from sunny and 20 degrees to gray and 7 degrees

Well, that was a major downer. I reluctantly left Valencia this morning and flew back to Paris. It was a beautiful flight. Thank you Air France. Sunshine and smooth sailing all the way. (1 hour and 50 minutes.) To give us a better view, the plane tilted to the left as we flew over the Pyrenees mountains, snowcapped and sparkling in the sun. I couldn’t get to my tablet-camera in the overhead bin because the drinks trolley was blocking the aisle. Upon arrival in Paris, it became overcast and we flew through dense cloud before landing. The temperature is 7 degrees.

I HIGHLY recommend this Valencian hotel. When I go back, I’ll stay there again. I like a hotel with a nice bar, a restaurant, friendly staff and super-comfy rooms with a TV screen and multi-international channels. This place didn’t disappoint. Plus, it’s perfectly located in the center of the Old Town within walking distance to everywhere. I’ll mention its name and post more photos in my next post.

The hotel bar and restaurant. Burrata cheese salad.

awestruck in Valencia

Well, awestruck might be a tad OTT (over the top), but I was instantly seduced upon arriving here. Since then, I’ve been walking around the historical quarter of this city with my mouth open, agog. And the question I asked myself at day’s end while sitting on a barstool in the hotel lounge quaffing a glass of wine (merlot) was this: have I been living in the wrong country for over two decades?

I LOVE this city. I should’ve come earlier. The architecture is drop dead gorgeous, the people are seriously sympathique and laidback, the food and drink is high quality and the overall vibe is cosmopolitan, authentic and relaxed. I left my camera at home and am obliged to take photos with my tablet. Not the best quality, but there you have it. These pics were taken last night at 7 pm as I roamed the streets of the Old Quarter before retiring to the hotel for food and drink.

considering Spain

I don’t feel qualified to assess the ins and outs, ups and downs and overall living prospects of this country because I barely know it. I don’t speak the language either. In my view, if a person doesn’t know the language of a country and has never lived there, then he or she is ill-equipped to judge or evaluate it in any in-depth way. (So I’m going to do it superficially, based on initial observations.)

Surprisingly, many Spaniards, young and old, don’t speak any other language than their own … even in the tourist office! And so I muddle along, in a fusion of French, English and Italian, and try to make myself understood. But it’s frustrating. I have never encountered this language barrier in Italy or Portugal … ever. The Spanish are known to be chauvinistic … of their culture, language, identity, etc. and believe they don’t need to learn another language. Fair enough. But if you work in the tourism-hospitality-service industry, it seems to me a good idea to learn a second language.

I make an effort to speak their language. But who knew that red wine was “vino tinto”? I had been ordering a glass of “vino rosso” (Italian) before learning that “rojo” is red in Spanish, but “tinto” is used for red wine.

Here are some random observations on my 7th day in the Valencia region of Spain:

Sunshine makes all the difference. The weather’s gorgeous here: today it’s 18°C and sunny. Many apartments have no heating. A/C is essential, heating optional.

Spaniards love their ham. In supermarkets, butchers and restaurants you see gigantic hind legs of pigs, hoof attached, and a man or woman cutting off thin slices to be eaten as tapas, in a sandwich or on a plate. Accompanied with a glass of wine (Rioja) and a salad, you’ve got yourself a delicious snack or meal.

Jamón – The Artisanal Ham Of Spain. Jamón is at the heart of Spanish culture and cuisine. While Spain’s regions vary in their local food traditions, cured Serrano and Ibérico hams are treasured from coast to coast, from the markets of Barcelona to the bars of Galicia and everywhere in between.

Exuberant, loud and happy – everything the French aren’t. The Spanish people I’ve met so far are helpful and friendly, despite the language barrier.

Feminine solidarity. As I walk around, I see large groups of older women out enjoying a meal or a drink together. You don’t see this in France; younger age groups, yes, but not women in their 50s and upwards.

