These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
“You’ll love it there. The Greeks are so nice.”
A friend who had just left Athens told me this before my arrival in Greece. I was skeptical at first.
My first interaction with a Greek person happened as soon as I had gotten off of the connecting train from the airport into town. My suitcase is big (I’m abroad for four months, after all), but I normally have no problem navigating it through a European city.
This time was no different. Upon leaving a train station, there are sometimes small gates you need to pass through in order to exit. These gates are small and not meant to fit a suitcase. I usually try to fit my suitcase through, and then have to pause and turn it to the side so I can lift it through the gates.
However, right as my suitcase was caught in the gate, I paused to lift it up when I noticed someone behind me. At these moments in time I usually go into anti-pickpocket mode. This time it wasn’t necessary. The man behind me had seen that my luggage didn’t fit, so he gestured to my suitcase, and helped me lift it through the gate.
After he had gotten through the gate, he dropped my luggage and smiled, while I said thank you, and he walked away. It was such a casual but kind thing for a stranger to do. Although I could’ve lifted the suitcase myself, the gesture was such a nice one.
It seems like nothing big, to have a stranger help you with your suitcase. But I’ve been traveling for over two months now, and it’s something that doesn’t happen often. People have busy lives, and not enough time to stop to help a stranger.
I have now been in Athens for a few days, and I’ve noticed that in general, most Athenians seem to have this same kind disposition. When you walk down the street or enter a store, people smile at you. That hasn’t been the case in a lot of other European cities in my experience. Here, bakeries will give you free pastries with your coffee. Restaurants will give you wine on the house. This is because they value their customers and want you to keep coming back.
One other time in particular when I was exploring my new neighborhood here with a few of my classmates, trying to find the nearest school supply store, we ended up having to ask several people for directions along the way. Each time the person was sincere and kind, pointing us in the right direction. In contrast, in Rome we had some bad experiences asking the locals for directions.
This isn’t to say that the people of Rome or any other urban European city are mean. It’s simply to say that my first impression of the Greeks is that they are very kind people. In a few weeks, I may have a very different impression of Athenians and the city. Recognizing these first impressions, and every other impression a city leaves on you throughout your time there, is one of the most important things about travel for me. The great thing is, I have six weeks left here to gather even more impressions of Athens.
How Plum Flowers Embarrass a Garden
When everything has faded they alone shine forth
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens
their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk
snowbirds look again before they land
butterflies would faint if they but knew
thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse
I don't need a sounding board or wine cup
林逋 Lín Bū (967-1028)
(Poems of the Masters; translated by Red Pine/Bill Porter, Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
梅花 méihuā. Song dynasty poets were enamored with them. Prunus mume, Chinese plum, Japanese apricot, ume from the Japanese, mei from the Chinese, winter plum – the flowering tree goes by many names.
The annual International Plum Blossom Festival begins in late February. By March, the Zhongshan national park on the edge of Nanjing is bursting with five-petal blossoms.
A few months ago, when a friend asked “what is Nanjing famous for?” I answered, “the massacre.” True, but a nicer answer would have been the plum blossoms. The festival officially launched in 1996, and while it still seems to be a well-kept secret, its organizers are aiming high, an event to rival Japan’s cherry blossoms. The “international” month-and-a-half festival is one the city government’s website boasts attracts millions.
I visited on a Wednesday, when only a sprinkling of people milled about. Sometimes I walked for full minutes without seeing anyone at all, a beautiful rarity in urban China. Many of the people there were workers pruning trees, or elderly people who seem to congregate in parks.
The smaller numbers might also have been because I entered the part of the park that required a ticket, leading to Plum Blossom Hill and the gardens staged after famous scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized on my way out there was a back gate standing wide open.
That was toward the tail end of the festival, a beautiful late March afternoon. There were still quite a few blossoms, even if the lady selling tickets next to the big PLUM BLOSSOM FESTIVAL sign said when I asked where to find them, “oh, plum blossoms? Those are all gone.”
