Nice. Jour 4

Bonjour, le beau monde! A pretty sunny day and a boat ride to the Île Sainte-Marguerite to present our report was waiting to inspire us to enjoy our everyday life dotting somewhere a few days ahead. A repetitive breakfast menu was très bien for us as per usual. We were to walk again to the port to embark on our voyage to where we’d already been lucky to be as part of our coach trip to Europe. The largest of the Lerins Islands, this island was famous for its fortress where Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. It was about an hour’s boat ride from Nice. We got there just in time to find our American friend already there. Another nice conversation in English added more confidence to the morning. It turned out we had forgotten to pick up our poster from the conference venue! Well, luckily, we had some kind soul pick it up for us – people seemed incredibly helpful here! We quickly got on our beautiful boat and got ready to get up close and personal with the Mediterranean sliding through its gentle waves with azure here and there – everywhere! We took a comfortable seat to enjoy “the performance” and were a bit later joined by an Italian! Bene! We spent the entire ride talking (I wish I had brushed up on my very limited Italian back home) about Rome (his home city) and how I was in love with it after a bellissimo week I’d spent there. Travels offer so much to talk about and make connections! We even happened to have the same favourite places in the belle Italian capital! Some of my stereotypes of Italy were actually reinforced and others dismantled. You can’t escape Italy while in Nice, can you? It’s walking right here behind you in graceful strides (probably in a pair of stilettos)! I could notice a bit of a fashion show on my right as I saw the famous Breton stripe worn by the owner of the brown eyes to make me release a sigh of admiration. I was speaking to an Italian looking away to take in the handsomeness of a French! Me! A Russian girl! The sun was beating down, but I couldn’t take off my light jacket as I had got a sunburn the day before during our jaw-dropping coastline walk. Azure, azure, azure! I remember you and I’m looking!IMG_20160609_091239

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I was able to recognize these soothing views as we started approaching the island. That was where I had my first dip in the sea three years ago! What a coincidence! Little did I know I would ever get here again but with a different agenda! As we were walking up the hill to the Maritime Museum where the conference was to be held surrounded by the smell of eucalyptus and the sound of birds singing (that was exactly what my memory preserved as a souvenir of the place), I stroke a chat with that female British professor from Birmingham. She was all smiley with a rucksack on her back! I wished her luck for her key speech a bit later on. I was astonished at how approachable and down-to-earth Western professors are! She seemed genuinely happy to talk to someone like me. And of course the American professor found us too to continue our chat! Before the opening report by the British professor, we had a while to stroll the area. It looked so deserted and calm and we could see Cannes in the distance. Belle is the word! A bit rural with casual workers in their overalls but very clean and beautiful!

The room where we were seated in the Maritime Museum felt damp and about halfway through the British professor’s speech I found myself nodding off even though I was interested in her talk. She joked that everyone must be looking forward to the aperitif. Before we had a chance to enjoy it, we were all taken to marvel at the views of the Mediterranean from the lookout tower. Splendid!

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We have the apéritif waiting for us and we walk to a lovely court in the shade for that. Are they serving us home-made sweet wine? I have to love whoever made this one! As one of the organizers saw me with a glass with ice cubes, he came asking me to add a few to his wine. He was so immaculately dressed in an elegant straw hat that I was afraid to leave a smudge on it while I dip in his ice cube into his glass. We carried on our chat with the American professor who seemed to love our company a lot. I was wondering what our English felt to a native speaker. Emotional talks are most engaging and it’s fascinating how when it gets to a point when something concerning your country comes up, you seem to start losing control of your English as some profoundly lingering emotions start coming into play compelling us to call potatoes “our second bread”, referring to “a vegetable garden” where we grow them, etc. We can’t rip our national selves apart from whatever languages we choose to speak. The lunch itself was very tasty with a selection of potatoes, rice, roasted meat. As I stood up from my seat to get another helping, I felt a bit dizzy, which made me aware that I must have helped myself too much to the wine and I had a report to make afterwards. It was in fact a combination of the wine, the scenery and our conversation that got me tipsy in the first place. We all got so relaxed that the last thing on everyone’s mind was listening to more reports. Finally, it was time for some cheese that we had served with more fresh meat. I just adore cheeses and those were homemade! The American tried to have a discussion about their origin with people serving the tables and needless to say, he failed to do that as none of them seemed to have any command of English. I managed to talk to the female British professor more and she asked me if my students used corpora for our classes as she was one of the leading specialists in corpus linguistics. Well, I was happy she had no idea what kind of students I mostly have to teach…

It was finally time to make a presentation and our American ami was the one afraid to miss the action as he was to make one as well. I was happy to be able to get the owner of the brown eyes solve some technical issues. There was a lineup of reports, some in English, some in French. When my turn came (the American professor actually introduced my report and even made an effort to pronounce my family name), I was slightly nervous but strangely enough, I felt very inspired and bewilderingly confident as I was presenting my report which I started with a little introduction in French. That was another combination of factors that contributed to this feeling arising in me. I wasn’t presently in Nice that is named after Νίκη, a Greek goddess of victory, but I felt so victorious! We all need something and someone to give us wings to levitate! Why on earth can’t I feel like this back home? I have yet to figure out whether it was me preventing myself feeling the way I did back then on a daily basis or the environment which certainly has a certain impact on what we are. We had a few discussions with other participants during the poster session. Everyone seemed incredibly laidback and friendly. Is science that intimidating? We made acquaintance with the guy we were too shy to join for lunch our first day. He was a PhD student from Belgium and was very nice! One doesn’t have to be a nerd to be a scientist. I certainly have the environment to blame for my twisted perception of science. Our awkward poster attracted some more attention. When the session was over, we folded our poster and made it outside to take a brief stroll before our boat was due to arrive. It was getting menacingly cloudy and we didn’t walk too far. It was such a solitary and peaceful place which was the last I had expected to visit again. Tall trees, green grass to sit on and watch the sea and hear more French conversations. That was a perfect retreat for someone visiting Nice.

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Before we embarked on our boat, we had a quick chat with the British professor who now knew about my cherished dream of visiting London. That was his first time visiting the island and he was amazed it wasn’t for us. My sister had forgotten her jacket in the venue and it was after we had one of the organizers chasing us with it that she realized she had. Soon after we’d embarked on our boat, the sky was about to burst into loud tears of rain.

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The sight of the owner of the brown eyes lovingly and admiringly peering into the Mediterranean with a French flag waving in the background was able to amaze even my sister. Handsome men certainly belong here to match the surroundings! The grey skies finally culminated into a pouring rain. Here we were in the storm in the Mediterranean!

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My sister feared she would catch a cold as we only had our umbrellas that we could barely keep from being blown away to keep us dry. It wouldn’t stop raining when we arrived back in Nice. I caught sight of the owner of the brown eyes lending his umbrella to a lady…. Yes, people seem to match their surroundings. The rain stopped before we reached our hotel but the wet streets were almost empty. My sister was feeling hungry as unlike myself, she didn’t get to eat much throughout our conversation with the American professor due to what she called “an excessive cognitive load” she had to deal with struggling to speak English over such an extensive period. Obviously, we did have to stay inside in the next few hours and it was already an early evening so we thought we needed to choose a place for our meal. I changed into my warm Breton stripe blazer for the night. We went to the same restaurant we went to on our first evening here. All the diners were inside now that it had just been raining. The interior of the place was splendid and bohemian. We asked the same waiter who served us on our first ever meal here in Nice to recommend us some wine and that was the second best wine I’d tried here. We were actually done with the conference now and decided to use our last full day here on our own instead of trying to find Université Nice Sophia Antipolis Université where the last session of the conference was to be held. It was getting sad to be leaving so soon… The amazing and huge portion of mussels I got made parting with Nice seem too early to ponder. A group of senior ladies and a gentleman were seated at the next table and were loving their meal as well. I always admire how older people I see on my trips are capable of enjoying their time travelling and making retirement seem such a leisurely thing to finally do whatever you never got to do before you retired. When they asked the waiter “What music is playing?”, they summed it all up for me – retirement doesn’t have to be about having your children and grandchildren at your back begging you for any kind of help or begging your children to give your grandchildren to give your life back its worth. It’s about the older but wiser you enjoying small things in life like this wet evening here in Nice over a glass of fine food and wine… I taught my sister how to ask for the bill in French and hearing her say “L’addition, s’il vous plaît” put a genuine smile on the waiter’s typically French face. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I totally agree with Nelson Mandela on this…

