29 April 2009

A Norman drive-by

today we got a quick taste of normandy with a speedy car tour.

after an early morning breakfast, we headed to LMSM. as bus loads of tourists were filing onto the island, we decided to take our exterior pictures and head out, away from the masses.

we then set our GPS for bayeux. a town just west of caen, the major hub for the d-day beaches. it was about an hour and a half to bayeux and the GPS took us on a tiny country road for about 25 km. it was the highlight of the day. gorgeous landscapes, mostly alone on the road, and feeling like we were really in another world. the road was wide enough for only 1.5 cars comfortably, so occasionally we had a scare. we had a BIG one when a semi came whipping around a curve, never slowed down, and nearly shaved off the drivers side of the car. got my dosage of adrenaline for the day.

finally, we arrived in bayeux. a bustling town with a tourist boost because of the d-day beaches. we had lunch in a nice spot called "le pommier" and saw a bit of the town. then we headed to the u.s. national cemetery in colleville-sur-mer. the actual cemetery was quite a far walk so we ended up only walking the path to the the cliff overlooking the ocean. it was a perfectly sunny, clear day and the ocean was smooth as glass. it almost looked like it was frozen, it was so still. kinda eerie how vulnerable any army approaching from that direction by water woulda been to the germans. very, very impressive.

(cool symbol on the street of bayeux; nice quote at the cemetery)

then, on our way to another spot of omaha beach, we encountered a farm selling products of normandy. we stopped in for a taste. dave and his dad tried calvados (a norman liquor made from apples) and everyone tried the miel lait (a spread of basically honey and condensed milk). dave and i bought some caramel apple candies too. it was a nice stop.

then we went down to vierville-sur-mer on the coast to check out more of omaha beach. the beach here was very rocky and very close to some tall sheer cliffs. u.s. rangers scaled these steep cliffs in the early morning of june 6, 1944 right into the heart of german bunkers and artillery stores. again, such a dangerous and vulnerable spot, by all accounts the invaders shouldnt have had a chance. i can see why americans got a lot of praise for taking this most dangerous coastline.

(omaha beach near the cliffs of pointe du hoc; a bunker in the hillside of omaha beach)

after this, we were pressed to get me back to rennes in time for work, so we began our drive back. we made one last stop before getting on the highway, and it turned out to be the lowlight of the day, public toilets. it was a frightening french public toilet known to me as the "pit hole." its literally a hole in the ground "fancied up" with a piece of plastic so only your foot can get caught in it. so anyway, i figure i can squat and hover if it means i can quickly pee and get us on the road. with my brought-from-home wad of toilet paper in hand i positioned myself for action...only to feel a pinpoint of wetness blast my ass. um....what the hell?

at first i thought i was peeing on myself, but gravity wouldnt allow that. then i stepped away from the wet stream and looked around to reassess. no more water stream. my next reaction was to freak out that someone was playing a trick on me, and i really didnt even wanna imagine how that was possible. i gave up and decided to try again. repositioned and another blast of water hit my ass. GROSS! come on now. its a hole in the ground and if water is coming up then that means it must be shooting out somewhere near the shit abyss. why would i want fecal water squirted on me?

oh god, i wanna be brave and i just wanna pee, so i paused to weigh my options, nope i just cant accept being sprayed cold water in the ass by a nasty french public toilet in some horror film version of a bidet. plus, by this time, my pants were nice and wet from the water that had trickled down my leg. dear god please just make me forget this ever happened! i blotted the damp spots on my pants with the toilet paper and got the hell outta there. we ended up finding a mcdonalds where i gladly used their clean facilities. i guess youre good for one thing big mac town!

28 April 2009

Rain: 666, me: 1

i laugh in the face of rain. come and get me you wet, pelting, icy, wind-slanted, maniacal satan juice of the sky.

today began and ended with rain. we woke up in lannion and headed north to perros guirec to eat breakfast before the 2 hour boat ride around sept-îles, a natural bird preserve sanctuary off the coast of perros guirec. we arrived at the boat pier in our rain gear and stood in line waiting for the tide to be at the correct height for the boat to come pick us up at the dock.

