Village Churches and Roman Ruins

In which I conclude the chronicle of my travels in southern France (you can also read the first part).

Tuesday

After sending my brother on his way back to the U.S., we visited the village of La Louvière-Lauragais, which has a population of around 50. There is an old church with an unusual belltower and apparently a Black Virgin, though we didn’t get to see it. I marveled again at the ornate interiors of tiny village churches tucked away in the countryside.

The slate tiles and belltower of the church in La Louvière-Lauragais

We stopped by Molandier, another village, to check out its three-pointed bell-gable (clocher-mur), which had fifteen bells of different sizes hanging in its eleven arches. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear them ring at noon because we had to make our lunch reservation at Le Paradis du Pape, a restaurant with erratic hours and extensive gardens.

Duck for lunch

After lunch, we bid our friends in Mazères goodbye and drove southeast. There was a good view of Carcassonne from the highway. We stopped in Nîmes to visit the Roman arena. It’s cool how 2,000-year-old ruins built by another civilization are still used today for shows and concerts, though the modern equipment does kind of mar the original.

The Roman arena in Nîmes

From Nîmes, we drove to Arles. After checking into our hotel, we walked past the Roman arena and had dinner at a crêperie. I had a crêpe with Corsican sausage and cheese. Afterwards, we walked around Arles some more, passing the Roman theater, the impressive doorway of the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, and the café famously painted by Vincent Van Gogh.

Wednesday

We left Arles and drove to the Pont du Gard, the Roman aquaduct spanning the Gardon river. We arrived right around noon. The sun was beating down mercilessly on aquaduct, tourists, and olive trees. We clambered up and down scrubby hillsides, seeking views of the bridge and occasionally glimpsing a town farther off in the distance. We picnicked under one of the massive arches and then walked across the bridge to climb the trail on the other bank. The aquaduct was certainly impressive; I just wish we could’ve gone swimming in the river.

The Pont du Gard

From the Pont du Gard, we drove to Lyon to stay with other family friends. I’d last been in Lyon when I was studying abroad in Grenoble, not too far away. We ate dinner outside, and then we all went to the circus. I’ve seen some circus arts performances before, but this was my first time (that I can remember) going to an old-school circus complete with big tent and ring. There were no elephants, lions, or trapezes, however. There were some strange storytelling episodes and some okay juggling. My favorite acts were the Russian acrobats on the flexible beam and the man who rode standing on the back of a running horse. Towards the end of the show, a thunderstorm rolled in, and rain pounded on the tent. Lightning flashed in the dark sky as we walked across the field back to the car.

Thursday

This was my one full day in Lyon. In the morning, we walked by the Gallo-Roman ruins and the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, taking in the view of Lyon spread out below the basilica plaza. Then we took switchbacks and stairs down into the city. We had lunch at the rooftop café of the Musée Gadagne and then walked to the fontaine Bartholdi by the Hôtel de Ville. Eventually we crossed a bridge over the Saône and took the funicular back up the hill to visit the Gallo-Roman museum (now called Lugdunum). I looked at a lot of carved rocks. There were also some lovely mosaics. I particularly liked the remains of a Gaulish calendar, with Gaulish inscribed on bronze.

The Cathédrale Saint-Jean and the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière across the Saône

Friday

In the morning, our host François drove me to the train station to catch a 6:30am TGV for Paris. I was a little worried about making my 11:30am flight to Los Angeles because I didn’t have much wiggle room, and although the SNCF strike had ended with the month of June, I was traveling on the day of a “mouvement social,” whatever that meant. My train was a little late getting into the Gare de Lyon, but I transferred right away to the RER. That train was stuffed to the gills, in part with cosplayers headed to the Japan Expo one stop before the airport. I made it to Charles de Gaulle, checked my bag at about the last possible minute, and dashed off to the security checkpoint. When I reached my gate, my flight was boarding, but I’d made it. The Air Tahiti Nui flight crew thoughtfully gave us World Cup match updates (in French only) as we flew over the Atlantic; the passengers cheered for both France and Belgium. I was pleased when France won the World Cup a little over a week later.

