Wanderings

If the espadrille fits…

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On our first day in Madrid, we left our rented apartment, turned a corner and came upon a long line of people snaking out of a building. I’m always curious about lines that form, and what is so worth waiting for, but during the day, in the excitement of a new city, I sort of forgot about it. Until we returned in the early evening and there was still a line, even longer. Every time we passed that corner, no matter what time of day, there was always a significant gaggle of people waiting. After a few days, my curiosity got the better of me and I noted the name of the shop to look up when we got home. It turned out that this shop is Casa Hernanz, a cordeleria and alpargateria, and basically the place to get alpargatas, which you may know as espadrilles, in Madrid. They make them traditionally, by hand, and they are also very affordable, just 8 euros for the simplest pairs. The shoes that are available are all up in the windows so that you can choose the espadrilles you’d like to try before you get inside and maybe take photos to show the sales people. Once you’ve made it past the line, you head straight to the counter and ask for what you’d like, and in what size (it’s a good idea to know your European size in Spanish) and they pull from the back. You can try them on and then choose your pairs. Casa Hernanz makes the more simple gatas, but they also carry trendier designs and fabric patterns made by a few other Spanish brands that also make the shoes traditionally. They are simple shoes (e.g. no cushy insoles, and some don’t even come with a designated left and right foot) but fun, colorful, perfect for summer, and a great souvenir to bring back from Spain! Casa Hernanz, at Calle de Toledo, 18, is open for most the the day, but they do close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta.

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A foggy day in London town

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I read that it’s actually a myth that London is rainier than other places- in reality it is roughly as rainy as most other European cities, with only slightly more days of rain (110 per year) and actually less total inches per year (24 inches) than cities like Rome or Toulouse. However, London did her best to keep up the soggy reputation during our visit. The first week was quite warm for October- and rainy, and the second week shaped up to be pretty frigid for October-and rainy. (We had two gorgeously sunny days the first week which I feel very lucky for.) I ended up doing quite a bit more sightseeing than I did 12 years ago as is usually the case when visiting instead of living in a city. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, after a wander around the lovely gardens, I marveled at the interior, and then began a long, winding trip up three different staircases to the gallery at the very top of the cathedral. Once up to the first gallery, looking down into the cathedral below, you can continue on to two further outdoor galleries. Here, the staircases are single file, and there is no going back, even if you want to! No panicking allowed! I wish I had a photo of the various staircases, so narrow that not only was it single file, but some people wouldn’t fit at all, and so low that even I had to duck, but as I have hints of claustrophobia and fear of heights, it was touch and go for a bit, and there wasn’t a chance of taking my hand off the handrail to use a camera. The views were worth it.

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I walked by the apartment building I lived in, and a few old haunts, which felt remarkably the same, while still being quite changed, toured Selfridge’s for the first time, visited Westminster Abbey, had a good laugh at the much-lauded play “One Man, Two Guvnors”, that had gone from the National Theater to Broadway and back to London. The National Gallery was a worthwhile stop, not least because it is one of the few things in London that is free. We tried to eat every “traditional” British meal we could think of, which included two Indian “curry” dinners, Thai food on Brick Lane, fish and chips, a full English breakfast, sausage and mash at a pub, lots of tea, and at home, beans on toast, and grilled cheese with some great English cheddar. We also had Sunday roast at a local pub. Sunday lunch is a tradition in many European countries, a reason for family to gather and have a meal, usually roasted meat of some kind, on Sunday afternoon. In England, this includes a slice or two of meat, 2 veg, potatoes and a Yorkshire pudding, and most pubs that do food have it on offer. The closest pub to our rental, The Carpenter’s Arms, happens to have been first owned by infamous gangsters in the area, the Kray brothers, whom we first heard about watching the grisly British drama “Whitechapel”. Here, you can see a photo of the pub in the late 60’s, below is the pub now. One of the most exciting things about visiting a city like London is the way such a long and varied history rubs up against the present.

