Category Archives: Travels

2 Conferences, 2 Cities, 1 Week in Puerto Rico

After packing for almost every conceivable contingency and getting a few hours of restless sleep, my alarm startled me awake at 3:00am Sunday morning. It was time to shower, throw in the last few toiletries, and head to the airport for a packed week in Puerto Rico.  Adrenaline really does a lot for a person; panicking about arriving late for my flight fueled my last minute packing and kept me awake through my first flight to Chicago. A couple of cups of coffee in Chicago, and I found energy enough to write my last blog post and read a bit for pleasure.

Once in San Juan, I gathered my checked luggage and went in search of my carpooling companions.  Elizabeth had just picked up the car and met me almost as soon as I went through baggage claim. A couple hours and one lost bag later, three other colleagues arrived, and we crammed our gear into the trunk and headed out in search of a good Puerto Rican meal.  My first taste of mofongo convinced me that I was going to enjoy the cuisine on this trip.  However, a few days later, I must admit to missing vegetables – a lot.

My first conference, or rather “un-conference” – THAT Camp Caribe – a series of technology workshops and sessions in the digital humanities, met at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez at the other end of the island.   An uneventful two and half-hour drive brought us to Mayagüez, but we had difficulty finding my hotel. After driving to the wrong location, but the correct address according to the hotel’s website and Google maps, Alex, in a very Jason Bourne sort of way, suggested we turn left then left again and about half-way down the block, we would find five or six guys playing dominoes. He had somehow seen them in the dark from the other side of the block. They misunderstood what we were asking for though and gave us directions to the Colonial apartments rather than Hotel Coloniale.  Thank goodness for electronic maps! Schuyler found the university and then searched for the Howard Johnson since the Colonial Hotel wasn’t far from it. We eventually found it, and after traveling for nearly 20 hours, I arrived at my destination, exhausted, hot, sticky, and ready for bed. The accommodations were very simple but sufficient.

THAT Camp workshops began the next day and the un-conference took place Tuesday and Wednesday.  For more details on THAT Camp, check out my twitter feed (@throughthe_veil) and my upcoming blog post on the Cultural Heritage Informatics site. Before I left home, I had printed out a map of how to get to the university (which turned out to be quite unhelpful), and I picked up a map from the front desk at the hotel, but I forgot how close all of the European-style streets are and walked several blocks too far in the afternoon sun and had to backtrack.  I finally reached UPR and discovered it was deserted! It was a university holiday. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had also printed out a campus map or if my phone was working, but it decided to be contrary at precisely that moment. Fortunately, one lone student was studying nearby and patiently responded to my query in rusty high school Spanish with a funny French accent. I made it just in time for the start of the workshops, and a good thing too!  I didn’t want to miss anything.

Monday night, everyone convened in the HoJo parking lot and caravanned to Rincón.  Well, we mostly followed. I was fortunate enough to find myself in the car with a graduate student who is originally from Mayagüez, so we took a number of back roads through the hills down to the coast.  Our driver, German and Marta were two of the un-conference organizers and kept us laughing with crazy tales of life and biking in Puerto Rico. I laughed so much my cheeks hurt by the time we reached the restaurant, and the night had only begun.  Some of the conversation was serious – discussion of our research topics, how we used the digital humanities in our work, and what our current projects were – but a good portion of it was tongue-in-cheek and silliness.

Quotes of a night:

  • “Disney’s going to lock you in a teacup!” (in reference to “borrowing” Disney icons for a presentation)
  • “It’s like dry bobbing for apples upside down.” (Describing the process of coconut harvesting.)

Tuesday was a full day, beginning with a sunrise run through Mayagüez followed by a brainstorming meeting and sessions until about 5:30, after which everyone met up at Siglo XX for more excellent Puerto Rican food, conversation, and laughter.

Wednesday we finished our sessions around 12:30 and met for lunch – our last social gathering before everyone left for San Juan for the ASA conference or flew home. That afternoon, I wandered around Mayagüez, taking pictures, perusing local shops, and then settled in with a coffee and WiFi at the café in the Howard Johnson. Three hours of programming and experimenting with Mapbox later, Madelyn, one of the other THAT Camp participants asked if I’d like to grab dinner together. We had a wonderful conversation that also served as a debriefing since we hadn’t had the opportunity at the end of the sessions today.  It was the perfect way to end the camp and think about what else we would like to discuss next time.  And it was delightful to get to know her better.  She is a professional flautist and singer who has performed all over the world and is now in library and information sciences but considering further graduate work in ethnomusicology. We talked for three hours! By then, our brains had been on overdrive for three days, and we were exhausted, so we each returned to our rooms and prepared to head out to San Juan for the ASA conference the next day.