We went on our late-evening promenade taking a different path to the Promenade des Anglais to see more of the backstreets of Nice and ended up in a sounevir shop that was still open. I couldn’t help getting a little painting of the iconic view of the Hotel Negresco and holidaymakers casually strolling. I collect these small paintings endearingly to shake up my visual memory when it’s too blurred by my everyday reality. It was a wet walk along the sea and it was rather chilly. The moist air made the smell of fish at some of the restaurants, which took us back to Varna, even more beckoning…

There were people enjoying their meals, entering some clubs. As we were walking by one of the dining places, I saw a very beautiful young couple dressed perfectly and looking so romantic together. I wish I could have them on a painting to put up in my room to remind me that romance isn’t dead… We walked some more around the Opera Theatre area (Opera Nice Côte d’Azur) admiring the French style and beauty and Eiffel Tower toys in the window-shops. We end the night near the Apollo fountain watching more beautiful people. May tomorrow be pleasurable and long! Bonne nuit!

 

Nice (E Un Poco Italia). Jour 2

A brisk and Provence lavender-scented “Bonjour!” Bonjour, le monde! There’s something genuinely divine and life-boosting about every morning you wake up somewhere new with no or a rather vague idea of the surroundings where you’d just spent the night. It’s a bit about taking risks and letting the cover of a foreign night embrace you just because being here during the daytime felt très bien et reposant. No need to say I slept like a log that night. I was so keen to wake up from the douc embrace to let my smile from the day before radiate into the belle even though very confined space of our hotel room and take it all the way down to the lobby where our French-style breakfast was waiting for us and then all the way through the lovely sweetly lazy rues of Nice.

I was a bit anxious about attending the conference so that didn’t feel like my typical morning on a holiday, because what it usually does is have my seeing, hearing and feeling device sharpened. It’s not until you take a leap of faith that you learn if being brave does actually pay off in the end. The surroundings were sure to make this leap feel effortless and flowing. Am I dressed appropriately for the occasion coming up? Do I even need to worry myself too much with what kind of figure I cut in front of everyone? Do I even need to bother with these and a blurry haze of thoughts shooting through my head? Anyway, it was time for le petit déjeuner! The breakfast served in the hotel lobby was going to give my palette another brisk feel of the country that is world-famous for its finely exquisite breakfasts. The last French-made croissant I tried was the one I had in Paris and to be honest, there seemed to be too much oil put into it. Let’s just have what we want to be a lingering and tentative bite of the one I have lying in front me. No, it is actually quicker than that as there’s that urge in my palette that compels me to take advantage of this gastronomical blessing and consummate it without too much or any foreplay. Having the eyes of the hotel guard on me as I’m relishing the delight of having real French croissants and coffee is something I told myself not to fuss about. It’s just that back home we don’t find ourselves in a situation like this and nor do we have French food for breakfast.

We had to have a taxi to the hotel where the conference was to be held booked. According to the map, it was not too far from our hotel but the day before the receptionist had no idea as to where this place could be. Later that day we had to ask another hotel receptionist who I would agree with my sister could well be on the cover of a fashion magazine in Russia probably without changing into something more fancy. He wouldn’t be my first choice though if I was an editor of such a magazine – sounds quite unrealistic, but while you’re here, you find yourself craving to do anything that would involve being part of this casual and serene male beauty show. To someone living in a country like Russia, to me male beauty might seem like something that isn’t ever readily available to enjoy but rather something that it normally takes a miracle to encounter as part of your daily routine. Here in France you have all these gifts from above splashed around the space so generously and bountifully that you might originally fail to catch sight of something you wouldn’t even dare to ask to come our way on a typical morning back home. I was due another très grande dose of this delight I’m robbed of every day of my ordinary life later on that trip and on that day as well…

Anyway, we had our taxi waiting for us outside. Getting this French-style handsome receptionist to book it for us was linguistically challenging and I don’t really know why my desire to make use of my (limited) French fluctuated the way the mood of an average woman does throughout a day. Sometimes it makes for an extremely delightful linguistic comedy to watch misunderstanding having us resorting to some really amusing ways to communicate. This guy had to use a calculator to type the exact time for our departure. I had no idea why he had to do that in fact. Listening to him speaking French nervously on the phone made for another linguistic sweet dessert that we had time to savour. What would reactions to this guy dressed in a T-shirt with a characteristic Breton stripe be back home? This stripe was going to be a profoundly imprinted memory of that trip as well… It was only a while later that it actually occurred to us that what didn’t look much like a taxi was just a private car that he arranged to arrive for us to charge us a few extra euros. Well, I should have made use of my French to avoid being cheated on. But before we were aware of that, here we were driving through the streets of the early morning town, me with our poster in my lap. That was the most beautiful taxi ride in my life made up of the gaudy natural landscape of azure and green that inspired the likes of Paul Cézanne. And did it inspire ME? Well, you know the answer to this one!

Le Saint Paul Hotel near the Grotto of Lazaret where the conference was to start about 30 minutes later looked like a sublime and idyllic place overlooking the Mediterranean, sleepy but cheeky and brisky enough to excite fantasy. What a morning! Est-que c’est rêve? Non, that was so truly and despicably real! Real enough for me to close my eyes and to open them again to see persistently the same landscape being here and signaling my azure reality. I was standing here facing it in what I thought would be an appropriate outfit for the conference and the poster in my hands together with layers of tape with some of them making some important data on it hard to read. I felt I had been taken a few centuries back as I was strolling the area surrounding the hotel. What a serene place to be and to pray obviously as there was a small chapel here that reminded me of Italy. Well, this place was certainly beautiful enough to have me convert into believing in the belle et tranquille charme de Nice. Thousands of dull or hurried mornings seem to be worth getting through just to have one like that. It did seem a bit like a film set as well where my soul and all of my senses did all the acting but needed no audience except the azure eyes of the Mediterranean.

 

 

Another grande charme was waiting for me as we entered the hotel lobby that offered splendid views through its glass walls. You have to be conscious of the sweeping power of male beauty here and that was when I felt I was blown and swept off guard with a look into another pair of brown eyes. It was as if someone had invaded the privacy of my dreams, retrieved some images and enhanced them to be the image I was facing there in that hotel lobby. What would a male model be doing here handing out conference badges? With all the preoccupation with fashion the French have, well… Do (such) handsome males attend linguistic conferences? I had to repeat our family name again as I’d forgotten about any linguistic boundaries between me and the male beauty for a while. We had our awkward poster to put up and who did I choose to ask to do that…? This gorgeous male creature taking this poster with his hands shaking holding this fragile thing – that was awkward indeed.

The conference hall was getting filled with people and before the conference opening, we had some time to refresh with more coffee at a peaceful backyard with a lovely little fountain (another reminder of Italy – Ciao mia bella!). With all kinds of beauty enslaving my brain, I certainly needed a bit of tranquility and I found it here on a lovely armchair surrounded by mostly French-speaking people. To break the ice, one of the ladies turned to me and said “Joli!” and gave me another moment worthy writing about. I said “Sorry!” and totally ruined the linguistic ambience of the moment. Why did this word have to slip my mind?! “Beautiful”, said she awkwardly. “Yes, it certainly is!”, said I feeling like someone who has just failed a real-life language test I didn’t subscribe to take. “Oui, joli!”, said I to myself peering into the impeccably azure sky practicing what I preach during my classes. Is science that pleasurable or is just the place that is so joli…?

Just as we had our clumsy poster put up by the owner of brun yeux, we saw the stars of forensic linguistics enter the conference hall and the first thing they saw as they did so was… Yes, the poster (very wisely put by these nervous hands)! The first one was a British specialist in authorship attribution and he behaved so very stereotypically British awkwardly and apologetically pointing to the formula on the poster that was noticeably blurred by layers of tape. He was the one who seemed embarrassed by that layer of tape sticking to his finger! Well, Britishness… Just before we knew it, another star in the field made an appearance and he was American! Now I could see the difference between the British and American torn apart by the Atlantic. The American professor was very typically assertive and seemed to have had the British colleague even more embarrassed. I was the one to see those tangible differences come into play! Me! I was proud of my sister, who was really rejoicing to have made these noted people’s acquaintance, trying to have a conversation with both of them. She deserved to be heard and listened to by NATIVE speakers of English as well! The intellectual wit and capacity have a superiority over slips and errors.