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Now, with new owners, it’s a cozy spot to come in from the cold and have a delicious lunch before repairing home for tea and biscuits.

 

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Let there be lighthouse

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I have only one regret about the month we spent in Nantes, and that is that we didn’t get a chance to make a second trip to the seashore. Nantes, although very nautical in feeling and surrounded by rivers, is actually an hour by train from the ocean, the Bay of Biscay. There are several seaside stops on the train, including La Baule, a very large, very popular beach, but we chose Le Croisic, I think because Lonely Planet mentioned there would be boats. Indeed, the seaside town had a very nice harbor dotted with vessels. The road was lined with restaurants touting fresh seafood, gift shops and ice cream stalls, and the side streets rewarded wanderers with more little shops, lovely churches and quaint scenes. We followed the harbor all the way to the point, along docks lined with fishermen-grizzled old professionals and vacationing kids and parents alike- scooping nets of crabs out of the water. We saw several enormous jellyfish quickly and delicately swimming by. After passing through a benefit party for the local lifeguards and ocean rescue crew which provided ambient bagpipe and other Celtic music, we came upon a just-big-enough lighthouse. On the other side a small, uncrowded beach lined not with sand, but the larger “pebbles” (rocks, stones, shells) you find on some beaches. This beach was extremely tough on unaccustomed feet.

What I liked best about Le Croisic was that it was busy, as any seaside town is during the summer, but not too crowded. It was just right and perfect for a sunny summer’s Saturday.

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Nantes

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A vertical garden on a storefront in Nantes, complete with iconic “Soldes” sign (twice yearly sales occurring in June and July)

We are spending a week and a half in Nantes, in the Loire River Valley on the Western coast of France. There is a good chance we will have to spend more time here, and I have to say I don’t mind one bit; it’s the kind of city in which you feel you could pass some time. It is the 6th largest city in France, and as such, feels like the perfect city for visiting. There are just enough things to do to fill a few weeks, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed by choice. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, with cuisines from all over the world, and in all price ranges, and there seems to be quite a nightlife, although I don’t know firsthand because I have somehow come to the age where my kind of nightlife is a walk along the quay. It is a very young city, with 2/3 of its population under the age of 40, and there is also a large University. Originally part of Brittany, it separated politically in 1789, but is still very Breton in culture. The city is located at the confluence of three rivers, the Loire, the Erdre and the Sèvre and in the past it was a hub for shipbuilding and transport.

The European Commission named Nantes the 2013 European Green Capital for its public transportation (a tramway system, and a bike share program), lowering CO2 and other emissions and its large green spaces.

The architecture is a fascinating blend of ancient, Belle Epoque, Art Deco and Art Nouveau. There is quite a tourism push in the city, and the tourism board has come up with quite an ingenious happening each summer called Le Voyage à Nantes. This is a path (literally, a green line painted on the sidewalk which I found helpful before I even knew what it was) that leads from one cultural or historical stop to the next. They have brought these sites into the pulse of the modern city by inviting artists to create pieces at each stop. From the website (translated somewhat intriguingly from the French): “Art invades Nantes, lending the town that unique quality the Surrealists loved of a living city, where the unexpected can leap out at you from every corner.” The juxtaposition between the old and the new and the blending of art forms, seems perfect for this artistic, quirky and historic city.