Adventures in Cathar Country

On the last Friday in June, I flew from Paris to Toulouse, where I met up with my parents and brother. We visited the Basilique Saint-Sernin, which has an impressive belltower and, inside, a lot of banners about the wonders of pilgrimage. Then we walked around a bit–Toulouse is quite pretty, and it has street signs in Occitan!–and ate dinner at a restaurant where I tried skate for the first time. I was curious after all the rays I’d seen at aquariums lately. We then drove to Mazères, where the American friends who were hosting us live.

Dôme de la Grave, across the Garonne, Toulouse

Saturday

We went to Foix, a town apparently known to all French schoolchildren because of a rhyme that incorporates four French homophones (foie, Foix, foi, fois). Foix has a very well-preserved castle with three towers, which we visited. I saw the bed of Henri IV, who I learned was the last count of Foix (I thought he was from Navarre, which in fact he is–nobility is complicated).

Exploring the castle

This region of France is Cathar country, and now that Cathar heretics are not an issue (because they got wiped out), there seems to be some Cathar pride. Most of what I knew about the Cathars came from one of my favorite book series, Catherine Jinks’s Pagan Chronicles (seriously, go read them). Specifically the second book, Pagan in Exile, in which the knight Pagan serves, Lord Roland, falls in love with a Cathar woman. It ends badly.

We came down from the castle and walked by the abbey church of St. Volusien as a newlywed couple was coming out into a crowd of well-wishers. The church bells rang. The France-Argentina World Cup match was also going on.

Back in Mazères, we had a leisurely French dinner in the backyard. The neighbor cats came by for morsels of sausage.

Sunday

We went to Albi, a city whose name was a revelation to me because I had no idea that the term Albigensians referred to a place. Albi has a fortress-like cathedral built to underscore the power, might, and righteousness of the Church of Rome. The outside has a sort of unusual, scalloped perimeter and very tall, imposing brick walls with rows of svelte gargoyles up high.

Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi

Based on the exterior, I wasn’t expecting the extravagance of the interior. The sectioned ceiling was painted with portraits of saints (including many women!) and biblical scenes on a brilliant blue background. The colors are still jewel-bright even though the paintings, completed in the early 1500s, have never been restored.

Inside the cathedral

There was also a pipe organ, a painting of the torments of hell, relics of St. Cecilia (for whom the cathedral is named), and the Gothic rood screen, so intricately carved it kind of looks like it’s…dripping. This is one impressive cathedral.

Passing under the rood screen

We also passed through the courtyard of the Toulouse-Lautrec museum (who knew Toulouse-Lautrec was from Albi!) onto a walkway overlooking a manicured garden and the Tarn river. The palais de la Berbie, the former bishop’s palace that now houses the museum, rose behind us. We stopped by a cloister and a very old house and then headed back to Mazères.

Monday

We visited Carcassonne, a walled medieval city I’ve known about since I was probably ten or so and had never seen. Inside the church of Saint-Nazaire, we heard the Russian men’s choir (quartet, perhaps) that seems to be in residence there singing. We walked around the cité and made sure to go see the Roman towers on our way out. Crossing the bridge over the Aude on our way back to the car, we saw a furry creature swimming in the green water. I’d like to think it was an otter, but I’m pretty sure it was a muskrat.

