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Wedding, Philippines, Scotland, US, Canada, but mostly Iceland!

September 27, 2012

Back from a hiatus…

This summer began with our wedding in the Loire Valley in France. Planning that and then recovering from it meant I haven’t written much here in awhile! But I think life has settled down now, and I can write a bit about this crazy summer we had.

The wedding was gorgeous and wonderful. The day of was the only day with nice, warm weather in the entire month of June (and probably July also).

Afterward we spent a few days near Amboise with some of our wedding guests (friends and family, many who were visiting from the US and Canada). This was a really nice way to come down from the stress of the wedding, though we did have to spend quite a bit of time planning and feeding the large group of lovely people we had convinced to stay. To help us get around, we rented a minibus, which held 9 people legally (up to 14 illegally). After staying up until after 5 AM at the wedding, we were up until at least 1 or 2 AM for four nights following it. And then one of our wedding gifts was a surprise hot air balloon ride. At dawn. That was a difficult morning, especially for the unlucky brother-in-law that was assigned with waking us up.

But we flew over Chenonceau, one of the most beautiful chateaus in the Loire valley (known for its chateaus).  The bad mood had already ended by this point, but it definitely wouldn’t have survived this beauty.

Following the post-wedding celebrations in France, we left for our honeymoon in the Philippines. And, as honeymoons are supposed to be, it was just the two of us, doing nothing much, in beautiful places like this:

After this, we worked relatively normally for the month of July (though it still didn’t feel quite like normal life as we were attempting to deal with/organize/purchase our wedding gifts). One major wedding gift was money for a digital piano, so we bought a Yamaha Clavinova, which has a fantastic sound and feels amazingly close to a real piano.

Oh, also in July, I went to Glasgow for a conference.  Lots of rain, but good Indian food and nice people!

In August, because everyone in Paris leaves the city and it’s difficult to get work done anyway because tout le monde is on vacation, I had decided to spend a couple weeks visiting my family for a couple of weeks. Another reason for this is that this Christmas will be my first time not going home – Merry French Christmas! So I was with my family for two and a half weeks, which of course flew by. I intended to get all sorts of things done while I was there, and I did, but not the things I meant to do. :-p

After that, I met J-G in the Minneapolis airport and we continued on to Saskatoon, from which we drove 3 hours even FURTHER north. (Somehow, we were still farther south (latitude-wise) than Glasgow. ) There, in a national park, we attended the wedding of some good friends. It was my first time being a bridesmaid, and I had a great time. Unfortunately, we had to miss the wedding of other good friends happening the day after in California…people live entirely too far apart.

After spending a night in Saskatoon (and sighting a real Canadian beaver in the South Saskatchewan river) we flew to Iceland. That’s north for real.

Oh hello!

We flew Air Canada to Toronto, and then had to switch to Icelandair. To do this, we had to leave the security area and check in at the Icelandair counter. We asked someone working just outside security where that was, and she told use Icelandair didn’t exist and brusquely asked to see our boarding passes. We clearly did not have them yet and were not imagining an airline, so we turned around to try to find it on our own. Luckily, there was free wifi in the airport so we could google “Icelandair Toronto terminal” and find out that we had to go to Terminal 3.

We checked in, showed them our bag tags so they could put them in the system (uh huh) and then went back through security to our flights.

We arrived bright and early the next morning in Reykjavik, got off the plane, and…had to go through security. It turns out they don’t trust security from anywhere in the world other than the EU. So we got out our water bottles and looked around for a place to dump the water we had left. Luckily there was a security agent nearby who took it outside to the tarmac to dump it out for us. Dangerous Toronto airport water!

We went through passport control and then to baggage claim, where our bags failed to arrive.  After two and a half weeks in the US, I had a lot of stuff. And none of it was there. And of course I didn’t pack anything useful in my carry-on. J-G at least had a shirt and underwear. And he had a jacket. It was cold outside, and monstrously windy – about 9 degrees Celsius I think. They told us our bags would arrive the next day, or maybe the day after, depending on where they were. And they gave us two courtesy bags with XXL t-shirts smelling strongly of something, razors, moisturizing cream, deodorant, and no shampoo.

So we ran to the bus that would take us to our hotel. I believe I slept for a lot of that ride. We found the apartment we’d stay at (an excellent place, thank you airbnb!) and made coffee and showered. Then we went shopping for clothing and swimsuits. We actually found really good things, including a windproof-waterproof jacket that I was grateful for throughout the whole trip, even after I got my luggage containing a sweater and fleece.

We went to the pool around the corner, Sundhöllin, which turns out to be the oldest in the city. Iceland is geothermally rich, so one of the first things people would do when establishing a town is to build a pool, and there are several of them in Reykjavik. Two-thirds of the country’s 300,000 people live in the Reykjavik area, so it’s easy to find a lot of interesting things to do and see there.

