Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I've got a Fever. And the only prescription is more soccer!

Even for someone who doesn't watch soccer regularly (me), World Cup can be a lot of fun to follow. Sure, I don't know half of the rules, but it is one of the few sports in which a country's prosperity and its performance are not perfectly linked and think there's something really cool about that. 
I'm particularly enjoying the World Cup this time around, as I am surrounded by people from the countries that are actually good enough to play! Our coffee shop has brought in a projector and big screen to televise the games. I may not know enough yet to make an educated prediction about who will take the cup, but I can tell you that I'll probably be in the company of someone from the winning country when it happens. 

Woohoo! I love this fever.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Euro Disney and, of course, Le Queen

In the spirit of continuing to live like kids, we drove up to Euro Disney for a day of fun, kid style.
Our strategy was to build up to the mega rides by doing the tame ones first. Naturally, in the spirit of the diversity of our group and our travels this year, we started out with the 'it's a small world' ride. It was fun to pick out all of our friends - the Mexicans in sombreros, Germans in leiderhosen, the North American cowboys and indians, the Dutch in those wooden shoes.
About half way in the ride stopped, though the music continued, painfully repeating itself over and over and over again. We never found out whether there was a technical problem with the ride or whether the french workers had staged a strike. We were just relieved to get out in search of another ride.
And, on the way back to Fontainebleau, we stopped for the night at Le Queen in Paris. It was Michael Jackson tribute night, which made for good music and good entertainment.

And a bunch of our other friends made it up to enjoy the night there with us too. I will miss monday's at Le Queen!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Feeling Like a Kid

I headed to the Fontainebleau forest on my bike to get my body feeling a bit better after the big ball. It's cool to have a forest practically at your back door and no bears or cougars to worry about. And the weather right now is so pleasant; even when it rains. Somehow this magical combination of conditions lends itself to feeling lie a kid again. Of course, that may be the unemployment talking, too.
So, in the spirit of feeling and living like a kid, I rode down to Montigny, where most of my friends are living, for a dip in the river. I can't remember the last time that I went swimming in the river. This one was a LOT warmer than the Bow, too. Ah, to be a kid again.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I like Big Balls

It's summer in Fontainebleau and that means it is time for another big ball. The location? The lovely Montmelian chateau, which has been home to INSEAD students for many years now. The theme? Monty Vista Social Club - Havana Nights. The vibe? Awesome.
The site was well decorated, to ensure that everyone got in the mood.
And the weather cooperated, which meant that we could enjoy the outdoor dance floor as the light became dark...
...and then became light again.
There's nothing like eating breakfast while you're still on the dance floor! DJ still going strong...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Of Cors-i-can!

Fontainebleau is becoming lovelier by the day and it is tragic to think of leaving this place, but I have really come to appreciate weekend travel as a way to deepen my friendships with my classmates. And so, when the I was asked if I could travel to Corsica for what will be the last trip during the academic year, I said...of course I can!

Wasting no time in getting the adventure started, we chartered a bus to take us from INSEAD to the airport. Our host, Fabien, kept us organized and took care of most of the logistics (that's a lot of passports!).
60-some of us piled into a small jet plane to Ajaccio and then into a convoy of 12 pugeot 5800's and headed out on the highway. With 12 matching vans stretched out on the road, we looked like we were on some kind of official business.

Our itinerary was intense, taking us to all corners of the island, over some of the most challenging and winding roads that I've seen. It was enough to make even the most hardy stomach a little queasy. But, it was worth every mile, as each little town had its own charm. And, it seems that the harder it is to get to a place, the more likely it is that you will find that it hasn't been spoiled.
There were opportunities to hike.
Even when it was raining (some handmade rain jackets!).
And then there was the beach, when it was sunny.
And, of course, we had to take in the local cuisine (hope that you like fish!).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Ghosts of Chateau de Fleury-En-Biere

I recently had dinner with some of the 'new' students staying at my chateau. The topic of conversation? Ghosts. 
What? Educated people talking about ghosts? 

Okay, okay, it's an old castle. There are strange noises. I suppose this is exactly the sort of place from which ghost stories originate. And so, it turns out that one of my neighbours has been loosing sleep as a consequence of the two ghosts that live, unharmoniously, in the courtyard next to him. 

He carried on for some time, imitating the strange noises that they make in the night, telling of how he had seen them before. And then, finally, we realized, that he was speaking of goats, not ghosts. I love non-native English speakers.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Le Huit a Huit

Oh, the charms of France. You wont find a 7-11 here, but you will find the '8 a 8'. Cutting edge in convenience, French style. It's got almost everything one needs to survive - wine, baguettes, chocolate. 
Even the hours of operation have their own French flair. Don't let the name fool you, this store closes at 7:00pm!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Golan Heights

To complete our rapid tour of Israel, we headed north toward Golan Heights, the upper northeast corner of the country that has been a site of contention more than a few times in the last century. Most recently, it has become a center for wine growing - and, clearly, that was worth checking out.
But it is also home to an air force base (yet another thing that might not be possible on itinerary of the ordinary tourist), and our local connections hooked us up for a tour and a brief lesson in Israel's successful air force history.

