26 February 2009

It's a mad world

Monday, 11 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 9
Paris to Rennes, France

I was woken around six am by crashing and banging in the street. I thought it was the garbage man, but in actuality it was the little grocery store across the road getting the morning bread delivery. Went back to sleep for an hour and a half and then got ready to hit the road for Rennes, where I could make a connection to take me out to the coast to see le Mont-Saint-Michel. Left L a note saying I'd be back before dark.

First adventure of the day: buying a Metro pass. At the station I entered, tickets are only available at the kiosk, not at the help desk. I asked the man at information for assistance because I couldn't read enough French to actually make the purchase, so he came grumpily around the barrier and pushed all the buttons to make the machine spit out the little slip of paper that matched the plethora of white bits littering the ground.

I got through the metro to the Paris Montparnasse station without further incident. Gare* Montparnasse is the Paris station that serves Brittany and the Atlantic coast all the way down to Spain. Upon arrival, I booked a ticket to Rennes, but as I've mentioned before, book early on French trains or you'll spend all day in the train station. With my EuRail pass, I only had to pay the reservation fee.

As I waited in the station, I began to notice an increased number of French soldiers milling about the platforms. They were eventually joined by the police, who cordoned off the platforms with yellow tape. A crowd quickly grew on our side of the tape, and in short order people were asking each other what was going on. They even asked me, but I just shrugged and said "sais pas**" and "aucune idée***" like everyone else (pardonnez-moi all you formal French-speakers... confusion promotes slangy tendencies).

*Train station
** Dunno
*** No idea

All of a sudden, the bomb squad pushed their way through the crowd and disappeared near the tracks. All was quiet for about 10 minutes, and then there was the sound of an explosion, like a muffled gunshot. Soon afterward, the soldiers, the police and the bomb squad reappeared, removed the tape and went on their way. L told me later that it was probably a piece of abandoned luggage that the bomb squad blew up, but it was very exciting.

Uneventful train ride to Rennes, where I had to wait another couple of hours. After I bludgeoned my way through the language barrier, I obtained a ticket to Pontorson/Mont-Saint-Michel. Sometimes the French can understand my French, but sometimes they can't, but this is hardly a recent phenomenon. Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad:

"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when
we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making
those idiots understand their own language."

I adore Mark Twain. I was, however, able to finally make myself understood. My trouble was not in buying the ticket, but in figuring out in which tiny little hamlet I should get off the train.

Gare de Rennes

Two hours to explore Rennes, the home of Stade Rennais Football Club of the top French soccer division Ligue 1. This is important because the club is the current home of American defender Carlos Bocanegra. And yes, he transferred to the club mere weeks before I was in the city. Shhh.

Wide, shady cobbled streets with big building and trees whose branches intertwine in a leafy strip. Not very many people about, except in the cafés. The Rennes canals are quiet and lined with arrangements of red, white and blue flowers.

Rennes canal

This café made me laugh. It just seems so... earnest.

Café le Peanut's

Bought deliciously greasy olive bread for lunch and got on the train to the coast.

To be continued.

25 February 2009

Mercredi sans mots

...that's wordless Wednesday to you.

18 February 2009

Why TV is not cooler than real life

While I'm posting, I would just like to mention that I watched Monday night's episode of The Bachelor. Not because I enjoy watching girls compete for affection in an arena as public as a national broadcasting network, but because the top three were taken to one of my favorite places in the world: Queenstown, New Zealand. One of the three fantasy dates was tandem bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge Bungy, the oldest bungy site in the world. I would just like to state for the record that I jumped off that bridge. January 11, 2007 was the big day. It was raining, and I didn't need to be talked down off the ledge. I've also never experienced such a huge adrenaline rush.


I would do it again in a heartbeat, but next time I'm going for the big one , and 134m compared to Kawarau Bridge's 43m.


Pardonnez-moi, parle vous coquine?

Sunday, 10 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 8
Paris, France

I was pretty sick my first day in Paris. However, recognizing that I was, in fact, in Paris, and not wishing to bring upon myself the shame that accompanies staying indoors all day on one's first day in Paris, I spent the morning napping and then struggled out into the August heat, down the street in the direction of the pointy spire visible above the apartment buildings.

Said spire belonged to this building:

Notre Dame de Paris

Didn't want to face the multitudes alone while ill, so I wandered around the booths of the street vendors hawking everything from miniature statues of Parisian landmarks to postcard knock-offs of famous artwork. I sat in the sun on the stone walls banking the Seine for a bit and watched the riverboats chock-full of tourists pass under the bridges connecting
Île de la Cité to the rest of Paris, listening to people chatter in a host of languages.

