Vive la France!
(All photos are mine)
Vive la France!
(All photos are mine)
Sud de France
Before boarding at Gare de Lyon in Paris, I observed the usual pairs of people huddled just at the edge of the doors, taking their final puffs of smoke before hopping on the train at the last possible second. Securing lots of space to myself I napped on my backpack and when I awoke and looked out at the sunny south, I marveled at what a wonderful country I have been able to explore. Endless history, fascinating culture, delicious food, and intriguing people- what’s not to love?
The first afternoon in Arles, I tried, and failed to follow the Van Gogh path that takes (what must be expert) navigators through his footsteps to places he has painted. So instead, I spent the afternoon in a small square, shaded by an umbrella, enjoying the first of many delicious Provençal meals, and listening to the musical clinking of glasses and dishes as many others did the same. Then, for the next few nights, I stayed in Aix-en-Provence, a place I was determined to visit after reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence.
Just a few days previous to my trip, I sprained my ankle swing dancing and the doctor told me “no sport, three weeks”, but I chose to hike the “sportif” trail of Mount Saint Victoire anyway. I hopped on a bus to the tiny village of Vauvernagues where a French woman in hiking clothes (including equally un-sturdy shoes) approached me and informed me that my shoes were not sturdy enough for the walk. I assured her I was an expert excursionist and then hiked on for five hours, through bushes and brambles, over rocks, up and down a mountain with no problem. I made it completely unscathed-until the last kilometer when the path opened up, and turned into a road for maintenance vehicles. I lost traction on the cement, slipped, skinned my knee, and scraped my hands. Also, I was rushing to catch the last bus so I wouldn’t be stranded for the night, but my shoes were certainly not the issue!
I heard that there was some sort of WWII transit camp that had been turned into a museum and it was just a short bus ride from Aix, so naturally, I sought it out. Camp de Milles was a factory that had housed French people before they were deported to Auschwitz. I was a little disappointed in the museum. I felt that it was overwhelming, it gave too much information, and focused on trying to cover the entire holocaust instead of just focusing on the camp, or even France during the war. In the end however, I was happy to see that there were school groups there and other visitors with guides learning-and hopefully preventing a tragedy like that to ever happen again.
Arles was nice, Aix was lively, and Avignon was enchanting. In Paris, the Haussmann style architecture dominates- it is fashionable and sleek, like the young, red lipped, stylish girls who sit in flashy cafes with silky hair, expensive shoes, and long thin cigarettes. But this-Non, this is very different, for this is Provence.
Upon arrival I was greeted by two masculine towers, guarding the entrance of the city wall. I continued onto the grand boulevard lined with Haussmann inspired buildings that had gone south for vacation, and never returned. I walked through sunny and sometimes smelly streets. I passed buildings that had settled with age, leaning like old Provençal men lounging in their park benches-cigars in hand, nap in mind. The homes in Arles had been bright like the Van Gogh impressionism they inspired, but in Avignon they were simple frescos. The sandy buildings were decorated by their worn pastel shutters, elegant and modest like French women who have aged gracefully and wisely.
Driving through the area by bus I viewed Van Gogh’s perfectly depicted landscapes in real life. Toasted wheat, red-orange poppies, and thin cypress trees standing tall like spires, all spread out over yellow hued landscapes. Rows of grape vines and olive trees matched the ideas of Provence that I had imagined after reading A Year in Provence. I passed by warm stucco buildings with red clay tiled roofs that complimented a light blue sky and wispy clouds. Bright yellow flowers filled bushes alongside the road and purple blossoms scattered the fields.
When I arrived at Pont du Gard I walked across the ancient aqueducts and found a nice spot to have my pique nique. I soaked up the sun (after lathering myself in sun cream) on a beautiful rock right next to the river. It was later used by some people as a jumping point into the cool clear water. After my delicious lunch of Provençal Chèvre, tiny red and yellow tomates, olives, cherries, and a crispy baguette, I moved across the river to a shady riverbank where I thought about how much I would miss French markets. I watched children digging in the sand, women sun bathing topless, and lovers overlapping, as they were entangled in one another’s arms. I melted at the thought of even crossing my ankles.
After a day of doing nothing but reading and observing the world I walked around the wall that surrounds Avignon. Of all the walled cities I have seen in Europe so far, this wall is my favorite. I regretfully took no photos as I (non-regretfully) had my hands occupied with my first proper ice cream in months. I finished the leftovers of my lunch pique nique for dinner, and then moved to a cafe terrace to drink Orange Presse, be mistaken for German, watch the Euro cup, and have my eyes irritated by cigarette smoke.
The next day I went to the tourist office and asked where could I get to by bus, the kind woman sent me to Saint-Remy-de-Provence. I hopped on a bus and stumbled into the town without a clue of what to see. In the tourist office I learned that there was another Van Gogh walk to be followed. I was much more successful with that one and upon reaching the end learned that the town was actually where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous paintings including my very favorite, Wheat field with Cypress. What an excellent surprise! I followed small markers past wheat fields, olive groves, cypress trees, and ended in front of the mountains and the hospital of Saint Remy where Van Gogh resided. Signs along the path had images of his paintings and excerpts of his letters that were almost as marvelously descriptive as his art.
