Return to Chartres

When I was a student on study abroad in 2004, I spent a night in Chartres so that I could see the famous cathedral. I’d seen photos of it in humanities class at CSF (that mention may bring some nostalgic commenters out of the woodwork) and had harbored a persistent desire to visit ever since. Chartres cathedral, properly Notre Dame de Chartres, is much like France in general: it does not disappoint. Approaching it from the northwest by train was exciting–you can see it from a long way off, surrounded by fields of grain in the region called “France’s bread basket.” 

This time we came from Paris in a coach, so the cathedral wasn’t visible till we got closer, but it was still exciting. Tour Guide Josh spent the ride giving us background information about the cathedral’s history and its importance as a pilgrimage site ever since the days of Charlemagne. When we arrived he spent some time telling us about the elaborate carvings on the main doors and then a little bit about the stained-glass windows. Unfortunately we were reprimanded by a priest inside the cathedral because a group with more than 10 people is required to have a microphone-and-headset system to keep noise down. Josh knew this but thought he’d try his luck for a while. When his luck ran out we had already learned a lot!
So we had to split up to explore on our own, which is my favorite thing to do in a cathedral anyway. The air is cool, the columns are soaring, there are things to see all around you, and yet it all feels peaceful. It was as I remembered it–for the longest time I carried a memory of the smell inside the cathedral, and it still smells the same. But some things have changed. Starting in 2009, restoration work has been under way to clean and in some cases reprint the stone. Most people don’t know (I didn’t) that in the Middle Ages, cathedrals were brightly painted, inside and out. So those austere, creamy (or sooty if they haven’t been cleaned yet) carvings and even the arches and columns themselves were originally bright-colored. The current restorations have found original paint in many places and have reprinted other areas according to careful research. The altar is now surrounded by cream-colored stone with the joints marked out in bright white, the columns painted to look like marble, and the keystones at the center of each arch accented in blue, red, and gold. It’s completely incredible. 
I hope we go again next year when the restoration should be finished or nearly so. But I was glad to go today and see the “before” and the “after” at the same time. I also got to see the labyrinth again; it is only open to the public on Fridays. Today I did not walk it but several of the students did. It is a simple but appealing ritual. I will definitely do it next time. I did take a lot of pictures–I used to feel like it was disrespectful to take photos in churches but now I go ahead and do it if the church allows it (Sacre-Coeur, for example, does not). I am pretty proud of my photos but I’ve only seen them on the tiny screen of the camera so far.
After my visit to the cathedral I joined a few students at a café for lunch and had a cheeseburger and fries for the first time in a month. That burger was rare enough to make an American nervous but I loved it. It was actually strange to get a reasonable amount of fries that I could finish instead of the giant pile that one continues to pick at compulsively when no longer hungry. Food habits die hard; even the most avid Francophiles among us are starting to look forward to our favorite American treats. I find myself craving iced tea on these hot afternoons, and I want to go to Hacienda Vieja for a guacamole overdose as soon as I get back. Of course, I say that now but back in Macon I’ll be wishing I could have just one more croissant and café crème.
We got back around 3:30 and I had to start packing because I am leaving Cité U. tomorrow. Vicki, Samantha, and Daniel arrive tomorrow and we are spending a further week in Paris, staying in an apartment that we rented through AirBnB. So right now while some laundry dries I am trying to discipline all the stuff I’ve spread around my room in the past month and corral it into my suitcase. Wish me luck–à bientôt!

Caen Adventure

Today I went with 4 students to see my friend Nicole and spend the day in Caen, in the Basse-Normandie region (lower Normandy, on the west coast of France). We left Cité U. at 7 am to get an 8:00 train from Gare St-Lazare. I was worried that we’d be late; in the end we were on time but the train was late! The weather in France has been very stormy the past few days and there were problems with loss of power on some lines. I’m not sure if that was the case on our train but in the end we were delayed about 45 minutes. The delay did not stop the students from sleeping through almost the entire train trip. I don’t blame them–trains are very relaxing! Nice big seats, quiet, pretty scenery. 

