ruminations on a series of unrelated events
May 9th, 2022
After two years of COVID cancellation of our study abroad in Greece, things are finally back on this summer. Hurray! I am very excited to be returning to Paros with my colleague Albert William and 11 students. But first, I am visiting my daughter, Amalia, in Trondheim, Norway where she has been in graduate school for the last year and a half (after doing the first semester remotely from Indy). Amalia left the states for Norway to get her MFA at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, or NTNU, as it is known there. She attends its art school (called KIT, the Kunst Akademiet i Trondheim). I have not seen her for nearly a year. I will be with her for a week and will get to see at least part of her graduate exhibit. One opening, for her installation at the Trondheim Science Center, has already happened, but it is a multifaceted piece that has a few more components I’ll be able to catch, including her dance/performance at the contemporary art museum, the Kunsthalle Trondheim. I hope to make a short film about her work while I am there.
My week in Norway will be followed by 3 1/2 weeks on Paros making films about the island, as well as biking and taking tons of photos. (I am excited to be returning to the island with a new Sony A7s3 and some amazing lenses to put to good use.) I will follow Paros with a couple of days on the island next door, Naxos, where I hope to relax and bike and/or hike before I fly to Paris. My wife, Catherine, got a Lilly Teaching Grant to spend a month in France to work on her French. I am very excited to be tagging along with her. We will be renting a car and going on a big loop around western France before we return to Paris in time for Bastille day. That should be exciting. I would imagine I’ll probably take a few more pictures.
May 10th, 2022
After days of finishing up my grading and packing, it was finally time to fly out. Years ago, I was unable to attend Amalia’s college graduation because I had to be in Paros for study abroad. I promised her then if she went on to graduate school, I would not miss her next graduation. I could hardly imagine at the time she would choose to go to Norway, but hey a promise is a promise, so I have absolutely no choice but to fly to Norway. So now it is Indy to Detroit, Detroit to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Trondheim. Luckily, the two hour flight delay out of Indy did not make me miss my connection in Detroit.
For whatever reason sleep seemed impossible on the flights except for the final 20 minutes of the last flight when I could not keep my eyes open or my head balanced on my hands to save my life. Ugh.
May, 11th, 2022
After Amalia picked me up that afternoon, I got to see her graduate student apartment (which is quite nice) and her art installation at the Vintensenteret (The Science Center of Trondheim); the Kunsthall Trondheim, the museum where she will be performing on Saturday; and the Kuk Artspace where the reception will be held. Her piece, called Signaling, is an installation of sculptures that use mycelium and sound/music generated by mushrooms and a dance performance. At the science center the sculptures hang from pink chains in a room lit with blue lights. Spray bottles of water are there for visitors to spray the mushrooms to help keep them alive. (When we were visiting school children were spraying each other with them.)
I also visited Amalia’s studio space at KIT, where she is growing several mushrooms.
Trondheim was sunny and in the 50s (the sun is a bit of a rarity). I hate to use the word, but I don’t really know how else to describe Trondheim: it is very quaint. The houses with their vertical wood siding in either bright colors, black, or white make, for quite the picturesque sight. The hills, the water, the very old buildings combined with the well-designed new buildings create a visually compelling city. I love the very different sense of space found in so many European cities. It is much more intimate than in the US. I am sure this is somewhat due to the closeness needed for protection when the cities were originally established hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. But even today, a more intimate sense of scale and organization is maintained with the newer building. I saw villages of 8-10 story apartment complexes all clustered closely together, not in a grid, as they would be in the US, but organically arranged with walking paths between them. The contemporary urban design feels like an extension of the earlier medieval design, often avoiding a grid layout. This urban design is so inviting and feels more communal and community-enhancing than what we typically find in the US. All this gives a sense to the observer that in Trondheim, and perhaps in the Norwegian society at large, there is more of an emphasis on community and by extension, happiness. In the case of Trondheim, it is also very visually complex and compelling because it is built around a fjord and across several hills.
May 12th, 2022
The days are looooong in Norway and we took full advantage of the daylight. One highlight of the day was going to get a sauna. At noon we made our way through cold wind and rain to the sauna club that is out on a pier. Amalia goes there a couple of times a week as a guest of her sauna shaman. I call him the sauna shaman, not Amalia, because during the sauna (where about a dozen naked people are sitting in a giant two-tiered space with a big window facing the fjord) he plays music, wind chimes and a rain stick and whips the hot air at everyone with a towel. The process involves sitting in the sauna for about 10 minutes as the shaman does his thing and then jumping in the freezing fjord — and repeating that four times. It is a bit intense.
The other big highlight of the day was setting off at 6:00 on a 2 1/2 hour drive to Innerdalen. Innerdalen is a mountain valley where there is a cabin we can stay in. After the scenic drive, we parked and walked the three miles toward the cabin. It is a pretty steep walk over a hill and back down on the other side. As we crested the hill, the sun broke through the clouds and gave us a beautiful view of mountains bathed in lavender light.
The cabin is part of a 500 cabin system around the country where people can stay for $25. For a nominal membership fee you are given a key that fits all the cabins. The cabins, or at least this one, had everything we needed, electricity, a kitchen, a fully stocked pantry and most importantly: a wood burning stove with a big stack of firewood. (It all works on the honor system and you pay by the Norwegian version of Venmo.) I got the fire going right away as Amalia made a delicious pasta dinner. The entire time I am simply amazed that this all exists and that people take care of it. It’s hard to imagine that working in the US.
Friday, May 13th, 2022
We cleaned up and hiked out in the morning and made our way back to Trondheim. In the afternoon, I documented Amalia’s installation at the science center and then we rested before going out for a ramen dinner. The ramen place, Edoramen, is located in one of the apartment villages I mentioned earlier, in an area of town called Lilleby, and is run by a Michelin chef named Heidi Bjerkan. (As part of Amalia’s performance/reception at the science center on May 21st, Heidi will be there making mushroom ramen for the occasion.) I have to say the ramen was pretty extraordinary– a real umami bomb!
Saturday, May 14th, 2022
Amalia’s big day has arrived. Her performance at the Kunsthall Trondheim is at 1:00. Part of the 90-minute performance involves sound/music being generated live by mycelium that is on two rolling rack structures that are moving throughout the dance. However, we awoke in the morning to find that the batteries needed make that sound did not charge, despite being plugged in all night. That made for some stress and for some scrambling. Fortunately, the sound designer for the piece, Oystein _____ had a solution. He had some quick chargers. So the batteries got fully charged during the rehearsal that started at 10:30. And everything was ready to go at 1:00. It all went very well. As the videographer, I was incorporated into the piece by wearing a hazmat suit. Amalia’s dance, in which she dances with four undergraduates she somehow convinced to go along with her idea, was truly beautiful and the many comments she received the rest of the day made me think a lot of other people felt the same way.
The remainder of the day was spent at the big reception where everyone was recognized–essentially their rather casual commencement for the 20 graduating MFA students. That night we went to a new sushi place in town, Maki, which exceeded our expectations. And then we had dessert at the restaurant where Amalia works. The whole dinner experience was a bit of a trip. It is an enormous Italian restaurant in the heart of the city that was established 47 years ago and is now run by the founder’s son. The place is beautiful and it was very busy. Two of Amalia’s classmates were working and spent a lot of time talking and laughing with us and a few of Amalia’a other co-workers dropped by to talk. It seemed like one big happy place to work. There was also surprise chocolate ice cream for Amalia with a flaming 2 foot tall torch on it (like they love to do in Europe). It was all very warm an inviting. We were there for like 90 minutes or 2 hours. And when we left everyone who was seated at all the tables around us when we arrived were still there. Nobody was going anywhere. I love the slow-paced European meals that go on all night. Nobody is in a hurry to go anywhere. I savored every minute sitting there with Amalia celebrating her success. What a great end to a wonderful day.
