Friday, November 16, 2007

Rice, Waikiki, and dead people - notes from last fall

The following are some photos of my trip to California to research family past and to Hawaii for the SEM meeting last year.

Here are some other notes about last fall, originally published on the other blog last November.

I’m posting a couple of pictures I took on my California journey, when my mom and I decided to go searching for the long-gone town of Rice, California. Located in the middle of the eastern Mohave Desert, this is where my grandfather worked for a few life-changing months in the middle of the Great Depression. He assisted at a gas station out there, selling tires to those who were out there working on building the aqueduct or providing other kinds of services to the construction workers. Among the services provided were an illegal gambling den and a brothel, which made for quite an education, according to my grandpa’s stories. All that’s there now is a bunch of junk and the ruins of a couple of buildings, including the gas station in its second incarnation (the current ruins date to the seventies, we think.) The only inhabitant, when we arrived, was a bum asleep on a mattress under the old carport. We woke him up so he took off, taking off down the long, hot highway with his little wagon. He pulled it along by means of a giant wooden cross which he hitched over one shoulder.

I had another picturesque and totally Tucson moment on Sunday at the All Soul’s Parade. I don’t know why I’d never been to this event before, which is held to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Thousands of people took to the streets, many in wonderfully creative costumes and masks. There were five-foot-high skeleton heads, strange creatures on stilts, a vulture with the face of Bush, a skeleton dog on wheels, a coffin-wagon with children riding inside, an enormous brain-hat, dead bagpipers and capoeira dancers. Many political statements on the number of civilians dead in the Iraq war and the number of illegal immigrants dead in the Arizona desert were also to be found. At the end of the route, the parade-goers gathered in a parking lot next to the train tracks, where three stages and a crane were set up for a performance by Flam Chen, a group of acrobats and fire dancers. Their show, consisting of people flying up on giant white helium balloons or being lifted, writhing in a cage, on the crane; devils on stilts around an iron mountain; and angels with wings on pillars was eerie. To the accompaniment of a carnivalesque brass band, an enormous urn filled with all the mementoes of the dead observers had cared to throw in was raised up on the crane and set ablaze, providing the perfect conclusion and memorial.

Gas station

This is what's left of the second incarnation of the gas station in Rice, California where my grandfather worked during the Depression.

Rice, California

Another view of scenic Rice.

Valley of the Temples, Hawaii

a beautiful Japanese temple in northeastern Oahu


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blog in transition

Because I decided my Accordiongirl blog ( should really be devoted solely to merengue tipico and the Dominican Republic, I'm moving everything about my other travels here. Please subscribe if you want to keep up with where I am, and hear about my adventures in Germany in December!

Where have I been, you might ask? I used to post once a week, nearly without fail, and now it's been four months since I've posted at all. Life is a crazy thing. I met the man of my dreams in Europe this summer so I've been a bit occupied with that (hence the forthcoming trip to Germany). Also, I got hired to teach a lecture course on Mexican music here at the University of Arizona about 2 weeks before the semester started in August. Since then I have been madly writing lecture notes, preparing power points, searching for musical examples and videos, and grading papers, so I have not had much time for anything else (except drinking - now a necessity). Just kidding - sort of. Anyway, stay tuned for further developments and travels.

What follows is the still-incomplete account of my travels in France and Austria this summer.
I'll be transferring previous trips over here as time permits. Thanks for your patience!

The Better Late Than Never Post

Today is July 4, but it’s not exactly picnic and barbeque weather where I am. Today Vienna is cold, rainy, and strangely quiet for such a big city. Thus it is a perfect day to write about what I’ve been up to for the last week or so.

Last Thursday, after climbing up the St Nazaire cathedral steps at Beziers and enjoying the dizzying view (later to be paid for with sore thighs), my friend Cathy picked me up and whisked me away to the countryside north of the city in the Herault department. This area combined with the rest of the Languedoc region is the biggest wine-producing region in France, a fact which became very obvious as we drove through rocky hills covered with vineyards. Every few minutes we passed another vigneron offering tastings of their wines and other local products like olives, tapenades, flavor-infused olive oils and vinegars. The area was very green, but more of an olive or sage green – one completely unlike the near iridescent emerald greens of the tropics, and one that reminded me of some of the hilly parts of Arizona.

