Thursday, April 28, 2011

When in le Sud-Ouest...

Hello readers!  Thanks for your patience between blog posts.  My aunt Laura agreed to be our guest blogger, so here are some of her thoughts on the past week we've had in France.  What a week it's been!
Having spent the last few months experiencing much of the world through the eyes of Sarah and Steve, it was  great to have the opportunity to welcome them into our little corner of France and share this European stop. Actually, what was even nicer was to arrive after a 14 hour trip from London to find that Sarah and Steve were already there - flowers already in a vase on the table and provisions in the fridge.  This is truly the way to have house guests!

In fact they had arrived a couple of days earlier and already had the lay of the land.  Bread from the local shop, cheese on the board, sun loungers on the terrace, wine in the fridge, olives in bowls, and a sense of calm that comes with this part of the world - the essentials of life in France.

Just to help to locate you, we are in the Gers, known to many as the "sud-ouest" or midi-Pyrenees. That very beautiful part of France famous for sunflowers, foie gras, rolling countryside and the tour de France. And our escape from the real world.  It was interesting to have the chance to share this with Sarah & Steve.

This week was meant to be the vacation in the middle of the trip, a rest from travel, familiarity amongst new experiences, and long days of sunshine and family time.  So we did our best.  We being, myself, Peter (my husband - the uncle), Rachel (our daughter - the cousin) and Rowan (the adoptive daughter - and adoptive cousin who often comes as part of the family deal). Our plan was to do very little but enjoy each other, hear stories of  S & S's travels and relax.  And we did all that in great measure.  We did try to take in a few sights - markets, walled medieval villages, the odd cafe (or 2 or 3 or 4), and an art gallery or two.  But mostly, we just enjoyed time with each other, sitting for hours over lunch on the terrace, laughing at very bad jokes, and  sharing long dinners that lasted long into the evening.

We were so pleased to be able to introduce Sarah and Steve to this part of the world, or more to the point, the way of life here in this part of the world.  A way of life that includes the daily walk to the village shop for the morning's croissant and baguette and many hours in cafes in local villages.  Sarah took to this quite naturally as it seems to parallel life in Vancouver - but in French, a language in which she seems quite adept.  Steve, though always game to try, specialises in nodding amiably and hoping that no one actually asks him any questions, having said that, his "un oragena s'il vous plait" has been captivating locals across the region.

Sarah practiced her communication skills at the local market.  Vic en Bigorre has a wonderful market and as planning and choosing menus is key to life here, we enjoyed choosing and bargaining for everything from oysters to olives and kilo upon kilo of cheese. Of course we managed to make new friends at the market and the fish seller took a particular liking to Sarah and suggested that she meet his son, the IT manager currently living in Montreal (and apparently doing very well).  Sadly Sarah refused his email address, but made off with free samples of prawns and extra shellfish thrown in for good measure. I think she enjoyed the market.

A local rugby match was the highlight of the week: Marciac (our team) v. Rabestens.  We arrived just as the match began and took our place in the stands, beers in hand, already joining our compatriots singing allez, allez, allez.  Sadly, they didn't do too much allez-ing as our team was dreadfully out-classed.  Though keen, the skills of our slightly oversized farmboys didn't quite equal our enthusiasm.  A fight on the pitch added to the excitement, but sadly, there was no denying our defeat at 39 to 3.  Though tempted, we decided to pass up the 'celebration' paella in the village as the defeat was just a bit too much to bear.

As anyone who has ever visited us in France can attest, a bit of work in the house or garden is always part of the deal, and this time was no exception. I am not sure why this happens and we were really hoping that this time would be an exception and we might be able to just relax the whole time we were here.  But no,  the prior removal of a 40ft x 40ft laurel tree gave us a chance for a fabulous bonfire and we were so pleased to have the extra hands to move tons of laurel and to help fan the fire - a fire that smoldered for 2 days and left us all smelling of smoke.  A bounce on the trampoline seemed to be the only thing that would remove the smell - or so Sarah and Steve thought.

