Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chance Encounters

Saturday morning coffee in the sunroom, Cat Stevens playing, frost on the ground. Even though I’m on a leave of absence from work, Saturday mornings still have a special feel to them. And for those of you who are young, Cat Stevens is not a pet.

We’ve been back from France for a week now. Wednesday found me somewhat at odds with myself – not quite sure what to do with free-time that goes on endlessly. An unsettling luxury. I checked out French classes and sewing classes but settled on returning to t’ai chi.

A short outing Friday gave me some additional perspective.

I’d like to continue cycling into the fall, which meant I needed some gloves. Off I went to our longstanding Kanata sports store where I also bought my bike two years ago. I think sales staff are going to go crazy in a few years when more boomers have retired, because shopping is a whole new experience when you have lots of time on your hands, especially at the end of a season when stock is being cleared.
Sporting stores are special though because their staff are passionate. Find the staffer who shares your passion and you can really pass some serious time chatting.  I see a lot of sports in my future! Suffice it to say that I found helpful people, learned that my head and the back of my neck might also benefit from some covering-up, and found a summer cycling shirt for half price (something that I really didn’t need, but somehow badly needed yesterday).

The shirt and gloves were at the sales counter and I was deep into conversation with a young girl about the merits of different head coverings when there was a sudden surge of people into the store. Thinking it was the after school crowd (which still would have been weird), I commented about it to her and she told me that it was because one of their staff members had just returned from taking part in the Rick Hansen Man in Motion, relay and his team and supporters were returning to the store to celebrate. There was lots of picture taking, champagne, and an enthusiastic buzz. I’m never a good bystander, so I was eager to make my purchase and be on my way. The young man behind the counter asked the manager if it would be OK for him to ring it in. He looked familiar to me and I suspect it was he who sold me my bike, or later on helped me decide on accessories, or perhaps he was the one who patiently explained why I was having trouble inflating my tires and gave me a demonstration on what I needed to do (that was just embarrassing).

This time though, he was in a wheel chair. An off-road cycling accident four months ago.

Purchases in hand, I lingered for a while longer. He wheeled out from behind the counter to thank people who had been such an important part of his life these past months. It couldn’t have been easy to be surrounded by a recent past of sporting equipment and colleagues, one so different from his present, or to be the centre of attention for reasons that aren’t of your own choosing and that really you wouldn’t wish on anyone. His employer, Kunstadt Sports, received special praise from him and that also started me thinking about small businesses and their important and often unique contributions to our communities.

As I was leaving the store someone else told me about how important meeting Rick Hansen and being invited to take part in the relay had been for this young man. I’ve never been a fan of  big charitable fundraising “machines”, but a chance encounter yesterday changed that.

may we never take our footprints for granted

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Last Few Days Away

We’re home! I love Air Transat. They’re always time and they’ve never lost my luggage. However, you do have to wonder about the wisdom of an airline offering a “waterproof ipod pouch with free head phones” as part of their in-flight duty free shop selection, on a transatlantic flight. Am I going to need that?  Soon?

In our last few days, we finally made it to the Pompidou Centre – a remarkable building, easily recognizable as all it’s plumbing / electrical / heating pipes are housed on the building’s exterior. You would think that a building that looks like the one on the left would be hard not to see, but we wandered in circles, just missing it, repeatedly.

The art work at the Centre is eclectic. We saw a lot of “eclectic” art this week as a friend from my high school days who lives in Paris also got us invitations to the vernissage of the international contemporary art fair (FIAC), the following day. So without further ado – here is some of what we saw over the two days.
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I love art, but after a few hours at the Pompidou, I needed a break – it’s dizzying. We went to a cafe across the road and that was when I had “the scary washroom experience” - I got locked inside the cubicle, in the cafe’s basement, unisex washroom. The floor to ceiling door IMGP2967prevented me from crawling out under the door (had I been so inclined). Two German-IMGP2970speaking ladies tried to help, but eventually they went and got the manager. He spoke no English, and I’ve never learned words for things like “handle” and “lock”. He was clearly irritated. Many words were exchanged, not all of them nice, but eventually he returned with a gadget and voila, the door opened and I scooted out. When I asked Daniel why he didn’t come looking for me, he said he just thought I was having “problems” (what with all that cheese I’d been eating).  The next day at FIAC we saw this piece of work, which I thought would  be fitting to include.

