July 5, 2018 at 7:20 pm (Uncategorized)

That’s the number of skeletons believed to be piled within Paris’ subterranean Catacombes, about 70 ft. below the cities’ bustling streets. I’d read about this place before, but it’s hard to visualize without actually witnessing room after room of skeletons dating to the late-1700s, piled in organized formations floor to (low) ceiling.

I’m glad we bought advance tickets (Hayley’s, at 14, was only 5 euro); the folks in the line adjacent to ours at the museum’s entrance were told they’d have a two-hour wait. The line snaked around the corner. Fortunately for them, today was slightly cooler. Paris had been sweltering this week, but today it didn’t hit 80 degrees F.

The Catacombes had in the early 17th century been tunnels quarried for their limestone. They also served as aqueducts. Long came the 18th century and since France didn’t have enough on its (chipped) plate — with the French Revolution of 1796, pestilence, and sorrow — Paris’ cemeteries literally began to overflow with bodies. Qua faire? Why, convert the erstwhile underground mines into an ossuary, of course!

A priest consecrated the narrow, dark, constantly-57 degrees F snaking tunnels in 1796. From that year — through to 1814 — workers began at nightfall the process of removing citizens’ remains from the overburdened cemeteries and carting ultimately 6,000,000 skeletons to their second, final resting place.

I can imagine exhausted workers carting bones under cover of night from all over Paris to the present-day Catacombes and simply dumping their charges (many no longer even containing their marrow) into the tunnels. (That’s what I’d have done.) They likely were just tossed beneath the streets’ surfaces. At some point, however, the bones were stacked into respectful, if not artful, walls. One section even has skulls placed in a heart shape, with arm, leg, and possibly rib bones arrayed all around folks’ detached heads, to shore them up and maintain the interesting formation.

To say visiting the macabre museum was a Paris highlight might sound odd, but it’s a clear second.

The top were the two days I got to sweat around Paris with both Alyssa and Hayley. With the exception of paying for meals and caffeine, I mainly stepped back while they enjoyed their reunion after nearly three weeks away from one another; Alyssa was on a high school exchange program in Brittany before her group’s tour ended in Paris, and Hayley and I have been a traveling duo since mid-June. Both girls constantly interrupted one another with yet another anecdote about their experiences. The irony (hypocrisy?) of course is that while they had both on their own come to recognize that Americans can make themselves overly obvious when abroad (say, due to tone of voice, mannerisms, selfie-stick choices, and/or Starbucks addiction), they spent a lot of time chatting at the top of their lungs and drawing many stares. #merica!

A_and_H on metro


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Louvre lemmings

July 4, 2018 at 8:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Hayley had created a bit of a Paris bucket list, thanks to the time spent in French class learning about one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world. (I haven’t seen many capital cities, to be honest, but this blog is pretty clear about my bias.)

Notre Dame, le Pont Neuf, le Centre Pompidou, Place de la Concorde, l’Arc de Triomphe, des Champs Elyesees, Eiffel Tower.

And the Louvre. But let’s be frank: my 14-year-old is in desperate need of an art-appreciation class and so seeing much of what the Louvre has on display was not on her bucket list. Really, only the Mona Lisa was.

Given the way in which the Louvre is organized, Hayley is among the majority of people who trek to the former royal palace, mill about on its tremendous plaza like blind mice with no brain in their heads whatsoever, figure out eventually how to actually enter the museum via I.M. Pei’s stunning pyramid, and then make a bee line to Da Vinci’s roughly postage-stamp size original of La Jaconde.

Like lemmings, tourists follow the only well-marked series of signs in the entire Louvre to at last slink into the room that houses the Mona Lisa. The tourists’ tongues were a Tower of Babel, but language from the mouth didn’t matter. Only the language of the sharp elbow succeeded in communicating the desire to get as close as possible to the Mona Lisa, hung behind thick glass and heavily guarded by security personnel.

I had once seen the Mona Lisa before; my parents took my sister and me to Paris 33 years ago. I remember much less of a mob scene (though there still were hoards). I remember walking back and forth in front of Mona, watching to see if she really did follow me with her eyes. She did. And that’s part of her mystery and mystique.

Today there was no such opportunity to gain this perspective. In the middle of a crush of global gawkers (most of them taking selfies with sly Mona), Hayley looked up at me plaintively and said, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”

She eventually elbowed her own way to the front of the crowd and snapped the pictures she’d hoped to. We then un-lemminged ourselves and started to seek out a few key pieces housed in the Louvre. One that I might have seen more than three decades ago but had no recollection of is the Code of Hammurabi. While the Mona Lisa is guarded like Fort Knox, it was very hard to find museum personnel anywhere else; it felt like being in Macy’s with a burning question about a sale item. And we didn’t know where to find the Babylonian treasure believed to date to 1754 B.C.E.

Eventually we came upon a museum employee. He was very helpful and explained the Code’s room name, number, and pointed it out on our map. Soon, however, after walking past a Delacroix exhibit, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Jean-Louis David pieces larger than our Paris Airbnb, we realized we were lost.

We found another employee.

“Tsk,” he tsked. “That room is closed today,” he said.

“What? It’s on the museum’s top-10 must-see items and it’s in a room that’s closed?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” He then proceeded to rustle in his pockets; he brought out about five pieces of folded-up paper. Each indicated the schedule of open versus closed rooms for each day of the week. “Oui,” he confirmed. “The Code of Hammurabi is in a closed room today. In fact,” he went on, “the room we’re in now [with ancient sarcophagi surrounding us] usually is closed, but since it’s cool down here, we’ve opened it up to help with air circulation throughout the museum.”

