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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Labyrinth of Hidden Treasures

Thursday, April 30

We left Marseille around noon and arrived in Montpellier in the early afternoon. As usual, we didn't do a whole lot of planning beforehand, and intended to find the hostel by relying on our usual method of picking up a free map and navigating ourselves there on foot. Any time I go somewhere unfamiliar, I always allow for a certain amount of time to be lost and wander around. I like to call it the “confusion factor,” and depending on the place it can be large or small. The confusion factor is usual the main variable in determining how long it will take to find the hostel in whichever city I'm visiting that day. There are other vectors and variables in the equation, of course. A good example of a vector would be the distance between the train station and the hostel; a variable would be public transportation and its efficiency. Thus, the Estimated Time of Arrival to Hostel (ETAH) equation looks something like this:

In which:

Ts = Stated arrival time of train
T = Actual arrival time of train
L = lateness of train (in minutes)
Pd = Distance South of Paris (in km)
Hd = Distance of Hostel from Train Station (in meters)
W = Minimum time to walk distance between station and hostel (in minutes)
F = Confusion Factor

T= (Ts+ L)
L= (Pd x .07)
W= (Hd ÷ 117)

Therefore, where Ts, Pd, and Hd are known vectors:

Ts + (Pd x .07) + (Hd ÷ 117) + F = ETAH

Simple algebra will come close to giving you a solution; however, the “F” variable is never known in advance, so estimation must be used. Collapsed, the formula takes this basic form:

ETAH = W + T + F

For this reason, I sometimes call the Confusion Factor, and the resulting formula, the WTF Factor.

Anyway, the WTF factor was unusually high when we arrived in Montpellier, which resulted in us wandering around for a long time nowhere near our hostel. This (as the formula will indicate) resulted in an ETAH that far surpassed expectations. By the time we got to the hostel we were hot, tired, and a little frustrated, so we were happy to just chill out there for a while. When we ventured out again some time later, we went straight to the Place de la Comédie and hit the tourist office. We ended up scoring a free restaurant guide and a map (which actually would have come in handy about 3 hours earlier). We sat down in one of the outdoor cafés in the square and had drinks while we waited for it to be late enough to conceivably get into a restaurant for dinner. We were still in the south, which meant that most places wouldn't even consider serving you food before 8:00 pm, and they still looked at you a little funny if you tried to order something before 9:00.
Our hostel was situated in the old quarter of the city, within the old fortress walls. We would end up spending almost all of our time within this quarter, as it was the most charming part of Montpellier and very nearly empty of cars (though there will always be someone who tries). For dinner we decided on an Italian place near our hostel, called Via Pila, which the restaurant guide had recommended. I had decided before we got there that I wanted to splurge on a good meal that night, and I'm really glad I did because it was one of the best meals I've ever had in my life. It was my answer to Daniel's experience with the Confit de Canard in Avignon. We started with a buffalo mozzarella salad, which was basically a large mozzarella ball surrounded by spring mix greens and served with basalmic vinegar, olive oil out of a can, and fresh bread. I tried not to fill up on the appetizer but it was hard to stop eating. For the main course I had Pâtes à la Crème de Truffe, or Pasta with Truffle Cream Sauce.

Can I describe for you the delectable scrumptiousness of this meal? I'm not sure I can. The taste of truffle oil is difficult to convey. Never have I encountered anything so unique; the singular taste of truffle oil is powerful yet subtle. That is to say, it's not obvious and flashy the way the taste of a tomato or onion is. When the flavor of the truffle first graces your tongue, you are not even sure of what you're tasting, or indeed if you're tasting anything. It seems almost neutral at first, like a smudge of room-temperature butter. Then the layers of the truffle's essence begin to unfold, slowly, until its ambrosial waves are filling your mouth, your mind and your soul. Its flavor is so comforting that it is at once enveloping and unobtrusive. The only thing I can equate it with is the sensation of eating a really delicious chocolate dessert, like a flourless chocolate cake. It's not just a flavor, it's a spiritual experience. Truffle oil is like really amazing chocolate, only it's savory rather than sweet.

