Friday, March 13, 2009

To Avignon

Bonjour mon amis. Delia and I stayed up until midnight reading her French phrase book and having lots of laughs about our pronunciation, and the variety and nature of subjects covered in the small book. I cannot say whether my French is any better than before, but I sure did enjoy laughing out loud. I think I will resort to politely pointing to appropriate statements in the book and saying merci.

So, I do feel a bit sheepish about saying so much in my very honest first post. I really did let it all hang out. Keeping it real etc. It is less than flattering to admit my faltering start, my trepidations at the onset of this trip and in the first 24 hours, but I am not naturally inclined to trek, to venture across oceans in search of the most exotic destinations, and especially not without my family. Chicken Abroad is not about an adventurous woman who has always dreamed of flying here and there, who is at ease or even desires to go forth without her children and husband.

Chicken Abroad is about me, a homebody who enjoys driving her own car, and backyard picnics. It's about someone grateful for new sights and opportunities and equally content to stay home, reading maps and listening to her children's stories. I almost think to say I am not brave, but on second thought, I am very brave. I am navigating narrow and winding streets and missing the sounds and familiar comforts of what I know, what I am at home with. I like what I am doing, while also trying to accept the challenges and frustrations. I like that I am sharing this with my mother, that we are enjoying a new chapter in our family life. And I like that I will return with something brand new and special to give to my own family.

Travel, they say, is a chance to learn about the world and to learn about one's self. At 42, I figured I mostly knew my strengths and interests, my weaknesses. I figured new experiences would file simply in to areas of my beliefs and feelings, without any startling revelations or disruptions. In fact I am as capable and adventure able as I knew, and I am also as tied to my family and the happy rhythm and connections that I enjoy there... I was concerned that going away without them would be hard, but I suppressed those feelings in order to fulfill an idea of who I 'should be.' I thought I should deny my reluctance to fly, to go far away without my family, so that I could dare to be adventure woman the kind of person people admire... the kind of woman that writes great travel stories and knows how to negotiate a Paris subway and find a sublime dinner in Florence. Not only am I not like that, I don't even have any passion or natural inclination to desire to be that way... that is what I am learning about myself... that I like being here and I like narrow, winding streets and Gothic balconies, but I cannot profess to confidently, eagerly need or desire Europe and flights, and time away from the house and children.

It is hard to explain... do not think that I do not like to travel, that I am not excited about the amazing history and art I am enjoying or that I do not like walking through markets, finding out how to ride a metro or manage a Catalan keyboard... it is just that seeking these adventures is not as strong a motivation for me as it is for others... I am learning this, maybe I knew it already, and now I am accepting that about myself. Accepting that I am truly a quiet homebody, that I can be content on familiar paths, does not mean that I am not capable of enjoying adventure... it means that a trip that is eagerly pursued and desired by some, is for me a dare, a greater step out of my comfort space. And initially my anxiety and frustrations may have seemed to be about culture shock or discomfort with changes. I actually enjoy the adventure part that includes language and sights, culture and coping with train connections and strange experiences... my anxiety came from trying to manage all of these strange experiences and challenges, while denying my innate inclination to be with my family, to have my children by my side, to reflect in quiet places, instead of trying to negotiate Internet-cellular phones, and tech wizardry. It is not enough to learn about myself and know myself, I also need to accept myself... shy me, family me, Mommy me, hesitant me, reflective me. I struggled to be adventure woman, managing Geoff's communication's center, while still reeling from months of crunch-robotics-single mom mode and it was too much... it was disingenuous.

I accept that I do not like to fly. I accept that my favorite adventures include my husband and children. I accept that I am very good at, sooner or later, finding my way and making things work. I can arrive in new places and enjoy being there, enjoy the difference. I like to observe and I like to witness, to marvel at the sounds and words, the way everything can be different and everything can be so much the same. I accept that being a mother is fulfilling and gratifying and that I am happiest when I am immersed in that role... it's not even a role... it is my life, my truest being. I accept that I am here now and that I can enjoy this and find a means of bridging my desires with my reality... I am myself and I am becoming, evolving... a work in progress. I accept that time out of my comfort zone will strengthen who I am, so forward!

Forward to Avignon! Just when Barcelona was getting familiar, when I found a way to reach Geoff and enjoy the sights, we are off to meet a new country and new challenges. I think this is funny timing. So, two days in France, to see the rats that swim in the polluted Rhone River, to use the French phrase book and take lots of pictures, to learn again how to communicate with Garage Mahal. It's all good.

So much introspection... hey, it's my journey...

Dear Geoff, Maria, Max, Alex and William,

Grandma and I stayed up very late and then I was awake at 2 AM thinking and thinking and thinking and by 4AM both Grandma and I were up and preparing for the train ride to France. Even though you called me before 6AM, I was wide awake, showered and dressed and even beginning this blog post... and I must say I was thrilled to hear your voices. Isn't it funny that you were all getting ready for bed, that I have time traveled to the future?

