Friday, September 7, 2012

Beautiful Bayeux

Most of my knowledge of all things France come from the movies and a couple years of high school French. (My main cinematic sources are "Chocolat" and "Beauty and the Beast", and yes, I am somewhat ashamed at this fact.) However, I did find that in the beautiful little French town of Bayeux the streets are cobblestone, the patisseries are brimming with fresh-baked breads and sweets and everyone, everywhere, eagerly offers up a friendly "Bonjour!" when you pass by. Flowers bloom on every windowsill, and no patch of grass goes unadorned by cheerful marigolds and fragrant roses, even the little stone bridge over the river is draped with garlands of flowers. In short, Bayeux has delight and whimsy for days.

We camped for three nights and four days, waking each morning to a car horn blast announcing the arrival of the baguette man, who sold his delicious wares for less than a euro a piece. Such bread you have never had; crunchy crusts give way to reveal the warm fluffiness beneath that manages to be so tasty, and so filling, you could munch only on the bread for breakfast and considered yourself satisfied. I will dream of these baguettes for the rest of my life. We would compliment the bread with cheese, leftover sausage or ham we purchased from the butcher shop the previous day, and perhaps some cocktail onions. (Maybe the cocktail onions sound odd, but I have a serious penchant for all sorts of pickled produce, and the onions are the easiest to transport in their slender jars and they really are quite delicious wrapped in a sliver of ham and tucked into a heel of bread.)

Each day we would rise and feast before ambling into town, generally to gaze at the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral, whose origins date back to 1077. Bayeux, for all of its obviously 19th century charm, is ancient, with its Roman-era roots on display in the form of the remains of a meter-thick rampart in front of the cathedral, built to repel the various barbarian hordes of the time. (Students of history, and players of Warcraft campaigns, of course know that there is no repelling the horde.) Viewed from the outside, the cathedral is very impressive, boasting a neo-Gothic bell tower after centuries of collapse and rebuilding, but the immense inside proves far more intricate and massive that could surmised from its exterior. Every alcove boasted a brilliantly stained glass window overlooking a small chapel dedicated to a saint, many of which were local, and the main hall was home to what felt like dozens of alcoves. The entire history of Christianity was laid out in timeline format, covering all of the rival sects that competed for dominance (Gnostics, Arians, Manicheans, Monatists, etc.) before Pauline Christianity won the favor of Constantine and the overall game at hand. It should be understood that all of these sects, many of which sounds downright impossible or blasphemous to modern Christians, had just as much influence, and as many followers, as any other legitimate sect of the day. Politics and power are the name of every game, including faith, and the history and development of early Christianity is a fascinating study in this fact.

The cathedral was built by a guy named Odo, warrior priest and half brother to William the Conqueror, whose conquest of England and seizure of the throne from the usurper Harold (also known as Henry V, mostly thanks to Shakespeare) is recorded on the famed Bayeux Tapestry. Half a meter high, and seventy meters long, the Bayeux Tapestry is not actually a tapestry (woven wall carpet), but an amazingly intricate embroidery that has been nearly perfectly preserved for almost a thousand years. It recounts, panel by panel, much like a comic book, the events leading up to William's ascension to the English throne. As the victors determine the events of history, it's impossible to know how accurate the tellings of the deeds are, but inclusion of even the most minor of details (for example, how Harold was seized so quickly by Guy de Poitiers after his ship blew off course he didn't have time to put his hose back on) and the overall lack of shit-talking on Harold despite his oath breaking, and throne-stealing lend credibility to the tapestry's recounting of events. It was customary to display the fabric in the Bayeux Cathedral twice a year, making it's enormous length and width more understandable. It felt like we would never see the end of it as it wound through a long dark corridor, our audio guide informing us of the events panel by panel over the pipes and recorders of the music of Middle Ages.