When entering the pool, they give you a little card (if you’re a foreigner) that asks you to please shower without your bathing suit, and to wash in some specific areas highlighted on the card (see this blog post for details and some funny comments).

I apparently don’t care about being naked in front of other women while showering in a locker room so it wasn’t a problem.  And it’s so nice to relax in a hot pool. At this particular place there were four different pools – one large one for regular lap swimming  and diving, heated to 28˚, one small children’s pool at 32˚, outside one small hot pool at 39˚ and one at 42˚. After our cold, windy day the two outdoor pools were heavenly, even though I gasped a little bit every time the wind hit my face. There was a surprisingly large difference between the two – 42 is apparently a lot warmer than 39! There were small children in the pools too – in the US no child would be allowed near a public hot tub, but in Iceland they’re allowed with parent supervision.

After our relaxing pool time, we walked to what’s listed on Tripadvisor as the #1 restaurant in Reykjavik, Sjávargrillið (Seafood Grill). It was absolutely delicious. I’ve only been eating fish for two years, but the fish there blew everything else I’ve tried out of the water (here I’ll groan at my own pun).

The next day our luggage arrived (woo hoo!) and we went on a bus tour. Every time Jean-Gab tells the story he prefaces it by saying he has never before gone on a bus tour (I thought everyone went on bus tours at some point?) but this one was really good. The tour guide spoke a slow, measured English that was soothing but somehow not soporific. We passed by countless lava fields covered with moss. He pointed at one and said they were building a prison there. They hadn’t built one in the country since the 1920s, but since 2008 they need a place to put all their bankers…

We also passed by two or three horse farms, and multiple fields with horses grazing. The guide explained that horses outside Iceland have four gaits (with a couple of exceptions, such as the Tennessee Walking Horse which has a running walk), the Icelandic horses have a fifth gait called “tölt” which, to me, looks like speedwalking.

Needless to say, I am going to learn to ride horses and then return to Iceland.

Our first stop on the tour was Geysir, where they have, yes, geysers! There is only one that is really active, erupting every 5-6 minutes.

There were signs along the paths warning us not to step over the ropes because the water on the ground is between 80 and 100˚C.

Second we went to Gullfoss, possibly the most gorgeous place on earth. At the base of the waterfall, the river makes a sharp turn. Thus, the waterfall hits the side of a steep cliff, causing massive spray upwards. This in turn leads to beauty and rainbows.

There was a point in the early 20th century when some “foreign investors” tried to buy Gullfoss to make a hydroelectric plant. These efforts were foiled, but, as the guide told us, one of the lawyers who fought on the side of the investors ended up being buried in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park, where the parliament was held from the year 930 until 1789. Seems like an honor, and strange for someone who tried to help destroy one of the most visited sites in Iceland? Turns out he’s buried there because he was also a poet, and people in Iceland love their poetry. The guide told us it’s very easy to write poetry in Icelandic – there are so many words that you can always find a word that means what you want and that rhymes with your other words.

After Gullfoss, we proceeded to Þingvellir to see this historical parliament site, as well as the split between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. They drift apart at about a half-inch per year. I was expecting something more dangerous in the crack between plates – I don’t know what, lava or central-earth monsters – but instead we walked along a pleasant dirt path between continental walls.

That night, after our swim, we went to the third-best restaurant according to Tripadvisor, the Fish Market (Fiskmarkadurinn). The food was tasty but way too complicated and dressed-up, and our server was unfriendly.

The following day, we decided to take a bus and visit a little town just north of Rekyjavik, Borgarnes. It ended up being the place the farthest north that we’d ever been (64.5˚ N), just a couple of degrees short of the Arctic Circle (this year, at 66.56˚ – did you know it changes?). Ben Stiller was there somewhere, filming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but we never saw anything implying a movie filming. We had another tasty meal at the Settlement Centre, which is also a museum dedicated to the settlement of Iceland. Morally easier and less violent than the establishment of colonies elsewhere in the world, due to the fact that no one else lived there before the 800s. However, being Vikings, they managed to introduce enough violence into it. Apparently Icelanders are descended from Norwegian men and the Irish women they brought along as a part of their usual raping and pillaging. And one half of the Settlement Centre is dedicated to Egil’s Saga. Egil Skallagrimsson was a poet/warrior/farmer who killed his first person (another boy) at age 7. This was followed by a life of brutality and poetry, and finally near the end of his life, burying his wealth and killing the slaves who helped him so no one would ever find it. People still search for his silver.

Black sand in Borgarnes

No headless dogs allowed.

