacks.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Midsummer's Night

On the 21st, midsummer's night, Paris celebrates the Fete de la Musique by suspending its noise laws, running the metro lines all through the night, and throwing a gigantic party with music in every place a person can imagine music being played. It's on every street corner, in every cafe, in museums, churches, parks, universities, government buildings...everywhere. There's a vibrancy in the air one doesn't normally associate with Paris, a city that doesn't experience a majority of sunshine.

This year it fell on a very beautiful summer Sunday. I, to be honest, worked through most of it, hoping to have a good opportunity to stop and soak in the music with someone. I did go to the Luxembourg Gardens with a few of the profs, eating baguette and moutarde while people watching and listening to various troupes play music through the park. My self-guilt meant I finished the day with more work, but it was a lovely day to be in Paris as opposed to anywhere else.

Two great friends from high school, L&D, came to Paris for their honeymoon while I was here! It was lovely to see them, and they were a good excuse to put work aside for a bit to see things I hadn't yet seen in Paris.

On the night they arrived, I took them for a "stroll" along the Champs Elysees, starting from L'Arc de Triomphe. I place stroll in quotation marks as the minute we stepped foot on the Champs, it began to rain. Not drizzle. Hailstone-sized water drops fell from the sky out of nowhere. After a bit under a gallery and a stop to buy umbrellas, we found a bistrot at which to eat a pleasant meal. Wish I could remember its name, though it was very standard and not really worth recommending.

Afterward, we walked to the Seine and had a drink at Chez Francis next to the Alma Marceau metro stop. Sitting on the patio of this lovely (and reputedly delicious) bistro afforded us a glorious view of the Eiffel Tower frames by a few lush trees. We sat, we talked, we drank, and we watched the light show. It was a lovely way to begin their trip here. I highly recommend this relatively untouristed spot.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Human Rights Organizations

We took students to Geneva for our first set of site visits, which was a great success. Apologies in advance, I took no photos. I just enjoyed.

When we arrived we took students to La Terrasse, the bar along Lac Leman, which was absolutely packed with people, even on a Wendesday evening at 11pm. I was a bit taken aback. However, the students either weren't impressed, were hungry, or were tired, and it didn't last long.

I woke early the next morning to go on a long, six-mile run along the Lac. It was a gorgeous morning in Geneva, and the lake water was so still and calm, with remnants of the sunrise still lingering over the mountains. The run took me through the lakeside park, past the World Trade Organization, and into the Jardin Botanique, where I was surprised to find animals! Deer, goats (well, one goat), flamingos... It was really a gorgeous run. Oh to always run in Geneva.

We had excellent meetings at the International Committee for the Red Cross and World Vision International. The students were very engaged in the conversations and asked great, probing questions. That evening, we had a group meal at La Gruyerien, which is known for using local, fresh products. Despite knowing in advance that our group was coming, the service was among the worst I've ever experienced, though not for a lack of trying. The fondue I had was probably the best I've ever had...so creamy and smooth and light (for cheese). It was absolutely delicious. However, when I left to meet friends two hours and fifteen minutes after seating, three of our group still did not have food in front of them. Ridiculous. I highly recommend the food, but take a group elsewhere.

For drinks (and for lunch the next day), I went to an old haunt, Les Brasseurs. The brewed beers are light enough for me to drink, and I love flammenkeuches all the time. :) Unfortunately, one of our students had her bag stolen while sitting by a door there. Fortunately, we were in Geneva, where the theives were kind enough to only take her money and leave the bag where it would be found by the police. Amazing.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Group Outings and Adventures

I've been mostly working on my dissertation, getting out only for runs and grocery trips. However, I have eaten out and led group trips, so here we go.

A week ago Friday, we took students for a group dinner to Brasserie Julien, which is an establishment now over 100 years old. It is more exciting for its atmosphere than for its food. The food was quite pleasant, though not as pleasant as the price might have suggested. The room, though, was beautiful. It has all this art nouveau detailing all around the room, and you just feel like you're in Paris. But Paris where there's an old school cabaret and chanteure. Lovely.

