I recently returned from a week of vacation in Bordeaux and Paris. This vacation was enabled by a useful phenomenon: when one is a college Junior in Europe, one finds all their college junior friends are scattered across the place as well. Since the study abroad vibe tends include a strong desire to get out and see as much as possible, it takes little more than an offer to trade floor/couch space to set up a trans-continental game of connect-the-dots. Even if you're not visiting a friend's temporary home, it's pretty easy to find a travel companion willing to rendezvous in Interesting Euro City of Choice for weekend. Such was the situation that brought me to Bordeaux for 2 days and then Paris for another 6. While you've been trying to figure out if you like Olin, or wondering who you'd like to have at Olin, I've been making tough decisions like which museum I'm going to see this afternoon or which arrondissement I'm going to explore. I guess this is the kind of "getting out of your head" activity that I came here to do.

More than a simple excuse to post some of my rapidly accumulating pictures, I'll be reflecting on my rhythm of walking, staring, and thinking that characterized this week of excursion.

The author playing his tourism a la Francaise

Name that hilltop Paris basilica...

Now that I think about it, the week leading up to my Parisian wanderings was the closest to an Olin pace that I've achieved here. The string of happening times kicked off with the visit of the youngest daughter (24) of my French host family. Living in Spain, she hadn't been back in Nantes since September, so her homecoming dinner was a thing of great extravagance that permitted us to celebrate Noel for her and the birthdays of both my host parents. With the elder sister and her husband also in attendance, it was all in all a rocking time. Then I was swept into one of the young sister's many social engagements Saturday night- a raucous affair that I will leave to the reader's imagination. Sunday was spent jaunting around the nearby beach town of La Baule with the rest of the family. Monday I went from class to class to pick up soccer to a soccer match, Tuesday went bowling with a group of French friends, and another above average dinner Wednesday night for the visit of a past exchange student's American family. I discovered that both my English and my French degrade significantly when I try to speak them both back to back. It was the former exchange student, who had lived with my same host family, who delighted in pointing out all the goofy reverse translations I started doing- like saying I'm "useless" at something, an expression that's legal but much less common in English. Thursday my first travel partner arrived, but I stole away to do my weekly capoeira class just the same, and Friday after a hasty French grammar midterm we were on the train to Bordeaux.

The difference between this kind of busy and Olin busy? A greater emphasis on social engagements and experiences for their own sake, rather than a string of activities that are very productive or creative. At Olin I'm often trying accomplish something, build something, finish something. Here I'm really just trying to see, feel, and talk, letting it wash over me like the outer spiral of an ICB lecture with Gill Pratt. Specifically, like the kind where you don't even take notes or try to cling to the details, just kind of let it happen and come back to it later.

A tour around beachside Brittany

Clockwise from top right: Fortified, salt producing village of Guerande, a cute Breton house, modernity facing history, the author ready to bike across Brittany.

Friday night my travel partner Jenn, a Wellesley student currently studying in Milan, and I pulled into Bordeaux and pick-nicked on one of the city's massive open squares by the river Garonne. That evening we managed to very much unintentionally run across a lot of the big landmarks we planned to see later. For example, we stumbled into a street with no car traffic, only tram rails. Turning down the street revealed the portal of the ancient cathedral, framed by the buildings on either side of the narrow street and crowned by my current favorite specimen of stained glass, subtly lit. Being not in tourist prep mode and thus without camera, the images of the evening stroll will be locked safe in my mind's eye. I think I stood in the courtyard of Hotel de Ville staring at the gently flapping French flag against the starry Aquitaine sky for 15 minutes. A picture wouldn't have captured that anyway. Our entertainment was to walk and watch. Kind of like scientists who observe before they've got a hypothesis: I wasn't looking for something, I was watching everything. Already I started to wonder if I had ever paid this much attention walking around Boston. Have I ever gone to a new neighborhood of the city for no reason other than to walk the streets and see it, and have that be interesting enough? I think I will now.

