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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More tales from the city

This post actually predes the ones about my trip to Loches. I wrote it but didn't get a chance to post it last week.

It is Saturday night. I am in the living/dining room after a delicious dinner cooked by Laurent, Marina, and Hasha. Laurent is one of the only ones patient enough to work with Marina , and it is a pleasure to see how he interracts with her. He is such a kind and thoughtful person. And he and Hasha have recently paired off, as have Miryam and Gorka. And Pablo and Irene were a couple even before they arrived here, which it took me a while to realize. I wonder where these relationships will go, if anywhere, after the project ends.

The only problem here tonight , which is a big one, is that I am not supposed to be here at all, but rather at my old college friend Marie’s house for the weekend, about three hours to the south of Paris. But when I got to the train station I discovered that there were no more Eurail pass tickets available. So much for the ease and convenience of a rail pass. The woman at the ticket window, very nice, explained that they only reserve a certain number of tickets for pass holders. So I made a reservation for tomorrow am instead. I’ve called and left Marie messages, but haven’t heard back, and am afraid she didn,t get them and went to the station. Not sure how far the train station is from her house. But I feel terrible.

Meanwhile, the house is in full party mode here. It’s 10 :30 and I have a feeling things are just warming up. Paul is at the bar with rum and coconut milk, and, I think, whipped cream, and some kind of drinking game is going on with lots of cheering and picture taking. I’m being an old fogey typing away here in the corner. And since I wasn’t planning to be here, Gorka and Miryam had planned to use my little room for the weekend. I don’t mind, except that I have to get up early and it might be hard to get any sleep anytime soon.

Let me backtrack and talk a bit about Marina, which I had done before but then lost when I lost the internet a couple of days back and hadn’t saved what I’d written often enough, I guess :

Marina is an 18 year old French member of the group. She has some behavior problems, and is very unfocused and uncontrolled. It is very hard to be patient with her, and she gets on most everyone’s nerves. There is a very positive side to her, too, in that she is very enthusiastic, often gleeful, about just about everything. A couple of days ago she was particularly wild and was driving us all crazy. At lunch, Laurent brought the situation up, in Marina’s presence. It was difficult for him to do, and very uncomfortable for everyone, and I can hardly imagine what it must have felt like for Marina. She does seem aware of her difficulties, and relatively okay talking about them. It came up that she had forgotten to take her medications, and she said she would make sure to remember. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I interviewed her yesterday for the FDH blog, as I have been everyone in the mosaic group, and found out some interesting things by talking a bit more to her. But she is still driving me, and all of us, crazy.

It is a part of these volunteer organizations’ philosophy to incorporate people with disabilities into the programs, which in theory I very much support, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. When I volunteered in Romania a few years ago, there were two Italian volunteers with Down Syndrome, along with their chaperone. Neither she nor they spoke a word of English, and it first seemed like it was going to be a real challenge to communicate with them But by the end of the project, they were communicating just fine with everyone, and especially with the children. I would say it was a valuable experience for everyone.

Last night after dinner most all of us went to an art exhibit that Paul knew about, about grafitti art. Paul is a neighborhood worker, and speaks caringly and proudly about « his » teenagers. Two of the teens, who hang out with us frequently, came with us to the exhibit. On the escalator on the metro, Gorka apparently turned around to give Mirjam a kiss. But it wasn’t Mirjam, but one of the boys, who was behind him, and whom he actually kissed ! I unfortunately missed the event. But Gorka and the teen were both rather embarrassed, and Gorka had to put up with an awful lot of kidding the rest of the evening.

The exhibit was quite interesting. It was actually several hundred spray paint cans, each individually designed by, I assume, a grafitti artist. They were from all over the world, including most of the countries the volunteers are from. They ranged from very abstract designs to several that had crocheted covers, to ones that were crushed and/or made into different kinds of shapes. The only thing that puzzled me was that decorating a small can seems the antithesis of the broad strokes of grafitti art.

After the exhibit Paul said he wanted to take us to « his » bar, which was in the same neighborhood. We walked a few blocks, past quite a few bars, to Paul’s bar, the name of which I didn’t get or don’t remember. It had a Carribean ambience and was owned by folks from Martinique. ’

I asked Paul for a suggestion of a special drink. He said « planteurs » and it took me a few seconds to realize he was talking about planter’s punch. I did order one and it was indeed good, served from a huge and unusually shaped punch bowl . After I gave four or five people a taste, they ordered a liter, which the bartender served from the punch bowl into a plastic liter juice bottle. Definitely unpretentious.

One the way home we passed quite a few small bars. The quartier was lively but not rowdy, actually had quite a nice feel to it. Paul said the neighborhood is known for its small inexpensive bars and music of many different kinds. It is his favorite part of the city and he hopes to sell his apt. and buy something in that area, around Oberkampf metro. I was surprised to hear he owned his apt. He said he doesn’t need a lot of money to live on, and has been saving money since he was fifteen. He’s 27 now, but can’t make too much as a community worker. I know his current building was designed by Eiffel, but is in an area of business workers where he doesnt feel comfortable. Of course my immediate reaction was to think I’ll buy your apt ! I didn’t say it to him though. Yet.

Well, I suppose I should write something about the mosaic project. It continues to go well, and I am not only enjoying it but feel really lucky to have the opportunity to learn these techniques. I think everyone in the group feels the same way. One of the volunteers asked me today to ask Giselle if it would be possible to come back and study with her . Giselle basically said that she was already too committed to too many projects. It just made me, all of us I think, realize how fortunate we are to have this opportunity.

We have finished the first of the seven panels, and are close to finishing the three others we’ve been working on. But we still have three more, and only one week, to go. It is important to all of us to finish by the end of the project, and some of us may wind up working extra hours next week, I would be willing to, and so would Natalya, not sure about the others. But I think one way or another we will get it done.

Today we grouted the finished panel. It was fun to do, and really satisfying to see it done. Giselle put colored grout on a wooden panel, and we laid the tiled piece with the netting background on top. She used two colors of grout, a green for the lower part and gray for the upper. She said they would lighten and blend at the transition as the grout dried. I thought it looked wonderful already. The grout totally changed the look of the piece.