Cost of living is definitely cheaper in Spain than in France. But the quality of life is just as good, even better on some levels. Marvelous, modern infrastructure (gleaming highways and fast-speed trains.) Clean! Low crime. I feel perfectly safe walking around at night.

Siesta takes getting used to, in fact, it baffles me. What do they do? Everything shuts down from 1 or 2 pm onwards then opens up again at 5. In between, the towns and cities are ghost towns.

Shop hours are dubious or completely unmarked. I must’ve gone to this roast chicken place at least four times to buy myself half a roast chicken (take-out.) But every time I showed up, the place was closed. I never did buy the damned chicken … and I’ve been hankering for some every since.

Fresh and delicious orange juice! The regional coastline is covered in orange groves and Valencia oranges are the sweetest. Spain is the biggest orange producer in Europe. In supermarkets there are machines that squeeze the oranges and the juice goes into a plastic bottle (small, medium or large) that you place under the spigot.

Loving and affectionate relations between parents and their (small) children. I see much intergenerational action: grandparents taking their grandkids to the park; parents, children and grandparents all going out together on a weekend outing. The elderly are not excluded, but valued members of society. Children appear to be cherished here, like in Italy. It’s nice to see.

Many Spaniards are kind and put themselves out for you. I walked into a restaurant, early, around 6:30 pm. People don’t eat until 8 or 9 pm here, later in the summer. They weren’t ready yet, but rushed around setting up a table for me and translating the menu the best they could in English. I ordered steak (entrecote) and a glass of Rioja. The meat was served to me seared and smoking, à la plancha, with grilled mushrooms, potatoes and eggplant on the side.

The chef came out of the kitchen. “¿Bueno?

Bueno“, I replied nodding, my mouth full of juicy tender steak. It was a simple meal – no bread, no condiments other than a small dish of sea salt … and darn good. So good I went back the next night and had the exact same meal.

Tomorrow – onwards to the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona: Valencia, or rather, Valenthia (the “c” is pronounced “th”).

is Paris overrated?

I so enjoy watching and listening to Nate as he reflects, ponders and evaluates his existence on this earth (and his place in it.) I guess you could call him a modern day existentialist. An American, he moved to Paris a few years ago. In this video, he talks about the good and bad of living in Paris. I agree with everything he says.

In October I posted a similar video of his parents who sold their home in Portland, Oregon and temporarily moved to Portugal with the idea of eventually settling there. After viewing the video of Nate below, click on October 2022 and select “the shocking reality of moving to Europe” to hear his parents’ story. As someone who has lived and worked in three different countries (and has three different nationalities), I find people’s stories about choosing where to live very interesting. If lucky, we do have choices. The challenge is to make the best choice. I am writing this from Spain where I am at this moment pondering the feasibility of me living here in the near future. More on that in my next blog post.

 

a perfect time to read Toqueville’s Democracy in America

I had planned on reading Toqueville’s celebrated Democracy in America when I retire, but I think I’ll read it now. Despite the fact that it was written in 1835, it remains relevant and engaging to this day.

French sociologist and political theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), traveled to the United States in 1831 to study its prisons. He returned with a wealth of broader observations that he codified in “Democracy in America” (1835), one of the most influential books of the 19th century. With its trenchant observations on equality and individualism, Tocqueville’s work remains a valuable explanation of America to Europeans and to Americans themselves.

From Sing-Sing Prison to the Michigan woods, from New Orleans to the White House, Tocqueville traveled for nine months by steamboat, by stagecoach, on horseback and in canoes, visiting America’s penitentiaries and quite a bit in between. In Pennsylvania, Tocqueville spent a week interviewing every prisoner in the Eastern State Penitentiary. In Washington, D.C., he called on President Andrew Jackson and exchanged pleasantries.

Tocqueville was impressed by much of what he saw in American life, admiring the stability of its economy and wondering at the popularity of its churches. He also noted the irony of the freedom-loving nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans and its embrace of slavery.

