Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Pittsburgh, PA!-- Well, despite all the delays and terrible service from Delta, we made it back home safe and sound. Our four month trip is over. That reality has still not set in yet. It's an odd feeling, a combination of sadness to see our journey end, as well as joy and excitement to come home to America and Pittsburgh. The melancholy gives way however when I think that we come back to a bright future.

We ended our trip on a high note- at a real British Pub, established 100years before we were born, for our last dinner abroad. The barman, a humorous and affable chap, befriended me as I ordered our Fish n Chips and veggie Sausage and Mash. I told him to have "one for himself," attempting to tip him the English way  by buying him a drink. He laughed at my attempt at British social culture saying that was "Very kind of you, Sir!" We scarfed down the delicious (though very heavy) food and bitters while we reminisced about the last four months. On the way out, we told the barman that it was our last night abroad and he replied "Oh No!" We laughed and he added "Good luck." Good luck getting home and good luck with the rest of our lives.

Thank you all for following our trip over the last four plus months. We've enjoyed sharing it with you immensely and it's wonderful to know that even though we were very far away, that so many people still care about us.

Here is a list of links for all our albums, including the New one: England!
Cote d'Azur:


Southwest France:

May in Paris:

Alsace and Switzerland:

The Loire, Lyon and Normandy:

England (new):

Sunday, July 4, 2010

London Blogging

London, England-- Sorry to have been a bit neglectful of the blog, but this past week has been one of our busiest (and most expensive) yet. As you probably know, our ferry made it to Portsmouth, England just fine. We didn't get to see too much of the city itself, aside from the 2.5 mile walk from the port to the hotel. By the time we had checked in it was already getting late, but we did manage to find some delicious, enormous helpings of fish and chips.

The next morning we took a bus to Salisbury (of Peter Gabriel fame). The small, pretty town became our home base for three days, which was great. We found a nice Indian restaurant and went to a surprisingly quiet pub to watch the Spain/Portugal World Cup match. Staying in Salisbury also allowed us to take two day trips. The first was to Stonehenge, or StoneHENGE, as our audio guide pronounced it, and it was incredible. I was really excited to see one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and also impressed with how well preserved, cared for, and respected it is.

The next day we trained to Bath, a beautifully planned city in the middle of the English countryside (which, by the way, looks a lot like Normandy's...). Situated on natural hot springs, Bath was home to a Roman bath house and has been a fashionable spa retreat for hundreds of years. Ben forced me to try some of the "all-healing" hot spring water (they sell it in the spa restaurant). Even the guidebook described it as "horrible," but I actually kind of liked it and had no trouble finishing my glass!

It was great to relax a little in Salisbury because we knew when we got to London we'd go into supertourist mode again. After arriving on Friday and suffering through a hot, crowded Underground ride, we hit the streets, first for a tour of architect John Soane's house (who Ben says is "completely nutters!") and then for a sight-studded walk down the River Thames. First it was the Tower Bridge, the Tate Modern, St. Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, before we turned north for our hotel past Trafalgar Square and the British Museum. I was thrilled.

We've continued to walk a ton the past couple days, partly because it's free and partly because the weather has been uncharacteristically gorgeous. After the Changing of the Guard, we had a picnic in Hyde Park, before walking to Regent's Park via the raucous gay pride parade on Regent's street. Today we explored the street markets at Covent Garden, Spitalfield, and Brick Lane before Ben completed his 49th drawing(!). We can only hope the weather holds for tomorrow, our last day abroad.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tides of Change

The English ChannelAhoy! We are sitting on the eighth deck of a Brittany Ferry, sailing from St. Malo, France to Portsmouth, England. Our time in Normandy and Brittany was really great and gave us many opportunities to fill up on crepes, croissants, Kirs, baguettes, chevre cheese, noisettes, and all of the other local fare that we’ve loved for the past 4 months.

We ended our time in France on a very high note. After a lot of effort juggling our schedule around, we finally made it to Mont St. Michel on Friday. After a 5K “pilgrimage” from our hotel to the Mont, we climbed through medieval alleyways to the towering abbey. Looking out, we saw miles of flat, wet sand dotted with puddles as if someone had drained the Atlantic.

We timed our visit to coincide with the few days when the tides rise high enough to flood the normally dry bay. This epic event only happens a couple times a month and takes about two hours. For the first hour we could barely tell that anything was happening. Then, a small and steady wave crept around the closest sandbar, raising the water level a couple of inches as it moved. Soon, sandbars became islands, which then began to shrink and finally to disappear. Currents swirled, gaining strength and depth, and before we knew it, the once-beached Mont was surrounded by water.

The next day we followed in some tour groups’ sandy footprints and headed out to the dry bay, dodging the quicksand along the way. At one point, we came upon a “stream” that cut across the sand. As we waded in, the water got deeper and the current got stronger. Just as we were about to turn back, the water began to get shallower and we emerged on the other side, on a higher sandbar. The view was awe-inspiring. We were standing in a part-time desert, part-time ocean.  That evening, we decided to watch the tide roll in from just above the beach, a view that was really different but equally impressive. From there, the tide seemed to rush in much faster and more dramatically. This time we could hear the waves crashing against the shore.

We left Mont St. Michel for St. Malo, where we spent our last night in France. For once our “budget hotel” was really nice, and we got checked-in in time to walk along the beautiful beach. When the wind got too cold, we continued our walk through the old city to the most incredible outlook from its ramparts. After a farewell dinner, we returned to that spot to watch the sun set over the ocean. It was one of the most beautiful sights of the trip—as if France was giving us a warm “au revoir.”

New pictures starting at number 128:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

D-Day Dimanche

Ferme d'Escures, Normandy--- Not so much to report, but I am writing this post on our last night as WWOOFers (at least on this trip), an occasion worth noting. Our time at La Ferme d'Escures has been a bit of a mixed bag. There were days when it seemed like there was no work for us to do, which made us feel guilty about being here. They are clearly struggling financially and at times we felt like more of a burden than a help. But the good experiences outweigh the bad, and in the end we are glad to have been here.

We feel very lucky that our time here overlapped with Veronique's friend Marie-Francoise. She was practicing her English and also very knowledgeable about farming, so we came to rely on her a lot. We also became friends, and because of her interest in history, we all went to visit the D-Day Normandy beaches on Sunday. We started in Arrowmanche at Gold Beach, the British counterpart to the American invasion of Omaha Beach. There was a little museum which mainly focused on the Mulberry projects: temporary, floating harbors built incredibly quickly in the heat of battle. On the beach we walked amongst the remains of the ramps that connected the harbor to the shoreline. It was humbling, but we were shocked at how the information was presented. It seemed to focus almost entirely on the engineering feat of the harbors rather than the actual battles that occurred. The video presentation was as much an instructional guide to building a floating harbor as it was a testimony to the many men who lost their lives. As Americans, we take D-Day extremely seriously. In Ben's words, "It was our finest hour, and it made us the world power that we are today." We didn't get the impression that the Europeans valued the D-Day battles the same way.

