"Une cousine, grosse mais gentille…"

It is officially spring in Aix. It’s sunny and warm and the Aixois who were reluctant to come out in the harsh, bitter cold of February (=40 degrees), fill the streets, cafés, and parks. And so do tourists, which is both amusing and painful to see. I’m at least an extended-stay tourist, which I tell myself is more respectable. It’s interesting to see American tourists at their most stereotypical–comfy clothes, sneakers, et cetera–and, after being here for two months, understand why the French sometimes just don’t get us crazy Americans.

I’ve already enjoyed complaining about tourists like a true Aixoise. Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to be bitter about minor inconveniences in everyday life. But my hostmom is the champion. Marie-Do has done some top-notch complaining, guilt-tripping, and nagging that would be hard, even for me, to replicate. Marie-Do is a good host mom. She’s very interested in my experience here, she doesn’t make foods I don’t like, and she does my laundry. So it’s important to know, I wouldn’t write about her if I didn’t find humor in her antics and if I didn’t think my observations could give a little insight into the French mentality.

Marie-Do can talk forever about her health. The first time I met her she told me her glands were swollen. Recently it’s her right eye (it’s ‘pulling,’ she says, which I don’t quite understand). She’s a hypochondriac, as my program director says many French people are. The French are also more pessimistic than Americans. I didn’t really think of Americans as being optimistic, but Marie-Do has made an optimist out of me. When I came back from Nice and Monaco and was describing the Bataille des Fleurs, she said “Oh! It’s too bad you didn’t go to Venice for their carnival.” Same thing with Spain “Oh! It’s too bad you didn’t stay until Sunday.” The number of times I’ve heard Oh! C’est dommage que….

I’ve gotten used to having the same conversations over and over with Marie-Do, because it’s a courtesy, from what I’ve learned, to avoid silence or gaps in conversation. I think that goes for things like car rides, watching the news, and other times when Americans wouldn’t necessarily be uneasy with an extended silence. Marie-Do is constantly asking–a more positive characterization than ‘nagging’ that I use for my own sanity–about my class schedule, my social life, what I’m doing this weekend, even though I told her yesterday, or often earlier that day.

When I say Marie-Do guilt-trips, I know it sounds bad. But maybe it’s considered more polite to be passive-aggressive here. Okay, that doesn’t sound any better. It’s just something I’ve noticed, with Marie-Do and, to an extent, my host mom in Nantes, Roselyne. Maybe it’s a French mom thing. Anyway, our upstairs neighbor, when he’s home, constantly wears his shoes, which we can hear clicking on the floor. Marie-Do always says she’s going to bring it up with him but that he’s really very nice and she’ll just ‘mention it’ or ‘slip it in’ by kindly suggesting that he wear slippers around the house. I won’t recount the exact circumstances that led her to use this sneaky tactic to me, but it was artfully done, I must say. And, again, it wasn’t as affronting as it sounds; I just laughed it off after.

I’ll leave you with one amusing Marie-Do moment that happened just last night. Her ex-boyfriend took her out to dinner, but he came up to the apartment first to sit and talk a bit. This was the first I’d heard of him. This is not the ex-husband and father of her son, this guy was later. All I know is he is “very, very rich”. So Marie-Do is babbling at him about everything going on in her life, her health problems, her efforts at home decorating, and her recent trip to Corsica. She’s showing pictures of her extended family in Corsica, I couldn’t see them but I was in the room. She gets to one of her and someone else and says “C’est ma cousine, grosse mais gentille.” Translation: That’s my cousin, fat but nice. I couldn’t help but laughing, and neither could the very, very rich man.

That’s it for now. I have an idea, though. If anyone is curious about some part of French culture or language I haven’t written about, leave a comment. I’m no expert, but being in France means I can find an expert (okay, so maybe just Marie-Do) on whatever you might be interested in. So, comment!
A plus,
Maggie B.


Chez Van Gogh

Yesterday was our Abroadco excursion to Arles, a small town about an hour northwest of Aix. We all took the bus to meet our program director, Pam, in Arles, where she first treated us to a much-needed coffee/tea/hot chocolate to wake us up at a café on the main drag.

