Category Archives: Europe

Street Life: Living Outside the Box

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

While watching a video clip from Cuba Feliz (a film of Cuban street musician Miguel Del Morales – known as El Gallo > The Rooster in English) I had a revelation. One of the reasons I absolutely adore countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia (or cities like Paris, Florence and, Montreal) is that people there live in the streets – almost literally. They spend much of their time in public spaces rather than inside their homes. They socialize, play, walk, eat, and drink together on the streets despite the hubbub of automobiles, bicycles, scooters, and other vehicles. The street is where it all happens!

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Paris, France

Paris, France

In places like Vietnam and Cambodia, not only are dwelling spaces small, but the kitchens are particularly cramped and often poorly equipped. Additionally, everyday meals are inexpensive and readily available at any number of street vendors, cafes, and small semi-permanent food stalls. So, even though there are those who do have modern conveniences like stove-tops, washing machines, or televisions the tradition remains to gather with friends outside of the home. Western cities like Paris and Florence do not have the same street culture as Southeast Asia but, there too, just about everyone walks along the crowded streets, shops at outdoor markets, and rests or plays in public parks. Food vendors/hawkers are not as a common a sight there but open-air cafes, trattoria, tapas bars, etc. definitely are.

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Streets are meant for people. This is eroding worldwide because of the ubiquitous car and streets that are getting wider to make room for these automobiles. Because of car traffic one rarely sees, in North American cities for example, children playing ball hockey, or hide and seek, jumping rope, or simply making up their own games on the street. Stoop or porch sitting is not a common site either. Spending time on our streets is no longer integrated into our daily lives and is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – so it seems to me. The social lives of city dwellers appear to be increasingly isolated. If I did not live directly next door to a community garden and park, or sit on the stoop of my house (which is facing our dead-end street), I would not know the people in my neighbourhood or have impromptu chats with complete strangers who walk by.

My neighbourhood is changing for the better. When I moved here 13 years ago there wasn’t much to do nearby. Today, there are a growing number of shops, restaurants, cultural centres, and parks which are within walking distance. There are even two farmers’ markets. The quality of life is better, street life is beginning to thrive, and there is little need to drive because this community has almost everything I need within walking distance or on the subway lines right nearby. It is a livable locale where neighbours run into each other on the street as they go about their daily business.

As I have mentioned multiple times in this blog, I am from Montreal. Despite it being a Northern city known for its very cold winters it somehow balances the frigid months with a French/Southern European mentality. Street life is substantial during the summer; people sit on their front stoops or balconies and are thus able to see and catch up with their neighbours. They eat in parks with omnipresent wine or beer so that public spaces become an extension of the private. Life, overall, takes to the streets and parks; the city pulsates with energy and activity.

Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

 Vibrant streets call to me. Who wants to be cooped up indoors when there’s food, drink, fun, and people to meet or just watch? Healthy street culture abounds with respect for the other. In many quarters in Montreal or Paris, for instance, children come home from school and almost immediately go outdoors, on their own or with their parents, to play on the streets or on the playgrounds. In Italy, piazzas (squares) are the main gathering areas. During La Passeggiata, which is the time before dinner (around 5:30-8:30), people stroll about the central piazza or main drag of a town (in fact, La Passeggiata comes from the verb ‘to walk’).  This traditional daily ritual is more common in small towns but can also be seen in cities; it is a way for Italians to connect. During passeggiata many people hang-out in the piazzas or surrounding outdoor bars to have an aperitivo. It is a time when you see a mix of age and class. Children flock together yet are within shouting distance of their parents. Likewise, many Asian countries’ city and town residents still work within a block or two of their homes (often, in fact, the front of the home is the place of business). Thus, city blocks are like little villages.

Street life gives one the opportunity for chance encounters. Life outside our boxes and on the street is like being in an outdoor living room where everyone congregates and the community is the pulse of it all. The bottom line, it is good for the heart and soul.

Dancing in a Park, Beijing, China

Dancing in a Park, Beijing, China

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Open Street Barber, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Open Street Barber Stall, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cahors, France

Cahors, France

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico

Apologies for no photos of the streets of Italy. Our camera was lost…

 

 

Travels in 2007: Part 2. Iceland

As I mentioned in the first part of this post Travels in 2007: Part 1. France, Iceland Air offers cheap flights to Europe in the hope of getting visitors to stop over in Iceland on the way to or from a person’s major destination. Steve and I decided to do exactly that and after ten days in the southwestern part of France we moved on to Iceland.

