A Travellerspoint blog

You've Left Behind the World Again

Avignon and the Fringe Festival of France

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The itinerary called for another day in Carry le Rouet. All the itinerary really cared about was that we spent each night at the hotel that we booked. Apart from that, we had a Europass that would get us anywhere in Europe by train. So my father and I looked at train schedules, looked at towns, and decided that Avignon sounded like a nice town to visit.

To get from Carry le Rouet to Avignon, we were going to leave in the morning by way of Mirimas. We'd have about an hour there, than catch a train to Avignon. On the way back, we would take a train to L'estrac, have 45 minutes there, then take another train back to Carry le Rouet. We'd get to Avignon around lunch and leave shortly before dinner.

Avignon is most famous for the Papal Palace and the Saint-Benezet bridge. I wasn't terribly interested in popes, but there was also Le Fort Saint-Andre and La chartreuse which both sounded interesting. So we decided that we would head to those, looking for lunch on the way.

With a plan in mind, we headed out.

Mirimas was bigger than Carry le Rouet. Not dramatically bigger, but slightly. There was a second hand shop that sold books and ceramic cups and napkins. (It sold more than that, but that was all my father and I were interested in.) There were several bakeries, some of which were open. There was a tourist shop with information about Provence and other regions. It was a nice little town, but I wasn't terribly upset to leave it.

When we got to Avingon, I noticed a big open area with more than three booths. We went over to look at it. There was a sign advertising the Avignon book festival. Sure enough, almost every booth was for books. One was for something either audio or audiovisual. I ignored it and looked at the other tents. So many books...

Apart from the occasional thought process along the lines of “I didn't know that Stendahl wrote something called 'Romans.' Oh, wait, that's just French for 'novels.' They're saying he wrote several novels. That makes way more sense...”

There were also a fair number of books that I'd never seen in the United States. I remember when my brother was trying to interlibrary lone Sully Prudhomme (the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature) and could only find him in a handful of libraries. And now he was for sale at several different stalls.

My father left me looking at books while he looked at places for lunch. I continued browsing along the stalls. I saw several odd transliterations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy's names, and a Russian language Anna Karenina and book of magic tricks, but mostly all of the books I saw were in French.

And then a woman came up to me and gave me a flier and asked me to come see a play that evening. I took the flier automatically, and looked at it after she left. Premier Amour, by Samuel Beckett. It started after we left Avignon.

When I met up with my father again, I showed him the flier and asked if he was sure we couldn't stay longer. The response was yes, but that wasn't the only play going on. We'd come to Avignon while it was in the middle of hosting France's biggest theater festival.

While we ate lunch, we were surrounded by the festival. There were the fliers we'd been handed. There was the place-mat that listed various shows that were playing in one of the venues. There were posters hanging down from the ceiling that advertised even more shows. It seemed like every part of Avignon that people walked through regularly was plastered with posters.

And then there were the groups that tried to get attention for their show. Getting noticed in a town that's going through a major theater festival isn't easy. The best way is to dress up in the costumes that you're going to wear on stage (works especially well if costumes are ball-gowns or something else really unusual)) and handing out fliers. Maybe you'll also sing.

Not surprisingly, a French theater festival loved Moliere and was showing a lot of his works. Surprisingly, they also seemed to love Oscar Wilde. While we were eating lunch, I noticed two side-by-side posters, one for The Importance of Being Earnest and another for The Picture of Dorian Gray. That made sense, as those were his two most famous works. But as we kept walking, I noticed more. Oscar Wilde is Dead. The Importance of Being Wilde. The Canterville Ghost . At the point at which you're adapting short stories, you're kind of grasping at straws. I'm pretty sure I saw more advertisements for Oscar Wilde works than Shakespearean ones, which I bizarre.

We did see one play- Animal Farm. Based on the work by George Orwell.

It was a one-man production. I think the man who was doing it was supposed to be famous, because his name was advertised on the handouts. In the middle of the play,he also gave a section that seemed to have very little to do with animal farm. It didn't have any French in it, The English I caught from that was “Oh no” (which could have been “Ah! Non!,” I suppose,) and “atomic bomb.” I didn't understand that part at all, but it was probably something he was known for.

