Archive for January, 2010

The Race to the Finish

The last month has flown by in a flash – which is to say, even faster than the otherwise speedily-whizzing months before it.  After our fun and eventful trip to Spain Emily and Greeley stayed here in Paris through New Years, when we learned that there are no city-sponsored fireworks in Paris for La Nouvelle Annee, but lots of people drive in circles around Place de la Concorde until the sparkling Eifffel Tower signals the arrival of midnight, when everyone starts shouting out their windows and honking their horns.  Festive!  Also, there are no laws about alcohol in public spaces (just lots of ignored signs about not bringing glass bottles outside), so we saw countless groups and couples, many middle-aged or older, toting around their bottle of champagne in preparation for the big moment.  It was pretty adorably French.

My parents arrived the week after my friends left, and the three of us spent a great week exploring Paris, and took two day trips out of the city.  The first was to Chartres, which I had been to before but was eager to see again.  It was a cold, grey day after a snow storm, so the town was quiet but lovely.  We spent a long time wandering around the almost-deserted cathedral, had a nice lunch to warm up, and then were serenaded by two teenaged boys playing cell phone ringtones the whole way back to Paris.  But, really, it was a great day.

Our second trip was to the town of Poissy, which is on the northwest edge of the Parisian suburbs, and which is home, most notably, to a huge Citroen factory, and Le Corbousier’s Villa Savoye.  The latter was far more aesthetically pleasing.

Also in Poissy was this, perhaps the most awesomely named feminist-historian geek-tastic intersection in the world –

Yes, that’s Avenue Christine de Pisan intersecting with Avenue Blanche de Castille.  I know, right?

Once my parents had sadly headed back home, to their regular life lacking in daily croissants and café crème, I only had two weeks left of class.  These mostly involved a very French series of practice tests for our final exam.  We practiced on old copies of the final exam, and as we moved through them chronologically we realized that there was an underground narrative unfolding through the passages of text in the conjugation section.  For several years there was a passage, given in the present tense, which students had to transpose into the past and/or future tense.  But, no generic, unconnected passages for these folks, oh no.  Angela and François had a history.  First they are planning an outing.  Then, the next semester, they’re going to dinner with some Swedish friends.  Walks in the Luxembourg Gardens and dinners alone follow.  Then, c’est très triste, François calls his friend in a panic.  Angela has refused to move in with him – because she has too much stuff and she says his apartment is too small for her! – and not only that, but she’s decided to leave town. For the Antilles!  Honestly, he’s better off without her though.  And don’t worry, his friend Juan has been keeping him busy, going to the theater and such.  He’ll be fine.

Sadly, Angela and Francois did not appear on our final exam, when we finally sat down for it in the truly bizarre Maison des Examens.  This building, in the banlieu just south of Paris, is a monstrous, hideous, would-be-terrifying-if-you-had-test-phobia tower who’s sole purpose is to host the major standardized tests that are the backbone of the French education system.  It is not a happy place.

But, exams are now finished, and I leave Paris in less than two weeks.  I’m sad to be leaving, but also excited to be going on to my next French adventure.  Next Saturday I’ll be taking the train to Gascony, where for the next 10 weeks I’ll be a working student at a dressage barn near the town of Auch.  (Which, I’m told, is pronounced “oh-sh.” I know, unfortunate.)  I can’t wait for fresh air, beautiful countryside, and a major fix for my horse deprivation.  But, Paris is one of those places that’s hard to leave, and I’ve been so happy and comfortable here that it’s especially bittersweet.  But, I have ten more days to cram myself with as many experiences of it as I can, and that’s what I intend to do.


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Spain, continued

We arrived in Granada on Chrsitmas Eve.  Things were pretty quiet in the city, since Christmas Eve is often more widely celebrated in Spain than Christmas Day.  We did wander around the old Moorish quarter, which is full of steep, windy streets and character galore.

In the evening we went back to our hotel, which was on the edge of the city, near the Alhambra Palace which overlooks Granada from it’s perch on a craggy hill.

It being Christmas Eve and all, there wasn’t much to do out and about, so we settled in with our TV remote and watched some truly amazing pan-European Christmas specials.  First up was a German/Austrian musical special that was somehow affiliated with an animal rights group.  The highlight was when a small fuzzy pony wandered, unattended, through one of the musical numbers.  We think this was intentional, but it was all very hard to understand, and completely hilarious.

After the German musical/animal extravaganza came the simulcast of Midnight Mass (actually starting at 10:30 pm) from the Vatican.  We missed the crazy woman trying to tackle the Pope, but it was still quite a spectacle.

The big tourist attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, the fortress palace that was built by the Moors and later used by the Catholic rulers who conquered Granada in 1492.  It has amazing views, which were a little bit clouded by the rain and the fact that our entry tickets were for 8:30 am on Saturday morning.  It’s still thoroughly dark at 8:30 am these days.  Still, it was an impressive and beautiful place (and the sun came up eventually).

