25 May 2017: Knights Impact does Concrete Floors & Caribbean Culture

As promised, today was a big day! My cohort had wanted to do the “Concrete Floors in Community Homes” activity as a group but it filled up quickly. By chance, I was the only one who got a spot in it. So at 8:00 this morning I was back in my grubby clothes from Reforestation and rolling out on the bus toward a tiny neighborhood called San Marcos. To reach San Marcos we had to get off the bus on the side of the highway, more or less, and cross a swaying wooden footbridge to reach a dirt road lined with at most a dozen houses. We were working in 3 houses: two that had just one room each needing a floor, and a third that was getting concrete put in throughout the house. I ended up working in the third house. The facilitators introduced us to the owners of the houses, who were incredibly nice but a bit shy. One facilitator mentioned that San Marcos had never had such large groups of visitors before. I am sure they did not know what to make of us. But the owner of the house I worked in warmed up enough to want to show me a picture of his family on the wall, as well as the pigs he was raising in the back yard. I asked the facilitator how people in San Marcos provide for themselves and she said they might work in town but they also raise their own livestock, fruits, and vegetables. We saw cows, chickens, ducks, and a donkey during our morning there as well as the pigs.

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We got organized into a bucket brigade pretty quickly while a few volunteers mixed and shoveled the concrete in the middle of the dirt road (N. B.: This arrangement requires work to halt briefly when cows are coming through). Full buckets went in, empty buckets went out, and the few professional construction workers on the site spread and leveled the concrete as well as adding a layer of colored pigment over the smoothed concrete. This gentleman will have a great-looking yellow floor—in fact, probably already has it, by now, because another group was coming through in the afternoon to complete the work that we did not have time to finish. It was hard work passing the buckets and I’m sure I’ll be sore tomorrow, but it is really rewarding to think that in just one day we hugely improved someone’s quality of life. Imagine how hard it would be to clean up after a flood—flooding happens here, and San Marcos is right up against a river—if you had dirt floors in your house. For that matter, how much harder is it to keep a clean house from day to day if floors are dirt? All the owners were very pleased as well as a little disbelieving. One woman said she didn’t believe she was really getting a concrete floor until the supplies started showing up. She said that politicians sometimes come to their neighborhood and make promises, and then nothing ever happens. That touched me as much as anything because I pride myself on living up to what I say I’m going to do. I’d like to meet the politician who could make an empty promise to a soft-spoken woman and her baby daughter living in a cinderblock house with a dirt floor—but that politician probably doesn’t want to meet me.

One downside to doing concrete floors is that one gets incredibly dirty. 50% sweat, 50% concrete smudges, and I even got some yellow coloring powder on the strap of my bag. Luckily I had time to shower, change, and eat lunch before reporting back to Amber Cove to leave for the Caribbean Culture tour. True confession about Caribbean Culture: when I did it in January I enjoyed it, but felt like the tour guide’s talk was not as in-depth as I’d have liked. Nevertheless, I recommended it to my students as the cultural activity for our group because it offered the most cultural/historical content in a fairly short timeframe. I ended up glad I stuck with it because we had an excellent tour guide today (shout out to Mr. Oscar Rodriguez!): funny, knowledgeable, open to questions, obviously enjoyed his work. We went to the San Felipe Fortress first but cut that a bit short because it was incredibly windy (the fort is right on the coast). I kept having to hold my dress down because I’m not ready for Puerto Plata to know me quite that well yet. Second stop was the town square and San Felipe cathedral, which I love. It came back to me in a flash that the last time I was here, the Christmas decorations were still up. We drank coconut water, bought souvenirs, and got to see a cigar-making demonstration (fun cigar fact: some of the best cigar wrapper leaves come from Connecticut). Then the last stop was at the gorgeous botanical garden owned by Rafy Vasquez, a Dominican-born, Canadian-educated artist whose family has owned his property for three generations. It was great to see everything again and hear about it from Oscar, who was agreeably critical of (1) Catholicism as a state religion, (2) people’s misunderstandings about voodoo, (3) Christopher Columbus, (4) corrupt bureaucracy, (5) Dominican drivers.

(N. B.: My experience suggests that sensible people in general should be critical of Dominican drivers.)

On the way back to the port we drove along Ocean View Avenue, known locally as the Malecon. Oscar called an audible and let us stop for pictures of the statue of Neptune that stands on a rock out in the water. That was cool enough, but the sunset was incredible and the beach is gorgeous. I almost didn’t get out and now I’m really glad I did.

