Tuesday, February 21. 2006
how can such a freakish amazing thing exist?
(note: read the other barcelona posts first to get the context. the main page top-post ordering kinda screws up rapid related posting, just like in email.)
the next day we set aside to see antonio gaudi's work-in-progress cathedral, the sagrada familia. it was started in 1883 and is a ways from being finished. there's still lots of skylight falling in where there ought to be roof, and the main central spire, which will be 500 feet tall, has yet to be started. and there's plenty to do before that. more impressive than the size is the style. it's instantly recognizable to any child that's ever made a sand castle by dripping wet mortar through your fingers. god did that and this is the result.
it's a construction site, really, through which you can piece together images of the future glory of the whole structure. intricate scaffolding grows up the walls 200 feet inside the curvy main vaults. the floor is full of hoists, concrete molds, and makeshift workshops. this is artist architect engineer paradise.
everything about the design is fluid and naturalistic. in form and decoration, gaudi based it all on deep research of natural phenomena. trees provide the main metaphor, with trunks as columns angled inwards to safely channel down the weights above. the nave ceilings imitate the splayed branchwork that protects while letting in dappled light. the rose windows borrow structural strength and visual inspiration from tiny ocean protozoa radiolaria. it goes on. there are informational bulletin boards inside explaining, with diagrams, many of the practical and artistic methods and decisions. i ate it up.
structurally, it was all designed as one unit. in older cathedrals, you can see the large lego pieces, how side blocks got snapped on to the main block, some neighbors differing in date and style by centuries. it's a practical way of dividing the engineering problem. the blocks don't have to interact, and can be added whenever funds allow expansion, and the architect can solve the smaller challenges of isolated forms.
it's also less efficent in terms of materials and less elegant in design, in the same way a lintel beam across a doorway compares to an arch. it was designed with the help of a crazy inverted rigging model. small sacks of shot are attached to a twine web outline of the structure. the shot pulling down impersonates the weight of the stone pushing on the finished building. it naturally stretches out the web to make the most ideal form to handle the forces. brilliant.
there's plenty more to say on it. the photo page captions get into more detail. but it was a great contrast to seeing the van der rohe the day before.
Monday, February 20. 2006
so we could talk about the art museums, how i like miró now, or how the only floor of the contemporary art museum open during rehanging packed in more than three normal museums. but boy i want to talk about architecture.
we found out that in the huge montjuic park, along with tons of other stuff, like the miro museum, is mies van der rohe's german pavilion from the 1929 international expo. some better photos than i took. he's one of the early defining modernist architects and i've been in love with some of his other buildings for a while but never seen any in person. this was billed as being one of the most important too, so i was really excited.
well, it definitely lived up to reputation, for good and bad. mostly it's a few low rectangle walls, some glass and some marble, barely holding up a rectangle roof. there's a couple shallow reflecting pools too. you can't get any sparser. it was shocking for being so barely there, yet so strongly defining the space it was in. you had to look hard to see it, but not to feel it. it's hard to photograph for exactly this reason. the difficult part for me was remembering that it was designed for people to stroll through, sip cocktails, and talk about Important things, not to live in. it works great for that, but it was so incredibly impractical for anything resembling normal human occupation. and that spun me out drawing parallels of course to writing software.
there's nothing nicer than looking at a clean algorithm, clean code where you can see the structure laid out and logical saying just what it does for anyone to read. it explains itself in the minimum number of words. that's the code everyone wants to write and read. but if you feed that code something it wasn't expecting, like "orange" instead of -34, all hell breaks loose and it collapses into a smoking pile. for instance: the pavilion didn't have a welcome mat to wipe your feet on when you walked in. i understand architecturally why it didn't, but at some point, someone's got to interact with the mathematical purity, and that's just going to mess things up unless you take care to check your input.
facing that building was facing the impracticality of idealism and that hurt. i knew i had the same fundamental problem with building. you can get away with it for a single-use structure whose point is idealism, but the real world doesn't permit living buildings or living code to operate like that. in living things, robustness is a virtue. being able to accept what the world throws at you, having that integral to the design is a different, maybe lesser, kind of beauty, but it's what we're stuck with.
Saturday, December 31. 2005
on the st. benezet bridge, the "pont d'avignon", there's a little area where the stone, earth, and water all meet. someone has arranged a little spot with a small stone wall, heart sculpture, driftlog, and sitting stone. i've been here a number of times; it's one of my favorite avignon places.
it changes over time. the stone wall wanders like a snake yawning in the sun, but always protects the corner. the sculpture shifts. it's spotless though, free of the kind of trash that ought to float there and stay. it's being tended.
there's a note attached to an old iron spike just above. in one version or another it's been there for a long time. the fluttering white is what first drew my eye to the spot. it used to be an unprotected sheet of paper, but now for the winter it's got a plastic sheath. i think this version has got more careful lettering. i can't tell if the text has changed as well. it seems longer now.
my rough google-translate-assisted attempt:
every person has the right to take part freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and participate in scientific progress and the benefits that result.
seems a fair balance, and a nice new year's blessing.
also, miss uncovered some more info on the Cézanne studio. this page has a nice photo. here are some more from a different site. the "Panorama 360" link gets you a full spinning view of the main room. see why i want to live there?