Apart from that, it was very good. Animal Farm is the kind of story that's kind of hard to adapt to stge, let alone to one person on stage. But he was a wonderfully expressive actor, with superb control over his face, voice, and body. I could tell the difference between the prissy horse Lubie and Snowball. It was harder to tell the difference between Snowball and Napoleon, and I don't think the horses ever appeared, or Moses, which was kind of disappointing. But when you're a single person, I understand that some corners have to be cut.

I was disappointed that they never sang “Beasts of England,” or, in this case, “Beasts of France.” I was kind of surprised that Napoleon's name hadn't changed, because I believed I'd heard that in French versions of Animal Farm, it did. And I was very amused that right before they came up with the commandment “All animals are equal” they discussed what conce[pts it needed to encompass. You know, the essential ones of “liberté, fraternité, egalité...”

Comprehension wasn't too bad. There was no full scene in French that I was not able to understand. I definitely would not have been able to understand it if I hadn't read the book and remembered it fairly well, though. I'm not sure if a native frenchman who hadn't read the book would have been able to understand or appreciate it that well. One man shows tend to add a difficulty to comprehension that have nothing to do with linguistic ability.

I will give Carry le Rouet this over Avignon- it's easier to find grocery stores that are closer in Carry le Rouet. We ended up needing to move rather quickly to get dinner at the grocery store and get to the train on time. We made it on with minutes to spare, because we were on the train for about the same period of time as a French dinner would have taken.

We got off at L'Estraque with 45 minutes to kill. L'Estaque was basically closed down when we got there a bit after 8. After walking several blocks, we finally managed to find a store that was open, and another four or five that were closed. So I'll also give Carry le Rouet this- at least it doesn't close down by 8:00 at night.

Still, glad I spent the day in Avignon instead. It was fascinating to advertisements for some of the shows that were playing. (Even as we were walking back to the train station, I kept seeing posters I hadn't noticed before.) And I liked being able to watch a theater performance in French. Even if the piece in question was a British satire of Russia.

Posted by Soseki 09:24 Archived in France Comments (0)

I Was Never Meant for Such a Small Town World

Carry le Rouet

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Carry le Rouet has several things in common with Geneva. Both were primarily French-speaking. Both were next to large bodies of water. And I didn't want to leave the hotel of either without a clear idea of where I was going.

In Geneva, the issue wasn't that I wouldn't find anything interesting. Geneva was full of interesting things, both nearby and farther away, for all kinds of people. It's more that I wanted an idea of where I wanted to go to so I didn't get overwhelmed.

Carry le Rouet did not have that problem. It was more an issue that if I had out without knowing where I was going,I would walk past blocks and blocks of houses, or enter a different town. And if you're fascinated with French houses, Carry le Rouet, with its real estate agencies and architects, is the town for you. (There might have only been one architect who's building I walked past several times, and then who I walked by in person. [He had blueprints and was measuring parts of the town.] Maps confirm that there are multiple real estate agencies, though.)

There are two grocery stores- one on either side of us. (My French got its healthy dose of battering when I had no idea what the clerk told me and just handed her enough money to cover the transaction. I later figured out she'd probably asked if I wanted a bag because I remembered she'd said the word “sac.”) About a kilometer from our hotel is the downtown area, with multiple stores and restaurants open.

There are crickets and lizards and doves. The crickets are very noisy, the lizards are very fast, and the doves are better than pigeons.

At about eleven, I noticed a firetruck between our hotel and the grocery store out and to the left. (The grocery store that was between us and downtown.) There were also people directing traffic. Figuring it wasn't a good idea to try and walk where there might be people putting out a fire, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying various other paths.

Path number 1 was to take a street that began parallel to the street I believed the fire was on and take the first right from there. This path took me by a number of houses and ended just in time for me to watch cars driving over a water house and a person directing traffic and ignoring pedestrians.

Path number 2 began downtown by going down to the water. It went up and down and past topless swimmers before I finally found a staircase that brought me up onto street level. This brought me to the grocery store, where I could see that there were still firetrucks. I decided to avoid them and find another quiet backstreet. This street went on. And on. And on. With houses. And more houses. And even more houses. And nothing but houses. And would it ever end? Why wasn't there a way to get back to the main street already? It did finally end, right in front of our hotel.

Path number 3 was actually pleasant. It went right down to the water, and continued there until we were downtown. Ignoring the big ants and even bigger insects that curled up all their appendages and looked like a rock when they were startled, it was pretty. It was ever prettier on the way back, when the sun was setting over the Mediterranean sea. (Even if it did start raining without the sky giving any indication that's what it was doing.)

