Monday, July 30, 2012

The six hours of Le Mans

Last week, we finally got some nice weather, hot (up to 34 degrees) and sunny, but it only lasted a few days. Today was pretty cold and drizzly again. Sigh. Anyway, as well as the Garlic and Basil Fair I blogged about, I had a barbecue at my old work on Wednesday, for them to celebrate the end of term. I wasn't super keen about going, I still feel a bit bad about how things worked out there and I didn't really want to answer endless questions about how the job search is going (it's not, really) and what I do with myself all day (pester Bob). But I thought I should suck it up, because it was nice of them to invite me and there's no point burning bridges even more. In the end, it was fine, I did have to answer the same questions over and over, but they are nice people after all, so it wasn't like a horrible grilling. The atmosphere there is pretty dismal, it seems. The other girl my age has a couple of days' work after the holidays and then her contract will be up too, someone else is being moved to another department, and it seems the rest are just hanging around serving out their contracts.

For the next little while, it's busy times for me. Tomorrow I am in Paris for the day, then I'm taking an overnight bus to Amsterdam (dear god, what was I thinking?? At least I'm over the dreadful cold I had all last week, that would have been a killer. Actually, I know what I was thinking, I was thinking 5€ to go to Amsterdam? Why the bloody hell not? I got a touch of buyer's remorse as soon as I bought the ticket, but fingers crossed it won't be too bad). I'm in Amsterdam until Friday night, then overnight to Paris where I'll spend the day again on Saturday. Then I'm back home for a couple of days and next Tuesday it's off to Manchester to meet up with my parents, and then after a couple of days in England we're heading to Norway (must stop saying Denmark) for a week! Yay!

Just as excitingly, I spent the afternoon today in Le Mans. Yes, voluntarily. An old friend of mine, who I used to share a tiny room with when I was living in the north of France back in 2007, is currently staying not far away from here, so we decided to meet in the middle and see what Le Mans had to offer. We hadn't seen each other since seeing in 2008 together in Leeds, so four and a half years in other words. You always worry a bit that time will have taken its toll on the friendship or whatever, but after the initial sort of awkward "how's work? how's your family"-type stuff, we were back talking about important things like Favourite Discontinued Chocolate Bars. (Confusingly, I have vivid memories of a chocolate-mousse filled chocolate bar called a Secret bar which I loved when I was in England as an 11 year-old, but no-one else seems to have heard of it. It must have been very secret.)

We didn't really have any idea what there was in Le Mans. I'd never previously heard there was anything exciting there apart from the 24 Hours race, but I knew from a post on Ksam's blog that there was actually an old town somewhere. However, at first we just ended up in a particularly desolate, wind-swept square on a Monday lunchtime. Nothing was open, every street we went down just ended up in construction work or non-descript closed shops, and in the end we had to ask a copper for directions, after aimlessly walking for quite some time. As it happened, the old town, or Cité Plantagenet, wasn't far from the aforementioned square, and it was really pretty. Full of old, well-preserved medieval buildings, narrow lanes, and the cathedral.

It didn't take all that long to look around, and we finished off with a couple of hours in the pub before catching our respective trains back home, which gave us more time to catch up on the last couple of years. Hopefully it won't be another four years!

The back of the cathedral - it had quite a weird orientation. It's huge and we came in on one of the side-aisles, on the left-hand side of the picture. I'm not really sure where you're meant to attack it from, it didn't really seem to have a big main front to it

Not quite giving the finger, but a bit weird

I know Jesus got a bit pissy in the moneychangers-in-the-temple debacle, don't remember him whipping people though. Not very WWJD

The beautiful painted chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Chevet in the cathedral, painted at the end of the 14th century

I loved these especially colourful stained-glass windows

I would love to have a turret!