I spent another afternoon in a beautiful town square, shaded by trees and accompanied by the sound of the small fountain, I sat at a colorful table with a lacy covering and savored perhaps one of the best meals of the past five months. Had I known the food was going to be so fresh and delicious in Provence, I would have left Paris ages ago. I feel like I have spent my last few weeks in France doing a little bit of sight seeing and a lot of sitting about peaceful cafe terraces. Whether it be for p’tit dej, a long afternoon think with fresh pressed orange juice, watching the Euro cup, smiling at international babies, or just observing the world go by for hours, I am not interested in spending my time in any other way. I am happy do what France has to offer best- for I could sight see from dawn ’til dusk but there is nothing I want more than to just enjoy l’art de vivre.
I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.
And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
The first part of my solo travels began when I said goodbye to Becca on line 4. She was headed to Charles De Gaulle airport to make the long journey back to the states. I was headed to Gare Saint Lazare to catch an intercities train to Bayeux in the region of Normandie. Difficulties at the station led to me hopping on the train with no ticket, a reservation number, and a hope that the ticket collector would be understanding. Thanks to the current train strikes there was nobody to collect my non-existant ticket. I left dreary Paris at 10 and arrived in rainy Bayeux around noon. I wandered around the town, saw the famous Tapestry of Bayeux, and the cathedral- that casually turns 1,000 years old next year. No big deal, for this is common on this continent.
The next morning I was up early to see the World War II sites that determined the fate of the world. Let me preface by telling you that it was one of the best tours I have ever had, and my experience of the J-Jour (D-Day) history would not have been so impressive if it were not for my tour guide Yannick with Overlord Tours. So when you plan your next trip to France and you are visiting Normandie, make sure to take one of their tours.
I climbed into the 20 person bus and was shocked to be surrounded by my compatriots. Loud, large, dressed in bright colors; Americans. They were open and friendly. Before I could even take my seat someone ambushed me, asked my name, and where I was from. She then went through and named everyone on the bus, it was a very nice gesture as it broke the ice and allowed for the group to become friendly with each other for the day long tour. However, after living in France where people are quiet, dressed in very little color, and very private, there was something unappetizing about how loud everyone was. It took me a moment to readjust to this culture and way of open interaction, then, once I did, I was eager to talk as well. That same woman who asked my name, later kindly invited me to lunch with her and her son who was about my age.
We drove past fields of white daisies and white cows in Normandy, the area famous for white Camembert cheese. Our first stop was at the Longues-Sur-Mere German fortifications, some of the few that still arm the coast. Giant guns protected by six feet of concrete. Ironically, across form the guns was a field filled with tall, white, daisies as far as the eye could see. Here the Germans did not expect to be attacked by the allies, so they stationed soldiers who were apparently not the best. Some were old, some were injured, they had bad attitudes, according to Yannick they were just bad soldiers. They surrendered pretty quickly, maybe even right away.
It was a dreary and cold day, but we soon learned that D-Day was also miserable for everyone involved. With temperatures around 50 Fahrenheit, rain, wind, and waves around six feet high, soldiers in the Higgins boats were miserable, cold, wet, seasick, and eager to get off. They did not even care what came next. That knowledge only made it more real for me. Much like my experience at Auschwitz I did not want to see a place such as this under the happy sun. I wanted to feel remorse for those who had given their lives, I wanted the world to cry with me.
We stood shivering on Omaha beach, the air was damp, and my shoes were soaked from walking through the grass earlier, but at least I was dry and I was safe. Omaha beach was hell. So many men died even before they made it to the beach -even before they made it to the action- so many drowned after the sandbars dropped off. Weighed down by their heavy equipment they were not able to stay afloat still so far from shore. Those that made it to closer were not any luckier. The Germans were told to wait until the last minute to open fire only when the Americans were knee deep in the water and they would not able to run. They were perfect targets, slowly trudging closer and closer to death.
The Engineers who would be dismantling the dangerous explosives positioned in the water had only a five minute life expectancy because the Germans were watching for them. There was general chaos and confusion all around as the storm had drifted the boats so far from where they were meant to land. The second wave of men knew they were headed into hell because they could see bloody bodies floating back toward them. Even if soldiers made it across the beach to the edge they still were not safe. We looked down at stones the size of golf balls as Yannick explained that when hit with fire the stones would be violently thrown in the air and could be deadly to be hit by. Ninety percent of the first wave of men were killed. It was the worst sector at J-Jour with 4,000 missing in action and 1,500 killed at bloody Omaha.
I eagerly listened to the tour guide while I typed notes into my phone. I wrote shorthand as if I was back in class-only this was much more interesting than most classes. Some of the husbands on the trip commented on how they had gone to Versailles for their wives and in return their wives were being dragged on this tour. I was shocked. Sometimes I forget the rest of the world is not as fascinated by history as I am.