There was a slight market going on downtown. By “slight market” I mean three or four booths were selling jewelry and baskets and similar things. One of the booths was selling glass items, including necklaces. I recognized the style, because I used to have one of those necklaces with a unicorn. I lost it years ago, but can still remember it surprisingly well. (There were not any unicorn necklaces, or I might have been tempted for nostalgia sake.)

It's a small town. And, although I don't personally, I can see how some people might like it.

Posted by Soseki 14:03 Archived in France Comments (0)

I Like it in the City When Two Worlds Collide


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Geneva is the first city this trip that has felt like a city. I couldn't wander around Helsinki for half an hour without coming back to someplace I'd already been, Rome was just a giant museum disguised as a city, Domodosolla was a small Italian village, Bern was full of people who thought that watching a clock strike a new hour was interesting, and Aix Les Bains shut down by 10:00 at night. But Geneva is a city.

I realized that shortly after I stepped outside the hotel sans baggage. Everywhere else, wandering around until I either found something interesting or a sign to something interesting was a decent approach. It didn't work so well in Geneva. Geneva's big.

Geneva is not just a modern city, it's an international one. This is related, but not limited to the Palais des Nations and the United Nations Office at Geneva. I'd seen a lot of restaurants with Italian or French cuisine. I hadn't seen Indian, Ethiopian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Russian, and French cuisine all within a few blocks of each other.

I did succeed in finding the lake, and sat watching it for a while. Then I kept watching. There was a display done by the Green Cross for “Helping the Planet/Helping the Future” which was mostly in English, so I didn't get to test how while the last unit of French had been in teaching me the vocabulary for that topic.

The lake was the nature part of the day, so after that I could go look at stores. I admired Swiss watches, Swiss knives, and Swiss chocolates.

I ducked into a souvenirs and chocolate shop, mainly because I wanted to write a few things down without being in the middle of the street. I'd made my way near the back of the store, and was pretending to look at a tea cup that had the flags of different Swiss towns as patterns for cows. (It was a pretty cute cup.)

The woman who owned the store came over and asked if I needed any help.

“I'm looking.”
“It looks like you're taking notes.”
“Euh...” I smiled.

She told me that I could take a picture if I wanted, so I did. She asked if I was Swiss, so I needed to admit that I was American. Then she showed me a ChocoWatch (“The ultimate Swiss Souvenir!”) and read the back of the box in both English and French. Then she showed me an article about the designer and his thought process that was resting next to it. I read the article for a while without making any attempts to understand what it was saying.

As I went to leave, she offered me a piece of chocolate. I'm not about to say no to Swiss chocolate with hazelnuts, so I took a piece, thanked her, said goodbye, and left. (Unsurprisingly, it was very good chocolate.)

We were the only ones in the restaurant at dinner that night. Every single person got artichokes at some point in their meal, so I approved. Even if we did need to drag someone who wasn't normally a waiter out to talk to us in English, and even if there was a really long break between them clearing away our plates and them bringing us dessert.

A lot of things were closed the next day, including the grocery store and two different bread/pastry shops that I looked at. Regardless, I still found a place to eat breakfast, and then walked up and down the same street a few times.

I did have three different people ask me for directions while I was in Geneva. I felt less bad about needing to tell them “I don't know, I'm sorry,” then I do normally, because I was able to respond in French. (The last time I had someone ask me for directions was in Rome when a family got my attention with “Scusi!” and then immediately asked “Do you speak English?”)

Besides, as I learned at the restaurant yesterday, people wouldn't assume I was an American tourist. The English-speaking person who served as our waiter said that there weren't many Americans in Geneva, but there were too many British.

Posted by Soseki 09:58 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

We Sleep and We Wake to Muffled Chimes Out From the Lake

Aix Les Bains et le Lac du Bourget

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According to the tourist information on a printed sheet of paper, Aix Les Bains is next to the largest freshwater lake in France, the Lac du Bourget, and that there are over a hundred hotels there. From my experience there, I can say that the Lac du Bourget is indeed large, Aix Les Bains is indeed next to it, and that there are indeed a lot of hotels in Aix Les Bains. (I did not see any in the lake, but then again, I didn't go diving.)

After going to the hotel, the first thing I tried to do was find the lake. My guiding principle was “as we rode in, I saw mountains and lake. So if I head towards the mountains, I'll have to find the lake eventually, right?”After about a half hour walk where I saw more lizards than people and very few signs indicating I was anywhere near the right direction, I got bored and went back.

