I don’t think it really occurred to me how much—or rather, how little—coffee I drink on a daily basis until my most recent trip to Sweden this past weekend.
Granted, I should not have been surprised by the uptick in my coffee intake, given that the same thing happened during my last visit. In my defense, however, that last visit was six years ago. It was also in March—aka “still kind of wintertime”—so the constant coffee consumption was also a very convenient way to keep the cozy factor high and fight off the chill.
This time though, I was incredibly lucky in that all the threats of rain that were showing up on my weather app in the days leading up to my departure turned out to be unfounded, and whatever sun I was missing in Paris seemed to follow me up there. I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink as much coffee as I did the last time I was here overall, but it was still enough to notice a change in my overall temperament. I was, in short, peppy.
Though that may have had something to do with seeing and hanging with old friends again as well.
I arrived pretty late on Thursday night to my friend’s apartment in Uppsala (thankfully, even though our departure out of Charles de Gaulle was delayed a bit because some genius left their iPad in the departure lounge, I managed to catch the last direct bus from Stockholm-Arlanda to Uppsala central station for the night), but I think being pretty much dead on arrival kind of helped. I would need a decent amount of sleep to be ready for a somewhat early start the next day.
Friday morning started with breakfast and the first two coffees of the day before we headed off to my friend’s uni to support one of her cohorts during his 90% thesis seminar (and yes, before anyone asks, the presentation was in English). I always find it fascinating to compare doctoral programs not just across different departments in the same school, but between different countries as well. And frankly, I find the Swedish system of structuring thesis work/defenses rather intriguing. Basically, when you are 10%, 50% and 90% done with your dissertation, your department organizes a seminar where you will present your work in the presence of your committee, your classmates/cohort, and, most importantly, an opponent (generally someone in the field/a closely related field, but who may not necessarily be part of the department faculty/affiliated with the university itself). Given that sociology of education is not quite my field, there were a number of times where I tuned out a bit, but I found a lot of value in this process of periodic questioning/examination of one’s work by an outside perspective. If nothing else, it can point out things that the student/their committee may have not noticed or glossed over for various reasons, and in the end, result in (hopefully) a better and slightly more accessible thesis. As far as Harvard goes, although they do offer optional writing workshops (which I cannot attend for…obvious reasons), I think trying to integrate something mandatory like this could be very beneficial (if nothing else, it could at least keep everyone up to date on what their fellow PhD candidates are doing).
After the seminar ended, it was time for lunch, and perhaps the most “Swedish” of the main meals I had during my trip. A café near the train station had a very affordable lunch menu on offer, so we opted for that (the large terrace was also a big plus). For my main course, I chose a lightly battered and fried fillet of fish served over potatoes with sliced apple, diced carrots and celery and a mustard sauce. This came with a small salad and a choice of coffee or tea (I chose to shake things up a bit with a green tea):
Bellies full, it was time to begin my (re)exploration of Uppsala, which included stopping by several sites, including
The Uppsala Castle, home to a free art gallery, showcasing art that at times inspires more questions than answers
(for real though, there were also some more typically aesthetically pleasing images on view)
Then it was off to the Uppsala Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Uppsala, last resting place of King Gustav Vasa (among others):
The cathedral also features this startlingly realistic wax mannequin gazing adoringly at the tomb of King Gustav and his consorts
Up next was the Upplands Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of this particular region of Sweden. Along with artifacts depicting the daily lives of various civilizations who inhabited the area throughout history, there was also a special exhibit dedicated to famous sweaters (yes, sweaters), hence the décor out front.
My friend’s husband ended up getting off of work in time to join us on this visit. Luckily, the weather was still holding up very nicely, so when the idea to grab some soft serve was proposed, it didn’t take much persuading from any of us. This also gave me an opportunity to try something new: black licorice sprinkles on vanilla soft serve. Not gonna lie, I was hesitant at first, but I think this may have ended up being one of my favorite things that I tried this trip.
Our dinner reservation not being until 19h, we pretty much just ended up killing time the rest of the afternoon with, you guessed it, more walking.
And this brings us to dinner. Now, when I finally confirmed with my friend that I was indeed coming to visit her, I already somewhat knew what place I wanted to eat at. No, it was not a Swedish restaurant. It was, in fact, a Chinese restaurant: Jappi. ‘But Effie,’ you are probably wondering, ‘why would you want to go to a Chinese restaurant in Sweden?’ Good question. In brief, it’s because she had talked about it many times during several of our conversations, and so I of course had to see what it was all about! Verdict: it was actually pretty darn good (and spicy)! We ordered some eggplant, sliced fish soup, and grilled tofu along with some Tsing Tao beers, and quite frankly, I knew I was in for a great time when the soup came out and I saw all those chilis and Sichuan peppercorns floating on the surface.
Then it was back home for a quick nightcap and more sleep to rest our legs for the next day’s adventure: Stockholm!
The morning started bright and early with coffee and a trip to Güntherska bakery for some cinnamon buns (honestly, other than Jappi, this was my one absolute food-must for my trip. I love Swedish cinnamon buns). A quick train ride later and we had arrived in Stockholm, conveniently just in time for lunch.
Apparently, burgers are just a big a deal in Sweden as they are in Paris, and this one from Vigarda didn’t disappoint. The jalapeño slices were a nice touch too.
We only visited one museum during this outing, The National Gallery. Apparently, it had been under renovation until recently, but luckily enough time had passed between its reopening and our visit that there was no crowd smushed up at the entrance to get in. Another perk of this museum: it’s free (though there are paid tours on offer as well).
The work here is more typical to that which you’d find in an average fine arts museum, though I was surprised to stumble upon the portrait of a certain queen…
Apparently, the artist who painted this was Swedish. So…there’s a fun fact I learned.
Following our visit, we walked along the water a bit to get our appetites up in anticipation of some coffee and cake (also known as fika). Our search for an open café lead us to a somewhat random hole in the wall run by an older woman who came from a family of Finnish opera singers (and who may have been a performer herself…there were some glamour shots on the walls of a woman who looked a lot like a younger version of the café owner, though we never confirmed with her if our guesses were correct or not).
Dinner that night continued in the tradition of ‘not Swedish’ with some yummy chicken bo-bun at a Vietnamese place in Ostermalm:
It was at this point that the light rain that had been threatening to fall the entire afternoon actually made good on its promise, though it only lasted about a minute (and thankfully started after we had all finished our meals). In any case, at that point all there was left to do was leisurely walk back to the train station (making sure to stop off at a candy store for some provisions on the way, of course)
Yeah, there are definitely a decent amount of licorice-based candies in that bag. Funny how taste buds change.
And speaking of new tastes, I of course couldn’t leave on Sunday morning without one last bun and coffee, though this time I opted for cardamom rather than the usual cinnamon:
And then it was off to the airport and back home, where a train issue meant I was stuck in the rain waiting for a bus for far longer than I expected to be (namely, thirty minutes versus no time at all). As incredibly relaxing and fun as this weekend was, I’m kind of glad I’ll be staying put for the foreseeable future (at least until I head to Greece in mid-July). All that traveling back and forth was starting to get to me a bit, especially the whole having to unpack/repack my backpack thing.
But I think I made the right choice in taking this trip before heading into the final stretch of the school year/into another heavy round of dissertation research/writing. I just need to keep telling myself I’ll get over the writer’s block hump that’s been bugging me for the last few days/week.
I feel like April this year was one of those months that snuck right up and right past me. Did I see shows? Yeah, several actually. But I’ve also come to the realization that I may have mentally finalized my ‘performance corpus’, to the point that I am just attending things for my own amusement now (still at the same theatres though). It’s not that I have completely closed myself off to the possibility of a late addition, but needless to say, I haven’t felt as much urgency to blog about the shows I’ve seen than I used to.
Besides, now that I have finally received confirmation that I will have completion funding next year, I am feeling a greater urgency to write on the things I already have on deck than adding even more…stuff. Part of the dissertation is, after all, knowing when to stop, recognizing the fact that it is simply not possible to include every single thing (otherwise I’d be doing this for another ten years which…I’m not particularly keen on).
What I have been doing recently, however, is traveling.
One of the bonuses about teaching in this country are the numerous 2-week breaks interspersed throughout the school year (basically it’s 6 weeks of instruction, 2 weeks break…it’s lovely). I’m currently in the middle of the second of my two weeks of spring holidays, and unlike with the February holidays, this time I took full advantage of the break to travel a bit.
The first trip was relatively local, as well as to a city I had been to before, though not in the springtime. Several weeks ago, a friend and I decided to plan a short weekend trip, as I was about to start my break, and she had a 4-day weekend. Of course, this being the week of the 20th(aka, Easter), our last-minute train bookings somewhat limited our options (the original idea of spending the weekend in Bruges was verrrrry quickly abandoned). Thankfully, tickets to Strasbourg were still very affordable (especially on the slow line), and as she had never been there, the final decision was almost made for us.
Honestly, though, I think we ended up really lucking out with this trip, if only for how absolutely gorgeous the weather was. Right up to the day we left, the weather apps were predicting at least a bit of rain on the Sunday of our trip (a day we planned to spend walking around the nearby small city of Colmar), but in the end, all we had was sun and maybe a little bit of wind. And though we had to get up very early to catch our 8h20 train, the 4-hour ride was worth it the minute we stepped off the train and out into the bright sunshine. The air smelled cleaner there. The abundance of wisteria in bloom helped with this.
After we checked into our lovely AirBnb in Petite France, we spent the majority of the afternoon walking around and exploring. Lunch that day was at a little Easter fair in front of the Protestant cathedral, where we had the first of the tartes flambées (basically like an Alsatian flatbread) and beers that would be consumed that weekend.
Our hunger sated, we commenced a more thorough walking adventure of the historical part of the city, stopping off at the Modern Art Museum to kill some time before heading back to the AirBnb to freshen up before grabbing dinner.
As my only other experiences in Strasbourg were primarily centered around eating my way through Christmas markets, I didn’t have too much in my arsenal in terms of restaurants to visit. Luckily, another friend of mine who used to live in the city was more than happy to provide several recommendations, one of them being Fink’Stuebel.
One thing to note about food in Alsace is that many of the traditional dishes—choucroute, spaetzel, baeckeoffe—are much more well-adapted to the cold winters the region is known for than to the warmer days of spring and summer. However, we still wanted to make sure we took advantage of the opportunity to eat some regional dishes that are not as easily available in Paris, so even though the weather was rather warm, we pretty much said ‘Screw it’ and feasted anyway (it was vacation after all).
I opted for a pork knuckle with a side of German potato salad, while my friend chose to try the (incredibly generous/this can’t possibly just be for one person) choucroute garnie—a pile of sauerkraut topped with various pork products. The cozy interior of the restaurant—think dark wood walls, wooden chairs, mismatched water glasses—certainly helped set the atmosphere for the meal, with the carafe of Riesling we chose as an accompaniment only further adding to the enjoyment of the evening. We were lucky enough to book a table on the last day they were open before closing up for the Easter holiday, and clearly the place was very popular because several parties had to be turned away for lack of a reservation. In terms of more traditional Alsatian restaurants, I would highly recommend this one, especially for its location at the edge of Petite France, as well as the quality (and quantity!) of the food that is a far cry from stereotypical ‘tourist traps’.