We probably weren’t supposed to be playing on the equipment…

That night, we ate at the Seafood Grill again. Mmmm.

The next day was our last in Iceland (sadly) so we went to the Blue Lagoon, which is a convenient 20 minute bus ride from the airport and offers slightly sketchy luggage storage. We’d heard that the Blue Lagoon was overpriced and touristy and all of that, and that is true, but it was worth the visit. The color of the water combined with the black volcanic rocks and, when we were there, the white sky, made it seem like we were visiting a colony on a distant planet. Definitely unearthly. I had a cut on my finger and it burned when I put it in the salty mineraly opaque water so I was a bit concerned about it, but it ended up healing very cleanly. There are a lot of unique species of algae in the water, but normal bacteria can’t survive the heat and salinity. The water is supposed to be good for your skin, and they have a clinic where they treat psoriasis. I didn’t notice anything special after being there, except that I had really dry skin for a week (I guess hot water swimming every day combined with no moisturizer is a bad idea).

We had another tasty fishy meal and got on the bus for the airport. The flight from Reykjavik to Paris is about 3 and a half hours long. Relatively close and direct, almost no jet lag (they’re on GMT). I may be tempted to return someday. But for now, I’m happy to be at home.

Wedding preparation

April 14, 2012

I’ve been thinking recently, I really should write a blog entry, it’s been way too long. And then I think, but what would I write about? All we’ve been doing is wedding planning. DING! Hello! Maybe I should just write about the subject in which I’m currently an expert.

First, the fabulous: I’m getting married to a honey of a guy in a château in wine country in France. Never mind that château basically means “big house” and that most of France could be called “wine country.” It’s still fabulous. The downside is that it’s expensive for my friends and family to come here for the wedding, but many will be there, and that makes me very happy!

Second, I am so thankful for the internet. Without it, I don’t know how we possibly could have put any sort of wedding together. I guess we would have hired a wedding planner. On second though, maybe that would have been a good idea anyway.

Now on to the challenges:
1. (the obvious one) Being in a foreign country where one sort of speaks the language makes it difficult. Reviews are hard to find and then slow to be read (by my English-loving brain). Calling people is out of the question. I can communicate sufficiently well as long as I can use exaggerated facial expressions and Italian-size hand gestures, but my vocabulary, comprehension, and pronunciation cannot yet stand alone over the telephone with its reduced frequency range.

2. French websites are…terrible. Here’s a blog post about how France is so behind the US and Canada (and other countries?), perhaps because of the Minitel. Which some people still use??? Le Figaro reported that at the end of 2010 there were still 810,000 Minitels in use. France telecom plans to retire it in June of this year. Big month! I’m getting married and the Minitel is finally dying, now that the internet has been here for decades.

Anyway, I’m not sure if I find French websites awful because I am slower at scanning text when it’s in French, if French people are intuitively used to different arrangements of items (as in the grocery stores…it took me months to be able to reliably and quickly find the food I wanted), or if they really are just terribly designed. For example, here is one that was rated as being one of the “top” French websites by a blogger.
I find it very crowded and overwhelmed by ads, and I would say it is representative of sites I see regularly. (Also, note that two of the top five websites are Google and Ebay…maybe that’s because they’re not French.)

The site where you go to book trains is similarly bad, though has apparently been improved in the last few years. SNCF runs the railways. Yet if you google “SNCF” it will take you to, which is NOT at all where you buy tickets. You have to scroll down a few to get to, which is the actual ticket-buying site. Then, let’s hope you speak French. If you want the site in English, it will take you to the UK site, which then charges you in pounds.

3. On to the third wedding-planning challenge: family and friends far away. I have met some lovely lovely people here in France and don’t mean to downplay them at all, but all of the family & friends who are going to be a part of the wedding or would be really involved in planning are outside France, mostly outside Europe. I occasionally have moments of “poor poor me!” when I think about other people and their wedding planning get-togethers and bridal showers and dress-shopping excursions. And the help they have in making decisions. But then that again brings me back to the two positives above – of course, the fabulous, and then the magic of the internet that allows me to email and complain and send pictures and ask for advice from my mom and bridesmaids oh so far away. Oh and also, it helps to watch silly bridal shows with crazy people that remind me that I have such amazing and sensible friends and family.

4. Speaking of bridesmaids and colors, I had to go to London to look at bridesmaids dresses. They just don’t exist in this country. I could have paid $15 plus shipping for fabric swatches (that’s the price per swatch) for choosing my bridesmaid dress color, so I decided instead to spend a weekend in London (more expensive, but also much more fun!) and look at fabric with Janeen, my Europe-dwelling bridesmaid, and my friend Pam. Unfortunately we went to the worst bridal store ever, and it wasn’t easy to go to another one – all the stores are outside the city center but not in the same area. Rather than travel an hour to another store, we decided to drink beer. But I did manage to choose a fabric color (yippee!) and have been told it is universally flattering.

