Burning up in Marrakech

I’ve become pretty accustomed to some hot temperatures these last few weeks here in Ifrane but I don’t think anything could have quite prepared me for the 115 degree that assaulted me in Marrakech last weekend. The moment we realized that the air conditioning wasn’t actually going to work in our van during an 8 hour bus ride, I knew some torrential sweating was in store.

Marrakech feels like a mirage within a desert. After driving for hours on 2 lane roads with more than a few stops for tea, occasional site seeing and even some errant donkey crossings, Marrakech came alive in front of us full of New York style traffic, Western shopping malls and of course, McDonalds. I was completely unprepared for this clash of West meets East especially after having seen much of Morocco that is still very much a third world country. 

Our first stop was our hotel, which blissfully had a pool that we quickly dunked our feet into to cool our body temps down. (It’s possible I sweated out by body weight during our bus ride). A few of us decided to take a walk around our neighborhood before dinner just to get an idea of the area. We walked through some beautiful gardens and started to do some price comparing, noticing that prices are much higher in Marrakech then in other Moroccan cities. 

Saturday morning started with a tour of a resevoir whose use I don’t really remember but I’m hoping it’s not how the city gets their water because it certainly didn’t seem like a lot of water! We then made our way to the famous Koutoubia mosque where it became clear that Marrakech is a tourist city. I think I saw more American and Western tourists over this past weekend then I have seen in the past two months during all my travels in Europe and Morocco. Pretty amazing! The guide said that in the coming week as Ramadan begins the mosque will be filled with worshippers, some even spilling out into the courtyard surrounding the main building. 

Our guide led us into the back parts of the suuk, taking us to one of the oldest Madrassa’s in all of Morocco. The beautiful mosaic that can be found everywhere in Morocco has yet to disappoint me. 

Our next stop brought us to a traditional pharmacist who tried to sell us everything from dried gingko (the natural viagra!) to agram oil and goats milk lotion. I walked away with my fair share of spices and tea that are sure to stink up my suitcase on the way back home but I can’t wait to start cooking with them!

Now the suuk in Marrakech is seriously like nothing else. It’s HUGE!!! I’ve been to my fair share of outdoors markets and similar suuk style shopping plazas but this was by far the biggest one I have ever been in. It was no surprise then that we quickly lost our guide who was taking us back to the bus and we spent the next 25 minutes trying to find our way out of the maze of shops and back alleys.

The suuk is centered around the famed Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square that is home to entertainers, orange juice sellers, dancing monkeys, snake charmers, etc… Our first experience with Jemaa el-Fnaa happened relatively early in the day when it’s still fairly quite and unpopulated. The atmosphere changes completely by night fall, when hundreds of food vendors come out offering meats straight off the grill and mounds of couscous and escargot. There are so many people that it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Henna artists and artisans try to hawk their wears to every passing tourists and I was persuaded into getting a tattoo from a very mean women who almost made me pay double what I asked for!

Unfortunately for us, it was back onto the hot and steamy bus early Sunday morning. While the weekend was short, it was packed full of many things. I definitely want to go back to Marrakech soon!

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The Women of Tarmalit

All of a sudden the weeks seem to be flying by so fast! It’s already the end of the school week here as we are off to Marrakech tomorrow and then there are only 2 weeks left. As ambivalent as I was about coming to Morocco in the first place, it has really started to grow on me. I don’t think I will ever be able to handle this constant dry heat, but I’ve been making a lot of really great friends, enjoying my classes for the most part and have been able to explore parts of Morocco that I don’t think the average tourist gets to see.

A few days ago, an announcement went out that a trip to the small village of Tarmalit was being planned. Since I’m always up for an adventure, I signed right up, having no real idea where we were going or what we would be doing there.

Now to say Tarmalit is a village is a little bit of an overstatement. Only 10 minutes away from our fancy American-style school stands a collective of small huts and shacks put together with found pieces of wood and scrap sheets of plastic. At first glance, I didn’t think we would end up seeing anything of consequence, but after getting out of the van and heading back behind the huts we were met by the most beautiful display of handmade carpets and bags. 

