Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nathan's Visit, Part Deux

And we're back.

So Thursday seemed promising at first since I had only one class before Nathan and I headed to Normandy for the weekend before he left. It all turned sour however when I went to tell Kathi what time we needed to leave. I confirmed with Kathi a couple days before that should could give us a ride, so I was shocked/angry/frustrated when she said she was too sick to take us. We had an hour before we needed to leave and she could have told me this at any point earlier in the day. Also, it should be noted that by "sick" she really meant "hungover" as she drank an entire bottle of pink wine the night before. So I had really no time to find us another ride to be able to make our train. I went to the teachers room and asked around but none of my teachers were available. Defeated and furious I returned to my room where Nathan was waiting with packed bags to tell him we wouldn't be able to make the trip. But just as I got in the room Marie calls my cell phone. She asked around for me and found another teacher (whom I've never met) to give us a ride. It was a godsend. I went from furious to elated with a tinge of remaining disappointment in Kathi. But we got from Joigny to Caen with ease and barely any wait time to boot. There can be something very relaxing about train travel that I wish we had in the US.

We got to Caen after dark, which I hate getting to new places after dark, but our hotel was right across from the train station and not too difficult to find. It was another Etap hotel chosen out of cheapness. It was slightly better than the Etap hotel I stayed in the Friday before Nathan's arrival, but still smelled pretty bad. Once we checked in and brought our bags upstairs we headed into town to find some dinner. We actually lucked out because we found an awesome crepe restaurant (crepes come from Normandy, as well as many other delicious things like hard cider, Camembert, and calvados) and Nathan had been wanting crepes ever since he got to France. So we had a full meal, with a savory crepe which is a buckwheat flour crepe with ham, cheese, and an egg (very aptly named "The Complete"), a sweet crepe of white flour with butter and sugar, and a half pitcher of Norman cider to go along with them. Probably the best meal we had in Normandy.

The next morning we went to a bakery and super market to stock up on some food since we were heading out to the American Cemetery for the better part of the day. We took the train from Caen to Bayeux and then a bus from Bayeux to the cemetery. The weather was beautiful. I'd been to the cemetery before, this was my fourth time in fact, but it is still impressive and moving. The little museum at the site is very, very well done. And of course just wandering the grounds is an experience in itself. All was going well until we walked down onto the beach and I stepped in what looked to be just wet sand but turned out to be quicksand. I got out quickly but at the expense of the lower half of my pants being covered in wet sand and my shoes looking like brown clogs. Nathan was crying he was laughing so hard. I went and stood in the ocean enough to clean off my shoes and most of my pants but I was still rather dirty. One American girl walking buy just summed it up: "That suuucks." After cleaning them my shoes weren't brown and sandy anymore but my feet stayed wet the rest of the day.

Then we walked from the beach up by the bunker remains below the cemetery. With how beautiful it is at these beaches and with the cement and metal retaken by grasses it is very difficult to actually imagine what happened there on Omaha Beach. It always astounds me that the American Cemetery, like no other place on Earth, makes me feel proudest to be an American.

After standing in the rain for about 45 minutes, Nathan and I got on the bus back to Bayeux. Half way back we were given quite a shock when the 50 something year old male bus driver cranked the radio to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." I'm not sure if it was just a patch of great reception or this man rocks out to pop during his off time, but either way it was great.

I showed Nathan a little of Bayeux when the bus dropped us off and we had kebabs for dinner. Bayeux is one of my favorite towns in Normandy and I know when my mom visited it was hers as well. It's just quaint enough but still has things to do and accessible to other towns and sites because of the buses and trains. We spent our second and last night in Caen, with one day left to explore Arromanches before heading back to Paris Saturday night. The problem was that we had to check out of the hotel before we visited Arromanches (to get there we also had to take the train to Bayeux and take a bus). I went downstairs in the morning to ask the receptionist if we could just leave our bags here until the afternoon since we had to pass through Caen anyway on our way to Paris. As I was waiting, two loud Algerians come out of the elevator, one with bloodshot eyes and a lit joint. He goes behind the counter and opens all the drawers and says loudly, "There's no money!" Then he tried to hand me his joint but some of it falls on the ground so he bends over and spend about a minute trying to pick it up. At that point I said, "F this" and decided while carrying out bags would be a hassle it would be much safer. We would get lucky once again in Arromanches, however, because one of the hotels (a pretty nice looking one at that) kept our bags for free for the couple hours we had to explore.