I would lose money on a bet to differentiate between plum and peach and pear blossoms, or cherry, but trees all over the mountain were still in bloom. There might have been some jasmine blossoms thrown in there, too, possibly osmanthus. Without a field guide it was hard to say.
As early as the blossoms come, the trees bear fruit in June and July, coinciding with the rainy season of East Asia. The downpours are called 梅雨 méiyǔ, the plum rains. The fruit is used to make sour plum juice, 酸梅湯 suān méi tāng, and of course 梅酒 méijiǔ, plum wine.
The Asian plum trees originated in southern China around the Yangtze river, later spreading to the other parts of Asia. There are rumors of a tree in Hubei province dating from the Jin dynasty, some 1600 years ago.
Plum blossoms are important in traditional painting, invested with a wealth of cultural and symbolic meaning, named in a long series of numbered lists: one of the four season flowers, one of the four nobles, the five petals symbolizing five fortunes.
While unequivocally proclaimed the city flower of Nanjing, there’s a bit of a contest over national flower status. The plum blossom since 1964 has been the national flower of the Republic of China, which is to say, Taiwan.
The Qing Dynasty declared the national flower of China the peony. The People’s Republic has gone through several nomination phases, but no single flower has been ratified as the final choice. Several factions were pushing for a dual-flower recognition of both the plum blossom and peony.
On the way out, I went past part of the Nanjing branch of the UNESCO-recognized world heritage Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
It’s a large park. I was wandering in the palace part, apparently still a hike from the actual tombs. The layout is similar to that of other famous imperial locales, the Forbidden City among them: thick-walled gates, wide outdoor corridors leading ever inward to taller guard towers and inner buildings.
Toward the back I ended up in a landscape that looked a bit like the Secret Garden. I kept wandering, not sure where it would lead, but eventually it looped back around to the palace complex where I could stand by the parapets and look down at the walkers and steamed-bun sellers below.
Again I find myself awaking without an alarm clock, getting up, and eating a breakfast of fresh-baked bread with Nutella on it along with some tea and milk. I finish eating quickly and get dressed. Today is the day of the Fete, and we want to demolish a stairway on the hillside before we leave at noon. Keith has told me that the Fete is a large gathering arranged by the local hunters in order to share the meat they have gotten. Hunters have spent the prior week participating in the Chasse, (hunting in English), and killed a large amount of the excess wild boar in the area. I am very excited to participate in this cultural event.
I walk outside on this beautiful day and meet Katie over by the old ruin that Derek and Ben have been tearing down. She has already started to remove some of the decayed wooden steps from the hillside, so I get to work on helping her. The wood is damp and rotten, and there are a lot of sharp thorn bushes covering them, so it turns into a minor pain. I go into the shed and retrieve a set of trimming shears to get rid of all the nasty thorns so we can continue our work. With those cleared it doesn't take long to get the wooden steps removed and the rocks carried off that were underneath. Under those rocks though there is a pile of rubble that was used as a base for the stairs, so that needs to be removed next. It takes us until noon to get half of the rubble shoveled up and carted away. We walk inside the house and clean up. No lunch today because we need to save room for the big meal.
Everyone piles into the trucks once we are ready. We take both trucks since there are seven of us. Derek and I take the Hyundai and the rest of the crew loads into the Mitsubishi. The place we are headed is the town of Mouchan, and it is not far away. With me driving we take off following Keith in the other truck. The drive doesn't take long and we arrive at the gathering around 12:30.
I follow the others into the building where the Fete is held. Inside there is a large number of older French people mingling and talking with each other. There must be a majority of the citizens of this area in this one building. This is one of those times where I would love to have a good grasp of the language. Our group mingles around for a while and enjoys some of the Armagnac drinks they are giving out. Soon we make our way over to the tables and find a place with enough room for the nine of us. There are a lot of people here and long tables, but they are able to ensure that everyone has a spot to sit. Derek and Justin have started to have a nice conversation in French with the older couple next to them. I can't understand a single thing, but can pick up a small amount of intent based on hand gestures.
