The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Which I am a Pretty Pretty Princess

Last weekend I went to Tours in the Loire Valley region to visit the Châteaux there. This had been on my Mandatory Travel Checklist for a long time, so I was really happy to finally get there. Despite being a lone voyager once again, and despite the fact that my hostel wasn't at all social, I ended up having a really good time.

I left on the first possible train Saturday morning and finally got to Tours around 2:30 in the afternoon. I went straight to the tourist office to book a mini-bus tour to the Châteaux. It was right across from the train station. One thing I really like France is their nice tourist office. Just about any town you go to that would conceivably have tourists has a tourist office, and they're always chock full of free maps, brochures and advice. I booked a full day tour for Sunday and the nice lady directed me to my hostel. She also drew a walking tour on my free map and told me where the cool stuff was. I followed the route she'd drawn me on my way to the hostel, which I found without much trouble. Unfortunately, I couldn't check in until 5pm, so I rested for a few moments, then set off to check out the cathedral.

On the way I stopped in a couple of boutiques, looking for some of those awesome pants I've been wanting for a while. I see girls wearing them in Lille and Paris, but there's really only one girl I've seen wearing them in Berck. She's in one of my classes and just recently transferred to Berck; her style is definitely more urban than most of the other students at the lycée. Anyway, the pants in question are what I would call "harem pants." They're fitted at the hips with a wide fabric panel, then they balloon out into these wide flowing legs, then cinch up again at the ankle. I've wanted some for a while but haven't had the money, so when I finally found a pair I liked in a South American shop on Rue Colbert, I bought them on the spot. It was getting pretty warm in town that day, and the pants were much breezier than my leggings and winter dress, so I decided to wear them out of the store. I instantly felt so much cooler and more confident, and it must have shown because I had barely gone five steps down the road before I got cat called by some guys smoking outside a café: "Qu'est-ce que c'est belle, aujourd'hui? Qu'est-ce que c'est ravissante?" That sort of made my day, and I went on to the cathedral with a smile on my face. I think the guy got the wrong idea from my grin, though; as I walked away he called out playfully "Il ne faut pas rire comme ça!" Sorry guy, I'm not the type of girl to respond to a pick up line from stranger. Thanks for the ego boost, though.

I found the cathedral again with very little trouble. It was definitely impressive, with a beautiful exterior and enormous stained glass windows. I poked around the cloisters as well, whose function I felt better acquainted with after having read Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett. Not exactly great literature, but I definitely know my cathedral terminology now. After imagining my possible past life as a nun, I went back to the hostel to check in. I was given a room all to myself, which was a delightfully novel experience. There were two beds in the room, but when I booked online I'd noticed that on my reservation it said "chambre individuelle." So, I paid what would be the average hostel price for a 6-10 bed room and instead got a private hotel room. I even had a sink! Talk about luxury.

The next day, I got up bright and early for my 9:30 tour departure. I shared the mini-bus with the guide, David, two couples (one Japanese, the other I'm not sure... Korean, maybe?) and a nice lady named Hiroko. She was probably in her mid-50s and traveling alone. She said she'd been to France several times, and wanted to improve her French. We ended up hanging out together for most of the tour and she was nice enough to take pictures of me pretending to be a princess.

Azay-le-Rideau was first, and I had fun peeking out the big windows and imagining I lived there. I would probably change the furnishings if I *did* live there, but all the same it had the best interior, in my opinion. It has long chains of rooms leading one into the other, small passageways, spiral staircases, huge windows, lovely views, and plenty of living space. It would definitely be my choice if someone decided to give me a Château. Since we were the first visitors of the day, and still in the low season, I was alone in many of the rooms and could easily imagine I was the sole visitor (or prospective buyer) in an empty castle.

We then went to Villandry, which is known for having the second-best gardens in France, after Versailles (which, btw, I will be visiting next Thursday). Unfortunately, it was too early int he season to have many flowers, but the hedges were still green and trimmed. I didn't like the interior of Villandry nearly as much as Azay-le-Rideau, but the views of the gardens were rather impressive.

We went back to Tours for lunch, then it was on to the afternoon section. First up was Chenonceau, which is the most famous. It's the one that spans the entire river, and is known as the Lady's Château because the most famous residents have been royal women. Chenonceau was quite fairy-tale like as well, complete with pretty princess well in front (see photos) and lovely round towers.

Next was Clos Lucé, near Amboise. Clos Lucé is where Leonardo DaVinci spent the last three years of his life and eventually died. It is near the château/town of Amboise, where François I lived while DaVinci was at Clos Lucé. The house is okay, but the real fun at Clos Lucé was the huge park, in which one could find (and often play with!) models of several of DaVinci's inventions.

