Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Return to Provence

A tiny apartment with a red tile floor and a palm tree outside the white-shuttered window still appears in my dreams from time to time even tough I last lived there three years ago. Mont Sainte-Victoire invades my thoughts with her weirdly jagged from, and I can still walk the narrow streets of the centre ville simply by closing my eyes. I recognized then the beauty of the place without realizing just how deeply I had fallen under its spell. After a less-than-enchanted semester in Madrid, it became clear that the feeling was not a simple love of traveling or the thrill of becoming foreign, but I persisted in attributing it to something internal, some greater theme or turn of mind. Finally, after three years with neither an adequate description nor explanation for that magical spring, I made plans to return to Aix, fearing all the while that I would find it somehow different and thereby ruin my fondest memories.

I arrived in the rain, which was unusual but did nothing to spoil the view of Mont Sainte-Victoire greeting me at the train station. Climbing on the shuttle into town, I discovered the driver singing along to Louis Armstrong and a gospel choir on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and couldn't hide my amusement. I took refuge from the drizzle at Book-in-Bar, a British bookshop and café before finding a small hotel with sufficient vacancy to welcome me and proceeded to spend the evening wandering near-empty streets still wondering what had brought me back.

The next morning, I buzzed the door to 15, rue Cardinale and strolled into the Vanderbilt-in-France office unannounced. At that moment, I knew that I would always belong in Aix: bisous from Maité and Manu preceded a long chat about Morocco, foreign affairs, the current students and life in general. The Vanderbilt center had been my home once before, and I found them willing to welcome me still with arms wide open. I stepped back onto the street with the familiarity of an Aixoise rather than the trepidation of a foreigner and set about rediscovering my heart's true home.

It is all still there. The majesty of St. Jean de Malte, the curious patchwork of the Cathedral and the imposing oak doors to the Institut des Études Politiques remain landmarks on my internal map. A slice of of mozzarella from Pizza Capri tasted as deliciously gooey as ever, and the sheer pleasure of staking out a bench on the Cours Mirabeau to people-watch is still an unequalled pastime (especially when done with a lemon-sugar crêpe in hand). I wandered the markets, saw a movie, window-shopped the winter sales and slipped naturally back into my French self, even in my quietest thoughts. The only break in the spell came each night as I unlocked a hotel room instead of my cozy palm-treed apartment.

I plotted to stay. I envisioned running a restaurant, a hotel, a bookstore; asking Book-in-Bar to hire me as a clerk; begging Maité to find something for me to do at the school. Visions of a life in Aix taunted me with the promise of golden sunshine and the freshest fruits, a small French dog and the familiar winding streets of the medieval neighborhood. What I fool I would be for leaving! Who needed Morocco, or for that matter, graduate school?

Eventually, the time came to leave and I made my departure quietly, on the same shuttle with the same gravelly-voiced gospel. I spent the train ride to Grenoble reminding myself of Plan A, and by the time I stepped into Sarah's apartment I felt comfortable thinking about other places again. It's been over a week now and I'm no longer on the same continent, but I still feel myself wanting to throw everything else aside and run away to Provence...I can't explain the magic, but its hold on me is forever strong.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Medina: an introduction

The taxi drops us off at a massive blue keyhole gate in the old city wall and the first impression that strikes me is one of sheer energy - the noise and motion of many people in a small space. Next I notice a rich mixture of odors, from the fruit stands and spice vendors, but also from the muddy road and the animals on it. I hear Arabic, French and English over strains of Shakira and Manu Chao competing with traditional instrumental melodies. Down the street, a donkey is laboring under the weight of the load of propane tanks it is carrying...past an internet cafe. The medina is sensory overload, and it is exhausting in its juxtapositions.