Sunday, May 15th, 2022
We drove 2 hours to a small town where there was another exhibit of the graduating class. It turned into an all day affair that left us pretty exhausted. I am glad I went because I got to see another piece of Amalia’s in this show.
Later that evening, after we got back to Trondheim and had a rest, we took a hike to the top of a mountain that overlooks the city. In one direction is Trondheim, in the other are mountains and a large fjord. It is an incredible view. A very cold incredible view.
Monday, May 16th, 2022
Before leaving for the airport on my last day in Norway. I was able to shoot an awesome interview of Amalia in her studio and visit the incredible cathedral in town. It is called the Nidaros Cathedral. It is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world. It was started in 1070 and took almost 250 years to complete. It is enormous and has not one, but two organs, both of which you can see in these photos.
So that was my trip to Norway to finally visit my daughter. I am very proud of all that she has been doing and creating. She is a beautiful and talented young woman ready to make her mark. Below are two short videos of Amalia’s work.
Now… Onto Greece
Thursday May 19th, 2022
My colleague, Albert William, and I are resuming our study abroad in Paros Greece and have brought 11 students to the island. We come here each summer (with the exception of the last two summers due to COVID) to make documentaries about the island. Since I got here Tuesday morning after staying the night in Athens, I have been basically unpacking, meeting with people, figuring out our films, taking pictures and showing students around. Tomorrow is the first official day of class when things will start to get underway.
Monday May 23rd, 20022
I rented a bike, as I usually do, and this morning was my first opportunity to take it out for a ride. I got up at 5 and did a 20 mile loop out of Parikia and up toward Naousa and then the back way up to Lefkes. It is a very hilly 20 miles–the major hill being the steep 3K climb to Lefkes (There is even a steeper road to Lefkes that was part of the last race I did here a few years ago. It nearly killed me and I had to walk my bike part of the way. I might try that road again. We will see.) It was so good to be back riding on Paros. There is a 70K race on Sunday, but I am not sure I am going to do it.
I stopped the bike as I approached the top of the Lefkes Hill and took the shot below facing Naxos in the distance, the biggest island in the cyclades. The nearby hill in the back right is burned. Wild fires are increasingly becoming an issue on the island, and for that reason we have chosen it as one of our documentary topics this year.
After my morning ride, we took the team over to the Aegean Wildlife Hospital, Alkioni, and did our interview with the Marios Fournaris. Marios established the hospital in 1995. It is mainly a hospital for birds. And is the only licensed bird hospital in all of Greece. It is run entirely on donations and volunteer efforts. The work being done there is impressive. Mario gave a great interview.
Yesterday, Albert and I met with Marios as part of a site visit prior to bringing all the students and doing the interview. On that trip we got to see the various birds they currently have in the hospital. Since it is a hospital, and not a zoo, visitors don’t really get to see most of the birds. It would overly stress them. Here are some pics from that visit. I hope to shoot some b-roll of them for the doc.
Friday, June 10th, 2022
The last couple of weeks have afforded no time for blog entries. We have been working on several films virtually everyday. In order to get any cycling in, I have to hit the road no later than 5:30, which I did several times over the last couple of weeks. That really helps keep my energy up and my mind clear. Thank god for bikes. I have also been helping students with 12 films which included several interviews. In addition to the animal hospital film, I mentioned we have a film that films looks at the the 2021 fire on the island. It is an ambitious film about a very serious and delicate subject. We interviewed four people for it: Rula Kavali, someone who lost a lot of land to the fire and whose house was nearly destroyed; Elena Symeonidou, an environmentalist; Bernie Steinbach, an Austrian expat who does 3D modeling of fire damage; and Haris Giortzidis, a civil protection coordinator from the municipality.
Doing all these interviews and shooting b-roll and drone footage for the fire took a lot of time and coordination, but in the end the film turned out really well. I like taking on topics like this with the students.
Another film was about an old monastery called Agios Minas that a guy named Frank has been restoring for years. A great grandfather of his built the original church at the monastery hundreds of years ago and now it has been handed down to Frank.
In addition to these films and some others, we did several about expats who have been living here on the island for decades. It was great to hear their stories of what the island was like before it became such valuable real estate.
Last night, we screened all the films publicly, as we always do, and we had our largest audience yet. Once all the final films are posted to Vimeo, I will post a link to them here.
Here are some more shots from the screening.
Tomorrow, I set off for Naxos, the large island next door. I hope to basically rest and recover from the intensity of the last couple of weeks. And to take some photos of course.
Here is a little gallery of random Paros images:
Naxos was exactly what I needed. I stayed at an AirBNB called 3 Wishes that just could not have been better. It is basically a small 3 room place the was opened in 2018. I am surmising that it was a remodeled floor in an already existing building. My room could not have been more serene. After my short ferry ride from Paros, I walked the 1/2 kilometer to the AirBNB and next thing I knew I was waking up from a 4 hour nap. The room was so peaceful and the bed so comfortable that I took the longest nap of my adult life. That is a great way to leave behind the preceding 3 weeks and open the door on the next part of this trip.
That evening I wandered around the old town, as one does, and settled on a restaurant up the hillside with a great view. I ordered a traditional baked meatball dish that is cooked in a pot with vegetables and cheese. I had the same dish on my last visit to Naxos 5 years ago. The meatballs end up quite soft. The whole thing is an incredible comfort food. I might try to recreate it at home sometime. It can’t be that hard.
More wandering afterward brought me to the icon of the island: the famous Portara Gate. This is a door way to a temple to Apollo from around 580BCE, that I believe was never completed. It dominates a small islet right off the coast of the town. It is a very impressive structure. To get there you have to walk a short causeway. As I walked there in the dark trying to avoid being splashed by the occasional crashing wave, I couldn’t help but imagine what this causeway would have looked like in the US. It would have had guardrails the entire way (here there were NONE). It would probably have a wall to prevent splashing. It would have been lit to some ridiculously bright standard, and it would have been evenly paved and included ramps. So all the character would have been eliminated for the sake of safety. Here you are trusted that you own sense of self-preservation will see you through. And if you are in a wheelchair, once you reach the stairs at the end of the causeway, you are left either out of luck or hoping your friends are strong enough to pick you up.
After my loop around the Portara, I walked along the main strip in town. Naxos is well designed for this. It has a marina and a pretty under-used vehicle road that runs along that and then it has a parallel walking road. In the wide gap between there are plenty of restaurants. The whole place is bustling at night. As I have experienced in many towns and cities throughout the world, people aren’t sitting at home at night playing video games or watching TV. They are walking around with their friends, eating, drinking and enjoying the night, which is so much more pleasant than the heat of the day. This contributes to a sense of community; something woefully vanishing from American life. It is weird juxtaposition to be here in this space that seems so friendly and fun and hear news of yet another mass shooting in the terribly dysfunctional US. The US has lost its way and it is so tragic to see.
On June 13th I flew to Paris. We have a hotel booked next to the Sorbonne. (The Hotel Cluney Sorbonne is a very inexpensive 3 star hotel. It lacks AC, but it has an elevator.) My step-daughter, Sophia, has been in the city for a few days and earlier today she moved to our hotel. I planned to meet her in the Luxembourg Gardens, right near our hotel. The Charles de Gaulle airport is an absolute maze of a place. That was my memory of it and that memory was confirmed today. I eventually made my way to the train for Luxembourg by following the B signs for the blue line. The train ride is kind of ridiculous in that EVERYONE has one or more huge suitcases that take up the entire aisle. I immediately recognized the error of my ways after I took a window seat half way between two exits. I was trapped. And at every stop more and more people got on until it would be hard to fit anyone else. My stop was still a few away, but there was no way I could escape if I had to. Thankfully, there were two stops that had connecting trains including Gare de Nord and a good chunk of the train emptied out.