I ate my pasta slowly, trying not to weep with pleasure, while Daniel dug in to a veal steak with mushroom pasta, which he also found quite delicious. We shared a bottle of 6ème Sens (6th Sense), which was a Vin d'Oc Rouge. We ordered it because it was the house red, but it was completely perfect for both the meal and the evening. It was smooth and a bit bright, not too heavy, and I swear to you it tasted like happiness. Even the name was perfect for the evening; the whole meal was all about the senses. Even though I couldn't finish my pasta, delectable though it was, I felt the need to order dessert. I just didn't think the meal would be complete without it. It had to be chocolate, of course (what's the point, otherwise?) so I ordered the nutella mousse with vanilla ice cream and chantilly (whipped cream). It was sort of like a reverse hot fudge sundae. The mousse, which had quite a strong chocolate and hazelnut flavor, was on the bottom, while the ice cream and chantilly were on the top. I think it was a bit too sweet for Daniel, and I was so full that I couldn't manage to finish it on my own. Still, it was well worth ordering because I don't feel right unless I have a taste of something sweet at the end.

We floated back to the hostel, which was fortunately quite close. I was a bit giddy from the wine and sugar as well as the thrill of having experienced such an incredible dish. Daniel, however, passed out almost immediately. I wanted to stay up a bit longer, but soon found that I was not as alert as I thought I was; I was out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.


We started out with a coffee and pastry in one of the nearby squares. The weather was perfect and the trees were blooming all around. It was a beautiful day, and Montpellier had already charmed its way into my heart. We covered almost all of the old quarter that day, and saw most of the sights to be seen. There were a few old churches, but then there are always a few old churches. There were some lovely parks, but then there are always lovely parks. There was even an Arc de Triomphe, but as we were quickly discovering, there is almost always an Arc de Triomphe as well. Aside from the aqueducts and neo-greek Antigone complex (which I found devoid of charm), there really wasn't any specific “sight” that is unique to Montpellier. What I loved about the town was simple its atmosphere; the winding streets, the Space Invaders on the walls, the droves of students, the tiny hippie shops, the shady squares, and the trompe l'œil wall paintings. On our way back to the hostel, we passed a street band playing gypsy jazz. I absolutely adore that style, and I had to stop and listen to them for at least a few songs. They were a five-piece comprised of a drummer, guitarist, acoustic bassist, violinist, and accordion player. They had a really jumpy classic style, and the front man was great at engaging with the crowd. Everything about them, much like Montpellier, was just so delightfully French. I stayed to listen as long as I reasonably could without boring Daniel to death, and dropped some coins in for them when I left.

Montpellier just had a style I really enjoyed. The whole old quarter was bedecked in garlands of charm, all narrow winding streets opening into hidden squares. Other sections had a more majestic feeling to them, such as the very French, yet slightly whimsical architecture of the Place de la Comédie. Of all the places in France I've visited, I think I would have liked most to be placed as an assistant in Montpellier. I could easily imagine myself living there, strolling through the alleyways on my way to a shady spot to read or write. I could also picture myself running through passages, darting down a well-learnt route through the labyrinth of narrow old streets when I was late to work. It was easy for me to imagine what my year in France would have been like, had I only been placed in a town like Montpellier, full of students and full of life.

However, now is not the time for regrets. Berck has charms of its own, grey and derelict though they may be, and the isolation I endured there leant a certain dreary poetry to my experience.

We ate that night in a Japanese restaurant, which didn't come remotely close to the epicurean revelry of Via Pila. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. Daniel was a bit bothered by the fact that none of the staff were actually Japanese (though I didn't really expect they would be), and that they seemed to take a more French approach to the pace of the meal and divided his order into courses when it should have been served all together. His annoyance made me ill at ease (for no reason, of course, but my neuroses must have something to do or they get bored), so I was feeling a bit odd myself and was glad when we headed back to the hostel.

Unfortunately, my nerves were not going to get better before they got worse. When we got home I decided to take a shower while he caught up on blogs and emails. It was not the soothing ritual I was hoping for; on the contrary, it ended up being a very strange and frightening experience. The shower cubicles were a little elevated and had swinging doors on them with about 3 inches of space between the bottom of the door and the elevated floor of the cubical. The swinging door opened into the half of the cubical that was meant to be a dry sort of changing area, then to the left was the actual (typical 2x2ft) shower. I was minding my own business, washing my hair, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something strange. I looked down and saw tan fingertips and a nose poking underneath the door. My first instinct was that someone was trying to figure out if the cubical were occupied or not (I realized a little later that this idea was completely stupid). Panicked, I said “occupied,” in English instead of French. The fingertips and nose went away, but I could hear someone moving around in the bathroom, using the sink and such. My mind started racing and I quickly realized that it was no simple mistake. First of all, it's not hard to figure out if a cubical is occupied or not; the door was locked and it's a freaking shower, you can hear it. Secondly, it was a women's bathroom and the fingertips I saw were definitely male. The simple idea that someone was trying to peep at me was more annoying than anything else, but as it was the situation was a bit scary. The bathroom was otherwise empty, and I considered the idea that the guy could be more than just a creep. I decided that if he tried to force the door open I'd just start screaming, as sound carried really well in that hostel. Perhaps illogically, more than anything else I was afraid that I'd be so terrified that my voice would desert me and I'd be unable to scream. My heart pounded and I froze as I waited to see what would happen next.