Despite the experience, the fountains at Centre Pompidou made it really hard to stay annoyed. – check these out!

And the view of Sacre Coeur from the top floor was exceptional, as was the Edvard Munch special exhibit.  

So my friends that’s it for this travel bog. For those of you who don’t know, I’m on leave from work for 5 more months, and I think I will keep blogging on random thoughts and ideas while I’m on this break. I’ll see if I can figure out a way to make this more interactive, as some of you have asked about adding comments.  It’s all part of my learning curve. Thanks everyone, for your feedback thus far.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Paris, Part I

We were awoken Wednesday morning by the clamour of shopping buggies being pulled down flights of stairs. Ah market day at Place Monge – it starts at 6:00 am! Being part of the rhythm of everyday life is one of perks of staying in an apartment instead of a hotel. In Toulouse, it was everyone arriving to the apartment above ours after Sunday mass, people coming and going, and the lovely sounds and aroma of a meal being enjoyed from lunch until well into the evening by multiple generations. Another pThe Floor, Apt Entrance 4bis rue Dumerilerk, in Paris at least, is front entrances with mosaic floors that look like this!  And comfortable living rooms.IMGP1141

We never tire of markets and I always learn something new.  Even though I’ve eaten Coquilles Saint-Jacques I never realized that fresh scallops actually look like this. IMGP1181
And Parisians make good use of their bike-rental system. Here is the “bike-park” in front of our apartment at night – all the bikes are returned and being charged. The next morning (a week day), by the time we head out, look how many have already been borrowed. There few bike lanes in Paris, no laws about wearing a helmet, and women cycle in dresses and heels, occasionally texting along the way (which IS against the law). Biking is simply a mode of transportation, not something that requires a lot of additional gear and effort. The ease of access to rental bikes meant that we also saw few “private” bikes being ridden – likely a reflection of the lack of any spare space in apartments.  IMGP1176
And perhaps because of that limited space, people don’t seem to spend a great deal of time indoors. On a Wednesday evening (below), the streets are packed with people having dinner. That may be in part due to the fact that the restaurants don’t allow smoking indoors, and since most of the women there smoke, the preference is to dine outside. And cafes, like this one in Place de la Contrescarpe are always busy. We headed here as soon as we were settled into our apartment and were treated to great music by this upscale street musician.     IMGP2824The Mouffetard on a Monday in mid-October, 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Heading to Paris


I started this on the train on Friday while we were heading to Paris. Trains are punctual here and late trains are announced as such, even if it’s by just 2 minutes!  Speaking of modes of transportation, the electronic arrival /departure boards also automatically update the number of bicycles available for use nearby, with the number changing every few minutes as someone returns or takes a bike. Cycling, as a way of getting around, is taken seriously here.

In Bordeaux, as I’m sure in other places, there are churches that have the bell towers separate from the main church because of the weight of the bells. One of them was “open” to people who wanted to climb the 231-step spiral staircase to the top to see the bells. In France however, “open” is a pretty abstract concept. Starting October, things are generally open from 9h30-12h:30 and 14h30-19h00, except when they’re not, and that seems entirely to be at the whim of whomever is in charge on any given day or at any particular time. Jours exceptional, strikes, holidays and other special national days, happen often and don’t seem to be applied across the board, so it’s pretty hit and miss as to whether you’ll ever find something open the same hours two days in a row.

By chance we frequently ended up at this bell tower and each time we’d decide that this would be the day to make our ascent.  Except that it never was – each time there was always a fresh, neatly written explanation for the latest closure, taped to the door.  On our last day in Bordeaux, the one day we had of extraordinary sunshine, we had “la chance” – the bell tower was open and up we went. The staircase gets progressively more narrow as you climb and personal width and foot size can present challenges. By the top, I had both working against me.  It was worth the challenge though: here are some photos of the view.  You can see the ferris wheel mentioned in earlier posts, in the first picture below.  The grand clock is shown in the distance and again, up close.  IMGP1083 And look, I have a store in Bordeaux!


