Posts Tagged ‘Joy’

Hello loyal blog readers! I know that many of you have been coming here in the last few weeks, expecting glowing, exciting reports from the summer opera trail.

Well, up until last Monday, the only thing you would have read would be my impressions of my brief and chaotic return to the States (lovely, quick and overwhelming) and reports of my incessant jet lag out of my decision to make said return home (probably one of the worst travel decisions I have ever made in my life — this is why I don’t like / don’t know how to travel).


Now all that changes. Here I am, on the floor of my friend Victoria’s lovely apartment in the 8éme arrondissement of Paris, getting ready for another week of opera exploration and viewing.

Monday night, I bid goodbye to my parents after a whirlwind weekend in Metro Detroit — MOTOWN AND THE 313 GET IT —  and got on what I am going to call the smallest plane I have ever been a passenger on and travelled to not scenic and not lovely Newark, New Jersey, where I awaited my flight to Heathrow Airport in London, England.

Flying into Newark, one cannot help but feel bad for New Jersey. Not only is it a state that everyone loves to hate, it also is right next door to New York, a state and city that is breathtakingly magnificent — it is the Empire State, after all — making the lousiness that is New Jersey all the more apparent. Newark’s airport? Passable. Newark’s skyline? — especially when compared to the staggering skyline that is downtown Manhattan Island — Pathetic.

But I was on to bigger and more European things. I landed in London early Tuesday morning, and groggily wandered through British customs — incredibly Hellish, by the way. I do not recommend flying into England unless you absolutely have to — and took the famous London Tube to meet John, my roommate from my first two years at Carolina. He is staying the city studying British approaches to Imperialism, so he generously offered to let me stay with him during my brief sejour in London — by offered, I mean, I begged him and kind of forced him to accept my request.

Even though I was completely exhausted and felt the need to take an unforeseen four hour nap, I managed to force myself to go for a jog through London, running by Kensington Palace and through Hyde Park. I have to say that, after fiveish months in Paris, I was not prepared for the casual, comfortable sprawl of British parks. French parks are carefully coifed, delicately maintained and full of fierce and furious gardiens, who make sure that visitors don’t use the park in an incorrect way — i.e. walk on the grass or touch a flower or something that disturbs the natural beauty of le beau parc parisien. London? Pish posh. You want to walk on the grass? Go ahead! You want to touch a flower? Hell, pick the damn thing. It’s a park! Admittedly, as a result London parks did seem a little less polished than those in Paris. But it was a wonderful and a good thing to do after flying all day and night.

We then went to a Thai pub — literally a traditional British pub that served Thai food in the back under an awning of fake flowers — with John’s British and Australian roommates and some Carolina friends in town for the summer, and wandered around expensive neighborhoods in Kensington.

Wednesday was my big opera day, so naturally I slept most of the morning. Hooray jet lag! I woke up in the early afternoon, dressed in my very best, and prepared to walk all the way to Covent Garden, taking time to wander though a beautiful and eerie cemetery — albeit one where people were LITERALLY SUNBATHING SHIRTLESS AMONG THE GRAVESTONES — and along the surprisingly tidal Thames River.

It was a great walk, and I got to see both Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, which were at the moment hosting the wonderful weekly Prime Minister’s Questions Session, but it turned out to be a little too far for my 5:00 meeting with the communications director of the Royal Opera House, so I hopped on the tube and rode the last couple of stops to Covent Garden.

Unlike Paris, the London Opera House is tucked away in a weird little alleyway. Granted, it’s big and impressive and beautiful and all that jazz, but it’s hiding in the corner when the Paris opera houses are huge central gathering places — one even has a major metro stop named after it.

The communications director was wonderful, and he gave me a fantastic start for my project. We talked for over an hour, and he gave me some great reading material about the Royal Opera House’s annual budgets and projects and audience outreach efforts. I ran out for a quick dinner alone — in a French restaurant, of all places — and returned for the 7:00 curtain of Bizet’s great “Carmen.”

The opera was pretty wonderful. They did so many things right — the fast-moving Act III, the brilliant Michaela, the quietly serious Carmen — but also did a lot of unnecessary things, too — a live donkey and live black stallion, a not so brilliant Don José, weird rock climbers in the mountains in Act III. It was a great time, and “Carmen” is perhaps the work I know the best out of the 6 that I will see this summer, so I was very happy to get a chance to see it live in such a historic and beautiful setting.

After two more days of London wandering, including trips to the fabulous Tate Modern Museum and the exquisite Kew Gardens in Greater London, I boarded the Eurostar to Paris and returned to that place that I thought I was ready to leave: Paris, France, my home for the last five months.

