Sunday, July 20, 2014

On why I'm here

Here I am again 10 months later. I've come here because I am at some sort of a crossroads and as always when I am at a crossroads (or at a stop sign, or having passed by roadkill, or any other number of driving related metaphors that are all the more inappropriate given my recent failed attempt to join world of those who drive) I want to write. 

I very rarely do write because, for me at least, being at a crossroads usually means being racked with indecision, which makes sitting down to write coherent sentences seem difficult and unappealing (how can I come up with the right adjective to use if I don't even know what I want in life?!?1 etc etc). Usually this means that my journal (a lined soft-cover moleskin that feels increasingly old-fashioned whenever I take it out in public places) suffers an influx of tortured entries comprised of paragraph-long sentences and then I re-watch a season of Grey's Anatomy and then, you know, life goes on. 

However, without wanting to take myself too seriously, I do very much identify with Joan Didion when she says: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." ("Why I Write", first published in the New York Times Book Review 5 December 1976.) While keeping a journal sometimes helps achieve that, there is something about writing "in public" (even if it is to the anonymous, in many ways empty, internet) that forces me to do more than pour out my muddled thoughts onto a page. Writing something that other people might read requires some sort of structure, it requires pause, and those are two things that I think help me get from finding out what I'm thinking to finding out what it means. 

Lots of people write blogs and there are many blogs that I like reading very much. However, I've wrestled with the idea of writing a blog because it seems in many ways self absorbed (after all, who cares?) and because, unlike the blogs I like reading, I do not have anything in particular to offer such as enviable cooking skills, fashion nuance, whimsical photography, or stories of my ridiculously happy life with my partner and little dog and small online business selling crocheted pot plant covers. For the moment though, I have decided to put all that aside and run with this little shimmer of inspiration into the void. (I have inserted a picture of a beach with a light and a dark half separated by the jagged line of the sea and a tumultuous sky below for good measure.)

(The other reason to write "for pleasure" is because my job requires a lot of the kind of writing that instills a very strong desire in me right now to use headings to signpost where this blogpost is going, and maybe insert an introduction. Aaaand if I started to do that it would all be over before it started.)

Having said all that, that's all I have in me for the moment. Hopefully this reflection might bring me back to this space sooner than last time. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

On meeting Joan

In my last year of university I was working at the university bookshop following a weird series of events that might be described as fate by someone, unlike me, who knows whether or not they believe in fate. Joan Didion's most recent book Blue Nights was published that year. It sat on the new releases table for weeks looking at me with its sparse, powder blue cover. Everyone told me I must read The Year of Magical Thinking before Blue Nights but I've always been impatient when it comes to books. I took Blue Nights home with me and began my infatuation with Didion.

Over a year later I was in San Francisco staying in a hostel close to China Town. There was a Jack Kerouac museum down the street where I bought a Frank O'Hara book called Lunch Poems and I saw the Golden Gate Bridge and spent an evening drinking gin and tonics at Vesuvio's next to City Light Books listening to the busker outside and walking over paving stones that quoted Maya Angelou. There was something about San Fransisco that made me feel like I'd gone back a few decades and been welcomed there.

I mention this because meeting Didion for the first time in Blue Nights felt like being in San Fransisco did. It was like going somewhere I'd never been before that was new and exciting and at the same time having an overwhelming and comforting sense of déjà vu. I also mention this because Didion wrote about 1960s San Fransisco in her nihilistic way in one of her most famous essays "Slouching Towards Bethlehem".

In fact I brought this whole subject up because in Didion's collection of essays by the same title, which I bought at City Light Books with the enthusiasm of a child let loose in a candy store, there is a piece I loved called "On Self Respect". I read "On Self Respect" on my way home from San Fransisco at Auckland airport. Last week I had one of those days when it felt like there was nothing I could do right and I went back to that essay. And I felt better. And I remembered how I first met Joan and thought "lucky me". And then I came here and wrote about it.

I find it difficult to describe exactly what it is about Joan that I love so much but there's some of it in this quote, from a faded library worn copy of Run River: 
"... she reflected admiringly upon people in movies - and it was not only people in movies - who when they could not talk to each other said goodbye, had renunciations, made decisions: started fresh, apparently lobotomized. If there was one thing she and Everett and Ryder all had in common it was that none of their decisions ever came to much; they seemed afflicted with memory." Joan Didion, Run River

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Just a little

When I was 13 I kept a "gratitude journal" for a few months. I don't know where I got this idea from or why I started, but everyday I would write down five things I was grateful for (actually it took me a few weeks to realise that it wasn't spelt "greatful", which seemed illogical to my indignant self at the time). A little ironically (or perhaps appropriately) the journal I used had a mournful Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh on the front cover.

