Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fréjus Vous Accueil Fête with Hula!

Wow. Yesterday was a special party put on by Fréjus Vous Accueil to celebrate their 30th anniversary. As we are members of this group and take advantage of some of their activities (bus trips, classes) we decided to go. Plus, my hula group, weeks ago, suggested they perform the dance they were learning to show the other members and let them see first hand that hula classes were now available too! And for a limited time only!

We went early to help set up tables and chairs. The caterers were also there with the place settings. The room was large and located in Port Fréjus, a few blocks from our apartment. Immediately on entering I was inspired by the location. We had 180º views of the harbor--packed with boats and the sea beyond them. My spirits soared anticipating that view while dancing. After making suggestions to a handful of French ladies about the number of guests, the number of tables, the math involved, and the possible placements of such, Rick finally gave up, watched them argue, moved tables as requested and shook his head as a standard U-shape finally filled the room. He then made the brilliant suggestion and necessary cajolling to get me to dance a kahiko to invite hula into the room. I danced Aia La ‘O Pele i Hawai‘i with good effect. My head was clear and ready and the dancers were ready for a warm-up. I'm not sure the effect on the organizers or the caterers, but later one of the caterers kept asking me questions or telling me things, as if I was in charge. Must be the effects of Pele!

There were 58 guests and the two girls, Irie and Abigail were accommodated with their own child's menu, kind of. They received shaved ham instead of a salad with foie gras. Their main meal was veal with veggies, just like the rest of us. They also tried out the cheese plate and of course loved the dessert. The wine was local, the champagne authentic. I could have stuffed myself, but as I was dancing later I paced myself. We sat with our friends Nathalie and Laurent, Hélène, and Michelle and Abbie. Everyone had a job: the 4 ladies dancing, Rick on sound and smile inspiration, Irie and Abbie on still photos, and Laurent shooting video.

We don't have fancy, organized costumes. We do have friendship, a lot of practice time and genuine intention of giving the gift of aloha. My French is limited, but I've done my best to convey to my group the spirit of aloha, what it means to be in tune and comfortable with your body while dancing, and what a gift it is to share something so profound that you have learned. Our class day is Friday, so we had a last minute chance to practice together. It was rainy, grey and cold, so I drew a change of scene on a whiteboard: sun, rainbow and the 4 of us dancing on a beach. I also let them know I was struggling with a heaviness in my heart about my own group at home. I likened it to growing pains, told them I thought all would be ok, and that performing with them the next day was the ultimate affirmation of hula for me, and exactly what I needed at this time.

As we held hands before going on to perform I reiterated the message that what they were about to do was really special and the audience was lucky indeed. My nerves were kicked up a notch--not because I was dancing but because I had to introduce our dance and briefly explain hula in French. Can you imagine? BRIEFLY explaining hula! My little speech went fine, and I'm bragging, but we were great! It was so easy--the applause that greeted us when we entered, the view, Rick providing our smile prompts, the girls running around taking pictures, Laurent with the video cam, the appreciative and interested gazes from the audience, and best of all the feeling of oneness between the dancers. After dancing Ke Ao Nani my 3 students stood behind me with support while I performed my new dance, Honomuni. This dance about Moloka‘i and a jeep ride is our next project and it is a fast and fun song. Then we all held hands for our final bow to enthusiastic applause.

What happened next, in our chilly little dressing room, was not captured on film but lives in my heart. The 2 French women became tearful and cried as they let themselves realize what had just happened, what they had given, what they felt--for themselves and each of us. Michelle, my American friend, has experience dancing hula with her church, so she has been lucky enough to feel the profondeur of it. She and I looked at each other, beaming. I said to my French friends, "you get it." They nodded silently with tears streaming. They told me they thought of me and my worries with my group at home, and how they could see that the dance itself rose above the pesky, petty, mundane worries of life and made them seem small. I welled up telling Rick about it later, and am welling up now.

We changed back into our party attire and met our public. I was approached by 2 women who report their intention to show up next Friday. They have prior jazz/tap experience so I'm hoping to integrate them into my existing group. After the guests trickled away we helped with clean up and Rick, knowing what is best for me, encouraged a dance of the slow version of Nani Hanalei to close out the room. You can see video of Ke Ao Nani here or see side bar for YouTube link. Due to technical difficulties the end was cut--oops!

My French is improving. But love, aloha, friendship and hula transcend language.

Much love and aloha to all who gave of their time to read this, Lisa

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Joyeaux Thanksgiving Americain!

So, here it is the morning of our favorite holiday, and we are 5700 miles from home. Living in Oregon, while both sides of our families reside in Michigan, has resulted in a tradition of inviting others like us who's families are elsewhere. To the Margulis's, Bollings (and Ken), Dreyers, and Cranes - we will miss you today, but hope you have a joyful day of celebration!

