Homeward Bound

So ten weeks of travel are at an end. I am happy and relieved that I managed it all, with only a few low moments. It gives me confidence going forward. No matter where I go, I reckon I can handle it.

There were so many memorable moments…

Spain: watching flamenco dancers in the upstairs room of a Madrid restaurant, part of the welcome reception for the volunteer program. Playing the role of newscaster in a skit as part of the program. Running around the resort grounds taking group pictures in crazy poses (e.g. “pretend you are flying” below.) Jiving with my new friend Toby in the bar, far too late into the night. Saying good-bye to the Spaniards and volunteers, with hugs and tears and promises to reconnect.

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France: Walking the streets of Paris, the morning light reflecting off the freshly washed cobbles, glancing off the rooftops. The waiter in a Menilmontant café persuading me to try the luncheon special and very good red wine. Giggly glances shared with students in our French classes as the teacher explained an exercise we couldn’t made head or tail of. Struggling to master the subjunctive tense and the use of the word “dont”. Learning about French cinema and the music of Serge Gainsbourg.

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Paris

Standing outside the house I lived in as a child in Montmartre, and remembering youthful escapades. Dining with family friends from that time, laughing and catching up as though no time had passed. Visiting Stratford friends in their beautiful flat in the banlieue and stuffing myself on excellent food and wine. The cafes of Paris, the Seine, the parks and vast squares.

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Door in Montmartre, but not “my” door

The exquisite light in the south of France, casting a magical glow on everything. Walking along the canal du midi, basking in the sun overlooking beautiful gardens. Gazing out my all bedroom windows, all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees.

IMG_1503fullsizeoutput_f0eAmsterdam: Oh the canals! And bridges! And the chill truth of Ann Frank’s attic and all that went on in that stifling space. Van Gogh’s wild artistry. Playing dice with Scarlett in a coffee house, dodging the fierce cyclists (there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam).

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Scarlett in Amsterdam

Scotland: Wandering the streets of dramatic Edinburgh, meeting the world’s best tour guide, Robert, on the steps of the Scottish Academy (‘wearing a wide-brimmed hat’). Listening to Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament. Trying haggis. Soaking in information while on coach tours. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall. Gazing out from Queen’s View over Loch Tummel. Scotland’s wild beauty.

IMG_1718IMG_1754England: Reconnecting with people from Atlantic College (where I did my last two years of high school) – not only Scarlett, but our room-mate Kate – with whom we saw Travesties and a 60’s V&A Exhibit. Lunching with our housemistress in Stratford-upon-Avon, 45 years after we’d last seen her. Driving to Norwich to visit another friend from the College and his wife. Motoring on the Norfolk Broads in their boat, sipping wine. Wandering through Norwich.

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Scarlett, Mary Ann, Bruce & I at Norwich cathedral

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Norfolk Broads

Reconnecting with my daughter-in-law’s parents, whom I only met at the wedding, at their lovely home in Saffron Walden. Meandering the English countryside with them.

Seeing theatre. Walking in Hampstead Heath, many times, with Scarlett. And especially spending time with Scarlett (probably rather more time than she wanted!) It is a bit mind-boggling to be so close to someone I met when I was fifteen, who has always lived at least an ocean away – and yet, here we are in our sixties, still having a great time together.

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Hampstead Heath

IMG_1856Of course there were less positive experiences, like sweeping up piles of foul dust in a dark attic in Ventenac-en-Minervois. And I must say the actual travel was less than inspirational. I spent a total of 12 days (out of 70) in transit. Enough to last a lifetime, really. Most irritating was the time spent getting to and from airports – particularly in London where it is both expensive and time-consuming to get into the city from ANY of the 4 airports. I will not miss the travel days.

And today is my last one (for a while). Stratford, here I come, with a great sack o’ memories slung over me shoulder. Thanks to everyone who made this trip special – not least of all, you, my blog followers! I’m ready to be home.

 

 

 

 

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Au Revoir Paris!

I can’t believe I’m leaving Paris already. Where did the time go?

I have walked and walked and walked some more. To the Marais, the right bank of the Seine, the Tuileries, the Jardin du Palais-Royal, the Cimetière Père Lachaise, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Parc Belleville, Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. I did not do anything indoors! I have been to pretty much all the galleries and my favourite museum (the Musée Carnavalet) is closed for renovations for 3 years – so very French. Three years!!!

IMG_1436IMG_1486The fact is, I love walking and being outdoors (and yes, taking the odd café crème or glass of wine in a café) and I tire of museums and galleries almost instantly. I had moments of thinking, but you should do something…and then I thought, why? I didn’t come to Paris to SEE things, I came to enjoy the aura of the city and to brush up my French. Also to see friends – and it’s been wonderful to spend time with Stratford friends Marcia and Roger, Sue K. and her daughters from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Parisian friends from my childhood Berry and Claire Hayward.

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I had never been to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured above), but it is lovely, very large, and has a promontory with a great view of Paris rooftops and the Sacré Coeur. It was a sunny day and the Parisians were out in flocks, sunning themselves.