(the beach near the boat dock during a moment of sunshine; puffin sign!; waves crashing on rocks near the boat dock)

we all boarded and took our seats just as the small window of relatively dry sky was swallowed up by grey clouds. since i didnt want to be sea sick, we chose to sit outside, above the indoor seating on the damp top deck. i sat in the little puddle on my chair, placed my backpack on my lap, pulled my hood up, and sinched down the elastic on the corners. i was ready, do your worst. ask and ye shall receive...

we drove out to one of the larger islands called ile rouzic (there are seven islands in this group, hence the name SEPT îles). one entire side was the nesting ground of the beautiful seabird called northern gannet. thousands of them dotted the steep slopes. meanwhile, our boat captain was skillfully keeping us stationary in the turbulent sea with nearby exposed rocks. the unspoiled lush islands, bordering island rock outcrops, and crashing waves were magnificent. reminded me of parts of new zealand or some wild lush islands of your imagination. if i hadnt been getting seriously wet at this point, i would have felt like the luckiest person alive.

(northern gannet nesting ground; me dressed for the elements)

we moved around this first island to a few different spots and i laid eyes on my first ever puffin. they are SO cute! much smaller than i ever imagined but totally adorable. seabirds are my favorite. they have the coolest behaviors and the neatest colorings. tree birds can be nice to, but they have many more adaptations to help them blend in to tree bark and leaves. kinda dull to me. anyway, on that island we also got to hear the razorbills singing. they kinda look like little black penguins to me, although i know my PhD-candidate ornithologist cousin would kill me for saying that.

(rocks with razorbills on them)

we motored along past 5 of the 7 islands getting wetter and wetter. by the time we headed toward the coast, my jeans weighed about 10 pounds and were pulling down my underwear. i also just started to notice that i was cold (thank you north face for making seriously good products). we moved toward the inlet at ploumanac'h which has some beautiful homes along the pink granite coast. the rocks here are very smooth and rounded and pink. they are weathered but still dangerous looking. so, so, so much rock is jutting out from the coast providing great places for waves to crash. again, like nothing ive seen before. it must feel like everyday is your birthday if you are lucky enough to live or grow-up there. jewel colored water, lushness, rugged terrain, just gorgeous.

(some of the pink granite. we didnt get the best variety of pics because daves hands were frozen and wet by this time)

anyway, we had just about begun our return to the dock when the wind and rain and soaked-to-the-bone combo bested me. i will say that i was the LAST person to come down from the top deck though. so i count that as a victory, take that brittany rain! i, however, lingered near the back of the boat, still outside in the fresh air, because i was doing a good job staving off any signs of sea sickness. come to find out, many people inside werent so lucky. there were barf bags being used, passed around, thrown overboard; people had gotten sick on their pants, and on the floor (they had to throw buckets of sea water down to rinse it all away. mmm). anyway, i left the boat feeling cold and soaked, but strong and solid-of-mind-and-stomach. i stripped off my pants and socks and changed right away, then i partially dried my shoes in a nearby bathrooms hand dryer. ha ha!

we then had a hot lunch in town to try and get warm and find a way to make a happier impression of the days excursion. i think we succeeded. we had a nice lunch and an uneventful ride home and checked the whipps into a nice hotel nearby. i then headed to work where my students were surprisingly prepared despite my lack of communicating with them beforehand. and i capped off the day with a walk home...in the rain.

27 April 2009

Finistère, i want to go to there

oh finistère, you are so gorgeous, yet you have rain all the time. i guess its a good mechanism for limiting the number of people who want to set up residence on your fine land.

we headed out from our hotel in quimper toward the western tip of brittany, pointe du raz. it was grey and raining but we forged on. occasionally, when the rain let up, we paused in one of the numerous quaint little towns along the way (audierne and plogoff beach). so much charm and character. stone buildings, climbing flowering vines, lush green grass, and usually water nearby.

(cool boat graveyard in audierne)

then, we arrived on the wild and volatile tip of pointe du raz. the winds were gusting and the rain was pelting. daves parents chose to stay in the little tourist area for a warm tea while we braved the path out to the pointe. it was kinda fun, and kinda...exhausting. there were snails crawling all along the path with us, beautiful little guys. the flowers blooming in this isolated place made it look almost forboding and when we made it out to edge, there were wild, jagged cliffs, waves crashing, and seawater swirling. we were only in a rainstorm with some wind. i cant imagine being out here for a serious tempest, that would be something to see.

(the south-eastern coast near pointe du raz; the pointe out to the lighthouse; a snail on our path)

when we made it back to the car and pumped up the heater, we aimed for the fishing village of douarnenez for a seafood lunch. seafood ordered: tuna quiche, prawn and mayo appetizer, seafood platter with langoustine, oysters, snails, and prawns. after lunch, the sun decided to grace us with its presence. thanks!

we began heading toward the northern coast for our final destination of lannion. we stopped in the tiny village of locronan. it is one of brittanys prides and joys. it is a "little town of character" with some ancient, ancient buildings. nothing in the village has been modernized or reconstructed. there is a gorgeous old church in the tiny town square and many shops with creeping vines and quaint little signs. very very cool.