Normally, by this time I've put the turkey in the oven and we are happily cutting, chopping, and preparing all the courses to be served in about 6 hours, with our guests arriving in early afternoon. It is a day of ultimate relaxation and good cheer with none of the stresses of Noel such as decorations and gifts. Good conversation, great food and drink, the communal sharing of thanks and chores, and to keep us all from passing out, an evening of riotous games. We described a game we played last year (a drawing version of telephone) to our French friends who are coming today, and we all wondered how that would come off in French. Tina, you are the best memory keeper--didn't "the dog pooped in the yard" become "it will be a sad day when a donkey leaves the church of the bleeding cross"? We might skip that game today :)

Like normal, Lisa has already made her incredible apple pie (thanks Grandma GG!), and we are prepping for the meal. We will also continue the tradition of having each guest write down three things for which they are thankful, and before dinner we each pick one, read it, and guess who wrote it. The meal will be very typical with one glaring exception - no turkey! I went to 5 boucheries to no avail. Turkeys here are a Noel feast and getting one a month early proved impossible, so I bought two whole chickens instead. The other major difference is that it is not a holiday here, so Irie is in school right now. She talked us into letting her have the afternoon off so she can make decorations, but she will be back in school tomorrow morning. Lisa will miss performing with her hula group at Festival of Lights but will perform with her group here at a party on Saturday. A glaring difference for her will be not having to wear leggings or a turtleneck as part of her costume!

We are having our American friends, Michelle and Abbie, as well as the Brazzones (Laurent, Nathalie, Laure, and Fanny) for dinner so it will be a bilingual fête. Here's a little piece of history tying American Thanksgiving and the French together, that many of you probably don't know. Look for updates this evening including pictures.

UPDATE: The fête was fun! We spent all day preparing, just like at home.
We all wrote our thankful lists en français, the apple pie is gone, and we have leftovers for the next week. My favorite was probably the cornbread/blue chesse stuffing (see pics). The Brazzones really seemed to enjoy partage (sharing) in the first American Thanksgiving and everyone finally left about 10:30. Irie will be a tired school girl today. Thanks to Michelle for bringing ice cream, brioche, her large coffee pot, and taking some great pictures! Thanks to Nathalie for the chocolate cake! For me, yesterday FELT like a holiday, so we succeeded in bringing our favorite holiday to our adopted country.

Monday, November 24, 2008


When we meet people we are always asked why we chose to live in Fréjus. I answer “We found a place to live” and go on to explain our initial choice of Strasbourg, why it seemed difficult to find housing there, and how we made our final decision to live 3 blocks from the Mediterranean in the dead of Oregon winter. We then get knowing nods, murmurs of approval and reassurance that we did the right thing.

We have a good gig here. We have a nice apartment in a welcoming complex. The guardien (“super”) is very kind and helpful and loves Maggie. Our landlords are generous, available and lively. The apartment is very well equipped and very convenient to Irie’s school, a large grocery store, various services and of course the beach. We have a lovely Playel piano that I’m sure contributes to Irie’s rapid progress in her lessons. It’s about a 10 minute bike ride to centre ville, about 7 minutes on the bus. The bus stops right in front of the school and we are lucky enough to be on the line of the environmental electric bus. Too bad it doesn’t run on Sundays.

France is divided into départements, there are close to 100, which are further divided into arrondissements. Think counties and districts. Then there are cantons and communes. We live in the département of the Var (#83). The Var has 3 arrondissements, ours is Draguignan. Within this arrondissement is the canton of Fréjus. In this canton is the commune of Fréjus-Plage, which is where we live. Our friends Nathalie and Laurent live in Fréjus-ville; Port Fréjus is just a few blocks away. To further complicate things Fréjus and the neighboring city of St. Raphaël form an agglomeration. For our lives we are concerned with Fréjus-Plage, as that is who runs Irie’s school, the Var because if something is in the Var, we know it’s nearby, and the agglo of Fréjus-St. Raphaël because that tends to be a cultural cooperation, ie concerts, festivals. All this is located in the fuzzy-bordered area known as Provence.

It turns out that Fréjus is a very cool town. It’s name comes from Forum Julii, which is the latin name given to this Roman port, under Julius Ceasar in the 1st century BC. The lay of the land was different then. The port went further inland and what is the beach area now didn’t exist. The flooding of the river Argens over the years carried enough silt to create new land and a Mediterranean beach town.

