If on a winter’s night a traveler

526730Italo Calvino, 1979
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver, 1981

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” (3)

So begins the narrative of chapter 1 of If on a winter’s night a traveler. The opening lines and the entire chapter is written directly to the reader glancing upon the page as though the novel were a conversation with the reader, inviting the author and reader to dialogue about the enjoyment that is about to begin. After a few pages of this narrative directed toward the reader we turn the page to the next chapter and find that it is not titled chapter 2, but titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. With this transition it becomes clear that from here the novel takes an experimental turn. It is now written in the first person and although it carries the same air of conversational familiarity with the reader as did chapter 1, this is an actual story entirely separate from the reader-directed conversation that carried the prior chapter. Yet, despite this transition the narrative voice of this new chapter bridges the gap with a self-aware nod of acknowledgment of what had preceded before:

“Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it – a trap.” (12)

The story of this chapter titled If on a winter’s night a traveler is spoken from the voice of a traveler caught in a web of espionage. He is not clear of his mission, and we, the reader are not clear of his identity:

“I am not all the sort of person who attracts attention, I am an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background … this is simply because I am called “I” and this is the only thing you know about me, but this alone is reason enough for you to invest part of yourself in the stranger “I”.” (14-15)

The telling of the chapter within this this book of the same name If on a winter’s night a traveler builds with intrigue and then suddenly as soon as the reader become caught in that intrigue the chapter abruptly ends. Turning the page we find ourselves in chapter 2 with the same voice that opened the book written directly to the reader. We find that the story of espionage and intrigue built up in the chapter titled, If on a winter’s night a traveler, is cut off, as it is told to the reader by the narrator that the subsequent pages are blank.

The narrator informs the reader that it is the reader’s intent to find the continuation of the pages from this book cut short due to an apparent printing error. The reader returns to the bookseller from where the abbreviated, misprinted copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler was purchased and at the bookseller the reader encounters another reader, a woman who also is looking for the next pages of If on a winter’s night a traveler. The bookseller apologetically provides each reader with a new copy of the book and the readers exchange numbers to share and discuss their common interest in this story.

“Who you are, Reader, your age, your status, profession, income: that would be indiscreet to ask. It’s your business, your own. What counts is the state of your spirit now, in the privacy of your home, as you try to re-establish perfect calm in order to sink again into the book; you stretch out your legs, you draw them back, you stretch them again. But something has changed since yesterday. Your reading is no longer solitary: you think of the Other Reader, who, at this same moment, is also opening the book; and there, the novel to be read is superimposed by a possible novel to be lived, the continuation of your story with her, or better still, the beginning of a possible story.” (32)

And from chapter 2, the reader turns the page to the next chapter and discovers an entirely new and unexpected book titled, Outside the town of Malbork, that is written with a distinct style and plot totally unlike the tale of espionage and intrigue explored in the chapter titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. From this diversion the reader turns again to chapter 3, being informed with disappointment that the pages of If on a winter’s night a traveler were mistakenly replaced by a totally different book. Despite this mix-up, the reader is somehow intrigued to continue on, reading the next pages of this book, which also is cut off abruptly due to an apparent printing error.

“Progress in reading is preceded by an act that transverses the material solidity of the book to allow you access to its incorporeal substance.” (42)

And so goes the pattern set up in the intriguingly fun and experimental structure of the larger novel actually titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. This book goes back and forth from numbered chapters that are spoken directly to the reader and then switches to the vaguely titled chapters written in distinct styles, each representing a portion of an unfinished or incomplete novel. The numbered chapters are a distinct story that progresses throughout the book, detailing the story of the reader seeking out the story written on the page and each of the unnumbered, individually titled, chapters are similar only in that they all share a common plot connection that includes a male protagonist and a supporting female role.

“Anyway, the conclusion to which all stories come is that the life a person has led is one and one alone, uniform and compact as a shrunken blanket where you can’t distinguish the fibers of the weave. And so if by chance I happen to dwell on some ordinary detail of an ordinary day … I can be sure that even in this tiny insignificant episode there is implicit everything I have experienced, all the past, the multiple pasts I have tried in vain to leave behind me.” (107)

The novel is essentially a romantic story between reader and story that seduces the reader with a narrative self-awareness that adeptly transitions from story to story. These successive transitions ultimately twist reality, sending the reader across the globe along a subversive subplot that explores false narrative, the disruptive force of censorship, and the narrative liberation of ideas that transcend individuality through exploration of universal themes.

The romantic seduction of narrative to reader is a successful experiment because throughout the text there is a sense of lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek, humor within the narrative digression that is amusing and engaging. I really had a lot of fun with this book, but I do recognize that there is an apparent limitation to the experiment. The reader addressed in the numbered chapters is set up as a male and the second reader encountered is female. Part of the plot of the numbered chapters is a love story, or rather pursuit of a love interest between the two. A female (or even gay) reader of Calvino’s book may not find herself (or himself) as engaged with the side-story love interest directed at the reader as would a male reader. This is a limitation that is apparent in much of literature written by male authors, since many of the characters in a male author’s world are male. This is of course the norm and many readers accept it as such, but in Calvino’s experimental book written directly to the you of the reader, it becomes very clear how limiting the you  of a male dominated worldview can be for a non male reader.

As much as I enjoyed this book, it was eye opening to reflect on this limitation. No experiment can be perfect and I do feel that despite this limitation of authorial-to-reader gender worldview, If on a winter’s night a traveler is an impressively amusing book that successfully plays with the potential possibilities of narrative and story in a profoundly unique format.

“I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first.” (109)

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The Musical Brain

22405656César Aira, 2013
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2015

If you are fan of short stories read this book.

“Daydreams are always about concepts, not examples. I wouldn’t want anything I’ve written to be taken as an example.” (235) The Infinite

Of the twenty stories collected here, 19 are pure magical linguistic treasures and the one lesser story, Athena Magazine, had only dissatisfied me primarily because it was overly focused on a repetition of the geometric possibilities to create a literary magazine of double or quadruple issues that failed to capture my interest. Although that one story had failed for me, following along the thought process of numerical significance it is important to recognize that 19 of 20 stories is an impressive 95% success rate that illuminates this collection as a treasure trove of pleasurable reading.

I am no tourist in the world of César Aira; I’ve gobbled up several of his short novellas, loving each for their unique perspective, whimsical flight of narrative, and impressive scope of ideas. When this short story collection, The Musical Brain, hit the shelves I immediately snagged a copy with anticipation to fit it in my reading schedule. It served as a perfect travel companion during my most recent trip to Australia during moments awaiting a flight or during long, rainy nights in the rainforest. From the opening pages of the first story, A Brick WallI immediately knew that I was in for some fun with this collection.

In that first story, told from the perspective of an adult recalling his youthful love of the theatre, the unnamed narrator tells us how he and his childhood friend, inspired by film plots, had created a complicated game of espionage that they carried on through their teenage years. One or the other would often forget the existence of the game but would inevitably be caught back in the web of play-espionage as one or the other would leave clues that reminded the other of the game’s importance to their friendship and their worldview. That gameplay would continue on ad infinitum to the point that we find the narrator wondering if his adult friend was possibly waiting for the next secret message. The telling of this gameplay is a backdrop to the idea that film narration depends on the twisting of reality in the “brick wall” much like the “fourth wall” of the theatre that is “a super-reality, or, rather, reality itself [that] seemed diffuse, disorganized, deprived of that rare, elegant concision that was the secret of cinema” (7).

The magic, reality-altering nature of the cinema told through the story the Brick Wall is a perfect beginning to this collection because its themes reflect the magic possibilities of the narrative word. In this collection Aira takes some fantastic and enjoyable narrative leaps, all with an economy of words that adeptly travels through a plethora of possible ideas.

For example, in Picasso the narrator is faced with a genie-like choice to either own a Picasso painting or to actually become Picasso. Through an amusing exploration of the monetary benefits of owning one of the master’s works the narrator wrestles with the pleasures and struggles of actually giving up his own existence and become Picasso, living the entirety of the painter’s life. In the title story, The Musical Brain, a village passes around a token magical statue of a brain that actually plays music, all while a fantastical love crime between two twin brother midgets from the traveling circus ends in death and new life reincarnated through a statue. It sounds wild an fantastical and it is a fun-filled romp to read. In The Two Men a villager is dedicated to daily visits to two men living in solitude due to their deformities as one of the two has gigantic feet and the other has gigantic hands.

The entire collection is filled with all sorts of fun stretches of the imagination, but what is truly great about Aira is that his writing manages to use these fun novelties as forums to explore universal ideas. From the outset In the Cafe´ is a simple story about a young girl in a cafe´ with her mother. The little girl receives a gift of folded napkin from one of cafe´ customers:

“A child requires so little to be happy. So little, and yet, at the same time, so much, because the little thing that fills the child with innocent happiness lasts no longer than a sigh and then must be replaced by another.” (55-56) In the Cafe´

The simple gift of that folded napkin takes us on a journey of ideas, that travels the globe, exploring the possibilities of choices based on relationships with others. This is Aira’s real gift, taking ideas and running with them.

One of the stories that really gripped me was The Criminal and the Cartoonist, the story of a famous cartoonist who has cataloged the life of a criminal’s exploits. The cartoonist claims to have received inspiration for his cartoons through newspaper clippings from years prior, but somehow time has shifted and the cartoons he draws are a real time telling of the actual exploits of a current day criminal. The story begins as the cartoonist finds himself with a knife at his throat, the potential victim to the furious criminal who claims that the cartoons are leading the police towards capturing him. The two exchange a tense argument about the twist of truth represented in the fictional cartoons:

“He had placed to much faith in language and reason. He’d forgotten that he was at the mercy of a terrible criminal, who could not have become what he was had he not already been an insane monster, impermeable to humanity. Already, and still.” (201) The Criminal and the Cartoonist

The intensity of this dialogue is made believable through Aira’s narrative skill, as he is a writer who dances along reality and possibility. The stories here are truly like daydreams made real. I could go on and on giving more example and providing a synopsis of each story, but what I’d rather do is just encourage you to read The Musical Brain and enjoy the distorted whimsical reality of Aira’s creation for yourself.

