The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Meanwhile, Back at the Fortress of Solitude...

Montee du Gourgillon is one of the oldest streets in Lyon. Laid out by the Romans to connect the Saone river docks with the baths and amphitheatre on top of the hill, it was once lined with the villas of Roman traders. In later years the stones of these villas were re-purposed to build the Cathedral St. Jean. After a visit by Pope Clement V to the cathedral, his procession ascended Montee du Gourgillon, where crowds thronged onto makeshift bleachers that narrowed the narrow street further still. One of these bleachers collapsed as onlookers strained to touch His Holiness, killing a number of them and knocking the pope off his horse. The Primate (heh heh) was able to walk it off, but the crown he had been wearing lost a number of jewels including a large diamond. While walking down Montee du Gourgillon, one is still advised to keep an eye out for the Pope's diamond, just in case, y'know, it's just sitting in the gutter 800-odd years later. (some really nice photos, including Montee du Gourgillon, here... captions in French but you can probably work it out.)

The street was rebuilt along with the rest of Vieux-Lyon during the Renaissance, and many of these Renaissance houses still stand. Further up the hill, some wealthy landowners carved out small estates on the hillsides behind the high walls, building manor houses among small orchards. One of these former estates, the Clos Vendome, still stands, and in the corner of its walled garden, built out from two of the old walls and covered by a massive grapevine obscuring its tile roof, stands a gardener's cottage. Which is where I live.

It's not well insulated. There's no phone (I use my cell). There's no doorbell ( me 5 minutes before you get here and I'll meet you at the gatehouse [photo]). The "kitchen" belongs on a sailboat. It's damp, and overrun with spiders who were occupying the old stone walls long before I got here. All sorts of critters scurry over the roof tiles under the grapevine.

But for me, it's enough. I have a writing desk by the window with a view over the city, and my own private terrace outside [photo]. I have the neighbor's WiFi connection, and the landlord (who lives in the Big House) lets me use the swimming pool in the garden. He's a good guy, a jazz aficionado with a nice record collection and a grand piano in the salon (big Bill Evans fan; on weekend days I can hear "Waltz for Debby" coming up from the house) with a superb city view. He doesn't speak English but we sit in the garden and drink scotch and talk in French about jazz and books and Barack Obama (because all Europeans want to talk about Barack Obama).

And it's quiet here. Really quiet. Accustomed to the clamor of Rue de la Republique, I am deafened by the silence, broken only by the bells pealing from the cathedral and the birds chirping as they pull at the grapes hanging from the eaves outside my window [photo]. I'm living alone for the first time in my life, and I often turn on my little TV for company, or have long conversations with the cat (I have reservations about his macroeconomic theories on globalization).

In theory I should be able to get a lot done. I had hoped to make a lot of progress on the novel I've been "writing" in my head for a couple of years now, and I have drafted some of it, but in reality I still have to work and get groceries and go to the laundromat, and on weekends I try to get out of town or bike around as much as I can. That doesn't leave as much free time as I had anticipated, and often I come home after work too tired to do much of anything other than whip up some Zatarain's (with fresh andouille and crawfish tails) and watch old kungfu movies on videocassette or work slowly through my stack of French novels.

I'm not complaining. It's not a bad life. Just funny where life takes you, isn't it?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ja, Das Ist Der Liechtensteiner Polka, Mein Schatz

(This is Part 3 of 3... read Parts 1 and 2 if you haven't already)

Do you love microstates? Their nonexistent militaries, their humorously inept soccer teams, their goofball flags, their "parade" of one athlete at the Olympics? Man, I know I do. So when I saw that my route to Austria would take me close to Liechtenstein, I knew I had to make time to see the country (the fact that you can see the entire country while standing in one place is a plus).

Fun facts:
Liechtenstein is...
...the world's only "double-landlocked" country, i.e. the countries that border it are also all landlocked.
...the world's only country named after the guy who bought it.
...maybe the size of Chapel Hill and Carrboro put together, if you throw in Calvander, Cole Park and Chicken Bridge.
...a notorious tax haven, having more registered corporations than actual residents.
...ruled by a prince, one of the world's richest heads of state, with a serious art-collecting jones.
...the world's only country that can be rented out for your corporate retreats, conventions, upper-management bonding junkets, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.
...not Luxembourg, and they don't think it's very funny when Americans pretend they don't know the difference (see also Austria/Australia).

There's no border crossing at all on the Switzerland side, just a signpost reading "Wilkommen in Liechtenstein" as you cross the Rhine River bridge. (Fun fact: The only German-speaking country that doesn't border Germany!) On the Austrian side, though, the border crossing fairly bristles with... well, there's sort of a toll booth thingy that doesn't appear to be occupied, ever. Um, guys? Hello? Guten tag? Anybody wanna stamp my passport? Anyone? (If you want your passport stamped, turns out they'll do it at the tourist office in town.)

As it turns out, surprisingly, there's not all that much to Liechtenstein. There are a couple of towns; Vaduz is the capital, and it's basically a main drag and a handful of side streets, with His Royal Highness' Schloss Vaduz hanging picturesquely on the steep hillside above it [photo]. The main drag in Vaduz is lined with souvenir shops selling junk that is generally indistinguishable from that sold in Swiss souvenir shops (in fact, some of the junk says "Switzerland" on it). There are however a number of sidewalk cafes serving lunch alfresco, and that is where I plunked my weary bones, rubbing at the bizarre sunburn I'd picked up on the mountain the previous day. I'd dutifully coated my face with SPF 50 before setting out, but when hiking in a snow bowl, the sunlight gets reflected and focused up at you, as if from some giant 1970s George Hamilton suntan reflector--so I had a terrible sunburn on the underside of my chin, the bottom of my earlobes, right around my nostrils, and between my fingers (way to forget your gloves, dumbass).

I had a decent German lunch of some wurst or another with some cabbage thing or another, washed down with some local Liechtenstein beer. At the table next to mine, a group of middle-aged women in traditional dress smoked cigarettes and drank beer, fanning themselves with parts of their lacy headdresses in the strong sunshine.

Then I wandered over to the Kunstmuseum... but it turned out to just be some old paintings and stuff! (Thanks, you've been great. I'll be here at the Comedy Factory Spartanburg all week. Don't forget to tip your waitresses, and don't drink and drive.) The Kunstmuseum houses part of His Highness' art collection (as does the Liechtenstein museum in Vienna), and the exhibits are thoughtfully presented, despite the building looking like Darth Vader's semi-detached garage [photo].

Alas, by midafternoon I had exhausted most of Vaduz' sightseeing possibilities, and it was time to head home. A good 5-hour drive lay ahead, with work the next morning.

Andorra, San Marino... you're next.