A long day of traveling, coupled with a very copious dinner, meant we didn’t really stay out too late that night, which ended up being not so much of a terrible thing, considering all the walking we did on Easter Sunday. That morning was another early wakeup for us, as well as a short 30-minute train ride to Colmar. Unlike with Strasbourg, this was both of our first times in this small city, and I personally was very giddy about it. I mean, just a quick Google image search will show pictures of what looks like the most adorable fairytale town, and, after my visit, I can confirm that those photos are all incredibly accurate. Colmar is a gem. We spent pretty much all our time making several circles around the old town, and I honestly could have made a couple more, had we not had a train to catch back to Strasbourg.
There were a couple of spring markets on around the city—possibly to drum up tourism in times that are…not Christmas—and along with the usual food and crafts, there were also some opportunities to meet some farm animals! Because what says spring more than a bunch of baby goats munching on hay (or some particularly—terrifyingly—gigantic pigeons):
It probably also won’t surprise anyone if I said that this town is rumored to have been the inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast(I mean, really all that’s missing from that opening scene are a couple of kougelhopfs and maybe some pretzels and it’s pretty much set). I think I would like to come back again later in the year to see the city at Christmas, because I can only imagine how quaint all those little houses would look under the glow of some fairy lights (though the very real possibility of the immense crowds that would have to be dealt with is…less than ideal).
At least we got this little Easter sheep for a (momentary) souvenir (honestly though, this looks a lot better than it tasted…there’s a reason these are meant to be eaten with tea or coffee):
Lunch in Colmar was relatively light (tarte flambée and beer again hehe), so we were more than ready for another big meal once we got back to Strasbourg. Not having made any reservations, we simply scoured Trip Advisor/Yelp looking for places that a) would be open and b) served the dish my friend was really keen on trying: baeckeoffe.
In brief, baeckeoffe is a sort of casserole, traditionally composed of potatoes, onions, mutton, beef, pork, carrots, leeks and Alsatian white wine baked together in a ceramic dish. Much like with the dishes we had tried the night before, this one is definitely more ideally suited for colder weather, but thankfully the evening was cool enough that eating it could still be enjoyable.
We ended up choosing the appropriately-named Le Baeckeoffe d’Alsacefor our dinner—a restaurant geared more towards tourists than locals, but which nevertheless provided solid versions of what we were looking for for our evening meal. As with the night before, portions sizes were more than generous, as evidenced by my portion of spaetzel (think mac and cheese, but the cheese is slices of muenster melted directly over the top of the pasta…mmmmm) that could easily have fed three if not four people.
All of this was, of course, washed down with more Riesling.
After a quick nightcap on the terrace of a nearby bar, it was time to rest our feet again before a final day of walking that Monday.
And we really took advantage of the half day we had left in the city to stop off at all the sites we hadn’t visited properly during our first day. We strolled around the cathedral and saw the astronomical clock:
Then checked out the museum of fine arts just across the cathedral plaza.
As the weather was still very nice, we followed our visit to the museum with a quick lunch al fresco (where I had a salad because vegetables are necessary), then headed out of Petite France and to the university to check out the botanical garden, where we encountered some very loud frogs (mating season and whatnot).
A final beer by the river marked the end of the trip, and before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the wisteria (whose smell I wish I could just bottle up and take with me everywhere), the cleaner air, and the lack of dog poop and those damn Lime scooters in the middle of every sidewalk (seriously, it’s not that difficult to park the damn scooter on the side of the damn sidewalk so people can actually, I don’t know, walk…). The train ride seemed to go by faster this time—as return trips often do—and before I knew it, I was back home again, though not for long.
To get this out of the way early: yes, this was kind of another impulse-buy trip. As with my birthday trip to Budapest, this one came about partially from an itch to see something new, and partially from the general overall ‘blegh’ feeling one gets after being stuck in a place for a while (and also from the mental toll that teaching + the stress of dissertation-related nonsense + personal stuck in a rut/feeling like everything’s coming out only half-baked can have on one’s personal outlook). In short, I was in need of a shake-up.
Around the time I was thinking of booking something, I was also spending my library lunch breaks scrolling through the NY Times Travel section, in particular the 52 Places to Travel to feature. One of the cities listed was Tallinn, which is where I got the idea to center my search on the Baltics in the first place. After getting some tips from friends who had visited the region (special shout-out to Caitlin for her excellent recommendations), as well as a quick search on Kayak, I settled on Riga as my destination, mostly because, at the time of my search, flights to there from Paris were cheaper than flights to Tallinn (otherwise, everything else came out pretty equal).
I think I’m also noticing a slight pattern in the destinations I’m being drawn to for my short solo-travel excursions in the sense that I’ve been drawn to cities where there exists a dichotomy (and I would say, at least based on my impressions of Riga, a spatial/aesthetical tension) between the country’s pre-USSR and USSR histories—especially with regards to how the latter is still very present, like a shadow, even as the country itself tries to move forward from it. Traces of Riga’s troubled history—and I’ll take a minute here to stress the fact that not just Riga but the Baltics in general went through quite a bit during both WWII and the Soviet occupation—can be seen almost everywhere, most evidently once one leaves the very charming—though quite touristy—Old Town. Honestly, sometimes it was an observation as simple as noticing the state of a sidewalk or the landscape planning of a park that conjured up a feeling that there was something weighty in the air, if that makes sense. If nothing else, what I did end up leaving the city with was a very strong desire to visit the other two Baltic capitals in future travel excursions, even if I feel like I’ve closed the book on Riga…for now.
Don’t mistake that last sentence though. I actually had a very lovely time there. That statement comes more from a feeling of…completeness…I had upon leaving, one that spoke more to a desire to explore outwards, in other parts of the region, than back into that particular city itself.
Would I recommend visiting Riga? 100% (and not just because it was crazy affordable).
See, the food there is also pretty excellent (and may be another reason why I felt more compelled to try and plan trips to Tallinn or Vilnius afterwards than return right away…because if I ate so well in Riga…surely there would be other equally as delightful gastronomical adventures awaiting me in other parts of the region). Of course, it helped that I did some research (of course) before going—as well as booked a tasting tour of the central market—but just based on the number of restaurants on my list that I didn’t manage to try (because one can’t make it to everything in a weekend), I would be rather confident in saying that it is rather easy to have an affordable, seasonal, quality, meal in Riga.
That being said, let’s get down to the details.
Friday (Day 1).
I arrived in Riga late on Thursday night, around 22h. Prior to leaving Paris, I had arranged with the hostel I was staying at to have a cab meet me at the airport, as I wasn’t sure I would be able to make the last bus into the city center, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of navigating a new city at night after having travelled all day (left Paris in the early afternoon, then had a layover in Stockholm). I wasn’t necessarily worried about anything happening to me, per say—and Riga is a pretty safe city, at least from my personal impressions—but I did want to at least make sure I knew exactly where my hostel was so I wouldn’t waste time navigating. The trip from the airport took about 30minutes and cost 15 euros (pro tip: have cash on you…I did not know this, but thankfully there was an ATM right around the corner from the hostel). Before I knew it, I was flopped down on my bed in my private dorm in Central Hostel, ready for a good night’s sleep (yeah, no, I’m done with hostel dorms).
The next day, I was up bright and early to do a bit of visiting before joining in one of the two free walking tours I would end up doing on my trip (in addition to the aforementioned food tour). I started my morning off with a black coffee and vegan (yes, vegan) waffles with berries at MiiT Coffee, and trust that I am not exaggerating when I say that the coffee scene in Riga is quite good.
The coffee that I chose was roasted locally, as well as brewed to order, something that you don’t find very often, especially for the price they charged (around 3 euros). That plus the waffles came out to about 8euros total. Not bad at all.
After filling up on breakfast, I made my way to the Latvian National Museum of Art just in time for its opening, and just in time to see the entire permanent collection before having to speed over to the Old Town to catch the tour. Entry to the main collection is only 3euros, with the option of adding a visit to the temporary exhibition halls as well for an additional 3euros. Honestly, I was fine with just sticking to the main exhibition spaces, especially as they spanned about three floors and covered works by Latvian artists from the 18thcentury to the present. I’ve posted some of my favorite works below (Madonna with a machine gunis especially eye-catching):
My visit finished, I quickly power walked across the small park in front of the museum and headed into Old Town, just in time to catch the 2.5hr Alternative Riga Walking Tour. This is one of two free tours run year-round by local guides (they offer bike tours for a fee as well, but only from May – September), the second—and shorter—one meeting at 10h and focusing solely on the Old Town. As this one’s name implies, we would be getting a different view of Riga than the usual tourist hot-spots, one that focused more on the sociopolitical history of the country, rather than on the historical architecture of some of the buildings.
While we did spend some time in the Old Town (around 10 – 15min), we left the area pretty quickly to check out other nearby areas of the city, some of which see less tourist traffic, but nonetheless merit a visit. I think my favorite site was the very imposing Academy of Sciences, also known as Stalin’s birthday cake. See, the idea was to build the thing and present it as a gift to Stalin during one of his visits to the city. Construction started in 1951. Stalin died in 1953. Oops.
The building houses mostly offices now, but there’s also a viewing platform at the top that is open to visitors for a small fee (I didn’t end up going up though).
It was during this tour that I also—thanks to my eavesdropping—became acquainted with three other solo female travelers: one from Germany, another from Japan, and the third from Taiwan. This was a very pleasant surprise in my visit, not going to lie, especially as one of the things I still struggle with sometimes is actually getting up the nerve to talk to people. Taking the plunge and introducing myself paid off, however, as we all ended up having a late (and very filling) lunch after the tour was over, as well as meeting up again a couple times throughout the weekend.
Speaking of lunch, this was had at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a sort of tavern (in a basement), serving Latvian foods and beers at incredibly affordable prices. For my meal, I had beef shank in dark beer with a cauliflower purée and salad (yay!), along with a half pint of local, unfiltered beer (tasted very similar to some German-style beers I’ve tried):
And because we weren’t full enough already, we also stopped off at Gelato Italiafor some ice cream and espresso:
We all went our separate ways for a bit after that, agreeing to meet later that evening for cocktails, and I used my time to stroll around the Old Town a bit and take some photos before the rain that had decided to make a quick stopover while we were indoors having lunch returned again (otherwise the weather was absolutely fantastic).
It was when I went back to my hostel room to rest my feet and freshen up a bit that I ended up getting one of the best emails I have gotten in a long time…
My funding for next year is confirmed.
Considering how much stress this whole “will I/won’t I” have funding (as well as, in the case of the latter, how the hell am I supposed to scrounge up $25,000 to hand over to Harvard…oh yeah, you all read that correctly) had been weighing on me these past few months, seeing that message almost made me want to bounce off the walls. I was that happy. Needless to say, cocktails that evening at the Skyline Baratop the Radisson Blu hotel took on, at least for me, a rather celebratory tone. I normally don’t go for cocktail bars like this—or for particularly sweet or flowery cocktails—but I figured, why the hell not.
Plus, the view from the 26th floor was pretty fantastic.
Saturday (Day 2).
It was another day of walking (and eating…so much eating) on Saturday, this time with a quick breakfast of barley porridge with jam and a latté at Rocket Bean Roastery, another local coffee roaster. The hearty porridge proved to be a good choice for the morning as well, and not just because I had two tours to look forward to that day.