Weird creepy saint in an abbey. Alice wondered if this was a game of hide-and-seek gone terribly awry

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tours: reinforcing French stereotypes since 1352

You can't get much Frencher than a Garlic and Basil Fair, a Tours tradition on St. Anne's Day, the 26th of July, which dates back to the Middle Ages (I made up the 1352 date by the way). The fair does what it says on the tin - loads of garlic and basil along with assorted other foodie delights. Mmm, smells yummy!
No vampires here

This guy rocked the hat-and-mo combo

Lots and lots of soap

Stop! Basil time! Okay, that's a no entry sign, not a stop sign, but 80s kids can't help themselves with the MC Hammer refs

I really wanted to wear a string of garlic, but I think that would have been frowned upon

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Istanbul: Basilica Cistern and city views

Continuing my little series of "lost" photos from Istanbul (previous installments: Chora Church, Hagia Sophia photos and the original trip report), here are some views of the city, part from when we took a ferry from one side of the city to the other, part from our misguided attempt to try to just walk blindly in the direction of the bridge across the Bosphorus and stand in two continents at once (I found out much later that people haven't been allowed to walk on the bridge for a very long time, however this was a moot point since we were able to find the bridge, but we were down below and couldn't find how to get up on to the bridge - a quest hampered by "military do not enter" zones).

First though, pictures of the Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. As the name suggests, a grand basilica dating from the 3rd-4th centuries originally stood on the site, before being destroyed and rebuilt several times and then turned into an underground cistern which provided water to part of the city until modern times.

It's huge - as big as a cathedral, and capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water (yes I did my Wikipedia homework). There's not that much to see down there, but there is a nice, reflective atmosphere, in more ways than one ho ho ho.

It also has fishies!

One of the "Medusa head" statues

I took this out of the window of my bus going back to the airport, came out pretty well considering!

The Blue Mosque

Bridge over the Bosphorus

Me, looking very pale and wild of hair, with the Bosphorus Bridge barely visible in the background

Shots from the ferry. The seagulls were loving it - I suppose the chop brings fish to the surface or something

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hwæt ræde ic? Ælfric's Colloquy

Firstly, you may find this boring. Here's your opportunity to skip it, while I geek out Anglo-Saxon stylee.

I studied a little bit of Old English at university, and since obviously the marketplace is just crying out for people with a basic reading knowledge of Old English, I decided on a whim to brush up, rather than using my time to do something useful like perfect my French or resurrect my Russian. So I went online and ordered the textbook we used at uni, Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English, which is mostly made up of a teach-yourself guide to OE, with some excerpts of OE texts at the end.

Because I'm lazy, I skipped all the tables of noun declinations and verb conjugations and went straight to my old friend Ælfric's Colloquy on the Occupations. The Colloquy was originally written by Ælfric, an English abbot, in Latin towards the end of the 10th century, as a teaching tool for young monks learning Latin. The OE version we have today is based on one of his pupils basically doing his homework, writing the OE words into the margins of the Latin text. I find it quite a sweet thought that, 1000 years ago, this text was used as a language teaching tool and it's still in use for the same purposes today. The style of the Colloquy is surprisingly modern as well - it takes the form of a dialogue between an unknown person and various workers in Anglo-Saxon society. One can imagine the young monks taking turns to roleplay the various characters. Its didactic roots also shine through in the slightly stagey feel of some of the exchanges. One can almost imagine Ælfric standing over the monks reminding them to answer in full sentences.

I always liked the Colloquy, partly because it's a fairly easy read with a little bit of work (although I'm bound to have made mistakes with things like tenses and number, since I didn't bother looking up all the forms), and partly because it gives a snapshot of ordinary people's lives. Although it was composed by an abbot, and is thus at a remove from the workers it depicts, it's probably as close as we come to a glimpse of the working man in Anglo-Saxon England. 

There are lots of nice moments, such as when the ploughman explains (my translations) (sorry I had trouble with typing macrons):

'hit is micel gedeorf, for þæm þe ic neom freo'
'it is [i.e. his work is] much hardship, because I am not free'

or the timid fisherman who refuses to go whale-hunting:

'For þæm me is leofre þæt ic fisc gefo þe ic ofslean mæg þonne ic fisc gefo þe nealles þæt an me selfne ac eac swelce mine geferan mid anum slege besencan mæg oþþe ofslean.'
'Because I'd rather catch fish that I can kill than catch fish that can kill or sink not only me but also my companions with a single blow.'

or the merchant who offers an early defense of capitalism:

'Wilt þu þin þing her on lande sellan wiþ þæm ilcan weorþe þe þu hie þær ute mid gebohtest?'
'Nic; hwæt fremede me þonne min gedeorf? Ac ic wile hie wiþ maran weorþe her sellan þonne ic hie þær mid gebohte, þæt ic mæge me sum gestreon begietan, þe ic me mid afedan mæge and min wif and min bearn.'
'Do you want to sell your things in this land for the same price at which you bought them abroad?'
'No; what benefit would I get from my hard work then? But I wish to sell them here for a greater price than I bought them for there, so that I can get me some profit, with which I can feed myself and my wife and my child.'