During a few opening speeches, we realized that not much English would be spoken and as much as I was eager to get into the francophone mood, I understood that listening to French as romantic as it is for the consecutive hour was wearing me out “linguistically”. There are sometimes mountains too high to climb “linguistically”. But the brown eyes came and went through the speech. Merci, bruns yeux! Then there were some quick instructions in English about where the next sessions will be and it was time for lunch.

We decided we would skip the session before lunch and just stick around the place. As we were sitting at the conference hall, I saw the American professor we met earlier in the same room working on something. “Go talk to him” I thought as grabbing chances seemed such an effortless thing here surrounded by the azure sea and a gentle breeze. It was such a life-boosting feeling to be talking to him without actually thinking that English wasn’t really my first language – did it even matter at all? It was nice to get his reaction to some ideas I had for my research I might try to get a chance to do in the USA if things work out well. Yes, teaching is hugely unrewarding these days, but sometimes we shouldn’t forget that we can be heard and listened to (every once in a while). I was content I’d taken this chance! It didn’t hurt at all!

The lunch was to be served in a lovely dining room. We spotted a friendly young guy to try to join for the meal but we got a bit too shy. We found ourselves being served a very elegant-looking dish and wine of course. There was French being spoken and we got into our own linguistic comfort zone and spoke our language very expressively when I heard a man sitting across the table asking me in perfect Russian “Would you like some more water?”. I jumped with astonishment and said in English “You can speak English” and by this got into the international comfort zone. He must have been listening to what we’d just been saying! This French man was another conference participant and was married to a Ukrainian woman and had a huge fascination with our language. Strangely, that made him less of a foreigner to me and we spent the following hour talking about the differences between the Russian and French, how Russian tourists seem to be the only people who dismiss Paris and its romance calling it filthy and dirty and how Nice isn’t all nice and belle once charmed by it, you make a decision to settle here. Well, I hadn’t been here long enough to take that on board. Look at all those shades of azure (and the brown eyes at the next table)!

After we’d enjoyed our French lunch, we didn’t feel like staying for any much longer to listen to French reports so we decided we would walk to our hotel and drop off some conference stuff that was a bit too heavy to carry around. Carrying heavy stuff hadn’t originally been planned but the view, the view! As we walked, I couldn’t help being fascinated by the Port Lympia, its backyard streets, more bouganvillas clinging on lovely houses. I will drop off all this heavy stuff and get a chance to take all of this in again!

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It was pretty easy to find our way back to the hotel walking by more lovely houses getting a bit jealous of whoever was living there because they all shared the best and très belle azure neighbor who they could see, feel, hear and smell in those walls! Piazza Garibaldi, named after the hero of the Italian unification who was born in Nice (yes, one more reference to another neighbor they can be envied to have here!), had a distinct Italian feel to it with cosy cafes and was a junction to Vieux Nice where we were staying. Certainly this walk inspired us to take a few more like this one later on…

After trying to figure out how to get our phone connection back and taking a while to do so, we went out for a light meal that we thought we might want to get in the same street we did the day before. It’s a very liberating feeling to be walking the streets after you’d already been here as opposed to when you’ve just arrived all sweaty and exhausted. Now it felt as if we were locals going about their business but ours was very pleasurable and relaxed one. It felt a must to check out a local L’Occitane en Provence shop. It was amazing to be in an authentic one and smell all those amazing beauty products without thinking they were made somewhere in Russia and sold at the price of a real thing. It was hard to choose what to buy because who knows if we will ever be able to be in such a place again. The guy at the check-out counter was very funny and slightly feminine as he asked me to pass him an extra product I got as a gift for him to ring it off. He even sprinkled my shopping bag with a touch of a perfume – again in a very feminine fashion! Merci!

It was now time to find a place to eat. I found myself craving for some pizza (yes, Italy was meant to be part of that day that was turning cloudy). There was a pizza place and it was obviously and evidently run by Italians as we were instantly warmly and cordially welcomed to enjoy our meal here by an insatiably enthusiastic old Italian gentleman! Am I in Rome again…? I craved for some cheese as well of course and went for a quattro formaggi pizza. In the meantime we saw the owner of the place multitasking the Italian way – walking from table to table checking on the visitors, flirting (si, Italia…), joining a group of customers for a drink and then another one! I think no dish served here could represent and give us a taste of Italy better than this signore did! He single-handedly took me back to his homeland! The pizza was bello of course and just big! My sister isn’t a fan of cheese that the pizza was so abundantly and generously topped with so she shared a lot of it with me! Cheese overdose! And across the road of this busy street I see another male beauty who was just a humble waiter of another café! Another kind of overdose! Another “too handsome to be true” moment! Behind us we can hear Americans speaking and note how they aren’t too bad to look at either. The Italian signore keeps multitasking and comes back from a nearby shop with some beauty products that he’s proud to display! Are we in Italy…? Merrily and happily filled, we leave the place with a big “Grazie!” and approach that waiter to see that at least he wasn’t so heavenly and divinely handsome as he seemed from that table. He was just very handsome, that’s all! Yes, very handsome is becoming just normal for me. And I’m only a bit over a day in…

We decided to get our dessert and wine at the beach and dropped in a very appetizing place selling macarons – a traditional French sweet delight. They were like a rainbow of colours on this cloudy early evening! We stacked on some wine (dry unfortunately) in the Monoprix shop and that was just us, our beautiful food and the sea till the sun went down! I think no time would be too long to be here! There are no more fireworks in my heart celebrating me and my life but just a very relaxed and serene feeling of happiness all over me sizzling and bubbling synchronous to the sea waves. J’aime bien!

 

 

 

As the night starts settling in and so does the feeling of sheer happiness, we join in the happiness of a relaxed promenade the way English people who were the inspiration behind the construction of Promenade des Anglais did. Not much has to be said really. Let’s just be British on the outside courteously strolling and discreetly looking around and Italian on the inside keeping ourselves from bursting into tears of joy of being here and now! The lit façade of the legendary Negresco Hotel! We are part of a very subtle yet pronounced Southern French chick! Let’s be quick learners and keep strolling in this newly acquired classy fashion of ours.

We wrap up the day with more doses of male beauty we settle to watch in the same place near the Apollo fountain in Place Massena. I could get used to the feeling of French wine in my blood, the Mediterranean air in my lungs and the look of French faces in my eyes…

 

 

Another conference day is coming tomorrow, which definitely means another portion of beauty and who knows how many more the following day will bring… Bonne nuit (Buona notte would do as well)!

Nice La Belle (Part 1)

As grateful as I am that I’ve had a chance to discover travelling to make it my heart’s top desire, I feel even more blessed to have someone I’ll always love more, someone who makes it possible to see places that it would be insane for anyone to fail to write about. Of course, since I became a traveler, I’ve always been on a mission to hear, see and feel things in a new way (I’ve been attempting to do that in the comfort zone of the home surroundings ever since as well). But that trip was certainly going to have a bit different agenda. I was going to see whether I was actually capable of exploring the world within the scrutiny of a scientific lens, which to me seems utterly barren of feelings. What happens with feeling in a new way then? How can such an overwhelmingly beautiful and bewilderingly puzzling thing as human language be dealt with in such a prudent fashion as it is by linguists? Anyway, it should be and quite well as the fact that we are merely capable of contemplating and postulating about it suggests. Anything beautiful is such as long as it inspires and anything puzzling is there to be investigated just to make us astounded at the sheer beauty and complexity it has inside it to inspire whoever dares to investigate it even more.  Is the sheer wording of this enough to make me sound like someone whose science career is doomed…?

