Paris, encore!

Paris – 7/29/13 Up until last week, I was occupied with my students and/or busy with extraneous staff duties for essentially 16-18 hours per day. And then, suddenly somehow, the program finished. The staff had a final night together: dinner out in Fiesole followed by (too many) drinks and shenanigans at the "Festa de l'Unitá" further up the hill. Holly and I limped through the extreme heat of the following day together — we visited Santa Croce, took refuge (i.e. naps) in her friend's charming Oltrarno flat, and shared a final tasty Florentine meal. Then, I made my way back to the bus stop in Piazza San Marco for one last ride up to San Domenico. I gathered my bags at Centro Studi and bussed back down to the train station, where I hopped an overnight train back to Paris. Let the (family) vacation begin!

En route to Paris... 20130811-230818.jpg

I remember registering, vaguely, when waking up intermittently during the night, that we weren't moving.... But I also remember (vaguely) explaining away the immobility via various threads of dreamy logic. Maybe we had made such good time... that we had pulled over so as not to mess up the grander, capital "s," Schedule? Or maybe time had been built in from the beginning to allow the conductor(s?) a short sleep en route? Or...? Zzzzzzzzz...


Well, the logic-ing stopped when I awoke to a knock on my couchette door sometime before 7am. We weren't stopped for any foreseeable reason. In fact, we were semi-stranded somewhere in the Swiss countryside — and had been for a few hours — due to the fact that our train's engine went to help another, longer-stranded train.

À Paris — We arrived into Gare de Lyon four hours late. I was thrilled that the MIJE hostel was an easy metro ride away — at Saint-Paul, just around the corner from the elegant Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis (below) 20130812-020152.jpg

Looking out on one of the hostel's interior courtyards from my window 20130811-230848.jpg

After perhaps the best (and most needed) shower of the summer, I got to catch up with Cécile, Marco, and Louise. We had an lovely apéro on the bank of la Bassin de la Villette, wandered up into the 18th, and ended the evening in the Marais, where we ducked into an unknown, very pleasant café for a snack-y dinner when the sky opened up unexpectedly.


Luckily, Cécile, Marco, and I conquered our communication difficulties* and managed to meet for a quick galette at the delicious — and beautifully situated — Crêperie Beaubourg the next day. (*It's amazing how tricky it can be to coordinate sans phone or consistent, free wi-fi!)

Cécile and Marco silhouetted in front of the mural gracing the wall of la Place Stravinsky, behind la Fontaine Stravinsky, à côté du Centre Pompidou 20130811-231140.jpg

And Brian arrived the next day! We settled into our double room at the hostel — check out the view! -->20130812-014500.jpg

Then, we wandered the beauteous Marais... 20130812-020135.jpg


...and landed at Café Rouge for un apéro. Moments after I took this picture (of a jet lagged and Putney-program-leading-weary B), the sky burst yet again and the couple at the table closest to the street escaped in search of shelter. We stayed put and watched as the deluge turned to hail, which beat down violently for a few minutes before stopping as suddenly as it had begun. 20130812-010407.jpg

We continued our happy hour reunion fête au bord de la Seine. 20130812-014515.jpg

Our moods were high despite the cloudy weather, except when Bri momentarily mourned the loss of his long-carried mini plastic water bottle.... (It was a case of uncharacteristically slippery fingers, not littering, we swear!) 20130812-010526.jpg

Ouais, another magical evening in one of my favorite coins de Paris — and yet another photo that closely resembles the photo that functions as the background wallpaper of Communiqués de Paris 20130812-001452.jpg


À bientôt! 20130812-010439.jpg

A last Florentine hurrah...

