May 24, 2017

Spain

Ibericos and Pinxtos -- 2 major decision factors
In deciding to ditch the central European travel plan, the analysis went something like this:

[At an amazing meal in Dijon] E, taking another bite:  Oh man, French food is heavenly.

Me, taking my own bite:  Mmmm, I know.  Although, in fairness, on our first night in France, you totally ordered a plate of various Spanish jamons and chorizos.

E, grinning:  And it was good!

Me, taking a sip of wine:  And French wine, so reasonably priced in France...

Both of us, sighing contentedly.

E:  You know where the food and wine is not going to be this good?  ...Poland.  And all the other countries between there and Italy.

Me [laughing]:  It's true.  Remember the pickled sausage in Prague?

E: Also, it's been surprisingly cold in France.  Have we checked the weather in central Europe?

Me: You know, there's no reason we *have* to go to central Europe.  I want to visit all of those countries and sights on our list, but we don't have to do it this trip.  It is a fairly ambitious itinerary, and it's been so nice to take it slow since we arrived.  You make a good point about the weather.  I know how much you love Spanish food (Jamon & Pulpo), and, obviously, Spain is much easier for both of us, linguistically, than any of the central European countries, so if you would rather just stay in western Europe, we could add Spain and figure out some other stops before showing up in Italy for the wedding...

And that was that.

Surtido de Embutidos
After 20 days of eating gorgeous but filling composed plated meals in France (I pulled out all the adventure stops and had Andouillette for lunch as my last authentic meal - In case you were interested, that box has been checked by this *very* omnivorous eater and does not ever need to be revisited), the first dinner in Spain was such a great change. 

Pimientos de Padron -- when we get back to California,
I'm eating these every week until they are out of season.
Tapas that we could share. Olives with additional marination in the form of olive oil and some delicious spices on the outside.  A salad of sliced tomatoes with onion, olive oil and oregano.  A small plate of jamon.  A bikini (toasted ham and cheese sandwich). Pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomatoes juice and olive oil on it).  And that was it.  We left feeling satiated, but thrilled with the light food and lack of heavy fat, cream, and sauce. Conveniently, in Catalonia, my mixing of French and Spanish as I transitioned back was welcomed as closer to Catalan.

End of the run in Girona.
E and I started our road trip by running in Girona and then walking along the Roman city walls to cool down.  From there, we picked up the car and headed out towards Zaragoza.  E has developed a ninja-like ability to pick restaurants on our road trips.  I don't question his methods, because the results are unquestionably divine.

Best Pulpo of our trip.
This first road trip pick was a Catalan speciality restaurant in a suburb of Barcelona (the server spoke only Catalan to us, which was fun to decipher, but thankfully the menu was in both Catalan and Spanish, and they understood my Spanish with residual French mixed in just fine).  This restaurant had a gorgeous outdoor seating area, and we were drooling with each dish:  olives (marinated after curing, again, brilliant), a selection of cured sausages and cheese, pa amb tomaquet (smashed rustic bread topped with olive oil, garlic & tomato juice), pimientos de padron and the best eggplant preparation ever (dry! No oil!), and finally a grilled octopus arm over pureed potatoes.  We paired this with a little wine, a lot of sparkling water and finished it up with 2 espressos.  The meal took almost 2 hours, which broke up our longest day of driving to Zaragoza.  We spent the entire drive congratulating ourselves on our good decision making re: staying in Western Europe.

Zaragoza was a bit surprising, as neither of us had realized that Basque was prevalent there.  At some point on the drive the signage switched from Catalan/Spanish to Basque/Spanish, which did not help with me trying to revert my brain to clean Spanish post-French, but did result in some more delicious food.

The coral where they hold the bulls before the running.

We stopped for lunch in Pamplona and E's restaurant picking abilities were yet again on point.  After an 11EU 2-course Basque set meal for both of us followed by cheese and espresso, we stopped to enjoy a drink in the bar on the square where Hemingway passed the time while writing The Sun Also Rises, and after watching the world go by, we found our way to the start of the circuit of the running of the bulls and walked the route to the stadium.  This visit was particularly poignant for me, as Pamplona was one of the only places my Dad had ever gone in Europe (of course, for the running of the bulls -- he wore the traditional outfit with the red neck kerchief, although he didn't run and just stood high on a pillar and watched them go by).

View from Café Iruña into the Square in Pamplona.