Our feelings were only confirmed at our next stop, Omaha Beach. Here, in a very Washington, D.C.-like museum  we were immediately shown inspiring and emotional quotes, photographs of soldiers, statistics about how many fought and died, timelines, artifacts, all arranged in an incredibly interesting and moving way. Here the video (narrated in the quintessential Marlboro man voice) focused on the importance of the the sacrifices the young soldiers made and how crucial their victory was. I joked about the corny voice at first but by the end was moved to tears. The museum lead outside to the American cemetery, where thousands of white marble gravestones stretched out in perfect parallel lines, not unlike troops marching. The pictures speak for themselves. We left the beach feeling that D-Day got its due respect and that we were proud to be Americans.

New photos on the same link as last post, beginning with number 93. Also see our revised calendar at the bottom of the page for an updated, accurate schedule of the time we have left.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ridin' Dirty

Ferme d'Escures, Normandy, France -- We are settling into our new roles here and getting a chance to catch our breath a bit. It's been over three months that we've been flying, training, hiking and living all over France, Switzerland and Israel and we are finally showing some signs of fatigue, both mental and physical. So, now that we've been here for five days, with only four hours of work asked from us per day (though we do about six) we are recharging our batteries.

Also, our free time and energy gives us a chance to do the things that we never seemed to have time for on this trip. Betsy has been reading a lot, I was able to finish my Tony Garnier drawing from Lyon, but most excitingly, we had the chance to teach Betsy how to ride a bike! She wasn't scared at all and picked it up really quickly. We suspect that she might have learned in the past, but hasn't ridden in over fifteen years. Anyway, this new freedom has allowed us to bike to the small town of St. Jean-Le-Blanc, and really explore the verdant countryside. The hills here were a big challenge, especially because I was riding a broken bike that's chain kept catching. Corn, which is just starting to grow, and wheat seem to be the crops that fill the fields here, and of course the many dairy cows for Camembert!

The most exciting thing that happened around the farm this week was when I noticed a rabbit that had gotten out of its cage. It took a while, but we finally caught it. Not for long though as he got out a minute later and stared at us almost patronizingly. Betsy said we "felt like Elmer Fudd." It took two more times catching Bugs Bunny before we could rig the cage enough for him to stay put. Other than that and some mishaps with the goats, things have been pretty calm.

New Album! Our travels through Lyon, Loire Valley and now Normandy: 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Finally Farming

Ferme d’escures, France—What a week it’s been. After we parted ways with the Samsons it was off to Lyon, the birthplace of French cuisine. We ate our way through the city at delicious restaurants and the Les Halles market, where we finally bought some delicious mimolette cheese. Then we traveled to the Loire Valley to visit two chateaux, Chambord and Chenonceau. The French accents there actually do sound like frogs, and the castles themselves were like something out of a fairytale.

Now comes the part where we have to adjust to a new lifestyle, perhaps a more authentic French one. We are now on a pedagogical farm that is often visited by school groups and families. The farm then shows the kids first hand how they make cream into butter, how to bake bread etc. and also has many types of farm animals to feed and pet. My favorite is a small black goat that I’ve named “my goat.”

As a bonus, this is a French speaking farm, so Betsy has had the opportunity to flex her vocabulary while I mostly grunt and point. I am learning a lot however and can understand almost half of what goes on…it’s a start.  There is a nice British woman named Liza who is acting as translator as best she can. The biggest problem of this whole place is that we seem to be superfluous. Besides us, there are two other WWOOFers, a student, two paid employees, Veronique (the owner), and some of Veronique’s family.

Unlike our prior experiences, there isn’t much that is asked of us and there aren’t really clear objectives or instructions. At our other WWOOF jobs, we’ve been asked to do construction projects, which meant there were obvious goals that we were working towards. At the end of both of our stays, we had something tangible to show for our time there. Here the goal is more maintenance: reaping grass to feed Noisette, the cow, cutting thorny branches for the goats, checking for eggs in the chicken coop, etc. And of course helping in the kitchen (there are eleven or twelve of us at meals). Veronique only asks that we work four hours a day--a foreign concept to us.

Nevertheless, we think this might actually be closer to WWOOF guidelines than our other jobs. And this afternoon we made plans to help Liza refurbish the large vegetable gardens and to sketch (possibly build?) part of a patio near the barn. So we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll leave the farm feeling as satisfied as we have in the past.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Switzerland was Cool

Tours, France-- Well, there really is no good way of doing this because it has been so long. This post will give you a bit of a recap of our trip in Switzerland (June 3-8) and we will shoot out another about our trip in the Loire valley after.

We played a word association game about Switzerland during our final dinner together with the Samsons while we enjoyed the last of our fondue and Pinot Gris wine. Expensive, clean, neat, clocks , efficient, Hybrid (German/French), cheese, chocolate, mountains. The amalgamation of all these things is the basic outline for what we think Switzerland is. It was strange because closer to Germany -in Basel and Zurich-  it felt very German (we guess) and in Geneva, it felt very French.

We visited four cities: Basel, Zurich, Luzern, and Geneva, and also Mount Pilatus during our busy four and a half day visit. Personally, I liked Zurich the best. It has a beautiful waterfront chock full of sunbathers, people playing music, cafes, plenty trees for shade and plenty of grass to lounge on and just watch the sailboats go by in the Zurichsee. There is also an overabundance of contemporary architecture in Zurich including some gorgeous Calatrava works (everyone loved his library).

Basel, our first city we visited, was a sharp contrast from the wine-soaked, Germanic Alsace region of France where we had come from. It was neat (not messy), cutting edge (not dwelling on its past), and the people were nice (not at all French). We enjoyed our time with Swiss fondue and Fischerstube beers as well as running around from Herzog and Demuron to Richard Meier architecture landmarks.

Geneva was the big disappointment. Though it was acclaimed, we did not find it to be so beautiful, but rather just burgeoning with Rolexes, Ferraris and Bentleys. The Jet d'eau was impressive, as were the kosher restaurants, but all-in-all we did not believe that it lived up to its hype.

 The real beauty of Switzerland is its wilderness. On the train, between cities, the mountains and greenery was breathtaking and the view from snowcapped Mt. Pilatus was awe-inspiring. Lake Luzern is as beautiful as Lake Como and the cogwheel train-ride down the mountain was unforgettable.

Switzerland might be a small and neutral place, but our trip was a nice break from France and gave us insight into Sig's (our neighbor) formative years. Cheers to Switzerland and to the Samson family vacation.

New Album of Alsace, France and Switzerland: 

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Samsons Cometh

Paris, France-- It smells really good in our apartment. Betsy has been cooking all day for a family Shabbat dinner. This is going to be the first Shabbat dinner with family in almost three months. We have a full menu, the centerpiece of which is going to be Boeuf Bourguignon, a local specialty and I must say that it smells great!

