Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Last days in France: visits with Michelle and the Ile-de-Re

Well, the last few days have been fun, catching up with Michelle and then we had a wonderful weekend at

the Ile-de-Re, the small island off the coast of France, near La Rochelle. We have gone there for years whenever we are in France, as Michelle's family had a small vacation house there since 1956. When I was 21 years old and came to France to work, met Michelle and was "adopted" so kindly by her family, we would often go there for weekends. Its charming small fishing villages, narrow cobbled streets edged by rose tremiers (hollyhocks) and white washed, tile roofed houses with their green and blue wooden shutters and doors are high on the registry of picturesque places. There are also the beautiful beaches, and lighthouses which dot the island, as well as winding bike paths. Needless to say it has always been one of my favorite places in France. Since Michelle's father died in 2003 at 91, when we were here, the property went to Michelle's brother who bought an adjoining lot, tore down the old house and has rebuilt a beautiful vacation home with four bedrooms each with its own full bath, a piscine (swimming pool), lovely terrace and garden. I had the joy of seeing it during a short visit in 2007 but Gary had not yet been there. . We are very close to Claude, Michelle's brothert (I have known him since he was 16 years old) and his wife Aline, their daughter Florence and husband Edmond and their two darling children, Camille (5 years) and Thomas (almost 3). We, in fact, had attended Florence and Edmond's wedding in 2003 and had not seen the childtren yet. So, it was so fun to go to the island along with the whole family and spend three days there. Luckily, we had beautiful weather on Saturday and walked the beach, strolled in the tiny "bourg", the center of their town of Le Bois and visited the other towns as well. Gary and Claude even got a chance to faire le velo, bike, while Michelle,  and I visited with other friends.

Aline is a wonderful cook and it seemed we ate all weekend, wonderful meals with wine, always ending with big plates of a selection of France's delicious cheeses (camembert, le chevre, bleu d'auvergne, conte, and many others), along with, of course, the crunchy crusted baguettes. We enjoyed the fruit compotes and confitures made by Claud and Michelle, the fresh tomatos from their gardens which were so sweet and the moules (mussels) and local fish. Every meal was like eatting out at the best French restaurants. We felt very spoiled and lucky at the same time to experience such gracious hospitality.

It was delightful, too, to be with the young people and the darling children of Edmond and Florence, wathing them delight in the small merry-go-round at Le Bois and swimming in the pool. They are so cute, reminding us  of our own grandchildren when they were petit.

Good times must always come to an end and we are wrapping up this fantastic trip, preparing for our departure by train to Paris tomorrow where we will spend our last day before "take off" to the USA and home! It has truly been a grand adventure and we hope friends and family have enjoyed it, vicariously. Stay tuned for photos!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Last Days in France:Visiting friends in Auvergne

We arrived in Paris from Turkey on the afternoon of September 25th and proceeded to the train station,Gare de Lyon, to catch our train to Clermont-Ferrand, in the region known as Auvergne, where we have long time friends, Marie Claude and Guy Oziol and also, Theo and Viviane Le Calvez, two wonderful couples we have known for over 30 years.  They have also visited us in the US so it's always a pleasure to les revoir ( to see them again).  We have many shared memories of good times. 

Our ami, Guy, was waiting for us at the station and whisked us off to their charming house in Plausat, a little village of about 1300 people where he and Marie Claude remodeled an old winery years ago to be their home.  They are both artists and the house attests to their talents.  In the living room they left an old grape press which is the centerpiece for a magical room filled with treasures from their travels and the textures of wood and stone.   I will be adding photos soon. 

We had a wonderful reunion with Marie Claude and Guy and the four of us stayed up talking until 12:30 am,  finally going off to our beds to renew our energies for the next days' activities that they had planned,.  On Sunday we had the pleasure of reuniting with our mutual friends Viviane and Theo, who also have a very interesting home in a neighboring village.  They have been remodeling this very old stone house for several years and it is charming,also.  Guy and Marie were very excited to share with us what they call "l'ermitage", now titled "Fontzeute" after its origin as an ancient Roman spring and grotto where a stone tower was erected. We first saw this seven years ago when we visited just after Guy had bought this 'pile of stones"--the ruins of the past structure.  Guy has always had a profond intereste in historical places and restoration of old building as evidenced by his home. It was his intention to surprise us with the renovated state of the place and what a surprise.  It is amazing and only photos will tell the story.   Marie had prepared a wonderful French four course "dejeuner" (lunch) and Vivian and Theo joined us at this delightful spot filled with atmosphere (no lights or indoor plumbing yet). Also joining us were Vivian, the 25 year old son of Guy and Marie and his "copine" (something like a fiance) Vanessa.  It was so much fun to see Vivian who we last saw when he was just 17 years old.  He looks a lot like his father and has a delightful personality.  

We ate under the light of an antique  kerosene  chandelier. Needless to say the meal was delicious and we  ended with deliciious French cheeses,  fruit and special custards which Viviane (notioce the feminine spelling of her name not to be confused with Guy's son's name) had brought.  Gary was in seventh heaven as he adores the Frenches cheeses, and everything was gluten free.  They even brought special GF baguettes for him. The meal was accompanied by an assortment of wines, the reds and whites starting with an apertif of champagen---need I say that we laughed a lot (rigole) and everyone felt quite gay by the end of the afternoon,  We  left there to visit Viviane and Theo's house and have a coffee and arrived back chez Guy and Marie after a wonderful day.  The next day Marie had to work (she is an art therapist at a local hospital for people with mental problems) but Guy had planned a delightful siteseeing day.  Vanessa joined us as she is currently unemployed, looking for work in Le Puy where Vivian has just been hired as a graphic artist in a computer business.  Le Puy en Velay is located in the Haute Loire region about an hour and a half from Clermont Ferrand and the home of the Oziols. It is a charming small city.   On the way there,  we visited a beautiful village and old Romanesque church, Lavadieux, known for it beautiful cloister where Benedictine nuns had lived.  We had a great tour with a guide, very fluent in English.  Again photos will tell the story. 

After another stop  along the way to Le Puy, at an old Roman Basilica, we arrived at Vivian's office quite delighted to visit Vivian's new place of work. We went to lunch at "Flunch" (note the "franglais", mixture of French and English), a restaurant chain in France which offers quite good food, cafeterial style but with French flair.  Gary and I got quite a kinck out of the name "Flunch" and the titles of various dishes, like
"Arizona Kebabs", a French open faced beef sandwish, and "Poulet Kentucky" (you can easily guess what that was).  Our choice was a wonderful salad bar with a fabulous assortment of culinary delights.  We ended with glace au chocolat (chocolate ice cream0 and cappucino.   After lunch we had time to visit Vivian and Vanessa's brand new apartment and then said our goodbyes to the two young people and went back to Plausat for a fun dinner with Marie and Guy.  Another late night of talking and laughing with me trying to keep up the translations for Gary.  Marie makes a good effort at trying to speak a little English for Gary.
We ended up having a  lot of laughs.

The next morning, at our request, Guy and Marie shared much of their artwork and photos from their trips to China  with us.  They have traveled to China  three times in the last ten years and delight in the many things they see there as well as some treasures they have purchased. We then realized we had to pack our bags, eat lunch and leave for Poitiers.  Although, we had suggested we take the train to Poitiers when corresponding a few weeks before our departure from the U.S.  they insisted they wanted to drive us to Poitiers, where my dear girlfriend of 47 years, Michelle,  lives.  They had the opportunity to meet her many years ago when we were in France and looked forward to seeing her again and she, them.  We had a delightful 4 hours drive in the car arriving at Michelle's at 6 pm. It was another great "reunion" and Michelle had prepared a wonderful dinner for us all beginning with an aperitif and delicion melon ---tres sucree (very sweet).  Again, another late night and we all went off to bed very happy.  The next morning, after petit dejeuner (breakfast)  Guy and Marie said their goodbyes as Marie had to get back in time for a art therapy client at her studio in the afternoon.  It was hard to say "au revoir" but we know we will see them again, perhaps in the USA in a year or two.  They are planning to come  and their son and his girlfriend, too.

Here, I must interrupt myself with a few comments about something which has come to our attention:  many foreigners are finding it very hard to enter our country even after they have tried to follow all the necessary rules, applying for Visas thtrough the American Consulate, filling out the innumberable papers (they say it is a bit annoying as the 30-40 pages of questions of which many are quite personal and invasive take a long time to ciomplete. This was never the case in the past and it is discouraging for many and does not make them feel that America is a very friendly or inviting place.  It makes us sad.  Last night we were at another friend's house for dinner and she commented that friends of hers were even at the airport with Visas in hand and a trip planned to see friends in the US and they were denied passage to their flight with no reason given.  It was very upsetting. They had electronic tickets which were non-refundable and now have to try to get their money back.  They had to cancel their trip, of course.  We will write to our Congressional representatives about this situation when we arrive home.  It is sad to feel we live in a country with closed doors!