We also squeezed in some exploration of the country side in ATV's. It's tough getting the attention of a group of eager riders for a safety briefing, but the word 'land mines' was effective in grabbing everyone's attention. We trekked out, in a very orderly fashion, to an abandoned military base that had evidence of past conflict (read: a hole in the roof where an explosive came through).
Passing through Galilee to get to Haifa, it occurred to me just how many places that I have been to on this trip (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazereth, and now Galilee) that always seemed the stuff of stories to me before. It is strange for me to see that these places actually exist.

Our final stop was in Haifa, where we saw two more facets of Israel's religious landscape - the Druze and the Bahai. If you haven't heard of the Druze, it might be because, apparently one must be born Druze in order to be Druze, which makes the pool of potential candidates quite limited.
Of course, that could be misinformation, as our guide for this part of the tour struggled with the facts. Her discussion on the Bahai faith went a little something like this:
Guide "The Bahai people pray five times a day"
Us "Really? what do they pray about"
Guide "Oh, they dont pray, they are not like muslims"
Us "Huh?"
I guess that's where wikipedia comes in handy.

In any case, one of the best trips of the year. Israel - you should check it out.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tel Aviv / Jaffa

It was back to Tel Aviv today, to enjoy a walking tour of the city, Jaffa (the muslim quarter of the city) and an afternoon at the beach. Starting with a visit to the site of Yitzak Rabin's assassination helped to understand the significance of the event to the people here. 
Jaffa is as much a part of the city as Bowness is of Calgary. In fact, the historic port city predates the modern metropolis that surrounds it, so I should probably more accurately describe Tel Aviv as the secondary part of the city. But, it's a place that feels somewhat lost in time, left behind, and it is dwarfed by the rapid growth and prosperity of Tel Aviv. The history and ancient architecture make it a lovely place to spend some time, and the food is great, too. 
The beach in Tel Aviv was packed with tanners and with people playing a bat and ball game. Interrupted by the violent "WHACK…WHACK…WHACK" of the bat and ball game that is apparently tremendously popular with the locals. 
Unusually, the game is cooperative, rather than competitive. Rather than trying to outscore each other, players work together to see how long and how skillfully they can sustain a rally. Beats sitting on the beach!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Night in the West Bank

When they said we were in for a special surprise, they weren't messing around!

Shortly before dinner, we boarded our bus again and headed into the desert for a meal and fire under the stars. This is the stuff that exciting travel is made of, and the sort of thing that can only be done when you have a group like this that includes friends from the area that you are visiting. We drove for almost an hour on twisty dirt roads and found a spot that seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere on the edge of the West Bank was the description that we were provided. 
When we arrived, our caterers were set up and were already preparing dinner. So we hung around by the fire and enjoyed the clear view of the stars. Next to our set up was another 'party' (a car full of guys and a fire), so our 'locals' headed over to check out the situation. They were accompanied by Duane, our US army friend and the largest and toughest guy in the group. This is the same Duane that became a spectacle in India on account of his size and build (think Avatar) and the sort of person with whom you could go anywhere and feel safe. The report back: 'ok, technically, we are in the West Bank. The guys are Palestinians and they want to arm wrestle Duane, if you want to come watch". 
For our hosts, this was the first time that they had encountered Palestinians outside of their army experience, and they seemed positively excited about it. Coming from a country in which military service is not mandatory and in which war has not not been a part of day to day life, it is hard to imagine how it feels to have such an encounter. But I feel like it reflects positively on the nature of people that 'enemies' in a time of ongoing conflict can come together and see each other as friends. Observing a playful match between an American and a Palestinian, and refereed by an Israeli - positively magical. For all of the things that we see on television and read about in the paper - the violence, the hatred, the dangers of the 'other parts of the world - there is something missing. Something significant. And it is such a shame. Israel is a place that I hadn't bothered to visit before now because of what I see in the news. This has been a terrible judgement on my part. Yes, there are tensions and dangers out there - but there is a lot of love and goodness, too. The more that I travel, the more optimistic I become about people. 

We spent the rest of the darkness listening to songs around the fire.
and hanging out under the stars.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Yad Vashem / Masada / Dead Sea

The Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, served as a sobering start to the day. Very tastefully done. Educational. Easy to get around. I'd argue that it serves as a good model for museums around the world. 
They gave each of us personal headsets so that we could hear the tour guide talk and also browse the museum at our leisure. Sure beats being stuck at the back of a crowd of people and unable to hear what the guide is saying.
Some of the other groups had guides with guns. An Israeli charity has a 'Birthright' program in which Jews from around the world are invited to come to Israel for a 10 day heritage trip that is sponsored. I don't know really where the gun comes in, but it seems to be part of it, too.  
Then it was south to Masada, the site of an ancient fortress on a high plateau on the eastern edge of the Judaen desert. You know, the site of the famous mass suicide of the Sicarri rebels after a siege of the fortress by Roman troops? Oh, you didn't know? Me neither. Pretty neat site though. I am often amazed at how advanced ancient civilizations were, setting up communities in locations that are seemingly uninhabitable due to natural conditions. In this case, the lack of a permanent or regular water supply, combined with extreme heat would have seemed reason to find another location to build. Instead, they developed an elaborate water harvesting system using natural rock features. 
From there, we headed to the lowest place on earth and cooled off with a dip in the Dead Sea. 
The water feels funny when it touches your skin; a little oily feeling at first, and a bit caustic when it touches the skin on your face (word to the wise: do NOT dunk your head in!). But it's a lot of fun to play in on account of its superbouyancy. 
And don't let me forget about the mud at the bottom! Lining the bottom of the 'sea' is a nice black paste, perfect for body painting. 
Tonight we are staying in a Kibutz and have been promised a very special surprise. I can't wait!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tel Aviv / Jerusalem

Coming here now feels a bit like when I arrived in Delhi. This time, instead of the place being on alert on a rumour, the place is on alert because of actual casualties. I have to admit that the global uproar regarding the flotilla situation just two days ago has me a little bit nervous. At the same time, it should make this a very interesting time to be here. 

The Tel Aviv airport is one of the loveliest that I have seen. Modern, clean and easy to get around. Naturally, one of my first experiences in the country is with immigration. Apparently, one of the requisites for the job is to be an attractive young woman; not bad for tourism. My flight landed around the same time as another vessel carrying a load of Hasidic Jews, which made for a doubly eye catching first impression of the country. (This picture has nothing to do with what I've said, but it had to be posted nonetheless).
The city of Tel Aviv is framed on one side with one of the most beautiful city beaches that I've seen and we were fortunate to arrive in time to watch the sun set. Not a bad second impression. The sunset was topped only by the fantastic dinner (I heart Israeli food) and a wild evening on a beautiful rooftop lounge (I heart rooftops and lounges).

Despite a late night, our first full day started really early. Destination: Jerusalem. 

Our tour guide was excellent, walking around the old city of Jerusalem, he explained much of the history. I had heard a lot of it before, most of it was stuff that I had heard before, but somehow being here, it made more sense. Jews, Muslims, Christians. All living next to each other in their holiest of places. This place is really really significant to a lot of people. 

In some ways, it felt very safe to be there - like nobody was going to do something violent because it is a holy place. 
We strolled into the muslim quarter for some kick ass hummus, checked out the site of the last supper, and made a wish on the wailing wall. 
Our guide was clearly used to taking religious tourists around, with questions like 'Does anyone remember what it says on the first page of the new testament?' (uh…no) and 'Who knows why the Wailing Wall is on the western wall?' (uh…definitely not me). Despite the fact that our group numbered close to 30, nobody among us could even attempt a respectable response. After we couldn't answer a question about the sacrificial lamb, he moaned 'Come on, this is like third grade trivia!'. Maybe in Israel...
It was at this point that our guide first referenced the Simpsons. Specifically the episode in which Homer gets Messiah Syndrome. Turns out that the Simpsons has resonated more than the Bible with this group.

When we got back into our tour bus, which was equipped with satellite television, we tuned into CNN. The breaking news was that kids were throwing stones at cars in East Jerusalem apparently in protest of the flotilla situation. I think this is the first time that I've been in a place and had one impression, then seen that same place on television and had a completely different impression. I'm not saying that there isn't potential for tension or shit to go down here, but it is a good reminder for me that what I see on television is not necessarily the entire picture.

We finished the evening with a tour of Jerusalem night life. Walking along the street, we came across some protesters in the street singing 'let it be'. I'm not sure what their cause was but, in any case, it seemed like there might be a better choice of songs to underscore the call for change. 
Then we hit a nightclub called Constantine. The decor mimicked a church, with faux stained glass arrangements lining the walls. Only in Jerusalem!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sicily Part 2

For our last day in Sicily, we took a ferry to a near by island. And the sea was angry, my friend. (I can't confirm that this is a picture of our ferry, but it did feel a bit like this).
The sea was so angry, in fact, that the staff handed out sick bags before we even left the port. Actually, let me be more precise. These weren't the sick bags that I've seen before. These were translucent plastic bags, of the sort and size that you might buy 5 cent candies in. If you weren't going to get sick from the motion, there was a lot of opportunity to get sick from the sight and smell of that. I had flashbacks of the blueberry pie scene from Stand By Me.
But the journey was worth it. We rented bicycles and bombed around the island, hoping from beach to beach and soaking up the sun. I'm not one for riding my bike without a helmet, but sometimes it just feels so good. Wind in the hair.  
Some international beach conversation of the sort that could only occur among a group like this. On who pays on a date:
Yuliya (Russian): In my country, the man always pays.
Verena (Dutch): In my country, the man and woman split the bill. And I have a feeling that they watch it very closely. 
Sverre (Norwegian): In my country, the government pays.