Archive for the ‘World Tour’ Category

Biking Picardie and the Marne Valley

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Right now I am in Greece, and even though I havn’t blogged for a while, I wanted to record some of what has happened in the past few days, because they have been among the most exciting and enjoyable on tour. After two months together, the Whiffs had a scheduled break from this past Monday (July 27th) to Friday (July 31st). The group returned a week-long trip to several Chateaux near Bordeaux to the south of France and Le Mans in the west. I was to return the car I was driving to Gare du Nord in Paris, and from there, we would be on our own for several days. Some members of the group decided to go to Berlin, others to Leipzig. Many stayed in Paris the entire time, but my friend Jamie Warlick and I decided to guide ourselves on a two-person bike tour of the Marne Valley and Picardie.

I had ordered a guidebook off a few weeks before, and, luckily, it arrived in time at the Chateau in Bordeaux. Not really knowing what I had bought, I opened it to discover several week-long bike trips through various regions of France, complete with maps, lists of accommodations, and descriptions of the sights worth seeing. I chose a route that began and ended relatively close to Paris so that we could save on travel costs and maximize biking time. The book seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. However, when I turned to the chapter on what kind of bikes to rent, I was a bit dismayed to find this advice:

If you haven’t already got a bike, make sure you buy one from a reputable bike shop.

It then continued with a long discussion weighing the pros and cons of composite aluminum frames, and extolling the virtues of getting a quality, well-fitted racing bike. “Uh oh,” I thought “maybe this is a bit over my head.” I tried work out the details over the internet; it was very difficult for two reasons: the city of Paris recently unveiled a new public bike sharing system, called Vélib. It is designed for short trips around the city; with the swipe of a card, you can take a Velib bike at any one of hundreds of bike stands, and return it to any other within an hour. It has worked very well, but it had the side effect of reducing the number of bike rental shops, since many tourists find the Vélib much simpler for the more typical intra-paris trips. The other problem: all the bike shops in Paris are run by Parisians. This means that phone calls will seldom be returned or answered, websites are rarely updated, and e-mails are usually ignored. My attempts to find a bike shop beforehand—necessarily limited by intermittent internet access—all failed.

So I showed up at Gare du Nord on Monday with a book in my hand and very little else. Luckily, just about everything that could have gone wrong did not. We found within the station a very inexpensive place to store the luggage we didn’t need. A tourist office provided me with a list of recommended bike shops and directions to them, and and inexpensive phone call verified that one of them was open. Of course, this bike shop, like all the others, was run by Parisians, so when we showed up 20 minutes later, it was locked and no one was there. I called again from a payphone at a nearby park, and someone picked up to say he had stepped out for a few minutes. Go figure.

Soon enough, though we were stepping of the RER into the Charles-du-Gaulle Airport station at the end of the line. By then it was around seven, so we had a little less than three hours of daylight yet. The highways around the airport had recently been upgraded, so the guidebook was out of date. After a few wrong turns put us on a four-lane road with 130 kph traffic, we stopped at a gas station to purchase a new map. Soon we discovered our error, and we were on our way.

We made it about halfway through the first day’s route when it started to get dark. We stopped for dinner at a truck stop, which, despite the manly paraphernalia on the walls and the burly drivers eating dinner there, was still amusingly French. The food and wine were inexpensive but excellent, and even the 300 pound men had impeccable table manners. We stopped afterwords at a “Formule Un” hotel nearby. I have never seen a place like this in the States. It was an entirely automated building; instead of a receptionist there was a machine that took your credit card and gave you a code for your room. The showers and baths were all self-cleaning. I think that once a day a maid stopped by for a few hours, but that was it.

As it happened we arrived at the same time as some bikers from the Netherlands who were doing the same thing as us. There were also a handful of french truckers who were already intoxicated. We stayed up late, talked, and played cards. Around midnight, one of the drunk truckers expressed (in French—none of them spoke english very well—his desire for some snacks and more booze). Since he and his friends were already wasted, he asked me to drive his truck into the nearest town a few miles away to stop at a convenience store. “Why not?” I thought. Luckily, he wasn’t driving an 18-wheeler, but it was still somewhat difficult to maneuver, especially when I was following contradictory directions in slurred French. We pulled into the centre-ville of Meaux, and he motioned for me to stop in front of a closed shop. Confused, I hit the brakes. He hopped out and started banging on the door. After a minute or two a bewildered store owner poked his head out of the alley to ask what he wanted. “Some beer and snacks.” We were allowed inside where we filled our arms with as many bottles and bags of chips as we could carry, and soon we were on our way back to Formule Un.  As we left the town, we passed a beautiful Cathedral, and my intoxicated copilot motioned again for me to stop so he could pee on the beautiful 12th-century structure. I wish I had had a camera.

