Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Drive Baby Drive

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Leaving Madrid wasn’t anything too exciting, it’s a nice city and the roads are fine, although many main roads were still above ground. We drove east toward Italy, passed Barcelona that night and slept outside Avignon, France. The next morning (06/30) we visited Avignon, where the pope once lived and where one of the antipopes made their headquarters (remember when we were in Konstanz? That was the council where they ousted the antipopes, one of whom lived in Avignon). A very nice city, we decided after hiking a little hill to see the city, although the road system was a bit tricky. Then we were on our way again.

We hit the French Riviera to the west of Monaco and traveled along the winding but beautiful roads toward that famous and expensive little town. Monaco was packed with people, as was most of the French Riviera—not surprising on a beautiful June day. We found some parking and visited the port, full of sleek sailboats, ostentatious yachts, pleasant rowboats, a few fishing boats, and dozens of yachties there to do the dirty work for the rich and famous. Along the dockside a Ferrari 360 Spyder and a Porshe Carrera GT found spaces between Bentleys and Mercedes and $600 suits enjoyed debonair lunches with $800 purses at secluded sidewalk cafes.

We felt out of place, and, as a $1M helicopter launched from its seaside berth, we meekly citröened* our aging VW out of the country.

We got on the motorway and took our aim for Italy. We skirted Genova and headed to Torino where we saw the old Olympic Village, a cool bridge, a Latin-American Festival and then found a spot to eat some supper and sleep. The next day, we saw the famous Shroud of Turin (with the image of Jesus on it). Not all of us were convinced and most of us were skeptical and others of us were dubious, but we were glad to have seen the big box that contains the shroud.

The next day we got on a road and began following it figuring this was the best way to navigate since we were in Italy and all roads lead to Rome. It did not, in fact, lead to Rome, instead it led to Pisa so we stopped and saw the tower which was still leaning and the churches and other buildings in the complex were were also leaning or had previously leant. One thing none of us had known previously was how big the complex was that included the leaning tower.

We departed that evening, found a road which did lead to Rome and followed it. The next day we arrived.

* Have we explained this yet? In Bad Pyrmont we visited the VW dealership and were told that if we didn’t repair our leaking hydraulic suspension (for about €100) we would end up bouncing like a Citröen. We decided that was a risk we were willing to take. A month or so later we noticed a pronounced bouncing in the back end and christened the unpredictable and sustained trampoline-like movement “citröening.”

A Giant of a Bridge

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

We took a slight detour on our way south on Wednesday (12/6) to visit the world’s largest bridge, The Millau Viaduct. The bridge is spectacular, spanning the Tarn river valley in southwest France. It really looks as though the highway just took off and flew over this yawning valley supported by a few spindly pillars.

The bridge was designed by the British architect and Baron Norman Foster who also designed the “Gherkin” we saw in London, the new dome of the Reichstag in Berlin, the Hauptbahnhof roof and cupola in Dresden, all of which we have seen in the past few weeks. We hadn’t planned this to be a Norman Foster tour, but it’s turning in to one.

After observing the bridge for a while and experimenting with the durability of our Nalgenes (we weren’t able to throw them off the bridge so we soccer dribbled them down the hillside). Then, we crossed the amazing viaduct, arriving at the other side €6 poorer, but spiritually uplifted.

We then drove south through Clermont to the Mediterranean where, according to Matt, we passed “a foul bathroom and barbecuing locals, to stroll the shore. The Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean in 12 days. Whew.”

After an hour or so at the French Mediterranean beach, we headed west toward Andorra. After the highways petered out at the edge of the Pyrenees, we spent hours wending our ways through the mountains toward the tiny nation. Although none of us got sick and we enjoyed the views quite a bit–until it got dark–we did eventually tire of the switchbacks and their toll on our brakes.

We rolled into Andorra that night, stopped at a parking lot just outside of town and went to sleep.