The best part was pressing the tiles down, causing the grout to ooze up between. Then we gently sponged the extra grout off the tiles. Caress the tiles, said Giselle, gently, like you would caress a man. Next week we’ll give the tiles a second cleaning, with alcohol.

My writing just got interrupted by Pablo’s birthday celebration. He turns 20 today. (Saturday, it’s just after midnight). Eider and Prune(it means plum in French) baked him a cake and hid it from him all day. They brought it out and we all started singing to him, in Spanish, English, French, Korean, Armenian, Russian. Only problem, no Pablo. After six languages someone went to wake him up.

Well, time to sign off. No sign of things winding down here, although some people are talking about going out to a bar. Gorka and Mirjam have very nicely given me back my room for tonight. Although I was planning to just sleep elsewhere, I am very grateful, because it is unusually wild around here tonight. Marina hardly stands out in the crowd.

Bon nuit !

Conversation tidbit from the dinner table a few days ago:

Monika (Czech R. ) Who make this ?
Natalya (Russia) I
Monika : You give me recette.
Natalya ;( chuckles) I improvise.

The funny thing is that this is probably a typical conversation ; I just don’t usually notice the broken but wonderful English.

Encore Loches

Saturday night, we had a wonderful dinner of leftovers from the Saturday night meal I was supposed to have been there for. Then, to sleep in a comfortable bed in a beautiful room in an the ancient house of an old friend. I slept long and well.

Sunday morning, after a typical French breakfast of bread, jam, and coffee( which I began to drink again after a several year hiatus) Marie took me on a tour of the old town of Loches, ie buildings dating from the 10th rather than the 15th century, before heading out to Tours airport, a small place with as many 4 seaters as commercial planes, to pick up Marie's daughter and her 10 year old son, Marie's grandson John. The last time I'd seen Zoe she was a little girl, now she is in her thirties. They had flown in from England, where they live, for a visit.

We went into old Tours to take a look around and get a bite to eat at Marie's favorite Lebanese restaurant. I had curried chicken, good but surprisingly mild. Marie said the French don't like spicy food and so the restaurants with normally spicy cuisines really turn down the heat.

Marie had phoned her friend Mimi to see if she was up for visitors, but before we got there we stumbled upon a combination garlic festival/ flea market which we browsed through first. There were stalls upon stalls of folks selling garlic, also leeks, shallots, and onions, and also lots of stands with tables of people, locals all I would guess, eating steak and frites, the ubiquitous French meal. With garlic? I didn't find out but took lots of photos of venders and shoppers with garlic.

We then proceded to Mimi's. She lives in a section of an old cloister that has been converted into apartments. The cloister itself is white and quiet with an austere beauty. Mimi's apt was quite the opposite, a tiny place with every corner crammed with colorful items, a multicolored chandelier, the likes of which I've never seen, large and small cabinets with drawers holding who knows what. It absolutely puts my place to shame, There were also three, or was it four, cats; I lost count. Mimi is recovering from cancer, seemed tired and gaunt, but Marie says she is much better than she had been. Mimi is a painter, of watercolors. She took down a small vintage suitcase from a pile atop a silver painted, Egyptian looking cabinet, in which she had a number of small works. We browsed thru them and I wanted to buy one, but Mimi insisted on giving me one as a gift. She gave one to Marie and Tim, and one to Zoe and John, as well. Tim showed me one of his paintings on the wall in the miniscule kitchen. They have known each other since Mimi and Marie's children were small.

We then left Mimi and Tours, having to head back to Loches, a 40 minute drive, in order for me to pick up my things at the house and head to the Loches station to get my train back to Tours, and then on to Paris. Not very good planning, but no one seemed to mind.

It's amazing how much we were able to fit into a short, and truncated at that, overnight visit. And I got to meet two of Marie's siblings, her nephew, sister in law, cousins, friend, grandson, re meet an adult Zoe, see Mont Felix and do a bit of landscaping, as well as walk through the family land and see three properties I hadn't ever known were part of the estate. Plus see some of beautful old Tours and delightful, not yet overtouristed, Loches. Intermixed with some wonderful French cooking and some Lebanese, topped off by a garlic festival! Not to mention the best of all, the delight and pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Loches, part II

Something is fishy with the computer. I wrote last night for several hours and then lost the whole thing. So this part of the tale is actually being written for the second time around, and I am saving and publishing more frequently. Sadly, this account of my visit to Loches will likely be shorter. And we packed an amazing amount into a mere thirty hours together. Which I will now attempt to re-recount, still struggling, mind you, with a French keyboard where a's are q's and l's are colons and periods are, strangely, upper case and exclamations and parentheses are lower, and I can't even begin to deal with French accent marks though I would love to use them. All this interspersed with people asking me how to say, for instance, flush the toilet, in English!

Everything procedes wonderfully well with the mosaic, aside from the fact that we are coming down to the wire and are a little concerned about the time. Yesterday, Monday, about half of the group worked several extra hours, by choice, and we may all need to do that today.

So, back, for the moment, to Loches.

When we were in school together here, all those years ago, Marie and I would go down to Mont Felix together on some weekends. At that point, the chateau was elegant and a bit forbidding and I must confess to having been a little awed and intimidated by Marie's father, although that may have been more me than him.

Now, Marie's sister Francie owns Mont Felix, and rents it out by the weekend. It had gone into somewhat of a deline, and also a theft of many of the furnishings, after Marie's father's death. Francie has restored it, installed new bathrooms and plumbing, and it looks great again. Some parts are closed off, I guess because they don't meet housing standards. Francie has also installed a pool with a small poolhouse that has a chalet type look, totally at odds with the chateau, but understandably a draw as far as rentals.

We went to visit and do some work to prepare for the arrival of a family of guests that afternoon, although there is a woman who looks after the property and does most of the work. The family arrived promptly at 4pm, as scheduled, seemingly to the surprise of Marie, Tim, and Marie's brother Charles, who I had finally met for the first time. He and his son, Victor, live in California and visit periodically. They have another small building on the property that they are restoring.