Thursday, December 8. 2005
on the third thursday of november each year (mandated by french law) the new wine is released into the world. and everyone parties. apparently half of all the beaujolais for the year is shipped or drunk that first night.
this is the same fruit that was celebrated as grapes only a couple weeks ago during the harvest festival (we just missed that one). i didn't know you could make wine in that short a time, but i guess there's a little urgency.
most of the hubub is about the beaujolais nouveau. but avignon is a little farther down the valley than those guys. our area makes some similar wines, and so the focus is on the region's own produce, calling it primeur, which apparently means generically "first fruits". i sensed a little rivalry.
that night, the whole town floods into the main square in front of the pope's (old) palace. winemakers set up tents and hand out thousands of small glasses of wine for free. we got there a little late and had to settle for tiny plastic cups. no matter. and they sell cases and cases of wine in the process.
it's a madhouse. it's like arena rock for middle aged french people. we squeezed up and got our first samples and quickly found out why everyone was so extra-loopy at 7pm. it's really strong! our french teacher had warned us about it earlier that day. she wasn't going because she didn't like new wine. too much alcohol and it tastes too young.
well, really what do i know about wine? what does "young" taste like? but we (ok, *i*) have been doing a fair amount of firsthand research on wine since we got here. estimates close to the mark are about 45 bottles so far. recycling piles up quickly. there's a little 8-slot wine rack in the kitchen that i try to keep well-maintained. the main goal going in was to get used to it, get accustomed to it quickly so that understanding could come sooner. miss and i love to dissect good food now, and i was looking for the same thing with the national icon. well it worked, and i have a fair idea of wine qualities now, even if i can't remember particular regions or vinyards exactly.
but i told you all that to tell you this: new wine really tastes new! like a brash young meerkitten it's all scraggly and feisty and bites your tail. it's bouncy and prickly and troublesome. not something i'd buy every day, but pretty fun when you roll with it.
there was also a samba band playing! they came from marseille and were dressed in construction workers outfits, with hard hats and flourescent vests. very reminiscent of the ice cream socialists, but with rhythm. they were a small outfit, but really fun. they had a capoeira group with them that dance-fought on the steps of the palace (that's the first photo). very exciting. and speaking of small outfits (yuk yuk) we felt worried for them since it was winter coat weather outside and they were in pretty skimpy duds. not south american climate, but they were moving enough to keep warm.
things started thinning out as the wine dried up. the square slowly emptied, with people carrying home white boxes, six bottles each, of the new stuff. lots of broken stepped-on wine glasses all over the cobblestones.
we walk to the main central square, the place de l'horloge ("clock square" that doesn't actually have a clock). lots of restaurants. we decide to eat at a nice looking moroccan restaurant that's not too pricey. each table has a bottle of primeur on it. oy! it was a fantastic meal. mine was braised lamb, prunes, and sliced almonds. missy got a huge couscous dish. it came in three bowls, each enough to feed two people, that you assemble on your plate. also excellent. lamb and veggie stew and couscous. it turned me on to turnips, which i've been making a lot since then. we were too hungry and amazed to get a photo of it. maybe we'll go back! we had a chat with some nice french women at the next table over who had ordered exactly the same two things.
that was about it for the night. eating took us two hours, which was pretty neat. no one pressures you to vacate, and we were in no rush. it's a nice pace; nice to give a meal that amount of time. our dinners are getting longer at home now too.
on the way i snapped the photo of hobbit-clothes, then it was quick to bed. a new early night record for me, for sure.
Tuesday, November 8. 2005
it's hard to be so new here and have something intelligent to say about the riots all over france. the BBC had been running excellent articles about the background of the situation as well as daily updates. they also include moderated comments after each article giving different viewpoints from people around the world. we've been talking to our french teacher about it as well. and missy's new purchase Sixty Million Frenchman Can't Be Wrong, which i'm only a third of the way through so far, gives a lot of well-researched background on the french attitude, character, and history.
what started it all was three teens in a poor ethnic suburb of paris thought they were being chased by cops and jumped the fence into an electric power station to hide. two got electrocuted and died. to the residents, this is just another example of the police hassling them, but this time it ended in death. it seems well documented that there is systemic racism towards the north african muslim population in france. the police hassle, the local officials try to marginalize, and national officials ignore the problem.
