Mrs P has been back in China for a few weeks now, and I’m getting pretty lonely 🙁
But she is having a great time with the family, speaking Sichuan-hua and eating Mom’s food again, and that makes me very happy 🙂
Also, something amazing happened. Listen to what she wrote:
There is something miracle happened to my home. 11 years ago, my mom bought a plant is called Widened Microsorium, it had bloomed once at the time, and then never since. After 10 years, just a few days ago, that plant has blooming again, and the unique color combination and elegant shape caught my parents attention immediately, and they believe is because I’m coming, therefore luck forces rare flowers to bloom.
I spent last weekend down in Bethesda with longtime friends who have just had a baby. I’m not in the business of posting pictures of other people’s kids online, so suffice to say that is one cute baby girl. Her name is Genevieve, a wonderfully classic name, and she has a perfect disposition: calm, thoughtful, inquisitive, friendly. Holding her was enough to make me want to have my own kids… someday. Without getting too personal here, after six years of blissful young marriage between Mrs P and I, the elders are starting to get restless, and ask questions…
But another day for that. For now, the main purpose of my visit was to see Phish at Merriweather:
The week before, a strange thing happened to me on the New York sidewalks. I saw a guy I knew at Georgetown who I had not seen in nearly 10 years, since we shared one class together: early 20th-century Russian literature. It was one of my favorite classes, one of the few I can even remember (I elected many poor classes); we read short stories by Chekhov and Babel, among others.
This guy, whose name escapes me, was in the class. There were only six or seven of us, though I don’t remember the others. The teacher was an older Ukrainian woman who had immigrated in the 1980s. So I remember we used to have good discussions there, and this guy was a great contributor, but we ran in different circles. Like I said, I don’t even remember his name.
I’m walking to work one morning and look up and this guy is about to jog right by me. He’s jogging along Fifth Avenue while the rest of the crowd is dressed for work and hustling by. I recognized him instantly, then looked away – then looked back. He saw me and knew me as well. We each said something like, “Hey man…”, “Hey buddy…” and hesitating only slightly, we both decided to keep on moving. We smiled and waved in the passing streams of traffic.
A few seconds later I looked back. He turned around. We both waved again, then turned, and it was over.
Lyon I will always remember for the bouchon. X read about a special kind of down-home restaurant that lives only in this city, the gastronomic capital of France, and so we found ourselves one night in a small, red room with a bar and eight little tables. There was no one else there, although it was nearly eight o’clock, surely a reasonable hour for dinner, no? we thought, as the young but solemn waitress seated us in a small table by the end of the bar.
We were surrounded by pigs. Hung from the ceiling and sticking out of the walls were pigs, large and small, in the pictures and on the wallpaper. As I was about to learn, bouchons are all about meat, and not just pork chops – tripe, gizzards, hoofs and cheeks.
If I had done my homework, I would have ordered a communard, a mixture of red wine with blackcurrant liqueur which the guide book spun a romantic tale about, but I hadn’t seen that yet, so we had local red wine, and together with that the girl brought us a basket of breaded, deep-fried pig fat – tablier de sapeur, pork rinds. Oh, stupendous wonder! Wine and salted fat!
We hadn’t ordered a thing besides the wine, but very quickly she came out with another dish, a poached egg floating in a deep red soup which may have been wine and blood for all I know. It was rich and salty; I drank it down and ate more breaded tripe. This is going to be good.
Then, it got better. A dozen boisterous men walked into the place, and they all had the same look on their face, the look of a man who’s about to sit down with 11 of his buddies, eat a good meal, and get hammered. It was on!
The 2 waitresses jumped to life in an effort to mash tables together for these guys, and then they just started bringing out the dishes and bottles, passing everything down the line because there was no room to even walk around their party. The men bellowed a singsong of conversation and laughter at each other and flirted with the waitresses, drinking and clinking and shouting and pointing, not a word of it intelligible to us, but all of it making perfect sense and perfect comedy. We were at a great party!