Amboise was last. I didn't think the interior was all that interesting, but the view from the top was definitely breathtaking. I could see the whole town below, and the river was shimmering with the sharp white light of the late afternoon sun. After taking my fill of feeling on top of the world, I walked around the gardens a bit with Hiroko, then went down to the chapel where Leonardo DaVinci is interred. After walking through Clos Lucé, which is bedecked with glass panes bearing DaVinci quotes, I really want to read more about him. I've always found him fascinating, but his little proverbs and witticisms fascinate me even more than his inventions.

Our last stop was at a "cave" or winery. It was built right into the natural rock of the region, in the side of a hill. We went down into the storage cave for a few moments, then had a tasting. It was white wine and mostly very sweet, so I liked it a lot. All in all, I think it was a pretty perfect day. I'm glad I went during the low season, even if it means that the gardens weren't in bloom. I think crowds of other tourists would have made it difficult to enjoy the anachronistic beauty that is the real charm of the Châteaux. I never forgot that I was in the 21st century, but there were a few quite moments where I really felt like royalty.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quand vas-tu à Caen?

On Monday, I went on a school bus trip to Caen and the American Cemetery in Normandy. It was a class of seniors that I already know, and a group of sophomores who I didn't. I hadn't really spoken to the accompanying teachers much before the trip either, so it was a fun. They weren't English teachers, so I had to speak French with them, which was good. However, I did not speak French all day (bad Natalie) because one of the seniors is actually an English girl who has lived in France for several years.

Anyway, it was about a 3 hour ride to Caen. On the way we crossed the Normandy Bridge, which was incredibly huge. I hadn't heard of it but I was quite awed to see it. where we visited the Memorial museum. Most of it was on WWII, but there was also a whole huge wing on the Cold War that was interesting. They also had a special exhibition of Reza photos, which were amazing. I am a big fan of him and his work now. He photographs mostly conflict and dire humanitarian situations, but there is always so much beauty in his photos. Even though most of them capture the pain of his subjects, the colors and light are so beautiful that it feels like you're seeing the beauty of the subject's humanity even as he shows you the desperation of their circumstances. Really, you should just look up his photos and see for yourself. I really want his book now.

We spent most of the day at the museum, but in the afternoon we went to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. It is run by the US Government, which I discerned from the English-first signs and the welcome center complete with insanely tight security and photo of President Obama above the front desk. My grandma had told me that a cousin of my grandfather might be interred there, so I used the computer in the welcome center to look up his name. I found him, and the computer told me where to find his grave. He was all the way at the far side of the cemetery, but I found it easily enough. The cemetery was divided into sections, which each in turn had numbered rows and tombstones. In fact, the entire place struck me as very starkly American, after having toured European sites for the past several months. The aesthetic was just like pictures I'd seen of Washington DC; clean, geometric, classical, masculine, somewhat minimalist, highly symbolic, and with more than a touch of industrial pragmatism. Everything was completely immaculate. The white tombstones were clean and sparkling. The grass was cut perfectly around each one and a bright, healthy green. The landscaping was flawless. There was not a paving stone nor blade of grass out of place.

I found my grandfather's cousin, Richard D. Ingalsbe, in Section J, Row 17, Grave 11, just like the computer had said. I don't know for sure, but I may have been the first one from our family to ever visit him. I felt bad that I didn't have a flower to leave. I had hoped to be able to buy one somewhere before we came, but I didn't get the chance. I settled on saying a prayer for him. It felt strange, knowing that I may have been the first one from his family to ever visit his grave, and I never knew him. He died 41 years before I was born. I don't know anything at all about him. I'm sure he was mourned when he died, but did anyone ever leave him flowers? Is there anyone now to remember him? I did my best to honor him, but felt inadequate. How can you miss someone you never knew, and don't know anything about?

Here is what I know; the inscription on his tombstone:

Richard D. Ingalsbe
Pvt 119 Inf 30 Div
Missouri July 25 1944

So I know he was a private. I know his Infantry regiment and division. I know that he did not die on D-Day, but nearly two months later, probably during the fighting to push the Nazis inland and eventually out of France. Maybe he died in combat, or maybe from sickness or infection. The computer said he was awarded the Purple Heart, so perhaps he was injured in combat and died a while later. I don't even know how old he was, but he was probably very young; most likely my age, or younger. I wondered what it would be like to be in his place, and if I would have died willingly to liberate others; to liberate another country. I stood on his grave, in a free country, and thought about if his life was worth it. That's not to say I don't think some things are worth dying for, but it seemed wrong to be glad he died so that we could live in a better world. I didn't want to stand there and celebrate his death because it means I live in a safe and free western hemisphere, where I can go live in a foreign country and learn its language and meet its people and eat its waffles without fear. I guess I'm just trying to say I felt guilty to be reaping the benefits of his way too early and probably painful death.