I started with the 10h00 Old Town walking tour, one I had not originally planned on doing, but was ultimately convinced based on what the other girls I had met had said about it. And honestly, I had no idea what I would have done otherwise, so I ultimately made a good choice. This time, our guide was someone who had a background in history and urban planning, which proved especially advantageous when discussing some of the…controversies…around some well-known sites in the area (his complaint about how the inscription on the House of the Blackheads should read ‘replica’ instead of ‘restoration’, considering the whole building was pretty much destroyed in WWII and later by the Soviets was both amusing and also…real).
Going on this tour also proved useful in another way, mostly in how it determined how I would end up spending my time between this (which ended at 11h30) and my Central Market tour at 14h00. The guide was taking questions as the tour wrapped up, during which time someone asked about shopping. I had been looking for places to find some souvenirs (especially locally-made jewelry, since I’ve decided that’s my thing now), but had had no real luck so far. It being Saturday, our guide suggested anyone interested should cross the river and head to the small, but vibrant, Kalnciema Street Market (held only on Saturdays). The walk was about 45 minutes long, but hey, I had time to kill, and figured it would be good to see a different, more local (and yeah, more hipster….ha) part of the city while I had time.
As mentioned, the market was rather small, but there were plenty of vendors packed into the space—a sort of courtyard surrounded by small wooden houses/buildings—, most of whom were selling food. If I didn’t have more eating in my near future, I probably would have bought my lunch right then (or hell, maybe even an ice cream cone…it was pretty warm out), given how tempting all the smoked meats, cheeses, cold salads/dips and pastries looked.
Luckily, there were a number of crafts vendors around who caught my eye as well, and I ended up walking away with two new pairs of earrings.
By this point, as you can probably imagine, I was feeling very hungry. Thankfully, after another 45minute walk back to the other side of the river, I didn’t have long to wait until my food tour started.
As with my food tour in Budapest, this time I was the only person in the group who was traveling solo. Unlike that time, however, this time the group consisted not of me and an older British couple but of me and a group of 8 Swiss-German men out on their yearly guys’ trip. Don’t get me wrong, they were all very nice…I just found the situation hilarious. 8 tall dudes and one tiny me.
I’m going to apologize in advance here for the quality of the photos, since the lighting in the market halls wasn’t exactly the greatest, but here’s a basic rundown of everything we tried:
The one thing I do wish was that there were some opportunities to taste some local beers or other beverages along with this tour, but as with the bike tours mentioned earlier, those tours don’t really kick off until the start of the tourist season in May. I did, however, end up having enough room to have a quick half-pint of IPA (of course) at Alkimikisbrewery, which also happened to be on my way back to the hostel.
Dinner that night was with two of the three girls I had met the day before at a restaurant recommended by our tour guide from the Alternative Riga Tour. Mildawas slightly more upscale than the other restaurants/eateries I had visited thus far, but still incredibly affordable for the quality of food served. The specialty here is Baltic cuisine, albeit with a slightly more refined/modernized aesthetic. We were served a complimentary starter of chicken liver mousse before our main courses arrived.
For my main course, I opted for the whole trout with a whipped sour cream served over slices of baked potatoes and beets. I don’t eat fish incredibly often, since when cooking at home, I like to make dishes that will last me for several days, and ordering fish at a restaurant can be rather expensive, but this locally-caught trout only cost 14euros (and no way was I going to pass that up).
The fish was delicious. Fresh, light, perfectly cooked, the garlic in the sauce drizzled inside it perfectly complementing the tangy sour cream. For dessert, I chose to try the Latvian rye bread pudding with dried fruits, honey, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Our tour guide from the day before had mentioned this dessert, although his description (mix rye bread with a bunch of water and sugar until you make a paste and then eat it) left something to be desired. This version though was quite nice, especially in how the honey, spices and dried fruits mixed with the slightly more peppery rye.
Of course, all this was washed down with more beer.
After a quick nightcap of blackcurrant-flavored black balsam (the local liqueur, basically vodka and a bunch of herbs mixed together that are meant to have “health benefits”. The original is quite…special. This one is slightly better) at a nearby bar, it was time to say goodbye to the Old Town and the new travel friends I made and head back to the hostel to catch a tiny bit of sleep before my very early flight the next day. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to take two weekend trips during the spring school holidays (even if that cut into my dissertation work time a tad). It’s nice to be able to treat oneself once in a while.
As to upcoming theatre-related things, I’ve got a number of shows on deck that hopefully will inspire an urge to write some commentary (if not include them in my final dissertation). Other than that, there is yet another trip also coming up mid-month, though this time it’s to a place I have been before (albeit about 6 years ago) to visit some pretty legit people.
Until then, here’s to blackcurrant black balsam (and last-minute frantic lesson planning):
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that any teacher with a sizable pile of papers to grade (and a dissertation to continue writing) must be in want of a vacation.
Conveniently, I just so happen to be in the middle of the second of my two week work holiday (because, yes, a two week winter/ski break between the Christmas holidays and spring beak is a thing…a very wonderful thing), so even if I hadn’t ended up going anywhere, I would have at least gotten in a bit more rest than usual. Fortunately, though, trains exist, and Paris just so happens to be incredibly well-connected.
I had been pondering over the idea to take a day trip somewhere for a while, even before the holidays started, and to be frank, the unseasonably (and incredibly concerning) warm weather we had leading up and into last week only made that urge stronger. Faced with a desire to get the hell out of the city for a bit, but with absolutely no idea as to where I wanted to go, I sought out the advice of friends, one of whom recommended Rouen, a city about 1.5 hours outside of Paris. With tickets being only 20eur for a roundtrip, the choice to go was pretty much made for me. Even better: I managed to convince another friend to venture out with me.
Rouen is the capital of the Normandy region, and was also one of the most thriving and prosperous cities during the Middle Ages (this may explain why there are so. Many. Cathedrals…or not. I don’t know; I’m not a historian). It was also the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and yes, before you ask, the city does lean into that a bit. She may have been the “Virgin of Orléans”, but she died in Rouen, goddamnit.
And no, before anyone asks, we did not visit any Joan of Arc-related sites or attractions.
Other than Joan, Rouen can also lay claim as a birthplace or residency of several other notable figures: dramatist/tragedian Pierre Corneille (whose Médée is still one of the few neoclassical French adaptations of a Greek tragedy that I actually like), novelist Gustave Flaubert (Rouen also plays a pivotal role in Madame Bovary), and artist Marcel Duchamp. Monet also spent a considerable amount of time in the city, painting, among other things, a well-known series of the Rouen Cathedral. The city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts is also quite well regarded (and conveniently free for anyone who wishes to visit the permanent collections).
There are several trains leaving from Saint Lazare that head out in that direction daily, some with a final stop in Rouen (the rest usually will continue on to Le Havre). Regardless, the TGV ride is swift and calm, and before you know it, you will have arrived at Rouen’s central train station.
Now, despite the fact that it was once a former commercial hub, Rouen today is noticeably more calm and quiet (and more sparsely populated) than Paris. It is also much smaller than Paris, the historical center in particular, meaning that it is relatively easy to walk where one wants to go and see pretty much all the sites in one day (though I’m sure there is more to be explored…perhaps on another visit!). The historical center is absolutely breathtaking, not just in the incredibly well-preserved medieval architecture, but in the variety of colors on the building façades (think pinks, mint green, blue, basically almost any deviation from the usual ‘white walls/brown timber’ combo, though there were plenty of those as well). I, however, being a bit of a dummy, did not take photos of very many of said buildings, so…yeah. Just imagine it yourself.
Arguably, one of Rouen’s biggest draws is its cathedral, made famous both by Monet’s paintings as well as the fact that it suffered considerable damage following an Allied bombardment in WWII (in one of their operations leading up to the D-Day landings). Unfortunately, a few of the stained-glass windows were damaged beyond repair, but the loss of a couple of windows is more than made up for by the intricate details on the front of the building.
Inside the cathedral there is a self-guided (though, given that it is still actively used as a church, religiously-bent) tour on the building’s history, including some panels detailing the various periods during which the 800+ year old building had to undergo some kind of maintenance. There are also a number of tombs inside, whose inscriptions gave my friend and I an opportunity to test our skills in Latin (spoiler: we were only middlingly successful). Overall, though, I’d say that was a good way to spend the morning.
On our way to lunch, we also popped over to admire the large clock that almost every blog/travel guide post I looked up about Rouen prior to my visit had a photo of. It was very impressive.
I’ll get to what we ate in the end, but before I do, some shots of what ended up being our primary afternoon activity: a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (did I mention it was free??).
I don’t think there were any temporary exhibits on, or if there were, they weren’t ticketing them because we were able to get in to see everything (or pretty much everything…we may have inadvertently skipped one or two rooms). The museum is not particularly large, so seeing everything isn’t exactly a Louvre-sized feat. What I was most excited for, however, was the small impressionist collection. As far as art movements go, impressionism still ranks up there as one of my favorites, mostly because of how much the landscapes/environments/colors it favors contrast with my own life. If cubism–as much as I also like and admire it–inspires almost overwhelming feelings of dread knowing that WWI was just around the corner (and having a feeling that maybe the art was anticipating the violence a bit as well), impressionism brings calm, openness, a feeling of being able to breathe again. I can still recall the last time I was in Giverny close to six (!) years ago and I went to hike a bit on the hills behind the village, away from the tour groups. It was a clear day, and from where I stood, I could see all the way out to where the Seine, much wider and more peaceful than in Paris, stretched along a green valley. Insects buzzed. There was a breeze. If I perked up my ears a bit, I could hear the soft grunts of the horses roaming around in a nearby pasture. It’s easy, from a perch like that, to understand why someone would want to build a house and create art here.
Anyway, back to the museum. The collection may not be as impressive, say, as the one in the Orsay, but the advantage here, again, is that there are fewer people to deal with.
As we did not have a ton of time ahead of us after leaving the museum, the remainder of our little trip was spent walking along the river, enjoying the sunshine (even though, again, that should absolutely not have been a thing in February).
For those who want to know where (and what) we ate:
First stop was coffee at Citizen Coffee. Yes, I did look up coffee shops before going because that is a thing I do now (really though it’s because I do not like to take chances that early in the morning when I’m not even properly awake). They use Café Lomi beans there, so the quality is pretty much guaranteed. I, for instance, can confidently say that I was very happy with my flat white.
Lunch (our only full meal in the city) was at L’Espiguette, a recommendation from the friend who suggested I visit Rouen in the first place. A lunch formule of a first and main course runs at around 14eur. I opted to have a glass of wine with my meal, which brought my total to 19eur. For a starter, I opted for leeks vinaigrette (my friend got a slice of rabbit terrine), and then a steak (with a copious serving of fries) for my main. The fact that I still felt super full when I finally arrived back home (even after all the walking we did post-lunch) is a testament to what a good (and delicious) value this place was.
And thus ends the musings on the mini-vacation to Rouen.
Other than that, my vacation has pretty much consisted of me writing (and reading…yes, because the theoretical research never ends) and trying to push the looming thoughts of lesson planning and grading out of my mind (they’re creeping back in now, unfortunately). Thankfully, this last trimestre goes by insanely quickly, what with another two weeks off in April and May being…a weird month (a lot of random national holidays). It still never ceases to amaze me how quickly this year has been going by, especially considering all the ups and downs (and dear god were there some mental downs) that accompanied my first period of furious, financially-motivated writing.
