Saturday, December 23, 2006

As I was reading the NY Times this morning I came across an article about Paris... It is about the man who is in charge of creating the lighting for the City of Lights. There is something so French about having someone in charge of creating a unified lighting plan for a city.

What to you think?

Read it at

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Day 3:

The morning was foggy and damp. There was only one thing to do: go to the graveyard. The Pere Lachaise Cemetery is located on the Northeastern corner of Paris proper, and it is situated on acres of hilly rocky land. The fog was even heavier on the hill, and I was one of the first people to arrive. For the majority of the time I spent there, it was just me and thousands of massive stone graves emerging from the fog. Pere Lachaise is important because it is a grand example of a Northern European graveyard - with above the ground crypts and chapels. However, what most people come to see are the graves of some of the world's most important people. As a publicity stunt, the first person to be entombed there was Moliere. The oldest inhabitants are Heloise and Abelard who are interred together forever. (Abelard was a famous Professor who came to Paris and opened what became the University of Paris. Heloise's uncle hired him to be her tutor, but they fell in love and secretly married. When she became pregnant and their marriage was exposed, her uncle had his lackeys break into Abelard's home and castrate him. Abelard then took monastic vows and Heloise followed suit; they never again lived as husband and wife but wrote some of the world's most beautiful love letters.) There are also Chopin, Delacroix, Ingres, etc. My main reason for the voyage was three-fold: Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde. Gertrude Stein, the American ex-pat author, is in a very unassuming grave along one of the main roads. There are no flowers and very few mementos, with the exception of a set of dominos. After 25 minutes of searching alongside of a nice German hippie, I/we found the hidden grave of Jim Morrison. Unlike Stein's, Morrison's grave is covered in flowers and cards. Devoted fans have etched lyrics from his most famous songs on the surrounding tombs. I don't know if he would like it, any of it. He came to Paris for a break, but... anyway. My most anticipated grave was that of Oscar Wilde, who sought refuge in Paris after a scandal involving a male lover came to light in London. His wife took their child(ren?) and he was forced into exile. His time in Paris, I imagine, was not happy. After his death, he has become a martyr for gay men the world around. I was excited because I think The Picture of Dorian Gray is the best example of a truly perfect gothic novel - The Importance of Being Ernest isn't bad either. The grave itself is very tall and supported by an art nouveax (anatomically correct) male angel. Transvestites apply copious amounts of lipstick and kiss the grave - it is a melange of light pink and vibrant red lip marks. Just being there I felt like I was a part of something. I think, unlike Morrison, he would be happy with his legacy.

The next stop was the Centre Pompidou - the mother of all modern art museums. The building itself is built completely inside out. The Parisians hate it (but if they didn't hate something I think they would shrivel up a bit). The grand courtyard is brimming with the young and too-artsy sitting enjoying a cheap lunch or sleeping. It is hard to evaluate the quality of the exhibits itself. On one hand, I was a bit disappointed. The Centre Pompidou has an amazing permanent collection featuring, well, everyone. However, being a cutting edge museum, they have very few examples of this on display. On the other hand, they had a brilliant cinema (as a place and concept) exhibit that incorporated Picasso and Leger which made me giddy. Also I discovered a new-to-me artist called Robert Rauschenberg who created the concept of "combines"(a type of collage mosaic thing, of course - I had no clue). It was brilliant with 3-D paintings incorporating textiles, wood, and sheep. He is also known for helping invent modern dance. The whole exhibit was quite fun!

Lunch in the Jewish quarter, walk through the Marais district, a stop at Dumas' Paris home, and I had to head to the train station. Back home to Nantes. What a great trip! It was the first time I was able to bond with the city itself. Both times before, I was only there for a day. This gave me time to really enjoy the parts of Paris I have been longing to see - since the early days of my French obsession.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Day 2:

After a less than refreshing night of sleep, I woke-up early and headed to the famous Musee d'Orsay. Housed in a decommission train station along the Seine, this museum was created to house all of the city's impressionist art. This is where you go if you want to see Monet, Degas, Renoir, etc. Alright, I admit that I am labeling myself as one of the world's biggest dorks when I say this: as I was waiting in line for the museum to open I was shaking with excitement! It took three and a half hours, but I did it. The first hour went well, but when that third hour hit and I realized I was barely halfway through and only just getting to the "good stuff," I had a significant mental moment. All I could do was plop down in the nearest chair and stare at the painting across the way. It took ten minutes to realize that I had been staring at Manet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" (the one with the two naked ladies eating lunch with the two guys in black suits). I can say with complete sincerity that this is the best museum EVER! I wont go into my notes on the individual paintings (not being an artist, many of my scribbles read "So cool!" and "Bigger than I thought!") saving you any more boredom.