It didn’t take long for us to reach our destination, Herepian – a village of about 500 located at a crossroads. Its two main streets, one leading to the larger town of Bedarieux and the other to the more picturesque medieval hamlet of Villemagne les Argentiers, meet at a little roundabout by the “new” town square. The spot is marked by a crooked “H” about five feet tall, which is lit up with white fairy lights at night. In Tucson we have “A” Mountain, in Herepian they have the H traffic circle.

Herepian is known mostly – or wants to be known mostly – for its bell foundry, said to produce bells of the clearest tones. There is a museum about it and one can see the foundry in action. At least, that’s what they say – we never did figure out when it was open. Besides that, it is also home to one of the best restaurants in the area, bringing in residents and tourists from all surrounding villages. Its old town square is quite charming, surrounded by four-story homes with rows of window boxes and a small church of an age that is indeterminate but certainly far older than anything one can see in the US. There is a small fountain on the square and another on the main road near the other restaurant, Sergio’s Pizzeria. There are two bakeries, a tobacco shop, a tiny grocery, and a bar called Le Chantier that seems far too large for the five drunks usually in residence. That about covers its amenities.

For about four years now Cathy has been the occasionally proud owner of an 18th century house in the middle of this village, down a side street barely wide enough for one car just a block from the old town square. Because she is only in residence for a short while each year, however, during the rest of the year the spiders take control, and our first task upon our arrival was to de-cobweb and sweep. Surprised, they scurried off to hide in the yet-to-be-renovated basement and attic. Then we aired things out and discovered a leak in the terracotta-tiled roof, which meant we’d have to get in touch with the handyman named Pierre.

It was by then late in the afternoon, and after doing our grocery shopping at Lidl, the Euro Trader Joe’s, it was time for wine and cheese (there was still wine in the cellar, and we bought manchego, some kind of blue, and some kind of Corsican white at the store). For dinner, we went into “town,” Bedarieux, which has an impressive selection of restaurants to choose from: Chinese, pizza, kebab, crepe, pizza, or McDonald’s. We chose a pizza place that was full of French people, which seemed like a good sign, although it also meant that it was full of smoke. It was also full of carved wooden cat models apparently collected by the owner, an aged crazy cat lady with hair dyed too dark a black, which ranged all the way around the place on several shelves. Behind the counter were photos of cats she had known (and one dog). The pizza was good, though, and the chef was from Martinique. He brought us a special homemade chili oil to spice things up.

On day 2 we had to figure out something to do with all that wine and cheese, so we decided to take it on a picnic. Following the Orb river through the hills we made our way to Roquebrun, a village built up the side of one hill. Rafting and canoe trips start here, and we watched some adventure travelers getting suited up from our picnic spot on the pebbly river beach. It was a hot day but pleasant in the shade, though some pinkish looking Brits were instead spending their time baking in the sun. From there we continued our driving tour towards St-Chinian, a region with a wide assortment of nice red wines. A store on the town square functions as a clearing house for all of them, so we stopped in for a tasting. Some are still made by monks! There were even a couple of good whites although the area isn’t known for them. I bought a bottle and would have bought a lot more if I’d had any room in my suitcase.

Back on the road, as we passed through the town of Fontcaude we noticed a sign for a medieval abbey and thought we might as well take a look since we were there. IT ended up being more of a detour than one might have thought, becoming rather comical as we made turn after turn following one sign after another and never seeming to get any closer. Eventually, however, we pulled into a parking lot on a meadow, walked into another tiny village with a tiny square where the town gossips sat around with a little dog who ran up and yapped at us. The abbey itself had been mostly destroyed at the time of the Revolution, but archeologists had turned up a few bits of ancient sculpture, an old bell foundry, coins of various types dating back to Roman times, and an oil mill, and had rebuilt a few walls – not spectacular, but an interesting bit of local history. Apparently there is also a menhir standing in a field out there which one can walk to, but it was hot and we didn’t. We did, however, pull over at the town of Olargues, which, signs told us, was one of the most beautiful in France. It was pretty darn scenic, built from garden plots along the River Jaur upwards to the bell tower that once was part of an 11th-century fortress.

Then it was time to hurry back, for we had reservations at the town restaurant and needed to change for the occasion. It was not cheap but incredibly good and lasted 3 hours or so, in good French style, with an appetizer, main dish (salmon), cheese course, and desert, all accompanied by local wine. And though we were a little overloaded afterwards we were still up for a night on the town. Normally a night on the town would consist of drinking with the drunkards at Le Chantier, but there were bigger things afoot that Friday.