 

 

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Australia Guide Books

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Manly Beach in Sydney

It is hard to judge an entire country as large as Australia based on a two week trip. This is a huge country as large as the continental United States with a lot of wonderful sights to see. During our most recent trip over the 2015-16 holidays my wife and I primarily were limited to the East Coast, visiting Queensland and Sydney with a short diversion slightly west to the Blue Mountains. We pretty much visited the most popular and most populated sites and as usual we packed a lot in during our short time in this visit across the globe. Overall we had a great time during the Christmas and New Year holiday enjoying such wonders as the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the Blue Mountains, the Jenolan limestone caves, all sorts of wildlife, and a fantastic New Years Eve celebration.

Despite the good times and wonderful sites, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about Australia and its culture. I’ll get into that in a bit, but as I usually do in this book-focused blog I’ll first give a review of the guide books that helped navigate our travels.

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On the Sydney Harbor

Our choice to visit Australia was directed by two factors: the first being that my wife had a good chunk of time off since her office was closed over the holidays and the second being that her cousin is currently working a two-year project for the US Embassy in the Australian capital of Canberra. The prospect to see Sydney over New Year’s Eve was made more desirable with the added bonus of sliding in a family visit. So, before we had even finalized the plans for our November France trip we found ourselves also making plans to stay in Sydney over the New Year. It was definitely a little odd planning two very different inter-continental trips in such close proximity of time, but at least our holiday plans were figured out!

After deciding on Sydney as the focus for the three nights around the New Year we were quickly overwhelmed by the daunting task of figuring out what else to see in such a large country. To help familiarize ourselves to the country we picked up a copy of the beautifully photographed National Geographic Traveler: Australia,  which was as as much a guidebook as it was a pictorial homage to the country. Of course National Geographic magazine is renowned for breath taking photography and in-depth journalism. This guidebook stands up to the National Geographic reputation.

17797411I had never used National Geographic (I’ll refer to it as NG from here on our) for travel tips before, but it was the perfect companion to help formulate the goals for our trip. In saying that I must clarify that the NG book isn’t a typical guidebook. NG lacks restaurant or lodging recommendations, it doesn’t have city maps, it doesn’t provide a “must-see” or “top-ten” style list of to-do itineraries. NG doesn’t even give driving tips or advice about travel distances from one place to another. With all of those elements lacking, why would I say this is a good companion for planning a trip? It is the lack of fluff that allows this book to be a good pictorial for the many regions with a straightforward journalistic style that is both informative and a pleasurable to read. Alongside Bill Bryson‘s personal travel-writing narrative NG provided a thorough overview of the country that is both an island and a continent. Aside from our planned days in Sydney around the New Year celebrations this trip was going to be primarily nature and wildlife focused and the NG book’s beautiful presentation of the scenery and wildlife alongside brief synopsis of the interests and history of each region or city was quite helpful in the trip planning.

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Daintree National Forest

In reading through the book we quickly learned that this trip would be unlike our last southern continental trip to New Zealand. In New Zealand you need only spend an hour or so on the road before you bump into another jaw-dropping wonder. Australia on the other hand is vast with miles and miles of barren, hardly explored, bone-dry-desert nothingness. Understandably, most of the country’s 23 million inhabitants live along the coast but many of the major cities and geologic or natural sites are a day’s travel away from each other. One could spend a lot of time driving and there is actually a really intriguing trans-continental multi-day Indian-Pacific Ocean train, but unfortunately the best way to see a different part of the country is to get on a plane to skip over that vast emptiness.

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Low Tide at Cow Bay

My wife was actually in Australia for over three weeks, leaving a week prior than me and returning a couple days after me to fit in more time with her cousin and a few more sites. Since her trip overlapped my two weeks both before and after and the latter part of my trip was planned around the New Year’s celebrations the trip planning was a little awkward for us. Of course the Great Barrier Reef was our top must-see location and we decided to do this in the week prior to Sydney. As for the rest of the trip we first considered fitting in a side-trip to Tasmania, which would have worked for my wife’s schedule but would have been very tight with mine so we nixed that option. We also considered heading down to Melbourne and taking a drive to see the 12 Apostles (an incorrectly named group of 8 limestone sea stacks) along the Victoria coast but decided against adding an additional flight in our already busy plan to fly north to the city of Cairns near the reef. At the recommendation of the NG book we ultimately settled on planning to see the Blue Mountains west of Sydney as our diversion away from Sydney at the end of my trip.

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Cape Tribulation Overlook

Prior to my trip, my wife spent some time in the sleepy capital of Canberra with her cousin’s family before heading up to Townsville in southern Queensland. During her time alone near Townsville she spent a night on Magnetic Island, a small nature preserve where she saw wild Koala and Wallaby. I was jealous with excitement as she reported her adventures to me. So, with eager anticipation to see her after a 14 and a half hour direct flight from San Francisco to Sydney that left late in the evening of December 22nd I arrived on Christmas Eve after losing a day in the travel. Despite the long flight I was rested (I had an entire row to myself in coach!) and ready for my 3 hour flight from Sydney to Cairns where we were meeting up.

After a few hours layover in warm, sunny Sydney, landing in Cairns felt like arriving in Hawaii. There were lush green mountains along the coast and the air was damp and overcast with tropical humidity. It was a great feeling after a long day, but the day was just beginning as we had nearly a three hour drive ahead of us on our way to Cape Tribulation, the most northern “town” before the paved road turned gravel. We were spending our Christmas in a remote cabin in the Daintree rainforest far away from anything remotely populated.

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Accurate road signs

The drive was windy and gorgeous, reminiscent of the road to Hana on Maui with the road often just at the ocean’s edge. After we passed through the small town of Mossman we took a ferry across the Daintree river when the rains started seriously coming down just as it was turning dark.  It was a nerve-racking feeling taking a ferry across a river that was home to saltwater crocodiles in the middle of a downpour in a region known for floods during the rainy season (our time of travel). After the ferry the driving got all the more difficult. If I thought the road from Cairns to Mossman was windy and treacherous, the hour-long drive from the Daintree river to our cabin was nail-bightingly narrow and even more windy. There were several signs warning us to watch out for Cassowary, the region’s famous prehistoric-looking birds the size of ostrich and we were constantly on the look-out for them. When we finally arrived in the cabin we were overjoyed that we made it safely.

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Our Cabin

We woke up on Christmas day with momentary disappointment hearing what we thought was the sound of the constant rain that had never stopped from the night before only to be pleasantly surprised that the sun was partially out and that the sound we heard was a roaring creek within site of our living room window. It was going to be a good day!

19139491The next week of our trip was planned out using the Lonely Planet regionally focused book for Queensland & The Great Barrier Reef. We were well aware that according to the Lonely Planet December was not an ideal time to visit the RAINforest during the wet season. Despite forewarnign that it would likely be rainy, our Christmas day had hiking planned since we knew that everything would be closed. It was a little worrisome having nothing else planned and being miles from anything since rains could seriously dampen our plans. Thankfully it didn’t rain until much later in the day and we fit in several short walks along the beach and through the mangrove boardwalks.

IMG_7561There were plenty of signs warning us of the dangers of crocodiles and stinger jellyfish. Despite it being the middle of summer (yes summer in December) we were staying out of the water and just enjoying the natural beauty in front of our eyes. During our hikes we didn’t see any crocodiles but we did stumble upon a very large (and fast) five -foot long monitor lizard on one of the beaches. Unfortunately it was too shy to pause for a picture, but it was a gorgeous creature. We also stumbled upon an alien looking hollowed out tree, or rather collection of vines that had suffocated a tree. On my first day I would quickly learn that Australia is filled with odd surprises.

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Hollow Tree

Since Christmas Eve and Christmas day were days spent in the cabin and hiking with hardly a person in site, Boxing Day was my first encounter with Australian casualness. We met up with Neil, a middle-aged guy who gives tours through the world heritage rain-forest site of Cooper Canyon. After a firm handshake we began our four hour walk with Neil who pointed out the spiders camouflaged on the surface of the trees. He calmly and bluntly stated that as we’re walking through the forest “you might want to grab on to a tree for support, but don’t.” He further explained that on the scale of poisonous, the spiders that make webs put most of their energy in stunning prey with the stickiness of the web and although they will “hurt awful” if you get bitten by one of those “they’re not that bad” but you have to really worry about the spiders that don’t have webs because they put most of their energy into stunning their prey with their venom. In a very roundabout way he was telling us that the spiders we don’t see are the most poisonous. It was a very comforting start to the hike.

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Cooper Canyon

And what a hike it was. As an informative nature walk it exceeded my expectations. Neil is a very well-informed, albeit at times long-winded, guide. Not only did he point out all kinds of species of plant and animal life, he has a phenomenal understanding of the ecological connections of the forest. He also gives a lot of respect to the Aboriginal people, giving them acknowledgment for living in harmony with the land for nearly 40-60,000 years and recognizing that over that span of time they were as much a part of the ecosystem as the trees, snakes, and birds. Unfortunately, in the spirit of conservation the Aborigines have been driven off the land of this World Heritage forest based on the European-centered thinking that any humans living within the land is a bad thing. This ill-sited approach to conservation causes disruptions in the balance of life such as overpopulation of the pythons as the apex predator. Neil was also keen to point out all the bad things that Europeans have done to the land such as introducing a population of wild boars that dig up the seedlings of ancient trees. Paradoxically nothing is being done to correct this introduced pest because hunting of any kind is forbidden and punishable.

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Neil

Neil’s perspective was extremely enlightening and for someone who grew up in the city of Adelaide he is extremely connected to the natural world. He shared an amazing story about an odd cultural connection between newborns and pythons: after childbirth there is a pheromone that the python detects and large pythons are known to swallow human babies. When each of his three children were born he was on guard for a python that came to his property during their first two weeks of life. He shared how the Aborigines noticed this attraction of the python to the newborns and they would use newborns as a sort of bait to allow them to easily kill and eat the pythons in a celebration feast. Such actions are now prohibited, but the cultural practice was deeply tied to the natural world through the celebration of new life. Neil also shared a bit about the Aboriginal “dream” mythology that is as much to do with memory of place as it is to do with rem dreams of sleep. In the Aboriginal culture memories are strongly tied to location and the the smells and sights of location becomes important through the sharing of memories with others. Neil illuminated this as he took us to the grove where he was married over twenty years prior. The land is connected to his family dynamic and has influence on their identity in ways that modern city life does not.

