17 February 2018

Txin txin!

Path near Barcelona's harbor
After a couple of weeks of subzero temps in Minnesota, I promised myself a short January getaway to shed the winter coat for a few days.  While my students suffered through exam week, I landed safely near the Mediterranean under bright blue skies in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia.

Barcelona really attracts a variety of people, including students of all nationalities.  Their official language is Catalan (though Spanish and English are frequently spoken as well); I learned that Catalan is a close relative of French, so it was actually easier for me to pick out words in Catalan as opposed to Spanish.  For example:

Parles anglès? : Do you speak English?

The city has no shortage of things to do, and in the end I didn't mind having a packed weekend on the go since it felt wonderful to be outside.  My first morning was spent walking the long pedestrian path near the harbor and exploring the Gothic quarter.

The Gothic quarter sits at the heart of Barcelona's old town and is known for its labyrinth of very narrow pedestrian streets boxed in by rather large block buildings.  It's also home to several neo-Gothic churches, including a basilica (pictured to the right at the end of the street) and cathedral.

The Blue Glass
Also in the area is the Picasso Museum, which I hit at just the right time to breeze through ticketing with no lines (students can enter for free, as do those who've kept their college ID and can still pass for college students).  Picasso was born in Spain and spent much of his early life there before moving to France; the museum in Barcelona has an extensive collection of his earliest works.  I especially liked paintings from his "blue period" (the first few years of the 1900s) during which he "discovered" the color blue; there were a few featuring rooftops of Barcelona at night and one in particular that I loved called The Blue Glass.  Others that I enjoyed included a series of owl drawings and a series of paintings of pigeons in Cannes.

El Bosc de les Fades
For breakfast or a sweet treat in the Gothic quarter, I'd recommend Demasie, a bakery and coffee shop just around the corner from the Picasso Museum.  Their house specialties include cupcakes and cinnamon rolls in a variety of flavors; I tried their blueberry red velvet cupcake.

For lunch, I headed to the other edge of the quarter to a restaurant that, in all honesty, is not famous for its food, but for its ambiance.  Walking into El Bosc de les Fades Café is like entering a dark fairytale forest or Alice in Wonderland-esque world.  It's like a happy hour spot plus family restaurant all rolled into one; there are tall chairs and tables for adults and tiny stools and tables for children.  As I said, the food isn't spectacular, but they have hot and cold sandwiches and tapas to munch on while you admire the decor.

That afternoon, I took a walk along the harbor and on the beach.  Half of the city seemed to have had the same idea, and rightfully so as the weather couldn't have been more perfect despite the freezing cold water.  Afterward, I continued the long walk up through some residential neighborhoods to La Sagrada Família, Barcelona's most famous basilica, still under construction.  To go inside, you need to book tickets online beforehand; there are several options, but I chose to go on a guided tour to learn a bit more about the structure.

La Sagrada Família, or Basilica of the Holy Family, was by far the best part of the weekend.  Construction of the basilica began in 1882 when it was meant to be a rather typical religious structure, but when the architect Antoni Gaudí took over the plans in 1883 (and over the next thirty-three years), the project transformed into the beginning stages of a masterpiece.  Gaudí used both Gothic and Art Nouveau styles to design a massive and intricate church.  I think one could spend years studying the deatils of the carvings and artwork of the basilica, but here are the basics:

Above the Nativity door
There are three principal sides to the basilica: the Nativity, facing the northeast; the Passion, facing the southwest; and what will soon be the Glory, facing southeast.  Gaudí himself was only alive long enough to see the Nativity.  Carvings on this side show scenes of Jesus' birth and of stories of his childhood, centered on the holy family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  Above those carvings is Jacob's ladder and a cyprus tree with doves, symbolizing a message of welcome.  If you look closely, you can see pops of color throughout the outside architecture of the basilica; Japanese artist Etsuro Sotoo is responsible for these and for shaping the continuation of the project.

There's a lot more to it, and if you're interested, you can read more about the symbolism here.

On the opposite side, the Passion shows scenes from Jesus' death, and again there are many hidden secrets in the carvings.  For example, any row of four numbers in the 4x4 grid below and to the right (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) adds up to 33, Jesus' age when he died.