Mm-hm. And thus ended our Louvre tour. It was just long enough that I had a full bladder. We were desperate to exit the sauna-like conditions of the museum (Hayley wondered aloud how the heat isn’t a risk to the store of art). We ascended into an adjacent mall, equipped with toilets and everything. Like a lemming, I followed the women into the proper line in the bathroom. Its walls were lined with designer toilet paper in colors not available in nature and a worker was spritzing out every stall after every single use. “Madame,” a forceful woman at the register said, catching my attention, “first you must pay.”

“How much?”

“1.70 euro” (roughly $3)

This lemming took one expensive tinkle before definitively exiting the compound, likely for the last time.

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Morocco — hoo boy

July 2, 2018 at 6:07 pm (Uncategorized)

When Gilles said he’d love to take Hayley and me to Morocco, I’d thought we’d won the lottery. We’d get the chance to visit a North African and majority-Muslim country, two experiences I’ve hoped to have for some time. I hope to offend no one with my candor: I hope never to return to a Muslim-majority country.

I’d brought a head scarf to appear respectful of women’s custom of covering their hair. I brought another ample, lightweight scarf to use around my shoulders and bosom so I still could wear a tank top and remain somewhat modestly dressed on top. I brought a pair of shorts (that hits mid-thigh), one dress (that hits just above the knee), and one pair of pants. At the end of our four-day trip to three different cities in Morocco, my pants were filthy and the shorts hadn’t been worn.

Here’s why they remained in my travel bag.

We knew it would be HOT. Hayley brought shorts and jeans. We started out our first day in Fez, and within about two minutes, Hayley, clad in shorts, looked at me and said, “I feel so uncomfortable; I need to go put on my pants.” Everyone to a person — man, woman, and child — stared, and they stared hard, like they’d never seen a leg before. We were (naked) fish out of water.

At that moment, I was wearing my lightweight pants and my modesty scarf. I took Hayley aside and told her to take my scarf and tie it around her waist so it would hang down at least to her knees, more like a sarape than a real skirt. She did so, and we went on with our day, but it was a stressful experience. Even with her calves showing — and my ankles showed beneath my slightly cropped pant legs — everyone stared. The covered — and uncovered — women regarded us with disapproval; the men and teenage boys regarded Hayley with lust and me with interest. It was so uncomfortable. While I actually felt very safe (because no one tried touching us), Hayley felt threatened. For her, this feeling did not abate during our entire stay (first Fez, then Rabat, and at last Casablanca); for me, by Casablanca, I’d gotten more used to the disapproving looks and was able to ignore them to the point where I took a jog along the Atlantic — in running shorts — our final day there. Very early in the morning. With sunglasses on so I could avoid any visible eye contact.

While in Fez, we toured the Old Medina (souk/shuk/market). Our initial plan was to take a solo tour of the internecine streets (of which there are nearly 1,000 off the center) and just absorb the environment. Soon, we were being followed by a very slender man who talked at us in no fewer than four languages: Arabic, English, French, and Spanish. “You want a tour? I arrange a tour for you with my friend.” (He actually referred to his “friend” as “brother,” which, I picked up, is simply a direct translation from the Arabic where men, at least, refer to friends as family. This I loved.) Gilles, Hayley, and I conferred: We didn’t want to get suckered into a tour; we’d walk the Medina on our own.

We turned to head in the opposite direction. Our new best friend was there, speaking in only French and English, having quickly realized he’d make headway only in those two. Gilles finally got in his face and said the equivalent of, “Leave me the f*ck alone.” Phew, Hayley and I thought; we’re on our own and will see what we see. We Three Musketeers (read: targets) walked across a huge central plaza, surrounded by very high walls, likely made from clay. We exited…only to find our new best friend zooming to a stop directly in front of us. He’d radioed his “brother” and had him on the back of his little moped. The negotiations recommenced as Khalim, a short, slender Berber with a beard, terrific smile, and slight gap between his two front teeth, basically started acting as if we’d already hired him. So, then we started negotiating the time of our tour. We settled on an hour, two at the outer limit.

After nearly five hours with truly charming and informative Khalim, we were exhausted, starving, and filled with knowledge and experiences we otherwise never would have had, had we not been strong armed into his tour of the Jewish section of the Old Medina (including its synagogue), a pottery atelier, a tannery (sniffing mint was the only way to survive the stench), an argan-oil producer, and, at last, a restaurant that served the most succulent carrots I’ve ever eaten. That’s right: The carrots were succulent. The prices were, too, (by Moroccan standards), but it’s 10 Morrocan dirham to the dollar, so it really worked out quite well.

I’d already known that Morocco had been a place where Jews and Muslims lived side-by-side, helped one another, and loved one another. I also know that the past no longer is prologue. Khalim got very animated when he told us about the Jews’ and Muslims’ relationships; I knew he was referring to the distant past and not the present. He was simply recounting historic information from a proverbial script. When I asked to see the small synagogue, then he knew I was Jewish. At first, I was a little nervous, but then he reminded me of the two religions’ strong historic ties, and I felt at ease and also proud as he was the one to show me the 400-year-old Torah in the synagogue’s aron ha’kodesh/ark and the staircase to descend to the tiny, slightly dank mikvah/ritual bath.

