Day 95 (arrivederci, and names as determinants of cultural affinity)

Last weekend, as you probably recall, we embarked on the last voyage of my semester. Other people will continue to run around Europe through early January, but I am now comfortably ensconced in Aix until my flight takes off for home.

Oh herro, Milano.

Duomo di Milano. Largest cathedral in Italy. It's real big.

Complex city, this one. A bit grey, and not just because we came on a particularly foggy December weekend; there’s a somberness of coloring in the architecture that provides a constant underscoring contrast to the real business of the city: glitz. Because Milan isn’t just the self-proclaimed fashion capital of the world. It’s also the economic centre of Italy, and Italy is Europe’s third-largest economy, so, they are really into selling you stuff. The same upscale stores proliferate in multiple districts, the sharp prism lights of diamonds and the luxurious drape of designer gowns echoed in the extravagant Christmas decorations which festoon the city. But it must be said that the people dress well, especially older men. One begins to understand why George Clooney feels at home here – he wouldn’t even stand out. Well. Not much.

Wall in the square in front of the Duomo full of Occupy posters.

On Friday, caught by surprise in the viscous, dreamy fog (not a lot like our unseasonably warm Mediterranean base of operations), we made a lackadaisical attempt at the tourist circuit that seemed to be more about getting to the coffee and conversation at the end of it than the sights themselves. The Duomo (which just means “cathedral” in Italian, that’s why there are a million of them) was stunning in its enormity, the echoing gravity of its vaulted interior, the Gothic complexity of its imposing façade. But we have lost some of our provincial awe of vast old cathedrals, I think; after a while, no matter how many mental exercises you employ to keep your sense of wonder fighting fit, it’s just difficult to get excited about churches. But we did meander over to Castello Sforzesco, which besides boasting some of the most beautiful frescoed ceilings I’ve even seen, also houses Michelangelo’s last Pietà, from the period of his career when he was making figures grow out of stone blocks with an organic, visceral, expressionist energy. I love this phase of his work, so it was cool to see this one in person. Also cool to compare it to his first Pietà, which I’ve never actually seen (having never been to Rome), but which we discovered a perfect replica of in the chapel of a basilica in Chicago on a choir tour freshman year. They are a bit different.

The last Pietà. Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

With Julie on the pier at Lake Como.

Not particularly interested in spending another entire day in the city, we took our friendly Asian hostel owner up on his suggestion (injunction, really) that if we had only two days in Lombardy, we must spend one in Milan and the other at Lake Como, about forty minutes north by train. Best idea anyone had all weekend. The little city of Como was a bit more our speed, big enough to boast bookstores, restaurants, and gift shops in multiples but small enough to find your way through without difficulty.

View from the pier, Lake Como.

The fog followed us in from Milan, but we didn’t mind; it gave the whole day a floaty and unearthly quality, like we had at least one foot in another, quieter reality. We hung out around the lake, ate a picnic pizza lunch, wandered around the city, and then decided to strike out for the castle on our map – our map which did not effectively articulate topographical features of the landscape. So, we climbed a mountain. (Watch out for my retrospective blog post in a couple weeks about all the best things I did this semester, which all involved climbing up stuff.) We couldn’t go all the way up the watchtower when we finally reached it, but c’était pas grave. It was fun just to be up there, and take a ridiculous photo shoot in a picturesquely crumbling archway. And then we hopped a train back to Milan, and commenced to eat, and drink, and laugh, and drive our Italian waiter crazy for the rest of the night. Except maybe he actually liked us – he did give us free cookies and limoncello shots.

Though Milan isn’t necessary on my list of favorite cities, this trip did confirm something I’ve always suspected: gastronomically speaking, I am 100% pure Italian. If I didn’t like English so much, this might be linguistically true as well. The words are in my bones, you know? They sing in my vocal chords. It’s Roma, Venezia, and Palermo, foccace and ciabatta, pugliese, arrabbiata, insalata caprese, romano, mozzarella, parmigiana, bellissima and grazie. If I insist on studying a language on the B-list of usefulness, this is the language I should be studying. Even the words are tasty.

Part of the original wall around the city at Como. Or portal to magical lands.

It’s a funny thing – in Ireland they told me with approval that Molly is a “good Irish name.” Abbattista is a consummately Italian one. And these are the two countries I have felt most connected to, mind and heart, brain and body. Coincidence? Almost definitely. The incredible ability of disconnected facts to settle into patterns. But I like to think it’s part of a larger order of things, and that I’ll go back someday to wander the streets of Dublin, and tip my face to the Tuscan sun.

Day 89 (accidental meditations)

This is a post to commemorate my semester’s final landmark: the last weekend trip. From this side of Milan, things look a lot like they’ve looked since about week two. The onrushing train of departure is just far enough away, around a sharp bend in the tracks; we can feel it rumbling, faintly, but it may still just be a thunderstorm, or perhaps the snoring of gods. It is just barely possible to ignore the numbers and the implications.