I like the back of Notre Dame the best. I love the flying buttresses, and even though I understand that the front is both majestic and imposing in the tight visual frame that it was designed to fill, the back is much more graceful and pretty. I also adore gargoyles.

Since it's confession time, here's another: I didn't know I was going to love Paris. I lived in Boston for a year and liked it, but I'm not fond of New York. Since New York is the quintessential American destination city, I assumed that Paris was the French equivalent: dare I say it? overrated. Far from it. However, I know from experience that how much you enjoy a place is greatly influenced by who you experience it with.

I really didn't do much that first day, except soak up the atmosphere of the city. After a week of hardcore sightseeing, it was an absolutely relaxing, perfect day. Except for being sick.

14 February 2009

Border Crossing

Saturday, 9 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 7
Lausanne, Switzerland to Paris, France

Y'all need another train pic. Breaking train rules (not allowed to put feets on seats! shhhhh) and giving J the stink-eye. Probably sweaty and gross from climbing unnecessary stairs.


S dropped J and me off at the train station in Lausanne; J to catch a train to Zurich and her flight back home, and me to Paris. After a week spending every moment with someone, it's a strange thing to be alone. Fortunately the ride from Lausanne back to Geneva is short, and I had a three-hour wait at Geneva's La Gare de Cornavin until my train left for Paris. Loads of people were milling about the station, and there were many eager young people with coolers hanging from straps about their shoulders foisting small cartons of ice cream on passers-by. Didn't mind a bit.

I wandered around downtown Geneva for a bit, but there was a festival going on and it was very crowded. Believe it or not, I have very few pictures of Geneva. However, I present to you La Cité du Temps, which of course means the City of Time, an exhibition center focused on time. It's located at Pont de la Machine 1, which may be the best street name ever... well, bridge really. Pont de la Machine has been a Geneva landmark since the 1840s, when it was built to supply water to the public fountains. That's it in the center, behind the bridge. I know it's a terrible picture, but it was really bright that day. I needed that ice cream in the train station!

If you want a better look, just google "Cité du Temps," but I can't promise any other bloggers will have my scintillating wit. ;)

I never saw blue like that before... on the Pont de la Machine

I bought a Swatch watch. It's really big... I think even Sabit would be impressed (Yes, it has been six months and I still haven't reset it to PST. I'm running on Parisian time. Don't judge.).

FINALLY the train came to take me to PARIS!

A word to the wise: if you go to France or travel by train in France, BOOK EARLY! They fill up fast and then you get terrible seats. I took TGV from Geneva to Paris (TGV stands for train à grande vitesse, which is just fancy talk for "high-speed train," top speed of 200 mph) and it was much more claustrophobic than the Swiss trains. I had a seat to myself until just over the border, when I got myself a seatmate, a Senegalese naturalized Swiss by the name of Ace.

Ace kept me company. For awhile I tried to read, but Ace talked to me about Switzerland, Paris, Senegal, America, prices of things in all four places, and anything else he thought about. We were on a night train that was due in Paris around 11pm, so the view wasn't much, but as we drew closer I began to get nervous about navigating the Paris metro to my friend L's flat. She wasn't due back from her Tunisian vacation for two days yet, but she had given me detailed instructions to find her place from five different train stations in Paris. Not included in this list was our destination of Gare de Lyon. I'd heard the Paris subways closed at midnight, (which is not true) so I was really worried about not making it there in time, so Ace started talking me through it. An Indian man across the aisle was sitting by himself, and perked up his ears when I started talking about Boston. By the time we'd moved on to my fear of the Paris metro, he was obviously interested in our conversation, then surprised us both by pulling out a metro map and handing it to me.

Do you see now why this was daunting?

As it turned out, Ace walked me into the metro, helped me buy a ticket, then guided me to the 14 line (purple) in the direction of Châtelet, where I was to change to the 7 line (pink). He made sure I'd be fine on my own before he caught the 14 in the opposite direction.

Oh, the kindness of strangers.

For the record, the metro only looks scary on a map. Very easy to get around in, even if you don't speak French. I had the added challenge of being alone, under Paris at night, on the verge of being sick, but I made it to The Aubergine. A bit of fumbling with the strangely shaped key, wiped my feet on the Chelsea mat(haha), then fell into bed.

In Paris!