Similarly I'm not sure why I've come back here now but I think it has something to do with why that eager teenage girl started collecting the good parts of each day in a lined notebook. I recently started my first "real" job post university and working all day every weekday (shock horror) has been a bit of an adjustment. This weekend I attended the launch of kiwi Eleanor Catton's already critically acclaimed The Luminaries at the Wellington gem Unity Bookstore. I was surrounded by people for whom literature and creativity are foremost in their lives. I thought of how reading has recently been relegated to the last half hour of my days where it takes on a sleep-inducing role rather than an invigorating one. And I remembered that one of the things I love about writing and recording and photos is that they can crystallise those ordinary amazing fleeting things that happen every day. And so ... I decided to try coming back here for a while.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A little about a lot

There seems to be no other way to start this post except to comment on how long it has been since I last wrote. When one is at home living through the "grey weekdays" (a phrase directly translated from the Hungarian a szürke hétköznapok), ten weeks can pass by in the blink of an eye and suddenly winter is turning into summer and it's all a bit incomprehensible. When travelling, I think, one is more prepared for (or against) the inevitable feeling that time will slip through the fingers, but it's tempered by the simple fact of so many places seen, people met and experiences had.

Before I continue, I just want to write a sentence here for the late Greg King. I was lucky enough to meet Greg and "work" with him in a very limited capacity but he really inspired me and I think his death is a huge loss to many people personally and to the legal community in general - it's really saddened me. I've been thinking a lot about his family.

Since I last updated you, my travels took me to both Poland and Holland for the first time and back, after a six year absence, to my second home, Hungary. It's been a rollercoaster few weeks with a lot of rain and a lot of sunshine.

While in Berlin we looked at the map and realised how close Poland was, so we hopped on a train and found ourselves in the city of Poznan. The whole thing was spontaneous and so our expectations were perhaps not high, but we really loved it. The old-town is just beautiful, full of colourful dollhouse-like buildings and the scent of history lingering in the air. The food was phenomenal and the vodka very dangerous. We encountered many friendly and open people who really made us feel welcome and ensured that Poznan would become rooted in the "favourite places travelled to" category. (On reflection, that category is pretty big actually.) Poznan also found a special place in my heart due to its connection with Hungary via its 1956 uprising - the city revolted against the Russians just a few months before Hungary did. (Contrary to popular belief neither of these were "anti-communist" per se, rather "anti-foreign-oppressors".) It was the Hungarian revolution that brought my maternal grandparents to New Zealand and so it's a big part of my identity too, and the Poznan connection was previously unknown to me. Poznan pays homage to the revolution's sentiments and victims with a great little museum and a massive, very impressive monument in the city centre. Solidarity with the Hungarian cause and "freedom fighters" is expressed in both these memorials, and also popped up in conversation with a few locals.

After a couple of nights back in Berlin we were on the road again, this time heading for Amsterdam. My cousin R's friendly face awaited us in this city of canals and coffeehouses (not to mention an inordinate amount of bicycles whose rate that can be compared to NZ's sheep population), and she took very good care of us. Due to the distances between our homes we have never really spent much time together and yet we share many traits that we can only put down to inherited family genes, so it was quite special to be able to just hang out together. I also loved wandering the city's tiny bridges and sensed an elusive, energetic life-rhythm pulsing in the streets.

For me, one of the highlights of the visit was seeing Anne Frank's house in the city centre. I read her diary countless times when I was younger and it still sits on my bookshelf at home. Back then I was always enthralled by the similarities in our lives and feelings despite the enormous differences between our situations, and inspired by her ability (especially given her young age) to express sentiments that seemed so personal and unique. I suppose it was one of the first times I encountered the truth of my father's old adage "the most private feelings are the most universal". Visiting the house though, walking the rooms and seeing the posters still in the bedroom, imagining the forced quiet chaos lived between those walls, was the first time the very tragedy of these facts hit home. That such a special and yet very ordinary girl was subject first to the restraints of living in hiding and then to the unimaginable horrors of a concentration camp, not to mention her death one month before the camp's liberation, was really brought to life for me. (As a side note though, this experience, like most popular tourist attractions, was a bit dampened by the amount of jostling and neck-craning required.)