Again, we were surprised to realize that the signage in Pamplona was Basque/Spanish.  The festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls is actually a Basque Festival.  I had thought that the Basque-speaking region of Spain was much smaller than it actually is before this trip.  The only place I expected to find it in Spain was in San Sebastian, where I had been the guest of a French-speaking Basque family during the Basque Festival for the city, when hundreds of Basque descendants who had spread throughout the world (like my friend who took me from Bordeaux) returned to the town of their origins to celebrate.  This visit was much more sedate, although still quite international, as the tourists dominate San Sebastian, at least downtown and along the waterfront.
View of San Sebastian from the other side of the bay.
For the rest of our time in Spain, we were a little shocked to realize that our lessons from South America re: the Spanish being jerks and just brutally rolling in and taking over the local language and culture *also happened in Spain* (by the Castellano against the local European peoples with their own distinct languages and cultures).  Today, it appears there is a resurgence of respect for the dialects.  Most Spanish regions we visited had bi-lingual official signage in Castellano and the local dialect.  Also, menus, ATM instructions, and Museum guides could often be found in Castellano, Catalan, Gallician, Basque and more (often all of these options were available where English wasn't (but French usually was)).

Running route in Burgos
We had such a lovely time in Spain.  Not sure if our experience is true for the country as a whole, but somehow we put together an itinerary that made it very easy to run and workout. In most cities there were separated running/walking and biking trails and many people using them, including women in serious workout gear, often running very quickly.  (Another huge difference from France, where I saw some men in workout gear, but very few women.)

Our favorite Spanish Meal!
Before this trip, my ideal Spanish meal involved Pulpo a la gallega and pimientos de padron and some olives.  E's choice Spanish meal, of course, was a plate of Ibericos.  I'm happy to report that we had many different meals (lots of pinxtos, gazpacho, salmorejo, arroz mucoso a la Valenciana, etc.) but E and I are steadfast.  My stereotype remains as my favorite quintessential Spanish meal and because we'd recently had Jamon, we had it (minus the olives) as our last lunch before flying to Italy.

We ate so well and enjoyed the people we met and the ease of being in a place where we could use a language we spoke/read reasonably well that we agreed that Spain is now up there with France, Argentina, Japan, and Italy as one our favorite places where we will always want to return.

Goodbye Spain, 'til we meet again.

May 19, 2017

An Ode to Road Trips

Where and when I grew up, every single one of my friends and I took our drivers' license test on our 16th birthday.  It was a right of passage, and we did the work ahead of our birthdays (driver's education, both in class and in the car, hours with parental supervision and a driver's "permit" and whatever else they required) to make sure we could try to gain our car freedom as early as possible.
Our Spain Portugal Route
I bought myself a brand new sporty car to celebrate my first real job after college, and I loved it.  I drove it for 17 years (and on numerous road trips in the US) until I sold it last year to help finance our sabbatical year of travel.

Girona, one of many cities we never would have seen without a road trip.

It seems that the world is heading towards less young drivers (with the increased availability of car services and EU and US standards for youth driving permits being onerous and getting worse).  And, with self-driving cars, perhaps we're just moving away from human drivers in general. 

Nightime view from the entrance to our hotel in Zaragoza.

However, the mystique of the Great (American) Roadtrip exists for a reason.  I can attest that driving yourself (or being lazy and having your spouse drive you) is one of the best ways to see many parts of the world.  This year, E and I have done several great roadtrips (Northern US and Canada, Argentina, Southern US, currently in the middle of one through Spain and Portugal, with hopes for a short one in Iceland, and then the southern cross-country route from ATL back to the SF bay area to complete the full tour).

There's something very independent about a roadtrip -- you are there, in the foreign place that you are visiting, and yet, you aren't.  You are in your own vehicular bubble, with the people and things, and food and drink, and habits and language, and music or audiobooks that you've brought, which insulate you from the outside world. 

Navvare, Spain

Frankly, it's more comfortable than fully immersing yourself in a foreign place.  Assuming you've got the car, know the rules of the road, and can read some of the local language and have access to decent maps (thank you Google Fi) road trips just require way less foreign overhead than the same distance on public transit.  They also are a way off the beaten track to see sights and experience things that most travelers on the mass transit path will never see, which oddly gives you access to experiences that are much *more* culturally challenging than those available on the well traveled path.

Open road on the way to Portugal.
So far, for Spain and Portugal, because the countries are well populated, we've been able to string together visits to cities that have interesting things to see and do with something along the lines of no more than a 3 hour total drive between each stop.  This pace is very nice (and leaves time in the AM for running most driving days, which is hugely appreciated before sitting for hours).  Bonus, because these cultures enjoy *late* lunches (many restaurants don't even open until 1 or 1:30 PM) we've found that we can string together 3 driving days without any multiple night stays by arriving at the next city or a target along the way in time for a late leisurely lunch, doing afternoon sightseeing at our overnight destination on foot, an early by local standards dinner (8ish), and going to bed at a reasonable hour, and wake and repeat.

