15 September 2007

Three VERY Eventful Days (plus some extra randomness)

Here's the essential outline of this post, so you can skip what you want once you see how long it is:
1) Thursday's trip to Orléans and Blois
2) Friday's trip to Nantes, suitcase excitement and auditioning for the cathedral choir
3) Saturday's choir concert ("Wait... singing in a concert the day after auditioning?!" you say? You're right. I love this choir!)
4) Extra photos I hadn't posted yet

Here goes!
1) Thursday's trip to Orléans and Blois
I got up at 5:30 and guiltily took a shower. Technically I'm supposed to avoid, if possible, using the water in between 10 at night and 6:30 in the morning, since the pipes are noisy on the lower floors, but I don't plan to be up that early often. The sun hadn't risen yet, which meant that all I had to light the bathroom was a small flashlight, since the electrician still hasn't shown up to fix the wiring. (Apparently, this phenomenon isn't unique to America!) The bus was running early, which meant that for the third time so far I had to run to the bus stop waving to make the bus wait. I didn't get lost on the way to the train station, which meant that I was there twenty minutes early, which is my standard "getting un-lost" time that I allow myself when I decide when to leave.
In short, there is a deal going on where you pay 35 Euros for unlimited train travel for two days anywhere in the Pays de la Loire, for up to five people. Great deal, so ten exchange students (me and three other Americans, a Hungarian, and five Germans) decided to get the ticket for Thursday and Friday and explore. Because the train was so full, we had to split up, so we ended up in two groups, one speaking German and one English. Judit, the Hungarian girl, is an English major who doesn't speak a whole lot of French, so she liked that.
Two hours of uncomfortable train ride later, we arrived in Orléans. It's best known for being the home base of Joan of Arc, and she's the major tourist pull... not that there are many tourists :) We first stopped in a modern church near the train station which was really neat. The stained glass was modern, it was more geometrical than your traditional enormous church, and it was very clean, unlike most churches in France which are centuries old. It also wasn't a traditional cross-shape, which made it actually a little bit disorienting. Here are pictures of the outside, some of the modern stained glass windows, and a rose window which is over the organ, both of which are on the wrong side of the church according to the traditional design.

Outside of this church is an amazing bench, the back of which is shaped exactly like the human spine likes to be, and is therefore very comfortable.

With little mishap, we found the center of town. In the main square (which is a circle) there's a big statue of Joan of Arc. But the general feel of Orléans isn't as homey or France-y as Angers is, and all of us felt like there was something a bit off about it.
However, there were some nice things, and here are pictures of them :) The cathedral (though far from being one of my favorites) does have nice statues, and I liked the geometric "rose windows" which weren't anything like roses but were where they should be. And outside the tourist office I got the chance to see what I would look like as a cartoon version of Joan of Arc.

We got a snack at a patissier, and then headed to the train station to go to Blois. Unfortunately, then my camera battery died... but Blois is cool and you should look it up on Wikipedia for pictures. Becky and Mandy (two of the other Americans) had already been to Blois twice, and know the area and the castle really well. One of their visits was an interim (like Intersession, a short course between semesters) French architecture course, so they gave us a tour of the castle with commentary. It's really neat because under all of its various royal inhabitants, new wings were added in different styles. Very little is left of the medieval wing except a neat tower, but the Renaissance, Flamboyant Renaissance, and Greco-Roman style wings are intact. There are salamanders and porcupines everywhere, which were the animals representing Louis XII and Anne of Bretagne. Most of the doorways in the castle are shorter than I am, so Becky took a lot of pictures of me in various doorways, which I'll post here once I get copies.
Blois has a very different feel from Orléans. It feels a lot more like Angers; old, friendly, busy, cheerful. It feels more French. We ate lunch at a panini place, and listened to a band performing at the bottom of the street. They had a double bass, two banjos, and two guitars, and were singing something like French bluegrass in tight three-part harmony. It was impressive, but very strange to hear banjos in France. On the train Sandra, one of the German girls, and I had a long discussion with the conductor, who explained to us that our tickets actually weren't valid where we were since it wasn't technically in the Pays de la Loire. We showed him the misleading schedules and advertisement, and he wrote down the information so that he could reprimand the people who sold us our tickets, since it was clearly their fault. Apparently, our trip would have cost about 35 Euros a person if the Angers train station staff hadn't misled us. Good thing we weren't charged! We got back to Angers around 7:30, and luckily we decided to meet at 9:00 the next morning to go to Nantes.

