Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lost In Transition

Trainrides are good for letting things digest a bit, letting the memories saturate, and mentally transitioning yourself to the next destination before you get there. At least that's what I think they're supposed to be about. I'm very good at the first two, but I didn't quite do that last bit on March 16th, a day dedicated entirely to trainrides as we made our way into Spain. Having just parted ways with Julien, and soon France, I was a little out of sorts. It has a lot to do with my being overly sentimental and having a hard time with goodbyes, whether it's goodbye to a city, a routine, a particular bakery, or just a good friend. In this case it was all of the above. The thing is, the basic act of going from one place to another facilitates this idea that you're forcing yourself to move on, and a kind of survival mode kicks in. And I hadn't realized at the time how terrible I am coping with all that kicking.

See, I enjoy dwelling on things, and because of this it was taking me a while to warm up to the next leg of our journey. Alex, on the other hand, whether it's by her nature or her previous travels through Europe, excelled at switching gears. She'd be the one to read up on all the things to do in the next town, suggest restaurants, find interesting bits of history, while I'd absentmindly nod away... what a handheld baby I could be! I think this dynamic in our relationship as travellers made me a lot more aware of how lonely travelling could possibly be if I were, in fact, alone. And it made me more keenly aware of those who were alone around me. However, despite our polarized circumstances, I found myself very capable of relating to their isolation as I channeled my own feelings onto paper.

Then again, maybe that's what trainrides are good for. A little isolated introspection. It's a place where it's perfectly acceptable to stare longingly out the window, the same way we all do when the vast countryside is laid out before you and you cannot help but take in brief glimpses of life as it darts by in fleeting snapshots, the grassy green fields speckled with sheep, ponds, shadows from clouds, a wall of trees planted years ago (and who planted them anyway?), endlessly stretching fencelines tipping over the horizon border, winding dirt paths, crops and crows, an old woman sitting on a bench on the crest of a hill looking down on the tracks and - for a moment - you, a collective hunk of iron, steel, plastic, and glass shattering the silence with a thundering boom and the high sun bouncing off of everything, yet in spite of it all, you pretend she sees you staring back at her in admiration of her soon-to-be-restored peace, as you continue on through sleepy towns, busy cities, alongside motorways, industrial parks, and lumberyards (and who cut them down anyway?), to a darkness that robs it all from you as you pierce a tunnel through some mountain, so that when you surface at exactly sea level, with motionless waters on either side of the train, the sun hanging low, you feel as though the train itself is gliding on the sea, and an audible sigh is perfectly acceptable.

It was after dark when we eventually crossed into Spain. As border patrol passed through our car asking for passports, Alex and I learned who the English speaking passengers were. We got to talking as we arrived in Barcelona. One girl, in particular, was a New Zealander who worked for a travel agency. Her assignment was to review transportation systems in various cities throughout Europe. She usually spent two days in each location, which meant all travelling and nothing else. She was not at all ashamed to admit in just the few minutes we knew her that she was terribly lonely and wished she could make some friends along the way. Sadly, Alex and I couldn't help. We were staying on the other side of town for just a night before taking a weekend getaway an hour and a half away. We, of course, did not flaunt these plans to the girl who looked more lost and confused by the moment, but she did leave me feeling a lot more grateful for my journey ahead with Alex, who held my hand as we sat in our cab leaving the train station.

Next: Barcelona, A Medieval Village, and Crime Fighting

Friday, April 13, 2007

France, Part Deux: Julien

When I last wrote, we were preparing to make our way into Spain, and it was soon after that I realized it was nearly impossible to find time to update. And so I apologize to any who waited with bated breath up until now! Alex and I are finally home after six weeks of travelling. While it is nice to come back to a lovely house (weeds are out of control, but lovely nevertheless), in a cute neighborhood, in a lively town, next to a fantastic city, dear friends and family all around us, and a very lonely cat all too happy to see me, my heart is still in Europe. So I will do my best to cover the rest of our trip over the next few updates while the feelings and memories strongly linger somewhere far from where I am now: in my dining room, listening to a Giants vs Pirates game on the TV, instead of a soccer match or really bad German MTV in a Parisian hotel room. In the process, I hope you'll forgive me if this is a bit longwinded, but it's the first time I'm able to write about our trip in depth aside from scribbles in my sketchjournal, so it's as much for me as for anyone else!

France - March 13th - 16th

Having just left Paris, we're on a train to Rennes to meet with Julien Alday, a friend I've known through Conceptart.org for roughly a year, but always from behind our screens, so to speak. Despite our many emails, some even in French between Alex and Julien, I'm a little nervous of meeting for the first time in person, and I wonder what the next three days will be like. I fear I've already made a bad impression, because Alex and I are late for a train - the second time on our trip - and I have to call Julien on a payphone (waking him up) to let him know we're running a little behind.

We arrive at around 1 p.m., and as we help each other equip our monstrously huge backpacks, I see Julien (immediately recognizable), sneaking along the platform, motioning me to keep quiet while he moves up behind Alex to give her a scary hello, but Alex notices me making eye contact with someone behind her, and she whips around just in time. They laugh and exchange hugs and cheek kisses. I've never shared a European hello, and when it's my turn, I awkwardly lean in, maintaining a three inch gap between our cheeks, making a pathetic kissing noise. Julien smiles and says,"No, Mike. You are in France now. Here, we touch the cheeks!" We get it right, and from that point on, all of my previous anxiety is erased.