The chef came out and spoke with us. It turned out that his son lives and works in New York, and he has visited. He gave us a small dish with two meatballs. I wish I had one of those meatballs right now, it was so good. The chef, who spoke fairly good English, did not know the word for what was in the meatball. He struggled. Then, Aha! he reached behind the bar, and pulled out a stuffed pig’s foot, complete with black hair. I couldn’t believe it. Where was the meat on a pig’s foot that could make this much meatball? I never liked pig’s feet in China, but this meatball was something else.
The chef then listed for us, from memory, tonight’s menu. There were about six delicious-sounding choices, and I felt limited to choose just one, but I chose the blood sausage with baked apples, because I’d never had blood sausage before, and X ordered the cheek. Mine was really good, although I could have had less of it (I did eat it all, though!); hers was better.
After we polished those off, they asked if we’d like some cheese. Sure, why not? They bring us a cutting board with five big hunks of different cheeses and some bread, plus a big bowl of fresh cottage cheese! We looked at each other like, Are we supposed to eat all this cheese? Well, we did our best…
There was still room for dessert, of course. X had a pear, drowned in red wine and sugar, and I had a coffee ice cream. And naturally there was espresso to finish. Total perfection.
Another day in Lyon, we went for a long walk to find the cathedral at the top of the hill that overlooked the city. You can see it from anywhere. It’s right near the imitation Eiffel Tower. Walking across the city, to the base of the hill, was no problem. It took about 30 minutes from our hotel. But from there, we had to go nearly straight up. We walked in the sun up a long hill, and some cars and scooters were driving down, at high speeds. It was a tough slog. Along the way, a man was sweeping the street. He tried to say something to us, but we didn’t understand. He repeated himself, but a car drove by in between us, and we couldn’t hear. He crossed the road and spoke to us, but we said we didn’t speak French. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was just asking if you’d like a glass of water.” How nice!
Turned out he was not actually a street-sweeper, but was cleaning up outside the hostel of which he is proprietor. He invited us in and poured two glasses of ice-cold water, much appreciated at the moment, as we had been sweating and climbing up the steep hill of the road. He led us out to the back porch, which overlooked the entire city. We sat and cooled ourselves, enjoying the view, and thought about the kindness that we were experiencing. Then we thanked him again and continued on our way.
Ah, Burgundy, the heart of France. Wine country. The stuff French vacations are made of.
[Note: The trip is now over, and we are safely home. But I’m going to continue the story right where I left off…]
Beaune train station was bereft of cabs, so after a 20-min wait we finally dragged our bags across town to the Hotel Foch, which is basically a pub with some rooms in the back. The guy running the place was really nice, and spoke great English. In fact, in all our travels in France, we never found one rude person. Talk about a stereotype destroyed.
We sat at a cafe in town that afternoon, drinking wine, which was delicious and cheap. We could hear a couple at a nearby table who were American, and whom I guessed were from Texas. They were likely in their 60s. At a certain point, another couple walked up to them from the street, and it became clear that they were all traveling together when the approaching man said:
“Ya’ll look like ya’ll’re havin’ a good time with ya’ll’s selves!”
Hearing this, how could I not have instantly recognized this same Texas guy when we saw him again 5 days later in Marseille, walking along the sidewalk near the Vieux Port?
Our first dinner in Beaune was gorgeous: beef Bourguignon, and an angel hair pasta with veal and liver. So rich! The woman running the restaurant suggested a nice red for us, and we talked with an English guy who was driving his dog, a chocolate lab, across the country.
We wanted to see a vineyard, but instead we decided to go to a cellar. Unfortunately, we didn’t really pick the most tourist-friendly cellar. Rather than walking into any of the numerous places with signs outside welcoming tourists, we went to a place where the book said locals buy wine in bulk. There was nobody near the front door, and no obvious way in once we walked up the driveway. A guy with big boots on pointed down a staircase, and then called to a woman down below who beckoned us to follow her into the basement. She had two clients down there trying wines. We waited until she had finished with them, then absolutely failed to make any meaningful communication with her about trying wines. Although there were tons of barrels down there, and it looked like it could be tapped, we ended up drinking from three bottles, two of which we bought. They were modestly priced. We drank half of one that night in the room, then left it and the full one on the train the next day when we left. Money well spent!