But when we get back from Italy this Sunday afternoon, things will have changed. We will have one week of school left and then one week of finals. The wrap-up events will cause a pile-up, as they always do – last movie night in the Main Hall, farewell Christmas party, last classes both good and bad, last weekend of us all together here in this funny little town. Last chance for hugs, trying to express what words help but ultimately fail to get across: I love you. You are important to me. People like you don’t happen every day.

I wasn’t intending to get off on this train of thought today. But we’re painting portraits in art class, taking turns sitting as subjects, and so this afternoon I sat in the slanting late-afternoon light of the atelier for about an hour and a half, listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and considering a concept which my mother calls “non-dualistic thinking”.

So.

Two things which appear to be opposites, incompatible, or mutually exclusive can nevertheless coexist in the world, and in a human being.

I can appreciate the amount of effort it requires to host students and still wish that our living situation did not at all resemble the one we got.

I can be pleased that my classes this semester were so easy and also be quite furious with their uselessness.

I can be living fully, as a whole person, in the current and preposterously fortunate moment and still recognize that pieces of myself are missing – snug on the top of an Iowa hillside, roaming the sun-baked wilds of Australia, standing in cozy Denver kitchens.

I can be heartbroken at the thought of leaving and deeply, longingly delighted at the thought of going home.

…The natural segue-way at this point is better suited to a wrap-up post than this one, still two weeks out. So I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite quotes, memorized from childhood (long before I had any clue what it meant) from the square of paper stuck to a cupboard in my mother’s kitchen:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.”
– Walt Whitman

Will be on a flight to Milan in nine hours! (Which, contrary to the tone of this post, I am EXTRA PUMPED about.) See you on the flipside, readers.

 

Day 84 (of large drafty castles and holiday cheer)

Palais des Papes, Avignon.

Châteaux! Three châteaux in the last seven days! THREE! Now, that may not seem like a very large number. But MAN those things are big. Three of them taking up memory on the hard drive in my head is nothing to sneeze at – at this rate I’m going to forget where I put my shoes amidst all the visions of 15th-century stonework. But if they’re so troublesome, why have I been galavanting around Provence in search of immense, agéd shells of former glory? For Academia, of course! (What else?) See, I’m in this class called History and Culture of Provence Through Its Monuments. This more-than-usually-descriptive name admirably explains why Prof Durand has gotten to drag us out of bed at 8 AM for the last two Saturdays. But he wasn’t the only one; Yamina also sounded the reveille at an unholy hour last Sunday, and off we bused, sleepily, to the towns of Isle sur la Sorgue and Fountain de Vaucluse. What I’m trying to say is, there’s been a lot of Provence in my life.

Saturday 19 November: Avignon

Infamous for its role in the Great Schism, Avignon is now a somewhat sleepy tourist destination like so much of Provence – but unlike some towns, it manages to retain its own sense of life apart from this most profitable industry. We visited the Palais des Papes, the palace where said popes held court, and next to it the Musée du Petit Palais.

Great Hall at the Palais des Papes.

It’s hard to get a real sense of departed grandeur from the bare, pale stone walls (whence the tapestries? the painted ceilings? the boars merrily roasting in massive fireplaces?) but one can, at the very least, appreciate the size of the operation. Soaring Gothic façade, endless spiral staircases, echoing banquet halls, rooms upon spacious rooms – they weren’t messing around, these folks. Post-plague, they were the rulers of western civilization, such as it was. It shows.

Yeah. Lots of these.

The Musée was somewhat astonishing in its own right, housing extensive examples of art circa the papal period. You can watch the Byzantine influence (simple perspective, inexpressive faces, gold-leaf background, proportions more in line with symbolism than reality) morph through Romanesque, Gothic and into pre-Renaissance, by which point sophisticated spacial perspective and realistic/emotive renderings of the human figure are de rigueur. There’s even a provençal school, which took its own journey through this transformation. Fascinating. However. Like, I imagine, most of the rest of the world, I can only handle so many Madonna and Childs where the baby Christ looks like a slightly deranged miniature adult and the Virgin’s breast comes out of her collarbone before before my brain shuts off in protest. Throwing in a handful of Annunciations helps a bit, but let’s be real, our strategy for prioritizing in the Louvre was to keep an eye out for pottery or Jesus and then go the opposite direction.

Sunday 20 November: Isle sur la Sorgue & Fountain-de-Vaucluse

There’s not much to say about Isle sur la Sorgue. It’s a bitsy town with cute but baffling little streets, an incongruously extensive market, thriving antique dealers, and a canel that runs lackadaisically through it, bequeathing it the name “Little Venice of Provence.” Womp womp. We got lunch there. Moving on.

Now, Fountain-de-Vaucluse is another story. I’d put it on anybody’s Must-See-In-Provence list. It’s beautiful. A tiny commune settled at the foot of dramatic cliffs, the main attraction of this town is the source of the river Sorgue, which magically appears from the cliffs powered by Europe’s most powerful spring. Thing is, no one’s actually been able to trace the spring back to its own beginning. Mark (tour guide extraordinaire) told me that they sent a probe down there in the sixties and it exploded from the water pressure before it even hit bottom. Now probably our robot probe technology has advanced some since then. But I rather think scientists have stopped trying; in a rare admission of the occasional value of wonder over knowledge, maybe they’ve ceded the spring its mystery. Petrarch, composing poems to his beloved Laura in the shadow of the cliffs, retroactively approves.

