Saturday, May 22, 2010

Au revoir Paris

View from our hotel
View from our hotel with "Sacre Coeur" in the background
Through the glass in a Paris cafe
Can't go home without one of these
"Burghers of Calais" at the Rodin Museum

We'll be home soon! Here are a few photographs from our sunny, warm visit to the Rodin Museum, a cafe, and the Eiffel tower.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Saga of the French toll road

Aix-en-Provence to Paris

The story ends well because as I write we’re catapulting to Paris on the TGV (Train avec Grand Vitesse) (Train with great speed). As I wrote in my May 17 post “every traveler knows that carefree is a kind of complacency that is blind.”

Last night before our departure we carefully plotted our course from Aix to Avignon, consulted Google and peacefully fell asleep. This morning about 15 kilometres into our 56 kilometres drive we make a big, French toll road boobo because we exited. We were looking for gas and misunderstanding the signs we found ourselves on the toll road to Marseilles. On any American freeway correcting this mistake would have felt like a sunny day: circle around, go over the overpass and get back on the freeway. Not so in France. The entrance to a French toll road is monumental and feels like crossing a border into a DMZ. Even on a good day I am apprehensive and rattled by the formality and lock step rigidity of the process.

At the toll booth we were more than mildly confused and pressed the button for help. The phantom in the dark glass closet spits rapid fire French, and finally barks, “Payee, payee, payee.“ (Pay!) We threw enough coins into the basket until he sweetly said, “Merci, bonne journee!“ (Thanks and have a good day.) As we entered the freeway my gut said, “wrong”: Marseilles is south and we want to go north. We took the next exit and left the DMZ.

We tried this road, that road, looked at the map, applied logic, raised our voices. Nothing worked.

We saw a gendarme (policeman) who had pulled over a motorist to give him a ticket, and stopped to ask for help. They were arguing, but I used the magic phrase of formal politeness that almost always softens the French aloofness: “Excusez-moi de vous deranger Madame or Monsieur, mais j’ai une question” (Excuse me for bothering you Sir or Madame, but I have a question) He turned, smiled, gave me the directions I needed, and I had a good look at his cute derriere in his form fitting royal blue pants, but Zut alors! (s--t) my logic was not French toll road logic.

What looked like an interchange on the map was not, and we had a train to catch in Avignon. Defeated, we turned around and headed back to Aix to start over. That’s when our luck changed, the skies opened up, and BINGO we saw a sign to the toll road to Avignon on a round about, and we were back in the game.

We had about 40 kilometres of relief until our Google directions to the TGV train station took over, and we entered Avignon city traffic. I was sure we’d missed our turn because our directions from Google were seldom accurate. I wanted to throw up. Then we saw the TGV sign, and cheered. Our last hurtle was finding the rental car return and that required circling the station like a hawk with the scent of prey, driving down cul-de-sacs, finding someone to give us directions, and finally seeing the green sign that said “Car Rental Returns” in minuscule type on a small green sign.

I will forever be thankful for all the convenient exits on American freeways, and take advantage of all the beautiful rest stops, and would I ever drive again in France? Bien sur! (of course)

Cezanne Route

Mt. St. Victorie from Tholonet


Cezanne, sometimes called the Father of Modern Art, was a local Aix-en-Provence boy who lived and painted with the silhouette of Mt. St. Victoire either on the horizon when he was in town or in his backyard when he was at his studio in the countryside. We saw it as we drove into the city from the west, from our hotel room we could see most of it by going to edge of our terrace and leaning out, and we drove a portion of the Cezanne route to get a closer view.

It’s an unremarkable, but dominant chunk of rock, and seeing the mountain it is easier to understand how he structured the overlapping gray facets of rocks to create his view of solidarity.

He did the same thing with his still life paintings with a tablecloth like mountain underneath the apples, oranges, wine bottles, pastries, and baskets he loved. Although he painted from nature he imposed his structure on nature, and that elegantly simple reversal forever changed the way artists saw the 2-dimensional plane of their canvas.

It was Picasso who took the baton from Cezanne, and ran back to his studio to develop cubism. I find it interesting that very few of Cezanne’s paintings are here at the central museum in Aix, and the ones that are are minor. The city father’s didn’t much care for his work when he lived here, and I’ve read that most of them still don’t.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

La Prochaine Sortie (The Next Exit)

Aix-en-Provence, France

We’ve been waiting for this day!? Oh Mon Dieu, the drive to Aix; two women and a rented Citroen with “Picasso” blazoned on its red paint. Under threatening skies, spitting rain, and two Michelin maps larger than me we got in the car and started the engine.