The next morning (13/6) we awoke and I proposed that we do some work on the car. The rest agreed after a bit of democratic discussion and we set at it. Matt set to work figuring out our problems with the windshield-wiper-fluid system that caused our fluid to drain out under the bumper and caused an annoying warning light to reside constantly on our dashboard.

Dan and David took apart the passengers side rear door where the window hasn’t worked since we got the car. I went back and forth between the two projects offering advice, encouragements, and random statements. I also read the manual and our Haynes book comparing parts and instructions for all projects.

Matt fixed his problem first when he discovered a detached hose intended to lead to the headlight-cleaners–which have never worked. Our windshield-wiper-fuild was filled to the brim and it didn’t leak! Our rear and headlight sprayers still didn’t work, but those were not real problems.

The door was a bit trickier, but with the help of a zip-tie David had found on the sidewalk somewhere along the way they finished their job and everything seemed to be working!

Dan and I then set to trying to open the drivers-side rear door which had been irrevocably locked since before we got the car. While we slowly and painfully removed piece-by-piece the paneling of the door with the door closed, Matt and David collected some water from a local stream and made a soup (after boiling the water for 5 minutes, of course). Dan and I eventually deemed the door irreparable at least with the tools we had and went to get some cold cokes (it was getting quite warm) in a nearby restaurant filled with catalan-speakers and attached to a tennis court.

After enjoying one of David and Matt’s first soups (I had done most of the cooking except a few breakfasts and some couscous up until that point) we drove around Andorra la Villa, found it to be mainly a shopping mall and headed toward Barcelona.

On the way to Barcelona, we enjoyed the view from the Pyrenees once again, but had to stop at one point when our brakes began to smoke. They cooled and we took off again, even more gingerly this time. After a few hours we made it to the bottom and made our way into the city of Gaudi.

Daniel R. Ziegler

Mennoniting Our Way to the Mediterranean

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Thursday afternoon (11th) we called the family we had found in our copy of the Mennonite Your Way book. Before the trip, David ordered the newest European edition of families willing to provide sleeping arrangements for travelers through their area. The MYW people sent the older version (2006-2008) until they could send the newest, published a month after we left. Currently, the 2009 edition is sitting in Rosedale somewhere. We had found the Wheelers from outside Lyons the most willing of the six French families listed. We made good time from Bern and arrived around 6, the time we had given them over the phone. Andre and Ruth warmly welcomed us to their home. After introductions and parking the Passat in their property, we sat and shared our backgrounds and Kefir.

None of us had heard of this drink and were fascinated by the liquid which appeared to be lemonade. Instead, it was a bi-product of a bacterial ecosystem. Kefir grains are self-contianed micro-ecosystems of bacteria living in a symbiotic relationship to process and ferment sugars. The drink is this fermented sugar water, a healthy drink as a bacterial live culture like acidophilus in yogurt and for it half a proof of alcohol. The drink is like friendship bread in that these grains are not commercially available and the growth from their fermentation can be shared to start new colonies. The Wheelers described the process, first discovered by a doctor in the Caucasus mountains, as the combination of the Kefir seed, sugar water, a lemon for flavor, and a fig. The fig, when it expands enough with water to float, signals the adequate time for the fermenting process. All four of us enjoyed the refreshing drink as we learned of their French Bretheren background.

We moved the conversation inside for a hearty meal of tomatoes, potatoes, and ham. By then the family had gathered, Jean David from the university where is was studying engineering, Jonathan from a friend’s, and Timothy, the youngest. We learned that most of the information regarding the Wheelers in the MYW book was incorrect and that they had not ever actually requested to be included. They had sent a letter of interest years earlier and we soon surprised when they found a book in the mail, containing their names and they apparently attended a French Reformed church and also spoke Spanish. They were, nevertheless, pleased we could stay with them. We explained how we met and decided to try this trip, Andre interpreting for the curious boys. After a lovely conversation, some time to unwind, a washed load of clothes, and much needed showers, we stretched in beds after weeks of sleeping in the car or on the ground. Lovely.

