Friday, April 19, 2013

Road Trip: Southern French Alps

So, yesterday, I looked at the weather report and saw that it would be beautiful weather the next two days, and then rainy Friday.  I’d been meaning to take a little motorbike trip for a while, so , why not?  I left at 3pm, after getting some camping supplies, then hit the open road.  I started down the coast road, which once you get past the city of Cannes, is amazing.  Check the photo link for some examples.

The only catch to the Easy Rider trip was my cold.  I’d had a cold for the last few days, and was still feeling totally out of it.  Like head in the clouds, confused about everything, out of it.  I might have had a fever.  But, weather waits for no man, so I headed out anyway.  Perhaps a night under the stars would clear things up.

The first day was rough.  I only rode for 3 hours, but even then, was having a hard time staying focused on the road, I felt barely in control of the bike.  To be fair, the bike is also new to me, I’ve only had it since February 1st, and it usually takes a few months of everyday riding to really get the feel of a bike. 

Eventually I made it to the beginnings of the Alps, and found a isolated spot to pull the bike over.  I hiked up a rock face for about 30 minutes and found a good camp spot.  A word about camping in Europe.  It sucks, very hard.  The only legal campsites are basically RV parks, complete with mini mart, a pool, and sometimes, a discotheque.  That’s a real hard sell from someone coming from Oregon, whose used to off road camping miles away from any signs of civilization or other humans.  For me, camping is a chance to re-experience the  glorious quiet, and slight danger, of wild nature.  So, I do what I call ninja-camping here.  Basically, find some wilderness, and hide yourself in it.  I rarely use a tent when I camp (unless it’s rainy, or I’m stuck in a campground), preferring to be under the stars.  So, when camping involves finding a flat spot, and throwing down a sleeping bag, it’s pretty easy to be ninja about it.  The only drawback to ninja camping is that you can’t really have a fire without drawing a bit of attention, and in the south of France, they are super paranoid about forest fires, as the climate is dry and very rich people own property there (just like California)

I had a new sleeping bag, a summer bag, thinking that the mild Mediterranean climate would be sufficient for it.   The night came on gentle enough, and I crawled into my bag cosy.  A few hours later I woke up, my legs and feet were freezing.  I was on top of a small mountain, and the bag was rated to be “comfortable” at 50F (10C-finally slowly, after 3 years of trying, I’m starting to get Celsius…sort of), and 40F was noted as “transition”, with 30F noted as “extreme”.  It had been hot in the day, around 70F, and I didn’t think it would be that cold at night.  Well, “transition” should be noted as “cold as hell”.  I suppose “extreme” means “you won’t freeze to death, not exactly”.    To be fair, I didn’t expect there to be a stunning 35 degree Fahrenheit difference between night and day (which was the case).

I tried to rest it out hoping dawn would come soon.  But after at least an uncomfortable hour, I decided screw it,  ninja or  not, I was making a fire.  So I did, and after that managed to get a an hour or two of sleep.  Lesson learned.  Always get a sleeping bag that is rated at least 15 degrees colder than any weather you plan on camping in.  Because nothing ruins a camping trip like being unable to sleep because you’re cold and miserable.

I woke up, trekked back to the bike, and hit the road again.  I was feeling better today, more awake, less numb headed.  I spent the day looping through the southern Alps.  Now, I always figured that European wilderness was pretty tame and neutered compared to the great open and untamed wilderness of the West of America.  And while it isn’t  quite as vast and untamed, I was impressed.  The French Alps are pretty remarkable.  Geologically, Europe is old.  It hasn’t changed a lot in the millennia, unlike the New World.  Most of Europe is not volcanically or tectonically active.  Usually, this means the land has been gently worn down by nature and humankind to be not much more than rolling hills.  Most of France is like this, but the South is different. 

Instead of rounding it down, time has carved it into some fantastic shapes.  I took a bunch of photos, but they hardly capture the magnificence of it.  I’ve never seen huge sheers cliffs and gorges like I have here.  Some of them look like some giant took a mountain, then cut a slit down it.  You go through these gorges, and above is about 300 feet of vertical rock, below you about 400 feet of vertical rock, and clinging to this sheer drop is twisting, narrow alpine road.  That is driving in the Alps, countless blind hairpin corners, with sheer drops to one side, and vertical expanses of mountain the other.  Then, you round the corner, and there is a medieval village clinging to a cliff, with a fortress guarding the highest point.  It really looks like Lord of the Rings stuff, but actually, better.    Again, the photos don’t do it justice, but give an idea.  Seriously, I was stopping around every other corner in awe of the vistas.

I stopped at a few of the villages, and I love these cliff villages, which are fairly common in the South.  Some barbarians decided that would be the safest, easiest place to defend, and had a water source, and thus, a village.  Some in very unlikely places, literally, hanging off mountains.   As space is at a premium in such a settlement, all the streets are very narrow, and the whole thing reminds you of a medieval beehive, narrow passageways twisting in and under each other.  Most of the passageways are too narrow for cars.  Very fairy tale-like.

As I was heading back, I finally started to get the feel of cornering on my bike, and was whipping around blind hairpin corners at 70kph an hour (about 45mph-don’t tell my mom, it will only give her grey hairs).  I even was able to lean it so hard into a few corners that my centerstand was scraping the ground.  A quick word about scooters;  they are easy to drive, and very convenient for around cities, as there’s no gears, they give your protection from rain, wind and road muck, they don’t ruin your shoes, they’ve got a ton of built in storage, and they are very maneuverable due to their smaller wheels.  This is great in urban areas, but on the open road they tend to suffer.  The smaller wheels make cornering quite a bit more touchy, and they don’t have good mid-range, car passing acceleration, like a traditional motorcycle would.  So, to work a scooter at speed takes some know how, whereas a motorcycle is built for that purpose.  

Anyway, it was a very successful little adventure, but makes me reconsider longer scooter trips, for the sole reason that the riding position is hard on the back.  Not as bad as a full sports bike perhaps, but you are forced to sit stock upright, with your arms crooked to hold the bars, and it forces your lower back to take all the weight, balance, and control.  There’s a reason people use motorcycles and not scooters for long touring. 

In the end, I can say, the southern French Alps are one of the most beautiful mountainous areas I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve toured through the mountains of Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Northeast of the US.  It is tied with Idaho (in my book, the most beautiful mountains so far), and that’s saying a lot.  Except in France, when you come up on a small village, instead of hillbilly rape or gun crazy Mormons, there’s wine and castles.  That’s a plus.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013



Tuesday afternoon, my new Lebanese friend Eli, who I met at immigration classes, called me and asked if I wanted to go to Slovenia for the weekend…Slovenia?!  I didn’t actually know where it is, exactly (bad geography teacher!), but my first response to any  question that begins with “do you want to go to…” is, yes. 

 I know it’s in Eastern Europe, which is an area I have traveled very little (just Czech Republic), but then with a moments more research (thanks wikipedia!), I discover that it’s a part of former Yugoslavia.  Now, being a child of the Cold War, I think Yugoslavia, I think dank, overcrowded orphanages, bloody Balkan wars, dismal grey communism , not good things.  But also, being a traveler, I think ‘cheap!’ and ‘cool stuff to see!’   

A little more research shows that actually, Slovenia is the richest, most Western Balkan country, and the most stable.  They avoided all the Balkan war nastiness actually.  They were the first former Yugoslavian country accepted into the EU, and have a standard of living on par with anywhere else in Western Europe, although they are currently experiencing high unemployment (like a lot of Europe).

Anyway, we left Friday afternoon at 2, driving Eli’s car, across Italy (crossing northern Italy takes a long time, 8 hours), Eli, me, and his french colleague Fred.  Road Trip!!  We got into Slovenia late, and the plan was to stay with some girls who Eli had met though the website , a pretty interesting little thing for those who don’t know.  Won’t spend much time explaining the site, but it’s a pretty cool site that connects travelers with other travelers, and/or places to crash for a few nights.  So, the girls said we could stay with them for the weekend.  The first girl, Barbara lived out in the countryside (most of Slovenia is countryside) with her parents, and they were all very sweet and nice, and her mom made a lovely breakfast for us, and her father sent us along the way with some bottles of Medini (spelling?) a local liquor distilled with honey (yummy drunk). 