So like I said, I did my best to honor him but I still feel inadequate. I'm just glad that the cemetery is so well kept, well respected, and well-attended. There were plenty of visitors that day, and it's not even high tourist season. I'm glad to know that the soldiers we owe our lives and our lifestyle to are respected and remembered. I hope someone else from my family gets the chance to visit the cemetery; he deserves to be remembered by the descendants he never knew.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Another London Story

There is much more to tell about my recent trip to London, and since too much information can be overwhelming to write or read in a blog post, I like to break it up a bit.

Here is Wednesday, March 4.

I was sitting in the computer room around noon, trying to decide what to do with my day, when some girls came in and invited me to go along with them. They were two American girls and an Australian named Ashlie. We were all thirsty, so we stopped at a convenience store where the girls bought some water and juice. To my delight, I found my old friend from Regent's College, the perfect breakfast in a box. I call it German Slim Fast, because it's sort of like a chocolate health shake but the label is in German. It's basically chocolate milk with vitamins in it, but I used to love it when I was at Regent's and had one every morning. I hadn't eaten anything yet, so of course I had to buy one and consider it a meal. Thus the events of the rest of the day (and night) were set into motion.

We then went on to Tottenham Court Road station, where the American girls split off and Ashlie and I took the tube to London Bridge to meet a friend of hers. After the rendez-vous, we decided to walk along the south bank from Tower Bridge to Westminster. That's where almost all the pictures in the recent London album came from. It was a nice day with a clear blue sky, and it wasn't even that cold considering we were walking right along the water most of the time. It was a nice walk, and took us about an hour and a half, but there was plenty to see. We talked about travel and (surprise) boys most of the time. I found a copy of The Blind Assassin at one of the bankside book sales, and Ashlie found some ice cream. I had a few bites of it, but in fact that was the only thing I'd eaten so far that day besides my German Slim Fast. We ducked into the Tate Modern briefly so I could buy a birthday present for Seth. We didn't go through the museum, but on the way to the bookshop we saw the installation in Turbine Hall. I really loved it because it was basically rows of empty metal bunk beds, with a single book on each bed. Finally, a piece of modern art I could connect to. My whole trip to London could probably be summed up in bunk beds and paperback novels.

After Ashlie was briefly accosted by a strangely charming young man handing out fliers in ghoulish makeup, we crossed Westminster Bridge and ducked into a Tesco. I bought some cheese and potato chips, and more Cadbury of course. This reflects remarkably poor nutritional judgment on my part, but it was nearing 3:00 and I didn't want to "fill up" before dinner, as I had planned to have sushi with Daniel at around 6:00. Why I was concerned about filling up when I'd basically had nothing but empty sugar calories all day, I have no idea. We'll consider this Mistake #1.

As I'd planned to meet Daniel back at the hostel around 3:00, Ashlie and I took the tube home. Between Holborn Tube and the hostel we actually stopped into a Sainsbury's as well, because Ashlie was looking for something else, and yet I still didn't buy anything but a bottle of Pomegranate Blueberry juice. It would serve its purpose later, but I'm still not sure why I didn't get anything else to eat. To feel better about myself, I'm going to call it fate. When we got back to the hostel I went straight down to the kitchen to eat my (pathetic) snack. Daniel was already down there, and so was a new guy named Owen. He said he was from Canada but his accent was quite a bit thicker and sounded mostly Scottish. He said he'd lived a few places, including Scotland, so I suppose that explains it. Anyway, he talked. A lot. And then he talked some more. In fact, he couldn't talk enough. He was pretty much annoying the heck out of me, despite the fact that he gave me a clementine, so I was glad that Daniel and I would soon be obliged to leave, a we had made plans to go to a museum. I poured us some of the Pomegranate Blueberry juice and listened to Owen talk some more. Ashlie came in and informed us that it was hailing, but it must have been brief because by the time we left there was no sign whatsoever of icy doom. Daniel said something in Japanese. I cocked my head to the side. Owen kept talking.