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Friday, October 14, 2011

Bordeaux: Strikes, Facelifts and Wine

We’ve gone from sandals to sweaters and coats.  We experienced a train strike when departing from Toulouse and a national strike while in Bordeaux. One little striker was particularly cute.IMGP1027  Her enthusiasm resulted in bystanders in close proximity getting whacked.  There weren’t a lot of bystanders though – everyone seem to marching and singing something that sounded an awful lot like an Irish jig.

Some things in Bordeaux made little sense to us, like this tortoise (and baby) sculpture in one of the squares. She’s eating grapes and there is a little man sitting on each of their necks, also eating grapes.  If you google it, you get a lot of other, much better pics, but little in the line of explanation.IMGP1019

And check out these …  tIMGP1039hey made me think of rolls of wrapping paper, but they’re actually the painted columns inside a church.IMGP1040





Bordeaux was known as the Black City as it’s porous limestone buildings had turned black over the years. Recently the city underwent a major facelift and almost all the building exteriors have been cleaned. Here’s an example from one church that is currently undergoing the process. One has to wonder though, with pollution and climate change, how long the pristine look will last. IMGP1037     IMGP1034


Bordeaux also has an incredible above ground electric tram/metro system, that has only come into being in the past 10 years. It’s hard to understand how a city as old as Bordeaux can accomplish something so massive, while Ottawa never seems able to move beyond the blueprint stage when it comes to rapid transit.

Next topic - our wine tour on Wednesday was really interesting. The guide spoke of the differences in soil conditions/composition that make up the various regions.  In France, wine growers are not allowed to irrigate and so the combination of weather, grape variety and soil conditions can result in one region having a stellar year, while a neighbouring one does not. They had had trouble with the merlot grapes being burnt this summer at the vineyard we visited! The grapes are harvested over 9 days, in a single a month, with the cabernet sauvignon (which she described as being a very lazy grape that takes its time ripening), being last. The vineyard we went to in Pomerol (in occitan “Pomairòu”, see my Street Signs blog) uses retired people for picking … just an idea if anyone is interested.

We were surprised to learn that most of the vineyards are closed to the public, and the vast majority are now owned by conglomerates.  Petit-Village, where we went is owned by an insurance company. Another thing that I didn’t know is that the vineyards don’t manage their own exporting – the wine is sold on the futures market. In that way, they can remain focussed on their core business and have sufficient cash flow.    IMGP2774

IMGP2761 From Pomerol we went to St Emilion, a walled medieval city (and also a major wine producing area).  The pic on the right is of the entrance to an underground church there. The downside of tours is that you’re not able to stop and see all the things that you’d like and we didn’t have time to go inside.  We’ll just have to go back.  But not in the summer; St Emilion has a population of about 150, and in summer sees 10,000/tourists/day!

We did have time to buy macaroons in St Emilion and they have a great story about how macaroons came into being.  Egg whites are used to clean the grape residue out of the wine barrels.  At 5 whites a barrel, that’s a lot of eggs, so a long time ago the priest looked to the nuns, who were known to be fine cooks, to come up with a recipe that would use the whites. The area also has an abundance of almonds and so voila … macaroons. They didn’t talk about what was done with the yolks, but I’m thinking crème caramel, crème brulée, and crème this and that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Oct 10: Bonjour Bordeaux



Happy Thanksgiving! We’ve heard about the amazing weather and fall colours in Ottawa.  According to our neighbours, the warm weather has produced a bumper crop of grubs that are eating their way through our backyard. Apparently, they’re sufficiently fattened to provide a nice Thanksgiving dinner for the skunks and racoons that have now done the fall rototilling for us. Not that the grass actually needed that!

We’ve been in Bordeaux since Friday.  It’s completely different from Toulouse. The “look” is much more what we’re accustomed to at home – many of the same stores, as well as large groceries stores instead of small, independent speciality shops.  Despite lots of  meandering, I’m still on a quest for olives.  We’ll try the market tomorrow. Here you see fitness clubs, and joggers out along the river, something we didn’t see in Toulouse. 