The next morning, I woke early (for me) and worked on catching up with email and photos on Flickr until the guys began to stir. Andre, a cook for a school, and the boys, themselves in school, had already left the house, so I worked for an hour until eating a traditional French breakfast of baguettes and delicious jams. A little after our planned 10 a.m. departure time, we each filled out the Wheelers’ guest book and hit the road.

Mountains and Soccer

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

I suppose it’s because I’m the youngest and most harmless looking of the group, but I (Matt) am often the one sent to ask locals for directions. The claim of harmlessness may be questioned but let’s be perfectly honest, I stand 5′6″ and weighed only 139 pounds before the trip. Also, I can grow nothing more than peach fuzz. I even struggle with pronunciations. Needless-to-say, these limited interactions make interesting stories. On the British Isles, at least I could be understood. Admittedly, I asked one Irish man to repeat his directions three times before I understood his thick accent. I have spoken with several people on the mainland who understood only limited English and it’s always a strange dance. My first experience of this was with the young illustrator in Pontoise, France (see my Paris blog). We both experienced the awkward pauses as we tried to remember the right English words to express ourselves. Several times we understood each other before we found those words. I have no excuse; English is my first language but I still struggle to guess which words foreigners will understand. The same phenomenon occurred with the youth group in Bad Pyrmont, Germany. I’m learning how much I can pick up through inflection and body language. It’s such a wonderful experience to share the train of thought with someone so that you know what they mean to say before the say it.

When asking for directions, I generally encounter people with even less knowledge of English. We followed one man in his car about 7 km in Norway after I he had spoken only one word of English to me. I had asked for directions at a roadside restaurant and one man had understood my question for the nearest train station. “Friend going to Halden.” The men exchanged some words and then the latter pointed to his car then to me. “Follow.” Just yesterday we followed another man while looking for the highest point in Estonia. When I couldn’t make myself understood to a local, he pointed one direction and said, “Latvia.” I shook my head. “Rouge [Estonia],” pointing the opposite direction. I nodded emphatically. “Son. English,” he said and motioned us to follow him. We drove into Rouge but never did find this “Son.” I found a grocery store manager who only knew Estonian and one English word, mountain. I am still not sure how she knew what I meant when, in searching for a way to convey our intentions of seeing the highest point in Estonia, I tried the word. There are positively no mountains in Estonia. The highest point we found was 296 meters above sea level. In any case, she ended up outside the grocery store , kneeling beside me and tracing the roads we should follow in the dirt. Apparently, finding the “mountain” meant a few turns and the rightmost road when one branched into three.

Friday afternoon in Stockholm, I tired of waiting for the guys to return for exploring the town so I walked over to a nearby school and approached one of the adults monitoring the recess yard. “American, can I join?” pointing to the dozen or so boys playing soccer. He hadn’t heard me correctly and somehow asked thought I was from Barcelona. I almost played along since their soccer team had won the Champions League final the night before. I expressed regret that I couldn’t speak Swedish and the man laughed. “That’s okay, football is international.” I had a blast madly running around with the boys and met Gabriel and Carlos, two boys on the Cubs, the team that drafted my services. We made an impressive combo; we held the other team scoreless and I served up an assist to Carlos who placed the ball in the net with a smart flick of his Crocs. High-fives all around. We hit it off and they ran inside after the end of recess yelling behind them, “You awesome!” “No, no,” I grinned, “You!” Some things need very little shared language to be communicated.

Matt

Versailles to Belgium

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Versailles to Belgium
Tuesday morning (18/5) dawned clear and dry and we awoke in our little campsite between the field and the golf course outside of Pontoise, France. After a breakfast of delicious (if slightly browned) Scott’s porridge with honey, we packed up and hopped in the car. “To Versailles!” we cried and promptly got stuck in some mud. A few minutes later we were on our way, but our jet black Passat was not quite as stunning as it had been, nor as black.