Since it was a Saturday, we got to see Arles’ very impressive morning market. I love the markets in Aix, but Arles’ market is more concentrated and I think even more extensive than Aix’s. It has everything: secondhand home furnishings and knickknacks (junk), clothing, art, pottery, and of course all manner of fruits, veggies, deli foods, baked goods, and prepared dishes. Pam took us on a quick walk through the market, warning us to keep our bags close in light of Arles’ infamous gypsy population. But we would come back to the market on our own later, we were really headed to the Arles cemetery, called the Alyscamps.

The Alyscamps was one of the most important burial grounds in the Roman Empire. In it were buried over 80 generations. When a ship was sent down the Rhone River with a coffin, it was assumed it’s destination was Arles. And when the man in charge of burials unloaded the coffin, he would find his payment of coins in the departed’s mouth. Over time, the cemetery deteriorated. When Vincent Van Gogh came to Arles and invited Paul Gauguin to paint the cemetery in 1888, it was a meeting place for young local girls and soldiers.

Les Alyscamps, Paul Gauguin; this is the canal, now dried up, that runs alongside the Alyscamps and three women dressed in traditional costume. The dome in the background is the church that was added to the site in the Middle Ages.

Les Alyscamps, Vincent Van Gogh; this pathway towards the medieval church is still there, lined with ancient, deteriorating sarcophagi. Here a woman in traditional dress meets a soldier friend.

Following the tour of the cemetery, we had some free time to explore the market. My friend Annie and I took a stroll up the food aisle and soon hit the regional sauces and spreads section. We suddenly had tiny pieces of bread bearing pesto, tapenade, caviar of eggplant, anchovy spread, and who knows what else pushed into our soon greasy fingers. Before this experience, I was still hoping that I might somehow appreciate the integral provençal spread that is tapenade despite my hatred for olives. Alas, not so, but I wasn’t about to refuse it from the eager-to-please and incredibly friendly vendors. I did like the ‘caviar of eggplant’ (surprised? me too). Moving on from the canned goods section, I bought half a kilo of strawberries that Annie and I shared in the park on the other side of the market.

After more wandering, we met Pam to go to our complimentary lunch. It was a nice restaurant with a generous 10€ formule for lunch. A lot of French restaurants have ‘formules’ for lunch and/or dinner that offer an entrée (remember, an appetizer not a main dish), a plat principal, wine, and coffee at a lower cost than they would all be ‘à la carte’ or separately. I got a copious green salad with a decent vinaigrette and an open face sandwich, called a tartine, with a decent tuna salad, or the French interpretation anyway. Think less mayonnaise, more celery.

Pam whisked us off to see more Roman and Van Gogh sites after lunch. We walked along the Rhone River and past the building that used to be a brothel. One of its prostitutes created a vicious rivalry between Van Gogh and Gauguin. As everyone knows, Van Gogh cut off his own ear for this woman, delivering it to the brothel in what I’m sure was a very tasteful box. Then we saw the Roman amphitheatre, which could seat 20,000, be evacuated in minutes, and during the Middle Ages was converted into housing for 200 households. Today it is the site of Arles’ bullfights. Each year there is one bullfight in the Spanish style to open the season, but there are still provençal-style bullfights too, which sound very cool. The bull isn’t killed, just tormented by a team of pests, basically, who work together to distract the bull so team members can grab one of the ribbons pinned in between the bulls’ horns. I don’t think I’ll have the time to see one of these bullfights this trip, but maybe in the future. Pam said it’s almost like a ballet.

Right next to the amphitheatre is the Roman theatre, the remains of which aren’t that impressive but, like the other Roman sites in Arles, are still older than anything manmade I’d ever seen. Then we went to a Roman church. Also, an underground storage facility, or so anthropologists think, that might have been used to store wheat to feed Roman soldiers. Altogether, it’s the size of a football field and used to follow the course of the Roman forum above ground, of which only two columns remain. Also in Arles is the café that inspired the Van Gogh piece Café terrace at night (it’s the most expensive café in that particular square and also has the worst food..oh well). Finally, we visited the asylum where the painter was committed after the ear incident and once again after the town of Arles petitioned for him to be recommitted. Van Gogh wasn’t the most popular guy in Arles, apparently.

