Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Paris: First day

The following post is from an email I sent family and friends while in Europe.

Window in our hostel room

  We flew in to Paris a bottle of shampoo, bottle of lotion, and tube of sunscreen poorer. Going through security in the Basel airport, the man at Air France looked sadly at me and said "ne pass pas."   I didn't even think about the security.  If we had taken the train we would have been allowed to keep our humble articles of hygiene.  Oh well.  As usual, Derek got patted down before being allowed to board the plane.  I told him the security personnel take one look at his pecs and can't resist. (My, what beeg muzzles you have, beeg boy!)

If Paris was the first place we had visited on our Europe trip, I would have gotten back on the plane and flown home.  The metro into town was crazy.  When we got onto the street I couldn't believe how crowded it was.  Worse than New York.  We struggled our way through the throng and finally found our hostel.  A very old building with uneven stairs and a sloping floor in our room.

 View outside our room.  Next to the McDonalds is a Turkish falafel shop.  I had my last meal in Paris there.  Wonderful way to end the trip.

was feeling very discouraged, when a miracle happened.  We left our hotel and looked for a place to eat.  Next door was a pastry shop.  We entered...into a shop?  No...a heavenly place where people go to know what food truly tastes like.
I thought the Italians knew how to cook.  They know how to cook pasta.  The French win baking hands down.  Derek ate a chicken and ham quiche and some magical concoction that involved bread, melted cheese and more ham.  Oh my goodness!!!  The food melted in our mouths, to coin a phrase.

Our room.  The shower flooded the tiny bathroom the first time one of us showered. The shower nozzle was a rabid maniac possessing a demonic soul.  We learned to keep a firm grip on it while we showered or it would flail about like a snake on steroids.
(And flood the bathroom.)

 I had a salad that contained more ingredients than I could count.  Who knew a salad could be a three course meal? We were so full afterward, we waddled our way back to the Metro to go downtown.  But not before I helped steer a Russian couple in the right direction to their subway.  Traveling has done things to me.  One hour in Paris and I am already helping give others directions.

More photos outside out hostel

 And by the way, I don't know where people think Parisians are rude.  I still have two days to go and things could change, but all the French I have met have been very friendly.

Case 1:  After we got off the train from the airport that took us to downtown Paris,  we had to change trains underground. We were clueless.  Our directions said to go to train two on level two.  What level were we on?  Where's level two?  Up or down?  

I asked a woman next to me in my execrable French for directions.  She answered me in her execrable English which left us both confused.  Finally, she said, "Eh.  I take next train."

 She then grabbed me by the arm and escorted us up two flights of stairs and down a labyrinth of halls, through a turnstile (using her own ticket for herself-that cost her a ride) and brought us to the right train.  The whole time she gave us advice:  "Hold purse close.  Wherez map?  Keep. Put everything in purse, hold close etc.."

   She looked at me and smiled.  "OK?"

    We all said, "Merci beaucoup!"  

She said, "Cool!"  and walked back to her train, which I'm sure she missed and had to take the next one.

Case 2:  That night when we returned to the subway to go down 
town we were trying to figure out how to buy our tickets from a machine (we had metro passes but they started the next day.)  

Two young men came up behind us and asked us where we wanted to go.  They then held our hand, figuratively speaking, and walked us through the whole procedure.  Then off they went after they helped us.

"Merci beacoup!"  we called after them.

Legion of Honor museum.  Interesting to see how many Americans were awarded it:  Generals Pershing, MacArthur, and Eisenhower to name a few.

Case 3:  We're getting on the train.  A man had watched us study the map.  "You want to go where?"

We told him.  "Get off this train and go to the other side." 

"Merci beaucoup!"

Street next to Musee d'Orsay below.  In the distance, on the right is the bakery where Derek and I bought our lunch.  Next to that shop was a tiny store where I bought a couple of t-shirts.  I was dressed too warmly so I bought them to wear.  They had no dressing room but the lady who worked there brought two racks of clothes together and I changed behind them.  I'm not sure I would have gotten away with that in the U.S. but "Vive la France!"

Others helped us find the Eiffel Tower.  Interestingly, nobody knows what you mean when you say "Eiffel Tower".  They say "Tour en Fer".  Of course our horrible pronunciation probably didn't help.