The women of Tarmalit create these items in an effort to make money to send their children to school. With the help of some students at Al Akhawayn, the women are able to add tags to their items, telling their stories and the students also help to bring a few tourists to the area. It’s clear that the women get very few shoppers as they were eager to barter down any of the prices we saw in order to get us to walk away with the most amount of goods. I couldn’t resist given how cute the bags were and knowing that they had been handmade only a few yards away from where I stood. 

We were invited into one of the huts to see how the women make the carpets. Even with only one loom they are able to keep up a pretty steady production. There were a plethora of tiny children running between us. One little boy was intrigued by my camera and kept on posing for me. I even taught him how to take a few photos himself! We were served traditional tea and malawi in a neighboring hut before saying our goodbyes and heading back to school.  

It was an incredibly humbling experience to visit Tarmalit. I sometimes forget that outside my little bubble of Al Ahkawayn that I am still in Morocco which still had many third world aspects in it. These women have tried as hard as they can to connect with the outside world in order to sell their goods and provide for their families. I was impressed by their ethic and how much they care for their young children. It reminded me once again that I do really want a job someday that would allow me to help empower women like this to create not only a better life for their children but for themselves as well.

To the Blue City: Chefchaouen

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to venture up north to the blue city of Chefchaouen with some friends. Given that I myself had absolutely no idea where we were going, I thought a little map might be useful. Where I am in Ifrane is A and where we went is B!

Now according to google maps, this trip should in reality take about 3 and half to 4 hours. What I have come to learn quite quickly here in Morocco is that time is a relative term. You say the bus leaves at 1 when in all likelihood it won’t leave until at least 2 if not later. A trip that should take 4 hours really is going to take 5 or 6 when you factor in all the tea breaks and driving skills of the driver. That being said, it was still a fun ride up, albeit a little bit hot and perhaps just a few minutes too long. 

We arrived in Chefchaouen Friday evening and it is indeed a blue city. All the buildings are painted different shades of blues, lilacs and purples. It reminded me a lot of Santorini, which has a similar color pattern. After finding our hostel, the first order of business was food. I was super excited as I had yet to try any authentic Moroccan food!! I was not disappointed as I munched on a delicious chicken tagine along with some traditional mint tea. 

Saturday morning we made our was to Akchour, a small village that sits at the base of a beautiful ravine. Little did we know that what was supposed to be an easy hike would turn into an escapade over rocks, through the water and up a waterfall. I’m not complaining though because it was amazing! The water we waded through was crystal clear and so cold – the perfect relief from the heat of the sun. We made our way up to the top of the river to a natural bridge known as “Gods Bridge.” Since we were in the water so much, I ditched my shoes and did most of the hike barefoot. My feet were feeling pretty sore at the end!!

After Akchour, we continued further north to Oued Laou, which apparently is one of the most beautiful beaches in Morocco. If that is considered the most beautiful beach, there must be some pretty low standards here because it was awfully dirty. Even with the litter and many dead fish in the water, it was still fun to hang out in the water and lay on the beach for a few hours.

Back in Chefchaouen, we had dinner up on a terrace overlooking the city where I had the most delicious couscous in the world. I don’t even remember what was in it, but it was glorious! We headed into the shops of the old medina to do some last minute bargaining before they closed up for the night and I think it’s safe to say that my bags are going to be a lot heavier going home!

It was such a wonderful weekend and some of my friends who have been here a month said that it was one of the best trips they have been on so far!

Welcome to Morocco!

I know I know, I haven’t updated in ages. But hopefully you’ve been following my adventures on another blog that Charlotte and I updated during our recent whirlwind European adventure. Check it out hereThe harbor in Split, Croatia

Onwards to new things now!!!

After finishing out the semester in Paris, which included approximately three days of school and four days in New York, Charlotte and I jetted off to Budapest, which was the the launching pad of our six weeks of training, busing, and boating through Europe. After a fantastic and unforgetttable trip, you’ll find me now in Ifrane, Morocco, a small town nestled in the Atlas Mountains. What am I doing here you might ask? Well, I ask myself that same question, but I suppose the simplest answer is that I’m here for the month to study some Arabic.

I was feeling very reluctant to come at first. After spending 6 months abroad, I was really starting to get a little homesick. My little side trip to New York in May made me realize how much I missed New York, but I’m trying to suck it up and make the best of my time that I have here in Morocco.

