Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sometimes I make decisions... booking a ticket to Morocco.

That's right. I'm heading to Marrakech on Monday. Just for a few days--I arrive Monday evening, and I leave Thursday morning. I'm staying at a riad right in the medina (old city), so I shouldn't have to walk too far for many of the major tourist attractions.

Why? Because I found an inexpensive flight. Because I've never been to Africa. Because adventure.

Am I worried? Kind of, but mostly about getting to and from the airport. The internet seems to think it's a safe enough place for women to travel alone, and supposedly the whole pace of life there calms a bit during Ramadan, so hopefully it won't be as overwhelming as it might otherwise be.

I bought some more conservative clothes and a scarf today, and a guidebook with maps. (It's going to be over 100 degrees when I'm in Morocco, so the layering is an unfortunate but necessary step.) Luckily for me, Les Soldes are going on in France right now--all the clothes in all the stores are 30-50% off.  I wish bookstores also participated in Les Soldes, but what are you going to do?

What else? I went to the Couvent des Jacobins the other day--yet another giant religious building in Toulouse. The Dominican monks started a convent there in the 1200s, and they stayed there until the Revolution, and later Napoleon turned it into a military barracks, because of course he did. Some of St. Thomas Aquinas' relics are there beneath the altar. As expected, it was stunningly beautiful:

Interior of the church

Little lamb on the ceiling


Tower + Tree

This is how you selfie

It was very peaceful there. I would have liked to stay longer and read, but I didn't know if that was an acceptable thing to do. 

This weekend Le Marathon des Mots and Les Siestes Electroniques (a literature festival and an electronic music festival, respectively) are going on in Toulouse, so I imagine I'll probably end up doing some of that. You know me. I'm a sucker for large cultural events.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Cities, Fields, and Roads

I'm writing a draft of this by hand in a cafe in the Bastide Saint-Louis section of Carcassonne, where I ordered a muffin, and I received this.

I've had a busy few days, though, so let me start from the beginning.

On Saturday I met with Anne Stevens, one of the English professors at UNLV, who's currently participating in a faculty enrichment program in Pau. I must say, it was more refreshing than I'd realized it would be to see someone that I know. It was like pressing a reset button; I'd been feeling a bit down and out, but encountering a familiar face tugged me out of my slump. We went to a cafe, meandered the city, accidentally stumbled upon the Pride Parade, and had dinner. All was lovely, and then it got lovelier with this sunset:

No filter, no photoshop. Just Toulouse.

For the record, it seems that French parades do not follow the same logic as American parades. If I were at the Pride Parade in Chicago, I know that I'd be faced with metal barricades and countless police officers ensuring that the floats move along relatively swiftly and undisturbed. The Pride Parade in Toulouse had no barricades whatsoever. People found a float they liked (I use the term "float" loosely--they were mostly just decorated trucks, sometimes with a DJ) and danced along behind it, drinking and waiting to catch whatever goodies may be tossed at them from the floats. I scored a popsicle.

Sunday was Fête de la Musique, a nationwide music celebration, because apparently France likes to show its citizens a good time. This means that there was music everywhere. Everywhere. A percussion group in Place Wilson. A flashmob playing David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" at métro Jean-Jaurès. Singing nuns on Rue du Taur. A reggae DJ in front of Basilique Saint-Sernin. Not to mention all the bars and restaurants that hired bands to play. The biggest stage was naturally in Place du Capitole; I stayed to watch a Toulousian band called Le Common Diamond. They were good--kind of like "Antics"-era Interpol mixed with Grizzly Bear, but with fewer harmonies. I enjoyed it very much.

The only downside of the day was that I experienced street harassment literally six times. And now a public service announcement for all men: it is never okay to follow a woman down the street. It. Is. Never. Okay. To. Follow. A. Woman. Down. The. Street.