I have absolutely no idea what kind of galaxies conspired and in what fashion they did to make it possible for my sister and me to go on a conference in linguistics where I was going to see whether me and science has a tiny bit of a chance for a future together. I’m not quite certain if it was too late in my life to even start pondering this and if anyone who definitely makes a good match with the scrutinous scientific lens would even put it the way I did just now. I must blame it all on the place where I was blessed to have my sister take me! Nice – it can’t be true! Let alone that I had been privileged to get a glimpse of the Côte d’Azur once and now… again? Me?! Those galaxies seemed to be in love with me just as much as I am with the azure beauté de la Côte d’Azur. Oui, je parle un peu de français. Maintenant… I wish I had been taught to speak French and at this point of my professional life I’m completely aware of the responsibility we must take for our own language instruction … Juste un peu. Well (or rather “Alors” as a puzzling cross-lingual interplay in my brain has me tempted to carry saying), someone still struggling to be certain about science due to the lack of clarity in defining it and teaching herself what was going to be a very limited French was going to Nice! I felt my sister was a lot more deserving to be there in the first place as she has a very harmonious working relationship with anything that has to do with science and sadly, that doesn’t run in the family really. But as long as she was willing to share this piece of azure tranquil happiness with me the way sisters do, I was happy as I knew whenever I felt I wasn’t, I had to remember I had her to be grateful for.

“Nice – nice or not nice?” was running through my head as I was sitting contemplating about the galaxies, French and recapitulating my experience there and the effect of being there once had had on me so far. Every single time we’re away from home has an overwhelmingly far-reaching effect on us in ways we might not realize as we are sieved through the monotonous razor of the daily drudge. Somehow without me being aware, Nice had an unfinished business with me. Of course, a lot comes down to money, an opportunity but I’d like to think about something else guiding travelling paths we choose to take, something totally out of our intellectual and emotional reach. It might come across as a fairytale but as we grow older and sometimes wiser, we would find ourselves craving to believe in one even more. My fairytale was all going to be of the colour azure, the shade I would laugh off the thought of ever encountering again. Apart from the colour I had yet to piece together in my vision, I was going to plunge myself into a new type of the sea when I mingle in a totally new social setting. I was only to discover that people are even a “huger” (making excessive even more excessive) part of travelling and discovering and we do need fellow humans to enable us to see, hear, feel and to think in a new way. Oui, certainement!

Even my Mum, who with all due love and respect is totally sceptical of my passion for languages and even less so for travelling, randomly mentioned that she had been wondering what on earth had been keeping me from learning French. Really, what was that evil nasty thing? Do our mothers have a way of saying things that trigger a whole lot of thoughts, aspirations and expectations of the world around us? Believing in fairytales, which we were told as part of motherly love we have as tokens in our souls, I embarked on my little mostly night-time French classes. Very tentatively and timidly. I was in no way going for a deep and lusty French kiss, just a coy peck to get my mind around the way the language works. It was a linguistic delight and a blast to watch myself and questioning the way I was making these little steps in shaping up my new “interlanguage”. I really have a zero recollection of doing that for English. What a shame!

Trips have a way of starting long before we physically leave the customary comfort of our homes and it might take just one trip to take you on countless more. It felt sweet and stereotypically romantique, the music of French and my emerging ability to create my own imitation of it. As painstaking and elaborate language learning might get, I never cease to believe in its miraculous power like that of a living being to encourage, to discourage and well (stupidly romantic, I know) to enamour with every little grammatical twist. If French was holding a potential of a sizzling love affair, I’d already made my petites steps towards it rather than hiding or shutting myself away. It was about time to let that trip changer ma vie and bring a new shiny azure Francophone flavour to it. Was Nice nice after all? Who am I know to even dare to pose that question to myself? Me?! Really!

As we had an early morning flight, we thought it wise to arrive in Moscow just a day before and use it as an excuse to explore our capital’s charms a little bit more. I’m very much aware of how visiting my capital before an overseas trip builds up the excitement for seeing, hearing and feeling something new and in fact has me thinking that sometimes I don’t even need to leave my country to do that. If it wasn’t for travelling abroad, I might have never got to develop any relationship with my capital at all. I do remember my first visit here when I was about ten and how intimidated I was by all that hustle and bustle and how I had a cry on the train there because I was so fearful to leave my own little home place. I always find myself wondering what it was that has changed me into someone who’s now so willing to leave and would rather shed a tear if I haven’t hit the road for long to make me depressed and unable to be somewhere I used to be so reluctant to leave. Life and everything we do as we go through it has a very extraordinary and mysterious way of transforming us. Anyway, Moscow has this wonderful power to transform me as well. Is this a country within a country? It well might be, but there’s something so reassuring and persistent here that would always prevent us from feeling like tourists here. I have yet to explore this feeling I get whenever I come. Even though it was June already, the weather was really nasty with just a few sunny spells throughout our stay. That made me even more incredulous about where we were going next. As much as the excitement of going somewhere might seem to slip away the more you travel, it makes you thankful more for those moments that looking back seem so huge and significant just like every little thing that we might fail to get the essence of as it is happening here and now. Curling my hair at the hotel to let what hopefully would be a warm Meditarrenean breeze run through those curls the next day… Little moments to treasure…

As an increasingly keen traveler, I just love airports! I couldn’t wait to arrive at the Vnukovo airport for the first time ever as we were driving through the cold streets of the early morning Moscow. That was just the thought of getting somewhere a lot warmer that made that temperature hardly bearable! That was a really small and rather deserted airport and I couldn’t fail to recognize a spot that was filmed in a very popular Russian movie at the time called “Crew” telling about a beautiful and heart-wrenching love story between pilots. Every trip has to have a little cinematic feel to it, doesn’t it? Even though this particular story allegedly took place at the Sheremetyevo aiport which  might have not been available for filming. There is something that airports generally seem to share, but that had been my first very quiet and peaceful morning with us sipping on our coffees sat facing the Turkish Airlines advertisement and dreaming of the warmth and some breeze not particularly of Nice but anywhere in fact.

There had to be something posh or rather pretentious (because that’s Russia) about someone on a plane to Nice! There was a couple in the aisle in front of us talking about their children living in Cannes. What a lucky bunch of people they were! If it wasn’t for the conference we were attending, we wouldn’t certainly have afforded a trip to such an extravagant location. But it worked out for us and on that particular day we were on that particular plane so it’s not just the bitter “c’est la vie” sometimes.

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Arriving at the Côte d’Azur airport was going to be spectacular as it was just near the sea coast and we could get a glimpse of Méditerranée from the plane and it seemed as if we were going to land just here. The tranquil blue skies, alluring palm trees – was I merely dreaming? I wish we all got a change of scene like that as a reward for dealing with persistently dreary spells back home. It should be not by chance that in the European languages I have a bit of knowledge of, there is the same word for something you see in your sleep and what you aspire to get. C’était un rêve and I was awake to experience and embrace it! A few noticeably French male’s faces as we make our way to the passport control. Is it a bit too early to even start noticing? Not really especially when the sky is so azure!

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The first thing we felt as we exited the airport was how hot it was! Dressed in our blazers, we must have looked a bit out of place in this beautiful part of the world. We didn’t have to walk too far to get a typical Provençal view of bouganvillas gracefully clinging on the walls of the buildings in the area. I knew the South of France was going to open up to me a bit more this time. As we were to find our way to the city centre, I felt an irresistible urge to make use of my very limited French against such a beautiful backdrop. I felt so good about being able to say this little but so meaningful “Parlez-vous anglais?” as I asked about where the bus stop was. Of course I could have said a very simple “Do you speak English” and by saying this, I intended to get into the comfort zone of this international language that I teach for a living. But making a bit of effort to avoid using this impersonal phrase especially in a country with a language that belle seemed to go a long way. I was able to get a few lovely French smiles as a welcome to Nice when I said this. Even dealing with typical French strikes and resulting transport delays wasn’t annoying at all.

Waiting at a bus stop for a good half an hour was something we didn’t mind at all, because as a reward we got to see an increasingly international crowd and their reactions to the wait. The bus that really took its time to arrive got packed and getting on it with our suitcases was a bit challenging. I geared myself up for what I thought would be more like a typical bus ride for me (except for the view) but I quickly found a place where I would be fine standing because unlike most buses here, there was a soft surface to lean my back on, which really amazed me. Miracles didn’t cease as I was trying to make my way to the only vacant seat I saw at the back and leave my suitcase in the middle, a gentleman reached out and snatched it out of hand and put it next to the seat I was going to take! I don’t know whether that was his physical strength or willingness to help that impressed me more. All I could say was “Merci!” That seemed the most appropriate thing to say to that.