One of the things we love about France is that despite its thousands of years of human upheaval--wars, migrations, disease, revolutions, intellectual tides--its historical items are pretty well preserved. Throughout the south of France remain the ruins of ancient Rome, famous cities such as Arles and Nîmes and their famous aqueducts, Le Pont du Gard. We visited Nîmes and the Pont du Gard during our last visit in 1996, but had no idea of the Roman riches that lay await in the unheralded little town of Fréjus. Quite honestly, no remembrance of the existence of a town called Fréjus, or St. Raphaël, even though we drove the coast from St. Tropez to Cannes so it is possible we might have passed through both on that trip.

Having now lived in Fréjus for almost 3 months, we have had time to get to know this little gem. As the photo gallery shows, there are a host of archeological highlights here. Some of the ruins remain standing, slowly decaying where they were left (sometimes now found in someone’s backyard!), others are being restored and/or put to use in modern times, and excavations continue to unearth new finds and knowledge of Roman times in this area (housed in the Musée Archéologique). The amphitheatre or coliseum was built in the 1st century A.D., and like all Roman amphitheatres, was used for gladiatorial combat and wild animal hunts. It has hosted events such as concerts, tennis matches, and bullfights until very recently, and is currently being restored. It is situated outside the ancient city ramparts, so that citizens from neighboring towns could come on over to compete in events without the locals having to risk them entering the city. Look at us in the pictures of the amphitheatre and imagine our incredulity at wandering around under the same arches that people in togas did 2000 years ago. The Théatre Romain has a modern semi-circular stadium built within the old ruins. The Romans of Forum Julii probably watched tragedies or comedies here; modern Fréjusians saw The Police.
The remains of the Aqueduct (pictured on the top of the blog home page) stretches for kilometers from centre ville to the outer hills where it ends.
There are also ramparts left standing from the old city walls used to protect the city, the Lanterne d’Auguste which was a sentinel of the old port (now far inland), and unnamed columns standing alone in various locales.

Among the treasures in the Musée Archéologique are the Hermès bicephale (2 heads) and the mosaic with leopard. The Hermès (about 12-15” high) once topped a bourne (milemarker). Hermès was believed to protect travelers and so Romans topped milemarkers with these 2 or 3 headed sculptures. The one in the Fréjus museum was found near downtown in 1970. It is in superb shape. The two heads are thought to represent Pan on one side and Dionysos on the other. This bicephale has become the symbol of Fréjus and appears on all city insignia. There is a big stone replica on a round-about near our apartment (see photos). The leopard mosaic was found on a dig in 1921 still intact in near perfect condition. It is about the size of an 8’x10’ area rug. Another dig found a Roman house under the main square that gave great insight into the living conditions and culture of the times as it included painted walls, decorative objects and a well. This “living history” is one of the things we find so fascinating about being here where so much of what we learned in Western Civilization 101 surrounds us to be experienced firsthand.

Fréjus centre ville, aside from the ruins, is also very charming and european in character and has a lovely skyline from Fréjus-Plage where we live. The Mairie (city hall) and the 4th century (and beyond) cathedral sit on the central square surrounded by small shops and outdoor cafes. Narrow streets branch off in all directions leading to a bakery here, a small “place” (plaza) there, including one with an 1100 year old olive tree,
or a small tropical market where I found dried beans, fresh okra and peanut butter. The main street, the ubiquitous Jean Jaurès (this WWI hero has his name all over France), arcs its way through the center of town. Our friends, Nathalie and Laurent, live in the center of it all and like so many others, the old-looking cement exterior of their building in no way belies the modern interior. Beyond the city center are the Esterel Mountains, creating a nice backdrop that reminds us of home in Oregon, a great place for mountain-biking, and more history as it is up here where the dam burst in 1959 flooding Fréjus and killing 453 people. But that’s another story for another post.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy Beaujolais Nouveau Day!

And here's an explanation of what it means.

We are sitting on our patio, in 65 degree sunshine, drinking a 2008 Pisse-Dru bottle that we bought today. It has a little sticker on it that says "Célébrez La Fête Beaujolaise."


P.S. Take a look at the newly added video of our voyage on the Canal du Midi, over in the right hand column. Unfortunately, we were too busy working the locks to actually film them, and the batteries ran out before the trip did. Enjoy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Irie's Friends

Many of our blog fans have asked about Irie's contributions. While she has plenty of computer skills, knows how to spell and has plenty to say, she's not really interested in writing a blog. Getting her to write, or dictate, an email to her friends is a job in itself. She'd much rather talk to her friends and family "live" on Skype or during a visit! This entry is written about Irie, by her mom.