A bientot! 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Turkey: Ahmet, Ismet and Mamet and of course, Ali

Turkey: Ahmet, Ismet, Mamet and Ali and a whole host of friendly people

As we fly through the air from Istanbul to Paris, at 35,000 ft., I am reflecting back on the last two weeks remarkable experiences in Turkey. How to best reflect the amazing experiences we have had, the many kind people we have met, both Turkish, and those from other lands who joined us on various excursions, the delicious foods we have consumed, the amazing historical sites we have visited and photographed to share with all of you at home. It is hard to encapsulate into one short partagraph or even essay but I will try my best.
First, I must say that the Turkish people have shown us nothing but hospitality and kindness and at times, extraordinary support in going out ot their way to help us. An example of the latter means I must incriminate myself but so be it. In my enthusiasm and excitement a few days ago after a day and a half at Dalyan on the Mediterranean coast, as we were preparing to leave, I did a stupid thing---I left my camera on the hook of a bathroom door, not even the women’s but men’s restroom, to make matters worse,downstairs from the lobby of a lovely hotel where we were staying. I did this as I was in haste wanting not to keep our driver, Ahmet, waiting. He was arriving momentarily to pick us up and drive us to Dalaman, just twenty minutes away to the bus depot where we were to board the bus for Antalia, our last stop on our Turkey journey. Well, unfortunately, I did not remember that I had left the camera until we were just getting ready to board the bus. Ahmet called the hotel and asked if they had found it--- .I can only imagine the chaos this created for them as they searched and had to report it was nowhere to be found. Ahmet looked so sad and I quickly assured him it was not his fault but mine and not to worry but I boarded the bus with a heavy heart as I thought about not only the value of the camera but, perhaps more important, the many photos I had taken and the memories they represented for me. Thankfully, Gary had taken photos with his camera, also, but we often take different photos respective of our own individual interests. Feeling a bit crestfallen, we settled in for the 5 hour bus trip to Altalia on th southern Turkish coast. Shortly into the trip, the young man on the luxry bus, who helps the driver, approached me with a cell phone and said I had a phone call. It was from Ahmet who was calling to say he had a call from the hotel: they had found my camera and were sending it by Taxi to Dalaman where Ahmet would retrieve it and then send it by “cargo express” to me in Antalia. My mother always said I was born under a lucky star and indeed, my life has proved that inumerable times. How thankful for Ahmet and the lovely people at the hotel.. I could not help but wonder if the same trouble would have been endured by us in helping a foreigner in our country. A good lesson.

Speaking of helpful people, we were next to meet Ismet, who met us at the bus station, carried our suitcase to his car and graciously extended a welcome, taking us to the travel agency which was arranging a tour for us the next day. It turned out that Ismet would be our guide and how good that was. His English was perfect, he was knowledgeable about the place we would be visiting and we immediately felt a kinship with him. Arriving at the agency in the old town section of Antalia near our hotel, we were delighted to meet the woman owner who greeted us warmly and assured us she had received a call from Ahmet, also and that my camera would be arriving by the next day. Ismet then dropped us off at the beautiful B & B where we had reservations. We entered from a narrow cobbled street through old wooden doors into a beautiful courtyard and a kind man greeted us and showed us to our room which was lovely, decorated with Turkish rug, a lovely sitting area and round brass tray table, windows that looked out into the streets below, a huge comforatable bed covered in a lovekly cover of silk brocade, and lit by hanging Turkish lamps on either side. Our bathroom, though small, was delightfully coverd in blue, white and red floral tiles with the tulip motif we saw everywhere in Turkey.We settled in quickly and went downstairs passing the lovely courtyard swimming pool right next to the steps of our room and deciding on a swim later. We were hungry and decided to eat right there as it was quiet and peaceful and the gentleman who had greeted us said we were welcome to have dinner there. We enjoyed the solitude as there was only one other family eating at the moment on the patio. We later learned that they were family friends of the owner’s son, the manager. They had two small boys and we were reminded of the time when we were traveling in Europe with Dawn and Tiffany, ages 3 and ½ and 5, so many years ago. Precious memories. The little boys were curious about us and we soon struck up a conversation with them with our limited Turkish. The father spoke a little English and made a point to get up from the table and come over to welcome us to Turkey. These kindnesses extended to us were not the extraordinary, but the usual throughout our two weeks in this land of bright sunshine, hot tea (chai) and extraordinary historical sites and natural beauty. in Turkey. One cannot but hope we would do the same for a traveling Muslim individual or family in our country.

Speaking of courtesies, we must add, as we have just finished imbibing red wine and eating a delicious 3 course meal on our flight, that Turkish Airlines is the best. We have flown Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Cappadocia and now from Antalia to Istanbul and on to Paris. It receives our heartfelt endorsement.

Now, I must backtrack a bit to catch you up on our adventures since we left Pammukale to go southeast to the Mediterranean coast and the small seaside village of Dalyan, one of our favorite spots. We were only there for a day and a half but vowed to come back and bring our family and friends. The charm of Dalyan is its location at the intersection of the ocean and a beautiful big lake connected by a canal which one navigates by small covered boats back and forth from beach to lake. The small stone streets are filled with shops for tourists, good restaurants, small inns and boutique hotels and the small tiles roofed homes of the local residents who we expect are all employed in the tourist industry bringing happiness and joy to us lucky ones who can visit their beautiful spot on earth. Of course, the weather continued to be beautiful with 75-85 degree days.

Now we are in France and it is cold but we are warmed by the wonderful hospitality of our French friends in Auvergne in the center of France.  They live in a charming small village and it has been a great day renewing our friendship and catvhing up with one another.  There is much to tell but we will continue later.  In the mean time "au revoir" for now!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Further Turkey Adventures

We are now ın a beautiful little town on the Mediterranean coast, Dalyan.  We are staying at a charming small hotel. Last evening we walked in the moonlight along the canal that stretches from a bıg lake to the sea.  

Dalyan ıs just between lake and sea.  We will now take a small  boat to the beach, past ancient Roman grave site built into the high rocks in the ornate Hellistic style of archıtecture.  

We'll spend a few relaxıng hours exploring and relaxing on the beach and then return to have another excellent fish dınner!  

We wısh we were stayıng here longer but we will have the morning to enjoy, and then at 1:30 we leave for Antalia another small Mediterranean city where the next day we will explore many other places of historical interest and beauty.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Turkey: First Impressions

We boarded Turkish Airline on Saturday afternoon at DeGaulle Airport after a rather long and circuitous trip there due to travaux, work being done on the RER (the metro to outlying areas).  What normally would take only 45 minutes, took us 2 hours, so we were glad to have started out early enough to arrive in time for the 2 hours required time before take off to international destinations.   

It made for a long day, but once we boarded the plane, we relaxed and settled into dreaming about the adventures ahead.   The flight was a true pleasure with comfortable seats,  plenty of leg room, good service by the flight attendants and a lovely Turkish family (husband, wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 9) as seatmates.  The wife sat in the third seat next to us and the husband and daughters sat across the aisle. They had been visiting Disneyland in Paris, believe it or not!  The father spoke English and the oldest daughter made a good effort since she is studying English in school. We felt bad that we did not yet speak a word of Turkish.    

We learned he was a doctor and his wife was an architect.  We no sooner jumped into conversation than we were being served a full hot meal, with wine and dessert as well.  It was delicious (a far cry from what we get on US airlines).  All of this for a three hour flight.  Plus we didn’t have to pay for our luggage.  Turkish airlines gets our vote of confidence. 

After finding out we had to buy a Visa for $20 each, and making our way through the customs lines, we were met by our driver two hours past the time of our expected arrival.  He was pleasant and efficient and we were soon whisking our way along a very modern highway towards Istanbul with a few other fellow travelers.   

We’ve learned that the day of transfers from one country to another must just be written off no matter how short the actual flights.  As our Swedish friend says, just call them “travel days” and forget doing anything particularly interesting other than sitting in shuttles, airports and watching people going here and there just like you are.

As we whizzed along the highway past the Bosporus sea,  into Istanbul we began to form “first impressions” of this Mesopotamian Mecca---a place of multiple cultures, ancient civilizations going back to 4000 B.C.E., the crossroads between East and West, North and South and gate to Asia Minor.    

We were headed to the city once known as Constantinople under the Romans, and later as Istanbul, the center of the vast Ottoman Empire spreading west all the way to Spain and North to Russia and the Caucasus.  Looking out of our taxi windows we saw several sea-going vessels on the Bosphorus, many huge freighters from countries around the world, reminding us that this is still a great trade route.  All these ships so close together looked like toy boats bobbing in a child’s bathtub. 

As we pulled into the city, our van driver swerved in and out of noisy streets to work his way into the Sultanhamet area, the old sector of Istanbul.  We bumped along over narrow, cobbled streets in between old stone and wood buildings dating back to the Ottomans. We learned later that the wood for these structures was provided by the forests of Russia and other surrounding countries. The houses reminded us of the wood-planked houses we had seen in the North, in Sweden, with large bays jutting out in front forming enclosed porches and with roofs decorated in ornate wooden “gingerbread,” not at all what we had expected to see here.  Surrounding these are two to three story stone and concrete box-like structures and then of course, one always sees the minarets of the huge domed mosques, of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque just a few blocks away from where our hotel was located. 

As we settled into our hotel room that night we heard the call to prayer from the nearby mosques, a loud whining sound, electronically amplified and for us, not the most pleasant or musical.  This happens about five times a day and after the first day we were used to it and it helped us mark our days' schedule, knowing we could expect it at 5 AM, then again at 9 AM and again at 1 PM, 5 PM and 8 PM or so. Life moves at a very brisk pace in Istanbul, a city of about 17 million people, not counting the tourist populations that descend upon the city in droves from June through October. 

