Friday, February 23, 2018

Best Smelling City in France

My very last day of sightseeing on the Côte d’Azur was a solo train trip. I took a break from packing and cleaning to visit Grasse one last time.

I have previously only visited Grasse by car. I knew it was perched on a hill, so I did some research online to find out how walkable the old town was from the train station. 

With all the trip planning I’ve done this year, I’ve come to really enjoy reading whiny reviews on Tripadvisor. They make me laugh. Whiny reviews are usually written by middle-aged Americans who haven’t traveled much. They get incensed by things that are common in Europe like buildings with no elevators or drinks with no ice. I love the fact that people get offended enough by these things to spend time bashing it online.

While researching Grasse, I came across two reviews about the walk from the train station. One reviewer said it was a horrible walk that left them sore for days afterwards. Another said the walk would only be difficult for an ailing octogenarian. I chose to believe the second person. It turns out the first person was not just another complainer. They were right. The second person must climb mountains for a living because they are crazy.

I went up and up and up and up. Up steep stairs and up never-ending hills. My calves were burning, but as a reward the views kept getting better. After what felt like climbing Mt. Everest, I reached the top of the village and the cathedral.

Once you reach the top of the hill, Grasse is very pleasant to walk around. Not only are the buildings beautiful and the views amazing, but the whole city smells like perfume.

Grasse is the perfume-manufacturing capital of France (and probably the world). Several perfume factories are based in Grasse. I’ve done the free tour of Fragonard several times and it’s very interesting to learn about how perfume is made. Read here to learn about how they make perfume.

Fun story- on a previous visit, our GPS led us astray and we mistakenly drove down the pedestrian-only street above. We ended up having to reverse down the whole street while getting awkwardly stared at by everyone around us.

Unfortunately, the walk downhill was not more relaxing. After checking the train schedule and realizing there wasn’t another for 2.5 hours if I missed the next one, I practically ran down the hill. I got a little lost but made it on the train with 30 seconds to spare.

I have so enjoyed exploring the Riviera and Provence this year. I’ve already planned a vacation back to visit in the distant future and what we will see next time. :)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Au Revoir, Riviera!

Before we packed our bags and moved out for good, I had to say goodbye to a few of my favorite cities.

First up on the agenda was Nice. I enjoyed my walk around Place Masséna and the colorful Vieille Ville. Of course, I couldn’t leave without doing a little shopping (it was during the winter sales, after all). My only regret was that Fenocchio, the famous gelato shop, was closed for the winter.

Two days later, I stepped foot in downtown Cannes for the last time. The drizzly weather wasn’t very conducive to taking pictures. I only managed to take one of my favorite street, Rue Meynadier. It's hard to take good pictures of this street because it's always busy with shoppers- even in the rain.  I did better last spring, when I wrote about life in Cannes.

Over the weekend David’s parents came down to help us start moving. Our tiny European-sized car could not have fit both of our big American-sized suitcases.

We spent Saturday morning in Mandelieu, where we lived during our first 6 months in France. I was happy to get to see “my” castle one last time. We could see the tower from our balcony and I used to walk there every week.

It’s still too chilly for (most) humans to swim, but this dog seemed to be loving life.

This is very zoomed in, but from the beach in Mandelieu we could see the Ile St. Honorat in the distance. We visited this castle and monastery a few weeks ago.

Saturday afternoon, we reminisced in Cagnes-sur-Mer. David’s grandparents had an apartment in Cagnes and they vacationed there every summer of his childhood. We walked along the beach and around the harbor.

We had time for one last excursion together on Sunday. They wanted to spend more time by the beach before driving back to snowy Gap. I suggested Antibes because I hadn’t been back in more than a year. It was one of my first sightseeing outings when we moved to France in 2016.

Our first view of Antibes was of the harbor and fortress with snow-capped mountains in the background. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the French Riviera is so close to the Alps!

We walked along the ramparts and enjoyed the clear, turquoise water. There were even a few brave swimmers.

I felt like dancing in my new skirt (merci, winter sales) in front of the colorful cathedral.

David was thankful I refrained from dancing all the way down these pretty pastel streets.

I feel lucky to have called the French Riviera home for the last year and a half. Out of all the places to end up in the world, this was a pretty beautiful one. I'll be back someday!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Not quite French...

This week I felt French because...

I ate French fries with a fork.

I had a whole conversation about the weather flawlessly using Celsius.

I showed two French women how to buy their train tickets and they thought I was a local.

I caught myself thinking and dreaming in French a few times.