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Puerto Plata central square–Plaza Independencia

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San Felipe Cathedral

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Fresh coconut water

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Last time I saw this gazebo it had Christmas lights on it.

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Look closely. Ice cream shop takes Bitcoin?

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Cigar-rolling demonstration

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Fort San Felipe

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Students at the fort

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Outside the fort (inside the bus)

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DR’s flag is the only one in the world with a Bible on it.

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Sunset at the beach

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Orchids in Mr. Vasquez’s garden

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Orchids in Mr. Vasquez’s garden

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Students on the beach

 

Now it is after 10 p.m. and I am waiting on my laundry to dry while watching a Top Gear episode before bed. Tomorrow is our last activity; we sail around noon. Our time here goes so fast. I shed a few tears when we sailed away last time and I’m sure I’ll do the same tomorrow.

22¬-23 May 2017: Knights Impact At Sea & Arrival in the Dominican Republic

Yesterday on the ship flew by—or maybe sailed by? I started the day both yesterday and today meeting with my group of 9 students, who heroically got up on time for our 8:30 meeting both days. We followed that by meeting with our designated Fathom cohorts—a great experience for the students because they got to meet other people on the ship. There are people on board from all over and the students were particularly amazed by the variety of ages, nationalities, and professions. One student reported excitedly that she’d met a couple who were both doctors—a nephrologist and a pulmonologist. One of the highlights for me of leading these programs with students is that I never know what they’re going to find interesting or noteworthy. They started learning before we ever left home that the world—and even just the ship—is much more diverse than they realized.

In the afternoons we attended a training session on “creating retellable stories” (yesterday) and one on visual storytelling (today). Both had in common an emphasis on emotional impact. We learned a few simple guidelines that will make it easier to tell better stories and take better pictures. I always think it’s worth going to an hour-long session if I walk away with just one or two things I can remember and apply. Both of these sessions fit the bill; plus I got a free copy of the storytelling trainer’s book. Yay, swag!

Last night’s dinner in the Pacific Restaurant was more animated than Sunday’s as everyone is getting to know each other a little better and shaking off the fatigue of the trip to Miami. We had one student who got badly seasick Sunday night but was feeling better by noon yesterday. Everyone was happy to see her bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at dinner, although she did say she’d decided that cruise travel was not for her. In fact, most agreed they were ready to get off the ship and get into the next phase of the program. Incidentally, that student’s roommate is a hero for looking out for her when she was ill. Another upside to these programs is seeing the relationships that form among the students and how they look out for each other. They are so generous and compassionate and it’s great to see.

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(Fancy food from Pacific!)

Those who were tired of the ship last night only had a few more hours to wait as we arrived at Amber Cove around 11:00 this morning and they started letting people off at noon. Amber Cove is just as I left it; I even recognize a couple of the wait staff in Coco Caña (the poolside restaurant/bar). Only the weather is a little different: today it’s a little overcast and hazy, which I did not expect. But neither am I complaining. A bit of cloud cover keeps the heat down, even if there is still plenty of heat to go around. I have the afternoon “off” (i.e. I am catching up on email and blogging) and might even catch a little pool time while the sun is not absolutely blazing.

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Duke loves the ocean!

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Sunset at sea

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Amber Cove

Georgia on our minds

Monday night when we got home, I sat down and wrote out the day’s itinerary. I keep staring at it and wondering how these times can possibly be accurate and correct. On the left is Paris time; on the right is Georgia time:

04:00 on August 3 / 22:00 on August 2: Buses roll out from Cité Universitaire after a brisk hour spent collecting room keys, banging on the doors of some really sound sleepers, and in one case seeing a student just returning to his dorm room from the night out, 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave.

06:20 / 00:20: Flight leaves CDG for Frankfurt with all students and faculty on board, even that guy. We enjoy a Nutella-filled croissant and some coffee and try not to think about leaving Paris behind.

10:00 / 04:00: Flight leaves Frankfurt for ATL. Settle in for some sleep, watching lots of movies, or a combination of both. Daniel and I slept through our turn for the lunch service and had to ask for food after we woke up. Props to Lufthansa as always for very efficient and thorough service; God bless the flight attendant who was constantly circulating with cups of water and juice during the second half of the flight.

20:00 / 14:00: Arrive in ATL. Selected for a “random survey” by a customs officer to verify that we were not carrying any agricultural products. Fully a day later I’d realize we brought home 2 pounds of coffee that I forgot to declare on the form or mention to the officer. He did not see them in my suitcase, so I didn’t have to be hauled off to immigration jail or anything.