When we got back in the car on Saturday afternoon Emily announced, “I think this is going to be the best drive yet.”  I will admit that I scoffed at her optimism, but two hours later I had to admit that she was right.  If anyone would like information on my Learn to Drive Stick Shift in Seven Hours in Southern Spain course, let me know.  I’m considering patenting the technique.  Treatment for panic attacks not included.

Our last (planned) stop in Spain was Cordoba, which is a really great little city.  The old center is quiet and adorably medieval in layout without feeling dead and archaic.  It also has some of the most interesting history of Muslim/Jewish/Christian interactions in all of Andalusia.

It’s a little hard to make out, but the sign at the end of the road is for Casa de Sefarad, a museum of medieval Jewish culture and history, and the hanging sign in the middle ground marks Casa Andalusi, a similar museum dedicated to the city’s islamic history.  There was much nerdy excitement over this street.

The mosque in Corodba was one of the largest in the world when it was built, in the same class as the Great Mosque in Damascus.  After the Reconquista the Catholic monarchs turned it into a cathedral by building an ornate baroque gothic nave in the middle of the mosque.  Sound strange?  It is.

The informational pamphlet you can pick up at the door is very intent on making it clear to visitors that the building is now a church.  A Church.  Got it?  A church.  Not a mosque.  It was a mosque, but then the king made it into a church, and that’s what it is still to this day.  In fact, even when it was a mosque it was partially decorated by Christian artists from Constantinople, so, really, it was always kind of church-y.   C-H-U-R-C-H.  Phew, I’m glad we were clear about that.

From Cordoba we hopped the train back to Madrid to catch our flight to Paris.

a rainbow, somewhere in southern Spain

Except, not so much.  Thanks to EasyJet and the Madrid airport’s apparent mission of making travelers completely insane, our flight was canceled at the last minute (or, really, about 1 hr. and 45 minutes after the originally-scheduled last minute).  This lead to much confusion, some bonding with a very friendly French family in line in front of us at the ticket counters, and eventually re-booked tickets on the same flight for Tuesday night.  We spent the intervening day in The Largest Hotel In Europe, which could have been in San Antonio or Reykjavik for all we knew.  It was actually on the very un-scenic outskirts of Madrid, but really – could have been Oklahoma.

We did eventually get to Paris, though certain of us were only giving the flight 75% odds of taking off even once we had been seated on the plane and were taxiing away from the terminal.  It’s always good to maintain a realistic dose of skepticism in these situations, especially when discount airlines are involved…

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Helping Out

It’s a gray day in Paris, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-cart faster than usual.  The earth shook and now millions of people in Haiti can’t get access to the basic necessities of life, let alone life-saving medical care, and anything resembling normalcy seems a very long way off.  The Senate race in Massachusetts is bewildering and terrifying, and being thousands of miles away, having voted weeks ago, makes me feel like the person way down the beach, shouting that a big wave is coming, but not knowing who is paying attention.  If I was home I would be phone banking and getting out on the streets to get people out to the polls, but from here all I can do is pester my friends and family, who are all faithful Democrats and dutiful voters already.  (Sorry guys!)

The internet has done so much to make people more connected to the world, so I feel like the least I can do is make one more plug, out of millions, of ways to help:


Partners in Health is an organization that has been providing health care to the people of rural Haiti for over 25 years.  They have hospitals around the country which were unaffected by the earthquake, and so are one of the few organizations with functioning facilities and people already on the ground who are familiar with the country.  Their problem now is getting people to the hospitals, and/or getting the doctors and nurses to everyone who needs their help.  If you want to help, go here.

Doctors Without Borders also has staff already in the country, working in Port-au-Prince.  Their three major hospitals were all damaged or destroyed, but they are setting up mobile clinics and hospitals around the city.  On ways to give to them, go here.

There are many other great organizations that are working in Haiti now, including The Red Cross, UNICEF, CARE, and others.  USAID is organizing a lot of the relief efforts, and as part of the government has set up a fund (somewhat ironically headed not just by former President Clinton, but by President Bush too…yeah, that President Bush, of Hurricane Katrina…) to help in Haiti now and later, when they can begin reconstruction.

Martha Coakley:

A political race seems like small potatoes next to a major catastrophe, but the outcome of the MA Senate Race will have incredibly broad consequences, including weather or not health care reform is passed this year.  Martha Coakley is smart, dedicated, and a fighter for things that Democrats and liberals hold dear.  Scott Brown is the opposite of that.

If you have time to make some calls you’ll make me feel a little bit better about not being there – and in the process, you could be the one who gets out those extra five or ten voters in each town that will swing the election.  I’m always more excited by getting personally involved in a race, but the truth of modern American politics is that candidates need money too.  And, no one said you can’t do both.

Thanks for “listening,” and doing all that you’ve, I’m sure, already done.  Now, I’m off to do some always therapeutic browsing at La Grande Epicerie, and then possibly home to make these, which, despite their name (cookies should not be healthy) sound pretty awesome.  Fingers crossed that my weird microwave/oven combo can figure out how to bake them…

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Feliz Navidad

A brief primer on Andalusia: tapas are wonderful, driving up a cobblestoned street on a 45-degree hill in second gear fails every time, the rain in Spain does NOT stay mainly in the plain, and Ronda is jinxed.