Daniel and I finally got out of the kitchen and headed towards the museum, as it was going to close at 5. I had offered to take him to the Wallace Collection, because it's not very well known and a little hard to find. We took the bus, which he hadn't done before, and I extolled the virtues of my beloved London Double-Decker. I love to take the bus in London. I like it much more than the tube, though this is probably because I'm almost never pressed for time in London. Still, I love seeing the city go by from what feels like a privileged platform, a level above the rest of the traffic, as am chauffeured through the streets, obliged to do nothing but relax and watch. I know this perception of luxury is absurd, but who cares? If I can feel like a queen on an airship for £1, I'll just consider myself lucky and enjoy it.

We made it to the Wallace Collection in time to see the special exhibit (Jewish artifacts, mostly jewelry, from the black plague era) and several of the upstairs rooms, including the long gallery. I had promised him Rococo, and there it was, in all its sentimental glory. There were pieces from other periods as well, though, and we both remarked on this painting. The museum closed before we saw everything, and we were back on the street. Nuts had told us about a sushi place near Carnaby Street, and we found it soon enough. I felt like it was a little too early to eat, so we walked around the Carnaby Street area a little while, arguing about High Fidelity.

When we finally sat down to dinner, I wasn't nearly as hungry as I thought I'd be (considering how little I'd eaten) and only managed to destroy five round little dishes off the conveyor belt. And one of those was fruit (Mistake #2). The sushi was okay, not as good as Matsuri by any stretch of the imagination, but it was also probably 10 times cheaper, so I was alright with it. The place had a decent ambiance and I soon found myself mesmerized by the fish tank on the other side of the room. I soon realized that while hunger hadn't caught up with me, fatigue definitely had, and I was starting to doubt my ability to get out of my chair. This was a problem, because I had already made plans with American Ashley and some other people from the hostel to go out to a martini bar that night, on my eternal quest for a chocolate martini. Daniel was planning to go as well, but we were both feeling completely beat and it was only about 7:30. He had the bright idea that we should get some coffee on the way back to the hostel, to perk us up. Mistake #3.

Back at the hostel, I was soon feeling the effects of my *tall* Costa mocha. I had some pretty severe caffeine poisoning setting in. My eyes were flicking around, my arms felt like they were going to vibrate out of my skin, and my heart was like a burning engine pushing me forward faster faster faster. I don't know if they gave me double or just decided to replace the coffee with speed, but either way I was on an insane high and I was not having a lot of fun with it. I decided that since caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant, I should just drink to get rid of my caffeine high. You know, like the reverse of drinking coffee to sober up. Yeah. Mistake #4.

I got gussied up in my caffeine-altered state and we set out for the bar. In our happy company were Steve, Daniel, Ashley, myself, Marty, and Owen. Yes, Owen went with us. I was slightly annoyed once again, but didn't really care that much as he seemed mostly to be chewing on Ashley's ear at this point. The bar was right in Covent Garden square, which was cool, and we got checked for weapons before entering, which was slightly odd. My quest was achieved, and I tasted the sweet victory of a chocolate martini once again. Of course, in my caffeine jitters I also spilled about a third of it in my lap, but as I was wearing black no damage was done. I think that dress still smells like chocolate. We had found a great place to sit and were having a marvelous time with our raised-voices conversation when someone noticed that bottles of wine were half-price before 11:30. Mistake #5.

Ashley and I split the cost of a bottle of white wine for the group, and after that things started getting more and more glowy. My glass kept magically refilling (thanks Ashley) and I kept magically drinking, trying to drown my caffeine high. At some point much later, I realized that a second bottle of wine had entered play. I'm really not a lightweight, but there were some pretty amazing pyrotechnics going on in my metabolic system that night. The lack of substantive food, coupled with extreme tiredness, sped up with caffeine and doused in alcohol made for a rather singular experience. We were having a lot of fun. All of a sudden, I liked Owen. He was no longer annoying at all, but instead, a really great guy. Too soon, they turned the lights on and kicked us out. We tried to congregate in the square outside the bar, but somewhere between my attempt to collect Ashley and us actually leaving the square, Owen disappeared. As I said to Laura, he just effing left. This was fine as I knew exactly where I was and how to get back to the hostel. I'm still rather proud of how well I held that alcohol, considering the extenuating circumstances. I could still walk and talk with perfect competency, though that didn't stop me from linking arms with Ashley all the way home. I pretended it was mostly for her benefit, but honestly I was rather afraid of stepping in front of a bus. Daniel was walking backwards in front of us the whole time, which was also rather impressive.

