In the shadow of Monet

I know I know, I’ve been awful about updating lately. After writing a really long post in Rome and then forgetting to hit save, I lost my blogging bug for a little bit, realizing that technology will always have one up against me.

A quick recap of the past few weeks – end of spring break in Athens and Santorini was incredible. Santorini was hands down one of the nicest places I have ever been. I went to New York for a quick 4 day trip for my cousins bar mitzvah. It was great to be back, even for such a short amount of time and has honestly made me much more homesick than I was before. I returned to France on the eve of the elections and saw one of the biggest parties ever going on in the Bastille. I finished school last week, turning in the longest paper I have ever written in French in my life (13, incase you were wondering). This week, my good friend Ben came to visit and we’ve been touring around Paris and eating lots of food. I’m headed to Budapest on Sunday to start a new summer adventure (more on that later). And now, instead of writing about my day trip to Giverny yesterday, I think I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.


A tour of Normandy

My dad and a decided to rent a car last weekend and start driving Northwest. With a general idea of somehow getting to Mont Saint Michel by the end of the day, we took a very long and leisurely ride through the French countryside ending up at the coast around 4 o’clock.


Mont Saint Michel is really one of those places that you have to get to at least once in your lifetime. Even though it was pouring rain as we drove up, there is something so majestical about the way it rises up out of the ocean. A little town has been created on the mainland for tourists to stay that you pass through first and then you drive across a causeway that somehow manages to not get washed away by the tides. On the day we were there, the tides were not changing that much, but apparently that tides can change up to 50 feet. For the road up to the island still manages not to get washed away every time this happens is beyond me, but I guess they have they figured out. 

Since we arrived a little later than anticipated, we rushed up to the top of the island where the famous abbey is located to do a tour before it closed for the day. How something so large was built atop a little island like that is still beyond me. Apparently the draw up building something so high up was so that the monks could be as close to heaven as possible.  The history of the island is endless, having been built in the 6th century. You have the Norman Conquest, the 100 Years War, the Reaffirmation, the French Revolution and finally up to today when it has been turned in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At one point it was even used for a prison right after the Revolution. No getting of this island! With its rich history, the island has been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years with most of the pilgrims today being tourists. 

During our stay at in the little town they’ve constructed next to the island, I think it was safe to say that my dad and I were the only non-Asians. I’m serious – there had to have been at least 20 tour bus loads of Japanese and Korean tourists. Luckily for us, it wasn’t quite peak tourist season so while there were certainly a lot of people, it was nothing compared to what I’ve heard it can be like in the summer when you have to wait for hours to even drive up to the island. The island lit up at night is almost just as beautiful as it is during the day. In the evening, my dad and I started to drive up to the island and all along the road were bright lights shining back at us. Apparently since it’s so dark, the hotels recommend that you wear reflective vests while walking so that the cars can see you. It was pretty hilarious seeing the whole cause way lit up by people walking in reflective vests.

While Mont Saint Michel has once again turned into a tourist hub for all those who come to France, it was still a fascinating and beautiful place to visit. It was unfortunate that it was raining we arrived, but luckily it cleared up by the evening and in the morning before we left, we got one most look at the island through the morning haze. I’m sure it has lost some of its allure and mystique from years past but it was still an amazing place to visit. 

NORMANDY BEACHES (Special guest blogging by my dad on this section!) 

The image of thousands of young men facing their ultimate sacrifice willingly as they waded onto the beaches of Normandy  is one of the standard icons of the last century, brought to life palpably in the excruciating first 40 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. These allied troops won the “good war”.  Breaking Hitler’s back on the Atlantic, they enabled our Communist allies to move in from the East, ending combat in the European theater (what sort of performance, one wonders) 10 months later. And yet, it cannot be that simple. Visiting Normandy forces one to grapple with hard questions. Is it possible to move beyond the myths of the event and consider the meaning of its success in hastening the liberation of Europe? Would it have been possible to invade sooner, as Stalin was begging? Was the resulting Cold War inevitable? Was it even necessary given the collapsing situation on the Eastern Front? Standing physically on the site of the battles cannot answer these questions, only bring them to mind. The museums and exhibits saturate the senses with images of the battles, the uniforms and weapons, the soldiers daily ephemera–comics and cigarettes, letters and photos, from both sides. Images of French life in the occupation, and the geography the allies confronted after pushing the Germans back from their original perches high above the waterfront. The beaches and surrounding cliffs are quiet today, and quite lovely. Omaha Beach is a tourist community in the summer for folks who keep beach houses there. And pieces of the invasion are continually being discovered, a barnacle encrusted helmet in the waters near the shore, guns and other military items in the surrounding landscape. 

