Getting back into a normal routine was tough this week. We got hit with weather from March, and I wasn't fully adjusted to a split-schedule between two opposite sorts of schools before the break, so it wasn't easy re-entering an adjustment phase after. I did get a new MacBook Pro from the new school though, so that is really cool!
We have been poking around the housing market. With my new job, it is clear that we will be here for a few more years, and it would be nice to own something - even if it is under sea level. Our rental is a bit bigger than we need, on a really noisy corner, and energy-inefficient. It has been great thus far, but a move might be in order.
The places we are scoping out tend to be tiny and in need of a lot of work. I would really like a house that is not attached to another one, but that doesn't seem terribly possible. I guess we will have to wait for America to find that...
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Trains can be so much better than Planes. No lines. No security. No waiting. The reservations need to be made well in advance for a nice price, but the high speed train brought us from Rotterdam to Paris in 2 hours and 37 minutes. It got up to about 280 km/hr (175 mi/hr) and only stopped in Antwerp and Brussels. We went twice as fast as the Dutch trains and it was fun watching the nearby landscape blur.
|Boarding the Thalys in Rotterdam.|
From the train station in Paris, we hopped on the metro and a few short stops away was our apartment. A nice French lady welcomed us, and it was a perfect place to stay. Old wooden floors, a fully-functional kitchen along with a comfortable couch. It was nice to get the feel of living here, and even though it offered much more, it turned out to be cheaper than a hotel.
On Monday the sun was shining, so we hopped on the Metro and went downtown. We toured the old city starting with Notre Dame - I don't like the Westwerk so much (the part they always show in pictures), but the rest of the cathedral and its grounds were stunning. By the time we had walked around the Gothic structure the line to get in was so long that we just kept walking.
|The Eastern side of Notre Dame.|
|City Hall fountain with Notre Dame in the background.|
|Arc de Triomphe at night with the Eiffel Tower in the background.|
There was also a long line at Sainte Chapelle, the chapel that was astonishingly built in less than 10 years and cost less than half of the price tag on the relics it was built to contain. There was scaffolding obscuring what little exterior remained visible behind the more modern buildings, so the brilliance of a significant portion of the stained glass windows would have been covered up on the inside as well. Quite a disappointment.
After some lunch in a partly sunny pigeon-filled square, we read our books for a bit and then started walking again. We decided it was about time to head back for a nap, but then we stumbled upon the Louvre. The sky had clouded up at this point but we didn't have much interest in going inside. We snapped a few pictures of the stupid pyramids and headed down toward the metro. This particular station had no map, so we didn't know how to get home, and I got frustrated and decided just to walk to the place that was familiar. Eventually we made it to the apartment and some sleep did us good.
For dinner we met one of my friends from Ann Arbor. He is living in Paris with his Bulgarian wife and son. They are not terribly happy here. They rent their tiny apartment for a very high price and everything needed to be furnished - the kitchen was an empty room. It was interesting to see what their version of life in Paris was like. We had a really nice time and hopefully they will make it up to Rotterdam to visit us before they move back to the States.
Tuesday was Naomi's birthday and the coronation of the Dutch King. She was a bit sad to be out of the Netherlands for that, but Paris was a decent alternative. We caught some of the ceremony online. Most of our day was spent in transit, but we had some nice experiences. We visited the house where one of Naomi's relatives died 130 years ago. We also went to the Malian part of Paris and at lunch at an African restaurant. The hostess was really nice and still served us even though they were closed.
We ordered the Malian dish, Mafe, with rice and a peanut sauce with beef and carrots - pate d'arrachides. In Bambara we call it tigadigana, and the meat would probably be from a goat, but beef is the fancy version. The Yassa we also had is a Senagalese dish but is widespread throughout Mali. We had the traditional drinks with it - jus de gingembre and bisap - made from ginger and hibiscus respectively. In Mali they were often mixed, but here they were served separately.
The lady who served us directed us to a Malian community a couple blocks from where we ate. They had a little market and piles of real Malian food. It was fun to speak a bit of Bambara. The people we talked to didn't seem much changed by living in Paris. They were quite surprised to come across a white person who spoke their language, but we didn't stay for long.