We wanted some more history, something a little more recent, and rented bicycles to make our way to Omaha Beach, famed American D-Day landing site (Oh yeah, we weren't the only ones storming the beaches that day. There were also British, Canadian and French landing sites.) and beautiful vacation spot. As our feet sank into the sun-baked sand, and the warm, blue water lapped at our ankles, it became clear that, from a personal point of view, not that of officers looking at a map, this would be worst possible place to land. As mentioned, the sand was soft, too soft for someone in full combat gear to quickly come ashore; if we with our bare feet were sinking in up to our ankles, those poor bastards would have be in it up to their knees. The beach is blessedly brief, ending abruptly in a practically sheer cliff face, dotted with numerous bunkers, most of which were set up to accommodate scores of heavy artillery. To get off the sand alive would be a near superhuman feat of agility and luck, to make it up the cliff would require unbelievable strength and adrenaline and luck, and it was clear that the success of the overall mission had to hinge on being able to repeatedly hurl waves of bodies at the well-situated German defenders. It was an instantly sobering thought and terrifying to imagine what those poor men, many still boys, had to face.

(Bunker shots.)

Yet, the sands were white, the sun reddened the shoulders of children as they ran into the waves, shrieking gleefully, and everywhere you looked, people were enjoying their day at the beach as if nothing so catastrophic could have ever happened.

We pedaled back, slower this time, taking the rolling fields of corn and sunflowers. It is worth mentioning, for the sake of accuracy, that I am no cyclist and I do not profess any great love for the activity. First of all, I live in California, I have a car, I don't need a bike. Second, bike seats make my crotch go numb. (Right here is where cycling enthusiasts start crying out, "But Traci, if you just keep at it, you'll get used to it!" and I'm over here going, "And that's something to aspire to? Screw that.") So this ride was punctuated by my occasional (okay, constant) muttered curses as I tried maintain my dignity and full body circulation. But any extremity numbness was immediately forgotten upon spying a field with a whole host of horses hanging out. I might have squealed, I may have clapped my hands, but as there is no documentation concerning these allegations, the full truth of the matter remains a mystery. What I most certainly did do was eagerly chatter on about the differences between colts and foals, and ponies and horses, to Robert's questionable interest as our new horsey friends ambled over to check us out.

After many delighted pictures, nose pats and grass feeding, we reluctantly bid farewell and pedaled on back to the town.

The south of France gets all the hype, what with Cannes and Nice and the yachting with Beyonce and Jay-Z on the Mediterranean, but for my money, the north of France has beauty, charm and that certain je ne sais quoi to spare.

(Bayeux Cathedral lit up at night. Yep, this town is that perfect.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paris, or Musings on Stereotypes of the French

Would it be a cliche to gush about how romantic Paris is? Because if it's wrong, I don't want to be right. Less frenzied than Spain, and sporting a much appreciated cooling breeze, Paris is brimming with fantastic sights, sounds, food and people. That's right, despite a somewhat tired national opinion that the French are stand-offish or snobby, we discovered firsthand that the French are *gasp* people, some certainly can be rude, but far more are nice, considerate, and very willing to help. If you just put in a little legwork, and learn how to say "Hello, two coffees and two croissants, please" and "I'm sorry, my French is terrible", first of all you will be eating the best damn croissants you have ever had the pleasure of melting in your mouth and secondly, the people will be charmed and eager to help you with whatever you need and are generally willing and able to split the conversation between French and English. ( By the way, those handy phrases go something like "Bonjour, deux cafes et deux croissants, s'il vous plait" and "Desolee, mon francais est tres mal.")

The next awesome fact about Paris? You can, nay, you are practically encouraged to walk down the street with an open bottle of wine in hand. One late evening, Robert stopped in a convenience store for some bedtime wine and cheese (not to be confused with breakfast beer and cheese) and asked the cashier for a corkscrew. Corkscrew was produced and the young man began to open the bottle, as his manager watched carefully from behind the counter. The way Robert tells it, the corkscrew was almost completely inserted into the cork when suddenly the manager leapt forward with a "Bah!" and a steady stream of irritated-sounding French, waving off his employee like a pesky fly and seizing the bottle from him. Apparently, it was a quarter turn too many and the shopkeeper would not stand for such heinous misuses of wine, going so far as to uncork the bottle himself, all the while apologizing to Robert and shooting dirty looks at the young man who had failed him so.