The Samsons arrived on Tuesday morning just in time to catch the end of Paris' uncomfortably hot weather. After checking into their hotel, we grabbed some macarons and fresh baguettes for sustenance before walking to the Centre Pompidou area for lunch. Luckily, the first restaurant we sat down in was great, and we all enjoyed savory crepes before hitting the road again for a walk through the Marias to Place des Vosges (surprise, surprise). We split up to take naps in our respective rooms and as we slept the sky clouded over and a dusty wind picked up. It seemed as though our luck early in the day had run out. That evening, we braved the crowds at the Eiffel Tower. We were herded at least 175 people at a time into the double story elevators, only to reach the top in a total downpour. The wind and rain made it impossible to see much of the view, but we doggedly tried to make the best of it. Until the lightning started. We sought refuge in the crowded indoor area dripping and trying not to get discouraged. In the end, we were glad we stuck it out. The rain passed for long enough to see the views in most directions, and we took a lot of photos and even dried out a bit before walking to an amazing steak dinner.

But again, our success was short-lived. We woke the next day to set off for Versailles, but when we tried to buy the train tickets, the train station was suspiciously void of employees. Amidst tourists (mostly American) trying desperately to make sense of the ticket machine we finally found an open ticket window, where the women promptly told us that Versailles and all of the museums were closed today due to a strike. Disappointed, we quickly shuffled our schedule around and headed to Notre Dame. It was a pretty impressive space, but as we waited in line to see the bell tower, the rain started again. And this time, it didn't pass. We finished up there and split up again, but the rain made it impossible for Ben to draw more than a sketch and the other Samsons were turned away from Ste. Chapelle, which was closed for lunch. An attempt to see the Catacombs was also thwarted, this time by flooding, which meant spending another 40 minutes dripping with the crowds of Paris until we reached Sacre Coeur. The view from the top of the hill was nice, but it was hardly a consolation for an exhausting day of disappointment. I mean, how many times is it virtually impossible to do anything inside OR outside?!?

The Samsons have been incredibly positive and good sports, though, I guess a testament to their travel experience. And their patience has paid off. Today was almost completely opposite, beautiful weather and successful trips to the Musee du Judaisme, Le Marais (again), Musee d'Orsay, and more. Also, the restaurants where we have been eating have been fantastic, which is certainly important, especially in France, haha. So, we are taking the good with the bad and hoping that our good luck will continue for the rest of the trip!

Shabbat Shalom--links soon.

P.S. Ben and I celebrated our fifth anniversary on Wednesday with tickets to the ballet at the Palais Garnier. Even with our 7 Euro, obstructed view tickets, it was a wonderful evening.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Heat Wave

Paris, France --There is much excitement in our little apartment because the Samson family is on its way from Pittsburgh to Paris. We shall try to meet them at the airport, early tomorrow morning. As for us, this marks yet another end/new beginning of our four month journey. The time has certainly flown by-  these past three weeks in Paris especially. Today in a cafe on  Rue Monge, the couple next to us noticed that as we were writing in our journal, we were running out of pages. This led to a conversation about our trip and all of the places we have seen. We laughed about seeing Jim Morrison's grave in Pere LaChaise cemetery and they wished us good luck with the remainder of our travels. The conversation really made us feel quite accomplished and extremely happy we are taking this trip.

On Sunday, we got to see yet another icon of architecture, a personal favorite of mine, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, in Poissy (a suburb city). I was pretty anxious to see if it truly did live up to the hype.... I thought it did. It really seemed like a small masterpiece. Corb is an expert of proportions and spatial relationships. When we stepped onto the grounds, we could instantly smell the country air, ripe with chestnut flowers and green grass. The iconic stairs and ramps flowed like sculpture. We enjoyed a picnic lunch of deli from "our butcher" before we headed back to Paris.

That evening, we headed out to the 13th arrondissement to the the Bibliotheque Nationale. Finally, we have been to all 20 arrondissements in Paris! (Just by chance, really.) This was very exciting- a true testament to our knowledge of the city.

Today, we relaxed and prepared for our guests along with going to see the Rubik's Cube Invader graffiti art that we have been looking forward to seeing. We watched the sun set over the Seine from Pont Neuf and sat around the Ile de la Cite until the stars came out. It was a beautiful way to spend the hot afternoon.

Here is a link to our album! (new pics around #100)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Shavuot Strikes Again

Paris-- Wow, May 21st already; hard to believe. This week has really flown by, well, because of Shavuot (the Jewish holiday that celebrates receiving the Torah), it actually feels a little like a lost week. Not that we haven't been busy. Besides all the shopping and cooking we had to do for the holiday--which lasted from Tuesday night until Thursday night--we spent a lot of time walking in (drum roll) the beautiful weather!!! Since Saturday, the weather has only gotten warmer and more sunny, a complete 180 from the first two weeks we had here.

So we took advantage of that (which is incredibly easy to do in Paris) with long walks through the Le Marais neighborhood, the Luxembourg Gardens, Jardin des Plantes, and along Port de Plaisance near the Bastille. Besides being a great way to not feel so guilty about all the cheese we've been eating, it was also good to really get a feel for the city. One thing that particularly struck me was how seriously people seem to take grass. In many of the parks and gardens we've seen, there are very few designated places for people to sit/walk on the grass, and even though the large, green expanses look so inviting to weary pedestrians, people actually obey the "pelouse inderdit" (forbidden lawn) signs and opt for the metal benches or chairs instead. A little strange to get used to, but we didn't have any trouble joining the masses around the Luxembourg fountain to read and bask in the sun.

Another new experience we had this week was to go to a Shavuot service Wednesday morning in a synagogue designed by Hector Guimard, the same architect who did all of the famous Metropolitain signs and entrances in Paris (and in the East Wing of D.C's National Gallery). The service was a little strange, poorly attended because there had been an earlier one for all the people who had stayed up until 5:30 in the morning learning (a Shavuot tradition). One of the leaders struck up a friendship with Ben and even gave him a part in the service (dressing the Torah). It was cool to see yet another culture's subtle variations on the same traditions, even if I was totally confused until Ben found Hebrew/English prayer books about half an hour in.

Ok, I need to wrap things up because we are getting ready for Shabbat (yes, another holiday!), but in short it's been a really good, busy but relaxing week, and we are getting very excited to welcome the Samson family on Tuesday!

Links and photos to come Saturday night.

P.S. Congratulations to all of our friends and family who are graduating this month!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Our Fourth Spring This Year

Paris, France-- Over the past few days here, we have shifted to yet another gear, a nuanced version of our trip thus far in Paris. It's hard to describe, but perhaps we are fine-tuning our knowledge of the city, and becoming closer to Parisian (if that's even possible). It is now the longest place that we have stayed on this trip, and I suppose that it is the closest we have felt to a "home" in two and a half months. We know the area around our apartment pretty well and we have seen much of the city, nearly all of the arrondissements (districts), during our days exploring. It is strange. I hear myself saying "we're almost home" as the #4 metro pulls up to the St. Denis stop. I guess I do feel pretty at home here, even if it is in this very weird mirror world.