We were given a few minutes to look around and then meet back at the bus. I stared at the stones below my feet and the water in front of me. There is something more powerful about a battlefield on the beach. The ocean, the wind, the crashing waves, they are all more dramatic then other spaces. The stories cling to them in a way that they don’t in fields or towns. There are no flowers that have grown out of sadness, no buildings that have been reshaped, instead a storm brews, tearing up painful and violent memories. There is something so captivating about experiencing something I have studied for so long.
Next, we saw the American Cemetery. Throughout Europe there are eleven of them with American’s from both of the Great Wars buried there. They are run by an American organization and paid for by American taxes, although they are still technically European soil. Before it had been constructed there were 20,000 buried in temporary cemeteries with their dogtags hanging on wooden markers. Later on, the families were asked if they wanted the bodies back in the states. 9,000 people are buried in Colleville- that’s only 40%. The rest were sent back home. Still- 9,000 is a lot and some 1,500 names were listed on a memorial as M.I.A. 8,996 men, and 4 women lie beside the seashore for eternity with marble markers noting their name, division, and home state.
I remembered that it was just a day or two past memorial day and it seemed an appropriate place to be. I was thankful I was able to pay my respects to those who fought for our freedom and for those who helped to free a continent. With everything in English and the cemetery designed like so many back in the states I nearly forgot I was in France. A caretaker rode by on a lawn mover and the sound of the moter and the smell of fresh cut grass even reminded me of rainy spring at home.
Ohio. Massachusetts. North Dakota. Pennsylvania. West Virginia. Mississippi. Connecticut. Kentucky. New Jersey. Home. Images of my male friends started popping up in my mind. Had we been born in a different time this would have been them. I closed my eyes and thought about their smiles and their charisma. I mourned for the men who lay below me who were probably just as caring, just as silly, just as lively, and just as intelligent as the boys I know and love. I tried to imagine the pain that their girl friends felt, safe at home, worried about their friends, then receiving the news.
As girls in the U.S. we grow up safe, knowing we won’t ever have to go off to war unless we choose so. And during my life time there have been no wars that have pressured entire generations into service. I can’t imagine what either would be like and I hope I never have to.
Climbing back onto the bus after a somber 40 minutes, a man named Bill said to me, “What did you think Abigail? They were about your age.” He had read my mind. Up until this point in my life learning about so much history the characters were always older than me. My Great-Grandfather was in the Navy during the Second World War, but I don’t think of him as my age, I think of him as a Great-Grandfather. But that’s not what he was at the time. Now, I have reached an age when history is all the more real, only my life is just beginning at this age and this is where so many ended.
Driving onto our next destination, Yannick pointed out a large house on the beach that had been used as a Nazi mess hall. There was a small sign out front that it cold be rented out. It wasn’t advertised that it had fed and nourished Nazi’s during war time- but that’s what happened there. This is the thing about Europe, the history is everywhere, this is where it happened, and this isn’t what you learn in high school, but it’s just as important. It makes it all the more real.
On our way to Pointe-du-Hoc we stopped at a war memorial, a copy of one that is in Bedford, Virginia where the national D-Day memorial is. Yannick told us about the statue, it represents the 29th infantry which was made up of men from Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland area. Their patch was a blue and gray yin yang. It represented the colors of the civil war and told the world that now those men are united and fight alongside each other and not against each other, like their ancestors did before them.
Yannick explained that Bedford is where the national memorial is because that small town sent 35 men to D-Day and 19 were killed straight away, 2 more were killed shortly after. Many sets of brothers were killed from this town of 3,000 people. Three weeks after D-Day and the post man-who knew every family in town- had to deliver 21 telegrams to his friends with the news that their sons would not be coming home.
When we arrived at Pointe-Du-Hoc we learned that the Germans had all sorts of different weapons because they were very resourceful and would use the weapons that they took from other countries after they were defeated. They used Polish guns and French tanks, they even reused weapons from WWI. The United States was quite the opposite. Yannick told us that zero domestic cars were manufactured during the war years as all production was focused on jeeps, tanks, planes, and war production.
We stopped for lunch in Sainte Mere Eglise where I was proud of myself for successful interactions entirely in French and where I had a lovely lunch with some new friends. We met some American paratroopers who were there for the anniversary of D-Day to reenact the liberation of the town. Sainte Mere Eglise was liberated at 4:30 in the morning. 13,000 men were dropped down, however many drown in fields that the Germans had strategically flooded. One man, John Steel; who has become quite famous in the little town, accidentally got caught on the side of the church where he hung in harness as a perfect target. After being shot in the foot he played dead which saved his life.
After such a heavy day we ended our tour on some lighter stories. At Utah Beach we learned about the easy takeover and la Voie de la Libertie. The way of Freedom. There is a marker placed every kilometer on the path that the American’s took as they liberated France from Nazi occupation. Our very last stop was a church in Angoville au Plain where Yannick told the story of two American soldiers who were not medics, but treated 80 soldiers and civilians in a church- that of course was like eight times older than the United States or something because, we are in Europe after all. Some of the soldiers treated were German soldiers and Yannick made a point to share with us some stories that he hoped would restore our faith in humanity after hearing about so much horror.