Versailles Palace, just outside the town of Versailles (which is a suburb of Paris these days but used to be outside of the city). The palace was originally built during the reign of Louis XIV, who was called the “Sun King” and king during the apex of French continental power. Apparently, however, he was a rather warlike fellow who preferred fighting to friendship and ended up almost bankrupting the kingdom through constant warfare. His residence at Versailles was built around his father’s (Louis XIII) garden chateau, which he expanded greatly in the highly ornate classical style that was popular during his reign.

The most obvious example of the highly ornate style is the pair of gigantic, gold-painted gates which stand at the entrance to the inner courtyard of the palace. The palace sits facing a gigantic parade grounds (now filled with cars and busses full of German, Spanish, and British tourists and middle school students). Behind the palace are the expansive gardens, at least a square mile in size, which contain smaller houses for many of the kings courtiers, mistresses, and family members.

We parked in the parade grounds (which cost several euros and hour to park in) and ate a delicious lunch of baguette, salami-like sausage tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese sandwiches. Then we headed into the palace after purchasing our tickets (they cost around €13, quite expensive, and didn’t even include admission to the gardens although Matt managed to walk around them without paying admission) we went into the palace. I personally found the palace gaudy, but nonetheless impressive. The apartments of the royal family were filled with family portraits and artwork. Almost every inch of the walls were covered with tapestries, paintings, carvings or other ornamentation. Most impressive to me was the hall of mirrors, at one point a state reception hall with tall windows along one side and tall mirrors along the other. The effect produced fills the room with light.

Versailles was worth the visit—despite the price–for the history alone. It was occupied by several generations of French royalty including the infamous Louis XVI and his equally as infamous wife, Marie Antoinette. It was easy to see while walking the halls of their home why they were perceived as being out of touch with the common people. It’s hard to notice the plight of the commoners when your busy posing for a 10-foot-high portrait or choosing the newest gold-plated silverware for your collection. Today the palace is used by the democratic government of France as the reception hall for events of state, particularly when hosting important international events.

By the end of several hours and after seeing hundreds of portraits and thousands of square feet of decorated walls we were about ready to go. Dan and Matt—Matt because he was exploring the gardens, and Dan because he’s a history major—took a bit longer so David and I waited in the car writing blog posts and catching up in our journals (oddly enough when I opened my computer we had an internet connection right there in the middle of the Versailles parade grounds). After waiting a bit and just before the start of another hour of parking David and I took off to circle the block and save a few euros, and just as we were coming back around for our first pass we saw a bewildered looking Dan and Matt standing where we had been parked, so we picked them up and headed northeast. They forgave us for the annoyance of not knowing where the car was when we explained that we had saved them several euros.

We skirted Paris and headed north in the direction of Lille (where I once spent a few hours waiting for a train) and Belgium. We stopped only twice, once to fill up on water and use the toilet and, just before we were on our way, we were surprised when we spotted a small abyssinian guinea pig peeking it’s nose out of the bushes next to the parking lot! The other time we stopped was to get a picture with the sign welcoming us to Belgium. It was pretty difficult to find a place to camp in Belgium, it’s a nation with some beautiful countryside, but it’s also pretty heavily populated countryside. We did eventually, rather late in the evening, find a place to set up camp in the fallow land between two fields. As we drove off the farm track to camp, several rabbits scampered across the field, startling me a bit. Dan, Matt and I slept in the car and David slept on a tarp outside and, after a meal of some stew with canned ham, we nodded off.

