Sunday, June 22, 2008

My First Trip, Part Two - Blog 4

Go North, Young Man.

Our first destination was an island monastery called Mont Saint Michel. From Nantes it was a short, two-and-a-half hour drive. We made it in three. But we made it in one piece and with no tickets, police intervention or trips to the hospital so I think what speed we sacrificed was well worth it.

Mont St. Michel can trace its roots back to 708. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, said he saw Michael, the Archangel, in a vision. Michael commanded Aubert to leave Avranches and built a sanctuary in his honor on Mont Tombe, a tiny island just off the coast of Avranches. Now, if it were me, I'd be a bit skeptical about building anything on a tiny, rocky, coastal island - especially if I came from a town that bore a name suspiciously close to "avalanche." Aubert had some doubts, too, since it took the Angel several admonitions and finally burning a hole in Aubert's head before Aubert finally began construction.

In order to boost the local economy (I mean, increase the spirituality of the sanctuary), Aubert had several of his followers make a trip to Italy to find a certain grotto (holy cave) where Michael was already being worshiped. Aubert instructed the pilgrims to "obtain" a piece of the rock in the Italian grotto upon which Michael was said to have alighted and to get a piece of Michael's holy, golden mantle (which I guess Michael left behind). No one told me how the followers were able to get them but they returned with the relics and enshrined them at Mont St Michel (MSM). By the end of the 10th century MSM had become a popular pilgrimage sight and an order of Benedictine monks settled there.

A village grew up around the monastery on the island to support the vast numbers of pilgrims visiting the site. In 933 William, Duke of Normandy, annexed the area. Financed by the Duke, the monastery enjoyed expensive and grand Norman architecture.

Speaking of architecture, this place was INCREDIBLE. Because the architects were severely limited by the pyramid-shaped top of the island, they literally had to wrap the buildings around the granite dome of rock. They built several innovative crypts under the monastery, whose arched ceilings served to support the massive structure above. Given the spatial challenges MSM is unlike any other monastery in the world and represents unique examples of both style and mathematical precision.

MSM withstood English sieges during the Hundred Years War, thanks largely to its military fortifications (quite necessary due to its strategic placement near the English Channel). Thus, MSM has become a national French icon, much like Masada has for Israel.

MSM lost much of its prestige following the French Revolution and in the 1800s it became a prison. After becoming an official historic monument in 1874 MSM underwent extensive restoration and is listed as a World Heritage Site. I guess the prisoners were transferred. Or released. Or guillotined. Not that it really matters - dirty criminals.

Okay, now a bunch of pictures of MSM.

This one is of the narrow, winding, crowded village streets that lead the intrepid pilgrim up, up, up to the monastery.

This is one of the narrow, winding, uncrowded stone staircases that leads the pilgrim down, down, down within the monastery.

This is a stone pillar that was so perfectly illuminated I couldn't help but snap a pic. I wanted a wider shot but there were construction materials all around.

This one I did not take as my camera battery died just when evening fell. I borrowed it from Wikipedia (thanks, Wikipedia!).

My First Trip, Part One - Blog 3

Due to some technical difficulties, I need to skip over my first few days in France. I'll blog about them later once I figure out how to get the pictures transferred from the smaller camera Michelle lent me. So, fast-forward to my first weekend.

As many of you know, making friends quickly and easily has been a life-long challenge for me. Given my natural introverted tendencies, habit of deep, public introspection and disinclination for either being the center of attention or making a spectacle of myself, I've experienced serious loneliness and solitude. No, wait. Never mind. Nothing in this entire paragraph is true in the slightest.

Anyway, I seemed to fall in most easily with the handful of students who enrolled in Drake University's France program but weren't Drake students. We really wanted to go to the northern coast of France. We rented a car, paid extra for GPS and made hotel reservations.

Unfortunately, we didn't start this process until Thursday afternoon; finding hotel accommodations so late became a bit troublesome. Additionally, our collective lack of linguistic ability threw a few more onions into the ointment (and, if you recall from my previous post, there are already WAY too many "onions" up in here). After much tribulation (and more than a few lengthy conversations in what can only be called "Frenglish") we had it all set.