We did manage a day's outing to Bordeaux, one of our favourite cities in France.  It is a bit of a drive from the house, but we managed it, in convoy, possibly breaking the speed record for a Berlingo van (our somewhat silly local car).  A great day though as Bordeaux, a world heritage site, is simply stunning and we did our best to see much of the city's beautifully restored architecture, as well as new playful fountains and the fantastic contemporary art gallery.  We were lucky to happen upon a massive flea market and I practically had to be restrained from purchasing massive sofas, chandeliers and garden benches.  Rachel and Rowan took quite a shine to a stuffed and mounted Rhino, though we really didn't think that it would quite fit with the decor of our house.  The evening ended with a magnificent dinner in a converted chapel where Steve sampled his first foie gras and seemed completely overwhelmed by the lamb.  Rachel and I opted for the vegetarian menu (quite a rarety in France) which was delicious.  Though we were a bit surprised by the amuse bouche - strawberry and asparagus mousse and even more surprised by the dessert - strawberry and asparagus mousse.  Hmmm.  But we all ate well.  Perhaps too well, so Sarah and I decided that a long hike through the countryside was definitely needed the next morning.

We are sorry to be leaving tomorrow morning, but we have a wedding to go to back in London and Kate and Will might miss us if we don't get back.  Sarah and Steve are remaining a few more days and will hopefully continue to enjoy the sud-ouest.

Thanks, Laura, for the great post!  Back to our regularly scheduled program and adventures soon.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Wait, wait, wait!

So sorry for our blog tardiness again - we're finding that when we get with family, we tend to have such a lovely time that the idea of on-time blogging assignments goes out the window.  We do have a surprise guest blogger for you, though, so stay tuned.  In the mean time, here are a couple sneak peaks at some of the wonderful sights of Tillac, France and the surrounding areas. 

We promise - à bientôt!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Deja Mi Gente Ir*

Steve would usually be the next author of the blog post (we tend to switch off), but I won this game of rock-paper-scissors. 

Last night, we attended a 400+ person Passover Seder in Barcelona (read: PaTHover THeder in BarTHelona) courtesy of Jabad Lubuvitch de Barcelona.  This was a unique experience as it was the first Passover I have ever spent away from my family, but also, we passed a Gaudi building or two en route to the Seder.  

We dressed (read: wrinkled shirt and tired dress) and gussied up (read: flossed and wiped the dust off my sandals) the best that two travelers could and arrived in plenty of time for the 8:30 start of the Seder.  We've found time to be somewhat relative here, or maybe it's just the world outside of S & S's fanaticism with timeliness - so the seder didn't get rolling until about 9:30 when the rabbi finally invited us (in Catalan) to pour the wine.  We were seated at the "kids" table, which essentially consisted of a lot of undergrads on semesters abroad and us (the old folks). 

It was an emotionally-charged evening as I realized how apprehensive I was going into the Seder.  Pangs of homesickness had been hitting me throughout the day, but nothing a little kosher wine (ahem), matzoh, and raucous singing en masse couldn't help.  My family has its traditions (new and old) that I've come to cherish as givens every year of my life.  Chabad seders are hardly like those that unfold annually in the Wolfman household (for instance, our use of brightly-coloured and party store "props" for the 10 Plagues didn't appear at the Seder last night - I wonder why), but it was all the more reason to enter open-minded and ready for a new experience rather than staunchly insisting on the same thing year after year.  Make no mistake, I did send a list home of some reminders just in case someone in the family happened to forget one thing that we've been doing for 30+ years.

The rabbi was impressive in his ability to maintain his microphone-less projection throughout the evening (I repeat: nothing a little kosher wine couldn't help) and our table of commentators and strangers helped to make the evening a joy.  Aside from the somewhat familiar tunes and food, we didn't understand a word.  Steve's understanding of the language helped to make the evening a light-hearted adventure, stringly together translations such as "the matzoh represents the unleavened bread that the Jews in Egypt took with them and then the giraffe ate the pinapple while going for a swim." 

In between courses, glasses of wine, and songs, it was a treat to chat with young Americans and Canadians, hearing about their experiences abroad, university majors, and life across the Atlantic Sea.  Though we were clearly the oldest (and, uh, squarest) of the bunch, we even got an invitation for an absynthe crawl after wrapping up the Seder (which we politely declined opting for a late bedtime in our twin beds). 

All told, it was nice to realize firsthand that Jews around the world have been holding seders for thousands of years, and whether you're in Barcelona, Vancouver, or Kathmandu, the sentiments are the same. 