We walk over to Julien's car, leave Rennes, and make our way to the northwest coast of France to visit the walled port city of St. Malô on the English Channel.

The city has historically been home to pirates, corsairs (or french privateers), scoundrels, and the general lowlifes of society. Nowadays, it's mostly inhabited by attorneys.... and other wealthy types but I wanted to squeeze in the lawyer joke. For a more comprehensive (and educated) history, check out the Wikepedia.

My itchy camera triggerfinger begins to twitch wildly before we even park, but first thing's first - we're all hungry and Julien has the perfect creperie to introduce to us. We walk along the city wall until we find our spot perched on high, overlooking the channel, and thankfully still serving lunch. We are seated on the patio, enjoy cornmeal crêpes served with a pitcher of cidre, which is the customary way in the Bretagne region. We share a dessert crêpe topped with chocolate, and finish our meal with coffee. Much like my moment in Elgise St. Severin, this is a scene I know I will never forget; the warm sun, a calm breeze (thanks to the window panels that shielded us from stronger winds), the waters distant below, clean air, Alex reading the front of the menu in French, and a friend I already feel I've known for ages.

As we stroll along the city walls, there is a gorgeous view at every turn, and at the same time it's easy to admire the seemingly slower pace of life here.

After a couple hours exploring the length of the city wall, we venture into the city itself.... yet for some reason, Julien and I decide we need to proceed in stealth mode. We tiptoe across the narrow walkways, signalling each other forward from corner to corner. Alex jokingly rolls her eyes,"Now I get to hang out with two overactive imaginations."

We return to Rennes and meet up with Julien's oldest and dearest friend, Laurent. We're to have drinks at the Grimoire, an old tavern that serves drinks named after folks like Tolkien... but sadly discover it to be gone. We have drinks at another local spot, where we try something called chouchen, a liquer made from local honey. We head over to Laurent and his girlfriend, Madeline's place after a couple rounds, eat a late evening dinner, and enjoy long conversations over wine, spirits, coffee... and back to spirits. We're staying here tonight as we have another trip up to the Channel coast the following morning.

On day two, we explore Le Mont St. Michel, a far busier, touristy place than St. Malô, but still a magical site, with many more areas to get lost in. All the same, I have to be a little more selective in what I photograph, as my memory card is nearly full after the hundred twenty or so shots from the previous day. Still, I manage to shoot a few:

Julien snaps Alex in an introspective moment.

Julien wants to be able to show a bit of Rennes to us while there is daylight, since this is the city he attended University in, and considers it his hometown. But even more importantly, we both want to visit his favorite comicbook shop as well as a children's bookstore. The choices are difficult, but we eventually settle on a few purchases and make our way several hours south to Julien's home near the west coast, where we get in late and crash after some dinner and wine. Julien also presents me a copy of Shaun Tan's book, The Arrival, as a 30th birthday gift.

The last full day is spent relaxing at Julien's place. We sleep in, sketch, read, do laundry, talk, enjoy early afternoon beers. For lunch, Julien prepares his specialty, ratatouille. I work on a not-so-successful painting of his house from the backyard... and you might guess, by the direction of the light, which side of my face gets sunburnt:

The evening is spent talking over a dinner prepared by Alex. The conversations throughout our few days are some of the fondest memories I have of our time with Julien, because we speak very openly about our life and art. Although it may involve a lot of "preaching to the choir", it's encouraging to find someone who shares a similar philosophy, the same goals, the same frustrations and annoyances, and yet, as Julien points out, in spite of all these similarities we express ourselves very differently in our art.

Given the opportunity, I'm sure we'd never stop talking. Unfortunately, we need some sleep. Suddenly, three days seem to have whisked by, and we find ourselves on the road at 6 a.m., en route to Bordeaux to catch a train into Spain. It's a sleepy four hour ride on an empty highway. At around seven, the sun's not yet visible, but a cool light begins to illuminate the fogbanks and marshlands of southwest France, and I am able to see for myself, the colors Monet must've seen while working on his early morning paintings, and I wonder just how early he had to wake up and how fast he had to paint to capture it all before the sun bathed it away in warmth. I know to leave the camera alone for this one.

We manage to arrive early in Bordeaux, so we eat a leisurely breakfast, half asleep, walk to the station, then realize there are no ATMs inside. This puts us in a bit of a rush, and by the time we find some money outside, the train is about five minutes from leaving and we're not even on the platform. And so in true Mike and Alex fashion, we run to catch our train, monstrously huge backbacks in tow, except that we can't seem to find a stairway to our platform, just this lift in the middle of some seemingly defunct hallway, a lift with no doors or walls, just a steel grate floor with some railing. It's the kind of box you'd see attached to a hydraulic arm on a truck, with a technician standing inside it as he operates on an electrical post or chops down overhanging limbs or anything else you can think of in the category of 'manly'. But here, we're not technicians, and this box is meant for the handicapped. And of course we don't realize it, until it slowly surfaces onto the terminal platform, where we are greeted by stares from people aboard our train.... another shining moment for us, Americans. The minute long journey eventually ends and we make our way toward the first class cars (at least we have that much going for us). Julien, who opted to find the stairs, does so and catches up with us. We're all awake at last. We share a proper European embrace and say farewell.

To read Julien's side of the story, click here to his blog entry. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my story and will 'click in' next time for the España portion of our trip.