Then it was time for a break - off to lunch in the left bank. I found a restaurant near-by called Polidor (actually, it turns out, this restaurant is suggested in Rick). I was a bit nervous because I wanted the menu de midi (lunch menu) and the special was kidney of some sort. However, after eating the lovely starter salad and half of my petite caraf of wine, I was ready for whatever they put in front of me! Actually, it wasn't half bad... anything would taste good in that sause. The restaurant itself was great - there are many long tables where you find any empty seat. The room itself seems unchanged since it was opened in 1845, with tobacco stained walls and dark beams on the ceiling. Lots of noise, lots of wine. In fact, I am sure that I was the only foreigner there! Yeah! For desert I had the caramel custard and a coffee. All of this for only 15 euros - I can't get that kind of deal in Nantes.

Following this large lunch, I wandered through the sights of the left bank - Luxemburg (sp?) Gardens, churches, theatres, the hotel in which Oscar Wilde died, and the cafe where Dumas wrote Les Mis which stands next to the cafe where Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms while looking at a third cafe where Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus came to create existentialism. In the fading light I headed in the direction of the Eiffel Tower just as the clock struck 7pm . All of the sudden, thousands of strobe lights started flashing manicly on the tower itself. From the top view-point the entire city and its famous lights spread out before you. From there everything is clean and beautiful. Around 9 I headed back to the hostel, a cheap gyro in tow, for a well deserved break and sleep.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A week ago I made reservations at a hostel and bought train tickets to Paris. Ever since I was a child, I have loved (obsessed about?) Paris - in elementary school I had already memorized the pocket map I was given one Christmas. The rest of the week seemed to drag on and on and on with the exciting prospect of three full days in Paris.
Day 1:
I arrived at the Paris train station, took the metro, and found the hostel with out any real problems. After claiming a bed and getting my stuff settled, I put Rick (as in Rick Steves, author of amazing city guides, host of a great T.V. show, and my most frequent travel companion (in book form)) my camera, some Euros, and a pack of gum in my satchel, I headed out into the great city. Up, up, up, to Montmartre. How beautiful this district is! The hilly streets lead up to the imposing, bleached facade of the Sacre Coeur. People say that the interior of the church, being less than a hundred years old, is not that impressive; however, I beg to differ! It lives up to its post-WWIness with bold geometric lined stained glass windows casting amazing colors on the white stone and the powerful outlined mosaic is truly an impressive testimony to the Parisians who built this church (after their humiliating defeat and occupation, many Parisians blamed this on their wayward ways and built the church so that it would never happen again - maybe they should have built a bigger church - don't tell any French people I said that). After the Sacre Coeur, I ambled along the country-turned-artistic-haven of Montmartre. Every time I rounded a corner I either saw a scene from a well-known painting or the studio/home of one of Montmartre's famous inhabitants. I wanted to whip out my canvas and start painting everything - despite my lack of artistic talent. By the time I meandered down to the Moulin Rouge, darkness had settled on the city and all of the bordellos and sex-shops had turned on their amazing neon lights. Despite the unfortunate anatomy lesson along "Pig Alley," I really enjoyed my walk in the area. There is a green way down the middle of this famously seedy street where kids are riding their bikes and soccer balls were flying. All of this amidst signs for the "Sexodrome," "Erodic Souviners," and all of the amazing sparkling lights.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."

Having no day-after Thanksgiving as a bench-mark to the beginning of the holiday season, the French people have reserved December 1st as decorating day. This is the day when tensile, garlands, trees, and Santa Claus make their first appearance of the season. Most importantly, however, December 1st is the official day for every city in France to turn on their Christmas lights. For weeks now city workers with cranes and mighty trucks have been hanging beautiful strings of lights across the majority of the city streets. I have been so disappointed walking through downtown around dusk to find all of these luminaries dark. What is the point of hanging them if you are not going to turn them on? Well, I found the answer to my question: on December 1st a famous person (whose fame is proportional to the city's importance) and the mayor climb a podium, flip an abnormally large cardboard stitch, make speeches to a clapping crowd, and officially declare the Christmas season open. All in all, a very festive event - though I may have just been happy to have my first cup of hot spiced wine of the year as December 1st marks the first day of the Christmas market too.

Earlier in the day I braved the elements (rather warm rain) to the super mall, with Christmas cheer in my heart (really, I was rather giddy) where I purchased a very small plastic Christmas tree, some very small gold and red ornaments, a very small star, and a very small pearl garland along with a set of Christmas lights. When I returned, I commenced decorating. Alright, it looks rather pathetic, but it is cheerful (just don't look too hard at the tree as the ornaments are attached with waxed mint dental floss). Plus, the children of my landlady knocked on my door with mouths dropped and eyes wide open - just staring at my Christmas tree that stands a foot and a half tall and the twinkle lights on my window. Astonished, they declared my room one of the most beautiful things they've ever seen. Though they are only 7 (and a half!) and 5 and, thus, haven't seen much of the world, I will take their praise as a rousing compliment!

Other than the quickly spreading Christmas cheer, nothing else out of the ordinary has occurred. I'm just waiting for my first true Bouche de Noel and my next cup of hot spiced wine!


