A weekend in Montpellier (91 – 95)

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Welcome to Montpellier

 

I know what you’re thinking.

 

‘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:

 

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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.

 

Montpellier:

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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):

 

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Coffee Club, Montpellier

 

Thankfully, the butter/chocolate overload was tempered by a dinner of roasted fish (dorade, for those wondering), roasted potatoes and chard on Sunday evening.

 

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Behold, my plating skills

 

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:

 

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A truly unrecognizable FDR:

 

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Not entirely sure about the proportion of the hips here…

 

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):

 

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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…

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Day trip : Bordeaux and Arcachon (41 – 43)

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.

Anyway.
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?

That song from La La Land is stuck in your head now. You know the one I mean…
 
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.
Month ends in an -r : must be oyster season.

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):

Honestly, there were so many shells littering the shoreline, I could’ve made one of those weird lamps with them if I wanted.

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:

Well, more like a very small fraction of it.

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.

Forest on one side…

…sea on the other.

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.

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Bordeaux by night

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

It’s like they heard the word ‘bathroom’ and immediately thought ‘Yes, saloon doors.’

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 : 

Their bread is going to be the death of me; it is so good.

And then with a black sesame éclaire from Boulangerie Utopie:

Black sesame might be a weakness of mine.

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.

A love letter to the Peloponnese 

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.

Pictures of food usually help. I mean, do you see those tomatoes?!
…not to mention these figs (which I could quite literally eat all day).

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.

Souvlaki in Corinth : the gateway to the Peloponnese. A traditional stop on the drive down from Athens.

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).

Quiet village sunsets. Before the mayhem begins, naturally.

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.

Almost.

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.

So ends my love letter to the Peloponnese.

One day in Reykjavik

There were two thoughts running through my head the moment I took my first step off the plane at Keflavik Airport.

1. I really should have reconsidered trying to stay longer and camp out a bit.

2. There is something very serene about looking out into a seemingly never ending stretch of nothing.
Reykjavik is a rather small city, so seeing it in a day is very doable. Conveniently, there is also luggage storage available at the airport (via Geysir rent-a-car) for a reasonable price, so we – as in, my mom and I – did not have to lug our giant bags into the city. And at just shy of $50 total for 24hr storage for 5 bags, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal.

Getting to Reykjavik

Back when I booked my tickets, I had reserved seats on Flybus to get from the aiport to the. Reykjavik bus terminal. The ride is about 45 minutes long, and once at the bus stop, you have the option of either taking a cab downtown, walking, or – what we did – taking a smaller shuttle that drops you off at your hotel/guesthouse (Flybus provides a list of places they offer drop-off service for, which you can find when reserving a spot on Flybus+).

So you’re in Reykjavik. Now what?

As I mentioned before, Reykjavik is rather small, so seeing most everything in a day is definitely possible. There are some buses and tour groups that can take you around, but, as is my habit, I prefer exploration on foot.

One of the advantages of this quasi-flâneur (or flâneuse) approach to doing things is that it allows for you to stumble upon some of Reykjavik’s wonderful street art.

As well as some rather interesting bike racks :

Of course, we also took the time to see some of the more well-known monuments, like the Sun Voyager :

And the Harpa

We were only able to take a look around on the ground floor of the building, but for those interested, they do offer guided tours (or you could also choose to see a concert).

We also took some time to stop in at the National Gallery of Iceland (they don’t allow photos inside, so no pictures, unfortunately). If you choose to visit here, note that your ticket also grants you admission to the Asgrimur Jonsson Collection and the Sigurjon Olafsson Museum.


Where (and what) we ate


As I meantioned earlier, Reykjavik is expensive, and this can somewhat affect how/what you plan for your meals. Since we were only there for a day, we didn’t worry too much about strategizing going out for meals with trips to the grocery store, but I will say that we did forego ordering any alcohol during our meals out (because that’s where things can get realllly pricey).
Also, as we were planning on going to bed early in the evening in order to get enough rest before waking up at 3am to catch our shuttle back to the airport, we stuck to two full meals: brunch and dinner.
Brunch was at a lovely bakery called Sandholt (Laugavegur 36). Here you can either grabbed some baked goods to go (just grab a ticket at the entrance and wait for your number to be called), or you can do as we did and eat in.

Cinnamon bun and flat white at Sandholt

We shared a cinnamon bun (because you kind of need to in the Nordics – and these are particularly good ones), and I ordered some skyr with granola while my mom opted for some eggs with fresh-baked bread and a small salad. Everything was absolutely delicious, but due to how busy it was, our order somehow got lost in the shuffle. Thankfully the staff was very attentive, and the mistake was promptly rectified.

Brunch pretty much filled us up for the day, although I did insist on stopping for some coffee at Reykjavik Roasters later that afternoon (pretty sure I would have passed out mid-walk if I didn’t) :

Macchiato at Reykjavik Roasters

Dinner was at a place called the Sægreifinn (or Seabaron) near the old Harbor. I chose this place on the recommendation of a friend, and I’m very glad I did because  not only is this place a good value, the food is rather excellent as well.

The main thing on offer are fish skewers, with most of the fish being local (although they will tell you which ones are not if you ask. We ordered a couple of different kinds (my advice: get the monkfish) and split a bowl of lobster soup to start (an appropriate choice, given the chilly wind that picked up right before we got there).

Monkfish and veg skewers at Sægreifinn

And for dessert : chocolate

We pretty much just went to sleep (or at least tried to sleep) after that. It still blows my mind how late the sun stays out when you’re so far north.
I really would like to come back to Iceland again someday. There was this moment when I was sitting by the Sun Voyager, looking out at the hills across the bay, and I could feel this pull towards them, this urge to plunge into this open expanse at once full of life and blissfully empty. Maybe that’s part of the whole renewal thing.