I made my way out of the station (not knowing there was an elevator that could have helped with my heavy bags) and into the gardens to meet Sophia. What a magical and truly quintessentially Parisian place to enter right after disembarking the Metro. I reunited with Sophia and we immediately sought out a restaurant. Of course, we picked a close one that provided a great front row seat to everyone crossing the street to the gardens. The streets were absolutely teeming with people.
That night, we walked around the exterior of the garden because it closes at 9:15. (That seems like an early time considering how late it is light in Paris in the summer.) We ended up at a sidewalk bar south of the gardens where I enjoyed a mojito while we watched more passersby. People watching is a favorite pastime in a place where so much cafe culture on all the sidewalks.
On June 14th, I wanted to get up early and roam the Parisian streets with a camera as dawn broke. But that didn’t happen. I did wake up early, but it was because of the trash trucks on the street outside the hotel that seemed to take 15 minutes to collect the trash. I was so zonked I could barely get up before 8:30, despite the early “wake-up call.” Sophia and I eventually hit the street in search of petit dejeuner. We headed down Rue Victor Cousin toward the Seine to find a cafe. But first we came across a stunning view of Notre Dame. It gave me chills to see it with all the restoration underway. Wow! As the crane moved across the sky in front of the morning sun, I was almost moved to tears. (And I am an atheist. How it must feel for believers.) This inspired us to delay breakfast and walk around the Ile de la Cité (The main island and the original settlement in the Seine, that was originally called Lutecia) before the crowds set in. We made our way to Pont Nuef, which was completely empty at this time of day. Over by the main government buildings on the island, the roads were closed with a heavy police presence. The French elections we happening and we suspect the heavy security had to do with that.
In our search for food, we ended up stumbling across the very enchanting St Michel square, just south of the impressive St Michel Fountain. What a great little area nestled in among sycamores and cafes. We quickly picked a cafe and Sophia was able to bust out her helpful French to order breakfast. (Everyone of course speaks english, but where’s the fun in that.) Which by this point was becoming more like lunch.
Later, we ambled through the Luxembourg Gardens watching more people and bemoaning the lack of such magnificent park back home. There were lots of school groups and several people playing tennis and doing tai chi. We watched a very intense guy do his pseudo tai chi for a while and I took a photo of him from afar. About 15 minutes later, he goes absolutely ballistic about someone sneaking around and taking his picture. I cannot see who he is talking to at first. Then an older tourist walks out from behind a building, his camera with a long telephoto lens. He walks over to Mr Tai Chi, who is yelling animatedly at the top of his lungs at this point, imitating the photographer and literally threatening his life. The photographer briefly stops, looks at him like his is some lunatic, and then without ever saying a single word, just turns and strolls away. That was probably the best tactic. Any arguing would have gotten even uglier. I have heard Parisians can be tough if they felt wronged, but this was on a whole different level than anything I would expect to see. Good thing he didn’t see me take his picture.
The big agenda item of the day was meeting my wife, Catherine, as she arrived at the Luxembourg Metro stop. The reuniting after almost 5 weeks apart was wonderful and soon we found ourselves, where else… at another cafe, again near Luxembourg. Catherine was pretty perky for someone who just crossed the Atlantic. And she was no sooner in her seat than she was busting out her newly-acquired french to order her first meal in France. How sweet it was, mother and daughter (plus me), together in Paris at a cafe soaking in the hustle and bustle all around.
On June 15th, after being awakened again by the trash trucks, (I now know that trash is collected daily in at least this part of Paris. Wow, that is a lot of trash and many more days of us being awakened by this rather obnoxious alarm.) we made our way to the Cluny Museum. But first we had to satisfy our morning coffee needs. Now I am one who definitely appreciates the European approach to coffee. I like a double espresso with milk as much as anyone. But the small quantities alway leave me wanting more. So I hate to admit it, but now that there are Starbucks in Paris, I am going there. So Catherine and I made our way to a nearby Starbucks and ordered a venti whatever. Here the whatever is a bit of a mystery. In cafes we order a cafe creme. Which is a very standard drink in all the cafes. It appears to be espresso with steamed milk, and how it differs from a latte I am not exactly sure. But in any case, that is what we ordered, despite it not actually being on the Starbucks menu, and we got something quite serviceable. So caffeine headaches we avoided and the day got underway.
The Cluny Museum (for which our Hotel derives its name) is a newly redesigned museum of medieval artifacts that just recently re-opened. It is built among and into the large ruins of a 3rd century roman bathhouse and the Hotel de Cluny (a medieval estate)– the oldest “building” in Paris. The collections are vast and the crown jewel is the enormous 6 panel tapestry of the lady and the unicorn. The tapestry is amazingly beautiful and quite well preserved. It either somehow survived the years in a very protected environment or was meticulously conserved, or a bit of both. In any case, I have never considered myself a fan of tapestries, but this one is very impressive and well worth the price of admission alone. I loved the scale of the tapestries. It seems to me that the scale of things like these tapestries and the enormous paintings that followed in the 18th and 19th century, (not to mention fresco paintings) were early immersive experiences that were designed to dissociate the viewer from their everyday world and transport them somewhere else, usually with a religious intent in mind. More on this later.
When I visit museums such as the Cluny with all its artifacts, or places like the Louvre, I am also so struck by the enormity and complexity of the creative output of humanity. The artistry, craftsmanship and shear volume of production, by many people who are anonymous to history, just leaves me in awe. It also leaves me a little tired. But Catherine and Sophia soaked it all up and even bought things in the bookstore.
That evening we walked along the Seine on the Ile de la Cité. It turns out it is one long party. The banks are completely overrun with thousands of young people drinking wine and smoking pot. And this is a Monday. It made for an interesting stroll. I thoroughly enjoyed the enormous, collective chill vibe. Maybe when we return to Paris we can get a couple of bottles and join the party.
June 16th Bloomsday
Back in art school in Philadelphia in the mid-80s, I had the good sense to take a class called the Big Fat Juicy Novel. In that class we read: War and Peace, Ulysses, and Moby Dick and wrote about each one. Our professor, the incomparable Dr. Toby Zinman, would pull apart those books in a way that just left the class in awe. The depth of her understanding and her ability to bring the class into the subtext of the writing was nothing short of incredible. Her classes were the best I ever had. Toby was a Joyce scholar and Ulysses was really her world. She attended Joyce conferences for god’s sake. So we were fortunate to have such an expert school us on Joyce.
Ulysses, by James Joyce is considered by many to be the first modernest novel. After being rejected by many publishers, it was finally published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. (A cultural treasure and travelers’ mecca across from Notre Dame. My brother and I first visited the store in 1984, when we spent 8 months in Europe.) In Ulysses, the main character, Leopold Bloom, traverses Dublin all day long on June 16, 1904. So June 16, 1922, the hundredth anniversary of the publishing of the novel, marks the 100th Bloomsday, when events recognizing the day are held worldwide. In Dublin that entails retracing Bloom’s steps.
Not really even knowing what day it was (when I travel extensively, I often loose track of even what day of the week it is), we made our way over to Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Out front was a sign announcing the momentous occasion. Thankfully, we got to the store early enough to avoid the 50 person line we saw there the day before. There was no line at all, so we went right in and browsed for quite a while. Of course we bought books because I love to carry heavy books while traveling.