In the US/Canada and Argentina, our road-trip habits were totally different, mainly because the interesting cities were so much further apart so we had to drive very long stretches in one day, but also because of Argentina siesta culture and the ease of the US/Canada all hours eating culture.

When we look back on our sabbatical year, we will definitely think of road trips as one of the best things about it (all told, we're looking at about 16+ weeks on road trips this year).

May 14, 2017

20+ Days of French

After we modified our European travel plans to slow things *way* down, we ended up with 20 consecutive days in French-speaking Europe.

8 days in Paris.

Sunset view from our walk home in the 10th.

2 days in Dijon and the surrounding area.

Porte Guillaume, Dijon.

3 days in Lausanne.

View of the alps from a steamboat on lake Geneva.
7 days in Marseille.

Marseille Vieux Port, with La Belle Mere in the background on the hill.

4 cities in 20 days, with only 2 countries, no flights, and only one language was a big change from much of what this year abroad has looked like.

It was so wonderful.  We relaxed and enjoyed amazing food and wine every day.  After Paris, I got in many runs.  We leisurely made our way around sightseeing, but felt no pressure to do any particular *must-do* because this part of the trip wasn't actually planned with any goals in mind at all (other than avoiding the weather in central Europe). 

My veal, d'auphinoise, bone marrow, and E's salad, filet mignon & bone marrow.  Too much!

Also, it's the longest consecutive amount of time I've spent in a French environment since 1995.  I fell back into many comfortable rhythms and re-confirmed that I have a connection with this language and its people and its food unlike any other.  If you add the time in Quebec and speaking French in Vietnam, I have spent almost an entire month of our sabbatical year immersed in French.

This was a huge (and pleasant) surprise.

Elevator retrofitted into the gorgeous
1800s era building in the 10th.

Spanish was the planned language that was going to dominate our time abroad this year.  And it did.  When all is said and done, we will have spent almost 12 weeks in Spanish speaking environments during the Sabbatical.  Both of our Spanish has improved greatly, and this is certainly something that will continue to pay benefits in California and on future foreign travels.

But, oh, the return to French.

I've absolutely adored it and can't believe it wasn't always part of the plan.

Square of Chalon Sur Saone,
where we met my childhood French pen-pal for lunch.

I'm seriously considering never letting another year go by without some time in a French speaking environment (and of course the food and wine benefits that go along with that).  It's very bizarre to realize that something I spent so much time working towards as a teenager and then executing on in my late teens has been dormant, but remains a huge part of my identity and a thing that gives me so much joy.

May 8, 2017

2017: Books Thus Far

As I mentioned in my 2016 books wrap up, it's hard to get the reading done while living our Sabbatical life.

Sometimes, instead of reading, I'm staring at art.
(Nike of Samothrace)

So far in 2017, I've read 8 visual books, which is quite dismal vs. my normal reading pace (even worse, I'm counting 2 novella length works). 

Okay, let's be honest. Art is a big awesome time suck. (Picasso)

Fair warning: I am *rough* on books. 
Don't lend to me if you believe they are objects to be kept pristine.

However, 3 of those 8 books have been in French, which is possibly the thing about this sabbatical year that I'm the most surprised and pleased by. 

I really didn't plan to start enjoying literature in French after a 20+ year pause.  And yet, I did.  And I very much enjoyed it. 

Re-realizing my adoration of French and the joy I get from its literature is one of the biggest improvements in my quality of life to come from the Sabbatical. 

Who woulda thunk it? (Oh, perhaps my conflicted enjoyment of book club's Lolita should have been a hint.)