Friday, December 01, 2006

Thanksgiving, with a dash of France for good measure, makes for an interesting evening.

In the weeks leading up to November 23rd, I spend the majority of my in-class time describing the voyage of the Mayflower and attempting to purge the word "Indians" from the students' English vocabulary (No, Indians are people from India. The country India. They are called N-A-T-I-V-E A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N-S: Who knew Christopher Columbus could cause so much trouble for an American English teacher in France in the 21st Century?). Never have I been so informed on the ins-and-outs of the harvest feast of the Pilgrims - honestly, never have I cared so little. One can only take so many questions about why Indians (No Clare, Native Americans) wore feathers in their hair or why we stuff a turkey. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I took very little notice. I worked all day, talked to Mom and Dad online, ate a bag of rice and some cider, and watched many episodes of Jeeves and Wooster on my computer. An all around normal day. I didn't realize that I really missed the holiday until the following Saturday night.

As I have mentioned before, one of my schools is comprised of mostly young teachers who like to socialize together. So, in part to say good-bye to Camilla (my landlady who is now on house-rest for the rest of her pregnancy and former colleague) and in part to experience the holiday right (read: make use of the resident expert, moi), most of the English teachers came over for a true Thanksgiving dinner... well, as true as one can get in France.

Camilla and I put our heads together - alright, she planned and I confirmed that she was on the right path - to create a real feast. Each teacher brought a "traditional" Thanksgiving dish; we had a stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, candied yams, gravy, pumpkin pie, mushroom quiche (?), corn crepes (??), and pate (???).

I had one responsibility: pumpkin pie. This caused me one real problem: how the heck do you make a pumpkin pie without pre-made pumpkin pie mix in a can? In this situation I did what any sensible, mildly kitchen skilled, modern girl would do - find a recipe on the internet and pass it off as Grandma's. In the end, it turned out perfect and wasn't too hard. It just required advanced prep. You have to put the pumpkin in the oven for six hours until the top flops in, cut it into quarters, scrape out the insides, and freeze the remainder. The rest is just like with the canned mix, only I had to find out what is included in "all spice." A piece of cake! My only critique came from one of the children present (6 years-old) whose face squinched into a tiny little ball of disgust almost the instant the pie hit his inexperienced tongue. But I will chalk this up to the exotic-ness of the pie in general and safely declare a victory.

Before heading to the main house I reflected on the event that would soon occur. For having celebrated Thanksgiving faithfully and well every year of my life, I had never had home-made cranberry sauce, stuffing, or pumpkin pie. Let's face it, I and most Americans use boxed stuffing (yum!), canned pumpkin mix (yum!), and canned gelled cranberry stuff that you giggle out of the can and slice (yum!); however, I did not have the heart to spoil the traditional image of Thanksgiving to the room full of excited French people. Again, I resorted to cries of "that's exactly like Grandma's" and "wow, you made that perfectly." It was not a lie - they all made amazing food that would put many people's Thanksgivings to shame! But when they wanted me to comment on the normalcy of the meal I grinned and responded, "Of Course!"

The party itself was good, except I have a problem understanding the French language when there are many people speaking at once. I mean, my French has improved exponentially, but much of my comprehension is based on hand gestures and mouth movements. Then after five hours of full-on French (not to mention a full belly), I hit a wall. You could say "Bonjour" and I would not be able to wrap my mind around this word's meaning! As the party was breaking up - just after midnight - I returned to my room and just flopped on the bed, unable to mentally process the need for pjs and blankets. All capacity for language, even English, was exhausted.

Overall, the party was a success and I will always cherish it as the most unique in my experience. Geoff, a British DJ on, said (I paraphrase) "If the whole country is worried about celebrating religious holidays and isolating certain groups, we should just adopt all secular and religious holidays from every country and people." His point is that we would have enough vacation days to always be celebrating something, but after this experience I realize how much fun it is to celebrate your holidays with others and visa versa.


P.S.: A general notice: next year, if you invite me to your Thanksgiving dinner, you can expect a home-made pumpkin pie. Just to put that out there, keep it in mind.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

It is a difficult thing to be the tour guide for a trio who have no opinion and are truly content to just be in France. But so it was these past ten days when my parents came to visit me here in Nantes...

I was at work when they arrived, but when I called to let them know that I was on the tram heading their direction my father's slightly frantic/tired voice responded by saying, "We're lost." After figuring out where they where and giving them the wrong directions, we all eventually made it to their hotel.

Chez L'Huitre (House of Oysters) is a restaurant highly recommended in every book about Nantes and now by my family as well. This was not the first time I had tried to eat here, but their first night in town was the first time I found it open - ever! During the off season there is only indoor seating at six tables for a grand total of twelve people and one waiter maximum. Also, there is no menu. Just four or five green chalk boards with today's three course menu, the suggested wines, a la carte items, etc. The waiter/owner's son/essential-charming-handsome Frenchman stands behind the bar in the back seeing to every detail of the meals while enjoying wine and cheese himself (he needs to know what to suggest, of course). This restaurant became that place that you talk about and compare others to at every other meal. Bon appetit!