We arrived in Paris just in time to catch the last stage of the Tour de France, watched a herd of bicycles whiz by before an endless procession of sponsors parade up and down the Champs Elysees. It grew tiresome, and after purchasing a commemorative Tour de France umbrella (bright yellow, very smart) for my dad, we decided to saunter down to le Arc de Triomphe, whose grand scale and lavish carvings really gave a feeling for just how much Napoleon thought of himself. (Unfortunately, the umbrella was confiscated by airport security in Nepal, who seemed to be the under impression that they were running some kind of actual operation instead of standing around in Cub Scout uniforms in a building whose facilities had last been serviced when Nepal had a monarchy.)

Paris is filled with grand, beautiful buildings, immense in size and rich in history, and at every grand historical building (Notre Dame, the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, etc) we saw, there was a bum taking a leak on it. The combination if the highbrow and lowbrow sort of encapsulates the Parisian experience, the city is grand and romantic, but ultimately tangible and real.

But if I can return to the previously touched upon subject of "French People: Are They Actually Assholes?" for a moment...we were hopelessly lost and confused in the Gage De Lyon train station, arguing over what our timetable booklet said versus what the station boards said when we were approached by a very tall man with a kindly face. The kindly face is mentioned because people almost always wear their intentions in their countenances, and when this man walked up to us, I immediately felt relieved. He introduced himself as Victor and asked where we were trying to go. We said that eventually we were trying to get to Omaha Beach and he smiled broadly, extolling the beauty of the Normandy beaches and informed us that we would want to go to Bayeux. Okay, sure, Bayeux, bring it on. Victor put on a pair of half-rimmed glasses, the sort your favorite literature teacher probably favored, and glanced through our timetable booklet that had been provided to us along with the Eurail passes we had purchased the week before. He frowned and clucked his tongue,

"This is wrong, this is very out of date." He shook his head and then told us to follow him before striding off on impossibly long legs, leaving the two of us scampering in his wake like children. I fought the urge to shout, "Papa!" in my best childish French accent several times when it seemed like he might outpace us. Instead, we redoubled our efforts to keep up as he led us first to one counter, and when that teller had nothing useful for us, to another, more well-informed station.

All in all, Victor, who looked like he had somewhere to be in his navy pinstriped suit and black leather briefcase, took about a solid forty-five minutes out of his day to ensure that some scruffy little American backpackers would, in fact, reach their destination. Out of all the kind and helpful people we have encountered this summer (and there have been legion), Victor was the very soul of compassion, staying by our side until we reached the correct platform, tickets in hand, confirmed the train's destination with a conductor, wished us a "Bon journee" and then turned and disappeared into the crowd as abruptly as he had appeared.

I'm sure there are assholes who are French, just as there are assholes of every nationality. But people are more or less the same everywhere you go, most willing to extend a helping hand or return a smile. All in all, you get out what you put in.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An Ode to Grindelwald


Home of my forebears,
Who fled without reason


So lovely, so green,
Depending on the season


Wiry old folks trek
With embroidered socks pulled high


In the shadow of Mt.Eiger
Ripping through clouds in the sky

O Grindelwald!

Alpine meadows with
Lavendar scent so sweet


I am ever so grateful,
For at last we did meet

Zurich: Come for the Hookers, Stay for the Escargot

Let's get this out of the way, Zurich was somewhat of a bust. I wanted to be the dishonorable one, and bounce as soon as our rail passes had arrived to the first hostel that agreed to receive mail for us, but Robert felt it would be an affront to the hospitality we had been shown by the proprietors, a hospitality that had some limits as said proprietors proceeded to lecture Robert for not booking the correct number of beds for one of the dorms, even though we had explained our dodgy internet situation. We encountered this delightful national quirk of being sternly lectured by someone who felt that dumbasses like ourselves needed a brusque talking to again on a train, by an unsmiling conductor frau. I suspect it had something to do with being in the German-speaking portion of the country.