A quick lunch at a popular local café, German, Alex, and I set out on our long drive back to San Juan. Along the way German enlightened me on Puerto Rican politics, the countryside, and economy.  The three of us also had a chance to debrief on sessions we weren’t able to attend at the THAT Camp and discuss my current project with MapBox.

As soon as we arrived in San Juan, I decided to head to the beach to enjoy the last bit of sunshine.  I had been in Puerto Rico for four days at that point and had nothing to show for it since I had been inside almost the entire time.  Shortly after I settled into my lounge chair and began to relax, taking in the beautiful scenery, Ryan and Marcel (the other two presenters on my panel) arrived and suggested a swim. The water was just cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough that I didn’t freeze after ten minutes (which is saying something). As the sun set, we dried off and made plans to meet for drinks in the lobby and dinner at a nearby restaurant with some of their friends.

I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but the location was amazing – a patio, right next to the Caribbean, the waves splashing against the rocks just below us. It was a beautiful night – still warm, but not stifling – just right for an evening stroll and dinner.  Marcel and Ryan’s friends were amiable and interesting, which made conversation easy and enjoyable. Over dinner, a couple regaled us with stories of a recent trip to Malawi and Kenya for non-profit work. It was an early night since three of us had to present at 8am the next morning.

The sun rises early in San Juan, and so did we Friday morning. Since the conference was held at a convention center rather than the hotel, we had to catch the first shuttle to make it in time to set up for our panel.  Despite the hour, we had a decent turnout, and the presentations and subsequent conversation went well. If you’re interested, my paper and PowerPoint are available on my academic blog:  Before we knew it, the two hours had passed, and it was time to clear the room for the next panel.

Following a busy day at the convention center and some time enjoying the Caribbean sun, Denise, a friend I had met in the archives in Aix, picked us up for a tour of old San Juan, dinner, and salsa (music and dancing, not the dip).  After sampling the delectable but heavy Puerto Rican cuisine at Raice’s, we definitely needed to at least walk off dinner.  Our trek to a local celebration, complete with carnival rides and live music was the perfect solution. The salsa dancers were incredible, and the party atmosphere electric. I joined one of Denise’s friends on 1001 Nachts (Nights), a carnival ride that swings its occupants up in a wide arc and finally full circle. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and while Denise’s friend, who shall remain anonymous, turned a little green, he survived the ride and returned triumphantly to solid ground.  After visiting several local hangouts, we finally called it a night.

Saturday brought more conferencing and beach time before heading out for another dinner and more live music with Denise. This time, we headed out to local lunch favorite in the Santurce or workers’ district. It was like stepping into someone’s cozy dining room from the 1950s with ancient TV’s, old photographs, paintings, and knickknacks.  Dinner was excellent once again and much of it was complementary from drinks to appetizers.  A bit of coffee revived us after dinner, and we set off for a park in the Condado district and more live music – this time Bomba. This percussive, Afro-Caribbean fusion is actually Christmas music on the island, and the Puerto Rican version of “caroling” would be completely unrecognizable as such to many Americans.  In Puerto Rico caroling is called an “assault” and happens at about midnight after gathering at least 20 people and instruments to play the lively, dance-worthy music in front of someone’s house, who is then expected to provide a feast for the crew who interrupted their sleep. Being a night owl, it sounds like a great deal of fun to me, but I’m sure many would disagree. 🙂

Finally, Sunday arrived and so did our planes to fly us home. The guys headed back to Yale on an early flight, while I met Denise for brunch and flew back in the afternoon.

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Posted by on November 24, 2012 in Graduate School, Travels


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Reflections on Chicago and Paris while traveling to Puerto Rico

Walking through the O’Hare airport this morning and watching the sun rise reflecting bright pink off the clouds over Chicago, I couldn’t help but smile fondly. I have to admit, a part of me misses this city.  I’m on my way to Puerto Rico for a THAT Camp “unconference” at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez and the American Studies Association conference in San Juan.

This trip has been in the works since last summer when a friend and I decided to put a panel together at a graduate institute hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  Since the ASA deadline was a little further away, giving us time to plan, and the theme was a perfect fit for our panel, we decided to give it a shot.  The location had nothing to do with it! Well, ok, maybe a little… San Juan in the middle of gray, (normally) cold, rainy November sounded wonderful to my Yale and UConn colleagues and I.  And I have been looking forward to this conference (and the late addition of the THAT Camp to my schedule) for months, but when it came time to actually leave family, friends, and home, I had second thoughts even though it’s only for a week.  Thankfully, I have friends either living in or meeting me in San Juan, and the THAT Camp is small (only about 60 attendees), so I’m sure I’ll meet a number of other scholars.  I know I will enjoy my time while I’m there, and I could definitely use a dose of warmth to go with our unusually sunny November.  However, I know I will also be happy to come home at the end.