Driving in France is like speaking the language: only the rules, nuance, and idioms can make you understood. In our car there is no “P“ for park because stopping the engine automatically puts it in “P“, “N” starts the car, but only with the foot on the brake, and “A” indicates the automatic transmission that the car must be in to move forward. Mary and I often confuse verb tenses when we try to speak French and trying to go in reverse in “Monsieur Picasso Rouge (red)” is the same. Every time we put the car in reverse the wind shield is sprayed with fluid and simultaneously the wipers go on at a rapid, frantic pace. At first we were startled, then dumbfounded, and finally thrown into laughing fits every time it happened. We aren’t fluent, but we get by.

On American freeways you see signs that lead you to the exit: the first proclamation is at two miles, and the polite countdown begins until you are a quarter of a mile away. On French toll roads “La Procahine Sortie” means the next exit, but because "next" isn’t a way to mark miles you can grow old and forgetful getting to it.

I am happy to say that we made it to the small town of Boit to see the Leger museum, drove out of town, got back on the freeway to Antibe and negotiated city center traffic during the lunch rush hour. We went to Antibe to see the Picasso museum, but we failed to find it. After many circles around the city center we said, “the hell with it”, found the toll road and continued after a rest stop to refuel ourselves with a thin whisper of a tuna sandwich and bottles of water. With the specific driving directions and photos of the intersections to our hotel from Google maps, Voila!. We arrived at the hotel by 2:30.

Oh, we are proud of ourselves!

Fragments of Late Afternoon Light in Provence

We discovered the church in St. Paul as the sun was going down and the light was falling in from the upper windows on the thick, cool, dark Romanesque walls. There was Renaissance music floating in the background, and a solitary woman sweeping and cleaning the trays underneath the votive candles. Her scraping tool against the metal made a harsh counterpoint to the music.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Sun in France Stays Mainly in the South!

St. Paul and Vence in Provence
Advertisement for rotisserie chicken in Provence

St. Paul in the Provence region of France

A stellar, warm day spent in St. Paul and Vence that are two Medieval hill towns in southern France. St. Paul is touristy but Vence is a typical and traditional French village. The walls and surfaces of the architecture sing with age and history, and I long to live in them and with them. The Matisse Chapel in Vence is a quiet masterpiece of the master of the line. The 14 stations of the cross are simple and profound. No photographs allowed so I can't back up my claim.

Tonight we ate dinner as the sun was going down near the ramparts of St. Paul, and I ate a veloute of cauliflower with citron and black sesame seeds that was light enough to fly.
St. Paul in Provence

A Brancusi sculpture at the Foundation Maeght in St. Paul
Toledo, Spain, the home of El Greco

Tonight dinner as the sun was going down near the ramparts of St. Paul I ate a veloute of cauliflower with citron and black sesame seeds that would make an angel fly.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Red Picasso Van and Two Women

We arrived in Nice, France after a two hour, delayed, flight. We left Madrid and our hotel that was surrounded by blue/black, neon green stripped police, and the comings and goings of black Mercedes with politicians from Central America and Europe. The sun was shining, and the Icelandic ash cloud stayed out of our way. We were carefree and thought we'd be at our hotel outside Nice by noon. But as every traveler knows that kind of complacency is blind.

After asking a few questions in our rudimentary French we got on the bus that took us to "Europcar". There we rented a red, Citroen van named "Picasso", and headed out into the unknown frontier of French highways. Pablo was the only automatic on the lot, but we're learning to be happy with our arranged marriage.

Our goal was the town of St. Paul and the La Colombe d' Or (the Golden column) hotel. We figured out how to turn on the motor, both with and without windshield wipers and spray, how to put it in gear, and away we went.

On the surface we both were skeptical, but underneath we were as scared, confused, and disoriented as the bull in the ring in Madrid. We missed the turn on the first "round about", and returned to the airport for round two. We did not collect $200, but made the right turn and found ourselves on our way. I do not say "found" lightly however, because the roads on the paper maps look like 2-dimensional spaghetti that even this hard core navigator couldn't quite decipher. With the two larger than life Michelin maps on my lap for security, off hand directions in French from the Europcar guy, a quick guide to the French language, and a lot of adrenaline I focused on the road signs while Mary deftly changed lanes and cussed.

We overshot our goal and found ourselves on a narrow, winding road surrounded by forests. Up and down and around we went, and at one point we begrudgingly pulled outside our lane to make room for a bicyclist. Little did we know that we would meet him at the top of the hill where we found a turn out, and he directed back down the hill to our hotel. Merci, monsieur!

La Colombe d'Or is a famous hotel because of its art collection. Artists like Picasso and Leger came in the 1920's because the hotel owners would accept works of art as payment for their stay. If their walls weren't so full of art I would have tried to continue the tradition.

We had a typical French meal: spring radishes to dip in anchovy paste (my favorite- oh la la), greens in vinagrette, a main course of osso bucco, a selection of cheeses, and creme brulee with orange flavored grappe. Today has been like one of Picasso's cubist masterpieces: different points of views and time frames that can only form a complete composition by merging and dissecting with one another.