We got to our house around 6 p.m. (midnight Paris time, but by then, who’s counting?) and I managed to stay up till 8:30 and sleep till about 6 the next morning. My sleep cycle is not too messed up (I’ve been treating it with large quantities of espresso) but I can tell I’m jet-lagged because the mornings seem dark and the days seem long. That will pass and at least I don’t feel as tired and foggy as I sometimes have after an overseas trip.

But I do miss Paris an awful lot.

Last day in Paris for 2015

After a hectic final week that sadly included my having to miss this on Saturday evening, it was suddenly Sunday morning: the free day before departure that marks the end of the program. I realized I hadn’t been to Sacre-Coeur, my favorite place in Paris, the whole 5 weeks, so that was my destination. There’s no quick way to get to Montmartre from the 14th but I enjoyed the métro ride knowing it would be one of the last ones of the year. I walked up from Abbesses station and rode the funicular up the Butte since it wasn’t too crowded yet–when there are a lot of people in the funicular I tend to avoid it because it’s like a gerbil cage for pickpockets. One of the backhanded advantages of having some experience in Paris is learning what to avoid. Sacre-Coeur is full of street vendors and street scammers; I’ve never actually seen pickpockets in action but I’m sure they are there as well.

On Sunday there were people soliciting petition signatures, whom I walked past while practicing my Parisian Murder Face(TM). The string-bracelet guys were out in such force that I hesitated to walk up the curved path that leads to the side of the church because they were almost elbow-to-elbow across the walkway. But as I dove behind a large man with a backpack for cover, the string-bracelet crew took flight, running down the sidewalks and vanishing behind the bushes. In seconds there was no trace of them, just as two police officers came walking down from the opposite side. It was so creepy it was almost impressive. Later in the day I saw the same thing happen with some ball-and-cup players down the street: one minute they’re drawing a crowd, the next minute they’re invisible, and the minute after that the foot patrol turns up. Some people think travelers get too paranoid about pickpockets and street scammers; it’s definitely possible to make yourself crazy worrying about it but it’s also a real concern–and not too hard or inconvenient to avoid by being smart.

I was rewarded for my vigilance by not being pickpocketed, string-braceleted, or fleeced by the ball-and-cup guys, AND by getting to see the “8eme Traversée de Paris Estivale” (8th Summer Crossing of Paris) put on by a car club called “Vincennes en Anciennes.” I found out from one of the members (white Mercedes convertible) that during this event, they drive through Paris from Vincennes to Meudon. Normally they don’t make any stops, he said, but everyone decided they wanted to stop for pictures. So I obligingly took pictures. (Hee.) Click through!

Cars from Vincennes en Anciennes:

The cars’ sign for the event

A Shelby Cobra!

A Fiat Carry-On (I don’t know what this car is called, 
but it looks like it would fit in a carry-on suitcase)

AN ACTUAL VINTAGE CADILLAC.

Citroën 2CV

Lord Grantham’s car, probably

And a Mustang!
Sacre-Coeur was looking beautiful as always. I heard a French woman tell an Aussie tourist that Sacre-Coeur is “unrefined,” and maybe it is, but I love it.

The Tour Montparnasse (over on “our” side of town) from the Butte

The Traversée Estivale moving out
While at Sacre-Coeur I also saw the French-est of all French things I saw this summer. The union that represents the attendants that maintain these pay toilets at Sacre-Coeur is on strike, and they had a picket line set up in front of the toilets, whose door they blocked by pasting it over with flyers. There’s just something about a unionized pay-toilet-workers strike protest that reaches levels of Epic Frenchness for me. And I say that with genuine and deep love for France, the French, unions, and public protest (and grudging acceptance of pay toilets).

The good thing about a toilet strike is that it doesn’t take many people to make up a picket line.
In the afternoon I met up with Daniel for lunch. We idly wondered whether it’s possible to eat poutine in Paris, and Google led us to The Moose. It’s a dark, windowless, well air-conditioned sports bar of a kind I did not think existed in Paris. That atmosphere is not my favorite (not when there are café terraces to sit on!) but the staff were friendly and the food was good. Daniel approved of the poutine and I had a really good veggie burger. Major brownie points for making their own veggie burgers instead of buying the frozen ones. 
After lunch we moseyed down Boulevard St. Germain past some sort of summer market/festival celebrating France’s offshore territories, over to Chez Clement to drink coffee since Clement is the name of one of Daniel’s uncles: 