I was picked up at the Fes airport on Friday and pretty much dropped into my room with little instruction except to be at class at 8 am on Monday. Since I came in the middle of the summer, most of the students who have been here since May had taken the weekend off to go to the beach. Had I known I didn’t need to be here until Sunday, I probably would have stayed a few more days in Paris, but alas, here I am! 

The university I am at, Al Ahkawayn University, is a Western style school where most of the classes are conducted in English and the campus has a very American style campus feel (although obviously not like NYU! I tried to describe the concept of NYU being in and of the city of the New York and I was faced with some very confused looks). Honestly, this is the closest thing to a campus I have ever really been on since I did college tours back in 2008. My roommate Sofia is from Meknes, about an hour from here, and is studying International Relations. There are about 600 regular summer school students here now and around 1800 who are here during the school year. I’m not quite sure how many people there are in my program, but I guess I’ll find out tomorrow morning!

After spending my first day holed up in my room, catching up a Mad Men and venturing to the gym for the first time in months, I went out into Ifrane today. I really can’t tell you that much about it because unless there is a whole part I missed, it’s quite a small town. It actually snows in this region during the winter, so many of the hotels cater to skiers and many of the houses have a chalet type feel to them. At first I felt like the only person dressed in shorts and t-shirt, but in the center of town there were definitely some tourists dressed in the same garb as me, making me feel not quite as self-conscious. So that’s about all there is to say so far of my two days here! I feel like I speak more French here than I did in France, which is quite comical. After going weeks on a travelers budget, it’s nice to have a dining hall fully stocked with everything to eat, especially salad! Hopefully I’ll have some good updates in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that I’ll find some good tagine or couscous somewhere. It’s Morocco, so it has to be somewhere, right?

Spring Break Part II: Learning the age of Michelangelo

We’ve just finished out first day in Florence after a lovely last day in Venice yesterday. The weather god’s answered our prayers and we were blessed with lovely blue skies and sun as we made our way through the island and continued with a blue skied day here in Florence.

Yesterday was a day of wandering, wrong turns and seeing what we could discover down random little alley ways. We walked through the Jewish Ghetto, which was of the more beautiful palazzos we had walked through in all of Venice. I still continue to be amazed by the whole concept of using boats for all transport but I guess it works for them. 20120415-214433.jpg

After another pizza for lunch, we found a gelato place that had celery ice cream. It was so delicious! You might think it would have no taste given that celery doesn’t really taste like anything, but I kid you not,it taste just how celery should taste if frozen form – deliciouso!

As for museum stops, we went to Ca d’Oro, which was a former palace right on the Grand Canal full of lots of renaissance artwork and sculptures. The marble architecture of the building was so beautiful. We also went to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection which is a lovely little modern art collection that Peggy collected throughout her life. She lived in Venice until her death and donated the house as a gallery in her will. As expected, she was quite the socialite and was said to have had affairs with Samuel Becketti and Max Ernst. Like the Ca d’Oro, the house had an amazing view onto the Grand Canal. 20120415-214714.jpg

I would have to say that Venice was a wonderful and memorable way to start our trip. I loved getting to the north of the island, away from all the tourists and seeing what residential life is actually like on the island. I can’t really imagine living on the island full time, but I guess someone has to cater to all the tourists 😉

After only 8 hours in Florence, I feel like we’ve more than we will see this entire trip. Honestly, anything after the David seems almost sad in comparison. I think that the David has been one of the most impressive things I have seen since being in Europe. You see the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, etc… yet somehow the almost always manage to underwhelm. Not so with the David. It lived up to every expectation that I had and beyond. Truly a highlight. In addition, we learned that Michelangelo was a mere 26 years old when he carved this master piece – feel inadequate much? 20120415-220721.jpg

In addition to the David, we passed the Duomo, but didn’t go in yet as it was about to close. We also went inside the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo and Galileo to name a few are buried. I’m still constantly impressed by the basilicas here which are so beautiful and so different from the cathedrals in France. 20120415-220714.jpg

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The day ended with some more strolling around and scoring some free wine at a restaurant that caters to students. It was really a wonderful first day in Florence and I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.20120415-214748.jpg

Starting Spring Break: Venezia

Spring break time!!