The family was a man, a small boy, and what appeared to be three young women. Perhaps one of them was the mother, I don't know. They spoke, and sounded, English. Marie thought she detected an accent, perhaps Dutch, that I didn't hear. Everyone but Marie, who was happily deadheading roses and geraniums around the house, wanted to leave so as not to intrude on the family. Marie said we were doing something positive for the house, that they would appreciate, not mind. I wondered if the family knew that aside from me, everyone was a relative of the chateau owners, or if they thought we were the gardening staff, which I guess we actually were.

Later, we strolled down the road to another property on the family land, previously a farmhouse and before that, a few centuries back, a monastery and way station for pilgrims on the way to St. Juan de Compostela, if I've got it right. Marie and Charles remember that when they were kids there were cows and horses on the property. Now their brother John and his wife Brigitte, having lived around the world working for the UN High Commission on Refugees, have retired here and restored the buildings beautifully and live there. We sat outside and had tea, along with visiting American cousins, from, of all places, Newton Ma. Polly is the daughter of Marie's aunt, her father's brother. Walter, her husband, never really knew his father, who died as a medic in World War II. After his mother died, he discovered a cache of letters from his father to his mother, and researched and wrote a book. Now he leads trips to the Normandy battlegrounds. This is his 11th year doing so.

Well, time to head out to work at the mosaic atelier. More later, I have barely begun relating the details of my brief sojourn in Loches.

A quick weekend to Loches

I had meant to go to Loches, in chateau country, last Friday evening, to see my old friend Marie. She and I had gone to school here in Paris nearly forty years ago. We have seen each other sporadically since, and had all but lost touch when, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we reconnected a few months ago.

Marie is half French, half American. Her mother, who had died when Marie was quite young, had been of French nobility, and her family had inherited a chateau in the Loire Valley, where the family spent most of Marie's childhood summers. Her father had been the headmaster at Choate, and then later, of the American School in Madrid. By the time we met, he had retired and was living at Mont Felix. Now, Mont Felix may have been small by the standards of chateau country, but in terms of houses, it is impressive indeed. I especially remember her brother Charles' room, with an ornate bed set into a large niche. Marie's room had originally been a maid's quarters, and was the only part of the place with normal height ceilings and a cozy feel.

My plan had been to take the train down Friday, and have a full two days there. Unfortunately, there were a series of misunderstandings between me and the French railroad system. The Friday evening trains were full, and I wound up returning to our apt. I'd made a reservation at the station for an early Sat am train, and arrived in Tours for my connection at a little after 9. The train was 10 minutes late, and there had been 10 minutes late.The next train was at 11:30. I watched for the track to be posted, then watched as 11:30 passed and the train info was removed from the board. Finally, I made the 12:15 and arrived in Loches shortly after 1pm I had called Marie and left a message I wasn't sure she'd receive. She had, and she and Tim were waiting at the station. It was the first time we'd seen each other in at least 15 years.

To be continued...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wednesday; half way thru the project

It's Wednesday evening after supper. People are sitting around playing cards, on the computer, cleaning up from supper, and just relaxing. A bunch of people have gone out for the evening, to the Champs Elysees. I'm not sure what they will see or do there, or if they will be disappointed. I was having a conversation with Ji Hoon this afternoon. She says she has been disappointed by everything here; she expected so much more, like the words she and a bunch of the group were singing last week. about how you'll find anything you want on the Champs-Elysees. When I first visited here many years ago, it was really elegant, (although I doubt I would have found anything I wanted) Now it is so commercialized and overtouristed, with chain stores and restaurants. That's true of the Latin Quarter as well, packed with souvenir stores and other places catering to tourists. Last time I was here I was startled to see a Claire's jewelry store on the Blvd. St. Michelle; now it doesn't surprise me, just makes me sad.

I have been interviewing all the people in our group for the organization's blog; I'll probably put some or all of it on here once I've spoken to everyone. One of the things I'm asking everyone is what made them choose this particular project. Invariably, part of the answer is because it is in Paris, and that certainly holds true for me as well. This led to discussion this afternoon about the perception people have of Paris, and why, and if their perceptions of the city have changed since arriving here.

Some people are disappointed in Paris; others are disappointed that we don't have more free time to explore the city. The project description did say, pretty clearly I thought, that folks shouldn't expect to have a lot of time for sightseeing, and should plan extra time for that outide of the project dates. But people get frustrated and opionated nevertheless. I still do think, though, that things are going remarkably well, especially considering the large numbers and close quarters. And in our group, at least, I think people are generally very satisfied with the mosaic project itself. The other group did not see m all that satisfied with their gardening work.
It was hot and it was hard work. For some reason the amount of space they were working on this year was very small, and they have already finished. So they are now working with neighborhood children, which everyone seems to actually prefer. Plus, they are now working on an afternoon schedule. We now therefore have two breakfast shifts, because they don't have to wake up early anymore, and two lunch shifts. They eat at 12:30 and leave here at 1:30; we get back here between 2 and 2:30. It has helped to relieve the crowding since we are on such different schedules.

We have a team of 4 each day, two from each group, who are responsible for cooking and cleaning. Those people don't particpate in the project that day. On other projects I have appreciated the break and change of pace; on this one I really don't want to miss the project. But tomorrow is my turn to cook, etc.

( I had written much more last night, but then lost the internet and the rest of what I wrote, so will have to recreate it. Interesting stuff, too, I thought, about group dynamics and one person in particular who has some special needs. So I hope you will stay tuned, and I hope I will have time to get back to documenting things, too. Tomorrow I will leave to spend the weekend with my old college friend Marie in the Loire valley, where she has lived most of the time since we went to school together here. We haven't seen each other in at least 15 years!)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday, week two

Yesterday the mosaic group was supposed to meet with people from Freres des Hommes (brothers of man) an international aid association which is one of the organizations sponsoring our project. They are planning both a photographic exposition and a space on their blog featuring our project, and had hoped to have participation from some of the volunteers. Beside Laurent and Lucille, though, the two leaders of our mosaic group, and me, none of the volunteers was interested. Folks were quite forthright about saying either that they wanted more time to visit places in Paris, or to sleep. And I can certainly understand. So did L and L, I think, although they were a little disappointed that not more people wanted to come along. So the three of us went by Metro to the Latin Quarter, where the organization's offices are.