5. Finally, the Administration. There is an Asterix & Obelix cartoon called “Les 12 travaux d’Asterix” (The Twelve Tasks of Asterix) and the most difficult of the tasks for Asterix and Obelix, much more challenging than the crocodiles or cave-beast or marathon or the sirens, was beating the administration to get some document called a “laissez-passer A38.” (Watch this section here beginning at 2 min 20.) It’s so true. The French administration is a beast.  It’s the Catholics, too, for the religious ceremony – we’ve spoken with/met with 6 priests at this point. We’ve been through a mountain of paperwork, but we can see the glowing signature at the end of the red-tape tunnel, so it will be over soon.

It helps if I think of wedding preparation as les 12 travaux d’Anjali et Jean-Gab.

Cathedral washing in Chartres

September 14, 2011

I’ve learned that August 15 is a big day. It’s India’s independence day, my little brother’s birthday, and the Assumption, the day that the Virgin Mary’s body was taken into heaven. It’s a holiday in France, as are many Catholic holy days, though France is strict on its separation of church and state (I still can’t figure that one out).

So, we had the day off, and we decided to go see something near Paris. J-G suggested Chartres, which is a small town that mainly consists of a cathedral. So we got on the train (running of course, when can we ever be on time for the train?) and made our way to Chartres.

When we arrived, there was a mass going on, and the cathedral was packed. Turns out there’s a holy relic of Mary  there – supposedly the veil she wore during childbirth. According to Philip Coppens (an investigative reporter in “alternative science” who investigated Da Vinci Code things before the Da Vinci Code book, the Crystal Skull before Indiana Jones), the name “Chartres” comes from the name of a druid tribe the Carnutes that lived in the area. All the druids of Gaul would gather in the forest of Carnutes once a year perhaps to pay homage to Mother Goddess. Pope John XXII declared in 1322 that the Chartres cathedral was the oldest in France (it wasn’t, there was one in Lyon first) and that Mary had chosen Chartres as her temple (though there’s no evidence she was ever there). Coppens suggests this was some sort of way to ease the transition between the pagan and Christian worship by taking it from one type of feminine sacredness to another. Ok, maybe. However, Charles the Bald (how’s that for a good emperor/king name? there’s a theory he was actually really really hairy and the name was ironic) had brought the veil to Chartres in 876, hundreds of years before, so the area was already established as being the site of a sacred relic of Mary.

Now you’re wondering why there’s something about cathedral washing in the title.

Over time, with all of the candles burning inside churches, their ceilings and walls turn black. It’s gradual, and it’s dark inside, and people don’t notice so much. However, if at some point they decide to clean and restore the walls and ceiling, then you realize how dirty it really was. They were in the midst of this during our visit to Chartres, so half of the inside (I don’t know cathedral terms…the apse perhaps?) was covered with scaffolding.

Partially restored ceiling

The view from the back of the cathedral (where it's dirty) toward the front (clean)

We then took a whole bunch of steps (I always forget to count) and went up to the top of one of the bell towers. The cathedral’s also unique because the two towers are so different from one another – one is pointy and the other is…also pointy, but the roof starts higher up (so you can climb higher up). Easier if you look, here’s a picture. The latter (the one on the left) is the one people visit.

Intricate work up high where not many people will see it - amazing detail

A view on Chartres from the bell tower

Something that surprised me was the large number of statues without heads. I guess that, during the Revolution, people enjoyed cutting heads off everything, even statues of sheep on the sides of cathedrals.  Unfortunately we didn’t get a picture of the headless animals, but here are a couple of people.

What do you think the guy on the right is standing on (below)? I think it looks like a brain. A hell-brain?

And I will leave you with a man and his buddy angel.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

August 13, 2011

I know, it’s been a long time since my last entry.  I’m trying to remedy that and come back to blog-land!

It’s summer in Paris. Specifically, it’s August, which means everyone is on vacation. I didn’t believe it before experiencing it, but most of the city (those that don’t cater to tourists anyway) leaves for other parts of France or other countries. My lab is completely empty – where I usually have 20 co-workers, I now have 2. It’s eerily quiet sometimes.