2) Friday's trip to Nantes, suitcase excitement and auditioning for the cathedral choir
I charged my camera, so I have LOTS of pictures of Nantes.
Our first stop was the Jardin des Plantes, which is like a cross between a park and a botanical garden: a big park where all the plants are labeled. Usually signs in park say things like "No dogs on the grass" or "Please do not walk on the grass." Here the sign says "Grass reserved for small birds." Here are pictures of one of the small birds signs, a pretty spot in the garden, an interesting small bird who was walking on the grass, and a fence which has branches growing intertwined in it.

While heading towards the cathedral, we stumbled upon another church, which was pretty. France's many "small" churches are really impressive.

The cathedral in Nantes is interesting as well. It's had an unfortunate history, including being bombed in WWII and burning in the 1970s. But now it's completely restored, and inside has been cleaned. The outside is about halfway done being cleaned, and all the new stonework is amazing. Only one original stained-glass window is left in the cathedral, over the tomb of François II. My guide book says that it is the largest stained-glass window in France, but I'm not sure if I believe that. The rest of the windows have been added in the restoration. Almost all of the glass is light. Near the ceiling there's a lot of clear and pale green glass, and many of the lower windows are beautiful, light designs that look a bit like fire. This is definitely one of my favorite cathedrals. It's clean and very bright, and just feels cheerful and welcoming. François' tomb is interesting too. It's surrounded by statues of virtues, of which my favorite is Prudence. She is standing on snakes for some symbolic reason, but what I like most is the old man's face coming out of the back of her head, which represents Wisdom. The idea is that Prudence requires the constant companionship of Wisdom.
I also enjoyed the original stations of the cross and Bible scenes, admittedly because headless statues crack me up.

Next stop was the castle, which once was home to the notorious Blue Beard himself. He was executed because of all of the children he gruesomely murdered. The castle is within a medieval-style fortress, like the Angers castle. It has a moat! And a drawbridge! Very exciting. Here are a couple pictures of the fortress, the moat, and the drawbridge, and a picture of the actual castle in the courtyard.

Many castles are decorated like they were as royal homes, with fancy furniture and original ornamentation. This one isn't. It was used for storage for a long time (the wing of the castle which was being used to store gunpowder and weapons in the 19th century exploded) and was never fully restored. One large wing is now a museum covering the history of Nantes, which is interesting because Nantes has only been a part of France since the 1500s when Anne of Brittany (Anne de Bretagne) married Louis XII. The museum is big and took a long time to go through. I didn't take many pictures, but I of course took one of the playing cards, which are displayed along with some early paper money, which is handwritten.

The current temporary exhibition is on Anne de Bretagne, and is really interesting. It covers her whole life, and there's a lot of interesting stuff. She owned the first globe ever made. It has Europe, Asia, and Africa, and oceans. That's it!

Although the handwriting on the old letters is almost impossible to make out, the size of the letters was fascinating. They were all on one sheet of paper! All of them had small print. Some letters were the size of a greeting card, some the size of a poster. The document allowing Louis XII to annul his marriage with his first wife was about eight feet long and two feet wide, and the marriage document with Anne was about three feet long and as wide. My favorite was the account list for Anne's funerals, which listed all of the expenses for the three-month-long proceedings. This one is about two feet wide and more than fifty feet long. It even listed how much the four hundred peasants were paid to carry candles from Blois to Nantes (pretty far apart) in the funeral procession.
My favorite part of this exhibit was on the requiem written for her funeral. There was a screen showing the original score (old-style music), with a line following each of the four parts in time with the recording playing, plus a modern transcription to follow along with for comparison. It was fascinating. I watched three times, to read along with the top two parts on the original and then to watch the modern transcription.
We also discovered the shortest door we've found so far. We couldn't figure out why the four doors in that room were so small though. The main entranceway was normal, it was just the doors around the walls which were tiny.

After a crêpy lunch (crêpes with meat and vegetables and dessert crêpes) we were tired enough to want to go back to Angers an hour earlier than planned. And am I ever glad we did! I decided to go back to my apartment before heading to the choir audition to refill my water bottle and relax for about 25 minutes, and when I opened my e-mail I found a note saying that my bag had finally gotten to Air Canada and could be delivered to me! So I called them excitedly, confirmed my address, and then they called back to confirm that it really was my bag and time of delivery. Monday morning, I'll have all of my clothes and shoes and everything else I've been missing.