I had, I am sure, been to the Père Lachaise cemetery before but like Buttes-Chaumont it is close to my flat, so I wandered through en route to meet Marcia and Roger. It is not like any cemetery in North America…more like a small city of monuments. I did the obligatory stop at Jim Morrison’s grave (bottom left above), now fenced off and not particularly impressive, but still a tourist destination.

IMG_1447And Parc Belleville is small but also lovely, and about 2 blocks from my flat.

The Tuileries remain magical and I took in a fabulous Paris Art and Design show there (above). The Seine and its bridges are gorgeous. The Parisian architecture, streets, light are all enchanting – so just walking was its own delight.

IMG_1389IMG_1433So far, I would say this experiment in solo travelling has been a success. Travelling alone is certainly not as enjoyable as travelling with someone else (and it is more stressful, as there is no one with whom to discuss options or to help figure out problems, like where the hell I am) but it is not bad. And travelling with someone new would have its own issues.

I have found myself missing Jay a lot. I’ve spent far more time in Paris without him than with him … but he loved Paris as much as I do, so there is a hole here, and I have had lonely moments.

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2006?

But overall, much better to travel alone than not travel!

I ended my time here last night having dinner with Roger and Marcia at their new lovely apartment in the Balieue (suburbs). These suburbs bear no resemblance to North American suburbs, they are quaint quiet little towns a couple of centuries old. We sipped bubbly on their little patio and then had a 4 course feast, including truly spectacular cheeses and pastry. A perfect finale.

This afternoon I take a train to Narbonne and begin quite another leg of the journey, volunteering with a family in a maison de maître on the Canal du Midi. Who knows what that will be like!

Of Parisian Schools, New and Old

Yesterday was my last French class. As it was also the last Friday of the month, and a number of students were finishing their time at the school, we had a potluck pique-nique after class in the grand salle. Everyone brought food: cheeses, baguettes, fruit, salads, charcuterie, dips, cake – and the school supplied other treats and very nice wine. It was a lovely way to end the course.

I think my French has improved. Certainly my vocabulary has, but the intricacies of French grammar often still elude me. We had a strangely discombobulating final week. On Tuesday our teacher Vanessa was ill, so did not show up to class. The director/administrator of the school, Annabelle, was also ill. Désastre! Another teacher, Anne-Sophie, came to tell us we had a choice, to join her higher level intermediate class or to get reimbursed for the day. She warned us she would not be able to adapt the material, so it might be difficult. Most us went to her class and it was very challenging, despite Anne Sophie’s welcoming manner. I had a headache by 1:00pm. Then Anne-Sophie reported that Vanessa would not be back for the rest of the week, but she had no idea what the plan for us might be. We left feeling inordinately downcast. I couldn’t believe how attached to Vanessa I had become in a single week, and how difficult it was to imagine continuing classes with anyone else.

On Wednesday, no one came to talk to us. Three of us had decided if the only option was to continue in the higher level class, we’d ask for our money back. We waited for about an hour. Then Annabelle showed up and told us we should join Anne Sophie’s class again, but that she would adapt the material this time. Feeling apprehensive, we obeyed the directive – and it was, in fact, much easier. We left under the impression we would get a new instructor for our final 2 days. As it turned out, the director, Annabelle, became our new prof. We certainly bonded as a group (at least the four of us who continued to attend classes, including a 16-year-old Brit, here for a week to improve his French for A-levels) – and the quality of instruction was high…but the lack on continuity was a challenge. Nonetheless I felt sad saying good-bye to everyone today. Much kissing on both cheeks!

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en route to my school 

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IMG_1436I feel like quite a local and hardly needed to think about my route as I walked back and forth to school. Honestly walking anywhere in Paris is a treat, the architecture is so grand, the avenues so wide and light. The weather this week has been fantastic, warm and sunny – so Paris at its best. I have my favourite boulangerie and supermarché (where I could fill a bottle with orange juice, pressed from oranges while I watched – and excellent wine could be purchased for $10 or less. And the cheese! Say no more.).

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6 rue Nicolet, where I lived in 1963-4

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view down rue Nicolet, my house on left

On Monday afternoon I walked from the school up to the area of Montmartre where my family lived for a year when I was eight. I first learned French there, via brutal immersion, at a school where even the teacher declared me an imbecile because I could not speak a word when I arrived. The neighbourhood has changed quite a lot, but the house where we lived is still there, as is my old school. I went in and talked to the school secretary, hoping to speak with the directrice to see if she could find class records from my time there. I have written a memoir of that weird year – but cannot recall the surnames of my friends. The directrice was far too pressée to see me (some things never change) but I did get a peek into the old courtyard where we spent recesses. It has not changed at all!

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my elementary school in Montmartre

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the school courtyard 

The two schools could not be more different: the most recent one cosy and inviting, hidden on the first floor of an anonymous building; that elementary school cold and forbidding … although memory does tend to cast a golden glow over childhood years.

Paris, je t’aime

I always forget that initially Paris is rather formidable. I forget because that memory is later overshadowed by the light and beauty and joie de vivre of the city, but at first….ooh la la.