Even though my favorite boulangerie and several restaurants we’ve tried to go to are closed for the month, there are still a lot of city-sponsored activities happening throughout Paris.: concerts, volleyball, that sort of thing. Some are a bit silly but also really happy. For example, there’s a beach set up next to the Seine. It’s called Paris Plage (Paris Beach) and has umbrellas, a giant intricately carved sandcastle and beach chairs that hold three or more children at once. However…there’s no ocean! No lake! As with most city-central rivers, the Seine isn’t the cleanest of tributaries. The lack of a pleasant-looking body of water sort of defeats the purpose of a beach for me. I’m sure it’s a pleasant place though, hanging out with friends on the sand. But if your kids dig too far into the sand, they’ll find…cobblestones. Or worse.

Lately, the weather hasn’t been too beach-friendly either. I’ve been told the weather is supposed to be good this time of year, but it’s been cloudy and drizzly and not so warm. Today it rained in the morning, but then the sun came out after lunch and it felt like t-shirt weather, so we took advantage of it and went to visit Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (the third-largest park in the city after Parc de la Villette and le jardin des Tuileries) in the 19th arrondissement.

After we’d walked around it for awhile, I realized that I must write a blog entry about it because it’s so… fake! The whole thing was constructed in the 1860s, even the rocks. It’s a great park, and I had a wonderful afternoon, but it’s also a really strange place.

Apparently, the land it sits on has a horrible history. Starting in the 1320s, it was a gallows-site for over 300 years. Then, it became a sewage dumping-ground and a yard for slaughtering horses. Then they found gypsum  and limestone and dug huge holes in the ground to make the land into a quarry. (Sidenote: if you heat gypsum up to 300˚F and mix it with water, you get plaster of Paris.) You can read more of the horror here. It looks like I might have to get the book that particular blog post mentions.

Finally, in 1860, the land was annexed to Paris, and Napoleon III (the nephew of the conqueror Napoleon I) commissioned the park.  The name of the park can be translated in two parts: buttes means “hills” or “heights” and chaumont is monts chauves or “bald mountains”.

So, nowadays it’s a beautiful place for a picnic on a weekend afternoon, a stop at the waffle stand or the beer garden at Rosa Bonheur, or even for checking your email in one of its 4 wifi spots. There’s a fake cliff in the middle of a lake upon which sits a mini-temple modeled after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.  There are trees from all over the world, several from Asia. There’s a 20-meter-high artificial waterfall that you can stand next to in a cave left over from the quarrying days.  When we were there today, there was a group of girls in the cave by the waterfall dressed in wigs and naughty school-girl outfits practicing a dance routine. We felt like we were in an amusement park without rides.

We didn’t have a camera with us, so here are a couple of pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

The temple on the cliff

The waterfall

Normandie and Bretagne

February 19, 2011

For our 2 year anniversary of meeting, J-G took me on a weekend trip to Mont St-Michel near on the border of Normandie (Normandy) and Bretagne (Brittany). I’m not sure why the spelling of Normandie needed to be changed for English. I find Bretagne kind of difficult to pronounce, so I understand that spelling change.

I googled Mont St-Michel before we left, but I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know where we would be staying or any other details, so it was a fun surprise. We took a train to Rennes and then rented a tiny car (Renault Twingo) and drove up to Mont St-Michel, via Fougères. We stopped in Fougères because J-G said there was a castle to see there. Turns out it was closed in January. But we walked around it in the sun, which was very nice (I’d been a little sun-deprived) and saw a pretty church.

Church in Fougères

We continued the drive up to Mont St-Michel. We arrived, parked, and saw that the parking lot next to ours said it was OK to park there that day, it would not be underwater. I think it’s underwater once or twice a month. The bay of Mont St-Michel has the world’s 4th-highest tides (the highest in continental Europe), and they bring in a huge amount of sand each year (something like 700,000 cubic meters). It’s natural, but it’s been speeded up a lot by the manmade structures around the former island, including the road and parking lot.  There’s a big project going on right now to restore it.

We had some less-than-stellar lunch in a freezing cold restaurant and then proceeded up the many stairs to see the view and visit the abbey at the top.  The abbey was very vertically-structured with several floors and gigantic pillars on the bottom level to sustain the upper floors. It was cold but sunny so the views at the top were beautiful.

Model of a ship lost at sea, hanging in the abbey church so people can pray for the crew

Shadow of Mont St-Michel

As twilight approached, we left the Mont and went to find where we would be staying that night. We got a little lost (navigating country roads in France is a very difficult thing, especially when you only have a map that contains some but not all of the roads). (As a side note, navigation in cities in France is also tricky, because the street names change every block.) Anyway, eventually we found it, the Château de Boucéel.  I know, sounds super fancy, and it was! The grounds are huge, with grass and a pond and geese and donkeys, and the house is beautiful, decorated with furniture that is probably in some sort of old fancy style that I don’t know. Downstairs there was a library with a fireplace and two cats, one of whom was very friendly.  A part of me wanted to just stay there for an entire day, sitting in a chair with a cat on my lap in front of the fire. The owner, a Comte (Count), was an amazing host, and once he figured out I wasn’t understanding what he was saying, he began speaking in excellent English.