The list of places we have seen continues to grow. Following our trek to Bercy on Wednesday, we headed to the Pompidou on Thursday to soak up some first-class culture that Paris is stocked with so generously. The Braques, Picassos, Matisses, Rothkos etc. felt so very at home surrounded by the garishly exposed Pompidou Center's tangle of air ducts and elevator shafts. Betsy and I agreed that the building was striking and well suited for an art museum. My respect for the architect R. Rogers continues to grow.

Friday we went to Parc de la Villette and suffered through the cold as I drew two of Bernard Tschumi's follies that dot the landscape and lay a grid over the postmodern village. "This one is my favorite," I'd say at each of the red cube-like follies as we saw a new one. It was a very kid-friendly place and with the Cite des Sciences, it would be the perfect school field trip.

On Saturday, we hit the Pere LaChaise cemetery to pay some respects to the famous people buried there. We saw the graves of Sarah Bernhardt, Seurat, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (covered in lipstick kisses), and the Master of Paris's boulevards, Baron Haussmann. It was a great way to spend the Shabbat afternoon, and better yet, it was actually sunny outside!

We had had awful weather in Paris until that day. Every day we check and other sites and they are always completely wrong. There seems to be a "chance of rain" EVERY day and with the sky full of clouds, the sun has not been able to warm up the city. We are still waiting for Spring to fully arrive in Paris, which is extra difficult because we have seen Spring blossom in the Cote d'Azur, Israel, and the Southwest  France on our trip. So when we saw blue skies while walking amongst the mausoleums  of the Pere LaChaise cemetery, it felt oddly fresh, as if the circle of life was again approaching the birth of Spring. The weather here has been much better since then (sunny and in the low 60's) and perhaps that is the real reason that I feel our time here in Paris has shifted to another gear.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May in Paris

Paris, France-- The more we get accustomed to Paris, the faster the time goes, but I guess that's to be expected. We had a great weekend here, with what I think was a really good balance of seeing the sights, catching up on sleep, and just living in general. Friday we returned to the kosher markets in Montmartre to stock up for Shabbat, and it's becoming clear that we are forming relationships with the shop owners, particularly the butcher, to whom we now proudly refer as "our butcher." The French is coming a little more easily to me now, although it could just be that I don't care as much about making mistakes.

Saturday, we slept in before taking a long walk through one of the main drags of the city--les Halles, the gardens of the Palais Royal, the Louvre courtyard, the Tuileries, and Rue de Rivoli. It's good to see the more well-known sights (they really are beautiful), and because of the cold and rainy weather, they weren't mobbed by tourists. One of the reasons we wanted to stay in Paris for a whole month, though, is to be able to get to know the city beyond the beaten path. The last few days we have been exploring the farther reaches of the city limits, usually with an interesting architectural site to boot. As per Dom's suggestion, we journeyed northwest on Sunday evening all the way to La Defense to see the Grande Arche, so big that actually houses offices and multiple museums inside. It was a great contrast to the Arc de Triomphe, which stands on the same boulevard about 3.5 miles away. Monday we headed southwest to the 16th arrondissement (kind of like a district) and saw a slew of Art Nouveau buildings by Hector Guimard and some modernist Le Corbusier. We also wandered in Bois de Bologne, a former royal hunting ground twice the size of Central Park. Today after seeing the breathtaking Ste. Chapelle we ventured southeast to Bercy, where we ate a lovely picnic lunch before passing Frank Gehry's Cinematique Francaise.

Perhaps the most "authentic" experience we've had, though, was on Saturday night, or rather, Sunday morning. The Pittsburgh Penguins (hockey) were playing their fifth playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens, a match that aired at 7:00 pm EST. Looking for something to do after Shabbat, Ben and I decided to go to a sports bar in the Latin Quarter called The Great Canadian Pub, where the game would be aired live, beginning at 1:00 in the morning! The bar was crowded when we got there at 12:30, but in the next twenty minutes more people than I thought humanly possible squeezed into the room--all of them raging Canadiens fans. Ben had a Pittsburgh hockey tee shirt on and was told multiple times, "This is Paris!" so we assume there are some pretty strong allegiances to French Canada, and/or many Canadian ex-pats in Paris. The funniest part for me was when the French fans cheered for the team, nicknamed the Habs (don't ask me why...). "Go 'Abs, go! Go 'Abs go!" they yelled--because in French the "h" is silent--and it took me a while before I realized they weren't chanting about a muscle group. It was a very late night but a great experience, all the better because we won the game.

New pictures will be added on the same link as last post.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Paris State of Mind

Paris, France-- The five days that we have had here in Paris have really taken their toll on us. We are pooped. We've managed to carve out a good chunk of the city and get acquainted with its inner workings-- mainly the Arrondisments and the Metro lines. It's only Thursday, but we have seen the Seine, Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde, Grand Palais, Place de la Victoire, the Arab World Institute , the Latin Quarter, Notre-Dame (from across the Siene), Place Vendome , Montmartre, the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triomphe, Pont Neuf , Boulevard St. Germain, and the Musee d'Orsay...Oh yeah, and we took a day trip to Chartres . We've already probably seen as much as most tourists get to see in their entire vacation here and we've had to cook and clean our apartment as well. I've been drawing voraciously in my sketchbook to boot. We're pleased with our visit here thus far, but it seems that we are running on fumes; I'm not sure how long we can keep up this pace.

Today, we may finally have hit our breaking point. We headed out for a full day at the Musee d'Orsay, which commands far more attention than we had originally estimated. We were there for over four hours which wouldn't have been so bad, but we skipped lunch and my contact lenses were giving me a lot of trouble. I struggled through the headache my poor vision gave me to enjoy countless (several hundred) famous Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Manet etc. masterpieces. It was really incredible. Blind and hungry, we trudged our way home via a crowded metro, which required us to navigate new, confusing stations. After we climbed the hundred and twenty stairs up to our apartment I crashed for a two hour nap as Betsy read.

Perhaps it is just the difference between urban and rural places, but so far, Paris feels more like New York or Washington D.C. than the other places we've been in France--including bigger cities like Marseilles, Toulouse, and Bordeaux. The diversity, the density, the pace of life--the thing that make Paris a world city-- all separate it from our other experiences in France. That's not to say that there isn't a distinct French flavor. It's also been cold here (in the 50s), all the colder because we mailed home our heavy coats from Israel.

Overall, the past few days have been an exciting whirl, and every day we learn a little bit more about the city. It's amazing that one day we see the purest example of Gothic architecture ever built and the next say we see the most famous impressionist paintings ever painted. It brings me back to my Rome summer semester, where we'd have to crash in the middle of the day just to recharge our batteries for the evening ahead. Looking back, we've done a ton and it's good to realize how much we've accomplished.