Soon we were back in Berlin, this time in a dance choreographer's Kreuzberg studio apartment with a huge empty wooden floor space and geraniums in the windows. Our neighbours were a friendly Irish couple who we would have coffee and long conversations about Ireland and New Zealand and life in general with on a small wooden bench outside or, when the weather turned colder, at our place. One afternoon our other neighbours, who we hadn't yet met, knocked on our door to say they were moving out and could we please take a spare five bottles of wine off their hands? We found a wonderful bar at the end of the street full of old photographs, dusty bottles of spirits, locals and cigarette smoke. It also boasted two gorgeous dogs - a huge, resigned black one and an energetic little beige one. Needless to say we became regulars there, as we did (to some extent) at a beer garden a few streets away from us, with coloured fairy lights and a roaring fire. While in Berlin I discovered that a New Zealand friend, B, was living just a neighbourhood away. We met during German classes at university and revelled in the fact that, after about three years of not really keeping in touch, we could pick up where we left off and practice in Berlin what we'd learned in Wellington - it was one of life's cool little surprises.

A little while later I found myself in Vác, about half an hour from Budapest where some of my Hungarian relatives live and where I spent a lot of time at various phases in my life. Admittedly it was very strange at first - walking these streets and sitting in these lounge rooms remind me very strongly of being nine or 13 or 18 years old depending on how the light falls. I haven't been back since before I started university and it felt remarkable to see the things that had changed and others that remain the same. I wondered how I would fall into the rhythm of things here as an adult but ultimately I found my balance.

So being here, for me, is a peculiar mix of the familiar and the new as I walk a jagged line between local and visitor. There is joy to be found in being somewhere the language flows easily from my lips and where I recognise the pattern of the streets, and a different but equal thrill in (re-)discovering the secrets of these places. I suppose it adds to the experience that I have a pretty hopeless memory, so places present themselves to me with the vague and unplaceable remnants of experiences floating in the air.

The New York Coffee House
While here I've been host to two separate friends visiting and so I have indulged in some of the more touristy pleasures that Budapest has to offer. Drinking overpriced wine (about equal to a glass in NZ) at "the most beautiful cafe in the world", the New York Kávéház, full of tourists, decadently decorative fixtures and over a hundred years of history. Luxuriating in the warm waters of the thermal baths at the Széchényi Fürdő. Wandering the rows of fresh food and folk embroidery and leather bags at the Vásárcsarnok, hearing the mix of retired Hungarians' and excited tourists' conversations there. Walking along the Danube past the beautiful bridges that straddle the divide between the two previously separate cities of Buda and Pest is always a favourite pass time. It's an experience that is transformed with each change of light, daytime and season, one that passes unnoticed by many locals and causes wonderment in many tourists. In this sense I guess I fall more into the visitor category because it takes my breath away each time.

In other ways, I have fallen back into the life I left behind in 2006. I've returned to singing with the Váci Vox Humana, the choir that my late great-great-uncle conducted for 42 years and is a cornerstone in my relatives' lives here. Members of the choir approach me with affectionate smiles to ask about my parents and my grandmother, who left this town with only a handkerchief in hand over 50 years ago - people who knew her and her family in a way I never did. My grandmother's uncle has been on my mind a bit recently as it's the anniversary of his death now - I didn't know him all that well but he was a special person who left behind a big legacy. He's always left an impression of me and I remember writing a story about him for a high school assignment. A week ago we sang Fauré's Requiem which is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral music, and, as predicted, I was carried away with the irreplaceable feeling of being one voice of many giving life to a timeless and evocative piece of music. Another familiar and faraway feeling brought to the fore.

Here is where I will finish. There will be many more things to write in the coming weeks and I will try not to wait so long to "put pen to paper" next time (especially because if I do I'll be just about back in NZ). As always sok szeretettel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A little familiar

It is a lovely Sunday morning in Berlin. This sentence might predictably be followed by a description of a bustling street filled with buskers and street art and large umbrellas shading café tables. Actually, though, I am sitting on a concrete slab of a balcony looking out from this concrete slab of an apartment building onto the concrete slab of a supermarket opposite. (The supermarket is like a library. The aisles are quiet and well ordered.  The building is low and unimposing and speaks accurately to the lack of tiny bottles of expensive and exotic food inside. Exotic to Germans, I mean, because of course to me even the most budget leberwurst is a little exotic.)

World Clock on Alexander Platz
Nonetheless, it is lovely. The sun is shining and the expanse of grass separating this Soviet style collection of shoebox apartments from the road has been freshly mown. This is an example of something that has occurred to me a few times in the two weeks we have been in Berlin. The sun shines less here than in Montpellier – the streets are less picturesque, less romantic – and the city wears its fraught history on its sleeve, on its walls and behind its windows. And yet, it is immediately closer to my heart than the pretty, carefree Mediterranean city we have just left. 

Perhaps this should have been obvious because of Berlin’s proximity, not so much geographically as socially, culturally and historically to my Hungarian roots, or I could take a bit of a self-centred-psychoanalytical approach and say that the past and present morally and socially chaotic nature of this place resonates more with my personality and my history than Montpellier did. Writing this, though, it strikes me that it’s probably simply that there are places you connect with and ones you don’t so much and if I wanted to subject you all to my philosophical ramblings on the subject I likely should have warned you (sorry).

Anyway! All that is not to say I didn’t like Montpellier. The streets of Montpellier (in the centre at least) are nearly all beautiful and summer is a wonderful time to be there. One of my favourite parts of our time there were the free classical music concerts put on by Radio France. For two weeks, I had the opportunity nearly every day to enter the cool air of the concert hall Le Corum just minutes from our apartment, at noon and in the evening, and listen to young prodigies or more established talents play beautiful old works as well as more challenging (or, let’s be honest – to my ears, nearly unbearable) contemporary pieces.

I was especially happy to have heard Debussy’s Claire de Lune played in a French concert hall and to have an older French lady sitting next to me lean over and say c’est merveilleux! The same pianist played an encore that was an enchanting piece previously unknown to me by Franck – I’ve since listened to this link played by Hungarian Gyula Kiss countless times (typical to Hungarian artists, he plays the piece at least twice as slowly as most other pianists and therefore lends it a very endearing melancholy). Since we’ve been travelling I’ve experienced that clichéd feeling that possessions aren’t important (with the exception of a few essentials, e.g. passport, camera, toothbrush or at least some breath mints…) – they get lost or broken or left behind and life goes on. This feeling and (probably more importantly) the baffling weight of my suitcase has left me uninspired by souvenir shopping – but I feel like that short piece of music is a treasure found in the city that I can take with me.

Just up from Le Corum a staggered set of stairs leads to a leafy park/boulevard where we used to enjoy our Friday nights. The city puts on a wonderful (again, free) festival where each week wine, food and music are on offer.  For five euros each we’d pick up a festival wine glass and our three coupons and join the hundreds of other wine “tasters” mobbing winegrowers from around France. Once we became seasoned in the art we abandoned the wine tasting and instead brought our own bottle of wine to share among the other evening picnic-ers sprawled on the grass, nodding our heads along to the beat of the covers band on stage and sampling the paella, enormous oysters and salami rolls on offer. The highlight for me each week was the makeshift stage set up for ballroom dancing, apparently random couples coming and going or individuals pairing up, some wearing dancing shoes and others jandals, moving in sync with a tango or some tune from the 20s.

It was so hot the entire time in Montpellier that jackets and jeans became a distant memory (it’s funny how quickly this feeling appears). Our charming little flat had lots of big windows that could coax a breeze through the rooms, but the best respite from the heat were trips to the beach or river. One day a friend M had met years ago took us to Pont Du Diable, an old arched stone bridge sitting over a river where we joined the kids and old folks in the cool water. In our first two weeks we stayed in a small hostel/homestay where we’d sometimes accompany the owners on a drive to Palavas, the beach town just a few k’s from Montpellier. This was everything I hoped for from my first experience of the Mediterranean sea – blazing sun, white sand and warm (very salty) water. A later weekend saw us train and bus to the nearby town of Sete, where yet another free festival invited beach goers to enjoy DJs and beer stands in between sunbathing and swimming.

When it was too hot to make the hour-long journey by tram to the water, I came to love the – until then completely foreign – idea of sitting among other wilting patrons at a café on the main square, Comedie, being sprayed with misty clouds of tiny icy water drops (I did spare a though for the people I love freezing in Wellington). 

(Naturally I also became a regular at the local English language bookshop/cafe. The book lover part of me can’t help mentioning my delight at the impressive collection of English language novels found in our rented flat. More than a few stifling evenings were spent reading/discovering/being enthralled by LP Hartley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Alison Lurie and even that controversial book The Help … honestly, I really loved working my way through that mini library. I feel a bit embarrassed about this, maybe because books are sometimes seen as a way of travelling or experiencing without getting up from your armchair in your suburban house with a picket fence, and why waste time on that when you are “out there” in the world? But for me, (good) books have always been more of a lens, like a kaleidoscope that can make squares look like triangles or hexagons just by changing the angle. They offer more than a story – by pointing out or exploring the assumed or the unobserved, they invite me to do the same long after I’ve finished reading – whether at home or on the road. In other words, they enrich whatever's going on around me. That might be why I like McEwan when others find him banal … like maybe this paragraph is becoming?)