The place: the medina is old Fes, whose new section was built by Merinids fleeing Andalusia late in the Reconquista and whose original streets have been worn down by over a thousand years of passers-by. It is full of beautifully tiled fountains, intricately sculpted stone arches and ornate woodwork, but it is also a maze of winding, narrow streets packed with an endless variety of small shops and stalls hawking oranges and cassettes, silk scarves, fresh pastries and computer accessories. The medina claims the world's oldest university (though Cairo contests this boast) and is home to a royal fortress/palace, a green-roofed mosque and a spectacular madrassa. Lora and I follow a series of signs through a Berber carpet shop and up the back stairs to a rooftop view of the minaret, the surrounding hills and the chaos below.

The people: Ibrahim, who shows us his family's antiques in the "museum" above his jewellry shop and kisses our cheeks à la française, exemplifies Moroccan hospitality. The young men in the street leave a harsher impression, hawking their cheap bracelets, pushing their tourguide abilities, or simply catcalling in our direction. One shop owner chases us down to return 11 dirhams (about $1.50) Lora had dropped in his changing room, while one fruit vendor shouts and tries to charge me after I take a photo of his wares in the sunshine (I shout back and delete the photo).

Life: You can buy traditional dresses and headscarves in the same shops as European imports, and local crafts next to "made in China" knockoffs, and the Coca-cola in the cafe got there on a donkey's back since the streets are too narrow for cars. The road is alive with noise and motion, but if you step through the right doorway you might just find a deserted shop or a quiet garden hiding behind the wall. After three hours of wandering, I am exhausted. Lora has bought (with her fierce bargaining skills) a keychain and a scarf, and we two have eaten our way along, with fried bread from one stall and eclairs from another, with the fruit vendors and coffee along the way. By my rough guesses in the guidebook map, we have followed one street most of the length of the Fes al-Bali neighborhood and seen only the tiniest fraction of its offerings. I collapse back into the taxi, cheerfully overwhelmed by the medina and already eager to return.

Freezing in Fes

You don't know cold. "But Katy," you tell me, "I've been in Colorado in January, skiing in sub-zero, high wind conditions!" Not good enough. "But Katy, I nearly frostbit my hands shoveling the driveway after that last huge storm!" Still no good. "But Katy, I sled-dog tripped to the North Pole and then lost my coat in a whiteout!" Okay, you can have the benefit of a doubt.

It's not that it's COLD here - though it snowed the other day, temperatures are still above freezing - it's that the cold is inescapable. You don't step out into the street and feel attacked by its bite, but neither do you step inside and sigh in relief at the warmth. Buildings here lack both insulation and indoor heating, so the chill simply permeates everything until the weather that feels perfectly natural when you're walking down the street in a coat becomes intolerable when you're sitting in bed still wearing that same coat...and wishing for the scarf and gloves you took off because they seemed ridiculous indoors.

Last night, I went to bed wearing my long underwear; two pairs of socks, including one pair meant for skiing; a sweatshirt and sweatpants; and the fleece liner to my winter coat...and I crawled into bed still shivering. Thankfully, burrowed under two heavy blankets I made it comfortably through the night, but then barely succeeded in dragging myself out from under them in the morning. This isn't the kind of cold that makes you worry about dying of frostbite...just of exhaustion from the shivering.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Moving In

I have a new adoptive family, they've told me...with an almost suffocating hospitality, I've been thoroughly welcomed into my new home in Fez. The house matriarch told me simply to call her Maman or Omi and spent a good hour asking me about my parents, studies, languages and travels...a full life history! Her husband is Sidi Mohammad, a retiree of few words but an open smile. Also in the house are Simo (or Sidi Mohammad Jr.) and three daughters Lubna, Souad, and Hannan, all of whom are friendly if less effusive than Omi. The apartment is surprisingly large compared to my European living experiences, and I was grateful when Sidi Mohammad revealed the regular toilet after first showing me a traditional hole-in-the-floor in the next room. I have a space all my own that's larger than any dorm I've called home, with a spare bed that gives me renewed hope for being able to host visitors properly. My only concern is the gas burner with a bucket on top that sits next to the bathtub, but I have also seen a water heater in the kitchen and prefer to save any adventures bathing for another day.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Finally, Fes