Carcassonne

We drove to the village of Fanjeaux, former haunt of St. Dominic, and enjoyed a late lunch at La Table Cathare, where I had confit de canard and my brother had cassoulet. It was generally hot during our trip, so it was usually more tempting to order salads, but in Fanjeaux we got in our heavy southern food. Then we wandered up through the village, finally arriving at the church, which was open. It seemed we were lucky to have found it unlocked. There was an elderly local woman inside who knew everything about the church and was eager to share her knowledge with Francophone American tourists. She knew the names and origins of the artists who had done the paintings, she had herself restored the vestments that were going on display the following week, and she told us that it was possible St. Dominic had prayed in front of a particular statue since it was from the 13th century, but we didn’t really know and one had to be honest about these things. Our host in Mazères had told us a story about an argument between St. Dominic and some Cathars during which the gospel flung into the fire did not burn but flew up and imprinted its letters on a wooden beam. The beam was on display in the church in Fanjeaux, though it had come from elsewhere. Also, in Fanjeaux and elsewhere, I was a little stunned by how much literal treasure a little village church could have just on display near the altar. Traveling in Europe really reminds you how much longer Christianity has been rooted there than in North America.

Leaving the church, we walked to a vantage point from which there were spectacular views of the nearby countryside and the towns, cities, and mountains beyond. It was a little hazy or we might’ve made out the mountains better.

View from Fanjeaux

Back in Mazères, I visited the church just to see what it looked like. There was an extremely amusing sign on the door informing visitors that while you might hear the call of the Lord upon entering this place, it would be really surprising if He were to call you on your cellphone, so… In the evening, we had another leisurely dinner outside and watched the hoopoes flying to and from their nest in the wall in the backyard.

Mazères

Paris

After the conference in Lisbon, I spent most of the last week of June with Isabelle in Paris. I hadn’t been to Paris, or to France, since 2011, when I studied abroad in Grenoble, and it was wonderful to be back. We stayed with Isabelle’s parents in their apartment in the 16e arrondissement. Forthwith, the highlights:

Sunday

With Isabelle’s partner Olivier, we went to visit our old haunts in the Latin Quarter. First we got off at my old metro stop, and I successfully led us to the apartment building on rue des Écoles where my family lived in the fall of 2004 during my father’s first sabbatical. Then we went to Henri IV, the celebrated school where Isabelle did her prépa. (In 2004, we tried to enroll me in Henri IV’s middle school, since I lived in the neighborhood, but they didn’t have room for me.) There was a little book festival happening in the courtyard, so the school was open to the public. We checked out the books and then wandered all over the school.

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The courtyard of Henri IV

We tromped through more of the 5e arrondissement (I was impressed by how many things remained unchanged) and wound up near the Seine. We abandonned the idea of visiting Shakespeare & Co. when we saw the hordes outside and instead got gelato at Amorino and walked along the river down by the water. We had dinner at the Paradis du Fruit and returned to Passy near 10:00pm. We stopped on the bridge in hopes of watching the Eiffel Tower light up, but 10:00pm came, and…nothing! Because it was still day. The evening light in Paris was wonderful; it’s the farthest north I’ve been around the summer solstice in years, and it was glorious.

Eiffel Tower, Passy, 10:00pm

Monday

Isabelle and I walked the promenade plantée and then went to the Canal Saint-Martin, both places that were new to me. Standing on a bridge over the canal, we saw a boat approaching the lock underneath us and decided to watch it go through. There was an automobile bridge that had to move to let the boat pass, but it wasn’t a lift bridge. Instead, the part of the bridge over the canal swung around on a pivot to open a passageway. A trio of shirtless young men were frolicking in the space into which the bridge had to swing, and then one of them took a ride on the moving bridge until a testy voice amplified from somewhere asked him to please get off. While the boat waited in the lock for the water to rise, a duck and her ducklings swam about in agitation.

Canal Saint-Martin

Tuesday

We explored Passy, including the cemetery, where we found the grave of a Georgian prince and princess. We found a stand inside an indoor market that sold pasteís de nata, and they were as tasty as the ones we’d eaten in Lisbon! Then we went to the Maison de Balzac, even though I am Team Zola (Isabelle is Team Balzac). The house Balzac lived in is now a museum. We visited the room with the desk where he wrote something like 18 hours a day, fueled by coffee. Not quite the lifestyle I aspire to. We also pored over the Généalogie des Personnages de la Comédie Humaine. For dinner, we went to a crêperie in the neighborhood.