Leaving Montpellier brought an end to our affair with France. We chugged along through the night by train and found ourselves, for the first time in nearly six months, somewhere with a tinge of familiarity. Both M and I have spent time in Germany before but this is the first time we’ve seen Berlin. Here we met yet another of M’s old friends (M is a very friendly guy), who lives about 20 minutes from the centre in old East Berlin, where I’m writing from now.

Where to start about Berlin? As I said, I connect to the place partly via my Hungarian side. The remnants of the Iron Curtain are visible in the same way in the style of some buildings and more imperceptibly in people’s attitudes. (Also in the hairstyles of the middle-aged check-out women at the supermarket.) In many ways the effects are much more noticeable here due to the way they’re contrasted – while Hungary’s economy/politics are considered “generally” post-Soviet, here there is a continued disparity between wages in (old) West and East Berlin, in the same city, same currency, same jobs, nearly a quarter of a century after the Wall came down. I suppose this is the less romantic equivalent of parts of the Wall itself that remain standing, invariably decorated with graffiti or street art, or chips of it that are sold in plastic pouches. But neither Hungary nor Berlin can be defined simply by this small part of their history – the food, in particular, is also similar and I have delighted in finding Hungarian favourites in the supermarket (e.g. Pick salami and "tévé paprika").

My NZ side has also been nourished though. One Sunday brought back especially vivid memories of Wellington when we went to a cafe/music venue called St. Gaudy's to hear Mara Simpson and Hollie Smith play. I first came to know Mara's music through the bars like Havana in Wellington, dimly lit and buzzing with activity while local artists (my brother included, at the time) pour their dreams and disappointments into a microphone. In Berlin the difference was that the audience was seated, distracted only when taking a sip of beer, but there were enough Kiwis there to feel like we were at home. It was the first time I'd seen Hollie Smith live and she was as fantastic as she's famed to be, and down to earth (or maybe just "Kiwi"?) enough to have an easy chat with beforehand.

We also discovered a place named Kiwi Pub and it is just that. Drinking Monteiths and talking to bar owner John from Papatoetoe (a pretty classic Kiwi bloke) was just what we needed to help ward off that mid-year homesickness. A week later we met a fellow couple of NZ travellers on a similar mission to our own while watching a Bledisloe Cup game at an Irish pub at midday with a couple of beers in hand ... we took them back to meet John and cruised our way through the evening swapping stories about travel and about home in equal measure. Choice.

As for Berlin in general - it is as vibrant and vivacious as I'd heard. To me, the way the city confronts its history has been especially impressive ...The slightly ironic way the security booth that separated the "American" sector from the "Russian" at Checkpoint Charlie remains in tact next to what is now a huge McDonalds. The incomprehensible mass of stone cubes to represent the Holocaust and its victims (somewhat desecrated by sunbathing or cube-jumping young people - does this mean something sinister, is it disrespectful or forgetful? Or is it just natural, inadvertent? Or maybe it's some kind of triumph of normality/joy over horror?). The "Topography of Terror" at the site of the old Gestapo building, an outdoor exhibition that traces the (many) darker parts of Berlin's recent history, in one long, seemingly endless straight line.

One of my favourite experiences where the city's history and its present state are juxtaposed has been Sunday at Mauerpark. Mauerpark literally means "Wall park" and it is a huge grassy area flanked on one side by a large section of the Wall that still stands (pictured above). A footpath follows the Wall, dotted with wooden benches and with single wooden swings here and there. Swinging on one of these means being flung backwards towards the Wall and then forwards, away from it to look over the whole park. On Sundays the park fills with picnic-ers, sunbathers, lovers and a massive flea market where crafts, clothes and knick-knacks from way before the Wall went up can be haggled for. The best part though, to me, is the mass karaoke that takes place each week. Hundreds of people sit in the sun on a semi circle of steep stairs in front of the Wall to watch complete strangers try their hand at the Backstreet Boys (etc). Below them a DJ sits on the stage with some speakers and a microphone under a sun umbrella. Everyone laughs, cheers and sings along - when we went, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" was a big hit. (Not to worry though, we also heard an old German hit that was apparently very popular.) I was completely besotted with this casual and awesome expression of unity right up against the symbol of the city's recent division.