At the source in Fountain-de-Vaucluse - or are we?

Saturday 24 November: Tarascon & Les Baux

Thought you were done with drafty old castles? haHA! Fools. Should’ve thought of that before you signed up for a history course in a château-rich region, shouldn’t you?

Nah, but really, they’re cool. I love castles. I still remember the one we visited in Wales when I was nine. If I take my children to Europe when they’re young (which is a whole other question), we’re going on a castle tour. Something for everyone.

The Tarasque, mysthical dragon/monster/scary thing that gave the town its name.

In Tarascon, fans of fantastical mythologies will enjoy the city’s founding myth, which involves a dragonesque monster with fangs, giant claws, and a spiny carapace being vanquished by Saint Martha after terrorizing the countryside – incidentally, signalling the commencement of the cult of saints, and therefore Christianity, in the area. You can find a bone fragment of Saint Martha housed in state in a nearby church that was expressly built for the purpose of honoring said fragment. The statue of the Tarasque (for it is he) resides near the château.

Château at Tarascon.

Château, however, can be a misleadingly broad term. This is not a château in the sense that Versailles is a château, or even the Palais des Papes. This is a château like the Bastille is a château. It was built to monitor commercial traffic on the Rhône river (which it is so close to that the latrines in the castle’s upper levels empty straight into it, grâce de long chutes) and serve as a military stronghold during the temps des comtes, the period in which independent Provence was ruled by many counts and their powerful families. When le roi René, last king of Provence, moved there in the 1400s, he tried to spruce it up a bit. There are some nice pre-Renaissance windows and the chapel is beautiful. But again, none of the decorations have survived – though in this case that has more to do with the castle’s incarnation as a prison in the 17th century. They could deny the prisoners any relief from the freezing stone rooms, but they couldn’t break their spirits; this place has some of the coolest graffiti in the world.

Graffiti of a sailing ship c. 1750, château de Tarascon.

The château at Les Baux was another thing entirely. Largely ruined, you reach it by climbing up through the impossibly picturesque village of Les-Baux-de-Provence, which derives its name from the old provençal word baus, meaning “high plateau”. It’s quite high. Once you get to the top of the ruins, you can see Mount Saint-Victoire (our mountain!) in the not-so-distant distance. It was so astounding that I couldn’t even be angry at the Mistral for trying to blow us off onto the rocky slopes below. No doubt it was angling for the historical irony, throwing people off the plateau being a favorite method of getting rid of prisoners.

Château at Les-Baux-de-Provence.

View from the top.

So those are the regional tourism adventures. It also happens to be Christmastime in Aix-en-Provence. This is quite apparent. The Cours Mirabeau, and the rest of centre-ville, has been decked out in its luminous holiday finest, complete with light-up disco-ball looking things strung over the Cours, one of which hangs right over the statue of roi René and which I always imagine falling and impaling itself on his crown. But even more exciting than that prospect is the Christmas market. Open at least most days from now until Christmas, it consists of almost a hundred small châlets with vendors selling anything from soap to tiny glass figurines to mulled wine to waffles drizzled with Grand Marinier. That wine is habit-forming. I intend to make a vat of it when I get home and dole it out to family, friends, and neighbors, thus inspiring a global movement for peace based on the belief that everyone should have equal access to mulled wine. YUM. From now until Wednesday, just in case we weren’t being tempted enough, there is ALSO a festival of international goods, with MORE châlets selling MORE delicious looking foodstuffs (and some nonedible goods, but whatever). I am a seer. Portuguese pastries are in my future.

Christmastime on the Cours Mirabeau.

Yup, Christmas is NUTS here. There were probably a thousand people on the Cours Mirabeau at 6 PM tonight. Oh, and did I mention the live music? and the carnival rides? If I were a child growing up in Aix-en-Provence, and my favorite holiday wasn’t Christmas, I’d go get myself looked at.

What now? How to follow up châteaux? Hmmm. Perhaps I’ll go to Italy. From today we have precisely three weeks until the end of our program, and here’s how they’re going to go:

study, take tests, leave for Milan, study, take tests, party (LAST WEEKEND OMG), study, take finals, cry from sadness, get on a plane, come home, cry from joy.

Life, eh?

Day 75 (in the greenest country)

It’s hard to pick a favorite part of an extended adventure like this one, because terrific moments just multiply so energetically. It’s a problem. But I find the “consecutive days” measure to be a useful one, comme ça: This weekend, in Derry, Northern Ireland, was the best four consecutive days of my semester thus far.

Why such a superlative? Some background. I was in Derry with seven other IAU kids to attend the Conference on Divided Societies. Sparing you the torturous travel details, we flew in on Thursday night, conferenced Thursday-Saturday, and flew out Sunday night. It was brilliant. Here’s why.