Yes, I know, it’s the end of April already but for some reason NYU Paris seems to think that this is the perfect time for a two week break so that we can come back and have 10 days of school until the end of the semester. It’s pretty crazy in my opinion but I don’t have any say in the schedule making.

Anyway…it has been a long awaited spring break and at last this morning, my friend Jess and I touched down into rainy Italy. I have never been to Italy (unless you count one run down a ski slope on the border of Switzerland) so I’m really excited to be here officially for the first time. I figured I’d try to update the blog as we go along every few days or so instead of writing up some big posts at the end. Unfortunately the pictures will only be iPhone quality, but don’t you worry, I’ll have some better camera shots upon our return. 20120413-222909.jpg

Getting into Venice was easy as pie (or should I say pizza pie?) from the airport. Venice is composed of many islands with the main one beings famous for its snaking canals and gondola boats. We are staying right off the main island on Guidecci in an adorable little guest house. All we had to do was jump into the water ferry and we were here! Unfortunately it’s been pouring rain all day and there doesn’t appear to be any let up in the forecast, but we’re trying not to let that keep us down. 20120413-222701.jpg

Everything is Venice is accessible by boats, which is amazing!!! You just pop on and off the boats like you would a bus or metro. There are no cars allowed on the main island, so boats are really your only option in addition to walking. As cliche would have it, the gondolas are everywhere, with men standing on every street corner trying to get you to buy a ride. Somehow I don’t think we’re going to pony up the 50 euro, but they are fun to look at. I still don’t quite get how they move with such a tiny little oar. 20120413-222138.jpg

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We went to Basilica San Marco this afternoon, probably one of the most famous destinations in Venice. I’m still amazed by how different the architecture of cathedrals varies from country to country. From the gothic cathedrals in France to the grande churches in London, the Basilicas here are much more colorful, decorated with millions of tiles depicting different biblical scenes with lots and lots of gold! The marble used out front is just stunning. Standing in front of the Basilica San Marco, even with all the tourists milling about was amazing.

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Of course what post would be complete without a food update. Keeping it light for lunch, we just had some sandwiches, but I had the most amazing gelato in the afternoon. It’s no joke the the Italians know what they are doing in that department. After an afternoon nap (we were up at 5 this morning) we did some more wandering before getting, yes, you guessed it some pizza!!!! And then even more gelato. I think I can say that Italian GROM puts my beloved upper west side GROM to shame.20120413-221917.jpg

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First impressions of Venice – beautiful and colorful, although PACKED with tourists! I heard French, German, Chinese, etc… I guess this is only to be expected in all european destinations, so I’m trying not to let it mar my experience and rather am accepting that I to am a raincoat wearing, camera toting, guidebook reading tourist myself.

A Walkabout in Londontown

After a trip that started with a customs officer accusing me of having a fake passport and witnessing just about every shade of weather that the UK has to offer, I’d say that my first trip to London was pretty successful. Yes, as I made my way through security at Gare du Nord on Friday morning, that officer was flipping through my passport and looked me straight in the eye and told me it was a fake. I was freaking out for a moment but realized that that was ridiculous because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t fake. All I could think in the moment was “dear god just let me go through,” but I realized two seconds later that this guy was clearly a nut case as how could I be an American with a French visa and make it through so many rounds of security with a fake passport? Anyway, after that little debacle, I made it safely on to the Eurostar and under the chunnel to grand old London town.

As soon as we arrived, we jumped into a taxi and went to Jess’s parents apartment in Kensington, right next to Kensington Palace, where William and Kate live 🙂 (I was hoping for a meet-and-greet, but alas, no luck). I think traveling with friends who have parents in the final destination is really the only way to go. It was so nice to come home each night to a home cooked meal and having people around who knew all the ins and outs of London so I was a lost tourist for one moment while I was there.Friday Jess and I took a tour bus around town, which was a wonderful way to see the whole city. Yes, I know you’re thinking that’s the biggest tourist trap in the book and I fully own up to making fun of people who do them in New York, but it was really really fun and a great way to see all the sites that I had never seen before. I was very confused when we got to the Tower Bridge and I discovered that it was painted blue. I kid you not that in all the years of seeing pictures of British landmarks, I had never noticed that it was blue. Jess assured me that, much as I thought it wasn’t true, it had in fact always been blue like that. Guess you learn something never everyday!