Anyway, because two days of excitement wasn't enough, I decided to go for three: today I went to Carcassonne--a goal of mine since noticing that it was so close to Toulouse. As I mentioned earlier, I'm writing this while still in Carcassonne. I got here via BlaBlaCar, a fascinating service that I cannot thank Anne Stevens enough for bringing to my attention. It's basically a ridesharing service, like Uber or Lyft but for long distances. If someone's driving from Town A to Town B, they post their route on the site, and if you want to travel the same way, you can purchase a seat in their car. You can read driver reviews before you choose, and it is significantly cheaper than the train. I don't know if such a site exists in the U.S., but if not, someone should start one.

One of the people in my carpool today was an enthusiastic Carcassonne native, so he gave me lots of advice regarding how to get around--he even walked me and my driver to the tourism office so we could get maps. (My driver was offering her services simply so she could afford to travel around the country, so she wanted to see the city, too.) Pro-tip for those traveling to Carcassonne: the centre ville IS NOT the medieval city. Centre ville is in the Bastide Saint-Louis, the lower city that wasn't originally part of the medieval city. It was the medieval city I wanted to see, so I ended up having a longer walk back to the train station than I anticipated. Yes, I'm taking the train back, despite the slightly higher cost. I just wanted to do it once. Taking a train? In Europe? So romantic!

Actually, it's probably good that I didn't realize the two parts of the city were separate, because it would have been tough spending the whole day in the medieval city; it's very small, and aside from the castle and the church, there's not much to do there--just eating and buying expensive souvenirs. And being charmed by its quaintness, of course. It does look exactly like the pieces in the board game, which is why I wanted to come in the first place.

I started with the castle. False: I started with ice cream. Then I went to the castle, where I explored its medieval halls and traversed the ancient Roman ramparts. I even tumbled down a flight of wooden stairs, injuring only my finger and my pride. Here are select photos:



The Roman portion of the wall

I left the castle with a strong desire to read up on the history of the Cathars. Time to purchase some more books...

I then decided to grab some lunch, where I sampled Cassoulet, the regional dish. I didn't have much of a choice; it's on every menu in town. It's essentially a sort of white bean stew. With a duck leg. And a sausage. And I think there was some pork in mine, too. It was brought to me bubbling. Very tasty indeed, but I couldn't finish the whole bowl. I'm only one person.

After that I explored the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, which was beautiful, of course. In terms of architecture, old churches beat castles every time. Also in terms of creepiness. Old churches are like castles but with more creep. I was lucky; a choir was singing when I went inside.

I mulled around the town for a while, staring at things I didn't want and/or couldn't afford, and then I walked down to the Bastide section of the city--which, to my delight, is lovely as well! The colors of the buildings are vibrant. Reminds me of Italy even more than Toulouse does. I went inside the Carmelite Chapel, which was unlike any church I'd ever seen--which is saying something for Europe. Take a look:

What church has statues like these? What even is that crown?

What church has walls like these? What even is that pattern mixing?

I also went inside the church of St. Vincent, which, while in a mild state of disrepair, is still stunning. And I was able to climb the bell tower! For those of you who don't already know, whenever I travel abroad, I like to find tall historic buildings and climb them. I've climbed to the top of St. Peter's in The Vatican, the Duomo in Florence, the Drum and Bell Towers in Beijing, and more. I haven't found anything available to climb in Toulouse yet, so I was quite pleased that St. Vincent's tower was available to me. By my unofficial count it was 233 steps--and I was the only one up there! The only one in the whole church, for that matter. Normally when I climb things it's with hoards of other tourists. It was strange and thrilling to be completely alone. Got some gorgeous shots: 

The medieval city from afar

Can you spot the Pyrenees?

After what will have to serve as my daily dose of cardio, I decided it was time to find a cafe. And that brings me to the present moment. I left the cafe a while ago, actually, and am now sitting against a large fountain. There is a small child staring at me. Probably the tattoos.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a train to catch.