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Crocodile in the wild in Daintree Forest

Sadly, during the trip, the closest I would get to Aboriginal culture would be through these tellings of a middle-aged Australian of European descent. Neil seemed to be an anomaly, someone who truly appreciates and regrets the loss of Aboriginal influence with the coming of European people to this continent. It doesn’t appear that many Australians share his sentiment. The Aborigines were hardly visible to me throughout my trip. They don’t work in the shops or wait tables. The few I saw looked unhealthy. Much as it is with Native Americans, there is clearly a cultural division between the predominantly white Australian culture and the the hardly visible Aboriginal culture. I found this disappointing in comparison to New Zealand where the Maori are highly visible and part of the Kiwi culture and an integral part of the community.

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Cassowary mother and chick

However, I didn’t travel to Queensland expecting culture. The main focus was wildlife and that goal was definitely met over the next few days. I learned on a boat ride through the mangroves that the summer is not a good time for crocodile viewing because they spend most of the time in the warm water instead of beaching themselves for warmth. But on this tour I lucked out, seeing a massive 5 meter, 1000 pound male taking a rest on the beach after defending his territory. I also got to see a cassowary and its chick alongside the road. The cassowary is a prehistoric nightmarish looking oddity with blue plumage, a giant bone atop its head, a red turkey-like waddle and razor sharp beak and talons. Not only did I get to see the cassowary, I saw one wih a chick, which had a brownish color. Even though we were safely in our car, that bird with its chick looked dangerous.

The Daintree rainforest is truly a spectacular place. According to our Lonely Planet guide most travelers make it to Queensland primarily to see the Great Barrier reef and miss out on the wonders of the Daintree. I’m glad that we spent a good amount of time there and the peacefulness of the the long hikes and lack of action around Christmas helped us avoid all the tour buses that drive up for day trips from Cairns and Port Douglas.

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Giant Clam in the Barrier Reef

Of course we weren’t going to miss out on the Great Barrier Reef. We opted for an outfitter out of Port Douglas called Wavelength that took us on an all day snorkel trip to three different reef sites. The reef is actually surprisingly far from shore, taking nearly an hour and a half on a boat to reach the reef. Thankfully we had a gorgeous day with calm water and our tour was lead by an enthusiastic marine biologist that provided a lot of supplementary and engaging education about the diversity of the reef.

IMG_4050I have enjoyed snorkeling in Belize and off several of the Hawaiian islands but none of those prior exposures to coral reefs prepared me for the spectacular beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. It is definitely one of the most beautiful natural wonders I’ve witnessed. We swam with countless fish, turtle, and even a reef shark, but the diversity of the actual coral is the true gem. This is a magical and special place. If you are anywhere near thinking about making a trip to Australia, you absolutely must see the reef. We had such a great time that after our full day trip we booked a half day trip for our last day in Queensland just to get more of a reef fix. The half day trip was out of Cairns through a company called Skedadle that raced us out to the reef on a brand new boat. On our second day to the reef the water wasn’t as calm and we had to swim against current to get to the reef viewing, but it was still just as beautiful.

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Inside the crocodile pit

In between our two days of snorkeling we relaxed in Port Douglas with nothing really planned. Our Lonely Planet guide helped us navigate a casual day with a hike in the Mossman Gorge for some more rainforest beauty and an afternoon at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure. Hartley’s is kind of mix between a zoo and an entertainment park. They have several shows that focus on educating people about the dangers of the Australian wildlife and the crazy trainers will do things like casually hold a Taipain (the world’s most venomous snake) or enter a pool with a crocodile to demonstrate how dangerous these animals are. It was definitely a lot of fun an purely Australian in every way possible.

162667After our last day of snorkeling the rains really started to come down. We didn’t really get to enjoy much of Cairns during our one night there because the rain was brutal and non-stop. It was time to head to Sydney and we welcomed the warm weather and sunshine after a week of rain. Our 4 days and 3 nights in Sydney were a mix of sight seeing and a mix of family time as we met up with my wife’s cousin and his family. Our first day we traveled to Manly Beach and delighted ourselves in the flour-like softness of the beach’s white sands. On New Year’s Eve we wandered around a bit, partially sight seeing and partially shopping, and mostly eating wonderful Asian food as we wandered through the Rocks (the original convict center of the city) and off to the Sydney fish market. On New Year’s Day we all went to the Toronga zoo together, which was admittedly tame after Hartley’s, but a beautiful zoo nonetheless.

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The Iconic Opera House

Sydney truly is a beautiful city and getting around via ferry is a spectacular way to get to know the city. We relied on the Lonely Planet: Sydney City Guide to familiarize ourselves to the layout and history of the city, but our cousin kind of acted as a tour guide for us, helping us navigate through the city. It was definitely a benefit to have someone who was familiar with the city, because as I got to know I became acutely aware of some of its annoyances.

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Manly Beach

Despite having a beautiful harbor backdrop I found Sydney full of too many annoyances to allow me to love the city. First, although the subway/train system is fairly comprehensive in geographical coverage it is highly disorganized. Outside the train stations one must read an airport style leader-board to figure out the platform based on your destination because once you are inside the train station there are no maps or any direction of any kind. If you have to transfer stops the only way to figure out where to go is to ask. It seems kind of backwater and disorganized for the country’s largest, most populous city. Furthermore, we arrived when the the city was in transition converting from paper tickets to an electronic rechargeable card for all transit, which is great in principle except the train stations aren’t selling the necessary cards. There is no direction where to find them and without our cousin’s help we would have been totally lost because the Sydney people aren’t very helpful. Shops close exactly on the dot with no apologies, service is curt and abrupt, and finding stamps was nearly impossible.

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Sydney Fish Market

For a city that prides itself in being extremely diverse with a large Asian population and supposedly a larger gay population than San Francisco I found the city to be segregated and clique-like. More than once I overheard white Australians grumbling about the large number of Asian stores open (they were in fact the only stores open past 6pm) and several people were extremely rude to my Asian wife, but exceedingly kind to me. I don’t think I ever saw one gay person, so they all must be tucked away in a corner of the city and although I saw many people of color, they were not intermixed with whites an other people of color. I am aware that I am used to the progressive history of San Francisco (which I admit is hardly a perfect city), but I feel that Sydney has a long way to go before it reaches the level of inclusive diversity that is talked about in the guide books I read. Australia definitely has a rough history and its people have their own ragged edges.

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New Year’s Eve at the Opera Bar

I will admit that when it comes to the New Year’s Eve celebration, Sydney owns it. The New Year’s Eve celebration was prominently mentioned in both our NG book and the Lonely Planet and we were blown away by the ambition of the fireworks celebrations. People line up along the harbor for hours and pack in the ferry ships to view the show. We opted to attend a party at the Sydney Opera Bar that included food and good-natured entertainment with live music and characters dressed in festive costumes playing pranks on the guests. It was loads of fun and we had a great viewing spot for both the 9pm and midnight fireworks festivities. They have fireworks going simultaneously from three locations, shooting off from the roof of the Opera House, from the Harbor Bridge, Darhling Harbor. I’ve never seen anything like it and it was definitely the best New Year’s celebration I’ve experienced.

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The Three Sisters

After our time in Sydney we left the city for the Blue Mountains: so named after the blue aura that the eucalyptus oils secrete.  The mountains are just a two hour drive from Sydney and they are a beautiful respite from the hectic city. At Wentworth falls we enjoyed a really unique hike along the edge of a cliff partially carved into the mountain side and a jaunt through the Leura cascades. The towns of Leura and Katoomba in the mountains are charming little escapes from the bustle of Sydney and the limestone caves of Jenolan are only an hour further west. In Jenolan we did some guided tours through two separate caves, which are apparently some of the oldest limestone caves in the world. I’ve been in caves in Kentucky and New Zealand and the Jenolan caves are impressive in how accessible and unique they are.

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Jenolan Caves

My last day in Australia was a return to Sydney prior to my flight home. We had planned to relax on Bondi beach and soak up the sun but mother nature had other plans as we had yet another rain storm curtail our plans. The rain was expected for this time of year in Queensland but it was an unusual surprise for Sydney. The last day was just spent wandering, eating, and counting the time to head home. Overall the trip was a great time, filled with wonderful sites and great memories, but I had my fill of Australia. Traveling to this country I brought with me a load of anxiety about the many insects, foliage, and wildlife that could do me harm but on my journey home I was more relieved that I survived the disorder and roughness of the culture.

Bill Bryson definitely said it best in the closing of In A Sunburned Country, when he said “You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.”

 

 

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In a Sunburned Country

imagesBill Bryson, 2000

I don’t read a lot of travel writing, but when I do read it I find myself telling myself that this is what I should be doing with myself. I totally missed my calling. Why am I trying to “heal” the ill, the destitute who can hardly care for themselves? Why do I invest so much time, energy and valuable human sympathy towards an under-appreciated investment in the ideals of caring for others. Who am I kidding? I love the crazy mixed up shit I have to contend with in my job. It may be tough work, but it does truly satisfy my soul.

Anyhow, if I wasn’t a nurse, in an alternate timeline I probably would be a great travel writer. Or at least I would want to be. Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is exactly the type of fun explorative essay-like musing on culture, geography, and history that inspires me to appreciate the unknown and unfamiliar in my travels. And Bryson manages to communicate all that with tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating humor and whit.

In other words: I had a great time reading this book.

Handed to me by a close friend after learning about my very soon-to-be trip Down Under over this Christmas and New Year’s holiday, I didn’t expect much of the book that was billed as a must read and very funny. Well the bill was accurate, this is great stuff.

My two-week trip will hardly achieve the level of exploration that Bryson enjoyed over several visits to Australia wherein he managed to see nearly all the eastern, southern, northern, and western coasts in addition to the vast interior of the desert outback. I’ll only be traveling to Sydney and the tropical coastal area near Cairns whereas Bryson really had an opportunity to explore the vastness of this continental-island-country that is nearly the size of the United States with a total population of only 60% that of California.

Bryson’s writing is enjoyable and informative. In his catalog of his travels, he takes many tangential moments to laugh with wonder about the peculiar behaviors and interests of the Australian people. He mostly gives them a forgiving credit for their odd self-defeating pride, as they are a country of international size and economic power with a strangely backwater and hillbilly-ish nature. This is the country founded as a prison after all! Australia is part of the commonwealth but not part of the UK. Since Australia has only been a country for just over a century its capital, Canberra is less than 75 years old. The same pre-teen mix of pride and finding one’s identity shines throughout the country’s odd behaviors such as its bullish politics and quirky historical facts as depicted in the passage of the choosing of the name for the young capital:

“So the young nation had a capital. The next challenge was what to call it, and yet more periods of passion and rancor where consumed with settling the matter…Suggested names were Myola, Wheatwooldgold, Emu, Eucalypta, Symeldadperbrisho (the first syllables of the state capitals), Opossum, Gladstone, Thirstyville, Kookaburra, Cromwell, and the ringingly inane Victoria Defendera Defender. In the end, “Canberra” won more or less by default.” (86)

In exploring the historical significance of the capital Bryson spends a considerable time describing how pleasantly boring Canberra is, poking fun at the promotional films with the titles such as “Canberra – It’s Got it All!!! – the ones that boast how you can water ski and shop for an evening gown and have a pizza all in the same day, because this place has … got it all!” (87). Though I won’t be visiting Canberra, my wife of whom is already in Australia has spent a few days there visiting her cousin and she has confirmed to me, that yes Canberra does have it all. 

Another odd quirk about the Australian people that Bryson spends a considerable time exploring is their schizophrenic love for very diverse sports. This is a country with their own flavor of Australian rules football that is confusing, fast paced, and wild and yet the same countrymen obsess about the slow and prolonged game of cricket. As an avid baseball fan myself, the following passage about cricket’s slow methodical pace made me chuckle with appreciation for the sport:

“After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don’t wish to denigrate a sport enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game.” (105-6)

Unfortunately, I won’t be in the country during the right season for a game of Australian rules football and buying a ticket for a multi-day cricket match seems overwhelming and confusing, especially since I have no reference for who is a good team or where is a good seat. I’ll be spending most of my time near the the Queensland area visiting the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding tropical rain forests in addition to welcoming the new year in alongside the Sydney harbor. Bryson spent a good portion of the book depicting both regions, outlining how the Queensland people have a laissez faire gruffness towards the numerous ways in which nature can kill you and humorously describing himself getting lost in the parks of Sydney.

Apart from my interest in reading about the areas I’ll actually be visiting, Bryson spends a considerable time in the outback. He doesn’t just fly from city to city, he drives the 1000+ miles from city to city, taking in the vast emptiness of Australia, reminiscing on the fact that much of the country is still unexplored with both new species of plants and animals as well as extinct fossils appearing all the time through serendipitous luck. Since Australia has been isolated from the rest of the world’s continents far longer than any other it is home to a rich biodiversity unseen anywhere else. Of course everyone knows of the peculiarities of Kangaroos and Koalas, but Bryson opened up my awareness towards the existence of the giant earthworms that are up to a meter long, the small, spiny reptile-like, mammalian, egg-laying monotremes known as the echidna, and the oldest living fossils, the stromatolites, a weird rock-like organism similar to coral and was once the king of the natural world.

All of these wonders are found in very remote places that I likely won’t have a chance to visit in my short trip, but Bryson describes them with vivid excitement that entices me to make it out to these locations, somehow, anyhow. Of one of those locations that can be bucketed into the geological wonderment, Ayers Rock, or more appropriately, the Aboriginal name of Uluru, wasn’t high on my list. It seemed far out the way to go just to see a giant rock, but Bryson’s description piqued my interest:

“nowhere else on earth has a lump of rock been left standing when all else around it has worn away. Bornhardts are not uncommon – the Devils marbles are a collection of miniature Bornhardts – but no where else on earth has one lump of rock been left in such dramatic and solitary splendor or assumed such a pleasing smooth symmetry. It is a hundred million years old. Go there, man.” (257)

Unfortunately, the heat in the dead of summer (yes it is summer right now, on this the first day of winter) isn’t ideal for a trip to Uluru. Interestingly, the more recent use of the Aboriginal name for the sacred rock is the indication of a trend towards recognizing the rich Aboriginal history in a continent primarily known for the culture of its European settlers. Although continental Australia has been populated by man for nearly 40,000 years, the Aboriginal history is often under noticed. Bryson admirably visits this unique and challenging aspect of the present-day Australia’s troubled identity often finding that many white Australians prefer not to discuss the presence of their Aboriginal neighbors. This of course is the story of many places colonized by the Europeans over the past 400 years, but the Aboriginal story seems the least understood than any other place. Bryson’s acknowledgment and attention toward this aspect of Australia throughout the book was poignantly and respectfully addressed:

“As I sat now on the Todd Street Mall with my coffee and watched the mixed crowds – happy white shoppers with Saturday smiles and a spring in their step, shadowy Aborigines with their curious bandages and slow, swaying, knocked-about gait – I realized that I didn’t have the faintest idea what the solution to all this was, what was required to spread the fruits of general Australian prosperity to those who seemed so signally unable to find their way to it…So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. The I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.” (273)

I probably would not have ever read this book were it not for my upcoming trip to Australia, but I must admit that Bryson is a damn good author and this is a well written book. I’d recommend it to any reader even if Australia isn’t on your list, because after reading it you’ll definitely fall for Bryson’s love for the country.

“You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.” (304)

 

 

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Seiobo There Below

seiobo_there_belowLászló Krasznahorkai, 2008
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, 2013

Krasznahorkai is unlike any other author I’ve ever read. His prose is propelled by an intoxicating and seductive rambling vision that meanders in sentences that run on and on in tangents and narrative diversions that are several pages long. Entire chapters can consist of single multi-page sentences filled with lush descriptive intention that linguistically weaves itself through the page like a river carving and crashing through a glorious canyon. While reading these hallucinating sentences the reader is transported along an invigorating and imaginative ride flipping through the pages with enigmatic succession and hardly noticing the length of the journey, forgetting where the the beginning ever started and surprised where the narrative journey ultimately ends.

The long sentence may seem daunting and laborious to most readers, but Krasznahorkai has mastered it. He owns it. His words are pure beauty and what he is doing with the novel is totally unique and refreshing. After reading Satantango a couple of years ago I was spellbound by what I had read. I’ve been wanting to read more Krasznahorkai but only at a time that was right for me to give him proper attention.

When the translation of Seiobo There Below was released in 2013 shortly I had finished reading Satantango I was initially excited to get my hands on more of this author’s genius but my excitation quickly morphed into hesitation after I learned from the book jacket that Seiobo There Below was not set in Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian homeland but was focused on a Japanese goddess and sacred sites in Japan. In addition to his linguistic lyricism, much of what captivated me about Krasznahorkai and Satantango was learning a little about the unique perspective of a backcountry village in Hungary. The Japanese setting of Seiobo There Below caused me to question the value and merit of a book written in Hungarian by a Hungarian author about Japan, a country across the world from the native locale of Hungary that had captivated me in Satantango.  So, despite falling in love with the author of Satantango, my drive to read more Krasznahorkai was put on hold for a while until a used copy of Seiobo There Below came into my hands.

It is too bad that the jacket cover was overly focused on the Japanese setting of a what is really only a portion of this expansive book because Krasznahorkai explores much more than simply a single setting in Japan. Seiobo There Below is an episodic work that transverses time and setting with seventeen distinct chapters that each read like a short story with totally different characters and settings that span European locations in addition to the Japanese. The intention behind the novel’s travels through history and location is concerned with the beauty of artistic expression throughout human history and approaches the beauty of art by either exploring the method and craft of creative artists or focusing on the inspiration that art endows upon those who appreciate and view the arts.

The common theme from chapter to chapter is that beauty is a gift from above that transcends and connects mortal man to something that extends beyond the brief moments of life on this Earth. The novel’s namesake is based on Seiobo, the Japanese name for the Chinese goddess Xi Wangmu who bestows prosperity and eternal bliss on others. In the novel, Seiobo There Below, the goddess Seiobo takes many forms and is sometimes directly referred such as in the chapter titled The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki when Seiobo appears in first person, speaking “I put down my crown, and in earthly form but not concealing my face I descended among them,” (211) to inspire the craft of a famous Noh actor. However, most often throughout the novel Seiobo takes less direct forms of heavenly inspiration such as the angels in a painting that cause a lost thief to purchase a knife out of fear, the glaring sun on the marble stones of the Acropolis that blinds and frustrates a would-be tourist, or the hypnotizing gaze of the Venus de Milo that has seduced a museum guard to obsessively dedicate his life’s devotion towards admiration of the masterpiece sculpture.