Actually, Darwin misspoke in his post...he brought us to four authors, but three continents. However, after a misadventure or two along the way, I have finally arrived in Fes, Morocco and will henceforth be representing Africa (or at least the Maghreb) on the blog.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tale of the alien cabbage

One evening, Sarah and I walked to the produce shop to pick up a few necessary additions to the stir fry I had planned for our dinner. Once there, I assigned Sarah to choose a fruit salad mix and wandered into the vegetable aisle myself. Near the broccoli, I stopped in my tracks and yelled for Sarah, who came skidding around the corner to see what was wrong.

Together, we stared at a geometric broccoflower-thing in a shade of radioactive green. The store had only labeled it as "Romanesco," and our bewildered staring weren't revealing any new details, so we went home to google it, hoping to learn which kooky geneticist had engineered this mad franken-vegetable.

Much to my surprise, I learned that Romanesco is a completely natural plant first described in texts from 16th century Italy. It belongs somewhere in the broccoli-cauliflower family, though nobody agrees which of the two is its closest relative. And yes, it is as near to a perfect fractal as can be found in nature. I had to try it.

So yesterday I returned to the produce stand and bought a head of alien-lime-green Romanesco broccoli and steamed it for dinner. It tastes more like cauliflower but looks bizarrely foreign even on the plate (especially next to the purple hue of our red-wine-braised chicken!) A normal, healthy vegetable that looks like a nuclear experiment gone wrong? I'm serving it at my next dinner party just as a conversation piece.

(Actually, is this stuff even available in the States?)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My one blog entry for January

So, I've never blogged before. I'm not that into posting stuff online (with the exception of facebook). However, I was told that I should post in order to validate the title.

Okay, so it may not seem as exciting as Asia, Africa, or Europe, but North America is mine dammit! That is all for a month probably.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Overheard in Provence

American girl #1: It's not a country, is it?
American girl #2: Yeah
#1: Singapore is a country?
#2: Yeah
#1: For real?

--on the terrace of the Uncle Sam café


Girl Scouts...the term brings up the image of cookies and camping trips, and doesn't seem to be something that would vary terribly across cultures. I didn't think so either, and there are definitely things which remain constant between Girl Scouting here and in the US, but today I discovered two of the major differences!
First off, today was the 'messe territoriale', or mass (as in, the church service) for the entire region. Scouting is very catholic here, and every year they have a church service for the entire region...where everyone turns out decked out in uniform shirts and scarves and sings really off-key songs and takes communion. As my first french mass, I was a little lost, but I thought it very cute when one of my girls turned to me during the breaking of bread and asked me if I understood what was going on. I'm not that clueless!
Secondly, scouting at home would never consider having a meeting officially as a 'scout meeting' without a leader present -- too many issues with insurance and liability, not to mention that the kids would run completely amuck. Here, it is apparently not a problem, as I have a required meeting for the Fulbright next weekend, but the head scout guy was just like, oh, they can meet for themselves. They should figure out what they're doing in advance...just ask them... So I did, and next week there will be five 12-year old girls painting a wall mural inside the meeting room without any adult supervision!! I am already envisioning coming home and finding that they have permanently painted their hair blue, or created original jack-the-dripper artwork on all the wrong walls. Whatever happens, it should be interesting, since I don't know what mural they're planning ( they kept getting confused when I asked them), so who knows?! Guess I'll find out when I get back!!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Hi. I'm in Asia. That's my continent.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A new blog for a new story

