Friday, August 26, 2005

Bonnes Vacances, French style

Finally, I've posted photos from our tour of Northern France. The food, weather and hospitality were all incredible. I wish I could say the same for the Peugot rental car, which incredibly has a plastic chasis that we nearly left on some side street in Douarnenez one morning.

In ten days, we covered Normandy and Brittany in the north and then hooked due east for the Loire Valley before ending north of Paris. In case you're interested, we started in Calais (ferry landing) before heading to Dieppe in Normandy. From there, we visited Rouen (where the English cooked Joan of Arc) and surrounding countryside. Then on to Caen (home of the D-Day Museum), the beaches of Normandy and Le Mont-St-Michel. We stayed the next few days in the incredibly romantic fortified sea town of St. Malo where we visited Cancale (home of fantastic oysters) and Dinan. Then off to the magical red granite coast of Brittany and on to Aber Wrac'h, a fjord town that seemed more Nordic to us. Then south to Douarnenez and Pointe du Raz before further south still to Quimper and Concarneau. Finally, we swung east to Loire country to stay at Claude's.

The gigantic cathedral at Chartres Posted by Picasa

"Brought to you by the French Chamber of Commerce" Posted by Picasa

what does the bottom of a well look like? Looking up the shaft towards daylight Posted by Picasa

Claude's place in Ponce Posted by Picasa

more Loire Posted by Picasa

Loire Valley: chateau country Posted by Picasa

more of Brittany's red granite coast Posted by Picasa

the incredible Brittany coastline (Ploumanach) Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 25, 2005

low tide as seen from the top of Le Mont-St-Michel Posted by Picasa

Le Mont-St-Michel; the abbey fortress at sea Posted by Picasa

Pointe du Ruaz: literally, the end of France Posted by Picasa

Crazy tides of Brittany -- again Cancale Posted by Picasa

Cancale: oyster country! Posted by Picasa

Tourists take Omaha Beach Posted by Picasa

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The pop music blues

It now costs a whopping 55 euros ($66) to fill up the tank of our 2-door Fiat Lancia, a car that while firmly in the "economy" class of automobiles only slightly out-performs a snowplow in mpg. But this is not my biggest gripe about the evil automobile. It is pop music. Since May, I've driven through parts of the US, UK, Italy, Spain and France and listened to the respective top 40 charts of each of these so-called "developed" nations. I jab at the tuner buttons endlessly searching for something that will distract me from the rigors of the road. Ok, James Blunt is just creepy enough to last into the autumn, but will we be hearing "You're beautiful/It's true" on the airwaves in, say, 15 years?

While pondering this (in France), I thought about Continental Europe's anemic contribution to pop music (I define "Continental Europe" as Europe minus the UK and Ireland for now), and decided upon a list that I hope to expand the next time behind the wheel.

So, consider this my first installment. The synthesized drumroll, please:

My all-time list of top Continental European pop songs, in no particular order. These songs are chosen because they have staying power, meaning we are just as likely to hear them on the radio 10 years from now as we were 10 years ago.

Country: Germany -- Song: "99 Luftballoons" -- Artist: Nena -- 1984
Country: Norway -- Song: "Take on Me" -- Artist: A-ha -- 1985
Country: Italy -- Song: *"Gloria" -- Artist: Umberto Tozzi -- 1983
Country: Sweden -- Song: "Dancing Queen" -- Artists: Abba -- 1975
Country: Spain -- Song: "Macarena" -- Artist: Los del Rio -- 1993
Country: France -- Song: **"She" -- Artist: Charles Aznavour -- 1974

* redone in English by Laura Branigan with new lyrics
** while numerous French acts (Air, St. Germain, Noir Desir) of recent years deserve mention, only Chuck gave us a No. 1 hit in 1974.

Because this is pop music, everyone has an opinion and of course everybody thinks their opinion is somehow more enlightened than the next person. I'm dubious. This list is about as bulletproof as you can hope for given the subject matter. That said, if Nick Hornby has already done the research on this, I graciously defer to him.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"Cave Canem" -- yours for 1,250 euros Posted by Picasa

a tale from the crypt

Should you find yourself in France's Loir (no, not the Loire) Valley, feasting on the local delicacies and imbibing the local brew, when your host offers an after-dinner challenge to you in a slurred French "to hunt down zee minotaur" in the labrynth of caves below his 12th century chateau, do yourself a favor: just go to bed. Get up from the table and call it a night. Merci beaucoup. Le demain est un autre jour. Leave him there blabbering on about the Neolithic cave people, the 7th crusade, the Knights Templar. Whatever you do, do not pick up the candelabra and follow this unsteady man. Particularly, if you've been drinking his wine all evening.