The Wasp Factory
Ian M. Banks
A novella exploring many of the themes more fully fleshed out in the Culture Novels, including gender, the root of violence, humanity and what it means, and horrific destruction of things perceived to be "other".  Very well done and the twist at the end was delivered as a true surprise.
Trigger Warnings
Neil Gaiman
A short story collection by Mr. Gaiman.  If you like his style, you'll find this set of stories extremely entertaining.  The last story in the collection, a continuation of the Shadow tales from American Gods, is particularly enjoyable.  Short stories make for good travel reading when you can't make time to read except in random bursts.
Shave My Spider
Tony James Slater
In keeping with the theme, I'm enjoying the travelogues of more hard core travelers than us in the same region.  Tony Slater is a funny man, and somewhat disaster-prone.  These tales of his travels in Asia are hilarious, and I enjoyed listening to them while not doing anything remotely as dangerous or scary as his travels.  I don't think I'd want to travel with him.
Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation
Karl Taro Greenfield
I picked this up to read something topical while we were in Japan.  I very much enjoy reading things about the places I visit while I'm there and this one did not disappoint.  Originally published in 1995, the book was a bit dated.  Japan has changed quite a bit since then, even just the little bits that my eyes see in our cursory visits.  However, for getting an insight into the nation and its people, this book is fascinating.  Each chapter is an anecdote from a certain character from one of Japan's niche classes such as bookies, yakuza, motorcycle gangs, juvenile delinquent scooter thieves, porn directors, young professional women who are of marrying age, etc.  Many of the tales are laugh out loud funny, and all of them are just weird the way that only Japan can be.
The end of all things (Book 6: Old Man's War)
John Scalzi
Return of many characters from previous events.  Same style, but more complex and clever with nuanced looks at both the Colonial Union and the alien allegiences it faces as enemies.  Possibly my favorite book in the series thus far.
Dix Petit Negres
Agatha Christie
Le Petit Prince
Antoine
de St-Exupery

A classic short novella-length work.  Sweet.  Poignant. Still thoroughly enjoyable the umpteenth read.  I had to look up a few words despite its supposed focus for children -- turns out things like wells, caterpillars, and pulleys are not part of my immediately retrievable French vocabulary.
L'Elegance du Herisson
Muriel Barbery
I bought this book in Marseille and challenged myself to finish it before we left France.  That put me at an average of 70 pages per day, which was quite an effort.  Interestingly, when I read this book in English, I didn't notice the difference in the sophistication of the voices of Renee (54) and Paloma (12).  But, *wow* is there a huge difference when I read it in French.  I could quickly get through the chapters in Paloma's voice, usually only needing to look up one or two words.  But with Renee, I often had to read each sentence twice to decide whether I had the gist or needed to turn to Google translate yet again.  The struggle was worth it, though, and I confirmed that in English or in French, this lovely story can make me laugh and cry hard.  I re-affirmed for myself that it is one of my favorite books. The truth of beauty in the midst of tragedy and loss is hard to capture, but real, and this book does such a wonderful job of doing so.


For audiobooks, I've been very boring.  For most of the year, I continued with the remainder of the Inspector Gamache series that I fell in love with, and then, when it was fully exhausted, I switched to some titles that are relevant to our travels. 

Fruits de mer platter in Marseille.  The Food!



A Trick Of the Light
Louise Penny
Book 7 in the Inspector Gamache series.  I'm addicted.
The Beautiful Mystery
Louise Penny
Book 8 in the Inspector Gamache series.  The character growth and consistency of scenery is impressive.
How the Light Gets In
Louise Penny
Book 9 in the Inspector Gamache series.  Still addicted.
The Long Way Home
Louise Penny
Book 10 in the Inspector Gamache series.  This is where I started to fear that I would run out of books soon.  Ms. Penny is prolific, but she seems to only put out a book or two each year. 
The Nature of the Beast
Louise Penny
Book 11 in the Inspector Gamache series.  A fascinating tale that weaves in some real world Canadian history regarding a supergun designer.
A Great Reckoning
Louise Penny
Book 12 in the Inspector Gamache series.  A big twist in scenery and plot as the mystery is set at the Surete Academy, where Gamache has taken a job as the commander.  The next book isn't due out until September of 2017 (Sob!).
Pancakes in Paris:  Living the American Dream in France
Craig Carlson
The true story of an American former screenwriter who bumbles along as a newbie in business but eventually bootstraps his way into a successful American diner franchise in France.  Complete with awesome French cultural tales and first person horror stories of the reality of being a business owner in the French labor and legal system.  Fascinating and very enjoyable while in France.
Maisie Dobbs
Jacqueline Winspear
I picked this one up in the hopes that I'd fall in love with Maisie and then be able to fill some time with another mystery series until the next Gamache novel came out (only partially joking).  I liked that it was set in London and France and contained some historical references to the First World War as I would be in Europe while listening to it.  It's very light in terms of character development, but the story moves along in a reasonable fashion and it's not an unpleasant way to spend some time.  The GoodReads reviews are *all* over the place, and I think I can understand why.  It's a bit of a mix of a book, with clean functional writing about a plucky child prodigy who works her way up from poverty, some minor but not chair-clinging mysteries, and some hints of European history.  If you are looking for a serious treatment of any of these topics, you are likely to be disappointed, but if you can enjoy this one for what it's worth, then more than halfway through at this point (see below re: headset issues)  my opinion is that it's not bad.