Château de Boucéel

He recommended a restaurant in the little town nearby (the Auberge du Terroir in Servon) and made a reservation for us. We got a little lost again on the way, but made it after not too much time. There was no one else in the restaurant. The hostess seated us in the corner next to the huge stone fireplace in which a small treetrunk was burning. She brought us some sort of apple liqueur as an aperitif without us asking for anything. Eventually a few more people came in, one group of people who clearly at there often and were friends with the hostess and her husband (the chef) and a gay couple who were also staying at our château (hehe… our château).  We had one delicious course of food after another, accompanied by some white wine from Provence, and I finished every bit on my plate, which doesn’t happen very often. It was that good.  The only odd bit of the experience was this small chunk of light purple jelly sitting on the fireplace stones near us. It looked kind of like it came from one of those gel candles that were really popular a few years ago. Maybe they’re still popular, I don’t know. At one point I was so curious I stood up and poked at it, but I got no new information from my exploration. Later, I noticed one of the women at the table next to us taking a furtive poke at it. She didn’t look any more enlightened after the poke either.

The next morning, we had breakfast with the other guests at the château at a gigantic table (it was too big to easily pass the croissants from one side to the other) while our host told us about the ghost of the marquise who haunts the place. I’m sure it was no accident that he waited until morning to tell us. Apparently, though, the worst thing she does is repeatedly turn lights on when they’re supposed to be off. However, when J-G and I noticed that the donkeys from the day before were no longer there, we decided she must have eaten them.

Where are the donkeys this morning? we wondered.

We began the day with a visit to the American cemetery in St. James. It was a moving visit. My knowledge of history is so very poor – I know almost nothing about the D-Day invasions. At least I am learning, right?  The cemetery was not on the planned itinerary, and was a little out of the way, but I was really glad we went to visit. It’s a huge cemetery with rows and rows and rows of white crosses. The information sheet I grabbed at the visitors’ center said there were 20 pairs of brothers buried next to each other – I can’t imagine how their parents must have felt, losing two sons at the same time.

Cemetery at St. James

Next we took a meandering drive, following the coast to Cancale and St. Malo.  We were really lucky with the weather that weekend – both days were sunny. Here’s a map of our approximate journey:

We had tasty crepes in Cancale (Bretagne is the place for crepes, and for butter; Normandie for apples and cream) and then walked toward the sea. When we arrived, we discovered a pleasant path along the coast and had a small unexpected hike. There was a law passed in 1986 that forbade anyone from owning land within a certain distance from the coast, so you can in theory walk along the sea all around France without being derailed by some private beach. That would be a long walk, though.

Path along the sea in Cancale

We continued on to St-Malo, which was a loud surprise after Cancale. Cancale had been quiet, mostly closed, mostly empty, while St-Malo had a carnival with rides and screaming children and was teeming with people. It’s a fortified city center, so we parked outside the walls and then walked in and along the tops of the walls. We had tea & dessert and visited a big church, which turned out to be the place where Jacques Cartier was blessed by the bishop before leaving to explore and claim eastern Canada. His body was also moved there sometime in the mid 20th century. Not sure where it was before.

Old ships in St-Malo

After that, we drove back to Rennes and the train back to Paris. An excellent weekend!

Post-holiday Budapest, post-holiday culture shock

January 31, 2011

Between December 21 and January 16 I rode on 8 different airplanes and passed through 8 different airports. Crazy.

It was a good holiday month; I saw family over Christmas and introduced J-G to the cold and snow of SD, then we went to our separate Californias. I did some work and saw my people in LA, and he did work in Cupertino. Then I flew up to see him and other friends for a long weekend, and back to Paris. And the next day to Budapest for a conference. Unlike previous blog posts about travel, this one won’t have much in the way of culture or history…I managed to get out and walk around Budapest for only a few hours during conference breaks.

Basics on Budapest: The Danube runs down the middle of the city. On the days we were there, it was not so blue, and is, like most city rivers, very polluted. However, it is spanned by beautiful bridges and helps make Budapest one of the prettiest cities I’ve seen. One side of the river (the west) is Buda, and the other side is Pest. Buda has the hills, castle, and amazing views, and Pest has the downtown/commercial areas.