As far as our days were concerned, we spent them driving through the countryside (ie vineyards). Actually, our first day did not go as planned as it was 11/11 (Armistice day) and the Maison du Vin and Wine Museums were closed. After realizing that we needed to change our plans a little, we stopped at a random small village. Minutes after parking, a small parade of veterans came marching from the town hall to the cemetery with flowers for their fallen comrades. It was quite a touching little celebration at 11:11, 11/11. We also went to Paris for the day (first class! - the benefits of traveling with parents!) and I occupied myself by trying to find the perfect flat. I will live there someday!

In summary, by the request of my Uncle Tom:
My mom and dad visited and it was fun.
We ate fish and drank wine. It was tasty.
We went to Paris. It was pretty.
They left. It was sad.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

SO, I'm rather adept at travelling cheaply and happily; however, not really this time and I regret nothing! It may have to do with travelling alone or with the region... either way I ate and drank my way through Carcassonne, Toulouse, and Bordeaux... oh, and there were some great museums too. This past week was All Saint's Day holiday at my schools. Rather than being bored here in Nantes, I gathered the rest of my dwindling savings and headed south.

Carcassonne is a beautiful Medieval castle near the Pyrenees that is complete and perfect. My hostel was actually in the heart of the Medieval town, but when I arrived it was dark, the information center was closed, and I had no taxi fare. After a guided wandering to a bank in what looked like the old part of town, I was told that this was the new town and the old town is to my left, across the river and I will see the ramparts way up on the hill. Up I went!. In the morning I was one of the first people/tourist up and about - giving the impression of being totally alone in the beauty of Carcassonne. The rest of the day I was happily entertained by walking the tiny streets, ramparts and dirt roads of this magnificent town.

Toulouse is where the gastronomic tour-de-force began. This part of France is where much of the quintessential French food originated. At 8pm exactly, I was seated at the last table in Benjamin's and ordered the expensive Ménu (24€ = 35 dollars-ish). Everything I ordered was a Toulouse classic recipe: fois grois de canard, cassoulet, and pistachio cremé brulé. The fois grois was the creamiest, most luxurious thing that has ever passed my lips - it easily makes you forget to ask about ingredients. Cassoulet is a long-cooked casserole dish of beans and unidentified meats of every kind. This was the hardiest dish I have ever eaten in France - it puts hair on your chest for sure. The end was sweet with a very burnt desert and strong coffee. Lovely. A day trip to Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec's hometown, was also in order as well - which was completed by sitting across from the museum at a grand café eating one of his favorite foods - red wine (he was quite a lush and often went for days without solid food, but, as someone put it, he never lacked calories/sustenance).

Bordeaux was described by Moliére and Montaigne as a city that far surpassed Paris as the center of culture, beauty and commerce. And, at the time, it did; however, after a series of misfortunes, Bordeaux sunk into disrepair. Nevertheless, they are pulling themselves out of this and making the city grand again. What is a girl to do in Bordeaux? Take a wine tour! Through the Tourist Center you can participate in just such an adventure (as long as you are willing to put up with picture happy people, stupid question asking people, and people who thought taking a 3 and 5 year-old to a vineyard was a good idea). Médoc region! The low-cut vines are turning red and yellow and the fermentation of the future wine makes the entire countryside smell of ripe dark fruit and warm bread. The number of grand Chateaux lining our route was unbelievable - each with their individual charm and unique beauty. At each of the two stops we were supplied with "tastings" - as our guide informed us, in France to do a proper tasting you have to fully appreciate the subtle tonalities and aromas, which might take a few glasses to discover!

That is a brief overview of my past week and a half. Beautiful weather and fine food, what a trying life I lead.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Looking over my past posts, I notice that there is a glaring omission. Mainly, what about the classes I am supposed to be teaching? It is, after all, the reason I am here (and getting paid). Actually, this is something that is going to a bit difficult... I teach at two Collèges which house students who are 11-15 years old and are roughly equivalent to junior high/middle school in the States. Both are so disparate in student makeup, economic condition, and faculty that I will address each independently:

Ernest Renan
I will always remember walking up to this school my second full day in France. Wandering lost through the forest of high-rise apartment buildings thrown together in the mid-eighties and having 14 year-old kids asking me for a cigarette until I found a large gate in the stone wall. Renan is a large school, but, as the vice principle told me at our first meeting, one that can be very trying. The children who go here are not violent or scary, they are not very interested in learning and enjoy getting expelled from class. You see, Renan is located in the immigrant quarter of the region (in this case mostly of an Islamic background). For the most part their parents are either unemployed or barely able to make ends meet, they are socially marginalized, and often distrusted by the general population (which, I'm sad to report, sometimes infects their teachers too). As a result, Renan is under financed and is making do with staffing problems and out-dated technology. The teachers are very dedicated, but also very young. I have to admit that I am closest to the staff here because they are younger and more interested in talking and hanging-out. Here I teach six (boring) hours a week where I sit in the back or front of the class reading aloud occasionally but mostly sitting. Not that I would agree to teach more than four or five of the students by myself; however, it would be nice to be of more use to the children. They are good kids, but they are just very... loud.