It’s great to be back here, but I’ll save that for the next post. Until then, my dear readers, know that I am safe, happy and living a life full of beautiful music. This is what summer is meant to be.

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So, you might say that I’m not the world’s most traditional spring breaker.

For the last two years, I’ve gone to Chicago with various groups of friends in the early frigid part of March, and the year before that, I visited Montreal with my father to check out McGill University. Rather than sun and stereotypical beach lounging, I go to large, northern cities and wonder around in the snow.

But not this year. Even with the evil Icelandic volcano threatening our flights, my friends Chris, Isabella, Katie and I miraculously found ourselves in sunny Valencia, Spain, where we spent a carefree and positively wonderful week being poor, happy university students.

Chris and I left Thursday morning, taking a bus to the small, strange and distant Beauvais airport — literally an hour from the center of Paris — where we were to catch our RyanAir flight to Alicante, Spain. You might know RyanAir as the super-cheap, low cost Irish airline. You might wonder how they manage to make their rates so cheap.

Then you get onboard a RyanAir flight. It is pretty much a bus with wings — not an AirBus, with glamour and comfort — but rather a bus from a poor metropolitan area that takes everyone to somewhere they don’t really want to go, but is somewhat close to where you want to go. Isabella said as much: “RyanAir takes you to places kind of close to desirable destinations, without actually being there.”

But cheap or small or cramped or willing to charge its passengers up to 3 Euros for a bottle of water, RyanAir still did as it advertised and flew us to Alicante, a large regional airport in the south of Spain. Despite the week of cancelled European flights, we flew without trouble, although Chris and I were pretty sure we saw some suspicious looking, smoky ash clouds as we took off from Paris.

From Alicante, Chris and took a regional train to the main Valencia train station, a lovely, Texas-looking, early modernist structure. Valencia is a strange city — a mix between an ancient, walled Iberian town and a bustling, modern metropolis, now the third largest city in Spain. It’s sprawling and expansive; yet it feels as if it isn’t much bigger than a small regional capital. It has a metro, but it’s slow and clean and on time, rather than the faster and dirtier metros of northern Europe.

I suppose Valencia was a good introduction to the general atmosphere of southern Europe. Even though roughly 1 in 4 people in Spain are unemployed, no one seems to mind. Everyone seemed happy and loose, and nobody minded that Isabella and Katie were wearing skirts in public — it was a warm springtime week, after all. Prices were low, food was cheap and the people were pleasant, even though I don’t speak a word of Spanish. All those years of pretending like I could kind of understand and read Spanish turned out to be true make-believe — although in my defense, I must say that the Valencia region speaks a strange, eastern dialect of Spanish that is close to Catalan, so my Spanish skills might still be better than it seems.

Our hostel, named Indigo, was a lovely place, with a big kitchen, clean bathrooms and rooms full of young people from all over the world. For my first hostel experience, it was fantastic. Isabella joined us late Thursday night, and Katie, a friend of Isabella from California, met up with us Friday morning.

From then on, our days were pretty simple: wake up, eat breakfast, buy picnic supplies and head to the beach. After lunch on the beach, we would sun and swim, occasionally pausing for ice cream or coffee breaks in the many beachside cafés and food stands. Evenings were either a cooked meal in the hostel or, on two wonderful nights, traditional Spanish tapas at a little bar in the old quarter of the city.

The tapas deserves its own paragraph. As a coastal town, it was assured that Valencia would have good sea food — a fact which we proved in a delicious lunchtime paella meal one afternoon. But the surprisingly inexpensive tapas place, or small plates bar, served some the simplest, most delicious food I have ever tasted, including a plate of what will probably prove to be the finest mussels I will ever eat. Cheese, lightly smoked ham, squid, octopus, spring eggs, tuna steaks and even surprisingly delicious almond cake greeted us each night. I think it’s a testament to the quality of the tapas at this place that we went there twice, rather than risk missing out on the wonderful quality of the food by seeking out another, less tasty restaurant in the city.

When not sunning or swimming or stuffing our faces, we managed to find time to visit La Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias, a stunning, modernist museum complex on the edge of the old city. We bought a two day pass, spending a cloudy Sunday at the hands-on sciences museum and massive IMAX theatre and the morning of a sunny beach day at the fantastic aquarium, where we saw many a fish and dolphin.

Mostly, we just relaxed. I realized, while sipping on Sangria on the beach one afternoon, how long it had been since I had had so few responsibilities in my life. Granted, I still had a huge research paper waiting for me in Paris, my summer itinerary to construct and finals to study for, but while in Spain, all I had to do was wake up when I wanted and make sure to apply enough sun screen.