William James, the great philosopher, wrote a short essay toward the end of his life entitled, The Moral Equivalent of War. In 1910, prior to the horrific carnage of the wars of the last century, James channeled a lifetime of research on human behavior into the question of what would it take to end combat. Knowing its devastating costs, why did men relentlessly heed the call to fight? Could there any activity that did not involve killing which could bring out the heroism that warfare elicits, James wondered. Is there any equivalent theater of self transcendence that can replace battle, that gruesome contest where the victor withstands deadly force and out kills and out injures the enemy?

Visiting the beaches at Normandy brought much of James’ writing to mind. Here we were, my daughter and I, standing in Omaha Beach and facing the bluff where the Nazis fired into the invading troops from on high. Tens of thousands of allied soldiers, teenagers many of them, walked off special landing vehicles into almost certain death, and then another ten thousand. Their commitment to each other which hastened their self sacrifice is nearly impossible to comprehend for those of us not familiar with combat. (Note: even though the carnage of the European invasion was enormous, BY AMERICAN STANDARDS, in the overall statistics of military and civilian deaths in Europe and Asia during the period, it was minimal, perhaps no more than 3,000.)

Visiting the cemetery at the end of the trip helped to still some of the questions. Walking through the manicured lawns where soldiers from many nations rest brought a useful closure to the day. 

Off to Champagne Country!

How would you pronounce the word Reims? Like anyone else who reads Latin character, I would think it’s something along the lines of ReeMs, no? Well, little to my knowledge, but this town in Northeast France, at the heart of the champagne country, is actually pronounced more like Raynnce. Now how you get from M to N, is beyond me, but apparently that is the proper way to pronounce it, as I was told over and over again when we got there.

In addition to being the Champagne capital of the world, Reims is also home to one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have seen in Europe, and believe me, I have seen a lot. And perhaps the most intriguing fact I learned during my visit was that this was church that all the Kings of France were coroneted in. Must have had some good bubbly at those ceremonies 😉

Reims Cathedral:

The outside of the building is covered in hundred of statues of varying sizes, depicting different characters from biblical stories. The Rockfellers actually contributed to the restoration of the cathedral after parts of it were destroyed in World War I. The organ inside is a little small, but that is made up for in the beautiful stained glass throughout the building. There is the traditional stained glass that you see in almost any cathedral you walk by, but here in Reims, they have stained glass by the famed artist Marc Chagall. I was very surprised to learn that he would have created artwork for a cathedral, but apparently he made stained glass pieces for a handful of churches throughout Europe. They were absolutely stunning and added a jolt of excitement to the trip!

The Chagall windows: 

Our next stop of the day was the G.H. Martel Champagne cellar. I have never done a wine tour before, but I think all vacations should include them now. Who can say no to free wine tastings? After watching a brief video about how champagne is made – you need certain grapes, they are processed a certain way and only wine from this region of France can authentically be called champagne – we headed into the bowels of the grounds to see how champagne used to be made before technology took over.

Today, almost all champagne is made in machines but it was still pretty cool to see how it used to be made all by hand just 30 years ago. These cellars in Northeast France are known for being incredibly cold, which is why champagne can ferment so perfectly in them. It would have been awesome to see them hard at work in these caves still making the champagne today, but alas, most production has been moved out of town to bigger facilities where they can shoot off thousands of bottles at a time.

Different devices that were used for making champagne: 

I don’t recall all the details of how the champagne was made before it was mechanized but I do remember the guide saying that all the labels were individually painted and glued onto the bottles and that every bottle had to be rotated by hand over the course of a few months. Talk about some carpel-tunnel! Of course, after the tour was over, we got to try some champagne! My favorite by far was the rosé. You can certainly tell a difference in the bubbles and intensity of different grapes after trying three in a row. Most champagnes have different varieties of grapes in them to create the perfect taste. A vintage champagne is one that has grapes from only one harvest, which is incredibly rare. No wonder they’re so expensive!