We stopped around Trefalger Square where we happened upon an epic rendition of a Passion Play just in time for Good Friday. Nothing quite like seeing a 50 foot projection of a bloody Jesus while walking past the National Gallery for the first time. We were blessed with beautiful weather on Friday, so we took the afternoon walking around downtown London and around Buckingham Palace. (No sighting of the Queen – sorry to disappoint ;))You can tell that this city is in full on preparation mode for the Olympics that are only a few months away as there were countless construction projects going on and many signs that were announcing that countdown to the start of the games. After a few trips on the tube, which was pretty packed, its hard to imagine how packed the city is going to be when the whole world descends upon it in July, but I’ll leave that to the city organizes to sort through.One of the best places that we visited was Bouroughs Market, a wonderful food market that was not to far from the Globe theater. They had so many different fresh fruits and veggies, along with cheese, bread, oils, spices, and tons of prepared foods as well. I got a bottle of the most amazing truffle honey and ate some delicious salted fudge. I would highly recommend Bouroughs Market to any food lover. As we watched Bridget Jones later that evening, it turned out her apartment in the film is right next to the market and we had actually walked past it earlier in the day. Who would have known! Our next stop was Camden Market, which is an eclectic indoor/outdoor market that has a St. Marks/Craft Fair/Flea Market type feel to it. It reminded me a lot of the Marche au Puces in Paris – hand crafted goods, alongside antiques, alongside awful Chinese import clothing. They did have the most amazing rave store where everything glowed in the dark and they had costumes that were straight out of the Jetsons. I was almost run over by some buses more than a few times as the whole concept of looking right first as opposed to left was still new to me. 

Sunday was our museum day. Well, it was actually Easter, so what better way to start the day than a stop in at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a mass? Most churches you have to pay to enter in London, but on Sunday, all are welcome to worship, and since this was Easter Sunday there was a huge mass going on. I don’t think I’ve really been into such a huge cathedral like that without actual services going on. As a little innocent Jew, it was fascinating to see. We tried to get into Westminster Abbey, but with the rain, the line and 16 pound price tag, we figured it wasn’t really worth. Something to look forward to next time! 

After our morning mass, we made our way across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern, where we were whisked right in thanks to Jess’s moms patron card. We saw a Damien Hirst exhibit and a Yayoi Kusama exhibit – both amazing and highly recommended. Hirst does some very interesting things that involve rooms full of butterflies, dead cows heads and sharks suspended in formaldehyde. Crazy to say the least. From the Tate, we made our way to the National Gallery, seeing some classic British, impressionist and Titan pieces. After our first day in Trefalger Square with the Passion Play going on, it was nice to walk around and see it a little less crowded.Monday morning, our last day in London, we went to the Royal Academy of Arts to see a David Hockney exhibit on its last day. Once again, thank god for Jess’s mom, who is dutiful patron of the arts and took us straight to the front of the long snaking line. I had never heard of David Hockney before but was utterly amazed by his work. He uses the most vivid and bright colors in his landscapes and has recently taken to doing almost all his artwork on his iPad. Quite cool, no?

I don’t think any visit to London would be complete without a trip to Harrods. Reminding me quite a bit of Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s, Jess and took our time pa-rousing the 1000 pound shoes and 2000 pound chihuahuahs. (No joke, they were selling dogs for over 2000 pounds). Needless to say, I bought a little pencil pound for 3,50 – likely the cheapest thing in the entire 5 story building. 

London was really a highlight of my semester. Staying with Jess’s family was wonderful. Having a home cooked meals (and seders) and an entire apartment to come back to at the end of the day can’t be beat. London reminds me a lot of New York, even more so than Paris. It’s full of people, full of activity, full of life all the time. The streets are constantly crowded, but it still felt manageable. Even with four days, I felt like I just saw the tiniest slice of what the city has to offer and I am eagerly anticipating a return trip soon!

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 MIICHEL

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. 


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: 

A Belgian Journey: Part I – Brussels

Only three days away from Paris and it feel like I was completely displaced from reality. For my first trip out of France of the semester, I went off to Brussels for the weekend with some friends and somehow it seemed so much longer. It was an absolutely amazing trip that I wish never had to end, but in a way, it’s nice to be able to call Paris home now and walking into my apartment last night after three nights in foreign beds was quite the lovely (albeit cold) feeling.