Lately, I've been struggling with listening to English audiobooks while in places where I'm focused on other languages, so I've slowed on even the much easier than normal travel audiobook consumption. 

This is Charlie Chaplin's view from his house in Switzerland where he moved
after the US revoked his visa.  Seems like it worked out okay for him.
Also, my awesome noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones went caput -- the isotunes were definitely one of the best Christmas presents I received, except they couldn't hold a charge after being unplugged and, recently, completely died on me after less than 5 months of service.  If the Internet is to be believed, the majority of my complaints are not common, so half of me wants to buy another set and hope for a better experience, while the other half just thinks going with cheap disposable wired headsets like I have been for the last decade continues to be the best approach.  Any and all opinions on this issue welcome!

Goodbye Marseille!  Thanks for all the gorgeous miles.
In other news, last week's mileage topped 35 for the first time in 2017 (in a long while, actually).  More than half walking/hiking while we explored Marseille, but still, it feels good to see those big numbers. 

In future running goals, unlike the Paris Park Run 5K, which was for myself only, I am registered for the Peachtree Road Race, so I really do actually need to get my mileage, heat acclimatization (good thing we stayed in Western Europe!), hills and humidity tolerance up in the next 7 weeks.  After that, I'll be joining my long-lost E2 at Wharf to Wharf to welcome us back to California in July. 

And, because we opted out of Central Europe, now all of the prep for these races has to happen while living la dolce vita in the land of all of the amazing food and wine that is Western Europe.  We said goodbye to France today, but we've still got Spain, Portugal, and Italy at a minimum to contend with...wish me Buena Suerte (I'm gonna need it).

April 28, 2017

Perfect French Chaos

I studied French for 5 years before I ever set foot in this country.  I earned my time here in a way I'll never earn time in another foreign country.  Of course, like all things with a rewarding journey, once here, I fell completely in love and I've enjoyed every single one of my return visits.  With this feeling, E and I were very excited to start our European sabbatical leg in France.



The food.

The language.

The architecture.

The art.

The wine.

Streetside Bistrots -- one of the best things about Paris.

We were so excited, in fact, that I made plans to visit the Louvre, adjust to jet lag, get to know the 10th Arrondissement where we would be staying, meet up with friends who are traveling with their children and take part in several tourist activities with them, and round out the first 5 days with a park run on Saturday and a Sunday Domenical Lunch with friends in a suburb of Paris.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.

Crooked Notre Dame.

See, after all of our other travel this year, I was assuming that France would be a piece of cake -- everything would just work like being in the US and I could just plan and everything would fall into place.

Ha.

First of all, Paris is *not* a running city.  I headed out on multiple occasions trying to find something, anything, near our AirBnB where I could string at least 1-1.5 miles together without stopping.  Nope.  Traffic.  Construction.  Cobblestones.  Markets that only opened and shut down the streets on particular days.  Even the recommended locations like running along the Seine or the Canal Saint Martin had many more obstacles than expected.  A typical outing had me on my feet for 50 minutes and *barely* 3 miles.

Picasso Exhibit at the Quai Branley Museum

Essentially, after 8 days of trying to run, I can say that Paris is an amazing *walking* city, but if you want to run, you need to go somewhere protected (the last two times I'd stayed in Paris I'd been within 5 minutes of the Jardins des Tuileries and the Bois du Bologne and if I return with a plan to run, I'll definitely be sure to book a location with easy access to a running area that is separated by fences from the bikes, scooters, motos, cars, and trucks of the city).

Our AirBnB was in a fun, funky, edgy, young, hip part of town.  This meant that on Friday night, the night before the hoped for Park Run, street fights and partying woke us up intermittently (including for 1+ hour at 4 AM) all night long. 


The Paris Metro is a wonderful system and you can get anywhere within the city for the bargain price of 1€90 (the US dollar is essentially at parity with the Euro right now).  However, the metro stops seem to be every 50 meters and there are no express trains.  When trying to go all the way across town via metro, the trip can take *forever*.

Also, I'd forgotten but was quickly reminded that the French have a much different system than the US for waiting in lines, waiting for service in general, and delivering information that is up-to-date and correct.  This system is slower than one can imagine. 

All of this combined to mean that it took me 2 full days to successfully stand in all of the various lines in order to get tickets on the same day for the Louvre and the English highlights of the Louvre tour (which we very much enjoyed), and I never made the reconnaissance trip to figure out the specifics of just how to get to the start of the Park Run before race day.

False gargoyles on Notre Dame de Dijon

So, I totally bailed on the Park Run.

