Friday, March 30, 2007

Plantagenets, plants, castles and caves

The cloister, Abbey of Fontevraud

All righty – last post on this...

Technically, this is end of day one, for one we realized we couldn’t get into the castle of Saumur, we hopped in the car and made our way to “Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud” (translation: Royal Abbey of Fontevraud).

Sadly, it was closed when we arrived, so we booked a hotel in the village and stayed there for the night (La Croix Blanche, which I highly recommend to anyone who finds themselves in Fontevraud l’Abbaye in need of a bed. Hey, it could happen). The place has been around since 1696 according to their card.

I won’t go into to much detail about the hotel, but they were extremely courteous, sitting Amynah and I in a separate dining area because they were afraid that the large group of people celebrating a family reunion would disturb us. They also had parking, which as a relief, as it meant I didn’t have to leave the car in the weird little Potempkin suburb that lay on the village outskirts.

All of the villages and towns we saw on our journey were of the same kind of beige limestone with black slate roofs (the slate roof is supposed to be a local trademark. Black slate roofs – you sure you want to go with that as your distinctive local selling point? Okay…). In the rain, the unrelenting limestone looks soul-suckingly drab. In the sun, it looks warm and inviting.

Fortunately, we got a bit of sun for our visit to the Abbey. The place has a fascinating history. It was founded by a hermit who, apparently not understanding what “hermit” means, decided to found a large religious community on a large hill not far from the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire.

The huge complex ended up hosting a community of nuns, another of monks, lay brothers, lepers and repentant sinners. All of it – even the men folk – was under the authority of an Abbess. The holder of that office was usually related to royalty in one fashion or another, and so the Abbey was pretty good at attracting some fairly influential patrons.
Richard, Couer de lion

These include a couple of historical Mega-Celebs: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart. Ricky spent very little time in England – most of realm was in fact in France and he was much more interested in looting his way around the Holy Land. In any case he is buried here, along with his Plantagenet parents, all of whose effigies are in the Abbey Minster.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, catching up on her reading

After the Revolution, the Nuns were dispersed and the place became a prison, holding some 1800 prisoners in some pretty horrible conditions (though, presumably not much more horrible than what the nuns endured, given that only one room in the whole complex was ever heated). In the 1960s it became a meeting facility and historic site.
The Judas Kiss - note the Nuns on either side. It was customary to depict the donors in religious art, sort of like "American Idol is brought to you by Chevrolet."

Abbey done, and faced with a debilitating long list of potential chateaux to visit, we asked our innkeeper for a recommendation. Without hesitating, he recommended Vilandry – “It has the most beautiful gardens – even this time of year, they are amazing.”
Vilandry Chateau

Ok then, Vilandry it is. Driving there was an adventure – Amynah foolishly recommended we take the highway route that was direct and recommended by our hotelier. I, using navigational skills honed in my numerous backwoods adventures, was confident that if we just followed the river we’d be fine. As if we were in the Rockies and I was Simon Fraser in an Opel or something.

When we arrived at Vilandry in the mid-afternoon; me, tense and communicating in monosyllables, Amynah grinding her teeth with the effort of not saying, “I told you so.” It was a pretty drive though – French highways are amazing.

The sky looked particularly changeable when we arrived, so we decided to hit Vilandry’s garden’s first. They were amazing, to say the least. I’d just finished reading a book in which Frederick Olmstead’s (he of New York’s Central Park and Montreal’s Mont Royal) landscaping theories were featured prominently. He would have hated this thing.

Everywhere, nature was controlled, boxed, categorized and slammed into little green cupboards. The hedges were perfectly shaped – I saw exactly one twig that was out of line.
Note the Maltese Cross in the centre

The gardens had various parts to them – some were purely decorative, though the flowers hadn’t grown in yet, the postcard we bought makes me want to return in two months time. Others were for herbs and medicines. There was even a hedge maze. Amynah, remembering the lessons from Carol Shields’ “Larry’s Party” better than I, turned left at the entrance. I turned right. She thus made it to the central viewing platform to mock me from on high as I floundered about, reduced to looking for trails of crumbs to find my way out.