(village of locronan)

then we weaved our way over to a road that took us north to morlaix. jj had recommended it because the drive is through the highlands, which look like scotland, showing yet another type of unexpected brittany landscape. and the route did not disappoint. there were huge rolling hills of green farmland for miles and miles. little farmhouses poking through trees and black clouds in the distance raining down on a faraway field. flowers were blooming and "the hills were alive...with the sound of music..." when we pulled into the tiny town of pleyben. they had a neat old church with a very intricate stone sculpture out front.

after pleyben, we continued on the route to morlaix. expecting more of the same scenary, we settled back to be lulled by peaceful beauty. as we came over a rise in the road, we suddenly were thrust into a bizarre wind-swept tundra. the land was dry, naked, windy, and empty. there was a lake and a nearby peak with a road you could drive up, so we did. on top of the hilltop peak was a chapel called st michel de brasparts. dave and i hiked up and looked around. barren land was all around and the wind was so powerful i could have jumped off the peak and gone hang gliding with only my jacket as a sail.

(st michel de brasparts chapel; view of the land near the chapel)

back in the car, we drove over another rise in the road and suddenly we left the barren wind-tunnel for the lush and rolling hills of scottish-like brittany once again. such a bizarre but beautiful road. very "wuthering heights." brittany is so diverse and unexpected, it just seems incredible that more people dont know about it.

anyway, we finally rolled into lannion and stopped at its beach around 6p. the beach was wide and long and calm and gorgeous. there were kiteboarders having a great time in the surf and we enjoyed watching them. it reminded us of the beaches north of auckland in new zealand.

finally, we checked into our hotel and found a crêperie for dinner. a nice woman had us as her only clients. she was very attentive and concerned about making sure we enjoyed our food to the fullest. everything was delicious and we went to bed tired and full and happy.

26 April 2009

To everything, wind, wind, wind...

todays not-so-secret word is: wind. everyones favorite.

we started out in rennes in breakfast and drove two hours southwest to lorient. i had read that there was a german u-boat base built during WWII that sounded interesting. we stopped for a drink and asked directions to the u-boat base. those directions got us lost, but we were hungry so we stopped into a nearby bakery for sandwiches. we asked again for directions. we tried to follow the directions and again were lost. so, we ate our sandwiches in the wind in the parking lot for a ferry boat. lovely.

we then saw a city map and located the u-boat station. i dont blame them for making a sign of german war-oppression difficult to find. when we finally located the cement base it was pretty impressive. and cold and depressing. again, as it should be. the impenetrable cement submarine fortress was built by the germans, likely in under a year, with 4 foot thick walls and serious security measures. an authentic submarine was propped up on blocks in the overgrown lot between buildings.

(german WWII submarine)

then we headed to the decidedly more cheerful town of concarneau. this is a town jj spent some of his life while raising his children. i can see why he spoke so fondly of it. cute little town, a lovely harbor, and an adorable historic island village surrounded by protective walls. upon walking across the bridge, we entered a lovely little shop-lined street. although i should have felt the mackinac island touristy-cringe-factor, there was some element missing to be repulsive to me. the ancient walls had charm, there were blooming flowers growing from planted gardens as well as from cracks in the walls, and under the blooming chesnut tree, two breton musicians were playing lovely music, similar to what sounded like highland music. very nice.

(concarneau harbor; dave at the entrance to the old island village, ville close)

the shops were charming, and not overly flamboyant, and they offered beautiful things. heaps of the most colorful ice cream known to man, and a shop selling the delicacies of brittany and greater france. bins and bins filled with different flavored kouignettes (a traditional breton dessert. basically butter, sugar, flour), chocolate covered nuts and fruits, hunks of meringue, cookies, biscuits, etc.

(homemade ice cream; only some of the kouignette bins)

alas, it was getting grey and windy, so we got back in the car and headed to quimper. our final destination for the day. we found a spacious hotel near the canal and city center. quimper is the meeting point for three rivers and has dozens of bridges crossing over the pink and white flowering chestnut-lined waterways. there is also an impressive cathedral with two steeples, intricate stone work, a great side courtyard, and tons of paintings and stained glass inside. it was nicely situated on a large open plaza with a carousel and cafés nearby.