There is not really anything more amazing than finding yourself in a room with sixty-odd curious, intelligent, open-minded people. This conference draws study-abroad students from all over Europe, as well as grad students and students from the host school (in this case, the beautiful University of Ulster) – not to mention the adults, from experts on conflict resolution to a speaker from the US Institute of Peace (google it! probably the best-spent money in government) to a lady who was newly returned from peacekeeping work in Palestine. Because we were staying in hostels and eating meals together in addition to the official conference activities, this diverse collection of humans became a nearly instant community. Helped along by an invigoratingly egalitarian tone, in which the opinion of clueless undergrads such as myself was given the same consideration as the response of a career diplomat, this fostered some of the most honest and least charged discussion I’ve ever seen. Not that there weren’t tense moments (hard to avoid them when the libertarians get warmed up), but then we all went and got a beer, and that was the end of that.

Though there were piles of memorable moments (singing La Bamba at a pub at midnight with Spanish tourists; how our tour guide was probably the best actor I’ve ever seen, in the purest sense of finding a new truth in the same words, even the hundredth time; getting drinks with the prez of IAU on Friday night; arguments on political theory that lasted all through dinner and into dessert), here’s the one idea that’s going to stick with me, even when my notoriously poor medium-term memory has lost track of the specifics:

This is, as much as possible, how education should be conducted.

Hands of Peace statue, Derry.

Let’s be honest – Cornell College is not a big place. This can be true not only geographically but also conceptually. For the most part we are too similar, either in our opinions on important topics or our ignorance of them; we have largely comparable educational, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our discussions become circular easily. None of which is to say that I don’t learn from fellow Cornellians – I absolutely do. But somehow it’s not quite the same as sitting in a circle with a trilingual German, a Dutch girl writing her Master’s thesis, an American attending a conservative undergrad business school, and an Irish reporter who describes herself as “not at all a capitalist.” I could actually feel my brain expanding. I have never learned so much about my own unconscious assumptions in one sitting.

Why isn’t everything we do based on dialogue? (this week’s Economist cartoon notwithstanding.) It wouldn’t have to be political dialogue, although pretty much everything worth debating is somehow “political”. What if an essential element of our secondary and post-secondary education was the opportunity to attend conferences on subjects that interested us? Can we resurrect Socrates and repurpose lecture halls? I do tend to fall asleep in lectures (there are witnesses to this across several continents). And also forget everything after the test is over. So, instead – teach us how to talk to each other? how to construct a verbal argument, how to present information, how to be real listeners? Train us, not to memorize, but to be problem-solvers, conflict-resolvers, critical thinkers, global skeptics, educated optimists. Bring us together, because it makes it a lot harder to forget that we’re all just people.

That’s the this-weekend-rearranged-my-brain-cells story. The other part of the story is Derry itself. Another “I have never”: I have never been to a city where history is so emphatically something that is still happening. The Troubles linger in the stones of the city, in the murals, in pub decorations, in the demographics of Derry’s neighborhoods; people button up shirts to hide crucifix necklaces before crossing the river. The peace settlement was brokered by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and the people there still honor their herculean efforts. Northern Ireland’s school system remains profoundly segregated between Catholic and Protestant children. The last bomb was last month. It’s difficult to describe – it’s just that everyone we met lived through it, or their parents did. Ancient ruins and 15th-century churches and 18th-century revolutions are important, I guess, but they are never going to seem as real to me as this courageous Irish city. Which is why, if I ruled the world, history would be taught chronologically backwards.

One of the multiple murals commemorating - remembering - the Troubles.

I seem to have left out vast swaths of important stuff, like most of the details of what we actually did, but as I could write about this forever, I’m instead going to stop here. Moral of the story, for me: Once, I let an opportunity like this pass by – never again. You just never know when you’re going to get on a plane to Ireland and come back a different person.

Day 74 (rewind)

(fast-forward 29 days)

Fall break is over and fall has begun. The trees are pretty, if you can make them out through the occasional torrential rain. Facebook has received a generous gift of 165 photos of my adventures, not only in Paris with Britton Esposito, but also in London and Ireland with an unfairly wonderful group of IAU folk (unfair because I wanted to stay in Derry solving world crises with them forever and could not). Also I’m awake at 4:00 AM, again, because – well, who knows, really. My backwards physiology remains a mystery.

(zzzzzzzzzzzzzzip rewind)

But I never told you about our Roman ruins excursion! Ai ai ai. Okay. Calling a cheat again. Remember how you watched Andrew Eaton’s fabulous videoblog post about our trip to Arles? Good news! The St. Remy one is twenty minutes long, contains some excellent Provençal history, and also me talking about gross Roman hygiene. Shazam.

Cloister near St. Remy.

Unfortunately an in-depth post about my week in Paris is unrealistic, because I haven’t done any schoolwork in approximately a month and my inner type-A student is looking a bit the worse for wear (frazzled hair, old makeup circles under the eyes, tableau of empty paper coffee cups, you know the problem). So I’m gonna go deal with her for a sec – right after I write a small treatise about the awesomeness of Ireland.

Nice to be back. Hope I’ve still got readers after that small sabbatical. You are my everything.