Then past the St. Michel fountain where we saw tap dancers under the awning at Gibert Jeune:

I was on a mission to get Daniel to at least see Notre Dame from the outside. He doesn’t care for cathedrals but I think a person should see Notre Dame while in Paris. So from Place St. Michel I tempted him toward the Amorino gelateria that is almost right across the quai (with apologies to Berthillon, we both love Amorino) and then we crossed over to Notre Dame: 

Finally we decided to head back to Cité U. I wanted a nap and Daniel was thinking about going to play poker at Le Cercle Clichy-Montmartre. He lost some money but at least got to do it in a beautiful atmosphere. I had un verre with Dr. Kirk to toast the end of a truly fantastic summer, then got a takeout pizza and ate it while packing my suitcase. Then off to bed for a few hours, falling asleep to the sound of the tram on Boulevard Jourdan one last time.

Last field trip of 2015: Musée du Quai Branly

For our final field trip of 2015 I took my class to the Musée du Quai Branly, “where cultures dialogue.” After a month of Renaissance art, Gothic architecture, white marble statues, and Le Nôtre gardens, it is good to be reminded that the rest of the world makes art too. We had a great discussion about this museum in class today; my students are getting really smart about noticing curatorial choices and how objects are presented. The Quai Branly does a good job contextualizing objects that are bound to be unfamiliar to most of its visitors. Along the way it also shows how universal certain objects and practices are. It’s a great museum.

A “soul boat” from a coming-of-age ritual practiced in Indonesia

Masks are everywhere in the Quai Branly.

This shield is from Papua New Guinea but looks like Beowulf could have carried it.

One of the figures in the “soul boat”

Wolf-headed figures representing an Aztec god

Aztec goddesses

Mexican folk art

An ancestral pole from British Columbia

Some of the figures on the pole

A protective statue from Gabon

The Quai Branly’s holdings that are not formally on display are shelved behind glass in the middle of the museum.

My standard joke is that these are my students–actually they are slit gongs from somewhere in Africa (I don’t remember which country).

These are actually my students. I’m going to miss them.
From the museum we walked to Rue Cler, which is a well-known market street that also contains several cafés and restaurants. Our original plan was to pick up food for a picnic and take it to the Eiffel Tower, but yesterday was chilly and windy and the museum was oddly cold. So we opted to eat indoors instead and wound up in a casual but well-decorated Italian restaurant where everyone inhaled large quantities of pizza and pasta. It was just the right thing after a long-ish walk on a windy day.
I walked back to the métro the long way after lunch: from Ecole Militaire métro stop where I dropped off my students, back past the Eiffel Tower, all the way to Alma-Marceau métro stop. It was a roundabout route but I got a few good photos out of it:

We finished up the day with a very convivial faculty dinner. After running out of wine at our last dinner, we may have overcompensated slightly & ended up with about 4 unopened bottles. But I merely wanted to make sure my colleagues drank my bottle of Vouvray Petillant, which they did very cheerfully. Success! It’s great to work with people that you actually want to have dinner with.

5 more sleeps till home. Some students have asked me if I’m eager to get back and I say I’m 50% eager, 50% sad to leave.

Mini Blog: A day to flâner

Daniel and I took advantage of a day on call with no calls to flâner in the Marais and go shopping at Les Halles today. He is looking for some specific things (a suit; shorts with zipper pockets). I am looking for things that are nice to wear and bien soldé.  He was also looking for a cooked breakfast so we went, inevitably, to Breakfast in America. I was not in a hurry to go back–as I’ve said, I do not go to Paris to eat American food. But he was THRILLED.

(Granted, in this pic he looks more demented than thrilled.)
I’ve realized that BIA makes me very depaysée. Look around the restaurant, I’m in the U.S. Look out at the street, I’m in Paris. And I cannot figure out what language to speak. 
But the coffee was really good.

On our shopping round we discovered Uniqlo, a store I’d have been better off not knowing about. Something about Uniqlo ticks all my boxes. We also went into the Swatch store where they polished the crystal of his watch to take a scratch out for the princely sum of 0€. We went by the Musée Carnavalet and peeped into the garden; we passed by L’As du Fallafel before the line had started to form. (Unfortunately that was right after BIA, so no falafel for me today.) We tried on clothes and heard many iterations of “So, you are from Québec, right?”