Art Deco

 Art Deco office building turned into apartments

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In the (green) Sidecar

If you have been following the old blog, thanks! And thanks for meeting me here. It’s a bit easier to find with the new domain name, it looks a little different, and truthfully all the old posts are just a teensy bit wonky with the new formatting. I am new to website building, and I am not afraid to admit that computers can be…confusing. So if you notice anything on the site that seems weird, annoying or takes away from the experience in any way, please let me know in the comments, or the “connect” button at the top.
Something else new that you may have noticed: a new image on the sidebar of the old blog, and right up there at the top here. It’s a portrait that I commissioned of Guillaume and me riding our motorcycle/sidecar combo into the great beyond. It was created by a great artist that I discovered on Etsy, Laura Millward. Since I began writing here, I envisioned such a picture on the page keeping company of all the stories and photos. Rather than somehow find a motorcycle and sidecar and get a photo of ourselves in it, I envisioned it as hand-drawn, a bit of a cartoon, zany and slightly mad-cap, befitting of this adventure. I initially thought of getting a caricature done, and remembered the first time we were in Paris together, five or so years ago, a caricaturist approached us near the Eiffel Tower offering to immortalize Guillaume’s “sexy nose”. We are still not sure why he would say that or think it would influence us to procure his services, but it was memorable. The next time we were in Paris, last August on the way back from Morocco, we went back to the spot where we remembered him to be, and found only people selling trinkets. After a bit of research I discovered that there had since been a crackdown on street artists and they were now mostly located at the Place du Tertre in Montmartre. So up we walked, through the winding cobblestone streets past quaint cafes and touristy art shops. We thought we were lost, but this square is almost the inevitable nexus of all journeys through Montmartre, and it eventually appeared as though out of nowhere. There were plenty of talented artists doing either caricatures or portraiture, and I was able to discover that what I was really looking for was more of a cartoon. We left, wandering back down toward the Seine, visions of Etsy forming in my head.

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الازدحام

It is a good thing that I learned the Arabic word for “overcrowdedness” last week, because boy is it ever out there. Today is Eid al-Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, and it seems the population of Tetouan has tripled and everyone is out filling every store and the souk shopping for food and especially clothing. I wish I had taken my camera to document the stall in the souk with plate after plate stacked to swirling heights with Ramadan pastries, reminiscent of Italian cookies; the giant bunches of mint and cilantro parceled by squatting, spitting old ladies; the hot, musty stores crowded from wall to wall with people purchasing new wardrobes for the holiday; or the lonely bakery shelves, having been relieved of the last loaves of bread. But I most certainly would have been trampled, knocked over and given a dirty look for stopping to take a photo, never mind a good one. As it is my foot was stepped on, crushed by a bottle of water and was thisclose to being run over by a motorcycle. All day the valley has been cloaked in a cloud, lending a misty, diffused light to the day, but also an intense humidity. It has the feeling of Whole Foods the day before Thanksgiving, everyone has things to do and buy before getting to where they really want to be and enjoying the holiday. Somehow we made our way through the crowds, accomplished our mission and purchased a kilo of tomatoes for 80 cents.

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Interzone

Have I told you that the apartment in which Guillaume and I are staying is shabby-chic? And by chic I mean it is charming in its own little ways, with colorful tiles on the floor, and a washing machine (hallelujah!), and by shabby I mean shabby. And that there are two other boys living here too? Add to that the heat, the noise, the endless verb conjugations, and a weekend away sounded like the perfect gift for my birthday. Morocco holds endless treasures; desert, seaside, mountain, bustling souk, modern city, peaceful oasis. Meknes, Marrakesh, Fes, Rabat, Casablanca; I could easily spend these two months seeing all that this country has to offer, and probably just scratch the surface. While I do think that being settled allows me to really get a feeling for Tetouan and its immediate surrounds, which I like, seeing a little something more was tempting. Our class schedule really only permitted a weekend excursion, which cut out Marrakesh (11 hours by bus) and really Fes and Meknes as well (6 hours each way). Tangier, though maybe not the most exciting Moroccan city, is an easy hour drive away but would still give us something new to look at, and most enticingly, a calm, clean home away from home. When I began exploring hotel or riad options for the trip, still not even sure where we would be heading, one small hotel stood out above all the others. La Tangerina received thousands of excellent reviews, with barely even a bad one. I love a good review site and know that raves across the board are very rare. For every person that has a good experience there is always one that had a completely horrid one. Always. These guests had been so pleased that all of them wanted to go back. It was also well within our budget, but the piece de resistance was the view from the rooftop terrace, of the Mediterranean and Spain on one side and the whole of Tangier on the other.
And so, on Friday afternoon we took a taxi from the center of Tetouan to the outskirts where we got into another taxi, this one of the grand taxis that make the journey between cities. These taxis, regular sized cars, operate as a sort of bus, not leaving until there are six passengers, four in the back and two in the front. We payed for four passengers so as not to have to wait, and to have a bit more room. The landscape is beautiful with mountains and fields dotted with donkeys, sheep and horses and roadside buildings ranging from restaurants with sides of beef hanging on the porch to large event palaces. It hasn’t rained for two months or more and it is very dry, but the brown is punctuated by the green of cacti and pine trees, an interesting juxtaposition, and bursts of colorful wildflowers too. Once in Tangier we were dropped at the bus station, where we found another taxi to take us through the city into the Kasbah, or old walled fortress. Tangier is a modern and cosmopolitan, if slightly ugly city. When the taxi arrived at the door to the medina, he drove right in. In Morocco cars, people and motorcycles share the road despite their differences in size and susceptibility to injury. We bumped along, the people around us ignoring the honking and going about their shopping. We went up steep hills until we entered a final stone arch, the Bab Kasbah, or door to the Kasbah, and were dropped off with a gesture to follow the road straight. There was an obligatory boy or two hoping to show us where to go, but I was struck by how serene and quiet it was within the stone walls.
Strait of Gibralter and Spain beyond
We entered the heavy wooden door of La Tangerina straight into the 1920’s. With black and white checkerboard tiles under foot, I looked up to see three floors surrounding a central courtyard in the traditional riad style, at the top of which was a faceted skylight. There were carefully curated antiques, birdcages populated by finches singing the days news, and old radios piping in jazz. All of this to take visitors back to the colonial days of Morocco. Rather than everything feeling old, as antiques and historical buildings sometimes do, it felt new, more accurately recreating what it was to live it for the first time. Not exactly an accurate picture of Morocco, it isn’t how I would recommend or want to see the country as a whole, but as a luxurious and fun weekend it was perfection. We were shown to our room, one of ten, all different, which was comfortable, clean and had real personality. The bathroom was what heaven is like, if heaven is tiled in emerald green tiles, which I imagine it at least partially to be. We headed straight up the two flights of stairs, ogling more birds and more antiques as we eventually exited at the top onto a patio with this truly stunning vista.

 

We were met with mint tea in glasses with colorful patterns and almond cookies. I am truly impressed by the variety of flavors and textures possible in almond cookies. The patio featured a veritable jungle of potted plants, ranging from roses to potted palms to small pots of mint, creating a lush, peaceful feel. The ocean spread before us like a rippling quilt, variegated with strands of green and blue, the currents of the Mediterranean and Atlantic blending but not quite mixing. Since Ramadan began two weeks ago, we haven’t had anything to eat or drink outside the house during daytime, so it was very nice to be able to enjoy a glass of tea with the sun on our faces. If you ask they will prepare dinner for you, and we did ask, having an inkling that we wouldn’t want to leave this place. The beef and vegetable tagine was essentially really good brisket, the meat falling apart at the slightest fork provocation. Moroccan food, though full of spices, does not taste spicy in the way that Thai or Indian food does. Instead the predominant flavors are the mellower ones of mint, oregano, ginger, pepper, turmeric. This was followed with truly the best fruit salad I have ever had, marinating in fresh peach and orange juice.