These next couple of days are going to be slightly emotionally tricky, to be honest. In sum, a very good friend is moving away early next week. I’m not particularly good at goodbyes, especially when it concerns people I have become rather close to (and when the leaving also implies the further shrinking of my rather small social circle). This, of course, is one of the things that comes with being an expat, getting accustomed to the flux of people coming and going (and hell, I was one of those people coming and going once). I’m trying to make more of an effort of going to more things other than plays on my own though, if nothing else than to just be around people. Feed off their energy a bit, try to find other communities I might want to try and be a part of (the nice thing about being an expat, especially in a country I have no familial ties to: I can constantly readjust and reinvent myself as I see fit).
I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, how quickly it seems to have been passing these last few weeks, and consequently how very little time is left between me and a very important deadline in February.
Yes, it’s the dissertation thing again. I’ve managed to write quite a bit, but always with the feeling that I should be doing more. On the other hand, I have started to move away from the feeling that I need to hit a certain page number before I can turn in this chapter draft (mostly because I feel like since I haven’t really been consistently communicating with my advisor since the summer, I should have a good chunk of something to show for it. Is 25 pages enough for that?). Teaching hasn’t really put in as much of a dent on my work as much as getting around my own frustrations has. It’s still so much easier for me to write a post for this blog—arguably a far more personal form of writing—than it is to hack out this chapter draft. Maybe because I’m not exactly gushing over the topic of focus in it. Here’s hoping when I get to writing on my own theoretical ideas, the words will come out faster.
Time also figured pretty prominently in the show I saw on November 7th, Nachlass, piècessanspersonnes at the MC93, though I hesitate over whether or not it is even theatrical at all, rather than firmly anchored in performance art. The idea of this is that visitors are gathered into one of the venues smaller exhibition spaces which has been fitted out with a series of 8 rooms, each one dedicated to one (or in one case 2) individuals. For the most part, said individuals are all dead (and I leave the caveat in there because there were a couple who never explicitly mentioned that the existence of their presence in this exhibition space meant that they were no longer alive). Rather than let visitors enter and exit the rooms as they wished, a timer above each doorway indicated the time remaining for the current occupants to finish their visit, before the door would open, the previous visitors would file out, and new ones filed in. There was no particular order to follow. Other than one of the rooms that absolutely needed six people in it, if possible, thus causing the staff curating the event to herd people in its direction, so that everyone could experience the room as it was meant to be, visitors were free to wander as they wished. As I had set myself a deadline at which I had to leave in order to be able to make it to the high school in time for the start of theatre club (I attended on a Wednesday afternoon), I just made my decision based on which door had the shortest wait time listed over it after getting out of the previous room. I only ended up waiting longer than a minute (wait time could vary between 30 seconds and just over 5 minutes) a couple times, and at those moments, I would sit on one of the crates lining the walls next to the doors, looking up at the ceiling where a world map was projected, little pings of light marking another death somewhere in the world.
Yeah, not exactly the most sunshiny of performances.
What the pieces really rest on, though, is absence. Not total absence, at least not quite. Once the door begins to close on each of the rooms—decorated in a certain, incredibly meticulous way so as to reflect an aspect of the life of the deceased—, a recording would play in which the deceased would introduce themselves, and then address their audience directly as they began to talk about not just their lives, but their musings on death as well. Sometimes, we were invited to poke around a bit, other times to help ourselves to water or, in the case of one of the subjects who happened to be Turkish, loukoumia. But there’s an uneasy feeling that creeps inside you when you realize that not only does the person to whom that voice that is talking to you now originally belong is dead, they are aware of the fact that their existence would continue on for a while in this manner, in this ‘present-but-not-quite’ manner. It’s almost like a proto A.I., a thing that tries to sustain existence beyond the human.
But it can’t ever really reach a human presence because of this chasm that exists between us and it in terms of precisely this idea of interaction. It can influence us, make us perform certain actions by tapping into a desire to know more or to cultural notions of hospitality, but we cannot do the same with it. The recording still plays even when no one is in the room. Our physical presence is required for the story to become that, otherwise it’s just a series of vibrations in a contained space.
Maybe this “play with no actors” is more about drawing attention to the material presence of our—as in the audience’s—physical existence than it is about musings on death. Who knows?
Thankfully, though, my past two weekends have been decidedly more upbeat.
First up was a quick trip to Grenoble to visit a friend of mine who I met while we were both living at CitéU. She and I had been talking for a while about me coming down to visit, and thankfully our dates finally coordinated to make it happen.
And other than a bit of rain during the start of our little day trip to Lyon on the Saturday of my visit, the weather was basically perfect.
I opted to take the Ouibus down instead of a train, mostly due to the fact that the bus was significantly cheaper. Clocking in at 8.5hrs though—including mandatory stops—it was significantly longer as well, but thankfully the WiFi actually worked pretty decently, the seats were comfortable, and I had no one in the seat next to me (yay stretching out my legs).
I arrived late on a Friday night, and as Grenoble is a pretty small city, we opted to dedicate Saturday to exploring Lyon, another city I had not been to. Ticking off two new cities in one trip? I’d say that’s pretty good.
As usual, the visit mostly consisted of walking, with an incredibly filling lunch thrown in for good measure. I’m a bit suspicious that the slight cold I came home with originated at some point on this walk, what with the combination of light rain in the morning, and general windiness in the afternoon (though, thank goodness for sun). We had originally planned on visiting a museum, but as walking is free and the city rather large, we opted to stay outside and let our feet guide us. And good thing too because it was peak fall outside, and I was absolutely here for it.
Speaking of lunch, this meal marked the first of two weekends full of meals that were delicious, but otherwise all but void of any kind of veg. Don’t get me wrong; I like a good sausage or stew as much as anyone. But, not going to lie, I am very much looking forward to chomping down on a whole head of broccoli once I get back to Paris [side note: I’m writing this while sitting on a rather turbulent flight back to Paris from Budapest].
Lunch in Lyon was at a restaurant in the older part of the city, where they offered a set lunch menu for around 15eur. I started off with a rather sizable bowl of French onion soup (because something was needed to counteract the morning chill).
Then I moved on to a main course of boudin noir (blood sausage) with roast potato and apple. Now, I love a good boudin noir—it’s probably up there among my favorite sausages—, but to be quite frank, I do think there’s a limit as to how much of a good thing you can have, particularly when it comes to portion size.
Honestly, I could have done fine with just one of the sausages, about half the potatoes and the apple, especially considering the large soup I had just finished eating. Food waste is such a problem, that it’s almost unnerving to see this quantity of food served for one person as part of a multi-course menu in a country where getting a to-go bag isn’t really part of the culture. Hell, even if I had just had the dish on its own, I probably still would have only been able to down half of what was on the plate. Anyway, all that aside, the dish was pretty good (though, last little nit to pick, a salad or something green would have been nice).
For dessert I decided to keep it local with a slice of pink praline tart.
I’ve seen many pralined items on offer in bakeries in Paris, but I never knew that this thing originated in Lyon. Lyon, however, would like to make sure you never forget its history with all things “praliné-d”, as the amount of pink emanating from bakeries is enough to last a lifetime.
As to the tart, it was actually quite good. The filling is essentially a kind of almond paste, which I’m quite fond of, and it wasn’t as overly sweet as the bright pink would suggest.
Given how full we were, even after walking off the meal with a trek around pretty much all of Lyon, we had no intention of eating anything for the rest of the day. Well, we did end up grabbing some veggie tartines at a bar back in Grenoble that evening, but that was more to have something to nibble on than to fill a pressing need for sustenance.
And in spite of all the walking we had done, we opted to go out dancing in Grenoble when we got back. Well, attempted to go dancing would be more accurate. After we bar-hopped a bit, we finally reached the pub where the dancing was, only to find it absolutely packed-in-like-sardines full of people. So, less dancing, more bobbing around in a 2m radius. The cheesy French music the DJ kept playing did keep things incredibly entertaining though.
The next morning, the sun was out in all its glory, meaning a short hike was in order. Grenoble sits in a basin surrounded by the alps, so the views from high up on the Bastille fortress were pretty remarkable (a highlight: getting a glimpse of Mont Blanc in the distance).
Lunch was sausage again (though this time a local one called a diot), and this time there was a hint of veg too!
And then it was back on a bus for me for another longish ride back to Paris.
The week was mostly quiet, save for some parent-teacher conference meetings (oh it is odd being on the other side of these things…). More accurately, the week was pretty much a countdown to Thursday night, when I was scheduled to head off again for another weekend adventure, this time to Budapest.
A couple months ago when I was thinking about what I would like to do for my birthday—which was this past Friday, November 16—, I started to toy with the idea of taking a solo weekend somewhere. This was partly inspired by the fact that I didn’t really feel like doing a deep clean of my apartment (or amassing any more chip bags…), but also by where my mental state was at the time, which in brief, was not exactly in the best place. In the name of practicing self-care, I decided, almost on a whim, to book a solo weekend to Budapest, a city I had always wanted to visit. Flight prices were reasonable, and quite frankly, I didn’t want to bother waiting for anyone else to confirm whether or not they were available to take the plunge and go.
And so I went on my first solo trip.
I have travelled alone to places before, but never to a place I had never been, and never remaining solo for this long. To be honest, I felt a bit nervous that I’d start to feel isolated, but it turns out a weekend was just enough time to get back in touch with myself without wishing for other people’s company.
Besides, I was really only venturing solo for one of the days I was there.
Originally, I was due to arrive at around 23h on Thursday night, but due to some flight delays, did not get in until 02h30 on Friday. This means I turned 29 in the sky, while grading papers. Being a teacher is incredibly exciting.
Arriving so late also meant I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked in order to be nice and refreshed for the food tour I booked as a birthday gift to myself, but eating things shook me out of any residual tiredness rather quickly. My group consisted of me, an older British couple, and our guide, a middle-aged Hungarian named George who peppered his talk with comments about how, as we all know, none of this meat and cheese and potatoes and bread (and lard…so much lard) is particularly good for the health, but how wonderful that fresh veg is so widely available to us now. I guess these are things that of course come up amongst the middle-age crowd (I suppose this counts as relating to one another), but I did find it hilarious that we were all in a general consensus about the importance of eating a balanced diet, and then our lunch happened.
Here’s what we ate (and drank) :
The older woman of the couple on the tour with me even offered to take my photo when we were sat down for cake, so now I’ve got at least a bit of proof that I did, indeed, have a birthday cake of sorts on my birthday.
Our tour concluded with a bit of wine tasting, where I discovered a dessert wine that I actually quite liked.
After the tour concluded, we all headed our separate ways, with me deciding to cross the Danube over to the Buda side of Budapest and taking a little hike up to the castle. Given how early the sun sets out there (like 16h…moving eastward definitely makes a difference), most of my time up there was spent attempting to take good nighttime photos on my phone, and honestly, I think I did pretty ok!
Then it was off to a quick trip to the Christmas market for some hot wine and some browsing before heading back to the hostel for dinner.