Even though the bus was packed, people kept being polite as they got off at their stops and only the sound of a few loud fellow Russians made it seemed a tiny bit like home. We made it to the city centre about 20 minutes later and the view, the view! The one not to kill but to live for! To live to see if you haven’t yet! Just like at the thought of going to Nice again I just had a laugh and turned away as I got a glimpse of the alluring azure coast stretching on my right! What am I doing here with a feel of the Moscow cold timidly lingering on my skin…? My clothes were totally out of place and I couldn’t let that go. “Do you remember we were living in that house during one of our vacations here and then in this one?” I heard the fellow Russians saying. Well, Russian people do get around. Well, some of them anyway. The beach was very queit and there were just a few people here, probably locals just enjoying a typical niçoise afternoon. A ball splashing lazily in the water at a distance, people talking… Très belle! Will I get to practice my limited French? What would the city feel like this time? Will Nice be nice for us and to us? A string of questions running through my head…

I vaguely remembered Place Masséna, Nice’s central square, and that was where we had to get off. I miscalculated the distance and we got off a stop earlier. As much as I was loving to be here and enjoying the peaceful tranquility of the central Nice lined with petite comfortable shops and cafes, I wasn’t loving carrying my suitcases over the cobbled pavement. A city like this is to be taken easily and joyfully during a lovely promenade but not like this. I was happy I was able to read a few signs and I was a bit proud of myself for opening myself up for French a bit. As we were walking, we got a little taste of what the next few days would bring and there was certainly a lot to look forward to. As the European Football Championship was to kick off a few days later and France was to host it, we saw a huge Euro 2016 sign right in the park and that made us feel part of something we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Why was it so hot? It had to take some getting used to. We had a bit of a difficulty finding our hotel, which was supposed to be just around the corner. Taking a few wrong turns had to be part of our adventure. Place Massena – it’s me walking here again! Me!!! That’s Europe for ME again!

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We did find our hotel a few arguments later. It was really small, but the location was superb and now we could definitely appreciate that! I did attempt to speak to the receptionist in French and guess what – she understood me! I mean as a language teacher with fairly enough common sense, I knew she would, but speaking French after learning it for about a month and that was me again! French people are notoriously bad at speaking other languages rather than their own, but this lady was quite fluent in English as well. As she was busy with some paperwork for us, I told her that “Il fait plus chaud ici à Nice et à Russie il fait….” And here it just slipped my mind! “Froid?” “Oui, froid!”. That was amazing, wasn’t it? You don’t have to learn a languages for ages to be able to have this sort of a conversation about the weather. My students often make me forget about that…

Our room was very small but who would mind that in a place like this as long as we were safe in the knowledge Méditerranée was there! That was just what I imagined living here in one of those little apartments we could see in our window would be like. I chose to ignore some missed calls on my phone just to find out I had no connection at all and neither did my sister. That wasn’t fun at all and we argued for a while over what we thought could have caused that. I think we might have caused a baby in the next room to burst out crying in the process. Hearing two Russians arguing must have been a phonetically traumatizing experience and we’re sorry about any inconvenience this might have caused. There was no more time for arguing as the belle Meditarrenean evening was waiting to be experienced and we were so hungry we thought we could start eating our elbows!

A change of clothes was essential and making wrong fashion choices is particularly easy after you’d just been on a flight. Seeing and being seen was going to be enjoyable here. A meal was no less essential after the fashion choices had finally been made. Of course back home you promise yourself you will be avoiding touristy places around central squares but you would end up in one anyway. The city centre here is quite small so we thought we would go for whatever wouldn’t seem too extravagant for our budget. Unlike Italy whose influences you wouldn’t fail to note here as Nice used to be part of the Kingdom of Sardinia back in the 19th century, catering staff here wasn’t too pushy and you could read into the menu carefully. This lovely street just around the corner from Place Massena was so picturesque with all these lovely cafes! A quintessential European experience! We chose a nice place that wasn’t too crowded but had a few diners that seemed to be Asian. I could just sit here watching people walking by. Yes, that was France indeed! I had to figure out a way to keep watching that wouldn’t seem too impolite. I instinctively ordered some “shashlyks” which is a traditional Russian barbecue dish and I was curious about what the local interpretation would be. And the wine to go with it! Certainement! With the food ordered, I could forget how hungry I was and looked into a random window in front of me and thought of not thinking about where I sure knew I would be now if I wasn’t where I was. This beautiful feeling of the first day of a trip is something to savour and hold onto. Cheers to that! I even forgot to try to speak French now, I was just too happy to think of which language to speak in fact! The food was just merveilleux! The tender meat sprinkled abundantly with olive oil (very Provençal I guess). I even took hold of a few portions of the Dijon mustard because I’d been told by a French friend who lives there that had to be tried. Evenings like these are to be lived for! The more you get around, the more you learn to appreciate good places and food on your table.

Now it was time for an evening promenade! As we were walking, I hope I was just hearing things when I thought I heard someone say “Russian”. Yes, we do like to dress up but that’s just what we felt like doing living in a country like that I’m afraid. We seemed to remember where a Monoprix supermarket was so we decided to stock up on some snacks to take to the beach. Cheese, cheese, cheese! Yes, there was as much of it as it was here the first time I came! One might spend some time reading on what sorts are a must to try but once you get into a supermarket, you forget all about it. I was certainly having some real French cheese that night and that was all that seemed to matter at the time! It was so good the tourist season hadn’t started yet and there weren’t too many people outside so we could linger in Place Massena right next to the Apollo Statue and even have a “moment” with this place, which meant taking a mental image of random architectural details and let your mind set off fireworks to celebrate being alive.

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The sea! Méditerranée! Que tu es belle! Is there anything to say at all… I remember enjoying that same view two years ago right here in this spot. As France had had unusually low temperatures for the season, we were likely left just to enjoy the view of it rather than swim… It was time for a picnic French style facing the belle Promenade des Anglais, the central pedestrian area that came to be admired by the Englishmen in the 19th century and hence the name. It was so classy to be here and finally eat my cheese, which my sister said smelled like a pair of socks. I wouldn’t say that was out of this world (and the expectations are always up high in a place like this) but it certainly added to the flavour and ambiance of the night at the seafront. I certainly knew I could spend hours on end just sitting here eating this cheese, sipping on my wine and most importantly, watching the sea and letting it work its magic on me… The breeze and the curls – it had all finally come together!

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As we were cherishing the moment making it a memory to last, we saw two black guys walking by. It is not that I’m racist or anything, but of course we do have some stereotypes and expectations of people based on their looks and it’s not just about the skin colour. I did notice that these guys seem to pay a lot of attention to females walking by. As I was reflecting all of that, I saw them suddenly turning back in order to approach us. At least they didn’t seem to pose any threat so I thought we could do with a quick chat. I wasn’t quite ready to have a full-blown conversation in French at that point as these guys didn’t really speak any English. That was going to be a lot of fun! I did manage a few simple phrases and with each single one I cared less and less about how many mistakes I was making and how horrible my French sounded. It isn’t just about showcasing the way you think “r” should sound like, you know. I told them about what I did and at least one of them could manage some English and that helped a bit. I don’t remember exactly how it came up but I mentioned to them that it was Alexander Pushkin’s, our famous writer and poet’s, birthday today. “Un célèbre écrivain”. Well, sometimes I felt they didn’t understand or pretended not to. I did understand the word “charmante” used to describe me. That was one very bizarre conversation but they seem to come your way when you least expect them to. We had to start leaving because we didn’t think we were not comfortable with carrying on with it. The guys weren’t happy about that (especially one of them). I heard one of them saying something to me as we were leaving but I turned back to smile and say “No” to whatever it was. Yes, you have to be prepared to make use of your language skills with whoever and wherever you have to.

The Promenade, the famous Hotel Negresco lit up against the tranquil Meditarrenean sky! We are in France! Nous sommes à France! Oui, oui, oui!!!