In fact, during our Moroccan journey, it was apparent Moroccans view themselves as very friendly toward the Jews — the Jews of their past, that is. But no longer is that the case. They love soccer (and collectively mourned the Moroccan team’s World Cup loss that occurred when we were in Rabat); they hate Trump (so we had fun poking fun on more than a few occasions at the U.S. president with Moroccans); and they hate the Jews.

Case in point: During our second and final evening in Casablanca, I’d decided to go into the old city’s Medina while Hayley and Gilles each did their own thing at the hotel. I didn’t want to miss the chance to hit another market and see another small synagogue. Off I went, alone, in a taxi. I felt brave, and it was easy, and I relaxed (despite the lack of seat belts in the “petit taxi rouge” and the crazy-ass way in which folks drive, cross the streets, and even still ride donkeys in lieu of vehicles). In the Medina, I purchased a leather wallet and got to talking to the kind proprietor (who respectfully looked me only in the eye when talking) and his father-in-law, as well. The latter was an overly enthusiastic gentleman proud to be 75 years old and very happy to be Muslim. After my purchase and learning I’m American, he invited me to stay for tea.

He left the shop abruptly and, upon his return, had a table and chairs in hand, as well as sugared mint-tea service for four. Soon, a fourth joined us. He had one tooth left in his head and spoke fluent British English (even using “rubbish” for “trash”). The hot tea was sweet and delicious and the mint flavor was refreshing despite the heat. Soon, after I’d shared that I’d visited the Grand Mosque earlier in the day, the conversation turned to religion. “What religion are you?” asked One Tooth. I demurred. So he commenced guessing.





[Pause] “Nothing?”

“Je suis juive,” I admitted. The three men surrounding me didn’t miss a beat: “There is a small synagogue around the corner from here! There used to be so many Jews who lived in this part of town, side by side with Muslims!”

After sharing tea and sweet dried fruits (which One Tooth had brought and explained that it’s the first thing they eat to end the long days of Ramadan), I wound down two narrow streets to find the synagogue. The rabbi was in. He detected my accent and asked my nationality. Turns out he’s Canadian and splits his time between Casablanca and Montreal, so we finished our visit in English.

He started to go on and on (and on) about his love for Trump and how terrific he is for the U.S. “I hope you’re not a Democrat,” he said, after a number of minutes of uncensored adulation of a leader I detest. “I am,” I responded. I thought that would shut up this Rabbi Chaim Pinto. Rather, it bolstered this non-American’s desire to tell the American more about how great the president is for the country to which he does not belong. I cut my visit short. I was disgusted, and I hated feeling that way in a synagogue, in the presence of the Talmud, plaques in Hebrew, and a ner tamid/ever-lasting light.

Without much trouble, I found a main street and hailed a taxi to return to the hotel. The taxi driver also wanted to know where I was from and was pleased to rail against Trump. I relaxed. He shared, too, his sympathy for the Palestinians, which I took as more than a fair assessment from the citizen of a Muslim country. Then he went on to proclaim that September 11 was a huge tragedy for America. And that it was entirely the fault of the Jews. Uncertain I’d properly understood his French (some Moroccans are more easily understandable than others), I tried to ask without total shock in my voice, “You’re saying the Jews are completely responsible for the 11th of September?”

“Yes, completely. It’s all on the internet. Go and read it. It’s their fault.”

It had been a very long time since I hoped I didn’t “look Jewish.” With shock and awe, I just leaned away from the driver as he continued to spout conspiracy theories he desperately wanted (needed) to believe and awaited my return to the hotel.

The next morning, when our plane lifted off from the airport in Casablanca — and I was clad in shorts and no modesty scarf — I actually exhaled with relief. I had a good time and I learned a lot in Morocco. I never will return.




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French car rental

June 30, 2018 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized)

Florence – the kind and clever matriarch of our wonderful host family – told me months ago to rent a car well in advance of our arrival to the south of France. It’s summertime, she explained; folks from England and all over other regions in France would descend upon this southern corner of the country and snap up all the available cars. She was right; when I clicked to the site to rent a car, many already had been reserved. Still, I secured a small, zippy four-door manual Renault for a very good price.

We made it to France, and then two days later we went to the car-rental agency for our scheduled pickup. There, Florence sat by my side to ensure I understood everything about the car and what the company, E.Leclerc, expected upon returning its sporty vehicle. At the time, only one small hiccup presented itself. After I’d reserved the car, Hayley and I learned from Gilles, the family patriarch and lover of North Africa, that he’d take us with him on a four-day trip to three cities in Morocco. So I told the rental-agency employee I’d turn in the car four days earlier than scheduled and I’d like a refund for those days. She was kind, but dense. When she said, “It’s probably not a problem but I’ll ask my boss,” I knew I’d be paying the full fare. But hope springs eternal.

She explained that for the car return, it’s the client’s responsibility to clean the vehicle inside and out (“Just a few quick wipes will do,” she’d said) but no need to refill the tank with gas. OK, I thought, so the rules are the inverse of what we do in the States: We don’t wash rental cars prior to their return; and we always refill the tanks.

Off Hayley and I went: We drove a total of 900 km (nearly 560 miles) throughout this region, from the highest point of the Pyrenees, to a prehistoric grotto/cave, to Toulouse, and to Foix, which borders the principality of Andorra.

On our final day with the car, we vacuumed it out and, at a do-it-yourself station near the rental return, we gave it a good washing. Brush, soap, steady stream of water. The proverbial shower Hayley gave me with the powerful hose felt so nice because it was about 90 degrees out.

