Friday, May 29, 2009

zee mall

One of the things I like about traveling for long periods of time is the opportunity to observe the quotidian aspects of daily life in a different culture. I spent much of yesterday at the mall.

When I arrived in Lyon, a member of the train staff struck up a conversation with me in English and told me that he had visited Philadelphia:

“You know zee King of Prussia Mall?”

“No. I don't know it.”

“King of Prussia mall in Philadelphia?” he insisted.


“It is zee largest mall in Philadelphia!” He was as appalled as if I had said I had never heard of the Statue of Liberty.

It turns out that mall culture is pretty much the same in France as it is in the U.S. There are groups of giggling adolescents, exasperated moms with strollers, running children, and canoodling couples. Some elderly people sit quietly, people watching. This particular mall had a huge and impressive three story fountain in the middle.
There is fast food and just slower than fast food. (Yes, there was a McDonald's. This one featured a display promoting McDo as healthy using an enormous glass case full of clinical looking fake carrots immersed in clear tubes. It reminded me of the restaurant Founding Farmers in D.C.)

The products in the mall are only slightly different, but it was fascinating to visit the enormous grocery store/everything else store, sort of a combination between a huge grocery store and a Wal-Mart and a Costco, but without the huge bulk quantities.

The French take their food very seriously. As I gathered a few fruits and snacks, I admired the full aisle devoted to chocolate bars and noted there was also an enormous section for yogurt. The milk is not refrigerated. It comes in cartons. In the prepared food section, there was a man set apart from the others in a small booth devoted to a big wok of paella.

Twice I noticed people stealing. One man was chowing down pint of blackberries that rested in place in the produce section. As he stood talking to the woman with him, he put them in his mouth, one at a time and looked around surreptitiously, but it was clear that he didn't really care if he was caught. A bit later I noticed some teenagers standing in the candy aisle who had opened a bag of peanut M&Ms and were gathered around the treat as though one of them had slain a zebra.

I waited in line at the checkout. It seems like there is always a line 3 or 4 people deep. Americans would revolt. That little incident in 1789? Nothing. Toddler tantrum.

So I stood there, trying to observe the customs and mimic them. I spend a lot of time doing this lately: watching carefully and trying to follow along. The woman in front of me reached down and grabbed a large plastic bag, and the cashier rang it up and then put the groceries inside. I did the same. I still don't know the point, but it wasn't necessary. There were other bags.

The cashier picked up my produce bags one by one and gave me a disapproving glance between each one. She asked me something. I shook my head. She asked me again. I shook my head again. My responses are often based on what people expect me to say. Usually I say yes, but she clearly had busted me. I repented. I slowly realized that I was supposed to have the produce weighed and priced before I arrived. I waved her off and paid for the rest of my groceries. Oranges? Who needs juicy, sweet Spanish oranges?

waltzing not walking

There comes a time in every trip when I think of Tom Waits's rendition of “Waltzing Matilda.” There is one line where he groans in his rumbly voice, “And no one speaks English and everything's broken.”

The first morning of my pilgrimage from Le Puy, I woke up and realized it was not the right thing for me to do. It was confusing, overwhelming. Still,I packed my bag and went to the pilgrim breakfast and sang along to the intolerable pilgrim anthem. At 7 a.m. sharp I was in the cathedral, seated before the altar of the black Virgin Mary and listening to some priest drone on in French.

Sitting there amidst the pilgrims, I had a realization. It was probably the most powerful realization I have ever had in a church. I needed to leave. Immediately. I got up while the priest was still speaking and walked the first mile of le Chemin, which led me to the train station. Five minutes later, I was on the morning train to Lyon, going back from whence I had come the day before.

Why? Lots of reasons, really. Most of them relate to my health. I've been ill, and my meds haven't settled down. My sleep is disturbed, and my hands are quaking so much that I have even less coordination than usual. I was going to be far from public transportation or internet access, a brutal combo. The gite made me sing a weird pilgrim song.

“No one speaks English and everything's broken.” So true.

Time to waltz.

chocolate-based society

Several years ago my friend Kris and I were eating out at a Lebanese restaurant. The waiter asked if we wanted dessert, and after he left, Kris leaned over and whispered to me, quietly and seriously, “They're not a chocolate-based society.”

I think they know,” I whispered back. “Why are we whispering?

We didn't have dessert. At least not there.

