Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why Nice Was [Insert Any Positive Adjective Here]

Now to explain why the South of France was worth all this trouble.

First of all, it's beautiful. Not the "yeah she's pretty good looking" type of beautiful, but the "I want to make babies with you" beautiful. If you can't tell from the pictures, let me inform you that I was constantly wide-eyed at just how gorgeous the landscape was. You have the blue-green Mediterranean in the foreground, the foothills of the Alps in the background, with French style houses painted in Italian style colors pouring down from the valleys to meet the sea. The best view of all this was when we took a bus from Nice to Monaco. The path it followed was one around the foothills, high above the little villages with stunning views around every corner. The bus trip in itself was a sight to see. The best moment I spent enjoying the scenery was in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a tiny coast village between Nice and Monaco. I just sat in a cafe on the beach and spent about an hour sipping a coffee and watching the lazy sailboats float in the bay while the sun slowly set behind the mountains. Every blink of an eye was seriously a new post card waiting to be printed. My favorite part of the trip was doing just this, sitting in the sun by the water and relaxing. It's extremely obvious why the Azur Coast has been a resort spot for centuries.

Even when the weather turns bad there are plenty of things to do in Nice. It rained once while we where in Nice, but there are at least two theaters that play movies in English. We saw Green Zone. There's also a couple museums worth visiting; the Chagall Museum was really interesting. (I did haggle for a free ticket, making it all the more worthwhile.) There's also plenty of shopping that I found just as accessible as, but much more laid back than, Paris. However the best indoor activity in my opinion were food and alcohol establishments. Because of all the rich Brits who like to harbor their yachts in these southern French towns, finding an English bar is like finding a vegan in SW Portland, they practically scream at you. The second night in Nice while wandering through Old Nice in the rain, we stumbled upon the Snug Pub, a cozy little Irish bar that was playing some live soccer. So we decided to stop there and have a beer. They had Kilkenny on tap, one of my favorite smooth beers. As we watched the game one beer turned into three (four for Alistair) and 6pm quickly became almost 10pm so we decided to tipsily make our way home for dinner. We didn't eat out that often, but even just going and getting a drink (or three) is not a bad way to spend vacation.

The weather was almost always sunny and warm enough, even in the sea breeze, for a T shirt. We spent a lot of time outside, enough for me to be at least partially sunburned all week. Whether it was on the beach at Nice, walking through the principality of Monaco, or hiking the cape of Antibes. Monaco was alright, but with all its condos and heavy development I don't really feel the need to go back. The Casino at Monte Carlo wouldn't even let me in because I was wearing shorts! But I wasn't that upset as you had to pay 10 euros to get in even if you were dressed properly. Antibes was ok too, but not big enough to have all the things to do that Nice has to offer and not small enough to be as relaxing as Villefrance-sur-Mer. The best part of Antibes was a little hike Jack, Alistair, and I did to get to the top of the cape where the lighthouse sat. It had pretty awesome views from the top and a little cafe we sat at recovering for a while (not because the hike was difficult mind you, we were simply out of shape). Up there was awesome. Plus I should mention that all public transportation on the Azur Coast is only 1 euro. So you can take a bus from Cannes all the way to Monaco for 1 euro (that's about an hour and 20 minute ride). So the 2 euro round trips from Nice to these other surrounding towns is definitely worth it. There is plenty to explore and I still want to go back to see all that I missed, but seeing things in the South of France is set a little slower pace because the value placed on unwinding is much higher than that of sight seeing.

I know this post about the pluses isn't as long as the previous post about the minuses but you'll just have to take my word on this one, so worth it and I cannot wait to return.

One week from today until I come home!!!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Strikes = Pointless

Last week I spent the most needed vacation along the Cote d'Azur in Southern France. It was a week of visiting coastal resort towns like Nice and Antibes as well as setting foot in (technically) another country entirely, Monaco. I didn't see too many sights deemed touristy but I consider not a second wasted just laying next to the Mediterranean in the warm sun. So yes, this vacation has been a major highlight of my stay in France but it almost didn't happen. You see, to reach my destination I had to overcome a pugnacious obstacle: French socialism.

Easter vacation (the two weeks off during the month of April) started off extremely boring, mostly hanging out in my room in Toucy with no human contact aside from Skype. The only thing that made this bearable was knowing that in less than a week I would be relaxing on the beaches of Nice. So you can imagine how devastated I was when, Thursday night, I get an email saying that my train from Paris to Nice on Friday night is canceled. I thought it was a late April fools joke. What really happened is that the SNCF (France's rail company) was supposed to strike on Wednesday but because of characteristics all too French, it was postponed until Friday (lucky me). "Don't fret," the email told me, "You can exchange your ticket free of charge... as long as it's for a date after April 28th." Oh yeah, after I leave, great idea! Not. So after a couple hours trying to figure out what to do I paid the extra costs to exchange my ticket for the following day. A little disappointed that I had to pay more and miss an entire day of vacation in Nice, I still went to bed assured of imminent travel. Imagine, then, not the devastation but the fury I felt when Friday night I receive an email saying the strike is now ongoing for an "indeterminable" length. I was at a complete loss. I talked to Marie and she said I should just go and try to get on any train because they're probably not even checking tickets. I decided to accompany Marie the following morning to Joigny to take a train to Paris and try my luck with the trains. I just figured I wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and if worse comes to worse I can always play the ignorant tourist. "What do you mean we have to have a ticket? I wasn't told that and NO I DON'T speak French!"