On the way back to the metro we stopped at a nice supermarket. We could see a glimpse into why they are so known for their food. Everything was so nice, not too crowded, and they even had heirloom tomatoes. We wish there was such a place in Rotterdam! It reminded me of Ann Arbor.
Wednesday was a dreary day. Our level of activity is dependent on the weather...so we didn't do much on Wednesday. We walked to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur where the grey colors blended into the grey sky. I didn't like the structure very much. I find the Gothic style much more attractive.
After checking out a few tourist shops we got caught in the rain on our way back to the apartment. It really was a nice place to be able to relax.
Thursday the sun came out, and so did we. A revisit of Notre Dame was in order, and the interior proved much more impressive in person than the pictures show. Soon afterward, we found ourselves strolling along the Seine below the noise of traffic. It was quite nice except for the bridges we had to pass under - our noses found their way under the collar for that portion of the walk. Eventually we had to re-emerge at street level and before long the Eiffel Tower came into view.
|Inside Notre Dame.|
|Our walk along the Seine.|
|It's a long way up...|
|Compensating for something?|
The 5.5 km was too far for Naomi to walk, but I am glad we made it to the Tower. The sun was shining and the pictures turned out well. The lines to go up were simply too long though. Paris was really crowded. We spend the rest of the day relaxing back at the apartment.
Friday was a day of travel. We woke up early to finish packing and find the Europcar station. It was, of course, a hassle. On top of the chaos they gave us what turned out to be possibly the worst kind of car imaginable - a Hyundai ix20 - and here is my review. This is the second time in a row we have gotten a car of significantly lower quality than we ordered. Their 'classes' aren't really classes.
I have always had a strong dislike for Korean cars, but lately their styling has improved a lot. I was willing to give them a fair shot. I thought they might be trying to do what Honda did - start out cheap and then ramp up the quality. Apparently not. This model strikes out over and over again. For starters, it is so ugly that it makes you want to get out some spray paint and practice your graffiti skills just to take away its wannabe-urban-feel and give it a touch of the real thing.
When we put the keys in the ignition it showed a grand total of 11 km on the car. We were the first drivers. Unfortunately, its ride was greatly inferior to my 14 year old Cougar that is pushing 200,000 miles. The suspension made us sick (French roads are not as smooth as those in the Netherlands) the door and window seals (or lack thereof) made us deaf, and the puny diesel engine belted out enough noise that we figured we were driving a delivery truck. The interior rattled like this sad excuse for transportation had been hauling around a family with 5 ADHD kids for the past few years.
We have found two small, but not nearly redeeming, positive elements to the design: one for the day and the second for the night. The first is the large sunroof and the equally-sized glass panel behind it. The second happens when you turn a corner - side headlights switch on to illuminate your trajectory. Nice for the driver; super annoying for the guy who owns the corner lot...
|The poor excuse of a car that hauled us around Normandy.|
In spite of the abysmally poor quality of this particular vehicle we were stuck with, it got us from A to B. After the chaos of Paris traffic, we found ourselves in the incredible city of Rouen. It has a stunning mix of French, English, and Scandinavian architecture. The soaring Gothic spires and Gargoyles of the various churches and cathedrals tower over the colorfully striped nordic homes that line the narrow, cobblestone streets. Intoxicating smells of French cuisine pull you from one side to the other - if you aren't careful you will look like you had too much Bordeaux with your lunch.
The region was settled by Danish vikings in the 10th century, and changed hands between the French and the English somewhat regularly before the Germans and the Allies even thought about tearing it to shreds with their bullets and bombs. Rouen was one of the places that was painstakingly restored to its original beauty although there are a few places where the scarring was left as a reminder. It is a place that we would love to spend more time in. The crowded, busy smog of Paris completely gave way to a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere.
|Unrestored War Damage in Rouen at the Palace of Justice.|
|This is what the whole building looked like after the war.|
|The nearly-fully restored version.|
|Typical city street.|
|The main cathedral.|
|Across the street from the cathedral.|
|Our farmhouse room.|
|From the bedroom window.|
After a few hours of enjoyment, we got back into our sorry excuse of a car and traveled to the Norman farmhouse where we would enjoy a peaceful few days. Corinne kindly greeted us (we would love to be in her situation some day) and mentioned a place nearby where we could find a nice meal. It was a bit pricey, but well worth it. Naomi had a fish meal and I had red meat. My first course was a rabbit/mushroom dish with a caramelized onion-apple sauce. They garnished it with the favorite foods of that poor rabbit just to torment him - carrot, radish, baby lettuce.
