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.