After that, I found a salon du thé where I could sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry. Granted, I had very little idea what I was ordering apart from hazelnut something and coffee something, and I managed to screw up the pronunciation of “viennois' because I read it with an “a” and not an “o,” but I did manage to get through that entire conversation without saying “Anglais, s'il vous plâit, so I count that as an improvement. Even though, if I'd been listening to the waitress when she explained what a café viennois was I could have realized “wait... that has whipped cream on it” and ordered something different, I still count that as an improvement.

After that, I sat in a park for a bit and watched kids playing. Although Aix Les Bains has nowhere near as many parks as hotels, it still has enough that “I'll meet you in the park in half an hour!” is the kind of thing you'd only say to people you never want to see again. If any of the parks had names, I never bothered learning them, and would refer to them instead by interesting locations that were nearby.

After that came the several hour affair known as “dinner.” The first step, finding a good restaurant, was fairly quick and easy. So was the second step of deciding what we wanted to order. The actual ordering was slightly rougher, with various gaps between the waitress's knowledge of English and our knowledge of French, but still relatively smooth. Then the waiting. Then the first course. Then more waiting, and a main course. Then more waiting, then the waitress came out to ask what we wanted for dessert.

“What's the dessert of the day?”
“Small red fruit.”
“Sure.... we'll have that.”

We discussed what she could have meant by that for a while (she had never said anything to imply that it was a pastry, and “cerises” meant cherries, not cranberries) without reaching a conclusion. The conclusion was reached for us when she brought out a bowl of cherries and a spoon. It was a traditional French desert, but slightly disappointing by American standards of what they picture when they think “French dessert.” Still, it wasn't a plate of cheese, and it wasn't a bowl of cranberries. Both would have been disappointing.

Aix Les Bain works on an odd kind of schedule. To understand it, know that there are three kinds of establishments- hotels, restaurants, and other. Hotels are “open” all the time, where “open” means there may or may not be a receptionist, and there may or may not be a way to get into the building if you don't have a key. Restaurants are open from 12-3 for lunch and from 7-10 for dinner. “Other” are open any time between about 6:30 and 7 that restaurants aren't.

So it doesn't really matter that lunch and dinner each take about two hours each to finish- it's not like you could do anything else during that time.

Breakfast can either be gotten informally at a patisserie, or formally at a restaurant that serves breakfast. Breakfast at a restaurant usually includes several kinds of bread (especially croissants, since it is France after all) and drinks. Hot drinks usually come with the basic option, hot drinks and cold drinks come with more advanced option.

After breakfast,my family and I went out to try and find the lake. This time we went with a map and a clearer idea of where the lake was, and met with much more success.

One of the things we needed to do was get to the other side of the railroad tracks. There was a train coming when we wanted to cross over. We could have waited around, but instead we took a detour that brought us through a tunnel. The tunnel explicitly said “no bicycles,” but had very nice ramps that a bicyclist was taking advantage of.

The tunnels were surprisingly pretty. They were painted, not graffited, with various different images, including of school supplies (pens, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners...) and pictures or postcards, and overall just made for a very pleasant walk. (Or bike ride, I imagine.)

The lake was very pleasant. We arrived when it was cool enough to be chilly,and so found a bench in the sun to sit on for a while. Then we walked aroun dfor a bit more.

The casual “that looks interesting. Let's go look at it!” approach turned out to be much better than following the recommended math. My father and I did that for a while. We saw the vagabond garden and wall of senses. The vagabond garden seemed to be a field where native plants were allowed to grow free. The wall of senses was a wall with slots cut out for nose, ears, and eyes. I'll grant that you could see through the eyes, just not as well as I'd have been able to see if the wall hadn't been there. I might have actually been able to smell or hear the lake if it hadn't been for the wall.

Later on, while we were sitting by the water, we started to wonder what the flags were for. There were a lot of European flags, but not all the flags depicted were from the EU, and not all the EU flags were depicted. We wanted to ask someone, but realized we didn't know the word for “flag.” The only translation tool we had was a French-French dictionary. After searching for several words that might have “flag” appear in their definition, We eventually succeeded (by looking up “rouge”) and went in to ask. Those were the flags of all the countries that had boats in the port. So if we had sailed to Aix Les Bains instead of taking a combination of airplanes and trains, they would have put an American flag up in the port. (Plans for next summer! I am not Moby Dick...)