We found me in the family tree. The red line indicates a lien extraconjugal.

Wednesday

My parents and brother flew into Paris and came to Isabelle’s parents’ apartment for a grand meeting of families and lunch. My family went on to southern France, and Isabelle and I met up with her friend Alice. We walked along the quais and ate shengjianbao.

Shengjianbao!

Then Isabelle and I went on the Louvre, open late on Wednesdays, and wandered through a lot of galleries of European art, eventually getting to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, before the museum guards started herding us all toward the exits. We sat on the grass outside and watched the full moon rise over the Louvre, then walked to the Pont de la Concorde to catch the Eiffel Tower lighting up at 11:00pm.

Thursday

Isabelle and I went to the 13e arrondissement to visit some more of our old haunts, including Collège Rodin, where I went to middle school in 2004, and her old apartment, kindergarten, and elementary school. We had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and then came back to the 16e to visit the Musée Guimet, the Asian art museum. I felt like we’d barely scratched the surface of the collection before the museum announced they were closing early due to the metro strikes. We ambled over to the terrace of the Musée de l’Homme de share a glace à l’italienne and take in an iconic view of the Eiffel Tower. After stopping to look inside Notre-Dame de Grâce de Passy, the church next to Isabelle’s parents’ place, we went home and helped wrap wontons for dinner.

Detail of a Japanese screen depicting books

On Friday morning, I flew to Toulouse to join my family.

Lisbon, Part II

In which I conclude the chronicle of my trip to Lisbon (you can also read Part I).

Friday

Meng and I got up bright and early to take the metro and then the train to Belém, farther west along the Tagus. We arrived at Pastéis de Belém, home of the original pastéis, long before the crowds and in time for a lovely breakfast. I had a small cup of thick, rich hot chocolate and most of a plain croissant, and of course we tried the famous pastéis. In terms of quality, it was about the same as the first pastél I’d tried.

Breakfast at Pastéis de Belém

We then walked to the Jerónimos Monastery and admired an ornate portal. We noticed a monument on the water and went to check it out. It turned out to be the Monument of the Discoveries, a massive tribute to the Portuguese explorers. From the north, it makes a very tall, narrow sword/cross, and from the sides, it’s supposed to look like a caravel.

The Monument of the Discoveries

We kept walking along the Tagus to the Torre de Belém, which is a sort of watchtower surrounded by water (but just off shore, accessible by a footbridge). After admiring the tower, we walked around Belém a little more before returning to Lisbon.

The Torre de Belém

In the afternoon, I met Isabelle outside the Cemitério dos Prazeres. We wandered around this enormous cemetery, admiring the tombs, many of which were carved with thistles, winged hourglasses (sometimes the wings were bat wings), and skulls and crossbones. There were many cats, some skittish, some happy to be petted.

Cemetery cats

We were resting on a bench when Isabelle realized it was fifteen minutes past closing. We wended our way toward the exit, wondering if we’d been locked in the cemetery but still taking the time to approach a black kitten. When we reached the gates, we found them closed, with us on the inside. However, a guard came out of the gatehouse and used an impressive metal key to open the gates for us.

We took the streetcar downhill and snuck through a restaurant terrace to the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa. From there, we paid to climb a metal spiral staircase to the upper deck, where we took in the views of Lisbon in all directions.

View of the Castelo de São Jorge from the upper deck of the Elevador de Santa Justa

Afterwards, we had dinner at a restaurant where the waiter brought us French menus and spoke to us in French (the establishment appeared to be able to handle five languages). Isabelle had sardines, and I had alheira de Mirandela, a traditional chicken and bread sausage.