There’s a carnival going on too, just like the ones at home.IMGP2644 We walked around it last night. I tried to get Daniel to go on the Ferris wheel that’s in the background of this picture, but no luck – it was toooooo big. 

As in Toulouse, there are lots of people cycling everywhere, women in skirts and heels, no helmets, with parcels bulging from the handle bars and often texting as they weave in and out of traffic. And the traffic! Today, while sitting having coffee, we watched traffic police, on foot, chase down cars and give them tickets.  They’d blow a whistle, run after the car and tap on the hood or back window, and the drivers would obligingly pull over. The first “victim” argued with them the entire time we were having our coffee.  Lots of theatrics between him and two cops, meanwhile a couple of other officers continued, blowing their whistles, running after cars, and in the 45 minutes that we were there at least 5 others got tickets.  That should give you an idea of the number of exciting things we’ve found to do here.  We’re also really really happy we decided against renting a car.

This evening our studio apartment resembles a bizarre.  I mastered the hotel washing machine, but something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the dryer and anything heaver than camisoles is now draped over lamps, chairs or hanging from cupboards in the hope that it will be dry by the time we want to wear it tomorrow.

Yesterday we had a great time at a flea market.  It was outside one of the big churches here, held while Sunday mass was going on!  And I’m pretty sure there were far more people outside than in the Church.

Here’s a picture taken at the restaurant we went to just across the road from the market.  One of the patrons was trying to tell Daniel to smile, but we didn’t understand … and when we finally did get it, well this is how the picture turned out:IMGP0994 

Here’s the lunch that I had at the same restaurant (missing the wine, coffee and warm grape pie that came with it). We can’t get over how friendly people are.  They interact - in restaurants, even just in passing – it doesn’t matter if they’re the business owner or another customer, people chat with you. Much of the time I have no idea what they’re saying, but eventually we figure enough of it out.  IMGP0996For example – all that I knew about the dish below was that it had serrano ham.  I wasn’t disappointed.

And finally, here are a couple of pictures of windows from the Church.  There are some very old windows that have been repaired and restored over the years and then some equally beautiful “modern” ones installed in 1963. Somehow, it works.

One of these days I’ll have to write about the dogs!  Everyone has dogs here.  The healthiest one seem to belong to the drifters – they have the most amazing mixed breeds.  In Bordeaux, cats seem to have been added to the mix, but dogs still prevail.


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Good night everyone! We’re doing a vineyard tour Wednesday morning (yep we’ll be sipping first thing), so I’ll post some more after that.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bordeaux Beckons

In our final days in Toulouse, we returned to see a concert at Musée des Augustins, just a few blocks from our apartment.  It was pre-empted, but we were able to wander around this 14/15th centuries convent one last time, with the added attraction of seeing it at night. We discovered that the details on the carvings were even more spectacular at night.         IMGP0969IMGP0860

  Here it is at night – and here it is a few days earlier in the day light.

And there was this long row of gargoyles on exhibit, which were a little unnerving in the night light. None of my photos did them justice, but I think the eeriness is captured.IMGP0975

We also went to the Jacobins Convent (13/4th centuries) to see the tomb to Saint Thomas Aquinas.  In Chile, Daniel wrote his masters thesis on Thomas Aquinas’ concept of order. The pictures below are of the tomb, part of a window of the convent, and a man who was playing across the street, the entire time we were inside.  His music echoed throughout the building.


As I’m typing this, Daniel tells me that they’re broadcasting Cdn hockey on TV. We couldn’t get any information about the Ontario election, or about anything else that is going on in Canada … but they’re covering hockey :-).

Our final evening in Toulouse was a little tumultuous as there was a train strike announced and the next day were were travelling to Bordeaux by train.  We stayed up late trying to make sense out of all the information being provided. Lots of news coverage, and we were a little nervous the next day when we got to the train station and this is what we saw (below)  IMGP0986… it was packed and chaotic.  But once again, Daniel sought out the train officials and they assured him, that the train would be on time. The bus station was right beside the train station, so off he went to check out the possibility of bus travel, but was told there were no buses to Bordeaux. Seemed a little odd, but our language skills leave us little opportunity to argue.