Irie's friend Abbie was an unexpected very happy occurrence. Irie kept hoping she would meet another American girl at school and I told her it was highly unlikely. She kept this dream alive to soothe herself of the anxiety that grew as the return to school approached. She was crushed when they couldn't be in the same class together but now she is grateful as she knows 4th grade in French is too much. Abbie has been a wonderful comfort for Irie: they both like American Girl, having their separate French class together and they speak English. I've noticed that Abbie is often a haven of security for Irie.

I think because Irie had someone like her at school she was able to make French friends faster. I was concerned, as was Abbie's mom, that if they kept to themselves, they would not learn French. What has happened is that they go between two sets of friends--the older ones from Abbie's class and the younger ones from Irie's. Irie comes home now talking about her "friends" and (finally) is getting the names--Laly, Noame, Lily-Rose, Téa. (She still isn't quite sure how to spell the name of the very cute boy she chases and messes with his hair. Don't worry, Alex, she has not forgotten you.)

Thanks to my friend Athena's recent visit, I bucked up the courage to have Irie introduce me to Laly, then bring me to Laly's mom and invite Laly to spend the lunch hour with us sometime. She was very receptive, knew all about Irie and we made plans for the end of the week. I asked what Laly likes to eat, and her mom answered "everything except ratatouille." During my French tutoring lessons we went over the best way to figure out whether she would just walk home with us, or if her mom would want to come check out our apartment as well. I was all ready the day before to confirm the plans in just the proper way (to Laly's dad now). He looked at me, like "duh, she would walk home with you," of course very friendly and forgiving of my nervous French.

I think we bombarded Laly with questions about what she would like to eat or do. We planned crêpes and typically make them with spinach, mushrooms and cheese. Laly didn't want mushrooms so we also offered to put some thin slices of smoked duck in them with the spinach and cheese. She looked at us a teeny bit funny (she had this way of just looking when she was considering either how to understand our strange French, or how to answer), and agreed when I asked if putting smoked duck in crêpes was odd--"Oui, un peu bizarre." She had the duck and it was quite good. She played a bit in Irie's room, colored a little, plunked on the piano, but had the best time playing out in the courtyard with Irie and Maggie. (Remember the lunch hour is 2 hrs long).
She and I had a nice conversation about why dogs are better than cats. She has a cat but would really like a dog. The morning at school before the lunch Laly drew both Rick and I pictures, one of them was her English lesson.

When I met her grandmother the next Monday at school she told me that Laly enjoyed her time and they would like to have Irie over. What a relief that Irie's birthday is in May, and I have time to figure out how to have more of them over.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hula in France

As I begin this I am ending a day of 26° C, in mid-October! There are very few deciduous trees so not many crinkly brown leaves blowing about in the Mistral. The cypress and olive trees, and the rough redness of the Esterels say “desert” more than “tropical.” But the palm trees and sandy beach of my neighborhood whisper “Hawai’i.”

One would think that Oregon, being far from Hawai’i and on the Mainland, is not the place to find Aloha. But the little halau to which I belong says different. Hula O Kahawai is a big part of my Ohana and it was hard to leave it. Months ago, in dreaming of this year away, I had the inspiration to find a way to bring hula and aloha with me. I knew I would keep contact with my hula sisters. I knew I would feel the pangs of longing when they planned events, new dances and costumes. I also knew I would carry with me the knowledge, skills and wisdom I have gained thus far. I promised myself I would practice, not wanting to forget, to feel clumsy, to fall behind. But when I even dared dream of teaching hula in France it all seemed to feel right. For years I’ve had these separate interests--French and hula--here was my chance to have them meet.

Those who know me, know I will pick up and dance just about anywhere. In Hawai’i it’s easy. Just listen for a song I know and I’ll dance it--happy hour at a lounge, poolside at a hotel. I also have no problem taking my iPod and practicing oceanside, I don’t care who is walking by. But once I left Ashland I had a little trouble finding enough aloha to dance. Maybe it was the anonymous and uninspiring motel rooms in Utah, Nebraska or wherever we were. I gathered enough aloha together for a farewell sailing away dance for family in Michigan but then it seemed to go away again. Being surrounded by water on the Queen Mary was inspiring, even if we did have lots of wind and grey skies. We also had some upright British passengers who didn’t respond to my deckside practice the same way the Hawaiian tourists do. But I was dancing for myself (and whoever wants to enjoy) and by the time of the surprise talent show I was ready to share aloha halfway around the world. Once landing in Europe, I started to look for interesting places to practice and dance. Stonehenge? No, didn’t feel right. Beach in Normandy? Yes, but a resort town, not the D-Day landing sites. Paris? Of course! Local park (I was allowed on the lawn) and Seine-side (Rick gave the nearby police the stink eye when they started to approach as if I was a nut. They backed off.) But the real test would come once I settled in my new town of Fréjus. Students? Language? Had the French even heard of hula?