The 16th was also the day Sophia was departing to study Russian in Kazakhstan for the next 2 months. Sophia attends IU’s Flagship Russian program and is doing a summer abroad in the city of Almaty. While Catherine and I were busy making our load heavier at Shakespeare and Company, Sophia was getting ready to depart. We met up to do some photos in the Garden before Sophia’s impending departure and then we had our last lunch together before Sophia got it the back of an Uber with her heavy suitcases.
June 17th, 2022
The weather is heating up. At first it was rather cool in Paris. But now it is in the 90s. Today, Catherine and I went to see the restoration efforts at Notre Dame and the Conciergerie and the Sainte Chapelle, all on the Ile de la Cité.
A good portion of the perimeter of Notre Dame is surrounded by a wall showcasing the efforts involved in restoring the cathedral. Out front they employed half a dozen cartoonists/illustrators to depict the efforts and all along the north side there are enormous photographs showing the work. Besides the shear scale of the undertaking, what really struct us was the talent needed to do extensive stone restoration while repelling the walls of the cathedral. It is nothing short of crazy. How do you find even one person who has that kind of expertise, never mind dozens? The work goes on 24 hours a day. The scale of this operation feels comparable to the original construction, but done in a fraction of the time. Impressive is a word that falls far short in describing what is happening.
The Conciergerie is part of the royal palace on the north side of the island that has been several things over the years and rebuilt multiple times. At one point, it was a jail (more like a dungeon) and held Marie Antoinette before her execution.
The French Revolution is a very confusing thing, with its counter revolution and various uprisings and then Napoleon taking power and declaring it all over. it isn’t nearly as simple as the American Revolution. I am still not completely clear on it, and the the visit to the Conciergerie didn’t really clarify much. Thousands of people were imprisoned here during the revolution, or maybe the counter revolution, or many both. I am not sure. In either case, a lot of execution sentences were handed out there.
They had a really cool augmented reality tour. You got an ipad and once you scanned various kiosks located throughout the building, you could hold it up and see what the space looked like hundreds of years ago.
Also at the Conciergerie, Catherine had her first involved french conversation of the trip. She asked the ticket taker about water. and she was nice enough to not only take us to a spigot in the wall on the other side of the building, but she also got a cup for us. After we were done with the tour, we ran into her as she got off her shift and the two of them had a long talk. Catherine has absolutely no reservations or self-consciousness about approaching anyone and practicing her French. Good thing because it is reason why we are here.
The Sainte Chapelle is a royal chapel also located on the old palace grounds (so whatever king it was wouldn’t have to leave the gates to go to church). It is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that features expansive stain glass windows. These windows have undergone extensive restorations over the years. The most recent completed in 2015. The Chapelle suffered a lot during the revolution and the years afterward, before restoration work stared in the 1840s. It is a truly beautiful place to behold. Sadly, I had a dumb camera moment while there that I could not figure out until afterward, so I wasn’t able to photograph much except with my phone.
It was a full-on 100 degrees today. Ouch. Today we wanted to be in an air conditioned space for at least the heat of the day, so we decided to visit the Louie Vuitton Foundation. The foundation has nothing to fashion. The foundation supports the arts and has a huge Frank Ghery building in the Bois de Boulogne, west of downtown. We hopped on a metro and after a few stops we walked into the park. Approaching the building is quite impressive. It has the scale and all the curved forms you would expect in a Ghery building.
By now the full heat of the sun was blasting down on us and when we got to the building it is immediately apparent that Ghery didn’t give any consideration to protecting people from the elements as they stood in line and waited to go through security. I found a small patch of shade under a tree while Catherine went to ask which of the multiple lines we should get in. Suddenly we were whisked to another entrance and let right in. Hmm… what magic words did Catherine say? She told them that I had skin cancer and just couldn’t be waiting out in the blazing sun. It is not a complete fabrication as I have had my bouts with skin cancer and it is only going to get worse.
There is nothing modest about this museum. The space is grand and feels like the modern incarnation of the European Cathedral. The exhibitions were good. The main show was full retrospective of a guy I never heard of before named Simon Hantai. He was a painter who mainly worked with folding canvases before applying paint. Some of them I liked a lot. The more repetitive patterny ones really didn’t do much for me.
On our walk to the museum we passed a restaurant that advertised air conditioning. So we planned to have lunch there, on our way back to the metro stop. But when we got there it was closed. We found a patch of shade so we could regroup and find a place to eat with AC. (If you have never been to Europe before, know that AC is not a common thing, neither is ice in your drinks.) We located a place not far from our hotel that advertised AC, so we set off for our cool destination. It took some walking, and some sweating, and some climbing of hills, but eventually, despite the brutal 100˚ heat, we made it. I even took a picture of Catherine at the front door of the restaurant. But oddly, the front door was open. Who runs AC with the front door open? We went in and asked about the AC. “Yes, of course” they said. And then they led us to a seat by a fan. What? A fan is not AC. It wasn’t great, but it would do. As we were eating I happened to notice that they indeed had an AC unit right above the front door. Perhaps it was broken, because if you aren’t turning it on when it is 100˚ when are you?
Yes, they even collect the trash on Sundays, just slightly later.
We set aside today to go the the Musee d’Orsay. The Orsay train station was converted into a major art museum in the late 1980s, if I recall correctly. I have never been there before. Catherine was there a few years ago and loved the collection. It has an extraordinary collection of impressionism (moved from the Louvre, that, despite its enormous size, was running out of room and had thousands of things in storage.) The museum is like a hall of fame of famous paintings. I loved the space and our time there.
You can’t go to Paris without going to the Louvre. What a building. What a collection. What a crowd. There is nothing I can say about the Louvre that has not already been said. When I was in Paris in 1984, they we building the famous I.M. Pei pyramids. When I was back in Paris in 2012, Amalia and I went to the Louvre and was finally able to see them. But I honestly couldn’t recall much about them. It is hard to imagine the place without them and the underground connections that bridge the two wings of the museum (otherwise you would have to walk the entire “U” to get from one wing to another, and that is no small feat.)
Yes, it can be very hard to see the art because of the crowds. Forget the Mona Lisa. I am not waiting in a 30 minute line for a 2 second glimpse. Winged Victory, that was at the top of some steps, was literal crowd stopper. I get it. It is amazing to behold, and now I have a better appreciation for the orientation of the sculpture. The wall text explained how the piece is much more sophisticated from a particular angle, because it was intended to be seen from that angle according to how it was originally placed. I never realized that.
My one regret is that I did not see Venus de Milo. My tank was out of gas after 4 hours of crowd fighting and I had to go back to the hotel to recover and to move into a room overlooking the courtyard, away from the early morning trash truck alarm.
We grabbed dinner at an outdoor cafe call the Tabac that is on the square in front of the Sorbonne. We have been going to a couple of the cafes somewhat regularly and the waiters have been charmed with Catherine’s French. It is very entertaining. Catherine’s honest approach to learning the language charms everyone, so we never experienced the famous gruff French waiter.
We usually get a salad of some sort, and wine, or a Aperol spritz. The French love the Aperol spritz’s. I see way more drinking of spritz’s and cocktails than I do red wine, the supposed secret that keeps the French svelte despite the cheese, white bread, delicious butter, the pattiseries on every other corner, never mind the 1:1 ration of chocolatier to french citizen, the late night eating, and the alcohol with lunch custom. So if red wine isn’t the secret, then what is? I can’t say I see that many runners, or gyms, here for that matter. (Maybe it’s small portions, healthy food without a lot of additives, and a lot of walking and biking.)