I couldn't hear anything else after a few moments, and he seemed to have gone, but I was still rattled enough that I didn't bother conditioning my hair; I just wanted to get out of there and back to the room with Daniel as quickly as possible. I dried off hurriedly and wriggled back into my pajamas. In the hall, I ran into the guy from the reception desk and he said hello to me as he passed. I glanced at his fingernails. It definitely wasn't him, of course, and in fact I probably should have said something to him about the creep in the bathroom, but at that point I didn't trust anyone. Furthermore, I was too panicked to have explained the situation in French. I walked quickly through the halls and didn't feel safe until I was back in the room. I told Daniel what happened and hugged my knees for a while. I was frightened and angry at the same time, but the fear I felt just made me angrier. Not that my experience was any major incident compared to what many other women endure, but I think that the worst part of any sexual crime is the feeling of victimization that comes with it. I was so angry that the creep had made me fear him, that he had made me feel sexually victimized. It wasn't the peeping itself that was jarring, but the sudden awareness of myself as a vulnerable object. The way I shrunk from the receptionist in the hallway just compounded that feeling. Suddenly I was viewing every unknown man as a potential aggressor. Fortunately, the feeling only lasted a few minutes, and I let it pass. Daniel made me feel better and I was able to let it pass.


We checked out of the hostel and had a coffee and pastry at the same place as the day before, then headed to the train station to buy tickets to Carcassonne. We had left our bags in lockers in the hostel, as we didn't want to be weighed down while we walked around town. Our train was in the early afternoon, so I wanted to walk around in search of more trompe l'œil. We walked for a bit, then went back to the hostel to collect our bags. Daniel intended to do some typing while I walked around some shops. However, when we got back to the hostel we were unkindly met by a big iron gate shut over the front entryway. It turned out that the entire hostel, not just the rooms, was completely shut in the middle of the day. We were locked out, and according to the sign, we were still going to be locked out when our train was supposed to leave. We decided the only thing to do was wait on the steps and see if some member of the staff happened by. I knew that someone was in there because they were cleaning the rooms, so I figured it was only a matter of time. Daniel was a little less sure, and we were both worried that we'd end up missing our train and losing the money we spent on our non-refundable tickets. Luck was with us, however, and we didn't have to wait long before some of the staff came out with the trash. They graciously let us in to retrieve our bags and we were on our way. We went to the park near the train station to eat a bit of lunch before hopping the train to Carcassonne.

As mixed as my experience in Montpellier was, I still can only think of it fondly. I loved it despite the lockout and the peeping tom; fortunately the town itself was great enough to make up for the headaches of the hostel. I really want to go back again, eat a sensuous meal, and float through the alleys on a gypsy jazz melody.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Steep Paths and Artificial Passages, or, Monaco Can Suck My Toe

Wednesday, April 29

While staying in Marseille, we decided to take a day trip over to Nice and Monaco. We took an early train to Nice, which was about two hours away. Our plans for the day were still a bit fuzzy; Daniel really wanted to go to Monaco (and I really wanted to get credit for visiting another country), but we weren't sure what route to choose. It was only a few kilometers from Nice, so we considered taking a bus or even walking (which we might have done had we been sure of a an established path) but in the end the train won out as the most convenient (or so we thought.... but I'll get to that).

We arrived in Nice in the late morning and walked around the old city center for a bit, then wandered down to the beach. The water was even more blue than in Marseille, and the waves rolled onto the rocky beach in a rather languid fashion, as if they couldn't be hurried. I don't think anything on the Riviera is hurried (especially the trains). It was sunny and beautiful, and I enjoyed just walking around in the lovely weather while he filmed things. We made no attempt to educate ourselves, and instead chose to simply walk around looking for pretty things.

As is our custom, we soon located the highest point, which in this case was the "Colline du Château" or "Castle Hill." The climb began with an uphill hike through the streets as we made our way east to the hill, then stairs, then winding uphill paths which got greener and greener. Before we'd gone up too far, we came upon a Jewish Cemetery. As this would have been an educational opportunity, we were a bit reluctant to go in. The wind was really strong, and the open space of the cemetery left us even more exposed to the gusts. As we stood just inside the gate, trying to decide whether to explore the place, a twisted piece of metal, about 8 inches long, suddenly smacked me in the ankle. It startled me but didn't really hurt much. Nevertheless, I decided that the spirits here REALLY didn't like us and wanted us out. For this, I would be called an anti-semite for the rest of the trip.