There, we brainstormed about what we should feature on their blog, and came up with several ideas, including interviewing the volunteers. I'm very proud that my French is getting good enough that I can understand much of the conversations and even contribute sometimes. So a bit earlier today, after our mosaic work, I started interviewing people in our group about why they chose this project, and what they think about how things are going. I've done four so far, and will add some of the info here once I have interviewed everyone. It's been interesting; even though I have talked to everyone to some extent, I am having some different conversations with people.

This morning we continued our work on the mosaic. Things seem to be progressing well. I really didn't want to stop when it was time to clean up, and I wasn't the only one. We are working on small panels of the large mural, which will eventually be rejoined on the wall. One concern I have is how well the design will meld at the junctures, especially since some design elements are split by the separations. Not only do we have to pay attention to the colors so that they match, but different people have different styles in regard to how closely they lay the tiles, what size pieces they use, etc. Giselle keeps telling us we have to see the big picture, not just the part we are working on. She tells up to get up on the chairs periodically to get a better overview. On the other hand, she also keeps telling us how beautiful things look. She gives us suggestions, but also encourages us to use our own ideas and judgement. First thing this morning she told us each to work on a different panel than the one we did yesterday. I was at first dismayed. I had been working on an element that featured two faces in profile with pursed lips, as if ready to kiss. The original plan had been to use a neutral color for the backround that was kind of a blend of the two skin colors in the faces. Giselle suggested mirrored tiles instead for the background ( she had found a broken mirror that morning, so we cut up some squarish tiles, and it looked great. But someone else picked it up this morning while I worked on a mottled green background on another panel. I do think that Giselle is right, despite my initial disappointment; it makes much better sense for the whole thing to be a collective effort.

In the middle of the morning Laurent's phone rang with a call for me. It was my old friend Marie, with whom I went to school here many years ago. We've kept in touch very sporadically through the years. She lives a couple of hours south of Paris as she has for most of the time since I've known her. It's been probably 15 years since we've seen or even talked to each other personally. I located her on Facebook a month or two ago, and hopefully we'll be able to visit with each other next weekend. There's some community event that all of us are supposed to partici
pate in this Sat and I feel a bit guilty about skipping out on it. But I feel like I've been a pretty good camper so far, and hopefully no one will be too annoyed with me if I'm not here.

Today I am writing from our apt. rather than the Internet Cafe, which is a real treat. The cafe is only a few blocks away, and it's not terrible. But it is computers elbow to elbow, and some people talking quite loudly on them, as well as other people also talking loudly from the telephone booths surrounding the computers. Last night the woman next to me was talking long and loud to who I am guessing was her daughter, from the conversation and from my snooping over her shoulder. They must have said goodbye and blown kisses to each other for 10 minutes, no kidding. Then, just after they hung up they were back on the phone again. I tried looking over at her a few times just to indicate how loud she was being. But I also felt bad and wondered about her situation. Whatever it is, I am sure being separated isn't easy on them. At least computers might make things a bit easier. Or might it make being separated harder?

I didn't mention why I am able to write from home today. Freres des Hommes actually lent us a computer to use for working on the blog. And Laurent decided that my blog counted as valid use, I guess since I may use parts of it for the other blog, or at least provide a link. There is one computer at the house brought by one of the Spanish volunteers. Gorka is remarkably generous about sharing it, and it is constant demand. Half the time we can't get an internet connection, and people are always lined up waiting to use it. Even though many people use it for long lengths of time once they get to it, and most of the Europeans also have cell phones (mobiles, as they are known here) I still don't feel comfortable using it for long enough to write.

Ten minutes ago it was quiet here, in the late afternoon. Now suddenly the cooking/cleaning team has emerged to begin preparing dinner and are busy chopping onions and I don't know what else. I am not sure what the meal is, but I know it will be a Senegalese specialty. Omar, a friend of Paul's, has come over to cook for us. I must say that we have been eating very well. Our budget, which is 6.1 per person per day, covers plenty of good food, cheeses, etc. with money left over to cover some trips and admissions. This is truly Paris on $10 per day, including room and board! The cost to volunteers is $300 for the three weeks.

Well, in addition to the Senegalese dinner, I just heard there's a klezmer concert someplace tonight!

I think it's time to leave this blog and transcibe my interviews. I should at least do something truly related to the Freres des Hommes blog:

Til later.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More mosaic details

I am going to try to briefly catch up on our project, after all the raison d'etre of my trip here! But I hope to make it short because it is getting late and starting to get dark, and I haven't yet had supper. I hope they saved me some. Our cooking teams have been doing a great job and we have been eating well. There have been plenty of intersesting group dynamics going on, as you might expect with a group of nearly thirty. I will try next time to relate some of the group interractions. I am making progress with the French keyboard, but it is still slow going and frustrating.

Today we began to actually construct the design. Last week we had created the design, trying to incorporate some of everyone's ideas, itself an interesting process. We painted it, then laid plastic over it. This morning we traced the entire thing in black marker, then lifted it off the painted design, and hung the design on the wall (all this inside the atelier apartment. It will go on the outide wall later.)

We then cut the piece into 7 segments for teams to work on. To each segment we taped netting to which we would adhere the pieces of tile and glass. And then we begun to glue pieces on, doing further cutting where necessary to fit the spaces.

I will stop here, as it is nearly 10 pm and beginning to get dark. To be continued, hopefully soon.

A la prochain!


Week two begins

We are now fully involved in creating the mosaic. But I'll backtrack first to relate our Bastille Eve and Day adventures:

I need to find out more about the Firemen's Balls on the eve of the holiday; I just know that I love both the sound and the idea. Several years ago,when I was here taking French classes and living with a host family(where the host parents were younger than me) my Swiss roommate, Alex and I crashed a Fireman's Ball in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter which is now quite trendy.) It was in the neighborhood firehouse, and I'm not sure just how we got in, but it was fun. This time, our whole group went to the one in our neighborhood. It was definitely a neighborhood event, but there seemed to be lots of foreigners besides us too. There is a hostel nearby, so I expect that is part of the reason, it is certainly not a touristy neighborhood.

This party was along the Canal d'Ourq, not far from our house. There is indeed a firehouse there; but the stage was outdoors, and there was a live band. Crowds lined both sides of the canal. We'd brought beer and wine,or rather Gorka's special blend of wine and Coke, which he claims was invented in his city in Spain. Before long pretty much everyone in our group was dancing, and before much longer, a crowd had gathered to watch and others had begun to dance with us. Paul, one of our group leaders who lives in Paris, had warned that things could get pretty rowdy, which they didn't really near us. He also told us that there were groups of young guys that went around burning cars on Bastille Day eve, and that groups competed to burn the most. I never did get the details on the groups or whose cars they were, if it was random or what. There were cars burned just a block or two from where we were: But Paul said he would not go to watch because it just encouraged people, and so I chose not to go. He didn't say anything about it being dangerous; though, although he and Laurent had cautioned us about going out alone at night. One encourged us to go in groups; the other said to go with a guy. Ducha, one of the other leaders, who also lives in Paris, pretty much pooh-poohed that; and she and I walked home together that night.

I must say that I haven't felt the least bit worried or threatened walking around. This obviously isn't one of the tonier parts of the city; but it doesn't feel like a slum,either. The area is half housing projects like the ones we are working in, and half older buildings with more traditional Parisian architecture. The streets are lively with shops and cafes: And even in the project the buildings are nowhere as tall or barren as in comparable areas in Boston or New York. Yes, where we are working there is a lot of concrete and little grass. But it sure doesn't feel anywhere as dismal as American slums. The hallway in the building where we are working is clean and well maintained I know that there are tensions and antagonisms between groups of different heritages. And I don't want to overromanticize things. But I am impressed, more so than I expected, by the positive, especially by the melange of people in the streets and in the projects. It is an impressive mix; African women in gloriously colorful dresses and headdresses; Orthodox Jews, tiny kids clutching their mothers' hands, young Muslim men, Asians, mixed groups of teenage girls. And so, a mosaic seems an apt project to express peoples' visions and desires.

The other Bastille Days I have been here, four years ago and eight years ago, I went to the Champs Elysees to watch the parade and then strolled through the city. And the parade is a sight to see. I remember being startled by the military planes flying in formation at what seemed a frightening low altitude directly over the street. But twice was enough; plus I am not especially fond of the militaristic nature of the parade. This time I slept in. We all did. Some of us had partied longer and harder than I had the night before. Some continue to; and I am not sure how they manage to wake up to work.

On Bastille Day most of the group went of to the Buttes Chaumont for a picnic in the afternoon. I went off on my own, having arranged to meet them there later in the day. Laurent, who is French but from Amiens, not Paris, said it would be easy to locate them, and described where they would be. Wrong - the park is huge, and there are several entrances. I walked around for about 45 minutes, and was literally just about to give up when I miraculously came across them. I could have dealt with not finding them, but the plan was to go watch the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower at 11 pm. And no one was at the apartment, and I didn't have a key! But all worked out well, luckily:

To watch the fireworks, we went to the Parc de Belleville, which is on a hill, another place to to which I'd never been. When I'd seen them bofore I'd taken the metro to Trocadero, which is just across the river from the Tower. It had been crowded but provided a great view. Belleville is quite far from the fireworks, and was equally crowd. I was lucky to find a spot where I could see. Some of our group could; others weren't able to, and for some of them it was their first, perhaps their only time in Paris. I felt especially bad for the three Korean volunteers; they sounded so frustrated and forlorn. In fact, the display from our vantage point wasn't very impressive and they hadn't missed much, as I tried to tell them to console them. But I don't think I convinced them. Natalia, the Russian volunteer, said the fireworks were nothing compared to those on the national holiday in Moscow, where they are set off in a multitude of places along the river simultaneously:

This weekend, we went to the Musee d'Orsay and the Pompidou Center, two of my favorite museums, one on Saturday, the other on Sunday. The Orsay is in a converted train station, and is architecturally exquisite. It features 19th century works, so includes pieces by Degas, Gaughin; Renoir, Monet, etc; etc: Some very famous works, and others not as well known but equally wonderful. The Pompidou basically picks up where the Orsay leaves off; just as the Orsay picks up where the Louvre leaves off. The Pompidou building is one of those places you either love or hate: I love it. The concept is that all the structural stuff is on the outside; plumbing, heating, etc. and also painted in bright primary colors. Escalators on the outside take you to the top. Of course the art within, being modern, is also often controversial. But I don't think anyone would disagree that the view from the top is superb. And there is wonderful sculpture and water garden on the roof. I love the juxtapositions between the very modern sculptures and the views of all the landmarks beyond.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The project continues...

We have now gotten into the real work of the project. Yesterday we learned how to cut the large glass tiles and pieces of marble into smaller pieces. For the glass, you score the piece into a 9 square grid just like a tic tac toe game, then turn it over and tap gently with a mallet that is part of the same tool. If you get it right, the tile just splits into 9 small squares and gives you a very satisfying feeling. If not, it really doesn't matter for our purposes because we will be using lots of irregular pieces. The marble you just hit gently and in theory it splits into smaller pieces.

While half of us were smashing, the rest were sketching out the design on a full size piece of paper three meters long by one meter wide. Because I was on the cooking team the day before, I hadn'T had much input on the final design. We had taken the ideas of everyone in the group and incorporated them into the final design. It was a little too flowery for me, and I felt it kind of negated the vibrancy of city life. Mirjam, my cooking partner, didn't like the yin-yang symbol; in her mind it represents good and evil, rather than the balance it represented to the others. So we changed the symbol to a see-saw with a couple of kids, added a climbing wall to represent striving, made the buildings a bit more dominant, and the foliage a little less so.