Altar and organ
Ceiling and columns
As incredible as the outside appears, the inside is what really stopped me in my tracks.  I would imagine the stained glass creates incredible colors at any time of day, but my tour was at 5pm and the colors reflected by the sunset at that time were breathtaking.

It is unlike any other church I've seen; the stone inside is all light-colored; in fact, the columns supporting the basilica are sculpted to look like white trees and to create a forest effect.  You can see different types of stone; the stone choice depends on what the columns need to support above.

Much of the stained glass itself looks simple and repetitive, but every circle above a rectangle (found in groups of three) represents the human body of a saint.

There are upper lofts lining either side which will be able to house one thousand musicians, and when it is finished, it will have eighteen functional bell towers.

The basilica is scheduled to be finished in 2026.  Due to modern technology, the rate of construction is going fairly quickly.  The model below to the left shows what is already built (in grey) and what is yet to be finished (in gold).  The "miracle" attached to the basilica is that it has always been funded by donations (including admission fees), never official funds.

Once you enter, you can visit a small underground museum which houses the tomb of Antonin Gaudí.

If you're lucky, you can catch a short bell concert at the start of Mass time sitting in the park across the street.

Casa Battló
Gaudí's presence can be felt throughout Barcelona as well thanks to unique bits of his architecture here and there.  Casa Battló (pictured to the right) was just around the corner from my hostel and a breathtaking sight getting off the metro, for example.

I took a few hours to visit Park Güell, also designed by Gaudí.  The park sits a little outside of the city center on a hill with an excellent view.  You can visit it for free, but to go inside the monument area, you will need to book a ticket with a specific time.  Gaudí's architecture within the park is fascinating to admire, but everything is above all functional and practical.  Even in January, though, there was no shortage of tour groups or selfie sticks, so I didn't even try to take many pictures through the madness.  The park has an app that you can download to your phone when you walk in that acts as a guided tour and will get you back on track if you get lost.

The most famous bit of the park is the long colorful curved mosaic bench that frames a lookout of Barcelona and the sea in the distance.

Lasagna at El Jardí
After a long morning of walking and dodging selfie sticks, it was nice to head back into town and sit down for a nice long lunch.

Most restaurants don't even open until 1pm, and I was the first one at El Jardí at 1:30.  The restaurant is basically a terrace inside the Conservatory courtyard with tables, benches, and pillows lining a shallow decorative pool.  I can recommend their friendly service as well as their vegetarian lasagna and fresh salad.
Boldú treat

(On the way back from the park, if you'd like a unique-looking sweet treat, stop at Boldú, a bakery specializing in sugary snacks like the one to the right.)

Speaking of cuisine, one of my favorite parts of Barcelona was discovering their tapas culture.  A woman working at my hostel recommended the Carrer de Blai, a quiet, calm, out-of-the-way pedestrian street known for its tapas bars.  In addition to tapas, they have pintxos, a variety of self-serve small snacks on bits of bread with picks through them to indicate the price (1-2€ each).  I had these for "dinner" a couple of nights because I was too tired to stay out for the typical Spanish dinner hour (around 10pm).  I really enjoyed the ambiance on that street and was grateful for the recommendation.

Tapas and vermouth
Another specialty of Barcelona is vermouth; certain bars are known to make it themselves on site.  Colibrí was recommended to me, a quiet and quaint spot in the old town with plenty of decorations for me to study while I sampled the vermouth and tomato tapas.

That was one of my general revelations about Barcelona: their cafés and restaurants are masters of decor and ambiance.  You don't feel as cramped as you do in French cafés, and there is no shortage of tasteful decorations to look at.  They feel light, welcoming, and relaxed, whether you are eating solo or with a group of fifteen, and the servers always seem happy to talk with you.

1992 Olympic park
My last adventure in Barcelona made up half of a 35-km walking day (says my phone's health app).  I climbed Montjuïc by foot; it's a rather steep climb, but mostly on paved roads and paths.  The hill is large, though, even once you reach the top - there is a castle, hiking paths, a cemetery, an art museum and fountain, and the 1992 Olympic park.  I first went to admire the castle from the outside, and I continued along a path that lined the coast for some beautiful views.

Advancing to the other side, I admired several views of Barcelona and the hills behind the city before finally finding the cemetery and then the Olympic park; you can even peek inside the stadium itself.