I rose earlier than usual, although not on purpose, subconsciously eager to drink in the view once more. And then seeing the delicious breakfasts being enjoyed by other guests, it was all I could do to wait another hour before waking Guillaume. Moroccan crepes with dishes of caramel sauce, butter, jam and fresh cheese, a basket of bread and pastries, a plate of cakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee and watermelon. There was no reason to go anywhere. Whatever Tangiers had to entice us with, it could not hold a candle to this view, these peaceful surrounds, a little sun, a good book. In the afternoon we went for a walk, and immediately ran into a man, who is apparently the uncle of the woman who owns the riad. You guys, people here are so warm. If I communicate nothing else in this space, it should be that: everyone is friendly, helpful and generous. When I say everyone, I obviously don’t mean everyone, hyperbole is one of my guilty pleasures, along with America’s Next Top Model. There is still the crazy guy who makes his way down the street ranting very loudly about how Tetouan is the armpit of Morocco (um…why are you here?) there are still beggars trying to get a few dirhams out of you, there are a few people who stare and don’t smile back. And there are the people who are so, so, so friendly and helpful that you have to wonder if they are trying to get money out of you. This man is one of those people. But then they are so personable that you start to think that it would be nothing less than an insult to offer money, to assume that they are being anything less than hospitable, but then when you hear him mention that he works at the tourism office you think maybe he wants money after all. Or is he just being helpful? He wasn’t helpful, telling us that we should be learning Derija, the dialect, rather than Fusha, modern standard Arabic because no one will speak Fusha (too late, but thanks) and telling us that the cannon we had seen, clearly, with our own eyes behind the parapet of the Kasbah walls was not actually there. Or telling us that we need to see this museum, and that cave and this we will find supremely enjoyable even though we told him we were leaving the next day. It was moderately helpful when he pointed out Louis Vuitton’s house and that it had cost $22 million, so that we could know that we were pretty well priced out of the neighborhood. But helpful or not, he was definitely friendly! Finally extricating ourselves we walked through the old city, an intricate beehive of narrow “streets”, barely wide enough for two or three people side by side, which suitably zigged and zagged and upped and downed, some narrow passageways led into other narrow passageways and others led into dead ends. After an hour or so we turned to go back up the hill to the hotel. We got lost after going down the third street that ended in a door, but of course a man sitting in a doorway weaving thread asked where we were headed and pointed and said “that way and then right”. The evening was spent in much the same way the morning was, except this time it was bathed in the rapidly changing colors of sunset: pure white to gold then amber into burnt sienna.
We had a very good chicken couscous dinner as the stars twinkled overhead, and a bracing sea breeze required putting on a sweater for the first time in a month. I consider it fair that I only saw the shooting stars that evening from the corner of my eyes, never catching them precisely; a birthday eve can be too perfect, after all.
I didn’t want to leave this beautiful, tranquil, perfect place. It was such a nice time that even coming back to an apartment where a plumber had fixed one leaking pipe just to create a brand new, also leaking pipe and had trashed the kitchen and bathroom in the process, couldn’t ruin it.

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Just some camels on the beach, no big deal.
First quarter moon falling behind the mosque
This is cheese in its most elemental form. I call it “Just Cheese!” my homage to
Jack from Will & Grace. This is made with cow’s milk, although goat and sheep
milk is common as well. It is sold in round cakes.

 

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An Afternoon Above it All

In the hills above the city of Tetouan, dotted with sheep and houses, there is a restaurant. I don’t know the name; it probably doesn’t have one. There are some plastic chairs and tables underneath a roof made of poles. There is a stunning view of the city below, the mountains opposite, and the clouds racing by on the wind. A squat building sits beside out of which come steaming black tagines, round bread and mint tea. The men who work there, indistinguishable from the visitors, can tell you the tagines they are making today, which are anchovy, shrimp and kefta (meatballs). The tea is minty and not too sweet, the food is delicious, the breeze is invigorating, and the cats beg for leftovers.

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Sometimes you’re in Paris and you get a sore throat. And then you wake up and have a fever and are aching all over. From some combination of jet lag, the change in weather and the time spent in the germ incubator that is the airplane, you are sick. And on such a day the thought of doing the fun things you’d planned is just too much. But a day of walking through town stopping at the bakery, the fruit and vegetable market, having a cup of coffee, is just right. And perfect in its own simple way.

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