Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Island of Galloping Tides

Dawn breaks over Granville*
I had seen the urban delights of Paris, but I wasn’t ready to leave without sampling some of the charms of the French countryside, even though I only had time for a quick 2 day sojourn.
The coasts of Normandy and Brittany are about a 4 hour drive away from Paris. Here, at the mouth of the Cousenon river, about half a mile out from the coast, lies one of the greatest natural and architectural wonders of France. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the third most visited tourist site in France after the Eiffel and Versailles: Mont St. Michel. We decided to make an overnight trip, visiting Versailles on the way and staying over at a seaside town in Normandy called Granville. It was a cold rainy day in Paris as I started out early in the morning in a rented SUV, with my brother and two of my Singaporean friends.
Our visit to Versailles on the way was a big disappointment-we had to stand in a serpentine queue in freezing rain for over two hours just to enter the chateau.
Evening Drive
The road to Granville
The chateau is always crowded, but on that day it was worse: everyone had been forced indoors by the rain. The magnificent baroque halls and passageways felt like packed subway train compartments at rush hour. We left Versailles exhausted, cold, damp, and disappointed by its crushing crowds and overpriced sandwiches.
Drive Expressway
Sunset enroute Granville
The drive onward to Granville was what saved the day. Soon after we left Versailles in the late afternoon, the clouds opened up to reveal the most pristine golden sunshine bathing the rolling green hills and pastures. A white church steeple stuck out amidst a clump of trees here, and a windmill stood silhouetted against the broken clouds on the hill there. The road ran like a shining ribbon up and down the undulating land and the evening sun glinted off the windows of distant cars on the road ahead. We reached Granville well after sunset, and made our way to the Hotel ibis Granville Port de Plaisance in the dark. We could tell that the sea was very close by the salty breeze and sound of waves but couldn’t see a thing in the darkness. That evening we were the only diners at the hotel restaurant, besides one other local couple.
Yachts in the Granville Harbour
Two Indian boys and two Chinese girls must’ve seemed like an outright Asian invasion in that restaurant in the sleepy French sea-side town.
First light Seaside morning
First light touches Granville*
As expected, the menu was French and it did not help that the waiter spoke no English. Had that couple on the neighbouring table not taken pity on us, I am sure we were in for some gastronomic (mis)adventures that night. (In fact I did have one when I mistakenly ordered some sea-snails-bulots-and then had to eat them to save face, as I have mentioned in my earlier post). 
I awoke at dawn the next day to the sound of thunder and sweeping rain, and I was afraid our luck with sunshine of the previous evening had run out. But weather can be fickle on the coast of the English Channel. Within an hour the rain cleared. As the light seeped into the sky we to our surprise saw that our hotel was built on a large jetty jutting out into the sea. Hundreds of anchored fishing boats rocked gently right next to us as the first streaks of sunlight pierced through the clouds. It was a pity we couldn’t spend more time here. After a quick walk around in the 12 degree chill of the morning and we set off right away to Mont St. Michel as the sunshine sparkled again on the glistening roads and soaked shrubbery.
Morning France
Chilly morning in rural France
France Village Morning
Breakfast awaits
Breakfast was at an unidentified village on the way consisting of two rows of low houses lining the road. The baker, the Carrefour grocery store, the dentist, the lawyer and the pub (which doubled up as the coffee shop in the morning) were all within shouting distance of each other. We bought fresh cakes and croissants from a much amused lady in the bakery (she looked at us like we were the first group of South and East Asians to be seen in her village) and settled down in the neighbouring coffee shop. Nothing can taste better than freshly baked croissants and steaming hot chocolate in a little French village coffee-shop. Of course it helps if it is a cold sunny morning after the rain.
Normandy France
First look at Mont Saint Michel
Abbey Church
Stained Glass
in the Abbey
Mont St. Michel floats like a mirage on the horizon long before you reach it. It is a rocky island in the bay off the mouth of the Cousenon river, crowned by an abbey dedicated to the eponymous saint. His gilded statue watches over the island and the surrounding country from the top of the church spire, 170 metres above the sea level. Mont St. Michel’s documented history dates back well over a 1000 years to AD 709 when the bishop of Avranches built the first church here. It has been a place of worship and retreat for monks for most of that history. But the island also came to be used as a fortress during the wars that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages, and it is not difficult to see why. From its isolated location in the bay it commands a panoramic view of the coasts of Normandy and Brittany for miles inland, so that it is impossible to approach unseen. The approach itself is perilous: until a causeway was built across the mud-flats in the bay in recent times, there was no safe way to approach it. The bay surrounding the island is inundated by some of the largest tides in Europe. The difference between the high and low watermark can be up to 15 metres. They are also among some of the fastest tides in Europe. The locals call them the ‘galloping tides’, for the waters are said to coming in ‘at the speed of galloping horses’. And as if this weren’t enough, the way across the mud-flats is fraught with danger: quicksand, disorienting fog, and a sea that can encircle unwary travellers.