Palazzo Vecchio (and Piazza della Signoria) viewed from the Loggia dei Lanzi20130808-192953.jpg

Sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi 20130808-193831.jpg

Palazzo Vecchio – with the copy of Michelangelo's David (replacing the original, which stood at the Palazzo's entrance from 1504 until it was moved to the Accademia in 1873) 20130810-090237.jpg

View of Il Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio from the Palazzo Pitti, at the base of the Boboli Gardens 20130808-222424.jpg

Neptune working his magic in a pool in the Boboli Gardens 20130808-222436.jpg

Upper Terrace in the Boboli Gardens 20130810-085525.jpg

The flower market in the arcades (and a silly-looking me) 20130808-194039.jpg

***** Home base in Tuscany — Centro Studi (CISL), San Domenico

And... it's all over. (Putney Excel Oxford/Tuscany 2013, that is.) 20130809-101201.jpg

A final sunset at Centro Studi 20130810-012232.jpg

We walked for the last time as a group of forty-six, in silence (excepting the rolling of so many luggage wheels), at 2am, to the bus at the end of the narrow road. The kids' raw emotion stirred memories of my own teenage goodbyes long past. They've been so completely immersed in the successive adventures that they've shared over the past month that the program's end snuck up on them in a way that underscores its momentousness. Bidding each other farewell, they were simultaneously rejoicing in the deep bonds they've forged (and relatively quickly) and discovering a novel kind of potent, preemptive longing for their new friends.

In a way, I envy them both their trust in these new relationships (specifically: their belief in said relationships' exceptionality and assured longevity) and the potency of emotion they're experiencing. It's a strange blend of feelings that I can remember well, now that I'm reflecting on the sensation, but it's been years since I've felt it's psycho-physiological effects. Hmm..., I think this is one of those nostalgic recollections of youth's "golden hours".... I feel lines from Romantic poets creeping (indistinctly) to mind. Yeats, of course, too. Sure, it's "no country for old men," and I wouldn't want to revisit the tortuous territory of adolescence for long, but it makes me a bit sad to realize that I don't know when I last laughed or cried in happiness like that. Nor can I remember a recent occasion when I actively lamented a finite stretch of time's flying by or yearned so openly for a friend. And yet now that I'm recalling such instances from the past, I feel a resurgent echo of that bittersweet pining.... Fleeting summer adventures. Spain. Sweden. Spending time apart from my best college friend who was for so long also my better half. Missing my family while living abroad. Receiving letters and cards from continents — or just a few states — away. Returning from breaks in the grad school academic calendar to reunite with friends and resume our sustaining routines. Practicing together, with our extraordinarily talented teachers. Establishing that kind of fast-yet-lasting friendship that blossoms when interests overlap in a circumstance that involves concentrated time spent.... I miss you all!

So, dear friends: please know that I'm thinking of you more than ever. I'm smiling to myself as I think back on specific fun times we've had, be they extended excursions or incidental visits sneaked in on layovers or long weekends. I've had so many adventures with the best of partners in crime! A very lucky girl am I. And on that note, I'll sign off for some sleep — maybe I'll dream of some of our so-very-good times.

Ciao! 20130808-223856.jpg

Florence: Quotidian Views / Big Night Out / Odd-but-not-unwelcome Day Off-ish

Firenze, Italy – Day to Day Il Duomo – fantastic feat of architecture and the city's central icon, and also our quotidian meeting point 20130808-082310.jpg


My go-to lunch spot: (Bondi Carlo?) Le Focaccine – Via dell'Ariento, 85 20130808-082039.jpg

Museo di San Marco – piazza di San Marco, 3 (website) 20130808-091420.jpg Home of the breathtaking Fra Angelico frescoes (in the monks' dormitorios, ~1400-55) and steps from the bus stop for our number 7 bus to Fiesole.

***** Wandering in Oltrarno on my night off

View of Ponte Vecchio (from Ponte Santa Trinita) 20130808-081717.jpg
View of Ponte alla Carraia (from Ponte Santa Trinita) – if you look closely, you'll see the gondolier with his pole 20130808-081733.jpg

My fancy Negroni and complimentary olives (though, as it turned out, my cocktail was on the house, too —Grazie, Daniele!) at the very posh Hotel Lungarno – Borgo San Jacopo, 14 20130808-081801.jpg

Il Santo Bevitore – Via di Santo Spiritu, 64/66 ( 20130808-081840.jpg They might appear blurry here, but the ravioli di burrata blew my mind, they were so delicious.