In the Legion of Honor Museum

After seeing the most awesome Cathedral in the world, Notre Dame-and that's saying a lot because we've seen St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and the Duomo in Milan- and listening to a concert in front of Notre Dame, we made our way to the "Tour en  Fer".  We wanted to see it at night.  It was worth it.  When the lights first come on, they sparkle like a huge Christmas tree for several minutes before settling down and glowing in the night.  Can't describe it.  Gorgeous! (I don't have any photos  of Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower for this post because I forgot to bring my camera that evening. However, I took photos when I returned to those places.  I'll show them in future posts.)

Legion of Honor Museum

 At 11 PM we returned to the dreaded subway, although we were feeling more confident at this time.  Our tickets had expired and we had no more change.  Ethan was all for crawling under the turn stile.  Lisa was considering it.  I told them to stay there.  I ran up to level ground and looked around.  There was a gift store a block away on the corner.  I ran to the store, blindly picked ten postcards (only 2 euros, a steal!)  Brought them to the clerk and said, "Please give me change in coins, I need them for the subway."

Louvre across the Seine

The man behind the counter was a cutie and he knew it. He said, "Only for you because you are zoooooo zweeet!!!"
I said, "Thank you soooooo much!!"
He said, "You are welcome zoooooo much!"

Playground on the Seine

 I ran back down the street, down the stairs, to the subway where Lisa, Ethan and Derek were waiting for me.  We bought our tickets and prayed there were still trains running.  There were and we got home safe and sound and collapsed in our beds.  

This morning we filled up on croissants and excellent coffee and are on our way to the Musee d'Orsay and maybe the Louvre, depending on how we feel after the first museum.  At least Derek and I are.  Lisa and Ethan are spending the day at Paris Disney.  

Riverwalk by the Seine.  

Before going to the museum we found a small bakery shop down the street from the museum.  Derek got some kind of ham and cheese concoction and I got a baguette filled with three different kinds of cheeses:  Brie, Swiss, some hard cheese that was incredible, topped off with lettuce and tomato.  This baguette was about a foot long so I told Derek he could have what I didn't finish.

Didn't happen.  I ate the whole thing.  I couldn't stop.  Will I ever eat this well again after I leave France?  Doubtful.  Need to savor what I can.

 Like Venice, honeymooners like to place their locks on the bridges that cross the Seine and throw the key into the river.

After the museum, Derek and I walked up and down the Seine, talking and enjoying the scenery.  A woman walked by us, stopped suddenly, and acted surprised.  She picked up a golden ring off the sidewalk and looked at us.  "Yourz?"  she asked.

Luckily I had already read about this scam.  A person pretends to find a golden ring and you both agree to sell it and split the difference.  The catch is, you have to give them money as collateral.  Yeah, right.

I said, "No thanks" in my most sardonic tone and we walked on.

Musee d'Orsay.  It used to be a train station.  This is where the French Impressionist art is kept.  There was only one Manet.  The rest were on exhibition in Venice.  Grrr...

The Tuileries Garden.  It is across the Seine from the Musee d'Orsay and sandwiched in-between the Louvre and the Orangerie Museum where Monet's "Water Lillies"  paintings are kept.

Derek and I spent a good bit of the afternoon sitting in the Tuileries garden.  There's hundreds of scenic spots to just sit and breath in the garden scents, people watch and just enjoy the peaceful environment.

Derek told me that just sitting and talking for hours with me was his favorite part of our trip.  I think he enjoyed both of us being alone for a change.

 Me at the Tuileries

Scenes from the Tuileries

The Louvre
The entrance is through the glass pyramid.

After spending most of the afternoon at the Tuileries, I told Derek that I wanted to see what we could of the Louvre before it closed.  We had a two day pass but I knew the Louvre was big and we would need to see what we could today.  

 My son, the ham.  He just can't resist.

We had less than two hours but we managed to reach the Mona Lisa.  She's a very popular lady.  We worked our way through the tight mass of tourists and got our pictures taken in front of her.

It was strange.  I've seen so many prints of this painting that I had to remind myself that this time I was viewing the original.
Moi in front of the Mona Lisa or "Gioconda"

 Derek in front of the Mona Lisa

And the lady by herself.

Incredible first day.  We didn't see Lisa and Ethan until extremely late.  We all slept soundly in our little room with the uneven floor and flooded bathroom.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Count Dracula by Bram Stoker

Well, Halloween is almost upon us and it only seems right to post a few reviews about scary stories.

I personally love a scary story but I usually have to go back a hundred years or so to find a truly scary story.  Disembowelments don't scare, only disgust.  In fact they devalue life.  One of the things I enjoy about the Victorian ghost story is that part of the horror was its emphasis on how precious life is.