It was a busy day, but I’m glad we had Pam to show us around and, especially, tell us interesting stories about the sights. I don’t think I would necessarily recommend Arles as a must-see in Provence, though. I enjoyed it, but I also didn’t have to pay for lunch or entrance to the monuments, which generally seemed a little overpriced. Also, the Roman sites are interesting but, understandably, are a little rundown, so if the Roman Empire doesn’t interest you, it might be a bit of a letdown. I loved the market, though, and the town of Arles has done a great job of documenting Van Gogh’s points of inspiration there, posting reproductions of his paintings in their corresponding locations.

I want to write a little bit about Aix in spring, since it’s getting warmer and tourists are starting to come out. But this entry is already long enough, so check back soon. And here’s the link for my Facebook album of Arles for more photos of the amphitheatre, the Alyscamps, and the Rhone River. Also you can click on the pictures in this entry to see larger versions.

Ciao, happy spring!
Maggie B.

Viva España Dos

I arrived back in Aix just a few hours ago, and I can’t believe I just spent almost 6 days in Spain. I did and saw so many interesting and new things, the days flew by. Last time I wrote I had just arrived in Sevilla at my hostel, and I hadn’t even talked to my friend Alicia, who is studying there this semester.

Once I got in touch with Alicia, we met up for a late dinner for me. I had sopa de mariscos, a seafood soup with a whole shrimp, scallops, and tiny clams still in the shells, followed by a paella con carne. I have to be honest, this was as authentic as my eating ever got this trip in Spain. I am not one for eating in restaurants alone, so the other nights I did not feel motivated at all to go scope out inexpensive, authentic Spanish cuisine and then struggle with the menu and the waitstaff in pigeon Spanish. Excuses, excuses…. Anyway, Alicia and I got to catch up. It was surreal since the last time we saw each other was in Pittsburgh, and now we’re both doing our own thing in Europe. She’s really liking Sevilla and has taken a bunch of cool trips around Spain. Also coming up, she’s going with her program to Portugal and then a couple weeks later to Morocco. I am jealous!

Per Alicia’s suggestion, my first tourist attraction the next morning, Tuesday, was the Moorish royal palace called Alcázar, parts of which were first constructed in the 10th century AD. I think it started out as a fort, mostly, and then evolved into a more lavish complex. Today the buildings are filled with gorgeous tilework and woodcarvings (larger pic is one of the ornate outer walls of one of the main buildings, the smaller pic is a dome carved out of cedar), and there are several gardens of different styles that are enclosed within the ramparts. I spent two and a half hours here, I think, and ended up taking 150 pictures or so. It was a refreshing visit. I’d never seen Moorish architecture before, and the scale and quality was incredible. That, and walking through some of the gardens, I felt like I should be in India or somewhere exotic, not Spain. Okay, Spain is definitely exciting and exotic, I just didn’t expect it to be so jungle-like.

After my very leisurely stroll through the Alcázar grounds, I walked right across the square to Sevilla’s Catédral, the ‘most extensive Gothic cathedral in the world’. As with the Alcázar, it isn’t just that it’s grand, it’s that you’re looking at the work of hundreds, if not thousands. Every embellishment is perfectly crafted. On the map I counted 26 chapels, including the Royal Chapel situated in the middle, a wall of religious scenes framed by ornate gold decoration reaching at least a third of the way to the ceiling.

The cathedral also holds the tomb of Christopher Columbus. And I thought Pitt’s own Cathedral of Learning was cool….

But even besides all the grandeur inside, many people come to the Catédral to climb up into the Giralda Tower. Two thirds of the tower is part of a minaret of a mosque built in the 12th century that was later incorporated into the cathedral. You have to climb a series of over 30 ramps to get to the top, but once you do, you can see all of Sevilla. It’s a great view. Sevilla seems to have greenery everywhere. Trees line even the busiest streets, and there are parks and gardens everywhere, it seems. And it’s a very charming city, interesting old buildings, tiny, winding streets that are very easy to get lost in, and these funny-looking TV antennas sticking up from every roof.