Things take an awkward turn when the questioner, who up to this point has been asking the various characters to explain the utility of their crafts in a pretty neutral fashion, suddenly turns on the cook:

'Hwæt secge we be þæm coce? Beþurfon we his cræftes to awihte?'
'What do we say about the cook? Do we need his skills at all?'

The cook reacts angrily:

'Gif ge me of eowrum geferscipe utadrifaþ, ge etaþ eowre wyrta grene and eowre flæscmettas hreawe... þonne beo ge ealle þeowas, and nan eower ne biþ hlaford'
'If you drive me out of your community, you will eat your vegetables green and your meat raw... then you will all be slaves, and none of you will be a lord'

So are we to take it that the Anglo-Saxons saw cooks as a bit useless? This one certainly seems to be on the defensive side!

As well as the content of the Colloquy, the language is also interesting (obviously, or I'd just read it in translation). Estimates on how much of modern English is derived from Old English or Germanic roots vary, from around 25-35%, although it's much higher if you count only the most common English words. Old English only takes about 3% of its vocabulary from Latin, whereas today up to about 70% may be ultimately derived from Latin, often via French. As much as 80% of Old English words were lost as the language developed into Middle English after the Norman Invasion. 

However, many things which at first seem impenetrable can, with practice, be decoded fairly easily, I imagine especially if you speak some German. (NB, þ and ð are 'th', as in 'earth' and 'this', respectively; æ is a short 'a' like in 'cat', 'c' is often pronounced 'ch', 'g' is often soft like a 'y', etc.) And while we're at it, the 'Ye' in 'Ye Olde English' is derived from the medieval way of writing the letter þ, thorn, so it should be pronounced 'The'. While we're being snippy, feel free to correct people who refer to the likes of Shakespeare or Chaucer as 'Old English'. They're not.

Take treowwyrhtan, for example. At first glance, it's utterly incomprehensible, but it only takes a little practice to realise it's tree-wright, i.e. carpenter. This Germanic habit of forming compound nouns throws up some pretty images, such as dægræd = day-red, or dawn. A þyrel is a hole, so a 'nose-hole' is our nostril. These sorts of compounds are used to great effect in Anglo-Saxon poetry in particular, where you'll find things such as reordberend = speech-bearer, i.e. "man", or merehengest = sea-horse, i.e. "ship", or gealgtreo = gallows-tree, i.e. cross (as in Jesus'). 

A farmer or ploughman is an ierþling, or earthling. Salmon is leax, a word which was lost to English until it came back as lox via Yiddish. Elpendban is elephant-bone, i.e. ivory. Wyrt, 'vegetable', clings on in expressions such as 'St. John's Wort'. Ceaster, originally derived from the Latin for camp, I believe, means town, and lives on in placenames such as Manchester, Rochester, Winchester, etc.

And if you know anyone who aspirates their 'h' in words like what or which, they can point to sound Anglo-Saxon precedent: these words began life as hwæt and hwelc (there's also hwa (who), hwær (where), hwæðer (whether), hwider (whither), etc.).

So, perhaps not the most practically useful subject ever (although arguably, Medieval Icelandic, which I also did for a semester at uni, is even less so), but interesting, at least to me!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fontevraud Abbey

I've been dying to go to Fontevraud Abbey, near Saumur, ever since I learnt of its existence a couple of years ago or so. Up until recently, however, it seemed it was impossible to get to without a car (or maybe bike). It's about 18 km away from Saumur, which is itself about an hour away by train. However, I discovered that there is a new tourist bus that now does the rounds between Saumur and Fontevraud a couple of times a day, so I decided to head out for the afternoon yesterday.