After dinner we took the metro a few more stops to Sacre Coeur to watch the sunset. This is the second highest point in Paris (the first being the Eiffel Tower, of course), though the angle of the view leaves much to be desired. It's actually better to go to the dome of the church to see a lovely view of Paris. Nonetheless, sunset on Montmartre is an event. It's packed with people, and relatively few tourists. People blast music, sell beer by the six-pack, dance, sing, and yell. It's quite something.

On Saturday we took the group to Versailles. It was quite an adventure. We hadn't ordered our tickets 24 hours in advance, which meant David had to go out to Versailles an hour ahead of us to begin waiting in line. The rest of us headed out there later, were missing a few tickets, jumped on the wrong train, didn't realize it until we were down the wrong fork, had to change trains twice more, and finally arrived in Versailles an hour later than we had planned. Which I would have felt bad about if David hadn't JUST arrived at the front of the ticket line by the time we arrived. He waited in line over 2 hours. It's so not worth that. Buy your tickets in advance, people.

I didn't go into the grounds, and instead worked a bit at a cafe and found a place for our group to eat. We went, once again, to Pizza Capri, which is yummy and cheap. Pretty standard.

On Tuesday I decided I wanted Moroccan food and took anyone who wanted to go with me to Riad Nejma. It is on the plaza of the Centre Pompidou, but it's surprisingly not very toursity. It has an open, indoor courtyard built to replicate riads in Morocco, and it felt very familiar. They served their couscous dishes family style, which meant we were all able to try everyone else's dishes. One group ordered something with root vegetables, tons of meat, and spiced with ras-al-hanout or something. Another group ordered the couscous Fassi, which I highly recommend. It was cinnamon, raisins, chickpeas, chicken, onions....oh it was so delicious. Outstanding. Nothing was quite as spicy and delicious as we ate in Morocco, but everything was very flavorful and..morocaine. Yummy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tea with Friends and More Doors

Last year I made a new friend here in Paris, a person we hired to help the program, and I met her for tea at L'Heure Gourmande on a rainy afternoon. The tea was lovely, though not anything particularly inspiring. It was, however, a nice tearoom. Located in an alley off of a main street in St. Germain, it felt tucked away, with tables under low ceilings and populated mostly with locals rather than ever-present travelers (such as myself). I'll go again for the atmosphere, unless I can find a place with similar privacy and better tea...

While waiting for my friend, I saw a Frenchman walk by wearing a beret. I have never seen a non-tour guide wearing an actual beret, but he wore it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If only I had captured it on film!

Paris has been typically moody as far as the weather goes. It fluctuates almost daily between raining all day at 57 degrees and being sunny and beautiful at 80. It means I have to be very certain to get in a run on the sunny days for fear of running into another rainy one, but I feel much better about working all the time in my room when it's rainy outside. So bring on the rain!

On a pleasant day I took a student to Pere LaChaise, the massive cemetery in Paris. Click here for my post the last time I went. Whereas the last time I visited I felt frantic, unable to see everything I wanted to see, this time I was relaxed--soothed by the serenity of the place and breathing in the beauty of a gorgeous day of a wonderful life. We just wandered and took a million photos. This time, I found Chopin. We also found a long wall that was lined with memorials for those who died in wars, plane crashes, and concentration camps. There was at least one memorial for each concentration camp, a memorial of remembrance, sculptures, all lining the wall of the Federalists. This wall is famous for being the site of a massacre of Federalists in a war long ago in French history (sorry...I'm scant on the details).

A slideshow of photos (click to see them bigger):

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Long Runs, Churches, and Mussels

I've been staying in most of the time working, but I have taken breaks every other day for long runs around the Luxembourg Gardens. After getting used to the broken sidewalks of Atlanta on my runs, the park is heavenly. I'd never watched for exercisers before in Paris, but lots of people have the same idea. You see marathoners and housewives and dads with jogging strollers. The loop that circles the park is about a mile and a half, so it's perfect for doing long runs without feeling like you're running a thousand circles. I am able to watch kids play soccer, old men play bocce ball, groups doing tai chi, setup for the outdoor opera, bands playing, and, of course, French lovers making out on benches. I end up not even noticing how long I've been running.