It has been a crazy month since we returned.  I had hoped to write more on my personal blog to fill in a number of stories yet untold about our travels in Europe, but alas, I have spent most of my time in the car running to Michigan State or (happily) catching up with family, friends, meeting our nephew(!), celebrating birthdays, Halloween, and the birth of a dear friend’s precious daughter.  It’s been a whirlwind, but it has been wonderful to be home, surrounded by love and special friendships with those who know our virtues and faults and love us still.

To all those who wrote or Skyped, I just want to take a moment to thank you.  There were definitely points in the journey when I was quite lonely, and I would read your notes over and over again.  I carried you all in my heart while I was away, so if I forget to share pictures or stories, please understand that I felt like you were there with me, experiencing the colors and delectable scents of the markets, the coolness of the Mediterranean, and the awe-inspiring yet cozy city of Paris. I also don’t want to be one of those people who talk on and on about their travels and show their photos ad nauseum.  With that said, if you would like me to share more, please let me know.

I suppose it makes the most sense to start from the point at which I left off … After our trip to Italy, I traveled to Paris and Mike returned Braunton, England.  I was quickly reminded how much fun Paris can be when shared with a friend.  My first visit to Paris was two years ago, traveling alone for the first time, and it was my first time in Europe. I didn’t know a soul, so much of my time was spent journaling, doing a few sightseeing tours, and planning what I’d like to see when I could share the experience with someone else.  Little did I know that the next trip would be with my husband and best friends! We only had about two and half days in the city, but we saw about as much as one can cram into that amount of time.  I’m surprised we didn’t need new shoes after our trip to London and Paris together; we put so many miles on them! And in Paris, we decided to be extra ambitious and climbed all the stairs of the Eiffel Tower – good thing too or we would have spent the entire night waiting for the one working elevator instead enjoying the views. If one is in reasonably decent shape, it’s really not a bad hike, and it provides a fantastic justification for indulging in the scrumptious Parisian cuisine after. J

I digress. During my third trip to Paris, this time for research, I stayed with a friend from Michigan State.  As we plotted and planned for our two weeks together, she found a small apartment we could share, sent me pictures, the sublet price, and we agreed that it looked perfect for us.  When I arrived – after hauling my luggage through the metro and up four flights of stairs – she greeted me by apologizing for the miniscule size of the place.  What had looked cozy and quaint online was quite tight for two people.  Nevertheless, I loved it.  It was an artist’s apartment packed with books, her own artwork, and souvenirs from her own world travels. Living there was exactly what I had pictured life might be like as a young woman in her twenties trying to live within a tight budget.

My first night in town, we wandered down to the Bastille and found a place to grab dinner and catch up. The next day, Monday, we picked up our Navigo passes for the metro and made our way to the Bibliothèque Nationale.  What a blessing it was to have Ali to guide me through that process! She guided me to office where I had to submit my passport, letter from my professor, and explain my project in a short interview; then to the window to pay for my reader’s card; to the vestiary to drop off my bags and pick up the plastic suitcase that would house my precious research tools (laptop, camera, and money for espresso); to a computer stand to reserve a place in a reading room; and finally through the 12-foot high 8-inch thick card-access-only metal doors. If you’d like a more detailed description of the involved process of getting into the French national library, see the post on my academic blog site.

I spent a good portion of our time between the reading room and espresso bar at the national library while Ali met me there or back at the apartment after conducting research at another archives.  The evenings were often quite, as she read for comps, and I wrote cover letters and worked on my teaching philosophy statement. My favorite part of the day was the morning when it was cool and fewer people were out and about.  I often ran along the Seine, through the gardens, by Notre Dame and back or explored the area around Père Lachaise cemetery.

Summer is generally the time when most American graduate students conduct research, freed from teaching requirements and their own course-loads, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that a number of Michigan State history students descended on Paris at the same time. It was surreal though. The last time I had seen them was in East Lansing months before, and yet here we were in Paris! One night we met one of the other grad students and his wife for a walk along the channel, dinner, and drinks in the “secret” bar.  There are no signs for this bar, and it is hidden at the end of a long, hedged walkway.  I don’t remember how Ali found it before, but it was a fun find.  The inside is entirely furnished with second-hand and re-purposed materials, much like a dorm-room.  College wasn’t that long ago; it felt like home, albeit slightly exoticized.

With Cindy, another MSU grad student, and her boyfriend Eric, we discovered Café Industriel not far from our apartment – great food and very reasonable prices by any standard, which means inexpensive in Paris.

Just across from our apartment sat another a cute Parisian café – a bit pricier, but a fun atmosphere until about 2am when we were ready to sleep, but everyone else was still out partying.  It didn’t take long for Ali to hunt down some ear plugs, and I dug out my noise-cancelling earphones to ensure a decent night’s sleep.