When we flew back Thursday afternoon to Paris — in time to see She & Him, one of my favorite groups, in concert — I’ll admit I was glad to be back in a country where I could read and speak and understand the things cashiers and bus drivers told me, but I definitely felt recharged. I needed to get out of the city  — and my skin was glad for the boost in Vitamin D — but coming back made the whole thing that much sweeter.

Maybe this post is kind of off topic and general, but there aren’t really too many specifics to go into for our trip. It was a simple week, with a simple goal: to relax.

And that’s just what we did.

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Hey friends!

Just a quick note to say that I safely made it to the lovely, warm, Mediterranean coastal town of Valencia, Spain, where I will be spending an absolutely heavenly week by the sea, eating seafood, sunning on the beach and having little to no responsbilities.

Such is the life.

I´ll have more details when I get home on Thursday, but for know, please imagine me as I likely am: on a white sand beach, in the sun, with the crystal blue Mediterranean stretched out in front of me and the colorful city of Valencia behind me.



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So, break has started. I know, because I have been sleeping a lot, eating well, reading much and watching a lot of “Monk” on my computer. All of these are good things, but they will not last forever — meaning today and tomorrow and beyond I must start doing more homework and other such things.

And know this, dear readers, I HAVE finished my narrowly defined reading work today, meaning that all I have left is the more tenuous and vague essay research and feature story writing, which is difficult. But that’s for the rest of the week.

Friday saw me getting break started off right, with a journey to the famous Opèra Comique, the building where Bizet’s “Carmen” first premiered more than a century ago. Along with a random assortment of American/Canadian/Egyptian friends, I went to see Hector Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict,” an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

It was a really lovely production, albeit a little strange and too fixated on the staging decision to use a “puppet show” theme for everything. Basically, there was this little English tramp man  — who also apparently wrote this adaptation, who knew? — who read things out loud in English form the original Shakespeare script, and who would then hit his cane on the stage and move about the singers, making them carry out the parts of the story that he could not. It worked, on the whole, but the decision to use the puppet theme resulted in some rather unfortunate — read, heavy thick and ugly — makeup decisions.

But the singers were superb, the story was cute — just the story of the embittered and embattled lovers and their subplot, not the complicated shaming of Hero bit — and I could understand the vast majority of the spoken French dialogue and sung French text, which was nice.

We followed up our opèra adventure with some late night café conversation, which was lovely.

Saturday was more winning all around, starting off with some reading, running and “Monk” watching and ending with some random wanderings around the Jardin des Tuileries and Montmarte and a french-toast and egg and madeleine and butterscotch dinner party, complete with much delicious wine and intelligent conversation. By the end of the night, the apartment we had chosen to dine in was full of people, and we all felt very adult and very French and very full.

Sunday was a lazy day, with me exhausting my food supplies once and for all, watching more “Monk,” meeting a friend for drinks and catching up with the Amero-Canadian bunch at a funky bar in the 5th to watch the final Olympic hockey match between the US and Canada.

The bar was overwhelmingly pro-Canada, which wasn’t surprising, but it was fun to watch the game and cheer awkwardly and proudly when the US scored. There were several large groups of slightly inebriated French people who eyed us suspiciously when we started chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” towards the end of regulation game time when Team America pulled out one final goal to force the game into overtime. That same group was quick to tell us, in French, “Tough shit!” when Canada won a couple of minutes in overtime.

But no matter. It was a winning weekend, and I spent very little money on food and entertainment, and still managed to have a lovely and all-around great time.

On the metro home last night, I discussed my feelings on the month of February with a friend. We both agreed that this past February was perhaps the fastest and least awful February we could remember, which was surprising.

Does this mean I’m actually, without question, becoming happy here? Just when things get frustrating and too too much — I owe money, the bank calls me to try but not actually succeed at explaining why they haven’t given me my account yet, I spend too much money on weekend food outings, I miss my family, etc — I realize that February was a good month, and I can only imagine that March, April and May are going to be even better, considering that SPRING is coming! And is here! And friends are coming to visit! And my parents will be here in less than a month!

Joy, joy, infinite joy.

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I suppose the title of this post needs some sort of explanation.

You see, I was on my way to school this morning — courtesy of my wonderful new metro Navigo Pass! — and I was two stops away from the station closest to Sciences Po, when suddenly, one of the ubiquitous Parisian metro hustlers started in on his personal version of the same spiel.

There are a variety of approaches to the Parisian metro hustling gig. Some players have a loud monologue they recite, often with great intonation, rhyming schemes and theatricality, telling of their money problems and difficult lives and asking the passengers politely for a little help in the form of money. Others actually play music, be it the accordion, the guitar or the pan flute, playing for a small amount of time and then wandering around the car, thanking anyone who donates to their personal charity of one.