EDIT: Made it home safe. The train ride was sort of romantic; aside from the occasional telephone pole or grain silo, the countryside looked like a Van Gogh painting. Very happy to be in my bed, though. It's been a long day.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Don't worry...

...I found a music festival. Just me doing the most "me" thing I could possibly do, anywhere in the world.

Yesterday I went to Rio Loco, a world music festival on the banks of the Garonne right here in Toulouse. I was going to go on my own anyway, but then Muriel asked if I wanted to go with her and Sebastian, so I had some company. Each day of the festival is organized by continent, and yesterday was Africa day. We saw bands from Morocco, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Togo. It was fun, but by the end of the evening I was pretty tired, increasing my suspicion that I'm getting too old for music festivals. I still like to stay up late, but I don't really like staying out late anymore. I'll happily read until 2 a.m., but if I'm at a bar past midnight, I typically get cranky and impatient. Ah, well. Can't be young forever.

I'm dealing with homesickness, which is odd; I've never experienced homesickness when traveling before. It's not that I didn't miss anyone when I was traveling before, obviously, but I'm usually so distracted with experiencing new things that it's not a huge problem. I suspect it's worse now because I'm traveling alone. Normally I have somebody to share experiences with, but that's not the case here. I really hate that I can't access data on my phone here without wifi--when I'm feeling lonely I often just share my observations with Twitter. I keep making these little quips about France, arranging them in my mind into 140 characters or fewer--and then I remember that I can't post them. It's frustrating.

What's worse is that I feel guilty about feeling homesick. I shouldn't feel homesick. I shouldn't feel anything but glowing gratitude that I'm spending two months in France. But then, I feel guilty about everything, and I'm only just now beginning to realize how absurd that is. Maybe someday I'll recognize my own feelings as valid. 

I don't want to suggest that I'm not having a good time. Toulouse is beautiful. I've been walking around, reading outside. As I mentioned before, I'm reading Réparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal. Normally when I read in French, I know I'm understanding the plot, but I also know that I'm missing many of the subtleties and small details. To try to avoid that problem, and to improve my French, I've been translating the sections that I've read--literally writing them down and trying to make them readable in English. This is a tall order; Maylis de Kerangal writes in these long, flowing sentences, commas strewn throughout, separating phrase after phrase. Her writing is rather poetic, so sometimes it's tough to make it make sense in English without destroying the sounds and images that she's creating. Last school year, in Doug's Forms of Fiction class, we read a book called Correction by the German author Thomas Bernhardt. Bernhardt also wrote sentences that were several pages long, separated only by commas, and I got the impression that he did this in order to increase the speed of his writing, to make it sound manic. I do not get the same impression with Réparer les vivants--I think the commas are supposed to make the writing sound like waves, or heartbeats (or both--the plot prominently features both thus far). At any rate, I'm enjoying translating very much. It's like writing, except I don't have to do the hard part of inventing a narrative. Makes me even more excited for my translation project with Cathy!

Alright, time to shower. An English professor from UNLV is popping into Toulouse today, so we're getting tea. Three cheers for European reunions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tut Tut

First: DA-DA-DA DA-DA-DA DA-DA-DA-DEE-DA-DEE-DA (This is my transcription of "Chelsea Dagger.") Considered staying up all night to watch the game updates on Twitter and Instagram; I thought better of it and went to sleep. But it was nice waking up to such good news. Yay Blackhawks! Here's the article about the victory from Le Monde, for good measure.

Back to the title of the post: it doesn't just look like rain. It's been raining all day. Rather gloomy. Nevertheless, I got out of the house. I actually walked to the post office and sent off postcards to those of you who gave me addresses. I told them "par avion" about sixteen times, but I'm not sure whether they listened to me, so if you get your postcards six months from now, it's not my fault. I tried.

