Friday, May 29, 2009

In Bruges

And someone switched the hostel keyboard, which is a French keyboard, to an American keyboard. I am extremely confused and having trouble typing. I can do one or the other but not both at the same time!!!

Also, I've decided to get to 200 posts before my birthday on July 15. Quarter of a century!! I feel like I should do something special to celebrate but generally I just keep my head down and try to make it through July in one piece without tempting the Evil Eye.

No joke folks. The Evil Eye is a powerful little bugger.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Today when I signed into my Gmail the ad at the top of the page was excited flashing "JDate now available in French!" Goodness only knows what kinds of emails are sitting in my inbox that would make Google think I am interested in JDate.

JDate is an online Jewish dating site. It's like eHarmony, but for Jews to meet other Jews to have Jewish babies and thus ensure the continuity of the tribe. I won't tell you how many disasters one of my friends has had with JDate; let's just say that these are not the cream of the Jewish crop (if said cream actually exists, which I am starting to doubt).

But a favorite activity in the dorms back in my Brandeis days was to search JDate to see if anyone from Brandeis was on there and then laugh at how ridiculous their profiles were and judge how close to the truth it was. Sounds silly, but actually a very fun time.

So I had to check out French JDate, putting in my little village in Picardie just to see what I turned up. I actually found three guys listed in a town not far from me. I have no idea what these weirdos from Picardie are doing on JDate because I can tell you that there are maybe five Jews here total, so I doubt the Jewishness of these men. But it would be easy enough to verify if I were to ever meet them in person.

Eeew. It's enough to make you want to jump off of the Jewish ship and into the Ocean of Goyim.

Then I decided to check out the real JDate and see if I could find some guys from Brandeis who I know used to have profiles on there. I stumbled onto the JDate blog, which is powered by ... Nuva Ring! Because until you tie the knot and get off JDate we don't actually want said Jewish babies appearing. A little further down on the blog I found that Rabbi Shmuley of Shalom in the Home and Kosher Sex fame has a new book out called The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life.

That's right India, watch out, because the Jews are rewriting the book. You can read a little excerpt and see what Shmuley had to say in the Huffington Post.

Maybe that's why Madonna decided to go Kabbala?

Monday, May 25, 2009

I am so hot. I do not like hot weather, and I especially do not like hot weather when there is no air conditioning, and I especially don't like it when those two factors are combined with humidity. It's supposed to get cooler after this huge storm we're supposed to have tonight. I hope so. Is it winter again yet?

Tomorrow I have my first English tutoring lesson with one of the conseillers pedagogiques at the Inspection. I'm a little worried about it though, because when I asked him what he wanted to work on he said he has very precise requests and that he prefers to talk about it in person. So it may also be my last lesson, because that sounds a little creepy, and I may run out of the Inspection screaming. Hope there will still be some people there at 5:30 tomorrow to protect me from whatever weirdness this may end up being.

Also trying to think about what I actually want to do for summer travelling, how long, etc. I'd love to take a long tour of the British Isles, there's so much to see! And I still really want to go to Bretagne. And... and... and... Why does everything cost money?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strange travel occurences over the past few months

1) Forgot passport before going abroad to a foreign country

2) Nearly missed train to Brussels when I forgot that May 1 is a holiday and the train schedule to get out of my small town is different than usual. Somehow managed to get up, showered, dressed, and packed in a half an hour and make it to the train station on time.

3) Missed last train out of Paris on Saturday because I can't manage my time appropriately

4) Forgot to compost my ticket to go to Rouen yesterday and had to pay a fine. I really did forget to compost it, and when I tried to argue with the conductor about it he wasn't having any of it. I even produced my composted ticket from my train into Paris earlier that morning to proove that I'm an upstanding citizen who composts her tickets. Seriously, I don't live on a direct line to Rouen, did he think I was going to try to use it again? It's two and a half hours on two different trains from where I live, not to mention metro travel time in Paris! And what really pissed me off is that I know there were people on the train going to Giverny who hadn't bought a ticket, but of course they didn't do a control until after the stop for Giverny. It was only €10, but I was still really irritated.