The host I am referring to is one of the most memorable individual I've ever met in Europe. Let's call him Claude. Claude is the charming owner of Chateau de la Voloniere in the quaint village of Ponce - maybe 2 hours west of Paris. Ponce is smack in the middle of the Loir Valley (the little tributary north of the mightly Loire, thus the need to cleave off the little "e"). It's chateau country. The wine is plentiful and the meals are decadent. (The cuisine triggered a running commentary from my Italian companion Xtina who prefers dishes simply prepared, not luxuriating in rich sauces and gravies. Italians prepare their dishes with amore. The French, I suggested, do so with S-E-X. And when the sex is this good...I never finished the observation.)

And Ponce is where you will find Claude most days, leafing through giant tomes dedicated to the Middle Ages and blasting the Moody Blues.

Claude is a well-rounded individual. He speaks many languages, none of them coherently. He has turned his chateau into a gallery of sorts selling paintings that draw on two themes: man's fall from grace and dogs at play. My favourite, "Cave Canem", sells for 1,250 euros. The pooch in the frame must be the dog who goes on to win the famous poker game against the other dogs, because there he is in a regal pose bearing an Adonis-like six-pack for countless adoring passersby. Such a painting would seem out of place in a castle on the Loir, if not for Claude that is. He is the glue that keeps the theme of madness and art in balance. Upon introduction, Claude informed us he speaks English because "on this side of the valley the kings of England have reigned for many years" (until the 13th Century, that is). "The little kingdom of France," as he put it, "lies just beyond that river," he gestured to the other side of street. Apparently, on that side of the street they speak French, was the message. Xtina later pointed out that if the Italians went by this logic, they'd be speaking Vandal and Goth in downtown Rome.

With Claude, mystery was lurking around every corner of the castle. And, I learned later, below it. On my final morning Claude and I, accompanied by his dog Fifi, went spelunking through the network of caves below his chateau. Armed with candles and flashlights, we (Claude in fluffly slippers, mind you) covered hundreds of meters into the earth. Ancient Celtic, Druidic and Neolithic caverns meandered in all directions. The caves of the area, it is documented, were carved by hand by Neolithic people thousands of years ago, using little more than heavy stones to chisel further into the earth. The Celts then came and expanded the early work, excavating entire living quarters, well out of sight of the many barbarous hoards that passed through the region. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were expanded even further until abbeys and then chateaus were built on top of them on the terra firma. The local story is that Chateau de la Voloniere was to be the place where Hitler and Petain were to sign the armistice in 1940, thus establishing the Vichy government. A panicky Hitler rejected Claude's chateau when he heard there was a network of caves below that could easily be booby-trapped by resistance fighters. Claude bought the place 20 years ago and has become the resident expert on the subterranean world his property sits on.

As we made our way through the caves, marveling at the craftsmanship of the ancient people and the dense network of tunnels, we came upon the bottom of a well. I poked my head in and craned my neck up to get a good view up the well shaft. In the flickering distance was daylight. We were 36 meters (110 feet) under the ground at this point. It was time to call the tour to an end, I informed my intrepid guide. The caves were getting a bit too claustrophobic for my liking. And Claude, an asthmatic, was running out of cigarettes. He informed me we had one more chamber to traverse followed by a windy crawlspace. We could get dirty, he informed me. And, there's one other thing. This crawlspace, he added, had another challenge: snakes! This is how that bit of knowledge fell at my feet several meters below the earth.

Me: Why do we have to be so quiet?

Claude: Have you ever heard of zee African black mombaza?

Me: African black mombaza! Of course. (In truth, I had never heard of this species, but I am familiar enough with snakes that crush their prey in seconds). Is that the one you mean, Claude?

Claude: oui. I brought some back with me from Africa and keep zem in zis cavern. Zey are sleeping now. Noise and light will stir zem.

Me: (an audible gulp).

Claude: Let's go.

Claude dropped to all fours, and I flopped low too. Claude didn't have to tell me, but I figured if I kept my movements snake-like, I wouldn't arouse the suspicions of suposedly dozing snakes. And, it seemed to be working. Halfway through the tunnel, we were snake-free. But then I noticed my breathing had become as irregular as the asthmatic guide in front of me. I tried to hyperventilate out my nose instead. The whole breathing thing was proving problematic. I imagined I was making enough racket to wake all the snakes in Africa. And, wait a second. Do snakes sleep?!? What if they don't, but just chill out in the cold and only pounce when bumbling humans disturb them? What if awkward exhalations are the thing that most annoy them? Where was my guide? Why was he standing up? Can snakes see in this gloom?