Yesterday I met up again with some of the students from Toulouse--Mathieu, Muriel, Katharina, and Johan. We had a little picnic of sorts, and then we walked around the city and chatted. I've noticed that it's easier to speak French when I forget about the fact that I'm speaking it. If I think about each and every word, it's stressful, because I'm not a human dictionary. But if I just try to glean general meaning, it's usually okay. And when I'm talking, it's easier if I completely stop caring about conjugating verbs correctly. I probably sound like an idiot, but at least I can convey my ideas clearly that way.

I find myself saying certain words and phrases incredibly often--"en fait," "très," "beaucoup de," and so on. It makes me wonder whether I say those words--"actually," "very," "many"--just as often in English, and I don't notice simply because I'm used to it. It would be an interesting thing to track.

Anyway, they invited me to play Risk tomorrow. I have to win, right? Because America? Manifest destiny? Actually (there's one for the "actually" column), what I really need to do is remember the rules of Risk. It's probably been a decade since I last played.

It's at times like these that I'm glad the internet exists.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Universal Language of Geek

Today I met up with two of the students from the creative writing program in Toulouse. I was very nervous, because I basically speak French like a two-year-old. I'm fairly certain that I conjugate my verbs incorrectly 90% of the time, and I mix up all the prepositions. Also: why does "actuellement" have to mean "currently" instead of "actually"? Why?

Anyway, we met for tea and pastries, and initially the conversation was difficult for me. We started by discussing the differences between creative writing programs in America and France. (There are very few in France, and the programs that do exist are apparently so new that they're not yet well-formed.) I used my tried-and-true trick of pronouncing English words with a French accent when I wasn't sure of my vocabulary--it works more often than you'd think. Still, I was struggling.

Then the conversation changed to the kinds of literature they enjoy. Lo and behold, I found myself with two big sci-fi and fantasy fans. Lord of the Rings? Game of Thrones? Doctor Who? These are subjects I can discuss! You know what the French word for TARDIS is? It's TARDIS. I quickly became much more comfortable with the whole situation.

They seemed quite pleased that I like Doctor Who; apparently it's not too popular in France. They invited me to a party to watch Christopher Lee movies (RIP), but it wasn't starting until late, and I don't have a car, and the metro stops running early, so...I wasn't sure how I was going to manage that. We might get together on Monday though. Yay people!

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Went to the secondhand book market today. I bought three books, and I'm a big fan of the vendor, because he continued to speak to me in French even after learning that I was American. In fact, everybody who spoke to me today spoke in French--except at the cafe! But this particular cafe had chai tea, so I will forgive them.

Today I also experienced a more universal conundrum: that of the woman traveling alone. As much as I would like to jump into any and all situations wholeheartedly, patriarchy prevents me from doing so; there will always be a voice in my head shouting "TRUST NO ONE!" when I am approached by strangers. I was sitting along the banks of the Garonne, reading a book and minding my own business, when a man on his bike stopped next to me. I thought he was going to try to sell me cigarettes, since that seems to happen a lot here. Instead he started asking questions about me, and asked if I wanted to chat for a while and get to know each other. Perhaps he was legitimately trying to be friendly, but I wasn't comfortable giving him the benefit of the doubt. I knew it was more likely that he wanted something else--money or sex, or even just to assert his power by demanding my attention. He didn't say or do anything inappropriate (except interrupting me), but I still had to repeat several times that I preferred to read. It's a shame; in an alternate universe where nobody has ulterior motives, it would have been nice to have someone to talk to.

I'll be facing a related problem tomorrow: there's a folk concert I'd like to attend (Zoe Boekbinder), but it's at night. There's a bus that runs late that does stop near my apartment, and the nearest metro stop from my apartment is a 10-minute walk away. I'm wondering whether it's safer to try figure out where the hell the nearest bus stop is to the concert (it doesn't look very close on the map, and the streets are all tangled in knots here), or if it's better to take the metro and walk home. I think I'll walk to the metro tomorrow morning to better judge what the walk is like, then make my decision from there.