So it is with Bram Stoker's Count Dracula.

I had read this book years ago in college but I caught a number of things during this second reading that didn't register before.

Firstly, whether intentionally or not, Stoker weaves in barbaric paganism with prim and proper Victorian culture.  I don't know that I would have noticed it before except I had read another book, Vampires, Burial and Death by Paul Barber (which I'll review later) about the actual practices of destroying vampires.

At first I thought the book, Vampires, Burial and Death, was going to be about the traditions associated with vampires but it is actually a non fiction account of the belief in vampires that existed in past centuries through out Europe and the methodical ways people dismembered, mangled and otherwise defiled corpses that were believed to be "undead".   Reading the book exposed how pagan beliefs persisted even during the Christian era of Europe and how barbaric they were.

Bram Stoker combines these grotesque practices but takes them out of the primitive eastern European village and places them in a sophisticated 19th century English culture.  The dichotomy creates a dramatic chiaroscuro.

 Stoker's writing style is dated and flowery, but normal for the era.  The woman is held up to be a beautiful, but fragile lily in need of masculine protection.  The language would probably make the modern feminist cringe.

The storyline, simply put, is Count Dracula from Romania makes his way across to England for what reason I'm not entirely certain of.  I think it is for power and dominion.  He starts by attacking a newly married young woman, Lucy.

At first  Lucy behaves mysteriously, sleep walking and becoming langerous.  She keeps losing blood but no one understands why.  Five men are involved in her life.  Lord Godalming, Johnathon Harker, who was the unwitting solicitor for Dracula, John Seward a doctor from an insane asylum, Quincy Morris an American from Texas and Professor Van Helsing, a Dutch Doctor who mentored the other men.  Van Helsing and Johnathon Harker are the only men among them that were not suiters for Lucy's hand in marriage. (Lord Godalming is the winner and marries her.)

Each man donates his own blood but to no avail.  Eventually Lucy dies.  Then strange reports appear around London of a lady who roams the streets at night befriending children who all have the same affliction afterwards:  two puncture wounds on their necks.

Van Helsing is the one to explain the phenomena of vampirism to the others and after much persuading, convinces the men that they must kill the undead Lucy, not only to save the children but her own soul.  They do so by opening her tomb, driving a stake through her heart, cutting off her head and filling the mouth with garlic.  Lucy's husband is the one to perform the ritual.  It is viewed as an act of heroism because in doing so he frees Lucy's soul to go to heaven.

The men then find Dracula's coffins and place Communion wafers in them, thus making it impossible for him to return to them.  Realizing he is being hunted, Dracula returns to Romania but not before getting revenge on the men by attacking Johnathon Harker's wife, Mina.

The rest of the story is basically a race to Transylvania to destroy Dracula before Mina completely transforms into a vampire.  If she were to do that, it would be too late to save her life and they would have to destroy her the same way they did Lucy.

What impresses me is how skillfully Stoker is able to convince me, the reader, that it is perfectly acceptable and even heroic for men to take a stake and drive it through the heart of a woman and decapitate her.  The reason is that he is not really murdering her because she's already dead, but what a horrible thing to do.

Yet, these men truly adored Lucy.  And they care so much for Mina they are willing to risk their own lives (even lose it in the case of one of them) by confronting a monster with superhuman demonic power in order to free her from living an existence of damnation.

I know there are a lot of modern women out there that would spit on this book.  What chauvinism!  A woman doesn't need a man to "save" her.

I wonder how many of these women enjoyed "Fifty Shades of Grey"?  A lot, according to the New York Times best seller lists.  What are we "too modern" for?  Books that show men concerning themselves with the welfare of women?  But we don't mind books that describe (in graphic detail) a man dominating and degrading a woman?

Furthermore, Mina is the brains of the outfit.  She's the one who figures out where Dracula stays in England and what mode of travel he used to return to Transylvania.  The men show her great respect and acknowledge her indispensable help.

Not only does Stoker contrast contemporary English culture with paganism, he sharply contrasts the behavior, language and mind of a refined, intelligent Victorian woman and what it becomes when she turns into something evil.

While alive, Lucy is articulate, refined and very correct in her behavior.  Afterwards, she becomes like an animal, seeking only to hunt and devour for the maintenance of her own existence.  The contrast must have been shocking to contemporary readers.