Though the rabbi didn't lead the room in a 400-person rendition of "Go down, Moses," Steve and I were singing it aloud, arm-in-arm on the Passeig de Gracia at 1:00am when the Seder finally let out...trying to hail a cab because we'd stayed out after the metro closed:

*When Israel was in Egypt's land, deja mi gente ir (let my people go)!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, deja mi gente ir (let my people go)!
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt's land,
Tell ol' Pharoah,  
Deja mi gente ir!


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passion and Pretty Windows

You can imagine the disorientation we felt after taking a cab to a plane to a subway to a bus to arrive in Seville, Spain at 6:00am bleary-eyed and hung over from travel.  We’d slipped back into our comfort with travel in developing countries while in Morocco, so with the clean early morning streets and set prices (and churros for breakfast!), there was the additional shock of readjusting to the western world. 

Seville, Spain is a town of passion.  From gorgeously-dressed Spanish couples cuddling on the streets to the sensual smell of jasmine and orange trees – one is surrounded by sense-tweaking images, feelings, and tastes that it’s hard not to be swept up by it all.  For instance:

1.  The preserved architecture: Seville has preserved and commemorated its rocky history (ahem…the Inquisition, Muslim and Christian battles over the ruling of the city, etc.) in ways that many cities are not able to.  Seville has maintained its beautiful white-washed rambling streets, 11th century palaces, and gardens to the point that one is amazed by the age of some of the buildings - often 1000 years old and not the assumed 100.  The Jewish Quarter (or juderia) and Alcazar grounds are just some of the older areas we wandered through with our mouths open wondering how it was possible to soak it all up in only a few days.  Sadly, only recently have monuments and plagues started to go up in honour of the cultures that have disappeared, but at least they are going up – and being honoured with Unesco World Heritage labels to boot.

2.  The smells: As Steve said, “This is the best smelling city I’ve ever visited.”  Seville is known for its 1500 orange trees, and in early April, we were fortunate to experience orange blossom time.  I’d be lying if we didn’t have a conversation or two about capturing the smell a la Willy Wonka’s factory somehow, but we had no luck.  The least we can do is show some photos and if you’re inclined to scratch your monitor and take a whiff, I won’t be the one to stop you.

3.  The tastes: I admit, I was tiring of one too many veggie couscous dishes in Morocco and was ready for something new.  We couldn’t have picked a better spot than the land of tapas.  Mmmmm, tapas.  Why decide on one dish when you can have 5 little ones?  And even better – they’re sharable, which are the best kind of meals!  Every day (when not eating our home-made organic meals – another bonus of entering back into the western world - boutique organic food stores), we’d have our meal of tapas, whether it be lunch (at 3pm) or dinner (at 10pm).  The Sevillians (and we’re finding, the Spanish in general) have a shifted day that seems to welcome the most sunlight and puzzle the early-to-rise-early-to-bedders such as ourselves.  But, we did it.  We shifted, and we even woke up past 8am one morning. :)

4.  The religious passions: We are fast approaching Easter week here in the Catholic country of Spain, but my guess is that the city is passionate in this way regardless of the holiday.  The largest cathedral in the world lives in Seville and it’s known as “The Home of God: Built by the Hands of Lunatics” because in 1401, when an (already huge) mosque was going to be converted into a church, the authorities said something along the lines of, “Let us create such a building that future generations will take us for lunatics.”  So, yes.  They’re crazy about their religious passion, and they’ve got a Museo de Belles Artes that is 80% gorgeous religious art to prove it.

5.  The windows: These deserve a section of their own.  The way with which Sevillians decorate and let flowers, vines, and other amazing foliage spill over their sills and into their foyers is infectious.  Now if only we didn’t have a cat who thought plants = snacks, I’d want to do the same thing.

6.  The flamenco: The pain, the suffering, the wailing – the passion all started in Seville.  We attended a flamenco show in which we were shushed by a woman closely resembling the Venus of Willendorf who proceeded to dance the flamenco taps, jumps, hops, claps, and hard glares for 45 minutes straight.  Upon her final pose there was a moment of utter silence amongst the crowd before a roar went up to an eardrum-bursting decibel.  Her wailing singer and guitar player only added to the mood.  Well worth the $1.20 glass of delicious Spanish wine.  Have a (slightly obstructed) look...