I took a student out to see some churches the other day to help her get started seeing the city. I'm only really willing to do this for the free things for now. I have a couple of friends coming through Paris while I'm here, and I want to save the big ticket items for them. But we went to St-Germain-des-Pres, which is such a beautiful old church. I love the memorials for those of the parish who have died in wars. We also wandered through the antiques market and visited Ste.-Sulpice. I'm always amazed at how bright this church is. Click the links to see the posts from the last time I visited these churches.

That night I went out to have moules (mussels) with T. We went to La Moule en Folie, which had the most delicious mussels! It's almost all they serve, but with a variety of different sauces. I had the house specialty, which were mussels in a garlic, basil, ham, and white wine sauce. And frites of course. Yum. The dessert was even fantastic! It was a chocolate truffle, but not a truffle. More like a fondant. Covered in creme anglaise. It was extremely rich but oh so delicious. It was well worth the walk to this place.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Je reviens

I'm back in Paris again for my third summer as a travel agent/computer lab assistant/camp counselor. I do so love this city. I was/am not looking forward to the trip in the same way I usually am. I adore Europe, Paris, baguettes, and even the French, but I have some pretty severe school deadlines and financial restrictions that will limit the fun aspects of this trip. However, I'll keep blogging the things that I do and see. Perhaps this year there will be more observations and less business in the blog.

I arrived on Saturday in good shape but very sleepy. (I was not, by the way, impressed with Two Lovers on the plane ride over. It was fine, but forgettable.) My room is small but much nicer than last year. I traded last year's view of the Eiffel tower for a shower in my room. I'll accept the trade. On Sunday I welcomed students, found a grocery, and worked. In the evening we took the students to the Saveur de Savoie on rue Mouffetard. It was a classic French place with specialties from the southern France area near Geneva. Of course, I had the fondue. It was fine, though nothing special. But la formule was very affordable and the food better than that price usually affords in Paris. So I recommend it for a forgettable but edible meal at a good price.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Trustafarians of Colorado

I went to Colorado last week for a work-related trip but managed to have a fantastic time in the midst of all the work. Our friend S lives in Boulder, and A lives in Denver, and I managed to visit extensively with both. I arrived in Denver with a plane full of people wearing Keens and steel water bottles, so I was already looking forward to an environment of recycling and nourishing food, though I was certainly hoping for some grit and dirt as well. Luckily, I was hanging out with these friends, the perfect ones to provide that other side for which I was looking, without delving too far into any underbellies.

We started my trip with dinner and the first round of the Western finals of the NBA playoffs in Denver at the Tavern Uptown. It was a pleasant bar of dark wood and many televisions with a nice menu of many kinds of bar food. I'm generally wary of a menu that includes burritos, sandwiches, pastas, pizzas...but the meals we had were yummy. And though the Nuggets lost that one, it was fun to be in a bar full of fans at the time. And good company makes all the difference, of course.

The next day, after a day full of rockin' productive work, S and I shared margaritas on the roof of Rio Grande in Boulder. From the rooftop one can see the Flatirons in the near distance, and though the clouds hovered above us, it never rained. We engorged ourselves with chips and delicious salsa, and my strawberry margarita was delicious. The regular margarita was beautifully smooth, but the strawberry one had real strawberries! Yummy.

After that, A met us at the Lazy Dog on Pearl Street. Pearl Street is the main thoroughfare of fun in Boulder. In the downtown area it's mostly pedestrian strolling with street artisans, musicians, etc. All kinds of restaurants, bars, and specialty boutiques line the street. We again hit the rooftop for drinks and to watch the Cards-Cubs game. The Lazy Dog is a sports bar, straight-up. We didn't order food, but the bartender was friendly and we had a great time. Love that rooftop fun.

Finally, we had dinner at an Irish bar called Conor O'Neill's (of all things, it's other location is in Ann Arbor, Michigan). It had lots of steps up and steps down to trip over, but it made for an interesting feel of the place. The kind of place that feels like Guinness sent the wood over so it would feel like a proper Irish bar. We ate between the three of us two giant platters of barbeque pork pesto quesadillas. I was entirely skeptical when S suggested this dish, as the combination of barbeque and pesto in a quesadilla sounds terrible. Amazingly, it was delicious. I'm not kidding. Delicious.

Though we'd discussed karaoke, and I'm usually hard-pressed to NOT karaoke, but I was pooped after a long day of work and play, so we hit it.