Everything I said about Renan take and flip it on its head. This school, though located in the same suburb, is economically well-off, the students are attentive, and the staff are very experienced. The "ideal" school. Here I teach five hours a week - one first year class and two advanced classes. The first years are so cute! I am amazed how much growing (physically and mentally) children do in these three years. Anyway, their teacher takes about eight of them each week to review what they learned and I am left to play whatever games or sing whatever songs I think reinforce what they were learning. The other two classes are two hours long - I take half the class for half the time and then we switch. With the fourth year students I just try to get them to speak as much as possible, and with the fifth year students I correlate with their lessons with what they are studying at the time (they are better served by hearing me speak in a normal fashion, whereas the others need to speak themselves). Everything here is easy and straight foreword, except, being a first time teacher it is overwhelming to be told to teach whatever you want for an hour.

Albert Einstein said something like - It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the curiosity of inquiry. I can be a bit of an idealist; however after three weeks I think that I have abandoned this guiding sentiment for one that will get me through the next hour. I hated junior high school, as every sensible person does, and now I am back teaching students who really don't want to learn. Don't get me wrong, I can't see myself doing anything else right now. I am a good teacher and entertain the students well. Also, it does have its benefits : I am getting rather good at British English. "I went to university, etc. And I have learned that in the UK you ask "Have you got a pencil;" whereas to American ears this sounds a bit awkward. Who knew?

Overall, I have had my frustrations and miss-communications with both schools. Yet I am glad I can help (how much my help is worth we will have to wait and see).


Sunday, October 15, 2006

After many unfruitful meetings with gruff landlords and countless miles put on my poor shoes, I have found a place to live! Things just seemed to fall into place, and in order to fully appreciate the joy this house gives me you need to know the events that led up to its discovery...

I had been living in a hotel for a week and I still had not found a suitable domicile (and I really was not all that particular). One day one of the English teachers mentioned that she was letting a room but someone was looking at it that night. If they did not want it I could take a look sometime over the weekend. I cannot describe how much I wanted this place - and I hadn't even seen it yet. Later that week I received an e-mail from the teacher saying two other people were taking a look at it, would I like to join them? Absolutely! The day of our rendez-vous came. The rain was pouring and the wind was whipping, but I trudged through the adverse conditions towards certain victory (I am a pushy American after all). I arrived a comfortable five minutes early to a beautiful if small stone row house in an upper middle-class neighborhood. Low and behold, one of the people cancelled their appointment. The teacher and I chatted, waiting for the other person. Twenty minutes later she called to discover he was caught on the bus, stuck in traffic. Well, she decided to let me look at the "room." I was expecting to head upstairs or towards the basement (like all of the other rooms I had seen). Alas, she put her shoes on and took me into their extensive (for a city) garden to a separate little house - la petite maison. After less than five minutes I took it! This was two weeks ago, and I moved in this past Monday.

My petite maison, as I said, resides in an overgrown British style garden. It has one window that overlooks a beautiful rose bush, a tuft of lavender, and an ivy and moss covered stone wall. I enter the property from the musty garage in the back, walk up the stone path past the rabbit hutch, garden shed, and office to my door. Using my brass key and a lot of force if it is humid I enter a rather large room with 12-foot ceilings. Ahead is a small refrigerator and microwave, to the left a large table, upon the far left wall my small bed sits, and slightly to the right of the bed stands a large shelf/closet unit. The bathroom is through a very small door on the right - there is enough room to walk sideways from the sink to the shower, but it is clean and everything works efficiently. As of now, everything is rather spare and the white washed walls are glaringly sparse. Nevertheless, I have quickly made it my own and I look at it with a mother's eye - I cannot see the draftiness of the door, frequency of spiders, or the strange thudding noise five or six times a day.

My landlords, who live in the "main house" are very sweet. The woman is an English teacher, but she herself is Danish (and we have started sharing French bureaucracy horror stories). She is young, creative, and very driven. Her husband, a Frenchman, is also very nice, speaks English well (but we converse in French most of the time). They have two children and she is pregnant with their third. They are active noisy boys, normal. Actually, I babysat the younger one last night. We drew pictures and I read him a story (he had to pick the hardest and longest children's book ever - I barely understood most of the words, let alone know how to pronounce them): overall one of the easiest babysitting gigs I've ever had, plus it is an excellent way of subsidizing my already low rent.

Now that I have overcame this hurtle, I am ready to face the next... getting a bank account and having a physical from the immigration office (no TB here). In addition, I can start travelling a bit more. I think I have walked every street in Nantes so it is time to expand my walking options.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

When you think of France and French people, often a less than attractive picture comes to mind. One of snotty waiters and people on the street who would rather get their teeth pulled than direct you to the Place de la Concorde. However, like all stereotypes, this is simply not true.