Tasting time: After our tour was over, we had lunch and ventured around town some more. Reims is a fairly large city that has a bustling downtown and the crowds were out on mass on a Saturday afternoon. I sometimes feel that everything outside of Paris must be small town French country side, even though I know this is obviously not true having been to my fair share of French towns and cities now. In fact, the public transportation in a town the size of Reims basically puts all America to shame. They had so many buses and trams all with easily marked maps and directions that we had no problem hopping onto a bus without even having to ask for directions. Reims is absolutely worth a trip, especially on the TGV, which whips you up their in all of 45 minutes. I love the TGV! I wish all trains were that fast 🙂

The Palace of the Sun King

Living in Paris, I think it’s just an assumed part of life that you will at one point or another make your way to Versailles, especially when you have visitors in town. It’s like New Yorkers going to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. You live in New York, so it seems instinctive that you would have been to these major landmarks, but don’t tell anyone – I’ve never been to the Empire State Building. I shall add it to my to-do list when I get back to New York in the fall.

I actually went to Versailles when I was in France in high school, but the day of our visit, the workers were on strike and we couldn’t even go inside. It happened to be a beautiful June summer day, so we couldn’t really complain that we had the afternoon to walk around the gardens, as the gardens garner a whole day visit themselves. The thing I probably remember the most about my trip in high school though was the amount of tour buses I saw. I genuinely don’t think I had ever seen so many buses all converged in one place in my life. That in itself was pretty awe-inducing. This past weekend during my visit, it was no where near as crowded and while we had to wait about 20 minutes in line to get in, I can only imagine the wait during peak tourist season in the summer!

So we all know the history of Versailles, right? You have Louis XIV (the Sun King), Marie Antoinette, The French Revolution, Napoleon, etc… It’s a place steeped full in not only French, but world history – the peace treaty ending World War I was signed in the famous hall of mirrors. Perhaps it’s the cynic inside me, or my general lack of interest during our tour, but I was struck with how fake everything seemed. Completely gilded in gold, gawked over by millions of tourists, was this really a place that the French nobility lived?

The famous hall of mirrors: 

I guess this gold and extravagance is an obvious sign that nobility did indeed live here and it’s no surprise why the French Revolution happened if this was how the rich were spending money. At the same time, it all seems so lavish that it’s hard to imagine this was an actual palace inhabited by real people. But then again, I guess that’s what the rich back in the 18th century did, right? Spend lots of money on gaudy and kitschy decorations. I had always heard the Versailles actually smelled awful, as there were no working toilets and people would empty their chamber pots right outside their windows. Not quite the idea of luxury and splendor. Even the door handles are covered in gold! 

I’ve been working on some essays for school and am very much in this mentality that Paris is so much of a spectacle, losing much of it’s original glory and splendor underneath all the gloss – Versailles being a perfect exampled as it is literally gilded over! I’ll try and get past all my cynicism for one moment and recognize that it is still a beautiful building. The hall of mirrors is something you have to see in your lifetime and reading about the excessive sleeping practices of the King was pretty funny. (Getting a chance to watch the King go to bed was a thought of as a great honor). There was some beautiful artwork not only framed and hung, but painted directly onto the walls and ceilings.

The Kings bed:
The top of the Queens bed: The Coronation of Napoleon: 

After we finished inside, which involved being hit in the back by more than a few backpacking toting Asian tourists, we took a tour around the gardens, but it’s still a little cold here in France, so most of the statues were covered and all the fountains were off. We did stop at Marie Antoinettes house, as she had her own housing unit on the other side of the compound, away from the main chateau. I guess her and Louis XVI really didn’t get along. Having already been to the gardens before, I wasn’t that disappointed that it was all green with no color, but I was reminded how nice it would be to just spend an afternoon sitting down by the canal in a few weeks when it starts to get sunny outside. I will definitely come back not for the palace, but to have a picnic in the park! 