Arromanches is a tiny little town who's only real importance is that it was the site of Port Winston, the world's largest prefabricated harbor designed by Winston Churchill to be used for the D-Day invasion (really interesting, I suggest googling it). Nathan and I spent a bunch of time such browsing the military and souvenir shops. We also had calvados with our lunch (hard alcohol made from apples, really good). The only thing Nathan and I actually paid to visit was the 360 degree theater, which is a 25 minute movie in a theater that mostly plays real WWII footage on screens that circle the audience. It's cool, if not a little frustrating because you never know which screen to watch. The view from the bluff on which the theater sits makes the hike worth it in itself. Again we had great weather. I just worried that with everything going right we were bound for some rude surprise soon, and the next opportunity for a rough patch was the hotel in Paris.

I chose a different Etap hotel for the night before Nathan left. This one was close to the airport, being less than a 10 minute free shuttle ride away. But it seemed our bad luck had run its course because this hotel was awesome. It smelled clean and the shower was perfect (a good shower being something you learn not to take for granted in Europe). In the morning we had a great breakfast at the hotel too. I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.

So there you have it, a happy ending to this turbulent story. I hope it wasn't too much rambling and if you read all the way through it congratulations! You get a gold star (imaginary, of course).

I hope you all back home are having a good week. For me, only three more classes until I'm on another two week vacation! It's ok to be jealous...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nathan's Visit, Part I

Last week my brother Nathan came to visit me here in France for his spring break. It was his first time to Europe and his first big traveling experience in general. It was a really good time and it was so great to hang out with him and show him France but so many things went wrong that towards the end of the week it was becoming comical. We started expecting the worst in order to be pleasantly surprised by what actually was a success. For both of us it started Friday, March 19th...

Early Friday morning Nathan left from PDX to fly to Washington D.C. and eventually Paris, where I was to meet him upon arrival at 6:25 AM Paris time. There wasn't a train that would get me to the airport early enough so I decided to spend the night in a hotel near the airport so I could be there first, waiting for him. I chose the hotel I did because it was the cheapest (40 something Euros for one night) and right next to the train that would take me straight to the airport. Immediately upon arrival I realized I could not have chosen a worse hotel. First, I didn't have the right train ticket so the little turnstiles wouldn't let me out and I had to wait for someone with the right ticket and double up in the gate with them - awkward to say the least. As I walked from the station to the hotel it was already dark and felt like one of those bad neighborhoods you see in movies but don't expect to be real, with people hanging back in the shadows and sirens going off in the distance. The hotel itself was really gross and made my clothes reek all weekend. There was also at least one pesky mosquito in the room that I could not get rid of. At one point in the night I woke myself up by slapping myself in the face really hard trying to kill it. In the morning when I left to go back to the train station and head to the airport I saw police lights flashing up ahead but before the car rounded the corner these three guys ran into an apartment building and hid. After the cop car slowly passed one of the guys popped his head out and told the others the coast was clear before they all took off running again. Keep in mind that in my bag I was carrying my computer, iPod, and camera so I felt like the perfect target. Nathan and I both made it to the airport fine but me terrified and him sleep deprived, not having gotten a wink of sleep during the previous 24 or so hours. We took the train back to Paris and went to check into our hotel so we could both get some rest.

Nathan and I came out of the metro and I wasn't entirely sure which way we were supposed to go, so I asked a street cleaning guy for the direction of Sacre Coeur, the closest monument that also happened to be in the direction of our hotel. He pointed us in what turned out to be the wrong direction, and we walked through a deluge for a couple blocks before I made us turn around. All the while Nathan was carrying the suitcase because the puddles were just too deep to drag it through. After about 10 more minutes walking this time in the right direction but still through the torrential rain, completely soaked and dripping wet, we got to the hotel. Earlier in the week I realized I had made the reservation for the wrong day, but I called and had it changed and they told me everything was taken care of. Of course this is France, and counting on other people hardly every turns out good results. So the receptionist told me there was no record of that call and that we didn't have a room as they were completely booked. That blows. Infuriated, I let Nathan stay in the lobby with our bags while I walked around to got us another hotel nearby. By now, however, the rain had stopped (naturally). Just up the street, less than a block, I got us a hotel and thought it worth it to pay the 15 more euros a night just to be done with it. Nathan and I then got settled and we both took some time to recover.