***** A student-free day about town

Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella – Via della Scala, 16 ( 20130808-082112.jpg

Flashback to London...

Our second Creative Writing post went up on the Putney blog a couple of days ago. Barring minor (and totally understandable) reverse copy-edit issues — like the title, which was added by the program director, the lack of paragraph breaks, and the confusion-inducing repositioning of the photos... — I think it came out looking pretty good! You can find it here if you're interested: And here are a few more photos from our major class London day.

A full view of the Shard in all its impressive stature. 20130724-155727.jpg

The Shakespearian stained glass window in Southwark Cathedral. 20130724-155744.jpg

One of my students working on our writing assignment in the Saatchi Gallery. 20130724-160843.jpg

Excel Oxford/Tuscany 2013, Part 2 – Tuscany

Homebase – Centro Studi (CISL), San Domenico, Italy The villa where we're staying is a fifteen-minute bus ride from Firenze (Piazza San Marco, to be precise), half way up the hill to Fiesole. 20130723-233258.jpg My beautiful, wonderful, lovely, air-conditioned room — with en suite bathroom (shower and all!) — is on the level below the patio on the left side. 20130723-233515.jpg A very cool tree on the courtyard bathed in vespers light. 20130724-142624.jpg
L'ombrellino on the narrow road leading to the villa's fortified entrance. 20130724-142255.jpg
A viewpoint along the walk up to Fiesole... 20130724-142639.jpg
...and the view looking down on Firenze, complete with the then half-full moon. 20130724-142649.jpg

Paris! (last week...)

Again..., it's been a while. Our Internet situation has been touch-and-go since we departed St. Hilda's ten days ago — ten days ago! Yes, I was just about to launch into another exclamation of incredibility apropos of time's bizarrely dual speed of passage. Lightning fast and/or snail slow. Has it been two months or two weeks since this program began? Well, rather than blandly going on about the sensation, which I really shouldn't attempt to describe any further since, 1) I'm sure you're all familiar with the taste of this kind of time, and 2) it would take Proustian effort (and skill) to find the right metaphor(s) to do it justice. Instead, I'll try to get a few photos up while my four creative writing students churn out their Egan-inspired second-person snippet stories (more on what that means later, in case you're confused!).

To orient you, here's a quick rundown of the moves we've made since last I wrote. In brief: - on Thursday (7/11), we bussed from Oxford to London's St. Pancras Station (where I got to meet up with Hatty for one last breakfast and hug), boarded the 10am Eurostar, and arrived in Paris that afternoon; - we stayed in a cool, old, classy hostel in the Marais through Sunday afternoon (Quatorze juillet!/Bastille Day!); - and then we trekked back to the train station for the overnight train to Firenze (Florence). I'll try to get something up about the Italian half of our adventures soon. But, first... Paris!

To start, a few pics of the usual suspects (a.k.a. where you find yourself when in Paris with teens who have — for the most part — never been before...). As you can see, we've had extraordinary, sunshiny weather!

Our that first afternoon, I took a group of tired kids on an excursion to Montmartre. (And, yes, I did march them up the never-ending, underground, circular staircase at the Abbesses metro stop.) I seized the chance to introduce them to the incomparable vista and... some of the most delicious pastries in town. In other words, it worked perfectly for me to get my ritualistic Coquelicot tarte au citron — which, I'm sad to report, has gone a bit downhill since last I tasted it. The baguettes, however, smelled as delicious as ever. 20130721-102658.jpg

Then, after dinner at the hostel, an evening stroll across l'Île Saint-Louis and l'Île de la Cité to Pont Neuf, where we boarded one of the ubiquitous vedettes for a sunset ride up and then back down the Seine. 20130721-102418.jpg

You really do get amazing views of all the architecture and monuments from the water. Case in point: 20130721-102446.jpg

p.s. MDB — do you see what's in the foreground there...?! (ha)

Oh, I did manage to jot down a short and clunky paragraph in Paris — during our full-day major class, a week ago yesterday:

***** Travelogue: Saint Germaine, 6ème, Paris – Day 33

Bonjour, Paris!