Another factor that is woven in is Christianity. Victorians didn't talk of their faith as openly as many Christians today.   It was so much a part of the fabric of their life it was taken for granted.  It would have been like pointing out to others that the sky is blue.

But Stoker  uses Christian symbols in a pagan context. Holy Water, Communion wafers and the Crucifixes are used as some sort of magical amulet to ward off the vampires.  Perhaps he is simply trying to insert a moral dynamic to show good vs evil.

One of the most interesting things about Dracula is how little he shows up in the story.  Probably the most intense and consequently enjoyable section of the book is the very first part when we read Johnathon Harker's diary which chronicles his initial journey to Transylvania and subsequent imprisonment in Dracula's castle.

Dracula is written in first person through the diaries, letters and journals of some of the main characters.  This provides different voices to describe the same story.

I think it must be terrifically difficult to create that many voices in a single text, especially the women's. He succeeds in all except Van Helsing's whose broken English came across as artificial.  

I don't know why Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.  Maybe he was trying to shake up his fellow Victorians.  Letting them see that for all their sophistication, barbarianism is not as far away as they think.

I also am surprised at his theology, which in my opinion is skewed. At the end of the story, when the Count is finally vanquished, in her diary, Mina notices that the vampires face expresses peace before the body turns to dust.

What is the message here?  That evil begets evil but no one is really responsible for their own actions?  Each person is turned into a vampire against their will and has no choice but to act demonically?  If that is so, then why would they be damned even while a vampire?  

Whatever Stoker's reason for writing his story or his worldview, Count Dracula is just a plain scary story well told and its endurance is testimony to its value and place in the archives of Western classical literature.

Vlad the Impaler, Stoker's real life inspiration for Count Dracula

Hardcover with illustrations and annotated fro $19.95

.99 on Kindle

For a different kind of review go to:
Still A Demon

Monday, October 21, 2013

Gimmelwald and Murren: Biking down the mountain

In my last post on our European trip, I showed photos of our walk from Gimmelwald up to Murren, which is a small village higher up on the mountain.  These photos are from our trip back down the mountain.  In Murren we rented bikes and rode them down to the town, Lauterburren in the valley.  If coasting down a steep incline for two hours with the brakes applied the whole time counts as biking.

I thought these giant slugs were impressive.

The following is from an e mail I sent from Interlacken.

Hello again!  We didn't get to go to the top of the mountain after all because it snowed and became inaccessible. More than once I thought, "I wonder what Switzerland is like in the summer...oh wait..."

 Instead we walked a couple of hours up to the next village on the mountain, Murren.  I took about a zillion photos of picturesque houses with shutters and flowers, cows with huge bells around their neck.  As the cows walked around their bells resounded all over the mountain like a chorus of giant wind chimes.  

I believe this says in German that littering is forbidden.

In Switzerland we met many fellow English speakers from the UK, Canada, Australia and the US.  Most of them were young people who had come to experience the sporty side of Europe.  Above are a couple of hang gliders.

The most photos were of course taken of the awesome mountains.  Every step was a photo moment and I couldn't resist any of them. 

In Murren we rented bicycles and rode down the side of the mountain, which was basically one long coast with the brakes on, biked across the valley below at Lauterburren, then took the gondola back up the mountain to our hostel in Grimmelwald. 

Our diet has changed dramatically.  We have left the world of pasta behind us and are now on a full protein menu.  After we got to the bottom of the mountain we had lunch at a Bratwurst shop.  I remember eating at those in Germany as a little girl.  After biking (coasting? braking?) down a mountain for two hours, I can't tell you how wonderful a bratwurst tastes.

The following photos are views from the ride back up the mountain in the cable car.

Is it a gondola or cable car?  You know what I mean?  It's a room that is pulled up the side of the mountain by a cable attached to the roof.  Our hostel was on the side of the mountain.

Is it a gondola or a cable car?

After returning the bikes and gathering our luggage, we took the gondola back down the mountain, to the bus that took us to the train that took us to Interlaken and checked into our hostel there. Our hostel's name is Balmer's Herbage-which is the oldest private hostel in Switzerland.  It was easy to find because there were signs all the way from the train station through the town to the hostel.  

 I have to say the Swiss know how to do hostels.  The rooms are nice and atmospheric.  And did I mention they speak better English than us?

Our room at Balmers Herberge

View of the hostel from our room

These two photos show the maze we had to walk through to get to the hostel.

Tomorrow we take a train to Basel where we will fly to Paris.  On ward ho!!