(quimper cathedral from beyond part of the ancient city wall; the famous quimper pottery)

being sunday, not much was open, but we were able to locate a dinner spot alright. it was grey and windy and chilly (shocking) so we didnt get to see lots of quimper but it was a nice little place. its well known for its famous pottery house, HB-Henriot, which was bought by an american in 1990, so now it is widely available on the internet. go capitalism.

25 April 2009

French food four wheeling

today was definitely about food and fun with the car.

started the day on the metro headed to place st. anne (near the market). we had coffee and pastries while we woke up and readied ourselves for the day. then we hit the rennes market at around 10:30a and already tons of people were out.

(there was even a breton bagpiper to entertain the masses)

dave sr was able to indulge in the famous galette saucisse, fun! then we wandered down veggie lane and had a taste of some sliced strawberries. they were absolutely amazing. the most perfect, juiciest, softest, sweetest, redest, ripest, fantasticness.

then we regrouped and picked up the rental car. a nice crossover renault SUV, perfect for comfortably seating 4 people. dave and i were giddy with excitement to have a car to allow us some flexibility. the buses and trains have been great here, but there is nothing like meandering and making your own schedule.

so we headed north to st. malo on the coast. we sat through a huge windy, rainy grey cloud and the sun came out to shine happiness on us. we popped into a café near the city wall and had some tea and daves parents shared some mussels in cream sauce and fries (moules frites créme). then we walked up on the wall a little and looked out at the greenish-blue sea water. so amazing. and, inspired, we decided to head to the neighboring coastal town of dinard.

(on the wall in st malo)

we found a road that split between a harbor of boats and the huge beach in dinard. gorgeous colored water, windsurfers, sailboats, families promenading along the seaside. lovely.

(the beach in dinard; in dinard, looking toward st malo)

on the way back south, we stopped in, where else...but st suliac. my little fishermens village on the estuary. still cute. and today there was a wedding party on hand. they were having their pictures taken along the coast of the little harbor. we still had some sun and there was a seaside café so we sat and shared a bottle of cider and waved as the wedding party drove away.

then we returned to rennes and suited up for dinner. reservations at Île du Mets, a restaurant with amazing food (where i also got sick from eating too much fatty stuff in one sitting without wine; see blog entry called "In the aftermath of paris"). for starters people ordered: foie gras, thin strips of seasoned lamb, and asparagus with morel mushrooms and a poached egg on top sitting in a pool of the most wonderful creamy sauce (this appetizer won the prize this evening). then, for main dishes we had: rabbit, veal, and white fish (i thought the white fish was great. it was definitely a white fish, but it wasnt just one-dimensional or bland. yummy). then for dessert it was lemon-vanilla créme brulée and a plate of a sweet cheesy creamed honey (almost like honey cheesecake without crust) with a scoop of salty caramel ice cream on top with salty caramel drizzle and a dark chocolate wafer. mmm mmm mmm. a day of food, fun, seaside, and sunshine.

24 April 2009

Let there be visitors!

and on this day, there were visitors. daves parents to be exact. welcome!

somehow remaining calm all day we met daves parents on the rennes train platform at 4:15p. they stepped off with their baggage into our little world and suddenly everything became very normal and comfortable. someone from our past was here to prove we exist. what a feeling.

we helped them to the hotel, checked in, and settled down. we had a knapsack of goodies to welcome them and their bellies with. as it turned out they hadnt eaten since breakfast on the plane so they were really in need of food. any food would have served the purpose i suppose, but we had our favorite baguette, a pork/mushroom sausage, a hunk of amazing, soft Chaource cheese (thanks martin!), a bottle of some award-winning brittany cider (dry, not sweet), and a sinfully rich dessert made in the best tart shell ever filled with a layer of salted caramel and a layer of chocolate on top. they willingly ate up every bite and we were happy to see they were pleased with our choices.

(in the hotel room)

after the foodfest, daves dad cleaned up and took a nap. his mom had slept on the plane and train and was ready to get out and take some pictures. we crossed the canal, walked through the garden in front of palais st. georges, past the town swimming pool, and then climbed the many stairs into the thabor park. every single scrap of plant life was in bloom. amazing. every day some new delight is offered there. the weather was grand and the french people were out enjoying themselves. then we circled back through a bit of the city center and returned to the hotel.