Although many of the chapters focus on the craft of creating art, the best chapters are those that focus on the hypnotic power of art to speak to common men such as the museum guard, tourist, or thief. The narrative of these chapters demonstrates that beauty is not intended solely for the cultured and aristocratically educated. Although the creation of art is dependent on the conscription of the moneyed class, once it is created its existence reaches beyond the influence of money and provides a multitude of inspiration to all those who are open to receiving. The narrative of Seiobo There Below explores these ideas through many perspectives and to better explain what I am trying to get at, read the following passage (a brief excerpt from one of Krasznahorkai’s very long sentences) that describes the thoughts of one of the assistants to the Noh actor in the chapter titled The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki:

“…it’s impossible, or a miracle, and I’ve marveled at him because of that, but then accepted that the sensei knows already in advance what is going to happen later, and also that this comes not from himself but from the world, from the true structure of the world, which he and only he sees and knows, but I could also express it like this: the sensei just feels things, and he is deaf, deaf to the those things that we are not deaf to, he is deaf to mundane explanations because he only feels, only grasps what his soul tells him, we are deaf to our souls, to him our mediocre imaginings and connections mean nothing at all, he sees them, he sees us, he knows what we believe what we are thinking and what we do, he knows the laws that are important to us, the laws that determine and circumscribe all of us here, yet these laws, in regard to the sensei somehow … just don’t affect him at all…” (221)

The assistant’s admiration to the sensei actor is a reflection and expression of thoughts that any one of us could have felt at one time through awe toward the artistic genius of a great performer or master of painting, sculpture, architecture, or even sport. What is intriguing about the description of admiration is that the words are the thoughts of a mere assistant in the presence of the master, indicating that the master’s expression of perfection of acting does not require mastery to achieve appreciation towards the actor’s genius. This thought is further expressed in the following passage spoken from the thoughts of a museum guard at the Louvre in the chapter titled, Where You’ll be Looking:

“…she did not belong here or anywhere upon the earth, everything that she, the Venus de Milo meant, whatever it might be, originated from a heavenly realm that no longer existed, which had been pulverized by time, a moldering annihilated, universe that disappeared for all eternity from this higher realm, because the higher realm had itself disappeared from the human world, and yet she remained here, this Venus from the higher realm remained here, left abandoned…” (336)

I believe that my appreciation for the exploration of artistic beauty within the pages of Seiobo There Below’s was heightened by most recent travels to France and Paris where I indulged in my own appreciation for viewing master artworks in museums and architecture. However, it isn’t just my rekindled appreciation for artworks that caused me to enjoy this book. The novel is itself an expression of mastery reflecting Krasznahorkai’s skill and genius. The lyrical beauty of the long sentence and the depth of ideas explored on the page provide their own form of transcendence for any reader open to receiving the visions inspired by Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian-to-English translated narrative mastery.

However, amidst my praise I will acknowledge that this book is far from perfect. I believe that Satantango achieved a breath of visionary perfection and perhaps many of Krasznahorkai’s other books that I have not yet read are equal in the mastery expressed on the pages of Satantango, but I realize that Seiobo There Below is limited in falling just short of the broad scope of its wide vision.

My singular criticism of this book is that Krasznahorkai’s Asian-focused chapters are limited to only Japan whereas his European chapters are diverse in their exploration of France, Spain, Greece, Romania, Russia, Hungary and the Ottoman empire. This is an extensively researched book that adeptly displays Krasznahorkai’s scholastic appreciation of many of the great art works of the history of mankind, but in limiting his Asian focus to Japan and only Japan he reveals that he has a limited understanding or appreciation for the scope and extent of Asian art in comparison to European art.

Of course, as a Hungarian Krasznahorkai is expected to have a broad appreciation for European masterpieces, but for a book that explores the inspiration of artistic beauty with a diversity of time and place across the millennia I expected more diversity of Asia. With such an extensive focus on Japanese temples, Noh masks and Noh acting, I found myself asking where was the focus on Chinese calligraphy, Buddhist sculpture in India and Indonesia, or Cambodia, or countless other Asian creations of beauty? Furthermore, the book completely ignores the breadth of human culture in the Americas and could have easily included a chapter about the Andean stone temples of the Inca or central American pyramids of the Maya or Aztec.

The beauty of artistic creation is present across the globe throughout human history and for a book to jump through time and location exploring that beauty it was disappointing that Krasznahorkai kept returning to Japan and only Japan whenever he explored anywhere outside of Europe. Of course, it would be impossible for a book to cover all of human history without choking itself on its own vision, but Seiobo There Below would have been improved by at least giving at least a slight nod towards somewhere outside Europe other than Japan.

It could be argued, perhaps, that the Fibonacci chapter progression (the 17 chapters are number 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on up to 2584) is a nod toward the infinite progression of the influence and voice of heavenly inspiration across all of human history, but this is only a creative suggestion expressed by this forgiving and imaginative reader and not actually articulated within the pages of the novel. Whatever the intention of the Fibonacci chapters, and despite the novel’s limitation of scope, the novel’s final words in the final chapter best articulate the limitation of human expression, our own mortality:

“…for there is a domain, that of death, the dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall devour us as well, to close it in upon itself, to bury, to consume even our memories, beyond all that is eternal.” (451)

 

 

 

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France Guidebooks

IMG_7173I will start this post off admitting that this entry isn’t going to achieve any where near the impact or significance of my last entry summarizing my experiences during the Paris Attacks. This blog is primarily my personal catalog of bibliophilia with an occasional tangent into travel diary entries in the form of criticisms of the utility or disfunction of my selected guide books. In return to normal form this entry will focus on our most recent trip to France without mention of the terrible incidents that occurred in Paris on November 13th, 2015 in Paris. For mention of that, you need only refer to my previous post.

In planning this trip, we knew that our travels would be unique since the trip was half work and half play. This was because the primary reason for heading to France was my wife’s work-focused conference in Paris November 11-14 (the last day of which was cancelled due to the attacks). While in Paris, we knew that I’d primarily be on my own while she was busy with work obligations. I had never been to France before but my wife had visited Paris and Nice some 10 years prior shortly after her undergraduate education and she didn’t mind missing out on the Paris focused part of the trip. In planning the days before the Paris leg of the trip we agreed that we’d explore parts of the country that she had not seen before to make the most of her brief pre-work vacation.

download (3)Figuring out exactly where that would be would would quickly become an overwhelming challenge. In an attempt to figure out the best places to go we asked a few friends who had been to France prior and found that the recommendations were all over the map: head South to Nice, go to Strasbourg to see the Christmas Markets, head to Normandy and explore the coast, see the Bordeaux wine region and the coast. At least the varied recommendations were consistent with an excitement for the country but in planning our trip they were completely inconsistent in helping us choose the best location to visit. In an attempt to better plan the trip according to our interests we scoped out several France guidebooks and decided on the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to France as our starting point since DK Eyewitness was helpful for our trip last year in France’s neighbor, Belgium.

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DK Eyewitness Lyon Map

Although DK Eyewitness was exceptional for a small country like Belgium, we quickly learned that it was overwhelming to use this book to prioritize sights in a much larger country like France. Many guide books such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and Frommer’s give assistance to the naive traveler by listing the “top ten” or “must see” sights in a country: DK Eyewittness is a much more straightforward type of book and makes no attempt to prioritize the best or must-see sights. France is a large country with an exceptional history spanning back 20,000 years and understandably has a multitude of sights to see. The book did divide the country up into several regions with each regional section giving a brief summary of the history, food, and top-sites that were particular to that region, but the majority of the book’s focus was on Paris with a total of 110 pages of  the 670 page book dedicated to the capital city. The book does include several helpful two-page sections with detailed “maps” highlighting many of the city centers, but it is obvious that these maps are really bird’s-eye drawings best used for general reference and not very helpful for navigating when on the ground.

With only 10 days in our itinerary and half of those days dedicated to Paris we realized that our options were limited. Reading through the DK Eyewitness I became overly excited at the possibility of seeing the pre-historic cave paintings in the Southwest region but as we mapped out the trip the possibility to get there from our initial flight into Paris with only 5 days to work with didn’t seem feasible. I then became excited to see the Abbey of Mont-St-Michel primarily because this coastal castle-village was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s depiction of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings Movies, but there wasn’t much else near the Mont-St-Michel region that warranted a trip toward the far west of Normandy during what would likely be a cold and blustery region in November so we nixed that idea. My wife was really excited to see the medieval citadel of Carcassonne in the south of France but this also seemed too far away to see during our short trip.

Although it would have been helpful to have “must see” list to choose from, DK Eyewitness was helpful in presenting the many regional highlights of France and ultimately we opted for Lyon as our base outside of Paris. Lyon, France’s second city, seemed to offer it all and it helped that it was only a 2 hour train or 4 hour drive from Paris. Lyon is close to the Alps, is picturesque as it is situated at the merging of two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône, it has Renaissance era palaces, medieval cobblestone alleys, and many Roman ruins since Lyon was the Roman capital of the region during the Roman empire. Lyon is additionally near Vienne, a city that had a major concentration of intact Roman ruins. Of course Lyon is also recognized as the foodie capital of France, which suited our gastronomical delights and helped us make our decision to explore a city that wasn’t recommended to us by any of our friends.

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The charming view from our apartment window

After a plane delay that caused us to miss our originally scheduled train, we made it into Lyon early evening on Friday, November 6th. We decided to walk the 15 minutes from the train station to our apartment to get a feel for the city and I was immediately charmed by the setting sun’s illumination of the Rhône river. We were staying in an Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city on the peninsula between the two rivers near the Opéra de Lyon. Our first night was spent enjoying a lovely three-course meal for only € 30 a person and then we stumbled upon a wonderful Belgian beer bar Les BerThoM to enjoy the Friday night festivities.

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Les Halles de Lyon

Saturday was a full day of sightseeing in the peninsula and the quaint older region of the city on the west bank of the Saône. Many of the sights on the west bank, such as Basilque Notre-Dame de Fourvière, the Roman Amphitheater, Vieux Lyon (the narrow cobbled street region) were all directed to us by our DK Eyewitness book, but the Miniature Museum was a special find I stumbled upon just by browsing the internet. Navigating the streets of Lyon with the DK Eyewitness book was not very helpful since the map was only of the west bank region and didn’t even include the area where we were staying. Thankfully our host had a copy of the Knopf Mapguide of Lyon in the apartment. Even though the book was in French, its many fold-out regional street maps and subway guide were our salvation since our DK Eyewitness book didn’t even make mention of the existence of a subway or the lifesaving tram that traveled up the steep hill to view Fourvière and the Roman ruins. For anyone who explores Lyon, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of the Knopf Mapguide, because it was a godsend to us.

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Mont Blanc

Lyon was utterly charming and I loved every moment of our short time there. We stayed three nights total, but our second day, Sunday the 8th, was a day of exploring outside of Lyon as we rented a car and drove east for a day-trip to the Alps. We had set our destination toward the ski village of Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc and had planned to stop at the Chamonix visitor center to get some tips on hikes in the area. Unfortunately to our disappointment the visitor center was closed on Sundays. Although we were able to get on wifi outside the visitor center, all of the best recommended hikes we found were further up the road, which was currently closed. We were in the Alps in an odd offseason period between the summer hiking and winter skiing seasons. The lifts to the Mont Blanc peak were closed so we settled for a view of the glorious mountains and the mouth of the glacier on the mountain range’s slopes. I don’t know when I’ll return to the Alps in the future, but I’m certain that by that future date the glacier will have far receded from its current position.