Yes, one of the perks of staying here was the free communal “dinners” in the evening. That word is in quotes for a reason that will become clear in a bit.
But, Friday night at least was lentil stew night, and even though I was still pretty full from earlier in the day, I’m glad I at least got some sustenance in me before heading out that evening to celebrate turning 29 in a way that did not involve grading papers on an airplane.
Along with two other people from the hostel (who were totally down to go out on our own rather than to the hostel-organized boat party that cost like 20eur (yeah…no), my night was spent at Szimpla, probably the most well-known of Budapest’s ruin bars. This place is like no other bar I have ever been to, mostly due to how absolutely massive it is. Like, I don’t even think we made it into all the different rooms. I will say that I had a pretty legit IPA while there, with a very…special name.
The next day—my last full day—I woke up at 10h, and started my morning at Massolit, a café I am convinced was made for me (I mean books + cozy plush chairs + good coffee = happy Effie. The poppyseed strudel helped too).
Afterwards, I made my way over to the Terror House, a museum dedicated to exhibits documenting the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary. As most of the material was in Hungarian, I opted to rent an audio guide for my visit, which—though it was a bit long-winded at times—did give an incredibly thorough overview of everything on display and the history behind it. This was the only museum I visited (and given that it was free for teachers, my recently-acquired Pass éducation was actually put into good use), and for those who are planning a trip to Budapest, I would definitely recommend making some time for it. Note though, that many of the images and videos shown—as well as the interviews with past political prisoners—are rather graphic in nature, so this museum may not be for every traveler.
By the time I was finished in the museum, it was getting on 14h, and I was starting to get a bit hungry. Thankfully, a bistro I had pinned on my Mapstr—Két Szerecsen—was only a ten-minute walk away. I ordered the chicken paprikash and a glass of red wine (though I can’t remember the region of Hungary it is from, just that the waiter recommended it), and settled in to a very cozy and filling meal before setting out on another long walk.
I started my post-lunch hike with a visit to Heroes’ Square, on the northeastern side of the city.
Before making my way back down to the river to see the Hungarian Parliament by night (and by “night” I mean 17h30).
I then decided to head back to the Christmas market for a last bit of hot wine drinking and shopping (yay new pair of earrings for me), and also to grab a chimney cake as a sort of last-night treat.
It was actually a good thing I did the latter because even though it was absolutely massive, and I couldn’t manage to eat it all, it did keep me full throughout the night, especially since dinner at the hostel was a bit more…special…this evening.
Yep, little pizza toasts. Which essentially became an odd sort of pan con tomate once they ran out of cheese.
Why was there no actual food this time around, you ask? Good question. Basically it was because the crew spent the budget almost entirely on making this:
With that though, I decided to call it a night early in order to be able to get at least a little sleep before heading back out today. This is going to be my last traveling weekend for a while, and honestly, I’m not too mad about it. I want to be able to be settled at home again for a good while now.
Especially since I’ve still got that thesis chapter draft to finish.
I really should be in contact more with my advisors…
Right, I know what you all must be thinking.
“Effie, that is clearly not Paris in that photo.”
Correct. In fact, I am currently writing this post from inside the main reading room at the New York Public Library.
Why am I here? Well, a family member is getting married this coming weekend, and since the wedding coincided with the Toussaint holidays, I figured I’d come out early and spend a couple days in one of my other favorite cities.
(And yes, it goes without saying that, other than seeing friends, a big motivation for spending a decent amount of time here was motivated by food. Especially pizza. And bagels. Seriously, Paris really needs to up their game when it comes to the latter. The pizza offerings are pretty good—especially if, like me, you really like Neapolitan-style pies—, but sometimes you just really want a bagel with cream cheese and lox and tomato and onion…)
As to the rest of my life, I’m not entirely sure why I let things (aka grading) pile up as much as they did, but between that and hacking through more chapter writing (albeit rather slowly…writing longhand first before typing everything up tends to do that), I haven’t really found a moment’s peace to commit to writing on the last five shows I saw since my previous post.
Given that, the write-ups are going to be a bit more brief than usual, as there is quite a bit of ground to cover and not a whole lot of time to cover it in. Besides, I’m not entirely sure that a multi-page treatise on each of the shows would be particularly attention-grabbing.
Anyway, let’s start with the first : Richard Maxwell’s Paradiso at Nanterre
First things first, despite the name, this play has nothing to do with Dante’s Divine Comedy (even though, as with Dante, this is the third part of a trilogy of works). What is presented here, rather, is an exploration of the post-human, that is, what remains in terms of form of expression after an eventual apocalypse. For this production, the playing area (I’m not entirely sure one could call it a ‘stage’ for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) of the salle transformable was covered with a white flooring, on the edge of which were arranged three rows of simple wooden benches. There were no raked seats, no ‘gap’ between the playing space and the first row of seats. We were all blended, or gathered, into the same delimited area.
Other than the benches, the space was relatively bare, save for a screen onto which subtitles were projected (the performance was in English). Oh, and a pickup truck. Yes, at the start of the show, the large factory doors were opened, and a silver pickup drove in to music that could best be described as at once ethereal and futuristic. The truck took a few turns about the open space before the driver engaged in the always frustrating endeavor of parallel parking upstage left.
And yes, before any of you ask, he did do that thing where you just keep backing in and out and slightly readjust the wheel so you turn like a quarter-inch, but even that isn’t enough so you pull out and readjust again by about a hair and…god it almost makes one want to yell enough already (if said person wasn’t also giggling at the sheer banality of this gesture).
Anyway, once the car finally stops, one of the back doors opens and out comes—or more precisely “rolls”—not one of the actors but a little robot. A little robot on a rudimentary four-wheeled apparatus, whose “eye” was what looked to be a web camera (but one from about five or six years ago). This is our first introduction to the piece: a machine who speaks in a cadence familiar to those who have ever played around with the read-aloud function on a word processor. Artificial, cold, precise, devoid of subtext even when the words actually being said could—assuming the “human” was not removed—have been spoken in such a way so as to convey some “deeper meaning about life”.
I put this last bit in quotes because one of the things the piece concerns itself with is precisely this question of “profound meaning”, especially once the human characters—four of them, an older woman, an older man, and two girls around my age—come in and start speaking in platitudes themselves, but in such a way that evoked the kind of stereotypical community theatre performance style parodied in Waiting for Guffman than anything that was supposed to convey something beyond “these are phrases that sound important but in the grand scheme of things really don’t mean much.” It is the human transitioning into its own obscurity through speech. Hell, the ending—if one could call it that—involved the “family” getting back into the car and driving back out into the street, leaving the little lonely robot in their wake. Said robot then began printing a very long receipt of text, though not the text of the script itself.
There was no curtain call, no bows, no moment of congratulations for the cast. Eventually, as the robot kept printing, some audience members tentatively got up to inspect the writing, constituting an “end” if there ever was one.
I mean, if the concept of storytelling is a human construct, do its conventions still hold once humans disappear?
While you all ponder that…let’s move on to Mama by Egyptian playwright Ahmed El Attar, performed on the main stage of the MC93.
Ooooh boy where to start with this one…
On the one hand, the exploration of the dynamic between mother and son in Arab/Mediterranean/Levantine (or even former Ottoman) cultures is one that resonates rather well with me (Greek and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures have quite a few similarities as far as this is concerned), and deserves to be told.
On the other hand, is it really necessary to, again, place the onus of change onto the backs of women? One of the things El Attar discusses in the show program is the manner in which he feels women in his country are still subject to certain levels of oppression brought on in large part by the distinctly patriarchal/machismo culture in which the society in which they live is structured. Women counteract this, he states, by forming close, influential bonds with their sons, especially the eldest, as it is through the eventual installation of the son as the head of the family that the mother can hope to gain some level of power or control. The problem, however, is that this keeps perpetuating cycles of oppression, as though the mother has an illusion of power through the level of control she exercises over her son, she still does not have access or opportunity to gain equal footing with him, or other men, in general.
What I have an issue with, however, is not necessarily the fact that El Attar pinpoints a certain kind of internalized misogyny that manifests itself in this, but rather his insistence that the responsibility for change is found solely in the mother, as men, he states, will never change and we cannot hope for them too.
Look, whether or not a mother realizes that what she does could perpetuate cycles of sexism/patriarchy/oppression does not change the fact that her efforts will amount to very little if there is not a general overhaul of the sociocultural structure in which she lives by those who actually have power, aka men.
Also, I mean if we want to talk about giving women more of a voice and influence, perhaps we could start with the fact that this play presented a story centered on Egyptian women, but that was written not by a woman but by a man. Give women a seat at the table, let them speak of their experiences themselves, of how they see their place in the world, and then we can talk.
I was not really a fan of this production, but I don’t attribute this entirely to the fact that reading the program notes before the show started left a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, the show was in Arabic, but the screen on which the subtitles were projected was placed so high up—the stage is rather tall at the MC93—, that unfortunately reading the subtitles to understand context sometimes meant missing some of the subtle body language cues on stage (and thus subtle evolutions in different characters’ relationships to one another). Second, apparently El Attari is a fan of a collage-style of playwriting (this is the first of his plays I’ve had the chance to see, so I can’t speak to how it did/did not work in other cases), which did not quite work for me. I have a feeling this may have something to do with the fact that the sound cues—our signal as to when a transition was happening—were incredibly off, but the pacing seemed very inconsistent from one vignette to the next, resulting in a piece that was more incoherent than I think it had the intention of being. If we are meant to view in the course of this production a shift in family dynamics as one generation yields to the next, there was a distinct lack of urgency in which every action was carried out that it almost made one want to ask what the point of all this was.
Oh, and then at one point a woman came out and sang an Arabic rendition of R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. Yeah.
Right…show number 3: Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine, this time in the smaller theatre of the MC93.
I’m going to be really brief on this one: melodrama is not my thing. Neither, apparently, is symbolism. I don’t care that there was ice all over the stage, meaning that every time someone had to move at anything faster than a careful walk it became an exciting game of “Try not to slip and break yourself”. I don’t care that there was some rather interesting projection work being done. Having to listen to someone slowly moan out variations of “Oooooooooh nnoooooo” or “Ooooooooh deeeeaaaaarrrr” is not my idea of a fun two hours.
Yeah…we’re just going to chalk this one up to “sometimes we really just don’t end up liking things, and maybe this will just be a play that we will forget about when it comes time to writing the chapter on the MC93 for the eventual dissertation…”
Onto number 4: Affordable Solution for Better Living, at Nanterre (in the design workshop)
Less a theatre piece than a dance/performance art piece with text, this production centered around a single performer (dressed in not one but two of those sheer looking body suits) who spends the first half of the hourlong production building an IKEA bookshelf.
I mean, you really cannot get more banal, sterile or supremely ordinary than a white IKEA bookshelf, or more precisely than the assembly of a white IKEA bookshelf. The thing is designed to be so impersonal so as to fit within nearly any lifestyle. It is a thing without much substance. A pure object. And this man—or rather humanoid creature, as the first of the two body suits has the actor’s face printed on the bit that zips over the head, bringing the whole thing crashing smack-dab into the uncanny valley—places it together with an intricate precision of gesture, any deviation from which results in an error message from a disembodied, robotic, female voice that also at times offers reassuring messages such as “You are a responsible citizen.” “You are doing well.” “Only those who sleep don’t make mistakes.”