France Mudflats
Wide Open Spaces
Shuttle buses ferry tourists to and fro across the causeway today. But enthusiasts are welcome to walk down if they like, and considering the fine weather that morning, that is what we did. You only realize the scale and the enormity of the place when you stand on the causeway looking towards the island. It was low tide that morning. Miles and miles of grey mudflats stretched out on either side and, beyond them, stretched the marshes and farmlands of Normandy and Brittany. White chalk cliffs rose out far in the distance and pools of sea water left behind by the retreating tide glinted sapphire-blue in the brilliant sunshine. The silence was absolute (when we were not talking), and calls of mallard ducks flying high across the mud-flats floated through air. In the vast sunlit silence, I walked for the most part to the rhythm of my breathing and my footsteps.
Ramparts Flag
National Pride
Mont Saint Michel
Massive Stone Structures
As we approached the island, we could see massive ramparts that were probably built during the years of war, with the French flag flying atop. Mont St. Michel was the only fortress in Normandy that did not fall to the English during the Hundred Years War and is still seen as a symbol of French resistance and nationalistic pride. As we passed through the through the village at the base of the island, we went up a set of increasingly steep paths and staircases up towards the abbey. The village serves as a reminder that the principal objective of this place today is no longer religious seclusion or wartime protection: it is tourism. Every shop overflows with postcards and mementos and every restaurant offers an overpriced menu. (It was interesting to know that this area does have its own signature dish: uniquely flavoured local lamb. Sheep graze on the polder lands - lands reclaimed from the sea - along the coast. The salty meadows support salt-water-loving plants that the sheep feed on. This gives the meat its unique flavour).
France Church
Tapestries of stone and lichen
Stone Canyon
The abbey itself is a colossus: an engineering marvel built on a rock that did not have enough level surface to hold its foundations. Immense crypts were built under the church to create a platform large enough to support each of its wings. A cluster of stone buildings abuts the church. They house granaries, living quarters for the monks and arms and garrison for the fighting armies among other things and blend in seamlessly with the stone-work of the abbey itself. Centuries of salt water, wind and sun have weathered exteriors of these walls into gorgeous tapestries of stone streaked with lichen. A narrow cobblestone path winds its way up to the church though the soaring buttresses and pinnacles on either side. As I climbed up, the crick in my neck reminded me that I’d been looking almost vertically upwards at the stonework for the better part of my ascent through this canyon. The statue of St. Michel was watching me every step of the way from his perch high atop the steeple. Emerging out of the shadows of the path and into the bright sunshine of the church courtyard at the top, it was the wind that took my breath away at first. Then it was the view.
Sunshine Autumn Brittany Normandy
Shadows of Clouds
Abbey Church Spire
The Statue of St.Michel
Mont Saint Michel
The Abbey
Walking was difficult across the courtyard as strong gusts of wind shoved me this way and that. A little stub of a ticket I held in my hand was snatched and blown 3 or 4 storeys high in a dizzying arc before being hurled down like a stone-only to be yanked up again inches before it smashed on the rough stones. The wind whipped my hair and tugged at my jacket and the ground slipped beneath my feet as I looked over the edge onto the sea-bed far below. Clouds floated in silence above the boundless mudflats and far-away farmlands lands of the coast, belying the cold gusty ferocity of the wind on the ground. If this was Mont St. Michel on a bright sunny autumn day at low tide, I shuddered to imagine what the place would feel like in a howling storm on a dark winter’s day surrounded by an angry heaving sea. I’m sure the images of ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ that flashed through my mind would pale in comparison to the real thing. The isolation of the place was on starkly visible from the courtyard-a mile of seabed and marsh lay between us and the nearest human settlement. Before the radio and telephone connected them to the mainland, there was just no way for people to call for help-except signalling with bonfires may be. Only the sky and the sea that embraced them would be witness to their struggles. 
Mont Saint Michel
The seabed and the marshes*

