Formerly Blogless

True confessions of a girl who writes dirty books--and loves it!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Bubbles!


The food of thy soul is light and space; feed it then on light and space. But the food of thy body is champagne and oysters; feed it then on champagne and oysters; and so shall it merit a joyful resurrection, if there is any to be.
--Herman Melville


The Champagne region of France is beyond lovely. The countryside, at least. It has rolling hills and picturesque vineyards and just generally everything you see in the brochure. The cities, however...well. I wouldn't recommend Epernay or Rheims for an extended visit.

Okay, Epernay first. We stayed at a lovely hotel in the country, 15 minutes or so from the center of town. We had a balcony off the back of the room, with a fabulous view, and we had our wonderful breakfast out there every morning, in spite of the chill. The hotel was great--Epernay, less so. There's really nothing there, and it's not a charming, Olde World kind of nothing, either. It's more of a dusty-roadwork-traffic circle-one-day-this-might-be-a-real-city-but-until-then-it's-not-even-a-cute-town kind of nothing. There's one particular stretch of road, though, that is the address of quite a few famous Champagne houses. Perrier-Jouet, Mercier, Moet et Chandon, etc. The Champagne houses themselves are stunning--very impressive and imposing, and all as individual as the different wines they make. Of course, once you get past the exteriors and the public rooms, one cellar tour is much like another. There are only so many times you can hear about la methode champegnoise and degorgement. It's a fascinating process, but they all do it the same way. They all use the same grapes, grown in the same place. Sort of the point. What's interesting about it is the different results each house obtains from that process.

I happen to adore champagne. It was the first wine I truly loved to drink, and I've devoted more time than is strictly healthy or rational to developing my taste for it. So obviously, the tasting portion of the tour is the best bit, for me. We took the Moet et Chandon tour, all very traditional, and although we didn't get to have any Dom Perignon (MeC's highest level stuff), we thoroughly enjoyed (read: swilled back) the regular vintages they had on offer. Our tour guide was a seriously delightful woman of a certain age, with short, silvery hair and enormous dark blue eyes. Her makeup was flawless and understated, and she wore a bright red wool wrap against the chill of the caves. Meg and I decided her name was Clothilde. It might have been. Anyway, we loved her, and we loved the wine. But we didn't love Epernay, on the whole.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sidenote

Little bit of trivia: Strasbourg is where the French national anthem was composed. It's called the Marseillaise because it was taken up and popularized by a group of foot soldiers from Marseille. It's a great anthem, very stirring--anyone who's seen Casablanca can attest to that. I cry every time, when Paul Henreid gets everyone at Rick's to start singing it, including that sad, pretty girl who's spent the first half of the movie flirting desperately with the Nazi officers to save her own neck, and she sings it with tears in her eyes, and Paul Henreid raises a fist in the air and looks just generally like he's burning with fierce resolve, and before I know it, I'm sobbing. So on this trip, I learned all the words to the Marseillaise. It's very bloody! I like it a lot. French is fun. I also speak Spanish (I was a Romance Language major in college) and supposedly Italian, although that's pretty much a fantasy these days. My Italian is beyon rusty--it's corroded into unusability. I wish I spoke Greek, and maybe Russian. Does that betray my liberal commie pinko upbringing too much?

So what languages do you speak? And if you were going to learn a new one, what would it be?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Strasblog


Strasbourg! The Gateway to Europe! Capital of the New European Union! And all around, the most memorable, gorgeous, livable, sophisticated city we visited.

I'm not kidding--Strasbourg is wonderful. It's a tiny city, with a famous university, numerous bridges over a gorgeous canal system, fabulously high end shopping (even the middle-brow, Gap-esque boutiques are timelessly stylish), and its very own Notre Dame Cathedral. It's like a miniature Paris, with all the character and charm that Paris has for everyone who isn't me.

Strasbourg is also the capital of Alsace, and it was the first time I'd ever been to that region of France. I didn't have much experience with the food prior to this trip, either, and let me tell you, I'm never going back. Alsatian food rocks. It's a mix of French and German food, and you wouldn't believe what those crafty French manage to do with a little sauerkraut and sausage! Choucroute garni, occasionally garnished with a sausage called 'mannershultz'--fifty points to anyone who can translate that little gem. I'd post a picture, but it would probably render this blog unsuitable for viewing in the workplace. They're famous for flammekeuche, or tarte flambe, which is essentially pizza with bacon and onions on a crust like a cracker. It's amazing. We had the best meal of our entire trip on a quaint little back street in Strasbourg, at a place called Chez Yvonne--the Alsations are also famous for foie gras, and Chez Yvonne served what was basically the Platonic ideal of foie gras. Simple and incredible.

