Saturday, April 14, 2012

Nice is nice, Monaco is decadent.

Alright so where did I leave off on this story?

Well once all of us were sick and tired of anything having to do with citrus fruits, we left the Fete du Citron. My host parents wanted to quickly run to Italy (love saying that) to buy alcohol and pasta--the two obvious items besides gelato--in the border town of Ventimiglia.
To get there, all you have to do is not die on the scary highway that is on side of the cliff face over the Mediterranean, which miraculously goes through every mountain side.
 Which is only scary when you pop out the other side and all the signs are in Italian.
I don't know who's idea that was...

Anyway, despite having taken brief Italian lessons every Friday morning with the school librarian, I didn't get any chance to use my skills. Mainly because if you're French, or with a French family, and walk into an alcohol, pasta and/or gelato selling franchise the Italians know it immediately and start speaking French. (Because unlike the French, the Italians are willing to learn other languages...)

There are some really beautiful views on the highway, and you have the feeling when you cross the border that everything is instantly more romantic and more beautiful and more cholesterol-filled.
You know.
All the good stuff.

There were also some crazy crazy green houses! Right after you cross the border there are rolling hills covered in giant greenhouses! They're all slanted in a way that the hill is completely covered in glass! It's incredible! But I didn't get a specific picture of that, I was too astounded. And the minute I took out my camera we went into a tunnel...

And I even cheated for the picture to the left, that one is from Google maps... Because when I passed this spot, well, I only got a picture of the tunnel. Zut!

While in Italy (for an hour, barely) we did buy very delicious pasta, alcohol, and gelato, so everything I could ever dream of besides a volcanic eruption and a working political system happened. So that was good.

Here's an awesome view of Ventimiglia, I love the buildings-on-top-of-buildings look. I've been living in a Mediterranean, bright stucco, terracotta roof heaven here.

Then what happened was my host family drove me to Monaco and left me on a street corner. It was exhilarating. For all of you who don't know Monaco, it is a principality with a prince, a princess, the mafia and many, many yachts. Basically what happens is that if you have the money to live in Monaco, you don't pay any income taxes, however, you do pay 5 bucks for a Twix bar... Despite the law that says only native Monaconites (Monacans? Monacians? Monacists? Monacese?) can take advantage of this law, there are obviously ways around it, thus the large population of rich people and international financial fugitives. And people who have "temporary" Monaco addresses but live just outside of it. (Which is where I was for a few days...)
There are no end to ridiculous panoramas like this one (which is really the outskirts of Monaco to the west). But you can start to understand the verticality of this place. I have been consistantly amazed by the tenacity and audacity of the French (and Monacians for that matter) on the Cote d'Azur in constructing things in the most unlikely, inconvenient, and awkward places. Basically Monaco is all built into these cliffs perched over the Mediterranean--you can see the sheerness of it on the left of that photo; that's the big cliff where the palace is stuck on top.

Here you can start to get the idea of how scary this building model can get. I have NO idea how they figured this all out, but the Monaconites are the kings of layered, vertical, anti-gravitational infrastructure. I have walked every single street in Monaco (even those dangling stairs in the center-right) so believe me when I say that it is very, very mind boggling and very tiring. The  average height between one road and the next is..... THIS MUCH:
That actually wasn't even the beginning of that staircase, and you can't even see the end. Anyway, the result of this is that one side of a building is about  seven stories higher than the other side. Either that, or there is just a giant gap with a wall that suddenly drops off from the street. Very scary when the entrance to a building is a little bridge over sixty feet up. Anyway, by my second day in Monaco in converses, I had very very very tired feet.

Despite having several international phone numbers that I never succeeded in getting through to, I did finally contact the aunt of Athena, the friend who I was meeting in Monaco. Otherwise it could've been a very interesting stay! They picked me up and we did a little tour of the city (even with it's own independent statehood, it is really just one city) and saw the famous casino and five star hotels and whatnot. Not the kind of thing that interests me beyond curiosity and the opportunity for the hilarious juxtaposition of me amidst the fur-clad, Dior-porting, casino-going crowd. I did however, have a giant red backpack, so I was stylin' quand meme. But I'm sure I didn't stand out too much, because I mean, look at their expectations for tourists!!!
Apparently they've had problems with that in the past... Good thing I had forgotten my speedo at home...

Church on the cliff (don't back up too far for the picture!)

Here's just a bunch of pictures that I took, there are lots of pretty things in Monaco. Everything is very impressive. However, after that, everything is of minimal cultural value, modernization and tourism is much more in the now, and the place in general is way to crowded and over-constructed. So the word "beautiful" as a whole, I would only use in the sense that it is striking and very unique.