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We walked to Place Massena to see the famous art installation just along the tram lines featuring seven statues that are lit in random colours each representing an ongoing dialogue and interaction of cultures. I didn’t get to see them at night during our first visit and that was just magnifique to be sitting here in this square filling up with people and marveling at an Italian feel it got. It was certainly not what a similar Parisian experience would be like. And another type of treat was to follow as well. Humans! Yes, they are essential to making all these unforgettable memories! Here male beauty came in all sorts of forms and shapes. That was the central meeting point and you would see bunches of young men coming here probably to hang out together and they were so affectionate kissing on the cheek or hugging each other instead of saying a simple “Salut”. How endearing that was to watch them here in what I felt like calling “a piazza”. The vibe was so great! I did need to find a way to stare without making it too explicit. That was like a casual fashion show right here in front of the Apollo Statue in the heart of Nice! After a few bohemian and relaxed reflections, it was time to head back to the hotel as it was already past midnight and we had the conference to go to the next day. Yes, staying focused on it was getting increasingly difficult! As we were walking, we did notice another pair of male fashion gods strutting their superb style and had a laugh about what kind of a reaction they would produce at my all-female university department! All I knew was that they wouldn’t go unnoticed! As we were just to turn the corner, I saw a pair of very beautiful brown eyes of one of these young men looking at me and I heard their owner asking me if I spoke English. I still have no idea why I said what I did but I said “No!”. I wasn’t just used to such handsome men coming up to me like this and I thought he was asking if I spoke French and I felt I was done with it for the night after that random encounter with the black guys back at the seafront. Despite my “No!”, we carried on our conversation and the other guy even attempted to say something in Russian when we said where we were from. It turned out they were looking for a club, poor souls. I know it might not be something a lady would be encouraged to do but I thought I had to compliment how gorgeous they looked and then I went on to say something that would have us laughing long after that went like “Our men don’t look like that!”. I have no regret I said this! They certainly don’t! That’s just one thing that’s horribly wrong with them. In response, that guy with huge brown eyes said “Me? Really?” Those were my exact words when I found out we would be travelling here and little did I know I would be having a conversation like this! How on earth don’t they know? He did sound genuinely amazed by my compliment and that’s what they are for anyway! I think we left them both standing there speechless when we told them we were scientists attending a “conférence”. They might have felt part of some intriguing scientific experiment now because we didn’t seem to look like scientists to them. We do have our own expectations of people… We turned the corner leaving these two male fashion gods standing there contemplating what had just happened. Back at the hotel, I just lay on my bed staring pensively at the ceiling contemplating that as well and how so surprisingly easy it was to have our all this handsomeness as part of your evening. My sister proceeded with putting together our poster for the conference for the next day and could have probably scared that child next door again. People here don’t make it easy to think about science and instead leave you with a cheeky smile that won’t go away until your dizzy head finally hits the pillow. I’m sleeping here in Nice. Me?! Oui! Bonne nuit!

 