Let your Ham Flag fly

I spent Christmas week traveling around southern spain with two friends who came over for winter break.  The plan was to spend three days in Sevilla, one in Ronda (a smaller city near the Pueblos Blancos in the Sierra Nevadas), two in Granada and two in Cordoba, and then fly back from Madrid, to spend several days being touristy in Paris.  I say “the plan was” not because we didn’t manage the first half, but because I started writing this from a giant conference hotel on the outskirts of Madrid (which bills itself as The Largest Hotel in Europe – swanky!), where we were put up last Monday night after Easy Jet canceled our flight to Paris.  After much running around the Madrid airport in the middle of the night, multi-lingual confusion, and bonding with our fellow stranded passengers, we were booked on the same flight for the next evening, and spent the intervening hours in a weird kind of timeless, spaceless limbo of free buffet meals and international TV.  We could have been in San Antonio for all I knew.  But, take two of flying home to Paris worked out eventually, and we were finally able to rejoin the real world.

Anyway, back to the trip…

Andalusia is the far southern region of Spain, which has a really interesting history of Muslim/Christian/Jewish interactions.  Three of the cities we visited have major sites that date from the Moorish rule of Spain, between the 8th and 15th centuries.  Cordoba, especially, was also an important Jewish center in the Middle Ages.  Needless to say, we did a lot of nerdy tourist things.


Legend says that the Catholic Reconquistatadores wanted to build a Cathedral in Seville, the former capital of Al-Andalus under the Muslims, which would be so elaborate that “those who come after us will take us for madmen.”  Mission Accomplished, I say.  In fact, it was so elaborately gilded on the inside that I couldn’t quite manage to take a picture.  I was overwhelmed by the baroque-y-ness.  I may have said something along the lines of “I think a gold vault threw up in here” when we walked in.

The bell tower of the Cathedral is one of the few elements that remains from the mosque that stood on the site previously.  The lower two-thirds of the tower are the original minaret of the mosque.

The Alcazar was the royal residence of both the Muslim and Catholic rulers of the area.  My favorite part was the original Moorish palace, which has amazing wall carvings and arches galore.  I find the kind of over-the-top decoration that the Moors went for much more pleasant than the gilt explosion of the later Spanish Renaissance.

Did I mention that it rained?

Miniature Nativity scenes are very popular in Spain this time of year. Several cities had Belen Markets, which sell all of the necessary figurines and accessories for not just a miniature crèche, but an entire Biblical village scene.

I love the wide range of expressions they gave to the sheep.


We spent a total of 16 hours in Ronda, all of which were drenched in driving rain.  The car, which we picked up in Sevilla, was a stick shift, which none of us knew how to drive, really.  I became the defacto driver due to my experience driving tractors.  No joke.  The two operate on generally the same principal, but in reality are pretty radically different.  I’ve never had a tractor stall out on a windy city street that was only a few degrees short of a cliff face, for example.  By the time we dropped the car off in Cordoba three days later I had had three meltdowns and two strangers had been commandeered to start the car and drive it to the top of whatever offending hill was creating the afore mentioned meltdown.  We learned that the Spanish are very friendly people, and extremely good at starting cars on a hill.  I was thoroughly impressed.

Anyway, back to Ronda.  We eventually arrived, a bit white knuckled and in serious need of a drink.  It was raining.  We had to pee.  And the desk attendant at the hotel managed to lock herself – and us – out of the hotel, with no one else inside to let us in.  While she worked out that problem and had a little meltdown of her own, we went to lunch.  By the time we got back her reinforcements had arrived, and it was raining even harder, so we napped away the rest of the (short) afternoon, in order to recover from the morning’s adventures in driving.  In the evening we had some very nice tapas and copious amounts of alcohol (there may have been a theme here…), and chatted with a very friendly family from Oregon sitting at the next table.  Other than that, Ronda was, sadly, a bit of a bust.  We hear it’s a very nice town.

We left on Thursday morning, heading east towards Granada.  After the first round of driving I was less than enthused to get back into the car, but after Emily’s third or fourth “Really, the wind is dying down out there.  It’s not raining so hard.  We’re near the gorge, it’ll be better on the roads.  Really…” I found myself getting back behind the wheel.  For all of about 30 seconds, until I discovered that there was no way on earth I could drive that little blue vehicle up the 50-degree incline to get out of the parking garage.  Whoops.  After being rescued by the garage attendent I pretty quickly managed to stall it out again on one of the ridiculously steep roads in town (why do people who live in places like this insist on driving stick shift? I just don’t understand.)  That time we were rescued by a lovely young woman who parked her van in the middle of the street, got into our car and drove it up the hill for us.  So, what I can say about Ronda is that it’s people are lovely.  They didn’t even laugh too hard when Emily used her remnants of high school spanish to explain the problem: “My friend no car good.  First time <insert hand gestures of steering wheel and gear shifting>.  Bad.  Help?”  It was an impressive and effective performance.

To be continued…

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