(dave and his mom in front of palais st. georges; dave and his mom in thabor park)

we regrouped for dinner and chose a place near the hotel for crêpes. dave sr ordered a scallop, leek, and cheese galette with a side salad, mary ann (daves mom), dave jr, and i each ordered some combination of mushrooms, ham, cheese, and/or egg galette. we also ordered a bottle of brittany cider (sweet this time, not dry) for the table. then for dessert we each got a crêpe. dave sr ordered apple, salty caramel, and vanilla ice cream, dave jr got salty caramel only, i got chocolate and pear, and mary ann got chocolate with chantilly cream (french whipped cream). very filling! and heavenly. we sent them off to bed full, happy, and tired. looking forward to what tomorrow will bring. :)

(dave sr enjoying his galette)

20 April 2009

Rance, twice...three times a river

met with jj and had a lovely day around the rance river in brittany.

first we had tea in rennes and discussed a current sarkozy headline. last weekend he was apparently having lunch with members of his political party when we made some choice remarks about many of the leaders of the nations of europe and obama. for obama it was nothing too terrible, "hes smart and charasmatic, but he has never run an administration in his life." big deal. he said some more disparaging things about others. basically, jj wanted to know what the u.s. reaction was...when i googled it later, i found that it hadnt really hit the big time back home. we have too many other things to worry about back home i guess than to address stupid remarks from frances version of bush.

anyway, then we hopped in the car and headed north (north of dinan) to a tiny village called port-saint-jean. basically it is a few stone houses bordering a large open area of the estuary. there is a bridge there that connects ille-et-vilaine to côtes d'armor (the next "county" over). the weather was great, the water was green, the breeze was salty, the flowers on the coast were blooming. lovely.

(the bridge over the rance; a beautiful blue tree blooming nearby)

then we headed over the bridge into the next "county" and stopped along the river, in plouër-sur-rance, for some more tea. in the lovely, peaceful harbor we sat in the sunshine and discussed u.s. states flags/symbols. jj had recently bought a huge map of the u.s. and wanted me to start telling him about my country, since he has been showing me so much of his. the map had all the state flags, with a few other bits of info (population, sq. km., date it joined the u.s., state bird, tree, and flower). he was fascinated by it and had many questions. i am going to continue my u.s. reporting with him next time we meet. too funny.

anyway, then we headed to his familys favorite beach. its a small piece of sand, but in a nice secluded area along the rance river. protected from wind and strong currents. and of course there are the great views and relaxing surroundings.

(view from part of the beach; look mom, im on a beach!)

then we drove further north across the bridge/dam over the rance that generates power for the french electric company EDF. and a nice little drive south along the rivers edge down to st. suliac again. so, i have been along the rance river three times now in the last week, twice to st. suliac. with nice weather its a great area to visit, relax, enjoy. im sure i'll be back soon...

18 April 2009

Dinan[t] underestimate the simple things in life

taking advice from jj and acting on the beautiful weather of the day, we took the bus to dinan, a town 55 km north of rennes.

dinan is a town built on the hilltop above the valley of the rance river (which goes out to the english channel). they have a city wall surrounding the old town and have sprawled a bit outside those barriers. the bus dropped us in the city center and we began walking in search of a place to eat our lunch.

we wandered a few streets in the direction of a church top we saw. upon arriving in front the church, i started sifting though my bag for the camera. i grabbed it and tried to tuck it in my coat pocket before i could look like a completely transparent tourist. just when i thought i had escaped notice, an old frenchman on the street made eye contact and asked if we were tourists. i blushed and replied "oui." he began chatting with me in french telling me he was delighted to see young tourists coming to explore his beloved dinan.

he said it is a town very popular with british people (many vacation there, some have homes) and asked where we were from. after saying we were american his face lit up even more (the french have a huge rivalry with brits, often they are quite elated when they find you are american instead of british), he seemed even more proud of his city. he told us he didnt speak american but there were descriptions (of something, the church?, i missed what he said at this part) written in italian, french, spanish, and british for us to read, although he lamented none were written in american. too funny. he gave us directions to the towns tourist office and asked if it was our first time in france. dave tried to answer but the man completely ignored him. apparently this is typical "french old men" behavior, they only speak to the woman. so i explained that it was our first time in france, but that we actually have been living in rennes for a short while. he was delighted, complimented me on my french, and bid us farewell. so cute! i am counting this one in the "did not disgrace my country" column.

so the day was off to a good start. we cruised through the church and started wandering the old part of town. there was an area near the church that may have been a convent that was converted into an art exhibition hall so we strolled through there also. after coming out we headed in the direction of some music.