Seabed English Channel
Looking out to the English Channel
Mont Saint Michel France
Solitary walker on the mud-flats*
After the blustery courtyard, the interior of the church couldn’t have been more peaceful and reassuring. The constant rush of the wind in my ears suddenly went silent as I stepped in the high vaulted interior. It was at least a couple of degrees warmer.  I could hear echoes of shuffling footsteps of visitors as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Logs of light filtered through the high glass windows, falling at an angle to the walls, as if supporting them. A huge church organ stood in lit by a light beam at a side overlooking rows of pews in the shadows. It was a good time for us to rest our aching legs and spend a moment in silence to catch our breath  I could not help wondering what living here was like for Mont St. Michel’s monks over the centuries: isolated from the world, with only echoes of their own footsteps and the wailing wind for company. Did they find their God in this beautiful yet heart-wrenchingly lonely place? A week or two might be nice, but I shuddered at the thought of a lifetime here.

Causeway Silt France UNESCO
Restoration work on the Bay of Mont Saint Michel
Normandy Brittany UNESCO
 Intrepid explorers of the sea-bed*
On my way back, I learnt from the UNESCO signboards that Mont St. Michel in recent times is no longer completely surrounded by water except during the highest tides of the year, because of extensive silting of the bay. Reduced flow of water from the Cousenon due to activities on the shore is mainly responsible. I remember the sinking feeling as I read the signboard - the story sounded eerily familiar to so many other stories of environmental disasters from around the world. But in this case, there seemed to be some hope. The signboard went on to talk about the major restoration work on since 2005. A new dam being built on the Cousenon, dredging and de-silting of the bay and a new causeway that will allow water to flow freely underneath it are some of the initiatives under this restoration project to return the area to its natural state.
The more I read about them, the more remarkable I found the concerted efforts being put in to restore Mont St. Michel’s former glory. Such decisive action to reverse the ill-effects of human activities on the land is rare. But then, Mont St. Michel is a remarkable place, an extraordinary culmination of the work of nature and man. It certainly deserves to retain the romance it has always held for centuries.


* These snaps have been clicked by my brother, who always makes me wish he would take more of such photographs

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Parlez Vous Anglais?

A city unlike any other

Carousel Carnival
I think fluorescent tube-lights cast a very unflattering white light. Add to that a clattering metro train with an ageing steel chassis, worn purple seats and damp grey platforms outside the grimy windows and you definitely don’t have the most cheerful of atmospheres. The crowd is a mix of black and white people, with a stray brown bloke like me thrown in. This could easily be New York’s gloomy subway. It’s even got the same garish fluorescent graffiti on platform walls and tunnels.