On another excursion, Ali introduced me to City Pharmacie a block from St. Germain-de-Près church. What a trip! Apparently, buses pull up in front of this pharmacy for the tourists because it has such great deals on fantastic French beauty products.  After squeezing my way through the hoards, being smashed up against a glass display-case, face first, and finding myself completely mystified by the checkout lines and attendants that allowed people to cut in front of those of us who had already waited ten minutes, I decided it was time for a drink.  Fortuitously, Les Deux Magots was only a block away – a café made famous by the many artists and authors who frequented it in the days of Hemingway and later Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.  I had wanted to check it out anyway, but having survived the traumatic trip through the pharmacy, it was the perfect moment to find a comfy place to sit, enjoy a café and people-watch. Ali agreed. The prices are ridiculous, which is why I only bought a coffee, but it’s fun to say I’ve been there.

It may not have been the most glamorous trip to Paris, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and having a friend to share it with.


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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Travels


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Barefoot Summer Days and Italian Souvenirs

My feet have declared repeatedly that they were not meant for shoes, and they are finally beginning to make their point. At least my thick head is finally starting to pay attention.  Even sandals worn dozens of times and soft flats have me running for the band-aids on an almost daily basis. Moments like this bring back fond memories of going barefoot all summer as a child and the next best thing – flip flops on warm summer days, which reminds me that I haven’t written of our adventures in Italy yet…

Desenzano Old Port

My husband and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary in July and since we weren’t sure at that time when we would be back in Europe together, we decided to visit Italy, a dream destination on both of our lists. Rather than stay in one of the hotspots – Rome, Venice, Florence, etc. – we chose a small town on Lake Garda (shown above). Apparently, it’s a common destination for Europeans, but it’s a little known location in the States.  The Europeans are on to something!  It is a huge inland lake in northern Italy – more than 17 miles from top to bottom and 10 across and surrounded by Alpine mountains.  We stayed in Desenzano (pictures to the right and below) on the southern coast of the lake, which provided easy access to Sirmione across the lake and was a beautiful town in its own right.

Castle in Desenzano from High Middle Ages

The castle to the left dates back to the middle ages when it was used as a refuge in case of attack and likely sits on the ruins of a Roman castrum (for military defense). Mike and I found it on our first evening when we hiked up to the grocery store nearly two miles from our hotel. Since it was closed at that time, we returned to tour it on our last day and discovered they were setting up for a concert in the interior open-air auditorium.  Restoration continues on this ancient building, and only the tower is open for tours, but one can easily imagine the local nobility comfortably situated to keep an eye on one another while tucked safely away from impending invasions in homes originally surrounded by fortifications.

After our busy spring and summer, we took a couple of days to relax by the pool, meander through the town, and enjoy swimming in the fresh water lake. Venice was just a bus-ride away, so we joined one of the guided

Welcoming committee in Venice

excursions to get a taste of the city and promptly decided we would return and spend several days, time and budget provided! Venice is a beautiful, magical city but hot and crowded in the summer. The thousands of tourists who descend on the city each day by the bus and boat-loads must annoy the residents terribly.  It was quite literally wall-to-wall people when we arrived. Nevertheless, our brief stay was enjoyable, albeit sticky. As we stepped off the boat, the first site that awaited us were the masked couple to the right, paying homage to the Venetian Carnevale, which is said to date back to the celebration of a military victory in 1162 and became institutionalized in the Renaissance.

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Canals in Venice provide the main means of transportation, and as a result, bridges are equally important for pedestrian traffic. This is the Rialto bridge, which crosses the Grand Canal and is large enough that shops were built along it to entice visitors with a number of local crafts and wares.  It also attracts pickpockets because of the large number of gawking tourists, so keep an eye on your belongings!  The next bridge, the Bridge of Sighs (shown below), connects the Ducal Palace (aka the Doge’s Palace) the prisons.  There are two windows in this bridge that provided prisoners with their last views of sunlight and freedom, thus the sighs as they crossed it.

Bridge of Sighs

Since we had little time to explore, we spent much of it in St. Mark’s Square, touring the magnificent cathedral, taking in the grand Ducal Palace as well as the live music in surrounding cafés. The first church on the site of the basilica was built in 828 AD, rebuilt in 832, destroyed in 976 during a rebellion, and rebuilt again in 978 and 1063 to form the foundation of the present building. It’s origins date to Venetian merchants’ theft of antiquities thought to have belonged to St. Mark, and ever since, scarcely a commercial venture returned from trading in the East without something to add to the cathedral. Stepping inside, one is nearly blinded by the gilded ceilings and walls despite the dim lighting.

St. Mark’s Basilica

It is also one of the few cathedrals that insists on proper dress – shoulders and knees must be covered, and if they are not, they provide cheap shawls and skirts to preserve the sense of respect and reverence of this sacred space. It certainly inspires awe at the time and care that hundreds of men and an unknown number of women dedicated to its creation and maintenance as an act of worship.  It is ostentatious, yes, but because it is so over-the-top stunning, it makes me think of it as a representation of its various creators’ visions of heaven. Of course, the artists and craftsmen probably had numerous motives, not least of which may have been devotion and the opportunity to employ their God-given talents.