(cool building in old town area)

there was an energetic frenchman cranking out tunes on an organ and singing passionately along to the music. very entertaining. wanting to linger near his performance, we went into a nearby tourist/souvenir shop and surveyed the breton products available. we havent been souvenir shopping yet and feel that we need to start seeing what is out there so we can assess quality and find a few cool things to bring back with us. when we came out the man was still dancing, cranking, and singing away. i had to drop a euro in his hat. he must seriously make bank.

we continued along the street and came upon another large church with a garden in back (or maybe front?) of it. the garden had some lovely shade trees, flowers, and people relaxing. best of all it continued right up to the edge of the city wall and the area overlooking the huge viaduct, rance river, and town below. the sun was shining, the view was magnificent, and there was a wonderful sense of calm. we ate our lunch on a bench in this park and lamented that you cant really find afternoons like this in the u.s., something we will dearly miss. this began for us a day of comparisons with u.s. living and tallying what we will miss and cherish from our time here.

(church near our lunch spot; the view from the wall of the rance river and lower dinan)

after lunch, we followed the path below the wall to descend into the river valley. we strolled along the river, the little village houses, and the boats. we meandered back up a path along the opposite side of the river to return to the road that went across the viaduct and up into dinan again.

we reentered town via the main road which led us past the dinan chateau. we paused for a picture by the flower garden in front but decided not to pay to go inside. weve seen plenty of chateaus. we did however decided that we could head back into the old town and find a place to sit and enjoy some tea.

(us near the chateau. pic is crooked because i forgot to bring the tripod)

we found a "salon de thé" (tea room) on the edge of a quiet street that was bathed in sun. they had one table out front so we grabbed it and began perusing the menu. dave still had a sensitive stomach so he opted quickly for a green mint tea, but i was having a hard time deciding. normally i am a straight black tea person, point me at the earl grey and say no more. i tend to do this with all things food...thai food = yellow chicken curry, indian food = vegetarian lentil dish, middle eastern food = falafel and rice pilaf. once i find something i love in a particular food category, i tend to get stuck because i have such wonderful food memories that i hate to stray. alas, something about the inspiring day we were having in dinan led me to clumsily ask the tea lady for a suggestion: "i typically order earl grey, but do you have another similiar suggestion?" she directed me to a bergamot based tea (same as earl grey) that was infused with crème brûlée essence called Coromandel. yes please!

our tea pots came, we poured the steaming liquid into our cups, and chatted in the sunshine while waiting for it to cool down. as i lifted the cup for my first sip, i inhaled the vapor deeply...dEEEEE-licious. black tea tempered with the sweetness of carmelized sugar and vanilla. i was getting high on the scent when i realized i hadnt even taken a sip yet. i then became a bit nervous that the tea would betray me and be too sweet. i normally take my tea plain, so while the odor was intoxicating, i didnt actually want to drink a pot of sugary dessert. but, lo and behold, all the lovely bite of the black tea leaves was there hitting the back of my throat, only to leave the mild hint of sweetness for aftertaste. i declare that there isnt a better blend of tea in all the world.

(dave at our tea table in the sun)

so, we sat for an hour talking, relaxing, observing, and enjoying the tea (me more than dave, by this time i was ready to divorce him to marry the tea pot). i was determined to finish the entire (40 oz?) pot, it would be rude to waste such a fantastic tea. while i was testing out the tensile strength of my bladder, a young couple pushing a stroller walked past us slowly.

dad had a camera slung around him and a "lonely planet guide: france" book opened. once they caught wind of us speaking english they slowed almost to a stop and lingered. then meandered to the end of the street, turned around, and paused again near us. we both sensed that they wanted to ask us something, so we casually carried on our conversation while trying to make our body language convey that we were open to being interrupted. after some long moments, they finally wandered away from us. perhaps we had gotten our body language wrong, or they were frightened by my maniacal tea drinking, but we were a little saddened to be un-useful to our fellow man.

the french love to be helpful, once called upon. they feign selfishness, coldness, or disinterestedness in the streets and often in shops, but once asked, any good frenchie worth his salt will jump into action (occasionally giving incorrect directions so as to appear helpful or successful so they dont end with a total sense of failure). and being unable to connect with this couple made us feel a bit sad. we would have gushed forth with more information than they could ever possibly have wanted, but might have made their vacation that much better. alas!

anyway, with the shade climbing toward us, i downed the last of my tea, and used the shops toilet. i then engaged in another conversation with the tea lady to thank her for the suggestion, could i buy some of it to take with me, and in the future where can i find it? she said it wasnt a british tea because those people like their tea VERY strong, but it was in fact, a french tea company, Dammann, that created this and most of their other teas. in the future, i will need to locate tea boutiques selling the brand and there is always their website. so delicious, it makes me want to try all the varieties from the company and inspired me to make a mental note to cultivate becoming a tea connoisseur in the future, when i have a more permanent residence to store more than one kind of tea and teapots and tea sets. oh my!

we then headed back out to the streets of the old town to explore in the last hour before our bus back to rennes. we found some lovely steep streets that headed down toward the water, and again we heard the song of the organ grinder. we turned down a side street and there he was, dancing and singing away. he had picked up his equipment and was entertaining another part of town.