The most interesting patch was the “garden of love” which consisted of four large squares, each designed to represent a different kind of love: passionate love (with a pattern of wounded hearts), while adulterous loves features horns and fans and is dominated by yellow flowers in season. Tender love has flames and ballroom masks while tragic love gets swords and blood red flowers, representing duels.
Garden of Love

All of this was due to Joachim Carvallo, a Spainard who purchased the place in the 1900s. He brought his considerable art collection and poured much of his American heiress wife’s money into the gardens. The family still owns the place, though they no longer live there. They did leave the art though, and much of it was spectacular, including an Islamic (or Islamic inspired) ceiling imported from Spain and painstakingly reconstructed.
Fancy ceiling

Next on the list (he said, breezily skipping the driving to Tours debacle) was the troglodyte village of Rochemenier. Turns out these are quite common here in France – we picked up a freebie magazine where one of the stories was a Better Homes and Gardens-style “I love my trogdo!” complete with all the glossy photos and Bauhaus type furniture that implies, only in a cave. Hole-based living is quite common – we saw a row of quite modern-looking dwellings whose facades were right in the middle of a cliff face.

Rochemenier, strangely enough, is nowhere near a cliff. Rather, one drives though the kind of rolling French countryside one sees in the movies before seeing a few scattered homes in the distance.

This is Rochemenier – or rather, the above ground portions of it. Two thirds of the town is below ground, even today. Probably this is a good idea – during the Thirty Years War this place was spared the incendiary fate of its neighbours because, after all, you cannot raze that which is not raised.
Trogdo village

The museum itself was not all that different than the “Here’s how the old timers did it” farm museums you might find in North America: a lot of old photos, farm implements, old cloths and the like. In addition, there was a small section debunking the negative connotation the word “troglodyte” has acquired, which they depicted with a couple of panels of a sputtering Captain Haddock from the Tintin books. Charmingly unpretentious.
Chapel nave

Chapel stairs

The most interesting spot was the underground chapel, converted in the 1600s into a chapel. It came complete with a staircase to the surface, a bell “tower” and a floor plan in the rough shape of a cross. There was no word as to whether it, like its above ground cousin, was dedicated to St Emerance, patron saint of the village and reputed to be able to forestall thunder and hail.

In addition, if you had diarrhea, she was supposedly the one to run to.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Apocalypse of Angers, as told by John Spencer

First stop of the Loire extravaganza was Angers, a town about 80 km north of Nantes, where we spent the night after our arrival in Paris (we spent the night in a cruise-boat themed hotel, incidently, complete with ropes on the wall and an awkward portal to the bathroom. I’m still not sure if Amynah’s repeated cries of “Yaaargh” were an attempt to get into the nautical feel of things or because she whacked her head on the faux water resevoir in the bathroom).

In any case, the less said about it the better. After finding our way out of Nantes in our rental non-diesel vehicle, the drive to Angers was fairly quick, especially as I inadvertently took the toll highway.

We had selected Angers on the off chance that a monastery there still had a relic of St John the Baptist, mentioned in a Medieval source I found on the Internet. I got quite the reaction in the Angers Tourism Office when I asked about that in crappy French.

“Has Angers a head of Jean Baptist?”

“Jean Baptist who?” she said, eyes widening.

“Oh, right… Saint Jean Baptist.”

Turns out the answer was no. We wandered over to the Angers Cathedral which, as with every Cathedral I’ve seen since arriving in Strasbourg, was a bit of a disappointment. To satisfy my history geekery, it did have a two-fer memorial to a sainted religious martyr (Martin, I believe) and victims of the Terror. That the deaths memorialized occurred ten centuries apart didn’t seem to discomfit anyone and was probably intentional to make a political point that now eludes me.
Wood carving in Cathedral. I don't who she's supposed to be.

More delightful religon/politics analogies were in store for us (and therefore you, dear reader) in the Angers Chateau. This is a big ass castle right in the middle of downtown Angers (such as it is) overlooking the Maine river.

The castle was originally built by a nasty SOB by the name of Fulk Nerra (972-1040), also known as the Black Count who, among many other charming exploits left his first wife by the clever means of incinerating her. He was also responsible for a number of the other castles that litter the Loire Valley, I suspect possibly because his charming temperament earned him a mortal enemy or two in his lifetime. One contemporary eulogized him thusly: “Fulk of Anjou, plunderer, murderer, robber, and swearer of false oaths, a truly terrifying character of fiendish cruelty, founded not one but two large abbeys. This Fulk was filled with unbridled passion, a temper directed to extremes. Whenever he had the slightest difference with a neighbor he rushed upon his lands, ravaging, pillaging, raping, and killing; nothing could stop him, least of all the commandments of God.”