These categories of civilization are a serious and sensitive matter. I think of Kris often as I wander the streets here. France is not only a chocolate-based society, but the rez-de-chausee and the first floor and maybe even the second floor are chocolate, too. Chocolate croissants, chocolate mousse, chocolate doughnuts, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, chocolate ice cream, chocolate tartes. Chocolate everywhere!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

lizzy's house

How come no one told me Buckingham Palace is ugly? Aren't royalty supposed to live in lovely, pretty buildings with gold and turrets? This place looks like the IRS building. Or maybe the Supreme Court. Certainly nothing worth guarding while wearing big hats.

From london

je suis desolee, madame lander . . .

I can understand quite a bit of French. I can read it pretty well. When I try to speak, though, a lump rises in my throat and I start to look more like Marcel Marceau than like a person who studied French for 5 years, then spent another month in the Cote de Azur brushing up on it. It's infuriating, isolating.

When I'm not pointing and grunting, I tend to answer in Spanish when someone speaks to me in French, which is particularly ridiculous given that whomever I am speaking with is much more likely to know English.

"Voudrais un croissant?"

"Comment allez-vous?"
"Muy bien."

"L'hotel est la, madame."

The short words, the niceties, almost always come out in Spanish. "Oui" and "merci" are awkward in my mouth. As I write this, my waiter brought me a check, to which I replied "gracias."


There is a part of me that wants to flee to Spain. There, I can easily flirt with children, ask for the right kind of coffee, and chat about el Camino de Santiago instead of this weird le Chemin de St.-Jacques people keep wanting to talk about.

This seems like a fine time to show my favorite museum sighting in London:
From london

one of the people in this picture still has her appendix . . .

From london

but the other one had hers removed in Uyuni, Bolivia. (Note Minuteman t-shirts.) Two years and eleven and a half months after Karen decided to get appendicitis in the middle of the salt flats, miles from absolutely everything civilized, we were reunited in London where she and Anne (pictured below), another of my Irish lasses who was there for the adventure, are studying in London.

I helped Karen out with translating from Spanish to English (or Irish/Leppish) while she was in the hospital. As I explained to the girls, there are two words I hope to never again have to use: "anestetico local." Ouch. Karen was quite a trooper, though she reminded me that even in her agony as she endured a bumpy jeep ride back to town and an unsanitary, unheated hospital, I kept telling her to "suck it up." I reminded Anne that I was horrified when I translated the details of the surgery, and she replied enthusiastically, "It'll be grand!" as though we were going to an amusement park.

You would have thought we were schoolmates the way we chattered on. Seeing these ladies was a good blessing to my trip, a reminder that travel teaches unexpected lessons at peculiar times.

From london

Monday, May 25, 2009

my new blog sponsor

So here I am in the cool air-conditioned comfort of a restaurant that serves mousse au chocolat and drinks with loads of ice. The bathrooms are clean. It has Wi-Fi "gratuit et illimite." Best of all, I will encounter many more of these restaurants in my future. What a relief.

Welcome to McDonalds, may I take your order?

From lyon and le puy

It seems fitting to begin a pilgrimage by acquiring new vices--or cashing out on long held principles. After all, shouldn't a pilgrimage teach us about our imperfections? Or something like that? I don't know. Just find me the justification for defying my long held disdain of the Golden Arches.

I seem to remember complaining about how McDo seduces people into a routine of predictablity and normalcy while serving food of questionable quality and challenging the locally owned restaurants to stay competitive. Ahem.

After years of preaching and teaching against McDonalds, I have a feeling I'll be contributing to the negative aspects of globalization one air conditioned, mass produced chocolate mousse eating blog post at a time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

camino 09

I'm going back for more.

In the summer of 2007, I walked 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. This summer, I'm going to be walking on another part of the Camino, a route that begins in Le Puy, France called la Vía Podiense. Here's a map of the routes.

This time around I am armed with 500 years off purgatory that I earned by walking last time. My rainbow mohawk from 2007 has grown back in, though I have a freshly dyed stripe of purple in the front of my hair. I no longer have an Obama sticker on my water bottle, but I do have President Obama in the White House. I'm heavier than I was two years ago, and my pack is heavier, too, since I will be carrying a tiny computer with me.

A couple of things haven't changed at all since I set out on my first Camino. I'm still nervous. I'm still excited. I'm still certain that no matter what happens, it'll be grand