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.


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 Tennessee 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!