Oh, the joys of being a woman.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I have plans!

With human beings! Saturday I'm going to get coffee with some of the students in the creative writing program at the university here. Looking forward to it. I've barely opened my mouth since I arrived, except in shops and cafes.

In most of the cafes here, I've run into what I refer to as "the Italy problem," as I first encountered it when I was studying in Rome: I speak in French, they respond in English. They must notice that my grammar and/or pronunciation is off, assume I'm a tourist, and switch to make me more comfortable. That's why I was so relieved when I went to Terra Nova bookstore today. The sky was threatening to rain until a few hours ago, so I decided to walk to the bookstore, which was recommended to me by Cathy. It was just as lovely as she promised! It's packed with books from around the world, and it even has a small cafe inside. I drank a hot chocolate and worked on editing my translation piece. Before I left I asked if they had Réparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal (also recommended to me by Cathy); not only did they have the book, but they spoke with me in French the whole time they were trying to find it. Success.

A word on French bookstores: there are many of them. Many many. Like, multiple bookstores on one short street. Basically, France is paradise. Tomorrow I'm going to try to get up early and head to a street market where they sell used books. Already drooling.

I walked past several vintage stores this evening. I saw one whole rack of dresses for 20 euros each. Somebody's getting a souvenir. (That somebody is me.)

When I walk along the tree-lined Cours Dillon on my way back to my apartment, I always see several groups of people playing Pétanque, a game that Joe had mentioned to me before I traveled here. I think it's sort of like Bocce Ball. I want to sit and watch a game, but I also don't want to be a creep. Maybe I'll sit on one of the benches there and "read" one of these days.

On a final note, today I learned that the French word for chicken nuggets is "nuggets de poulet." Let's all take a moment to celebrate the fact that the French have a word for chicken nuggets.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Wanderer

That thing is happening where I don't have anyone to talk with so I just get the urge to blog constantly. The internet is my friend!

Yesterday I said I was going to explore Toulouse on foot, and that is indeed what I did. I walked roughly this route:

I don't know what you're talking about. I'm totally not a lunatic or anything.

Toulouse looks a great deal like Italy, which I suppose makes sense, as it's in the south of France. Also, a lot more of its medieval architecture seems to be in tact, whereas the Parisian buildings generally seem to be from the 18th and 19th centuries. The river that runs through the city is the Garonne. The water is a strange sort of yellow color, which I'm going to attribute to mineral deposits instead of pollution for the sake of romanticism. I didn't look at my map much; instead I just followed the many signs to various cultural sites. (Europe is big on signs.) I think that's how my route became so circuitous.

I wasn't planning on going inside anything, but I just couldn't help myself when I reached the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne. The churches here don't seem to be as immaculately restored as in some bigger European cities, which I actually prefer--less polished is often better. I went inside the Basilique Saint-Sernin as well. It has lots of relics--supposedly including those of Saint Sernin, first bishop of Toulouse--so it was apparently a frequent stop on pilgrimages. And it has a crypt! I can't resist a good crypt. America needs to take some tips from Europe on how to be sufficiently creepy.

Streets of Toulouse

The Cathedral of Saint Etienne

The Basilica of Saint Sernin

Point Neuf and the Garonne River

I found a great place for future reading and writing trips--La Daurade, a little park (that I think used to be a port) on the bank of the Garonne. It has shade, benches, and a tiny cafe that sells 2 euro cups of tea--and 2 euro glasses of wine. Can't be good wine, but for 2 euros, who's going to complain? There's also a park on the other side of Pont Neuf, Prairie des Filtres, that I think would be good for writing. I still have to check out Jardin des Plantes, though, which is supposed to be very beautiful.

I was thinking about getting a 7-day pass for Toulouse's bike-sharing program--it's only 5 euros for a week--but now I'm not so sure. I don't have a helmet, and I'm terrified of roundabouts. Parts of the streets have good bike lanes, and parts definitely do not. As I'm not the world's most confident biker, I'm thinking I'd better stick to my feet, and possibly the public transportation.