Day 45 (one birthday and a whole slew of adventures)

Things which exist are generally thought to have a certain sort of permanence, or at the very least a minimum of predictability. With this axiom in mind, the last two weeks have led me to believe that Time does not, strictly speaking, exist. For example: whilst painting, it does not tick away like a reasonable universal concept, but in fact stops when you take out your easel and doesn’t see fit to begin again until five minutes after you shoud’ve started cleaning up. And when you are behind on blog posts it rolls double sixes every turn – do NOT pass go, do NOT collect €145.39 (that’s $200, for those keeping up with the capricious exchange rate).

Also, midterms week is upon us. Having never before experienced this academic phenomenon, I am not, perhaps, handling it with maximum grace. How does one study for four classes at once?!! Answer: less thoroughly. Trying not to stress too much about it, seeing as how I could technically fail all my classes and suffer no consequences except the utter demise of my intellectual pride… hmmm. Perhaps I should be stressing a bit more. What kind of madcap, inhumane schedule puts multiple midterms in one week? I ask you.

But look at all the things one can do when one casts off the chains of homework!

Friday 7 October – Sightseeing in Marseille

Julie and Val at Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille.

Inside Notre Dame de la Gard.

And then it was my birthday! Here’s how it went:

Left at 7:45ish AM to catch the bus to Arles. I could tell you all about that, but instead I’m just going to link you to my friend Andrew’s videoblog, A) because he does an awesome job with this trip and I’m in the video, and B) so you can watch his other video entries, because no matter how many words I write or pictures I post, I’ll never be able to convey a complete sense of place like 7 minutes of nicely-edited camera action. Okay, maybe just one picture:

Outside of the amphithéâtre in Arles.

So when we returned from Arles, my fellow dinner companions and I ran home, changed clothes in record time, and met up at Pasta Cozy. We were tipped off about this restaurant by Hilary and Brian when we did the first wine tasting, which was held in the restaurant’s “cave” and included luscious samples of Pasta Cozy’s utterly innovative tapas and desserts. Martin showed up just in time for dessert and bought us another bottle of wine; festive times all around.

l-r: Wandiba, Laura, me, Val, Julie.

Prof Durand being teacherly at Entremont.

Lessee, what even happened last week. Oh! We did get to Entremont, actually LAST Thursday, after being thwarted the week before by French ambivalence towards functionality in the public sector (long story short, despite several emails, the directrice of the site forgot that we were coming, didn’t realize the gardener had closed and locked the main gate, and neglected to mention that the buzzer-intercom thing was thoroughly cassé). Here’s a story about Entremont: it’s like 2000 years old. The Salyens (the main Gallic tribe in present-day Provence) founded it around 190 BCE, expanded it around 140 BCE, and got pwned by the Romans (what else is new) around 123 BCE. The Roman settlement Aquae Sextiae (present-day Aix-en-Provence – whoa!) was founded at the foot of the former Entremont plateau shortly thereafter. Only the bases of the walls remain, with a few other artifacts, including ubiquitous pottery shards that you can pry out of the ground. You can touch everything, in fact, and realize with utter astonishment that other hands once touched those stones, wayyyyyy back in the day. Prof Durand says that it’s a little-known historical treasure, and that many Aixois haven’t even been there. They’re missing out. History is cool.

Fast-forward through a Economics quiz (“Question #7: Who had a lover named Europe?”) to the weekend. Martin and I spent most of Friday shopping for, preparing, and consuming ginger-pineapple fried rice, which sort of assuaged my cooking bug, but really I think just encouraged it. We’re planning stirfry for next time.

the star of the show.

Saturday, as per usual, we woke up at an ungodly hour for Saturdays and ran to catch a cartetreize bus. (You should understand that when I say “we”, I actually mean “I”, but I have a compelling aversion to using the latter pronoun in narration when said narration includes other people.) This one took us to La Ciotat, another jewel of the Med – I just can’t get enough! We were on the hunt for some hiking, but the lady at the Office de Tourisme insisted that without a guide hiking was “interdict!” in the area. So, we called the guide company. They were closed. So, we called the ferry people to see if they would take us out to the L’Isle Verte, but after September they take people only by reservation, and anyway, they were closed. Zut! You get 0/10 on the helpfulness scale, La Ciotat. At this point we lost two of our party to the siren song of Marseille, but Lauren, Martin, and I struck heedlessly out, intending to find a trail and feign ignorance and language barriers.

What we found, after a beautiful park and some dead-end trails, was this sign:

Signpost in La Ciotat.

Ah ha, we said. Cassis, 3h10m. This must be the overland trail we read about in some random lady’s blog a month ago. That sounds like fun, we should do it sometime.

And then we walked to Cassis.

This trail should be on all lists in all books entitled Hikes to Complete Before You Die, or any variation thereof. Coming up over the lip of a hill onto a promontory 1000 ft up, with the open sea straight ahead, La Ciotat on the one hand and Cassis nestled in the bay on the other, I had to laugh, at the sheer outrageous beauty of it.

Looking towards Cassis (hidden in the bay behind that middle-ground mountain).