Then, we met Florence at the rental agency. A different representative – Lionel, whose nametag was turned upside down (the first sign of his professionalism) — had us trail behind him as he went to inspect our wash-up job. Much tsk-tsking preceded his telling us just how dirty the car remained, and he pointed out here, here, and here that needed to be rewashed. Oh, and you need to fill the tank. Oh, and we can’t offer you a refund for the days you didn’t drive the car. Still, we thought we’d try that argument again after the additional wash.

Florence and I returned to the self-wash station, but instead defaulted to the automated wash system adjacent to the sub-par DIY spot. There was a line. Of course. So we sweated in the car while waiting for other folks to spic-and-span theirs. Unlike an automated American car wash – where you drive in to the monstrosity, put your car into neutral, and let the system do its thing – this piece simply was a bright-orange, stand-alone structure with brushes attached to its top and sides. The square machine resembled a Transformer.

One drives the car onto a small metal platform indicating the car is in the proper position for a clean. Then you roll up the windows, get out, lock the doors, and stand back to admire the clever machine working its wonders on your vehicle. (A small audience literally watched – awestruck — as this process took place, over and over again.) The Transformer’s top moved forward and back over the car, all the while its brushes swirled and twirled to return the car to the luster it never possessed in the first place.

Our car shiny as a dime, we then went around the corner to top off the tank. The first pump was out of order. But the woman who’d tried it before us – thus realizing it was not working – never told us it was out of order. I caught her just staring at us as we futzed with the pump, the digital display, and my overused credit card. Then, as we put the pump back on the hook, she said from one aisle over, “It’s broken.” We went to a second pump. Also out of order. The third did the trick. Suddenly, it no longer felt like 90 degrees, but 100.

We returned to the rental-car agency. We waited for monsieur to finish with three clients before he put on his proverbial microscope-like lenses to check out our car. The second wash did the trick. “But,” I told him, “you should know the air conditioning never worked, and I’d like a discount as a result.” He said nothing. He turned and got back in the car. He turned on the A/C system, slowly got out of the car, and said, “Get in.” Implication: “It DOES work, you dummy.” I got in. Yes, the cool air that we never got to experience our entire week of driving in 90-degree heat indeed was blowing forth from the vents. He then lectured us briefly on the proper number of buttons we’d needed to press and dials we’d needed to turn to work the cooling system. “No discount. It works.”

“Also, I simply cannot refund you for the days you no longer need the car because you’d reserved it online.”


“So, I cannot rent it out, now, until the day you’d said you were turning it in.”

“But there’s a woman here who needs a car at the last minute, and mine now is ready to go.”


This circular conversation went around and around a couple times, just for fun. My clothes had dried out from the initial car wash; so, too, had my sense of humor and patience.

Yes, I still love this country. The wine I drank that evening with dinner really hit the spot.

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June 24, 2018 at 5:55 pm (Uncategorized)

Hayley loved Toulouse, and I felt like the proud parent showing off a new baby. I basically was a baby when I lived in Toulouse, from 1992 to 1993; I turned 21 in the south of France. Returning for the first time in more than 25 years was exciting, and I was nervous about it, too. Would I remember where my favorite spots were? Would the feeling I had of being in a second home return, or would I feel quite removed from a place in which I spent only a single school year? Would the place even look the same?

As we drove into the center of town — to the Place du Capitole, since Toulouse once was the capital of the southern region of France — so many buildings looked the same, whereas others no longer were there; updated structures had been installed in their place. It looked, too, like the metro system was being expanded, from the train station on the opposite bank of the Garonne to the center of town. Tons of street construction made our way slow-going. There was so much construction, in fact, that we needed to park in a garage; there simply was no street parking.

Hayley was willing to try the few key things I’d talked about incessantly for weeks, and showing her around made me feel simultaneously like a college student again and like a wizened widow telling the youth how things used to be. For example, I’d remembered my route from the center of town back to the apartment where I’d lived; it was a path I’d trod every day of the week, as I’d taken a bus to and from the icky suburb where the Universite de Toulouse stuck its liberal arts program, so the important things — like poli-sci, law, and economics — could enjoy a lovely building in town. What a time warp it was for me as we walked past Le Place Wilson and observed some stores and restaurants that clearly were quite new — tons more Northern African eats than a quarter century ago, for instance — whereas others, like Le Ver Luisant (the lit-up worm), still were open for business.

Around the corner from the apartment I’d rented from an older couple who wasn’t terribly nice, there had been a phone booth where I was to make all my phone calls. In its place today is a lively restaurant; I showed Hayley the exact spot where I used to need to leave the apartment to place any phone call I needed to make. “Oh, right, you didn’t have cell phones.” “Not even close,” I told her. I’d felt like a thief in the night when I needed to make a call after sundown. The feeling came rushing back just standing on the spot.

In addition to getting a $6 coffee at the very fun and well-known cafe Le Florida — which is much larger than I’d remembered — we had lunch at Le Sherpa, the best creperie on the planet, I’m convinced. For it wasn’t just its inexpensive food that was so wonderful, but its ambiance and the fact it was a real hangout for university students (on a tight budget and craving something warm, melted, and all wrapped up in a tasty packet made of flour and eggs). While sitting at a table for four right up against the kitchen, I told Hayley stories about hanging out in the creperie until late at night. Turns out our waiter had started working at Le Sherpa — when not working on his photography career — around the same time I lived in Toulouse. So we figured we’d met one another a quarter century before. At that moment, time felt like it had no meaning, like I’d opened a door in 1993 and stepped into 2018.