Gondola Ride!

After our whirlwind tour of the small portion of St. Mark’s Cathedral that you are now allowed in (due to the hordes of tourists), we joined our tour group for a gondola ride.  During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were between 8,000 and 10,000 gondolas in operation! There are now just over 400 today for the tourists, and with the motorized boat taxis, the canals are very crowded.  While it was a fun and somewhat surreal voyage, it was also very toasty in the narrow canals between buildings.  Not a whisper of wind stirred the heavy lagoon air, and we had to peel ourselves off the seat after the short 30-minute ride. However, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for any number of air-conditioned cafés.

Scaliger Castle, Sirmione, Italy

Once we had recovered from our Venice outing, we decided to tour a bit of Lake Garda, visiting several of the towns around the southern coast the next two days. Our favorite was Sirmione, which has an impressive castle, complete with mote and the memorable name of Scaliger, which still makes me think of ‘scalawag’ and ‘scavenger.’  It has long been a resort town – at least since the first century BC.  In the 13th c. AD, the Scaliger took possession of this pennisular city and built the castle (shown on the left and below right) as part of its defense. Between 1405 and 1797, Sirmione was part of the Venetian Republic and was then acquired by the Hapsburg Empire. It didn’t become a part of the Italian kingdom until 1860.

The castle remained an important defense post and was garrisoned into the 19th century.  It was one of the best and most complete castles Mike had seen (compared to the English castles he had toured up to this point), and it was the first one I had ever seen, so it definitely topped our list of favorites (apart from Venice as a whole, which is in a category by itself).

In a close second was the other gem of Sirmione: the “Grotto of Catullus” (Grotte di Catullo), the ruins of an ancient and enormous Roman villa, the largest discovered in northern Italy.  However, it should be noted that the Roman poet Catullus (d. 54 BC) lived long before the villa was erected (about 150 AD), but his family did own a villa near this location during his lifetime. Hopefully, the pictures below provide some sense of the enormity of the original structure and the fun we had exploring it.

Grotte di Cattulo

We still have much of Italy to explore – all of the aforementioned cities, Milano, and several others as well – but this was an incredible introduction to this beautiful country.  (For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the food – I can’t eat wheat or much dairy, so, in the words of a friend, Italy “is wasted on me” – at least its cuisine. However, I can attest to the delicious salads, soups, and seafood to be had, and my husband can tell you how wonderful the pizza and pasta are.)

Well, the memories of the warm Italian sun have driven away the chills of my Paris apartment for the night, and my feet are thanking me for setting them free from their tormentors. It’s time to get some sleep before another day spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale studying the origins of “civilization”.

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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Travels


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A Graduate Student in Paris … Again arrived in Paris for my last three weeks of this European trip on Thursday evening. After dropping my suitcase off in my fourth-floor apartment, thankful for the elevator, I headed back out to meet a friend for dinner.  Unfortunately, the following two days did not live up to this auspicious beginning.

Illness and an awful headache kept me in, and though the time was productive, academically speaking, it was rather depressing to be stuck inside when I had planned to explore Paris a little more and hit the ground running with my research.  Oh well.  C’est la vie.

This morning after dragging myself out of bed, I discovered I finally had a little more energy and put it work cleaning the kitchen and putting my belongings in some semblance of order.  After a quick shower, I prepared to step out of my apartment for more than groceries.  Though I didn’t get to the Latin Quarter as I had originally planned today, I had a great visit with my mom, which reminded me how fortunate I am to be here, and that I vowed to make the most of my time here, sick or not.  So, armed with my laptop and a general sense of location, I set out to explore my neighborhood and find a café in which to work.

My apartment, though beautiful, is chilly, and believe it or not, does not have a single blanket in it, apart from the enormous comforter on the bed. Since I hadn’t packed many winter clothes for this trip, I decided I had better find a café.  After all, if Simone de Beauvoir spent more time in her favorite café than her chilly abode, why couldn’t I do the same?  Besides, the life and activity of cafés drive the loneliness away and often provide great people watching.   Maybe it will inspire ideas for a story or two as well…

On my brief promenade, I discovered that most of my neighborhood is residential. There are a number of grocery stores and boulangeries (bakeries) within a five-minute walk, a beautiful brick elementary school, a park where the sounds of ping pong and giggles reach the street through the surrounding hedges, and a sports and activity center.  My apartment is also near the Eiffel Tower, which greeted me when I arrived my first night and welcomed me back home after dinner.