Walking down the streets of Istanbul is a kind of dance, moving with the crowds from right to left and trying to avoid those coming towards you.  Then there are the shopkeepers standing outside their establishments greeting you with “where are you from?” If you answer your walk has stopped ---they will engage you in conversation and invite you to come in for tea and before you know it, you are being given a presentation on Turkish rugs.  We learned our lesson quickly: don’t make eye contact, just walk on even when they seem so nice.

We spent our two days in Istanbul visiting the key sights such as the Blue Mosque, so named because of the beautiful blue and white tiles that decorate the walls and large dome.  The Hagia Sophia is just a block away and is famous for its size and the magnificent frescoes and mosaics which once decorated its interior when it was a holy Roman church erected in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian.  It was later sacked by the Turks when they conquered Constantinople and converted to a mosque under Sultan Mahmet II.   

Fortunately the frescoes and mosaics glorifying the Christian Saints were left intact; but later, to comply with Islamic standards, they were covered over by plaster.  A few of the mosaics have been uncovered in recent years and the Hagia is now a museum of gigantic proportions. 

We also visited the Topkapi palace, once the home and place of Administration of the Sultans and leaders of the Ottoman Empire. It is a gigantic complex of buildings and gardens and took us four hours to visit.   

Being filled with so much historical information all at one time was exhausting.   

The best part of Istanbul for us was strolling the streets, people-watching, stopping for hot Turkish tea in the afternoon and eating typical Turkish meals such as eggplant and tomatoes, grilled veggies, chicken (we avoided the beef and lamb) kabobs,  hummus, and delicious desserts such as flaky pastry wrapped around delicacies such as fig, pine nuts, apricot conserves, and the honey-rich baklava.  We enjoyed coming back to the terrace of our hotel at night and having Turkish coffees while looking out at the beautiful cityscape with the domes of the mosques, all in lights, and the Bosphorus in the distance.

In planning our Turkish Adventure, we had the help of a Turkish man in Portland who is married to an American school teacher.  He was very helpful in arranging transportation for us from one place in the country to another, guides, and other details.  He told us to be sure and contact Georgio, his colleague in Istanbul, who would make sure all went well for us.  Well, this turned out to be a highlight.   

Georgio took us to many places in this huge city we would never have discovered on our own; such as to a most delightful restaurant where we sat on low cushions around a big table, listened to traditional Turkish music and watched a Whirling Dervish, a male dancer adorned in a  long white full skirt and Turkish shirt and black hat and who twirls in a sort of spiritual trance.   It’s remarkable to watch---one wonders why he never seems to get dizzy.   

On our last day, Georgio met us after we had toured a few other sights in the old area of the city, and took us to the Grand Bazaar, an incredible, huge shopping area, and the old Spice Market where we purchased dried apricots, walnuts, pistachios and figs, all grown organically and from a shop which goes back three generations and is “famous.”

According to Georgio, for the next six hours, we were to see the most “famous” things in Istanbul, including the big walking street in Taksim, the modern section of the city, the funicular, the underground railway, the tram, the more bohemian section of the city known for its musicians and artists, called the “tunel” and the Galata Tower, an ancient fortification and lookout for the city.   

We ate at a “famous” restaurant in Taksim where we learned the traditional drink was Raki, an aperitif something like the French “pastisse” with a slight licorice taste to it but with a much higher alcohol content.  One drinks it with a bit of water added, taking a sip of the Raki, then of water and then eating white goat cheese, and a slice of melon.  It’s really quite good and the waiters got a big kick out of us gulping down their Raki.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Paris: The Last Course

To coin a phrase from Hemingway, Paris is indeed an "Immovable Feast" and here are a few words about our last course, our last five days in this wondrous city.  Moving about in her belly by Metro is so amazing. We can traverse the city in minutes taking in different "desserts" at each stop.  We've been taking full advantage of this, visiting many different "quartiers" or what we would call neighborhoods, each with its own flavor. 

One of our favorite delicacies is the Pompideau Center, the museum of contemporary art, located in the "beaubourg" or "beautiful burg," an old neighborhood on the right bank which used to be "Les Halles" the huge central farmers market of Paris.  Transformed in the 80's into a huge modern shopping mall, with its center being, the contraversial Centre Pompideau---controversial only because of the new architectural form.
All of the usual infrastructure of a building is exposed on the exterior and in bright primary colors (I hope to figure out how to upload photos into my blog soon---bear with me!).  So one beholds a colorful building of huge pipes twisting here and there and even forming the escalator by which one enters the edifice!  We find it quite a fun adventure.  The permanent collection consists of 20th-21st century French art: such as works by Picasso, the Delauneys,Modigliani, Brancusi, etc.  The temporary exhibitions are always food for thought. This month we had the pleasure of visiting the "Elle" (meaning "she") exhibit, the largest ever exhibit of Women artists represented in the huge collection.  It attempts to make up for the lack of credit women artists  have been given in the past in art history tomes, museums and galleries.  After two and half hours we were "full" and enjoyed stepping out into the fresh air and the charming big square where one sees mimes and musicians performing and tourists and locals taking photos.  The nearby Rambuteau square with its fountains and Nikki Saint Phalle sculptures is always fun to see there.  We met our friends on the square and all enjoyed strolling  along the rue Rambuteau walking street to one of our favorite restaurants, Leon de Bruxelles, for dinner.  Leon is known for it's Main Course, Moules avec Frites, Mussels with French fries and we always love returning to one in this chain of restaurants which extends throughout France.  Originally from Brussels, Leon's other specialty is Belgium beer of which I am no specialist but know it goes well with the moules and frits.  We sat outside under a colorful awning and enjoyed our meal and conversation with our friends, before heading back on the metro to our apartments.  Fortunately, R and J were staying near to our neighborhood so we could take the same metro and said our goodbye's as they got off at their stop, two stops before ours.  They had to leave the next day for England.

We were alerted by the news Monday night that Paris was to have a huge Greve, Strike, the next day by all the transportation workers: the metros and bus systems would be shut down and the city would come to a halt. Our friends had to hustle to make reservations to get to the airport by shuttle. Fortunately, we did not have to worry as we knew we could always walk to the places we wanted to go and this sort of thing happens notoriously in France---Vive la liberte and independence! The French have no problem expressing when they are unhappy with their government and they take to the streets "en masse".  This time it was about President Sarkozy's failure to support the working classes demand to keep retirement age at 60.  His government is attempting to cut back the financial drain on the country's budget and past generous social system, by upping the age of retirement of all workers to 62. There were several other issues as well and the next day we were to see the results of the anger.  As we got off the metro (still running by the way, at least from our neighborhood)on our way to the Gare de Lyon, one of the many big train stations in Paris, we walked out into huge crowds gathering at the Bastille, an historical landmark in Paris for the French Revolution and the place where many manifestations, demonstrations, take place.  We were swept up in the crowd and made our way to the huge square where thousands adorned with stickers which said "Je lutte des classes" indicating the ongoing "class struggle" which we in America tend to deny or ignore.  There were also banners and placards  representing the various political factions on the left, with lists of their complaints, etc. A defile, parade of marchers was making its way up the boulevards ending in the square and it was fun to be part of the luckily mostly jovial, not angry crowd.  Everyone in Paris seemed to be in solidarity with the wishes of the workers.  I'm sure we missed the many who were not. 

Once, we got through the crowds, we made our way to the Gare de Lyon to check into baggage lockers hoping to leave one of our two suitcases there while in Turkey to reclaim when we return to France, to go on by train to Claremont Ferrand, an area east of Paris, where we plan to visit our good friends Guy and Marie Oziol. Unfortunately, we learned it would be way too costly to leave our suitcase in a locker for two weeks so off we went to solve that dilemma later, and enjoy another sunny day exploring one of our favorite coins, the Marais.  Literally this word means "the Marsh" which evidently it once was many hundreds of years ago only to be transformed into a neighborhood of charming "hotels", the French name for the 17th and 18th century mansions that line the small cobblestoned streets of this quartier.  The street names such as "rue de Temple" also, give it away as the former Jewish quarter of Paris where the clever Jewish entrepreneurs, jewelers, and other tradespeople worked and lived.  One can find delicious "falaful and tabouli" in small restaurants here as well as yummy pita, matzah and other delicacies from the Yiddish bakeries and delicatessans.  It is also the neighborhood of the Picasso Museum and many other delightful centers of culture.  We enjoyed just being "flaneurs", strolling the streets, people watching and soaking up the warm sunshine in a small square where we stopped to picnic. We had discovered a new small park nearby a few days before, called the "Jardin de L'Hotel de Sens" a beautiful little jewel in front of a old mansion of the past Archbishop of Sens, and now a famous bibliotecque, library with a vast archive of books on the  fine and decorative arts.  The park is graced with flower beds combining colorful flora and vegetables such as huge burgundy leafed chard intermixed in the most creative ways.  Small gravel paths divide this parterre and one can sit and read, picnic or just muse on the park benches that line the paths.  We loved stopping at the end of the day to do just that for a short while before getting onto the metro with its flury of passengers coming home from work at the end of the day. .  The metro at rush hour is quite an adventure!