After dinner, we went to the Lisbon Under Stars light show in the Ruínas do Carmo, a ruined church with walls and arches but no roof. The show consisted of narration, in Portuguese and English, from the point of view of the church itself, relating significant events of its construction and of Portuguese history; a musical score; projected video of dancers, musicians, and ordinary people; and at times spectacular light projections that lit up the inside walls of the ruins. Some of it was a little weird, but some of it was striking and impressive and beautiful.

Light show in the Ruínas do Carmo

Saturday

Before catching our flights out of Lisbon, Isabelle and I visited the Oceanário de Lisboa. There was a temporary exhibit called Florestas Submersas/Forests Underwater, by Takashi Amano, which consisted of tanks planted with (apparently) aquatic flora and tropical fish and shrimp. I recognized two kinds of fish I used to have in my aquarium back when I had fish: cardinal tetras and harlequin rasboras. The exhibit was lovely and a little mesmerizing.

Forests Underwater

Then we visited the whole permanent exhibit, which is structured around a central tank in which sharks, huge rays, ocean sunfish (very weird-looking), and many other fish swam. Visitors pass through different sections organized by geography (Atlantic, Antarctic, Indian, etc.). The highlights were the very vocal penguins (there were terns in this exhibit too!) and the adorable otters. I thought the Oceanário was as good as the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, except that the latter has seals and sea lions.

Ray

From the aquarium, we headed to the airport to fly to Paris.

Lisbon, Part I

In the second half of June, I went to LabPhon, a phonetics and phonology conference, in Lisbon. I had never been to Portugal before, and so when I and several other colleagues from my department were accepted, I decided to go to my first international conference. In preparation, I ordered a Portuguese phrasebook from France and proceeded to study European Portuguese extremely halfheartedly for weeks. It didn’t help that the phrasebook’s explanation of Portuguese pronunciation was abominable.

LabPhon itself was good. I presented my poster and had some fulfilling conversations with fellow linguists. It was also a good place to see friends from other universities. That said, I did skip a lot of the conference to explore Lisbon. Here are the highlights:

Tuesday

Isabelle and I met up in the afternoon and walked to the Terreiro do Paço, on the estuary of the Tagus. From there, it was a short walk to the Casa dos Bicos, or House of Beaks, a 16th century house whose façade is covered in pyramid-shaped protrusions reminiscent of beaks. It reminded me a little of the beaky portal of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Iffley.

Casa dos Bicos

Inside, on the ground floor, there were remnants of the Roman walls, and upstairs was the Fundação José Saramago, the museum of one of my favorite authors! The permanent exhibit featured hundreds of copies of his novels, translated into many languages, including Georgian! There was a lovely account of how after Saramago died, as the airplane carrying his remains took off from the island of Lanzarote, his neighbors read passages of his novels aloud, to bear him away, so to speak. And then when the airplane landed in Portugal, people waved copies of his books to greet it. It was rather moving. We also learned that Saramago’s ashes were buried under the olive tree we’d admired out front before entering the museum.

We then took a break, and I ate my first pastél de nata, bought at a fancy bakery earlier. This pastry is akin to the Chinese egg tart served at dim sum, but it’s thicker and richer. I’d heard of them long ago but never had one, and my first was delicious!

Next we visited the Igreja de Santo António, where mass was being celebrated (in Spanish…?). We went down to the crypt, where a sign indicated that St. Anthony was born HERE. Just up the hill was the Sé de Lisboa, the cathedral. We climbed one of the towers to get to the treasury and found you could walk through a narrow doorway onto the balcony at the back of the sanctuary. It was rather magical when it was just us up there.

In the evening, Meng and I walked around the narrow streets of the Bairro Alto and ate at a restaurant, where we got the bacalhau (salt cod) for two. It was also delicious.

Wednesday

This was the day I presented my poster. After the conference, Meng, Jeremy, and I walked up some very steep streets in what seemed to be a sort of Chinatown. We met up with Adam, Marc, and Jamie, all graduates of our program, and their partners on a bar patio overlooking the Tagus and shared some sangria. Then we went to a restaurant in the Alfama district, where I had rabbit in a plum sauce with couscous.