As “Democracy in America” reveals, Tocqueville believed that equality was the great political and social idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action. He admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals lacked the intermediate social structures—such as those provided by traditional hierarchies—to mediate relations with the state. The result could be a democratic “tyranny of the majority” in which individual rights were compromised. (e.g. the dismantlement of Roe v. Wade!)

His observations were prescient –

Tocqueville’s penetrating analysis sought to understand the peculiar nature of American political life. He tried to understand why the United States was so different from Europe in the last throes of aristocracy. In contrast to the aristocratic ethic, the United States was a society where hard work and money-making was the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites and where what he described as crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.

Juliet in Paris: Wouldn’t it be fascinating to witness a discussion between Tocqueville and, say, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk? They could discuss the inequality of the U.S. tax code. Why do America’s richest pay the least in taxes?

Tocqueville warned that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism. Tocqueville worried that if despotism were to take root in a modern democracy, it would be a much more dangerous version than the oppression under the Roman emperors or tyrants of the past who could only exert a pernicious influence on a small group of people at a time.

Democracy in America remains widely read and even more widely quoted by politicians, philosophers, historians and anyone seeking to understand the American character.

the joys of winter. hot chocolate.

What is one thing in particular I like about winter? Hot chocolate! I recently investigated two places in the Marais district. The first is an Italian gelateria called Pozzetto located at 39 rue du Roi de Sicile near the St Paul metro station. It’s a cute, homey place; welcoming and warm. I sat at a little round table and the woman who works there brought me this:

Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 081Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 084

Now this was the real deal: Italian cioccolata calda, and as I sipped I was instantly transported to Florence on a cold and sunny winter’s day where I had gone over Christmas many years before. Glossy, unctuous, not sweet and deeply joyous. I savored every mouthful while uttering murmurs of satisfaction. Then I scraped the bottom of the cup with the spoon to get every last drop. I swear, if the woman wasn’t looking I would’ve shamelessly licked the cup clean with my tongue.

“Splendido!”, I said to the woman who had told me she was from Rome.  “Grazie”, she replied.

I will return to that place. Not only for the chocolate, but because it’s a friendly, down to earth kind of place. Back outside, I discovered an adorable Portuguese pastry shop right next door called Comme A Lisbonne. Tiny and immaculate, it serves only espresso and perfect, freshly-made custard tarts called pasteis de nata.  I had one, and as I nibbled I was instantly transported to a Lisbon sidewalk where I had stood eating the same kind of custard tart one warm, sunny day in June 2018.

Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 092Feb 2013 photo exhibit and Marais 091

The second place I went to (not on the same day!) is at the top end of the Marais. Jacques Genin can be found at number 133 rue de Turenne. The hot chocolate came to me on a tray in a white porcelain pitcher. Accompanying the pitcher was a large, white porcelain cup and saucer, a glass of water and a sugar bowl. This is hot chocolate for grown-ups. The space itself, like the hot chocolate, is minimalistic. I wouldn’t bring kids here. And a good thing, too, because when I filled the cup only halfway and drank, I burned my tongue and the inside of my mouth. It was scalding hot. It lacked the unctuosity that I like, but was not overly sweet which is a good thing. If you desire a sweeter taste, plop in a sugar cube or two. I paid 7 euros for the burnt tongue.

This photo isn’t mine and uncredited.

There’s a newer, second Pozzetto! Here’s a post I wrote several years ago entitled “the Marais, hot chocolate, a new shoe store and two wine bar bistros” –

the Marais, hot chocolate, a new shoe store, and two wine bar bistros

Patti Smith

In 2016, Patti went to Stockholm to pick up the Nobel Prize for her friend, Bob Dylan. He had won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It’s unclear why he didn’t go himself. I think he was in a state of shock.

I highly recommend Patti Smith’s books, in particular “Just Kids” and “M Train”.

Back then, Smith and Dylan were two of the coolest people on the planet. I find this video below very uplifting.