I'm afraid I offended Sarah the other day, talking about writing "here's where I went, here's what I saw, look at my pretty pictures" travelogues. I didn't mean to insult her. They are certainly the most common of travel blogs and seem to have a strong popularity among family and friends. I wasn't out to mock the style or poor Sarah's own photo-laden website. I simply find myself noting that after the tour, somewhere outside the shutter-frame, lies some greater truth. After two semesters abroad spent writing the standard chronicle for the folks back home, I still feel that the complete story remains barely begun, untouched by these direct attempts to reveal it. This time, I'm going to find my voice and see if I can't tell it properly. That's not to say there won't be "look! pictures!" entries, because they're easy and pretty and sometimes the only thing I can rapid-process. But I've been doing some real living over here and I want to write that, too. I guess you'll have to be patient with me. I don't know yet what stories I'll have, but I hope to end up with some good tales for you, stories that can serve as a window to my new home. Until then, enjoy the pictures.
Hello again! I think we are in Geneva in our story now, but really we only saw the train station and the hostel, since it was dark already when we got there. We did have an adventure sneaking my mattress into the room with the others, since technically all they had were 3-person rooms...but i wasn't sleeping by myself! No one caught us, so it was cool! The next day we had to get up early and leave for respective big cities, David to Paris to fly back to the US and the rest of us to Barcelona. It was sad...and early...2 strikes against the day already. Basically we slept for about 4 hours once we got to Barcelona, ventured out for food, saw a parade for Kings' Day (known as Epiphany in the states) and slept again. Very adventurous, I know. The parade was very cool though, apparently kings' day is their time for presents and such.

The next day, we managed a little more adventuring. We went to the Sagrada Familia in the morning, the scope of Gaudi's imagination is breathtaking!! We (George and I) both liked Gaudi's architecture enough that after lunch and a walk down the huge market street, we went to the neighborhood-on-a-hill that he designed. It was very picturesque with very cool-looking houses and railings and such. We also got to see the sun set, which was neat! That night we had tapas at two different restaurants (the first wasn't so hot, so we moved!), and the second was incredible. Potatoes bravas I think are akin to heaven.

The day after, we got up and caught a train to a little town outside Barcelona, home of the Salvador Dali museum. It was...expectedly...bizarre. Back in town, George and I walked around on the Olympic Hill for a while, back down the market street, and then we had Mexican (of all things in Spain!) for dinner. Oh yeah.

We had to get up insanely early the next day to get to Geneva again...as in 4 in the morning...ugh. So early the metro station wasn't open yet! Note to self...do not repeat.
But overall, Barcelona was very fun and interesting...I was glad to get back to a country where I could at least pretend to understand the language happening around me though!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Noble Grenoble

GRENOBLE!!! Most 'noble' of French cities...hehe..at least by spelling anyway. We got back the evening of the 2nd, after having all (I'm not sure, I might have been working on my hat) fallen asleep on the train. The next day, we took a bus out to Sassenage, a petit village just outside the city, where there is a pretty park with several trails, caves, and a stream going up the mountain. We hiked around for a while, ended up about halfway up the slope with a good view of the valley and the mountains across it. We saw French horses that hee-hawed at us in an incomprehensible country dialect.
We came back into town and took the walking tour of centre ville, stood on a bridge going over the river Isere, and stopped in a 'patisserie' and got some 'foret noire', a kind of fluffy cake with raspberries and chocolate that somehow is one of the best things I have ever tasted. That night we went out to dinner at the Epicurien, with my friend Sarah from lab, to give everyone a taste of real, high-class french cuisine.
The morning of the 4th, we went to lab! Everyone got a tour of the synchrotron, and the neutron guide halls, of course studded with red radiation warning signs, making everyone a little nervous. ;) Some very intelligent questions were asked; whether they were actually interested or were just asking questions to make me FEEL like they were interested is another question! We went to lunch with people from lab, so my old friends met my new friends (one is silver and the other gold...) which was cool. After lunch, David and I took the 'eggs', a funicular up the hill right next to the city to get a bird's eye view of things, while Katy and George took a nap. It IS rather breathtaking from up there...basically the view of the mountains never ceases to be amazing.
Then we caught the train to Geneva!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Window to Paris

Account of the first days of our shared vacation in Europe: Paris!! While we were there...we did a whirlwind tour of the Louvre the first day, with just Katy and David and me, and then crashed.