Despite the bus running behind schedule thanks to the traffic, I got to the address "between the castle and the cathedral" where the Maîtrise de la Cathédrale has rehearsal. [Last week I saw a poster advertising auditions, so I e-mailed the director and got invited. I love that I live in a place where you can be told to go somewhere "between the castle and the cathedral."] Their rehearsal is from 7:00-10:00 on Friday nights. There was a handful of newcomers. We were told to join in as much as possible for the first half, which was a final run-through of music for a concert to be held the next day. They have lots of sopranos, so I joined the alto section. I'm used to singing alto at church and soprano elsewhere :) I'm good at sightsinging, so I had almost no trouble with the concert music. I was sitting between a Chinese girl who's going to university in Angers (not as study abroad, she's here for good) and.... a COUNTERTENOR!!!!!! I'd never met a countertenor before. I like countertenors. Their voices are so pure sounding. For those of you who don't know, countertenors are men who sing in the alto/mezzo soprano range. Their speaking voices are usually at a normal, low pitch, but they sing in a higher range. It's a very pure, powerful voice. Choirs used to have, instead of female sopranos and altos and male tenors and basses, boy sopranos and countertenors, and male tenors and basses. But there aren't many countertenors anymore, or at least many who know what they are and get trained. Cyril (the countertenor) is really nice, and really easy to sing with.
Halfway through rehearsal there's a break, and we new people had our auditions. Judit (the Hungarian girl) got in as an alto, I was accepted as an alto-soprano flip-flopper like I usually do, a French girl named Bénédicte was accepted as a soprano (her voice is significantly higher than mine even) and a French guy Pierre-Henry was accepted as a bass. A woman also auditioned as a soprano, and didn't make it. She honestly didn't have a good voice, and not a great sense of pitch or rhythm. The director explained very politely that since there were so many sopranos already he really couldn't take another, and that she should look into taking lessons since you could hear that she was singing in an unhealthy way. She seemed to take it pretty well, but I'm sure she was really disappointed.
Second half of the rehearsal was going over music for the next mass the Maîtrise will sing, which is on the 23rd. I love the choice of music. And I got to learn how to read medieval music, which has four lines instead of five and quite different notation. Here's an example I found on the internet:

In addition to singing one or two masses each month, the Maîtrise performs several concerts each year. I'm SO excited to be a part of this group.
Surprising part though: Etienne, the director, wanted all of the new people to be at the concert, singing if we felt comfortable or just mouthing the words if not. Judit and I walked toward our respective homes with the two Pierre-Henrys, both of whom are college-aged and really nice. Pierre-Henry 1 was a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Ohio, and we were both happy to find someone else who'd done that. He's one of those people who just exudes intelligence. Pierre-Henry 2 is the son of a colonel in the French army, and lived in Sénégal for two years, where he started to learn Russian. He's entering the army in March, and will be working in communications and, once he's studied more Russian, interpreting. Both of them smile about ten times more than most French people. In fact, the whole choir is a very smiley bunch. I don't know them well yet, but it's a great group of people. Thanks to the wonderful night bus schedule (9:00, 11:00, 12:00) it looks like I'll be walking home from choir practice each week, unless I feel like waiting at a bus stop for an hour to avoid the 25 minute walk. I didn't get lost, and it wasn't significantly creepy, so I think it'll be fine.

3) Saturday's choir concert
This weekend all the monuments and museums in Angers are free, and the city has special events all over the place. One of the events was a tour of the cathedral, showing what parts were built when and how the styles changed over the centuries. (The cathedral is built on the foundations of the old cathedral, which burned down in 1148. So it's more than 800 years old.) For each historical period represented in the cathedral, the Maîtrise performed a song or two from the period. There was a Gregorian chant, a Gabrielli Kyrie, a Renaissance English song (one of the tenors is from England, so the diction was quite good), Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart, a Brahms piece, and some 20th century English songs in Latin, and maybe a couple more that I've forgotten about already. I've only sung each of the songs two or three times, so you can't blame me :)
I really like the people in the choir, and it's a really good choir. I'm thrilled to be in it.

4) Extras
First are some pictures of the playground in one of the big parks, which is fascinating. Totally different equipment than in America. I need to borrow a French child so I can play there without looking ridiculous. One picture shows a disk thing. It's somewhat tilted, and when you stand on it it spins around pretty fast thanks to gravity. It's scary. Another shows a collection of dangerous looking things to climb on and spin around. The last shows a rope webbed thing which reminds me of those dome-shaped monkey bars we have in America, except webbed rope instead.

Here is a picture of La Maison d'Adam (Adam's house) which is the oldest house in Angers, and one of the castle and garden.

Now that I've gushed about the choir, future blog entries will be, I promise, shorter than this one! That is, unless I get into the Ensemble Vocal at UCO as well, and love that too...


Lori said...

Cool choir and a countertenor? Ooh, I'm jealous. I miss choir! Actually, I was thinking of randomly joining a church choir near my house/school...

Kel Miller said...

You should! Church choirs especially are usually glad to have more altos...

Lori said...

yeah, I actually emailed the director pretty soon after I posted that comment... you're such a good influence. ^^