Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leaving La Muse

I've reached the point in which my journey is 3/4 over, and my time at La Muse ends tomorrow morning. I am, of course, a little sad to be going, but I'm also in the mindset now that I'm eager (and a little anxious) to complete the next leg(s) of my journey: a night in Montpellier, then four nights in Paris, with a day trip to London on Monday before flying home on Tuesday morning. I've made all the arrangements, so here's hoping the bad luck I had on my way here is long gone.

The last week or so has included quite a bit of reading, writing, and walking, spending time outside on various trails and terraces. We went back to Carcassonne, to see La Cite this time, which is the old fortified part of the town (and quite a tourist trap, admittedly, though we found a good restaurant with a really nice outdoor terrace).
The entrance to La Cite

Sunday involved climbing another mountain to see the ruins of Les Chateaux at Lastours.

Here are three of the four castles; the fourth is behind and off to the right.
Monday was Jenny's birthday, so a group of five of us went to La Fenial in Roquefare for dinner and wine. Roquefare is the neighboring village, as I think I've mentioned, and it's quite lovely. A couple days prior, Helena and I walked a trail that led into the village and gave us some great views from above.

Roquefare from the mountain
In this past week we also had a group "farewell" pizza dinner put on by La Muse and a reading at which to share the writing we've been doing. Kate and I went to the village rummage sale Sunday morning, were I found a few kids' books in French to practice with and a couple of other funny little souvenirs (both for myself and others). Hopefully no one makes fun of me if I decide to (try to) read them on the trains.

So that, briefly, is what my last week has been like.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

France: A Progress Report

Well, I've reached what is approximately the halfway point in my trip (and a little beyond halfway through my stay at La Muse) and overall, I'm pretty satisfied with my progress. Being in a setting where I have little else to worry about besides what I'm reading and writing for the day has really allowed me to focus (as would be expected, I guess) -- particularly once I got out of my own way.

In some regard, when I first got here, I was putting a little too much pressure on myself. Some of it was the expected "performance anxiety," but more than that I think I was expecting some kind of revelation, if you will, which would allow me to pursue a completely new and inspired path of writing.

That's not how it seems to work.

I have had revelations of other sorts, it's true: I now know what it's like to be on the outside of the language barrier, and what it's like to struggle to communicate with someone else on a basic level. For a few days I was actually a little afraid to run into the other villagers on my walks, for fear that they might say something more than "bonjour" or "bon soir" and I wouldn't understand what it was (this has happened, for the record, and I handled it just fine, if a bit awkwardly. The villagers are used to non-French speakers wandering through regularly, thanks to La Muse).

But perhaps my biggest revelation was, that's not how my writing works. I'm a processor; things take awhile to root and develop in my head. However, it's completely reasonable (and now, in hindsight, obvious) that I should work on the things I've brought with me -- both the actual words I'd already written and some of the more abstract things I'd been mulling over in my head before making the trip. In fact, there's a half-full notebook that I left at home to make room for empty ones; I wish I'd brought it to give myself more places to start from. On the other hand, I did print out a couple dozen poems and several stories in anticipation of revising them, and I have done some work with many of those drafts.

I've also managed to write. I've added 24 (handwritten) pages to a story I started in Baltimore (which I'm not yet acknowledging as the start of a novel for fear of being overwhelmed), added a few pages to another half a story I brought with me, and have filled up roughly one third of my poetry notebook (though some of the pieces are more like musings with line breaks than actual poems). I've also been reading, journaling, blogging, and studying French (I have a phone app for the latter called Duolingo; the randomly-generated sentences which are put before me to translate have been quite the source of amusement for my fellow retreaters. Examples include "Why is the cat dead?", "The horse is eating the roses," "Your boy is ugly," and "The man is naked." Finding practical applications for these sentences has been... a little difficult, as one might imagine).