We were not here long before we found our way to Fréjus Vous Accueil. This organization is made up of volunteers who offer classes and workshops. Fréjus has a number of retirees (like Ashland) and this organization seems geared to that. A very nominal membership fee allows you to take whatever class is offered, most of them are free. I was lucky enough to show up on the day that Nathalie was staffing the desk. I don’t know what she spotted but she offered her own phone number and invited me to call if I needed any help settling into town. I called and what began as an arrangement to be speaking partners has turned into a friendship. When I mentioned teaching hula for Fréjus Vous Accueil she was all over it. She began telling some of the other women about it and here I am with 3 students my first day. I now have 4 (3 French, 1 American who previously lived in Hawai‘i) and they are motivated and dedicated. They even suggested performing the dance they are learning at an upcoming anniversary event for the organization. They’re also discussing making special pareos for the event.

To keep my link to my hula group I brought along a few of my dance skirts and accessories. I usually wear my pa’u to class and the women are amazed it is 5 yards of fabric. To show them other styles of skirts I brought my “luau” skirt (fits slim). I hadn’t worn this all summer and to my dismay when I put it on at class time it was tight! I weighed myself when I got home and had gained 3 kilos since living in Fréjus! And who knows where I started after the Queen Mary! I cut back slightly on the bakery treats and my skirt fits fine again.

The dance space is not great. The offices and classrooms are located in a repurposed government building, mid-century ugly. We dance in a classroom and push all the tables and chairs to the side. There is a very thin mirror, wardrobe size, that doesn’t help us much. The floors don’t seem to get mopped and we’ve accustomed ourselves to bringing in baby wipes so we can clean our feet after we finish.

I am teaching them Ke Ao Nani, a lovely slow ‘auana (modern hula) about the beauty of the world around us. Though the dance is simple to me it is not to them, as they’ve not moved like this before. I learned a lot teaching beside my hula sister Andrea--go slow. This dance has only 2 different steps in it. For me, teaching the movements is not hard. What is hard is doing it all in French. Not only do I give them verbal instruction in French (and sprinkle in a bit of Hawaiian) but I also translated the lyrics for them (which were translated from Hawaiian into English by someone else!) and write out the instructions on each verse as we do them. (One of the dancers graciously corrects my French before I send it out to the group). Most humorous of all though, is when I rapidly call out directions while we are dancing. And during these times the English occasionally pops out. I am getting the hang of what French vocabulary I need for the body parts and how they move. But I also want to convey many other things--the sense of aloha, the meaning of ohana, what hula means to me, what an honor to me that they are trying this and will dance in front of me and the others, the beauty I see.

Like most women I have taught before they are self-conscious and self-deprecatory. And like those other women they are lovely to watch. Hula really does bring out the beautiful. In just one short month they have rhythm and are motivated to tell the story of the song. Somehow I have conveyed some of the many layers of hula, they are finding them, and they really want to do it justice. They have respect for the complexity of the dance as they do their best with memorizing the moves, knowing where they want their bodies to be in space, and at the same time conveying aloha.

Now that the days are getting colder (mid November) I spend less time at the beach. Water is still an inspiration however and I practiced during our recent penichette cruise. I recently choreographed a new beginner dance which tells about a fun jeep ride on my favorite isle, Moloka’i. With this dance my group is starting 2 more new steps (no ka’os!) and we will pick up the pace (they like the exercise). I am working out the kinks of it as I dance atop our houseboat, moored up in Mèze. I’m going to prepare a more advanced version using kala’aus to bring back to my group in Ashland.

I feel like I am keeping my hula alive, though it’s certainly not a prominent part of my life right now. Rick continues to be a hula partner in a sense. He has always been my best fan and completely supportive of the crazy hula ride I started more than 5 years ago. Now he is the only audience most of the time, and is always ready with encouragement and a little pushing to keep on dancing. I don’t force myself to dance if I don’t feel like it, might dance one song just to get my blood and spirit moving, or might dance a series of 6 because I feel really motivated and energized. When I hit a memory block I don’t sweat it, I’ll refresh with my girls when I get home. Sometimes I’m tired when I make my way over to class, thinking about the translation work, but I always leave more energetic than when I came, because the women showed up to the room and the dance. Several weeks ago, hanging out at the beach, I was listening to some of my Hawaiian music. Lei hinahina came on and I simply couldn’t stand it, I just had to dance. HAD TO. So I did, right there on the sand, facing the Mediterranean. It felt great. Looked great too, per Rick.

So, that is how France and Hawai’i are becoming acquainted, here in this tiny corner of southern France.
Your ambassador in hula, Lisa

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reactions to our historic election...