Besides the sleep deprivation on Nathan's end, I think Paris went well. I took him to pretty much all the major sights and made sure he got plenty of pictures. I really wanted Nathan to have a good first impression with this country that I have come to love but I worried about him discovering all the bad aspects first, i.e. homeless people, dirty streets, apparent rudeness, the metro, and the list goes on. It's not until you experience the good parts of France that all those others become tolerable, in my opinion. Old world is just so different from the New World feel that I think Paris is one of the worst places to start a visit to France, albeit the most convenient.

By Sunday night Nathan was ready to head to Toucy for R&R after the bustle of Paris. I walked him around and showed him how this small town really isn't that different from small towns like Banks, just a lot older. I also had him try real French food, from bakeries that are cheaper and better than those in Paris. Besides him being a little bored in my room all day while I taught classes, things went well until Tuesday.

Some of my students the week before had asked me if I wanted to go to a soccer match the next week because they were going to buy tickets and offered to pick me up one. I told them I'd love to but my brother would be in town that week, to which they replied, "So we'll get two seats then?" I was excited. The teams we were going to see were PSG (the team I saw play the weekend before with Doug, Danielle, and Liz) and Auxerre, the local team that is actually rated number 1 in France right now. But once again, you can't ever get your hopes up until you're actually there. The game was closed to fans due to a Ministry decision following the riots by PSG fans and the death of one supporter. It was a stupid decision all around because closing the doors at this match only hurt Auxerre because they made no money, it wasn't their fans fault in the least, and, more importantly I might add, Nathan and I didn't get to see the game! It was pretty disappointing because we were both really looking forward to it. But what can you do? Well, you can visit the construction of a 13th century castle.

I wanted to get Nathan out to see some more of the area especially since we didn't have the soccer match anymore, so I decided to show him Guedelon. I wrote about this before, when I went earlier in the year with Marie and loved it. It closed for the winter but just opened up again before Nathan arrived so I thought, "Why not?" The weather couldn't have been better. After a string of snow and rain it was finally turning to Spring, with mostly clear skies and in the 60's. I got to see some of the progression of the building process but also some parts of the complex I hadn't seen before. Most importantly I got to take pictures this time! I think Nathan found it impressive, as did Kathi who came with us. It was a great day, but we would find out later it was just a high point on the roller coaster that was last week...

I added the photos from the whole week but they take awhile to load sometimes so have patience. There will be a Part II to follow soon.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I'm a Thief

I completely forgot about another story from last weekend, but better late than never, right? It was around lunch time and so I took Doug and Danielle to this kebab place that I had went to with Cate while she was visiting. I remembered it for three main reasons: 1) It's cheap, 2) you can actually sit down inside and warm up (unlike most kebab places that are takeaway), and 3) there is free tap water, something that is extremely rare in any part of France. I ordered first and then ordered for Danielle who was right behind me since we were getting the same thing. After getting our plates of food I stood there at the counter waiting for the guy to come back so I could pay him but he just avoided me. After a couple minutes he looked up and said, "Can I help you, sir?" From that I assumed that we just paid afterward and Danielle and I headed to a table to eat. Doug came shortly after and we asked him whether he paid or not and he said, "Yeah, he was speaking French to me and I didn't understand so I just gave him money." Interesting. I'm not one to dine and ditch, so after we were finished and overstuffed I approached the counter on the way out meaning to pay but the guy once again completely avoided me, so I just left. I didn't feel bad for it or anything because I gave it an honest shot. Gotta love free food!

My only conclusion is that he recognized me from when I was there in January with Cate and decided I'm enough of a local and bring in enough business that I get one on the house. That, or he just didn't care. Either way I still plan on going back there with Nathan this weekend so we'll see what happens.

Speaking of Nathan, he comes in to Paris tomorrow morning and it's going to be awesome! Unfortunately by "tomorrow morning" I mean "6:25 AM" tomorrow morning. I'm staying in a hotel near the airport tonight by myself so I can pick him up when he lands, not having to navigate Charles de Gaulle airport solo. I'm bringing a journal to jot down our shenanigans, which will then be transferred to the blog (depending on content appropriateness, of course).