the setup is that there is a large north african population in france as a result of colonial fever back in the 1800's that all ended very badly in the Algerian War in the 1950's. marseille, on the coast to avignon's south, was the gateway from north africa, and so has a large immigrant population, in the way new york or san francisco do. it was the second area to start rioting. avignon itself has a sizable population, and things have heated up here as well.
as with any large distinct set of newcomers, integration problems occured. the french are very interested in preserving what they consider the french way of life, and this conflicts with elements of the traditional muslim way of life.
the people i've talked to about the problem don't come across as racist. the ban on head scarves exposes this. something like 90% of the population favors the ban. to give a more complete picture, crucifixes and any other overt religious symbol are banned as well. no one group is singled out. the goal is to keep the state and religion separate. in US high schools we regularly ban clothing that could represent gang affiliation under the reasoning that it distracts from the dual goals of learning and learning to live with one another. no different.
so i don't think it's an ideological problem. the french love and hoard political power, and as a result, revolution is a frequent method of changing up government. revolution is tough, so change does not come fast or easily. women only got the right to vote in 1944. the number of female politicians is half of what it is in the US. no gloating though, it's only 20% in the US, compared to 50% in some scandinavian countries. so if you want to be heard, the reasoning goes, you've got to take it to the streets.
the french love protests, as we've seen. in fact, i've read that as halloween begins to be introduced here, it takes the form of a street protest, with kids all marching together down the main street, entering shops and demanding treats. you place things in frameworks that are familiar to you.
a lot of this bothers me though. i'm all for burning cars, mind you, but for one thing, the people whose cars get destroyed are the neighbors. so now they're even poorer and also now they can't get to work. even torching a starbucks is idiotic since the owner is only renting the name and equipment. guaranteed he's not a bourgeois elite. not an effective way to assert political pressure. chopping heads off of politicians is far more intelligently directed. but of course logic is not the point. i destroyed my own bicycle once in a childish fit of frustration. it was mine and i loved it and i deeply miss it. stupid. humans are only ruled by logic when emotion allows it.
by all accounts this is a problem that has been brewing for thirty years at least. there is a national election coming in 2007, and already politicians are spinning this to aid their candidacy. hopefully some good can come from it. it is refusing to die off. every day politicians say it is getting under control, hoping it will go away, and it doesn't. the police have been unable to quell it. i think people have recognized that it is time to start the ball rolling. it's strange to watch and try to understand. when making whipped cream you stir and stir but there's one moment when it starts to stiffen and turn from liquid to whatever form whipped cream is. it's sort of a simultaneous group decision to change form that can't exactly be predicted. this feels a little like that.
Wednesday, October 26. 2005
this was originally going to be a reply to a steev email, but it grew a little larger and i'm interested in broadcasting it, as you'll see.
there's been a lot of quipping back and forth about how having things is a drag. you're either getting them or getting rid of them. stuff gets lost, stolen, broken, corrodes, turns green and rots. why can't we all just eat nuts and berries and live harmoniously with nature like our aboriginal ancestor of choice?
Continue reading "again with the talking"
Monday, October 24. 2005
there is a fact about our existence thus far in avignon that i must admit to. neither of us are proud of this, and at times we feel ashamed, irritated, and angry. but other times, i must sheepishly confess, we've felt satisfied. since we've moved into our place at the 1st of the month we've been full throttle shoppers, indulging several times a week at various avignon-area hypermarchés and troc stores. we can say that we have no choice because we've moved into a vacant apartment with nothing but clothes and we had to fill it up with furniture, pots and pans, and mayonnaise, and this is true, and so shopping at french equivalents of walmart is a necessity, and this is also, mostly, true. to our knowledge, the smaller "independent" stores where you would get such goods intramur* are upscale boutiques and we can't afford a 180€ sauté pan.
so we've supported, on several occasions, our local hypermarché so that we could get the stuff we needed to live in some semblance of what we're used to. which, if you know our previous living situation, you know that it's pretty minimal, but there's still the aforementioned basic stuff of modern life. i think it's a shock to accumulate everything in such an accelerated manner, but then to get everything at once from one store borders on surreal: your sheets with your yogurt, your tile cleaner with your spaghetti strainer. opposed to the ordinary accumulation of detritus**, which, if you are not huge consumers (and we don't consider ourselves to be, though i realize that can be argued given our relative placement on the wealth of countries scale), you barely notice the accumulation and then when you move you look at the heaps and heaps of stuff filling your small space and you marvel at how it entered into your world.
considering this makes me think of the idea of "need" and how seth and i, as modern consumers, decide that we need a spaghetti strainer. why don't we just use a pan lid? well, because it's a pain to do that. and if we consider that inconvenience spread out over eight months and then divide it into 2€90, the result is that we decide we need the spaghetti strainer. if we were more ascetic we might decide that we can live without one, but we're not. the consumer equation works on us: the existence of spaghetti strainers creates a need for one.