Saturday was the best weather of the week, and we decided to hop an afternoon train to one of the outlying villages which is part of Bordeaux's eminent wine producing reputation. Cloudless sky, t-shirt warm, hill top sand colored houses surrounded by sprawling vineyards. A good change of pace from the similar Nantes and Bordeaux, St. Emilion let us glimpse a different kind of life in France. I wondered what its like to live in a place where the only things people do are make wine, sell wine, or sell something else to tourists. Would it be consistently interesting to live on the seasonal influx of visitors, or the harvest and production from the vineyards? Perhaps it would be satisfying, rather than a constant challenge per se. I wondered if people choose this kind of life- like if I wanted to move to St. Emilion and set up shop I could do it. A great place to spend a sunny afternoon: still not sure about a lifetime.


Bordeaux and St. Emilion.

Sunday night found me in Paris, reunited after an absence of some months with my cousin Alayna. Alayna is part of the French-Canadian side of my family that makes a big deal out of renewing familial ties. It wasn't until the last 5 years or so that I really started to a) remember the names of the multitude of distant family and b) appreciate the presence and connection with family, my blood, scattered across the U.S. and Canada. Now, with more than a little familial predisposition to learn French (with all those grandparents chattering in the language together), Alayna and I are both playing the study-abroad game to creep towards this nebulous idea of "fluency."

So thanks to the familial tie, I both had someone to hang out with in Paris and sidestepped the expense of lodging. This brought the price of living in Paris right down to moderately criminal. Luckily, I was able to play the student card for a lot of museums, and with the encouragement of my cousin took the streets rather than the Metro for quite of few of our cross town jaunts. I think I can say that I hit a good balance of taking advantage of my time in the city and not trying to do too much. I wasn't looking for the kind of vacation that leaves you wanting a vacation. I was also really glad to have visited the bulk of the most typical monuments in Paris on my last visit, so I took the week to get off the beaten path. I picked a museum or a neighborhood for the morning or afternoon every day and took one trip out of the city proper to see the massive Chateau de Versailles. This last was with another wandering American studying in the same program back in Nantes. Though considering myself rather a country mouse, I really didn't mind the urbanism of Paris as much as I might have thought. I didn't find the pace to be maddening, and I shrugged off the crowds and the average city filth as I stared into a multitude of art and history in my wanderings.

Highlights of the week were:

  • Discussing religion in the crypt of Sacre Coeur
  • Stumbling upon the Light Saber Garden at the newest big museum in town (Musee de Quai Branly)
  • Having a 3 language conversation with the friends of Alayna's Venezuelan flatmate in a courtyard of the Louvre (not that I contributed to the Spanish portion, though)
  • Finding delicious bagels and falafel in the Jewish quarter (le Marais)
  • Soaking up the skills of my photo major cousin by taking 10 minutes to get a shot of the Eiffel Tower in a puddle
  • Not being concerned with how many km or minutes we would spend to walk from the 14th arrondissement to the 4th


Cousin Alayna and me.


The experimental garden at the Musee Quai Branly- opened in 2006.


My glasses are often the object closest at hand for still life experimentation.

Courtyard @ the Louvre

Courtyard Marly in the Richelieu wing of the Musee du Louvre.


Looking up at the ground.

As for the museums, I've found that I get one of 2 feelings at a museum, sometimes both: The first is a sense that human history is enormous, intricate, and rich. The size and detail of the works of art, let alone the buildings in which they are found, is staggering. It strikes me that the people this art depicts, they did just as much living as I'm doing- they saw things and knew people and had weird little habits and big plans and concerns for the future every bit as significant to them as mine are to me. This brings me to my second feeling: all these people throughout the history of the human race, they're not so different from me. I can stare at a crockery bowl and imagine holding it in my hands, finishing my barley wine and rinsing it with river water before hurrying back to my flock of sheep or weaving loom or stone cutting or whatever my profession might have been. 3000 years later, my bowl might be in the Louvre in one of a dozen rooms of fragments of Mesopotamia. I can imagine that. And sometimes, a few thousand years doesn't really seem like that long. Centuries sure don't seem that unimaginable- I might live for a century if so inclined. People go to church in buildings that are 500 years old. Even in the infantile U.S., which the Europeans sometimes claim has very little history, there are lots of homes built in the 18th or 19th century. No, a century doesn't seem so long anymore. So I feel pretty closely connected to the stonemason/shepherd Mesopotamian who left his bowl for me to find a few dozen centuries ago.

The question I'm starting to ask now: does my dinner ware define me? Does it even define my culture? What do you think?

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