The topography off the road from Keflavik (the main airport in Iceland) to Reykjavik is totally unlike anything I have seen – very lunar/volcanic like. After driving a small, manual, car in France and seeing few large vehicles except for trucks it was a bit of a shock to drive a large, automatic, car and be surrounded by like automobiles. Outside of the Keflavik airport crushed cars hang high on poles alongside signs warning people to drive carefully. Subsequently, we found out that road conditions in Iceland are often treacherous with gravel and filled with potholes. The main road going from west to east, Route 1, in the south is mostly paved. Other country roads are washboarded and narrow. They can also be quite slick if it is or has been snowing. Steve and I had asked for an all-terrain vehicle so that we could drive back-roads to reach specific hiking spots. The man at the car rental insisted that all we needed was a simple sedan and nothing else. Oh! How wrong he was and we had to change our itinerary based on his poor recommendation and our naive acceptance of his word.

Route 1, Road to Vik

Route 1, Road to Vik

During our one day in Reykjavik we sauntered streets, traipsed into and out of some very chique clothing and design boutiques, and stopped to eat hotdogs (pylsur) for lunch (and Minke whale meat for supper). We would have ventured to try puffin while in Iceland but it was not in season.

The hotdog seems to be Iceland’s national food; it is found everywhere, including gas stations. Hotdogs are best ordered all dressed with chopped raw onions, a remoulade, ketchup, mustard, a nutty brown sugar of sorts, and crunchy fried onions. In central Reykjavik Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, opened in 1937, is a must stop destination for a tourist. If you like hotdogs Iceland is your place! In the meantime, here is an introduction to some traditional Icelandic foods.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

As you may know, Iceland, geologically, is full of active volcanoes, glacier-cut fjords, black sand beaches, waterfalls, and rivers. The country’s main product is geothermal energy  – renewable energy production via water heated by volcanoes and geothermal springs – and hydro power. Most homes there are supplied with heating and energy from these renewable sources. Because the majority of Iceland is powered by geothermal energy; the high sulphur content makes the water and air smell like foul eggs. Brushing ones’ teeth can be challenging.

Geothermal plant

Geothermal Plant

Geothermal plant

Geothermal Plant

During our walk home after supper, to our bed and breakfast in Reykjavik, Steve and I happened to look up at the sky and actually saw the Aurora Borealis (aka the Northern Lights). In the city!! Auroras occur when charged particles outside the Earth’s atmosphere collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere. Iceland is a perfect place to see the Northern Lights because of its cool, crisp evenings. It seems that April is a good time to see these lights and we spent every night thereafter waiting to see the night sky show, sometimes with luck and sometimes not.

The following day we took Route 1 to Vik where we passed some very large waterfalls, black sanded riverbeds, river deltas where we walked and sank knee-deep in the sand, afraid we’d sink further, as in quick sand. We also passed grassy fields and snow-capped mountains. In general, Iceland is a tree-less country.

We stayed two nights on Route 1 at the Hotel Anna. Returning there our second evening after a day of excursioning, we discovered that the power had gone out; this led us to some interesting insights into the Icelandic soul. Our room was getting cold to frigid; our dinner at the little attached restaurant (the only place to eat for miles!) was becoming and increasingly distant possibililty; it was also extremely dark. What was management’s reaction to our difficulties? A shrug. From this we learned that Iceland is a land of Individuals of the self-sustaining and self-sufficient stripe. This is not meant to be pejorative. It was simply an observation. Finally, at about 10:30 pm, the power returned and supper was made for us and the one other family staying at the hotel that night. The packets of cooked dried Swiss Knorr soup mix never tasted so good.

Heading to Stykkishólmur, we had to return along Route 1 so stopped at the tongue of a glacier where I accidentally stepped with one foot… and then leg, up to the hip into a snow crevasse. Steve had to pull me out or else I might not have easily been able to extricate myself. We headed to Stykkishólmur, a town that is situated in the western part of Iceland on the northeastern portion of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and whose Inhabitants make their living mainly from fishing but also tourism. We passed snowy, rocky peaks, as well as flat plateaus and valleys. We also drove through an astounding 5 km. tunnel under a fjord.