I'm sitting on the terrasse at Les Deux Magots on Blvd Saint-Germaine with mes étudiantes, whom I have engaged in a Georges Perec-inspired writing exercise. Write down, in whatever form you like, as much as you can about the sights, sounds, and happenings around you. Observe. Document. Without, for once, considering style and diction and voice, work to capture the feeling of the flood of activity — passersby, traffic, conversation, tolling bells (as is the case now, at high noon), spoons clinking as chic Parisiennes stir their café crêmes, forks and knives clattering on plates as men simultaneously chew their lunch and gesture animatedly, efficient mutterings of the bow-tied waiters as they circulate with their silver platters aloft, white cloths draped over their arms. Get it all down on the page. Witness how it changes your experience of the moment. Later, perhaps, we'll mine these details for a longer, shapelier piece of writing....

Yoga in Oxford

Travelogue: My Dorm Room, St. Hilda's College – Day 28

Another highlight of the program so far: YOGA. On Thursday (7/4), I led fifteen students — including two boys! — in an hour-long yoga practice, which I offered as an evening activity. We have thirty-seven kids total.... I'm still impressed that nearly half of them showed up willing to sit calmly on their mats, arrange their limbs in previously unknown configurations, and lie silently in savasana rather than running amok in their only chunk of daily free time.


Then today, Sunday (a.k.a. "Special Passions Day," 7/7), a reprise of yoga in a more ambitious form. I guided eight very focused girls in a ninety-minute class this time, followed by a wander through the Botanic Gardens and to The Old Parsonage, a fancy hotel about 1.5 miles away, for "Very High Tea" in their shady garden. "Namas-TEA" went over swimmingly, it seems; the girls were already professing it their favorite day of the program yet — meaning it's won out over a full day in London, a fantastic production of "As You Like It" in Stratford (which they loved), and a day hike in the Cotswolds. Not bad. I'm satisfied.

Once again, for a couple of shots of yoga in action and our "Very High Tea," check out the Excel blog:


And it's happened again: my fifteen-minute, mini window of private time has lapsed and I have to haul myself out to the lawn for Community Meeting. After that I'll take a group of five for Indian food. Then, our first "Coffee House"....

***** Turl Street Kitchen, Oxford – Day 29

The yoga phenomenon continues to gain strength in popularity; a number of students keep requesting that I teach at every turn. I'm overjoyed that they're so receptive to the kind of oasis amid the freneticism of our program that yoga offers, and appreciative of how good it makes them feel. I do, however, have to consciously remind myself of these and the countless other benefits of sharing the practice when, in my less-energetic moments, I secretly desire that I could sneak off to take a nap during "Afternoon Activities" time. Take today's teaching schedule, for example: I have my major class (Creative Writing) 9:30am-12pm, my minor (Art of the Sketch) 2-4pm, and then yoga 4:30-5:45pm. After that, Community Meeting 6:15-45pm, dinner out with students 7:15-8:15pm, a movie with students at 8:45pm, and check-in, parts 1 and 2, at 11 and 11:30pm.

"Art of the Sketch" in Oxford & London – A few days-in-the-life of a class

Travelogue:St. Hilda's College, Oxford – Day 25 (?)

Okay, some number of days have again flown by — I can barely keep track! As on any transatlantic/many-time-zone-shifting travels, my grasp on days of the week and the pace of their progression grows ever more tenuous. In reality, we're only on Day 4 of the program.... But to judge by any other measure — distances crossed, miles walked, sites seen, and hours spent "on-duty," which span from an early morning staff meeting, through course instruction, afternoon activities, "Community Meeting," dinners out with kids, evening activities, and bedtime check-in from 11-11:30pm — I'd swear that multiple weeks have passed! Such is the Putney pace.

The only way I'm able to write this now... is that my three drawing students are fully immersed in their one-hour-long still life drawing of a bunch of nearly overripe bananas. At first I was uneasy and unsure of what to do with myself during full-on drawing time.... It doesn't take very long to circulate among them, doling out "I-really-like-how-you've-X"s or "now-think-about-Y"s. I've done my best to introduce shading and, today, contour drawing. Yes — for you former art students, we *did* do blind-contour drawings of our hands.