(organ grinder dancing at his machine)

we unwrapped some candy suckers we had bought earlier in the day (dave an anise-flavored one and me a salty caramel one) and continued along the streets. we found a staircase up to a different part of the city wall and went up for a look. more lovely views, sunshine, and a sense of calm and peace...if i were a writer or artist, or had a job where i could work from home, i would be setting up residence, post haste. it was that sublime of a feeling, being in this town, with this weather, and this energy running through my veins screaming "youre alive. youre eyes are actually seeing this, and youre actually feeling this happy."

(me with my sucker in front of a house i wanna own; so cute!)

after these sappy sentiments dialed down, we headed back toward the bus stop. i wanted to pee again before the one hour bus ride back, which was good both for my bladder and my french checks and balances. first, i am grateful that there are public toilets available, i will never be upset about that joyous fact. however, it is SO very french to offer no toilet paper or soap in these smelly venues. the men use the world as a toilet and the toilets for women are nothing more than a gesture of civility. these people, in theory, are hell bent on a sense of cleanliness, they call it "propre." it means to be clean, well-dressed, confident and presenting yourself in a respectable, dignified way for all the world to see. i think this fuels at least a small portion of their disdain for brits. brits are sloppy, unclean, slovenly, etc people in their eyes, hence the slight elevation of respect upon finding we are american. though, americans are also sloppy dressers and overweight and disregard their image. i get some wonderful looks when i wear my sweatpants around town. i love to see em squirm. anywho, crisis partially averted, i have learned to pack toilet paper in my backpack before we go out sightseeing.

but seriously, it was a perfect day to note how lucky we are to be able to have this experience, to feel rather than just talk about what benefits living in france has brought us. the tally of activities in dinan were dull on the surface (churches, lunch outside, walking, taking photos, having tea) but it really cemented our emotions thus far. it helped to sift out the struggles from the triumphs and the isolation, fears, sadness (and i still feel these sometimes) from the joys, enlightenment, and sense of inner peace. im lucky to have my life, have found dave and later been given (and taken) this opportunity via his smarts and career, and to have happy hopes for the future. my inner pessimist is slowly dying, and i wish it bon voyage...

15 April 2009

An artsy fartsy day

spent the day enriching my brain with artsy things.

first, i sat with jj in a cafe and got literary. he presented the third poet of the french triad of masters (rimbaud and verlaine being the others). this is charles baudelaire. his most famous book of poetry is called "fleurs du mal" (flowers of evil). one of the most notable poems from this collection is called l'albatros. its got great imagery comparing the giant, soaring, glorious sea bird to the intellect, philosophy, and life of a poet. both are graceful, proud, masters of their lofty domain, but if forced to be grounded among men, they are awkward, vulnerable, and out-of-place.

we also read from the newspaper a bit before jj produced a magazine on brittany he had found for me. it was primarily about finistère (the western department/county we are visiting soon) and the great sites to see there. he gave some suggestions and great advice. and, i heard a brief telling of the legendary fabled city of Ys. its the french version of the underwater city of atlantis and the story sounds very biblical to me. women always wronging mankind...

Ys was the most glorious city in the world, built below sea level, off the finistère coast, with a high wall surrounding it to keep out the water. the kings daughter, Dahud, was a promiscuous girl. one day "evil", disguised as a young knight, coaxed her into stealing the key to the city gates which her father wore around his neck. she did and they opened the protective gates at night during a storm and sea water flooded in. the knight revealed himself as the devil and Ys started to be swallowed up. dahud and her father tried to escape on their magical horse, but two people were too heavy for the animal. the kings advisor, saint winwaloe, told the king to push dahud off into the sea so she could drown for her sins. he did and she died. good job.

there is also a famous claim that paris was named after Ys, because in breton "par-ys" (pronounced the same as "paris") means "like Ys." and supposedly, when paris is swallowed by the sea, Ys shall rise again. the bretons love their fables, mysticism, and magic. they also claim to be the original site of merlins forest, the knights of the round table, the legend of arthur. okay.