When Grady and I went to pick up the rental car Saturday morning we were fairly confident that we could walk from our hotel, find the rental place and be back to pick up the others within an hour. But we kind of got lost. A lot. For like two hours. We finally broke down and started asking random people on the street for directions. Let's just say that was "less than effective." Mercifully, we finally found the place, got the car and set out for the open road.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Distinguished French - Blog 2

So, it may surprise some of you to hear this but France isn't like the United States. No, really. It isn't. The French may look like us, (well, very well-dressed versions of us) but they are not. Now, some may argue that looking like us but not truly being us is a willful deception by the French; that these outward similarities are just a ploy to achieve some nefarious French objective. I must respectfully disagree: the similarities may be beguiling at first but upon closer inspection the differences between Americans and French are glaring at best. Plus, the French are known for their snobbery and cheese, not their evil genius.

Allow me to list some of the "deceptive" similarities and then point out the irreconcilable differences:

1 - Dress.
Similarity: On the street the French do not wear any type of customary dress or regalia found in other countries and cultures - i.e. no sarongs, kimonos, wooden shoes that look like little boats, hanboks, lederhosen, burkhas (generally), parkas (generally), berets, tall fur hats, leather pants, articles of clothing with the Canadian flag on them, or anything else that may clue one in that they are in a foreign country.

Difference: They are better dressed in general. That is to say there are no tee shirts with malnourished waifs wrapped in tattered French flags emblazoned across the front, I "Heart" NY tee shirts, Hard Rock Cafe tee shirts, or tee shirts of any kind. Seriously - so many of them look like they've just come from the latest fashion show in Paris. There are lots of slacks, blazers and sweater for the men. If the temperature drops below 71 every male has to wear like 5 layers of designer clothing. The women are always wearing like 5 layers of designer clothing.

2 - Food
Similarity: They eat food. They have restaurants. They even have McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Subway. They eat sandwiches on real live "French" bread. They have croissants, too. Go figure.

Difference: Everything. Like, when you go into a restaurant and order a pizza you can't even read the menu. And then, once you pick one that sounds pretty good it's still messed up. For example, I chose a pizza that had "champignong" or something (even though they spelled it wrong, I thought "champion" pizza had to be the best), "ananas" (I knew this hot girl in high school named Anna), and "jambon. " I was the least sure about this - I know that "bon" means "good" (so "bonbons" are literally "good-goods," only too true) and I guessed "jam" mean either a fruit-based paste or a hot new song. I figured I would get like a little plastic tub of jelly or a demo tape or something. But guess what? When the pizza came there were no champions, hot girls or groovy beats. NOPE! There were mushrooms, pineapple and ham! While being disappointed at first (mostly by the lack of attractive females associated with my pizza) I decided to make the best of it. Until I noticed what was in the middle of my pizza: a big ol', round ol', disgusting ol', half-cooked ol' sunny-side up EGG. Yup. AN EGG. ON PIZZA. I've since learned they put eggs on everything. I know, I know. I can't figure it out either. Ruin a perfectly good champion, hot girl and dance remix pizza with an egg. But I have learned to order thing without eggs - "sans oeuf," which sounds like "sands" and then like someone punched you in the gut - ooooohhfff. Eating pizza with egg on it FEELS like someone punched you in the gut so I guess it makes some sense.

3 - Work Ethic/Customer Service
Similarities: People have jobs. People own businesses (like revolting pizza shops). There are trams, busses, trains, planes and automobiles (but every little John Candy so I guess even the French get some things right). They have clothing and shoe shops and cafes and book stores and sex shops and topless bars (called cabarets) and everything.