In any case, the big attraction at Angers is the Apocalypse Tapestry, which my guidebook describes as being based on “cartoons” by the painter Jean de Bandol. It dates from the 1300s, and is a stunning 140 metres long, detailing with horrific gusto the delights described in Revelations.

Note the sceptre

The 100 years war was in full swing during the making of the tapestry and it was inevitable, perhaps, that some current events would creep into the weaving. As the narrator on my audioguide (who sounded remarkably like the actor who played Leo from the West Wing, which now that I've followed that link is a even more unsettling than I initially thought) explained, one panel depicts two beasts battling over a scepter with which they will rule over all mankind. The scepter is crowned with a fleur de lys and one of the beasts – the particularly nasty one representing the Devil, is depicted as having come from the sea – any parallels to the English being purely accidental, of course.

This one was Amynah's favourite, called the overflowing well. There was nothing to explain why they focus on that and not that the Angel is clearly flouting zoo regulations by feeding the ogre grapes.

After Angers we didn’t have any specific plans, per se, so we made our way south east, more or less towards a place called Saumur, which has a particularly fairy-tale like castle sitting on a cliff overlooking the Loire. Reputedly Réné of Anjou (“The Poet King”) called it “the castle of love,” which, if I’m not mistaken, is also the name of a seedy looking bar on the highway just past Rimouski.
Saumur castle

The one in Saumur attracted a similar crowd. Though it was briefly used by King Réné and St Louis, it later fell on hard times, hosting a number of aristocratic prisoners like the Marquis de Sade and then, in a further slide, English sailors.

Today it holds two museums, neither of which was open when we arrived. Amynah and I had to content ourselves with a quick jaunt around those parts of the ramparts we could get to (renovation work blocked us from the river side).

Ok, that’s it for now. Tomorrow: Abbey Road!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lord Louvre a duck

We were in Paris so that Amynah could attend her religious New Year’s festival (Navroz). As we’ve managed to see an embarrassingly small amount of France in the time we’ve been living here (though, to be fair, it took me until I was almost thirty to make it out to BC) we decided to use the trip as an excuse to visit the Loire Valley.

We had high hopes – the weather here had been topping 17 degrees almost every day for a week prior to departure with sun nearly all day. Needless to say, the day we boarded the train for Paris the temperature plunged to just above zero.

We’d been to Paris a few times before. Amynah has a theory on the city: namely it is great on odd numbered visits, horrible on even numbered ones. Last time we went was an even numbered visit in the summer. I was tired, homesick and cranky and managed to ruin it for both of us. This time, by Amynah’s reckoning, we should have had an excellent visit.

The stars for a good visit were not auspicious – in fact, they were not visible, what with the clouds and the rains and the hail. Amynah pointed out that my perception of Paris while I’m there is mercurial at best: one moment, I want to live there forever and even the subway maps strike me as resembling nothing more than colourful spider’s webs covered with a scattered dew of stations. Then one gets on the subway and can’t breath for the overpowering odour of urine.

Hotel Invalides

This time was no different. Most of the rest of our time there was spent picking up necessities – clothes for Amynah (and a new coat for me), eating what may well be the World’s Best Falafel in the Marais (where I also picked up something bagel like that was no substitute for Fairmount’s Sesame Covered Rings of Joy) and books. So, so many books. On the advice of Zack we went to The Abbey Bookstore, in the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne. It’s a Canadian Bookstore, with new and second hand books piled up to the ceiling. The organizational system would send any self respecting librarian into paroxysms of rage – I saw copies Romeo Dallaire’s “Shake Hands With the Devil” filed in four different sections.

We came away with a pile of reading material, from which I am currently reading “Napoleon” by Paul Johnson. Unfortunately that was less the biography for which I was hoping (I understand had an impressive career at some point a few centuries ago)
and more an argument with all the people who had written biographies of the man. So, if anyone wants an argument on why Napoleon’s legacy was the totalitarianism of the twentieth century, I’m you’re man. If anyone wants to ask me about Austerlitz or Waterloo, hey isn’t that Tom Cruise?

The Pantheon Dome, me trying for artsy

Shopping aside, we had decided that this was going to be the visit where we finally visited the Louvre. Amynah had been before, but I had not. I’m not a huge fan of mega-museums: I like them small and specialized, like the Medieval art museum here.