The Voie de la Libertie begins at Utah beach with a marker at km 0. It traces the American’s path of liberation through France all the way to Luxembourg and Belgium. 1,146 kilometers in all, the markers are decorated with stars, stripes, and Lady Liberty’s flame. I saw more American flags on that day than I have in the past six months.
By immersing myself in French culture and dedicating most of my time and energy into learning everything I can about this new country, I had totally forgotten what It felt like to be an American. Being in Europe during this presidential election I am often ashamed to admit that I am from the United States. But driving through Normandie I was reminded of what the stars and stripes represent and what they have accomplished. I had forgotten what it feels like to hear my national anthem and well up with pride. And I had forgotten that I am proud to be an American. Even though it was a day or two after Memorial day I still feel that my D-Day tour was an honorable way to celebrate the holiday and I am looking forward to arriving home just in time for the Fourth of July- my favorite holiday of them all.
Arriving in the Heathrow airport from Paris I nearly leaped with joy when the signs were entirely in English, and when the boarder control officer greeted me I was so excited I nearly shouted “Hello” in reply. For the first time in months, I was not the odd one out. I was not intimidated. I was eager to talk to anybody that would look my way and I was able to read every sign. My Sister and I missed our connecting flight but I did not even care because that meant I was able to speak English to the customer service for British Airways. It was thrilling.
My Dad sat on the opposite side of the car as he drove along with his hands gripping the wheel and his eyes focused on the one lane country roads, waiting for cars to come at us in the wrong direction. The rest of us stared out at the endless green farm hills, the massive hares dancing about like Peter Cottontail and the white sheep dotting the landscape surrounding us. We pulled over momentarily to let the car behind us pass and a young man got out and said with a smile and a rich Scottish accent, “Are ye lost?” Of course he could tell, my Stepmom laughed and the man continued in his jolly tone emphasizing his Rs. “Are ye lookin fer the bid end breakfast?” He pointed us just 40 meters back and down the track (drive way) and we arrived at Denhead Steading.
Entering the bed and breakfast it immediately felt like we were at home. It didn’t look or feel anything like our home, but after living in a Parisian apartment for the past six months there was something so comforting about entering a cozy house with soft carpets, seats to sink into, and a wood burning stove in grey Scotland.
Before bed, our hostess Susan gave us half-pint sized glass bottles filled half way with milk for our tea. We guessed that it came from the cows we had seen in the barn next door and it tasted so creamy and sweet. From the back window in the bedroom my sister and I shared, we could see beef cows grazing leisurely on grass. Something that is almost non-existent in the U.S. seems to be every where we’ve driven in Scotland.
Climbing into bed the room was comfortably toasty. I cracked the window in the slanted ceiling a bit and smelled the unseen sea. I kept my poor Sister awake as I raved about how I had never felt a bed so comfortable-and the duvet! Oh it was wonderful. The white blanket was perfect heaviness, while simultaneously light and fluffy like my Nana’s home made whipped cream. The sheets were white and smelled fresher than a laundry advertisement. I laid in bed and the perpetual twilight of the light pollution free Aberdeenshire spilled in through the windows.
The first morning we went for a walk to the highest hill in the area. It was maybe thirty minutes total but it was wonderful. The breeze was cold-not crisp, but refreshing. The pure air cleansed my entire soul after six months of breathing in pollution and second hand smoke in Paris.
When we reached the top there was a small stone post that my Dad and I each climbed up to look out at the view. Thorny bushes with yellow flowers grew in sporadic bunches all over the hills, farms were fenced and laid out like one big patchwork quilt, a river ran through the valley, and every once and a while we could hear a sheep “baaaaahh” off in the distance somewhere.
The entire trip was made up of clambering over castle ruins and then finding somewhere to eat. None of us were brave enough to try Haggis, but most of us had the managed to taste a little whisky. We made fun of each other the usual amount, got fed up with each other slightly, and made an appropriate amount of Monty Python and the Holy Grail References. It was a pretty uneventful trip, but it was a very enjoyable trip.
We went up Tour Montparnasse last night. It’s hard to find a bad view in Paris, but there are a few such as the Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triumphe, etc. that are extra spectacular, Montparnasse was no exception. It was Becca‘s last night so we took ourselves to dinner and drinks at typical cafe terraces. The main event was the trip up to the top of Tour Montparnasse, Paris’ only skyscraper. The weather was rainy and windy, and at the top of the tower it was cloudy-but that made it even better.
We stood on the roof of this building that represents so much and we stared through the clouds at our Paris. The first thing we saw was the Tour Eiffel all lit up, only we couldn’t see the top of it through the clouds, then we watched it disappear completely! It was incredible, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t even see the glow from the most iconic structure in the world! We walked around the four sides and we were able to point out buildings, roads, museums, everything. We stared down at the big black spaces carved out by Cemetarie Montparnasse et Jardin du Luxembourg and I was filled with so much pride.