some of you reading this might be wondering why we don't just head on over to the french goodwill-equivalent. the aforementioned troc stores come close, but they don't have everything. all of our furniture either came from troc stores or was lent to us, but there are no used clothes and very little housewares. also, it is illegal (!) to sell used mattresses here so we had to get that new.
overall, what is most interesting is that the big box consumerism i always though of as an unfortunate american characteristic exists on nearly the same level here. there's so many superstores around here; nearly every bus line terminates at a commercial shopping district with a few of them. on a related note, the other day i was depressed to discover that the bakery in town whose bread we like the most is an enormous chain.
so what do i do with this knowledge? i'm not about to let my french romanticism go, as there are still things to be romantic about, but i will change parts of it along the way.
i'm sure i will, in the course of this blog, talk about getting this thing or that thing and maybe i'll even be exited about it, and it will seem like this examination means nothing. but here i must admit something else and that is that i enjoy shopping. even if to just wander a store for a half hour looking for scotch tape and kleenex, there is something about being lost in a place with all of these unattached objects that is compelling for me, and as long as the place isn't a literal walmart or isn't crowded, as long as my consumerism isn't sonorous, i can block out my inner protests and consider the merits of different brands of tissues for a good long time. i can be lulled into a place where it is safe to buy things, and it momentarily feels good. these aren't big purchases that have this effect; those infrequent purchases have different feelings altogether. but grocery shopping, for example, is something i really enjoy. it's one of those things that as a child seemed very adult to do and i couldn't wait to do it, but then, unlike many things in that category, the thrill has never worn off.
here there's all the new fascination of the differences and similarities between american and french products, and trying to decipher the language and labels, but that topic is for another post, another time.
*intramur - inside the literal walls of avignon, as opposed to extramur.
**in an act of tinstac, i checked out steev's blog tonight where he discussed the opposite of accumulation; deaccumulation (?).
Sunday, October 23. 2005
i think about most things in the context of evolution. it's a pretty useful and general way to explain things. and one thing you can use it to look at is the whole european colonial process. compare the different english colonies and how they compare to mother england in relation to the time they split off from under her wing. you can use spoken accents as a good guide. the greater the time of separation (age since the colony became independent), the farther from the queen's english the native accent is likely to sound.
one interesting thing about evolution is that you often need to shake things up a bit to really find a better way of doing things. culture as well as anything can get caught in a rut. often, either the environment changes radically, or a mutation pretty far from the norm happens and new options and ways of doing things result.
the founding of america seems like one of these major sideways jolts. maybe it works better, maybe worse, but definitely things are different. the joy of the US is that of big open space and possibilities. (since this is a sociological analysis, we have to ignore the presence of the first peoples and treat it as "empty" land, as did the new occupiers.) but you have the sense of things starting fresh and clean and with vast potential.
of course it's a double-edged sword. children have a lot of energy and a lot of it gets misdirected, wasted, or put to childish things. they also have to reinvent anew what every old person already knows. adults can only look on and roll their eyes.
i'm very curious to see what things have been lost when europe decided to become born again as america. europe has had so much more time to develop. there are many different groups in close proximity interacting with each other. there has to be a ton of built-up knowledge that got thrown out: how to put up with your loud neighboring factions (intolerance as well as tolerance), how to focus on living well rather than on simple survival and expansion.
the flip side of that is stodginess. ruts need shaking up too or things stagnate. the formation and expansion of the EU appears to be doing just that for europe. the BBC had an interesting opinion piece today about just that. back when miss and i were staying in hotels and had a TV, we saw a lot of coverage on Turkey's (still) controversial entry into the EU, about the constitution that was voted down, and how lowering barriers to global and regional trade was stirring up a lot of hornets' nests. it's an interesting time to be in europe. they're getting a much needed jolt, and it'll be interesting to see if they respond properly to become the new best place to be on the globe, economically and socially. there's a lot of potential.
Tuesday, October 18. 2005
i feel like adding a partial answer to something corey brought up, which is why move someplace strange if you're not going to make an effort to integrate into the new culture? all the other language assistants in his area have formed tight groups, barriers of safety against the outside. worse, they're in groups based only on the countries they come from or the languages they speak -- spanish assistants are all together, but separate from the english ones. what's up with that?
Continue reading "isolation"
Saturday, October 1. 2005
we spent most of the day with missy's school contact corinne shuttling us around, getting food, furniture, and a truck to carry it all back to the apartment. exhausting, but so much easier than it would have been without her help.
this is my new desk in my new corner. it looks out over the busy rue joseph vernet through large french windows, which are often wide open to the beautiful air. maybe the desk will find a better place than the dining room, but for now it's very pleasant in the sun.
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short accounts by missy and seth, at least tangentially relating to life in avignon, france.