(It is worth noting that this second example can’t help but make me think of my time as a Coldstone Creamery Ice Cream Scooper Extraordinaire, when we would sing for tips but more often got tipped to NOT sing, much to the added benefit and pleasure of everyone involved)

I’ve even seen a puppet show — that guy may just have wanted to do a puppet show on the metro to see if he could, I didn’t see any ostentatious hat or collection bin, and he was really, really into his puppet thing — and one guy the other day asked all the women on the car to marry him, praising his qualities as a potential husband and passing out his cellphone for people’s numbers. When no one accepted his hand in marriage, he asked for financial backing for his fledging career as a stand up comic. He was actually pretty funny, I must say,  but I still didn’t give him money. I don’t have enough to give.

But this morning’s metro hustler was so delightfully odd that everyone on the normally stoic and serious metro couldn’t help but smile, and it really put me into a good mood that lasted the whole day.

This guy, probably in late 50s or 60s, in a traditional, make-shift homeless guy ensemble, came on the car and announced that he was going to share a gift with all of us — his musical gift — and he only hoped we could be appropriately thankful afterwards. But he didn’t seem to have any instrument readily available. What would he do?

Then, holding up a plastic shopping bag — which aren’t illegal here like in Germany — he declared, completely deadpan, “Et maintenant, la musique de le sac en plastique,” or “And now, music of the plastic bag”. He then proceeded to play some sort of improvised mouth-harp-harmonica thing, amplified and transformed by the limits of the grocery bag he placed over and around it.

The song he played — some romantic, French-sounding number — was rendered comically brilliant by his plastic bag. No one knew what to do. Some people glared, as they are wont to do on the metro when the hustlers get hoping, but after a certain point, the complete earnestness in which this little old man went at that plastic bag made everyone chuckle quietly to themselves and exchange glances, as if to say, “Yes, together we are experiencing the hidden musical sounds of the plastic grocery bag. How perfectly charming and altogether unexpected.”

This adventure put a positive spin on my day that just kept on humming. I started my French language class today, which terrified me at first. I’m in the fourth and highest level of French language instruction here — a classification arbitrarily chosen literally by looking at a chart online and deciding that I would be okay in this level — and I’ve heard tell that level four is scary.

But it wasn’t. My professor, a little, lovely French-Swiss lady, is absolutely wonderful and a true delight, and the class is full of interesting people from a diverse set of backgrounds — several Americans, several Germans, a Brazilian, an Italian, a Mexican, a Norwegian, a Brit — making French really the only language all of us can truly communicate in.

The course will be just as I wanted it to be — a book read as a group, presentations on daily news items we find interesting, a few creative essays — basically just a bunch of Francophiles hanging out and loving on the French language. We are also having a dinner at the end of the term at one of the student’s apartments, where everyone, including the professor, brings a traditional dish from their family’s menu and shares with everyone else. The professor promised to bring wine, cheese and bread, like any good French woman.

Feeling positively cheery, I successfully ate lunch while walking and drinking a coffee and made it to my next class, again on the top floor of the main campus building in the same room, yet accessed by a door suggesting it was a different room. Yes, this was confusing as it sounds.

The class, a large lecture on Media and the political will that controls and influences it, looks to be really interesting. Even on the first day, when we had a basic overview of the theoretical underpinnings of the course, we began a fascinating discussion on whether or not the press was free in China — it isn’t, of course — brought on by a Chinese student’s insistence that the professor’s suggestion of murdered journalists in China was perhaps an exaggeration.

I then returned home, lazed about, had some tea, went on a nice run at Parc des Buttes Chaumont — quickly becoming one of my favorite places here — in the rain, and then went to the farmer’s market to buy some potatoes and other veggies for my winter veggie roast.

It was frustrating when I couldn’t properly ask for sweet potatoes — a word which I thought I knew but the man behind the stall did not, prompting his descent into English (Just because I don’t know all the vegetable names, doesn’t mean I don’t speak your language at an adequate level, buddy. I’m in level four, after all, you know) — but I managed to get some good chèvre and make a truly filing and warm sweet potato, tuber, onion, garlic, herb and cheese bowl for supper, complete with a fresh baguette. I truly do need to cook more elaborate meals like this one, because I’m now prepared to go to sleep happy and full for the first time in a while.

Tomorrow, a reporting class, leftovers from tonight’s dinner (!) and perhaps a visit to the Cinema Action-Ecoles with my dinner party gang, where we hope to see “Cabaret.”

But things — besides my finances — are looking up.

And besides, if I really need money, I know about the musicality of plastic bags now. So I’ve got that going for me.

PS Also saw two men peeing in public today on my way back from the market, making the total of Public Parisian Pees now 7. I will continue to keep a running tally, as I do not think these two fine gentlemen will the last I will see relieving themselves in public.

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