Since it was a Sunday, few restaurants were open, so I ended up essentially where I began my walk at Café Lutetia. The hum of the café crowd, familiar sounds of a cappuccino maker, and the comforting smells and warmth of my usual café allongé provided the perfect setting to return to my project on the conceptual development of civilization in French discourse.  What more fitting location could I find to inspire work on this paper than Paris in the fall with plans to return to the national library the next day and a visit to Musée du Quai Branly in the near future?

After finishing my work in the café, I set out for an evening run – my favorite way to enjoy the city.  I had intended to head towards the Eiffel Tower, but I think I took the longest way possible to get there from my apartment. However, my meandering route allowed me to explore areas of the city I hadn’t seen before. I knew the general direction I needed to head, so I continued making turns as the mood struck, letting my inner compass guide me.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when the trees gave way to the grass and gravel of Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower.  I had just passed several cafés that looked familiar and knew I was getting close, but popping out from the shadowed street into the park and watching as the Eiffel Tower was lit for the night still took my breath away.

Tomorrow I have a little time before the Bibliothèque Nationale opens (2pm) and plan to explore a little more before getting back to work. I hope to make some time soon to relate stories from my last trip to Paris as well. Stay tuned!

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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Travels


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The Blessing of Wrong Turns

I love taking a wrong turn. I do it all the time in Aix and have found an unexpected surprise waiting for me, usually as I turn around to figure out where I am. I never allowed myself to take a wrong turn the last time I was here. I was a newcomer, barely spoke the language, and the winding, maze of medieval streets confused me. I definitely didn’t want to get lost! Each day I needed to go somewhere new, I memorized my route so I wouldn’t have to pull out my map and be targeted as a tourist. Now that I know my landmarks and have a pretty good sense of direction, during the hustle and bustle of an afternoon of shopping or finding a new route to my bus stop from class, I purposely wander down streets I’ve never explored. One day, I ran across a great little used book store with some beautiful antique works. Today, I discovered a surprisingly large Mediterranean grocery store – La Corbeille d’Orient – with such delicacies as Baklava and “home-made” dried apricots and papaya, none of which I can eat because of the sugar, but a fun find, nevertheless. (They also had a few things I could eat for half the price of the supermarket – a very important consideration for a grad student!)

However, my favorite surprise find came at the end of the day. I made time for a run, fighting the fatigue of the day and lack of sleep. It was exactly what I needed, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night for it. With a warm spring sun, a few clouds in the distance, and a pleasant breeze to cool my skin, I hit the hills. If I haven’t mentioned it before, Aix is nestled in the foothills, make that small mountains (from a runner’s perspective!) of the Alps. It’s absolutely gorgeous but makes running an extra challenge. I love it! Maybe it was growing up in Fremont and training on “Toboggan” and “Hernia” Hill.  I’m not sure, but I have loved running hills ever since. Anyway, up and down I went, into the heart of the city, past the accordion player entertaining tourists enjoying aperitifs before dinner and the boutiques and shops closing for the evening. As I headed out of the city, I, as usual decided to take a different way home. I knew what direction I needed to head and started up a hill, or what I thought was a hill. Up and up and up… the grade kept getting steeper, and my legs began reminding me that I’d already put in three running miles on top of the 5 miles I’d walked during the day. Finally, after nearly a half mile at about a ten percent grade, I decided to give in and turn around to see where I was.  I reasoned that I would need to reverse directions to get back to my apartment anyway. I slowed to a stop, paused my watch, and as I faced the direction from which I had come, I stopped breathing, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the run. There in the distance were the Alps as far as the eye could see. I’ve never had such a fantastic view of them. I was rooted to the spot until a crescendo in the music I’d been listening to reminded me that I should probably keep moving. Wondering if I could find an ever better vantage point, the sight of the Alps inspired me to continue further up the “hill.” I cranked up the music – a quarter of cellists playing some incredible hard rock – and attacked the slope once again. (I know hard rocking cellists sounds crazy, but look them up if you don’t believe me – Apocalyptica.) At long last… well actually, not that much longer, my legs reminded me I still had another hill to run on the way back, and I gave up. I had been glancing back periodically and never found another spot where I could see the mountains. Trees obscured the view, and on the way back, on the other side of the road, trees were also in the way. If I hadn’t stopped at that very place, I would have missed out on that sublime moment of awe and wonder over God’s magnificent creation. What blessing to take a wrong turn!  It didn’t hurt that I got to run down that enormous hill on the way back and feel, for a few minutes at least, like a “real” runner a again. 🙂

I can’t find a photograph that is similar to the view of both the city of Aix with the Alps in the background, so I’ll have to return with my camera. I’ll post the picture as soon as I have the chance. I also need to take some pictures of Aix in the evening. I can’t take credit for the one I included in the post since I didn’t have my camera with me on the run, but it conveys the feel of the city in evening.