A little farther up, we found a man-made waterfall. It would have been a nice place to stand for a moment and look out over the beach, under normal circumstances, but the wind was so strong that no matter where we stood we found ourselves sprayed with water droplets. The climb (as well as the perilous escape from angry ghosts) had left me a little over-warm, so I was glad for the refreshment. I think Daniel was a little less pleased, because he ran away much more quickly.

We eventually made it to the top and took our obligatory Stunning-View Photos," all the while being abused by a flock of overzealous zephyrs. The poor souvenir vendors on the summit were having quite a time with their postcards and tchotchkes. We enjoyed the views a bit longer, then backed down from the summit. On the eastern side of the hill, sheltered to the west by the summit, things were a good deal calmer and we explored several other lookout points and alcoves. When hunger had finally got the best of us, we descended back into the town and bought a couple of less-than-impressive sandwiches. We were trying to be frugal that day, and it wasn't really paying off. At least we had free entertainment, because on the other side of the square there was an outdoor stage with a garage band. They were mostly incompetent, but they *did* play a rather interesting cover of "Paper Planes," which made me dance, so I liked them okay.

We made our way to the train station, where trains ran to Monaco every half-hour, unaware of the headache that awaited us. We waited on the platform for our train to arrive, only to have our platform changed just before it was supposed to arrive. Then it was late. Then they told us that there was a problem with the train, so we should switch to another train on a different platform. Then they told us there was a delay with *that* train, so we should get on the (scheduled) *next* train, which would actually be departing before the last train... all in all I think we sat down on three different trains (going up and down stairs to switch platforms in between, of course) before we finally found one that would actually transport us to Monaco. Daniel was a bit miffed, but as usual I didn't care that much, as I usually expect things to go wrong, and am even mildly surprised when they don't. Anyway, it's the South, so I don't know what he expected (poor boy wasn't used to continental Europe yet).

The train ride itself *almost* made up for the delay, because the tracks went right along the coast, and we got to see a lot of the Riviera from our window. I think the ride was less than a half hour, and we were soon deposited in a sleek tube of a train station. We wandered through a marble labyrinth for a while, and I think that was where my bad attitude started. I could feel myself starting to bristle at the idea of a country where the train station looked like the bowels of a resort hotel. We finally found the light of day, at the top of an elevator, no less, and promptly found ourselves disoriented. We had no map, and no idea of where the train station was in relation to the rest of Monaco, and furthermore very little idea of where *we* now were in relation to the train station, after our over-polished wanderings and the elevator ride to reality.

We wandered, uphill. We found a sort of map at a bus station. We wandered some more. The chief difficulty of Monaco is that it is basically built vertically; this means that maps are a bit hard to read, and the territory is even harder to navigate, both mentally and physically. We decided that going downhill was probably a safe bet, since that should, logically, take us to the ocean. Going downhill was not as easy as it sounds, as we kept having to go through layers of buildings whose affiliations were unclear. Private property? Public pathways? The uncertainty made me uncomfortable, and I kept looking over my shoulder, waiting for a shouting man in a white uniform to appear and chase us off with a broom.

I had this feeling almost the entire time I was in Monaco, and slithered around sheepishly in my worn-out chucks and urban-grunge-chic saruel (harem pants, which btw Daniel hated). I have a natural disdain for the grotesquely wealthy, and the idea of being looked down upon by people upon whom *I* look down galls me enough to fear a confrontation with their rejection. I loathe places that create an exclusivity based on wealth; the very idea turns my stomach. I suppose I can't hate them entirely, because at least they keep the rich locked away from the rest of us, so we don't have to suffer them ourselves. Monaco has long been one of their strongholds, however, so the whole place was littered with evidence of them. I couldn't get a decent shot of the bay that wasn't besmirched by row after row of blindingly white yachts. Oh well. At least I got to check another country off my list.

It was while we were on a jetty of sorts at the port that Monaco's fate was sealed in terms of my opinion. We were taking photos, and I was sulking about how *industrial* everything looked (concrete everywhere! straight lines and angles!), when a seagull decided to drop its payload on my cardigan. It could have been worse, it was rather small, but still. That was the last straw. With a pout affixed firmly to my lips, balled up my fists and marched, head down, back to land. I went a bit over the top with it all, for comedic purposes, but it really was the last nail in the coffin for any meager love I might have borne Monaco to begin with.