08 February 2009

Song of the Alps

Saturday, 9 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 7
Gruyères, Switzerland

After our visit to Broc and the chocolate factory, we ignored the imploring of the GPS lady and headed to the nearby town of Gruyères. When we arrived at the foot of the hill on which the town is built, we were directed by policemen to park in a large, green field. We got out of the car and found these tandem skis just lying about. Looks like fun, yeah?

Those who play together die together... right?

We walked up the hill and continued on through the gate and into the center of town, which was absolutely filled with people. We'd stumbled into a festival highlighting the very best Switzerland has to offer--an introduction to the authentic world of Spyri's Heidi.

There were ladies in straw hats behind tables of bread, cheese, cured meat, fondue and cold drinks. Groups of musicians made music in the street, and one man even played a saw. Woodcarvers and wheat threshers demonstrated their crafts, and folk dancers whirled and clapped at the far end of the square.

The activities were interrupted now and again by herds of cows and goats led through the square, all decked out with flowers and bells. The goats especially were popular with the crowds of tourists, and one billy goat made a beeline for the nearest cheese table as soon as his herder was distracted. The cows were better behaved.



The cowbells looked large on the cows, with good reason, but then a cowbell choir marched out, ringing the massive bells with their knees as they walked. In the center of the town, they set them down and let children try to lift bells half their size and ring them.

I need more cowbell!

I love this picture. This man was clutching the flag and yodelling, which is much more beautiful than one might suppose. Yodelling has been stereotyped into something harsh and loud, but it's low and melodic and lovely.

Finally we came upon the highlight of the festival: the Alphorns. Have a wee listen.

Unbelievably cool. I've had the privilege of hearing a single alphorn played when I was younger, but an alphorn concert was really special. I wish I could describe to you how wonderful it was to spend my last day in Switzerland experiencing the way things once were, from the food to the clothes to the lifestyle. It wasn't a display of stereotypes, just an homage to the past. It couldn't have been better if we had planned it, but it was a complete surprise, and a nifty way to remember our time in country. I finally got to try fondue (fabulous!), and I ate Gruyère in Gruyères. =D

One of my favorite photos of the mountain men

Bit of a let-down to get back in the car and head in the direction of Lausanne after that. It amazes me how the unplanned experiences are often the ones that capture your heart.

02 February 2009

Swiss Chocolate

Saturday, 9 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 7
Broc, Switzerland

I know everybody has been dying to know. Switzerland is famous for their chocolate, right? I couldn't possibly have satisfied my cravings with grocery store brands, right?

You're right.

Even though they sell really good chocolate in the grocery stores...

My last day in Switzerland, Joy's friend S took the two of us to Broc, home of the oldest chocolate factory in Switzerland, the Cailler-Nestlè Factory. Nestlè is made in many other factories around the world, but Cailler is unique to Broc. Nestlè and Cailler merged in 1929, but Cailler continued to make chocolate in the traditional way, using fresh Gruyère milk, unlike the Nestlè products that use milk powder. And yes, it is true that the Swiss keep the best for themselves. Wouldn't you? :)

The beautiful Saane Valley, with the Château de Gruyères on the hill

Getting to Broc was highly entertaining. We took S's car, and she argued with the GPS lady most of the way there. The drive was beautiful. We took the road around Lake Geneva, past the hills around the lake where every inch was vineyard, and out to the Savoy Alps. In the Saane Valley, it was warm and absolutely smelled like sunshine.

And then we came upon the chocolate factory. Please excuse the guardrail. Look at the cute little châteaux on the right!

That long white building is where Willy Wonka lives

It was so quiet that day that we thought the factory was closed, but happily, we were wrong. We got to take a tour, beginning in the movie theatre and watching a whimsical film about a girl in candyland, and then another in French about the making of chocolate. Then we went for a tour of the factory- looking at vintage advertisements for chocolate, tasting from great bags of roasted cacao beans, examining the machinery used in the process of creating edible art.

Who ate all the chocolate?

We finally arrived in the tasting room. It's a long room with a mirrored counter stretching from one end to the other, holding every kind of delicious, fresh Cailler chocolate imaginable. No limits. You could eat what you wanted. It's like a dream world.

You could eat AS MUCH AS YOU WANTED. For free!

Of course, after the tasting room was the gift shop (which is rumored to be full of people most of the time, but was empty for us, hooray!). I think I may have eaten too much chocolate at this point to be very tempted, but I did buy some to send home to my family. Joy bought many pounds of yummy-ness, but she only eats the kind without cacao.

For the record: WOW SWISS CHOCOLATE.

I'm sorry everyone, I'm officially a Euro-candy snob. We have much to learn.