The Louvre (or at least what I’d heard of it) is sort of a three-ring circus of a museum, attracting all sorts of the kinds of superlatives that normally get attached to Las Vegas Hotels: “Miles of galleries! It would take three whole days to see everything! We have the actual freakin’ Mona Lisa! Juggling monkeys!”

Not to mention, I’m more than a little bit crowd averse and the lines to the Louvre are, I have heard, not unlike those at Disneyland (I’ve never been to Disneyland either, or a Las Vegas Hotel. Can you people just give me a bye on all these metaphors and analogies I’m tossing around?) The fact that many of these crowds would contain people who were affected enough by The Da Vinci Code to make the journey to see the actual final resting place of Mary Magdalene didn’t help my enthusiasm at all.

Nonethless, we showed up at 9 in the morning. The weather was awful – we had been caught in a hailstorm coming from our train the evening before, and the wind was cutting rather efficiently through my spring-weight jacket.

Lord Louvre a duck

I was surprised that our crazy strategy of showing up early during crappy weather meant that the place was relatively empty. I won’t go into a detailed description of what we saw. The Louvre used to be the downtown pad for the French Royals until the Bourbons hightailed it out to Versailles, which though considerably less centrally located, benefited from being a much greater distance from the open sewer that was the Seine.

We made a beeline for the floor with the Mona Lisa. Everyone I know who has seen this painting has always said two tings: there’s always a huge crowd there, and it is much smaller than they thought.

Thus armed with low expectations, I am pleased to report that the painting is in fact bigger than I expected and the crowds were surprisingly thin. Nonetheless, I felt a little sympathy for the older American lady I overheard asking her husband “So, why is this so famous?”

She’s right: everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like: she is the Coke logo of Art. Yet somehow, seeing the actual painting is still supposed to be an authentic experience, even when guards and velvet ropes are keeping you a safe five metres away. With all the buildup, one almost expects a transformative experience, or at least a wink from the lady. In reality, the Mona Lisa’s importance is less on its aesthetic value (it’s pretty drab, after all) and more on the legends that have built up around it.

After seeing her, Amynah and I poked around the rest of that floor, seeing a whole lot of equally interesting art, including this one which I quite liked (note the menacing shadow of the horseman in the background).

All right, I’m done now. Tomorrow, the Loire! (or the day after, maybe).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Upside down, wrong way round

It's a little backwards to start a travel log with the equivalent of a post-script, but here goes: I just got a phone call from the lovely people in Hertz's Nantes office, who politely asked me if I had filled up our rental Opel with diesel fuel. I had, I replied. It was not a diesel vehicle they informed me. I replied with an expletive or two. I owed them 75€ they said.


Anyway, I'll do a proper write up later, but in the interim, I leave you with the fruits of my ongoing efforts to get artsy with my camera. It ain't always pretty.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I don't know why I feel compelled to do this

No one has yet, in my long months of writing this thing, ever said "Geez Mark, you haven't updated for an entire week. What happened? It hurts us so when we are left without the benefit of your wise and witty words. Hours of our day are spent hitting our browser's refresh button, like a rat hitting it's feeder bar in one of Amynah's morphine experiments."

Despite never receiving such emails (would it kill even one of you to fake it, maybe?) I feel compelled to let you know that I won't be updating here until next week, as Amynah and I are off to Paris, followed by a tour of the chateaux of the Loire and their famed gardens which should be beginning to bloom nicely right about now.*

In the interim, I leave you this photo of the stained glass of the Cathedral.

*right, that's why I do it. For the chance to write intolerably smug sentences like that.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Raining on the parade

The main benefit to living on the fifth floor of an apartment that overlooks the main street of a town like Strasbourg, in addition to our amazing and frequently bragged about view of the Cathedral, is the theoretically excellent vantage it affords for viewing parades.

Strasbourg has been remarkably stingy on the parades so far. In fact, we have heard tell of only one: Carnavale. Supposedly it is not unlike Mardi Gras. They hold it late here as many of the floats and marching bands go from town to town on both sides of the border. We inadvertantly saw one a couple of months ago, across the border in Kehl. You will note by the giant nosed Rasta men depicted below, that they are not exactly politcally correct.

Amynah and I were delighted to discover a notice posted on our apartment door this week, warning us that our street was going to be closed down to allow for a projected invasion of roughly 2,000 witches, fantastical creatures and musicians traveling through town at the traditional 5 km/h on their customary floats (I will admit I was hoping the "Army of blond Frauleins with legs that go all the way to the ground" would make an appearance too).