On Wednesday, we got up early, rushed to prepare our day's picnic lunch, stowed it away along with umbrella, water bottle and sweaters (in case we should have a change in weather as is frequently the case in Paris just like it is in Portland) and took off for the metro to travel across the city to Montmartre, the highest hills of Paris where the Sacre Coeur, the lovely old white Basilica graces the highest point of all.  We were going to join a walking tour we had learned about from a flyer we picked up at Shakespeare and Co. English bookstore a few days before.  It sounded fun and promised to fill our heads with more knowledge about this favored area of Paris. We arrived, a bit breathless, just in time to meet Chris, our Englishman tour guide who has lived in Paris for 14 years and possessed not only knowledge of the area but a wonderful sense of humor, two requirements for a tour guide.  We spent the next two hours Chris-crossing the neighborhood (no pun indended) and learning many fascinating details of life in the "Belle Epoch" of Paris' Montmartre, where artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh, Renoir and others frequented the many bistrots, cabarets and brothels.  Chris was full of interesting and humourous anecdotes and we enjoyed them all. We also got our exercise climbing the many hilly streets of the area all built up on gypsum a product which was natural to the area and formed a basis of a once successful industry in this otherwise poor and working class area.  It is also the home of the famous Moulin Rouge and the first nightclub of its nature, the Moulin de Gallette.  The story goes that the local mill owner wanted to increase his coffers a bit and began to offer wine to those who visited his mill (this being an agricultural area on the once, "outskirts" of the city, grain as well as gypsum were products of the economy).  The wine was so poor he offered "gallettes", small biscuits or what we would call "crackers" to wash it down, thus the name "Moulin des Galettes."  The famous "Moulin Rouge" with its cancan dancers followed.   We also learned the origin of the cancan---quite a fun story, too long to include here but we know those of you who are interested will probably find some form of explanation on the internet and we'll compare notes when we get home. 

After our tour we wound our way down some small narrow stairs to the street below where Chris had told us there was a good restaurant.  We stopped along the steps realizing it was another small hillside park where we found a sheltered bench and had our picnic lunch.  Picnicing is a good way to save money in Paris where "le lunch" can add up to astronomical bills.  Instead we opt for a coffee afterwards at a small salon de the or cafe, which is exactly what we did and I even ordered one of my favorite "crepes" for dessert. Poor Gary, with his gluten allergy,had to resist. .

We proceeded back towards the metro, only to turn the corner to find another delight, Les Halles de St. Pierre, a musee, I had read about and wanted to visit.  it had begun to shower lightly and this was the perfect time to slip indoors to see more treasures for the eyes.  The museum, housed in a former covered market with convex opaque glass ceiling and charming interior, is now the exhibitionn space for "Art Naif" or what we might call  "Primitive Art" known by the other name "Art Brut."  The current exhibition was of numerous works by Japanese "artists" who suffer from autism and other developemental abilities,  but are truly the most creative of society.  We were enthralled by the originally conceived works of art often made out of items recycled and representing many different media such as clay, paint, permanent marking pens, chalk, graphite and found objects.  Two hours later we walked out entirely "full" again from this experience.  Les Halles de St. Pierre also has a wonderful bookstore and we took the opportunity to buy a few interesting post cards of the show which we will share later. We stopped at the wine shop in our neighborhood once we descended the metro and bought one of Gary's favorite wines, "Cahors" from the region of Le Lot in southwestern France. I picked up a croissant at the Boulanger for the next morning and we walked back to our apartment for an evening of reminicing over dinner and wine about our nice day.  I made some ratatoulle, an easy dinner and we topped it off with fruit and our favorite French cheeses, "bleu d'auvernge, a yummy "chevre" (goats cheese) and a bit of Comte, a hard cheese something like a mild cheddar. 

Thursday, we got up and after petit dejeuner, took off for the far Northeast of Paris by metro to explore the huge 20 hectare park we had read about, called Les Buttes Chaumont. What a spectacular park, with its cascade, beautiful large lake and many winding paths lined with an amazing variety of flora and trees, pines, oaks, and giant chestnuts, leaves turning color now forwarning us that autumne is around the bend. We found some good photo ops and then the perfect spot for our picnic before the weather suddenly turned a bit breezy and cool, so we made our way by bus this time (we're still leaning the bus system ---sometimes it's nice to be above ground when exploring the city to see all of its many sights that we sometimes miss on the metro).  We got off near the Pont Neuf, the "new bridge" which is actually the oldest bridge in Paris and walked a ways before once again getting on the bus to continue to the Rive Gauch, the left bank also, known as the Latin Quarter.  From there we walked to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, crossed them and stopped just a half hour before closing at one of the many small "free" Paris museums, the Musee Zadkine.  Warning:  they are only free when there isn't a special temporary exhibition mixed in with the permanent collection.  We were chagrined that we had to pay 4 Euros for just a half an hour to see this sculpture collection but it was worth it.  The museum is the former home of a famous 20th century Russian emigre, Zadkine, who created in a kind of "cubist" style an amazing number of sculptures in wood, stone and clay, some which are now gracing cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin.  The guest artist was also an emigre, in this case from China, escaping the creative repression of the Cultural Revolution and counter revolution..  His large sculptures filling the small rooms of the museum were very interesting and reflected in many ways, the style of Zadkine. 

As we left the museum and headed towards a small hotel off the Boulevard Saint Michelle we had a cloud burst and got soaked having forgotten our umbrellas.  We slipped into a Monoprix (like a Fred Meyers at home) and purchased a 14 euro umbrella to add to our collection. Then we proceeded to the hotel where we hoped to book a reservation for our last night in Paris before leaving for home in October (we plan on returning to France at the end of our two week visit to Turkey and will visit with friends in Auvergne and in Poitiers where my dear French "sister" Michelle, lives).  We have to come back to Paris by train the day before our flight leaves DeGaulle airport as we cannot get an early enough train from Poitiers to make our connection---so this offers us an excuse for a last "hurrah" in Paris!  Plus, we finally figured out a place where we could leave our extra suitcase so we would not have to drag it along through Turkey.  The hotel graciously offered to store it for us until we come back to Paris.  Voila!  There's always a solution to a problem if you just look hard enough---and if you happen to be in the very kind and clever city of Paris!

We leave tomorrow, not totally satiated with Paris delights but having full tummies until the next visit and looking forward to our next adventures in Turkey.  Our flight to Istanbul is just 3.5 hours and we know we will uncover an amazing new world in the ancient crossroads of civilizations. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Paris:An Immovable Feast

Bonjour! Alas, we arrived in Paris last Wednesday night after a long day of airports and flights. Though the flights from Stockholm to Copenhagen and from Copenhagen to Paris, were only slightly over an hour each, the two hour waits between each and then the long wait at Charles DeGaulle airport for the shuttle made our day long and arduous. We dropped our stuff at the door of our apartment on the rue d'Italie and collapsed on the couch, happy to have finally arrived in Sher's favorite city of the world---well, Gary likes it very much, too. C'est magnifique, as they say.

It was so good to be back at what we term our "pied a terre" in Paris, a small but lovely apartment we rent from friends. It is ideally situated in Paris' 13th arrondissement (meaning neighborhood) southeast of the river Seine and quite near to everything we need, including a metro stop which can whisk us off to where ever we wish to go in this wondrous city.

We were starved having not eaten since our early breakfast in Stockholm, so we headed out at 9 pm in search of a local restaurant and bravo, three blocks from our apartment was a delightful Japanese restaurant packed with people, alerting us that it was a good one---the French are very selective about their food! Gary loves Japanese cuisine and so we were very happy with a delicious and quite reasonably priced meal. The walk back was pleasant, the weather balmy and the lights of Paris sparkling. We strolled along the Avenue d'Italie full of interesting things to see, others strolling, brightly lit sidewalk cafes where people were chatting over rich expresso coffee or late night drinks---lots to see and enjoy. When we got back, we climbed the building’s circular stairway to our 4th floor abode, walked in and dropped into our comfy bed to fall fast asleep. We awoke to the sound of the city coming awake, vehicles on the street below, neighbors opening their shutters (volets) to look out upon a new day and soft footsteps on the carpeted stairway as our neighbors went off to work. We quickly dressed as we knew it was market day on the Avenue and we wanted to stock up on provisions. Shopping in the neighborhood open markets is always a fun experience, watching people disputing the price with the clever marketers, friends running into each other and discussing the news of the day, chatting about the freshness of the legumes and fruits, vegetables and fruits. In our neighborhood it is especially interesting and colorful as we live in a very ethnic area with most of the sellers being of Arabic origin, clients being Asian, African and Middle Eastern as well as middleclass French caucasions. One hears not only French but a mélange of other tongues. We loved picking out fresh melons, delicious fresh strawberries, apples and a variety of fresh veggies. We stopped at the poisonerie, the fish market and bought some fresh dorade filets and then proceeded down the street to the Monoprix (France’s biggest supermarket chain) to buy our other needs such as dairy products, jam, a couple of canned goods, etc. Of course, we had to stop for a baguette and pain de siegle. Luckily later that day we found a “Bio” shop (health food shop) where we found a big variety of gluten free foods, breads and sweets for Gary.