And now we are traveling by train and it's really delightful. The Franca station in Barcelona is very big and yet very simple, efficient. We had no trouble at all finding our train, boarding and settling in. It seemed like something that could be elaborate and complex, traveling to France in a second class car, but it has all been delightfully straightforward and pleasant. I think you would enjoy this very much. I even saw a castle with classic towers and the wall that would have enclosed the town, which has now grown up, in and out beyond the castle. We are following along the coast of the Mediterranean and seeing farms, towns, beaches and coves, ancient buildings and other sights that make me want to open a history book, Google. For a while we could see snowy mountains, the Pyrenees, I think. It makes my brain tingle and my soul wonder. I cannot help but feel tremendous curiosity about the thousands of events and passages that these places have witnessed.

Cerbere... that is where we are right now. Wasn't Geoff brilliant to get this Netbook, so I can ride and write, so I can try to keep some of these views and ideas with me, to bring home to you? As I learn how to manage the software and different applications... ah! We are in France! Here are the French police and they are checking passports and speaking French! It's so pretty and they are so friendly. Yes, I am glad that we will come here, or go anywhere, together. Adventures are tres bon.

Besides being thankful for the Netbook and talking to you this morning, I am glad that Grandma is with me. I think God made a gift for me, by facilitating all of this, her company. We can laugh and observe and laugh some more, together. Later, when we are home, it will be nice to confirm what we saw and did, to say “remember when?” We look out for each other and consider what would be fun and interesting for you children to do.

Montpelier, Franco, 2:45 PM
Everything changed as the train entered France. Suddenly there were vineyards everywhere... up and down the slopes, and stone houses with painted shutters. And when we got to Montpelier we switched to a commuter train. While we waited for our commuter train, a beautiful sleeper train was in the station, bound for Lyon and Paris... you know I love trains... well this one was almost impossible to resist, it was so lovely and inviting... aha, maybe I do have a kind of wanderlust... trains make me weak.

In one hour we will be in Avignon. Maybe I have seen too many good French films... nothing surprises me. It all looks and sounds familiar, like a place we have been to before. There are a lot of dogs, pampered pets. And there are a lot of beautiful, well-dressed women and people just generally seem so... so French!

This train is just like the Hogwarts Express... well, not the pretty engine, but the cars have little rooms with facing seats and overhead shelves for stowing luggage. The windows are too dirty for me to take pictures of the countryside. Except for the very old houses, it kind of reminds me of the San Joaquin Valley... farm land and fields ready for spring planting.. Oh! Olive trees!

I am ready for a nap. Somehow I only needed to sleep for 2 hours last night, and then I had real coffee for breakfast, but now it's all catching up with me. In my last post I mentioned Grandma's nap and she thought that was embarrassing, so I won't mention that she is nodding off I don't blame her... the train is so smooth and it feels like it is gliding through the countryside, gently swaying and humming softly. I can imagine riding like this all the way to Paris, could you?

You guys got me so excited when you told me about your work in the backyard. I guess the weather is nice? Are you planting the seeds in the barrel in the back patio? Did you notice the tomato plant that started itself? I don't know if it will produce fruit, sometimes the tomato seeds only grow leaves and stems. The impatiens will like shade, which we get plenty of in the backyard. And you cleaned the grill? Maybe Geoff will make those turkey burgers I told him about.

Gracious. We may have to celebrate my birthday here. We just rode passed a giant party bouncy room... the kind you can rent for parties, and instead of it being a clown or dinosaur or castle, it was an awesome, brilliant chicken! It was definitely the first sight in France to surprise me!

So, did you try giving Maria some of those letters I wrote her? I hope they help her feel less distant from me, or at least serve to distract her when she is crying. And of course there are letters and surprises for you boys too.

I am also thinking about Phoenix and our second chapter of Robotic Competition. We need to figure out where to stay and whether it makes sense to follow the bus... I know Alex is thinking he would like to ride the bus. It couldn't hurt to see what the room rates would be at the place Kelsey arranged for the team. The way I see it, when we drive there, Geoff will be my captive audience for eight hours while I regale him with all the highs, lows and chocolates of this trip. Too bad we can't stay longer and take advantage of our proximity to the Grand Canyon... next time. Alex, your strategy ideas for the next competition sound good, and I thought the same thing... that your team is in a key position to greatly improve its performance over last week. You guys are going to just get better and better, and it will be a lot of fun to see it all come together, next week and in the years to come.