Today we invited over our friends Cela and Leslie and their two kids, (Candadians who live in an impeneratrable fortress a suburb of Strasbourg) all of whom were looking forward to a bird’s eye vew of their first European Carnavale. We knew that the show started at 2:11 precisely (why, I don’t know) and should therefore reach our place at about three.

Three rolled by. Then three thirty. We heard nothing, and there were no crowds on the sidewalks outside. The kids started to get antsy. The adults started to get antsy. I started to pick fights with the kids and Amynah sent me to my room. Finally, Leslie ventured back downstairs and asked a passerby what the heck was going on.

Turns out that the whole thing had been cancelled due to high winds. They are scared of that sort of thing here, as the city is still fighting off a lawsuit arising from an incident five years ago where several people died at a city concert when a large tree fell on them.

Disappointed as I am by this (not nearly as disappointed as the kids or the 2,000 people that have been workin on their elaborate costumes and dances for this thing) I am still amused. The Montreal St Patrick’s Day Parade will be going on as I write this, despite snowstorms.

On the other hand, at least I am spared from reading the Montreal’s Gazette (I will be damned if I link to them here) desperately dull coverage of said event, which is identical every year: send out a pair of their most antediluvian columnists to hit an Irish pub: “First we went to O’Dipso’s, where I talked to Paddy O’McPaddigan. He told me the Irish are gods among us, then he served me a Guiness or six. Then I went to another pub, where I drooled over a couple of college chicks one quarter my age while drinking more Guiness. Then I went somewhere else, but I don’t remember much about that. Now my hurts heads. I mean, head hurts. Har har! Ain’t drunk funny!”

Interesting Montreal St Patrick’s facts: Montreal holds the record for the longest contiously running St Patrick’s Parade, at 183 years. The Montreal Gazette has the longest streak for reporting the longest running parade stat, at 182 years.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Ides! Beware the Ides!

Ok, the photo is embarrasingly blurry but I'm rather fond of it nonetheless. Besides, it's rather reflective of my mod at the moment. I have a phone meeting scheduled this afternoon to discuss a story I really want to do, suspect I won't be able to do, and am frankly terrified I might end up getting. I will not explain anything beyond that as I believe this isn't going to go anywhere, but at the moment it is dominating my mind. If I get it, I'll update, if not I'll probably just delete this.

As a distraction for me and for you, more on the movies. We went to see The Painted Veil last night. I vaguely recall it was not terribly well reviewed, but I can't quite recall why. Sadly, I cannot say anything entertainly negative about it - I found the story to be compelling, Naomi Watts was incredible and Edward Norton was decent.* The scenery - inland China - was astounding though everything was a little too pretty and honey-drenched for a story that was occuring in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Overall, worth a rental, but I'm not sure I'll remember it in a month.

One thing Amynah and I have noticed that makes the cinema-going experience unique here (beyond the subtitles and lack of nacho chips), is the trailers for French movies. All of them, for reasons Amynah and I cannot fathom, appear to work as a precis of rather than an advertisement for a movie: in other words, they're trying to tell you what the movie is about rather than just throwing the best lines and fanciest special effects at you. Therefore they'll take you through the whole thing, plot point by plot point.

Based on our sampling of the dozen or so trailers we've seen so far, it would appear that all French movies are about attractive people meeting each other, having complicated affairs, then a crisis. At least one of the characters will be very old and several fetchingly young. Frequently the old person wil be Gerard Depradieu. There are always at least five people, all of whom are in love with each other in various permutations. Their feelings will be expressed in witty, yet philosophically grounded conversations about the nature of love and destiny. These conversations must, and I mean must take place in a sun dappled field with some sort of symbolic vegetation, like a decidiuous tree that will lose its leaves or flowers that may be plucked. But botanical degradation is for later, because for now all is sweetness and light, as portrayed by lively conversations over dinners on balconies and laughter over wine.

At this point in the trailer, the serious music starts. There is much rapid talk, which fails to fill the silences that fill the gaps between the characters. There will be much ennui. The old character, whoever they are, will endure many close-ups of the cavernous wrinkles. Some or all characters will run places (it's never clear where), sometimes mancially, oft-times despondently. The field will be returned to, the tree bare, the flowers crushed. Audrey Tatou or someone who looks remarkably like her will appear, stare out a window on which raindrops are falling, cast her eyes fetchingly downward and turn away.

