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: