The Spectacle of Versailles

20 Jun

I was awed by the gates of Versailles and the golden arrogance of them.  I could tell how Louis and  Marie had no sense of the world that they were living and the people that they were supposed to rule.  There is no reality in Chateaux Versailles.  It is a magnificent and isolating universe.

My mind almost couldn’t comprehend the enormity of Versailles.  All I could think of when I took my first steps on the stone plaza was, “I can’t believe people walked here in heels.”

The ancient stones are uneven and have large spaces between them.  The marble staircases are somewhat slanted and the dirt paths are full of small stones.

Though, I didn’t know all of these details as I waited in the queue to get in.  I was just trying to maintain my balance and extricate myself from the German tour group that I got stuck in the middle of.  Finally, I asked if I could  move forward and the leader said, “of course Princesses can go to the front.”

I inwardly laughed because I was staring at what a real Queen created, and I know that never will I possess such audacity nor would I be comfortable inhabiting it.

My pounding hard could barely take in the gate, which was blinding in its brilliance each time the sun struck it.

Everywhere there were swarms of people from all over the world.  Once I finally entered the Chateaux, I saw an American man lean over to his son, glance at a Tibetan Monk and say, “bet you don’t see that every day,” as if the Monk was the spectacle.

The ceilings of the Chateaux were works of art.  They made me feel like I was standing inside a painting.  There were long halls of marble statues, magnificent chandeliers and a battlefield of paintings.  Each detail enhancing and adding to the theme and beauty of the room.

After an hour inside I had to get some air.  It was almost too much to see the King and Queen’s bedchamber, to imagine the Lords and Ladies that strolled these halls.  I could see the many spaces for intrigue. I could see how easily once could slip behind a stunning chair or curtain and exchange an unnoticeable secret.

The weight of history was apparent in Versailles every particle, though it’s also a neighborhood.  As I went to the Garden, I saw people running through it.  Versailles is where they exercise and this almost blew my mind more than the Chateaux, though this is Europe – where one lives with history and sleeps within it.

And what is history anyway?  Is it the iconic lanes shaded by the vertical pines?  Is it the canal where now laughing families row boats?  Is it the site of Petite Trianon and the thousands of people that enter and leave it daily?

I don’t know if I heard the ghosts of all those that tread before, but I do know that when I was invited to take the same walk that Louie did daily, my brain wasn’t fully comprehending.

The sun was too strong, and I saw the need for these trees and the intelligence in which they were shaped.  And my heart broke a little when I saw the floating garbage in the fountain that was home to four stunning Grecian statues.

How could one so casually desecrate one of man’s greatest accomplishments?

And yes, it’s easy to see Versailles as the blood it took to built it.  To see it as a symbol of our gluttonous egos that use others to construct the things we want to be remembered by.

But often our greatest accomplishments are also a product of what is both good and bad within us.  We have the capacity to imagine Versailles and the horror that happened within – we are both the brilliant golden gate and the garbage in the pond.

We are what we’ve dreamed and forgotten, and the forgetting haunts our days.

 

 

 

 

 

How I Walked Through Lyon

17 Jun

I’m sitting next to a sleeping Colombian on a bus that’s making it’s way toward Paris.  Outside my window the rolling hills are green, the grass is yellow and the small houses are cream with red roofs. 

The scenery feels provencal, but I know it’s not.  It’s just the backdrop from Lyon to Paris, and I’m not sure if Paris will imprint itself on my mind like Lyon did.  Paris is an expectation, Lyon was not.  It was small, scenic and sliced by two rivers that people sat by day and night.

How can I describe Lyon and its many moments?  How can I share with others what Lyon will always be for me?  A city that I walked through.

There I am, strolling with an upper-class, British student.  We are discussing our Faith over ham and cheese crepes at a cafe we stumbled upon. We are saying what God means to us after attending my first Mass in the most beautiful Church I’ve ever seen.  While we are of very different faiths, the grounding act ritual sits at our centers; it’s how we connect with what we believe.

Again, I’m standing on Medieval cobblestones, gazing at the ruins of a Church that was built in 150 A.D.  Then I’m visiting a Sunday market and devour Macaroons made from the local candy.  

But really, I’m sitting at the Hostel bar, making friends with the owners over a glass of Rose.  They make me a plate of some of the local cheeses, which are mountain and blue.  Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye play in the background, and I can’t help myself. I quietly sing along.

Oh, but I am so tired, and feel that we will never find the Hostel after our Lyonnaise dinner of duck tartan and chocolate mousse.  My new Israeli friend Daniella, is absolutely finished, exhausted after a night with a Puerto Rican who reminded her of how one should be treated by a man.

We are giggling and watching the Gypsy fire dancers.  We are acknowledging that we can only share these secrets because we will probably never see each other again.

I am speaking Spanish to the Colombian, and his French friend Matias is talking with Max in German, but English is what we always go back to.  It’s the only language all four of us know.

The waiter is joking in French, and he smiles in my direction, trying to make me laugh.

The city, both Medieval and Modern, with a Basilica up on a hill that I continue to claim I own is always overlooking us, an ever-lasting symbol of Catholic Faith.

And the young Brit tells me he loved traveling the States because all the girls went mad for his accent.  He said that his East Coast friend got caught pretending he was from London as well.

The ham and cheese crepe is the perfect antidote to my hunger.  The nourishment I need after walking for hours.

Passing by the new and the old, the Arabic and the French, the student, professional and tourist blend of this unforgettable city of shops, cafes and of walking without purpose, toward nowhere, toward the game, toward the river where the boats float from beginning to end, to the bus that I’m on now, toward Paris and all that I expect.

Close Your Eyes and Dance – Lyon

14 Jun

At a certain age you suddenly become less cool in the way that eighteen to twenty-three year olds define cool.  You begin to believe this kind of cool doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t, but in a way it does because we are always looking backwards, reminiscing.

“Remember that time we got really drunk, then got lost and it started to pour, but finally at 3 a.m. we found some corner store, bought a beer and watched the sun rise.” but what we are really saying is remember when the whole world was just an imagined possibility…now we know.

And this past Thursday, I was cool, and being cool was deeply satisfying, but satisfying because I knew it was just for a night.

I went to a club  in Lyon called Sucre.  The club was a rooftop started by people who run, “some of the best music festivals in France.”

The rooftop had structures of flashing blue, red and white lights and people sat in circles beneath them.  There was a long bar outside with picnic tables and a bar inside the dance house, which was a covered structure on the roof. No one was getting drunk but no one was totally sober.

I met a twenty-one year old Moroccan girl who had almond eyes and hair that rose off her head.  She unknowingly possessed a model’s body and it was clad in green silk shorts and a printed top.  She wore white Keds and and told me she was studying art.

When I asked her about her work she launched into a passionate speech about how the world ignores other’s suffering; that we are indifferent.  She told me she burns her art to bring attention to what we ignore.  She said, “Paris is the city of the World,” and I could see this beautiful idealist permanently living there.

Another young literature student turned to me and asked if I knew who Rimbaud was.  When I replied, “yes,” his face lit up.

He said, “Rimbaud is the Father of modern literature,” and we discussed his life and his impact on the written word.  He reminded me how much I love Charles Bukowski and we joked how Bukowski was always drunk in interviews.

The literature student introduced me to his Algerian friend who evoked a shrunken Jimmy Hendrix with a red headband horizontally wrapped around his Afro.  Once we entered the Dance bar, he never stopped moving, his nineteen year old body didn’t need a break.

The Jimi Hendrix character turned to me and said, “I can tell you know how to party,” and I wanted to say you have no idea, but I just smiled.

After forty minutes of dancing I was done, but it was clear that my new friends weren’t ready to depart.  I noticed that the bar had an espresso machine, which I adored, and I ordered one and took in the scene.

Bodies leaned toward the DJ; bodies were covered in music.  I could tell most people thought that this was THEIR moment; that there hadn’t been music like this, or youth like this.  That it didn’t occur to them that generations have danced to their moments and were probably on a lot more drugs.

I thought, “we loose ourselves in the music.  We want to escape our terrible youth, we want to dance it out because who can lightly carry such possibility?”

Eventually, I went outside, sat at one of the picnic tables and enjoyed the fresh night air.  I  chatted with the rest of the group who wasn’t interested in movement.  I inhaled half of their cigarettes because they didn’t think to turn their heads and blow the other way.

My heart was filled with the twenty year old Samantha who wanted the world so badly and who was terrified that she would never get close to all she wanted to grasp.  I thanked whatever that was within myself that brought me here; that could be both in and outside the moment.

At two a.m. we left.  The subways had stopped and so we slowly began the long walk home.During our walk, we stopped at various points to chat, taking small swigs out of the bottle of wine the boys had hidden outside of the club.

We encountered a stone map of Lyon, and my young friend pointed out Lyon’s original borders and how far it’s spread.  He continued to educate me as we meandered back, telling me the history of the gorgeous statues that are scattered throughout the city.

When we reached the river, we stopped to finish the bottle of wine, and discussed the importance of openness and how it can enrich one’s life.  Then suddenly it was 4 a.m., and it was decided that it was really time for bed.

A bike station was found, and the mini Jimi Hendrix decided to rent one as he had further to go.  He jumped on, waved goodbye, and in his arrogant youth shouted, “close your eyes and dance!”

 

Couchsurfing in Provence

12 Jun

There’s no one at the bus terminal to meet me when I arrive to Aix-En-Provence, and there’s no way I can call my Couchsurfing hos, Fathma. The Bus Terminal does not have Wi-Fi.

The kind, elderly woman from Chicago whom I met on the bus is concerned.  “You can use my phone,” she offers, and so I dial Fathma’s number.  However, it tells me that there’s an error.

“No worries,” I tell Chicago lady.  I will work it out, and so I step out into the 90 degree heat with my enormous backpack.  People stare at me when I walk through the town, and some shout, “big bag!”

After stopping by four different restaurants, I finally find a hotel that has Wi-Fi.

Fathma apologizes for not meeting me and promises to come get me.  Apparently, she misunderstood and thought I was arriving much earlier.  Either way, I just want to put down my bag.

Fifteen minutes later I’m standing in Fathma’s small but lovely apartment, hurrying to get ready to go out.  Her two children are with their Father and Fathma tells me we’re going to one of her friend’s birthday party.

I can tell that she’s ready for some fun, and is a continuos whirl of activity.  She’s either on the phone, in the kitchen, running late, forgetting something or accidentally burning herself.

She takes me to what looks like a bar, but I’m told it’s not always that.  Some days it’s for children’s events and other days movies are screened there; however, tonight there’s a French Algerian band and children are sitting all around the stage.

To me it’s strange to see children out past ten with drunken people dancing behind them, but this is how France is.  Parents lives don’t stop because they have children – they include them, and there’s a communal tolerance for child-like interruptions at adult events.

Fathma’s friends don’t really know any English, or Spanish, so I go inside and listen to the band.  There’s a cellist, bongos, a singer and a guitarist.  They play amusing French duets, upbeat Arabic songs and mournful French ballads that the entire bar knows.

When they switch to the Arabic music people begin to dance, and so I join in, making up my own Middle-Eastern moves.  Suddenly, there’s a circle around me and people are clapping out the beat.  I blush and stop, but am strongly encouraged to go on.

“Of course,” I think because somehow when I dance circles always form.

Soon I learn it’s assumed that I come from Kabul and that my made-up dance actually has roots in that city.  Fathma explains to the others that I don’t know any French or Arabic and that I’m certainly not from Kabul.  I see disappointment in the other’s faces but someone randomly gives me their card.

The next day Fathma takes me to a picnic in a beautiful Provence park.  All of the guests are about 10 years older than me and again very little English is spoken.  There are bottles of Rose wine that are both before, during and after lunch drinks.  I drink very little because I’m starving, as I had not eaten dinner the night before.

To my dismay, there’s only baguettes, cheese and pates, and so I eat about a loaf of bread, and then end up having to pee behind a bush because there are no bathrooms.

I get about 15 mosquito bites when I’m in the bush and it’s 95 degrees.  I try to drop hints about leaving, and Fathma agrees with me, but then decides to take a nap.

I watch guests attempt to walk the tightrope that is tied between two trees and proceed to eat some of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life: a rosemary, peach crumble, a decadent chocolate brownie and a plum, cherry tart.  Bottles of champagne are opened, but I refrain because I do not want to revisit the bush.

Four hours later Fathma finally agrees it’s time to go.  We are both wrung out by the heat, though there’s no time for me to nap, as I have plans to meet other CouchSurfers.

This is how I end up watching the sunset, on a mountain, by an aquamarine lake, Pastiss in hand.

The mountain is called Saint Victoria, and I’m there with two Couchsurfing San Franciscans, three Italian students and 10 French students.  The San Franciscans are vaguely awful, totally drunk and talk like they’re text messaging hashtags; however, everyone else is interesting.

I meet a sweet French couple who I am meeting in Lyon, and an adorable, bearded French student who invites me to his parent’s mansion somewhere in France.

After the setting sun we pile into cars and drive back into town.  We casually agree to get more food and then meet at the Rotonde, which is a large, stone circle in the center of town.

Through bad luck, I end up with the San Franciscans who I promptly ditch, but then no one shows up to the Rotonde.  Just as I am about to grab a cab back to where I’m staying a man approaches me.

“I noticed you walking around by yourself and now you’re standing alone.  I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t think the people you’re meeting are showing up, and I can’t let a nice girl stand alone by herself.”

We have some banter, as I’m defensive toward strange men, but we end up having a glass of wine by the Rotonde.

Pierre is 34, owns a Marine Consultant & Surveyor company and is from Marseille.  We talk for hours.

To my surprise, he is polite and charming.  He makes sure that I safely get back to my apartment and invites me to take a drive through the Provencal countryside the next day.

I spent the morning having a lovely breakfast with my host family, chatting in English with Fathma and working on the balcony.  Pierre promptly arrives at three and we depart.

Every moment of the drive is a cliched postcard of Provence, and I love it.  The flowers are vibrant purple, the fields are green straw and the houses are made of stone.

We go to the Medieval town of Goult and to one of the most gorgeous rivers I have ever seen.  It is emerald, cold and clear.  It is everything that I pictured when I imagined my time in Provence.

While I want to stay until the sunsets, Pierre has work the next day and so we drive back into town.  Again, to my surprise, he is a gentleman through and through, and I think how sad that this is surprising.

Per my request, he drops me in town and we say our goodbyes with promises to keep in touch.  I stroll through the town one last time, have a glass of Rose and return to Fathma’s.

The next day Fathma and I have quiche and a salad made of crab, mushrooms and tomatoes.  She stands there smoking like the chic Frenchwoman that she is.  An ambulance pulls up in front of the apartment building.

Fathma, glances down and says, “My neighbor is nice but very old,” and continues smoking.  I think only the French can be this blase.

After lunch she takes me to the bus station, and I depart for two days in Marseille.

A Night in Nice

9 Jun

When my train stops in the Nice station a tall, dark, handsome man approaches me.  He is well-dressed and is carrying a book about birds.  Immediately, he takes my bag, and while wary, I assume it’s to help me lift it off the train since my bag is as big as me.

Quickly, it’s established that he speaks Arabic and French, and I speak Spanish and English.  There is no possible communication. Yet, he seems to believe communication is possible.  I go to take my bag and he insists on carrying it.  It’s not exactly a short walk from the train station to my hostel, so I weakly insist he give my bag back to me.

A part of me knows its crazy to let a strange man carry my bag, but another part knows this is just part of travel.  Unexpected, inexplicable help appears, and often it’s best not to protest.

After fifteen minutes of carrying my bag the Stranger realizes how far my hostel is, how we truly cannot communicate and with gestures that I believe to be apologies leaves me with my bag.  Luckily, the hostel is two blocks away, and I’m already panting in the 85 degree heat as I walk down the small, slanted street and ring the doorbell.

Three flights of stairs leads me to Falerio, the Italian hostel manager, Robbert, the student of architecture and Gus (also called Goose) who gets called by every other name but his.

Immediately, I am told that everyone is meeting in the kitchen at nine – we are going out.

So, I hurry to the adorable French restaurant down the street and have the best Croque Monsieur of my life.  It’s here where I realize how comfortable I am dining alone.  This somehow feels liberating.

Hurrying back, I throw on my standard funeral chic outfit:  a fancy black top, black pants and the designer nude heels I bought to stand up in a friend’s wedding and bring everywhere.  Once I’m dressed the Aussies arrive, or the girls I’m sharing a room with.  They seem friendly, and ready for fun, and thus begins our evening out.

The bottles of beer don’t inspire me so I refrain from drinking.  Also, as I’ve said many times, “Barcelona almost killed me.”

I keep hearing the word, “Waynes,” and the name doesn’t seem to represent the glamorous evening out that I envisioned, though I’m told, “it’s a really cool bar.”

An eccentric Englishman named Mo keeps the jokes going and soon that magical moment arrives; that moment that happens occasionally in hostels, where suddenly strangers are now your family for the next few days – or at least until it’s time to depart.

Waynes is everything I expected: overcrowded, obscenely hot, overpriced and the songs are either from the 80s or early 2000s.  Near the dance floor, everyone is standing on tables thinking that it’s the most awesome night of their lives.  I’m reminded of myself ten, or truthfully, three years ago.

I convince the Aussie girls that due to the heat we should find somewhere to sit outside and to my delight, they agree.

Soon we are sitting at the bar next to Waynes with a bottle of red wine at our table.  Accompanying us are two businessman, one being from England and the other from Italy.

I’m talking business with the Italian and we’re discussing Communications, China and Technology.  He continually implies that he can get me a job at his company and that they are hiring in the Communications department.  While I don’t believe this mid-level Manager at a new global telecommunications company can make anything happen (and that I’d even want it to happen), one never knows, so I take his card.

The Aussie girls and the Englishmen stay busy cracking jokes, and their laughter makes me wonder why I had choose to be Professional.

Suddenly, Mo, our Hostel friend appears, and the girls remind him that I’m holding his credit card, which he asked me to hold so he wouldn’t overspend.  And yes, I was also shocked that a five-minute friend had trusted me so, though I had no urge to spend anyway.

After we finish the second bottle of wine 1 becomes 2:00 a.m and the waiters begin clearing tables.  It’s time to depart.

So our new European “friends,” who are wearing the false veneer of gentlemen, kindly walk me home.

I shout, “thanks, goodnight!” and run up the stairs, extremely ready for bed.

 

The South of France

6 Jun

An impossibly thin, tall, beautiful women wearing sky-scrapper heels is walking a toy poodle.  The leash is a chain of gold, and she’s glancing into the windows of Chanel, Hermes and Christian Lacroix.  I want to secretly snap a photo of her, and all the creatures like her, as I’m observing their habitat.

These women exist in abundance in the South of France.  They are framed by postcard-like views of shining white boats on the Mediterranean.  Many of them live in the colorful mansions that are nestled into the rocky sea-cliffs, though some are visiting like me.

To say I love the South of France would be an understatement.  I want to buy one of these houses on one of these cliffs and retire here.  I love that I’m surrounded by the best kind of French stereotypes.  The tiny dogs are adorable, the gorgeous women are impenetrable, the baguettes sticking out of bags look delicious, and the fashion is something to learn from.

I love that I am sitting outside at restaurant covered in white cloth.  On my table is a bottle of blushing rose chilled in a metal bucket. People from England, Germany, France and the United States surround me and the sun is killing us, striking through to our cores, burning away everything.

The Sea is the only way to cool off.  It is salty, frigid and so clear that it reflects nothing back.  I swim all the way to the buoys and look longingly at those who have boats.

The sand is not sand, but small, smooth pebbles that feel like a hot stone massage on my back.  My belly is full of tiny black olives, floating in fine olive oil and foccacia.  I’m also apparently obsessed with lettuce and need to eat it at every meal.

It’s different here, the lettuce.  It tastes like eating the earth and for some reason I like that.I like the many slanted pathways and stone steps that lead to tiny villages full of items that are too expensive to buy, but I like pretending I can afford it all.

Like last night’s meal, which was a brushetta pizza of artichokes, olives, peppers and ham punctured by the spicy olive oil that was suggested as a topping.  After dinner we brought bottles of wine to the beach and talked to French teenagers who wanted to practice their English.

If the French are rude then they’re hiding it from me.  People smile, are patient, give directions and are inviting.

And this is all a dream, it’s my dream that I wanted to live for so long, and I am overcome with appreciation for every single moment of it.

 

 

Girona – My First Medieval City

2 Jun

I’m currently sitting on a stopped train in the South of France for an indeterminate amount of time.  I’m aware of this because there have been continuous announcements of my train’s electrical problems, and I’m only a stop away from my destination – Montpellier.

This morning I discovered that it was much easier to make my way to France than to explore the North of Spain, as a two hour train ride seemed preferable to a ten hour bus.

Though, I felt France’s call.  For some reason, intuitively, as much as I wanted to explore more of Catalan it felt like it was time to leave.

Maybe it’s because I feel the pulse of Europe and all the places I’ve never been.  While Catalan is a country within a country, a country with its own unique language, Spain is the only country in Europe that I’ve ever spent any time in.

However, Girona surprised me with its beauty and charm.  It’s a small Medieval city that is shaded with light and romance, containing one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe.  

Jordi, a friend of a friend was my tour guide.  An attractive Catalan who is very proud of his city.  He continuously made me laugh with his humor, commanding way and own unique brand of English.  At one point he turned to me and said, “Samanta, you like me,” and I thought, “wow this guy is confident,” though later I learned he was actually giving me a compliment.

He took me to a restaurant that sat at the steps of the ancient Cathedral, and I had a delicious Focaccia sandwich.  After we briefly stopped by a discotech, and I loved hearing the popular Catalan songs.  The next day we walked through rambling paths of dirt and greenery that once marked the entrance and exit of the city. 

When we stood on the bridge, over the river, that was lined with brightly colored buildings I couldn’t help but think of the photos that I have seen of Venice.  The Church bells rang at every hour and gorgeous choral music floated out of the Cathedral.

A small Italian child became fascinated with me and stopped to stare as she struggled up the large steps of the Church.

Jordi showed me the original neighborhoods and walls of the city, which contained many cobblestone steps.  He said, “once it was full of prostitutes and drugs, but now very wealthy people live here,” and it was obvious that money and modernity lay behind the 10th century windows.

After the tour we stopped for a cafe sola on Las Ramblas, a street where cars are not allowed. Then we bought delicious crepes of Serrano ham and goat-cheese and strolled down the streets as the sunset.

Now, today, as my train slowly rolls through the French countryside (despite my current stop), I look out the window and know that I am surrounded by landscapes that inspired so many impressionists.  While alone, it’s reassuring and somehow familiar, making me feel that I’m moving in the direction that I have always wanted to go in. 

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