Afterward, I found the art museum which is beautiful just from the outside, as is the fountain in front and the shallow pools on the steps leading up to the museum.  The sun was beginning to set as I took a short break to people-watch and try to make out different monuments throughout the city from afar.

I finally looped back to the castle only to find out that I was too late to go inside, so I returned to the overlook next to it to watch a spectacular sunset over the water.

The pictures probably say a hundred times more than any of my words; Barcelona is a beautiful, comfortable, and lively travel destination that made me look forward to seeing Spain itself and experiencing more of its culture.  I certainly wouldn't say no to a return trip.

08 February 2018

Bach, Haydn, et valses

Christine and a few students in the
Conservatoire auditorium
When December and January roll around, they bring a slew of student exams, presentations, and projects to be corrected.  This year, I also got wrapped up in a whirlwind of rehearsals and - the fun part - concerts.

Mid-December, with Lille's city center in full marché-de-Noël mode, we had to fight through crazy crowds flooding the streets just to get to our own flute ensemble concert at the Conservatoire.  It was my first time inside the auditorium, which turned out to be a beautiful and ornate little oval-shaped space.

The program included Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, Haydn's Symphony No. 45, and Aram Khachaturian's Adagio from "Gayaneh" as an encore.  All were transcribed from their original full orchestral scores to a flute choir version by our director, Christine.

All in all, there were about twenty of us performing, mostly flutists (including alto and bass flutes) with two cellists and a bassist added.  I wish I had a recording of the concert because it's difficult to get a sense of the overall sound when I'm playing; we had an audience member write afterward to tell us that in sound, it resembled the pipes of an organ.

Flûtes et saxophones
After les fêtes de la fin d'année, over in Villeneuve d'Ascq with the JEH band, it was immediately crunch time leading up to our famous Bal de Vienne, or Viennese-style New Year's ball.  (As in...we had two rehearsals before showtime.)

The Bal de Vienne is a performance that the JEH has given for many years, so it now has quite a following of regulars who come (many dressed up in Viennese ball attire) year after year; all in all there were more than eight hundred in attendance.  The party in its entirety is a marathon of three full hours.

The first half is choreographed by a professional waltz studio, featuring Strauss' Danube waltz.

During the second half, the audience is invited to the dance floor as well, and the band continues to play a selection of mostly waltzes with some fox trots and polkas peppered throughout, and we end with the Radetzky March, a staple of the original ball in Vienna.

It takes quite a bit of stamina to play the Bal, but I think it's well worth it when your audience is enthusiastic and really appreciates the live music as much as ours did.  That being said, I wouldn't mind not hearing or playing the Danube again for a very long time.

Here is the local news clip of the event where you can hear some of the music and see the dancing.  We gave an abridged version of the ball (sans danseurs) at the beginning of February at a nursing home and will be giving another mid-month, so I won't be packing away the waltzes just yet.

Théâtre Devos in Tourcoing
On the other side, as an audience member, I've been tapping into the music of a town just outside of Lille on the Belgian border called Tourcoing.  It's got an amazing and well-known jazz scene for a small town; I attended a five-hour jazz concert put on by their conservatory students, staff, and associates to celebrate the conservatory's twentieth birthday.  My roommates and I have also developed a liking for live jam sessions at cafés in town.

On the classical end, I attended Haydn's Creation oratorio in Tourcoing (left) and a Baroque-themed concert with Avi Avital, guest mandolinist, by the Orchestre National de Lille (below).

Nouveau Siècle in Lille

15 December 2017

Because leaf fall down

Forget Christmas for a moment:  Fall is by far my favorite time of year.  The lack of major change in seasonal weather has definitely been perplexing for me since I've moved to France; I do sometimes miss the crisp, cool midwest days, even if they don't last for long.

I was happy that we experienced a mild autumn season here in the north of France this year before the winter rain (and - spoiler alert - snow) began.  In addition to enjoying Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte multiple times, I was able to venture just outside of Lille for an afternoon to the Ferme du Paradis with friends to pick apples and buy other local produce.

And autumn in Paris?  Dana and I got to spend a perfect weekend there; we went for a Boyce Avenue concert that Dana had suggested months earlier at La Cigale - a nice and comfortable venue in Montmartre - videos 1, 2, and 3 will take you there for a moment.