Then silence. Claude uncupped the flashlight and waved it around like a light saber. We were in the final chamber now, tall enough for us to stand. He whipped the beam of light along the near wall and announced: "See Zat!?" I grabbed Claude's shoulder, angling him in front of the danger. This is his damn cave, after all. It was something enormous and spindly hangling from the ceiling. And it was indeed black.

"Ferocious," I whispered. Then, "Dude," ... yes, I said 'dude' ... "what the hell is that?"

"A root. I likes to have fun. Zeez are roots," he said tracing their body with the beam. He then burst into a devilish laugh that carried into a wheeze, before breaking into a full-on hacking cough. He lit a cigarette and only then the mad glee in his eye was gone.

What kind of person plays practical jokes involving killer snakes in the prehistoric cave network below his chateau? French-American relations have hit a troubling low.

I crawled out of the cave a bit diminished, having left a piece of my dignity a few meters below the earth of the Loir Valley.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Catfight off the catwalk

One for the growing supermodels-are-trouble file: super(scary)model Naomi Campbell gives fellow Yvonne Scio a fat lip Monday night following an altercation at super-plush Hotel Eden off Via Veneto Monday. The trigger? Apparently, Ms. Scio made a crack about Naomi's outfit. Scio's handlers say the model and actress was recuperating in bed, presumably still in Rome. "Her lip was split and she lost a lot of blood," Scio's attorney said, adding this one is heading for court.

For those of you asking: who the hell is Yvonne Scio? She put in a couragious performance in 2001 straight-to-the-backwaters-of-the-Internet thriller "Layover". According to, Scio meets her fate when:

Shot in the stomach by Gregg Henry in a hotel room while David Hasselhoff looks on in shock; she staggers out into the hallway, where Gregg finishes her off with another shot to the stomach.

In shock! David Hasselhoff does shock too? Is there no end to this man's cinematic genius?!!... I digress...

Naomi's overworked damage control team, meanwhile, released the standard Naomi (again) "was mistakenly dragged into an altercation..." line. The statement begins with: "Supermodel Naomi Campbell..."

Erm, guilty.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Found: Emperor's head, send out for cleaning

Here's an only-in-Rome headline: "Constantine dug out of a Sewer." Constantine, as we know, is the emperor credited with founding Istanbul (not Constantinople) and making Christianity the official religion of the empire in 325. And what did he get for his noble deeds? Rampaging hordes threw his massive (60 cm) marble head down a sewer. And, 1600-some-odd years later, They Might be Giants penned a song reminding us that his eponymous town has had a name change... Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Unwanted visitors

Romans are a jittery, panicky bunch. The little old ladies who live in my building have been watching me with a he's-up-to-no-good glare for months now. With every stack of mail I claim from the letter box, with every trash bag I haul to the curb, the case builds in their eyes that I am not to be trusted. Well, not entirely. (Once, I helped carry a never-ending load of chairs into the building following a Lenten prayer service and was instantly annointed a he's-with-us hug from a few of my blue-haired neighbors).

Nonetheless, the older generation's suspicion of all foreigners is acute. As proof, a Corriere della Sera poll revealed that 85 percent of the country believes Italy will be the next target. And, elderly and homemakers fear attack the most, the paper reports in shocking bold type. What the story failed to convey is that elderly and homemakers have now predicted attacks from, in this order, fascists, communists, centrists, atheists, Marxists and now Islamists. Dentists could be next.

In the past week, however, the mistrust of outsiders has become contagious around the city, spreading to even young Romans who now talk of when the terrorists will hit. At dinner parties, the subject turns to which of the monuments is most likely to be targeted: St. Peter's (home of the Catholic church), il Collosseo or Pantheon (symbols of Western Civilisation's glorious past) or a McDonald's (the sentimental favorite for rebels of all stripes). In fact, if you walk past the Pantheon today you may see something as culturally jarring as any of Bernini's works. The Micky D's across from the 2100 year old dome was stripped of its letters at some point within the past two weeks. It's a McDonald's senza golden arches, one of many safety precautions executed around town. Another is the installation of CCTV cameras on street corners, which has baffled the locals. Because the assumption is the cameras are to deter terrorists, motorists continue to run red lights with impunity.

The scariest development though is the arrest in Rome Friday of Hamdi Adus Isaac, the fourth bomber in the 21 July aborted London mission. Isaac, or the terrorist formerly known as Hussain Osman, was quoted as saying this weekend he will fight extradition to the UK on grounds he considers himself Italian. He may be of Ethiopian descent, but he says he speaks Italian perfectly well. He has friends and family here, he reminded us. Need more proof? He was busted because, while on the run, he made numerous calls on his telefonino, tipping the police off to his whereabouts.

Let's review: He apparently has no job. He considers himself a hell of a talker. He doesn't know when to shut up and switch off the telefonino. He sounds Italian to me.