This was our city we were staring out at. We had experienced it together. We had conqured it. We had learned it. We had discovered it, and from where we were standing we were able to see all of Paris (well depending on where the clouds were at any given moment). We could even see the peripherique, outlining the city like a modern medieval wall. I can never get enough of those views though because everywhere I look I see places where I have been. When I am standing at the top of Montparnasse, or looking out from Mason Blanche, or even riding line 6 of the metro, I see sidewalks that I have walked, museums I have studied, and a culture I have grown to know and love. Afterward, we went to another beautiful, typical, Parisian cafe and enjoyed some beer while we talked about just a small portion of the lessons we have learned while living in France.
There is a lot to learn in France. One of the first things we learned was about Patrimoine. It has to do with the importance of combining history and culture and passing it down through generations. They are proud of their food, their traditions, and their stories. The state wants to encourage young people to learn about history, art, and the world, so many places are gratuit (free) to European residents under the age of 26.
This includes me as my American Passport states that until July 16 I have residency in the European Union. How amazing is that?! I think I have to say that being able to call myself a resident of the EU is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
Because of the gratuit billets (free tickets) I’ve seen every piece of French war memorabilia from the 1600’s until today in Les Invalids. I’ve seen Rodin’s Thinker, Monet’s waterlilies (a gift of peace following WWI), Napoléons Tomb, Notre Dame’s gargoyles, The Mona Lisa, Paris from Centre Pompidou’s escalators, and so much more, all for free.
I wanted to study abroad so that I could learn history from a first hand perspective and being able to visit so many world renown musees and sites for no cost has given me the opportunity to have absolutely free reign of exploration. I’ve been to le Louvre countless times, I’ve studied impressionism in the old train station that is now Musee D’Orsay, I’ve traced evolution, natural history, minerals, and botany in the Jardin des Plantees where they have studied the natural world for over 400 years, and I’ve been to the top of the L’Arc de Triumph to gaze down the Champs Elysees from le Louvre to le Grande Arche– all for absolutely no cost (obviously besides the plane ticket, tuition, and rent). I wanted to come to Europe to learn and to see history up close and I have also learned in ways that I did not imagine. I could not have chosen a better place in the world to move to. I have learned a plethora of histoire in Paris, but I have also learned so much more.
It took me a while, but I finally learned how to get my bearings and navigate the narrow streets. I’ve learned how to interact with a French storekeeper. I’ve learned about the snail shape of the arrondissements. I’ve learned about bo bo. I’ve learned how to say, “Mind the gap between the train and the platform” in three languages and with an English accent.
I’ve learned what it means to commit yourself to someone-and what it means to commit to yourself. I’ve learned what it means to be independent, as I’ve become an adult- or at least I’ve found a new definition for what it means to be an adult. I’ve learned that if a man offers to buy you a drink, he is expecting a lot more than conversation in return.
I’ve learned about soup l’oignon and pain au chocolate. I’ve learned how to grocery shop in a foreign country (it’s much harder than it sounds) and how to turn a foreign country into a comfortable neighborhood. I’ve learned how to order kebab with salade and tomate and samurai sauce to take away. I’ve learned where the best sweet crepes are made and where to find the best savory ones with a Bretagne cider to go along. I’ve learned about terroir and I’ve learned about wine. I’ve learned which cafes won’t be any good and what places are bound to have baguette sandwiches to go. I’ve eaten everything from escargots to Japanais food, and I’ve learned enough about U.S. farming to become a vegetarian. I’ve learned how to ask for a check, l’addition sil vous plait.
I’ve learned how to spot American’s a mile away, and when it’s appropriate to ignore them and act like I am any other Parisian. I’ve danced a lot of Lindy Hop- but I wish I had done more. I’ve learned how to do a swivel step, a frog jump, and the charleston, but my swing outs still need a lot of practice. I’ve learned not to be intimidated.
I’ve learned that the French are proud, private, and unashamed of their lives and bodies. I’ve learned that Parisian girls will have ten cigarettes with a cafe and call it lunch. I’ve learned that the French are sophisticated and elegant while they eat, and comparatively Americans (myself included) eat like slobs.
I’ve learned about the Romans, Napoléon, Marie Antoinette, Vichy France, and the Republic Français. I’ve learned about the Sun King and the revolution that beheaded his grandson. I’ve learned of the centennial and the joyous Parisian icons that exist in celebration- such as the Tour Eiffel. I’ve learned about conquests and walled cities. I’ve visited chateaux, palaces, and chambre de bonnes.
I’ve learned about Charles de Gaulle and I’ve learned about Algeria- oh have I learned about Algeria. I’ve learned that the hatred toward Muslims expands far past the United States and that sadly diversity is not celebrated here nearly as much as patrimoine. I’ve learned about libertie, egalite, et fraternite and because of that I’ve learned about the United States. I’ve learned about myself and I’ve learned about my friends.