Today we painted the entire mural, with lots of discussion about balancing colors and beginning to look for the right kinds of pieces of glass and stone. Next week we will lay a layer of plastic over it; and then a layer of netting. On top of that will lay the actual mosaic pieces. Our "atelier" is an apartment within the development. Giselle, the professional mosaicist with whom we are working, conducts workshops with community residents there. It is filled with glass and plastic jars, each with a different kind of piece. There are other boxes with larger shards of glass in many colors. Those came from what I understand is a factory owned by an Italian person or family, out in the country about an hour from Paris. Sveral people from our group went there earlier this week and brought large quantities of broken glass back. It had been sitting in huge piles in a field. This morning I was washing glqss in the bathtub to get the twigs and leaves out:

On the way to the atelier this morning, Laurent, one of the group leaders, stopped to pick up some pieces of broken blue glass on the sidewalk. Never one to turn down an opportunity to collect good trash, I joined him. He thought it would make good stars in the night sky of our mural. I think the others in the group thought we were crazy. Giselle, though, thought it was a great idea!

On our original walk to our apt the first day with our luggage, I was delighted to find a poster with a rotating wheel to indicate which spices to use with which foods; it is now hanging in our kitchen. (Loring: I will try to resist bringing it home but can't make any promises; it's in French and weighs nearly nothing and won't take up any room in my suitcase!)
Laurent, though, puts me to shame as a trash collecter; before the group had even arrived he had found a huge whiteboard, perfect for group planning. I have since found a chair in good condition, someone else found a shelf which we are using for our dishes in the kitchen. But yesterday Paul, one of the other group leaders, came up with the coup de grace; if that's the right expression. He and Nathalie came home with a bar in the shape of a barrel, with a transparent plastic midsection for storage of glasses. It's really quite impressive. They apparently hauled it quite a ways. This afternoon, inspired by his find, he was making smoothies for everyone: tonight he plans to make rum with coconut, rum with pineapple, rum with, apparently, anything your heart desires. What a good group leader!

Well, I'm starting to get the hang of the French keyboard, just different enough from the English to drive one nuts. I'm also beginning to think and talk to myself in French, a good sign(the thinking part, maybe not the talking to myself part) It's somewhat frustrating, I have so much more to relate than time to relate it:

A la prochain...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Je suis arrivee!

Arrivee, yes, and now at a keyboard with all the right accents; but I can't figure out how to use them!

I arrived at the airport and was met by Anny, who works for British Airways there. She and I had never met personally; but had been corresponding over the last year. Her mother grew up in Czernowitz, and she contacted me after reading about some of my experiences at the cemetery there. How nice to be welcomed by someone. We spent a couple of hours talking and drinking coffee. Anny then offered to take my heavy suitcase home with her and bring it to me the next day. What a treat, especialy since when our group rendez-voud (franglish) later at a metro stop, we wound up walking qbout 45 minutes through the city to our humble abode. It wasn't clear just why we'd met there rather than at the stop a couple of blocks from our apt. But I wa the only one not moaning and groaning; since I had only my small overnight case. Our apt. is nice enough; only problem is, there are 27 of us, I believe, sharing it. (I've lost count.) It was meant to house one group of 12 plus our two group leaders; instead there are two groups. Everyone is very nice, and we seem to be sharing the space and getting along well together. But it is of course still week one; so tensions will likely set in later: We have 4 bedrooms plus a large living/dining room. And then two tiny little rooms which can only fit one. I snagged one of those. It is about 6 ft. square; I can just fit my air mattess and suitcase in. The only thing I can think is that they were meant to be bathrooms or toilet rooms. But there are two toilet rooms qnd a bathroom; plus a room with a sink. Only one shower, though. I was expecting that to be a big source of conflict; but it hasn,t yet seemed to be. Can you imagine one shower for over 2 dozen people:

There are four or five people in each of the bedrooms, four in the living room, and a couple in the small front hallway. At least I have a little privacy, a rare commodity in these projects; and don't have to pack up my suitcase and sleeping bag during the day.

Let me try to remember all the nationalities: There are 6 French; 4 Spaniards; 3 Armenians, 3 Koreans,2 Serbians; 1 Turkish, 1 Dutch, 1 Finnish, 1 Russian, and I seem to be missing about 5. I am the only American, and also the only native English speaker. Most everyone speaks some ENglish, which is the official group language; and most people speak some French. It's quite a babble, which is always pretty neat as long as people don't wind up speaking their own languages too much and excluding people. There are only a few males, two of the Spanish guys; one of the Koreans, and two of the French group leaders. This time I am not only the oldest; but the oldest by far. One person is in her early 30s, one in his late 20's. There may be a couple more around that age. Most are in their early 20s, and at least three or four qre under 20.

The first couple of days we mostly toured the areas where we will be working, our mosaic wall and the other group's garden project. The garden is in a low income housing development, and ours is in another one. The garden project was begun last summer. They did a lovely job; with individual plots for people or families to use, and pebble pathways. This year they are expanding it. I found Celia, the young Finnish woman, in a corner of the garden, with tears running down her face, and asked her if she was ok. On a small wooden plank volunteers from last year had signed their names. Celia had been in last year's group and had returned to participate again. I think just seeing the work and especially the names from lqst year had moved her to tears.

Our group did one "action" on Monday. The plan was to approach residents in the street within the housing development where our mosiac will be, and ask them what they would ideally like to see in their community, which is the largest housing development in Paris. It was built around 1970, from what I understand to replace shantytowns in which thousands of poor residents were living. I suppose they were a great improvement over people's previous living situations, and they are nowhere as big or dreary as many housing projects in New York, for example. But they aren't very appealing, either. And they were apparently built very quickly and shoddily:

None of the volunteers felt terribly comfortable approaching residents, of course, so we were all paired with the French staff, which worked reasonably well. Some people declined to talk to us, but many more than I expected did stop. Most of the answers had to do with more grass and plants, better relations between generations, and places for children. The group of 4 teenagers who reluctantly talked to us eventually said they wanted a place where they could hang out in the winter, maybe with video games, so they didn't have to hang out in the hallways where people would get mad at them.

Next time I will try and come up to date on the progress ofthe mosaic project and also relate our Bastille Eve and Day adventures:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Back to Paris

Does anyone recognize the store window in the picture? It was in the movie Ratatouille. It's a real place, I was so excited to recognize it. It's an exterminator's store, been around for many years. I stumbled upon it on a previous trip. I think I'll have to go track it down again.

I have caught up in relating many of my previous adventures. And now it's time to go. Fifteen minutes and it's out the door to the airport. I arrive tomorrow morning and will be met by Anny Chemla, a friend through the internet and through a Czernowitz connection. We have never met personally, but I feel like I know her already.