But, hey, I figured - We were headed to Dijon.  We could do our own 5K around Lac Kir.  I successfully ran to Lac Kir yesterday AM (only one big construction project to dodge -- Dijon is a much easier running city than Paris), and was looking forward to doing the loop this AM with E.

Except, SURPRISE -- despite no GI issues in all of South America, Mexico, or South East Asia, both E and I came down with serious travel belly yesterday.  We can't totally pinpoint what it was exactly, but we were both up all night, and today's run around Lac Kir was *not* an option.

Moules frites and a croque monsieur -- heaven.
Other than the complaints above, we've loved being in France so much.  For me, after 10 days in the country, my French seems to have finally found a way to wall itself off from Spanish, and surprisingly, I think it's the strongest it's ever been.  Reading novels and looking up words obviously helped, but interestingly, once I didn't try to actually grab Spanish words, it seems that all that time in a different romance language helped my ability to correctly guess at and comprehend French words I didn't know before.

Our original tentative plan involved a trip to Lausanne today, some time with friends there, and then off to Zurich, Krakow, and making our way back through central Europe.

One of many gorgeous sites on the Owl's Trail in Dijon.

But, after a deliciously perfect meal in Dijon two nights ago, we agreed that France really is so magically wonderful that we had to consider more time here and just staying in Western Europe for the next several weeks instead of heading to Krakow (we have to be in Italy by Memorial Day weekend for a wedding).

So, my friends, the current tentative plan has been heavily modified with the hopes of getting all the way to Portugal before Italy.  'Til next change of plans!

April 15, 2017

Southern Road Trip

I like checking boxes.  So, I'm on a quest to visit all 50 states.  Before this week, I had 11 to go.  Now, after a lovely tour of some of America's great music history and southern food, I'm down to 8.


For my first new state, we headed to Alabama.

E, of course, wanted to see the space flight center in Huntsville.  He hadn't been there since he'd gone to space camp as a kid.  Bonus, some of his extended family has moved there in the interim, so we combined family and rockets for a visit, as you do.

You can see the space center from the highway.

F-1 engine
After our visit to Huntsville, we headed to Jasper, Alabama where E's family have some history, for lunch at the highly recommended Black Rock Bistro.  E claims the creole chicken tender was the best preparation of a fried chicken tender/finger that he's ever had -- and trust me -- this man is chicken finger connoisseur.  Overall, the food at Black Rock was amazing (my only complaint was that the mac and cheese was bland, but that is probably just the style they prefer in the South, as this same experience repeated itself throughout our trip, even at places that were called out on TripAdvisor and Yelp as having the *BEST* mac and cheese.)

Owner-recommended local IPA -- delicious.
From Jasper, we drove through Mississippi (2nd new state!) to Memphis where we checked into our hotel, went to a perfectly delicious Japanese restaurant, and picked up some wine at a glorious wine store with a great selection.  On the highways, much of our Southern road trip felt like driving through the US mid-west.  But once in the towns, it was a completely different story:  no obviously completely shuttered towns, and larger metropolises with entertainment, great local food, ethnic food, good local beers, and access to good wine.

Our full day in Memphis was quite the trip.  We saw the Peabody Duck March, which was every bit as odd as it sounds. Apparently, since 1933, 5 ducks have been escorted down from their palace on the roof of the Peabody Hotel at 11 AM via elevator, at which point the door opens and they march down a red carpet (to music) into a fountain, where they swim until 5 PM and the march repeats back into the elevator.

The crowd at 10:59, awaiting the duck march
In terms of odd things we've seen on our travels this year, this is up there.  The only thing that beats it is the white snake shrine in Japan where we had to handle a huge gold and white snake while the Shinto priest chanted and slapped our hands (while on the snake) so that the god would grant our wish. (Yes, we did listen to Whitesnake when we got back to the hotel that night.)

Whole rack of Rendezvous ribs
After the ducks, we headed across the street to Elvis's favorite rib joint, Rendezvous.  The door claimed they didn't open until 4:30 PM, but there were people inside and lights were on, so we poked our heads in and I asked, "Are you open?" a big booming voice replied, "We are if you like ribs!" 

Best ribs either of us have ever had.  No contest. And the cole slaw was amazingly mustardy and acidic without a hint of mayonnaise (my favorite style).  From there we drove across the Mississippi river to West Memphis, Arkansas (3rd state), and then turned around and spent a couple of hours getting educated and a bit depressed at the National Civil Rights museum.  Finally, we rounded out the day with the obligatory visit to Graceland.