This week I felt American because...

For the life of me I can't put my bread on the table. The French never put their baguette on their plate. They put it on the table and get crumbs everywhere. I just can't.

I'm baffled by how small French garbage cans are. I'm always self-conscious throwing anything away because whatever you put in fills up half the can.

I'm homesick. Not for Cannes, which we moved away from this week, but for Wisconsin. I love France and Europe so much, but I'm so ready to be home! I will be in less than in a month, but for some reason it still feels far away.

Monday, February 5, 2018


It's taken me a while to get to writing this. Partly because of the subject matter, and partly because we've been busy moving. We no longer live in Cannes- we'll be staying with David's family for a few weeks before going to the U.S.

I moved to Israel to intensely study the Holocaust in a graduate program. Obviously, this subject is not a mild or passing interest of mine. After years of reading and studying the most notorious location in human history, I made it in person. It was surreal walking up to these gates. 

Even with all of my study, my first takeaway from seeing Auschwitz was that the Nazis were worse than I thought.

I can't explain the whole history of Auschwitz in one post. I will try to explain the basics and then talk about our experience visiting.

About one million people were murdered here in the span of a few short years. 90% of the victims were Jews. Most died immediately the gas chambers. The Auschwitz gas chambers could kill 12,000 people per day. Those who weren't killed immediately became slave laborers. Every day was a struggle for survival under horrible conditions. People died from abuse, overwork, starvation, torture, disease, cold, and cruel medical experiments. Most prisoners survived only a few weeks or months at the most.

The selection of who was going to die immediately was done here near the train tracks.

At least 5 people crowded onto each bunk in the barracks. This one is 'Block 25,' where inmates were sent before being gassed if they were too sick to work.

Here are some of the things that were most striking to me during our visit.

-The extent to which the SS enriched themselves through genocide. They sold every part (hair, gold teeth, prosthetic limbs) and all belongings (clothes, shoes, dishes) of their victims that they could. Jews even paid their own train fare to Auschwitz. It was chilling to witness the organized system the Germans developed to profit from mass murder.

These glass display cases show a small portion what the Nazis stole with the intention of eventually selling. Some items are blackened from fire. As the Soviets were advancing, they attempted to hide their crimes and destroy all evidence.

Jews were told they were being deported to work camps and packed accordingly to set up their new lives, including these dishes.

To avoid panic, those about to be killed were told to label their luggage so they could collect it later.
Piles and piles of victims' shoes. Note the children's shoes up front.
Braces, crutches, prosthetic limbs.
There was also a display case containing TWO TONS of human hair. The Germans used it to make fabric and carpets. Horrifying.

-The torture. The Nazis had an array of sadistic punishments for those who committed "crimes" like asking for more food. The punishment for that was being put in a "starvation cell" to slowly starve to death. The Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe (sent to Auschwitz for opposing the Nazi regime) was later canonized by the pope for voluntarily taking the place of a stranger who had been sentenced to die that way.

Our tour guide talked about why so few prisoners attempted to escape from Auschwitz. Besides the obvious- electrified barbed wire fences and guard towers- if anyone escaped, that person's ENTIRE work group was immediately shot. I believe the estimate is that there were about 1000 attempted escapes and 100 successful ones.

We heard about other various torture methods (both psychological and physical), but I'll spare you the gruesome details.

-The fact that the entire place is a graveyard. The soil itself is filled with ashes and bone fragments.

These 4 gravestones near one of the ruined crematoria are symbolic to remind visitors they are walking in a graveyard.

Several gas chambers were blown up before the Soviets arrived. We walked through one that's still standing. You can see the holes in the ceiling through which the Zyklon B was placed.

One of the destroyed gas chambers.
-How close Rudolf Höss's (the commandant's) wife and young children lived to the nearest gas chamber. It was a stone's throw away. After the war, he was hung on these gallows. 

Crematoria as viewed from the Höss home.
Home in the corner.
Unfortunately, very few of the criminals who worked at Auschwitz were punished after the war. For example, after a long life, the "Angel of Death" Mengele had a stroke while relaxing on the beach in South America.

I'll end with some of the information I took pictures of concerning the demographics of the victims.

There was a French survivor visiting with a large group of French Jews while we were there. They prayed for the dead in Hebrew and held up Israeli flags.

I've had the chance to hear from many Holocaust survivors and speak personally with several of them. Every single time, they express gratitude that I was willing and interested to hear their story. They want people to remember.

It's a tough place to visit, but it's so important to be aware what happened here not so long ago.