Nicole was waiting to meet us at the station and we hustled right off to the Men’s Abbey (l’Abbaye aux Hommes) where she had arranged us a tour in English with the help of a gentleman who lives in her building. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgable and told us a lot of interesting facts about the abbey in a short time. It was a good mix of historical, architectural, and religious description. We learned, for instance, that today only William the Conqueror’s thigh bone is buried in his tomb. His original tomb was destroyed when the abbey was sacked during the Revolution. This is his tomb as it exists today:
This is looking back toward the abbey entrance from the tomb:
And this is the pre-Vatican II altar:

One of the many things we learned a little about today was Vatican II and the liturgical reforms involved in it–such as moving the altar closer to the congregation and turning it around. 

Our tour guide told us his background was in international business but he was obviously a giant freelance humanist brain of the kind that can ask “What do you mean you don’t speak Latin?” and make you think “He’s right, I should learn Latin!”
After the tour it was lunch time and we wanted something quick and inexpensive so we opted for a French classic: McDonald’s. There went my “no American fast food in France” streak. But we all had a nice time chatting with Nicole and taking a break. It was also good to get indoors; unfortunately it rained on and off all day in typical Norman unpredictable-weather fashion. So we stayed for a while and got coffees and pastries (McCafé in France is the real deal) before heading on to the château. 
The château in Caen is of course William the Conqueror’s castle and dates back accordingly. It is not, therefore, an elaborate confection like Chambord but is obviously a fortress:
The château and its outbuildings now house the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée de Caen, each of which had special exhibitions in addition to their permanent collection. So we saw a great selection of Impressionist paintings–including many depictions of Normandy beaches–and an exhibit of early color photographs from the turn of the 20C. I could not take pictures in the special exhibitions but in the permanent collection I photographed this painting because it made me laugh:
It’s just titled “Man with Fig” and you can see he is holding a fig in one hand and making the rude gesture of “the fig” with the other. I immediately thought of Iago: “Virtue? A fig! Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.”
We also got to climb around the château a bit and take a few more pictures: 
(You can see how pleasant the weather was not–though it helped me to imagine William and his troops roughing it in a chilly castle with not even a little Facebook to help pass the time.)
That’s Jessica standing in the other tower!
Before we knew it, it was time to go back to the train station and return to Paris. We rode the tram and got off into a DOWNPOUR. It was barely sprinkling when we got on; when we got off we needed an ark. And a snorkel mask. And waders. Nicole said her goodbyes and rushed off to get back to her car. We stood under the tram shelter for a few minutes till the rain slacked a little and then dashed into the station. Our wet feet led us into the station café for dinner (a slice of pie is a perfectly cromulent dinner choice) and then onto the train. 
Our seats are in a compartment. We feel very Harry Potter! Just waiting for the trolley to come around and sell us some chocolate frogs. 

 

Excavating London

Now back to base (well, London base) after another great day touring around with Annabel. We went by bus to the City with our first stop in Spitalfields to see the medieval charnel house recently excavated there. No bones, but foundation, walls, etc. that you could walk right into through an unassuming grey basement entrance. English Heritage employees were on hand to explain the site’s history: the charnel house was probably built by a bishop’s wealthy patron in the period of famine after the Little Ice Age and before the Black Plague (i.e., early 14th century). At the time it was near the 12th-century St. Mary’s priory and hospital (contraction of “hospital” is where the first part of “Spitalfields” comes from) and stored remains from the churchyard so that graves could be re-used. The archaeologists found many bodies but presumably they are stored/catalogued elsewhere. It was amazing to see something so old and exciting to learn about it. 

On the way to Spitalfields we passed through Southwark and Annabel pointed out a tavern called the George that is mentioned in Dickens, was known to Shakespeare, and is now a National Trust historic building. I proposed that we return there for lunch, which we duly did, and enjoyed it muchly. Annabel had a burger and a pint of Perroni and I had fish and chips (how could I not?) with a pint of cider. We walked through Borough Market glad we’d eaten, because it is all upmarket local foodstuffs and we’d have gone broke buying ourselves Turkish olives and fancy cheese if we’d been hungry. 
Then we continued on through Southwark (do not ask me to say it out loud) to what turned out to be another cool archeological site, the Elizabethan-era Rose Theatre where Marlowe became famous and Shakespeare got his start. The Rose fell out of favor as other theatres were built; its owner let the lease expire and the theatre was gradually demolished so that the timbers could be re-used. Other buildings grew up around/over it till 1989 when its remains, preserved by its marshy location on land “reclaimed” from the Thames, were excavated. The site has had to be re-covered with sand and water till it can be properly excavated and preserved, but you can see the outlines of the structure (smaller than one would imagine) and the stage. The site has been protected from future development but fundraising efforts are still under way to complete the necessary work. 
While at the Rose, I had a surprise celebrity encounter: Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley (Countess of Grantham) on Downton Abbey was there–not in any official capacity but with a couple of friends or family. I said “Are you who I think you are?” And she said “No,” which is really the only polite answer. Handicapped by my inability to remember her last name EVER, I said “But are you Cora Crawley?” to which she (logically) said no again. I added, “Not all the time,” and she smiled and said “Not all the time.”  Was starstruck and did not want to make a fuss so I did not ask for a photo or even an autograph. Thus, dear readers, I must fall back on the travel writer’s traditional claims of veracity and assure you that this really happened, though I have no proof!