Differences: A 35-hour work week. No kidding. That's all anyone over here works. Now, that sounds great as an employee but as a customer, it blows. For instance, everything is shut up nice and tight on Sunday. Ethically I agree with this 100%. Due to my religious persuasion I was not impacted by this in the least but many of my classmates were shocked and indignant about it. But it's not just Sunday. France has declared most of every Wednesday as a national holiday. On Wednesday there is no school. After like 11 AM everything else pretty much closes and the French just hang around. Some restaurants are open but since the entire rest of the country doesn't have to work the few businesses that are open are totally crowded. And speaking of restaurants, they are pretty messed up, too. Now, I expect that unless you're at IHOP or Denny's one should expect that breakfast items are only served until a certain time. I have also come to accept that "lunch deals" expire after like 2 or 3 PM but the portions at dinner are larger so I don't mind paying a little more. But here, things are a total mess. You can't get ANY food after 2. None. No one will serve you. All the regular businesses close at somewhere between 11:30 AM and 2 PM and they go home for lunch. And after 2 PM no restaurant will serve you again until like 7 PM at the earliest. No kidding. You just can't get service. And if you are bold enough to enter a restaurant and muster up the audacity to ask for a seat or a menu the French will just stare incredulously at you. Like they can't wrap their minds around the fact that the economy works between 2 and 7 PM or that people may get hungry during the five-hour gap of food service. The only place that is open during the afternoon and on Wednesdays? McDonald's. Yup. And it's a MAD HOUSE. Clearly there is a demand for food on Wednesday and in the afternoon as it takes about 35 minutes to get a chicken sandwich due to the stampede of ravenous French people queued out the door of "Mac Dough's." I just don't get it.

4 - Hygiene
Similarities: Shaving of the legs and pits of the women. That's it.

Differences: Everything else. The French don't seem to see the purpose of a daily shower. Perhaps it's because they are so eco-friendly and think it's a waste of perfectly good water. Perhaps it's because they have no shower curtains - at least I know they don't in any hotels I’ve stayed at so far (you kind of have to sit/squat in the tub and try not to hose down the entire room...). Or perhaps they still think that bathing more then one a week will expose their bodies to germs or the Plague or some other medieval farce. All I know is there is some serious BO up in here. And by "here" I mean "France" and not my hotel. Sometimes it's so bad that when the middle-age men walk by, my classmates literally throw away their food. And often on the trams my vision is blurred by the "onion" induced tears streaming down my face. Eww. I know that France is the place credited with cologne and "L'Oreal" and probably "Tres Emmes." I guess the French are more into research and export and not so much about actually using these products.

In conclusion, while the French may at first glance seem to be very similar to us, they are, in fact, as odd and incomprehensible as any real and full-blown foreign culture, like the Chinese or Klingons. But their croissants are heavenly. I swear I've eaten twice my body weight in butter since I've been here. Consequently, my body weight has nearly doubled; which has resulted in greater butter/croissant intake to keep the ratio of butter-to-body-mass up to two-to-one...mmmm...croissant...mmmm....body mass...

First Post EVER

First off let me begin in the traditional way: by apologizing. This blog will NEVER win any awards for composition, logic or, in all likelihood, amazing content. In fact, I suppose the only thing this blog will be notable for is its mediocrity. I guess that means this blog will be quite similar to my law school finals. But, from what I've observed, I think that will also put this blog on par with the vast majority of the other drivel on the Web so I won't worry too much about it.

Speaking of my observations, this blog WILL contain lots of those. It will also probably contain lots of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and logical catastrophes - I could draw another parallel between the blog and my law school finals but I think you get the point about my academic lethargy. If you don't then you're probably a member of my study group...

So, I'm currently in France studying international and comparative law. Please don't ask me what that means exactly - I couldn't tell you except that it means I get to live in France for five weeks. Three-and-a-half of which have already passed. And I've just started the blog. Clearly, I'm fairly apathetic. Law school similarities blah, blah, blah.

Okay, enough fluff - on to the main event: My European Adventures. Or, rather, my European MISadventures. Or, more accurately, my Actions That Will Likely Result in Several International Incidents and My Speedy Deportation. On with the SHOW!