A word about Slovenia:  it’s a quite varied country, as a part of it is on the Mediterranean, a part is impassable mountains, and a part is rolling plains, all in a tiny country you can drive border to border the long ways in about 3 hours.  Much of it is rural and sparsely populated, a lot of thick mountain forests.  Also, I was corrected, Slovenia is Central, Not Eastern, Europe.   In our American Cold War thinking, we often divide Europe into Free West, and Communist East.  But in fact, there’s the whole middle ground of Central Europe that get’s brushed into east, but isn’t, geographically or culturally. 

In fact, while Yugoslavia was communist, it wasn’t Stalinist, and they retained a fairly autonomous country which did business with the West and East.  Marshal Tito was the dictator for many years, but for a dictator, he was a pretty mild one.  Yugoslavian communism was the most humane communism on the market actually.  But in the end, no one likes dictatorships and being poor, so they turned free market republic when the rest of the communist countries dropped the act too.  I talked with the girls’ parents about life under Tito, and they said that Slovenians often think that life, while more shabby under communism, was more fair and just to the masses, rather than the feast or famine economies of capitalism.

Anyway, later that day, we saw some famous ski slopes and the town of Mirabor (second biggest in Slovenia, with a whopping 100,000 population), and there, the ancient grandfather of wine, the oldest living and grape producing wine vine in the world (400 years old).  Then, off to the capital Ljubjana, to meet up with Rebeka and Ana.  A note about Slovenian language.  It’s weird.  They don’t use a lot vowels.  C sounds  like “ch”, DR sounds like “ch”, Z sounds like “ch” in fact, pretty much the whole language is either a “ya” sound (like Ljubjana, which is pronounced Loobyanna), a “ch” sound, or “szz” (I still can’t make that sound) sound.  The word for hello is “Pozdravljeni  I didn't say Hello very often...

The word for “square”  (like plaza) is spelt “trg”.  Yup.  No vowels.  There’s a few other words that I can’t remember but they were spelt something like this “Drznjsco” or something.  With help from our hosts, I was able to learn a few phrases of Slovenian though.  Not quite as good as Eli though, being Lebanese, he is fluently multilingual, and was able to pick up a bit more than I.  Poor Fred, being French, had a harder time at it, as French can’t generally speak any other language besides French. 

We met Ana’s parents, and they made us a lovely dinner.  A word about Slovenian culture.  While a Slavic people, they are very culturally close to the Austrians, and as such, their culture is kind of a cross between the boastful Slavic, and the restrained Germanic.  An interesting mix.  Also, they all speak very good English.  Their architecture tends to remind me of the solid and square northern European buildings, with little ornamentation.

Anyway, we spent the night drinking heartily in the lovely capital city of Ljubjana until late.  The next day we went to check out these enormous caves  of Postojna in the countryside.  These caves were HUGE.  Caves are typically pretty tight and claustrophobic, but not these ones.  You could fit hundreds of people comfortably in them.  I’m not a big caver, but these were pretty spectacular, giant open spaces where Batman could comfortably live.  Check out the photos on link above.

That night we had some terrible Slovenian diner food and walked around getting drunk in the rain.  It was fun.  The next morning, back on the road, 10 hours to France!  It was a lovely three days graciously provided by our lovely hosts, Rebeka, Ana, and Barbara.  But on the road back to France, there was one other thing to check out, Pradjama, the Castle in the Cave.  Basically, some medieval lord decided to build a fortress into a giant cave on a cliff, to make it nearly impregnable.  Check out the photos.  We toured the castle/cave, which was cool, but the coolest part, the cave under the castle was closed because the winter rains had caused the subterranean river to rise.  Bummer, but still, pretty cool.  All in all, a great little road trip with a great group of people. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

French Mardis Gras, and how I almost killed dozens of French children.