My second course was a beef skewer (cooked over the fire nearby our table) with a quiche-like side made with layered potato. It looked fancy. There were, of course, nice vegetables as well (Naomi would have started with those). The dessert was truly amazing - a large slice of Tarte Normandie - apple pie with a white, creamy sauce. I must say, it was even better than the best Dutch Apple Pie, and that is hard to beat.
Saturday started off overcast and chilly. After a nice breakfast we relaxed around the farmhouse until lunch. Then the sun started to come out a little bit and we headed to the beaches. We visited the town of Carentan on the way because one of the Band of Brothers episodes was filmed there, but their wasn't much to see.
We went to Utah beach first. It was a beautiful beach; one where the landings went smoothly. Only 12 men died there. Interesting to see some of the artifacts that were left there and the memorials of the invasion. The nearby town was quite nice.
|Richard 'Dick' Winters from Band of Brothers.|
Omaha beach was next, and out of the 2500 men that initially came through only 1500 made it off the sand. A lot went wrong...as they showed in Saving Private Ryan. We were there at high tide, which was unfortunate, because at low tide one can still see the ring of ships that the Allies sunk to make a temporary harbor. Now both beaches are used recreationally and have a very unique feel.
For dinner we found a little seaside town. The guy was very rude at the first place we tried - he immediately served us drinks before we could figure out the kitchen was closed. Easy way to make some money I suppose. The next place overlooked the harbor and we had a nice salmon dish. The walk along the pier and drive home through the countryside were the perfect way to end the day.
Sunday started off cloudy but then the sun came out. In the morning we went for a run and relaxed around the farmhouse. I wrote a bit of my novel. Naomi read a bit of hers - she is become addicted to one of Ken Follet's books. Eventually we headed into Bayeux for a late lunch. We were lucky to find a place that would still serve us - the town was shut down.
The cathedral was open though, and it had some history. Somehow it was commissioned by William the Conquerer and was related to the murder of Thomas Beckett (he was from the area) so the older parts were quite old. The nave actually had some Romanesque arches, dating it to a period before Gothic was invented.
After discovering that all the supermarkets were closed, we visited a British War Cemetery. It was interesting to see that not just British soldiers were buried there - the different nationalities had different shapes of gravestones. There were Allies from all over, along with nearly 500 Germans. I wonder how it worked...did the Germans take most of their dead back with them, or bury them elsewhere? Did the Germans only lose 500 men while the allies lost 5000?
|British War Cemetery.|
|German graves in the British Cemetery.|
After spending some time at the sea we went back to find some food and ended up at a place overlooking the cathedral. The food was really good and the prices were very low...worth going back to.
Monday the sun came out for real. We put on our short and flip flops, remembered sunscreen on most of the essential parts, and went back to Omaha beach. There was hardly any wind but the water was frigid...except for in the tidal pools, those were warm. Men were setting traps and searching for crabs and a few kids were playing. Tourists were looking at some war stuff (we still couldn't see those sunken ships) and a few brave souls were running off the cliffs with a parachute strapped to their backs. There weren't many people and it was very relaxed.
Naomi had a blast searching for crabs and shells and whatever else she could find - she even rescued a little fish that was flopping around in the sand. I think a seagull got it a few minutes later though...
By the time the few spots we missed became thoroughly sunburnt, we found our way up to the American Military Cemetery. This was the one from Saving Private Ryan. It is one of those things that just needs to be experienced, but needless to say it was quite impressive. The crosses and stars line up perfectly. I wonder how much maintenance that requires...
|American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach.|
|American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach.|
On our way to dinner we poked our heads into a Cider farm. Alcohol from Apples is quite popular here, so people come just to do tasting circuits. We could see why. It was quite good so we picked up a few bottles. When we mentioned this to our host at the farmhouse, she gave us a bottle that one of her neighbors made along with some special instructions - must be upright at all times, sit for a month after travel, and drunk in one go (otherwise it turns brown). I guess this must be the real stuff.