Since Marie wanted to get to Paris rather early, we arrived before 9 am. I waited until the English bookstore was open so I could buy something to read while traveling. I got a great deal on "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown since I found a used copy and because there was significant wear on the cover I got it for half price, so 3 euros! It was also beautiful weather so I sat in a park opposite Notre Dame and read in the sun until around 2 pm, when I was to meet my English friends Alistair and Jack at the station to take the train to Nice. They had booked a train and received no emails of cancellation, so I was planning on joyriding their train. When I met up with them, to all of our surprise, their train was canceled as well but they never got a heads up. The only train leaving from Paris to Nice that day was at 5:47 pm, so us three, as well as hundreds of other stranded passengers, waited anxiously in the train station staring at the board in anticipation of the dash to find a seat once the platform number was announced. It was mostly a blur but what I do remember was seeing the platform show up, yelling, "G! G! It's G!" and Alistair, Jack, and I running full steam through throngs of like-minded masses in the frantic search for a seat. I was golden, until out of nowhere I was stuck behind a man helping a handicapped woman out of her chair and onto the train. Alistair and Jack looked back only briefly while I gave them a pained look that said, "Go on with out me guys, I'll never make it!" So they rushed on ahead and luckily found 3 seats together. I got settled in as well and just in time too because it seemed right after I sat down the train was ridiculously packed. People were sitting on the stairs, on luggage, or just standing in the hallways. The people who didn't get a seat insisted that their seat reservations for previous trains were still valid and argued for others to move. This was of course ludicrous because multiple people had tickets with the same exact reserved seat. They were just sour they missed the free-for-all memo.

Our train car calmed down rather quickly however and no sooner than I figured we'd be soon on our way the conductor's voice comes over the intercom saying, "I will not have this behavior on my train. People in car three are fighting over seats and I will not leave the station until those passengers disembark from the train." Of course he said it in a "If you don't behave I'm turning this train around!" voice. Our imaginations began to run wild about the conditions of car 3. We imagined vines covering the windows and a general steamy, jungle-like atmosphere with tribes set up Lord of the Flies style. Finally it was announced that another train was leaving the station and was supposed to hit up several of the same stops, but not Nice, so the others not going all the way to Nice left our train and headed to the other. Our Napoleonic-complex driver let us leave the station, only 30 minutes late. There were no other mishaps on the way down and 6 hours later we arrived in Nice.

Flash forward one week later:

Much to our and the general public's surprise, the SNCF had continued it's strike for over a week! Needless to say, our train back from Nice to Paris on Saturday night was canceled. Since the ride down was easy enough to get I wasn't too worried about the ride back. But we all got to the station early, just to be safe. They were handing out free pain au chocolat and orange juice, which as poor of an apology it may be, was still delicious. When the platform was announced we hurried out to the train and I made a snap decision. I said, "Guys, we're going 1st class." I carried my bags up to the top first class car and the guys followed. We easily found four seats and settled in. Let me tell you, first class is like "whoa." The large, more comfy seats recline at the push of a button, there is much more space than economy, and the food carts come to you! The food service comes through first class with a cart, like an airplane, and offers first class passengers service before the economy. On the ride down they ran out of sandwiches but here I got first pick. (Also, soon after serving first class it was announced over the intercom that they ran out of sandwiches. Score.) No one checked tickets either so there wasn't a problem. To top it all, SNCF reimbursed our tickets because since our train was canceled it was assumed we didn't take the train, therefore we had a free ride from Nice to Paris! Everything ended up working out for the best despite the selfish rail workers' attempt to ruin everyone else's Easter vacation. Idiots.

Another post is soon to follow about how great the actual vacation was, proving it was worth all this trouble... because it seriously was.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cote d'Azur Photos

I added pictures I took in and around Nice to my web albums and hopefully soon I'll get some time to write about it because it was amazing!

Time is going by so fast, only 8 days before I head home... as long as Iceland figures out their volcanoes, anyway.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident

In light of the holiday that is this Sunday I thought it appropriate to expound upon the continuous struggle of my daily life in France, namely, cultural differences. While the large differences are also the most noticeable, it is often the minute details that go against the grain. Easter is no exception. While the general gist is the same (Jesus died and was resurrected which inevitably led to chocolate eggs) it's the mode of delivery where France and the US, well most of the rest of the Western world actually, differ.

There's an excerpt I want to share with you from a book I recently bought in an English bookstore in Paris that exemplifies this precise difference. This is an autobiographical book called "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris, and is about his move to France and the difficulties found therein through language and culture. To give some context, in this excerpt Sedaris is in month two of his first French language class that he is taking in Paris. His classmates are a UN of nationalities and the teacher a straight up bitch. Just keep in mind that the conversations are translated from the broken French that is their only means of communication. Enjoy:

[We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds.

"And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?"

The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, "Excuse me, but what's an Easter?"

Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. "I mean it," she said. "I have no idea what you people are talking about."

The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain.

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. "It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit."

She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

"He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber."

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

"He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father."

"He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples."

"He nice, the Jesus."

"He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today."

Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as "To give of yourself your only begotten son." Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

"Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb," the Italian nanny explained. "One, too, may eat of the chocolate."

"And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked.

I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, "The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate."

My classmates reacted as though I'd attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.

"A rabbit?" The teacher, assuming I'd used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. "You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?"

"Well, sure," I said. "He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods."

The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country. "No, no," she said. "Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome."

I called for a time-out. "But how do the bell know where you live?"

"Well," she said, "how does a rabbit?"

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That's a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth--and they can't even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character; he's someone you'd like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It's like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they've got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That's the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there's no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell's dog -and even then he'd need papers. It just didn't add up.

Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate. Confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder. I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with.

In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a sixyear-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles -my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though, that's fucked up.]

Happy Easter everyone!