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Paris, France

Since I’m French you might think this is a strange post. I write about my travels, not about home. But let me say that each place is different. Even in a small country you can find differences between each area so in a country big like France with many different environments, social circles, and geographical differences Paris is not similar at all to the area I grew up in as a kid. Add to this that most of my life was outside of France and you’ll understand my desire to write about my time in Paris.

When I left Russia, I initially thought I’d be going back to Cyprus. I’ve written already about my train ride from Moscow to Paris so I won’t bring that up again but it’s just to say that it was completely unexpected. Once in France I initially thought I’d move down to the South West within one or two weeks and spend my time in France in that area. But “man plans and God laughs”. Instead I spent two months in Paris. There is no doubt that Paris is beautiful. The architecture, the history, the monuments. There are parcs also, full of greenery. Parisians don’t always notice the beauty because they are so used to seeing it all of the time but as I told one lady who stopped me to ask me what I thought was worth photographing, if you look at it like a tourist you will find a lot of beautiful things. The small streets hold many gems.

The one thing that really bothered me about Paris was the smell of pee in many streets and the metro. It can ruin some otherwise incredible things to see.

The cultural scene is also very developed. I went to see a show of “Le Cirque Electrique” which is a modern type circus (humans only) which is done by extremely talented individuals. But do keep in mind, it is not for the faint of heart. It is an exceptionally decadent show.

I spent some time camping on the outskirts of Paris which was really nice since it let me drive into the city when needed but let me stay the rest of the days in a quiet area with trees and birds – not what you normally expect when thinking about Paris.

If you go to Paris, the biggest joys are the little cafes and the historical monuments. Just walk around the city and you’ll see beautiful architecture.

From East To West… By Train

One of the things on my bucket list was to take a long train ride. When I say long, I mean a few days. So when I got the opportunity to take a 40 hour train ride from Moscow to Paris, I jumped on the opportunity.

First, the catalyst. I was taking my flock to get their various lab tests and vet visits so we could leave Russia and go back to Europe without a problem. Our flight was supposed to be at 10:00 the next day and I was getting everything ready to leave. In the car, I noticed Miss Piggy (one of the pigeons) started to show signs of stress. Though birds are dinosaurs, their hearts can be sensitive and stress can be fatal. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to put them on a plane since I was afraid I’d lose Miss Piggy.

Just to clarify – they ALWAYS come with me in the cabin. I never put them in cargo.

So at the last minute, I had to go back and change the text on the letters from the vets, purchase a ticket for the train, etc. Now I had to choose what type of ticket.

I wanted to be comfortable since 40 hours is not an amount of time I want to be cramped in a seat with someone next to me. I also wanted to be able to let the birds out and fly around free. So… for the sake of everyone, I got a first class private cabin.

The train goes from Moscow to Paris via Belarus, Poland and Germany. I did not expect this but I needed to get a visa for Belarus. I didn’t have time to do it in Russia so decided to take my chance and do it on arrival in Brest hoping that my EU passport would be enough not to cause me too many problems.

And the train goes off… I closed the door, let the birds out, let down my bed and lay back to enjoy the sites. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before so I fell asleep to the movements of the train on the rails.

I woke up the next day to some gorgeous views. The birds were sitting by the window staring out. I had to get ready to leave the train once we reached Brest with all of my documentation and the birds’ paperwork. I took a quick shower, got my papers ready and waited for the immigration and customs agents to arrive. The lady in charge of my cabin who had fallen in love with the idea of me traveling with birds quickly told them that I needed a visa and that I had all of the documents for my flock. Since I was standing there ready to go, off we went. Since I’d just spent a few months in Russia, I was able to easily withstand the cold. I could hear them behind me wondering to each other “isn’t he cold?”. At some point I hinted to them that I understand a little bit and that got them blushing and smiling.

Now let me say, the women in Belarus are absolutely beautiful. Most of the agents were women. The idea of spending a few hours with this group of women was keeping me in a very good mood despite having barely had time for a shower and no time for coffee. One of them asked me my name and I told her my name with a Russian accent which had them doubled over with laughter.

The local government vet was called over and we chatted.

The agent who was with me through the whole process was a gorgeous blond. We started chatting about what I do for work, travel, etc. Since she had never been to Paris, I joked that there’s a train about to leave for Paris and she should hop on. She looked at me, smiled and said that her passport was at home. I thought it was a sweet blow off but as they were doing their last rounds of the train she came back to my cabin to say goodbye.