More of the same at Les Halles, a mall that is very comprehensive but also kind of stuffy and airless because it’s underground. By midafternoon it was time to take a break for a drink and a snack so we passed through a small pedestrian market and fetched up at a café called Etienne Marcel. Outside it looks like a traditional café but the inside looks like late-series Mad Men with primary colors and molded plastic furniture. It was nice to relax in a quiet place with comfortable seats for a while!

Finally on our way out, I talked Daniel into stopping into St. Eustache, built in the 16th and 17th centuries and then restored in the early 19th after the Revolution:

Chapel of the Virgin

The altar

The organ has 8,000 pipes and is supposed to be the largest in France!
Here is what it sounds like.

The organ keyboard is right out where you can see it.

To cap off this excellent day we had dinner with Dr. Kirk and his wife Betsy at Rouge Pomme, which is becoming our go-to place for dinner/dessert/coffee/a drink. I always get a galette du sarrasin for dinner there but the Kirks both had tartines that looked amazing. Then we bought chocolates at Leonidas for dessert. Say what you want to about Paris but the food is hard to beat. So are the cathedrals and the shopping.
Tomorrow, Vicki and Robert and their kids come over from London. We are going to the Louvre tomorrow night. And on Saturday I am going to see Alvin Ailey at Théatre du Châtelet. It’s gonna be an excellent weekend!

Un regard ouvert sur la Grande Mosquée

On my first trip to France in 2004 (when I was a student rather than a professor on Study Abroad), we had a little cultural orientation at the beginning of our stay and we learned that Americans have un regard ouvert, which means “an open look.” Compared to other cultures we look other people in the eye more readily and we are quicker to presume or create relationships with others whereas the French are more private. We were told about this idea in the context of a warning: be careful about looking people in the eye on the street (it’s not done) and be ready for more formality and social distance than you are used to. So over lunch today I told my students about this idea. They readily understood and agreed that it was correct, but also said that they think un regard ouvert is good because it means you’re open to new people and situations, and you are willing to take an interest in others. From their perspective, I can’t disagree, and they carry their open eyes into our class and our field trips in a very positive way.

So today we took our American openness to the Grande Mosquée and then to its attached café for lunch. Dr. Yahgoobi brought her class to the mosque with us as well. Click through for the details and pictures, s’il vous plaît?

We had the same tour guide, Yemina, as last year. She is very friendly, obviously loves her faith and is a great ambassador for a religion that is not always regarded positively. She’s also patient with my imperfect skills as a translator, so I was happy to see her again!

The mosque was constructed between 1922 and 1926 from stone, marble, plaster, ceramic, and wood, with decorations in mosaic tile, stucco, and cedar of Lebanon. Most of the woodwork, several chandeliers, and some of the wall hangings were donated by imams and kings from other countries.

The horseshoe-shaped arches are typical of the “hispano-mauresque” style.

Stucco decorations–made of marble dust mixed with plaster. See the calligraphy inset?

Mosaic decoration–the dark brown tile above the mosaic has calligraphy that tells the story of the mosque in verse as well as representing some Koranic verses.

Yemina explained that helping construct a mosque is thought of as something like a donation and that it makes you a part of the mosque’s history. Since Islam does not practice iconography at all (no images of people or animals) the whole mosque is decorated only with geometric patterns and calligraphy. The garden contains beautiful rose bushes (still in bloom–I told Yemina that roses in Georgia finished blooming weeks ago), citrus trees, and fig trees as well as fountains and little basins.

The crescent represents the Muslim lunar calendar. The star represents the 5 pillars of Islam: the shahadah, prayer 5 times a day, giving to the poor, observing Ramadan, and the hajj.

A square minaret, typical of North African mosques.

The students were very attentive through the tour and asked some good questions. I got a little tangled up in what I thought I remembered about Islam (from my high school World Religions class in 1990, cough cough) and Yemina had to set me straight but it all worked out. I learned from Dr. Yaghoobi that “shahadah,” the name of the Muslim profession of faith (“There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet, may peace be upon him”) means “testimony.” When Yemina recited it in French she said “Je temoigne que . . . ” at the beginning: “I testify that . . . ”  Somehow the whole thing made a lot more sense to me after that.

We took pictures together:

Then we ate in the café. For unfamiliar food it’s good to have un regard ouvert. If we learned nothing else today we learned what couscous is, what a tagine is, and why mint tea is a good idea. One student ordered “pastilla” and was surprised, although not displeased, to receive a meat pie. This is what I love about study abroad: you learn something everywhere you go!
Mint tea, y’all.

