Sunday, July 12, 2015

Misc. and Mer

Bonjour tout le monde!

Oof. So many things happen in a month of no blogging! (This post was actually written about a week ago, but WiFi). I have

-Gotten drunk on cheap wine sitting in front of Sacre Couer and watching Paris get dark, which was just as beautiful as it sounds…

… and spent the next day nursing my stomach back to health (note to self: the grocery store may have crappy fruity rose for two euros a bottle. That does not mean I need to drink the crappy fruity rose for two euros a bottle.)

-Covered most of the fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou in only three hours (didn’t realize how huge that place was), and thoroughly explored the tiny and lovely Musee Zadkine.
Atelier Brancusi next to the Centre Pompidou

-Visited Monet’s gardens, in a gorgeous part of Normandy, which are just as beautiful and inspirational as one would hope and look exactly like the paintings (I’m now not actually sure Monet was an impressionist). 

I made friends with the local cows, and on the way there discovered exactly why it is important to have a properly adjusted bike.

-Seen the pleasant craziness that goes on along the banks of the Seine on Friday nights - hordes of people picnicking or strolling or drinking and having fun - and walked miles along the river to the Eiffel Tower. That was probably the one time so far that I’ve seen why Paris is considered magical - most of the time, it’s high-energy and exciting and often striking, like any city, but seeing Notre Dame glowing from the riverbank has a whole different sort of feel.

-Walked all around the city during the Fete de la Musique, and listened to lots of musicians (of varying abilities but uniformly high enthusiasm). Hearing a bad cover of Another Brick in the Wall in front of a massive 14th-century cathedral creates a weird sense of culture clash.

-Discovered (and rediscovered) (and quite a few more on top) the wonderful place that is Shakespeare and Co. - the English bookstore across the Seine from Notre Dame, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all the cool kids used to hang out, filled with stacks of books and comfy chairs and people playing piano and a slightly grouchy cat and young writers who live in the shop for free. I’ve developed a habit of going there after work and reading chunks of War and Peace, or whatever catches my eye, and enjoying the delightful feeling of being there. The waiters at the restaurant next door are know me now.
-Also explored the very modern seven-story bookstore near Jardin de Luxembourg, which doesn’t have the same feel as Shakespeare and Co. but was delightfully packed with people actually looking for and buying books - I feel like that’s almost disappeared in the US, as Borders dies and Barnes and Nobles becomes Nooks and Starbucks. The same book company has another dozen smaller stores scattered down the street, specializing in scientific literature or foreign languages or CDs. And there are lots of little independent bookstores as well. It all makes me very happy.

-Started trying to learn piano, armed with a Very Easy Queen book that I got at the musical bookstore next door to my dorm. I’m making progress faster than I thought - but between piano and Shakespeare and Co., I’ve been having dinner around 11 at night. Freddie Mercury’s vocal range is even more impressive when you can physically see those crazy jumps.

-Tried to tolerate the increasingly insane antics of the lady who runs the dorm… Makes me appreciate New House.

-Discovered new exciting fruits and veggies - highlights are the fantastically aromatic Charentais melon, which is sort of like a small cantaloupe except way more flavorful, and endives, which I never got in the US but are delicious with a Spanish blue-cheese-and-nuts treatment.

-Seen the random kangaroos and ostriches in the park near work.
-Become acquainted with the phenomenon of the man-bun (of the hair variety, that is), which is a thing here. I somehow didn’t notice this until another of the MIT girls pointed this out, but now I see them everywhere, in various stages of sloppiness and grandeur. French House boys, any of you up for a challenge?

-Celebrated a new paper in my lab in the traditional style, which involves a Chilean liquor called pisco (tastes kinda like tequila, although it’s made from wine - maybe not my favorite). Apparently, my lab has been around since 1948, and in the early days there was a brilliant Chilean PI. So for each significant accomplishment in the last forty years ago, there has been a pisco party. 

-On a possibly related note, really struggled with productivity… I was good for three weeks while my boss was gone, and then I ran out of things to do and fell into the internet rut, and I have had trouble climbing back out. But I’m trying, and decent progress has been made - I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of some of the machine learning basics at this point, and the parade of bugs has slowed slightly.

-Survived last Wednesday, Day 1 of the 100 degree heatwave. My dorm does not have air conditioning, my office barely does (heavily contributed to unproductivity), and overall it was a very unpleasant experience. So - this weekend happened!

Looking at the forecast on Tuesday and freaking out, I decided I wanted to skip town for the heat wave continuation on Friday and Saturday. 

Three hours of frustrating Googling later, I had plans for a town called Boulogne-sur-Mer, which was the first place I found with a beach, a cheap hostel, cheap train tickets, and a cool weather forecast. It’s at the northernmost tip of France, not far from where the English Channel tunnel comes in. My coworker thought about coming along but decided not to miss more work, and MIT people had plans for the weekend at this point, so off by myself I went and hoped for the best.

Thursday evening I spend three hours staring out the train window. Conclusions: trains are awesome and France is really pretty. Lots of seagulls greeted me in Boulogne, and then I settled into the slightly run-down but mostly quite decent hostel (had my three-bed room to myself all three nights, which was nice - although I suppose I’ll have to try again to get the real hostel experience). I have no explanation for this mural in the stairwell.

On Friday I ate the sad hostel breakfast, covered myself in expensive European sunscreen, and walked a couple kilometers to the beach. The beach is huge and gorgeous, with cold refreshing water, cliffs running down it, England just visible in the distance, and old-fashioned cabins and ice cream stands (it was the first seaside resort in France, and it’s very much kept the feel).