Hayley even humored me my desire to go into the post office I’d frequented; I always was writing and sending letters to my roommates, my parents, my boyfriend (hi Dave!). Inside, there used to be a few phone booths for private calls away from the public, the rain, and the cold on crummy days. I’d always steeled myself before approaching the postal workers; they were the rudest of the rude. I needed to know if there’d been any personnel turnover since my final day in Toulouse. We walked into the post office and, today, there is an information booth with an actual person manning it, and she was very kind, responding to my questions. We then went over to the worker from whom we could buy stamps and send letters. At first, I asked for six stamps, and he started to count them. Then I said, “I’ve changed my mind. Ten, please.” You’d have thought I asked that he also prepare my dinner and clean up afterward. Seems the job requirements for La Poste de Toulouse hasn’t changed since ’92.


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So French

June 23, 2018 at 3:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  • Hayley already had gotten the OK to be Ines’ special guest at her school for a couple days. Upon arriving at the principal’s office before her first morning, the principal seemed entirely unprepared for Hayley’s visit. She began rattling off to Ines’ mom in very rapid-fire French and with furrowed brow (indicating to Hayley there was a problem…or two) that she needed not only to have her passport (which she had on her person, knowing in advance this was required) but also her insurance card. I broke in, saying I had the card in the car; they could make a copy of it right now. The principal turned to Florence, saying, “Does she understand French?”  I got her attention by saying, oui, I understood, and would she like that I get the card now? She paused a beat and said, “Non. Tomorrow is fine.” Done with her initial tirade, she excused Hayley and Ines to class and then turned around abruptly, called a hangdog-looking student into her office, began yelling at him, and slammed shut the door behind her.
  • In class, Hayley told me, the students must stand at their desks before the teachers enter, bid them hello, and offer them their seat. Such respect! Then, Hayley continued, they talk among themselves during much of class. Such disrespect!
  • I love the look I receive as folks try to decipher my accent. Slightly furrowed brow, eyes boring in to mine. I love, too, the different ways the French ask the question, “Where are you from?” There are a number of ways to ask, and I find their socio-economic station in life dictates how they do so. Regardless, I’ve turned it into a game; instead of just saying, “Je suis Americaine,” or “Je viens des Etats-Unis,” I’ve said, “Guess.” Turns out I could be American, Canadian, Quebecois, English, or — my favorite — Dutch. Because I’m a very tall blonde on a bike. Not.
  • Today in Toulouse, Hayley and I walked into a Toulousain tchotchke shop (stuff I love). I selected a few items to give as gifts once back in Portland. The madame looked at me square in the eye and said, “I will wrap these, making them into a gift. For a gift that is not wrapped is not a gift.”
  • Also in Toulouse, I took Hayley to the wonderful cafe, Le Florida, I’d remembered with such fondness from my year at the local university. A very aloof waiter at last made his way to our table. It was starting to approach 80 degrees at noon, and I asked if we could order an iced cappuccino and an iced tea. Clearly believing himself a waiter at a cafe along the Champs Elysees, he barely made eye contact and responded, “Sure, but you’ll have to wait.” I told him that was no problem and he raised his eyebrows and strutted away in his tight pants and crisp white dress shirt. He returned in just a few minutes, which I thought was pretty good, since we prepared ourselves to wait a bit. He dropped our beverages on the table and again strutted away. Steam rose from both our mugs. I touched them. I looked at Hayley. I said, “I guess he’d meant we’d have to wait … for the drinks to cool themselves in the heat of the day.” She said, “Don’t they have ice?”
  • World Cup, World Cup, World Cup.
  • There is absolutely no respect for speed limits, and tailgating should be a federal offense but instead is high art. At 130 km — or more.
  • Why are many roads here as narrow as bike lanes?
  • Speaking of rules of the road, while driving for the first time in our zippy manual Renault, an emergency vehicle with blue lights flashing approached from the opposite direction. We were driving down the narrow, two-way streets of the small town of St. Gaudens. I pulled over and stopped, of course. Ines, in the back seat, yelled, “What are you doing?!” The guy behind me stopped suddenly and made the WTF sign in my review mirror. As the driver of the vehicle approached, he, too, gave me the WTF sign. “We don’t do that here,” Ines informed me. So I learned the hard way.
  • We met a few folks today, waiting for Ines to finish a horseback-riding lesson. They were so intrigued we were Americans, as they’re used to the English in this region, but not the specimen we represent. Boy oh boy were they excited to practice their English. And demonstrate they’d clearly never met an American before. “What do you eat? Nothing but hamburgers?” followed by a laugh like that of the French chef in “The Little Mermaid.” But theirs was real.
  • We want to give Siri a French lesson. We’re grateful that she *usually* gets us from point A to point B, but it’s incredibly hard to follow her verbal prompts because her French sucks. Case in point: Siri directed us earlier today toward the signs that indicate the town of Foix. That’s pronounced roughly like “fwah.” To Siri, though, it came out “Foycks.” Imagine how she’s been doing with certain street names, like “Avenue Marechal Foch.”
  • Hayley has three recommendations for the French: 1) install screen doors; they do wonders keeping out flies and the like; 2) install actual air conditioning; it does wonders keeping people comfortable; and 3) neuter your dogs.

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A’ l’ecole

June 21, 2018 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

Ines’ class of fellow sweaty 12-year-old French kids all thought Hayley looked like Jennifer Lopez. Perhaps their vision was warped by the heat made worse by the complete lack of an air-conditioning system (it’s in the high 80s here). Regardless, Hayley potentially just had the best school day of the entire year. That’s pretty good for a school year that, at a small Catholic institution in the town of St. Gaudens, lasted exactly one full day (two-hour lunch included). (And guess who’s been converted to school days with a two-hour lunch?)