When I was finished with customs and immigration, the lady in charge of my cabin knocked on my door and brought me coffee since I hadn’t had time to drink anything in the morning.

I then spent the day taking pictures of the countryside. I saw many things I was not expecting to see. For example, in Poland in the middle of the absolutely, completely empty fields there was a square patch full of bumper to bumper cars placed there. All incredible colors. Many of them bright yellow. And then they were gone…

I arrived in Paris, Gare de l’Est middle of the day after almost two days of having been completely off the grid. Phone started buzzing with all of the missed messages and I just wanted to run back to the quiet of my private cabin on the train…

Russia – Part 3: Winter’s End

Last time I posted was right after the first New Year celebrations. I did not write anything about it since I wanted to experience the New Year’s Eve celebrated worldwide and the Russian New Year’s. Let me say, I have been in some patriotic countries, but never was I in a country where people turned on the TV in the middle to watch their president give a speech. But let me go back a bit.

I was supposed to get ready for the New Year by going to a Russian bath. But I  had a very high fever, so… I could not go. But my host still wanted me to go to his house for the evening meal and celebration. He asked me how high a fever I had and when I told him, he turned around and asked why I had not requested a doctor. My answer was that my mother had confirmed I was still ok. He laughed saying that my mother was not in Russia and the doctor was. I tried explaining to him about having a Jewish mother but I could see it confused him a bit.

At his house, his girlfriend made me tea whilst he was giving me cognac. The meal lasted a few hours and was mostly typical Russian food, better than I had had since my arrival. So far, everything was normal to me despite some of the funny rituals the girls engaged in (such as writing down a wish and putting it in your drink). The part that was really interesting was when they quieted down and listened to a speech by Putin for the New Year’s. After that, we had a bit more food and went for a walk around the city center. The next week or so, the country was completely shut down. I had been told it would be this way, but actually experiencing it was surreal. Practically nothing was open. In my client’s office building, no one was there except one guard and even he did not have access to the computer system. I have experience Yom Kippur in Israel and while that experience is completely surreal it lasts just one day. Here it was at a lower level but for more than a week!

Russian pride goes along with their patriotism. Russia truly is an incredible country and every public building has incredible architecture. There is no way to look at it up close and not be in awe. It explains a lot about the way they feel about their country. I tested the waters a few times by mentioning the great sacrifices they had made as individuals and none ever denied it but there was always a moment of pause with this as an afterthought “but look at what it gave us!”

When traveling I like to experience the local traditions and cuisines. But my hosts were so intent on showing me how international Moscow is, that only three times did I have authentic Russian food. The first was New Year’s, the second was a dinner with friends at a house (most amazing Borsch ever!) and the third was on my last day there when I want to a Ukrainian restaurant where they grow their own vegetables. It was absolutely incredible. The decor, the food and the uniforms.

One of the reasons I was able to deal with the cold so well is that it is so dry. Weather is easier to deal with when dry than when humid. The down side of it is constant static electricity. I would get in bed and I’d see a little light from the friction of the sheets. When picking up my phone while charging I would first lightly tap it to get rid of any static electricity. But the strangest thing related to this was washing my hands or the shower. Sometimes the first touch of the water would include a tiny little jolt.

But by the time I left I was walking around only in a t-shirt and a hoodie. On my last day, I even ventured only in a t-shirt. Essentially, within 10 weeks I had become more Russian than a Russian. And I was proud of it.


Russia – Part 2

As my adventures in Russia continue, I am discovering things I never thought could happen and the hilarity of limited communication skills and unmet expectations.

I have gone to a few friendly business dinners while I’ve been here. The first time, I was told that we would be meeting at a bar. Knowing the Russian capacity for drinking, I spent a lot of my day eating really fatty foods to prepare myself for this meeting at a bar. We went to a place called Baga Bar. An Indian style bar-restaurant with incredible decorations. And we spent the entire evening drinking. Whenever we were running low, a hand shot up for the waiter to bring us more. As I have come to find out this may be the most common drink in Russia. It was not Vodka. Truth be told, it was not any type of alcohol. It was tea. You can find so many different types of tea everywhere, it’s incredible. Everyone has the basics of green and black, but then you’ve got so many other types. It has been an absolute pleasure.