We waited, with our bags, and as you can see – we don’t travel lightly.  We were soon to learn that thiIMGP0987s poses a problem when you decide to try travelling second class on the train. There is almost no room for luggage. You also need a trampoline to get up onto the coach … and then the person on the platform has to find a way to toss suitcases up, while others behind, are pushing to board. Every single time we have found ourselves in a mess of our own making on this trip, strangers have pitched in to help out, and it happened again this time. People showed us the ropes (the hidden luggage spots), moved their own stuff to make more space for ours and while we grumbled quite a bit, they remained good humoured and gracious.  

The train left only a few minutes late (probably because of us), and 2 hour the trip to Bordeaux was even better than I had expected.  Pretty countryside full  of small villages, ancient homes and churches. The vineyards start to appear about 45 minutes before you arrive – they go on and on and on. We spent the final half hour of the ride working out a strategy for exiting the train without further humiliating ourselves. It all went smoothly. We’ve arrived in Bordeaux.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Oct 4: We’re going to Albi

IMGP0910 We got up a little earlier than usual – we were off to Albi! We had become adept at walking to and from the train station (see previous posts) but still left ourselves lots of time. Even so, Daniel was moving at a gallop and I could barely keep up. When I checked my watch at the train station we had so much time to spare that I suggested we go for a coffee.  Daniel looked at me as though I was crazy.  Yep one of those days.  Almost in synch we each pulled out our watches – mine said 10:20, his said 11:00.  Suddenly things became much clearer.  After at least 5 years, my watch was in need of a new battery. Time really does stop on a good holiday.

Remember the trouble we had at the metro station? Well where is that kind panhandler when you need him?  In France, you  must “validate” your train ticket at little yellow machines just before you get on the train. The machine repeatedly rejected ours, with a “retournez” message.  We weren’t especially confident about these tickets given that we had had to have a correction made to them earlier in the week, so we assumed this message meant that they were being rejected and “returned” to us.  With minutes to spare Daniel did his thing, which was to find a train official (he has a special talent for this), who listened to our dilemma and had a good laugh before explaining that it simply meant to turn the ticket over so that the machine could read the magnetic strip. Ha ha very funny.

It worked.

Albi, a city an hour NE of Toulouse, had two features drawing us to it. First it was a centre of the Cathar doctrine – considered a heresy by the Catholic church. Although the Church sought peaceful attempts at conversion these were not very successful and after the murder in 1208 of the papal legate (by someone presumed to have been a knight in the employ of Count Raymond of Toulouse), the Church called for a crusade. This was carried out by knights from northern France and Germany and was known as the Albigensian Crusade ( 

The second reason for our wanting to visit was that it was the birthplace of Toulouse Lautrec, and there was a collection of paintingIMGP0864s bequeathed to the city by his mother. It turned out that the museum is closed on Tuesdays, the day we were there, starting in October.  No tour was in store for us.  This has been a theme.  This evening for example, we went to hear an organ concert at the Musée Augustin, which the tourist office (and all the brochures we have) indicate takes place every Wednesday evening from 8-9pm. Ah, but this particular Wednesday is an “exception”, because of some other spectacle … could we pls return next Wednesday?  Here’s a picture of the organ I was hoping to hear but won’t, until we happen to be in Toulouse again, on a Wednesday.

IMGP0909Back to Albi.  The city is on the Tarn River, which provided clay for the bricks for the construction of Basilica Sainte Cecile. Sainte Cecile is one of the largest brick buildings in the world and is considered to be a masterpiece of southern-french gothic art/architecture.  It’s been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2010.  It’s beyond description, but as you can see from the photo at the beginning, the Basilica dominates the city.  The organ alone is 15 metres high, and has 5 keyboards!  The Palais de la Berbie is also remarkable, with a gorgeous garden and some pretty great vistas.