Wednesday, October 29, 2014

my french country internship

hello again, world. it’s been a while, so i thought this was as good a time as any to give you a little update on my goings-on! for those of you who don’t know, i’m back in france. at this point, i don’t think anyone can really be surprised… it seems to happen pretty often these days. but how did i get here, you ask? well, it’s a fun story!

back in may, when i got home from my last stint of working in france and traveling in europe, i didn’t have much of a plan. (shocker, right?) i knew that i had a friend from france coming to visit me in nashville at the end of the summer, so i was hesitant to find a “big girl job” that would take away from my ability to spend time with her. apparently, normal jobs don’t give you two weeks of paid vacation… weird. plus, i still thought i was going to be taking a big road trip before  her arrival… so really, i had no true motivation to get my career going. instead, i lived at home and pieced together an income throughout the summer, working as an assistant coach for my neighborhood swim team (the same one i was on for 14 summers!), tutoring french, and dogsitting. it was fun and relaxing – exactly what i needed the summer to be, in order to avoid the reentry shock that i suffered last time around. as the summer drew on, certain plans formed and other plans fell through… the roadtrip ended up getting postponed for another time, and my friend mathilde came for two weeks. i flew up to meet her in new york city, taking advantage of her flight route to spend a few days touring around with her. we came back to franklin and enjoyed a week of fun, southern adventuring and relaxation together. i got to bring her down to my friend liz’s lake house, which was fabulous, and we had a couple good days in nashville as well.

all throughout the summer, mathilde’s departure was my mental d-day – i was allowed to lay low and not think about the future until after she left. it seemed so far away during the months of june and july, but finally, the week was upon me… her departure was set for august 20th. i could feel the pressure mounting as my mantra of priorities – “car, job, house” – started to get louder and louder. and then, everything got crazy. on the 17th, my mom sent me a link to a blog  that she had been following for some time called ‘my french country home.’ the author of the blog, sharon, was looking for someone to help her through a hectic few months – a sort of unofficial fall internship. the ideal candidate: young(ish) with few attachments and responsibilities (i.e. able to pick up and leave); be willing to live in the french countryside for a few months; have a love for all things french, antique, travel, writing; be interested in learning about publishing, blogging, travel planning. as i read the post, i couldn’t help but feel like it would be foolish not to at least send an email. what could it hurt? so, i spent an hour drafting up a message that introduced me, explained a little about my history, and gave a few reasons why i would like to be chosen as the intern. i sent it late sunday night. by wednesday, i had a response that detailed the job a little more and requested a conversation on skype if i was still interested. on friday, i skyped with sharon for about half an hour and we hit it off really well – she told me she would decide within the week and let me know. the following friday, i was offered the job, and i bought my tickets on sunday. so, within the span of two weeks, i learned about, applied for, interviewed for, accepted, and bought tickets for an 8 week internship in normandy! definitely the fastest one of my europe trips has ever come together. :)

i had two weeks to get everything sorted before leaving on the 14th of september. when i arrived, sharon picked me up from the airport and brought me back to her beautiful home, located in normandy, to the west of paris. it’s a beautiful area of the country, with rolling hills and winding rivers. i have been staying in the guest cottage, which is exactly as charming as you’re imagining. her husband and son are both incredibly nice and there are two dogs, gibson and ghetto, whom i adore. my job has been great – lots of variety and fun excursions. i’ve done everything from assisting at glamorous photo shoots and helping facilitate group tours to carrying out the everyday, behind-the-scenes maintenance of the blog. it’s been a dream to see some of the places i’ve gotten to visit – glitzy parisian hotels, charming 17th century homes, huge antique fairs, and quaint village squares, just to name a few. learning about the blogiverse has been interesting as well – the amount of work it takes would genuinely astound you. if you would like to see photos from my time here in normandy, check out this album or my instagram.

i actually just got back from visiting a friend in sweden, but that’s a story for a different post. :) this internship has flown by – it’s my sixth week of work already, and i only have two more after this one! once i leave here, i’ll have two weeks of travels before heading home at the end of november. then, the winter, with more adventures already on the books. i truly am living the dream, y’all. i can't believe my life sometimes. cheers to the uncertainty, flexibility, adventure, and joy that being 23 offers!

a portrait of the author, laughing in the face of conventional employment - honfleur, france - september 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

mother's day in france and ireland

one final update from this past year, and then i promise i have more recent news for you all!!

after three weeks in turkey and greece with some fantastic friends, i made my way back to paris at the beginning of may to intercept my final two visitors – my mom and aunt!! we had planned a sort of dual-purpose mother’s day trip, splitting my final two weeks in europe between france and ireland. it worked out perfectly, because i needed to get back to dublin for my flight home anyway, and they both had dreamed for years of visiting ireland. but first, we had to get the bags i had left in excideuil, and of course i had to show them around paris!

we rented a little airbnb apartment near the gare du nord in paris, and used it as a home base for a whirlwind two days in the city of lights. in order to hit the ground running and beat the jet lag, i pretty much dragged them all over the city on their first day. they were total troopers, humouring me as i offered sight after sight, in an effort to keep them awake until a reasonable hour. we finally hit the wall around 4pm at the musée d’orsay, and we headed back for a light dinner and early bedtime. we even saw the eiffel tower twinkling in the distance from our apartment window. :) the next day was our only full day in the city, and we made it seriously full. i like to walk when i travel, so we covered a good bit of ground – shopping in montmartre, strolling along the champs elysees, treating ourselves to a nice dinner near the arc de triomphe, and then ending with a trip up to the middle level of the eiffel tower. if you’re going to visit paris for only a day or two, that’s the way to do it! see the sights, get a taste for the local neighborhood flair, and soak up the atmosphere. a wonderful visit!
in order to get back down to excideuil with all our belongings, we decided to forgo the train and just rent a car. thanks to the mobility inherent in controlling your own methods of transportation, we even got to make a pitstop at versailles on the way south! i had already visited a few times, but neither my mom nor my aunt had ever seen it. we kind of breezed through the palace (it was majorly crowded, and difficult to enjoy) and then took the little palace train out to marie antoinette’s hamlet. back when the palace was still a royal residence, the then-queen had a little faux village constructed on the grounds, so she could go play peasant whenever the fancy struck her. it makes sense when you think that this was the woman who, upon hearing that the people of her country had no bread to eat, responded with “let them eat cake!”… still, though, the hamlet was so beautiful and charming and cool. definitely my favourite part of versailles. despite the pouring rain as we were leaving, and my inability to determine the proper route to take in the car, we finally got on the road to excideuil after lunch.

it was so strange to be back in my little village with my family. after the hustle and bustle of paris, it was such a relaxing few days, despite all of the tasks i needed to accomplish before leaving. it was great to see my friends again, and i was happy to have a chance to say goodbye to everyone officially, but my favourite part was getting to show my mom and aunt the area. we took advantage of having the rental car to go a bit further afield, checking out the chateau de hautefort and a few antique shops in the area. thanks to the generosity of one of my colleagues, we got to stay in a beautiful guest house just outside of town, and we were invited to eat with the family two of the three nights we were there. heaaaven! i never got over how kind and generous everyone was in excideuil – it’s one of the best aspects of living in the countryside. i was sad to leave, but the next step was so enticing that i couldn’t help but be excited as well!

on mother’s day, we loaded up the car for a relatively short drive to bordeaux, returned the rental car at the airport and finally made our way to dublin! it was so great to be able to accompany my mom and aunt to such a meaningful place. the first few days of our trip were spent in the city, exploring and shopping and just generally enjoying the atmosphere. we ate at several excellent pubs (including a touristy one in temple bar, but i love it anyway), saw the sights, and i tried to give them a sense for why i love ireland so much. truly, though, you have to get out of the city to really understand… so the second half of our trip was a four day tour of the country! we rented a car (with only a few hiccups to start the adventure) and headed west. our first stop was the true homeland – county mayo, where my maternal great-great-grandmother, delia, was born. after several more children were born, the family emigrated to the united states in the 1860s. my mom has done so much research over the years, delving into records of births, baptisms, marriages, immigration, deaths… you name it. all her work paid off, though, when we finally arrived in the teeny parish of islandeady and got to browse the church’s documents. we found the original, handwritten record of delia’s baptism, signed by her parents, william and anne. we enjoyed a stroll through the parish cemetery and a lovely night in a b&b nearby. the next day, we hopped back in the car for the drive down through country galway to county clare. we stopped to check out the cliffs of moher, which were soon covered in the thickest white fog i have ever seen, and then made our way to ennis. one of the best moments of our trip for me was getting to introduce my mom and aunt to my dear friend shane’s parents. they only live half an hour from ennis, so they kindly agreed to make the drive in for a few pints with us in town! it was so fun to spend time together, chatting away in a cheery local pub.

the following day was simultaneously the best and most stressful day of our trip, in my opinion. we made the drive down to blarney castle without a hitch, and enjoyed a marvelous afternoon exploring the gardens, visiting the castle, and even kissing that stone. which, in actuality, is part of the wall just under the battlements, requiring you to lean backwards and several feet down to reach it. thank goodness for the guy who holds you while you make the effort! we left blarney in time to head into cork for a late lunch and a walk around town. the stress came later, when we decided to get as much driving as possible out of the way that evening, in order to lessen the road time back to dublin the following day. we made it all the way from cork to waterford, hoping to find a nice b&b to stay in for our last country evening. waterford proved to be too urban, so we ventured past the city and towards the coast… not wanting to settle for something just because it was there, we kept driving until it was nearly dark. we were starting to get a little nervous, because eventually there was nothing around us… so we stopped to ask two ladies out walking, and they pointed us down the road to the haven hotel. and truly, it lived up to its name. one of the most beautiful country manor homes i’ve seen, and the staff was absolutely delightful. we arrived just around 9pm, and they happily offered to feed us a full meal. the whole building was splendidly decorated, and our room was so charming… we couldn’t have asked for better. we passed our final night on the road in high spirits, praising the irish luck that brought us to such a fabulous spot.

the last few days in ireland were spent winding down – my mom and aunt from their two week trip, and me from my 9 month one! we drove back up to dublin, stopping in a few villages along the way, and ended up at the airport hotel. the following morning, we drove into the city, returned the car, and spent the day visiting the guinness storehouse and having one last pub dinner. it was a great way for me to officially say goodbye to europe – one last pint! i did get one bonus day with my friend shane, after seeing mom and aunt sandy off to the airport. we spent the day just hanging out and enjoying the company. it was a nice bookend to my trip, because shane was the one who picked me up at the airport back in september, and he also came with me as i left. he truly is a precious friend! it was hard to leave such an amazing year behind... and that finally wraps up the blog posts! if you want to see pictures from our trip together, you can check out the album here. :)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

frunneymoon, part two - island time

after soaking up the history in athens, the second half of our trip was spent gallivanting around the islands. (man. just reading that sentence makes me want to pinch myself – i have had so many cool adventures, i sometimes can’t believe it’s real life.) we had organized a three-island route, starting in serifos, passing through paros, and ending in santorini. our plans started off perfectly – we got the ferry to serifos with no problems (except a little seasickness on my part) and made our way up to our first b&b, which entailed a fairly long up-hill evening hike with our bags. little did we know, our host was waiting for us at the dock in his truck… whoops. we found this out by taking a wrong turn at the very end of our hike, and ending up in a very dark, very isolated little courtyard of houses. no b&b in sight. after a few minutes of deliberation, we decided to knock on the door of the nearest house and ask for directions. slightly intimidating, and even worse because of the language gap – thank goodness for those few phrases we had learned! we eventually got our point across and the man called our host, michael, who came to find us. so.. all’s well that ends well, i guess. due to funky ferry schedules, we only had one night in serifos, so we took advantage of our nice b&b to relax, take a hot shower, and just decompress from the hustle and bustle of athens. it was a fabulous evening!

our ferry the following day wasn’t until after dinner, so we had the whole day to explore the little island. we packed our things and brought them down to michael’s little grocery shop on the bay, where he let us store them for the afternoon. after buying a few snacks, we headed to the beach, where we proceeded to plop down for at least an hour. since we were there at the end of april/beginning of may, the true summer season hadn’t yet begun, which meant we basically had the place to ourselves. it was pretty hot, but we were on the windy side of the island, so the breeze kept us cool... too cool, actually, because we didn’t realize how fried we got until way later… whoops. after having a small lunch at a restaurant on the beach, we decided to hike up to the ancient capital of the island, chora. it was only a mile and a half, but it was honestly all uphill. like, a mile of stairs. it was so amazing, though, because the path took us through the old village, past the classic little white houses with blue shutters and big red bougainvillea bushes, and once we reached the top, we had an unbelievable view. really windy, though!! we spent a few minutes taking photos and admiring the view and then started making our way back down to the harbor. we grabbed our bags, said goodbye to michael and his wife, and then stopped for a cup of tea on our way to the dock. that tea break ended up being one of our coolest memories from the islands, all because we met a 98-year-old woman named maria out on the terrace. the waiter translated for us for a few minutes, and we chatted about her experiences as a native of the island. eventually, though, the waiter had to go help other customers.. but that didn’t stop maria from talking to us! we sat there for nearly a half an hour, laughing along with her to jokes we only sort of understood. she had two cats with her, and i’m pretty sure she explained that one of them was the other one’s mother, and also that her husband had passed away a few years ago (she mimed a dead person to explain that one, hands crossed across the chest and eyes closed). but regardless of the fact that we hardly understood each other, it was awesome to sit and share a moment with someone like maria.

after our tea, we headed down to the dock to catch our ferry to paros. as we waited, a man who had talked to us for a few minutes in the café came up to us and handed me a small gift bag, saying it was a “memory from serifos.” when he walked away, we looked in the bag to find two coffee mugs, painted with typical mediterranean villages. mine had a sailboat and liz’s had a donkey! very random and very kind. kind of like greece. the night got weird, however, when our ferry showed up an hour and a half late… which meant we got to paros very, very late. urgh. and due to the may 1st holiday, the ferry schedules were limited for the following days, so we had to reevaluate our timing a little bit. we ended up deciding to just spend the night in paros and take a 10am ferry the next morning, in order to have a more relaxing stay on santorini. we managed to walk around the main town on the island that morning, but it hardly counted as a visit to the island. oh well.. next time!

in retrospect, our decision was an excellent one. we got to santorini in the early afternoon (a day early) and found the shuttle for our hostel. it turned out that the place liz had found for us to stay was like… the greatest hostel that has ever existed. i cannot express how nice it was. the place was pretty new and beautifully maintained, in the classic white/peach mediterranean style with a huge pool and cabana bar. we had our own suite, with full beds, a huge (clean!) bathroom, a kitchenette, wifi… all for 13 euro per night. and they didn’t care that we were showing up a night early. it was unreal. plus, we met two sisters basically our age on the shuttle who were staying the same days as us, so we had friends for our visit! the extra day we had on the island meant that we could do a fun tour and have a day to just bum around on the beaches, plus we had three evenings to go into the villages. we literally could not have dreamed up a better situation.

our first full day, we were talked into taking an adventure boat tour by poppy, the amazing woman who runs the hostel. she signed us up the night before and told us when to catch the bus down to the harbor. amanda and brianna (the sisters we met) had decided to come as well, so, around 9am, the four of us found ourselves on a big boat full of tourists, heading out to sea. the boat looked kind of like a pirate ship – it was all wooden and had the rope rigging and big masts and everything… it was cool. our first stop on the tour was the volcano in the middle of the caldera. santorini is famously crescent-shaped – the island itself is actually the rim of the volcano crater, sticking up out of the water. we popped over to a volcanic island in the middle of the bay, where were were allowed to get off the boat and walk around. i may have snuck some volcanic rock for my amateur-geologist mom. as it turns out, volcanoes aren’t very interesting if there’s not like.. lava. it kind of just looked like a very arid, rocky, hilly island. but, anyway.. our second stop was to a hot springs near another island in the volcanic grouping. normally, the boat goes way closer to the spring, but there were other tours there already, so we had to drop anchor about 100 meters away from the spring. they had announced that anyone wanting to swim to the springs needed to go downstairs and change clothes as we approached… the four of us waffled for about 10 minutes, and then finally bri said she was going to do it, which propelled the rest of us into action. a quick minute later, i found myself jumping off the side of a (rather large) boat, into the very cold mediterranean ocean. brr. the swim wasn’t very long, but it was tough going with the waves. to make matters worse, when we got to the hot springs, we discovered that it was really more of a tepid spring. to call it warm would have been generous. plus, we had waited so long deciding that we were called back to the boat within like 2 minutes of getting to the spring. sigh. the swim back was even harder, going against the current, but we all made it back and quickly dried off. all in all, kind of a disappointment, but a worthwhile experience, just for the story. the rest of the day was much less exhausting. we stopped at a different island for lunch, and then made our way over to oia, one of the more famous villages on santorini. it’s where you see all those pictures of the homes clustered together on the cliffs, little blue domes of churches poking out here and there. as we hiked our way up some more nearly vertical steps, we stopped to admire the progressively more impressive view. we made it to the top and explored shops lining the single pathway through the village. after grabbing a quick dinner, we headed to the very end of the village’s main thoroughfare… along with a whole drove of fellow sunset spectators. oia is best known as the place to watch the sunset on santorini, because it has an unobstructed western-facing view. and boy, is the sunset worth seeing in oia. we admired the fading pastels (along with hundreds of others) until the last sliver of the glowing sun slid beneath the horizon… and then there was applause. literally. people applauded the sunset. as twilight fell, we made our way to the meeting place and got on the bus back to our hostel. such an adventurous, memorable day!

day two of santorini was perhaps equally adventurous, in a totally different way. along with amanda and brianna, we rented four-wheelers and took off for the beaches! i’d only driven a four-wheeler a couple times, but the guy at the rental place showed me the basics and i picked it up pretty quickly. once we were squared away, we picked up a picnic lunch at the grocery store, checked the map and hit the road. i distinctly remember the feeling of the wind on my face, as we zipped along a wide stretch of road overlooking the ocean. that was a glorious moment. even though we got slightly lost, the whole island is small, so we made it to the beach we had been looking for in good time. we chose a beach on the southern side of the island, known for its red and black sand. after hiking over the rocks to actually access the beach, we settled in for a few hours of blissful mediterranean beach lounging. we played in the water, ate our lunches, and laid around on the sand for a few hours, until we were all simply too hot. so, we packed up the bags, and headed to akrotiri, a cool archaeological site nearby. it had been destroyed pompeii-style by a volcanic eruption many centuries ago, but we got to see a little bit of how the city would have looked just by observing the way the foundations were structured. very historical, very interesting. we made our way back to the rental shop, returned the four-wheelers, and grabbed some take-out gyros to eat by the pool for dinner. we sat and talked for a long time, finally saying goodnight (and goodbye!) as we went to our separate rooms to pack.

we woke up bright and early to catch our flight off the island, heading back to istanbul. the teensy little airport was basically just big enough to manage one flight at a time, so there were only maybe 50 or 60 people there. although our flight plan was changed a little last minute, we eventually made it back to istanbul for a two day whirlwind visit. we stayed with my friend alex again (bless her, and her darling flatmate liz), so liz could have a quick taste of turkey (hah!) before we both flew away to our next destinations! it was incomprehensibly fun to have liz come traveling with me – i love seeing new places, but i love seeing them with friends even more. we had an amazing experience in greece - i would go back in a heartbeat! if you’d like to see some pictures from this trip, you can check out the album here, starting at photo #51. :)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

frunneymoon, part one - athens

never one to do things halfway, i wrapped up my birthday week with the boys juuuust in time for another wonderful trip – my college roommate / soul sista liz came over for a mediterranean-style friend honeymoon (we coined it the “frunneymoon”). for the sake of efficiency, she arrived into istanbul just a few hours after the boys had departed. we hung around for one night with my friend alex (of previous post fame), and then left together the following day for 10 wonderful days in greece!

our first impression of greece was highly favourable. it wasn’t necessarily unexpected, but it was certainly a pleasant confirmation. everyone was exceedingly kind and helpful, from the concierge at the airport to the bus driver in the city center (who let us ride for free because the ticket kiosk was sold out - what?!). moreover, most people spoke excellent english, which was a definite surprise (and relief) for me. we did put some individual effort into learning some basic phrases before we arrived, which always makes a huge difference; starting with a few words in someone’s native language can result in a major change in the attitudes of people you meet along the way! plus, it’s fun to learn new ways to communicate.

the first half of our frunneymoon was spent exploring the city of athens, another amazingly historic place. if you can’t see the trend here, i like history-cations. we had an absolute blast for four days in the city. my favourite part (no surprises here) was seeing the ancient ruins; the enduring presence of millennia of history never ceases to astound me. i loved climbing up the acropolis, seeing the remnants of what was once the shining city on the hill that birthed modern democracy. we stood under the shadow of the parthenon, and it wasn’t difficult at all to imagine what it must have been in its glory days. (the full-scale replica in nashville helped a bit on that front.) we walked along the same paths that some of the greatest thinkers in history – plato, socrates, aristotle – might have strolled down, expounding on their philosophies to the young men who followed in their wake. it was so easy to picture that ancient city, the thriving culture that truly believed itself to be the pinnacle of all human history.

even apart from the overwhelming historical significance, athens was wonderful. we had some truly excellent food – i never liked gyros until i went to greece! like morocco, everything was fresh and often made right in front of you… also, the feta cheese was incredible. the best thing we ate, though, was the yogurt. yes, greek yogurt. on the recommendation of one of liz’s belmont friends, we went and found the yogurt shop “around the corner from the acropolis metro station, across from the gelato shop” and it. was. incredible. we went the first day.. and the second.. and the third.. and the fourth. literally, we ate this yogurt every day we were in athens. it was so fresh and creamy and delicious, and you could add fruit or cereal.. and then the honey. oh my lord, the honey… i have never had anything so delectable. i got the same thing every day – regular yogurt with bananas, corn flakes, and pine honey. the last day i added strawberries. i had to ask panos (the worker, who i ended up friending on facebook because he was so awesome) to give me the same quantity in a bigger cup so i could mix it all better. sigh… i miss you, fresko yogurt bar.

our time in athens wasn’t just spent eating yogurt on the acropolis, though. we saw a good part of the city in those four days! everything from the more modernized “academy” and national library to the little shopping streets of the plaka neighborhood. we checked out a couple museums, the panathenaic olympic stadium (the birthplace of the modern olympics), saw an enormous group of soccer fans gathering in a huge park on their way to a game, and even made some friends in our hostel. on the recommendation of the internet, we took an afternoon/evening trip out to the coast, to the temple of poseidon at sounio. it’s this isolated little temple on the tippy top of a cliff, overlooking the mediterranean on three sides. kind of makes sense why poseidon would want a temple there! we enjoyed watching a gorgeous sunset before taking the final bus back to the city. our last night, we hiked (read: took the cable car) to the top of the tallest hill in athens, lycabettus hill. there’s a teeny little church on top, and a restaurant, and that’s about it! we treated ourselves to a nice dinner, looking out over the city as the sun set and the lights started to twinkle. seeing the parthenon lit up from a different vantage point was certainly awe-inspiring!

on the fifth morning, we headed to the port to catch our boat for the second half of the frunneymoon… but i think that’s a story for a different post. :) if you would like to see photos from greece, check out this facebook album!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

istanbul: a bi-continental birthday with my boys

okay, okay. i know. this blog is embarrassingly far behind… i got so busy with traveling (without my laptop, no less) that it sort of just fell down the priority list. then i got home, and i was too overwhelmed to sit and blog… and then, all of a sudden, it’s been over 4 months since my last post. yikes. in an effort to not leave this year’s documentation in limbo (like i did three years ago after my semester abroad), i’m going to try to catch up. slowly. i’m fully aware that you, as my faithful readers, might have completely lost interest by now. but if any of you hates incompletion like i do, and if you have been wondering how my adventures ended, then you’re in luck. just pretend like the forthcoming entries were published 4 months ago.

when last we left our friend jill… i had just finished school. the previous post outlines how i felt leaving my little village, but shares basically nothing about what my next steps were. the curiosity must have been killing you! essentially, the week after work was one slow transition from normalcy to exploration. i spent a few days packing up and cleaning my apartment, stowed my big bag and a few boxes in the attic of the café, and took off with my backpack. since i lived so far from basically everything, even getting started on my traveling took a few days! i spent one evening in bordeaux with my friend emma and her little group, enjoying some rare and precious (and slightly alcohol-blurred) moments together. the next night, i had the absolute joy of spending some time with my dear friend devon in paris, and then i started the multi-step process of getting to istanbul the following afternoon!

this year had many, many plans with many cool people… but few had me more excited than my birthday week in istanbul with two of my absolute best friends. months beforehand, i had convinced two of my closest high school friends, ben and sam, to come explore the city with me for a week in april. step one of getting there involved a 7 hour layover in amsterdam with one of the boys! sam arrived just before i did; we stored our bags in the luggage lockers and took the train into the city for a few hours. it really is a cool place – different from any city i’ve ever visited. i loved the canals and the slightly off-kilter architecture. the clichés were all there, which was interesting. definitely challenges the concept of propriety! after walking for a while, taking some photos, and grabbing a bite to eat, we returned to schiphol airport for our flight to istanbul. a few short hours later (in the middle of the night), we touched down in turkey! getting through border control was a breeze, as we’d already procured our visas online, so it wasn’t long before we were meeting our third musketeer at the airport starbucks. ben had arrived about an hour before us, having come from visiting friends in london. it was so surreal to all be together again, feeling so normal in such new place! we settled in for a little airport camping until the shuttles into the city started running. (in other news, two velvety chairs pushed together makes a fairly decent bed!) around 6am, we caught the first bus into town and made our way to the hostel. unfortunately for us, we weren’t allowed to get into the room until 2pm, which gave us 7 very sleepy hours to kill… we did get to leave our bags though. we passed the morning by grabbing breakfast along the bosphorus and then taking a nap in a park near taksim square. once we got into the room and had a proper nap, the real fun began!

we had one full week together in the city, which called for a little strategizing – there is so much to see! i tried to stay flexible (occasionally a challenge for me) while still ensuring that we covered good ground each day. in typical me fashion, there was a lot of walking involved.. my travel style has evolved into simply picking a neighborhood and trying to see as much of it as possible before moving on to the next one. this strategy actually worked well for us, because we didn’t have too many specific items on our “must-do” list… generally, we just picked a few sights to see, and explored the surrounding area until it was time to move on!

one of my main reasons for wanting to visit istanbul is the history of the place – it may not stand up to the likes of jericho or damascus, but still… the site has been continuously inhabited for almost 3,000 years and that is nothing to shake a stick at! thanks to centuries upon centuries of the influence of various people groups, the culture in istanbul is incredibly vibrant and unique. i particularly loved the architecture – there is a distinct islamic vibe, evidenced by countless mosques, beautiful mosaic work, and arabesque and geometric patterns everywhere. my favourite building that we visited was the sultanahmet blue mosque – an enormous place of worship, filled with light and colour. i also loved the hagia sophia, which is situated just across from the blue mosque. we visited both of those places on my birthday, which made for a very happy history-lover. :)

one of the more surprising elements, however, was the prevalence of water-related activities... or, at least, the necessity of ferries. not including our handful of ferry rides back and forth across the strait, we took two separate boat trips during our week. our first trip was a tour up the bosphorus, bringing us to a village on the shores of the black sea. since it was on the eastern side of the river, it was technically my first visit to the asian continent! (hey, the line has to be drawn somewhere, and i crossed it!) we hiked up a big hill to the castle ruins perched high above the harbor, appreciating the views of the black sea and the bosphorus from the top. our second boat tour came on our last full day, when we took the hour-long ferry to the island of heybeliada – one of a group of islands called the “prince’s islands” in the sea of marmara. the islands are awesome – there are no cars to speak of, and locals get around on bikes or in horse-drawn carriages. seriously. we rented bikes for a few hours and rode around the whole island before grabbing a delicious dinner on the boardwalk. it was certainly a workout, but worth it for the gorgeous views. heybeliada is also famous for having some prime examples of the unique architecture in the area. coming from europe, i was so used to the yellow and gray stone so often used for homes – in istanbul, there were some really gorgeous wooden houses, almost reminiscent of a home in the french quarter of new orleans. i loved taking pictures of the old homes – they have so much character.

in addition to being an exceptionally historical place, istanbul is known for its lively nightlife… which we definitely witnessed. there were no all-nighters (much to ben’s chagrin), but we went out most nights, to a different bar (and even a club, once) to see what all the hype was about. different bars impressed me for varying reasons; some had great drinks and food, others had awesome entertainment and a neat atmosphere, and still others impressed me with their sheer awfulness… but regardless, we had loads of fun meeting people and spending time together. i do not miss that beer though… ugh. if i ever have an efes beer again in my life, it will be too soon. i will say, though… despite all the great nightlife in the city, my favourite evening was the one we spent on the asian side, watching the sun set over the old city. the minarets of the hagia sophia and the blue mosque gave the skyline a delicate silhouette against the dramatically fiery sunset, and the lights of the city twinkled in the water... it was magical.

the best part of the trip was, without a doubt, the friend time. seeing my boys after such a long separation was a blast! we enjoyed discovering new foods together (and also finding that nyc-themed café next to our hostel), walking through the back streets of various neighborhoods, and soaking up the culture in the streets and markets. honestly, we just goofed around a lot and reveled in the fact that three kids from franklin were halfway across the world together, living the adventurer’s dream. the cherry on top of that sentimental sundae was that i got to spend some time with one of my first-ever couchsurfing friends, alex! she was one of the flatmates in the place where i stayed in london, back in 2011. we kept in touch via facebook over the last 3 years, so i already knew that she’d relocated to istanbul over a year ago. when i decided that i’d be going to turkey, she was my first thought! we saw her several times throughout our week stay, and then i got to stay at her flat once the boys left. it was absolutely lovely.

this post seems disjointed… i tried to go for an overall review, as opposed to a day-by-day recounting. suffice it to say, i loved visiting such a wonderful city with such awesome company. and that’s enough about that. :) if you’d like to see a few pictures (also uploaded embarrassingly late), feel free to click here! next up is greece – stay tuned!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

school's out.

well… that’s that. today was my last day of work here in excideuil, because the kids have spring break for the next two weeks and i won’t be coming back afterwards. i genuinely cannot believe my job is finished. it doesn’t seem real, to be honest. but come sunday, i’ll be moving out of my apartment and kicking off five solid weeks of traveling before i head back to the states in mid-may… and i suppose it will feel real enough at that point. le sigh.

this week of school was bittersweet. i progressively said goodbye to my students, as our final class ended, and it was harder than i expected! i wrote them a little note, thanking them for such a lovely year and passing along my contact information… but i also did it so that i wouldn’t have to talk in front of my classes and get emotional. i’m terrible at goodbyes. each set of kids has been so precious – i received several going-away presents, and we had two separate mini-parties. the best part, though, has been the flurry of friend requests on social media, because now i know that i can stay in touch with these students as they (hopefully) continue their english studies! because that’s truly the best part of teaching – seeing the progress your students make, and then seeing their delight in recognizing that progress. i hope facebook will serve as a decent substitute, because i know some of these kids will go far!

as my final week of teaching draws to a close, i’m (unsurprisingly) getting more and more nostalgic. already. i can’t help but think about how much i’ve grown to love this place! my students are wonderful, despite their adolescent antics. the teachers are fantastic, and have really made me feel so welcomed and appreciated. i have grown to love this sleepy little village, with its joyful bells and quaint streets. i think what i’ll miss most of all, though, is just the feeling i have when i wake up every day – in france. i’ve been here for ages, it seems, but in reality… hardly any time at all. the novelty of knowing that i’ve had the rare opportunity to live out this dream – living in france, for real – still hasn’t worn off. and while i’m definitely excited to come home next month and see all my friends and family… i’m not looking forward to leaving this place behind. but, as tolkien said, the road goes ever on and on. and while i may be finishing this beautiful, albeit short, chapter in my story, i’m looking forward to seeing what the next page has to offer.

in the interest of brevity, and because i love lists, here is a collection of things i will miss desperately about this year:
- foie gras snack time. i never thought i’d say this, but i love foie gras. and i will miss it so, so much.
- going up to paris for the weekend, just because i can, and enjoying the sunshine in the most beautiful city in the world.
- being greeted by a chorus of “hello!” and “hi jill!” every time i walk into the courtyard at school and honestly, the consistently kind “bonjour” you get from basically everyone.
- the café downstairs, and all the smiling faces i get to see there every day.
- walking through the market on thursday mornings, and seeing all the locals going about their daily lives. and then walking back through the plaza afterwards, and smelling the slightly fishy, slightly earthy smell of the freshly-rinsed asphalt
-traveling like a crazy woman. it has become my favourite thing... can't imagine life without it.
- hearing a mildly out-of-tune ‘ode to joy’ ring out from the church every hour
- my bench by the fountain
- being able to throw a stone from my window and hit buildings from the 14th century
- pilates with the ladies of excideuil
- seeing my students every day. love those kids.
- my sweet, cozy studio
- speaking french. that goes without saying.

the reason i’m so terrible at goodbyes is because i am so sensitive to finality… something amazing is coming to an end, and i want to be sure that i acknowledge the significance of this moment appropriately because it deserves the attention. unfortunately, i honestly don’t think i could do this experience justice. suffice it to say, i am so very grateful for this place, for these people, for this year as a whole. i feel like my heart has grown through becoming a part of this community… which is good, because i’ll be leaving a good chunk of it behind me when i go. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

not for the faint of heart

last week was full of firsts for me… both professional and experiential. i’ll leave it for you to decide which one was more challenging!

my weekend was bookended by two stints as a school-trip chaperone. i still haven’t been able to decide on an appropriate word to describe the fact that i’m considered “adult” enough to be responsible for school children – perplexing? horrifying? humbling? flattering? at any rate… on thursday, the 13th, i walked to school at 5:55am, to load up into a van with six students and one other teacher and make the three-hour drive to bordeaux. the kids, all in their final year of high school, were participating in a sort of friendly english-langugae debate tournament with teams from several other high schools in the region. my secondary role at the tournament was to serve as a coach for one of the 8 teams, each made up of kids from different schools. each group debated three times – they were given 25 minutes to prepare and then the actual discussion lasted for about 20 minutes. all in english! overall, i was exceedingly impressed with my team; they had a genuinely impressive level of english, and expressed their ideas and beliefs very articulately. we even won our final debate, in which we had to argue against the necessity of learning a foreign language in today’s world. ironic, considering they were all speaking a foreign language… then, the two teams with the top scores debated in the final round. and one of my kids was on the winning team. :) i had a great time meeting the other students, and also getting to know my students a little better outside of the classroom!

after the tournament was over, i had the driver drop me off at the train station in the city, because (in typical jill fashion) i had planned a little weekend getaway to the south! being just outside of bordeaux made the train journey considerably more convenient, so i couldn’t help but take advantage of the opportunity. unfortunately, thanks to several seemingly-pointless delays and a work truck broken down on the track later on, my 3 hour journey turned into a 7.5 hour journey… oh well. i just hung out on the various trains, reading and chatting with the other passengers. finally, around midnight, i arrived in my destination – the mountain town of pau, where my friend lauren (remember her from my moroccan trip?) is living for the year. it was so lovely to see her again, but it was laaate and we’d both had long days, so my first night in town was a quiet one! we spent the next day exploring pau a little – highlights included touring the impressive castle, shopping in h&m (a luxury for my country bumpkin reality!), having lunch on a café terrace, and wandering through the open-air market. pau actually reminded me a lot of angers, the city where i spent my semester abroad three years ago. naturally, that association made for a good impression of the city! plus, the weather was gorgeous all weekend, with bright sun and comfortable temperatures – a fantastic change from the constant rain of the previous months. the night was topped off with a bacon cheeseburger (!!!) at the pub across the street from lauren’s apartment. it wasn’t like burger up, but it sufficed to tide me over until i’m home in two months!

saturday was my big debut as a future olympian – lauren fulfilled her promise to take me snowboarding in the pyrenees! several of her friends joined us for the hour-long bus ride to gourette, a ski station nestled right into the middle of some seriously snowy peaks. we arrived around 9am, and i headed to the gear rental shop to get outfitted. i chose to snowboard for two main reasons: lauren snowboards and could therefore teach me a little better, and somehow one sliding plank attached to my feet seemed easier to control than two. once i had my board, shoes, and helmet, we headed up to the bunny slopes. now, as someone who is not quite what you would call athletic, i had my doubts about my potential success on the mountain. and, true to expectation, my first “run” was basically what you would call a comical disaster, in my opinion. but lauren was endlessly patient and very encouraging, and i made it down the mountain having only fallen once every 14 seconds. from that point on, i was determined to get the hang of it; in my rare moments of vertical, forward motion, i could sense that it was something i would actually enjoy, if i could just stay upright! my second run was definitely better – i pretty much only fell when i tried to turn on my toes. i took a break after the second run, to rest my aching knees/hands/butt/body in general, and to give lauren a chance to do a run or two on the big girl trails. the rest of the day was spent in similar fashion – two runs, break, repeat. i did a few runs by myself, and by the end of the day, i actually made it down the mountain without falling a few times! granted, i spent a large portion of the descent “braking” and generally avoiding collisions, but still! i was so proud of myself, especially since i don’t particularly care for extreme sports – something about the speed and seeming lack of immediate control doesn’t sit well with me. but, i was happy to have tried it and found moderate (albeit hard-earned and painful) success! the bus ride back revealed several aches i had not yet noted, and by the time we got home, i was miiiiserable. we took baths to try and soothe our protesting muscles and joints, and were passed out by 9pm. not exactly party girls, but there was no rallying after the sheer physical exertion of that day!

after making my way home on sunday (slowly, but without the delays of thursday’s journey), i had one day to rest before heading out on my second chaperoning stint  - an overnight high school theatre festival! the festival took place in perigueux, so it wasn’t as long of a journey. my kids were performing a play that the freshmen had written, as a part of a workshop led by a local playwright earlier in the year. and, since that was a noteworthy-enough achievement, the freshmen had been invited to present their work to the audience before watching their play for the first time! we arrived around 9:30, and the kids were on stage by 11. having participated in both the school theatre productions and the local theatre company,  i was very, very interested to see the kind of theatre these groups put on. it was all, in typical french fashion, very post-modern and metaphorical, in a “theatre of the absurd” kind of way. a far cry from the musicals of my youth, to be sure. our kids performed splendidly, and i was just as impressed with the writing. we had lunch in the lobby of the theatre before heading down the street to watch what ended up being the weirdest dance performance i have ever witnessed. i couldn’t even begin to describe it adequately; suffice to say, it took “absurd” to a whole new level. there was lots of rolling around on the ground and balancing upside-down, and also a part where the dancer (a solitary woman) was naked from the waist up. talk about an american moment… i couldn’t stop myself from wondering what the reaction to that would be in the states, with a room full of minors. the rest of the day was spent watching the other schools perform their plays. my reactions ranged from pleasantly surprised to completely baffled to moderately offended. but i guess that’s what theatre is all about – creating emotion in the heart of the audience. as different as that theatre experience was from my own high school show tunes, there is one constant in the equation – teenagers. the overnight stay in the hotel was basically exactly what you’d expect from a group of 15-17 year olds left to their own devices… thankfully, everyone survived the night. all i will say is that i genuinely hope i never have to be the figure of actual authority in a situation like that. i much preferred being the cool semi-teacher that could act as a sort of go-between for the kids and the real adults. by the time the next shift of teachers showed up to take over, i was very ready to be home in my own bed!

photos from pau can be found here. this coming weekend, i’m jumping up to paris to hang out with connor (also of moroccan vacation fame!). stay tuned! :)

Monday, March 17, 2014

beir bua agus beannacht

if you take a look around the social media world today, you’ll likely be able to identify several key themes: drinking, green clothing, fake beards and comically-oversized top hats, shamrocks galore. such is the state of one of my favourite holidays – an excessively-commercialized mess of a celebration, when an entire culture gets diminished to a few caricatures and stereotypes. people who couldn’t even locate ireland on a map are suddenly popping out of the woodwork with “kiss me, i’m irish!” t-shirts and a plastic cup of diluted green beer in each hand. 

while partying with friends is all well and good, for me, saint patrick’s day is about history and family. more than any other day, st. paddy’s day always reminds me of my gran, my mom’s mom. as the granddaughter of irish immigrants on both sides of her family, she took her heritage to heart. and even though we lived on the opposite side of the country, she always made sure that my sister and i were stocked up for our celebrations – without fail, we would receive boxes of cookies, buttons that boasted an irish ancestry, some freshly-crocheted or sewn article of green clothing… i can still remember the clear, plastic boxes with the crumpled tissue paper inside, trying so hard to provide safe passage to the already-crumbling baked goods within. only a grandmother would send cookies across a continent. looking back, i can comfortably say that it was gran who instilled my love of ireland in me from an early age. growing up so far away made any contact special, and her passion for her ancestry found a comfortable home in my sensitive little heart. that curiosity has been fed by my saint of a mother, who has dedicated endless hours of research to filling in the straggly branches of the family tree. thanks to her work, i can name most of my ancestors, all the way back to the early 1800’s. with a few blank spaces left to fill, we know the birthdays, the marriage anniversaries, and the death dates of the past four generations! the combination of gran’s cultural passion and my mom’s documented support gave me a strong sense of attachment and pride in my “people” that i hold to this day.

ask anyone who has ever spent half an hour with me, and they’ll tell you – i’m a sucker for nostalgia. for better or for worse, i love reliving the past and imagining back even further. it’s why i love europe so much; the history is so alive here, so palpable in each castle wall and stone bridge. who lived in that tower? crossed that little foot bridge? nothing makes me feel so connected to the universe as standing in a place where i can almost see the passage of time whirling around me. for that same reason, i’ve always been interested in my own personal history – how did i come to be the person that i am? i love creating stories to go with the names i see on my family tree, imagining how the circumstances had to be exactly right for my great-great-great-grandparents to meet. in fact, today i learned that two of my great-great-great-grandfathers (one from each side of my mom’s family tree) lived at the same time in the same county in ireland. i cannot describe how tickled i am by the thought that they might have known each other – however unlikely that might be, it’s not that unlikely. mayo is a large county, but it’s not impossible! how i would love to have a time machine, just to go back and find them two of them, sit them down (in my fantasy, they aren’t at all disturbed by a time-traveling descendant appearing in the town), and tell them that one day, a hundred years in the future, william’s great-great-granddaughter would marry michael’s great-great-grandson, somewhere across the ocean in america. i can just see those two men laugh with the same twinkle in their eyes that my papa has now, hear my gran’s tone of amusement and wonder in the “how about that?” they’d utter with delight. few things fascinate me more than imagining the lives and loves and joys and sorrows behind the names in those little boxes..

it came as no surprise when, years after this ancestral soft spot had developed in my spirit, the irish students down the hall became some of my closest friends while studying abroad in france. the first time i went to ireland to see them, it was more than just a visit to see friends. as cliché as it may sound, i had the distinct feeling of homecoming. and as i began to meet more and more people, that sensation only became more concrete. there were moments when i swear i could feel gran smiling down on me from her little cloud in heaven, saying “see? i told you, these are your people.” and it’s true – over the last three years, i’ve been lucky enough to return several times to that magical little island, and each time, it has been harder to leave. i’ve continued to add friend after friend to a wonderful list, to the point where i could hardly count the number of faces i’d love to see during my next visit. and in fact, my next trip to ireland will be even more special, because this time, i will get to have my mom and aunt with me! i can’t wait to show them the country i’ve grown to love so much more over the last three years. they won’t need much convincing – they have the soft spot, too. it will be so lovely to share a week of bonding with them, watching them fall under the same spell that enchanted me so long ago.

while most people i know are out partying to celebrate their irish heritage, my homage came in the form of something a little more subdued. i couldn’t help but write out my feelings today – sometimes, i am overwhelmed by my nostalgia, both for my own experiences and for those of my great-great-great-grandparents. i suppose all i can say is, éirinn go brách, mo chairde. and, as my wise friend donnchadh taught me, beannachtaí na féile pádraig ort agus ar do chuid.  ireland forever, my friends. the blessings of the feast of saint patrick on you and yours.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

seeing blue - morocco, part three

after a few days in fez, we moved on to our final moroccan stop – a beautiful town called chefchaouen, tucked into the mountains in the north of the country. it is most known for one unique, unifying trait common among the buildings in the old medina – back in the 30’s, jewish refugees painted most of the medina  crisp, clear powder blue. in addition to creating a calming, cool atmosphere in the heat of summer, the combination of whitewash, blue accents, and orange-tiled roofs makes for some absolutely wonderful photography. our two days in chefchaouen were spent hiking up the surrounding mountains, wandering through the streets, taking photos every six seconds, and generally relaxing. since there isn’t very much to do in the tourism department, we took advantage of the atmosphere and had a wonderfully laid-back few days. we also ate – a lot. food in morocco is really good, and really cheap, so we didn’t skimp! the final tajine we had ended up being my favourite; something about the roasted chicken and veggies, swimming in spiced oils just begging to be mopped up with the bread… and all for less than 4 euro. drool.

chefchaouen also reemphasized another observation i’d made a few times throughout my travels in morocco – as a culture, moroccans are exceptionally kind and hospitable. having remarked upon that to a few different people (our friend zakaria, the bus driver for our excursion, the hostel workers, etc), each person responded with the same explanation: it’s part of the muslim faith to be welcoming to strangers. now, as someone who makes a very conscious effort to be globally minded and accepting, i have to confess that the circumstances of my american upbringing had not instilled that preconceived notion into my mindset. consciously, i had no worries about going to morocco, but i did recognize that it was my first foray outside of the mainly judeo-christian world i’d been immersed in up until then. i could not have been more unfounded in my expectations – no matter where we went, we were immediately offered a place to sit, or at least some tea. locals were friendly and liked to chat when possible, and i never, not even once, felt any kind of hostility towards me – not based on race, religion, or even sex. (note: getting harassed in the medina is a different story – that’s part of the market culture, and not, i believe, indicative of moroccan culture as a whole.) we had conversations about religious differences that i would have paid dearly to record and show to certain people back home – i’ve heard much worse come out of the mouths of self-proclaimed christians. but that’s a whole different issue, and i’ll go ahead and step down off my soap box…

after chefchaouen, it was time to head back to europe. during the planning of this trip, the history nerd in me had developed a sort of fixation on crossing the strait of gibraltar in a boat. i just couldn’t get over the amount of history – real, literary, mythological. that 8 mile stretch of water could be argued as the most significant water passage in the world, and i wanted to cross it! so, we took another (very, very uncomfortable and unpleasant 4 hour long) bus ride from chefchaouen to tangier, where we boarded the ferry and bobbed our way between continents. it’s amazing to realize just how close spain and morocco are at that point – you can see one continent from the other, even on a hazy day. the crossing was uneventful (except for my nerding out), and we arrived back in europe without much fanfare… except i could feel my wallet shriveling back up after the wonderful dirham. alas. with great luck, we made it from the port to the bus station exactly one minute before the bus we needed to be on was scheduled to depart, and so there was pretty much no waiting around in between modes of transportation! another 3 hours saw us pulling into sevilla, our “post-africa, reacclimation to europe” spot. 

all in all, we were in sevilla for about 36 hours – not nearly enough to really even count having been there, but a nice treat on the back end of our trip! after the insanely long and complex travel day we had on friday, it was all we could muster to meet a few people on our hostel rooftop, eat some paella, and have a little night cap before crashing into bed.  our full day on saturday was a lovely example of what a “spanish day” should be. first, we appreciated the monuments and visited the cathedral and the alcazar in the morning – i loved seeing the amount of detailing in the stone carving and tile so present throughout the city. after our historical touring, we enjoyed a nice, laid-back lunch of tapas and sangria, followed by some gelato in the early afternoon. then, we followed the spanish example and took our siesta in the mid-afternoon… a much-needed and welcomed pause. our big treat on saturday was a visit to the “world’s only” flamenco museum, located just down the street from our hostel. we got a private tour through the museum, and then had the opportunity to see two professional dancers do an hour performance in the museum. my thighs were burning just watching all the tiny, intricate movements – it’s no wonder those dancers were 100% muscle! such an incredibly passionate and emotive dance; we loved it! we finished the night with some pasta in the hostel and some hang-out-time with some of the other travelers. but it was early to bed again – no rest for the weary!

first thing sunday morning, we made our way to the airport, for an 8am flight to toulouse. originally, we had planned on staying in toulouse with a friend of lauren’s… but the moment i stepped foot back on french soil, i just wanted to be home. so, i did a little impromptu train research and ended up heading home a day early! what’s another 5 hours on the train, really. my guardian angel friend mathilde came to pick me up from the train station in perigueux, and i was home in time for a late dinner and my beeeed! in keeping with my previous travels, i was happy to be home, so i could finally relax after all that vacation! :) aaand that’s the end of my moroccan adventure – in a word, wonderful. pictures from chefchaouen and sevilla are here (starting at 148)!

camel friends and exfoliation - morocco, part two

oookay, let’s get this second installment going!

as a precursor to this next bit, let me just say that, generally, i stay as far away from guided tours as i possibly can. in nearly every circumstance, i prefer to do the planning myself and enjoy every moment of the exploration once i get to a new place… but i had one item on my moroccan must-do list that was basically impossible for me to accomplish without paying some kind of professional, and that was to ride a camel. preferably in the saharan desert. so, early in the morning on our third day in marrakech, lauren and i crept down the dark stairs of our hotel and waited for the quiet knock of our tour company’s representative, who was sent to retrieve us. we followed him down the street to the plaza where all the tour vans were parked, waiting for the droves of tourists who were leaving that day on various excursions. after a slight hiccup with the number of passengers in our first van (no, 16 people is not the same as 15, and no, you cannot just “squeeze” in the back), we joined a different group and started to get acquainted with our new friends. there were three germen men, two chinese guys, an italian couple (shout out to fred and maria vittoria!), an indian girl, a girl from vancouver, and us. we’d chosen the two day / one night excursion, which ended up meaning a whole lot of van time and not much outside time… you live and you learn, i guess. but when you’re driving through the high atlas mountains, a view from the window is still pretty awe-inspiring! 

we stopped a few times on the way out to the desert, most notably at the fortified city of ait ben haddou – famous for being the city to film any movie with a middle eastern / african / sometimes ancient roman vibe. we’re talking lawrence of arabia, prince of persia, gladiator, even game of thrones… and despite all that, the handful of families that still live in this ancient kasbah do so without running water or electricity. after that afternoon spot, we high-tailed it out to the city of zagora, which was our last stop in “civilization” before the camel portion of our trek. when we pulled up to the dirt lot where our camels were waiting, about five miles outside of zagora, i felt this little twinge of excitement – one of those “i am about to do this, and it is something awesome” feelings. we loaded up the “saddle” bags (woven bags draped on either side of a few camels) and hopped up. and i say “hopped” because i literally had to jump a little bit, even with the camel kneeling down… those things are enormous! when mine finally stood up, my head was about 15 feet off the ground. which was slightly disconcerting at first, but the awesome vantage point it gave me to look out over the expansive landscape quickly outweighed any uneasiness i felt. and to top it off, we set out to our camp just as the sun was setting, which was a miraculously beautiful sight. the camel trek lasted about an hour and a half, which meant that by the end of it, the sky was pitch black in all directions, and filled with more stars that i have ever seen. we saw a few lights off in the distance, but eventually, we were walking towards one tiny glow on the horizon, and i felt like i was almost riding through the sky. the fact that our guide knew exactly where to walk in the dark like that was incredible. 

when we arrived at the camp, we put our bags in the tents and sat for a bit of mint tea. then, the other guides had dinner waiting (harira soup and tajines, what else) so we spent the evening socializing around the tables, first with food and then with hookahs, before eventually moving outside to listen to some berber music around the campfire. in the morning, i woke up eaaaarly to watch the sun rise over the dunes by myself… and it was arguably even more breathtaking than the sunset. the light was so soft and everything had a sort of magical glow about it; the pictures did not do it justice. once everyone else in the camp had woken up, we had a quick breakfast of leftover bread and jam, with the ever-present mint tea, and then loaded up the camels for the return journey. i enjoyed soaking up the sounds and sights of the waking desert as we made our way to the rendez-vous point. from there, it was van time basically all the way back to marrakech! after a little refresh in the hostel room, lauren and i went and got dinner and tea with the italian couple, which was so fun! they are wonderful, and we had a great time talking for several hours – a fabulous way to end our time in marrakech!

after a comical, three-stooges-esque train ride (let’s just say the concept of a train “selling out” doesn’t exist, and neither does personal space, or personal hygiene), the next stop was fez, the cultural and spiritual capital of morocco; it also has one of the oldest and largest medinas in africa, and boasts several universities, one of which is certified by UNESCO as the oldest in the world! we stayed with a friend of connor’s, in a super cool riad tucked into the medina. ethan and his housemates were, like everyone else we encountered in morocco, exceedingly hospitable and generous. we had a blast getting to know them during our short stay – cooking dinner together, trying new restaurants (i highly recommend café clock if you’re ever in fez), and exploring the medina… which is absolutely enormous, and rather confusing until you get the hang of it. while we were only there for two full days, i really got the feeling that fez was the most “authentic” place we went. of course, there are plenty of tourists, but as you walk around the souk in the evening, you can see everyone going about their daily lives – buying food for dinner, greeting their neighbors, coming in and out of the mosques. it seemed less like a tourist trap (like marrakech) and more just like a glimpse into the inner workings of a city that has stood the tests of time. 

i also had the distinct realization in fez that moroccan culture, like so many other cultures in the world, is decidedly not one of waste. especially in the food/animal department… when a sheep is slaughtered, for example, the wool is used to make fabric, the skin is used for the leather goods you see for sale in the medina, the meat is sent a few streets over to the butcher stalls, and even the innards are given to the cats that roam the streets. it seems gruesome at first, when you spot a pile of skins, or a row of whatever body part (heads were particularly disconcerting), or a cat nibbling on some intestines… but then, it becomes almost comforting. i found myself enjoying the peace of mind that comes from watching the butcher grind your meat in front of you – there can be no questions as to what went into that kilo of kefta. and the leather flats that you buy haven’t moved more than 50 meters in their little, inanimate lives, because the tannery is just around the corner and the man you just paid is the man who made those shoes, probably a just few days before. it’s a far cry from the distanced, thoughtless consumerism we have in america, in all the best ways.

the coolest thing we did in fez, though, was going to the hammam. a hammam is a traditional public bathhouse… and talk about a real, moroccan experience. we got up close and personal with a steaming room full of mostly (if not completely) naked women, and had the top layer of skin basically stripped from our bodies in the process. the hammam is an interesting way to see the other side of the relatively conservative culture of the outside world. inside the safety of the hammam doors (there are no men inside during female hours, and vice versa), the women are free to show parts of themselves that never see the light of day. and i noticed that there was basically no evidence of any kind of self-conscious body language; the overall attitude was just, “yep, we’re all ladies here, we have the same parts, it doesn’t matter how they’re shaped.” if only just for that reason, it was something you’d never see in the states, and it was a really nice feeling. the other important service the hammam provides is purely social – for some of the women, it’s their only outing for the week, and they take advantage of the total freedom of expression that the privacy offers to chat freely with their friends and neighbors. plus, on top of all that, you get SO clean. despite the kind of grimy atmosphere (a very, very hot tile room constantly sloshed with water that you draw in buckets from a tub, the soap/skin/whatever else running off bodies onto the floor where you’re sitting), i have never felt so exfoliated and clean. we paid the extra few dirhams to have the resident hammam lady scrub us with the little black mitts we’d bought earlier… and she did not mess around. i was glowing like a lobster by the end of it, but it felt great! she also washed and brushed my hair for me, which is my #1 favourite thing. so, all in all, a fantastically entertaining and eye-opening experience.

i keep writing too much!! this will have to do for now – the final part will follow! pictures from this installment are here, beginning with number 67!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

no hashuma - morocco, part one

hello again, friends!

i know it’s been a while… lots to catch you up on! i didn’t mention it at the end of my last blog, but i had another break for the second half of february (life is tough here) – hence, the radio silence. buckle in for a fun recap of the last three weeks!

but first, a little back story. last november, i did something slightly outside of my normal comfort zone; i bought a ticket to africa, to go visit a friend i’d never met in person, who is living and teaching in morocco as a fulbright fellow. sounds like the perfect setting for one of those internet catfishing horror stories, but we had been chatting on facebook for months, and had even started talking on skype at that point…. plus, i really wanted to go to morocco! besides, this year is all about challenging myself and stepping outside of my little glass box. so, i took that leap of faith while the tickets were still cheap! fast-forward three months, and my friend and i were skyping almost daily, thus alleviating basically all of my albeit-slight discomfort about flying to a different continent to stay with a stranger.  another contributing factor was the fact that another assistant in my region, lauren, saw my post about going to morocco and asked if i wanted to travel together. we skyped a few times and organized ourselves on a googledoc… in fairness, she took an even greater leap of faith, considering the fact that she’d never spoken to connor and we’d only talked a few times! but, it was another situation of starting out as strangers and ending up feeling like life-long friends!

by the time my departure rolled around, i was absolutely beside myself with excitement. i couldn’t wait to add another country (and continent!) to my growing list – especially one with such a vibrant culture as morocco. i also couldn’t wait to get to hang out with my new friends in person, as opposed to seeing them on my computer screen! getting to morocco was no mean feat – i took the train on a thursday afternoon up to paris, slept in the charles de gaulle airport, and then caught a 6am flight to agadir. staying overnight in an airport is a very interesting experience... you definitely get a whole new level of people watching. in retrospect, i should have gone through security when i got there at 10pm, because there were couches at the gates! i spent the night curled awkwardly between two metal arm rests, dozing in between the rounds of floor buffing / waxing that were happening around me. le sigh. but, i fell asleep almost instantly on the plane (even before the takeoff – unheard of, for me!) and slept for nearly the entire flight. so, all in all… a free night in paris! arriving in morocco was magical, because it was SUNNY! i hadn’t seen the sun in weeks, due to the incessant rain in central france. i immediately felt my vitamin d count start to rise, and with it, my spirits. i spent the rest of the trip trying my hardest to soak up as much sun as possible, and i have the freckles to show for it now!

my first stop was agadir, a southern city on the coast. connor is living there for the school year, teaching in the university. it was so fun to finally meet in person – one of those surreal “i don’t know you, but i do” kind of feelings. a few quick games of bananagrams quickly dispelled any potential awkwardness, followed by a warm nap on the rooftop terrace. the first afternoon, two of connor’s friends took us up to a surf town about thirty minutes away called taghazout, where i got to try surfing for the second time in my life. it’s still really hard, but so invigorating! we had a wonderful time exploring the beaches and enjoying my first (but certainly not last) glass of fresh mint tea. we didn’t do much “tourism” in agadir, as there is not too much to do (unless you’re staying at one of the several beach resorts). mainly, i just got to hang out with connor and his housemates and enjoy having new friends.  when lauren arrived two days later, we cooked a big mexican fajita feast for the house and sat up talking late into the night. it was a great way to ease back into social interaction, after the isolation of my normal life!

monday morning, lauren, connor, and i piled onto a big bus and headed up the coast, to a town called essaouira. we only stayed for a few days, but it ended up being one of my favourite places in morocco – a little oceanside town with a fun souk (market) and incredibly nice people. everyone from the hostel workers to the people next to us at our breakfast café seemed eager to welcome us to their country and make us feel at home. i fell in love with the textures and colours on constant display in the souk stalls: rugs, ceramics, leather goods, metal work, fresh food… you name it. even the physical buildings contributed to the aesthetic, with the warm oranges and browns standing in contrast to the brightly coloured doors and the crisp whitewash, all backed by an endless blue sky. while in essaouira, we met a moroccan student from marrakech named zakaria, who ended up being one of the highlights of our trip! we shared a fun afternoon together, jamming on a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean, with a few other café friends – it was the first of many opportunities for philosophical discussion of culture and humanity, and i certainly cherish that memory already! in the souk, lauren and i had our first real introduction to bargaining, and got some pretty sweet deals on a few souvenirs and gifts (mainly thanks to connor, let’s be honest). the downside of the souk wandering is definitely all the catcalling – as foreign women, we had quite the array of phrases thrown our way, from “ohh beautiful!” to “hey, harry potter!” (my glasses) and “hannah montana!” (no clue). there were others that were much more unpleasant. honestly, though, with a decent sense of humour and a thick skin, it is not intolerable. you just have to write it off as part of the culture and let it slide off your back… and also, keeping a list of the best lines and laughing over it later doesn’t hurt!

another three hour bus ride brought us inland to what could arguably be morocco’s biggest party city. true to its reputation, marrakech was decidedly more tourist-oriented; certainly a big change from little essaouira. thankfully, we had zakaria as the best tour guide imaginable, so we got to experience the souk and surrounding area in a slightly more authentic way (read: we didn’t get harassed or ripped off, because we were with a moroccan). the enormous main plaza, place jema al fnae, is known as one of the biggest night-time spots in europe, and i can attest to that. it was absolutely teeming with people – eating at the food stalls, watching street performers, selling various trinkets, generally loitering… the introvert in me was definitely overwhelmed with the sheer number of people, but it was fascinating to see. despite the inundation of foreigners and locals alike, i did love walking around the twisty medina streets and simply taking photos; i have never been so visually inspired in my life! the catcalling was much worse in marrakech, and much worse when it was just me and lauren, without the boys. we got a couple marriage proposals (one including camels!), several creepy “oh wow/nice/beautiful/spicy” murmurs, and countless “hello/bonjour/hola” greetings (i suppose i could pass for spanish). thankfully, morocco still uses french as the language of tourism (thanks, french protectorat!), so we got by just fine, but picking up a few words in the local dialect, darija, made our experience much more comfortable! once you learn how to say “no, thank you” in arabic to the men trying to direct you into their stalls to view their purses/lamps/shoes/scarves/etc, it becomes easier to just keep on walking…

i actually think i’ll cut myself off here, because i’m only halfway through and already waaaay over my average word count… so, installment two should be up soon! in the meantime, here are the pictures from my trip, starting at photo 19! :)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

truffe en fête.

blogosphere! i have news to report, at long last. it’s been a quiet month here in the countryside – lots of movie watching and novel reading. but, this weekend, i had one of the coolest experiences that i’ve had to date here in france… and it was all about the truffle, the cherished black diamond of the périgord!

a few weeks ago, a couple of my pilates friends here in excideuil told me about a special all-day event held each year called “truffe en fête.” it's put on by the local chapter of the rotary club, and celebrates one of this region’s most precious commodities – the truffle. the whole shindig is split into two parts… the first segment is an afternoon “conference,” at which attendees learn about the truffle, listen to local “trufficulteurs," and even have the opportunity to do a little taste-testing as well! the second part is a full-on french feast experience, with every course featuring (you guessed it) the truffle. when christine and beatrice told me that it was a benefit dinner for a local cancer research fund, i was sold! what better way to experience the local culture and taste truffles for the first time than by giving back to that same community. as the date approached, i continued to look forward to the event with high expectations!

finally, the weekend arrived. i had offered to go with christine and beatrice on friday, to help set up for the event on the following day… and i’m so glad i did! i met several members of the rotary club, who were all wonderfully charming and friendly. we spent the afternoon/early evening rearranging tables, perfecting the place settings, and generally making sure that everything was ready for the 200 person dinner the next day. the venue itself was absolutely gorgeous. situated just a few kilometers away from excideuil, the “domained’essendiéras” is a beautiful complex of two chateaux (one from the 16th century and one from the 19th century), a banquet hall and clubhouse, golf course, vacation homes… you name it. the chateaux were beautifully renovated by the family that owns the property, and i was continually impressed with the attention to detail they so obviously devoted to the process.

on saturday, i got myself all dolled up and went down to the venue early with the ladies (begging rides has become the norm, since i have no car) to help with last-minute preparations before the afternoon session started. there wasn’t much to do for the first hour or so, but around 2pm, the highly-anticipated (and slightly late) keynote speaker showed up! her name is danièle mazet-delpeuch, and she is an absolute gem. as a native of the périgord region and a world-renowned specialist in the regional cuisine, danièle was a total match for this event. she had even agreed to prepare a little “amuse-bouche” as a treat for the audience, so when she arrived, beatrice and i kicked into sous-chef mode. we spent about an hour and a half in the kitchen in total, preparing the cutest little hors d’oeuvre you ever did see. step one was cutting a big loaf of freshly baked, freshly delivered bread into strips and arranging them onto plates for eventual toasting. for step two, danièle showed me how to carefully cut little quail eggs open with nail scissors and pop them into pre-heated frying pans for some sunny-side-up goodness. once they cooked, i was given a little scalloped biscuit cutter and told to place the beautiful little eggy flowers into the shallow plastic bowls that beatrice had set out onto the trays. once the eggs were placed, the freshly toasted bread strips (called tartines) were lovingly spread with the foie gras that delphine had made especially for the event. DI-VINE. the final, and most important, touch was to lightly touch the foie-gras end of the tartine into some crumbled raw truffle, sprinkle just a teensy bit of the truffle onto the egg yolk, and place the tartine across the bowl. throughout the process, danièle was so wonderful and encouraging – she even complimented my egg-cutting techniques and told me i had a future as a chef. once the assembly was complete, danièle went out and spoke for about 30 minutes before doing a foie gras demonstration! her life has been incredibly interesting; she started out as a sort of local culinary hero in the perigord region, welcoming chefs and cooking enthusiasts from all over the world to her country home/farm for foie gras and truffle camps. then, in the late 80’s, she was summoned (almost literally) to paris, upon recommendation, to be the personal chef for the then-president-de-la-republique françois mitterand! she worked in the palais de l’élysée (equivalent of the white house) for two years. then, she went to work in antarctica as the chef for a french research team for 14 months! she’s literally been on every continent! a movie was made about those two experiences (working in paris and antarctica) – it is called "haute cuisine" (or les saveurs du palais) and came out last fall. i just watched it today – it’s very entertaining, and the woman who plays “hortense” (danièle) did a great job of capturing her spirit. all in all, i consider myself very, very lucky to have had such a unique opportunity!

by 6:30 or so, everyone had left to go get ready for the dinner. we made sure everything was picked up  and tidy before heading down to the banquet hall. i sat and watched the england/france rugby match (the 6 nations tournament opener!) with a bunch of the men. france ended up winning right at the very end, which put everyone firmly in a great mood for the rest of the night. i was also interviewed by the local blogger for a little article on his site, periblog (link forthcoming). around 7:45, we lit the candles and the “servers” (rotary club members) started popping bottles of bubbly! now, i’ve had my fair share of authentic french dinners… but i’ve never been to a banquet-type dinner. and let me tell you, this one was special. we started with the pre-dinner drinks around 8pm, and everyone kind of just mingled until about 8:30. after a few opening remarks from the rotary club president and christine, the first course was served. naturally, it was a soup – a velouté of white beans and potatoes, with the ever-present truffle, of course. it was delicious. i could have had 4 bowls of it. and of course, with a new course we must have new wine! throughout the night, our table ended up having something like 8 bottles of wine… there were only 10 of us at the table, and two didn’t really drink. so, you can do the math there. the second course was a truffle foie gras (heaven help me) with carmelized onion jelly and fresh, crusty bread. i cannot even begin to describe the delicacy that was this dish. it was simply divine. i was starting to feel full by the end of it, though, because that slice of foie gras was substantial to say the least. thankfully, the third dish took a while coming, because the purée had to be prepared exactly before serving… and it takes a lot of purée to feed over 200 people. finally, the main course came out, and boy, was it worth the wait. a beautiful cut of beef cheek, roasted for several hours and served alongside a potato purée made with truffled crème fraiche and this fantastic gravy. it was absolutely decadent – the meat was so, so tender and the purée was this velvety concoction of perfect seasoning, buttery, truffley, potatoey goodness… mmm. i will never think of mashed potatoes the same way again. after that, we had the cheese course, which was a truffle-infused, soft goat cheese with a slice of toasted bread which had been glazed with truffle oil… i love goat cheese, but the texture was different than any kind i’ve tried thus far. finally, dessert was fresh crêpes with truffle caramel – exactly as delicious as it sounds. as is only fitting, there was a round of coffee to finish everything off, despite the fact that it was pushing one in the morning at that point. the meal honestly took like 5 hours. #france. i have never, ever had a meal so decadent and detailed and perfectly french in my entire life. each course was introduced by a meticulous explanation that perfectly explained the treat we were about to receive. we took our time, enjoying each dish as it was brought to us and praising the elements that were particularly phenomenal. the evening was made even more special by the fact that i got to sit with several friends from excideuil and the surrounding area, some that i have known for a while now and others that i met that evening. i also got to meet christine’s daughter and beatrice’s two children, which was a treat! it was funny to meet the kids, now that i’ve gotten to be friends with the parents.

i stayed and helped clean up a little bit – mostly bussing the tables and getting all the glassware sorted into the trays. finally, just after 2, i left with christine’s husband gilles (my name counterpart), who kindly offered to bring me and beatrice’s son adrien back to excideuil. i was talked into staying for a drink at their house, since i’m friends with the kids and there’s nothing like a beer at 2:30 in the morning. i finally, finally got home just after 3am, and promptly fell into bed soon thereafter.

it seems only fitting that this post is one of my longest ones yet, and it’s about food. that’s a very appropriate metaphor for france, if i’m being honest. if there’s one thing the french know, it’s how to eat, and eat well. bon appétit, indeed!