I have spent many hours over the past couple of months surrounding myself with French language, tapes, magazines, two different online programs called Yabla and Tell me More. When I started to talk to myself in French I knew I was on the right track. Now it's time to go use it. I hope I have the self discipline to speak French as much as possible.

When I next report it will be from Paris, as soon as I find the time and an internet cafe. It's harder to find them in more developed countries, as most people have their own computers. In places like Thailand and Peru, it was no trouble at all.

A bientot!

Dancing rats in Paris!

Brasov, Bran, and Sighisoara

It would be unthinkable, of course, to go to Transylvania and not visit Dracula's castle. The Dracula character is based on a real historical figure named Vlad the Impaler, known for impaling his ememies heads on posts after defeating them. Bran Castle itself is impressive, and lovely, but has little if anything to actually do with old Vlad. He may have passed by there once.

Outside the castle is a truly tacky souvenir market, with probably the same stuff you'd find in Salem Mass. in October, glow in the dark skeletons and the like. And prowling around the market was an imposing figure in black, on stilts, with a rubber werewolf mask. In his hand was a plastic saber with which he prodded young women in the rear end. And then "Dracula" decided he was thirsty. He removed his mask, revealing a sweet faced teenage boy, bent down, and ordered a Coke.

Brasov is the city one goes to in order to visit Bran. I went with no expectations, and was delightfully surprised by its charm. It is a wonderful combination of ancient and ultra modern architecture. I could easily have stayed there a few days longer.

But my next stop was calling. Sighisoara was described as a quiet, charming medieval town. It was, but I was a bit surprised when the first folks I encountered were from a British magazine, doing a fashion shoot. In the year or two since my guidebook had been written, Sighisoara had been discovered. Like so many places, it was fast becoming overtouristed. And I would imagine it has gotten even more so in the several years since my visit. But I enjoyed myself nevertheless. The best moment was when the band playing to me, the only customer at an outdoor restaurant, suddenly paraded into the kitchen. I followed. There, among the pots cooking my supper, the cooks linked arms and danced while the musicians played.

I hope the town finds a balance between tourism and keeping its genuine character. A local agency was training young local people to be tour guides. Mine was terrific, and not only knowledgeable but clearly proud of his town. He was probably about fourteen.

Dracula revealed!

Weekend trip to Sic, the village of music

Cluj-Napoca, the city we worked and stayed in, was a pleasant place. Our accomodations were in a dorm at the medical school. We had a small room and a portable stove that served as our kitchen. The budget was small, and we ate a great deal of starch and few fresh veggies. One evening, a medical student, who'd been living in the dorm for 6 years and was about to graduate, cooked us chicken soup for supper. It was as good as my grandmother's! He and his roommate were about to get their degrees, and hoped to find work abroad.

One night, I just happened upon an international dance festival, with troupes from all over the world. It was incredible, and we were able to get right up front. The Greek dancers were especially fiery. I swear I saw the same troupe on TV at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics not long afterwards.

One weekend, Mina, a volunteer from the Czech Republic who was a social work student working with gypies, and I decided to take an overnight trip. I'd read in my guidebook about a small village not far from Cluj where there was music constantly in the streets, and weddings every weekend. We went first by train, then by minibus to Sic. We were the only passengers aside from the driver and his wife, returning from grocery shopping. Upon our arrival, she announced "Sic" and then looked at us quizzically. We got out and stood in the street, looking for music. Mina whistled "Here comes the Bride" which apparently is known in the Czech.But not in Sic. After a few minutes, the woman gestured. We were in front of their house. They invited us in. The woman spoke no English. The man didn't speak at all. He'd had his larynx removed, we understood through gesturing. Their son, about 12, was learning English in school. He showed us his homework and spoke to us shyly.

We wound up staying with the family overnight. They cooked us supper, and then breakfast. They put us each in our own room. The woman gave us each one of her nightgowns to wear.

We met another woman who brought us to her house. It was like something out of a fairy tale, a tiny woman in her tiny house. She had wonderful traditional clothes, flowered and embroidered, that she wanted to sell us. She said she needed money for medicine.I bought a skirt, blouse, and a leather vest, all handmade. Perhaps I should have just given her the money and let her keep her clothes. But I treasure them and remember her whenever I see them in my closet. She also cooked us soup!

The next day we waited for the minibus back. It was a different driver. Just as the bus arrived we saw three men in black suits and white shirts, walking up the road, each with a violin under his arm. Where were they going? It was the first indication we'd seen of anything musical. I almost didn't get on the bus, wanting to follow them up the road.

Our conclusion was that the guidebook writer had happened upon the village during a wedding, and somehow got the notioon that the place was always filled with music. The other guidebooks didn't mention Sic at all. What a wonderful, serindipitous weekend, music or no.

More Romanian adventures

We Will Rock You!

On to Transylvania

This was my second trip thru VFP, in 2004, to Transylvania. As I said previously, it is overwhelming to browse through the project listings, so numerous, in so many parts of the world, doing so many kinds of things.

This time, I made my choice somewhat frivolously. It was tremendously appealing, I will admit it, to be able to tell people I was going to Transylvania. Beyond that, though, I realized my only image of Transylvania was of the infamous count.Obviously, there was more to the country. (I wasn't even sure which country it was part of.) Romania, I soon realized.

The description of the project was that we'd be working in an orphanage. The Romanian orphanages had been infamous for their lack of stimulation of the babies. The hearts of people around the world had gone out to those children several years back. Some of my fellow volunteers had signed up on the basis of this knowledge. One, the other American beside myself, was a young woman who had just graduated from college. This trip had been her parents' graduation gift to her, one that she had been planning for several years.

Everychild, however, the agency where we'd be working, turned out not to be an orphanage at all. It was more of a drop in childrens' program, to which some kids came regularly, and others more sporadically. This proved to be extremely frustrating for many of the volunteers. Several, a group of three friends from France, decided to leave. I had not been as invested in the idea of working in an orphanage, and so was not as dissappointed. The worst part was that the agency director, with whom we met to discuss the situation, glossed over our concerns. He said the children here were actually more needy than the kids in orphanages, who were now very well taken care of. His dissembling did not improve the situation. And although he promised to contact an orphanage and arrange for us to work extra hours there, he never followed through.