As one of my fellow assistants put it, "If someone's only experience with France is in Paris, then it is no wonder they never want to come back."

Nantes, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. In fact I have never met with nicer people in my life. It is your essential French city - men carrying baguettes under their arms, women navigating cobble stone roads in stilettos, and children playing soccer in the streets on a Wednesday afternoon. Yet is is quite a large city complete with an excellent metro system, a dodgy part of town, and a modern quarter. I think that Nantes has been able to retain its old-world beauty because of the lack of tourists. True, there is a Chateau and an old Cathedral, not to mention one of the best Beaux-Arts Museums in this region (one of the best Kandinsky's, and a ton of Gordins), but they are far surpassed by the other Chateaus and Cathedrals that line the Loire.

A perfect example of this is the Creperie that I visited this past week. In a less than picturesque part of town sits a forgotten string of restaurants in their original buildings. For example, this particular creperie is housed in an old house, were there has been a restaurant/tavern in continual operation for more than four hundred years. When you enter, and cut your way through a curtain of smoke, a friendly Frenchman escorts you up a flight of creaky old stairs to the first landing (nonsmoking, surprisingly) or up to the third floor. In each floor there is seating for twenty people which is more than ample for the spattering of lunch patrons. For 8 € 50 (about 11 dollars, an amazing deal) you can buy the menu de midi (lunch menu): choice between an onion, ham, or cheese savory crepe, choice between a lemon, chocolate, sweet cheese, or orange crepe for desert, and a choice between coffee, water, or french cider (sparkling apple juice). All of this is served with a smile and a small "how's your mom" kind of chat. I cannot remember a friendlier meal in Europe, let alone France.

There is only one truly visible scar to this city, one annoying blight for any romantic American - the unimaginably ugly brown tower that forces its way into the otherwise unspoiled neo-classical skyline. The majority of Nantes sits along the north shore of the Loire river. It was a rich and beautiful city thanks to the fishing and the near-by salt flats. This is where the merchants who became wealthy chose to build their magnificent town houses. Many of these homes escaped the bombings of WWII and continue to lend Nantes a stately beauty. However, in the mid 80s, some bank somewhere decided to destroy a block of these buildings and build a beacon of modernity in the heart of Nantes. After they finished and the people realized that it was ugly, the city banned any further destruction of their old-town. Too late for that. The bright side is that if you are standing underneath the awning of this brown thing, your view of the medieval part of Nantes is unparalleled and unspoiled.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Welcome to France, and what a journey it has been!

For those of you unfamiliar with my situation, let me enlighten you: I am an English assistant in St. Herblain, a suburb of Nantes. I will be teaching in two Colléges (roughly equivalent to Jr. High Schools). Currently I am living in a hotel in the heart of Nantes, looking for an apartment or a room to let, navigating the unorganized world of French bureaucracy, and fighting the after effects of jet-lag.

The majority of my time has not been spent enjoying the pleasures of un express (espresso) or a burre blank(Nantais delicacy), but wading through the long-standing time-honored pool of paperwork and senseless bureaucracy. After all, this is the best way to begin to create a cultural picture of the French people and society. It gets to the heart of the matter - the meat of the issue. In all of this I have learned two valuable lessons:

1. French people love official documents more than a fine Burgandy wine.
2. French people don't care if you tell little white lies if you successfully fulfill the requirements of number 1.

I have a grey plastic accordion file folder with all of my important document neatly organized by type and category. It is always safely tucked in my satchel bag and slug across my back at all times. Why? Not because I am scared they will be stolen, but because I am never sure when or where I will need to pull out a notarized copy of my birth certificate or a note of guarantee from my parents. Here is the perfect example - getting a bank account. Now I have not tried this yet, as housing and visa have been my top priorities, but before I get payed I must open an account as a rite-of-passage. In order to do so I must have a multitude of documents. First my passport and a copy; okay. Second, my proof of employment which must include all of the following: working card, letter of acceptance, and my "arrete de nomination" (which I really don't know what it denotes). Third, my proof of habitation. Fourth, proof from my bank that I am in good standing. Fifth, a letter from my school telling the bank that they will cover my overages if I flee the country. Now the bank my not ask for all of these, but they may - in fact they may ask for three times as much if they wish.

White lies never really hurt someone, and in France they can be a foreigner's best friend. For example, one of the easiest ways to find cheep housing is through the student organization CNOUS. From what I gather, CNOUS helps international students find housing by creating a free database of furnished apartments. You have to visit the CNOUS office in order to gain access to the site. Why? Because they need some documents that prove you are currently a student somewhere in the world. Having just graduated, I don't quite fit into this category. Nevertheless, I was able to find an old version of my AER (Academic Evaluation Report) from April 2006 that showed I did not have enough credits to graduate (through some sort of clerical error, all of my credits from my semester in Hungary were missing and the situation was remedied before graduation). The CNOUS lady barely looked at the document and gave me an account. I think that the important part was the fact I had a stack of papers to hand her, not the meaning of the documents themselves.