This region in southern France attracts many English folks, so they’re no novelty. But Americans rarely visit down here, so the middle school students were very excited to meet an American kid. VERY excited. And I think I know why: Hayley definitely has the 411 on the swear words.  These students have spent years watching, hearing, listening to American films, rap, pop, and more, and of course it’s all littered with the most — er — colorful parts of our language. I’m so proud…

Turns out Hayley really set a few kids straight who were having a hard time properly using mother f*cker. What a worthwhile visit she had. Again, I’m so proud.

Coincidentally, Ines’ final class of the day was English, taught by an attractive woman with mousey-blonde hair who is half-Quebequoise and half-French; she grew up bilingual and was very happy to speak English during a slice of her day. As I’d believed, and as she confirmed, not one fellow adult in the school speaks a lick of English, so she practically broke out in a sweat chatting with Hayley and me this afternoon. (Or was it the lack of A/C?)

Hayley had been asked to speak about herself — “slowly!” — and I’d been asked if I, too, would come in, to talk about my profession (you know, doing laundry, dishes, and the like…). I’d been told to be sure to speak slowly, too. Until I arrived in Ines’ English classroom, where the teacher reminded Hayley to speak “slowly!” and then turned to me and asked that I talk about myself and my work in French. What, me panic? The heat didn’t help, nor did the fact I’d chosen to wear a tank-top-style blouse. Dommage. Turns out I did OK, but I was definitely not the focus (nor was life after school).

The students had the chance to ask Hayley anything they wanted to, in English. It began as a very short Q&A session. The teacher then jumped in and did a great job of reminding the students of all the possible words they could use to ask their American visitor questions.  And so a fun, lively class period ensued. Imagine the shock when the French students learned Hayley eats carrots with peanut butter; races through a 30-minute lunch period; lives a six-hour drive from Northern California (the teacher showed them a map and they were reminded of the enormity of our country versus theirs); and has visited the Eiffel Tower, which many of the students had yet to visit.

As expected, one kid even made a Trump joke (bravo!), and when the subject of pizza came up, the students really lit up. As they did when Hayley confessed to not liking fruit and shared with the class our pets’ names. Sunshine and Jacky really had a quick moment in the French sun. But back to the 30-minute lunch.

Standing next to Hayley in the students’ sparse classroom on the (hot) second floor, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when each of the students gasped — gasped! — learning that what they’d heard about how American students suffer in school was indeed the truth (and not fake news). They had so many questions about the length of the lunch period; they simply could not imagine how one even eats during a 30-minute lunch! (I did share, however, that most students come home starving to death and essentially eat two lunches in a day. But of course, they said. Bien sur.)

Hayley didn’t have the most successful 8th-grade year socially, so when we got in the car this afternoon, she was the happiest that I’d seen the entire year, no exaggeration. For a kid who requires tons of alone time (including during the school day) to get through the day, it was refreshing and fun for me to experience not just a happy girl, but a giddy girl. (Nothing like having carte blanche to say mother f*cker all day, I suppose.)

In other news, I visited a castle today in the medieval village of Mauvezin. Its construction began in 1083 and offers a 360-degree view of the Pyrenees beyond and the unobstructed, green valley and rolling hills below. But its interest and import paled in comparison to my experience for a mere hour this afternoon with Hayley.



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June 21, 2018 at 9:04 am (Uncategorized)

I lived in Toulouse for a year when I was a college junior. That was 26 years ago; I’d not returned to this region since I left “La Ville Rose” in a blaze of glory (read: I wrote my hosts a nasty gram and slipped it in their apartment’s mail box as I left for the airport my last day there in 1993). The de Castelbajacs never looked me up in the States and so never gave me the what-for I deserved. (They were kinda rude people. Turns out they were simply very typical of the French bourgeoisie and, thus, I should have known or learned in the course of my year that their behavior toward me, an outsider, was “nature.”) Truth be told, I’d been a little nervous about revisiting this region in southern France, concerned there’d be bad blood in the air.

I’m happy to report from a village called Bordes-de-Riviere that the bad-blood concern is unfounded.

It’s an amazing irony that the open and kind French family with whom we’d done a home exchange in 2009 now lives in l’Occitaine and no longer in the northern region of Pas de Calais, where we’d first met nearly a decade ago. Hayley and I were able to grab at the opportunity to come stay with the Millescamps in their new home that’s a half-hour drive from Spain and one hour from Toulouse.

So many memories from my year here have come flooding back since we arrived a few days ago. Particularly the “accent du sud.” One never learns this southern accent in French class; rather, we learn the Parisian way of pronouncing words. But here, where a language called “Oc” in the Middle Ages was the lingua franca, traces of that tongue still exist in today’s accented words. For example, the English “-ang” sound at the end of many words in southern French replace what otherwise would be a nasal finish. “Matin” — meaning morning — where the “n” would be dropped in more typical pronunciation, becomes “matang” where the final sound is strongly enunciated, twangy. “Bien” becomes “biyang.” More than a quarter century ago, I could barely understand words like these. Today — as I had after I’d lived in Toulouse for about six months — I seek out the accent and love hearing it.

Ines, only 12 and in this region for a year now, has begun picking up the twang in her speech; her older brother, Hugo, 16, hasn’t done so and likely never will.