We regained the hostel and made our way to the kitchen, only to find Owen already there. I don't think he realized he'd left us. We sat down there for a while, putting on a show for Dale through the security camera, I'm sure. I gave Ashley the last dribblings of my vodka in some more of that lovely juice, then she and Owen left again, for what would prove to be a very long walk. Daniel and I drank some water (though not enough, apparently), then went to bed. I like to think that by the time I went to bed I was mostly sober, but I was definitely feeling the effects of my night out the next day. I'm not sure if it was a hangover or not, but it wasn't fun. I had to get up before ten so I could check out, and every little thing was a battle. I folded about four shirts and had I sit down again. I took my film to be developed and was unreasonably annoyed by a lady in front of my trying to return an appliance at the photo counter. I had lunch with Daniel at an Italian place and could hardly eat anything. When we got back to the hostel, Owen and Ashley were watching Monty Python. I wanted to collapse on the couch with them but I had to catch my train back to Paris. I sadly said my goodbyes and went to St. Pancras, wishing I could stay there forever. Hangover aside, it was definitely one of the best times I'd ever had in London.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Oh London, You Fickle Lover

I am back in France after an eventful 10 days in London. Since I was already familiar with the city and its sights, I decided to take it easy and just enjoy living there for a little while. This attitude definitely served me well, and I can easily say that the best part of my trip was meeting people at the hostel and feeling like part of a community again.

I stayed in a hostel across the street from the British Museum, so it was a perfect location. I mostly walked around and took in the city. I scoured Oxfam bookshops for Booker Prize winners. I ate "Mexican" food in Camden Lock. I wandered aimlessly through the British Museum. I looked at hats in the V&A. I discovered Neal's Yard near Covent Garden. I went on two walking tours. I got a rare look into Middle Temple. I saw Slumdog Millionaire. I had all my electronics stolen. I went to church. I bought a wall hanging. I handed out Cadbury Mini Eggs. I introduced two French girls to the wonder that is the Cadbury Creme Egg. I had no idea what time it was. I didn't care. I ate sushi. I waltzed in a kitchen. I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time. I got really and truly drunk for the first time. There were lots of firsts.

I met lots of people. The staff at the hostel were mostly from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia and they were all really nice. I had great conversations and good times with several of them. There were also lots of French people staying in the hostel over the weekend because the schools in the north were on vacation, so I conversed with several of them as well. It was the first time I had ever felt really comfortable and at home at a hostel, and it was completely unexpected. I spent most of my evenings in, just watching movies with the staff and other guests.

A remarkable day:

Sunday. The night before, I had all my electronics stolen out of my bag. I was rather upset about it, and the next morning I felt a strong compulsion to go to church. I remembered that there was a Methodist church I used to pass in Marylebone when I lived in Regent's Park, so I decided I'd try to find it. One of hostel staff, a very kind South African guy who I'd been spending time with, said he was Methodist too and decided to come with me. I warned him that it might be a bit of a hike because I couldn't remember exactly which street the church was on, but I got lucky and found it on my first guess. I wrote down the service time and we decided to come back that evening. Then we went to Primark, which I had always avoided and will continue to avoid... it was a total madhouse. It worked out well for him though, because in addition to getting the clothes he needed he also made a connection with some countrymen, who invited him to go to the South African embassy. After eating near Hyde Park Corner, we sought it out at Trafalgar Square. It was right next to St. Martin In the Fields, and as we passed we heard the choir rehearsing. We went in to listen and I felt immediately soothed. It was by far the best choir I'd ever heard, and the grandeur (and acoustics) of the church only served to augment the heavenly sound. We then headed back to the hostel, but took a detour through Russell Square and watched a little girl ride her bike through the fountain. The warm air and eternally green English grass made the square feel like an ephemeral vernal haven; a wedge of Spring locked within the quadrangle. The focused rays of the setting sun gleamed off the face of the Russell Hotel, and time stopped. The square was its own small piece of perfection, and we were ensconced there eternally, in those last few moments of the late afternoon.

After resting at the hostel, we went to church, where we each received a nail meant to represent our burdens. He left his in the church. I held tightly to mine, like I always do. We went across town briefly, then back to the hostel again. I was so happy to have spent the day with him, to feel connected to someone again. The isolation of Berck wears down to my bones, and I don't even realize how raw I am until the gates are opened and the balm of human conversation comes flowing in again.

There are many, many more London stories, but you'll have to ask me personally to hear them. What I can give you is a list of my haul:

Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter (in which she uses the word antediluvian! see previous post... it's quite a delightful coincidence to come across such a remarkable word twice in one week.)
The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (Booker Prize 2001)
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (Booker Prize 1981 and "Booker of Bookers")
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Booker Prize 2000)
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Also, a blue wall hanging from Camden Town and LOTS of Cadbury easter treats.