IF I live through it my midterms, we’re going to St. Remy and Les Baux on Saturday, to do more picnicking and see the ruins of Glanum. That’s another Gallic site ruthlessly sacked by the Romans, though this time the conquerors added a nice touch: an arc de triomphe which the people of the settlement had to walk through every time they wanted to enter or leave the city. Just in case they forgot who was boss in these parts.

à bientôt, mes amis!

P.S. Besides Andrew, an excellent blog is also being kept by Ms. Lauren Wright. Now you can live vicariously from multiple perspectives!

Day 32 (work hard play hard)

That’s a pretty common idea on college campuses, but somehow, until now, I’ve never quite understood it. Usually I just work. Now there’s no self-pity there – bizarre as I am, I really don’t mind it. But, nevertheless, I am often to be found in the Commons on a Friday night, taking advantage of the absence of others to catch up on my politics reading.

All this is to say that my life here is almost as different from my real life as it is possible to be while still residing in a developed country. The academics are, pardon my slight judgement, not at all difficult comparatively speaking. This lends a certain fluidity to the days which makes them pass with startling speed, but also, and best of all, frees up weekends to be purely adventurous.

Hiking in Cassis.

For instance. This Saturday, we up and went to Cassis. Using our miraculous tickettreize bus passes, we managed to get all the way to the charming seaside town (and back) for a whole €2. Besides stunning views of the Med, Cassis is famous for the “calanques” – long cliffs which jut out into the sea. Braving the sun, the mobs of tourists with backpacking poles, and the at times nearly vertical trail, we set out to hike to the beach between the final two calanques (only accessible by foot or boat). For hike-ophiles: Not long or hugely arduous, but so gorgeous. So unique. Good thing, too, because when we got to the beach, it was quite crowded, and the sun had dropped behind the right-hand calanque so it was a bit shady for swimming. For my cowardly self, at least. Crazy Martin and Adam, on the other hand, climbed onto the last sunny rock and leapt into the chilly sea. So not so much a swimming day, though we had a very successful picnic. However, probably the coolest hike I’ve ever done.

I call this one "Val Regardes the Vaucluse."

On Sunday, we bounced out of bed (or lurched, depending on soreness from the hike – agh quads) and rallied around Yamina in front of the Office de Tourisme for our second IAU-sponsered day trip. They very thoughtfully set up these trips to take us places it would normally be difficult for us to get to, not generally having access to cars. Sunday it was the Luberon, that prettiest hilliest region of Provence, made immortal in the minds of generations by Peter Mayle, that funny Brit, and his seminal work of travel literature, A Year in Provence. He’s right – I can’t imagine there’s anywhere else like it in the whole entire world. With the rolling green hills, neat vineyards, Roman ruins crumbling casually in fields, and abundance of medieval hilltop villages, it’s a bit unbelievable, actually.

My friend Andi, at least seven times on Sunday: “Guys, I don’t think this is real life.”

At the old château in Lourmarin.

We went first to Lourmarin, where the aforementioned Mr. Mayle lived in a self-renovated country house until moving sometime this past summer, and which is so charming you just want to hug the 16th-century buildings. We were lucky enough to tour the Old Château there, 15th-century itself, though parts of it are built on the ruins of an 11th-century fortress.The gardens were full of flowers taking advantage of the Indian summer to show off just a little more, and the rooms were impeccably furnished with historical items from all over France (china from Apt in the kitchen; engravings by Piranesi in the dining room; furniture from Lorraine in the music room; Provençal cupboards and chairs in the bedroom).

miniature cookpots made of bullet casings.

Actually my favorite part was a small display on the third floor called “Art From the Trenches” which was, as one might guess, a collection of art pieces created by soldiers during wartime. Pretty inspiring. Also interesting to note how observational ALL of it was; miniatures of everyday items, perfect replicas of fighter jets. These men weren’t trying to escape their reality. They almost seem to be honoring it.

After poking around in Lourmarin for a cup of café and picnic supplies (yeah, we picnic a LOT) we bused over to Lacoste (of preppy polo shirt fame, though the village couldn’t seem further from overpriced American shopping malls). Lacoste, so tiny there isn’t a bakery – can you even be a town in France without a bakery? – also has the dubious honor of being home to the château of the Marquis de Sade, now much restored after several centuries of being pillaged for stone by nearby farmers. You have to climb all the way to the top of Lacoste, one of those hilltop villages, to see it, but the château and the view from the plateau on which it stands are breathtaking. Oh goodness, so much picnicking and picture-taking was had in that place on that sunny Sunday afternoon. (Incidentally, I was shocked when I got home to find how few pictures I’d actually taken. I think I registered every time a shutter went off in my general vicinity as a picture, thus inflating my photo estimate by about 400).

Château of the Marquis de Sade in Lacoste.

The ochre cliffs at Roussillon.

Our last stop was the village of Roussillon, which gets its reddish hue from the earth all around it. The French call it “the Colorado of the Luberon”, which makes me chuckle – red rocks, large sweeping massifs, there certainly were. We thought it looked a little like Utah, but then really it didn’t look like anything else we’d ever seen. We left with shoes covered in red dust and eating gelato almost to the man.