The poolroom at Graceland.  One of many so over the top rooms.
The next day, we headed out to Nashville, stopping for lunch in Jackson, TN (and then we listened to the Johnny Cash Song: I'm going to Jackson).  In Nashville, we went to the Johnny Cash museum, which I enjoyed more than Graceland due to its focus on music history.


Our last day in Nashville, I ran my assigned intervals around the Parthenon in Centennial Park, which was great.  A very helpful gentleman turned as I approached breathing hard with 1 minute left to go and yelled, "Drop the hammer!  Drop it!"  which was hilarious and fun.

Photo Credit: http://www.conservancyonline.com
We had recovered from Memphis BBQ and were ready for some more, so we hit up the famous Peg Leg Porker BBQ for Nashville pulled pork (nachos for me and a sandwich and mac and cheese for E).  I declared that I liked Memphis pulled pork better than Georgia-style, although I could only eat about 1/3 of my gigantic order.  I must have upset the BBQ gods because I then spent the 4 hour drive back to Atlanta suffering from acid reflux and indigestion...So, all told, it was good, but probably not good enough to justify a repeat.

The pig has a peg leg... so wrong! (And dangerously delicious.)
In running news, I've been following (more-or-less) my 5K training plan.  The workouts are often harder than they look on paper, which is simultaneously disheartening (how can 3X5 min @ just below 5K pace with 3 minutes recovery hurt so much?) and encouraging (at the end of the 2 key workouts each week, I feel accomplished, and I can tell that I'm pushing my fitness to improve, which is, after all, the whole point).  I'm looking forward to tomorrow's long run (nothing by my old standard, but on this plan 50-60 minutes very easy counts as the long run) as the last effort before the week of taper(ish -- jet lag isn't ideal).  I'm super excited to watch the Boston marathon on Monday as inspiration before hopping on the plane that night.  And then I'll do the Park Run next Saturday in Paris.  I'm definitely still thinking a sub 30 would be something to celebrate as my A goal.  Wish me well!

April 3, 2017

And Then There Were None

In the interests of reminding my brain that we are headed to Paris and resurfacing French from beneath the instinctual romance language default to Spanish after this year's travels, I started trying to find a way to get in an hour or so of French each day.

Unfortunately, the French film scene and activities with the Alliance Francaise in Atlanta are all null while I'm here, and the Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming options are limited.  (Any and all recommendations for good non-expensive media streaming in French from the US are welcomed!)

My mother-in-law set me up with an afternoon French chat over drinks with one of her Quebecois (former French teacher) friends, and my sister-in-law has promised to do the same with one of her retired French teacher patients.  So I have had some opportunities for real-time conversation.  But really, I needed to do more.

So, I decided to read a novel in French.  I tried to download the Kindle version of L'elegance Du Herisson (the original French version of one of my favorite books:  The Elegance of the Hedgehog).  Unfortunately, Francophile demand for Kindle must not be very high, as even this critically acclaimed best seller is not available in French on the Kindle.  So my choices were ordering the paperback, or going with another option.

Conveniently, while searching for more French, we unpacked the closet of stuff we haven't used since the US/Canada road trip, and I found that BT of 9 months ago had packed a collection of language study resources for Europe, including a few novels written in French:

1. Dix Petits Negres (Agatha Christie, 1939, translated from English)
2. Le Tour du monde en 80 jours (Jules Verne, 1873, original French)
3. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert, 1857, original French)
4. Le Petit Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943, original French, with drawings by the author)

I'd read Le Petit Prince in French on several occasions back in the day, so I decided to pick one of the other 3 to start.  And, well, I picked the one that I figured was likely to be the least difficult for me, which is to say, the shortest and most modern.

I'd been a little obsessed with Agatha Christie's works as a teenager, and I remembered reading this one and enjoying it immensely, recalling the English title as "Ten Little Indians" and that the poem featured in the story had that refrain.

When I showed her the book, my mother in law asked me, "So, what is nègres in French?" and I guessed, "I suppose it must be some sort of outdated negative term for native peoples, like savages, but perhaps with reference to their darker skin?"

Ummm... No.  This murder mystery is one of the most published classics, but the language has been reworked several times, according to Wikipedia:

In the original UK novel all references to "Indians" or "Soldiers" were originally "Nigger", including the island's name, the pivotal rhyme found by the visitors, and the ten figurines. (In Chapter 7, Vera Claythorne becomes semi-hysterical at the mention by Miss Brent of "our black brothers", which is understandable only in the context of the original name.) The word "Nigger" was already racially offensive in the United States by the start of the 20th century, and therefore the book's first US edition and first serialization changed the title to And Then There Were None and removed all references to the word from the book, as did the 1945 motion picture.