We returned to the apartment to fill our cupboards and frig. Feeling quite hungry by that time, we prepared a delicious lunch of roasted chicken and potatoes, spinach salad with pears and walnuts and fresh strawberries for dessert. Quite satisfied, we left to explore the neighborhood called “La Mouff” not far from us where our friends, Rosalie and Jack, who we met in Mexico last year, were going to be staying. They rented a small apartment there and asked us to take a look. They arrived on Friday and we shared 4 fun days together. “La Mouff” is a fun neighborhood known for its excellent outside market which we found to be a bit higher priced than ours, and its charming small restaurants, shops and the La Place Contrascarp where we stopped for an afternoon aperitif ---Gary had a “martini”,not the kind you think but a popular liquer like aperitif and I had a glass of porto (like sherry). We sat there for an hour watching passers by and enjoying looking out to the center of the square where there was a lovely fountain and small garden as well as a fun view of 5 or 6 massage “artists” plying there trade, inviting passersby to stop for a 10 minute massage. They had small stools where the clients would sit and the masseuses would then stand behind giving them back, neck and head massages. We decided we’d maybe take advantage of that on another day when and if we felt more stressed. We were feeling quite relaxed enjoying the people watching and just ambling along the narrow cobblestoned streets lined with old 17th century beautiful buildings.

Friday morning Rosalie called and let us know that they had arrived and we arranged to meet up at the Place de Vosges, the oldest square n Paris and one of my favorites. We brought a picnic lunch and enjoyed sitting on the central park of the square surrounded by beautiful old arcades. Victor Hugo once lived in one of the apartments above this square as well as the female French writer, Colette. After lunch we visited the apartment of Victor Hugo, author of “Les Miserables” amongst other famous works. The house is now a museum dedicated to the memory of this great ecrivain.

We walked from there to the Louvre where Rosalie and Jack wanted to visit an exhibition. We opted out as we have been to the Louvre many times in the past. Instead we returned to our apartment by the metro and enjoyed a little rest and time to prepare a birthday dinner for Jack and Gary who both have late August birthdays. Our friends arrived at 8:30 and we proceeded to enjoy dinner together. We ended the evening with French chocolate and coffee. Tired, but glad as we are to be in Paris, Rosalie and Jack said bon nuit and set off for their apartment, just two metro stops away.

The next two days were fun filled with visits to the Institued de Monde Arab, a fascinating museum of the Arab culture informed by the richness of the Muslim culture and exhibiting many artifacts of great interest to us, since we will soon be leaving for Turkey. We walked along the Quais on the River Seine, took a boatride on the Seine, strolled in the Latin Quarter, stopping to peruse a few books at Shakespeare and Company, one of the original and most famous English language bookstores in Paris. We took photos of the scenes of everything beautiful and interesting and ate at a small café on the rue Moufftard near our friends’ apartment, coming home tired and satisfied each night.

Today Gary and I went to the Centre Pompidou, better known as “Beaubourg”, the center for contemporary art, famous not only for its collections of art but also for its once controversial architecture. After 3 and a half hours of visual stimulation we were happy to leave the museum and meet our friends for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a chain, believe it or not, known as “Leon de Bruxelles,” specializing in mussels with French fries (moules and pommes frites). Topped off with a few glasses of good wine and we rolled home on the metro quite full and happy. When our underground train stopped at the point where Rosalie and Jack had to get off, we all hugged and said adieu and we wished them a continuing good journey. Rosalie’s father lives in England and they are going there to visit him.

We have enjoyed superb weather, ranging from 70F to 80F degrees every day. Today, for the first time, it was a bit overcast. Tomorrow showers are predicted but we are planning to take up the art of flanerie defined as strolling, even if it means pulling out our umbrellas. There is no other place better than Paris to practice aimless strolling, where virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights. Then, of course, there are those delightful sidewalk cafes where we can stop for a coffee or a dubonnet. Au revoir for now. There is more to come.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Stockholm: city of islands

Stockholm, City of Islands

We arrived at the Bromma airport in Stockholm, on time at about 1:15. There was a power outage at the airport which held up the baggage carrousel and after much complaining by fellow passengers and a bit of frustration on our part as well, we finally retrieved our two suitcases. Thank goodness for “wheelies,” today’s wonderful suitcases with wheels. We had a long trek out of the airport, up a ramp to the bus stop only to learn that the bus into the city had left and a new one wouldn’t be there for another hour. We were feeling a bit anxious as we were to meet my friend, Lynn (old highschool chum, married to a Swede for the past 45 years) at 4 p.m. at afChapman, the hostel where we had booked our reservation. Luckily, the driver of another bus took pity on us and told us and other delayed passengers to jump aboard. All turned out well and we arrived at our destination on time. Lynn was there waiting for us and we were delighted to reunite. We have seen each other on many occasions over the years, with her trips to the U.S. but it had been 4 years since out last get together. She and her husband live very far north in Luleo, Sweden, so she was gracious to come down to Stockholm to meet us. She is the one who had suggested we stay at the hostel which is on an old schooner sitting in a beautiful inlet of the Baltic sea on the island of Skeppsholmen, a perfect location for seeing all the key sights of Stockholm. Our room was a small 6’x 8’ ships cabin with a port hole, sink, small desk and chair and a top and bottom bunk. The bathroom was just down the hall a short way. We had all that for a mere 80 SEK (Swedish Kroners), about $100 a night---imagine what a hotel room would have been. Not only are they much more expensive but it was nearly impossible to find one as there was a major international medical convention going on in Stockholm that week. We were delighted with our lodgings and also with the hearty Swedish breakfast we got each morning for about another $6, especially since we were able to pilfer extra rolls, cheese, tomatoes and ham for sandwiches for our picnic lunches. Gary was delighted to find they had Glutin free bread for toast and even offered him nice chewy rolls which were GF.

Lynn took us on a tour of the old town section of Stockholm, Gamla Stan . To get there we crossed a bridge and marveled at the many boats, beautiful old wood ones as well as sleek modern yachts lined up along the quais. Stockholm is a city of islands, 14 in all, on the Baltic Sea and on the biggest lake in Sweden, Melaren.. Walking past the royal Palace and the Swedish Parliament building to the the narrow cobbled streets of Gamla Stan, was like going back four hundred years in time. The quaint iron signs illustrating the shops’ specialty, the small alleyways and the turreted buildings surrounding us were all enticing reminders that we were in the old world though at the same time, in a very modern and progressive city. We began to call it the “land of beautiful people” for everywhere we looked the people seemed slim, fit and beautiful, walking briskly along the streets (that’s the key---like all Europeans they walk a lot, using public transportation, it sometimes seems, more than private cars---the bus system is easy to use as well as the tram and the underground.) Gary’s head was spinning admiring the tall and beautiful blue eyed blonds everywhere, and I didn’t find the men much less attractive!

We found a charming and small restaurant where we were glad to finally sit down and have dinner after our long day of walking and exploring. The meal was simple, fish and boiled potatoes but the final bill was shocking at more than $20 each. We realized we would have to watch our pocketbook and take advantage of picnic lunches. We walked back to our ship, afChapman and snuggled down in our bunks, feeling the soft listing of the boat as we drifted off into a deep sleep.

Our second day in Stockholm we met Lynn at the nearby museum where she had bought tickets for us to visit the Terra Cotta Soldiers of China, an exhibit we had seen years ago in Portland shortly after the unearthing of this ancient treasure trove. Seeing it now was twice as good, for two reasons: one, they have since unearthed and put on exhibit worldwide, many additional finds, and two, the exhibition was held in one of the many underground caves of Stockholm. The old medieval buildings often had a stone understory. Going underground to see the Chinese treasures created a great feeling of being there at the time when they were first discovered by archeologists in the 80’s . The most recent finds in the display were in the early 2000’s.

After viewing the exhibit we took a long, long walk to another park like island called Djurgarden where we visited Skansen, one of two must see sights recommended by my cousin, Torkel. Lynn agreed. Skansen is a model village of the past which occupies a huge area of the island. One can visit old craftsmen’s shops where the workers wear the clothing of the past and work with old tools to make furniture, saddles, iron works, glass, etc. Streets wind in and out and one sees houses and buildings, many of them originals moved here from other parts of Sweden. The four hours we spent there flew by and we stopped only for a fifteen minute picnic break on a park bench. By the time we left it was 6:00 and we headed back to Gamla Stan for dinner and then back to our schooner, tired but satisfied after a long day getting to know the beautiful city of Stockholm. The only negative thing was that for the first two days, the weather was overcast and very chilly, with a drizzle here and there, much like Portland weather in the fall. By our last day, the sun came out full force and we enjoyed seeing more sights, especially the Vasa Museum where we viewed a famous ship built in the1620’s, commissioned by King Gustave II Adolf for his royal fleet he was sending to fight the Poles over a land battle. Though Sweden has not been at war since the mid-1800’s her past is not one of the peaceful nation she is today. The Vasa is a fascinating icon of Swedish history, as after two years of being built to represent all the power and prowess of the Swedish empire with beautiful carvings and ornate decoration, this 60 meter long wooden sailing ship came to a fateful end. On 10 August 1648, Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage and sank in the Stockholm harbor. The wreck ws salvaged in 1961 after 333 years under the sea. The reconstructed vessel, 95 percent original, is magnificent to behold in the beautiful museum designed just to house her and looking like a huge metal vessel itself. It offers a unique insight into early 17th century Sweden.