See?!!! Weekends. And this one will be almost as bad. And by bad I mean AMAZING. (It’s also my birthday.)

me and Martin at wine and cheese night.

Other hip-happenings! Been to two wine tastings now (one wine AND cheese, om nom nom nom) with Brian and Hilary, the extremely knowledgeable and hilarious young owners of Wine in Provence (ps only English-speaking wine tastings in Aix. go there. look them up). I’m still an absolute novice, but my aunt and uncle may be pleased to know that I am no longer utterly clueless. For instance, I now know that the “New World” of winemaking (think Australia, South America, and the US) generally refer to wines by grape, while the Old World (France, Spain, Italy) refer to them by region.

“Oh my goodness, I just love Pinot Noir,” says the rich lady from Napa Valley to her country-club girlfriends. “And I had a simply fabulous sauvingnon blanc last week at that new tapas restaurant downtown.” Meanwhile, in France, champagne comes from Champagne, bordeaux comes from Bordeaux, dijon mustard comes from Dijon, and rocquefort comes from – you guessed it – the village of Rocquefort. Unsurprisingly, this pattern can be traced back to France’s love affair with bureaucracy, which I believe I have ranted about elsewhere. I think we’ve successfully wheedled Brian and Hilary into setting up a special wine and chocolate tasting as well – i.e. I can die happy after that night.

We’ve also been painting away at our master copies. Unfortunately we are now out of class time – tomorrow we head out into capacious and intimidating Nature, and attempt to, uh, “paint what we see.” Hmmm. I envision many more hours at the atelier.

painting outside.

Also tomorrow (eventful day!) we head out to Entremont, ruins of the village that preceded Aix, on a field trip with our history class. So many field trips! So much adventure.

Day 22 (when attempting a hike, it does help to walk towards the mountain)

For our facebook-enabled, but not -addicted readers (the addicts already know): many photos of the adventures contained in these virtual pages have now entered the interwebz. My face and my house, the two most requested subjects in these comment threads – one entire vote each! – are prominently featured.

Ah, what an excellent weekend. We quit the city on Friday afternoon in epic fashion; it was epic because there were like twelve of us, the bus to St-Victoire left at 12:15 from we didn’t really know where, half of our group had class until noon, and we STILL all made it. We even got off at the right stop.

nice range of shoes, right?

After that, though, we got a little disoriented, and took a path that seemed legit but in retrospect took us an hour or so in the opposite direction from the mountain we were attempting to summit. I should have warned everyone that an incontrovertible law of existence is that I will get lost the first time I try to go anywhere; I take full responsibility. Luckily folks were chill, and were much more inclined to be delighted with the natural scenery, the gorgeous day, the perfectly blue reservoir, and the piles of food than to be disgruntled about our collective directional challenges. Next time, we promised each other. Now we know the way. This time, however, we’re going to sit on these rocks and eat the quintessential French picnic, which we call “Everything on Baguettes.” Camembert, salami, chèvre, hummus, wine, nutella, fig jam, grapes, melted chocolate bars, hard cider, guacamole, other kinds of baguette… ah, sandwiches, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

picnic by the barrage de Bimont.

lunch at the Montmarte in Marseille. We recommend the salmon tagliatelle.

On Saturday we dragged ourselves out of bed at the utterly atrocious hour of 9:00 AM and got on a bus to Marseille. Luckily the other thing we did on Friday was mob the bus station and acquire the priceless Carte Treize bus pass. Actually, it’s quite easy to price it. Every time you use it you save ≥ €8, because it allows you 24 hours of unlimited bus transfers in the Provence-Alps-Côtes d’Azure region for two whole euro. Uh, yes, please and thank you. So we hopped on the Aix-Marseille bus, hopped off in a new city, snapped some pictures of the Arc de Triomphe (yup there’s one here too – the French like to commemorate their victories, perhaps more than anyone) and struck out for the Office de Tourisme where a dude was quite pleased to show a group of chatty American girls how to get around the city. We had talked about visiting the Chateau d’If, site of The Count of Monte Christo, but decided to put off sightseeing until our next visit and devote ourselves instead to shopping, and lunch. Mmmmm… lunch.

In front of the Arc de Triomphe in Marseille.

Shopping was also quite successful. Despite being in France, or perhaps because of it (hipster fashion has a certain universality), we managed to outfit Andi in red-brown femme combat boots and flannel, not to mention find €2 scarves and €10 flats. Turns out Marseille is A LOT cheaper than Aix. As Andi’s host mother says, “Aix is a city of the rich. Malheureusement, Marseille is a city of the poor.” It reminded us of New York, a bit. Maybe it was just the storefronts selling piles of sweatshirts still wrapped in plastic… But it’s a fascinating city. It’s got a lot more depth than Aix, a cultural and demographic complexity that our swank little town tries and fails to manufacture. On the other hand, it’s LOUD, and big, and definitely not safe to walk around in at 3 AM, which is one of our favorite Aixois pastimes. So, pros and cons. I’m inclined to love where we live. Mount Vernon is good training for not feeling getting cabin fever – I mean, hell, there are restaurants open at 9:00 PM in Aix. Everything is relative.