I haven't put forth specific goals for myself in terms of production; I'd love to leave the retreat with all three of my notebooks full and my journal nearly so (a few of the pages will be reserved for the travelling I do after La Muse) but I'm not going to beat myself up about it if they're not. Everything I write here, whether it's crap or not, could prove a source of inspiration later on. In fact, I think I revise better when I let something sit for a long time before returning to it.

The village, of course, is still wonderful. For a couple of days last week I was feeling a little stir-crazy, but a trip to Carcassonne on Thursday helped with that, as did a trip to the cafe in the neighboring village, Roquefare, on Saturday evening with Helena and Jenny, two of my housemates. And on Sunday, Helena and I climbed a mountain (I'm still a little sore from the trip). Yesterday I had a bit of trouble getting started, so I walked down to the river (which I did finally find two different paths to, thanks to the help of another housemate) and sat for a couple of hours with a book and a notebook. I think all the possible changes of scenery within walking distance of La Muse will be strongly missed when I return home.

But so, without further ado, pictures:

Carcassonne. To the right is the city square, where the Market was just closing down for the day. Fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses.

The Cross at the top of Le Roque, an easier sort of half mountain, if you will.

The view from the mountain Helena and I climbed, near Roquefare. In the distance is Carcassonne, and beyond that, the Pyrenees Mountains.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Getting to Work (soon)

Day Four is coming to a close (though it's only been my third full day here) and, aside from a few sort of sloppy poems written yesterday, I haven't done much yet in the way of being productive. However, the Quiet Hours signs do say that we have Saturdays and Sundays "off," so that's what I considered it. I've taken a couple of walks since our brief tour of the village on Friday morning; there are so many winding roads and trails that make it seem as though it'd be easy to get lost, but really most of them only lead one place, and so you can just turn around and go back where you came from. I just can't get over the beauty and the peacefulness of it all. The plants are different; there are wild flowers and butterflies everywhere. Yesterday morning I leaned out my window and watched a hummingbird feasting on a flowering bush outside. And the weather has been absolutely perfect, with lots of sun and highs ranging in the 80's and the lows in the mid to upper 60's (though we've got some rain in the forecast in the next few days -- I'm actually looking forward to that).

I've spent a fair bit of time in conversation with my fellow retreaters, too -- there are seven of us staying in the Inn currently, and our schedules all seem to cross paths at different times, but I usually run into someone during each meal, and it's happened that most of us have eaten dinner together (or at least a glass of wine) each night thus far. I really, really enjoy the process of getting to know people from other parts of the world, even if their daily life isn't all that different from mine in the U.S. (or even if they're just from other parts of the U.S.).  It seems that the kind of people who sign up for this retreat are the types who live very rich lives (and I hope the same applies to me, though I feel like I'm just getting started).

One good conversation I had was because I started reading a book today called Sarah's Key -- there's a synopsis on this Amazon page but basically it takes place in two different time periods in France, the earlier being 1942 and the "Vel' d'Hiv'," or the round-up of much of the Jewish population in occupied northern France (the second timeline is a journalist revisiting the event 60 years later). The Frenchman who is also staying here at the Inn (I don't know if I should call him "the Frenchman," since he's lived in England for several years now) noticed me reading the book and asked about it later on, so I told him the premise and asked him about the actual Vel'd'Hiv' (which I hadn't even known about before starting the book). He told me how the whole situation had been kind of unspoken of for many years, in part because those involved had agreed to keep quiet but also because the country was ashamed of their role in it. He also told me more about the historic event and the Resistance movement in Southern France particularly; apparently there's a trail near the Inn called the Resistance Trail (well, except in French) and that there's a monument along the way where a battle between the Germans and the French Resistance took place. It was interesting for me to realize that I was on ground where WWII was actually fought. It definitely adds a richness to the experience of reading the book (and now I want to find the trail).