It is very cool to be in a foreign country while we make history at home! We are obviously delighted with the results: excited like the rest of the world for a fresh start, deeply touched by the historic nature of it, proud that we elected the smart candidate for once, and hopeful for our future. We also realize that he will be inaugurated to immense problems and challenges thus expectations are tempered with reality. Whereas, Lisa and I have stayed distanced from it all, Irie has been excited for "BarrackO" since before we ever left home and was just bubbling over with happiness today. We watched, and cried over, his acceptance speech this morning online together as a family. If you somehow missed it, it's worth 16 minutes of your time.

But enough about how we feel, how about France and the rest of the world? France has a crush on Obama, feeling I think, that if we could elect a minority President, then it's possible anywhere, here included. Lisa and her friend Athena were sitting at a cafe this afternoon and a young man heard them talking english and yelled to them "Yay Obama!" When buying a newspaper at the Tabac a woman said to Lisa "It works for me...and you?" As well, the first comments today when my french teacher arrived and Irie's piano teacher arrived were about the victory and how historic/symbolic/hopeful it is.

This is a great quote we found very moving: "This is the fall of the Berlin Wall times ten," Rama Yade, France's black junior minister for human rights, told French radio. "America is rebecoming a New World. "On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes," she said.

"By choosing you, the American people have chosen change, openness and optimism. At a time when we have to confront immense challenges together, your election raises great hopes in France, in Europe and in the rest of the world." "I give you my warmest congratulations and, through me, those of all French people. "Your brilliant victory rewards a tireless commitment to serve the American people." French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a congratulations letter to Obama.

In Britain, The Sun newspaper borrowed from Neil Armstrong's 1969 moon landing in describing Obama's election as "one giant leap for mankind."

"Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place." — Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president.

In Barcelona, an artist made his own tribute to Obama after his victory.

"It's the beginning of a different era in the U.S. The United States is a country to dream about, and for us black Brazilians, it is even easier to do so now." — Emmanuel Miranda, a 53-year-old police officer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"Americans have struck a deadly blow to racism all over the world. Americans have regained themselves and have regained the American dream. The picture of the U.S. that was disfigured by the Republicans in the past eight years fell from the wall today. The picture of the America we had in our minds has taken its place." — Prominent Saudi columnist Dawood al-Shirian.

"What we have seen in talks with him, I met with him in person and in a small group, is a man who understands, who listens and who thinks. I estimate that the basis of our common interests will bring to a continuation of a policy of listening and cooperation to deal with the important challenges for us and the United States." — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"The election of Barack Obama as president has finally broken the greatest barrier of prejudice in human history." — Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel published a statement on the chancellery Web page offering her congratulations to Obama on his "historic victory." She writes: "At the beginning of your administration, the world faces momentous challenges. I am convinced that, with closer and more trusting cooperation between the US and Europe, we can resolutely confront the novel challenges and dangers facing us…. You can be sure that my government is fully aware of how important the trans-Atlantic partnership is for our futures."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said of Obama's victory: "The election of Senator Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has taken the American people and the rest of the world with them into a new era - an era where race, colour and ethnicity, I hope, will also disappear... in politics in the rest of the world," he said.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Obama had turned Martin Luther King's dream into a reality. "Twenty-five years ago Martin Luther King had a dream of an America where men and women would be judged not on the colour of their skin but on the content of their character," Rudd told reporters. "Today what America has done is turn that dream into a reality."

We had a bit of trepidation coming to Europe when the US has been so unpopular. We were motivated, however, to display the opposite of what we have seen of America's dangerous isolationism, and our enthusiasm and openness for learning about France and the French has been embraced. We are thrilled to feel a surge of pride about where we come from and our fellow citizens. Don't get us wrong, we ARE proud of our country and always have been. It IS all about great things. But America has seriously faltered of late and to see the masses take charge heartens us greatly. Next summer we'll be ready to come home.

As Time summed up: "Barack Hussein Obama did not win because of the color of his skin. Nor did he win in spite of it. He won because at a very dangerous moment in the life of a still young country, more people than have ever spoken before came together to try to save it. And that was a victory all its own."

EDIT: Picture of all the newspapers we bought this morning.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Le Canal du Midi

OK, right off, I just have to say...renting a penichette to barge a canal is an incredible way to see “profound France.” That’s Lisa’s term for what we experienced on the Canal du Midi and I couldn’t agree more. Usually a week-long vacation goes way too fast. Not this time. Maybe it’s the close quarters, maybe the fact that it’s a working vacation, or maybe that you see so much each day, but whatever it was, experientially it seemed longer than a week. And that’s a good thing. As our photo gallery will show, we covered a lot of ground (or water), visited a bunch of towns and cities, had plenty of time to relax, and our tight little nuclear family grew even tighter with the experience. As a matter of fact, we loved it so much we may continue boating the canal next spring.