After the Catédral, I made my last tourist stop of the day at the Iglesia San Salvador, which is smaller and less impressive than the cathedral, but nevertheless worth the visit. The altar and the two chapels are decorated in this ornate, over the top style, I don’t know the term for it exactly. I actually like the church better from the outside, because it has an interesting blue, white, and yellow tiled dome sitting on top of a pinkish foundation.Back at the hostel I fixed up a quick dinner of oven-made pizza (my parents are going to kill me), before heading back out to catch a flamenco demonstration a nearby bar. It was a Tuesday night, but luckily this bar, Carboneria, has a flamenco performance every night at 11pm. Honestly, I didn’t really feel like going back out after all the walking and the mediocre weather, but I’m glad I did.

When I got there, I entered through the main door, only to see a very small, quiet, almost empty bar. I almost left, but then I saw some people walk through a door in the back and so I followed. Lo and behold, there was a huge room with long picnic tables and skinny benches, absolutely packed with people. I ordered a drink (it’s only fair, since the performance was free) and managed to find a spot not too far from the tiny stage up front. At first there was no dancing, just two men, one singing and the other playing guitar, and a woman, clapping along.

It was interesting, but I had really come to see the dancing. Then the woman stood up and began her routine. It was incredible. Every muscle in her body was perfectly coordinated, her hands constantly moving and her feet tapping out rhythms I didn’t think were possible. And the two men fed off of her energy, taking cues from her and changing the music to go with her leaps and strides. The expression on the woman’s face was unbelievable, you could see all the emotion and the focus. Needless to say, it was worth the 5€ for the drink.

Wednesday, my last day in Sevilla, I went to the Plaza de España, a Renaissance era building with, again, great tilework. It’s shaped like a semicircle, with two towers on either end and a fountain in the middle. Around the inner edge of the semicircle there are representations (not the right word, but it’s hard to describe) for each major city in Spain: Barcelona, Cordoba, Madrid, etc. After some time at the Plaza I walked across the street into a beautiful park, full of palm trees and other green things. Then I wandered farther away from the Plaza to find the Guadalqevir River. It kind of reminded me of the Erdre River in Nantes, the one that ran by my house, because of the paths running along it and some of the older steel bridges. Later, I got to meet up with Alicia between her classes, and she led me on a wander through parts of the city I hadn’t been to yet, including her neighborhood across the river, Triana. She showed me where she lived, an apartment on a very cute, very European street. It was great to see her, and we got to catch up and compare notes on our European experiences so far while enjoying a Spanish treat, churros with melted chocolate. Sooo delicious.

We’re almost to the end of my journey. I took the overnight bus from Sevilla to Madrid, where I spent several hours in a coffeehouse waiting for it to get warm(ish). Then I went to the Royal Botanical Gardens, where it was very well maintained but not a lot was in bloom. The flight back from Madrid was uneventful. I walked out of the Marseille airport to be greeted by the infamous provençal wind. Technically it wasn’t the mistral, since that only comes on sunny days, but you could’ve fooled me.

Here are links for the photo albums on Facebook, for everyone:
Sevilla 1 and 2

Sorry for the uber long entry, à bientôt!
Maggie B.

Viva España…Uno!

First off, everything’s going well here in Spain. I know my parents haven’t been thrilled I’m traveling alone here, but so far, so good. Hopefully it will stay that way. Today I arrived in Sevilla, where I’ll be staying for three days. My friend from Pitt, Alicia, is studying here, and we’re hoping to meet up a few times between her classes.

As for Madrid, it already seems like a blur after the 9 hour bus ride to Sevilla. But it was great. I flew in Saturday afternoon via RyanAir. It was my first RyanAir experience, and I’d heard horror stories, but it seemed like Southwest for Europe to me, no big deal. I took the Metro into the city and found my hostel, got settled in, and then met my Abroadco friends Haley and Karinne at the Museo del Prado. Nothing like a world-class museum to welcome you to a city. We got through a good bit of the museum, including what felt like 200 pietas and crucifixion scenes. Usually painting from about the 17th century and older doesn’t interest me that much, I prefer the ‘pretty’ stuff. But it was such an impressive collection, and the Spanish art especially was incredible. I especially liked the Diego Velazquez pieces and some of the Goyas, and of course there was a lot by El Greco, too.

