the weather is here, wish you were beautiful
On yet another date to a cemetery, N and I visited the Cimitero Monumentale, known for the ornate and often gigantic burial monuments to the dead. I knew the Italians were pretty pious people, but daaaayyyuum! The massive mausoleums of all different architectural styles lined up next to each other make the place look like some sort of bizarre city that built itself without a city planner, based on the whims of each of the buildings’ residents. I guess that’s essentially what a cemetery is. But you’ve never seen anything like this, with one resident (or more likely their families) trying to outdo one another in height, size, artistic style or all of the above. Check out the photos and see for yourselves.
With our Schengen visa quickly approaching its deadline, we had to cut our foray into France short and make a quick exit into the Balkans via northern Italy. Milan happened to be a convenient stop on our way to Croatia, so we spent a few days in one of the fashion capitals of the world.
Frankly, Milan wasn’t my kind of city. Unlike the other tourists there, we weren’t there to stock up on name brand clothing and accessories. So we did what we do best: eat. We stuffed our faces with pizza, pasta, gelato and whatever else we could get our grubby hands on before being exiled to the Balkans for three months.
Snacks like the panzarotti and gelato were delicious, but we thought the restaurants generally sucked and were ridiculously expensive, so we opted to cook at our apartment. Always the reliable one to sniff out food, N found a fresh pasta shop near the apartment where we bought ravioli stuffed with different kinds of fillings. We had that with a cut of beef a neighborhood butcher recommended.
Based on our previous post you’d probably think there was nothing else to do in Lyon besides stuffing your face. Au contraire, mon frère! (Do you like how I used French in a post about a French city? I’m so clever.) Anyway, there’s a shit ton of stuff to do in Lyon and we were lucky enough to have met some locals that gave us great tips and took time from their busy schedules to show us a Frenchy fun time.
“If Paris is the heart of France, Lyon is her stomach.” -An old saying by someone who obviously appreciates food as much as we do.
Almost everyone I know has been to Paris, but I can only think of one or two people who have been to Lyon. Or, maybe my friends and family have visited Lyon, but failed to mention it to me. But, I don’t know how anyone could possibly keep quiet about this fantastic city with so much to offer. One of its best offerings is food and you know how I loves me some food so, I’ll talk about that first.
Did you know that Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France? That’s like being the gastronomic capital of the world because we all know that French cuisine is the bombdiggity. For non-English speakers, that means French food is excellent.
I’m a sucker for soaps, especially if they’re made with natural ingredients and the packaging is cool (the latter being a product of my Japanese upbringing), so I was thrilled when Hubert announced we were going on a field trip to his friend’s savonnerie for lunch and a tour.
Olivier quit his job at a pharmaceutical company, moved out of the city, bought himself a gorgeous old stone farmhouse, renovated it and runs a savonnerie out of the second building on his property. They have two adorable dogs and a billion cats that run around on their property. N and I watched him with admiration as he told us his story over lunch of Hubert’s vegetables, a toasted baguette, fresh local cheeses and organic eggs.
Some people might feel trapped if they found themselves in a small farmhouse in the middle of the country with no form of transportation to get out. We were actually totally fine, and used the isolation wisely. We spied on the sheep grazing next door, tried to catch the rooster unawares, bit into random fruits growing on bushes and trees to see if they were edible, played with bees, drew pictures and did all of the things normal people do.
So when Hubert asked us if we’d like to accompany him into town for customer deliveries, food shopping and anything else, we eagerly jumped into his van. We must’ve made quite a sight; Hubert with his flyaway hair tucked under a wide-brimmed hat and a hand-rolled cigarette sticking out of his mouth, and the two of us following him with our hats on and our jeans and boots covered in mud like two little Asian migrant workers. If we did, the French were polite enough not to stare as we stopped at a supermarket and picked up some necessities.
People say there is nothing like the French countryside and it’s true. After extensive searching on the French WWOOFing site, we found an opportunity with an organic farmer in a tiny village called Saint-Menoux. For two weeks, we learned French and Patois slang, drank exorbitant amounts of wine to stay warm at night, ate good organic food made by our farmer (a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants) with the vegetables from his garden, had discussions in French and English late into the night, drove around the neighboring farms and chateaus in a beat-up Kia minivan and rocked out to Michael Jackson and Bryan Adams. Oh, and we did some work.