(Photo Credit: “Aix-en-Provence, Adagio,” <>)


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La Vie Quotidienne

“Daily Life” in Aix:

For now, this “home” away from home: building #9 in Parc Mozart. 🙂  Though my room is spare, it’s comfortable, and the apartment itself is a good size, with plenty of space for everyone.  When I moved in, I had three roommates – a couple from Italy and a professor from Spain.  The couple has since left, and I’m waiting to meet my new roommate.  So far, everyone has been wonderful. They have been patient with me as I work on my French, courteous, and easy to live with.

And… we have a plant! I realize this isn’t a big deal to most people, but with the bare floors and scarce decor, it’s nice to have something green and living.

As I leave the apartment, I have a few of the Alps, which are about 2.5 hours away – not quite Sainte Victoire, but beautiful nevertheless.







On my way to the school where I’m taking French, I pass the site of the ancient Roman baths, which is still a luxury resort that takes advantage of Aix’s famous hot springs, Thermes Sextius, founded in 122BC.



After 1+ mile walk, I finally arrive at IS, the International School, affiliated with Alliance Français, which is designed specifically for foreigners learning the language. It offers intensive courses from 2 to 12+ weeks.  I will be studying here in the mornings for 3 weeks and participating in a number of activities organized by the school.  (Tomorrow, I’ll be in Arles all day for the Fete des Gardians since May 1 is a public holiday in France and everything else is closed, including the archives.)



After class on Friday, I meandered over to the Cours Mirabeau in another effort to find the best way back to the Rotonde, where I meet my bus to the archives. Along the way, my stomach began to growl as I passed the delectable sites and smells of the cafés along Cours Mirabeau, so I stopped by one I hadn’t visited before, La Belle Epoque, for a quick salad before continuing on my way.



Cours Mirabeau always bustles with activity during the day and is beautiful in the spring.  It runs right into the magnificent Rotonde with one of the largest fountains in Aix …

Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence

Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)













While I enjoyed my repast at Belle Epoque, I realized that the street (Rue Joseph Cabassol) across from the cafe looked really familiar.  Digging through memories of my last visit, I associated the street with two of the most interesting bookstores in Aix.  I couldn’t resist – I had to know if I was right, so…

As I made my way down the side street, I rediscovered Aix’s Music Conservatory, below left, a former city mansion, built by a 17th century noble, and All Books, which lives up to its name, offering publications in more than a dozen languages (below right). Just a few buildings down, on the other side of the street is Book in Bar, an English language bookstore, where I discovered a whole shelf devoted to Bilingual books! I picked up William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree for pleasure reading and hope to quickly move to some of the classic French works in the original language – The Count of Monte Cristo – among them. 🙂












I finally tore myself away from the bookstores with the promise of soon being back at the archives (both pictures below).  The sun was shining, and I reveled in the warm wind that seemed to animate everything.  Feeling much more comfortable with the language, I approached the archives with a renewed enthusiasm, even though I knew more microfilm awaited me.  Reading the beautiful but nearly illegible handwriting has become so much easier since I began the French course.  It has been well worth the investment of time and energy both for my research and simply living and getting around Aix.



Although cloudy, Saturday dawned humid, warm, and windy with the promise of rain that night.  Even though it wasn’t the nicest weather, I headed to the market to meet “my” vendor again.  I took a different route this time and discovered numerous little shops and more restaurants than I could visit if I went to a different one every night from now until mid-July.  I made it to the market just in time, as the vendors were beginning to pack up, but I was able to find what I needed for the next few days, and vendor remembered me!  In a city of strangers, it meant a lot to be recognized and greeted with an “aha!” and a smile that said he hadn’t forgotten.

After a quick lunch, I hurried to catch the bus that would take me close to the Indian Forest where the Parcours Acrobatique (Ropes course) awaited me.  I had to ask directions from several people since the bus didn’t take me to the entrance but rather about a quarter mile behind it.  However, the walk and wandering was well worth it… I had to cross the bridge (below left) and was surprised to find that I was familiar with the place. I had run right under it during my last visit, never knowing what was above me.  Below right is the entrance to the ropes course.









One of the platforms, from which you climb the rope net up to two parallel cables, one above your head to hang onto as you walk (or inch) along the cable below it!  The last time I did a ropes course, I was about 50-60 feet up in the air most of the and was distinctly uncomfortable.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that even though this course was much more challenging, I felt so much more comfortable. It was a good thing too because it wasn’t guided, and the only way to go was forward – to the next zip line (my favorite) or ropes to swing across the river below, ladders to climb ever higher, elevated bridges that swung in the wind…

It is definitely motivating when there is only one way to go and that is forward. I’m actually rather proud of myself for choosing a route that made me a little more uncomfortable than other options.  At one point, I was clipped into a rope about 40 feet in the air flying along a line about a hundred yards long to crash into cushionsand rebound, which forced me to climb the rope to reach the net, and then clamber up the rope ‘spider web’ to the next platform – mentally and physically challenging, and exhilarating! At one point, I got separated from my classmates (the two who joined me were actually from my class out of the 100+ students!) and ended up chatting with a young girl who was swinging her way through the course ahead of me.  She must have been about 10.  Kids are so amazing.  They have so much energy, and she was light as a feather.