We walked up to the Buda castle one evening, secretly skipping some talks. My lab boss was there too, so it wasn’t actually that secret. The castle contains, in addition to its castle-ness, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Széchényi Library, which is kind of like the Library of Congress – it has all the publications and printed works produced in Hungary, by Hungarian authors, or in the Hungarian language (up to a certain year, perhaps, not sure if they are still updating it). It’s really well lit at night, I actually got some decent pictures. (We didn’t get out much during the daytime; it’s on continental Europe time but relatively far east, so the sun sets around 4:30, compared with 5:30 here in Paris.)

The Danube and Pest

National library

If you want to read some funny Hungarian news stories, you can visit this website.
I did bring back one souvenir, a CD randomly selected from a rack at a bookstore by this band Kaláka, which apparently plays Hungarian folk music. I picked it because there were multiple CDs by the band on the rack, and the cover was pretty. Kind of like picking wine bottles based on the label, I know, but who doesn’t do that? I am pretty happy with my purchase. Here’s some of their music.

People in Budapest speak very good English. Maybe it was just the people we encountered, but I was impressed.

Now, I have been back in Paris for awhile. Glad I don’t have to fly anywhere, but I had a really frustrating first weekday back. I went to the Préfecture de Police to get (I thought) my titre de séjour finally (the thing that says I can stay here for the year, and can get a social security number and be reimbursed for medical expenses). I navigated the maze, waited in the wrong line for awhile, found the right line, took another number, and got my meeting with the woman at the desk. I managed to communicate why I was there, and she gave me a piece of paper and said it was good until March. That is not a year-long span of time. That is only two extra months. Apparently I need to get a medical examination before they approve me to be here (you know, dirty Americans) and there is a rumor that the people in charge of this delay the appointment, not because they’re busy or full but because they want to slow immigration down. Lovely!

After that, I discovered that by being out of the country, I missed the deadlines for both of the French classes that I was planning on signing up for – one because I wasn’t here to take the test, and the other because of a last-date-of-registration that is buried so deep in the website I never actually found it. Guess I’ll have to find some self-discipline and study on my own regularly. There is one class upstairs from my office that I have started taking, and it’s one hour twice a week so not bad. We’ll see. Before it started, I went upstairs to find out if I have to sign up for a particular class or if I just show up, and it was difficult in my halting sentences to convince the woman who spoke no English to be helpful. Good to know that it is impossible to sign up for a French class if you speak no French.

I think the reality that I live here has now set in much more than before the holidays. I guess if you return to a new place after visiting places that you were familiar with (for example, SD, LA) it means that that new place is now home. Or something like that. Basically, I’ve been reminded of how difficult things can be here, and that I must learn a whole lot to thrive.

Today, for example, both at the boulangerie at lunch and at the grocery store after work, the people behind the counters deviated from the routine I have decided they should follow (tell me how much I owe, take the money, give me change, say au revoir). The woman at the boulangerie was asking me extra questions, and the man at the grocery store was trying to be friendly and joking with me and then looking disappointed when he got no reaction whatsoever. I guess the lesson from this is that I must continue to listen even when doing nothing more than purchasing boring items!

Ok, enough for now, except for one silly picture. Sorry about the window reflection. But I think you get the idea.



December 23, 2010

So we arrived in Istanbul after the luxurious night train from Sofia. It was no Orient Express, but we arrived at the station where the old Orient Express had its Istanbul terminal. In its heyday, the Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul, and was famously featured in many movies and novels such as “Murder on the Orient Express [not surprising, that one].  There is a train that runs from Paris to Istanbul once a year, but it’s €6600 per person, so mm no I don’t think so.

It was sunny and warm and we had lunch outside on the rooftop of our hotel after a much-needed shower. The view was fantastic: “Oh look, there’s Asia.” Our hotel was also called the Orient Express [Hotel]. It was recommended to us by friends, and it was a short walk from the train station. We were pretty content there, except it became clear over time that the members of the hotel staff (like many people in this touristy area of Istanbul) were much more interested in selling us services rather than helping us to have a good experience.

View from our hotel

We took the afternoon to wander the area. We found that we were right next to Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, though we didn’t go inside either until other days. We saw the first few cats of our visit. There are so many cats in Istanbul!

Cat on her pre-flight carpet

The Blue Mosque, a.k.a. Sultanahmet,  a.k.a. the largest mosque in Istanbul, is so touristy that, though we all removed our shoes (and it smelled like feet inside), I could go in without covering my head and not feel out of place. I had to cover my head in other mosques and Sultan tombs. After seeing these other mosques that had fewer people inside them, we were not as impressed with the Blue Mosque because of its crowds. However, it’s certainly beautiful, and famous with good reason.