It is another hour before the meal begins. First course is a rather bland soup with noodles in it. Not really the start to the feast I was expecting. Still I eat two bowls worth of it because at this point I am starving. The soup is accompanied by some more wine. After the soup is finished the servers bring out more plates with a meat dish. I'm told that the center slice of meat is a wild boar pâté and there are sausages and lettuce around it. This in itself is very tasty and I enjoy it. The servers now have Armagnac and have been wandering around the tables filling glasses. Next dish up is a stew made from more boar meat along with some sliced baguettes. It is satisfying, but has a weird texture to it. Almost gelatin like. Thankfully they soon bring out the main course, which is sliced boar meat along with a very delicious bean soup. I eat two servings of this easily. At this point they switch Armagnac for a very sweet, peach white wine. The final course is dessert. They serve a peach pastry and it is delicious. I am quite stuffed, and so happy to be here.
After the meal they begin with a meat weighing contest. The mayor of Mouchan is walking around the tables with a haunch of ham and handing it off for guesstimate weighing. The fee to guess is 2€, so I pass. As it turns out a kid probably around the age of 12 wins the prize and gets a nice cricket set out of it. After the weighing a group of people start to gather on the other side of the building. I see a flicker of flame every so often from between the people and I am now very interested in what they are doing. The group and I walk over there and find an old man sitting in a chair with a long ladle looking device that is resting in a steel bucket in front of him. The bucket itself is engulfed in flames. I'm told that it is a tradition after the meal to take a bucket like this and fill it with a mixture of Armagnac, sugar, and lemon juice. Then they ignite the mixture and let it burn until a good amount of the sugar and alcohol is burned off. The man tending to it also uses the ladle to lift some of the mixture about six feet above the pail and then pour it back in causing a very beautiful stream of fire raining down. I'm entranced. For nearly 30 minutes I stand there watching the fire flicker up and down and the mixture slowly burning away. When the liquid is reduced enough that the flame goes out they pour the mixture into large pitchers and serve it up to the guests. I take a glass and sniff it suspiciously. The alcohol nearly burns my nostrils. One small sip and I realize just how strong it is. This is after they reduced it. I can't even imagine how strong the pure stuff is.
By this time we have been at the Fete for nearly six hours. Katie, Ben, and I want to go into town to get some cash from an ATM and try to find some groceries for baking. Derek and Justin have started to talk with the mayor and another fellow, who I later find out is the leader of the Chasse of the Gers, so I let them know we will wait out in the truck for them. Nearly 45 minutes of sitting outside in the truck goes by before we decide to go in and disrupt their conversation. When I walk in I see they have moved to a table and the four of them are in deep conversation. They finish and say good-bye and come out to the truck. As we drive off towards Condom, Derek and Justin tell us that they were invited to go along on the next hunt. That is a great honor in this area.
We arrive in Condom soon after only to realize that because it is now 7:00pm on a Sunday everything is closed. Oh well. We are still able to get some cash, and actually get a rather good picture of all of us on the musketeer statues next to the cathedral. On our way back to the house we get lost in Condom and basically experience the entire town through our truck windows. That provides endless entertainment for the crew.
When we make it back to the house it's only 8:00pm. We sit down at the kitchen table and spend a few hours talking about a wide range of topics from space and the environment, to politics and sex. Overall it turns out to be an extremely interesting evening. Around 11:00pm we all decide to get some sleep and rest up for the work ahead of us tomorrow. I sense more rubble clearing and car fixing is in my near future. As I climb into bed and lay my head on the pillow I think to myself just how great it is to be doing this kind of work and experiencing the French culture from this point of view. Soon after I am floating around in dreamland.
If you are interested in reading about my previous adventures through Europe please check out my other blog.
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