All through the summer, each village puts on a party in its main square for one weekend. Bands are hired, carnival-type games put out, and a bar set up. Teenagers and young families for miles around come in to take advantage of the rare opportunity to have a nightlife – as do your stray tourists, although we seemed to be the only representatives of that group on that night.

The road into the village itself was closed off for the evening, so we left our car near the bridge over the river and walked from there. An ungodly racket was emanating from the water, which turned out to be hundreds of frogs in chorus. And as we passed through the arched and crumbling brick gate or Barbacane, past a urinating man, and into the village proper, a different kind of racket was going on. A racket that sounded strangely like… The Pointer Sisters.

As it turns out, today’s French villager’s favorite type of music is US Top 40 hits of the ‘80s. Later they also did Madonna and Michael Jackson, which was the funniest because the beefy male singer had only moments before been singing in a Barry White deep voice, making the falsetto quite the surprise. On the bright side, they were very good at what they did – the guitarist, bassist, drummer, and synth player all had chops, the singers knew their stuff, and they replicated the recordings nearly exactly. On the minus side, they replicated the recordings nearly exactly. The focus was mostly on fashion, it seemed, as the two female singers and two dancers changed clothes nearly every number from one skimpy 80s outfit to another. Tres amusant.

[I wrote this much a month ago and have had time neither to finish the entry nor to post it. Life has taken some interesting turns. Will try to finish one day soon…]

Carcasonne IV

Carcasonne III

Carcasonne II

Carcasonne - in Basilique St Nazaire

Beziers II


Beziers, Cathedral St Nazaire

Dinner in Paris II

Dinner in Paris

Medical advice in St Germain

New Art at Louvre II

Arizona in Paris

with a touch of ancient Greece

New art at Louvre

Accordion jazz

during the jazz festival at the Marche aux Puces, Paris.

J'aime le fromage!

And now for something completely different!

It’s not the usual topic of my blog, but now I’m in France, so I guess I might as well write about it.

Here are some things I have learned.
(1) “Quark” is a type of cheese, besides being a subatomic particle.
(2) Spinach makes one say “beurk.”
(3) Paris subway doors are specially designed to foil foreigners’ attempts at getting on or off. (I figured them out, but I’d bet that in a couple of years they’ll have come up with an even more diabolical design.)
(4) You must kiss everyone on both cheeks – one bisou is just not enough.
(5) Parisians are actually friendly if you try to speak French to them and play by their rules.
(6) The Paris subway shuts down at 1 AM, and after that, good luck getting a cab, you schmuck!
(7) Southern French accents are specially designed to foil foreigners’ attempts at understanding the French language.
(8) The French disapprove of all English vocabulary except for the following: “week-end,” “OK,” and “cybercafé.” Oh, and also “techno” and “gay.”
(9) French cows say “meuh.”

Paris is crazy, but who doesn’t love it? My French is pretty crappy but everyone has been so nice and so supportive of my linguistic attempts that I can now both accomplish my daily business and pick up on French men without fear. And thank goodness, because on the day I arrived I have no idea what I did or said to anyone. I had taken a variety of sleep-inducing drugs on the plane but still not managed to actually sleep more than a couple of hours, so when I got to Charles de Gaulle I was in a stoned stupor. I have only the vaguest memories of getting my passport stamped and finding my bag, so vague that later I wondered whether I actually had done those things. Yet somehow I got on the right train, lugged my bags up the stairs in the elevatorless station with the help of a kind Frenchwoman, hailed a taxi, and made it to the apartment of the Weisz family, with whom I’d be staying.

On the way, in spite of my state, I managed to have my first 100% French conversation with the taxi driver. In an interesting coincidence, he turned out to be Haitian, so we discussed Haiti, the DR, and various dance styles, and I also quizzed him on places to go dancing in Paris. He liked merengue típico, too.

By the time I got to the apartment I had sobered up a bit, fortunately. I conversed in mediocre fashion with Claude and then decided that the best remedy for jet lag was to keep moving, so made for the Champs-Elysees where I snapped some photos with my official Arizona mascot (see exhibit A), then passed through the famous Tuileries gardens on my way to the Louvre. There, attempting to see something new, I visited Pre-Classic Greece, Islam, and Medieval France but was sorry to see Mesopotamia and Etrusca were closed. It doesn’t seem kind to shut down entire civilizations, but that’s how they are. One highlight was a temporary exhibit called “Conversations” or some such thing where modern artists had been invited to create works to be displayed alongside the medieval ones. Their interesting responses included a crowd of white plaster statues wearing clocks over their faces, dozens of scythes hanging above an ancient and spooky tomb, and a recumbent engraved marble column that looked as if it had been accidentally toppled from a pedestal and broken in two, eliciting startled responses from many innocent museum-goers.