Walking around with the ‘rents: 

La Passage du Grand Cerf

I’ve written about the flaneur before – a person who walks the city in order to experience it – and now am genuinely starting to feel like one. I’ve been in Paris for just about 2 months now and no day goes by that I don’t think for at least a few moments of how lucky I am to be able to walk along the streets of this amazing city. I think I can safely say that I’m past the honeymoon phase of my stay here in Paris. I still love it, but I’m feeling more comfortable, more at home, less touristy. I don’t feel the need rush to go out and do everything all at once, which is exactly how I felt when I first arrived. Of course, my to do list is still ten pages long, so if I plan on checking it all off before the end of May, I’d better keep the pace up.

A glass covered arcade in the midst of the busy 2nd arrondisment, La Passage du Grand Cerf transports you back in time to the 19th century, right to the heart of the time when Baudelaire was writing about his famous flaneur. I can only begin to imagine what it must have felt like to walk down this alleyway 200 years ago with the huge arching glass windows letting in so much beautiful light and the abundance of little shops and restaurants that line the way. 

Today, it’s home to some small boutiques, including this amazing one that sells all sorts of knobs. I kind of have this weird obsession with knobs. Last year I spent over 50 dollars at anthropologie buying new knobs for my dresser. It might have something to do with the fact that I want to own everything in the home section of that store. Either way, I spent a solid 15 minutes checking out these ceramic little balls until I realized it was going to be silly for me to buy them as I don’t even have a dresser here to put them on and I have 10 perfectly good knobs waiting for me back at home in New York. They’re still so pretty to look at!

After my stroll through the passage, I took a rest at a cafe right across the road and sat drinking my coffee and gazing at the people who happened to go down through the arcade. It somehow manages to vanish within the busy landscape of present day Paris. Many people didn’t even seem to notice it as they walked down the main drag, while a few happened to turn their head upon seeing the cherry red carpets and stopped to take a peak inside, much like I did.

Recently, I have been coming to grips with how much of a spectacle Paris is. Everything has such intense meaning and importance to the tourists who come to see it, but I often feel that the magic that made Paris so wonderful in the early 20th century has somehow been lost behind all the pomp and pageantry of 21st century Paris. It tries so hard to cater to the many millions of tourists who pass through its borders every year and sometimes the original significance of these places is forgotten. Le Passage du Grand Cerf, to me at least, is a reminder of what the splendor of Paris used to be like, before it became glossed over. Sure, the stores and boutiques are not hundreds of years old like the passage itself, but the archways and windows contain a secret history that only those who search for it will find. So many people come to Paris today and only hit up the big landmarks and sites. While that’s a valuable thing to do, one must go beyond the sheen and find places like Le Passage du Grand Cerf in order to be a true flaneur.

Glacial Paris

It snowed here yesterday. Now to say it “snowed” is a bit of an over statement. It appeared to flurry outside my window for about 20 minutes and then it was over. When I walked outside a few hours later (which was a big mistake given how cold it was) I saw barely any snow on the ground. 

Now, even if the snow didn’t stick, it is still FREEEEEZZINGGG here. I don’t think it has really gotten above 30 degrees since last Wednesday. I even heard on the radio this morning they were worried about power outages because of such a strain on the electrical grid. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that that doesn’t happen! It has reached point, where doing just about anything outside is unbearable and I have taken to rushing home after classes to sit next to my unfortunately placed heater. When I walked into the courtyard at school last week, they had heavily salted the ground in preparation for the ice. 

I know, I know, I really shouldn’t complain. Last year in New York was a perpetual winter wonderland, but something about the cold here, and the heating in apartments makes it seem much worse. I have this heater connected to the wall that gets very hot, but somehow doesn’t manage to heat up the whole apartment unless I keep it on for hours. I’ve taken to sleeping with a sweatshirt and a sweater, many pairs of socks, as my tile floor is the worst when it’s cold, and three blankets. It also doesn’t help to hear that it’s been a balmy 60 degrees in New York and North Carolina while I sit here looking at a -10 degree weather forecast (that’s celsius, which always makes it seem that much worse). 

On Friday, we took a school trip to L’Abbaye de Rouyamount, which was a lovely abbey, but given the cold, and general sickness I have been fighting these past few days, I was unable to thoroughly enjoy the tour. All I could think about the entire time was the fact that I could no longer feel my feet in the slightest. It felt liking walking on glass every time I took a step. I think I have some circulation problems in my toes, because that does not seem normal. *One little nifty tid-bit I did learn while I was there – Pink Floyd performed at the abbey in 1971! Probably a pretty epic concert! 