New album: 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Midnight Train to Paris

Paris, France-- Wow, it is thrilling but a little strange to write that we are in Paris, the halfway point of our trip. But before I go into that, we got some very exciting news today! After weeks of waiting, Ben finally heard that he was accepted to Virginia Tech, one of the top-ranking architecture schools in the country and one of his top choices as well! Needless to say, I am very proud of him and we are very excited to start planning our life in Alexandria, Virginia (on the D.C. metro line).

Although the good news would have been welcome at any time, it was especially appreciated after the past few days. Beginning last Thursday, our relationship with Hans and Angela started feeling a little stale. It was their first time hosting WWOOFers, and it seemed like they might have been a bit anxious to get back to their normal routine. Ben and I are finding that the host-helper relationship is a very finely nuanced thing; it is difficult for both parties to know exactly what to expect and what is expected of them. Anyway, we have decided that a week and a half is good amount of time for a stay. It is long enough that we all get a chance to learn the ropes and get to know each other, but not long enough for everyone to tire of the situation.

We ended up cutting our stay in Puylaurens a night short, but only because of the horrific time we had trying to find a train to Paris. The original plan was to leave sometime this morning (Sunday, May 2), giving Marianne, our landlady, the chance to have the apartment ready for us by the time we arrived in the early evening. To make a long story short, the only train that had space for Eurail passengers (a budget pass) and did not interfere with Shabbat was the 12:49 overnight train. So that's what we took. Angela made it sound sort of glamourous, but after a two hour wait in the Toulouse train station, we boarded a crammed train full of coughing and sneezing, grumpy travelers with no respect for personal space. We "slept" in reclining chairs that you couldn't fully recline unless you wanted your head in the lap of the person behind you.

We arrived in Paris at 7:30 in the morning and because it is the Sunday of a holiday weekend (May 1st is Labor Day here), the city was eerily quiet. We found our apartment building with no trouble only to realize that we didn't have the access code. This meant a lot of frustrated waiting and phone calls and shlepping of heavy, broken luggage, wah wah. By 1:00, however, everything was going smoothly again. Our apartment is small, but beautiful, fully equipped, and in a wonderful central location. We already have a load of laundry in and are making it our home for the next four weeks.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Les Fils d'Argent

Puylaurens, France-- Betsy continues to wow us in the kitchen. She has just finished baking four kinds of bagels: plain, poppy, sundried tomato and cinnamon raisin for dessert. Though its only Tuesday, this week has felt very full already. Hans and I are now working on some severely worn-out walls. They are 400 years old originally, but as we can see behind the crumbling plaster, they have been repaired many times. We have been fixing them with hemp-lime, which is a kind of plasterwork using lime mixed with hemp. Hans has tried to explain the eco-qualities of the material, but it's pretty complicated. Apparently this material is really good for moisture transfer and can help regulate interior humidity conditions. Anyway, I'm learning a lot here, not only about theory, but also application-- and that's always good. 

Monday was tough. It was the first time I've used hemp-lime and I didn't know that the mixture was too dry. The preferred technique is to whip it into cracks in the wall with a trowel, kinda like pitching a baseball combined with flicking a fishing rod. But it kept falling off the wall because I didn't know the proper consistency. We finished late-- 7:30! Today was much better and I've been flicking and whipping like a pro. I mixed two batches and finished ten buckets of hemp-lime with no trouble before 5:00. Hans really was impressed and it made up for all the times yesterday when he tried to show me what I was doing wrong all day. 

Saturday night, we went to a cultural event, an experience we truly would not have had as typical tourists. There is a large senior citizen community in Puylaurens because many farmers retire to the "big village." We went to the 20th anniversary concert of a large singing/dancing group called Les Fils d'Argent, or The Silver Threads. They had costume changes that took longer than the actual songs and a million homemade costumes, props, and semi-elaborate choreography. They clearly took it very seriously and were having a lot of fun. 

Sunday, the four of us took a day trip around the region. First we stopped at a small town named Saissac, in the Black Mountains, to grab a coffee and walk around an old castle (but not inside it for some reason?). From there, we headed over to Carcassonne for the afternoon. Carcassonne began as a Medieval fortified town atop a mountain. It was later creatively restored by Viollet le Duc in the 18th century. It's supposed to give visitors an authentic Medieval city planning experience, but we found it to be overly touristy, chock full of chatchke shops--boardwalk style--that sold everything from "local" foodstuffs to anonymous junk jewelry and Barbie lollipops. It also catered largely to children and families. 

Betsy and I got lucky, though. While touring the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, a Russian quartet of opera/folk singers gave a free, breathtaking performance. By the time they'd finished, about ten minutes later, a crowd of about fifty tourists within earshot had followed the beautiful music into the church. The acoustics were amazing, and I have never heard applause in a cathedral before. On the way home from Carcassonne we made a detour to a small organic vineyard to pick up some more vin de table. We had a mini-tasting and sprung for the expensive 9,2 Euro bottle for next week. Hans and Angela bought 47 liters in large containers, but half was for a friend...they say. It was a fun but exhausting day, and the beginning of a busy week. 

P.S. Friday's challah turned out great.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Quick Update

Pylaurens, France-- Attached are the photos that we promised that we'd put up. They include our stay in Bordeaux, the most beautiful city, and our new accommodations here in Puylaurens as well as some day trips to Toulouse, Castres and Revel. This region is absolutely gorgeous and we have fallen in love with it. It is a rare treat to be surrounded by such amazing settings and we are soaking up every minute of it.

As diehard urbanites, it is remarkable how much we are enjoying the "simple" country life. Today, actually as we speak, we are baking bread. It seems like life is just at a different pace and we are enjoying all of the little things that we can't seem to find time for usually. Betsy has been cooking every meal and doing a fabulous job. Laundry suddenly becomes a way of relaxing as you hang clothes up to dry in the beautiful garden. Its nice to not have deadlines or finals or to be searching for work. Life just makes sense right now and we are happy. Of course, we do miss our friends and family (that's why we write on the blog) and it's great to hear from you all.

Here is our little slice of life in Puylaurens. Its a new album so all the photos are fresh:  

Hope you all enjoy!

P. S. - We are fine. The volcano didn't affect us at all. We were already back in France. The south is also totally in the clear. They are flying here already (a bit).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Puylaurens Paradise

Puylaurens, France—We’ve settled in to our routine here with Hans and Angela. Ben is working with Hans on renovating their 17th century house and I am doing an assortment of things: laundry, helping with the building, etc. but mostly I am focusing on cooking. It’s a privilege to have a kitchen again, and because Hans and Angela are vegetarians, I am learning a lot. Today for lunch I made veggie burgers using primarily leftover quinoa. I snuck a bit of cheese in the middle of the burgers for a twist and it went over pretty well I think! Also, they had never seen carrots or strawberries in salad before, so I think they think I am adventurous!