 

Rupi Kaur, and the need for prophethood

Canadian Instapoet and prophetess, Rupi Kaur, is milking her fame for all its worth. Pardon the pun. Her first book, entitled Milk and Honey, sold millions. Just go to SHOP on her website: crop tops for $45, brass pens for $100, self-love card decks, tattoo sets and care cups. (What’s a care cup?)

Rupi, photo from her website

 

Having just emerged from a months-long deep dive into the meanderings and motivations of Bob Dylan … no, I’m not comparing Kaur to Dylan for heaven’s sake … it does look like they have something in common: in the undeniable human need to worship – a religion, an ideology, a person – they are both the target figures of this need. The commonality, though, stops there.

Rupi Kaur is a deity. And is it any wonder? Look around you. Who is there to idolize these days? Corrupt and deviant politicians? Sociopathic tech giants who posture as Messiahs? Who are our role models? Our heroes? A large number of public figures we see on our TV screens should be behind bars. We all take refuge, myself included, in literature, films, poetry, songs.

With her simplistic, sparse poems (perfect for Instagram-Twitter-TikTok-Tumblr) and bittersweet storytelling on feminist themes such as misogyny, abuse, womanhood and self-empowerment, Kaur has captured the zeitgeist of the times. Her ardent fan base, predominantly young and female, seek inspiration, consideration, affirmation. And Kaur delivers. She particularly appeals to South Asian women and children of immigrants. From the Punjab region of India, her Sikh father arrived in Canada as a refugee in the early 1990s. Three-year-old Rupi and the rest of her family followed a few years later and settled in Brampton, Ontario, located just north-west of Toronto.

Like e.e. cummings and the American author and social activist, bell hooks, she writes in lower case. But while reading her verses, I noticed something peculiar. Critics claim that Rupi’s work is formulaic, spare and not in the tradition of serious poetry. I found that the brevity and cadence of her lines were eerily similar to Rumi (the 13th century Persian mystic and Sufi poet-scholar.) I went to my bookcase and pulled down my dog-eared book, Rumi: Whispers of the Beloved.

When compassion fills my heart, free from all desire, I sit quietly like the earth. My silent cry echoes like thunder throughout the universe. (RUMI)

When death takes my hand, I will hold you with the other, and promise to find you in every lifetime. (RUPI)

I was nothing, you made me greater than a mountain. My heart was shattered, you healed it. I turned into a lover of Myself. (RUMI)

There are mountains growing beneath our feet that cannot be contained. All we’ve endured has prepared us for this. Bring your hammers and fists, we have a glass ceiling to shatter. (RUPI)

As an aside, if Rumi lived today, he’d be a HUGE social media star. Here’s one of my favorites of his:

There are no signposts in the desert,

caravans are guided by the stars.

In the darkness of despair

hope is the only light.

But in the garden of your life,

never hope that a weeping willow will give you dates.

 

One can see too a similitude between Rupi Kaur’s style and Kahlil Gibran’s, the famous Lebanese poet –

Out of suffering have emerged,

the strongest souls;

the most massive characters

are seared with scars.

 

Aside from that, I don’t wish to disparage her. She’s courageous and creative and has dared to tackle taboo subjects such as menstruation, sexual abuse, female bodies, racism, etc. She has put herself “out there” on social media which can be scary, something I don’t think I’d do. Social media has not enriched my life one drop.

To learn more about Kaur and her work, here’s an in-depth article written by Chiara Giovanni entitled The Problem With Rupi Kaur’s Poetry. The milk and honey author’s use of unspecified collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience feels disingenuous.

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/chiaragiovanni/the-problem-with-rupi-kaurs-poetry

Remembrance Day – November 11

nov 11 one

To honor the veterans who fought for France in both world wars, today is a statutory holiday in this country. Small French flags, attached to city buses, flutter in the breeze. Large French flags, lining both sides of the Champs Elysées, snap in the chill November air. And the question I ask every year is the same….where are the British flags? The American flags? The Canadian flags?