I spent the rest of the day following Daniel up and down hills. There were parts of that place that looked like an M.C. Escher drawing, and it was just about as logical. We wandered up to the Monte Carlo casino and Daniel took a peek inside while I sat petulantly across the street. When he returned, we found another, less-fancy casino next door. I hadn't ever gambled since coming of age, and thought it would be a cheap thrill to drop a coin in one of the slot machines, so we went in and tried to figure out how the darned things worked. We found several machines that said "5¢ play," but to our deep confusion, we could not figure out where to drop the coin in. Daniel finally found a slot and shoved my 5¢ piece in, only to find that it was somehow jammed, and the machine still wasn't working. It took us a few more moments to realize that you had to go to the window and buy credit on a ticket in order to use the machines, and furthermore the slot into which he had unknowingly thrust my hard-earned coin was actually for a credit card. As amusing as this was, I thought we should make a quick getaway before we were arrested for vandalizing a $100,000 slot machine or something. After that I felt a bit more upbeat, knowing that a) I could now say I'd dropped some coin on gambling in Monaco and b) we'd just jammed a credit-card slot machine, which was the closest I was going to come to sticking it to the man.

After some more uphill wandering in the sun, while quoting "My Fair Lady" at length and arguing over the happiness of the ending (me = for, him = against), we found the old quarter, the palace, and anything else otherwise worth seeing in Monaco. We'd finally found the charming part of the country, and arrived in front of the palace just in time to see the changing of the guard. We also found the church where Grace Kelly is buried, and ambled down a few narrow alleys.

We arrived back in Nice with just enough time to eat before our train back to Marseille, so we popped across the street for a bit of Chinese. It was greasy and filling, and kept us full on the long ride back. There was a little boy sitting in front of us trying his best to be as annoying as possible, and we played "I'm going on a pick-nick" until we were cruelly separated by seat reservations. Well tired-out by the stratified microstate, we slept soundly that night.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Taste of Marseille

Monday, April 27

We arrived in Marseille in the late afternoon, and since we'd been unable to print our directions to the hostel beforehand, I popped into the train station bookstore to check out Marseille books and maps. I was hoping that one of them would have a reference to our hostel and show it on a map, and fortunately I found just that. It turned out that the hostel was basically right across the street from the train station, which was really lucky, but unfortunately there were *lots* of little streets all around the station, and we spent several minutes wandering around trying to orient ourselves. I was getting frustrated really quickly, because it seemed like it should be so easy to find, and I was getting sick of walking up and down hills with my backpack. Just before I started to breathe fire, we found it. We got checked in and found ourselves in a four-bed room, which we were sharing with two young American girls. The room was nice and had an ensuite bathroom and big windows, so I was pleased.

After throwing our stuff down we went out in search of dinner, and though it was nearing 7:00pm by the time we got down to the Old Port area, I noticed that no one was eating. When I arrived in France I learned to figure out cultural things by a simple process of monkey-see monkey-do, and it has served me well. I've learned to turn to observation first when trying to figure something out. Anyway, even as 7:30 approached, no one sitting around had food on their tables; everyone was just drinking beer and wine. Still, we figured that 7:30 *had* to be late enough to at least be served dinner, even if everyone else thought we were extreme early birds. Turns out that was a negative, and at the first restaurant we tried, we were brusquely told by a server that only drinks were being served at that time. We decided to walk around and try out luck elsewhere, but it was the same story everywhere we looked. Indoor restaurants were completely deserted, places with outdoor seating had a crowd enjoying an "early evening" drink.

I knew that in the south the lifestyle clock would be pushed back even later than in Paris, but I suppose I hadn't expected it would be *that* late. We walked around the entire Port, and finally settled on a place after the sun had mostly gone down. There were a couple of tables eating there and the hostess was really nice, so we figured we might be able to beg some dinner there. I had salmon pasta, which was amazing. I usually hate salmon; I've never had a piece of salmon I liked in the States. In Marseille, however, it was absolutely delicious, tasting mostly of salt and smoke. I had salmon a few times while I was there. We split a carafe of rosé and had a really lovely time. Then it was back to the hostel, to sleep off our tiring travel day.


The next morning (afternoon?) we made our way up to Notre Dame de la Garde, a basilica situated on the highest point overlooking Marseille. Climbing to the summit of the highest thing around was quickly becoming a tradition for us. We picked up sandwiches on the way and carried them to the top (528 feet up, in case anyone's counting). I think it was one of the best sandwiches I've had in all of France, though the breathless climb before it could have influenced me some. It was bacon with chèvre and a bit of sauce and salad. I washed it down, of course, with peach iced tea. After catching our breath and several photos of the port, we explored the basilica. The inside was ornate, the ceiling covered in brilliant tile mosaics and trimmed with plenty of gold. We sat for a while, trying to take in the overwhelming detail. It was quite impressive, but a bit gaudy for my tastes.