Thursday

After a day at the conference, I met up with my friend Andrew and two other Berkeley grad students to visit the Castelo de São Jorge. There were splendid views, as well as peacocks, peahens, and their babies. We had fun climbing around the castle walls.

View from near the castle

The castle

We had dinner at a restaurant downhill from the castle, and I had my second salt cod dish, bacalhau à Brás. It’s sort of like fish with egg and hashbrowns, all mixed together. It was tasty and filling. Two of the Berkeley students had bacalhau com natas, which looked a bit like a lake of cream with bits of fish in it (this is how I learned that nata means ‘cream’).

My bacalhau à Brás

After dinner, we kept walking downhill, enjoying Lisbon in the evening light of midsummer.

Azulejos in a little square near the cathedral

View from the square

To be continued!

Qing Dynasty Treasures and Boundless Peaks

I am woefully behind on blogging about my adventures, but such is the way of things. In the last month or so, besides diligently writing my dissertation, I’ve returned to the aquarium, enjoyed a 4-hour “study session” at the new cat café in my neighborhood, and spent nearly three weeks in Portugal and France. This post, however, harks back to early May, when I was in Minneapolis with Isabelle for the 175th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. It was my first phonetics conference. We presented posters in the same session, and I met exactly the linguists I wanted to talk to about my somewhat perplexing study (one of them, from the University of Minnesota, lives practically down the road from my parents!). I also got to see a friend and fellow linguistics Ph.D. student I know from Swarthmore.

After our poster session, Isabelle and I had lunch on Eat Street and then walked over to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty. This exhibit was meant to weave objects and artwork from the Qing Dynasty into an immersive, sensory experience drawing on elements of theater. It began with ten minutes of meditation in a dark room. It was almost pitch black, but a vase placed high in one corner was illuminated. A piece by John Cage involving what sounded like pencils being dropped onto a stage played in the background. Several of the exhibit rooms included music, some of it rather strange. One of the rooms, featuring a carved wooden throne, had walls painted red with the image of a rather Western-looking dragon and a soundtrack of screams (possibly not all human?). The whole thing was rather unusual, but I liked the art.

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Look at those bats!

After emerging from the Qing Dynasty exhibit, we stumbled upon another temporary exhibit, Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki. Araki was a Japanese painter born in China who studied with Chinese painter Zhang Daqian. I was quite taken with his paintings, especially a monumental one covering several walls depicting mountains and trees.

New Story in Cicada: Lómr

My short story “Lómr” recently came out in Cicada! You can read it here. This is actually my first published short story. When I was younger, I subscribed to Cricket, a children’s magazine of short stories, poetry, and art. My greatest ambition as a young writer was to be published in Cricket. Cicada is the teen counterpart to Cricket, and I never subscribed to it, but somehow having my first short story appear in Cicada feels like coming full circle.

A little background on “Lómr” (if you want to go into the story knowing nothing, DO NOT READ FURTHER BECAUSE THIS IS PROBABLY A BIT SPOILERY): As you may know, I’ve canoed and camped in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota quite a few times. It’s a beautiful, peaceful, pristine wilderness. I started writing the story that became “Lómr” after returning from a trip I made to the Boundary Waters with three high school friends the summer before our senior years of college. Thus the characters’ itinerary in “Lómr” is exactly the itinerary my friends and I took. The story started out being about a group of friends who had been a string quartet in high school. They had drifted somewhat apart in college, and music had come to mean different things to each of them, but somehow they had decided to take this quartet reunion camping trip together. I never finished that story. Instead, a couple of years ago I wanted to write a story for a friend for her birthday. I took the unfinished Boundary Waters story, got rid of the string quartet, and turned it into a selkie story about loons. In the process, I think “Lómr” became even more Minnesotan.