We started with a two-leg train trip to Montpellier that took about 4 hours including the layover time in Avignon. Things started a bit rough as our pre-ordered transfer (since we brought Maggie with us) never arrived so we simply grabbed a taxi and were at the Lattes Base 10 minutes later. After checking in, getting our bikes and our pre-ordered groceries, we were given a quick lesson driving the 11 meter-long boat, and sent on our way at about 4 pm. Yikes, I’m the Captain of a big boat that quickly? And the first lock is literally just around the bend. Two other boats left at the same time we did so we all fit into the lock together and it didn’t seem so difficult (We learned later that first lock was an easy, straightforward one.) 45 minutes later we took a left onto the Rhone-Sète Canal and headed east. By chance it was also the day France moved it’s clocks back so we only had about two hours of barging before we had to “park” for the night (boats are not allowed to be driven after dark). The sides of the canal here were very rocky and I found myself panicking to find a decent spot as darkness descended. Without embarrassing myself too badly just let me say that my parking/mooring abilities left a lot of room for improvement.

This part of the Canal is actually semi-industrial and commercially active. It was a bit frightening, to say the least, to see a full-sized tanker ship heading towards us on the narrow canal. Somehow we hugged the bank and were able to pass each other without incident. It was even more frightening when we realized our foolishness in trying to pass one of those big barges. We probably would have both fit side by side, but the big boats create a suck-back action that made our boat, and us, unstable! We gave up that folly and took it slow from there on out. Also, notice in the pictures that beyond the Canal are large étangs, or salt lakes, used for fishing, oyster farming, nature preserves, etc. We arrived in the fortified city of Aigues-Mortes (literally, “dead waters”) after about 90 minutes of boating (8 km/hour is max speed), and loved this medieval port town. It was built in the 13th century by King Louis IX and was the primary departure point for a couple of the Crusades. The tower was also used as a prison for Huguenots. After a relaxed day of sight-seeing and lunch, we got back on the Montgiscard (our boat’s name) and headed back the way we had come.

We cruised into Frontignan the next morning, and had a few hours to sight-see. They have a lift-bridge that only rises three times/day, so we biked around town: saw the old cathedral, tasted the local muscat (too sweet for our tastes), watched the flamingos in the Salines, and bought a few groceries. Knowing we were coming back to Sète for Lisa’s birthday at the end of the trip, we bypassed the city and headed into the very large Étang de Thau. The navigation booklet warns to attempt crossings only when the wind is low usually in the mornings or before dusk. It was about 2 pm and seemed calm so we decided to head for the port of Mèze about a third of the way across the Etang. As a navigation “repère” (tool) we were advised to stay about 100 meters out from the massive oyster beds which we did and had no problems coming into Mèze. However, this was an actual port, not the side of a canal, so I had to actually dock our penichette like a true captain. Even though I had successfully backed into our slip during my lesson, I decided to take the easy route and pull in frontwards. The way I figured it, backing out, into the open waters of the port, is a whole lot easier then backing in to a narrow slip with people watching no less. We paid 11€ for the mooring - typically port slips cost something - but you get services such as water, electric, hot showers!, etc. We headed into the quaint small town, which like so many others was mostly shut down as summer is long gone, followed the steeple to the ubiquitous old cathedral, played shadow games outside the boarded-up chateau, and headed back to port for a delicious meal of oysters, mussels (Irie’s new favorite meal), and a main dish that was a mélange of oysters gratinée, clams gratinée, shrimp and mussels. We and a talkative family from England were the only customers and we had a good time talking about politics, music, France, etc.

The next morning, the boat kept pumping water out of a side hole, and then we ran out of water. Being in port, I hooked up the hose to fill it and the pump started going non-stop. I pulled up the floorboards and could see it gushing in. Crap, what do we do? The woman working at the Port Captainerie called our boat company and they said get yourselves across the Étang du Thau before the winds pick up and we’ll meet you inside the canal near Agde. A bit unnerved to be making this crossing with a leak of some sort we headed out and two hours later arrived at our first of three locks. Most locks are rounded or oval inside (a few are straight) which is easy enough - just wait for the green light and the doors to open, pull in to the right where Irie would throw Mom the rope which she would loop around a mooring and give back to Irie, then I’d put the motor in reverse, quickly go to the back and throw Lisa another rope, then we’d hang on while the lock filled. Our voyage was taking us upstream so the only difficulty was that Irie sometimes couldn’t throw the rope up high enough for Mom to grab it. The third lock going into Agde is unique as it is completely round. We had a good laugh at ourselves...later. Lisa stayed in the boat and after trying to get the rope around the mooring but failing we’d drift into the center of this round lock. I’d have to again try to steer up to the side where Lisa would again not be able to throw the rope up around the mooring. As we were trying for our ?fourth? time to moor, the woman lockmaster opened the gates - the lock was full and out we headed feeling like embarrassed amateurs.