Presumably because it's a new service, there weren't any signs or anything on where to go, so when I came out of the train station I was a bit unsure if I ought to be waiting at the city bus stop on the road or at the coach bus stop in a layby next to the road. Luckily, a city bus came along and the driver told me to wait at the coach stop. When it turned up, it was a minivan driven by a guy who seemed to be on his first run, judging by the number of times he consulted his list of stops. He also stalled it once going round a slow corner, how embarrassment! I was the only passenger on both trips to the abbey and back. We drove out through some small towns and vineyards (reminding me that I quite like sparkling Saumur wine) to Fontevraud. Funnily enough, on the way the radio played Wham's Last Christmas - well, I suppose it's just a song if you're French.

I turned up just as a guided tour was about to leave, so I decided to join the group. Not that the tour guide did a bad job, but I would have liked more historical background on the royals who were associated with the abbey over the ages, from the famous Plantagenets buried here, to the royal Abbesses to the children of monarchs who were educated here. To be fair, these things were touched upon, but I didn't feel the history was really brought alive, and there wasn't much inside the abbey to really give you the spirit of the place. Apparently, the buildings themselves have been heavily altered and restored as well, both pre- and post-Revolution and into modern times.

This is partly because, like Loches, it was turned into a state prison. Incredibly, it housed prisoners until the 1960s! It's a wonder any of France's royal or religious history was preserved at all! Even the royal "tombs", of Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and Isabella of Angoulême, one of King John's wives, are not really tombs at all, as their tombs lay elsewhere within the abbey and their remains have never been found. These statues which have been preserved were originally four out of a couple of dozen royal tombs, the rest of which have disappeared. In Richard's case, his heart and entrails were never at Fontevraud to begin with, as he had himself carved up post-mortem and dispatched to Rouen (heart), Châlon (entrails) and Fontevraud (body).

I was interested to know how the French viewed the Plantagenets, and luckily enough the guide weighed in, saying that Richard was completely French: King of England, but not at all English, seeing that he didn't speak a word of English and only spent about six months there. I see, looking at Wikipedia, that he was at least born in England, however. Most of the French people on the tour seemed surprised that the guide said he was French, so I suppose it's not a widely-held view in the general population, at any rate.

Apart from the royal tombs, the abbey, founded in 1100, is interesting because it housed both monks and nuns, but was always under the control of an Abbess. The Abbesses were of high social status, often royal. There seemed to be various different reasons for this: the founder, hermit Robert of Abrissel seemed to enjoy at least playing with fire, since he was criticised by contemporaries for frequently sleeping with the nuns in order to prove he was above fleshly temptations. Another reason was that religious men were supposed to humble themselves on earth in order to receive rewards in heaven, and submitting to the authority of a woman was one way to do so. However, Robert also personally led women into a church where the locals claimed that women were unfit to enter into a church and would die immediately if they did so, and afterwards preached a sermon demonstrating that women had been amongst the earliest disciples of Christ and were to be judged on their individual faults or merits, not as a sex. So a bit of a complicated backstory, but I suppose it was probably a comparatively good place for the women who lived there to end up.

So overall, I suppose I was expecting great things of Fontevraud and it didn't quite stack up to what I imagined. Maybe I would have got more of a flavour of the history from the audio guide (it certainly covered more of the grounds than the tour), but maybe that's just life. Part of history is its unfortunate habit of building over and obliterating what came before, and Europe has had more than enough wars, revolutions and religious upheavals to ensure that we should perhaps be thankful for what remains rather than lamenting what's been lost.

View of Saumur

Saumur town hall

The abbey church from the back

Abbey church from the front

Inside the Abbey church

Tombs of Isabella, wife of King John; Richard the Lionheart (foreground); Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II (background)

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II

Isabella and Richard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart

Doorway to the Chapter House

Closeup of doorway

Decorated ceiling vault of Chapter House window

Ceiling detail

Inside the Chapter House

Jesus' feet disappearing into a cloud

The various Abbesses were added to the Chapter House frescoes over time, in this case resulting in a spare foot coming out of nowhere

Fresco of the betrayal of Jesus in the Chapter House

In the cloisters was an unusual jungle-gym like art installation

I struggled to take a photo of this, but there were birds' nests in the cloisters

Wif widdle baby birds in them!

The former dormitories featured an artwork by Claude Lévèque

The abbey kitchen

The abbey gardens