Today was regroup day. No sightseeing on the agenda. Just errands like laundry and shopping. In the evening we ended up back at the Tabac and Catherine asked our usual waiter, Philipe, if I could take a portrait of him. He agreed and I jumped into action. Of course, nobody gets what exactly I am asking for with a giant Mamiya camera. They probably think I am going to use my phone. So I have to be extremely fast and that can be hard with that camera like that which can take so long to focus. I got one or two shots, and as I did everyone in the cafe looked on and a group of young people at the table next to us took out their phones and shot me shooting Philipe. I saw some of the pics and they sent them to me.
Today, we departed Paris for Rouen. This involved getting packed and getting to Charles de Gaulle where we had a rental car reserved. The metro is so convenient for that. And this time I knew of the elevator from the sidewalk. (But you still have to get your heavy suitcases down from the ticketing level to the platform level and that can be a challenge.) Once we got to the airport it is ridiculously hard to find the rental car area. Signs are generally lacking and the looking at google maps shows incomprehensible directions. It is like being in a complete maze. We finally found our way and then waited in line for nearly an hour to get our car. The exchange with the agent was a bit ridiculous. She asked how many drivers and we said two, so I would not have to do all the driving. They didn’t mention that decision just added 100 euros to the cost. (And it turns out, unbeknownst to me, that Catherine can’t drive a stick anyway.) We opted for the base-level insurance and that added a few hundred more euros. In the end, the car came to 1650 eros for 13 days with a 1500 euro deductible. After 30 minutes with the agent and about to sign the contract, we asked if we could take the second driver off since we just learned it cost more. Well, she would have to start all over again. Oh boy, screw it. Let’s get out of here.
So we were on the road with Catherine and Google Maps as my trusty navigators. Our ultimate destination was Rouen, but we were going to stop at Giverny, the home of Monet, on our way. The ride was rolling with many beautiful vistas.
Giverny is a small art colony of a town that basically formed around the fame of Monet, whose famous waterlilies paintings and Japanese bridge paintings were done in his extensive gardens. After settling for lunch at the local art museum, before we knew there were better options if we had just held out a few more yards, we visited the house and garden of Monet. Both are extraordinary. And both are huge. I really enjoyed the massive collection of plants, but I was really taken with the Japanese garden. You have to walk through a tunnel under a road to get there, and once on the other side, you are in a Japanese water garden, complete with, not one, but two, arched bridges. This is what Monet’s maniacal obsession with his garden resulted in, plus several priceless paintings. He pushed the boundaries of painting in his time and things worked out well for ole’ Claude.
Now we push on to Rouen. Rouen is the capital of Normandy and on our route to the Normandy beaches. Despite getting hit with a lot of allied artillery (to drive out the Nazis), it still has enormous portions of downtown that seem almost straight out of the middle ages. There is a critical mass of wood timbered buildings making the entire downtown feel very authentic. Catherine and I pulled into town tired and pretty hungry. Navigating the small streets and getting your bearings can get confusing and taxing. And that it was. After finally getting lucky finding free street parking not too far from where we were staying, we eventually found our well hidden AirBnb after some frustrating missteps. We settled in and then went off to look for food. Finding packed bars with loud crowds on the sidewalks was easy, just throw a rock and you’ll hit a drunk french football fan. But finding food at that hour was a bit more challenging. We eventually found a Lebanese restaurant and it was quite good.
In the morning Catherine and I went to the art museum. It has a pretty impressive collection of french painting, but I was taken by one particular painting. It looked like a very competent depiction of a scene in a cathedral: Interior of Rosslyn Chapel, from 1824. Then I noticed the painter’s name: Louis J. M. Daguerre. Wow! Was it the Daguarre? As a photographer, I know Daguerre as the inventor of the Daguerreotype, the first photo process to be permanently fixed. The Daguerreotype became hugely popular because it was the first time an imagine derived from the world could be permanently obtained. So he was a painter too??? I had to know more and what I found is amazing. Prior to inventing the first commercially viable photographic process, he invented the diorama. He had partnership and created a huge rotating theater that displayed enormous paintings (75 feet by 45 feet). A large version of Rosslyn Chapel was one of them. He stacked two different paintings that were on thin canvas and then projected light from behind so the rear painting would be projected onto the back of the painting facing the audience. Using various techniques, the illusion of movement could be created. So here is an early immersive experience that predates photography, film and virtual reality. In his partnership he was basically the tech guy inventing the way the whole thing worked and his partner was the painter. Then the partner withdrew and he took over the painting as well. He ran the operation for almost a decade until it burned down, as things so often did. But he got a big insurance settlement and moved on to change the world. He sold the patent to the Daguerreotype to the French government in exchange for a lifetime pension and the French government gave it to the world as a gift.
After the museum, we started walking around the cobblestone streets of Rouen. There is a lot to see. An extremely old clock tower, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and the bullet-riddled government building from the middle ages that is still in use today. The narrow road suddenly opened up Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral and wham we were just struck dumbfounded by it at first glance. It takes your breath away. The fact that a guy was sitting there playing a pretty darn good accordion, helped with the overall impression. It is enormous, and highly decorated, yet the small scale of the court in front of it does something to keep the whole thing intimate. You can only see something for the first time once, and I’m glad we came upon it like we did. This is the cathedral Manet painted repeatedly in various light.
We stopped by our car because we started to doubt it was free parking. Walking up to the car, I noticed some damage to the back bumper. Someone had somehow clipped our back corner on the driver’s side. But the car was parallel parked against the driver’s side. How could this happen? Our only thoughtg was someone on a scooter or motorcycle tried to squeeze past our to to get on or off the sidewalk. Great. We are probably going to be on the hook for the 1500E deductible.
The sole reason I am here is because my wife got a grant from the Lilly Foundation to immerse herself in French. She studied French on her own for the 2 years of Covid and now was an opportunity to use it in France. She learned it by doing the ENTIRE Duolingo French program and getting a tutor. Her grant proposal consisted of visiting places and interacting with people who have been featured in various stories heard on the Duolingo podcast. One such place is a monastery outside of Rouen where the monks make beer. The podcast is about a young monk who joined the monastery a few years ago and then became in charge of changing the monks’ enterprise from photocopying (a modern day version of scribing I guess), to creating and brewing beer. The podcast is a great listen.
So today, we were scheduled to go to the monastery Saint-Wandrille outside of Rouen, but first, we met my daughter, Amalia, at the bus station on the way. Amalia is going to be traveling with us for the next week. We drove the 40 minutes or so out of town and reached the monastery. The tour is only in French and the man giving the tour was obviously into going into great detail. That has been my general impression of the French. One example is wall text in museums is waaaay longer than anything you would see in the US. So this tour guide gathered the group and then walked us 20 feet away and proceeded to talk for 30 minutes before walking us another 30 feet and talking for 20 minutes. And this was repeated numerous times. At this rate we were going to be here all week. Of course I have no idea what he is saying so the minutes really drag on for me. The tour was pretty comprehensive, but it did not include anything about the beer. I thought we would have a monk showing us around and talking all about the brewing process. It was just the opposite. We did see the monks doing the Gregorian chanting in their chapel and that was pretty cool. In the end, we went to their store and bought three of their beers. They were actually pretty good.
That evening we took Amalia back the the Labanese restaurant we had gone to the other night. We tried to stay awake for the video mapping show on the Rouen Cathedral, but it wasn’t going to start until 11pm and we just didn’t have enough energy left.