I've also loved discovering Berlin's quirky cafes, wandering Museum Island (although the lines/admission prices have so far kept us admiring from the outside) and enjoying the makeshift beaches that pop up randomly throughout the city. One of these was next to the Spree (the river running through Berlin), but another, quite similar one, is simply in otherwise the concrete laden Mitte (centre district) - hut-style bars surrounded by inexplicable sand and beach umbrellas - as strange as they sound, very charming!

This is where I'll finish. We have quite a bit of travelling planned for the next couple of weeks so there'll be lots more to tell next time - until then, viele liebe as always.

P.S. I can't believe I nearly forgot ... the beer and bratwurst in Berlin are, of course, phenomenal (and frequently enjoyed).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A little dreaming

Here I am, sitting in a windy summer garden to begin my blog post to you and I am loving it. Despite growing up in Wellington where one is fully entitled to become thoroughly sick of the wind, the rustling leaves around me are a welcome respite from the intense heat of today. (Actually it reminds me of a chapter from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in which a village is plagued by incessant winds for years. I remember thinking how this seemed, like the other scenes in the book, to be magical and enchanting ... only be caught in one of Wellington's chilly gusts and recant my earlier observation immediately. But maybe I was too quick to do so ...)

We are in Montpellier, in the south of France. The heat surrounds us like disappointment or excitement might, completely and insistently. It reminds us both of Seville and while we moan about it now and then, it is refreshing in its own way. And with the beach nearby and the infectious festive spirit pervading the city, it seems silly to take a few sweat patches too seriously. Also of course there is the mere fact of being in the south of France - the subject of so many trashy books, celebrity gossip columns and retirement dreams. More importantly (and appealingly), my dreams.

Before we came here another of my dreams came true - Paris. (Paris, Je t'aime. "Sitting in a park in Paris, France/Reading the news and it sure looks bad" - Joni Mitchell, all time favourite. And all those high school French classes, of course.) We took a spontaneous trip with our friend in Reims, whose brother lives there - or more precisely in Clichy, which is technically just outside of Paris but still along one of the main metro lines. In the end we stayed seven days and we loved it.

First and in a blindingly obvious way we headed to the Eiffel Tower. Less cliched was that we took a bike ride in the wee hours of the morning and arrived in time to see the city's icon transform from a dark shadow into the postcard version of itself as the sun rose. This meant we had one of the world's most popular tourist attractions all to ourselves and I had plenty of time and space to marvel at just being there. (Also to take about 150 photos, many of which unsurprisingly turned out to look pretty similar.)

While in Paris we saw most of the other tourist attractions I had read about during French class ... The Sacre Coeur, a magnificent cathedral overlooking the city from the charming Montmatre neighbourhood. The Louvre, complete with its late addition controversial glass pyramids and its overwhelming collection of art. This included, of course, the secretive Mona Lisa, who I believe is done great justice to by Nat King Cole. It is also, as rumour has it, both small and mostly obscured by the protective glass (uncommon in the rest of the museum) and hordes of tourists in front of it. The Notre Dame, where mass was held amidst the teeming visitors armed with digital cameras. The expansive, expensive Champs Elysee, flanked by springtime green trees leading to the Arc de Triomphe, weirdly marooned in the middle of a frightening round-about - a beacon of history among the most modern vehicles money can buy. Finally, on our last day, Hotel des Invalides, an incredible museum where World Wars One and Two come alive and Napoleon's remains lie buried in an enormous tomb.

That's the postcard stuff (funnily enough we didn't end up buying any postcards ... sorry everyone!). I found it all very exciting, but looking back it is the less generic experiences that remind me that yes, I was in Paris. On our third day we found ourselves in the rain at 7.30am, not knowing where or if we would be staying that night. Hauling our enormous, increasingly wet bags around, we found a small bar that was open, apparently for the benefit of a few early morning beer drinkers, and ordered some much needed coffee. Subsequently we spent three hours in the nearby McDonalds, taking advantage of their wifi and looking for a way to stay just a few more days. In the end a friend of a friend came through and we were able to spend another few nights with them, right in the 10th district, just a few strides away from the Sacre Coeur! Well I've never been so happy just to have accommodation, to be honest.

In fact it rained nearly the entire time we were there. One afternoon I was caught on the Pont Neuf (walking across the Seine from the Notre Dame to the Louvre) in a huge downpour, thunder bellowing behind me and my umbrella refusing to behave. I rushed to the safety of the metro station only to find that the hordes of people and my relative unfamiliarity with the metro lines was just about equivalent to or maybe worse than being harassed by the storm.