We left the Rose and walked on till we came to the Globe and I took a few photos from the outside. I’m glad the Globe exists again so that people can have that experience but at the same time it will never really be the same. My question all weekend has been “Why does London feel so different from Paris?” and I think one reason is that London is always aggressively modernizing and changing–often because it has to, like after the Great Fire and again after WWII. The Globe pops up between sleek modern buildings; the Monument (commemorating the Great Fire) looks squeezed among office towers. It’s exciting in a whole different way, as if all of London’s history is coming at you at once. 

We walked all the way down the South Bank to the London Eye as the clouds were breaking up and visitors were thronging around some kind of festival. I thought I wanted to ride the London Eye but just seeing it up close was exciting. Annabel says it is beautiful to ride at night but slightly less gratifying during the day. I also got some great views looking across and down the Thames though I think I missed my best chance to photograph Tower Bridge. Still haven’t been to the Tower of London but given its longevity so far I expect it will still be in operation when I get around to it. 

So it was another great day sightseeing and history-learning. We were glad to get back here and sit down with a cup of tea. (There really is something to the whole “afternoon tea” tradition!) Tomorrow, back to Paris and I will hopefully have time to do a big catch-up photo post. À bientôt!

The opposite of “touristique”

For dinner last night Annabel, Robert, and I went to Brixton Market. They live in Brixton, a diverse section of London that apparently has not always been a peaceful place to live but that has become fashionable in recent years. Brixton Market is “famous” according to Wikipedia and was voted the best local market in England (or some such) last year, but it is the opposite of a tourist destination. The market space looks very ordinary, kind of like the flea market on Eisenhower Pkwy. for those of you that know Macon. You would expect to buy cheap phone cases and flip-flops there. But when we arrived last night it was full of young hipsters, music playing, and a dozen or so (is it possible?) small restaurants of every description: Japanese, Mexican, barbecue (American-style BBQ in London!), burgers, Italian, Thai, etc. 

The one we finally chose–partly because it was unencumbered by a giant queue–was Colombian, and a good choice it was. Great-looking meat dishes but I got a vegetarian plate and thus got to try all the side items: beans, rice, cassava, plantain, and cornbread. It was delicious! We each drank a Colombian beer (also good) and then went to the gelateria opposite the restaurant for our dessert. Gelato is spoiling me for regular ice cream (though I haven’t tried the famous Berthillon yet). It is so yummy, somehow rich without being heavy. I had mint chocolate chip (my favorite since forever), Annabel had salted caramel, and Robert had coffee. 
We ate them while walking back to the bus stop and then consulted Annabel’s London Transport app to see which bus to take. I have fallen in with public transit nerds/trainspotters here which is great since I am a would-be transit nerd myself.   
Today we will see the City of London a bit–Annabel says London has two centers, Westminster (where we were yesterday) and the City. And we might go to the Lambeth Country Show which is a county fair-like event. Or we might go to a medieval charnel house in Spitalfields. But right now I have to get in the shower as an all-important first step. 

London Calling

Yesterday afternoon following an excellent Eurostar experience I arrived at St. Pancras station in London and met my very own Native Tour Guide, Annabel! (See “Annabel’s Travel Blog” over there in the sidebar? You should read that blog. Also her recipe blog and her sermons. Multi-talented, that Annabel.) We have known each other online for probably 10 years but this was our first face-to-face meeting and she and her husband Robert have been kind enough to let me stay at their apartment this weekend and show me the sights. Today we took a bus tour around London. Protip: take a public bus instead of a tour bus; sit up top of a double-decker one for best photos. Prepare to swing around a random, unassuming corner and have the Houses of Parliament jump out in front of you. We got off our bus near St. Mary’s Hospital where the media vans are all staked out awaiting the birth of the future monarch. No sign of Their Royal Highnesses; my hosts are betting that Kate will have the baby elsewhere and the St. Mary’s thing is a decoy for the press. 