A random stop in Beaune was the Museum of Wine, which was somewhat amusing but sadly did not include a glass of the stuff at the end of the tour!
Another attraction is the Hospices de Beaune, which was founded in 1443 to care for the poor as a free hospital. It has a magnificent great building with a beautiful roof:
But it also has random mannequin nuns, tending the sick and cooking in the kitchen. Strange.
From Paris, we arrived in Caen last week, a small city in Normandy. We stayed in a tiny 18th-century bed and breakfast called the Hotel St. Etienne. Out walking the streets in the evening, we found a small bar where a two-woman band was performing: guitar and cello. A local crowd cheered them on, and we snacked on peanuts and olives with our beer. Afterwards, we walked into a small, bustling restaurant, but were refused for not having a reservation. So instead, we ended up down the road a bit, where we feasted on shrimp and crab risotto; cauliflower soup with diced, smoked duck liver; steamed fish; and fillet of pork. Later on we enjoyed a slice pear pie from a patisserie. Delicious!
In the morning we looked for a bus to Bayeux, closer to the coast, from which we intended to visit the D-Day beaches. But our planning was a little off, and our guidebook a bit outdated. The bus we were counting on had been discontinued, and we ended up walking across town with our luggage, no taxi in sight, from the bus station to the train station. Arriving in Bayeux later than expected, we then found the hostel we’d planned on staying at was full, and spent another hour wandering the streets until we found a room. It was then near the end of the day, and we had reservations in another town the following evening, leaving us no time for the beach. This was regrettable, but we found a site celebrating another legendary battle: the Bayeux Tapestry, woven nearly a thousand years ago, commemorates the Norman invasion of England in 1066. After our viewing, we bought a bottle of champagne and whiled away an hour sitting by an old mill, its waterwheel still turning after several centuries.
The next day we were off to Dinan, leaving Normandy for Brittany. But again we had not planned well, and we ended up spending the whole day in transit. We bought tickets back to Caen, thinking it a better transit hub, and from Caen to Dinan. But it turned out the train from Caen to Dinan went back through Bayeux anyway, and it didn’t leave until 5pm, meaning we could have left our bags at the hotel, spent the day at Omaha or Juno Beach, and caught the train from Bayeux to Dinan. Instead we spent the entire afternoon in the Caen station. The one bright note was meeting a young couple from Sichuan. The boy had been living in Caen a year, and the girl was living in Burgundy. They were going to the D-Day beaches. Xianyi was pleased to have another chance to speak her native Sichuan-hua! Seems you can’t toss a pebble in France without hitting someone from Sichuan.
We wanted to see the famous Mont-St Michel castle, but learned that Dinan was not the closest place to be to see that. A couple of American backpackers had obviously done more legwork than us, because they got off at the right stop as we realized we were bound for another station, with a further transfer, and that we would have no time to see Mont-St Michel. There is a little town called Dol which acts as a transit for the Dinan line. We spent an hour there, and I went looking for sandwiches, unsuccessfully. It was 5pm and the town was closing. I asked the one open bar on the block if they had sandwiches, and they said they were done. But X went back there 20 minutes later, asked the same question, and they gave her some leftover bread. So we had a little snack.
When we finally got to Dinan it was after 9pm, but no matter; it is still light these days past 10 o’clock at night. Dinan is too small for taxis, apparently, so we hauled our bags into town on foot. While looking at the map at a turnabout, a man in a car asked us something. We told him we didn’t understand, so he switched to English and asked if we needed help. We showed him the name of our hotel, which was difficult to pronounce, and he offered us a ride. His daughter was in the front seat. The man’s English was pretty good, and when we said we were from New York, he said that he was trying to get his daughter to go there to study English. At that moment, New York felt like a long way away from Dinan.