March 12, Avignon

Well, I took Delia on another one of my let's try this way circuitous walks, looking for Hotel Danieli from the train station. Eventually she intervened and said, “Let's get a map.” And now we know that, just as in Barcelona, street names often change from block to block. So, when we thought we were on the wrong street, it was actually the right street, but we needed to give it a few more blocks to show its other name. I take great pride in my internal GPS and rarely ever feel turned around, so my brain has been enjoying the challenges of deciphering new routes and unpuzzling the twists and turns of Old World streets... I think this is fun. I think it would be even more fun if my carry on bag had wheels! lol

It is almost midnight at Garage Mahal and it is morning here. Here being the two star hotel I booked for us. The travel agent didn't think I would like either the second class car on the train or a two star hotel. Both are just fine. Actually, the train was more than fine and I would not hesitate to ride that way again, which is good, because we do just that tomorrow morning. The two star hotel is on the main rue and in a building that is very old... everything here is very old. The woman at the front desk gave us our room key and pointed to the stairs leading up. Up looked daunting after our unplanned tour of the southern streets of Avignon, but c'est le vie,oui? Up I went to open the room... and lol did I have a sight to meet my eyes. The room was in total disrepair... everything was getting worked on and there were paint cans, tools, plaster, dust, drop cloths and open walls, so of course I took a picture, then hauled my bag back down the stairs to see the clerk. She was on the phone, but paused to see what was the matter. I showed her the picture and she gasped, apologized and fumbled for another key. So, it was back up the stairs, this time leading to the right. Now follow me:
2 flights of stairs up, then up 3 steps with no landing to a closed door.
Enter door, totally dark hallway, find light switch.
Proceed down hall, searching out light switches along the way.
Turn corner and descend 10 steps, turn on next light.
Walk 20 paces, ascend 5 steps, turn corner, turn corner, ascend, walk, descend.
Turn to right and ascend last step, with no landing, and enter room.

Delia and I were laughing all the way, and we are recognizing the recurring theme we have dubbed Pan's Labyrinth. Twisty-turny paths in to dark and narrow halls, with ascents and descents, so that one wants to start dropping bread crumbs or small stones to mark the way back.
No wonder my internal GPS is still searching for its connection!

The room has everything one needs to stay warm, dry and manage functions like sleep and le oui-oui. Don't look that last part up; I am taking liberties with my “French.” The windows open wide, without screens or bars or a cautionary sticker of a falling stick man, to a conglomeration and intersection of ancient walls and roof lines, and cooing doves on red roof tiles. Given the irregular and sloping nature of our room floor, I suspect we are on a, converted, roof top too.

We crashed on our foam pad beds for 10 minutes, organized our bags and then went out in search of the famous Pont... the broken one, that once was the only one crossing the Rhone River in olden, olden, olden days. All of the old town, like our hotel and the Papal Palace are within the Palace wall, and as we followed a road in search of the bridge, we came face to face with our first view of the Palais des Papes and it was stunning. It rises up from the stone paved streets... the largest Gothic palace in Europe and the home of 14th century Popes. A large and ethereal golden angel tops the cathedral and looming gargoyles look over the plaza below. The sun was low and the Mistral (think of an icy Santa Ana) was blowing us over as we tried to take pictures and capture the bigness, the wow, the holy smokes of what we were seeing. It was sunset time when we reached the bridge crossing the river. We snapped some pictures then retreated in search of a warmer, sheltered route back to the town center and dinner.

We have just had tapas in France. Last night we had pizza.

Demain je passe ma derniere jounee ici and I still have not had a Provencal meal. Pas de probleme. It's been a wonderful day, full of long walks and a big blue sky... a big blue sky is the perfect backdrop for Medieval castles, gardens, bridges, outdoor cafes and discovery with new friends. We met friends of Anne's, and Olivier gave us a walking tour of the City, emphasizing the ancient wall surrounding the city, Rocher des Doms, Rue de la Bonneterie, Les Halles and his own home near the Rue Du Rempart de la Ligne. So, even though I will leave France tomorrow, without having had a genuine French dinner, I leave content, enlightened, inspired and hopeful of returning. We asked Olivier and Margrite to join us for dinner and we enjoyed good wine, good company and more lessons in local customs and culture... a lovely way to finish our stay in France.

And this post goes on and on... I have had no success finding a place to get Internet connection. In Olivier's home I was able to send off an email to Geoff and read some of Your comments... thank you for those! And after reading someone's suggestion to try McD's wifi in Barcelona, we popped into the McD's on Rue de la Replublique, but alas, there was no wifi there. Thus my posts will be as long and meandering as a two star French hotel hallway.

The train leaves at 6 AM. I hope Geoff calls me here before we leave. I hope I do not over sleep. I hope Geoff's email about “the robot is on the dining table” means that the house is exceptionally clean, and we have not publicly humiliated ourselves by having the robotics team over to weld and solder in our kitchen, and whatever the case, I hope he takes pictures, because the robot on our dining table is something I'd like to see.

