05 March 2010

And Thus Went February

I marvel at how three days can slim down a month. And two weeks of travel. And one very convoluted bureaucracy.

The February break arrived on the heels of the January return home and I scarcely had time to amend another incorrect phone bill (and that makes six) before skipping town. Add to that a handful of family birthdays and the visit of a dear Australian friend, and February shortened to F-ry. I couldn’t have been happier. Victoria and I embarked on our most exciting voyage on Saturday the 13th, by-passing Paris to reach Lille in the northernmost tip of France. The city is in Flemish country, where accents are strong and the cold North Sea is a matter of regional pride. My favorite French comedian is from the north and through his teasing has endeared the region to me: think the red-necks of France.

Victo and I went to partake in a very serious tradition that takes place in the town of Dunkerque, a port city just north of Lille. Every Lenten season, the somber residents of Dunkerque get together to…

…dress up, cross-dress, overdress, undress, and give the sailors a good sending off by…

…throwing herring into the crowd. What lovely traditions.

I enjoyed this with Victo and her Spanish friend Ana, who is a language assistant in Lille. Throughout our travels the first week, we were joined by legions of other Spaniards, who are remarkably pervasive travelers. Mostly I came to know Javi, Ana’s boyfriend, and Alberto, a friend of theirs who had come expressly to celebrate his birthday with us. After the Sunday excursion to Dunkerque, the five of us spent Monday visiting Bruge and Ghent in Belgium. Both cities were expectedly frigid in February, but I really admired the architecture—despite a majority of it being under construction—and enjoyed the beer and chocolates that Belgium is so famous for.

The classiest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen:

Ana, me, Victo, and Alberto:

This goes without caption:

Then came Amsterdam. On our way north, we stopped in the Belgian city of Antwerp for a last taste of the local fare and glimpse at the ever-increasing grandeur of Flemish architecture. At the end of the afternoon, we picked up our bags and looked for our train to Holland…and realized with exasperation that transportation strikes are not unique to France. We managed to get rerouted through three cities and pay twice as much to arrive an hour later than expected. Once we found our hostel, I collapsed into bed while the Spaniards went out, a growing pattern. I guess I just don’t have the Spanish stamina for eating at 10pm and going out at 2am and getting to bed at 6am. Add to that the exhaustion of this short “Spanish intensive,” and my brain was too tired to function much past midnight. I’m not much good at being young.

In A’dam, I visited the Van Gogh and Rijks art museums. The former demonstrated the evolution of Van Gogh’s work from darker paintings during his Netherland period to the sunny scapes of his painting in Arles. The Rijks Museum, despite all its good hype, disappointed me. I had expected a much larger collection of Flemish works from the Northern Renaissance, which is my favorite period. As far as visiting the sites, I highly enjoyed the guided tour I took of the city, which taught me about…

The bikes, which really are everywhere…

The house numbers, or rather symbols, that included some unfortunate compiling of last names like “PileofPants” and “LittleShit."

The former men’s correctional facility, which is now a shopping center (?).

And other sites such as hidden churches, the Anne Frank house, a private downtown garden, and of course the Red Light District. I have no photos of this last one, however, as the ladies there are known to throw cups of urine out the window on rude picture-taking tourists. It’s against the rules.

After three days in A’dam, including Alberto’s birthday, we left town exhausted and poor. It’s an expensive city, with tourist traps around every corner. I returned to Lille with Ana and spent Friday afternoon recuperating, giving my last shot at Spanish, and packing away my winter coat and Breton rain boots. I wouldn’t need them where I was going.

Week Two: The South

On Saturday I hopped on the greatest machine known to Frenchkind: the high speed train. In five hours I crossed the entire country and landed in Montpellier, a beautiful southern town, having left rain and snow behind and debarked into full early afternoon sunshine. Guillaume, an old high school pen pal I would finally meet, picked me up at the station and chauffeured me into the countryside where we spent the afternoon hiking with friends. It felt wonderful to soak up the sun and get out of the cities, so wonderful, in fact, we did it again on Sunday.

The next few days were indescribably relaxing, energizing, and enjoyable. I visited Montpellier by day and by night, collected shells at the seaside, and kept good company with a revolving group of Guillaume’s friends. Montpellier is considered a “new” city since it doesn’t date from the time of the Romans. Compared to other towns in the area such as Nimes and Arles, Montpellier does feel young, mostly thanks to its enormous student population and the constant construction that made downtown hotspots into pedestrian zones. Walking around Saturday night felt like being at a youth conference, with the lovely lights illuminating the limestone that intensifies the weakest winter sun and gives the city its airy feel. I reveled in it.

The one expedition we tried that ended poorly was a sunrise hike on the Pic Saint Loup. We woke up at 5am to cloudy skies, decided to try anyway, and spent an hour marching in the fog before giving up. It was still an adventure, just without the gratifying view.

While in Montpellier I also visited the Musée Fabre, which is the most impressive collection of art I’ve seen outside of Paris. Although I could have spent more than the three hours I did in the museum, I was called outside again by the sunshine and an afternoon trip to Sète on the coast. Again, the Mediterranean has nothing on Lake Michigan, but it was a satisfying way to end my stay in the south.

I left the next day for Grenoble, where ended this tour de France. Although most people visit the mountains in February to ski, I went to visit dear friends of mine, Marine and Julie. We practiced English, made bread, played games, watched the movie “Twilight” that it seems all pre-teens are into, and went for one very arduous hike. They and their parents are delightful company, and it was the most relaxing part of my trip (minus the arduous hike). I learned something about myself that everyone should know, so as to avoid embarrassing situations in which I cling to the side of a mountain while climbing an ice-covered path and being buffeted by high winds: I’m afraid of heights. Did I mention mountains are very high?

I hope you have enjoyed these travel tales, if you’ve managed to read through them all. I’ll soon post about what it’s like to return to Pontivy after two very satisfying weeks. Some hints: unsatisfying, cold, expensive, frustrating, and depressing. But sunny and delicious and festive too!

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