Spiritual Rome

Our last full day in Rome started off sunny and warm and looked like a perfect day to explore more of Rome’s extraordinary fountains as I’ve already mentioned I have a great love for them. We checked our guidebook and came up with the itinerary for the day. We walked around “our” neighbourhood (it did really felt like ours at that point, it was an amazing place to get back to after a hectic day of enchanting discoveries). The area around the fountain where we’d hang out before going back to our hotel was empty now.
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And then out of the blue, the sky grew overcast and a dull rain began to fall making it a “perfect” day to explore the fountains. It was a celestial fountain now that prompted us to start making new decisions about the day. As we realized, it wouldn’t be wise to head out somewhere far, we stuck with “our” area and ended up not far from the Cavour metro station where I saw the signs for Saint Peter in Chains Church known for housing one of Michaelangelo’s unfinished works. We decided we would go see it as we wouldn’t staying outside anyway. We went down to an underground passage where we heard a man playing “L’Italiano vero”. It sounded good! Bravissimo! The church had a humble façade and wasn’t really imposing inside except for one massive masterpiece on the right – Michaelangelo’s statue of the Moses. Michaelangelo was commissioned to design a tomb for Pope Julius II but he never finished it. After his death, his assistants had to piece it all together according to Michaelangelo’s instructions. It had been intended to be a lot more tremendous. But anyway what we saw was really awe-inspiring. It was a very rich experience to see it here in this intimate setting without crowds of tourists. You have to pay 1 Euro to light up the sculpture for a better look at it. It’s one of the things I find utterly hypocritical about church and how they try to charge people for everything, but at the end of the day everyone has to make a living somehow (especially during the economic recession, you can’t just pray for God to put an end to it). We went further to the altar to see Peter’s chains that are said to have held Peter while he was in the Mamertine Prison here in Rome and that’s one of the ends of it that let loose as Peter was saved by an angel. There were some people praying here but being a non-believer would not raise eyebrows. It felt comfortable to be in here and that had nothing to do with deity. What made me emotional was seeing a man on a wheelchair being helped out of the building. His family must have gone to all this trouble of taking him here for him to see the Moses. I have no clue why but I felt like crying… That’s the power of art indeed!
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We went outside but it just wouldn’t stop raining. The weather was having its way (doesn’t it always?). We needed a spiritual shelter to protect us against the rain again and we made for Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s oldest and best-preserved churches. That was where I was sitting savouring my first Roman evening… It seemed like it was yesterday really! There were people crowding inside – another beautiful thing about Rome is that whenever you need a shelter, you can get inside plentiful churches for warmth and comfort regardless of your religious beliefs. The interior of the church was just breathtaking. I felt in heaven peering at the gilded ceiling. I sat on a bench to rest my feet without taking my eyes off the ceiling with my PC in my hands to guide me through the church. I stepped out the rainy technology-savvy world outside into some enigmatically comforting spirituality but I also brought a piece of it along with me and I was at peace enjoying the best of both worlds. It is the most important church honouring the Virgin Mary and there is an icon dedicated to her. I got my Mum an icon here too as I thought it would be the most suitable place to do that. Virgin Mary is a mum and we all look up to our mothers for comfort, guidance and protection (unless we’re in Rome where there are churches to do that for us). We all get a bit religious when it comes to our mothers… It takes a saint person to love a child unconditionally and see them through good and bad times for them to find their path in life. This is what this church celebrated for me – sacred motherhood.
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We went outside to find that the rain still wouldn’t stop and decided to do a little shopping. I noticed that most shop assistants in Rome are male and that makes the whole experience more pleasurable. It was amazing to get something other than souvenirs to take back home. Splashing in my bathtub using all these wonderful products thinking back to those beautiful days… No, it wasn’t my past yet, there were more memories to be made and good times to be had before we left the next day. The Roman rain wanted to linger on our skin for a little longer. All the spirituality of the morning made us hungry so we went to this lovely place across the road from our hotel and watched an international crowd there. It is nice to watch people mingling and interacting in a casual social setting. There were two elderly ladies with backpacks who looked British as they seemed a bit awkward and kept saying “Sorry!”. Being on the road must be a key to staying young after all! I was trying to stop myself from feeling reminiscent again as I was enjoying my home-made pasta and sipping on my wine. It just had to clear up and eventually it did and we headed straight to the Colosseum after a short break at our hotel. No, we were already reminiscent as I believe we wanted more of this iconic Roman landmark before we left. It was a totally different feeling to be walking by it now that we had been here for almost a week. I was trying to imagine what it felt to a local passing it by on a daily basis. We’d already been inside so there was no more pressure now. So now yes, it was just there – the magnificent and fragile Colosseum! What is life just outside it? It’s pretty much like everywhere else – there are people going about their daily lives, some tourists taking photos, men (and a large proportion of them are handsome) on their bikes strutting their stuff in gorgeous clothes. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of one against the Colosseum! We stayed for a bit in the park just across the road with a beautiful view of the colossal building. There was a group of dodgy-looking teenagers on a stroll but I realized there were people like this everywhere (the historical backdrop of the ancient times didn’t stop them). Other than that, it felt peaceful in this little park. Except that we got the Colosseum on the left…
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We decided to get on with our day of pilgrimage and made our way to San Giovanni Laterano, the first Christian church in Rome opened in 318 A.D. It was within a walking distance from the Colosseum but was a bit tricky to find. My sister was the one to brave the mazes of the streets that led to what used to be the city walls. I am rubbish at navigating the streets but I’m fairly good at making memories! The neighbourhood looked a bit isolated and there were just a few people around. There were yellow leaves on these lonely streets but I wasn’t ready to look into the future just for now. The moment we saw an Egyptian obelisk, we knew we’d got there as they were originally designed to guide pilgrimages. The one we saw was the tallest in Rome. There was a French-speaking family walking in front of us and it was funny to watch a little girl walking behind her parents taking photos without them even looking back to check on her. That was a different parenting pattern and it seemed to be working as the kid was obviously having a good time! This area felt different from what we had seen so far. The exterior of the church didn’t look too impressive (or were we getting used to seeing beauty all around?) and there were some nagging street sellers offering us books in Russian! No, thanks! The interior did look imposing even though I felt considerably more comfortable in Sante Maria Maggiore (or had I had enough of the churches for the day?). It was really large and walking around was like walking along a piazza. My sister needed to use a bathroom and she joined a queue outside it and the cleaning lady really surprised me when I heard her say that someone “made a shower” and my sister was the last one in the queue. She said it in a fairly good English! It felt a bit funny to be watching people queuing up to use the bathroom in a famous church but that is only natural. We went outside in a while to watch people in a different kind of a queue – to kneel over the famous stairs that Jesus Christ was said to have climbed. It wasn’t funny but it seemed a bit weird anyway. I wonder what kind of effect this had on believers and their faith. Did it hurt?
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We planned to see Basilica of San Clemente with its underground labyrinths but we failed to find it as hard as we tried. We dropped in to one of the churches that seemed to be right at this spot but it was a wrong church. We quickly made our way back. We were now on a mission to find the Via XX Settembre street that according to the map ran all the way through the Termini Station area. 20 September was the day marking Italy Unification and that, by chance, was my birthday! The Italian Republic and myself shared a birthday!
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It was not a touristy street and there were business-looking people all around. I was happy to be here. There were some state institutions and we felt a bit like aliens. There were a lot of shops selling clothes as well, especially fur. Who would need fur in Rome? Right, Russians! There was one last church that we wanted to find – Santa Maria della Vittoria as there was a really interesting piece of art by Bernini called St.Teresa in Ecstasy. But there was a service there so we couldn’t get in even though a polite homeless man let us in. “Well, maybe some other time”, we thought… There was a splendid fountain of the Moses (yes, remember what the mission for the day originally was?). It looked massive! It was like an elaborate painting with water streaming down it. Very impressive! We headed further to get on with our original mission to Piazza Barberini with Fountain of Bees by Bernini. The bee was the symbol of the Barberini family, hence the name. Before we checked out this famous fountain, we popped into a shop in the square to get some Italian food and drinks to take back home. The choice was really varied and an Asian shop assistant spoke amazing English. She offered me to try some garlic sauce and it tasted so good and I wish I had bought it. There was some very strong drink on sale that could cause you to hallucinate if you take too much (no use saying this to Russians!) and two men asked if it was safe to drink it in small portions. Before answering, the shop assistant asked where they came from and they said they are from Norway. “Aw, you can!”, she said. We all had a laugh about it! Well, she didn’t know where we came from… Stocked up on some pasta, spices and drinks, we went into a chemist’s to get some beauty products and found ourselves totally overwhelmed with a whole range of products for men! In Russia you don’t get this kind of variety (well, it shows when you walk down the streets of our country). There is normally a large section for women and a tiny little section for men. Yes, you have to invest in those looks, they don’t come for free! Italian men, I salute you! You make it all seem so effortless but now we know your secret! Piazza Barberini was a nice square with a relatively busy traffic. I was sitting there watching a helicopter up in the sky and the last thing I wanted was to get on one the next day…
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The late evening was settling in and it really hit us that was our last night in Rome… Night is indeed the most romantic time and it makes the thought of having to say goodbye simply unbearable… It is like parting with your summertime love that you had known all along wouldn’t last forever but that hardly makes getting over it any easier. Why did you have to look so beautiful tonight, Rome? I felt like an accomplished photographer looking at photos of you I took that night. Did you shine your extra light just for me to realize how happy I had been? You will be in my heart forever no matter what my regular landscape is! One last look at my snowwhite monument, more romantic songs to hear being played in the street… There was a spectacular light show in Trajan’s Forum showcasing the ancient Roman history with its main events projected onto the ancient buildings. Bravissimo! That was a kind of lesson worth travelling all this way for! I felt like shedding a tear…
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It was time for a farewell dinner in a cosy restaunrant overlooking Via Cavour. The waiter seemed to take an instant liking to my sister (well, Italian men will be Italian men!) but she said she was leaving the next day… Yes, we were. Scusi… A farewell gelato, a farewell look at the Colosseum at night… I was so reluctant to go to bed that night because there might not be another Roman night in my life. Well, I guess we need to count our blessings and be thankful for whatever we already have as a memory… It was so sad to be asked by a friendly Asian guy at the reception desk whether we needed a taxi for the airport for the next day… I even started missing him wishing me good night every night… Yes, he remembered it would all have to end so soon. But we have half of tomorrow with you, Rome! Bonne Notta!