We parked along the canal and made lunch while waiting for our repairman. After finding the leak and fixing it, we refilled our water tanks and were on our way. It is also after leaving the Étang de Thau that one officially enters the Canal du Midi. This is where the Canal becomes tree-lined and absolutely beautiful. While driving the boat could become tedious at times, here the views never ceased, so even if I wasn’t driving I just wanted to stare out the window anyway. Glass-like water mirroring the trees, small picturesque villages with their trademark steeples and Mairies, or even distant views of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mts. As well, a bike path lines at least one side of the Canal throughout. On Day 5, the sun finally reemerged after a few days of cold and gray, so Lisa, Irie and Maggie decided to bike awhile along the Canal while I drove. I ended up getting some exercise too as Irie dropped a glove and I rode back many kilometers before I actually found it.

Backing up, on Night 4 we stayed near the town of Portiragnes and I took a cold windy bike ride down to the beach where I found loads of shells and a wide open beach. Day 5 we crossed the famous Pont-canal which is where the canal actually bridges it’s way across L’Orb River near Béziers. Béziers is one of the oldest cities in France going back about 6500 years, and St. Nazaire had that old feel to it. Again, we were in waiting mode as the Fonserannes Staircase, a literal staircase of 7 locks, didn’t open until 4 pm, so we took a bike ride into this large busy city on a hill which proved très difficile for Irie. She fell and bruised her leg. Lisa felt left out so on our trip through the Staircase of locks Lisa decided to get a matching one. The Fonserannes is also a tourist attraction so we were glad we had already navigated a few locks, what with all the people watching us maneuver. With Irie’s help we worked our way through each lock like the pros that we had now become.

Our 6th night was spent on a scenic bend in the Canal with it as calm as we had seen, thus the potential for a couple of beautiful photos.
Our last day, Halloween, was full of the profound beauty of France that the Canal typifies. Sailing past small villages, with stops at two: the sleepy but very cute town of le Somail where the girls visited a hat museum; and, Ventenac-en-Minervois where we were able to pull up and moor right next to the chateau/winery where we tasted a few wines and bought a couple of bottles to bring home. After all, this whole trip was Lisa’s birthday present, and we tried to make it special by giving her gifts every other day or so to really stretch out the moment. I don't want to speak for her, but I think she had a great week!

We arrived in Argens, our final destination, in late afternoon. Not wanting to sleep docked at the Locaboat base, we crusied past the port a short distance and moored up one last time under the plane trees that line the banks. The town was eerily appropriate for Halloween with the tall buildings of the Argens “skyline” abandoned and falling apart. We asked about “trick-or-treating” and were told the kids all meet at the school at 6:30 and go out together. Sitting on the boat, I noticed three kids in costumes so we quickly locked up and followed them. I think we freaked them out, this english-speaking family following them around so they ran off and ditched us, but in the meantime we stumbled upon a larger group with parents and joined in. Lisa briefly talked en français with one dad, but mostly I think we were a strange occurrence that most will think wasn’t real. Irie noticed that they don’t say “trick-or-treat” but simply “les bonbons”, ie. give us candy, and that they didn’t give out candy bars. All-in-all, a Halloween to remember for its weirdness.

Lisa: Living on a boat for a week is like camping in a floating motor home. It was surreal--there are many spots on the Canal du Midi that feel like the middle of nowhere, but if there is a problem with the boat the fix-it crew is just a phone call and a nearby road away. We even ran into one of our fix-it guys in a small town and nabbed him to look at a minor sink drainage issue. There is also plenty of dirt that accumulates. It’s hard to know how to prepare, how to pack. How cold will it be? Will it rain? We did pretty well but were ready for a washing machine and a real shower by week’s end. And Maggie did great! She loved hanging outside watching life, and the ducks, go by. She also rode on the trains with us, and laid under Rick’s legs calmly. She had one episode of naughtiness: our last lock, we were fully confident in our skills, too confident because we let Maggie run about the boat. We locked up, were level with the sides, Rick was pulling away, I was about to hop on, and Maggie hopped off to sniff the lock-keeper's dog. I gathered up the dog and ran down the path where Rick picked us up. If we're not flailing with ropes we're flailing with dog.

This was a great week. Sublime, and there were several moments of the scenery before me perfectly aligning with the France of my dreams.