Our last day in Stockholm, Lynn, Gary and I took a boat tour around the city under all it’s many bridges and crossing over from Baltic Sea to freshwater through a series of locks. Afterwards, we met my cousin’s 24 year old daughter, Sofia, who had not been able to join us for the party in Blekinge. She is a beautiful and smart young woman who works as an auditor of a big insurance firm in Stockholm. She was warm and vivacious and we enjoyed getting an opportunity to meet and talk with her. That night Michael, Lynn’s son who is an architect and designer in Stockholm, met us for dinner back at our hostel on the ship. We found the small café there to have the best meals we had tasted and enjoyed eating their “grilled char” a type of freshwater trout well prepared with boiled potatoes and vegetables. It was great to see Michael again. He had visited us in Portland 20 years ago when he was a young man of 2l. Now the father of an eight year old little girl, he is happily looking forward to his upcoming wedding. He and the mother of his daughter divorced a few years ago. We enjoyed hearing about his work, and his inventions. He is an ambitious inventor and has a strong creative streak. We also discussed Swedish politics, and the feelings of Swedes about their “socialist” system which means high taxes but brings many excellent benefits like outstanding health care, no homeless on the streets, and free higher education. Sweden is having an election in the next 2 weeks and most Swedes we talked to were hoping to reinstate the coalition government they have had for the past four years. They have fared well in spite of the economic bust of 2008 and have held unemployment at a low, compared to the US and other EU nations, of 6 %.

We ended our Stockholm visits with wine, beer and Swedish toasts, “Skol” and lots of hugs from Lynn and Michael. Our last night in our ship’s cabin was a restless one as we were excited about the next leg of our journey, Paris

Thursday, September 2, 2010

First Stop: SWEDEN

Our odyssey begins: we arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, last Monday, at 7:15 am via Toronto after an overnight flight, a bit weary having slept only a couple of hours but happy to be on the ground. It was a pleasure maneuvering through the Copenhagen airport, with friendly Danish smiles greeting us everywhere, no long custom lines nor TSA agents looking us over and funneling us through security stations. We picked up our luggage and showed our passports to a friendly customs agent and proceeded to the train tracks where we waited a brief half hour to board the train for Sweden.

The early morning light peeked through slightly overcast skies as we whisked past small towns and over the famous 5 mile long Oresund bridge just opened in 2000,connecting Denmark with Sweden. We stopped
first at Malmo, one of Sweden’s three largest cities and then continued on through many smaller towns stopping at a few, such asLund and Kristianstad.  Three hours later we  arrived at our destination in Sweden‘s southeast, Ronneby Station.  Boris, my second cousin and his daughter-in-law, Anne, were there to meet us with open arms and smiles as we descended the train. We hadn’t seen Boris, who is now 87, for 39 years since we first visited him, his wife Sonja (now deceased)  and their two sons, Torkel and Torlief, in 1971.  At the time, we were camping  through Europe,  in a VW van, with our two young daughters (then only 3 and a half and 5 years of age). The years between our visits seemed not to matter and we quickly slipped into easy conversation with Anne and Boris.  Boris still speaks some English and where he could not find the words, Anne filled in beautifully. Their fluency in our language humbled us as I know next to nothing in Swedish, even though my mother was a “Svenska flicka”. Being of immigrant parents, she and her sisters never really learned to speak the language---in those days, they were embarrassed by their parent’s lack of English and wanted to assimilate into American culture. Later, she confided she really regretted not learning her parents’ native tongue. She did preserve the customs, however, and shared many of them with me and my brother as we grew up. For that I am thankful, as it has enriched my life and was the inspiration for wanting to once again visit this land of my heritage.

I digress. Back to our Swedish adventure. My cousin, Torkel’s wife, Anne, asked if we were too tired to see some sights. She had prepared a picnic lunch and explained we could stop for that after they took us to see a few places. Tired but happy to have arrived and filled with curiosity, we accepted her invitation. The first thing Boris wanted me to see was the childhood home of my grandmother, Gunhilde. I had always thought it was Malmo but it was actually in Ronneby, just a few streets up from the train station where her father had his blacksmith shop, back in the mid 1800’s. She left Sweden at the young age of 14 and took a ship across the Atlantic to America.  It was a thrill for me to see the actual house that she had lived in. We continued on to a nearby park, once famous for it’s hot springs where the elite came to bath in the healthy mineral waters. The skies were clouding over and it was very windy but we bundled up in hats and jackets and had our picnic at a lovely site near a waterfall cascading down a sheer wall of granite. 

It was then time to leave Ronneby and head out to the Blekinge's “deep dark woods” as Boris and Anne called the place they live. Blekinge is like a “county’ of southeastern Sweden just above Skane which was once Danish until it became part of Sweden in 1628 after a terrible battle for control of the territory by the king of Sweden. Skane has always had a certain pride in its Danish past and resistence to the powers of Stockholm telling the people of the south what to do. Though Malmo is a thriving cosmopolitan city the outskirts, including Blekinge and Smaland to the north are very rural and consist of many birch, oak, alder and elm forests and massive amounts of granite stone. Wonderful old stone walls lace its lands marking the boundaries of farmlands going back to medieval times. The countryside is pocked with “runes”, large upright vertical stones marking ancientViking burial sites. Over the next four days, Torkel, Anne and Boris filled us in on many fascinating historical details of the region.

In 1972, shortly after our visit with my cousin Boris and Sonja moved from the city of Malmo three hours North to Blekinge, where they bought what they always described to me in letters, as a “forest”. Though we knew they had moved back to the land, we never quite understood the extent of this “forest” they had bought. We now learned that it was 300 hectares, nearly 600 acres, a vast estate on which there are ponds, lakes and wetlands, and beautiful rock canyons and thick forests of birch, oaks, elms and lindon trees and many other botanical riches as well as deer, moose and other small mammals and birds. Later, Boris and Sonja gave this land to their two sons, Torkel and Torlief, now in their fifties, with grown children of their own, to care for and keep in the family. Torlief, a businessman at heart, moved to the city of Gothenburg in Northwestern Sweden,  and sold his parcel to his brother, Torkel, who is the true “country farmer”. An erudite educated archeologist and artist, with a profound interest in the history of this land, Torkel works 55 kms. away in Karlskrona, as an art director for one of Sweden’s largest publishers of Sports magazines. He loves his work but is even more enamored with “husbanding” his vast Blekinge woods and protecting its past by inviting people to come and experience Sweden’s medieval past.  He, with the help of Anne, friends and neighbors, has built a small medieval village in the midst of their land. You can visit it by going on line to www. Horsehallengsgille.se. One interesting thing we learned was that Sweden, much like England, has a law that says the land though owned privately, must be open to the population to explore and hike upon. People seem to respect this freedom to enjoy but not abuse the land.

We were awestruck as Torkel’s wife, Anne wound her way down narrow forest roads and crisscrossed their land finally stopping at a small red house next to a beautiful lake, surrounded by a few old outbuildings and birch forests. She announced this was their newly acquired “guesthouse“ where we would be staying. We had expected a rustic cabin and instead found we were staying in a charming 1000 sq. ft. house with windows looking out to the lake; We had our own small boat dock and they invited us to feel free to use the small rowboat to explore the lake if we wished. Anne announced she would pick us up at six after we had a couple of hours to rest and recover from our jetlag. She left to drop Boris off at his house, called Lockansmala, a km away on their property. Boris was happy to inform us that we would be having dinner at his house in Lockansmala that night.

As they pulled away, we realized how exhausted we were and quickly fell into a deep afternoon nap. We awoke just in time to freshen up for Anne’s arrival and our wonderful evening of sharing our first Swedish meal of herring, boiled potatoes, Schnapps followed by caffe and kakkar, coffee and cake. Much laughter and merriment ensued and we quickly fell in love with my cousin, Torkel and his delightfully extraverted and generous wife, Anne.

The next 3 days unfolded with many new discoveries about this wonderful place where my relatives live and some of the stories of the family which go back a hundred years or more. Each day we fixed our own breakfast with the food Torkel and Anne had left for us, in the house called Sjotorp. Boris or Anne would pick us up and off we would merrily go visiting many surrounding sites. The best day of all was the one we spent with Torkel and Anne hiking around the woods of their property, muchroom hunting and visiting their small reconstructed medieval village called “Medeltidsbyn” and the huge lake at the southend of their property where they often “bath”, as they say, when describing a swim. Most days had been overcast and cool but that day we had sun and beautiful blue skies. For that night Anne had organized a wonderful family gathering and party with the traditional crayfish feed which takes place each August in Sweden. Torlief and his partner, Annette, arrived from Gothenburg (3 ½ hrs to the northwest from Blekinge..) His daughter Hanna and her boyfriend, Karl, students from Lund, came and Torkel’s daughter, Lena and her partner Fredrick arrived from another area. In all, with Boris, the patriarch of the family, and the youngest son of Anne and Torkel, seventeen year old, Terje, we were fourteen around a beautifully appointed long farm table in a reconstructed timber house built by Torkel last year. The room was lit only by oil lamps and a glowing fire in the big stone fireplace. We drank schnapps and wine and Torlief, quite the singer, led us in Swedish drinking songs throughout the meal. Lena had even made a delicious gluten free cake for Gary for dessert.
You can see our family spoiled us and we fell asleep that night quite happy and contented to have made this our first stop in our adventures. The next day, our family whisked us off to the small local airport where we took a plane to our next stop, Stockholm,  feeling a bit sad to say good bye, “hey da” in Swedish, as we departed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Getting Ready to Depart

Today, I'm with my dear friend, Marlene, who is helping me get my blog page set up before Gary and I leave on our Big Trip!  On August 23 we will celebrate our 45th anniversary by departing on a new adventure.  We're cheating a little as our actual anniversary is not until November 6th!