Romantic Feline Rome

Waking up to another lovely Roman morning felt like a bliss! I could easily get used to that! After another bellissima breakfast, we picked up where we had left off the day before and made our way to the glorious Piazza Venezia along Via dei Fori Imperiale. By the looks of it, it was going to be another scorcher! We took a seat on a bench facing the snow white Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and I couldn’t get enough of it. It looked deliriously white against the azure skies. Italians might have mixed feelings about it, but I didn’t – I was loving it… with all my vision that enabled me to scrutinize all the little details of the 19th-20th century Italy. To me it didn’t seem to uglify this ancient part of Rome.
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Nearby a family of four were having their own lesson in the history of Italy as the oldest member seemed to be reading to them some facts from a guidebook. What a perfect place to learn about this monument! My sister was figuring out our itinerary for the day wearing her newly-purchased Italian flag hat. We came up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the eternal flame in the centre of it. A little moment to reflect for me surrounded by the Meditarrenean sky… A few breathtaking photos in front of the monument later, we set out past the Capitol Hill up to the romantic Aventine Hill.
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On our way we came across the remains of Teatro di Marcello, an ancient open-air threare and found ourselves in a queiter area of Rome. There was a serene ancient feel to it and mind you, we had just stepped out of the bustling Piazza Venezia!
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There was a small public space with a fountain and behind it there was another movie location – the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin with La Bocca della Verita (The Mouth of Truth) featured in the “Roman Holiday” starring the stunning Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Would you dare to put your hand into this mouth? If you tell a lie, it will close! Not to worry, it’s just a legend! There were so many people (especially Asians) queuing to get their photo taken. There must be more cutting-edge ways to tell a lie from the truth, but I think we love to play around with this idea that it could all be so simple. We wish… We decided to take our photos through a fence and get a quick look at the interior of the church. That was my first visit to a Roman church. It was a small intimate place with a strangely celestial smell that seemed appropriate for worshipping.
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We made our way further and saw the Tiber banks. This river is crucial for Rome. It was really small and fragile, in a way like the Colosseum. There was St.Peter’s dome right in front of us and that led us to believe we were approaching the Vatican. We would see this awe-inspiring dome a lot through the course of that day. We weren’t sure which way to go next so we took a little break in a park overlooking the Tiber. It was a good retreat from the touristy side of Rome. There was a lingering romantic feel in the air and even a few homeless sleeping on a bench didn’t seem to diminish it. Following our gut feeling, we kept walking further as it was our mission to find Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta to see the iconic part of Rome in a keyhole… That is coming up! Getting on the hill involved a little climbing and that was good exercise! Later on did we find out that the church we saw up there was Basilica of Santa Sabina, the oldest Roman basilica in Rome. There was a wedding ceremony and it certainly looked different from what we get back home. Such a beautiful place to be joined together in holy matrimony… I wish to a newly-wed couple we saw posing for photos against a beautiful wall all the happiness in the world. I will never find out if they will last but I feel somehow privileged to have sneaked on this intimate moment. Like an old-time Italian movie… Why do I refer to movies so much…?
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Anyway, when the heat was becoming too much, we found a perfect place to let the world go by… That was what we originally came here for – the Aventine Hill with overwhelmingly lots of pine trees, my first sight of Rome two days before. As I was sitting looking up into the blue skies, I felt them pumping my lungs with sublime air that resonated through the pine tops to fill my tummy with butterflies dancing to canzone italiana played by the birds. I understood why this place was frequented by Roman love birds as well! Sharing a romantic moment up here must make life seem a bed of roses and there were a lot of these all around adding a sappy edge to the scene.
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. The views from up here were dizzyingly magnificent with the two massive buildings battling it out for the dominance of the Roman skyline – St.Peter’s Dome and the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. How much history is Rome capable of accommodating?
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We were giving up hope of finding Piazza of the Knights of Malta (Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta). This is where you get a view of the Dome while cheekily peeping through a keyhole. We kept straight ahead and I suddenly knew that was it! There was a small queue and I was rejoicing as if I was about to accomplish something massive in my life! By the sounds of it, there were people from New York queuing behind us. I was wondering what it is like in New York now. I knew it must have been worlds away both literally and figuratively! Everyone seemed so excited having looked through the keyhole and I knew we were up for a treat! A girl with a heavy American accent was jubilant as I heard her say “So cool!!!” That’d better be cool indeed! It was my turn now and I had my camera at the ready for a magnificent photo! Wow! That reminded me of those old cartoons we used to watch projected onto a wall in the early 90s. What a small Rome! I was seeing across three countries – Malta, Italy and Vatican! That was the mission accomplished!
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A few more scenic views and we headed back down. This legendary keyhole was a lot closer than we’d thought!
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There was a glimpse of the Baths of Caracalla, the second largest Roman public baths, on the right. They looked like I would imagine the Sphinx in Egypt must look like emerging in between the heated air and the blue skies. I paused to take it in…
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It was now time for a much-needed meal. We walked back to this bustling part of the city where we had started off. It seemed like a touristy place and we seemed too tired to go find somewhere else to have lunch. Italian food and the way it is served is all we needed to perk up after a sweaty walk up the Aventine Hill. We found the name of some dish translated into Russian in such a funny way! Yes, you don’t mess with the Russian language, it’s too complex! I love how they serve you wine in a little cart filled with ice. It makes the whole experience feel posh. My sister looked like one happy girl munching on her mussels. They looked delicious and juicy. It’s such a bliss to see a person you love enjoying the moment and it’s fundamentally beautiful to enjoy this moment together in the beautiful Rome… Saluti, Roma!
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The next stop was a purrfect place in central Rome! Largo di Torre Argentina is a large archaeological site that nowadays houses the most feline place in the city – the Cat Sanctuary. It is speculated to be the very place where Julius Caesar was stabbed over two thousand years ago. It would all look just like a pile of rubble if it wasn’t for fluffy feline emperors who took over the place! One was busy busking in the sun as we were about to enter the shelter, which requires walking a few steps down. We were greeted by the lovely Anna, one of the seven volunteers who keep the place running. She turned out to be a teacher just like me and spoke fairly good English. She was kind to show us around. It was obvious who ran this place after all! I’m more of a cat lover but I can’t say I’m crazy about these animals, not to the point that I would be comfortable to have them around me all the time. I’d had two bad experiences with cats so that sort of put me off. Cats are generally manipulative and they know how to have things their way. A lot of the cats that were sheltered here had bad experiences with humans. Some were roaming the streets and got injured, others were left out on a street… Just like the ancient Rome spread around us, they had their stories to tell. It was easy to see they were better off here and most importantly, they could be cats again – getting into a mischief and having things their way… It’s not a paradise though, because the shelter had been facing the threat of a closure due to certain financial issues. Some humans don’t make things easier, do they?
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But humans like Anna make the world a better place doing what they do out of selflessness and compassion. Each visitor to the place can make a donation to support this amazing cause or even adopt a cat from a distance. This is what we opted to do. You can only adopt cats that aren’t likely to get a new home as they are too old or ill. Anna suggested we adopted a cat named Bomarzo with a disfiguring eye disease. He was nine years old. My sister filled in some paperwork and now we were proud to say we had an adopted cat here in Rome, this feline to keep us connected with the city. Unfortunately, Bomarzo has been dead for a few months now. My sister had been sending small donations to support him for almost a year before he passed away. Death is what people working here have to deal with as part of what they do… It’s nice there are people trying to tackle the problem of stray cats roaming the streets of Rome. According to Anna, there used to be quite a lot of them, but they had been trying to change that and given that we hadn’t seen a single stray cat during our stay, they’d been doing really well! We wished the shelter staff the best of luck and said our goodbyes. That was a bit of feline Rome in this ancient site. We just hoped all the animals are safe because the area has quite a busy traffic and sometimes humans beckon them to go up on a busy crossroad to follow them and that’s how one of the cats died… There are some beautiful people in Rome and what they do is amazing but of course there are things they can’t control…
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It was now time for another passegiata as the evening was setting in. We had another look at the archaeological site and made our way back to the Capitol Hill where we wanted to check out the second building of the Capitoline Museums. It was about an hour before the closing time so they wouldn’t let us in. We were a bit upset but that didn’t last in a scenery like this. I had another feel of this perfect piazza watching the sun about to start going down… We also got to enjoy some stunning replicas of She-Wolf. One was made from grass and wires and looked surreal with the letters S.P.Q.R. (“Senatus Populus que Romanus”, or “The Senate and People of Rome”) that you would find a lot on the streets of the Italian capital. The views of the Roman Forum that had us sweating hard the day before were breathtaking! Walking from one street to another in Rome can be a travel in time… I knew I was standing here enjoying something that others might just be planning to visit. That would be a perfect advertisement photo for Rome! Every travel starts off with a passion (or a good marketing campaign)…
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Piazza Venezia didn’t fail to admire me as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument was getting a pinky shade transformed in the sunset… We also got to witness another wedding taking place in a church across the road. It was a beautiful middle-aged couple. They looked exhilarated as they were leaving the church and posed for their photos surrounded by cheerful friends and family. It was a feeling of joy that I found really overwhelming as they let out blue balloons up into the air. Why did all these people seem more beautiful to me than those back home? Was that their fashion sense or was that the magic of the capital’s passionate heart that made them seem so? Or was that the art of enjoying life showing through?
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I felt myself still smiling as we were on our way to the Quirinal Hill, the home to the official residence of the Italian president. It was just stunningly beautiful here in Piazza del Quirinale. There was an extraordinary fountain with a massive statue facing the Palace. I heard myself say “Beautiful!” again and how could I resist it?
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I kept looking into the eyes of one of the statues of a handsome male and I was utterly astonished and entranced as if those were the eyes of someone I could be in love with… Beautiful eyes are the reason enough for me to fall in love and I could definitely see myself falling in love with someone with the eyes like those. I thought I could cry with these eyes of mine with joy encapsulating me… These were the birds that ruled this place. Seagulls were just ruthless making noises and posing for photos. What a sight! And of course as we were on the highest of Rome’s seven hills, we got a perfect view of the Dome on the left! Bellissima!
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On our way back to the hotel area, we took a stroll along Via Nazionale, a famous shopping street. Most shops were closed by now but it was a change of scene to watch this modern vibe of Rome. We reached Piazza della Repubblica adjoining the Termini Train Station. There was a beautifully lit fountain in the centre of it. The Baths of Diocletian were in a far corner of the piazza. There was a really busy traffic here and we had to watch out. It was just amazing here too!
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We crossed the street to see an imposing cinema theatre and a treat for ladies – men’s clothes shop! Those suits we saw in a window shop didn’t even need a man to make you swoon! I was imagining a man with the eyes of that statue wearing that suit… He would certainly get my attention… I realized I shouldn’t fantasize too much as eventually I would have to go back to the sight of Russian men…
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Another beautiful dinner in our hotel area, another gelato (yes, we’re living it up), just a few fantasies (well, I was still in Italy!) and we are in bed. Grazie mille, Roma! Bellissima! Bonne Nota!