Most of the food they have is organic and/or locally grown, although they are not above shopping at the regular supermarket—so big that here it’s called “hyper market." As in Cote d’Azur, the produce is incredible (it’s asparagus season now) and they also have an abundance of French cheeses, which is awesome. The views of the surrounding countryside never get old, and every time I walk outside I don’t know where to look first. I get dizzy in the car trying to see both sides of the road at once. They also plant lines of trees on either side of the main roads, sometimes for miles. It’s strikingly powerful.

Hans and Angela have been in Puylaurens for seventeen years, so it feels like they are more knowledgeable about the local culture than our last hosts. Like Gaby and Ton, however, Hans and Angela are taking really good care of us. In addition to being very interested in and accommodating of our Shabbat observance, they have also taken us on outings to the nearby towns of Revel and Castres as well as Toulouse , which is about an hour away. Toulouse was gorgeous, everything was in reddish orange brick and the city has roots clearly from the Romanesque period, around the year 1000.

So life is really good here. We are enjoying it even more than the Cote d’Azure. It feels much more authentic except for the occasional sprawl, which has been growing in the last fifteen years. It upsets Ben greatly. Also, our computer is on the fritz we believe because of a loose wire that sometimes disables the keyboard and touchpad. So if you don’t hear from us for a while, don’t worry. We are planning to get it taken care of soon, but might have to wait until Paris.

Photo Update!
Be'er Sheva and Tel Aviv (start from photo 80): 

Southwest France coming soon

Friday, April 16, 2010

Back in France

Puylaurens, France —Wow! We are sitting in the garden at Hans and Angela’s house (our new HelpX hosts) facing an amazingly beautiful valley in the Torn region. Behind the miles of crop-covered rolling hills, the dark Pyrenees Mountains emerge in the foggy distance. The sun is delightfully warming us after a chilly night in the 17th century village house. Tulips of all colors and a cherry tree in full bloom brighten up the garden and the soft hum of the bees drones in the background.

We are glad to finally be settled in a place where we will be spending more than just six days. So much has happened since last we wrote. We left Israel on Tuesday (after three “last” shawarmas), and headed to Bordeaux via Paris. In Paris, we had a very tough time with the trains. The ticket teller at the airport train station was very rude to us and blamed us for our ignorance of the French train system. We finally saw some of the stereotypical French insolence as she sent us to the Montparnasse train station across Paris, an hour and a half metro-ride away. Then, we found out that the first train to Bordeaux in which we could use our Eurail passes wouldn’t be for several hours and we would get in to Bordeaux at 10:00pm, four hours after we had hoped.

But once we got on the train it was hard to stay mad at France. The countryside is so beautiful as fields of yellow rapeseed and vineyards checker the rolling hills. As soon as we got out of the train station, we fell in love with Bordeaux. It was probably the most beautiful city we have seen on our trip. It is hard to know exactly why we were so enamored so instantly, but a few contributing factors include street scale, typical French architecture, and grand but manageable plazas. Actually, Bordeaux reminded us at times of Pittsburgh, particularly Oakland near the Carnegie Library and Schenley Park.

We succeeded, I think, in making the most of our shortened visit.  The city was very walkable and the weather was gorgeous, so we spent a long day meandering from landmark to landmark, munching macarons and soaking up the city. We spent the morning along the Garonne River, drawing the Place de la Bourse and admiring the Roman-style Pont de Pierre. Betsy saw her first Gothic Cathedral, St. Andre (Andy!) and we climbed the 231 steps of its adjacent bell tower for a panoramic view of Bordeaux. A stark contrast was the Tribunal de Grande Instance , the very modern courthouse designed by Richard Rogers with wood-slatted, egg-shaped courtroom pods. A lovely dinner with Lillet and Bordelais wine rounded off the busy but incredible day. We certainly left Bordeaux hoping to return.

Yesterday morning it was off on the train again, this time with fewer troubles despite a transit strike. We made it to Toulouse in time for lunch and a brief walk in the area around the station. We then bussed for about an hour to Puylaurens. Unlike Gaby and Ton, Hans and Angela live right in the village, amist scenery different from anything we’ve witnessed before. They are very nice and we are looking forward to learning green building techniques as we help them restore their house. 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The (mis)adventures of Betsy and Ben

Tel Aviv--- Ok, well, that title might be a little misleading. We have one more day left in Tel Aviv, and while Saturday and Sunday had some frustrations, overall our time here has been really great. 

We were a little taken aback when we arrived at Florentine Hostel, namely because it is much smaller than we thought. We reserved a private room (as opposed to dormitory/camp style bunk beds), but we didn't realize that it is one of only three, and that one of the others is occupied by the owner and manager of the hostel, Rafi. The space is filled beyond maximum capacity, with what we think must be 30 people sharing two bathrooms and one refrigerator. People sleep on bunk beds, mattresses on the floor, and hammocks and couches outside on the roof terrace, everywhere there is a patch of free space. This took a little getting used to, but we are finding that most everyone is really nice and shares a general "traveler's mentality" of openness and wanting to learn about and help each other.

This community feeling became obvious on Friday night. That morning, we mentioned to Rafi that we would be observing Shabbat and were going to the Carmel Market to buy food. He suggested we buy enough ingredients for chicken shakshuka, a dish he would prepare for a communal meal (enough for about 10 people, he thought). We happily obliged after a quick walk through the artist's market on Nachalat Binyamin. Dinner was called for 7:00, but they didn't even start cooking until 10:00, all the while more and more people joined in. At 11:00, eighteen of us sat down to enjoy a truly communal meal. We all contributed in some way: buying the food, preparing it, setting the table, cleaning up, making a beer run, etc. After Rafi's speech about the sabbath and appreciating other cultures, Ben explained and made Kiddush, and I made Motzi. 

Even though we had had our doubts about the meal, it ended up being beautiful and truly meaningful. I think that everybody really enjoyed and respected our traditions, and liked being a part of them (they ALL got up to wash!). Rafi contributed his own wine, hummus, and challah to make sure we had enough food, and we ate, drank, and got to know each other. Now some of those guests have left and we actually miss them. 

After Shabbos, things started to go downhill. After some computer trouble delayed us Saturday night, we walked for an hour to an Indian restaurant off of Dizengoff Square , only to find it had closed two hours early. Defeated, we trudged back to our hostel half-heartedly searching for another place, but with only bars and clubs open, ended up eating cereal for dinner. Our bad luck continued today. A sherav had moved in overnight leaving the city hot, dusty, and completely unpleasant. We lasted only ten minutes at the beach--which was so windy we could not keep our towels down--and angrily sought refuge on Rothschild Blvd . Ben had his choice of Bauhaus architecture to draw and I had a snack and got our journal up to date. We had yet another disappointment tonight. Shortly after Daniel arrived for one last dinner together, restaurants began to close (no kosher chinese for us, boo). We soon learned that tonight begins Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and all businesses must close or risk a 100,000 shekel fine. We scrambled into a convenience store as it was closing and Daniel had the presence of mind to snag some tuna and crackers (If it were left to Ben and me, we would have eaten Pringles and ice cream!). 