We let Amalia sleep in while Catherine and I went into the Rouen Notre Dame Cathedral. They were doing a lot of restoration work inside which was a bit distracting. Oddly, as impressive as it was, I was more taken with the exterior than the interior. After we got back to the AirBnB, we got packed up. We we leaving today for the small town of Bayeaux, a town near the Normandy beaches. And we were stopping before in Caen to go to the WWII museum there. So we had a bit driving in our future.
Caen has a very impressive WWII museum where we got a deep lesson in the details of the D-Day and the Normandy battles for liberation. The story is of course intense. But one salient feeling I came away with is that the Allied defeat of the Axis Powers was the last great effort of the U.S., and today as a country we are not honoring those who died by living up to our ideals as a nation. We as a country are circling the drain due to tribalism and an actual contempt for democracy by so many people.
Anyway, the museum was great and the film they showed was extremely powerful. But it is a huge dose to swallow. It leaves you feeling a bit overwhelmed.
From there we went to the small town of Bayeaux. In Bayeaux we had a very delightful AirBnB in the heart of town right around the corner from the cathedral.
That night Amalia made us huge salad so we would not have to eat out and we enjoyed one of our monk brewed beers. After eating, we had a nice walk around the cute little town. It is pretty small, but is very picturesque. Behind the cathedral we discovered a quiet square with an enormous sycamore tree that according to the sign was planted in 1797. It was the largest sycamore I have ever seen. It was very impressive and the photos don’t do it justice.
This morning we drove to the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. The first thing we did was walk down to Omaha beach. It is expansive and the ruins german gunnery stations are still on the hill above the beach. At least one had been converted to a memorial. The feelings are tangible as you stand there, looking out at the water. You feel you are standing on hallowed ground where efforts and sacrifices of unimaginable proportions were made.
We spent a while on the beach and Amalia went swimming. The cemetery has an outstanding museum. We went there next. It is subterranean so it makes a small visible footprint. Again it was a ton of information and very intense feelings to process. Afterwards, we walked around the highly manicured cemetery grounds.
Back the apartment we enjoyed another Amalia salad and another monk beer. The weather has been very cool and rainy as is typical for this part of the country. But the rain doesn’t seem to last very long. The weather cycles through pretty quickly.
In the morning before departing, we went to the Bayeaux Museum to see the Bayeaux Tapestry. It is a 70 meter long tapestry relating the conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy in 1066. There is an excellent audio commentary deciphering the tapestry. There is also an informative exhibit that goes into a lot of detail about the origins and history of the tapestry. Given what it have been thought for nearly a 1000 years it is remarkable that it was in such incredible condition. You would not want to visit Bayeaux without seeing the tapestry.
We left Bayeaux today to head toward Mont St Michel, a place I have wanted to visit ever since I saw photos of it over 20 years ago. MSM is a town with a cathedral that is an island in a bay. At low tide the bay is literally miles of sand. But the island is largely surrounded by water at high tide, depending on how high the tide is. During that last 100 years or so the silt has been accumulating in the bay and impacting the degree to which the island gets surrounded at high tide. To help mitigate this they dammed the river, so it only releases silt as the tide goes out and they changed the causeway to the island so that is has a bridge and the tide can flow in and out underneath.
MSM is a bit of a peak, so we could spot it from a distance as we drove nearer. That in itself was a bit of the thrill. It is hard to explain why. I guess partly because of the magic I project onto it and partly just the unique aesthetic aspects of its geography and built shape.
Before we went to MSM, we needed to drop Amalia off at a train station in a nearby town. She was going to Rennes to visit her host family from when she was in high school so that Catherine and I could have a couple of days alone for our first anniversary.
So we dropped off Amalia and had a quick bite before driving the last few miles. Parking it a bit crazy and the French tendency to put a low priority on signage makes it unnecessarily challenging. They have a special place to park for people staying over night on the island. We found that out after parking and rolling our bags 500 yards over the rough gravel parking lot. We eventually found the place to park and got on the tram to the island. You can either walk, ride a bike, or take the tram. With our bags there was no choosing.
We had a room in a hotel from the 19th century that is located directly outside the drawbridge into the town. Yes there is a drawbridge. The hotel feels very historic with signed and framed posters of dignitaries and celebrities who have visited over the last 150 years. We settled in and had a quick walk around the very touristy and packed streets. Tourist come to the island to the tune of 3 million a year, but most people just come for the day. They start pouring in around 8am and leaving after dinner.
We had dinner reservations at the restaurant of hotel. It is a place famous for its omelettes, a secret recipe from the 18th century. We could see them cooking them in an enormous fireplace as we waited for our table.
I got up very early, before the arrival of the hordes, and set out with both my digital camera and the Mamiya to shoot the town. In a part of the country that typically gets a lot of rain, we lucked out with some beautiful weather.
The reason we are in MSM is not because I have dreamed of going here for 20+ years, it is because there was a Duolingo podcast about a guy who fell in love with MSM at a young age and had a dream of living there and being a tour guide at the cathedral. Now nearly 40 years later, he is the only one who possess all the keys to the cathedral. Catherine had hoped to meet him and tell him about her grant. That afternoon we had a cathedral tour scheduled and Catherine was indeed able to meet him. He let her hold the keys to the cathedral for a photo and he invited us to attend vespers that evening.
In the morning, we left MSM and met Amalia at a train station before heading to the little town of Dinan. We have a couple of one night stay overs before arriving in Bordeaux. Dinan is a small cute town that was fun to explore, but many things were closed. When we asked why, we were told that since so many people visit this area for the summer holiday in July and August, the shop owners want to get their vacation time beforehand so they can be open in July and August. Good for them, not so good for us. Luckily there was a great little restaurant that was opened that we went to a couple of times.
The next morning, Amalia and I came across an enormous farmers market. It seemed disproportionally large for a town the size of Dinan. The produce was stunning and delicious. The best tasting strawberries I have ever had. I had not been to a European farmers’ market since 1984, and they seem to have changed quite a bit. Many vendors have these incredibly trickled-out vehicles with huge glass showcases. I am sure some of them are franchise owners, but still it is pretty amazing. They take their farmers markets VERY seriously in Europe. It makes US farmers markets look like a bunch of low budge amateurs.
Catherine showed up soon and we had a lot of fun exploring and shopping. Catherine got a lot of French practice in talking with various vendors. We went back to the same cheese man at least three times, buying more things. I even got a Mamiya portrait of him. And we bought dried apricots from a Moroccan man.
After we stocked up on farmers’ market items, we got in the car and headed off to Clisson, another small town. Our beautiful AirBnB had a balcony with a stunning view of the town. I quickly noticed that the town had a distinct Italian flavor. It turns out that after the town was basically destroyed in an 18th century war (which explains the castle ruins in the middle of town), it was rebuilt with the guidance of an architect who was into Italian design, the rage at the time. So a Little Italy in France was born. And the inhabitants take the Italian thing very seriously. For example, when we ordered cappuccinos, they came Italian style, even in the Italian style glasses.
That afternoon (my 58th birthday) we made lunch and ate on the balcony overlooking the town. It as very nice. Later that evening, when we were searching for dinner ideas, I suggested asking the proprietor of an alternative health store for a suggestion. She raved about a place and gave us directions (mentioning it is one of the few places that would be open), so off we went on our quest. The place is down by the river and secluded. We went in. Of course you need a reservation, but they seated us anyway. Our waiter, Maxim, was hysterical and rather theatrical and flamboyant. He was very entertaining and made the whole evening super special. He even sang happy birthday to me.
We went to farmers market the next day in the Les Halles. Most town and cities have a Les Halles, the halls were the farmers market were always housed. This market wasn’t as good as the one in Dinan. It was smaller and the produce we got just wasn’t quite as good. Nevertheless, it is still fun to explore.