The buildings range from some really beautifully ornate ones like the casino and grand hotel, to some really architecturally interesting ones like a residence I saw of sort of cut-out leaf formations, to just a bunch of ugly apartment buildings. I don't know who all really lives there, because life in Monaco doesn't seem all that glorious unless you're seriously living in luxe... Otherwise its just claustrophobic un peu... and wicked expensive.
Casino at night

The port was another story all-together. Athena's aunt, at who's house I was staying at, actually had a boat in the port. It was a "reasonably" sized boat of like 40 ft. The biggest yacht was literally a cruise ship with smoke stacks. There are people who clean these boats 24/7 I swear. 

The other funny part was the names given to these boats. I think yacht names must be becoming like band names--they just have to keep getting weirder and weirder. 

I was also surprised at how many yachts were Australian or at least claimed Aussie flags. I'd never really thought of Australia as a big yachting community, but more intriguing is that there is just a lot of ocean between here and Australia... I don't know how that works. Anyway, I heard plenty of great Australian accents while walking like a homeless person around the port. 
I also saw this, which I find either quite contradictory, or on the contrary exactly spot on... I guess it depends on the owner's intention.
I'm sort of thinking along the lines of liberal capitalism and personal wealth versus, I don't know, personal happiness and freedom...

One of my favorite sights was this car, nestled in between two mammoth boats in a bay of modernism:
Alright so I know this is a lot of photos, but I just saw some really funny stuff! I'm only posting the half of it! Anyway, here is my favorite urban scuba diver:

I don't know what he was doing, but I'm sure he was having a better Monday morning on the job than most people can claim!

Where we were actually staying was just outside of Monaco in a town called La Turbie, which is basically perched on the hill just above Monaco, which itself is perched on a hill, so you get the idea. Vertigo. If you're rich, and you're scared of heights, go to Luxembourg.
This is the view from the porch of the Aunt's house. The 180 degree sea-view was quite impressive, as well as the view down the valley of Monaco--the giant Royal Aquarium, the big building silhouetted on the left in great juxtaposition with the old Roman ruins on the hill behind it. (No picture there)
It was also really great to talk with Athena's aunt, who is basically an exchange student still on exchange--an extended exchange. A gap years. She came to France for a year and then apparently never left!
And oh boy does that give me ideas....

I think the best moment I've ever had singing Adele with two middle-aged women in a tiny european car was on the ridiculous highway to get to Nice, the nicest city in the twenty-kilometre area. I do have a video but i'll spare you that and leave it to your imagination. The best part was that we "swung by" Italy really quickly before going to Nice just to grab Athena's ipod that she had left at a restaurant. Any place that you can just run quickly to Italy, or any country for that matter is way cool in my book. I say yes to border jumping! Vive Schengen!

Here are some nice photos. 
This is Nice
This is Nice
This is Nice

This is Nice
While In Nice we checked out the old city, which is an exemplar of traditional European-feeling neighborhoods with tiny streets and little cafes and tall shuttered stucco buildings. So if you're someone who likes really that, the old Nice is the kind of place that makes you want stop and even take pictures of random alleyways and staircases. There are tons of little boutiques and more importantly, snack bars.We stopped by one that specifically sells Nice specialties like Socca, a delicious flat thing, a kind of cross-between Indian naan, and a crepe made from chick-peas: Triple YUM!

The best part about Nice is the fact that it is really close to the three most important things here: the beach, Italy, and the alps. And I believe I captured at least two out of three of those in quite clearly in the picture to the right, might I add while streaming by in the TGV going 200 mph...
The Italy part we could call included in the delicious pizza that was in my belly at the time...

Anyway, on my last day I took the train from Monaco to Toulon, with a change in Nice. Which was nice. But I didn't have time to go out and grab some Socca... Dommage!
This is nice. But it's not Nice, it's actually Carqueiranne...
And I stopped quickly in Carqueiranne, the town just next to Hyeres, to say hello to some friends (while still lugging around my big backpack which garnered some funny looks) and later to snap a picture of the magnificent sunset from the hill near where I live!

So besides arriving home shabby and bearded and tired it was definitely one of the better backpack adventures I have ever had in the south of France.
And it was interesting to see so many different places  in so little time! I had never been to Italy twice in one weekend before! Or been practically homeless for a little while in one of the richest places in Europe! Or eaten sardines on a salad! (they're salty) Or walked the equivalent of the circumference of the earth twice, in stairs! Or been almost pummeled by a tram in total daylight on a busy street! Or drank a six dollar coffee the size of a large thimble! Oh goodness, how many wonderful experiences wait outside if you only take the time to get out there! And it's even better without any plans, and a big ol' Rotary smile!

I'll leave you with this Nice video of somebody who made me really happy:

with love,

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Lemon Festival and Other Adventures of Recent Import

Hello my friends.

And  not contrary to the rumors, I actually did disappear off the world this time. I just woke up and it was February. Man, don't you just hate when that happens?

People here keep asking if it's difficult to spend an entire year abroad; I tell them one year goes by so quickly I wish I could take five--heck ten! I recently spent several days at the house of an ex-patriot, ex-exchanger ('ex' perhaps there for extended exchanger, depending how you look at it.) She came to france for a gap year and basically never left. She has been leaving here now for about thirty years! And she's starting to give me some ideas..... mehahahahaaa.