The next day we started off early, determined to make us for lost time. The route paralleled the beautiful Canal d’Ourcq, below:

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We completed the remainder of the first route by around 1 and enjoyed a 2-hour lunch at a pizzeria in Charly-sur-Marne

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The next segment of the trip paralleled the Marne river of WWI fame.

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As we worked our way from town to town, it seemed that every cluster of more than 10 houses had three things: both a beautiful gothic or romanesque church, a monument to the soldiers from that town who died in the Great War, and at least two champagne vineyards, like this one:

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We arrived at our next destination, a town called Dormans, with plenty of time to spare before dark. Feeling proud of our rustic adventure, both Jamie and I were enthusiastic about taking it to the next level by camping that night. We used the guidebook to find a campground near town, and rented a plot of grass for nine euros. The next stop was a French version of Big Lots where we bought a delicious feast of wine, cheese, chocolate, fruit, canned salade niçoise, and, for sleeping, a lawn chair pillow. The idea was to put on every piece of clothing we had, and sleep on the pillow, covered by a poncho. Great idea, right? If you replied “no, you idiot” to that last question, then congratulations, you’re right! I have never been that cold in my life. The temperature was somewhat deceptive, because even though we ate our dinner comfortably outside after the sun had set, there is a serious difference between the perceived temperature when you are moving around and eating, and when you are lying still. As soon as there was a little bit of light in the sky, we stopped pretending to sleep and started on the next leg. Unfortunitely, this segment began with a long climb out of the Marne valley into the open countryside. Maybe I should take a second to say something about my friend Jamie. I didn’t know him before joining the whiffs, but he’s a really fun, relaxed, practical and flexible guy. And its a good thing too because if he had any less of those qualities, this debacle surely would have ended the trip early.

We rode for a few hours before crossing over the LGV Est tracks. We stopped for a few minutes to see if a train would come by. Sure enough, a Strasbourg-bound TGV passed under us at full speed. I got a video of it; Jamie was joking about how we might be able to pick up a Wi-Fi signal from the passing train. It was a bit too fast, though, as you can see:

After a late breakfast, we took a small detour to see the Ainse-Marne American cemetary, which is the second-largest American cemetary in Europe. It was pretty moving to see so many dead Americans in a foreign country.

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In spite of our occational disagreement, American and France really do a have a special relationship. The entire place was extremely well maintained—there were four gardners there trimming and grooming—though it was unclear which government was paying. There was a large monument at one side of the complex:

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Within one of the sides of a monument was a room with a stone map that showed which peices of ground were taken by American troops. We realized that we had basically be traveling through the former battlefield for the entire trip.

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I had never realized how close the Germans had come to taking Paris, but we could really feel how close we were because we traveled every kilometer powered by just our legs.

A few hours after the cemetery, we stumbled accross the ruins of an 11th century abbey that had been destroyed in the French Revolution. It was very beautiful, and very sad that it was desecrated.

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On the way to our final destination, we took a wrong turn and ended up on a highway. We stumbled on a construction crew repaving the road, and they were very helpful in directing us to a safer route. I was proud that I was able to handle the entire situation in French, because none of them spoke any English. It made me wish that I had done a little more in school to develop my French, but it also made me hopeful that if I can remember so much five years later, maybe I can pick up where I left off sometime in the future too.

Finally aroud mid-afternoon we pulled into Villers-Cotterêts. There was enough daylight left to do another leg, but we were so tierd from the night before and from the hills that we decided to stop for good. No restaurants were open, so we stopped at a Carrefour to get supplies for lunch. You may have noticed from some of the earlier pictures that I have been growing sideburns over the trip. I did this mainly for fun, but also because in a variety of contexts, audience members have approached me after hearing me sing to tell me things like: “I can’t beleive you’re a bass” and “you just don’t look like someone who can sing low.” I was pleased that in our concerts in France, the comments changed to: “you remind me of George Washington,” “you look like Abraham Lincoln,” and, my favorite, “you’re like Wolverine from the X-Men.” These were the perks of having sideburns. In that supermarket in Villers-Cotterêts, though, I incurred the first cost. When I walked in, the burly security guards took one look at me and asked me to give them my bag while I was in the store.