After the bookshelf is complete, stagehands unload a few other pieces of white/beige IKEA furniture, and the stage space is thus transformed into the approximation of a “living room” (I’d say the Platonic ideal of a living room, but I don’t quite feel much like discussing Plato’s cave allegory at the moment). The “human” then slowly sheds his first “skin” revealing a second body suit with muscle fibers printed on it underneath. His body as a whole remains recognizable as that of a “Human”, but only a close approximation of one. As he interacts with/climbs on and over his furnishings, he only moves closer to becoming a non-human figure than a fully realized person.
He does, however, have a voice, though it, like the female voice earlier in the piece, is disembodied, emanating from a mic hanging over the stage. His body reacts to his words, but the absence of a moving mouth to bridge the final connection between the voice and its source renders his particular “human-ness” divided.
And finally show number 5: Winter Family’s H-2 Hebron, again at Nanterre, and, as with the previous show, in the design workshop
Here is a quick sum-up of this show: a documentary theatre piece in which one woman speaks the words of four different individuals. It’s polyphony and contradiction, battles for control of a narrative, in the site of a singular body.
Given that the show centers around the conflict surrounding the increased Israeli colonization of the city of Hebron (which both Israelis and Palestinians claim ancestral ties to), the choice to structure the show this way actually makes quite a bit of sense. To be honest, it took me a minute to realize what was going on, as hearing contradictory statements coming out of the actress’s mouth without visible change in inflection to signal a change of character almost made me think my comprehension skills had become inexplicably rusty. Thankfully, I caught on as to what she was doing after a bit.
The space was set in a bi-frontal structure, with the middle being occupied by a long table, covered in a black cloth. This, we would discover, was where the city of Hebron would be built in miniature over the course of our “tour” there. Indeed, one of the inspirations for the writing of this play came from the artists’ experiences encountering various tour groups (oh yeah, war/conflict tourism is a thing) while on a visit to the city, as well as noting the differences not only in information but rather in the way certain information or history was framed. We then, as an audience, were transformed into tourists, though given that we were presented with multiple, often incredibly contradictory narratives, at once, the responsibility in the end was put on us to determine what “truth”, if any, there was to be gained about the situation. There is, in this, an assumption that we who are seated there before our singular yet multiplicitous/fractured “guide” are smart enough to think critically enough in order to unravel the complexities of the situation, which to a certain degree, I find to be a bit more effective than some of the more straightforward didactic theatrical presentations I have seen over the past year. Given the situation at the center of the play, however, I question the limits as to how far such an approach can go. There is a question of active colonialism at hand, after all.
Right, with that, we come to a close on another round of “Effie hurriedly writes things down before she procrastinates even more and the task becomes almost insurmountable”. If you need me, I’ll be downing another coffee…and staring at a small pile of papers that need grading. Work never ceases, even on holiday.
A few things to update on this go-around, one of which will probably explain more than others why I’ve been even more silent than usual…again.
I’ve moved apartments.
Other than my prospectus, apartment hunting has been one of my biggest sources of stress for the past month and a half or so. For those unfamiliar with the way it works here, renting an apartment in Paris is, for lack of a better word, a bitch, even more so when you’re a foreign national. Chalk it up to the fact that demand far exceeds supply – which is the case in pretty much all major cities in the world –, itself exacerbated by services like AirBnb, but trying to find a new place here, or a place at all, demands a lot of patience.
Basically, what it almost comes down to is apply for literally everything in your budget range, put together an impeccable dossier (which includes documents such as a cover letter, CV/resumé, last three pay slips or a school acceptance letter if you’re a student, bank statements, bank statements from your guarantor, passport copies…you get the idea), and then hope that your application gets chosen out of the…several…other applicants.
What makes it more difficult if you’re a foreign national is the question of the guarantor. The majority of property owners will, in fact, not even consider your application if you don’t have a guarantor who lives in France (not necessarily a French citizen, but someone who lives in the country, and more importantly, has a French bank account). The general course of action at this point is to go through an agency, but that always involves added (and many times overinflated) fees, which are not accessible to everyone.
The rise of the start-up industry in Paris, however, has provided something of a solution to this problem. Now there are several agencies that offer up their services to stand in as guarantors for foreign students or young professionals. Usually there is a fee of some sort involved with this, but more often than not it is nowhere near what an agency might charge.
This is the route I ended up going, and good thing too because it allowed me to avoid an agency all-together.
The apartment I have now is actually one formerly occupied by a friend of mine who was going to be moving out and getting a place with his girlfriend at the beginning of summer. As things move very quickly in this city, apartment-wise, I made it very known several months ago that I wanted to take over the lease on his place, hoping that the owner would take my offer instead of putting the apartment up on the market. Clearly she did – and quite frankly, signing up with a guarantor service helped – and now here I am.
I’m actually not that far from my old place – just a couple stops on the metro. What’s honestly the weirdest bit to me in all this is that I’ve actually changed arrondissements from the 20th to the 19th (though the edge of the 20th is like…a block away).
Moving was…not as annoying as it could have been to be honest. To save money, and also because I had a lot of time on my hands, I decided to do it all myself instead of hiring a service. Major, MAJOR thanks have to go to the boyfriend however, who sacrificed sleeping in on a Saturday to help me lug three giant suitcases to the new place (on the top floor, no elevator, again…though it is one floor less than my old place).
Also thanks to him for attempting to fix my IKEA bookcase that I…hastily…put together, but let’s be honest, putting those things together can be such a pain in the ass that at some point you just want it to be done and over with rather than impeccable. Or you know, actually stable…oops.
And of course, this past Friday, July 6th, the official day that I both turned in my keys and became a full-time occupant of the new place, I celebrated with a housewarming. I am now the proud owner of an exorbitant amount of chips and bottles of wine. Seriously though, if anyone here wants any chips, please come take them. Seriously.
On to another update : my prospectus. It has been accepted. It is officially filed in the system. I am officially ABD (all but dissertation). Now I just have to write the thing.
A propos of all this : if anyone wants to read the prospectus, I will gladly send it to you. I get asked about what I work on all the time. What better way to explain what it is I do than to read this thing.
In the meantime, some other things I’ve been up to.
I went down to Marseille for a weekend at the end of June, for one thing. Due to a bit of a mix-up in terms of scheduling (namely the friend I was meeting forgot to use 24hr time when telling me what time his train/his girlfriend’s flight were arriving so I could check out tickets, meaning I would be arriving a good twelve hours before they did) I ended up having a bit of a solo adventure around the city.
I have been to Marseille before, but last time I was there it was with the NYU Paris program back in 2011, so my memories of the city were pretty vague. And even though the weather was hot as only the Mediterranean sun can make things, I ended up spending the majority of the day walking.
I started off the day with a quick stop at Épicerie L’Ideal to grab a quick lunch (potato and green bean salad with ham, all drizzled in a very nice olive oil) before making the trek up to the cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde. This is actually the one thing I do remember doing the last time I visited, and it was nice to be able to marvel at the place again…especially the little boats hanging from the ceiling.
Oh and also all the German tourists. Literally. There were so many of them there that day.
After sitting and enjoying my lunch in a patch of shade, I made my way down the hill, around the port of Marseille – which, what with all the boats docked there, made me even more impatient for my upcoming return to the homeland that is Greece next month – and over to MuCEM, or the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. This space is absolutely gorgeous, especially the exterior architecture. I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.
To be honest, at this point in the day I was getting a bit tired, especially considering that I had not gotten very much sleep the night before as my train left ridiculously early in the morning, so I didn’t quite register too much with regards to the exhibits currently on display. I will say that the one focused on the history of agriculture in the Mediterranean was rather interesting, especially the display of different artifacts from various Mediterranean cultural traditions, along with excerpts of traditional folk songs being played in different parts of the room. One of the first ones played was a Greek folk song about gathering water from a well. Not going to lie, my ears perked up hearing it.
In any case, by the end of the day I wanted nothing more than to sit and do nothing, so I ended up killing time at the train station until my friend arrived. Then it was off to the airport to pick up his girlfriend, and then off to his family’s house where we would be spending the weekend. Doing nothing. Well, doing nothing and going swimming. And eating. It was wonderful.
Another highlight : going to an all-night event at the Musée du Quai Branly in conjunction with their expo on nightmare and monster imagery in East Asian cultures (though the focus was more concentrated on China, Japan and Thailand). As the event was free, there was quite a crowd at the beginning of the night, but one of the perks of choosing to arrive later was that the crowds – many of them families with small children which…why – started to dissipate very quickly.
There were some cool light and sound installations in the gardens to set the mood (and also made me wonder why they didn’t wait until October to do this because what better time for a haunted garden than Halloween). There was also a silent disco which, to put it lightly, could have been better organized. I mean, is it really that hard to put up signs indicating which line is to pick up and which one is to turn in headphones? No. Thankfully the disco was a blemish on the beginning of the night rather than the end because the expo itself was excellent. And at times even a bit frightening (looking at you small room in the J-horror part of the exhibit that was projecting images of the girl from The Grudge just standing there…also a wall of tiny baby doll heads). Totally worth the walk to catch the night bus at 4am.
I’ve also got a new restaurant to add to my list of places : Les Niçois. As the name suggests, this place specializes in food from the south of France, and also offers a pretty good lunch deal of a starter + main or a main + dessert for around 16euros. I ended up going there to meet a friend/fellow Harvard French PhD candidate, my suggestion to grab lunch there being primarily motivated by the fact that it was hot and I wanted fish.
And fish I got.
I started, however, with a gazpacho, while my friend ordered the grab salad with grilled prawns.
We both ended up going for the grilled salmon with summer vegetables and pistou (kind of like a pesto) for our main course, and I think the fact that we devoured both our portions rather quickly pretty much confirmed that we made the right choice.
We did, however, decide to forego dessert there, instead opting to head down rue du Temple to Pastelli Mary Gelateria, a small shop owned by a Milanese transplant (Mary) who not only makes all her gelato in-house, but also uses only seasonal, organic ingredients.
I thought deciding on a couple of flavors would be a challenge. Then I saw that black sesame was on offer. I also asked for pistachio to keep within the nutty flavor profile. Best decision ever. This gelato was wonderful.
And that pretty much catches us up to now.
A final highlight : yesterday I headed back to Cité U for another reunion with the old gang, which also included a surprise birthday celebration for one of them. A few rounds of Molkky helped us work off a bit of the delicious apple tart that stood in for a cake.
And then I took a long walk home. A nice thing about that now: I no longer have to climb up the monster of a hill that is rue de Belleville (or rue de Ménilmontant for that matter) to do it. Thank goodness.
So I guess I needed a week to process seeing Hamilton before writing about it.
Let me get right to it though: I loved this show. Hands down, definitely deserves all the hype that is still surrounding it. Really, I can’t think of what else to say about this that hasn’t already been repeated ad infinitum, other than, yes, it was definitely worth avoiding listening to the cast recording so that I could experience everything fresh in real time.