I have found and wandered a few other trails (though for the life of me I can't seem to find the one that takes me down to the river) which passed by/over little streams and what are becoming waterfalls. I also got a few pictures of the village on Friday night, on our way to and from a clarinet concert at the village church (which was apparently quite the affair -- the whole sanctuary was full. The four musicians were quite good though, and I don't even especially care for the clarinet).

Walking away from La Muse (though the road leads to it)

Inside the church where the concert took place.

One of the gorgeous views down into the valley from another section of the village.

This is, for sake of ease in explaining, roughly the building next door to La Muse.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Bonjour de France

On Tuesday July 30, I flew out of Baltimore to Philadelphia, which was supposed to be flight one of three. On the plane to Brussels, I was seated next to a pair of American siblings, Andrew and Emily, who were on their way to Belgium for a week, and decided that they wouldn't be such bad companions for the long trip over (though on my way to Dublin last year I had the privilege of sitting next to an Irish man who had some fantastic stories). But, we never made it to Brussels; in fact, we never made it out of Philadelphia. After two false starts (where we were literally taxiing down the runway for take-off both times before the pilot hit the brakes and took us back to the gate) and 1.5 hours of sitting on the plane in between, we de-boarded the plane and our flight was cancelled.

Thus began a pretty torturous 36 hours, which involved waiting almost three hours for a shuttle to a hotel (until about 130am); having to change my connecting flight three different times (due to the cancelled flight and U.S. Airways error), getting no chance to sleep for almost 30 hours, and having to buy 3 different train tickets to Carcassonne because Rail Europe, the company I bought them through online/by phone, was absolutely no help (a word to the wise: don't bother buying train tickets to anywhere in Europe until you're already there. In my limited experience, both train and bus tickets can be had easily even minutes before departure, and for much cheaper than U.S. travel on, say, the Amtrak). It was literally like one of those nightmares in which you're trying really hard to get somewhere you have to be and can't seem to make it. I dread to think what my next Verizon phone bill is going to look like, at $1.29 per minute for calls made from Europe (though I should be, and really am, glad that I made the choice and had the ability to bring it with me).

Ultimately, I ended up flying from Philadelphia to Frankfurt, from there to Munich, and finally from there to Toulouse (where I had to take a shuttle to the train station and board the train to Carcassonne). I had a few minutes to kind of collect myself there before John from La Muse came to pick me up, and Carcassonne seems like quite a lively place (I'm sorry I missed my first night there, though we're going to take a couple of day trips as part of our "ride package"). I got the chance to shop at a French supermarket for the first time; between that and the train station I got to see both how much French I've actually learned ("Je voudrais un billet a Carcassonne pour dix-sept heures, s'il vous plait") and how painfully far I still have to go. (I brought study materials).

The others staying at La Muse currently all speak English, though for a few it's not their first language (we have one Dutch woman who lives with her family in Dublin, a Frenchman, and a Korean woman who's lived in America for most of her life). The Inn provided dinner for us and while we ate, we got better acquainted; most of the others have amazing histories of living or travelling throughout America, Europe, and Africa. Most were fluent in at least two languages (though the Dutch woman speaks five, because, as she said, "no one speaks Dutch") though I'm not the only one who doesn't speak (much) French.

This morning we had a crepe breakfast and a bit more formal of an introduction, and then John gave us a tour of the little village we're in. It's been so soothing already, being here. There are fruit trees (cherries and figs) and walnut trees, and a little spring with delicious cold water. Various paths and roads wind up the mountains, and you can hear birds, crickets and locusts almost non-stop (in addition to the church bell, which has a lovely, unobtrusive ring). In other words, not even 24 hours here have relieved much of the stress of my ridiculous journey.

I plan to take a walk later this afternoon/evening to get some photos of the village, but in the meantime, here are a few shots I took out my room's window this morning.

The view straight out my window, into the valley.

To the right, the very edge of the La Muse building and a continuation of the village (and someone else's table)

And the view to the left -- La Muse's terrace (and the table where we had dinner)