We started off on Thursday night to Brussels. I found an apartment on airBnB, which was seriously amazing. Anyone who wants to travel should really look into it – it’s cheap, easy, and instead of hostel or hotel, you have a real apartment to go back to with amenities and such. Awesome find! Anyway…

Our first evening in Brussels was spent walking around looking for a bar, but after realizing Brussels in not quite the happening on Thursday night, we ventured back to our place with some beers and cookies in hand. The beer selection here is really out of control. Even in the tiny corner bodega, they had at least 45 varieties of beer and interesting ones too. I should preface this all by saying I have been on antibiotics this week fighting a bronchitis type infection, so unfortunately, my alcohol consumption was greatly impeded this weekend, although that doesn’t mean I could look at all the pretty bottles!

Friday morning we started the day by walking towards the Mannekin Piss and a place that I heard about which great waffles. (New thought in life – only in Belgium does one find true authentic waffles). Lets just say the walk was worth it for the waffles, but not the Mannekin Piss. Seriously, I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s a little boy, perhaps a little more than 2 feet tall, peeing. No great shakes, although there were certainly enough tourists around to make you think other wise. 

More exciting than Mannekin Piss himself are all the chocolate statues made out of him…

Now to say it was cold during our stay in Brussels was an understatement. It was freezing! And there was snow and ice on the ground, making walking treacherous at times. So after our early morning waffles, after which our fingers almost fell off trying to eat them, we went into a cute little cafe to grab some coffee and warm up. 

Perhaps one of the biggest tourist draws is the Grand Place, which unlike Mannekin Piss, is actually a beautiful grand piazza with old buildings gilded in gold. We spent a few minutes ogling the buildings and trying to get some good pictures, but once again, the cold forced us to move on somewhat quickly as standing anywhere for too long was not comfortable. 

Our next stop was the Magritte Museum, dedicated to the works of the surrealist artist Rene Magritte. I really had no knowledge about who or what he did before we got there, but I left feeling a whole lot smarter about surrealist art. I don’t mangle up what he believed in completely, so I highly recommend you take a look at his wiki page and ponder this thought…

This is not a pipe:

Now once again, the lovely thing about having a nice apartment to go back to and not a dingy hostel was that at 4 in the afternoon, feeling exhausted and cold, we decided to head back to the apartment and take some well deserved naps. Of course, we didn’t make it all the way back without a stop at a chocolate shop first though!

After some lovely naps in a gloriously heated apartment, we made our way to dinner at Fin de la Siecle, near Grand Place. Now, I don’t know who here has been to Brussels before, but somehow the streets do not make sense! We were walking down towards the middle of town and then I see on the map that the restaurant is off to the right a bit, so I say, “hey, why don’t we try a new direction and walk right?” 15 minutes later, after stopping to ask for directions, I discovered we had somehow gone in the complete wrong direction even though the map seemed to say otherwise. Being a big fan of maps and having a generally pretty good sense of direction, I was incredibly distressed. All was well though when we finally got to the restaurant and had a delicious and cheap meal. 

We rounded out at the evening at a tourist trap of a bar called Delirium Cafe. They are famous for having over 2000 types of beer. All I honestly took from the place was that it was loud and crowded. Apparently I was the only one who was unimpressed though, as it was  packed with hundreds of people! 

Even in our one day in Brussels, I felt like we accomplished a lot. Although we were in a foreign country from our host home of France, and especially from home home in New York, it was nice to still be able to speak the language. I’m realizing more and more that I have not really done a lot of traveling in countries where I don’t know the language at all. Through my travels in France and Swizerland, French has always gotten me by and in Israel, I can understand and speak enough Hebrew that I don’t feel like a total stranger. As I do more traveling in Europe I guess I’m going to quickly have to accept that it’s going to probably happen more often than not that I’ll stick out like a sore thumb not knowing the language or knowing my bearings. I guess this is just another excuse to learn more languages, although French, Hebrew and Arabic are hard enough as it is now!

In order to not make this the longest post in history and as I’m far to lazy to edit all my photos at once, I shall post about our two days in Bruges later this week.

I leave you with the quote and the realization that I must have been born on a farm because I loved Bruges!

“Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” -Colin Farrel in In Bruges