The next day, Dec. 31, was the Catacombs, this place under Paris with all these extremely old bones. It was a little creepy...and then George proceeded to walk around Paris with 'dead guy dust' on his pants for the next week...ick! Then we walked around in Montmartre, the section of Paris where the artists used to live and where Amelie (the movie) was filmed. We managed to miss the red-light district mostly (the boys have dirty-enough minds WITHOUT it) and had an enjoyable evening. Then, despite icky rain, we took a boat tour on the Seine, then went to hang out under the Eiffel Tower at about 11 o'clock. It was really cool with lots of people there...and at midnight, the tour lit up and there were champagne corks everywhere! It was fun...despite the extremely packed metro home.

We crashed, maybe a little too hard, and didn't wake up until around 12 or so the next day...slow start for the new year I guess. Pretty much everything touristy was closed for the holiday, so we walked around, saw the Hotel de Ville, the Sorbonne, Notre Dame and generally bummed around. Had dinner at this little cafe near the palais de luxembourg...it was interesting.

On Jan 2, we decided to be extremely touristy and go to
Versailles. Trouble is, it was blue clear sky when we left and horrific rain when we got there...and there was a 1.5 hour line to get tickets! So we huddled under 2 umbrellas for the 4 of us...and mine decided to give up the ghost. 4 brackets are now broken, and George, having chosen the wrong umbrella-holding girl, managed to get pretty wet...we took tu rns holding up the droopy side, but our arms got tired! When we finally got in, it was cool, but I have a slightly soggy memory of the castle, needless to say. Then we got a train to Grenoble, which I will tell about later.


...I'd just like to add to Katy's lovely story of the tree rescue...that she was hardly such a captive aid. Perhaps she just hides it well, but she was not reticient at all at the prospect of saving Albert's life. She didn't 'trudge', and she volunteered to carry the shovel! I have to admit , however, that I too found the little old french lady's complaint extremely hilarious as to the placement of the tree...but regardless, Albert has been saved, and I think that Katy is secretly proud. Long live Albert!

Tigglarizing France

When I first arrived in Grenoble last week, I met Albert, a scraggly potted Christmas tree not unlike Charlie Brown's pitiful branch. Sarah and Laura had bought him at the Christmas market before leaving on break and planned yet to plant him in one of the public parks before life in captivity finally killed him off, but as of Epiphany he still sat fully decorated in the entryway to the apartment.

Sometime last week, Sarah arrived home carrying a shovel, but I still didn't quite imagine her lunacy to be complete until this morning, when she woke me with plans to go release Albert into the Parc Paul Mistral. Still groggy, I nodded along until visions of angry gendarmes demanding an explanation for our defacement of public property danced into my head. The French love their parks and have a tendency to manicure them, setting strict leash laws and banning pedestrians from their lawns in a crazed beauty-protection program, and I felt fairly confident that renegade tree-installation would not be well received. Still, Sarah was going, and I felt I couldn't let her get arrested alone...so while she loaded Albert onto her bike seat, I picked up the shovel and a bottle of water and trudged along after.

After a brief site-location debate and a lot of laughter at the unwieldiness of the shovel, a hole was dug, the tree was freed, and we were nearly ready to make our escape once again. Suddenly, a voice came around the corner and a scolding little old lady appeared, ready to voice her complaint: "You've planted it too close to the other trees! It can't grow with no light!" Leave it to the French to overlook the completely ridiculous and likely illegal nature of our act to criticize the style in which we committed it. Then again, as we fled, it occurred to me that I need saner friends...as I was laughing over the sheer ridiculousness of it all, Sarah looked at me and said, "But we saved a life!"

Yes Sarah, and Albert is now safe and sheltered illegally in the Parc Paul Mistral. Just don't count on me next Christmas.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

She's alive!

George's nasty flu might have been trying to kill me, but all signs now point to my survival...I even woke up before noon today! Now if only I didn't still LOOK like death warmed over...