I’ve learned about bread- oh have I learned about bread. While most of my friends back at home spent their semester mindlessly guzzling down calorie filled beers I spent my spring shamelessly gobbling up entire baguettes in the course of a day-or afternoon. The iconic image of the Parisian walking along the sidewalk with a a meter of bread under one arm is an everyday occurrence, and I’ve been that Parisian with a baguette and a bite out of the top. It’s best when it’s so fresh that as it is handed to you it’s still warm, just out of the oven. Baguettes with crunchy crusts, flour dusted bottoms, and mouthwatering sourdough air pockets. Baguettes aux cereal, baguette avec poppy seeds, baguette mixed with pistachio and raisins, demi-baguettes, baguette traditionnel, or baguette with olives kneaded in. I’ve learned the difference between the carrefour crap and the boulangerie artwork. It is splendid for lunch sliced like a hot dog bun and filled with veggies and It’s ideal with dinner to mop up the olive oil as Peter Mayle said in his A Year in Provence. I’ve learned how short a lifespan is for a baguette and how sad that can be the next morning (all the more reason to eat the whole thing at once). When I first arrived I was appalled at how much bread went into a simple sandwich– was I really supposed to eat the whole thing? Now, I cringe at the thought of going home to PB&J on sliced white bread from the Shoprite (something I survived off of growing up). How I am supposed to go back to grocery store bread, I have no idea.
I’ve learned an entire major metropolitan metro system. I’ve ridden hundreds of trains on almost twenty different lines- and I have made the educated conclusion that metro line four- my line- is the best one out there. Line six is a close second. I’ve learned about the Catacombs and I’ve learned about the sewers. I have learned about the skyscrapers, the French bank and the eerie business district of La Defense. I’ve learned about Paris from the underground to the top of the Tour Eiffel.
I’ve learned a lot about death. I’ve learned about the perphierique and Princess Diana. I’ve learned about Saint Dennis who was decapitated then picked his head right up off the ground and marched away. I’ve learned about the cemeteries that were uprooted and the skeletons that were stacked underground just blocks from where I live. I’ve learned about the holocaust and the many children who were taken from their ecole maternale by the Nazis in collaboration with the Vichy government.
I’ve learned how to listen. I’ve learned how to express my thoughts. I’ve learned how to write. I’ve learned how to enjoy the company of myself, how to travel on my own, delve into a museum on my own, and go to the cinema on my own. In fact my favorite times at the cinema in Paris have been when I was on my own. I’ve learned how to dine alone and even how to cut my own hair with my roommate’s surgical scissors.
I’ve learned why Paris is a safe city. I’ve learned that Paris is a large city. And I’ve learned how small of a city Paris really is once it becomes home. I’ve learned at a prestigious university, but I’ve learned more on my own. I’ve learned about architecture, art, politics, history, food,and culture. I’ve even learned about the history of the fountains around Paris. I’ve learned Fountaine Saint Michel is a typical meeting place for Parisians- and I’ve met up with Parisian friends there.
When I arrived in Paris one of my early blogs stated that I planned on, “making good friends, laughing until my sides hurt, taking lots of photos, and knowing just enough French to get by.” It was a pretty simple and open ended goal. I definitely laughed. I did learn exactly just enough French to get by. I certainly took lots of photos, but I definitely could never have enough.
And did I made friends in Paris? Definitely. Just my friend Becca obviously, and I’ve had wonderful flatmates. We’ve spent hours together laughing in the kitchen late at night, lounging in our living room during lazy morning brunches, riding the metro all hours of the day, and sitting beside the Seine while the sun set over our beautiful Paris. I also met two bubbly British girls who casually had each grown up with castles in their town- and thought I was the funny one when I commented on how amazing it was to visit such old sites. I introduced myself to a Greek woman in her 60’s named Errietta who was doing Qi Gong in the park near my house and we have enjoyed each others company over hot chocolate on a cafe terrace. In the Jardin du Luxembourg an Indian man named Sidhu asked me to take his photo and a few days later cooked a delicious curry dinner for my flatmate and I near the Pantheon in his chambre de bonne with a great view of Paris. Then I met Allison in the grocery store when she spoke to me in French and left me alone with her baby carrage. She is an American mother with a Czech husband living in Paris just down the street from me. I was fortunate enough to get to spend a small amount of time with her and her beautiful children. While dancing, I made my first French friend and we’ve eaten nothing but foreign food together. Then of course have been the guys from the kebab shop and I’ve enjoyed a friendly smile and wave from my friends there when I exit the metro, whether it’s 11 am or 0:44 am. Then there has also been the Creep at the Carrefour…but I wouldn’t call him as much of a friend as a neighborhood figure to cringe at.
My time here has been wonderful. I’m sad to leave and I know even though some day I will return it will be a different type of adventure. When I come back I won’t be a resident any longer and there is a good chance I wont be under the age of 26 either so my endless playground of museum possibilities will come with price stickers and time constraints.
Each day I learn a bookfull of new things. I’ve filled three journals with experiences, two memory cards with photos, learned more lessons than I ever have in a semester, and created memories that I will recall with a smile and that will have shaped me for the rest of my life. Here, simple everyday interactions with people, musees, and transportation are more challenging. But it is that challenge that makes the success all the more rewarding.