Most of the countries I’ve lived in have never had outrageously cold weather. So imagine my surprise one day when I found out the unexpected effect this can have. In an office building, I go looking for the men’s room. I see a sign in Russian that says that the WC doesn’t work because there is no water. I was a bit confused by this sign so I go back to my host and ask what happened. He explains to me that the water in the pipes connected to the men’s room froze because of the cold weather. This is not something I ever thought of as a possibility. I’m not entirely sure how they fixed it but I do know that they brought big electrical machines into the bathroom (it took a few hours for them to bring them) and did something to the pipes.

After a few weeks here my understanding of Russian has improved greatly. Speaking though is still not an easy endeavour. Everyone I’ve come across though greatly appreciates my efforts, which has gotten them to open up to me even more than they normally would do a stranger. At the supermarket, they realize that it’s in my nature to smile at them when I say hello, goodbye, thanks, etc. and so they have started to smile back. This may seem like nothing to an outsider but keep in mind that there’s a Russian saying that anyone who smiles without reason is an idiot. In the office building that I go to the most, the ladies at reception see me and immediately start chiming “Hello Ludovic” (the Russian way of saying my name is charming! It sounds like ‘lyu-DO-vic’) and when I leave in the evening, I get a wave goodbye. This is so uncommon that is sincerely surprised my host when he saw it happen. Going back to the supermarket, the people there keep their sentences short and simple.

An adventure I had was ordering a camera. One of my hosts helped me with that and put his phone number so that the delivery guy could call him and tell him that he’s at my building, where my host in turn would call me and let me know to go downstairs. I found myself at 19:00 walking out in my pyjamas that were not made for cold weather, looking for the delivery truck. The scene had the makings of a drug deal. There I was standing in the freezing cold, wearing my pyjamas, handing the delivery guy cash and making sure he count it correctly. He laughed at my horrible accent as I found the words for the amount I was paying. He half slid out of his truck (based on his expression, I presume this was a common occurrence) and handed me my camera.

The last example of making do with limited language skills has to do with going to the doctor. I fell on a doctor who thankfully spoke English. Before he started what he had to do I asked him if it was going to hurt. He looked at me and said “hurt?”. Thinking about the best way to explain what I meant, I saw his left forearm right in front of me. I pinched it and say “ouch”. The look of surprise on his face was priceless. I don’t think he ever had a patient pinch him before. He smiled and said “No, no hurt”.

If you’re going to use cash, make sure you have every type of denomination. Since most transactions are done by card, the cash reserves tend to be limited.

One thing that I find hilarious is that they are certain that all Israelis speak Russian. When I asked why they think this, they say because there are so many Russians in Israel that of course everyone speaks the language. It was very hard for them to accept that this is not the case.

Russia – Part 1

Talk about a difference in culture.

Nothing could have prepared me for Russia. Not the movies, not my Russian friends and acquaintances and no website. The moment I landed I felt it would be different than any other place I had been to. Two things I knew – knowledge of the English language is very very limited and the people don’t smile without a good reason. Especially to strangers. In the airport, when I found a nice lady who worked there and spoke English, I latched on and did not let go, so to speak. She helped me navigate the required paperwork I needed and proved to me once again, that once you break that initial barrier of a cold appearance, Russians are very warm and generous people. Also, never get in a fight with a Russian woman. Let’s put it this way, I was very happy to have her on my side. It reminded me of my ex. Very delicate looking but get her mad and you would have to deal with a force of nature that would get the Hulk to back down.

When dealing in Rubles, it takes a while to get used to the prices. 1000 Rubles is about 14 Euros. Going shopping for anything is scary when you look at the numbers on the price tickets and are used to Euros.

In the winter, outside is cold. I did not know this about myself, but apparently my body handles the cold pretty well. The tips of my ears though… that’s my delicate point. That and my weird issue with the lower jaw which last happened when I was in Latvia (again, in the winter). My jaw freezes in the cold and so when speaking, pronunciation issues come up. Also, I may drool. As an adult, drooling is frowned upon. So if you see me in a very cold place, even if I’m wearing a t-shirt, do not be surprised to see a scarf around my neck and jawline. Please do not start a verbal discussion with me at that point.

The buildings are very well heated so life inside is comfortable. Every building I’ve been to has double doors. This keeps the cold out in the winter. The outer door is usually heavy. I was surprised at how heavy. I asked one of my hosts why this was and he explained that during times that were less good, it was to keep people out.