And yes, I want to recommend everyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to see it to grab a ticket, but this show is still incredibly prohibitively expensive. Welcome to one of the (many) problems I have with the musical theatre industry in the United States. The other major one of course being the fact that one gets the impression – especially when one doesn’t live in a major theatre city like New York (hell, especially New York) – that musical theatre is theatre in the US. That is, that to be a theatre-lover is necessarily to like and want to do that kind of theatre. Granted, when musical theatre is some of the only kind of theatre most people have access to – if they have access to any theatre at all -, it is easy to get the impression that that’s all there is. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people here where I’ve had to say that no, I have not heard of such-and-such underground company in New York. Why? Because I never lived in New York, nor do I go there often enough to be able to take the time to discover/stumble upon such-and-such group. Aside from visiting family back east, whereupon a visit to New York would almost always include a ticket to a matinee, my theatre exposure was, other than what we did in school, whatever came through the local community theatre stage. And nine times out of ten, that was musicals. Musicals, especially the old standbys, make money. And when you’re constantly teetering on the edge of the abyss in terms of funding, getting butts in seats is pretty essential to survival, so creativity and innovation kind of goes out the window. It also leads to the creation of a sort of gatekeeping culture, in which being a ‘theatre kid’ means having memorized the entire catalogue to every show ever, and being able to belt out the latest show tunes at the drop of a hat.
Honestly, there’s only so many times you can hear “La Vie Bohème” or “The Bitch of Living” before you want to tear your hair out. But maybe that’s because for a long time I felt out of place because I wanted to do something, to follow something other than all that.
As imperfect as the system is, I will say that a major advantage of the French system of funding and subsidizing the arts is that situations like those seen with Hamilton where an $800+ ticket became almost normal don’t happen. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had conversations with people here before about the effects of the incredible lack of State support for the arts in the United States, and even though Hamilton is something of an anomaly even by American standards, there is something rather disturbing about the fact that throwing down just over $100 to see a Broadway musical is almost expected.
Speaking of things being prohibitively expensive…I’m pretty proud of myself for how not expensive this little trip to London turned out to be. Staying in a hostel helped. Eating on the cheap was even better.
Not going to lie though, I think one of my favorite things was this tiropita + Greek coffee combo I had at Ergon with my cousin just after I arrived. There aren’t really any Greek cafés in Paris (pity…), and although there are numerous places where I could buy Greek products, sometimes I do wish there was a place where I could grab one of my preferred indulgent breakfast treats of tiropita + frappé. Of course, until I decide in a moment of pure impulse to drop everything and throw myself full-force into opening one, I’ll settle for this.
Ok fine, the next morning, my friend, Caitlin, who came down from Sweden to join me in this little adventure, and I hit up another Greek café, although this time instead of another Greek pastry, we split a cinnamon roll.
Other food highlights include: dinner on the first night at Yalla Yalla, a Lebanese restaurant located down an alley in Soho that also provided a bit of entertainment in the form of a woman doing what looked like moving her furniture into her apartment via several back and forth trips on a pedicab.
An Ethiopian curry lunch at Borough Market the next day before the show, followed by some wonderfully spicy lamb vindaloo and an assortment of other curries later that night for dinner definitely helped fight off the (annoying but also kind of expected because…London) cold.
And of course, because it’s London, we had to stop at a pub for some fish and chips.
Another wonderful thing about London, free museums. We took advantage of this on our last day there, first by checking out the Tate Modern.
Then by heading over to the National Portrait Gallery, where I finally got to see a portrait I had been wanting to see for a long time.
And also one that, let’s just be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting.
Some people might wonder if going from one major city to another really counts as a vacation, but honestly, considering I hadn’t been out of Paris since I went to California over the Christmas holidays, I was pretty much down for anything at this point. Besides, getting out of the city to go…anywhere…is a recharging act in and of itself. Hell, even the fact that my return train back to Paris was delayed by 90min (no, not because of the ongoing strikes; an electrical problem), meaning I had to sprint to make sure I caught the trains I needed, couldn’t put a damper on my little holiday.
And then of course it was back to work. We’re in the home stretch at the high school now, which is fantastic on the one had because soon I’ll have even more time to get back to my own work, but chaos on the other hand because I did a silly thing and assigned mini writing assignments to all my classes to turn in after the break that I now have to grade…oops.
Tuesday the theatre workshop I’ve been involved in for the past month had our final presentation, but hopefully I’ll find a way to fill that little performance-void in my life again soon. It’s hard to stay away for long anyway.
A new art space opened up in Paris a few weeks ago, that I had been wanting to check out with another friend of mine, but our schedules kept getting crossed until finally we were able to head over on Friday night. The Atelier des Lumières is located in a former ironworks factory on rue St Maur in the 11th arrondissement. Its aim: render artistic works more immersive and accessible through the use of digital technology. While I can definitely get behind the immersive aspect, I’m not sure the 11,50eu price tag was really worth it, considering all the expo consisted of was a room that projected a (admittedly rather impressive) digital art expo on almost every exposed surface. Currently on view is an exhibit on Klimt, which, if you want to inaugurate an immersive art space, was a rather good choice in subject. We definitely enjoyed exploring the space as the different art works projected above, below, around, on and over us, but the lack of visible informational context to accompany the projections was a bit disappointing (the informational panels that were available for consultation, were a bit hidden in a random corner of the mezzanine area, and could have perhaps served better were they placed in the lobby before the exhibition entrance).
After the expo finished, we ended up grabbing dinner at a small restaurant nearby, and chatted with the owner a bit about his new neighbor. Apparently, before its official opening, the Atelier (which is run by a private company, hence the ticket prices) invited local business owners and families for a visit. The restaurant owner and his wife attended along with their young daughter. While we all agreed that in general, the ticket prices left something to be desired, he did mention that his daughter was now pointing out all the posters advertising the gallery space and exclaiming excitedly that she recognized the Klimt painting depicted on them (“The Kiss”, for those wondering). So, if nothing else, at least it’s getting kids excited about something they might not have been exposed to otherwise.
Saturday was a bit quiet (and yes, this does count the little demonstration against the current occupant of the Élysée Palace), and today was rather on the relaxing side as well, starting with brunch at L’Heure Gourmande with Anne.
Followed by a stroll up to La Fontaine de Belleville for an iced coffee to accompany my grading spree (which, yes, was actually incredibly productive).
‘What in the world is the Victory of Samothrace’ doing outside of the Louvre?’
Well, this is just one of the many rather endearing quirks about Montpellier, a city I don’t think I would have visited had I not known someone who lives there…which I do.
But before I get to that, a bit about the theatre piece I saw on Thursday night:
I was intrigued by Melancholia Europa (Une enquête dramatique) primarily because of the title: really, talking about a melancholy Europe seems particularly timely to me…wonder why. The chance to finally have an excuse to go to the Cent Quatre – the former home of the city undertakers up until the end of WWII, then a garage until its refurbishing/reopening as an arts center in 2008 – only further added to its appeal.
And let me just say before I get into the rest of my thoughts on the show – which, spoiler, I was mixed on -, I really, really loved that space. I’m going to be heading back there again this week, so I will try and actually remember to take some photos of it. Suffice it to say that, as far as former warehouse/factory-turned-arts spaces go, this one seems to have a keen feel for its new identity. Not only are there several theatre spaces on the premises (there was at least one other show going on the same time as ours, I believe), the space also houses a café/resto/bar (though this is pretty standard), rehearsal spaces, galleries, and, of course, the ubiquitous organic food market. This last point merits its own discussion on the passage of the organic movement from fringe to part of the capitalist machine, but that’s for another time.
Anyway, the play.
The basic premise was that we were invited in to the offices of a group of journalists/researchers grappling with the question of fascism – its roots, how it manifests/spreads, how it has evolved…or not – through the lense of Hannah Arendt’s work on the banality of evil. Although the show referenced the emergence of neofascist movements both in France/Europe and elsewhere (especially the United States), the figures examined in detail were high-ranking Nazi officials, in particular Heinrich Himmler.
There is a word that describes what it is to catch yourself almost at the point of recognizing something that could resemble humanity in someone so absolutely evil. That word is “unsettling”.
Far from rehabilitating those like Himmler, however, the play presented little tidbits about their daily private lives in order to highlight the ordinariness – the banality, if you will – of these otherwise almost unthinkably evil people, the fact that what they did could happen again, easily, anywhere.
And although moments like this were thought-provoking and effective, I’m still a bit puzzled in terms of what, exactly, the show intends for its audience to do with them.
This might be because, given how incredibly Brechtian it was (and a bit of disclosure: I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Brechtian-style theatre…I think it lets its audiences off the hook far too easily), the play’s political bent, its call to motivate audience action was very apparent. At the same time, and I am going to sound like a broken record on this, I’m not sure that maintaining the frontal stage/audience relationship really worked for this. There were moments when I felt that I was more in a lecture hall than part of something that – from what I can gather – was meant to rouse up a desire to act. Maybe this is a personal bias, but as far as theatre – any theatre really, but political theatre especially – goes, I don’t want to feel safe or secure as an audience member. Maintaining a sense of spatial order, I think, allows for a certain distanciation on the part of the audience, which, although keeping very much with Brecht’s desired alienation effect, also allows for a certain sense of ‘Not I’isms to creep out. As in the ‘Yes I can observe the suffering of the working class, but I, a middle/upper class capitalist who has the means to buy a ticket for this show am not one of the contributors to the problem, seeing as I am here learning and observing. Then I will promptly return home to think about things. Whether anything comes out of this thinking remains to be seen’ kind of distanciation.
I’ll say this again probably, but, if working on Genet for so long has influenced me in any way it is in the fact that theatre should not make you feel secure in your position whether in the building/room itself or outside it. It is a balancing act, a threat of chaos. No one should be left unscathed from it.
But now on to more upbeat matters.
Unfortunately, given the very cold, very wet weather this weekend, there wasn’t much done in terms of outdoor exploring. Luckily, Montpellier is a small city, so I was able to see most of it – at least the older parts. The fact that there were Christmas decorations up made the whole city look like the coziest place ever, especially when those decorations involved strings of lights twinkling above narrow cobblestone streets.
Oh, and of course, the Christmas season also meant a visit to the local marché de Noël, where I finally got to try aligot – otherwise known as incredibly cheesy, buttery mashed potatoes – for the first time! I swear if it wasn’t so unbelievably unhealthy for you, I’d eat that almost every day to keep warm.
Come to think of it, I think I pretty much ate my weight in chocolate and butter this weekend, what with that Christmas market visit, plus breakfasts of crepes and Nutella, and stops for chocolat chaud and cake (the final café visit before my afternoon train back to Paris today):
Thankfully, the butter/chocolate overload was tempered by a dinner of roasted fish (dorade, for those wondering), roasted potatoes and chard on Sunday evening.
I’ll close out this post by mentioning what was, perhaps, one of my favorite quirks about Montpellier: the Place des Grandes Hommes. This is a sort of rotunda – adjacent to a mall – around which are displayed statues of great men (and one woman) who influenced history. Charles de Gaulle is there, of course, along with some others, like Lenin:
A truly unrecognizable FDR:
And of course, Mao Zedong, who, irony of ironies, is standing directly in front of a giant supermarket megastore (Casino is a supermarket chain, not, you know, an actual casino):
Silliness aside, though, Montpellier was really rather adorable, and it was nice to get away from the city for a bit, the cold weather notwithstanding. Now I’ve just got to think about working off all that butter and chocolate before I head back to California for the holidays…
This is going to be short and a bit scattered, but I think I only slept a total of 6 hours the past two days so bear with me.