Wrought Iron
Arguably the most famous iron structure in the world
But then you start to notice things that make you rethink the city you are passing under. The station name that reads Bréguet-Sabin announced is ‘Bghreegay Sabaan’. You take a closer look at the blacks, whites and browns in the train and notice that all of them (except yours truly) are unusually well-dressed for a regular rush-hour commute in October.Understated shades of grey, burgundy, brown and black are everywhere. No frumpy shoes, sweat-shirts, pink and red coats, or synthetic wind-cheaters here-everyone is complete with a warm woolen coat and a subtle scarf. The younger lot (which is almost everyone in the carriage) sport slim fit jeans and t-shirts. (And they all are ‘slim-fit’ sized-no bulging biceps and buxom beauties here) The much-talked about man-bag makes an appearance along with the designer purses. Many have their noses buried deep in thick paperbacks rather than a game of Angry Birds on i-Phones. As the train slows, you notice the posters on the platform walls with their faded, old but tasteful tile-work. A huge print of a classic Raphael oil on the walls declares “’Raphael in Rome’ opens at the Louvre”. The adjoining one urges you to watch for the annual event of Salon du Chocolat starting from 31st Oct. An announcement booms through the underground station in that language which is always music to the ears, even if you don’t understand it. A Bonne Journée stall near the exit selling the last of its croissants off the now empty shelves completes the picture.

I was riding in to Paris on the metro from the Charles De Gaulle Airport to my brother’s apartment. Over the next nine days, I would get up close and personal with the arts, architecture, language, people and food of this city and repeatedly confirm what I had realized on that first day- Paris is like no other city in the world. And that is so because Parisians want it to be so.

Paris Champs Elysses
Arc de Triomphe
For one, Paris, (like the rest of France and Europe) is a place that reminds you of the origins of English from a small group of islands off the Channel Coast. That it became the ubiquitous global super-language we know now was a game of chance, the French would have you believe. It’s little surprise that the title of this blog-post is the question I started most of my conversations from Oct 10 to Oct 19 with. The answer varied from ‘Yes I do’ to ‘Un peu (a little)’ in Paris; but in the sea-side town of Granville on the coast of Normandy I also got a flat ‘Non’ with the classic French shoulder-shrug from a waiter. (This resulted in considerable agony since the menu of the only open restaurant within a 2 mile radius was French. When - out of sheer dare-devilry - I ordered the first item in the menu, they turned out to be bulots - sea-snails. I am only glad they didn't taste half as bad as they looked).  This disregard for English is a strange feeling for someone from a country that no longer thinks of English as a foreign language. The French, however, have resolutely stuck it out so far, and still relegate a lowly second place to Anglais on their sign-boards – if at all that is.(Also, the English font is at least 5 sizes smaller). Parisians, however, are conceding some ground-most Parisian signboards do have both languages.

Evening Paris
Evening settles over Paris, seen from the Montparnasse
For another, much of Paris it looks like it just stepped out of 1892 into 2012. The World Wars that flattened so many cities in Europe, especially in Germany, spared Paris. The city rarely rises above 4 storeys. And those 

are 4 storeys of ornate stone facades with the top windows jutting out of sloping roofs, while the bottom levels are occupied by beautiful cafes and shops. Even a simple pharmacie in Paris can have art deco lettering and a 1920’s shop-front. Parisians have stubbornly refused to allow any new construction within the confines of their old city. The top of the new Montparnasse tower built in the early 70s is snidely called the best spot in Paris, because it is the only place in the city from where you cannot see the skyscraper. This heritage tag attached to every brick and paving stone has strangled the supply of new homes within the city limits. As a result, many Parisians just end up renting a house and never buying one all their lives. Even the portable green ‘box’ book shops on the banks of the Seine (‘the only river that runs between two bookshelves’) are coveted property.  A tradition harking back to the 16th century, new licenses for these bookshops are no longer being issued and existing ones are handed down like family heirlooms. 

Sunshine Rain
The sun after the rain
Finally, through the long years of the 18th and the 19thcenturies, Paris has been the crucible for experiments in urban living, pursuit of the arts and philosophy, free thinking and sophistication. The process may have been catalyzed by the many revolutions that France went through, the French Revolution of 1792 being the most famous. But it has also been a process of maturing as much as it has been about upheaval and churning. Paris has been home to some of the West’s most famous intellectuals, iconoclasts, artists and rebels through the golden years of its history. These people have contributed to the texture and flavor of the culture that Paris has so prided herself on. 