Other memories come rushing back, but they’re just more generally “French” than of this region in the foothills of the Pyrenees. For example, take the French work day. If one can call it a “day,” that is. Gilles, our host family’s patriarch, came home from work yesterday at noon. Hayley looked at me and said, “What is Gilles doing home? It’s not dinner time!” I told her, “Remember, Hayley, the French often take an hour or more for lunch and businesses close their doors.” She’d learned that in school but never had experienced it. She said, “No wonder the French get so little done.” She’s 14 and knows this already. But it sure is nice to have a leisurely lunch every day.

She goes to school with Ines tomorrow; on Thursdays, the students enjoy a two-hour lunch period. Hayley is so nervous about what the hell she’ll do during a 120-minute “lunch” period during which, at her school, she’s used to pounding her meal in roughly 10 minutes and then returning to class after a brief period of repose. Ines, by contrast, told us how much she prefers her two-hour lunch period to the days she only gets one hour to dine, relax with friends, not be in class.

While I feel more at ease here than were I visiting for the first time, I still really stick out. Example: I took Hayley to a Lidl, a German grocery store chain that’s also all over France. It was a bit of a crummy one in a village called Capvern les Bains (I believe because it used to be home to a thermal bath, as were many villages in this part of the country). Its lettuces were wilty and even its cheese and yogurt selections — usually plentiful like pasta aisles in Italian grocery stores — were a bit scant. We were on the hunt for peanut butter, of course.

Unlike when I lived in Toulouse many moons ago, peanut butter today is somewhat widely available. Not finding it in this wanting Lidl, I marched up to the cashier (who had a strong southern accent) and asked in my clearly American accent if he sold peanut butter. “Non.” Oh well — we’d try again at another store. We thanked him and turned to leave. Through the emergency exit door. It was marked “secours,” which is a word I know, but to which I’d paid no attention. It was the door closest the cash registers and wasn’t locked. In America, emergency exit doors are locked, right? And peanut butter is available everywhere, right?

The clients who’d been behind us in line gasped and slapped their hands over their ears, due to the screeching alarm that indeed had immediately gone off. The cashier just stuck an index finger into his left ear and kept scanning groceries with his free hand.

We slinked to our car, feeling very much the dumb American. As we got into our tiny but zippy manual Renault, we could hear the alarm still. We were sure it soon would turn off. Or not. To avoid it, we noticed before speeding off in a sweat, a Lidl employee had stepped outside, deciding it was the perfect moment for a cigarette break. Or perhaps simply the end of her work day.


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Tempio maggiore israelitico di Firenze

July 10, 2017 at 7:29 am (Uncategorized)

I love seeing synagogues (or where synagogues once existed) wherever I travel to, be it Ashland, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M., Ribeauvillé, France, or Florence, Italy. They tie me to Jews around the States and the world, and each one has its own unique quality (or qualities) that I like to discover.

Some Jewish houses of worship outside the U.S. are open for tours, such as the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest (whose tour and grounds are spectacular and moving). Most, though, don’t offer tours, and they always are locked, have doors festooned with security cameras, and/or armed military or police personnel guarding the grounds.

I get it, but I hate it. I hate it because Jews’ temples and synagogues – like most of the world’s churches and cathedrals – should be places that are open for those who’d like to enter, to learn, discover, or even pray. For synagogues that are heavily guarded (inside and out) and open to the public, such as the Tempio maggiore israelitico di Firenze in Florence, they should beckon to the public, not turn away the curious.

Unfortunately, the latter was our experience at Florence’s glorious-looking synagogue.

I knew that at Jerusalem’s Kotel (the Western Wall), women and girls must dress modestly. That means covering legs and shoulders, and males must cover their heads. So I’d brought wraps for us ladies and a kippah (skull cap) for Dave.

At the Kotel, there are people prepared for the unprepared: They thrust kippot at the males and wraps at the “immodestly dressed” women for shrouding shoulders and legs. One may not like it, but these items (which are free and must be returned) ensure one is ready for visiting Judaism’s holiest site.

At the Duomo in Siena, and at the Vatican in Rome, women must cover as at the Kotel. (Men, however, don’t need to cover their heads). In Siena, volunteers inside the Duomo hand out free Flying Nun-type tablecloth things for women to tie around their necks. (Unflattering and odd to say the least. But their provision is a helpful gesture and appreciated.)

In Rome, just before entering Vatican City, the tour guides and police officers give fair warning to the female tourists about the cover-up dress code that applies once inside the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We knew the rules beforehand and so came prepared with extra layers for each of us gals in the Knudsen family. Always an opportunity for commerce, wraps were hawked by immigrants outside Vatican City’s walls. They weren’t free and definitely weren’t to be returned.

By contrast, at the Tempio in Florence, not one provision was in place to welcome visitors.

From the more centrally located Galleria dell’Accademia, the Knudsen and Jones’ families walked to the Tempio maggiore israelitico di Firenze. Each of us was interested in seeing Florence’s main synagogue, the non-Jews among us included.

Upon arriving, a sign indicates there is a small fee to enter. Only Alyssa and I wanted to pay to play, so we stepped up to the counter to do so. (To its right is a security checkpoint for individuals and bags. And outside the building’s grounds are police officers, their parked vehicles, and also heavily armed military personnel. All of them men.)

The man behind the counter and Plexiglas window took one look at Alyssa and me dressed in tank tops and shorts and said we needed to cover our shoulders and legs. We hadn’t expected this but I had two wraps in my backpack in case the Accedemia on this 95-degree F day was heavily air-conditioned. We wrapped our shoulders and then looked up expectantly at the heavy. He stood up to surveille us.