The first tip I was given was to have my passport on me at all times. As a foreigner in a country I do not know well, this to me is a given. But apparently, this is something everyone is recommended to do. Being a foreigner from a European country though gives additional protection. The one thing I was not expecting though was having a potential problem with my beard. I usually enjoy the privilege of my country of origin when I travel without giving a second thought to many things. However, it appears that in Russia having a beard is not great. I knew tattoos could be a problem which is why I was happy that due to the cold I would be covered up anyway, but I had not given a second thought to the beard. The one time, I got recognized for my religious origin though was exactly where I wanted it to happen. Not sure if it was the beard or what, but going to Synagogue, there were two security guards at the door who did pat me down since they didn’t know me but when my host explained that I would like to go in because I am Jewish, the guard looked at me, half smiled and said “Obviously”.

Incredibly, the Jewish kids that I met spoke Hebrew perfectly and even had an Israeli accent!

Lastly (for today). My spoken Russian is very limited but I make an effort to put together some words and make sentences. As someone who is used to speaking fluently a few languages, it is disheartening to see that I apparently have such a horrible French accent (as I’ve been told) that it is very hard to understand my words. I will aspire to improve. Till next time!

 

Hospitality, Texas style

I went to Austin, Texas expecting some Southern hospitality but I was also careful not to expect too much knowing it’s a big city. From the moment I arrived until the day I left, I had the pleasure of experiencing the niceness of the city’s people.

It started with Stephen at the airport who waited for me to exit (instead of hurrying home) so that he could say goodbye one last time after having shared a row with me on the flight. And then the first of many bus drivers who realized I would easily get lost. His solution was to pull out a map of the city’s public transportation and explain to me the basics of the city’s public transportation system.

The next instance was at the ER. Due to a lab mistake, my doctor called me and told me to get to the nearest ER. I arrived at Westlake. The entire staff was amazing, but the one that really blew me away was the attending doctor. Once I was released, I requested that they call a cab for me. Twice the cab company flaked out (my only bad experience in Austin). Since by this point, I had been waiting in the lobby for over an hour, it was raining outside and I was after a very long and stressful day, the doctor ordered me an Uber to the other side of town where I was staying and paid for it on his dime. As I’m sure you can imagine I was flabbergasted.

Here is where I should also bring up the generous constable. Waiting at the bus station, I noticed I had the correct change for a ride but not for a daily pass. I saw a constable and asked if there was a store nearby where I could purchase something so as to receive change which I could use to buy a day pass (for anyone who does not know, the buses require exact payment as they do not give out change). As we were chatting about where I’m from, what I’m doing there (Texas is amazing! Of course I needed to come visit!), etc. I see him fishing in his pockets. Since he was holding what appeared to be an electronic cigarette (to my untrained eyes as a non-smoker), I thought he was looking for something related. As our conversation ended, he pulled out some notes, handed them to me and said “Welcome to Texas!”. I offered him my large note as exchange. He would not accept and just repeated “No, no. Welcome to Texas!”

On another day, I stopped at a MacDonald’s for a quick drink, rest and some wifi. A gentleman there waved at me to come over. This man had ordered two breakfasts and was looking for someone to share it with. Though we hardly spoke the same language (my Spanish really is not up to par), I sat with him to have a chat with him as he appeared to be a truly special man. We decided he should give the second breakfast to someone who needs it. After a long conversation (yes, we managed) I found out that he habitually orders a second breakfast to share with someone. He does not do this because he is wealthy (he is not) but because it’s a good thing to do.

I had many other incredible experiences while there but these were the ones that stuck out the most (except for the talk with the Travel Club of a local high school – but that’s a post for another time).

All in all, Austin – you are awesome and you definitely know how to show hospitality!

Cypriot quirks

Now that Cyprus is behind me I look back at some of its quirks and smile. They were sometimes confusing and sometimes frustrating but oftentimes I would look at them and secretly be jealous of this island life.

Here are just some of the quirks and funny moments I had while there.