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Pont de la Caille

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Annecy

From Chamonix we made our way back to Lyon with a plan to stop in the medieval lakeside city of Annecy for dinner. On the drive to Annecy I saw a unique looking bridge and decided to pull off the highway to view the Pont de la Caille suspension bridge. This beautiful bridge was built in 1839 to reduce the travel time from Annecy to Geneva over the Ussess Gorge and it captivated my attention as I literally saw the bridge off in the distance in the periphery of my vision: its charm magnetized me. It was a nice little diversion that wasn’t even mentioned in the DK Eyewitness book. Once in Annecy, I fell in love with the lakeside views of the Alps and the town’s quaint canals. Annecy is the “Vienna of the Alps” and although I’ve never been to Vienna, it definitely reminded me of another canal based city, Bruges, but on a smaller scale.  Our guidebook only gave us a three paragraph description of Annecy, so we were left on our own to simply wander the narrow streets and take in the beauty of the city.

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Our night in a castle

On Monday the 9th we were leaving Lyon, but not before we took a short diversion south to Vienne to view some of the most intact Roman ruins in the region. From Vienne we travelled north of Lyon to stay in Burgundy for a night at Château de Bagnols, a 13th century castle that has been converted into a luxury hotel. This was a special treat and since it was offseason we got a great deal on what would have been a night way over our normal budget. The grounds were beautiful and exploring the castle and the surrounding medieval village of Bagnols satisfied my desire to see “old” France. As I was driving around the next day I saw several castles off in the distance along the highway, but my giddy need to see an old castle was satisfied by the knowledge that not only did I see a castle, I slept in a castle!

L1110336The following day we left Bagnols to drive into Paris but we decided to split the drive up by stopping half way. Where that stop would be wasn’t decided yet and was up to our guidebooks. The DK Eyewitness book was quite helpful in this respect as I choose to stop at the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a 15th century hospice that showcased some of the unique architecture of Burgundy. At the hospice we did an audio tour and learned that this hospice served the poor of the region from 1443 until surprisingly, 1984! Seeing the great halls lined with hospital beds and wandering the grounds satisfied my desire to learn a little about the roots of my profession and gave me a lot of respect for how much medicine has evolved. The audio tour was amusing and unique: rather than simply have a historian tell this and that about the grounds it was narrated by two actors portraying the hospice’s founder Nicolas Rolin and one of the nuns that worked in the hospice. It was an amusing way to learn about the history of the facility and the two were quite humorous as they recanted stories of old with tongue in cheek self awareness.

From Beaune we drove the rest of the way into Paris. I feel that I must mention a little about driving in France: it was surprisingly easy despite not being able to read the roadsigns. However, you should be warned that it is definitely an expensive way to travel. The roads are in great condition but that is because the highways are primarily all toll roads. In the Alps we drove through several tunnels that extended for several kilometers and our route to Paris was smooth as can be. The cost for the great roads definitely added up as tolls ranged anywhere from € 2 to just get on and off at the next exit to € 17 to go through a tunnel. It was worth it to see the countryside for a couple of days, but I can’t imagine driving through France for any extended period as being feasibly economical. The traffic on the highways was light (possibly due to cost of the tolls) but I had expected to hit traffic in Paris. Once we arrived in the periphery of the capital city the traffic exceeded my expectations and was laughably ridiculous. Driving in the city proper was absolutely crazy with pedestrians, mopeds, motorcycles, and even busses cutting me off and squeezing through narrow channels not imaginable to this American driver.

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Madeleine Church

In Paris my wife and I really just had that Tuesday night together before she had to get to work. We enjoyed a decadent meal at La Maison de la Truffe and wandered around Église de la Madeleine before heading off to bed at our apartment. We had hoped to see the Eiffel tower lit up at night, but were very tired from the long day of driving. As I later became better aquatinted with the Paris geography I would regretably realize that a view of the tower was just around the corner from where we were that night and unfortunately circumstances would prevent us from sharing a romantic view of the iconic tower at night during this trip.

download (1)Wednesday the 11th, Armistice day, was my day for ambitious sightseeing. The DK Eyewitness book, with its extensive Paris section, was helpful in planning my day but I regretted lugging the heavy 670 page book around with me as I managed to walk nearly 13 miles (according to my iphone health app estimates). The much slimmer 27 page Knopf Mapguide Paris edition that I had borrowed from a friend quickly became my automatic reference for the rest of my Paris trip.

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One of several helpful maps

The Knopf guide split up Paris into 10 regions each with a fold out detailed map displaying all of the roads, streets, and alleys in each of the regions. It also had a quick reference to the subway system that I used constantly. Most helpful was that it was actually in English, unlike the Lyon version of the Mapguide we had used. The guide was very slim and not ideal for planning a trip, but it was essential for use on the ground when actually walking the streets and I quickly learned that all of the restaurant recommendations were spot-on delicious and budget conscious. This guide book that easily fit in my jacket pocket basically held my hand through my Paris trip.

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Tour St-Jacques

It was only the first day that I made the mistake of carrying the DK Eyewitness around. On that very long day I explored all the key sights of Notre Dame, the Arc de Triumphe, and the Eiffel Tower. These of course are the big sites and are very cliche must-sees for any Parisian tourist. In addition to the big sites I did plenty of wandering to simply take in a feel for the city as well as a stroll along the Seine. In my walks I wandered west to see the miniature Statue of Liberty donated by the US on the centennial of the New York version and I wandered around Place du Concorde before heading into the Musée de l’Orangerie in the late afternoon. The “Orange” museum would never have been on my list of to-dos if not for the strong recommendation of a close friend of mine and I am forever grateful to her for the recommendation. After a long day on my feet in the hustle of Paris the two oval rooms dedicated to the massive Monet water lilly paintings was a welcome respite for my tired feet. After a few hours in the museum I exited to find the city gloriously lit up in the night and and I wandered over to Place de Bastille to see a new neighborhood and grab some dinner. It was quite the day, but just the first of my three jam-packed Paris adventures.

IMG_6837Thursday was my dedicated Louvre day, but knowing myself after having experienced the awe-inspiring British Museum I knew that once I entered the massive Louvre collection I would likely stay in the museum until it closed. Not wanting to dedicate the entire day to just the Louvre I decided to head east first and explore the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the resting place for many famous artists and musicians including Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Balzac, Chopin, and Jim Morrison. Seeing the graves of the famous was intriguing, but the cemetery itself is a treasure not to be missed. I arrived in the early morning and the eerie morning fog was enchanting. I had downloaded a map to help me find some of the famous graves, but just wandering the cemetery was fun in itself. Jim Morrison’s grave was actually the most low-key, simply a slab of granite with his picture on it, but it somehow had the largest draw of photographers.

L1110521The Louvre failed to disappoint. I spent nearly 6 hours in the museum and only saw 1/3 of the collection. The scope of masterpieces on display is phenomenal. There a justifiable reason the place is crowded. Since I was on my own I opted for an audio tour and was glad to do so because it really enriched my appreciation for the artwork. Of course I had to see the Mona Lisa although it never was a bucket-list item of mine. The hall displaying the surprisingly small painting was laughably crowded with a mob of people taking photos like they were the paparazzi. I wasn’t immune to this affect but I did refrain from taking a ridiculous selfie. I managed to get up center and just stare at the painting for a good 7-8 minutes. Being in its presence was surprisingly satisfying. That smile is mysterious and seeing it in person, albeit 15 feet away, is quite seductive. However, when the Italian next to me stuck his tongue out in his selfie, I knew it was my time to leave the lady’s seductive presence.

IMG_6891There is much to see in the Louvre and it is a bit overwhelming. The collection of artwork is unlike any other I’ve seen, rivaling only the Vatican in its scope and beauty. I will say that I did enjoy the British Museum more than the Louvre because the ancient art in the British Museum is presented from more of an archaeological perspective whereas the Louvre is primarily and artistic museum. One aspect that is unique is that the Louvre’s architecture is an art-form in it itself with beautiful ceiling frescoes and magnificent stairwells that are jaw-dropping with their own significance. It is truly a special place.

L1110616After a full day in the Louvre I managed to head back to the apartment to rest up before dinner. By this time I had completely abandoned the DK Eyewitness book and began to fully trust the Knopf Mapguide’s suggestions for the Montmartre region as a good spot for the evening. I stopped to get a glimpse of the Moulin Rouge lit up at night and then wandered through the Passages of Montmartre before climbing the hill to seek out an excellent dinner.

IMG_7028Friday the 13th would prove to be an ambitious day. My plan was to see both the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre de Pompidou in one swoop, which in itself is admittedly a busy day, but I also had a goal to see the Palais Garnier, Opéra at the recommendation of my father who had visited Paris 20 or so years ago. I managed to do all of that and fit in a relaxing stroll along the Seine to see the Grand Palais and stumble upon the Christmas Markets along Avenue Des Champs-Elysées. It was a very full day, but I was nearing the end of the trip and wanted to fit in as much as I could. I succeeded beyond my imagination.

L1110649The Musée d’Orsay would prove itself to be a magical experience. I absolutely loved that museum and the period of artwork depicted in its halls spanning the years 1848 to 1914. The sculptures of Rodin and masterful paintings of Van Gough, Monet, and Manet among many, many others were captivating. If there is ever a museum I will visit again, it will be this one. Every corner I turned I was spellbound by masterpieces that I had only seen in books previously. As is expected of any French museum of art, the building is an icon of art in itself: formerly an abandoned train station, it is beautiful and open, letting in lots of light that illuminates the works on display.

IMG_7150I hadn’t intended to fit Centre de Pompidou into my schedule originally, but it was highly recommended by the same friend that recommended Musée de l’Orangerie and after I learned that it was open late (until 9:30) I realized that it was possible to fit in my busy day. I really enjoyed the museum’s design and the manner in which the main gallery transported the viewer through time, chronologically displaying the progression of Modern art from the late 19th century to the 21st. The collection is truly impressive, the best modern collection I’ve seen, but by the time I arrived into the 1960’s avant garde my brain was dead and exhausted from a grueling day. I had museum fatigue and couldn’t handle any more mind-expanding artistic experiments.