I was relieved when finally I could crawl into bed and sleep 12 hours, preparing me for a hard day of shopping on Wednesday. The Weiszes sent me to Printemps, promising me a fruitful shopping experience. Although I was skeptical, since it was a department store and I detest shopping at department stores in the US, where I’m never able to tolerate more than about 20 minutes, I decided to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised: in this version of a department store, the departments were not simply “men’s,” “women’s,” and “juniors,” but small individual shops organized by designer in an open layout. Because they only had a few of each item out to look at, I wasn’t overwhelmed and didn’t have to run away, and I actually made several purchases! Shopping in Paris is good. Also, on the sidewalk outside I saw a street organist winding his pint-sized pipe organ. Not an accordion, but close.

I still wanted to check out the Marais and its boutiques, however. This historic Jewish area has streets that are pleasant for walking and is also famous for its falafel, so of course I made a stop at Falafel King. I was all shopped out, both mentally and monetarily, however, so I had to content myself with just looking through shop windows. I also didn’t have too much time as I had to return home, change, and get to the conference opening reception at 7. But then I made a move that for me appears to be becoming something of a tradition on arriving in a new country – I accidentally slashed my finger open and had to lie around on my bed with my finger in the air applying pressure until the bleeding stopped. I couldn’t help having a feeling of déjà vu as I remembered the night I arrived in Santiago back in January.

Needless to say I arrived late at the Centre National de la Danse. It was a longish and crowded train ride, but better late than never. The CND is actually in a suburb, Pantin, which is sort of an odd area to hang out in – a mix of old and new buildings with mostly empty streets and few restaurants, populated largely by North African immigrants. At any rate, the reason the trains were crowded, it turned out, was that for that day and that day only it was the city-wide Fete de la Musique. The Music Fest comes but once a year, and when it does, bars and restaurants all over the city have live music and everyone can ride on the subways and trains for one low price, no limits. I had forgotten this fact when I went to dinner with friends at a nearby Algerian restaurant, where we had tasty couscous and my first Algerian wine ever. But as we exited, a parade of drum-playing Brazilians all dressed in white passed by. In the lead were three men cracking whips loudly, making me feel for yet another moment as if I were in Santiago again.

Thinking I’d take the RER (the regional train line) back instead of the city Metro since its stop was closer, I got a bit lost looking for the station and ran into the Brazilians one more time. Then I asked a happy-looking French speaker on the sidewalk in front of a bar for directions, and he and his four friends all decided to accompany me to the station since they were planning on heading to another bar anyway. Unfortunately, the trains were running differently so the route didn’t work the way I thought it would, but fortunately, I had 5 new French-speaking friends to chat with on the way. We talked about music and then compared the relative levels of evilness of Bush and Sarkozy. (I suggested that the scale wasn’t comparable, as Sarkozy hasn’t started any wars, but my companions darkly suggested that it was only because he hadn’t yet had the opportunity.) Everyone was in high spirits that night, in spite of the recent changes in power, and some African teenagers got together an impromptu jam session on the subway, chanting in favor of the Fete. I made it home eventually – again, better late than never.

On Friday I gave the Metro to Pantin another shot, having had my fill of RER the night before, only to find all the trains out to be sardine-can crowded. I had to let two go by before I could even sort of squeeze my way in, and when I did, it got harder and harder to breathe as at each station one more person thought he or she could surely get in. Someone joked that it was worse than the Fete de la Musique. Naturally, I missed most of the first paper session, but I was luckily in plenty of time for my own.

Of course as I hurried to get set up I sprung a leak, and before I’d realized it I’d bled on my book and my new rain coat. Quite the fashion statement. Then, when I finally got started reading my paper for an audience of about 60, the simultaneous French translator exited her booth, to tell me, “Um, it’s kind of hard for us to translate if we don’t have a copy of your paper,” in a rather surly fashion. It was also kind of hard for us to know that they needed extra copies if no one told us, but whatever. We simply switched the order of papers and some kind soul ran off to make a copy. But all told, once I stopped bleeding, it went pretty well and many people told me they liked my paper (this one on not típico but gender roles in salsa dancing. Variety is the spice of life, you know).