We took a different route down the hill (mountain) and wound our way through a park before ending up back at the old port. From there we wandered through the Panier (basket weaving) Quarter, and another old cathedral. We then walked back down to the port, where I looked out over the ocean and danced around in the wind, claiming to be "queen of the sea" or some such while Daniel took pictures of old things.

After rainy Avignon, I was really enjoying the sun, and as always the views of the sea put me in a good mood. Being around water always makes me happy. Even in Berck, where it's almost always cold and grey and gloomy, walking down to the waves cheers me up a bit. When the water is blue, the sky clear, and the sun shining, I'm happy.

Tired out, we decided to complete our last errand, which was to go to the train station and figure out our travel plans for the next day. We decided to go to Nice and possibly Monaco, so we bought tickets for an early train ride to Nice. Hungry, cheap, and lazy Americans that we were, we decided to eat at the McDonald's in the train station. I was well satisfied by my cheeseburger, fries, and dessert, be he was hungry enough afterward to pick up a kebab wrap of some kind and devour it in naught but a few seconds. We went to bed relatively early, so we'd be ready to wake up for our train the next morning.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Avignon, You Can Keep the Song

Saturday, April 25 2009

Daniel and I left Paris for Avignon. Unfortunately, because he was using a rail pass (and, I think because the train was full) he couldn't take the same train I did. Mine left in the afternoon and I arrived without any trouble; all the public transport was running, so I was able to take a couple of buses and found the hotel with no problems. He, however, was not so lucky. The only available trains were at 7:00am (we were smart enough to know that THAT was NOT going to happen) or 7:00pm, so he arrived around 10:00pm in Avignon and had no choice but to take a cab from the TGV station, which is slightly outside town. I suppose it wasn't a total loss though, because he said he had an interesting conversation with the cabbie despite the meager overlap in their language skills.

I had about four hours to kill between when I checked in and when I expected him to arrive, and I was rather hungry as well (this became a theme on the trip... "oh guess what, Natalie's hungry again..."). The hotel was owned by a couple, and I'm pretty sure the lady was Spanish or Italian, because her French was heavily accented with a decidedly latin rhythm. Nevertheless, we could understand each other just fine, each speaking in a foreign language and listening to a foreign accent on top of a foreign language. She told me there was a mall just down the road, not too far, and I could find some food there. It was about 20 minutes away, and along a busy road, but it did allow me to kill a few hours. There was a supermarket, so I bought some snacks and wine to enjoy later in the room, then I went in search of something ready-made to eat. What did I find? Why, another "Quick" of course! For some reason I was starting to turn carnivorous again, and kept having cravings for cheeseburgers. I suppose hauling a heavy bag all over France will do that to you.

I watched some French-dubbed Kyle XY (lame) until he showed up, to my extreme relief. I'd been worried that he'd be stuck outside city limits at the TGV station with no transport, but I suppose I shouldn't have worried. By now I should realize that we're both more than capable of taking care of ourselves. Needless to say, we didn't feel like doing much more than drinking the wine, eating the snacks, watching TV and going to sleep.


We got a late start because it was raining when we woke up and... well, it just seemed like a better idea to stay inside. I think I am still of the opinion that we should have stayed inside the *entire* day, because the rain continued all day long, and honestly I found the sights of Avignon rather disappointing. We walked to the old city centre, which is usually about 20 minutes or so away on foot, but since we stopped every five minutes to huddle under a bridge or awning, it took much longer. By the time we got into the town centre and found a place to sit down and eat lunch, we looked like a couple of drowned rats. It was nice to settle in warmly to a table and relax, though perhaps not for the 3 hours or so (seriously) it took to finish our meal. Speed is not the cornerstone of French service. Daniel was half-convinced that they had forgotten about us altogether, but I figured it was just your typical Sunday afternoon service. Still, when his food finally arrived, it made up for everything. He had Confit de Canard, or roast duck, and he said it ranked up as one of the best meals of his entire life. Though I'm not a fan of unfamiliar meats (or usually any meats), I had a taste of it was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. It really was perfectly done.