The next day we had lunch at The Sink, a long-time establishment in Boulder. Robert Redford was once a dishwasher there, and his portrait (caricature?) is painted on the wall. There are many, many things painted on the walls...ceilings... It's a dive that's clearly attempting to be a dive, but the food is much better than a dive's food. For lunch, I had the meatloaf sandwich---the only meatloaf I've had with artichokes and sundried tomatoes in it, which was yummy and very filling. We returned for happy hour and had the--get this--deep friend pickles. I was again surprised to think they were delicious, and I don't care for pickles. Amazing.

We then had chips (fries) and curry while drinking British Ales at the Scotch Corner. I know...should have been Scottish Ales. Do I like beer? I remind you...no. After a rugby game we walked up and down Pearl Street a bit and popped into the Pearl Street Pub & Cellar. We both used the bathroom and decided to skedaddle. We finally landed for dinner at the Walnut Brewery, or something to that effect. They brew their own beers, as you might suspect from the title I gave this place, but the food is surprisingly good. I had the most (positively) interesting macaroni and cheese in my life. A fantastic blend of cheeses and spices. Skip the chicken...it's not necessary. This was stellar mac 'n' cheese, and I pride myself on knowing my way around a mac 'n' cheese.

All in all, it was a great time. I'll be happy to return to Colorado, whenever that time comes. I'm sure it won't be too far in the future.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dolly and the Titanic

In August D and I spent a week at home in Missouri with our families. For a short trip, we went with his family to Branson, the down-home, country music center in the Ozarks of Missouri. A land of antiques, family fun, country music shows, and tack. If it is one thing, it is tacky and a magnet for those who love tacky.

Luckily, I LOVE tacky. Yes, I hate chain restaurants, but I'll take a tourist trap any day. I'm not one of those travelers who avoids tourist traps simply because they are such. Don't get me wrong---my very best and most memorable experiences as a traveler have been when I was most deeply embedded in the local culture: a wedding in Morrocco, produce shopping in Parisian markets, spice-shopping in Rome, the cow-herding festival outside of Geneva. But I also took the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, toured the Globe theatre, and saw Bono's house. Honey, I've seen the corn palace, and loved it, despite my food-aversion to corn. Oh no....I love tacky.

So Branson was great fun. We took a long drive along the strip to check out our options before stopping for a family-competitive game of miniature golf at one of many, many places this was possible. Then we ate lunch at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill. Oh yes we did. The walls were covered with memorabilia (real or reproduced? unknown. They say real, but who knows?) and we watched old shows while we ate. I had a quite yummy but bad for me spinach artichoke chicken sandwich and an icecream/alcoholic drink despite being in the company of my inlaws. Oh yes. I'm a wild one.

After lunch we walked around the Landing, which is a nice shopping area along Lake Taneycomo that starts at the (what else?) Bass Pro Shop. There are national chains (Kirkland's, Victoria's Secret, Ann Taylor, Yankee Candle, etc.), Missouri-centered shops (Cardinals gear, fishing items, etc.), and boutique-style shops (quilts, crafts, etc.). It's a lovely place to stroll, shop, snack, drink, and listen to street musicians. After this, my SIL and MIL and I went antique/craft shopping without the boys at the Apple Tree Craft and Antique Mall on the Strip. It's a flea-market-style place with booths for people to rent and sell either crafts or antiques. Your money then goes to the individual seller. There's everything from artists, hand-sown garments, antique dolls, holiday crafts, to kitchy collectibles. We spent a long time wandering the aisles, and there was definitely something for everyone. MIL found a painting for her kitchen, SIL found gifts for her parents, and I found the cutest Halloween crafts: old bottles labeled to be items for a witch's brew, such as Newt Eyes and Witch Fingernails. Love it.

The next morning we all went to the Titanic museum, which is exactly what it sounds like, except it's a museum for both the shipwreck AND the film. I would have liked a little more on the ship, but I guess there's not that much to go over, is there? There are few artifacts from the ship itself, for obvious reasons, though they have several from its sister ship that was apparently very similar in design and execution, though, of course, smaller. There are lots of photos and testimonies and stories, as well as artifacts from the movie, such as costumes and autographed scripts. My favorite section was the one where you could climb a fake bow to feel what the angle of entry must have been like for the frightened passengers and put a finger in water the same temperature it was that night, to feel how very quickly your appendage began to hurt and then go numb. It was something. I wouldn't recommend the museum to everyone, and now that I've done it I wouldn't repeat it, but most of our family enjoyed it, including me.

