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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Schweir Arbeit (Hard Work)

La Roquette --- Oy, my aching back! They are working us like dogs here. We have been joined by a Polish contractor named Yustin, and have been building the entry steps/walkway out front. I (Ben) got to do the design for it- which is pretty awesome. So, since Sunday, we have been working from about 8:30 to 6:00ish every day this week. And now my back hurts. The work includes digging away the earth, mixing and pouring concrete, tiling with large stones and cutting re-bars. It is very hard work and every day, I feel it in my muscles. It is very satisfying. It’s the instant gratification that you get while working with your hands that I have missed so much in architecture, a field where it takes months or even years to realize a project. We finished pouring the concrete today! 

Gaby has found a lot of work for me (Betsy), though not as physically demanding as Ben's, thank goodness. I have been weeding, chipping wood, aerating soil with a giant pitchfork, cooking, cleaning, and occasionally helping the men (mostly by digging or carrying things). My muscles are starting to appear too... sort of! But right now I am sore so it feels like they are, haha. We are working 9-10 hour days, much longer than in the WWOOF description, but they want to take advantage of Yustin while he is here, and it feels satisfying to be so productive. We are accomplishing a ton, and this is exactly what I had in mind when we began planning over a year ago: something totally different from the classroom! Every time I want to complain I think, "This is soooo much better than homework!"

They shaved Charlie for the summer and he looks ridiculous. I also saw a newborn sheep on  a walk through the woods, as I passed by a farm.  

Here is a what facebook calls  a "public link" to an online album of our many Cote d'Azur photos. It's the same as Ben's facebook album:

We are new to this whole thing so please let us know if you cannot get the link to work or if you know a better way for us to share pics (we tried flickr, but the uploads are too slow).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Good Times in the French Riviera

La Roquette - Things are still going well here in the small village of La Roquette. In fact, we are getting very well acquainted with the area and are feeling pretty at home here. We have been doing a lot of walking here. Today, we walked to a town on the beach called La Bocca which is about 6.5km away. It was very confusing to get to because all the street names are the same. We passed 3 streets called Chemin des Gourgettes, 2 called Michel Jourdan (haha) and 3 called Garibondy. All in all, we got lost on the way and it caused a heck of a time getting to the beach. But we finally made it and had a great picnic lunch with MEAT and mustard too this time.

It was very beautiful. Thursday, we got our first taste of the Mediterranean when we went to visit Cannes . The city is very chic and expensive and much smaller than we were expecting. We took a long walk to the top of the hill there where the old castle was and saw a beautiful panorama of the entire coast. Its amazing that the mountains (lower Alps) go right up to the sea. Everything was very blue and shiny from there. The weather has been better here, but still not swimming weather yet.

Wednesday, we went to the weekly outdoor market in our village and Betsy was able to show off her French as we got fish (bass) and lots of veggies. We found out that the nearest bancomat is in Mouans Sartoux which is 4,4km away from us, and we were running out of cash. We had just enough to buy everything that we wanted except for bread. That night we cooked a feast ! Betsy was pretty squeamish about eating fish with heads and tails intact. I (Ben) had to hack away with our dull knives here to chop off the heads and fillet them before we cooked them. We prepared them with raisins, lemon, sugar and some thyme and sage from the garden here and they turned out delicious. We were just so grateful not to eat pasta or soup for dinner.

Our host family has retuned from their weeklong trip to Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. They were very happy to see us, which is nice. We can tell that they really like us and Ton has already invited us to come back if we can’t get a place when we get back to France. Charlie and Minou are no longer living with us (so sad), but they did visit our house today for an extended period, and get excited when they see us. The Polish contractor got here this morning and we are looking forward to a long week of construction work on the entry stairs and walkway etc.

P.S. One quick note about our travels—we have been really impressed with the Offices de Tourisme in France. We have seen (and used) them everywhere, no matter how small the village. Perhaps because of the levels of national pride? 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

WWOOF #1 and more

La Roquette, France  --- We have made it to our first French WWOOF farm. Actually, it’s not really a farm. And our hosts aren’t French. We are staying at Mas Barbéas, a country retreat that owners Ton (say TONE) and Gabrielle have converted into apartments that they rent out to tourists. They are a Dutch and German couple who have retired here. They have been very accommodating and nice, especially after they’ve had a few glasses of wine. They are making vegetarian meals for us and seem to like us well enough.

La Roquette is an old village about 15 minutes from Cannes by rail and 30 km from Nice, on the Côte d’Azur. It has hardly been beach weather, though. Gaby told us that this has been the worst winter the area has had in 30 years. It’s been anywhere from 40°-60°, which has been fine with us, but it’s also been very cloudy and we wish it were bluer. Shabbat (Saturday) was the nicest day and our first full day here, so we took a 15 km walk (almost 10 miles!) to the Vieux Village area of the town of Mougins . Besides having amazing views of the Alps and Mediterranean Sea, the town is very arts-oriented, with many galleries, museums, and restaurants. We saw many photographs of Picasso, who once lived there.