We ate our lunch our lunch to the town square, then retired to our hotel at 4:30. I slept for about 15 hours to make up for the night before. On the way to the train station in the morning we stopped by the house of Alexander Dumas, the fellow who wrote the Three Musketeers.

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When all was said and done, we had rode 160 km in about two full days. It has been three days since, and my thighs still feel like a block of lactic acid.

Tokyo Adventures

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

It is currently Day 2 and Japan, and I finally feel like World Tour has started. Sydney and New Zealand were very similar to the United States, but Japan is, well, different. Yesterday, we sang a long concert yesterday in Fujisawa, a suburb of Tokyo. I am not kidding when I say it was long: the entire thing was over 5 hours with 3 intermissions! I think this demonstrates that there are some serious undercurrents of sadism in Japanese culture. I couldn’t imagine an American audience sitting through the whole thing.

It began with a big jazz band from Tokyo University performing what would have constituted an entire concert by American standards. Next was an Okinawa-style drum dance group. This was quite fun to watch, but, again, quite long. The dancers have varying sized drums, and stand in rows, doing very athletic dance moves and banging along to the music that is playing over the speakers. It reminded me of Bangra, except with drums. After that, there was a smaller jazz quartet, but we didn’t see them because we had to go get changed.

We came on last and sang the longest set I have ever performed in an a cappella concert. Our portion of the set lasted over an hour and a half, and we sang almost all the songs we know. Afterwords, there was a reception with lots of sushi, gyoza, buffalo wings and beer. They asked us to perform a few songs at the reception, and then we really did exhaust our entire repertoire–they heard literally every song we know except for Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria.

Here is a picture of us rehearsing before the concert:

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After the reception, we all parted ways and headed back to our home-stays. Each whiff had his own host because the houses are too small and no family has enough room for more than one guest. My home-stay family is very nice, although sometimes we have trouble communicating. The father is an urban planner, so we have some common interests. He spent his childhood from age two to age eight in Chicago, so he is very interesting to speak to. When he does know what to say, he says it in a Chicago accent. But his command of English has faded some over the years, and he sometimes thinks to himself in Japanese or asks his wife for help. So his speech alternates from what sounds like perfect fluency to the broken English that is more common. (Of course, knowing hardly any Japanese myself, I am extremely grateful that the entire country has taken the time to learn my language, even if it sometimes less than perfect).

Today was a free day with no concerts. I had intended on meeting with a group of Whiffs at a nearby train station, but the station was bigger than I realized, and for some reason, I was unable to find them. It would have been nice to meet up with a few other people, but I decided to make lemonade, and I started out on my own. I decided to make my way to the Imperial palace (why not?). The first step was to figure out where I was on the train network. I have had a lot of experience wrangling it on my own on the train networks of London, Bangkok, Paris, Rome, and New York. None of that prepared me for Tokyo. I knew that Japanese people liked trains (I had even taken a few in Kyoto when I went five years ago for my brother) but the Tokyo train network is truly colossal. There are more trips made in a single day here than in an entire year on Amtrak, and the map of all the lines cannot be contained in a single drawing.

This is a picture of the map in my guidebook. It looks like spaghetti, yet it does not even contain all the stations on the express lines, much less the local ones:

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I made my way to Shinjuku station, which I believe is the busiest in the world by traffic. After a few wrong turns, I managed to get onto the circular Yamanote Line and make my way to the Palace grounds. I was proud of myself, but still a little sad that I was all alone–many of the signs were in English, but I wished that there was someone to ask questions.

As I thought this, a group of four Tokyo University students approached me and asked if I spoke English. “Yes,” I replied. They were looking for someone to practice their english with, and they offered to show me around the Palace and the city. We spent the rest of the day seeing the sights and getting to know each other. We walked all around the Palace and the garden, explaining everything as we went, and then they took me to the Meiji shrine across town. At the end of the afternoon, we exchanged e-mails and parted ways.

Here is a picture of my new friends at the Palace gardens:

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At the Meiji shrine we came across a Japanese wedding procession:

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Bohemian Grove

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

I’m in Auckland right now—more on that in a later post. But before it fades too much into the past, I wanted to write a bit about one of the crazy experiences in San Francisco: a visit to the Bohemian Grove. This, I discovered, is a private encampment in the redwood forests about two hours north of the city that is owned by an organization called the Bohemian Club. This is a fraternity composed mainly of two groups of people: rich Californians and artists. They have a clubhouse in downtown San Francisco, but for three weeks every summer, most of the membership (1000-1500, I think) treks out to the Grove for what they call a “Jinx.” This involves camping, hiking, eating and drinking together, singing, playing instruments, listening to shows and speeches, and socializing. I had never heard of the place before the Whiffenpoofs, so it isn’t quite famous, but everyone in San Francisco that we talked to seemed to know about it.