Amynah will testify to this: every trailer for a French movie we have seen looks like this, even the ones set in Paris where one wouldn't expect to find fields so conveniently isolated and sylvan to serve as appropriate backdops for the love and disillusionment of so many French peple. Some of them are comedies, some of them dramas but NOT ONE lacks these essential elements.

Someone has to introduce these guys to the exploding car.

* Given that of the last three films I've seen Norton in the only one where he even merited "decent" was this one, I'm seriously re-evaluating his place on my very short list of actors I like. It's been a long time since "Fight Club" or "American History X." Hell, even "Death to Smoochy."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movie Madness

In response to Travis's comment below, I will try to achieve some semblance of balance in my visitor reports by saying some really nice things about Zack (who I already referred to as reasonably attractive, which is a pretty nice thing for one straight dude to call another).

In addition to being reasonably attractive, Zack is also very talented at graphic design and its related arts. Combine that with a shiny red rally car discovered in one of Kaysersberg's back alleys and Zack's offbeat sense of humour and you get this poster.

An unrelated side note, but Zack's visit also threw the deficiencies of my tour into sharp relief, further accentuated by Daniel and co. Namely, everyone that comes here has an annoying habit of having their own interests and fields of expertise, which do not necessarily coincide with my knowledge base.

For instance, when Anna's friend Daniel insisted on asking about the local trees I wrote it off as a odd little quirk I needn't be concerned with in the long term. Zack, on the other hand, seemed only mildly interested in my Cathedral tour and the living postcard that is Petit France but was thrilled at some 1980s-era apartment blocks and office towers, as they feed into his theories of urban development. When my latest guests left me blank faced and grasping with even more botanical questions I realized I either need to develop a green thumb, stat, or insist future visitors sign a waiver that would protect my ego by obliging them to refrain from asking me questions to which I don't know the answers.

In any case, to shamelessly abuse Travis' gift to my vocabulary, (while subtley praising his awesome word-power) here is another motivation for potential visitors: sincere enconiums to your many graces posted online for the world to see!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Suddenly, silence

It's rather unnerving to suddenly have one's house and day to oneself after a week of entertaining guests. Oddly enough, I can't say I particularly like it.

Daniel and his family are a wonderful bunch, and I say that not because they brought me peanut butter, bagels, books and DVDs (though I won't pretend that doesn't have something to do with it).

I find it inordinately cool that they would travel a quarter of the way around the world to see us (Paris might have exerted a certain pull, I understand, but we'll not dwell on that). All four of them are so fun to be around and such through-and-through good people it's impossible, on their departure, to be grateful that I have my livingroom back. That of course holds true for Zack, Jon and all our other recent guests as well, but none of them have quite the same impact as a full-on family of four. I can't imagine any combination of me and my sisters Daniel's daughters' age that wouldn't have been unbearably obnoxious after a week of travel and its numberous discomforts - heck, even Amynah and I get a little tetchy after too long on the road. These guys remained unfailingly pleasant, humouring my numerous "you just gotta see this" moments even when lunch-time was long past and we'd driven two hours to see the World's Biggest Cuckoo Clock in Germany and then failed to actually see said clock (that said, we saw some pretty freakin' big cuckoo clocks).

Anyway, I'm sad to see them go, even if I'm going to have to spend the next week washing invisible Guacamole out of my clothes (Guacamole Girl was in full flight yesterday. Adopting the identity of Super Villain "Wet Blanket Man" had no efffect).

In any case, I hope they had as good a time as we did. Better yet if the tales of wonder they share inspire other people to come here as well.

Now I must get to work on the reading material Daniel brought me for the article I'm doing for the News. Now that is a dedicated editor.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Family Fridays

Greetings all. A little bird (McGillus McCabbeous) tells me that this little ole blog is widely read in some specific, Montreal-area locales. With that in mind, I want to assure everyone that the McCabes are all safe and sound. At the moment, they are/should be in Basel, Switzerland, which is not too far from here. So far they've endured the tour well, and even feigned a gratifying enthusiasm for some of my more involved Medieval anecdotes. It goes without saying that it has been awesome hanging out with all of them again, despite the youngest's disquieting habit of throwing invisible guacamole in my eyes.*

I don't want to go into too much detail of their visit so far, both because I don't want to steal the joy of telling their own travel stories on their return, and becase I'm hoping that people will be curious enough to come visit themselves.