Daniel Z

Paris: Comprenez-vous?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Sunday morning (17th of May) served as another major step in our adventure: the language barrier. After breakfast, we arrived in Pontoise with full intentions of parking and taking public transportation into Paris. Even the former was a new challenge; our understanding of French parking signs was far from perfect. The qualifications above our parking sport contained an ambiguous French word, sauf. Ziegler successfully defined the word’s meaning as either “except” or “death.” Parking there meant either that we should pay-and-display except on Sundays or that we would be killed on Sunday. I (Matt) instinctively hoped to avoid both fines and death, if possible. Transportation inspired more trepidation. We studied the train and bus station’s maps and ticket machine for such recognizable terms as cul-de-sac, soup de jour, rendezvous, or laissez-faire. After seeing our few minutes of failure, a timid young woman approached us and asked in halting English if we needed help. Oui. She generally explained how to purchase tickets on the RER train into Paris. As she led us to the correct terminal, she informed me that she was studying to be an illustrator. Still very cautiously speaking with limited English, she brightened when I told her of my graphic design minor. We thanked her profusely and I boarded the train with the broader awareness of the extent of our adventure. We were suddenly very foreign and very alone in a country that spoke very little of our mother tongue.

Upon leaving our final stop we chased the first recognizable structure, the Eiffel Tower. We circled beneath the monument and asked a random tourist to take the clique picture of us with the monument. The young man turned out to be a missionary kid from Utah, the first person we had met who spoke English comfortably. We moved on toward the Arc de Triomphe. It was a long walk past numerous buildings with illegible signage. We arrived at the famous arch during a curious lull in traffic and ascended to the top. Paris is quite the lovely city and the Arc serves as a hub for its numerous boulevards. We enjoyed the view and I, surprisingly, took several pictures before we purposed to walk along one such boulevard. First, we had to cross the roundabout encircling the Arc with its increased traffic. David informed us that the circle was the only place in France where fault was not defined in auto accident insurance claims. Instead, all involved drivers split the responsibility to avoid conflict. We decided to test this approach by making a mad dash across numerous lanes of traffic to the sidewalk. David had a showdown with a Mercedes-Benz and apparently some cops yelled at Shenk from a Police van. Still alive, we continued down the Champs Elysses boulevard to the impressive glass pyramids of the Louvre and then across the city to the even more impressive Notre Dame cathedral. Our hunger prompted a splurge on the exotic-sounding dish on a McDonalds menu, the Croque McDo. The woman behind the counter handed us a ham and cheese sandwich. Finding a train station, we returned to our camping spot for soup and sleep.

By the light of Monday morning, Dan discovered we were parked on one side of a stand of trees from a golf course; too bad we had forgotten our clubs. We drove back into Pontoise, bought some groceries (including croissants and Laughing Cow cheese), and parked the car at the station. We rode to the Louvre and ate a late lunch of our purchases before splitting up in the art museum. I could have spent two weeks in that building. Instead, we rationed our time in the three and a half hours until it closed at 5. I felt immensely torn between seeing as many works of art as possible and allowing enough time at specific works to appreciate them. As such, I had to continually remind myself that what I saw was not merely the subjects of my studies over many years but actually the pieces of art touched by the very artistic masters themselves. Da Vinci himself touched the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks. Delacroix touched Liberty Leading the People and not Coldplay. Some master sculpture chiseled Venus de Milo over two thousand years ago. Hundreds of brilliant artists had touched the art in the museum and made each uniquely beautiful. I emerged and met the guys at five, all of us slightly dazed. We walked across the river to Notre Dame but found it closed. On a brighter note, I finally made good on my aim to kick a pigeon and it helped me relieve some of the disappointment in missing the cathedral’s interior. The four of us began the journey alongside the Rive Seine and I tried in vain to ask where we could procure bagets, thin loaves of bread. I really fail at foreign languages and our French phrase book helped very little. To tide us over until dusk, we had some Expresso coffee and a croissant at a little restaurant. At the Eiffel Tower a little after nine, we discovered we were unable to climb the steps to the first platform at night as we had orignially planned, to save 3 Euro a person. I could have kicked another pigeon but we still took the trams up. Paris is even more lovely at night and from its highest point. We did the touristy thing and took lots of pictures. On the way down I realized I, the only single guy on this trip, had just passed up the most ideal opportunity to kiss a random girl. How could a single young woman refuse me a kiss at the top of the most iconic and romantic places in the City of Love? I even considered how long it had been since my last shower but I doubted it was much longer than for any true French young woman. On another note, we didn’t see any all red pickpockets like on the tower’s cautionary signs. Shenk, in his red lumberjack coat, was similar but thankfully kept his hand out of others’ purses.