Outside the Blue (Sultanahmet) Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

We spent the afternoon at the Topkapi Palace, the palace where many of the Sultans lived – it was gorgeous. We paid extra to tour the Harem, and it was definitely worth it. The treasury has the biggest emeralds I’ve ever seen, and a lot of them. The collection of the palace also includes several pieces of Muhammad’s beard (several) and his sword, as well as (apparently) David’s sword and the staff of Moses. Interesting…

View from Topkapi Palace

Diligently following the advice of the tourist guides, we went to the Grand Bazaar. If you go to Istanbul, don’t go to the Grand Bazaar. It’s a big ruse. They’ll charge you 4 or more times the value of the item, so even if you bargain well, without knowing the price of the item elsewhere you won’t get a good deal. We were told by a shop owner outside the Bazaar that the rent to be inside the Bazaar is so high that they have to charge these exorbitant prices to survive.

Haghia Sophia is not the oldest church, even within Istanbul, but it’s still very old. It was constructed in the 6th century and was the world’s largest cathedral for about 1000 years.  The dome is about 56 meters tall. Compare this to the height of the vault in Notre Dame in Paris, which is 33 meters high. Because of this incredible height combined with the poor construction of the walls (more mortar than brick, and they didn’t let the mortar dry properly before setting the dome on top) they had to add buttresses and extra support to the outside walls.  It was a church until 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. It was then a mosque until 1935, when the first Turkish president, Atatürk, converted it to a museum. At this point, they began uncovering some of the original mosaics that were plastered over when it became a mosque, so now inside it’s an interesting combination of Arabic scripts and golden mosaics showing  Mary and Jesus.  Apparently, if we had visited during the 17th-18th century, we would have had to protect our heads from tiny golden tiles falling off the ceiling of the dome. We were glad they have fixed that since then.

Outside Haghia Sophia

That's a tall dome!

Seraphim and Arabic

When we needed to escape the touristy-ness a couple of times, we went for a walk along the shore of the Sea of Marmara. It was sunny and pleasant the first day and very windy the second. The pictures are from the exciting second day.

In our last couple of days we visited the New Mosque and the Süleimaniye Mosque (the second largest mosque after the Blue Mosque). Both were beautiful.

New Mosque

Süleimaniye stained glass window

More Süleimaniye Mosque


After leaving Süleimaniye Mosque, we became a bit lost, so we asked some children which way Sultanahmet was. This is what we got in reply, along with arms pointing in all directions:


That evening, in an effort to find good food, we went to a fish restaurant recommended by our hotel. It was very convenient; they even had a free shuttle over to the restaurant from the hotel. However, it was one of the weirdest dinner experiences we’ve had. At the table next to us, a man was conducting some business deal with a couple of Ukranians, something about space heaters. Then a few older couples came in and the violinist and drummer entertainment began, except they were sitting down at the table next to us. The waiters brought us our lukewarm appetizer without looking at us, and then the same thing happened when they brought the main course, a large fish on a platter cut into pieces; the waiter dropped it on the table as if we weren’t sitting there at all. We decided that we were supposed to scoop the pieces onto our plates ourselves. J-G reached over with his fork, and the waiter immediately came rushing back to do it for us, as if we were so uncouth to imagine putting the fish on our own plates. After a bit, a tired, worn-out looking belly dancer came in to shake her boobs in people’s faces. The woman at one table told the belly dancer to get away from her husband. The dancer moved to our table and decided to try her luck with me, which was an odd choice. I ignored her until she went away, and then she gyrated next to J-G for awhile until giving up on us. The Germans at the next table, however, stuck some Turkish Lira in her bra, so she was not entirely out of luck in the restaurant. After that, she put on her jacket and left for her next stop of the evening.

Overall, the best food I had in Turkey was the breakfast at our hotel. Good bread, honey, jam, hard-boiled eggs, feta cheese with dried figs and apricots. And I enjoyed the frequent tea stops during the day.

We drank a lot of tea in these tulip-shaped glasses.

On our last evening there, we went exploring on Taksim Hill, an area of Istanbul on the newer side of the Golden Horn, still in Europe (the Asian side is mainly residential). We found many bars where people were sitting, drinking tea, and playing backgammon. It felt very Turkish, cultural.  Not too far away we found a cluster of bars where people were drinking alcohol and listening to live music, and it could have been almost anywhere in Europe.  We ate dinner at a fun kebap grill place and made a friend who showed us to a bar down the hill that he liked, where we had our only non-raki drinks of the trip.

Speaking of raki: (it’s a brandy-type liquor made from the leftovers of grapes after wine production [sort of like grappa except not disgusting]). In the duty-free shop at the Istanbul airport, we bought a couple of bottles of raki to give as gifts. They put them in sealed bags and said we could then take them on the plane. However, we had a connection in Switzerland and the evil Zurich security confiscated our raki. It was nice having fewer heavy bottles to carry for a little bit but that was the only advantage.