I felt I’d earned my keep at that point and after lunch and a couple more papers I took off for sight-seeing. I don’t know how anyone expects people to stay in meetings all day when they’re in Paris of all places. I can’t be held responsible. I saw most of the classic sights when I was here 3 years ago so I moved on to the second tier and visited the Conciergerie, a sort of medieval clergy underground office area next to the Sainte Chapelle where prisoners like Marie Antoinette were held before being executed during the French Revolution. I’m always a fan of the spooky stuff. Then on to the other island in the Seine, Ile Saint-Louis, a scenic spot full of historic buildings where famous folks like Baudelaire have lived over the centuries. The main street down the center of the island is lined with antiques and gourmet food shops, including some of the most amazing window displays of cheese I’m likely to ever see, and I partook of the island’s famous ice cream (ginger bread flavor). Then dinner at home, filled with my scintillating brand of French conversation.

I set my alarm the next morning, intending to go to a very interesting lecture demonstration, but my newly acquired travel clock failed to wake me. In what was quickly becoming a theme for the conference, I arrived late once again. But I did accomplish my original purpose in going to that lecture: I had found my old bharata natyam teacher from Indiana on the program and was curious to see her after 8 years. She looked the same but has been divorced, remarried, started a dance company in New York, and moved to India part time to work since last I saw her, making me feel like positively a slouch in comparison. Anyway, at least I didn’t miss my lunch appointment with a fellow salsiologist, a Venezuelan who had lived in Paris 26 years. We ate Turkish, as it seemed like the thing to do in that neighborhood. Afterwards, naughty me ditched meetings once again, this time to visit the Marché aux Puces (flea market), which in reality is a whole complex of different markets covering many dozens of blocks north of the city. Each is a warren of narrow alleys with a different name and a theme – one devoted to prints and books, one to art deco objets d’art, others to general antiques.

It turned out to be a good day to go, as it was the first day of a two-day flea market jazz festival and bands were playing everywhere. It was like hitting an accordion jackpot! On one corner a big Parisian jazz orchestra was performing, with something like 8 guitars, three saxophones, a couple of clarinets, a flute, a standing bass, and a piano accordion. In a little café, a duo played that consisted of guitar and one of those huge five-row chromatic button deals. I love how accordion is a standard jazz instrument in France. What’s the problem with people in the US, anyway, that this is not the case?!

Still, it wasn’t very good weather and I wasn’t in the right mindset for major shopping. I only managed to buy a few small color prints, amusing old French advertising cards, and then I saw it was time to go. I had to head back to the CND for the awards presentation. Since I was actually getting an award, it didn’t seem good form to miss it. Afterwards drinks were served, including a sparkling red, something I’d never even thought of before but that was actually quite pleasant. This time, I headed with the UCR gang back into town for dinner. We went to the area around the Canal St-Martin in the 10th arrondisement, where I’d stayed in last time I was in Paris, when friends were living there. It’s an interesting area with kind of an up-and-coming arts scene, something like Williamsburg was a few years back only much more scenic.

Choosing a restaurant right by the canal because it was listed in someone’s guidebook, we proceeded to make a lot of work for our poor waiter, who spoke some English, luckily for everyone involved. The walls were lined with interesting-looking and inexpensive bottles of wine, but he wouldn’t let us choose our own, so we described what we wanted and he brought us things, first a white and then a red, accompanied by a variety of small plates – a cheese assortment, asparagus points, raw tuna with cherries. It was all delicious, if a little more than we had planned on spending what with the 7 euro corking fee. Still, we left happy, although not completely satisfied, since our restaurant did not serve dessert.

No creperies were to be found as we walking along the canal, first one side, and then, crossing the picturesque arched bridge that one of our group insisted was “so French,” the other. Standing around on a corner, we debated our options for an annoyingly long time until my companions suggested that I, as the only one who spoke any French at all, should ask a passerby to point us towards crepes. We all agreed a man was more likely to be patient and help five American women in need, so I stopped the next nice-looking lone man I saw and asked. Striking up a conversation, he not only answered the question but asked where we were from and what we were doing in Paris, and then switched to English. Turns out he had studied at Westpoint!