That same weekend, we walked a lot (as one does in Paris), stopped at la Gare de Lyon for Halloween Vampire Frappuccinos, and then (feeling so fall-ish and basic) posed shamelessly on rue Crémieux, one of the most-Instagrammed places in the world.

From there, we continued walking along the Seine and eventually up to the Galerie Lafayette to see their Christmas display.  Despite visiting a couple of months early for the Christmas season, it was the first time I'd seen the inside of the mall and it was well worth it; I'd recommend it even if you're a grinch and/or hate malls and/or Christmas!  After, take the elevator or stairs all the way up to the open rooftop for a view and a drink, as Dana and I did.

View from the rooftop of Galerie Lafayette

The new Paris Philharmonic building
About a month later, I returned to Paris for a conference for English teachers, one that I've attended every year since I've moved to France.  This year, I took a risk and in the middle of it booked a Saturday evening ticket - well, all-night ticket - to Max Richter's Sleep at the Philharmonie de Paris.  Max Richter is a living German composer whose works never fail to impress me.  Sleep is a unique piece in that it lasts eight hours and is neurologically composed in order to help you sleep, and a series of concerts in Madrid, Amsterdam, and Paris allowed you to attend (pajamas recommended) and sleep while listening to the music live.  As you can imagine, it was a unique experience falling asleep and waking up (and then having breakfast) with a group of a hundred strangers.  But I slept better in a room of hundreds than I sometimes sleep in my own bed, so here's the major question answered:

It actually works!  At least, it does for me, the best solution I've found yet for irregular sleep, even when I turn off the lights but my brain won't shut off.  If you're having trouble sleeping and want to try, here is the link for the entire eight-hour playlist.  Open up your laptop, get comfortable, and press play eight hours before you want to wake up (but do set an alarm if you really need to get up at a certain time!).  The music should seem a little too loud for sleeping at first; just focus on the sound; it will get quieter and lull you to sleep.  The last movement, in contrast, should be a gentle "alarm" to help you wake up gradually.  At the Philharmonie, the lights gradually changed color to mimic a sunrise during the last hour.

JEH rehearsal
For me, fall was also a time to reconnect with music and flute playing.  I learned, for maybe the third time in my life, that good things happen when I walk into a Conservatoire in France and awkwardly introduce myself.  This time, I first got myself into a conservatory flute choir (made up mostly of very motivated middle- and high-school students and a few adults) which is often even pushing me beyond what I did in college in the U.S. - we have weekly rehearsals which can be stressful, but I'm also thrilled to have a new challenge.

One of my fellow flute choir members, a Portuguese flutist, connected me with a community band called the Jeune Ensemble Harmonique (JEH) in Villeneuve d'Ascq, a suburb of Lille.  It has nothing to do with being jeune (young); the band is mostly made up of adults in a very relaxed atmosphere, and they are the perfect example of the north-of-France stereotype: people are warm, friendly, and easy to get to know.

Through that Jeune Ensemble Harmonique (JEH), I met another American (bassoonist) who connected me with a group of Americans (+ international friends) in Lille.  It's thanks to that unlikely chain of events that I spent Thanksgiving #1 with the lovely group of people to the left (two Americans, two Indians, one Hungarian, one Brit, and a French family of four), and we had a wonderful time and exchange.

Marché de Noël à Paris
Thanksgiving #2 was much cozier at my friend Sylvia's house in a small nearby village with her family and friends, a mix of American, French, Swedish, Japanese, and Canadian people, many of whom are classically-trained musicians.

After Thanksgiving, I kicked off the Christmas season with some snow, sleet, and ice in Lille and a day trip to Paris to see my high school friends Kirsten and Devon who finally made it to visit Europe!  I tagged along with them to Versailles in the morning; after lunch we visited Notre Dame and then took a long walk complete with window shopping and a Christmas market in the square next to Les Halles mall.  It was a nice surprise to run into as the large market along the Champs-Élysées has apparently been shut down for good, but there are a few smaller markets here and there throughout Paris.  We enjoyed piping mugs of vin chaud and sampled plenty of fromage and foie gras, as we had apparently run into the Swiss/Alps-themed market.

With that, it seems winter has arrived in the north of France.