I was the only one there in the morning, except for two guys who were punching the sand with a metal tube (presumably some kind of sciency thing?) and were kind enough to rescue my bag from the tide. I had a very nice swim. 

I should probably say at this point that I took three hundred photos this weekend, and I’m not even ashamed…

When I got out of the water, I decided to walk down the beach to check out the cliffs. And then to climb up to see the view, and then to walk a little bit further down to get an even better one… Anyway, I ended up taking an impromptu hike to the next town over. Good thing I was properly outfitted for hiking: I had a skirt, heeled sandals, a purse, and a tote bag with an extra pair of flip-flops, a novel, and a damp swimsuit and towel. But it worked out… I went barefoot for the parts where I needed traction, and the towel turned out to be good sun protection.

I snuck into a campground’s kitchen to fill my water bottle, met some ponies,
Not actually a pony

and got this kind of view. France is so pretty… really made me want to do a big European countryside adventure at some point. 
Next-town-over in the back
There was one terrifying moment when I came to this weird cement structure, inhabited by a hobo and his dog. The dog was enormous and vicious, with dripping fangs, and it was acting absolutely ready to rip me to shreds. I had to walk right past it to get to the trail, and I wasn’t at all sure that its chain was attached to anything - and I would have been pretty far from help if I’d gotten mauled. It seems silly, looking back on it now, but I was scared. Fortunately, the hobo appeared, seemed stern but sane, and told me not to be afraid of the dog.
Psycho dog is the little brown blob on the right - this is before he saw me
Once I got safely to the other town, I went into the closest cafe/pub/lottery-ticket-joint and ordered mussels. They brought me a huge pot of what must have been a hundred astonishingly flavorful, yellow, tiny creatures in a wine sauce - this stuff tastes different when it’s fresh!
That night and the next day, I did more swimming (and enjoying lying on the beach in the sun, which is a new experience for me - north-Atlantic breeze is a big change from Paris meltingness), and I explored the fortified city at the top of Boulogne’s big hill. 
Turns out Boulogne has a rich history going back to Roman times: the fortified city has the best-preserved ramparts in Northern France, a castle, a belfry, a cathedral - all the good stuff. There was an unexpected but pretty cool public art exhibit in front of the cathedral, themed around Heironymous Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things: a themed garden for each of the seven deadly sins, e.g. 
Wrath, with grapes for Steinbeck

and a couple of inspirational messages to keep you optimistic.
("Ciel" et "Enfer" at the top)

Under the cathedral is the biggest crypt in France, which is freezing and eerie and filled with art and really really cool.

And in the castle

 is an art museum representing every inhabited continent, featuring a real mummy (also pretty eerie!)

and Inuit snow-glasses for protection from wind and glare (could have used those this winter)

and cool echoey dungeons.
I really appreciated the cartoony kids’ commentary provided by young Isidore - made me feel like I actually speak French! 

(But for real, interacting with people outside of Paris - so in actual French-speaking France - is super helpful from the language perspective. And people are nicer in the country - it’s so strange to actually have cars stop to let me through!)

And there’s a street with five or six different restaurants displaying the exact same menu to lure the British tourists - three-course dinner for 15 euros, with lots of fresh seafood (Boulogne is also France’s biggest fishing port. It is a very superlatively superlative sort of place.) I took advantage of this Sunday night, and that was a good decision. May I never learn how many calories were in that chocolate mousse.

And sunsets. And views. And fresh air. And countryside prettiness and aaaaaahh.
(To be fair, Boulogne isn’t actually all that tiny and rural - it’s got a pretty sizable population of 42K, and a good bit of it [like the part near the train station where my hostel was] isn’t nearly as charming. But even the non-charming-bordering-on-sketchy part has those gorgeous sunsets.)

Sunday was very cold and rainy (being cold was in and of itself a pleasure after Paris), so I went to the huge aquarium-cum-environmental-museum that serves as the region’s main tourist attraction. It was pretty cool as far as aquariums go - penguins and sea lions and alligators and all the jazz - but it’s got nothing on the gorgeousness outside, and the hour-long line for gross cafeteria food was uncalled for. 

Also, this display outside the gift store made me sad… boys get the Ocean Shark Research Set, girls get plastic Little Mermaids, and even the sting rays are pink (??). Then they wonder…

Then I walked along the cold wet rainy windy beach, which was beautiful in a whole different sort of way. 

I sat in a coffee shop and listened to sounds for a while, and then the sun came out and I went up another hill (using actual streets this time, because climbing on sticky mud in aforementioned heeled sandals wasn’t happening) and got this stunning view (better in person, of course).

The odd structure used to be gunpowder storage, but now it’s a memorial for those lost at sea.

And then I ate a last fish soup and got on the train and went back to Paris. Going into the city felt so claustrophobic and unfamiliar, as though I’d been on the other side of the world for months. I think I’ve readjusted now, a couple of days later, but I’m hoping the images from Boulogne stick - it’s just such an unbelievably gorgeous place, and I’m sure that giant swaths of the countryside are the same way. Why do people choose to live in cities?

Lessons learned: beautiful places are great, and make even wonderful cities seem nasty and dull in comparison. Fresh seafood is great. Trains are great. Crypts and dungeons are pretty cool. Traveling alone is a little bit lonely, but also liberating. And I want to get out of Paris more!

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