But why be curious? Here's a couple of teasers: The Mark Reynolds Babble-Tour Galacticca of Strasbourg and Surrounding Environs (TM) has reached a level of such professionalism and glory that I am now receiving tips from strangers that I keep meeting at the local sights. The wine cellar lady (this particular gem of a Medieval wine cellar is off the beaten track, rarely visited by the tour buses and little-known even by native Strasbourgers. It's a definite highlight of the tour) gives me tips about un-advertised degustations. Even cooler, in the Cathedral, an 88-year-old gentleman saw me pointing out an obscure decoration on the Cathedral organ to my visitors and, impressed by my enthusiam, spontaneously told me about how he had been the Master Glass worker who had recovered the stained glass in Notre Dame from the salt mine that the Nazi's had stored it. Very cool.

I'll leave it to Daniel and co. to describe their time in their own way (and who knows - maybe they're hating it) but I've been having a great time showing everyone around, and hope that they will inspire others to pack their bags.

* I'm afraid I might have created a nascent Papist out of the youngest girl - she insisted that Daniel buy her a book about the life of St Odile, whose shrine we visited on Tuesday. In the convent there she turned to me at one point and said "I feel sad and I don't know why." Give that girl a rosary! On the other hand, she did turn down the water from the miraculous spring, probably suspecting it to be the Catholic version of the proverbial Kool-Aid.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dream Girls

A thought: when Eddie Murphy took the role of a performer who sells his talent to promote dreck, and Beyonce took the role of the over-managed, sanitized “White person’s Black person” didn’t either think that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to invite those comparisons to their actual careers?

I mean, how much of Beyonce’s performance was pretending to be someone who hides her lack of singing chops under sexy costumes and heavy marketing and how much was from the heart?

P.S. At some point I might post on something smart like, but I fear my brain is shrinking, along with the available word count on my latest writing assignment from which I am currently fleeing. Because the world needs another Beyonce blog, damnit!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Catching my breath

We had a great time with Zack, pictured here with Flat Laura in Schramberg's giant castle. It was an interesting town - it shut down entirely at two, meaning the only place we could get a bite to eat in the afternoon was in the local fancy hotel. The owner, entranced by Zack's Roots-like quest, talked to us for a good fifteen minutes, using up all of Zack's miniscule German vocabulary several times over in the process. That's what I like about small-town Germans - they don't really care if you can't understand them, they're just happy you're visiting them. Anyway, this guy gave Zack two books - free! - and Schramberg's history to give to his grandfather.

Now Zack has departed, and now we are preparing for our friends Daniel, and his family. In fact, they’re already in Paris, scheduled to arrive here Sunday.

Daniel recently became the interim editor of the McGill News* and is also the guy who signally failed to hire me for the associate editor position at the McGill Reporter, a decision for which I may eventually become grateful.

In any case, they’re here for a week and are a more generationally diverse group that any of my previous visitors (the younger daughter is seven, the older almost 15) so I’m wracking my brains for appropriate things for them to see. My own tastes lean to Medieval castles and churches but that is not, I am given to understand, for everyone. Fortunately, a mini-fairground complete with carousels and cotton candy has manifested itself next door to our apartment so Daniel should be entertained.

My problem with entertaining guests is –as Anna and Zack will both attest – I am a bit of a martinet. Anna’s friend Babet and Zack both developed serious blisters after enduring my forced march around Strasbourg. I’m not much better in a car, stopping at every postcard-esque village and romantic castle ruin in sight: “Do not ask questions! I will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it! NOT before!"

I’ve also been a bit spoiled by recent company. After all, Flat Laura appeared to be fascinated by our visit to Kaysersberg, home of doctor, theologian, organist and 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer.

* Interestingly, Daniel's visit here means I will be procrastinating from an assignment he gave me for the News.** Wonder how that will play as an excuse?

**Also interestingly,*** between the News and the Headway-like CRNS International for which I am also writing, it’s like I never left McGill, minus the fun colleagues, Friday beers and lunatic office politics. Let me tell you, it’s no fun gossiping about your co-workers when you’re talking to a mirror while the other mirror is out of the room.

***Does anyone know the style-guide on foot-noting footnotes?**** As this is a bad habit I’ve picked up from reading Julie’s blog, I look to her for an answer.

**** I'm done now.