I honestly can't recommend Strasbourg highly enough. Meg loved it so much, she was talking seriously about moving there--although the highly skilled and thoroughly charming Frenchman who hit on her at a bar our first night there may have had something to do with it. The nightlife was friendly and vibrant, without feeling overly hip or intimidating in any way, and the city is very walkable. There's tons to see and do--including the wonderful old carousel in Place Gutenberg. It's my favorite kind of carousel, with animals other than horses, all beautifully painted and crafted, including a giraffe, an elephant, a mule, and my personal favorite, a pig. Look at that tongue! Hmm, I seem to be a little preoccupied with tongues, lately. There's a book fair in that square twice a week, where I found several translated editions of familiar favorites.

It's a city of contrasts, the stolid German and the flamboyant French, the ancient Roman roots and the developing new European Union, the quaint small-town charm with all the appeal and opportunity of a big city. The people who live there are warm and open, and perfectly happy to speak French with non-natives--in fact, they seemed pleased when we made the effort. As for us, we were perfectly happy every second of our stay in Strasbourg. Part of me is praying my friend, Meg, will actually live the dream, and move to Strasbourg, even though it would mean she'd live hundreds of miles further from me than she does now, because damn. I would so love to visit her there.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Terezin


I just want to say a couple of things about this. Terezin, which I had only vaguely heard of before planning this trip, is a concentration camp outside of Prague. It was mostly used as a transport hub, a temporary stop before the inevitable trip to one of the death camps in the west. Terezin was a fortress town built in the 18th century, and it's oddly beautiful. Hitler used the town as part of his propaganda campaign; it was touted as the city he gave to the Jews, where they could govern themselves and live according to their traditions. Political prisoners were kept there, as well as prominent Jews--artists and writers and scientists. The Nazis encouraged them to produce art while they were there; plays and operas were written and performed. There are hundreds of drawings. It was all part of the propaganda. See how happy the Jews are? That Hitler, what a stand up guy. The Red Cross visited twice during the war, and gave favorable reports both times. Neither report mentions the overcrowded conditions, the starvation, the sickness. They only saw what Hitler wanted them to see. They only saw what they wanted to see.

The sick part is, I don't know if I can even blame them. What the Nazis were doing was so unthinkable, on a scale so extreme as to be incomprehensible. There's something so unbelievably cold and psychotic about the industrialization of murder, the mass extermination that was going on, I can't even wrap my mind around it. Terezin was about all I could honestly stand. I don't think I could manage Auschwitz or Dachau--I don't want to wrap my mind around it.

The experience of Terezin is indescribable, so I'm not even going to try. I'm just going to say that I think there should be a universal law, compelling every human being to visit a place like that, at least once. To remind us of what we're capable of doing to one another, and what we're capable of enduring.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Prague Blog (Part II)

Let's see, what else about Prague. Oh! Did you know it's where Don Giovanni was debuted, conducted by Mozart himself? Well, perhaps if you were playing close attention during the movie Amadeus, you did, but I confess, I wasn't, so I was surprised. Everything in Prague is Mozart this and Don Giovanni that. There are no fewer than three opera houses in Prague. This is a picture of the one that hosted the famous debut. Meg and I saw Turandot at the State Opera (somewhat clunky staging, but very competent sopranos; the tenor gave us some tense moments, but our box seats were lovely and unbelievably cheap for two girls used to the Met), but the National Theater is unquestionably the most impressive. It's right by the river, and has enormous statues of mythical figures crowded around the roof. I wish I had a picture, but I don't.

Prague specializes in wrapping gorgeous, intricate trappings around the goriest history imaginable. My personal favorite example is found in St. James Basilica, a small church with a huge, ornate pipe organ, a lovely frescoed ceiling, and a 400-year-old decomposing human forearm hanging from the wall. Yes. The story goes that a thief tried to steal the jewels from the statue of the Madonna, and the statue came to life and grabbed the thief by the arm, refusing to relinquish him. They had to cut his arm off to free him, and now that arm is on display, for the quiet contemplation of the worshippers at St. James. It looks exactly as you'd imagine something like that would look. Another good story revolves around the abortive attempt to make Jan Somebody Or Other the patron saint of Prague. This Jan was basically a nobody, but the Church tried to sell him as a saint on the basis of having found his body, dead, but with the tongue still alive and licking. I swear I'm not making this up. In spite of the fact that the Pope eventually admitted that Jan was a false martyr, he's still got a statue on the Charles Bridge, and his coffin is in St. Vitus's Cathedral, supported by six sterling silver winged cherubs. And guess what's on display with the coffin! That's right! The TONGUE! I hope this picture isn't so dark that you can't make it out. It's the pink bit in the center of the shield. Although modern sources say the pink bit is, most likely, a sliver of brain, not a tongue. Like that's any less grotesque.