I'm trying to find local cultural events here so that a) I have something to do and b) I can potentially meet people. That way I could talk to French people instead of the internet. While I love the internet, real human interaction would be a significant improvement. This website seems promising. We shall see where it takes me.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Hello from Toulouse

How has it already been a week?! Visiting Catherine and Arnaud in Paris was a blast, bien sûr. Highlights include:

Walking around Paris with Arnaud!


Picnic at Chateau Chantilly!

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise!

Okay, I get it--one of these things is not like the others. But I love visiting old cemeteries so much. It's easily one of my favorite tourist activities. 

One of the strangest things that happened occurred when Arnaud and I were talking through the Marais neighborhood--a chic, well-to-do area of the city. A man stopped me and said that my dress was beautiful. At first I was afraid that he'd heard me speaking English and was trying to distract me in order to get into my bag; Paris is notorious for pickpockets. But he and his friend had an expensive camera, and he asked if they could take a picture for a project they were doing--something to do with impressionism and nature in fashion (my dress had flowers on it). I figured it couldn't hurt to let them snap a photo, assuming it would take only a second. But it took almost five minutes! It was a tad awkward, but hey, who doesn't want to be singled out on the streets of Paris for their fashion sense? I didn't have the heart to tell the guy that it was just a mass-produced dress from Target. Arnaud took a picture of them taking a picture of me: 

Another great thing about the trip to Paris was that I finally got to meet Cathy! (So shall French Catherine be designated from now on.) I already wrote about the translation panel we attended, but she and I also went to Shakespeare & Company together and had dinner afterwards, which was lovely.

Speaking in French has been an adventure. When I was just with Catherine and Arnaud, I spoke mostly English, but when any of their friends were there or when Cathy was there, I largely spoke French. Or rather, I spoke in French occasionally and mostly listened to others speak. I can usually understand the subject of the conversation, but I can't catch all the details and subtleties. It's especially frustrating since I know I can read the language. I wish all the words I recognize on the page would simply inscribe themselves into my brain. Ah, well. Practice makes perfect.

Now I'm in Toulouse! I flew down this morning. For those of you who don't know, Toulouse is in Southwest France, closer to the border with Spain. I haven't seen much of it yet, as I had to wait at the airport for a few hours--my new roommate Benjamin was kind enough to come pick me up after he was finished with work. He's a little quiet--or perhaps he's just as intimidated to speak English as I am to speak French. Either way, I think we'll get along just fine.

It is sweltering here. The temperature's in the 90's, and it's been lightly thunderstorming all evening. I don't remember how humidity works. How is one supposed to fall asleep when it is so sticky? I guess I'm about to find out.

It's late, so I think I'm going to unpack and hit the sack. Tomorrow shall be an exploring-on-foot day. À plus tard!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hello from Paris

Just a brief update from my phone: I have arrived in France safely and am enjoying myself immensely. Catherine and Arnaud live in Nanterre, which is technically a suburb of Paris. But their apartment is within walking distance of La Défense (the business district), so it hardly counts as a suburb. 

Last night we took the metro into Paris proper. Good news! Paris looks exactly how you think it looks: beautiful and charming. We met French Catherine (I really must devise a better way to distinguish the two) for a translation panel, which was held, of course, in a gorgeous old building. An English author, Will Self, was there with three French translators, who had all translated a passage from his most recent book. The passage was difficult to understand in English--very postmodern, evocative of Joyce especially--so translating it was no small feat. Then they discussed the differences in their translations. I was pleased because I understood a great deal more of the discussion than I thought I would. And unlike American panels, the whole audience jumped in on the discussion, so it was extremely lively. 

Today Arnaud and I are touristing while Catherine's at work. Watch out, Paris: I have a 5-day metro pass and I'm coming for you.