So, my friends, it’s been a while.  You might notice, near the blog title, I’ve added a link for a photo gallery.  Now that I’m not stuck in a scary communist dictatorship under the employment of dictatorial Singaporean bosses, I can actually freely speak my mind and reveal my face on the internet with no fear of imprisonment or losing my job, thus, the photo section.  I have a lot of photos of a lot of things, with a lot of commentary, I hope you’ll enjoy, and get to see the strange parts of the world as I see them.  Just another word about the form of the blog, I’ll be posting a lot more photos, and probably less writing, as my time is pretty pressed here, and well, a picture is worth a whole bunch of words, so said somebody, sometime.

  Anyway, the whole new country, new pedagogical system, new culture, the 2 subjects (I got stuck teaching English, in addition to History, and I am pretty ignorant about how to English) and 3 new schools that I work between has kept me busy.  Oh yeah, and a social life.  That aspect of my life has been gaining momentum.  I’ve met a couple really cool people here, and feel fortunate for their friendship.  Things are going pretty well overall.  I like my job, my colleagues, my new apartment, my new motorbike, the environment here, overall, it's starting to feel like home, for the first time since I left America for the Great Unknown, 3 years ago.

Which brings me to Mardi Gras.  But, not Mardis Gras like you Americans know, no boobies, no frat boys, no binge drinking.  No, French Mardis Gras is more like our Halloween, definitely more geared towards the kids.  I went to Mardi Gras once in Poitiers, France and it was great.  A big crazy artistic parade through the city, people getting goofy, kids in costumes, floats, and at the end, the city provides free crepes and mulled wine for everyone!  Really awesome homegrown feel.  I know, too good to be true, right?

So, having such fond memories, I decided to check out the Mardis Gras in Nice.  Along the way, I’ve been keeping up with this website, , basically a website for travelers, by travelers.  Anyway, someone posted on this site about participating in the Nice carnival by pushing one of the big floats through the parade.  Sounds great, I love parades, and participating is always the best.  So I signed up, and one of my French friends joined me.

Well, Nice Mardis Gras is almost nothing like Poitiers.  First, it costs money just to watch it, like 20 euros.  Second no drinking allowed, everything very uptight and official.  Not a party at all.  Unless of course, you’re an under 12 french kid.  Then it’s an orgy of “doing whatever the fuck you want”.  Kind of like the kid version of the American Mardis Gras.  So first, we get our costumes, which mine happens to be  a full white body suit, that I dub the Human Condom (see photo gallery at top of page).   Next, our job is to push this unwieldy 25 foot high mannequin through the parade, which should have only last one hour, but ended up taking 3 hours.

Not a big deal though, except that we’re all dying of thirst, and more importantly, I discovered that Nice Mardis Gras consists exclusively of little kids throwing shit in your face for 3 hours.  French parents are usually quite strict with their kids behavior, except on Mardis Gras.  And apparently the thing to do is throw stuff in peoples face.  Silly string, confetti, glitter, you name it.  Not a big deal right?  Yeah, well, try having silly string shot into your mouth, and half a dozen 8 year olds ganging up on you blasting you in the face with handfuls of glitter and confetti, getting into your eyes, mouth, ears, everywhere.  I don’t mean, they throw it in the air, no they roll right up to you, and BOOM, throw a handful of that shit right into face, as you’re struggling to push a 400 pound float through a crowd of people.  My French friends took it all with the traditional Gallic shrug, but after 2 hours of that, spitting out confetti, wiping glitter out of my eyes, and scraping silly string out of my nose, I was ready to slaughtered some little French kids like an American angel of death on a Southern French Passover.

Overall, it actually wasn’t a horrible experience, only because it was one of those “hey, I can say I did that”  things.  I participated in Carnival in the French Riviera and although it pissed me off, still kept a happy clown face on, and did manage to bring some joy into some black hearted, rotten little French children.  Every silver lining has a cloud, or something like that.