We'll be starting out in southern Sweden, visiting my relatives for a week and then spending a few days in Stockholm with an old high school friend, who married a Swede.  From Stockholm we fly to Paris and spend ten romantic days in our favorite city, staying at our pied-á-terre, a small apartment on the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) that we rent from a friend.  

…then, off to Turkey, to visit this exotic land of multiple civilizations and rich history.  I will be doing a Hot Air Balloon ride over Cappadocia (Gary is shy of heights so will not join me on this adventure).  We'll visit Istanbul, the Lycean coast on the turquoise Aegean and small villages in between.

After Turkey, we'll return to France to visit dear friends in Auvergne and Poitiers.  We'll head out to the Atlantic coast town of La Rochelle to travel across a long bridge out to our favorite French island, the Ile de Ré with my dear French "sister," Michelle.  We'll spend four days there, returning to Paris to fly back home on October 7th, just in time for our Granddaughter Zoë's birthday.

We hope you will enjoy following our adventures via this blog: http://adventureswithsher.blogspot.com/

Monday, March 29, 2010

Just Returned from El Salvador

Hola familia y amigos,

My apologies for not writing more about our adventures the last two weeks. On Thursday, March 18th I left early in the morning by "coche" with a driver to go to Mexico DF airport, 3 hours away, to catch the Mexicana flight to airport. That day I spent more time in cars and airports than I did in the airplane. It was only a two hour flight to San Salvador and Mexicana even served a full hot meal---our airlines sure don't do that anymore.

I arrived at the Comalapa International Airport in San Salvador at 2:05 but by the time I made it through the lines, first to buy the $10 tourist card required in El Salvador and then to pick up my one suitcase and go through customs, it was almost 3:30 pm. My friend, Joalgar, who was waiting outside all that time in the hot sun had begun to think I had missed my plane. There were several planes arriving at the same time so that is why it took so long. As I stepped out into the parking area I was hit by the oppressive heat (about 98 degrees and very high humidity). I had forgotten how hot it could get in El Salvador after living for almost two months in the pleasantly mild climate of San Miguel. Joalgar greeted me with big smiles and hugs and I immediately felt the "warm" welcome. We whisked off in the car with Don Jose, his neighbor who used to drive us in his pick up truck to the Bajo Lempa when I was there in 2006 to teach some of the youth art classes.

When we pulled up 45 minutes later in front of Joalgars house in the suburbs of Ilopongo, the whole family greeted me with hugs. It was fun to see Isabel, Joalgar's wife and their two cute grandchildren, Ronald,age 9 and "la Princessa Isabela" his granddaughter whose 7th birthday we celebrated that night as family friends stopped by. Ronald was so proud to show me his school work and his drawings and Isabela showed me how she can dance. later we all ate pupusas, the dish of El Salvador and went off to bed under the usual mosquito nets. At 10 o'clock at night it was still very hot and sticky but it was still great to be there.

The next morning the children had to go to school very early and Joalgar, Isabel and I had breakfast together. Soon it was time for me to go to the hotel in San Salvador to meet up with all the folks who were arriving that day from Chicago, Rochester, NY, Portland, Oregon, Cincinnati, Ohio and Oakland,California, the delegates coming to join us for the Romero Delegation sponsored by Eco-Viva (the new name of the foundation Gary and I have contributed to for the past ten years which helps small rural villages in El Salvador with tecnical and financial assistance. March 24th was the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who spoke out for the poor and oppressed. It was propitious moment to be in this city not often known for its beauty but rather for the pain of the war.

In the following days as we visited key historical sites in San Salvador and then traveled southeast to the Bajo Lempa (the base of the Lempa River near the Pacific) where our small villages are working to be self sufficient, I came to appreciate the 22 people in the delegation whose ages ranged from 9 years to 80 years old. They were a wonderfully compatible group and it was a joy to travel with them. The young people ranging from 9-17 years old added a special dimension to our delegation and their good behavior and genuine interest in learning about the struggles of the Salvadorenos was impressive. We shared meals with the folks in the village many I have to come to love from past delegations (This was my fourth trip to El Salvador), walked the dirt streets, played games together at night before settling in at our dorm rooms. It was terribly hot and humid but nobody complained and in fact, loved the cold showers. Each day was a new learning experience and even for me after being there so often. I loved visiting the new turtle hatchery which has helped save the four species of sea turtles on the Bay of Jiquilisco which we help support, the Mangroves which line the coast and which my first delegation contributed to 5 years ago when we planted 500 "candles" as the young mangroves are called. They are a very important part of the ecology of the bay as well as protection against the damage of the many hurricanes that El Salvador endures. We learned about the new community youth program and went on a tour of one of the "fincas", farms which is now totally organic growing a variety of fruits and vegetables. The progress is palpable and it feels good to know that the money we have donated over the years is truly making a difference in the lives of these dear people. The last two days of our adventure were spent at a beautiful resort on the Pacific meeting under the shade of palapas by a beautiful beach and next to a huge pool with tropical gardens surrounding it. It was quite a contrast to our first 6 days but much appreciated by everyone. I hope some of you will consider joining me and Gary for a future delegation---it is always a life changing and inspiring experience as was obvious our last day as we had a "reflection" circle in which everyone talked about their "Wow" moments.

I flew home on Friday and was glad to get back to Gary and our little place here in San Miguel. We have had a busy weekend with a birthday "fiesta" at our Mexican family's house for the daughter of our hostess, Francisca. We met many more family members and ate a delicious meal to which I contributed the "botanos"(hors d'oeuvres), small "sopes" made with corn flour and filled with frijoles, salsa and cheese, a recipe I learned in an earlier cooking class. I was happy they let me contribute something. Sunday we got together with our writer friends from Cape Cod for a fun afternoon of sharing our writing and some artwork (Milton has been going to the same sculpture studio where I go and has produced some wonderful pieces and wanted to share his paintings as well,.) Today I finished my second wax sculpture which will be cast in bronze and which Mario, our mentor will then keep for me until I come back next year. Gary and I started our packing tonight anticipating our next two very busy days before we have to leave to head home on Thursday, April 1st. We arrive back in Portland at 11 pm.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about some of our adventures here in Latin America. Each year we come, we find ourselves more drawn to its magic and I must say it helps my Spanish, too. We look forward to seeing our dear kids, both daughters and grandchildren and catching up with lives of our friends as well. Take care and we will see you soon.

Abrazos, Sher and Gary

Friday, March 12, 2010

Time Marches On in San Miguel de Allende

Hola amigos,

Well, the fact that we have not found time to do weekly posts on this blog is indictive of the very busy lives we are leading here. As I am sitting here next to our big arched window, I am witnessing the "fourth of July" in Mexico, a fireworks display par excellance with reds, golds, blues, all colors of the rainbow and the popping sounds which accompany it. Sounds of the mariachis in the streets below us, waft up our hill and the celebration is on. We are not sure for what but, as we said last year, every day in San Miguel is a fiesta. We do know that Monday is a holiday celebrating the birthday of Bonito Juarez, the much loved past president of Mexico who brought changes for the poor and working classes and also passed a law separating Church and State. He was the first and only, we think, indigenous (i.e. indio) to become President.

We are staying in tonight despite the temptation to join the festivities as we have had a very active week since last Saturday, when we left for the Sierra Gordo ("fat mountains") of the neighboring state of Queretero, for a three day car trip. We shared the rental car with our friends, Rosalie and Jack, from Denver Colorado. Rosalie and I researched the area on the internet and with questions to our local Mexicana friends and it sounded too good to pass up.

We left early Saturday morning and by 9 o'clock we were in the charming town of Tequisiapan with a lovely walking street and large central plaza surrounded by an arcade and the usual focal point, a large church with bell tower and decorative coral orange and white facade. We found a cute restaurant and ate breakfast outside under the arcade. Chiliquillias, fresh squeesed orange juice and coffee came to about $4.00 each. After exploring more of the town, we headed for the hills. As we climbed higher up into the beautiful mountains which rose from dry, mesquite and cactus covered "cerros" to a height of 7,500ft. we found ourselves above the "cloud forest" known as "La Puerta de Cielito" ---"The Door to Heaven". As we rose in altitude we were surrounded by a richly vegetated forest of pines, deciduous trees reminding us of autumn with some turning light gold and orange and others covered with pink and magenta blossoms which we later learned were peach trees. Believe it or not, this was mixed with pre-historic looking palms all in bloom with pendulums of white flowers and lower down were a mix of cactus. The area is know for its biodiversity and one can see why. It is actually about 4000 acres of protected biosphere. .We visited several small pueblos and stayed in one the first night by the name of San Joaquin (brings back memories of my high school days in the San Joaquin valley of California when my dad was transferred to Bakersfield---believe me, this San Joaquin was far more picturesque!) We found two clean rooms with baths to rent from Senor Casas (means "houses" appropriately)for only $20 for the night! Senor Casas seemed to be the most entrepreneurial man in town, owning the local Abarrotes (small grocery store) and the lodgings as well as having an interest in the two restaurants, one he recommended for dinner and the other for breakfast. While in SJ we explored the nearby archeological site of Las Ranas, just unearthed in the late 1980's, The ruins were in a beautiful "bosque" which means forest, but were not as dramatic as Monte Alben or Mixla which we visited in Qaxaca last year.