We made our way back to Russell Square (just as beautiful as Helene Hanff described it) to sit down for a few minutes before meeting Annabel & Robert’s daughter Emily for lunch and a visit around University of London’s Senate House, where she works. It is this imposing late-30s edifice; I told Annabel it looks like it houses a totalitarian government. Very elegant on the inside with somber wood-paneled rooms and paintings of past chancellors, e.g., the Queen Mother (wearing emeralds and an academic robe at the same time). From there we went on to Pret A Manger and picked out sandwiches for lunch. I chose cheddar & pickle, which was yummy. English “pickle” is vaguely like a sweet relish or chutney and it’s a great sandwich topping. I think this was the first time I’d been into a Pret that wasn’t in an airport. Their selection is great and the prices are good. 
Emily had to go back to work and we went on to the National Gallery. I promised myself I’d go and visit Hogarth’s “Marriage A-La-Mode” series so we sought those out first. Thank you, Mr. Hogarth, for illustrating my book centuries before I wrote it. Jan Van Eyck’s “The Arolfini Marriage” is there too, so we went to see that and took in a lot of good stuff along the way. It was nice to have specific targets instead of feeling like I had to See Everything, which is too tiring!
Outside the National Gallery is Trafalgar Square where I took some good (hopefully) pictures; then we got on the Tube to visit a sari shop that Annabel knew because I’d mentioned wanting another shalwar kameez. She wasn’t sure she’d remembered its location correctly but it was just around the corner from the Tube, Reshma Sarees. Bad news: they are closing! Good news: everything was 50% off! I considered many outfits, tried on two, and settled on a red-and-black one that I think I will wear to faculty convocation. Could not convince Annabel to buy anything but I did my best. 
Finally we took the bus back here and we are all relaxing–and using the wifi–before heading out for a look around Brixton Market and dinner in one of the restaurants there. It’s been a Grand Day Out (Wallace & Gromit style) for sure!

Friends everywhere!

Spoke to a Parisian friend by phone today as we discovered this week we will not get to see each other while I’m here. That is a huge bummer but we have made a date for next year AND she gave me a bunch of recommendations for restaurants, parks, museums, etc. that are interesting but less touristique than what I’ve been doing so far. I suspect that as soon as a guidebook says an area is “less touristy” than other places, that area is immediately overrun. Anyway, it was splendid to be able to talk to her. We have also been trading text messages which is fun. It is so nice to be in the same time zone for a while! She is off for a much-deserved vacation soon and I get to hold down the fort here in Paris for a few more weeks. 

But! Tomorrow I am crossing the Channel via Eurostar for the first time and will spend the weekend with my Internet friend Annabel in London. I am excited to see her and to see London, where I haven’t been since 1993. That was my junior year undergrad, before I really knew anything about British lit., history, etc. So it should be a great trip in all respects. I predict tons of pictures!
We had a bit of excitement this morning en route to class as there was a “security action” on the RER B line so they suspended service from Cité U. to the stop after ours (ours is Denfert-Rochereau, the next one is Port Royal, for those of you playing Mornington Crescent). Had to walk to the Institut Protestant where we have classes instead of taking the train. It was a lovely walk but if I’d seen it coming I’d have left earlier! I heard later that a “suspicious package” was left at Denfert-Rochereau but I don’t think anything came of it. Security in French rail stations–and on the streets, for that matter–is a little intimidating if you aren’t used to it. Some officers look like regular police but some are in camouflage fatigues with large rifles at the ready. It all makes sense in an environment where most people spend large parts of their day out on the street, in stations, or on trains. My students said today that they feel at least as safe here, if not safer, than they would in Atlanta, for instance. You do have to be smart and observant but at a certain point your brain gets accustomed to being surrounded by strangers at all times. 
Time to go check the laundry room and see if a machine is free. I’ve already been in twice. The one time I need to do laundry as a matter of urgency and every washer is full!
À bientôt!