I had just come from Shakespeare & Co, an English language book shop and library/reading room in the heart of Paris, which used to be frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and was used as an office by James Joyce (in fact, the original owner, Sylvia Beach, was first to publish Ulysses). Apparently many of the staff currently employed are also aspiring writers. Its collection of books was truly impressive, and the reading room upstairs has a certain magic to it - the ghosts of many writers and dreams and ideas lurking amidst so many old, dusty editions. Outside a fiddler's busking also seemed to echo another time. Frankly though, like many famous places in Paris (including those listed above), the place's charm was a little obscured by the number of tourists, and the jostling and loud voices that must follow from such a large number of people wanting to see or experience the same thing at the same time.

In the evening however I arrived early enough to get a seat in the tiny reading room to hear Debra Sparks give a lecture entitled "Where Do Stories Comes From?". For an hour or so I felt transported into the role of "writer moves to Paris to work on novel by a small window overlooking the Seine, smoking cigarettes and occasionally walking down the street to buy a baguette or to meet with other expat writers to discuss the newest chapter". I took some notes, stayed quiet when it came to question time so as not to interrupt the stream of "questions" beginning with "well I have this manuscript ...", and because the books were outlandishly expensive, bought a book bag when it came time to leave to remind me of my Parisian writer's reverie.

(As a side note, I made another two unsuccessful trips to other English language bookshops renowned for their selection of books and tea, which had sadly both closed. Happily though there is a cafe/English language bookshop here in Montpellier called Le Bookshop, which I like very much despite the fact that they didn't give me a job when I asked for one ...)

Probably my favourite parts of Paris were the most ordinary - walking the hilly, cobbled streets of Montmatre, drinking coffee from wobbly tables on the pavement and stopping to buy fruit on the way back to the apartment. Also - as strange as it may seem - eating at the lovely Thai restaurant just around the corner recommended to us by our hosts. It's funny what can make you feel like a local sometimes.

And now we find ourselves in Montpellier. A warm city close to the beach, full of cafes and plazas and a Mediterranean feel. And, it must also be mentioned, an inordinate amount of beggars sitting on street corners and hassling people at tram-ticket machines, as well as seemingly perfectly well-off strangers who ask for cigarettes (I have a very low tolerance for this). We spent a few days staying in a tiny apartment with another friend M met in New York, and then moved on again to a big house with a lovely garden, an adorable geriatric little dog and a cast of eccentric characters. We spent ten days there taking regular trips to the beach and lolling on the shady terrace, acclimatising to the immense heat. During our evening forays into the city centre we saw people playing music and dancing in the street - once for the nation-wide Fete de la Musique and once for no apparent reason except it was Saturday (and a few hen's parties converging out of happy coincidence). We have now settled for the next few weeks in an apartment on a charming and busy street, so stayed tuned ...

With love as always, Z.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A little champagne

Continuing from last time ...

At this point we experienced a few more typical and much less inspiring quirks of travelling - snagging the worst (i.e. slowest) check-in counter at the airport, throwing things into the rubbish bin out of my too-heavy suitcase, waiting throughout the dead wee hours at Charles de Gaulle airport along with a few homeless people, dazedly catching the right train(s - there were two, and then the tram) and finally ending up in Reims, Champagne. The breakfast croissants at the train-station cafe did help although subsequent experience has proven our initial impression that the French don't really have coffee down to a tee like NZ does (like rugby I suppose ... har har). 


In Reims' was our first friend from NZ. Going somewhere you know people is quite different from just plunging into an unknown city. Within a day or so one of his friends drove us all to a forest where we wandered among branches and bark and leaves and picked the last of the season's lily-of-the-valley. On our first night we went to watch another friend's band play at a bar and I ended up singing a sort of karaoke version of "Stand By Me" with a girl called Elodie and a band made up of short, potbellied, greying and very jolly men. 

We did also explore the city's main tourist attraction, its very own 800 year old Notre Dame. This is no copy-cat cathedral - Reims used to be the capital of France and many a French king was crowned here. The cathedral received more than its fair share of bombing during various wars, especially WWI and WWII, but is still standing and pretty magnificent, if a little battered. The other night there was a light-show projected onto it (as part of a festival in honour of Joan of Arc, who is much loved here) and it was spectacular. Accompanied by music, it depicted the cathedral being built, the men and the scaffolding, the wars, and the apparently original colours it was painted all those years ago (something I didn't know ... the architecture is always so impressive that I never imagined these massive works of art would actually have been painted, too). 