Ah, yes.  Aye, dios mio, si.  As I mentioned, we wandered the streets for 4 days with our mouths agape and inhaling the smells of the blossoms.  It was mágica.  It was delicious and passion-filled.  It was pure Seville.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Djemaa el-Fna: Freshly Squeezed

A little factoid I read somewhere epitomized the experience of Marrakesh for me, "For a while, Marrakesh acted as the capital city in the area, but during the shakeup at the beginning of the century the capital seat moved to Rabat and Marrakesh went back to its original persona - a carnivalesque madhouse." In some ways, Marrakesh is the New Orleans of Morocco, except that the city has been putting on the same outdoor, chaotic, brilliant streetshow in Dejemaa el-Fna square every night for over 1000 years. (1000 years!) We got drawn into the wild ride while we were there and I thought it would be fun to relate the experience to you. So, I'll give it a shot, even though you can bet it was crazier than I'll be able to capture in words and images.

So, to begin: during the day Djemaa el-Fna (or just el-Fna to locals) is an oddly shaped square in the middle of a big city. There are the occasional motorbikes racing through, crowds milling around shopping and eating at the vendors in the stores around the perimenter, etc. Vendors are selling fresh squeezed OJ that they squeeze when you order it. The normal stuff for a big city square. The only real hint that things are about to get nutty is a little plaque on the edge of the square that says that UNESCO has declared the streetshow and life of the square to be part of the "Oral and Cultural Heritage of the World."

As the sun lowers in the sky, it becomes nearly impossible to work your way through the crowds on the side streets leading up to the square. Tourists and locals vie for deals at the shops, for good tables at rooftop restaraunts from which to watch the action, and the noise and energy of the crowd ramps up noticably.

All of the sudden it begins, street performers are everywhere, gathering circles of onlookers three or four people deep. There are snake charmers wailing on flutes to coax hooded cobras out of baskets (and mothers snatching their children's fingers away). There are cross-dressing belly dancers who will run right through the crowd to demand money from you if they catch sight of a camera (see video for proof of that one). There are henna artists, fortune tellers, carnival games, and people, people, people.

The ones who generally steal the show though are the Gnaoua musicians with fez tassels swinging around their heads and castenettes clanging in their fingers. If you are lucky (and willing to slip them a few durham) you might get to take part in their act.

This is one of my favorite pictures from our times in Djemaa el-Fna. We approached a big circle to see what was going on. There was a clown comedian in the middle, who saw our white foreheads over the crowd and called out to us in French. "Where are you from? England" No. "France? Australia? USA? Germany? Canada?" Yes. Canada. "CANADA" he replied. "ME TOO!" Big applause and laugher from the audience. From then on we became part of his act, the straight guys to his belligerance, the willingly participating butt of the jokes. (All fairly clean and remarkably respectful thankfully). At one point he pulled Sarah out into the middle of the huge circle of locals for pictures and jokes. Check out the sea of faces watching Sarah and the guy in this picture.(Sarah was extremely brave and accomodating as I admittedly quivered behind the camera)

Ah, and did I forget to mention the food? As the street show begins about a hundred food vendors roll out tables, grills, food, etc and set up temporary restaraunts in the middle of the square where they'll cook your food right in front of you as you sit squished next to a mishmash of tourists and locals as they eat their evening meal. Snails, cow brain, rabbit, eel, it's all available. Our waiter came around and asked if we wanted some traditional Moroccain salads? Yes please. Flatbread? Indeed. Mixed kebabs. You betcha. Mixed fish fry. Please, like that wasn't a given. In the end we worked our way through a mountain of freshly cooked food, rubbing elbows with a couple from DC on one side and an extended Moroccain family on the other, the children of whom had to sit on the parent's laps to make them all fit.  (Thanks to Paul for the recommendation on Stall #22.)

So that's the briefest of recap on our nights out in Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh. As I said before, Marrakesh is a bit carnivalesque - the square, the souqs (markets), the winding mysterious streets - and in some ways this is all a big show, but it is certainly a brillant one and it's also a big part of the life of those that live here, and has been for a 1000 years, so there's a wonderful authenticity about it as well.

Seville Spain next on the agenda!