Thursday, March 31, 2011

Visitors and Visits

  Add to Google Reader or HomepageEllen returned from Villefranche sur mer and the Institut de Français with a much higher fluency but had little occasion to practice her new skills as we hosted English-speaking visitors for the next two weeks. Last week was the reverse: we visited long-time (30+ years) French friends in Biarritz and Ellen spent most of the weekend speaking French.

We got to enjoy a visit from Lansing friends Dusty and Tim. It is always fun showing the sights and tastes we enjoy to people who appreciate them as well. We walked, visited villages, tasted wines and ate well. They both appreciate the good wines of the Rhone Valley so we get along well.

We barely had time to get the laundry done before Marie arrived from Tokyo. In Fall 2007 she spent a semester at Michigan State University. We were sort of “house parents” as Marie and another Japanese student spent weekends at our house. Marie was taking her last big trip before beginning her post-university career in Tokyo.
Marie wanted to see Arles and to see a little of the area where Van Gogh (pronounced Van Gockh in French) lived and painted. Margaret and Phil joined us and the five of us had a wonderful day walking around the city of Arles. It was market day, so there was a lot going on. We went to the site where Van Gogh painted “Starry Nights” and then to the street where he lived and then to the hospital where he stayed. Later in the week of her stay with us, Marie used all of the spices she had brought with her from Tokyo to treat us to a home-prepared Japanese curry. We also enjoyed fruit-flavored jellies and jellied chestnut treats as desserts.

Early Tuesday morning we took Marie back to Avignon to catch the 7:47 train to Paris--the same train that Dusty and Tim and MB had taken earlier. (It is a perfect connection for travelers as it goes directly to Charles de Gaulle airport and it allows us old retirees to get up long before dawn to get folks to the train station. Since Marie’s suitcase was so heavy, I bent the train service rules and helped her carry it to the baggage rack on the upper level of the train where her seat was located. As I was coming down the steps, I heard the conductor’s whistle and saw the doors starting to close. I raced to just barely squeeze my way through the closing doors and off the train. As my second foot hit the platform, the train started moving. The French mean business with their schedules!

A few days later we were with our friends Daniel and Irene at their new old apartment in Biarritz. We had visited them at their retirement home in Auch about five years ago, a home which was part of an old convent. In Biarritz Irene was fortunate to find an apartment in one of the historic houses of the city. They are close both to the center of town and to the sea. It was a fun drive there with Margaret and Phil as we saw a fascinating Cathar memorial along the way and then drove along the autoroute paralleling the Pyrenees. The memorial describes a 13th century crusade to the center of France ordered by the Pope to wipe out the non-Catholic Cathars.  
The architecture is interesting in Biarritz in that the houses look like they might have come from a Swiss village but this is, in fact, Basque style.

The Atlantic Ocean was warm enough for some people to be bathing. (The surfers were wearing wet suits but two young women were swimming wearing nothing.) 

On Saturday we drove to San Sebastian in Spain to see a highly-contested rugby match between Biarritz and neighboring Bayonne. The contest has so many followers that neither the stadium at Biarritz nor the one in Bayonne could accommodate the crowds (30,000). It was my first rugby match and was a lot of fun. I was fortunate to have Daniel, a big rugby fan, as my guide. While Daniel and I used our much-sought-after tickets to attend the match, Ellen and Irene went on a walking tour of the old city. 

On Sunday, we visited the lovely old village of St. Jean de Luz, where we toured the town and walked along the coast, in the same place where Louis XIV was married in 1660 to the young Marie Therese of Spain. It was another gorgeous day in the south of France, experiencing a historic spot in France that has a history preceding the birth of our young USA.

Another great experience in the south of France.

Friday, March 11, 2011

All Aboard!

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During Ellen’s month in Villefranche-sur-mer, I took the train for two of my weekend visits. I have written about trains in France before and despite the glitch with printing tickets in November, I want to underscore how impressed I am with train travel in France.

The cars are clean and quiet. The trains are superfast and one can set one’s watch by the train schedules. I used to purchase my tickets on line this time. Being retired has its advantages. I was able to pick my travel times (having discovered that the cost of a trip is based on three th ings: the destination, the time of day one travels and the date of purchase. (Ticket prices increase as one approaches the travel dates.) If I had purchased a senior pass, I could have saved an additional 20-25%.

The one aspect of train travel in France that I still don’t understand is the need to “composter” (time stamp) the ticket.c There are several waist-high yellow time-stamp machines located in every train station waiting area and everyone must take the ticket and get a time stamp. I don’t understand the logic behind the machines. But, if you take your assigned seat and are traveling to the destination named on the ticket but did not time-stamp your ticket, the conductor will reprimand you. (Having been reprimanded several times, I began to wonder why I needed this date-stamp. I was clearly on the train and in my assigned seat and going to the destination written on the ticket. What then does this additional procedure serve?) I have no idea but now am diligent about “composter” my ticket (so that the conductor - who was probably a nun in a former life - does not make me feel like I am seven years old again.)

Going to visit Ellen twice by train permitted me to get a sense of traveling by train in France. From Avignon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence: 30 minutes. From Marseille or Aix-en-Provence to Nice: 3 hours (stopping at Toulon, Cannes, Draguignon, St. Tropez, Antibes before arriving in Nice. There were places where the train ran along the Mediterranean with beautiful vistas (when it wasn’t raining).

The train travel was great but the goal was to get to Villefranche-sur-mer and to see Ellen. When Ellen had finished her month at L’Institut de Français (, our neighbor Jane drove to Villefranche-sur-mer with me to collect Ellen’s belongings and Ellen. We (Jane and I) spent the day visiting the Rothschild villa in St. Jean Cap Ferrat (

We had lunch at a café overlooking the bay and then went to Ellen’s graduation ceremonies.

Ellen made great progress in her spoken French. (She had always had good skills in written French.) The picture shows the Institut’s administrator announcing that Ellen would not be held back from passing to the next grade. Bravo Ellen!