Thursday, April 21, 2005

April Excursion

I love the French school system. They get two weeks off every couple of months. Amongst much discussion on where we would go during the April break we finally decided to see a good deal of France. I would have preferred Barcelona or Athens, but being the French girl that she is, Amy was adamant we see some more of this country. I agreed on the condition that we make it to the Normandy beaches. France conspired against us to actually make it to the beach, but at the time we thought we would make it without problem.

We started off headed towards Lille. One of our Indiana friends has been doing her year abroad there, and it seemed like a good starting point for our trip. Lille is a pretty little city in Northern France just off the Belgium border. There is nothing particularly famous or awe inspiring there, but it is quaint, and very pretty. Many of the cities in this part of Europe have very tall, ornate bell towers. Lille has two on opposite sides of the town. The architecture there has many Flemish influences and many of the building have little star step roofs that are quite beautiful.

It was very nice to visit with Kim and hear how her time in France has been going. Unfortunately it rained for most of our visit, but there was enough dry spells to see the sights. We stayed in a larger hostel this time. Where in Rome our hostel was essentially an apartment rented out amongst other full time renters with only two bedrooms for a myriad of people, Lille’s hostel was a rather large building with numerous rooms. We had our own room, though we had to share a bathroom with the remainder of the place. Oddly, someone had stolen, or ripped out all of the seats on the toilets. It was very peculiar, and not very comfortable.

I have been in France too long. While checking our room for an additional day an English speaker was rather testily trying to get his room. Like many native English speakers his idea of speaking to a French person was to speak English very loudly. Now, we had spoken to the lady behind the counter on several occasions and found her to be very pleasant. She spoke quite a bit of English and had spoken to us in both French and English. But this guy was just being obnoxious. She misunderstood how many nights the man wanted and his response was to speak louder and actually pretend to strangle the woman! At this point I could tell the woman was just stringing him along a bit. One of the joys of being French is having control of their own bureaucracy. She began asking for his passport and various other papers, simply because she could. She knew he needed the room, and she was holding that power over his head a bit for being rude.

It was an odd scene to me. As an English speaker I felt as though I should feel sympathy towards this man. But, I’ve lived in France long enough to understand how the system works. I understand that there is often tons of paperwork and bureaucracy to get through. If you are patient, and follow orders it will go much faster. It also helps to speak what little French you know. I find the French are much more responsive if you try to talk to them in their own language. A simple “Bonjour” will go a long way. So, when this guy looked at me for a little sympathy, I gave him none. He just wasn’t working with the system.

We took a day trip into Bruges, Belgium. Like Lille, there aren’t any major monuments, or anything the average European tourist would want to visit. It is however, a very touristy town in the Gatlinburg, TN kind of way. There were lots of souvenir shops, and plenty of corner cafĂ©’s selling all of Belgium’s finer culinary delights (waffles, French fries, and chocolate.) The buildings were also Flemish influenced, and the town square was very pretty. We climbed the 320 odd steps to the top of the bell tower and were treated with a lovely panoramic view.

Our next train led us to Rouen. We stopped there figuring it was a good middle point for the next two stops we wanted to make: Giverny and the D-Day beaches. It is also the city made famous by having burned Joan of Arc at the stake and housing the cathedral made famous in a number of Monet paintings. They also have something like 9 churches of which we saw about 4. The cathedral was beautiful, but very difficult to photograph. Especially since the main entrance is covered in construction facing. Lots of the city is taken over by Joan of Arc memorabilia, most of which is tacky. What I could see of the museum (via post cards and guidebooks) was just awful. They had wax figures and mannequins dressed like Joan leading a siege or being burned. The site where she was burned was pretty tame. There are but a few ruins remaining of the church left and virtually no posts describing what actually happened.
Nearby is a new church dedicated to the saint, and the remaining area is tourist crap.

We also visited a gravesite for the people who died of the black plague in the area. At the entrance way is a petrified dead cat, warning all who come into the area. On the building surrounding the little cemetery are wood carvings of skulls and the like. The actual site is less like a cemetery and more like a little park. There are no gravestones since the bodies were just piled onto each other.

North of Rouen is Caen. It is the closest city to the D-Day beaches and houses a big WWII museum as well as tours of the actual beaches. We decided to make a day trip of it, and left our baggage in Rouen. We took a mid morning train and headed straight to the museum. The packaged tours were very expensive so we decided we would just try to make it on our own. We figured they would surely have bus lines running out to the various beaches. The museum was very fact filled, but a little light on real pieces. There was very little to look at besides placards describing various events, and old photographs. Still, it took a few hours to visit. By the time we were finished we were through. Checking the bus schedules we realized there was no way to make it to the beach and catch our train back to Rouen. After some debate about whether staying the night in Caen and seeing the beaches in the morning, dirty and wearing the same clothes, or heading back to Rouen and making the trip all over again the next day, we opted to just forget the whole thing. I was incredibly disappointed, but all other options seemed pretty bad.

Back in Roeun we booked a train to Giverny the next day. Wandering back by the Rouen Cathedral we bumped into Amy’s coworker from the university in Strasbourg. Apparently she is from Rouen and just happened to be out walking with her mother. Small world.

We arrived in Giverny Monday afternoon, but most of France is closed on Mondays, including the Monet museums. We were actually staying in a town called Vernon, which is where the train stops, Giverny being to small for anything like that. Deciding to walk to Monet’s house anyway, we tied our shoes for what turned out to be about a 5 mile hike. It was a long journey by foot, but a beautiful one. The sun was finally shining and almost everyone in the town has a flower garden. Monday slipped away and we awoke early to head back into Giverny.
Monet’s gardens are astoundingly beautiful. He entire back yard is taken up by rows and rows of flower of every color imaginable. The water lily pond is actually across the street that you take a little tunnel to get to. It is quite a thing to see the actual pond and Japanese bridge that I’ve seen my entire life via Monet’s paint brush. In Indiana I even have one of the prints hanging over my television. It was a little too early in the Spring to be as flushed out as you see in the paintings, but it was still quite breathtaking. We had arrived early enough as well, to avoid the rush of tourists, and were able to stop and enjoy the view.

The next day we trained home. It was a long and expensive trip. We were not able to see everything we had hoped, and it wasn’t the sort of trip you think about when you think about European vacations, but it was nice to see a lot more of the country I’ve called home for the last 7 months.

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