After the Prado I took a power nap to prepare for the late eating schedule that is popular here in Spain. When a group of Abroadco girls went to Barcelona a couple weeks ago, they said people were just arriving at the restaurant when they finished eating at 11! Haley, Karinne, and I found a Middle Eastern restaurant and had a leisurely, not too expensive dinner, accompanied by a belly dancing performance (we had no idea that was included). Then we found a crowded bar and sipped mojitos (what else?).

Over the course of the night it became clear to us how silly our previous complaints about French smokers were. Spain, unlike France, doesn’t have a law prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants. And besides that, it seems even more popular here. Maybe it’s the difference between a big, bustling city like Madrid and a small, bourgeois city like Aix, but the smoke was unavoidable. Later, when I was waiting for my bus out of Madrid, I found it odd that some people were waiting outside way before their buses had arrived at the platform. Then I noticed the sign “Prohibido de fumar” (smoking prohibited) in the indoor waiting area. It was barely 40 degrees out!

My second day in Madrid I struck out on my own for an ambitious walking tour…or wander. First, I found the El Rastro flea market, a huge weekly event where vendors sell clothes, electronics, books, housewares, everything. It was drizzling when I left the hostel, and when I was approaching where I thought the market should be I was a little anxious that the weather might discourage vendors. I shouldn’t have worried. They were there in full force. It was the biggest market I’ve ever been to, stretching the length of probably 8 city blocks. I managed to buy a few things (sorry, can’t tell you what) even with my absolutely awful Spanish–Combien? Y ésta?

Next up was the Plaza Mayor, where on nice days well-to-do locals sit out at cafés and restaurants in the grand square. I, however, grabbed a cheap lunch of grilled shrimp at a cafeteria on the periphory. It’s too bad the weather wasn’t nicer, but it was still an impressive square.

I got a little lost on the way to the Royal Palace, but eventually found my way there. I’m really glad I decided to go there; originally it wasn’t on my must-do list. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside (this seems to be a trend in Spanish museums and tourist attractions), but it was incredible. Walls covered with silk and damask, even a room constructed completely with perfectly joined pieces of sculpted procelain. Too many chandeliers to count, all suspended from what appeared to be silk ribbons (okay, they were actually just steel rods covered in beautiful fabric, but the illusion was convincing). Then there were the humongous area rugs, the tapestries on the walls, and the gorgeous furniture. Definitely worth the time.

On my way to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, I walked right into the bustling heart of Madrid. A girl in my IEFEE group who had been to Madrid before said it might be dead on a Sunday, but that’s not what I found. Ever since I’ve seen it, I’ve been trying to think how to characterize Madrid. Comparing it to any American city wouldn’t be accurate or just, but it is definitely grittier than the other cities I’ve seen in Europe so far. Every city has its not so great parts, but at least architecturally, the beautiful and old bumps up against the unrefined and new in the center of Madrid, more so than in Paris, I think. Also, it’s the first city I’ve visited so far this trip that hasn’t been a Mediterranean city. So no more yellow and orange buildings with blue shutters, more brickwork and mansard roofs.

My last stop for the day was the Thyssen-Bornemisza. I highly recommend this museum, because it works for art officianados and us laypeople. The collections cover all the major periods. They have the famous pieces of minor artists and the relatively unknown pieces of major artists, which makes for a less predictable experience. I enjoyed the impressionist selections, of course, and some of the expressionist stuff. Also, they had a good amount of North American painting. I know absolutely nothing about North American painting, but I came out of this museum wishing I did, wanting to know more.

Before I headed to the bus station for my 1:30am bus (don’t ask), I made myself a pasta with pesto dinner in the hostel kitchen. Then checked out, hailed a cab, and prepared for a loooong ride to Sevilla. But I’m here! It’s gross and rainy, but I’m here in a very nice hostel, in what seems to be an interesting and beautiful city.
Stay tuned! More adventures from flamencoland to follow. And pictures, once I get back to Aix on Thursday.
Maggie B.