Everyone is Paris seems to be in a hurry, moving quickly and purposefully. No lollygagging here. People seem to have a sixth sense about when the streetlights will change or even when waiting is simply not required. I patiently watch for the little green man, as most people do, most of the time – but at other times it’s like the crowd has been given a silent sign and they surge forward regardless of the colour of the little man. I run the risk of obstructing the flow if I don’t go with them, so I do, feeling just a little anxious that a gendarme or angry motorist will upbraid me.

Pausing to check my map makes me feel quite out of step, so generally I too try to stride along purposefully. The street names are clearly posted high on the sides of the buildings (although some signs are old, worn and a bit tricky to decipher), but of course Paris was not built on a grid, or indeed according to any plan. The first day I set off to find my school on foot, I made a wrong turn because I misread a street sign. Feeling panicky that I’d be late for class and have an irate professeur, I thought about asking the people rushing past me for guidance, but really they seemed so pressés, I didn’t dare. I found a Tabac and asked if I could buy a map. 5€ later, I had a fantastic little book with maps by arrondissement. As it turns out, I was about 2 blocks from the school, and made it exactly on time.

Some things have changed in Paris over the past 50 years (I lived in Montmartre for a year in 1963-40, when I was…quite young.) It does not smell the same at all. I have the most distinct memory of the smell of Paris from my youth – a strong and somewhat repulsive mixture of French cigarette smoke, garlic and urine. I don’t miss this odour. Well, maybe I do, just a little. The air seems very clean now. Fortunately so do the sidewalks, although even today the French do not clean up after their dogs as well as, say, Canadians do – so it is worth watching one’s step.

What I miss most are the little specialty shops, which used to populate every street. Some few remain: the ubiquitous boulangeries and pâtisseries (usually in the same shop) and the boucheries. But I have not seen a single charcuterie or epicerie, shops that sold charcuterie and lovely little French shredded salads, nor any papeteries or fromageries. In their place are many supermarkets, where the food is very good, but…it is not the same. It is, in fact, easier to shop in such all-in-one places as a foreigner, but it lacks the intimacy of the Parisian shopping of old. Still, the food is fresh and good. I bought a very basic package of chicken thighs – not organic or expensive or anything, cooked them quite simply and could not believe how good they tasted. Like chicken, not…whatever it is that most chicken tastes like at home.

The metros are cleaner and more automated, of course, but there are still long walks within metro stations to get from one ligne to another. The streets remain either very narrow – and the sidewalks even narrower – or wide – beautiful boulevards; there is little in-between. People are still both friendly and formal: “Bonjour, Madame (or Monsieur)” is de rigueur upon entering a shop – and they are rather more forgiving of bad French than in days of yore.

My first week here has been grey and rainy, but tomorrow, it will be springtime in Paris and I have the whole weekend to explore old haunts. Fantastique, alors!

Paris: Ma Petite Maison

I have so much to say about Paris, I hardly know where to begin, so I think I will start small and expand outwards.

I am enchanted by the way Parisian accommodation works. I have rented a tiny airbnb apartment in the Ménilmontant area (sort of on the border between the 11th and 20th arrondissements). This is not a part of Paris I know at all. In the past I have stayed in Monmartre, the Latin Quarter and the Marais (and probably elsewhere….I have spent quite a lot of time in Paris. It is my favourite city in the world).

I received check-in instructions from my host, which did not make perfect sense to me, but I thought I would figure it out….and when I got to the address, I realized that when Jay, Jamie and I stayed in the Marais in 2006 (I think), it was a very similar system for entry. First I entered a code on a keypad to gain entrance through a barred gate onto the street into a very small area, visible from the street, where I faced a locked metal door, with another keypad beside it.

I entered another code which admitted me to a small outdoor corridor leading to the actual door to the building, which, as it turns out, was not locked (and remains unlocked.) So far so good, except I had now used all the codes I’d been given but was still some way from the flat. 5 sets of spiral stairs away, in fact. Ahem. Quite the climb with two bags – fortunately they are small.

IMG_1246When I reached the fifth and top floor, I knocked on the door to my left (which the host had identified as “mine”) – and Olivia was there to greet me. There was barely room for both of us in the flat – and after giving me a brief tour (more like a turnabout), she left me. It is perfect for one person: a small living/dining room/study with view of the neighbours (at night, no need for TV, I can watch all their activities!); a small bedroom with miniscule balcony looking out on church steeple and more lovely rooftops; a closet of a kitchen, but well-equipped, as long as I don’t dislodge anything, including a washer; and the piece de resistance: a bathroom which is a shower stall containing a sink and toilet. As my host said, you wash down the whole room every time you shower.

It takes some getting used to, but it is a delightful challenge. Another student in my course (much more to come about that!) took the option the school of living with a family, an option I considered briefly (more French practice, cheaper). She lives in a lovely location and a large flat but the woman of the house sounds like a royal bitch who mocks her French and refuses to wash her towels (she has been there almost 3 weeks.) In comparison my arrangement seems like heaven. And I do love the views!

And it is only a 50 minute walk (flat out) to school.

So if I walk both ways, does that offset the whole baguette I eat each day, not to mention the wine…?