It's Bastille Day (le 14 juillet) and that got me thinking about my time in Paris last summer. As I re-read these letters from France, I realized just how different my world is today from only a year ago.
Sent: Mon, 28 Jun 2004 03:07:35 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Je suis arrivée à Paris
Bonjour mes amies,
I'm in gay Paree for the next 27 days and loving every minute. Yesterday, I wandered in the Marais and got to know my neighborhood better. I took lots of pictures and sat in the Place des Voges and wrote in my journal, while hundreds of Parisians sunbathed or had a picnic. The pace of life is very different and it's hard to get to bed before 11, because it's daylight here until 10 p.m.
My classmates are great and several of us are planning to see Farenheit 9/11 when it opens here next week. I think seeing that movie in the company of French will be a very memorable experience. : )
Anyhow, I'll be home after July 25, with lots of photos and (hopefully) a much-improved vocabulary.
Sent: Sunday, July 11, 2004 9:22 AM
Subject: greetings from Paris, part deux
Paris continues to be an amazing experience.
We spent the last three days in the Loire Valley, visiting various châteaux (Blois, Chenonceau, Amboise, and Chambord) and generally living it it up in the French way. Our first stop on the way there was Chartres cathedral, which was neat to see again, and then the Tour de France whizzed through town. I didn't see Lance in the yellow jersey, but felt like a part of something big anyhow. Then, we piled on the bus and went wine tasting and liquer tasting, slept in a château in the middle of nowhere, ate fabulous meals, and took beaucoup de pictures in the idyllic French countryside in fields full of sunflowers and wheat. After experiencing the French countryside, I feel that I finally understand the beauty that moved the Impressionists, because I've seen it with my own eyes.
We also went to Amboise and visited Leonardo daVinci's house at Clos Luce. It was amazing to see this man's genius in action: they had built the machines in his notebooks and scattered them, along with reproductions of his art, in the gardens. And speaking of Leo and his notebooks, they had the Codex of Leicester on loan from Bill Gates at Chambord. Seeing those drawings and his mirror-image handwriting was the highlight of my time in the Loire.
Today, I went for a walk in Paris with my roommate Laura and we visited Monet's paintings in the Marmottan before heading to the Promenade plantée -- a beautiful two-mile walk along a converted rail line that's elevated above the city and planted with so many beautiful flowers. We ambled along, photographing and enjoying the light rain for several hours.
This Tuesday, I'm heading to what is billed as the party of the year -- the fête des pompiers, where the firehouse for each arrondisement has an open house / party / fundraiser. Then, the next morning we'll wake up, pack a picnic basket and head to the Bastille Day parade and subsequent celebrations at the Champs du Mars, complete with fireworks at the Tour d'Eiffel.
My time in Paris is slipping through my fingers and I'm looking forward to taking in even more of its beauty.
See you after the 24th.
Sent: Thu, 22 Jul 2004 03:58:12 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: France dispatch #3: The beautiful and the horrible
This is probably my last note, since I'll be flying home in a few days.
I spent the past three days in Normandy and Brittany, because I wanted to visit for the 60th anniversary of D-Day and because I REALLY wanted to see Mont St-Michel. The trip was a transformative experience, but I can't imagine that anyone can come away from Normandy unchanged.
The people in Normandy disprove every American stereotype about the French. I found them to be warm and friendly, and enjoyed their hospitality. I spoke French pretty exclusively those three days, and feel confident in my ability to communicate my basic needs. My waiter even tried to set me up with the young man at the table next to me. : )
Caen calls itself a martyred city, since bombs pretty much leveled it in WWII. I visited St. Peter's church in the morning and saw photographs of the church in ruins, before it was re-built in the aftermath of the war. There was an exhibition of children's drawings responding to the question "what does peace mean to you?" The images were startling and I'll share them once I'm home and have put them online.
The Peace Memorial was amazing. It is the best war museum I've ever seen. The most impactful moment was reading the handwritten letters of G.I.'s who never made it home. I ended up missing my train by minutes, but considered it to be serendipity, because I wanted to stay and see the D-Day beaches the next day. That evening, I wandered the city and found myself in a Monoprix (the French equivalent of Target plus a grocery store) before heading to a small restaurant for an inexpensive but excellent meal and some Norman cider.
At 9 a.m., I took a bus to Arromanches, where British engineers built an artificial harbor that supplied Western Europe until Berlin fell. The remains of the huge concrete floaters are still there, and it was ironic to see children storming the beaches and swimming around the concrete. I also watched a film in the 360° cinema that combined archival footage with present-day shots. I got goosebumps when I saw a firefight in a square that morphed into the Monoprix where I'd been the night before. We got back on the bus and saw various sites, including the gun turrets that the Army rangers destroyed after climbing a cliff the Nazis had thought invulnerable. When we arrived at the American Cemetary, I saw miles of crosses and Stars of David. Nearly 9,500 soldiers (including 4 women) are buried there. It was overwhelming and after spending two days in Normandy, I feel that I finally understand the horrible sacrifice made by the Greatest Generation.
I made it to Pontorson and hopped a bus to Mt. St-Michel. As we approached it, I saw the abbey rising from the sea and felt elated by its beauty. Climbing the steep city streets was hard, but made me even more thrilled that I'm doing this when I'm 29, rather than when I'm 65. The abbey was filled with surprises, including a cloister garden that thrilled me. I stopped and ate the famous 3-inch tall Mt. St-Michel omelette and admired the view of the salt flats and sheep grazing before walking far enough out to take some pictures.
It's been a wonderful trip and I sincerely want to come back. Au revoir for now...