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Rue de Lombards moments before the Attacks

So, needing a good rest as I was settling into dinner near the Centre de Pompidou I allowed myself to take a break to reflect on the trip. I had really enjoyed this trip far more than I had expected. Before the opportunity arose through my wife’s work-conference, France had never really on my list of top must-see countries. I’ve always wanted to be in Paris on Bastille Day (my birthday), but felt that I could put France off for some other time.  After a full week exploring the country and diving into the arts I realized that this is truly a beautiful place and don’t know why I hadn’t had much in interest in it prior. The people were great despite my inability to articulate a single word in French, and both the food and wine were delightful. As I was enjoying my final meal alone I decided to text a friend back home who has been a long-time Francophile to let her know that I had finally come to appreciate her love for this country. Later that night that same friend would be one of many friends and family members frantically texting me asking about my safety, but that is another story.

 

 

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The Paris Attacks

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November 12th, 2015: A Peaceful Day

It has been a week since the Paris Attacks.

The fact that both my wife and I were there in Paris the night of the attacks still doesn’t feel real.

Social media and news sites have been plastered with stories about the attacks, the ongoing threat of ISIS, the perceived threat of refugees, the complexity of the Syrian war, thoughtful analysis of the situation contrasted by racist xenophobic fear, an overwhelming barrage of pundit opinions, the disgusting American right-wing political pandering of the situation to support arguments for expanded open-carry laws and closed borders, the quick retaliation of the French bombing of Raqqa, the Russian jet crash, the Russian retaliation, and the quibbling on-line debates about the introduction of Facebook’s perceived racist/classist French flag profile and “I’m safe” function that ignored the conflict in Beirut, ignored the conflict in Kenya, ignored the conflict of people of color. It goes on and on.

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The Blue Dot in the map is our apartment and the Red Icon is the Bataclan Theatre where the largest massacre occurred – 5 minutes away

Normally I keep a safe distance from world events. I like to stay informed but I maintain a self-awareness to recognize when I need to take a step back and tune when I sense myself growing overwhelmed and overstressed by opinions and incidents that are beyond my control. My ability to tune out hasn’t been very strong with this most recent event. Understandably, it has been hard to stay focused on the normalcy of getting back to “real life” after our trip to France because the trip ended unlike any other with us living through one of the most significant attacks on European soil in recent years. They say it is the worst atrocity to happen in France since the second World War. Considering that three of the six incidents on the night of November 13th had occurred blocks from where we were staying, the simple act of getting back to work, getting back to “normal” life has been shaded by a foggy but euphoric sense of gratitude coupled by an intense curiosity tied to the dread about what it was that had actually happened. This feeling stems from a very real catharsis: I could have very easily been one of the victims. My bloodied body could have remained on French soil at this very minute, but it didn’t.

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The Casa Nostra Restaurant was a block away from our apartment

This isn’t the first time that my life has been spared by chance. I am not new to the hyper-aware recognition of the fragility of life that I am currently feeling. From watching a friend fall off a cliff that could have been me, to dodging the poor choices of my young adulthood that should have landed me in jail or dead, to walking away from a car accident unscathed, to surviving the depression that suffocated me during the collapse of my first marriage: I have lived through much and continue to live. Each of those events I briefly mentioned have had a personal nature tied to chance, circumstance, and perspective. Although these personal events are unique to me, their existence are part of the realities that make up the normal tribulations of a life well-lived life and are part of the multitude of experiences that make any one of us human individuals. All of our experiences are without exception to the personal low points and moral challenges we live through.  The sum total of our experiences are unique to each of us and affect us differently, but in living through them we all have a common opportunity to climb above the difficulty and redefine ourselves as better, more whole, more grateful humans. I believe I am such a better person, imperfect as I am. I have no regret for having experienced difficult times because such experiences have made me who I am and have increased my compassion for others.

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Le Petit Cambodge Restaurant was two blocks from where we were staying

Every life is touched in some way by such personal events. However, this most recent event that I have managed to live through has a global  and unpredictable nature that none of us can or should expect to live through. The atrocities and senseless violence at the hands of others such as what occurred on November 13th are shameful to consider. It is hard to believe that random terrorism can be part of what makes us human. It is hard to believe that this is part of the human story. Friends and family will die from accident or illness. We expect that. We do not expect anyone we love to die at the hands of barbarism. We do not expect anyone to be murdered by fanatical idealists while out on the town enjoying dinner, enjoying a concert, or simply enjoying life.

Joie de vivre. Life is good. Life should be enjoyed. Life is worth enjoying.

What brought me to France this month was a desire to experience, a desire to cherish opportunity and travel to a place I’d never been, to taste the richness of a culture I had not yet tasted.

My wife and I were in France primarily for her work and my fun. She had a conference to attend in Paris and I was along for the ride. Although work commitments were her primary motivation for the trip we left for Paris a week prior on November 6th to enjoy some time together before her responsibilities usurped our mutual enjoyment.  After landing in Paris we journeyed to Lyon via bullet train, enjoyed a day trip to the Alps, and stayed in a castle for a night in Burgundy. It was a really pleasant time enjoying the French food and scenery. I won’t forget it. The good times are all the more valuable after what happened last Friday night. However, retrospect prompts me to recall that there was a moment that stood out mixed within all of those good times. That moment had occurred six days before the fateful night of Friday the 13th.

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November 7th, Place des Terreaux

On Saturday, November 7th when we were wandering the streets of Lyon we stumbled upon the Place des Terreaux and noticed an unusual amount of noise. Traffic was at a standstill. There was a protest of some kind with a large group of people chanting in the middle of the plaza. Protesters were waving what appeared to be the Palestine flag.

Having lived through years of protests while living in Berkeley, and having witnessed several protests during my travels in Bolivia, I really thought nothing of it. But I noticed that my wife was visibly bothered by the event. She asked that we stay away, articulating thoughts I hadn’t even considered, saying “This isn’t like home, there are real threats here.” On reflection, I recognize that this Palestine protest was totally unrelated to the ISIS attacks, however in hindsight I now realize that her premonition of fear for safety was grounded in a reality I had not recognized. This thought now gives me chills. Then I had thought nothing of it, but as we were to learn a week later, those fears were alarmingly valid.

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Our Innocent Text Exchanges

The night of November 13th in Paris I was separated from my wife.

She had a long day of work and was finishing the night with some of her colleagues at a happy hour. I had just suffered through a long and arduous day of sightseeing and dining on French foods. I had just finished dining alone for the third night in a row (people don’t really dine alone in Paris, I was quite the oddity) and after a 3 days of hardly seeing each other, we were looking forward to meeting up and enjoying the Paris nightlife. I was located in the Rue des Lombards area, which was very lively and exciting with plenty of Friday night bars packed with people unwinding from a long week. We were in the middle of trying to coordinate where we should meet me when everything changed.

 

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As soon as I received that text I began to realize that the sirens I had been hearing were more than just normal city background sirens. I looked around and realized that there was a steady sequence of police and ambulances speeding past the main road in front of me.

Something was terribly wrong.

I was alone, didn’t speak the language, and had no idea what was going on.

From what my wife’s texts told me, the explosion was at the République station, just two stops away from where I was at that moment. This was only a 15 minute walk.

I had to get home fast.

As I looked around me I realized that most of the people weren’t yet aware of any danger. I turned on my phone’s data to map the best way home but realized that from where I was, it was a 30 minute walk to our apartment and the best route would taking me directly through the République area where the supposed explosion was. This route was also in the direction of all the police and ambulances I saw rushing past me. Just as I was looking down at my phone a police car cut the corner I was standing on, nearly swiping me.

Things weren’t right and I didn’t want to be on the streets. Taking the subway was a risk, but it appeared to be the most direct route and best way to get off the streets. I let my wife know my plan, which she didn’t like, but in the panic my options seemed slim.

IMG_7321As I entered the subway at the Rambuteau station the mood of the people was different than those on the street. Three teenagers jumped the ticket stall immediately in front of the ticket agent with no repercussion. There were about 15 people looking at the transit maps with a dazed and confused look on their faces. There were announcements in French that I didn’t understand, but I figured that if the trains weren’t running I would figure it out soon enough. I hopped on the M11 towards Goncourt, my stop, and as soon as I got on the train I heard an announcement mutter something in French, listing the familiar names of stations: Arts et Métiers, République, Goncourt. Wait Goncourt? That was my stop. The trained started moving and then as we passed through each of the stations it slowed slightly, but never stopped.

Watching the familiar advertisements, station seats, and tiled walls pass by me as the train continued on was erie. It was like seeing a life pass by. When would this train stop? Would I get home? What was going on?

Fortunately, the train didn’t travel much farther as the M11 stopped at Belleville, the next station North East from Goncourt.

This whole time my wife and I were texting ceaselessly, and I could tell her anxiety was ramping up. Mine was too, considering that the train  had just passed by my stop, but we agreed to hold off on texting until I could figure out if I could get home safely or if I needed to change my plans.

When I got to the street, the confusion of the crowd was ramped up. Rue du Faubourg du Temple, my street and the direct route home, was blocked off with police tape and guarded by two policemen wielding Uzi machine guns. There was also a faint smell of smoke in the air. This was not good. As I turned my data back on to figure out an alternate route home I received the following text.

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I couldn’t handle that text at that moment. After using my maps, I really was running low on power, but I hardly knew what was going on in front of me and needed as much focus to get myself to safety as soon as I could. As worried as my mom may have been at that moment, her text caused me much greater worry because whatever was going on was so big that news had already reached the states even before I had a full understanding of the situation.

This wasn’t good.

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The fork and knives are where I was eating. The cocktail glass is Jenn. The bed is our apartment. And all those red stars… well they are attack sites.