We found the hotel, after asking several locals directions, and thanked the man for his help. The place is named for the old clocktower, which it stands next to, and which we climbed to the top of the next day for a grand view of the town. There is also a Roman aqueduct, and (of course) an ancient cathedral. In fact, it seems every little town in France has a grand cathedral. One wonders at the lengths to which the old feudal lords went to build these structures, which tower over the surrounding buildings, and which could have only been constructed with massive amounts of human labor.
That afternoon we were on the trains again, our fourth consecutive day of moving, leaving Brittany now for the Loire Valley, and arriving in the city of Tours. We loaded our bags into a taxi and gave him the address of our hotel, only to have him turn and say, “We’re arrived. It’s here.” The hotel was right next to the station. After checking in (which, by the way, is such an easy process in France; they don’t even require your ID), we walked down to the main part of town, the Place Plumereau, a large plaza with shops and restaurants, where all the cool kids hang out. It was a bustling Friday night in Tours. We ate at an Irish Bar/Pizzeria, which made no sense, but which made good pizza and pasta, and served delicious, cold Belgian beer. On Saturday we slept late, finally not having a train to meet. We went looking for a wine tour, only to find that the tourist office no longer booked them, so we found a tiny café where we finally got a good cup of coffee. I have not been impressed with the French coffee. I would prefer my own brew to most of the cups I’ve had here, which tend to be overly foamy and with a cheap taste. But this place had it right, and we stayed for tartines, open-faced sandwiches: a chicken curry for Xianyi, and four-cheese for me, plus two glasses of wine.
On Sunday Tours was dead. All the shops and nearly all the restaurants were closed. But we found solace in a public park, where we narrowly missed a brass band performance but saw the players in their formal wear breaking down the stage. An inflatable slide and a merry-go-round were entertaining children, and there were ducks and swans in the pond. The duck would wander onto the land to be fed breadcrumbs by the people, but several unleashed dogs occasionally forced them to flee back into the pond. There was also a group of ducklings swimming around. The sun came out and it was peaceful.
Monday morning we left early for Beaune, in Burgundy, where we were resolved to tour a vineyard…
Our trip started with a 3-hour delay sitting on the runway. You know when you fall asleep on a plane and wake up later, only to find out that you haven’t taken off yet? It was one of those. I traded some barbs with the guy sitting next to me about the captain’s announcements. He got on the mic every so often to tell us it would be another 15 minutes, or another half hour, to the point that we came to dread hearing his voice. We had a few good laughs at the captain’s expense. Only after we got to Paris did I see my neighbor pull out a US Army-issued backpack, with a Special Forces patch on it. I didn’t have the nerve to ask what kind of places those credentials had taken him lately. But we wished each other well and said goodbye.
X and I didn’t want to take a taxi into the city, fearing the price, and so hopped on a train to downtown Paris. We exited at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, and saw that magnificent building upon exiting to the street. What a site! We took a few pictures, but didn’t wander around too much with our luggage. It took a while to find a taxi, but eventually we did, arrived at the hotel, checked in, and promptly fell asleep for a nap.
We woke around 5pm and headed to the first site on our list, the Eiffel Tower. Navigating our way through the crowds and the touts selling keychains, we found the line to the elevator, where some Englishmen informed us they’d waited a half hour to get to the entrance. But the line at the stairs was nonexistent, so we decided to climb! It’s really not that bad. We walked up to the first level and had a beer, taking lots of pictures of the city. It was after six, but the light was as strong as if it were noon. We walked up to the second level to see more. The views were amazing!
Having had enough, we descended to the ground and took some more pictures, then took the subway to a random neighborhood: St. Germain. We had no reason to go there other than that I had once heard a band by that name, and it sounded good enough. We walked around until we found a suitable restaurant, then had a delicious dinner of steak (for me) and duck confit (for Xianyi). Just lovely. We were amazed to see that it remained light until about 10pm, a welcome surprise.