Even though the tour was not very fun, NYU certainly upped their game by way of the meal we were served. As we approached the tables, it was clear this was going to be a fancy meal – there were three different forks to choose from! As I said, I was still feeling pretty sick, so I wasn’t able to eat everything on my plate, a first for me, but it was still a very enjoyable meal! Obviously, the dessert was the only course I was able to eat in its entirety 😉 Whipped goat cheese with a beat mousse and salad: Fleur de sel veal with baby onion mashed potatoes: Sable cookie with a caramel butter tart topping and salted caramel ice cream: 

A walk with the dead (at Père Lechaise Cemetary)

Recently I realized I was born in the completely wrong century. The more I’ve wandered the street of Paris and read about its history, the more I wish I could have been an “American in Paris” in the early 20th century. Can you image the streets of Montparnasse, filled with the likes of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald? Paris not yet the tourist spectacle that it had become today? Obviously Midnight in Paris has forever changed Paris for me, but still, I think it would have been pretty awesome.

Of course the mother of this whole “Lost Generation” was Gertrude Stein, who helped foster the career of many young and struggling artists and writers in Paris during this time. I really don’t claim to know enough about this amazing woman, but I’m trying to learn more and really, I think we had a little heart to heart the other day at her grave 😉

Gertrude Stein is buried at Père Lechaise Cemetary, something I didn’t know until I walked into this rolling green cemetery that is a really wonderful place to visit in Paris. No, one doesn’t usually think of a cemetery as being a really wonderful place to visit, but with the likes of Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and the famed Kurdish singer Yilmaz Guney (don’t ask my why, but there are surprisingly a lot of Kurdish and Iranian people buried there), Père Lechaise is an wonderful place to take a stroll on a sunny day. 

My friend Allison and I started out jaunt at Père Lechaise at the southern entrance, wandering throughout the many different districts of the cemetery. There are simple tombs and basic headstones to elaborate chapels and towering monuments. Some of them are so old that it’s hard to read the writing of who is buried there. Sadly, many of the older tombs are not well taken care of, often covered in cobwebs and leaves and some even have fallen apart, leaving a pile of rubble in their wake.

Towards the north, the graves seemed to be much better taken care of than those further south. Allison and I pondered why this was – many of them still seemed very old, yet looked so much nicer and shinier. Any ideas? 

During our walk, we saw the burial sites of Baron Hausmann, Oscar Wilde, and yes, the great Gertrude Stein. Of course, there were lots of tombstones we could have seen, but after a few hours of walking through such an immense graveyard; there are only so many more dead people you can take. 

It’s still possible to get buried in Père Lechaise today, as there were some recent headstones from just last year, but I was reading online that space is so tight, some people are buried in the same tomb as previously deceased family members – not the most pleasant idea. 

I would love to go back to see the graves of Edith Piaf, Moliere and Balzac to name a few. There was something quite serene about walking through it all on such a lovely sunny day. I could only imagine the ghosts that come at night though!

I don’t think it’s the same George Harrison you’re thinking of 😉 

Even in death, dogs are still mans best friend: 
Looked it up, no relation to Dr. Kevorkian: 

How Jeanne become Joan (A Day Trip To Rouen)

Doing day trips out of Paris on the train is really the best! The trains here are so simple (actually purchasing the tickets, not so much, but once you get on the train it’s easy) and within an hour you are miles out of the bustle of Paris in the beautiful French countryside. My friends and I decided to venture to Rouen yesterday which is the historic capital city of the Normandy Region and the site where Jeanne d’Arc (I’m going to go with the French version here) was burned at the stake – gruesome, I know.

We started our morning by visiting one of many cathedrals we would see during our day. Rouen is known as “The city of a hundred spires” and I would say it certainly lives up to that title. Almost all the churches have weathered fires, the 100 Years War, religious wars, extensive bombings during WWII, etc…. As we walked around, many of them were in the midst of being refurbished once again, leaving the outsides covered in scaffolding, but the insides remained absolutely stunning and beautiful.