Raphael, our new French friend, ended up accompanying us on our dessert mission to a corner restaurant just up the canal and near the Republique metro stop where he “knew the owners” and we had tasty chocolate crepes and crème brulee. He was a fireman, which apparently in France also entails being a paramedic, as well as the son of an Algerian Jew and a mother “from the Carpathians.” He kept us entertained but made me miss the last train home. Thus I learned an important lesson: never try to get a cab at 2 AM in Paris. Even with Raphael in tow, it was a nightmare.

Needless to say, I was quite sleepy throughout the next day, my last in Paris. Luckily, the morning panel I attended was an entertaining one: they spoke on dance in reality television and did the whole thing in reality TV format, including confessional interviews with all the presenters. Then I convinced a friend to go to the Rive Gauche with me. Although I’d forgotten that it was Sunday and many things were closed, we did get a look at the St-Germain church as well as the rather bizarre décor of the School of Medicine building. The chiseled medallions that circled it all featured different aspects of ancient medicine, most of them things that one definitely shouldn’t be doing in the modern world, like un-anesthetized operating and demon exorcising. We also found an open book store where we found highly amusing childrens books, including one, “The Book of Noises,” which amused all our friends the rest of the day with its explanations of what various things say in French. Christmas trees say “Jingel [sic] Bells.” Electrical sockets say “NON!” Snails don’t say anything but they wiggle their antennae prettily.

My last stops were made at the flower market, where I bought violets for my hosts, and Notre Dame, where we snapped pictures. I then attended one last panel like a good girl, and went home to pack and have a final dinner with the Weiszes. My 5 days in Paris at an end, I and my rather heavy suitcase jumped on a train at 11:45 and headed south for the sun.

Because the second floor of my first-class carriage was occupied only by myself, a group of three women, and two lone men, I was able to spread out over two seats and actually get a fairly decent night’s sleep on the 9-hour ride (helped by some prescription medication, of course). I awoke with a sore hip but reasonably refreshed, finding myself in the middle of a grassy countryside studded with cypress trees and quaint-looking stone houses. I hadn’t been able to find a guide book with any decent information on the part of the country I was heading to, so hadn’t bought one, and had no idea where I might be when we passed through an area with large bodies of water visible to both sides and they started announcing the names of our stops, places like Sete and Agde.

Before long we arrived in the station at Beziers, the town of about 71,000 where I’d be spending the next few days in the Languedoc region. I was just glad I hadn’t slept through it – a friend had joked about me waking up to find myself in some unknown town, and had gotten me a bit worried about the possibility. I’d made a reservation at the hotel closest to the station, so luckily I didn’t have to lug my baggage too far. Although the place is nothing to write home about (although I guess technically I AM writing home about it) my room’s floor-to-ceiling French doors look right out over the scenic park called the Place des Poetes – not too shabby. After a shower, I picked up all available tourist information and set forth to explore.

Beziers turns out to be a very interesting town. If it were anywhere else in the world, it would be a tourist mecca, but in a country where everything is scenic and a zillion years old, it doesn’t get much press. Nonetheless, there is quite a lot to see here and a lot of history to learn. The old part of town on the eastern banks of the Orb river has been inhabited continuously since the 6th century BC, when Celtic tribes built fortified towns here and traded with the neighboring Gauls. Then the Romans moved in, and two thousand years and many wars and changes of power later, you have the modern city of Beziers in modern France in the modern department of Herault.

It took only a few minutes for me to be able to start peeling away the layers of history. Just a couple of blocks west of my hotel, I found myself wandering down twisty, narrow, cobblestone streets that adhered to no compass point. They were lined with tall multifamily homes, many with flowers at their windows, some with laundry hanging out, and a few with long hallways ending in central courtyards visible from the street. Some were freshly painted, some dilapidated and on their last legs. Some were of brick and plaster looking a scant 200 years old and others of roughly hewn stone that looked ancient. From one window came the sounds of a cheesy pop song, while from others Arabic dance music was blasting. Around every corner was a surprise – a hidden stairway, a tiny triangular plaza where workmen stood smoking. At first I was in streets wide enough for a car to pass through, and some did; then in alleyways only suitable for pedestrians or bikes, and then there were zigzagging pathways where only a single person could walk. Street names were posted on the corners of buildings in both French and Catalan, and ranged from the historical, like Rue de la Ancienne Comedie, to the humorous, like Rue Malapague (the same as malapaga in Spanish – one who borrows money but never pays it back). The clouds kept shifting: when it was hot and sunny I almost felt I was in Morocco, while when the sun was hidden and a chill came through it felt like medieval Europe indeed.