We left Clisson for Bordeaux. Wow, Bordeaux. Dang. Big, vibrant, a little gritty and intense to drive in. We had a place right in the middle of the fray in the old part of town. We of course had to pull into town during rush hour. Amalia was doing her best to navigate me to an underground parking lot. With streets filled with bikes, scooters, pedestrians, and, oh yeah, other cars too, it is very intense to drive. Plus, I can’t really street signs. We found the parking and got a spot as soon as we pulled it. Thankfully, it was only two short blocks to our AirBnb.
Bordeaux went through a boom in the 19th century and most of the buildings throughout the town were rebuilt with stone at that time. There is a 19th century consistency of design and materials that I liked. The timber sided buildings of Normandy and Britania are few and far between.
There is a certain rough edge or gritty aspect to town and the streets are pretty narrow. The old part of town feels like a giant maze. It has a very different feel from the wide streets of Paris. (I liked it, but the town had to grow on Catherine) There are also a huge number of young people like we had not seen before. Apparently, in the last 15 years, the town has made some substantial improvements (including its amazing tram system that runs along the river), which has helped change its image in France from a backwater to a vibrant and hip place to live. Consequently, young people are moving to Bordeaux in droves. And it certainly looked that way.
That night my parents treated Amalia to a graduation dinner, so she picked a cool restaurant and had a great meal. It was a lot of fun. After we got home, Amalia found out that her flight from Bordeaux to Oslo, that was to leave early the next morning, was cancelled for the second time. That wasn’t stressful at all. So we had to do some figuring to find a way for her to get back to Norway in time to meet friends visiting from the US. Luckily, a train could get her back to Paris where she could get another flight in time.
Today, we visited the Aquitaine Museum (this region of France) in Bordeaux. It was an incredible museum. The exhibits gave a powerful depiction of the history of the region. I was very impressed with both the museum and the rich history of the city. (Of course, I wasn’t impressed with the slavery of the past, but the museum made a decent attempt at addressing that history.)
Rue de St Catherine is the longest pedestrian street in France and it is a shopping street of hundreds of stores. There are throngs of people, so after a bit I would rather avoid it. We spent the day like good tourists walking, shopping and eating.
Then we visited the Contemporary Museum. (Musée d’art Contemporain
de Bordeaux) They had two exhibits on participatory architecture that were pretty good. It was well worth the trip.
It was time to head back to a smaller town. We have nearly a week scheduled for relaxing in the town of Pau. Pau is a town at the foot of the Pyrenees that had a big British presence in the 19th century as a vacation location (with a huge expat community that made a big impact on what the town is like today). While still on the outskirts of town, I asked Catherine what day we were supposed to return the rental car in Pau. She checked and of course it was today. Oh boy. And we didn’t know what time it was due. It didn’t seem to be in the paperwork. So we decided we should go straight to the Pau airport to return the car and then get a taxi to the AirBnb.
So now was the moment of truth for the damage to the back bumper. Were we going to have to pay 1500E? I employed a trick I have used in the past and unloaded the suitcases to block the view of it. The woman inspecting the car said nothing about it, so either that worked or she just didn’t care. It turns out we were 30 minutes late with the car and they charged us 30 euros. Our taxi ride into town was pleasant enough, with the driver and Catherine exchanging a lot of French. He mentioned that Americans seldom come to Pau, and that in his 5 years as a taxi driver we were the first Americans he had ever driven.
Our AirBnB was a 18th century 4th floor walkup (up a narrow 400 year-old wooden spiral staircase), directly across the road from the chateau where King Henry the IV was born. So needless to say the view was insane.
We spend a lot of time just walking. I don’t really write that much about all the walking, nor about the countless cafes we have gone to. But in Pau there is the famous Blvd de Pyrenees. It is a road (built at the instigation of the British) with a commanding view of the Pyrenees mountains. In the morning, we walked there (another heat wave is arriving across Europe) while it was still cool and ended up at a cafe on the Blvd for breakfast and coffee. I ordered a crepe with raspberries and mangoes. It turns out it was a crepe with raspberry sorbet and whipped cream. Yum dessert for breakfast!
So intrigued by the chateau, we made it our first destination after breakfast. A funny thing happened there. All the rooms in the chateau have someone stationed in them to monitor it and to answer any questions. While we were in the first room, which contained a 19th century model of the chateau and surrounding area, (made by the caretaker from then), we started talking with the room monitor. The conversation lasted a good long while. As we were about to proceed to the next room, he offered to join us. This turned into a 3-hour personal tour of the entire chateau. ??? We got so much detail it was incredible. (this time thankfully largely in English for my benefit) We came out of the other end of that tour feeling lucky that that had happened and realizing that without a guide so much of the significance of various things would have just been completely lost on us.
Pau is a very visual town. There are a lot of tiers to the place which adds a great deal of dimensionality. There is an old river bed (no longer with any water) that runs through the town, so there are a lot of bridges, but there are buildings down below in the river bed as well. It really is a great place to roam around.
One reason we decided to come to Pau is because it nearly tops many recent lists of places to retire or become an expat. We wanted to see if Pau might be a possibility for us. I have to say that it most definitely fits the bill. It is considered VERY affordable by French standards. The climate is mild year round and it is close to the Pyrenees and Spain, or a short hop to the Mediterranean. Plus it is lively (in a good way) and beautiful. It seems to fit the bill. I am very serious about the possibility. Buying an apartment in the old center of town ranges from 75,000 to 130,000. But given how hard it is for foreigners to get a mortgage (and French banks don’t want to generally do a loan for less than 150,000) we will have to save and buy in cash. So time to start filling the piggy bank.
I got the first pedicure of my life! Catherine and I found a place near the AirBnb and now I have shiny toenails. The pour woman had to deal with my feet.
We wanted to see a bit of the Pyrenees, so we booked a train ticket to the nearby village of Bedous. Wow, the train ride was beautiful and we disembarked in a town surrounded by mountains. And it just so happened to be farmers market day! We bought some things. Catherine bought a stunning and rather large mohair and silk scarf from a guy who later let me shoot his portrait. We visited the wacky cafe twice and we took a little hike in the heat to a little waterfall. We we there 5-6 hours before we got our return train. I love riding trains in Europe. Seeing all the people getting on with bikes, or with backpacks and walking sticks, really made me want to explore. I had inquired about bike rentals at the main bike shop in Pau, but they said they were not renting any longer because it just wasn’t worth the hassle. I was bummed.
After having a crepe breakfast at the restaurant literally right outside our front door (this time without the sorbet and whipped cream), we walked the extensive gardens of Chateau before heading to the Beaux Arts Museum. It is a lovely, but rather small museum, and despite being free, there were not that many visitors. One show they were having was a show of skateboard and record cover art by the Beautiful Loser crowd of artists. It seems like a rather hip show for the Beaux Arts Museum. I hope it found it audience with some of the youth riding skateboards all over this town.
It feels like every time we go out we discover some new aspect of Pau. You think it is small and you would get it fast, but actually it reveals itself slowly. I love that about it. As of yet, we hadn’t really discovered the riverbed neighborhood known as Hedas. We discovered it in a really cool way. We followed a sign for a restaurant through a tiny passageway between two buildings. The stairs led down to the restaurant and then to this almost secret neighborhood. We felt like we entered a small town within a town. Wow, so cool.
It was very hot today. We did not do much of anything at all just, packed and relaxed. Catherine went to church and then we had breakfast together afterwards. She went to an Anglican church so I got to hear about the British expats she met at church.
