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): http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2529445&id=5726231&l=185b133fb0 

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.