The other day a woman stopped me and asked in French if I knew were a certain street was- I didn’t, but I was able to understand what it was she asked me and I was able to answer in French to tell her I was sorry, but I did not know. In English I wouldn’t have thought twice about the interaction. Three months ago an interaction like that was traumatizing. Today, that interaction is a totally rewarding and confidence boosting memory.
I’m comfortable there. Paris became home and I love living there because every day is an adventure. But the more comfortable I become the less of a challenge Paris becomes. One of my favorite quotes is “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I know this means if I want to keep pushing myself to live the fullest life I must thank Paris for what it has given me and move on to the next frighting adventure. Soon it will be time to leave but I have grown and my time in Paris has shown me that life is even more amazing then I thought.
Now the question becomes, what do I do with all of these lessons I have learned?
Merci La Vie
The view from our room was a full page color display from a National Geographic magazine. Over one thousand years, farmers have created handmade farm terraces stacked up the side of the hills in perfectly imperfect rows that have been carefully groomed. Our quiet town of Manorola was nestled and tucked into the earth, cozy and warm, the bright colored buildings stacked close together had one small road and many tiny alleyways with endless and steep staircases.
While many other aspects of our trip had been devoted to art, history, and sightseeing, this section was not related to man and his accomplishments. Cinque Terre was for hiking. Cinque Terre was for the senses. We hiked from Manorola to Volastra, continuing onto Corniglia, then to Vernazza, and we ended in Monterosso al Mere. The next day we completed our journey by going straight up and then straight down to Riomaggiore, and then we kept going. We walked past lemon trees, overflowing with juicy yellow fruits. We inhaled the sweetest fragrances from flowering plants and admired the contrast of the turquoise ocean against the green terraces. My mom and I filled our lungs with mother nature’s clean air and embraced her rugged terrain. Word’s spilled endlessly from our mouths with constant conversation, yet somehow my mind was completely clear. Walking in nature has a way of allowing me to forget all of the worlds problems-none of it matters on the trail. I think if more people spent time hiking the world would be a more peaceful place.
Walking and talking along the trail we came to a sudden stop when an Englishman taking a picture said, “Can’t get a better view than that!” We turned to the left and admired the pink, yellow, and red buildings all perched atop the edge of the world. We exchanged pleasantries and wound up trekking along with him for the next hour until we reached a gelato stop.
When Simon heard we were from the U.S. he was very worried. “You girls must be devastated! One of your legends just died!” This did frighten us a bit… we admittedly had been out of touch with the world. “Who?!” we both asked.
“Oh, I don’t know if I want to break it to you. I don’t know if I can be the bearer of bad news.” We begged for him to tell us. Each second that went by our minds were racing with possibilities. Prince had died the week before, was it possible America had lost someone just as influential and we had missed it while on our internet hiatus? Simon paused the conversation as he lead the way down some steep steps in the trail. The suspense was really building.
Once again he asked,” Are you sure you want me to tell you? I don’t want to ruin your vacation.” When my Mom assured him that our vacation would not crumble upon the news he took a deep breath and responded, “Billy Paul”.
“Billy who?” Needless to say we were not crushed by the news.
Hiking through Cinque Terre we encountered walkers from many other parts of Europe. The French who passed by wished us a “Bonne marche” (good march/walk), the German’s were out for a “Vander Veeg” (wander walk), the Britt’s referred to it as Trekking, and the bella Italiano’s smiled and sang, “Boun Pissagio” (have a good passage/walk).
We choose a restaurant in Vernazza (the second to last town) for dinner. Hiking past it in the afternoon we thought we should make reservations so we could watch the sunset as we ate. We worried that with a view that great the place could be packed. My mom gave her name and there wasn’t a chance the host repeated it properly, wrote it down anywhere, or even remembered it. The rest of the afternoon we walked on, nervous that our dinner reservations were non-existant we had a hard time letting that ruin our hike to any degree. When we arrived at 7:30 the entire place was empty. They told us we could sit anywhere we wanted. Good thing we didn’t worry.
The entirely outdoor restaurant was spread out on terraces that had once used for farming. The view was of Vernazza in front of us, the blue ocean far below, and of course- the sunset. When I thanked my Mom for dinner and told her I thought I would never find a restaurant with a view as beautiful as that one, I think she almost cried.
We sipped freshly squeezed lemonade-grown probably no more than 10 yards from where we were sitting- and gobbled up lasagne. The homemade noodles -so light and delicate mushed in my mouth with no effort- mixed with the pesto that this particular region of Italy is known for. Any hiker knows how delicious a meal can be at the end of the day, but a meal like that- can not be given true justice in words or photos.
A few months back I read an article about the first woman to solo hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season. She was 67 at the time, known to her fans as Grandma Gatewood, she did all 2,168 miles in a simple pair of Keds. On day two when my mom and I hiked to Riomaggiore and successfully trekked between all five towns I looked at my sturdy converse sneakers and thought of Emma Gatewood.