All in all I am adjusting to life here very quickly. The people are more than friendly, and when anyone finds out that I don't know a soul in France they grab a pen and paper to give me their name and address and the name and address of their mother. My notebook is quickly filling with scribbled names and numbers.


Friday, June 09, 2006

An exploration of an artist: Barcelona

Our last stop in Spain was one of the most eagerly awaited, for me at least. I have been waiting to see a city that was built on a fascinating and unique cultural and social identity. Unplanned though it was, each day our journey focused on a different artist... Day three was Miro, day two was Dali, but...

Day One: Gaudi

Early in the day we left our hostel and boarded a metro tram to the Temple de la Sagrada Familia. A truly epic work that reflects the time, monetary investment, and community involvement of all important European Churches from the Medieval period, yet all of this was transplanted into the twenty-first century. When I entered, I was surprised by the amount of work already completed - the inner sanctuary is almost completely enclosed. If thousands of people crowed into a church that is not yet complete, you know that you are walking into something truly amazing (sometimes the masses can lead you to the truth). Gaudi can take a hard material and make it soft as clay - making them natural. The ceiling (?firmament?) of massive heavenly stars melt into the tree-like forms of the pillars which seem to be a natural extension themselves from the earth of the church (as if they had always been there waiting for someone to build a roof to connect them).

After an exhaustive exploration, we headed to another one of Gaudi's masterpieces: the Parc Guell. This is where his skill really shined! The sculptural elements, from a distance, appear to be soft as clay, but a quick touch will reveal that they are really created out of stone pieces. In the garden stood the casa that Gaudi once lived in. At first it does not seem to mesh well with the mosaic and organic theme of the rest of the park - with straight lines and commonly pink walls, but after a while the gentle plaster details blurred the line between natural and man-made even further. All around the landscaping seems to be an extension of Gaudi's works and visa versa.

Our final Gaudi stop almost did not happen, but it proved to be the most interesting of all! When I saw that entry to the Casa Batllo cost 16Euro50, I said "No Way!" With some gentle advice from Jennifer (and some hair pulling), I consented and entered a magnificent multi-tenant building with character and passion. The whole theme of the Casa Batllo is the sea - wavy lines and a palate of blue. The facade, in my opinion, looks like Gaudi wanted to represent every aspect of the sea at once - from the placid seafoam on the beach and the deep navy of a stormy night, to the glowing masks of the deep-sea creatures. And this is only the facade. Inside each room has a character all its own. Bringing natural light into every room, ingenious window mechanisms, and multifaceted stained glass doorways complete the seemingly simple casa.

Gaudi is one of those artists who is known, but rarely experienced. He is Barcelona, he is what really pulls this city together. Yet, there could not be a Gaudi (someone so beloved in his own time and given free license to redesign the landscape of the city as he did) without an amazingly driven, yet beautifully relaxed city to be his muse.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

I´ll be the first to admit that I am a well traveled person and that I know the best ways to get it done. Nevertheless, sometimes there are things that blind side me and convincee me once and for all that I really have no idea what I am doing...Here are two perfect examples:

Granada - former land of Muslim glory, whose beautiful castles (Alcazars) can still be seen today. On this particular day, Jennifer (my travel companion on this trip) and I went to see the famous Alhambra. Words cannot do this castle justice. As you are hiking up the steep, forested path, the trees part revealing an awe-inspiring red brick fortress. Once inside the Islamic influence is immediately revealed in the intricate geometrical plaster work and the amazing onion style arch-ways. On this particular journey we met one of the most unfriendly person I have ever met. As we were waiting in line for an audio guide (being next in line), we approached the available window but she was closed so we returned to the front of the line. That is when we heard the voice... "Excuse me, but you have to go to the end of the line!" (think of this as the voice of evil). "We were next, but she closed her window." "You will have to go to the END of the line." "But we were next." This is when the friendly Germans vouched for us and the woman reluctantly consented. After a while it was our turn, and, just as luck would have it, guess who was our "helper"? "Can we have an Englishh audio guide?" "Ticket!!" (Remember the voice of death) replied the scary-guide-lady. I placed my ticket on the counter along with a 5 Euro bill. Before even acknowledging our presence, scary-guide-lady turns to the people behind us (remember the Germans) and says, "I am really sorry. They said that they were in line. I have to take them first." She continues on in this way until the people behind us (the Germans who vouched for us) convinced her that they were not mad. "Passport!!!" "We don't have one with us." "You cant have an audio guide without one!" Jennifer pulls out a copy of her passport, but the woman refuses with a humph. Eventually, through a bit of trial and error we discover a credit card would do. "3 Euro." I slightly nudge the 5 Euro on the counter. "3 Euro." I push the bill closer to her. "Not 5 Euro, 3 Euros." "That is the smallest bill I have. Here see," and I open my wallet and show her the two Euros I have. Meanwhile, Jennifer had torn apart her wallet looking for one Euro which she finds and gives to scary-guide-lady. As I grab the audio guide she yells with a sharp "NOT NOW!" and rips it from my hands. Why? She feels it is necessary to explain to us (stupid people) how the map and ticket work. As if we had not used one before - and - the ticket lady told us to do - and - was not written on the ticket in four different languages in red. Finally, with the biggest fake grin, she hands us the audio guide with a "Have a nice visit."