Volver a Barcelona

Buenos dias. We are crossing the border from France in to Catalonia.. The Police have already been through to see our passports. They enter the car with a friendly Bonjour and ask everyone to please bring out their passports. I am glad for the ease of this transition... with my iTunes playing and my lovely Netbook open, I can resume writing and enjoying the swaying roll of Renfe... I am muy contenta riding the trains here.

By midday we will be back in Barcelona. The plan is to stick our feet in the Mediterranean... it seems too cold for a topless swim, ahem. We also want to return to Las Ramblas, in search of Golum... the creepy little street performer put a charm on us and we want to film him, so we don't have to keep explaining how ridiculously disturbing he is. And definitely I want to return to Felipe's cafe Internet @, so I can have a hot cup of chamomile tea and finally post on my travel talk. Geoff and I have been out of touch since the morning Delia and I left for Avignon... all except the email Olivier printed for me... the one where Geoff mentions there being a robot on our dining table.

Que mas? Gaudi. We need to make some expeditions in search of signs Barcelona's famous artist-architect. Modernismo. There are many fine examples, like Sagrada Familia and the Gaudi Park. As much we have done and seen, it is easy to see that there would be plenty to discover with Geoff and the children, if we decide to return. I am curious about the Aquarium and gee, we haven't seen the Museo de Xocolata... who would want to miss that? Mom wants to have paella... we've been warned that it's tourist food, but, hey, we are tourists. If I cannot reach Geoff by phone, maybe I will try calling my friend Karen... she could probably elaborate on the 'robot on the dining table' message, and direct me to her favorite paella place.

Last night mom and I grabbed chocolate croissants to eat as we walked to a far neighborhood in Avignon, and something happened, something I was worried might happen. Oh dear. I am going to miss those chocolate croissants, walking down cobble stone streets, following the Medieval walls, peering into courtyard gardens... gardens tended since the 13th century. I am going to miss quaint shops around any corner, window boxes, tiny balconies. I am going to miss the patient and tender regard shown to dogs on walks with their owners... it's not even 'ownership...' it's a relationship, affectionate and mutually respectful. I have never seen happier, more polite dogs in my life. I am going to miss hearing French, the brusque talk in the streets, the lyrical conversations in quaint corners. I am going to miss delicate, fresh, chocolate croissants. I guess these are the risks we take we when we travel... we discover new goodness, new music and sights, new flavors and paths, and then we miss them when we go home.

Siesta Time
This return trip seems longer than the one we made in to France. The train is full this time, and even though the seats are assigned, and I have had to remove myself twice, I have happily avoided sitting in my own seat, next to the beady-eyed man with troublesome sinuses. Not ideal circumstances for dozing, but with the bright sun coming in and the rocking lull of the train's motion, a nap is just what I crave.

Speaking of cravings... everybody smokes. Well, not “everybody,” but lots of bodies, and I joke that by the time I get home I will have to start using a nicotine patch so I can quit. Even the elegant Spanish woman that sits across the aisle from me, classy in her tasteful couture, rolls her own tobacco and at each stop she disappears for a platform drag. She returns to her seat in a fog of second hand smoke. I consider the state of the many floundering and failing corporations, banks and governments in this economic downturn and reason that tobacco must be doing a brisk business, and one that should be a rare source of revenue through jobs and taxes. Am I supporting big tobacco? No... just thinking out loud. JTOL.

Sinus Man just walked by, again. I see staring is not faux pax. I try to appreciate respect differences in the cultures. The silent staring is not too bad, but I do have some questions...
Is there something on my face? Is my presence on this train, in this hemisphere, offensive? Are they remotely aware that they are staring, arms crossed sternly, and scowling unapologetically, looking me straight in the eye? Is this normal? JTOL. I hit them back with my aggressively warm and friendly Chicken Abroad grin. Vale.

Friday, Late Afternoon. We are back in Barcelona. It is warmer and more crowed than when we left Wednesday morning. I haven't kep track of how long this post is... it is a relief to finally have the chance to update the blog. Sorry for errors, typos, endless rambling etc.


Anna Banana said...

Bonjour Natalie! So excited to read your post and see that you spent time with Olivier. Also that you are enjoying Europe. Can't wait to hear more.

Laura Jane said...

Atta girl - embracing the role of forward scout.

By the time you return to Europe it may NOT be too cold for a swim, no? But you are allowed to wear your bathers!

d.a. said...

Oh, the chocolate croissants! Yes, you will miss them once back in the States - I still crave them, and it's been 20 years since last in Paris.

Don't worry about the staring. Ignore it. Especially in Paris. Back in the 80's, the French men were all of the opinion that American women are loose, and any smiles or eye contact would have one following you for blocks. Yep, I speak from chagrined experience.