N and I left gay Paris and carpooled in a spacious Renault to the nearest town of Moulins to meet the farmer we would be spending two weeks with. As I sat there looking out of the window, Sancerre blew by us, its perfect rows of vineyards stretching on and on. I realized why people wax poetic about the countryside of this vast country. Old stone barns and farmhouses dotted the landscape, the red tiled roofs complementing the rolling green hills. Sheep grazed while the white cattle lay on the grass, sunning themselves. This wasn’t Middle America. This was heaven.
Because the farmer spoke mostly French, our email communications had been brief. We had little idea of what to expect besides the fact that he was gay-friendly and had a spare room for us in his house, so we were more than a little relieved when we met our farmer, Hubert-Brice, who ended up being a perfect gentleman and a progressive at heart. We had read horror stories of WWOOFing experiences, where the farmers exploited the workers, worked them all day, verbally abused them… Fortunately for us, it was clear that Hubert joined WWOOFing more for the cultural exchange than anything else. He found it amusing and surreal that a couple of New Yorkers found themselves in the middle of France to learn about organic farming.
“Do you speak English?”, I asked him in French. “Yes, a little.”, he responded in French, with the shrug that all French people do to indicate, Eh, what can you do? Great. Ever since I graduated college, my French had gone to shit and I stood there trying to figure out how to say, “Well, you’re going to have to learn how to speak because I sure as hell can’t communicate with you in mostly French.” Instead, I said, “We can communicate using both French and English.” Or at least that’s what I think I said. Communication ended up being a little difficult at times, but Hubert was extremely patient with my broken French and so we managed over the course of two weeks.
Now for the farming bit. Or the little bit of farming that we did. Hubert was kind and let us lazy bums sleep in while he woke up every morning around 7:00 (and on Saturdays, he was out of the door by 5:00 to go to market). We were ready to work by 10:00, at which point we were given small tasks to do, like harvesting string beans (they grow very fast so we did this a lot), picking tomatoes, weeding (because Hubert’s farm is 100% pesticide free, weeding is a big part of keeping the plants healthy), pulling up old plants to get the plot ready for next spring, and transplanting leeks.
Russia was one of the first countries that we visited on our RTW trip and St. Petersburg was a city that got a lot of rave reviews for being the cultural center of Russia. The guidebooks said it was more European than Russian, which is supposed to be a compliment unless you like Russian stuff. One of the top tourist attractions near St. Pete’s is a placed called Peterhof, the summer playground of the Russian aristocracy. We visited and we thought it sucked. Sorry, but I call it like I see it. Peterhof as been called the Versailles of Russia, but that’s like saying that Newark is the New York City of New Jersey. Sorry, Newark, but you kinda suck too.
After visiting both former royal hotspots I’ve come to the conclusion that Peterhof is poop and Versailles is fabulous.
Paris is a fun city to visit as a tourist, but it can get pricey and repetitive if you stay at a hotel and eat out for every meal. One of the things I enjoyed most about Paris is that for a big city it’s actually quite accessible for tourists who want to experience it with a somewhat local approach.
First of all, don’t believe what anyone says about French people being jerks to foreigners who don’t speak the language. We heard horror stories about how rude Parisians can be to non-French speaking tourists, but that wasn’t the case at all for us. Everyone we met was very friendly and helpful even when my only words to them were “wee” and “mercy.”
So, we rented an apartment in a less touristy area, donned our berets, grabbed a baguette and explored Paris like tourists pretending to be locals. Here’s what else we did to blend in.
We did touristy things in Paris because we’re tourists. You can be wandering tourists just like us if you follow these suggestions.
The Louvre Museum: This museum is probably one of the best museums in the world, and I’ve been to all of them so I know. Well, that’s a blatant lie. I haven’t been to ALL of the museums in the world, but that doesn’t change the fact that The Louvre is a magnificent museum. It was the first time for both of us and we were totally in awe as we entered. As New Yorkers, we think the Metropolitan Museum of Art is pretty fantastic, but the Louvre easily trumps The Met. The size is staggering and the collection is exceptional. Of course, there’s the Mona Lisa which everyone wants to see and is so popular that it even has its own velvet roped access, but there are so many other works of art worth seeing that we didn’t spend more than a minute viewing the ML. We got the Paris Museum card so we were able to re-enter the Louvre as much as we wanted over a 4-day period. I highly recommend a visit, but break it up with an outdoor lunch in the Tulieres Garden. We ate at a cafe in the garden and it was fine, but if you want to save money, bring a baguette and some cheese and pate and you’ve got a great meal for cheap. BTW, the museum card is a good deal if you’re into museums and have the energy to visit several over consecutive days.