Anyway, besides life passing me by with the swiftness of a 3,000 ton TGV train not stopping at the particular train station expected, everything has been just groovy lately. Let me tell you what has been happening lately, and then maybe someday in another post I'll go back and give you some highlights from the previous months if I ever find out what happened to them.

First of all lets talk about it snowing here on the Mediterranean coast. The Riviera. The Cote d'Azur. The South of France. Whatever glorious golden epithet you wish. It snowed. I saw it.
And the worst part is that its all my fault.

Here's a photo taken in Ripton, VT on February 1st.


Here's a picture in Hyeres, France on February 1st.

I can't help it, the irony is hilarious.

Anyway apparenetly it's all my fault, I brought all the snow from Vermont to France. The south of France has never seen snowfall like this before, and they're incredibly unprepared unequiped to deal with it.
I was planning on going out that night, but we basically couldn't move. Might I remind you that even the driveway here has two switchbacks and is rather steep, and then the whole hill down to town was a giant morbid car slip n' slide.
Thankfully we were able to get out the next morning because I had plans to take the train, which involved taking the bus to get to the train station. And the morning after an epic snowfall is not prime time to dabble in multiple forms of public transportation, when no one here is used to dealing with icy weather...

But it all worked out in the end! Here's my host dad trying to take care of the driveway with a spade shovel, and on the right is a somewhat thawed out vineyard with a little bit of snow remaining, taken from the train:

I was taking the train with my exchanger friend who lives in St. Cyr (near Marseille) to visit our other exchanger friend who lives in Cannes (where the film festival is!). It's approximately an hour and a quarter from Toulon to Cannes, so it's doable. And while we were there it snowed again, and we only had minor train delays. Speaking of Cannes, if all goes as planned I'll be there for the film festival with my class! More on that later... 

More importantly LA FETE DU CITRON!
So what exactly is this ridiculous homage to citrus fruits that has taken place for the past 79 years in Menton, the boarder town between France and Italy? 

Well basically every weekend for about a month, hundreds of thousands of people come to this small town to watch a crazy parade of dancers, musicians and....giant floats made entirely of real lemons and oranges! I mean, why not?! 
 So there were a lot of people there.
Like a lot a lot.
I've never seen SO many old french people fit in so many tour buses! Think of the big apple senior tour kind of buses ALL going to a small French town of 30,000. Menton is perched on a hill/gorge, if that's even possible (and I swear it is); here in the south of France they have managed to build cities in the most unlikely of environments. The perfect example would be Monaco, coming up in the next post.

Anyway, we parked the car about 3 km away and walked into the center of town because that's really the only way.
There were some pretty ridiculous costumes as well. The funny part was that some of them were so intricate and large that they couldn't make it through the street, the crowd pushing in so much for either side. Like this poor flower girl. Her petals couldn't make it through the crowd until some parade security helped her through. That was one unhappy flower. 
And there were even giant avatars on stilts! Why not?! 
Anyway, we bought silly string and confetti, and apparently so did thousands of other people. I cannot imagine the street sanitary crew's woes the day after. (Well apparently the festival happens three weekends in a row, so I can understand why everyone looks tired)
Also, more importantly I spotted the most badass tights-toting trumpeters ever seen on this side of the Atlantic.
And you can tell that he knows it. Apparently these kind of positions are passed down through the generations as well! Who'd of thunk it? But nothing is cooler than filling the shoes of your grandparents if that involves really odd trumpets and a cape like that!!

So the most surprising and bizarre part about all of this was not, in the end, the Eiffel Tower made of oranges, or the strange cow costumes, or even the large plush Mario Bros running around--it was the inane calmness and even disgruntledness of the crowd! I swear, French parade-goers are the least lively crowd ever seen since Kenny G's Christmas Special. It wasn't even that they weren't rowdy or drunk, like any festival you'd find north of French département 89, more that they were actively party poopers! Any moment when my exchanger friends and I would cheer for a float, dancers, or musicians, all the old français would turn around and give us indignant looks, like "Now what are those damned youngens doing ruining this nice little, tranquil event?" Meanwhile giant avatars are strolling by trying to stir up the crowd of 80% over-eighty French senior citizens. The kind that take bus tours. That's why we didn't get a good parking spot. So many buses. 

Anyway, my friend and I successfully tango danced down the parade street, sprayed silly string onto the big pink angry flower lady, and got about three collective pounds of confetti suck on the little bald sections of elders' heads. Another awkward moment was when we were yelling absurd motivating quips to the parade performers in English, then realized that the couple standing in front of us was British. Oh Europe. So diverse. They sure had some funny looks on their faces. 
Alright, so as usual, something like 25 days have gone by since I started this post, so I will give in and post it despite my previous ambitions of a multi-subject blog. I will just stick to the plan of publishing posts directly; otherwise it just get's ridiculous! 

much love,