then, i offered jj my "i'll never be french" book (i'll get it back to you linda) to read so he could enjoy some english from an american who lived in brittany. later he told me he had started reading it and had a great laugh at one of the jokes. i had forgotten about it, quite funny: "in heaven, the french are the cooks, the swiss are the managers, the italians are the lovers, the british are the police, and the germans are the engineers...in hell, the british are the cooks, the italians are the engineers, the germans are the police, the swiss are the lovers, and the french are the managers." memorize this people, true and hilarious!

lastly, we ended the afternoon with a trip to the champs libre. we met up with jacques and anne there. we went to see the exhibit called "6 milliards d'autre" (6 billion others) by artist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, one of frances most prized photographers. the artist interviewed 5000 people over 4 years in 75 countries, filmed it, and presents it in this exhibit. the exhibit debuted in paris and has now moved to rennes, until august.

the exhibit had some general tv screens playing snippets of interviews and three main tents. inside each tent a different collection of interviews were playing. one tent was the 22 minute summary of the question "what is your earliest childhood memory?" the second tent featured 27 minutes answering "what is love?" the final tent was 27 minutes answering "what is god to you?" as you can imagine people from egypt, sweden, papua new guinea and china had very different answers to these questions...sometimes, and sometimes it was surprising how similar we all are. of course, this whole project was an exercise to make you think and examine your connection between every other living person. very cool. and every two weeks, the topics in the tents will rotate. coming soon: feelings on war, family, women, happiness, death, etc.

lastly, to round out the cultural/artsy extravaganza, a few more interesting new yorker articles:
- short article summarizing the current parenting literature and the overparenting trend. interesting and frightening.
- in-depth article about john mccain and his failed campaigns

14 April 2009

Le Mont Saint Michel - Part Deux

visited mont saint michel (hereafter called LMSM) with jj, his son, and his sons girlfriend in what i now realize was my second of five trips i will make to this place (first trip was in november, entry called "mont snail mussel").

the morning weather was grey, clammy, and rainy (what else is new?). i drove out with jj and we met his son and his girlfriend there. on the road out to LMSM we encountered a flock of the famous salt-marsh sheep (pré-salé, in french). they graze on the marshy, salty tidal grass near the bay. it is said that they are the best tasting type of lamb in the world. (i have yet to confirm this).

(the salt-marsh sheep)

we arrived and walked toward the monumental island in the drizzle. thankfully there werent TONS of people there yet so we entered the island and began ascending the stairs in relative peace and calm. the old village buildings, lichen-covered rooflines, and surrounding water and marshland are quiet beautiful if you can get a moment to yourself to enjoy it. they say 3+ million people visit LMSM each year, although only about 1 million make it to the top to visit the abbey. pretty impressive.

we waited in line to enter the abbey, paid the tariff, and began the tour of the structures, climbing and descending staircases all morning long. jjs son, guillaume, and his italian girlfriend, sara, were very nice. they spoke good english and helped me very often when we were discussing things in french and i didnt understand. guillaume also had a great time poking fun at his fathers english skills.

(jj, guillaume, and sara. guillaume was taking his french gesturing very seriously)

anyway, i learned that each stone mason who laid stones on LMSM chiseled his mark into each one of his stones so he could be paid properly (per stone). also, many parts of the structure fell and were rebuilt and fell again and rebuilt, so it is quite a patchwork construction. the earliest usage and building on LMSM was in the 900s. its history of ownership was first as celtic land, then roman, then property of charlemagne, then breton, then norman, then the british attempted to take it and finally france absorbed it officially. the region of normandy claims it as theirs, but of course there is a rivalry with the bretons who say it was theirs first. in classic french fashion, everyone is proud of "their" monument and stakes a personal claim on this famous ground.

(some gulls mating on LMSM; the entrance to the cathedral part of LMSM)

when we finished the tour of the abbey, we greeted the sun and heard our bellies growl. we chose to get off the tourist trap island and eat somewhere simple on the way out of town. after lunch guillaume and sara headed back to paris (where they live) and jj and i took the long way home.

first we stopped at a windmill in a lovely field of yellow flowers with LMSM in the background. it was a very beautiful and movie-like landscape.

(me, the flowers, and windmill [moulin, in french])

then we cruised along the bay of LMSM and headed south toward rennes stopping in the small fishing village called saint suliac. it is situated on an estuary that goes out to the english channel with very beautiful, quaint stone houses along the coast. it is apparently a spot dominated by the rich families of rennes who have a second home here in this peaceful, desirable spot. we had tea and sat in the sun and enjoyed an hour at the end of the day.

(part of the beachline of saint suliac)

of course, i was tired by the time i got home at 6p but i was glad to have gotten to see a few new things and enjoy the nice weather along the coast of brittany.