Although Rue du Faubourg du Temple was closed off, I decided to take a risk and scope out the parallel street. It was open and there were people walking on it, which was promising. I started the 10 minute walk and as soon as I got to my cross street, I was elated to see my building. Rue du Faubourg du Temple was still closed off, but our building was near the corner. Just as I walked near our building, I saw a television in a bar showing me the first glimpse of the carnage: a bullet riddled restaurant and body bags on the street. Through my travel home all I knew was the sound of sirens, the smell of smoke, the sight of police, but that image in the periphery of my vision on the television screen told me that people were dead and I was glad that I was not one of them.

I walked right past the police and signaled to the building and they let me go by. They must have been on guard for someone that didn’t fit my description.

After climbing the four flights of narrow stairs I entered our apartment with elation. I was safe. I immediately let both Jenn and my mom know that I had gotten home safely I began to attempt to try to figure out what was happening.FullSizeRender (3)

As I tried to connect to the news online my phone blew up. I received several texts from friends and coworkers, emails from family, Facebook messages from friends I hadn’t spoken to in months: all asking about my safety. As confused as I was about what was happening, I felt the obligation to respond. So, before I ever connected to the BBC or any other news, I began answering emails, texts, and messages: letting all who expressed their concern that I was safe, but I had the somber and ominous news to share that Jenn and I were not together.

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The Goncourt Station

As I began to get connected to the media, the full scope of the situation became apparent. Several restaurants were attacked by gunfire and bombs. There was an ongoing hostage situation at a theatre and apparently a bombing at a football stadium. Looking at the maps of what was being reported I realized that it wasn’t just at the République station; there were several attacks in our neighborhood. I made it home out of fool’s luck and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I would let Jenn take the same chance. It sucked that we were apart, but she was with several people in an apartment above the bar they were at and as long as she was with other people she knew I was happy knowing that she was safe.

FullSizeRender (4)Listening to the BBC videos reporting the incident I kept hearing the ongoing sound of the French sirens blaring. I turned off the newsfeed but the sirens didn’t stop. They continued right outside my building rushing to the scene in panic and carting off the injured and dying to the hospitals. It took me hours to get any sleep with those sirens blaring. It was terribly uncomfortable knowing that Jenn was somewhere out there, exactly where I did not know. Just as I was drifting off to sleep I received another text from her saying that she was now in “the burbs” with two other girls. I was finally able to sleep peacefully.

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The Police on our corner at 9am November 14th

Morning came abruptly. I fell asleep sometime around 3:30 and was up by 8. I was fully awake. Our scheduled flight was the following day, Sunday the 15th but there were reports that the borders were closed to prevent escape of the suspects. I contacted our airline and confirmed our flight. At least that was taken care of. Not knowing the train situation I contacted Jenn and we agreed that I would pick her up on foot. She was about 45 minutes away to the east. As I got to the street, there were police still on guard at the corner of our street and the Goncourt train station was still closed. My plan to walk seemed like the right idea. The streets were relatively quiet, but businesses were still in operation. I still got my morning croissant and espresso fix taken care of no problem.

Along the walk I passed a synagogue that was guarded by four military personnel holding M-16s. Although the shops were open, this wasn’t just another day.

After seeing the synagogue and sometime as I continued walking I had a strange thought pop in my head. The thought went something like this, “I hate Muslims.” The thought startled me. I told myself, that is silly, I don’t hate Muslims. It is totally unlike me to harbor feelings like that. If there is anything I hate, it is a culture of blame. It wasn’t Muslims that were responsible for this. It was idolatrous, psychopathic fanatics and it wasn’t right to stigmatize and blame an entire religion for these terrible actions that had occurred.

As I searched within myself to find the root of that thought I realized that this is how it starts. This is how the bigotry and hatred of xenophobia starts. A simple fleeting thought grasps onto an emotion, it takes that emotion grounded in experience and holds onto it like a parasite, infecting the emotional being with a new system of belief. I realized that this thought was disgusting and I didn’t want any part of it. Such thoughts are rooted in fear and I didn’t want any part of that. That was not who I am and is not who I would allow myself to become after living through this experience. I was grateful to be alive and I wasn’t going to let bigotry and fear taint that gratitude. With that moment of self-realization I let go that thought but I realized that the existence of that thought was very human, very reactionary, and very common.  I may have been able to let it go, but there are many others in this world that may not let it go. They are the ones that let that fear and hatred take root.

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November 14th, Business as usual

That thought told me that the days ahead were going to be complicated. This event was going to shape policy in Europe and at home in ways that I would disagree with. Fear and reaction would taint decisions. And that is exactly what these terrorists wanted. Giving in to fear and hatred is giving in to terrorism. It is surrender. I looked around me and saw the open businesses and was relieved that the people of Paris had not surrendered. Sure they were confused and saddened. There were military and police on roads, but life went on. Shops were open. Life must go on.

When Jenn and I reunited we simply embraced, holding each other and savoring the lives that were wrapped within our arms. I won’t forget that moment. It was our moment. It was a moment unaffected by hatred or terror or fear. It was a moment of pure love.

I learned that her night was very different than mine. Unlike myself, who had walked the streets confused and uninformed, she had been with many people and they had been receiving news from many different perspectives. Shortly after the first news of the incidents they learned that the attackers were targeting restaurants and bars. Not knowing if the attackers were at large they had moved from the bar into an empty abandoned apartment above the bar. This apartment was being refurbished and it had no water or electricity. There were 11 of them gathered on the floor in the dark for several hours and she likened the experience to living in Anne Frank’s shoes for a night.

Since she was with several people, she had the opportunity to observe how people react to crisis. Some shut down, some indulged in uncomfortable humor, and since they had liquor available, many simply drank. She was with a group of mixed coworkers: serious lawyer types and younger grass-roots political types. As the group collected in an empty abandoned apartment above the bar, they turned into a crew of castaway refugees hiding in the dark, debating about the best plan of action. Eventually as they got word that the situation was calm they had split into twos and threes, taking cabs and going to different apartments for the night.

This is were I met her, at the apartment of a colleague that she hardly knew. Safe but exhausted, the night was over and we were together. It was time to move on.

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Media near the Bataclan Theatre

We had plans for this, our final day in Paris together. We were going to see the Catacombs, and wander through the Christmas markets. We hadn’t had a chance to see the Eiffel tower together and we had planned to see it lit up before going off to the conference send-off party. All of that was obviously cancelled. The official recommendation from the Parisian police was to stay in shelter. All public gathering places were closed, including all tourist attractions. When we returned to our apartment we saw pictures of Notre Dame surrounded by military. We were looking at a quiet night ahead of us. No party, no romantic viewing of the Eiffel tower.

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Media near the Bataclan Theatre

We did need food though. We had a late lunch a block from our apartment and after our lunch we decided to just walk around a bit in the late afternoon and find some pastries to satisfy our French foodie cravings. We hadn’t yet mapped out how close everything was, so when we stumbled upon a collection of news crews our curiosity got the best of us. I had never seen so much media in one location. There were camera men and reporters everywhere. I heard French, English (including British, American and Australian accents), German, and Mandarin. As I walked past several cameras I prayed that my nervous parents didn’t see me on the broadcasts they were viewing.

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Flowers for the dead

As we walked around we realized that we were near the Bataclan theatre, the sight of the largest atrocity. The entire block was closed off, but I could see the theatre half way down the block. There was a makeshift memorial of flowers set up along a fence. We moved closer to this memorial and gathered among a group of onlookers, a group of mourners. Although the news crews were surrounding us, it was oddly quiet near this memorial. The media were respecting the dignity of this place. I watched a couple climb underneath the police tape and set down a bouquet of flowers among the growing pile of flowers.

My emotions overwhelmed me as tears rolled down my cheeks. People died here. They shouldn’t have. This was stupid. What happened here was so senseless. I felt ashamed for humanity.

After a few moments of silence Jenn and I looked in each other’s eyes and then hugged. We stepped away from that place without saying a word for several minutes. We were both deeply affected.

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A rare view inside the Louvre at 4pm devoid of tourists

As we continued to wander the streets we talked about how encouraging it was to see so many people out and about, to see the businesses open. Major chains were closed, but Paris isn’t a city built on chain stores. The independent boutiques, cheese shops, butchers, wine shops, and markets were all open. We found this deeply encouraging. The spirit of the Parisian people infected us with hope. We mentioned to each other that if we were in America, everyone would be at home glued to the TV and everything would be closed. The French don’t live that way. They live.

They aren’t foolish though. As it began to get dark, shops were closing by 5 pm. As we got close to the Louvre and larger shopping areas, the streets were much quieter. As dusk turned to dark we walked near Place de la Concorde to see get a glimpse of the Eiffel tower lit up. The Eiffel tower was invisible. Not a light was lit in the evening sky where the tower stood. The icon of Paris was in mourning. It was time for us to go home.

Our travel home was uneventful. I speak now of our real home, not our temporary Parisian apartment. Security at the airport was well organized and our flight out of Paris was smooth. When we crossed through the US customs at SFO I felt inspired to tell the border agent how glad I was to be home, informing him that we were in Paris the night of the attack. He welcomed us with appreciation and then moved on to the next group of travelers waiting in line for passport inspection.

It has been odd to return so quickly to my life here so shortly after such an event. I went to work Monday morning and before I made it to my office I was stopped by one of my coworkers telling me how happy she was to see me safely home. I’ve told the story many times over the past week and I have been overwhelmed to take in the love and appreciation from so many people who were aware that I was in Paris that night. It is truly a blessing to be safe. It is even more a blessing to feel the appreciation of those so happy to see me safe.

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Arc De Triomphe: November 11, 2015 Armistice Day

Every moment we have in this life is an opportunity. Our lives are so brief and there is a multitude of ways in which a life can end. The terrorists that took part in these terrible attacks want us to forget about the joy of living and focus on the risks of dying. The acts of terror are very real, but if we live in fear we let them win. This week I have been saddened by what I observe as a growing fear in the people of my country. The talk of closing the boarders to refugees, the desire to carpet bomb the middle east, the quick retaliation of both the French and Russian military: all of these things sadden me. But when I think of that sadness I reflect on the people on the ground. The media will tell us one story, but the people of Paris tell another. Life goes on. Life does not hide indoors, it is on the street, participating, living and denying fear. This is the encouragement and hope that I take away from Paris. Terror will continue. It is part of life now. But Terror does not define this life. It will not define my life.



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