After an almond croissant and a café au lait consumed in the peace of the steep and shady park, occupied by more swans than poets, I decided to start at the beginning – or at least as far back as was still visible – and made for where the Roman ruins were marked on my map. I made two complete circuits of the block before I noticed a small alleyway to one side and followed it to where it ended at a large pit full of flowering bushes and, sure enough, some columns and other bits of masonry that showed where an ancient amphitheater once stood, all hidden away in the center of a block of those ancient houses. Following another intriguing-looking passage I ended up on top of a hill with a perfect view of all the red-tiled rooves of the old city leading down to the river and the Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel constructed in the 17th century and later fitted with a bridge allowing the canal and boats to pass over the river in the 19th. I could also see the city’s 12th century cathedral of St Nazaire, where I next headed.

Down another alleyway, past some interesting graffiti, and I emerged into a small plaza next to a very large church, very Gothic and imposing, alongside of which I was stopped by an American asking directions. A couple of interesting-looking restaurants formed one side of the plaza, but it was Monday and they were closed, so I decided to take a look at the cloister instead. Perhaps this one served as the inspiration for the Met’s Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan, because they certainly looked similar to me. The difference was clearly in the antiquity, visible here in numerous indecipherable inscriptions carved into the walls of the courtyard along with crumbling gargoyles and angels. In the back was the “Bishop’s Garden,” designed in the French style with hedges carved into curly symmetrical patterns, though the hedges here were only inches tall. This garden’s best feature was its spectacular view, as it is located right at the edge of a hill facing west to the river. There was also a French groundskeeper there, apparently for entertainment, since he picked up on me (though I didn’t take him up on his invitation to coffee, wanting to continue my explorations).

Inside the cathedral, the requisite humongous Gothic stained glass windows take advantage of the building’s east-west orientation, the rose window above the lovely pipe organ (of course a later installment, of the 17th century) catching the sunset and the vertical windows on the altar end facing the sunrise. All the stonework arches inside were quite impressive. As it turns out, the whole place was erected over a pagan temple, the original church was burned in 1209 during the Crusades, rebuilt in 1215, and enlarged in 14-something, with things like sculptures, pulpit, and organ added at various points over the years. Built to last!

At this point I was ready for a nap, so I wound my way back through the medieval city past the town’s archeological museum (closed for Monday) and to the hotel for a quick nap before my afternoon activities of changing money (unsuccessful – guess they really want you to use ATMs here), checking email (successful), eating lunch (eventually successful, although I didn’t know what I wanted and also they really want you to stick to their schedule, which I don’t), and purchasing a train ticket for the next day’s excursion (also eventually successful, once I figured out that my low-tech, chipless American credit cards do not work in high-tech French machines). And of course, washing clothes and blogging 4U. Once that got old, I took to the ancient streets once again, winding back to the cathedral, beautiful in the golden sunlight but also cold with a strong west wind (the cathedral’s brochure had explained its front doors were seldom used for just that reason). I discovered another mysterious alleyway, this one lined with restaurants (including one representing the island of Reunion, of all places – intriguing but I wasn’t hungry) but pressed on, managing to fit another few of the historic sights marked on my map into my first day.

Second day: to Carcasonne! The most famous bastide, or medieval walled city, of the region, I only knew of it from the game of the same name but as I read about it I became interested. It was less than an hour away by train, and the train station is just across the street from me, so I decided to go.

I certainly have gotten a lot of walking in during these past few days. Electing to forgo the expense of a taxi ride, I walked from the Carcasonne station through a shopping district to the river, which I crossed on the Pont Vieux, wide enough only for carts and now closed to all vehicles. The river rushed through underneath, split around a small island, and iron arches holding lamps overhead. From there I got my first full view of the Cité, looking as historical and romantic as one would expect, more Middle Earth than Mediterranean. Across the bridge I found myself on a street one lane wide lined with the kind of medieval village-looking houses I’d also seen on the narrower lanes of Beziers, though a little more picturesque with details like fish-mouthed drainpipes. I followed the path winding around to the other side of the hill, past a lot full of tour buses, then the old cemetery, and finally came to the city entrance (there was just one of any size, the better to protect against invaders), a stone bridge topped with arches that passed over what a grassy dip that might have been a moat.

In my family, originally from Southern California, it is a long-standing joke to say real-world things “look like Disneyland.” But it really did. The narrow street leading away from the city gate lined with shops, their wooden signs hung in front from iron rings, the red and yellow banners stretching across the way, and of course the crowds of tourists, all of it looked eerily like the entrance to Fantasyland. No wonder EuroDisney was so unpopular – what could they possibly need it for when they have the real thing?