Because as far as World War II is concerned, I think that French memories need refreshing. To honor the Allied forces – those who died on the D-Day landing beaches and those who liberated Paris from four years of Nazi occupation – I’d like to see British and American and Canadian flags flapping in the breeze alongside the French ones every year on November 11 on the Champs Elysées.

nov 11 two

A brief recap. On June 6, 1944, better known as the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, American, British and Canadian forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Two months later and with the aid of the U.S. 4th Infantry Divisionthe French 2nd Armored Division entered Paris. On August 26th, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle led a celebratory march down the Champs d’Elysees. He then delivered his famous speech at City Hall that attributed the liberation of Paris entirely to the French.

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“Paris!” he declared, “An outraged Paris! A broken Paris! A martyred Paris! But…a liberated Paris!  Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of all of France, of the fighting France, of the only France, the real France, the eternal France!”

Huh?

Within 24 hours Charles de Gaulle had conveniently forgotten who had done what. Since he was orating in French, I suppose he figured none of the Allies would understand. (It’s also true that he was treated despicably by Roosevelt and Churchill, so the speech was probably his commuppance.) Today, while aggrandizing the valor of Charles de Gaulle to monumental proportions, the role of the Allies is downplayed to the point of erasure. Ah well, every country needs its hero.

I strongly recommend that visitors to France go to Normandy to view the Allied war cemeteries. I went years ago. It’s a deeply moving experience. In fact, I should return for a new visit because the subject would make an excellent blog post. Do they transport busloads of French teenagers to visit the Normandy war cemeteries as part of the school History curriculum? If not, they should.

Years ago, I drove with friends to Vierville-sur-Mer. We stayed at the Hotel Casino located on the shores of Omaha Beach. The D-Day museum is there. Nearby are the impressive and well-tended American, British and Canadian cemeteries. Worth visiting! Take your handkerchiefs because the inscriptions on the modest gravestones (primarily in the British cemeteries where the gravestones are made from English limestone) will make you weep. The next day we moved on to Bayeux, a jewel of a town. I must say that Normandy, aside from its tragic history, is a lovely region, one of my favorites of France.

US cemetary Francebritish cememtary

For info, the British war cemetery in the town of Bayeux records around 4,648 burials, the largest known British war cemetery. The other two cemeteries are the Canadian soldiers’ cemetery in Cinthaux and the cemetery in Ranville. Ranville is known to be the first French village to be liberated from German occupation during the Second World War.

A quick history lesson of the Normandy beaches (“We shall fight on the beaches …” Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940) – The Allied invasion of Normandy, code-named Operation Neptune, was the first stage of the larger Operation Overlord, intended to liberate Western Europe after nearly four years of German occupation. The start of Operation Neptune, known a D-Day, was made on June 6, 1944.  More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft carried 160,000 Allied troops across the English Channel to a 50-mile stretch of Normandy beaches, code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The first air attack was launched under a nearly full moon shortly after midnight. The British and Canadian forces were successful in seizing Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, as were the Americans at Utah beach. However, at Omaha beach, where the German defense was strongest, American forces suffered heavy losses. Air assaults missed their mark and landing crafts were unable reached the intended destinations near the beach, leaving invading soldiers with little protection.Though they suffered an estimated 2,500 casualties, the Americans were able to establish themselves on Omaha beach by the end of the day. In all, more than 100,000 Allied troops had reached Normandy, forcing German forces inland and opening a new theater of war in Western Europe.

a young Bob Dylan being cute and funny

The year is 1966 and Dylan is 25 years old. He was in London during a concert tour with his band, called “The Band.” I managed to track down the road he’s standing in on Google Map. It’s called Queen’s Gate Mews, not far from the Victoria and Albert museum. Watch the video below. Cute and funny aren’t words people usually use to describe Dylan. But here he is.

This is the store and mews road today. A lot cleaner than it was back then.