I hope everyone has a great weekend!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

So Much Paris

This past weekend some friends from the States (Doug and Danielle) came to Paris for the weekend to visit Liz and me as a side-trip from their two weeks in England. It was a whirlwind, that much is certain. In two days I gawked at Sainte-Chapelle, went tomb diving in the Pantheon, waited at Napoleon's Tomb, meandered through the Rodin Museum, climbed to Sacre Coeur, stood in the red lights of the Moulin Rouge, drank wine at the Trocadero, enjoyed the stars of the Louvre, mounted the 700 steps of the Eiffel Tower, cheered on Paris at the Parc des Princes, strolled the Champs Elysees, topped the Arc de Triomphe, and took my pilgrimage to the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Only three were entirely new experiences for me: Sainte-Chapelle, Parc des Princes, and Pere Lachaise.

Sainte-Chapelle is a royal chapel dating from 1248 and was built to house the supposed Crown of Thorns. The real attraction, however, is the stained-glass windows, two thirds of which are authentic dating from the 15th century. I thought it was cool but two things could have made it better, 1) if there was no scaffolding covering the altar and the entire rear windows, and 2) if the sun had been shining. Despite all that I can still see the appeal, and would probably pop in another time with my teacher's pass if it was sunny out.

The soccer game at Parc des Princes was an experience and a half. First let me tell you that had I known then what I came to know later, I would have had a different attitude entirely... We took the subway out to the stadium where the Parisian soccer team, Paris Saint Germain (or PSG), was playing Sochaux. We weren't quite sure what metro stop to get off at but Doug and I figured we'd follow the few guys with PSG scarves and jerseys. When the train came to a stop two things convinced us this was right: the guys with scarves got off and there were at least 20 riot police standing on the platform staring us down. Topside was no different, with groups of 5-10 riot police on each corner. As we got closer to the stadium there were checkpoints through these riot police as well. This was top notch security. I would have been more frightened but I didn't know this was atypical and their riot gear made them look like a team of RoboCop wannabe's. We got our tickets no problem and turns out we had pretty decent seats. The most shocking of all was the visiting team's fan section, surrounding entirely with netting and rows of guards separating them from the home fans. I guess it can get pretty nasty sometimes. It was my first European soccer match and overall I'd definitely go again, plus PSG won 4-1. Now for what I came to know Sunday night when David drove me home from the train station... Let me preface this saying there are three main communities that support PSG, Bologne, Auteuil, and the rest of Paris. Despite cheering for the same team, there is still heated gang-like rivalries among these communities, notable Auteuil and Bologne. The reason there was 1,300 riot police at the game we went to was because after the last game the two got in a large fight and someone from Auteuil actually ended up being killed! And the only reason we were able to get good seats, or seats at all for that matter, was because Auteuil and the rest of Paris were boycotting the game due to the death of a fan, so only Bologne was there. As I said before, had I known that Saturday night as opposed to Sunday I would have been more wary of my surroundings. But maybe due to the fact really only one community was there I felt the atmosphere wasn't very charged at all. So maybe no more games at Parc des Princes for me, but I'm still going to buy a scarf...

Pere Lachause Cemetery was also cool and someplace I had been wanting to go for a long time. It feels less like a cemetery and more like a park where they just happened to bury a lot of famous people. Among others we saw the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Jim Morrison, Moliere, Delacroix, Chopin, and Heloise and Abelard. The tombs are very ostentatious with sculptures and even stained glass windows in some. It would have been more enjoyable in nicer weather but I can always go back. The best part of the visit was when one of the feral cats that live in the cemetery came up to me and rubbed up against my leg before sauntering over to a bench and taking a seat like any normal person. Intrigued, I followed the cat and sat down next to it expecting it to quickly run away but it did no such thing. In fact it just sat there next to me. We shared a moment, that cat and I. I am convinced that that cat was the soul of someone from the cemetery, as is each of those feral cats. Call it far-fetched if you want, but I've heard weirder things before! (And I don't mean just things I made up...)

As enjoyable as Paris was I was sad to come back to Toucy, but knowing that this weekend Nathan comes in made it easier, so I'll be back Friday night! I can't wait, it's going to be awesome. As for pictures from this last trip I'm going to put them up a bit later because Doug's camera costs about $1,200 more than mine, ergo I let him take most photos and I'll just get them from him. But I will put them up as soon as I get them.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day tomorrow! I wish I could be in a country that celebrates it too, but I can't, so have a green beer for me!

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Handful More of Holland

Alistair and Liz put up their pictures so I stole some and added to my Holland album. There's only seven more BUT the sights include, and are limited to: a giant wheel of cheese, me urinating in public, and the drawbridge we used to get to our house. Enjoy.