At one point, we reached a rope-net tower (left) that you had to crawl inside and then climb up.  She convinced me that the view was worth it.  After a couple of big heaves, she was at the top, holding the rope for me to clip on.  I, on the other hand, took much smaller steps, but finally made it to the top, and she was right. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t bring the camera, so I don’t have a picture of the view that encompassed the mountains, the Indian Forest that surrounded us, and the city.

When we finished the course, she excitedly introduced me to her grandmother, who spoke fluent English but spoke French after I explained that I was in Aix to learn the language and conduct research. We chatted for at least ten minutes while I waited for my colleagues to return – Mirko and Sandra, had wanted to go back into the course when they finished because they followed a different route that brought them back faster than mine did, but I don’t think they found it because after I walked through the course and came back, they had already taken their gear off and Sandra had lit at least one cigarette.  We sat and visited for quite a while in French with the occasional word in English or German for clarification, but it was very good practice for me, and enjoyable to boot. The conversation ranged from a comparison of politics in Switzerland, Germany, France and the US to the type of news that is reported in each country to our thoughts on our French course.  At last, we decided it was time to head out and said our goodbyes.

This week promises to be even busier than last.  As I mentioned, tomorrow will find me in Arles.  On Wednesday, I will be back in class and the archives.  Thursday evening, I hope to take a Provençal cooking class, and Sunday, I will be traveling to Cassis and La Ciotat. I don’t have any plans for Saturday yet, but Sandra mentioned going to the movies… we shall see!

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Posted by on April 30, 2012 in Travels


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Soul Searching 2

The rest of the story…  Here is what I didn’t have a chance to write in the last post…

Throughout the past week, as I questioned God’s plan for my life and my ability to accomplish the task set before me (completing my doctorate), I have felt a quiet voice reminding me to “be still and know that I am God.” Even when I received the discouraging email, that verse came to mind, and as I left my apartment for the market, an elderly man passed me whistling clearly, beautifully, almost hauntingly “Amazing Grace.”  It brought tears to my eyes, and I slowed down to catch every note as he strode away with his wife.  I had just been praying for affirmation that I was where I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to be doing.  No matter what, the knowledge of God’s amazing saving grace makes all of my worries seem insignificant and fade away.  The God powerful and loving enough to save a wretch like me answered my prayer almost immediately and affirmed that I would “find myself” in Aix – a prayer prompted by the memory of a line from the movie Sabrina (with Harrison Ford & Julia Ormond):
Sabrina (musing): I found myself in Paris.
Linus: You were lost?
Sabrina: Yes.
Linus: I once was lost and now I’m found.

I prayed that this time away from the familiar would give me the opportunity to “find myself” again. The synchronicity of these thoughts and prayers with that whistled tune made my skin tingle in a way that had nothing to do with the cool spring breeze. Just how many coincidences does it take before they don’t seem like coincidences anymore? I don’t believe in them, to begin with, but that was a pretty incredible set of circumstances.

The rest of the day confirmed that not everyone in Aix thinks I am an idiot and not just because “I haven’t met them all yet.” (-another Sabrina reference)

I just had to throw out my lilacs – the problem with buying pre-cut flowers.  I had considered buying a live plant but was afraid that it might outgrow its container and wasn’t sure if the next guest in the apartment would want to take care of it.  I still might though; it may provide a pleasant welcome to the next person to stay in my room, and there is just something about being in the presence of beautiful living things. I have usually been to busy to develop much of green thumb but would certainly like to in the future.  When I finally have the opportunity to embark on that adventure and plant my vegetable garden, I am sure I will write about it. Until then, I will continue to dream and take advantage of local farmers’ markets.

The fruits and vePrès du Hôtel de Villeggies at the market near the hôtel de ville (City Hall) are delicious.  It’s so much easier to find organic and locally-grown produce here than in the states. The giant red bell pepper I bought on Saturday has been one of the sweetest I’ve ever eaten and has made a fantastic addition to salads this week. I am anxious to head back in a few days and explore more. I’ve decided to visit the same growers for my fruits and veggies each week so I can get to know them and become a “regular” at least while I’m here.  It would be nice to be recognized and feel like I can catch up on the weeks’ activities with someone familiar.  Besides, the vendors I eventually settled on offered me two free strawberries as I shopped and one after my purchase.  They were heavenly! It’s great for marketing since I definitely plan to buy some on my next trip! (The picture is from my last visit here.  This Saturday I will take one of “my” vendors.)  😉

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Self-Reflection, Travels


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