Paris Streetscape
A Parisian street leading to The Luxembourg Gardens
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Voltaire, Sartre, Orwell, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and the other names that I heard on my various excursions in the city, lived and worked here, created some of their most famous works here, and quite literally, rubbed shoulders with each other. And I don’t just mean at the salons1 or the Salon de Paris2. I mean rubbing shoulders in everyday life, in the parks, on the streets, and in the cafés.  A walk down through the neighborhoods of St. Germain and Montparnasse can take you past a Café de Flores, where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir spent a lot of their time, or a La Rotonde or a Le Dome, which regularly hosted Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Eliot, and even found a mention in their novels. Go  further down from St. Germain and you can see the famous Luxembourg Gardens, Victor Hugo’s choice of setting to get lovers to meet in Les Misérables, and a favorite rendezvous spot for Hemingway and his contemporaries like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. 

Napoleon Dome
Les Invalides after a squall of rain
Autumn in Paris is unpredictable weather, and cold drizzling rain can last for whole days. But when the sun does come out it can be worth the wait. We got on to an open-top double-decker hop-on-hop-off bus, Le Open Tours, on one such sunny day and were treated to a city basking in glorious sunshine. The buses were, for a change, filled with people as inept at French as us, and I bet that common handicap gave everyone a bit of unknowing comfort. 

Paris Napoleon
The gardens of Les Invalides 

Of course we hopped off at every major monument for a closer look. But we also saw much of the city from the upper deck, as we rode past leafy boulevards littered with autumn leaves and windows with roses blooming on the sills, past chiropracteurs and boulangeries, and marchés and bureax de poste, and fleuristes and brasseries, across narrow cobblestone streets and wide bridges over the Seine. The city is an incredible portrait of the 18th century urban aesthetics of Europe. 

“Parisians seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on appearances”, my brother had quipped when I had first asked him about his impressions of the city. Well, the city does it too, and in grand period style.

Autumn Paris
A bright autumn day in Paris

1. Salons: 17th and 18th century literary gatherings to exchange and appreciate each others’ work
2. Salon de Paris: The official annual/biannual art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, arguably the West’s greatest art event in the 18th & 19th centuries to which many a Monet owes his fame

Of Dinners and Museums

Fine dining  is a concept that Paris has given to the world, among other things. Even as a kid, I remember my characters in Enid Blytons and PG Wodehouses drool over French cuisine. Wodehouse’s celebrated French chef, anatole, has always been a key bargaining chip in negotiations to extricate Bertie Wooster from the soup he usually finds himself in. 

Coffee Conversations
Coffees and Conversations from the city that gave the world the Café

The Sacré-Cœur Basilica at Montmartre
Dining out is serious business in Paris and has been so for far longer than any other place in the world. You could choose to eat in a Café, a Bistro, a Brasserie, or a Crêperie3. The food is delectable and expensive-a meal in Paris with wine can cost anywhere upwards of 20 Euros per person. The confit de canard (duck), the chèvre (goat cheese) pastas, the moules-frites (mussels and fries), the Crème brûlées and the vins (wines) that I had at various times on this trip were absolutely delightful, my preference for vegetarian food notwithstanding. But dining in Paris is as much about the company as it is about food. You catch up with old friends and even meet new ones over long leisurely dinners. One dinner I had lasted for 2.5 hours. No plates were cleared until the last person on the table had finished eating and no check was produced until we asked.

Paris Dusk
Paris lights up at dusk
The notorious French working culture was inevitably the topic of conversation that night. ‘Is it really like that?’ we asked our French friend we met over dinner that night, after discussing a few horror stories about how the French (don’t) work. He smiled. “It’s always a bit exaggerated. A 60 hour work week for people like us is not uncommon at all. Nowadays it might only be the lower ranking staff like bank tellers who can pack up and leave at 5 everyday. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility and has the ambition to build a career had better think twice about how he works”. A highly educated fresh graduate, perhaps he represented a changing face of the French workforce (one that spoke English very well). And he never spoke a truer word. With two rating agencies stripping France of its AAA rating and a not-so-veiled threat to do likewise from the third4, the France is going to have to pull together its game, and soon. One misstep and it may find itself on the path to join its Mediterranean neighbors in the south.  But change is slow. Some things will be hard to let go of, and I can very well imagine why.  A passing mention of his 50 ruddy days of vacation a year was enough to leave us green with envy.