***** My Dorm Room, St. Hilda's College – Day 28

Again, more days gone by. What, from all that has transpired in the interim since I last stole three minutes to write, can I hastily report...? A day-trip to London, during which my Art students and I: had a quick bite at Gail's, an amazing bakery in Notting Hill, and perused antiques on the famous Portobello Road en route to the Museum of Brands, Marketing, and Packaging; Tube-d it to St. Paul's, where we skirted the impressive cathedral, crossed over Millennium Bridge, rambled through Bankside to Borough Market, and picnicked on the Thames; explored and drew in the Tate Modern for a couple of hours before hopping a water taxi-ish boat back to Embankment and re-crossing another bridge to meet our group at the National Theatre. Whew.



To see more photos from our London adventures, check out our post over at the Putney blog:

After breaking for dinner, we reconvened and separated into evening activity groups. THIS is where the day (/night) truly got interesting.... I was with a crew of a few students and a couple other staff members who got to see L'Orchestre d'hommes-orchestres perform covers of Tom Waits's songs using all manner of materials, including both established instruments and many invented out of their jubilant imaginations. Oh, the fun that was had while very respectable music was being made! This was definitely the most evocative performance I've seen in years. And I struggle to hit upon any illustrative comparisons to give you a better sense of what transpired on-stage between those irrepressibly talented four men and two women.... Perhaps it's best if I post the two photos that I was allowed to snap; the first depicts the stage prior to the action, the second..., well, that's the aftermath.


And a promo video clip (that doesn't do the performance justice of course) just to give you a sense of that it looks and sounds like.

Walking back across to the north bank to meet our bus, I had time to capture a quintessential, London summer eve shot. 20130710-234740.jpg

Day Trip to Bath (7/2)

Travelogue: Somewhere between Bath and Oxford – Day 23 We — me, a colleague, and ten ducklings, as I've taken to calling our students — are presently on the train back to Oxford after our day-long excursion to Bath. We made the trip to visit the 1,500-year-old Roman baths that give the town its name. The incredible site and museum didn't disappoint. (In fact, if you're interested to read more about our adventure, as reported by my Creative Writing students, check our post on the program's blog:



In addition to marveling at the impressive pools, which are still fed by the same spring that made them the hot spot (haha) they were in 100 A.D., and the ancient artifacts, I walked around chuckling to myself because heads feature centrally in the exhibit and narration about the temple that once stood on the site. Why is this funny? Well, as some of you know (and/or heard) the title of the academic paper I snuck off to Manchester to present at the Narrative conference this last weekend was: "'To be the lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms': Heads in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Yep.


On that note, a brief word about the conference, which I'm happy to report was a big success, on all fronts: I pulled my talk together in time; I reconnected with one of my Dartmouth professors who now wants to write a letter for my dossier; I coerced myself into more professional mingling than I'm typically wont to engage in; and I got to spend quality time with some of my dearest far-flung friends (Mike B, Cécile and Marco) while also making new ones. In sum, I couldn't be happier about Manchester. Though I should have been a little less social that last night, which saw us staying out to soak up Northern British culture with the locals until sunrise — even though that was *only* 4:30am — since I got the first train back to Oxford the next morning in order to greet the arriving students.

The University of Oxford Botanic Garden

Founded in 1621, the classic 17th-century walled garden is the oldest in Great Britain. Funny fact: when they built it, they spent so much on the wall... that they had little left to buy the actual plants!20130710-223631.jpg I fell in love with the garden's black pine tree that was planted in 1800, making it the oldest specimen of the species in Britain. Apparently J.R.R. Tolkein was a fan of this magnificent tree, too. 20130710-223617.jpg

THEN, you'd never believe what they have growing in one of their glass houses.... This -->

20130710-223558.jpg It's a Victoria lilly, and it looks positively prehistoric — don't you think?!

For more on the history of the garden: 20130710-223455.jpg 20130710-223544.jpg 20130710-225249.jpg