Some less colorful (well, slightly) but still vital history took place in Prague. And I bet you know what I'm talking about! That's right. Defenestration! (Conscience dictates that I interject here that every time I hear that word, my brain does a sharp left turn and conjures up images of trees being felled. Defenestration, Louisa, not deforestation.) Prague was the site of more than one deliberate tossing of an important personage from an upper story window, and pictured here is the window in Old Prague Castle that started the Thirty Years War.
It's on the second floor, and apparently, the two Protestants who were pitched out didn't actually fall to their deaths. They landed in some ivy, and were basically okay, but righteously pissed off. Enough to start a war, in fact! Oh, those wacky Protestants.

I felt safe in Prague, in spite of warnings about pickpockets. We were never accosted or bothered, even by the roving packs of British lads in Prague Drinking Team t-shirts. The city is very walkable, and has an easy-to-use public transportation system. There is a ton to see and do, and all of it was different enough from anything I'd seen before in North America and western Europe to feel like a big adventure.

Plus, you know, grody decomposing body parts everywhere...

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Prague Blog (Part I)

Prague is beautiful, in a tired way. Something about how old the buildings are makes them even more impressive--there's definitely nothing plastic or Disney about the Old Prague Castle, or St. Vitus Cathedral. The medieval is squashed in with the baroque, and more recently, the vestiges of communism. The Czech Republic is essentially a post-Communist Kleptocracy (in the words of someone far funnier than me), and it was in Prague that I really had my first conversation with someone who grew up under communism. Her name was Pavla, and she was a tour guide we hired to take us out to Terezin, which will be the subject of its own, probably fairly depressing blog, so more on her later.

The weather was gorgeous, if slightly rainy, but even rain couldn't keep the hoards of German tourists in check. They were EVERYwhere, in enormous gaggles--the Charles Bridge was at a virtual standstill every time we walked down to it, except for once. That particular morning we got up early, and there was a cold misting rain in the air. The city wasn't quite awake yet, and none of the buskers or craftspeople were out on the bridge with their tables. It was just us, and the bridge, and the river. I touched the five-pointed brass cross embedded in the stone wall, to ensure my return to Prague. And I found my favorite statue, situated just beyond the edge of the bridge, so that you have to look over the wall to see him. Roland, the warrior, holding his magic sword, all shiny and gold, with a crouching wolf at his feet. The sword itself, the original, is said to be embedded in the stonework of the bridge, awaiting the city's most dire need. Hmmm...I wonder how I could possibly use that in a book?

Czech food is denigrated in guidebooks as being heavy and bland, but I didn't find that to be universally the case. Obviously, some dishes were better than others, and I think I had a pretty good idea of what I like to begin with. I'm not a dumpling person, for instance. Spaetzle either. Ew. But I do like roast duck, and sauerkraut, and potato pancakes. And I absolutely adore Czech hot chocolate. Everywhere we went, it was phenomenal. Like drinking melted brownie batter, all thick and rich and very dark. And as if that weren't enough, it was often served with whipped cream, and I'm not talking here about anything that got squirted out of a can. Other than that, we had apple strudel and honey cake (a sort of layered cake with honey, cream, and walnuts--some of my favorite things) at Cafe Carolina, which is in the house Jan Neruda lived in. Neruda is a Czech writer, who is, unfairly perhaps, probably most famous for inspiring the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to take his name. The best Czech meal we had was sort of nouveau Czech (if that makes any sense) at the restaurant halfway up Petrin hill, the tallest hill in Prague (so tall and steep that there's a funicular to get up it!), so there's a fantastic view. We walked everywhere, until we figured out the tram system, and then we took that.

Ok, that's enough for now. I think this will have to be continued tomorrow...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Home is Where You Have To Beat Blogger Into Submission

Finally! After a week of frustrated clicking and moaning, I have thrashed Blogger into the ground and forced it to allow me to record my precious thoughts about my trip to Europe, before they all leak out of my head. You wouldn't believe how annoyed I've been. I still don't know what was wrong--something about cookies? How could anything to do with cookies be bad? It's diabolical.

Anyway, Europe. So much fun. I figure, though, that you are all less interested in a play by play of every dusty cathedral and charming cafe I saw, than you are in my impressions of each place. This is not a travelblog--I will not be rating hotels or restaurants, although I reserve the right to give opinions on anything and everything that comes to mind. I'll go place by place, I think, which means first up is:

PRAGUE

Tune in tomorrow...