From “What’s couscous?” to “Can we get more couscous?” in 1 hour or less.

Chow Italia, Part 2

It was late by the time we returned from Alberobello on Friday night, so Saturday we blew off a trip to the beach (probably a bad decision, in retrospect) in favor of relaxing, watching Italian TV (i.e. American TV dubbed in Italian, plus some baffling infomercials), and spending time with Karine and Antonio’s kittens. In Italian, “kittens” is “gattini.” Easy to remember because kittens are teeny!
This is Maurice Ravel.

This is Coco Chanel.
(also pictured: the nifty tile floors in the apartment)
In the afternoon I went with Karine to buy cheese and vegetables at some of the small shops in Corato. The whole weekend was a linguistic and cultural adventure and this may have been the highlight. The man who runs the cheese shop loves Karine so he dished out some fresh mozzarella knots for us to try as soon as we came in the door. Then he chatted with her while taking her order even though there was a line and some people were griping at him to hurry it along. Karine says she is not always accepted everywhere in Corato but obviously she is well beloved at the cheese shop and at the fruit-and-vegetable shop where she got guidance about her lemon trees. It was fun just to tag along even though I couldn’t understand everything or contribute much. Karine would just point at me and say “Famiglia!”
That night after serving as Antonio’s roadies (broken elevator, music gear up 6 flights of stairs: let’s try to forget that this ever happened) we went and got takeout pizza from a place called Pizza Teatro. It was jam-packed and boiling hot with a disorderly queue and one beleaguered waiter rushing back and forth with pizzas for the people eating at the tables outside the restaurant. Naturally, the pizza was delicious. I had a “Caprese” which was black olives, fresh tomatoes, and onion on a thin crust cooked in a brick oven. Worth the wait and the strange drama of ordering and paying there. Afterward I told Karine that it’s called Pizza Teatro because they could film a reality show in the restaurant.
It was very interesting being a native English speaker/second-language French speaker on this trip. Daniel and Karine have French as their first language and English as their second. Antonio is a native Italian speaker (of course) with English as his second language and no French. And Karine has learned to speak Italian incredibly well in only a year and a half. So when Daniel, Karine, and I or just Karine and I were together we would speak French because she doesn’t get to speak French very often. When the 4 of us were together we would speak English, and I would be the only one without (to my own ears) a melodious accent. But I learned a few words in Italian, such as “Molto bene!” which means “Very good.” Lots of things in Italy are molto bene.
Yesterday morning we went to the Adriatic coast for a photo op before heading to the airport. It was very crowded but so pretty!

Cousin love!

Look, I was there!
Soon it was time to take our flight back and our Italian adventure was over. Karine says we need to come for 2 weeks next time so we can travel around. Good idea or GREAT idea? In any case I am so grateful for the warm welcome we received there and the fun and relaxing time we had. Hooray, Italy! 

Chow Italia, Part 1

Daniel and I are back in Paris after a fantastic weekend in Italy with his cousin Karine and her boyfriend Antonio. It was terribly hot the whole time we were there, and neither of us speaks any Italian, and we flew Ryanair, and the whole thing could have been disaster, but instead we had a great time. Karine and Antonio are excellent hosts! Let’s click through, shall we?
Thursday afternoon we took the Paris Beauvais Airport shuttle from Porte Maillot to the Beauvais airport. It calls itself “Paris Beauvais” but is actually an hour and fifteen minutes away. On that logic I am going to start calling our house Paris Lizella. However, the shuttle is pretty convenient and quite cheap: 32€ per person round-trip if you book online, which is less expensive than the Groome shuttle and it’s a much nicer bus! Ryanair was a better experience than I expected as well. They do charge for EVERYTHING (drinks, snacks, newspapers, checked bags, printing your boarding pass) but the flights ran right on time and the planes seemed decently maintained (albeit not pristinely tidy because their turnaround times are very short). I would definitely do Ryanair or another low-cost carrier again if I travel within Europe for a weekend. As long as you travel light it’s an excellent deal.

We landed in Bari, which is about 35 minutes from Corato, the city where Karine and Antonio live, and they picked us up at the airport. Let me just say right now that everything you have heard about Italian driving is true. Antonio is an excellent “Italian style” driver; I am both terrified by and jealous of his skills. He says he does not drive fast compared to his fellow citizens, which is probably true. “What if I had an Audi?” he speculated.