The following day was for the Louvre. We overslept and arrived there just before noon. After taking a few pictures next to I.M. Pei’s pyramid (yay China!) we went inside to find the Mona Lisa (of course). The French have been collecting art here for 500 years and yet somehow this one painting dominates the place. The people flock to it. There are signs everywhere that forbid flash photography, but it seems the staff have given up trying to stop people; the cameras pop and flash as if it was a Brad Pitt sighting. So now we’ve seen the Mona Lisa (La Joconde); I must say, it was underwhelming. In fact, the whole museum was mostly a bore. I enjoyed some of the sculptures – Venus de Milo, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave – but walking through the halls and halls of old paintings of Bible scenes was just boring. There was nothing to grab me.
Sunday we took another tack and went to the Pompidou Center. We saw an exhibit called Dreamlands, which dealt with the modern urban landscape. It showcased earlier exhibits from World’s Fairs and amusement parks, particularly those that tried to imagine the future of the city. Coney Island’s DreamLand played a major role, as did Las Vegas. There were images of the many pavilions around the world which have miniature Eiffel Towers, Empire State Buildings, and Pyramids for park-goers to wander about and photograph themselves in front of. The exhibit was meant to question the value of authenticity. It had particular resonance for me on this trip, as Xianyi and I are sure to end up with lots of pictures of ourselves in front of landmarks – exactly the same pictures that visitors to these amusement parks could end up with. In the other galleries, we beheld the typical trappings of modern art: cubes and triangles carefully arranged on the floor, a black canvas with a single vertical white stripe (“looks like half a ping-pong table”), a movie of a woman in a kitchen naming the tools she uses for cooking. Xianyi and I were both unimpressed with the lot. She said something to the effect of “anyone could have made this”, and I thought back to a recent discussion of the NYC Junta, where we posed these and other questions.
We went from there to meet a cousin of Xianyi’s friend, a Chinese girl who has been living in Paris for five years. She and her boyfriend met us for a drink and then we took a walk around the Louvre area, including Napoleon’s palace (now the Museum of the Army), and walked all the way from there to the Champs Elysses. They had to get home after that, but they recommended a nice restaurant for dinner. Another great meal!
Monday took us back to Notre Dame, where we had a proper look inside. Although I’ve given up Catholicism, I do still feel the pull of a proper cathedral. I was disturbed to see that even here they have stopped trying to cease tourists taking pictures. Does no one have any respect left for a holy site? Cameras were snapping away, flashes disturbing the tranquil darkness of the interior. I couldn’t help but have a smug satisfaction that none of these pictures would be any good. Guess what, people: when you take a snapshot with flash inside a long, dark corridor, that picture is not going to come out. Just try to enjoy it. I lit a candle, left some coins for the poor, and abandoned the barbarians to their desecration.
From there, we walked and walked, around the Island St Louis, onto the Rue des Archives on the Right Bank, and over to the Picasso Museum, which I was really excited to visit (finally, some decent art!), but it was closed for renovation until 2012! We went back to the hotel and took a nap, then went out for Japanese and walked the streets of our neighborhood until midnight.
Tuesday we tried to secure a UK visa for her. It turns out my company may want me in London at the end of this trip, and since Da Hai is living there, it would have been great to take her with me. But alas, there is not enough time to fulfill the long list of demands that is required of 3rd-world citizens. Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. The bastards. So we gave that idea up and ended up at the train station five hours early for our departure to Caen in Normandy. That has given me time to write this, although I won’t be able to post it until I find a wifi connection…
In France whenever anybody writes anything and wants anybody to know what it is like they read it out loud. If it is in English it is natural to pass the manuscript to them and let them read it but if it is in french it is natural to read it out loud.
French is a spoken language English really is not.
Considering how universal the English language has become around the globe I’d say Gertrude Stein didn’t have it exactly right, but I still get what she might mean. Either way, France, here we come…