Switzerland is multi-lingual in the sense that French, German, and Italian are all spoken throughout the country, but each lingua franca is restricted to its' own section, so no one in Zurich could grasp my basic, not-horrible French, looking at me as if I rolled up speaking a language composed of clicks and chirps. (No one knew Spansh, so Robert's stock had decreased somewhat.) I guess this means that unless you are personally multilingual, you stay in where you're from or risk being taken to task by your own countrymen. As luck would have it, the German-speaking Swiss we interacted with also spoke English, an English clipped short and derived of any warmth or humor, but English nonetheless, so we weren't going to balk. (Alternatively, French-speaking Bern yielded very few English speakers and my ears, well-honed in the international art of eavesdropping, never detected any German.)

The dorm we were in was a mixed dorm, which meant, as in Barcelona, it would be four dudes and myself. Unlike Barcelona though, this crowd was a conservative one; there was a Canadian grad student in town for a biomedical conference, and unwilling to part with his life savings for a private room, an American financial auditor in his early 30s on a solo backpacking trip, and a young Sicilian man training to become a chef and looking for a job in town. The latter was incredibly friendly, and undeterred either by our inability to speak Italian or by his limited English. He and Robert became fast friends as they chatted in Spanish and Italian, finding the commonalities of the two languages and deciphering where the differences came into play. His charming company was easily one of the high points of our brief stay in Zurich.

As for the city itself, it was quiet and unassuming, modern with a few hints at a long-running past. The statues here were few in comparison in Barcelona, and certainly none of them were styled with epithats like "_____ the Conqueror" or other dynamic titles, reflecting the peace that Switzerland has maintained for over 500 years. Which is great for the Swiss, but rather yawn-inducing for the traveller looking to soak up some bloody history. Instead, Zurich has lots of very expensive shops, whether the products within were high quality or not, though most were, and street after street of porno theaters. We never saw a single non-porn theater, leaving us to wonder out loud if they were somehow unaware of the reason for the existence of the internet.

When night fell, we discovered the other side to the abundance of porno theaters coin in that the street we were on, and Zurich in general, boasts the highest number of hookers per capita. The unassuming hotels across and around us revealed themselves to be brothels come nightfall and the streets below our third story room are suddenly overflowing with working girls plying their trade, who looked at me somewhat askance when Robert and I walked down the street, holding hands. I can only assume they were trying puzzle out how it was that someone who clearly put no effort into her advertising could snatch up a client so early in the night. My rumpled romper, dirty flip flops, and total absence of make-up screamed "stoner college student" in contrast to the artfully applied creams, glosses and teetering high heels sported by my fellow gender. (Later we found out at the only reason anyone ever really goes to Langstrasse, the street we were staying on, was to pick up some intimate company, a fact that was completely omitted from our hostel's internet advertisement.)