After a stop at their apartment to drop off bags and freshen up, we headed out to dinner and that’s when the real fun began. They are regulars at a local restaurant called Le Stagioni di Puglia that does typical cuisine from the Puglia region (which grows a lot of olives and other vegetables as as making some unbeatable cheeses). First we got a crash course in Italian dining, which goes like this:
1. Start late. 8:30 is about the earliest you can eat dinner.
2. Antipasti: small dishes of preserved meats, cheese, or cooked vegetables
3. Primi: pasta
4. Secondi: meat or fish dishes
5. Dessert
6. Depart restaurant in a wheelbarrow, probably.
We gave Aldo, the owner, free rein to choose antipasti for us, and they just did not stop coming. Moreover, everything Francesco, the waiter, brought out was delicious: ham, salami, pecorino, parmesan, stuffed mushrooms, grilled zucchini, bruschetta, fresh olives, cooked zucchini leaves (who knew?), grilled string beans . . . It was all so good but we were expecting 2-3 more courses. Finally we had to ask them to stop bringing out antipasti!

This was AFTER we’d already eaten so much we thought we might die.
We had pasta (I had orecchietti with I forget what but it was yummy), canceled our secondi, and went straight to dessert. Karine was not feeling well but she did perk up after a chocolate mousse. I tried limoncello for the first time. It was good but I’m not sure I will order it again. Liqueurs are just not my thing, maybe. Meanwhile I’m still wondering if we should have canceled our pastas as well and just eaten antipasti all night. 
After traveling and a late dinner we simply did not get a jump on the day Friday but sat on the terrace at the apartment most of the morning:
Views from the 6th floor!

Corner apartment = Lots of skyline

At right, one of Karine’s lemon trees. 
Karine & Antonio’s apartment is big and very pretty; the only drawback is that it’s on the 6th floor and the elevator is not 100% reliable (as we learned!). We did eventually get dressed and venture out for lunch at a small café called Cofy Cloud (panini: average, gelato pops: A++++). 
Daniel wanted to rest but Karine and I decided to take the train to visit Alberobello, Alberobello is known for its domed houses called trulli, for which it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train journey was a little grueling and we thought we would not have much time to visit before needing to catch the train back. But Karine had the excellent idea to call Antonio and invite him to come out with Daniel in the car and meet us for dinner. So we had time to take quite a few pictures, taste some locally made liqueurs, and sit down for a beer before the gentlemen arrived. Here are some of my pics. I’m so glad we went to Alberobello. I might never have known there was such a place and it is unique and beautiful.

Antonio and Karine

. . . and Daniel

Looking down on the beer festival in Alberobello just before we left
We ate another huge meal Friday night: I had bruschetta and orecchietti (again) plus part of a grilled cheese entrée that Antonio ordered. It was literally a thick slice of a gouda-like cheese, cooked on a grill. Unbelievably delicious and I want to try making something similar at home. By the time dinner was over we had to go straight back to Corato as Antonio, who is a musician, had a gig the next day. Did I fall asleep on the autostrada? I’ll never tell . . . 
Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the Italy Report, featuring KITTENS!

Epic Loire Valley Sightseeing Weekend

This year, the EC Paris program and other European Council programs decided to add a “bonus” to each program in some form, both to take advantage of this year’s favorable exchange rates and to help attract students. The Paris program’s “bonus” was a weekend trip to the Loire Valley to see some of the famous châteaux. It was an excellent trip and I am writing this post in the autocar on the way back. It will be light on narrative but heavy on pictures, so get comfortable and click through…

We set out Friday morning from Paris in 2 autocars. Ours was piloted by our trusty driver Guy and we were led by our old friend Tour Guide Josh. We arrived at our first destination, Amboise, before lunch and had plenty of time to visit the castle and enjoy a good meal in town. I had not been to Amboise before. It is very impressive and definitely shows the military and strategic roots of chateau architecture.

Amboise castle from below

Tour Guide Josh gives the history of the castle

Exterior views 

For lunch, Daniel and I and Dr. Mann went to a charcuterie and got “ardoises” (slates) of mixed cheese, charcuterie, and cold salads. Everything was delicious! I can’t remember what the cheeses were called but one was a goat cheese that’s grey on the outside–we would see it again, twice, before the weekend was over. We had more than we could eat and yet we still managed to get ice cream afterward. How does that happen?

Getting lunch in Amboise

Our lunch!