Paris Evening
The glittering city seen from Montmartre
“I feel so nice when someone makes the effort to learn and speak French. We’re rather proud of our language, and appreciate it when someone takes notice of it”, he said, steering the conversation to calmer waters and echoing the sentiments of many other French men and women I met through the trip. A little ‘Bon Jour’ and ‘Excusé Moi’ and ‘Merci’ can change the tone of a conversation.  French is indeed a very beautiful language. Other merits of a language apart, it sounds incredibly musical to the ears, far more so than English or any other language I know. You only have to hear a French song like La Vie En Rose to realize that the language was built for music, with its nasal ‘ain’s, the curvy ‘oi’s, the sensual ‘j’s ‘ and the very French ‘u’s (made by pronouncing an ‘ee’ but puckering your lips as if to kiss). Even the soft throaty ‘r’s manage to join in the harmony. German on the other hand sounds like chain saws, and many Indian languages, like rattling trains.

The Mona Lisa holds court at the Louvre
A medieval German bust of Christ 
That very satisfying dinner had come on the heels of a very rainy afternoon well-spent at the Louvre. I doubt if any other museum in the world is so famous, and has so many visitors who couldn't care less about history and art. I know people who would prefer water-boarding at Guantanamo to visiting museums. And yet they all have visited the Louvre. Their recollections of  the place usually consist of statistics like the 10 miles they walked inside the museum in a single day, and the 20 minutes within which they managed to ‘cover the whole of Renaissance and Ancient Egypt’. Well, I decided to spend 20 minutes at the entrance with a map instead, and  concluded that I only wanted to see the Dutch and Italian paintings, the Marble Sculptures and Napoleon III’s apartment. And to start with, I made a beeline for the Mona Lisa. 
The Marble Warrior
At the end of the day, I walked very few miles at the Louvre, but had more than enough time to marvel at the lush works of art that stood arrayed before me.  These masters have shown that heroism, pathos, love, pain, all can be carved out of stone and frozen on to a canvas. It must have taken a detailed study of human anatomy, years of practicing their workmanship, and finally, a heart to feel everything that you wanted your viewer to feel. The Dutch landscapes, for instance, have the power to stop you in your tracks.  They take you straight to the hills and rivers and woods of the European countryside, under the open skies.

Pyramid at the Louvre
The Louvre
But nothing comes close to the Impressionists’ works that I saw at the Musée D’Orsay the day before. It was a great pity that I could not capture them with my camera. The Impressionists paint light. A summer afternoon under the trees, the afternoon sun on the river, the sunlit fields and woods, the pale winter sunshine on a snowy day, the hedges full of flowers and the sky full of colors, the city streets glistening under the lights of the night: every Impressionist painting that I saw took my heart away. Renoir, Monet, Manet and others have given the world an enduring gift-a bit of sunshine on a canvas.

Autumn Sunshine
Autumn sunshine at the Luxembourg Gardens

3. Café : a restaurant primarily serving coffee as well as pastries and light meals such as sandwiches 

Brasserie: A type of French restaurant with a relaxed, upscale setting, which serves single dishes and other meals. A brasserie can be expected to have professional service, printed menus, and, traditionally, white linen —unlike a bistro which may have none of these. Typically, a brasserie is open every day of the week and serves the same menu all day 

Bistro: a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting. Bistros are defined mostly by the foods they serve. French home-style cooking with robust earthy dishes, and slow-cooked foods like cassoulet, a bean stew, are typical 

Crêperie: a takeaway restaurant or stall, serving crêpes as a form of fast food or street food, or may be a more formal sit-down restaurant.

4.Standard and Poors and Moodys have downgraded France's sovereign debt rating from AAA and Aaa to AA+ and Aa1 respectively in 2012 while Fitch has a negative outlook with its AAA rating