Determined to redeem our decision to stay in Zurich, we resolved to sample what was touted as the national cuisine, fondue. Robert had never had fondue and as we had pretty much been living on cheese and bread for the prior week (and wine), we assured ourselves that we could not be disappointed. The first problem we encountered was actually finding a place that even served some damned fondue, trudging up one cobblestone street and up another, getting hungrier and crankier with every twist. (All streets go uphill in Zurich, almost as steep as walking to Park Guel in Barcelona. But we did that trek carrying all of our gear, so suck on that Crossfitters, P90X'ers and other self-proclaimed hardcore fitness program acolytes. That's right, come at me bro.) Finally, we found the one restaurant serving the stuff and threw ourselves into carved wooden chairs as merry yodeling was piped through the speakers. Feeling somewhat like we were in line for the Matterhorn at Disneyland, we decided to go big and order an appetizer of escargot, aka snails.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Seriously. They are delicious, succulent, and drowned in a buttery-garlic sauce that tasted very strongly of pesto. The only problem was that there were only twelve, I could have rooted out an entire garden by myself. (And no, despite what that steaming pile of a movie women of my generation inexplicably worship, Pretty Woman, might have you believe, they are served sans shell, robbing any horse-toothed hookers the chance to deem them "slippery little suckers.") We couldn't decide which fondue to order, stuck between the traditional savory cheese or Morel mushroom choices, and without any indication of serving size, were dependent on our rather delightful server's advice. She suggested that we could try both and so we did, only to be confronted with a huge basket of bread cubes and a small burlap sack of potatoes followed shortly by two bubbling pots of enough molten cheese to repel an invading force if poured from the battlements of a castle during a siege. When we remarked on the enormous quantity of food set before us, our server cheerfully agreed that it was a lot of food and that she was surprised we ordered all of it. Uh huh. Dear readers, we did our best, we really did. But barely an inch into our overflowing bread basket, we groaned and puffed against the constraints of our clothing, wheezing as we patted our sweat-laden brows with paper napkins. As is everything in Zurich, this bounty of bread, cheese and potatoes was shockingly expensive, and having both come from more modest means, Robert and I were determined to eat our money's worth before giving in to defeat, swollen and ashamed. "That was it?" He asked, "Just the bread and the cheese like that?" I was embarrassed, I had pushed for this dinner in the hopes that we could enjoy some beloved staples on our last night in a rather underwhelming leg in our journey and here we were, ready to ask for a very pricey check on a disappointing meal. But by this point, however, I was too out of breath and too delirious to try and spin the situation, and nodded sadly. "Yeah. That's it." He looked crestfallen and if I had any spare room in my being at that moment, I would have felt awful; but as it was, all I could think about was the thin mattress in our mosquito-ridden room at the hostel where I would drop my bloated body to sleep and, hopefully, digest. We woke relatively early the next day, wincing as some unprocessed cheese continued to slosh around in our guts, but managed to pack our belongings swiftly and neatly, eager to bid goodbye to a city that left us much poorer monetarily, if richer in mosquito bites. The nicest refrain we had for Zurich for the three days we were there was, "Wow, would you look at that river? That water sure is blue." And I think that about says it all.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What's in a name?

In addition to the requisite broadening of horizons, Robert and I wanted to get some insight on where our forebears came from. A couple of our destinations were to cater to this sidequest (much like collecting all the gold Skulltulas or gathering all the necessary items to ensure you were picked as Don Corneo's lucky lady for the night), and during our pre-trip research, it was discovered that the name Sarmiento, while abundant in the Philippines, but less so in the United States or Mexico, has its roots in Spain as the family name of some of the Conversos, or Jews that decided it was in their best interests to convert to Catholicism in order to stay alive. (As it happened, the team swap was regarded with suspicion by Catholics under the reign of the aforementioned Ferdinand and Isabella, convinced it was merely to gain access to the blood of Christian babies for conducting their secret Jewish Passover rituals and other such bullshit paranoid delusions and it was those suspected of being secret Jews who were a primary target of the Inquistion, no matter if the last three generations of your now Catholic family had been baptized, confirmed and members of the church choir. Are we having fun yet?)
In Granada, a phone book was briefly flipped to reveal the presence of about six Sarmientos left in the city, and we resolved that perhaps we just were't going to get a definitive answer on the history of the Sarmientos in Spain this time around.
Flash forward to our cab ride to the Barcelona airport two days later, Robert is chatting up a storm with our driver and mentions our sidequest in Granada, and whether or not he knew any Sarmientos and if, by chance, he knew of an kosher roots. He did not, in fact, know any Sarmientos but was surprised that we didn't know what a sarmiento was! Oh, there is a thing called a sarmiento? Good sir, please do elaborate! He cheerfully informed us that sarmientos were the hard, dried wood of a grape vine, assuring us that they made excellent firewood, best used in the slow cooking of barbacoa. "Sarmientos burn for a long time!" He exclaimed, "Muy bien!" We sat in silence in the backseat, contemplating this odd bit of trivia as we drove further away from the center of the city. As we passed a low hill on the right, our cab driver (who had been enthusiastically tossing out historical factoids with every block) waved his hand towards it and expelled another casual statement, one I did not catch, but that made Robert's eyebrows raise in what I took to be surprise. I was partly right. He turned towards me, expression undecipherable, and whispered, "He said that's where Barcelona buried alive the Jews at some point, when they wanted them out of the city." We stared at each other for a few seconds, quietly pondering this, and previous statements, before the awful moment of realization of where exactly that name for the excellently burning firewood came from sank in. The wine we had been consuming sat hard and sour in our stomachs as we both tried not to spell out the inevitable conclusion, instead dissolving into what were at first uncomfortable chuckles, and later the delirious laughter of the shocked and tipsy. We later agreed that though we wanted the historical facts, perhaps we were not prepared for the actual truth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Exit Musings on Granada