  • Turkish coffee is called Greek coffee. People on both sides will try to tell you that there is a difference between them. There isn’t. The reason for the different names is political.
  • I once had a prescription sent to me by post. After weeks of waiting (they had forgotten to put the note in the mailbox), they said the local pharmacist with whom they worked had to approve the release of the package and that he only worked on Wednesdays. A few days later I came back with all of the documentation he required. But he wasn’t there, because he only works with the post office once a week. So that I wouldn’t have to come back into the city just for that, the local customs manager in the post office sent one of her team to the pharmacists place of work so he could sign off on it.
  • Buildings don’t always have numbers. But they all have names. So when giving you an address, Cypriots will often tell you the building name instead of the exact address.
  • Cypriots don’t hitchhike, but if you do hitchhike they will generally stop for you. One of my generous drivers once told me about his sheep. I recognized the sheep farm he was talking about and showed him selfies I had taken with the sheep in his background. If you think the world is small, come to Cyprus and you’ll realize just how small.
  • Traffic lights. Go to a crosswalk (as a pedestrian) and try to find the traffic light that tells you when to cross and when to wait. 9 times out of 10 you won’t find it. You know why? Because they aren’t there. So how do you know when to cross as a pedestrian? You look around and gauge when is the least likely time you’ll be run over based on the traffic patterns. Here is why this is tricky. Reason number one is that Cypriots are not the best drivers. Keep in mind I’m trying to stay polite as I say this, so that says a lot. Reason number two is that if you are from a country where people drive on the right side of the road (aka most countries in the world) you need to remember that people here drive on the left side. So gauging the traffic patterns can be confusing.
  • Bringing me to another point about the roads. People drive on the left side. The island is Greek and Turkish. In both these countries people drive on the right side. So why do the Cypriots drive on the left? Because for a few decades the island was under British rule. Really.
  • In Limassol there is a part of town that is under British law. You are driving up a street and without any signs, notifications, barriers, etc. you all of a sudden go from being under Cypriot law to British law. This change in ruling law happens in the middle of a residential area. I kid you not.

All in all, with all its quirks it’s a place I look forward to visiting again.

 

All for one, one for all

Paris, France. Charles de Gaulle airport. I am in line to have my boarding pass scanned so I can go through the security check. My version of being in line is being a bit to the side. I like my personal space. In line behind me, with a few people in between, I see a fellow Jew. Unlike me, it is easy to recognize him as a Jew since he was wearing a suit, beard and black hat. He just got himself in line and I can see he is a bit disoriented as to the next step. I don’t offer help since he is in the right place but I figure I’ll make sure he doesn’t get lost.

Off to my right, I hear a woman say in English “Sir, you can pass”. I turn to see who is saying this and more importantly to whom. A tall, pretty, dark girl walks towards the line. She is clearly an employee. Again she says “Sir, you can pass”. This time though, she’s looking at my fellow Jew and pointing at him. At this point he seems really confused. Honestly, so am I. I am facing them as she continues to walk towards the line, he has moved a bit forward to test if he understood correctly and somehow we are all converging to the same point. As we all meet she says “Let me just scan your boarding pass and you can go to security immediately”. She scans his boarding pass, then she scans mine. I say thank you and move forward. I look back at her and I smile to myself.

A few days before this happened, there was a large attack against Jews. Often times, my fellow brothers and sisters admit to hiding signs of their Jewishness to be safer. The truth is I understand that. If you can be safer, why wouldn’t you? But then, I come across moments like the one at the airport in Paris where one Jew helped a fellow Jew simply because she recognized him as a brother. I have spent a fair amount of time in Israel and I travel a lot. Amongst each other, away from other’s eyes, Jews love to argue and to fight. It’s part of our culture. 2 Jews, 3 opinions. But when we feel the weight of the world’s hate on us, we come together. And it’s during moments like that, that you realize how beautiful and strong a bond we have. It gives me hope that just as we endured 2000 years in exile yet managed to stay a nation, now that we have a nation, there is no doubt we will survive – despite other’s best efforts at times. Why? Because at the end of the day, we’ve got each other’s backs.

When I travel, I get to see beautiful places, new cultures, new foods and new sounds. But equal to all of that are the human experiences I have. Usually these experiences let me appreciate humanity as a whole. Once in a while, I have the pleasure of being reminded that my large tribe truly is just one big family.

Leaving Cyprus

As my time in Cyprus nears its end, I look back on the months spent here with mixed feelings. There was some heartache (it’s hard to say goodbye to a loved being) but there were also a lot of smiles and laughs.

I spent time on both sides of the island. The Turkish side and the Greek side. Overall, the people on both sides were very nice. There are differences of course between both cultures, but as an outsider, I found more things in common than not.

Cypriots in general tend to be very laid back and generous. Hitchhiking is not a common thing – at all, yet, never did more than 10 cars pass without someone stopping for me. The one time I thought I might get stuck was simply because I was in a rush. It was an area with no cabs passing by since it was by a tiny village and I was just at the outskirts. I walked to the nearest coffee shop, asked the two girls working there where I could find a cab and one of the girls called her boyfriend who then drove me to where I needed.

The food was good, the music was good, the weather (for the most part) was good and the people charming.

All in all, some great memories were made here.