So now I’ve spent most of Sunday at my computer, trying to catch up with life and get my voice back/shake this cold I’ve got going on. Tomorrow has lots of computer work in it as well, unfortunately. Maybe I’ll take a time out, by a copy of La Monde, and go sit in the Parc Jordan. À demain!

Day 17 (a gracious plenty)

As it’s been a little while since I’ve done a real post, as opposed to a cop-out photo-essay post, some loose ends:

Alas, no choir for me. Turns out the University choir has only one concert, and it happens in May, so, nothing doin’. Instead, we plan to find some good karaoke. I’ll probably also try to bully Dr. Thull into scanning me some music so I can at least know the darn things for voice lessons when I get back. Dear random Cornell choir readers, I miss you and will be ecstatic to return to your ranks.

On the COM/JOU 307 front, I think I’m pulling the instinct card again. I love all my other classes and am quite pleased to be going to them (except french sometimes, but only because it’s at 9 AM). In startling contrast, this one triggers a disconcerting sensation of amorphous despair every time I think about it, which in similar previous circumstances has ALWAYS been a predictor of academic doom. I don’t need it for the credits, and I can keep up with the news on my own – what’s the use of staying? So Dr. Smith is going to get a visit from me tomorrow, I’ll let you know how that goes.

Our meticulously planned expedition to Mount St-Victoire was, of all things, rained out! It’s been 80° of indian summer every other day we’ve been here, of course. But we have launched the good ship Rescheduling and have high hopes for this weekend; nothing comes between me and a good mountain picnic for long.

Last weekend wasn’t a complete bust, however. Au contraire. We explored the Grand Marché, which is the, ah, giant market that sprouts magically from the cobblestones in front of the Palais de Justice every Saturday morning. I tell you, this thing is enough in itself to make me wish I lived here. How are we ever supposed to try everything? What possible use do we have for those glorious Provençal tablecloths? What are we supposed to do with a astonishing heap of glorious deep-purple eggplants?

à la grande marché.

à la grande marché aussi.

Pavillion de Vendôme. We went into that building.

It was also les Journées du Patrimoine, the national two-day celebration of French heritage. All over the country this event is characterized by live music, free entry to museums and historic buildings not generally open to the public, and more markets than ever. We got in on the action by visiting the Museum of Natural History (très petite but there was half of a dinosaur!) and the Pavillion de Vendôme (one of the aforementioned historic and usually-closed buildings). The accompanying park and rose garden are stunning and well-maintained, but as you can’t go on the grass, I can’t help but feel that most of the point of perfect swatches of green grass is lost. I mean, it’s pretty, but it’s no Washington Park :0 I suppose I’ve just been spoiled by growing up five minutes from the best park in the largest urban park system in the US; not everything can be the epitome of parkness. Le sigh.

Aside from the one dud class, news from academia is all good. We had our first real class in HIS 328 this Monday, and Val and I left with big smiles. This prof is good. How he manages to make Provençal geography totally fascinating, I’ll never know – some combination of incisive intelligence, people-smarts, humor, and definitive PowerPoint skills. We get to go on field trips to explore Provence with this dude! For heaven’s sake, I learn English words reading our coursepack. Oleaginous? Conurbation? where does he get this stuff?

Gesso in progress.

Painting & Drawing, meanwhile, is gearing up to be life-changing. I could live in the atelier, I like it there so much. We’ve embarked now on the great odyssey of landscape painting. Just small steps first – chose a masterwork to copy, gesso our cardboard (that’s covering it with white acrylic paint, which I didn’t know until today either), do some algebra, and cut out “canvases” to scale. Thursday we’ll mix paint and probably even start painting o_O Our instructors are very much of the try-by-doing, read: try-by-failing, school of thought, which is freeing. Who cares if your first painting sucks? You’ll do another one. You’ve got a lifetime.

In the meantime, between homework and exploring, lots of travel plans are in the works. We’re getting itchy to get out of Aix for the weekend – we’re thinking Marseilles while the weather’s still nice. AND my bestest buddy Britton Esposito got the go-ahead from her boss to come visit for our fall break (!!!!!!). A whole week of adventures, which will include her birthday! I’m pumped. Watch out, Europe.

Day 12 (I’ve grown accustomed to her face)

Today, a brief photo essay, for several reasons.

1. There were, once again, few noteworthy happenings.
2. I am growing complacent about the extraordinary city in which I live.
3. Everyone likes pictures.

good morning!

chez nous!

The arch I walk through every day.

Cathedral St-Saveur, up the street and across the place from IAU.

One of the many startling examples of Provençal flora that I regularly encounter.

Parc de la Torse, on my way to painting & drawing.

the atelier Marchutz, where I have art class.

inside the atelier.

art supplies.

In not-photographic news, we have a very exciting picnic/hike expedition up Mt. Saint-Victoire planned for Sunday. Now we just have to figure out the buses.

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