We returned to Paris for the final portion of our trip just as the heat was continuing to build. Paris is expecting 100˚ in a few days. We arrived at an extremely packed Montparnasse train station. It was positively absurd how many people were packed into that station. Despite the confusing signs, we eventually made it to the taxis stand and got out ride to the new hotel. This time our hotel has air condition, and I don’t just mean a fan. We stepped up the accommodations for the final part of the trip and are staying at the Hotel de Varenne.
Our first night back in Paris we had dinner plans with two of Catherine’s friend from IU who happened to also be in France. So we ironed our clothes and took an Uber to a restaurant that was a bit removed from downtown. It was an Italian place called Osteria Ferrara. Dinner was really good. We walked a bit of the way back, which revealed a nearly full moon. It was a full moon the last time we were here, so our France trip was one complete lunar cycle.
Catherine and I went for a relatively early morning walk past the Les Invalides (It is near our hotel and where Napoleon is buried) on our way to the to the Eiffel Tower. I brought neither phone nor camera, which was a nice for a change. At the Eiffel tower we saw people already lining up at 7:30 waiting for it to open ay 8:45. (When I was here in 2012ish, my daughter and I went up to the top of the Eiffel Tower on my birthday. There was hardly any wait at all. We just went there after dinner, bought tickets and went up. With all the crowds in Paris, it is hard to imagine it is like that anymore.) They are painting the tower again, so there was a lot of the surrounding area cordoned off, but the park around it was still quite pleasant. But even this early it was starting to warm up.
Catherine’s mother and daughter (Anne and Claire) arrived in the late morning. They are also staying at our hotel. After they settled into their room, we all went out to a nearby cafe. Then we all decided to go our own way for a few hours. Catherine and Claire went shopping. Anne went to the yarn store. And I went to a photography exhibit that I wanted to go to the last time we were here, but didn’t have time. Thankfully it was held over, AND it was just two blocks from our hotel. I was excited to go see it. I spent 3 hours there.
Steven McCurry has been a major photographer for over 40 years. He gained a lot of notoriety in 1984 with the famous photo of the green-eyed Afghan girl. I knew McCurry was a considered a great photographer, but I was not intimately aware of his work. The show is all in black galleries with precise spotlights on each photo, many of which are suspended. The lighting and contrast really makes the color pop. His work is truly exceptional. His composition, lighting, and sense of timing are impeccable. I was really moved by the work. There were a lot of great portraits. (I ordered 2 of his books.)
That night we regrouped and Catherine, Claire and I walked over to see the full moon at the Eiffel Tower–along with every other tourist is the city. It was a mob scene. But just a warm up for the 14th.
Today promised to be an action-packed day. We had the Pompidou, a walking tour, and a dinner cruise on the schedule. So after breakfast at the hotel, we piled into an Uber and headed across town. I really wanted to see the Charles Ray show that had been there last time, but it was over. Bummer. We went anyway and I am glad we did. We did not have much time because our walking tour was going to start at 2:00. So we all split up and so we could each see what we wanted to.
I immediately went down stairs for a photo exhibit by Jochen Lempart. He is a German photographer. At first, I was a little doubtful (his work is about as far from Steven McCurry as it can get.) The work is very subtle. The unframed B&W, relatively small, prints are attached directly to the wall in a very low key, no fanfare sort of way. But the show, which is very abstract and informal in its approach, started to grow on me. Pieces like the trail of a glow worm directly on 35mm film and extended exposures of the starry night sky while the camera rested on the photographer’s stomach to record his breathing pattern, gives some insight into how processes play a part in his work.
After that, I went to a gallery of work by Tatiana Trouvé. Wow. Incredible work. She draws with what looks to be graphite right on large painted canvases. The work blends interiors and exteriors is a really evocative way. I was really taken with the work.
I also had time to make it to the 5th floor, the contemporary galleries. where there ways some Anselm Kiefer, Basquiat, any many artists I did not know. A Chris Marker (a very famous French filmmaker whose film Sans Soliel is one of my favorites) installation from 1990 that was recently reinstalled was a like a time capsule. And I got to see some Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Basquiat pieces.
The walking tour was something Catherine had set-up because there was a Duolingo podcast about the tour guide, Kevi Donat. https://www.guideadvisor.com/stories/interview-with-paris-tour-guide-kevi-donat/ Kevi does a tour about black culture in Paris. I have to say it was really incredible. Kevi is extremely knowledgeable and was able to convey very complex issues in an accessible and interesting way. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The tour started at the Pantheon, went to the slavery memorial in the Luxembourg gardens, stopped at a cafe frequented by Richard Wright, and ended at the Sorbonne. It wasn’t so much about those places, but rather about the history as it pertained to race in France. It was the most insightful experience I had this trip into French culture.
After the tour, we had a little time to regroup and change at the hotel before heading to our Seine river boat dinner. For our second to last night, Catherine went all out and booked a river cruise. It was so much fun! The food was pretty decent, but I just wanted to spend all my time on the deck taking pictures of the passing city. I love that so many people are out on the river banks. Especially the dance parties. So many people get off work and go to dance along the river. How cool is that? I felt shear happiness just watching them. I was taking all sorts of pictures when I noticed one of the crew members leaning over the railing trying to get the tail lights to work. At one point he put on a life jacket and climbed over the back railing to reach way down to the light. I was shocked. I started taking photos of him. Then he climbed back onboard and the light was just too good to pass up. Later, I showed him the photos and got his email and sent them to him.
At some point, I was on the deck taking pictures when Catherine handed me someone’s iPhone who wanted their picture taken. “Sure,” I said. I started taking several great pictures of the couple as we went under a beautifully lit bridge. I was thinking these look great, when all of the sudden the guy gets down on one knee and starts proposing. I was flabbergasted. Wow, this is really happening. I took more pictures and then put down his phone and picked up my camera. People on the bank saw what is going on and started clapping and cheering. Catherine asked the woman what her answer was (even though her body language was telling the whole story) and of course it was yes. So Catherine yelled to everyone on the bank, “She said YES!” They then erupted into louder cheers. When we went back inside, everyone on board knew what was happening. They were all laughing and cheering. But the couple had not come back inside yet. Cathrine told everyone to clap when they did. So of course a huge round of applause went up when they came back to their table. It was truly amazing. Everyone was touched. What a great thing that was to witness.
All-in-all a truly unforgettable day.
July 14 Independence Day
Our last day of this magnificent trip that we have been so fortunate to have, happened to be Independence Day, AKA: Bastille Day, but I think they don’t like to call it that any longer.
I took it very easy all day. I just stayed at the hotel and read and wrote while everyone else went shopping. A nice quiet day after the excitement of yesterday.
Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower were going to start at 11, so we walked over a little bit earlier and found a seat in the Esplanade des Invalides. There were 1000’s of people there. An Uber driver had told Catherine that was the best place to see the fireworks. I guess that depends on what you want to get out of it. (It certainly was convenient from our hotel.) For impressive pictures, I would rather have been in the thick of it, because so much of it was lost behind the trees. Oh well, I am sure it was so packed with people down there. But next time I know where to be. It was beautiful nevertheless. They aimed hundreds of lights on the tower and launched many fireworks from it, which looked pretty amazing. I hope to go back someday.
My 10-week odyssey has come to a conclusion and I have loved every minute of it. I got to see my daughter do her incredible performance and graduate with her MFA. I got to return to Greece after 3 years away and produce some awesome films with some amazing students. And I got to tour around France with Catherine for an entire month! I am so thankful to my lovely wife for studying French, getting a grant, and inviting this guy along. You are amazing and I love you so much. I look forward to our many more travels to come!
The film is back from the lab.