So we didn't see a show, and we didn't do Silver Dollar City. As my in-laws grew up going there, I'm assured I'll have my chance when we introduce grandkids to the mix. But all in all, my first trip to Branson was great fun and a great time with my family. If you were to go, a weekend is plenty of time to understand the place and have a great time, but there's certainly more to do if you want to stay longer.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Markets in Marrakech

In the morning, we struggled with Moroccan stubbornness and bureaucracy in an attempt to mail ourselves the pottery we had purchased. (Update: one bowl broken, two bowls in tact.) Finally succeeding though paying exorbitant prices, N and Is walked us to the bus station to send us on our way to Marrakech. This time, we took a more reliable bus, which was a relief since we would no longer hand our friends along to help us navigate the unfamiliar waters. Crossing over to Marrakech was hot hot hot, much hotter than our previous long bus ride, since we were spending more time traversing the desert. Whew.

Arriving in Marrakech, we made our exhausting way into the medina, following our hotel manager on foot since there are no cars allowed in the medina/old city/marketplace. I must say that our hotel experience was very frustrating: difficult to find, difficult to communicate, expectations not met on either side, grr. However, it was BEAUTIFUL and very comfortable and very affordable. It's hard to say if I'd recommend it or not, but it certainly was lovely, and I'm not sure another hotel would be easier on American tourists with certain expectations.

We hired a guide through the medina, which was a very smart move. He showed us such beautiful spaces. A great portion of the medina is for workshops, where children and artisans create glasswork, metalwork, pottery, cloth dying, etc. Our guide kept taking us places where shopkeepers could sell us things. It was nice to be able to say we'd already purchased things in Essaouira, so the pressure was off. The sights of the medina were just amazing. Children in the metalwork shops. The vibrant colors of a thousand scarves. Giant jars of olives. Snake charmers in the main square. Orange juice carts with hundreds of fresh oranges to be squeezed. It was really something, I have to say.

It was the last day of our trip. The next day, we flew back to Paris but just stayed at the hotel by the airport to fly back to the US the day after. We were exhausted, but we were happy. We were so, so happy.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunset on the wall

Our second day in Essa (we decided to stay there an entire extra day and night, sacrificing time in Marrakech, because we loved it so much and were having such a great time with N and Ism), was mostly spent shopping! We had spent the first day scoping and then returned to do the shopping on the next day. We bought terracotta bowls, three beautiful rugs, silver jewelry, scarves, thuya boxes, and our favorite is a hand carved wooden mask sculpture by a local artist. It's beautiful.

We had kebabs for lunch, and a year of delicious kebabs in Geneva didn't prepare me for this really delicious grilled kebabs. Awesome. We sat with them in the fish market park and coerced a new friend to join us. The outrageous number of stray cats in Morocco made me very sad, and I was happy to share my chicken with this little one. D took like a thousand more reference photos. He clearly has big artistic plans for our trip.

Honestly, it was a day for wandering. There are a million experiences to be found in Essa, and though it doesn't quite feel like "real" Morocco like Casa did--it's more like luxury Morocco--it was so unique and beautiful that we wanted to be a part of all of it. We wandered the medina looking for finds and treasures. Lots of back areas that were mostly residential with beautiful doorways and intimidating walls. N and Ism found a local poet in a funky back room who shared his poetry and ideas at dramatic length.

We arrived back in our room (after landing the mask) and relaxed before heading out again. We went to the walls of the medina, which once protected it from attacks from the sea, and sat to watch the sunset. I think it was the first time D had watched the sun set from beginning to end. Beautiful. After an hour or so of just sitting in peace, we wandered to find delicious dinner. We stumbled onto a marvelous place with very traditional style food. We sat in a plush corner to ourselves with pillows and candles and ate and ate and ate. I highly recommend the place, if I can think of the name.

We were sad for it to be our last night with N and Ism. They were such perfect travel partners. D thinks we should travel with them all over the world. Here's hoping. Thanks, you two.