5) Got stuck in Paris for an extra hour last night in a huge galère at the Gare du Nord. Of course I can't find any official information about it online, because no one cares about the Gare du Nord and the poor people trying to get to ch'Nord from there. Apparently there was a group of people standing on the train lines. No one at the station seemed to know what exactly they were doing there, if it was an organized protest or if they just wanted to piss everyone off but the trains were blocked for a good two hours. I ended up getting back around 10:30 PM, over an hour after I planned, on a train that had been scheduled to leave the station at 18:45 but didn't actually leave until after 9 PM. Great. But, because of all the confusion, I forgot to compost my ticket again, so I got a free ride out of the SNCF and it almost makes up for the fine I paid earlier in the day.

Good travel news: I found a Subway across the street from the Gare du Nord when I came back from Brussels. I have spent the past 18 months eating crappy train station sandwiches, and now I get the deliciousness of Subway! It's fantastic! They make the best sandwiches, it almost makes me want to go to Paris just to eat at Subway!

I feel like there is something else I should put in there but I just can't remember now. Basically, I should just move to Paris or stop travelling. Especially since I am so exhausted after yesterday that I could barely move this morning. Ugghhh.

Brussels: A little crazy and random

I arrived in Brussels and was greeted by a very small protest about education policy. They wanted 15 students maximum per class and for teachers to stay with the students to help them with their homework. In France they close classes that are less than 20 students.

I checked out the cathedral. Belgium still has a monarchy, and this is where their royals get married.

Then I went to the Grand'Place, where the weirdness began. But let's admire the architecture first, which is unlike any other that I've seen. The Grand'Place was destroyed by the armies of Louis XIV in 1695 and fully rebuilt by the guilds afterwards, competing to make the most beautiful buildings.

I couldn't get enough of this building, the Hotel de Ville, which escaped Louis and is the original from the 1400s. The sculptures were FANTASTIC, I can't even tell you how realistic and detailed and beautiful they were. You could spend an entire day just looking at the statues.

Then, as I was taking this picture:

I heard someone say "excuse me." I turn and there's guy there, and starts telling me, in heavily accented English, that he saw me taking pictures of all the buildings, that I look like a nice, serious girl, and he would like to be friends with me.

So I told him I wasn't looking for friends. That didn't work. He persisted. "No no, not like that, just as good friends, etc" Whatever, still not looking for friends. He then said to me "oh, your English is so good." Hey, thanks! What a compliment! I've only been speaking it my whole life. Then again, there are people like Bush who never master their native tongue, so yeah, I guess it's a pretty special talent to have. It turns out he is an engineer, originally from Nigeria, and he's working in Belgium for a few months. I had a really hard time shaking this guy, until he finally gave me an out after I told him I lived in Paris, and he said "oh, then you probably have to catch a train." Yes! Yes, that's it! I have a train, sorry, just taking some pictures and running to catch my train. But he still wants my number! So I gave him a fake number and he finally left me alone. But I felt really bad about it, because I understand how lonely it is when you're in a foreign country and you don't know anyone and you really just want some human contact. But on the other hand, he may have been an axe murderer. So I can't feel that bad for him.

The next day I went on a guided tour of the town; We went to the Atomium and saw EU buildings, and I met a couple of nice, also solo travellers with whom I palled around for the rest of the day.

Then I went back to the hostel and was waiting in the common room for a turn on the computer. There was a big group of anglophones sitting around talking. I assumed they were all on study abroad together or something. One of them invited me to come sit with them, so I did, and it turned out they didn't really know each other and were just assembling a random group of people to go out with. They were all past college and travelling (one couple who was on their honeymoon!) and had good travel trips and experiences to share. We ended up going out to a couple of bars, wandering around the streets together very late at night, eating delicious waffles at about 1:30 AM, and getting some nice pictures of the Grand'Place at night.

We all reassembled in the common room the next morning to take advantage of the free coffee machine and say goodbye before heading off to home or more travels. I don't think I can do justice to how crazy and random the evening was here, but it was a fun experience, one that I've never had before and can't imagine will happen again!

What we did in Budapest Part 4

We visited the Parliament

Which certainly gives the Parliament in London a run for it's money in terms of grandeur and gold

It houses the Crown of St Stephen, allegedly the 1000 year old crown of their patron saint. Supposedly they can't proove one way or the other if it is or isn't authentic.

The House of Lords was abolished after the war and Hungary now has a unicameral Parliament with 386 members. Hungary is a nation of 10 million people. The US with 300 million people had 435 members in the House of Representatives. Just for a small comparision. This is where they meet:

Not bad. If you think of parliamentary buildings as temples of democracy, I would say this one fits the bill.

What we did in Budapest Part Three

We went looking for our roots. This is the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, built in a Byzantine style.

The interior of the synagogue. In the old days, the women would sit in the balcony and the men would sit on the ground floor. The big white thing at the front is the aron ha-cohen, the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept.

A close up of the ark:

Close up of the women's gallery and the beautiful ceiling

Leesa and I are both of Hungarian Jewish descent. My father's mother's father was a tinsmith, we think from Budapest. He may have gone to shul here, who knows? My father's father was from a tiny village just over the border in Transylvania. Transylvania has a very large ethnic Hungarian population and was part of Hungary until WWI. My grandfather was born in 1901 and lived there when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had all kinds of stories about living in this tiny village. His parents died when he was still very young, only 13, so he went to live with his sister, and used to sneak across the border during the war to steal milk from the soldiers' cows. The only thing he brought with him to America as a reminder of his parents were his father's tefillin, which men are supposed to wear during weekday prayers (this only happens in Orthodox communities these days, but in Conservative communities women will wear tefillin too). We inherited the tefillin after my granparents passed away ten years ago. The tefillin are very old and really should be in a museum, but they are sitting in my dad's study. Imagine my surprise and delight when I saw this at the Museum of Judaism at the synogogue:

The bag the tefillin are in is exactly like the velvet one with the Star of David, and the tefillin look just like the leather ones. On the right, rosh means "head" (like Rosh HaShannah is the head of the year) and yad on the left means hand.

The memorial to the Holocaust in the courtyard of the synogoge

We walked around the area that was used as the Jewish ghetto during the war. The Jews were locked into a series of interlocking courtyards and locked away from the outside world. Now of course they've been renovated and look all new and spiffy, but I can only imagine how terrible it must have been to be locked away from the sun, the outside world tantalizingly close, not knowing if the Nazis would come for you the next day or not.

Of 825,000 Jews living in Hungary before 1941, only 255,000 survived the war.

This memorial stands in the courtyard of the Dohany Street Synogogue. It was made out of the bricks of the ghetto wall. It is marked zachor, remember.

What we did in Budapest Part 2

We went to St Stephen's Basilica. Stephen converted the Hungarians to Christianity around 1000 AD and is the country's patron saint. The church is on a Greek cross plan, and full of gold and marble.

Then somehow Leesa convinced me to go up to the top of the basilica with her. I usually don't climb church towers because I'm a little afraid of heights, and especially walking up (well, down is worse, actually) small little staircases. But this was an elevator, so I thought, "why not?" This was a mistake. I was not a happy camper. The view was pretty great, but I had my taste of climbing church domes and I don't think I will be doing it again any time soon!

Monday, May 18, 2009

What we did in Budapest Part 1

We crossed the Szechenyi Bridge, or Chain Bridge, to Buda

We climbed Castle Hill (or rather, took a bus up) and bought handmade Hungarian crafts. Then we took lots of pictures of the view across the Danube to Pest and the Parliament building.

We went to Fisherman's Bastion, a neo-Romanesque faux-castle like structure on the hill overlooking the Danube

Where we took lots of photos of ourselves and the Bastion and the view

We visited the St Matyas (Matthias) Church

We stopped at a cafe and had a lovely late lunch (pics on Leesa's blog), and continued to walk around the adorable streets of the Castle Hill

We looked into other people's backyards

We strolled down tree-shaded lanes lined with gorgeous homes

We took pictures until our camera batteries ran out