Tuesday we got up, packed up, and drove south to Mont Saint-Michel. I now understand Lord of the Rings. It is not pure fantasy as I once thought. Minas Tirith clearly seems to be based on Mont Saint-Michel. It is an island that rises up out of the sea (when the tide is in) and in the middle ages an abbey was built on the top and the village spiraled down below it.
With 2.5 million tourists a year, it was a bit crowded and touristy, but the amazingness was still there. It was a blast exploring the worn staircases and cobblestone pathways, looking down onto slate roofs that were dwarfed by the towering walls of the abbey. It was certainly worth devoting a full day there.
|Mont Saint Michel.|
|From a little chapel.|
|Plenty of detail.|
|Unfortunately, the tide was out, so all we saw was mud.|
We were sweaty and tired, but found our way to the next place to stay. We were greeted by a cheery Californian who I felt like I had known for ages. Strange to find her in a tiny little French village, but we enjoyed getting to know her a bit over some Trappist beer before heading out to a great dinner. I had a steak, and had forgotten what that tasted like - this was the best one since the States...I really miss good meat in the Netherlands.
Wednesday was Naomi's day. We drove in a 300 km arch from Mont Saint Michel to Le Mans. She has been doing a bunch of genealogy research lately and discovered that some of her family comes from several little villages along this arch. When visiting the villages, she would start up conversations with people in the street. They were really friendly and enthusiastic about helping her with the search and offering bits and pieces of history. She bumped into just the right people.
One person even directed her to the 'village historian' who invited her into his house and they talked and did some research for about 45 minutes. While she was exploring I was working some more on the novel. Sometimes I would help her a little or see what she found, but mostly I was just the chauffeur. Toward dinner time it got to be a bit much for me, so we found a McDonalds, then headed to our B&B in Le Mans.
|The American Military Cemetery where they broke through Normandy into Brittany.|
|Naomi's relative's grave.|
|A random Castle that happened to be by the side of the road.|
Thursday was a day of rest. We didn't expect much from Le Mans, but were pleasantly surprised. A short walk brought us to the old city, bordered by the river and some Roman Ruins. It was a steep climb but the reward was great. An impressive cathedral towered above the city, although it wasn't obvious from our approach. Inside was a beautiful example of Romanesque turning to Gothic. The old part of the nave had thick walls, small windows, and rounded arches with alternating dark and light stones. Roman-style columns topped with leafy detail accented the architectural features giving this style its name. As one walks toward the Eastern apse, the columns begin to thin, light pours in, and the elevation soars. The walls are no longer walls, but beautifully detailed stained glass windows. This marvel is kept from falling down by the Flying Buttresses, one of the most important innovations of Medieval Architecture.
|Roman walls outside the old city.|
|Across from the cathedral.|
|The sun was shining.|
|Le Mans Cathedral.|
|On the edge of the old city.|
|An old city street.|
|A smaller church.|
|The old city at sunset.|
After standing in awe of the cathedral, we enjoyed exploring the skinny, cobblestoned streets clustered with old, Norman houses, the blue Wisteria in full bloom climbing up many of them. The pictures really weren't turning out the best, so we just enjoyed our walk.
Friday was our last full day in France and it was a bit of a letdown. I kind of thought I had saved the best for last in the planning - Chartres. It is a very popular town with a groundbreaking cathedral where Flying Buttresses were invented along with human-powered cranes. Unfortunately, we were not impressed. The interior of the cathedral was under a much-needed renovation but it was noisy, crowded, and the new style didn't appeal much to us. We didn't even go through the famous maze near the entrance because some fruitcake with bare feet was taking slow-motion baby steps and had a loooong line behind him.
|Chartres Blue - reproductions thus far impossible.|
|Can we say a restoration is in order?|
|The world's first Flying Buttresses.|
The sky was cloudy, shops crowded, cafes sparse, and we just ended up going to the hotel early. Way too touristy and not so impressive. Rouen was our favorite, and even Le Mans was so much better. At least we got a good deal on the hotel.
Saturday morning we spent a long time packing up, drove back to Paris (Naomi got surprised by all of the sudden seeing the Arc de Triumph right in front of our car - pure chaos), returned the car, grabbed some lunch, enjoyed the high speed train, and came home. The rest of our weekend is just a matter settling in and preparing for a week of work. We had an amazing time!