This was my mom’s fifth trip to Cinque Terre. It’s her favorite place in the world and she had always wanted to hike between all five towns. Each time there had been different reasons she was unable to- this time we were able to do it. This was a goal of hers for nearly thirty years and we not only accomplished it, but practically doubled it.
Merci La Vie.
If Paris had to gain my approval for a relationship that was hard work, compromise, and a long and doubtful courtship, then my trip to Italy was a thrilling, exciting, and romantic love affair. Italy quickly swept me off my feet and through a field of bright red wild poppies, thriving under the Tuscan sun amongst the toasted grass and buzzing insects.
It was love at first “Buongiorno”. My mother speculated that my instant connection with Italia must have meant that I am undoubtedly part Italian. It was plausible, I wondered if that had been part of the reason the majority of the boys I’d ever swapped saliva with have been Italian Americans (we will leave out the statistics about the large proportion of Italian immigrants that wound up in the New York area for this theory). Upon arrival -with no previous experience- I was practically fluent. As the designated GPS I read aloud the directions for the stradas (streets) with perfect pronunciation and excellent emphasis on key syllables.
Our first stop was a storybook hill town called Civita di Bagnoregio. It only has one way in and that is by foot bridge. My mom had waited twenty five years to visit this town and she was so excited that when we parked the car in the neighboring town she had me pose in front of a billboard so she could get a picture of the picture- we hadn’t even had a glimpse of the real deal yet. We headed down the road by foot and when we came to the edge and the earth dropped off, we saw it.
The clouds drifted over top of the small town creating a small shadow while the rest of the land was covered in beautiful luscious green farms far below. Seconds later when they passed over we stood in silence, taking mental and physical pictures of one of the most beautiful places I have-and ever will see in my life.
We crossed the foot bridge and wondered around the old town. The sky was blue against the Tuscan brick and the ripe green vines growing in perfectly aesthetically pleasing patterns over the old buildings. Each alleyway ended with deadly drop offs and old doorways framed the happiest, sunniest, and warmest, landscape possibly known to man while friendly cats basked in the sun and soaked up the heat of the cobblestones.
I have always loved impressionism- and still d0- but my trip to Florence has brought my art history class to life, and with it a new appreciation. Those miserable Monday night classes that let out at 9:30 pm during the coldest and snowiest winter of my college career suddenly came flashing back to me. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was swarmed by a tour group and yet I found myself right in front of her. Admiring her curls and her naked innocence as a newborn, moments before she is covered up. I looked to the left and remembered my professor mentioning the strangeness of Aura’s feet wrapped around Zeyphrus the god of winds.
I admired the very statue that inspired the painting and the painting that inspired the image. I saw Venus before she was Venus and then I saw more. I saw so many freakin’ Marys and Jesuss (but those flash backs were not as exciting).
So far in my life I have been many places, seen many things, and met lots of people, but it was in Italy where I began to feel I was truly seeing the world. I had one of those history lovers awe inspiring moments where everything suddenly seemed real. My college art history lecture, my AP world history class, my freshman year of high school world civilizations class, so many advertising and television references. Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo- I was surrounded by the Renaissance and I was overcome with amazement and a new feeling of connection to this beautiful and flawed world that we live in. As I sat there and looked at an extensive row of naked marble penises I felt like I had been wacked in the head with some sort of culture stick.
In Lucca we had our first Italian meal. Mouthwatering white pizza and lasagne with freshly made noodles. I never understood why people like pasta- now I know. The city unseen by tourists (including us) was surrounded by a 2 km wall that had never been penetrated and had not seen battle since 1430. We spent the afternoon walking the perimeter along the wall-turned-park, admiring the old fortress and comfortable conversation.
At the Vatican, my mom and I spent nearly forty minutes with our heads bent uncomfortably backward admiring Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel. Alongside hundreds of other people who were constantly being shusssheeed over a loud speaker, and respectfully following the very strict no-pictures-allowed-at-all-ever-in-any-way-shape-or-form rule we watched the creation of earth unfold. I was afraid I would get in trouble for staring too long in case taking a mental image was also against the rules. I can say however, -with my limited art knowledge- that it definitely is one of the most impressive pieces of art ever. The massive basilica was not as exciting but the Swiss guards certainly were right up our alley of curiosity and entertainment.
We wondered through there for hours in the drizzling rain until they kicked us out at closing and it began to pour. My always rule-abiding mother suggested I climb up on some ruins when there were no guards around and made sure to get a few photos of me pretending to be a perfectly sculpted marble statue.
Another forty minutes were spent with our necks craned looking upward at the fantastic dome of the Pantheon. We were thankful for the lack of selfie sticks being sold out front while also being thankful that we were not the slaves who had to haul all of the heavy marble from all over Italy, Egypt, and elsewhere. The oculus let the light of early evening spill into the room shining into the very first dome ever built.
We took loads of pictures from various perspectives in front of the Colosseum and skipped over much of the knowledge on our audio tour. Inside the Roman forum we got one last snap of the two of us taken by a self-proclaimed “perfectionist”.
And then there was Cinque Terre…