Every time we hit a bump, we were able to pull through. Even as we had our (mis)adventures, we were able to make them fun. We know there will me more to come and hope they all work out as well as our time in Israel has. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Party Animals

Tel Aviv, Israel--- We are on the last leg of our journey in Israel, and man is the time going fast! After saying goodbye to the Lowengrubs, we hopped on the train southeast to Be'er Sheva, home of Ben Gurion Medical School, and Deb Bloch, one of my best friends from Barnard. It was both Ben's and my first time in Be'er Sheva besides a bus transfer, and you can see from the link just how much of a desert oasis the city is. Deb was an excellent hostess and guide, and explained that Be'er Sheva has a huge immigrant community (Russians, Africans) as well as a large Bedouin population. We trekked all around the city in the hot, dry climate, and I think really got a flavor of this interesting, extensive area.

Besides catching up with Deb and getting a tour of her life, another highlight of our visit was our day at the Be'er Sheva Zoological Park. Located on the outskirts of town, the zoo was very informal but really awesome, with animals ranging from guinea pigs, seagulls, and the "common cat," to leopards, falcons, and even some that we had never seen before (coati and nandus). The zoo had a surprising abundance of animals, most in chain-link fence enclosures, but some behind little more than a wooden fence. We ignored the cautionary signs on the cages and pet and fed some of the tame animals, but only with our left hands just to be safe, haha. My favorite moment of the day was watching a hyrax escape from his enclosure. He carefully crept out of a hole in the chain-link, looked both ways, and then made a run for it into the bushes across the path! We eventually notified an employee (not wearing a uniform, just riding his bike around the place), but he assured us that somebody already knew about it and that he was sure the hyrax would return home when he got hungry.

The next day we headed to Tel Aviv, and though I was a little under the weather managed to have a nice walk all over the city that evening. Our hostel is just ok--a far cry from the 94% approval rating we saw online--and is in a neighborhood to the south of the city center. The downside is that it is a little far from the beach, but the upside is that we are discovering different, less-touristy areas of the city. Last night we got a drink in Neve Tzedek, an artsy/boutiquey/hip neighborhood that reminded me of Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh (sorry to those of you who won't get that reference). In any case, it was a lot of fun, and echoed a feeling I had in Jerusalem of appreciating these places in a different, more mature way nearly three years after our Birthright trip in 2007. Today we just lounged on the beach, though, which we did plenty last time and I hope to do many times in the future as well!

Thanks for reading and pictures coming soon!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Some Loose Ends

Ok. There were definitely a lot of loose ends from our last post and the last week in general that we didn't get to write because Shabbat was coming. I also want to apologize for any poor grammar and hurried spelling!

1. Daniel had to walk Jasper, the neighbor's wiener-dog mutt

2. On the first day of Passover, Ben came back from behind to beat Yosef, the youngest Goldstein, in Battleship. This meant that Yosef had to be quiet for the rest of the day, a difficult task for such a verbose clown. If he failed, he would have to pick up Jasper's poop--he chickened out

3. The Lowengrubs made Ruth's Brisket for the seder and it was delish

4. The South Africans made their own Mayo which was really good.

5. We made little pyramid placecards with English, Hebrew and hieroglyphics for the seder, an activity which took several hours.

We finally added new pictures to the facebook album of France and we added captions describing everything. (The new pictures start at #91) See them here!

We also made a new album of our trip here in Israel (in Jerusalem and Rehovot). See the link.

Tonight, we saw Alice in Wonderland. Betsy's first time seeing a 3D movie. It was strange to do an activity that is a normal recreational thing-- we haven't even watched tv in a month. So, our time here in Rehovot is ending. It was a really nice break. The Lowengrubs spoiled us a lot and we have to get ready for the "real" world again. We will miss being around such a wonderful family.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Pascal Offering

Rehovot, Israel-- The weather has finally blossomed here and it is true what they say about it being the most beautiful time of year here in Israel. As our Birthright trip leader, Yinon, would say, "The sun is shining, the bird are singing, what a beautiful day." Ben and I are enjoying every minute in the sun, but don't worry Mom, we are drinking lots of water and I am diligent about sunscreen.

The Lowengrubs, dear friends of the Samson family, have been taking excellent care of us--we are so lucky that they were able to host us! Our seder with them was great, filled with love, meaning, delicious food, and a lot of joy. We were a total of fifteen people: seven Lowengrubs, Ben, me, and six Goldsteins (cousins from a nearby city). The Goldsteins are a crazy bunch who spontaneously burst into songs (often songs that they have written)   It is very powerful to be in Israel for Passover, and everyone we've encountered has really relished the holiday.

Then there was the second Seder...For those of you who don't know, Passover began on Monday night, March 29. For Orthodox Jews not living in Israel, it is customary to have two days of Yom Tov at the beginning of the week and two days at the end of the week (actually the seventh and eighth day of Passover). Yom Tov, which literally translates to "Day Good," applies to holidays that do not take place on Shabbat, but for which many of the same Shabbat customs are observed. This means no electricity, driving, writing, etc. This discrepancy I believe stems from a time when it was impossible to be certain what day the new month began (Judaism follows a lunar calendar) and not wanting to celebrate a holiday on the wrong day. Now, even though we don't rely an Israeli high court to spread the message of which day is correct, we still uphold the tradition of two days. (This is my attempt at an abridged version.)

As Jews who are from the good ole USA, we personally hold the tradition of having a second day even though we are in Israel. That's all fine and good except it is REALLY hard to find other people who need to/want to observe a second Seder on the second night. The Lowengrubs spread the word, but as the first day drew to a close, we still had no seder to attend. Then, just in the nick of time, we got a message that the Shulls. a South African family from down the street. was having a seder for their son visiting from NYC. The son Gabi and his fiancĂ©e, Chaya, were a really nice, but we were joined by Gabi's daughter, Chani, who was a terror. She yelled about the seating, refused to ask her questions/ sing her songs and yelled about why the "chocolate frogs don't have tails." Then she downed three cups of grapejuice after dipping her whole hand in one and swirling it around. As we were leaving, she came in from the bathroom where she had been taking a bath and ran around naked, yelling "Tushy Tushy Tushy" and forcing everyone to look at her naked bum.

Thursday, Daniel and two of his friends took us on a really nice hike in the Ein Gedi region of Israel, towards the south. We thought it would be 14K in the hot sun, but one friend was not so keen on nature, so we cut it a bit short. It ended up being a sort of relaxing tour of some interesting Israeli topography, except for the loooong rope bridge across a river, a la Indiana Jones. We ended the day with a yummy barbeque on a "mangal," or disposable grill kit, and an extended session of good old American baseball...well, catch.