The Grove is organized into about 130 “camps,” and each member belongs to one of these. They have weird names like “Aviary,” and “Hill Billies,” and vary greatly in size and aesthetics. Some are very rustic with hardly any permanent structures. Others have posh cabins. A few have teepees. The most important feature that they all have in common is an open bar. In the evenings everyone wanders from camp to camp. There are no boundaries once you are inside, so little, in fact, that you are allowed to obey the call of nature on any tree except the ones that are marked with what looks a “No Parking” sign but whose meaning is slightly different.

When we walked in, the CEO of Wells Fargo was giving a speech about the economy to a large gathering of people around a lake. After settling in to our camp, Aviary, we enjoyed a few cocktails at some nearby camps, and then went to dinner. This meal and breakfast are eaten collectively at a central dining area. On the walk over we could hear organ music, which I later found out was coming from a large outdoor theatre built into the hillside where they stage an annual musical. After dinner, we sang at a variety show that included a really good saxaphonist, an big-band jazz orchestra, a comedien, a troupe of people who had done a really funny voiceover for a John Wayne movie, and a guy who juggled on a unicycle while playing the guitar. For the rest of the night, we wandered around and enjoyed the hospitality of various camps.

The coolest experience for me was the walk to breakfast the next morning. By the same lake that hosted the speech the previous afternoon, there was a full orchestra set up playing Tchaikovsky,with the forest in the background. They were mostly old men, and amateurs, but they were very enthusiastic and quite good. Unfortunately, because the club is quite secretive, I couldn’t take pictures outside of Aviary, although I would have liked to snap one of that lake. Here is one of the Aviary camp from a distance, showing our sleeping quarters.

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This is one of me standing in the common area of Aviary.  The bar is directly in front of me (behind the camera). The posters in the background are posters for shows and performances that had been put on by the men of Aviary in the past.

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World Tour

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

For the next three months, I will be saying farewell to college by hopping around the globe with my a cappella group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs. To keep in touch with everyone and to preserve better my own memories, I am retrofitting this blog from a soapbox for my occasional rants and musings to a public journal of my adventures.

For reference, here is a rough summary of the itinerary:

May 27 - June 1: San Francisco
June 1 - June 6: Queenstown, New Zealand
June 6 - June 11: Auckland, New Zealand
June 11 - June 20: Japan (several cities, including Tokyo and Kyoto)
June 20 - June 24: Beijing, China
June 24 - June 27: Shanghai, China
June 27 - June 30: Bangkok, Thailand
June 30 - July 3: Phuket, Thailand
July 3 - July 7: Kathmandu, Nepal
July 7 - July 11: Udaipur, India
July 11 - July 15: Mumbai, India
July 15 - July 20: Capetown, South Africa
July 20 - July 27: France (several cities)
July 27 - July 31: GROUP BREAK (I’ll probably spend this in Paris or Brussels)
July 31 - August 4: Greece
August 4 - August 8: Istanbul, Turkey
August 8 - August 13: Israel (several cities)
August 13 - August 21: US Northeast

Because I have an (unfortunately) high tolerance for dealing with tedious and buggy technology, I have taken on the role of group photo-uploader. I purchased a pro account on Flickr, and will upload edited sets of photos to the following address:

The edited sets contain what I think are the best photos. But because everyone has different tastes, I am also uploading complete sets that include every single photo taken by every Whiffenpoof–those in the edited set, plus many others. The complete sets are available here:

There will be one edited set and one complete set for each place we visit on tour. So far, I have uploaded all the photos from California; the first New Zealand photos should be up soon too. Because I am uploading what I can, when I can, you will probably notice that sets will grow over time. So even if you’ve already looked at a set, there may be photos there that you haven’t yet seen. Also, free to share these links with anyone you know.

A few technical notes about Flickr: First, the the best way to view any set on your computer is to click on the “slide show” link. Second, you can also download the full-sized version of any photo that you like by clicking on the “all sizes” link above the photo, clicking on the “original size” option, then clicking “download original size. Finally, for some odd reason, the photos seem to look better on Safari than they do on Firefox or Internet Explorer on Windows or Mac. I think this has to do with the way that the browsers deal with what is called a “color profile” (I’m new to this too). I’m working on sorting this out, but in the mean time, if you have a choice, look at them in Safari–the colors will be more vibrant.

That’s all for now! Check back later for stories.