After our extended meal, we went to the Palais de Papes, or Pope's Palace, where a few Pope's resided for a while in the middle ages. His beloved audio guide was included in the entry fee, so I got one too. I suppose I should be full of information about the place now, but even though I listened to almost all of the entries, I can't really remember much about it now. Honestly, I found the whole place terribly boring. It was a big old stone palace/fortress, but almost all the furnishings were gone, so it was just a bunch of empty stone rooms. I was still slightly damp and rather chilled, and once again assumed the Child in a Department Store role. The church was prettier, and the gardens at the top of the fortress were much more pleasant. I really enjoyed the views of the river and surrounding area.

After the (lame) palace, we scurried over the the famous Pont (Bridge) d'Avignon before it closed. It was raining again, and at times it started to come down pretty hard, so we hid in one of the chapels build into/under the bridge and watched the rain make patterns on the river.

As I had anticipated, the best part of the day was going back to the hotel room and changing into warm, dry clothes. I love putting on warm, dry clothes after being wet and chilled for a while. It's pretty much worth the being wet and chilled in the first place. We watched L'Auberge Espagnole, one of my favorite movies, which I had brought along. I thought it would be a good thing to watch before we got to Barcelona, as it's set there. He really liked it too, as I anticipated he would. I think anyone who travels and/or studies abroad can relate to it.


We went back to the city centre, then crossed the modern bridge to the other side of the Rhone, where we had nice views of the old fortress and bridge. We ate lunch in the Place d'Horloge (Clock Square) again, then walked around the gardens for a while before it was time to catch our train to Marseille. I was hoping the weather on the south coast would be better, and in fact we were fortunate from then on; we had nothing but sun for the rest of the trip. The train ride to Marseille was full of lovely scenery, and we arrived at the station in the late afternoon. If only we had been able to print out directions to our hostel beforehand...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Paris, Je T'aime

I just got back from a 16-day trip through southern France and Spain, so I have a lot of catching up to do. There's no way I can cram it all into one blog entry or photo album, so I'll be dividing it up by city. The first stop was, of course, Paris.

I was fortunate enough to have a travel companion for these adventures. I had known for a while that I wanted to take off and explore the South when I finished with work in late April, but I'd been having a hard time finding someone to travel with. I feel fine about traveling in France by myself, but I felt a little iffy about going to Barcelona on my own. Fortunately, a happy coincidence just fell in my lap. While in London a couple of months ago, I'd met Daniel. He was starting a 7-month backpacking odyssey through Europe, and I met him on the very first day of his trip, just hours after he'd landed from his pond-jump. Actually, I accidentally woke him up from a jetlag-induced nap when I switched on the light and slammed the door to the dorm we were sharing... why he ended up wanting to spend more time with me after that I do not know... ;) Anyway, he asked me the time, I told him (I think it was around 3:00pm) and we ended up hanging out a bit in London. We stayed in touch, and as serendipity would have it, realized that he would be making his way to France the *exact* day I finished work.

Thus we concocted the evil plan of seeing France and Spain together. It ended up working out really well, because we each made things much easier on the other. My mad skillz with French meant he didn't have to worry about communicating (at least until we got to Barcelona, where my usefulness instantly plummeted) and his mad skillz at being a man meant I didn't have to worry (as much) about being beaten/robbed/raped/murdered. I invited him to hang at my place in Berck for a few days, so he could recover from nearly two months in hostels and save some money on lodging. He came the weekend of the kite festival and spent three days dozing on my couch and eating my cooking before heading off to Paris. I joined him at the end of the week and spent three lovely spring days there with him, the first of which was


I arrived in the early afternoon to have a drink with Juliette before going to meet him at the hostel. We sat in a sidewalk café near the Canal St. Martin and I had some raspberry juice. I think we talked mostly about men, and travel, and art. She had to go catch a train to Tours, where her parents live, and I had my rendez-vous, so we parted before long. I made my way to Montmartre and climbed about 6,452 stairs with my heavy pack on the way to the hostel. Just before I reached the door, my shoulders snapped back and I nearly fell over; Daniel had grabbed my backpack (I feel like there should be some kind of backpacker's code about this). I got checked in and was pleasantly surprised at how nice the room was--pretty purple wallpaper! Beautiful view of a Montmartre staircase! Ensuite bathroom! Wonders never cease. That was the first nice surprise in what was a truly charmed visit to a city I've always found a little cold. I suppose the spring weather didn't hurt.

He had just put his laundry in the wash, so we got sandwiches from a grocery store and went to the top of Montmartre, the steps of the Sacré Cœur, to eat them. The street performers provided music and entertainment as we looked out over the city we were about to dive into, and the sun made me feel warm in Paris for the first time. We soon went back so he could switch out his laundry, and when it was finished we took the métro down to the Etoile (Arc de Triomphe). We walked all the way down the Champs Elysées, past the Louvre and down to Châtelet to catch the métro back to Montmartre.

He'd kept me in suspense all afternoon by telling me he had a surprise planned for dinner. After climbing the few thousand stairs out of the métro, he led me up a few winding Montmartre streets until we reached a restaurant called Moulin de la Galette, complete with a wooden windmill (the last of its kind) sitting atop the entrance. He ordered roast pork, I ordered chicken, and we split them almost completely down the middle. I was so glad he was a food sharer, it makes eating in restaurants twice as much fun. We had an Opéra for dessert, complete with fresh berries. We also split a bottle of Bordeaux, my favorite kind of red wine, which gave us just enough levity to float downhill on the way back home. As a thank you for putting him up at my place, he picked up the check. All told, it was a completely perfect evening.


He'd told me the night before that he wanted to spend at least six hours in the Louvre, and I refused to believe him. Even disregarding the fact that I'd already been there several times, I tend to get museum fatigue really quickly, so I was not looking forward to trudging around the parquet for half the day. That's what happened, though; he diligently plowed through his super-dorky-looking audio guide while I slumped around on benches and generally acted like a 5-year-old in a department store. Too bad there were no circular clothing racks to hide in.

When we FINALLY saw the light of day again he promised me he had another lovely evening planned, the first stage of which was sorbet on Ile St-Louis. This perked me up, and we had a lovely walk along the right bank before crossing over to the island. I had some flavor called Mirabelle, which I mostly chose for the name and still can't quite place gastronomically. He had a tart combination of pamplemousse rose (pink grapefruit), passion fruit, and melon. We sat on the Quai, on a couple of steps in front of a door, until the resident who resided therein (no joke) kindly asked us to move so he could "rentrer chez moi" (sure... ok).

We crossed back to the right back and scrambled around the 4th arrondissement looking for something quick to eat. We actually ended up literally getting something Quick to eat (a belgian fast food chain called "Quick") before heading over to Montparnasse, the lonely Parisian skyscraper south of the Eiffel Tower. It was another of his surprises, and though I'd known you could go up in it for great views (the last segment of "Paris, Je T'aime" is in the Montparnasse area) it wasn't something I would have ever chosen to do myself. I was really glad he had the idea, though, because I really liked it. We sat in the observation deck and had vanilla flavored coffee while discussing X-Men and watching the sun set. I was exhausted and had to wait for the coffee to kick in before I could get back on my feet, so it wasn't until it was totally dark outside that we went around to the other side of the room to see the Eiffel Tower. The view of the Tower, lit up at night, was completely stunning. I went up to the glass and gazed at it for a few minutes. He was staying back from the window, and I tried to get him to join me, but he refused. Turns out he has a fear of heights and couldn't bring himself to get within three feet of the "edge" of the building. Still, he keeps climbing up all of these tall things, and Montparnasse in particular I thought was rather brave of him. I joined him at his safe distance, and as we watched the Eiffel Tower broke out into glittering sparkles. The light show only lasted a few minutes, but it was so beautiful and unexpected it took my breath away.

When the Tower finished its hourly dazzle, we went up to the roof. I told him he didn't have to come with me, but he insisted. It was really windy, which just made it harder for him, but he went to the top anyway, though he did stand in the exact center of the roof while I went around the edges taking pictures. We only stayed a few moments before the wind got the best of us both (for different reasons), but to get down we had to take a metal stairway on the side, and the effect was that it looked like you were walking off the edge of the building. That was not particular secure-feeling for either of us, and we were happy to be back inside. He was even happier once we were back on solid ground. After our long métro ride back to Montmartre, I was hungry again. We got sandwiches from a convenience store again and went back to the hostel where we caught a couple of episodes of french-dubbed Sex and the City. I was surprised that he had any interest in watching, but he said he could catch a word here and there, and it was a novelty to see television in another language. Actually, come to think of it, Sex and the City was the first TV show I ever saw in french, when I visited Paris with Mom a few years ago. Clearly, it's a classic.


We had just enough time to get Brioche Dorée (a french sandwich chain) sandwiches and eat them in the Luxembourg Gardens before I had to go catch my train to Avignon. He had to take a later train that I because he was using his Eurail pass and wasn't allowed on my train. He also had to go shopping for a new Mac charger since he'd lost his in another room at the hostel before I'd arrived. I took the TGV, and arrived in Avignon, 690km (428 miles) away, in 2 hours and 20 minutes. Did I mention I love French trains (most of the time... but we'll get to that story later...)

All told, it was definitely one of the best experiences I've ever had in Paris. Traveling with someone has many advantages, especially when they're as thoughtful as Daniel is. =)