The abbey church of Saint Ouen: Almost all the churches we saw were being refurbished and modernized: Inside Saint Ouen with its huge organ: The church of Saint Maclou:The Cathedral of Notre Dame in the center of town is absolutely huge! From the outside it doesn’t seem it, but from the inside, if really seems bigger than Notre Dame in Paris. While is doesn’t have the most intricate stained glass or embellishments on the inside that many cathedrals do, it’s vaulted ceilings are still quite impressive.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame:The 28 meter high ribbed vault ceiling: A model of the cathedral:Surprisingly, the least impressive church we saw was the church of Saint Jeanne d’Arc, which was opened in 1979. It was built on the site where she was burned, yet honestly, was not that nice. I guess in terms of modern architectural design it was interesting – I seriously think it looks like a fish – but for a building that’s to pay homage to a great French heroine, it seemed a little out of place.

You can’t really tell, but I’m telling you, it looks like a fish:Inside still had some beautiful stained glass:We had lunch at this very cute little tea shop called Dame Cakes. They had a menu full of exotic teas and drinks along with a delicious looking display of cakes, brownies and pies. I had an array of different savory cakes with smoked salmon, cheese and duck. I also had a piece of rhubarb meringue pie for dessert. I will always love rhubarb, but I’m not quite sure how I felt about the meringue on top. Regardless, it was a wonderful place for a lunch break in our afternoon.

Dame Cakes: 

A trio of savory Dame cakes: 
Rhubarb meringue pie: 

After lunch, we headed to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which was an extensive collection of paintings and sculptures representing almost ever school of European painting. Given the proximity of Rouen to Giverny, they had a impressive collection of impressionist paintings, including Monet and Renoir.

Monet: Renoir: ModiglianiThis one was just really really big!

From little bits of history I pulled throughout the day, I think I now have a pretty good idea of the story of Jeanne d’Arc. In summary, she was a French peasant girl who led the French army to several victories in the 100 Years War. She was captured in 1430 by the English, who put here on trial in Rouen for heresy. She was held in a tower, that you can still see today, until she was burned at the stake in1431 at the ripe young age of 19. One interesting, albeit somewhat gory fact I learned – her ashes and unburnt heart were thrown into the Seine so that no relics could be preserved.

Tour Jeanne d’Arc, where she was held during her trial: 
Dedication of the church built in her honor: 
The spot where she was burnt: All and all, it was a wonderful day trip. The sky threatend rain all day, but luckily for us, we didn’t feel a drop, although it was pretty chilly. I am really looking forward to doing some more day trips around France. Even though it’s so easy to travel around all of Europe, I sometimes forget how much France itself has to offer and how easy it is to explore on the train.

Here are few more pictures, and yes, I had to eat an eclair 😉

Giant clock to never lose track of time: Beautiful timber framed architecture: Quaint pedestrians streets: 
The eclair: (It was really good 🙂 

A walkabout in Aix-en-Provence

Yesterday, we took a car ride north to spend the day in Aix-en-Provence. Having never travelled at all in the south of France, I was excited to get to see some of the other cities in this region besides Marseille. Charlotte’s mom used to live in Aix when she was a student, so she knew exactly where to go in the town and even showed us where her old school was.

The flea market: Picking out some records: 

Frame anyone? We walked through a wonderful little flea market where we couldn’t help but pick up a few trinkets and then spent some lovely hours wandering up and down the streets and alleys of Aix. Similar to the old parts of Marseille, it was quintessentially French. Cobblestone streets, little cafes and brasseries on every corner and beautiful fountains that dot the entire town, as Aix is often called the city of fountains.

Street wandering: 

Fountain 1: Fountain 2: Fountain 3: 

Aix is definitely a lot more commercial than Marseille, with a lot more stores and general sense that tourism is a big to do. Most stores have signs in French and English and I heard more English on the street than my entire week in Marseille. I can only imagine what it’s like in the summer when it’s warm and all the galleries are open.

Never too far away from some bread:

More street wandering: 
One of the main drags: 

Entrance to an old cathedral: As usual, the food never ceases to amaze me here. At the market in Aix, there were mounds and mounds of delicious fruits – especially oranges – and one vendor giving out samples of homemade olive oil and breads. I can’t wait to do more shopping at local markets when I get back to Paris!

Yummy fruit: 

Olives and spreads: