Thursday, April 29, 2010

We'll Always Have Paris

Remember those olde tyme movies when the romantic couple, who were doomed to be separated, turn to each other, and say plaintively--we'll always have Paris.

I've always wanted to say that!

And, with our most recent trip--now I can. Of course, it will just sound silly as an off-the-cuff-unrelated-to-anything comment.

There were many high points in our recent trip. I loved Lyon. While it was very early in the season, Provence was charming. One striking place was Les Baux. This small town takes it name from the word "Baou" which is the Provençal word for a prominent protruding rock. In turn, Les Baux gave its name to bauxite (aluminum ore), which was discovered first there in 1821.

Here are two photos that show ever so briefly the stunning vistas that we saw at Les Baux.

But, enough about the provinces--let's celebrate Paris.

We had been in Paris about 10 years ago, and had an extensive tour of the Eiffel Tower, including riding the elevators as high as they go. On this visit, we approached the Eiffel Tower from the right bank. Perhaps predictably, this was one of the most crowded places--the obligatory visit to Eiffel Tower.

We went to other sites we had not seen 10 years ago--The church at Les Invalides above.

The Palais du Luxembourg is a lovely palace built for Marie de Medici who missed her Italian homeland. She was the second wife of Henry IV, king of France. His first marriage had been annulled and he married Marie de Medici, of the Tuscan Medici family, in 1600. She was more than he bargained for, however, as she did not like his lead mistress. When the king died in 1610, she became regent. She began building the palace in 1615.

Here she is in all her stony glory.

I thought the fountain in the gardens at the Palais du Luxembourg quite lovely.

Another major site we had not seen was the whole Montmartre area. To get there, we rode this "petit train", bouncing all the way up and down the hills of
Montmartre. This area has a history interwoven with artists. For a long time, it was outside the official city limits of Paris, so it became a popular gathering place, without the taxes imposed within Paris. The area was slated for destruction when Paris was undergoing its urban renewal, and was saved by artists who helped preserve its unique character.

Renoir's painting "Bal du moulin de la Galette" celebrates a summer afternoon with people gathered in Montmartre near the Moulin de la Galette. Below, you can see the actual windmill that lent its name to the location.

Another artistic site is a restaurant named La Maison Rose, a place painted by various artists, including Utrillo.

We walked around Place des Tertres, where today's artists have license to exhibit paintings. Frankly, we saw no budding Picassos or Dalis or Renoirs. The area was even more crowded than the area around the Eiffel Tower. Since we were there in early spring, presumably we were there when crowds were light. Can't imagine what it is like in the summer--although I am happy to miss the crowds.

One other find was a
Wallace fountain. We had learned of them from the guide who took us around Montmartre. The fountain name derives not from the designer but from Richard Wallace who underwrote the cost to have hundreds of these fountains placed around Paris.

The crowning glory of Montmartre is the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur. This 19th century site was built to commemorate deaths suffered in the Franco-Prussian War and the
resulting uprising of working classes in Paris in the Paris Commune.

In addition to the over-the-top architecture of the basilica, its location at the height of Montmartre gives it a commanding view of Paris.

Perhaps you are wondering about some of the other iconic Parisian sights that I have not mentioned. Well, 10 years ago we toured Notre Dame, spent some time in the Louvre, and drove along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, including stopping at the Arc de Triomphe.

So, that leaves quite a few places we have not yet seen. Oh, we need more time. . .

Until then, we can just say--we'll always have Paris. . .to go back to someday.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Art of Conversation

Subtitled: Table Talk at Table No. 10

I have a neighbor--I will call her Eunice--who is woeful at conversation. I saw her recently and asked: so, are you doing much overseas travel lately. She works for the military-industrial-defense complex in this country, and had been traveling overseas quite frequently. I asked because I thought maybe she had experienced the recent travel travails that people all over the world encountered with the Iceland volcano acting petulant. No, she said. I stopped traveling some time ago.

Period. Full stop. End of conversation.

OK, so much for small talk with my neighbor. She has an absolute gift for squelching any pleasantry exchanges.

Such was not the case on our recent trip to France. The bulk of the trip was spent on a river cruise, courtesy of Avalon Waterways. The company did a fine job of getting us from one French town to another. In fact, part of the excitement of the trip (we had no prescience of the volcano exploding, so we didn't know what REAL excitement is) was whether or not we would clear the various bridges as we sailed down the Saône and the Rhone. We were delayed part of a day due to high water as we approached Lyon.

The tour director said--we needed to have the river level go down some 20 to 30 centimeters before we could sail. When we finally did sail, we went slowly under the bridges of Lyon with maybe 2 or so centimeters to spare. I awoke at 5 a.m. one morning just as we were sailing, and we watched the progress on the in-house television. We glided under bridge after bridge with hardly room to spare.

(photo of Passerelle Masaryk from Wikipedia)

Anyway, back to the art of conversation. The first night we had dinner on the river we ended up at Table No. 10 along with four other passengers. The general idea--at least as articulated by the cruise director--was to rotate among tables so that by the end of the journey, you have shared table talk with all the other passengers. However, my husband and I are somewhat introverted--small talk is irrelevant if not painful. So night after night we gravitated back to the same small group with whom we had bonded.

Our group included a senior retired couple from California--he had been an art instructor in high school, and then the head of the art department for the school. She did not tell us what she had done, until maybe the third evening when I said--point blank--and what did you do in your working life? Well, she said, I was a clinical psychologist. Oooooooh!

So, I asked, what was your most interesting or challenging patient? Oh, she said, there was this one guy who liked to look at women's underwear, and he asked to see mine. I declined, but I often wondered if I should have let him see mine.

OK--pause in the conversation.

The other two people were a father and daughter traveling together. The father was a career Air Force man had been widowed a year before, and the daughter was helping him get through the difficult anniversary of his wife's death. I very much resonated with her experience, as I too had gone through helping my father cope with my mother's death. When it turned out that she , who had been trained as a librarian, had read as many (if not more) books than I, that she knew a lot about art and history, and that she too wrote AND has been published--well, that's a trifecta. I can't ask for more in a traveling companion.

Our table talk ranged widely every night. Over the days, we learned that we shared political sensitivities--all of us having somewhat more liberal leanings. We didn't see everything exactly the same--but why would we? And how boring would that be anyway.

I recognize that our experience demonstrates a general tendency among humans--we generally like to return to the same nesting spot. Having had a pleasant experience in our first evening of conversation, we were quite happy to return to Table No. 10. This tendency is one on which I rely to learn student names--I know that by the third day of class, students are going to sit in the same spot they sat in on day 1 and day 2, so I jot down their names on a seating chart, and then call on them by name as we have class discussions.

Ah, Table No. 10. Part of what made this trip to France very special. And while it is unlikely that we will see these traveling companions again, I will think of them all, wonder how they are doing, wonder what new challenges they have met, and I will wish I could hold a conversation with them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Learning in Lyon

At the confluence of the Saône and Rhone Rivers lies the city of Lyon. After Paris, Lyon is the next largest city in France. With a completely different character, Lyon was altogether fascinating, and the source of much new learning for me.

Guide books will tell you that Lyon is the gastronomic center of France. That may be--but we found other things of interest. The Lyonnais must enjoy humor--note all the people standing on balconies on this building. Notice anything unusual? YES--they are painted on the building. A marvelous example of a trompe l'oeil mural. The painting is called La Fresque des Lyonnais. Our guide pointed out the names of the various people depicted, including dead and living famous Lyonnais. Sorry--I don't recall any of the names now (but the link above will tell you...if you read French). Apparently, this wall is one of several around the city, all painted to fool the viewer.

Next stop for learning was La Maison des Canuts; canuts were the Lyonnais silk workers. Now, I recall having raised silkworms as a kid. Didn't we all? Anyway, growing up in then Northern Rhodesia, I had a shoebox with silkworms in it, while I attended boarding school. The silkworm moths laid eggs, which hatched into tiny worms which fed voraciously on mulberry leaves--only mulberry leaves. Then, when the worms were fully grown, they spun a cocoon with the fine silk. I can even remember the process of taking a cocoon, and unwinding it--a long strand of silk.

That recollection came flooding back as we toured La Maison des Canuts, a kind of working museum. We had a demonstration of weaving before and after--silk looms, before and after Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a programmable loom. "Before" looms looked the one shown below--a confusing tangle of threads, which to a silk weaver (a canut) would dictate the pattern. Looms required two workers to operate, one to apply pressure on pedals to raise the mechanism that separate the parallel threads that made up the warp, and the other to throw the shuttle for the weft--the bobbins with the actual colored silk for the design--back and forth. Understandably, it was a tedious process. A day's work might yield an inch or two of patterned silk.

Weaving was largely a cottage industry. Workers lived and worked in the same space. The primary requirement was a ceiling high enough to accommodate the size of the loom. What Jacquard did for silk weaving was make it possible to have a programmable pattern. He studied some early efforts to achieve this goal, and developed a loom that revolutionized silk weaving. With his invention, production output soared. Napoleon was so pleased with Jacquard's invention that he gave him an absolute monopoly on loom production, solidifying Lyon as the silk center of his empire.

Look at the photo above. If you have been around computers for a long time, it may look hauntingly familiar. While we were listening to the woman in the silk museum as she demonstrated the Jacquard loom, I kept staring at the program cloth. It looked so much like an old time computer program that I kept thinking--the Jacquard loom must be a pre-cursor to the earliest computers. Of course, I had to wait until I got home to check it out--and, voila,
here is an explanation. In fact, Jacquard's invention was inspiration for Babbage's machine, and--as they say--"the rest is history."

Once a bolt of silk was woven, it had to be taken to the control board for weighing. NO moisture was the goal, partly because moisture adversely affects silk--as anyone who has ever been caught in the rain wearing a silk blouse knows--and partly because the buyer did not want to pay for water.

Solution? Covered passageways for canuts to hurry through, carrying their silk down to the river for sale. These passageways, while not unique in European cities, have a particular character in Lyon. They are called traboules.

Not all of the passageways are covered, but they all seemed to have steps. Since the silk industry was centered in the Croix-Rousse hill, steps were a necessity to get from the top of the hill to the bottom where the river was.

Many of the passageways are hidden--a seasoned Lyonnais would know where the passageway entrances are. I asked our guide if these passageways featured in the French resistance--absolutely. With Lyon a center for Nazi activity--remember
Klaus Barbie--the French resistance used the traboules effectively as they were pursued by the SS.

One last word on the canuts--these hardworking weavers mounted what might be seen as one of the first job actions in work history. Actually, there were three separate revolts by the Canuts.

Working conditions were difficult at best, and salaries were dropping. The silk workers tried to establish a fixed price for their goods. In what was almost a classic worker/ management standoff, the workers united in solidarity. Their rallying cry: Live free working, or die fighting...
Certainly has a modern ring to it, doesn't it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

There's More to France than Paris

Oh, I can hear it now...the exaggerated sighs, the eyes rolling, the hastily inhaled air as the reader sniffs. But, my friends, it is true.

Even though the Parisians, or someone (I think it was the Romans), previously had a good sigh, eye roll, and sniff, and pronounced any place but Paris as "the provinces" (a bit of an exaggeration, but you have to give me author's license here), the provinces, including Provence, have much to offer.

Here is the run-down of places, other than Paris, that we visited: Beaune; Chalon-sur-Saône; Tournus; Mâcon; Beaujolais Region including village of Oingt; Lyon; Tournon; Viviers; Avignon; Arles; Côte d’Azur including Nice; Monte Carlo.

Such a list gives you no sense of the highlights of these places. Here's what I recall, things you won't see in Paris--various towns and villages with extant medieval buildings; places that commemorate all the things the French discovered; countryside dotted with vineyards, orchards, farms; cities with their own history.

Medieval Buildings

Chalon-sur-Saône is fairly dripping with half-timbered houses in quite good shape.
The next series of photos all come from Chalon-sur-Saône.

Next is Oingt (pronounced Wah), a tiny pristine village near Lyon in the Beaujolais region. All the buildings are made of a buttery shade of plaster. Even though the village is inhabited, we saw no one (except us tourists). The village church dates back to the 11th century and was sometimes used as a fort.

That last place featuring medieval buildings is Viviers, a charming small town, with the smallest cathedral in France. Viviers turned out to be a medieval delight—tiny winding streets, lots of Romanesque period buildings, some in transition to Gothic. Once at the top of the hill where the cathedral was, we had a spectacular view out over Rhone valley below. There is a bridge crossing the Rhone that the Allies had to blow up to prevent Germans from reaching Viviers—an act that helped save and preserve the town.

Obviously, the bridge above is the rebuilt one to replace what had been blown up.
Each of these places--Chalon, Oingt, and Viviers is off the typical tourist beaten path. I doubt we would have gone to these places had we not been cruising down a river.
Coming up--other cities (than Paris) that we visited: Arles, Avignon, and Nice.