Then back to town. I managed to find a bookstore when it was actually open, and went in . I'd never before seen that concentration of French in a bookstore. It was exciting. (And I could red the author's names, which was a huge improvement over the last time I tired to buy books in a foreign country.)

At dinner, I managed to order something without ham and not get a pitying look. (Specifically, I was ordering a Hawain pizza without ham. That's a traditional French meal, right?) Then to one of the other parks in Aix Les Bain, and then as much of the self-guided as we had energy for, which was about four points of interest. (All of the points of interests were located in the same plaza.) And, since it was after seven, the town had more or less shut down, so we went back to our hotel.

The next day I had an informal breakfast, then my sister and I got breads and desserts and my parents got meats and cheeses, and we ate lunch in one of the parks before going on our train. (Our train left slightly after twelve, so there wouldn't have been time to eat in a restaurant.)

Overall, it was a lot like what the brochure I read on the train said it was- a pleasant town with a lot of hotels and a giant lake nearby.

Posted by Soseki 09:53 Archived in France Comments (0)

Where the Rainfall Turns to Silver

Day 2 in Bern

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There are a lot of cities where rain would be enough to ruin a day spent exploring it. Bern isn't one of them. Yes, the rain meant umbrellas and a harder time reading signs and menus. But for what I'd already intended to do with the day- walk around looking at shops and other less nature-y things, the rain wasn't too much of an inconvenience.

Large portions of the city were covered. So “looking at shops” didn't mean running from one store to another to avoid getting too wet. It meant walking under significant overhangs looking in windows, looking at the glass displays of puppets and artworks, and occasionally sitting on benches and watching Japanese tourists.

I have a soft spot for cities that allow me to buy yarn without needing to look around for it too much. I have a softer spot for cities where I can find a yarn store without even looking for one. Bern had one. I made a mental note of where it was and left before I spent the money I wanted to spend on lunch on it. So I wandered on.

I ended up getting lunch at a cafe. I ordered half a sandwich without needing to widen my eyes and say “American,” so that went relatively well. Then I watched as they made a full sandwich, made half of it disappear, then heated up and gave me the other half. I presume they kept the other half in case someone later wanted half of a falafel sandwich, but it could have gone straight into the compost.

Compost, because there were four different bins. Two for different kinds of recycling, one for compost, and one for actual trash. That, combined with the overall atmosphere of the cafe (open and spacy-feeling, with unique chairs and lights) and the presence of a book for sale of “25 best places to eat in Switzerland” made me think it was higher-rated than I'd initially assumed. Restaurants tend not to sell “25 best places nearby to eat” books unless they're in them. Though I suppose if they were really pressed for cash, “this is where you can eat and the food won't suck!” might get some people interested...

After lunch came more wandering around. I found a bookstore. It came in levels floors (-1 to 3), two towers, and at least three languages. The second floor was for books in English (staffed by either an actual Englishman, or someone who spoke really good English with a British accent) and the fourth floor had books in French. I looked around for a while.

If I was in Bern for more than two days, that's the kind of bookstore I would want to kill hours at. They had chairs on most of the floors. They also had a water dispenser and cups on several levels, and art in the stairwells. One of the stairs was thee point of three dystopian novels distilled into a couple of snappy words. “Imagination is rebellion,” “Pleasure is Crime,” and “Consumption is rapture,” referencing, respectively, We, 1984, and Brave New World. Seeing them written in big, friendly letters, , I remember why I didn't like Brave New World...

While I was wandering around, I got to see the excitement that is watching the clock tour while the hour changes twice! About five minutes to, a crowd starts gathering around. The second time, I was standing next to a woman who was excitedly explaining to some friends of hers who came late. “The right-most man was hitting the bell now the bears are rotating around.” Then there was a squeak and bird on the clock flapped its wings. And then, for each toll of the hour, a painted man hit stick and a bear on his right moved his head forward and back.

After it's over, it takes the crowds a while to realize that nothing more interesting than that is going to happen and disperse. And then by the next hour, a new crowd has gathered. Maybe this is what people meant when they warned that Bern was a slow town....

It might be slow, but at least it's pretty. Even in the rain. And even when parts of it (like a major road of shopping near the train station) are under construction. But especially when you can't see that, and are looking down at the city from the rose gardens, or up at the city from the river.. It's gorgeous then.

Posted by Soseki 06:01 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

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