The view from our table

From Amboise we continued into Tours, which would be our base for Friday and Saturday night. Because we are a large group (almost 100 people counting students, professors, bus drivers, and tour guides), we were split between 2 hotels. One hotel, St. Eloi, was closer to the center of Tours. Our hotel, La Terrasse, was outside of town but right on the tram line so we could easily go downtown. We had a very quick city tour from Josh including some cathedral ruins that are right in the town center. Standing in front of the two towers, which once made up the northwest and southeast corners of the transept, respectively, you suddenly have a new perspective on the size of a cathedral that comes from examining how many normal-sized houses and shops can fit into the space where the cathedral once was. It’s amazing.

This is the southeast corner tower

Looking northwest to the other tower

This is the basilica that replaced the ruined cathedral but not until the 1800s.
Close-up of the northwest tower which is called the Charlemagne tower
View from where we ate dinner–a medieval half-timbered house.

We had a very traditional French dinner that night at a restaurant called Le Bouchon Tourangeau that is right off the main square, Place Plumereau, in Tours. For my entree I had chevre chaud (there’s that goat cheese again) on a salad, followed by andouillette and frites, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. Let me explain about andouillette: it is delicious, but like a lot of delicious French food (especially cheese), it smells terrible. The most polite word I can find to describe the smell of andouillette is “Swiftian.”  Or maybe “earthy.” And yet it is sooooo tasty. Again: how does that happen?

Saturday morning we had breakfast at the hotel and got a leisurely 10 a.m. start for our winery tour and tasting in Vouvray. We toured the “cave” (in this case a literal cave though sometimes it just means a cellar!) where Vouvray wines are aged for at least a year before they are sold. It was a fascinating enviroment and interesting to learn about. Then we went on to taste 3 different Vouvray wines plus some local snacks (GOAT CHEESE). Tasting wine at 11:30 a.m. was a little unusual but fun! I bought a bottle of my favorite of the wines we tasted, a “petillant,” “demi-sec” Vouvray. In the wine world “petillant” means “half-fizzy” (all the way fizzy is “mousseux”) and “demi-sec” is semi-dry. I am excited to open it next time the professors get together to raise a glass.

Daniel & Dr. Mann with Guy
Students walking into the cave

Madeleine, our tour guide at the winery, in front of a rack of 15,000+ bottles.

Goat . . . (wait for it)

CHEESE!

The wines we tasted–the middle one is the one I bought.

From the winery we went on to Chenonceau, a short hop down the road. I had been to Chenonceau before but was more than happy to go again. It is so beautiful. I could probably have sat all day just looking at it!

Students listening to Josh’s introduction

I was there! (And using my worst posture, apparently.)

After lunch in Chenonceau we returned to Tours and had time to catch a nap before heading back downtown in Tours for dinner and some fun. We ate pizza (don’t worry; it was French: there was a fried egg on it) and walked down toward the riverfront where there is a little strip of bars and restaurants called La Guinguette. On the way, we stopped to ride the Ferris wheel that is in another square right next to the river. The views were breathtaking at sunset.

Down at the river Daniel managed to befriend some guys with guitars (OF COURSE HE DID) and they jammed around playing classic French music for a while as everyone relaxed and enjoyed the riverfront scene. But today was an earlier start–9 a.m. departure–so we did not stay out too late. Today we had a slightly packed agenda with a stop at Chambord for photos, followed by lunch in Chartres and a look at the cathedral, and then “home” to Paris. These were also the longest sections of the drive with a generous 90 minutes separating each stop, so we have been a bit rushed to get everything in. But it was worth the stop to see Chambord again (less worth it to pay 50 cents to use a porta-potty, merci beaucoup, domaine de Chambord):

And I am always thrilled to see Chartres again especially now that the restoration is really coming along. A large part of the nave is covered in scaffolding right now, but there is plenty left to see. And the restoration is extraordinary. The somber gloom that we associate with cathedrals is wonderful enough, but seeing the stone scrubbed white and the faux marble painted is thrilling. I can only wish we’d spent a bit less time eating cheeseburgers with our students and a bit more time in the cathedral. On the other hand, we are here for the students and lunch was good fun.

I love this plaque because it talks about students coming to Chartres on pilgrimages.

Notre Dame du Pilier

Left to right: completed restoration, non-restored, restoration in progress

The main altar: already fully restored

Arches & keystones above the main altar
Look, I was there too!

So now we are rolling back to Paris in our autocars and getting ready for next week. It’s going to be a mad scramble for the washing machines but a good weekend trip is always worth the laundry you have to do afterward.

Update at time of posting: Going straight to the laundry room from the autocar is the secret to success. À bientôt!