Friday was relatively low-key, as I wanted to make sure I got a decent night’s sleep before waking up at the crack of dawn on Saturday. Due to staying on a skype call/meeting longer than I should have (yes, I take full blame for this), I did not get to sleep until around two, giving me only to hours before I had to get up and get myself ready to head to the train station.
That’s right everyone. I got up at 4am.
‘But, Effie,’ you, being a reasonable person are probably asking, ‘why the hell would you need to get up at the ungodly hour of 4am?’ Good question. My answer is that the train my friends and I were taking left from Massy-Palaiseau, not from one of the many, many TGV/SNCF stations within the city. Massy-Palaiseau for those who do not know, is south of the city on the RER B commuter line, aka at least an hour away from me. As I had to be there thirty minutes before my scheduled departure time of 7:30, the 4am wake up seemed like a reasonable idea. And it was. Except for the not sleeping thing.
I’m not going to talk about the train ride because I spent the whole 2.5 hours of it attempting to sleep. Needless to say, my breakfast of a croissant, tartine, orange juice and café crème upon arrival in Bordeaux (all for the low price of 6.50eu, the first sign we weren’t in Paris anymore) provided a very welcome burst of energy.
The plan for the day was, after eating a quick breakfast, renting a car and making our way to a few sights in the Bordeaux area. As we were lucky to have a sunny, pleasant day to work with, we opted to go by the sea – because really, how many more chances would we get before fall/winter chills really set in?
First stop was Arcachon, a seaside town about 45 minutes away from Bordeaux. If it weren’t for the light breeze in the air and the occasional sweater sighting, you’d think the summer season was still in full swing. Everyone was enjoying lunch en terrasse when we arrived, and as it was the middle of lunch time, we parked ourselves at a table at one of the many restaurants lining the seashore and tuck in to some fresh, and very tasty bivalves.
Afterwards, we strolled along the beach for a bit, and I found a few more specimens to add to my shell collection (although I do wish there was some sea glass around as well):
It was a good thing we had a satisfying lunch (yes, we ate things besides just the oysters) because our next stop would pretty much exhaust all of our energy.
Behold, the Dune du Pilat:
This is the tallest sand dune in Europe, and naturally draws a lot of visitors, given its close proximity to Bordeaux and Archachon (only 10 minutes or so from the latter). Although there were clearly visible stairs we could have taken to reach the summit, we opted instead to trudge up the old fashioned way. The view from the top, however, made it all worth it.
In case you were curious, yes we did climb down to walk along the shore, and no, there were no stairs to help us get back up to the top again (which we had to do in order to get back to the entrance where we parked the car). As we wanted (well, I wanted) to get back to Bordeaux before the sun fully set, and as our legs were all already exhausted, we chose to abstain from walking the entire length of the dune, although this was something a few other groups of people seemed to have opted for.
Alas, even with our careful planning, a traffic jam on the road back meant that daylight would pretty much be almost gone by the time we dropped our things off at our hotel. I was a bit disappointed by this, as I only had one day to see Bordeaux, given I had to be back in Paris by noon today, but I did manage to get a couple of decent-ish looking photos.
After a late dinner and a quick stroll by the river, we headed back to our rooms to turn in, whereupon my two girlfriends and I (who were sharing) found a rather…interesting design feature on the bathroom door
This morning, I was up again at 5am, and after a quick shower was on my way back to the station to catch the 7am TGV back to Paris and my Shakespeare monologue class. And let me tell you, working on Shakespeare while only partially coherent is a rather…enlightening experience.
I of course rewarded myself with food. First, a croque monsieur and noisette coffee at Ten Belles :
And then with a black sesame éclaire from Boulangerie Utopie:
Any guilt I had about consuming these (especially the éclaire) was immediately assuaged by the fact that I walked from my class to Ten Belles (so Opéra to Canal St Martin), Ten Belles to the boulangerie, and then the boulangerie back to my place (and this bit involved going uphill).
I think to give my body a bit of a break, I’m going to forego setting an alarm for tomorrow, and just spend the day reading at home (oh and grocery shopping). We’ll see how that goes.
Every year, almost without fail, one or more of the following messages will show up in my inbox/messenger :
“Hey, I’m heading to Greece! What should I do?”
Usually, these requests are followed up by questions almost exclusively about the islands, with one or two inquiries about Athens (because of course one must trek up to the Acropolis at least once), and although I’ve been to several islands and enjoyed my visits there, my heart still lies firmly in that large peninsula to the south : the Peloponnese. I suppose it partly has to do with the fact that both my parents grew up/have roots here – my mom comes from a small village near Kalamata, and my dad, although he grew up in Athens, spent a good part of his childhood in the seaside town of Finikounda – , and consequently, my trips to Greece when I was younger were almost exclusively confined there. But with the financial crisis, as well as the many conversations around tourism in Greece that it inspired, I felt my affinity for the region grow stronger.
Because although the islands – especially this year – are boasting record levels in tourism, the mainland has sort of crept along slowly, seemingly left behind for promises of wild parties, picturesque white houses, and idyllic beaches, which is a shame.
And so, I’ve sort of taken it upon myself to try and convince as many people as possible to stay on the mainland a while.
Although summer 2017 is coming to a close, I figured I’d write a “Peloponnese appreciation” post anyway, partly to convince people to reconsider just sticking to the islands, partly because every year – and especially this year – that I come here, I always leave with a new sense of vigor, the kind of calm yet present energy that only comes after you’ve disconnected from the world for a while. Or, in my case, after you’ve been almost obligated to withdraw into yourself for a bit and just let the world encompass you, interact with you, make its presence felt on you.
The Peloponnese I know and tangentially grew up with has two faces. On the one are the mountains, basically the cradle of the Greek Revolution. The villages used to be more lively here, but what with many families having left – opting either for a life in Athens or, as with my family, in America – over the years, things are pretty quiet. The landscape is wild, rugged, with hills that almost dare you to climb them, and the occasional monastery that seems to be hanging on to the side of a cliff within an inch of its life.
Oh and the olive oil. You can’t really go wrong with some excellent, cold-pressed olive oil from Kalamata. If we can talk about terroir (a taste of place) with wine, then we certainly should be talking about it when it comes to olive oil, and especially Greek olive oil. I have a soft spot for oil from Kalamata. It’s slight greenish tinge and olive flavor is pronounced where others are neutralized. Let me put it this way : when I step outside in my mom’s village in the late afternoon, there’s a certain crisp, comforting smell of dry grass, pine, and a hint of oregano in the air. If I can taste that in my olive oil, I know I’ve found a good one.
My mom’s particular village is located in the region of Arcadia, where the closest city of note (other than maybe Kalamata), is Sparta. While I would not necessarily enthousiastically recommend anyone visit Sparta – the Spartans, as their name suggests, did not leave much behind in the way of ruins or artefacts -, if you are ever lucky enough to be invited to a village panigyri (celebration) in the immediate area, and especially for one held on or around August 15, go. Stuff your face full of salad, cheese (usually graviera but sometimes feta), and the ubiquitous roast pig that always accompanies the August festivities. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Greeks eat a good amount of pork. The souvlaki pictured above? Pork. Indeed, pork souvlaki and gyros are pretty much standard here, with chicken oftentimes being the only alternative option.
After you’ve had your fill of pork, cheese, salad and beer comes the dancing where you can work all of it off. If you’re lucky, there will be a live band. Unfortunately, this year our village had to make due with a DJ, although this did mean we got a quick, if very random, disco break a little after midnight (prepare yourselves, these things can go until 2 or 3 in the morning).
The second face of the Peloponnese is one that is perhaps more in line with the clichéd, though not entirely fictitious, images of Greece that dot tourists’ imaginations. It’s where the ‘fingers’ of the Peloponnese reach out and meet the Aegean Sea, that impossibly blue body of water where I honed my swimming and sandcastle building skills, where I got lost in Hemingway, Vonnegut, Genet, and Hugo, and where I developed a seasonal addiction to atherina – small white bait that’s fried and eaten whole like french fries. Pop a couple in your mouth, crunch the thin, flimsy bones down, and take a sip of ouzo. All thoughts of those emails you really need to send out (at some point) eventually begin to fade away.
And of course, the advantage of having our summer home where we do – at least for me – is its proximity to the ancient theatre at Epidauros. Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you, but even as someone who studies contemporary French theatre, I have never been to the famous summer theatre festival at Avignon (yes, I know, shame on me). Why? Because I’ve always been here, in Epidauros, watching performances in a theatre that was initially built as a sort of therapeutic outlet for patients at the nearby hospital (yes, even the ancient Greeks had the sense to realize theatre’s potential positive effects on mental health, although their citing of it as a cure for physical ailments is…dubious). Performances are held here on Friday and Saturday evenings during the summer Athens/Epidaurus theatre festival, but even the tours during the day/off season are worth it for a chance to explore the space and witness first hand its amazing acoustics (yes, you really can hear a pin drop on the center of the stage even if you’re sitting on the top row). If you do choose to see a performance here, know that they can be hit or miss depending on the play/company performing, but friendly ticket prices means you won’t be grumbling about having had to throw down $100+ for a dud. Another plus is that surtitles in English have become standard at Epidaurus in the last few years, so don’t worry about not being able to follow along (although, if the performance is exceptionally good, you might just end up ignoring them). We were lucky this year in that the show we saw – Aeschylus’ The Persians – was an incredibly engaging, well-paced, production, whose recalling of an almost ritualized performance style served to create an almost trance-like environment where I found myself at once wanting to draw closer to the center of the stage, into the actors’ energy, as well as acutely aware of the scent and rustling of the surrounding pine trees, nature cocooning and encroaching on us. A final bit of advice though : see a tragedy. Comedy, even when done well, can very much get lost in translation, and when done poorly (looking at you, 2012 production of The Clouds) can be so dull it almost makes you wish you were watching a rock grow. Not grass. A rock.
But before I end this somewhat rambling post, I want to go back to the sea. There’s something rather special about the particular beach I grew up going to. It’s not the sand, nor the warm, calm waters, nor the fact that it was (and still somewhat is) a locals only spot. It’s the fact that I can walk about 50 yards – yes half a football field – before I have to start treading water. And I’m 5’3″. I generally feel very comfortable swimming out in open water in the Agean, but here it’s almost like being home again. There’s a certain freedom that comes with diving down under water and instead of tiles all you see is sand and a tantalizing expanse of gradiante blue. It almost makes you want to float on your back and let the sea carry you where it may, dropping below the surface every so often just to catch a glimpse of that impossible blue color again.
Because then your stomach rumbles. And you remember there may be atherina or at least a choriatiki or ‘village’ salad waiting.
At the time of writing this, I’m winding down on my time here, as well as a little over one month out from the official split. To be honest, this vacation was not nearly as carefree as my trips to Greece usually are, nor was I expecting it to be. There were enough high points to counteract the (very) low ones, and though I am not magically healed, I can at least feel myself working towards something that could be called ‘healing’. Time is helping. Distance, perhaps even more so. There is still a feeling of dread that creeps in every so often, but it’s starting to grow fainter.
And I’m not sure, but I think that it may have something to do with the fact that I was in the ‘homeland’ for a month.