On the road Stykkishólmur just after a snow squall

On the road Stykkishólmur just after a snow squall

Stykkishólmur

Stykkishólmur

Stykkishólmur

Stykkishólmur

Volcanic rock just outside of Stykkishólmur

Volcanic rock just outside of Stykkishólmur

The first night there we patronized one of the three restaurants in this small town. The young woman who served us spoke excellent English, knew about Boston, and held as her most cherished wish to visit the apex of United States culture, The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.  At the airport on our way home we discovered that there is a direct flight to Minnesota from Iceland.

Our final day before returning to the airport to head back to Boston, we decided on a non-strenuous regime of circumnavigating the Snæfellsnes National Park. We stopped along the way to amble through a lava field, saw basalt cliffs, and “THE ARCH” at Anasartapi. We barely saw another soul or car and in fact counted only 12 cars in seven hours. The land was barren and beautiful.

I highly recommend April as the perfect time to travel to Iceland; it is not too cold or dark, it is off the high-tourist season, and if you are lucky you will get to see the Aurora Borealis.

Travels in 2007: Part 1. France

Iceland Air offers cheap flights to Europe in the hope of getting visitors to stop over in Iceland on the way to or from a person’s major destination. Steve and I decided to do exactly that and made a ten-day visit to the south of France in parts of Aquitane and the Midi-Pyrenees and then head over to Iceland. Not a bad vacation! Not at all.

Our travels began in Bordeaux where many of the people we met assumed we were British, for some reason. Little did they know… one Canadian and one American in their presence. Steve spent the first day taking photographs of bunkers north of Bordeaux at Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer.

Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer

Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer (photo credit: Steve Behrends)

Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer

Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer (photo credit: Steve Behrends)

Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer

Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer (photo credit: Steve Behrends)

I used the day to explore the city without camera in hand: I wound in and out of the streets in the centre of Bordeaux; walked to the Gare de Bordeaux Saint Jean – a station constructed of three sections with railroad tracks that go through and out of the station; saw the Palais du Justice, a contemporary work of architecture located in the heart of and juxtaposed with the medieval city; and visited the CAPC (Centre of Contemporary Visual Arts) where the work of Yonah Friedman was on exhibition.

My impression: Bordeaux is an odd mix of neighbourhoods filled with Middle Age architecture side by side with razed buildings that have been replaced with contemporary architecture. The streets in the old part of the city are narrow and one has to keep an eye on the sidewalk in order to avoid the dog excrement that litters the ground! It is, however, a very easy city to get around in, by both foot and bus. Driving is another matter – the city is not easily navigable and we got lost a few time trying to get in and out of it.

The next few days were spent to the west of Bordeaux, along the French coast, exploring yet more bunkers at: Soulac-sur-Mer, Le Gurp, Le Pin Sec, Cap Breton, Labenne and Pilat Plage.

We ate at three excellent restaurants –  one of which was an informal brasserie called Le Xaintrailles that made magnificent duck confit and served a very drinkable wine from Listrac Medoc; the place was comfortable, casual, reasonably priced, and (most importantly) the food  was good, so that we returned there on our last night in France before heading off to Iceland. We ate extremely well at Restaurant du Loup (it is a quiet restaurant, walls awash with deep, warm colours, tables covered with white linens and with candles alit). The food here is typical of the area and the foie gras was the absolute highlight. And then there was La Tupina – the service was excellent and the staff gave us lots of time to relax, eat, and enjoy ourselves. Everything we ate was utterly delicious: a different bottle of Listrac Medoc from when we were at Le Xaintrailles, sauteed foie gras, wild pork (fatty and delicious), seven-hour lamb, and finally espressos and a glass each of Armagnac to finish off the meal. All three restos are highly recommended to anyone visiting Bordeaux and wanting to eat representative food of the region. All three are still in business as I write this post in 2013.

Our final five days in Southern France were a whirlwind of driving on unmarked back roads in the countryside. We stayed at various gites (B&Bs) outside of the villages and treated ourselves to a hotel in the centre of Cahors. Recommended restos helped define the route; but it seems that all we did, despite some excellent eating, was drive and drive and drive and drive and drive and drive and drive. In fact, once we nearly ran entirely out of gas on a windy, hilly, undefined road where not a car passed us. We were uncertain if we’d make it to our destination (a small town that we hoped had diesel for us at the ready!) since the fuel gauge indicated the tank was on its 40 km. reserve. Fortuitously we made it with just under 20 km. left to the choking end!!!

However, with all of this driving we experienced varied landscape: ridge-lined mountains and low-lying valleys, farmland, vineyards, grottoes, forests, arid, desert-like red iron-filled and rocky landscapes, and little villages. The food and markets along the way were always a pleasure. We drove mostly fast, straight roads back to Bordeaux so that we could begin the second part of our overseas trip in Iceland before heading home to the U.S.

Scarecrow on small country road

Scarecrow on a Small Country Road

Madonna

Madonna in La Florida

La Florida

La Florida

Hotel de Ville

Hotel de Ville

Village in the mountains

Village in the Mountains

France 2004: Paris and Atlantikwall Bunkers

Bonjour France! Paris with Michelle, and Atlantikwall bunkers in the north of France with my husband Steve.

It was my first time in Paris and I felt completely at home – a first trip to France that I’d repeat in a heartbeat. Wandering the streets of several arrondissements (districts or neighbourhoods) in Paris gave me a sense of how the city is laid out and I was able to experience Paris without rushing around. I watched people as I drank an espresso at cafes, sat in some of the many smaller parks designed for children to play and adults to rest in (homes/apartments are small so these outdoor spaces are crucial and everyone uses them), or relaxed in the larger parks including the Place des Vosges, Jardin du Luxembourg, and the Jardin des Plantes. Paris for me was (and still is) all about wandering, allowing myself to get lost, explore, learn my way around, and get a feel for this great city. And of course the food. Glorious food in the form of markets, cafes, boulangeries, patisseries, and restos. My friend Michelle and I ate like royalty. And of course there were the shops: small boutiques and large department stores, like the spectacular Galeries LaFayette; it all seemed forbidden somehow and yet how could one say “no” to temptation? One brilliant week in Paris.

View from le Centre Pompidou

View from le Centre Pompidou

Before visiting a few bucolic villages in the countryside south of Normandy in the Pays de la Loire at the end of my travels with Steve, I was off for a stint of bunker hopping.

After a six-hour flight from Boston, Steve arrived in Paris only for us to discover that we could rent manual transmission cars, only. Since, at the time I did not know how to drive a manual automobile he drove the four hours north to our bed and breakfast at Madame Martin’s, in Pas de Calais. Advertised as a bilingual B&B (Steve is woefully ignorant of all languages except for English), the stark truth was quickly revealed. Only Madame’s husband, recently deceased, had ever spoken something other than French. To make matters worse (for Steve), our urine-scented room, the poor quality of food offered by Madame Martin, and the generally awkward atmosphere upped the ante. Luckily, I jumped in as translator to make this stay easier.

From Madame Martin’s on to bunkers! The Germans built the Atlantikwall between 1942 and 1945; it was a system of concrete fortifications in western Europe to protect the Germans from expected British ally invasions. These bunkers now scar the land in a strangely beautiful way – by means of urban archaeological decay.  Bunkers are found all across the coast of France (and Europe). During this trip Steve and I wandered the shores of:  (day 1) Pas de Calais to see the Le Blockhaus d’Eperlecques (le blockhaus), then north to Wissant, and lastly Oye-Plage at sunset for even more bunkers; (day 2) Dunkerque (Bray Dunes) and then time in Bayeux which included a walk in the countryside, a look at the magnificent Bayeux tapestry, and a lovely lunch at L’Assiette Normande; (day 3) Arromanches to see the Port Winston Ruins and then take a drive along the coast to Grand Camp-Masy and the Dunes of Varrieville for a walk through the Utah Beach Bunkers. The sites are surreal and the French people have learned to live with these mostly immense sinking constructions, re-imagining the usability of their coastal landscape without attempting to destroy the bunkers to restore the coast.

The Blockhaus at Eperlecques

The Blockhaus at Eperlecques

Port Winston at Arramanches

Port Winston at Arramanches

Port Winston at Arramanches

Port Winston at Arramanches