By the time we returned to earth, it was after 11 and we had missed the last Pontoise-bound train from the nearest station. The feeling of being alone and foreign returned as four young men set out to either return to the car or find a place to sleep for the night. We trained to the central station and happily discovered the last train of the night to our destination would leave in 17 minutes. Naturally our debit card refused to cooperate in the ticket machine and anxieties began to rise. We tried to explain our situation to an employee and thought he explained that because of our predicament, we could just get on the train without a ticket. We hurried aboard. In our second encounter with the law, six police officers followed us onto the train and demanded tickets. Pale, we explained our position but the tense situation seemed rapidly leading toward us sleeping on benches in that station for the night. As exciting as that would have been, we were relieved when the head officer finally relented and we barely left on the last train to our car for free. Truly an exciting beginning in the foreign language step on this exciting journey.

Matt

On Food

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

When we were making the budget for the trip, we decided that we would aim for €10 a day for food. We thought it might be a bit ambitious, but we figured we would try it. After all, the more we saved on food, the more we could spend on experiences like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the London Underground, Stonehenge, Norway, etc. It started on our first day with our ramen noodle hobo meal in the Dublin ferry terminal. Then when we were in Cannock we went to Aldi and we’ve been on a roll since then. Our first meal was rather bland. American cheese, white bread, and extremely cheap meat. Then after a day or two we realized we were way under budget so we bought some mustard and it’s been uphill ever since.

These days we’ve been living high on the hog. Scotts Porridge with raisins, apples, and sugar every few mornings; Real meat, cheese, and vegetables in our lunchtime sandwiches; and soups, stews and pasta dishes for suppers; have become commonplace, though certainly not unappreciated. Another thing we’ve been able to do has been experience more of the local flavors of the nations we’ve visited by spending a bit more to get something locally produced instead of mass produced and imported. These local delicacies have included: shepherds pie and Irish stew in Ireland; lamb roast and fish and chips in the UK; baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese in France; waffles and beer in Belgium; Apfelschorle and local ice-cream in Germany; and knäkebrödsskolan and swedish meatballs in Sweden.

I brought along a little camp stove and camp fuel so we’ve been able to buy foods that need a bit of cooking. Our facilities (and abilities) are limited, but stews, rice, couscous, porridge, and hot chocolate add a nice variety whenever we have time to set up the stove. One really amazing experience happened a few days ago. We had decided that the small camping pot we had was really a bit too small for four hungry guys, so we went into a Swedish grocery store to see what we could see and, lo and behold, there on the bottom shelf underneath a number of largeish pots for 139 krona was a largeish pot without a handle. “Well,” I said to David, “I wonder if we can get some money off for that.” So, we went and asked the manager and, after a bit of discussion in Swedish and broken English, he said we could have it for 100 krona! What a glorious day! Ok… so… not as exciting, perhaps, for normal people, but I hope you will exult with us. That pot has been wonderful and has allowed us such delicacies as fusilli with spaghetti sauce; pasta, potato, and tomato stew; and, best of all, popcorn.

At the moment, we have a variety of condiments (in a variety of languages), some snacks and fruit, some vegetables and soups, and rice, couscous, and pasta. When I first told people that we were aiming for €10 a day, some people doubted us but we’ve proven it can be done, it just takes a bit of willingness to experiment and learn how to cook, especially for 4 bachelors.

Daniel Z