Nevertheless, the kids and the staff at Everychild were delightful. The director, whose mother had died young, worked on a volunteer basis herself, and supported herself by selling Avon products.

Every morning we went to a nearby park and played games. In the afternoons we organized ourselves into several "clubs" among which the kids could choose. There was the magic club, the dance club(whose teacher, a medical student from Wales, taught the kids a routine from Grease (I swear she was an Olivia Newton-John look-alike) a juggling group, and mine, the drumming club. We collected cardboard boxes, plastic bottles which we filled with stones, trash cans, and more. Each afternoon we sat in our drum circle, three volunteers and an ever changing group of children, and just played with rhythms. After a few days, our drumming coalesced into the rhythm of We Will Rock You. Not only was it familiar to all the kids and volunteers, but one of the volunteers, from Romania, knew all the words. So every afternoon we all drummed and sang, enjoying ourselves immensely.

On our last day, all the groups performed for each other and the whole staff of the center. And boy, did we rock!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Back to Paris, but first back to Thailand, and then to Transylvania!

I am ready to embark on my next adventure. ( No, that's not me, but a young woman of one of the Karen hill tribes in northern Thailand, near the border with Burma.)

My bags are literally packed, two days before I leave. My blog revives after a dormant winter. And where am I going? To Paris, once again, and once again on an arts related volunteer mission.

But before I can begin to relate my next adventures, I must catch up on the previous volunteer trips I haven't yet documented.

My first experience with Volunteers for Peace, and with volunteering abroad, was in 2002. I pored endlessly over the 1000's of listings, with not a clue of where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. I knew only that the types of experiences that appealed to me involved working with kids and social services. That ruled out a few thousand! Many projects involved manual work, restoration or maintenance of parks, monuments, etc. Wonderful sounding projects but not for me. ( Little did I know that 6 years later I'd be hacking through stinging nettles overrunning a cemetery! )

Somehow I narrowed it down to a couple of dozen possibilities, then finally to a couple, and than made my choice, to go to a school in Turkey, somewhere on the ocean, for two weeks. I put in my application on a Friday afternoon. Monday, I got the word that the project was full, the last spot having been taken on Friday.

So, plan 2: I applied to go to southern Thailand, to teach at an elementary school. I had considered a different program in Thailand, living and working with hill tribes. But the listing cautioned about the remotemess and rusticity. I chose the school, but by then was intrigued by the hill tribes. And, I could not see going to Thailand for just two weeks. So, I booked my ticket to Bangkok, went north to visit the hill tribes, then south for the project.

Need I say that it was a wonderful experience? I wouldn't be here, ready to embark on my 6th volunteer stint, if it hadn't been.

One thing I learned quickly, and tell everyone who considers this kind of volunteering, is to expect the unexpected. Things don't usually go just as you imagine they would. And that was particularly true of my Thai and Romanian experiences. (Yes Transylvania is in Romania. Did you know that? Not sure I did before I signed up.)

In Thailand, we were supposed to stay at the headquarters of the sponsoring group, Greenway, about an hour from the school. But they had more volunteers than originally planned. They split us into two groups, and one, mine, was brought to the village where we'd be teaching. I don't think I would have had anywhere as wonderful an experience at the headquarters. It was a little too hippy dippy for me, and I much preferred staying in the village with local folks. We were put up in a house that belonged to the brother of one of the teachers. He had recently been widowed. He moved in with his sister, and all of us volunteers slept on the floor in two bedrooms, 6 in each. The house was relatively modern, tv, fine plumbing, etc. The "kitchen", though, was typically Thai, outdoors. Our hosts, the teachers, cooked breakfast and dinner for us. Wonderful Thai food, although nothing I especially recognized from Thai restaurants here! The one thing that gave me pause, and that some of the volunteers politely refused, were the fried frogs. They were whole frogs, and fairly large at that. The teacher/cooks were so proud that they were freshly caught. How could I say no? I still feel badly about the sheep's eye I was offered, and turned down, as the guest of honor, years ago in Morocco.

The trip from the village to the school would have been about a half hour walk. We were taken, though, on the backs of the students' and teachers' motorbikes. Most of the other volunteers were young Japanese and Korean girls, very petite. They rode three on a bike, one student and two volunteers. I, as the oldest by far, had only one bikemate - the principal! As we whizzed down the road, I asked her if there were laws about how old one had to be to ride a motorbike. She grinned and said sixteen, which none of these students was close to, I was sure.

At school each day, we were given a teaching mission, ie. tell them about geography today. Sometimes we had a day's advance warning to devise a curriculum, sometimes we purely winged (wung?!)it. Near the end, we were given the assignment to do an environmental curriculum. We organized teams to collect trash, make environmental posters, etc.

The common language of the program was English. And really, more than anything, the goal was to expose the students to some English. However, only one volunteer and I were native English speakers. And her British accent was so thick that I literally had a harder time understanding her than the Asian volunteers! The Asian young women, and one young man, were earnest and worked hard to teach the students some English. Their accents, though, were so terrible that it made me cringe, hearing the equally earnest Thai kids repeat the volunteers' pronunciation! Yet, how could I correct or criticize? And really, was the point for them to become fluent, or to become enthusiastic learners and communicators? Clearly, I answered myself, it was the latter.

We went on various excursions with the group, which is a hallmark of all of these volunteer projects. We visited a wonderful set of falls where families picknicked and swam. Also, the principal took us to visit a local monastery. Monasteries there are very much a part of the community, in fact most young Thai men spend a year as monks, and just a minority stay permanently. We brought gifts for the head monk to distribute to families, food, and most memorably, rolls of toilet paper. I did feel a bit odd presenting the toilet paper to the head monk. Then he asked if we would like to see the body of the previous head monk, now deceased. We were taken into another room where, in a glass casket kind of like an aquarium, there was a body lying preserved in liquid. Certainly an impressive sight! It didn't seem like we were supposed to be especially reverential or prayerful. So we all just stood around for a few minutes. As I remember it, the current head monk was smiling all the while.