The second story happened today while we were boarding the train to Barcelona. On the EURail pass there are ten blanks that you need to fill in with the date of you ten journeys before you go through the ticket check. On mine I had written 02/06 instead of 04/06, but I had crossed out the two and replaced it with the correct four. Unbeknownst to me, this is not allowed. When I gave my ticket and the pass to the ticket lady, she refused to let me board the train. Jennifer had already gone through the line but asked, in Spanish, what the problem was. They explained that they could not let me in unless their supervisor okayed it. So I stood beside the ticket counter with my ticket, pass and passport laying on the desk getting dirty or inquisitive looks from the many passengers as they boarded the train. Ten minutes until the train leaves. Five minutes. Three minutes and the supervisor was still not there. My heart was racing. Finally, with two minutes left, the supervisor approached the counter, took a quick look at the pass and handed it all back to me. That was it, I could board the train with only a minute left to spare. Infact, even before we sat down the train was well on its way.

What have these experiences taught me. For one, always expect the unexpected. The scary-guide-lady was mean without any provocation and I did not expect, as I was passing through security, that I may not make the train because of a writing error. And secondly, part of the excitement around this noble pursuit (travel that is) is the understanding that not everything is understandable - most things are lost in translation, even in Western Europe.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

For however much I love and belong in a city - nothing can compare to the calmness that pours over you as you walk along empty, dusty, forgotten country roads. As I sat in a pasture, with cows and goats in the distance, I would like to say I was able to gain a glimpse of what true peace is.

But first - how did I get to this place... Almost nine months ago, my friend, Jennifer, and I decided that graduation would be the most amazing time to take a long vacation to rest and rejuvenate our school weary minds. So three days after our May 20th graduation, we boarded a plane to Madrid for a five week tour of Southern Spain and Italy.

After a few days in Madrid, we headed to the beautiful Sevilla where our slight mistake brought me to the field... The first night in town we stayed in a nice hostel right in the heart of the city. It was in close proximity to the Church and, on that particular night, to a parade that wound itself across around and down the town for hours. Our beds were in a large room tucked behind the stairway of a very old home. We were resting and getting to know our roommates when a cockroach scuttled across the floor. With great skill, Jennifer grabbed a shoe and made quick work of the insect. A few minutes later another one was sighted as we heard a growing raucous in the lobby. Apparently, a nest of them had been upset in a neighbor´s house sending hundreds in every direction. Every where you looked there were three more roaches in various stages of death. This, however, was not the mistake. In fact, with in an hour or two the creatures were gone and life continued on.

The first hostel, being in such a great location, was a bit pricey and we made reservations for one further out. As our bus got further and further from town, we began to worry that there had been a mistake, but, as it turns out, the hostel we reserved was not in Sevilla at all. It was about 30 km away in a different Medieval town called Carmona. Oops. But when we arrived at the hostel, all disappointment and concern faded into the background.

The hostel was located next to the main church on this little narrow road of white-washed Medieval homes. Our little dorm room overlooked the pristine pool in which I spent many blissful hours. The first morning there, after breakfast and before Jennifer woke up, I decided to go for a nice stroll. Because it was such a small town, a two minute hike down a cliff brought me to miles and miles of pasture and farm land. Real Spanish countryside where olives and oranges grew and horses roamed free. There were no other people, let alone tourists, around to ruin my peaceful moment. Now we are in Cordoba enjoying the weather and uniquely Arab sights.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The first post... it has to be something exciting and mind blowing (or a test run to make sure that this new-fangled technology works correctly). Something up lifting and true to who I am. I hate to disappoint my many fans, so now I will write a "Heather's Blog" manifesto that each and every blog post will live up to. Think of it as a check list or personal mission to insure quality, entertainment and speling erors.

Heather's Blog Manifesto (aka Les Raisons d'Etre):
  1. There will be every effort made to be funny. (I heard a great joke in philosophy... it was dirty... and I digress).
  2. I will write about anything I want regardless of external influences. No catering to anyone.
  3. This is mostly a place for me to do "mass e-mails" without the bother of e-mailing. So don't expect regularity or normalcy.
In addition, I know that the title of this blog is boring and plain. Think about it though - the title of a blog is only funny the first time around. After that it is just ignored. Granted there are great titles, but they tend to lock the author into one frame of mind. They define the writing therein. By calling it simply "Heather's Blog" I am avoiding the traditional pitfalls of a new blogger. So no comments please!

Thank you for listening,