Ton and Gaby must trust us a lot, because they left on Monday for a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands and left us in charge of their estate and pets, a fat cocker spaniel (Charlie) and a surprisingly social cat (Minou). The main house is locked up, but Ben and I are staying in the original “old house,” which is about 200 years old. It is pretty great for us; it’s been refurbished with heating, electricity, a sweet shower, and even a dishwasher. It’s an old, masonry house with very thick walls and exposed heavy-timber beams in the ceiling. Charlie and Minou seem to like it too, and having them makes it feel very homey.

We have already finished most of our work for the week. Monday we had a full day cleaning the yard by sending two enormous piles of branches through a small shredder to make compost. It took us about 8 hours, and by the end of the day we were exhausted and bruised, but Ben still managed to make a nice fire and we had a relaxing, early night. We spent yesterday sanding and varnishing 9 pieces of outdoor furniture. It feels really good to be doing this kind of work—just what I had hoped for. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bonjour de Marseille!

Marseille, France --- Well, we made it! We had two fairly uneventful flights (Pittsburgh-JFK, JFK-Paris), found a train to Marseille, activated our Eurail Pass, transferred twice and arrived in Marseille Wednesday, March 3 at around 1:00 PM. It was just starting to rain. We found our hotel and tried to settle in, but they are either doing renovations or actually building the other hotel rooms, because there have been five or six men plastering, hammering, painting, etc. on our floor since we got here. Our room was finished for the most part, but we were interrupted a couple of times so they could maneuver furniture and hang a mirror. It was not ideal, especially when we were jet-lagged and groggy. Needless to say, there are not many other guests here, although I saw one check in as I was writing. Our room is fine, it's clean and has a nice window. It also has a spotty internet connection, but the lobby has been ok for WiFi.

I can't seem to make up my mind about Marseille. Both nights here we have gone out on the late side (8:00 or 9:00) for dinner, only to find the city pretty empty. Last night we took the metro close to the city center only to find the streets deserted and almost everything, stores, restaurants, bars, closed. We had to walk all the way to the Vieux Port for dinner, but when we got there we had a fantastic fish dinner overlooking the harbor. Tonight when we looked for a less expensive meal, the best we could do was pizza (more like flatbread with tomato sauce and a little cheese) from a Halal stand by the Metro station. Today was very nice, though. We started near the Vieux Port again the city was bustling and much less worn looking by the light of day. We walked all over, took a short ferry ride and ate lunch at a cafe. We even climbed to Notre Dame de la Garde (Ben much faster than I), which towers over the city and offers a spectacular view of the surroundings. We keep wondering if it will be a very different atmosphere in a couple of months, during the high tourist season.

And then, Bam! We saw the Unite d'Habitation. I (Ben if you can't tell) must say, Corbu has lived up to his billing on this one. Often I find that famous buildings don't reach the hype, but this building was clearly well thought out. I can see that Corbu is already in the process of rebelling against his own points in "towards a new architecture." I got to draw the building for about an hour before the sun went down and my hands got numb, but it was good to knock the rust off my drawing skillz.

The people are really nice here in Marseille and have had much patience with us and our (surprisingly good) French. We go to the farm tomorrow in the morning and we might not get internet for a while. Hope to post soon.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Oh, Man!

Pittsburgh, PA--- Well, after over a year of planning, we have finally reached the eve of our big Europe/Israel adventure. We leave Pittsburgh at 1:00 tomorrow afternoon and fly to JFK, where we'll have a 4:50 flight to Paris. If all goes according to plan, we should arrive in Charles de Gaulle at about 6:00 Wednesday morning (Paris time), and then we'll get our bags, try to get our phone straightened out (thanks, Dom!), and catch a train to Marseille. We reserved a hostel in Marseille for two nights, so we can sleep off our jet lag and see a bit of the city. Ben is especially looking forward to seeing a famous Le Corbusier designed building, and I am excited to see the old port and harbor area.

On Friday morning, March 5, we plan to depart via train and bus to our first WWOOF farm, located between Cannes and Grasse in southeastern France, close to the Mediterranean Sea and the French Riviera. We originally contacted farms in the entire south of France, but all of the ones in the West wrote back that it is too cold in early March; there would not be enough for us to do. The farm we are going to, Mas Barbeas, is run by a husband and wife, Toni and Gabrielle. From our email correspondence, we expect to help rebuild some stairs and prepare their gardens for planting, but I'm sure there's more in store for us. We will have to update once we get there! We plan to stay until March 22, when we return to Paris for our March 23 flight to Tel Aviv. We'll then be in Israel for three weeks before returning to France for our second WWOOF stint, this time likely in southwestern France, specifically near Toulouse and Bordeaux. Then it will be back to Paris on May second for the entire month of May! After much of Ben's hard work and both of our patience, we have booked an apartment in Paris!!! Tres bien, non? That's as far as we've really planned so far, except for our return flight from London on July 6. The rest of our time will include a visit from Ben's family, a third WWOOF farm, and a UK sampling when our 90 days in France (allowed on a short-stay visa) are up.

I, for one, am ready to stop thinking about the trip and start living it. I am a little anxious about all that lies ahead but mostly excited to get started and make some memories. We should have internet for the majority of our travels and will try to keep the blog updated and respond to emails. Thank you to all of our friends and family members who are making this trip possible. We hope everyone will keep in touch!