We spent a few days in Reims (where we began our ongoing discovery of the the delights of French supermarket and bakery shopping) and then hopped on a train again to get to a tiny French village that most French people haven't heard of, called Carignan. This is L's hometown and we loved it so much we stayed nearly two weeks instead of four days. L's parents welcomed us with absolute warmth and also with foie gras (chicken liver pate), escargot (snails) and plenty of champagne. 

During our time there we visited the neighbouring towns. Sedan, home to Europe's largest castle from the Middle Ages at 35,000 square metres.  Here we explored dark narrow passage ways and wandered rooms that housed kings and queens and soldiers. Charleville-Mézières, which hosted the Fete de la Biere (beer fest) that we attended. I'm sure you can all imagine what a beer fest involves so suffice to say I got to know Chimay beer quite intimately and that we made friends with some people from Reunion Island. Also that we saw a pretty amazing Victorian/zombie dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was (I'm sorry, I just can't help it) thrilling. 


Bouillon, view from the castle
Carignan is actually closer to Belgium than it is to any decent sized town in France. M and I exhibited typical NZ delight when L said "let's go to Belgium to watch the football game tonight". Going to another country just to watch the game! Going to another country and coming back within just a few hours! As it turns out French people in the area go to Belgium regularly as many things are much cheaper there than in France. In fact most of the time it was quite unnoticeable that we had passed into another country (no border crossing as such). We ended up making a few trips to Florenville (to watch the game), Orval (to try Orval beer and glimpse the abbey whose monks came up with it) and Bouillon. Bouillon was very picturesque and also housed a huge castle, owned by Godfrey (or Godefroy) of Bouillon who later went on to lead the First Crusade and become the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (or "defender of the Holy Sepulcher"). Of course he also ended up having a beer named after him, which we sampled in the hot sun at a cafe close to the river. 


One of the most memorable parts of our visit to Carignan was visiting a fort on the Maginot line. The first and only one to be captured in fighting with the Germans. The Maginot line runs from Dunkirk to Corsica across the entire length of the French - German border (and also the French - Italian one), was built over decades and considered genius. This fort was the only one in which all soldiers protecting it died, many from asphyxiation. 

By coincidence we visit on the 72nd anniversary of the day they died, 19 May 1940. On this day we are lead through the first weapon block by a young guy dressed in an old soldier's uniform, who is very passionate about the fort and its story. We see the weapons, the kitchen block, how eletricity was generated and the rows of bunk beds. We see the steel doors blown apart by the force of explosions and are told about all the different things that went wrong and why. Later we descend a square spiral of stairs until we are 25 metres underground. Then we walk a concrete tunnel not wider than a metre and a half and very long. The tunnel connects the two weapon blocks and it's where most of the soldiers ended up trapped. There are 107 dead and dying men around us, panicking and praying and remembering their families. I feel claustraphobic and profoundly sad and I can't wait to get out into the fresh air.

I guess that sounds like I hated it but actually I found it very interesting and very moving. 


On a less sombre note ... another highlight of our visit was the kindness of the people we met. L's father, P, was recovering from a foot operation and therefore at home during the day with us. He didn't speak a word of English, M's French was about the same (it's since improved) and mine was quite limited. Nonetheless we formed a good friendship that involved a lot of hand gestures and pointing. Watching P and M cook a barbecue or cheer on the same team together was both funny and really quite cool. It turns out you don't need to speak the same language to understand what the other is saying. L's mother turned out to have a level of English that surprised everyone including herself (her initial would also be M ... very confusing), but I still had plenty of chances to practice my high school French with her and others. 

Anyway, their kindness and openness was abundant. On our first evening we were taken down to one of the village's three or four bars, the Cafe de la Place, to share a drink with the locals (who we were to see more than once after that). I think it was from this point that we began to feel at home. We also loved getting into the practice of having "apero" (short for aperitif), i.e. a drink and nibbles before dinner, which really is already within both our natures. 

L's parents were good friends with their neighbours who owned the "Friterie" down the road. This means a caravan where burgers and all their ingredients in various different forms are served, as well as fries. When I pictured French food I did not envisage myself eating a long bun which is practically obscured due to all the fries in and around it, but admittedly this dish is called an "Amercain". At any rate Friteries seem to be quite common in the north-east of France but this one was special. Philippe and Sylvie (who, again, spoke no English whatsoever) were lively and warm with, from what I gathered, a slightly dirty sense of humour and raucous, contagious laughs that made regular appearances. On our last night we were invited into their home for farewell champagne and encouragement to come back any time and as soon as we liked - preferably in time for their son's wedding the following weekend.