The second day we went on to Jalpan which is the center of a region known for its five famous missions designed by the famous Father Junipera Sera. We remember his many missions in California. We visited two of the five here, which was enough---they are each very differenct with beautiful decorated (almost rococco) facades containing reliefs of the saints and an interesting symbol on each, of the crossed arms and hands of the Dominicans and the Franciscans, apparently representing the "joint venture" in converting the "savage" indios. I must say after the two, and thinking about the suffering of the native peoples building these glorious icons to the church, we had had enough. We were tired and hungry and drove back into Jalpan for dinner at the hotel we had found earlier in the day. We had a rather restless night with a strange noise waking us up which we later found out was some kind of vibrating water pipes just outside our room. After breakfast the next day we headed back towards the big city of Queretero stopping for a couple of hours at Bernal which Rosalie and Jack hadn't seen yet. We described this pretty Mexican town in a former post. After a delicious late lunch there we returned to San Miguel just in time to turn our car in and say Buenos Noches!

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I went to the sculpture studio of Mario, the best artists' secret in town which I learned about from a gringo friend last year. I am having a wax sculpture cast here at Mario's foundry, as the cost is so much less than in the US. I started the sculpture 30 years ago at a workshop in Mendocino California and have had fun finally finishing it here. I am now working on a second sculpture. We had guests for dinner on Tuesday night with drinks before on our terrace from where we have a vista of beautiful sunsets and the city below us. Being up high on the hill is a real advantage except when we climb it everyday coming home from our activities in town. It's great exercise. Gary has been doing some woodcarving and vsited with a local wood sculptor, who he hopes to visit more next week when I am in El Salvador. I leave on Thursday, March 18th and will return via Mexico City on the 26th. I will be joining the Romero Delegation sponsored by the foundation we have donated our energies and some money to for the past ten years, FSSCA, soon to have the new name of Eco-Vida. We assist 86 small rural villages in El Salvador with microfinanced chicken farms and agricultural and reforestation projects to name a few. It is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a real hero to the people of El Salvador. I will be helping our leader as we have a large group this time, 22 people from around the states and happily Portland has a nice contingency of 5 people joining the delegation.

Gary is not at all worried about feeling lonely in San Miguel. We have made lots of friends here and he loves going to the Bibliotecha where he not only checks out books but enjoys partaking of the many lectures and films offered on a full gamut of subject matters. He will also attend the annual Spring Equinox ceremonies up at the beautiful botanical gardens on a higher hill above us with friends. I regret I am going to miss that this year.

Hope this finds you all healthy and happy enjoying the approaching Spring. We hear cold weather is still upon you and feel very appreciative of our lovely warm 75-80 degree days. Nights are still somewhat chlly but it's great to awake to blue skies and sunshine.

Hasta luego,

P.S. Here's a book tip. I am just finishing Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful new novel, La Lacuna, and have enjoyed it immensely. The plot, much of which takes place in Mexico of the 20's and 30's amongst a host of interesting characters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Trotsky to name a few, is fascinating and the main character, Harrison Sheppard of both Mexican and Gringo heritage, is intriguing. An important segment of the book takes place in the US as well, during the pivotal time of WWII and the aftermath "fear mongering" of press and government alike known as the McCarthy Era. Kingsolver makes her politicl points cleverly using actual newslippings of the era which earmark similarities to our time and its "politics of fear". I suggest you read the book.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Continuation of Our San Miguel Story

Hola, or perhaps I should say 'buenes Noches": We just arrived home from a wonderful dinner out at "Mama Mia's" a good restaurent in the center of town about ten minutes from our casita. Now I must tell you about the others around the table and the story of how it happened that we were having dinner with 2 Mexicans and a Salvadoreno.

Last night we came home after a wonderful Sunday starting with brunch with friends, Rosalie and Jack, who we met in Lake Patzcuaro last year and who visited us in Portland last summer.
After brunch Gary and I dashed off to buy our "verduras and frutas" at the mercado to replenish our food supply. About 4 o'clock we went to the opening of the Baroque Music Festival in the Central square in commemoration of Mexico's bi-centennial and Centenario of the Revolution and the War of Independence. It will continue all week with performances every night, each with its own special theme representing pre-hispanic times to the present. We spent two hours outside in the central plaza, known as El Jardin,where a special stage was erected for the spectacle. We watched a theatrical threesom and a marionette act out a scene with Louis the 14th and Marie Antoinette and a friend lamenting that they could not return to the past (it was a satire, of course, and very "Molieresque" with many laughs). They introduced a baroque quartet who played Vivaldi, Bach, and others from the period (a flute, violincello, violin and harpsichord). The whole preformance was quite wonderful and Free!

Now, here is where our incredible story really begins: We walked home entering the main casa where we were greeted by our hostess, Maria Elena who invited us to join her on the patio with a visiting friend. It turns out that the friend was Father Eustaquio Martinez Pena, a priest from El Salvador---she remembered I had been to El Salvador and thought I would like to meet him. Of course, it was delightful and more so when we both realized we knew the same person, Jose "Chencho" Alas, our friend and the man who inspired Gary and I to work with the Foundaton for Self Sufficiency in Central America ten years ago. Eustaquio's nickname is "Tacho" and he knew Chencho very well, as during the war they were priests under the tutelage of Archbishop Romero, the hero of El Salvador who was assasinated in 1980 because he spoke out for the poor. Tacho and Chencho were both tortured by the right wing paramilitary. Chencho escaped to the USA and Tacho was one of only two who made it to Mexico for they had to find families that would sponsor or, as they say, adopt them. He was a young priest of 21 years old. Of all the families and people in San Miguel. would you believe that my friend, Francisca (mother of Maria Elena)was the mother of that family who took him in. She is the one who I lived with nine years ago when I came to San Miguel to study Spanish. I remembered that,at that time she told me she had an adopted son there", but I never understood the full story until now. Tacho is now a priest in San Salvador, after completeing his semenary studies in Morelia, Mexico and returning to his country of origin after the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, when my friend Chencho also returned and started the Foundation to which Gary and I contribute. He was quite anxious to know how Chencho is and what he is doing and we had much to talk about. What a miracle this is. He is a delightful man of 51 years old (Chencho was his elder, now being 74 years old). It has been a very rewarding experience, the least of which is that I was able to converse for an hour in Spanish (he speaks no English and Marie Elena doesn't speak much English either). Once we met he decided to spend an extra day here and Gary and I were invited to go to dinner with him, Maria Elena and her brother, Salvador, this evening. My head is full of new Spanish words and expressions that I have learned, and I think Gary's is, too. Luckily, Salvador speaks a little more English and between the two of us we were able to translate for Gary. Well, I know this is a long story but I think it is quite remarkable and I just wanted to share it with you, friends, who, for so long, have witnessed my passion for the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua. We met our first Salvadorenos in Nicaragua as they were refugees from the war there. It's been a type of "odyssey" since our time working in the hospital in Nicaragua in 1987.

Well, as they say in espanol, "esta suficiente"---this is sufficient to show a little of why we say magical things happen in San Miguel.

To go on with other happenings and entertainments, Gary and I enjoyed a wonderful classical guitar concert last Sunday with a renowned guitarist Maestro Enrique Florez who once studied with Andreas Segovia in Spain. He played the ten string classical guitar, which was quite amazing to hear and to watch.

The Sunday before that, we went out to La Gruta, a hot springs spa and grotto about fifteen minutes out of town. Farrel and Joe joined us and we had a very relaxing time bathing in the hot springs pool and having lunch at the small restaurant there on a lovely lawn at a table under an umbrella. It was one of our first really warm and lovely days. Since then the weather has been increasingly warmer with cool mornings and evenings.

Our guests left last Wednesdayand since then I have been trying to get back to a routine of writing daily---this has been a challenge with my Spanish studies, daily activities like films and lectures at the Bibliotecha and invitations to join new friends for "bebidas"--drinks, lunches, etc.

Our next post will be about our adventure coming up this weekend, March 6,7 and 8th, when we are going with our friends, Rosalie and Jack to what sounds like a fascinating area in the high mountains of the Sierra Gordo, outside of Queretero in the state of Quereterro where we will see Toltec archiological sites in Ranas, and near San Juaquin,a group of five missions designed by Fray Junipero Serra, si, the same one who built or rather had built by the indios, missions in California. they are supposed to be quite spectacular and in excellent condition in spite of the fact that they were built in the mid 1700's. We will also visit several interesting villages along the way on Hwy 120. and then stop in Bernal on the way home on Monday, the 8th. We are sharing a car rental with our friends so we will be free to go at our own pace. It is an area where it would be hard to go by bus. On one of the high and very winding roads we will go along a place called "La Puerta del Cielo"(Door to the Sky) which is apt because the guidebooks say you are at such an altitude in an area of mists where you can actually look down on the clouds. Sounds interestng doesn't it?
So, amigos, we will continue to share our adventures upon our return from our weekend trip. We send warm "abrazos" to you all and hope you are experiencing good health and the beginning of Springtime wherever you are. Que te vayas bien!

Sher and Gary