Other than that, we've been reading, drawing (Ben), playing tennis, lots of walking, and just enjoying the company. Our time has flown by and we are using every last minute before Shabbos to write this post. Hope to fill in any details and links soon.

Love to all!

P.S.  We must admit that we are a little disappointed with the lack of comments on our Bob Marley reference. We just like to know that people are listening.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Iron like a Lion in Zion

Iron like a Lion in Zion

Rehovot, Israel -- AAAAAAH! Ok, we made it to the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem 20 minutes before the bus to Rehovot was supposed to leave--enough time to buy tickets and flowers and call Daniel before we head to the Lowengrubs, right? No, the bus left more than 10 minutes early and we barely were able to get tickets in time. Ugh! That’s Egged (Israel’s bus system) for you.

Anyway, this marks the end of our stay in Jerusalem, and we must admit that it was everything we wanted/needed. This being the second time we were here since 2007, we took it a bit easy and didn’t try to overdo the site-seeing. We did do all of the usual stuff though like go to the Kotel  (Western Wall) for Friday night services and eat lots of shwarma- mmmm! I think we really know the city well and Betsy says that it almost feels like a home away from home now.

On Wednesday, it was off to Machaneh Yehuda , Jerusalem’s famous outdoor market. I think that it is Betsy’s favorite part of all of Israel. The strong smell of spices, the bright colors of produce, vendors shouting TOOTIM, BANANA, BANANA! (strawberries and banana) and the hoards of people clawing their way through the crowds, and of course the lemonana (mint lemonade). Then we took a nice stroll along the Ramparts Walk en route to the Kotel. The views were amazing as we could see all of the Old City.

Thursday, we went shopping for Shabbat and bought challah, lots of deli, grape leaves, salads, wine, and a poppyseed babka (Betsy thought it was chocolate inside and enjoyed it until she found out that it was really poppyseed). We also bought Betsy a siddur (prayer book) with both English and Hebrew. Then it was Burgers Bar for lunch (I got the chicken sandwich) and off we went to draw the Chords Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava. It is pretty controversial here because it clearly does not fit in with the Jerusalem stone that wraps every other building in the city.  I liked the structure, but I can’t decide if it belongs here or not. Betsy thought that it was great except for the huge, pointy mast that was just awkward.

Friday, it rained. It seems like everywhere we go, the bad weather follows. Lets just say that it doesn’t rain in Israel too often and we were lucky enough to be here while it did. During a break in the weather, we headed to the Montefiore Windmill and wound our way through the interesting neighborhood and developments near there, Yemin Moshe and K’far David. It really is a beautifully serene place just opposite Mamila Mall and the Old City. That evening, we went to a relatively empty Kotel (because of the wet weather) for services. I joined a Minyan singing Lecha Dodi and stayed with them for the remainder of services. Betsy got right up to the wall and said some prayers with her new siddur and then joined in some singing at the end. All-in-all, it was a much better, more meaningful experience for both of us than previous times. We happily strolled back through the Jewish Quarter, awaiting the deli we had back at the hotel.

After a relaxing Shabbat, we headed out to Emek Refaim again to find a place for drinks until we regained our appetites for a late night shawarma . We found a nice looking bar/restaurant, but when we started to get served we realized that it was a restaurant and not a bar. The service was very slow, but we made the best of it.

Today, (after one more shawarma) we made it to the Lowengrubs in Rehovot! And that means Passover is coming and there is much to do before Monday night. We are very excited and are happy to be with “family.” And we are also looking forward to the great food and the Seders. Chag Kosher V’Sameach—To those of you celebrating, have a wonderful holiday!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

International Birthday

Jerusalem, Israel--- Hello all! Before I go any further, I want to thank everyone for your kind birthday messages! I had a birthday to remember: two foreign countries, two passport stamps, six desserts, and, with the time difference, 29 hours of birthday wishes, haha.

It has been a busy few days. We spent our last full day in the Cote d'Azur by taking a day trip to Nice, about an hour's train ride from the farm in La Roquette. We were surprised to find that Nice is huge, and actually thought it somewhat disjointed. We started in a more ritzy area, where we went to the Musee Matisse (a little disappointing) and the Musee Chagall (the highlight of the day), before moving to Vieux Nice  the oldest neighborhood. It's narrow, cobblestone streets crammed with shops and restaurants had a completely different feel. Later, we ran back to the train station through sprawling, modern streets not unlike downtown Chicago or New York City.

In Ben's words, "Nice is a massive mushkebubble of cultures and architectural styles piled together with no perceivable order. It is huge. There are mountains, a beach (which was very rocky when we were there, perhaps to keep the sand in place?), a medieval section, a post-modern square, Italian Renaissance planning, and even ancient Roman ruins. Its streets ranged from tiny, tangled alleys in Vieux Nice to grand boulevards. Many buildings are massive--too massive to be understood from nearby streets or plazas. Squares are often larger than parks and are bisected by train tracks and streets for cars. Many parts are dirty and smelly. Minorities seem to be the majority here, with more Asians than anywhere else we have seen. Kebab places outnumber bistros. There is trash in the streets and dog poop everywhere. For such a city to have so many grandiose squares, boulevards, museums, etc., how could it be so dirty? The whole city was baffling, and perhaps that so much was closed when we were there (a Sunday), and that the weather was very grey only exacerbated Nice's eeriness/weirdness. It reminded me a bit of Naples (maybe Nice has some pirates, too!)."

The next day we packed up our belongings and said our final goodbyes and thank yous to Gaby and Ton. We boarded a regional train to Cannes and then transfered to a train bound for Paris. It was not a TGV train, however, and it took us a total of 5.5 hours to get to Paris. But we did have a great lunch on the train. Man, the stereotype of the French gourmand certainly seems to be true! Yum. We made it through Paris without much trouble, and got to spend the night of March 22nd there. Our (not so nice) hostel was close to the Bastille and we even got to peek in at Place des Voges, which was awesome. Then it was birthday dinner at a modern French fusion restaurant. The next morning we left the hostel at 7:15. The manager said it was a 30-40 minute train ride to Charles de Gaulle, so we thought we'd have plenty of time to make our 10:15 flight. Wrong! It took well over an hour to get to the airport and even longer to find the right terminal and security gate for Israel. We had a couple of frantic moments but ultimately made it with time enough to get a pain au chocolat for birthday breakfast. Ben and I were not seated together on the flight, but we made it to Tel Aviv, found some bourekas, and made our way to a shared taxi to a Jerusalem, where we will spend the next five nights.

Our time here has been great so far. It is warm but not hot and we are enjoying all of the great food and traditional sights. After two pretty full days of travel, it is nice to slow our pace and relax a little.