The book and its adaptations have since been released under various new names since the original publication, including Ten Little Indians (1946 play, Broadway performance and 1964 paperback book), Ten Little Soldiers and – the most widely used today – And Then There Were None.

For the record, other than the ugly terminology, there was absolutely no hint of an acceptance of racism in the book, quite the contrary, actually.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this novel in French.  It's a great suspense story (especially if you've forgotten the final outcome) and lauded by many as *THE BEST MURDER MYSTERY NOVEL EVER WRITTEN*.  I've encountered several pop culture references to it since my first reading as a teenager, and there are additional obvious derivatives that may also play on some of Christie's inspiration for writing (See: Clue the movie and much more).

I hadn't tried to read an actual book in French in 20+ years, and I was pleased to realize that I could still do it (had to review the passé simple, but thankfully BT of 9 months ago also packed my Bescherelle).  While reading in a foreign language, it's tempting to look up every word you don't recognize, but for me, it's not feasible if I want to finish the book.  So, I plodded along, guessing at 80% of the unknown words from context and looking up the remainder on Google translate if they keep reappearing (how wonderful the modern world is, but how much *better* would it be if I could just click and see the definitions in French on the Kindle?)

And now, here I am with yet another unexpected benefit of the sabbatical year.  I'm quite proud of having read a novel in French, *and* I'm feeling the same sense of accomplishment as I often felt from book club when we tackled a book that was so much a part of the cultural references relevant to a particular genre (the closest analog to my mind is Dracula, one of our 2014 picks).

I'm thinking I'm going to put off Le Petit Prince until we are actually in France, as it will be easy to get through without taking time and effort away from our travel adventures.  In the meantime, I'm leaning towards a second French novel, so if you read this in the next couple of days and have opinions, please weigh in.  Otherwise, I'll be sure to report back.

Here's to unexpected literary sabbatical joys!

March 29, 2017

Running: Re-Starting From Scratch

So, we've been traveling for 9+ months and running has been way low on the priority list.

But, we're in the US for a segment that allows for some training and I've convinced E to run a 5K parkrun in Paris with me on 4/22.

This means I've actually been doing some real running.  I even went online and spent some time trying to find a 5K training program, which was, in and of itself, very interesting, because most 5K programs are for non-runners.

They are designed to get people who run not at all or very little, to be comfortable with the idea that they could run 3.1 miles for a time goal.  And I am so supportive of this.  I've spent some of my favorite friend-runs supporting people in this category.  I think it's possibly one of the best things the running community has offered to the public.

But for me, right now, given my age and current fitness, I WANT to take advantage and enjoy where I am (healthy) so I don't regret it later.

While I've dropped off the running front during the sabbatical, I've never hit the point (thus far, though I'm sure the day is coming) where I couldn't run without stopping for 3.1 miles.  It might be slow.  It probably wouldn't be pretty, but I felt a little confused by the fact that almost all of the training programs I found assumed their target audience couldn't.

I knew that fit (elite, even) runners trained for 5Ks and I figured that since I'd taken so much time off seriously running any long distance races, this level of training would be a good place to start.  Thankfully, eventually, I found the BAA 5K plans and realized I'd found a good solution.

So, I'm a little less than 4 weeks out from my target run and I'm doing actual workouts and hitting target paces (many of which are slower than what I'd do without guidance, followed by strides at high effort). Also, when E joins, it's awesome 'cause his long legs just challenge me to be that much faster or more hard-core than I otherwise would without him.

Did I mention the re-introduction to runner's high?  Holy shit, if you haven't been running, opting in to a real running training plan means that after the first few real workouts, you are grinning, talkative, just generally happy, and an all around positive fool.  It's fun.  I recommend it.

Recent workouts for this very out of shape runner have included 10X 3 min intervals (w/2 min R/I walking) in the mid 9s per mile; or 9 X 15 seconds (45s r/I) in the mid 8s per mile after 35 minutes of mid-aerobic work in the high 11s.  None of this is remotely athletically impressive, but damn, if all of them don't feel super great.

And that, my friends, is the big take-home for me.  I'm hoping to keep it up and keep enjoying it.  I'd like to be like my father-in-law (and then some), I want to hike, run, and be active into my 70s, 80s, and beyond.  I'm hopeful this year off of hiking, traveling, and taking some time to reevaluate our life will help me achieve that.

Also, in case you were wondering, I'm so out of shape that a sub 30 5K sounds like a nice solid goal.  Wish me luck.  It looks like I've got an opportunity in Georgia in a couple of weeks and another one in Paris.  I'm hoping to make the most of both of them.