We embarked on an ambitious, if somewhat under calculated, excursion to Granada, spending a total of two days and one night in what was once a stronghold of Muslim Spain, the last area to be conquered in the name of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella (you may recall these names in relation to Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition, busy rulers) after 700 years of a Muslim Iberian Peninsula.

Though it has been over 500 years since the fall of Granada to the Catholics, the Islamic influence is very noticeable when wandering down the twisting alleys and streets, intricately patterned tiles still border rounded doorways, and every third wrong turn leads you to yet another charming courtyard, complete with fountains and tiled pomegranates. I don't think we ever ran across the same courtyard twice.

I know I said Barcelona was old, and it is, but Granada is positively ancient. the city has been around since the mid-11th century, and we stayed in the oldest and most difficult to find section of the city. Our cab driver coul.sdn't locate the street our hostel was on, ans we were later informed that, due to the narrow streets with extremely tight turns and steep inclines, cars can't enter such a labyrinth, lest they become wedged between the white-walled buildings.The romantic in me swooned, the sweating, aching traveller with 30 lbs on her back was decidedly less enthralled.

Our hostel was really a converted home, with a spiral staircase leading us from the main porch to the guest balcony and the jaw-dropping view of Granada and Alhambra across the way. Our hostel was shared by an assortment of sweaty, rumpled students from Australia, Sweden and the U.K. who would park themselves directly in the sun during the hottest part of the day, smoking spliffs to the nub, before deciding it was time to go out and drink until dawn.

Granada is almost completely deserted during the day, and the surprised look on the bartender at El Pozo's face when we fell through his door around 2pm told us that we were his first and probably only customers for the day. He poured us icy beers and set out mini pork filets on crusty toast for us to munch on while Robert asked if he had ever heard of anyone by the name of Sarmiento in Granada. He hadn't, but produced a phone book from under the bar so we could take a look. A note about El Pozo: we all love to talk about the various dive bars we may frequent, proud of their impossible locations, and labeling them holes in the wall with a certain relish, but El Pozo is an actual cave, quite literally a hole in the wall.

We befriended a girl from Portland, by way of Iowa, named Brittany and with her, we set off into the night, the promise of mojitos and tapas hanging over our heads like cartoon thought bubbles. And mojitos and tapas we did consume, until we decided that the best way to get lost in Granada or potentially snap an ankle on those treacherous streets was to over imbibe and look for a shortcut at 4am. The next day, Robert and I vowed not to be caught in the midday heat and set off for a stream running along the base of Alhambra, and spent the afternoon reading and napping beneath the fortress and the trees. We had picked up some spiffy harem pants the day before and agreed the healthy breeze around one's crotch was key to surviving the heat, and hope to continue strutting around in enough fabric to make a sail upon our return.

As in Barcelona, the people we have met have all been fantastically friendly, which is hard to get used to at first, at least for this American, but Robert has taken to the culture like a duck to water.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Spanish bathrooms, son, I am disappoint

Seriously, the women's bathrooms around here are possibly the most disgusting, dank, foul pits I have encountered. Each time I have to pee, I am now seized with fear. Not like irrational Toilet Snake Fear that crops up out if the blue, but real, gut-clenching "Why are there puddles of piss alongside the seat and no toilet paper ever?!" Robert tells me that the men's restrooms are sparkling clean, each time.