“No!” he yelled. “You cannot go in.” Alyssa then flounced out, understandably upset she was being kept from something dear to and a part of her solely because of her gender and lack of an extra layer. I held my ground and looked at the guy, quite surprised by his manner and still hoping to gain entry. “But I’m Jewish,” I said by way of explanation. His response: “Then you should know better. This is not a day at the beach!”

I felt like I’d been slapped. Like we all had been. I left shaking and mad. The modest-dress rules were not posted. The personnel offered no wraps. We were dead in the water.

I didn’t appreciate being told I was wearing the equivalent of a bikini and should have known modest dress was required to tour and view a historic place of Jewish worship. More than that, I was angry that easy entry was relegated only to euro-bearing males.

A Jewish house of worship should want to welcome guests (as long as they pass the metal-detector test). How else to foster a lesser sense of “The Other” and a greater sense of the physical and potentially emotional/spiritual beauty that Jewish institutions and Judaism itself offer? The armed-to-the-teeth militia would have swiftly taken care of any crazy meaning ill toward the Tempio (or the adjacent kosher restaurant and Chabad House). Instead, I left with my family and shocked non-Jewish friends feeling like I was the unhinged who’d done the synagogue ill.


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Museum as muse (of chaos)

July 7, 2017 at 4:21 pm (Uncategorized)

I should have known that when I first didn’t receive the promised email confirmation notice from the Uffizi’s online ticket-purchasing site, I should have double-checked we indeed had reserved slots. Home to rooms filled with works by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Titian, and Michelangelo, and wide corridors lined with marble statuary on the floor and portraits near the ceiling, the Uffizi is considered a can’t-miss Florence destination. The Uffizi, on the bank of the Arno River, is listed as one of the top 10 museums on the planet.

I was there once before, in 1993 when a college student; I was very happy to return during this trip with an adult’s perspective. But I was disappointed with the visit. If you’re considering touring the Uffizi during tourist season, skip it. “Hot madhouse” doesn’t describe accurately enough the entirety of our visit.

First, one must follow unclear signage outside the museum to the line for folks with reserved tickets. We eventually found it, but then had to wait in that Tower-of-Babel queue for about 30 minutes, trying to decipher at least 50 other languages, before arriving at the window where we’d receive hard-copy entrance tickets. Uber-organized, I confidently handed the woman behind Plexiglas my printed-out confirmation information. She quickly informed me no such number or family name existed in her database.

I appreciated that she was fluent in English and very patient. But there were many things I didn’t appreciate. Such as that her mic didn’t work, so I literally had to press an ear to the barrier between us to eke out the majority of what she was saying. She kept fixing me with a rather uninterested stare, while repeating that there was nothing she could do for us, our confirmation number wasn’t in the system.

Poking at my phone, I called up an email from the ticketing website noting our confirmed status. I reluctantly handed her my cell through the Plexiglas portal. She scrolled up and down, up and down. Then turned to a colleague who took my phone. He scrolled up and down, up and down. Expressionless, he handed back the phone to the lady, who then returned it to me. I’m sorry that I can’t help you, she continued to intone, looking past me at the next stupid foreigner trying to see tons of uncircumcised penises carved from stone and more portraits of Mary and Baby Jesus than anyone can believe is housed in one building.

Finally, with Randy’s sage (and I’ve-had-enough-of-this) counsel, I requested (re)buying tickets on the spot so we could, at last, tour the museum. Sure you can! the lady responded. (Read: Anything to get you away from me.)

And so she printed tickets and then directed us to the next line in which to wait. Lest you think our first line – which snaked around one outer wall of the building – or this new line were organized affairs, you’d be wrong. All of humanity milled about, looking lost, confused, stupefied, and bent on seeing marble renditions of uncircumcised penises, come hell or high water. (“Hell” = bad choice of words given the religious nature of much of the Uffizi’s art. Scuzi.)

Eventually, we got to enter the Uffizi, go through a metal detector, decide whether or not to select the audio tour (we did. My advice: don’t.), and begin our non-linear, elbow-bumping, staid-air self-guided museum tour.

On the one hand, it was an amazing visit because one gets the privilege of seeing so many influential and historic works in one place, works that otherwise only exist on the pages of art history books. And on the other hand, it’s a frustrating experience, similar to being in the jostling Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. And on the third hand, it can be an enjoyably humorous experience. At a certain point, I simply stood back and observed the other museum-goers.

They wrestled with their recalcitrant audio-tour equipment, which resembled some of the first cell phones (and, if like mine, worked nearly as well). They squinted at placards in Italian and English, dejectedly realizing their native Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Malaysian, Mandarin, etc., didn’t help in their comprehension of what they were looking at. They sat along walls, looking bored as hell, diddling their cell phones. They snapped pictures of The Binding of Isaac, for example, while catching, too, other tourists’ arms, cameras, hats, and butts in the same frame.

Why make this effort? Because seeing 100 versions of The Annunciation in real life can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (As was viewing Michelangelo’s “David” at the nearby Galleria dell’Accademia, which we did two days later.) There is something absolutely irreplaceable about looking directly at some of the world’s most spectacular, original art.

Back in our rental, I thumbed through the owner’s French version of the Uffizi museum book. The room was quiet and had low light. I lounged on a very comfortable couch. Everything we saw at the museum was captioned and explained in straightforward text. I got to the end of the book, closed it, and sighed. Now that was a great Uffizi experience.

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