Although all the little shops and restaurants overwhelmed me a bit commercially speaking, once I got over my Disney moment the sense of history was amazing. I declined to go into any tourist trap museums, electing instead to simply stroll the streets and discover back alleys leading to less populated parts. It is not a large place, consisting mainly of three main east-west corridors and perhaps a dozen twisty paths through the middle, but it took a while to cover that ground. One can also exit the city proper at one point and make a circuit of the area between the inner and the outer defensive walls, examining the view of the lower city (where the peasants, farmers, and merchants must have lived) and the battlements as crenellated as any child’s drawing of a castle. The old church, dedicated to St Nazaire the same as the one in Beziers, was a full of spooky Goth details as one could hope, and the large central well was very Beauty and the Beast.

You wouldn’t think you could get lost on so few streets, but that’s just what I did. Exiting a restaurant after a pleasantly long lunch, a three-course “menu” with some local wine, I spotted a pair of shoes and a book I was interested in but I wasn’t yet ready to make purchases, as there were still a couple more streets to explore. After getting my fill of historical scenery I looked for them again. I found the book again, though it took some doing, but the shoe store never did turn up before it was time to go catch my train. Always a graveyard fan, I did take a few minutes to make a stop there on my way out, and thus was able to view a petanque game in progress on the dirt area in front of the cemetery gates.

Finding I still had time to get some sightseeing in back in Beziers, I visited the upper part of the city I hadn’t yet seen, which included the Madeleine church, scene of a massacre in 1209, and a chapel dedicated to St Aphrodise, which dates to the 10th century and is thus the city’s oldest church, but it was closed. Finding myself again near the cathedral I thought I might try to climb the stairs up to its roof, which I hadn’t been in time to do the day before, but again I was too late. I did, however, get to enjoy the scene of the late afternoon sun coming through the rose window and splashing brilliant prismatic colors over the floor and one wall. It must have been an awe-inspiring display during the drab times in which it was built – it still wasn’t too shabby a sight. And since the sun was out, I decided to take advantage and sit on a bench in the square on the promontory in front, but eventually the wind got the better of me and I went on a search for cheap food. I found it at an Arab-run Chip Shop.

More tired than I knew from the many miles covered on foot the day before, I slept in late on Wednesday and again got breakfast from the boulangerie next door, eating it on a bench in the Parque des Poetes. I then tried to see the city museum, but the woman at the desk convinced me I didn’t have enough time to see everything before they closed for lunch. (So inconvenient to close for lunch! And so leisurely! So un-American!) So I gave up and instead made for the beach.

Beziers is really only about 10 km from the Mediterranean sea, and a cheap and quick bus ride gets you to the little beach town of Valras-Plage. It has a gorgeous long sandy beach stretching away from the river’s mouth to the east as far as you can see, but it was still far too cold for me to even think about getting in the freezing water. Nonetheless, I enjoyed a few hours of strolling and sitting on the sand, taking in the drifting clouds that changed the temperature dramatically every few minutes and the gentle lap of waves. The feel of the seaside here is definitely different from any other I’ve experienced – the Pacific, in California; the Atlantic, in New York; the Caribbean. I tried to put my finger on it but couldn’t exactly – something about the quiet, the sea so calm and the beach so relatively empty, the angle of the sun and the lesser intensity of the light at this northern latitude, the chill in the air that disappears immediately whenever the sun comes out, which is never often enough. Or maybe it comes from knowing about all the ancient civilizations that surrounded it on all sides, and still do, and can somehow be sensed.

It would have been easy to doze off in a reverie but for the sand that came my way every time the breeze kicked up. Instead, I lunched on a pan bagnat chased with coffee and ice cream, then, finding nothing left to do, I headed back north. This time I had more luck in my timing and made it to the church in time to climb the stairs in honor of my last night in Beziers. It was dizzying going around and around the narrow spiral staircase whose deeply worn stone stairs made me afraid of slipping and falling, and a little frightening to stand several stories above the nave, looking down over a too-short wall, even more so to emerge on top and peer at the church square and the rooftops far below. The viewing platforms were missing the guardrails and mesh cages they would surely have in the US, where it would be considered a lawsuit waiting to happen. But the view was worth it.

Stay tuned for updates from village life in Southern France, Barcelona, and Vienna!